Chapter 1 Pollution
The fortress city of Tedaka where Tagun had wed his beloved Selendra less than an hour before disappeared behind a grove of trees as the couple walked toward the west. Tagun reflected on his amazing good fortune in having completed all the tasks that had been set for him less than a year before. At the time, newly escaped from the city of Janaka where he had skulked friendless through the dingy halls of the palace, always fearing that the bullies he had called his brothers would ambush him and try to take his life, he had doubted he could ever succeed in two of the challenges. Reaching the sacred city of Timora as an un armed pilgrim had seemed challenge enough at the time, but to expect that he would somehow succeed in finding a woman both willing to marry him and fit to take her place as a queen had seemed even less likely than the idea he could find and defeat the traitors who had nearly ruined the cities of Zedekla and Taleeka.
Yet now he walked beside a woman more than worthy to become Janaka's queen. He reached for Selendra's hand and shared another smile with her. No matter what came now, they would face it with a knowledge that they would have each other.
The orchards and woodlands of Tedaka surrounded them on every side except for the narrow track that marked their path ahead. Birds sang and several conies darted across the trail. Soon war would destroy the peaceful scene when Jagga's armies came.
They paused to share a few matlas and a flask of water in mid afternoon not long after passing through a village. The grilled flat bread filled with a flavorful mix of minced meat and spiced fruit had been provided by one of Selendra's younger sisters. Tagun felt tempted to find a glade in the woods and dally for a while, but they planned to spend their first night at the inn where he had found her days before and he wanted to arrive in the evening with time to bathe and eat a good meal before they retired. Selendra's father had provided them with a few measures of copper to pay for lodgings along the way.
"This is a lovely land," he told Selendra as they shook the crumbs from their clothing and prepared to take to the trail again. "If I did not have another destiny, I would be content to live with you here in your homeland."
"Where you are is my homeland," she said as she reached to take his hand.
Dazed with happiness and dazzled with the beauty of his wife, Tagun swung along the trail with an easy stride secure in the belief that they were safe until they approached the borders of Janaka. They were not far from the inn where they expected to spend the night when he caught the odor of acrid flame and noticed a pillar of black smoke rising above the trees that hid the road ahead.
"Someone is burning their dinner," Selendra said.
Tagun felt a chill of premonition and grabbed her hand. "Silence. Follow me. Lay still."
He pulled her sideways off the trail and they tumbled into a ditch. Springy shrubs yielded to their bodies, then swished upward. A sudden breeze sprung up and stirred the grass, hiding them beneath the tufted heads of wild grains that grew beside the ditch. Selendra did not utter a word of protest at the sudden movement but lay quietly next to Tagun, the varied weave of her brown dress blending with the weeds.
Through the cover of the vegetation Tagun could see a group of men coming up the trail. There was no mistaking their errand. They were dressed as Margan warriors but the gory tokens of Orquian ritual dangled from their trophy wands and larger pieces of flesh hung from thongs around their waists.
Tagun recognized the leader, Porga, his lifelong enemy, the supposed older brother who had hunted him with murderous intent since they were children. He still experienced a sense of loss at the realization that Jagga, who had always been affectionate toward him, was not only not his father, but the murderer of King Koren, his true sire. But the discovery that he had no relationship to Porga and the other bullies he had grown up thinking of as brothers more than compensated for the loss of the illusion that he owed anything to the usurper.
Tagun tried to remember if they had passed any unprotected farms or small villages within the past hour. He breathed a silent prayer of thanks when he realized that no easy victims would be found for some time.
Porga and the men he led would soon find a place to camp and hold the feast that followed the ritual of sacrifice. They had to be stopped from intruding further into Tedaka. As soon as he felt it safe to talk to Selendra he told her the danger that they faced.
"They have attacked the inn and killed anyone they found. There must have been some girls or young women they felt suited to their ritual. We must stop them before they go any further."
"What should I do," she whispered.
"We will follow them. When they camp for the night, I will make sure the way is safe for you to go on to the first village you find and warn them. This could be the leading edge of an invasion and someone needs to go on to the city and tell Tanka what has happened."
She didn't argue or ask him what he planned to do while she went on to warn the village. He blessed his fortune in finding such a woman.
She followed him, so silent that at times he almost wondered if she was still behind him. Now and then she reached forward and touched him to assure him of her presence. At last they saw the glow of a campfire at a distance from the trail and heard the shouts and cries of wild carousal.
Tagun gestured for Selendra to wait while he slipped ahead. He saw a man walking back and forth in the verges of the forest near the trail, peering along the road now and then, but most of his attention seemed focused on the other men roaring and chanting at their campfire in the forest.
Tagun took aim and flung his ax. It hit the man on watch with a solid thunk and he crashed to the ground with no further sound. Tagun carefully surveyed the area for signs of other guards before he dashed forward and retrieved his ax. He waved to Selandra who passed him with a brief grasp of hands before disappearing into the darkness.
Tagun pulled the body of the watchman into a bush and covered it with leaves, then made his way into the forest. He circled the clearing where the cultists had gathered, alert for other watchman, but it seemed that only the one man had been left on guard.
Standing concealed behind a stand of trees he watched the drunken revel of the cultists. Porga stood and waved a fragment of bloody flesh above his head. "Tonight we feast on two stringy spinsters, but tomorrow I promise a great harvest. We were cheated of the ritual feast the Taleekan merchant promised, but these fat farmers have no courage. We will sweep them from their fields. We gave the signal for invasion when we set fire to the inn. My father's legions will soon join us."
Tagun counted eleven men gathered near the fire. They roared their support for Porga's boasts and lifted dala bladders to spill with wine into their mouths, much of it dribbling down their almost naked bodies to mingle with the gore they had rubbed across their chests.
Tagun yearned to turn away from their foul feast but wary of losing track of one of them, he steeled himself against the impulse to retreat. Now and then one of them got up and lurched away a short distance into the woods to vomit or relieve himself but others didn't bother to leave the circle. One of the men brought out a lump of dass and the others rose and began to quarrel over shares. They drew their knives and slashed at one another as they fought over the drug. Porga roared with laughter and encouraged the dispute.
The lump shredded apart and fell to the ground but the men scrabbled in the gory mud to recover it.
The foul stench of burning dass filled the clearing and reached out to Tagun where he stood. All but Porga leaned over the fiery heaps of the fuming narcotic and soon began succumbing to the drug, their heads drooping and their eyes unfocused.
Tagun recalled that Porga had seldom joined his brothers when they indulged in smoking dass. Perhaps he realized that it was made from the dung of corums who had grazed on a noxious weed. Or, more likely, he didn't like the loss of volition that would sap his strength and give the chance that others could ambush him. In either case, he remained alert while the others began to gape and drool.
Tagun might easily slip among them and restrain them once he overcame Porga. Porga rose and staggered off into the forest. Tagun followed him. He took his throwing ax from his belt and held it ready.
Porga turned to make his way back to the clearing, for a moment clear of any obstruction and Tagun drew back his arm to throw the ax. Porga stopped and looked around, his face catching a ray of moonlight. At that moment, in that light, his face was so like Jagga's that Tagun couldn't follow through. Thoughts of the man he had called his father all his childhood and youth still haunted him with memories of rough affection.
Then Porga stumbled and fell into a patch of thorns, thrashing and screaming curses that woke the others and brought them stumbling to rescue him from the embrace of the thorny bush. Tagun's hesitation had cost him the opportunity to take Porga out. He eased himself back into the woods to wait for another opportunity to act.
Returning to the fire, the cultists laughed at Porga's moans of pain and he drew his sword to threaten them. Eventually all of them but Porga surrendered to the influence of the dass smoke they inhaled. Porga tried to rouse his men. He swore and kicked at them with no response. Finally he sat down near the fire and scrambled in his pouch for something. A few moments later he began to chew on a docil root.
Tagun imagined Selendra returning on the trail to meet him. Even if she were guarded by a troop of men, she could be risking death at Porga's hands. Finally Porga's head drooped and his eyes closed.
Tagun had untwisted his bolika into strands of leather root while he waited. Ten strands made up the braid, each made of twisted fiber tough enough to bind a man. He slipped from the cover of the forest and began to move from one Orquian to the next, binding their hands. Three men, then five, two more until only three were left unbound.
Porga coughed and yawned. Tagun froze in place. Porga stood and stretched and walked away from the fire. Tagun hurried to secure the last two men before he slipped into the woods again.
Porga returned and looked around. "Get up you lazy fools," he yelled. Once again he kicked at the supine bodies of his cronies and some of them stirred and tried to sit up.
Porga seemed to realize that something kept them bound. He looked around, eyes staring into the shadows.
Tagun stepped forward, his throwing ax held ready. "Yield Porga."
Porga smiled, revealing teeth filed into points, then he laughed. "The slinking lying little rat returns. Have you come back to claim your inheritance on the eve of Jagga's triumph. He will never know I saw you."
Porga ignored the ax and drew his sword. Picking his way between the bodies of his men, he stalked toward Tagun with a light of demonic triumph in his eyes.
This time Tagun felt no hesitation as he drew back the ax and sent it whirling through the night, its keen edge glinting in the light of the failing fire. Porga's eyes widened just before the ax buried itself in his temple with a deadly thunk, then he crumpled soundlessly into the underbrush. His followers ignored his final thrashing movements, too lost in their own drugged nightmares to notice.
Tagun retrieved his ax and took Porga's sword as well then moved among the cultists who were lolling about with staring eyes, some of them jerking at their bonds. Deliberately, almost gently, he tapped them on their skulls with the blunt end of the ax to quiet them and end their struggles. They would live only to face death as just payment for their crimes but it seemed a craven act to take their lives while they lay senseless. Tagun raked the evidence of their infamy into a pile near the guttering campfire with Porga's sword .
He stamped on the fuming piles of dass to put them out, but he felt the first effects of the reeking drug beginning to fuddle his senses and hurried to gather the swords that lay around the clearing and carried them out to the road to mark the place. In order to clear his head he walked further down the trail and found the inn where he had hoped to spend the night with his new bride. As he had expected, Porga and his men had burned it to the ground. Only the rock chimney remained standing. The fire that had destroyed most of the evidence of murder and foul ritual had burned long enough to give the smoky signal that would summon Jagga's hordes.
He made his way back to the pile of swords that marked the campsite of the cultists then settled down to wait. He could not resist the wave of weariness that overcame him and he had no idea of how much time had passed when someone touched his shoulder, waking him. He lurched to his feet and saw Selendra carrying a torch. A troop of ax wielding Tedakans stood behind her.
"You look as if you have seen a glimpse of hell," she said.
"I have," he answered. He turned and addressed the Tedakans. "A band of Orquians burned the inn to send a signal to Jagga. They expected to take you easily and conquer Tedaka. You will find them bound and waiting for your judgment in a clearing in the forest. One of them attacked me and I had to kill him. I have seen your city and I know you will fight to save your freedom. Tell the Headman Tanka that Jagga's army is on the march. Gather your people into the city."
"Come with us," one of the men said. "We need every man to take up his ax and fight."
"I have another errand," Tagun said. "The armies of Zedekla and Taleeka are gathering. You will have allies in your fight."
Tagun did not ask Selendra to follow him, but he wasn't surprised when he heard her footsteps close behind him when he turned and set his course toward the west. "We must find a place to rest and plan," he said. "It seems that Jagga still believes that his confederates have weakened the will of the rulers of Taleeka and Zedekla. He is concentrating his efforts against Tedaka. He has no idea of the resistance he will meet when he comes to these hills."
"I need to stop and find a place to sleep soon," Selendra said. "I haven't rested since we took our vows."
He stopped and turned to her. "I'm sorry. While I was napping you were summoning the others. We have to find a stream. I need to wash myself and fill our water skins."
"My mother was raised not far from here," Selendra said. "When the border raids began her family abandoned the farm, but there is shelter and a spring."
She had been over optimistic. In the early morning light they could see the farmhouse and most of the outbuildings had fallen prey to raiders leaving burned walls and collapsed roofs to give evidence of the ruin the cultists wreaked on lonely homesteads. The spring still ran clear and fresh into a small pond. Selendra spread a sleeping mat in the shade of a broad tree and fell asleep as the sun rose while Tagun filled the water skins then used some soap from his pack to wash himself and his clothing and remove the stench of dass. Before spreading a mat near Selendra and joining her in sleep he knelt and offered a prayer of thanks. He woke to the smell of roasting matlas and found Selendra in the kitchen room that still had part of a roof and a good stone griddle the raiders had overlooked.
Tagun scouted the orchard for some fruit and found a few withered nukas and a breadberry bush with a few of bland berries still clinging to the branches. He returned to the kitchen and joined his wife in a simple meal.
"I noticed a sizable knoll not far from here," he said. "Do you know if it gives a view of the plains?"
"When I was small we visited my grandparents during harvest," Selendra said. "My cousins and I would climb the peak. Unless the trees have grown tall enough to obscure the line of sight, you should be able to see almost to the river. I remember the track we took. Follow me."
It was after noon when they finally climbed to the grove just under the peak. Wary of showing their silhouettes against the sky, they covered the remaining distance to the summit in a crawl with their faces low. Although some trees had grown tall enough to obscure the southern plains, they could see the pale blue line of distant peaks that marked the heights of Janaka's northern border and saw the glistening line of a river curling through the plains below. A line of fires sent gray smoke into the sky, marking the path of Jagga's horde.
"Fools," Tagun muttered. "They claim to covet the fertile fields of Virdana, but they burn the farms and bake the soil. It will be years before a decent harvest can be made where they have passed. They leave a trail that anyone with eyes and a nose can follow or avoid."
Using the knowledge he had gained from Tanka's maps and his studies with Frovin, Tagun used a page of his journal to draw a map of the route that should keep them well clear of Jagga's line of march. They made their way back to the farm near twilight. "Will we leave here tonight now that you know where we need to go?" Selendra asked.
Tagun put his arm around her and pulled her close. "I prefer to travel in the daytime when I can see where my enemies are. We will set forth at dawn tomorrow, but now I have other plans."
Selendra's familiarity with the surrounding country proved useful as they began their journey the next day. She led Tagun to other farms that lay along their route where they were able to gather more provisions.
They went to the north of Jagga's army, tracking it easily by the noise and sound at first and later by the stench when they passed to the west. It was common for Virdanan farmers to flee and whatever they could carry with them when Jagga led his warriors into the plains. Brutality and waste were part of the worship of Orqu and wherever Jagga took his army a trail of ruin stretched behind.
At first Tagun scouted cautiously ahead when they neared Janaka's border but he soon discovered that the border forts had been abandoned as their guards joined the battle parties under Jagga's banner. It meant they could take a direct route along established tracks instead of wandering through the back lands as Tagun had done as he started his pilgrimage.
Selendra kept up a steady pace without complaint She proved to be an active asset as she showed a skill for foraging that surprised Tagun.
"I spent my childhood in the country for months at a time," she reminded him as she introduced him to foodstuffs he would never have identified as edible, including nettles that she turned into a tasty soup.
"Have you ever eaten leather root?" he asked her.
She made a face that indicated what she thought of his reminder. "A few times, I doubt we will have to resort to such a pass," she said with determination.
Although he knew that it was best for them to make all haste to Algire Village and gather the army that had been promised him if he could earn the right to lead, he felt regret when he noted the familiar contours of the landscape ahead and realized that their journey would end within the next few days. Each night when he had filled a journal page with an account of the events of the day he noted that instead of feeling weariness and dread for what lay ahead, he had enjoyed each day as an adventure filled with new discoveries as Selendra walked along beside him.
Chapter 2 Return
On the morning of the day Tagun expected to arrive in Algire village they saw a familiar figure waiting erect and watchful on the trail ahead of them. The year that had passed since Tagun had last seen his grandmother had changed him in many ways but she seemed changeless. Erect and still, only her eyes gave sign of life as she examined the two of them and finally nodded just as they drew even with her.
"I am Kabrika, Tagun's grandmother," she said, extending a hand top Selendra. "You have been watched since we learned that you had Tagun's favor and you have earned respect."
"How could you have known I favored her?" Tagun asked.
"You were closely observed from the moment you met the Tedakan pilgrim caravan. I am no fool to be misled as others might be. Although for a time I had hoped that you would favor the daughter of the scribe who taught you, I learned soon enough that her heart had been taken long before ou reached Timora. The only other young woman with whom you had any dealings had another destiny and I doubt she like you at first.
Tagun guessed she was speaking of Kemil, now Kemil, the bride of Zedekla's prince, Manchek.
"Selendra's resistance to accepting a suitor once she had returned to Tedaka from her pilgrimage proved the most important signal that her hand had already been claimed. At first I could not be certain I fully approved of her. Then she proved her wit by freeing herself and the other maidens from that crew of servant sellers who were gathering girls for Jagga."
Kabrika glanced sideways at Tagun. "I grant that you acted well in the situation, but you should have been more caustious about approaching an armed woman who had reason to suspect any dressed as you were."
"If you knew she had been taken by the swindlers why didn't you have someone intervene?" Tagun said. "Her life would have been forfeit without rescue."
"Of course I would have sent someone to intervene if I had known what had happened. My informant only learned of the peril to Selendra after she had succeeded in getting free. I had dismissed her as a candidate for your queen when I heard that she had married. You had already accomplished so much that I couldn't let the mere lack of a wife impede our plans. A girl of Terifil clan had nearly agreed to marry you."
"I hope her heart survived the news that I had married," Tagun said and Kabrika's eyes sparkled for a moment in what might have been amusement.
"My informant returned to Algire Village last night with a report of your marriage to Selendra, as well as bringing us an account of how you killed or captured twelve of Jagga's cultists who had burned an inn and murdered all within. I would like to hear the story of that someday when we can spare the time."
"There is litle to tell," Tagun admitted. "I took advantage of their weakness and stupidity. I killed one man from ambush and the other when he discounted my threat. The others were too drugged to resist being bound."
"It is well for a small man of limited strength to recognise the need for wit and stealth." Kabrika said
"Tagun is strong," Selendra said as she took his hand and squeezed it. "As far as I know, I am the only opponent who ever really bested him."
Tagun decided against pointing out that he had not tried to defend himself when overcome by the welcome realization that she had won her way free of the swindlers who planned to sell her and other maidens to the Orquians. That she had mistaken him for one of the swindlers because the dim light didn't reveal that he had been wearing the clothing of the small Taleekan swindler as part of his ploy to set their victims free didn't seem worth pointing out when Kabrika so evidently approved of Selendra's bold behavior. What was a sore head and a day or so of painful recovery worth balanced against the good opinion of the matriarch for his bride?
After a few more questions for Selendra, Kabrika turned her attendion to Tagun. "I understand that you have arranged a treaty between the leaders of Zedekla, Taleeka, Tedaka and yourself. Can you assure me that it is fair and has no traps that might ensnare us with undue obligations?"
"As originally written it could have been a snare for Zedekla. Setaal, the Taleekan council head who wrote it planned to use it against the others who signed it. When his loyalty to the demon became evident, he suffered the fate of all who wear the mark of the cult. I can vouch for those who signed the treaty. Where there is no intent to defraud, but only a desire to aid each other in the most effective manner, the treaty is an excellent arrangement."
"I had a good report of you from Frovin so I will respect your judgement in the matter. Meanwhile, you have finished the tasks I set and I have already gained the approval of the matriarchs for your advancement to your father's royal duties. I have informed the matriarchs and the council of war chiefs that we are at last prepared to move against Jagga and it is only just in time. He has given us a reprieve for long months for a curious cause. Have your heard of his madness?"
"Other than the general madness of any who gives their devotion to the evil and senseless cult of Orqu, I don't know what your are referring to." Tagun said.
"When Elinka died he turned from building his army to building a great tomb to honor her. The funds set aside for building the great hall built after the model of the dark pyramid in Zedekla have been turned to quarrying pale granite to build an imitation of Timora's sacred shrine in honor of your mother. I have learned that Jagga only escaped the wrath of the priests of Orqu by promising to cease his folly until after the war against Zedekla succeeded."'
The three of them continued at a rapid pace as they discussed the discovery of the murder of Zekela's royal heir and his family. Tagun did not reveal all he knew of the arrangments made to ensure that Manchek, the new crown prince, would marry a woman suitable for the role. He gransped Selendra's hand a little tighter as he considered the sacrifices made by Sergon and Falinda so that Kemil would accept Manchek as her husband. His heart seemed near bursting with gratitude that he had not been called on to make such a offering to the exigencies of his obligations as the ruler of Janaka.
They reached Algire Village shortly before noon. The town had expanded into a well organized military camp. Hundreds of tents had been erected under the trees of the orchard and on the hillsides.
Daglan met them with a formal sign of welcome, his right hand sketched the symbol of the founder, Janak in the air as he greeted Tagun. He turned to Kabrika, "The matriarchs are waiting for you in the council hall."
Tagun wanted nothing more than to find a place to rest that was not a ruin or an open field. He glanced at Selendra and saw her firm her lips and nod. It seemed she had the will to go on for a little longer before putting her feet up and easing her legs from the long trek.
Kabrika's revelations that she had kept watch on him for most of the time since he left the village a year before led him to expect the quick response to his arrival in the village with the matriarch and his bride. The security of the camp depended on guards and scouts, but he still felt a sense of wonder when he entered the council hall and saw the matriarchs in their traditional Janakan festival robes.
Weary and dusty and dressed in the usual plain dark gown of a Tedakan matron, Selendra still had the advantage of youth and the radiance of love that made her beauty shine even in the midst of women dressed in bright zylka cloth and wearing jewels that rivaled any in Okishdu.
Tagun had told her about the tasks that the Matriarch had given him nearly a year before when he had set out on the pilgrimage to Timora. Finding a wife suitable to be Janaka's queen had seemed least likely at the time.
Kabrika took her place at the head of the waiting women and turned to formally address Tagun. 'We welcome you King Tagun. Your army has been prepared and is ready to follow you in battle," General Daglan is waiting on your orders when you have rested."
The matriarch turned to Selendra and bowed. "Welcome to our council. As queen of Janaka you have a place among us, but you have traveled far and must be weary. Your lady servant, Perla, will attend you to your royal quarters. I regret that we cannot provide better housing until the palace is regained. We will meet this evening for a feast on honor of your return."
With that, the two travelers were dismissed. They followed woman who led them to a large house not far from the council hall. "The house has been furnished according to your station as far as possible in time of war. If there is anything that you need, I will fetch it for you. I have begun heating water in the bathing room."
She opened the door and led them into the gather room. The traditional Janakan dwelling had the the courtyard in the rear instead of central to the house as most of the other homes in Okishdu. Tagun wanted nothing more than to find a place to rest, but he followed Selendra as she looked around the house and located the sleeping rooms, the kitchen, the storage rooms, the passageway that lead to the privy and the bathing room. Finally she nodded to Perla. "I think we have everything we need. You may go."
"I live just across the way. It is my duty to serve you as you wish," Perla said before bowing and leaving the house.
"You go get ready to bathe and I'll bring your sleeping robes," Tagun offered.
"I could ask for nothing better your majesty," she said with a smug smile. "I hadn't anticipated the advantages of marrying a king."
They had traveled at a rapid pace, often late into the night during their journey, with scant opportunities to bath. With several hours to rest and refresh before appearing at the feast they enjoyed the spacious bathing room where water heated in great copper cauldrons stood ready to be cooled with water from a spring After bathing they retired to the sleeping room where an elevated platform held a wide soft mat that easily accommodated both of them with room to spare. They quickly fell asleep.
Tagun woke earlier than Selendra and decided to investigate the amenities provided for their use. Extra bedding and clothes filled bench chests in the gather room. A cupboard in the entrance hall held an assortment of fine weapons of various kinds but there was no sign of the Sword of Dorn. A study room with racks of scrolls and shelves for slates and a long table stocked with scribing sticks and other tools of scholarship tempted Tagun to investigate its contents. The kitchen was stocked with food supplies and every implement for cooking that Tagun could imagine even after spending time in the kitchens of Zedekla's palace.
Selendra joined him while he was in the kitchen. "We could stay alone in this house for a month and never call for other supplies," she said.
"I doubt we will be here for more than a few days if that," Tagun replied. "With Jagga on the march, and the armies of the alliance gathering, we must not delay."
"I had expected the Matriarchs to test me before they accepted me as your queen."
"You have been tested. As Kabrika told you, you have been under observation since we first met. I am still puzzled to know who she enrolled to spy on us. You agreed to accept betrothal to a man with nothing but his love and expectations to offer. You waited for me without communication to assure you of my love, faithful even when other, richer suitors pressed you to accept them and you rescued yourself from captivity. You set out with me alone into danger and uncertainty and provided important assets to our journey."
"But how could they have known any of that?" Selendra asked him.
"I doubt they knew all the details, but I suspect that Kabrika's sources would surprise us. I think it may even be that Tanka played a part, but she said that her informant arrived last night. So far I haven't seen anyone I recognize from Tedaka. She wrote to my mentor in Timora, the Kumnoran sage, Frovin, and used the services of a seer to send her message."
They sorted through the clothing that had been provided. Selendra selected a dress of dark green zylka cloth that had a similar design to the simple dresses favored by Tedakan women. Tagun convinced her to select some jewels from a cask filled with brilliant stones and ornate settings that they found on the table in the gather room. She chose a rope of pearls that seemed the most simple of the jewels but she had to drape them around her neck in three loops to keep them from swaying near her knees. Tagun suggested she should add more jewelry and she selected a brooch with one large green cabochon carved with a woman's profile set in a simple wide gold bezel. She twisted her long hair up and pinned it at the crown of her head and arranged it to drape on the sides so she could hide the lack of piercing in her ears. Tagun gave her a circle of gold set with pearls and more oval green gems. After a brief hesitation, she set it on her head.
He dressed in the regalia of a warrior of Algire clan, but instead of a beard and braids twined with battle trophies, he wore a circlet crown that matched her own. He had found a familiar scabbard and wore it at his side.
"I think I hear the summoning horn," Selendra said.
The sun had settled to the hills that bound the village in the west when they reached the practice ground that had been converted to a feasting floor. Hundreds of battle chiefs and their wives and children gathered around the barbeque pits. A large pavilion decorated with garlands of nop branches and swags of green and gold cloth stood near the council chamber. The matriarchs stood in a line near the entrance with Kabrika next to Daglan.
They formed an aisle of honor for Tagun and Selendra, waiting while they climbed a few wide stairs up to the dais and stood before the center bench of several that filled the low platform. The matriarchs and warriors followed them until all of them faced the crowded feasting ground.
Daglan turned to Tagun and presented him with the Sword of Dorn. Tagun raised it high and moved it in the same symbol of Janak that Dagnet had sketched when they first entered Algire Village. A roar erupted from the crowd of battle chiefs.
If anyone had expected to make a speech, the opportunity had passed. The rest of the evening passsed in feasting and revelry. The main business seemed to be a contest to feed the King and Queen with variations on the spicy barbeque that scented the air. Tagun and Selendra quickly learned to taste and express delight without swallowing more than a spoonful of each mixture offered. Even so, they exchanged a look of desperation when yet another large brass bowl was placed in front of them. They sighed with relief when they realized it was filled with water.
"You might want to wash your hands before the dancing starts," Kabrika said.
The sound of horns and drums swelled as the remnants of the feast were cleared away. Soon the area in front of the pavilion filled with warrior's moving with grace and power in traditional movements.
Tagun had never seen such dancing. Jagga's warriors were delinquents and criminals who despised the traditions that did not involve the filthy rituals of their cult. The battle dances of these chiefs were accompanied by skilled drummers and other musicians who could use a fylk as well as they could use a sword.
Selendra ventured out with Kabrika to learn the steps the women performed in synchrony with the movements of the men. He cheeks glowed red and her twisted hair had tumbled loose and tossed around her as she danced.
Tagun would not be left behind. He followed Daglan's lead, leaping and stomping and whirling among the other men. Most of them towered over him, but he felt no embarrassment. They had gathered to battle and were willing to have him as their leader, or rather, their figurehead since Tagun felt certain that Daglan would be making the decisions.
An eerie warble from a single zole horn brought the movement to a halt. Daglan raised his hands and silence fell as everyone waited for him to speak. "You have prepared and looked to the return of justice, tomorrow we set forth on a venture that may cost your lives. Listen to your king."
Tagun felt surprise, but he had learned early to think fast in an ambush. He took the Sword of Dorn from the scabbard by his side and raised it above his head. "This Sword is not just a symbol. It has been a weapon in the endless fight against the darkness. I will carry it and go before you into battle until we conquer Jagga and cleanse Janaka of Orqu's dreadful stain."
The shout that greeted his announcement rivaled the screams wirras in its fierceness. Chills ran up Tagun's spine. There would be no rest tomorrow, but for the first time he felt truly confident that he might survive to enjoy a peaceful life with Selendra in the palace of Janaka.
He raised his hands again and silence fell. "Where Jagga's armies march they leave nothing but ruin in their wake. The people of Virdana will have fled the plains if they are wise. You cannot expect to support yourself by foraging. It is still early in the evening. Return to your men and make provision for the march or I can promise you that you will suffer hunger and thirst enough to resort to eating leather root."
A roar of laughter greet this reminder of the ultimate exigency of hungry men near to starving in the desert.
The crowd dispersed as the war leaders hurried away to meet with their warriors and assemble provisions.
Daglan stayed behind to confer with the matriarch, Kabrika, while Tagun and Selendra found their way back to their quarters. Not long afterward he followed them. "Tagun, what are your plans for the war to come?" he asked.
Tagun looked up at his uncle and realized the import of the question. He took a moment to gather his thoughts. "I will set out tomorrow for the hills of Tedaka with the war bands who are near enough to join the march. Those whose bands are further in the mountains should create an ambush on the western road. My army will attack the rear of Jagga's forces while they are laying siege to Tedaka. I predict that when they feel our pressure and cannot conquer the city, they will try to break to the west toward Zedekla where they will think to find a weakened foe. They will meet the allied armies of Taleeka and Zedekla and it is likely they will try to retreat back to the mountains."
Daglan nodded. "Have you thought about the possibility that they might turn their anger on Timora?"
"Irilik prophesied that Timora would never fall to an attack by armies," Tagun said. "Only internal rot can destroy the sacred city. I have lived there for a year and know many of the Guardians. The High Priest is a good man and the city is well-ruled. We cannot disperse our forces too widely, however if we march so that we come at Jagga's forces from the south, it is more likely they will make a run for the west instead of trying to fight through us."
"Are you certain that Taleeka and Zedekla will unite in an alliance and fight against Jagga?" Daglan said. "I have heard that there are members of the cult in positions of high trust and influence in both cities."
"I was present when the traitors were revealed and executed," Tagun assured Daglan. "Some, including Malvor, King Fortek's secretary were warned and escaped. They may try to counsel Jagga to avoid confrontation with the allies. But Jagga seldom listens to counsel."
"What if Jagga turns his forces toward Kumnora. They could take refuge in the steppes."
"Prince Manchek gained an agreement of alliance from the Quorm. They have promised to defend their lands against the cult and all who bear the mark of Orqu."
"Where would you have me serve?" Daglan asked.
"I want you to command the forces that will meet Jagga when he tries to retreat to Janaka after his defeat at Zedekla," Tagun said after a few minutes to organize his thoughts. "This must be a battle to the death for any cultist who wears the mark of Orqu. It is possible that Jagga will force prisoners to fight. If there is any doubt that a prisoner is innocent of the crimes of the cult, hold them for judgment at a later time. Otherwise, you know what must be done. I am certain that you have taken steps to make certain that no cultists have infiltrated our army."
"I am fairly certain that none of Jagga's men even suspects the existence of our force," Daglan said. "In addition to keeping you safe from Jagga's sons and keeping his records, I had daily access to the reports his warriors made. Since leaving Janaka with you a year ago I have maintained contacts in Jagga's court. There has been no report involving your presence among the alliies. There are safeguards against spies."
Daglan and Tagun put aside their planning when Selendra entered the gather room. "You may have forgotten something important," she said. "You must appeal to the Radiance to guide you in this fight. Have you chosen chaplains to encourage and console your men? I know that Janakan warriors are painted as infidels, but from Tagun's example I have learned that those of you who have resisted Jagga seek the guidance of the Radiance as much as any man in Okishdu."
"Each of the battle chiefs will act as chaplain for his men," Daglan replied. It is our way to let those warriors who have been wounded past the point of battle take on the role of priest, but in battle the wounded are sent to the rear to be cared for. Each chief invokes a blessing at the beginning of the battle."
"Thank you for telling me of your practice," Selendra said.
"Thank you for thinking of our welfare," Daglan replied with a gracious nod. "Tagun was truly led when he selected you to be his queen." He turned to Tagun. "I will leave you now gather those you have asked me to lead. I recommend that you take counsel with Darven, the oldest of your warrior chiefs. He taught me all I know of arms and war."
"I suppose this means that we won't be staying here much longer," Selendra said.
"You will stay here with the Matriarchs," Daglan said. "If our armies fail, we cannot leave our women to be taken by Jagga's men. Women and children are the heart of all we are."
"I understand," she said. She turned to take Tagun's hand. "Come, we don't have much time left together."
Tagun left Selendra sleeping when he rose before dawn the next morning, but he found that she had placed a large packet of salt and spices and another of jerky on the table of the gather room. She had remembered how he liked his barbeque.
He made room in his pack even though it took some effort. It would add savor to bland journey rations and there was enough to share with others now and then. He resisted the temptation to return and say goodbye to her yet one more time, but the warble of a zole horn sounded. The time had come to meet his battle chiefs and give them their orders.
Chapter 3 Cleansing
Tagun had never seen so many warriors. They crowded the square and spilled out onto the lanes of the village. When he looked over them he felt a sense of power and invincibility. "With these I can conquer Okisdu and rule from the mountains to the sea," a voice seemed to whisper.
Tagun rejected the notion almost immediately but he saw his thought reflected in the eyes of several of the men in front of him. He turned to Kabrika who had joined him. "I must make certain of these men." He turned back to the crowd. "I summon my battle chiefs to the council hall."
"Is it wise to lose the momentum you've established?" the Matriarch asked.
"It would be folly to lead a band of traitors and have them turn on me. After the battle chiefs have gathered, secure the doors and guard them."
When the battle chiefs had gathered, Tagun looked around. Darven, the warrior Daglan had recommended stood at the head of the others and for a moment Tagun hesitated. The grizzled warrior wore braids and beard weighed down with battle prizes. Surely one who had reaped such honors and earned the praise of Daglan had no need to be suspect. Even so, all must pass the test. Tagun stood on the dais and addressed them. "We must make certain that there are no traitors in our ranks. I want all of you to raise your left hand to the square and show your palms."
As he had expected, their palms were free of stain. "Now I want you to turn to the man next to you on the right and look beneath his left ear."
A sudden disturbance erupted at the right side of the room when one of the men dashed for the exit. Those near him quickly wrestled him to the ground and pulled his hair aside.
"He bears the mark of Orqu on his neck!" Darven said from where he stood over the traitor.
"Bring him forward," Tagun ordered.
Constrained by battle chiefs on either side of him, but still snarling with defiance, the cultist was shoved to the front of the excited crowd.
"Show all of us what he concealed," Tagun said. The man was turned and his hair lifted to reveal the tell tale mark. "All Orquians wear the mark of the demon," Tagun said. "Recently many have been marked in this manner. Once again, I order you to examine the man on your right."
It was the work of moments for the crowd of battle chiefs to assure themselves that there were no others with the mark.
"We will hold this traitor until we find if there are others. I want his battle group brought to this room and examined as I have shown you."
Those who held the Orquian captive bound and gagged him and put him in a small room near the end of the hall.
Tagun looked toward Darven and saw the older man nodding with grave approval. When his battle group entered it was soon determined that at least a quarter of them wore the mark. Tagun felt surprised that there were so few. The traitors were subdued and secluded while other battle groups were brought to the council hall for examination in lots of fifty. In over five thousand warriors only thirty four wore tattoos that betrayed them as Orquians.
The sun stood high in the sky when the examination finished. Tagun called a general assembly in the central square. "We have discovered traitors in our midst. We are at war. By the evidence tattooed on their bodies, these men are guilty of murder and worse. I now order their execution."
The grim task proceeded with dispatch while Tagun watched. None of the waiting throng murmured against the verdict or the sentence.
The identification and disposal of the traitors seemed to add a sense of greater dedication and resolve to their errand. The army made a quick meal then set forth in the middle of the afternoon. None complained when Tagun ordered them to march until late that night to make up for the time they had consumed in the cleansing of their ranks.
Tagun had learned to keep pace with taller men even though it meant he took a few more steps for each league covered and lengthened his stride a little. Ever conscious that he might appear to be more a child than a man, he never accepted aid with his pack or expected the pace to slacken when he tired. The effort he made paid off in an increase of respect from those he led. He was usually first to rise each morning and prepare to take the trail and last to put down his pack when the march ended at the end of each day of travel.
His example stilled the tongues of those who might have complained at the rapid pace he set as they left the mountains and took to the plains. One evening his orderly reported that he had overheard some of the men referring to him as the bronze midget but he took no offense for the name. "I admit I am a little short," he said with a smile at the young man's outraged expression. "But being taken for a child has had an advantage for me more than once." He drew the sword of Dprn and displayed its unusual form. "Like this sword, which all have accepted as te true mark of my right to lead, it is not the size of a weapon that counts, but the way it is used."
Apparently the orderly repeated what he had said and word filtered back that the men thought their king a wit. Even so, he made certain that his buskins fit well and were kept in good repair and his pack rode well. An unbalanced pack, or ill fitting shoes could easily put a crimp in his determination to be at the forefront of the army. Some said that other kings rode into battle in wagons pulled by dalas, but that had never been the Janakan way of making war.
In order to come to the battle south of the city of Tedaka, Tagun led his men across the plains west of the route Jagga and his army had taken. He was pleased to see that word had spread in time and most of the farms and villages had been abandoned before the raiding cultists had arrived. Not only that, the Virdanans had taken much of their produce and herds and what they could not take they had destroyed.
Knowing what he did of the ways of Jagga's court, he felt it unlikely that Jagga's army had taken precautions to provision their unruly horde. Now and then they came across the swath of ruin the cultists had left behind them. They had burned the houses and barns they ran across, but there was no evidence that they had been able to secure victims for their rituals. After a few days of determined march, they found that the burned building were still smoldering and Tagun's scouts reported that the enemy troops were only a day or so ahead of them.
When they reached the foothills that marked the boarders of Tedaka, Tagun gave orders to swing to the south to circle the marauders. They planned to come on the rear of Jagga's army not long after the siege of Tedaka began. They ran across several parties of foragers. According to the rule, they were examined for the mark of the cult and executed except for a few young boys who were evidently captives who were being used as scouts. Tagun had them removed to the rear of the baggage train and set a guard over them. If they were what they claimed, they would be set free after the battle.
When scouts reported that they were less than a day from Jagga's forces, Tagun gave the order to stop and rest. There would be no fires to give away their position and he heard no complaints about eating cold rations of journey bread and jerky. A feeling of anticipation prevailed among the warriors as Tagun made his way through their ranks. The number of battle chiefs should have prepared him for the force he led, but it still amazed him that so many seasoned warriors had avoided Jagga's efforts to recruit them. They had taken to the higher mountains with their clans, leaving behind villages near the central city. It explained the lack of comfort and the rationed food that had applied while he lived in the palace. He hadn't really considered the penury and brutality of his existence as a child, but in every other situation since then, including his service as a scullion in Zedekla's palace while investigating the presence of traitors, he had been better fed and enjoyed more simple comfort than he had as a prince in Janaka.
With all his force of fear and hatred, Jagga could not get farmers to stay on the land to raise their crops. From the evidence of the swords Tagun had taken from the scouting party his troops had intercepted, they were also forced to depend on inferior smiths for their weapons. Porga should have been armed with one of the best blades in Jagga's armory, but the blade Tagun had removed from his body showed signs of age and had a crack near the hilt.
Tagun had hoped to reach Tedaka before Jagga's army breached the outer wall, probably a day after the siege began, but when his scouts returned that morning they reported that Jagga's forces were still unorganized and it might be another day before they mounted an attack against the walls. They were constructing siege machines, but Jagga's engineers were largely drawn from the dregs of their profession and those meant to help them were more skilled at villainy than the discipline required for such tasks.
"They are in disarray and don't seem to realize we are coming up behind them," one of the scouts reported. "Perhaps they think that we are reinforcements from their allies in Orenon and Jama."
"Move forward and wait until they make their first attacks on the walls," Tagun said. "We must keep them from breaking through our ranks and going south toward Timora. When I give the signal, attack and drive them to the west. We need the help of Tedaka's defenders to drive them away from the city."
That evening Tagun gathered his war council to discuss the coming battle. Although he knew that he might be seen as ridiculous, he had prepared himself to lead the attack on the enemy's rear.
"You are our general, not our champion," Darven, head of the warrior council said.
"We have men at work constructing a tower from which you can inspect the battle and send message to keep our efforts coordinated. In addition, it is possible that the Tedakans will recognize your distinctive figure and understand that we have come to their relief instead of marching to reinforce Jagga's army."
"As I understand your plans for this war, you aim to relieve the siege of Tedaka, then drive Jagga west to Zedekla and then back toward Janaka. We plan to disrupt and erode his force rather than defeating him on this field. Even with the help of the Tedakans, this horde of Jagga's will b e difficult to defeat without great loss of life. They are like wild dogs, impossible to predict. Jagga's rabble is driven by hunger and frustration. They could be dangerous if cornered."
Tagun saw the wisdom in their counsel. In truth, he preferred to observe and direct the battle rather than engage in the midst of the fray and test his sword against the flesh of other men, no matter how degraded. He acceded to his war council and they ended their meeting with an appeal to the Radiance to guide their actions the following day.
Just before dawn Tagun made his way to the tower that had been erected on the top of a hill with a good view over the intervening landscape. Built of rough hewn logs, it loomed high above the hillside. A narrow ladder ascended the back of the tower, mounted on pulleys so that it could be pulled up after Tagun and the three young messengers who accompanied him were in place. He noticed that a low chamber lay immediately below the plank floor of the top of the tower and wondered at the purpose of the room. He detected a hint of wood smoke issuing from a clay chimney and guessed that the room was meant as a place to prepare a meal if the battle went on for a long time.
A low wall of sharpened stakes ran around the edge of the platform and there was a rough wood bench and a table stocked with slates and scribing tools. A full water skin and a supply of battle rations completed the provisions.
The walls of Tedaka which he had last seen as a tall row of houses with sturdy doors, now stood closed and seemingly impregnable. The awkward towers of Jagga's siege machines were already on the move, lurching over the pitted earth that was all that was left of the woodlands and orchards that had once surrounded the city. Had it been the Tedakans or Jagga who had wrought the destruction that lay before him? Certainly it fit with the usual wasteful practice of the Orquians to destroy the woodlands, but the presence of pits and mantraps with sharpened staves that interfered with the rushing wave of cultists screaming for blood and revenge indicated that the Tedakans had willingly sacrificed their groves for the sake of interfering with their enemy's attack.
The warriors, impatient of waiting for Jagga's ponderous, siege machines attacked the great timbers of the doors but as often as not the hardened timber shattered their ill-made swords and spears. Some of them had the idea of setting fire to the timber, but as Tagun knew, a hidden system of pipes fed a steady stream of water to the tops of the doors, that seeped down the heavy planks, saturating them so that attempts to set them on fire only brought forth surges of steam that drove the attackers away.
When the siege machines finally reached the walls, the Tedakan's were ready with their axes, cutting away the bridges as soon as they fell into place on top of the walls. Archery was not a skill that Janakans practiced but there were skilled bowmen among the people who had taken shelter in the city. Their arrows were seldom wasted as they aimed at the teams of men who had pushed the machines within range of the walls. A series of small ports opened not far from the tops of the walls and sturdy poles reached out and pushed at the tottering mobile towers sending several of them crashing to the ground, trapping the men who had pushed them into place.
Tagun watched the progress of his own efficient forces as they moved into position. Dressed as they were in traditional Janakan battle regalia, most of the cultists must have assumed that they were allies come to aid in the siege. They soon realized their mistake as the battle cry rang out and the disciplined ranks of warriors charged into the rearwards , slashing and spearing with grim determination.
Tagun kept track of the flow of the battle and saw a group of Jagga's men rally and form a defensive circle. He sent a messenger to the warrior in command of the nearby squad of swordsman and soon the rally ended. Howls of rage and confusion rang out as the cultists realized the true nature of Tagun's warriors. They turned from their futile attempts to breach the doors of Tedaka's fortress city and began to confront this new foe.
Noon came and the pleasant odor of hot oil rose from the room below. The scent reminded Tagun of festival days in Timora when hot breads and delicious crusty meats were fried in deep vats of boiling oil. He half expected that someone would come from the room below with something hot and tasty to augment the jerky and water biscuits of his provions.
A skirmish erupted on the hillside below his tower and Tagun looked over the timber rampart. A band of screaming cultists scrambled up the hill waving swords and slashing at the men who guarded the base of the tower. To Tagun's astonishment, the guards scrambled out of reach of the attackers, leaving them free to climb the tower. Had his battle chiefs betrayed him? Had he been isolated on the top of the tower just for this purpose? Fear and doubt assailed him as the pungent order of the climbing cultists wafted upwards. Several of them had ascended nearly to the level of the room below. Tagun resolved that he would not yield easily when they finally came over the ramparts to attack him. He pulled the sword of Dorn from its scabbard at his side and waited for the first of them to reach him. Small ports opened in walls of the room below and hot oil poured down on the heads of the assailants. Their roars of anticipation became screams of pain. Unable to keep their grip on the wood of the tower with blistering hands that tried in vain to cling to greasy wood, they fell and curled in agony on the ground beneath the tower. The odor of their burning flesh reached Tagun and bile rose in his throat. His vague anticipation of a tasty piece of deep fried meat vanished in a feeling of revulsion. He saw that the men who guarded the tower where he stood had simply stepped aside in expectation that this fate would meet the marauders. They were ready to take the writhing cultists captive.
Tagun blushed at the thought that he had mistaken the purpose of the heated oil and that for a few chilling moments he supecyed he had been betrayed.
Several minutes passed before he was able to see the humor of the situation. Then he chuckled and reached for a piece of water biscuit. There would be no tasty fried breads coming from the room below today.
A few more hours passed and battle rage still prevailed among the cultists. Tagum detected a hint of sour wine and dass smoke on the breeze that blew from the battle field and he guessed that many of the cultists were finding spurious courage in drugs and drink. Heedless of pain through the anodyne effects of the poisonous brew they used to bolster their will, they continued to attack even when their wounds were serious. At first it seemed that nothing could stop their will to enter Tedaka even at the cost of limbs. All the siege towers had succumbed to fire arrows and push poles and lay in ruins.
When another wave of Tagun's warriors came at them from the south, the cultists finally began to falter. Seeing the relief of the siege, and recognizing that the new contingent had come as allies in their fight to preserve their city, the Tedakans opened their doors and poured forth in deadly array, swinging their great axes with force and precision.
Jagga's distinctive crested helmet had disappeared. Tagun sent messengers with orders to watch the perimeter of the battle and determine if the usurper had made an attempt to leave the field of battle.
At last the horde's ungoverned zeal began to yield before the combined attack of Tedaka's ax men and Tagun's warriors. Pressed from the south and east, they began to flee the fortress city and make their way toward the setting sun.
At last there could be no question that the battle at Tedaka's walls had turned into a rout. The army of Jagga fled in full retreat. Several contingents of Tagun's warriors had already established positions at the fork that led to the south and the rich lands of Taleeka and Timora.
Tagun sent messengers out to call a meeting of his war council as the last of the horde retreated toward the western plains. "We must not waste our strength in engaging them any further except for our efforts to keep them from turning to the south," he reminded them. "You and your men have accomplished what we set out to do. We must meet with Tanka and the other defenders of Tedaka and make plans for the morrow. It should be sufficient to herd them toward Zedekla. They are bullies and brutes, but they are also cowards. They think to find easier game among our allies on the coast. I have observed many acts of valor from my tower and it is time to honor our dead and mend the wounds of those who require care."
Chapter 4 Victory
Surrounded by a half circle of the leading warriors, Tagun left his observation post and walked toward Tedaka where the field in front of the city was being cleaned of battle dross.
He saw Tanka and Doka with a squad of men who were digging ditches for the bodies of the cultists who had fallen. He wondered what the Headman and his nephew would say when they saw him in his warrior regalia with a crown above his brow. Doka stared at him with wide eyes but Tanka seemed to take no notice.
"Tagun, I had hoped that you would come in time, but when I first saw your warriors I feared that they were more of Jagga's men, come to reinforce his attack. Then I saw you on that tower supervising your men in battle and I knew that we would win the day against Jagga's imposition."
"I wonder what Jagga would say if he knew that you considered his attempted siege nothing more than an imposition?" Tagun said with a grin.
"I knew that we had gathered in whatever we needed to support our people for at least a month, and that his army had few provisions. The countryside will not provide more than meager sustenance. A few fools ignored our call to gather, but most came into the shelter of our walls with their crops and animals.
"Could you spare some provisions for my men?" Tagun asked. "We set out well supplied, but your tactics of leaving little to scavenge have been most successful and if we hope to harry them toward Zedekla, we will need to find provisions."
"We will gladly provision you, and my fighting men will join you. Are you certain that Zedekla will withstand the cultists?"
"They will at least resist, but I have good reason to expect a well organized defense augmented with an army from Taleeka. And if the Zedeklans have not prepared as I expect, then we will continue to drive Jagga, but at a greater cost to us. We suffered 74 deaths and a number of injuries, but it is far better than we had hoped. How did you fare?"
"We lost nearly fifty of our citizens today," Tanka said. "but they will be honored by all who value freedom. War is terrible, but not the worst thing we might suffer." He turned to his nephew and clapped him on the shoulder. "Doka has proved that he has the wisdom to follow me as Headman. I put him in charge of organizing the defenses for the siege and he did so with dispatch and efficiency."
Tagun exchanged a smile with his friend. Tanka had given Doka the highest compliment a Tedakan could receive.
The joined forces of Tagun's army and the citizens of Tedaka prepared to mourn the deaths of their warriors and fighting men with a hero funeral that evening. Reports from the field indicated that the scheme for driving Jagga westward had succeeded. The cult leader had been seen among his warriors as they made their ragged march toward the west and what they must have hoped were easier pickings.
"I wonder why Jagga came against Tedaka," Tanka said. "Anyone who has seen our city should understand that it was built to be a muli-layered fortress when the need arose. Once we shut the outer doors in each ring of homes, they are difficult to breach."
"I must avoid the temptation to take Jagga's forces too lightly," Tagun said. "They are not true warriors but criminals and bullies. They are ill-armed and difficult to govern, the worst kind of men to rely on in a battle. But they are also vicious and cunning and have no idea of honor. Never make the mistake of accepting a flag of truce. They will use it as a wedge to take advantage of the normal rules of war."
"I warned my people that we must not take prisoners of the cultists, but we were able to rescue some young men who had been captured and forced to fight," Tanka said.
"Where did you put them?" Tagun asked.
"I sent them to the dining hall to eat before they try to find their families," Tanka said.
"Did you check their palms for the sign of the cult?" Tagun asked.
"They were not like the other warriors, but younger and better spoken," the headman said.
"I hope we can find them before they leave," Tagun said as he hurried away toward the hall. Careful to avoid being seen, he sidled up to one of the windows and peered at the people gathered inside.
He saw five young men at one of the tables and immediately recognized them. Jagga had raised seven sons, Tagun not included, and he had accounted for Dugga months before and Porga more recently. The others were sitting at a table eating and enjoying the hospitality of the Tedakans.
Tanka caught up with Tagun as he looked through the window at the feast within. "Did I make a mistake?"
"Those are the five younger sons of Jagga. I'm surprised they came to the battle in tunics instead of wearing battle gear, but perhaps Jagga thought to use them as spies. Daglan gave them enough instruction to pass as civilized men, but I assure you that each of them in turn has bragged to me of eating maiden flesh at their initiation into the cult of Orqu."
"I will send my guards to take them," Tanka said. "I will not be fooled again by surface civility."
Tagun saw one of the men reach out and grab the skirt of one of the women who served the table. He recognized Doka's older sister.
She turned with a pleasant smile to receive his request, but he evidently said something so foul that her face blanched with offense and fear. Her reaction caused the other men to laugh and add other rude jests. The women serving nearby tables whipped their knives from hidden scabbards and presented a barbed facade that only a fool would ignore, but Jagga's sons were fools. They stood and tried to push their way past the women.
Tanka and Tagun remained in concealment as the scene resolved. Men carrying axes quickly supplanted the angry women. One of them demanded that the miscreants show their palms. The young men resisted, thrusting at the Tedakan men with the cutlery from the table. The conflict ended quickly as the remaining sons of Jagga were surrounded and subdued. A quick examination revealed their cult tattoos. They were led from the dining hall and out to the execution grounds where bodies of the attackers had been piled for burial. They had earned a sentence of quick death and it was carried out with grim efficiency under Tanka's direction while Tagun observed from a distance. He felt relief at being spared the duty of dispatching them and When he considered that none of Jagga's bloodline remained, he felt a curious sense of grief.
His childhood and early youth had been plagued by the sons of Jagga who might well have sensed that he shared no blood with them. Even though Jagga had been misled to call Tagun his son and name him as his heir, the others had always jeered at Tagun with hints that his mother had played Jagga false. In reality, she had concealed her pregnancy from the man who had murdered her husband and led him to believe that Tagun was his son for the sake of maintaining the bloodline of Dorn, the first king of Janaka. He had gathered plenty of scars to give witness of their fatal intentions. Only the constant vigilance of his tutor Daglan had kept him whole and alive. Yet now and then something more than mere brutality had shown from one of the boys. Perhaps if they had been reared differently- the thought tantalized him for a moment, but the reality of their ultimate choice to follow the cult of Orqu and revel in wickedness and degradation could not be denied or rescinded by wishful thinking.
He joined Tanka as he walked back to the city and confessed his mixed feelings. "I feel real regret that none of them chose something better, but if they had had the wit to act with true civility, they could have done great damage to our cause."
The combined army of Tedakans and Janakans set out the next morning in good order. Each army kept separate and distinct from the other. As the day passed and encouraging news came from the west, the discipline relaxed and soon the armies began to mingle as they stopped to take refreshment. The provisions provided by the people of the city had been received and distributed by the battle chiefs. The generous act formed a good basis of friendship and soon the forces were fraternizing without reservation as they moved toward the west. Their enemy continued to flee before them, harried by pursuing bands of warriors.
One of the battle chiefs approached Tagun with a suggestion after seeing a demonstration of axes being thrown during a midday break after several days had passed. "If we arranged our warriors in parallel with the Tedakans, they could throw their axes at the enemy and withdraw to let us engage our swords with those still standing."
When night fell and the armies camped, Tagun approached Tanka with the battle chief who had suggested the maneuver and they discussed the possibilities and difficulties. If the two armies had not already shown a willingness to eat and work together it would have been a challenge, but the day had shown that the Tedakans were grateful for the relief from the siege that Tagun's army had provided and the Janakans were grateful for the generous provisions. With such good will prevailing the new maneuver would probably be successful. After the men had finished their evening meal they were asked to spend time practicing the tactic. Some of the Tedakans protested that they would sooner keep hold of their axes, but Tanka pointed out that they could mark their axes with distinctive patterns on the blade or handle.
Reports from the west remained encouraging. Jagga's forces were in full and disorderly flight from the groups of warriors and soldiers who continued to harry them. They had made several brief attempts to turn toward the south, but each time a concentration of warriors had dissuaded them.
Four days into the pursuit, Jagga apparently convinced his men to slow and organize into something other than an unruly mob. A village within two day's march of Zedekla had failed to heed the warnings to gather to the city. They fell victim to Jagga's vicious bands of roving scavengers. Their granaries and barns provided food before being burned and their women and children provided victims for the dreadful ritual that Jagga would hold on the eve of marching on the city.
When the scouts reported the event to Tagun and Tanka, the two leaders called a meeting of their battle chiefs. "Tomorrow we will speed our march," Tagun said. "Jagga's men are filled with the expectation of victory and they will fight like demons. It is possible that Zedekla's army will underestimate them."
"It would be best if there were some way we could communicate with Fortek and his generals and let them know we are here and what we intend," Tanka said.
"If I set out now I could reach Zedekla well before the battle starts," Tagun said. "You know what our plans are and the battle chiefs have their orders. but we should alert Zedekla's defenders. I am known to King Fortek and he will heed my warning. I believe I am be the best one to carry a message but I must leave soon or the success of my mission will be jeopardized. It would be best if I go alone because a group of men would be more likely to draw notice."
Tagun had feared that someone would object or try to stop him but although he saw a few raised brows, no one spoke against his plan. In fact, Tanka nodded and turned to take Tagun's hand. "I would not have dared to suggest such a scheme, but since you have volunteered, I can only approve of the idea. I have a few thoughts for how you culd evade notice.' He followed Tagun to his command tent where he removed the crown that marked him as a leader of the expedition. Tanka disappeared for a few minutes while Tagun decided what provision he should take with him. Tanka returned carrying a hooded robe of course material that would blend with the earth and scrub of the plains. When Tagun put it on it fell to his ankles, easily concealing his battle regalia and sword in its ample folds.
"We should pray together before you set out," Tanka said. "You could be in danger, but I sensed that this venture would succeed as soon as you suggested it. You have established a record of finding your way through difficulties that might hamper others."
Tagun nodded. It felt good to take an active role in promoting the welfare of his warriors after having spent the entire siege looking on from the top of a tower. He had been reassured several times that he had served a vital function, but seeing other men die while he stood in guarded security above them had not set easily on his conscience.
Chapter 5 Rescue
After listening to Tanka's prayer that he be guided and kept from harm, Tagun bid farewell to the head man and started into the dusk. He took some rations and a water skin and quietly slipped away from the camp while his warriors and Tanka's soldiers practiced their new tactic.
He had planned to take a path that skirted Jagga's forces on the south where his own men were harrying them to keep them from heading to Timora. His mind wandered to other concerns as he set out. When he finally looked up to take his bearings he realized that his track had turned to the north. He almost veered to the south, but a warmth in his chest stopped him in his tracks. He recognized the sensation he had felt a few times before, particularly when he first saw Selendra. Reason argued for the southern route but something deeper reassured him that he had not made a mere mistake in heading north. A chill ran over his skin and he gave a brief prayer of thanks for guidance as well as a plea for protection. There wasn't much information from his scouts about the northern fringes of Jagga's advance on Zedekla. There would be no one near to help him if he were captured.
He moved at a lope, keeping to the road instead of taking cover. He came to a village where he and Doka had slept one night on their trip to Tedaka only a few weeks before. The inevitable destruction by the cultists had been hasty and incomplete and most of the buildings still stood, although here and there a fire smoldered. Tagun felt drawn to a shed hidden behind one of the larger buildings. I can't waste time exploring an old hut. Tagun heard the echo of impatience and anger in his mind and stopped in his tracks. He wouldn't heed the Liar. He turned and studied the nearly ruined structure.
A large piece of roofing had fallen from the nearby house and blocked the door. It took considerable effort to lift it with a lever of rafter wood and pull it away, but when he finally eased the door open he heard a muffled whimper, suddenly cut off. Moonlight coming through the door fell on large mound of straw near the back wall of the shed. He proceeded by some instinct to pull the straw aside and uncovered a huddled figure.
Once again the whimper sounded, followed by a woman's sob. "I won't hurt you. I am here to help you," he assured the huddled shape. "Are you hungry and thirsty? I have food and water."
"Bless you," the woman murmured. She sat up and he saw that she held a tiny infant. "The birth pains came upon me suddenly and I could not go with the rest of the village when they fled. My husband wanted to stay, but the others said my best chance was to hide so they covered me with straw and left me here. The food and water that they left with me ran out yesterday."
"A section of room fell against the door and blocked it. You were trapped if I had not been led to you," Tagun said. "I doubt that the cultists will return where they have ruined. Stay here in hiding until your people return for you."
He pulled the straw close around her again after giving her the food and water and when he left he pulled the door shut after making certain that she could open it at need. He moved away with a feeling of joy. He would have to fast until he reached Zedekla, but it seemed a small price to pay for the opportunity to save two innocent lives. He recognized now that he had been burdened by his involvement in the deaths of all of Jagga's sons. At least he could acquit himself of any feeling of revenge at their necessary ends.
Light hearted, he made his way swiftly through the night. Near dawn he smelled the stench he knew too well, the deliberate filth that marked Orquians. Their campfires had burned to ashes and it seemed than no one stirred except the men on night watch. Once again Tagun felt impelled to go toward the camp instead of giving it a wide berth as reason would suggest. In the dim grey light of coming day Jagga's tent loomed larger than the others and Tagun felt drawn toward it.
He risked capture, but what if he could steal into the tent and kill the leader? Surely without a head the army would disintegrate into nothing more than a vengeful mob. Tagun's emotions roiled within him. It was one thing to hope for Jagga's defeat and death. It was another to imagine himself as the instrument. Even now the stench from the camp reminded him of moments when the preference Jagga showed him as a child had warmed his heart and made him feel protected.
He watched drowsy guards yawning and leaving their posts for minutes at a time. All he had to do was wait until the nearest to Jagga's tent wandered away for a moment. Tagun felt confident that his dull brown robe would disguise his approach. He moved closer, taking advantage of a moment of inattention by the guard to come up to the wall of the tent. He slit the fabric with his knife and sidled through the opening into the darkness.
He could hear Jagga's snores from one side. It seemed he was alone, but that was not unusual. The Orquians were unlikely to bring women to a war and Jagga had never been promiscuous, although he kept a harem as a sign of status. It was rumored that since Elinka's death he had become abstemious, caring little for fine food and less for other luxuries. Tagun clutched his knife in his hand and sidled closer, but something stopped him from proceeding. Even now the remnants of his gratitude and love for the monster who had raised him stopped his hand from striking.
"Kill him now while you have the chance!" It almost seemed that someone had spoken aloud. Tagun stopped and peered into the darkness, but the voice that urged him to strike was the same wheedling spirit that had urged him to ignore the shed where he had found the mother and child.
Tagun made no reply, either aloud or mentally. Why would the Liar urge him to kill Jagga? Surely the deed could put an end to the war. With no sons left alive to take his throne, the power of the usurper would end, but where the Liar led he would not go.
Tagun backed away, finding the rent he had made in the wall of the tent and slipping through. He heard a cough nearby and slid to the ground, pulling his robe up to cover his head. The guard coughed again, now further away. Tagun risked peering out and saw that the man had turned his back. He scuttled away from the command tent, taking shelter in a nearby clump of bushes.
As he waited for the way to clear he pondered why he had been drawn to the camp if not to kill Jagga. He had not taken Jagga's life with his own hand, but what purpose could be served in letting that life continue? became apparent as he considered the matter that Jagga was not the true power behind the cult. Even in Janaka there had been tension between the demands of Pon, the priest of Orqu, and Jagga's willingness to let Tagun go for years without initiation. Jagga made a useful figurehead. He had a way of drawing men to him, particularly those with no other real loyalties. Was he little more than a tool for those who led the cult? If so, removing him by murder would do little to end the conflict. If anything, the unruly mob of murderous villains would lack any leadership or constraint. The strategy of ambush on the western road would be useless if Jagga were not present to order his army to retreat back to Janaka.
Moments later he heard a murmured whimper and sat up in surprise. That had been a woman's voice. He remembered the report that a village had been plundered and the inhabitants murdered except for maidens that the cultists planned to use in a feast to bolster their courage on the eve of the battle with Zedekla.
Surely the ritual would have been held by now with every hope of rescue for the victims gone? But Tagun heard another muffled cry of pain, this time undeniably a child, and couldn't deny the evidence. Somewhere in the camp, not far from where he lay concealed, the intended victims were still being held.
He must attempt to rescue them whatever the risk. He located the tent by the number of guards who circled it with rare attention to their task. The captive tent would not be as easy to enter as the command tent he had left not long before. He noticed a few of the guards taking a rest, using the few moments they had to chew on docil root, a mild drug when chewed that merely took the edge off of awareness and invited dreams.
However, Tagun had learned from some of the innuendos Porga and Dugga, Jagga's sons had hinted at that powdered docil root played a role in Orquian ritual. It the concentrated form the drug took on a different aspect, leading quickly to hallucination.
Leaving the tent of the captives, Tagun set of in search of the tent of Pon, the chief Orquian priest. It would be marked by banners bearing the dread mark of Orqu. He located it not far from Jagga's tent and noted with relief that it had been left unguarded. Likly Pon had gone out on some foul errand and took his guards along with him. He must have known that his tactics of fear and threat had earned him many enemies even among the cultists.
As soon as he slipped inside the tent Tagun gave a sigh of relief. While fostering disorder and filth among his followers, Pon's own habits were neat, almost fussy. The instruments of torture stood in tidy racks with sacks of ingredients for the ritual drugs stored beneath next to ewers full of wine.
Tagun opened each sack and took a cautious sniff before locating the one that contained powdered docil root. The mere scent of the pungent dust arising from the opening of the sack sent a wave of sensation over Tagun's skin and he quickly closed it.
If Pon returned and found the sack missing he might suspect what Tagun planned. Looking around him, Tagun located another, empty sack and quickly filled it with dirt from a corner of the tent. When it weighed nearly the same, he opened the sack of docil root and sprinkled some of it over the top of the dirt while he held his breath to avoid taking in any more of the drug.
He heard voices outside the tent and quickly hid behind a curtain of zilka cloth inscribed with an ugly image and arcane symbols. Just enough light came through the flimsy drapery that he could vaguely see Pon and two other men when they entered the tent.
"Take a message to Jagga," Pon said. "He must rouse the warriors and insist that all of them eat well this morning. We will march to the gates of Zedekla by this evening and use the ritual to terrify the inhabitants into surrender. I have not yet heard from Malvor, but I have no reason to suspect that King Fortek has the will to resist us. There will be no resistance. After we take Zedekla we can turn and punish those Tedakan's who thought to resist us."
"Who are you to give orders to Lord Jagga?" one of the other men asked.
A long moment of silence followed and Tagun could only see a hint of the expression on the high priest's face. It sent a shiver down his spine with its malevolence. The priest did not deign to reply to the insolent question and soon the other men departed from the tent.
Tagun watched Pon as he moved about the tent and wondered if his ruse with the docil root would be discovered. At last the priest seemed satisfied that everything sat in the order he had left it and turned around to look directly at the curtain behind which Tagun stood.
To Tagun's astonishment, the priest fell down upon his face with his hands extended along the ground. "Great Orqu, Lord of the Darkness, grant us victory over the fools who would deny you."
Tagun felt a momentary temptation to reply and use the priest's superstition against him, but wisdom quickly prevailed. He stood breathless as the priest stood and turned to leave the tent.
With his hearing tuned to catch every hint of movement outside the tent, Tagun soon felt satisfied that the priest's orders to Jagga were being heeded. He heard grumbling and swearing as the warriors were aroused and informed that they were ordered to eat an early breakfast and take to the road that led to Zedekla.
"At least we should be granted a peek at those pretties he is keeping for the sacrifice." one man muttered to his companion.
"Silence, fool," the other man responded. "You could lose your head. Ever since Porga disappeared without bringing us the Tedakan captives Pon has been alert to any hint of contention. Drink and smoke dass and argue with the rest of us, but don't question the actions of the high priest."
Knowing that he must put his plan into effect immediately, Tagun hurried from the priest's tent and made his way toward the cauldrons of water that had been set to boil over the cooking fires. The reviving odor of cala rose on the steam that issued from the cauldrons. Waiting until the cooks were occupied with roasting meats and grilling matlas for the morning meal, Tagun emptied the sack of powdered docil root, dividing it equally between the cauldrons. Just as a cook turned back toward the cala cauldrons, Tagun dropped the sack into the fire and hurried away.
He took refuge in a covert near the captive tent, using the dull color of his robes to cover him. He heard the exchange of guards take place and listened to the exchange of insults and abuse that seemed their normal form of greeting.
"You'll want to get plenty of cala. Best I've ever tasted. I tried to get another serving but those sons of dalas wouldn't give me any," one of the guards said.
"Good stuff, has a spicy taste I don't remember. Too bad we murdered everyone in that village. One of them must have known the secret of the brew."
"Maybe one of the captives knows how they prepare it," another man suggested. "I'll go in and question them."
"You should do that," the first man said with a rude laugh. "I'd like to see how long it takes you to die after Pon finds out you've interfered with the captives."
"I don't drink cala," another man claimed. It's just tasteless swill meant for old ladies and children."
"Bring me back your portion and I'll give you this good blade."
"I'll drink the cala," the first man said to a groan of disappointment from the other guard.
Not long after the exchange of guards the area fell silent. Tagun risked a peek and saw the men around the tent folded to the ground with silly smiles or looks of terror on their faces. He had not known quite what to expect, but this was better than he hoped for. He ran across the intervening space and used his obsidian blade to slash the leather band securing the entrance.
The low light admitted through the walls of the tent revealed a sight that repelled him at first then thrilled him with the number of survivors of the attack on the village. Women and children lay on the ground and huddled in the corners, filling the tent almost to overflowing. He quickly estimated that more than twenty bodies filled the space meant for seven at most.
How could he ever get away with so many? Yet, he could not leave any of them behind to suffer the Orquian ritual. As he surveyed the hopeless faces he recognized two of them. On the journey from Zedekla to Tedaka with Doka, he met Marga, a young woman with hints of a soiled past. She held her younger sister Berna close beside her as they huddled with the other victims.
She looked up and saw Tagun with a gasp of surprise. "I did not think that you were one of them. Why did you rescue Berna and the others back in Tedaka?"
"I have come to set you free," Tagun whispered as he cautioned her with a finger to his lips. "The guards outside the tent are sleeping, and it is likely that others will be less wary than usual. Even so, it will be a miracle if I can manage to get you to safety without being discovered. Why are you here when you live much closer to Tedaka."
"Father wanted to join the defense of Tedaka city and he thought we would be safe if we took refuge with his brother, the head man of Born Village. If it were not for my cousin, Pella," she gestured toward a pretty girl with tumbled curls who lay moaning in the corner, "we would have fled to Zedekla at the first warning that the horde was coming. But she couldn't find her pet and refused to leave the village until a hunt was made to find it."
"You must gather everyone together and get them ready to make their escape. Each of the small children should be carried by an older girl and kept quiet."
Pella seemed to realize they were talking about her and stared up at Tagun with defiance in her eyes. He recognized her attitude. Even to save her life she would resist the guidance of anyone else. As he expected she stood up and addressed him.
"Who are you and what right do you have to give us orders," she challenged.
For a moment he felt tempted to order Marga to bind the girl and gag her. He didn't need her insolence and resistance when so much lay at risk. Then he felt a sense of warning. He had to find a better way.
"I am here to rescue you and I need you to take charge of assigning the little ones to those who can best care for them," he said.
He saw Marga smirk. She understood his tactic. If Pella had someone to boss around she would cooperate.
"Be as quiet as you can," he warned. "I'm going to go out and scout to find the best way to escape the camp."
A low mound of excavated earth led toward the south from the center of the camp, beginning not far from the captive tent, but even though it offered shelter from most of the camp, the priest's tent and the command tent gave a view over most of it. Tagun looked around for a better means of sheltering their escape.
"So, little rat, you have returned thinking to claim your heritage on the eve of our triumph," a voice declared just before Tagun felt arms go around him. "I had expected you to show up sooner or later, but Jagga will never know that you came back."
He recognized Pon's voice and knew he had only seconds to act before the priest secured his hands. He wrenched the sword of Dorn from the scabbard at his side and thrust it backwards into the vitals of the priest. With a gasp of pain Pon released him. Tagun whirled to see if there were others he would need to fight but Pon had been alone. The dark stains spilling from his belly were hardly visible on the gore stained dark gray robe of his office. The mask and headdress that normally obscured his features lay awry, revealing his vacant eyes and gaping mouth. It had been a mortal thrust.
A pile of dung lay steaming in the sun nearby. Instead of dragging Pon's body across to the dung, Tagun removed the robe and headress and put them aside before scraping dung up with a discarded board and using it to conceal the body.
He hurried to the priests tent and found several others robes hung near the entrance. He had the hint of an idea for leading the captives free with none to question what he did, but he acted almost instinctively, hardly pausing to consider what he was doing as he took the robes and several other masks and headdresses.
Remembering how Selendra had attacked him when she thought that he was the Taleekan swindler who had captured her in Tedaka, he waited to put on a priests robe until he was inside the captive tent again.
The guards outside the captive tent still lay supine, but some of them had begun to stir and mutter. He ducked inside the tent and saw the fear and wonder on the faces within. Pella had done as he had asked her, and most of the girls stood quietly with little children in their arms, comforting them and urging them to be quiet.
He had planned to put on Pon's robe and lead the captives forth, but he quickly recognized the error in that plan. Instead, he urged Pella and Berna to put on the other robes and told Marga to put on Pon's robe and headdress.
"I am so short that anyone would quickly suspect a ruse. Marga is about the same size as Pon. Lead out the captives and tell anyone who asks that you are leading to a stream where you will make them ready for the sacrifice."
With looks of disgust for the stinking robes, the girls followed his instructions. He ducked out of the tent and retrieved several swords from the dozing guards. As Marga led the captives out of the tent, he handed swords to Pella and Berna. "The rest of you can go ahead and wail and scream. We don't want to make our movements seem secretive."
He concealed himself among the other captives and held his hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to make short work of any who tried to interfere or stop them. As he had hoped, and continued to pray, the ruse succeeded. A few of the warriors had avoided being drugged, but none of them ventured to question or interfere with what seemed ritual business.
A few began to follow them, but Marga waved her baton of office at them and warned them away in a gruff voice neatly pitch in almost exact imitation of the priest. "Follow if you want, but be prepared to have your eyes put out for seeing that which must remain hidden."
The warning proved effective. In a few instances the interested warriors looked toward the others wearing dark robes and masks and waving swords and backed away to go about their business.
When they were well south and east of the camp Tagun finally called a halt. "I am Tagun, true king of Janaka. If you proceed to the east you will encounter my army along with Tanka and his Tedakans. Tell them what you observed and let them know that Pon is dead."
"I thought you were something more than a mere boy," Marga said with her familiar smirk. "If I see Doka I will tell him that I saw you."
Tagun laughed. She would never be anything but a minx, but he would always be grateful for her quick wits in helping him carry out the plan to save the captives.
Pella seemed about to speak, then seemed to think better of it. After all, she must realize that she had offered insult to a monarch.
He watched them for a moment, praying earnestly that they would succeed in gaining the allied lines. Then he turned and made his way toward the west again. Surely the horde of Jagga would eventually realize that there would be no bloody ritual on the eve of their battle with Zedekla's army. Would they discover Pon's body and guess what happened, or would they assume the priest had absconded with the captives for some foul purpose only he could know?
Either way, they would be maddened by the mysterious events of the morning. It seemed likely that Pon would had discerned the presence of docil root dust in the cala if he had been left alive, but would others associate the general malaise that affected their camp with the disappearance of the captives?
Chapter 6 Signal
After a few more hours of travel Tagun could see the shape of Zedekla's skyline against the horizon. He felt no real surprise when he was hailed and commanded to stop, he quickly obeyed. The accent of the voice was Taleekan. "I must speak to your commander. I bring news from the Tedakans."
"What news would a child have for the commander?" the soldier challenged with a sneer. "Show me your palms."
"What do you have there?" another Taleekan said when he noticed Tagun.
"Some lad has decided to pull a prank. We should take him into custody for the affront. This is no time to disturb the order of the alliance with childish mischief."
"Let's see what he conceals beneath that hooded robe," the second guard suggested.
Tagun knew that as soon as they saw his Janakan warrior regalia and his sword they would ask no further questions. As far as they would know, he was one of Jagga's minions, sent to spy on the alliance.
Before the first watchman could get a firm grip on him, he twisted away and ran. heedless of direction, only knowing that he owed his life to evading his would-be captors.
He could hear rushing water near at hand and guessed that he was near the river. Without pausing to look back and locate his pursuers, he dived down the bank and huddled close under the overhanging foliage. Water dragged at his buskins and soaked the bottom of his robe, but he dare not make a move.
"He went down here. It's likely he will attempt to swim to the other side." The first watchman said. "Raise the alarm and set guards to watch the river."
Long hours of urgent action with no chance to rest began to take their toll. Tagun dozed for a moment but a chilly drizzle had begun to fall and even here, under the bank he felt the chill reach to his bones as the rain saturated his robe. He huddled closer to the bank, pulling his feet out of the river and trying to find a place to relax. Maybe he could just settle here and wait until the battle finished. Surely he had done enough to help the cause. What could he possibly add to the alliance, small and puny as he was?
Dully, he recognized the source of his discouragement. He muttered to himself, "Where the Liar leads, I will not follow." Clearly he could not find rest before he spoke to someone who would recognize him as a valid source of information.
He risked capture if he showed his form out in the open. Yet how could he reach someone who knew him without leaving the shelter of the river bank?
He heard a rushing sound of water nearby and thought of the drains that fed waste water into the river from the streets and alleyways of the city. In his days of helping King Fortek round up the cultists he had learned the landscape of the city well.
The drains often linked to the passageways that led beneath the city, and one of those passageways led to a secret chamber under the palace.
Wearily, Tagun crawled toward the drain and pulled himself along, hoping it would lead to something more than a rural drainage ditch. At last he saw the faint light of late afternoon filtered through a grate high overhead and knew he had reached the city inside the walls.
Determination drove him for the last part of the journey beneath Zedekla's street. At last he reached the stairway that led upward to the door that would gain him entrance into the palace. He reached along the lintel to locate the slight irregularity that would open the door. At first he couldn't seem to locate it with his numbed fingers, then he felt a slight depression in stone and pressed down on it with all his might.
The door swung open and he almost fell through it, grateful for the warmth that filled the room and eased his chill. He noticed the area where he and Doka had made camp while serving as King Fortek's scullion spies, now little more than a few crates stacked near the wall.
He knew how to make his way through servant passages to the higher chambers of the palace. He hoped to encounter Prince Manchek, or even King Fortek but he stayed shy of showing himself to any others. He grew discouraged as he countinued his search. Then he thought of the tallest of the palace towers. If he were general of the alliance he would set a watchman there. It gave a view of all the city and the plains beneath as well as to the north and south.
When he finally reached the room on top of the tower he noticed that the floor wore a faint layer of undisturbed dust. Surely no one had come here for more than a week. He hurried to the opening that gave a view over the city to the east and quickly made assessment of the combined armies gathered below him. There seemed no real coordination. The ranks were disposed almost casually with most of Taleeka's army on the south and Zedekla's forces concentrated more to the north, almost blocking the way to Zedekla. He gave a weaqray sigh. By sheer might alone, the allied armies would prevail, but at what cost. He hadn't envisioned his plans for the coming bqttle until Daglan had deferred to him in Algire Village, but since then the vision of how it could transpire had become fixed. He couldn't really blame the leaders of the armies camped below for what they had not known or anticipated, but it became even more urgent that he communicate with them.
He had tried to make his way to them, but perhaps he could draw them to him. He looked around the tower room but it was bare of any hint of a lamp or signal light. Suddenly he knew what he must do.
There was one light that would draw them to him without mistake. Did he dare use it for such a purpose? Manchek had ordered that the Stone of Truth be restored to its accustomed place in the testing room.
The thought of all the stairs and hallways he must traverse and the risk he took almost succeeded in discouraging Tagun, but he hadn't come this far to fail. Thje boones of his feet and legs ached and his muscles burned protest as he made his weary way down from the tower, keepng to the shadows and avoiding notice. At last he reached the litle door that hid a small room. He oepened the door and once againsstood rapt before the sining glory of the Stone of Truth. If anything, it shone brighter than before and somehow he saw a brief vision of the young mother an child he had rescued and the train of captives he had set free. He focused on the idea he had of using the lgith as a signal and it did not dim. Assured, he reached out and pried it from its place amoung a mosaic formed of other, seemingly similar pebbles. To those who could not see the true nature of the stone it would appear as nothing more than a pale river pebble, much like those surrounding it.
His body still ached but his heart felt light as he made his way up to the tower room again. He fastened the shining stone to the archway above the opening that gave a view over the plains and waited to observe the result. Almost immediately he heard a murmur rise and saw pale faces turn toward the tower. Satisfied, he secured the door of the tower and settled down to nap. They would come.
The sound of urgent knocking at the door of the tower room woke him. He struggled to his aching feet and walked toward the door, hoping to see either King Fortek or the High Priest of the Radence Alwrek outside. Instead of just one or two men, he opened to what seemed a crowd at first as his weary mind recognized them.
Manchek was there with his bride, Kemila, by his side. Her glance of question turned to rapid comprehension. King Fortek , Alwrek, the High Priest of the Radiance, and Shal the head of the Taleekan council pressed close behind them along with two Taleekan officers who Tagun didn't recognize.
One of the Taleekans pushed past the others and grasped Tagun by the arm. "What do you mean by this misuse of the sacred artifact" He turned to the other unknown Taleekan. "I think we've caught our spy."
"Hold", Shal commanded. "He is our ally and friend, Tagun. I trust him utterly. The young officer reluctantly dropped his grasp on Tagun and stood back with suspicion still showing in his eyes.
"What news do you bring?" Manchek asked Tagun urgently. "Scouts have reported that another army of Janakans is following close on Jagga and a train of captives was seen being led toward them. Surely with such evidence we must assume they are Jagga's allies. We have diverted part our army to attack them."
"The train of captives had been released and were heading for safely with the combined armies of Tedaka and my own loyal warriors," Tagun said. "I directed several of the girls to dress in robes I took from an Orquian preist in order to deceive Jagga's men."
The effort of explaining everything seemed overwhelming. A wave of weariness threatened to overcome him and he sank down to sit on the low wall of the opening. "Which of you commands the combined army?"
Manchek looked doubtfully at Shal but then stepped forward. "I am in command, but of course, I cannot overrule someone who has greater experience and knowledge."
Tagun closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Would you leave me here with Manchek for a time," he asked the others. Fortek herded all of them but Manchek from the chamber.
"I should have known you would be a reluctant warrior," Tagun said in a quiet voice meant for Manchek's ears alone. "I feel no joy at ordering men to go to battle where they might lose their lives. But this is not the time to show weakness. You studied with Frovin so I know that you have a good basis in the study of historical battle and tactics. "
"Shal is better suited to lead," Manchek said. "I should resign the command to him before I cause disaster."
"If you resign the command to Shal on the eve of battle it will sow dissension in your ranks and your men will suspect him of undermining your influence. You were wise enough to play the part of husband in a convincing way, now play the part of general with the same determination."
For a moment Manchek glared at Tagun, reminded of his sacrifice for the sake of taking his place as crown prince of Zedekla.. Then he squared his shoulders and nodded.
"Before the others join us I should tell you that we have a plan that will save many lives if you can execute it properly," Tagun said. "When I viewed your army this evening I saw that you had blockaded the road north to Janaka."
"We thought to prevent others from joining Jagga's horde." Manchek explained. Our scouts reported Janakan warriors gathering on the northern road, up near the bridge over the Or river."
"They are loyal to me, under the command of my trusted advisor, Daglan," Tagun explained. I devised a plan that will keep the horde from invading Zedekla and drive them northward where my warriors will form an ambush. The combined armies of Taleeka, Zedekla and Tedaka will then come behind the horde and end their threat.
"A brilliant strategy if it is not too late to put it into effect." Manchek admitted after a brief moment to consider the plan.
Tagun closed his eyes and nodded, then almost lost his balance on the narrow wall of the opening. Manchek lurched forward and prevented him from falling. "I won't let you go so easily," he said with a smile.
You can invite the others in now." Tagun said as he struggled to his feet and tried to stand erect.
As soon as the other men and Kemila entered the room Manchek turned to them. "Shal, we have only a few hours to act on information Tagun brought me. Come, it is urgent that we act immediately."
The note of crisp command in his voice brought a smile of approval to Shal's face for just a moment before he saluted and preceded Manchek and the two Taleekan officers from the room.
"Whatever you said to him, I approve," Kemila said. "Come Tagun, you are filthy and tired and I doubt that you remember when you last ate. I will have a bath prepared and you will be fed and given rest before you answer any further questions."
Tagun could only nod and he saw the approval in the eyes of Alwrek and King Fortek. It seemed evident that Kemila lacked nothing when it came to giving commands.
"We have decided to leave the Stone of Truth here in the tower where you placed it until the battle for Zedekla ends," Alwrek said. "Those who can see it will be heartened and encouraged.
Time passed in a haze for Tagun as he bathed and ate until at last he fell asleep on a comfortable bed replete with delicious food and clean in every pore.
When he woke a quick glance toward the window revealed that dawn still tinted the sky with rosy color. He yawned and stretched before kneeling at the prayer stool provided in a corner of the room. Before beginning his devotions he thought of the events of the preceding several days. The rescues of the mother and her child and the captives meant for ritual sacrifice stood out as shining vindication of his decision to come west. The discovery that scouts had reported his own troops as allies of Jagga's horde and plans had already been made to attack them if not for the information he provided gave even more evidence that his steps had been guided by the Radiance.
Gratitude swelled in his heart. He bowed his head and began to express his feelings in prayer. His knees had begun to numb from the extended length of his prayer before he stood and made his way to the bathing room. He found his regalia neatly piled on a shelf with the sword of Dorn shining in its scabbard. The dark brown robe that he had worn lay close at hand, but now it showed no sign of the dirt and blood and sweat it had accumulated in the past few days.
He dressed and found Kemila waiting for him in the family dining room. "Will you stay and help Manchek with the battle?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "Manchek knows what he must do, and I am certain that his plans are well underway. I must travel north and meet with my uncle, Daglan. I put in him in charge of the ambush near the Or bridge but I fear that there are traitors among his warriors."
Kemila nodded, "I hoped you would be able to stay but I felt your journey had not ended. I prepared a sack of provisions and a jug of nuka juice for you."
Tagun looked at her and smiled. "You did not wish to take the path the Radiance provided but you have done well. This morning while I knelt in prayer It seemed to me that I saw a hint of what will come. You and Manchek will bring sons into the world. There will be joy and sorrow, and when life seems nearly over, you will set your foot upon another path that will fulfill all that you had dreamed of as a maiden."
Kemila stared at him for a moment, her dark eyes slightly veiled with a hint of tears. "I hope I can forget what you have hinted. I chose to take Manchek as my husband and I have vowed to put all other hopes and fears behind me."
"It is right that you do so," Tagun said.
After finishing all but a few crumbs of the delicious breakfast Kemila had provided, Tagun put on the robe that hid his warrior regalia and said farewell. He left the palace through the main entrance and made his way through the crowded streets. Refugees had swelled the population of the city and tents had been erected wherever space allowed. Even the great plazas in front of the palace and the Shrine of the Radiance were filled almost to overflowing with temporary dwellings.
Women ran the shops and dickered over merchandise in the booths set up for trade. Tagun guessed that most of the men and older boys had volunteered to join the allied armies and defend the city that gave their families refuge.
He moved on unimpeded until he left the northern gate that led to the road to Janaka. Then he heard an order to halt and turned to see a young man waving a spear in threat. "Only soldiers are permitted on this side of the wall" the youth said Show me your palms."
Tagun gave an inner sigh as he complied. It was likely just as well that he had been intercepted before taking to the road. "I need to confer with your commanders." he said.
"And what would Prince Manchek or Council Head Shal want with such as you," the young man scoffed.
"If I were your superior I would leave orders that any intruders should be brought to him immediately," Tagun countered. "I could be one of Jagga's men trying to infiltrate your lines and report my findings. Or I might be what I claim, an ally with important information."
After hesitating for a moment, the watchman ordered Tagun to walk in front of him. "Walk slowly. I have a spear close to your back. If you try to run or do any mischief, I will spit you like a coney for roasting."
"I hope all your watchmen are just as zealous," Tagun said.
When they approached a large tent with the banners of Taleeka and Zedekla posted side by side the watchman ordered Tagun to stop. He called out to another soldier standing guard at the entrance of the tent. "I have a little fellow here who claims to have a message for the commander."
The flap of the tent opened and a tall figure stepped out. He peered at Tagun.
"Are you that short Janakan who revealed Setaal's treachery?" Shal asked with a hint of laughter in his voice.
Tagun caught the look on the face of the soldier who had stopped him and suppressed a smile. The youth had not missed the significance of his commander's welcome for the short stranger relieved.
"Come along with me," Shal said. "Manchek hoped that you would confer with us before we settled on our final disposition of our armies".
Manchek stood outside the command tent in the early morning light issuing orders in a flurry of activity as his subordinates ran to convey his commands. He glanced up when Shal approached with Tagun.
"Tagun! I just received a message from Kemila that you planned to head north."
"One of your zealous young watchman intercepted me," Tagun said. "He deserves a commendation for his alertness."
"I would like you to review the decisions we have made," Manchek said.
Tagun nodded and followed the prince into his tent. He observed the map that still glistened with wet ink. Manchek's studies with Frovin had served him well. If executed as planned, the battle plan would ensure that the armies guarding the city of Zedekla would easily resist Jagga's horde as they were turned and driven north.
"If your men fight as they should and follow this battle plan you will succeed. Remember, there can be no truce or surrender. If there are prisoners who have been forced to fight, we can examine them, but all who bear the mark of Orqu must pay the price of their crimes."
Manchek raised his hand in sign of pledge. "We will not accept any offer of surrender. I had wondered what we could do with the cultists even if we succeeded in defending Zedekla. As long as Jagga commands an army and has a hold where he can retreat, he will continue to foster treason."
Satisfied with what he saw, Tagun said farewell to Manchek and Shal and asked them provide him with an escort through the ranks of their armies as he set out for the north. "I know better than to venture unescorted through your ranks, he said with a glance toward the wary guards who stood outside the tent.
After leaving the crowded city well behind him Tagun noted that the fields on every side showed only stubble and plowed earth. Pastures lay empty and villages deserted. He approved the signs that the people had been warned in time to make an early harvest and gather with their crops and herds to the shelter of Zedekla's walls.
At midmorning on his second day on the trail he came to a populated village where the crops still lay ripening in the fields. Herds roamed in the pastures. In less than three days' time, if the allied plans succeeded, Jagga's horde would sweep down upon this fertile and unguarded town.
He found the villagers gathered in the town square, their voices raised in argument. "If we gather to Zedekla it is likely Jagga's horde will put up a siege and all we have will be lost," a stout man wearing the insignia that marked him as mayor shouted over the others.
"You cannot require me to stay, I have three daughters who will be taken as victims of the Orquians's filthy rituals." A woman screamed back defiantly.
Another man stepped forward to confront the mayor. "You have already delayed us for too long. We received instructions to gather to the city more than a week ago. What can we do now?"
Tagun knew he made a negligible figure in his long brown cloak but he sidled to the edge of the arguing villagers and climbed onto a barrel. He waited for a moment until there was a gap in the contention then raised his voice. "I bring news of the invasion. The army of Jagga is nearing Zedekla. It is too late for you to take refuge in the city. If you stay here, you will be in the path of the retreat when Jagga returns his army to Janaka."
"Who are you to tell us what to do?" the an old woman screeched.
"I am a messenger that you should not ignore," Tagun said. "You are too old to interest the cultists, but have you any maiden daughters? Do you want to see them taken and used as sacrifices to the demon?"
"Where can we go if Zedekla is closed to us?" a man shouted.
"Go to the northeast," Tagun said. "The Kumnorans swore an alliance to Manchek. You will be safer near their borders."
"The boy is right," a deep voice spoke up. Tagun glanced toward the speaker and saw the wooly hat of a Kumnoran teamster.
"We have come from the steppes to join the fight against the cult," another voice added. Tagun realized that a troop of Kumnorans had entered the village while the argument proceeded.
"Please, take me to your leader," Tagun said.
"Who are you?" the teamster asked.
"I am the heir of Dorn. I studied with Frovin in Timora. Falinda and Manchek are my friends."
The teamster turned to the villagers. "If you stay here you will die. It is too late to salvage much of your property. Do as you have been told and you will live. Do not delay or argue any longer. Take your families and the supplies you need to live for a week and burn the rest. Go to the northeast until you are well past our army. Otherwise, the scavengers of Jagga will find you."
His words seemed to convince the contentious villagers that they must act instead of arguing. The crowd scattered like leaves before the wind. The Kumnoran turned to Tagun.
"Come. I will take you to our leader."
Several hours later after trekking through rough country near the foothills they saw a watchman standing guard on a knoll above the road. Not long afterwards they entered a valley filled with tents and warriors. Tagun saw his gentle tutor Frovin when he entered the camp of the Kumnorans.
"I thought you planned to return to Timora and take on more students after you left us in Zedkla," Tagun said after exchanging greetings with his teacher.
"Plans can change. When Manchek gave us his report of his meeting with the elders of the Quorm I recognized my duty. This my brother Kaalar, chief of chiefs of Kumnora. What news do you have from Zedekla? We are taking our army to help defend the city."
"I led an army of Janakans to relieve the seige of Tedaka," Tagun said. "We broke the siege and our combined armies under the command of Tanka are keeping Jagga from invading Timora or Taleeka. The Taleekans have brought an army to join in the defense of Zedekla. I have an army of my men concealed along the road near the bridge over the Or. When Jagga turns north after being repelled from Zedekla we will provide a final ambush of his forces."
Kaalar considered the implications of Tagun's information. He squatted and drew marks in the sandy soil near his feet to indicate the likely disposition of the various forces.
"We would serve the alliance best if we place our army northeast of the road to Janaka and keep Jagga's army from diverting from your ambush," he finally concluded. "Too many farmers and traders have ignored the summons to Zedekla. We will do our best to clear the path and deny Jagga any further supply of food or captives."
"Take a meal with us and rest for a few hours before you go on to meet with Daglan. I have few amenities to welcome a guest, but what I have is yours."
Tagun was pleased to see that even on march the Kumnorans had provided a sweat tent. He relaxed in the heat and sluiced cool water over his skin to wash away the dust and sweat of two days of hard travel. He was far more hungry for sleep than food and drink and he soon fell into a peaceful slumber.
He woke refreshed and hungry. Frovin acted as host in his brother's absence. "Kaalar has gone out to effect the change of plans. We will join with the other allies to destroy the horde of Jagga when you have stopped them with your ambush."
Chapter 7 Ambush
After bidding Frovin farewell Tagun followed a guide who led him northwest through foothills until they reached the road to Janaka.
He fell into an easy lope as he set north on the paved road after bidding his guide goodbye. A hymn of praise to the Radiance rose in his heart as he ran. When he had first suggested the strategy of driving Jagga toward an ambush he could not foresee how it could come about. Now the armies of the allies were all alerted and coordinated. The horde of the usurper would be caught in a trap with no escape. The scourge of Orqu would be decimated if not eliminated. There would always be evil. Somewhere some fool would listen to the Liar and give his soul to destruction. But while Jagga ruled a kingdom, he had threatened all Okishdu.
Tagun passed through a few other villages, but all had been abandoned. Within two days he would be in the heart of the marsh where the ambush had been planned. Eventually the night drew down and he decided to spend the night in the shelter of a copse of trees near the road.
He woke in the night with a shudder. Images from the dream that woke him persisted. In the dream he had come in view of the marshes around the Or river and was hailed by a warriors. The man held up his hand palm forward to display the dreadful mark of the cult.
Tagun couldn't shake the feeling of betrayal and wariness the dream inspired. Daglan had departed from Algire Village before the testing of the warriors. Tagun had never told him about the secret mark that some of the cultists wore under their ears where concealed beneath locks of hair. The planned ambush could turn to a betrayal if there were enough traitors in Daglan's army to turn the tide.
Even now there might be trouble in the army Daglan led. Traitors could turn on their fellows and take them unaware. The ambush would be subverted. If Jagga had enough allies with Daglan's army, he might turn back on the allies and do great harm. The allies were numerous enough to prevail in the end, but hundreds, even thousands could die needlessly.
Pursued by the vision of betrayal, Tagun forced his pace. By nightfall he noticed a change of the scenery around him. Scrub gave way to fields of marsh grass. After another night of rest, he would enter the deep marsh near the Or bridge.
Tagun made a simple camp in a stand of bushes not far from the road. A chilly wind made him huddle in his robe for warmth, but with his ample supply of journey food he had no need to make a fire.
When he woke in the morning Tagun considered his options. If there were traitors among Daglan's warriors, they might intercept him and dispose of him. His dream seemed to warn against a traitor in his first encounter.
Instead of proceeding up the road in plain sight as he had originally planned, Tagun decided to approach the planned site of the ambush from the east across the marsh. His dull brown robe blended with the rocks and marsh grass. He appealed to the Radiance to guide his feet. Several times he had to wade wide but shallow water ways. At last he gained the rocky ground that marked the borders of Janaka. The day had waned to dusk when he turned southward toward the water meadows of the marsh.
A familiar figure stepped out of concealment at the left of the road. Daglan confronted him with a frown of confusion. "Tagun! I thought you would be battling Orquians at the gates of Zedekla by now. Why are you coming from Janaka? Has our strategy failed?"
"The strategy is going far better than I ever hoped," Tagun said. "I must speak to you alone before any of the others know I've come. Is there someplace that we can speak in private?"
"The cave where we took refuge when we left Janaka last year is in the rocks not far behind you. Wait there for me."
Tagun made his way to the familiar cleft of rocks and climbed to the cave. He concealed the Sword of Dorn in the niche where it had lain so long and made a supper from his rations while he waited for Daglan to appear. It was late when he finally heard the sound of several people coming up the track. He took shelter in the cave.
"Tagun, I have come with my first circle of battle chiefs. I trust them completely," Daglan said.
Tagun hesitated for a moment then stepped forward. Daglan stood at the head of five men. All of them put down their swords and raised their left hands with the palms forward as a sign that they were clear of any mark.
In the moonlight it was not easy to distinguish between shadow and what might have been a mark, but Tagun was certain that Daglan had tested the battle chiefs. "Step forward one at a time," Tagun said. When each of the men approached him he lifted their hair and examined their necks under their left ears. He was relieved to find that all of them were clear.
"Some of the cultists have resorted to a secret mark," Tagun said. "We discovered that many of the warriors at Algire Village were marked beneath their left ears. Have you examined any of your men to find such a mark?"
Daglan and the other battle chiefs looked worried. "I have not heard of such a thing," Daglan said. "What can we do to identify them? This is open country and if there are many traitors, it could be difficult to separate them without creating chaos."
"First we must make certain of the other battle chiefs," Tagun said. "Tell them you are having a battle council. Bring them to the practice ground tomorrow morning at dawn. In Algire village we found that where the battle chief was corrupt there was a greater chance that his men followed the cult as well."
"Tell us what you know of the war against Jagga," Daglan said.
"After Jagga failed to conquer Tedaka, a combined force of Tedakans and Janakans harried and drove Jagga's army to Zedekla, where by now they should have met the forces of Taleeka and Zedekla under command of Prince Manchek. I came north to tell you what has happened and met an army of Kumnorans. They will keep Jagga from veering to the east and drive them into our ambush. If there are many traitors in our midst, they could turn on us and strengthen Jagga's army. With all the allied forces fighting against them, they are doomed, but the cost in lives will be much greater."
The battle chiefs asked him a few more questions, but finally Daglan intervened. "We will do as you suggest and bring the other leaders to the practice ground in the morning. You are evidently weary. Rest now."
Tagun woke early and climbed down to the area that he and Daglan had used for sword practice. It seemed ideal for the purpose of determining which of the battle chiefs might be a traitor. There were only two means of accessing the area, a narrow path closed off by a dense bush that led steeply upward to the cave, and a slightly wider cleft in the surrounding rocks that led toward the road.
Tagun piled a few rocks together for a dais and waited to welcome Daglan and his five councilors when they led twenty other men into the area. Most of them were grizzled warriors with scars to prove their history of battle. A few were younger men who had been chosen by their clans to serve as chiefs. They removed their swords and left them near the entrance as Daglan and his councilors set an example.
At Tagun's signal Daglan and his councilors moved behind the other men to guard the entrance. Tagun held up his left hand with the palm forward and the battle chiefs returned his gesture.
"By the signal you have given you assure me that you have vowed to destroy the influence of the cult. I want every man to examine the neck of the man standing to his right," Tagun said without further explanation. Most of the men seemed a little puzzled by the order but a number reacted by rushing for their swords. Daglan and his councilors stood ready for the attempt. They quickly subdued the traitors with the help of other battle chiefs who recognized the meaning of their panic.
When they were held down and examined every one of them wore the small tattoo beneath their ear. Once they were bound and subdued, the remaining battle chiefs willingly submitted to examination.
Six men had betrayed their treason. All of them were younger warriors. Some of them begged for mercy and tried to excuse their choice to wear the mark, but Tagun had seen too much of what the cult had done and he signaled to Daglan and his councilors to take the miscreants away and deal with them as necessary.
He addressed the other battle chiefs. "Soon Jagga's forces will approach the bridge over the Or and it is likely that these traitors have betrayed us. I suspect that plans are being made to turn on you. I'm surprised that they have not already begun to snare and murder your men."
The battle chiefs exchanged grim looks. "There have been a number of severe injuries and even deaths while the men were engaging in sword practice and some of our men have vanished with no trace," one of the battle chiefs said. "We suspected mere lack of courage and desertion, but it now seems likely that traitors in our ranks are murdering their fellows when the deed will pass unnoticed.
"There could be more than three hundred traitors if the bands of the cultists we identified are also members of the cult," Tagun said. "We could try to screen the warriors, but time is short. You are the only ones who know I am Koren's son and claim the right to rule Janaka, but Jagga believed I was his son and he gave me a signet when I left his palace."
Tagun removed the heavy ring from the pouch where he had kept it. He had sometimes thought he should discard it, but something always stayed his hand. Now he held it up for the battle chiefs to see.
"I will come into your camps and mingle with your men. When traitors recognize me as Jagga's son I will suggest that we meet here at noon and plan our treason. I will let them betray themselves. Choose loyal warriors and have them ready to arrest the culprits."
"What should we do if honest warriors report you?"
Tagun smiled. "If any report suspicions, you will know they might be trusted."
It was a risky venture, but when Tagun wandered into the camp one of the battle chiefs met him and led him to a hidden redoubt. The concealed encampment proved shelter for more than a hundred warriors.
"There are several of these camps concealed in the marshes near the bridge, most of them linked by sheltered pathways with roofs of reed that blend into the surrounding swamp," the chief informed Tagun before leaving him to make his way to a nearby campfire.
He noticed a group of warriors eating their morning meal and settled down next to one of them. The warrior wore his long hair tied back and the small tattoo beneath his ear became visible when he turned his head to spear a bit of meat on his knife. Tagun began to knock his knuckle on his cup, producing a rhythm much like one of the chants the cultists favored. The man looked at him with annoyance, then when Tagun continued the patterned knocking the warrior glanced at the heavy ring. His brows rose and he moved a little closer. "What news of Jagga?" he murmured.
"Your battle chief has gone ahead. I was sent to gather all who remain true."
"Who are you?" the warrior jeered.
"Jagga had eight sons. One of them is still a boy. The others are with your battle chief."
A dawning light of understanding lit the eyes of the warrior. "You are Jagga's heir."
Tagun put his finger in front of his lips in a sign of silence. "I am the heir of the king of Janaka," he whispered. "Gather those you know who have allegiance and bring them to the cleft in the rocks where you will find a pile of three stones. Follow the direction they indicate until you find a crevice in the rocky cliffs. I will join you and your fellow cultists there. Come at noon, no later."
Tagun got up and walked away hoping the warrior would take his hint. He had other camps to visit before the mealtime ended. At the next camp there was no evident target so he decided to make a broad announcement.
"The sons of the king are meeting with your battle chief. If you would join them, go to the niche on the road and follow the sign of three stones."
He rested his hand on a stick so that the ring was prominent. Some looked at him with puzzlement, some smiled and nodded, one lurched up with anger in his face. Tagun moved quickly, ducking into one of the reed tunnels and hurrying toward another of the suspect battle groups.
After visiting the six suspect camps he returned to the opening in the rocks and prepared the stack of stones that would guide the cultists, then he returned to the practice ground and waited in the shelter of the bush. If the infection of the cult had reached as deep as he feared, there could be several hundred men gathered on the practice ground by midday.
Men began to arrive in the practice ground as the sun rose toward the apex. They arrived by groups, some as few as five, some upwards of twenty. They evidently recognized each other. Tagun waited for a while after the deadline he had set. There were only about 70 men gathered by the time he decided to reveal himself. He moved from the shelter of the bush and stood upon the dais. The men all faced toward the more obvious entrance and they reacted with surprise when he gave a wirra call and ordered them to face him.
"I had hoped for more of you. Jagga is counting on your treachery to turn the tide of battle."
The man he had contacted in the first redoubt scowled and stepped forward. "We were promised gold and ritual when we agreed to this expedition. Instead, we are preached to and prodded and forced to drill by the fools who claim that Koren's son has become the king."
"Are you certain every one of you has passed the test of ritual and marking?" Tagun demanded. "Each of you examine the mark of the man standing to your right. If there are any here who do not wear the mark of Orqu on their palms or on their necks, bind them and bring them forward."
"Who are you to doubt us?" one man shouted. "You are nothing more than a beardless boy. Show us your mark."
"Examine him!" Tagun ordered the other cultists. He tried to flee but they wrestled him to the ground.
"He bears the mark," one of his captors shouted before releasing the protester and setting him free.
"He bears the mark, and when all of you have proven you are worthy of joining your battle chiefs and the sons of Jagga, I will reveal your place in the coming battle. You have not yet carried out my orders and made sure that all of you are members of the cult," Tagun reminded them.
The warriors responded by examining each other. While they focused their attention on carrying out his orders, Tagun stepped down from his makeshift dais and concealed himself in the dense bush that hid the entrance to the path. He quickly scaled the rocks and moved out onto the cliff above the practice ground. The cultists had finished their examiation of each other and now they looked around and began to mill round. There were several of the dense bushes around the edges of the practice ground, but after poking at a few of them with their swords, they began to shout and argue with each other. Some wanted to wait until he returned. Others were convinced that he had been a specter. Finally they began to leave the practice ground, disgruntled and distracted. None of them looked up to see him standing well above them.
Tagun watched as they were taken into custody by Daglan and a selected group of warriors who quickly disarmed and subdued the cultists before leading them away.
Tagun returned to the cave to retrieve his sword and made his way back to the camp. With the core of the cultists identified, the battle leaders ordered their men to stand and be examined. Some tried to run, but in the end, there were less than twenty remaining in the battle groups who were found to bear the mark of Orqu. The discovery that some among them were cultists sobered the other warriors. Tagun asked Daglan to call an assembly. Once again he stood before an army and tried to inspire them for battle.
"The traitors among you have wounded and murdered your fellows when they could. They hoped to turn the ambush into a rout. Jagga expects to be joined by many who have let greed and folly guide them, but the allies of Okishdu have joined in alliance and we will not be alone when we face the cultists. Kumnorans are guarding the flank on the east, and the combined armies of Taleeka, Zedekla, and Tedaka have joined your brothers who are sweeping Jagga's army toward us. It is up to us to hold the bridge and drive the cultists back upon their doom."
He raised the Sword of Dorn and waved it over his head and once again he felt the heady thrill that came when thousands of men roared their approval of his words.
Tagun rested and waited with Daglan to receive the reports of scouts who returned with cheering news. Jagga's army had been much depleted but they were coming north with a speed that bordered on abandon. The allies were in pursuit, but seemed to be more intent on forcing Jagga to flee before them rather than catching up and giving battle.
Finally the dawn rose on the day of battle when the army of Jagga would cross the bridge across the Or. From his own experience Tagun knew that the bridge could be avoided if fugitives were willing to leave the road and risk the swamp, but Jagga's expectations that he would find allies among the warriors was likely to persuade him to keep to the road.
Daglan's warriors waited in their ambush positions as the cultists came along the road and crowded the long narrow bridge. Tagun looked at the leading group of warriors expecting to see Jagga, but the usurper was nowhere in evidence. At Daglan's signal his men rose from concealment and blocked the bridge. Their appearance did not surprise the cultists. They raised their palms to show their marks and rushed forward, but instead of giving way as they must have expected, the line held firm, the leading warriors were well supplied with sturdy armor and eager to engage in battle.
Confusion began to spread in Jagga's band of desperate villains. Then in a rush, the pinchers of the ambush closed, the forces of the allies advanced and began attacking from the rear. A small fleet of shallow boats appeared from the marshes, the oars manned by men who carried bolikas which they used to good advantage against those who took their chances by jumping from the bridge into the water.
Hours passed in a deadly monotony of slaughter. No flags of truce were raised. Daglan's warriors moved to relieve each other at the bridge and the few who received wounds were quickly taken to the rear for treatment. It was a fight of desperation against efficiency and order. The bodies of the cultists were not left to clutter up the battle field. Shifts of men with stretchers moved here and there among combatants, removing wounded allies and dispatching wounded Orquians. Tagun felt sickened by the gore, but he reminded himself of the scene in Balchek's room in Timora where a family had been slaughtered, the gory feast of Porga and his scouts, the burned ruins of the inn. This was the course that those who were dying in such numbers had vowed to pursue. He remembered the young mother hidden in the pile of straw, fearing for her life and that of her new-born child and the girls and children who had fled the expected ritual on the eve of the battle for Zedekla. He recalled the braggart brothers who had exulted in the dire deeds that had earned them the mark they wore with pride.
Kumnorans, Taleekans, Zedeklans, Tedakans, Janakans and even some Virdanan farmers wielding hoes and shovels stood together side by side in the deadly work of justice. No glee of revenge or glory showed on the faces on the battlefield. Noon passed and a sorting out took place as fresh allied soldiers took the place of those who were tired and hungry. But the cultists had no relief. They faltered and fell, finding no escape from justice.
The attempt to cross the bridge by Jagga's men had long since ended and Daglan's warriors had joined their counterparts, sweeping across the bridge and engaging the enemy with the full force of their fury for having been the primary victims of Jagga's evil reign. They had lost homes and family members to the spreading power of the cult.
It seemed fitting that the evening sky filled with clouds that looked like flags of blood as the battle finally concluded. The sun set over the marsh as the last resistance failed. Campfires lit up the perimeters of the field of carnage.
Torches flared as men searched among the bodies of the cultists for Jagga, but somehow Jagga had evaded the fate of those he led.
Chapter 8 Mourning
After moving among his wounded men and giving them his blessing, Tagun crossed the bridge with Daglan and walked toward the large tent erected for the leaders of the alliance. He was surprised to see Garon with the others. "We brought a contingent of Guardians to Zedekla to join the fight, but I arrived too late to see you," the Timnoran explained.
"Men have gathered from every city and land of Okishdu to fight the scourge," Manchek said. "We even had a group of Watchers from Orenon and a few brass smiths from Jama who have been helping to keep our weapons mended. I had a letter of support from King Eranat of Saadena with several men who brought a shipment of selan for our wounded."
A young man with a staff in hand stepped out of the tent and greeted Tagun. He recognized Sergon. "As Mareklans we couldn't engage in the battle, but we have been caring for the wounded and passing on any information we thought might be helpful." Then Sergon winked. "Of course, now and then a cultist made the mistake of attacking one of us. We are permitted to engage in self defense."
"The scourge of Jagga's army has been ended," Kaalar said. "But Jagga and other leaders of the cult are still at large. They will not find welcome in Kumnora."
"They are fugitives and will find no welcome in the settled lands of Okishdu," Tanka said. "But for the first time since Irilik found Okishdu, the people of the Journey have united in a good cause and have brought about a change. That is one gift we can thank the Radiance for."
"Tomorrow we will hold a funeral to honor those of the Alliance who died. We have pledged funds to provide for the widows and children of any who gave their lives." Manchek said.
Tagun returned to his fellow Janakans who spent much of the night recounting the various triumphs of their battle with their oppressors. Finally he excused himself and found a place to sleep.
When morning came he woke to the scent of funeral pyres. Fragrant branches burned beneath the raised platforms that held the bodies of those who had died in the battle.
Manchek spoke first, followed by other leaders of the alliance. Finally Tagun stood and faced the crowd gathered to honor those who had died. At first he felt inadequate to express his sorrow, but a glimpse of Daglan's sober face reminded him of his duty.
"Many of us lost friends and brothers in this battle. But they are not lost, they wait for us. Honor them by the choices you make in the years ahead. Make certain that the families they left behind do not suffer want or privation from the lack of a father or husband to provide for them. When we stand before our maker, Yasa Dom, he will not hold us guiltless if we forget our pledge to care for the widows and orphans of the battle of the bridge over the Or."
A shout of acclamation greeted his words and he turned away to give place to Alwrek who pronounced a benediction. A hymn of grief and praise rose spontaneously from the ranks of those who had gathered.
Other fires were set to burn the remains of Jagga's horde. Tagun took responsibility for saying a few brief words. "These were misguided sons and brothers. Their choices must condemn them, but we mourn what they could have been and return their remains to the soil and the air from which the Maker formed them."
Doka found him soon afterwards. "Come and meet the girl I think I want to marry. She has been working with the Mareklans to nurse and care for the wounded."
"You are too young to marry," Tagun chafed his friend.
"And you are to short to marry, but it didn't stop you," Doka said.
"Let me meet the girl," Tagun said, " and I will warn her about you."
Doka cuffed him on the shoulder and led him toward the tents where an infirmary had been set up. Men and woman moved between cots where they administered food and medicine to wounded soldiers. Some of them simply sat and offered comfort where needed. One of them was little more than a child, her face still round beneath the coif that covered her head. She glanced up and a smile lit her face when she saw Doka. Tagun leaned toward his friend. "I will gladly come to Tedaka for your wedding in about five years. Keep your eye on her. When she grows up she'll be a beauty."
"I told you I think I want to marry her," Doka said, "Talk to her and you'll understand why I want to keep her interest."
When the girl stood Tagun saw that he had underestimated her age. She was about the same age as Doka. The round face that made her seem a child was belied by her maturing figure. Perhaps two years would not be too soon to have a wedding.
"Tagun, this is Placine, she comes from Taleeka. Her mother is my second cousin's sister-in-law."
"Are you the heir of Koren, the true king of Janaka?" the girl asked gravely with a small curtsy.
"I am Tagun, the friend of Doka," Tagun said. "I have apparently inherited a kingdom, but Doka will be Headman of a land that has not been ruined by greed and stupidity."
"Yes, both of you face great responsibilities that would tax the wit and will of anyone," she said.
A dimple flashed in one of her plump cheeks when she saw Doka extend his hands while his face took on a befuddled expression.
Tagun smiled and replied, "Ah, it is rare to meet a girl who has the sense of things. I married the last such one I met."
"I would like to meet her," Placine said.
"She stayed with other women in Janaka," Tagun explained. "But when you wed, be sure to send us an invitation."
Placine blushed and Doka scowled, but then their eyes met and both of them began to smile. Tagun suddenly missed Selendra almost painfully. He resolved to arrange a quick return to Algire Village.
Tagun's desire to be reunited with his bride was frustrated by the requirements of his rank. He received a message from Fortek requesting his presence at the palace in Zedekla. It soon became apparent that it was more than a polite request. All the other leaders of the allied armies were invited along with their officers and men.
As near as Tagun could determine, Fortek intended to hold a grand convocation of the armies. Ordinarily Tagun would have welcomed the opportunity to celebrate the victory with his friends, but now it seemed a burden to head in the opposite direction of the village where he had left Selendra in the care of the Matriarchs.
The men of the various armies fell into a loose formation that filled the road for several miles. The progress was slow to allow for the pace of the injured and the baggage wagons. At night each army established their own camps, but the men had made friends among their allies and visiting was common. Manchek and Tagun often spent the evenings together. Sometimes they were joined by Doka and Sergon who usually brought Falinda and Placine along with them.
Tagun knew it might be years before they could gather in this way again, and he resolved to ignore his feelings of frustration and enjoy the company of his friends.
One evening while they were enjoying supper together Manchek commented on the heavy ring that Tagun wore. "I don't recall seeing that before."
"Jagga gave it to me when I left Janaka. He meant it as a symbol of his favor. I kept it in a pouch until a few days before the Ambush. I used it to gain attention from some traitors in our midst. Since then I never bothered to remove it. It comes in handy for cracking nuts." Tagun grinned as he demonstrated the utility of the heavy gem by crushing the shell of a nut.
They were within a day's march of the city when one of the scouts reported that a group of travelers were coming from the east. Later that morning when Tagun caught sight of the group he stopped and stared, then started running. He didn't care if anyone thought it undignified. It was the Matriarchs of Janaka, led by a graceful figure in a dark green dress.
Equally careless of her station, Selendra started running toward him with her skirts hiked up. They met midway, their arms going around each other and their faces meeting in a kiss that brought the cheers and whistles of his army.
When Selendra finally pushed away from the embrace her face glowed with a mix of pleasure and embarrassment. "We received news of the victory and Kabrika decided it would be best to come and join you," Selendra said.
"I had grown impatient with the various festivities and celebrations that are planned to celebrate the end of Jagga's threat," Tagun said. "Now I can share them with you. I want you to meet my friends and enjoy the hospitality of Fortek."
They joined hands and waited until Kabrika and the other matriarchs caught up with them. The women seemed amused rather than offended and some of them were chuckling. "It is good to see our king and queen in such good humor with each other," Kabrika said.
In late afternoon they entered the city of Zedekla. Encampments had been established on the outskirts for the various armies, but the leaders were invited to the palace for a greeting from the king.
"We welcome all of you to our city," Fortek said. "I invite you to be my guests. Tomorrow we will hold a grand parade and review. Meanwhile, if there are any particular requests that you would like to make of us, please let us know."
Tagun looked around. None of the other leaders spoke up. "I have a request," Tagun said. "Instead of staying here, I would like to take my wife to the house of Dornak. Have my furnishings been removed?"
"No one has disturbed it since you left us," Fortek said. "I will have some of my servants bring provisions. Will you at least share our evening meal?"
"When we have had a chance to wash and change our clothing we will join you," Tagun said.
Fortek turned to speak to some of the other leaders and Tagun led Selendra out of the palace into the plaza in front of the great Shrine. The Evening air had turned chilly and Tagun pulled his long robe over his regalia.
Selendra turned her head from side to side as they made their way past elegant houses on either. "It is not much like Tedaka or Timora, she said.
"Each of the cities of Okishdu has a different character," Tagun said. "I hope to make Janaka a city others will want to visit. Now it is a grim and ugly place, but we can begin to build again."
A puzzle lock secured the door of the house and Tagun showed Selendra how to open it before he led her inside. Something in the air bothered him, but engrossed in watching her expression as she looked around the entry area, he ignored the sense of warning until he closed the door behind them.
He saw the shadow of someone standing just beyond the archway to the courtyard and too late he recognized the odor in the air. He grabbed Selendra and pushed her behind him. But he was no hulking hero that she could hide behind. When Malvor moved into the archway his eyes went straight to her face before looking at Tagun. He held a long dagger in his hand.
"Visitors," Malvor purred. "You have appeared in such a timely manner. I was just preparing to go hunting for a suitable sacrifice. I'm sure my master will be interested in seeing what fate has brought into our hands. We were hoping for a girl to entertain us while we offer her to Orqu."
"Orqu is a figment of foul imagination," Tagun said. "Your master, Pon, is dead."
Malvor's faced seemed to swell with anger. "Do not mock the demon! I speak of my master Jagga. I have the privilege of nursing him to health." Malvor gestured with his dagger for them to enter the courtyard behind him and Tagun, unwilling to risk an injury to Selendra by provoking an attack obeyed the gesture. Malvor hadn't ordered them to drop their arms, but it was unlikely he suspected what lay under their cloaks. If Jagga were disabled, he and Seledra had a clear advantage. She wore the long knife customary to Tedakan matrons in a sheath behind her back and his sword hung in its scabbard by his side.
"Master I bring you a maiden with a boy who has been foolish enough to enter here just as we required a victim for the ritual," Malvor called out as they left the entry area and entered the courtyard.
Jagga lay on a makeshift bed under the shelter of an awning near the central well. Bandages swathed his head and torso and he seemed groggy as he lurched up to sit on the side of the bed.
"Why do you disturb me Malvor?" Jagga whined. "I asked you to bring something for my pain."
"I bring you something better than a drug," Malvor said. "Look, it is a maiden. You can see that she wears no bridal bracelet. Her skin is fresh and fair."
Jagga peered at the three of them then shook his head. "Bring her nearer, I can hardly see. Are there two maidens?"
"No, the other is a boy. But I believe I recognize as a student of Frovin who caufgt the favor of Zaedekla's king. It is possible that I have a tool to use against Fortek."
Selendra looked sideways at Tagun and slightly moved her chin toward the right. He gave a tiny nod and jumped to the left as he brought his sword out of its scabbard and she whirled while withdrawing her long knife.
"Run," Tagun urged her as he slashed at Malvor's arm.
"I will bring help," she said.
"Grab the girl," Malvor yelled at Jagga.
The usurper tried to lurch upward but he had to grab the side of the well to steady himself. Tagun heard the door open and close and concentrated on disarming Malvor. They were a fairly equal match. His sword was longer than the traitor's dagger, but he had a shorter reach. They circled and parried, each watching for an opening. Tagun wanted to give Selendra time to find help, but Jagga posed a threat as he moved haltingly toward the pike that rested near the well. It was all that Tagun could do to keep Malvor at bay. If Jagga joined the fray it would be over.
Life was too sweet to end now. Tagun wanted the future he had glimpsed in the few days he and Selendra had enjoyed together before they were parted by the demands of his duty. Something tripped him up and he fell backwards, his sword clanged against the side of the well and flew out of his hand.
"Kill him master," Malvor said. He stepped back and gave way to Jagga who lifted the pike to drive it downward. Tagun raised his hand to see if he could somehow block the blow, but Jagga didn't strike. His eyes fixed on Tagun's hand and the heavy ring he still wore on his finger.
"My son. You have returned to me!"
"Your sons are dead Jagga," Malvor said. "It is an illusion of your illness. This is just a scrawny brat who has already lived too long."
The traitor shoved Jagga aside and lifted his dagger for the final blow. Tagun rolled away and scrabbled to retrieve his sword. But when he looked up he saw that Malvor struggling with Jagga. The traitor tried to avoid the pike as Jagga thrust it at him, he brought up his dagger and tried to parry the longer weapon, but Jagga seemed to swell with some undetermined source of energy. Finally self protection overcame Malvor's loyalty and he plunged his knife into Jagga's chest. The older man fell heavily to the ground.
Malvor turned back to Tagun, his face wild with hatred. "You made me kill my master. Now you will die," he screamed.
Tagun took advantage of the traitor's wild emotion. Malvor slashed wildly and left himself open to the sudden thrust that planted Tagun's sword deep in his throat. He looked surprised for just a moment as the hand that held his dagger opened listlessly and released the weapon. His knees buckled and he fell.
Tagun backed away and left Malvor to breath his last. He heard Jagga groan and leaned over him to take his hand. The wound had not yet taken his life. His pulse fluttered weakly under Tagun's fingers.
He knew the evil that Jagga represented as well as any could. But he had seen the monster moan with grief over the death bed of his mother and he had felt fondness for him when he thought he was his father.
Jagga's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at Tagun. "You have your mother's eyes," he whispered. He smiled slightly then closed his eyes and took a few more labored breaths before he died.
Tagun stood and walked to the well. He washed the blood from his sword and pondered the tangled emotion that still ensnared his heart with grief for the man who had caused so much suffering and death by the choices he had made to murder Janaka's king and take Elinka as his queen.
His dour thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone opening the door. He turned and watched as Selendra entered the house followed by several familiar figures.
They rushed into the courtyard and found Tagun drying his sword. Daglan and Manchek examined the two bodies while Selendra took comfort in Tagun's arms. Doka and Sergon began to search the house.
A few minutes later they returned. "It seems that Malvor has been living here since he fled the palace," Sergon said. I found evidence that he joined Jagga's army and brought him here after he was injured."
"I always knew that you were good with weapons, but how did you kill both of them?" Doka asked.
"Jagga was killed by Malvor when he tried to defend me," Tagun said. "I killed Malvor,"
"Jagga tried to defend you?" Manchek asked.
"I can only guess he wanted to believe that I was his son against all evidence," Tagun said.
"This is the end of the cult," Doka pronounced with a gesture at the bodies.
"I doubt it," Sergon cautioned. "Somehow the old dreadful secrets survive. Fools seek them out and villains promote them. Complacence and apathy let them take root and thrive until only great sacrifice can quell them."
"I'm not quite so eager to spend the night here," Tagun said. "Manchek, the palace is a big place. Surely you know of a cozy room with a good lock on the door where Selendra and I can take our ease."
"Daglan and Sergon, will you stay here and guard the house until I send some men to dispose of the bodies?" Manchek said.
"I found some chests in the gather room that bear the mark of your father's treasury," Doka said. "You should tell your father to send some trusted men to retrieve them."
Manchek led Tagun and Selendra to the palace and showed them to a spacious room well furnished for their comfort before proceeding on his other errands. Tagun made sure to check the lock before turning back to his wife. "Malvor thought you were a maiden because you did not have a bridal bracelet and you are young and fair. I guess he never learned that proper Tedakan wives wear a long knife once they marry."
"I am further from being a maiden than he could have guessed," Selendra said with a smile that showed her dimple. "I am carrying our child."
"I hope that I never have to lead an army into war again. I want to leave our children a legacy of peace." Tagun said.
Selendra touched his face and smiled. "My reluctant warrior. I know that you will fight when you must to destroy evil before it flourishes and crushes freedom."
Tagun woke the next morning and studied Selendra's sleeping face with awe. It amazed him to know that this lovely woman had freely chosen him. He rose without disturbing her and walked to the window of the room. Drawing aside the heavy curtain he looked out over the city to the faint line of jagged peaks that glowed in the morning light far to the north. He felt a sense of yearning that surprised him. A year before he had left the palace of Janaka as a frightened fugitive, ignorant and callow. Soon he would return, and he found himself impatient to begin the daunting task of ruling a city and country that had been devastated by the cult.
Perhaps it would be better to leave Selendra in Zedekla until he had time to make the city a fit place for her to live and bear their child. He felt her presence close behind him. She slid her hand around his waist and followed his gaze. "I can hardly wait to take the road to Janaka. From what Kabrika told me, it will take months to make the palace fit to welcome our child."
"You could stay here in Zedekla until it is ready for you," Tagun said.
He could feel her shake her head. "I have had enough of waiting to be with you. I look forward to making our home together."
They met with Kabrika and the other matriarchs along with Daglan and his council of high chiefs later that morning. Kabrika stood and bowed to Tagun. "You have proven yourself. Tell us what you intend to do now that Jagga is defeated."
"I want each of you to write down your thoughts on three things we should do to repair our ruined land. Do not consult with one another. I have seen what dissension and factions can do to destroy peace. I intend to take your advice where it seems meet."
Some of the men and women looked at him with doubt, but Kabrika and Daglan set the pattern by taking up the scribing tools and scrolls he had placed in front of each of them, Selendra pondered for a moment, then began to write.
Soon the last of them put down their scribing tools and Tagun stood. "I will review what you have written. We will meet here again tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, I advise that you should purchase provisions for our return."
With a gesture he dismissed all of them but Selendra. Daglan raised his brow, smiled a little grimly and left the room with the others.
"Do you want to be left alone?" Selendra asked.
"I need your help," Tagun said. "Please take a fresh scroll. I will read what my councilors have written. Make a note of each suggestion in its essence. Where the suggestion is repeated, keep a tally."
Tagun read Daglan's scroll. "First, you should set up a formal council of the matriarchs and battle chiefs. Second, you should restore the clan lands of your supporters. Third, you should require that disputes be settled by judges rather than battles."
Next he read Kabrika's advice. "You must secure the palace and replace all the servants with those who have proven loyalty. You must restore the clans to their ancestral lands. You must provide a Shrine of the Radiance in the city of Janaka."
The trend continued as he read the other scrolls. Restoration of clan lands was advised by almost all. When Selendra showed him the results of her tabulation Tagun smiled. There are several suggestions that surprised him, but all were sensible.
"It is apparent that restoration of the clan lands must be done as soon as possible," he said. "These same men and women will be my council. I will announce their status tomorrow when we meet."
"It seems that the building of a Shrine should the next order of business," Selendra said.
Tagun frowned. "There was a Shrine in Janaka, but the cult defiled it with their filthy rituals. It will take time to gather materials and make a fitting structure. Other needs on the list must be effected first."
"But we must have a place for worship," Selendra urged.
"There is a great hall in the palace that can be cleaned up and set aside until we build a Shrine," Tagun said.
She raised her brow but did not dispute his offered compromise.
"I promise that we will dedicate a Shrine to the Radiance in Janaka within a year," he said. Her dimples flashed just before she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.
The compilation of the list had left them with plenty of time to spend as they wished. At first Selendra claimed that the view of the city from the window of their room was more than sufficient to sate her curiosity about the metropolis. "I have no urge to explore the shops and markets of the city."
"I saw how you looked yesterday when we were making our way through the city toward Dornak's house," Tagun teased her.
"I must confess that I have a weakness for trinkets and clever contraptions," she finally granted. I fear that I might lose control and spend us into poverty"
He laughed aloud at her claim of extravagance. "You have no risk of spending us into poverty. You can't fall from a hole in the ground. Other than the royal jewels which my mother saw smuggled to safety, I fear our kingdom is bankrupt. It costs nothing to look. Come, I have never had a chance to spend time shopping in Zedekla. I have always been employed in hunting down traitors and cultists. It may be years before we have such a chance again."
She nodded and quickly turned to retrieve a light cloak from her wardrobe. For a moment Tagun hesitated over putting on the useful robe, but instead he chose to leave the regalia of his rank in full evidence. He would not be mistaken as Selendra's younger brother again.
As they left the palace they found themselves surrounded by people eager to extend their good wishes and offer gifts. Tagun turned to the young man who had been assigned to accompany them and keep them from being overwhelmed by the crowd. "
I am puzzled by our popularity," he said. "I didn't see the people of the city offer such a welcome to Manchek when I walked with him yesterday."
The young man grinned as he waved off an offering of food. "Somehow word has gone abroad that you are the chief architect of our victory against Jagga's horde. Tales have been told of how you rescued captives and killed Pon the high priest of Orqu, Some even claim that you acted in the role of angel and rescued babes from certain death."
Tagun frowned. He could not honestly deny that he had planned the strategy. He had rescued captives and at least one infant, but many had risked their lives and fought valiantly. By the grace of the Radiance he had been led to be at the right place at the right time.
He looked up to see the familiar face of Marga grinning at him from the midst of the crowd. "Do not try to deny it, Tagun." She dipped a curtsy to Selendra. "You must be the maiden Tagun rescued from the swindlers in Tedaka along with my sister Berna and five others."
"She had already rescued herself, along with your sister and the others," Tagun protested.
"But you can't deny that you killed Pon and rescued those he had intended to sacrifice on the eve of the battle with ekela's defenders. I have met a woman who will swear that you gave her the last of your food and water and preserved the life of herself and her child."
Tagun felt oppressed by the thought of being hailed as the singular hero of the conflict and for a moment he hesitated, turning his eyes back towards the palace. Selendra took his hand. "Don't try to argue, but don't take the praise seriously. It is always easier for people to identify a single hero instead of trying to honor all who bear some credit for the victory. If you try to hide or deny the truth, you will be regarded as a prude afflicted with false modesty."
"She's right, you know," Marga said. "I guess you knew what you were doing when you chose to marry her. By the way, whatever happened to that boy you were herding toward Tedaka?"
"He believes that he has found the girl he wants to marry," Tagun said. For a moment a brief light of hope flared in Marga's eyes.
"She is the daughter of one of Taleeka's councilors and will make a fitting bride for the head Man of Tedaka when Doka is acknowledged as his uncle Tanka's heir."
Marga laughed and shook her head. "He hinted pretty heavily that he had some importance when we met, but I dismissed him as a bragging boy. And to think that for one night I entertained the two of you without a hint of who you are."
Tagun looked into her eyes and saw beyond the facade of merry unconcern.
"I would like you and your sister, Berna to join us when we return to Janaka. There are many widowed warriors in my army. You could make a fresh start with your life."
Marga stared into his face then turned toard Selendra who gave a little nod of encouragement.
"Berna should return to Tedaka with our father. We found him among the volunteers in the army of Zedekla, but I accept your offer."
"We will take some time to visit shops along this street," Selendra said. "Find your father and tell him what you have decided. Then join us here. I need a younger woman to attend me who speaks in the familiar accents of my native land."
Marga hurried away and Tagun proceeded to show Selendra into a café which advertised a menu of Janakan barbecue. The host insisted on providing them with a free sample of his offerings and as they had not yet lunched they willingly accepted the offer.
They were served with several dishes heaped with savory meat and fragrant matlas that gave forth a promising scent but before long Selendra raised her hand in a signal and Tagun followed her lead. Thanking their host and offering what praise they could. They left the eating place.
"Bland," Selendra whispered when they were well out of range of the hearing of their host.
Tagun nodded. "The secret of true Janakan barbeque is in the spices that grow only in the high valleys of our homeland. Since Jagga came into power the trade in spices has waned and nearly disappeared. The Orenese who traded with his court found more profit in seeking out dass and docil root and other substances that dull the mind and ease faltering consciences."
""I have pondered what we can do to revive Janaka's economy," Selendra said. "I suggest we seek out people who will foster the spice trade. The dominance over trade that Orenon has enjoyed under Jagga's rule must end. If you replace clan warfare with orderly judgements made in courts of law, there will be many who will seek employment for their idle hours."
"Mareklan merchants have enjoyed a monopoly of transporting precious goods and products such as spices among the lands of Okishdu," Tagun said. "But after such a long conflict I doubt that they will be eager to resume trade with Janaka."
They entered a shop where lengths of fabric hung from every wall. Smooth felts from Kumn0ra cut with intricate designs contrasted with shining zylka cloth from Orenon glowing with varied colors. Virdanan rugs plush and soft beneath their feet tempted them to kneel down and run their fingers through the thick pile. On every side their eyes were led to new delights of pattern and texture.
Selendra uttered a soft sigh of appreciation as her eyes detected an especially fine example of Tedakan embroidery. She turned in place, her eyes sparkling with pleasure.
Tagun felt an ache of frustration. How he wanted to satisfy her by purchasing some sample of the beauty on display.
She frowned slightly. "There are examples of the craft and skill of every land but Janaka here," she said.
"I doubt we have anything to offer," he replied. "We earned some fame for the quality of our bronze swords and bells in days gone by, but it has been years since Janaka provided anything but strife to Okishdu."
"You have no real idea of the hidden wealth of the lands you rule," Selendra said. "I had only a short time to observe your matriarchs before we came to join you in Zedekla, but most of them have several skills besides being the best bronze smiths in Okishdu. Not only the women and the warriors have unexploited talents, I met girls who could weave fabric as smooth and lovely as any but the finest zylka cloth and boys who could turn a bit of waste wood into intricate carvings with nothing more than fragments of obsidian."
The proprietor of the shop tried to urge them to accept a gift but Selendra graciously declined his offer. Instead, she showed him the embroidery on the hem of her green gown. "Have you seen its like before," she asked.
"In my childhood my father carried some fine samples of Janakan needlecraft, but it has been many years since I've seen the like of this," he said.
"Would you be interested in receiving a shipment of similar embroidery to sell here in your shop?" she asked him.
His eyes lit with the prospect. "If you would make me the exclusive dealer for a year, I would take anything you could provide."
Tagun watched bemused while Selendra wrote out a contract and instructed him to sign it. They left the shop and Selendra looked around them with a keen eye. "I never before appreciated that it can be more fun to contract for merchandise exchange than it is to merely shop."
Marga joined them while Selendra arranged for a shipment of carved green stone with a jeweler. "Most Janakans fail to appreciate the value of the rocks they use as ore." she whispered to Tagun.
"Orenese traders have shamelessly exploited the trade. I have heard them bragging of their cleverness. They purchased carved green stones in Janaka for a pittance and sell them throughout the rest of Okishdu as rare gems."
Selendra went from one merchant to another, seeming to possess rare insight into the possibilities for trade in various venues. Articles of bronze from bells to buckles, spices and herbs found only in certain high valleys and long absent from Zedeklan markets, decorative items from wood carving to engraved stone pots for growing flowers were on her list of completed contracts by the time Tagun and Marga convinced her that the day had been well spent and it was time to return to their quarters in the palace.
When they met with Tagun's council the next morning they saw that word had spread of Selendra's adventures in the city.
"I have heard that you have promised many things we may not be able to deliver," Kabrika said with a frown at Selendra. Someone told me that you have promised shipments of jewels and spice. We cannot afford to waste our energy on providing fripperies for Zedekla and Okishdu's other cities when we face near ruin at home."
"Not only jewels and spice, but buckles, bells and embroidered cloth," Selendra responded with a smile. "You cannot afford to ignore the possibilities for trade. I know that you have warehouses full of bronze swords and bells that you could not trade because you disdained to trade with Orenese merchants."
"Most of them were in league with Jagga and paid a tax on their trade that went to support his evil," Daglan said.
Selendra spread a pile of contracts on the table. "Examine these. If you can honestly say that any of them cannot be honored with some effort on the part of our people, I will return to the merchants who made them and dissolve the agreements with my apologies."
The matriarchs and chiefs took her challenge seriously and ignored other concerns while they read the contracts and considered their contents. Finally Kabrika looked up.
"I grant that with effort we can honor the conteacts for merchandise, but who will transport the goods? We used Kumoran teamsters in the past, but their fees will easily deplete any profits from the trade."
"Perhaps we should address some of the concerns you raised yesterday before we discuss this item any further," Tagun said.
"We compiled a list of your concerns according to the rplies we aksed ou to register."
He took out a chart and displayed it. "You can see that the most urgent concern is to restore the clans to their proper places. Those displaced by Jagga should be compensated for their loss during the years of his dominance. I suggest that the best way to do this is to levy a labor quota from the clans that have retained their fields and mines. Almost without exception, those who were successful in evading Jagaa's influence have built up a store of goods they would not trade with tghe Orenese. With the contracts Selendra has arranged, you can dispose of the stored goods at a good profit.
"I suppose that you expect us to provide money from our trade as well as labor to restore the properties of those who suffered under Jaggan's rule," Kabrika challenged as the others nodded.
"Let each clan decide what they are willing to donate from their profit for the compensation of the loss of lands their brother's suffered. There are two clans that have lost too many people to persist. To punish them for their resistance, Jagga ordered that their maidens and young women would be taken, leaving none to build new families."
The chiefs and matriarchs stared down, ashamed to meet his eyes. For a moemnt Tagun let them think of their good fortune in keeping something from the years of dearth.
"As you will notice, most of you suggested that it is past time to end the endless strife that has been our sad tradition from the days Janak and his sons founded our land. Dorb put an end to bridal kidnaping when he realized that it had been used as a cover for taking victims for the cult. Clan warfare must be ended. Your chiefs will served as judges to decide the course of justice when a conflict arises between families and clans. Where there continues to be dispute. It can be presented to the council in the city of Janaka where those who are detected in a fault will pay a price."
One of the chief's chuckled and shook his head. "What do you suggest we do with the energies of warriors who have expected to spend their days practicing for battle"
Daglan stood as if ejected from his seat. "Do you believe that any of your warriors crave battle after the slaughter at the bridge over the Or?" he demanded with a scowl that seemed to burn the brief amusement from the faces of the chiefs.
He settled back into his seat when none cared to dispute his charge.
"You are right to be worried about the unguided energies of your young men, but there is an easy answer to your concerns," Tagun said. "They can serve as porters to carry the goods that Selendra has sold to various merchants. How many years have passed since any Janakan dared to venture from their hidden valleys? Only Jagga's hordes dared to breach the peace of the plains. Those with a talent for trade can expand our markets throughout Okishdu. There is nothing to prevent them from replacing the Orenese as merchants for our precious goods. I have heard from one who knew that the Orensese bragged of cheating Janakans foolish enough to sell green stone for a pittance when it brings the price of gems in other cities."
"I agree that it is time for us to leave our places of retreat" Kabrika said. "Pilgrims need to journey to Timora to visit the shrines and sacred scrolls. A generation has grown up without a proper place to worship. A Shrine for the Radiance must be erected in Janaka."
Tagun looked toward Selendra who shrugged. She had his promise, but would the others accept a year's delay? He decided to divert attention to the next item on the list.
I feel that I require a council to advise me and to judge when disputes are difficult and rise to the attention of my court. I propose that those of you who have proved your ability to lead should constitute my council. The chiefs and the matriarchs will each form a separate body who will vote on critical matters. Where they cannot agree, I will break the tie. Otherwise, it will be my duty to see that the joint decisions of the councils are carried out. Each of them will choose an heir to follow in their stead when they retire. Do you have any arguments to offer to this plan?"
"You must give us time to consider if we like this plan of rule," Kabrika said. What dignity is left to you as king if you are little more than an executive to carry out our joint will?"
"I get to live in the palace and wear a fancy set of regalia and live with the queen," Tagun said with a smile. Kabrika's continued stern stare sobered his expression. "I understand your concerns. I have provided scr4oll cloth and scribing tools for you to copy this list of concerns. Tomorrow morning we can meet again and discuss your thoughts."
"Do any of you object if I enter into further contracts with the merchants of Zedekla while you ponder these concerns?" Selendra asked the council.
"It would be a sad waste of your time if you didn't," Daglan said with a smile of reassurance. Kabrika hardly looked up from her scroll but she nodded her agreement.
Selendra's reputation proceeded her that morning when she left the palace. Instead of seeking out merchants, she found herself hailed on every side by eager supplicants. Tagun turned to summon several guards to intervene and restore order.
"I will visit you in your shops and observe the goods you already carry," Selendra said.
I must make certain theat you are not mere speculators but already understand how best to merchandise the goods we offer for trade."
"But I am from Taleeka, one man protested.
"My shop is located in Timora," another added.
"Those of you from other cities should leave your address with one of these young men. We will have our representatives visit you as soon as it can be arranged," Selendra promised. Marga, coming close behind gave a faint whistle of admiration. "She really knows how this should be done," she murmured to Tagun. "I wouldn't be surprised if there is Mareklan ancestor somewhere in her past."
From thereon the day proceeded much as it had the day before. Tagun secrety hoped that Selendra would grow weary and decide to spend the afernoon in the palace resting her feet as he yeared to do after spending hours tramping over the stony streets and alleyways of Okishdu's largest city, but she never wavered from her purpose. Now that she had the support of the council, she enjoyed every moment of dickering for a good price for the goods she had to offer.
Even though he had grown to adulthood in Janaka, Tagun had never suspected that gundge weed and ota roots were rare items that could be traded at a profit. Not just the skilled craftsmen and farmers, but every urchin who knew how to spot the distinctive foliage of a water weed clump could turn a profit.
Finally, even Selendra reached the limit of her energy, or perhaps she noticed the look of desperation in Tagun's face.
"It is nearly dinner time and I am hungry," She announced, turning back toward the palace.
The next morning they met with the matriarchs and chiefs. As soon as Tagun entered the room Kabrika and Daglan stood. "We have reached an agreement," the matriarch said. "We have added some amendments to the constitution of the government that you proposed, but our chief concern is that we build a shrine as soon as possible. A small tax on the contracts for goods that Selendra has arranged should more than cover the expense of hiring an architect and purchasing suitable building materials. We will arrange a labor roster to provide for the construction. It is the majority opinion of both councils as you have designated us."
Tagun nodded. He knew for himself the peace that could only be found in the sacred precincts of a shrine of the Radiance. He could not deny the will of the joint council.
Nearly a week had passed since the victory over Jagga's horde and Selendra said that she felt satisfied with her trading efforts. "I would like to take a few days to train some representatives to go to other cities and seek our more customers for our products," She told Tagun when he suggested they should prepare to return to Janaka on the morrow. "Several of your young warriors have volunteered. I think Marga had some part in convincing them."
"I never thought when I met her that she would become an asset," Tagun admitted. "The sophistication that nearly ruined her in a village of Tedaka has proven useful in our current circumstances. "
"She has a quick wit and some sad experiences in her past, but she has a good heart," Selendra said. "Have you noticed that she spends what time she can spare with Daglan?"
At first Tagun felt shocked, but he considered his reaction. After all, his uncle, although a widower when he first entered Jagga's court and took on the task of seeing after his nephew and guarding him from the worst of Jagga's evil, had not yet reached the age of forty. With so many other warriors seeking wives among the maidens who had survived the depredations of the cult, Daglan stood little chance of marrying again. Perhaps he could do worse than turn to Marga. In any event, it was not his place to approve his uncle's choice.
While Tagun held final conferences with the other allies, Selendra procced with her training, surprisingly aided by Marga and Daglan who both showed an aptitude for her instructions.
On the eve of their departure for Janaka Daglan approached him with Marga by his side.
I have come to ask you to preside at our marriage in the Shrine before we leave Zedekla tomorrow," Daglan said.
Tagun turned to Marga with a question in his eyes. She took Daglans hand for reassurance as she answered his unspoken query.
"Daglan knows more than you suspect about my past and both of us have spoken to the High Priest, Alwrek. It was he who told us that you have the priesthood office you need to perform the ceremony and we think it fitting that you preside."
Tagun's heart lifted. He had dreaded telling Daglan what he thought he deserved to know of Marga's past. She had relieved him of the burden and in doing so had cleared the way for their marriage.
Those from Janaka who had remained in the city gathered with a crowd of others who came to celebrate the marriage. Manchek and Selendra served as witnesses to the ritual that joined Daglan to Marga in the wedding chamber. Tagun felt the holy weight of the calling he had received from the seer nearly a year before as he joined them in an eternal bond of promise. Looking into Marga's eyes after the vows had been exchanged, Tagun saw no hint of the guile that had worried him since making her acquaintance. When they left the chapel the rulers of Okishdu greeted them.
Doka offered both members of the couple his hearty felicitations while Placine looked on with a serene smile. Did she know what Doka had once risked after becoming infatuated with Marga? Tagun hoped the mistake had been instructive to his friend.
The wedding feast took the form of a public breakfast provided by King Fortek as a grand farewell to the allies who had joined the battle against the cult. Noon arrived before the company of Janakans made their way out of the north gate of the city and took the road that would return them to Janaka.
Daglan and Marga, taking Zedeklan custom as a guide, had retired after the wedding to a secret refuge where they would spend the first week of their arriage alone together. They assured Selendra and Tagun that they would make their way to Janaka in good time and Tagun spared no worry for their safety. Both of them had proven their courage and resourcefulness. Marga had displayed loyalty to the customs of Tedakan brides by accepting a bridal knife from Selendra which she fastened at her back.
Chapter 9 Homecoming
Although the members of the council and many of the warriors who had relieved the siege of Tedaka waited to accompany their king and queen back to the city, most veterans of the battles had returned to their homes as soon as they were certain of the victory. The evidence of their labors could seen in the villages along the way, no longer shuttered and abandoned. Signs of repair and renovation were displayed in newly furrowed fields and the smoke from forges.
Winter had passed and spring promised a return of fertility and industry. As the royal couple passed the burgeoning villages, small crowds of people cheered and often showered them with fragrant blossoms. Children of all ages were hoisted on their fathers' shoulders and held up in their mothers' arms to watch the procession of warriors and royals.
As they drew nearer to the city the promise of prosperity grew harder to detect. The cruel depredations of Jagga's mis-pent rule were harsher within a few days travel of the city. Tagun noticed detachments of warriors leaving the main body and returning to the villages from which they had fled early in the rule of the usurper. He sent a prayer after them each time he saw them approach the ruined forges and ravaged fields. They carried seed and tools, and had a tilt to their chins and determination in their steps that displayed their resolution to prevail.
The remaining group made camp in an abandoned village less than a day's march from the city of Janaka. A reddened sunset promised rainfall tomorrow. Tagun offered up the evening benediction , asking the Radiance that battle would not be followed by a curse of drought. Men could rid the land of evil, but only God could bend nature to their aid.
When Tagun woke the next morning he felt a mixture of dread and anticipation. Within a few hours he would see the mighty fortress walls of the city. He would see the dark excrescence of the temple of Orqu which Jagga had built close to the city gates. He was not quite certain whether he should have the pile of dark stone demolished, or left standing in ruins as a reminder of the folly and evil of the cult.
Midmorning brought them to a turn of the road. As they passed around a terraced hill they saw the city mount ahead of them. Tagun stopped and stared. It was much as he had expected, but near the palace at the top of the fortress city a pale building rose like an echo of the Shines he had seen in Timora and Zedekla. It glimmered in the light, almost like a hill of snow.
One of the warriors walking nearby stopped and followed Tagun's gaze. "Have you not heard of Jagga's folly?" he asked. "Same say he lost the war with the allies because of his mania to construct it."
"I heard he made a tomb for Elinka," Tagun said.
The man realized his error. "I forgot. You are her son. Jagga imported masons from Arqua to construct it. Some say he neglected to finish his temple for the demon and spent all his personal fortune on materials for the tomb."
"It is lovely," Selendra said. "I had heard of the tomb, but I expected something different, something Orenese or Jaman with ornate decorations."
"I thought at first that it might be a Shrine," Tagun said. "It lacks only a spire to resemble the great Shrine in Timora."
As they drew closer he noticed a tessellated pattern of lapis lazuli and malachite around the arched windows and along the upper terraces. They set off the pearly gleam of the pale granite.
He glanced at Selendra and she smiled back at him. As if she had read his thought she said, "Nothing would be a more fit memory of your mother than honoring the Radiance."
"First we will see how it has been designed inside," he tempered her ardor. "If the interior will support a prayer hall of appropriate dimensions, and if this same stately simplicity prevails throughout, nothing could be better."
He tried to avoid becoming too enthusiastic. Plenty remained to remind him of the months and years of work required to return the city to its proper station. Trash and filthy refuse choked the alleyways and streets as they entered the nearly deserted city. A few starved dogs snarled at them from doorways.
The stink of rotting offal nearly choked him. Tagun half feared to find that it had intruded on the tomb built for Elinka, but he found the structure surrounded by a wall. Sounds of mallets against stone and the odor of a forge hinted at industry beyond the barred gate.
Tagun stepped forward and rang a summons on a bell hung above the lintel.
Not long afterward a small hatch opened on the gate. A man peered out at him. "King Jagga promised us that we would not be disturbed until our work is finished," he said.
"Jagga is no longer king in Janaka. He cannot honor any contract made with you," the man next to Tagun said.
"We have been paid in full and provided with sufficient supplies for several months," the man replied.
"Would you consider altering the design for an additional amount," Tagun said.
The man scowled. "This is meant as a tomb for queen Elinka. By what right do you alter the plans?"
"I am Elinka's son. I wish to honor my mother further by converting this tomb into a Shrine to the Radiance. It is what she would have wanted," Tagun said.
The man raised his brows toward his hairline in surprise. "Jagga asked us to model the exterior of the building after the Great Shrine in Timora, without a spire of course. Enter. See for yourself."
Only Tagun and Selendra were permitted to enter the compound around the structure. A neat set of temporary structures near the wall provided living quarters and workshops for the builders. Blocks of gleaming granite and half-finished sculptures littered the courtyard.
"Of course this will all be cleared and gardens planted when we finish construction," the master builder explained to Tagun and Selendra. We have imported the finest vines and fruit trees from the various quarters of Okishdu, suited of course, to this harsh climate."
He smiled with satisfaction at the handiwork of his clan as he led Tagun and Selendra up wide steps toward a high arched entrance. Within they could see a great hall centered by a towering sarcophagus. It was only here that the simplicity and beauty of the structure failed. Bright mosaics of Jaman glass glittered from ornate decorations.
Tagun felt Selendra wince. "I assume that Jagga designed the sarcophagus," he asked the builder.
"I am happy to attribute the blame to him," the builder said with a grimace. "Your mother's body still remains buried in the palace courtyard until the entire tomb has been completed. Only then will we make the transfer."
"Would you be offended if I ask you to remove this part of your construction. This has the proportions of a proper prayer hall if the sarcophagus is removed and the floor beneath it paved," Tagun said. "I am certain that my mother would prefer to be buried in the gardens of the Shrine."
The man nodded. "As her son and Jagga's heir, your wishes take precedence. I will gladly make the alterations you suggest, with a few more that will better suit this structure to its new purpose. I can find a ready market for the materials used in the sarcophagus in Jama or Orenon and at no extra expense to you, I will add a spire to the tower and an alabaster lamp in the prayer hall."
"Do so." Tagun said.
"You will need the offices of several priests before you can dedicate the building to the use that you intend," the builder reminded them just before he shut the gate on them.
The group that waited for them at the gate had grown impatient with the long delay and with a glance at the sky Tagun understood their mood. "We will go to the palace now. I am doubtful we will find anything to satisfy our thirst or hunger, but it seems to promise rain again tonight, and at least we will find shelter."
As he had feared, the palace was as disordered and dingy as the rest of the city. If anything, it seemed to be a center of the miasma that hovered over Janaka. Tagun felt Selendra shudder with revulsion as he shoved aside a gate and found a starved animal, its carcass too well chewed to be identified. He suspected it was one of the wild mongrels that ranged throughout the city.
Tagun turned to the others following him. "I would prefer to camp outside the city walls until we clear this place and make some repairs," He heard no argument except for one woman who raised her voice.
"The area around the tomb of Elinka seems clear enough from what I saw through the gate when you were admitted."
"We will not disturb the builders at their task," Tagun said, firm enough to stop the murmurs.
He wondered what they would say when they saw what he intended. Doubtless there would be objections from some who felt that anything that Jagga had initiated would be unworthy of being converted into a Shrine to the Radiance, but he intended to hold firm against any opposition. Somehow he felt it was exactly what his mother would have wanted. He had felt her presence near as soon as he stepped inside the gate and saw the exquisite craftsmanship close up.
A full week of heavy effort followed before Tagun and Selendra felt they could occupy the palace. Even then there was a look of something almost like a smoky residue that filmed over every surface. Selendra set to work with lye and brushes, spending hours supervising others as well as working until her own hands were red and raw.
Meanwhile Tagun worked with the men to clear refuse from the city while keeping track of progress on Elinka's tomb. One day he approached the compound around the building and asked for the aid of one of the men who worked in tiles and tessellated designs. He showed him the ruined mosaics along the corridors inside the palace. The artisan studied the designs, held up his hands as if to frame the sections, nodded, scribbled on a slate, and finally strode off with no further word to Tagun.
Tagun mentioned his disappointment to Selendra that evening. Both were weary from hours of scrubbing and hauling away what was too broken to be salvaged. "I had hoped that somehow the former designs could be saved, but the craftsman didn't even comment on the damage."
"At least we are coming to the end of our initial cleaning," Selendra murmured with a weary smile that hardly showed her dimple.
"This is quite a burden for you," Tagun said. "Being a queen has not been much of a reward for marrying a runt."
"Never say that to me again," she said with a look of outrage. "I want no reward but living with my love, and my love is not a runt. You insult me if you think I married you for anything, other than yourself alone."
Chastened, but happy, he pulled her close. The air around them bore no trace of stink. Days of scrubbing with sand and lye had banished the last signs of spoliation. A good smell of something being roasted came from the kitchens, something seasoned with a hint of ota shoots and water weed.
"Daglan is here," Tagun told his wife. "I wonder why he didn't come and find me."
"I forgot to tell you," Selendra said. "He was looking for you earlier, but he saw me stumble a little and guessed that I was growing faint with hunger. He gave me some journey bread then headed for the kitchen."
More than fifty people assembled in the servants dining hall. The formal dining room had little furniture left worth saving, but the sturdy benches and tables of the servants hall had survived the reign of Jagga and the brutish minions of his court and cult.
Selendra and Tagun had earned the respect and affection of those who served them. Neither the king nor his queen had stinted in their efforts to restore cleanliness and order to the palace, even while maintaining that aura of decision and authority that marked them as rulers.
Daglan and Marga had come with a caravan loaded with provisions; fresh meat and vegetables and casks of preserved fruit. He explained the bounty to Tagun. "The chiefs had a bit of difficulty imposing the new order. They had to execute several miscreants before they got the point across. These supplies were sent as tribute from the border clans. They have been keeping back supplies when they realized how things were going for their former ruler. They resent that Jagga starved his servants while he spent his residual fortune on a folly."
"It is no folly," Tagun said. "Have you seen Elinka's tomb in the full light of day?"
"I arrived in Janaka shortly after sundown," Daglan said. "I saw something huge and pale, but I came to the city too late to see the details. Even so, surely you cannot approve such an expense when there is poverty among your people."
"I won't try to convince you now. Wait until you see it in the light of dawn," Tagun said. He decided to trust Daglan with his plan. "Arquan masons are finishing the tomb, but they made it to resemble the great Shrine in Timora, saving only the addition of a spire. I have asked them to amend their design. My mother would not have wanted a gaudy catafalque to entomb her in an empty and useless void. She would want to be buried in a lovely garden near a Shrine to the Radiance, and that is what I intend to give her."
Daglan's eyebrows rose, but he made no further comment. The building of a Shrine to the Radiance had been almost universally advised by Tagun's council.
The good, fresh food, the consciousness of labor well performed, the fellowship of others with a common goal made for a merry gathering. The relaxed mood seemed suitable for Tagun to announce his decision about the Shrine. He stood and raised his cup of nuka juice. Silence fell gradually and the faces turned to him shown with affection.
He looked around, cleared his throat and considered how to introduce the subject. "Most of you have wondered at the construction that continues on what is called 'Jagga's Folly'."
There were nods and sharpened looks. Evidently the subject had been discussed.
"As you know, Elinka was my mother." To Tagun's surprise, the reaction of his audience revealed that it wasn't general knowledge. "Jagga killed my father and took Elinka as his wife. He raised me as his son without knowledge of my true parentage."
Nods and murmurs of acceptance followed his explanation. "My mother ended her days as a devoted servant of the Radiance. Nothing would have pleased her more than to see a Shrine raised in Janaka, pure and new and unstained by rituals of the cult. The so called 'tomb of Elinka' is modeled on the Shrine in Timora, save only for the spire. It has been in the hands of the builders of Arqua clan who have worked on sacred buildings for generations. No unclean hand has touched the materials used in its construction."
Tagun's assurances had prepared his audience for his final pronouncement. He saw them nodding and smiling with anticipation. "The sarcophagus designed by Jagga as a centerpiece of the central hall has been dismantled. My mother will be buried in a garden, as I'm sure she would prefer. A great alabaster globe is ready to be installed on the wall of the room as a lamp to represent the Radiance. You are all invited to witness the mounting of the spire tomorrow morning."
Selendra prodded him. He grinned at her and gentle laughter rose from the others. "In other words, as soon as I can assemble a team of priests, we will dedicate a Shrine to the Radiance in Janaka."
Shouts of acclamation and applause broke out and tears shone on many of the upturned faces. Tagun sat down and Selendra put one of her arms around his shoulders. He had been worried for weeks that his plans for the tomb would be rejected. He hoped that these people would communicate their approval to others who might question his decision.
"I'll make certain others know what you have told us," Daglan said, his words loud enough to reach others in the crowd. They nodded their agreement.
Many of them approached Tagun with their thanks after the meal ended and Selendra supervised the final cleaning of the kitchen. Tagun and Daglan finally walked with Selendra to the rooms that Tagun had shared with his tutor for years. Tagun and Selendra showed him the bed that now hung from the hooks in the central chamber. "I couldn't bear to use Jagga's rooms in the south tower," Tagun told his former tutor.
"This is suitable," Daglan approved. "This was the chamber your parents shared before Jagga and his minions conspired to murder your father. Where did you find the bed frame?"
"It was deep in one of the storage rooms. It is likely the one my parents used when they occupied these rooms. I made new cables from leather root and the mattress is new. Selendra found several bolts of cloth in the same storage room. We filled it with dried feather weed."
"You will sleep like royalty," Daglan said. "I hope you barred the way to the secret passageway. It could be used by intruders."
"I followed the passageway several weeks ago and paid a visit to the farmer who uses the entrance to the passage as his barn. He is a loyal old fellow. It turned out that he was one of my father's palace guards. He knew of our exit from the palace last year and kept the secret."
Daglan gave a whistle of surprise. "It is a good thing he is our ally."
Selendra came up to Tagun where he stood conversing with his friend. She smiled and nodded and said nothing but Daglan took the hint. "I will be up early to see this proposed Shrine of yours."
He bowed his head to Selendra and left them alone. Selendra had insisted on the installation of a set of bathing facilities made after Tedakan design in the small room Tagun had occupied as a youth. She preferred plainess in her dress and simple jewels, but no queen in Okishdu could claim better plumbing in her private chambers.
After bathing and dressing in fresh night clothes Tagun and Selendra relaxed on the great bed that hung from the sturdy hooks in the ceiling above them and reviewed the day that lay behind them.
"I am surprised that it is not general knowledge that Elinka was my mother," Tagun said.
"It is likely many Janakans thought it a convenient fiction that you are Koren's son," Selendra said. "They have been too long accustomed to deceit and rude treatment by the usurper and his minions. They were willing to accept a fable if it promised freedom from the cult."
"But it is not a fable," Tagun insisted.
"Hush my darling. You know I know the truth and others will accept it soon enough. It was necessary to keep the reality of your patrimony a close held secret, known only to a few of the leaders you could trust. This announcement tonight is important for the very reason that it was made to servants and other common people. You will be surprised how rapidly the truth will spread, particularly when the Shrine is dedicated."
The next morning both of them dressed in the clothing they had worn in Algire when Tagun was acclaimed as king. Selendra waited patiently while Tagun struggled to fasten the intricate clasp of the rope of pearls around her neck. She smoothed her hair up and fastened the golden circlet with it's gleaming emerald. Tagun put on his own crown and fastened his sword over his studded leather kilt, making sure his throwing ax was balanced on the other side.
They walked out of the palace with a stately pace, even though Tagun fought the urge to grin, and he could see Selendra's dimple flashing as she tried to repress a wide smile. This was a solemn occasion. Their people would expect to see them act with dignity.
Daglan followed close behind, his traveling clothes exchanged for the sober clothing of a scribe. Tagun wondered where he had found the dark tunic with its edge of gold and silver bullion. He remembered seeing it long ago when Daglan served as Jagga's scribe.
A crowd had gathered in the square. There were hundreds where Tagun had expected no more than the fifty who had shared the evening meal the night before.
A tall scaffold towered above the top of the wall that surrounded the pale granite of Elinka's intended tomb. Ropes strained from a pulley mounted on the top of the scaffold and several figures could be seen on the roof on the building where a platform had been erected in the past few days. The spire rose through the air like an arrow of gold, gleaming in the early morning light. A gasp of wonder ran around the square as it emerged over the top of the wall and slowly rose toward the platform on the roof.
It drifted slightly to the north and the ropes were adjusted by unseen hands. Like a moth landing on a flower, the spire gently settled on the platform, quickly stabilized and fastened by the workmen waiting there.
Tagun felt like bursting into song and he was not surprised when a hymn began to rise. It was the ancient hymn of praise sung on the day of founding in Timora. He joined the melody and heard Selendra's clear soprano join in the harmony.
To Tagun's surprise the workmen had hardly finished fastening the spire when the panels of the wall began to rotate and invert. Instead of a barrier, they became passageways inviting those in the square to visit the gardens revealed beyond.
"It is unfortunate you don't have other priests on hand to hold a dedication," Daglan murmured near Tagun's shoulder.
A gasp of surprise went through the throng when the panels of the walls stopped their rotation and three figures dressed in robes of white were seen at the top of the main stairway leading to the first terrace of the Shrine. Tagun recognized Taklan, the Seer who had ordained him in Timora. The small bent figure next to him was likely his wife. The third figure puzzled Tagun at first, but then he recognized the head craftsman who had given him a tour of the building on his first day after returning to Janaka.
Tagun knew he was being summoned to join them with Selendra when the Seer made a gesture. He walked through the crowd and they made way, many with bows, but all with looks of stunned surprise.
Tagun mounted the stairway with Selendra by his side. The Seer gestured for him to join him in the prayer hall where the globe of alabaster glowed softly. "Quickly, both of you get dressed in these robes I've brought for you. Barga has agreed to assist us in the dedication. He, like you, holds the patriarchal priesthood of his people and will serve well enough for such a ceremony. Your wife will assist my dear Nomala in the fourth station."
"You must tell me what I am to do," Tagun said. He halfway feared he had already used up his portion of the Seer's attention.
"We bless the corners first. I'll show you what to do. Then Barga will follow. Do as we have done when I give the signal."
Tagun dressed in the white robes and blue shawl of priestly office, then he followed the others as they paced around the terrace. A daze of wonder settled on him and he could hardly think to do more that mimic what he heard and saw. If called upon again to assist in the dedication of a shrine he would likely not remember what to do.
He felt deep reverence as he pronounced the prayers of dedication for each portion assigned to him. From the corner of his eye he saw Selendra's graceful figure following with the seeress as they went through the ceremonies of the dedication.
At last Taklan led all of them to stand at the edge of the terrace at the top of the stairs. To Tagun's surprise the old man spoke with a resonant tone that reached the edges of the crowded square below.
"You know who I am and by what authority I act. Let none question the legitimacy of this holy place. It was conceived by an evil man, but it came from the sorrowing love that he bore for a good woman. He paid for it with money earned by honest labor long before he bent his soul to corruption. No unclean hands have sullied it. Enter here to pray and worship in full confidence that no shrine in Okisshdu is more holy."
The seer turned and entered the Shrine with his wife who spent a final moment whispering to Selendra. They were not seen again.
Tagun turned to Barga, the builder. "I am grateful you consented to help with the dedication."
Barga shook his head. "I can honestly say it has been my privilege. When I contracted with Jagga I set a high price. I cannot accept all that he paid me now that it is a Shrine and not a tomb. You are not his son, but you are his heir. I will return the excess in labor or materials as you wish."
"You owe me nothing," Tagun said.
"I owe you much," Barga protested. "I have never dreamed that I would be called upon to follow a holy Seer in such an office, though I have often served at dedications of the structures I have repaired and built. One of my artisans has told me of the damage to the palace inflicted by Jagga's bullies. Perhaps it is fit that we repair the ruined mosaics that recorded the acts of your ancestors."
Tagun gave way willingly to the builder's continued insistence, particularly in such a cause.
He led Selendra into the vesting room behind the prayer hall where they exchanged their white robes for the clothing they had donned earlier that morning. He helped her adjust the gleaming folds of her green dress and approved her appearance before they made their way again to the stairway that led down into the square. At their appearance the crowd let out a shout of exultation. Someone had provided a double palanquin and when the royal couple reached the square they were lifted into the flower decked conveyance and carried to the palace. Somehow a festival had been organized. The Arquan artisans joined the throng. Meat and drink were shared around and merry sounds came from every quarter of the city. Daglan supervised a feast for the council in the open courtyard of the palace. The sun shone down, the air came sweet and free of taint through open windows.
Selendra grinned so widely that it seemed her dimples would be branded permanently in her cheeks. Tagun mostly nodded and smiled. It was hard for him to make coherent statements about the surprising events of the morning.
Evening neared before the merriment subsided. People drifted away, leaving Selendra and Tagun alone with Daglan and Marga as dusk fell.
"Taklan has a sense of showmanship," the former tutor said. "I tried to convince Kabrika to come with me when I visited Algire village, but she said she was far too busy. She intends to come later when it is nearer the time for your child to be born. Now she will blame me for not insisting." He gave a bark of laughter, then smiled with content. "After this none will dare to question your decision to convert Elinka's tomb into a shrine. If you had put it to your council to decide it would have led to endless arguments and protestations. As it is, all in Okishdu will regret they were not here."
In the months that followed Tagun received ample evidence of Daglan's statement. Manchek, Fortek, Tanka, even Frovin, sent him messages of gentle remonstrance that they hadn't been invited to share the dedication of Janaka's Shrine. Tagun could reply with a clear conscience that he intended no slight. He had no doubt that even if something had kept him from the city, Taklan would have found a substitute and carried out the dedication without him.
He led the morning and evening invocations for the first two weeks, but one day a sturdy young priest appeared with a letter from Alwrek. He had been assigned to officiate at the Shrine in Janaka when the situation did not call for the offices of the patriarch.
Tagun introduced his replacement and assured the people that he would appear himself to lead the ceremonial at significant occasions. It was well to separate the governor from daily visible leadership of the religion. Even Tharek, a prophet in his day, had quickly found others to supplant him in the offices of daily priesthood practice.
Selendra's body swelled with anticipated motherhood. Barga's craftsman worked daily to restore the former splendor of the palace. The mosaics gleamed with fresh tiles and tesserae. Finally all seemed almost new, except for the rooms that remained unfurnished. Among them was the library. The stink of burned scrolls no longer filled the air. The ruined scrolls and broken slates had been cleared away, but the echoing emptiness reminded Tagun of the loss.
One day in late autumn a caravan of dala carts approached the city. A fine harvest had assured that storerooms and granaries were topped to overflowing. No need remained for further provisioning of the city. Tagun recognized Kabrika among the figure at the head of the caravan. He guided Selendra forward to greet the woman as she reached the palace.
Kabrika looked around and nodded. "I would not have believed it possible. I visited the city in disguise while Jagga ruled. It was close to being ruined. It has never looked so fine."
She turned to Selendra. "I calculate that you are close to giving birth. I will stay here with you until the child is born."
Selendra smiled and nodded. Her father's widowed sister had written that she would soon arrive, but it was just as well to make peace between those so willing to offer help and advice rather than protesting their intrusion.
Tagun winked at her and her dimple flashed although her smile remained demure. "Would you care to refresh yourself before visiting the Shrine?" he asked Kabrika.
The matriarch shook her head. "We camped last night not far from the gates of the city and prepared ourselves with our finest clothing this morning. We are eager to see the Shrine for ourselves. Meanwhile tagun, please supervise the emptying of these wagons. I heard reports that your library is empty."
Selendra led the women to the Shrine and Tagun summoned men to help him unpack the precious contents of the wagons. He recognized the scrolls that he had studied in his months in Algire Village. There were others as well. Some seemed familiar from his time in Timora with Frovin. Some bore the mark of Zedekla's royal collection. Several ancient scroll cases were decorated in the manner of Tedaka and he suspected that still others came from the great palace of the councilors in Taleeka.
His arms ached, his legs were weary and his stomach growled with hunger when he finally realized dusk had fallen. Selendra stood in the arched doorway of the library as he reached to place the last precious scroll on a rack. She carried a tray. A few feet beyond her Kabrika could be seen with a goblet decorated with condensation from some cool liquid.
"The men who helped you said you didn't hear them when they urged you to take a rest and eat something," Selendra gently chided Tagun.
"How can I properly thank all those who have done this?" Tagun asked Kabrika after he said a brief blessing on the offered food.
"As you can see, the books that your mother rescued and sent to me for safe keeping have been restored to their proper place," Kabrika told him. "Significant additions from other sources were provided by those you have befriended."
Daglan had returned to his clan with Marga but his regular reports and submission of tariffs assured Tagun that order was being restored. The readjustment of the clan lands was proceeding more quickly than he had hoped. Craftsman and merchants filled the shops and workshops of the city, drawn by the presence of the lovely Shrine with its astounding history. The contracts Selendra had arranged had been honored and each yielded a small but significant tariff. The fine implements, bells, hardware and knives that flowed from Janaka's forges brought wealth. Tagun hesitated over every request for a new law or regulation. Finally he told his councilors than any new law must replace an old law.
The first chilly nights of impending winter were warmed by the anticipation of Selendra's child. Her aunt had arrived, and sensible woman that she was, she did not resent the matriarchs who had gathered. Rather, she solicited their help to provide quilts and tiny clothing.
Instead of a circle of contentious hens, the older women met in happy conversation over baskets of yarn and bolts of fabric. Finding that they had produced more than enough for the impending royal heir, they sought out needy families to receive the benefit of their skill.
Flecks of white filled the air outside the palace with the first snow when a shrill cry thrilled Tagun who was pacing in the hall outside his bed chamber where Selendra had been panting and straining for several hours under the watchful, gentle guidance of her aunt and Kabrika who had become fast friends and allies.
He was soon admitted to the room where Selendra rested, the birthing stool and other evidences of her struggle quickly cleared away. She held a tiny bundle close to her heart and Tagun stooped over her to kiss her cheek where the dimple flirted.
"It is our son," she murmured. "He will be called OTagun, and long after I have joined your mother in the garden of the Shrine, his will rule in your stead."
The words were phrased in a way that told Tagun she had repeated the whispers of the seeress on the day the Shrine was dedicated. There was something in the way she said them that sent a tiny dart of sorrow to the center of his heart. He did not want to think of Selendra lying next to his mother, not for many decades.
Janaka thrived. Pockets of resistance remained where cultists had taken to the hills, but they were soon subdued. The evil of Orqu had not been utterly destroyed, but its festering influence was kept away from the cities of the alliance. Where rogues and malcontents gathered to rob and ruin it found root. The signs accepted in the flesh of devotees to Orqu were changed, mutating to suit the twisted minds that chose the crooked path.
Selendra's sadly portentous words after the birth of her first son were nearly forgotten. She was a happy, healthy mother and she bore five more sturdy sons. Tagun suspected all of them would tower over him when they grew to manhood. It did not concern him but he did yearn for a daughter, but he kept his desire from Selendra..
The boys were curious and loved to explore the palace. One day they were playing hide and seek deep in the furthest regions of the abandoned dungeons where the cult had held its rituals while waiting for completion of the now abandoned temple.
The youngest found a dagger and showed it to his brothers. "I can't read what is written on the hilt," OTagun said. "We should show it to Momma."
They couldn't find Selendra and left the weapon on her work table. Tagun was with her when she entered the room. She carried a basket filled with mending and set it down a little carelessly on the table. It unbalanced the dagger which fell and scratched her foot.
Tagun grabbed the knife and gave an exclamation of disgust. "Where did this foul thing come from?"
Even through the crust of ancient dirt he could see the symbols of the cult. "I will discard it immediately. I want no reminders of that evil in this place." He left the room with the dagger suspended like a deadly serpent.
Selendra did not think to do more than wash the scratch and dress it with a simple piece of dampened cloth. There was plenty of gunge weed and other remedies for sword wounds in the store room of the infirmary, but it seemed such a minor thing.
In years to come Tagun would reproach himself for failing to anticipate the effect of such a wound. By the time the rigor came that locked Selendra's lips and limbs it was too late.
Helpless, he sent a message to her aunt and father. Only a miracle could save her. He wanted a miracle, but Selendra whispered something to him before her lips were locked by a spasm of her lip muscles. "Bury me next to your mother."
It was then that he recalled the words that she had spoken when OTagun was born. The seeress had forseen what would happen. Perhaps if he had taken heed--but if he lost himself in grief and self-recrimination who would succor the sorrow of their children?
The boys seemed lost and bewildered. Tagun did not pursue the question of where the deadly weapon with its subtle poison had come from. Instead, he gathered his family around him and stood watch beside the bed of his beloved wife. Remedies were provided to ease her passing. She even managed to flash the briefest dimple as the end grew near and she gazed up at him with eyes filled with peaceful resignation.
"I will never love another woman," he vowed in a low voice unheard by any other but his wife.
She closed her eyes and slightly shook her head, but surely he imagined the faint gesture.
The end came just before dawn. She was still as lovely as a the bride she had been twelve years before as she lay still and she lay pale and breathless. The boys sobbed and clustered around their father.
"She loves you still," Tagun reassured them. He knew that it was true.
For days he felt her gentle presence lingering almost near enough that he felt that he could touch her. The matriarchs dressed her in the gleaming dark green gown she loved and Tagun fought back tears as he supervised her burial in the garden of the Shrine next to his mother. In the momths that followed he sometimes imagined them visiting together. The fond illusion kept him from despair.
The boys were sad much of the time in those early days, but time blunted the keen edges of their sorrow. Tagun remembered his own grief after the death of Elinka and kept them busy, as Daglan had kept him busy after their escape from Janaka years before. They had little time to brood, and in his effort to help them, he helped himself.
No one could doubt that he missed Selendra. It was there in his eyes when he returned to his chamber at the end of another busy day. At first he wondered if it would be less painful to take down the bed they had shared and move to the smaller chamber Daglan sometimes used when he visited the city, but his boys liked to pile on the bed with him and listen to his stories of his adventures. They especially loved to hear how Selendra had hit him with an ax when he was trying to effect her rescue.
Soon the place he chose to sleep was no longer an issue. Like the nacre on a pearl, the sweet and shining memories from the years that they had shared surrounded his sorrow.
He remained certain that no other woman could fill the void Selendra left behind, but he chose to be a happy man with his focus on the future.
Next book: Blade of Neril
Story continues in 'The Blade of Neril'