Chapter 1 The Hunt
Drums and hymns and the warbling of varied zole horns filled the air of Timora with a rhythm that Karek could not resist. He forgot his dignity, his toe began to tap and his lips moved with the words to the hymn that rose from the multitude gathering in the square below. His lanky young body seemed to vibrate in response to the drums.
"Karek, remember your place. You must be dignified." The reprimand had come from Queen Jarila, Karek's mother, but no one would guess that the regal woman standing by Karek had spoken. She wore the gold mask she always wore in public and her lips could hardly move behind the smooth enameled mesh.
To any who did not know her true face, the mask seemed so wonderfully life-like that it could not be detected, but to Karek it made a mockery of the lively face of the mother who had raised him. She even acted differently when she hid her face behind the mask.
"Sorry mother," he said, using the same stiff-lipped whisper his mother was forced to use by the slight rigidity of her mask.
Karek tried to keep his gaze straight ahead of him as he stood with his parents, waiting for the ceremonies that marked the Day of Consecration to begin. They had been standing for nearly an hour, one of the many tiresome duties of Zedeklan royalty.
From the corners of his eyes he could see the people in the crowd move closer to the gates of the Shrine. All of them wore the white and blue that marked them as pilgrims. He wanted to turn and watch varied groups in the crowd as they passed beneath the balcony where his family stood, but his mother insisted that he set an example of sober reverence when everyone in the crowd below treated the day of offering as a merry festival of thanksgiving to the Radiance.
When his mother played the part of queen she did so with a solemn attitude that bore little relationship to her behavior when she took off the mask and mingled with the people of Zedekla as Kalil, the proprietor of one of the city's busiest matla shops. He loved to accompany her into the marketplace where she maintained her business. He liked her friendly way with her customers and friends. As a commoner, she acted as a proud parent, teaching him how to fit in easily and keep his eyes open to the mood that ruled the fluid Zedeklan temperament. As queen Jarila she bored him.
The thought shocked him at first, but he recognized its truth. He hated the yearly pilgrimages to Timora when he never saw his mother without the mask. Jarila was always stern and proper and a little frightening. In three days they would finish their visit with Talek and Serina, his grandparents, and start for home again.
A group of Mareklan merchants were the first to ascend the stairs with an offering to the temple. Alone of all the pilgrims, they wore tunics of patterned cloth. The Mareklans did not accept the sainthood of Neril, and they called the Scroll of History and Prophecy which Neril had found, "the forgery," but some ancient right let them take precedence at the Offering. He followed their progress with wistful eyes.
Karek had often dreamed of being a Mareklan merchant. They traveled far and wide across the land and into the jungles and marshes to bring back the precious products coveted by the people of Okishdu.
Karek felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to glance at his father. "It won't be much longer," King Nerik whispered. His mother varied according to the part she played. His father, always stayed the same; loving and wise. He had been blind since childhood, but he seemed to have insights that more than made up for his lack of eyesight.
The ceremony wore on and Karek's mind wandered again. He caught a glimpse of Todok, his new tutor lurking on the sidelines. Windek, his tutor for nearly a decade, had suddenly died shortly after they arrived in Timora. A Jaman count had introduced Todok to Jarila as a replacement.
Karek doubted she would have hired the man if Windek had died when they were in Zedekla. His sister, Milana, called the new tutor Todok theToady because of his unctuous, fawning ways.
The man knew all the variations of the common tongue of Okishdu that a thousand years had spawned. There was the broad twang of the Taleekans who seldom left their mountain villages, the drawl of Jamans, the clipped speech of the Tedakans-
"Karek, I told you to stand straight," Jarila hissed again. "You should follow the example of your cousin, Canik. He is a pattern of propriety."
Karek had slouched a little as his mind wandered. He straightened his shoulders and spine and wished that he could be anywhere but here in the heat of the morning sun, watching the people of Okishdu laugh and sing while he stood as rigid as one of the tiny clay soldiers he had found one day in a forgotten corner of an old desk.
"I think we have been here long enough to indicate more than proper reverence for the event," King Nerik calmly observed.
"Yes, we will go now," his wife quickly agreed. Anything her husband and king wanted immediately became her wish, anything but letting her people see her without her mask. Karek wondered why she felt so insecure about her appearance. The thought surprised him. He had never before thought to approve or criticize his mother.
The crowd opened before them when the zole horn sounded. The royal family of Zedekla ascended the steps lined with the statues of heroes and saints to make their offering at the shrine. As tradition dictated, they paused for a brief moment at the base of the pillar that held the carved jade Leaf of Neril, the saint who had restored the lost scroll of Irilik.
While he followed his parents through the Shrine to the entrance reserved for the Zedeklan visitors, Karek tested the idea that the obsequious behavior of Jarila represented a weakness in his strong and capable parent. At the thought, his heart filled charity for the woman who still felt she needed a mask even though she had been queen since his birth more than sixteen years before.
His sisters were always telling him to grow up. In the past year he had grown several inches taller than Talara, his oldest sister, but she tilted back her head and raised her nose and somehow still managed to look down on him. He had too many sisters. They surrounded him with criticism and reprimand. Worst of all was Milana, two years older than he and always ready to give him her advice.
"Mother, I'm going hunting now," Karek announced as soon the royal family returned to their villa. "What use is it to have a new hunting tunic if I can't soften it up in the wild."
"I wish I could go with you," Nerik said, "but you all know what happens when I take to the field." He gave a gentle chuckle and managed to locate his wife's waist, dragging her close and ruffling the smooth waves of her hair. "Why don't you take a couple of your sisters with you."
"That would not be wise," Jarila protested. "We do not have enough servants to insure their safety. "You must take Todok with you if you want to go hunting Karek. He mentioned the idea to me this morning when he saw your new tunic."
"I don't want to take Todok with me. I would probably find more sport if I stayed at home and argued with my sisters than if I have to put up with Todok and his noisome dogs. They are poorly trained and scare the game."
Jarila lifted her chin in a regal gesture that spelled defeat to Karek's defiance. "You will go hunting with Todok. He might teach you a better sense of comportment."
Comportment was her favorite word when she played the part of Queen Jarila. Karek wished he could destroy the mask that seemed to seep like a poison into the friendly, decent soul of his mother.
A soft step was all the warning they had that an honored guest had entered the room. Nerik turned his blind gaze on the door. Somehow he had recognized the Seer. "Welcome Sergon."
Sergon gave the traditional Mareklan greeting as his merry eyes surveyed the three royal persons, but when his eyes met Karek's inquiring gaze, they grew solemn. "I have come to give warning to Karek. I will give him a blessing to prepare him for the trials he must face."
Still enclosed in the self-restricting limitation of her mask, Jarila gave a nervous titter. "What trials could come to Karek? He is heir of the King of Zedekla with a hundred men to guard his every step."
"You should know as well as any what trials a prince might face," Sergon reminded her, recalling to her mind the attempted murder of Nerik many years before.
Karek saw a chance to escape hunting with Todok. "Perhaps I should stay here in the city and not go hunting if there is some threat," he reasoned with his mother.
"Your destiny will find you, whatever choice you make," Sergon said. "Come, I would bless you."
"Surely you can wait until we have eaten," Jarila begged, wary of the seer's portentous words.
"We cannot question Sergon's purposes," Nerik reminded his wife. "Go with the Seer, Karek. Pay heed to the words he uses in blessing you."
Karek followed the old man into the small chapel where the round alabaster shield of a lamp glowed in token of the Radiance. He knelt before Sergon after the Seer had closed the door. When he felt the weight of Sergon's bony hands on his head he wondered how old the holy man could be. He tried tracing back through the history of his royal line and the sacred histories he had been reading in the library. Sergon had accompanied Neril on her first trek, Karek tried to add the years and felt astonished by the sum. His vagrant thoughts were interrupted by Sergon's final words of benediction; "In the holy name of Yasa Dom."
With chagrin Karek realized he had let his thoughts wander from the words of the blessing. What counsel had he ignored that might be vital in the days and years to come? It would be embarrassing to admit his inattention, but better that than have nothing to keep from his blessing under the hands of this holiest of men.
"Could you please repeat your blessing?" he asked, expecting a stern reprimand.
Sergon's eyes wrinkled into their accustomed merriment. "You lost yourself in musing while I told you of your destiny, but I will give you some small hint of what you need to know. In time, you will find out for yourself what trials you must face. You will journey far and find your heart's desire in a hidden place, and lose it to save a people. Never lose hope that what you desire will be your destiny. You will find the stone of truth and lose it when the river returns. You will find the light and lose it to find the light within."
Karek stared at Sergon. The final words the seer had spoken seemed to resound, impressing themselves on his memory. A shiver ran through him as he realized the import of the formal phrasing. He knew of few examples when the Seers chose to speak prophetically to lesser beings. Neril had received a message from the Seers of her day. It had been the beginning of her quest for the Lost Scroll. Why had Sergon come to him with a warning about a journey when he intended nothing more than an afternoon of hunting?
Sergon shook his head with something more like sympathy than impatience. "Now, listen carefully Karek, You will find your heart's desire and lose it to save a people."
The ancient seer paused, then he reached both hands out to Karek again and stared into the youth's eyes. "I will now bestow the priesthood of your fathers back through the ages to Irilik. Seldom has any other received it so young, although I was one of the few. Henceforth you will have the authority to act in all ways as a high priest of the Radiance."
Karek felt the weight of the priest's hands settle onto his head again and he closed his eyes to listen carefully to the ritual words. He would not ignore this as he had the blessing.
Sergon ended his prayer, then he turned and opened the door before Karek could ask any further questions. The ancient man glided from the house like a wraith, his grace belying his great age. Was this truly the Sergon who had consorted with such as Neril, Tagun, and Manchek? To be the same man he would have to be his grandmother Serina's grandfather. It seemed impossible. Tomorrow he would go to the sacred library and trace the lineage of the Seer.
He was still puzzled over the relationship when he returned to the other room where his parents waited. His mother caught his arm and destroyed his concentration on the puzzle of Sergon's age
"I have something to give you," she said.
With a swift movement she pulled a cord over her head and handed him the pouch that hung from it. Ever curious, he opened the small bag. It contained several objects, but the one that caught his eye first was a dark green blade of obsidian. It had been much used and a small nick scarred the edge.
"It is the Blade of Neril you found when you were a girl," he whispered wonderingly. "I know how much this means to you, I cannot take it." He tied the small sack with the cord and tried to return it to her.
Jarila pressed it back into his hands. "Sergon's words need have no immediate portent, but I have always intended this for you."
Karek could see tears shining in her eyes and reached for her hand again. He closed his fingers around her sturdy hand, the hand of a matla maker, not a queen.
After leaving Jarila and Nerik, he started for his room where the valet was waiting to fuss over him. This was another burden of playing the part of prince. At home in Zedekla he dressed himself and kept his quarters reasonably clean, but in Timora servants surrounded him.
If Karek had known no other life it might have been less burdensome, but he resented the lack of privacy. Even when he seemed to be alone he knew that a servant hovered just beyond a drapery, ready to leap to his aid if he reached for something just beyond his grasp. He wondered that all royalty had not become like the foppish Jaman court. Certainly every Janakan prince he had ever met, and there seemed a healthy supply of them, fetched his own food and cleaned his weapons without interference from a servant.
Karek did not express his resentment to the servant by any sign of his face or voice. He was a man now. The time had come to put aside the childish satisfaction of making others suffer because he felt upset. He welcomed the exchange of his stiff robes for the comfortable hunting tunic. If only he were free to dismiss Todok from the hunt it would be a fine way to spend the afternoon. He would have the freedom to think about the words Sergon had spoken. He feared he would not remember them.
He lowered his head while he mused on the possible meaning of Sergon's message. In a month or so it would appear in the sacred library. The Seers recorded all the messages that they felt should be kept and considered until history bent to fit the meanings of the words. There were usually multiple meanings.
Jarila intercepted him when he left the royal quarters. "I packed some matlas and dried nuka fruit for you." she said, pressing the packet into his hands. He thought he could see the glitter of tears in her eyes, but she wore the mask. She would not take it off until she slept. Of course, she would not feel it even if he had tried to kiss her cheek, so he did not make the attempt. He accepted the packet and bore with the admonitions she gave him with his face set in the same frozen attitude she wore because of the strictures of the mask. He wanted to ask why she had suddenly decided to give him one of her most precious possessions, but the mask stood like a barrier between them.
Todok waited for him near the kennels where the tutor kept his hounds. They were not the breed of hunting dogs favored by the royal family, sleek animals with tender mouths who never damaged game. Todok's dogs were large brindled beasts with huge jaws. They seemed to enjoy ravaging whatever they caught. Their handlers were barely less brutal than the dogs. Each of the five hounds was handled by one man. Karek briefly wondered how Todok could support such an expense on his wages as a tutor.
Karek's valet had accompanied him to the kennels carrying his sheathed short sword, bow and quiver. "You won't need your sword," Todok said. "My dogs will dispatch anything we wound." Karek gave a small grimace of disgust but he let the valet buckle the crossed belt that held his bow and quiver in place on his back. He felt well enough armed for the afternoon hunt with his bow and the fine dagger that hung from his belt.
The handlers beat their hounds back from a snarling confrontation with each other and held them on shortened leashes as the hunting party set out for the hills south of Timora. The slopes to the north and west, nearer the city, were given over to orchards and gardens. The slope that rose from the lake to the peaks on the south remained wild.
It took an hour of steady hiking to reach the verges of the forest and Karek set off along one of his favorite trails. Todok called him back. "You became a man this week. These hunting trails are all within easy walking distance of the city. There is no real sport here. Another hour will take us over the pass into the upper reaches of the jungle."
"My parents have told me to stay in the vale when I hunt," Karek answered. He had been warned of the dangers of invading the lands beyond the vale. A few shepherd families maintained small homesteads on the upper reaches of the mountains, but in the jungle there were wild tribes with little allegiance to the rulers of Okishdu.
"Ah, you are afraid," Todok sneered. "I will leave one of my men here to guard you from harm and the rest of us will proceed with a real hunt beyond the pass."
Karek hesitated, caught between the sting of the challenge to his courage and obedience to the rules his parents imposed. Todok laughed jeeringly and ordered one of his men to stay behind and guard the prince. "No, I will come with you," Karek said as pride overcame his caution.
When they reached the head of the pass Karek turned and looked back. The city of Timora with its shrines and gardens shone in the full light of the sun. Karek had never stopped to consider the beauty of the scene. For some reason his chest seemed to constrict and he felt tears rise in his eyes, but he remembered that tears were for children.
He turned and looked toward the jungles to the south. The river that provided drainage for the lake ran through a pass in the mountains, tumbling through rapids and over waterfalls until it reached the forest below. Karek could see where the river curled in sinuous loops through the mat of jungle that spread to the horizon.
"Come along. You can stare at the scenery when we return with our prizes."
Todok's voice had lost any hint of obsequiousness when they left the kennels. Karek preferred this abruptness to the fawning whine the tutor usually used. Perhaps among his men and dogs, Todok felt more confident.
They soon entered a region of thick forest. Karek was surrounded by Todok's men on every side, but dense growths of bushes often hid them. He saw a bush ahead of him give a slight shake and stopped in his tracks. He had never hunted large game himself, but he had heard hunting tales enough to be cautious in this wild region.
He dropped to his knees and rolled behind a large tree with verdant undergrowth surrounding the trunk. Then he crawled forward to gain a vantage point of the clearing where he had been standing moments before.
To his surprise, a man dressed in green burst from the bush and looked around. Then he whistled a loud signal. Todok and the dog handlers quickly assembled. "Why did you give the signal?" Todok growled. "Where is the boy?"
"I saw him coming. He was standing almost where you are now, but then he disappeared. Raderen warned us that the Zedeklans sometimes use magic. He could be somewhere near, concealed as an animal."
"Fool! He is no magician. He is just a stupid boy. You may have ruined our ambush. Raderen told us to take him prisoner. Now we must kill him. Unleash the hounds. They will make swift work of him and we can blame wild animals for his wounds."
Karek slid back into the concealment of the undergrowth but an arm came around his throat and a knife poked at his cheek. "Todok is a fool. He has bungled for the last time," his captor whispered. "I will take you to Raderen myself with no need to share the prize."
"As soon as those dogs are released, we will both be hunted," Karek whispered.
Abandoning his plans to turn traitor, the man yelled for Todok. "I have him. Keep the hounds leashed."
When he stood to push Karek in front of him out of the concealment of the undergrowth, there came a moment when the knife dropped from his cheek. Karek reached behind him and grasped a pendant that hung from a thong around the man's neck. With a twist of his hip, he threw the man off balance and jerked on the pendant to complete the gesture. They staggered together toward the edge of the clearing.
The thong snapped and the man recovered, reaching out with cruel hands to wrench at the crossed belt that fastened Karek's bow and sheath to his back. Karek lost his balance as his boots began to slide on the crushed vegetation and the man who held him tumbled after him as he fell.
Karek and his captor rolled down the slope, head over heels onto a ancient fallen tree. It shattered under the impact. The musky debris of years of rotting vegetation exploded into the air around them. A violent fit of coughing overcame his captor, but Karek held his breath. The strap that held his bow and quiver were still held firmly in the grasp of the other man. The knife at his belt was near Karek's hand and he sawed through the strap with such force that the knife went flying as soon as the strap snapped apart under stress.
He could hear the dogs at the edge of the incline above him and did not stop to hunt for his knife or consider alternatives. He had to run, as far and as fast as he could.
He rushed downward, avoiding falls by a combination of fortune and the coordination of balance and muscles that he had learned as a child. He leaped over pitfalls until he entered another section of forest somewhat ahead of his pursuers. He did not stop to see how fast they were coming. There were thoughts of negotiations. His experience in evading bullies on the streets of Zedekla served him well.
His lithe young body dodged bushes and vines as his feet pounded an urgent tattoo on the forest path. Branches whipped at his face and arms. As he rushed along a game trail he heard the baying of Todok's hounds behind him.
Karek felt something in his hand and glanced at the pendant he had wrenched from the neck of Todok's henchman. He almost threw it aside, but it might help him prove his story. The fierce visage of Orqu glared back at him from the metal disk. He shoved the ugly pendant into his belt pouch with no hesitation in his wild flight. It would be like Jarila to trust any story Todok told. Somehow Karek must evade his pursuers and return to Timora with the truth before Todok spun some tale that would make his own claims seem a childish excuse for going into the forest beyond the vale.
Timora lay somewhere to the northwest, but in order to return to the vale, he would have to climb over passes where he might be caught. Until he lost his pursuers, he would head deeper into the forest. He waded through streams to conceal his scent from the hounds. If he could find the river, he might be able to follow it back along its course to its source in the lake of Timora.. At last he heard the sound of river rapids and slowed his desperate pace.
He had never been on this side of the mountains before but he had hunted near the Opeta rapids and thought he knew what to expect. Soon he should come in sight of the river. The sound of rushing water seemed to rise all around him. Dense vegetation kept him from seeing the river. The trees that arched overhead dangled vines and sprouted strange plants from every crook and joint. Tangled foliage tripped him and he sprawled along the ground. He glanced at the sky to check the position of the sun. Only minutes had passed since he first evaded the trap Todok had set for him.
He struggled to his feet and studied the ground intently for some sign of of the flood that filled his ears with thunder. His foot plunged through bushes that gave way under his weight. He lurched back and grabbed the trunk of a young tree and felt it shift, leaning slowly but inexorably downwards. The entire mass of trees and foliage gave way. Karek let go of the tree and fell headlong into the foaming current that had undercut the bank.
As he went under, his head bounced on a boulder. Bright lights flashed behind his eyes, and a sharp pain shot from his forehead to his tail bone. He fought off the urge to breath and kicked his legs until he bobbed to the top of the swirling water.
Darkness chewed at his consciousness. Before it could take the last of his volition, Karek grasped at the buoyant cluster of vegetation that had fallen with him. He locked his fingers and pulled himself onto the trunk of the tree that he had trusted to keep him safe. Now it bucked and quivered as the current tossed it along. Karek barely had time to utter a prayer before darkness swamped his senses.
Cool air seemed to burn his heaving chest as he woke to pain, gradually becoming conscious of the rushing current carrying him through a deep chasm in the forest. Karek heard the roar of falling water ahead. He recalled the great waterfall that spilled the Opeta River from the heights near the town of Rubble Ford where his mother had been born. The sound ahead warned him that this stream would soon fall long and hard.
Searching the steep banks for some means of escape, he saw thick vines growing from the top of the further cliff dangling their ends in the river. He clambered over the trunk that had supported him, his supple hunting boots slipping now and then on the slick bark, his fingers clutching at every handhold that might keep him from plunging into the mass of roots and branches that had saved him but which now might carry him with them over the brink of the falls.
He neared the roots that rode in the wake of the mass. They spread wide and high but they had not been deep. He pulled himself erect and judged the distance. At last he leaped, barely clearing the roots and landing in the water.
The current ran fast through the narrow gorge, forcing the water above the level of the rocks that churned its depths. Near the shore a few huge boulders stuck rounded ends above the water. Karek's head pounded with pain but his will summoned the energy to drive his arms and legs in a desperate swim for survival. All his effort proved barely enough to fight his way across the current. He rode it along the bank until he approached the lee of one of the huge stones where the current whirled and sucked at him.
He grabbed the stone and struggled out of the water, wondering if he could summon the strength, but knowing that he must. His earlier wish for solitude was answered. There would be no servant to step forward and help him leave the river.
At last he heaved himself onto the top of the rock and paused to gain his breath while water swirled by on either side. He studied several vines that dangled just out of his reach. He finally chose one that seemed a little thicker than the others and jumped toward it. It slipped in his hands as he grasped it but his desperation gave him the strength to coil the thick vine around his hand as it straightened under the stress of his weight, dipping him back into the water. It moved ponderously along with him, scraping away loose soil that fell into the river, muddying the waters until he reached the lee of another stone.
He rested in the lee of the boulder and studied the vine he clutched. Here and there along its length were small shoots where the vine thickened slightly. Karek fumbled for his belt of braided wirra hide. His sister Zena had given it to him because of its beauty, but now he counted on its strength to save his life.
He clumsily looped the belt and worked it around the vine with his left hand. Once he had secured it, he released his right hand from the vine and felt stinging blood flow into the knotted fingers. He slowly pulled himself up the vine with the looped belt. It seemed to take hours. Time and time again the slippery surface took away the gains he made.
Finally he pulled himself onto the edge of the bank. The ache in his head that had seemed to recede in the face of the fight for his life returned with a vengeance and he lost consciousness again. When he opened his eyes at last he checked the position of the sun. It had been an hour or so since he had tumbled into the river. Either he had spent a long time in the rapid current of the river, or he had lain for a long time senseless on the bank. He had no way of knowing which. He glanced below to the seething river. Not far downstream, he saw the void where the waters met thin air. Only a rainbow vapor rising from below gave a hint of the depth of the fall.
Karek knew he must keep moving. Todok would not give up the hunt as long as daylight gave him hope that he would find his prey. As if to emphasize the need for caution, Karek heard the distant baying of hounds above the roaring of the rapids. He crawled into a covert and studied his position. He had ended up on the opposite side of the river from his pursuers. If he backtracked along the river and tried to make his way to Timora, they might cross to this side and intercept him further upstream.
His idea to return to Timora by following the river had another drawback. If he fell again, it seemed unlikely that the same combination of fortune and accident would save him. The nearby thunder of falling water emphasized his plight. He wondered what he could do to confuse his trail. He glanced down at the bright tunic that would stand out as soon as he risked the open ground near the top of the pass. It was dark with damp and mud, but soon it would dry. He must keep to the forest until he could be sure he was safe from pursuit.
His head began to ache again, and his belly rumbled. He felt in the pocket of his tunic and found the packet of matlas his mother had given him only hours before. They were soggy but edible. As he hurried to eat, he remembered how Jarila had warned him to try to be polite to Todok.
Karek felt a surge of resentment against the queen. Here he was, shivering from exhaustion and forced to eat soggy matla because she had listened to a sniveling toady who had murderous intentions against her son. Of course, she could not have know of Todok's plans, a small voice of reason argued. The cult of Orqu had been in abeyance for years. The evidence of the pendant would stand against any of the tutor's lies, but only if Karek could return to Timora.
When he had finished the matla he plodded on, wading streams and pushing himself through game trails that barely allowed his passage. He regretted the loss of his knife more keenly as vines tangled in his hair and tripped him. At last the growth seemed less dense. The sound of a reed flute drew him and he proceeded with caution, making his way from tree to tree until a meadow opened up before him.
Tan and brown mounds marked the grassy width of the field. For a moment Karek wondered if it were some form of bush that dotted the wide green swathe of flower speckled grass, then a head lifted and he recognized a southern corum. The fluting came from a huge round boulder near the edge of the meadow where a young shepherd took his ease among his flock.
Karek stood and moved out into the meadow confidently. The shepherd was a descendant of Kumnorans who had chosen to leave their native steppes for the mountain pastures near Timora. None of them would stoop to connive with such as Todok. On the other hand, the shepherds were wary of strangers. If he counted on them to give him help in returning to Timora, it could take days of careful negotiations.
The boy was nearly Karek's age, a fact betrayed by the down of a youthful beard. He wore a short rough-woven tunic and kilted loincloth. Thick soled sandals protected his feet from the stones of the mountain meadow.
Karek glanced down at his hunting tunic. The colors had dulled from its soaking in the river, but in time it would dry and the bright colors would shine like a beacon from a distance. His pursuers would need only a distant glimpse to identify him. If he changed clothes with the shepherd, he would have an effective disguise. He stepped out of the shelter of the trees, his hands held aloft with the palms forward in a gesture of greeting and boldly approached the shepherd.
"I like your tunic. Would you trade for mine?" Karek shouted.
The boy lurched back in surprise, nearly falling from his perch on the boulder. He stared up and down at the apparition before him. Karek's hair stood on end in ragged disarray and bruises and scratches marred his face. The shepherd's eyes assessed the fine belt that Karek had once again tied around his waist. His mouth split in a wide grin.
"I know my clothes are damp, but they will soon dry here in the sun. I have far to travel and the nights may grow cold. Please trade with me," Karek cajoled, his voice adopting the Kumnoran cadence he knew would reassure the shepherd.
An older, wiser man might have been reluctant to make the exchange, but the boy seemed willing to listen to Karek's offer. Finally he jumped down from his perch on the rock and removed the crude belt of his costume and shrugged out of the rough tunic.
Karek stripped off his own clothing including the linen loin cloth. He kept only the belt pouch with the pendant from one of the attackers and his mother's gift of the contents of her neck pouch. He bundled everything else together, and tossed it to the shepherd. The exchange of clothing proceeded quickly. The shepherd boy was shorter than Karek, but his shoulders were as broad. Even wearing the fine clothing of royalty, the shepherd looked what he was, a raw-boned peasant dressed in borrowed finery. The effect of the trade was quite different on Karek. Clad in the loose woolen tunic and rough kilted loincloth, his toes poking out of the snug sandals, his proud posture seemed merely brash.
The shepherd gestured toward his camp where a kettle gave forth a cloud of fragrant steam. "Would you eat with me?" he asked. Karek felt tempted. The soggy matlas he had eaten an hour earlier seemed to have vanished with no trace, but at any moment his pursuers might find a trace of the place where he had struggled ashore.
If they found the meadow and questioned the shepherd, Karek would lose the advantage he had gained from the exchange. At least he would no longer be as visible. He shook his head in answer to the invitation. "If others come looking for me, would you tell them I went that way?" he pointed to the north. The shepherd grinned and nodded.
South of the meadow the forest started again. Karek tried to keep a path parallel to the peaks so he would not wander too far south or east. A dense haze hovered over the forest and he was not sure of the direction of the sun. When he had his bearings he would take advantage of his neutral clothing and attempt to cross a pass. Although he tried to avoid going downhill, the landscape defeated him. Cliffs and gorges and the dense, impenetrable growth of trees seemed to force hhim lower into the forest.
He debated stopping until the sun reappeared and he could make certain of his direction, but fear of Todok's ravening hounds drove him on. Now and then the aching in his head pounded like a drum. Sometimes he would wake without remembering falling asleep and find himself still staggering on in mindless flight.
He was still unsure of his direction as night fell. He must find some shelter for the night or continue walking. It would be folly to sleep on the ground where voracious insects foraged. The trees around him rose without branches until they were several man heights above his head. Vines smothered the trees with tangled roots. He tried to a vine only to be attacked by hungry ants. A nearby stream finally gave him surcease from their fiery bites.
He resigned himself to moving onwards through the night. If he were blessed by fortune, he might stumble on another meadow, but night would make the shepherds nervous of large bodies moving through the underbrush.
At first he doubted his senses when he saw the soft glow of fire light. It could be another shepherd camp, or he could have come so far that he had approached a village of the forest people. He slid forward with all the stealth he could summon, each movement considered and slow.
Chapter 2 Mareklans
The Mareklan merchants of Woram's band had made a long, hard march that day. They had traded in Zedekla for several days before traveling on to Timora in time to make their offerings at the Shrine on the Day of Consecration. Usually the caravans that came to Timora for the festival stayed and traded in the market during the remainder of the festival. This time the visit to Timora was so brief that Woram, the trek chief, allowed only a few hours of trading after they had presented their offering at the Shrine before he told his men to pack up and take to the trail again.They would go among the forest people to the south of Timora where they would have no use for the grain and fruit vouchers from the factors in Timora. The visits to the forests were not unusual, but now they had an additional task. Months before, a message had come from Sergon, the Seer. He had requested that they extend their usual trading circuit as far as the coast where the river from Timora joined the sea. The council debated the change of schedule, but after all the arguments against such a venture were presented, there was still no question they must accede to the rare request. It was one thing to refuse the acknowledge the sainthood of Neril and condemn the Scroll of History and Prophecy as a forgery. It was quite another to refuse to follow the counsel of the Seer.
After they had reached the coast near the mouth of the river, they would travel up the coast to the delta of the Opeta River where the mysterious people of the marsh would row to meet them in their reed boats and carry them across the marsh to the shoreline that led north to Orenon. Many months would pass before they returned to the hidden city of Marekla where their families waited with others of their kind.
"Zedekla seems well ruled," Woram observed as he squatted near the small fire and stirred the savory stew he was preparing for the other men.
"Yes, but the balance could shift at any time," Odam, his lieutenant, reminded him. "Nerik has kept the peace and traveled widely among the allied lands, but some still fear that a blind king will fail them. The rumors say that worship of Orqu is on the r. The old temple in the pyramid may be closed, but there are dark places on the edges of woods and in the caves of the hills where fools gather and invoke evil with foul sacrifices."
"Thank the Radiance that we have kept Marekla free of that stench," Woram sighed as he shifted his position and began to serve the others. As leader of the group, he was not exempt from any task. The stew was savory and the air was aromatic with the herbs used in its preparation. Fresh matlas baked on a griddle over the coals and cala steamed in a pot ready to serve. The trek chief raised his hands and spoke the words of the evening ritual as a benediction on the food and on the day just passed.
Karek had eaten the last of the soggy matlas hours earlier and his rangy young frame seemed impossible to sate even when he was at home. He must eat to keep up strength or he would never make his way back to Timora, He crept close enough to recognize the distinctive shape of Mareklan hats, his guess was confirmed by the staffs that some of the men still held.
Karek's ancestors had been Mareklan. He would be safe among them for a night. They could help him return to Timora. Better yet, they could take him to Zedekla where he could rouse the help of his father's councilors against the traitors who had tried to abduct and assassinate him. He stood and a wave of dizziness swept through him as he staggered forward.
Woram had noticed the huddled figure on the edge of the camp long before he stumbled toward the camp fire. At first when he saw him he thought it might be a scout sent out from the tribes they planned to contact. He kept an eye on the figure while he spoke to Odam. When the figure moved toward the camp he quickly recognized that the tall, faltering youth was not a native of the jungle. The eyes of the boy fixed on the griddle and the cala pot beside it.
"Come and join us if you are hungry," Woram invited, extending a bowl.
For a moment Karek hesitated, then he bolted forward and took the offered food. Hunger and pain erased years of training in etiquette as he filled his mouth with great drafts of the nourishing stew and held the bowl out to be refilled. He didn't count the number of matlas he ate, but they were nearly as good as those his mother made and the hot cala filled whatever remained of emptiness. Surfeited, he finally looked up into the amused face of the Mareklan elder and staggered to his feet.
"Thank you for the food, now you must show me where to rest for the night before you take me to Zedekla," Karek announced in the haughty tone of a prince, a stunning contrast to his rough clothing and rude manners while he ate.
"And what would one such as you have to do with Zedekla?" Odam asked as he surveyed the rawboned youth.
"I am the prince of Zedekla," Karek said, taking a proud stance that only emphasized the ungainly fit of the shepherd's tunic and the scratches on his arms and legs.
"And can you fly like a bird?" Odam asked. "Only this morning, before we left Timora, I saw the prince standing by his parents on a balcony overlooking the porch of the Main Shrine. Surely you would have to fly to come here as rapidly as a band of Mareklan merchants."
"Yes, I stood and watched you while you made your offering. I was thinking of making an offering of gold in honor of my ancestor, Neril," Karek said, hoping the reference would convince the men he spoke the truth. He assured himself that he would make such an offering once he regained his place.
"So, you are not merely a prince, but a scion of the nameless one," Woram chuckled. The boy bore a slight resemblance to the prince. Someone must have remarked on it and planted the seed of his fantasy. But the prince had a smooth complexion and sleek hair. This youth was cursed with spots and bumps that covered his face and neck. His hair stood up in wild curls that surrounded his spotty face like the mane of a wild corum bull. "You disdained your elegant hunting tunic, the one your father sent his servants to purchase from us last week in Zedekla, and you exchanged it for this ragged woolen tunic," Odam teased.
"When my tutor tried to kill me, I exchanged tunics with a shepherd," Karek answered. "Look, I pulled this pendant from the neck of one of them." He grappled in his belt pouch for the pendant with the image of Orqu and held it up for the others to see.
"If you said you had been roughed up while defending your sisters against the dogs of the demon, we might more easily believe your story," Odam said. "But as far as I know, when the blood of a Mareklan maid is not at hand, they prefer a fat dala to provide for the feast after the sacrifice."
"My sisters, never go anywhere without a strong guard to protect them. Perhaps that was the plot. The Orquians may have thought to exchange me for one of my sisters," Karek frowned thoughtfully as he considered the possibility. Then he shook his head. "My mother and father would never consent to trade one of their children for another, even though I am their only son and they have a surplus of daughters." His remark, uttered in tones of regal hauteur, brought a bark of laughter from Odam.
Some of the other Mareklans had joined the group around Karek and they laughed just as loudly. In the jungle the usual constraints of the camp were relaxed. They had no need to be secretive here where the trackers of the friendly natives would more easily find them if they were noisy. Wild beasts would shy away from light and noise.
Secure in the belief that none could travel as swiftly as Mareklans, they ridiculed Karek's claim to have come from Timora that same morning. "If you are not a bird, then you must be a fish, letting the currents of the river provide your speed," Tamon mocked.
"Yes, it was the river," Karek told them. "It took me along so swiftly that I must have traveled a long way before I pulled myself out of the gorge and made my way cross country." His voice cracked and he swayed forward before catching himself and lurching back.
Woram noticed a thin line of dried blood running down the side of the boy's face. Reaching out to raise the lock of hair covering the top of Karek's brow, he felt the swelling of a head wound. He frowned and held up his hand. "Stop teasing the boy. He has suffered a nasty knock on the head. I will see to his wound. It is no wonder he is confused. Tomorrow he might be able to tell us the truth."
Karek wanted to continue urging a return to Zedekla, but his head ached harder with each mocking rebuttal of his claims and he finally submitted to the trek chief's guiding hand. Woram bandaged his head with a poultice and led him to a hammock slung between two trees. Karek found his balance in the sturdy netting after a false start that nearly tumbled him to the ground. He curled up and relaxed, grateful for the care the Mareklan elder gave him.
He had begun to take more notice of the pain in his head once he had satisfied his hunger and the poultice Woram applied relieved the ache. He would yield to their urging that he give up his claims to being prince of Zedekla for now. Tomorrow he would make certain they would listen. Exhausted by the events of the day, Karek fell asleep.
Nightmares came. Unaware of reality, Karek rode on the breast of dream as he had ridden on the river, tossed and tormented by images. He seemed to see the streets of Zedekla where he had followed his mother, dressed in the ordinary clothing of a street boy, calling out greeting to his friends in the informal cant of a commoner. Somehow his own adventures became tangled with the stories of his parents and the dark pyramid loomed. He found himself confined within a cage while demonic priests in rusty purple robes swooped down on him with axes and knives, each bearing on his chest a pendant with the image of the demon.
He cried aloud and called out for Kalil, then fell into another dream and quieted for awhile. His troubled tossing and muttered words brought Woram to his side. The trek chief pressed his cheeks and forced his mouth open to give him a dose of selan that would ease his pain and help him sleep.
When the trek chief tried to wake him in the morning Karek thrashed and cried out without waking. "We cannot leave him like this," Woram said. "We will have to take him with us. Even if he did not have the signs of being kin, I would not leave anyone alone here to be devoured by ants or wirras."
No one argued against the leader's plan. Those who had mocked Karek felt ashamed of their cruelty now that they saw how sick he was. Two of the men volunteered to carry him. They untied the ends of his hammock and carried him slung between them as they went on their way. Others helped carry the packs of those who carried Karek. They understood why Woram refused to abandon the sick youth, but they could not delay their journey.
Two days and a night passed as Karek fought phantoms and murmured things that seemed impossible. Woram fed him patiently whenever they stopped to rest. He was carried and cared for and finally the fever eased toward the end of the second day.
Karek woke to the rocking of the hammock and for a few minutes he felt disoriented by the boughs of trees passing overhead. He had seldom been carried in a litter and it took him a moment to identify his mode of travel. Finally he moved his hand to yank the line of the hammock and the men who carried him stopped and lowered him to the ground. One of them whistled a signal that halted the line of men.
Woram moved back and saw that Karek was awake but still too weak to travel on his own feet. "It is just as well we are ready to stop and set up camp," he said. "Tomorrow we enter the territory of our jungle allies. Set double watch."
Karek followed Odam's directions to tie the hammock between two trees near the trail. He trembled and felt too faint to do more than tie the hammock between two trees before climbing into it. Woram finished his own tasks, then brought a cup of refreshing nuka juice to Karek.
"We worried that you would not recover from your wound," Woram said as he touched Karek's temple where a wide band held a poultice in place.
"Have I slept all day?" Karek asked.
"You have been carried for nearly two days," Woram answered. "Tomorrow we will meet the first of the forest dwellers. You were in a delirium when you stumbled into our camp. Have you regained your memory? Do you remember who you are?"
"I am Karek, Prince of Zedekla," he asserted again.
Woram shook his head regretfully. "I had hoped that your sense would return when the fever eased." He left Karek and finished taking inventory of the trade goods they would offer on the morrow if they were contacted by the forest people.
Odam brought a matla stuffed with meat to Karek. "I can get down and eat with the rest of you," Karek said. He struggled up and rolled out of the hammock. Odam followed him as he tottered toward the center of the camp, earning respect with each faltering step. He found a log to sit on and slowly settled down. He waited while Woram performed the evening ritual, then he accepted the matla from Odam with a word of thanks and began to eat.
Finally, when the last savory bit of sauce had been licked from his fingers, he tried again to convince them of his true identity. "Your leader refuses to believe that I am the prince of Zedekla. I was ambushed by my tutor and his men. I got away from them, but if I do not return, my parents will think the worst. There could even be a civil war if I am not returned and my enemies will say that I have died. If you will not return with me to Zedekla, will you at least set me on the right trail?"
The men who had listened to his fevered ravings for two days only shook their heads and pitied him for his delusion. To claim to be Prince of Zedekla was modest compared to some of the fantasies Karek had explored in vivid detail. Tulin, who had carried the front of his hammock had speculated to the others that he might be the son of a traveling storyteller.
Karek saw the looks of pity that passed among them and for a moment he thought they believed him and were sorry for the treachery of his servants. Again he pleaded with them to show him how to return to Timora if they would not accompany him to Zedekla.
Woram finally stood and leaned over him. He put one hand gently on Karek's shoulder and lowered his voice so the others could not hear. "We have traveled too far to permit such folly. Even if your are not a kinsman, these lowland forests are dangerous. It would be a death sentence to abandon you. We cannot take you back to Zedekla or Timora, nor can we allow you to risk going by yourself. I have seen other men lose their memories for a time after they have suffered a head wound. Rest and eat and soon you will come back to reality."
Karek slumped and kept silent. He wanted return to his parents and let them know he still lived, but if the Mareklans refused to believe him, there was nothing he could do. If he had been anywhere in the settled lands of Okishdu, from Orenon to Janaka, he could have sent a message with the pilgrims who traveled to Timora in every season of the year. He had little hope of finding someone to carry a message from the southern forests. Now and then a few of the small forest people found their way to Timora, but most of the tribes were isolated, paying allegiance to the Radiance in their own way with ceremonies and symbols that little to do with the hierarchy of the priesthood in Timora.
Karek had secretly dreamed of becoming a Mareklan merchant. His ancestor, Tharek, the founder of Zedekla and father of the first king, had been Mareklan. For generations, all the brides of Zedekla's royal heirs had been Mareklan maidens. Even after the Mareklan council had dictated that no woman would ever again leave Marekla, fate had arranged that the brides of Tomak, Talek, and his own father, Nerik, were of Mareklan ancestry.
Fascinated by the link, he had asked questions and lingered near the Mareklan merchants whenever he heard they were in Zedekla. They were discreet about their lives and motives, but he had persisted. He knew that their home place, the vale of Marekla, lay somewhere in the mountains east of Zedekla. They made their trading journeys throughout Okishdu, carrying only the finest and most precious goods and acting as brokers for the goods of other clans..
Karek recalled the words of the Sergon: "You will journey far and find your heart's desire in a hidden place, and lose it to save a people." He had already traveled far, part of it without his will. He had always dreamed of joining a trek and now he seemed destined to have that dream made real.
Few of his peers among the royal and wealthy youth of Okishdu would have been as well prepared to undertake a Mareklan trek as Karek. He had been well trained in the use of sword and bow by masters in arms, but every Janakan prince could claim the same preparation. The most important training Karek had received had come from his parents.
King Nerik had taught his son the history of Okishdu and instructed him in the skills of diplomacy. He had also, in his blindness, taught his son to use other senses than his eyes.
His mother had provided a very different, but equally useful education. While he was still too young to talk, she had disguised him in the simple dress of a commoner's child and taken him with her when she went into the marketplace in her alternate identity as the owner of a matla shop.
Kalil had a reputation of a quick and clever tongue, her wide smile and keen glance, and her wily business sense. Her friends and partners in the marketplace thought she had married above her social station to a minor functionary of te court. The convenient fiction covered her frequent absences and their lack of knowledge about her home life. Karek was a favorite playmate of their children, but he resisted all their efforts to get more information about where and how he lived when he was not in the market place.
His mother's closest companions in the town were the least likely to associate the lively, witty Kalil with the austere queen Jarila. From early childhood, Karek had been one of the few who knew of Kalil's double identity. He had also learned to play the part of a market brat, cheeky and sly. Perhaps that residue of city slyness kept the Mareklans from believing his tale of being Prince of Zedekla.
Karek considered his dilemma and decided it would be futile to try and convince the Mareklans that he told the truth about himself. In time they would finish the trek and he would return to Zedekla where his parents would rejoice to have him home again.
His decision to enjoy his fate seemed to clear his mind of worry and when Karek made his way to his hammock, he felt almost well again. The next morning, after a night of calm sleep, he felt much better. As he put on the thick sandals he flinched and Odam took notice. "Blisters?"
Karek nodded. Red welts marked his feet where the sandal straps crossed. In his wild flight through the forest he had ignored the pain, but now that he was fed and rested he could no longer pretend that the thick soles with broad straps belonged on his long narrow feet. "I'll just have to go barefoot," he said.
"You would be a fool to walk barefoot in the jungle," Odam said. "I carry a spare pair of boots. Try them on and see if they fit you."
The boots were a little too long, but a wad of soft leather took care of the difference. With the supple boots on his feet and ointment on the welts left by the blisters, Karek was able to walk without assistance for several hours. Woram called a halt at midmorning to accommodate Karek's lagging steps. The Mareklans used the break to mend gear while Karek napped.
After starting out again they took a trail that led across a narrow shelf of stone too regular to be natural, but verdant growth had nearly covered it waist high. Woram wielded a broad knife nearly like a sword to cut the foliage away, hacking at the vines and branches with efficient strokes that cleared the path. It was against the rules of the Mareklans to bear a sword designed as a weapon, but Karek could picture what might happen if an enemy hid in the brush.
Although they kept a steady along the trail, there was much to see and think about for a curious and adaptable youth who had decided to make the best of things. Karek walked behind the trek chief and asked him questions now and then. Woram patiently answered him, his phrases keeping time to his motions as he cleared the path.
"Why is it so hot here in the lowland forests?" Karek asked as they trudged along by the lazily looping river that gave them a path through the dense forest.
"In Janaka summers are short and winters long," Woram said. "The weather in Timora is mild throughout the year. This moist heat is unique to this low land. At midday the sun is directly overhead."
Karek nodded. "I learned about the sun and stars from my grandfather. He makes a study of the way the sun goes south when winter comes. There are old records that show it never varies. We have come nearer to the path of the sun. I would not want to make my home here."
"Soon you will meet the people of the jungle. They prefer to live here where snow is never seen."
Karek had heard tales of the wild tribes of the southern forest. Before his empire failed Marnat, Emperor of Saadena, had sent a great army to subdue the forest tribes and get tribute from them. The army had vanished. A few men had straggled back, bringing tales of horror. The silent foe used weapons that killed at a distance.
"Is it true that the forest tribes have weapons that kill without warning?" Karek asked Woram.
"Yes, and they have other knowledge as well. It's a mistake to think of them as simple or stupid. They live in a deadly land where many of the plants and animals are protected by poisons. Each young child is taught the danger that might lie in beauty. With that knowledge they can live on the bounty around them."
Odam, who walked just behind Karek spoke. "Some have made the error of thinking them lazy and others have tried to make them into slaves. It is likely that long after the towers of Zedekla have fallen, the forest people will persist. Mareklans can trade with them because we respect them and we know what they want in return for their herbs and furs. Others have tried to use gold and gems. The cold metals and jewels the people of the cities value have little interest to forest people who know of living jewels,"
Woram nodded and slashed away another vine. As it dropped something bright glittered among the green leaves and the trek chief paused. "Here, see this vine? Look under that leaf," the Marekla elder pointed with his knife.
Curious, Karek carefully lifted the leaf and gazed at a large beetle that glistened blue and green, shot with gold. In all the treasury of Zedekla he had seen no jewel as lovely. He reached out to touch it but Woram caught his hand.
"The first rule of the forest is that you must never touch anything beautiful until you have certain knowledge that it's not a lure to danger. I believe this bug is harmless, but there are other things that would bring you a writhing death soon after you touched them."
Karek nodded. He remembered his first conscious experience of fire. In a moment when his nurse's back was turned, he used his new skill of crawling to approach the hearth. He saw a stick that glowed with lovely teasing colors of red and orange and he wanted it. The scars of that encounter still marked his left palm.
"There is so much fruit and game here, why have we traveled so long without meeting anyone?" Karek asked when they left the river and took another trail.
"The land is deceptive. In order for many people to be supported, there must be farming. This lush forest covers soil that gives a puny crop when men attempt to farm as they do on the plains of Zedekla. But you only think there are no people because you have not yet learned to read the signs. We've passed near several large villages. They knew of us and left no invitation for us to visit. However, we have detected a sign that we will be welcome in the village at the end of this path. Prepare yourself to see both men and women almost as naked as their babes. They are amused by our clothing, and sometimes will offer to trade for it."
"If you were truly the Prince of Zedekla, you would be wearing a tunic made of strips of cloth woven by the men of the village we will be visiting. It is one of our most coveted trade items and so costly that only royalty can afford to wear it," Woram said with an admonitory look at Karek's rough woolen tunic that had grown daily more uncomfortable in the heat and humidity of the forest.
Woram began to slash the greenery again and the trek took up its steady pace. Karek's eyes were drawn to the glowing flowers that hung from vines overhead, even growing from the trunks of trees. Even plant life was voracious in this place, creeping, covering, reaching out for purchase until vines of several different kinds combined to form great ropes that twined from tree to tree. He had learned to swing on a thick rope during one of the exercises his father had taught him. Nerik was remarkably agile for a man of his age and although his blindness kept him from engaging in the usual sports of sparring with weapons, he was adept at climbing and wrestling.
The thought of his father subdued Karek's spirit and he fell silent, becoming aware of all the things his father would have noticed, aside from the damp heat of the air. There was an odor in the air that was as rich as the variety of plants. It reminded Karek of the south side of the river in Zedekla where all the efforts of the royal family had not sufficed to wipe out a region of vice and poverty. The odors of decay and perfume mixed in a distinctive fragrance that was part stink and part scent. The jungle odor was similar, yet not the same. The fragrance was from flowers, not the reek of shants who never washed but tried to compensate with cheap perfumes. The decay was part of the natural cycle of life in the verdant forest and not the decaying offal left by butchers.
There were noises that Karek had never heard before. The bird calls from high in the canopy of leaves overhead were harsh and brief, not like the warbling of temperate birds he knew. A piping sound came from a small, bright frog that bobbed in the cup of a creamy blossom. Most of the noises persisted for a short while, almost making a rhythm with their pitch and duration. One bird call seemed to come again and again. Karek wondered if it was a signal of some kind. His suspicion was vindicated when Woram stopped and put down his slashing knife to cock his head and listen.
Woram held up his finger to indicate silence and said nothing more. Karek looked around and wondered if they were in danger. Woram's posture seemed guarded, but not tense.
Suddenly a group of small men appeared on the track ahead of them. Their nearly naked bodies were adorned with vibrant colors. Feathers, flowers and shells contested with dyes and clays in the decoration of their skin and hair.
Each man also wore a belt of the same fabric from which Karek's hunting tunic had been made. One man wore a necklace of gleaming beetles that looked richer than any jewels the royal family owned.
Several of them carried long narrow poles and for a moment Karek wondered at their purpose. They were too light to make good walking staffs and were equally useless as staffs for protection for the same reason.
Something heavy passed through the canopy of leaves overhead, crashing through the branches and making a strange barking sound. One of the men lifted his staff to his lips with a smooth motion, aiming the far end at the passing animal.
His cheeks puffed out briefly and a few moments later something crashed down from the heights. The man put his staff into a halter on his back and two others joined him as they raced off to grab their quarry before it could recover and flee.
Woram and the leader of the band of natives conferred in a tongue that Karek could not understand in spite of his wide knowledge of the various dialects spoken in Okishdu. While he listened, the hunters returned with a sizable animal slung between two of them.
Karek shivered at the thought of such a quiet, quick death. He had heard about the deadly weapons of the forest people, but now he had seen for himself how the jungle hunters overcame the fierce and agile animals that inhabited their realm. It was no wonder Marnat's army had vanished.
Chapter 3 The Clown
The natives escorted the merchants into a village of low huts made of leaves and vines, woven together in a nearly continuous circle around a flattened center area. The small people crowded around him, picking at his rough tunic and examining the contents of his belt pouches nearly overwhelmed .
Eventually most of them drifted away to listen as Woram spoke to the chief, but a group of young women still lingered, chattering and giggling while they studied Karek. He blushed furiously as they pressed close and touched his woolen tunic.
A word from the chief who had glanced up and seen the look on Karek's face, sent the girls scurrying away with shrill giggles. Karek saw them watching him from behind the woven leaves and posts of their huts while he stood waiting for Woram's instructions.
He had often been on public exhibit as a part of the royal family and he had accompanied his father on visits to the cities of Okishdu, but he had never felt as exposed to derision as he did among these simple natives nor seen as strange or fascinating a people as this forest tribe.
The chief assigned the Mareklans a space at the end of the circle of huts and within minutes a crowd of men, women, and children began to erect a new hut to protect their guests from sun and rain. While the Mareklans examined and repaired their gear, the walls and ceiling of the hut were swiftly erected over them.
Children brought leaves wider than themselves to the women who used tools made from animal teeth set in lengths of bone to cut the leaves into strips and weave them. The men dug post holes with fire sharpened stakes and pounded the poles into place. Finally smaller poles were tied to the posts and the woven leaves layered to provide the walls and roof.
Karek had a wide experience with the tools of craftsmen. One of his mother's friends was a goldsmith and another a potter and he had visited in their workshops and admired their skills. He was fascinated by the ingenuity of the tribe who used no metal or ceramics, yet they had functional and attractive tools.
A broad flat stone was laid down at the edge of the clearing and piled with wood and tinder. Soon a fire blazed on the stone. While others gathered fruit and meat, two women ground pale tubers into paste. When the fire on the stone had burned down to coals, one of the women brushed them away and deftly spread the paste on the stone and baked it into a large flat cake. Within in a few minutes they had baked a number of the cakes which looked much like the matlas his mother made.
Karek counted many kinds of meat and fruit being roasted or baked for the welcoming feast. The meal would rival a banquet prepared in the kitchens of Zedekla's palace.
"Drink only nuka juice," Woram instructed him when they were invited to sit down in the circle and began to eat. "When they offer you the drink that they are passing, lift it to your lips, but don't imbibe. It is a potent blend of herbs and fermented tubers that are boiled together. You will see children who are barely above the age of babies drinking it, but our stomachs aren't so strong."
When Karek received the cup he had no difficulty following the trek chief's instructions. A rank and sour odor rose from the cup as he lifted it to wet his lip, then passed it on. The flat cakes were divided into fourths and used as plates to hold the other food. He tasted the edge of a piece and found it bland and tasteless, but it soaked up the accumulated juices of baked meat and fruits. When he finally finished the contents and folded the bread to eat it as the others were doing he found it very tasty.
As night drew on, Woram performed the evening ritual and afterward the merchants slung their hammocks from the posts of their new hut. For the first time since Karek had been in their company, the merchants took off their tunics before getting into their hammocks. Karek gladly followed their example. The rough wool tunic had become nearly unbearable in the heat of the jungle.
When he rose in the morning he reached for the tunic and found it missing. Woram shook his head when he noticed Karek's chagrin at being forced to face the tribe in nothing but his loincloth. "The young men of this tribe will not take notice of your naked chest, but with skin so pale, I fear you will be sun-burned if you leave the hut."
A head peeked into the hut and Karek recognized one of the young women who had found him so amusing the previous day. She backed out quickly with a giggle and a few minutes later several boys near his own age entered the hut. They brought clay of various colors to rub on his body. At first he was unsure of whether or not to go along with them but Woram nodded. "Without your tunic you will need something to protect your skin. We will be here for several days. You might as well join the young men in their pursuits."
After his first hesitation Karek enjoyed decorating his skin with bright designs. As a finishing flourish, the boys offered feathers of red and yellow to decorate his hair and a two bands of fluttering green feathers for his upper arms.
When he stepped out of the hut he found an audience of young women who stared and giggled at his native finery. At first he blushed, then he followed the example of the other boys and pretended to ignore the girls.
While the merchants squatted in endless bouts of storytelling with the older men, Karek joined a hunt. He wore his boots instead of trusting his bare feet to the perils of the jungle floor. Otherwise he followed the example set by his new friends, recognizing that he had a great deal to learn from those who had spent their lives in the deadly beauty of the forest.
He knew much of swordsmanship and tracking, but he was a novice with the pipes the boys used to bring down game. They were hollow, but they were long and it took more strength than he had anticipated to hold one to his lips and blow the quick gust of air that would sent a poisoned dart out through the pipe. He feared he might inhale the dart instead of sending it toward a quarry in time to make the kill.
His awkwardness caused great hilarity among his new friends, but he felt no antagonism in their laughter. They were as patient with him as a nurse with a child and after a sustained period of practice, he began to have success with the blow pipe, as long as the quarry did not move too fast.
By the second day he made contributions to the nightly feast. His greater height and reach had proven useful in retrieving game. The spears of the villagers were made of sticks that had been hardened and sharpened in the fire, but once Karek became accustomed to their different weight and balance, he demonstrated an ability to cast the weapon far and true.His new friends snacked continually on fruits and anything they considered suitable for eating. Karek hesitated to follow their example. He had never fancied eating things that had a multitude of legs, or slimy worm-like things that had no legs at all. His friends seemed especially fond of a type of fat white grub as large as a thumb that they would wrap in a certain kind of leaf and pop into their mouths. As he had with the village brew, Karek lifted the grub filled leaf to his lips, but he palmed it while pretending to chew and discarded the evidence that he had left the grub to pursue its own short life.
As a result of his abstention from the constant filling snacks, he brought an even greater appetite than others to the nightly feasts. This ability to eat seemed to excite the admiration of the tribe and they plied with even more food when he finished his first course.
Whenever he came near the village he drew the attention of the maidens of the tribe. They no longer giggled quite so much, but gazed at him with languishing looks that made him feel like hiding. Fortunately, he spent all but the final hours of the day with the other boys stalking game and learning more about the dangers of the jungle.
It seemed that anything not dangerous could be used for food or tools. Even some of the most dangerous hazards were turned to useful purposes. Plants that were poisonous to eat were often used as medicines. The poison used to tip the darts for the blowpipes came from the skins of bright yellow frogs and certain small plants with delicate flowers.
Karek soon collected his own necklace of shimmering beetle shells and the feathers on his arms and in his hair were augmented with others he collected from birds he brought down with spear and pipe. He reminded himself of a clown who had appeared with a troupe of jugglers who had performed at the palace.
Five days passed and Karek grew so comfortable in his loincloth and colored mud and feathers that he ceased to wonder about the disappearance of his woolen tunic. In early afternoon when the heat grew stifling, the young men spent several hours sleeping and playing in a swimming hole created when a great tree fell and blocked the flow of a stream.
After swimming, the boys renewed their coats of mud that seemed not only to protect their skin from sun but also from the voracious insects that hummed around their heads. Karek had never been so free and felt so happy as he did in those few days of easy companionship with other boys, unburdened by concerns of propriety or his future role as king.
Although he still lacked skill with the blowpipe, he had impressed the other boys by swinging on the hanging vines. They gaped at first when he swung across the forest floor from one perch to another, then they imitated him. It became favored past-time with the youths.
Because they could not quite pronounce Karek, the natives called him 'Kalek' and it became second nature for him to answer to the name. Even the Mareklans began to use the name and he gave up on correcting them.
His acceptance seemed to culminate in the evening of the fifth day among the forest tribe. A contest held in the central area of the village quickly established that he could throw a spear further than any of the other boys. "Kalek! Kalek!" The crowd around the campfires cried his name and stamped their feet when he sent home the winning throw.
He relaxed after the contest and tried to ignore the eager attention of the village maidens who seemed to compete for his notice, Woram walked past and signaled him to follow. He disengaged himself from the giggling girls, three of whom were particularly persistent, and found the trek chief in the shadow of a great tree. As soon as Karek joined him, Woram began to murmur urgently.
"You are becoming far too valuable to this tribe. I have received an offer for you from the chief. He wants you to marry his three daughters. We must find a way of convincing them that you should leave with us when we go, unless you want to stay. The chief wants to adopt you into the tribe. If we refuse outright, you might be the only one of us left alive in the morning. Do you wish to make your home here?" Woram asked.
Karek shook his head without looking back toward the village. He had enjoyed the companionship of the other boys and although he had been shy at first, the attentions of their supple sisters flattered him. But he was Prince of Zedekla, even if the Mareklans did not acknowledge his claim. However fascinating the village and the forest might be, he had another destiny.
"I will continue with you on your trading journey. What can I do to make myself less popular?" Karek asked. "Surely there is something that will give them a desire to have me leave without inspiring such disgust that they'll kill me?"
"We have little time to work with, but if you were to somehow convince them that you are not as great a prize as you seem, perhaps you will be allowed to leave with us," Woram said.
When Karek returned to the village, he stumbled against one of the poles that supported the edge of a long roof. His weight pushed it awry and when he tried, with feigned clumsiness to right it again, he only succeeded in bringing down a section of the roof.
The urgent hands of the family who lived in the hut lifted him and moved him out of range of further trouble. They giggled and chattered about his oafishness while they repaired the damage. Later that evening he nearly upset the largest cooking vessel into the fire and the chief impatiently directed him to sit down and stay still.
The next morning, while hunting, he managed to send his spear into a large wasps' nest and was the last to join his companions in the stream. Several painful welts on his face bore witness to his foolishness. As a finale to his efforts, he grasped a vine which he could see had nearly rotted through and swung far out. The vine failed just as he sailed over a vegetable patch. He staggered to his feet, covered from top to toe with crushed leaves and fruit. He heard nothing further about adoption and the chief's three nubile daughters were noticeably absent from the evening feast.
In the morning Karek found his rough woolen tunic laid near his hammock. He decided he would wear the tribal dress for one last time rather than wear the heavy, scratchy tunic. Before leaving the village the traders and the tribe made a ceremonial exchange of gifts.
Karek was offered an exchange for his tunic and he found that it had taken on great value in trade for other goods. With smiles and waves, the chief and his family insisted on exchanging a blowpipe, poisoned darts, and a new tunic for the tunic Karek had worn when he entered their village.
A file of tribesmen hastened them on their way. Dug out canoes were lined up on the bank of the river. The merchants were soon in the middle of the river heading for another village where they knew they would be welcome.
"You did well Kalek," Woram said as the party glided swiftly along on the current. "The tribe remained fond of you even as they began to believe that it would be a disaster to keep you among them. As we travel, the story of our visit is being sent to other tribes. It will be best if you keep your abilities as a hunter in the background from now on. Display enough clumsiness that our first hosts will not feel deceived. We cannot afford to make enemies in this place."
Karek agreed. He soon realized that although the tribes had virtually no history as he understood it, they had a great love of stories. Early in the morning before they left the village he had seen someone giving a lively demonstration of the mishaps he had created to free himself from the honor they intended. The audience laughed and repeated cries of 'Kalek' when the story finished and Karek guessed that he would be part of the tapestry of legends.
When they came ashore near a quiet inlet he saw his reflection in the still surface of the water. With his bright feathers and colored mud daubed all over his lanky body he truly looked like the fool he had seen performing with the jugglers long ago. He wondered how long he would be known as the clownish trader who had nearly gained the daughters of the chief as wives.
Karek took advantage of the pause for their midday meal to wash off the mud and take the feathers from his hair. The tunic the tribe had given him was very like the one he had traded to the shepherd, light and supple yet sturdy even though the pattern was more subtle, almost like the patterned tunics that the other traders wore. He wondered how the shepherd liked his change of clothing and if the others of his clan would understand how he had come to be dressed like a prince.
During their stay in the village Woram made a pack for Karek and one of the other merchants had carved a staff for him. The only thing he lacked was the distinctive conical reed hat that kept the sun and rain from the heads and shoulders of the merchants. "When we visit in the marshes we always gain new headgear," Woram told him. "Once you are fitted with a reed hat, there will be few who can tell you from one of us. Whoever you are, I am certain that some of your ancestors must have been a Mareklan."
Karek didn't repeat his claim of royal blood. He recognized the wisdom of the trek chief in refusing to turn back on the evidence he had offered. The time would eventually come that he could return, but for now he decided to enjoy what he couldn't change
As they continued through the jungle Karek's skills with the blowpipe improved with practice. Soon he provided much of the meat eaten by the men of the caravan when they camped. By the time they arrived in the second village most of the merchants seemed to accept him as a member of the troop.
The news of 'Kalek' had somehow raced through the jungle faster than the merchants made their journey. They were welcomed to the evening feast with a demand that he demonstrate his prowess with the spear. Karek glanced at Woram who seemed puzzled as to how to answer the request. If 'Kalek' played the fool and missed his targets, it might well be as dangerous as if he demonstrated skill that would make his 'foolishness' in the previous tribe suspect.
He remembered the antics of the clown he had seen in Zedekla. The man had been deft, but his actions were exaggerated and surprising. The laughter he inspired had as often come from shock at the unexpected as from the usual jokes and tumbling tricks.
Karek stepped up to the line and stared at the target. He brought his borrowed spear back with a broad movement and threw his hand forward with a powerful gesture. The crowd of merchants and villagers looked toward the target, and seeing no spear, looked back toward Karek who still held the spear tightly in his fingers. A gasp of laughter followed his false cast. He did the same thing again, and the crowd did not react with anything but a few questioning chuckles. Then Karek turned his back as if discouraged and tossed the spear over his shoulder. As he had intended, it flew through the air and hit the mark.
A burst of applause met his success but he turned and stared toward the quivering spear as if surprised that it had landed in the target. His look of stunned amazement brought another burst of laughter.
The question buzzed of whether he had intended to hit the mark, and Karek knew there had been a good chance that he wouldn't succeed. He had been lucky but the chief pointed to the blowpipe and told Woram that he wanted to see what "Kalek" could do with the weapon.
The darts for the blowgun were as long as a man's palm and barbed to stay in place once they hit an animal. Karek had learned the technique of wrapping them in a bit of vegetable fiber and dipping the tips in poison just before loading them. He no longer had any fear of accidentally inhaling one of them, but he guessed that his first concern that he breathe in instead of out at the critical moment had haunted a few of the natives.
He stood and sighted along the tube and seemed to blow. Once again the eyes of the crowd turned toward the stuffed skin that served as a target. Once again they were confused to see no sign of the dart. Karek made a choking sound and everyone turned to stare at him. As he took the pipe from his lips they saw the dart dangling from his mouth and once again everyone responded with a gasp of shock. He used his teeth to seat the dart in the blowpipe again and this time he sent it true into the target.
Once again he left the audience in doubt as to whether his 'accident' had been deliberate, but they laughed with relief when the dart went home. In celebration of his success, Karek used the sturdy tube as a support as he twirled around with a grimace of delight that stretched his mobile mouth into a caricature of a grin.
Afterwards he found it sufficient to merely make a few exaggerations in his movements. His height and adolescent lankiness accented the effect of his comic gestures. Chuckles and giggles followed when he merely walked about.
"If you ever want to join a juggling troop you would soon be a rich man," Odam observed after watching Karek work the crowd. "You have a sense of timing that is nearly impeccable. Even though you don't share a common language with these people, you have found a way to make them laugh."
Karek avoided the mistake of becoming a close companion of the village youths, and though the young women of the village seemed to be more than merely curious about his dress and manners, he was able to evade the entanglements that had threatened him before.
Karek stayed close to Woram while he held discussions with the village elders. To pass the time, he carved small images of things he had seen on the trek. He wanted to learn more about their language and how to communicate with them. Karek had picked up some of the dialect spoken by the previous village, but he realized that each village was as different in their way of speaking as a Jaman was from a man from Taleeka. Their communication with the Mareklans depended heavily on signs and sketches, but Karek had been trained to learn and he was able to make some statements by the second day of sitting by Woram's side. He was conscious of how easy it might be to make mistakes, and he decided to add to his reputation as a buffoon by making statements that were patently absurd.
Woram seemed to understand immediately that Karek was not serious, even though he kept his face straight and used declamatory gestures that only added to the humor of his supposed errors. He entered into the gag, pretending to correct Karek, only to have him make a yet more hilarious misstatement.
A wry look in the chief's glance warned that he suspected that the effort was deliberate, but he appreciated the skill of the performance and laughed as easily as anyone at every gaffe.
By the time they left the village the real value of Karek's ability to entertain the villagers became plain. Once again he received excellent gifts, this time in exchange for the carvings he had made while listening at Woram's side.
"You have a knack my boy," Odam admitted when he saw the trade goods piled at Karek's feet. "I have seen too many young men on their first trek into the jungles who made the mistake of thinking themselves superior to the natives. They isolated themselves from the natives and complained when they had nothing to show for their long ordeal."
"This is no ordeal," Karek said. "The weather is hot, and there are hidden dangers everywhere, but the people are friendly and full of good will."
"Not all of those we meet will be so friendly," Odam warned him. "I suspect that the news of your antics will spread and we will find ourselves with a much fuller schedule than Woram wants. Sergon, the Seer, told us we should follow the river to the sea and of course he had a purpose in his suggestion. If ever you have anything to do with a Seer, make certain you take their suggestions as imperatives. Otherwise, you will rue your failure to heed them."
"What if a Seer gave you a blessing but you couldn't remember all the things he said?" Karek asked.
Odam snorted as if the idea were so ridiculous that he couldn't grant it serious consideration. "Just remember what I told you and don't come up with foolish questions. Believe me, if you ever have the privilege of a blessing from a Seer, you will not have any problem remembering every word."
When they made camp after another day on the trail, Karek lay awake late into the night trying to recall Sergon's blessing. He had been so casual about the privilege that his mind had wandered. Was it because he had grown used to mingling with the men and women who served on the holy council in Timora, his own ancestors among them? He had memorized the words of the Laws and the Compacts and could recite them at will, but he had not yet mastered the more obscure and subtle Scroll of the History and Prophecies of Irilik.
He had been working with his father, reading to Nerik and watching as his father searched his own remarkable memory for corresponding verses from the various readings he had memorized. The Mareklans called the Scroll of Irilik a forgery because it had been discovered by Neril and her name had become so despised among them that they would not even repeat it. There were none of them who could help him refresh his memory of the precious words. He found himself yearning for the days he had spent with Nerik in study.
The thought of his father made him suddenly conscious of how far he had come from home. He slipped from his hammock and walked into the forest away from the camp. Taking a cloth from his belt pouch, he laid it over his head and raised his hands. While in camp, Woram was the voice for the prayers, but Karek felt the need to make a personal plea.
'By Yasa Dom, the promised incarnate, I come before the Radiance and plead for blessings on the house of my father. Let me walk in paths of truth and be preserved until I return to take my place. Grant me a remembrance of the words of Sergon."
The jungle night grew still and for a long moment Karek reveled in the silence. Then an urgent warning seemed to thrill up his spine. Silence was a sign of danger! He turned and slid back toward the camp, trying to avoid any disturbance that might betray his presence to a watching enemy.
The Mareklans had set two watches, but neither of them were experienced trekkers and they had grown drowsy in the humid heat of the jungle night. Karek went directly to Woram's hammock and woke the chief. "There is something out there," he whispered as soon as Woram opened his eyes. "I will wake the other men. Leave your packs rolled in the hammocks so they will think we are still sleeping."
"You warn the men on this side of the path. I will take the other and warn the watchmen," Woram responded in a murmur softer than a sigh.
Most of the merchants woke soundlessly and quickly responded to his warning, leaving their packs to mimic sleeping men and taking cover in the foliage further from the track. Only the watchmen seemed surprised, but soon the clearing seemed much as before with hammocks supporting formless masses. Karek hoped that he had not been too late in his warning.
The moon gave sufficient light to see the attack when it came. Men slid silently from the forest armed with spears and knives. It shocked Karek to see the gleam of metal in their hands. The tribes with whom they traded scorned the bronze blades the Mareklans carried. One of them had offered a generous trade in exchange for a rare set of obsidian blades and the haft that could hold them, but otherwise they seemed to prefer their own tools.
Karek counted five men in the group that moved toward the hammocks and lifted cudgels to strike. On a sudden impulse, he leaped and caught an overhanging vine, then kicked against a tree to set him swinging over the stealthy crew. With a prayer that fortune would make up for his lack of preparation, he reached the apex of his swing.
With a yell that could have curdled milk, he dropped among the startled attackers. The Mareklans rose up and took advantage of their enemies' fright and confusion. Staffs were wielded with an accuracy that only Mareklans could claim and soon the men who had hoped to take the Mareklans by surprise were themselves trussed and laid out like rolled matlas on the ground.
"We will examine them tomorrow when it is light enough to see who they are," Woram directed. "Meanwhile, change the watch. Wadern and Teren were heedless of the threat. We nearly lost our lives to carelessness tonight."
Karek climbed into his hammock and shoved his pack to the end where it normally rested. He tried to reconstruct the chain of events that had made it possible for him to warn the chief. He had been pondering the words of Sergon, regretting that he seemed to have forgotten most of them. A flow of words began to fill his mind. It was the blessing Sergon had given him. Had it been stored somewhere in his mind only waiting for the excitement of the night to force it out into his awareness, or had it come in answer to his prayer?
Another voice, this one a remembered fragment of his father's counsel, came to him. "It matters not whether the things we are given when we need them seem to come from natural events or from sources we cannot understand. What matters is that we thank the Radiance for filling our need."
Karek silently gave thanks and repeated the words of the blessing until they had become a part of his permanent memory, never more to be lost or taken for granted. Finally he slept.
When the prisoners were examined the next day the merchants discovered that they were looters, drawn to the jungle by the treasure cities that lay buried in the verdure. Their packs were filled with broken fragments of the artifacts they had destroyed in their greed for gold and gems.
Woram questioned one of them while the others remained bound and gagged. "We only meant to stun you, or we would have used our knives instead of cudgels. We want you to lead us from the forest. If you agree, we will show you where we found the treasures we are taking back to Jama."
"We are not returning to the settled lands of Okishdu for many months," Woram told the robbers. "If we take you with us, you will perish as surely as if we leave you here to founder. You must answer the justice of those you have robbed."
"The people of the jungle don't even value what they have," the robber protested. "Why should we answer to them?"
"We cannot permit you to make light of what you have done," Woram said. "You think that because these people have not looted out the precious metals and gems and taken them to be sold that they have no stewardship to honor. You are wrong. By now you are being tracked. If we left you unbound and were seen consorting with you, we would meet the same punishment you deserve."
As Woram had suspected, shortly afterward they were surrounded by a group of forest dwellers armed with spears and blowpipes. They demanded that the robbers be yielded up and Woram gave them custody. Karek wondered what their punishment would be.
The robbers were herded off into the jungle by a contingent of three men and as soon as they had disappeared the leader turned toward Karek. "Kalek!" he proclaimed with a broad grin that revealed that his teeth had been sharpened into points.
He demonstrated by pantomime the act of swinging on a vine and yelling. It was a perfect imitation of the shout Karek had given in the night. How long had these tribesmen been observing them? What would they have done if Woram had accepted the offered alliance?
Karek shivered at the thought but his face retained his answering grin and he leaped for a vine, only to miss it and collapse at the feet of the native leader. A chorus of laughter followed his performance but they must have known that if he could find a vine and startle a group of hardened men in the middle of the night, this had been a deliberate joke.
The men were part of a tribe that did not normally trade with the Mareklans, but the fame of the clown they called Kalek Lopa-kiti had preceded the merchants and they were welcome to the village. There was no sight of the looters and Woram didn't ask what had happened to them.
That night before the feasting began the chief conveyed a request to Woram with the use of gestures and signs. Woram turned to Karek and summoned him close enough murmur. "They expect you to perform the same feats of misdirection that you improvised in the last village we visited. I only hope you can remember what you did, because I doubt they will take any variation kindly."
Karek tried to remember exactly what he had done. His invention of the moment days before had become a set routine. He added one innovation at the end of his spear throwing and blowpipe inhaling. There was a handy vine hanging near the village clearing and he leaped to grab it and swung with a yell, landing in the midst of the other Mareklans and sending them stumbling out of the way. The finale was a great success with his audience. They were still laughing when he sat down with the merchants and began to eat.
Chapter 4 Envy
As the weeks of their passage through the jungle continued, most of Karek's companions seemed to forget that he had ever been anything but a member of their troop. He shared the daily tasks and learned the ways of Mareklans. His relationship with Woram deepened. The trek chief seemed to rejoice in the success of his protege.
"You are Lopa-kiti, the clumsy giant incarnate," Woram said as they rested on the trail one evening. "In future years, when Mareklans return to trade in the lowlands we will be told about you and how you nearly knocked down the roof of heaven and stumbled into the sun."
But Karek's success seemed like a bitter personal insult to Wadern, a large, dour man who had only been taken on the trek because of the influence of his family. He was the only direct male descendant of Garen, the man who had changed the rules of Marekla to exclude women from trek.
From the first Wadern had been suspicious of the youth who had come among them claiming to be a prince. How had Karek come into possession of the image of Orqu? He had claimed an assailant wore, but since his story of being a prince could be nothing but a lie, the true explanation could only be that Karek was himself a demon dog, sent to insinuate himself into a band of Mareklans and be shown the secrets that could lead the Orquians to Marekla.
The mention of the forbidden name of Neril had also offended Wadern. Many in Marekla had begun to forget the dreadful insult that the 'nameless-one' had offered Garen, his great ancestor. Wadern had no idea of what the insult had been, but his grandfather and his mother, both descendants of Garen, had been quite certain that the girl had done something shameful.
At first Wadern had not been too concerned about Karek's presence among them. He had been so evidently sick and disoriented, his fevered mutters so fantastic and unbelievable, that Wadern felt certain that Woram, the trek chief, would send the boy on his way as soon has he recovered enough to carry on alone. It should have been evident to everyone that Karek was a liar and not to be trusted with the secrets of the trek, but Woram seemed to have a soft spot for the youth.
It had disgusted Wadern to see the boy go native in the first village they visited. He indecently exposed his body and painted it with clay like a savage. As much as he hoped that Karek would be left behind when the Mareklans left the tribe and continued their trek, his success angered Wadern.
It had been nearly unbearable to see the way Karek had been rewarded for a spate of clumsiness that would have been nearly fatal to any other Mareklan. The twin insults of being required to bear further with Karek's presence and to see him heaped with gifts had twisted like a knife in Wadern's soul.
Wadern found a sympathetic listener in Teren, a young man who had hoped to gain influence with the future head of the council, a position they both expected would come to Wadern at the end of the trek. Teren had come on trek to give Wadern support and he shared his shame when they were dismissed from the watch on the night when looters attacked the camp.
Wadern watched as Woram talked and laughed with Karek and he turned to Teren with a scowl. "Our trek chief is a fool. That imposter carries a pendant with the face of Orqu and claims descent from the 'nameless one'. I am certain he was sent here by the cult to gain our confidence and find the secret of the home place of Marekla."
"It seems suspicious that he was awake when the looters came," Teren said. "No real Mareklan would consent to make a fool of himself merely to make a better profit."
The two of them felt vindicated in playing small, mean pranks on Karek such as fraying the lines of his hammock when no one was watched so that he fell from it one night, bruising his hip on a large, sharp rock that had somehow appeared on the forest floor under him. Instead of trying to find the offenders and fix blame, Karek had blamed himself for carelessness in checking his equipment and lacking care in choosing the place where he slung his hammock.
His reaction had been much the same when a hole appeared in the pack he left against a tree while he helped with supper one evening. Wadern suspected that Karek knew he was the target of sabotage, but instead of displaying his suspicions and trying to fix blame for his 'accidents' the outsider mended the pack and shrugged off the loss of several valuable pouches of medicinal herbs that now filled the bottom of Teren's pack.
At each village they visited Karek continued to fulfill the expectations of the tribes who had heard of the clumsy giant, Kalek Lopa-kiti. The villagers seemed to know what to expect and on the few occasions that he failed to hit the mark with the spear when he turned away, they waited patiently while he set up the entire gag again.
Wadern had laughed at the professional buffoons who performed in the market place in Zedekla earlier in the trek, but he looked down on them as inferiors. Karek's pride in amusing his hosts with the same kinds of cheap stunts as a common juggler offended Wadern. The prizes of goods that were given to Karek because of his clowning far exceeded the share Woram granted to Wadern and Teren as part of the general share of profits.
The merchants shared in the exchange of goods that took place at the conclusion of a visit to a tribe, but if any had made an unusual contribution, such as the intricate carvings of Odam or the scroll cloth that Tulin wove, they received a greater share. It seemed grossly unfair to Teren and Wadern that Karek earned special rewards for a skill that he practiced when the troop of merchants were on the trail.
"Woram is blind to his schemes," Teren muttered when they saw the trek chief speaking to Karek.
"We will have to do something to bring this shame out into the open," Wadern answered. "He is careless enough of his things that we should be able to plant evidence that we can use against him."
"What could be more damaging that the fact that he carries a pendant engraved with the image of Orqu?" Teren wondered.
"We could take something of Woram's and put it in Karek's pack," Wadern said. "If Woram could be brought to see that Karek is nothing more than a liar and a thief, he would no longer treat him as a son."
While it was true that Karek was not very careful of his pack, Woram had long experience of thieves and he was careful of his pack and his other belongings even when there was no one around but other members of the trek. It was several days after Karek's two enemies had come up with their scheme before they realized that they would have to arrange a diversion that would remove Woram from his pack long enough for one of them to pilfer something he valued.
"I will volunteer to walk at the rear of the caravan tomorrow," Wadern told Teren one evening. "You walk next to Woram. When I scream and call for help, volunteer to hold Woram's pack while he comes back to check on me."
The caravan started out the next day in the lowlands, but the land rose and the river they followed plunged into a chasm, forcing them to walk along a narrow track above rapids that frothed and hissed below them. When Wadern screamed and Woram stopped the caravan, Teren offered to hold the trek chief's pack as he had been instructed. Woram nodded and slipped his arms from the pack, making it easier for him to edge past the other merchants and make his way to Wadern who sat on the ground with his hands clasped around his ankle.
"I was bitten by a snake!" Wadern cried when the trek chief bent down and asked him what ailed him. He pulled his hand away and showed the reddened skin with two small punctures in the center. Woram had seen many snake bites in his years of trekking, but none had looked like this. The punctures looked more like the cuts of a knife than the marks of fangs, but the jungle held dangers he did not understand and he had no reason to question Wadern's explanation.
"Stay quiet and I will bind off your ankle and try to treat you. I have never seen a bite like this before so the antidote I carry could be useless."
Woram turned to Odam who had followed him. "Tell the others we will have to stay here for an hour or so until we see if Wadern responds to the treatment I give him."
"There are storm clouds rolling toward us and there are signs of lightning," Odam warned. "We should try to carry Wadern in a hammock and find a safer place to wait out the storm."
"We passed a low cave not far from the trail a short time ago," Woram said. "We could take shelter there. It will be a tight fit, but we have little choice."
With the attention of everyone else fixed on Wadern and his pretended injury, Teren quickly dipped his hand into Woram's pack and grabbed the first thing that seemed promising. He held it concealed in his palm when Woram returned and took up his pack and he had no opportunity to examine what he had taken until he found himself at the rear of the retreating caravan.
When he glanced at the thing he had filched he gave a low whistle of appreciation. It was a lovely piece of inlay work carved of shell and inset with an intricate pattern of polished stones. He had seen something like it before, a pendant worn by a woman in one of the villages they had visited, but he had never seen one so fine as this. For a moment he was tempted to keep it for himself and tell Wadern that he had not been successful in taking anything from Woram's pack.
On the other hand, Wadern could be vicious and Teren didn't want to risk his temper. It was one thing to be his accomplice and enjoy the scheming that seemed so amusing, but quite another to cross him and become the target of his wrath.
Teren shoved the pendant into one of his belt pouches and hurried to catch up with the other men who were crowding under the narrow shelter of the cave. In keeping with his supposed injury, Wadern lay on the ground at the back of the cave resting on the piled capes of several other men. He took up so much space that Teren himself, last to take shelter, huddled halfway out of the cave.
The air grew dark and rain began to fall in a solid wall of liquid that doused those near the front of the cavern. Teren shut his eyes but even so the brilliant flashes of lighting glared red against his squinted eyelids. Thunder roared continuously and seemed to shake the rock beneath his hands and feet.
Finally the storm passed but the trail remained slick and dangerous. "We will have to make camp here tonight," Woram said after scouting the trail. "We will take turns sleeping and start off again in the morning."
Of course Wadern did not have to rise and give place to someone else. He was left to relax in comfort throughout the afternoon and evening while the other men tried to accommodate to the unusual schedule. Most galling of all to Teren was the way that Woram trusted Karek to take charge in the early morning hours when all the senior members of the trek were sleeping.
When morning came Woram scouted ahead again and returned to tell the men that the trail was safe to use. Wadern seemed remarkably recovered and assured the trek chief that he could walk. He did not even limp when he stood and took his place on the trail. A brief, wordless exchange of glances with Teren assured him that his ruse had been successful and they were armed with the evidence necessary to accuse Karek of theft.
Wadern chose to bring the issue to a head that evening when Woram called a halt. They were still on the trail at the edge of the gorge, but a wide place on the ledge provided a camping place and the horizon was clear of any hint of clouds.
Teren slipped the pendant into Karek's pack which the youth left unattended while he ranged around the camping place to hunt for a few of the small animals that lived in crevices near the river. They had plenty of preserved meat and journey bread in their packs, but everyone liked the taste of fresh game roasted over the nightly campfire.
When the evening ritual concluded, Odam took his turn at serving the other men and Wadern sat down next to Woram. "I noticed Karek meddling with your pack the other day," he said. "Have you noticed anything missing?"
The trek chief shook his head. "Are you trying to say he is a thief? Of all of us, Karek has the least need to covet the belongings of other men."
Wadern stood and made certain that everyone looked at him by raising his voice. "You have favored Karek since he stumbled into our camp. He never told us who he is other than that ridiculous claim that he is the prince of Zedekla. We know nothing of his character or background, yet you treat him like a son. I accuse Karek of being a thief. Let him prove his innocence by showing us the contents of his pack."
Karek shrugged and reached for his pack. He knew that Wadern did not like him. Whenever he chanced to catch the other man's gaze he could see his enmity, but this accusation took him by surprise. He knew he had nothing to hide and he handed his pack to Woram to examine.
The trek chief felt trapped into examining Karek's pack. If he followed his own inclination and passed it back without opening it, Wadern would accuse him of undue favoritism. He lifted out the contents piece by piece, pausing only slightly in puzzlement when he encountered the pendant. When everything was spread on the ground for everyone to see he looked up and said, " I see nothing here of mine. Surely you were mistaken Wadern."
"What about the engraved pendant?" Teren said. "I know that it belongs to you. It is the most valuable thing he has."
"What do you know of the pendant?" Woram asked.
"I know that it belongs to you," Teren insisted.
"He won't admit that Karek took it from him," Wadern scoffed. "Do the rest of you see what has happened?" He turned and studied the faces of the other merchants, hoping to see some support for his accusation.
Odam stood and faced the two men. "I have seen that pendant before, you are right that it belongs to Woram, but only because Karek gave it to him. The three of us were the only ones privy to the transaction. I find it suspicious that you assert that you have seen it before, Teren. If Karek gave it to Woram as a gift, is it likely he would be so foolish as to pilfer it and keep it for himself?"
"He might have regretted the gift and coveted the pendant for himself," Teren said. "What do we know of him? How has he managed to gain so much credibility with our leaders when we all know he is nothing but a buffoon?"
Knowing that his accusations would not impress either Odam or Woram, Wadern turned to the other merchants. "You know who I am, the descendant of honored Garen who repudiated the 'Nameless One' and proved the forgery of the lost Scroll. And who is Karek? He claims descent from the 'nameless one', the foul creature whose blood runs in the kings of Zedekla. He carries the image of Orqu. I accuse him of being a spy for the dogs of the demon, sent to gain our trust and betray us."
Karek stood and faced his accusers, his face still and strained with the insults to his faith and his family. "The Scroll is truth and Neril is a saint. Garen was a disappointed suitor who spread a vicious lie to cover his own failure. I have seen you giving your gifts in Timora, even as you cast doubt on the holy scroll and deny the witness of Sergon who named Neril a saint. How can you stand before the High Priest knowing of your own heresy. If you think I am a thief and dangerous to the trek, I will leave you now. I will trust the people of the forest to guide me back to Timora."
"Don't be so hasty," Woram stood and put his hand on Karek's shoulder. "We may not agree about the details of history, but I know a good man when I have lived and worked beside him."
The trek chief turned and addressed the other members of the caravan. "Karek has been a befit to all of us. I have been to the jungles before, but never with such successful trading. The tribes welcome us and send us on our way heaped with their generosity. Our packs bulge with the precious things we came to find, and I challenge anyone to find any other reason than the presence of 'Kalek Lopa-kiti."
"I demand a vote!" Wadern shouted. "We are not ruled by kings and tyrants like the Zedeklans. Perhaps it is time to dispose of Woram as well as his favorite."
"A trek chief must be a tyrant of sorts," Odam insisted. "This is no time to disrupt the trek with your foolish accusations."
"Let them vote," Woram said. "Wadern and Teren seem convinced that there are others who share their sentiments. If so, we will split the caravan. You take the dissidents back to Marekla, Odam, and I will lead the others to the sea as Sergon directed."
"Wadern and Teren stand to the left," Odam directed. "Woram and Karek, you stand to the right. The rest of the men will take their places according to their preference in the matter."
The other Mareklans scrambled to their feet as if they were one body and hurried to stand by Woram. Not one of them chose to add their fates to the path chosen by Teren and Wadern.
"We will go back to Marekla with Odam rather than continue on with our enemies," Wadern said.
"I will not lead you," Odam said. "If there had been others besides the two of you, it would have been necessary. Now that we have your measure, we will simply have to tolerate you on the trek."
Wadern could not endure this final insult. Karek was stood near the edge of the trail not far from the edge of the chasm. Wadern grabbed up his staff and rushed forward, growling with rage.
Karek had kept his eye on Wadern. He knew that the other man would not accept defeat easily. As soon as his enemy started his rush, Karek braced his feet and his staff and bent forward to take the blow. This would not be the first time he had been subjected to the unearned resentment of a bully.
Kalil thought it better to let him resolve his own difficulties with the children he met when he accompanied her into the city. He had learned to brawl like a street brat when still a child.
Their staffs met with a clack that resounded through the gorge below them. Karek could see from the grimace of hate on Wadern's face that would no sparring match, but a matter of life and death. Wadern drove him back toward the precipice.
He had learned a trick from his master of arms that not many Mareklans practiced. Instead of continuing to trade blows with his staff against a heavier man who gradually gained ground, Karek shoved his staff into the ground and used it to vault to the side. His move took Wadern by surprise and his forward thrust at Karek carried him within a few steps of the brink before he stopped his forward momentum.
"Stop this!" Woram demanded, but Wadern whirled and attacked Karek again, relentlessly pressing him toward a notch where the trail swung wide of a cut in the bank.
Woram started forward to grab Wadern but Teren raced forward and began to grapple with the trek chief. Odam and Tulin grabbed Teren in turn and tried to subdue him but he bit and kicked at both of them until they were joined by two other Mareklans who subdued him forcefully.
Woram grabbed Wadern but the enraged man threw the chief off of him with a thrust of his burly arm and continued his attack on Karek. Karek could feel the mist rising from the river at his back and he realized that less than a step would carry him over the edge. Suddenly he dropped his staff and grabbed hold of the staff in Wadern's hands. The other man was stronger and heavier, but Karek hung on for his life.
The bank began to give way beneath Karek's feet and he felt himself sliding downward, but he would not let go. Wadern shook his staff and screamed with rage but he released his hold the staff too late he began to overbalance. Karek released the staff as soon as he realized that he had pulled Wadern after him. He scrabbled to find some hold that would keep him from falling into the frothing rapids.
A dense bush gave him purchase and he wound his legs around the branches while he tried to catch at Wadern's tunic as he plunged down nearly on top of him. He caught a grip on the back of the other man's belt and tried to hold on. Wadern's weight forced both of them further downward until Karek hung upside down with his legs tangled in the bush with Wadern suspended below him.
"Hold on," Woram called from above them. "We will link our bolikas and hand them down to you.
The big man wriggled and tried to turn and clutch at Karek's hands but Wadern had a habit of easing his belt knot before sitting down for the evening meal and it began to pull loose, dropping him out of range. The roots of the bush were slowly pulling out of their hold in a crevice of rock. "Be still," Karek urged. "Your struggles only make our situation worse."
Wadern let out a garbled curse and clutched at the failing knot of his belt with one hand while he made an effort to grab at the bush with the other, swinging his weight in a way that pulled Karek's arms and strained the strength of his fingers.
The motion ripped the belt loose from Karek's fingers. Wadern plummeted into the river. His screams stopped abruptly when he hit the wild waters. Karek watched helpless as Wadern bobbed to the surface downstream like a lax doll carried away on the current.
Karek shut his eyes and prayed for the soul of his enemy and for a few moments more of strength in the fragile roots of the bush that was all that stood between him and an almost certain death in the rocks and water below.
"Grab hold of the bolika, Karek," Woram called from above. The line brushed Karek's face and he grabbed for it, winding it around his upper arm to compensate for the lack of strength in his wrenched fingers. Just as he felt ready to test it, the bush finally pulled away from the face of the rocky wall and fell toward him in a cascade of dirt and rocks.
The strength of the bolika around Karek's arm jerked him upright and he kicked away the bush dangling from his feet. Wadern's belt caught in the line and it moved upward along with Karek until he came near enough to the edge for Woram and Odam to grab his arms and pull him onto the edge of the collapsed trail.
"We don't know if Wadern is still alive," Woram said. "We will make our way downstream and watch for him before it grows any darker."
The men of the trek lifted their packs and their staffs and set out on the narrow, dangerous trail while Woram scouted ahead in the dusk. Odam lifted Karek to his feet and helped him find his staff and put his pack on. They cleared up the last signs of the camp and started out after the others.
A faint flush of sunset lit the trail, but the gorge lay in shadow and darkened quickly. The froth of foam on the river below gleamed with a bluish light. Woram studied the sides of the gorge and tried to find a way down to the water. At last the trail began to descend in tight switchbacks and they found themselves once again in the jungle where the river broadened and took on a lazier pace.
"I think I see him!" Tulin cried when they stopped to peer at the shallows. "See, over there in that pool."
Woram waded into the water to examine the still form. Wadern's body had been battered and mangled by the rapids and he no longer breathed. It had been nearly an hour since his fall and it seemed apparent from the lack of blood in the gashes on his head and arms that he had not been alive for some time.
Tulin helped the trek chief pull Wadern's body back to shore where the others waited. "We will need to build a pyre and burn his body in the morning like the natives do," Woram said. "It will be impossible to dig a grave in these tangled roots, and even if we do, a scavenger would probably excavate it before we traveled a day from here."
Teren gave a keening wail and bent over the body. Suddenly he rose and pointed at Karek. "You dropped him to his death. You killed him, the last male of Garen's line. He would have been head of the council when we returned from this trek. One successful trek was all he lacked to gain the votes that he needed."
"Wadern's family will mourn his death and the death of their hope to regain their power in Marekla, but Karek did not kill him," Woram told Teren. "I watched from the bank while we prepared the bolika and Karek tried to save him."
"I saw what he saved," Teren scoffed. "He managed to salvage the belt with its pouches intact. Doubtless you will let him keep it."
"Whatever we find in Wadern's belt will be packed and returned to his family," Woram assured the distraught young man.
"I demand that Karek return with us for trial in Marekla," Teren insisted.
"Will you return to Marekla with us when we have finished this trek?" Odam asked Karek.
"I have other responsibilities, but if Teren thinks I should stand trial for Wadern's death, I have little choice in the matter."
"There are more than sufficient witnesses to show that you were not responsible for what happened," Odam said. "Wadern attacked you with no reason or warning. There is no need for a trial back in Marekla, we can determine your innocence here and now."
"And who would be his judge and jury?" Teren jeered. "The vote on his guilt would be made by those who have already shown their preference. I demand he be returned to Marekla as soon as possible for a trial at the hands of a council that includes Wadern's family and friends."
"We will return to Marekla on the schedule we originally set," Woram said. "We have come to the end of our trading among those who live in the jungle. The river swings to the north and we will soon come to the marshes."
"The marshes are impassable without boats. We must turn back," Teren insisted.
"There will be boats when we need them," Woram said. "Tonight we will sleep. Tomorrow we will give Wadern a funeral."
Teren finally subsided, but Karek knew he could never turn his back on the man again. He tried to think of some way he could have avoided becoming an enemy to Wadern and Teren. Finally he shook his head at the impossibility of thinking when he still ached in every joint from the effort of trying to save Wadern.
Chapter 5 Ovishang
When Karek woke the next morning the angle of the sun in the sky overhead warned him that he had been allowed to sleep longer than usual. He ached from his neck to his ankles, but he knew it would be better for him to roll out of his hammock and stretch than to huddle in misery. He had heard of a punishment used in the dungeons of Jagga when that monster had ruled Janaka. It was said he hung those he would question from racks on a wall and suspended weights from their feet until their limbs were disjointed. It had seemed a horrible torture even when Karek had no experience of how it might feel to be stretched limb and joint with a weight nearly twice his own.
He could smell the funeral pyre and he knew that it was more than compassion for his pain that had led the others to let him sleep. Law decreed that an accused killer could not participate in the funeral of his victim. He slumped against a tree and wondered how he had come to this pass. Everything from the beginning when he met the Mareklans until yesterday had seemed to go in his favor. The Mareklans would not take him back to Timora on his demand, but he had not pressed the matter since then. Meanwhile he had enjoyed adventures and success unfettered by the constraints of propriety imposed by Queen Jarila.
By now his parents would have returned to Zedekla, unsure of what had become of him and probably assuming the worst. There could be no funeral where there was no surety, and his parents would both mourn him and hope that they would see him alive again.
He walked to the campfire where a pot of cala hung steaming over the coals. Odam tended the fire, the only other man left in camp. "Where are the others?" he asked.
"Teren absconded some time in the night," Odam said. "He pilfered our packs and took his pick of the best we had gathered, then he sneaked away into the forest. We assume he is trying to retrace our trail and return to Marekla by himself."
"How did he evade the watch?"
"He told them he was going out to the pyre to mourn for his friend. No one bothered to stop him from performing a duty that the rest of us had avoided. Woram took the others out to search for him as soon as we realized he had gone. To leave a novice like Teren to wander by himself in the forest is no less than a sentence of death."
"How did the pyre come to be lit? I thought you let me sleep because I couldn't attend the funeral."
"The pyre must have been lit by Teren. It was his right as Wadern's friend, but he has cut the ritual short with his action. Woram performed an abbreviated funeral ritual before they went out to search. We did not wake you because you needed rest after what happened to you yesterday."
At the sound of a shrill signal pipe called the searchers back to the camp. Woram and Tulin were last to return. Tulin carried a tattered pack and a short length of bloodied cloth that had once been part of a tunic.
Woram summoned the men and looked around the circle with a grave face. "Teren thought to find his way alone after looting our packs. We found what remained of him at the foot of the escarpment and constructed a pyre at the site of his death. I performed the funeral ritual before lighting the fire. The jungle wirras left very little for us to burn. We brought back the largest piece of his tunic as evidence to those who might question how he died."
Odam looked around at the other Mareklans. "Are there any here who doubt Woram's account?" Everyone shook their heads.
"Set the fragment on Wadern's pyre and let it burn," Odam advised Tulin. "We must tell the families of Wadern and Teren how they died, and some may want to question Karek, but I think all of us know that none bears fault for the deaths of these men but themselves."
The other men nodded and Karek felt grateful that the death of Teren would not be laid to his charge. He could envision all too easily how Teren had died and he shivered.
After eating the midday meal, the merchants struck camp and followed the river as it swung to the north. They continued until nightfall and camped in the last light of day. After the evening ritual and their dinner, Woram brought Teren's ragged pack to the campfire and emptied it onto a woven mat.
"Each of you take what he took from you," the trek chief directed.
Karek held back until all of the other men had recovered their goods. He hesitated to approach the remaining pile. He valued nothing so much that he would not have given it up willingly to have Teren back. The man had hated him, but if he were still alive they might have reached a resolution of their differences in time.
"Give whatever remains to Teren's family," Karek murmured to Woram. "He behaved rashly, but he paid a terrible price for his folly."
Woram folded the mat over the small pile of trinkets and packets of herbs. He tied it and slipped it into his own pack.
When they continued in the morning the river grew wider and they were forced to ford a number of shallow streams in order to keep near the bank. The jungle receded into a dense line of dark green behind them when they entered the marsh. Karek had never seen such a wide sweep of sky except for over the sea near Zedekla. Here and there stunted trees and low hummocks broke the even sweep of tall marsh grass. They made their way for some distance by crossing shallow streams, but finally the distance between the higher ground of occasional hummocks increased until there seemed only the broad river edged by reeds. It stretched to the horizon ahead of them and they had no means to cross.
"Where do we go from here?" Odam wondered. "Should we find trees and make dugouts?"
"Sergon said I should make a fire and feed it with green grass to make smoke, then send up the signals that we use when we return to Marekla," Woram replied. "It may be too late in the day for the signal to be seen, but there is still an hour before darkness. We might as well try."
The marsh grass burned with a dense grey smoke and Woram made a patterned signal with a damp mat laid over the fire at intervals. A jagged line of grey puffs rose into the air and drifted to the east on the wind. The setting sun dyed them bright pink and they seemed to glow against the violet sky before dispersing.
"The Mareklans seldom travel to the eastern marshes," Woram told Karek. "The people who live here have never welcomed us into their homes, but they are willing to trade. When we wake in the morning we will doubtless find reed boats for our use."
There were no trees from which to sling their hammocks and the ground was damp. Karek followed the example of the other men and piled reeds into a mound where he could lay his sleeping mat. Woram performed the evening ritual and Odam dished up the meal he had cooked on the remains of the signal fire. The air buzzed with the sound of insects but the merchants had long ago learned to rub the essence of the oil brush plant on their skins to keep off the worst of the bugs.
Tulin and Karek took first watch. The night filled with small sounds; the lapping of the river and the distant calls from the jungle that now lay well behind them. The faint scream of a wirra reminded Karek of Teren's death and he shivered at the memory of the horror of the past two days. He shut his eyes long enough to pray for the souls of Wadern and Teren. When he opened his eyes again the marsh glowed with a faint light of its own. The gurgling darkness of the river seemed to swallow all light until it met the spangled dark of the sky to the east.
The first watch passed uneventfully and Woram and Odam came to relieve them when the set of stars they called the ladle tipped up as if ready to pour. Karek retired to his bed roll on the reed pile and soon fell asleep.
He woke to muttered exclamations of surprise from the man sleeping closest to him. "This will be something to tell my children!"
Karek rolled up and looked toward the bank of the river where Woram was greeted an ancient white-robed man. At first Karek thought it was Sergon, but this man was taller with a shaved chin.
A line of reed boats stretched along the river bank, each with a rower sitting amidships facing the shore. Karek stood and rolled up his bed mat and straightened his tunic. It seemed that this would be a memorable day.
He moved forward enough to overhear what passed between the tall man and Woram. They seemed to lack any common language, but Karek had a hunch. Unlike the Mareklans who disavowed the Scroll of Irilik as a forgery, Karek had studied it under the tutelage of his grandfather Talek who had taught him the old language as well. The secret annals of Tharek that could only be read by the heir of Zedekla's king, had taught him more of who this man might be.
Woram grew discouraged and he shook his head with frustration. All he wanted was the loan of the boats to proceed along the coast and reach Orenon from the south, but this ancient kept repeating the same phrase like a ritual and he did not understand.
"Ba-Tharek, kejer Ovishang?" the man said once again.
"Ba-Tharek, orat Zedekla."
The old man grinned and nodded and Woram swung around to face Karek who stood just behind him. "Do you understand what he's saying?" the trek chief asked.
"He wants to know if we will visit his city," Karek said. "I studied the archaic tongue and the Scroll of Irilik. Have you never heard of the people of Lamath?"
Woram seemed puzzled but Odam spoke up. "They were lost in the crossing from Kishdu."
"Not lost, but separated," Karek explained. "Their ships were swept southward and they landed in the marshes. These people are their descendants." He turned back to the old man. "Ba Lamath?"
The man nodded and smiled. "Ba Lamath Kendikar."
"You are Kendikar?" Woram asked. When the man nodded, Woram pointed to himself. "Ba Irilik Woram."
"Woram, kejer Ovishang?" Kendikar asked. Then he gestured toward the boats. It seemed evident that they were expected to board and be taken wherever the city of Ovishang might be.
"This must be the meeting that Sergon foresaw," Woram said.
He turned to the other Mareklans who had gathered to watch the discussion. "Come, we will go with them."
As each of the Mareklans stepped up to the area that Kendikar indicated, he was guided to get in one of the several boats. When Karek stepped forward, Kendikar waved him away. When all but the last boat had been filled and only Kendikar and Karek remained on the shore, the aim of the old man became clear. He intended that none of the other Mareklans share a boat with the two of them.
Woram looked across the water at the young man and tried to get his boatman to come closer to shore. The man ignored him and deftly paddled away toward themiddle of the river.
Karek stepped into the last boat, keeping his balance while finding a seat near the center where two ornate low benches were placed athwart. He felt a thrill of anticipation when Kendikar took the seat facing him and lifted his hand in a time honored sign. For generations, since Tharek, the sons of the king of Zedekla had been carefully taught this same sign and expected to learn the response. His own father Nerik had taught him the sign and he held up his hand to Kendikar in the sign Nerik had demonstrated to him. A blind man, Nerik had wrapped his large hand around that of his son and fit his fingers into the motion patiently time after time until he could feel that it was perfect.
Kendikar's eyes seemed to glow when he saw the response. The words he had spoken earlier had been accented differently from what Karek knew of the ancient tongue of Kishdu, but nevertheless, he had understood. Now Kendikar began speaking more rapidly and Karek soon lost the sense of what he said.
He held up his hand and said "wait", then he slowly explained his problem. Kendikar nodded and picked up a slate and a scribing tool from the bench near his side. He began to write in the archaic language in which the original scrolls had been written and Karek blessed the patience of those who had taught him enough to understand.
For more than a thousand years the people of Lamatha had waited for the time when the incarnate god Yasa Dom would be born. Their books foretold that the child would be born to a woman of the lineage of two of the three priest-hoods of ancient Kishdu and a man of the lineage of two of the three priest-hoods, encompassing all the three priest-hoods between them. The prophecy had been studied for generations of Kendikar's ancestors and precursors as High Priests in the seat of Lamath. Until they solved the riddle of the parentage, they would continue to maintain a virtual quarantine of the people of the marshes from those of the rest of Okishu as their first father in the new land had taught them.
Karek shook his head. He seemed to understand the sense of the separate words, but he couldn't quite understand the sense of the whole concept. Kendikar started again, this time drawing a lineage chart. He wrote the names of Belnian and Elianin next to each other along with the symbol 'postemi'. Karek nodded that he understood the reference to the teaching priesthood. Next the name Lamath was written next to the symbol 'agdil' with a link drawn between Lamath and Belnian. Karek reached for the slate and the scribing tool and Kendikar let him take them.
For a moment Karek hesitated over the names of Irilik and Elianin, trying to be certain he used the right accent marks on the symbols, then he drew two diagonal lines and put the name of his grandfather, Talek, at the apex and a line with his name coming down from that. "Postemi, Angelak," he said with a gesture toward himself.
Kendikar's face lit in a smile. The two men continued their halting attempt to converse. Kendikar was the seer of his people as well as High Priest of the temple in Ovishang. He had watched the skies for two months after receiving a puzzling vision. Then the smoke signs had come and he set forth with the boats that he had seen in his vision to find the man he believed would be the precursor of the avatar of the Radiance.
Karek's hand went unconsciously to touch his own chest and Kendikar nodded. In the marriage of Caril and Tomak, the two lineages of the guardian priesthood of Angelak and the teaching priesthood of Postemi had been joined, just as the marriage of Belnian and Lamath before the flight from Kishdu had united the defender priesthood with the teaching priesthood.
As they tried to communicate, the boats glided deeper into the heart of the marsh. Near midday what appeared to be regular hills came in sight. "Ovishang," Kendikar announced when Karek gestured toward the area.
As they drew nearer the 'hills' were revealed as the roofs of a great temple complex and city that rose in the midst of the marsh. Boats darted here and there between floating gardens that teemed with fruits and flowers of many kinds.
The line of boats following the boat holding Kendikar and Karek proceeded to enter a canal that bisected the island where the city rose. They came to a pier from which steps rose to the largest of the buildings.
Woram was led away with the other Mareklans and Karek was led upwards into the building that he soon recognized as a shrine. A plaque set with the jeweled symbols of the Holy Name hung above the central altar set well within the shelter of the building . Karek could not help stopping and staring. He knew without asking that this was the plaque given by Angelak to his brother Agdil to be set in the wall of the sanctuary in Vishang of Kishdu. Twice Lamath's family had saved it, once from the pirates and again from the army of Algunagada.
Kendikar did not disturb his young guest while he knelt and made his devotions, not to the plaque, but to the deity whose name it portrayed. For long moments Karek remained with his head bent and his arms raised. Finally Kendikar stood and nodded that he was ready to leave and they proceeded into a large chamber where seven men were seated on long benches.
"Ga ba Irilik?" one of the men asked.
"Ba Irilik, Ba Tharek, Ba Elianin," Kendikar announced. There was a mutter of mixed reaction from the other men. Some of them lifted their faces as if they had smelled a sweet savor but others seemed suspicious and dour. One man in particular looked as if he wanted to stand and spit in Karek's face. He was young, wearing a breastplate of gold set with jewels and so handsome that Karek could hardly remember seeing a more impressive man although he had been in all of the cities of Okishdu.
Kendikar proceeded to announce what was either an invitation to dine or a demand for Karek's left knee, but considering the time of day, and the way all the other men rose from the benches where they had been sitting and proceeded into another room where the odors of food were dominant, Karek expected a meal.
He sat next to Kendikar, but the angry young man sat next to him on the right. Kendikar rose and uttered a ritual that Karek could mostly recognize, then the door at the end of the room opened and servers entered with platters of food.
There was very little meat served, but a great variety of sea foods. All of it was seasoned well, but with unfamiliar spices, some of them rather hot. Fortunately, Karek had a liking for Janakan barbeque and he enjoyed everything he ate. For most of the meal the angry young man kept silent while Kendikar spoke to Karek.
While Kendikar engaged in a discussion with the man seated on the other side of him, Karek turned to the young man and smiled in what he hoped was an ingratiating manner.
"You will not charm me, outsider. I will marry Berlanin or die."
"Who is Berlanin?" Karek asked, hoping he had understood the gist of the young man's statement and was not returning an insult.
"She comes," the man said.
The doors at the end of the dining room opened and a young woman entered the hall. She was dressed in a robe of pure white edged with green and her hair was a halo of red-gold curls. She was very pretty, but there were traces of tears at the corners of her eyes which fixed with a hopeless look on the face of the young man at Karek's side. She was also several years older than Karek and something about her reminded him rather forcefully of his sister Talara.
He had a sinking feeling that somehow he was seen as her prospective groom by Kendikar and the others of the council who had looked so pleased to see him. He cringed in his seat. The languishing looks exchanged between his table mate and Berlanin seemed to confirm that they had a tragic relationship.
Karek considered the implications of what he had seen and been told and the various snippets of scripture and legend he was privy to because of his position and lineage. Apparently the elders of Ovishang were trying to bring prophecy to pass by arranging a meeting between himself and Berlanin with the aim of creating the proper conditions for the appearance of the Incarnate Radiance.
"Yasa Dom shall be born in the quiet of obscurity and none will know when he is to come." The words of the prophecy as Karek had read it from the Scroll of Irilik seemed to sound in his ears with the force of a living voice.
He looked around to see who had spoken and realized that he alone had heard the words. If Kendikar and the council intended him to marry this reluctant beauty, it would hardly be an obscure event. There was something very wrong with this attempt to manipulate the outcome of prophecy. Now all he had to do was convince his hosts that they were making a mistake. He and his companions were effectively imprisoned on the island city of Ovishang. Without boats or willing guides, how could they hope to escape and continue their trek?
The banquet continued around him, but now Kendikar brought Berlanin to meet him. "This is my grandchild, the flower of Ovishang," the old man said with a fond look at the girl that nevertheless seemed to overlook her eyes that welled with tears.
"And I am her betrothed, Garaval," the young man next to him growled in tones meant for Karek alone.
Kendikar gave up his seat to the girl and retired to speak to his cronies. Karek hardly knew what to say, so he blurted out the first thing he thought of. "You remind me of my older sister."
"Sister? You have how many sisters?" Berlanin asked.
"Six," Karek said as he showed her the fingers of one hand plus a thumb. Garaval gasped and leaped to his feet.
"You insult Berlanin!"
"I said I had six sisters," Karek protested.
"He knows not our ways," Berlanin protested. "Sit down Garaval, you shame me."
For the rest of the meal Karek tried to say something to soothe the sullen young man, but he seemed determined to sulk. Whenever Berlanin would speak to Karek, Garaval frowned until it almost seemed that a dark little cloud covered their end of the table.
"I hope you are kinder as a husband than a fiancé," Karek finally said, hoping he hadn't mistaken his accents and said something far more insulting. His words had been insult enough.
"I will never be husband to Berlanin now that you have come," Garaval said before leaping to his feet and leaving the room with long strides.
"He is sad," Berlanin said in extreme understatement. "We were to be married two moons from today, but the signs Kendikar forecast have come and our dreams are destroyed."
Karek wanted to protest that he had no intention of marrying her but Kendikar had returned. It might be that the only way the others of his troop would be given safe passage back to the mainland was at the price of his own freedom. Not that Berlanin wasn't a very pretty girl, but Karek was not prepared to marry yet and she was in love with another. It seemed a plan for disaster.
"You have traveled far Ba Tharek, and it is time for you to rest and refresh yourself," Kendikar said. His high nose quivered a little and Karek blushed. Life on the trail had not been conducive to delicacy and it had been several days since he had washed with anything more than scented sand, as much to drive off biting insects as for cleanliness.
Kendikar took him to an ample room that had an ingenious bathing arrangement. A pool that was little more than an extension of the river, filtered with reeds and other plants to clear the water, filled an alcove off his room. Sheltering screens maintained his privacy as he cleansed himself and scrubbed his tunic and loincloth. He hung them to dry on the screen and dressed himself in a fresh loincloth twisted from a length of smooth cloth that he found on a bench near the pool. Clean and tired, he returned to the room and sat on a bed made of fresh rushes laid with a quilted mat and a zylka coverlet.
He lay down gratefully under the cool fabric and tried to fight off sleep while he pondered his predicament. Somehow he must find a way to avoid this coil, but finally he decided that until he had more information about the location of the other Mareklans and he knew for sure what was intended, he should get some rest.
He woke to the sound of something breaking and he rolled off his bed to the side and waited to see if he had overreacted. A body hit his bed and an exclamation of surprise came in a voice he recognized. It was Garaval, Berlanin's sullen suitor.
Karek leaped up and took advantage of Garaval's surprise to subdue him by pulling his arm up hard behind his back. He clamped the other hand around Garaval's face to keep him quiet while he spoke.
"I don't want Berlanin, you do!" Go get her if she will have you. Bring her to me and I will marry you to each other." Karek lifted his hand from the other man's mouth just enough to hear Garaval's answer.
"You are a boy!" the young man scoffed.
"I am a prince and a priest. I assure you I have authority that will be acknowledged in all of the kingdoms and councilor lands of Okishdu." Karek doubted that the sense of most of what he had said was understood by Garaval, but the first phrase apparently convinced him.
"I will return with Berlanin, but you must dress!"
"I will be dressed when you return, but go swiftly and bring a boat back with you to the same hole you tore in my bathing room."
"How did you know how I came?" Garaval asked.
"I can see stars where I should only see darkness," Karek said. "Now go."
Garaval rushed off through the bathing area and soon Karek heard the sound of oars in the water.
He rejected the idea of putting on his damp clothing and searched the shelves that had been woven into the reed walls. A few lengths of cloth including one as wide as his arm and five times as long and fringed along one edge gave him the materials to construct a costume very like the one worn by Garaval but without the gold and gems. He should warn the young man to make his wealth less obvious if he planned to leave Ovishang and make his way in the world outside.
It seemed that Garaval was not as stupid as he had first seemed. When he returned with Berlanin they were both dressed in modest clothing, doubtless purloined from some poor fisherman. They stood before Karek and joined their hands. He had the authority to perform a wedding, but he had never before exercised it, and furthermore, they spoke a different language.
The elements of their tradition were the same. He asked them to join their hands in the sacred sign of pledge then he raised his own and said a short but solemn prayer. "May the Radiance bless your joining. May your loins be fruitful with children and your hearts full of love and forbearing. You will go into the world with only each other for friends and support. Never look to another to fill your loneliness, but honor the bonds you have taken this night. By Yasa Dom I make you one."
Berlanin's eyes filled with tears but she smiled with a radiance that caught the moonlight and made her face seem to gleam. "I thought you were my enemy, come to steal my heart," Garaval said as he wrung Karek's hand with thanks. "You have given me freedom and life. We will go with the tide and find our lives away from Ovishang."
With that he led Berlanin back through the raveled edges of the bathing screen and Karek heard their oars dip into the water. He walked out to the edge of the bathing pool and noticed that his loincloth had fallen into the water. Fortunately the tunic made of woven strips still hung to dry. He wrung out the loincloth and hung it next to the tunic. After glancing upward and seeing that it was a little after midnight, he set to work mending the screen.
It would not do to arouse suspicions about his role in sending the lovers on their way, but he felt content, even blessed by what he had done. This was twice he had evaded the threat of being forced to marry, but at least this time it had only been one wife, and she unwilling. A half-smile lifted his lips as he wondered what his older sisters would think of his adventures.
Karek returned to his bed and slept peacefully until aroused by Kendikar who met him with a broad smile. "I have dreamed again, Ba Tharek. Last night I had the vision that the time is drawing near. The conjunction of the priesthoods has begun."
"What did you see?" Karek asked, wondering if he had somehow defied the will of the Radiance by marrying Berlanin and Garaval to each other.
"In this generation there will be marriages that lead to the one who must come. I will live to see Yasa Dom."
The old man's face glowed radiant with joy. Karek wondered why he had received such a different impression. Why had he been convinced that it was wrong for him to marry Berlanin? He had forcibly recalled the prophecy that the incarnate would be born in obscurity.
He kept his silence and waited. At midmorning the search for Berlanin began in earnest. Her mother came weeping to find Kendikar and spilled out her fears.
She had felt the need to let her daughter rest longer than usual because she knew of her grief over losing Garaval. When she went to the sleeping room she found it empty. At first she had assumed that Berlanin was somewhere with her maid, but the maid had returned from an errand and confessed that she had not seen her young mistress since the night before.
Kendikar summoned the council and when Garaval did not appear the truth became evident. An uproar followed. When Karek asked for an explanation, Kendikar led him aside.
"For fifty generations we have guarded the priestly lineage. Each child was raised with the expectation that some day they might be required to marry their corresponding mate from the combined lineages you embody. Only when they reached the age of twenty five summers were they permitted to find a mate. Berlanin had a sister, but she has been lost and Berlanin became the designated bride of the father of the avatar. Our hopes have been shattered by her rejection of all that is sacred and proper. There is no way we can track her on the water."
Karek's mouth opened and unwilled, he spoke the words he had heard so clearly the day before, "Yasa Dom shall be born in the quiet of obscurity and none will know when he is to come."
Kendikar stared at him. "What did you say?"
"I quoted a prophecy of Irilik. Have you nothing that corresponds to it in your body of scriptures?"
At first Kendikar shook his head, then he stopped suddenly and his hand hit his chest. "Do not plan for the birth of the incarnate. Only He who will come knows the time and the place of his entrance into the mortal realm."
"It seems to me that you have been planning very carefully," Karek said.
"We only thought to keep the lineage from degrading and losing its potency," Kendikar argued. "That is why we have isolated ourselves from all of the others of Okishdu and refused all but the most minimal trade with the sons of Irilik. Tharek came among us with another of his race long ago. We said we would not permit any man entrance into Ovishang until the time had come for the conjunction."
Karek decided he must tell Kendikar the truth. "I believe I was sent for a purpose. Your visions were true, but your interpretation is flawed. I say this as one who was sent by a Seer. Berlanin and Garaval were married by the hand of authority. They have gone forth into obscurity. The will of the Radiance has been realized."
"You!" Kendikar gasped. "But how?"
"Garaval was desperate and entered my room. Who can say what he intended when he leaped on my bed with a knife in his hand? I disarmed him and sent him for Berlanin. As a prince and a priest, I married them."
Kendikar's face betrayed his emotions. Pride warred with piety and nearly won. Finally he dropped his head and bowed to Karek. "You have done the will of the Radiance. I can see now that my visions are fulfilled in what has happened."
"What will become of me and my friends?" Karek asked.
"You will be hastened on your journey," Kendikar said. "I will argue for the council to relax the rules of isolation since we no longer have a purpose to divide us from the rest of Okishdu."
"Rely on the truth you can see with your sacred understanding before you rush into anything," Karek counseled. "We might well benefit from an exchange of the things we hold precious. In the story of Neril, a saint and one of my ancestors, she speaks of riding in a boat provided by the people of the marsh when she went to Timora. Surely you can make a pilgrimage and see what Irilik and his people wrought. I know that my people would be honored to see what you have protected for so long. But do not proceed without study and prayer." He glanced upward at the plaque of the Holy Name and Kendikar nodded.
"Perhaps I will live to see you again someday, Karek ba Tharek."
Arrangements for the departure of the Mareklans proceeded quickly. Somehow Kendikar convinced the rest of the council that it was no longer politic to keep the Mareklans in Ovishang. A moderate midday meal was provided for the assembled Mareklans but there was no delay in bringing boats to the landing and setting them on their way. When they set out again Woram shared a boat with Karek.
"What went on back there? Why were you separated from the rest of us?" the trek chief asked.
"Oh, you know me," Karek answered in a jocular tone that covered the real gravity of what he had done. "They wanted me to marry one of their maidens, but I played the fool and got myself out of it once again."
Woram laughed and shared the joke with the others. "I would like to return to Ovishang someday," he mused. "They have a way with shell and reed that would find a ready market."
"Ever the merchant, " Karek teased his friend. "It is a good thing you didn't know the prize they were willing to offer for me."
Chapter 6 Orenon
A mist lay low on the marsh and the Mareklans soon lost sight of Ovishang as their boats glided over the water. Karek thought unlikely that Berlanin and Garaval would be found on such a day. He wondered which way they had gone. The Great Marsh extended over an area as wide as Zedekla and all of the borders were open. They could navigate well up river toward any of several places including his mother's home place of Rubble Ford. Woram's question ended his musings about where the lovers had fled.
"You say they wanted you to marry someone? Tell me more, Kalek Lopa-kiti. I have been on treks for twenty years, but I have never encountered so many adventures as you have managed with this one."
Karek laughed then sobered, "Now I am Lopa-kiti, but I am also Prince of Zedekla. Someday you will know I speak the truth and help me return to my city."
Woram shook his head. "I thought you had forgotten that foolishness. I will not argue with you Karek. You have become as a son to me and someday you will understand that simply being what you are is better than claiming to be prince of a great city. Now you dress as well as any prince. The tunic you wear is finer than the hunting tunic I sold to Zedekla's king."
Karek shrugged and once again made his peace with Woram's refusal to believe him. He had seen and done things that he could never have experienced if Woram had believed him that first night.
He would not trade his experiences in the forests for anything. Furthermore, he had become wealthy in his own right. None of the Mareklan merchants had received as much in gifts from the tribes as he had, but of course, a fifth of what he had earned had been added to the common gain and Teren's family would benefit from what he had left on the mat rather than claim it for himself.
He felt that he had been meant to go to Ovishang and help release Berlanin and marry her to Garaval so that their children could escape the rigid schemes of the council who had hoped to breed the avatar against the warning and promise of prophecy.
At dusk the Lamathan boatmen put the Mareklans ashore on the northern side of the marsh. They could see a line of cliffs rising along the northern horizon. Woram gathered the other Mareklans, most of whom had acquired new hats and samples of Lamathan shell work. "We will camp here tonight. "Orenon should be two days' march from here if we follow the line of the cliffs."
Tulin netted some fish and Tamon speared a large bird that ventured near. The roots of some of the reeds were delicious when toasted over the coals of the roasting fires and they had learned to gather the seeds of some of the marsh grasses by watching the Lamathans. The supper that Odam prepared was ample and well received.
"I hope Ovishang will receive our trading caravans in the future," Odam said. "They have much to offer, and we can provide them with metals that they seem to lack. I am surprised that they are unknown to the people of Orenon."
"The Orenese know that there are people living in the marsh," Tamon assured the others. "They have tried time and again to settle a community in this area, but they were discouraged by a campaign of destruction that came in the night. To this day they believe that the marsh is inhabited by wild men who show no reverence for the property of others. I believe they have tried to gather slaves, but that was a disaster. On the few occasions that they were successful in taking captives and returned with them to Orenon, their pens were burned and the slaves released."
"Slavery is illegal in Okishdu!" Karek protested. "It is against the laws and the compacts to use other people as property."
"You cannot be so naive that you have never heard of the servant sellers of Orenon," Tulin said.
"An adult may sell his services for a period of not more than seven years to settle his debts," Karek allowed.
"The servant sellers buy children just past the age of consent in return for a fee to their parents or guardians. Who is to say if a person sold their services if you cannot understand what they say?" Tulin said. "The enmity between the people of the marsh and the Orenese is ancient and embittered."
Woram nodded. "I have always wondered why the servant sellers did not sail to the south and take captives from among the marsh people. Now that we have seen that Lamatha is a civilized land with the organization needed to raise an army, I can only say they have shown great forbearance in tolerating the continuation of Orenon. "
Woram's casual attitude toward slavery dismayed Karek "I'm surprised that you trade with Orenon!"
"Calm down Karek. I do not trade in illegal goods, nor do I have any sympathy for servant sellers, but even the laws of Orenon forbid most of the practices of the worst of the servant sellers. They succeed because there are many in the other lands of Okishdu who would rather buy a slave than hire a servant. Worst of all are the brothel keepers of Jama, yet I know of Zedeklans who purchase young men and women who protest they were taken illegally. If you were truly a prince of Zedekla, I would advise you to look to your own land to end the abuses."
Karek could make no rebuttal. The servant sellers were devious and they sometimes seemed ubiquitous even though in the city of Zedekla itself, their activities were illegal. It was a more difficult question to deal with those who came to the city with servants they had acquired elsewhere. He determined to address the problem as soon as he returned to his home.
The conversation passed on to other subjects and Woram mentioned Karek's lack of a hat. "He was too busy conferring with Kendikar to do any trading," the trek chief revealed.
"If it were not for their interest in him, I doubt any of us would have been welcome in Ovishang," Odam said. "I will give him my new hat, my old one is still good enough for a year or so yet to come."
"I would prefer to wear your old hat," Karek replied with a wry smile. "Perhaps I will not be so bedeviled with girls who want to marry me if I hide my handsome face under its decrepit rim."
His comment was greeted with laughter and the Mareklans drifted off to gather the reeds they would pile for their bedding. When he found himself alone in a covert of shoulder high reeds, Karek knelt and raised his hands in a prayer of thanksgiving. "Let the Radiance keep those I love in his keeping and bless these good men who have aided and befriended me," he pleaded. When he lowered his hands he felt peace and he sensed that his path was approved.
The following day the Mareklans scaled the low cliffs that bordered the marsh in the north. For two days they followed the edge of the cliffs that tended to the northeast along the edge of the sea. At midday on their third day of travel they came in sight of Orenon. The city spread along the base of the cliffs huddled back from the shoreline except for spindly towers that lined the beach. Many of the towers seemed decrepit and abandoned, but on the top of the taller, newer towers Karek could see the solitary figures of men looking out to the sea.
"Those are the Watchers," Woram explained when he noticed how Karek stared. "For a thousand years they have watched for Algunagada to come and return them back to Kishdu."
"Only men can belong to the cult of the Watchers," Odam added. "Look on the cliff to the north and you will see the Shrine of the Radiance. It has a low tower by requirement of the Watchers, but many of the citizens of Orenon are devout and make regular pilgrimages to Timora. Karek nodded. He had seen Orenese Watchers with their harems visiting the holy Vale of Timora and seeking Renewal Washing for their children at the pavilions along the lake.
"We seldom come to Orenon," Woram said. "Orenese are different from all the people of Okisdu. Even though they make pilgrimage to Timora. They have not signed the accords of Alliance that bind the other lands in a covenant of peace."
"How do they live in this wasteland?" Karek wondered aloud.
"The land is sere, but the sea is rich," Woram explained. "Just as the Lamathans have learned to live well in the marsh, the Orenese provide most of their needs from the sea. We will trade for pearls and carved coral and products made from seaweed that bring a good price in the west. The poison the forest people use on the darts of their blowpipes is useful to Orenese fisherman. We are the only ones who provide it and it makes a valuable trade item."
Karek did not often dwell on the fact that one of his ancestors had been Orenese, but Challan was as much his ancestor as her husband, King Eliat of Saadena. She had been a terrible woman and responsible for great suffering among her people. How had her soul grown so crooked? Was there some clue here in this strange city by the sea?
The women they passed all wore veils, but some of the veils were mere fragments of nearly translucent zylka cloth and lace. One of the women who made no real attempt to conceal her face surveyed the merchants with bold eyes. She caught Karek by the arm as he passed at the rear of the caravan and tried to detain him. "What can I give for your trinkets young prince?" she lisped in a husky voice.
Karek was so surprised by her mode of address that he stopped and stared at her to see if somehow he had met her before. Odam stepped back and detached the woman's hand from Karek's arm. "He is not for such as you."
"He is old enough to choose the trades he is willing to make," she taunted the older man. "From the look of his tunic, he is not truly Mareklan. It seems you have been engaging in a little deception yourself. Where did you find him? Are you willing to sell?"
Karek was embarrassed by the direction of her words and he hurried to catch up with the rest of the caravan. Odam soon joined him. "I know the woman. Her name is Lilan. She lures young men into ruinous games and then sells their debt to her master, Ogmar. The servant sellers make use of many ruses. Lilan is just one of Ogmar's shills. Be wary of any man or woman in Orenon who seems too eager to befriend you or offers a bargain you can't refuse."
"I might almost think we were in Jama from the warnings you are giving me," Karek said.
"Many Jaman families first came from Orenon," Odam replied. "It is just as well that they are separated by half of Okishdu or there might be reason to fear their natural alliance. Ironically they diverge in terms of their beliefs. The Jamans seem obsessed with luck and everyone puts their trust in different totems and signs. The Orenese have their cult of Algunagada and the Watchers who study the sea for a sign of his coming."
"But both cities give honor to the Radiance as well," Karek reminded his friend.
"Yes, there are true servants of the Radiance in both cities, and even the Watchers seek the blessings of Timora for their children."
"I wonder what would happen if they ever saw a ship come from the east with the offer of rescue and return to Kishdu?"
Odam chuckled at the prospect. "There are several different sects among the Watchers. I suspect they would fight each other over the honor of housing the guest, perhaps to the utter destruction of all of them."
While they spoke they had entered the center of the town and Karek marveled at the buildings that surrounded them. Many of the smaller buildings were built of piled stones but some were made like domes with the ribs and jaws from great whales, covered with a skin of matted material that was unlike anything he had ever seen. There was a strong smell of the sea and fish.
"Will we find an inn tonight, or will we set up our camp on the beach?" Karek asked Odam.
"We will be guests of the Shrine keeper tonight, but now we will set up our stands in the market place and see what trades we can make," Odam replied. "If you are hungry, there are plenty of food merchants around the market square."
As soon as the merchants set up their stands they were surrounded by eager customers. Karek made no trades at first. He was familiar with the exchange of 'gifts' that had taken place in the forest villages, but he was the son of a woman who had made a success as a merchant in her own right and he had a far closer acquaintance than most Zedeklans with the way bargaining was conducted. The iridescent shells of jungle insects were equally traded for pearls and coral, but zylka cloth was not a commodity the merchants seemed interested in purchasing. "Too bulky for the price and the Orenese trade it themselves," Tulin informed him.
When a period of quiet observation had given Karek a good idea of the worth of his trade goods, he opened the folding stand that was not much wider than the width of his two palms placed side by side and displayed a selection of items. He had a number of glistening beetle shells in colors that shimmered from blue to gold, but he held back the finest as gifts for his mother and sisters when he finally returned to Zedekla. He soon found himself engaged in a rapid series of trades.
Several times he was forced to turn away corals and pearls that were flawed, but one pearl caught his eye. It was half as long as his thumb and naturally grown in a blade-like form. It had a greenish cast to its iridescence. Although the contours were rounded, it reminded Karek of the blade his mother had given him, the blade she believed had been owned by Neril.
The woman who offered it was dressed in the strictest form of Orenese veiling with nothing but slits for her eyes. The mantle that covered her hair was embroidered with a pattern of waves and fish in green and blue.
He remembered his mother's stories of her youth in Rubble Ford and he wondered if the face beneath the veil was young or old. The hand that held the pearl was slim and smooth and Karek offered one of the finest beetle shells he had along with a packet of arrow poison.
The woman shook her head at the generous trade, giving Karek more than he asked by adding an exquisitely carved disk of coral to the blade shaped pearl she gave him before slipping the packet of arrow poison and insect shell he had offered into her long pouched sleeve. It surprised Karek that she had reduced her margin of profit and he wondered why she had done such a thing.
Most of his customers were quite avaricious and time and again he became engaged in arguments over the value of the various items he offered in trade. It was an acrimonious and unpleasant experience and his opposite experience with the veiled woman continued to puzzle him.
He had gained some few coins in the process of trading and it was well into mid afternoon when he finally folded his stand and wandered away from the other Mareklans to find something to eat. It seemed that virtually everything offered had once had its life in the sea, but there was nevertheless an amazing variety of sweet and spicy items for sale.
He looked to find either water or nuka juice, but at last he settled for a type of cala that was nothing like anything he had tasted before. He could discern the ubiquitous taste of the sea in everything he ate and drank and he found himself feeling less hungry without eating very much. He wondered how long they would continue in Orenon.
Even the lamps that were lit as the sun began to set were filled with fish oil. Woram sounded the signal to end trading for the day and Karek eagerly joined the other Mareklans as they climbed the face of the cliff behind the city and walked toward the low profile of the Shrine.
A steady stream of worshipers came up the path alongside of them and another stream made their way back to the city. Apparently the hours around sunset were favored for prayer and devotions. As they approached the Shrine he heard someone speaking and hastened his step to hear more.
"When the sea storms rage and the winds break down your shelters, call on the Radiance who brings you safety for your souls. He will give you strength to rebuild again. As beloved Falga taught: Even in this wilderness we have been given rest and food. The sea yields up her treasures for our fine raiment and the jewels of the sea are ornaments for kings. Give thanks and find your joy in little things."
The man speaking had a voice fit for his calling, resonant enough to color his words with beauty and reaching the last rows of listeners without undue volume. He ended his sermon before his listeners tired. A period for personal prayers followed, then the congregation left the Shrine and their places were taken by others who had waited their turn.
"The Watchers only permit one Shrine, but the building will not hold all who want to worship," Woram murmured to Karek.
The Mareklans skirted the prayer hall and entered the living quarters of the shrine servant where they found a woman preparing an ample meal. She was a lovely young matron with pale skin and glowing, golden eyes. The mantle she wore had a border of waves and fishes in blue and green.
"Welcome brothers, Pandalk will be finished soon and he asked me to come ahead and prepare a meal while he taught the final lesson. It has been more than a year since we last saw Mareklans in Orenon. "
"Good fishing Canian," Woram said in a traditional Orenese greeting. "We only come when we have a supply of dart poison and other such things from the forest and it has been more than a year since any Mareklan ventured on the forest trail."
"You came from a different direction this time. Usually you stop here with us before going down into Orenon, but this time you came from the south."
It was a simple statement, not a question, but for some reason, Karek felt she should know of their encounter with the people of the marshes. "We came through Lamatha."
"Did you visit in Ovishang while you were there?" she asked.
"How do you know of Ovishang when we only learned of it lately?" Woram asked.
"Has Pandalk never told you my history?" she asked.
"He said he rescued you from a servant seller bound for Jama," Woram said.
"He rescued my brothers as well. We had taken a boat out to gather fish and a storm carried us north. The boat was destroyed and we swam for the shore, but we had come too close to Orenon and we were seen by a Watcher and captured. Pandalk purchased our freedom at a great cost when he learned of our plight."
"What became of your brothers?" Karek asked.
"They returned to the marsh, but I stayed to marry Pandalk," Canian said.
"If you are Lamathan, why do you wear such a heavy veil?" Karek asked, revealing that he had recognized her.
"It is because I am Lamathan that I go veiled whenever I leave my own hearth. We were questioned at length by the Watchers about where we had come from, but one of the servant sellers assumed we were Saadenans and that story served. However, you must recognize that I do not speak with the accent of Saadena. Sooner or later those who want to find slaves would guess that I came from the marshes."
"We have seen the might of your people," Odam said. "You could easily withstand the Orenese."
"We would engage in a needless war," Canian said. "Far better if they remain ignorant of the existence of our people. Eventually, if we were known to some of the Watchers, they would pursue such a policy of invasion that we would have no choice but to erase their city. We could do it, but at what price?"
A few minutes later Pandalk entered the room and Karek felt that he had met him somewhere before. There was a blaze of white hair at the edge of his brow-line and a short purple scar extending a fingerbreadth toward his right eyebrow. It was a distinctive mark, but it did not disfigure the young priest.
It was the scar that gave Karek the clue. Pandalk was a cousin, the youngest son of his father's aunt Malisa. He was enough older than Karek, that it was unlikely he would recognize him without being prompted.
"I enjoyed what I heard of your sermon," Odam said and the other men nodded. "Who is this Falga you quoted?"
"He was the brother of Tagnet who founded Orenon," Pandalk said. "He was called by Irilik to keep the people in remembrance of the Radiance and Tagnet tolerated him because he was the only descendant of Virda and Algun who consented to come to the coast with him."
"Why have we never heard of him?" Odam wondered aloud.
"His story is part of the Scroll of Irilik that Mareklans renounce," Karek answered, earning a interested glance from Pandalk.
"Come, the spear leaf is waiting," Canian called. "We will discuss more pleasant subjects than our differences in doctrine. In general Mareklans hold with the truth, and here in Orenon, everyone who worships the Radiance is a lamp against the darkness."
The long narrow strips of succulent spear leaf cores were piled on a plate in the center of the table. The accompanying dishes were meat and meal of the type that grew in the marsh. Canian had known what they would crave after a day spent in Orenon's market place where the smell of fish prevailed.
The table conversation turned to Ovishang and the observations the Mareklans had made during their brief, productive visit. Karek could hardly tell the general company of his role in marrying Garaval and Berlanin to each other and how they had escaped with his deliberate aid.
"Did any of you meet Kendikar?" Canian asked wistfully.
"He came to bring us to Ovishang, but only one of us truly made his acquaintance," Woram revealed with a nod toward Karek.
"Kendikar came to greet you?" she asked with a bemused look at her husband.
"We were told by Sergon to follow the river to the marshes and give a signal with smoke," Odam said. "The next morning we found boats with rowers and it was Kendikar who invited us to visit Ovishang."
"Did you meet my sister Berlanin?" Canian asked.
Karek nodded and said nothing more. Canian respected his silence. When the meal ended and the other men gathered to talk about the events of the day, Karek volunteered to clear away the serving plates and help Canian clean up the kitchen.
As soon as they were alone she turned to him. "Tell me of Berlanin. Has she married Garaval or are they still waiting for a man of the proper lineage to appear and complete the prophecy of the coming of the Avatar of Yasa Dom?"
"Berlanin and Garaval are married, but they fled Ovishang. I was the designated groom for your sister, but neither of us was willing to enter a marriage covenant where there was no love."
"How were they married if you were being prepared as the groom?" Canian asked.
"I have only recently been given the right to exercise the powers of priesthood, but what I have was sufficient to the task. They were married and fled, all in the midnight hours three days ago."
"You are not a Mareklan, but you are a son of Irilik, and you cannot have been a candidate to marry Berlanin were you not also a son of Elianin. May I ask who and what you are?"
"I am your husband's second-cousin. I doubt he recognized me. I was a child when he devoted himself to the Radiance and accepted this calling. But my lineage is not so important as that which will combine in your child. You and Pandalk might well be the parents of Yasa Dom when he comes. With your marriage, you combined the lineages that the prophets have prescribed."
Canian smiled wistfully and patted her flat waistline. "I wish that I could be mother to any child, let alone the holy incarnation of the Radiance. I fear that I must satisfy my wish to be a mother by offering my aid as a midwife to other women. Perhaps someday my prayers will be answered and my womb will be quickened."
"I told Kendikar that it was unwise to try to plan for the appearance of the Avatar of the Radiance," Karek said. "Yet he claims to have seen the signs that indicate the time is at hand. We know of other prophecies that have yet to be fulfilled. The sons of Irilik must find a home, and the river must return. Both references seem somewhat obscure, but I feel certain that it is not yet time."
Canian nodded. "The scriptures are clear on one thing at least. He must be born in obscurity. For many years the priests of my people tried to isolate the lineage, yet a storm and the generosity of a young priest who gave all he had to purchase the freedom of three strangers brought about the conjunction that all the Lamathans could not conspire to achieve. I have been barren since our marriage. I doubt that I will be mother of the Incarnate God, but I would be satisfied with just one ordinary child."
Karek liked her humility. "Certainly it would be irony of the first order for Him to be born in Orenon, but with the Radiance designing what will be, it certainly could happen. I have seen many things in these past few months that I never thought I would see. I thought I was a rather bright child and full of knowledge, but now I am becoming a man and I recognize my ignorance. I certainly do not know the time or the place of Yasa Dom's birth, but from what I have seen, he could hardly ask for a better father and mother."
Canian pursed her lips and looked at Karek. "If you are Pandalk's cousin, then it is not surprising that Kendikar thought you a fit mate for my sister. I knew that you were different from the other Mareklans or I would never have offered you the blade shaped pearl. Only you would honor and recognize its significance."
Pandalk stuck his head through the doorway. "Come you two, stop dallying or I will be jealous."
"Do you recognize me, Pandalk?" Karek asked.
His cousin squinted and shook his head. "Have you passed this way before?"
Karek could hardly blame him. It had been at least five years since they had last seen one another. At the time Karek had been a young boy and his hair was rather like a great wooly mop. Two years ago he had finally learned the trick of subduing it into waves. Pandalk would not make an adequate witness to convince the Mareklans that he was really a prince of Zedekla. Perhaps it was just as well. What harm would it do for him to go along with them until he had seen the hidden vale of Marekla.
The quarters in the Shrine were simple and efficient for handling those in need of shelter. Racks of bunks lined the walls of a long narrow room. In the moments before he slept, Karek heard the sound of hoes and thought of something he wanted to do. He rose from his bed and slipped out to the garden at the rear of the Shrine where Pandalk and his wife were bent over the thriving patch of spear leaf that provided the needs of their guests and themselves.
He removed the blade of obsidian that his mother had found in the waters of the Opeta River from the neck pouch where he kept it. "Pandalk, Canian," he called in a low voice. The two people turned and looked at him. He didn't venture into their plantation but waited until they came to him, knowing that spear leaf was as dangerous as it was delicious if any of the barbs touched his bared legs beneath his tunic.
"This is a blade that my mother found near Rubble Ford. She believes that it was dropped by Neril who passed there many years before. I want you to have it as a gift. I will give her the pearl blade in return."
"Who are you?" Pandalk asked, staring at him with a glimmer of recognition.
"Someday Canian will tell you," Karek said.
Chapter 7 Invasion
One of the risks of trading in Orenon was the presence of Orquians. It was here that Dashkar had strengthened the cult in the years that followed Marnat's mad grasp for ultimate power over Okishdu. Ironically, the cult had very little power in a city dominated by the Council of Watchers. The Watchers themselves were either wholly devoted to their own cult of Algunagada, or they treated the rites and ceremonies as a political necessity but they attended the Shrine in disguise and took pilgrimages to Timora with their families.
The temple of Orqu in Orenon was a cave driven into the cliffs south of the city. None but the leaders of the temple knew how deep and extensive the chambers of the cult had been dug, but one of the entrances led out onto the plateau above the city. It was small and surrounded by scrub that hid Orquians who wanted to leave Orenon without being noticed by others.
It also gave a view of the Shrine that lay across a depression to the north. On the morning when Woram led his troop of merchants away from the Shrine and down into the city for their last few hours of trading, there were thirteen men huddled to watch them. It was the dream of Orquians to find the vale of Marekla. For hundreds of years they had failed but they never stopped trying.
Karek was rear scout as the Mareklan merchants climbed the steep trail that led up the cliffs behind Orenon after they had finished trading at midday. He noticed movement among the scrub and rocks at the edge of the cliffs and sent word up to Woram that they were being pursued.
Woram nodded at the message and continued without pausing. He had expected the Orquians to trail the caravan. It was better to detect them early. As long as daylight held he would keep his caravan to the well worn track. They would camp when the day ended and at nightfall they would use the cover of darkness to slip away by an alternate trail. It was unlikely that the Orquians would challenge them. Mareklans were known as superlative fighters. Although from the days of Marek, they had forsworn the use of bladed weapons, their staffs were serious threats to any who tried to waylay them.
Todok stared at the last man among the Mareklans and he swore a dreadful oath that brought the high priest's fisted hand down on his shoulder in a blow that felled him. "What do you mean by invoking the Demon in the daylight!" Raderen hissed.
"That man at the rear of the column, I would swear he is Karek, the prince," Todok stammered as he staggered to his feet.
"You swore to me that Karek died and that all is in order for Canik to be named Nerik's heir," Raderen hissed.
"I thought he had died!" Todok protested. "We saw the place where he plunged into the river. No man could have survived the great torrent. We searched up and down both banks until we reached the cascade and there was no sign of him."
"Then you lied when you said you had seen his body," Raderen's face was red and his eyes seemed to bulge from his head in his fury. "I paid your price and gave you command of a section. Now you show me that you are forsworn. How should I punish you Todok?"
"Punish me how you will, but now we must make sure of Karek's death," Todok argued.
"You must be mad, we cannot challenge a caravan of Mareklans," Farsal, Raderen's second said. "We will follow and observe, as we always have since the debacle in Timora when our brothers tried a direct assault."
"They will camp tonight and then we will make our move. I have no more desire than you to meet them in combat, but when it is dark we can steal into the camp and make certain this time that Karek is dead," Todok said. "Otherwise you will have to hasten the death of Nerik and Jarila and try to pass Zanuk as the king."
"Zanuk has a remarkable resemblance to his cousin, but he is a fool and I would like to avoid working with him," Raderen said. "We are risking a great deal to pursue this course. Are you certain the young man with the merchants is Karek?"
"He is wearing the same hunting tunic he wore when I set the ambush for him. I doubt there are many who would look so much like the prince who could also afford such a tunic."
Farsal looked back toward Orenon. "I will go for reinforcements. There are too few of us to attack their camp."
"I didn't plan to attack their camp, only kill the prince which any one of us should be able to do if a diversion is created." Todok turned to Farsal. "If we wait for more men to join us, the Mareklans could easily disappear on one of their hidden trails. They already have a substantial lead on us and it is growing as we quibble."
"I will let you live if you can kill Karek," Raderen said. "Otherwise, you will die before we go on to Zedekla and put our plan into effect."
"And what of tracking the Mareklans?" Farsal asked.
"We will have the royal princesses for the ritual sacrifice," Raderen reminded him. "We have no immediate need to discover the Mareklan city."
They followed the Mareklans, never quite making up for the loss of advantage while they had argued. Night fell and they cautiously made their way forward, expecting at any time to see the campfires of the Mareklans. A gleam came in the darkness and for a while silhouettes moved around it. The Orquians had their target and they waited until activity in the Mareklan camp seemed to quiet.
"How long must we wait?" Raderen demanded.
"We would be fools to enter the camp before it is late enough that even those on watch will be sleepy," Todok said. There are a few high clouds that seem to be blowing toward the moon. It would be best to wait until they have dimmed its face before I try to kill Karek."
"I will go with you this time to make certain the task is complete."
"Why not bring along a herd of dalas and a few drummers with a zole horn for music?" Todok jeered. "I will go and do the deed and return with a token to convince you. What do you want me to bring as proof?"
Raderen thought of the missing toe he had been required to give as a proof of his fealty to Bildug. "Bring me his toe and his tunic."
The wisp of cloud finally covered the moon, dimming the light that gleamed over the desert landscape. Todok scurried forward, his belly hitting the ground when he was still several man-lengths from the camp. There was something strange about the figures strung around the guttering flames of the campfire. At this range he should have been able to see more detail, even with the faint light from the fire. He inched closer, moving like a lizard, pulling himself along the ground. He saw that the first dark shape that lay nearest the fire was not a man at all but a heap of oil brush.
It seemed strange to him, but it might be intended to serve a fuel for a signal fire if such was needed. He looked toward the slumped figure he had taken to be a sleeping watchman and discovered that it was yet another construction of weeds. It had an old reed hat canted over the top of it, making it a convincing silhouette from a distance.
Todok realized that he and the other Orquians had been duped. He could go back to Raderen and tell him about the deception, but he was certain that the high priest would follow through with his threat. Better if he used the advantage of the time he had to make his own escape.
"Something's moving in the camp," Farsal said. "Todok should be returning before very long. What if they wake and discover him before he can make his escape?"
"We would be well rid of him," Raderen answered. "I know his kind. He is plotting to overthrow my authority."
Farsal made no answer to the accusation. It was patently true of every aspiring Orquian. For himself, he would be loyal to Raderen as long as it suited his purpose. Even now he was studied the man for weaknesses, and there were many. It offended his sense of propriety that Raderen had never cut off one of his fingers in imitation of the great Bildug. A toe might be painful to lose, but it was easily hidden inside a boot or a shoe. Because Raderen had never suffered the mutilation of his hands, he could go in disguise and not be remarked. It was probably the key to his success in rising so high in the cult.
Someone shuffled and another man groaned from sitting in one place so long. This was a poor selection of men, mostly fools who dreamed of wealth without effort and ease without cost. They had no real devotion to the demon. Farsal dreamed of the days in the past when the army of Jagga had been made up of Orquians. Those were terrible men, full of blood-lust and cunning. How he longed to have been companion of such a company.
"Why is he taking so long?" Raderen growled, disturbing Farsal's illusions of ancient glory.
"I will go and see what has happened," Farsal volunteered.
He crept forward, fear growing in him with each step. What if Todok had been taken and killed and the men in the camp were all waiting for another to take in their trap. He slowed his pace to a near crawl, staring ahead at the dim light of the campfire and making it even more difficult to see anything. The moon began to glow brighter as the clouds covering its face blew away. Farsal was close enough now to see the truth. The forms he had taken for sleeping men, the slumping watchman, were all made of heaps of dark weeds.
He saw no sign of Todok. He stood and screamed and waved his hands to bring his confederates closer.
Raderen's first reaction to Farsal's display was fear. He cringed lower to the ground and signaled his men to do likewise. Finally one of them spoke his thoughts.
"I think Farsal wants us to come closer. If he were in danger, we would see someone attacking him, but he's still on his feet and making a lot of noise."
Raderen cautiously started forward, not quite willing to dismiss the possibility of an ambush. The pale light of dawn revealed the truth. There were no Mareklans in the camp. It had all been a ruse to deceive the Orquians. Not only that, but Todok had fled, depriving Raderen of someone to punish.
When he caught up to Farsal he ordered him to search for tracks. "It might be too late to follow the Mareklans, but I will have Todok and he will pay for deceiving me!"
None of the men with him were noted as trackers. They shuffled here and there, peering at the ground in the dim light of the twilight before the sun rose, destroying any track that might have shown them where Todok had left the area.
Raderen raged, but there was nothing he could do. His men were tired from their hours of pursuing the Mareklans and they refused to move from the camp. The control of such outlaws as were willing to join the cult was an uneasy thing. Servant selling and theft were two of their main sources of income and there had been some who had argued that they should attack the Mareklans instead of tracking them. Clearly they did not believe the stories of Mareklan invincibility and trusted their knives against the Mareklan staffs, but Raderen knew how deadly a well wielded staff could be.
Those who had argued for a direct conflict with the Mareklans were grumbling and sullen. Raderen knew he must offer them some sop or he would soon have a full scale rebellion against his authority. "There is a small village where there are maidens of Mareklan descent for the taking if you are bold enough for the venture," he offered. "We can hold a sacrifice and restore our power with the Demon, but none knows where it is but me."
"If you know of such a prize, why have you kept it secret from the cult?" Farsal challenged the leader.
"I did not keep it secret from the cult," Raderen claimed. "The few true Mareklan maidens that Bildug used for his power came from me. It is not as easy as you seem to suppose to work such a source successfully, but now I am fugitive from the village and the only way we can work an abduction is through stealth."
"Perhaps it would be better to proceed to Zedekla and contact our confederates in the palace," Farsal said.
"We need the power that blood will give us," Raderen countered.
Farsal made no reply. Looking around he saw that the other men were avid for a sacrifice. They were convinced that with the shedding of innocent blood they would become endowed with power from the demon.
"The journey to the village I speak of will take four days, but the journey to Zedekla will take seven," Raderen said. "We need power from the ritual as soon as possible in order to have strength to carry out our plans. Orquians from all the divisions in Okishdu will be meeting in Zedekla at the turning of the year. We are the chosen ones to lead them. We must have strength or others will take the lead."
Farsal did not remind Raderen that Todok would doubtless head for Zedekla and do what he could to discredit and undermine the high priest. Since Bildug had been executed in Zedekla, there had been a lack of firm leadership among the devotees of Orqu. The opportunity to overthrow the current ruling family might well be fumbled if the feud between Todok and Raderen continued.
Todok was learned and ambitious, but Raderen knew how to please his men. This expedition would provide an increase of devotion among those too headstrong to serve without question. If Farsal were the leader he would have used fear as a goad, but Raderen had built a solid following among the rogues who were better than the truly devoted when it came to fighting.
The way to Raderen's village was full of peril and some of the men began to grumble when one of them slipped and broke a leg and had to be left behind. "We cannot be burdened with those who are crippled or weak," Raderen reminded them. "If you desire to serve Orqu and receive his gifts of power, you must be willing to abandon the weak and crippled for the good of the cult."
It was late in the morning of their fourth day on the trail from Orenon when Raderen led them to a outcropping of rock that would give them a view of the village of Rubble Ford. Most of the men were concealed by the rock, but Raderen crawled forward to survey the ford.
He gave a smothered exclamation of anguish. Farsal crawled forward to see what troubled him. "What is it?"
"This is not what I expected. There was once a ford that we could have crossed in the cover of night. Now someone has built a gated bridge with a watchtower to guard it."
"Perhaps I could go ahead and seek shelter for the night in the village. When it is dark, I will steal out and open the gate that will let you and the others enter."
Raderen nodded. "I approve of your plan. Meanwhile I will scout for suitable maidens from this vantage point."
"Wouldn't any maiden do for our purposes?" Farsal asked.
"We have come too far to settle for less than a prize approved by the Demon," Raderen rebuked him. "You know of the ancient thirst of Orqu for the blood of those who defied him."
Farsal returned to the other men and told them there would be a few hours to wait. "You could go into the mountains and hunt for game for a while," he suggested. It was better to keep them active lest their boredom cause them to rebel.
He returned to Raderen who studied the village with a grim face. "Where are the veiled ones?" he muttered. "They must be hiding."
"What do you mean 'veiled ones'," Farsal asked.
"The women who are worthy of sacrifice are made to wear veils."
"There is one woman down there in a veil, she looks rather old from her posture," Farsal said.
"I would guess it is Senna, she is so old she would wither rather than burn if we took her for sacrifice. I need a young woman, one not yet married. When you go into the village you must search for veiled women that are not aged."
"How do you expect me to tell how old they are if they wear a veil?" Farsal asked.
"Look at their hands. Have you never noticed that whatever a woman does to hide her age, her hands betray the truth. Young women have smooth hands without spots and tendons showing. Their hands may be rough from hard work, but they are plump with youth."
"I wish I had known such a thing before I invested in Chanla. She was old enough to be my mother, but her face was so smooth she deceived me." Farsal growled.
Raderen tittered. "Chanla has hands like a hawk."
"If I were in charge of the cult, she would be a sacrifice!" Farsal muttered.
"We would gain more power from a dala,' Raderen reminded him. "Orqu gains no pleasure from the sacrifice of those who already serve him. Chanla pays dues to the demon. Several time she has found victims for us among the youth taken by servant sellers."
"I should go down to the bridge now and seek a way into the village," Farsal said. "I will look for a veiled woman with smooth plump hands."
"Put on a clean tunic before you enter the village," Raderen warned. "Hide your hand, there is no need to warn them that we are near. It is unfortunate you did not follow my example and give a toe instead of a finger to the demon."
"We would be stronger in the cult if we still wore tattoos on our necks as they did in the days of Jagga!" Farsal muttered.
"Only the soldiers wore such tattoos," Raderen said. "I'd advise you to learn more about the history of the cult before you criticize me. There is always a need for stealth and secrecy. I swear that when we are the power in Zedekla, I will wear a tattoo on my forehead and challenge the world!"
Farsal had no answer for Raderen's boast. He scurried back to the rough camp in a covert near the base of the outcrop and took off his robes. There was a tunic in one of the other men's packs that was a little less filthy than what he usually wore. He pulled it over his head and belted it. He combed at his ragged hair with his fingers and started toward the bridge.
The timbers of the bridge gate were sharpened on their upper edges and the entire structure had been built with an eye to easy defense. Farsal peered into the river that ran below and saw that there was no way to cross the river other than using the bridge. The supports of the bridge had been laid on great stones that projected up from the river. At one time they must have provided a ford, but now the only ones left in place were those which supported the bridge.
The watchman on the bridge leaned out from his tower and surveyed Farsal. It was extraordinary to see a lone man on the track, but then, it was unusual to see anyone come to Rubble Ford. "What toll do you offer?" the watchman called down.
"I am a poor man in need of rest for the night," Farsal yelled.
Farsal saw that while the gate was swung open three men came toward him over the bridge. He did not know of the ancient practice of sending the chief and his closest councilors across the ford to take toll or extend welcome. The first thing he thought was that the entire troop of Orquians had been seen earlier that day. Afraid of being detained and questioned, he turned and ran.
His flight surprised Doteren, the chief of the village. It also aroused his suspicions. "Set three men to keep watch on the bridge and warn all in the village to be wary," he ordered. "Have you seen anything that aroused your suspicions?" he asked the watchman.
"I'm afraid I was not being as watchful as I should be," the watchman said. "It has been months since anyone wanted to cross the river."
"We must discuss this situation in council," Doteren said. "A man without a pack or companions is enough to arouse our suspicions, but one who runs when he sees armed men is a reason for active concern. We will send scouts out in the morning and see if there is any reason for extra caution."
Doteren made sure the gate on the bridge was secure and he relieved the watch with someone more reliable before returning to the other side of the river and sounding the signal for council. At one time the council had met in an old hall and only men were allowed in the meeting, but since the day years ago when Drumon, the old chief, had been forced to give up his position, a new council hall had been built. The skin of the great snake killed by Neril and her companions had been hung at the front of the hall, but now its true story was told. Old chief Theodorn had been relegated to a lesser position than honored ancestral hero now that the male cult had died away.
When the council assembled, Doteren explained the problem they faced. "A lone man came to the bridge this afternoon. He had no pack and no companions. We went to welcome him and find out why he had come, but when the gate opened and he saw us and fled."
Senna stood and Doteren acknowledged her. She was bent and so old that there was no one who could remember when she had been young. It took her a while to gather her thoughts, but when she finally spoke, she summed up the situation. "No stranger could come to this remote place without some guide. Raderen served the cult of Orqu. He is one of the few who might have betrayed our location. If it is Raderen, then he has come with a pack of dogs of the demon."
Doteren nodded. "We must decide if it would be better to hunt them or to stay on this side of the river and defend the village. We have no way of knowing how many there might be, but it is unlikely that they could overcome our defenses if we keep all our able men at the critical points of the village."
He took a vote of the council and their unanimous approval showed that they had decided that it would be foolish to risk a hunt when they had no way of knowing what might come against them. The river was impassable for many leagues on either side of the bridge, but there were several paths that led from the ford and they had no way of knowing where intruders would hide.
While the people of Rubble Ford were arming themselves and guarding every portal to their secluded settlement, Farsal tried to explain why he had panicked. "You should have told me that any stranger would bring out the guards. I had no way of knowing that they wouldn't toss me in a cell and keep me for questioning."
"Now it will be impossible to find a way into Rubble Ford," Raderen grimaced. He was tempted to make an example of Farsal, but with Todok gone, he was afraid that the other men might turn on him when they returned from their hunt for game. They were louts who had joined the cult for gain alone. In his boyhood he had stumbled across an old cache abandoned by Mareklans but it was possible that they had used it more recently. If there was anything to be found, he might hold their anger at bay long enough to lead them back to Zedekla.
"Come with me Farsal, and speak not a word of what I show you." The two men climbed to a ledge. A wide stone leaned against the back of the cliff above the ledge but when Raderen pushed on the mass he easily moved it a few inches. It was made of a sponge like stone that was light enough for the two men to lift aside.
Beyond the rock was a narrow cave and as soon as they removed the stone, they could see that there was something stored inside. Raderen would have flung himself to the ground in a prostration of thanks to the demon, but there was so little space on the ledge that it was impossible to do so. He satisfied his urge to worship Orqu by muttering a vow to dedicate the prize to the use of the cult.
There was not as much gold as he had hoped, but there were some fine blades of widowsmith bronze and a number of packets of assorted herbs from the jungle. They were marked, but he was unfamiliar with their use. He was certain that Todok would know what they were and Raderen resolved to make peace with the knave as soon as he reached Zedekla. This prize should go a long way to insure his continued leadership of the cult while they gained control of the palace and began at last to rule the city. The dark pyramid would once again serve the uses of Orqu's devotees as it had in ages past.
Chapter 8 The Promise
While the Orquians were looting the cache, Woram led the Mareklans north by paths marked with signs so subtle that only those with knowledge of the ancient traditions of the merchants would notice. Karek mentioned nothing of his own knowledge. His mother and father had passed on their own understanding of Mareklan practices. He knew that his grandmother and grandfather had found the way to the very gate of the city of Marekla but had been turned back. He knew that the staffs of the elders held part of the key to locating the city.
He made note of the way in which Woram established each change of direction. They approached a range of mountains and Karek recognized the mountain range he could see from the hunting lodge in Tedaka where he had stayed while visiting with his cousins.
After two more days they reached the base of Mount Vald which stood among the other peaks of the mountain range like an adult among children. Instead of going around it, they headed directly for the looming wall of stone. As twilight fell they made camp.
The next morning Woram told him to choose out the best of his wares and put them at the top of his pack. "We will meet with the council when we enter the vale and they will approve your presence."
Karek's heart raced as he realized that soon he would be shown the secret that these people had protected against strangers for centuries. He felt compelled to warn Woram once more. "Wait! You forget. I am not Mareklan. I have heard that only your people may enter the valley of Marekla."
Woram shook his head in exasperation. "From the first night you spent with us we knew you were of Mareklan blood. The shape of your eyes and mouth and nose tell enough about your ancestry to entitle you to enter the city. Furthermore, you have been our companion for many months and you have never betrayed our highest expectations. You have not yet remembered who you truly are and we would adopt you. Come now, enter your new home."
Karek thought to protest once again that as Prince of Zedekla, he could call no other city home. He knew that Woram would only dismiss his claim again as he had before. Shouldering his pack with a shrug, he followed the lead of Woram as he led the men toward a steep track that led up the face of the mountain.
They traveled in single file, carefully stepping from stone to stone and leaving the appearance that no human foot had disturbed the soil. The path seemed to end in a wall of stone. Woram walked several yards to the side and pushed aside a large bush. Following, Karek found himself in the mouth of a cave.
The following hours were etched on his mind. Because he trusted Woram, he responded to every softly spoken signal the older man gave. Karek had begun to casually draw the fingers of his left hand along the wall of the cavern. He felt the shape of an incised pattern that appeared shortly after Woram gave his first instructions for a change of directions. Curious, Karek continued to trail his fingers over the wall of rock. Each time Woram ordered a change, Karek felt another pattern under his fingers shortly afterwards.
He realized that the size and orientation of the pattern was the key to the directions Woram gave and he set about memorizing the meaning of the code. At first it seemed merely a way to pass time while they passed through the total darkness of the cavern. There were places where there was no wall on the left, but Karek kept his hand extended and sooner or later the trail would edge near enough to the wall for him to once again make contact with the hand that did not hold his staff. The other men in front of him walked with their left hands extended to hold to the next man's pack. It prevented them from making the discovery that he had stumbled on.
Hours passed while they walked through the cavern. Other than occasional references to the anticipated joy of bathing when they returned to the vale, the merchants gave all their attention to listening to Woram's words as he called out directions that kept them from falling into the abyss that sometimes bordered the trail.
Karek began to wonder if they would have to camp and spend the night in the darkness. Finally he could see a dim glow ahead of them. By then Karek had memorized the signs so well that he believed he could have found his way through the tunnel unaided. He debated telling Woram about his knowledge, but the friendship and trust he shared with the older man had one significant flaw. Woram had never accepted that he was Prince of Zedekla. If he had discovered the secret of the entrance to Marekla without aid, surely he must keep that secret or he might never be allowed to return to his home.
Several large caverns stood between the merchants and the opening that let in the light of a low lying sun. The sun seemed to be balanced on the edge of the mountain when the group finally came out onto the ledge that gave them a view of the caldera-cradled valley below.
The city of Marekla was gem-like as its towers caught the last ruddy rays of the setting sun. Surrounded by fields gouged from the living rock and carefully tended, the home of the Mareklans seemed carved of malachite and gold. It lived up to the legends that were whispered.
The city was a constellation of lamps glowing in the deep blue of night by the time the men made their way to the council hall. All their families waited to welcome them home.
Karek stood aside as eager wives and daughters greeted husbands and fathers they had not seen for many months. The sense of separation he felt was soon swallowed as he caught sight of a young woman who embraced Woram as tears of joy streamed down her laughing face.
As Prince of Zedekla, and during his months with the Mareklans, Karek had begun to experience the first romantic urges of young manhood. He had been watched by the maidens of the forest and nearly betrothed to beautiful Berlanin. He had admired many young women, but this girl was different.
He tried to analyze why she affected him so strongly. Her form was graceful but modestly covered by a long blue dress, yet even the supple nakedness of the forest maidens had failed to interest him so deeply. Somehow, the graceful curve of her hair as it followed her cheek and fell to her shoulders held more charm for him than any artifice of the women he had met. Then he heard her voice.
No musical instrument had such magic. His very bones seemed to vibrate in response to the tone of her simple greeting her father. Woram looked up to see what had caught the gaze of his daughter and saw Karek staring at them. He turned and gestured to the youth.
"Karek, come and meet my family. This is my oldest daughter, Terenil. This is my son Soram and my other daughter Malil. My wife is the woman hugging Odam. He's her brother." Woram watched Karek's eyes reluctantly yield up the gaze that seemed fixed on his daughter's face.
He should have anticipated this. Karek was no ordinary youth. His adaptability, humor, and skill had impressed Woram as they traveled together. He had one other advantage over the eligible young men of Marekla, he was a new face in a city where no new faces were seen. Although several thousand people lived in the city, every maiden soon knew who her suitors would be when she reached the age of courtship.
Furthermore, Karek had come to Marekla as an accomplished trader. For the past fifty years young men of Marekla never left the valley until they had married and begun a family. Thus if accident should befall the merchants, their line would be continued. It was not difficult to see that there would be competition for Karek's attention among the maidens and resentment among the young men.
Woram shook his head. He could have made no other choice than to take Karek along when they first found the boy injured and raving at the beginning of their journey. Nor had there been any choice when the journey had ended and they stood at the base of the mountain that cradled the city in secrecy. Perhaps it would have been better to leave Karek with one of the tribes in the forest.
No, Karek's presence in Marekla might cause some difficulties, but Woram could not be sorry that he had introduced the youth into the city. His original intention to adopt the boy was not a good plan. If the looks that were being exchanged by Karek and Terenil were any indication, he would be related to the youth by another link in good time.
Not all of the welcoming party were happy. Wadern's wife and his mother were weeping. Teren's young wife was simply bewildered. She sat with her child and stared at the joyous reunions of others. No one cared to be too specific about the deaths of the two men. Woram spoke to Wadern's wife and told her that her husband had fallen into a river and that his body was recovered and given a proper funeral. The subject of Teren's violent death because he had abandoned the others and gone off alone in the jungle was softened by Woram's retelling. Teren's charges that Wadern was murdered held no credence with any of the other merchants and it was unlikely that anyone would think of laying an accusation against Karek.
It was late and the merchants had come far that day, but one thing must be done before any of them could return to his own home and family. The packs were brought forward and the contents displayed.
Least showy, but most valuable, were the packets of herbs and special substances that would be used as medicines and dyes. It was for these that the Mareklan merchants periodically risked the dangers of the lowland forests and the fierce and sometimes fickle tribes. The wirra hide belts and other goods that took up more pack space were appreciated but not as vital.
The tribesman held the botanical substances in little regard since they could be easily obtained by any skilled in forest lore. When they exchanged gifts with the merchants, they often considered the substances unworthy to use in honoring their guests. Karek had been able to learn the sources of some of the most useful of the herbs and other materials and he had been responsible for much of take.
The council of elders was impressed with the display. After the share of each merchant was deducted, the rest of it would be kept in common for the community as a whole. Since Karek was not yet formally adopted into the community, his share was set aside until he could have the honor of donating it if and when he was adopted in full measure.
Woram had signaled his brother-in-law earlier when he had noticed the bond that had sprung up so suddenly between Terenil and Karek. It would not be wise to keep the young couple under the same roof while such emotions were in first flood. Odam stepped forward and asked Karek to be his guest until other arrangements were made.
Karek was puzzled that Woram had not invited him to share his hearth. He had come to look upon the Marekla elder almost as a second father. He also hoped to spend more time in the presence of Terenil. Maybe with more exposure he could unravel the secret of her fascination for him.
Odam's house was in the first rank of homes that circled the steep small hill that stood in the center of Marekla. The city had grown outward in concentric circles as the city grew. Homes in the lower circles were progressively newer and more convenient, but the higher homes had fine views over the valley. Thus each home had advantages and while there was variety, none could brag of being better off than another.
The home of Odam and his family was well furnished and comfortable. Karek was shown to a room with a view of the Shrine that shone pale in the moonlight. It was placed high on the shoulder of the valley east of the city and a line of men and women were returning home from their evening devotions. He noticed some of his fellows on the trek coming from another building and he realized that it was the bath that they had spoken of with such longing when home came near.
The lure of bathing overcame his weariness and he took a fresh tunic and loincloth from a stack of garments on a shelf on the wall and went to find out if the reality could match his keen anticipation. When he reached the baths it was late and there were very few people inside. Odam was dressing and smiled when he saw Karek undressing.
"I thought you might be too tired to bathe until morning or I would have brought you with me. I see that you found your way without my help."
"It is probably just as well that I waited," Karek admitted. "It must have been crowded in here when you first arrived. By now the waters have swept away most of the trail dust you and the others washed off."
Odam chuckled and left the clothing room. The bath was a large pool that was divided down its center with a curtain to provide modesty. Both warm springs and cool kept the water moving in a constant current and Karek guessed that it drained into some distant cavern. He had heard water running while coming through the cave.
A brush made of dried grasses and soap leaf soon cleansed his skin and he lingered for a while in the hot water over a warm spring. He knew it was unwise to linger too long where there was no one to watch and make certain he was not overcome by the heat, but it felt wonderful to be completely clean and relax from the stressful march through the cave.
After dressing he returned to Odam's house, passing through the silent town and looking up at the sky. It seemed so small with the cliffs all around, as if he were somehow imprisoned. Yet it also felt safe. Surely this was a place where goodness would always be found. No evil could enter where such care was taken. Although he could hardly approve of severe limitations on freedom, Karek's own sisters were never allowed out of the palace without guards. He could understand the motive of Mareklan men who had denied their wives and daughters access to the outer world.
The next morning dawned clear and mild. After rising early and going to pray at the Shrine, Karek returned to Odam's house and found a bountiful breakfast waiting. Odam's wife seemed eager to please her young guest and he found his extra tunic cleaned and folded on the shelf in his room. Karek realized that she must have taken it the night before while he was at the bath house. When he thanked her she blushed and seemed flustered. "It is no trouble, I'm sure," she replied. "I have never seen a stranger before. Yet you seem so familiar to me."
He wanted to tell her that she might have known some of his family. After all, many of his ancestors had grown up in the Vale of Marekla. Instead he accepted her offer of a meal. Afterwards he left the house to continue his investigation of this unique city.
Another expedition was preparing to leave the valley. The contents of their packs would be enhanced by the products of Woram's trek. Meanwhile, Karek saw his hardworking companions of the previous months pairing off for games of droka that lasted for hours. He had heard tales of the droka playing skills of Mareklans, but on the trail he had never seen them play.
Woram saw him watching with puzzlement when the trek chief glanced up from a droka board after winning a match. "Don't worry. We will regain our sanity in a few days. By tradition and custom, we don't play this game except when we return from a trek. Some of us don't even enjoy it, but all of us play. Would you like to join a game?"
Karek shook his head. "I don't think I'll risk playing." He noticed Soram, Woram's son, standing nearby, the young man smiled and joined him.
"There are rumours of your adventures among the forest people," Soram said. "Could you tell me more? I'll take you with me to the academy and we can get some lunch at my home afterward."
Karek accepted the invitation. Soram was a year or so younger than Karek but he had an air about him that Karek liked. He also proved to be an informative guide. "I should warn you ahead of time that every young strut in this city within courting age of Terenil will try and challenge you. My sister has been more than merely demure with prospective suitors. She has outright ignored all of them. Now you appear and she can't stop looking at you. If you are challenged, let me handle things."
"I may not need any help," Karek replied. "In the evenings on the trail your father showed me how to use a staff. I think I may be able to hold my own."
Soram chuckled wryly. Then he reached over to cuff Karek's shoulder. "Wonderful. You have learned to handle a staff from the best among us. I can hardly wait to see what happens when Gaton challenges you. He has a cocky attitude and thinks Terenil is destined to be his bride. Frankly, he is past due for a lesson in humility."
The academy was set at a distance from the city mount. "Each of the adults of the city takes a turn in instructing the students in the skills they know best," Soram said as they came in sight of the low-lying building. When they came nearer, Karek was surprised to see a group of maidens, skirts secured into a trouser-like effect with belts of wirra hide, sparring with staffs.
He quickly realized that one of the sparring maidens was Terenil. He stood for a while and watched the contest. To his chagrin, Terenil caught a glimpse of him and her distraction led to her near defeat as her opponent caught her with the padded end of a staff, sending her tumbling.
She recovered quickly, leaping up and renewing her attack until she forced the other girl out of the ring marked for the contest. She refused to look toward Karek and her brother again as she met her next opponent in a fiery display of skill.
"As you can see, my sister has learned the use of the staff," Soram said. "She is the best among the young women. I think she could best most of the young men. However, there is no competition between boys and girls or men and women."
The sound of flying shuttles came from a large room and to Karek's surprise he saw that it young men manned the looms. Instructors walked among them praising or chiding as necessary. The walls were hung with the woven pieces produced by the students. Karek walked quietly around the perimeter of the room admiring the craftsmanship and design of the samples. He had often seen such weaving and had wondered at its source. Next to the fine twined strips of cloth that made up his own tunic, this was the most valued cloth in the traders' stock. Now he knew why none but the merchants from Marekla carried it.
The sound of the shuttles finally ceased and the other young men in the room began to take Karek's measure. There was something in his stance that challenged. Perhaps it was a result of his unconscious realization of his natural superiority. Perhaps it was unearned pride. At any rate, Soram knew that the rumor of Terenil's favor of this newcomer had spread. There would be trouble.
It was Bagon who made the first move. "I see we have a special guest," he said in a sneering voice. "I understand you were found on the trail raving mad, dressed in rags. Now you come among us strutting like a prince."
Karek looked at the young man with experienced eyes. He was a typical bully, over confident and a little stupid. "Are you challenging my right to be here?" Karek asked.
"Yes, I challenge you. Choose your weapon," Bagon sneered.
"Why not take advantage of the material at hand," Karek said. "Instead of fighting, I will challenge you to a display of skill. Choose your loom and we will weave."
The other young men were surprised but they watched as Bagon sullenly sat at one of the looms which had been prepared for the next class. Karek sat at another loom and the instructor showed him how to work the shuttle. Soram gave the signal for the contest to begin.
Bagon was least in competence when it came to weaving. But he did have experience. On the other hand, Karek used his own lack of experience as the basis of a demonstration of his well honed talent for comedy, bringing chuckles from the other young men as he made a display of doing virtually everything wrong or backwards. At the end of the appointed time there could be no doubt that Bagon had produced the best weaving. Karek's sample was badly knotted and bungled, and he was on the way to making friends of all who were not determined to dislike him.
The instructor kept her own opinion. She recognized how Karek had deliberately taken her instructions and performed each one in exactly the manner that would create havoc at the loom. It took talent to be so wrongheaded. With practice and further instruction, she believed Karek would be a creative and skilled weaver.
"Why do you study weaving?" Karek asked Bagon as the bully strutted in pleased surprise at his victory at a skill that had hitherto been his least favored course.
"It has a ready market, but it also teaches us to judge the products of others. An experienced weaver can truly judge the craftsmanship of a piece of cloth or a rug. We do many things for the same reason. Any Mareklan can tan leather, weave fabric, and smelt both jewelry and tools by the time they take their place on the trading circuit. It is evident you lack our advantage," the bully sneered as he looked with disdain on the product of Karek's labors.
"So each member of the community contributes equally," Karek observed to Soram when Bagon left the weaving room with his cronies.
"Not really," Soram said. "There are masters of each craft who are likely to contribute fine products as well as instructing the young. However, it is their gift to the community. To be known as a master of a craft is enough to satisfy any of us. Unlike those in the city who often inherit their position without any merit, we in Marekla earn the regard we have for each other."
"And what of those who have no special talent?" Karek asked.
"Those who are not masters are often the most dedicated and steady of workers. While the masters reach for some new expression of creativity or perfection, the less skilled are often responsible for getting things done as necessary.
"And what of those who are simply lazy?" Karek asked.
"There is no reward in being lazy in Marekla. It is not a problem among us. If someone does nothing at all for a long period of time, we treat them as if they were ill and they are confined in the hostel for those who are diseased and fed plain food without spice or variety until they change their attitude," Soram explained.
Their discussion was cut short as they entered a classroom where Janakan dialect was being taught. The skill shown by the students impressed Karek.
While he observed the class, someone came with a message for Soram. He left Karek alone for a while, but the novelty of the stranger's presence was a draw to other young people and when the class was dismissed he was soon surrounded by an circle of curious youngsters who were eager to ask him about where he had come from.
Soram returned with a serious expression on his face. He led Karek to a small room, shutting out the other young men who had begun to follow.
"Please wait here until someone comes. I will wait outside the academy in the garden. When you are finished here, join me and we will go home for lunch as I suggested earlier.'
Soram left the room and closed the door behind him. Karek looked around. He wondered if he was being tested somehow.
After several minutes a man entered the room. He was very old, his body bent and his hair scanty. His eyes were dark and filled with wisdom, and Karek realized he was being examined with keen interest.
"I was told that a stranger had been led into our valley," the old man said at last. "I was told how you defeated a bully by letting him win at a contest of skill. Woram and Oram have asked me to enroll you in our academy."
The old man leaned forward. "I know who you are Karek. I have been told of all you claimed and all you did. You have a destiny which is entwined with this city or I would be forced to tell the others who you are and they would cast you out. I am your great-grandfather."
Karek stared at the old man and a shiver went through him. His grandparents had told him about their journey to find the city of Marekla soon after they were married. He had learned how they were turned away, but Serina's true father, Makon, had acted as their guide to put them on the road to Zedekla.
The old man nodded. "I will speak no further of who you are. With a word I could have you returned to Zedekla, but not at this time. You will keep your secret until such time as it must be revealed. But I have something to give you. They are yours by right." The ancient extended a staff to Karek. It was old and battered, and there were designs incised on the surface.
"I cannot take this staff. It is a key, like that carried by Woram and other elders," Karek protested.
"If you have the wit to realize that it is a key then you have the right to carry it. There are only fifty of the named staffs still in existence. The tree from which it was carved is now extinct. But do not fear to use it as a weapon. No other staff can prevail against it. It can only be destroyed by a hot fire or a knife of obsidian. I have no other male descendants in Marekla. Even if you leave Marekla, the staff belongs to you. It was carried by one who is now called the nameless one, but I do not fear to use her name. This ball is the Orb of the Light. The orb and the staff are yours by right as a child of Neril."
Karek stood gazing at this ancient man who was his ancestor. There had been a hint of love and pride in the old man's gruff voice. Karek felt a well of emotion as he clutched the staff and studied the orb. When he looked up to thank Makon, he was no longer in the room.
Karek put the precious orb in one of his belt pouches and left the academy where the halls were now empty of students. As promised, he found Soram waiting in the garden near the entrance.
"I see you have a staff. That old ruin of Makon's will do for now, but I'll order another from the workshops so that it will be ready before you have to fight anyone in a true challenge," Soram offered
"This is enough staff for me," Karek said, hefting the graceful length and feeling its perfect balance. To Soram the name of Neril would be meaningless. That this had been her gift from her own grandfather four generations before would have no weight with the youth.
When Woram came into the room where the family was gathered for lunch he glanced at Karek's staff as he set his own in the corner with others belonging to the family. He lifted it and ran a finger down its scarred length. Looking around, his eye caught Karek looking toward him. "This is Makon's staff, Soram. Did he forget and leave it in the sparring court?"
"No, he gave it to Karek. I offered to order another from the workshop, but Karek thinks he can get along with that one. I just hope no one tries to take advantage of him," Soram answered.
"When did you see Makon?" Woram asked Karek as the family took their seats around the table.
"He met me in a small room at the academy and gave me the staff," Karek explained.
"I'll take it up with the council. Perhaps the old one is getting forgetful," Woram said, his finger lightly traced the tell-tale lines that betrayed the fact that the staff was a key. Realizing what his movements might indicate, he blushed and lightly tossed the staff into the corner where it landed with the ringing sound peculiar to brass wood.
Whatever the results of the discussion, Karek kept the staff without further questions. The youthful contingent of the community seemed to pity him for possessing such an unattractive item. The elders nodded to him with a certain air of respect when they met him on the paths while he was carried the staff.
As the days passed, Karek became ever more impressed with the community the Mareklans had founded. There was no distinction of individuals. Personal merit spoke for itself and all were dressed in good clothing and housed with dignity. Where conditions were crowded, it was because the people liked to stay close. Those who wished more space for larger families or workshops were accommodated.
Ten days after the arrival of the expedition, Odam led his wife and Karek to the Shrine for ceremonies celebrating the marriage of his brother's son. It was a fair sized building of pale stone with trellised openings that let light into the interior. Karek had seen the ancient shrines of Timora where all were dedicated to the worship of the Radiance, and he had always been proud of the great Shrine where the kings of Zedekla often led the worship. But this was one of the most beautiful Shrines he had ever seen. It had a jewel-like setting amid gardens and trees. The songs of the faithful filled the air with sweet music.
When the young couple stepped forth from the marriage chamber to take part in the unveiling of the bride. It was suddenly very easy for Karek to envision how he would look as the groom with Terenil as his bride. He glanced toward her where she sat among the bride's attendants. She glanced up at him and more passed between them than words could convey.
The the families of the bride and groom led the couple back through the flowered paths to a feast set out on the grounds of the academy. Karek looked around to find Terenil and when he finally saw her among a group of maidens near a grove of trees, he waited for her to look up and acknowledge him.
"Get your eyes off my sister and go get us some of those smoked ota roots before they are all eaten," Soram said with a poke in Karek's ribs. Karek had no clever comeback. He nodded and went to do his friend's bidding. He wondered if his feelings for Terenil were making him stupid.
After the wedding feast, the young men seemed eager to show off their skills with the staff for the admiring gaze of the young women and they marked out a sparring ground on the turf near the tables. Karek held back as the others chose up their opponents. He felt no need to compete, turning away several offers to spar. He leaned against his staff and watched the others. He had observed that no adult Mareklan was ever far from the staff they had learned to use in their childhood.
Karek finally settled beneath a tree that shaded the eastern side of the sparring field from the afternoon sun. Soon he was joined by several companions including Soram.
Terenil and some of her friends made their way to the field after bidding the bridal couple a final farewell. They looked around the area, then finally chose to sit only a few feet away from Karek and Soram. Soram traded banter with one of Terenil's friends as Karek and Terenil traded glances.
"Is it true that your friend Karek is known as the clumsy giant?" Serikil asked.
"Only among the savage tribes of the lowland forests, and he earned more in trade gifts that anyone else because he was so clever. I know your brother did not do as well," Soram replied.
"Is it because he is so clumsy and awkward that he won't accept a challenge to fight with the staff?" Serikil persisted.
"It's because he fears to injure such as your brother, Gaton" Soram replied.
"Is that so?" Gaton asked as he came up to the group. The glances Terenil was exchanging with Karek had irritated him beyond bearing. "I will willingly risk being injured by the clumsy giant," he taunted.
Karek stood and took his staff in hand. This contest had been inevitable but by waiting he had gained an advantage that Gaton did not have. Serikil's older brother, Katan, had been one of his friends and companions on the journey through the lowlands. They had often sparred and Katan had spoken of the arrogance of his younger brother. He was worried that Gaton would never meet his match among the young men of Marekla. His overconfidence could cause trouble for him if he overestimated his skill.
"Humility is one of the most important assets to any fighter," Katan had told Karek. "Arrogance overlooks the strength of others. Humility acknowledges the strength of the adversary. Skill prepares a way to overcome that strength. A proud man feels no need to study the tactics of others. A humble man admits the error of his own way and eagerly borrows from the best of what he sees. You have humility Karek, although I did not think so at first."
Now Karek caught Katan's eye as he stood and followed Gaton to the sparring ground. The man winked. Karek nodded. He had watched Gaton fight a number of times. He was indeed the best of his generation, and he had defeated some of the older, more seasoned men as well. Karek had learned tactics from watching Gaton fight, even as he noted his weaknesses.
Karek could have played the buffoon and humiliated Gaton. He knew, however, that to do so would earn the young man's everlasting enmity. He would take his time to achieve the defeat, but Gaton would retain honor when the bout finished.
He had never before fought or sparred with the staff Makon had given him, but as he lifted it he realized that it would give him an additional advantage. Even though the staff of Gaton was slightly longer, it was less nimble. Karek let Gaton land a few light blows, their effect much blunted by his own staff and he saw the light of victory glowing in his opponent's eyes.
Gaton could not understand what had happening. Karek was not a showy fighter. His blows seemed to land almost accidentally, but each one was solid. Gaton became bolder and more careless as he tried to deliver a final blow that would disable or disarm his opponent. He ignored the etiquette of the sparring field which forbade blows against the head. Sweat ran into his eyes as he strained to reach Karek's brow with his staff.
Gaton heard catcalls from the sidelines as he persisted in flailing away toward Karek's head. Anger made him even more careless. He had heard whispers that there was some magic in the old staff Karek carried. He had always laughed at such gossip, but suddenly he wasn't sure. Superstitious fear finally drove him to stumble backwards out of the sparring circle.
"I won't deal with a magician," he cried angrily.
"I am no magician. I will trade staffs with you and continue the contest," Karek offered.
Gaton quickly accepted the exchange and gripped the staff Karek extended to him. Unfortunately for his hopes, the lighter, shorter staff did not fit with his normal style of fighting and this time the round was quickly ended as Karek used the longer, heavier staff to drive Gaton from the circle.
Gaton was left with the impression that his own staff was better than the old staff Karek carried. He gave a gesture of defeat and immediately asked Karek to become his teacher. It was the best possible outcome of the contest.
The young men turned toward the tree where Serikil and Terenil had been waiting, but the girls were gone. Soram came up to them laughing.
"Perhaps you should learn the true preferences of my sister before you attempt to impress her with your bravado with a staff," he chided.
"Do you think we sparred only to impress your sister?" Gaton asked. "Karek has agreed to become my teacher and we have no time to waste with silly girls."
Soram laughed and winked at Karek behind Gaton's back as the three of them strolled up the path to find more food. He had been worried for a short time about Karek's safety as the first few blows landed. Then he noticed how Karek had warded off the best of Gaton's blows and kept his own strength in reserve. He would also ask his friend to teach him more about the use of the staff.
Every family in the vale took part in the maintenance of the roads and paths that linked the city with the shrine and the caverns that formed the gate to the valley. This duty had fallen upon Woram's family and they asked Karek to help them. Terenil was dressed much like her brother in loose trousers and a tunic for the work of carrying stones and raking the paths.
She did her share of the work with no claim to weakness or fragility, but she was careful to shield her face from the heat of the sun and wore coverings on her hands. When Karek thought to relieve her of some difficult work, she thanked him and found something else to do.
Because the work was not complex, they talked about many things. Terenil was quick and clever. She was also curious about Karek. Woram was happy to answer her questions about their adventures on the trail but Karek knew that the older man would only grow upset if he tried to talk about his years in Zedekla.
One evening after nearly a month had passed, Terenil and Karek walked together behind Soram and Woram while they returned to the city after working on the roads for several hours. Terenil lingered a little to put distance between the her father and brother.
"Whenever I ask you about your life before you met my father and the other Marekla merchants, you glance at my father and grow quiet," Terenil said. "Are you ashamed of your family and your childhood home?"
"No, but you've heard the way I'm ridiculed whenever the subject of those first few days on the trail is mentioned," he replied. "I believe I can trust you with the truth Terenil. Makon is my great-grandfather."
She looked at him with raised brows. "I did not know that he had any descendants. If you are his great-grandson then you truly are Mareklan. Where is the shame in that?"
"I have Mareklan ancestry," Karek answered, "but I also carry the blood of the royal houses of Saadena and Zedekla. I was raised in the city of Zedekla and my family is very close. My mother was raised in a small village and made her own way as a matla maker before marrying my father who is of the highest nobility." Karek watched Terenil for her reaction as he told her about himself and he tripped over a stone on the path, lunging forward as he lost his balance.
She quickly caught his arm and steadied him. There was trust and belief in her eyes as they met his. "Father thinks you are a clever youth who has pretensions of grandeur, but he likes you. You earned his respect while you were on the long trail through the lowland forests, but he still has reservations about your origin. I understand now that you only told him the truth. He would not believe you," Terenil admitted. "Thank you for trusting me."
After that day Terenil shared a special relationship with him that was more than friendship. Other suitors resigned their claims. It was evident that Terenil had given her heart. Karek was young to make such a match, but he had finished a trek and proved himself more than capable of providing for a wife.
He began to explore the art and craft of gold-smithing under the eye of a master. His first finished project was a pendant with his name symbol and Terenil's intertwined in such a way that they did not at first become evident. The pendant seemed to be one piece until twisted and shifted, then the two halves sprung apart. It was a clever and lovely piece and the master offered Karek a good price for it.
"I have made it for a particular purpose," Karek explained and his teacher smiled and nodded. It was just such a token that young men gave to those young women they favor.
One evening after the academy had dismissed, Karek walked with Terenil toward the city, slowing his steps until the other students were far ahead. She glanced up at him when he touched her elbow and gestured for her to walk with him into the privacy of a glade of small trees near the side of the path.
After a brief hesitation, she nodded and followed him. He knew he would have only a few minutes alone with Terenil before their friends noticed they were missing. He showed the pendant to her, then twisted it so that it become two sections. Taking her hand in his, he pressed the symbol for his name into her palm and folded her fingers over it.
"I hope we will be able to marry and live here in Marekla as man and wife," he told her and watched her blush and smile with happiness. "But I have other obligations that may call me away. Neither of us can truly know the future. Keep this talisman of my devotion, when we marry I will give you the other half. If you ever need my help, send this to me."
His words puzzled her for a moment, then her happiness overwhelmed any anxiety and she smiled into his eyes and raised her hand to touch his cheek. "Only death could keep us apart," she solemnly vowed as she slipped the talisman onto the cord that held her omen bag and tied it around her neck.
Chapter 9 Disclosure
Karek tried to ignore the whispers in his heart when he was alone or in prayer. What of the grief of his parents who must think him dead after so many months with no word from him? The problem would have to be addressed sooner or later, but Makon's warning that he must remain quiet about who he was remained with him. It helped him assuage his disquiet while he enjoyed his time in Marekla.
He knew that he could not promise anything to Terenil, but it seemed common knowledge that they were a couple. They were never left alone for more than a moment or two, but even with others always around, their bond seemed to grow. He felt that somehow it must be his destiny to marry her even though he knew that sooner or later Makon would reveal who he was and he would have to return to Zedekla.
The friends he made and his studies kept him from thinking too much about the impending revelation of his true identity. When Woran was selected as the new High Priest, Karek was included in the ceremonies and celebrations that followed almost as if he were already a member of the family. He stifled his sense of unease that so much about his background was unknown to these people who had apparently accepted him completely.
Terenil saw his pensive expression following her father's installment as High Priest and she found a few minutes alone with him in the prayer room of the Shrine while the rest of her family gathered for a feast in the fields beyond the gardens.
"You seem troubled, Karek."
"I cannot lie to you," he admitted. "I fear that our time together will soon end. You understand who I am and the obligations I owe to others. What will your father and brother think when the truth about me is revealed?"
"You have earned their respect," she assured him. "You have tried again and again to tell Father the truth. He had his own reasons for refusing to listen. If he had, we would never have met. I believe he will understand."
"What about us?" he asked her. "I feel we were meant to be together, yet how can that be? I must leave Marekla eventually, but you cannot follow."
Tears filled Terenil's eyes but she looked over Karek's head to the globe that hung on the wall behind him. "We are young, and we do not understand what might come. I believe that our love has a meaning. I believe the Radiance has brought you here for a purpose. I gave you my promise and it will stand."
"Perhaps you should reconsider your vow," he murmured. "I would not deprive you of the joys of marriage and motherhood."
She shook her head and smiled at him. A tear ran down her cheek and he brushed it away. "We must join the others. I can see Soram on the porch looking for us. Have faith in what we have, Karek."
Two days following the summer solstice, Karek heard the gong that signaled that merchants were entering the valley from the caverns. He looked up and saw the column of men. Two of them were supported by companions and several others limped as they walked down the trail.
Concern was rampant among the young people gathering for their study, and rumors flew, but classes went on as usual. The returning merchants went into the council hall leaving a curious crowd to speculate. Karek was learning to weave a new pattern when the gathering bell sounded. He joined the other students as they hurried out of the academy toward the city hill.
"This is the first time I've heard the gathering bell so soon after a return," Soram said as they made their way to the council hall. When they arrived there were only a few places left to sit. They chose to stand at the back in order to get a better view of the proceedings.
The leader of the newly returned band of merchants was sat on a stool with his bandaged leg supported on one of the meager packs. Odam signaled for silence. "We have always been sworn allies of the royal house of Zedekla, but our band of merchants was intercepted as we entered the city. The guards on the gate claimed that they had orders from King Nerik to arrest Mareklans. It was only by the greatest skill that we broke free and were able to return with the warning, but there are others of our kind who have been locked in the palace dungeons. Will we accept this breach of ancient tradition?"
It was clearly a challenge. Karek saw whispering and debate break out in small knots throughout the audience. Woran stood and waited to be acknowledged.
"How can we challenge the Zedeklans? They will have the backing of the Alliance of Cities against us. All of us, women and children included, would not be enough to fight the assembled armies of Janaka, Tedaka and Zedekla."
The leader of the trek raised his hand. "We learned that Nerik has betrothed his oldest daughter, Talara to her cousin, Canik. This will break the betrothal pact made between Talara and Tolmen, heir of Okagun. I'm certain the Janakans will want to join us in an expedition to restore their honor."
Karek leaped forward and pounded his staff on the stone floor of the council hall. The ringing blows had the desired effect and all eyes turned to him.
"I cannot believe that Nerik would break the alliance with Marekla or dishonor his pledge to Tolman. If what you say is true, the king must be under compulsion."
Zoyan nodded. "Since the death of Prince Karek, Nerik has been worried about the succession. It seemed that the problem was solved when Talara accepted Tolmen's suit, but many say that was because of his wife, Queen Jarila. Jarila and the other princesses haven't been seen for several months. It is possible they have been used by Canik and his cronies to force Nerik's decision."
"Enough of this speculation," Odam said. "The facts are plain. Nerik has chosen to be our enemy. We must offer the Janakans an alliance."
"Choose what you will," Karek cried in a voice that carried throughout the hall., "but as Prince of Zedekla, I call on my friends to join me in an expedition to determine the truth."
Woran stood and addressed the assembly, "Forgive the intrusion of my young friend in this serious affair. We had hoped that he had overcome his delusions. When we found him lost in the wilderness, he was raving and made claims to royalty."
Karek felt a rise of blood flushing his face. How could he convince the people of Marekla that he was what he claimed? He turned to Makon and waited. Now was the time to come forth. The old man stood and walked slowly to the dais. He mounted it and turned to the assembled Mareklans.
"Many years ago my infant daughter Serina was lost when my father Thalon was sent to return her to Marekla. I met her once, after she married Talek of Zedekla. Karek is her grandchild, the Prince of Zedekla."
"Karek, come forward!" Odam ordered. As Karek passed through the crowd toward the podium he heard whispers of doubt and confusion. Even his friends seemed to pull away from him and only Terenil's eyes gave him hope that his pleas would be heard.
Odam watched the young man who had become like a son to him approach the stand. He had anticipated the adoption ritual through which Karek would have been joined to his family and become eligible to offer for Terenil's hand. Now that was impossible.
Karek stood at the top of the dais and faced the assembly of Marekla. His eyes were drawn to Terenil and he saw that her eyes were brimming even though she kept her sadness from her lips. She alone knew the price he must pay for publicly claiming his heritage.
Unless their prayers and hopes were answered, they had no hope of fulfilling the love between them. Karek's barely held his own emotions in check. In the time he had spent among the Mareklans he had changed from a boy into a young man. He knew that he could no longer play at being a Mareklan but must claim the burden of his royal heritage at any cost.
Woran saw the pain on Karek's face as he looked toward Terenil. Then he saw the firming of resolve and realized that Karek was indeed the prince he claimed to be. His own heart was hurt by the loss of Karek to his family. He had also come to look on the bright young man as a son. He pounded his staff only twice, but as High Priest his voice was important.
"Odam has asked us if we will make alliance with Janaka against Zedekla and Karek has asked us to aid him in finding the truth. I will volunteer to help Karek."
He looked around, challenging others to follow his example. One after another the men of Marekla stood until all were standing.
Makon raised his hand to gain the silence of the people. "It is good to see that all of us are willing to support Karek, but only a few are needed. The approach to Zedekla must be done with stealth. Woran must not desert his priestly duties. Odam will lead the expedition. I will indicate those who will go with us."
He proceeded to walk through the crowd, pointing to those he chose to join the expedition. No one questioned his authority. Since the death of Garen nearly twenty years before, Makon had been the head of the council of elders. Finally he had asked to be released from the responsibility, but he still retained the honor and respect of the community.
Woran stepped forward and dismissed the meeting with a prayer of supplication for guidance. As the people of Marekla filed out of the hall he saw them talking with each other, their excitement betrayed by the gestures they used. In the years he had served his people he had never seen such enthusiasm. He only regretted that he would not be among those who returned with Karek to Zedekla.
Makon's meaning had been clear. There was great danger ahead for those who undertook to return the young prince to his rightful place. Woran studied the group of men who surrounded Karek and Makon. He recognized several of the young men who had become Karek's close friends in the weeks he had spent in the city of Marekla. Most of them were yet unmarried. This expedition to Zedekla would give them an opportunity to travel into the wider world sooner than they had hoped. He prayed their youthful enthusiasm would be tempered enough to avoid foolish and dangerous acts of bravado.
Makon looked around, his ancient eyes taking measure of those who had stayed behind when the hall emptied. Katan and his young brother Gaton stood close to Karek. Since his defeat on the academy grounds Gaton, had become one of Karek's greatest supporters.
Instead of resenting Karek, Gaton had concentrated on his true skill as a gold smith. He had produced a fine plaque for the Shrine to prove his right to a place of honor in the community and was already instructing younger boys in the initial phases of smithing.
Katan stood taller than he had for weeks. He had returned to the valley to find that his young wife was ill. Her thin face had lighted in smiles when she at last saw her husband who had been gone for so long. At first she had seemed to rally. Then the disease that had weakened her returned in full and fatal force. Katan had buried her only three weeks before.
Their two small children had been cared for by his wife's sister during her long illness. Katan had recognized the painful wisdom in letting his brother and sister-in-law adopt the children who had come to look on them as parents. The expedition to free Zedekla would give him an opportunity to leave the valley where so many painful memories remained.
Soram reluctantly left the council hall with his family. He walked close to Terenil and reached for her hand for a small sign of comfort. He knew words would be inadequate to express his regret and sympathy. He had truly come to look on Karek as an older brother and eagerly anticipated the ceremonies of his sister's betrothal to his friend.
The touch of her brother's hand helped Terenil to stave off the tears that threatened. She gave him a glance filled with gratitude. Karek had prepared her by sharing the truth, but her young heart was bruised and she welcomed the sympathy of her brother.
Karek's heart ached as he watched Terenil leave the council hall, but his regret was subdued by his worry about the events in Zedekla. He turned toward Makon and Odam and began to make plans for his return to Zedekla.
"We must not appear to be a threat," Odam decided as he considered Makon's counsel. "The Zedeklans will be wary of invasion."
"I didn't recognize the men who fought with us," Zoyan told them. "We heard that the king has dismissed or imprisoned the best of his officers and gathered an army of brigands and malcontents to guard the streets of Zedekla."
"If Mareklans were willing to use swords, I could instruct you in arms," Karek said. "But there is another weapon we can carry that will suit our intent. Those of us who have traveled in the lowland forests are familiar with blow tubes like this one." He pulled a set of tubes from a long pouch and screwed them together.
Gaton laughed when he saw the long hollow tube that resulted. "You think to challenge the armies of Zedekla with a flute?"
"That is not a flute," Katan assured his brother. "It is more deadly than a sword if the darts are dipped in a fluid made by the forest tribes. I traded my supply to the Orenese who use it somehow in their fishing. Have you much of the poison Karek?" he asked.
"The poison is also used as a remedy for paralysis when properly diluted," Karek said as he removed a packet of the substance from the pouch in which the segments of the pipe were stored. "I had planned to instruct your healers in the preparation and use of the medicine. But now we must use it as a poison."
"We can make more blow tubes from reeds," Odam said. "These and our staffs will be the only weapons we will carry with us to Zedekla. Those of us who know the use of the blow tube will instruct the others.
"The darts used by the people of the forest are too large for our purpose if we hope to keep our secret," Karek said. "I have designed these smaller darts and tested them on a few animals with good success." He displayed a handful of the small darts which he removed from another section of the weapon pouch. "They can be made from thorns and wadded grasses"
Ten men met at the caverns before dawn on the day of summer solstice. Below them in the valley they could see the lamps that told of preparations being made for the celebrations that would mark the day. Family members had said their farewells at home.
Karek looked toward the Shrine where he had met with the others in prayer the previous evening. He could see a glow in the windows and knew that Terenil was assisting her father in preparing for the first services of the day. Against all that was reasonable, he knew he would see her again.
He tested his memory of the marks that told the way while Odam led them through the tunnels and caverns in utter darkness. Soon he was reassured that he held the key to a secret knowledge granted to few men. He gripped his staff more tightly when he felt the mark that warned of a dangerous passage just ahead.
"Take care," Odam warned them. "The path is narrow and steep and a gulf opens on either side. We will go slowly. Make sure of your footing before you take a step."
Karek felt a moment of near panic and heard the panting breath of the other men who followed him. At last he sensed that the bridge had been crossed. Woran confirmed his intuition.
"We may go more swiftly now. We are in a close tunnel. Keep your head down Katan, there are rocks overhead. " Odam said.
"I remember this part. My head had just begun to recover from the bruises," Katan admitted with a chuckle. It was the first time he had laughed since the death of his wife. There was danger ahead and no guarantee that their mission would be successful, but all of the men felt the bond of a quest.
At last they saw daylight shining ahead of them and all breathed a sigh of relief that was translated into a laugh by Katan who was regaining his zest for life now that the valley lay behind them.
"You are a sorry crew to be so disturbed by darkness and the depths of the earth," Gaton chafed them, How will we react when faced with weapons of war?"
"I heard you breathing as hard as anyone when we crossed over the gulf," Odam returned.
"This is a merry crew for such a serious purpose," Gaton said with surprise.
"We have a difficult march ahead of us, and good humor will be of real value when our bodies ache and our souls grow faint," Odam assured the young man. "We will take paths that are only used in times of emergency. Normally we make a loop when we trade. Now we go directly to Zedekla and we will travel by night so that spies will not see us coming. As soon as we reach the base of the mountain you must prepare yourselves to sleep until the day has ended."
They made a hasty camp in the waste at the base of Mount Vald. Odam performed the night ritual even though the sun was still high and they all bedded down except for the watch. Emotions churned in Karek's mind, luring him from sleep, but he tried to put his worries aside and welcome the healing power of slumber. It had never been so difficult to force his mind to rest as this bright afternoon as he found a cool shadow under a rock and stretched out according to Odam's directions. His thoughts turned to the valley he might never see again and the young woman who was his heart's mate. He turned aside regret and let the remembered sweetness of Terenil's voice raised in simple melody, invade his thoughts, lulling him to sleep.
At dusk the men were ready to take the trail. As they set out they stayed close together and followed the quiet prompting of Odam as he told them to change directions or warned them of danger. The moon was in wane yet there was still enough light reflected from the rocks and sand that they could make their way.
Before daybreak they encountered various hazards but all were passed safely. When he was a child Karek had often visited his grandparents in their royal apartments in Timora. They had spoken of their journey to the gates of Marekla and the hazards they had met on the way.
He heard the surprised murmurs of Gaton and some of the other youths as they approached the water of a lake and Odam stepped calmly into the quiet ripples of the surface. Karek did not hesitate but followed the lead of the elder. "Do not waver but follow my steps exactly," Odam warned the others. "This is a deep lake and if one of you slips and plunges into the deeper water we will be delayed."
As dawn began to pearl the sky with soft tints of gold and pink they reached the far shore and came to a forest. There Odam stopped and waited until all them were gathered near.
"We will travel for a few more hours through the forest, but when we reach the edge of the plain, we must rest again. Zoyan told us that his band of merchants were pursued almost to the edge of the northern plateau. We expect that there are still lookouts searching for some sign of the way to Marekla. From here on, there must be silence. If you must get the attention of the others, give the call of the silla bird."
Muscles ached from the hours of rapid passage when they quietly found places to rest and eat their simple meals of journey bread and cold cala. Karek was grateful for the fatigue that kept his mind single to their task. After several more hours of march through the forest he had no difficultly plunging into sleep as soon as he had wrapped his cloak around him and settled in a pile of leaves.
Their third night on the trail led them past the stinking mire of the swamps of the river Or. Odam stopped them when they saw a faint glitter of fires far ahead.
"Zoyan predicted that the crossing of the Or would be guarded against an invasion from Janaka. Karek, you and Katan take off your cloaks and tunics and bring only your blowpipes.
Karek shivered with a chill as he exposed his body to the night air and rubbed mud into his skin to aid concealment in the night. Katan looked at him as they both stood darkened with mud and stripped to their loincloths. His mouth split wide in a luminous grin. Karek nodded and gave a low chuckle. Both of them looked like men of the lowland forest with their blowpipes and mud covered limbs.
Odam approved their disguises with a quick nod. He set a swift pace across the marsh, but slowed when they neared the guarded crossing. Each man who knew how to use a blow pipe had specially prepared darts with a dose that would not kill but only bring a deep sleep. Death would be questioned. Guards who slept through their watch would be disciplined but no suspicion would be roused.
The mire of Or bred great stinging insects that filled the air around the camp, drawn by the sweat of the guards. Protected by an herbal ointment made from oil brush, Odam, Katan and Karek moved unnoticed toward the camp. Odam made swift gestures and each man took a separate section of the group.
One by one the guards felt a sharp sting on their neck or arm. The tiny darts that Karek had prepared did not arouse suspicion. The guards became sluggish and forgetful of their purpose. The last man awake gazed with sullen eyes that could not guess why the fire suddenly split into three parts and flared in the sky before he closed his eyes and began to snore.
Gaton was surprised and impressed with the efficiency of the darts. As he passed beside the encampment at the crossing and heard the snores of the enemy he grinned. He would certainly pay more attention to the training his brother had tried to give him.
Odam led them beyond the crossing where the road between Zedekla and the northern cities crossed the sluggish Or. Instead of taking the road, they went down into the delta and camped that day in high marsh grass. They slept until rested, then they busied themselves with a harvest. They spread their activities over a wide area so that no clear sign would be left behind.
The men gathered reeds and tied them into bundles, then bound the bundles with ropes woven of marsh grass. By nightfall they had constructed two sturdy rafts and set forth on the final leg of their journey on the sluggish current of the Or as it moved toward the sea.
The brine smell of the tide lands was refreshing after the stink of the marsh. The weather had been fair and the waves of the sea were gentle as the rafts finally left the delta and edged along the shore toward Zedekla. Two men on each raft manned poles while the others received instruction in the use of the blowpipes. Even those who had initially been reluctant to use the unusual weapons were eager to learn. The demonstration at the crossing had been effective.
There had been some debate about the wisdom of appearing in the city in Marekla guise. "We will be imprisoned immediately if we show ourselves," Katan objected.
"That is part of Makon's plan," Karek explained. "Gaton and I will dress in rags and use one of the rafts to take a load of kindling to the city. The rest of you should leave your staffs and the blow pipes with us. I have played in the dungeons of Zedekla when they were used for nothing more than storage. Each cell is lit by a grate that lets onto the open street. Once you have been arrested, we can throw your staffs and blowpipes to you through the grates."
"We cannot risk you Karek," Katan said. "If you are taken, our purpose is lost. Surely everyone in Zedekla will know the face of their prince,"
"If anyone recognizes me, it will be as the brat of a market woman named Kalil. I got into more trouble than most young boys," Karek said with a laugh. "I had a curious and very useful education in the streets of Zedekla."
"Karek will advise us," Odam said. "He knows the city and can do better than any of us. We will do as he says." He turned to Karek. "How can we signal you so that you will know where we are kept?"
"We could make nuisances of ourselves." Gaton said. "We will come to the cells when we know you have been arrested. We will throw small sticks through the grates and you will roar at us,"
Gaton smiled impishly at his older brother Katan. "Once we have identified your voices, we will rain a load of kindling on your heads. Of course, the kindling will have some longer sticks and a few tubes included."
"A brilliant plan. You will endear yourselves to the usurper's toadies while you give us our weapons," Katan said.
The men set to work cutting staffs from the surrounding woodland and cleaning them of bark, branches and knots. They would not stand inspection by another Mareklan merchant, but Odam soon approved the counterfeits.
The remnants of the coat of mud that Karek and Gaton had rubbed into their hair and skin and the ragged cloths they had twisted about their loins transformed them into disreputable young knaves. They loaded their raft with the staffs of the other men as well as their blow pipes and some of the branches trimmed from the saplings that the other Mareklans had carved into makeshift staffs.
It was nearly noon when Karek and Gaton set forth. When they neared the mouth of the river Com, Karek noticed that a guard had been set on the harbor. Each craft was stopped and searched but only a careless and dismissive glance was spared for the raft carrying two river brats and their load of kindling into the city.
Karek guided the raft to a dark corner of the harbor near the walls that bordered the palace. He gestured to Gaton to help him and in few minutes the precious cargo of staffs and blowpipes and the hollow sections of reed that held the poison darts had been concealed under a stack of old boards. Loading the branches on their naked backs, the young men set out for the market place.
Karek remembered the market place of Zedekla as a lively and colorful center of social enterprise. The first thing he noticed was the ominous quiet. Men and women still walked the streets and sold their wares. Instead of the usual chatter and sound of music, they walked with downcast eyes and shot looks of suspicion at any who spoke above a murmur.
There were not many of the palace guard on the street, but where they walked, they left resentment and fear. The dark temple of Orqu had been decorated with banners and paint. Karek slowed as they passed the shop his mother owned in partnership with Mira and stopped to watch as two of the customers hurried out and found quick exits from the street in front of the shop. Moments later the doorway was filled with a large man gripping his mother's partner, Mira, by the arm.
"Under the law of Zedekla a woman may not take money from a man," the brutish man shouted as he pulled the woman behind him.
"But it is my shop, and you have eaten many matlas," the woman stubbornly insisted. Karek jumped as the lout in guard uniform slapped her head.
"Under the law of Zedekla, a woman may not own property. You have broken the law and will be punished. Come with me," the man said as he grabbed her shoulder with a brutal hand and began to drag her along with him.
Karek watched with barely restrained fury. Mira was like an aunt to him. But she had an answer for the bully's demand.
"Will you accept my apology for asking a payment if I sweeten it with an ena?" Mira asked.
The bully stopped and released his hold on her. "I'll forget that you were rude to an officer of the guard for two enas. For four enas, I will guarantee that my men will not bother you anymore."
Mira nodded and the two of them walked back to her shop. Karek turned to follow after them, but Gaton grabbed his arm. "Easy friend, it is tempting to take revenge, but it would not serve our ultimate aim."
They sold a few of their sticks for paltry coins, working their way toward the gate through which Odam and the others planned to make their entry to the city. Karek led Gaton to a stairway leading onto a roof that gave a good view of the gate. They sat and ate the matlas they had purchased with the coins earned selling kindling.
It was difficult to act the part of a lazy river brat when so much depended on the execution of their plans, but nearly an hour passed before they heard a commotion below. A mob of loutish guards had intercepted the Mareklan merchants when they came through the city gates. Each of the eight men was taken by two guards, their staffs were quickly removed before they could use them.
"It is against the law of Zedekla to pass through the city gates without paying an entry tax," a small man dressed in a gaudy uniform said.
"We will pay your entry tax," Odam protested.
"It is against the law of Zedekla to be a Mareklan merchant," the little man tittered. He jabbed Odam in his chest with a short baton.
"Put them in the dungeon," he ordered. Deprived of staffs and packs the merchants slouched as they were led to the dungeons. One of them hissed angrily at one of the young men who followed close behind them and pelted them with small sticks. The guards laughed at the antics of Karek and Gaton and encouraged their unruly interference with the prisoners.
The guards did not object an hour or so later when Karek and Gaton returned to the precincts of the dungeons and began to toss sticks down at the prisoners. The guards on the wall above laughed and applauded. A roar came up from several of the dungeons as the river brats tossed wood down through the grating. The effectiveness of their aim was witnessed by the cries of pain and outrage that issued from the smelly pits.
One of the guard officers raised his hand and called down to the wood sellers. "You have the makings of good soldiers for Canik, our future king. Come around to the east gate and we will give you a place among us."
Karek's bark of surprised laughter betrayed his suddenly brightened outlook. He had hoped to enter the palace through the same isolated garden his mother had used when she made her clandestine visits to the marketplace, but the walls around the palace had been hastily reinforced with chains on the gates. Only the east gate, heavily guarded, had been left unblocked.
The clothes Karek and Gaton received when they appeared as recruits an hour later were smelly and ill-fitting but garish with tawdry medals and fringe. Karek glanced around the courtyard that had been a pleasant gathering place less than a year before. Haphazard piles of loot lay here and there, intermingled with trash.
The barracks that housed the guards also housed some slatternly women whose bold eyes measured the new recruits. Gaton went red with embarrassment when one of the women walked toward him and laid her hand on his stout young arm.
"Not now Zida," the officer roared. "These men are needed to guard the wall. There have been rumors that the Mareklans plan an invasion. I'll tell them where to find you when night falls."
"Most of this lot are too drunk to stand decent watch," the officer muttered as he led Gaton and Karek toward the post he had assigned them.
The afternoon passed in dull inactivity. Sounds of revelry came from the barracks and Karek wondered how such a rabble could have defeated the small but select palace guard he had known in his youth. The answer to his question was soon provided. A high giggle came from the stairwell that led to the guard tower and seconds later the woman called Zida stepped onto the walkway.
"You are new at this game," she teased. "Nobody else takes this guard duty seriously. You'd think the old palace guard was plotting the overthrow of the king. Of course some of them might have that thought, but Todok will keep them confused and at cross purposes. He and Raderen are the real brains behind this venture. Zanuk is a witless prig who is scared of his own shadow."
"We are simple lads from the country. You seem to know what is going on in Zedekla. Tell us more," Karek said.
Zida preened herself and sat on the wall. She looked around to make sure the guard captain was out of sight before she spoke again. "Raderen is the high priest of Orqu. The royal family of Zedekla have been the enemies of the cult of the Demon for centuries, but Raderen has a useful pawn in the King's cousin, Zanuk."
"How did Raderen succeed in his plans?" Karek asked the talkative woman.
"Months ago Todok was able to introduce himself into the family as a tutor to the royal brats. He went hunting with the prince and the boy never returned. Todok claimed that Karek was drowned when he fell into a river, but anyone who knows Todok believes he has royal blood on his hands. A few months ago Nerik returned from a pilgrimage to Timora without his wife. Since then he has welcomed Canik, his nephew, and promised him the hand of Talara, his oldest daughter."
"What part does Zanuk play in this plot?" Karek asked.
Zida rolled her eyes and smirked. "I have sworn to keep that little detail a secret."
"What of the other princesses?" Karek asked, trying to keep his tone casual.
"They haven't been seen lately, but remember, Raderen has waited a long time to blood the altar of Zedekla's pyramid with virgin blood." she let her hand drop on Gaton's shoulder and winked at him.
Gaton stared at Zida in fascination mixed with repulsion. All he had ever known were the maidens of Marekla who suddenly seemed quite simple compared to the vixen who was curiously attractive even as she boasted of being privy to sedition and murder.
"I'll leave you two alone for a while," Karek said with a shudder. He walked away casually, but the confidences of the young shant had shaken him. It had been awful to think that his father would dishonor the alliance with Marekla, but the other actions he had taken were beyond Karek's comprehension. He had seen a mad man once, a poor soul who evaded his family's efforts to care for him and wandered the streets ranting senselessly. That was his only explanation for the things that had happened.
Karek glanced behind him and saw the look of infatuation grow in Gaton's eyes as Zida continued her flirtation. Once he had gained the shelter of a wall he pulled his blowpipe from concealment and loaded a dart. Turning, he took aim at the woman's grimy neck and blew. The tiny dart hit home. Zida swayed and clutched at Gaton who was astonished at the action. He held the woman slightly away from him and seemed puzzled about what to do next. Then he realized that she was sound asleep and looked up to see Karek returning.
"Thank you, I think," Gaton said as he lowered the woman to the walkway and carefully retrieved the tiny dart from Zida's neck.
"Stand guard for me while I try to make an entrance into the palace," Karek said. "Try to remember that such as she are our enemies."
Chapter 10 Imposter
The first thing Karek wanted to do was locate his father and find out why he had betrayed every ideal of Zedekla. As a boy he had explored the hidden ways of the palace. Encouraged by his mother, he had located several forgotten accesses. One led to the attic over the king's private study.
Karek feared at first that his shoulders had grown too broad to allow him to fit through the narrow passage, but by turning sideways and holding his breath he was able to sidle through the narrowest places. Finally he came to the attic space between the roof and the ceiling of the room. He stopped to draw several deep breaths before kneeling down and crawling cautiously over the joists to the central lamp hole. He lowered himself slowly until he was prone on the rough wood and peered into the study.
Two men were standing at the desk directly below him. One wore the robes of an Orquian priest. The other was his father. A jolt of unbelief nearly made Karek exclaim in horror. He clamped his teeth and watched through tears that welled in his eyes. He had always loved his mother, but he had venerated his father.
The priest walked away from the desk and his father sat down at the desk and pulled a slate toward him. When he began marking on it, apparently writing the directions the priest was giving him, Karek was flooded with relief. The man below him was an impostor! With all his intelligence and skill, his father had never learned to write. How could he? He had been blind since he was a young child.
Karek strained to hear what the priest was saying but the effort was unrewarded until a man dressed in the uniform of an officer of the guard entered the chamber. The priest raised his voice and began to berate the man.
"Don't make excuses. If the youth was not with the Mareklans, you must continue to search. I want you to find the traitors and bring them to me. They must be somewhere in Zedekla. They may even be hiding here in the palace. The woman, Kalil, is dangerous. The youth will pretend to be Karek, the dead prince. As long as they are free, we are in danger. They may be in company with a blind man."
Karek smiled with relief as he heard the angry words. They hadn't taken his parents. Somehow they had insinuated an impostor, but as soon as he could locate his parents, the game would be up. Even now, the armed Mareklans were waiting for a signal from him to begin a rebellion among the prisoners.
He heard a familiar voice in the chamber below and looked toward the door where his sister Talara stood. "Father, I can't marry Canik. He is my cousin. How can you ask this of me?"
The impostor stood and turned his back on the young woman. "I have spoken. You must obey," he said in determined tones.
Talara knelt and began to cry piteously. "Please Father, you know I am promised to Tolmen of Janaka. If you insist on this misbegotten alliance, there will be war."
"Take her away and beat her until she learns to obey," the priest said to the hulking guard who had accompanied the princess.
"No, take her to the small dungeon and put her through a cleansing fast. I think three days should be sufficient," the impostor said.
Karek would have gladly garroted the two men below him, but the lamp hole was too small and the distance to the floor too great to permit him to carry out the impulse. He wished he had remembered to bring one of the blow tubes with him. He ached for Talara's pain, but at least the impostor had changed the punishment. Now that he knew that it wasn't his father who had instituted the changes in Zedekla, his sister should be free long before the imposed fast was over.
He waited and watched and tried to listen until the men below quit the chamber without yielding any further information. How had they found someone who looked enough like Nerik that he could fool even Talara as long as she did not approach him?
He thought of Zida's puzzling allusion to Zanuk, his father's cousin who had been banished after he plotted with Orquians to take over the throne. It had been more than twenty years since anyone from the palace had seen Nerik's cousin, but it seemed he had once again surfaced. Who had provided him access to the palace?
The study door opened and two people entered, a woman and a young man. The sounds of their voices were familiar. It was Dariya, and her grandson, Karek's cousin Canik. For many years Dariya had been kept a virtual prisoner in the home of her son, but at length her apparently repentant demeanor and the pleas of her friend Petilla, had caused Nerik to relax the terms of her confinement. Dariya had been part of the same plot as Zanuk a decade before, but with the aim of placing her own son on the throne.
"What shall we do about your parents, Canik?" Dariya asked. "They will soon come back from Taleeka and will want to confer with Nerik."
"I will send a servant to waylay them and tell them that I have been injured and lie close to death in Jama. I am certain they will be diverted until our plans are complete." Canik chuckled and lifted the seal that was only for use of the king. "Your clever schemes will place me on the throne, grandmother. You can be certain I will be appropriately grateful."
Canik was five years older than Karek and they had never liked each other. The older man had a way of playing mean, but subtle tricks. It was no surprise that he was deeply involved in the treason that had placed an impostor on the throne.
The cast of villains was completed when Todok entered the study. "The pyramid has been prepared for the sacrifice. The only problems we have are Karek, and the troublesome absence of the king and queen. All three of them should be dead, but somehow they escaped our net."
"It won't matter when I wed Talara," Canik said. "I will be named heir by Zanuk and we can prepare for war. Janaka is no longer truly a threat. They have sold their bronze for shovels and axes and the generation of warriors has long since passed away. Our clients in Orenon will have slaves, and we will loot the treasury of that ancient fool, Otagun. With his gold we will buy up an army to defeat the Alliance of Cities. When our power is full, we will march on Timora and pull down the rotting theocracy that has infected our land for so long."
Canik extended his left hand to Todok and they linked their thumbs with their forefingers extended in the ancient sign of the demon. Dariya nodded and tittered and clutched at a brooch at her breast.
Karek was sickened by what he had seen and heard. Canik was worse than a selfish prig with a mean streak that he had always seemed. He was actively evil. How long had he been a dog of the demon? What role had his grandmother played? The questions were no longer as important as the result. As soon as the three conspirators left the room below, Karek made his way back through the tortuous passage and returned to the guard post where Gaton still waited.
"Did you learn why you father changed his policies?" Gaton asked when Karek was close enough to speak without arousing suspicion.
"There is more at stake here than the right of Mareklans to enter Zedekla. The man who has issued these orders is an impostor. He is a puppet of the Orquians. I've learned several other things. My sister is unwilling to marry Canik and if she did, it could break the alliance with Janaka. She is sworn to Tolmen, Otagun's heir. The Janakans are men of honor, and an affront to their honor would mean war. That is the aim of the traitors. They believe that war can be profitable for them."
Gaton's eyes widened with surprise. Karek had been gone less than two hours and he had laid bare a conspiracy. "Now that you know you wouldn't be fighting your own father, what do we do?" Gaton asked.
"First, I must try to find my parents," Karek replied. "I think I know where they are, but I'll have to cross a courtyard where I shouldn't be found. Pray for me. If they discover who I am, all is over."
"Maybe you should try to convince them you're a ghost," Gaton said with a smirk.
"But I bleed," Karek reminded him with a grim smile. He picked up one of the blow tubes he had neglected to take with him before. It would offer some protection, and possibly he would have another chance to aim it at the conspirators.
He made his way to the guards' mess and sat down to eat. The food was stale and the only drink offered was wine, but Karek had learned how to look like he was eating and drinking without actually letting anything past his lips. He listened to the casual gossip of the ruffians who had been brought in from Jama to supplant the palace guard.
"It shouldn't be long now," a balding man said between gulps of wine. "I saw Burga leading the lady Talara to the small dungeon. That's a foul place. Doubtless it will take less than a day before she changes her mind and agrees to marry Lord Canik."
"I can't understand why we have to wait until then to get our reward," a wiry man with a scar on his cheek said. "I was promised I would have my choice of the silversmith shops in Zedekla when I signed on. Why doesn't the king give us our prizes now instead of waiting for his daughter's wedding?"
"You haven't heard about the ritual?" the bald man said with surprise.
"You mean the rumor that the Orquians will burn the Shrine and sacrifice Talara's sisters to rededicate the altar of Orqu? I assumed that was nonsense. Why would the king be willing to do that?"
"The princesses are pretty things," said a younger man, whose greasy curls stained the collar of his tunic. "At least one of them will be saved. I'm bidding on bedding one of them."
Karek stood on legs that nearly quivered with his anguish at hearing these vile beasts spill their drivel. He made his way out of the room and paused in a corner where he lost the few bites he had eaten. The thought of Talara forced to marry Canik had made him angry. The thought of his other sisters sacrificed to the demon, or used to slake the lusts of the ragtag crew of traitors was more than he could bear.
He knelt over a fountain in a corner of the courtyard and washed his mouth and hands of the bitter taste of bile. Finally he stood and looked around. It was dusk and the torches that lit most of the courtyard left many shadows but the courtyard in front of the family quarters was clearly lit.
He waited for a while, keeping his eyes on the watchmen on the walls. Fortunately, they were better disciplined than most of the rebels and he was able to predict a moment when they would not be looking into the courtyard.
He waited impatiently for the next pass, then sprinted across the open space between the barracks and the palace and ducked into the doorway of a tower. Just as he thought himself safe, his foot kicked up a stone and it rattled into the courtyard. He heard the call of one of the watchmen and the clattering of their boots as they ran to investigate.
The tower Karek had chosen was in one of the oldest parts of the palace. It had been neglected by the traitors and spider webs draped the walls. He tried to close the door behind him but at the first movement the hinges began to creak and he knew he could not risk the noise.
He avoided the rubble on the floor as he made his way to the wall and located the narrow ledges of stone that extended a few inches into the room, forming a primitive stairway. He forced himself to slow down so he wouldn't make a mis-step as he made his way up the uneven stairs. The sound of the guards' boots rang on the stones of the courtyard near the tower and the flare of torchlight already intruded into the darkness at the doorway.
Karek reached the ceiling and pushed upward on the trapdoor that closed the opening into the next level. At first there was resistance, but the obstruction that secured the trapdoor shifted aside just as the first soldier ducked to enter the tower, plunging the interior into darkness as his bulk obscured the torch. Karek leaped through the opening and cautiously shifted the piece of wood back into place. He perched motionless as the guards entered the tower and examined it.
"I was certain I saw someone come in here," one of the guards said.
"Why would anyone want to?" another asked with a sneer.
"There must be more than this one low room in the tower," the first man insisted.
"Can you see any stairs?" the second man asked.
"There are some stones sticking out along the side," the first man replied. Karek heard him walk across the floor, coming closer to look at the stones.
"There may be an opening at the top. Here, hold my torch while I look."
Karek stood on the wedge of wood that secured the trapdoor and braced his arms against the low beam overhead. He heard the ambitious guard fumbling for a hold on the edge of the trapdoor and resisted any movement with all his strength.
"Give it up," the other guard called. "You can come back tomorrow and look for your ghost."
The guard below him gave one last heave upward but Karek still held firm. "I guess you're right. If there ever was an opening, it must be nailed shut," the man below Karek said. Then he gave one last upward shove just as Karek was preparing to rest from his strained position. Fortunately, the wedge resisted his push.
Well warned, Karek only relaxed when he heard the two men leave the room below and go out to the courtyard. He ducked over to a narrow arrow slit and made certain they were back on the wall before he continued.
He cautiously made his way across the next level to yet another primitive stairway. The only light was the dim glow from a quarter moon through the narrow slit of a window. As he made his way up to yet another barrier, a wisp of a familiar smell made him smile. Only the matlas his mother made had that exact fragrance.
He began to push at the wedge that closed off the next level and found that it moved easily. He pushed it aside and almost tumbled to the floor when he was pushed off the narrow stone step by a thrust from above.
"Mother, it's me, Karek," he cried softly as he clung to the edge of the opening.
"Karek!" Kalil gasped with mingled hope and fear. "Are you a ghost?"
"Let him through," Nerik spoke close at hand. He reached down and helped his son into the low room where Kalil had been cooking their dinner. A dim lamp gave meager light. Heavy fabric covered the one narrow window.
Karek embraced his parents in turn. He felt their tears against his cheek and knew they had mourned him since Todok had reported his death.
"Where have you been?" Kalil said. "Why did you go?"
"Todok had an ambush waiting for me when he took me out hunting. He led me into the forest south of the vale of Timora. I escaped and fell into one of the rivers that tumbles from the heights into the jungle plains."
"How did you survive the cataract?" Nerik asked.
"I didn't," Karek answered and felt his mother's hand clutch his shoulder in fear that he really was a ghost. "I mean, I was able to climb out of the river before it reached the fall at the edge of the plateau."
"Then why didn't you make your way back to Timora?" Nerik asked. "Todok returned and told us that you had fallen into the river and were killed. I didn't believe him at first, but when you didn't return, I had to agree to hold a state funeral."
"I met up with a band of Mareklan merchants when I went south to evade Todok and his dogs," Karek explained. "They had come from Timora that morning and couldn't believe that I had made the journey as quickly as they did. They dismissed my claim that I was prince of Zedekla and took me with them into the lowland forests. Someday I'll tell you about the other adventures I had, but now you must tell me how an impostor has been able to gain control of Zedekla."
Kalil continued with the preparation of their simple supper while Nerik explained. "Two months ago your mother and I were returning from a pilgrimage to Timora when a band of Orquians broke from ambush at the side of the pilgrimage trail and assaulted our men. We thought we had been saved when another force arrived under the command of Canik. He showed us to shelter. When we woke in the morning, he had put guards on our room and prevented us from leaving the house. When I refused to sign a betrothal contract between him and Talara, he locked the house and left us alone with a guard who lived in a shed in the yard."
"He underestimated us," Kalil said with a grim chuckle. "I'm grateful now for the illusion I've allowed to stand over the years because of the gold mask. He thought he had trapped a blind man and a weak woman. I was able to set fire to our room and when the guard came to put it out, Nerik overpowered him."
"I've always been unable to press my advantage," Nerik said regretfully. "I couldn't kill the man but left him trussed up while your mother led me to Zedekla just as she did thirty years ago."
Kalil nodded and took up the story, "None of our fellow travelers took notice of a man and an old, blind woman. When we reached Zedekla, we found the impostor in control and an order put out for the arrest of the matla maker, Kalil. It seems Raderen is one of the traitors, and he has never forgotten my part in his humiliation. Most of the routes we had once used to gain secret access were denied to us, but I found a way into the palace and we found the bullies in charge. Nerik remembered this room and we came here to hide."
"You could have appeared as Jarila and denounced the impostor," Karek said.
"I had the same thought, but I found I had left the gold mask in the burning room when we escaped. Without it, I have no credibility. None would believe that I am the queen. I have been able to make a few forays to get food and water, but every day it becomes more difficult."
"Where are my other sisters?" Karek asked. "I saw Talara pleading with the impostor to let her marry Tolmen, but the plot is deeper than merely to gain her hand for Canik. They want war with Janaka. They plan to use war as a tool to overthrow the Alliance of Cities."
Kalil shook her head and her tears began again, but this time from pain rather than rejoicing. "Yout sisters have been taken from their quarters and I don't know where they are, or what the traitors intend."
Karek decided to keep his knowledge of the fate intended for his sisters a secret from his parents. For now it was enough to know that Nerik and Kalil were safe.
"I have allies with me. They are waiting for my word to begin a rebellion among the loyal guards. Orquians are mixed in with Canik's plot to supplant you. Isn't there an opening to the top of this tower?"
"Yes, sometimes I go up and try to survey the situation,"Kalil admitted. "but it is dangerous. If I'm seen, the secret of our hiding place will be discovered."
"You and Father will only have to appear on the top of the tower once, when I give the signal. I don't know how long it will be, but it must be sometime in the next three days. Do you have any of your royal robes?"
Kalil smiled and gestured toward the heavy fabric covering the window. In the dim light Karek hadn't recognized it, but now he saw that it was the robe of state his father wore for important events.
"What do you have to wear Mother?" Karek asked.
She shook her head. "It wouldn't do any good for me to appear with your father without my gold mask," she said.
Karek stared at his mother. She was one of the wisest and most capable people he had ever met, but she still labored under the impression that only the mask gave her royal standing. "Haven't you told her the truth, Father?" he asked.
"I've tried many times," Nerik said. "She's more blind than I am on this subject."
"What do you mean?" Kalil asked.
"There is no magic in the mask," Karek explained. "Those of us who have seen you with and without it know that it is no more than cosmetic. You could get the same effect with Jaman face paint and a permanent smile of disdain."
Kalil gave a nervous laugh. "This is no time to joke. I know I'm ugly without the mask. Even my best friends don't recognize me when I wear it."
"They don't recognize you because they have the privilege of seeing your real face. Do you think Talara or your other daughters are ugly?" Karek challenged.
"Of course not. They have inherited the beauty of their grandmother, Serina," she answered.
"No, they are mirrors of their mother. Have you ever really looked at your true face in a mirror?" Nerik asked his wife with patient sorrow.
"Oh, my dear, you don't really know what I look like," Kalil cried. "I don't need a mirror to know that I have a plain face. When I was young I was so ugly I was forced to wear a veil."
Suddenly Karek understood something that had puzzled him for many years. With all her wit and wisdom, his mother had one serious flaw. She had never forgotten the insults of the villagers of Rubble Ford. They formed a barrier between her and the truth.
"Mother, you were forced to wear a veil because you looked like a Mareklan," Karek insisted. "I lived in the Vale of Marekla for several months and many of the women there could have been your sisters. When you finally dare to face a mirror with your own face, you will see that you look very much like Saint Neril."
Kalil had lived with the idea of her ugliness for too long to easily yield. Turmoil filled her heart as she considered the long years of hiding behind the enameled gold mask whenever she appeared in public as Queen of Zedekla. Then she recalled how Zanuk had reacted to her unmasked face. Zanuk was a fool, but Karek had an urgent reason for her to believe his words. Which should she believe.
"I will not appear alone," Nerik said. "I'm not married to a mask, I'm married to a queen."
"But the mask and the queen are the same," Kalil quietly insisted.
"Mother, humor us," Karek pleaded.
"Without the mask, I cannot be Jarila," she said.
"If you cannot be queen without artifice, I'll bring you some Jaman face paint tomorrow," Karek granted. "It will be a risk. I might pay the price of my life for your weakness, and all our effort might fail, but I'll provide the paint for you since you need some kind of mask."
Kalil shook her head. "No, I don't want you to take the risk. I will stand with my husband and hope the distance will disguise my face enough for us to gain acceptance."
Karek shook his head in wonder at her stubborn stand. Someday, when he had more time, he would make another effort to convince her of the truth. Meanwhile, he had more urgent business to attend.
"I will give others the orders as soon as I can. You should plan to appear when the third watch is signaled in two days," he explained. "Set torches at the edge of the tower and light them just before you are ready to appear. Do you have enough supplies to make it through two more days?"
"Yes," Kalil answered, "and we can use our bedding for the torches if necessary. If you succeed in your plan, we won't need it anymore, and if you don't, we have no choice but to yield ourselves to our enemies or starve."
"But what of my sisters. As long as they are in peril, you can't give up," Karek said impulsively.
"What do you mean?" Kalil asked.
"I heard disquieting rumors that they may be offered as sacrifices to Orqu," he temporized.
"I think the Orquians have been behind every move Canik has made," Kalil said. "I know that Raderen is now the high priest of the cult. Doubtless Zanuk has crawled from his hole to impersonate Nerik."
Karek nodded. "Not only Zanuk, but Dariya is a traitor. It seems she has poisoned her grandson's mind with ambition and hate. Canik himself is Orquian."
"If our daughters are being held by the Orquians, they are probably being kept in the victim's cages in the pyramid," Nerik said. "You must free them before you proceed with your plan. Otherwise, they will be killed."
"How can I free them?" Karek asked, nearly overwhelmed with the number of things he would have to accomplish.
"There are secret passages in the pyramid that even the Orquians haven't discovered," Nerik said. "I used them to rescue your mother when she was held captive. I will tell you how to get to the room where they keep the cages."
Karek watched his father's face become perfectly still as he reached into his trained memory. Without sight to cue him, the king had developed an ability to use his other senses and remember the information he gained.
"Seventy paces from the eastern face of the Shrine there is a grid over the city drainage system. If you lift it, the drop is just under the height of a man. Walk through the passage in the direction opposite the Shrine. When you come to the third branch on the left, turn and follow it. The ceiling will become so low that you will have to duck under the water, but that will last for only five paces. From that point, the passage will lead upward. It is narrow, but passable. When it seems to come to an end, press hard on the right wall. It will be difficult to move, but it is on a swivel."
While Karek's father spoke, his mother made a sketch on a slate. She knew Karek had never developed the remarkable abilities her husband took for granted.
When Nerik finally completed his description of the route, Karek took the slate from his mother and bid them both farewell. Kalil gave him a few matlas wrapped in a napkin to appease his hunger before he lifted the slotted opening to the room below.
There were at least four tasks to be accomplished and the timing had to be right or he would fail, or in the very least, his family would suffer. The rabble who had taken the place of the palace guard would have to be supplanted. His younger sisters would have to be freed from the captivity of the Orquians, and Talara from the dungeon. Not least, he would have to make sure that Dariya and her grandson Canik, did not escape to make mischief again.
As he made his way back through the tower, Karek realized that dawn would soon come. Soon the watch would change. Perhaps the new watchmen would be less zealous, but he had no way of knowing that. He stood just inside the doorway and watched the men who guarded the courtyard. They had spent many hours on the ramparts and one of them began to lag. His partner stopped and chastised him for his inattention. Their backs were turned while they argued.
Karek felt the matlas he carried, still warm in the napkin. There was one excuse he could make for being in the courtyard at this hour. He walked boldly up to stand beneath the watchmen before they could turn and see that he came from the tower.
"The cook asked me to bring these to the watchman on the wall and I wondered which of you she meant," he said.
The men began to argue. Finally, the officer turned to Karek. "I will take the matlas and settle this argument later. You should not be here at this hour."
Karek nodded and handed the matlas to the officer who had come down to receive them, then he turned away, taking his path out of the palace and into the main square.
There was no one abroad in the pale dawn that lightened the eastern sky. He made his way to the Shrine, now closed and locked and found the grill his father had described. Oily water covered the bottom of the drain, but he was certain his father had remembered correctly. He glanced around to make sure he was unobserved, then lifted the grid and dropped into the drain.
The darkness of the sewer was less intense than the darkness of the caves that led to Marekla. There was silence except for the lapping of the water that came to his knees. The roof was covered with slime that glowed dimly in the darkness. Karek made the turns his father had prescribed, repeating them beneath his breath to make certain he had not taken a wrong turn. When he reached the dead end, he pushed against the right wall with all his strength but it didn't move. Then he sat against the opposite wall and put his feet against the unyielding surface and used the strength of his thighs to push. His effort finally shifted the stone.
The passage beyond the wall was dry. Karek moved along in the dark until he finally saw a dim light ahead. It was another small grilled opening in the bottom of a room. As he cautiously approached, swill was spilled into the passage. He stepped back to the verges as it ran down toward the drain. When he drew close to the grate again, he heard an argument.
"What will Raderen know or care if the princesses are still maidens when he kills them. It's a waste. If we swear secrecy, no one will know we used them," a man growled.
"Raderen told us to guard their maidenhood or he would have our hearts. I believe him. He's been planning this day for years. I wouldn't want to be the one who disobeyed him. If you're so desperate for a woman, go find one in the city. I'll stay on guard until you return."
"Yes, you'll stay here alone and take your pick. I don't think so. We'll stay here together or go together. I don't know why Raderen thinks they need guarding. What can they do, locked in cages in the center crypt?"
There was silence for a few seconds. Then the other man grunted. "I guess I'd be doing better by Raderen to get you away from temptation. But if you cause me any trouble, I'll make sure he knows what you wanted to do to the princesses. Raderen has a special interest in making sure that girls are maidens when he gives their blood to Orqu."
"We run a risk if we leave the temple. Raderen has spies everywhere in the city. If they tell him they saw us, he won't give us a chance to explain. I say we should stay here and take our pleasure with the material at hand. If they scream, there is none to hear them," the first man urged.
Karek waited impatiently as the men debated the decision. His blow tube was useless because neither of them came close enough to present a target. Then he began to pray that something would break the deadlock.
"You will have to kill us to keep the secret if you violate us," a sweet voice said. It was Rivana, Karek's youngest sister. She had been hardly more than a child a nearly a year before when Karek last saw her. He grinned in the darkness as he admired her courage.
"She's right. We wouldn't be able to take that one without a fight," the second man said with an edge of admiration in his voice.
"We promise not to let anyone know you left us alone," Rivana said.
"She is overbold," the first man said. "Perhaps we should teach her a lesson."
"Be a fool if you will, but leave me out of it," the second man said with an edge of disgust. "I'm going to leave and get some comfort that won't cost me my life."
The other man grumbled, but soon he joined his crony who was already leaving the chamber. Karek heard the lock click as they fastened it behind them, leaving the princesses in the dark. He waited for a few minutes until he felt confident the guards wouldn't return. He located the lever that kept the grating closed and moved it. Then he shifted the grating out of the way and grasped the edges of the opening.
At first he thought he wouldn't fit, but after squeezing his shoulders together, he was able to scrape through. He felt his way around the room, locating the cages and leaning close to hear his sisters breathing or softly crying.
"Who is there?" Rivana challenged as he drew near her cage. "I warn you. You will have to kill me to keep your filthy secret."
"It's Karek," he hissed. "I've come to rescue you. Be quiet."
"Karek is dead," Rivana said with a sob. "Todok saw him drown."
"Would you trust Todok the Toady to tell you the truth?" Karek asked.
There was a gasp of surprised recognition. The name Milana had given the tutor was not widely known. "Why did you wait until now to return?" Milana cried.
"Can't you stop arguing until he gets us out of here?" another voice interrupted. "Karek will have plenty of time to satisfy our questions when we're safe."
It was Tavra, always practical and often impatient with her younger brother and sisters. Karek worked swiftly. The cages were closed with latches that were easy enough to open once he had done the first. Tavra kept the other girls from making more noise as Karek liberated the last of them. Finally there were five sisters, all eager to hug him and make certain he wasn't a ghost.
"This is the same room where our mother was kept when Bildug intended her sacrifice," He told them. "We are fortunate that Raderen didn't bother to explore the route Nerik took to free her. Father shared the secret with me. Now stay close behind and stay quiet. You will have to get your legs dirty and put your heads under water."
"That's little enough to suffer to get free of these beasts," Tavra answered quietly.
Karek expected it would take their guards some time to find the dubious pleasures they sought, but he moved as swiftly as if he expected them back any moment. He had to admit that his gently reared sisters won his admiration as they followed him uncomplainingly through the grate and waited in the narrow tunnel while he secured the grating so that it couldn't be moved from above.
Locating his parent's and making sure they were safe had been a great boost to his spirits. He decided his sisters should know what he had found.
"Mother and Father are safe for now. They managed to return to the palace and have been hiding in the tower we call the aerie," he told them when they had finally passed from the precincts of the pyramid and were resting where the drain seemed to reach a dead end.
"Our guards were gossips," Rivana said. "We soon learned that the man who betrayed us wasn't Father, but his cousin Zanuk. The guards said Raderen believes that they are hiding somewhere in Zedekla. He has offered a reward to his louts for our parent's heads. We should go to mother and father now and let them know we are safe."
"I doubt you could," Karek cautioned her. "The only way to reach the aerie is through the courtyard in front of the living quarters. I narrowly escaped capture when I found them."
"There is another way into the aerie," Tavra said. "When I learned that Caril had taken refuge there when she first came to Zedekla, I decided to make it my own place to get away from unwanted attention. I explored the tower thoroughly. There is a drain in the corner of the bottom room. It leads beneath the Shrine."
Karek found himself reconsidering his image of his staid sister. He would never have believed that she climbed into abandoned towers and waded through the drains with her skirts hiked to keep them from soiling.
"The grill I used to enter the drain was east of the eastern face of the Shrine," Karek mused. "It will be mid-morning when we reach the opening and impossible to leave through that exit. I suspect there is some link between this tunnel and the drain Tavra described. I think we should explore a little further and see if we can find the connection."
"Won't it be a waste of time, when we have no time to spare?" asked Milana. She was a couple of years older than Karek and most prone to question his ideas.
"This isn't the time to doubt Karek's leadership," Tavra said. "If you have something constructive to say, say it. If not, spare us your criticism."
There was a moment of tension. Then a slender hand fumbled along Karek's arm until it clasped his right hand.
"I guess I had to say something for old times sake," Milana murmured. "I'm glad you're back. But what will the guards say when they return and find our cages empty?"
Tavra was the one to provide an answer. "They will probably turn around, lock the crypt behind them, and made a rapid retreat to get as far from the vengeance of Raderen as possible before anyone else discovers our absence."
The opening near the shrine shone so brightly that it hurt their eyes which were long accustomed to the darkness of their prison in the pyramid. They sidled cautiously past the opening, praying silently that no one would look down while they passed.
Tavra decided that her sisters should stay within a few feet of the drain that led back under the street while she and Karek each explored. "It is warmer here where the sun shines down through the grate, and some of us need to rest."
Karek approved the idea. Timna and Meliva, the twins, were shivering and weak with long days of fear and confusion. They needed the presence of Rivana and Milana to comfort and assure them.
Karek followed the larger channel and found himself directly under the main prayer chamber of the shrine. No sound came from the vast room, painfully empty now that the Shrine was closed. He pulled himself through the grate and looked around. He remembered his shivering sisters and borrowed an armful of robes and shawls from the priest's robing room. When he returned to the grill, he found that Tavra had returned.
"I found the passage into the tower," Tavra said. "Fortunately, I didn't lift the grid until I listened. I heard someone snoring. A guard has been posted in the bottom room of the aerie. There is no way for us to reach our parents."
"We could go into the shrine." Milana suggested.
"I heard Zanuk and an Orquian who must have been Raderen planning for the burning of the Shrine," Karek said. "I think you would be safest if you stay here until we are able to defeat our enemies. Now that we know where some of these drains lead, the city is virtually open to you. I'll go to Kalil's matla shop and bring back dry clothing and something for you to eat and drink."
"I'll come with you," Ravna said.
Karek didn't argue. His sisters were proving to have strengths he had never suspected. Even Timna and Meliva had rallied and were sharing small jokes with the others as they wrapped themselves in the borrowed robes for warmth.
He led Ravna through a drain that opened into a narrow alley. It was late afternoon and the unruly louts who formed the usurping band sought their pleasures in the rougher regions of Zedekla, south of the river, leaving the more respectable streets relatively free. The matla shop where Karek had spent nearly half of his childhood was quietly busy. Mira gasped when she recognized Karek and quickly led him back to the storage room behind the kitchen. She stared at Ravna.
"You must be Kalil's daughter. You look just as she did when she was your age. How did you pass the louts who are searching for her?"
"We escaped them, but now we need help," Ravna answered.
"Of course you will have my help. It is wonderful to see this scamp, so much like a man now that any but those who know him would think him grown," Mira said with a fond swat at Karek's shoulder. "Your mother told us you had suddenly decided to explore the world outside the walls of Zedekla, but she took your leaving hard. You would almost think she had lost you forever. We haven't seen her for several months and I've been worried about her. Well, I'm glad you've returned. The king's gone mad and the queen has not been seen for many days. What will become of us now that Canik will rule?"
Karek interrupted her garrulous musings. "We have learned that an impostor has been masquerading as Nerik. Prince Karek has returned and will denounce the traitors and restore the reign of Nerik soon."
"If it was anyone but you who told me this, I'd call them crazy," Mira said. "Somehow, I believe you. What can I do to help?"
"Spread the word among the good people of Zedekla that when they hear the zole horn blown twice, they should gather in the main square near the palace," Karek told her. "Tell them to bring mattocks and spades and prepare to tear down the chains that the usurpers have fastened around the doors of palace. But first, I need fresh water and food."
"We also need some clothing," Ravna reminded him.
Mira bustled about the kitchen, talking and working to gather a large packet of food and drink.
"Go next door to the shop of Derinka. She has a debt with me. Choose the clothing you need and tell her I will make it good. Your faces are your guarantee. She owes much to your mother."
Both of them were fully laden when they returned to the alleyway and entered the drain system again. It was a narrow, odorous passage, but the friendly welcome they had received from their mother's friends had reassured them that Zedekla was worth redeeming.
When Karek was ready to leave his sisters, they had made a cozy room of the dry drain that led from the Shrine. No one would suspect that they had recently been confined in close cages. They laughed and chattered in soft voices and shared the combs Ravna had insisted in obtaining when they saw them on display in Derinka's shop. They didn't scruple at the simple clothing Ravna had obtained to replace the filthy, wet gowns they had been wearing.
The news that their parents were safe for now and the joy that they all felt in finding out that Karek was alive was enough to brighten their mood. Karek envied them. He was still wrestling with the problem of rescuing Talara. Zanuk had spoken of the 'small dungeon' but he knew of no such place.
"I must go to Talara but I'm not sure where she's being kept. It's called the 'small dungeon'," he quietly told Ravna while the other sisters weren't listening
"That's what they call the little root cellar, the one we used to hide in when old Tirla, our nurse, was on a rampage," she replied.
Karek smiled at the memory of their grizzled nurse. She insisted that she wanted to continue caring for the royal children, even though his parents had offered her a generous retirement. Most of the time she was competent and caring, but there were times when his parents were required to spend many hours in their royal duties and she was put in charge of seven lively children for hours at a time.
Talara, Ravna, Karek, and Milana had formed an alliance that strained the nurse's fragile patience as she cared for tiny Rivana and the delicate twins. They could gauge to a fine point the moment when she would finally order them into a corner or resort to the strap that hung ominously over the nursery door.
She never really hurt them with the strap, even in her anger she respected their royal status, but their pride was always terribly hurt by the sting of the leather band on their buttocks. When Tirla's eyes began to widen and her face began to glisten with emotion, they would slip away and meet in the old root cellar that Karek had discovered on his rambles. It was dark and dank, but it was their secret resort that no one but their father knew about.
Karek felt offended that an important refuge of his childhood had been demeaned by being used as a dungeon by the intruders, but it meant that Talara would be in a place that held fond memories. In that she was more fortunate than her sisters had been.
"Don't you remember?" Tavna interrupted his thoughts. "We could barricade the door from the inside with a stick. The air hole leads into a drain under the main kitchen. It's too small for her to escape through, but you could talk to her and let her know of our plans. I'll make up a packet of food and water in small portions that you can hand to her through the opening."
Karek was grateful for Tavra's advice. She was a valuable lieutenant and he wished he could keep her with him while he executed the rest of his plan. On the other hand, her solid good sense would keep her sisters calm and safe while he tried to restore their father to his throne.
He waited while she wrapped a generous portion of their supply of food for him and gave him a long, narrow water skin.
"I'll go to Talara now, then contact the Mareklans," he said. "If I fail, do what you can to lead our parents away from Zedekla. These drains eventually lead to the sea," he reminded her.
He took a few minutes to reassure his other sisters that all would be well and left them happily planning for their return to their proper places. Ravna gave him a brisk hug and shoved him along the path a little as he went to look for the drain under the kitchen.
Karek was unsure of how much time had passed since he first began his effort to locate his parents and save his sisters, but he was afraid that Talara might have given in to the pressure of her captors. She apparently thought the impostor was her father, and that alone would be a terrible blow to her spirit.
When he finally located the drain under the kitchen, he saw that there was only a flickering light in the silent room overhead. It must mean that the last meal had been prepared and served and the cleanup completed. Nearly two days had passed since he had last seen his oldest sister. He lifted the grill of the drain and crawled up under a table. As he had hoped, the kitchen was deserted and dark except for the coal hod near the fireplace where a fire was banked against the morrow. He thought it would be difficult to find the small hole that led to the old root cellar but he was wrong. He was led straight to it by the sweet but plaintive song his sister sang.
It was the old 'Song of Neril' that told of the saint's captivity by the witch Ayarlan and young Carnat. He waited as she finished the second verse and fell silent. Then he began to softly sing the third verse, the verse that had been added after the return of the Lost Scroll.
But all is well with those who trust
Neril prevailed and joined the blessed
When we are low and fortune frowns,
Remember Neril who wears two crowns.
"Karek!" Talara cried. "Why have you come to haunt me? Show yourself to me."
"I can't," he said in a quiet voice. "If I light a lamp here, I might be seen."
"Why would a ghost need a lamp?" she reasoned.
"I don't know," he answered. "But I'm no ghost, no more than the man who ordered you confined is your father. Mother and Father are safe in the aerie but an impostor has taken the part of the king. Come near the air hole and you can feel my hand and judge for yourself my reality."
Karek heard the rustle of Talara's clothing as she moved. A moment later her hand touched his and her fingers closed tightly while she sobbed her relief. He waited for her to work her way through the storm of emotion his words had inspired. Finally she quieted and only a soft hiccup now and then interrupted their conversation.
"Have you learned what became of our sisters?" she asked as soon as she was able to speak.
"They are safe. I rescued them from the victim cages in the crypt of the pyramid," he said and felt a tightening of her fingers.
"Thank the Radiance," she whispered fervently. After another brief pause she spoke again. "I have been trying to make my fast meaningful by praying, but I had begun to waver. Now I'm ashamed of my doubt."
"All is not over yet. I have a plan to restore our parents to their rightful place, but I must make sure of your safety first. Do you remember how we barricaded the door of the cellar when we were children and hid from old Tirla?" he asked.
"Yes. As soon as they shut the door on me, I found the pole in a niche over the door and secured it from the inside. When they come to see if I've been chastened by their punishment, they won't be able to open the door," she answered with a lilt to her voice that betrayed a smile.
"I brought food and water," he said, placing one of the packets in her palm. "I honor what you've made of your fast, but it has been nearly two days since you were shut up and you need to restore your strength."
"Your words have nourished me more than any food or drink could do," Talara said, "I was heartbroken when I thought my father had given the order that confined me here. Now I know why he always turned his face away when I came near. Knowing that our parents, our sisters, and you, are alive and well, will guard me against despair. Now I will be able to bear the hours of darkness with a good heart. Hurry now, go about your business." Her graceful hand tightened around his fingers once more, then she gave his hand a gentle push and he smiled. Tavra had also pushed him on his way. Someday their husbands would find themselves urged forward to do the right thing, if he did not fail them all.
The thought sobered him and he was conscious of the time that had passed since he had seen his parents. He hurried along the drain to the opening that led to the sea. His legs were wet to the knees with sewage from the drains and he took a few minutes to wash himself in the fresh stream that gushed down the beach. It was time to begin the counter coup.
Chapter 11 Third Watch
Gaton gave a sigh of relief when Karek finally made his way back to the barracks shortly before dawn. "It's a good thing the officers are lax or you'd be in trouble for being gone so long. I made excuses for you for more than a day, but the officer who signed us on has been showing signs of impatience. I managed to get news from the dungeons. As soon as you give the signal, they are ready to break out and subdue the usurpers."
"We will begin soon. Go now and tell them that my father's cousin Zanuk is impersonating the king. When they hear one blast of a zole horn when first watch is signaled at dawn, they should begin their rebellion. When they hear two blasts from the horn at noon, they should begin to work their way to the courtyard in front of the living quarters of the palace and secure the area. When the third watch is sounded, my parents will appear and take back the reins of government."
Gaton stared at him puzzled. "Who will blow these signals? Perhaps you haven't noticed, but there are no signals for the change of watch."
Karek shook his head and felt weariness closing over him like a cloud dimming his thoughts. He had counted on the blowing of the great zole horn in the tower that would mark the change of watch, and finally, the curfew. He should have noticed by now that it was silent, but he had been so busy locating his parents and his sisters that he had overlooked the lack.
"I have told my parents when to make their appearance. Somehow I must find a way to signal the watches."
Karek spoke confidently, but he knew he was a little light-headed from the long hours that had brought both success and weariness. While he ate the course bread and dipped up the greasy rations provided for the guards he wondered how he could gain access to the horn, not once, but three times.
"So you've decided to come back have you," a sarcastic voice said. The heavy hand on Karek's shoulder wrenched him around on the bench and lifted him to eye level with the burly officer of the guard. Gaton slipped away with his message for the Mareklans when he saw that all the captain's attention had focused on Karek.
"I'd throw you into the dungeons but I can ill afford to lose more men," the captain said with bad humor as he marched out of the barracks, prodding Karek ahead of him. "This lot of rascals and thieves have no idea of discipline."
"It would help if there was a way to mark the watches," Karek ventured.
The captain shoved him hard for his effrontery in speaking and Karek nearly lost his footing. A moment later he was jerked to a stop by the angry officer.
"You have a smart mouth for a gutter rat, and I should whip you here and now. But I think you have an idea I could use. How would you mark the watch?"
"I noticed a zole horn hanging in the central gate tower. If someone were posted there, they could sound the watches," Karek answered, praying silently that the captain would accept his suggestion.
"I doubt most of these men would recognize a zole horn if they saw one," the captain grumbled. Then he took a firmer hold on Karek's tunic and frog-marched him to the base of the gate tower. "You will blow the signal. Begin with the signal for the first watch which begins within the hour. Furthermore, you will blow it for every watch until I find a replacement. If you make a mistake, I will personally whip you until you faint."
He shoved Karek through the door to the tower and watched as he climbed the stairs to the platform. The zole horn was as long as a tall man, supported in a sling of decorated webbing. Karek had once been shown the horn by the officer who had been in charge of sounding it when he was a child. He had been challenged to sound the mighty horn, and of course the palace guard had enjoyed his futile efforts to make any sound. The man had finally taken pity on the prince and had showed him how to pucker his lips and put them to the mouthpiece. Karek had finally been able to get a feeble toot from the horn, but he hoped that ten years had given the lung power to make a decent effort.
The watch was changed four times a day, a schedule which would fit very well with the plans he had made. He marked the position of the sun that hovered on the edge of the eastern mountains and looked down at the time gage that had been etched into the top of a stone set near the southern edge of the tower. The shadow of the timing staff crept toward the symbol of a cock that marked the beginning of first watch. Karek ducked his head and prayed. He had much to be grateful for, but a whisper of skepticism seemed to dim his mood.
Karek turned and looked toward the palace. Two figures were making their way along the arcaded corridor that led from the council room to the king's study. It was Canik and the Impostor, Zanuk.
Karek drew the blow tube from concealment under his tunic and screwed together the three short lengths until the tube was as long as his arm. The conspirators presented a perfect target as he lifted the tube to his lips. He only hesitated long enough to slip the dart into the tube but his chances were dashed when the guard captain appeared in the corridor behind the two men. It might be easy enough to take down two who were not expecting such an attack, but with three to choose from, and the probability that he would miss at least once, he could not risk the shot. Karek lowered the tube from his lips with a mutter of disgust.
If the Radiance truly cared, Zanuk and Raderen would not have come this far. The insinuating idea filtered into his weary mind like subtle poison. Karek had never heard the voice of the Liar so strongly, but he had been warned against its cozening tone. It was like the shadow of the timing staff, a valuable tool to any who knew how to read the message. If the Liar was trying to discourage him, it was time to blow the horn and begin the counter rebellion.
He brought the mouthpiece of the horn to his lips and drew a deep breath. This signal must penetrate to the dungeons and there would only be one chance. He puckered as he had been taught, and blew.
The sound was deep and resonant, the vibrations running back up the length of the horn and buzzing against his lips. Below in the courtyard, the captain looked up and gave him a gesture of approval. The watch was changed. In six hours he must blow the second watch. Karek hoped that by then the prisoners would be ready to move into the courtyard.
He must stay here until his task was accomplished. It was up to others to carry out the plans he had made. With the captain below he had no chance of leaving the tower. At least it would give him time to catch a little sleep. He slumped within a shadow that would shield him until midday when it was time to blow the signal for the second watch.
Below in the dungeons the Mareklans heard the resonating sound of the great zole horn and prepared their ambush. When the watch was changed they would be checked. There would be no other opportunity to break free. The door that held them in the dank stone dungeon was thick and well secured with sturdy bronze hinges.
Three men rested on the benches, three others concealed themselves behind the low, broad door, and two of them were posed on the floor, one of them leaning over the other who began to groan hideously when they heard the boots of their jailers ring against the stone of the corridor outside their cell.
"My friend here has a fever from the jungle," Katan said as he bent over the prone form of Odam. "If you leave him here we will all be stricken."
"What does it matter?" one of the guards challenged. "You will all be dead before tomorrow noon."
"Why not kill us now if we have no value to your masters?" Katan asked.
"We'd better drag the dying man away," the other guard counseled his surly companion. "Raderen has plans for these men and I would not want to answer for our failure if they die before he has his way."
"Stand back!" the first guard demanded. He shoved the door open and advanced into the room with a drawn sword. His companion stood in the open door with his own sword bared, as if challenging the sleepy Mareklans to do anything to threaten him.
There was only a narrow crack in the door, but it was enough for a dart to pass through. The guard at the door slumped and fell, and the other guard who had caught hold of Odam's hands and was beginning to pull him out of the cell, was felled by the blow of a staff across his neck. The two men were bound and gagged and placed in separate corners of the low room.
The Mareklans quickly went along the row of cells where Nerik's loyal guard officers had been imprisoned since the coup a month before. Many of them were weak with hunger and suffering from wounds. When the Mareklans tried to free them, they held back.
"We will not turn our hand against our king," their captain said.
"The man who sits on Zedekla's throne is an impostor. It is Nerik's cousin, Zanuk," Odam told him.
"Zanuk would not rule if Nerik were alive. We have sworn an oath of fealty to the royal house. If it be Zanuk who now sits upon the throne, then he still owns our loyalty."
"Nerik lives, as does his son, Prince Karek," Katan said. "Will you fight the usurper and would-be regicide?"
The Captain looked around at his men. It could be no accident that the best and most loyal of them had been imprisoned with no cause. It seemed to support the story the Mareklans offered. "Some of our comrades are still part of the palace guard. They would not turn coat against the king, whatever he might do. If we can convince them that Zanuk has taken the place of Nerik, they will join us."
"If I could show you any proof I would, but you must trust me," Odam said. He raised his hand in the sacred sign of oath. "I am sworn to restore Nerik to his throne."
The Captain nodded. "I trust your oath, Mareklan. My officers and I will do what we can to bring the traitors to justice. Is there a plan?"
"Karek has told us to move with stealth to take back the palace until the second watch is sounded on the zole horn. At that time, we will begin to concentrate our efforts around the main courtyard until we have secured the area in front of the royal apartments. Nerik is expected to reappear at the third watch."
"Karek is a mere boy," the Captain said. "I think we should pursue our own plans."
"Karek is far more than a boy," Katan assured the man. "He has faced danger and death and traveled to the southern forests where a boy would faint and fail."
The Captain considered the Mareklan's words. Finally he nodded. "I will accept your word and follow Karek's plan. What weapons can we muster?"
"We have our staffs and blowing tubes that bring a silent sleep or death. We found a few swords in the warder's room, but as you know, we do not use bladed weapons."
"We do," the Captain said shortly. "If we can make our way through the various guard points and recruit those who will join us and dispose of those who won't, we could very well have the palace secured by the time of second watch. Who is manning the zole horn? It hasn't been blown since Darvek here was sent below."
Darvek stepped forward. "I believe that I should take a look at the man. He shows promise. If he continues to do so well, I would like to recruit him as my apprentice."
"Don't be so quick to accept someone who well might be Zanuk's particular crony," the Captain warned.
The men were given their instructions and soon scattered. Twenty men went to reclaim the armory. The usurpers were caught napping or their posts were undermanned. Soon the dungeons began to fill up once again, but this time it was those who refused to join their former comrades because of mistaken loyalty who filled the cells. The counter rebels were less careful with the bullies and thugs who had been imported from outside the walls of Zedekla. Most of them were hidden in corners and left as if sleeping, their fatal wounds concealed to further the illusion.
Karek woke before the sun shone on his closed eyelids. When he checked the shadow of the marking staff he saw that there was still more than an hour before the second signal should be blown, but he could not fall asleep again. There was no disturbance among the men who slouched against the wall in the courtyard below. Either there was no success among the prisoners, or they had been so successful in their takeover of the dungeons and the main part of the palace that no alarm was raised.
The sun climbed the sky and the morning crawled by but there was no further sign of any of the conspirators. Karek did not expect Raderen to appear in the light of day. The old Orquian was probably trying to find out what had happened to the captive princesses and the two men who had guarded them. He saw a group of men leave the south entrance of the temple and hurry toward the east gate of the city, giving support to the possibility that the search for the missing guards would proceed on the roads leading away from Zedekla. Another group of men was searching the boats along the docks and yet another contingent searched door to door along the narrow alleys of the south part of the city.
The search would use up part of the man power the usurpers had gathered. It was difficult to stand idle while others prepared the counter-rebellion. He had access to the horn and the duty to blow the signals that would implement his plan. Surely it was the prayers of Talara and others that had brought him to the post he held.
Karek grew more impatient as the sun approached the zenith. He paced within the narrow bounds of the top of the tower. Finally the shadow of the timing staff fell across the mark of mid-day. He lifted the mouthpiece of the zole horn to his lips and the penetrating note filled the air above the palace and resounded from the walls of the shrine across the broad square. He blew again and the captain of the guard appeared on the stairs to the tower. Karek was afraid at first that he was going to be relieved of duty, leaving the last signal to the vagaries of whatever man the captain had found to replace him. Instead, the officer gave him a nod.
"I misjudged you. We need soldiers who know how to do the job they're given. Keep it up. I've ordered rations to be brought to you. We have too many men who have failed to show up for duty and I suspect there is rebellion in the ranks. No matter what you see, keep to your post."
The man turned abruptly and left the tower. Karek began to watch for signs that the Mareklans had been able to carry out their part.
There was no tumult. The first concrete indication that the tide was turning came when a troop of men marched into the courtyard below and arrested the captain of the guard as he conferred with another officer. All around the palace, brief skirmishes proceeded throughout the afternoon as the usurpers were surprised and supplanted.
Karek spent the time preparing several torches of oil weed against the coming evening. After he had placed the unlit torches, he started a small lamp burning to use when the time came to ignite the torches.
As the shadow of the timing staff neared the next mark, Karek could see that most of the resistance had been overcome. He wondered what had become of Canik and Zanuk, the impostor. Then he saw a figure dressed in royal robes moving cautiously along the arcade from the king's study. Without a second thought, Karek raised the blow tube to his lips, aimed, and blew.
It was a dim target and perhaps too far for the dart to reach, but he leaned on the edge of the tower and watched anxiously. At first he thought he had missed. Then he saw the man stagger and fall into a patch of orange light from the setting sun. It was Canik. Before Karek could reload and aim his tube, another figure darted from the study and ran along the arcade. Even as he jumped over the prone body of his co-conspirator, the impostor wrenched free of the ornate robes he had worn. Under the glittering embroidery, Karek could see a dark, hooded tunic. It must be Zanuk.
By the time Karek slipped another dart into the tube and raised it, the impostor had raised the hood and ducked around a corner. Karek lowered the blow tube and felt a surge of disappointment. He had wanted to take Zanuk captive in order to hold him up to the light as proof when his father and mother again took their place as the rightful rulers of Zedekla. He was tempted to leave his post and pursue the traitor, but it was dusk and the hour was near when he would sound the third watch. The courtyard below began to fill with loyal guardsmen mingled with Mareklans.
Karek grinned with gratification when Gaton appeared from the town side of the wall with a man wearing a hooded tunic. Zanuk had not made good his escape.
Karek could see a crowd of Zedeklans gathering in the square, the handles of their tools held ready to assault the wall. Finally, he glanced toward the horizon and saw the first stars begin to glow. It was time for the final scene.
He put the zole horn to his lips after saying a brief prayer. The pure, low tone of the signal floated over the gathered crowd. Once, twice, three times. Light flashed on the top of the aerie tower and torches sent up a golden glow that lit the faces gathered there.
Karek saw not just his father and mother, but also his sisters, standing in the glow of the torches and waving to the people. There were murmurs of confusion from the crowd. Gaton pushed his prisoner to the top of the gate tower and stood next to Karek.
Karek stepped to the edge of the gate tower where he could be seen by all, lifted the lamp, and set the torches ablaze. "I am Karek, for whom you mourned," he said in a voice calculated to reach the furthest corner of the square beyond. There were gasps of fear from those who thought he was a ghastly apparition.
"I have returned to discover the truth and unmask the impostor. It was not King Nerik who ordered the punishing taxes that have burdened you. It was not King Nerik who ordered the building of this ugly wall. It was not King Nerik who filled the guard barracks with louts and thieves. It was another, a man who was the tool of Canik and Raderen, the priest of the demon."
He stripped the hood from his prisoner, revealing the face of the impostor, Zanuk. There was a gasp of surprise from the watching crowd as they saw the resemblance between the prisoner and the King who stood on the tower opposite with his wife and daughters. Karek pulled his prisoner toward him and stared into his eyes. "You have failed again, Zanuk, but this time you will not escape the punishment you deserve."
"I should be King!" Zanuk screamed, distraught. "I am the offspring of royal lineage you could never equal. Who is your father? A fumbling blind man! Who is your mother? A witch! I will not be defeated by a ghost!"
A roar of anger spread through the watching Zedeklans and they began to attack the wall that stood as symbol of their oppression. The shoddy wall gave way under their angry attack and a group of them surged toward the gate tower. There was a feral light in the eyes of the leading contingent as they raced up the stairs toward Karek. He heard a gurgle of apprehension from the throat of the impostor and looked at the man. His eyes were wild with fear. Gaton glanced at Karek who gave a slight nod. Gaton relaxed his grip on the prisoner. The man raced to the edge of the gate tower and swung himself over the edge.
The enraged Zedeklans reached the platform just as the impostor pulled free and rushed for freedom. They were only a few feet away from him when he leaped into the darkness below.
"Find him so he that he can answer for his crimes before he's torn apart by a mob," Karek ordered Gaton. The Mareklan nodded and raced for the stairs.
Karek turned to the angry men who had breeched the wall. "Find Raderen, the Orquian priest. He is the man who planned to profit from the deception."
The change of focus seemed to dim the madness in their eyes and they milled around, peering into the darkness below for a few minutes until they caught the meaning of his words and retreated from the tower. With the impostor gone, the focus of the crowd turned to their rightful king and they began to cheer. Soon a festival air prevailed as enterprising musicians began to play merry tunes. Karek smiled when he recognized Mira in the crowd below, her instincts had led her to prepare for the celebration and she had brought her helpers bearing baskets of fragrant matlas and pitchers of nuka juice and hot cala to ease the chill of the oncoming night.
Karek left the gate tower and made his way up the precarious stairs of the aerie, finally joining his family to survey the happy crowd below. It was chilly on the top of the tower and he could see his sisters shivering. Kalil followed his gaze.
"Please go down and fetch cloaks for all of us," she told Ravna and Milana.
"Why don't we all go down and get more comfortable?" Milana asked.
"Because this is one of the ways we earn the privileges we claim as royalty," Nerik answered. "Tonight, of all nights, our people need to see us and know that we have not betrayed them."
Karek sidled close to Talara, eager to hear her story while they waited. "I was amazed to see my other sisters standing with our parents, but when I saw you here, I knew we'd won."
Talara grasped his hand and confided in him, "After you visited me, I ate and drank and then began to pray again. I don't know how much time passed, but I heard them unlock the door to the cellar where they had confined me and I could hear the voices of Raderen and Canik outside. They tried to open the door but when they discovered I had locked it from the inside, they called their bullies to force it open. I heard the blows of a ram against the door but another sound caught my attention. It was my sisters, working to widen the air hole that leads to the drain. I didn't think they could do it, but they loosened a large stone and I escaped."
Milana drew near and continued the story. "We put the stone back in place and went back through the drains to the aerie. We heard the first signal of the zole horn and Ravna dared to lift the grid over the drain. The man left on watch in the lower room was sleeping."
"We had him trussed hand and foot before he was fully awake," Ravna continued the story. "We left him for your friends to find and then joined Mother and Father."
Talara had tears in her eyes as she moved next to Nerik and took her father's hand. "Can you forgive me for believing the impostor?"
"Can you forgive me for being such a poor king that I was easily toppled?" he countered. "Raderen and Zanuk are our old enemies. I'm told that Canik was found with a dart in his neck and will no longer trouble us. It is Raderen who worries me. He has tried for two generations to destroy our family. I won't rest easy until he is punished for his crimes."
From the shadows of the square below, angry eyes watched the royal family and once again Raderen vowed revenge. He turned his eyes from the distant objects of his hatred and watched the people carousing in the square. A young Mareklan was dancing with a Jaman camp follower.
The boy was evidently infatuated. Raderen smiled. There was a plan growing in his mind. He turned aside into a narrow alley and began to scheme.
At midnight the royal family finally quit the top of the aerie and made their way to the more comfortable precincts of the palace. When Ravna had gone to fetch their cloaks she had taken time to confer with the housekeeper. In the hours between, the loyal staff had cleaned and polished until all signs of the usurpers were gone.
Before leaving her parents that night, Talara insisted that her mother stand beside her in front of a mirror.. "Look at the two of us together. Do you think that I am ugly?"
"You are lovely, very much like your grandmother, Serina." Kalil said.
"I look more like you than any of my sisters. Karek gave me this medallion several years ago. It bears the profile of Neril." Talara held up the jade disk and showed it to her mother. "This could have been carved using your face as a reference, but it was from the drawings Carnat made."
Kalil looked from her daughter to her own face in the mirror, and finally she nodded. Tears rose in her eyes. "It is hard to admit that I have been a fool these many years. I thought that others were only being kind when they assured me I had no need of the mask."
She turned to Nerik and took his hand. "Can you forgive me for my folly?"
"I am happy you have finally admitted the truth, but it was not in vain," Nerik said. "For years you were able to go among the people without their recognition. What will you do now?"
"I will ask Mira to meet me somewhere we can confer in private, perhaps the garden where I used to meet you. She has the wit and skill to undertake the duties I performed."
"I understand that someone killed the traitor Canik," Nerik said. "We should find who it was and give a suitable reward."
Karek looked away, he wanted neither praise or blame for the act. The blow tubes had been efficient, and doubtless had helped turn the tide of the takeover. Even so, he felt distaste at the use of a weapon that inflicted death at a distance with no risk to the one who gave the fatal blow.
Chapter 12 Evil Alliance
From her window in a tower of the palace, Dariya witnessed the fall of her grandson Canik. She watched aghast when Zanuk leaped over the young man without offering any aid and rage burned in her heart as she watched the imposter's flight She hurried from her room and down the twisting flight of stairs, finding her way through the precincts of the palace until she neared the door that would let her close to Canik.
The man who guarded the door looked toward the side and did not see her, but she recognized him quickly as one who had been sent to the dungeons in the first act of Zanuk's usurpation. He would surely know who she was and arrest her. She weighed the aid she might offer Canik against her own safety. It was likely her grandson was dead. What good would it do him if she became a prisoner again?
She hid behind a column, then ducked into an alcove, making her way from shadow to shadow until she reached the servant's panel that opened to a passage leading to the kitchens. There was a narrow window in the passage and she glanced out. The signal of the third watch sounded and a light flared on a tower on the opposite side of the courtyard from where she huddled. She recognized the royal family standing together. Shortly afterward the cheering of the multitude broke out.
They had never cheered like this for Canik, even when Zanuk had named him as his successor. Dariya's teeth gleamed as her mouth split in an expression of hatred for all the royal house, her silly son included. He had never been grateful for her efforts to set him on the throne, and he had even argued against relaxing her parole.
Only Canik had ever really loved her. She slumped against the wall of the narrow corridor and wept. All her hopes had died when Canik fell. Hope had died, but hatred drove her on. She would not let herself be captured and exposed to the humiliation of the mob. There was still wealth in the secret treasury that Todok had provided after he raided the Mareklan cache.
Dariya wound her shawl around her face until nothing could be seen but her eyes. Her gown was a matronly cut of discreet dull gray. In the dark no one should notice the fine workmanship and luxurious fabric.
When she left the palace, slipping past a guard distracted by the celebrations in the courtyard, she hurried to the bridge that crossed the river Com and fought her way through the mob who flooded toward the palace. Even now they were cheering for Nerik, the rumor of the restoration having traveled by the mysterious speed that only gossip could attain.
With its denizens flooding toward the celebration at the palace, the alleys of south town were deserted and dark. Dariya scurried toward the low building near the docks where the coup had been planned. The door hung open to the night and she gave a low wail of disappointment. She was too late!
A hand grasped her arm and pulled her into a narrow alleyway. "Be quiet!" Raderen hissed into her ear.
"What happened?" Dariya muttered. "Have you taken the treasury?"
Raderen shook his head. "I was too late. When I arrived I found Todok and his henchman Farsal sacking the treasury. I had no choice but to hide myself and watch. Both of them were armed and I am too old to challenge both of them. Zanuk ran inside a few minutes ago. Doubtless he is hiding in the cellar until the excitement dies away."
"I want to see Zanuk dead!" Dariya muttered. "He abandoned Canik when he was down."
"And what did you do?" Raderen demanded. "I saw his body. He was dead as he fell. I suspect it was a weapon the Mareklans brought with them. Some magic from the jungle tribes no doubt."
"By the time I tried to reach him the palace was guarded by those we should have killed. I will not share shelter with Zanuk." Dariya said. "I had no time to bring anything of worth." She unconsciously clutched at the brooch she had stolen back from Tepera decades before. She no more considered it disposable than she would a body part.
We can't linger here," Raderen muttered. "Any moment others could come and discover us."
At first Dariya was afraid to go with him, but what other choice did she have? He held onto her arm with a painful grip and thrust her ahead of him, taking shelter behind her when they reached the wider street. A few people passed them but ignored the old couple who seemed taken in their cups as they staggered toward the docks. There would be many this night who would over-indulge in their celebration at the restoration of the king.
When they were so near the water that Dariya thought Raderen meant to take her onto a boat, he veered and pulled her through a narrow door into a space that smelled faintly of corum wool. It was pitch dark inside the building, but he seemed to know his way, shoving her along the wall until she barked her shins on the first step of a low stairway. "Go up," he urged.
She fumbled for a hold to regain her balance and grasped a thin railing that was pegged to the wall. The stairway was so narrow that she feared that she would fall and she wondered if Raderen intended her to die. She was barely reassured when she came to a small landing and he reached out around her and opened a door.
"Duck," he warned too late. She banged her brow against the low lintel of the doorway and she reeled into the room beyond and fell to her hands and knees. She could see the opening of a narrow window where the flaring torches on the tower of the palace gave the only light.
"They are still standing there enjoying the adulation of the crowd," she sneered. "Not one of them was killed."
"Todok bungled the murder of the prince and your precious Canik failed to kill Nerik and Jarila when he had them in his power," Raderen said.
"And what of the princesses?" Dariya challenged him. "They were safely locked within the crypt, waiting to be sacrificed. You had the charge of them, yet none of them was harmed. Zanuk countermanded my order that the guard officers be executed rather than held in the dungeons, and now all of them are back in place. It seems to me that only I am blameless in this debacle. We had success so nearly in our grasp, now there is no hope."
"Stop sniveling!" Raderen said with a blow to her shoulders that knocked her flat onto the filthy floor. "I have no use for a whining old hag, but if you are wise, you will stop your noise and listen."
Dariya felt she had no choice. She struggled to her feet and braced herself against the window sill, looking at the dim-lit face of Raderen. He seemed truly demonic in the faint and wavering light of the distant torches. "What is it you want of me?"
"I am too easily recognizable to linger in the streets. No one would notice an old woman like you if you keep your head down and act your age."
She took no offense at his words. She had deliberately tried to keep a low profile. All her hope and pride had resided in Canik. "What is your plan?" she asked dully.
Her eyes began to gleam with twisted glee as he told her what he had seen and what he planned to do. It was an audacious scheme, but she felt it could work. When he had finished, she nodded. "I agree. I'll go tonight and find the girl. Have you anything I could use for a bribe?"
Raderen fumbled in his belt pouch and produced a few gold pieces and a little bauble of gold he had doubtless taken from one of the princesses. "Take one of the coins and buy some food for us to use while we wait. Give the girl the bauble and promise she will have more if she cooperates."
Dariya was weary and her head still ached from the knock she had received from the low lintel. "I will go when I have rested for a while."
"If you do not act now we may lose our chance," Raderen said. "The more witnesses there are, the more likely you will be remembered."
"My gown is filthy and I can feel a bruise rising on my brow. Wait until I have a chance to clean up and put a poultice on my bruise."
"You old fool!" Raderen hissed. "Your disguise is all the better with that purpled wound. Go now and find the girl. Doubtless she is a transient. You will have to search for her. Believe me, if I could do this without you I would forgo your help. As it is, we both know enough about each other to put our heads at jeopardy."
Without further argument Dariya wrapped her shawl around her face again and made her way down the rickety set of stairs.
It was tempting to use Raderen's scheme for herself and leave him out, but the ruse would work better if two old people were involved. Who would ever suspect that Dariya and Raderen were making a pretense of being married to one another. It was such a strange alliance that her lips crooked in a wry smile.
As part of the counter rebellion, the shants who had such easy access to the imposter's men had been chased away from the palace courtyard. Although some of them had argued, they found little sympathy. Most of them had taken up their former haunts, but those who had been brought fresh to Zedekla had set up a dreary little camp at the far end of the river near the sea. They were squabbling over a few bits of scavenged finery when Dariya finally located their camp.
The girl Raderen had told her about was screaming at another girl and boxing her ears until her victim dropped a bright piece of shoddy zylka cloth. She grabbed the scarf and wound it around her head. "You wait, all of you. You'll see. I won't be left here by the river in the cold. I have a friend who will see that I am warm and fed."
The others taunted her and she whirled to challenge them. Before she could attack one of them who still wore a smirk, Dariya stepped out of the shadows and grabbed her arm. "Come with me. You are closer to your desires than you could have known."
Two days after the imposter was vanquished and the resistance largely overcome, Zida approached the barracks where Gaton and the other Mareklans were staying. Gaton hardly recognized Zida in a demure gown of white with blue embroidery around the high collar and long sleeves. It appeared that she was not truly the rootless woman of low cunning and dubious morals that Karek had warned him about. She had come to tell them where Zanuk was hiding.
When palace guards encircled the house on the south side of the river that she had indicated, they found Zanuk cowering in the cellar whining for pity. When Zida was asked how she had known where he was hiding she replied, "I am the only support of my aging grandparents who were bereft of all they owned when the Orquians took their home. When I came to visit them I saw Zanuk hiding there."
Karek was not able to contradict her claims and he decided that it would do little harm to give the girl credit where she seemed to deserve it. King Nerik personally offered Zida a reward for giving the information that had led to The imposter's arrest. Tears welled up in her eyes and she cried with gratitude for his generosity.
"It is enough reward to serve my king," she protested. Nevertheless, she was given a small cask of gold.
It appeared that Zida was actually something of a heroine. Without exactly telling Gaton that it was she who had helped to rally the people of Zedekla to support their rightful king, she left the impression that she had infiltrated the palace deliberately to gain information against the conspirators.
More than two weeks passed while order was restored to Zedekla. There was a little resistance from the few pockets of mercenaries hired to effect the coup. Most of them faded into the landscape to resume their usual occupations of thievery and extortion. The citizens rallied to help drive the intruders from the city.
Once again the loyal palace guard were fully in control. Those who had maintained a stubborn loyalty to the imposter on the basis of their belief that he was Nerik, were pardoned.
Nerik gave magnificent gifts to the Mareklans who had helped regain his throne. Katan and his brother Gaton had formed romantic alliances with young women they had met in Zedekla and decided to marry them and take them back to Marekla.
Katan had chosen wisely, his intended was a young widow named Yavira. Katan had rescued Yavira and her small son from a band of fleeing rebels on the night when Zedekla was regained. Gaton had decided to take Zida as his bride. Karek had been worried about his friend's preference for the girl from the beginning but he began to wonder if he had judged her wrongly as the days wore on.
One evening while Karek and Gaton were practiced sparring with their staffs the young Mareklan seemed distracted and gave no real resistance when Karek drove him to step outside the bounds of the sparring ground.
"I hope you fight better if you meet with enemies when you are on the trail," Karek said.
Gaton shook his head and smiled. "I find it hard to concentrate on sparring when in only a few days I will be married. I cannot believe my good fortune to find such a treasure as Zida."
Karek reserved his judgment, but he felt it he would be selfish to object that Gaton had found a bride after having deprived him of any hope that he would win Terenil.
Terenil. The name of Karek's beloved lingered in his mind and he felt a sense of loss and longing. There was no way he could abandon his obligations to his parents so soon after they had welcomed him back from what they believed had been his grave.
"Have you met her family?" Karek asked Gaton.
"They are staying at a small inn outside the city. Yesterday Zida took me out to meet them. They seem to approve of me."
"Invite her to bring them to the palace. We offer them a debt of gratitude for helping to apprehend Zanuk."
When he left Karek, Gaton sought out Zida who was staying with a cousin in a small house in the city. He was eager to extend the royal invitation, but Zida regretfully declined. "My grandparents are old and poor and would be embarrassed to greet the king dressed in such humble garments as they salvaged when they were driven from their home."
"Surely they will want to attend our wedding festivities," Gaton insisted.
Zida sighed and shook her head. "If they are to come with us to Marekla it will be a tiresome journey. They must rest and store their energy."
At Gaton's request, Karek served as witness to the marriage in the newly opened Shrine. When the ritual finished, he gave a generous wedding gift to his friend. Zida thanked him with a kiss that exceeded the bounds of propriety.
"I should have given you my attention," she whispered as she lingered too close for a moment. He tried to conceal his shiver of distaste, but the expression in her eyes told him she had sensed his rejection. "But then, who could be pure enough to suit the proud prince of Zedekla?" she whispered with a sneer as she backed away and took Gaton's arm.
The hunt for the other conspirators continued. Todok and several of the Orquians were seen traveling to Jama, but there was no treaty of reciprocal exchange with the Pontic of Jama. It might be years before they came within the reach of Zedekla's law and could be punished. Of Raderen and Dariya there was no sign.
Karek wanted to send some token to Terenil and he remembered the unusual pearl he had purchased from Canian in Orenon. Unlike the more obvious tokens of Neril, its opalescent green color was not an immediate clue that it was meant to represent a blade of Neril.
He gave the pearl to Odam and asked the trek chief to give it to his niece. "Tell her I love her still and will try to come to Marekla some day."
Odam shook his head. "I will give her your gift, but I think you would be wise to release her from your memory. You can have no future with each other. I see now that you are meant to follow your father as Zedekla's king. We must willfully blinded ourselves to your true identity. Now I wonder why I was so set on denying what you told us when we first met in the forest."
"The Seer had prepared me for what happened, and he gave you instructions that led to our meeting. I have some idea of what was accomplished by my journey, perhaps there are other things that will come to pass."
Karek decided to appeal to Katan's new wife Yavira to bear a message to his love. He found her in the room that had been provided for her family in the palace for the remainder of their stay in Zedekla. When Yavira saw the anxious expression on Karek's face, she invited him in and asked him what was troubling him.
"I have sent a token to the daughter of the high priest in Marekla, Terenil is her name." Karek said.
Yavira smiled and nodded. "Katan has confided that you are very fond of her."
"You must see that I cannot leave Zedekla at this time, but I have sent her something you might recognize as a Blade of Neril. You probably know that the Mareklans do not acknowledge the saint, nor do they honor the Scroll which she found in Saadena as an authentic word of Irilik."
Yavira's smile had disappeared. "I am sorry for the ignorance of the Mareklans, but Katan is such a good man. You can be certain that I will teach him what I know of the truth."
Karek was alarmed. If Yavira tried to teach the Mareklans about Neril she could bring trouble on herself. "I do not ask you to proselyte for belief in books or saints, I only ask you to share the special significance of my gift with Terenil."
Yavira nodded, then she smiled. "Who knows? Perhaps my son, Cheka will be the means of teaching Katan about the scroll. Some of his favorite stories are derived from what I read when I made my pilgrimage to Timora."
Karek left her with a feeling of unease. What had he brought upon his friends? He knew how strict the prohibition about speaking of Neril and the Scroll had become. Would Cheka find himself an object of distrust and teasing because of his faith?
"We will meet my grandparents at an inn when we leave Zedekla," Zida said when the Mareklans gathered to bid farewell.
"I will walk with you until you reach the inn," Tharek volunteered.
It was not Zida, but Gaton who objected. "You have already been told it would embarrass my wife's grandparents to be forced to meet you. Let it go, Karek."
"As you wish," Karek replied.
He watched the caravan pass through the eastern gate on their return trek to Marekla, but he could not dismiss a feeling of unease. It had been many years since any women from the outside had married Mareklans and returned to the isolated city. Zida seemed as false to him as the painted baubles that she wore in her coiled braids. When she looked into Gaton's eyes she was sweetly demure, but he had seen another side of her when he had first entered the palace in the guise of a river brat.
One thing he could not debate. He recognized the look in Gaton's eyes when he gazed at Zida. He knew he had worn the same look when he had learned that Terenil loved him. The thought stung and he knew he would never forget the maiden who had first warmed his heart with love.
She had given him her promise that she would remember him. Was it just of him to ask her to maintain devotion when he had no idea of when he might see her again? He wanted to run after the Mareklans before they were lost to view and give them some other message for Terenil. Would she think he had forgotten her when she received nothing more than the blade shaped pearl he had asked Odam to give to her? He hoped that Yavira would keep her promise and explain the significance of his gift.
Chapter 13 Return to Marekla
"I wish this was your marriage robe, Karek," Kalil muttered as she checked the fit of her son's ceremonial robe after the tailor had retreated. Six time he had served as witness when each of his sisters were married, but her heart yearned to see him marry someone himself.
"You will be my last child married," the Queen said. "With Rivana's marriage, I will no longer have any daughter's in the palace. All of them have gone to other cities and I will be left alone."
"Would you have me marry to provide you with companionship?" Karek teased her.
"No, I would have you marry for your own happiness," his mother replied impatiently. "How can you see the joy that Talara and Tolmen share each time they bless us with another grandchild and not yearn to find that happiness for yourself?"
"I suspect another reason for your urgency," he said. "You have tired of playing the queen and want to retire to Timora."
"I don't want to leave Zedekla," she countered. "Now that my closest friends Mira and the others at the matla shop can acknowledge me as queen, and I am no longer saddled by the mask and the persona of 'Jarila' my life is sweet. But I know your father would welcome relief from his royal duties. By rights, you should marry and have children so that he can retire to a life of worship and study in good conscience."
"If you want me to marry, choose a wife for me and I will provide grandchildren," Karek answered wearily. It was an old argument. For six years, ever since he had returned from Marekla, his family had tried, by means both subtle and bold, to encourage him to marry. Each of his sisters had introduced him to their friends, competing between them to find the girl he would be able to love.
Kalil frowned when she heard his answer. Something had taken the heart from her son. It was tempting to accept his offer and choose a wife. When she was alone with her husband later that night she mentioned the problem.
"Where does Karek sit when he isn't busy?" Nerik asked.
"He sits in his favorite chair in the eastern tower, near a window that looks out over the plains," she answered. "What has that to do with our dilemma?"
"Does he sit with his back to the window?" he asked.
"No, he is usually gazing out of the window toward the distant mountains," she answered.
"If I had my sight, I would have done the same thing during the months when you rejected my suit," he mused.
"Are you suggesting that Karek is yearning for someone who rejected him?" she said doubtfully.
"No, but there are other things that would prevent his marriage to the woman he loves. If her people disapproved of the marriage and she had no way to escape their ban, it would have the same effect," he reminded her.
"What family would reject the suit of the heir of Zedekla?" she asked.
"All of the men of our family have fallen in love with, and married women of Marekla or their descendants, even when they couldn't see," Nerik said with a wry smile."Should my son be any different?"
Kalil was silent as she considered his words. The ban that kept Mareklan maidens from leaving their hidden homeplace had been inspired by fear of Orquians.
"It has been years since Karek returned from his sojourn with the Mareklans," Kalil said. "Could he still be so devoted to the memory of a girl he can never have?"
"We have known the pain of what seemed an impossible love," Nerik reminded her. "Can we force our son into a marriage with someone of our choice while his heart is still tied to another? Would you have wanted any of our daughters to be married for mere convenience? If a way had not been found for me to marry you, I believe I might have encouraged one of my brothers-in-law to become the heir. Would you have married someone else while your heart belonged to me?"
Kalil shook her head. "Your love for me is more important than anything else on earth. But I am a mother and I can't resist the temptation to arrange my son's life for his own good. I'll talk to him about it. Maybe if he faces reality, he will be able to break the bond."
"Karek keeps his own counsel," Nerik replied. "I learned from one of his Mareklan friends that it was Karek who stopped Canik with a deadly dart. It is a burden I would like to share with him, but he has resisted my hints that I already know what happened."
Kalil was thoughtful. Finally she nodded. "I think he felt shame that he used one of the weapons he brought from the forest. Canik was a traitor and the two of them never liked one another, but I can understand how Karek might be unwilling to have the death celebrated."
"If our son did fall in love in Marekla, is it any surprise that he has kept his devotion a secret? Perhaps he will recover his heart in time, but I doubt that anything we can do will hasten the day."
Kalil reluctantly agreed with her husband. It was easy for her to mistake Karek's silence and caution for the indecision of youth, but it was he who had organized and overseen the restoration of Nerik to his throne. He had not yielded to the temptation to leave his post near the signal horn and join the fight where he could prove his mettle as a warrior. He had stood by his post and given the signals without rousing any suspicion. It was an act worthy of a ruler.
Karek sensed a change in his mother's attitude and he was grateful to be spared the constant parade of eligible girls that had become a staple of his life in the palace. When his youngest sister, Rivana, married, he stood in the chapel and acted as witness yet again. He remembered his mother's threat to find a bride for him. Was that the reason behind her unaccustomed silence on the subject?
He felt a sense of loss when his last graceful sister left to make a family of her own in Tedaka. He wanted to follow and be a guest in her home in the wooded hills. He would be many leagues nearer Marekla, but it would be unfair to burden the newly wed couple with a forlorn brother who could not seem to find anyone to erase the image of Terenil from his heart.
His father began to instruct him in the art of rule in earnest and he spent many hours in the council halls listening and learning. His mother made sure she kept in touch with the friends she had made among the people and Karek often accompanied her to the garden to consult with Mira and Balga. It kept him busy, but he felt sometimes as if his real life was in suspension. He only marked time.
One evening as Karek dined with his parents Kalil noticed that there was no savor spice on the table. "It has been more than a year since Mareklans came to Zedekla. We are running low on many of the commodities they provide."
"Has it been so long?" Karek asked, surprised.
"I have wondered about their absence," Nerik admitted. "We have received inquiries from several cities. Mareklans have not been seen recently in Tedaka, Janaka, or even Timora. There was no caravan to make offerings at the Day of Consecration this year."
Karek stood and paced the room as he considered the implications of his father's information. "Marekla depends on trade for several vital supplies. There must be something amiss in the vale."
"If there is, we can never know," Kalil reminded him. "I remember the stories your grandmother Serina told about their approach to Marekla. Only a few men know the secret of finding the city. Fewer still know the secret path through the mountain where it lies."
"I know the way," Karek said.
There was silence in the room. His statement was a not a question, but by making it, he asked their release. Kalil clutched the side of her chair. She had lost him once and had mourned his death until he had miraculously reappeared. If the trouble in Marekla was sufficient to keep the hardy merchants at home, how could her son take the risk?
"If you don't return, your sister, Timna, and her husband can become regents of Zedekla. Perhaps this is what is needed to end the friction that remains between our city and Taleeka," Nerik said, offering his tacit approval for the plan.
Kalil lurched forward in her chair, but her protest came out as a weak whisper, "No--."
"I must go mother," Karek said. "I can't stay here if my friends are in jeopardy."
The words he really meant remained unspoken. His heart was still kept captive in the hidden city. He could not ignore the fate of his beloved, any more than Kalil could leave Nerik.
Having made his decision, Karek acted swiftly to carry it out. Before dawn the next day, he took leave of his parents. He dressed simply in a cape and a dark hooded tunic and carried a pack well stuffed with journey food. He considered taking the sword staff, Tharek oc Baroka, but instead, he took the battered staff of Neril. It was his only visible protection. In a long pouch under his cape, he carried the bundled rods that could be screwed together into a blowing tube as well as an ample supply of poisoned darts.
There was no need for Karek to consult the Orb that his mother had placed in his pack. The jewels that had led Serina and Talek to Mount Vald were not needed by a man who kept the map to Marekla in his mind. He cut cross country, avoiding the major roads that meandered with the river.
He was young and lightly burdened and urgent to complete his journey. A Mareklan would have recognized the easy jog he assumed as his pace ate the distance. He had learned to travel rapidly from masters of the trek.
Now that he was awake to the disappearance of Mareklans from the markets of Okishdu, he wondered why he hadn't noticed sooner. Then he reminded himself that he avoided Mareklans. It was too tempting to try and find news of Terenil. Along with his mother, he had hoped that time and distance would tame the hunger in his heart. Now it drew him to Marekla like a magnet.
If there had been anyone able to time him, they would have remarked that Karek made the trek from Zedekla to Mount Vald in record time. When he came to the base of the trail up the mountain he made camp, heaping oil brush on his fire to make a bright, smoky flame. No one could accuse him of using stealth as he waited.
He expected challenge from one of the elders who guarded the approaches the next morning when he started up the trail. There was only ominous silence as he began his ascent. There were signs of neglect. At several points landslides had narrowed the trail and Karek cleared away stones until he had cleared a ledge barely wide enough for him to edge past. It had been a long time since Mareklans had taken the trail.
It took him hours longer to make the ascent than when he had followed Woram back to Marekla. It was well into the afternoon when he finally reached the clump of oil brush that concealed the opening to the caverns. When he pushed aside the bush, he found that rocks had nearly sealed the entrance.
There had been a rock fall far enough in the past that grass had taken root between the stones that partially obscured the opening. Karek's heart seemed to leap with fear at this final proof that many months had passed since the path had been used.
It took him nearly an hour more to clear the stones from the entrance enough that he could go through. He stepped into the darkness and began to move forward, his left hand trailing along the wall. Minutes later he knew he had missed the first sign. If he could not locate it, he would not succeed. He turned and made his way back to the opening. There were too many hazards in the system of caverns for him to proceed without guidance.
He closed his eyes and tried for calm. Then he remembered the only sure guide. One he forgot too often. He bowed his head and raised his hands, stilling his mind and preparing his heart for guidance. "I come before the Radiance and ask for help, not for myself, but for those who need my aid. Please, let me find the path. Give me a sign," he asked.
The silence seemed to grow more intense, almost as if the air would part and some divine being appear. Instead, the call of a hawk disturbed the air. He looked out and saw the bird swooping down on a fleeing cory, its tiny tail bobbing frantically through the bushes.
As the hawk clutched the small animal in its talons and lifted into the air, Karek realized he was hungry. He knew it would be many hours before he could eat again once he entered the tunnel He squatted near the rock fall while he rummaged in his pack. Something rolled free when he lifted out a packet of journey bread. It was the jeweled ball old Makon had given him along with the staff.
As he ate his simple meal, his eyes seemed trapped by the pattern of gems on the ball. They were not particularly valuable by themselves. He recalled his grandmother's words as she had described her journey to Mount Vald after her marriage. They had used the ball to find the way. But she had described how they used the Orb sometimes to light their camp. When he asked her why, she had smiled and said it was a secret he could learn for himself.
He reached out to pick up the ball and put it back in his pack and noticed that there was a small stud set in the side. He had never studied the ball before. It seemed nothing more than a relic of the past, the design providing a map he had no need to use. He pushed the stud and saw the solid appearance of the ball change as the under layer moved. Something shone brightly inside of the ball.
This was the sign he had prayed for. How had he failed to realize the significance of the name The Orb of the Stone of Truth? For more than six years he had kept it in his possession without recognizing its true value.
He felt chagrined by his ignorance. If he had been more careful in his reading of the sacred scrolls, if he had listened more intently to the stories of his ancestors, he would have long since known the worth of the Orb. He would have been able to help his father rule with the use of the special properties of the Orb to discern truth from evil and test the honesty of those who surrounded the throne.
On the other hand, Nerik, blind though he was, seemed to be able to judge from the voices of others. It had not been the fault of the king that an imposter had nearly succeeded in taking over Zedekla. Without exception, those who he had gathered around him were the first to be imprisoned when the coup was attempted.
Karek gave a prayer of gratitude that his prayer for help had been answered. He stood and donned his pack and re-entered the narrow mouth of the cavern. In the dark, the light from the Orb seemed to shine much brighter.
Karek laughed with relief when he located the first sign. In the years since he had made his trek, he had grown several inches. His fingers were higher off the ground. It was such an obvious explanation that he felt like a fool. He wondered that he hadn't thought to make a torch and bring it into the cave with him. But if he had done so, it would soon have burned down and left him in darkness. The Orb made no smoke and the light it gave never wavered.
The Orb alone would not have been sufficient to guide him through the cavern without his knowledge of the guiding marks, but it meant he could go much faster than if he had relied on the signs alone. There were many forks in the track where knowing the secret of the signs saved him from taking the wrong branch.
He pondered the strange light that never wavered and he recalled stories told by servants. There was a small room in the palace with no windows and no place to set a lamp. He had been taken into the room when he celebrated his coming of age and had been asked to read the words written on the walls. He had been given a lamp to read by, but it seemed a strange tradition.
Old Tirla had whispered that once there had been no need to carry a lamp into the room of testing. There had been a light that only the true in heart could see.
Irilik had been given the Stone of Truth to separate the pure in heart from the wicked in Kishdu. Karek knew of no magic or craft that could produce the cool, pure light that flooded the tunnel from the Orb he held. If he needed a sign that his errand was blessed, it was given in ample measure.
With the Orb to light his way, he passed through the caverns in less than half the time required by a Mareklan caravan, easily making up for the time he had lost clearing the trail. As he neared the first of the large caverns that opened into the valley of Marekla he grew cautious. Unexpected noise filled the air ahead of him. There was the sound of harsh voices and the snap of whips raised over a murmur of quiet weeping.
Karek worked the stud that hid the light and moved forward cautiously. The scene that met his eyes was a glimpse of hell. Smoking torches gave a lurid cast to the crowded cavern. It seemed filled to overflowing with old men and women, but lines of rope-linked captives continued to file in, driven by swearing guards wielding whips.
A woman walked through the packed ranks of captives with a basket. Each of the ragged prisoners was given a meager piece of bread. Another woman followed with a dipper and an urn. She briskly ladled a few swallows of liquid into the open mouths of each of the captives before following the other woman out of the cavern. The torches set in niches in the rock walls flickered and dimmed, then guttered out.
Karek thought he recognized some of the captives, but they were so changed from the healthy, happy men and women he had known that he doubted his eyes. He crept out of the tunnel and entered the cavern. There was a narrow clearing through the center of the packed bodies and he hoped he could pass unnoticed and explore further.
"Who has entered the cavern?" a woman called. "Someone moves among us."
"Have they come to torment us further?" another voice cried in anguish.
Karek tried to ignore their calls, but suddenly a hand reached out and grasped his foot. He must have misjudged his path and come too close to the packed ranks of suffering captives. For a moment he hesitated, then he moved the stud on the ball and the cavern flooded with light. He was met with the sight of a thousand staring eyes, all filled with dawning hope.
"It is the Deliverer," a woman said with a wondering voice. "He has come as Terenil promised."
Suddenly a sullen voice came from the entrance to the cavern. "Be quiet you fools, daylight will come soon enough and you will return to your labors on the pyramid."
A guard stood on the ledge above them, but he stared into the space before him unseeing. He snapped his whip a few times in warning and squatted down again. "He doesn't see the light," an old man whispered near at hand. "It is the sign."
The grasp on Karek's foot had been released and he looked around him. The old man gestured him to come closer with a glance toward the guard on the ledge.
"When will you lead us to freedom?" the elder whispered when Karek bent near him.
"What has happened in Marekla?" Karek replied.
"Are you not a Mareklan?" the captive questioned him in turn.
"I am a descendant of Mareklans," Karek replied.
"Yes, that is the answer," the man softly chuckled. "Terenil is truly a prophetess. We laughed at her and rejected the truth she gave us. Then Raderen came and spread the poison that split our people. Now he builds a pyramid for the altar of Orqu in the very center of our valley and blood stains our hands."
Karek feared the old man was rambling without making sense. Then the he felt ancient hands grab his tunic and bring him even closer while the man whispered urgently. "Three days remain before Orqu drinks the blood of sacrifice. You are the Deliverer. You alone can save the servants of the Radiance."
Karek felt the old hands released their hold on his tunic, but once again he became conscious of the eyes that held him in the grip of impossible hope.
"I will try," he said weakly.
"You will do!" the old man repeated impatiently. "Trying is not enough."
"I told you to keep quiet. Any more noise and I'll light a torch and whip the culprit until he can't make any noise," the guard warned.
Karek felt wrapped in unreality. It was a waking nightmare to continue through the crowded cavern. The stink of unwashed bodies and worse made him falter. Then he looked up at the guard who could not see by the light he carried and he knew he had been cast in a role he could not resist. He edged up against the rocky wall beneath the ledge where the guard had his pallet and eased his way along, holding his breath and checking the ground before he put each foot down lest he knock a rock aside and make a rattle that could betray his presence on the narrow track. He breathed in only when he had put a rocky outcrop between himself and the bully.
A ragged curtain was hung to cover the entrance to the next cavern. When he stepped through it, the light he carried was dimmed in the cavern behind him and a faint moan of disappointment rustled from those left once again in darkness. It was as if the earth had groaned and even the surly guard could not single out anyone to threaten.
The next cavern was filled with younger men and women, carelessly linked without regard to modesty. Two guards lounged near a smoky fire that lit the ceiling with fugitive gleams. They were playing a game of droka and imbibing freely from a cask of wine. The noise of their game as they clacked the tiles down and yelled with disappointment or rejoiced according to the fall of chance covered the murmurs of surprise when Karek entered the cavern and the light sprang up from the orb, full and pure.
The captives here had heard the disturbance from the other cavern and had watched the glow come nearer. When Karek entered the cavern they asked no questions, but their eyes held the same heart wrenching expression of hope. Karek looked around him and saw friends, now reduced to ragged shadows of the people he had met in Marekla five years before. Katan nodded to him with quiet acknowledgment where he lay tied to a cowering woman in mocking intimacy. Yavira, his own wife, lay nearby next to Soram. Karek moved over to his friends and squatted down beside them.
"What has happened in Marekla?" he asked. The oracular murmurs of the elder in the first cavern had only confused him.
"Zida, the woman my brother Gaton married, brought evil into Marekla. Those she called her grandparents were Dariya and Raderen. None of us knew who they were until it was late."
"Raderen lingered near the caverns and tried to bribe the elders to tell him the secret of the passage," Soram muttered. "At first we laughed at his pathetic efforts and ignored the growing discontent among our people."
"Terenil tried to warn us," Yavira said. "She treasured the gift you sent her. I told her about Neril. The others pitied her and thought her grief at losing you had robbed her of reason. She built a small house near the Shrine with her own hands and spent her days in prayer. Only a few of us were willing to visit her there."
Soram nodded. "I tried to be loyal. After all, she is my sister. I ignored the evil gossip that whispered that she was entertaining men in her remote little house. The final straw came when she claimed that Neril had appeared to her. The council forbade her to speak in public but she wouldn't be quiet. Some of us began to listen to her."
The woman tied to Katan began to weep silently and he recognized Sericil. Finally she spoke. "I am ashamed to say I was one of those who believed the gossip about Terenil at first even though I was her friend. Gaton told his wife that you had somehow been involved in the death of Teren. The rumor spread and was fed with the charge that you had killed Wadern. All of Garen's old supporters began to combine against those who had given you hospitality and friendship while you were among us. Terenil was the focus of all their hatred. They tore down her house and tried to stone her but she took refuge with her father in the Shrine."
Katan took up the story as Sericil began to quietly sob again. "The leaders of the council ignored Terenil's warnings, but some of us began to gather at the Shrine where she would stand on the porch and speak about her visions."
Soram whispered. "The people developed a schism. Hatred of Terenil united those who began to listen to Raderen. He led the men into error with specious demonstrations of the error of belief in the coming incarnation of Yasa Dom. He claimed that the Radiance was weaker than his own deity, and many flocked to him before he finally revealed the dread truth of whom he worshiped."
"Zida and Dariya spread their poison among the women, tempting them with visions of the world beyond the valley of Marekla. When I tried to counteract their claims, I was named as one of the enemy," Yavira said.
"Where is Terenil now?" Karek asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
"She lives in the Shrine," Soram said.
For a moment Karek felt relief, but Soram soon destroyed his illusion that she would be safe.
"She will be killed to blood the altar when the altar of Orqu is dedicated in three days."
"How did it come to this?" Karek murmured.
"Not all of us listened to Zida and Dariya, but soon it became a choice between them and Terenil with her visions and strange behavior," Sericil admitted. "I nearly fell to them, but Yavira here reminded me that Terenil had been my friend."
"The difference was a wedge that divided sister from sister and mother from daughter," Soram said. "But the habit of keeping secrets from husbands and brothers festered in both camps. Those who believed the words of Zida and Dariya began to whisper discontent to their husbands. Many found sympathetic listeners. The sickness spread, especially among the young. Nearly a year ago, the malcontents staged a coup and took over the council entirely. They appointed constables and began to enforce what seemed senseless rules against assembly. The ancient ban against bladed weapons was abolished and the staffs of those not in accord with our new leaders were confiscated. Power was consolidated in their hands."
"Why did the caravans stop going on trek?" Karek asked.
"To a man, the elders rejected the orders of the leaders when the most awful secret was finally revealed," Katan replied. The men who now lead Marekla are followers of Orqu. Without the secret of the cavern, they cannot leave the vale. Those who won't join them have been enslaved to build the pyramid for Orqu."
Karek worked the stud that closed the ball. There was a faint sigh of regret as the light dimmed and disappeared, but he couldn't bear to have the hundreds of people huddled in the cavern witness his fear and doubt.
But for the casual observation by his mother that they were short of savor spice, he would have remained ignorant of the crisis in Marekla. Now he found himself caught up in a tragedy that seemed beyond the power of any one man to remedy.
He had come to Marekla on an urgent errand, drawn by his love for a young girl. Suddenly he found himself cast in the role of hero and his beloved Terenil had grown into a figure of tragedy to rival Elianin or Neril.
He clutched the Orb that seemed to confirm the destiny he had suddenly inherited. "At least they have waited until their temple is finished to begin the sacrifices," Karek murmured in the darkness.
"No, they began by sacrificing my younger sister, Malil. They only saved Terenil for the final triumph. Every dark of the moon is met with a sacrifice on the stone at the top of the center hill. They are building their pyramid around it," Soram said.
Karek flinched at the death of another illusion. Even when he had released his sisters from the cages in the crypt of the pyramid in Zedekla, he hadn't really felt they faced this horror. Old stories crowded his mind and he knew he had felt a touch of skepticism about the warnings of danger and evil.
"The first to die were the elders who refused to tell the secret of leaving Marekla. As soon as the pyramid is finished and dedicated with the blood of Terenil, Raderen plans to build a ramp to the edge of the caldera," Katan warned. "Then he will lead an army of apostate Mareklans out of the valley.
"All of the elders who knew that path are dead?" Karek faltered.
"Yes, as far as the servants of Orqu know, they all have perished, all but Woram," Sericil affirmed his worst fears.
"Where is Woram now?" Karek asked.
"He hasn't been seen for several months," Katan said. "If he were here, he might be able to show us the path out of Marekla."
Karek was surprised when Yavira softly chuckled. "There is another who knows the path. How did you find your way Karek? The Orquians have lost a more than a hundred men in the twisting corridors of the mountains. For months they tried to find the way out. They used torches and lamps but to no avail."
"You were always an enigma Karek," Soram said. "How do you know the secret of the caverns?"
"I used to think I learned it by accident during my first traverse of the caverns following Woram. Now I wonder if anything I've done was accidental, including my return to Marekla. Long ago Sergon gave me a blessing and now I finally begin to realize the import of his words."
The guards near the low fire began to yawn and one stood and peered around. "What are you complaining about out there?" he yelled. "Maybe you are too comfortable and need a taste of the whip."
The threat was sufficient to bring silence to the little group where Karek was bending low in an effort not to be seen. "Tell the others that hope is at hand," Karek murmured. "You have a full day ahead of you to organize and make plans. I must explore while I still have the advantage of darkness. Pray for me."
Chapter 14 Visionary
Karek did not open the Orb again as he eased his way around the edge of the cavern to avoid the area where the guards had settled into another game of Droka near a guttering fire. He sidled through the final corridor that led toward Timora and entered the third entrance cavern. This last cavern held children and although he could dimly see their little huddled forms and hear the sighing of their sleeping breath, he was glad to spare himself a good look at their wretched state.
He knew it was a coward's choice and his heart was touched that so many little ones had resisted the fever of apostasy. He excused himself that they needed their sleep and he could better face them when he knew what he could do to help them.
He opened the Orb again when he reached the final ledge that led to the pathway to the valley. He was surprised when the glow expanded to light the vale with cool radiance. The first thing that caught his gaze was the ugly pile that had replaced the charming homes that had once encircled the central peak.
It was an awkward, ill-designed copy of the pyramid in Zedekla. That ancient monument had been built by a forgotten race in an era long before Irilik had led his people to Okishdu. Although the dark temple in Zedekla seemed to attract the Orquians who made an unwarranted claim to use it, it had a symmetry that approached beauty. The ugly temple in front of Karek, produced to Raderen's design, betrayed its inadequate planning and hasty construction.
The landscape surrounding the central peak was scattered with ornate buildings, each making a claim to grandeur in the street-front facade that was betrayed by the shoddy construction of the rear parts. None of the new houses had been built with stone. Stone was reserved for building the temple of Orqu. The groves that had graced Marekla had been sacrificed to feed the pride of Raderen's favorites. Karek recalled a saying of his grandfather, Talek when he had viewed the mansion of an upstart courtier. "Beware gilded crocks."
It was easy to avoid the carousing mob that filled the square at the base of the pyramid. None of them saw the flaring light that flooded from the Orb and lit their licentious grins with unsparing accuracy.
The hideous pile of the pyramid obscured Karek's view of the Shrine and he was fearful of what he would find when he finally saw Terenil again. She had been a lovely girl six years before. What had the intervening years with their horrors and visions done to her?
Karek made a wide circle to avoid the central town. When he could see the Shrine, he saw that the groves and gardens that had once surrounded the holy edifice had not been spared. The graceful building seemed vulnerable and naked amid the knobby stumps that studded the high bench where it stood. A stone quarry marred the side of the rise.
As he approached the winding path that led to the shrine, Karek saw the guards who were posted to keep Terenil prisoner. They were bent over a game of chance, swearing and laughing as they cast lots on the sacred porch.
In the light from the Orb they made an easy target. He reached beneath his cape and brought out the packet of bundled tubes that he had not used since killing Canik. He screwed the sections together and selected the drugged darts. The guards would sleep and think they had succumbed to the docil root they were chewing. He set the Orb on one of the mangled stumps and took careful aim.
One by one the guards idly slapped at the stings they thought were nothing more than bothersome insects and slowly subsided into sleep. As the last guard slumped over and began to snore, Karek unscrewed the blow tube and fastened it under his cape.
He lifted up the Orb and walked with nervous steps toward the Shrine. A latch had been rudely bolted to the door, marring a delicate carved panel.
He lifted it with a pounding heart and pulled the door open. He hadn't known what to expect. He had been filled with memories of the wrinkled faces and vague manner of the Seeress of Timora and the Prophetess at the main shrine.
The last thing he expected was the laughing face of Terenil, her arms flung wide as she raced across the polished stone floor of the prayer chamber and grabbed him around the shoulders. He was still gaping with surprise when she kissed his cheek and let her mouth trail over to his lips for a vigorous kiss of joyous welcome.
"You've come, just as Neril promised me. Karek, the Deliverer," she said. "Stay here. I'll restore the latch to keep others away."
She left the chamber through a side door and a few moments later appeared outside the open door of the Shrine. She closed it and he heard the latch dropping into place. A little later she appeared again, bearing a plate with matlas and honey.
"If you could escape, why haven't you done so?" Karek asked in surprise.
"They think I am their prisoner, but I have been waiting for you," Terenil explained. "There is no place safer for us. Raderen swears he will not be cheated again. Gaton told him I was your chosen long before others recognized what he was. Since then Raderen has been obsessed with using me to blood the altar when he finishes the pyramid." She spoke as if it were a game and Karek shuddered. It was the only evidence he had so far that she was not quite sane. She laughed when she saw his doubt and leaned close. "Please bear with me. In truth, I have sometimes faltered in my faith. The hardest was when they took my younger sister. Even when the saint visited me, I doubted what I saw. In time I believed it was true, but only now, when I can see you and feel you and see the marvelous light you bear, do I truly know."
It was so like his own response that he laughed with her. It seemed a strange reaction to such a holy moment, but he couldn't resist hugging her again.
"What is this?" a gruff voice intruded. "Who is this man and why have you lit all the lamps?"
Karek turned and saw Woram squinting against the brightness in the chamber. He held up his hand to his eyes to block out the glare.
"There are no lamps Father," Terenil assured him. "It is the Orb of the Stone of Truth, and this is Karek. Just as I told you I saw in my visions. He has returned to save the captives and fulfill the prophecy."
Woram sagged against the wall, then staggered to a bench nearby. He gazed at Karek with his jaw hanging. "I didn't believe you," he muttered to Terenil. "Even as the things you foretold began to happen, I didn't believe."
"But you see the light and that should comfort you," Terenil told him. "You didn't believe me when I told you about my visions of Neril, but you stayed faithful to the truth you knew."
"What do we do now?" Woram asked.
"I think we should rest," Karek said as he found himself stifling a yawn. "We have two more days before Raderen completes his evil design and we shouldn't waste our energy."
Woram nodded, "Follow me. There is room in my cubbyhole for you."
He led Karek behind the altar of consecration and into the closet where offerings and ritual robes had been stored in better times. A set of shelves pivoted to reveal a stairway carved from the rock of the knoll. They led upward toward the top of the spire and downward into a cave-like room at the bottom of the spiral. Karek followed his old mentor into the narrow space. There was a ledge carved around the room and Woram mutely pulled some bedding from a chest and made a pallet for Karek to use as a bed.
Karek welcomed the silence. He removed his belt and boots in good Mareklan fashion and saw that Woram had made his own preparations.
He wanted privacy for his next actions and he pushed the stud that closed the light within the ball. In the silent darkness with only the faint rustling of Woram's movements as the older man settled into his own pallet, Karek raised his arms toward the ceiling in the ritual prayer.
In the darkness he focused on the ageless entity who had designed his life. He searched for words to express his gratitude for Terenil's love and the miracle of being led to Marekla in time to save her.
The words were stalled in his throat, but the meaning seemed to find its target. Peace and joy flooded his heart. They wiped away the last vestiges of fear and doubt. He seemed to see his life and all others from a new perspective. He didn't know if he stood there for a moment or several hours. When he finally lowered his arms and lay down on his pallet, sleep dropped over him like a quilt wrapped and smoothed by a loving parent.
When Woram woke Karek, he felt refreshed. He recalled everything that had passed the day before with a sense of unreality. He looked around him at the stone room. It was time to make plans.
It seemed such a commonplace and comfortable thing to join Terenil and Woram for the morning meal in the priest's quarters at the rear of the Shrine. Fruit, meat and fresh matlas had been thrust through the door by a yawning guard. Experience had taught Terenil that Raderen would not stint her. He wanted his prize victim to appear in health and beauty when he presented her to his demon. There was more than enough to share with Karek and Woram.
While they ate, Terenil broached the subject of their escape. "Tomorrow night will be the best time to lead the captives to freedom," she said before biting into a juicy section of nuka.
"I agree," Karek said. "I will go to the caverns with Woram tonight and tell the captives what we plan to do. We can give them knives to cut their bonds and kill their guards."
"No," Terenil said. "Let the Radiance take vengeance of his enemies. What did you do to subdue the guards last night?"
"I used a weapon from the forest people, but only a few have the skill needed to use a blow tube," Karek explained.
Woram chuckled. The sound startled the others and they turned to him. "You aren't the only one who has mastered the blow tube. The council decided to ban it from the valley because it yields itself too easily to evil use. But I can bring down a running bacal from forty paces with a tube."
"Do you have more of the darts that subdued the guards?" Terenil asked Karek.
"I have many darts, both those which are deadly and others that are merely stunning," he replied.
Suddenly the world seemed to shift under their feet. The plates shuddered and clattered on the table and a cup fell over. A glazed look came into Terenil's eyes and Woram stood and moved to support her. The moment passed. Terenil looked around and frowned at the shattered cup.
"We don't have much time. We can't wait until tomorrow night. You have to lead the people from the valley tonight after the sun sets," she told her father.
"But what about you?" he asked her.
"Karek will take care of me," she said with calm assurance.
"It leaves too little time to plan," Woram insisted.
"We can spread the word among the captives," said Terenil. "The guards are careless of those who come to quarry stone at the knoll. They don't suspect me of talking to them."
She stood and walked to a grilled window. "The people are coming now. What do you need to tell them?"
Karek looked at Woram. He shrugged, then stood and began to pace as he considered the problem of leading thousands of people through the tunnel.
"It would be easier if I had the Orb to light the way," Woram ventured.
"No, Karek must keep the Orb. He will need it to lead us to safety," Terenil said.
"Why can't you just give me the plan instead of telling me what I can't do," her father said impatiently. "If your saint can tell you what will come to pass, let her tell me what I should do."
"It doesn't work that way father," Terenil told him. "You must come up with the plan. Otherwise, you are no more than a puppet. I only know that you are the one who should lead the captives and I must stay here with Karek until he can use the Orb to lead us from Marekla."
Woram shook his head but he didn't argue with her again. Finally he stopped and turned to her. "Spread the word among the captives that I will come to them tonight as soon as it grows dark. Tell them to watch for the guards to sleep. That will be the signal that I am coming. There are experienced trekkers among the men. They will know what it means when you say that Woram will lead them to freedom."
He turned to Karek. "Do you have a good knife?"
"Several," Karek said with a grim smile. "As long as I didn't know where Raderen was, I have been wary of going unarmed."
"What do you intend?" Terenil asked. "We shouldn't soil our hands with the blood of our enemies."
"No, but there are ropes that must be cut before I can hope to lead an escape," her father replied.
"I have a knife," Terenil admitted. "I had planned to use it on myself before I let Raderen have his way."
"Keep it," Woram said with a frown.
"No, I can't ask others to trust my visions if I'm unwilling to trust them myself."
Terenil slipped away to mingle with the people working at the quarry and pass along the message of their impending rescue. When she returned she was smiling. "They will be ready father. When Karek brought the Stone of Truth they knew what must happen."
The day passed with aching slowness as they waited for darkness. In the early afternoon Woram stood and looked out of the grill. "I have something I must tend to before I leave the Shrine. Both of you follow me."
He led them to the small room at the base of the stairs that led upward into the tower. They climbed to the landing where the materials lay at hand to light the lamp inside the alabaster globe. "It has been too long since the lamp of the Radiance was lit," he said. It took him some time to fill the basin and light the lamp, but it seemed appropriate that the globe should be glowing on what might be the last day of the Shrine's existence.
Karek turned started down the stairs again when Woram finished, but the priest called him back. Woram opened the closet where vestments were kept and led them through. The stairs extended upward through several more landings with locked grilled doors. Finally they stepped into a narrow room high in the spire and Karek saw the reason Woram had brought them up the tower of the shrine.
A crystal box joined with strips of gold, not much longer or wider than his joined hands lay on a plinth in the center of the room. Colored crystals of many shades were strung within it on golden wires. "It is the Eye of Adaman!" Karek whispered reverently.
"I wish we could wait until sunset to see if it now will respond. I was told by my predecessor that it has been two generations since the last time it gave its prophetic light," Woram said.
He wrapped the oracle device in padded zylka cloth and slipped it into a rude wooden case stored in a cavity in the plinth. No one seeing the battered, loaf-like object would guess that the precious artifact was concealed inside, as it had been in the days of Irilik. Karek wondered if the box was the same carved replica of an old loaf of bread that had been created by Tedak a thousand years before.
"If we are successful in escaping tonight, I will return the Eye of Adanan to Timora where it belongs," Woram vowed. "It was pride that led my ancestors to bring it here and hide it in Marekla. They disdained the evil of the outside world, but look at us now."
He led them back down the tower, this time taking no particular care to shut and lock the grilled doors behind him. When they reached the chapel, the light of the glowing globe seemed to hearten him.
"I don't know what will become of us, but I must keep a promise before I leave Marekla." He turned back to the young couple who had waited so long to be reunited. "I gave my promise to Karek that he would be treated as an equal in all ways. I dishonored that pledge when I found out he was the prince of Zedekla. I would not let him have the one thing he wanted of me."
Karek looked at the man who had treated him as a son for more than a year and he saw his regret. At first he did not understand what Woram meant until the priest took his hand and joined it with Terenil's hand in the time honored gesture of marriage
"As a high priest of the Marekla, I have the authority to perform marriages. Now there is nothing to stand in the way of my pledge to you and my failed promise to Terenil."
Karek glanced at Terenil. She had welcomed him warmly and given him reason to hope, but she was called a prophetess, would she be willing to be his wife. She met his questioning glance with a smile.
"If Karek still wants to honor the pledge we made, and which I have never broken, I am willing," she said.
Karek still hesitated and Terenil frowned and drew away from him. "It has been years since you left Marekla. I hadn't thought to ask if you were married."
Karek quickly reassured her. "No, I kept my pledge to you in spite of the efforts of parents and sisters and most of the mothers of Zedekla. I only doubted that a prophetess would be content with the role of mother and wife."
Woram laughed softly, wary of listening guards. "Enough of pretty speeches. Anyone can see that the two of you want to marry each other. If this is too sudden and too plain, you can wait until you can marry in the pomp of a Zedeklan royal wedding."
Terenil looked around at the shuttered silence of the Shrine. "If Raderen has his way, this sacred building will be destroyed. I can't imagine being married anywhere else."
"Yes," Karek said. "This is the time and place to keep our pledges."
Terenil draped a piece of linen over her head and led Karek into the wedding room. Woram wore no ceremonial robes and Karek stood to receive his bride wearing the plain dark tunic that bore the stains of days of continuous wear. The words of the ritual were the same as if the bride and groom had been draped in gilt brocade and priceless jewels. The mood was just as holy as if a throng of pilgrims witnessed the unveiling of the bride as she took the royal name of Terenila. Karek remembered the wedding he had conducted years before in a room in Ovishang.
Terenila kissed her father and Woram hugged his son-in-law. They were interrupted in their joyful celebration by a knock on the door of the shrine.
Reality intruded when Karek glanced through the grill and saw Raderen standing on the porch surrounded by his closest attendants.
"Come, we must hide," Woram warned him.
They entered the offering cabinet and stood at the top of the steps to hear what passed between Raderen and Terenila. At first there was only silence except for the sound of footsteps as Raderen and his supporters walked through the Shrine.
"You are brave to light the globe," Raderen giggled. "Pray if you will, it will not alter your fate."
Zida looked around and sneered. "Your floors are dusty," she complained. "I would think you could spend some of your empty hours cleaning." Raderen tittered at her comment and patted her on the head like a favorite dog. He summoned his cronies to come with him and left the Shrine. The latch fell into place as the last person slammed the door.
Through a pierced grill, Terenila watched the ugly old man totter down the knoll, supported by the shant who had claimed he was her grandfather. She rubbed her arm where he had given it a bruising pinch. He had smiled when she flinched. His lips had moved nearly soundlessly, but she heard the hissed words, "Two more days."
For years she had lived in a shadow world of hope and fear. Her visions had sustained her even as she watched Marekla tumble into apostasy. Now her hope was firmly founded in the strength of her husband and the faith that years had tested.
"Husband," she whispered the word. Then she laughed with joy and ran to the offering closet.
"They have gone. The old quack just wanted to check me to make sure I am healthy and fit for the knife." she said merrily. "Nothing can dull this day for me, not even the muttered threats of Raderen."
Woram went to rest and Terenila and Karek spent their afternoon in the silly conversation common to lovers. There were many repeats of the words "remember when" and "when did you first suspect?" It was a time of endless fascination to the participants but any other person would had been bemused to listen to the dialogue that was pierced by frequent pauses while they lost themselves in gazing with delight into one another's eyes.
Late in the afternoon dark clouds loomed over the valley and twilight fell hours sooner than expected. Lightning darted from cloud to cloud and thunder rolled through the valley. Suddenly the air was filled with gusts of driven rain. It fell with increasing ferocity, pounding a constant tattoo on the roof of the Shrine.
Terenila ran to wake her father. "It is time for you to go. The heavens are helping us. You will gain several hours from the storm. Even Raderen can't expect his slaves to work in this weather."
Woram checked his supplies and sharpened the knives, but finally he knew he could find no further excuses for delay. He was well armed with three knives from Karek and one from Terenila. The blow tube and a good supply of numbing darts was slung around his neck in a pouch. He had bundled his staff with that of Odam and the staff of Neril Karek had brought. He hugged Terenila one last time before setting forth into the gloomy evening.
The storm had driven Raderen's cronies into shelter and Woram made his way quickly up the well known track to the staging caverns. He stopped several yards from the first opening and assembled the blow tube.
He felt surprised at how easily he accomplished the task to subdue the guards. They did not expect an attack from the valley and the silent darts brought sudden sleep to all of them. Woram passed through the hall of weary children without disturbing them. The next group of guards was arguing over a game of chance. Woram took aim and rejoiced when all of them slumped within a few seconds of each other. One man gave a gasp of surprise as Woram leaped over him, but he too lost consciousness before he could give a warning.
"I have come, just as you were promised," Woram said as he built up the fire. He passed the knives out to the first reaching hands and hurried toward the final cavern.
Before he could leave the cavern, a shadowed figure lurched toward him and he found himself bound in the strong young arms of the youth who had been set to guard the older people. He knew his strength was insufficient to fight off the guard. He had spent too much time in the close confines of the rock bound room beneath the Shrine. He felt the hands of his enemy close around his throat and felt despair.
Suddenly the man rocked back, his eyes rolling under his lids. A woman stood over him, a block of wood held ready to take another swipe.
"Enough," Woram said. "Terenila said we should avoid killing them. Are there any others?"
"No," she said with a fierce grin. "After all, how can we hope to fight against armed men after a day of hard labor? Today the storm preserved our strength. What would you have us do?"
"Get the children and bring them to the last cavern," he told her. "Bring the torches and any other supplies you can find. Have someone take the ropes that bound you and tie up the guards. Tomorrow you will see the sky outside the valley."
She left him and he saw her stop and pass along the instructions he had given her as she moved across the cavern. He smiled and turned toward the final cavern.
He snatched up a branch from the smoldering fire of the guard who had attacked him. When he held it up to light the area better, he located the supply of unlit torches in a niche beside the ledge. It would be possible to light the way through at least part of the cavern with such an ample supply.
Several men slipped into the room and began to cut the bonds of the older people. Cries of welcome were silenced with urgent gestures. Woram waited until the room was packed with standing people.
He glanced at the woman he had first given his orders. "Is everyone here?"
When she nodded he turned and addressed the others. "Tonight we leave Marekla. For centuries the secret of the cavern has been closely guarded, but now I break the vow I made when I became an elder." The ground shook beneath his feet and stones rattled down from the ceiling of the cavern. Cries and gasps were choked back by the crowd when Woram raised his hands above his head.
"The Marekla that earned my loyalty is no more. WE are the Marekla that matters," he said.
A sea of fists shot up in silent affirmation of his words. He felt the heady satisfaction of a leader who knows he can ask anything of his people.
"These are the signs," he said, stalking to a wall and using the blackened end of a stick to draw the figures. He drew each sign and repeated its meaning. When most of the people nodded that they understood, he moved on to the next. "You will find them etched in the wall at intervals. Ignore them at your peril."
He looked around the assembly, then he scraped the signs away. "I would not want our enemies to discover these. It will take hours for all of us to make our way through the tunnels. Every child must have an adult companion. Katan, you will lead out. I will stay behind and make sure my cautions are observed."
Katan did not hesitate. He took up a couple of fresh torches and another that was burning and hurried into the entrance of the tunnel.
Woram rested on the ledge and watched the people sort themselves out. He was proud of them as they showed the discipline that had been one of the finest aspects of Mareklan life. Then he shook his head with bemused shame. Of course these men and women would show the best of Marekla. They were the stubborn loyalists who had faced every privation and witnessed the death of loved ones rather than betray their faith.
As they trailed past him, gaunt and ragged, he saw the tender care they gave the young and old. It took a long time for the cavern to clear, but the crowd was disciplined and determined. As the last family walked out of sight he looked back toward the entrance of the cave. He could still go to Terenila and make sure she and Karek escaped.
Then he shook his head and went around the cavern dousing the few guttering torches that still remained. He entered the tunnel and followed the last of the captives. As he came to each torch left behind, he extinguished it and lifted it out of place, leaving only darkness in his wake.
Finally he came to the great room where pools of water shimmered under the light. He stopped and refreshed his water skin as in days long gone. He shut his eyes and let his old skills come into play. Now and then the ground shivered under his feet but he kept his eyes closed and relived the days when he had led treks from Marekla.
As time passed the men and women ahead of him began to speak and joke with each other. Then the last of the torches guttered out. By now the deeply etched symbols had become familiar to everyone and all but the youngest knew where to expect them. Still, the warnings floated back, as they had in other treks. Now there were soprano and alto voices added to the subtle chorus of warning and comment.
"Low tunnel," "Take the left passage," "Beware the abyss to the right,"
The hours crawled by. At last the passage ahead began to glow with morning light. Woram breathed a sigh of relief, short lived as the ground beneath him began to quiver like something alive, a great monster waking while he was still trapped behind its teeth.
Rocks fell from the ceiling and he wanted to shout and urge the others to hurry. There was no need. They had seen the glow of daylight ahead and that was enough to banish caution.
As he followed the last few refugees ahead of him through the opening of the tunnel, Woram felt the earth heave again. He turned and watched with horror as the roof of the tunnel began to come apart. It was collapsing behind him, swallowing any hope that Terenila and Karek could escape.
Mourning for Terenila and Karek darkened his vision but he had given them a promise and he could not rest until the people he had rescued were led to safety. The line of refugees stretched below him. Out on the flats at the base of the mountain, a great camp formed.
Below in the camp, Katan wasn't sure how to proceed. He saw the gout of dust that spurted from the opening to the tunnel, but he was reassured when he recognized Woram's sturdy figure following the last stragglers down the steep track into the wasteland.
There thousands of men, women and children gathered under the overcast sky. The storm that had sped them from Marekla had brought a brief respite to the desert. As Woram approached the motley gathering he made note of standing puddles that had not yet been sucked into the hungry soil.
He stood on a large rock and addressed the crowd. "There is water in the washes and under stones. Before we do anything else, we must gather what we can. There are roots and bulbs and small animals to stave off starvation. The men will gather water, the women will hunt and gather whatever we can use for food, and the children will gather oil brush for fires. We will camp here tonight, but there is no safety beneath the mountain. Tomorrow we will travel to the nearest river."
The crowd spread over the landscape. Many of the men were experienced at trekking and knew how to preserve the scant reserves of water. The women remembered the lore they had been taught and dug up the bulbs and roots and caught ground birds and even a few lizards. The children gathered piles of oil brush.
By noon there was enough for several days of subsistence. The people gathered under the shade of the heaped oil brush and began to mend their rags. Combs were improvised from branches and there was weary laughter as the refugees celebrated the end of their captivity. Now and then the ground shook beneath them and they glanced toward Mount Vald. The mountain that had sheltered their people for nearly four hundred years was rapidly becoming a threat.
Katan guessed the anguish that wracked Woram as he walked among his people and gave them counsel. A tiny girl attached herself to the priest At first he didn't notice her as she trailed him through the camp. Then she cried as a burr injured her foot, he stopped and picked her up. He took her around the camp, looking for her family.
"She is an orphan," one of the women quietly explained. "Her mother and father were sacrificed and she refused adoption into a cult family."
Woram studied the elfin child with solemn eyes and then gravely took her hand. "From this day forward, you are my daughter," he told her.
As Woram vowed to protect the little orphan the ground shook again. "I don't like it here," the child said.
"Neither do I," Woram answered. He looked around the camp. The people were weary from the long hours and it was time for them to rest. They could sleep for a few hours, but they would be better off to cross the desert waste in the darkness. There was no reason to delay another day. "Spread the word. We will rest until twilight, then we'll try to put a few more miles between us and Mount Vald before we make camp again," he told Katan.
There was no protest. The crowd was well salted with seasoned Mareklan merchants who knew that their leader was the final authority on trek. The smallest of the children seemed to know that they should be quiet and try to sleep. When they woke in the evening, they ate a quick meal and prepared to go on.
Woram set the pace as they turned their back on the mountain and walked toward the setting sun. He tried to adjust his pace to the short legs of his small companion.
Now and then the ground shivered, speeding their steps. At dawn they made camp within sight of a distant gleaming strand of water.
In Marekla, several hours of the morning passed before the loss of the captives was discovered. Raderen was late rising. He went to the porch of his mansion to oversee the final stages of construction of the pyramid and gaped with surprise at the empty walls where he had expected to see lines of slaves.
In fury he turned to his servants. "Why has construction stopped?"
"We thought you must have given an order," one of them stammered. "The ground is still wet and the quarries are flooded."
"I gave no such order. If the quarries are flooded, let them float the rock we need. If a few of them drown, it will be no loss."
The servant rushed to rouse the foremen who were enjoying a few hours of freedom. They snorted with disgust at the lazy ways of the guards and climbed the hills toward the caverns.
When they approached the opening, they heard the faint cries of angry voices. One of the braver men lit a torch and ventured through the first two empty caverns until he stood before an amazing sight.
The ten hulking men they had trusted to control the slaves were fastened hand to foot, head to toe, in a thrashing, cursing heap. Expert hands had knotted their bonds from the tethers of the captives. Only one of them could offer a clue to what had happened.
"There was a man who came into the cavern and freed the captives," he said. He couldn't say why his companions had fallen asleep at their posts.
Gaton was one of the foremen. He felt faint as blood rushed from his head when he saw the tiny mark on cheek of one of the guards. He had seen such a mark before on the cheek of Zida when Karek had used a dart on her and later on the neck of Canik, the dead claimant to the throne of Zedekla. He glanced around at the other foremen. None of them were men he liked or admired. All of his former friends, the men who had marched to help Karek reclaim Zedekla, had either lost their lives or had been confined as slaves. The earth shook beneath his feet and he looked around at the men he had accepted as his cronies. They were the dregs of Marekla. He had joined with them in orgies and brawls. He had buried his conscience beneath a veil of wine and docil. It hadn't been enough. Now he felt sick as he faced the truth. There was no good left in Marekla and he was to blame.
He had been cozened by a shant who was the tool of a monster. The fiction that Raderen was Zida's grandfather had long since been discarded. Now she openly bragged of her subterfuge. She kept Gaton near her as a sort of pet and humiliated him as her true nature surfaced. Gaton was tempted to try and follow those who had escaped, but he was still too weak to come out in open rebellion. He followed the others after they freed the guards and hurried back to Raderen.
The priest looked around the circle of petty officials and made his decision. "Tomorrow we will blood the altar, whether the temple is finished or not. There was a traitor among us. Any man or woman who refuses to work on the final stages of the pyramid will be noted and meet a traitor's reward." His voice was soft but no one doubted his words. Even Zida and Dariya found themselves carrying stones to the wall of the demon's abode
Raderen took only one guard with him at noon when he visited the Shrine. He didn't wait for Terenila to answer the knock but ordered the guards to unlatch the door. Terenila was eating lunch and stood when the priest stalked into the room. He seemed surprised to see her. Then he smiled his gloating grin.
"They have abandoned you, Terenil. All the slaves you thought would rise and rescue you have finally realized their error. "
"How could they find their way out of the cavern?" she asked. "I thought you made certain you had killed those who knew the way."
"I will have my revenge tomorrow. The savor of anticipation is sweet," Raderen assured her. "After I have blooded the altar, I will follow the tracks of those who thought they had escaped me. Orqu favors his own."
Chapter 15 The Inner Light
As soon as Raderen left the Shrine and started down the hill with his guard, Terenila closed the door. "It is time," she whispered to herself.
She hurried down the stairs into the small rock room where Karek waited. When she reached the last step she reached up and shoved firmly with both of her hands on a small disk set in the face of the top step. The wall behind Karek slowly moved a few inches with a grinding noise. As it moved, the wall behind the stairway that led into the offering closet was blocked with a counterbalanced stone.
Karek stared at Terenila, "You trapped us in the cellar."
"Don't doubt me now," she gently rebuked him. "There is more than one way out of the Vale of Marekla. When our ancestors first entered the valley, they scouted it for other exits. This is the original entrance to the vale. They sealed it by building the Shrine over it. The secret has been passed from mother to daughter in the line of Seral. I am heiress to the secret. It was one of the reasons I couldn't leave the valley with you."
"Seral, the daughter of Malon, the founder of Marekla?" Karek asked.
"Marekla is no more," Terenila whispered. "When my father led his people from the valley, Marekla passed away."
Her words were a puzzle to Karek, but he did not pursue the question. He wondered if he could even fit through the narrow gap in the wall. He opened the Orb to its full light and examined the cave that lay beyond. Glittering crystals reached across the passage, blocking their way.
"Break a way through," Terenila told him in a voice that rang with sorrow. "Before the sun rises tomorrow, it will all be gone."
She handed him a rounded stone. The crystals were fragile and shattered easily under the stone when he battered them aside. He widened the gap enough to continue and entered a larger crystalline gallery.
The earth rumbled and shook beneath his feet. A great chunk fell from the roof of the cavern, ponderously crushing the beauty of the crystals beneath tons of dull rock.
"Where do we go?" Karek asked Terenila when he looked ahead and saw three arches leading from the gallery.
She looked at him wide-eyed with emotion. "I don't know. I was told that you would carry the key."
Karek felt a moment of irritation. The only key he knew applied to the other passage. This was new territory. At any moment they could be crushed beneath falling stone. He looked back and saw that the cavern behind them had suffered a similar fate. The fragile tracery of crystal he had hesitated to destroy lay deep beneath raw, rough rock.
They could not go back. And even if he could, he wouldn't risk losing Terenila to the knives of Raderen's cult. This would be a cleaner death.
At least they had the light that gleamed from the Orb. He looked ahead and guided her toward the largest of the arched openings. As they began to enter it, the light dimmed. He stopped and led her back. He looked toward one alternative, then the other. The light visibly brightened as he considered the second path. He headed toward the smallest opening and the light remained steady.
Terenila nodded. "That's it, the key."
"Did you know?" Karek asked.
"I knew a light would lead us, but I wasn't sure what it meant. That is the peril of prophecy. It seldom comes clear until the moment is upon you. Usually it is like a puzzle with certain pieces missing. Prophecies from the Radiance are often subtle to the point of obscurity."
Karek gave her a nervous glance and saw a serene smile on her face. She looked up at him and laughed at his concern. "It's no wonder that those who are chosen sometimes seem mad. I've had only a glimpse of His power and purpose. Neril was my guide while I learned to wear the mantle of a servant of the Radiance. The things you had shared with me made me strong enough to bear the sorrow of our separation. But as I learned more others treated as a fool."
He nodded, remembering the whispered impressions that sometimes hinted at the purposes of the Radiance. Six years before in Ovishang he had somehow known that he should help Berlanin and her chosen husband escape the plans of those who ruled. It was not always easy to know what was expected before a time of testing passed.
They continued on through the tangled passages that led through a maze etched by water in stone. Sometimes their progress through the bowels of the mountain seemed like riding a storm tossed boat as they staggered against the heaving of the earth. Karek let the light guide.
He became sensitive to the slightest dimming as he let his mind play over the choices that presented themselves at every turning. He became aware of an inward sense that worked in tandem with the glow. The conviction grew in him that there was a purpose to the process. He was being schooled. As he considered the idea, the light flared brighter than before and an answering glow burned in his chest.
The earth gave another heave, throwing them both to the floor of the tunnel. Terenila gasped with pain when her arm scraped away against raw rock. She began to slip toward an opening crevice that zig-zagged under them. Karek grasped her, losing his grip on the Orb. A glowing crack opened in the earth beneath their feet and the Orb rolled toward it.
"No," Terenila cried as it fell into the gap.
The crack rumbled shut and they were left in utter darkness. Karek clasped Terenila close to his heart and stared at the void. "You warned me. You were right," he murmured.
"What will we do now?" she whimpered.
"We continue. Hold on to me, this should be interesting," he said with a wry smile she could hear in his voice. He had no input for his normal senses. The rumbling of the earth gave no clue to his straining ears. His eyes were useless, but the inner sense that had been trained by the Orb told him where to go. They stumbled onward, turning when he knew they should turn and climbing when he felt they should climb. Sometimes he stopped just before yawning gulfs, lurid with glowing rock, opened at their feet.
He had no idea of how long he followed his new sense through the earth, but tiny points of light appeared ahead and Terenila clasped his arm. "Are those stars I see?" she asked.
He blinked his eyes and then squeezed them shut. The lights vanished. When he opened his eyes again they reappeared. He moved toward them, hugging Terenila to his side.
He stumbled and barked his shin against a rough boulder and stopped, aware that his excitement at seeing the stars had interfered with the inner sense he had been following.
He focused on the mysterious knowing that had led them through the darkness and guided Terenila away from the glimpse of the night sky over a crooked and narrow path. The shard of sky reappeared above them. Slowly the points of light were swallowed up in a greater glow as dawn came. Karek ignored the light of the sun and continued to obey the guidance of his inner light.
Once he turned away from the glow of daylight as he led Terenila up a narrow cleft. The earth had been quiet for a long time. Now it began to shudder and lurch. A rumble like distant thunder grew in intensity. Suddenly the darkness of their passage filled with light. They stood at the edge of a void as the shoulder of the mountain fell away in front of them.
Terenila nestled in his arms as they watched a cloud of dust rise and whirl away on a brisk wind. Karek looked behind them. The maze of twisted rock that stretched across the floor of the cavern could have been a deadly trap if he'd relied on his eyes alone.
"What next?" Terenila asked.
"I think we should rest for a while," Karek answered. "To be honest, I'm not really sure anymore. My habit of relying on common sense and ordinary senses is hard to resist now that I'm faced with the possible. As soon as I realized there was something in me that corresponded to the light in the ball, I lost the ball and had no choice but to follow my inner guide. I thought you were being irreverent when you said the Radiance has a sense of humor. Now I know you were telling the solemn truth."
Terenila laughed joyfully. "Right now I don't feel any compulsion to leave this ledge. I think you were right. We should eat and rest and survey the situation. Perhaps it is time for us to return to the use of our minds and our senses."
Karek joined in prayer with his wife, solemnly and sincerely thanking the Radiance for keeping them safe. A sense of peace settled over them and they felt joy as they shared all but the last portions of the food and water that Karek carried in his pack.
As the sun shone overhead, they slept in the shadow of the rock. They woke to the faint rumbling of the mountain beneath them. Karek took his bearing from the edge of the opening. "We are on the northern face of the mountain. The other entrance is on the southwestern face. The rubble from the fall might offer a path for us, but it might shift and trap us," he mused aloud.
Terenila had been standing by his side, but while he looked around at the face of the mountain, she had been drinking in the broad horizon. Suddenly she clutched his arm, "Look, over there in the northwest!"
Karek followed her pointing hand and saw the reason for her excitement. A cloud of dust lifted into the air over a faintly visible mass of moving figures. It could only be the people of Marekla.
"They're making good time," he said. "Woram is an excellent leader. At the rate they are traveling, it will take several days for us to catch up to them. By then, Woram will have decided where to lead them."
The earth heaved again and reminded them that they were still in jeopardy. They would have several hours to make their way to the base of the mountain before nightfall.
Karek cautiously surveyed the mountain on either side of them. There were hairline ledges and narrow clefts in either direction but there a wider path lay down the eastern side. The western side would lead them in the direction of the caravan. He decided on the eastern face, then consulted his new inner sense. It affirmed the choice he had made with his reason and senses.
Terenila tore off the bottom of the grimy skirt of her gown and twisted it into a rope while Karek made his decision. She handed one end to Karek as he climbed out onto the face of the mountain. He paused to tie it firmly to his sturdy belt. Terenila knotted the other end around her waist, then followed her husband onto the rock.
They moved slowly and deliberately across the steep surface, exchanging only brief comments and directions. Hours passed and they came to a place where there were no more horizontal ledges, only great fingers of rock reaching skyward. Karek showed Terenila how to brace herself and work her way down a narrow crevice between two of the rock towers. Her back was scratched and her fingers had begun to bleed from grasping the harsh rock. "Could you make this a little easier," she prayed fervently.
When she reached the ledge at the base of the crevice and joined Karek he hugged her. "Look, can you believe this?" he said with wonder. She followed his gesture and saw a broad, gently sloping ledge that led down the face of the mountain formed of one great stone, fallen entire from the mountain.
She giggled a little wildly. "Maybe I should have asked sooner."
Karek looked at her with a worried frown and she clutched his hand. "It's alright. I'm not going mad, I'm just tired and giddy."
"We'll rest here for a little while," he said.
"No, the mountain is waiting for us to leave. It's not wise to try the patience of a mountain," she assured him.
He followed her as she hurried down the path that lay straight before them. It was raw, un-weathered rock. There were no stones or straggling weeds to block their way. Karek glanced back at the mountain and recognized the wisdom of Terenila's counsel.
In a short time they were at the base of the mountain but Terenila did not stop when Karek suggested that she must be tiring. She led the way into the scrub land as if she had an important appointment to keep. The ground beneath their feet gave a little shiver and Karek abandoned his intention of calling her to stop and rest. He looked to the north where the great hill of rubble rested against the mountain. The setting sun gave sufficient light for them to hurry into the wasteland away from the threat of another land-slide.
When the final thin slice of sun disappeared, leaving behind a pale glow, Terenila slowed her urgent pace and turned to Karek. "Have we come far enough?" she asked.
"You're asking me? Weren't you receiving guidance?" he asked her.
She stumbled and fell against him, hugging him almost desperately. "I don't know which is worse, being a prophetess or being married to a prophet."
"I'm not a prophet," he protested.
"You were when you led us through the mountain," she reminded him.
"My mother will be shocked when we return to Zedekla and tell her what has happened. She will immediately announce that we're retiring to Timora," he chuckled as he nestled her against him.
"Why would we do that?" she asked, leaning her head back so she could see his face.
"Isn't that the proper place for prophets; presiding over the Shrine in Timora?" he asked half seriously.
"Not while we're young and have a family to raise and a kingdom to rule," she answered soberly.
"You're right," he answered. "At the moment I'm much more concerned with what we will eat and where we will sleep than I am about such matters as whether to be a priest in Timora or a king in Zedekla."
"Everything in the world is a holy matter," she reminded him. "We need to remember that. If the two of us forget it, how can we expect others to understand. Do you think that broad ledge of rock that provided us with a path to the base of the mountain was an accident?"
He couldn't answer her. The past few days had taught him that the hand of the Radiance would be found where he least expected. He had been made utterly dependent only to have a completely new independence given to him.
He looked up and was reminded of the time by the sight of stars overhead. "We'll rest here tonight. If we continue traveling westward in the morning, we should intersect the track of your father's people."
"I wish I had something hot to eat," she said idly.
"Prophet's should beware of wishing," he gently rebuked her.
She nodded and raised her hands in prayer. "I come before the Radiance with gratitude for the life of all who followed the truth. I am weary and hungry. Please provide for us in our need."
Karek wasn't surprised when he heard the sound of a ground bird cooing nearby. He knelt and built a fire with a pile of dry oil brush and lit a brand from the growing flame. In a few minutes he located the nest and found four eggs. He took two of them. He would eat journey meat, but Terenila would have an omelet.
After eating, they nestled together. They were tired but there was a sense of expectancy in the air that wouldn't let them sleep. Karek was reminded of the calm that sometimes comes before a storm. A gentle breeze blew over the scrub land. The wind picked up and whistled through the oil brush.
Karek sheltered Terenila beneath his cloak and urged her to follow as he crawled into the lea of an ancient stand of the sturdy shrub. He fastened one arm around a thigh-thick trunk and drew her close to his side with the other. Then he braced himself.
The earth began to shake beneath them, but this time it didn't stop. The mountain that loomed over them suddenly bloomed with dull fire. Karek gripped Terenila and stared toward the mountain. He didn't see the roiling clouds of ash and smoke. With inward sight he saw the valley of Marekla as gouts of glowing rock exploded from the tortured soil and destroyed every living thing. The earth shook again and there was no valley, only an ascending cloud of ash and shattered rock. The wind blew more fiercely, coming from the west in a mighty torrent and carrying the detritus of the angry mountain towards the wasteland east of the mountain.
When the shaking of the earth finally subsided, Terenila slept and dreamed a strange dream. She was a sailor on a ship captained by a blind man. Then she saw that the captain wasn't blind, but he had pale eyes. He stared at the cloud that loomed out of the west toward the coast. Spindly towers lined the beach in front of a low-lying town. They caught fire as burning hot ash fell on them. The captain screamed at the sailors and ordered the fleet to turn back, signaling the other ships with flares. His signals were unseen against the background of the burning towers, but the fleet began to disperse and each captain took his own course.
Great waves, generated by the movement of the earth, tossed the ships like twigs on the face of the sea. Terenila tried to wake, but she was held in the vise of the sailor's terror as stones began to rain from the sky. Chunks of stone as large as a man's fist tore through the rigging and the decks. The captain cursed and shook his hands in futile rage as he saw his fleet destroyed. When a stone the size of an egg hit the captain in the head the dream abruptly ended.
Karek tried to wake his wife from the dream that held her in its grip. Finally she opened her eyes and began to cry. He cuddled and comforted her. This was the dark side of the gift of prophecy, to witness destruction and mourn, even for those who had earned the awful reward of evil.
Hours passed and there was no dawn, only a faint lessening of darkness as the clouds of ash covered the face of the sun. The wind storm continued to rage. At last the wind gentled and the pallid sun began to penetrate the layer of ash that hovered overhead. From the level of the sun in the western sky, there were only a few hours until sunset, but Karek stood and lifted Terenila to her feet. Together they continued their journey.
Neither of them felt quite ready to share the trauma they had witnessed in their visions. At twilight they crossed the track of the multitude from Marekla who had already passed several hours before. The land to each side of the track was bare of anything that could be eaten.
Karek realized that Woram had instructed his people to gather as they walked. "We'll have to make our way north of their track," he told Terenila. "My water skin is nearly empty but there is a river an hour's march from here."
At nightfall they reached the river bed and found it nearly empty, There was still mud on the bottom and pools of water remained in the low places, their surfaces dull with floating ash.
Karek used the fabric of the twisted rope that Terenila had made from her skirt to strain the fine grit from the water and they both drank their fill before he filled the water skin.
"I've been longing for a good wash," Terenila said ruefully as she poured some of the grit laden water through her hand. They made camp by the empty river. There were plenty of fish that were near expiring in the small puddles. They ate the tender roasted flesh until they were sated, then both of them began to gut and split as many fish as they could, laying them on the flat stones of the river edge to dry. They worked late into the night. In a day or so there would be nothing alive left in the water course as the desert air sucked up the last of the moisture.
"I think it will help both of us if we share what we saw last night," Karek told Terenila as she labored silently beside him.
"I'm not sure if what I saw was vision or nightmare," she slowly admitted. "I was on a ship with a pale-eyed captain. There was a town on the coast. There were other ships, a fleet of them. I've never seen a ship, but this is what they looked like." She picked up a stick and made a sketch of a narrow hull with a triangular sail. It was a strange design, but Karek nodded, it would work. It might work better than the square sails he had seen in Zedekla.
"There was a city with spindly towers along the beach. They burned like torches." She began to recall other details of her dream and flinched. "People were running from the towers and taking refuge in the sea. Stones rained from the sky and waves swallowed the ships that weren't destroyed by the stones. Hamish died."
"Hamish, a descendant of Algunagada and Calanin," Karek mused aloud. He did not understand how he knew, but he saw a glimpse of the vision Terenila had witnessed. "Orenon burned, but only the Watcher's towers. Most of the people were saved by their houses of stone or seaweed and bone."
They continued to work, preparing the fish to dry as Karek considered the meaning of Terenila's vision. For more than a thousand years the Watchers of Orenon had waited for Algunagada to come from Kishdu and carry them back to the land Irilik and his people had abandoned. He glanced to the east where Mt. Vald still glowed in the darkness. Its symmetry had been ravaged by the explosion.
"I saw the destruction of the valley of Marekla," he murmured. He didn't need to say anything else. She nodded and they continued to work in silence, but somehow their tension had eased.
They finished their work and made their bed under the desert sky. Their souls were troubled when they said their prayers that night. The kindly presence who had given them a path down the mountain and provided an omelet for Terenila's dinner, had also taken the lives of many when Vald had exploded. The stars that spangled the sky overhead seemed distant and cold when Karek finally slept and Terenila gazed upward.
Tears filled her eyes and she shivered under a burden of wonder and fear. With all her heart she revered the Radiance and prayed everyday for the incarnation of Yasa Dom. She had suffered humiliation and risked death to continue her pledge to the Maker of worlds, but her heart was burdened by what she had seen that day.
At least the Radiance had returned Karek to her. "You'd better let me keep him," she said. Then she repented her demand and made a more reverent request. "Oh please, let me keep him."
Chapter 16 Saadena
When Mount Vald exploded and the ground leaped and shuddered beneath him, Woram lost all hope for Terenila and Karek. Angil, the little orphan he had adopted seemed to sense his sorrow. She handed him a tiny scrap of cloth to wipe away his tears.
For her sake, he did not give in to the impulse to stop and mourn. He looked away from the ruined mountain and reached for the inner strength to continue leading those who had escaped from certain death. Soram, his son, had chosen to be a slave rather than worship Orqu. Some of the older people were all alone. Their children had either died at the hands of the cultists, or they had given their lives to Orqu.
He felt proud of the people he led. When they found the river, running shallow and rapidly losing force, they set to work to gather fish and water. Some of them cut sturdy staffs from the trees that lined the water course. Soon most of the Mareklans carried staffs. It was a great boost to morale.
While the people worked, Woram walked among them and touched the shoulders of seven men. "Meet with me on the opposite bank of the river after the others eat this evening," he murmured to each of them.
After he had conducted the evening ritual and eaten a meal of roots and roasted fish, he wrapped Angil, in his stole and asked one of the women nearby to keep watch over the child.
When he stood and made his way across the dwindling river, stepping from stone to stone, the seven men he had called followed him. They were both young and old, but all had demonstrated the ability to lead others. Katan and Soram were among them.
"I have selected you as my captains, and as a council," Woram explained. "As you can see, each of you stems from a different root. There are seven families represented among those who fled Marekla. Each of you will organize others to help you within your sept. If you are married, I would advise you to appoint your wife as your counselor. The people of your sept will look to you for leadership."
The men looked at each other and back to Woram. Some seemed unsure, but all of them nodded and raised their hands in pledge to accept the stewardship he had offered them.
"Tomorrow we must proceed to Saadena," Woram said.
One of the men raised his hand and Woram acknowledged him. "I can understand why you want us to go to the north. Saadena is a day's journey north of us, and Tedaka is three days southwest, but we will be welcome in Tedaka and Saadena hardly supports her own population."
"But Saadena is nearer," Woram said. "We are already on track to reach Saadena. We might have to backtrack in order to go to Tedaka and we have no way of knowing if the bridge over the Com river is still in place."
"Mareklans don't go to Saadena since Carnat kidnapped the nameless one," Katan reminded the priest.
"Call her Neril," Woram said brusquely. "She deserves our honor. When we rejected the Scroll of History and Prophecy, only because it was she who found it, we began the steps to the apostasy that destroyed Marekla. We will go to Saadena."
Katan nodded. It was significant of their trust in Woram that none of the seven captains offered further argument once he had announced his final decision. For four generations Saadena had been forbidden territory to Mareklans.
When morning came, the people were quick to accept and approve Woram's choice both of captains and destination. They had gathered sufficient food and water to carry them for two days. For those of a practical turn of mind, the option of finding aid and shelter soon had great appeal. For the others, curiosity about the ancient seat of empire stirred their interest in going to Saadena.
The day remained mild and the refugees made excellent time. The base of the southwestern rim of the mound that held Saadena sheltered them when darkness fell.
"I will go ahead alone and see if we will find a welcome here," Woram said after performing the evening ritual. "I don't want them to mistake our presence as a threat."
He picked his way up the steep southern slope, avoiding the stands of spear leaf that grew all around him. He could detect the marks of cultivation, the careful tending that kept the plants healthy and producing a regular harvest of the leaves with their threatening edges and succulent cores. This was the gift of Saint Neril to the Saadenan people. He felt a great desire to read the sacred Scroll Neril had found in Saadena's palace.
Carnilin, widow of Manelat, descendant of Carnat, first guardian of Saadena, watched the tall man in priest's robes as he made his way up the slope. She didn't recognize the intruders who had camped in the desert below the southern slope, but they could hardly be worse than the Jamans.
She wore the clothing of a spear leaf harvester with long sleeves and leggings and gloves. The scarf that protected her head and face from the sun during the day, served just as well to conceal her features.
She set her path to intersect the intruder. When he moved aside to pass her, she reached out her hand. "Who are you and why have you come to Saadena?"
Woram recognized the authoritative tone of her voice and looked more closely at the woman addressing him. He smiled when he saw the golden glint of her eyes.
"We are Mareklans and we seek your hospitality while we determine what we should do now that our home has been destroyed by the explosion of the mountain."
Carnilin recognized the answer to the prayer she had uttered for many years. "You will be welcome if you can prove yourselves. Bring your men to the northern pass tomorrow and be prepared for battle. We have no army of our own, but Jamans have camped at our gates and keep others from coming into Saadena."
"You are not in accord with their scheme?" Woram asked.
Carnilin only smiled. She turned away and left him pondering her words. Woram made his way back to the camp and called a council meeting.
From several thousand who had escaped Marekla's ruin, seven hundred men were selected. Some of them were hardly more than children. The older men had the advantage of experience, but all the men Woram chose could demonstrate mastery with the staff. A few carried the named staffs that were made of brasswood, but most of them were armed with poles cut within the past few days.
When they topped the rise and looked into the vale of Saadena the next day, they were met by a troop of Jaman guards dressed in gaudy uniforms with swords in scabbards at their sides and bronze tipped spears in hand. A young man dressed in a zylka cloth tunic edged with gold braid held up his hand in a gesture of forbidding.
"You cannot enter Saadena. We have a monopoly here," the officer insisted.
"We have seven hundred men, many of them seasoned Marekla merchants," Woram said. "You have half a hundred mercenaries. I suggest you report to your immediate superior that you were defeated by an overwhelming force."
The young officer looked at the gaunt, ragged troop spread over the hillside below and his lip rose in a sneer. "Don't make threats you can't keep."
He turned his back on Woram and marched back to his ranked troops. When he reached them, he gave an order. The troops leveled their spears and began to move toward the Mareklans in a cadenced march.
Woram shook his head wearily, but when he lifted his face again, he grinned wolfishly at Katan. "They seem to have short memories."
While the Jaman troops still marched awkwardly over the rough surface of the slope, Katan gave three sharp whistles. A mob of Mareklans moved eagerly forward, their staffs held in defensive position.
"No," Woram shouted. "It won't be a fair fight if there are so many of us. Elganon, bring forth the men of your company."
While other Mareklans stepped back with mutters of disappointment. Elganon led a motley assortment of men to face the Jaman troops.
There were a few more Jamans than there were men in Elganon's troop, but when the Jamans saw the lean faces of their opponents, lit with eager anticipation for the fight, they began to falter. Their officer screamed encouragement and threats from the rear and they moved forward again.
The Mareklans stood waiting for the attack. They held their staffs loosely in front of them while they studied their foe.
"Try to spare them any permanent damage," Woram called when the Jaman troops began a running charge.
The Jamans found that their spears were useless as they closed with the Mareklans. Flying staffs, spinning and jabbing, broke the shafts of the spears. They knocked the swords from the hands of those few who managed to take their weapons from their scabbards before they were swept off their feet.
It was a rout, and it was balm to the souls of men who had let themselves be taken captive and used as slaves by Raderen and his cronies. The Mareklans picked up the swords and spear blades of the Jaman troop and moved across the pass into the valley of Saadena.
"I think you can make your report now," Woram called to the angry Jaman officer as he moved among his men, castigating them for their failure to stop the intruders.
The troop of Jaman soldiers beat an undignified retreat, the unwounded running ahead, leaving their wounded behind until their officer began to beat them back with his own sword and demanded that they pick up the wounded men. Supporting their injured fellows, they entered a small fort. From the size of the fort and the troop that had been sent out to turn him back, Woram estimated that there were probably no more than five hundred Jamans guarding the valley.
"The captains and I will go down and visit the Saadenan leaders," Woram announced in a voice that carried over the slope. "We will leave you here as insurance against further interference. If I know Jamans, it will take them a day to react, and then it will probably take the form of a note of protest."
Carnilin watched the skirmish on the hill from a tower of the New Palace regretting that her husband had not lived to see this day and stand with her when she welcomed the Mareklans. A group of men led by the tall priest she had spoken to the night before walked down the path into the city. It was time to see what they wanted. She picked up her child and left her room.
Her neighbor heard her close the door and stepped into the corridor. "Leave the little one with me. I saw the confrontation on the hill. Perhaps our time has come."
Carnilin smiled and thanked the woman. It was one of the advantages of moving back into the palace two years ago after the death of her husband. Since then, the house built for Carnat had become a council hall. She met with the heads of the extended families every month and tried to resist the increasing demands of the Jamans.
Woram looked around while he led his men into the city of Saadena. He had heard the old stories of the ruined empire, but where he had expected to see dusty ruins, he saw neat cottages and well kept garden plots. The stink of selan was in the air, but the neatly dressed people in the well kept streets seemed unaffected by the musk. As they passed through the valley and began to climb again, Woram studied the rugged outline of the ramparts of the New Palace. His great grandfather, Docanen, had been on the final trek that entered Saadena. Sometimes the old man had wandered through his richly furnished memory and described the various cities of Okishdu. Since that time, Woram had seen all of them but Saadena.
A woman walked down the stone paved road that led to the New Palace. Woram expected her to walk past them with a shy glance as other Saadenans had done. Instead, she stopped several yards from them and waited. She wore neat but modest clothing. Her only adornment was the pendant of carved stone that she wore on a delicate chain around her neck.
Woram recognized her golden eyes and smiled when she raised her hand. "I am Carnilin, Guardian of Saadena. I saw your skirmish with the Jamans. Do you come to supplant them as our oppressors or do you come in peace?" She asked the question in a loud voice meant to carry to all her people who were gathering to watch the confrontation.
Woram responded in the same manner, hoping to reassure the Saadenans that he and his company meant no harm. "We are refugees, seeking a few days of rest and refreshment. We don't want your charity, but if there is some way we can earn our way, we need food and clothing".
Carnilin nodded."Come with me to the Council Hall."
She turned aside and led the way into a lush garden sheltered by soaring walls. A graceful building of cut stone overlooked a fountain that tumbled down serried ledges. Woram found the garden as unexpected as the neat buildings and industrious people of the city.
Woram and his captains followed Carnilin into the building and found themselves in a wide hall furnished with benches. Carnilin moved to sit in a carved chair set on a low dais. She indicated they should sit with a gesture toward the benches. When they had taken their seats, Carnilin asked a woman sitting near her to make a record of the meeting. Then she turned to Woram and asked him to repeat his request.
"I am Woram of Marekla and this is my council."
"Mareklans don't come to Saadena," she countered, but a speculative look in her eyes invited him to continue.
"Many years ago we vowed to avoid this city when the Nameless One--," Woram paused and looked at the other men. "When Neril was abducted by Carnat, prince of Saadena."
"Is it true that you call the Lost Scroll a forgery and deny that Neril is a saint?" Carnilin asked.
"It was our tradition," Woram admitted.
Katan interrupted. "Our prophetess has taught us the error we made."
Carnilin's eyes gleamed. "You have a prophetess?" Woram dropped his eyes and studied his hands. She saw his fingers tremble and wondered at his reaction to her question.
"We believe she died in the destruction of Marekla when Mount Vald exploded," Katan explained. "She was Woram's daughter."
Carnilin gave Woram a glance of sympathy. Nothing could easily heal the death of a child. To ease his discomfort, she changed the subject. "I have a job for you. For generations, since the reign of Ayarlan and Carnat, the Jamans have had a monopoly over our trade. After Carnat created the Guardianship we tried to establish other trading partners. The Tedakans are cautious homebodies, and the Janakans are not interested in running caravans. For a while it seemed that Zedekla could help us hold off the Jamans, but in the days of Arcat, my father, the Jamans brought soldiers to enforce their embargo on our trade. They insist that we grow drugs for them and they search our pilgrims when they leave the valley to ensure that they don't engage in smuggling. You saw what happens to any strangers who venture to enter the valley. I want to hire you to end the Jaman domination."
Woram considered her offer. "A relationship that has lasted for generations won't be ended in a few days, or even a few weeks. I know of the Jamans and their methods. They negotiate with one hand and steal with the other."
"Yes, it will take more than a few days, or even a few months," Carnilin said. " I don't think you understand what I am offering you. The Jamans take a third of our produce as tax for their 'protection' of our borders and set a tax of half of the profits from the trade in selan. Even this would be bearable, but we are not free to choose what we will grow. Since the death of my father Arcat, they claim the right to dictate our crops. Lately, they have tried to insist that we accept docil root and dass as partial payment for the little we are due after they subtract their taxes."
Woram shook his head. "Your burden is surely unbearable. What do you offer us?"
"If you are willing to supplant them, I will agree to pay you a fair tax on trade, but I reserve the right of my people to choose what they will plant and harvest. You may purchase land here with your profits from our trade, and make this your home."
Woram looked at the seven men he had chosen. Her offer was generous. It would mean his people would have no need to seek the indulgence of other cities. He wanted to accept immediately, but he couldn't make the decision by himself.
"I will consult my council and let you know tomorrow," he said.
Soram interrupted, earning a dangerous look from his father. "We are your council Woram, and I for one think we can't turn away from this offer."
Most of the other men nodded. Some had grumbled about Woram's decision to come to Saadena, but their prejudices had been overset by the neat homes and healthy people they met when they had entered the valley.
Carnilin stood. "I will leave you to make your decision. Meanwhile, we will celebrate the feast of the Blade of Neril tonight. Bring your people and join us."
Woram looked around at the other men and each gave him a short nod. "We don't need any further time to consider. We accept your offer. Where can we make our camp?"
Carnilin smiled. "Why not camp on the parade ground of the Jaman fort?" She swept out of the council hall to the sound of their laughter.
She sent word for a meeting of the council and before the Mareklans had passed out of the valley again, her own council approved the treaty she had made. They had no sooner ended the meeting and stepped out of the garden than Carnilin heard a tumult. For a moment she feared the Jamans had sent arms against her people rather than resorting to negotiation. She ran toward the shouts and cries that came from the banks of the dry water course that bisected the city of Saadena.
When she came closer she heard laughter and recognized the screams as shouts of joy. A sound she couldn't identify at first began to fill the air. It was like the sound made by the little fountain in the garden, but a hundred times greater. As she neared the crowd they greeted her with shouts of welcome and rejoicing.
"It has come, the day of the prophecy has come!"
The crowd parted in front of her and she saw the sight that she had dreamed of but never hoped to see. The dry, rocky bed of the ancient river was foamed with muddy water. Men and women waded into the shallows and danced with wild exuberance as the water splashed around their legs.
Carnilin raised her hands and waited for a few minutes while the word passed that she had something to say. Silence fell except for an occasional ecstatic moan as the reality of the river struck home.
"Today Mareklans entered the valley," Carnilin said. "They have agreed to make their home here and protect us from the Jamans."
Every man woman and child in Saadena knew the Prophecy of Saint Neril. It was carved in stone over the door of the Shrine.
Suddenly Veela, a sourfaced old woman, determined to be a cynic began to laugh. "Of course they have entered the valley today. It is a scheme to deceive us."
Carnilin smiled. "And did they fill the river with water Veela? Did they explode Mount Vald and destroy their home so they could cozen us?"
Veela looked around and saw laughter on the faces of others in the crowd. She shook her head. She had no answer to Carnilin's question that would not make her look a bigger fool.
Woram and his companions returned to their people and began to share the good news of their victory over the Jamans and their welcome in Saadena. Suddenly one of the women cried out, "Look, the river has returned to Saadena." All of them turned and watched as the ancient water course of the Or filled with foaming water. The gushing stream kicked up a muddy spray ahead of it as it rushed through the dessicated rocks and ancient dust until it came to the fork where the Com had once joined with it. Some of the water back-washed up the ancient course of the Com while the main stream poured along the ancient course of the Comor.
Katan grinned, "I guess that answers any doubt that they will have water enough to share with us."
Woram turned back to his people and called for order. "Carnilin, Guardian of Saadena has granted us a campground. We are to take the area surrounding the Jaman fortress."
Laughter of appreciation for the Saadenan ruler's ploy rang through the crowd. "We met their troop of fifty with a fair exchange, but I've lost patience with the Jamans," Woram said. "I'm going to go now and stake out a place to camp tonight. Who will join me?"
Fodor, commander of the Jaman garrison, stared from his window and watched the ragged Mareklans pour over the brow of the valley. He did not waste any time rallying a force to resist them. Instead, he stuffed a leather pack with trade vouchers and hurried from the fort on the path toward the city.
His soldiers saw him leave the fort. The rumor spread that he had decided to desert in the face of the challenge from the Mareklans. The men in the fort were adventurers and miscreants who had been purchased from the Jaman jailer. None of them felt any loyalty to Fodor. They each salvaged what they could and scattered in random directions, carrying whatever came to hand in the way of provisions and equipment.
Carnilin was dressing for the festival of Neril when she received the message that Fodor was waiting in the Council Hall. The green dress she wore flattered her russet hair that she had released from its neat braid and left to tumble down her back. Tonight marked the official end of her mourning.
She finished dressing and resigned herself to meeting the pompous little commander one last time. She smiled as she remembered the tall Mareklan. He made a complete contrast to the self-important Jaman who had been pressing her for further concessions.
When Woram found the fortress empty of any soldiers, he appointed Katan to sort out the housing of those who most needed the shelter of a roof over their heads. He continued through the city and entered the garden, intending to report that they had taken the fort without resistance.
When he neared the Council Hall he heard angry voices and proceeded carefully to a window where he could watch the scene inside. At first he didn't recognize Carnilin in the gleaming green gown with her russet hair spilling over her shoulders.
"I demand an apology and your guarantee that this rabble will leave without troubling us any further," the Jaman shouted as he paced back and forth.
"There will be no apology. I have hired the Mareklans to guard the valley of Saadena from intruders and they have accepted the terms I offered. As you remember, the day of festival marks the end of our previous agreement," Carnilin said serenely.
"You can't do this," Fodor screamed as he mounted the dais and grabbed her arm. "Jaman's have controlled Saadenan trade since the days of Carnat's son. How can you dishonor your ancestor this way? What would your people say if they knew you had set aside an agreement honored by tradition and law?"
"Who are the Jamans to speak of 'law'." Carnilin slapped his hand away. "My people know of the agreement and they welcome the change."
"What would your husband say if he saw dishonoring old allies?" Fodor hissed.
Carnilin's face paled. "How dare you speak of my husband. Your predecessor gave him the dass and docil that unmanned him. If you want to keep your monopoly over Saadena, you will have to defeat the Mareklans."
"That ragged rabble is no threat to my garrison," Fodor sneered. "Today a few of my men were taken in an ambush. We won't be fooled again. You have over-reached yourself Carnilin. But I have brought some documents that you can sign and earn my forgiveness."
Carnilin looked toward the window where she had seen movement. She recognized the blue of a priestly cape that caught the light.
She smiled at Fodor. "So, your men were taken in ambush. I watched the 'ambush' from my window in the eastern tower of the palace. Go back to Jama, Fodor. Tell the Pontic that I refuse to pay his taxes."
Fodor hissed with rage and leaped toward her, but a hard hand caught his tunic and the bright bullion braid on the edges tore away as he struggled to get free. Finally he stopped struggling and glared at the man who held him.
"We took the Jaman fort, Carnilin. It seems to be empty." Woram said.
Fodor opened his mouth to reprimand the intruder, but his words were stopped in his throat. He had seen Woram somewhere before. He had been only a boy when he tried to pilfer something from the Mareklan's stand. The punishment that followed had been swift and painful.
"Have we met before?" Woram asked with a considering scowl.
"No, but we will meet again," Fodor said. "Jama is a pending member of the Alliance of Cities. If you cross us, you are taking on more than you imagine."
"We'll take the risk," Woram assured him.
Fodor threw a nervous look at the tall Mareklan and hurried from the room. He had always worried that someday the Saadenans would rebel against Jama's burden. After locating a few of his men he led them to the cache where he had stored supplies of food and water sufficient for a retreat across the desert. He planned his strategy as he began his journey. There must be some way he could turn the situation to his advantage. Todok would want to know about the Mareklan presence in Saadena.
Chapter 17 The Light
When Carnilin spread the news among her people that the Mareklans had driven the Jamans away, she also hinted at the desperate condition of many of the refugees. As the sun lowered and the hour of festival neared, the encampment of Mareklans received visitors.
The citizens of Saadena had suffered years of humiliation under the Jaman oppressors. The arrival of the Mareklans brought hope even to those who were not so sure that they were a fulfillment of the prophecy of Irilik. As a result of their own poverty, they had learned how to make a gift graciously. They brought clothing and medicine and when they departed, the Mareklans were left with the feeling that they had been welcomed home.
When the torches of the festival were lit at every crossroad, the Mareklans found their way to the broad square in front of the Shrine. The surrounding walls supported bright banners and garlands and trestle tables were laden with food and drink.
Mareklans enjoyed a wide variety of foods because of the spices they traded in and the travels of the merchants to virtually every corner of Okishdu. They did not expect to find anything that would surprise them, but they soon realized that the Saadenans could offer tastes and textures new to them.
As they were invited to eat and imbibe of various delicacies, their hosts introduced them to the food products that had been developed by three generations of spear leaf culture. The many different ways they used the gift Neril had given them demonstrated the ingenuity of the Saadenans.
In the days of Challan and Ayarlan, spear leaf, the 'blade of Neril' had saved them when the vicious appetite for power of the two queens had driven them to the edge of extinction. The tradition of finding new ways to utilize the plant and others like it had continued in kinder years under the Guardianship.
The Mareklan refugees appreciated the variety and flavor of the feast. Whe Woram had eaten all that he could manage he turned to Carnilin. "I'm surprised that you have kept these products to yourself. The courts of Zedekla and Janaka thrive on novelty. We could easily turn a profit just by selling some of your confections. We have always taken it as given that spear leaf cores could not be preserved."
"We have developed many foods from other plants that were cultured in the garden of Neril," Carnilin said. "We have yearned to share these things with other people, but the Jamans insisted that we continue to produce large amounts of selan. Even the toxic skins of the spear leaves proved useful. They contain several powerful compounds that have a variety of uses. We keep pests from our produce and counteract the dulling effect of selan culture with products of the Blade of Neril."
Woram glanced around at the mingled crowd of Mareklans and Saadenans in easy conversation. A torch flared higher and his eyes were caught by symbols carved over the door of the Shrine. Carnilin saw the direction of his gaze and felt a shiver of anticipation as he studied the symbols and understood the meaning of the words. He turned to her with wonder in his eyes.
She nodded. "Yes, it is a vision of what has begun this day. A river once again runs through Saadena. Today the children of Irilik have found a home. Somewhere in Okishdu a child will soon be born who will vanquish death itself."
"My daughter said that Yasa Dom is coming soon," Woram said. For the first time since leaving her in Marekla, he began to hope that Terenila still lived. If she had been right in all her other prophecies, surely the One she served would spare her life as she had said.
Karek and Terenila decided to go cross country and intercept their friends as they neared Tedaka. They missed the signs that would have shown them that the refugees had turned north toward Saadena. Karek started to worry when they entered the tidy hill country Tedaka without any sign that the Mareklan multitude had passed. Dressed in clothing stained and marred by their adventures they received covert glances from those they passed. They finally fell asleep in a copse of trees after a hasty meal of dried fish and gritty water.
They went to the south and looked for any sign of the Mareklans the following day. When night fell on their second night in Tedaka, a kindly orchard keeper insisted they spend the night as his guests. They were shown to a cozy room beneath stout rafters. "You are welcome to stay here as long as you require shelter. My son and his wife recently moved to their own farm," their host explained.
For all their outward practically, the Tedakans excelled all the people of Okishdu in the comfort of their domestic arrangements. The raw-boned wife of their host saw the ragged edge of Terenila's gown and located a pretty, practical replacement in her capacious storage chests.
The old farmer insisted that Karek should dress in one of his own ample tunics while his wife laundered their clothing. The plumbing amazed Terenila. First Terenila and then Karek luxuriated in the bath, well provided with fragrant soaps and oils. After a meal that threatened to exceed their capacity, the young couple thanked their hosts and climbed the stairs to the room they had been offered under the eaves.
"I wish we could stay here forever," Terenila said as she flopped back on the great bed that nearly filled the room.
"No you don't, but I wish tonight could last for a week," Karek said as he knelt by the bed and touched her face. They had spent days together since their marriage in the Shrine of Marekla, but this was the first night they had been clean and comfortable.
The old farmer looked toward the ceiling near the corner as he sat mending a tool in front of the fireplace. His wife grinned at him. "That room under the eaves holds a lot of loving memories."
The old farmer snorted, "Mind your mending." Then he glanced up and winked at her.
"Maybe we should have asked them to stay another day," the old woman said as she watched the young couple stop and pick some flowers when they left the house next morning. "I didn't guess they were newly-wed until this morning."
The old farmer gently pinched his wife and winked. "I hope they never get over it."
They didn't make much progress that day. There were too many pretty scenes to share with each other: a shining lake that reflected a violet mountain range was bordered by a field of yellow flowers, a tiny waterfall fell into a shady glade where scarlet blossoms peeked through dark green leaves. At each turn it seemed another lovely vista opened to their enchanted eyes.
Tedaka seemed the loveliest land in all Okishdu. As evening fell they entered the city. Karek stopped and stared as a familiar figure started toward him across the plaza. "Mother!" he cried, astonished. Kalil hurried forward and grasped her son by the hand. Then she turned to the lovely girl by his side with a smile.
"Mother, this is my wife, Terenila."
Kalil felt several conflicting emotions at the same time. She had been unprepared to find that Karek was married, but she was overjoyed to see him alive and happy. Rumors were rampant about the disasters that had happened in the east. Reports had trickled in from various places. Some said Orenon had been buried in ash and rock. Others said that Marekla had been located inside Mount Vald which now stood several hundred feet lower with the eastern face blown away.
"I am pleased to meet you," Kalil managed to say with hardly a pause while she extended her hand. The genuine warmth of the smile she gave Terenila compensated for the slight hesitation.
"Why are you here in Tedaka?" Karek asked.
"Your sister Ravna is having a child. We received word of her confinement just after you left for Marekla."
"Ravna is married to the Head Man of Tedaka," Karek explained to Terenila as they joined his mother and walked toward one of the tall gray houses of the council.
Kalil tried to contain her curiosity but finally she asked the question that most concerned her now that she knew that Karek was safe. "What has become of Marekla?"
Karek stared ahead and his mother saw a darkness in his eyes that made her regret her question. Terenila gave the answer. "Marekla has been destroyed, first by the minions of Raderen, and then by an angry and efficient God."
"Are there no Mareklans left?" Kalil asked fearfully.
"They are not Mareklans now," Terenila said as she was overcome by an insight that made her eyes take on a distant look. "They are the children of Irilik and they have finally found a home."
The remnants of Terenila's vision of her people faded and she turned to Karek with a shining face. "They went to Saadena. A river is running through it again."
He stopped and stared toward the northeast. "Yes, I see it, just as Irilik and Neril foretold."
Kalil felt unnerved by their curious behavior. Sergon and Kemila acted that way now and then. She grasped the arm of each of the young people and hurried them toward her daughter's home.
The brief spell of seeing beyond what others could know seemed to have passed by the time they were indoors. When Kalil introduced her new daughter-in-law to Ravna's husband, Dilka, Terenila acted like a normal, charming, young woman with no sudden mysterious insights to share. Kalil carried her off to meet Ravna, leaving Karek with his brother-in-law.
Karek had always liked Dilka and he relaxed into a comfortable chair while he spoke of the recent events he had witnessed. Without being completely aware of the extraordinary content of his confidences, he told of finding his way into the vale of Marekla and the rescue of the hostages. His account of his passage through the mountain with only a mysterious new sense to find the way might have puzzled others, but Dilka was Tedakan.
Dilka studied Karek with the pragmatic viewpoint of a his clan and decided the prince told the truth. "What happened after you reached the base of the mountain," he prompted.
"We were shown the destruction of Marekla and Orenon. Terenila saw a fleet led by a descendant of Algunagada as it met destruction just off the coast of Orenon."
Dilka nodded. Only that morning a party of refugees from Orenon had brought report of an invading fleet that had been swamped and pommeled with volcanic debris.
"And what of the surviving Mareklans?" he asked.
"Remember the Prophecy of Neril that echoes the words of Irilik?" Karek asked, his face shining.
Dilka pointed to a carving above his hearth and anticipated Karek's answer. "It has come to pass."
"Yes. Woram and his people have found welcome in Saadena and the movement of the earth changed the course of the River Or so that it once again flows through Saadena."
Karek stared out the window and his joy faded. "I lost the Orb that held the Stone of Truth. I dropped it into a chasm in the mountain."
"But you don't really need it anymore, do you?" Dilka prompted him. "It is a tool, but you learned the lesson it was designed to teach."
Karek looked at his brother-in-law and recalled their conversation. "You must think I'm going mad."
"You should never worry about my opinion of your experiences," Dilka said. "The other people of Okishdu think of Tedakans as being practical and rather dull. If only they knew. Irilik's servant Tedak followed his master up the mountain and while Irilik received the Stone of Truth, he had his back turned on the Radiance, the servant saw Him face to face. I tell you this because you are one who should understand it."
"You mean, you are all prophets?" Karek asked.
"No, most of us are as dull as we seem," Dilka admitted with a wry grin. Then his face became grave but somehow full of joy. "Some of us know our Master face to face, and I believe that I will see him in the flesh."
A thrilling silence fell between them as Karek felt the import of Dilka's words. An urgent pounding on the front door broke the mood. Dilka stood and went to answer it. A small man in an ornate uniform with torn fringe stood at the door, accompanied by several soldiers.
He looked up at the patient face of Dilka and lifted his chin, "I am Fodor of Jama and I have urgent business with your master, the Headman of Tedaka."
"You must apply at the council hall for an appointment if you have business with the Headman," Dilka replied stolidly.
"Stand aside. I'll wait for the Headman here. Bring refreshment for me and find quarters for my men," Fodor demanded.
Karek stood and walked into the entrance area. "Who is your visitor Dilka?" he asked.
"This man says he has urgent business with me," Dilka said.
Fodor tried to recover his mistake by blaming Dilka for the error. "Why didn't you identify yourself immediately when you answered the door?" he asked irritably. "I've just come from Saadena. A Mareklan named Woram has invaded the valley with a band of vagabonds. He's trying to overturn the traditional trading arrangement made between the Guardians of Saadena and the Pontic of Jama. I call upon you as a signatory of the Alliance of Cities to uphold my authority. You must provide troops to put down the usurper."
"Woram is my father-in-law," Karek said with a faint smile.
The Jaman whirled and pinned Karek with his angry gaze. "And who are you?" he sneered.
"He is my brother-in-law, Karek, crown prince of Zedekla, brother to Talara, queen of Janaka, and Timna, wife of the chief councilor of Taleeka," Dilka said with genealogical economy.
Fodor glared from one man to the other. Karek grinned and Dilka struggled to suppress a chuckle. He almost succeeded, then the little Jaman officer gave a haughty sniff and both young men began to laugh.
Fodor beat a hasty retreat and fled the city, murmuring about madmen and nepotism in high places. He decided to seek help in Orenon with the idea of invoking the name of his uncle Todok as a reference.
Two days later as he traveled east, Fodor found a ball of curious workmanship lying in a pile of volcanic rubble near a peasant village. For a moment the trinket interested him. Then he noticed that it was scorched and battered and rattled as if something was loose inside of it. He tossed it aside and hurried on.
A young man wearing scorched and dusty priest's robes came that way as day faded into a moonless night. Pandalk supported his very pregnant wife, Canian, and struggled to find his way in the darkness. They had sheltered other refugees in their home until it finally became apparent that the springs that they depended on were fouled. He had no choice but to join the ranks of those fleeing Orenon.
All Pandalk wanted was to find a place where he could let Canian rest and build a fire to offer them some heat and light. Her time would soon be upon her. He stumbled and almost fell and it was Canian who kept him upright.
"I believe I see some lamps ahead of us," she said. "I will rest here while you go on and find a place for us."
He felt torn at the thought of leaving her alone for even the short time that it would take to walk to the village, but he was already exhausted and feared that if he tried to lift and carry her with him he would take another fall. He took off his outer robe and tried to make a pallet for her to lie down. When he was smoothing away the stones that littered the ground his hand touched the ball. It was smoother than the stones and regular in shape.
When he brushed away the ash and grit that covered the surface, fine points of light gleamed in a delicate tracery. Perhaps his wife would enjoy solving the mystery of what it might be while he went ahead to find some help. He placed it in her hands and finished clearing a place for her.
She found a tiny stud as her fingers traced the surface. Suddenly a light flooded around them, brightening the way and showing the village close at hand. The lamps were not dim with distance, but with the poverty of the peasants who were careful of their oil.
"What is this?" Pandalk asked in wonder when he saw the glowing ball of light in the hands of his smiling wife.
"It is the Orb, my love," she answered. "All will be well. I can walk with your support as far as the village. Everything we need will be provided."
The light drew the peasants from their huts and they saw what was needed. A widow shared her hut and gave her bed to the Canian. Food and water, bedding and a mid-wife were their gifts to one who came with no outward indication of his worth, born in the deepest hours of the night but lit by a light that gleamed as bright as day. It was only when they saw the wraith-like figures of the Seers who walked toward the village as dawn approached that some of the villagers truly began to understand the wonder of what had come.
When they entered the hut and saw the child sleeping in his mother's arms, Sergon leaned on his staff and put his arm around his wife Kemila . "I had a promise that I would live to see this day. I never knew what I would witness while I waited. At last the promises given to Irilik have been fulfilled. Now we may find our rest my love."
Kemila knelt to touch the soft face of the child and for a moment her aged face seemed young again. The infant's dark eyes opened and he smiled, an expression as new as the dawn and as ageless as the rising sun. His mother, Canian, murmured with amazement and a touch of fear. She had received intimations that the prophecies of Yasa Dom's incarnation would be fulfilled, but the traditions of her people, combined with the circumstance of her barren marriage had kept her from fully accepting that she would be the chosen mother. Whispers of prophecies of what He would suffer teased at the edges of her mind and she gathered her tiny son closer to her breast, cupping a protective hand over his downy head.
Kemila and Sergon gave gifts of pure white zylka cloth to wrap the child and fresh spear leaf cores to nourish his mother. Then they turned and left the widow's humble hut, never to be seen again by mortal men.