Khanlar

        by

 

John H. Hathaway- Bates
 

John was born and educated in Oxford, England. He served with the Royal Air Force in the 1950’s in East Africa, the Persian Gulf and on the Arabian Peninsula.  During the 1960’s he was the lead singer with The Tribe, and later with The Foundation in Great Britain.  He also held a contract as a song writer with Acuff Rose of Nashville, Tennessee.  Also, in the 1960's and the 1970’s. John was recognized as one of the leading commercial Interior Designers in the United Kingdom, and he completed projects for multi-national corporations, restaurants and academic institutions. He wrote the "Contract Procedure and Specification Advice" sections of the Architect's and Specifier's Guide Series (A4 Publications, Ltd.) and he innovated and wrote for The Office Planner (Benn Brothers Ltd.)  He has published several articles on "Colour, Texture & Design", and once wrote a  weekly Interior Design column for Westminster Newspapers Ltd. In the United States he wrote the "Executive Guide to Office Space Planning" for the American Management Association. 

John has held positions as President, Managing Director or Corporate Vice President for multi-national corporations in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States of America.  He moved to the United States in 1979; in 1982 he established The Business Forum in Beverly Hills, California.  At the time he was recognized as an accomplished Commercial Tactician on four continents.

During his career John has been elected a Fellow of the British Society of Commerce, the Institute of Buyers, the British Institute of Directors, the British Institute of Administrative Accountants and the Institute of Purchasing and Supply; he was also elected to be a member of the British Institute of Marketing, the British Institute of Management, and the British Institute of Journalists 

John has written books on international and services Marketing, including: "Tactics" (Nerthus Publications Limited), and "How to Promote Your Business" and "How to Organize Your Marketing" (Asigan International Inc.) and "Fast Track Marketing in a Global Economy" (Van Nostrum Reinhold)  He has published many articles and has lectured in both Europe and North America at Universities and to professional audiences on subjects ranging from business development and marketing to interior design. John is also an artist and his paintings hang today in countries all around the world.


 Khanlar


 
Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1 – THE SURVIVOR

 CHAPTER 2 - HAVOR'S HOLDING

Recuperation

The Simple Life

Winter

The End of the World and Beyond

Lost in the Backwoods
 

CHAPTER 3 - PRIEST OF PRIESTS

Ruler of the Known World

Controlled Anarchy
 

CHAPTER 4 -THE RENEWING

The Wife of a Charcoal Maker
 

CHAPTER 5 – THE BUYER

CHAPTER 6 – THE LEAVING

The End of Tranquillity 

CHAPTER 7 – TAKING THE POWER

Council of War 

CHAPTER 8 – MANATOR THE GUARDIAN

Manator's Tale

City of Dismay

From Shame to Respectability

The Arrow

CHAPTER 9 – TO CHANGE HISTORY

The Last Prince of the Asigan Royal Line

CHAPTER 10 - AND IF THERE WERE NO GODS

A Just Code

If Not Yourself, Then Who?

The Ancient Game of Khanlar

An Ancient Knowledge

A Journey Abroad

The Khan's Guard

A Miracle at Kiba

A Quiet Garden
 

CHAPTER 11 – REBIRTH OF THE BROTHERHOOD

A Mean City
 

CHAPTER 12 – HISTORIES OF UNKNOWN PEOPLE

The Prince of Atare

A New Order of Things

Karidan the Farmer

Jakrin the Tailor

Hatren's Wagon

Preparing to be the Khan

A Great and Honourable Cause

Before the Storm
 

CHAPTER 13 - PRINCE, PRIEST OR FOOL

Creating the Base

A New and Better Future

And the Legions Build

Where Stands a Wife at the Start of a Campaign?
 

 CHAPTER 14 – SECRET PASSAGE

A Worldly Agent

A Different World

A Merchant Prince

The Monks of Mansa

The Village of Grandar

The Most Beautiful City on Earth

A Holy Battle Plan


 CHAPTER 15 – INVASION

Absence Intensifies Change

The Paradox of a True and Trusting Life

A New Order of Things

A Life Without Recognition

Who Wears the Crown?

The Great Game

Embarkation
 

CHAPTER 16 – ESCAPE FROM DESPAIR

Imperial Confusion

Victory Eases Further Victory

Garrison

The Surrender of Goja
 

CHAPTER 17 – LITTLE STORIES

Iregana Matek, Citizen of Vanzor

The Apostle Jiranir

General Sikora

Jilitar the Stone Mason

Parsis the Slave

Liana the Beggar Girl

Tomak the Warrior

All Debts are Tallied

Outlaw and Aristocrat
 

CHAPTER 18 – WAITING FOR WAR

A Future is Made Not Won

Tactics

Nature Bows to No Man

Double Bluff

Night March

To be Invincible

In Full Retreat

Someone Always Loses
 

CHAPTER 19 – BUILDING THE PEACE

The Satisfaction of Victory

The Meeting

A Fall from Grace

There are None so Blind as the Uninformed

The Treaty of Kitania
 

CHAPTER 20 – LIFE NEEDS TO BE LIVED

The Director General

The Feeding of an Empire

Willamir the Game Warden

Lamor Jazerian - The Policeman

The Bargee
 

 CHAPTERS 21 – BALANCE AND COUNTERBALANCE

General of the Church

The Grand Ball

From a Woman's Point of View

A Mentor's Advice

Counter Attack

The Outlaw Brigade

The War Room

Fate Sometimes Laughs

Right Place, Wrong Time

Enemies Sometimes Look Like Friends

Prayers and War Cries

A Soldier's Best Friend is Luck

Sometimes the Gods Sleep

Beyond Understanding and Forgiveness
 

CHAPTER 22 – CONSOLIDATION

Retribution

Tarigan the Shepherd

Sergeant Brador

Farigor's Orchard

The Heralds of Khanlar

Power is only of the Moment
 

CHAPTER 23 – CELEBRATE THE EMPIRE

Prince Gregorian of Atare

There are no Eternal Privileges

The End of an Era

The Khan's Council

Confinement on Pazor

Never Underestimate the Power of Vengeance
 

CHAPTER 24 – THE NEW ORDER

Epilogue or Prologue

A New and Uncharted Future

 


 The Golden Book of Khanlar

 

 

Lost in time, Khanlar is a land where Guardians of Ancient Knowledge face the superstitions, bigotry and dogma of Priests who have controlled Church and State for a millennium. It is a society where only a few Aristocrats have control of their own destiny, in a land of independent States that are ruled by a handful of hereditary Princes, who continuously compete with each other in an ongoing intrigue of Battles, Treaties and ever changing Alliances. In the Palaces of Khanlar's many City States Princes and Bishops who control the lives of all the people of the Land, vie with each other in the Art of Excess.  Yet it was not always so.

When the flood that was to destroy all of the Ancient World was at its height, the Goddess Herthe plunged her hands into the ocean and she brought forth Khanlar from the waters. Then Herthe gathered up her most devoted followers, along with their wives, children and kinfolk and also their servants, slaves and livestock and she brought them to the land that was to be Khanlar.  And to each of her followers Herthe gave a Nation, telling them to rule the people therein in her name and to her honour for all time.

So did Herthe create the lands of Khanlar and populate all of the Nations.

 

 

 Chapter One

 THE SURVIVOR

 

Consciousness entered his brain like smoke will slowly rise from a smouldering campfire on a still morning.  The realization that life still existed woke forgotten senses within him, like little explosions of feeling making each new experience singular unto itself, or random raindrops bursting in the dust of a dry country road.  It was like being reborn.  He was floating in an unknown grey emptiness where flashes of pain sang like arrows and he was unable to control the helplessness he felt in the swirling of senses that imprisoned his mind in that abstract world of terror.

His eyes ached with all the pressure of someone leaning their whole weight upon them with clenched fists and he knew better than to try to open them yet.  He explored his head with trembling fingers, finding that his hair was wet, wet with the softness of cold rain, wet with the dank grease of perspiration, wet with the warmth of blood.  His blood!  With unsteady fingers he traced in pain the warm break in his flesh, a ragged hair entangled wound that ran from his forehead almost to the crown of his head.  Already it was beginning to congeal, clotting into damp scabs that pulled the entangled hair in pinpricks of agony every time he moved.

At last the floating sensation ended, and suddenly he was heavy, aching, cramped, and cold and tired beneath the weight of complete exhaustion.  The groping for knowledge became a reality.  He was alive!  Then without any warning his nervous system orchestrated itself, sending messages of pain screaming along each nerve into the confusion that was his mind.  Pain! Exhaustion! Cold He finally caught hold of the groping realization that he just might be dying! 

He was however, still alive, and the pain was almost a comfort, for it proved life.  Yet the cold and damp became like huge wet hands stroking gleefully away at his strength.  He lay huddled in wet mud, his back uncomfortable against the rough solid of an ancient tree.  His wet feet were aching with cold and when he looked down at them he saw they were caked in heavy layers of ochre colored clay, their shape almost lost.  His left knee throbbed with pain and he could see that it had been badly torn.  From the kneecap to halfway up his thigh, blood was seeping from the blue and purple mash that had once been flesh.  His clothes were torn and stained with filth, their true colours lost and forgotten.  He moved to try to help the cramp in his back and the sudden breath wrenching stabbing pain beneath his heart informed him that some of his ribs were probably no longer intact.  His hands were battered and ripped, aching with the cold and his arms were coated in mud and drying blood. 

There was no arguing the fact.  He had problems!  Before he could weigh his chances, or come up with a course of action, the exhaustion returned and he slipped away into an undeniable sleep, where nightmares of many armed giants and sinking sands fought for possession of his screaming mind. 

Yelling a bloodcurdling war cry the headless dwarf came crashing through the thorn bushes at him, carrying a swirling long sword in each hand.  The dwarf came faster than a full-grown man could run, blood pumping from the stump of a neck from which his head had recently been removed.

Just as the dwarf’s first sword stroke cut down and touched his bound and helpless body – he was awake.  There was no murderous and headless dwarf.  It took several seconds of painful squirming against invisible bonds before he became truly conscious and the nightmare gave way to reality and a more rational understanding of the situation.  Not that fact was that much better than the nightmare itself at that moment.  His memory was gone and no amount of mental exercise could unlock the dark place it had retreated into.  There was Now, there was Here and there was Pain and there was a growing despair that this just might be Hell, which he knew of and could well describe, yet was unable to recall from whom or even where, he had learned of such things.

In the ghostly light of the pre-dawn his eyes made out the debris of the battle that had all but destroyed him and might well claim him yet.  He had obviously taken a heavy sword stroke to the head, for his helmet lay a few feet from his feet, rent from the head of the nose-guard across the right plate to just below the tail of the crest.  A few feet beyond it lay the swordsman who had landed that blow; a battle axe embedded in the man's throat where the neck joined the shoulders.  His dead enemy's young-old face was a waxy white.  There was obviously little blood left in him and soon he would be gone altogether for millions of tiny ants were encrusting the hand which even in death still tried to remove the axe.  They covered the dead youth's body, almost concealing his once smart maroon tunic. 

The two of them had a lot of company in the swamp that morning.  Everywhere the remains of the battle showed that few had deserted their cause before Death had taken the final hand in each man's game of Fate.  It could only have been one of those chance situations between his enemy's maroon uniformed companions and the blue uniformed army he had served, in that no one on either side had been able to break and run for safety and so they had stood and fought on a small island.  Any fool unwise or coward enough to bolt and run into the swamp, would have been rewarded with a crossbow bolt or a javelin in the back before he would have been able to struggle a few yards.  With no escape possible and no alternative but to slash it out hand to hand at close quarters, the carnage had been terrible.  The dead lay speared, beheaded and dismembered all around them, friend and foe alike. 

No Cause could rescue them for their families and loved ones now.  Half floating in the swamp, ingloriously draped across thorn bushes, collapsed like bundles of old clothing on the grassy banks that made up the island, they shared death together in that unique silence.  The stench made his stomach heave but it was the silence, deathly quiet except for the heartless buzzing of the feasting flies and the occasional caw of a carrion crow, which tore apart his sanity.  It was a world of death, with wraiths of morning mist hanging above the stagnant water like dead souls unsure of where they were expected to depart.  It was a place no man would wish to die in.
 

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Two

HAVOR’S HOLDING

 

The smell of fresh pine logs burning first seeped into his half conscious senses. It was indeed that soft sweet clean scent that woke him and then he suddenly remembered the noise of men wading towards him and he opened his eyes expecting to find again the terror of that swamp but he was sensible enough to control his fear and lay very still as he gathered his wits. What came to him instead were warm family sounds, the smells of a home and the controlled noise of the inhabitants of the house, trying not to wake him he guessed.

He lay without moving and only used his eyes, taking stock of this new situation very slowly, moving his head with utmost caution, for he knew not where he was, nor if he slept amongst friends or under the guard of enemies. There were no windows in this house and there were no other doors save the one that opened to the world less than two steps from his bed. Through that open door the sun streamed in, lighting the trodden earth floor and the rude appointments of the place. There was a platform loft above one half of the room, that part furthest from the door, with a rough ladder leading up to it. The bed he occupied was a hay-filled mattress laid on a low platform of planks. Other than that the walls were stacked with homemade shelves and cupboards and a large table stood before the hearth at the other end of the room, with two wooden chairs and some stools and benches drawn up to it.

As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he made out the features of the three children, thin and barefoot, eating from bowls at the table and the woman who was breast-feeding a baby and sat in one of the chairs with them.  These were undoubtedly the poorest of people, dressed in homespun clothes and without shoes of any kind, their garments made from the same grey-brown cloth as the blanket, which covered him. Yet they were not dirty, nor did the home have the smell of stale human odours hanging about it, as he would have guessed of such a place. Two of the children were boys and although their clothes were little more than rags, their hair was cut and they acted with deference to the woman who was obviously their mother. The other child was a girl, about thirteen years old with long shining hair tied up close to her head, to fall down her back like a horse’s tail to below her waist.

He lay there for quite a while watching the five of them, noticing that there was no man present and trying hard to remember a past that eluded him even as he tried to conjure it up. His total history, before he had woken in this place, was that nightmare of the swamp, which might in truth have been no more than a nightmare at that.  However, all doubts soon left him that the battle and resulting death and destruction, vividly engraved in the small memory that he did have, were only a nightmare as he cautiously examined himself with both his hands and eyes. There were scars where the remembered wounds had been, some still soft and not yet fully healed into scar tissue, and as he began checking the head wound that had split his scalp and let his memory escape him, he found that his hair had been chopped to within an inch of his scalp.  This upset him, for he felt he had reason to be proud of longer hair, though why this should be so he could not fathom.  In fact he began to wonder how it was possible for one to have opinions without the benefit of memory; however he passed that up immediately, for he did indeed have opinions, wherever they might have come from or upon whatever they might be based.

He was so deep into this philosophical debate with himself that it was a shock when, without warning, the woman was standing beside him holding a beaker full of milk and smiling at him as if they were relatives, which for some reason shocked him, even though it should be obvious that they might well be.  The children had come up also and fidgeted behind her, halfway between frightened and curious, trying to see everything, yet avoiding any real eye contact with him. He finished the milk in quick order and had a fresh beaker put into his hands by the tallest of the children, the wide-eyed girl, who looked as if she needed it more than he did.

“Where am I?” He asked, feeling that his total helplessness made it almost unimportant.

“You are in the house of Casper Havor, in the Nation of Natan.” The woman answered with some respect in her voice.

“Do you know who I am? “ He asked, and that is not an easy question to ask he found, when one is battling with the vanguard of total insecurity.

“No Sir.” She replied, looking more than a little worried even as she said it. “All I know about you is that six nights ago Kirene found you at the edge of our clearing, all torn up and unconscious. We brought you in and tended to your wounds and since then you have slipped in and out of being conscious only long enough for us to feed you a little soup and now you’ve woken up. That is all we know of you, Sir.”

Again that worried look crossed her face but it was gone almost as fast as it came this time.

He refused to let it go at that however. “You know nothing else of me?” He demanded of her, not knowing how he would react if she were to relate to him that she did.

The worried look changed into one of puzzlement as she replied. “Well . . .  I know you to be a soldier of the Brotherhood, because you were wearing the blue tunic of one, just as my husband Casper did when he left to fight at the side of his lord, the Prince Jarin of Natan.” Her confidence had obviously begun to increase as their exchange had developed and she looked at him somewhat differently now than she had before as she asked quietly, “Did the blow that split your head also kill your memory then?”

“So it would appear Madam.” He replied, feeling both vulnerable and relieved to be able to share his feeling of helplessness with a fellow human being at last. The conversation then dropped into silence for a while as she looked over his wounds without further inquiry or comment. At last he felt the need to keep up the exchange and as she replaced his blanket, satisfied with his progress it appeared, he asked yet another question.

“When will your husband return madam so that I may thank him for assisting me and no doubt saving my very life? “ She smiled for a moment, but then the worried look returned and this time it stayed on her face.

“I don’t know when my husband will come back Sir. Like I said before, he went off to fight with his Lord some months ago and none of us have seen or heard from him since then, so I guess they’ve not won the war yet. I’m no lady either Sir, I am just the wife of Casper Havor the charcoal maker, so don’t you go calling me one. I’ve got no taste for pretty lies, so’s you call me Mother, like everyone has for more years than I care to think about.”

With that she turned to the girl and took the baby from her. Being closer to the girl now, he saw that she had dirty knees and feet and the biggest pair of almost startling blue eyes. As she was the only girl in the room, she was obviously the Kirene that had found him. Then, without any show of modesty the woman, who had insisted that he call her Mother, unlaced her tunic to display a heavy breast, the nipple of which she deftly manoeuvred into the impatient mouth of the child, directly in front of him!

It seemed to him, though he knew not why, that no educated Lady would do such a thing in front of a man and a stranger at that.  Before the blush reached his face however, she had turned and returned to her chair on the other side of the room. The child was now happy and quiet again and he found that he actually envied the babe, for he had no such feeling of security.  He was in fact experiencing a foreboding that he was very much lost and although he was in these people’s home, he felt very much alone.

* * * * * * *

Recuperation

 

Over the next few days he grew stronger, fed on good fresh cow’s milk, home baked bread and a wholesome rabbit stew which Mother kept simmering in a black iron pot over the fire. It became his habit each day to go outside immediately after breakfast and walk until he grew tired, then he would rest for a while in Casper Havor’s chair on the porch and when his strength returned he would walk again. This routine would continue all day, broken only by eating and drinking until sunset, and while he regained his strength in this manner the Havor family went about their chores and worked their Holding.

All of them, mother and children alike, excepting only the baby whose care was entrusted to him for a great deal of the time, worked from dawn to sunset each day. Mother Havor was a hard task master to her children, refusing excuses or slacking in any way, yet asking far less of the others than she herself put into the labours they had to perform. The years had obviously been hard on Leana Havor, for that he discovered from the children to be her true given name and by careful adding upon what few clues she gave out, he realized she was only just out of her twenties. Yet she appeared old in so many ways. Looking at her daughter one could recognize the likeness, yet hard work, lack of education and interest and giving birth to seven children of who only four had lived, had left her used up in many ways. Her hair was always dank, even after she had just washed it, which she did not do very often and her body carried more fat than it should have, the result of her habit of taking snacks all day long and eating at least a second portion during the tasting breaks she introduced into her routine every time she cooked anything. Her attitude to housework was simple, that was why she had a daughter and she kept Kirene well informed of the fact from morning to nightfall.

Mother Havor had a simple way about her in dealing with the children he was soon to discover. When she wanted to be a mother to them she would laugh and play with them, but the Gods help them if they demanded attention when she was not in the mood. Her hurtful accusing words and tone of simple irritation, which she did nothing to hide, would bring tears to the small one’s eyes. Yet she saw herself as a good mother, she even considered herself close to them, while he was to watch, as fate would have it, as year by year she would alienate them from herself. Mother Havor had an instinctive, if unintentional, self concern that she was able to justify to herself or anyone else at the drop of a hat. She seemed to believe that she could never hurt anybody just because she did not wish to, nor could she ever admit to doing so when it happened as often as it did. So she would arrogantly explain why she wanted everyone to fall in with what suited her, as if it were the listeners fault for not understanding her needs when something did not happen the way she had planned and she would chastise them with a look of hurt on her face whenever her decisions proved wrong, a face that would soon make you want to agree with her.

Of all of the children in those first few weeks, he saw most of Kirene and he soon came to understand that Kirene was expected to be housewife and child minder, spending her day cooking and cleaning for the rest of the family. Yet somehow the young girl managed to find time to help her mother and her brothers with both the gardening and the back breaking labour of charcoal making and all the other historically pointless tasks which make up a poor family’s existence. She was a very quiet child, the sort you suddenly notice after she has been with you in the same room for hours. Often he would feel her watching him and when he turned to look at her he would get a quick shy smile, before she bowed her blushing face and hurried to be busy. She seemed to be able to guess the needs of all of them, for whenever a beaker of water was required, Kirene would appear with it before you had the time to ask her for it or, in his case, go and get it for yourself. The boys, Kirdi and Hatrir, on the other hand, seemed lost in a world of their own most of the time, not noticing or caring what the rest of them were doing at all. Kirdi was the eldest and was a gangling boy caught in that embarrassing stage between youth and manhood, who seemed to be all bone and muscle and not yet fully acquainted with his own motor skills. Of the two Kirdi was the leader, his dark hair bobbing along head and shoulders above the younger Hatrir’s tow-colored head, as he led his little brother from one scrape into another. Hatrir, on the other hand, was a softer character than his brother, podgy where the former was thin and he was naturally quiet whereas Kirdi always had an opinion about everything and never hesitated to voice it. Although a stranger in their home he often felt a little protective to the quiet little Hatrir as he watched him following his brother around like a small adoring puppy, always seeing Kirdi as the ultimate hero in their self contained little world in the forest.

During the working hours the boys spent their time cutting wood and stacking it into piles, over which they would then pack turf and damp soil, but it was Mother Havor who always set the light to the stacks, making the act a ritual, with her muttered prayers to the Gods as she touched the flame to the dry tinder in the center of the wood. Each day they would build a new stack and then uncover one that had completed its burning time. When they breached a stack the whole family worked together to bag the charcoal and to carry and stack each sack in the barn behind the house. It was Mother however, who made the whole endeavour run smoothly. The woman also went out to set the snares each morning to catch the rabbits and other small animals, which would be gutted and skinned outside the house, with the waste being thrown to the dogs, before the carcass went into the ever-simmering cast iron pot hung above the fire.

As the weeks passed he established for himself that Kirene was obviously being taught the tasks of a future wife by her mother, with compliments and scolding as the occasion demanded. The girl milked the cow each morning before the sun was up and tended the vegetable garden alongside the house and she was assistant for every other duty the family performed as and when the shout came from her mother or brothers, which he noted early on was more often than events would seem to dictate necessary.

He soon came to feel something like being a beggar with no true affliction, as each day he did nothing except eat their food, sleep in their house and watch them sweat and slave from first light to nightfall from the ease of his chair, or rather from the ease of Casper Havor’s chair. However, strong his pride might be, it was obvious to all of them that he had no choice but to be the helpless invalid that he was, for even walking for just half an hour tired him to exhaustion and without regular rest periods he developed searing headaches which made even the shadowed light of the porch unbearable.

It occurred to him often that the time leading up to the battle in the swamp must have been very hard, for he was no more than skin and bones and had looked like a man who had starved for many years in some dark dungeon when he had arrived at Havor’s Holding. His body had produced many sores which Mother was treating him for with strong medicines made by boiling herbs, vegetables and fruits into nauseating tasting brews he was made to drink, and they seemed to help, yet for his exhaustion there was no cure except rest. His confinement had obviously added to his poor physical condition and his skin welcomed the sunlight he gained by walking every day to remove the yellow pallor of illness and deprivation

Mother treated him like a stupid child most of the time, as if his state of being was something he had done to spite both her and himself and yet she also showed kindness and understanding, when another might have nagged a grown man who spent most of his time just walking or sitting around and she also kept the children quiet whenever the headaches or weakness overcame him.  She insisted that he call her Mother, as if it were some regal title, although he guessed she could not be much older than him and in fact might even be younger when one considered what a life as hard as hers had been could do to a woman.

To show her final acceptance that he was destined to live and, as if that fact had only just been ascertained, on the seventh day after he came out of his coma Mother presented him with a tunic and trousers made from the same homespun cloth that she and the children wore. He had thought to ask her what had become of the clothes he had been wearing when they found him but, remembering the state they had been in when he had regained consciousness in the swamp, he guessed that they had probably been burnt without any second consideration as soon as he had been placed in the bed by the door.

The event of him being given the everyday clothes of a peasant turned into a celebration of sorts and Kirene, all blushes and bowed head, trying hard not to show how much his appreciation of her gift could mean to her, presented him with a rough pair of labourer's boots fashioned from rabbit skins attached to a leather sole. He understood that Kirene had spent many hours making them for him and so he spent several minutes examining them and complimenting her on her needlework. Her eyes shone as she moved aside for his next gift to be presented. Kirdi, the eldest of the boys at twelve years old, handed him a comb he had made from a piece of wood and quiet little Hatrir gave him a belt made of twisted twine with strands of colored wool woven into it. If his thanks were a little theatrical they pleased the children and of course Mother, whose pride shone from her smiling eyes with every compliment he paid to her offspring.

The next morning he dressed in his new clothes, glad to be out of the blanket that had been his only covering for so long and walked down to the river to admire him in its reflection. Again Fate gave him a shock. His cheeks had not felt a razor for many weeks for of course there was not one in the house, as Casper Havor had taken his with him when he had gone off to the war. So the face that looked back at him from the water was the face of a peasant, bearded and topped with the cropped hair of a poor man unable to afford the services of a barber. Yet the grey eyes, which stared at him from dark sockets and the white streak of hair that was the result of his head wound, he guessed, gave the face a strong, somewhat mystical look. In fact it frightened him that someone with the insecure feelings he had most of the time could possess such imposing features. He felt a great deal less confident than the strong countenance reflected in the slow moving waters of the river would indicate and in the end he dismissed it as a trick of the light and decided that a real mirror would show a far less imposing reflection of the truth.

The banks of that wide stream soon became his favourite haunt, for there was peace in the continuity of life there. Where it rose he knew not, but it flowed into the clearing from the north east a good thirty feet across and some ten or twelve feet deep, or so Mother assured him. The Havor’s house had been built near the only ford for miles she said and because of that fact there was scarcely a month without some traveller passing through the clearing, heading toward some great city or another. For her that seemed to justify her constant attention to the appearance of their place. For him however it was the natural beauty of the clearing, which captivated him.

Many willow trees grew along the grassy banks of the stream, throwing deep shadows on the opaque green waters and the clearing seemed to slope very slightly in both directions down to its banks. The clearing grew in size every year he was informed, as the Havors gathered wood for their charcoal fires. Mother told him that since Kirene had been born it had almost doubled in area. In any event, it was a peaceful place, the grass was thick and green and wild flowers added colour to the landscape in blankets of perfection that perfumed the air both in the daytime and during the starlit nights. Song birds filled the sky with their calls and the great forest surrounded it in a silent watch that at times convinced him the world ended some little way behind that wall of trees.

He was soon to discover that the soil in this place was thick yellow-green clay beneath a mantle of black compost, which seemed able to grow anything. The vegetable garden behind the house provided the family with a steady supply of herbs and roots, green vegetables and berries. Fruit for the table was in abundance, for Casper Havor had been a good husbandman and had planted fruit trees around the house, partly for the beauty and perfume of their blossom, which had been the man’s joy he was informed, and partly for the fruit they produced for the family to eat. It was, no man could question, without a doubt the finest of places in which to recover from a war.

It was over two weeks after he came out of his coma before he had the strength to do any work at all, save act as nursemaid to little Maer, but when he could manage it Mother took him with her to walk the trap-line that produced the meat they ate each evening and after a few days the responsibility of inspecting the traps and snares each morning became his.

 

* * * * * * *

The Simple Life

 

The days moved into weeks and the weeks became months in that simple place, far faster than he at first realized. Simple though the life might be, for the tasks demanded by such a life far from civilization are boring and mundane for the majority of the time, yet it seemed that every day was full from dawn to sunset. As his strength returned he became involved in the labours of the family and soon became as one of them. His particular joy was the vegetable garden and its constant need for attention brought him much pleasure, enough satisfaction in fact to easily offset the backache it’s tending brought him. He doubled its size in less than a month, much to the pleasure of the two mongrel dogs who were kept inside the walls that surrounded it to defend the crops from hungry vermin.

On Herthe’s Day they would walk the forest paths as a family after their attentions and thanks had been directed to the Goddess in the morning. On these walks Mother would point out plants, which they could add to their garden and they would come home carrying baskets of cuttings and full-rooted plants and new herbs. They had no plough, nor draft animal to pull it, so the whole family took turns at digging the new ground to plant these additions, although as time passed most of the labour in their garden became solely his own.

He also discovered that there were fish in the stream, but it appeared that none of the Havors had ever been taught to swim and therefore had always avoided its banks except when they went to the ford to draw water. It was a strange fact of his loss of memory that he knew certain things, without history or understanding whence he gained such knowledge. One of these things was the knowledge that he knew he was not afraid of the water, as were the Havors and he was convinced that swimming was as natural to him as walking. He was not such a fool however as to throw himself into the deeper stretches, so he stripped off and entered the stream at the ford and tested his known abilities in shallow water at first. He was gratified to learn that the art of swimming was indeed known to him and he doubly enjoyed the fact that his ego had not led him to a death by drowning. After some experimentation to fully convince himself of his ability, he took it as a duty to teach the others and within a week both Kirene and the boys were enjoying themselves like water babies. There were no words however that would persuade Mother to venture into the water. He joked with her that she was more worried of letting the sky see her naked than she was of the water itself and she walked away scolding him while actually blushing. Whatever the true reason however, there was no doubt that swimming was as frightening to her as learning to fly by jumping off a cliff and flapping his arms would have been to him. She sometimes came and watched them but she did it from the safety of the bank and a good five or six paces from the edge. There she would sit with Maer playing around her, sewing and mending or peeling vegetables, like a cat will watch her kittens romp, with herself maintaining an air of superiority at the whole proceedings.

Once he felt safe in the children’s ability to swim, he decided to teach them how to fish. Another of those strange remembrances, for no sooner did he set about it than the ways of manufacturing rods and hooks, lures and baits, also returned to him. The rods they made from long and straight new growth they cut from the abundance of the willow trees, which grew along the bank. They prepared them first by stripping off the bark and then they dried them by laying them against the surface of their working charcoal mounds. They made the lines from an old bird net Mother found in one of her many cupboards, which, after they had rubbed it well with beeswax, proved to be both strong and serviceable. It gave him a sense of great accomplishment he discovered when he finally saw the lines attached to the poles. Kirdi carved floats from some alder wood and they made hooks from the wire that was used to bind the charcoal sacks. He hammered the wire into shape, filed the barbs with the old file Casper Havor had purchased to keep an edge on his axes and he formed the rings to attach them to the line and then fired his little creations in the ashes of the fireplace to strengthen them. The weights for their fishing lines they made from one of the lead tags that were kept in the barn to fix to each sack of charcoal to identify it as theirs. It delighted Mother and the children that he was able to read the writing on the tags, for the whole family had never learned to either read or write. On each tag were stamped the words Havor. Natan. Vanaten 28. This gift, the ability to read, also just happened to be there without any need on his part to work at it, he had just looked at the words and numbers and knew immediately what they were and what they meant.

It took the three males in the family a full two days to prepare for their first fishing expedition and the long awaited morning arrived like a festival day. They walked some way to a part of the stream he had decided would suit them best, where it fed into a large pool surrounded by willows. This shining pond had been formed where the waters had come upon an outgrowth of rock, creating a small waterfall that had in turn carved out a depth unusual in their small river.

At first it was hard for him to convince the children that without silence the fish might well be frightened away, but soon everyone had settled down and there were four lines in the water. The four small floats soon became the focus of four hopeful and concentrated minds. They had baited their hooks with some of Mother’s fresh bread squeezed into little balls and they had to wait no more than five minutes before the first float disappeared. Kirene, whose float it was, got so excited that she almost lost her footing twice before he got to her and helped her play the fish into exhaustion. Finally they brought it close enough to the bank to hook with the homemade retriever he had fashioned from a small branch the night before. He lifted the two-pound fish ashore and proceeded to hit it hard across the skull to prevent it from flopping back into the water. Then one of the boys shouted that his own float was bobbing and retreating away towards the center of the pool, anxious not to lose his rod he slithered and slipped back to catch it. Soon they had two fish ashore but the process of providing fish for the table did not sit well with the girlish reactions of Kirene and she announced that she did not want to fish anymore.

Mother saw the whole thing as something only men and boys could ever enjoy and soon the two females had taken Maer and left the men of the family to do the fishing. A few hours later they had taken no less than twenty fish from the pool and returned home with their booty as proud as if they had just defended the holding from bandits against hopeless odds. The females of the family could not quite understand their elation, however they joined in as best they could and the day went down in the history of the Havor family as an auspicious one.
 

* * * * * * *

Winter

 

Winter begins in the tenth month of the year in the forests of Natan and continues through into the third month of the New Year. Sometimes it is just wet and cold, whereas in other years the snow may last for two or three months and the frost will be hard enough to split trees. In milder winters, he was told, every day brought rain or showers, which turned the earth into a spongy, mud puddled carpet. In hard winters the frost turned the land into frozen rock and the winter showers came as snow, driven before a blood-chilling wind from the north, piling snow banks around every obstacle in its path.

It was such a winter that first year he spent at Havor’s Holding. Long fingers of ice hung from every branch of every tree and around the eaves of the house and the river froze over to a depth of several inches. During the day they could hear the cracking sound of branches breaking under the weight of snow in the forest around them, while at night the frost itself split the trees and the sky and land were so still that the charcoal cones continued sending their grey smoke into the cloudless star flecked midnight blue sky like solid vertical columns of grey glass.

That particular morning the boys and he had risen at dawn and built and lit a new kiln and had then gathered armfuls of bark and discarded branches to carry back into the house where the heat of the fire would dry the wood out sufficiently for it to be used as firewood. They were struggling through that frozen landscape pulling the firewood laden sled towards the house where hot food awaited them, when the first of the outlaws came out of the forest some way off, obviously heading for the house. They reached the house before the outlaws and once inside dropped the bars across the door before the outlaws could get to them. Looking through the small peek-holes in the door he counted their numbers and assessed their next move.

There were eight of them, three wearing the blue cloaks of soldiers of the Brotherhood, while the others were bundled in an assortment of rags. They looked more like beggars than men to be afraid of and yet they possessed a quiet determination as they circled the house and they were all heavily armed. Their leader, whose tattered blue cloak covered a maroon tunic obviously once the property of a Church Trooper, was the first to address them.

“This is still the Nation of Natan, is it not?” He shouted at the closed house, “We are soldiers of the Brotherhood; we share the same blood as you, don’t we? Why do you lock your doors against us then? We mean you no harm.”

“You come here armed and ask us to just let you in?” He shouted back after a moment, “You must think we are fools if you expect us to believe we are in no danger in this situation. Move on, for you will find us well able to defend what is ours. Go find easier victims!’

“Gods man . . . ” The outlaw leader replied, “You are not our enemies, we only seek food and drink. We are damn near starving and two of my men have frostbite from sleeping out in the forest. You have my word we mean you no harm, we just need your charity for an hour or so.”

Mother had already sent Kirene and Maer up into the sleeping loft and had armed herself and the boys with the largest knives she could find. He stood at the door with his woodsman’s axe beside him and his bow and a dozen arrows leaning against the wall, yet he knew that if the outlaws got into the house they would have little chance against them outnumbered as they were. However, as he watched them he realized that they were in no way preparing to attack them. Several of them carried crossbows or long bows hung across their backs and yet they had made no move to take them up ready for an attack. Neither had they removed the rags with which their hands were bound to keep out the cold and there was no way that they could wield a sword or a battle axe unless they took those things off. It became apparent to him that they might even move off if the inhabitants fortified within the house did nothing and he began to understand their plight. What if every door stayed locked against them? How would they survive? Without consulting Mother, he decided to test his theory.

“What is your name? You! The one doing the talking.” He called through the shutter.

“Peran. Peran Vanquestor. Captain of the Line in the Legions of Asiga.” The man shouted back.

“All right then Peran. Move your men into the barn. They can light the brazier up there to keep warm. If you move back we shall put a bucket and some soap outside the door so that they may wash.”

The outlaws all moved back several yards and Kirdi lifted the bar on the door so that Mother could place the iron bound wooden bucket and two bars of homemade soap outside. He notched an arrow to his bow, just in case they tried anything; but the door was closed and the bars dropped back into place without any incident whatsoever. He returned to the peephole when the bars were back in place and shouted at them again.

“Send one of your men to pick up the bucket Peran. They can fill it with snow and then boil it up in the barn.” A man shuffled forward through the foot deep snow and did as he had said. “When we see all your men leave, you may come to the door Captain Vanquestor. We will bring you inside one at a time and feed you and minister to your wounds as best we can. Then when you have all eaten, I want your word that you will leave our holding without harming us in any way.”

“You have my word Sir.” The Captain shouted back at him and they watched as his men moved up the small incline and into the barn. A few minutes later a spiral of smoke sifted out of the barn chimney and he called the Captain of the outlaws forward.

Peran Vanquestor was younger than they had expected him to be when they let him into the house and he stank as if he had not washed in several months but he had left his weapons outside of the door when he had been asked to. That had surprised them greatly, until they realized what the men in the barn would do to them should they in any way harm the Captain. Mother fussed over the Captain like a long lost relative, bringing him a large bowl of steaming stew and half a loaf of bread and asking if he knew her husband. He knew nothing of the fate of Casper Havor and he was obviously close to starving but he had the sense to eat slowly until the bowl was cleaner than if it had been rubbed with river sand. Kirene and the baby sheltered well back, out of sight as they had been ordered to do, hiding in the loft above the kitchen table where the outlaw Captain ate his meal. Then when Captain Vanquestor had finished eating they led him to the door and told him to send another man down from the barn.

They had no fear of his men having crept back down to the house, to be waiting outside the door ready to charge in as their leader was led out, for Kirdi and Hatrir had kept watch on the barn ever since the outlaws had entered it. Nevertheless the knife he held was close to the Captain’s back as Mother slid out the bar and opened the door for the outlaw to leave.

“Thank you Woodsman.” The Captain said as he bent to retrieve his weapons.   “Your hospitality will not be forgotten.” And with that short “Thank you”, he trudged through the snow to the barn. Some hours later they had fed each of Vanquestor’s men in turn and had done the best they could for the two who had frostbite and the one who had an arrow wound in his left thigh that might otherwise have turned septic had Mother not ministered to it.

It was late in the afternoon by the time it came for Peran Vanquestor and his men to leave and the family was beginning to doubt the sense of their generosity in helping this band of desperate men. They had watched as the renegades had eaten their food, proving that these soldiers of a Lost Cause’s usual diet consisted of far less nourishing or inviting fare than they had given them. They had observed the outlaw’s desperation and knew how inviting their warm home must be for men who had nothing to look forward to other than damp and freezing quarters such as the forest might offer them. The time had come to see if their honour and gratitude would outweigh their need and greed. As it was the outlaws kept their part of the bargain to the letter and although he kept watch for a couple of nights to make sure that none of them stayed in the immediate area and they did indeed never see that particular band of men again.

After that outlaws did come to their home occasionally but they came knowing the drill and called to the house for permission before they left the forest. Eighteen times in all they fed and ministered to such refugees and sometimes even the women and children who travelled the wilderness with them. Once they even fed warm milk to a baby not three weeks out of her mother. However, it was obvious that Captain Vanquestor was living up to his word of not forgetting their hospitality, for on several occasions their guests referred to the protection that the good Captain’s friendship now gave them.

It was during the visits of these outlaws that it became necessary for him to have a name. It had never been necessary when only the six of them had been around, for they had all referred to him simply as Boy. So it was that he took for himself the name of Rune, which had an old meaning of ‘mystery’, which they all thought quite fitting when he chose it.

Later in life he was to discover that most of the people such as them in Nations that had not been part of the Asigan Brotherhood, did not fare anyway near as well as they did. Their outlaw ex-enemies who had fought for the Brotherhood saw such people as still being their enemies and they understood the value of fear in their ongoing war with the Church and its supporters. The atrocities, which were committed in those places, fulfilled their purpose of instilling fear and the captured loot taken during such raids sustained many an outlaw band during the years that followed the Great War.
 

* * * * * * *

The End of the World

 

Despite Mother’s statement that they lived on a trade route, no one save the outlaws and the charcoal buyer Vanaten had visited their clearing in the first year he lived with the Havors. That first year Vanaten had made his rounds only three days before Kirene had found him and the second year they had thought it wise if he stayed out of sight in the forest until the charcoal buyer had gone. It was when he returned to the house that evening after Vanaten’s second visit that he realized important and unwelcome news had been brought by their visitors. The whole family sat before the fire in silence and although he could not then put it into the words he would be able to use in coming years, he could see that their accepted satisfaction with their lot and the simple belief in the right of good over evil that they had held, had in fact become the very understanding that threatened them at that moment.

Stacked on the table were the best things from the trade goods they had bartered their extra bags of charcoal for with Vanaten but those luxuries were ignored, as were the other items still piled on the porch outside the door.

Mother looked up at him as he entered, silently pleading for help, her eyes filled with tears that she obviously kept in only by determination. She was controlling herself for the sake of the children he knew but it was obvious that inside she felt helpless and she was trying hard to overcome and conquer it, rather than frighten the young ones.

“The War is over Rune.” She said. “The Church has re-established the Kingdom of God within the Land and every man who wore the blue tunic of the Brotherhood is in chains.”

She let a sob escape as she handed him the document she had been clasping to her chest.

“Master Vanaten told me what’s in it Rune. Does it mean I shall never see my Casper again? What will become of us? I don’t understand . . . ”

The sobbing finally came, tearing from the frightened woman as she clasped her children to her. Her face seemed to lose muscle control and there was only the pride she always needed in front of her family to hold her from complete hysteria. The children were confused, frightened and still trying to trust that she would soon put right whatever it was that frightened her and therefore threatened them at this moment.

“Come, come . . .  Its never as bad as it would at first seem.” He said as he moved towards her and she rose to allow him to hold her for the very first time since he had arrived. He comforted her, holding her close and whispering reassurances. Finally she relaxed enough to sit down again but her face was still white and her eyes were red with tears that brimmed within them ready to fall again onto her already wet cheeks. If the truth be told he felt more like sobbing with her than he did in comforting her with soothing lies but, as is often the way, in comforting her he found he was himself comforted.

At that moment in time he could not see what news could be worse, however the children’s confusion was starting to border on helpless hysteria, so he dealt with that problem first.

“Kirene, take Maer and comfort her, she doesn’t understand . . .  Hatrir get me something to drink out of. Kirdi find out a jug of your mother’s wine and get your mother a beaker.”

It was amazing but with something to do, everyone suddenly started working together and the moment of collapse was past. Holding back his own worst fears, he said to one and all:  “Let’s have some quiet while I read this paper.”  As he read what was printed on that proclamation however, his stomach began to contract and he understood the confusion and helplessness Mother had exhibited when he had come in.

He read the proclamation twice to be sure of what it told and before the second reading was done he knew that, saving a death in the family, it was probably the worst news any of them would ever hear. The paper was printed in bold black letters that emphasized the power and authority that backed it, but worse than its cold, arrogant language, was the actual wording itself, which had the ring of religious fanaticism. It spoke of ‘those who have sinned against all men, all righteous thought and even against the Will of the Gods Themselves’, it talked in harsh terms of the ‘retribution that was the right of common good’, but the worse words were the little ones which denied even humanity, justice or honour to those who had followed the ‘degrading heresy of the Brotherhood’. Somehow he managed to compose himself, although within him an ever-increasing feeling of horror and anger fought to overcome him, yet finally he spoke to those gathered around him who were waiting for him to somehow make it all good again.

“We must just carry on as before but we must take pains to never show any liking for anything or anyone, to do with the Brotherhood.” He said to them quietly after he had finished.

Mother however, was not in the mood for just words, “Read it to us, all of it and hide no part.” She said calmly, and then added “I trust you to do that Rune.”

He thought about it for a moment, and then read the document to them word by word.  When he finished reading Mother’s face was as grey as the wood ash in the fireplace. There is something desperate in the way that simple people can be shocked when things that they have heard happen all the time to others, actually begin to happen to them. Mother, in her selfish determination to convince the whole family that she was in control of everything and that Life owed her peace and happiness, had over the years convinced herself of the same lie and now that disaster threatened, she had no defence except convince herself it was wrong and therefore could not be happening to her.

“They talk of us as if we were animals.” She said quietly, “Do they grant us no rights at all, just because we followed our Prince, as we are bound to do?”

Again she was trying to defend herself against fact. She had not wanted this to happen, therefore she could have done nothing to bring it about, therefore it was not her fault, therefore it was wrong and she had a right to be angry about it.

Someone had got it all wrong, obviously. She did not want to be involved and she had done nothing to be threatened this way, so she was angry, in the helpless concentrated anger of a pampered child who is refused something they want to believe they have a right to, when they know they have no right to it at all.

“The Priests are frightened I guess . . . ” He answered, “I don’t think any one ever questioned their right to do whatsoever they wished before, nor did they ever believe that it might be questioned for them. Maybe they never expected to come so close to being destroyed either and now their fear makes them see danger to their continued place at the top of things in everything about them and everywhere they turn. But the words say ‘those who bore arms’ and ‘those who conspired’ against them. If we can make them believe that we did neither, then it would appear we can continue to live as we always have but with new masters. We can be no real threat to them, therefore maybe the document is just meant to frighten us into obedience, rather than actually threaten us.”

“But you did wear a blue tunic . . . ” The words had no sooner come out of quiet little Hatrir’s mouth than his Mother’s hand slapped hard across his face. The slap brought shocked tears to his eyes, for Mother rarely raised a hand to any of them except in threat, her way was the loud voice and the cutting opinion launched before any physical action was necessary.

“Wipe that out of your mind!” Mother shouted, almost beside herself, “Rune is my half-brother and was too slow-wilted to go to the War.”

“What did you say?” he asked incredulously.

“I’ve always told everybody that’s who and what you were; from an accident… the scar across your head was proof to everyone.”

“Thanks!” He said, feeling both thankful for the disguise and outraged at her audacity at the same time.

“They believed it before, so why change it now?” She said, oblivious to the fact that his feelings might be hurt by her unfeeling way of stating it. Mother had found a reason why things were happening the way they were, with no blame that could be laid at her door. That was it, responsibility absolved, she could now get on with her life and the fact that others might not like the way she explained everything away or directed their lives for them, never seemed to be any matter to her.
 

* * * * * * *

Lost in the Backwoods

 

The buyer came every year in the third month after the Winter Feast and therefore they had to accept that the problems were theirs alone to worry about and deal with, for they would be unable to discuss the meaning of the Church Declaration with anyone for a further year, unless an unexpected traveller happened by. So the whole matter became one of wait and see and like working people always do in such situations, they went about their lives hiding their fears behind the honest concentration of their labour. Each day their chores around the holding had to be done and then Rune would take the axe and the boys and he would go into the forest, to cut and gather wood for the charcoal making. In the evenings they would eat only after the lack of daylight halted their labour. After dinner Mother and he would sit on the porch and talk for a while about the state of the weather, the distance to useful stands of timber and other daily considerations, before crawling into their beds to sleep the sleep of exhaustion. And so the days passed, summer following spring and then becoming autumn, before anything else of note happened.

The Declaration however had changed Mother in a way that was not easy to see at first but with the passing months it became more obvious. She had lost her blind faith that all things were for the best and that hard labour was the justification of everything.

The outside world had come uninvited into her life and had shown her that she was helpless against the powers that existed outside of her little clearing in the forest. It was not something she talked of, but it affected her and her simple outlook on life was gradually eroded away, until it became something different to what it had once been. Her confidence was not so certain and her indifference to what others did in the cities and other parts of Khanlar increased. It soon became something she would rather not face and therefore she banned all talk of such matters, just in case it might affect her and her loved ones.

They lived so far from any center of national life that in time they were able to push aside all fears created by the Declaration with a dogmatic refusal to think about it. They sent those fears into the private reaches of the mind that only bother you on a night when sleep is hard to obtain. So it was a truly rude awakening for him when he encountered the refugees.

It happened totally by chance. He was in the forest one crisp autumn morning when he smelled smoke. Of all the warnings that can frighten a forest dweller, none come near to the fear that the unexpected smell of burning can bring, so he ran towards it not knowing what to expect and suddenly blundered into the clearing where the refugees were encamped. They were grouped around a tiny fire beside a tributary brook, which fed their own small river, a man, his wife, two small children and a one-armed youth. In his haste, he all but careered straight into them and their shock was as real as his own. The man was on his feet in immediate reaction, yanking his spear out of the ground and taking the defence-attack stance of someone well trained to such action. The youth had a short sword in his left hand almost without Rune seeing how it got there and he faced Rune calmly, as if this was a situation he encountered every day. For several seconds they just looked at each other, even as Rune realized that he had also reacted out of instinct and had taken a balanced stand holding his axe ready to defend himself.

“I mean you no harm.” He said carefully, “I smelled the smoke and came to investigate, that’s all.”

The woman moved fast to empty a kettle of water onto the flames, killing the fire in a cloud of steam. Her two children scampered around the fire to put it between Rune and themselves. Their faces showed that a regular diet was something none of them had known for a very long time. The woman and both of the children had runny noses and the bone structure of their faces showed through beneath taut and blotchy skin.

"Are you Church or Brotherhood woodsman?”  It was the youth who spoke and Rune realized that the one-armed man had somehow managed to move to command a position on his right side. Between them they had him well to rights, for if a fight indeed developed, he might down one of them but the other would stick him for sure, long before he could change position to counter a side attack.

“I wore the blue tunic of the Brotherhood.” Rune replied, “But my War has been over for a long time now.”

“Put down your axe.” The older man spoke this time, so quiet Rune almost had to ask him to repeat what he had said. Rune relaxed his grip on the axe and let it slide head first to the ground, yet not actually letting it escape from his grip altogether. Then they surprised him by relaxing so fast one would think they had in fact actually recognized him as an old friend.

“Which Legion did you serve in?” The younger one said and Rune’s hesitation brought a sudden look of distrust onto the youth’s face.

“I do not know.” He said, and then pointed with his free left hand to the obvious scar on his head, “I took a sword stroke which left me a future but removed my past.”

He inclined his head so that they could see the old wound more clearly, shown up as it was by the shock of white that ran like a paint stroke through his dark hair.

The young man smiled without any humour and returned to the now dead fire squatting down into the position he had held when Rune had stumbled in on them. “I lost an arm, my mother here lost three sons and you lost your memory . . .  all for a Cause that was itself lost even before the first sword left its scabbard.”

“It’s not over as long as we live.” Said the older man defiantly, as if he wanted to believe his own words more than he really did. “The Gods will not allow such an injustice to happen that would turn good people into skulking animals, hiding in the woods and living on nuts and roots forever.”

“Forget it Father.” Said the youth, his tone indicating pity. “The Gods don’t give a damn, that’s if there ever were any Gods in the first place.”

His words made the old man sink into what was obviously a well-practiced dismay. The older man’s cloak was tattered and clung to his bony frame like a death shroud, his head was now dropped forward and Rune saw the sores on his scalp beneath the thinning grey hair.

“It’s over all right.” The young man said, returning his attention to their visitor, “We were with the Zorian Legion, although in the end it was more like a gathering of the old and crippled and we were the last of the Brotherhood. We had the honour of fighting for the last City of the Alliance to fall, though it didn’t seem like much of an honour at the time. Gods damn the man who ordered it.’ It was no battle, just the slaughter of the few of us still able to carry weapons. First they besieged us until half of us were either dead of starvation or sick beyond being able to walk and then when we finally offered it out of desperation they refused our surrender. We knew from that moment we were damned, there was no way we stood any chance whatsoever against them. Gods we were naive, we actually believed they would give us the chance to survive, seeing as we were long past being any threat to them. We knew we would end up as slaves or rot in some prison camp, yet we were so far down even that seemed preferable to dying right then.”

“They beheaded the men who carried our surrender to them. Made a real big thing of it to, just out of range of our walls. Then they marched in six abreast, with drums and horns and banners flying and us with hardly the strength to fire one good flight of bolts into them. There are no Gods! No God that I was ever told about would have allowed that murder. Them in their smart new uniforms, with shiny new weapons, bands playing and banners flying . . .  while they axed and speared men and women and not a few of the children too weak or scared to run away from them, with their damned Priests always there leading them on and encouraging them with promises of Eternity in the God’s gardens for the horrors they were committing. Gods blind the idiot who says War is a noble undertaking, I saw no noble acts in five years of it.”

Rune was so affected by the young man’s anger that he said nothing.

“We were lucky.” The youth added with a cold smile, “Father found a chimney to hide in and me they threw down the city well to drown, after they had destroyed my sword arm. I nearly bled to death while I hung there, waiting until they set fire to the place and then marched away singing hymns, leaving a whole city burning from end to end. The stench was awful my friend for the streets were littered with cooking corpses and the air rang with the screams of the injured and the sick who burnt to death for lack of a caring soul to pull them clear. It took me a long time to get out of that blasted well and a damn sight longer to get away from the City. I lost two days in a fever and another four holed-up with some deserters in a cave. Cowards they may have been or maybe they were the most intelligent men amongst us, but they saved my life. One of them was a medic, he took my arm off and then sealed up the stump with pitch, otherwise I would not be here today. They fed me too, until I regained strength enough to look after myself then Father here arrived to save me and the lot of us ran into the backwoods.”  One of the children started crying and the old man picked her up and comforted her with a hug and a soft patting on her back.

“That was a long time ago.” The young man said, “We picked up what was left of our family and what belongings we could carry and we’ve been running and hiding and going hungry ever since.”

“Where will you go from here?” Rune asked helplessly.

“I have an old aunt who lives in the Nation of Thar; she has a holding on the coast there.” It was the woman who spoke for the first time, obviously spurred on by her son’s confidence in him. “The War did not go into that Nation as bad as most, so we’re hoping no-one will disbelieve our story that Golar . . . ” She pointed at her son, “ . . . lost his arm in a farm accident.”

“We think she may take us in.” The older man added, “Her husband is a fisherman and we got on well before the War and he was always saying he could find a place on his holding for good workers. Of course he may have changed his mind since then seeing as his Prince sided with the Church but it’s the only real chance we have, so we have to take it.”

“How long do you think it will take you to get there?” Rune inquired, wondering as he did so if any of them would survive the journey in their destitute condition.

“We need as much time as possible to pass before we turn up there.” Said Golar, “If we had gone straight there, there’s no doubt people would have questioned any story we put up and someone might have informed on us to the local troopers, that’s why we are moving slowly and keeping to the woods. When we turn up there can be no possibility of us being anything else than family from a Nation that was loyal to the Church. The longer the war is over before we get there the better our chances of just melting in with our relatives.”

“Are you sure there is no hope of reviving the Brotherhood, even now?” Rune asked, not knowing why he asked the question save for a feeling that something most dear to him was ending before its time. “There must be so many people like you with no-where to go.”

“I am very sure, Woodsman.” Golar stated in a matter-of-fact tone. “We hide in the woods and consider ourselves privileged to be able to half-starve most of the time; most of our comrades are either in chains or are lucky enough to be dead. As long as those cursed Priests can raise a hundred bigots ready to die for the Gods for every able-bodied man we can put into the field, you might as well forget any brave thoughts about reviving our Lost Cause. Even if we could put together an army, who would lead it? Prince Megaran of Zoria was the last of the Royal Blood and I watched those cursed Priests and the morons they lead chop off his hands and feet and then feed that kind little old man to the hogs, before they threw me down the well.”

“The Brotherhood is over.” Stated the old man sullenly, “They have killed everyone who had the least drop of Royal Blood, right down to babes still in their mother’s bellies. No man will follow a Cause without a Prince of the Blood to lead him. From what we have heard along the way, foreign Princes and not a few Bishops are already adopting the titles of the Nations of the Brotherhood, so you can bet that in a century or less the very War itself will have been forgotten. The likes of us have been forgotten already lad. The Priests keep the History Books and they are already writing us out of Khanlar’s past. The Brotherhood is dead and we must become new people if we want to survive the coming years. We died in the War, all of us, its just some of us go on pumping blood and breathing, that’s all.”

Suddenly Rune realized that even as they had talked to him, they had been preparing to move on and were now packed and standing ready to leave.

“Look to yourself, Woodsman.” Said Golar, “Be grateful that your past is already gone, you are one of the lucky ones. Now we must move on and you must forget us, we were not here, we never met.” And without ceremony the little band left him alone in the clearing.

He sat there for some time after they had gone, wondering how men could create such a situation. It always seemed that both sides in any war were able to convince themselves that they were right and supported by the Gods of course. Then, in doing the right thing and being loyal to their Cause, they killed and maimed people they would never have harmed in their normal lives before or after the madness Mankind called War, they even seemed able to live with themselves when it was over. How many men since the beginning of time have murdered in the name of a Cause and defended their madness afterwards by calling it ‘just doing their duty’?  For hours he tried to make some sense out of it all but at last he gave up. He walked slowly home, feeling that perhaps the Hell the priests talk of all the time was in fact what they were already living, every frightened and helpless day of their all but meaningless lives.

He never did tell Mother about that day, not because he wished to hide it from her but because he knew she would have never understood it and he had no desire to hear one of her simplified explanations to fend those fears away.

 

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Three

PRIEST OF PRIESTS

 

Ragarian gazed down from the balcony of his apartments at the heavy rolling ocean far below and considered the future that this day’s events had created for him. There was a warm wind from the west this evening that moved the folds of his ankle length robes and carried the perfume of the ocean to him, as he enjoyed being alone for the first time in weeks. He had enjoyed the sunset as he always did during the last few weeks of the summer, for this was the time of the year when that great red ball sinking into the ocean seemed at its most majestic. It did however remind him that the year had already turned and a few months from now this balcony would be swept with ice grey winds that would chill his bony frame, turning his ears red, bringing water to his eyes and dewdrops to the end of his nose. Across the copper and gold slated expanse of dark ocean the sun was setting behind the island of Mardis which seemed to lay tonight on the water like a gigantic sleeping sea monster, its hills and mountains silhouetted against the feathery banks of crimson-stained golden clouds climbing into the heavens behind it. Only a few twinkling lights showed that the island of Mardis was inhabited and they were almost too far away to be seen through the liquid vision of an aging human being. His myopia made what would otherwise have been pinpricks of brilliance into almost living flowers of light, proving nevertheless that he was not alone in the world. On his balcony set high on the palace walls overlooking the ocean, he was standing at the western-most tip of the peninsula upon which the City of Ka was built, thereby making all the other buildings in the religious and secular capital of Khanlar invisible behind him, just as the crowds of people who had attended his anointing this morning were now for the most part invisible as individuals in his memory.

Slowly the light of the sun disappeared and the white moonlight from that immense stone in the sky was all that was left to light the world, while thousands of stars one by one shone forth their message of existence from the dark sky above him.

Ragarian was in his fifty seventh year but he looked younger when one ignored the heavy creases that short sighted vision had permanently etched into his forehead directly above a heavy nose, created by constant and now habitual squinting. He was thin to the point of being gaunt. What flesh he had was muscle and his skin was stretched across it as tight as the leather on a ceremonial drum. He was beginning to go stoop shouldered, which he had reasoned to himself would not be unattractive in a man who carried the responsibility of the world upon his shoulders, but it would be several years before he would need to worry about it. His hands were large and long, his fingers strong yet bony and lately he had experienced a few twinges of pain in those knobs that he had been given as knuckles, no doubt announcing the potential of arthritis later in life. The veins on his hands laced across the back of them looking for all the world as if some needle-woman had sewn thick blue thread just under the skin to enhance the pattern created by the age spots daubing his chalky skin with small brown circular patches. He was of course, clean shaven like all Priests, having no hair anywhere on his skull save for his eyelashes and heavy eyebrows which were even now almost black in colouring and only speckled with white. The few remaining hairs that still graced his head he had shaved away every morning for many years now and as he had greyed even the tell tale shadow of his former dark colouring no longer showed. His body however showed little evidence of his advancing age and absolutely no sign of the good living that had been available these many years since he had joined the ranks of the Priesthood in the Great Temple of Ka.

Ragarian chuckled to himself, remembering how he had thanked the Gods often that he was less interested in food than any of his predecessors. In fact he found the lust for fine dining his immediate predecessors had exhibited to be obscene. He lived in a culture where priests were known for being well fed and rotund, if not fat! Ragarian still remembered his early teachers having criticized him as a novice for being bony, explaining that the people trusted the rounded well-being of their Priests and Teachers, a reasoning that he had never really understood seeing that the majority of the population came nearer to starvation than salvation every winter in Khanlar.

Ragarian was, and knew that he was, a striking individual. His eyes were uncommonly large and set deep into his face beneath strong dark brows and so dark in colouring that it was impossible to know where the iris ended and the pupil began. He had another advantage that prevented people from forgetting him, for in a land where most men barely reached a height of five and a half feet he stood several inches over six feet. However he had long ago convinced himself that it had not been his appearance that had moved him upwards in the Church, methodically climbing through the power structure of the establishment and into the position of being the most powerful man in the world from this day forth, although he was willing to admit that it had no doubt helped him. He still wondered why so many people were stupid enough to base so much of their admiration and trust, even love, upon another human being merely because of their appearance.

In the general populace it was the same, for even after centuries of men being cuckolded by beautiful women the situation still stayed the same. These young women of beauty seemed genetically programmed to search until they could attach themselves to some poor fool, until they had taken from him everything it was possible to steal with a soft voice, a willing body and a lying heart; and yet every day of the year another male idiot fell head over heals for the arrangement of muscle in a female leg, the size of their mammary glands, or even the practiced tilt of a knowing skull adorned with flowing hair. In defence of his own sex however he had also known by confession secrets, that many women had likewise been willing to suffer degradation, poverty and even physical abuse, just to be able to prove that they loved a handsome man who deserved no such consideration.

Ragarian was no such fool and never had been. He had little time for anyone who could not assist him in obtaining power, whatever they looked like.  He had never sought anything except the power to impose his morality and wishes upon everyone else, which was truly the most exciting feeling he had ever known.

A clumsy knife in the hands of a drunken Priest performing his ritual circumcision had long ago refused him the full ability to enjoy a woman in the true meaning of the word, and he had absolutely no interest in the depravities of homosexuality, or the other self gratifying activities that some men wasted their creative hours with. In fact the only true enjoyment he gained in this life was being proved right and he was convinced that it had been his analytical brain, developed from an intense need to question everything and a burning desire for leadership, which had allowed him to carefully and systematically seize power within the ruling establishment of Khanlar.

To Ragarian, all about him sought control at almost any cost and yet seemed to waste every chance they were given for greatness by spending their time enjoying the benefits lesser successes brought to them.

He smiled to himself, watching a flight of birds seemingly swim across the face of the moon above him as he remembered all of the people who had assisted him to his present position of absolute power in Khanlar. Some had done so unwittingly, while others had been purchased for payment of no more than vague promises and yet others who had obstructed his advance had paid dearly long after they had forgotten slighting him, which meant that most often they suffered without ever knowing the reason why.

With a soft understanding word here and little praise where others forgot there, he had-become known by all as a caring and religious, if intense, person. Many held up his morals as being something good for others to emulate; and his research activities and studies were regarded as being those of a dedicated scholar, so that, over the years his opinion had gained the respect of many powerful allies. Ragarian knew instinctively that his successes were almost without exception the result of his careful and analytical observation, which had been invariably followed by decisive and calculated actions. He had, during his life so far, been able to cultivate the ability to appear understanding without actually ever getting involved in the petty politics of the Court and its fawning, ambitious or antagonistic power merchants. This had led to a situation where he had been able to operate in the corridors of power as a moderator of other’s debates and the arbitrator in the quarrels and disagreements of his peers and superiors. Ragarian had learned early that everywhere in any administration there were gatekeepers who demanded bribes, or promises of future favours, or merely the grateful thanks from a junior who knew his place and he had always been openly grateful for any assistance anyone gave to the aspiring upward moving young priest that he had once been.

He had used his talents well over the years and he felt no guilt whatsoever for how he had used people, for in his own mind he was convinced that he alone had the ultimate right to the power that he now owned and, in his own way, Ragarian had always tried to help those who had assisted him to climb the steep and slippery path to greatness. However it was greatness itself he had convinced himself from the beginning that he deserved as a right. He had managed to conceal his burning idealism and ambition without much trouble, for he had learned early in life that most of the people he needed to deal with lacked the knowledge or the understanding to even begin to ever realize just how inferior they were to what he held to be important in people.  In truth he could honestly say that he really had no enemies to talk of as a result of his slow progress through the ranks of the Church hierarchy to the ultimate position of Priest of Priests, which he now held.  And so it seemed to him this evening, as he watched the night above him claim its kingdom across the face of the earth, that his position was one that had been obtained without any real challenge from his colleagues and that he had risen through the ranks without fanfare, on what had seemed both to him and, surprisingly, to those around him, to be a pre-destined path ultimately allowing him to put on the Golden Robe of the High Priest of Khanlar.

Ragarian was only harsh to those beneath him in the hierarchy and then only when they could scarce do anything but accept that they had in fact erred in some manner or action. To everyone however he was polite, for his manner was controlled and quiet to the point of well managed perfection. His arrogance was so strong that few people realized it even existed, for he treated everyone as if they were children, some he even treated as one would treat a silly puppy and they all accepted it as the harmless eccentric behaviour of a truly well educated and dedicated Holy Man.

The ceremony that had used up most of the day that was now ending, kept running through his head, as if he were caught up in a tangled loop of the threads of time. He heard again and again the words of those that had placed the golden torque about his neck and the golden crown upon his head. One sentence kept jumping to the front of his mind, the simple words ‘Ragarian has inherited the Peace.’  That was what the Anointing Priest had stated during his opening address to the gathered heads of the Church hierarchy who had filled the Great Hall that morning. Those words had been greeted with an almost involuntary sigh of relief from his audience and it had quietly built like a wall of ideological defence that had shocked him. It was as if somehow the security the statement had brought was born out of the insecurity and self-denied fear of those gathered to hear it, they were so desperate to hear it actually stated that they need not worry, they willingly threw away their fear at the first chance to do so.

The fact was that the Church had much to worry about and although they no longer had armies marching across the land trying to defeat and destroy them, or challenge their very existence, they still had all the ills of a suffering society to overcome. The present woes of the country obviously would have to be overcome before the society that had recently risen up and blamed the Church leaders for all of the pain and suffering known by almost everyone throughout the land for centuries could be put behind them. Akarian III had begun the war against the Asigan States or, the Brotherhood as they had called themselves, five years past in a ridiculous attempt to cover his own administrative weaknesses.  The result had been a war that had come close to destroying the Church before the rebels had been put down. It had been an act of the Gods themselves that the fat old fool had suffered a heart attack at the dining table a few weeks into the Rebellion; otherwise the outcome might have been very different. The Council of Wardens had then elected and Anointed Zagorian IV within a matter of days, obviously choosing the old man because he would allow them to direct the War any way they saw fit, while he pursued his passion for easy living, good food and very young women.

The Church, in the human form of the Council of Wardens, had of course put down the Rebellion as everyone had expected it to do from the outset, but it had taken them five years instead of the few weeks they had initially promised their followers. More than five years to be exact and the price had been a thousand times higher than anyone had expected in terms of human and material loss. Hundreds of thousands of young men had engaged in bloody clashes that had left many household providers and productive artisans, craftsmen and farmers dead, or crippled by its end. Families had been destroyed, children and their mothers had died, or had been maimed by actual attack, or had quietly succumbed to the more insidious henchmen of the dark kingdom ~ starvation, disease and poverty. More important to Ragarian however, was that the Church had lost much of its reputation for infallibility during the War and whereas when Ragarian had been a boy there had been few who questioned anything the Church had proclaimed, there were many today who considered the Church and its leaders fallible and in private there were many more who had already decided that their leaders were in fact incompetent.

The Council of Wardens as individuals had suffered much attack from within the Church during the years that followed the war and there were many of its members over the last few years that had been sacrificed to allow the body as a unit to retain power. It also seemed that since the War fanatics had been able to find an easier path to power than they had enjoyed even during the war itself. The paradox no one seemed able to explain, or solve for that matter, was that the quality of life had actually been dropping continuously year after year, even though the war had been won. Everywhere it seemed that things were getting worse, rather than getting better and this knowledge had infected every level of government with what amounted to an epidemic of hopelessness.

At the end of his reign Zagorian IV had become little more than a figurehead and, more often than not, often exhibited the behaviour of advanced senility, sometimes even falling asleep during State occasions by the end of his reign. The political in-fighting that had developed in the Council after Zagorian’s death had left the Throne of the Church without an owner for almost three months and that indecision had, in its own way, allowed Ragarian to move his claim to the Throne forward and gather enough support to eventually be able to seize it.

He had manoeuvred one power block against another, watching as one contender after another was given up by the groups involved, as they tried to keep their grip on the power behind the throne. Fourteen otherwise healthy men had needed to have heart attacks, suffer accidents or die quietly in their sleep to allow Ragarian to move his own supporters into positions of power.  A week ago the two men who had arranged the deaths of so many others had themselves suffered the ultimate sacrifice for his Cause when they had fallen from the city wall onto the rocks at the foot of the cliffs hundreds of feet below. Marazar, Ragarian’s oldest and most loyal supporter had taken the precaution of forcing both men to drink liberal amounts of liquor before he had unceremoniously thrown both of them from the wall, so that their deaths while obviously intoxicated had gone down in History with no more than a three line entry in the Watch Record the next morning.

Tonight however, as he watched the Sun set in the western sky, Ragarian was realizing something that he had not expected during the decades of work and dedication to achieve this position. Ragarian was still Ragarian! He had been forced, for the good of the Church, the country and its people, to do things and commit deeds that were outside of his everyday character many times since the war had begun. Yet after these acts of necessity had he not returned to being the fair and just person he had always tried to be? It was not his fault, he argued with himself, that the Gods had placed him in the position they had chosen for him during these troubled times. Tomorrow morning he would wake up to wield more power than any person in the World; he would be the ultimate judge of all men, women and children who lived, worked and died in Khanlar. His every decision from this day forth would be Absolute. Yet Ragarian also knew something tonight that he had not known when the sun had risen this morning. He might now be the Priest of Priests to everyone else but to himself he was still Ragarian!

The High Priest of Khanlar was accepted by his followers, which in theory meant everyone in the world, as being Infallible. That was the foundation upon which the Church was built and that infallibility was confirmed when the High Priest was anointed by the Church to be its spiritual and temporal leader, as Ragarian had been this very day. He had, according to the rites, been sacrificed to the Gods during the ceremony and became both living and dead in the one body during his Anointing. All the Church’s teachings were based upon the fact that from the moment of that sacrifice the Priest of Priests would be able to talk to the Gods directly and, of all men, the Gods would accept him as their equal in debate and instruct him in the Immortal Wisdom that would sustain the world. That is what every man, woman and child in Khanlar were taught from the day of their birth and they were instructed daily that the truly religious would believe it until death itself took them from this mortal plane.

As with all leaders of the Church before him, Ragarian had sacrificed his blood to the Gods when the leeches had been put on his chest at the beginning of the three-hour ceremony and he had watched as the bloated creatures had been removed and burnt in the Holy Fire at its end. He had hardly felt the two great slimy things as they fed on his blood, one affixed to either side of his chest. The real shock to Ragarian had come while he had watched the two black slugs frizzle on the coals of the Holy Fire, for he had truly expected the Gods to speak to him, as the Holy Book had promised they would - but they had not!

He had realized his mortality when he answered, “I am! I am!” to the ritual question “Prove thy God Head Ragarian, are you now communicating with the Gods Ragarian, High Priest of Khanlar?” He also knew now why every High Priest before him had answered that he was indeed communicating with the Gods when asked that same question over countless centuries.

Ragarian also realized at that moment that they had, in all probability, openly lied in exactly the same manner as he had chosen to do. To answer in the negative would have been to invoke upon oneself a lifetime of failure, for if the Gods did not come forth to guide the Priest of Priests it could only be because they had judged him to be unworthy of that position of power which the title endowed upon the man being anointed. It was obvious to Ragarian that no one who had spent a lifetime achieving the ultimate position of power would risk anything by lying in answer to the very question, which gave them control over all men. However, it had still surprised Ragarian, for deep down inside he had truly expected to talk to the Gods and a lifetime of conviction was hard to overcome while standing before that crowd of powerful clerics, most of whom also probably believed in the scripture they had adhered to all their lives. His answer did not bring forth thunderbolts from the heavens, but instead brought forth thunderous applause from those gathered before him on earth and even a few tears from the older priests in the crowd.

The day of Anointing was over now and the sun had set without the world ending in fire and brimstone and millions of sparkling silver stars still filled the heavens. Ragarian was surprised to find that he felt less important in this moment than he had ever felt in his life, as he gazed up into the heavens and realized what the ceremony that morning had done to him. There was a God of course, perhaps even many gods as the Holy Books taught, Ragarian knew that to be a fact that none could ever deny, for there were too many wonderful things in this world for there not to be a Supreme Being to have created them. Yet one thing was sure to him this evening and that was that God, or the family of Gods, if one truly believed the literal teachings of the Church, did not accept him as their equal, no matter what wonderful words and incantations were made in the ceremony designed by men in his anointing to be the Priest of Priests.

Ragarian began to laugh quietly to himself, standing alone on the balcony looking out at the creation of the Gods that he had worshipped every day of his life. It was not ridiculing laughter, nor was there any real humour in the sound, it was in fact almost the cheerfulness of relief as he gained the understanding of just how pompous men were; how dare these bags of bones, delicate flesh and a few jugs of blood, dictate in their weakness how the Gods should act and be described to the men and women who needed to believe in them in this cruel and heartless world.

After a while Ragarian spoke to the empty sea and the endless sky above him: “So we are wrong are we great Gods of all men? We burn our sacrifices, we incant our confessions and we beg assistance from your goodness - and you are not even listening to us! Or if You are listening You choose not to answer. Perhaps You have forgotten that You created us, or perhaps our actions and dreams are just meaningless striving that You watch with amusement, the way a child watches the antics of an insect before he crushes it under his foot and moves on to another game, without any guilt or shame for the murder he has just carelessly committed. Perhaps you are dead God, or perhaps You just gave up and went away to create a better world, disgusted by what we have done to Your creation here. You allowed me to live when I lied and when I used your names without respect or truth, without thunder bolts, during the farce we acted out for You this morning.”

Ragarian picked up the half empty wine glass and lifted his arm to the heavens in mock salute, “Ragarian is the High Priest of Khanlar. This morning I was appointed to do Your work and translate Your wishes to the people of the world, and you can't even be bothered to answer me, You leave me to my own ideas, so that is what I shall do to the best of my ability my uncaring friends. I have no alternative have I? What else can I do but preserve whatever civilization exists in this hard world I have inherited? Wish me well Gods of my fathers and guide my actions if you will.”

He waited a few seconds, still half expecting an all-knowing voice to answer his taunts, but it never came and so Ragarian threw the glass towards the sea below and entered his apartments, closing the doors behind him. He realized that what had happened this day had changed him far more than any whispered instructions in his mind from the Great Ones. In fact it was in a way far more threatening, for Ragarian felt as if he himself was being judged, as if his every action was being recorded and his fate would be decided by what he did from this moment on. The Gods had allowed him complete power over the lives of all men without comment or guidance to help him. Perhaps it was he, Ragarian, that was being tried and tested. Perhaps the ceremony had convinced the people, whereas the Gods would wait until he had proved himself. He realized then that he had almost convinced himself that the Gods would talk with him only when he had proved to them that he was worthy!

 

* * * * * * *

 

Ruler of the Known World

 

 The sun rose the next morning, as it had risen every morning back to the very first day of Creation but on this morning Ragarian the High Priest of Khanlar was not able to force his mouth to produce the sounds that created the words, which composed the Prayer of Thankfulness he had prayed every morning of his life up until this day. Instead he stayed in his bed and looked out of the open doors that led onto the balcony, thankful that some servant or another had had the sense to open them. Beside his bed sat a silver tray with a jug of watered wine and a bowl of fruit upon it. He sat up and took the prepared cup of wine and sipped at it, as he tried to analyze for himself exactly what the dreams of the previous unsettled night should have meant to him.

He remembered well the realities upon which his nightmares had been based, but he finally dismissed the unconscious ravings of his sleeping brain to be no more than just that. The Gods had still not talked with him! Sipping the wine and watching the seagulls soaring and diving outside, accompanied by the muted sounds of an oceanic orchestra below, Ragarian remembered everything that had brought him to this point in his life.

His bed this morning was without doubt the largest in the land and the sheets and drapes around it were the finest materials that had been woven in all time. He was the Priest of Priests; the Prince of Princes was he not? And as such he saw no wrong in living in a style greater than that of any of the scions of Khanlar’s Great Royal Houses. Yet how different was this bed from the one he had occupied when he had first entered the Church almost fifty years ago. How many years had he hated those men who had come and demanded his parents hand him over to them? How many years had he suffered each lesson, each beating, and each humiliation, with only hatred to give him strength?

He must have been twelve or thirteen, yes thirteen, when old Margatar had taken him to the Temple and informed him that both his mother and father were dead, killed when their house had collapsed upon them during a storm. Of course it had been a lie, but he had not known that until he was in his thirties. His mother had really died from gangrene after cutting her foot on a nail or something while working as a labourer demolishing a house for some rich landlord. Too poor to enlist the help of a proper doctor she had died in enormous pain in a hovel inhabited by vermin and lice. She had died not knowing that her son was to become one of the finest doctors in the Church, who one day would treat Bishops and Princes. His father had died of some unknown cause only a few years after Ragarian had been taken by the Church, but the death of a poor man at a young age was nothing unusual in Khanlar.

The man who had played with his son while he grew large enough to become a worthwhile property for the Church to steal and who had walked the floor with the babe in his arms while he grew his first teeth, had died of some unrecorded disease which his under-nourished body and poor living conditions had merely assisted to claim his life. How many nightmares had Ragarian tossed and turned through to awaken drenched in sweat, since he had learned the fate of those who had together created and loved him. Had he stayed with them he might have been able to earn the extra copper which would have meant his mother could have stayed home and not been forced to work from sunrise to sunset as an animal carrying loads of rubble on her back, perhaps he might have been able to help pay a doctor to have saved his father. Ragarian wondered often if his parents looked down on him from wherever the Gods kept their souls, despising him for the life of ease he now lived.

Ragarian had also discovered by careful search and inquiry that he had had three brothers, two of whom were half brothers from his mother and the Thatcher she had married when his father had died. He also learned that both had died in the Army of the Church during the Rebellion, whereas his only true brother still lived and was a half-wit who earned his bread working in a stable in their home city of Tarbor. Ragarian had met the man three times, without disclosing their relationship and had placed both reward and the threat of dire repayment for failure upon a local priest to make sure nothing bad ever happened to the half-wit. There had also been five sisters, two of whom he had never met because their father had arrived on the scene after his own father’s death and he felt no bond with them at all, even though they had, like him, been delivered from his mother’s womb. His own sisters he had valiantly sought, for they were all younger than he and he had felt an overpowering responsibility for them since he had discovered their existence. One had died shortly after he had left home and another had died in childbirth only two days before Ragarian had found out where she lived and seven days before he had arrived to take a look at her. The last of his sisters had been a quiet girl, who it was said had been very pretty as a child and who had been lucky to have been married off to some cabinet maker at the age of sixteen, however she was to die before she was forty in a stupid accident during the war. She had been caught wearing a cloak that had belonged to a soldier of the Brotherhood to keep out the winter cold and had been hanged before the local priest, in whose unknown care Ragarian had placed her, could communicate with his employer. Ragarian had seen to it that that priest had suffered an accident soon afterwards which had sent him straight after her, but even that revenge had not soothed his loss. He had made a special journey to see her only surviving daughter a few months, a small-minded woman who had been married to a herdsman in Tarbor. He had taken water at their holding without disclosing to them who he was but after that the Course of History had claimed all of his time and he had not seen her since.

Growing up as a Novice in the Church had been hard, harder Ragarian was willing to swear than service in the ranks of the Military. The circumcision they had performed upon him had not healed as it had been supposed to do and it had been more painful than anything he had ever imagined for many months. He could now judge, as the medical man he was, that the doctor who had performed it had probably been drunk, for he had botched the job and Ragarian still carried the scars as proof of the matter. For more years than he cared to remember there had been constant labour, organized worship and incanted education, and what he remembered most of all, a lack of sleep and constant hunger. It was something which generations of teachers had determined, were necessary to prepare a novice for the Priesthood.  In those childhood years life he had been frightened most of the time and exhausted all of the time. The truth was that less than eighty of the hundred boys abducted into service by the Church every year survived to the age of sixteen, some dying from actual beatings and some from disease brought on by malnutrition, and others committed suicide, but the majority died in accidents that were caused in the most part by some careless act brought about by hunger and exhaustion, or simply by the stupidity of pitting a small child against a task more suited for a grown man. No one seemed to see anything wrong in the deaths or serious accidents that happened, for it was accepted just as the continued presence of the poor in society was accepted, and it was seen as the norm of many centuries of harsh treatment that went on as ever it had.

Ragarian, who was not noted up to that time for his consideration of others, had made a point of changing many of the terrors of being a young novice and child in the service of the Church, as he had gained power through the years. In his early forties one of the stepping-stones to his present position had been to assume the mantle of Grand Master of Novices and Ragarian had used that position to change much of the dogma, which had earlier in his own life robbed him of any happiness as a child. He had re-written the Gathering Laws, so that now almost all of the boys brought into Church service were orphans, or were donated to the Church by their parents, for a not inconsiderable sum in the eyes of those poverty stricken families who most often gave up their sons under the program. He had also insisted that on Herthe’s day each week, all young men under the age of fourteen were to have no less than four hours during the day to devote to activities of their own choosing and although some chose to read or to sleep, most could be found in games of roust-ball, or similar youthful pastimes they organized amongst themselves.

It had not been so when Ragarian had been young however. Always tired and hungry, his life and that of his contemporaries had been committed for every waking hour to either slave labour or religious observance. Just before the first hour after midnight everyday, he would return to the cot he had left an hour before for the Midnight Worship, crawling in and sleeping under the thin blanket he kept and washed every week until he was admitted into the ranks of the Probationers at the age of fourteen. Five hours later he would be awakened and sent to the kitchen where he worked to help prepare the breakfast for hundreds, along with dozens of his tiny fellows. In winter the stone floored kitchen was like an icebox when he arrived before daylight to remove the ashes from the previous night and then light the stoves for the day’s activities. While he was doing this others were washing the floors, peeling vegetables or scraping the ovens clean. Then they would wash themselves in cold water and leave the kitchen, chanting hymns as they proceeded to the courtyard in lines two abreast, where everyone gathered to welcome the Sun and chant the Prayer of Thankfulness and then, usually trying hard to stay awake to escape a whipping, they would have to stand and listen to the sermon of one of the Priests in charge of their lives. An hour later they would return to the kitchen, but only to serve everyone else a hot breakfast, before they could feast themselves on the cold left­overs. And so it was every day in his life without exception for seven years, never enough sleep, always four hours of Prayer a day and never less than ten hours of work and two hours of being taught why he was lucky to have been chosen for the Priesthood - by the Divine Command of the Gods of course.

Ragarian had been inducted into the priesthood with eleven other frightened young boys on the same day and he had decided from the beginning that the Gods had given him his friends to share his burdens and fears during the seven soul destroying years they faced ahead of them. They had therefore grown as close as brothers during that time, but where were they today? Quiet little blond haired Tovash had died before he was ten when a tub of hot water had fallen on him in the kitchens; or rather he had died four days of screaming and whimpering later. Hasirian had been fat when they had met and today he was even fatter and happy, or so Ragarian had been told, serving as the Priest to some Gods forsaken hamlet in Vanzor. Protagian had died during the War, cut down in the last real battle of the War, when the Rebels Main Army, or what ragged, hungry fools still remained to serve their Cause, had had the courage to stand and fight, in the swamps of Mang. Poor little Masarian had never recovered from the beatings of his childhood and had become almost a recluse, in as much as one can be in such a regimented society as the Church School. Later he was to hide his fears as a Military Chaplain, becoming an unquestioning fanatic, hysterical in the destruction of Heretics, as he judged all rebels to be.  He too had died, leading a charge at the Fall of Asiga.

His other childhood friends had all died, or moved away into obscurity, with the exception of Marazar. He was still with Ragarian and had been with him for fifty years now, in fact he was probably standing outside of the door right now, defending his beloved friend, or master, depending upon how one judged the strange relationship between them. Marazar was definitely missing some of the intelligence the Gods normally gave to men, but he had been compensated for it in bulk. Even Ragarian sometimes felt the overbearing presence of his huge friend, who matched him in height but was probably twice his weight and all of it muscle. They had been inseparable from the time Marazar had picked up a Practitioner and thrown him across the yard, Ragarian had been accepted as the giant’s mentor and master. They had punished the quiet Marazar for reacting to the bully by putting him into a room without windows or light of any kind, for four weeks. When he had come out of that prison he was whimpering that Herthe had come in his dreams and told him to serve Ragarian, for one day Ragarian would be the Priest of Priests.

How everyone had laughed at Marazar’s claim, until Ragarian had stood forth and defended his friend, saying that he too had had dreams telling him to command and provide for Marazar until the Gods called him to them. Luckily for the both of them some famous old Priest had prophesied years before that on that day something that would lead to great changes within the Church would occur.  The result of it all was that Ragarian had inadvertently touched upon the superstition and fear of prophesy exhibited throughout the Church and found himself respected from that day forth and stranger still, he had discovered soon afterwards that he was even openly feared by some. It was only days after that incident that his friend was reduced from the Priesthood and placed in slavery to Ragarian and strangely that happened on the very day that Ragarian himself moved out of the children’s quarters and became a Practitioner.

Even as he dressed in his new robes on this the first day of his rule as Priest of Priests, Ragarian could not stop the whole history of his life playing itself out within his head. It was as if he was putting it all into storage, before he assumed the frightening power that he now had as the Priest of Priests to every living soul in Khanlar. In all of it he felt vaguely content. The superior numbers of the Church Army had finally crushed the Rebellion and the Church was stronger and more powerful now than it had ever been in recorded history, a history that was already being rewritten to play down the losses, both military and material that they had suffered in those terrible years of the war. True there were numerous administrative problems in various areas and the Rebellion had affected the Economy of Khanlar far more than had been understood immediately after the War.

Ragarian, due to his position, had far better knowledge than most on just how badly the Nations had suffered, due to the inadequacy of the leaders of the Church, over the last few decades and sometimes he wished he had wielded enough power back when the Asigan miracle had taken place to have guided the Church into first sharing it and of course eventually controlling it.  In a way the events of history during his life so far had merely confirmed Ragarian’s own belief in balance, for as the Asigan Alliance had prospered so had the Church declined.  As great leaders had emerged from the Royal Houses of the Alliance, so it had appeared that fewer and fewer leaders that could be considered even adequate had identified themselves within the ranks of the Priesthood.  However the Gods had rescued their representatives, or more likely Fate had belched at the right time, and the War had begun before the Brotherhood had been able to truly consolidate its great advances in technology and social change. Their geographical position on the continent had also been against them for they were surrounded on three sides by their enemies on land and their long southern coastline had been hard to defend with the ships they had at their disposal when the war broke out.

The War had been over for far too long however, to be able to blame it for every problem the country was now facing and Ragarian had already learned that many of the woes facing Khanlar today were a legacy of years of Church misrule, as much in the heart and mind as in the body proper. There had always been cripples and there had always been poverty, but nowadays the percentages were far too high to overcome them without some drastic changes in the way men thought and approached social problems. It was either a matter of getting rid of the parasites on an already depleted system, or of finding a way to make the parasites become creators of wealth and advance in their own right.

In Ragarian’s mind the act of balance was of the utmost importance in these matters and he was already considering as many alternatives as his fertile brain could juggle at the same time, analyzing one after another for potential problems and solutions. He had considered some rather bizarre alternatives along the way. He had even gone so far as to consider rounding up all the cripples and halfwits left by the War and taking them into the forests and wastelands of the conquered Nations where they could be put to work clearing new farmlands. He had added up the potential of supplying them with only half of the necessary food required to keep them alive and making them forage for their own food until the worst of them slowly died off, leaving only the productive needing to be fed and converting the fallen into a natural fertilizer for the new fields of grain and the vegetable farms he proposed creating. He still played with that one occasionally, for it was truly logical. It would reduce the number of parasites in the society, remove the weaker genes from the basic breeding stock of the Nations and provide an enhanced standard of living for those who survived.

Ragarian had already, as Master of Rehabilitation of Heretics, his last post before beginning his claim to the throne of Priest of Priests, reduced the survivors of the Brotherhood to the virtual status of domesticated animals. This had at first seemed a logical pursuit also, for it took hundreds of hungry mouths out of prison camps and put them to work as slaves that needed little or nothing, yet produced extra for the Exchequer each month. It had had two rather unsettling side effects however, that had not seemed too important when he had first instituted it. Firstly it had led to those who had survived the war on the losing side seeing that there was no future they could look forward to besides being worked to death or dying in the forests and mountains as outlaws. For that reason more and more of them had escaped to form what were now quite embarrassingly large bands of desperate outlaws, whose depth of hatred and knowledge of the true state of affairs, gave them no reason but to plan for a life of continuous attack on the very system he had hoped to remove them from.

The second oversight in his plan had been to not consider what an influx of almost free labour would do in areas where loyal citizens already found it hard to find sufficient paying employment to support their families. In fact what had at first seemed a solution to a problem had created two more troublesome and far harder to combat problems that he would have to solve in the very near future.

There were also the Guardians on Lunza to deal with sooner or later . . .  but all in all Ragarian felt he would soon have everything under control and Life in Khanlar would be the way he wanted it to be.

 

* * * * * * * 

Controlled Anarchy

 

As it was it only took a few weeks after his Anointing for Ragarian to realize that he was underestimating the problem and that he was in fact ruling within a semi-organized state of anarchy. His experiences in government were soon to convince him that there were already enough laws to run the nations efficiently, if only they could be enforced to the full letter of their intent. The problem was that they were not being enforced in most cases and even when they were used, much depended upon those who were interpreting them. The more Ragarian investigated the problem, the more apparent it became to him that corruption, stupidity, careless bungling and ineffective management seemed the normal method of administration in Khanlar and it was preventing effective control in almost every situation he investigated. Nepotism seemed to be everywhere, as were bribery, favours and empire building by almost every official in the Church government and it seemed that everyone was involved to some extent, from Bishops who held effective control in many cities, all the way down to the very lowliest of clerks within the Administration.

The War, like all wars, had of course led to shortages of everything necessary to any form of normal life in Khanlar, and the shortages had led to crime and favouritism by those in control. Many, if not all, of Khanlarian families had lost loved ones and as living conditions worsened their patience with the authorities were obviously wearing thin. Lust for gold had replaced morality in most households and food for the table had become far more important than honouring any Gods or Church requests these days.

Ragarian knew how easy it had been for him to manipulate orders passed down to him in the days before he had ascended the Golden Throne and his many years in the Great Library of Ka had prepared him well to understand the situation that now prevailed. Several centuries before this war there had been many wars, almost continuous as one Prince sought to cheat another out of a few acres of land, a village or two, or in some cases the annexation of the complete land holding of a smaller and therefore less powerful neighbour.

Few of those alive today knew of that era of Khanlarian History, however Ragarian not only knew it well, he had tried to apply some of the lessons he had learned from it, which were described in the old books, to the present situation. He understood that in those days before the Church had unified the nations into a federation, effectively ruled by the Church itself, the wars had always left somewhere for the defeated to go. If a neighbouring Prince took a village from you, then you could go to a neighbour who was probably related to you and join forces with them to take it back with a couple more, which you could then hand to your ally as payment for his assistance. Even if your whole Nation fell to an enemy there were still other Nations where you would have relatives, or people who would be willing to buy your expertise or labour, allowing a man to escape with his family and begin again. After the Great War however, as the Brotherhood had called their attempt to overthrow Church authority, there had been nowhere for the defeated to flee to, and so they became outlaws in every Nation where the Church ruled, which was in fact every Nation on Earth. With such hard alternatives morality had disappeared along with Hope.

During the War the Church had mistakenly urged its followers on with promises far beyond their capability to supply when it was over. Instead of the roast beef and wine sauce as promised, most people feasted on gruel. In poor areas pet dogs disappeared from the streets and when it was available even dog meat was too expensive for most of the poor to purchase, many of whom either saw no meat at all, or were reduced to eating vermin in some cases. Instead of milk and honey it was short weight bread and water. Cloth had risen in cost a hundred times in a matter of three years and the supply of all raw materials was getting shorter all the time. In some Nations people sold sheep for meat these days rather than go on feeding the animals long enough to harvest their wool. Yet, as always, those in power, or who had friends in power, managed to prosper and they dressed and lived with what seemed to be the sole aim of exploiting and exhibiting their wealth to the ridicule of others.

Many of the tools of peace had been converted into tools of war and now there were few craftsmen available to forge a plod from a handful of swords, even if they had been able to wrest them from the hands of those who held them in these troublesome times. Breeding stock had all but vanished, eaten by their hungry owners, confiscated by soldiers or run off by starving outlaws. A secondary problem caused by the decimation of the herds of cattle and swine, numerous horses and the great flocks of sheep that had once grazed the pastures of Khanlar, was the reduction of fertilizer to replenish the fields. The production per acre of cultivated land had been steadily declining ever since the end of the war and today Khanlar’s fields were producing half of what they had produced a decade before. The will of the farmers had also been sapped by the fact that any crop they planted and tended might well be cause enough for outlaws, even their own neighbours, to descend upon them and rob them of their harvest. The lack of a balanced diet, amounting to starvation in places, had also reduced the population’s resistance to disease, and since the war a series of epidemics and at least three outbreaks of plague had further complicated the recovery.

The winters were the worst of course and it was not uncommon since the war to find corpses lying alongside the road in the poorer parts of the land at that time of year. In any event the death wagons had done a brisk business during the past five winters, only this year they might be drawn by human beings rather than the horses of past times, as children and old folk died in ever increasing numbers every time the temperature dropped below freezing.

Perhaps the greatest problem facing Ragarian, as he donned the golden robes of the Priest of Priests that morning, was the almost absolute power held by the Officer Corps of the Army, which had become almost a separate nation within Khanlar due to the War and although its officers were ostensibly Churchmen, its leaders openly vied for position and power with the Wardens of the Church Council. Some of them were little better in the eyes of the populace than the outlaws they were ostensibly supposed to defend them from.

Ragarian had soon decided after taking power that of his four senior Generals, only Toragor of the 2nd Army was a man to be trusted and could alone be expected to remain completely loyal to the High Priest of Khanlar if trouble erupted once more.

It was to take less than a month for Ragarian to know that before he could actually wield the power his office gave him, he would have to wrest it back from those who had separated its parts during the last decade. Like many leaders before him Ragarian had found that it was not until he actually held the reins of power did the truth separate itself from the propaganda, even for a person such as him with all his inner-circle knowledge. His first act on the day following his anointing was to disband the Council of Wardens and appoint his own men into the empty seats. He tried to do it in stages and without publicity until after the fact, but even so the Church came near to what could have amounted to a Civil War in the first three months of his reign. As it was, he managed to accomplish most of it quickly and without any blood being spilled on either side.

The first three months of Ragarian’s reign as Priest of Priests saw Khanlar reduced to a state of fear that surpassed even that which had existed during the War. Three of his generals were arrested and replaced within a matter of weeks of his taking office, and the Officer Corps saw almost half of its members retired, transferred or confined to a cell, as the Priest of Priests placed his own men in positions of power to protect his rule. The best of the troops were isolated and brought together to form an elite Palace Guard, picked from heroes and outstanding officers and men to act as a buffer between Ragarian and any future possible disloyalty from the main army. A third of those in uniform were discharged, leaving a completely new army power structure three months after the purge began.

At the same time new rules and regulations went out to every corner of the land giving authority to his Bishops to stamp out corruption and the frightening responsibility to take the blame should it continue. Several Bishops and many priests and clerks, also found themselves retired to a lower standard of living than they had previously enjoyed, in monasteries in the most remote and inhospitable places of the land, far from the corridors of power.

Ragarian was everywhere at once during that time, or so it seemed, his gaunt frame striding into office and temple, guard post and administration hall, always followed by a detachment of his purple cloaked Palace Guard, stamping his dictatorial demands into every aspect of government from the national level right down to the affairs of the smallest hamlets. Curfews were imposed, men were marched off in chains for the slightest offence against the new order and his iron fist seemed poised to slam down on any chosen cog in the massive machinery of Church Government at any moment. Yet the ways of sloth and greed are not simple to change and the easy living gained from immorality and corruption is a hard mistress to give up. Therefore, although many of the visible signs that Ragarian’s program produced were an advance, it was often the words of the mouth that men spoke and not the words of what went on in their brains or in their hearts.

 

* * * * * * *


  

Chapter Four

THE RENEWING

 

It was at the end of Rune’s third summer at Havor’s Holding that Mother decided to renew the house. Not knowing exactly what she meant, he joined in with them all as they built up their charcoal production to three stacks a day for a week. They had increased the number of new mounds lit each day to two when he had added his labour to the family but three stacks meant that they often worked until well after sunset to catch up on other chores that had to be ignored during the day due to the extra workload. At the end of six days they were all exhausted and welcomed the day of rest allowed them by Herthe’s day that week, how tired they were was confirmed in that neither the boys nor Rune felt like walking the mile to their fishing pool.

The morning after Herthe’s day they rose for breakfast before dawn and the morning mist was still hovering in the clearing when they began renewing the house. The plan was a complete mystery to everyone except Mother so all of them just ‘did as they were told’, without any questions made or explanation given, most of the time.

Their first task was to remove every stick of furniture and everything that could be moved was included in that reckoning, into the barn, where Mother informed them they would sleep until their task was finished. It took the whole day to complete the removal of their belongings and all of the following day to seal the house. This last activity was the strangest to understand even as they were working at it, for none of them, except Mother of course, really knew why they were doing what they were doing. The boys made endless journeys to and from the river to gather wet clay, which Mother and Kirene used to stop up every opening in the walls and eaves.

Rune’s first task that day was simple, if strenuous, in that he was sent up on the roof to drag up a large stone to cover the opening of the chimney, and then he was instructed to take a bucket of clay and carefully seal it into place. After every crack and opening in the house had been sealed, save for the door itself, they were set to gathering still damp wood, which they stacked in the fireplace and then covered with, live pine branches still clad in their bright green foliage. He made a point of inquiring of mother whether or not the resin in these pieces might not flare up and set the whole house alight. To this she screwed up her face while she considered it for a second and then told him it would be all right.

The final touch she added herself, when she had inspected the fire makings and agreed that it would serve, she then laid large pieces of wadding on top of the fire they had built. The wadding squares stank of some herbal brew and looked like they had been coated in fresh green cow dung. Mother then struck the steel on flint with great ceremony and when the spark started the tinder smoking she blew on it softly until a little yellow flame burst into life. With great care she placed the now burning tinder into the little nest of dry twigs that she had laid beneath the other makings of the fire while they had been building it. They waited until the fire was burning well, which appeared to be signalled when none of them could either breathe or stop coughing from the vile smelling thick smoke escaping from the fireplace and then they withdrew from the house, fast!

Mother and Rune quickly set to and applied great handfuls of wet clay to the gaps around the door until the whole house was sealed better than a wine flask. Kirene appeared soon after that with platters of cold meat and fresh bread and butter and they all retired to the barn to watch the results of their day’s labour. All excepting the boys that is, who once they finished eating were put to hauling buckets of water up to the yard to fill the barrels, which stood there. Mother explained this precaution simply,

“Once when my father was renewing our old house the air got in and the place burnt down before we could bring water to put it out.”

“It seems very risky to me,” Rune said, “What happens if the same thing happens to our house, there’s not enough water here to put the fire out and if the thatch catches it would take more than you and I and the children to put it out.”

“When my father did it wrong, my mother and us children were more than happy about it.” She smiled at her memories as she talked, “He had to get off his backside and build us a new and bigger house. He’d never have done it if the old one hadn’t burnt down.”

“How many times did he manage to do it right before or after the house burnt down?” Rune asked.

“Far as I remember we only renewed our house the one time and that time it caught fire. My father always was a pretty lazy man, he never did anything right, as I remember.” She was still smiling.

“But other people do it right all the time don’t they?” Rune persisted “ . . . and we did everything right today didn’t we?”

“Who knows?” This time she laughed outright, “All I know is this is how my mother told my father it should have been done. Believe me, I’ll never forget it, because she screamed it over and over at him for years.” With that she laughed again and went into the barn, calling at him over her shoulder, “We’ll know in the morning won’t we?”

He spent the whole night watching the steam-like smoke escaping from the house through the thatch as he sat in Casper Havor’s porch chair in front of the barn. The moonlight and the calls of the forest denizens did little to help his ease and neither did the occasional whining of their two dogs that sat beside him as if waiting for a disaster. He slipped into a fitful slumber some time during the night and had nightmares of being trapped inside the house while it flamed around him and he awoke expecting at any second to be crushed beneath the weight of the thatched roof collapsing down upon him in roaring flames. Instead he woke to find Mother standing beside him with a bowl of fruit and a beaker of milk and to feel a soft dew falling as hazy yellow sunlight bathed the clearing around them. For a moment, that panic that comes between nightmares and reality caught him and he jumped up, expecting to see a pile of smouldering ashes where their home had been. The house still smoked, but it was intact.

“That should have killed every flea, ant, beetle, spider and any other living thing that was unable to get out and stay out.” Mother said as she handed him the platter. "And them’s that think themselves able to survive will soon find they’d got a lot longer to go yet.”

“So what’s the next step in your renewal program?“ Rune asked, truly dreading that it might be further slave labour, which in fact it turned out to be, as usual.

“Few miles north of here there’s a swampy area where the reeds grow thick and strong and that’s where you and the boys will be for the next few days Rune. Should allow you to build up a real appetite.” She laughed as she said it, but he knew it would be no laughing matter for the boys and him, only he did not know then just how prophetic his fears would prove to be.

It took them the better part of two hours to walk to the place where the reeds grew, just as Mother had said it would and just as she had promised she set them all to work immediately. Rune’s first task was to construct a rough sled that would carry the reeds back to the house, pulled by their cow and led by Mother and Kirene. The boys were set to cutting the first load under Mother’s direction, while Kirene catered to Maer’s needs and he lashed the branches he had gathered into a crude platform with two runners beneath it. The boys complained greatly about their part of the operation and, knowing that soon he would be working alongside them; he could see their point of view. The reeds grew thickly in this half moon shaped bay of the river, but there was no pleasure in walking through them no matter how pretty they looked. The main course of the river was some way off and the reed beds grew in a few inches of stagnant dark green oil-like water that never moved. It also seemed that every insect the Gods had ever created had come to these reed fields to live and the air was congested with all sorts of flying bugs. Butterflies and dragonflies hung in the air or were tossed in the occasional breeze and were beautiful to watch in their flying dance; however the midges, flies, wasps and other insects, which liked nothing better than to bite humans, were nothing less than annoying and sometimes absolutely aggravating. Every step stirred up the black mud in which the reeds grew so abundantly, sending unseen worms and other small inhabitants of the slime, wriggling between their toes or slipping from beneath the palms of their bare feet. The stench of putrid rotting death beneath the water, which their moving feet stirred up with every step, brought up truly obnoxious smells that gagged them. Every movement through this evil smelling slime was enough to make them fear that somewhere beneath their toes some evil great snake-like worm was waiting to tear off a leg and the fear of quicksand seemed to lie beneath every conscious thought.

Mother made several faces, which showed her disgust at the stench, but not enough disgust to wonder about the boy’s discomfort. She wanted reeds, therefore someone had to gather them and she had strong opinions about how it should be done. “Not so high, Kirdi!” She shouted, “Cut them as close to the base as you can. The longer they are the less cutting you have to do.” “For the sake of Heaven Hatrir, watch how you swing the knife, I haven’t got the time to sew your hand back on.” “Try not to sink in too deep before you move your feet Kirdi or you’ll feed the worms by nightfall.” “Kirene, get down here and help me tie the bundles.” “Rune, tie that stupid cow to the sled before she wanders off.” It never ceased to amaze him how Mother managed to keep talking and working without pause for breath hour after hour, but she did so consistently.

As soon as the sled was piled high with the first harvesting of bundled reeds Mother took up a switch and set the cow moving back towards the house. Kirene carried Maer on her hip and with her other hand held the lead rope for the cow. When they were out of sight the boys and he took a break and ate some bread, washed down with the milk Kirene had got from the cow while he was building the sled. “No point in her carrying any extra weight.” Mother had said before they left, covering the bucket with a cloth and telling them to use it to keep their strength up, while in fact she was only denying them any excuse to slow their labours.

All that day and most of the next, the boys and he tested muscles they had forgotten they had or had not used before, or in the case of the boys muscles they had not realized they had prior to this date.  The result of it all was that they all gained some pretty impressive callousness from wielding the large knives they used to cut the reeds. Mother and Kirene however did not exactly have an easy time of it either, and they walked many barefoot miles and unloaded many sled-loads, before they had stacked up enough reeds to satisfy Mother’s wishes. The work was soul destroying and if they slept the sleep of exhaustion the first night, they slept the sleep of the dead the second.                                    

When they awoke the fourth morning he was amazed to see that smoke was still drifting skyward from the house and hanging about the dew dampened thatch like it was part of the roof itself. The family ate a leisurely breakfast that morning and afterwards Mother set them to work with less fervour than she had in the days before, for it seemed that she knew just how exhausted they all were and therefore was making allowances for them. She rushed no-one, chided far less than normal and even pleased them with snacks and drinks every so often; during that day however they managed to harvest many sacks of meadow grasses from the fields around the house, which mother then flailed half-heartedly in the yard area before the barn to extract any grains the dry stalks held. After she had done that they piled the hay left over in front of the house and covered it with sacks to prevent it from blowing away. When that was done, a good hour before sundown, Mother presented them with a cooked meal she had prepared on an open fire in front of the house and then allowed them all to retire early.

Mother’s understanding mood disappeared about the time she woke them the next morning. Before the sun had topped the horizon, the boys and Rune were digging away in front of the house to clear the surface soil and expose the thick yellow clay that lay a few feet below ground level. When they had cleared a circular patch about six paces in diameter they were set to turning over the first foot of that sticky yellow stuff. Then to Rune’s amazement Mother had both the boys strip out of their clothes and tie about their loins the equivalent of a wrestler’s loincloth. The youngsters both looked at Rune in some trepidation obviously hoping that he might be able to give them an explanation, but he knew no better than they Mother’s intentions at that time.

Her next request was even stranger for him to fathom, for she asked him to turn the first of the water barrels over to spill its contents into the pit they had just made. Then, when he had done as Mother had bid him, she told the children to “jump in the pit boys, dance around and have some fun for a while.” The boys needed no second bidding and soon were screaming with glee as their prancing feet churned the water first to a yellow sauce and slowly into a morass of slimy ooze. Into the pit Mother then started throwing handfuls of the chaff and hay and the truth came to everyone. The boys stopped their happy shouts when they realized the work ahead of them and soon were plodding around the pit with all the joy of dray animals driving the heavy stone of a grinding mill. Beneath their feet the hay and chaff were forced into the clay to produce a daub, which had been the canny woman’s aim all along.

Leaving the boys to treading the grass into the clay Mother led Rune to the house. The moment had come to open the door and then dowse the fire before the sudden influx of oxygen could raise it to its potential fury. If it had not been so important to their future, the two of them rushing into the smoke filled house to throw buckets of water into the fireplace before staggering out again barking and coughing and trying to see, out of red-rimmed watering eyes would have been hilarious.

At last the danger was declared over and the smoke had all but cleared from inside the house and they began the hard work of dragging out the debris from the fireplace and knocking out all the smoke stained plaster from between the box like structure of the house itself. Using a small trimming axe and a broken hoe head they spent much of that day exposing the old wattle work of twisted willow sticks to which the old daub had been applied. It was dusty and tiring work, but by noon of the next day the boys were carrying buckets of new daub to force into the wickerwork to take the place of the old plaster that they had removed. They continued square by tiring square while Rune and Mother carried out the debris and cleared the floor of chunks of broken plaster

By mid-afternoon everyone was working on the plastering. Their hands ached as they forced handfuls of clay into the wattle, plunging their hands into a convenient bucket of water occasionally to make the work easier, for the clay dried out on the surface within minutes of being applied. Soon everyone was involved in the task and they began to look like the mud-monsters that country mothers scare their children with when the youngsters fail to wash as often as they should.

It took them all of six days to re-daub the house inside and out and another ten to remove the old thatch and replace it with new. Then Rune took control of the situation for a while and convinced Mother that a couple of windows would be an advantage and he went off to construct a new door and shutters for the windows he wanted. How happy they were. Rune with his adze and saw, Mother pounding her prized pieces of chalk and mixing it with size and water to manufacture whitewash, Kirene scrubbing the fireplace with river sand to remove years of grease and dirt, to say nothing of the thick film of soot the recent fire had deposited upon it. The boys were given the job of clearing the old soot deposits from the chimney. When that filthy job had finally been completed they were designated the task of whitewashing the walls and were soon happily using the brushes he had given them to slap the creamy liquid on the new daub and like all such boy-like adventures they soon had almost as much of it on themselves as they had applied to the walls.

At last the house was done and stood empty and looking like it had only just been built and they all stood around enjoying it for a while. Then mother and the children set to preparing the furniture to go back inside, rubbing off years of accumulated grease with a mixture of fine river sand and water, applied with pads of damp cloth and a lot of hard rubbing. The smell of bubbling glue soon filled the air, rising from a pot suspended over a small fire in front of the house. Mother inspected every joint of every piece of furniture and found most of them in need of strengthening.

It was during this operation that Rune had the idea to pave the floor of the house; however it was not received with the thanks he thought it deserved when he proposed it to Mother and the children. Yet Mother was not the type to turn down an offer which might make her life easier and an hour after he had put the idea forward she was not only agreeing with him, but in fact seemed to be taking the honour of having first suggested it. The actual carrying out of the task took more sweat and concentration than any of them had expected yet as Rune had promised it was worth the labour and would change their standard of living greatly.

The first thing they had to face was digging out half a foot of the existing earth floor, which had been battered into an almost stone-like strength by generations of bare feet. Condensation and the occasionally spilled water, soup and Gods knew what else, had created a top layer some two inches deep with the density of aged oak and it took many hours labour with the axe to break through it and expose the clay beneath it. As it was it took him two days to move out those few inches, leaving a deep excavation which the boys and he filled with river sand dragged up to the house with their cow drawn sled. That poor cow began the house renewing fat and happy and ended it sad-eyed and many pounds leaner. Finding the slabs of stone to pave the floor was no problem, for between the house and their fishing pool many outcrops of limestone had been broken for them by frosts and heat waves over the thousands of years since they had first been pushed up from the depths of Ladlo’s Kingdom for Sinners, where the heat was so intense it could melt rock itself.

The boys loaded the slabs onto the sled and dragged them back to the house, where Rune chose from them and laid them into the pattern that the floor was becoming. Mother and Kirene stamped the stones into place, adding or removing handfuls of sand as was required to keep the surface flat and level, with a slight run off angle towards the door. Rune checked the level of the floor as it grew with a long plank he had found in the barn, adjusting the run off to the door so that they would be able to just throw down buckets of water, which could then be swept out of the door without leaving puddles. The height of the floor came level to the foundation timbers, which stood several inches above ground level outside the house. Beside the slab, which served as a doorstep, Rune had the boys dig a deep soak away, which they filled with small stones and chips of limestone and then covered with sand? The finishing touch to complete his floor laying was accomplished with a mortar he made by mixing sand, limestone dust and clay together, which they then forced into the cracks between the floor stones with their fingers.

At last the house was finished and although the timbers had already housed several generations before Casper Havor had brought his new young wife to the place, it looked as if it had only just been constructed.

Six weeks to the day after they had started, the house was renewed to Mother’s satisfaction and all the sweat and strained muscles were worth it. It gleamed like a white jewel in the middle of the emerald clearing, beneath a sapphire blue sky and beside the slow moving green brown river, as they looked back at it from the forest on their first Herthe’s Day afternoon walk after it was completed. There was no Prince more proud of his impregnable castle, or Priest of his marble temple, than they were that day of their house in the forests of Natan.

Mother knew very little about the Asigan Alliance or the Brotherhood and seemed to care even less, except for the fact that it threatened her family. She cared that it had taken Casper Havor from her, but her experience of loss showed that there had been little, if any, romantic love in her marriage, for she seemed to view the loss more as that of a father and provider, protector and guide, than as a person for whom she cared about deeply in any romantic fashion. She confessed also that her lack of reading and lack of knowledge which travelling might have given her left her with few real facts to put together a judgment of the whole affair. All she knew was that some of the Nations or rather their Princes, had refused to pay some Church Tax or another that the Church had demanded they pay and because of it, the War had come about. Which Nations or Princes had decided to face the Church’s wrath she was not really sure. She knew that Natan and of course Asiga, had done so and she remembered that Casper had said Sedanna was involved and Rune was able to add Zoria to the list through his meeting with the refugees, but other than that Rune was unable to learn very much at all of the Brotherhood or the Asigan Alliance, for whose Cause he now found himself without memory working as a charcoal burner in the forests of Natan. Come to that he knew almost nothing of the land within which he lived, or for that matter exactly what a Nation was either.

It was some months after they renovated the house, a few days after mid-winter night that two Church troopers rode into their clearing and asked for something hot to eat for themselves and forage and water for their horses. It was a little after mid-day, but the sun was still hidden behind banks of grey clouds and the damp forest chill that had persisted since dawn that morning still held their clearing in its grip. The troopers hobbled their well-fed horses outside the house and mother led them inside and began ladling some of her soup out of the ever-simmering stockpot that always stood in the fireplace for them. The boys and he were dispatched to fetch water from the stream for the animals. It had been much colder that year than anyone in the family could remember and they needed to break the ice that edged out into the water from each bank, to be able to draw that water. They saw to the horses from the buckets and fed them a little of the hay from the now much depleted store they kept on hand for their cow, for the frost had left the grass in the meadow blackened and going rotten with the damp. Their task done, they hurried back into the warmth of the house, sending out from their mouths great clouds of breath that froze before them as they ran.

The looks the two troopers gave Rune proved that Mother had again explained him away as her half-witted, half-brother. It was confirmed when one of the men made the sign of Readu, he who keeps away bad spirits and demons. Rune adopted a childish demeanour to strengthen the tale and squatted down just inside the door, beside the axe he always kept there. Soon the troopers were ignoring him and talking to Mother about the tricks of Fate, which brought on such loss, speaking as if Rune were deaf as well as half-witted.

“My sister’s third daughter was a half-wit . . . ” The older of the troopers said as he refilled his mug with water, “Strangest thing she was too. She spent most of her life taking all her clothes off and running off into the woods to talk to animals.” He chuckled as he related this part of the tale; “Made her real popular with all the boys in the village of course, ‘specially because she was a mute as well.”

The younger man finished his soup first and the heat of the hut and the strength given him by the hot meal turned his thoughts to his manhood. He rose and moved towards Mother in a way no one could mistake, until a diplomatic cough and a sideways look in Rune’s direction by the older trooper was enough to make the younger trooper reconsider and go back to his seat. Rune was bigger than either of the soldiers and the years of hard work had built muscle that identified the strength he possessed. Also the axe was now across his knees and the blade was feeling the caress of his whetstone while his eyes watched silently every move the troopers made.

They sat at the table before the fire while he sat with his axe by the door, being between them and any possible exit; every now and then glancing at them with the most sullen look he could muster. Mother fussed over her stew pot without noticing the silent exchange, or pretending not to notice, Rune knew not which.

“Is the half-wit dangerous?” The older man asked after a while.

“No.” Mother said, “As long as you don’t make any threatening moves towards me or the children or that axe of his. Sometimes I think he loves that axe more than anything in the world, you know its so sharp I won’t let the children go near it, in fact I often tell him he will wear it away the way he keeps working at it. Gods know, you could shave with the thing.”

“How does your husband take to him?” The younger man questioned.

“Oh, my husband died a year or so back, but it was old age not Rune what did it.” Mother said.

Rune watched these examples of the Church soldiers that had defeated the Brotherhood and noted that underneath their brave uniforms they carried more than their share of the fat of good living than any troopers should. In fact without their helmets they were not very frightening to look upon at all, more like well-scrubbed farm labourers than real soldiers.

“Did he fight in the War?” Asked the older man, a sly inquisitive look coming into his eyes.

“No.” Said Mother, “The Church turned him down, saying he didn’t have enough sense to follow the simplest orders.”

“This is Natan . . . ” the man stated, almost as if he had caught her out lying to him, “How come it was the Church what turned him down, I thought all Natanese men followed their Prince like the sheep they eventually turned out to be?”

“That might be in the City of Natan or in the towns, but here in the woods we’re Gods-fearing folk. There ain’t any way we would fight against their Priests.  That would be sinning.” Mother said, with more seriousness than Rune would have believed possible of her in putting together such a lie.

She served them a second bowl of soup each and the talk died while they ate. Rune realized right then that it was only their uniforms which set them apart from others, for compared to their own homespun rags the troopers looked like lords in those well made maroon tunics with their carefully spaced brass buttons. Their tunics were ribbed with black braid at cuff and collar and the same braid was repeated down the seams of their black serge cloth trousers. They wore heavy leather belts hung with an assortment of polished leather pouches, matching in colour and craftsmanship the knee boots they had stamped into the house in. They did not however look brave in any meaning of that often-misquoted word! In truth they had that scared look of the man who preaches something he does not really believe in and several times both of them took time to nibble at their nails displaying the demeanour of unsure children.

“You have any trouble with outlaws out this way?” The younger trooper tried to ask the question with little or no emotion in his voice; however there was an edge to it that Rune could not miss.

They were frightened! It hit him like a thunderbolt. These two buffoons were deep inside enemy territory and they were frightened. One plus one must always equal two - meaning that there must therefore be something to bring on that fear. Maybe there were more of the Brotherhood still at large in the forests and mountains of Khanlar than the Church Declaration or these men’s presence would have poor country folk believe.

“Why are you still soldiers if the War is over?” He heard the words dribble from his lips, congratulating himself at the deception of stupidity he had already built around himself.

It was like a door opening, letting the noise of a busy yard into a silent room. The shock on their faces was a joy to behold and obviously they soon forgot that it was a half-wit who had asked the question and launched into giving him more information than he had gathered in all his years on Havor’s Holding.

“Without us soldiers out there looking after the likes of you boy, you would be scrounging around in the forest eating mice and beetles.” The elder of the two troopers turned and snapped the words at him. 

 “You living way off the beaten track likes you do makes you a lot safer than most folks Lady . . . ” He addressed himself to Mother, “Gods know how many outlaws there are running around these days, an’ it’s not just the outlaws left over from the Brotherhood either; in the cities and towns these days a man will kill you for a loaf of bread if he thinks he’ll get away with it.”

“We heard from the trader last time he was here that people are starving in the cities and the plague is moving across the land.” Mother kept busy by the hearth as she talked, “I thought he was just playing city gentleman and trying to frighten us poor country folk, you mean it’s true then?”

“Aye Ma’am, more than just true, it’s a bad time in Khanlar these days for just about everyone, and if weren’t for the Army it’d be a lot worse I reckon, don’t you Maylar.”  The younger trooper added his opinion, leaving the older one to take up the tale of woe.

Rune tried to record in his memory everything they said, storing this precious information like a squirrel gathers up nuts in the autumn. He learned that there were still bands of outlaws, ex-soldiers of the Brotherhood, who had refused to give up and were causing the Church a lot of trouble all over the place. They were attacking isolated garrisons; way-laying unsuspecting troopers and even Priests and they were even able to recruit others into an underground effort to resist the Church’s new policies of retribution.

He heard how these same outlaws attacked and then melted back into hiding in the very towns the Church controlled or they disappeared into the forests, hills or swampland to attack the next time many miles away. He heard how these leftovers of the Brotherhood poisoned the wells of foreign merchants and adventurers who were moving into what had been the Nations of the Brotherhood and how they ran off livestock and burnt down barns in Nations where the Church had its strongest support. In fact the way their guests told it, it would appear that the Church had more trouble with these malcontents who could attack and then run and hide, than they had had with the Brotherhood Legions they had so outnumbered in open battle during the War.

Rune also learned that along with the Nations of Asiga, Natan, Sedanna and Zoria, the Nations of Zikon, Dang, Jontal, Mozag, Mang and Dala had raised Legions to join the Brotherhood’s cause. Yet the greatest joy their words brought was the facts that the Church itself did not believe that all the Princes of Royal Blood were dead!

“I know they tell everyone that they ain’t none of the Brotherhood Royal Families left alive an’ that they killed every last one of ‘em, but I knows different. You get to hear a lot of the things they don’t tell the people when you ride courier duty like me an’ Maragor ‘ere do every day.”

The older trooper, having established his credentials as it were by that statement, lit his pipe now and began regaling them all with his own importance, as the carrier of secret messages across the length and breadth of the country.

“Prince Zorigan of Asiga, him who founded the whole Asigan Alliance and led the Brotherhood Army during the War, and Prince Natarian of Jontal what led their fleet and Prince Jarin of Natan who commanded their men in the last battle in the swamps outside the City of Mang, which ain’t far from ‘ere you know, well they never in fact have been identified beyond any doubt amongst the dead, or captured you know. In fact I heard some officers say that they truly believed that those three are behind all the trouble the Church is now experiencing.”

After they had voiced their fears however, the troopers fortified themselves again with tales of the War itself, crediting themselves with great acts of heroism and leadership, which Rune for one truly doubted them capable of by any stretch of the imagination. Yet some of the stories they told had that terrible ring of truth to them, convincing him that they had indeed happened in one form or another. Stories about whole towns of starving people put to fire and sword when they surrendered out of desperation; massacres of women and children under the excuse that they had practiced witchcraft and heresy; men marched in chains without food or rest until they died trying to keep up with their guard’s horses; friends and kinfolk forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of drunken Church troopers and their priestly leaders.

Somehow Rune managed to keep his anger contained behind the face of the idiot they thought him to be, for by holding that deception he gained facts and information which might one day be of use to him.

At last the oldest of the men realized how long they had tarried with the Havor’s and with some worried contemplation of the fast approaching night, the soldiers bid the family a hasty farewell and were gone in a matter of minutes.

After that meeting with the Church Troopers, whose reasons for passing through the clearing they had not been enlightened upon, the Havors lives returned to the slow routine of a charcoal burner’s family, but the new hope the troopers had given Rune was the richest prize he had ever won.

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Five

THE BUYER

 

The news that a new Priest of Priests had been anointed in the Holy City of Ka did not reach the backwoods of Natan for many months and the changes and political intrigues taking place in the urban life of Khanlar went without notice in places like Havor's holding.

The moon was reborn and eaten by Pavia's Dragon many times after the troopers left, and before their first visitors of the following year came to Havor's Holding, however these visitors were expected, for they came every year. The one thing the Havors could always rely on in their simple life was the coming of Vanaten the Buyer and his train of wagons at the end of the spring.  Perhaps that was why Rune decided to stay home this time and watch the buying instead of doing as he had done before, when he had slipped away into hiding watching the loading of charcoal bags and dickering over trade goods from the safety of the woods.

The house, in fact the entire holding, had changed much in the years since Rune had arrived.  They had added another room to their home for Rune and paved the yard into three terraces between the house and the barn, bordered by the house to the north and the barn to the south and they had built chest high stonewalls to enclose the other sides.  They had laboured on the stone work for more than year before it was completed. He and the boys had also dug a well in the yard the previous summer, which in winter saw its contents turn to solid ice; nevertheless it gave the yard a very civilized look even then.  They had bought another cow that was in calf from a neighbour some five miles away and their original cow had been put to the same neighbour's bull since then.  They even had a mule now to pull the small cart that he had made to make the task of bringing the bags of charcoal up to the barn a little easier.  It was a docile animal that a passing herder had sold them for two bags of charcoal and a night's lodging. 

In truth while Khanlar as a whole was suffering decline, Havor's Holding was experiencing growth and good times.  They painted the house with a new coat of whitewash every year inside and out and the little vegetable patch of a few years ago had grown to over an acre under cultivation.  Rune had also become proficient with a bow, which had meant that they were eating more meat and had a good supply of deer hides.  Kirene, who was now a young woman, had become a competent seamstress providing them with well-made clothes and Kirdi had become a cobbler of sorts under Rune's encouragement, so that they all now wore leather shoes or boots.

The Havor's held their holding from the Prince of Natan, (whoever he might be these days) and as his tenants they had to produce a full quota of charcoal every twelve months to maintain their rights to the holding.  The Buyer was the collector of that tithe or rent, coming each year at the end of Spring to gather up the stacked bags of charcoal to take them back to his master in the City of Natan.  Vanaten was the fourth generation of his family to hold the post of Buyer and everyone knew that his family had grown rich from their activities over the years, for not only did he collect the quota, but he also traded for any charcoal and goods the tenant families could produce beyond that which the Prince demanded as rent. Vanaten would then sell the extra charcoal and products for a tidy profit back in the city, or to farms and villages along his route.  He enjoyed a monopoly and was rewarded well for it, as he traded with the charcoal makers and tenant farmers of the forest without any competition whatsoever, paying for what they manufactured with those essential trade goods and food supplies they could not provide for themselves.  Vanaten needed very little coin to invest in his trade goods, for he rarely paid out more than a few coppers, sometimes a shilling or two, to any of the Prince’s tenants that he dealt with.

So it was that the family looked forward to the Buyer's visits almost as much as they did the mid-winter Feast, for they received not only those basics and luxuries which made life worth living, but they also gained news of the outside world.  They might not want to go out there themselves, but there was excitement and romance in the stories the Buyer brought with him, the more so because they did not have to think of them as anything more than just stories.  The fact was however, that although they might talk about the visit for months afterwards it rarely lasted more than an hour or so, while the sacks were counted and then loaded onto the wagons.  Even so Mother never failed to treat it as a holiday, bringing out her homemade elderberry wine for the occasion and spending the week prior to it cleaning the whole holding as if to be ready for the expected admiration she believed that it deserved. 

This year however the buyer was not exactly happy to sit down on the porch with a glass of home made wine and spend time with her the way he had in years past.  They noticed the same look of fear in Vanaten's eyes that they had seen in the eyes of the troopers they had entertained during the winter.  He took many sidelong glances at the forest edge, as if he expected something frightening to come charging out of it at any moment and each of the wagons carried a guard beside the driver with a loaded cross-bow held at the ready for any trouble that might suddenly occur.  The obvious tension their visitors felt was made even more obvious by the way they seemed never to take their eyes off the tree line of the clearing for more than a few seconds at a time.  The other new thing added to these strange proceedings was a prison wagon, which travelled in the center of the train. In it were a dozen or so half-starved convicts, linked to each other with chains and wearing manacles and leg-irons.  They were a defeated bunch, half starved and dressed in rags that could do little to keep them warm at night, for even at this time of year frosts were not uncommon. 

While the slaves worked carrying the Havor's sacks out of the barn to load on the wagons, the Buyer gave the family the little news his fear allowed him to concentrate on.  Vanaten told them of the anointing of a new Priest of Priests, whom he described as a fanatic who seemed bent on having every man; woman and child in Khanlar live like the monks in some Gods-forsaken Silent Order.  The City of Natan was now ruled by a Bishop, who had occupied the deposed Prince Jarin's palace and their fellow Natanese in the city and towns were suffering from many hardships, not least of which was a shortage of food.  There were few Natanese men between the ages of sixteen and sixty in the land who were not chained like those who were loading the wagons, or had they escaped the chains of a slave they had been forced into hiding in the forests as outlaws to avoid arrest for crimes their desperation continuously forced them to commit.  There were of course higher taxes and fear was everywhere, as the outlaws of the defeated Brotherhood continued to stir up trouble throughout the land.  It was hard, the buyer said, to know how they managed to keep up the fight; come to that it was hard to work out who they were with so many ex-soldiers of the Brotherhood marching around in chains these days.  Some even said they were the Ghosts of those who had died, that the Gods would not let into the after life because of their heresy.

"There's also the problem of the newcomers. . ."  Said the Buyer, looking around him to be sure no unfriendly ears might overhear his words,  "It seems like all the younger sons of the other Nations, not to mention greed motivated merchants from all over Khanlar looking for a quick profit, are coming into the conquered territories.  It’s funny in a way, with the old Alliance Nations suffering absolute poverty as they are, but they still expect to find the rich pickings the Priests promised them during the War.  Even the Church is getting in on the business of quick profits and is selling off the property and even the children of Natanese to these men for a few shillings, whenever some desperate family gets into any sort of debt.” He looked genuinely up set as he continued “I tell you, you people are lucky to be out of it, there's hundreds of people in the towns would swap with you and pay you overage to live like you do.  You can thank the Binding Laws, which keep folk tied to the place they were in when the War ended that they're not all out here camping in the meadow.  Mind you a lot of poor folk in those Nations who were loyal to the Church have taken to the roads of late, looking for a better chance elsewhere. They have no choice, for there are so many slaves today there are few ways for an honest man to earn a living and feed his family. But they're not likely to come into the occupied lands, I shouldn't think."

There was a snapping sound in the forest, a sound the Havor's recognized at once as a deer stepping on a dry branch, but it caused the Buyer to almost fall out of his chair as he spun round to look in the direction from which it had come.  They also noticed that every guard on the wagons turned as if in a drill movement and one or two started to stand and bring their crossbows up to the shoulder ready to fire.

"What do you fear so much from a deer stepping on a dead branch?"  Rune asked, a little more sarcastically than he would have liked, however Vanaten missed the sarcasm completely in his preoccupation with his own safety.

"There's more in the forest than deer these days and much for an honest man to fear when he's out of the city and away from the protection of the troopers."  Vanaten said, without even seeming to notice them, almost as if he were reassuring himself, but they could see the beads of sweat that fear had brought out on his florid face.  He obviously felt he had something very real to fear out here in the forest.  The fact that the manacled slaves were doing the work rather than the usual peasant youths and tavern throw-outs, also showed that even the poor would rather seek work elsewhere and risk being hungry, than venture into the forest these days.

Vanaten and Mother moved away then towards the trade goods cart, for his thin-faced clerk had finished the tally and it was time to barter.  Rune got up and wandered over towards the wagons, more because he had nothing else to do than to watch the misery of the sweating slaves struggling to hoist the heavy bags of charcoal onto the already high piles that had been collected earlier along the route.  The Overseer was a brute of a man and he pushed and hit the slaves more than was necessary to speed them along.  It was obvious that he also felt he had something to fear, for he kept looking over his shoulder at the forest and there was no doubt he wished to get back to the safety of the city as soon as he could.  His face was scarred and the telltale ribbing in the flesh of his neck showed that he himself had worn a slave's collar for more than a few years.  He wore an armless leather tunic and heavy boots, without the leggings that the buyer and drivers favoured.  The ash staff he carried had a heavy metal boss affixed at each end of its five foot length and in his belt hung a well-used leather lash and the short sword of a tavern fighter, both ominously denoting that his ways were governed by force rather than by reason.  From the looks that he received, whenever his back was turned, it was certain that the slaves waited only for the day they could catch him unawares and beat him to death with their fists as retribution for their suffering at his hands.

The loading had been completed and the slaves had already been bullied back into the prison wagon, when the overseer remembered the spillings in the barn.  He unlocked three of the slaves from the rest of the line and dispatched them to sweep up and sack the extra profit for his master, with threats of what any time lost would cost them in pain and hunger.  Rune followed the three men that had been singled out for this task, for no other reason than he needed to get away from the Overseer.  As they passed the house the last man stopped, nearly causing his fellows to trip so sudden was his decision. 

Maer had come out of the house at that very moment, her chubby little legs trying hard to balance her plump little body.  Her mop of blond curls danced in the breeze above a doll-like face that was concentrating hard on the large piece of freshly baked bread she carried in her little hands.  Rune took it that it was the bread that had caught the man's interest.  The others, with glances back at the overseer, murmured something to him urgently and they moved on towards the barn.  The scene was so dramatic, Maer with so large a piece of bread and this manacled slave, whose grey skin was so tightly stretched over his malnourished body that every bone showed through.  Maer, compared to this dirt streaked stranger whose hair was so closely cropped it seemed no longer than the day or two's growth of beard covering his strained face.

Rune was inside the house at the run and out again in seconds with two loaves of bread before the convicts had moved more than a few steps. Breaking the bread and forcing it into their hands he felt the same feeling one must get diving into a raging river to save a drowning child.  Their eyes showed him more thanks than any child could have given its own father, as they tore at the bread with dirty and broken teeth.  They swallowed each piece so fast one would have thought they feared he intended to take back what they did not eat immediately.

The Overseer was behind him even as Rune heard him and his instinct took over as the staff hit him across the shoulders.  The blow had been a warning rather than heavy and intended to harm, but Rune had turned and wrenched the staff from the Overseer's hands before the man could control his forward motion.  Rune's knee came up to double the ex-slave over with a scream of pain.  Unable to control his anger the staff was above his head and about to crush the Overseer's skull when Mother screamed.  It was enough.  Rune stopped and looked around, the anger draining away as fast as it had come.  Every guard in the clearing had his bolt aimed at Rune's heart.  Mother and the buyer were beside him, even as the Overseer started to climb to his feet, both hands grasped below his belt and his face white with pain.  The threats he mouthed became more fearful as the guards began to chuckle and then to actually laugh openly, at the bully's predicament.  A half-wit had had him down and could have ended him and he had not been able to defend himself, or even land a real blow.  The Overseer's right hand came away from his injury and a short-sword filled his fist as he came upright.

"No!"  The Buyer shouted, freezing the scene in a fear-filled moment in time, ”If anyone dies here today the next time we come this way may very well be our last."

The Overseer slowed, but Rune's immediate death was obviously still his main objective.

"Kill this half-wit and I may get killed the next time out . . ." Said the buyer more quietly . . . and that will mean your Bond is up Bridor, then you will go back into the slave barracks.  How long do you think you will last in there, Bridor?" 

The Overseer wilted visibly, and then he returned his sword to its sheath and left them, giving Rune a look as he passed him that could have boiled a snowdrift.

"I put it in my will that if I die, the bond I put up for him is forfeit and he goes into the slave-barracks in Natan." 

Vanaten had started to explain to Mother, but she had already left and was nowhere to be seen, neither were the slaves.  The Buyer looked at Rune, sniffed in disgust and started shouting to his men to get the train moving. In a very short time the slaves came out of the barn carrying the sack of spillings they had collected, with Mother walking out behind them. 

In fifteen minutes the clearing was as empty as the barn.

The trade-goods stood piled upon the porch and Rune passed them to go into the house, to find Mother stood in front of the fireplace stirring up the embers with the poker, obviously deep in thought.  He took it that his outrage had frightened her, so he took his chair at the table and said nothing as she absent-mindedly put a bowl of hot soup before him.  The children were out playing with the new ball that had been part of the trade, so the two of them were alone in the dark warm room.  After what seemed like an eternity, Mother brought a bowl of soup for herself and sat across the table from Rune.  Her face showed signs of tension and for the first time he saw that her eyes were red and that she had without doubt spent a lot of tears while she had stood with her back to him before the fire.

"You came near to ending everything out there you know."  Mother said, seemingly without emotion.  "I know but those poor men needed that bread and when that animal hit me from behind . . . well . . . something just snapped." 

For some reason he could feel himself beginning to flush with what must be embarrassment,  "It’s a good thing that you shouted when you did, I think I might just have killed him had you not done so."

"You scared me you know Rune, you've never scared me before but then, I never saw anyone get that angry in the turn of a breath.  I never thought you had that much anger inside of you, even after living under the same roof with you all these years." 

She paused, as if afraid to continue, then she said so quietly that he almost could not hear her, "Did you know any of those men you gave the bread to Rune?" 

He replied that he did not and received the shock of his life when she said: 

"I did Rune . . . the last one was my husband, Casper Havor."   And then she began to cry again. 
 

* * * * * * *


 
Chapter Six
 

THE LEAVING

 

People change, of that there is little doubt.  Many years later Rune would understand that even the kindest and most gentle of people can be changed by a string of chance circumstances, slowly and over an extended period of time.  Even though their honour can still remain inside their most personal understanding of themselves; that part of them that the world sees has changed beyond recognition of what they once were.  The most painful part of such change is that most often it happens without them even noticing it. It is as if they continue to see themselves the way they were when they were younger and not yet grown harder so that they might deal more easily with life's hardships and responsibilities. 

Therefore of course, they are then unable to understand why people close to them no longer react with understanding, nor treat them the way they remember being treated when they were nearer to their innocence.  The pressure of life itself will often make a kind person not callous, but willing to justify their actions as the result of events, circumstance and chance happenings of Fate.  Like aging, the hardening of a personality can happen so slowly that a person may hold within themselves a set of values that they then betray by their actions every day of their lives, due to the growing cynicism they have chosen to adopt, so that they might survive emotionally without acknowledging their own weakness.

No one is unaffected by change and few are strong enough to take a definite course of action to rectify such hurt as it may bring about to those that they love who are daily about them.  For all change and experience of life occurs with the destruction of the innocence and the ambitions of youth itself.  It is like the love a man has for a woman that blinds him to her aging, until one day she shatters his fantasy by some unlikely act or word and he sees her for the first time as what she has become.  Desperately trying to prove it is not so becomes like a nightmare to him and reality itself begins to lose its focus.  Is it any wonder that he reacts with anger and a feeling of betrayal?  His Angel of Perfection is no more than any other woman and his need to believe she is still what she has always been to him destroys his ability to accept the change.  Before he can help himself he is blaming his surprised wife for what she has taken from him.  Even as he does so he is forced by instinct to gain her aid and understanding, which he hopes may help him to accept the loss that she has forced upon him. He turns to his only true partner in life knowing that she has done the worse thing anyone, friend or stranger, could ever do to him.  Yet where else can he turn?  She has destroyed his image of her and he suffers no less a sense of loss and despair than he would have experienced had she been murdered without reason.  For the deeper the love he holds for her and the greater his image of her, the more devastated will he be by the reality that is suddenly forced upon him and the emotional loss of his reason for living. Life is always so, survival of its desperate moments is to understand the fear that one may not be able to stop them returning again.

Just so is a person's understanding of what made them what they have become with the passage of time and how therefore they are not responsible for it continuing.  From outside it is easy to see that the erosion of self continues only because they are unable to forgive others for what they themselves are now doing daily.  Therefore it is not surprising that the best, the kindest and the most charitable of people are the more certain to be dealt emotional pain and heartache, for they find that they can not take upon themselves the responsibility for their part in changing the situation they so wished never to change.  Whether their actions have become in fact just a reaction to a life of simple satisfaction, which brings out their strengths, or a life of pressure and tension, which drives them into the reaction of self-survival by any means the ultimate collapse of the situation, is always the result of denying that a solution does in fact exist.  There is no horror to compare with the fear of being totally helpless in a situation that brings only more pain, be it physical or emotional.

Rune's loss of memory was by such a comparison, a blessing.  He knew without proof that there must be many things in his past that, had he been able to avoid them, he would have avoided, or in a child's understanding he would have made such things not happen.  So was he blessed to regain himself in the pastoral setting of Havor's Holding in the forests of Natan. Living with people who were content because they knew how to be nothing else and who lived every day without any need to accept responsibility or change.  He was with people who had lived their whole lives without the helplessness that most educated and experienced people suffer through many times before they are fully grown in emotional security.

After the Buyer had left the Holding Mother was unable to add anything to the simple statement that one of the slaves Rune had tried to help had been her husband, before the children burst into the house a few moments afterwards.  There had been no time for him to formulate questions, which might have allowed her to share her grief and fears with him, and so the matter was dropped while she got on with her normal chores.  The evening meal occupied her then and the rest of the family was put to storing away the trade goods they had obtained from Vanaten.  The way she busied herself gave away nothing of what she must have been struggling with in her mind, as she added fresh logs to the fire and began banging pots and pans about.  Watching her from behind as she worked on the preparation table he had built beneath one of the small windows,

Rune realized yet again how helpless the woman felt outside of her role as housewife and mother. Her shoulders moved, echoing the industry of her hands as she chopped at the onions she was preparing, yet the rest of her body stood as if anchored to the floor.  A simple woollen dress covered her heavy frame, which rippled as her strenuous arm movements sent rippling waves through the fat of her back and buttocks.  He realized for the first time that during the years he had been with the family all vestiges of youth had left her and the late afternoon sunlight that played on her face as she worked was a spotlight for the thickening of the skin on her face and neck, emphasizing the layer of fat which had made indelible lines on her neck where it folded.  There was a spot on her neck, which she had opened at some time by her absent-minded scratching and now it was a small red-brown cake standing up from the downy hair of her skin.  The protective instinct for women and children that is natural in men rose within him, even as he accepted that Mother would never be anything other than a simple peasant, no matter how much he would like to save her from it.

The evening passed with all of them doing the odd jobs of a household that has had a profitable day and then, before Mother and he had a chance to continue their conversation, she announced that it was time for bed and she and the girls were climbing the ladder to their sleeping quarters in the loft.

Rune tried for a long time to get to sleep that night, but his brain raced with thoughts that were alive of themselves and no amount of justifying would put them to rest.  In the dark warmth of the house he lay with his arms above his head contemplating the alternative outcomes the day's events could have brought down upon them, most of which promised him a restless night.  What would have happened if Mother had not cured his anger at the last moment with her scream?  What might have taken place if the Buyer had not then been there to rescue him from the spite and retribution of the insulted Overseer?  What would have happened to the family if he had killed the brute, or if one of the guards had squeezed off a bolt into his heart?  But in all truth the greatest reason for his being unable to relax that night was his wondering at what Casper Havor was doing and thinking at that very moment.  As Rune lay in the warmth and comfort of Casper Havor's home and family, he huddled for warmth and in chains in a prison wagon suffering the night’s damp cold.  What did Casper Havor think of Rune taking over his home, his wife and his family?  Did Mother's husband lie somewhere tonight planning revenge on him for usurping a husband's rightful place? The more Rune thought about it, the more questions he developed to ponder upon.

Suddenly the quiet haven he had created about himself in this place was beginning to crumble before the attacks of a newly conspicuous outside world. Rune knew that never again would he be able to pretend that what was happening out there in the real world was something that need not concern him overmuch.  Those sorry men in chains today had probably been his comrades, so surely he owed them something?  His shame began to build as he realized he had not once thought of doing anything more than giving them a piece of bread, yet had the Gods chosen otherwise he might well have been one of them tonight.  He knew that somewhere down in his tortured mind his true self was twisting in contempt for the self-centered coward that had taken his place.  How much he hated himself then, how he hurt for being who he had chosen to be.  In the end the confusion in him drove Rune from his bed and out into the quiet night.

The full moon hung like a huge white and silver-blue sphere above their clearing in a cloudless sky that night, seeming like a great baleful eye looking down at Rune to reprimand him.  He paced for a long time in front of the house, and then sat in the porch chair for a while before he finally went looking for Mother's wine jug to drown his confusion.  There was a chill in the air he had not noticed before when he returned to the chair and poured himself a beaker of the wine.  No more than a swallow had passed his lips when Mother came out onto the porch wrapped in a blanket.  In her arms she carried a bundle of cloth, which she came over and laid down in front of Rune, almost as if it were a child.

"I can see what today's happenings have done to you Rune and I've listened half the night to your trying to come to terms with it."  She took the jug and poured herself a beaker of the wine; “Time's come for decisions hasn't it?" 

"Only the God's know what I'll have to do to understand what is happening Mother, and what I must do as my part of it all."  Rune said despondently.

"Time had to come, Rune."  She said sadly.

"What's in the bundle?"  He asked, glad to change the subject.

"These are the things you had with you when we found you.  I was frightened someone might come by and see them, so's I hid them in the hiding hole under the hearth."  She said quietly, untying the bundle.

Curiosity overcame him, along with a feeling that somehow she had treated him badly in hiding these things from him for all these years, to say nothing of risking them when they had renewed the house.  To avoid any more insecurity or confusion he turned to helping her with the bundle.  It was a strange feeling that came over him when the first piece of his past came into his hands. It was a blue tunic, edged with silver braid and retaining a few silver buttons. He turned it over in his hands, hoping that it would unlock some memories, enjoying the feel of the fine cloth and examining the tears and marks on it as if they might just be clues to his forgotten past.  In the end he saw that it was no more than a tunic he had once owned and he tore off the buttons and dropped them into the leather pouch he had found in one of the pockets, and then he pushed the tunic back into her hands.

The weight of the pouch caught his attention and he emptied out its contents into his lap.  The sight of what was there made him look at her with eyes wide open in shock.

"That's what I thought when I first opened it."  She said.  "Seventeen gold crowns, twenty three silver pence and more copper than two month's work stacking charcoal kilns would ever bring you Rune."

"Where would I get such a sum?"  He asked in amazement, feeling the warm weight of the wealth that lay in his lap.

"First off I thought you'd robbed a Bishop," Mother said quite seriously, ”But when I looked you over you looked like it must be yours, I think you were some high person once, an aristocrat even. . ."

Her voice trailed off into contemplation, then she handed him a small bundle wrapped in a white linen kerchief.  He searched the cotton square for initials, but found nothing.  When he opened the piece of cloth he could do nothing but stare in disbelief at the small collection of expensive jewellery it contained.  The workmanship of it all was wonderful to examine and its beauty was beyond description for two peasants who worked every day of their lives to survive as charcoal burners.  The first piece he took out was a heavy golden ring with what looked like a unicorn’s or a beast's head engraved on its face, the fine lines of which had been filled with silver, then he lifted out a heavy golden chain that pulled up a similarly engraved medallion almost as large as Mother's palm, only this time the animal's head was surrounded by a circle of blue gemstones.  There was also a bracelet of heavy gold, a single band decorated with blue and white stones and a pin with a device that looked like the unicorn's head once again but with a single sparkling water-colored stone mounted where the beast's eye should have been.  It caught the light of the lamp which hung above them, sending flashing rays of amber and blue lights from its faceted face. Before he could recover from this last surprise, Mother handed him a heavy leather belt, with two matched silver chased daggers hung on it and a huge silver buckle that once again displayed the unicorn motif. 

He unsheathed the knives and was examining them closely, intrigued by the workmanship, when Mother interrupted his thoughts.

"I know I should have shown you these things many years ago."  She was near to tears he could tell . . . but I was frightened they might bring your memory back and then you would leave us; sorry Rune, I'm so sorry".

He touched her hand and smiled to comfort her.  He felt that he should be scolding her for keeping these keys to his past from him, but he also knew they would have made no real difference to the lost soul he had been for so many years now, except perhaps to add even more confusion.  If he had had them before he thought, he might have ventured forth too soon into Gods knew what trouble.  So in a way he had cause to be grateful to her, although he knew that his excuse had not occurred to her, nor had Mother considered his needs at all in any part of her reasoning.

"They would have meant nothing to me Mother, they unlock no memories.  Perhaps you should have shown them to me earlier, but it is of no matter now."  He said.

The thought came to him and he had put it into words before he considered what its effect might be.  "You did you not steal them Mother?  Why?  The God's know you are in need of what this treasure could bring."

"It was yours."  She said, sounding puzzled . . . ”It wasn't mine and if anyone knew about it they would have slit my throat for just one piece of the silver, wouldn't they?" 

"I'm sorry Mother. . ."  She never allowed him to finish.

"Times are I don't understand how your mind works Rune.  I was just scared that you might leave.  I have never been without a man about me, father, brothers or husband, until Casper went off to fight in that war.  I had good reason to be frightened of what would become of the children and me if we had no man to look out for us.  It was because you were with us that we survived these years you know."  She hesitated, then took a breath and said,  ”Now I know that it’s time for you to be your own man - well, it wouldn't be right if I hid what was yours from you at such a time, would it?" 

She stopped talking and took the tunic and went into the house without waiting for an answer, leaving the door open so he could see her stir up the embers and put the blue cloth onto them.  It smouldered for a while before bursting into flames.  The light lit up the whole room for a moment and the familiar things he had lived with, not least the bodies of the sleeping children, which were illuminated in a way that made him realize tonight was the start of a new time.  Events were at last forcing upon him the need to rise from his stupor and start considering the very real future that had presented itself to him, unbidden though it was.

Mother returned to close the door before she went back to her bed and he was again alone on the porch.  That night brought about a complete change in him, one which he could not turn away from, nor one that he would ever be able to ignore.  He spent the next few hours realizing how easy it had been to spend the past five years avoiding his responsibilities in this quiet clearing.  The understanding that soon he would have to leave made everything about the only home he could remember seem the more precious to his happiness.  He walked around those places in his mind that had been so dear to him in that time, knowing that he must soon leave them to seek out the destiny the Gods had predetermined for him.

Morning came with a quietness of rose gold clouds and the promise of a clear hot Spring day, fresh and clean like only Nature can explain.  He returned to the house in time to join the family for a wonderful breakfast, in which Mother used many of the food items and spices they had obtained from the Buyer the day before.  The children were of course excited and made far more noise than usual, but Mother remained quiet and withdrawn and neither said, nor implied by her composure, what had happened between them while the children had slept.  She had however, shown him how to open the hiding hole in the hearth, behind which stone his treasures once again rested.

It would be hard in later life to look back upon that morning without a sudden feeling of apprehension overcoming him, for during that meal the events which were about to happen to them during that day would have seemed absolutely impossible.  Yet Fate has a habit of hitting you hardest when you least expect it.  How clear that scene would always be to him. The scent of the cloves that spiced the oatmeal and the tart smell of boiled apples would always return to him whenever he cared to close his eyes and remember it in the years that were to come.  There was also the smell of new soap in the air and freshly brewed coffee, ground that very morning.

It soon became obvious that Mother had not mentioned to the children that one of the slaves they had seen in chains the day before had been their father.  How sorry he was for her right then, alone with all of her problems, not through choice, but because she knew not how to share such things, nor had she the education to be able to analyze or explain them even to herself.  Mother's face moved through silent contractions as she mentally dealt with problems she was unable to speak of and in the way of simple folk she tried to think of other things, in the hope that somehow the pain would go away before she had to face it again.

Kirdi broke the silence before Rune could, by asking, ”What are we doing today Mother?" 

"What we always do the day after the buyer comes."  She replied, ”We shall have a day of ease and each of us may do as we wish, but tomorrow it will be back to work as usual, so don't wear yourselves out."

Both the boys whooped with joy and with hurried explanations and even more hurried movements; they were out of the house to go fishing within minutes.  Mother flashed the first half-hearted smile he had seen from her that morning, as her sons rushed to enjoy themselves in the independent way that only young boys growing into manhood can.

He, in turn, answered her look by mumbling something about "going for a long walk in the woods", while she announced that she would take Maer and go up the river to collect some wild flowers.  However when she asked Kirene if she wanted to get the picnic ready, the eldest of her children surprised her by saying that she would rather go along on the walk with him.  It was the first time Rune had ever heard Kirene speak out against, or rather not just quietly agree with, whatever her mother suggested, ordered or decided.

"As you like."  Said Mother and within a few minutes she had taken Maer and left for the fields of wild flowers.  How Fate can quietly bend peoples lives.

Soon after Mother left the house Kirene and Rune set out for their walk and within an hour they were far from the clearing and following game trails through virgin forest.  It was a beautiful day, clear, sunny and quiet as only country days can be.  Canopies of branches above their heads made the forest a place of wonderment, pierced with brilliant shafts of sunlight in which small flies and dust motes swirled in almost magical dance.  The blanket of last year's fallen leaves and forest moss, through which the emerald shafts of new spring grass were again growing, gave the whole scene a quietness that was both beautiful and mystical at the same time.

They had been out of the house for just over an hour, when he looked at Kirene as they made their way through that silent wonderland and he suddenly saw her as a woman for the first time in his life.  It would seem ridiculous later but it came to him as a shock, as if he had returned after several years’ absence to find her full grown.  He found himself watching her every movement in wonder that bordered on astonishment.  When had it happened?  Why had he never noticed before the way her hips swayed as she walked, how her firm young legs moved beneath the homespun dress and her young breasts, that for some reason he had never really noticed before, now commanded his attention as he watched them sway heavily with each step she took?  Her long hair was a healthy mane that seemed to balance her youthful walk and it shone in the shafts of sunlight like spun gold, perfectly framing the face of a woman who only hours before he had seen only as a child.

How the inevitable happened was an accident.  She stopped to avoid a half hidden log, doing so suddenly enough for him to all but walk straight into her as she turned to warn him.  To keep his balance and not knock her over, he put his hands on her, not just anywhere but cupping those newly observed breasts.  It was done, and yet he had not meant to do it.  If she had said something, or reacted with shock or embarrassment, then perhaps it would have gone no further, but she smiled and did not move, that is until her hands rose with the purpose of covering his own.  She held his hands on her, pressing them against her, so slightly that had he not been so nervous he might not have even noticed that she was doing it.  Then she slowly lifted her face and looked directly into his eyes and the sister he had known these many years was gone for ever.  Her hands moved slowly away from his and he removed them from her, feeling more awkward than he had ever felt before.  She never took her eyes from his face.  How can one describe such a look?  Her pupils were like polished jet set in green liquid spheres that floated in pure white.  They shone like the eyes of a Saint, innocence and need pouring forth from them at the same time.  Her lips were full, parted slightly to show pearl white teeth as she began unlacing her dress with careful finger movements. 

Rune noticed for the first time how beautiful her slim hands were as she slipped the thongs free.  It was as if she had practiced what she was now doing many times in her mind, and he was transfixed as if under a spell. Before he knew it the homespun garment slipped from her body and she stood before him completely naked.  He would hear poets later who would claim that a man can be blinded by the purity of innocence offered willingly for the ultimate sacrifice of self, yet he was not blinded in any way that wonderful morning, instead his eyes feasted on her beauty; her skin and the warmth of life that trembled through her as she offered herself to him, and it was all but breath taking.  She was beauty in perfection caught up in the body of a girl, a body that was as graceful as a young cat, lithe and without excess.  Her breasts were half-spheres that clung to her with a firmness that only suggested softness, with rose-pink buds centered on them that had grown to bursting point with the passion of the moment.  She was obviously also caught up in the fantasy of the hour like a tightly coiled spring, almost shivering with her new feelings of need and the audacity of her actions in inviting him to join her in this moment of discovering her womanhood for the very first time.

Unashamed and yet shy at the same moment in space and time, she moved the step to bring her against his body and he lowered his head to kiss her. The embrace was tightly held and her scent rose into his nostrils to overwhelm his senses, even as her soft lips touched his own.  During that eternity he felt her tongue press against his lips, opening them and forcing itself into his mouth; where it searched out the flavours that only his own tongue had known before.  Without command his hands stroked up and down her back, feeling the tightness increase, until she stepped back and away from him, his loss almost bringing a cry from his throat.  

Her eyes, which had been closed while they kissed, opened and she looked directly into his soul as she said, ”I love you Rune.  I always have loved you and I always will."

All around them it seemed as if the forest itself was hushed, waiting to observe the conclusion to this unfolding play.  Sunlight speared through the branches above them crossing Kirene's young body in stripes of sparking gold and contrasting with the warmth of the flesh caught in nature's earth colored shadow.  Somewhere a bird picked that moment to launch into a peal-like chain of clear notes, a fanfare to the beauty Rune beheld before him and desired even above life itself at that moment.  Then, as if caught in a dream, Kirene lowered herself onto the forest floor.  It was like a dance that time had spread over longer than such movements should ever take.  Her hair folded with perfection as it spilled over her shoulders, to be brushed back with a double handed movement allowing him to worship the sensuousness of the action and giving her the pleasure of savouring his desperate need for her.  Her legs folded with grace beneath her as she lowered herself to the ground, taking the weight on her hands in a way that allowed her full breasts to sway in perfect symmetry with her movements.  Then she lay backwards until the ground cushioned her shoulders and her hands again wrapped her hair out of the way, as if hiding one square inch of her skin from him might destroy the magic.  Her legs spread before her towards him and the curve of her body was enhanced as she moved with a body-embracing moan of longing.  Still not saying a word, Rune removed his tunic and knelt before her as a peasant will kneel when worshiping a shrine.  With a natural longing, exhibited without shyness or shame of any kind, her arms came up to pull him down and the girl became a woman in that moment.

Rune understood for the first time the perfection the Gods have planned into the joining of two souls in the act of lovemaking.  There was as much giving, if not more, than taking, a search for pure pleasure that sheared away all pretences from him.  A surrender to satisfaction and enjoyment that was multiplied as one felt it reflected in the other, satisfaction mirrored and thereby increased, if not created only for that moment in time.  Each of them drawing from an unending stream of pure pleasure, selfish in its enjoyment, yet needing to be shared to even exist.  Feelings that were perfectly right, whole and without equal, as every part of the body and mind came alive at once to complete their understanding and the gentle but complete conquest of each other.  Like ripples of Heaven itself, love and desire played their tunes upon them and the seconds became hours and minutes days, with the end coming too soon, with desperation for it to continue being lost beneath the pounding waves of fulfilment they could not at last deny.

Afterwards Kirene lay cupped in his arms in a silent smiling half sleep, leaving him to wonder on the mixture of guilt and satisfaction that was running through his head.  It was a long time before they got up and began the walk back home.  For Rune it was a journey that was punctuated by moments of pure happiness which made them skip, tumble and laugh with each other and also with moments when they walked in what seemed like very solemn thought, contemplating the implications of what they had done and how the future now had responsibilities it had not had for them before.  He remembered little of that long walk back save the beauty of the forest, a feeling that never again could he be alone and rehearsing over and over again how he would explain to Mother what had transpired that morning, yet it seemed that through everything else part of him was hoping that the affair might be able to remain an eternal secret.  

 

* * * * * * *
 

The End of Tranquillity

 

Just before nightfall they came out of the forest and into their clearing and as they did so their very world fell apart.  Havor's Holding was a scene of total and heart-numbing destruction.  Still smoking timbers of the house jutted up from collapsed walls and everywhere bodies were sprawled exactly where they had died.  The silence of the place was deafening and for some time the two lovers just stood and stared at the disaster that had happened while they had made love only a few miles away.  The shock, which had frozen them, ended abruptly when Kirene screamed and made to run towards the house.  Rune only just managed to restrain her and it took several minutes to calm her down enough to understand that perhaps the danger was not yet past.  He persuaded the sobbing girl to take cover under some bushes and convinced her that if anything happened she was to run into the forest and hide.  Immediately!  Without waiting for him!  Then Rune started towards the house.

The steps that made up that walk were like the beat of a funeral drum, each one increasing his observation of the disaster that even yet his mind tried to convince him could not have happened.  Their home no longer burnt, although a light smoke still rose from the charred timbers and here and there a sporadic breeze fanned glowing red embers to life.  The scene was one of unbelievable savagery and as he walked it was simple to piece together exactly what had happened.  Vanaten's slaves had managed to escape from him and, obviously led by Casper Havor, they had returned to the farm.  The buyer had followed them with his men and, Rune gathered from the many horse signs on the ground, with a detachment of troopers from some nearby garrison.  For his zeal in attempting to reclaim his property the buyer had been rewarded with death.  He laid near the house in almost comic crookedness holding with both his hands the crossbow bolt that had pierced his chest and taken his life.  His bloodless face still held a look of shock that he could actually be killed.

For some reason, the signs showed, the slaves had been in the house when their pursuers had arrived and had then run from it towards the river.  The result of that decision proved it had been one of desperation that had gone wrong for them, for their path was littered with bodies that had been brought down by charging cavalry and well aimed crossbows.  None of them had had any chance of escape, for they had not had the time to remove their shackles and slowed by those chains they must have presented easy targets to the soldiers charging after them.  The last body he came to was heaped as if he had fallen to his knees in prayer, the broken lance had entered him in the back beneath the left shoulder blade and protruded enough to hold him off the ground in a kneeling position.

Rune reached the house and turned the corner to go round the barn when the sight that greeted his eyes made him retch.  The survivors had been herded into a bunch and then systematically shot down.  In the sprawling heap he saw Mother's body and those of her two sons.  Kirdi had three bolts protruding from his chest, his pathetic little knife still clenched in his fist.  Casper Havor had obviously tried to shield his family and for his bravery had one bolt firmly planted between his shoulder blades and the shaft of another protruded from the back of his skull.  With a heaving stomach Rune checked every body in that terrible pile, only to cry out with agony when he found little Maer crushed beneath her mother's body, showing no signs of assault, but dead nevertheless, probably suffocated by her own mother's body.  The troopers had done their job with a dedication to slaughter.  No-one had survived.

In a daze Rune carried the bodies of Mother, her husband and each of the children back to the front of the house and then he took up the spade they had used to cover the kilns and he dug five shallow graves.  Casper Havor weighed little more than Kirdi and Maer was so light in his arms he was able to step down into the grave with her.  It was their faces which made the greatest impression on Rune's senses; they all looked just as if they were only asleep, not dead, never again to talk to him, but just asleep.  There were some flowers blooming in the corner of the yard that Mother had planted when the boys and he were digging the well.  Rune picked some and laid them in the grave with little Maer, before he covered the bodies with earth.  He thought she would have liked that because his little Maer had always liked flowers.

When the burying was done, Rune had picked his way through the rubble to retrieve his belongings from beneath the hearth stone, swearing as the retained heat of the large stone blistered his fingers as he tore it loose. Then he had returned to gather up Kirene and they set off without delay to put as much distance between them and that nightmare as they could, and before others came to investigate.  They did not talk as they walked, for there was nothing either of them could say right then that would have taken away the pain and the horror.

In the same afternoon, only a few miles apart, two lovers had experienced the joy of complete happiness, while only a short distance away their family had been destroyed like animals before a lust for violence no one would ever be able to justify nor would he ever be able to understand.  So is often the paradox of humanity.  There was no comfort in such logic that night though, as Kirene and Rune stumbled, wet eyed and in shock, away from the only home and family they had ever known.  In the clearing behind them there was no sound.  The animals had been stolen or had run off into the forest and even the birds were not singing in that place now.  The fruit trees around the house were in blossom, the new grass was like a blanket of emerald green abundance and the river flowed in silent splendour through that picture of sorrow as they left the place.  

It seemed that if only someone could have painted a picture, just leaving out the smouldering ruins of the house that had been their home and take away the already stiffening bodies that lay around the ruins as evidence of the murder that had been committed there, it would be a picture of how every man and woman dreamed heaven itself would be.

 

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Seven

TAKING THE POWER

 

 Ragarian stamped into the Council Chamber in a filthy temper, his robes swirling about him like banners leading an infantry charge.  Looking directly ahead and ignoring those already seated, he all but marched to his throne set at the end of the table furthest from the door.

The table was crowded with his administrators, each with their own body servant stood behind them ready to run errands, or serve their respective masters every wish.  Then there were twenty five of Ragarian's Personal Guard evenly placed around the perimeter of the room, with a further grouping of assembled clerks and heralds at a table behind his throne, ready to look up references and take complete notes of everything that was said.  More than one hundred people had been sweating and breathing in this dark and dank mausoleum for the past hour.  The place stank!

"Open the windows and let some air into this place."  Ragarian snapped at some minor clerk as he himself took his place.  Before that the room had been completely silent from the moment he had entered.  Servants and even some of the clerks ran to obey the command, throwing open the great leaded windows to let a great flood of fresh ocean scented air into the room, accompanied by the far off sounds of the waves that forever crashed onto the granite cliffs two hundred feet beneath them.

"We shall dispense with the usual rigmarole Gentlemen, I am late and there is much to deal with.” He waved away the herald stepping forward to recite from the Court Role the agenda for the day, much to the startled embarrassment of the poor man, who hustled off trying to contain within his fumbling hands the ceremonial sized roll of parchment as he did so.

“We can also forget the usual social and court rubbish, this meeting is going to get some very real results, or I will be replacing some of the members of this council before the day is out."  Ragarian snapped.

No-one volunteered comment or suggestion, which was just as well, for Ragarian felt that the first pandering fool to begin some preamble of sanctimonious fawning might easily lose his head, understanding the Priest of Priest's present mood.  All around him these days Ragarian found only bureaucracy and inefficiency, where every task down to the most menial job in his administration seemed to have no less than a dozen people involved in it, with not one of them able, or willing, to take the responsibility when it was invariably botched.  He waited at least a full and very pregnant minute before he spoke again and when he did he noticed that not one of the officials present seemed willing to take their eyes off that small area of the table's surface directly in front of them.

"In the last month it would appear that the God's themselves have taken on a very strange sense of humour, in that all the news I hear is bad news.  One month ago we sat here and discussed how we were going to stop losing ships at sea, prevent outlaws from burning off our crops and destroying bridges, and how we were going to gain control over the corruption and crime which appear about to declare a state of anarchy within Khanlar.  Instead, the reports of accidents, mishaps, crimes and man-made disasters are increasing with every passing day."  He paused for a few seconds and then changing from what had been almost shouting, he said quietly, "Is there anyone present who would like to take responsibility for this crisis?"

Now they looked at him.  A few incredulous looks, a few sidelong, careful and evaluating glances, but the majority just showed how inept they were at statecraft, for their faces betrayed no emotion whatsoever.  Ragarian's wrath gave way for a few seconds to complete frustration, making him feel like a man trying to reinforce a crumbling dam with handfuls of mud as it disintegrated all around him.  As he replaced one bumbling incompetent, he without fail uncovered the existence of at least three more.  

Finally General Toragor rescued him from the feeling of having lost the initiative, by offering an almost whispered statement that no doubt he hoped would please his Lord.  "Sire, we have cancelled the proposed demobilization of the 6th Army and I am re-assigning them to patrolling the Southern Nations."

Ragarian almost smiled at the politically correct reference to the Nations of the Asigan Alliance; however the humour left as soon as it had risen.  

"I read the Court Roll as well General.  I notice that in the last month we have lost two granaries, neither of them in the Southern Nations I might add; seven fully laden ships have left port never to return, a point I emphasize because I find it strange that the only ships we lose seem to be laden to the gunnels with valuable cargo and that to date we have not lost one ship returning home empty.  Our tally for murdered soldiers in our army this month sets a new record, eighty-one men dead when we are not at war, twenty-five of them in a single ambush on an open road in broad daylight.  Seven ferries on the Waterway have mysteriously caught fire and were sunk, before our valiant fire fighters found out about it.  One hundred and fifty seven highway robberies, God's know how many other acts of mayhem that were not reported. I finally gave up reading the reports in disgust.  It has to stop!  We have to bring it to an end!"  

He slammed his fist down on the table making everyone jump in surprise, immediately regretting it as the pain shot up his arm.

"Sire we are no longer fighting an organized army that we can bring military tactics to bear upon."   General Toragor halted to see if he was going to gain the approval to continue.  Ragarian nodded at him, his face set as if in anger, as he tried to hide the pain in his right arm.  "Sire,“ The General continued;  " I would need men at every street corner, every crossroads and every ferry, to stop what is happening.  The outlaws come out of hiding, strike, and then disappear before my troops can get there.  If I did not know better I would swear that they were all operating under a very sophisticated central control system."

"Maybe they are."  Ragarian said very softly.

"What?"  Exclaimed a large man at the other end of the table. 

Ragarian searched his memory to establish who the man was. Then it came to him, Portanlin, the Bishop of Mozag, appointed immediately after the war by his predecessors.  Again Ragarian felt as if he and he alone, truthfully understood the situation in the countryside outside of the major cities that was bringing calamity upon Khanlar across the land.  He aimed both his gaze and his words directly at Portanlin, staring directly at that spot between the Bishop's eyes with monolithic intensity.  It was a trick he had learned many years ago and it almost always reduced the person it was aimed at into dropping their eyes, for to them it appeared as if the person doing it was in fact out-staring them, when in reality the user of this trick never had to achieve actual eye contact themselves. 

"We fought a very well organized army when we took on Prince Zorigan, Bishop Portanlin, why is it unbelievable that some of the officers we failed to round up or kill in the war should not now be creating a central command?  Come to that we never did identify Prince Zorigan amongst the dead did we?  That old goat was one of the greatest minds Khanlar has ever seen, and even if he is dead, why is it impossible that he could not have made plans for annoying us in case he was defeated?"  Ragarian found that even as he spoke the words as a sarcastic jibe, it in fact had much in its favour from a logical point of view, so much so that he found his temper cooling, for here was a new possibility for his intelligence officers to examine.

"Sire if this is so, and it has its logic by the God's, then there must be a way to breach it.  Such a sophisticated organization would need to have at least one permanent center, or at the very least enough temporary ones for us to infiltrate."  It was Bishop Canarar from Araz who spoke, ”Sire, I would suggest that instead of waiting for them to attack before we can act, we might find it more profitable if we prepared a trap for them that was too opportune for them to resist."

"Make it so, if it is possible for you to do so."  Ragarian said, "Any other suggestions gentlemen?" The room broke into many conversations at once and might have continued until Ragarian chose to end it, except that Bishop Vanatin of Rangar stood up at that moment.  Vanatin was a man that Ragarian had little liking for, however he held the popinjay in high esteem.  The man dressed effeminately, had his hands manicured daily and always smelled as if he had just left his bath, but his mind was as sharp as any in Khanlar.  

"Sire." Even his voice was sweet, but it was far too affected however to be any measure of what he might be thinking, “I for one would trust any man in this Chamber, however . . .” Ragarian smiled, for he truly doubted that Vanatin had ever trusted anybody, but he nodded for him to continue, making a mental note to investigate this politically gifted man as soon as resources allowed. 

“. . . However, it might be wise to expect that if such a plot has been hatched, then it is not unlikely that there just might be a spy in this very room as we speak.  I would suggest therefore Sire that you choose a small committee from amongst us and retire to discuss strategy in more secret a manner.  I apologize to everyone present, I really do not mean to presume anything, nor cast doubt upon anyone, but I think we all know that what I suggest just might be possible."

"Agreed!"  Ragarian said, feeling even more respect for this man's ability with a situation needing delicate control  "Let us continue and deal with the more mundane matters of our responsibilities gentlemen, I will then send my guards to collect a small contingent of you later, say half a dozen to begin with and we shall pursue this matter further.  Thank you Vanatin, your advice is well taken, as always."

The meeting then settled into an embarrassing and embarrassed few moments of contemplation of what had just transpired, before Ragarian allowed the clerk to begin reading the roll, noting just how astonished the man was with what he had just heard.  

 

* * * * * * *

 

Council of War

 

A few hours before sunset Ragarian sat in his study with the men he had chosen to discuss the possibility of creating an organized campaign to destroy those forces threatening his realm and his long held dreams of being remembered by History as a great man.  General Toragor stood near the fireplace, nursing a goblet of brandy he had barely touched in the thirty minutes since he had poured it.  In his early sixties, Toragor looked every inch a General, nearly as tall as Ragarian himself, the man had half again the Priest of Priest's bulk, all of it distributed with the obvious demeanour of a man who exercised regularly and enjoyed being admired.  He was related to several of Khanlar's oldest Royal Houses and had received his education in the Monastery City of Mansa, which had for centuries produced some of the finest military brains in the Church Army from its military monks. Bishop Vanatin sat opposite Ragarian, his legs crossed beneath his robe affecting a pose that would have not been out of place amongst nuns in a convent.  The man oozed education, power and arrogance; he knew his abilities and everything about him projected that assured knowledge.

Bishop Canarar occupied the chair to the right of him and Admiral Vishnay sat to his left.  At the far end of the small table between them Administrator Polonik sat, pen poised, with a large pad of paper ready to take notes.

"Let us begin with the obvious."  Ragarian started the conversation,  "Firstly we must assume that many of our own people may be involved in this scheme against us for the sake of profit, if not for political idealism, therefore we must be sure that we do not show our hand before we are absolutely ready to achieve our objectives.  I therefore expect gentlemen, that we shall leave this room with each of you charged with individual tasks that you should perform in utmost secrecy.  Charge those you use only with the task at hand and tell them no more than they need to know to carry out their own individual responsibility to assuring the success of our schemes."  

The nods and agreement were those of people hearing the stating the obvious; however it was Admiral Vishnay who threw the first conversational dice that evening.  "Sire, if there is indeed an organized rebellion taking place, then I must believe that they have a base of some sort somewhere. You do not take ships at sea by swimming up to them. They must have ships.  If they have ships, then just so they must also have a base to supply and support them!"

"Not necessarily so Admiral."  It was Vanatin who spoke.  "It is also possible that these pirates who are attacking our ships are using ships that return to our own ports after they have taken one of our vessels.  They would merely have to sink each vessel they capture after robbing it of its cargo, from there proceeding on to killing the crew and feeding them to the fish.  If it happened at night, or in deserted waters, who would know?  Then, having dropped off the stolen cargo at some deserted beach for their fellows to hide, they could sail back into port without suspicion."

"I could put a stop to that by searching every ship about to leave port for the armament they would need to carry off such a capture."  General Toragor looked almost happy for the first time in weeks; ”Come to that we could inspect them when they return as well, compare their papers, check for injuries, for it would be a rare occurrence if some of them did not get injured in their line of work, and we could search each vessel that docked anywhere in Khanlar for any clues that they might have loaded and then off-loaded contraband cargo between leaving port and returning."

"What if they left Araz and sailed to Cimar, or some other port, and then returned to Araz quite innocently after doing as you suggest Bishop Vanatin?  How would we ever discover their extra little escapade had happened en route?"  It was Bishop Canarar's major talent that he was a cynic.

"Put a soldier on every ship leaving port with papers to hand to the Garrison Commander at every port that vessel puts into."  Admiral Vishnay snapped. "Pass a law saying that every ship sailing the seas must carry what we could call an Inspector General, pay these bodies well so that they can not be bribed and make them understand the penalties for failure and you will know for sure that nothing will go on at sea between legal activities."

"Make it so."  Said Ragarian, confirming that Polonik was actually still making notes of the conversation, ”Brilliant Admiral, a simple yet certain solution. But give every Inspector General a password to confirm his identity when he reaches his port of destination. Also explain to him that if he should give up that password, for whatever reason, torture or bribe, all of his immediate family will be sold into slavery!"

"Sire, if they do have a base unknown to us."  Vanatin said quietly.  "it has to be where normal sea traffic cannot discover it, which would place it on the seaward side of one of the many islands around our coast.  It could be anywhere, or there might be a secret bay somewhere along our very great coastline which is not on our maps."

"If that is the case then it can be found.  I will put a squadron of ships to sailing around the whole continent to search for such a bay."  Said Admiral Vishnay.  "And so that it does not become common knowledge, even to those carrying it out, we can in fact charge them publicly to re-map our entire coastline."

"And I will assemble a regiment of Cavalry to ride around the continent along the coastline to search from the land-side."  Said General Toragor.  "I can charge the Colonel leading the regiment with the task of seeking out areas that could be used by smugglers.  That will raise few eyebrows my Lord, the God's know smuggling has become a national pastime these last few years."

"Agreed!  Make it happen soon gentlemen."  Ragarian stated.  Finally he felt that they were achieving something and he made a mental note that it was indeed probable that it was the traditional system of large, almost ceremonial, meetings that had been used to rule the Church all these years, that just might be contributing to the failures in his administration, then he added,  "That will be the first part of our plan, then if no such bay is found and if all of our ships prove innocent, we will know for sure that these pirates operate from one of the island Nations.  If three months from now if we know it must be so, then we shall send a fleet to blockade those nations and enact our wrath upon the perpetrators."

"Sire."  It was Polonik who spoke, "I have noted that the only Island Nations with their own ships are Lunza, Mardis, Dag, Morlan and Goja.  I would suggest Sire that it might be sensible to send squadrons of our best fighting ships to investigate the other islands that are without Nation status around our coastline as soon as possible."

"Consider it done."  Said the Admiral.

"Sire."  The smooth voice of Vanatin once again entered the conversation, ”I would, if I might, suggest another possible avenue that we might use to ferret out these criminals.  I have several retainers that I trust completely whom I could employ to search out information.  I believe that we all have such people available to us.  What if we were to combine these resources and send them out to begin seeking answers to all of our problems?  They might find out things that alone would be useless, but assembled into an overall report just might identify where all of our problems are coming from."

"I would expect you to organize that my friend."  Said Ragarian; hearing his voice say the words of trust, while his heart at the same moment instructed him to keep a very watchful eye on this man, whose assistance tonight was only proving that he might well be a formidable adversary one day, if things continued to disintegrate around them.

"I would be honoured Sire."  Vanatin replied.

And so were the most important matters resolved.  The conversation continued for another hour, but it only held minor improvements on the original plan.  Ragarian however was pleased when they left his chambers that night.  Perhaps he was about to turn the tide.
 

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Eight

MANATOR THE GUARDIAN

 

It would never be possible for Rune to ever forget the emotions he felt at that moment.  The experience began at the second it began to burn itself into that level of his mind that contains all the uncontrollable emotions of a man.  Fear whirled in his mind in concentric partnership with helplessness, not unlike the awakening he had lived through in the swamp, when he had opened his eyes to be greeted by a Hell no sane man could survive without blocking most of it from his memories.  He had thought at the time that it might well be the memory that would float before him when the Gods came to lead him into Paradise, and yet today almost matched it in fright.

The words that woke him this day came at precisely the moment the morning sunlight fell upon his face.  Opening his eyes in panic he saw a stately figure in silhouette standing before him, towering like a giant on a small rise in the ground.  Behind the intruder the total majesty of the dawn sky gave him a form of god-like majesty.

 "My name is Manator” said the stately voice, ”and I come as your guide, Lord Jarin, Prince of Natan."

Rune and Kirene had slept their second night after leaving Havor's Holding beneath a centuries old spreading oak tree, taking advantage of the shelter its branches provided them from the night dew.  It had been a restless night, but they had both at last fallen into a sleep of exhaustion, into a night world inhabited by real and false threats.  Now this apparition came to haunt them; and yet as Rune awoke and the words were translated into his consciousness, he realized that for some reason he did not feel there was any real reason for him to be afraid. 

Kirene had come awake at the moment the stranger had spoken also, and as their straining eyes separated the intruder from the rising sun behind him, they saw that this Manator was by far the best dressed man they could ever remember seeing.  He stood more than six feet in height and wore a rich purple cloak over a gown of the same colour.  His hair was pure white, hanging past his shoulders in full waves framing a wise face and his white beard hung down onto his chest.  About his head he wore a golden band and in his right hand he carried a black staff, which was topped with a facetted cut crystal ball the size of a man's fist.

How could Rune ever explain to someone who has never been without memory themselves just how Manator's words affected him on that morning?  Part of him screamed to hear everything Manator might know of him, his family, his past, his friends - and yet another part of him wanted to label it all just a vision and refuse the rescue so long awaited.

What if this well dressed intruder were no more than a clever old man, hoping to lure them with lies into the arms of their enemies, while posing to have answers for all of Rune's doubts, hurts and fears of these past five years?  He also had Kirene to consider.  Her face showed her to be near panic, if not hysteria.  It was obvious that to her Manator was another stranger, possibly one of the strangers who had dealt destruction to all she had ever held dear back at the Holding. 

Rune realized just how much she needed him at that moment, as she moved, without a sound, nearer to him and grasped his hand, never taking her eyes off the old man, eyes that looked as frightened as a wild stallion that has been roped for the first time.  The grown woman in her had completely gone and in its place was the worried little girl who had shyly stayed in the shadows when the troopers had visited their home that winter morning so long ago.  With that uncanny, almost communal, feeling of fear that all women can summon forth in the wink of an eye when someone threatening comes near them or theirs without warning, Kirene sought the protection of the nearest male she could trust.

"Why do you address me as the Lord Jarin, Prince of Natan?  I do not know you, old man!"   Rune was surprised to hear his words sound so free of the tension that made his heart thump like a processional drum within him.   "I neither know you, nor who I was before I came to this forest.  Obviously you know that I am without the normal memories of most men and use this God's given curse of mine against me.  I fear your words are some sort of trap, which I warn you Sir is dangerous folly to bring to me at this time. My sister and I are travelling north this day and we have no wish for a companion." 

He took a deep breath and shifted his weight to get his right hand nearer to his axe, as Manator smiled and nodded at Rune's words.  "I understand Prince Jarin."  The older man sat down with his staff held before him.  "I saw the horror at what was your home and it is true that I know of your loss of memory; however I have no wish, nor reason, to do anything but help you at this time when you are in such great need of my help.  I came a long way to find you my boy, only to have to search amongst the dead and praying all the while not to find your body.  When I realized you were not one of the slain, I found your trail and I have followed you the past two days and nights . . .  (he smiled) . . . travelling always towards the east, I might add." 

The old man then carefully removed some small cakes from a pocket within his cloak and offered two of the confections to them.  Their hesitation brought another understanding smile and the stranger took a small bite out of each one of the pastries, before passing the cakes to them. 

They all but swallowed the cakes whole.  Manator nodded towards Kirene before he spoke again to Jarin.  "The child has indeed seen the worst side of the human character Prince Jarin and has experienced man's ability for evil, yet there are many who have lived through much worse and they have more often than not learned to live with such memories and in time they learn to grow and laugh and enjoy a normal life yet again."

Rune eventually could keep his curiosity in check no longer and addressed the stranger as if he were a student questioning his teacher.  He chose his words well, remembering the treasures he had wrapped in a bundle behind his head and Mother's guess that he might well have been an aristocrat before the Battle of Mang.   "It worries me that you feel you can come to us, far from our home and after all that has happened to us the last few days and then blandly announce that you know me to be a Prince, old man."  He paused for a moment and then said, ”If you were I Sir, would you not feel somewhat uncomfortable in the situation that you have placed me in?" 

Manator smiled again and nodded knowingly," You are Prince Jarin of Natan. Despite your lack of knowledge or belief of it right now, I assure you my boy that you will be able to believe it soon enough.  You are the last of the Royal Blood that led the Brotherhood and the Great Asigan Alliance, and now the time has come when you must claim your place and title once more.  Too much time has passed while you have lived the simple pastoral life of a peasant; now young man you have no choice, but to put all of that behind you and go on to fulfil the manifest destiny to which you were born."

He then directed his attention to Kirene, whose initial fear had obviously been slowly replaced by somewhat better feelings towards the stranger,   "You, my dear, are Kirene, the daughter of Casper Havor the charcoal burner and a subject of the Nation of Natan.  I understand very well what you feel my dear, for over the years these old eyes have seen much of a kind to what you have experienced these past few days.  I can only ask you to trust me and to believe that I mean you only good." 

To Rune he said," As for the two of you needing a companion, you may believe me that you have need of this particular companion that you see before you Prince Jarin, for I can take Kirene and yourself to safety through places where on your own you would end up the property of slavers, fall victim of robbers, become prisoners of the Church, or suffer even worse."

Manator handed them some more oat cakes and gave Rune/Jarin a small flask to draw on that contained sweet, honey flavoured liquor.  The brew warmed his throat and his heart at the same time.  It came as a shock to him that he was thinking of himself under the name of Jarin already and wondering why after all these years of being known as Rune, the very word that had been his family name was already fast slipping from him as anything personal.  Even so, he realized that if they did not let the old man travel with them there were only two other choices open to him.  They could leave Manator to his own devices and the old man might betray them, or he could kill this wise old man.

Rune saw that the former would only increase their danger, if Manator did indeed wish them harm and the latter Jarin knew was beyond him at this time.  There had been far too much killing in the last few days already for him to contemplate any more at this moment, even if his life depended upon it.  

"We will travel with you old man and you can tell us your stories as we walk, but should you play us false. . ."   Jarin's words died as he saw the warmth of compassion spread the laugh lines in Manator's face and the twinkle in the old man's grey eyes almost sparkled.

And so it was that that morning they travelled on, still eastward but this time in the company of Manator the Guardian.  As they walked Manator related tales of wonder to them, of a past that Jarin had forgotten and Kirene had never been told of; and the old man imparted an understanding of the history of Khanlar that fascinated both of them in its telling from the moment he began. 

The words came like a reading from a book.  For seven long tiring days Manator continued, answering their questions, repeating himself when asked and always without fault, as they made their way through the forests and countryside towards the port city of Atlar, although during their trek they never once suspected that to have been his intended destination, for from the very start he never mentioned it by name.  Along the way they stopped at many isolated farms and holdings and always they received food and assistance, for it seemed that those they met during their journey held their guide in great awe.  

 

* * * * * * *

 

Manator’s Tale

 

The laughter lines around his eyes and mouth deepened into a knowing smile, each time he embarked upon a new twist in his tale, as if he found real amusement each time the Gods thwarted the pomposity of men.

"Many years ago, in an age long before you were born Jarin, a young man inherited the title of Prince in the Nation of Asiga.  His name was Zorigan and the fact was that he had never expected to gain his grandfather's crown, for he was only the second son of a living father and his father had two elder brothers who preceded him in line to the title.  However the God's and not men, decide who shall rule and by the time Zorigan's grandfather passed into the after-life the young man had buried his father and older brother and both of his uncles had died without sons alive to follow them into power."

"So it was that young Prince Zorigan of the Royal House of Asiga, who had very little training in the ways of State, became the ruler of one of the richest Nations in Khanlar at twenty three years of age.  Physically Zorigan was not anyone's idea of a prince either, for he stood little higher than you did at thirteen years old Jarin and he was studious, rather than manly or outgoing in his character.  None found him handsome and his manner in the days of his youth, was to wear clothes of simple cut and unflattering colours and if that was not bad enough in the company of his flamboyant cousins, he no sooner put on a suit of clothes than it did not look as if he had already slept in them for a week.  It was said at the time that he would probably not live to be thirty, for he seemed so pale and frail compared to his cousins and he suffered in his youth from some skin disorder that brought his face out in boils and pimples as often as a young woman menstruates.  He stuttered, and he was small and scrawny rather than tall and handsome as a Prince is supposed to be, and his hair seemed to grow in so many directions that it could not be made to look decent by even the best barbers in the land.  Yet this man changed Khanlar in a way that no other man had done in a millennium and he reigned for fifty two years before dying at the head of a charging army.  He was the least inspiring Prince any man had ever imagined and yet he lived a life that surprised everyone with what great things he was able to accomplish from inside such an unlikely body."

While Manator talked of the physical weakness, even laughable bearing, of the subject of his tale Jarin found himself wondering at the strength of the man who was telling it.  There was no doubt that Manator was well into his sixties and yet he walked with the stride of a man half his age, head erect, shoulders firmly set and his steps purposeful and measured in an almost military gait.  Yet the words he span together came forth with clarity and force, as if he were addressing a great audience, with no lack of breath or vigour despite the obvious stress his marching along the trail would have placed upon a man far younger than he must surely be.

"Zorigan's wisdom and his obviously very personal care for his people, you could say for all people, was to be the cause of all his pain in later life and was in the end to bring his very death.  When Zorigan moved into the Palace at Asiga, Khanlar was a land of violent extremes and religious dogma and had been so for many centuries, much as it is again in this land now that he is gone.  The poor lived then, as they do today, knowing that in all probability their children would spend much of their lives sold out to bond owners, if not end up on the slaver's block as debt slaves so that their family might survive.  The rich knew that nothing could ever threaten them in their fortress palaces, surrounded as they were by their feudal armies.  Merchants grew fat and Priests even fatter, for the poor were more numerous than trees in a forest and they were kept poor and illiterate and without any hope at all, unless they could gain a rich man's favour.  Most women and all children were seen then as they are again today as merely the property of some man. As the Gods have always seen fit to allow, the ruling classes seemed to despise the poor and heaped upon them more hardship with every passing year.  Zorigan changed that for a while, for he believed that every person, poor and rich alike, women as well as men and even the youngest child, were all human beings granted life by the Gods, and that they all deserved the equal respect of all others."

Again a knowing smile brought a sparkle to his eyes, as he helped Kirene with a steady hand step over a small brook they came to at that moment in the story.  He then lifted his gown with his free hand, hopped over the stream and continued talking without so much as a pause.

"The land in those days, as it is today, was hard pressed to feed the numbers that sprang forth from the unions brought about by poor men trying to prove their manhood by doing the only thing they could afford to do and the women using the only value they had in such a world to hopefully snare a provider. Copulation would seem to be the sport and hobby of the poor, for it is a drug that allows them to escape their poverty for a moment and makes them equal to even their richest neighbours and yet it does nothing more than provide them with even more mouths to feed, and in turn merely guarantees continued and worsening poverty for parent and child alike."

"The Church of course encourages this continuous breeding and in fact has passed laws that would make heretics of any married man or woman who do not produce a never ending chain of smaller versions of themselves to support the Priests and the Establishment.  I often think that the Church long ago worked it out for themselves that if a man has the choice between education and food for his children and only the funds to buy one or the other, he would buy his children food and thereby deny them and himself an education.  The idea of an educated population would I believe, give every priest in Khanlar a never ending nightmare of impending poverty and loss of power.  I often wonder if our great Church did not set out to engineer a state where poor women are kept barefoot and pregnant and poor men are kept working every hour they can, and drunk when they are not working, just to ensure no-one has the knowledge or energy to consider revolution."

"Then Prince Zorigan came along and changed everything. He built a school and a hospital for the poor outside the gates of Asiga in the first year of his reign and paid for them with a penny tax upon merchants entering the city to buy or sell their wares.  He was to use a great deal of his own inherited fortune on good works during his reign and to everyone's surprise the results soon began to pay the Asigan coffers huge dividends.  It took a few years of course, but in time his road building made trade easier and the sanitation improvements and new building programs that he made happen reduced the number of illnesses suffered by his people, allowing them to be ever more productive in their labours.  He stopped all but a few of the hereditary positions within his administration and when he did that he found that Asiga soon began attracting the very best people from all over Khanlar, for they reasoned that only in Asiga they would have the opportunity to advance themselves by applying their talents.  Agricultural advances were so great it is said, that the profits earned by selling the new strains of seed that his experimenters had developed, brought in greater revenues than all of the punitive taxes that his grandfather had levied upon his subjects."

They had entered a small grove of damson trees and Manator started to pick the ripe sour fruit and pop them into his mouth as he walked, using the action of spitting out the pits as punctuation to his sentences.

"Zorigan's Palace became more like a university than the flamboyant center of social life that most other Khanlarian Princes inhabited.  His people thought of him as a Saint almost from the beginning and he could have asked of them anything and they would have given it to him, as in the end they were to give him their very lives in trying to protect the economic miracle and new freedoms his rule had provided to them."

"His most daring enterprise and his greatest financial success was the Great Market.  It is a building feat not since surpassed and never before had such effort gone into anything less than a major temple, or a rich Prince's palace.  Even the Priests eventually saw its value, and in fact the moment that their troops gained control of it after the War they installed their own clerics to run it.  Of course it is only a shadow of its former glory now, but it stands as a monument to the greatest mind Khanlar produced in many centuries.  It is like a city in itself, overlooking Lake Asiga; it is larger than some of the poorer Nation's cities and is surrounded by the strongest wall built in more than a millennium, even surpassing the great stone walls of the Holy City of Ka.  Its streets are paved with granite blocks cut the size of the average room in a poor man's house and fitted together perfectly.  Some say you cannot insert a knife into the cracks between them more than the width of a fingernail.  Three huge gates allow access to the Great Market; the Merchant's Gate from the City of Asiga itself, the Southern Gate through which all land traffic enters the Market and the Prince's Gate which is joined by a causeway directly to the docks below the cliffs on Lake Asiga."

"In this City of Commerce huge stone built merchant halls competed with each other for the business of Khanlar.  Each Hall dedicated to a particular trade or industry, for Prince Zorigan also founded the Trade Guilds to manage the affairs of each of them.  In fact, even today they remain the center for all governing matters of the Great Guilds, for even the Church did not dare change that, for every freeman in Khanlar knows that his livelihood is dependent upon Guild membership or association.  Even the badges now worn by each Guild's members were designed by Prince Zorigan himself, although many have forgotten that and the Priest's of course deny it.  Our Priest of Priests has even assigned a new God or Goddess to each of the Guilds and installed a Priest into every Hall to take a tithe that makes its way back to Ka.”

Kirene tripped and almost fell at this point in his tale, for her complete and utter concentration on the flow of words Manator was weaving held her attention to the point that several times she had all but missed her footing as she skipped along beside the much taller Guardian.  Manator caught her arm and righted her balance with the reactions of a twenty year old trained in unarmed combat, not even missing a breath as his tale span on.

“Every Hall in the Great Market is exactly the same in construction and architecture as all of the others, except for the Guild Badge above its doors and the flag that flies over its tiled roof. Below the Great Market on the shore of the Lake and built on a man-made promontory fifty feet above the high water mark, is a granary larger by three times than even the one in the Holy City of Ka.  It was kept full by the cargos of the great grain-ships travelling the Waterway with the produce of fields from Navis to Vanzor."

"However my dears, it is the Architecture of the Great Market that is the most impressive thing about the place, and something that no one who has ever seen it will ever forget.  For each Hall is like an enclosed town contained in walls four feet thick, decorated with columns and balconies, with Inns and shops, meeting rooms and offices, even private apartments which can be hired for daily or yearly rents by members of the Guild.  The doors of the Halls swing open at dawn and stay open until well after dark and these doors are works of art in themselves; solid oak covered with the most beautifully worked bronze plating, a pair of them being fifteen feet high and thirty feet wide.  The streets are cleaned constantly by bondsmen in blue uniforms or they were, until the Priests took over and regarded cleanliness as far too expensive.  In Zorigan's days you would never see an animal loose anywhere and even trade animals were not allowed to be driven through the market to the pens, except along one well hidden way devoted to that purpose alone.  Trees grew in uniform beauty along each street and small cafes and Inns, temples, gardens and shops dealing in rare and special items of great value, stood like gems between the Halls.  There were flower beds, lawns, fish ponds and fountains everywhere and it was the joy of every cultured Khanlarian to be able to spend time in that place."

As if the two young forest dwellers did not have enough great visions of man's conquest of the elements, for Manator's words created pictures in their minds far beyond anything they had ever imagined prior to meeting him, their mentor continued building almost fairy tale like pictures in their minds, as his words build worlds of wonder for them to enjoy as they journeyed ever farther eastward.

"The Prince's greatest stroke of genius however, was the great transportation system he established, so little of which has survived the Great War. He created the Guild of Sea Merchants and charged them with establishing regular timetables for ships leaving the coastal ports of Khanlar with each ships ports of passage to be named with expected times of arrival.  He also established the Guild of Watermen, who ply the barges the length of the Great Waterway giving them the same rules of passage; and to both Guilds he gave the task of building Clock Towers in each Port, for without accurate time Trade would have been compromised. He also established an ambitious road building program that he financed to feed his great trading center of Asiga, and its beginnings concerned your paternal grandfather Jarin and Prince Moragan of Dang, who was an old man even then.  Zorigan convinced them to allow him to build the Southern Road, paved all the way and wide enough for three carts to pass abreast of each other, from the Great Market on Lake Asiga to the port city of Dang on the Southern Coast."

"Zorigan also brought in the great port architect, Kotaror of Navis, to create a port beneath the Great Market, where the largest ships could berth and unload onto stone quays.  Kotaror was to work the remainder of his long life in Prince Zorigan's service Jarin and it was he that built the port of Dang to be the tributary of a great trade route from the south, from what had been a small almost deserted fishing quay, and the Port of Norden which grew from a small market town into becoming one of the largest seaports in Khanlar."

"There were many who said Prince Zorigan would ruin himself and the Nation of Asiga with his grandiose dreams.  They said it was only a matter of time before he would lose his great fortune and destroy the economy of Asiga.  They were all to be proved wrong however, again and again, as he continued throughout his life to work like a man who thought he might very well die the next day, always searching for new ideas and ways to improve his advances.  Zorigan had a vision, a mission in fact, and he expected everyone to work with him to achieve it.  What was amazing was that almost everyone did, for everyone who knew him soon became swept up in his ambitions and search for improvement.  It was truly a Golden Age for everyone involved, even the Church itself heaped praise upon him in those early days, for he built temples as great as any in the land and gave generously to charities and ventures that the Church controlled."

"Asiga's wealth increased over the years to the point where it was no use arguing if Zorigan was the richest man in Khanlar, it was just debatable by how many times his fortune exceeded that of others.  He seemed blessed by the Gods and if his works were fruitful so was his marriage.  His wife gave him nine daughters and a very healthy son, who was the heir he wanted and although more manly and royal in appearance, Varigan was also to prove to be as studious, good and wise as his Father.  As his children grew up it became obvious that Zorigan was also a very diplomatic and political, matchmaker.  His third daughter was your mother Jarin and should you ever have daughters pray that they are as beautiful and good as she was.  One by one he married his daughters to his neighbour's heirs, until all nine Nations nearest to Asiga had his grandchildren in line to be their next Prince."

For the first time in the telling Manator's voice quite suddenly became very serious, as if he were contradicting some long held belief and wanted to be sure that they not only heard him, but also understood that what he was now saying was by far the most important part of his tale.

"That is how the Brotherhood of Nations began, not as an alliance in the political or military sense of the word Jarin, but by marriage and friendship and advance for the good of all of the people.  Natan, Dang, Mozag, Zoria, Mang, Sedanna, Zikon, Jontal and Dala slowly became an almost single unit over a time frame of more than thirty years, with grandfather Zorigan as the wise advisor and mentor, at its head.  As it grew it became something to admire and I think that everyone back then saw it as a portent of the next age, in fact we all thought it would last forever.  I doubt the full truth in the saying, but it was said that a slave in the Brotherhood of Nations lived a better life than a freeman peasant in any other Nation of Khanlar."

"Yet the Fates are strange my children and what seemed so enduring at that time, actually ended within five years, although it has taken much longer to suffer its death throes.  It all happened, as most great things begin, with an act so small as to go almost unnoticed.  A nameless clerk in the Halls of the Holy City of Ka made a simple error and a new Church Tax was copied down wrong.  Instead of “a copper penny on every ten golden crowns", the clerk wrote “a silver penny on every crown".  What had been a tax of one penny on every thousand became a tax of twenty pennies on every hundred.  How simple it would have been to prevent all that happened afterwards, had not religion made it more complex than it needed to be, as usual.  His Holiness, Priest of Priests, Akarian II, signed the paper and sealed it without actually reading it.  That made it, "an act directed by the Gods themselves".

Cynicism tainted Manator's voice now, made more effective by the fact that the sun dipped behind a cloud at that very moment, as if nature itself was trying to help him emphasize the point he was making.

"Of course the Church knew it could not levy the tax, it was ruinous, it was certain to have brought down the whole trading system of Khanlar in a matter of months, if not weeks.  However, as always when the Gods are involved and their spokesman on Earth has signed the document without being struck down by a thunderbolt, it takes a long time to develop a logical reasoning for how such a thing could have happened.  How would they be able to defend their "infallibility" and still explain how the Gods had allowed it to happen? How could the Priest of Priests, the anointed head of the Church who never makes mistakes, make so big a mistake that everyone, even the poorest illiterate peasant, was able to see it to be a clerical blunder?"

"As they have always corrected their mistakes, they executed the poor clerk within hours of the document going out into the country and then they burnt his remains to allow the devils to escape, blaming those demons as the reason that had caused him to do such a thing.  They then rounded up and executed a few more poor fools who admitted they had known about it, but there seemed no way to excuse the Priest of Priests that would restore his image of infallibility.  Luckily the old fool drank too much a few weeks later and had the heart attack he so richly deserved, rescuing the Church from its predicament.  This “act of the Gods" allowed them to claim that the Priest of Priests himself was "possessed of devils" and he had entered the after life, that is to say he died, before allowing them control over him and, of course, they then had him burnt as well."

"The troubles caused by these actions were however already compounding, for some misguided and over-religious tax collectors levied the tax here and there; before they could be informed of its recall and one of the people who refused to pay and had had himself imprisoned for his courage, was a citizen of Asiga and a personal friend of Prince Zorigan.  Even that might have been put right, had not some stupid guard happened to pick the man out for his nightly indulgence in a spot of bullying.  The man died and Prince Zorigan started making noises, loud noises, which seemed to indicate he did not think the Church was as infallible as it would like to be seen to be."

A light rain began to drizzle down upon them as they walked, warm enough not to be uncomfortable, but seeming to make the tale that more morose as Manator continued to explain the pattern of History to them.

"Then events started to get out of hand as the people began to debate who was right, the Church or Prince Zorigan. A Priest in Zikon gave a sermon attacking the Prince's" slanders” and got well thrashed by several of his audience. Then they were arrested by some Garrison troops under the command of a few irate local Priests. Then a loyal Captain of Asigan Troops crossed the border into Zikon, without bothering to get any clearance papers and rescued them."

Without warning at that point in the story, Manator put his hand upon Jarin's shoulder as they walked, slowing his gait for the first time that day.

"Jarin, you will learn that the ways of politics are more often than not completely stupid, like a one-winged goose trying to fly with grace.  The more that is said the greater the confusion becomes and so it was that day.  Misinterpretations of the facts were then further misinterpreted, until a series of small clashes between troops loyal to Prince Zorigan and Church Troopers began to happen almost daily.  Soon some of the more bigoted Priests led a call for a Holy War to dispose of the devil possessed Prince of Asiga."

Removing his hand from the young man's shoulder Manator resumed the pace and the story; and Jarin felt as if an important moment in his life had just taken place.

"What happened next was obvious to all except the Wardens of the Church.  The ten Nations of the Brotherhood stood together and the first Church army that crossed into Mang under the command of three Northern Princes was totally defeated in a matter of hours.  Suddenly Princes who might have supported Zorigan outside of the Brotherhood were being deposed by the Church, and the more conservative ones were raising armies to fight for the Church.  That is how the Great War began."

"A new Priest of Priests was anointed the same day as the first battle took place, and for the next three years Khanlar was slowly destroyed by a Holy War.  The Brotherhood was of course defeated, but no Nation in Khanlar emerged from the war unscathed.  Families lost loved ones, harvests rotted in the fields, cities were destroyed and it is said no less that thirty in every hundred men between the ages of twenty and sixty who lived before the war, died during it.  Fields were left fallow, stores were emptied, everything was damaged or destroyed except for the island Nation of Lunza, where we Guardians have our home.  Fleets sailed against each other and any shoreline target they could attack; armies stamped down wheat and ate the livestock and when the war finally and officially ended the nations had to endure another three years of starvation, plagues and shortages.  Now, in the eighth year since that Penny Tax was introduced, not one man, unless he happens to be a Priest or a member of the Administration, lives a life half as plentiful as he had before the war.  There are so many slaves that traders are going into financial ruin feeding them while they wait for a buyer to appear, in fact the situation has come about where it is sometimes cheaper to buy a man than to buy a lamb in Khanlar these days."

Manator's voice had taken on a tone that edged between anger and pity as he continued to explain what the Church's dogma and insecurity had wrought upon the people of Khanlar. 

"Worse than all else however, is the Church control of everything these days in what is almost a fanatical hysteria much of the time.  Dogma is the only philosophy of those allowed the luxury of discussing any philosophy at all.  Nothing new is started that will be finished without the Church owning it or the majority of it. No crops are planted that the Church will not tithe away no less than a third of the harvest.  Any new system or invention that could help the problem is ignored simply because it is new.  People starve in this land Jarin and yet the Church builds a new temple every month somewhere rather than take that money and feed those who are hungry."

"Today even those who only a few years ago fought for religious reasons on the side of the Church in the Great War are grumbling about the greed of the priests and the state of affairs that exists in the land.  The Brotherhood is again an alternative and is reforming as men and women are forced into stealing to support themselves, taking back from the Church what has been stolen from them.  Everyday another slave breaks out of his chains and takes to the forests to join the outlawed Brotherhood.  I truly believe that if the current state of affairs continues it is very plausible that in only a few years Khanlar will live in anarchy, where strength will be the only morality for the majority of the population."

Manator stopped walking and looked directly into Jarin’s eyes.

"This is why I came looking for you Jarin.  Now is the time for you to stand forth and prevent the nightmare which is fast becoming reality all about us, for as the only surviving Prince of the Royal Blood, it is only under your leadership that the charge that falls upon us can have any legitimacy.  This task, it is my opinion, is why the Gods saved you after the battle in the swamps of Mang.  Now your moment has arrived my young friend; the stage is set, the people need a leader to lead their cause. That leader is you!"

Manator was to repeat, embellish upon and enlarge that history lesson over and over again as they travelled together.  He explained in detail the ways, differing cultures and politics in all of the Nations of Khanlar in turn, he taught them everything a student would wish to know about the overall picture of the land in which they lived and he answered their questions carefully and in detail, no matter what they asked.  Questions regarding the Order of Guardians and exactly what he expected of Jarin however were quietly avoided or dismissed as being presumptuous at this time.

 

* * * * * * *

City of Dismay

 

Finally they came to the City of Atlar which is located on the southern coast of the continent and as they approached the gates of the city, walking down the dusty earth road that led to them, two well-armed guards came out of the gatehouse to meet them.  Behind the guard's surliness was arrogance born of the total lack of concern for anyone and the knowledge that the power, which backed their petty pomposity, was great enough to protect them from almost, if not everything that might call in retribution for their brutality? 

Manator bid Kirene and Jarin wait where they were and then he walked the twenty or so steps ahead of them to meet the guards.  The smaller of the two men took the papers Manator offered with what could only be called a sneer, while the larger guard passed Manator and headed towards the young couple.  He stopped short of them however and returned to his partner when he heard the smaller guard reduced to audible fawning before Manator.  Jarin was to learn later that the reason for the very respectful treatment was the huge wax seal on the scroll Manator had handed to the first guard, for it was the seal of the Priest of Priests himself that gave Manator passage throughout the land.

The City of Atlar itself was a disappointment to both Kirene and Jarin; being the first city she had ever seen and the first he could remember seeing.  After the visions of grandeur and wonderful architecture that Manator's description of Asiga had conjured up within them, the City of Atlar was a mean and ugly place.  It was a dirty and pathetic settlement, where every other person they encountered either was a beggar or dressed like one.  Perhaps their most disconcerting discovery was the stench of the place, stale urine, human and animal sweat, rotting dung heaps and all the senses assaulting smells of an over-crowded and poverty stricken slum that was the City of Atlar was almost too much for the forest dwellers to take.

A little chuckle escaped from Manator as he saw the obvious discomfort of his charges.  "Do not be embarrassed to hold your nose if the stench gets too much for you Kirene, no-one here will be offended in the slightest at your good sense if you decide to do it."

"How can people live in this place?"  Kirene all but asked herself, "Tell me Manator, is this poorest place on earth?  Is this part of the lesson you are trying to teach us by bringing us here?"

"Child this is no special place, there are many like it throughout Khanlar, some a lot better than this, but not a few are far worse."

"Is there no-one in charge?"  Jarin asked, ”Is there not a Prince, a City Manager, a council or something to organize and run this place?  It appears as if there is no purpose to it at all."

Manator pointed with his staff to the end of the street furthest from the gates, still walking as he spoke.  "There is all of that Jarin.  That great stone building up there is the Prince of Atlar's Palace; to the left of it are the City Offices.  There is most definitely a purpose to all of this as well, that purpose being to ensure that the Prince in his Palace and his minions in the building next door live as well as they can.  Nothing else is important to them.  They will stop the murder, rape and robbery that rules here after dark only if it in some way interferes with the status quo, the production of profit for them, or if it endangers their own well being.  Otherwise they see no reason to care, why should they?"

"Are we safe here Manator?"  Jarin asked quietly.

"To interfere with us would bring the legions of Lunza down upon this God's forsaken place to enact punishment; to be inhospitable towards us might interfere with the status quo, which in this case means trade and profit.  Oh yes, we are safe in Atlar, wherever an eye can see and a mouth can report the cause of any problems to the Prince and his lackeys; however I suggest that you do not wander into some alley after nightfall where your purse would offer some poor soul escape from starvation, or give him a way out of poverty for a day or two."

With that conditioned assurance they went back to concentrating upon where they put their feet and travelled further into the city in silence.  The main thoroughfare was a rutted earthen track scattered equally with puddles of mud and weed infested cobblestones.  Horse dung was ground into its surface with every passing wheel and foot, as the confusion of carts, pedestrians, herded animals and horsemen vied for space on that crowded street, all seemingly heading nowhere except to cross or block the path of another in a confusion of bodies and vehicles.  Without Manator leading the way however, for everyone stood aside as the erect and proud old man marched down the side of the street, they might well have been injured on their journey to the town's main hostelry, well named the Traveller's Rest.

When they reached the Inn the doorman gave great courtesy to Manator and led him inside as if he were a Prince in his own right, leaving Jarin and Kirene to wait on the patio, looking back down the street they had just travelled.  The little patio in front of the inn was walled in and housed several tables, a few chairs and some benches.  A beautiful old jacaranda tree spread its purple flowering branches over the patio with softly dropping flowers adding to the purple carpet that already decorated the red clay tiles beneath it.  Jarin and Kirene took chairs at a small empty table, immediately bringing forth a young servant to place a carafe of cold water and two pewter mugs before them.  Sipping the icy water they looked back along the way they had come and Jarin heard Kirene swallow a sigh that made him realize just how deep her despair was.

The street looked even more disreputable looking back down it than it had while they had walked along it dodging the traffic.  Daub and wattle, stone, brick, thatch, logs, planking, tiles and slate, in fact every material possible had been used to build the jumble of houses, shops, stables and other buildings stretching back to the city wall.  Everything either seemed about to collapse, in need of repair, or had the look of something that had been repaired many times over by uncaring hands.  Barrels, boxes, piles of wood, dung heaps and Jarin would have guessed many much worse things lay in confusion everywhere.  Chimneys smoked grey smoke from damp wood fires through soot clogged escapes into the dead windless air. A damp, half-hearted drizzle began, bringing the smoke down to sting the eyes and nostrils of those in the street.  The awning over the patio protected them, but it was the most dismal sight Jarin had ever seen and a place he would never revisit if he had the choice. 

The scene affected Kirene no better than himself and as he put his arm around her shoulders he felt her shudder.

"This place is terrible, how can people live their lives in this filth?"  She asked at last, as if there was no answer to be expected.

"People survive, Kirene.  The burden of being poor, or the greed to become rich, draws people to such places, but I think that in the end they can have no hope, for feelings are incidental to the greed for gold in such a place as this."

Before they could despair further Manator called them and like tame dogs they followed him, as he in turn followed the Innkeeper into the interior of the Inn.  They made their way through a smoke filled parlour, which even in the middle of the afternoon was a hive of drunken activity and unending noise, then up an old but solid staircase and along twisting passages, which proved the size of the place, until at last they came to a large iron-studded oak door.  Key met lock and in no time they were inside a large well-lit suite of rooms that had been furnished with furniture more expensive and ornate than anyone would have expected to find in such a place.  There were four rooms, the largest being the parlour with a sizable fireplace in which flames already played, a bedroom with a four-poster bed that Manator took for himself and two small servant's rooms, no more than closets with adequate cots, which the Innkeeper assigned to Kirene and Jarin as a matter of course.

Manator excused himself and retired immediately the Innkeeper left them, even though it was still three hours before sunset.  They followed his example within a few minutes, each of them taking one of the small rooms the innkeeper had shown to them.  However, Jarin had not been under the freshly laundered cotton sheet for more than a few minutes before his door opened and Kirene, naked as on the day that she was born, walked in and climbed into bed beside him.  It is amazing how quickly a man's tiredness evaporates when an eager-for-love woman enters his bed and Kirene was without doubt very eager at that very moment.  She snuggled up to him, as warm as a new pastry, and her nipples pushed into his back like a child's fingers.  He turned over. 

Jarin would always remember laying there observing her in amazement, for she had proved to be so much more than he could ever have expected of the child he had watched grow over these last few years.  Her quick intelligence grasped everything, without any schooling to make the understanding easier, and her bravery and stamina of these last few days had truly amazed him.  Finally he also slipped into a sleep dictated by exhaustion.  
 

* * * * * * *

From Shame to Respectability

 

The first thing Jarin knew Manator was standing at the door, opened without any expectation of seeing them as he did see them.  For some reason Jarin felt like he had been caught doing something wrong, but before he could speak Manator told him breakfast was on the table, turned and was gone.

The breakfast turned out to be a feast and one which they enjoyed to the full.  Fruit, cereal, ham and cheese, hot coffee and watered wine, pastries and rolls and so much more there was no way they could have eaten even half of it despite the semi-starved state they were in.  Jarin and Kirene ate alone; for Manator had left word with the boy who served them that he had business in the town and would not return before noon.  As it was only a little after dawn, Jarin had to admit a few fears of betrayal moving within his mind, but after all that had happened he realized that he now trusted the old man.

The lad removed the remains of breakfast and soon he and another young fellow were carrying kettles of hot water into the room to fill the great tin lined brass tub they had extricated from some place or another and placed in front of the fire.  When it was full the youths gave them soap, a razor, scissors and several rough towels and then left them and soon the two young lovers set to washing the dirt of the journey from their bodies. 

It took more than an hour to remove the grime from their bodies and for him to satisfy the excitement he had created in Kirene, but when done they smelt as fresh as any angel servant of the Gods.

There were still several hours before noon and Kirene had just decided to wash their clothes, when Jarin remembered the purse of coins and jewels Mother had saved for him.  That purse now filled his woodsman's pouch.  It was still hard to realize that he was no longer a poor charcoal maker struggling to earn pennies in the forests of Natan.  Jarin urged Kirene to get dressed as he did the same, pulling on their old clothes before he led her from the Inn to embark upon a shopping spree, escorted by a servant the innkeeper had insisted they take with them.  The servant was a brawny man, although Jarin was unable to ascertain whether the innkeeper had chosen him for his strength to carry parcels, or for his obvious ability to protect them so that they might return safely to pay the bill.

It had rained during the night, which had served to clean the air and the cobblestone pavements, but had also turned the gravel-strewn street itself into a mire of mud and puddles.  Luckily the passage from the Inn to the shops they sought was paved with cobbles the entire way. 

Every shop doorway was occupied, either by the owner, or by a person employed to entice passing potential customers to enter.  Their brisk, no-nonsense guide, having ascertained exactly what they sought to purchase, ignored the bequests of these inducers, whether whining or arrogant and led them directly to the places he felt would serve them best.

Several hours, tailors shops and hairdressers later they returned to the Inn looking like aristocrats in their new splendour, but as they entered their rooms Manator lost his calm manner for the first time since they had known him. 

He jumped from his chair and exclaimed,   "What have you done?"

"We bought some clothes."  Jarin replied, literally surprised at the reaction his actions had wrought upon Manator.

The Guardian General relaxed almost as fast as he had excited and circled them smiling as he summed up their new appearances.   "To tell the truth the new attire suits you both and my nose is overjoyed I can assure you.  I suppose no-one will recognize you at that Jarin."

Jarin decided to change the subject.   "How did your business go this morning?" 

"As planned and as expected."  Manator replied, “There is a Lunzan ship in the harbour awaiting us, it has been here for several days and now that we have come it will sail on the evening tide."

Jarin knew there was nothing he could say to make Manator enlarge upon what he had just said, so they dropped into that unimportant talk of people waiting to begin a journey who have nothing else to do to fill the time.

The hours passed slowly, but at last they left the Inn and began the walk to the docks, only this time people cleared the way for Jarin and Kirene, almost as fast as they did for Manator himself.  How strange it is, that the same man in a different suit of clothes will win respect without changing his actions or manners in any way whatsoever.  
 

* * * * * * *

The Arrow

 

The ship was named The Arrow and she was without doubt the only ship-shape vessel in that harbour.  In all there were only five other vessels at anchor in Atlar that day, three coastal luggers, a fish transport and a trading sloop flying the colours of Navis, and all of them looked old, dirty and uncared for compared to the Arrow.  The crew of the Arrow was different also, but in a way that the eye might pass without noticing.  Their clothing was obviously better than that of any other sailor in sight; in fact it was a uniform of light blue tunics and grey trousers and their hair was cut a uniform length.  But this obvious fact of appearance masked the real difference that made them stand out amongst the other denizens of Atlar's quay.  What was not at first obvious, became so as one watched them move about their business.  They obviously knew that they were superior.  There was no arrogance, no boasting or strutting; it was just a twitch of the eye here, a nod there, which to someone looking closely made them obviously superior over the other sailors around them.  They were efficient, smart and purposeful.  So it came as no surprise that within just a few minutes of the three of them reporting to the captain the Arrow quietly set out to sea.  No screaming of orders, no cursing, no rushing around of any sort by the ship's crew, just quiet efficiency that made one wonder if the men and ship were not in fact bewitched.

The ship itself was beautiful and while Manator talked with the captain in his cabin, Jarin and Kirene stood on the bridge and watched the Arrow cut through the waves.  Extra sails were hoisted, again without the expected shouted orders and soon the vessel was four parts light blue canvas billowing before a fair wind from the South.  Her speed was amazing to them for they were without any doubt land people and the slight sway of her being was like a horse stretching out from an uncomfortable canter into a flowing gallop.  Gulls screamed overhead and the passage became enchanted for the two young lovers.  Kirene was beside herself with excitement.  Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkled as she circled Jarin in her arms and hugged him.   "Mother told me about the ocean Rune, but she never could have explained this.  It stretches to the end of the world, it’s huge.  I know I should be frightened, but I'm not.  I could never have believed that there could be a ship like this one.  It's like being outside in the middle of a thunderstorm, or watching a shower of falling stars, or . . .  or like making love when you lose control . . .  It is wonderful Rune, isn't it?"

"Unbelievable, yet happening anyway, is the way I would put it."  He replied, marvelling at the way the ship beneath his feet moved in a great dipping and swaying dance across the immense expanse of green, grey, blue water.  "I fear it must all be a dream sometimes Kirene, it is all happening so fast.  When I am awake I am always exhausted, but it is the exhaustion of exhilaration and amazement, yet I am never quite sure that I can be awake, for so much has happened . . . is happening."

They were both breathless with the wonder they were experiencing.  In fact it came as a disappointment when a well mannered sailor informed them that Lord Manator required them below.  They followed the man to the captain's cabin, feeling like children who have been called to their chores while chasing butterflies in a meadow.  The meeting was however to prove even more exciting than being at sea for the first time.

The captain's cabin was larger than Jarin had expected it to be and well lit from the row of windows that obviously stretched the width of the Arrow's stern.  It was furnished to a man's taste, with a great deal of polished mahogany, brass and nautical instruments, of whose purpose of course Jarin had no knowledge.  Other than Manator and the captain, three other men stood behind the table as they entered.  Manator strode forward smiling, put his hand on Jarin's shoulder and began introducing him to the others,   "Gentlemen, I have the pleasure to introduce Prince Jarin of Natan."

The four strangers slapped their fists to their chest and bowed their heads, just as Manator had told him during their walk was the way of subjects greeting their Prince.  The captain stood forward first and when Jarin offered his hand the man grasped it with much obvious happiness.   "It is an honour your Highness to have you aboard the Arrow."  He said.

The next to come forward was a bear of a man with hair showing the grey-white strands of maturity, his bright blue eyes sparkled as he grasped Jarin's hand.   "Prince Jarin.  I am Sandar Avinglar my Lord.  I thought you dead sire."  The sharp phrases tumbling out of him.  "You give us all hope this day, my Lord."

The third man he recognized immediately, his hair now tidy, his face clean and his clothes those of a gentleman, his sleeve neatly tucked up.  Before he could speak Jarin said, “Golar. I am happy to see you again. How is your family?" 

Golar stopped as if he had just run into a stone wall.  Slowly recognition came to him and his face started to pale.   "By the God's.  You're the wood cutter.  The white streak!  God's I came near to killing the last Prince of the Royal Blood."

Jarin reached out and grasped Golar's hand.  Golar looked like a little boy who had been caught with his hand in the sweetmeat jar.  Behind him a skeleton of a man with white hair and very large, short-sighted, grey eyes, said "My Lord."  This man surprised Jarin for he was in no way a likely companion of the other men in the cabin who were all obviously warriors, in fact he looked more like a tailor, or a village schoolteacher and Jarin wondered what special talents this man had that he might have been brought into the meeting by Manator.

His wandering thoughts were stopped as Manator introduced Kirene to the company as the person who had saved their Prince from certain death and taken him into her family.  Then a servant brought in some watered wine and they all sat down around the table and the meeting began.  For the rest of the journey Jarin heard about the present.  In fact he heard more about the present than he had ever expected to hear.  Maps were spread before him and explained.  Documents came and went and it seemed that every waking hour became like one long briefing meeting. 

"The new Priest of Priests they have anointed has proved to be a worthy adversary for us all."  It was Sandar who spoke, “He is everywhere at once trying to reorganize the shambles the War put the Church into.  He has appointed new Generals, new administrators, even two new Princes, and he is beginning to get results.  However his methods have been forced to be severe and in some cases draconian in nature, and if there is one thing the Church has trouble with, it is change itself, when it comes too fast.  Some of his actions are so logical they become mechanical in the Church government and therefore they give no allowance for human reactions.  It would seem that he has embarked upon a road that has turned into a slippery slope.  This has proved to be to our benefit more often than not."

As the conversation progressed Jarin realized that it was as much for the benefit of Manator being brought up to date as it was to inform himself of the state of affairs in Khanlar.  Manator had explained to him how the whole aim of the New Brotherhood was to disrupt and harass the Church Government and sow discontent, as it was to prepare the way for a new war which would return the Brotherhood its lands and fortunes.

"Are we openly at War with the Church then?"  Jarin asked innocently, bringing looks of apprehension from those gathered about the captain's table.

Razarian, the small thin Guardian who Jarin had once thought so out of place amongst the others, sat back and crossed his arms before he spoke, which for all intents and purposes seemed to be a sign for the others to hold their silence.   "Yes we are at war with the Church Prince Jarin."  His voice was quiet, almost teacher-like in its clarity; “We spend every thought we have on thinking of new ways to upset its power, even its very ability to operate as a government entity, but it is a secret war.  Ragarian the Priest of Priests knows that he is at war, but does not know yet with whom he is engaged."

He placed his hands upon the table, spreading his thin fingers so that they rested on only the tips, and contemplated them as some men will an interesting book before he continued.   "Ragarian believes that he is at war with discontent, with the remnants of a defeated cause, mopping up outlaws and criminals and dealing with corruption and inept administrators.  Every attack we launch against his government he sees as an undirected act of terrorism by diehard outlaws left over from the war.  Every lost shipment of grain, storehouse fire, destroyed bridge or ship lost at sea, he sees as an accident, a criminal act, or the result of the anger of his subjects or, worse yet, the ineptitude, if not criminality, of his own administrators.  He obviously does not see it as a planned strategy, or he would react in ways different to those he presently employs."

Sandar spoke again, only this time he glanced at Razarian almost as if to get permission to speak before he did so.   "We are taking advantage of the Church Administration's belief that all of the problems they are facing are merely criminal acts within their own system.  They know there are outlaws and survivors of the Brotherhood stalking the outlying rural areas and hiding in the forests and they also accept that poverty in the cities is the reason for the crime wave they have been fighting since the end of the war.  This way we are placing our agents and spies throughout Khanlar to find the chinks in their armour and slip the accident into the system, while we prepare for the day when we shall openly declare war upon them."

His hand tenuously reached out and rested upon Jarin's shoulder before he made his next statement.   "It has taken years of sacrifice and planning, action and reaction to get to where we are today my Lord.  We are now only months away from being soldiers in a new army rather than outlaws and saboteurs.  That is why your presence is the final jewel in the crown we are building, for only with a Prince of Royal Blood at our head, can everything be complete.  Soon the Brotherhood will rise again and this time we shall be victorious."

Again Jarin found his future had changed without his doing anything to influence it.  A few weeks before he had been a charcoal burner lost in endless labour and abject poverty deep in the Natanese forest and now he was a Prince and hearing of the great things these men expected him to accomplish for the Brotherhood and all the citizens of Khanlar.  Prince Zorigan, his maternal grandfather, and his uncle the Prince of Jontal, were both dead.  He alone, for all that those instructing him knew, was the last surviving member of the once proud and powerful Asigan Dynasty.

Like a man in a dream he heard and saw his own words and actions and the actions and words of the other players and, like in a dream, none asked about his qualifications, or whether or not he could fulfil their wishes of him.  Jarin in his turn decided that silence was his safest policy, until he at least fully understood the import of what was happening around him.

 

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Nine

TO CHANGE HISTORY

 

The Arrow docked in Lunza just before sunset and they went ashore just as the first stars began to twinkle into life in the heavens.  Although the smells could occasionally be said to be similar to those they had experienced in Atlar, they were definitely not so harsh to the senses, in fact the strongest scent of all was that of night-blooming jasmine.  Oil lamps burnt like little yellow suns along the stone quay, adding the slight scent of burning oil to the perfume of night scented plants.  Under the nearest of these lamps stood three dark coaches; each with a pair of patient horses, obviously awaiting their arrival.  The party broke up into three groups and Manator, Kirene and Jarin left the dock in the first carriage, its iron rimmed wheels dancing a rhythm across the cobblestones of the quay.  The windows of the carriage were glazed, but it was hard to see very much out of them other than the wet pavements recently washed by a fall of rain, yet as they travelled Jarin soon noticed the hypnotic effect of the street lamps which were uniformly placed along the route and the town they passed through seemed far more clean and civilized than Atlar had been.

In less than half an hour and perhaps only a few minutes, they arrived at the tallest stone wall Jarin had ever seen and although he craned his neck he was unable to see where it ended against the starlit sky.  A pair of great gates were set in huge timbers fixed into the granite block wall with bolts whose heads were the size of a man's fist, but they opened almost without any noise at all to allow the carriages through.  Someone, maybe the gate-keeper, said something to their driver which Jarin missed understanding and then they were travelling through a park, the road still lit by a uniform row of street lamps, only now they threw their arcs of yellow light onto the well kept green carpet of extensive lawns.

The journey after the wall took less than twenty minutes for now Jarin was paying attention to time.   When their carriage came to a stop the door was opened and they were helped out in turn by uniformed servants in front of the greatest building Kirene or Jarin had ever seen, where more uniformed servants stood in carefully chosen order holding torches to illuminate their arrival.  The other carriages arrived immediately behind them and put down their acquaintances from the ship.  They alighted on a cobbled pavement before a wide flight of steps, which they climbed with their way lit by servants carrying torches before them, until they were ushered into the Palace itself.

Of course Jarin could not compare it to any memories of other buildings save those he had seen in Atlar, but it was obvious even to him that this was a palace.  The ceilings were no less than twenty feet high and the craftsmanship was more than human hands could truly be expected to perform without many years to perfect such talents.  High above them the ceilings curved dome-like to meet where decorated bosses held the hooks from which great crystal covered chandeliers were hung.  Immense gilt framed mirrors were everywhere and paintings in similar frames hung on the walls between the mirrors.  The crystal chandeliers were evenly spaced along the entrance hall and the corridors, which led from it, and they were crowded with the hardest and most expensive of candles, for they gave off no smoke at all that Jarin could see.  Beautiful carpets hushed what would have otherwise been the clatter of shoes on the polished marble floors, whose mirror like hardness ran alongside the carpet runners. 

Manator called aside a servant no sooner than they were inside and bade Jarin and Kirene to follow the man to what were to be their rooms while they stayed in this place.

"Will we see you again tonight?"  Jarin asked, as Manator began to walk away in the opposite direction with the others, who had only now caught up with them in the corridor.

"Tomorrow will be soon enough, Jarin.  Take Kirene and enjoy the benefits of civilization, eat well and rest my young friend, for from now on you will have many duties to attend to."  Manator waved to them as he resumed walking, calling back over his shoulder.  "From now on you will have little time to yourselves my friends, so enjoy what time you have while it is available to you."

"What did he mean by that?"  Said Kirene, as they followed the servant through what appeared to be miles of marble floored corridors.

"I have no idea but let's enjoy what time we have as he said and worry about what he meant by it tomorrow."  Jarin replied, wishing desperately that their guide would walk slower so that he might have more time to examine the portraits they passed on their journey through the corridors of their first palace.  Jarin could have written a book about the luxury they found in their apartments, but after dining, bathing and loving, he doubted if he could have held the pen to do so, he was experiencing such exhaustion and contentment.

 

* * * * * * *

The Last Prince of the Royal Blood

 

As Prince Jarin, the last of the Royal Blood of the House of Natan and Asiga, he had been treated like Royalty for the first time in his life from the moment he had boarded the Arrow and there was no doubt that he thoroughly enjoyed it.  A servant came to wake them the next morning and informed Jarin that after breakfast he would be summoned to appear for his first meeting with the Council of Guardians.  True to his word another servant did come for him only a few moments after Jarin had washed and dressed and had enjoyed the finest breakfast he had ever seen.  Jarin had taken it for granted that Kirene would accompany him, but his guide brought with him two young women to "be with the Lady Kirene", as he put it and so she was separated from him for the first time since they had given themselves to each other on the forest floor.  Could it truly be only so few days past, Jarin wondered, as he kissed her softly on the lips and followed the man from the room.

The servant led him a walk of no less than ten minutes through a maze of seemingly endless corridors before they finally arrived at their destination.  Uniformed retainers then opened the great doors, which stood before them and one of them announced in a loud voice to those inside,   "Prince Jarin of Natan!"

Then the man stood aside holding the great door open and Jarin entered the Great Hall.  Even as the doors closed behind him he experienced his first attack of stage fright in his young life, for no less than a hundred faces looked back at him from tiers of seats in that semi-circular amphitheatre.  Manator, understanding what was happening, came to his rescue immediately.  Had he not done so Jarin might have stood there for some time in that daze.  The Guardian General took his arm and led him to a great table with two chairs behind it facing the crowd.  As they got to the table the audience began to clap their hands.  Applause, which grew from a quiet patter to a tumultuous roar that at the end was accompanied by cheering that, could have sounded no more sincere had Jarin just performed a minor miracle.  It ended quickly when Manator raised his hand and then he and Jarin were seated facing the largest number of people Jarin could ever imagine being with in one room at the same time.

Manator waited until the last noise had echoed out of hearing before he stood up in complete silence and faced the assembly.  All around the hall stood guards in the most handsome uniform Jarin had ever seen.  Brass faced steel helmets with plumes of dark blue, carefully tailored dark blue tunics edged in silver braid and dark blue trousers tucked meticulously into black leather boots that shone like polished jet.   They were, Jarin was to learn later, dressed in the uniform of the Royal Guard of Natan.  They wore swords and carried pikes, yet on Manator's slight wave they left the chamber in uniform step with almost no sound and the great oak doors were closed behind them by two servants who left the room as they performed the act of sealing that great assembly. 

Then Manator spoke to those gathered before him in a quiet authoritative tone,   "Gentlemen, we are gathered in this hall to witness the real beginning of the great task we have all worked on for so many years.  Prince Jarin knows a little of the Plan, as do each of you, although you know only that part which was entrusted to you to develop and organize and almost nothing more . . ." 

He paused for effect, his elegantly tailored gown and white hair glistening in the morning light,   "Now you shall know the all of what each of you presently know only a part of.  This day is in itself an auspicious one, for as you all know this is the Day of Remembrance for the founding of our Order.  I will ask Lapetar to explain to Prince Jarin how the Order of Guardians came into being."

Manator nodded to an old man seated at the front of the assembly.  He stood slowly and Jarin realized that he was probably in his eighties, yet his eyes sparkled with that inquisitive intelligence normally reserved for young men.   "Prince Jarin I bid thee welcome.  To describe our Order I must explain that most people in Khanlar today believe that the Order of Guardians is many thousands of years old, Prince Jarin. . ."  Lapetar smiled, “. . . and we have been known to encourage that belief."

That remark provoked laughter that rang around the chamber, taking away some of the solemnest that had overawed the young prince until then.   "Yet it was only five hundred years ago that a young peasant boy called Rolon tried to plod the ground, right here. . ."   He pointed a bony finger  at the floor ". . .and discovered a marble slab in the middle of the field he was working and the more he ploughed the furrow the more slabs he unearthed, until he had driven his poor old horse more than a mile northwards.  Then he turned to the east and ploughed for almost another mile before the slabs came to an end.  Well young Rolon was no fool, even though it took him time and a days ploughing to realize that he had unearthed a mystery, so to speak.  So, like the good young Lunzan he was, he went to his Prince and told him of this wondrous find."

Lapetar looked at Manator, received a nod and sat down before he continued.   "These days he might have had to wait a month to get an appointment but in those days Lunza was the poorest of places and his Prince had been known to work in the fields along with his subjects when the need arose.  So the two of them went the next day and surveyed what Rolon had discovered.  Imagine if you will two young men and later the whole population of that poor place, poking the ground with sticks and then diligently spading away more than a square mile of turf and brushing away the soil to find themselves stood on a huge paved platform.  A while later they found the entrance, a slab of black marble obvious amongst its cream colored fellows, which after a few weeks the young prince summed up the courage to have lifted.  A short time after that they went down into the great archives, which they found housed acres of libraries, rooms crammed with strange objects and machines that none of them could describe, let alone operate.  To those poor uneducated people the place that they found they could only compare to a wizard's storehouse.  Imagine my Lord how that discovery must have affected those uneducated men.  What fears they must have felt as they went down the steps into a gloom that was suddenly and terrifyingly lit with light as bright as day itself, for so it is and always has been by mechanics we do not even begin to understand.  To cut a long story short, the Prince became the first Guardian and found out how to operate the staff. . ." 

Lapetar held up his own staff, just like the one Manator always had with him and for the first time Jarin noticed that every other Guardian present had one also.   "Magorian, for that was the Prince's name, realized that what they had found was too important to let anyone know about until he had learned more about it himself, for although young he understood how such a discovery could in fact threaten his position should others discover and covert what they had found.  And so he set fire to the few ships in the harbour before they could sail and perhaps spread the news before he was prepared to have it known, and he had his men burn the plague fires on high ground around the island, so that no foreign ship would put into the port.  That is how it began and as more was learned so the people of Lunza became the Order of Guardians and today, beneath our Palace, more than nine tenths of the treasure they found is still not fully understood, yet it has allowed us to attain a level of civilization and knowledge that have given us peace and prosperity for all of those hundreds of years." 

He smiled and tapped the desk top in front of him, continuing,   "You, Prince Jarin of Natan, are the first to know what I have explained to you today, who was not born of the Order of Guardians.  It is secret knowledge but I am informed by our Guardian General Manator that we are well able to trust you to keep it so Sire."

Lapetar stood, bowed to Manator, then to Jarin and sat down again to a muttering of approval from the rest of the Guardians seated around him.  Manator remained in his chair as he nodded to a large man, not much older than Jarin but who also had white hair.  Jarin realized at that moment that the hair colour was not natural, but the art of some hairdresser and for some reason he felt very relieved at the knowledge.

"Kayarin."  Manator said without standing and the large man stood, bowed to the Guardian General and began his turn in helping the education of the Prince of Natan.

"Prince Jarin, I, like my fellows, have never had the time to take more than a passing interest in the affairs of the outside world of Khanlar itself.  We spend all of our time in study, attempting to unravel and understand what we have found in the vaults beneath us and learning from the great store of knowledge we guard; therefore when Prince Zorigan of Asiga founded the Brotherhood, we admired him and we wished him well but little more.  He came to us many times in fact looking for information and for knowledge, but as we do to all, we refused to take sides or assist in the obvious change he was planning for Khanlar.  We watched your people put up a brave challenge to the dogma of the Church and we watched your armies try to defend the great civilization you were attempting to build.  I am ashamed to say we merely watched as your Alliance was beaten into the dust and destroyed."   He shifted a little uncomfortably, and then continued. "I and my predecessors before me have had charge of an obscure room at the farthest edge of the Library and it was some months after the Brotherhood was defeated that I came upon a small book that had been ignored until that day, probably because it was not impressive like most of the great books in the archives".

"It was well bound, but did not seem very important, until I began to translate it.  Then I realized that it might just be the most valuable document any of us have yet discovered.  It is called "The Stages of Evolution in Civilization" and we were able to learn much from it, in fact you could say that it has changed the very philosophy of our Order for all time.  It would appear that Khanlar is in a very early stage of this evolution towards its potential as a civilization and that the Archives were placed here to be ready for us when this time came.  It explains how Religious Dogma is in fact the enemy of man's search for knowledge and any advances in science, knowledge or civilization always threaten that mono-cultural tradition.  A war such has just happened will always be the result of trying to control this evolution.  It also explains why at first the Dogma and Tradition will always prevail, but it also describes with careful explanation that during the few decades that follow such an uprising, brought about by man's basic and undeniable need for more knowledge and freedom, great leaps towards civilization can be made.  Leaps in philosophy and understanding of the human intellect and intuitive reasoning such as these periods bring forth in people, can in fact change the very fabric of a culture that has endured for centuries in a just a matter of months."

He lifted a small black volume above his head with his right hand so that everyone could see it.   "I took this book to the Council as soon as I realized what it was and a dozen of our most knowledgeable people were put to work with me so that we might learn more."

"Our investigations proved that this period in Khanlar's development is most probably going to prove to be one of the most important moments in Khanlar's journey towards the Future.  You will never be able to comprehend the dismay this fact brought to us all when we first realized the truth we had learned, for we realized that it was too late for us to do anything to assist the great change that the Asigan Alliance could have created.  We believed that all of those of the Royal Blood of the Brotherhood had been eliminated and we had already set ourselves to finding some way to replicate what had happened in Asiga and its neighbours when some months later a man came to Lunza and asked for an audience with the Guardian General."  Kayarin bowed slightly to Manator, before continuing, "As always we kept him waiting for a few days while we had him observed, but at last he was seen by one of our people.  His story changed everything.  He explained that he and three other survivors of the Army of Natan had rescued you and taken you to Havor's Holding after the disastrous Battle of Mang.  We investigated what he had told us and found it to be true, but during that period of time the man had meanwhile died of the coughing sickness, joining his already deceased comrades.  We believe it was his knowledge that he was dying that prompted him to share his secret with us.  It was a secret he could have shared with no-one else in the circumstances and in its telling your rescuer brought to us a new hope.  Just knowing that you were alive, a Prince of the Royal Blood, we were able to take advantage of the situation Fate had presented us with.  It was of course safer to leave you where you were then, for travel in those early days could well have meant your discovery and of course this delay gave us time to prepare.  In turn it also gave you time to heal, for when we found you, we also discovered your loss of memory.  Now however, our Order has reached the point in our plans where only your presence can bring everything to fruition."

"We stand at the gateway of great changes in Khanlar, for we live in a time where the circumstance of History has created in this Universe every factor necessary to take a gigantic leap forward in civilization.  Prince Jarin, welcome.  We shall soon witness great things!"

Whether the Guardians applauded Kayarin or Prince Jarin or both, they did indeed applaud as the young Guardian took his seat again.

Then Manator rose to his feet and adjusted his sash before beginning to speak.

"So much has changed since Kayarin found his little book my brothers that we have now without doubt found a purpose which actually has very specific time limits, something we have not known for many centuries.  Always there was a young mind absorbing from the old, learning and being taught, ready to take on the task of unfolding the wonders of the archives in our charge.  Yet we were always secure in that we had no reason to fear anyone and with such an esoteric and academic charge, we had no reason to believe that time was anything other than the room within which we laboured, secure in the knowledge that we merely provided with our lifetime just another link in the chain that connected the past and the present with the true understanding of the knowledge we guard, for use sometime distant in the future.  I have worn this golden sash for twenty-four years; therefore I am well placed to confirm the changes in our ways these last few years.  We work with purpose now.  There is more organization now, rather than administration and we can already feel the exhilaration of our challenge, call it our mission if you will."

He lifted a hand and the wall behind Jarin became like a great lamp.  Light poured from it and then colour, until at last a huge island appeared on the wall, as a bird flying over it would see it.  Like the product of great witchcraft the wall was alive.  The oceans moved showing the currents of its power and small lights glowed with differing intensity all over it, some blue-white, some more yellow in colour and others with the solidity of amber.  There were mountains and rivers, forests and cultivated fields, great grass plains to the west and rocky barren lands in the north east.  On an island off the north eastern coast a small square of red light, unnoticed at first, glowed dimly.

It came to Jarin immediately, it was a map of Khanlar and the square of red light was the Guardians Palace on the island of Lunza in which he was now watching this drama unfold.  The other lights were obviously cities, towns, hamlets and villages, perhaps even holdings, the brilliance of their glow showing the number of souls living within them.

As Jarin watched the map with wonder one Guardian after another rose to speak, his comments made more effective as the places he talked of began glowing brighter, the areas he described staying lit while surrounding areas dimmed.  Jarin heard of bands of outlaws made up of ex-soldiers of the Brotherhood who had recruited homeless peasants and runaway slaves that survived by sabotage and stealing.  As the years had passed the skirmishes and battles these hopeless remnants of a once proud Alliance were forced to fight in their battle for survival, had become a way of life that had plunged much of Khanlar into an economy of anarchy.

Jarin heard of the state of Khanlar, town by town, Nation by Nation, and industry by industry.  A picture soon began to form in Jarin's mind of the harsh control directed by the Church; for that great governing body obviously recognized that it was indeed being threatened and challenged by small bands of dedicated and most often desperate, men and women.  Piece by piece, speaker by speaker, the situation in Khanlar was explained to Prince Jarin and he began to feel that perhaps there was a way that he could do something for his people, his ex-comrades and eventually for all of Khanlar.

Again his future seemed to have been planned and set into motion by unknown forces, with him no more than a servant to Fate's commands.  However this time he was more than just a pawn and his contribution might change the future of everyone involved, willingly or not.

It was almost dark before that first great meeting ended and Jarin staggered back to his rooms.  He felt as if he had been out hiking for no less than two weeks and he understood why it is said that mental exhaustion is far more damaging than the physical kind and when he rejoined Kirene he was convinced.

A servant served them a dinner of cold meats, fruits and cheeses while he was bathing and they ate before they were able to relax and compare notes on the day’s events.  Jarin's story took no more than half an hour, for he could only explain the highlights of what had happened; Kirene however took nearly two hours to tell him of the beauty and wonders she had seen with her guides.  She talked of the Palace and its gardens as Manator had talked of the Great Market.  She described in detail the walks, the strange exotic plants, the beauty and the marvels of engineering and machinery she had had explained to her, but in the end his own exhaustion made him halt her commentary and insist that they retired, before he went to sleep in his chair.
 

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Ten

AND, IF THERE WERE NO GODS?

 

Jarin awoke the morning after the meeting to find that Kirene had already eaten and had left their apartments with her new found friends. He bathed without haste and then ate the breakfast served by the same silent servant that had been their constant helper since they had arrived at the Palace. Jarin had just decided that there was to be no call for him that day and was trying to work out which of the wonders Kirene had told him about to go and see first, when there was a polite knock at the door and a rather diminutive Guardian entered and announced himself. Jarin recognized him immediately as the fourth man he had met in the captain’s cabin, on the Arrow that Manator had introduced to them on their journey to Lunza from Atlar.

“Good morning Prince Jarin, my name is Razarian. We met on the ship bringing you here, if you remember? Manator asked me to come and explain the first of the acts we propose to carry out towards restoring justice and civilization in Khanlar.”

He really was a tiny man, thin to the point of being almost emancipated and his white hair had been given him by age and not the trick of carefully chosen and applied chemicals. His purple robes swirled about his bony bird-like frame like he had even lost a little more weight since he had donned it that morning. Long, delicate, almost feminine hands protruded from the sleeves, etched with the blue veins of age and mottled with brown and rust colored age spots that could have been painted on that transparent white skin. The hair on his head was thinning and very fine, and his face showed little patches of almost invisible stubble showing that he had shaved with haste. Thin purple tinged lips decorated that area of his face beneath a shiny nose reddened with either age, or a little too much wine the night before. Jarin also decided that the God’s had not favoured him in any way in the area of beauty, even his ears were at least two sizes too large for his head.

Razarian himself ignored everything around him and placed his books and papers upon the table as if these were his own rooms and then he sat himself down. It crossed Jarin’s mind that the servant cleared away the table and left so fast; one would have thought him afraid of this little man.

“Shall we begin then?” Razarian asked in what was almost an order and so began the strangest meeting Jarin had ever been a part of.  “The Church, as you know, controls all religious activities in Khanlar. Long ago there were several independent or semi-independent branches of what we today we know as The Church, there were also many minor cults and complications for them to contend with but, for the last five hundred years the Great Temple in the City of Ka has controlled everything to do with the Gods, including of course their income and their laws, etcetera.”

“You mean, it has not always been that way?” Jarin asked in amazement.

“Isn’t that what I just said?” Razarian’s face showed that any reputation that Jarin had had for intelligence had just dropped a great deal in his eyes. He went on “ . . . as I was saying, for the last four or five centuries the Priests of the Great Temple of Ka have taken over religion and changed it to make themselves powerful, in what can only be admired as a masterful all-encompassing plan to completely control everything and everyone that inhabits this world. Under the leadership of their first Priest of Priests Makan of Ka, they built an Empire. It was Makan who built the wall that protects the Rangar peninsula, it was he that instituted the first Order of Warrior Monks and it was he that created the first army of the Church to go out and deal with any Prince or Priest who did not agree with his religious ideas. The History of Khanlar, which is now taught in every Church sponsored school in Khanlar, which of course is every school on earth save those we run here on Lunza, does so only as the Great Temple of Ka approves the version. Even the Sacred Texts of the mother goddess Herthe have been edited to reflect a position that secures the power of the Great Temple and its Priest of Priests.”

Razarian picked up a fruit from the bowl and began to eat it without stopping his flow of words in any way. “Therefore, to be able to beat the Priests we must challenge them at their own game. They say the Gods support them and they claim and are believed, that all that they do, they do in the name of the Gods, therefore it seems we have no choice but to invent a God that will support our Cause and the Brotherhood and what we are going to do.”

Jarin was dumbfounded, “Invent a God?” Yet he gathered his wits fast enough to pose his question before Razarian finished the piece of fruit and continued his babbling.

“What do you mean invent a God?” He stammered, “You can’t just invent a God!’

Razarian’s look of contempt again showed concern for Jarin’s intelligence and he sat forward and spoke slowly, as if to compensate for his pupil’s somewhat retarded learning powers.

“Why can’t we invent a God? The Priests do it all the time! In the last five hundred years they have dismissed from the temples no less than twenty once respected gods who no longer served their purpose and they have created seven new ones in that time, who coincidentally seem to favour present Church policies a lot more strongly than any of the older ones they discarded. Prince Jarin, you may understand battle and ruling a Nation and being a Prince, all of which does not really impress me, knowing many of those who have managed it, but you seem to know very little about what goes on in men’s heads when the facts they live by change, or the unexpected rears its ugly head. Let me assure you, based upon many years of study, centuries of study if you count those who went before me, if the God’s we worship today ceased to be believed in tomorrow, Mankind would invent a few new ones within a matter of hours. If the Gods were proved beyond doubt to be a fallacy of man’s invention, then the same men would create a new God that they could believe in without any doubt whatsoever, a God that they would be able to worship, blame and rely on when all else failed. Men need their God’s my young friend, although I sometimes have sincere doubts if the God’s ever needed men, from my experience of humanity.”

“Are you saying that there is no God, nothing at all above us? That we were created to live, suffer and die without reason

Jarin’s senses were reeling and for a moment he wondered how Mother would have reacted to such words had they come from his own lips back on Havor’s Holding only weeks before. Razarian of course had never met Mother; come to that he might not have ever met anyone even like her and his answer showed his impatience with such an attitude.

“Of course I am not, do you take me for a fool?  I would find it hard to accept that we could have just happened and I am sure no man could have created life and to date we have established that man, despite his failings, is without doubt more intelligent than any other living thing anyone has ever encountered in the history of the Human Race. What I am saying however, is that whatever Great Force or Being, if you have to give it a form, that brought everything into existence, would not for a moment agree to the laws created by the God’s of the priests that we have in Khanlar today. Perhaps that is the reason why so many people live such terrible lives in this world.”

For a moment Razarian’s face seemed pensive as he continued.  “You know, sometimes I wonder if the real Creator is not taking a nap or maybe He or It, has just given up and gone away in disgust. At other times I see the beauty that continues around us despite our evil ways and I believe that God continues to give us never ending chances to try to get it right. If it was a direct question of “Do I believe in God or not”, then I would have to answer “Yes, I most definitely believe in God”, with all the qualifications I have already described.”

Razarian smiled suddenly and nodded, as if he had just that moment found a way to explain what was happening to a dull-wit like Jarin.

“Does it change God or the God’s if we call them by different names? Come to that does a rancid piece of meat taste better if you merely say it is fresh?”  The old Guardian waited for a moment with the cynical satisfaction of a fox that knows it has the chicken trapped, his bright eyes sparkling.

“No it does not, I suppose . . .” Jarin agreed, “. . . but why should one be fool enough to do such a thing.

“Ah-hah!” Razarian had him. Jarin knew it from the look of victory that spread across the tiny man’s face.

“The Priests, the Church, the lot of them, have decided that they will name the gods, but how do we know they invented the right names? They have decided to tell us that life (the rancid meat) is as it should be, (fresh), but do we have to believe them without question? That, my young friend, is the point of today’s conversation. We are here today to change things in Khanlar and therefore we must choose whether to decide for ourselves or allow the Church and its priests to decide for us.”

He sat back satisfied, then remembered another line to the argument and jumped forward to fling it across the table at Jarin.

“Who chooses who will be a Priest? The priests! Who chose the teachings the Church tells us we must follow? The priests! Who tells us we are not allowed to choose a name for our own gods? The priests! If a priest told you to eat your children, would you do so? Of course you would not, although I have no doubt there are a few pious idiots out there who just might, so why should anything else the priests say be accepted at face value just because it is a little less threatening to go along with them rather than risk not doing so? Must we continue to be fools, just because those who preceded us were happy to be such? The priests say we are the pawns of the Gods, but what if we are not? What if the fact is that we are but the pawns of the priests themselves? How will we find out what is the truth if we only listen to the priests?”

“So we are going to invent a God.”  Jarin was giving in, he felt it, yet there was no way he could argue that it was impossible for priests to lie and how in Hell's name would anyone ever find out when or just how often they did.  “But how do we know that the people, the same people who follow the Priest’s Gods, will even listen to us? You and I can decide that God is just a humble carrot, it does not mean that anyone else would just up and follow a carrot because we said it was God, now does it?”

“You’re right of course; it takes a lot of thought and planning to invent a new God.” Obviously Razarian did not even notice Jarin’s attempt at sarcasm!  “However, we have many sources to help us and some of them make our present Khanlarian Pantheon looks ridiculous by comparison.”

Jarin’s obvious shock at those words made Razarian explain and his previous hauteur relaxed a little.

"Of course I forget . . .  I am sorry . . .  you have nothing but the existing Church dogma and its teachings to go on. I have so much more knowledge I will have to give you time. In the room I and my forebears have worked in these past three centuries are the records of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of religions, which existed, died and were forgotten. Religions which men and women lived and died for that are now reduced to histories, which we can listen to and in time begin to comprehend, but only in our own limited way."

“How do you listen to them?” Jarin asked quickly.

“That is something that held us back for hundreds of years. In each of the many rooms, which make up the archives there are literally thousands of great books. They are written in many scripts, alphabets and languages. It was more than ten years after we discovered the vaults before someone found a book which had columns of words where one of the scripts was almost like our own, even if it did have ten times the words we use today within its vocabulary. With that book and by comparing each word in turn, we were able to translate the words one at a time and of course we then only knew a little of what the books actually contained, because of the words we could not understand. Then we found that almost all of the books have a series of symbols stamped on the inside of the cover in pure gold, by an art we do not yet understand, for the letters in every book are exactly the same in weight and measurement.”

“In some rooms in the archives there is a black glass panel with small colored squares on it. Well, about a hundred years ago, two centuries after we found the vaults, a young novice experimented by touching those squares in a series of sequences out of boredom. It was of course forbidden, but he did it anyway as bored young men will do such things. The poor Lad fainted when above the panel a series of symbols suddenly lit up and more important to him at the time of course, a voice began talking to him. By accident he had created a code number which activated the machine and the book number he had punched into the machine began to be read to him.

Months later, a Guardian named Vedriran spoke to a colleague while stamping in the code numbers and there were more lights that flashed on the screen and when the voice began it was reading the book in the language nearest to our own. Half of our brothers have worked since that date to establish what the unknown words mean and we now have more than eighty percent of them explained, we think.., and we are learning faster everyday. Do not expect us to master the archives in the next hundred years though, for we have only just begun to learn what we are doing and there are only one hundred of us qualified to lead such work.”

“I have seen few books Razarian, although it is true I may have seen many before I lost my memory, however those I have seen I do not think would last a hundred years, yet we are talking of books that have survived for thousands of years are we not. How is this possible?”

There, it was out, Jarin had been waiting for a long time to ask that question.

“I agree with you young man. Most of the books you see these days will not last a hundred years. But the books in the Vaults are not like the puny specimens we manufacture today. For one thing they did not use paper, as we know it, the material the Old Ones used to make their books with is almost indestructible. It is similar to paper, but as best I can describe it, it is more like soft pliable glass, spun to a density that makes it impossible even to tear and very hard to cut. The printing is also not like our own barbaric transfer of inks, the printing in the books in the Vaults is somehow inside the paper, and if you scrape the surface you do not touch the printing.  Do not ask me how it was done, I have no idea, but I believe the books the Old Ones made may well have survived ten thousand years and might last another ten thousand from the look of them.”

Razarian picked up another plum and smiled at Jarin, waiting for a question. Jarin shook his head to prove he had no questions and to make him continue, for the younger man was by now completely enthralled. Razarian continued:

“Well then, what it comes down to is that we have chosen a religion which in all our studies seems to be the most just; and the best, if one wishes to have a civilized society. The name for God in this religion is simply that, God and the prophet, (most of them have prophets, sort of leaders or evangelists who take the details to the people), is called the Lord. This chap used a lot of other names depending upon which religion he was appearing in at the time, but the majority opinion was that “the Lord” would best suit our purposes in Khanlar. His teachings were relatively simple you know, ‘be good’, ‘think of others’, ‘worship God a lot’ and so on and his Laws was rather short compared to the others, but sort of all encompassing and did much the same job as any of them. Here, (he handed Jarin a document) these are the laws I am talking about.”

Jarin read them and had to agree that if everybody in Khanlar followed the Laws as set down on that piece of paper Razarian had given to him life would be far better and fairer than it had ever been up to now for the people of Khanlar, in fact one could almost expect Justice to be probable rather than occasionally possible under such Laws.

“Finished?” Said Razarian, “Good, because you will have to learn them by heart. If you want to change it here and there or make some suggestions, then we will consider it by all means, however our best and brightest have laboured for months to arrive at what you have before you.”

“No, it seems fine to me.” Jarin said when he had finished reading the document.

“Good.” The old Guardian smiled, “Because you are going to have to preach it from now on. We have decided that you are the person best fitted to be the Lord you see.”

“Now just wait a minute . . .” Jarin said but was interrupted immediately.

“No! You wait a minute.” The veins on Razarian’s temples had all but turned blue and as he fought and was successful in gaining control of his temper, he continued.

“Do you agree that Khanlar would be a better place with that Code of Lows than the one we have right now?”

“Well, yes, that’s obvious, but . . . ” Jarin said, before the Guardian interrupted him again.

“Of course it would. And can you see anything wrong with having one God rather than a whole herd of them?”

He waited, saw that Jarin also waited and therefore continued,

“The simple truth of the matter is that someone has to be the Lord and right now you would appear to be the most acceptable candidate. You have been dead for five years according to the Church propaganda and a lot of these prophets rose from the dead and so on. And quite honestly who else would you suggest that we trust with the task? We would spend all our time hoping that some gang of priests would not corrupt him, or the religion, before it had taken hold and served the true purpose of improving the lives of everyone in Khanlar.” He sucked indelicately on the plum stone, “Let me put it bluntly, if you are going to defeat the priests, their army and their Church and then rule over Khanlar while everything is put into place, you are going to need to be what a lot of the religious books in the archives call ‘a Prince anointed by God’. I for one do not see that you have any choice.”

They sat quiet for a long time after that, while Jarin’s befuddled brains tried to work out what they seemed to have agreed upon and what, by his failure to find an argument, would appear to be his destiny. At last Jarin gave in.

“All right.” Jarin consented, “If there is no one else, I suppose I will have to be The Lord.”

“Good!’ Said Razarian, as if they had done no more than make a deal to buy and sell a cow. “The papers are all here, everything you have to know, learn it all by heart . . .  not everyone is going to believe you at first you know . . .  and that’s all I have to do with the matter, unless we have to come up with some more Laws or something. Thank you Prince Jarin . . . ”

He smiled, rose to go and joked as a final cynical afterthought

“May the One and Only God walk with you.”

Then Razarian left the room chuckling to himself, leaving Jarin feeling that somehow he had been led like a fool into a trap.

 

* * * * * * *

A Just Code

 

Jarin read again the Laws of the One and Only God to himself and again by reading them made him feel better about what he had just agreed to do, for if men and women could only live by these laws then the world would indeed be a better place to live in and bring their children into.

On his first reading the Laws had seemed to be very simple, yet as he read them aloud he realized that most good things were very simple and the Laws of the One and Only God were no exception. It was obvious even to him that only men would be able to make them complicated, yet he also realized that if only one convert a day decided to abide by them as they were written, then in only a short period of time the miracle would perform itself.

As he read them again a great truth dawned in Jarin’s understanding. In Khanlar today no man took personal responsibility for his sins against others, for the Church had for centuries taught that all beneath Heaven was in order with the God’s wishes and therefore whatever happened did so with their knowledge. There was no guilt if one was not found out! 

There was no innocence without proof likewise. There was no responsibility for others when the God’s demanded all the authority in life, for if there were slavery, poverty, starvation and fear was it not because the God’s themselves had decreed that it should be so. The Laws of the One and Only God changed all that and made every man and woman the guilt or honour bearer for their own actions. In his rooms that day Jarin read aloud the Laws and without knowing he did so he ended an era that had lasted for several millennia.

 

THE LAWS OF THE ONE AND ONLY GOD

 

1.  Let no man conspire to bring harm upon any other man, nor follow another who shall ask him to bring pain or suffering of any kind upon the innocent. Let thyself not be led, nor for enjoyment or self-importance, do anything that shall destroy an innocent man’s reputation, in his eyes or the eyes of others, nor take his life, nor harm his being in any way for your own or another’s ambition or gain.

2.  Respect all men as the creation of the One and Only God that they are and assist them in understanding the ways of good and honourable action and assist them to being better People, so that by their actions they may the more praise the One and Only God who did give to them their life within this world.

3.  Give to others what they need, but do not be directed by a selfish wish for praise or recognition. Neither give to those who are unable to use to good ends the gifts you offer, nor lend, nor borrow, where obligation is created on either side, nor ask for profit from your giving, for to profit from lending to a man what he needs to provide for his loved ones is a sin of greed and shall be punished by hatred in this world and damnation in the next.

4.  Neither steal, nor wish for that which belongs to another, nor plan ways to take it from him by any means, for the wages of avarice are despair. Nor shall you accept from anyone what you believe to have been stolen from another. Never take even the love of one person from another person who shall deserve it. Nor steal from the One and Only God that which is his in all the realms of the Universe.

5.  Protect those who are in need of your protection and defend those who have need to be defended. Offer friendship to all and have respect and kindness for the young and the old alike, for every living person carries within them a soul entrusted to them by the One and Only God and to injure that soul is to injure the One and Only God also. Should you knowingly harm a person or allow evil to exist around them you insult the One and Only God and you shall not be easily forgiven.

6.  Let no man promise nor give his word that he shall not honour it, for to do so is to be less than a man in the eyes of the One and Only God who brought you into this world with a perfect and unblemished soul.

7.  Cultivate the beauty which God has endowed upon the world and protect every necessary plant and kindly animal, stream and ocean that he has seen fit to put into its place within creation, for it is a sin to destroy the works of the One and Only God without benefit to his almighty plan. Plant the desert, cultivate the swamps and remove from all places those abominations, which would destroy them.

8.  Each day take the time to contemplate the greatness of the One and Only God and the freedom of thought he has given to every living person in His Creation. Confess your sins within thyself, understand your weaknesses and look for faith and guidance in the goodness of the One and Only God who knows all that has happened, is happening and will happen and sees all such things with purity and understanding beyond the capabilities of any man.

9.  Introduce cleanliness and goodness into everything you are and everything around you that shall have influence in your daily life, or the daily lives of others, in the name of the One and Only God.

10.  Take not the task of judgment of others motives or ambitions upon yourself, nor give them reasoning to make your misled actions justified. Yet look upon the truth and accept it as it is, in the present and may be in the future, and pray the One and Only God sees it in his wisdom to bring to you guidance in his ways all the days of your life.

11.  Allow none to turn you from the path of goodness and protect those in your guard from temptations to turn aside from honour and goodness. Drive out of your life those who would corrupt you away from the Laws of the One and Only God and live not with them, nor have dealings with them of any kind lest their evil shall corrupt you.

12.  In all things understand the goodness of what you do and is done by others and how it shall be for the good of all and understand that God gave you life so that you might in turn give greater life to those of his creations you have power over or influence upon. Let everything you control, touch or influence be the better for your involvement, for there shall come a day when you shall stand before your maker and rely upon his kindness in the life hereafter.
 

* * * * * * *

 

If Not Yourself, Then Who?

 

The following weeks were like a dream to Jarin, where his brain tried to absorb days that were full of strange new ideas the Guardians explained without doubt or pomposity and there were many nights that were full of dreams, dominated by the awesome wonders these wise men had shown to him in the vaults below the palace for him to wonder at. Jarin walked with Manator, Kayarin or Razarian in the gardens every afternoon, gardens, which were even more beautiful than Kirene had described, while he was rehearsing and learning, being coached and taught by these masters into the new ways of thinking they were introducing to him continuously.

His mornings however were spent in physical lessons; his teachers being an old gladiator by the name of Gardor and a nicely arrogant middle-aged horseman called Praeder. They taught him things that he was naturally more comfortable with, which included every type of combat, from sword play to the art of holding a charging horse with his knees while swinging a battle-axe in either hand and charging down the lists at full gallop, chopping down dummies as he rode.

Jarin was also schooled in court behaviour, which was possibly the most demanding of his studies to understand, for more often than not the reason and logic behind the demanding rules totally escaped him. He was also educated in the process of a court of law, under the code that the Guardians proposed establishing as their plan developed in the reconquest of Khanlar. He was trained like a man who had been born an adult, with no childhood of learning to direct him, which in truth he was, for his memory of the time before the aftermath of the Battle of Mang was never to return. Neither had Jarin a family to turn to, but perhaps that was an advantage for there was no softening on the part of his teachers, nor allowance made for his Royal Person, for on Lunza there had been no Royalty to train people into subservience for centuries.

In those days dentists polished his teeth with little brushes and sour tasting grit. Barbers trained and cut his hair emphasizing the white streak, until it was far more striking than nature had intended. Finally his beard was removed, for Manator said he doubted if people would believe he grew it while wandering the meadows of heaven.

Then there came a team of master tailors who created seven uniforms for him, all of which were exactly the same in every detail. This last point he raised with Manator, for the idea of always wearing the same clothes did not sit well with his newly found interest in fashion. Razarian explained however, that a legend needed to be known by simplicity or extravagance and the former had been agreed by the Council to be the best for their purposes. Not that Jarin could criticize the beauty of the clothes the tailors had created, for the cloth was woven to a quality he had never seen anywhere and its cream colour, nearing white, suited his colouring well. The trim was of gold and silver thread around and over the darkest of blue silk backing cloth and every stitch had been placed perfectly. Boots, gloves, everything was of the same high quality.  The Guardians had also had a sword made for him by a master smith and decorated by the finest of jewellers. It was perfectly balanced and was worn hung from a shoulder sash, its polished white gold scabbard decorated with intricate etchings that included the emblem of every Nation in Khanlar. This fact Jarin discovered when he had to learn the place and Nation of every one by heart.

The island Nation of Lunza was a wonderland to Jarin as he went about his training and with every day he saw how the philosophy and wisdom of the Guardians had enriched the lives of the people who lived there. The City of Lunza itself and the harbour around which it lay were, he was told, as similar to any other city in Khanlar as they had been able to make it. Like Asiga had once been, it was famous throughout Khanlar, yet ostentatiousness had been avoided; true every street was lined with identical street lamps, every street was also cobbled and free from dung and dirt, but the technology and styles employed differed only slightly and unnoticeably from that used in other rich cities. In many ways it reminded Jarin of how Manator had described Asiga, yet it was all that a visitor was allowed to see.

Merchants and seamen who disembarked in Lunza would travel outside of the city only to find a small area of well tended small farms before coming to the great wall which surrounded the large part of the land area of the island and housed the Guardians Palace and grounds. Some of them would seek an audience with the Guardians and would be allowed into the Gate House, which in all truth was as large and as well equipped as many a Prince’s Palace or Administration Hall on the mainland, but very, very few were allowed within the grounds.

Had one of those seafarers or merchants managed to gain entrance they would have stood transfixed by what they saw long enough to be caught by the many guards who patrolled the walls and the grounds, yet as far as anyone knew none ever had gained entry who were not intended to do so.

Inside the walls was a wonderland of parks and man-made creations of beauty, nature, art and architecture, which would have convinced any inhabitant of Khanlar proper he was indeed in Heaven itself. Here machines powered by engines that gained their energy from steam mowed great lawns. Lawns that rolled for miles studded with small houses, statues and trees of great and carefully tended beauty. Roads, paved with an unusual mixture of what seemed to Jarin to be pitch and small stones ran in perfect symmetry everywhere, lined with the most beautiful cast bronze lamp standards and flowering jacaranda trees, poplars, elms and trees in such variety that he did not even known their names, woodsman though he might be.

And so as the days became weeks, Jarin was groomed and trained in these beautiful surroundings to be what Fate and the Order of Guardians had decided he should be . . . the Khan of Khanlar.

 

* * * * * * *

The Ancient Game of Khanlar

 

Part of Jarin’s training was to learn the ancient Game of Khanlar. Every person of rank, wealth or intelligence in Khanlar owned a board and the pieces of the game, which was named after civilization itself. In truth it was a game of power, intellect and strategy, based upon the war tactics of those who had traditionally controlled life on the continent for thousands of years.

Before him stood a board of alternate squares of white and black marble and along two sides were arranged the opposing armies or Nations as players of the game called them. On this occasion his pieces wore the colours of Vanzor and those of his adversary, the Khanlar Master Lantogir, wore the colours of the island State of Lunza.

They were seated in Jarin’s apartments, in the great room, which served as both sitting room and study to Jarin and Kirene and the great glass doors which led out onto the stone balcony were open, allowing the sunlight to stream in. The fireplace held only a vase of flowers, and the furniture had recently been polished so that it now exuded a scent of lemon oil and beeswax to compete with the scent of honeysuckle that wafted into the room from the gardens outside. Further back in the room huge gilt mirrors reflected the scene and the fifteen-foot ceiling did not remove that feeling of snugness Jarin felt as they sat at the table immediately in front of the open doors.

“It has always been the practice of great Princes my Lord . . . ” The Master had a droning voice tinged with hauteur, “ . . . to have one set made in their own colours and that of the opposing player in the colours of a great Prince who they truly do oppose at the time, or once defeated in battle. Sometimes they choose a relative whom they feel they will never have to face in actual warfare or in the case of our Merchant citizens, the opposing Nation could be dressed in the colours of a rival in business.”

“Is there a reason why every educated citizen of Khanlar will play Khanlar rather than any other game, Master Lantogir?” Jarin asked innocently, yet expecting the answer he would most likely get from a man who consistently was placed in the best ten players of the Game now alive.

“There is no other game Sire, which tests every attribute of an intelligent man. Cunning, skill, bravery and every other vice or virtue in the human experience can be used to play the Game Sire.”

He stopped himself short obviously wishing to expound on his fanaticism with the game as he did so and continued to explain the game to Jarin, touching each piece as he talked.

“It is the Base colour of each piece that decides the value of that piece my Lord, yet there are those who fall in love with the carving of a particular piece and sometimes lose the game because of it. The depiction of the carving is of no importance, only the base colour must be considered whenever a move is planned or enacted.”

He picked up a particularly beautifully carved piece and ran his forefinger over the carving.

“There are two pieces which must be treated with great concern Sire, if you wish to win the games you play.”

“The most useful piece for attack is the Prince and as you will see there is only one such piece in each Nation. He is always mounted upon a Yellow Base and he can move in any direction it please him to move. Vertically, horizontally or diagonally across the Board. He may move any number of squares from one to six, any time you care to move him. Should you lose your Prince Sire, well then your enemy can choose one of your other pieces left in play, except the Khan obviously and that chosen piece dies with his Prince and is also removed from the board. It is ‘removed from the board and forfeit’ if you care to quote the rules exactly.”

“This piece is your Khan Sire . . .” Lantogir picked up the tallest piece on the board with a base of solid silver,

“Whatever happens to this piece can win or lose you a game Sire, so one should always be very observant of what is happening towards it. He can move only one square in any direction, vertically, horizontally or diagonally, which means that most of his time he is being defended by other pieces. Should the enemy player manage to take your Khan Sire, he immediately assumes the advantage, for he may then replace it upon the Board by removing any one of your remaining pieces, save the Prince of course, which could destroy your previous strategy and leave you grasping for new ideas and a new strategy. Mind you, should a player ever get into a position where he can enact this exchange, he must immediately warn you? He must state the words ‘Khan Threatened!’. Should he fail to do so, then he cannot take your Khan the next move. Without the warning, there can be no exchange.”

“Now we come to the Play Pieces Sire. Many people use them only to defend their Khan or follow their Prince, but in fact Sire their position on the Board can win or lose a game for you. They are the pieces that represent your strategy and each one is important, never scarifies one merely to exchange a piece with your enemy. That advice has helped me win many a game Sire.”

“The Cavalry Piece is the most far reaching of your pieces Sire, it may move either one or five squares in one move, vertically or horizontally across the Board. You have six such pieces at your disposal and as you see their Green Base identifies them. Next to them in power are the Imperial Guard of which you have four, these pieces are identified by their white base and can move vertically or horizontally either one or four squares in a move, as you choose. The Warriors may move either one or two squares during a move, they have Black Bases as you can see Sire and you have six of them to play with.”

“The other two pieces take some getting used to and have won many a game for me Sire. First of all is the Strike Force with its Red Base. These pieces, each player has four in his Nation, have greater flexibility in movement than any other. They may move any number of squares from one to four in any one move and can do it vertically, horizontally or diagonally. They have another very important ability Sire, they may jump the enemy formations should you wish. What that means of course, is that they may count a square occupied by the enemy player during and as part of a move. No other piece may do this Sire. If an enemy piece blocks a move then that move can not be played by any piece save the Strike Force.”

“The last piece in the game Sire, of which each player has two, are the Scouts with their distinctive Orange Bases. They may move any number of squares until their way is blocked by another piece, but they can only move diagonally and then only on squares the colour of the square they begin the game upon.”

“Lantogir I feel confused already, yet it would seem that once one has learned the rules and moves of each piece, then the game would be a rather boring one of taking an enemy piece and then losing one of yours. I hardly see great tactical skills involved.”

Lantogir’s expression visibly paled as Jarin finished saying that, yet he controlled himself and continued. His tone however had changed and Jarin felt a definite loss of respect from the intense and quietly reserved master.

“The General Rules Sire are simple, but they do add interest to the game . . .” His voice now carried some sarcasm, “First of all Sire, no piece may move any number of squares other than those dictated by its value, as I have just explained. During a move however any piece may change direction once only, at a right angle to the original direction of the move. Of course this does not apply to the Khan.”

“Of course.” Jarin agreed, flying to win back a little respect for his intelligence, whereas in fact he was rewarded with little more than a sneer.

Lantogir continued, “All moves are horizontal or vertical, in any direction, East, West, North or South, with the exception of those pieces allowed to take diagonal paths across the Board.”

“The game begins with the toss of a coin, if you choose right Sire then you would have the choice of the first move. Many players prefer to have the first move; I however would rather follow another’s beginning.” (Jarin felt like saying “Of course” again but refrained rather than get the older man’s condescending eyes looking at him as if he was a schoolboy, all boasts and no knowledge.) “Obviously a player may only move one piece during his turn at play.”

The Master waited a moment and then continued, “After each move the play reverts to one’s opponent and so on through the game. Taking two turns means giving up a piece.” (This time Jarin did slip in an “I understand” and thought he got a half smile, which was much preferable to the previous sneer.)  “The point of the game Sire, is to remove every enemy piece from the Board . . . ” (Jarin chanced an “I see” and got away with it.) “ . . . to take an enemy piece Sire one must end one’s move upon the square occupied by the enemy piece you wish to remove from the Board. It must be immediately removed from the Board of course.”

“Is there no way you can buy back a piece if you lose it?” Jarin asked humorously, only to be replied to with an interested stare prior to the actual answer being forthcoming.

“Yes Sire, you will notice that the two squares occupied at the start of the game by the Khan and the Prince are inset with their symbols.  If the enemy manages to place a piece upon one of those squares during the game, then you must exchange the piece he lands there with any piece he claims from those you have already taken from him.”

“Now look at the Board Sire. There are a total of one hundred and forty four squares, seventy-two black and seventy-two white, alternately placed. Each side has twelve squares, six black and six white and at the start of play the square at the far right of your Base Line must always be white.”

He began removing his pieces from the Board with great care, “I will place my pieces now Sire and I suggest you copy me as I do so.”

“We shall begin with the back line or Base Line, from left to right. First you have three Warriors, then two Imperial Guards, the Prince, the Khan, then two more Imperial Guards and finally three more Warriors. In the Front Line, again from left to right, you have one Scout, two Strike Troops, then the six Cavalry Pieces, then two more Strike Troops and finally, one more Scout.”

Jarin placed the last Scout in position and then looked up, half expecting praise, but instead he was looking into two of the coldest blue eyes he had ever seen. When Lantogir spoke again there was vengeance in his tone.

“For the purpose of instruction Sire, I defer to you the first move.”

 

* * * * * * *

An Ancient Knowledge

 

After almost four months of intensive study and training, three of the wonders that Jarin had been shown in the Archives were explained and demonstrated for him, which is as far as anyone really understood how they worked. The staffs carried by the Guardians were not totally inanimate he found, for with a touch of a knob just below the crystal’s mounting, the crystal would emit a dull red light. While it glowed it was impossible to come within several feet of the person holding it and a stone thrown at him would never land, for the action of the crystal was to cloak the holder of the staff in a force field not unlike a wall of invisible steel. Why this was so no one understood, but it was not everlasting. The staff would fail after continued use of about twelve hours and then had to be returned to its stand somewhere in the Archives, to be re-charged by a secret power before it would work again. Jarin also discovered the reason for there being only one hundred Guardians. It was very simple; they had only found one hundred staffs when they had opened the vaults.

Far more amazing than the staffs was the Belt of Power, for it did exactly the same thing as the staff, except with far more power and ease for the user. The wearer of the belt stood inside a cylinder of strength that would stop a crossbow bolt fired from only six feet. The bolt would meet the power, which circled the wearer about a foot from his body and without any sound or vibration of any kind it would just stop and a moment later fall to the ground its energy extinguished. There was no real noise, it just stopped and then fell to the ground. Inside the power shield the man wearing it could breathe, move as he wished, in fact even a raised arm or out-stretched leg was protected, for the field appeared to adhere to the very skin of the person wearing it. Once, they told him, it began to rain while they were experimenting with the belt and the wearer got wet, yet a stone thrown at the same time still failed to land on the man. The belt’s power was different from the staffs, in that it was possible to come near and even touch the person wearing it if the wearer thought that they should be able to touch him. It had no visible effect; on or off there was no difference the eye could see in the wearer.

The most interesting fact however was that the belt had a much longer life than the staffs. It would, he was assured, keep its power for at least three months of continuous use before it would need to be returned to its box in the Archives to replenish itself. There was only one belt and Manator explained that it was for Jarin’s use only and in fact he instructed him to wear it at all times outside of his rooms so that he might become accustomed to it. The belt was constructed from tiny golden links and was narrow, no more than a hand’s breadth wide, interwoven with glass threads no thicker than horse hair, giving its appearance that of a heavy, almost luminous cloth. The belt joined at the front in a blue, almost black, box the thickness of his finger, which appeared to be made of some kind of dense, warm glass. On the box was a round plate, almost invisible to the eye and a touch of that plate would turn the belt on or off. The only difference between the two states being that when it was turned off there was no feeling at all, but when it was on a slight pulse was felt on the body of the wearer, directly behind the box itself.

The third wonder almost blinded him the first time it was demonstrated. It was a narrow black cylinder about the length of a man’s forearm, with one small dark red knob, which activated it. Jarin was invited to press the button and when he did the thing cast forth a light from the end nearest the button that was as bright as a small sun and far stronger than a thousand oil lamps. It was a white light, blue on the fringes of its power and the beam carried across several acres that dark evening when they first tested it for him. He was informed that, just like the other devices, it had a limited lifetime of only forty hours, after which it would need to be returned to its box in the archives to be recharged. Jarin’s tailor had fashioned two small pockets in his tunic, whose purpose Jarin had wondered on before, but which perfectly contained the pair of cylinders Manator now entrusted into his keeping, saying,

“There are many other such devices and strange objects in the room where we found these you see today Jarin. Of most there is but one specimen and we are somewhat afraid of them and we understand fully only the three we have shown you today. In time we may discover the use of other things but for now that is all that we have to help you Jarin. 

Manator smiled almost sadly and continued talking to Jarin as they walked back to the Palace from the dark meadow where they had just experimented with the light-lance. “And now it is time to put our plans into action. Our people are already training many of the refugees and they will bring many more back from Khanlar to learn the ways of new warfare tactics, which have become known to us from our studies. They will in time become a unified force of men who can work inside the discipline essential to any army. When you need them Jarin they will be ready to serve you.

The others lagged behind them politely, allowing Manator and Jarin to talk privately. After a while the Guardian General placed a hand upon Jarin’s arm and continued,

“Tomorrow the Arrow will take you into Khanlar. With you will go a force of Guards who have trained for a long time to be ready for this task. You will be put ashore to the north of the City of Cimar and then you will make your way to the Monastery town of Kiba. On the night of the New Year you will walk into that City alone and play the part of ‘The Lord’ you have rehearsed these many months. At the same time every important temple in Khanlar will have a silver bell laid on its steps, along with a scroll proclaiming you have preached in Kiba and another containing the Laws of the One and Only God. Those who deliver these scrolls will have no memory of it the moment the task is done, for we have practiced an ancient art upon them which will take away the memory of their actions the moment after they have played their part in our plan. Even now they do not know that they are bound to do this thing and if questioned would not know where they have hidden the bell and scrolls entrusted to them. When you have preached at Kiba you will return to the coast and the Arrow will bring you back here. A few days from now it will be done and our first strategy will begin to weaken the power of the Church, just as rust will eat away iron once it has taken hold. It will be a slow process, but one that will do more harm to their position than any army could ever hope to do, for it will destroy the very basis of their power in the long run of things.” He paused and then added quietly, “There is no turning back after you preach at Kiba Jarin. You must understand that my boy.”  The obvious question hung on the air.

“I understand, Manator. I will not fail you after all that you have done and I trust you all in your programming of this matter.” Jarin smiled then and asked, “But exactly how do you suggest I walk out of Kiba after the show and return secretly to the coast. Will not someone want me to stay around to answer a few questions?”

“Hah! I forgot’ Manator clapped him on the shoulder, “After you deliver the sermon you and Razarian will rehearse tonight, you will tell them that any man, woman, child or even an animal that follows you will be struck by the golden bolt fired by the angels of the One and Only God. The men who travel with you shall surround the city and each of them is a marksman with the crossbow and they will have bolts that are fitted with heads of solid gold. We are certain however, that the fear which you will be able to inspire will give you ample time to get away Jarin.”

“I hope so.” Jarin said, “Otherwise all this work may go to waste because some hysterical servant or over zealous foot soldier decides to become famous by killing the New Prophet.”

They both laughed at this somewhat frightening joke, but they managed to return to the palace in good humour.
 

* * * * * * *

A Journey Abroad

 

When the time came for Jarin to leave Lunza and travel back to the mainland, his most difficult act was to bid Kirene goodbye. The time spent in the Guardian’s Palace had had their effect upon Kirene and Jarin had watched the change in her with a mixture of pride and worry as it had taken place. She was no longer the unsophisticated, innocent Kirene that he had known for so many years, she was not even the Kirene she had been the day they had arrived. Her new friends seemed always to be either leaving or entering his rooms and her preoccupation with clothes, hair styles and her lessons with her tutors seemed to be even more important to her than his preordained leaving her, so that he might fulfil his own duties to the Cause. Manator had promised him that she would remain in their rooms until he returned and that she would be treated as she had been from the very first day, as his Lady. He also promised that her schooling would continue, for she was already beginning to write as if she had been born the daughter of a Prince and read, seemingly with ease, from the books her tutors loaned to her. She hid well whatever insecurity she held within her, far better these days than she would have been able to hide only a few months before and she promised to work hard and think of him until he returned.

Jarin knew she would prefer him to spend more time with her and he often apologized for not being able to do so, yet she seemed to be less affected these days when he was called away for some reason or another. Her belly was already beginning to swell into ripe plumpness, which soon would become the obvious sign of her female abilities. Her breasts had enlarged somewhat also and her skin showed a bloom that cried out her healthy status to everyone. Jarin’s protective instincts for her well-being and happiness had increased ten-fold since she had informed him that he was to have an heir, yet he continued to feel that with every day their closeness was quietly slipping away from them.

The next morning Jarin was woken by the same servant as always and ate his breakfast alone, Kirene having left their apartments with her ladies in waiting before he sat down. When he had finished his meal he dressed in his uniform with the assistance of his servant and as the man laid out Jarin’s cloak across a chair near the door, Sandar arrived.

Captain Sandar was resplendent in his own uniform and snapped a salute at Jarin even as the servant retired from their presence. The Natanese soldier, it had transpired over the months that Jarin had been in Lunza, had served Prince Jarin in the Great War and they had shared many battles together before the Captain had been captured at the battle of Kavir’s Holding. After being taken prisoner Sandar had been sentenced to serve a lifetime’s sentence in the prison camp of Manortir, which had been established for Brotherhood officers by the Church in the Nation of Rigan. Sandar had served in chains in that vile place until a month after the war had ended, at which time he had been sentenced to death. Not wishing to see his life end and knowing his Cause to have been defeated, Sandar had eased his hands out of the by then too large manacles and squeezed the life out of one of his guards before taking to the forest. Two months later he had gone into hiding in the Nation of Zoria south of the waterway.

A year after he had escaped that prison to become an outlaw Sandar had discovered that not one member of his immediate family had survived the war and he had become reckless in the direction of his hatred towards the Church and its priests. One particularly stupid action, which had sent two priests to the afterlife, had resulted in his capture and imprisonment in the city jail in Bizon. It was there that he met a fellow prisoner who suggested he get to Lunza should he ever have the chance. By happen-chance and a string of almost incredible coincidences, Sandar did in fact escape his captors while they were transporting him back to Ka for his public execution and some weeks later had arrived in Lunza to be co-opted by the Guardians into their scheme for the future.

That morning however he presented himself as a career officer to Jarin, his past life lost somewhere in decades of service to the Royal House of Natan and the two of them proceeded to travel by coach to the harbour with few words of conversation.

The Arrow was tied alongside the quay, straining against its mooring ropes as they arrived for the foresail was already dropped and full of wind. Waiting for the ship to be released so that it could pull them out of the harbour and into the open sea, where its brothers the main sails would be housed to gather up the wind and carry them towards their adventures.

 

* * * * * * *

The Khan’s Guard

 

On boarding the Arrow Jarin met the men who were to travel with him to Kiba and protect his escape and if it was possible for a group of individual men to be uniform in appearance, then these men were definitely so. Although they were of about the same height and wore the same uniforms, there was something else that identified them from other men, which he would not immediately put his finger on. They were not of the same colouring; yet they acted as if they all came from the same family and had shared the same lives and experiences since they had been boys, but above everything it was obvious from the moment you met them that they trusted each other completely.

Jarin recognized the welcoming party immediately as the same men who had silently left the Council Chambers after his arrival to meet the assembled Guardians for the first time, which now seemed to him to be a long time ago. Their uniforms must have been made to match his own, for the tunics and trousers were exactly the same in cut and design, and if they were not so finely made it was not noticeable. In fact he doubted any clothes made in the past hundred years matched the craftsmanship of the ones he now wore. The colours of his Guard’s uniforms however were reversed to his own; theirs were dark blue with a silver trim and their helmets of blue steel carried dark blue horsehair crests. Their weapons were housed in dark blue leather scabbards and even their crossbow cases were of a matching design and colouring. It was of course obvious to everyone that they and Jarin were without doubt of the same company.

Sandar wore a small silver disc on his left breast and on either side of his collar and his cuffs carried an extra line of silver braid, looped elegantly almost twelve inches up either arm. His helmet plume of dark blue carried an extra central stripe of pure white. It was Sandar who led Jarin towards the assembled soldiers who awaited them, stood to attention, in two well-disciplined ranks. Sandar moved ahead of Jarin in the last few steps, took his appointed position in front of the soldiers and turned on his heel to snap to attention as Jarin reached them. His fist came up to his chest in well-practiced perfection. He stood as straight as a man can stand and his blue eyes glowed with pride.

“Prince Jarin, the Khan‘s Guard is at your service Sire!  Would you do me the honour of meeting your Guard, Sire?”

Jarin smiled, nodded and in as relaxed a manner as he could muster, he followed Sandar’s smart about turn and measured paces, back to the beginning of the first rank. As they did so Jarin felt the ship lurch, telling them that it was moving away from the dock. One by one he was introduced to each of the men by name; however something told him if he offered his hand he would lose face, so Jarin merely nodded and smiled and soon the introductions were done with. The Captain of the Arrow came then and rescued him from indecision as to what to do or say next, by taking Sandar and himself below decks to his cabin. A little later when he went for his noontime meal, Jarin found four guards outside the door. Two stayed where they were, two followed a few respectful paces behind him, as if expecting at any moment that a gang of assassins would fall upon him. Throughout his meal they stood quietly behind his chair and when he made to leave one of them moved his chair to allow him to stand with dignity. Everyone at the table then stood, something they had not done on his previous trip and Jarin realized that the guards gave him an importance no title could ever bestow. These men were obviously loyal almost to the point of worship and he wondered if perhaps Manator had worked a little of the ancient art on them also.

The trip was un-eventful, for they sailed well clear of the coast and passed not closer than a thousand yards within another vessel and both times that they did encounter another ship Jarin was below decks and the Guards well out of sight. They passed the City of Araz a little after sunset, when the lights of the town were only specks of fire in the distance and then they began tacking to come ashore at the predetermined place that had been chosen by Manator. The moon was in its first quarter but even so they saw nothing of it for the night was overcast. At last Jarin was called and the Arrow’s boats carried them ashore through lead colored swells, beaching in a small sandy cove protected by a low rise of cliffs.

No sooner had the boats ground into the sand, than he was carried ashore in the cradle of two Guardsmen’s arms. The boats then returned to the ship, their well-greased oarlocks making no sound at all and he noticed for the first time that all they had brought ashore with them were their weapons. Before he made a fool of himself and asked Sandar what they were going to eat during their long walk, a birdcall sounded from atop the cliff. It was returned by one of the shore party and immediately the sound of horse’s hooves on sand came to him. In seconds four more Guardsmen appeared leading horses towards them. Jarin was again introduced and received the usual salutes, before he noticed there were four packhorses well loaded for whatever their needs had been assessed at for the journey ahead of them. Obviously they had been charged to check out that the landing would be both safe and secret, which would explain why they had left the beach prior to Jarin’s own party making landfall.

They had been on land no more than a few minutes before Captain Sandar was leading them up a small incline, over the cliffs and across country at a steady gallop. The Guards even rode in formation and the track or road they followed through the forest allowed them to ride two abreast and in that manner they travelled until the first golden glow of dawn appeared in the east. The moon came out after an hour or so and gave their passage a feeling of strange omens being at work, as they crossed the deserted landscape. The sun had almost breached the horizon when one of the Guards who had met them on the beach and had since served as their guide, whistled what was obviously a signal and the whole column turned towards the dawning east and a secluded clearing that guarded a small pool.

The organization of their expedition had been exact, for they entered that clearing and rode into the camp just as the sun sent its first rays across the land. Well hidden from any passing stranger was a small clutch of tents and within it stood four more Guardsmen, making Jarin wonder exactly how many had gone ahead of them. Although it had been obviously constructed in haste it was also obvious that good intelligence had chosen this location well in advance, for the clearing was perfectly suited to their need for secrecy. The newcomer’s horses were patiently tethered at the line, which accepted those of the newly arrived troop, and several of the guardsmen took the responsibility for wiping the mounts down and removing their equipment prior to feeding and watering them. After a breakfast of bread, cold meats, cheese and fresh water, perimeter guards were posted and they all retired to sleep away the day.

Jarin and Sandar watched as the men retired to the tents sat together near the stream, and it was some moments before Jarin broached the silence with conversation.

“I take it you know the reason for our mission as well as I Sandar?’”

“No Sire. I merely know that I must follow the carefully described orders I have been given and deliver you to the gates of Kiba. What you are to do there I have no notion Sire. But when you have done whatever it is you have to do, I am then to deliver you back to Lunza. Those are my orders Sire. I know nothing more than that, nor do I believe I need to Sire.”

“Spoken exactly the way I would expect Captain Sandar.” Jarin replied. “Would it be too forward of me Captain to ask if you were always a military man?”

Sandar looked a little puzzled at the question, but shrugged and answered it in a very careful voice,

“My Lord, I serve your highness, and in answer to your question I have done so since I was sixteen when I entered the Natan Militia like my father and grandfather before me. I was in my ninth year of service to your father; Gods rest his soul, when you were born Sire. I was an alter guard when you were named and I served you for the first year of the Great War, when you led our Legion against the Church invaders from the east. Fact is I feel like I am keeping my promise to your father right now Sire, for he charged me with your safety just before he died. When I found out you were missing after the War I took it personal for a long time.”

“You know that I have no memory of anything before I woke up after the Battle of Mang?” Jarin asked, noting the way Sandar averted his eyes as if the older man somehow felt guilty for what had happened. “To hear you talk of my father gives me a strange feeling Captain for I know nothing of him at all, save what I have been told. In fact if I were to meet him I would not know him, nor my own mother . . . ”

Something happened to his voice and Jarin felt as if he had swallowed his own phlegm for a moment as he struggled to bring more words forth and continue the conversation.

“You need only have pride for your parents my Prince . . .” Sandar obviously felt compassion by his tone and movements. “ . . . They were fine people and I for one never heard a word against them in all my years of service. You come of fine stock Prince Jarin, on your father’s side is a millennium of honour and your mother was the finest daughter Prince Zorigan had, she was a most beautiful and kind Lady Sire.” Sandar’s voice seemed to break, “Sire, there will be many times when we will be able to talk however right now my Prince I would suggest we retire, for the hour grows late and tonight we shall have a distance to travel before you may perform the deed you have been sent hence to do.”

Jarin saw that Sandar’s eyes were wet as he stood up and brushed himself off and as they walked to their separate tents he felt closer to another person than he had since his days on Havor’s Holding before he had met Manator.

 

* * * * * * *

A Miracle at Kiba

 

Just before sunset they were woken and ate again, then the camp was dismantled and the enlarged party mounted up and rode slowly southward again under the protection of the night. The monastery of Kiba is a walled town halfway between Araz and Samur on the road which runs through the old forest of the Cimar peninsula. It had been built centuries before on Church land where the borders of the four states come together and had served for many years as a fort occupied by an Order of Warrior monks whose honours were now long forgotten. Jarin and his party camped an hour before dawn not a mile from the walls of Kiba, where six more Guardsmen had waited prepared for their arrival.

Jarin knew that the next time the sun set it would be time for him to perform the task they had journeyed here to carry out. He did not sleep well the following day and during the afternoon when sleep was impossible, he watched his Guards preparing for the mission ahead. Every piece of equipment was checked many times and finally each man laid out his crossbow and Jarin could not lose a feeling of admiration at the professionalism of his men, as those weapons of death were prepared with the care a mother would give to her newborn infant. Patience is a trait of military men he had learned somewhere and in a world where short bursts of action are separated by long periods of inaction he understood the need for this attribute exactly.

Jarin was happy when Captain Sandar later silently motioned for him to join him and they proceeded to the small rise where Sandar’s telescope allowed him to examine the city through that wondrous tube. The forest around the city had been cleared eons ago and generations of sheep had melded the land about its moat into a carpet of the greenest of grass. From that mantle the city itself rose like a monolith carved of dark red ironstone, quarried from the mountains to the east for which the region was famous. Its towering vertical walls topped with ancient parapets gave it the look of an eternal watchtower, reaching its lookout stations high above the swath of forest it commanded. It seemed deserted from the distance they watched it from, however Jarin had been told be Razarian that it housed no less than five hundred monks who lived and breathed the very doctrine that he was now being groomed to replace.

At last the sun dipped behind the horizon and as the night deepened, his guards mounted up and left in pairs at five-minute intervals, to take up their positions surrounding the town. There was finality in the way his men went into the night, going forth to ensure that no one left Kiba to give them away before the mission had been completed. As midnight approached only Jarin, Captain Sandar and eight other Guards remained in the now deserted clearing in the small wood, which had hidden them that day. These men would go with him to within two hundred yards of the gates of Kiba, so that they would be able to protect his retreat and hold the horses on which they would make their way back to the coast. At last Captain Sandar came to Jarin; he saluted and with a perfect economy of words, said quietly,

“It is time, my Lord.”

“Thank you Sandar, I am ready.” It sounded trite, but it was said and Jarin mounted his horse, held patiently by one of his guards and followed the good captain as they rode with their companions to the small rise in the ground, which would hide the horses from any inquisitive eyes in the town. The care of planning which had obviously gone into this mission reassured Jarin greatly, even down to picking the approach and finding this small ridge, which would give the Guards a good vantage point for protecting his retreat. Jarin dismounted, never taking his eyes from the shadows that were the walls of Kiba and then he carefully dressed himself in the flowing white cloak brought along for this very moment. He checked his devices and when he could not think of any reason why not to get on with his part in the plan, he started walking towards the gates of Kiba without a word to his companions.

The City was dark as Jarin approached it. The days when this place had been a military settlement had slipped into history many years ago, yet even today its great walls protected it well from any attack by outlaws. The Cimar peninsula was not a place where remnants of the Brotherhood ventured either, for it was far from their homelands and easily policed by the Church Army, therefore no guards nervously paced the walls of this place. Jarin had been told that the Priests and Monks of such towns rose at dawn and retired with the sun and obviously in the case of Kiba this held true.

As he walked he turned on the Belt of Power and took the two light-lances from his pockets and all of a sudden the whole affair seemed more than a little ridiculous. Jarin knew his speech well enough, he must have rehearsed it a hundred times even after he was word perfect and he expected the devices he was equipped with to both gain the inhabitants attention and protect him from them afterwards, for other than the daggers he carried in his boots Jarin was unarmed. Even so there was a feeling of foolhardiness in just one man walking into a sleeping city of priests and monks to announce a new God and then hope to be able to just walk away when it was done. It was too late for second thoughts however, for before he was ready for it he already stood before the gates of Kiba and in a few minutes it would be midnight.

Jarin suddenly found that he wanted to laugh. What if they would not let him in? Even as he thought it however, the gate started to open and an old man opened the way for him into the city. No sooner than he was inside, stepping carefully through the small portal gate set in the right gate, than the old man walked away leaving the portal gate open behind him. He had said nothing and had not appeared to have even seen Jarin. More of Manator’s ancient art no doubt. Then Jarin was alone in the Street and the man had gone back to his bed, unaware of what he had just done. Jarin held a light lance in each hand and found himself walking along the stone paved street towards the public square, which stood in the center of this small town. It was just as the plans he had been shown had said it would be and soon he was standing on the raised stone platform in the center of the square, where only hours before a Priest had preached evening prayers to the faithful who lived in this place. The red-yellow ironstone buildings around the square remembered times when this had been a military settlement. Three stories high, the walls facing the square were only graced with small slits of windows, each guarded by an iron grill. The doors were of aged oak, studded with the heads of heavy bolts which no doubt held hinges and drop bars that would stand against a battering ram for hours. Jarin could see the city gates from where he stood, guarding the entrance to a street some fifty feet wide and lined with houses which duplicated the architecture of those in the square.

The only exits from that street or the square itself were narrow alleyways lined by high walls from which defenders could hurl rocks or pour boiling oil upon any invaders trying to navigate the cramped little streets; and doing it all from the safety of the rooftops. Like a place carved from one stone block it echoed a past long gone; when armed monks expected attack and invasion, but the years had mellowed its harsh lines, rain had softened the heavy walls and people’s feet had worn the hardness of its pavements. Here and there a pot held geraniums, or an ancient fruit tree was outlined against the stone. The yew trees planted at each corner of the square to produce straight-grained wood to manufacture long bows had matured over the centuries into stately giants. Tonight Jarin felt the history of this place, knowing that from this moment on this night would be written into every history book in Khanlar and known to young children for all time to come, no matter the outcome of his own actions this night.

“Well . . .” Jarin thought, “. . . this is it!”

His thumbs touched the buttons and the lances sent forth their blinding white beams of light. He waved them about sending the screaming silent light into every alley, every window, in fact across every surface they could reach. Shouts came immediately! Then screams! Then doors flew open, shutters were thrown wide, lights appeared in almost every window and frightened faces were caught in the flashing light dancing across the surfaces of plaster and stone. He turned both lances off at the same moment and the sudden return to darkness brought even more desperation into the voices of his audience.

Jarin waited until the noise had died and then he turned the lances back on, pointing them down at the, ground, so that he was standing in a reflecting halo of pure white light. He must have looked terrifying to them, yet when he asked them to come forward and hear him, they came like sheep to the slaughter.

“Let every man, woman and child come forth and bear witness to my words.”

How they came! Some dragged themselves into the square, only a breath away from terror driving them into a faint. Some ran shouting praise to one God or another. Others too frightened to walk alone drew some against their best judgment. But they all came and soon the whole population of Kiba was gathered around him, many of them muttering prayers they obviously hoped would protect them. Standing on that cold stone platform, surrounded by light and a crowd of several hundred frightened people, Jarin started the words that he had practiced for so long.

“Come near to me my children, for I bring you the greatest news mankind has ever heard and to you I will trust the message of the One and Only God. I bring the Word to Kiba, to you who have led so many along the path of lies and wickedness, words that shall save all the children yet to be born into the evil of this world.”

His words echoed off the walls around him in that crowded silence, amplified by the fear of his audience and the towering stone walls around him, as he looked out on a sea of wide open eyes and dropped jaw gaping mouths.

“You have been chosen to bring this news to the Nations, for a new day comes and you are its messengers. You are entrusted to go forth and lead the wicked and the ignorant into the heart of the One and Only God.”

He paused for effect and saw the awed faces before him, waiting on every word.

“There is but one God! All other gods and demons are the evil lies, which lead men to the doom of eternal horror. False priests have guided you in terrible beliefs. Pass away from those liars and sinners. Denounce them with your voices and offer your hearts to the One and Only God. Call upon him for his guidance and you shall be saved from evil.”

Like the static of a thunderstorm building, Jarin felt the emotional panic growing around him, yet he breathed evenly as he had been taught and spoke slowly and carefully as he had practiced it all so many times.

“I bring you His Code of Laws. You shall obey these Laws, even though you may suffer torment to gain understanding. For he who does not follow the Laws of the One and Only God shall know His vengeance and anger when this mortal life shall end and you shall pass into eternity and His unending judgment.”

Jarin paused, watching them watching him and already he saw that some of the faces were reacting against a change in beliefs they had held for a lifetime.

“I have been dead, with no memories, no Past, no Future, no intelligence of anything save the Goodness of the Truth He gave me and now I bring the Truth to you and for this shall you first hate and despise me before my God shall make you Brothers and Sisters in his Truth. And all of this shall be in the space of a breath, or the agony of Eternity, yet you shall accept this Truth and you shall be clean of all your sins and then, and only then, shall your evil ways be forgiven.”

Then with careful deliberation on each and every word, just as he had practiced it so many times in his apartments and in the gardens back on Lunza, Jarin repeated the Laws of the One and Only God. His voice took on the anger of an irate father at times, while at others he spoke with the sincerity of an old friend advising the actions he would proscribe with the sincere intention of helping and guiding one who is tempted to make a mistake.

Then it was over. The speech ended. The words were finished. The act was done. And the moment was electric, the silence pounding upon every ear in that place, with the thunder of all those hearts beating in unison.

“What is your god’s name?” The question came from where Jarin knew not.

“The One and Only God is God, his name is secret from men, yet he is in the heart of every man, woman and child. His name is Truth to those who are just and noble, it is Comfort to the weak, and Salvation to those who suffer in mind or body and it is Vengeance to those who choose to disown Him and the Truth of His ways. He is the One and Only God and has no other name but God.”

“What is your name?” A different voice asked him.

“I am the Lord. I am the Prince Jarin of Natan, who was dead and has risen again to bring the armies of the just and righteous into battle against the evil ways of this world.”

That did it! Like one man they drew back from him. He waited, for Razarian had predicted this would happen; and what would happen next.

The spear came from out of the darkness with an ease of flight that would have driven it through his body had he not been protected by the Belt of Power. Instead it stopped a foot from his chest and clattered to the ground. Stones followed, a knife or two, a club of wood and yet another spear and worse than any weapon, a moaning came forth from them as they realized that nothing could touch him. Panic was near. The time was now!

Fear not my children! You understand not what you do! It is Fear and the evil teachings of evil men that drive you to kill the messenger of the One and Only God. Yet mortal man cannot kill me while I am under the protection of His wisdom and goodness. Fear not, for I forgive you your doubts! I forgive you your fear! Rise up and see that a New Age is dawning for you and your children and for all of Mankind. Take up His Crusade and proclaim the Laws of the One and Only God across the length and breadth of this Land.”

They were cowering now. They knew beyond any doubt whatsoever that they were beaten. They were also of course suffering more confusion than any person should ever be subjected to. This was the moment that Razarian had predicted would come and Jarin followed his directions to the letter as he threw up his hands as if in surrender and wound his arms around his head, sending arcs of light silently screaming over the frightened faces of human beings too confused to react and far too scared to run.

“Now must I return to that place from where I came and He shall make me a man amongst men again to lead His host. I give you a warning, you who are the first to hear the Word. This night is for solitude and silence. Let no living thing leave this City before the sun rises. The golden bolt of the Lord shall strike down any man, woman or child that venture forth this night. For tomorrow shall the World come to you and ask you about what has happened here. Bid all who come to wait the coming of the Twelve who shall come to lead you, the Chosen in the Truth of all Truths. Tell only what you have seen and heard with the coming of the Lord of the one and only true God.”

They nodded, they cried, they bowed, they accepted. Jarin continued, wishing the practiced words would soon end,

“With the rising of the sun this New Day and on the seventh day for all time, you shall pray for guidance in the Ways of the One and Only God and you shall judge yourselves against his Laws.”

One down, two to go he thought as they accepted without question or word. He raised his arms slowly until the beams of light executed an everlasting ‘V into the heavens above him. Then bringing both arms together in front of him he pointed the light lances towards the city gates, which reflected the light as if the sun itself was shining upon them.

“Each morning raise your arms to the sky and repeat every Law that the One and Only God has given to you, so that he may know that amongst all men you accept your responsibility to make His Laws the only rule of your life.”

Last one!

“In the morning when you have given your thanks to the One and Only God and have promised your life to him and the service of his people, you shall find outside of the Gates of Kiba the most Holy Scroll which contains the Laws of the One and Only True God in a silver casket. And those of you that the One and Only True God shall call as his messengers shall leave this place and you shall go to your brothers in all of the Nations to tell them what you know. For you have been chosen to do this great thing for mankind.”

Leaving the platform, Jarin walked without haste towards the gate. The crowd parted to let him through and although one or two hands reached out to touch him, they felt only the cold hardness of the Belt’s power and several fainted away for their boldness. After what seemed like an hour’s deliberate march, but which was only minutes, he reached the open gates which the old man had returned to close behind him.

Through the gates Jarin walked, noting that the old man had already placed outside of them the silver casket containing the scroll bearing the Laws of the One and Only True God. Then the gates closed behind him and he measured his steps through the silence towards the place where his companions waited for him.  No one had made to follow him. He had turned off the light lances as he had passed through the gateway and in a practiced movement had reversed his cloak exposing the dark blue lining and thrown its hood over his head. To anyone looking out from the wall behind him he was now invisible.

He reached the rise where Captain Sandar and the others waited for him and jumped into the hollow behind it. He was sweating from the emotional exertion he had just gone through, but when he finally dared to look back he saw that the gates of Kiba had remained closed.

“Time to leave Captain.” Jarin said in the nearest thing to a calm voice he could manage.

“Yes my Lord.” Captain Sandar replied, equally without emotion. The horses were brought to them and soon they were heading north at the gallop, joined as they travelled by the others of their company.

 

* * * * * * *

A Quiet Garden

 

Six weeks had passed since Jarin had gone into Kiba and announced himself to its inhabitants as The Lord and had proscribed the One and Only God. Six weeks since a crowd of frightened priests, monks and nuns, Church servants and their wives and children had cowered in front of the Indestructible Lord and had tried to murder him, only to find that due to ancient magic he was indeed indestructible. For himself it had been six weeks of recrimination, guilt and mental acrobatics, knowing that the twelve leaders of this new religion had already left Lunza and were at this moment creating an underground religion based upon his actions at Kiba.

Jarin knew of course that he was not The Lord, he was merely a man who had said that he was, supported by a mysterious belt which somehow manufactured a cloak of pure force around its wearer. He had proclaimed a Code of Laws, which some very human men had developed and drawn up from old books about forgotten religions that might, or more probably might not, have been true. The result of everything was that he now felt lost in a set of circumstances he was unable to control or change. He wondered sometimes if there were indeed any God or Gods and if so, why had He or They, allowed such a thing to happen?

Why had he not been struck down with a lightning bolt while he addressed the people of Kiba? Since his return to Lunza there had been nights when he had woken in the middle of the night from nightmares, where he faced that faceless True God and found Him to be either a senile old man, or a group of self-centered animalistic brutes, who took pleasure in having him lead the innocent fools who believed in his words, towards an even greater deception than their own priests had been able to manufacture before Jarin had come on the scene.

Immediately after Jarin had left Khanlar aboard the Arrow, the Twelve Teachers had begun their work to gain converts. How the Guardians had convinced them, trained them or gained their agreement to undertake such dangerous work, he had no idea. In fact when he was given the details he had to admit he had been shocked far more than he would have thought possible. The Twelve Teachers were in fact Priests, men who had scant months before believed, or at least supported, the doctrine of the old Church. Somehow they had been convinced to throw off a lifetime’s belief and go out into the land dressed in simple dark blue robes to preach the new Laws, protected by nothing save the fact that they were still Priests in the eyes of the Church authorities, in theory at least.

News of the success of the Twelve Teachers was brought to Jarin regularly and with each report he realized just how much effort and thought had been given to their training. They obviously tried to convert no one by the usual fear of Hell and threats of bad luck used by the established Church for generations. Instead they moved through the land teaching The Laws, living with the people, teaching them the simple things that poor people always need to be taught. They explained the importance of cleanliness and hygiene; and they encouraged cooperative effort, taught men how to sign their own name and generally acted in the ways of kindly old men, eager to share their knowledge with everyone and to spend their lives helping their fellow man. They were also doctors, all of them according to Jarin’s sources and they had been given some of the secrets of the Guardians to improve their abilities in dispensing advice and medicine. The acts they performed with that teaching appeared, by all reports, close to the miracles they were declared to be by the people who witnessed their healing efforts. They did not attack the belief of these simple folk in the old Parthenon of Gods either, but instead suggested that the One and Only God was in fact the Supreme Being in whom the Gods themselves believed. It was a simple strategy of acquisition of supporters within the old framework of religion, that eventually would render all other Gods and Goddesses unnecessary and from all that Jarin was told, it appeared that the strategy of the Guardians was working.

Since the event at Kiba that dark night, nothing had been the same. From the moment Jarin had returned to Lunza it seemed that everywhere he went the common folk seemed to have experienced an increase in their awe of him and therefore, the consequence of what he had done. Heads bowed, eyes followed his every move, and one foolish sailor even touched his arm, perhaps to prove that he was indeed flesh. Poor-fool only did so to find his fingers suspended by an invisible barrier some three inches from Jarin’s sleeve and he promptly collapsed into a dead faint. Even in Lunza some of the people he met, who by no means could be ascribed to be members of the uneducated lower classes, made fools of themselves as he went forth in the town by dropping to one knee and bowing their heads, or by putting their right hand on their hearts in salute. It was fast coming to be like living inside a glass bubble. Jarin soon discovered that he was regarded as special, saintly or even omnipotent; everywhere he went, while his true heart sought for an understanding of it all. He was no different. Jarin found that he desperately needed to prove to himself that he was still himself. He knew that it had all been just tricks, however to tell the truth would be to prove himself a liar and a charlatan and he found that he despised the idea of being known as a liar even more than he despised himself for being one.

The result was that soon after his return Jarin had begun to keep himself apart from others whenever possible. Where before he had talked, now he preferred to listen. You can neither lie, nor be caught out, by only listening he soon discovered. He also found himself becoming comfortable only in his own company and very uncomfortable with anyone else. After two weeks Jarin came upon a pavilion in a secluded area of the gardens, surrounded by a high wall and protected by an ornate iron gate. He ran to its safety the way a child will run to hide behind his mother’s skirts and soon he rarely left the place. His Guardsmen still protected him, even without spoken orders and every moment of the day no less than six of them kept his newfound haven private from all would be visitors. Occasionally people would come to see him, but when the Guards called to announce them and he did not reply, his guards never allowed whoever it was to come through the gate.

It was six weeks to the day and for four of them Jarin had spoken to no one, not even Kirene who came silent, wet-eyed and un-comprehending to be with him every day. She would sit with him, having dropped into silence after he had been unable to answer her worried questions on the first visit. He had even taken to sleeping in the pavilion. Then Manator came to the garden. The Guard called out the fact that the Guardian General had come to visit him and as usual Jarin kept silent but it took more than six large Guardsmen to keep Manator from going wherever he wished to go. Jarin watched as they tried to restrain even Manator from entering his garden, but the orb of his old friend’s staff glowed crimson and they could not touch him. He walked slowly towards Jarin and then one of the Guards drew a sword and began following him, obviously meaning to protect Jarin’s need for privacy even if he had to kill the Guardian General himself.

“Hold your arm.” Jarin’s voice sounded too soft to carry, but it was enough, the sword disappeared back into its scabbard, with the guard looking very relieved. Manator walked on without a glance behind him and then they stood face to face. The Iron Gate clanged shut behind him and they were alone.

“Good afternoon Jarin.” Manator said  and Jarin saw that his old friend looked worried, “I see pain in your face and I know from your retreat here that you are troubled. I come to help you my friend, I think it is time we talked again.”

Without answering him Jarin turned and led the way to a stone bench. They sat there for a few minutes before Manator spoke again.  “Is it better to face your pain my son or to build it within you until there will be nothing left of your soul to combat it?” He then waited patiently for a reply.

“It is not pain, Manator, it is doubt. And to face it is to build it I find.” With his first words in weeks, Jarin felt suddenly that perhaps there just might be an answer to everything that bothered him.

“Is the doubt something that can only be built then?” Manator asked, “Can it not be chipped away by contemplation and debate? What doubt is so un-explainable that it cannot be tracked down and explained?”

“How can a lie, spoken with knowledge that it is a lie, be the truth, Manator? I am not the Lord, no more than any other man wearing that Belt of Power and taught the words by a clever scholar would be. I feel as if I have killed the child that is my honour. How can I now continue in the hope that it will forgive me when it is grown into an adult? For how can something dead grow to maturity?”

Manator took many minutes of contemplation before he answered, not that the wait bothered Jarin, for he was in fear that there would be no answer to solve his doubts and would have waited several lifetimes to be freed of it. It was therefore easier to wait, for until Manator spoke he had not agreed that it was impossible for Jarin to solve his torment. But at last Manator did answer him.

“When you were a babe in your mother’s arms, if it had been possible to substitute a perfect double for you while she slept, would that child be you?” Manator then went on to answer his own question, “Obviously not, it would be a substitute. Yet it would grow with the same care and teaching, as you would have done, had the substitution not been made? It would carry the name that would have been yours and all, as the Prince Jarin of Natan would recognize it, every day of his life. He would also carry the same responsibilities and face the same challenges that time and life would otherwise have placed before you, had the substitution not been made.” Manator smiled then, “I ask you to consider my friend, would not Prince Jarin be responsible for his own actions? Would he not think that he was indeed the true Prince Jarin? It could never be your responsibility for what the substitute did, thought or meant, could it?”

Jarin had to agree with his logic; though he did not understand how such an argument might proceed, or for that matter help him in his present predicament.

Manator continued, “And who is to say that both you and I might not indeed be such substitutes? Does it change by one scratch what we are today? Of course we both know it can not, for what we are and what we have already done, is now part of History and beyond our control.”

“What has that to do with what I have done, Manator?” Jarin asked, “I know I am not The Lord, I did not become so by a lifetime of being I was He. I knew that I was not the Prophet I claimed to be, even as I misled those poor fools in Kiba!”

“Obviously you know that you are not the Lord.” Said Manator, “Just as the substitute would know that he was only the substitute for you.”

“Wait a minute . . .” Jarin knew the cleverness of Manator’s debating ability and felt the fear rising behind his acceptance of reasoning, “If the substitute had been put in my place as a babe he could never know he was not me, not without being told and the telling proved, surely . . .  are you saying that I might just be the Lord and do not know it? That is ridiculous!’

Manator was very serious when he answered, “Would the babe who was taken away from his mother know that he was the true Prince, Jarin?”

“Of course not! Not unless the person who had replaced him with the substitute was to go to him to tell him the truth.” Jarin was already confused, but Manator’s next words floored him.

“Who is to say that was not the case when you were asked to be the Lord? Who can expect that the babe who was taken away and replaced by the substitute would not doubt that he was indeed the true Lord?’ Jarin could feel Manator starting to win this debate, as he had won all the others they had shared.

“But I am not the Lord . . .  am I Manator?” Jarin asked.

“Perhaps not. However if the real Prince were not there to run the Nation, would it not be sensible to replace him with an exact double? Just as you are pure of heart and without doubt of the true Royal Blood, is it not sensible to replace such a nonexistent Lord with you? Your loss of memory made you the only grown man who has that purity that I have ever met in my lifetime, Jarin. Perhaps you are not the Lord, for all we know you may not be Prince Jarin either, unless we interview the mid-wife who brought you into this world. The Fates have played stranger tricks to make their Will be known and followed. Perhaps your mind was emptied so that you could be the Lord, at the very time such a man was needed.” He paused, but Jarin refused him the pleasure of a reply right then, so Manator continued. “If you are or if you are not, an instrument of the True God, perhaps we shall never know, but then is it really that important? However, you can make of the opportunity whatever you wish to make of it. You can use this power for good or you can use it for evil.., or you can retire into this pleasant rose garden and refuse to use it at all. The choice is yours alone, for all that makes a man a man is his right to such freedom of choice.”

Manator stood up to leave, touched Jarin’s shoulder and started away before Jarin could think of the words to keep him. After a few steps however, the Guardian General turned with a slight smile on his lips.

“Remember my friend, according to the teachings of every religion and Church, belief is a matter of choice and every man is responsible for the choice he makes for himself. Those who heard you at Kiba must make the choice for themselves that they and only they are able to make. You bear no guilt, for your intentions were all good and in their interest.” He paused before ending the conversation, “Then again Jarin, perhaps the Force of the True God only entered you the one time . . .  who knows, you may never be anything but your ordinary self again.”

Jarin sat for a long time before he realized that Manator had meant all along that he would only be the instrument of God, as far as he was concerned, for that one performance . . .  and no more!  Manator had achieved everything he had set out to achieve. Jarin had been used to be God’s messenger for just the one performance and by that act he had been elevated to being the chosen, ruler of Khanlar. It had put him in the enviable position of out-ranking the Priest of Priests, Ragarian, who probably sat in his palace at this very moment trying to decide how to regain his omnipotence, should the people decide to believe that Jarin was indeed the Chosen One.

As for himself, it would appear that if Manator was right as usual, Jarin had merely to be himself from now on. His task as the Lord had been completed, the Twelve Teachers would handle all of the more complicated tasks of creating the new Church and the Guardians would orchestrate every thing, to ensure the outcome favoured the position they required it to be to destroy the existing power of the established Church in Khanlar. If they succeeded they would bring a higher standard of civilization and awareness to the world than it had ever known before and where was the sin in that?

A short while after Manator left the garden Kirene came and Jarin allowed her to lead him back to their apartments with a mother hen like affection, convinced that his depression had been a physical malady, which Manator had stopped and which care and affection could prevent from ever returning.

It took Jarin some time to accept that he could be only one more tool in the collection that Manator and the Guardians had used to shake the people’s belief in the Church and it took a while longer after that before Jarin relaxed enough to be able to laugh at himself again . . .

And so at different ends of Khanlar two men watched as the Seeds of Change took root and began to grow. In the Great Temple of Ka Ragarian lived out the hours of that day surrounded by his counsellors and followers, while Prince Jarin of Natan did the same in the Guardian’s Palace on the island Nation of Lunza.

In fact, to the historical observer, there would be little to separate either man from the other in his dreams at that moment. They both sought the advancement of Khanlar, just as they both sought a better life for the people of that troubled land. What neither knew, was that they were both caught up in a path of circumstances that would bring about the conclusion that the Fates had always had planned.

Another fact which neither of them knew was that they both watched the sun set that evening with a feeling of foreboding in their hearts, while wondering about the other. So it is in the world of men, that two individual people making decisions based upon singular assumptions can in fact change the Fate of the world itself. For reality itself is but a small acorn floating down a stream, caught up in the eddies of men’s thought and invention, which themselves are but fleeting things that are born and then are gone, yet they can change the seed’s future for ever, without even noticing that they do it.

 

* * * * * * *


 

Chapter Eleven

REBIRTH OF THE BROTHERHOOD

 

At the same moment that the Arrow sailed into Lunza carrying Jarin and his Guard back from their mission in Kiba, Ragarian, Priest of Priests, was facing the terrified Monk who stood before him in the Great Hall of Ka and he wished he could open up the man's brain to discover the real truth.  The fool had knelt before him for nearly two hours, obviously convinced that he had witnessed a miracle at Kiba.  The problem Ragarian faced was still unfolding to him and he took little comfort that everyone his agents had interviewed seemed as sure of the facts as this simple little man and what each of them had told individually seemed to collaborate every story to the letter.

Ragarian had read the Laws of the One and Only God so many times during the day and a half since someone had found them outside the gates of the city and had brought them to him, that he already knew them by heart.  The fact that he could not fault them in morality or academic excellence, seemed to pose a real problem to the Church, which of course meant himself, and it was a problem he had not yet been able to decide how to handle.

If there had been an artist present to capture the scene it could have been used as an illustration of that moment in time, a moment that was to be written into the History of Khanlar as one of the most important of all time.  Ragarian had held his position of power long enough for him to be able to say that he indeed controlled the destiny of Khanlar, sitting alone in his study with the scroll containing the Laws of the One and Only God spread out before him on his desk.  All around the walls of the room hung the portraits of the most important of Khanlar's gods and goddesses, their likenesses almost life-size in their ornate gilt frames.  In the corner opposite the door stood a larger than life marble statue of Herthe, the base surrounded by fresh flowers that were replaced every morning and in front of the goddess burnt a flame within a small golden burner.  The great leaded window doors, which led onto the balcony, were open as usual, despite the cold weather, with the sound of the ocean far below adding a touch of reality to the scene.  Three large larch logs burnt in the hearth and caught the occasional draft, which gusted every now and then, as did the flame of the candle which illuminated Ragarian's desk.

The Priest of Priests himself was dressed in a dark crimson colored cassock, his shaven head protected by a skull cap of the same colour.  He seemed oblivious to the cold coming in from the open doors or the searing heat upon his back thrown out by the fire, as he finished reading again the well-written scroll before him.  Finally in disgust he rolled it up and retied the golden ribbon that held the two parts together.

The basic details of the story boiled down to a simple tale.  Someone calling himself Prince Jarin of Natan had proclaimed himself the Messenger of this One and Only God and had managed to stand uninjured when attacked from close quarters as he delivered his words to a crowd of frightened monks in Kiba.  A spear that had been thrown at this individual had been brought in as evidence and the steel tip of it had obviously been thrust into Hell itself, for it was covered with pock marks that looked like it had actually boiled without melting.

The scroll, along with the detailed notes he had taken during his interview with the priest who had witnessed the event at Kiba, lay before him.  He placed his finger tips together and absentmindedly blew through them while he considered his options.  The most obvious solution would be to accept this new God into the many he already controlled the worship of, until he could modify the message it proclaimed to be more in tune with the needs of the Church; however, this was all but impossible when the man that was leading this new cult was completely outside of the Church's control.  If this Lord, or whatever he called himself, were to continue as the main preacher of this new faith, then there was no way to control it.  Unless Ragarian himself could obtain the authority to interpret the needs and requirements of this new god, then there could be no new god.  That was obvious.  However, that would mean disposing of this Prince Jarin, the Lord, or whatever, and as long as this fellow could prevent harm to his person, then a simple assassination was out of the question.  Somehow this new religion had to be absorbed under the authority of the Church, thereby coming under his control, or it had to be denounced and destroyed!

Ragarian had already dispatched a troop of Cavalry to try to round up the erstwhile monks of Kiba, who seemed to have set off in every direction preaching this new cult; however he already knew that it was too late to prevent the spread of this new creed entirely.  As if this new God was not enough trouble in itself, there was also the problem with the Bishop of Zikon, who had been openly operating his own private slave ring . . .  then there was the food shortage in Araz, where they were holding three Priests hostage in a mine until the Gods sent food . . .  it seemed never to end!

Ragarian had the priest who had witnessed Prince Jarin's appearance at Kiba called again and when the man had been ushered in and sat opposite Ragarian across the desk, the Priest of Priests again brought forth his quill and paper and began asking further questions of him.   "How did this `Lord', as you call him, get into the city that night?  I take it the gates were locked and guards posted?"

"Yes Sire.  In fact the Abbot interviewed the gatekeeper almost immediately the next morning and I was present when he did so.  The old man obviously did not open the gates Sire, that was obvious by his composure and he insisted the key had never left his possession.  The gates were locked before Prince Jarin arrived and were still locked after he had left.  There were witnesses who thought they saw a ball of light descend from the sky at midnight into the square, however the Abbot dismissed them as either hysterical or not too bright Sire.  In other words Sire, we have no idea how he got into the city."

"And he came without companions, guards or servants?"  Ragarian realized there were no questions left that he had not asked before.

"None Sire.  He was alone."

Ragarian asked several more questions, however less than half an hour had passed before he sighed and dismissed the idiot kneeling before him.  There were no new questions to ask.  Now there was a messenger from a new God, calling himself the Prince of Natan.  Ragarian called the guards and had the confused yet sincere old Monk taken away.  Of all the problems that faced him this overcast autumn morning he decided that he would first deal with Bishop Gagorin of Zikon.

 

* * * * * * *

A Mean City

 

Ragarian looked out at the City of Ka several days after the news had come from Kiba, as his carriage moved slowly through the streets, making him angry that the horses could not be urged into a faster pace.  Whoever had thought up the idea that by moving at this snail's speed proved to the populace, who watched and bowed their heads as the carriage passed them, that all was well and under control, had been an idiot.  Today Ragarian was more than eager to meet with the Generals of the Army of the Church.  It seemed that from the very day of his Anointing the whole fabric of Society had begun to unravel and now there was talk that one of the Asigan Princes had risen from the dead and was proclaiming a new God of Gods that would drive out the Priests of the Old Order.  More importantly to Ragarian of course, was that the rumours were beginning to weaken his long sought absolute control over everything that made up the fabric of Khanlarian society.

Ragarian tried to judge the feeling of the people by watching the faces of those who turned to pay their respects as the carriage passed through the streets.  It was a cold day, with a fog-like, ice cold drizzle falling from a sky the colour of lead and the people were wrapped up well to keep out the cold, yet he somehow felt that they were not as convinced as they had once been of his Gods Given Authority, as he searched for clues in their faces.  It was as if they were watching and waiting to see how things would turn out.  That was it.  They should have been screaming at him to destroy the usurpers and drive out the heretics.  Instead they showed their respect in silence.  They were waiting to see what would happen, waiting to see what he would do to counter the threat that faced everything he stood for as Priest of Priests.

"You fools; can you not see that it is your perception of the truth that is as much to blame for the situation in our land as the truth itself?"  Ragarian said softly, almost speaking to himself.  "If every one of you was to begin to work for the good of Khanlar, rather than standing around waiting for someone or something else to do it for you, we might solve our problems a great deal sooner."

The fact was however that some of that old conviction had left him also over the last few weeks, in fact there were mornings when he wondered if he was the only High Priest that the Gods had not talked to after their anointing.  Maybe he was not the chosen one, perhaps he should have told the truth when they asked him if he heard those Voices, but these doubts he was able to hold within himself even as his confidence ebbed away with every new problem.  If he was not the chosen one, he was a good man and his intelligence was equal to that of any other man he had ever met.  If he was not meant to be the Priest of Priests would not the Gods have struck him down the moment he lied?

As always he managed to compose himself.  He had done it before the carriage drew up to the Army Headquarters building, yet as he walked up the steps flanked by Marazar, his ever faithful disciple, he wondered why everything had started to go wrong, seemingly from the very moment that he had taken up the mantle of power.  The Rebellion had been over almost five years and it had appeared as if there was nothing to challenge the power of the Church and therefore Ragarian as its head, only a short while ago.  Now, within a matter of a few weeks it seemed, everything appeared to be in doubt, there could even be a Prince of the Blood wandering about somewhere claiming to be the instrument of a new and all powerful God.  In a way Ragarian prayed that this Prince Jarin's claims were true and that he had indeed risen from the dead, because if they were not, then it meant he was most definitely working with the help of the Guardians on Lunza and they had been a thorn in the side of the Church for many generations.  He hoped above everything that it would not lead to a confrontation with those dabblers in the Magic Arts.  If there was one thing that rose the hackles on the back of Ragarian's head it was those Gods cursed Guardians.  He had of course read much about the Order of Guardians over the years and he had learned early in life that there had not been a High Priest in three hundred years that had had the courage to do anything against them, or their private island Nation of Lunza.  They were without doubt learned men and their knowledge of medicine was far in advance of what any doctor on Khanlar, including Ragarian himself could ever expect to practice.  It had been an unwritten rule for centuries that they were allowed to come and go in Khanlar as they wished, in fact they always travelled with papers that carried the Priest of Priest's own seal.  They rarely ventured into Khanlar these days however, but when they did they always applied for permission in the most diplomatic of ways and, of course, they always received it.  If they were indeed behind this new religion everyone was talking about then there were going to be some very serious problems arising from it, of that Ragarian had no doubt whatsoever.

It was as if with every step he mounted, another problem rose to be examined in his mind.  Forget this Prince Jarin, forget his new God, forget the potential problem of the Guardians on Lunza and he would still have a dangerous set of circumstances to deal with.  The whole economy of Khanlar, for which he was ostensibly responsible as of his anointing, had undergone a violent realignment after the War and although it had been contained during the reign of his predecessor it was now bordering upon total anarchy and was obviously beginning to get out of control.  Two years of bad harvests had left most of the already depleted granaries empty and so many animals had been killed during the War and in the years immediately following it, that the production of meat was now lower than it been for several generations.  The War had also killed many of the craftsmen and artisans leaving an imbalance of unproductive women, children and old people to be supported by the men of working age.  The need for hospitals and care for those maimed in the battles of the war had placed a drain on most small communities and had increased the ranks of criminals and beggars in society to almost unmanageable proportions.  Add to all those problems the sudden increase in births and everything began to border on the impossible.  It seemed as if every woman in Khanlar from fourteen to forty, married and unmarried was walking around pregnant and carrying a child under twelve months old in her arms.  As if all of these insurmountable difficulties were not enough, it was proved day after day that many of the administrators and officials appointed by the Church to take the place of deposed or distrusted former office holders, had misused their powers, or proved to be incapable of doing what they had been appointed to do.  All in all Ragarian decided, the actions taken by his predecessors had failed and having won the War it appeared that they had been set upon losing the Peace.

Starvation seemed set on claiming thousands of poor, young and old lives before the winter was out and the spring wheat could be harvested.  The roads were full of refugees travelling from village to village, town to town or Nation to Nation, seeking work and better conditions.  The laws which forbade them from taking to the road and leaving their homes were no longer possible to enforce due to the ever increasing number of people breaking them.  And now, as if the Gods were working to bring as much trouble into the crisis as possible, it appeared as if the discipline of the Army was beginning to break down again!  Walking through the halls and corridors of the Hall of the Army building Ragarian felt his anger pushing towards boiling point.  The place was more like an aristocratic private club than the nerve center of the largest army the world had ever seen.  Carved oak panelling, polished for centuries with linseed oil and beeswax, complimented the deep and dense pile crimson carpets.  Gilt framed portraits of long forgotten generals, and huge canvases depicting battle scenes, hung on every space large enough to accommodate them.  Suits of armour and carefully displayed weapons were everywhere.  There was a deep and everlasting smell of power and certainty about the place, which Ragarian could not fail to notice.  This building had felt the feet and heard the voice of many a Priest of Priests before him and it made him feel as if the very building itself laughed at his sense of urgency and mocked his power this morning.  The room the meeting took place in had almost floor to ceiling leaded windows on two sides, framed in even more carefully tended dark oak panelling.  Huge bronze chandeliers hung from the ceiling and burnt enough candles in a day to light a farmer's home for a year, just as the great table around which the Generals now sat could have seated the total inhabitants of many a hamlet.

The meeting began with more complaints and counter-blaming than even Ragarian had expected.  General Sikora, commander of the 4th Legion, was typical of his commanders, newly appointed he had been unable to stop the rot that had begun even before he had taken command.  His Army held the eastern area of what had once been the territory of the Asigan Alliance, two thousand men who were supposed to keep order in the Nations of Zoria, Natan, Mang and Dala.  Instead however, his men were split up into six units that spent as much time controlling the situation in the neighbouring Nations of Bizon, Atlar and Thar as they did in maintaining order in the conquered territories.  Sikora was a good officer, loyal and dedicated to his profession, yet he painted a picture of shortages and a lack of moral and discipline that had led to drunkenness and desertion by what had once been a proud contingent of soldiers.

General Howidar of the 5th Legion described no less negative a picture, explaining how he had needed to hang five of his soldiers, one a long-term sergeant, for raping the daughter of a blacksmith in Rigan and then killing her father when the man had tried to stop them.  Tale followed tale, describing the breakdown of the military discipline super-structure over the past year.  Ragarian heard with dismay how the 3rd Legion had been forced to raid a warehouse in Navis to be able to feed themselves, after the local Prince there had refused to supply them as was his duty.  In Luzan a group of disgruntled soldiers of the 1st Legion had actually burnt the local Bishop's house to the ground, after they had discovered that he had re-routed supplies meant for their comrades into his own storehouses.

"Gentlemen.  Enough of this!"  Ragarian finally spat out, ending the ever more competitive claims and counter-claims of his Generals as to who had the gravest problem.  He allowed the silence to deepen before he began his own opinion of the situation.   "It seems to me that we are agreeing that we are only just barely controlling the situation.  What I am hearing is a tale of impending anarchy and we are the people charged with preventing it from happening.  If that is the case and I can assure you that it is, then before this meeting ends we must and we shall begin actions to regain complete and absolute control of the situation."

His audience sat in silence, resembling small boys who had just made fools of themselves and not at all the powerful officers of society he had charged them to be.  Loyalty, Ragarian was finding, had its price.   "General Howidar.  It would appear that your actions in the North West have had the desired effect, inasmuch as the more violent disruptions within our forces have reduced themselves since you showed that you have no reluctance to use the hangman's art to maintain discipline.  It would appear that you have built a reputation throughout the army in the last few months for being a disciplinarian of some worth."

The tall and gaunt General of the 5th Legion nodded sombrely at his commander in chief, almost acknowledging the fact that his actions had been those of a patriot, whereas they had been no more than the desperate attempt of a man who had lost control to regain it.  Ragarian returned the nod, amused that his anger that the situation had been allowed to develop in the first place could be so well controlled.   "Your reward however may seem more like a punishment General, yet Khanlar has need of both your reputation and your kind of justice right now."  Ragarian continued, “I want to use that combination to bring a sense of discipline back to our forces as fast as we can arrange it.  Put bluntly General I want you to hand your command over to someone we can trust and assume an entirely new command, that of Justice-General for the Army.  Recruit yourself a force of say, five hundred men and a few dozen justices and set about cleaning up the more flagrant disciplinary problems we have been talking about.  Take up residency in the monastery city of Panzan and organize it so that six months from now not one single trooper in our army will so much as steal an apple for fear that he will fall into your hands."

"Consider it done, my Lord."  Was all that General Pang Howidar said and the ice cold conviction his voice carried made Ragarian wonder, just for a moment, how far this obviously fanatical man might take his charge.

"Time will tell if we can handle the problems in our army gentlemen.  I trust we shall see immediate improvements; yet even so, if we are unable to handle the rot in our society at all levels then solving one problem will merely aggravate the others."  Ragarian fiddled with the papers in front of him for a moment, yet it was enough to bring ambition to the fore in General Sikora of the 4th Legion.

"Sire.  Perhaps the greatest of our problems with society at this time is that the dregs of it have multiplied greatly since the war."  The General received a nod from Ragarian and so he continued, “I would suggest my Lord that unless we remove those who are eating at civilization from the bottom and that they can be put to some use for the first time in their lives, our problems may well increase.  If it please you Sire, I would be honoured to take the scum from our cities and towns and put them to productive work in camps where their ever consistent failure to run their own lives could not damage the changes you are planning."

"Elucidate on exactly who you would group into this class General?"  Ragarian asked, pretending to be involved with one of his papers.

"Beggars, criminals and the mentally retarded, would be my first choice my Lord.  I could establish a series of camps in places far from the centres of population and work these people to clear the forest and provide lumber to fill our needs Sire.  We could use them to quarry rock, reclaim swamps, things like that, but most importantly we could remove them from the honest society they presently prey upon, get them out of sight and out of mind, so to speak."

"Organize it General, and keep me informed, the idea has merit."  Ragarian neglected to add that General Sikora had just voiced the very system that he himself would have suggested had the General not done so for him.

General Toragor then spoke; obviously voicing a well thought out and long considered speech that he had wanted to bring before his only superior in Army matters.   "Sire, for a long time now I have been troubled by the way our whole Army is organized.  I understand that it has been this way for many centuries and has served us well, however the War against the Asigan Alliance appears to me to have identified several weaknesses and contradictions which it might be well to change."  The General spoke in a slow and considered formation of words, almost as if he had practiced them to be sure that each one was correct to put his point across, “As you know Sire, I learned my trade in the Order of Mansa, which was established by the Church and has provided many of the Generals and members of the Officer Corps for centuries.  Yet I feel that we have been given an establishment that is more geared to preventing the control of the Army than enforcing it.  I believe that in the original thought process more was given to preventing any one Prince or Church Faction gaining control, which might possibly lead to a civil war between various power factions, than to providing an efficient chain of command under the Priest of Priests."

Ragarian found himself enthralled by the General's presentation, and when it looked like the General was about to falter, probably worrying that what he was saying might be considered revolutionary, if not heretical, the Priest of Priests urged him on with nods and hand movements rather than words.

"Look at it this way Sire.  At least half of the men in Khanlar that follow the profession of a soldier are not under my command as your General, in fact I can not even give you an accurate count.  They instead report to the Prince who employs them.  Their loyalty is to a Nation and its Prince, not to the Church or to Khanlar as a whole.  It is my belief that is why it took us years, instead of days, to defeat the Asigan Alliance.  Even in the Army itself I have several Generals who operate almost autonomously.  In other words Sire, if you were to order me to gather every soldier who in theory owes loyalty to the Church it might take me weeks, even months, to do so."

"Cut to your desire General.  What would you have me do?"  Ragarian was enthralled.

"Sire, I would suggest that a Prince only be allowed to maintain a Guard sufficient enough to guard his own palace, and that the militia of each City should be made up of regular soldiers of the Church Army, under the command of a Captain who reports to myself.  Then I would impose overall authority of my staff on every General who commands a Legion in the field, and I would build military camps that were independent of the Cities or Nations in every aspect, even to declaring that the land they stand upon is the property of the Church.  Then I would insist that my oath of loyalty, and the oaths of those who follow me in this post, should be to you as the Priest of Priests and not, as it presently is, to the Council of Wardens of the Church.  Then every officer, from General right down to a Corporal, should also be to the Priest of Priests, through the chain of command.  Put bluntly my Lord, I believe that every soldier who carries arms, other than the private guards of Princes, Bishops and other important members of society, should report through my command to yourself.  If we are to carry the responsibility Sire, then we should also be entrusted with the necessary authority to make it possible to do the task we have been given."

Ragarian thought for a moment before he answered, and then said, "The Council of Wardens might not like this idea General, neither would the Royal Houses or the many officers of the Church, however you make a strong point in light of our experiences in trying to put down the revolution of the Asigan Alliance.  I can immediately give you authority over every branch of the Church Army, in fact consider it done, I will have the papers drawn up to allow you to enact a re-organization to bring about efficiency.  However, when it comes to my assuming absolute control above and without the Council of Wardens and the Princes . . . well that needs a lot of thought and consideration, but your points are well taken.  We shall establish a Commission to prepare a report on the subject."

The meeting settled into a period of some quiet discussion after that, as everyone realized just how daring a scheme General Toragor had proposed, but eventually they returned to the more mundane subject of the present situation and it was General Sikora who broached the subject of paying for the reforms they were suggesting, without bankrupting the Church Treasury.   "Until we are able to enforce the Binding Laws Sire, might it not be a sensible solution to preventing the mass migration of poor people by levying a fine upon Princes when their people are returned to them?  If I were a Prince I would change my thinking greatly if it cost me every time one of my people decided to seek their fortune in another Nation.  As it is the present situation benefits a Nation when it’s poor decide to go elsewhere and become someone else's problem."

"Now that is a brilliant idea General."  Ragarian replied,  "I shall have a decree drawn up that shall charge a Prince five golden crowns each time we have to return one of his own beggars.  Brilliant Sir!  We create the monies we need and give them a reason for managing their own people better at the same time."

"In fact Sire. . ."  General Sikora continued,  "If a Prince has to pay more in taxes to the Church, it will mean that he will have to raise more taxes from his own people, which eventually boils down to the people having to create more income for themselves to be able to pay these increased taxes.  More income should mean more work to produce it, therefore we might well be able to give the economy a jump start by imposing new taxes at this time and we do have the perfect vehicle for that purpose at hand."

"Go on General."  Ragarian urged.

"Sire, if I am to build camps to sop up the dregs of our Prince’s societies we shall be helping them, therefore it would make sense to them that they should be expected to finance it through new taxes.  In other words they will provide the finances we need to build the camps, however the income and profits we shall generate once the camps are operational will be going directly into the Church Treasury, thereby giving us the funds we need to re-organize the army."

"General Sikora. . ."  Ragarian chuckled,  "If ever you find that soldiering is not to your mind anymore, perhaps I could interest you in a position in the Treasury?"

Everyone laughed at the Priest of Priests' semi-serious joke and the meeting took on a much lighter, yet still serious tone, for the remainder of the time they were there.  Two hours later Ragarian left the meeting promising his Generals that he would move Heaven and Earth to assist them.  He rode back through the rain to his palace convinced that rescuing the situation had as much to do with replacing most of his administration as it did with countering the resurgence of the teachings of the Brotherhood and this new problem of a One and Only God.  

 

* * * * * * *


  

Chapter Twelve

HISTORIES OF UNKNOWN PEOPLE

 

In every telling of History there are many stories and small incidents that happen and are forgotten soon after, which if recorded would together form the detail of a true picture of the events.  Unknown people living soon to be forgotten lives are the true pattern of history, within and around which great events occur.  These vignettes, if they were recorded, would give the student a more accurate understanding of the times, even though they would have no other relevance to the History than that.  Therefore some of these unrelated stories about incidents in the lives of famous and important, or otherwise unknown and unimportant people are included here, to assist the student of our own day and time understand the backdrop against which our History was actually lived.
 

* * * * * * *

The Prince of Atare

 

Prince Gregorian of Atare dismounted from his horse at that point in his journey where the road from Atare emerged from the gorge through the ridge that formed the narrow bridge of land that was the entrance to the Rangarian Peninsula.  His guards followed his example and gathered a few yards off while he looked down on the land that stretched away towards the Bay of Rangar.  By turning his head he was able to direct his eyes to look east, where the other side of the ridge, carpeted with the forest that he loved flowed to meet Karden Bay.  Beneath them to the south the gorge was filled with sunlight and from their viewpoint atop the ridge they could see the natural artery that joined the eastern part of his Nation to the western area where the City of Atare guarded the southernmost shores of Karden Bay.  Most of the trade from the east followed the ancient trade route that brought its caravans and wagon trains to the gates of his city, as did all of the land traffic from the Southern Continent which crossed Lake Asiga by ferry from Asiga to Mozag.

The Royal House of Atare had been blessed by the Gods to own a Nation that stretched from sea to sea across the neck of the peninsula that housed the nations of Rangar and Karden and the Holy City of Ka itself.  By that chance of Fate and the bureaucracy of the Church Authorities his family and his people had grown rich.  Traffic from the Bay of Rangar to Karden Bay travelled his road, between the small seaside towns of Maniris and Asarin, paying taxes into his coffers.  Traffic crossing his land to enter either Rangar or Karden, did the same and his city lived well on the trade of merchants, Churchmen and visitors who spent the night there before submitting themselves to the day of petty officiousness they would need to enter Ka itself after passing through the gates of the great wall.

The wall which guarded the Rangarian Peninsula was actually the border between his nation Atare, and the Nations of Rangar and Karden and there was no way to approach its gates without crossing Atare.  This morning the sky was the most brilliant blue he had ever seen and it seemed like he stood on the crown of the world from his position on the ridge.  He had come here to be pleasantly surprised to find that the roads would not need any repair for at least another twelve months.  A few yards from where his horse nibbled on the short grass that was all there was to be found hereabouts, the main road from Hedir and the Nations of the Southeast ran along the east of the ridge, crossed by the small road which ran from east to west across his Nation.  A small guardhouse stood on the other side of the road, a stone box that housed his guards and tax collectors.  To the north the road met the gates of the great wall not a mile away, cutting across the green landscape like a collar of green-grey stone some forty feet high.  Behind the wall he could see the peninsula stretching away to rise into the majesty of Khanlar's second highest mountain.  Looking southward down the ridge the highest mountain in Khanlar rose like a sleeping blue-green giant wearing a cap of white.  To the east the white city of Atare nestled against the ocean, the river which ran through it catching the midday sun on the wakes of the craft which sailed its waters.  It was a great day!

Gregorian was probably the youngest Prince in Khanlar, having succeeded his father who had died only a few weeks before from complications to old wounds he had suffered fighting in the war to defeat his old friend Prince Zorigan of Asiga.  Once Gregorian's father had been one of Prince Zorigan's greatest supporters, as a youth his father had even studied under Zorigan and had attended the University in Asiga before he had ascended the throne of Atare.  Prince Gregorian had only been a young boy when he had accompanied his father to Asiga to meet with the father of the Asigan Alliance, yet he would never forget the splendour that was Asiga in those days.

His father, along with the Prince of Hedir and the Prince of Jontal, who was Zorigan's son-in-law, had discussed the idea of building a road from Asiga to the gates of the great wall.  It had been a grand plan, ambitious as all of Prince Zorigan's plans were, yet it had fired the imagination of a young boy, silently observing the great minds that conceived it.  An old architect, Gregorian could not recall the man's name although he still remembered every detail of his appearance, had brought in a model of a great bridge.  Prince Zorigan, already old, was never meagre in his ambitions and he had informed his astonished guests that he intended to build a bridge, just like the model, across the great western waterway a few miles south of the City of Jontal.  The old Prince had given Gregorian the model at the end of the meeting and today it stood encased in a glass box in pride of place in his study, as it had when his father had occupied that room.

It was a grand plan and even today as he stood looking at the adequate road his engineers maintained with such devotion, Gregorian wondered if he would have been seeing the northern leg of the great road which ran from Asiga to Dang on the southern coast of the continent.  What an accomplishment it would have been.  A route from Dang right through the Nations to the Holy City of Ka, yet it had never happened and probably never would now.  The stretch from Asiga to Jontal was less than a third complete when the war had broken out, yet it still made his imagination soar just to think about it.   Since the War Atare had fared better than most of the Nations of Khanlar, probably because most of its income was derived from the road taxes they charged to merchants and diplomats, Church officials and Army movements passing through their land.  After the war that traffic had in fact increased, even though ships sailing far away from the highway robberies and outlaw attacks now carried much of the bulk trade attacks as were now so common on the roads of Khanlar.  There was also the bonus that his father's careful forethought had provided for before and during the war itself.  His father had been nothing if not a careful and meticulous man and he had foreseen the chaos that would follow the war and he had made provisions for his people to not only survive it, but to benefit from it.

When the war had ended it was the miserly secretion of grain and other necessities during the war that brought great trading opportunities to the House of Atare.  Gregorian's father had not allowed the profiteering that many Nations had entered into in supplying food and supplies to the Army at exorbitant prices and therefore they were able to gain even higher prices and favours by careful husbandry of their resources until prices were topped out by the inflation of desperation that followed the war. 

The old man had even been canny enough to realize that ultimate victory was certain and that how long that actual victory took had no effect on Atare, which was so far from the battlefields of the conflict.  He had therefore excused every artisan and craftsman in his nation from service in the war by Royal Proclamation, so that when the war did indeed come to an end the economy of Atare was able to swing right back into full production.  Also, by careful diplomatic alliances, Gregorian's father the clever old Prince of Atare had managed to make sure that his Nation did not have to garrison any troops of the Church Army.  All in all Gregorian's father had been able to turn the Great War to his advantage, leaving Gregorian to inherit a Nation in far better economic and social shape than any other on the continent.

However, even his father had under-estimated the seriousness of the situation, which would follow the war in many ways.  Atare had always maintained the largest and probably most efficient Militia in the Nations of the North East, but even they had been unable to completely control the despair and lawlessness that had followed the war.  Today the Atarean Militia had a thousand men in uniform and had managed to keep them even after General Toragor had reduced the size of every other Nation's Militia and had garrisoned Church Troops in all of the other major cities of Khanlar.  Gregorian's father understood his unique relationship with the Church and the strategic position of his land which protected the peninsula where the Church had its most important center.  Weeks of careful diplomacy and negotiations had encouraged the Priest of Priests to allow him to keep his forces, with only the hint that the Atarean Forces would be the only buffer between the Holy City of Ka and the mainland, should the Army ever decide to replace him.

The new taxes that had recently been imposed however had been another matter.  His father had been unable to stave off that edict and today they were the largest expenditure of the Royal Treasury of Atare.  Somewhat disillusioned, Gregorian caught up his horse and re-mounted it.  His guards did the same and they set out at a walk down the small road towards the town of Maniris, where he had business with the town's administrator.
 

* * * * * * *

A New Order of Things

 

As the months passed and the Church Army suffered from shortages and the Nations of Khanlar lived through that winter staving off starvation, many of the citizens of the Nations, ex-brotherhood and Loyalists alike, began to move north-eastward towards the less inhabited areas of Khanlar where the new Religion of the One and Only God seemed to be taking hold faster than anywhere else.  They came from Nations from Jontal and Dala and from Mozag and Natan and all the other Nations of the old Alliance, and agents of the Guardians recruited from their numbers the most able, and fit, and sent them across the waters to Lunza.  In addition to those that the Guardians' agents chose and recruited, others came to Lunza without actually being formally invited.  They came as individuals or in groups of ten or twenty and they all looked like the world had opposed every dream they had ever dared to hold.  It seemed that every ship that docked in Lunza brought with it a few stowaways or fare paying refugees.  They came scarred or maimed, from a War the children's teachers in the schools of Khanlar were already playing down to be no more than an insignificant uprising of a few heretics and greedy criminals.  They came in rags and in the clothes of honest country people, they came dressed like city dwellers and like fishermen, but day after day they continued to arrive on the island Nation of Lunza.  They were the remnants of a once proud army, or they were the outcasts of a society that would not accept them because of their place of birth, their family ties or their continued loyalty to a Cause long considered defeated.  They came to escape starvation or slavery, dogma or poverty.  They came with small groups of women and children, or with old people who could not be left behind to suffer the hardships of trying to survive alone in the wild forests, barren hills or starving cities that were their only refuge on the mainland.

Day after day they continued to arrive as word spread through the outlaw society on the mainland, until the City of Lunza outside the great wall surrounding the grounds of the Guardians Sanctuary was full to overflowing with these newly hopeful refugees.  Every house, shop, Inn and stable found a room or storehouse to accommodate these people who arrived with their new found hope.  The streets were soon full of reunions between old comrades, or witnessed scenes where relatives greeted long considered dead family members and friends and still they came.  The city grew the way the Guardians had planned that it should, with stone buildings rising to accommodate the newcomers, but it seemed that no building program on Earth could ever keep up with the continuous influx of people that kept walking off of every ship that docked in the harbour, or slipped ashore from stolen fishing boats that beached along the western shoreline of Lunza.

When Jarin went out into the city to learn from these people he was no longer recognizable as Prince Jarin of Natan, for he had taken to wearing a disguise made perfect by the experts in the Palace and he walked into the town each day as a grey haired old man, where he would meet and talk with these new arrivals.  As such he was able to converse with them and gain much insight into the thoughts, convictions and dreams of his people.

Each morning he would travel by coach to the Palace Wall and then walk through the gate and down the paved street to the town itself.  It was a pleasant walk, taking about half an hour through gardens and a tree studded landscape down the road towards the city.  His first stop was always the house of Amborana the baker.  Her house and its yard would remain in his memories for many years, coming down the road, around a slight bend and down the hill to see the red brick two story structure, its three limestone chimneys always sending forth their cream colored smoke and the smell of freshly baked bread perfuming the air for four hundred paces around. 

A large limestone patio stretched in front of the house right to the road's edge and a gathering of housewives, shopkeeper's delivery boys and street peddlers were always there whatever the hour, collecting supplies of the large heaven smelling loaves that famous lady baked each hour of the day, from sunrise to sunset each day save the Sabbath.  Every morning he would stop just long enough to buy himself a lunch pack, consisting of three small rolls, a chunk of yellow cheese and pickled onions wrapped in greaseproof paper. From Amborana's establishment he would walk on into the town, the houses getting closer together as he travelled, until within minutes he would be walking along the paved sidewalk between two rows of three and four story buildings, the ground floor of most of which were a collection of tradesmen's workshops and the showrooms of shopkeepers.  From the baker's house it took him little time to reach the town square, on the north side of which was located the Peacock Inn.

The Peacock Inn had once been the Palace of the Prince of Lunza, centuries ago when the Nation of Lunza had had a prince.  The tap room had once been the main hall of Prince Magorian's palace and the prince's bedroom on the second floor now served as a meeting room for local societies and civic groups.  All the power in Lunza today managed itself in the Guardian's Palace several miles away.  As a palace the limestone building might not have been very impressive, but it was without a doubt one of the finest inns in Khanlar in its day.  The food served in the dining room, on the Prince's own carved oak dining table which still did service in that room, but today the once empty expanse before the expensive panelled walls held two uniform rows of small tables where couples, romantic or deal making, could dine in relative privacy, served with fine food prepared in the same kitchens that had once served a prince, with produce from gardens that had grown the same vegetables, fruits and herbs for centuries.  The paved patio where Jarin was to become a regular had once been a raised platform from which the prince would address his subjects. 

Today, framed by cherry trees, it served as the gathering place of the rich and powerful, who came to its tables to play Khanlar, savour fine wines on a summer evening, or sip hot mulled wine in the winter watching the townsfolk going about their business in the square for which Lunza was justifiably famous.

The belt of power protected Jarin at all times of course, yet Captain Sandar and several Guardsmen were always within sight and it sometimes became apparent to those he tried to talk with, which of course would end the conversation immediately.  Every day for several weeks Jarin sat outside the Peacock Inn, until the table he occupied became one that seemed reserved for only him.  He took a table outside, rather than sitting in a corner booth within the tap room, because it allowed his Guardsmen to be less conspicuous in the throng of the street than they were confined within the walls of the Inn.  Only once did a drunken newcomer stagger against him as he left the Inn, propelled by the angry Innkeeper for some unknown misdemeanour.  Two Guardsmen immediately had the fellow in a shoulder lock and carried him away before the poor man even understood what was happening to him.  Most of the time however, few people even noticed the old man who sat outside the Peacock each day.

It had been Manator who had suggested that Jarin take a few weeks for himself and go into the town, informing him that what he would learn from the newcomers would be of great assistance to him during the coming months.  As ever his wise old friend had proved correct and Jarin did indeed learn a great deal about his people and the hardships they had suffered for continuing to support the Cause of the Brotherhood, or for just opposing the unfair laws of the strengthened Church and its Priests.  The stories, or histories if one was to portray them truthfully, ranged from the hilarious to the frightening, from heroism of the best kind to betrayal of the worst, yet every recounting he heard ended with a note of hope; for it seemed that at last these people saw a possible end to their life of running, hiding and suffering where the most important skill needed was that dedicated to trying to survive.  For does not every human being have to have the right to dream of greater and kinder things to come into their experience in the future to allow them to be human in this present.

 

* * * * * * *

Karidan the Farmer

 

Karidan Manasat saw the old man nodding off at the corner table on the patio of the Peacock, the only table in the place not occupied by at least two talking friends that day.  He excused himself to the old man, noting how well, if old fashioned, he was dressed, and asked if the empty chairs were taken, was informed that they were not and was invited to sit down.

"My name is Rune Tassinar."  The old man said by way of introduction.

"Pleased to meet you."  Karidan replied, "Mine is Karidan Manasat."

"I think I have seen you before."  The old man said, scratching at his white beard with a gloved hand, (Jarin had found that even the Guardian's found it hard to add the disguise of age to a man's hands).  "Do you live nearby?"

"My aunt lives a few blocks east of here."  Karidan said, “But I come here most days when I finish work.  I was once a shipwright down at the docks."

"You are a Lunzan then?"  The old man questioned.

"No."  Karidan replied.  "I’m from Sedanna, got here a few months back and they took me on at the docks the second day I was here."

"Ah.  A refugee from the Hell that is Khanlar today then my friend?"  The old man asked a thousand questions with the one statement.

"A refugee from many things my friend."  Karidan replied, realizing that sometimes the ear of a stranger can be the greatest medicine for hurts of the heart or the mind.  In fact there are charlatans who have grown rich pretending to care enough to listen to the outpourings of the sad and confused.  So that day did all the bottled up hurts that Karidan had carried with him for so many years, pour out into the willing ear of the old man who had invited him to join him at the corner table on the patio of the Peacock Inn.  Karidan liked to think of himself as a down to earth kind of person.  Obstacles were to be tackled and problems to be dealt with and the will of fate was something one just lived with, yet even he realized as he talked, that what he had been dealt in his short life so far had been cruel of the Gods to say the least.  His life had begun well enough.  He had been born the third son of a middle class family that had owned one hundred and twenty five acres of good Sedannese land for generations.  His mother and father had been good parents and his life until he was eighteen had flowed much the way anyone could wish for.  His father and two elder brothers had served in his Prince's trade fleet, just as most of the citizens of Manasat had done for several hundred years, while their wives and children had stayed home and minded the farm.  Their house had been strongly built by a distant grandfather from blocks of rock, with both roof and floors tiled with heavy red clay tiles and as far as he could remember his home rang with laughter all year round.

When he was eighteen he had gone a little farther with fifteen year old Mathia Torants in the orchard than he should have and had found himself soon married to her, just a few weeks before their twin sons had been born.  That, Karidan recognized, was when life started to hand him the bad luck.  Mathia had never recovered from the birthing of their two sons and had died before the boys celebrated their first birthday.  The Torants' took her death badly; especially her elder brother Ramitar, so Karidan had found himself shipped off to sea and his mother took his sons to raise as if they were her own.

On the very first voyage he was unlucky enough to miss his footing and fall from the topsail beam, catching his leg on the gunwale as he fell into the sea.  He nearly drowned before they pulled him back on board to find his right leg was neatly snapped across the center of the thigh bone.  By the time they off loaded him at Samur he was running a raging fever.  He spent that winter in a lice infested hospice and when he could not pay the bill to the Priest's satisfaction, found himself sentenced to six months rowing a refuse barge for the city of Samur to pay off his debts.  Finally free, he had boarded a Sedannese ship only to arrive home to find his Nation was at War and his ship was soon loaded with troops and set sail before he even had time to see his boys.  Halfway through that voyage he realized that it was just possible he was a jinx. Who is, of course, the person seamen fear most to sail with.  He realized it about the time he saw what appeared to be half the Church Fleet bearing down upon them and heard the idiot of a Captain, who was probably too drunk to realize that they were outnumbered ten to one, call to his crew to fight to the death.  As it was the enemy merely sailed alongside and boarded them without so much as a sword being drawn from its scabbard by his shipmates, or the soldiers they transported.

Karidan spend the next three years chained to an oar of the Church Galley Sea Horse.   The fact was that had he not been unlucky again, when he was taken from the galley and replaced with a fitter fool, he would have died when the Sea Horse went down with all hands in a gale off Morlan the following year.  Mind you, there were times while he walked the tread mill of the Temple to the Goddess Pavia in Araz, when he wondered if he might not have been luckier to have drowned.  After Gods knew how many years of walking up that wheel and one year, almost to the day, before he had arrived in Lunza, he had had one stroke of good luck.  The tread mill broke down.  The axle had just worn away after probably centuries of use, and while it was mended they sent him to work on a farm some thirty miles south of the city and two days after they took off his chains he simply walked away to his freedom.  He walked, without incident, all the way back to Sedanna, except for the harrowing experience of swimming the Great Waterway, and then found himself in many ways wishing that he had never escaped.  His family was gone.  His parents and brothers were all dead and he discovered that his baby sons had been sold off into slavery.  His wife's family had fared little better.  Her mother survived only to work in her own house as scullery maid for the merchant who had picked it up at auction, when she could not pay the taxes.  He had searched for weeks trying to find out where his sons had been taken, but he never did and more than once almost finished up in chains for his efforts.  Finally he had taken to the woods and the life of a highwayman, until he met up with a band of desperados heading for Lunza.

"So now I am a soldier."  Karidan stated almost as a matter of fact, “But only until I have made enough money to go looking for my sons and buy them back from whomsoever has them."   

Jarin leant forward and laid his hand on the man's shoulder,  "The God's owe you happiness my friend, I have no doubt that one day you will be reunited with your sons and recover your family home in Sedanna.  In fact I have absolutely no doubt of it at all."  Then he stood up and without another word left Karidan Manasat to finish his drink alone, in a stunned silence.
 

* * * * * * *

Jakrin the Tailor

 

Jakrin Milnar finally divested himself of the last part of his uniform and climbed into his bunk in his underwear.  It had been a ridiculous day, in that Sergeant Brador's instructions had been followed to the letter, and as far as Jakrin could establish, had achieved absolutely nothing.  That morning, at a little after seven of the clock, he and all the other recruits, had been instructed to dress in full dress uniform and take a twelve hour leave, under the understanding that they should enjoy it without removing any part of their uniform save perhaps, their helmets, should good manners so proscribe.  Jakrin had spent the day in some discomfort, with the only respite being the four hours he had played Khanlar with the old man at the Peacock Inn.

Jakrin lay in his bunk looking at the uniform he had just shed, carefully draped over the stand provided to him by whomsoever controlled his life at this moment in time, and remembered the complications of its donning and wearing for the last twelve hours.  In a previous life, before he had signed on as a soldier for the Khan and before that, when he had been obliged to wander the earth as an outlaw, eating garbage thrown out by luckier souls and hiding from his persecutors in damp bogs and inhospitable highlands, Jakrin had been a tailor in Asiga.  He had entered service to his Prince in the City of Asiga convinced that the battle was already won while in his unknowing twenties, fired with righteousness and belief in the Gods, only to waste years discovering that the Gods did not give a worthless damn whether he lived or died.  He had somehow survived too many battles, ducked enough crossbow bolts and watched too many friends and idiots die, before he had finally given up and run away from the battles to return to his home in Asiga.  But he returned to his home only to find that his wife and eldest daughter were not too happy to see him, seeing as they had grown rich satisfying the rather disgusting and dubious physical needs of the peasants serving the Church who garrisoned the City of Asiga on his illegal return.  He hid in the attic while he heard his wife and daughter servicing the soldiers of the Priest of Priests in the living room below.  Jakrin left the house that night and headed east.  They had pushed Jakrin close to dementia.

He had suffered several years after that in the back lands and badlands of Khanlar, subsisting, stealing and begging his way eastward until he finally found himself gutting fish in a small village on the coast a few miles north of Atlar.  It was there that he fell in with four slaves who talked of nothing but stealing a boat and escaping to the island of Lunza, where, they had been told, slavery did not exist and all men could find employment if they were willing to work hard and obey the laws of the Guardians and some new One and Only God, a passing priest had told them of.  So it was that several months before this night Milnar had found himself adrift on the open sea with four fools in a small boat with only one paddle.  As fate would have it, for fate rarely gives up those upon whom it has decided to deliver torment to, the five of them had staggered ashore on Lunza half starved and parched almost beyond belief, after suffering six days in an open boat in the world's most desolate sea.  A week after that they were issued with uniforms and became the first recruits in what Sergeant Brador insisted would one day be the greatest army the world had ever seen.

At first Milnar had suffered the return to army life only in pure gratitude for good boots, warm clothes and ample food, to say nothing of a dry and safe place to rest his tired body at the end of each day; however, after the first few weeks he found that he began to believe that it just might be possible that the gods would give the Asigan Alliance a second chance, and the army in which he now served might just in fact rise to be the greatest the world had ever seen.  The training he was getting for twelve hours a day here however, far surpassed the training he had received the first time he had donned the uniform of Asiga.  In his first battle during the Great War he had actually lost his spear in the initial charge, and had fought the whole thing without ever having actually come within ten feet of the enemy.  He ran forward yelling for victory and then he ran away yelling for mercy during that first battle, and in the ones that followed he did little to change his pursuit of military skills.  The once he actually came to blows with a Church Trooper he had excitedly swiped at the man with his sword and missed, then the young farm boy in the maroon tunic of the Church had almost to the movement returned the choreography of Milnar's action.  Milnar had then unceremoniously kicked the boy between the legs and run away to join his retreating comrades.  While he was suffering the years of outlaw statehood later on, he often wondered how one could suffer so much as he had done for merely bruising the gonads of a stupid farm boy, for that had been Milnar's only real contribution to the Great War that could possibly have been held against him.

Lying in his bunk Milnar looked at the uniform and pack neatly assembled on the stand beside the end of the bed.  He was a tailor, had been boy and man for nigh on ten years prior to the war, so he knew the expertise that had been expended and the costs incurred to outfit him, in the way the Brotherhood had done.  He swung his feet off the bed and began for the first time to really examine the workmanship of his uniform and equipment.  Around him in the barracks his comrades slept, talked, played cards and did the things soldiers always do in the off duty hours, of which there always seem to be too many.  Sat there in his long underwear he first examined that.  It was a close knit woollen body-stocking-like piece of clothing that the men called "long-john's", although no-one knew why, and it was a piece of clothing Jakrin had never seen before he had been issued with it.  Like a shirt with leggings it covered him from ankles and wrists to the neck, buttoned down the front like a shirt, with a buttoned flap front and back for those necessary bodily functions of all human beings.  It was off-white woollen hue and kept him warm when it was cold and absorbed his sweat when he was not.  They had issued him with two "long-johns", one he wore and the other he kept folded within his back pack, swapping them and washing the used one, every Herthesday.

Around his neck he wore a thin silver chain with a small square tag attached to it that had his identification details stamped into it, which he always wore.  When they had given it to him they had explained that it was how they knew he was him and that if he ever took it off he would spend a week in the work battalion breaking rocks, for which singular reason no-one ever took their identification tag off, sleeping, waking or sat in a bath, they wore it at all times.  As Sergeant Brador had explained it to them, "If you lose your head in battle lads, we will be able to know how to match it up with the right body before we bury you, if we find it that is."  And they had all laughed, but without any real humour in it.

His helmet stood on top of his pack, resembling in some ways a very expensive round-bottomed bucket.  Beaten from a single sheet of steel it showed the marks of the smith's hammer in hundreds of small plate like hits all over it.  It had been blued in the fire and polished until it shone; not the give-you-away-to-the-enemy shine of polished silver or gold, but the dull, strong shine of solid steel.  When he wore it only his eyes showed to someone looking at him, for his nose was covered by the guard, down which the tail of the buttress of his helm had been welded to give it extra strength, and the cheek guards ended well below his jaw throwing that part of his open face and mouth into deep shadow.  The tail of the helmet curved gracefully, almost cloak like at the base of his neck, again strengthened by the rear buttress of his helm.  The helm itself was a work of art, fashioned from steel about six inches high at the front and an inch high at the back, its weight reduced however, for although it looked solid it was in fact filigreed walls of a hollow main piece, into which was fixed a horse hair crest; one which he renovated each day with a comb and wax.  The hair had been dyed a dark blue, only slightly lighter than the colour of the cloth his uniform was fashioned from, and where it had been gripped within the helm it was woven with dark green and white cord, that being the colours of his regiment, the Lions.  A narrow band of steel had been affixed to the outside of the helmet around the brow, studded with rivets at every inch, yet it was not decoration even though it gave the helmet an artistic balance.  The ring reinforced the helmet on the outside and held the webbing and chin belt on the inside.  Hanging beneath the helmet on the stand was his skull cap, a heavily quilted cloth cap that protected his head from both the weight of the helmet and made it more comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and of course offering him extra protection should one day someone decide to hit him on the head while he was wearing it.

His belt hung from the left arm of the cross piece of the stand beneath his helmet, a beautiful piece of work made from two pieces of calf leather stitched together and dyed a perfect black, it was three inches wide.  The buckle was a plate of blue steel, three inches by four inches with a bronze oval medallion welded to it depicting a leaping green mountain lion, the insignia of his regiment.  Attached to the belt were two leather pouches, which when he wore the belt hung behind him and much to his surprise the first time he had worn them, interfered in no way with his freedom of movement.  The left one contained a canteen of water and the right his personal belongings, eating utensils and a days dry rations, six hard biscuits and four chunks of dried beef.  At least they said it was beef.

Linking to his belt when he was dressed Jakrin would wear his shoulder belt, which was also three inches wide and made of the same leather, from which was suspended his sword in its black leather scabbard.  It had a two foot tempered steel blade of a quality that any gentleman would be proud to own, its hilt wrapped in white and green cotton cord, with a pummel of solid brass cast as the head of a mountain lion.  A matching dagger, twelve inches long, slipped into a scabbard sewn into his right boot.  The boots were Jakrin's pride and joy.  They were the first he had ever owned that had been made specifically for him and they fitted over his woollen socks as if the gods themselves had crafted them to comfort his feet.  Strong leather soles, tipped toe and heel with steel plates, with uppers of pliant calf leather, Jakrin loved those boots as he had never loved any possession he had ever owned, and he polished them and talked to them every evening before he went to bed.  However, there was one thing about his boots that Milnar worried about sometimes, for embedded within the heel was a steel spur base, the rear of which held a screw in boss.  Logic and camp talk had convinced him that his boots had been designed so that it would be a simple task to remove the boss and screw in a small spike, immediately transforming his loved footwear into cavalry boots, and if there was one thing more than all others Jakrin Milnar hated, it was horses!

His beloved boots stood to attention before his carefully hung up trousers and tunic.  His trousers were designed to be tucked into his boots.  With their lace up front and close fitting cut, they were a design not previously known to Jakrin, even though he thought he knew all the designs of men's clothing, having been a tailor all his life.  He had been told that the Guardians had rescued the design from an ancient book, and Jakrin believed it.  The trousers were made of a dark blue, very fine serge fabric, and their seams carried a white piping and was tied at the waist with a cloth strap carried within the top fold over seam.

His tunic was made of the same material, buttoning down the front with twelve bronze buttons, each stamped with a lion's head motif, and hanging almost to the knee.  A tie string in the back made the tunic body fitting when tied, and was then hidden when he put his belt on.  The high collar of his tunic had irked him at first, even though it was lined with silk, however within a matter of days he had grown used to it and he rarely noticed it as uncomfortable anymore.  The shoulders were padded and decorated with epaulets that were piped with white cord and center clothed in green fabric, each held by two buttons and under which his shoulder belts were laced.  The right shoulder carried his sword belt and the left carried the belt, which slung his quiver on his right side.  The quiver was a fifteen inch long leather box, which could accommodate twelve bolts and was tied to his right leg with a thin leather thong. 

Then finally his eyes came to the piece of equipment he most hated, his pack.  Made of heavy black canvas and reinforced with leather it seemed even larger than it was.  Affixed to his back it covered his thin frame almost completely from shoulders to waist, held in place by two shoulder straps which in turn were held by a cross strap sewn to the right strap that hooked onto the left across his chest.  In that pack was everything that he might need in a week's campaigning.  In hot weather his calf length cloak would be rolled up and stored on top of the pack while he marched, in colder weather it would be draped over it, in wet weather the cloak and pack together would sink his beautiful boots an extra inch into the ground with their extra weight, on every step he took.

But without the pack and quiver, resplendent in his uniform, with his cloak swirling about him, he knew he made an impressive figure, one that few would recognize as the cuckolded and cowardly tailor from Asiga he had been only a year or so ago.  Today when he had removed his helmet and skull cap to join that old gentleman in a drink at the Peacock Inn . . . what was his name?  Hassingar? Jassinar?   Jakrin had finally had the courage to purge himself of his past.  Somehow he had been able to talk to the old man who dressed in a fashion at least twenty years behind the times.  It had all come out.  His wife, his daughter, his cowardice, his pride in who he was today, all of it.  Jakrin smiled, for he was truthfully a new man.  He swung his feet back up onto the bed, blew out his lantern and pulled the covers over his head.  Tomorrow was going to be a big day, the parade where Prince Jarin would commission the regiments of his army.  
 

* * * * * * *
 

Hatren’s Wagon

 

Hatren Vanor had celebrated his fifty sixth birthday up to his ankles in mud, trying to get the five idiots who made up his team to drag their backsides just a little faster than the other teams they had been training with, and then ending it by urging them on to clean their wagon better than even Malovik's, whose team had beaten them yet again, though this time by only just over a minute.

Hatren loved his wagon, and in truth he had good feelings for the teenagers who helped him operate it.  Finally he had been able to catch the last leave wagon into the city and had been buying himself a birthday drink when the old gentleman had asked to join him.

He had welcomed the company, for it seemed every other man in the Peacock was younger than his son Mikiar.  They had shared a drink or two and had talked of old times, back when Hatren had farmed his beloved river land four hours north of the city in Mozag in what seemed like another lifetime. 

His wife and two daughters were still in Mozag, the girls married to good enough men and his wife, he had heard, splitting her time between their families.  Hatren had learned that good news only a few weeks before from an old friend who had recently arrived in Lunza and it had brought him a great deal of peace, for he had not heard of them in years and both of his daughters had been young girls when he had gone off to fight with his Prince. 

He had later spent three years in chains in a labour camp in the depths of the forests in Natan before he had taken his chance for escape with a few other half starved fools and had decided that if he wished to keep his freedom he had better head east rather than try to go home, where there was no doubt they would already be looking for him.

He had been judged too old for the regiments and being short of his left hand and right eye had not helped him get enlisted when he had applied.  Yet years of swinging an axe with only one arm had kept him fit enough however, to be accepted when he had applied to the Supply Corps.  He had been assigned five men to shape up into a team that would man one of the new Regimental Supply wagons.  Four boys, who at different times would claim to be either thirteen, fourteen or fifteen as it suited them and Lamgin, a mute in his late twenties who seemed to be without as much intelligence as an average cow, yet he had a way with horses that made him ideal as a member of the team.  Lamgin was the driver, Hatren the boss and the four boys the cooks and horse minders.  Between them their task was to support and supply the needs of the 3rd Squadron of the Lions Regiment.  Where ever Sergeant Brador took his men, Hatren was expected to follow with his wagon.

The wagon, which the boys had named "Adrias" after some minor God in Jontal where two of them came from, was Hatren's pride and joy.  Twenty feet long and eight feet wide, it was like a small house, eight feet high, built upon a very strong wheel base.  It was made of oak, constructed very much the way a house would be built, with horizontal tongue and groove planks fixed to four by two inch beams that were mortise and tennoned and then strengthened with wooden dowels.  The rear doors opened up and down, the top one becoming a roof in wet weather, held in position by two iron rods which fixed into slot brackets in the rear support beams.  The bottom door became a table when it was dropped, held up by two iron legs that fell into position as it was dropped.  Push the legs in and the tail gate dropped flat to the rear of the wagon.  The wheels were not of a design Hatren, nor anyone else for that matter, had ever seen before.  The hub held two rings of wooden spokes and although the wheels were only four feet in diameter the iron-plated, spiked rim was twelve inches wide, usually preventing the wheels from sinking into the mud, when the wagon was driven over wet ground.  There were six wheels, four at the rear to support the weight and two at the front on a traversing independent axle, attached to which was a long boom that the four horses that pulled the wagon were harnessed to.  The wagon was painted a dark green, with the Lions' regimental insignia painted on the rear and both sides.

The wagon was without a doubt a marvel of modern engineering with, as far as Hatren had been able to ascertain, everything that a travelling troop of fifty soldiers might need for a month.  Two water barrels, one either side, were strapped securely in place just behind the driver's bench and behind them were a series of lock boxes containing everything from medical supplies to blankets.  Inside the wagon was a marvel of organization, everything in its ordered place, with a narrow corridor in the center from which anything could be unloaded easily.  Lanterns, weapons, food supplies, a steel box stove, even brandy and kindling, were all stored in his wagon, in fact he had yet to be asked for something that whoever had designed the manifest had not thought of, there was even a spare set of harness for the team should it ever be needed.

The wagon was the center of life for the 3rd Squadron of the Lions Regiment when it was campaigning and Hatren had struck up a good relationship with Sergeant Brador who commanded it.  In theory Hatren was third in command of the squadron, with the title of Supply Corporal and it was his job to ensure the men of the 3rd had everything they needed, including hot food when meal breaks were called by the sergeant.  Hatren did not cook the food, that was Janig's job, but he was responsible for deciding what, when and where the men would eat.  Hatren and his men wore the same uniforms as the other troopers of the regiment, except that their trousers were a deep yellow colour with the seam cord in the regimental green colour.  Their helmets were different also, being open faced and without the plume worn by the line troopers.

Hatren arrived at his bunk house just as the night bugle was calling lights out.  Five other wagon crews shared the building with Hatren and his men and several of them were enjoying a pipe outside when he arrived.  His men were already in their bunks however, just as he had advised them, for they had an early start in the morning.  Janig the cook, his helper Moravian, Lamgin the driver and Keatar and Hamiran the horse minders, all were sleeping, when Hatren eased his tired body under the bedclothes and dropped into a dream of the old days long ago, when he tilled the beautiful black earth of Mozag.  

 

* * * * * * *

Preparing to be the Khan

 

Every conversation that Jarin had with one of the newcomers seemed also to contain the question, “Have you seen Prince Jarin of Natan?" for it was now known to everyone of them within minutes of leaving the docks, if they had not known it before, that he was alive and in Lunza.  Jarin made a point of saying that he had heard that the Prince was indeed here and then changed the subject as diplomatically and as fast as he was able to. It never ceased to amaze him how important his presence was to these people and to the Cause they supported.

The time with his subjects was over too soon for Jarin's liking, but then he had known it would end sooner rather than later and Manator's visit to his room the evening before Herthesday brought back to him the mission with which he had been entrusted and recruited to perform.  As ever, that evening Manator was very straight forward in his explanation, he merely handed Jarin some papers and informed him that it was his welcoming speech to the newcomers, to be delivered at sunrise the next morning in the park in front of the Palace.

"A year has passed my friend since we first met and unbeknownst to you we have begun to build an army for you in that time." Manator said seemingly without any great interest in the shock he had delivered to his young student.  "Tomorrow the first of our trained men will need for you to congratulate them on the completion of their first stage of training.  I have had a speech prepared for you my friend, and if it seems a little presumptuous of me to ask you to read it word for word, well I trust our friendship will encourage you to trust me in this."

Before Jarin could respond the old man had tapped his arm, as a grandfather would do, and had left him standing there with the papers in his hand.

Jarin did exactly as Manator had asked and studied the speech until nearly midnight, which meant that the next morning seemed to come far too soon.  Jarin was awakened early and being helped by servants into his uniform before he felt truly awake.  He had eaten a light breakfast by the time Captain Sandar arrived and the good captain escorted him in style through the corridors of the Palace to a waiting coach with a contingent of his personal Guard in attendance.  The Guardsmen were mounted and awaiting him below the Palace steps, fifty rigid bodies astride the finest black horses Jarin had ever seen.  They set off immediately.   What Jarin saw as they approached a meadow before the great wall which surrounded the Guardian's Sanctuary amazed him, for somehow another high stone wall had risen to enclose the open space and a pavilion had been constructed within that great wall itself.  The carriage turned off the road onto another just as good to reach the pavilion, leaving the road that ran to the city along the base of the north wall of the estate of the Guardians.  Atop the wall was a walkway, edged on both sides by stone parapets and along this protected path soldiers paced with crossbows at the ready, to defend the wall from those within or without it would seem.

"When did they build this place?"  Jarin asked Colonel Sandar, as he stepped from the carriage, noting only for the first time the extra band of braid signifying his elevation in rank since they had last met.

"Over the last few weeks, Sire.  We passed it every night last week but it was dark as we returned, otherwise you would have no doubt seen it my Lord." 

The good Captain then turned on his heel and led the way towards the pavilion steps.  The Guardsmen dismounted and tied their horses to a line, then fell in and on command followed their Prince with the precision that can only be gained from hours of drilling.  As they entered the pavilion Manator came to greet them and behind him two lines of his fellow Guardians were already moving slowly beyond the screen wall onto the stage prepared for this moment.

"Prince Jarin, my friend. . ."  Manator greeted him, “I trust you know every word of the speech I gave you last night, for now you have to present yourself to your followers.  More than two thousand of them my friend and many of them still doubting that you could still be alive after all these years."  The last of the Guardians were even at that moment passing behind the screen wall onto the dais.  "No time for further talk now my boy, your time has arrived."  Manator said and walked away.  Jarin's Guardsmen were already passing him in two disciplined lines, each man carrying an unsheathed ceremonial broadsword to take their places outside, where they would complete the pageantry obviously considered necessary by his Guardian mentors to support his words.

"It is time Sire."  Colonel Sandar saluted him and Jarin walked forward with the reassuring Captain of the Royal Guard following him through the opening in the wall and onto the dais, where it appeared an army of several thousand were drawn up on the meadow beyond awaiting his arrival.

The sun broke over the city wall and reflected off the marble walls of the pavilion even as Jarin stepped onto the dais.  A fanfare of trumpets rang out at the same moment, ending precisely as he stepped up onto the small platform to deliver his speech of welcome.  The roar that grew in the throats of those men gathered before him far out-played any fanfare ever given.  A sea of faces span before him, yelling, cheering, some even crying and all of them obviously far happier than any crowd Khanlar had seen in many years.  Manator had risen and was standing beside him before the cheering ended.  Suddenly it seemed the Guardian General was speaking, having gained silence from the multitude gathered there by the mere lifting of his hand.

"Men of the Brotherhood I present to you this day, The Lord, the Prince Jarin of Natan.  Khan of Khanlar.  Brought from the anguish of non-existence by the One and Only God to stand before you.  From a man without memory he has risen again, to lead the Brotherhood on its road to glory.  Men of the Brotherhood, give honour to the Lord Jarin.  Khan of Khanlar!"

A fanfare of silver trumpets sang across the meadow as Manator ended his speech.  Then the roar of approval rang out again, but as the Guardian General lifted his arms above his head once more, it died almost immediately.  In seconds the silence seemed to include everything in nature, as even newly awakened insects seemed to be waiting just to see what would happen next.  The words that had been only ink on paper the night before, as Jarin had committed them to memory, became jewels of clarity as he stood there and began to speak them.

"Men of the Brotherhood I come here today to dedicate my life to you, and to dedicate myself to your families and to your children's children for all time to come."  Jarin waited, but the air was charged with silence as the upturned faces awaited his words with what could only be termed awe.

"I come as your loyal companion in the struggle we must for the sake of history face together, and I shall be with you in the victory to come and in the peace that shall follow.  I know you.  I know, and in my heart I suffer with you in your sorrow. . ."  The previous many weeks’ work now paid off for him, as he saw one face after another placed in the front rank that he had talked to outside the Peacock Inn.  He turned for a moment to see Manator smile and nod and he put the words of his speech from his mind for a moment and pointed to and spoke to, individuals as he recognized them in the crowd.  "Karidan of Sedanna - you shall have revenge for your twin sons taken from you and sold into slavery. . ."  Karidan gasped and his neighbours had to prevent him sinking to the ground in a dead faint,  "and you - Milnar of Asiga - you shall see your wife and daughter whole women again. . .  and you - Hatren Vanor. . .  you shall again own and farm your holding in the Nation of Mozag, as is your God given right.  For several minutes Jarin named and remembered and he could feel the growth of a bond no words written by a speechwriter could ever build, even into a prepared speech tailored for a prepared audience such as he faced this bright morning.

At last the words of his address became due again and they left his mouth as if he had been practicing and composing them himself for many years. "The Brotherhood we supported with our hearts, our souls and our lives was not defeated by arms my friends.  It was defeated for one reason and one reason alone, it was defeated because simple minds allowed the Church and its devil-priests to control them.  Greater numbers, spurred on by a fanatical fear of invented Gods and demons, defeated it.  It was defeated by pure evil, where no battle we ever entered into was ever fought that we were not outnumbered ten to one.  The Brotherhood was defeated because in his wisdom the One and Only God needed it so to be."

Jarin paused again and saw the sorrow and agreement on the faces below him.   "Now is another time.  A few years have been taken from the millennium for us to discover the true evil of our adversary.  Now our banners shall carry a symbol blessed by the One and Only God.  No Church with its demented Priests and its man-made myths, its invented parables and tales, can stand against His banner.  You are the vanguard of an army Khanlar has never seen the like of before.  Our Army will be invincible in its strength and undeniable in its objective, because it marches for an invincible and undeniable Cause.  Justice and Freedom are our Cause my brothers.  You are the first of many.  Your legions shall be the core of many Legions.  You shall be the steel of our advance towards victory.  Let him who can not believe this leave us now and run to hide without honour, but to him who will serve our Great Cause - I say to him - follow the Banners of the Brotherhood, the Banners of the Legions of Khanlar.  They shall bring Justice to the Land.  They shall lead the righteous in their Cause.  They shall fly before us as we go forth to destroy the evil that has bound Khanlar for a millennium.  We go forth to change the World!"

Even as Jarin spoke huge white and gold banners unfurled like a line of disciplined presentations before the men gathered below him and the red cross within a circle, the motif of the One and Only God, on the purest of white background was visible and heart-lifting to every soul in the meadow.  Each of the white banners save the greatest was edged with a narrow colored border and in the high right corner carried a device embroidered in its own perfect colour.  This time the cheers continued for a long time, in fact they lasted until long after Jarin had left the dais. 

 

* * * * * * *

A Great and Honourable Cause

 

In the weeks that followed the presentation of the Brotherhood's new banners, that crowd of individuals on the parade ground who had greeted Jarin as Khan of Khanlar became an organization the like of which Khanlar had never seen before.  Before the day of the unfurling of the new banners came to an end, they had been divided into squadrons of fifty men, four dozen troopers, a corporal and a squadron sergeant, without recourse to considering the Nations of their birth or any other factor, so that men of one Nation marched with a squadron that contained men of many other Nations.  This mixing of the squadrons caused some comment and even a few complaints, but the total demand for discipline exhibited by the Squadron Sergeants soon quieted even the most adamant of requests for placing with one particular group or another.

Total discipline had been the fare of the sergeants throughout the months of training they had endured and therefore they expected no less from their charges.  Each Squadron was issued with a colored sash that identified its members and each had its own tent erected within the compound.  The men of each Squadron trained together, ate together, slept together and rarely even met with the men of other squadrons, who passed within a few feet of them every day.  During those first six weeks, which were ones of intensive drilling, there was a careful strategy, which brought about the blunting of individualism and nationalism into unquestioned discipline to the new Brotherhood. 

For six weeks no man in any company seemed to get enough sleep and had absolutely no privacy whatsoever and yet soon the first six weeks had passed and then the real training began.

Guardians were everywhere during the training period which followed that initial month and a half of induction, advising, explaining, introducing new methods and systems and generally adding the extensive knowledge they had gained from the libraries below ground in the vaults.  Prince Jarin was also on the parade grounds every day, watching, congratulating, demanding by his presence and learning all the time just how much those old books held in the Archives had to teach them all.

Day after day, three abreast, the squadrons learned to run punishing miles in formation and at a measured pace, which was something that had never been asked of them during their service as soldiers during the Great War and as the days passed each squadron became both fitter and more of a unit, rather than a group of fifty individual men.  Before the sun even came up each morning, the squadrons would assemble on the parade ground and be put through an hour of hard exercise in unison.  Then they were allowed to retire to the mess tents for breakfast and whatever the exercises did for their muscles, it definitely affected their appetites, for just watching them consume mountains of good food was exhausting in itself, Jarin found.  After breakfast came intensive combat training, which pitched one squadron against another in hand-to-hand fighting with wooden weapons, or in carefully executed advance or retreat tactics?  Then, after a short mid-morning break, the squadrons were matched in races carrying a full compliment of weapons and a heavy pack, either charging over a mile of flat ground in formation, desperately overcoming an obstacle course or evenly matched against other squadrons in a ten mile run around the perimeter of the compound in disciplined ranks three abreast, so that as time passed muscles adapted and strengthened, resolve overcame exhaustion and the men rose to even greater heights of accomplishment.

Each Squadron spent time with experts in every type of warfare, every day learning new weapon mastery and the other specialties of a soldier’s existence.  Men, who had favoured the sword or war-axe alone, soon found themselves becoming proficient in many weapons.  Hours spent upon a specially constructed firing range turned even the most amateur into respectable marksmen with the new crossbows.  These weapons had been manufactured under the watchful eyes of the Guardians to a new and more compact design, resulting in crossbows that were lighter than the traditional ones men had used in the past, yet able to send a bolt more accurately for half again the distance of the old ones.  Techniques of hand-to-hand combat, tricks of veterans, expert advice, teaching and continued practice in a multitude of military skills soon began to reap rewards.  Not only did individual proficiency increase, but morale soared to the point where it soon became apparent that few of the men involved in this exhausting regimen even considered the possibility that the actions for which they were being trained would not be successful, against whatever odds the Church brought against them.  So it continued for three months, until one day the moment of truth finally came, announced by the arrival of the first of the second group of recruits in the training camp outside of the City of Lunza. 

On that day the original squadrons of the first draft were lined up in perfect order on the Parade ground, after the first late call for two months and a hearty feast of a breakfast, served by the proud wives and sweethearts, sisters and female cousins of the graduating troops.

They stood in their proud ranks as if made of stone.  They were erect and disciplined, but most of all it was obvious that they had a very new pride in themselves.  Two thousand four hundred men faced the pavilion as Jarin took his place once again and they watched with him as the Banners of the Brotherhood unfolded for the second time, to the sound of a fanfare from twelve trumpets.  A command from the Parade Ground Sergeant Major brought a sharp and thunderous clap, as twenty four hundred fists hit two thousand four hundred chests in unison.  

Then Prince Jarin spoke to them.  "Gentlemen, your initial training is over.  You are the vanguard of the New Army of the Brotherhood.  You are the first, but already more men arrive to follow in your footsteps, to endure the training that you yourselves have endured.  I salute you."  And he brought his own fist up to his chest.  There was no cheering this time for discipline held them firm, but their faces shone with pride as he continued.   "The new methods of warfare that you have learned here were not designed to turn you into just so many foot soldiers, to advance in a mass towards an enemy position to kill or be killed.  Each one of you is worth five of any soldiers Khanlar has ever seen before this day." 

Jarin paused to enjoy their obvious pride in his words, before he went on,   "This morning you were each given a small paper packet as you assembled on this field.  You may now open that packet and pin the two medallions you will find in it onto your collars." 

He paused again while the Sergeant Major below him issued curt commands, which made the execution of his order a smart and disciplined action.  It took only a few seconds and then another sharply stated order brought every man back to attention. 

"You are now wearing a Medallion which is one of the following, a Blue Dragon, a Red Eagle, a Black Wolf or a Green Mountain Lion.  You will on command fall in behind those Banners."  Four Banner men marched onto the field carrying Regimental banners in the four colours Jarin had named, with the designs of their regiments woven upon them.

"You are the first of four new Regiments and you carry the greatest responsibility of our Cause, for you are the first and by you shall all that follow you be compared.  More will join you as time progresses, but you have the singular honour of being the first.  Do not think however that all of your training has ended my friends, for only the first part is over."  Jarin paused for effect a moment before continuing; “Now you will learn to be cavalrymen."

Shocked gasps and some groans came from the men gathered below him, immediately silenced by a command from the Sergeant Major.  Even Jarin had to restrain a smile, but he did so and continued.   "Now gentlemen, let me introduce you to your Officers."  As Jarin spoke each name, a man in full dress uniform came from behind the screen wall behind him.  They came to him one at a time as he called out their names, took the papers and plumed helmets that he gave to them, then they saluted him and moved down the stone steps from the platform to join their men below, taking their places in front of the assembled Regiments.  First the Line Officers, five to each regiment, and then Jarin introduced the Colonels.   "Colonel Lazir Markis, 1st Regiment, the Dragons . . . Colonel Alvar Horakor, 2nd Regiment, the Eagles . . . Colonel Mikan Zavir, 3rd Regiment, the Wolves . . . Colonel Justan Feriar, 4th Regiment, the Lions . . ."

Jarin of course had had no part in choosing his Officers; that had been done by the Guardians, in fact as he watched the four Colonels go down the steps and march across the parade ground to join their regiments, Jarin wondered if that might not have been a mistake upon his part.  Sandar had however stated that he thought the best men had been picked for the job.  Jarin also realized, as he waited for the officers to take up their assigned positions, that the Guardians had again woven politics into the equation, for it suddenly struck him that although all members of the Brotherhood were being taught to look upon their home nations as no more than provinces of the whole, his officer corps was being built as if equal representation was all important.  It was as if the Guardian's were making sure that all of the Nations of the old Asigan Alliance were represented in the command corps.  Sandar was a Natanese, Colonel Markis was Jontalese, Horakor was from Mozag, Zavir from Dang, Feriar was an Asigan, Admiral Kovis who was organizing the new navy was a Sedannese; the one-armed Colonel Golar who commanded the Supply Corps was Zikonese, and so on and so on.  Jarin again smiled at the wisdom of his mentors.  He noticed that all of his officers were now standing at attention in front of their commands.

Then his Royal Guards executed an impressive series of drill movements immediately beneath the dais and Colonel Sander joined them.  As a body they faced the Banners and slammed their fists to their chests and Jarin shouted at the top of his voice,   "Gentlemen, Khanlar salutes you!"  A blood stirring fanfare rang out then, bringing tears to the eyes of many of the old warriors gathered below him and Jarin felt his own heart heaving in his chest from the pageantry of the moment.  Then sharp orders from the parade ground Sergeant Major led the four lock stepped and disciplined regiments from the field towards their new barracks in perfect formation.

Later that same day, as Jarin once again sat outside the Inn in his disguise as an old man inviting conversation from two of the latest arrivals and as he leaned forward to hear their tales, the men he had seen leave the parade ground earlier began to arrive in town.  They came in their newly gained regimental dress uniforms, the medallions on their collars identifying them as Dragons or Lions, Eagles or Wolves.  They wore these new badges with obvious pride and their blue steel helmets were splendid with dark blue horsehair crests, the base of each being woven in their Regimental Colours.  Greeting their wives, relatives, friends and former comrades, Jarin saw that they were different men to those who had arrived on the docks only a few months before.  For more than their uniforms, even more than their healthy fitness, it was the pride they wore which identified them from all other men.

Jarin felt the same pride swell within his own chest as he watched them.  New uniforms and that sense of achievement, which always identifies men who serve a cause they believe in, with fellows whom they hold in respect, seemed to make them appear taller than other men on the streets.

The coming weeks and months would see their numbers doubled and then doubled again.  The training would continue until these ex-outlaws, runaway slaves and refugees would be able to hold their heads up like Jarin's own Guardsmen were already able to do.  The new recruits would learn everything from field first aid to cavalry tactics, from mounting a viable defence, to being part of a lightning strike advance.  Weapon training and drilling would get more advanced and arduous, until when the day came for Jarin to lead them back into their homelands they would be ready and he already knew beyond any doubt that he would be leading the best troops any commander ever took into battle.  That day Jarin decided, would without doubt be the greatest day of his life.

 

* * * * * * *

Before the Storm

 

If Prince Jarin of Natan, the Khan of Khanlar was happy that morning, so was his adversary on the other side of Khanlar.  The Priest of Priests sat on his throne far happier than he had been months before, when he had left the meeting at Army Headquarters.  It had not been easy to reorganize his administration but it had been done effectively.  Bishops he had newly appointed now ruled seven cities.  Of course there had been much complaint regarding the changes, but after six of his less able officials had died of "heart attacks" within the same week, most of the criticism had also died.  The Army also had seen a large number of retirements and promotions, as Ragarian and his old friend General Toragor had restructured the command away from the fanatics, the ineffective and the malcontents and into the hands of trusted and more able commanders.  Only one Legion, the 1st, had openly opposed the change, but a few well aimed crossbow bolts had taken away the leadership it needed to become any real threat in the overall reorganization Ragarian had directed.  In all less than six dozen of the old administration had had to die and only a hundred or so needed to be confined to jail cells.  Therefore, with such easy to overcome and ineffective opposition, Ragarian was very happy about the victory he had snatched from an otherwise dangerous situation.

In the countryside members of his Council were already acting as circuit judges, reducing the corruption and bribery once prevalent everywhere, into an almost controllable state.  Strong enforcement of the Binding Laws by Princes not happy to pay the price of having their people returned to them in chains,  had made it possible to stop bands of beggars and simple folk travelling to find work every which way across the land.  Already hundreds of citizens were being returned to their original homes, while the utterly hopeless were being put into the new work camps established by General Sikora, where they would cause less trouble, be less visible and eventually prove more productive for the State as a whole.

It was true that the raids by outlaws and escaped slaves seemed on the increase in the east, and Church Taxes were producing less coin this year than they had for many years.  Food was also still in short supply and rebuilding from the ravages and disruptions of the War was not proceeding as fast as had been expected, however Ragarian felt he had everything coming under control with his new measures.  In fact he had decided to give the heresy preaching Priests of the new God a few more months before he began to have them removed from society, for if nothing else Ragarian knew when not to push the people too far with too much medicine at the same time.  The trick to government Ragarian had found over the years was to allow it to handle the mundane problems by reaction rather than action.  Government action was rather like a Hawk when you held a position of high rank within it.  The longer you could keep the hood over the bird's head, the further you could proceed towards your goal without the chance of it turning on you.  One only pulled off the bird's hood when there was a more obvious enemy in sight than the master who enslaved it and so it was with real government Ragarian had found.

As soon as he felt that he had tidied up his administration in the countryside and brought the Army under control, Ragarian had moved against the parasites of society as he had long ago decided to do when the time was right.  The reconstructed 4th Legion under General Sikora had gained a new name as they moved to implement Ragarian's new policies.  The 4th now carried the dubious title of the Khanlar Relocation and Rehabilitation Forces.  They had begun their work only a month before, but already they had rounded up more than four thousand beggars, homeless and retarded individuals in the Conquered Territories and moved them into the forests of Natan south west of the town of Dagir, where they had established a work camp to harvest lumber.  Another work camp was being built on the western most peninsula of Korapalis; near the town of Silar in the Nation of Dynlar and two more were planned, one in the desolate country south of Bizon and another north of Cimar in the Nation of Araz.  General Sikora seemed set on improving his reputation with Ragarian and his energy in his new command seemed perfectly suited for Ragarian's long term plans for those who had pushed Khanlar to the brink of anarchy.

Ragarian poured himself another glass of wine and walked out onto his balcony.  He had heard little for several months now of this legendary Prince Jarin of Natan and he worried less about it all.  A year or so and he would have restructured Khanlar into a productive and obedient land again and he would have removed every parasite on his administration from the face of the Earth. Then he would deal with this Prince Jarin and his One and Only God.
 

* * * * * * *



Chapter Thirteen
 

PRINCE, PRIEST OR FOOL

 

Ragarian watched the three Guardians sat in the ornate chairs before him, as he tried to establish what weaknesses they might have that he could exploit to his advantage.  They had come to Ka a few days before with their servants and they had kept themselves totally to themselves during the two days he had kept them waiting for the audience, which was now taking place.  The one that was doing most of the talking was a small man with a name very similar to the Priest of Priest's own, he was called Razarian.  He chattered like a bird in a fact filled linking of words that left his mouth almost without pause, while his two companions only talked when this little man bade them add to his argument some fact or explanation.  The second of the three was a tall, skinny fellow called Kroranor and the last was an ordinary looking, slightly overweight and bearded man in his late forties who went by the name of Tagorsan.

The offer they had brought to Ragarian was in fact very interesting, if somewhat strange and he could see little to lose by agreeing to give them what they wanted and ending the interview there and then.  However he held a deep mistrust for everything to do with their Order and he could not for the life of him work out why they were making the offers to help him that they were now presenting.  

They had a well prepared reasoning of course, but it seemed to lack enough importance for the three of them to have travelled across the world to put it to him and so he let them go on talking; waiting for the real reasons to appear.

"Your Highness."  Razarian said with what to Ragarian's mind took the guise of genuine feeling, “We are, as you know, an Order devoted to Peace and the good of all mankind and the news we receive daily regarding these outlaw remnants of the Asigan Alliance and how they are disrupting life in your realm, has brought us to the conclusion that we must do all that we can to restore the peace that Khanlar knew for centuries, before the Brotherhood erupted onto the scene."

"And for yourselves, Guardian Razarian?"  Ragarian asked with a little more of a sneer than he meant to give.  "Other than the good you will do for mankind, what is it that your Order will gain by what you suggest?"

"For ourselves . . .” Razarian went on, seeming to miss the sarcasm, “. . . we have a need to provide for the Nation which is our home in these troubled times.  Our population grows with every month and the land area we have in Lunza is hard pressed to support our people these days."

"So your Highness . . .” The fat one jumped into the conversation,  “ . . .with the sudden death of Prince Hagor of Dag and no immediate heir to take his place, we saw the opportunity to increase the lands we could farm to feed our people.  At the same time we thought we would be able to solve some of your problems with what is left of the lawless element of the Brotherhood."

This time Ragarian snorted out loud in contempt, not caring what these three white haired, pompous little men thought of him.   "And what makes you think, Guardian Tagorsan, that you would have any luck in rounding up these outlaws and persuading them to take themselves off to Dag, to be farm labourers and slaves for your Order?"

"We are both well educated men my Lord Ragarian . . .” Razarian smiled again knowingly,  “ . . .These people have no choice at the moment but to live off the produce of your administration by criminal means, or face the only other alternative available to them, which would be to give themselves and their families up to a lifetime of slavery.  They have nowhere to go and unless they allow your troops to either kill them or put them in chains, they are destined to a very short life as hunted outcasts.  I agree that we are only offering them a life of hard labour with the implied opportunity of a possible productive future, but we shall also be offering them the opportunity to escape the only choices you offer them, which everyone in this room will agree, is but the choice between a sudden unnatural death or an early natural one."

It was obvious that Razarian was the leader of the delegation, as both of the other Guardians deferred to him, so Ragarian addressed him directly,   "So your Order will go to these outlaws and instead of death or slavery, you will offer them deportation off of the mainland to become farm workers.  In return, you wish me to hand you title to the islands of Dag, Suvak and Palan.  You also, if I understand you rightly, agree to take total responsibility of ensuring that none of these outlaws will return to the mainland of Khanlar without my knowledge."

"Exactly so Sire.  We shall round up the few hundred outlaws in the western Nations and transport them to Dag; and in return, we ask is that you pass to us the title of the islands of Suvak and Palan and the island Nation of Dag.  In fact your Highness, we are also authorized to offer you the sum of fifteen thousand gold crowns, to offset your loss of taxes over the next hundred years."

Ragarian somehow managed not to let his surprise show at the last statement.  In fact the little Guardian went on speaking for a short while, not realizing that the Priest of Priests had stopped listening already.  When the man had finished Ragarian put his fingers together and pretended to consider the situation for a few minutes.  The silence was deafening before he finally said to them,   "Return in two days and I will give you my decision."

After the Guardians left the audience room and returned to their apartments Ragarian sat for several hours trying to work out what he could have done for the Gods to hand him such a sweet deal at this moment in time.

The Nation of Dag was perhaps one of the poorest places on Earth, with little to make it important to anyone or anything.  Its total population was less than four thousand and it was one of the most desolate places in Khanlar, it was so poor in fact that old Prince Hagor had finally given up trying to recruit a wife of the Royal Blood.  Every Noble father in the land had refused even his ugliest daughter to the constantly in-debt ruler of that gods-forsaken place. 

Apart from the tiny city of Dag itself, which Ragarian had never visited but had been led to believe was little more than a collection of wooden huts, gathered around a small and decrepit two story stone palace of less than a dozen rooms, there was nothing on the island other than a virgin oak forest, which for the centuries since Dag had been founded had been only used for swine to forage in.  The wood in itself might have been useful, save for the fact that transporting it to the mainland, where there was already an abundance of lumber, would have priced it out of the market.  In fact it was said on the mainland that any Dagorian with half a brain and the ability to swim headed for the mainland the moment he realized he had been born in the wrong place. 

Ever since Ragarian could remember, every joke about human stupidity had been made about the Dagorians.  Why, only a few days ago he had heard the latest in a long string of anti-Dagorian humour that still made him chuckle.

A poor Dagorian labourer had finally saved enough to get passage to the mainland, where he had applied for a job on a construction site, only to be told by the foreman that Dagorians were far too stupid to work on his contracts.  Getting angry the Dagorian had asked the foreman to prove that Dagorians were stupid, so the foreman had raised his hand, palm outward, in front of a wall and asked the Dagorian to punch it.  When the labourer had punched at the foreman's hand the foreman had dropped it, allowing the poor man to break several fingers as he had hit the wall.  The Dagorian had then given up and returned home.  His first night home, having drunk several drinks, the Dagorian met his cousin, who inquired why he had returned to Dag.

"Well I applied for a job, but the foreman proved to me that all of us Dagorian's are too stupid for him to employ."  The man replied.

"Oh Yeah!"  His cousin had countered, “Well I ain't stupid!" putting his hand outward, in front of his face, “I'll prove it to you.  Hit my hand!"

Fifteen thousand gold crowns!  As for that representing a hundred years of taxes, well even the notion was ridiculous.  In the last two centuries the place had contributed less than three hundred crowns and owed three times as much to the treasury at this very moment.

Either the Guardians had finally shown their weakness, which was a desperate lack of land to live on, or there was something that he was missing in their presentation to him.  There had to be a catch.  Somewhere in all those words he had to have missed something. 

The offer to round up most of the outlaws that remained of the Brotherhood and ship them to a place which the Church Navy could blockade to ensure that those malcontents remained there, well that was just icing on the cake.  Fifteen thousand gold crowns for the title to three inconsequential islands. Ragarian finally came to the conclusion that perhaps the Guardians were telling the truth.  The three islands they were asking for would double their land area and although those wind swept places were the back of beyond to Khanlar proper, they were next door to the over-populated island Nation of Lunza.

It was also logical that if the Guardians were really going to cut down the forest and convert it into lumber for building and ash to break up the clay there which that they wanted to farm, then they would indeed need a supply of labour to do it. 

He had heard many tales over the years of the soft living the inhabitants of Lunza enjoyed.  They were traders of the highest professionalism and from their ability to work a deal they had prospered and built a very rich little community, in fact it was their reputation for making deals where they bought one lamb and walked away owning the whole flock that caused his misgivings.  However, lore had it that as labourers Lunzans were ill-fitted to such tasks, which would therefore explain their need for slaves.  The remnants of the Brotherhood would therefore be a logical and free labour pool, for the Lunzans to exploit to perform the manual tasks they considered themselves too good for.

Even though he already knew that he had approved the deal and that everything made good sense when viewed from the Guardian's perspective as well as his own, Ragarian still had a nagging fear that he had missed something.  The fact that his visitors and their fellows might well have had a hand in murdering the Prince of Dag to bring this deal to the table merely crossed Ragarian's mind and was dismissed as unimportant.  He found however that fifteen thousand gold crowns and the chance to be rid of the problem of what remained of the Brotherhood outlaws seemed to greatly reduce the nagging fear that he had missed something.  
 

* * * * * * *

Creating the Base

 

Many days later Razarian met with Manator and Prince Jarin in the Map chamber of the Guardian's palace and laid out the scroll he carried on the table, holding down its corners with four gold crowns as he reported his success to his superiors, obviously enjoying the task.

"This Manator is the document that takes the first step in the great plan we have agreed to pursue.  Suvak, Palan and Dag are now ours, with the blessing of His Highness Ragarian, Priest of Priests himself."  He smiled and walked to the huge wall map, calling it alive and then taking up a long pointer to indicate the three islands that stretched southward from Lunza on the map.  The long stick touched the light colored stretches of water between the four islands in turn.

"Although it is not apparent to anyone standing on the deck of a ship sailing between our islands, they are in fact the peaks of great mountains that rise from the ocean floor, forming a ridge of which we see only the crowns.  The deepest point below the ocean surface between our islands is no more than fifty feet, here between Dag and Palan."  He touched the point he mentioned on the map, “and already our engineers have started dumping rock into the sea at the tip of each island in a project which will eventually become a causeway to link the islands together.  Then the whole chain will in actuality all become one continuous island, which a man could walk along from the southern most point of Palan right up here to the northern most point of Lunza.  We shall then build a paved road, wide enough for three heavy wagons to drive abreast of each other that will run the length of this landmass from Palan to the City of Lunza.  We are already clearing the land for future production and we have begun quarrying rock for this causeway from all four islands as well."

Manator took up the conversation then, explaining to Prince Jarin a little more of the strategy.  "Our agents have already begun spreading the word on the mainland and we expect to pick up more outlaws, as Ragarian calls them, at the rate of a few hundred every week, as they make their way east.  No one knows just how many ex-members of the Brotherhood are in hiding at this time, nor how many have merged into the population across the Nations.  The Church of course has played down their numbers, to maintain their hold on things and prevent a nation wide panic.  They openly admit to several hundred, whereas we estimate that between ten to twelve thousand people will cross the sea from Khanlar to Lunza by the time this campaign is over.  Many of them are not outlaws of course, but we need everyone we can recruit, just so long as they oppose the Church and support our Cause.  We are already building accommodations for them to live in once they arrive."

Razarian pointed to the green island of Dag on the map as he took up the conversation.   "The oak forest on Dag will provide the lumber we need for a completely new fleet of ships we shall build following carefully the plans we have taken from the vaults.  It is a pity that you have changed your occupation these days Jarin for we shall have need of many charcoal burners in the coming months.  Every scrap of wood not converted to lumber will be turned into charcoal and what is left over will become ash to break up the heavy clay of Dag, which we intend to turn into the most productive farmland in Khanlar over time.   We shall need the charcoal to fire the great furnaces we shall build, in a new city that will be constructed on the eastern shores of Dag to house our shipyards.  That place shall be named Hagir, after a character in a storybook we found in the vaults.  It is a wonderful tale about a man who built a great warship for a king in some legendary land.  The story goes on incidentally to tell that the ship then came alive and had a soul of its own.  The smoke from these shipyards should not be seen from the mainland, for it will be blown away from land by the wind for the main part of the year and any passing ship that does happen to see it, will report back to the priests in Ka that we are indeed burning off the forest to provide ash to break down the clay, so that we can farm the reclaimed lands, which is exactly what we told his Highness Ragarian."

Manator chuckled and returned to the table to pour himself a glass of watered wine. "You know Jarin, much of the success of our Order is based upon the careful preparation of facts to be presented to others in a way that they can accept, yet which in fact hide the real reasoning behind our actions."  He sipped the wine and laughed quietly again, “It has always struck me as funny that what one man sees as a difficulty, another can see as an advantage.  Poor old Prince Hagor was always complaining that Dag consisted of nothing but rock and clay and the only crop he could grow successfully was a forest that he could not sell.  What he saw as his problem we see as the very raw materials we need to develop that island.  The forest will provide us with building lumber, sturdy oak planks for our ships, charcoal to fire our smithies and ash to break up the clay into fertile soil.  The clay will also provide us with the raw material to make the best bricks in Khanlar and the rock will be used to build great buildings and create a road that will allow us to develop a new center of civilization."

Razarian took up the conversation, “Suvak will become the base for your Army Jarin.  Its central position between the two main land areas of our new domain makes it ideal and by building gate houses at each end of the causeway as it leaves each island, security will be completely controllable.  Suvak is fifteen miles long and less than five miles wide at its widest part, therefore we have decided that it is possible to turn it into a great castle in its own right.  We shall make it the most secure place on Earth by the time we are done.  The monks at the monastery there are already preparing to leave and we shall provide them with passage back to the mainland next week. Then the building work can begin."

"I trust your judgment completely of course . . .” Jarin said,  “ . . .but how will we feed these people we are bringing over, it seems to me that Lunza is already bursting at the seams and from what you say we could double the population and then double it again in the next few months."

"I do not think our young friend knows just how wealthy our Order is Manator."  Razarian said with a chuckle.  "Jarin my boy, we own half the gold in Khanlar, all safely stacked away in the vaults and everyday our merchants are buying supplies, in inconspicuous amounts in markets from Vanzor to Dynlar.  A little here, a little there and Lunzan ships sailing round the clock to carry the merchandise back to our storerooms and granaries.  I doubt that the Priest of Priests has ever realized it, but our astute and very discrete merchants, making deals with his not-so-honest administrators, cause many of his local shortages.  Once these men take our gold they become addicted to it Jarin and in their addiction they begin to offer us assistance far beyond even what we ask, for a man who commits a crime soon not only justifies himself for being without honour, but he will actually make his dishonourable act a thing of honour to himself.  It is of course to our advantage that a man, who breaks the law, rarely broadcasts the fact to anyone who might be able to gain by seeing him punished for it.  Do not worry about supplying your army, or our people Jarin, that is someone else's responsibility and that someone is an expert in his trade."

"So why have we gone to the trouble of buying three more islands?"  Jarin asked politely.

"To spread ourselves and gain the secrecy we need."  Manator replied.  "Right now if the Church were to embark all of their troops to take Lunza, we would put up a good fight, but we would without doubt eventually lose.  A year from now they would have to take four islands, heavily defended and with our supplies spread through several bases.  I believe even the present strength of the Church would find us a little too much to bite off and swallow a year from now."

"So why all the secrecy?"  Jarin asked, "Why did we not just annex Dag?"

"Ah, the impetuosity of youth."  Said Razarian, with more humour than Jarin felt comfortable with.  "Only a raving madman, or an idiot, would rape a woman and risk the consequences, when a few presents and some well chosen words would make her his willing and very attentive companion.

"He is right Jarin."  Said Manator.  "Our diplomacy has given us breathing space.  Now when our supporters come over to us, they will do so with the Church's blessing, even encouragement and Ragarian will concentrate on his many other problems, certain of which we shall carefully manufacture for him.  It will be some time before he seriously considers us again.  We have become an accomplished task in his mind, so that he can now forget us and get on with other things and in that false feeling of safety, he allows us to plan his downfall.  It is a little less than honourable I suppose, in fact one could even accuse us of downright deception, but even if the Church is not yet aware of it, we are at War with them and in War the only important thing after all is to win.  The good things, the honourable face of society, the humane and civilized things . . . well often they must wait until after the war is won I am afraid."  

 

* * * * * * *

A New and Better Future
 

By the first day of spring the last of the Monks had left the monastery of Suvak and ships bearing ragged groups of erstwhile outlaws and their families began arriving every day in Dag.  These refugees were taken directly from the docks to a holding camp a few miles south of the city, where they were interviewed, medically examined and then given papers re-directing them to the next stage in the program for which they were best suited.  For those not transferred directly to the Army, what awaited them was little more than slave labour on the many clearing and building projects which were underway across the four islands that now made up the Nation of Lunza.  They however enjoyed privileges most slaves never had access to on the mainland, which ranged from comfortable and secure lodging to regular good meals, from attentive medical treatment to schooling in both academic and trade subjects for those in need of them.

The City of Dag itself was systematically torn down and rebuilt over the first six months after it became part of the Lunzan State, with its citizens being absorbed into the society with full and equal rights.  Dag grew in size three times during that first half year and would have grown more no doubt, except that craftsmen were in demand throughout the islands and new arrivals with a trade found themselves absorbed into the guilds within hours of their arrival, yet still there were never enough experienced hands for the work available.  All through the Spring every man, woman and child found themselves fully employed in the building projects, the greatest of which was without doubt the construction of the inter-island highway which ran like a paved ribbon from the southern most island of Palan to the city of Lunza in the north. 

Thousands of tons of rock were actually carried in carts and baskets; to build the great causeways and the road that was to link the islands into one continuous Nation.  Over the next few months the handles of a thousand hammers turned black from human sweat, breaking the rock that was to pave that highway, mixed with cement manufactured in a new factory on the outskirts of Hagir to a formula gained from a book in the Archives.  In Hagir, on the eastern coast of Dag, a great shipyard with three dry docks was constructed and in it shipwrights, from those refugees of the sea-going Nations of Dang, Sedanna and Dala, were soon at work laying the keels for a new navy, built with the lumber gained as woodcutters slowly cut their way through the oak forests of the island. 

On Suvak the old Monastery was renovated to act as a Military Headquarters surrounded by barracks, warehouses and all the other buildings necessary to house a growing army; laid out with military precision in uniform rows along uniform streets, and all contained within a stone wall almost fifty miles long, twenty five feet high and never less than ten feet thick, that followed the island's coastline.

On Palan, Guardian architects designed and built a great cathedral and many other buildings to house the administrative center of the growing Church of the One and Only God, having first obtained the permission of the Priest of Priests to construct a temple to the Goddess Herthe.  Razarian had explained to Jarin the reasoning behind this blatant misrepresentation as being the only answer to what was otherwise a paradox that might have seriously hindered the greater benefits of their overall plan, for the place grew like a great fortress out of the southern cliffs of the island and soon became a wonder for the sailors on every passing ship to admire.

To openly admit that they supported the new religion to the Priest of Priests would have at the very least have identified the Order of Guardians and the now expanding Nation of Lunza, as a potential threat and at the worst Ragarian might have revoked his order legalizing the annexation of the three new territories, or even at a long shot ordered an invasion to round up the leaders of the new religion that threatened his authority.  On the other hand, when they were so consciously assisting in the conversion of all the people who lived on their island chain to accept the superiority of the One and Only God, not to have provided the pomp and circumstance religion needs to lead the faithful, might well have undercut their efforts at home.  The deception was therefore planned and enacted and although the Church of the One and Only God's Priests grew slower than the other branches of the administration, it soon appeared to Prince Jarin that the shaven head priests in their dark blue habits were everywhere, working just as hard as any lay member in the never ending building program.

There was little rest for anyone living on the four islands for many months.  Spring came and went and then summer moved through autumn and the first signs of winter began to appear before the work started to slow down.  Even the children worked during that time, grouped together under the caring guidance of chosen minders, they mixed their days between schooling, play and working as general clearers and cleaners, from one end of the islands to the other. Farmers, who had returned to their old profession after years as outlaws, found themselves working from before dawn until after sunset, as they cleared, ploughed and planted an ever-increasing acreage.  By the onset of winter it seemed that every square inch of the islands had been converted to a well tended garden, being either built upon, paved over, or ploughed for crops and the landscape acquired a cared for look not common in Khanlar. 

Nothing was wasted in this economy.  Every scrap of waste wood was gathered by women with small carts who spent their working hours at nothing else, to be recycled as ash; to be mixed into clay to make bricks; or manufactured into mulch in great vats that appeared everywhere.  Every basket of prunings, grass clippings and even the waste from vegetables prepared for the table, were gathered each day and taken to those vats; where they would be allowed to rot down to provide compost for the fields and gardens.  Grass seed was scattered over the more inaccessible areas and where the forest had not yet been cleared, herds of cows, sheep and deer were tended and harvested in the most efficient manner, by men too old, too young or too disabled for other work.  After centuries without change the hillsides of Dag were sculpted to the needs of man, changing from wilderness to carefully tended gardens and farmlands even as the seasons changed.  The Guardians obviously knew from the outset however, that there would never be enough meat produced on the islands to serve the needs of its growing population and the importation of tons of meat could have been a certain clue to the Church authorities on the mainland to the real size of the new population.  That was something the Guardians did not want known at that time and so the shipyards first task was to build and equip a fishing fleet.  Using mass production techniques taught them by the Guardians, the shipwrights of the yards at Hagir were soon launching a new fishing boat every ten days. 

These ships, with their stern cabin and two masts, would leave the island of Lunza from the fishing village of Toran every day on the first tide, always sailing east into the great ocean.  The fleet sometimes sailed for days away from land into the emptiness of that uncharted world of heaving blue water, but as time passed they learned where to cast out their nets and soon they were bringing back a huge harvest to feed the population.  In Toran the fish sheds sent out boxes of fresh fish packed in ice and an industry grew up to produce smoked or pickled fish, which soon became favourite delicacies of the people.  Toran was also able to produce a harvest of fertilizer as well as food, for again nothing was wasted.  Everything that could not be eaten was dried in great ovens and ground down on huge stone mill wheels, until it was reduced to a powder that the farmers welcomed as if it was worth more than gold dust, which to them of course it most definitely was.

The cities of Lunza and Dag grew and expanded, while three new cities were laid out by Guardian architects, rising from the landscape in buildings of red brown colored bricks, yellow Lunzan limestone and capped with red clay tile roofs.  The town of Rolon grew around the Lunzan end of the causeway connecting it to Suvak, while its larger cousin of Hagir blossomed to house the workers in the dockyards on the eastern coast of Dag.  On the southern most tip of Dag the small hamlet of Tamal was built, until it was larger than the old city of Dag had been prior to the takeover, to house the foresters and charcoal burners, farmers and herdsmen, with their families and to provide lodging for those who travelled to the Cathedral of Palan.  Even with the three new islands added to their domain, the Guardians knew that the shortage of land would continue to haunt them for many years to come and so most of the new buildings they designed were three stories high and connected to each other in long rows.  However, they never forgot the human need for green plants, trees and flowers and this need was met by having wide tree lined streets and large open squares with garden areas in their center.  Fountains and water gardens were planned into the towns, as were human gathering places, where squares of shops were built around paved areas on which enterprising Innkeepers soon placed tables, to allow the population to rest and watch the world go by, while they sipped refreshing drinks at the end of a work shift.

On the northern outskirts of Rolon the Guardians built a factory to manufacture cloth, using water wheel driven looms, whose design had been taken from books in the vaults.  Many women who had lost their husbands in the troubled years, congregated there to begin a productive life again working as weavers and loom minders.  Soon after opening the factory they were producing the heavy serge cloth, for which the town was to become famous in years to come and Lunzan merchants on the mainland were already bidding for the wool harvest of the next spring. 

The brick factory on Dag produced ship loads of distinctive red brown bricks, each one carefully hand thrown into its moulding box by a master craftsman.  Yet no matter how many bricks left the kilns each day, there never seemed to be enough for the bricklayers who laboured to build the new towns.  Jarin spent a day with some of those men, when they were building the new housing in Tamal and was even persuaded by one of them to lend a hand.  He learned how to throw the mortar onto the previous line of bricks and then trowel a lump of wet mortar onto the end of the brick he was placing, before he put it down and moved it into place with a slight squashing side-to-side movement that forced the mortar beneath it to ooze out on both sides.  Then he would run the trowel along the joint to take off the excess and with a twist of the wrist slap it back onto his mortarboard.  He learned to chop and turn the mortar on his board, to allow the water in the mixture to keep all of it moist and prevent it from drying off at the edges.  He also learned that every brick had a smile, which must always be inverted as one laid the brick in place.  Every brick when it is thrown has open lines in its face which form into the shape of a series of curved indented lines that look like smiles as the brick sags in the turning out and drying.  The bricklayer explained how, if one laid the brick with the smile in place, any rain water that landed on the brick during its lifetime in the wall would collect in the bottom of the smile and eventually destroy it.  That little trick of laying the brick sadly could double the life of a wall the old man had told him, adding one more fact to Jarin's ever growing store of knowledge.

Even in the brick factory nothing was wasted.  Every day the floors were swept and the gathered dust and chips were loaded into bags and placed aboard a wagon.  Broken bricks and larger chips were crushed beneath a large piston like hammer, which was driven by a water wheel and the dust and sand produced were also shipped out on that same wagon.  Mixed with compost and wood ash and then ploughed into the thick clay of Lunza, Suvak and Dag it would one day form part of the most productive farmland in Khanlar.  Everywhere on the four islands it seemed that everyone was working every hour that the Gods gave them.  Before dawn the streets were busy with workers on their way to their employment and long after sunset they remained busy, as people moved to their secondary activities under the light of the seemingly always burning oil lamps.  Like a large family who has just taken over the farm they have worked many years to acquire, the whole population laboured every hour they could, neither taking a vacation, nor complaining about the workload they carried.
 

* * * * * * * 

And the Legions Build
 

The first day of winter that year Jarin spent on the Parade Ground at Suvak watching the fourth contingent of newly graduated troops assemble behind their banners.  Later that night, after the day's pageantry and ceremony, Manator came to Jarin's rooms, his face serious and with what was obviously a matter of great importance on his mind. 

Kirene was already in their bed, whether waiting for her husband or lost in a dream of her own making, Jarin did not know, but a quick glance through the door at her innocent smiling face lost in some dream or another, proved she would not object to Manator and her husband talking most of the night.  Their son was asleep in the cot beside his mother's bed, his face serious with that expression that very young babies adopt when they sleep.  When Jarin returned to the main room of his apartments his old friend was already seated and drinking a glass of wine, so Jarin picked up his own glass and sat down across the table from him.

Between them on the table a Khanlar board stood laid out ready for a game.  It was a new set, presented to Jarin by a group of Natanese who had come to Lunza in answer to the call put out by the Guardians.  The men had each taken a special part in its manufacture and it was without doubt one of the finest Khanlar sets in existence, for they had put many hours into the making of it. 

The board had been crafted from rare hardwoods and stood on four perfect brass feet that were shaped in the form of lion's paws.  The squares were inlaid pieces of ivory and onyx, seventy-two in each colour, polished to be without flaw in their level with one another and separated by carefully placed gold wire.  The pieces had each in turn been exquisitely carved in wax, and then cast in bronze from the moulds so carefully made of each individual carving, after which they had been painted and decorated with precious metals, so that each looked like a miniature human being, frozen into a pose it would hold for all time.  Two fairy armies lined up ready to do battle; they faced each other across the board, one in the uniforms of the new Brotherhood and the other in the maroon colours of the Church.  Tiny swords and helmets of real silver and bronze adorned each figure and the Priest of Priests stood across the board from a small sculpture of Prince Jarin himself in full dress uniform as the Khan.

Manator picked up a Cavalry piece in the colours of the Church and moved it forward to open the play.  He did it in a seemingly absent-minded manner, yet Jarin knew that no one of intelligence, especially not Manator, was ever casual when it came to a game of Khanlar.  Jarin opened by putting a Cavalry piece of his own forward.

"There was a meeting today of the Council."  Manator stated bluntly, coming directly to the point, “The general opinion was that you should travel through the country you are preparing to conquer."  He reinforced his first move by bringing a Warrior forward. 

"Do you think Colonel Sandar would allow me to do that?"  Jarin half joked, moving a second Cavalry piece forward to stand before his opener.

"He has been informed."  Manator said quietly.  ". . . and he has asked to be allowed to go with you.  The Council has agreed that he may travel with you if it is your wish also.  You will of course wear the belt of power and you will go in the disguise of a Lunzan Merchant with all the necessary passes, licenses and permits needed to allow you to travel at will." 

The Guardian General sipped at his wine and studied the board for a moment before going on.   "I was against this idea from the start Jarin, for I have always thought that without a Prince of the Royal Blood the Brotherhood might just fall apart, to say nothing of my concern for the welfare of a dear friend.  However, it appears that your death might be as great an incentive to our Cause, through the revenge motive it would bring, as would your being alive and actually leading your army, or so the majority opinion believes.  My concerns for a friend were brushed aside by reference to the child you and Kirene gave birth to a few months ago.  You see my friend, the Council believes that unless you have first hand experience of how life is lived on Khanlar and especially in the cities that remained loyal to the Church during the Great War . . . well, it is their feeling you would not be fully equipped for the decisions you will have to make after the invasion."

"I would of course prefer to be alive to lead my army, if my opinion counts for anything that is."  Jarin said, not feeling as confident as the words sounded.  "Why, after all this time would anyone decide that now is the moment for me to go wandering about through Khanlar?"

Manator finished his wine, carefully placed the empty glass back on the table and increased his line of Warriors facing Jarin's Cavalry.  Jarin in turn brought his fourth mounted figure forward to complete the block he had built for his defence.

"It is the opinion of the majority that it would be the best thing."  Manator said,  "You can of course refuse, but that would lose you much of the support you have already gained and there are still those who only cooperate with us because it is the majority will of the Council that they do so.  Those people still believe we should stay out of the affairs of Khanlar and busy ourselves with the tasks we were created to perform.  For you to refuse to go would increase their numbers, of that I have no doubt, my friend."

"Then I must go, must I not?"  Jarin said, somewhat shocked by the news that not all of the Guardians supported the Great Plan as he had always believed.  "When must I leave and how long am I to wander about in Khanlar?"

Manator moved a Cavalry piece forward, placing it so that his advanced Warriors covered it and thereby forcing Jarin to start his minor pieces moving forward. 

"You have tonight to bid goodbye to Kirene.  The Arrow awaits you at this moment, ready to sail on the morning tide.  You were to be given more time, but the debate dragged on until the last moment." 

Jarin opened a side flanking movement into the game by advancing a warrior to the left and then Manator said, “You will be picked up again in a month, or whenever you arrive at the place they have chosen.  I am sorry that you must leave your family at this time my friend, but the majority must rule."

They talked little more about this startling news, but instead lost themselves in the careful strategies of Khanlar for the next few hours, enjoying the quiet, warm comfort that a room has after nightfall when most other people have gone to their beds. 

The candles burned lower and as time wore on the game established four separate fronts, three of which presented Jarin with major problems and they were well into the second flask of wine before Manator called it a night and left for his own apartments.

He stood to leave, looking down on the board, as if memorizing the exact position of each piece and nodded thoughtfully as Jarin bade him good night.  

"Sleep well my friend and may the Gods grant you a safe journey.  I look forward to finishing this game when you return." 

Jarin escorted Manator to the door and closed it behind him after he had left.  Then he went to his bed, grateful for the warm company of Kirene's sleeping body beside him as he dropped off into a fitful sleep.

 

* * * * * * *

Where Stands a Wife at the Start of a Campaign?

 

It was a few minutes before dawn the next day when he woke Kirene, sitting on the bed beside her.  Her hair was tousled and her eyes were red rimmed with sleep as he told her the news.  She began to rise, but he put his hand on her shoulder and told her not to bother, she sat up nevertheless, bunching the pillows up behind her.

After he had explained the facts to her, she seemed almost angry.  "I sometimes wonder what these people really want of us Jarin."  She rubbed her face where the sheets had creased it.  "They keep talking about you being the Leader, they call you their Prince and are always giving you titles but it seems sometimes that they treat you like you are just another one of their servants."

"I feel the same way at times, my love."  Jarin replied, “But after all that they have done, I guess they have the right to expect me to go along with their plans.  At least we live in luxury we could not have dreamed of a short while ago Kirene."

"Sometimes I would exchange this luxury for the contentment we had before the Holding was destroyed."  She looked drawn as she spoke, “Then we could make our own choices, whereas now we seem to be running this way and that, just to be polite or fit into someone else's plans."

Jarin realized that there had been many times when he would have agreed with her and that included this present decision the Council had just announced to him through Manator, but instead he kissed her and bid her go back to sleep, tucking her in as she snuggled back down under the covers.  As he blew out the lamp he realized both of them were having difficulty becoming civilized as fast as it was being thrust upon them.  Then he put aside his personal feelings and set off to find Colonel Sandar and board the Arrow for Khanlar.

Years had passed since Jarin and Kirene had first met Manator in the forest.  Kirene had soon discovered after arriving in the Nation of Lunza that her life in the Palace of the Guardians as the Lady of the Highest Prince in the Land, was one that was full of activities, both state and private, yet she found that more and more lately, she resented the way Jarin always seemed too busy to have any time for her.  From the moment she had told him that she was pregnant she had somehow expected him to show his love and concern by being with her, to always be there, showing her the love he always told her he had for her, but instead it seemed he spent more time away from her now than he had before she had broken the news to him.

It was strange how she could now look at how she had changed during the time they had been in Lunza, almost as if the “she” doing the examination was a separate person to the “she” being examined.  Like two lives being lived alongside each other through the passage of time.  She felt that she was in fact two bodies walking along the road of life together, twins separated by place and person, one unsophisticated, uneducated and poor, living on Havor's Holding for ever, while the second twin walked the corridors of power as the wife of a Prince, poised and educated, sophisticated and secret within herself. 

Ever since they had arrived on Lunza, perhaps even from the time they had first met Manator; Kirene had learned to keep her own counsel whenever others were present.  She spoke rarely these days, controlled her movements and deferred to everyone and by doing so, she had yet to find herself in a situation where she had been publicly embarrassed. 

Kirene had understood the power of her beauty almost as soon as she had found it and now she had found that she was able to use it to mask herself from every stranger she met.  When she had first put on the clothes of a lady in that dressmakers shop in Atlar she had been surprised at the transformation she saw in the mirror that they had provided for her.  Her first instinct had been to bow low to the reflection, lest she insult the aristocratic beauty she saw there.  Then, as she had walked back to the Traveller's Rest with Jarin, she had seen the looks she received from the men they passed in the street and she would never forget the feeling of power that had surged through her veins as the understanding had come to her.  One stranger after another had bowed, smiled or deferred to her, as she had walked that short distance and in their eyes she had seen a reaction that was new to her.  Every one of them had the same look in their eyes, a mixture of lust, admiration, fear and embarrassment.  She had known there was no other word for it, she had just known, and that they would have returned any interest she might have shown them with gratitude and there was no other word for that either.

Instinctively she understood that if she looked like a Lady and acted like a Lady, then there was no way anyone would know she was not a Lady, unless she told the fact herself, either openly or without realizing that she did so and with that knowledge, she had purposefully become the demure and quiet person she now was.  It was not a game, nor could anyone say that she was acting a part, although that might have been true at the beginning, it was something she was very proud of and the more it fooled people, the prouder she became.

True aristocrats and people who had strived for years to attain the position in society they possessed surrounded her every day and yet she was able to mix in their company as an equal, carefully smiling and nodding as was necessary.  She found herself gliding gracefully through rooms populated with the best that society had produced, yet inside she was still little Kirene Havor, the daughter of a penniless charcoal burner, who secretly studied everyone and everything she saw, every hour that she was awake and she found that she was able to fool them all.  In a way her respect for those around her diminished, little by little, as they accepted her and as they themselves appeared to quickly come to respect her company.  She often wondered why they were so willing to welcome the presence of a quiet, well-mannered beauty without question and then she realized, that had she been the short framed, heavily built peasant woman that her own mother had been, lacking the benefit of fine clothes and manners, it was more than probable that they would have treated her with disdain, had they noticed her at all.

Even when she had been pregnant, this thought had never left her mind and in truth the constant effort to play the part she had chosen, sometimes became very tiring, both physically and mentally.  She was always conscious of how she looked, how she moved and every other detail that made her the socially accepted person she had become.  She spent hours each day secretly checking every aspect of her appearance and she never forgot that every morsel of food she chose, every hour of sleep she missed and in fact everything that affected how she looked to those she was in contact with daily, were important beyond the slightest moment of negligence.

She demurely glided through every day alone, a vision of perfection to the best of her ability.  She never missed a comment, which might help her, and she never interrupted any advice she heard which might make her part in this great play the more convincing.  Alone was almost her way of life, even when crowds of courtiers, counsellors, servants and even friends surrounded her.

Her husband seemed rarely there to be with, or available to confide in or defer to, in moments of encounter where her hauteur began to slip.  In the old days back in the forests of Natan Jarin had always had time for her, he had always been there whenever she needed him to take the lead and in fact, she had grown to womanhood enjoying his careful words, soothing advice and the warmth of his never denied comfort.  She had been in love with him from that first day when she had found him half dead in the undergrowth, soaked to the skin and unconscious, delivered to her as the Prince she had always dreamed of.  When she had first found him, she had thought him to be dead, his skin had been so white, but when she had screamed he had moved, almost as if he was trying to curl up into a ball, while at the same time reaching with his delicate hands to find his place, like a small child who has lost for a moment his appointed position between his parents in the bed.

Yet he had been dressed in the most beautiful of clothes, with jewellery that matched his handsomeness even that close to death.  His hair had been perfection despite his wounds and soft to her hands, as she had stroked his head to comfort him.  As the years had passed his very presence had meant safety, security and all those other good feelings that will always be love to any young and romantic maiden.

As she had grown and matured he had always been there, quietly strong and always understanding, sometimes like a big brother and at other times able to make her blush without thought, but when she had gone to her mother and tried to talk about her feelings for him, her mother had laughed.  Then her mother had sat her down and explained how babies were made, how one day soon she would have to find a husband to look after her and lots of other advice that had kept her confused for days.  It was the idea of being married off to a stranger and the stuff about babies that had occupied her mind for weeks after that.  In the woods that day, when he had put his hands upon her breasts, well everything had happened so fast, it had felt as if she was in a dream.  It was a dream of her own making of course, a dream she had had a great many nights, when she had woken up flushed and embarrassed.  It was like sitting by the fire on a cold night with one too many cups of mother's home made wine in your belly, fantasizing about the future.

In a way she regretted that it had happened now, although she realized that life might be very different for her, or it might have ended that day the Holding had been destroyed, had Jarin not been swept away by the offer she had made him of her body for his male satisfaction.  She had wanted the baby of course, but there was the nagging doubt that it had happened too soon.  Perhaps she would have been lucky if she had not caught his seed for a year or so, like mother had told her some girls experienced when they first got married. 

Still, all in all things were wonderful, compared to how they had lived on the Holding in the forest of Natan.  She had wardrobes full of fine dresses and undergarments of lace and silk and boxes of jewellery.  She lived in a great palace, in the finest apartments, amidst splendour and luxury she had not imagined even in her wildest daydreams a few years ago.  There were her friends as well, Malinda and Rabella, who insisted upon calling her "My Lady, Kirene", but were good fun in all other respects.  She could write in a passable hand now and read more words than she had ever thought possible for one brain to remember.

There were of course some mornings these days when her brain was affected by her new love for wine.  The liking for that soothing, mind-numbing escape had begun as a way to get to sleep when Jarin was away, but it had developed to a point where there was hardly a night these days when she did not drink so much of it, that she could rarely remember the actual act of going to bed.

It was a life of course that every girl in the land would want, if she had the chance to get it.  Her husband was handsome, rich beyond the understanding of most people, a true Prince of the Royal Blood and in the shadow of his importance, she walked in her own importance and she was the mother of his baby and his heir.  Yet she longed for some of the things other woman took for granted.  If only Jarin had more time to be with her.  If only she was still the most important thing in his life . . . Kirene suddenly realized that the tears were running down her cheeks again as she thought about it.

 

* * * * * * *



Chapter Fourteen

SECRET PASSAGE

 

The Arrow laid off the northern coast of Khanlar a few hours before dawn and, when it was deemed time by both Sandar and the ship’s Captain, one of the ship’s boats landed Jarin and Colonel Sandar on the beach some miles to north of the City of Norden. They crossed the wind swept cold sands in the darkness, then scrambled up the steep incline and travelled inland a way before they came to the road to Norden. As a road it more resembled a well-used farm track, deep rutted and with indeterminate edges where weeds and grass encroached upon the gravel strewn mud. Few aristocrats, priests or government officials would ever travel this route, for they would always journey between Norden and Predon by ship, carefully tended by their servant’s and heeding their comfort in some warm cabin. This road was only for the poor and down it they would spend long days driving cattle, leading wagons or merely travelling in one direction or the other searching for work.

It began to drizzle sleet just as the light announced that day had begun somewhere beyond the ominous leaden grey clouds above them. The wind came from the north and although it was not constant, it cut to the bone when it gusted every now and then.

As Manator had promised, Jarin was dressed in the winter clothes of a travelling merchant. Heavy grey serge trousers tucked into sound leather boots, a tunic of worn purple damask and an overcoat of purple serge trimmed with brown otter fur. His ears were protected from the wind by a cotton scarf he had wound over his head and tied beneath his chin, over which he wore a large brimmed leather hat boasting a rather sad-looking purple feather. Colonel Sandar was attired in similar clothing of a lesser quality and obviously hand-me-down by their ill fit. Instead of a hat however, his coat had a hood, which he had pulled tight with its cord until only his red tipped nose and watering eyes showed to the world. The proud Colonel Sandar, disguised now as Jarin’s body slave, carried a large pack over his shoulders and supported his balance with a quarterstaff, tipped at both ends with iron bosses. Jarin himself carried a somewhat ornate walking stick, which he had been relieved to find carried a sword of the finest steel within its hollow body. Sandar wore a short sword beneath his coat and Jarin had watched him hide away two long slim blades into his boots, before they had left the ship. They were of course quite common equipment for a body slave charged with attending to the safety of his travelling master on long trips, whereas the matched knives hidden in Jarin’s own boots were far beyond the financial resources of the average merchant he was pretending to be.

“I had forgotten how cold it could get up here in the northern Nations.” Sandar said as they started south towards the city, “And this damn iron collar around my neck . . .  Gods it feels like it was crafted out of ice.”

“Have patience my friend and have trust in the Guardians judgment,” Jarin answered, “They have given us only good advice to this date and I for one expect this journey to be the valuable lesson they have promised us it would be.”

“I am a soldier.” Sandar said forcefully, “Loyalty and following orders, that’s my code. Yet I feel we would do more good with a troop of your Guards along with us . . .” He stopped himself from adding the habitual “Sire” and instead, said with a smile, “. . . Master Tassinar.”

For the next two hours they trudged down the muddy track, which had been named a road only by someone too kind to call it by its true name, with their backs to the biting wind and their faces covered as best as they could manage. Words were a waste of warmth, so apart from the occasional curse against this desolate grey world that was the Nation of Norden, they saved their conversation for the warmer and more comfortable times they prayed might be ahead of them.

When at last they came over a rise in the ground and saw the City of Norden, Jarin for one considered travelling on to the next habitation without even bothering to stop. High grey stonewalls surrounded the city, which was perched on grey stone cliffs, with hundreds of chimney stacks spouting clouds of grey smoke into an ominously leaden grey sky. The drizzle became a downpour even as they approached the gatehouse and after ringing the entrance bell to gain access, they stumbled into that stone hut cold, angry, soaking wet and ready to drop from exhaustion. Inside they found two overweight guard’s playing cards in front of a dismally small fire.

“Shut the door, idiot!’ One of the guards shouted, as Sandar fell through the door behind Jarin, tripping over the wet doorstep and slipping to crash headlong onto the stone floor. Jarin stepped around him and slammed the door back into its frame, cutting off the wind that had reduced the temperature of that little room by no less than half in the time it took them to get into it.

“Your pardon, my good man.” Jarin ventured, “. . . but we have been travelling on foot ever since our horses bolted during the night . . .  They didn’t turn up here by any chance, a fine grey and a . . .”

“No horses came here this night.” The second man said, getting up and crossing the room to stand in front of Jarin in less than half a dozen steps. “Let’s see your papers, Merchant.”

Sandar had regained his feet and brushed himself off by then and he handed Jarin the documents the Arrow’s captain had given them prior to their leaving the ship, which Jarin in turn handed to the guard, who then studied them with the concentration of a man who can hardly read.

“Fair enough, Merchant. You’ll find lodging at the Golden Hawk”. He handed back the oilskin wallet and documents and was seated back at the card table again almost immediately.

“This time close the door fast idiot!’ He yelled at Sandar, as the latter went to open the door for Jarin. They did exactly as the guard bade them and entered the City of Norden through the back door of the gatehouse.

It had stopped raining for the moment and yet the scene seemed no more the cheerful for it. The main road from the gate was wider than the one Jarin had seen in Atlar or Lunza for that matter and led straight as an arrow through the town towards a stone keep on the west wall. Obviously that would be the Palace of this desolate city’s Prince and a place they would avoid at all costs. Calling it a main road was in fact a compliment, for the thoroughfare was just another expanse of mud, strewn with gravel and flooded in more places than it was visible as a road. They found and took advantage of, a narrow boardwalk that ran westward on the southern side of the street. The rain came again as they walked and there were few citizens abroad that winter morning to hamper their progress, and before long they came to the stone walls of the Golden Hawk Inn.

The Inn was built like a fort. Its grey stonewalls rising up four stories with windows that looked more like crossbow defence slits, than apertures to allow sunlight into the building. A pair of great oak gates, liberally strengthened with iron bars and bolts, showed the owner’s lack of trust of his fellow man. The gates were on this occasion however, wide open and led into a covered courtyard where no less than three dozen slaves, several beggars and an assortment of the old and poor of the City of Norden, sheltered this day from the elements. One old woman in black rags and a shawl that might once have been a charcoal sack, scuttled away from the only horse at the posts. A few grains of oats fell from her hand as she stuffed the evidence of the theft she had just committed into her toothless mouth. She swallowed it in a throat-constricting gulp, her frightened eyes looking directly at Jarin. The lowest level of Nordenese society watched them with a cross between avarice and fear, as the two visitors avoided the door into the tap room and walked to the open door beyond it, above which hung a faded sign saying Rooms for Rent. 

The door was just past an exterior stairway and as they reached it they gained yet another glimpse of the continuous inhumanity of the lower classes of Khanlar. There, hidden from the sight of those in the courtyard, two labourers were helping themselves to the body of a young beggar girl. The shorter of them, overweight and with dirt streaked face and arms, had his left hand over the girl’s mouth, while his right hand held a handful of her greasy hair. The young woman’s only clothing, a ragged homespun dress, had been pushed up around her shoulders, while the second man, his trousers round his ankles, was using her in the way of an animal. His eyes were closed, while his mouth was open most of the time showing broken and stained teeth, as he grunted his way to the vile satisfaction of a rapist. His frenzied grip on her thin hips had already brought blood from her skin, but his filthy finger nails continued to grip her like a hawk grabs its prey. The girl’s eyes rolled in terror when she saw them, but she was wise enough not to struggle or cry out as those gutter vermin used her. The rapists did not see the Merchant and his servant arrive and the shock of what Sandar and Jarin saw held them for enough time for the one clamping his hand over the girl’s mouth to grunt.

“Come on Barik. Finish it. It’s my turn.” The drink he had taken was already affecting his balance and he was slobbering as he said the words, then he saw Jarin and Sandar and gasped, “Oh Gods . . .” Then to them, “She’s stupid Master, we’re only having a little fun, and we’ll let her go and . . .”

He stopped speaking as Sandar smashed his staff directly into the drunkard’s face. After the metal boss cracked the bone and tore the sinew of the man’s face, speaking would have been a problem, so instead the villain coughed blood and broken teeth as he fell to the ground. The second man opened his eyes, looking at Jarin with an amazed expression that he and his partner had been discovered, even as Sandar grabbed him from behind by his private parts and pulled him from the whimpering girl. The knife in Sandar’s hand flashed so fast the man actually relaxed, thinking he had been released, until Sandar threw everything that had made him male onto the stone slabs in front of him. Jarin hoped the man fainted before Sandar’s blade sliced across his filthy throat, but by the gurgling noise the rapist made as he tried to scream he would never be sure.

Sandar looked around quickly to establish that no-one had seen what had happened, nor that the noise had attracted anyone’s attention, which anywhere else would have been amazing. Then he carefully placed the knife that had done the work into the hand of the fat fellow, who was now laying unconscious besides his dead friend and closed the man’s fist firmly around its hilt. Then he collected a door stone from under the stairs and dipped it in the gathering pool of blood, before placing it carefully beside his first victim, whose dead hands even now covered the seeping gash across his neck, while his terrified eyes stared at the grey sky above him from the blindness of death. Sandar’s face was emotionless as he planted the evidence of the two murdering each other. The good Colonel then wiped his hands on the second man’s tunic and confirmed for himself that Jarin had already calmed the girl, before he stood up and yelled at the top of his voice.

“Guards! Guards! Murder! There’s been a murder!”

In seconds there was a crowd around them and confusion took over, during which Sandar pushed Jarin and the girl into the door marked Rooms for Rent and they booked in, while the old man who took their copper complained about the lawlessness abroad in Khanlar these days.

“What’s the ruckus out there now?’ The clerk asked of no one in particular.

“A couple of thieves appear to have killed each other, there’s blood all over the place out there, along with the usual crowd of onlookers, who are base enough to get satisfaction from watching the evidence of someone else’s violent end.” Sandar replied, moving the shocked young beggar girl into the shadows and wiping her face with his kerchief. “It was enough to damn near send this child into a state of shock.”

The clerk lifted his bloodshot eyes and looked at the girl as best as his obviously faulty vision could help him.  “I don’t know the Landlord would like the like’s of her in here my Lord, she’s one of the beggars ain’t she?” He started to lift himself from his stool for a better look, when Jarin’s left hand stayed him, while his right hand pushed a small silver coin into the old man’s fingers. The clerk’s eyes lit up and he gave Jarin a knowing smile, “Right you are Sire. Just make sure she don’t make too much noise, if you know what I mean.”

For a moment Jarin felt like slamming his fist into the old cynic’s leering face, but decided against it and urged Sandar to start the girl moving up the stairs.

“Send up some hot water and some refreshment.” Jarin snapped at the clerk.

“It’ll be up there in no time my Lord.” The clerk said, as he handed Jarin a large iron key, “You’ll be in room eight Sire . . .  Up the stairs, turn left and right down the corridor to the back. Just get the girl out quietly when you finished with her Sire if you will, the Landlord would beat the Hell out of me if he found out I’d let her in.”

Jarin walked away in disgust, unable to answer lest he lose his temper. He was to wonder later why no one thought to question them about the affair they had both witnessed and reported, but no one ever did. Obviously the level of society which the rapists came from in Norden, made them not important enough to bother foreign Merchants about.

The rooms they had been given faced out onto the street behind the Inn, showing them the working side of the city. Despite the terrible weather slaves trudged the muddy street below their window carrying loads to feed blacksmith’s forges, empty or fill storage barns and all the other types of business activity that was engaged in inside those barns and small factories, which lined that poor Street.

The rooms themselves, three of them, were serviceable, if not well furnished, but they smelled of mould and were un-aired; however when Jarin opened one of the windows onto the street he soon realized why no one had done it before, for the smells from the Street below were obnoxious to say the least.

Sandar tended to the girl as if she were his own daughter, removing her dress and allowing her to wash herself in the privacy of one of the smaller rooms in the hot water, which two women servants had quickly brought, as Jarin had ordered the clerk to provide them with. It was obvious from the looks on the women’s faces that they at first believed that Jarin and Sandar had brought the girl to their rooms against her will. Not that either of those middle-aged women were going to get involved if two gentlemen decided to have some sport with a beggar girl. Sandar however muttered something to one of the serving wenches who had brought the water and she went away smiling, whispering to her friend words that brought some relieved and even thankful looks from the other woman. The older woman returned soon after with a dress for the girl, thanking Sandar for the coppers he pressed into her hand as he took the cloth from her. 

The scratches on the girl’s hips and face Sandar treated with salve from his own supply and he brushed out her tangled hair with his own comb, every now and then crushing a flea caught in its teeth between his thumb and finger nails. At last the girl had calmed enough to sit down and the wild fear of them had gone from her eyes, replaced now by a look of cynicism, as if she waited only for them to abuse her also. In her new dress she showed to be no more than sixteen, if she was that and when the food arrived she tore into it like a starving animal, proving she had not eaten properly for days, or what might very well have been weeks by the look of her.

“How did you come to be a beggar, Lass?” Jarin asked at last, when she had finished off even the crumbs from his own plate.

“My father died in the War. Then my mother got into debt and us children were to be sold off by our Lord to cover it, but I did not want to wear the collar, so’s I ran away. Now I beg.” Her voice had an accent, but then almost all voices had accents strange to Jarin, Sandar however picked up on it straight away.

“You’re from the East, Nation of Magor, maybe?”

Fear came into the girl’s eyes, proving that Sandar had guessed right and she looked towards the door, obviously judging if she could make a break for it before they could stop her. Sandar smiled and touched her arm in a gesture meant to calm her, but which instead only made her jump and look even more frightened.

“You need not fear my master and I girl, we shall not sell you for the reward. We have travelled far from our home and wish only to assist you if we can, before we continue our journey. What is your name by the way?”

“My name is Liana.” Her face suddenly looked tired and dismayed, obviously affected by Sandar’s fatherly admonishment. “You’re the first men I’ve met since I ran away who have not wanted to use me, but I guess I don’t know much about gentlemen, I don’t think I ever met one before I met you two.”

“Well you have now little one and not before time I think.” Sandar took her arm and almost lifted her from the chair, “Now I think you need a good long sleep in a warm bed to regain your strength.” He led her into the bedroom, pulled back the covers and encouraged her to get in. He pulled the cover up around her neck, shaking his head in mock astonishment. She smiled at him then, not the smile of a know-it-all woman of the streets, but the smile of a thankful little girl. Then Sandar surprised even Jarin, he bent down and kissed the girl gently on the forehead.

As he came out of the bedroom, leaving the door slightly ajar, he saw Jarin’s interest and answered the unspoken question with a curt reply, in a voice too quiet for the girl to overhear, “I had a daughter once. She looked a lot like her in fact.”  Jarin decided to let the matter lay right there, for it was obvious that Sandar was not inviting questions, nor did he seem intent to enlarge upon his statement. Jarin stood up from his chair and grasped the Colonel’s arm in understanding, then he turned and retired to the other bedroom, to see if his body could ever be truly warm again and if sleep was not just a fairy tale he had dreamed about in some other life.

 

* * * * * * *

A Worldly Agent

 

When Jarin woke it was late in the evening and he wandered out into the main room of their apartments to find Sandar sat in front of the fire, using a whet­stone on the already sharp edge of the dagger Jarin had earlier seen him place into the hand of the fat rapist, thereby accusing him of the castration Sandar himself had performed so efficiently. As Jarin dressed in clothes now dried out in front of the fire Sandar noticed his look and smiled.

“Funny how anything worth anything always ends up in one of the witnesses’ hands in this sort of place. Not an hour after you had gone to sleep a toothless old beggar woman knocked on the door and sold it back to me for four pence.” He balanced it at the hilt on his forefinger before spinning it up to fall handle first into his waiting hand, and then with a practiced movement it disappeared into its sheath within his boot. Jarin finished dressing and hoisted his walking stick from where it had laid on the threadbare couch.

“Manator told us to explore and learn with every chance we got. You feel up to doing a little exploring before we eat dinner?” Jarin said.

“Yes Sire . . .  Master!’ Sandar corrected himself with a smile, throwing his overcoat across his shoulders as he took up his staff, immediately ready to leave. Then, as if by afterthought, he went into the bedroom where the girl was sleeping. Through the open door Jarin saw him shake and then say something to her in a low voice that Jarin could not hear. She turned over and pulled the covers over her head as Sandar left the room, closing the door behind him.

“What happened to the slave’s collar Sandar?” Jarin questioned when he saw that the narrow iron band no longer girded the Colonel’s throat.

“Seems slaves have to sleep and eat in the outhouses, or down in the courtyard. So I became a freeman.” He laughed, “If it were that easy for all slaves to slip their collars, I wonder how many there would be left by this time tomorrow wearing an iron necklace?” To illustrate the craftsmanship of the collar, which had previously adorned his neck, Sandar lifted it from his pocket and with an easy twist opened and closed it for Jarin’s education.

Laughing together they left the room, locking the door behind them and then they made their way down the stairs into the taproom. Sandar called for a couple of tankards of ale and the Innkeeper obliged immediately, using his foot to clear a place for them near the fire, by pushing a snoring red-faced drunk onto the floor from the bench he offered them. Two serving wenches appeared without summons and dragged the still snoring man away without ceremony.

The room should have been a happy place. It was large, well furnished for a tap room and there were plenty of people in it, but instead it had the sad, if not painful atmosphere of people trying very diligently to be happy, but every so often the false good cheer would wane and one could see that these people had known better times and missed them greatly. At the far end of the room a purveyor of pleasure sat with his three charges, picking his nails in a bored manner with a small knife. The women in his string tried to put on joyful expressions every time a man looked their way, but no matter how they smiled, they were without a doubt the least happy people in the room and the iron collars about their pretty necks looked totally out of place. They were all young ranging from perhaps fifteen to twenty and wore well-made clothes, obviously bought second-hand from some drummer. Their eyes showed that their young lives were marked by a demanded lack of sleep, for the taproom rarely closed. They each showed signs of suffering from slaps and punches, delivered by their master every time he saw one of them start to nod off. One such attack on a tall dark haired girl in a blue dress almost had Sandar up to defend her honour, but Jarin’s hand on his arm restrained him, as the girl licked the blood from the side of her mouth where her master’s hand had slapped her for whispering to her neighbour. At the same time as all of this was happening an old man sat near the bar, sixty years old at least, began to argue with the serving girl who had just brought him a fresh pot. The establishment’s bullyboy intervened, listened to the girl’s frightened explanation and then lifted the old man up by his tunic and shook him, until he suddenly remembered that he had indeed forgotten to pay the girl the copper necessary to save her from a beating.

The place stank of wood smoke; stale ale, stale sweat and a lack of airing and soon Jarin began to feel confined. He touched Sandar’s arm, nodded towards the door and Sandar willingly followed him out into the cold courtyard. A dozen or more dirty hands reached out to them begging alms, with their owners prepared to jump out of the way of the well-aimed kick they expected for their trouble. Instead Sandar’s knife appeared in his hand and the beggars disappeared almost as fast as the blade had appeared. Jarin led the way, not out onto the main street, but into the narrow thoroughfare, which ran behind the Inn, the same one they had looked down upon from their rooms earlier.

It was dark now, even though it was at least an hour before the evening meal would be served and there had been a fall of snow while Jarin had slept. It had improved the look of this mean street markedly. Here and there along its length a torch burnt in its bracket, throwing a circle of yellow light onto the snow and every barn and workshop seemed to have its own fire and collection of lamps spilling light onto the thoroughfare. The Street was a hive of activity with people coming and going about all kinds of work and commerce. Peddlers shouted their wares, ranging from ribbons to hot pies and even on this cold night a few ladies of the street approached them with promises of the pleasures of paradise, spoken out of yellowed teeth and carried on breath tainted with cheap wine. It seemed to be a prosperous place for all its squalor, yet the only children they saw were not playing, they were rolling empty barrels into lines, or carrying rolls of cloth, or speeding in rag wrapped feet with what were obviously messages considered important by their masters.

Jarin and Sandar walked along the pavement in isolation from the other inhabitants and observed the industry of that street for nearly an hour. It took them only a few minutes to realize that what had appeared to be joviality when they had come out of the Inn was indeed only rudeness and bickering. Inside the workshops slaves chained to their anvils hammered out plough shares, pots and pans and other assorted iron work, while others sweated to manhandle bales of straw, or stack sacks of charcoal and grain, sweep out storage space or pump bellows, with sweat running down their staring faces even on so cold a night as this one. Even the five horses they saw during their walk were all skin and bones and pulling loads far too great for them in a single drive, so they would stop and lather, wild eyed, while some oaf with a stick beat on their flanks to make them move again. In all their time on the Street they only saw two troopers from the City’s Garrison and they were drunk and busy bullying a pair of slaves who had crawled into a convenient doorway, to escape their labours for a few minutes.

Jarin had taken about all he could of this tortured place and was about to return to the Inn, where at least they could enjoy the privacy of their rooms, when a voice whispered one word at him.

“Manator.”  The owner of the voice was a well-dressed middle-aged man, small of stature and boasting a well-trimmed grey beard.

“Guardian.” Sandar replied, before Jarin could say anything.

“Welcome to Hell, Master Tassinar. My name is Perigan Marlinger.” The man smiled in a wistful way, “It was not always like this, but then that could be said of any city in the land today I suppose.” He turned and started walking back towards the Inn with them, trudging through the snow, which was fast turning to a dirty slush. “I have performed the task entrusted to me Gentlemen and your journey from this place is prepared for you. An hour’s walk south of the City, you will find horses for you to ride and pack horses bearing the requested trade goods. You will see a large round rock beside the road, behind the rock you will find a track; follow it over the ridge and my people will have everything you need waiting for you.” He stopped, looked carefully at each of them in turn, and then turned to cross the street. As he left them he called back over his shoulder, “Good Night Gentlemen. May you travel safely.”

 

* * * * * * *

A Different World

 

The next morning after a hearty breakfast and with Liana in tow, Jarin and Sandar left the City of Norden and set out on their journey towards the south. Jarin had thought to object to taking the girl with them, but on second thoughts realized that she assisted their disguise, once Sandar had her cleaned up and wearing some newly-acquired clothes. The girl had accepted Sandar’s offer with joy and the clothes with the excitement of a birthday present.

She was a tiny little thing, standing about five feet tall and as lithe as a racing dog. Her skin was a light copper in colour, with a healthy shine to it that looked as if she had been bathed in the finest soaps and massaged with the most expensive oils all of her life. Her hair was almost black with golden highlights and was as thick as the fur on an otter, hanging down her back almost to her waist like a thick mane. Her bone structure reminded Jarin of the carving on his Khanlar pieces back in Lunza, making her face look like it had been sculpted with a loving hand and, to cap it all off, she had the largest amber colored eyes Jarin had ever seen. Apart from the narrowness of her waist and the mounds of her budding breasts, she had a figure which could only be described as boyish, until she walked away from you, when the pure pride that only a woman can exhibit when just walking, exuded from her every step. The dress that the serving woman had brought the night before was packed away somewhere and now she was wearing an outfit that would have made a stranger think she was indeed the daughter of a rich merchant. Her tunic was of dark green serge, held at the waist with a thin leather belt and her riding skirt was of a lighter shade of the same colour, ending near her ankles over knee high riding boots which were topped with black otter fur. Around her shoulders she had on a black cloak, fastened at the neck with a bronze broach of heavy Dynlarian design and her hands were hidden by soft black leather gloves.

Sandar had dressed her to his taste shortly after breakfast, having taken her out into Norden and outfitting her at a small tailor’s shop near the palace. They had returned to the Inn with her striding along beside the Colonel for the entire world as if she were a soldier in his company, her strong young teeth flashing a brilliant white smile of gratitude at him every time he noticed her with a word or a glance. As they had left the city Sandar had told her to keep her words to a minimum to ensure they did not change their mind about taking her with them. She had said nothing other than “Yes sir” and “No sir” from that moment on.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the City of Norden to come to Jarin that morning was the obvious age and lasting quality of the place. The great stone blocks which had been used to build the major structures of the place had been aged by time and the constant attack of the elements, until one suddenly realized how many years it would take for the water dripping from a stone gully to wear away the flagstones beneath it. Or the great oak beams which served to hold the doors of the Inn, which had aged into iron-like columns, becoming grey with age. Or the sudden realization that even the cobblestones of the street were showing the sign of centuries of feet walking on them. Norden was an ancient city, continuing its relentless march through time and making its inhabitants the less important for the very fact that they would be born, live their lifetimes and die, without ever so much as making a mark upon the place. Like a mindless giant Norden served its inhabitants without ever changing, Jarin guessed. A huge prison for humanity, where time stood still as the centuries passed outside of its walls.

As their small party walked through the gates and out of the city, Jarin felt a feeling of relief he had never experienced before and was glad that their journey away from that place had begun. The road meandered southward and the horses and pack animals did indeed await them just over an hour’s walk from the city. They were by no means thoroughbreds, but they seemed hardy and reasonably well-fed animals. The servant who held them pending their arrival was a deaf and dumb creature, who retreated from them when they tried to thank him and finally took off at a run, when Sandar’s gruff manners frightened him. Nevertheless the gain of the animals and the goods they carried, put them all in high spirits and they continued their journey in a much better mood than they had started it.

For several hours they travelled ever southward enjoying the scenery of the mountains to their right and the river valley and meadows to their left and soon the sun came out and cast its winter brightness on the land, helping them to forget the sooner the nightmares that were the lives of poor people in the city of Norden. Pine forests are the most common sight along the road south from the city of Norden, huge towering spires of green majesty that scent the air and contrast to the slabs of bare blue grey rock that make the mountains in that land. Much of the Nation of Norden is made up of moors that are famous for their huge flocks of sheep and the fertile rolling weald where some of Khanlar’s best wheat was harvested each year, yet the main road south from the City of Norden followed a desolate river valley of broken rock and virgin pine forests. After the city it was clean and invigorating, still cold enough to brace the skin, but made easier by the weak winter sunlight and it was quiet. So quiet in fact that the echoes of their horses’ hooves striking stone rang back to them like drum shots from the towering rocks above. They were so lost in enjoying the solitude that the sound of a gong high up in the trees to their right made even the horses jump with shock. It sounded three times, not loud, yet obviously sounded without fear of who might hear it.

“There! To the right of that pointed rock!”  Sandar stood in his stirrups, pointing up at a small figure standing beside the rock.

“What is it?” Liana asked no one in particular, her voice tinged with fear.

“Gods know who it is, I suggest we go and find out.” Jarin said.

“Maybe I’d better go.” Sandar said, “It could be a trap.”

Jarin did not answer and Sandar heeled his horse to move up into the trees towards the dark robed figure that had obviously realized that he had been seen; yet still stood where they had first sighted him. Sandar’s horse picked its way carefully up the slope, until they could see him besides the cloaked figure holding the small brass gong, that caught the sunlight every now and then; and Jarin could see that they were in conversation. At last Sandar turned back towards them and waved for them to join him. That in itself was not so easy, for the pack horses would have preferred to stay on the trail, however in a short time they had climbed the slope and could look down upon the stranger.

What Jarin had taken to be a man was in fact a slightly built woman, well past middle-age and dressed in well made, if simple and unadorned clothes. She was physically small, one might even say frail, yet her bearing was confident and the sparkle in her eyes as she greeted them, contrasted totally from the general dismay they had encountered in the eyes of the citizens of Norden. Two well behaved dogs lay at her feet, jumping up with obvious joy when she spoke to them and they ran ahead of her as the woman led them along an almost invisible path, with Jarin’s party following the woman’s brisk pace.

They followed the trail for half an hour, before she turned into a small break in the rocks and led them into a hollow that was almost a valley, surrounded as it was by tree covered slopes. There, held in its secluded safety, a hamlet of less than a dozen well kept buildings awaited them. The cottages and barns were obviously old, several centuries at least Jarin guessed, however they had benefited from generations of loving care and set as they were in carefully tended and walled gardens, they presented a picture that a pastoral artist might have chosen to dedicate to posterity.

It had always struck Jarin as strange that certain places in this world are able to give one the feeling of happiness and safety by the very air that surrounds them. This village was such a place. There was no litter to be seen anywhere, no broken farm implements or wagons waiting for nature to rot and rust them away, no banks of weeds and no unfinished or collapsing walls. The place had the feeling of being loved and kept beautiful, purely because the people who lived there wished it that way. Fruit trees, bare in these winter months, had been carefully pruned in the small orchards which stood behind each house and flower beds and vegetable gardens had been turned ready for the Spring planting. A thatcher was working on the roof of one of the buildings, a roof that already looked better than any Jarin had seen in Atlar or Norden and in the blacksmith’s shop the smith was honing a ploughshare, sending streams of sparks from his grinding wheel, flying and dying like a shower of falling stars in the shadows of the smithy. A dozen or so children were chasing a hoop along the street, all of them warmly dressed and wearing shoes. Yet the most striking thing about the place was that there were no slaves to be seen anywhere.

The woman led them to one of the houses and bid them tie their horses to the hitching post and then she ushered them into her home. There is a difference between a house and a home that Jarin had almost forgotten since leaving Havor’s Holding. A home is a place where a family has arranged their treasures for the visitor to enjoy, without the obvious show of one who needs to display everything that they have managed to accumulate; this place was such a home. A young man came in while they were divesting themselves of their cloaks and was sent to feed, water and house the animals, while they were sat down at a newly scrubbed table, to enjoy a hot meal of mutton stew and fresh-baked bread.

They were to spend several days in the hamlet of Paramal, days of quiet conversation with the simple, yet intelligent and educated people who had escaped the hardships of the war and its aftermath due to their isolation and seclusion in this place. That first evening Wernat the smith explained how during the war, armies had marched within a few miles of them, stripping the land of everything, yet missing Paramal and its inhabitants, hidden away as they were in their little valley.

“This place being locked in its own small valley, tucked in the other side of the ridge you crossed from the road, has meant that almost no-one ever comes here or knows about it. We see the Buyer once a year, but he is more interested in keeping us a secret than we are.” Wernat laughed at that and took a generous swig of his mug of home brewed beer.

“Why would that be Wernat?” Sandar asked.

“Digman Passant, that’s the buyer . . .” Wernat wiped his mouth with a big work hardened hand, “. . . well him an’ his fathers a’fore him, have made a tidy penny out of us I don’t wonder, so’s telling everyone we’re here would give him competition. He doesn’t want that, and we don’t want folks to know we’re here. So everyone is happy see? During the war we used to keep a lookout up on the ridge where Massira waited for you today. Gods know how many armies we counted during the war, going one way or the other, up or down the main road, an’ none of ‘em ever even guessed we were here you know.”

Chumana, the midwife who farmed a small holding of an acre or so, took up the conversation then and explained how her husband had gone off to the war and returned a cripple, whom she had buried several months later.

“He was a foreigner you know,” She added as an afterthought, “From up in the City of Predon. He was visiting his mother when the Prince up there decided to recruit an army. Poor old Manigor just got unlucky and the next thing he knew he was fighting some battle down in Mozag he said. They won the battle he told me, but one of the men he killed got him in the leg with a pike. He run off that night and made his way back here. He died a month or so later though, wasn’t nothing we could do for him, the poison had already spread too far you see.”

They each took their turn in the conversation and they all talked as if somehow Khanlar was a million miles away, or as if they were talking about a place lost in the mists of history and they seemed content to wait the years that they expected would be necessary for the world to recover from its insanity, before they would be able to again join with it and the future. Like a time capsule, Paramal had escaped the years of woe and hardships that Khanlar had suffered, just as had Havor’s holding which have saved Jarin, yet the Guardians had known of them Jarin realized and had interceded on their behalf for these people to wait for them and bring them into their world.

When finally the time came for them to move on, Sandar talked to Massira, the woman who had waited for them on the mountain slope and he arranged that Liana would stay on with her.

The old woman greeted the idea with joy and she and Liana were standing arm in arm and smiling, as Wernat the smith led Sandar and Jarin back to the road. Later that day as they rode towards Zikon, Jarin asked Sandar the question that had been on his mind for some time,

“How many places do you think have survived like Paramal, just hidden away from the mainstream and waiting for sanity to return to the land?” Jarin said.

“Khanlar is a land where there are many such out of the way places, hidden hamlets and holdings.” Sandar answered. “It would be my guess Sire, that there are more people living like those we have just left than the Church would care to admit to, or would like to have to think about to often.”    

“I hope so Sandar.” Jarin said seriously, “For it is the good people like them that the future depends upon, ordinary people who have not been driven down by the fear and greed that these last few years have scarred so many of our citizens with. It will be the simplicity and goodness of folk like those we have just left, that our civilization will need to depend upon to allow us to survive and grow.”

How pompous and boorish the words sounded, yet once said he could not contradict them, for they did indeed describe his beliefs exactly.

Paramal was to occupy Jarin’s mind for many weeks after they had left its tranquillity. The simple morality and goodness of its people was to give him hope for the future, when everything else about him in Khanlar only served to feed his fears that perhaps the population had been hardened to the point of never being able to change.
 

* * * * * * *

A Merchant Prince

 

In the following days the two men travelled south and in the hamlets, villages and holdings along the way they worked as merchants, in fact they proved quite efficient at their newly adopted profession and were to end their adventure with a modestly large profit, an impressive accomplishment seeing that they were complete beginners at the art of trading. Jarin also began to understand the reasoning behind the Council’s demand that he go out and move among the people of Khanlar, for it became clearer to him the further they travelled that he had in fact known little or nothing about the actual lives of the population of Khanlar in general before this trip. Little things, personal experiences and seeing the nuances of behaviour in the people they met, actually pointed out to him an understanding of the underlying lack of morale and trust in others that was epidemic throughout the land. Years of deprivation, hardship and daily reminders of their helplessness within the system had created a way of life the people as individuals could only endure, with the patience that only the acceptance of hopelessness is able to muster.

The obvious lack of security felt by the Church since the War had made its mark upon every level of the social strata. Many of the local laws, imposed by local Priests or Guard Commanders, tax collectors or even local government officials, seemed not only to make life more difficult for everyone, but at times it seemed that they had no basis at all in the true needs of the situation, or even in the basic understanding of reality itself.

No one, with the possible exception of the Church hierarchy, the aristocracy, the Army and local officials, thought in terms of improving their lot any more. Everyone was far too busy and worried about just holding onto whatever position they already had. In the day-to-day existence of the majority of the population, the future had become something to fear and rather than hoping for better things, everyone seemed to live in terror of setbacks which could destroy them. Few people had anything saved anymore, unless they were numbered amongst the extremely wealthy. Farmers did not plan for bountiful harvests anymore either; they spent all of their time praying that there would not be a bad one. Poor artisans did not stockpile the wares they produced, but instead sold them as soon as a potential buyer appeared, often discounting the asking price down to a point where they merely made back the cost of the materials and gained a slave’s wages for their labour.

Throughout the land Jarin was to find that wives tried hard not to become pregnant, though they rarely seemed to be successful, by the evidence of the swollen bellies everywhere and single men kept away from marriage, unless there was a large dowry involved, in which case the lady concerned, no matter her age, character or beauty, would be sure to find a crowd of willing suitors outside of her door every hour of the day. Inflation had caused chaos in every market and endeavour and in the short time they were travelling in Khanlar, the two men saw the price of winter wheat fluctuate as much as two hundred percent, up and down, depending upon the amount of daily supplies reaching the marketplace concerned.

Jarin soon accepted for himself that it is stability of fair prices that brings confidence to the majority of men and women in the world. The state of affairs most honest men prefer will always be that where everyone knows the worth of everything, for this promotes thrift and husbandry and prevents the abject despair of the under-privileged lower classes of society. Continuance of value of those objects and supplies a person needs to support their family and be productive also controls the development of that devouring greed often found in those with ample funds. It is the poor who most often get caught up in the results of the rich profiting from the financial anarchy of inflation. In the end of course, those who make greed for wealth their most important directive in life and play their heartless games with the price of the basic goods necessary for survival, are the ones who suffer the greatest personal destruction. For as these exploiters of the situation strive to make that extra coin on every deal they enter into, above that line which separates their customers, or victims if you will, from being poor to suffering the despair of abject poverty, will soon find that at first they will be despised, then shunned and finally persecuted.

There was no stability in the everyday life of Khanlar for the majority of people Jarin and Sandar met in their journey, even those with an above average standard of living lived with a constant fear of being pushed into poverty by ever changing prices. Therefore, there was little confidence in the goodness of man, or open kindness to others, for none felt they could afford such luxuries as trust, charity or investment in these frightening times.

To make things even worse for the poor, the sudden flood of slaves onto the market, made available by the Church’s policies after the war, had robbed the labourer and small craftsman of even their tenuous security of past times. Men in chains worked the fields, while the labourers who had previously been engaged for such work were reduced to begging, or their families suffered hardships of deprivation through the lack of a regular wage coming into the household. At the same time, he who had a store of gold could become a lord within a matter of months, for by buying from those made desperate by poverty and worry, seeking to just feed their family this month, he would be able to steal away the land and belongings of the less fortunate. Then, by purchasing slaves to work at employment previously done by men who had demanded both care and wages, the rich man could quadruple his hoard of gold with the profits of a single year and then repeat this system of financial rape again and again.

What was most disgusting about this new class of rich people was their adoption of airs and graces. They all to often developed an exaggerated exhibitionism that they tried to disguise behind the all too common front of being religious and charitable. They would happily turn widows and children out on the street to make a profit, while buying gifts and holding parties for those in their employ, where they would quote pious passages from Holy Books and stand up and praise themselves for their heartless, yet financially rewarding, success, in front of an audience of their employees, servants and debtors who had no choice but to applaud them, or risk losing their own source of income. The pomposity and cruelty of it all made Jarin sick to his stomach just to think about it. These people would willingly and without concern, destroy the lives of others just to enrich their own lives a little more with a few more coins. They were parasites, which any reasonable government would weed out of the system without debate; however the very people, the priests, the lawyers and the money-counters, who lived themselves as parasites upon the parasites and presently controlled the government of Khanlar.

Jarin and Sandar travelled through a land where such was the way of things and they were to see the results it brought in areas that had previously changed little in a thousand years. Villages, which had once been populated by the same families ever since men could remember, lost their unity and productivity, as people moved away and were replaced by refugees from even more desperate conditions. New stone mansions rose on landscaped grounds, while in the nearby village a poor man’s house would be in such disrepair, it was almost uninhabitable for his family. Honest country folk dressed in rags begged for work at a wage less than a quarter of what they could have expected before the War, often to be turned away as slaves were led out to perform the same tasks for two meagre meals a day. The newcomers in the lands that had once passed from father to son for generations, and then spent their ill-gained gold acquired from others misfortune and bought up the land of their poor neighbours. They dressed in flamboyant finery and wasted money on trinkets, while those they took advantage of were reduced to poverty, soon to be moved on when their despair and need began to affect the conscience of their exploiters. They contributed to charitable causes only in actual gain, or as a salve for their conscience, giving back only a meagre portion of what they had gained to create the need for those charities in the first place and doing little in real terms to actually help the impoverished.

The result of it all was empty hamlets and holdings across the land, deserted by their inhabitants. Once proud and happy villages were reduced to a collection of hovels, with decaying roads and irrigation systems, where illness and suicides, crime, drunkenness and the reduction of any value to human life, became so commonplace that few bothered to comment upon it anymore, except in a passing acceptance of how things had changed. The highways and by-ways were filled with wandering families, seeking work and hoping that the next village would hold the answer to their prayers. Holdings failed as old folk tried to keep them going, after their sons and daughters had either left home to seek their individual fortunes, or had been bonded out to clear a family debt brought on by usurious interest and unfair controls on the market for their labour and produce.

The small hamlet of Wraenis on the northern side of the River Zafrin, which was the border between the Nations of Zikon and Mozag, was typical of the economic decline in the Nations of the former Asigan Alliance. Jarin and Sandar arrived at its’ outskirts late in the day. Here there was none of the optimism they had seen in Paramal; here there was only despair. The hundred or so people who made this place their home did not welcome them; but instead stopped to watch the strangers in worried silence as Jarin and Sandar moved through the hovels that stood in that damp smoky place that afternoon. There were few men in Wraenis and those that there were, were either too young to be called men, or were old enough to be grandfathers, yet most of the women seemed to be either well pregnant, or carrying babies with them as they worked and in many cases, both!

The citizens of this poverty stricken hamlet were engaged in the manufacture of wattles, wickerwork hurdles that they crafted by weaving willow wands together to produce a woven panel some five feet long and three feet high, which richer folk than they would use as fences or building materials somewhere. The raw material for their handiwork grew in abundance along their side of the River Zafrin and while young boys climbed the trees to hack away the pliable new growth, young women carried huge bundles of their produce on their backs, each bundle wrapped in an old blanket and held in place on their bent backs by a wide rag headband, which allowed the women to maintain their balance as they trudged through the mud to where older women and the even older men, manufactured the hurdles, gathered around a wide damply smoking fire, where they burnt off the waste in an obviously losing battle to ward off the cold.

A path ran along the banks of the river, down which Jarin and Sandar had ventured from the bridge carrying the road they had been following over the river into Mozag. They had discovered the place after asking a young boy they had met on the road, where they might find food and lodging for the night and true to his word, the youth delivered them to a small house at the end of the village where an old man was tending a small vegetable plot. Thanking the boy and giving him a farthing for his trouble, they tied their horses to a tree and greeted the man who had by then ended his gardening.

“We seek an evening meal and a room for the night.” Sandar stated simply.

“Well this is the only house in Wraenis where you have a chance of getting it.” The old man said and beckoned them to follow him into the house, leaning his old hoe against the wall beside the door.

The front door opened into a large enough room, which served obviously as the living room, dining room and kitchen and from it four other doors proved to be the only entrances to the smallest bedrooms the two of them had yet seen on their journey. It turned out that for Sandar and Jarin to have a room apiece, five other members of the old man’s family would have to sleep elsewhere that night, but so it was arranged. After bringing all of their trade goods, saddles and all the other things which might otherwise have been lost during the night into the house, Jarin and Sandar bribed the landlord with a couple of coppers to watch their goods and returned outside to better view the village and its inhabitants.

Wraenis had obviously never been a wealthy settlement, but as it looked to the pair of them as they walked through it today, that there were probably prisons in Khanlar where people fared better. The houses, if they could truly be called that for they were more like huts, were built of wattle and daub and thatched with river reeds, yet all of them were in bad repair and surrounded by a sea of mud. Their doors were made of planks and none had windows that they could see, it was obvious also that their stone chimneys were in dire need of repair. Two erstwhile homes had obviously burnt down in the recent past, most probably set alight by sparks escaping from those ill built chimneys. Here and there, a small vegetable garden struggled to survive and there were a few fruit trees waiting for the spring, but all in all it was a dismal place and soon both Jarin and Sandar were happy to return to the house.

“Not a pretty sight is it my Lord?” The old man greeted Jarin, as his visitor ducked his head to enter the house.

“A sad places my friend, a sad place indeed.” Jarin agreed, as he took off his overcoat and settled into a chair near the fireplace and asked their landlord if there might be wine or ale that he might purchase. When the old man informed them that he not seen either in several months, Jarin dispatched Sandar to collect a flask of wine from the room they had piled their trade goods in, then the three of them sat before the fire and shared both it and some conversation.

The old man, whose name was Jarindar Wraenis, explained how Wraenis had once been his father’s holding, but had become a hamlet that housed one hundred and nineteen members of his clan since the war. For it turned out that after the war first one and then another of the wives and daughters of his brothers, cousins, sons and nephews had come here after losing their men folks to the war, or to the chain gangs that had followed it.

“You saw the old men out their weaving the wattles? Three of them are my brothers, four are my cousins and one is my dead wife’s brother . . .  all made homeless since the war. Could not turn them away could I? But the gods know how we manage to feed them all every day.”

“With their age and hard work, I would have thought those old men would have been too tired to find the energy to sire as many children as we saw today.” Sandar joked.

“They did not.” The old man looked dismayed as he explained, “Raped, everyone of them or so they say, although it’s just as likely that some of them exchanged favour for favour along the route to get here. Who knows?”

Three young women entered the house then, two of them heavily pregnant, and began preparing the evening meal, which turned out to be no more than adding a few more vegetables and a couple of newly snared rabbits to the huge iron pot, which had obviously been simmering in the hearth all day. Soon the whole population of the village began arriving in groups of twelve or so to be given bowls of the soup, leaving as they came with a small nod of respect and thankful look or smile to the old man, who returned each nod with one of his own. Some of them brought vegetables with them, which they left as if in payment on a small table set up just inside the door, obviously for tomorrow’s meal. Within an hour the play had ended and the three young women served Jarindar, Jarin and Sandar with their meal. After serving the old man and his paying guests they ate also, squatting down near the door as they hungrily spooned the stew into their drawn and tired faces, seeming to choose that place for its being as far as they could get from the men.

The meal done Sandar returned his bowl to the hearth near the pot and then addressed the old man.

“Jarindar.” Sandar stood with his hands on hi hips, his shadow cast from the fire almost filling the room. “Have you heard that ex-members of the Brotherhood are being offered work and homes on the island of Dag working for the Guardians of Lunza.”

“Aye, I have heard that. Is it true?” Tiredness waxed through the old man as he spoke, “ . . . and if it be, how could I transport this lot halfway across the world to take advantage of it?”

“Would you rather stay here?” Sandar asked in disbelief.

“Aye, if we could bring a few changes in, I think we would be a lot better off staying here. There is still a market for wattles you know. Mind you it would take a lot more changes than we could bring together to achieve any kind of life worth living these days, otherwise I would have done it already.”

“What would you need to make life liveable here then?“ Jarin asked.

“Money!’ The old man laughed, “. . . and a lot of it, which there is not. Money for a horse and cart to transport the wattles to Mozag or Zikon. Money to buy medicine and food and a cow or two so the young ones could get milk. Money for clothes, for pots and pans and for axes and hammers. See what I mean, these days we need so much just to be poor.”

“How much?” Jarin asked quietly.

“Thirty crowns at least.” Jarindar Wraenis stopped smiling, the number obviously crushing his enjoyment of the conversation. “I will buy half of your profit for the next five years for fifty crowns . . .” Jarin said, still quietly.

The old man looked like he was going to faint, first jumping from his seat as if a wasp had just stung him and then sitting down again just as quickly.

“You’re joking. Making fun of an old man . . .” Jarindar was beginning to get angry.

Jarin reached inside his pocket and extracted a purse and from it he counted twenty golden crowns onto the arm of his chair in piles of five coins each, unable not to notice the looks of amazement on the faces of the young women squatting down by the door, rewarding their shock with a smile.

“Twenty crowns now and thirty crowns of credit with my agent in Mozag, with whom you will sign an agreement to handle the sale of your goods. He shall give you your costs and half of the profit he believes he can make.”

“I’ll take your money, an’ glad to do so my Lord, but why would you do such a thing for people like us?” Jarindar accepted the golden coins into his hands, while the three women by the door looked on in astonishment. “You are obviously rich folks my Lord, why would you care about a few more pennies in profit from the few wattles I might be able to sell?”

Jarin tried to adopt the countenance of a wise and wily merchant, so that he would not expose himself for the soft-hearted fool he was, before he answered.

“Jarindar, I am rich because I have a wise head for deals of the like I am making with yourself right here. I have these coins and you have a need to become more productive to survive. Survival is one of the best work masters I have ever met, therefore I wilt invest my coins and you your industry, and eventually we shall both be the wealthier for it.”

“You trust me then not to just take your money, change my name and run for some far off city my Lord?” Jarindar obviously still had trouble believing in his good fortune.

“Trust you? More than that my friend,” Jarin replied, “I expect you to devote your life to fostering and nurturing our enterprise for the benefit of not just our contract, but for the security of all of your clan whom you have brought together in this place. I expect the babes soon to drop from the bellies of those two girls there to drink sweet milk from your own cows, and for the children I watched in industry earlier, to eat good food in the weeks to come. I expect you to use my coin to repair this sorry place and provide for its people, to till the ground and bring forth a crop, and to build my fortune as you build your own.”

“What else do you want?” The words came from a small blond haired girl, one of the women who had prepared their meal, her belly swollen by eight or nine months of carrying some man’s seed. She was no more than fifteen years old.

“Quiet girl.”’ Jarindar snapped at her, making her pull back immediately, her face colored by that immediate embarrassed sulk youth will retreat into when reprimanded by their elders.

“Nothing child.” Jarin addressed her, “I am a follower of the One and Only God, and I give you this money to assist all involved, there are no secret bargains or hidden intent in my offer. Your need financed this way may well assist my own needs, but should it not I have given the coin openly to you knowing all the risks I have accepted by doing so.”

“The Gods bless you my Lord.” The girl offered by way of apology.

“Child I care not what the old gods, as you call them think; I only care that the One and Only God shall bless the seed I intended to plant this night with my offer. In fact I will give you something worth far more than the coins I give your grandfather tonight, or the profit I shall share with this place in the years to come.” Jarin pulled from his tunic a scroll and handed it towards the young woman. She half crawled, half walked across the small room to take it from his outstretched hand. “This is my own copy of the Laws of the One and Only God, it is my present to you and your child. Can you read?”

“Aye my Lord.” She responded, already unrolling the paper.

“Then you have received something far better and worth more than any gold can buy, than any of us have received from our bargain tonight my dear.” Jarin said, as he watched the girl’s eyes move to read the words, her lips mouthing them as she did so.  One copy of the many that he carried in his luggage.

They talked a little more that evening and Jarin and Sandar slept well in Jarindar’s rooms that night and left Wraenis just after dawn the following morning, heading their horses towards the City of Mozag. Sent forth by a crowd of smiling and happy people, as if they were indeed sending two of their own sons off to make their fortunes.

Jarin, his beard now beginning to fill out to be every inch the product of a healthy and successful merchant, arrived in the City of Mozag on a cold but clear afternoon, when the lake beneath the city shone like a silver mirror reflecting the light blue sky above it. It was a sorry place, if these days its position on Lake Asiga had turned it into a staging town for northerners heading into the southern half of Khanlar to make their fortunes, or it entertained those who came to this place to buy the produce of those occupied lands as they moved North. It was a place of profit, not a city that men invested in with an eye to the future. In Mozag, the large ferries and ships unloaded their cargoes directly onto the docks, to be transported a few hundred yards to where they would immediately become the subject of haggling merchants from all over the north.

Mozag had always been a city of commerce, yet in the years since the Great War it had deteriorated to the point where there were none of the softer signs of it also being the home of a homogeneous and caring citizenry. Today every house, every street and every alley was merely a place where a deal could be made, or a price haggled. Those buildings that were home to the newcomers, who had emigrated here upon the fall of the Asigan Alliance, were obviously only the temporary dwellings of men who saw their futures elsewhere. Many of the prestigious homes of the original upper and middle class inhabitants of the city had been converted to overnight hostelries for visiting merchants, or worse still housed openly advertised dens of iniquity for men (and women), who would pander to their more basic cravings here, while pretending the lives of upright and religious folk in their own home environments. Here slaves could be rented to perform grotesque acts of degradation upon each other, for the titillation of people who at home with their families would decry such behaviour. Here taverns were the most profitable enterprise only after the brothels and the only law that was available was that of coin.

Cattle were herded into the courtyards of what had once been fine houses to be kept until they were sold, prodded by men in a hurry along the main streets of the city with no one to clean them later. Furniture, clothing and household goods that had been bought, or more likely looted, from what remained of the occupied lands, were carted through the city to great auctions where the pride of southern craftsmanship exchanged hands in assorted lots. Jarin and Sandar stopped for a few moments at one such auction, watching slaves in chains loading and unloading four great carts of household furniture, destined for sale on a hastily erected auctioning block.

“Another load of rubbish.” The speaker Sandar noted, was obviously a merchant from somewhere in the North West by his accent. “I guess there ain’t nothing left worth selling in the Occupied Lands after all these years of combing ‘em.”

“Makes you wonder what they’re using down there if we keep bringing it out, doesn’t it” Jarin ventured, trying to egg the man on for more information.

“Always the way you know. By the way the name’s Lirisar Sapurtan, from Samur. The merchant offered, his eyes never leaving the merchandise in front of them.  “War will always share out the spoils amongst the victors, until the defeated have nothing left. But compared to the deals I made a few years back, this stuff was hardly worth the trip. Five crowns the lot!” A set of furniture had caught his eye and while he bargained with the auctioneer Jarin and Sandar slipped away.

“Five crowns! That set was worth fifty plus cartage for what he’ll sell it for in Samur.”  Sandar commented as they walked.

“Like he said, the victors always get the spoils.” Jarin noted aloud.

They met with their contact, the merchant Zamoran a little later and confirmed Jarin’s deal with the old man of Wraenis. Zamoran turned out to be a slightly overweight Mozagian who wore his clothes with an effeminate style, yet when he talked he obviously was not a man to be trifled with and there was nothing effeminate about him beneath the clothing he had adopted as a disguise. While they shared a luncheon in the dining room of the Holy Star near the docks, his eyes rarely concentrated upon them; instead he seemed to be continuously taking mental snapshots of everything that happened around them. A great number of the passers by nodded to him, or openly showed their respect of him with their greetings, while Jarin established his support for the deal he had made with the wattle maker and his clan. Jarin and Sandar shared a happy lunch with the man before taking the ferry across the lake to Asiga late that afternoon.

The ferry Lady of Minas was no more than an oversized rowboat, employing forty slaves beneath the great open deck. Its age was attested to by the colour of the oak planks with which it was constructed and the almost glass like surface of a deck that had been polished by generations of shuffling feet of passengers crowded aboard its open promenade. Like a great engine it travelled across the sparkling water of Lake Asiga with a well-learned purpose, its great oars dipping and lifting in ice cold showers of diamond like displacements each time they left the water. The monotonous beat of the timing drum soon became consciously accepted, so that when it ended as the oars were lifted and they coasted into the dock at Asiga, the silence hung around them for several minutes.
 

* * * * * * *

The Monks of Mansa

 

Asiga was all that Jarin had dreamed it would be and the great Marketplace that Manator had described to Kirene and he as they had travelled to Atlar, Jarin found to be even a greater marvel of architecture and engineering than the Guardian General had promised them. Asiga had an air of timelessness and solidity that no city, not even Norden, had impressed upon Jarin. Every stone looked as if it had been in its place for a thousand years, every tree and hedge grew as if designed by the Gods themselves for the position it occupied in that place. The Great Marketplace was everything that Jarin had imagined. Built to last a millennium, it was almost religious in its adherence to line and form, balance and counter-balance. The Guild Halls were marvels of architecture and the small communities of shops and inns, which grew up between them, were the essence of taste and civilized life. Jarin and Sandar spent three days in the market, soaking up the sophistication and splendour which abounded there, even in the sad times they were now in, but eventually they decided to move on and they left Asiga and journeyed through the western portion of Natan until they reached the Monastery City of Mansa late one morning some days later.

The monks of Mansa were of a Military Order, which had once been a fashion, but had now been reduced to that city and no more than a handful of smaller, such settlements across the Nations. Centuries before the Warrior Monks had served the Church as an elite force in the domination of the Nations of Khanlar and their deeds in those far off days were legendary and the stories which many a young Khanlarian boy grew up on. Mansa still had that look of power and permanence, crowning the top of a hill, which grew out of a lake in the forests of northern Dang. A great causeway of stone linked the castle to the Great Road as it cut through that virgin landscape, unchanged before the fortified city’s construction for a thousand years. There were no graceful minarets here, no pretty leaded windows nor architectural features for beauty. Mansa was a simple, if huge, stone fort where men learned the art of war and the code of religious warriors, but nature had still managed to give it a beauty that men had not cared to give it. The great sun bleached stones with which it was constructed and the green open swath of grass around it, were set in a blue virgin lake surrounded by a mature forest, like a jewel in an expensive setting.

Jarin could not but compare this imposing place to the small countrified town of Kiba, which had once been the home of a similar history. Mansa was to Kiba what a broadsword is to a dinner knife, its greatness magnified by the great lake and forest around it.

At the end of the half-mile long causeway was a fortified gatehouse that guarded the massive oak drawbridge, which gave access to the causeway itself. Here Jarin and Sandar handed over their licenses and papers and requested that they be allowed to offer their wares within the city and gain a night’s lodging. The four guards who held the gatehouse were all dressed in full chain mail coats and wore great closed helmets in the fashion of two hundred years before, yet their manners would have suited teachers or priests as well as they did warriors. They welcomed the travellers and soon Jarin and Sandar had entered the city over the drawbridge, which guarded the entrance to the main walls.

Once inside they made their way to the city’s hostelry and arranged for a night’s lodging. Then they led their pack horses to the small square set off the main courtyard where they found an empty stall and laid out their trade goods for all to see. There were no mud roads or dirty alleys in this city, every courtyard, square, thoroughfare and lane was cobbled and kept clean by small bands of novices, who seemed everywhere engaged as men always are on army installations. Everything was neat, clean and well maintained and here and there throughout the city great trees grew in stately maturity, making one realize by their age just how many generations of short lived men they had seen pass through this place over the centuries. With regularity small troops of fully equipped knights marched from one place to another, two abreast and always in step, as they went from one training hall to another or from the barracks or dining rooms to the library, which was famous throughout Khanlar for its volumes describing both the Order and military tactics of centuries of history, a place where Jarin and Sandar were to spend many expensive hours.

The library occupied the third and uppermost floor of the largest building in Mansa. Over three hundred feet long and eighty feet wide, its walls were lined with bookcases crafted from local oak and were no less than fifteen feet high. Along one wall seven great windows, which all faced south, allowed light into the room all day long and at night heavy chandeliers festooned with hard wax candles allowed the library to be used well into the morning hours.

In the center of the room the longest table either of them had ever seen, stood in regal grandeur surrounded by fifty identical chairs. Two young men acted as the librarians, bringing to them books on any subject the collection held, placing them upon the table in front of the visitor as if they were antiques and works of art, which in fact many of them proved to be. In this silent temple to literature every fact having bearing upon the art of warfare was described, in books dating back to the times of their great-great-grandfathers, a time when this place was the greatest university for warriors in the whole world.  There would not be many visitors here Jarin noted, for they were charged a golden crown each to enter the place with an agreement to leave within three days, or they would need to pay again.  Jarin and Sandar read about the heroes and generals of the past, their strategies and tactics, as they were victorious, or they were defeated, throughout Khanlar’s turbulent history. Battles whose names had long been forgotten sprang to life from those pages, names that men no longer remembered were feted and given triumphs; deeds of valour and acts of disgrace were also catalogued for them in detail and slowly both men came to agree, that somewhere along the path of history the art of warfare had become a dogmatic and codified procedure that no-one had questioned for hundreds of years.  There was a way to conduct a war, and it was described in detail in book after book, nuance after nuance, which had not been challenged, improved or changed in generations. And this discovery alone made their adventure worthwhile, considering what they were planning to undertake in the not too distant future.

Mansa was the greatest producer of Generals and senior officers of the Church Army, sending forth its graduates like a great University and during the afternoons that Jarin and Sandar traded with its inhabitants, they learned of the great pride, discipline, tradition and sense of history the warrior monks seemed bred to within this place, but it was in the evening when they retired to the hostelry, that they learned the most about their enemy’s officer corps.

The hostelry was home to all visitors to Mansa, for there were no families or private houses in this place. Next to the hostelry was a large pensioner’s house, where they discovered no less than two hundred retired warrior monks living under the care of their Order. Many of the younger of these pensioners visited the hostelry in the evening to meet with friends and relatives, staying there while they visited them. Jarin and Sandar fell into conversation with one of these pensioners and his younger brother, who was visiting him from the Nation of Rangar, the first evening they were in Mansa. Both men were in their late sixties or early seventies and the younger one took little encouraging to discuss the changes in Khanlar since they were both Jarin’s age.

“You would not believe how the world has changed since we were your age young merchant . . .” Sangitor said with a smile more wistful for the past than happy, “. . . and your lot as the worse for it I would bet. When we were young everything was dictated by tradition and so little changed from year to year a man could look at his life like an unfolding carpet, knowing what the rest of the design would be, merely by knowing what he had already seen. Today life is more like a scarf made up of tying many small pieces of different width, strength and colour together and rather than unrolling a carpet, life is now more like pulling that scarf through a hole in the fence. You never know what is coming in the next minute, let alone next year, nor can you judge when it might end, or break in the pulling.” Sangitor’s brother merely nodded in agreement, neither offering comment nor debate to his younger brother’s monologue.

“When I was young I lived in the same holding our family had lived in for five hundred years and when Rolingar here left for Mansa, it was a tradition of many generations and as the eldest son it never occurred to him to argue with our father. With my sons now . . .  the eldest refused and moved to Eron to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant there, (no insult intended sir), my second son also refused and now it looks like neither of their sons is going to follow my brother here into the Order. Five hundred years of honour thrown out the window with no more thought or feeling than tossing aside a used toothpick.”

“Sometimes . . .” Jarin ventured “. . . traditions outlive their usefulness, or lose their power of conviction, do you think your sons might have thought that the great days of the Order of Mansa were already part of history?”

“Perhaps, but its not just that, it’s everything in Khanlar as far as I can tell. It is as if this part of History is ending and another is about to begin. Show me a man with honour or pride and I will show you a man past his prime. The young of today do not appear to be committed to anything, other than the mundane act of just living. Add to that the breakdown in the social structure and you will begin to see that I am right. No one knows his place anymore, because gold is far more important today than honour and everyone knows that when that happens, you are well on your way to a lawless society.”

“I thought during the last War that we might see a resurgence of our Order . . .” Rolingar ventured, “Several of our members served well during it. Even I got to help with the training, but it was over too soon and won without much opposition so things went back to normal within weeks of the end of it.”

“Be a good thing too.” His brother chimed in, “Gods know some of today’s soldiers ain’t much better’n the outlaws they’re fighting.”  The drink was beginning to blur the man’s words.  “May be a chance yet.” Said Rolingar, “Old Toragor was made General of the Army a while back, he did his training here you know and right now he is one of our most famous members. But I doubt if they will ever field an army of monks again, we’ll just be used to staff the Officer Corps. Pity really, ‘because a legion of us would wipe out these leftovers of the old Brotherhood in no time, if they would give us the orders to do it, you know.”

“You are so sure of that my friend?” It was Sandar who spoke, “The Church Army has had thousands of men trying to do just that for near on five years or more and it just gets worse. How can any army handle such a situation? There is no one to fight. They come out of hiding, strike, and then disappear before the soldiers can get there.”

“It is only difficult because the soldiers of today are soldiers only because they don the uniform to survive, not to achieve anything. These peasants and ploughboys, tavern vermin and labourers, have no Cause. They wear the uniform, only because it gives them three meals a day and an income and if they took it off they would be dead in a year. What the Church needs is some men with conviction. Men who would take up the challenge as a thing of honour, not the illiterate louts who strut proud during the daytime and hide up with their cheap liquor at night.”

“So say you were in command,” Jarin prompted the old soldier, “How would you deal with the remnants of the Brotherhood?”

“Chain Attack!” The old warrior monk replied emphatically, “Chain Attack! Draw up a skirmish line of these untrained troops the Church calls an Army these days, from the Northern Coast south to the Waterway, shoulder to shoulder, with formations of cavalry paced behind them, like a great human chain. Then advance eastward one step at a time towards the eastern coast driving the vermin before us. Eventually we would have them all between the ocean and us. An’ ‘fore you throw a knife in the soup, I’d have ferries and barges full of crossbowmen the length of the waterway, to prevent the vermin from swimming across and escaping us. Then do the same on the southern continent. Six months an’ they’d all be dead or in chains!’

Jarin winced. The plan was simple and forthright and it would work. Inside he gratefully thanked the Gods that Rolingar was pensioned off and not giving his simple, yet brilliant, advice to the Priest of Priests right now. And so they talked, a Prince and merchant, a soldier and body servant, a farmer and grandfather and a Knight pensioner. They talked until most had gone to their beds and when finally they said goodnight to each other and retired to their own beds, Jarin felt as if he had witnessed the end of an Era that evening.
 

* * * * * * *

The Village of Grandar

 

So it was that Sandar and Jarin passed through the Nations of Norden, Zikon, Mozag, Asiga and Dang, as often as they could keep away from the main cities until they came to the village of Grandar in the Nation of Natan, halfway between the monastery town of Mansa and the City of Sedanna.  It was in Grandar that they saw how in time, even the most oppressive system will destroy itself and a more humane way will force itself back into use.

Grandar was obviously enjoying a revival of prosperity, for the ordinary folk of the village and the estates that surrounded it appeared blessed by abundance. Jarin and Sandar were not to know as they entered the village that it was flourishing, simply because it had suffered probably more than most places from the excesses of gold rich newcomers immediately after the war. The first thing they noticed, was that there were no slaves to be seen in the streets and fields and the obvious prosperity, if modest, of the peasants of the place, showed that they all had to have regular work at fair wages.

There is a small Inn in Grandar, a neat larger than most building called the Bluebird with two public rooms and five lodging rooms above them. Sandar and Jarin rented two of the upstairs rooms and then went down into the tap room to discover what had brought good fortune to this one village, out of all such similar places they had so far seen in their travels, that had almost without exception become centres of despair.

The Inn also differed from the other Inns they had visited along their route, in that the taproom was almost empty that warm afternoon and there were no beggars gathered outside the door to bother customers entering or leaving the place. The Bluebird was clean and they were surprised to be asked for their order by a girl who did not wear the collar of a slave. They obtained two plates of fresh bread and cheese, along with tankards of ale that they were told the Innkeeper brewed himself and then they invited the owner to join them and explain the obvious prosperity of Grandar. The Innkeeper arrived wiping his hands on a terry cloth, obviously having just washed his hands in the kitchen before going out to meet his guests. He was a portly man, red-faced and bearing a resemblance to the girl who had brought them their ale and indeed they learned later that she was his granddaughter.

Jarin worded his first question regarding the obvious prosperity and peace in hamlet very carefully, but even he was surprised at the way he was answered.

“Because you are Lunzans, I will tell you the real truth of the matter my Lord, even though I risk it all in not giving you the tale we normally tell to outsiders. We are indeed a lucky place Gentlemen,” The landlord agreed, taking an empty chair at the table with them, “After the War most of our men folks, those young enough to have fought that is, were carted off in chains, or simply had not returned from the fighting. Then the Newcomers started to arrive and our people suffered like most of the other places you have passed through by your description. We lost many of the older folk during an outbreak of the coughing sickness that came three years after the war ended and the future in those days was something a wise man had reason to dread.”

“You survived the plague and the slave quarters then? “ Sandar half asked and half accused.

“The first because I always drank my own brew and avoided the water from the village pump with a vengeance, for anything other than washing myself. The latter I did not escape gentlemen, I had my years under the collar.” He pushed a finger under his tunic and showed them the faint marks a slave’s neck ring will always leave on a man. “I got lucky however; they made a mistake with the papers and sent me back here to work in the fields here in Grandar. Pure chance, but the best Fate ever handed me. Even so, if my family had not brought me extra food whenever they could afford it and often when they could not, I might well have died that first winter of starvation, as did many in Grandar and throughout Natan that first year after the war.”

“I have never heard of a citizen of the Brotherhood Nations who got the collar, being sent to work in his own Nation, let alone his own village.” Sandar said quietly. “And you are the first Brotherhood slave I have heard of who has been freed of his collar.”

“Well there are thirty or so of us who managed it here in Grandar.” Kavor laughed, for that they had discovered that was their landlord’s name, “And our owners were not happy about it at the time, but they still live here, some above the ground and some under it and we’ve all decided it came out for the best.”

“You mean they just decided to give you your freedom?” Jarin asked, showing that he was obviously amazed by the Innkeeper’s answer.

“With a little assistance from a band of ex-brotherhood outlaws and the advice of our local priest, Ligorian.” Kavor looked as if he was telling a joke at their expense, “Ligorian was in Kiba when the Lord went to them and he was saved. Then he came here and started preaching against the evils of slavery, quietly of course, but in the right ears . . .  laying the groundwork for what came later.”

“And what was it that came later?” Jarin asked.

“Seeing that you are Lunzans and not involved in what happened here on the mainland, the story should appeal to you. Raids by a band of ex-Brotherhood fugitives that is what changed everything. They came charging into the village late one night, after I had already served too many years under the collar and before our local troopers, all fourteen of the poor fellows, could do anything about it, all us slaves were free and the Newcomers were wearing our shackles. It was then that Ligorian stepped up and started preaching. What happened after that was a minor miracle in itself. Ligorian got everyone to agree that those of the troopers and some of the newcomers, who would not agree and might make trouble, ought to be sort of sent away, so the outlaws took them away later and no one missed them! The rest of us agreed to work together as freemen.”

“Just like that?” Jarin asked, “You mean no-one did anything about it afterwards, no retribution or betrayal to the authorities?”

“Ah. You have not met Ligorian, nor heard him speak, have you?” Said their host. “If you had you would not be so surprised? Though it didn’t hurt that the outlaws offered to come back from time to time, to make sure no-one got turned in or punished for what had happened.”

“After that tale, I would very much like to meet your Priest, Master Kavor.” Jarin said truthfully and as if in answer to his request, at that very moment the door opened into the tap room from the Street and a priest dressed in a dark blue habit came into the Inn.

“Now you can have your wish stranger, let me introduce you to him.” Kavor lifted his hand to indicate the man who had just stepped into the room, “Ligorian, these gentlemen would very much like to speak with you.”

Ligorian proved to be a very ordinary looking man, average height and average build, sandy hair going thin on top and blue-green eyes that looked somewhat vacant. His clothes were not impressive either. His gown of coarse, dark blue wool was held at the waist with a belt of cheap leather. He wore open sandals to protect his feet and about his shoulders was a cloak that was at least two sizes too large for him. Around his throat he wore the thin silver band, which proved him to be a priest of the established Church, as well as the Church of the One and Only God, yet it looked a little out of place on so ordinary a person. He sat down at their table, on a chair offered by the Innkeeper and nodded a greeting to Sandar and Jarin.

“Welcome to Grandar,” He said after he had swallowed a mouthful of the ale brought by the girl, “What do you think of our humble little village?”

“We were surprised at the sense of peace and the obvious wealth hereabouts.” Jarin said truthfully, adding, “The Innkeeper tells us it is the result of your wisdom and advice that it is so.”

“No!” The priest replied strongly and quickly, “It is not by me that Grandar enjoys peace, but by the will of the One and Only God and his faithful followers in this place.”

“We heard that you worship the God that was disclosed at Kiba,” Jarin said, “Are His ways always so just and profitable.”  The Innkeeper had left them and the Priest looked at Jarin and then he smiled before he spoke again.

“I was a monk in the Monastery City of Kiba for twenty years, before the Lord came to us there and pronounced the Code of the One and Only God. I was the staunchest believer in the old ways you could have hoped to meet, before that night. Yet even I saw the injustice and misery around us in those days. I just justified everything I saw about me as normal, reasoning that if the Gods allowed it, and then they must approve of it in some way. I used the phrase “that’s just the way it is” like every other priest has used for years to push the facts of an illogical reality away from me.” Ligorian took a sip of his ale and took a moment to carefully look at both Jarin and Sandar before he continued.

“I saw the Miracle at Kiba. I saw the One and Only God protect His messenger from spears and rocks that were thrown at him! I saw the Power, which lit up the night sky as He talked to us! Then in the morning when we gathered together, those of us brave enough, or stupid enough, to venture out, I heard the first reading of the Laws of the One and Only God and I knew that from that day forth, I would follow them with every fibre of my being for as long as I shall live. I came to Grandar by chance, at a time when the inhabitants here needed guidance and I gave them that guidance. The One and Only God gave me the words which changed this place, I do not even remember what words I used at the time now, but they changed a millennium of belief in a matter of minutes; that is how powerful are the words of the One and Only God!”

Ligorian smiled the smile of a teacher who, tired at the end of a busy day, feels that he has assisted his students to comprehend something that will help them every day of their lives.

“Look about you strangers, here the One and Only God is worshipped and his Laws are obeyed. The choice on whether His Way is the right way for men, must be their own.”

He finished his ale quickly and stood up, bowed his head to Jarin, touched Sandar on the shoulder and turned and walked back out into the street from which he had so recently arrived. They looked at each other in surprise, for they had both expected at least a much longer lecture, if not a sermon. However, the food arrived then and they gave that their attention for a while.

Jarin would always remember that meeting with Ligorian, because of his simplistic acceptance of what he had seen in Kiba to be a fact and therefore not needing any verbal support from them, or anyone else for that matter. However, he also saw the danger in accepting monotheism in the very simplified way that Ligorian did, for if a natural or man-made tragedy was ever to strike the village of Grandar, the moral shock might well destroy the people who lived there, unless the Priest was able to instil in them a sense of fatality that would convince them that even the most dreadful experience, was still a tool of a loving protector, used for their own eventual benefit.
 

* * * * * * *

The Most Beautiful City on Earth

 

After staying in Grandar for only two days, Jarin and Sandar headed south out of the Nation of Natan and into the Nation of Sedanna. The busy city of Sedanna, when they arrived there late in the day, was a head-splitting conglomeration of noise, smells, body contact and the feeling of being unimportant, amongst the importance of events that passed all around you, unaware that you even existed. They had arrived in Sedanna just two hours before midnight, gaining entrance only minutes before the curfew bell signalled the closing and bolting of the city gates. The streets were still busy even at that hour however and the street lamps that still operated guided their way to the Merchant’s Rest, a large old-fashioned thatched and timbered building overlooking the Market Square where they obtained lodging for the night.

When they awoke the next morning it was to the noise of the weekly market opening up below their second story window. Carts with iron rimmed wheels rang against the cobblestones, hammers hitting nails accompanied the erection of stalls and young boys and not a few adults of both sexes seeking work for the day, sang out their capabilities to potential employers. Jarin knew at that moment why such well-appointed chambers had been vacant for them the night before. The final straw came however, when someone decided to butcher a pig directly below their window and they got dressed quickly and went downstairs for breakfast, joining a varied collection of merchants and stall holders who had preceded them into the Merchant’s Rest dining room.

A flustered serving girl wearing the iron collar of a slave delivered two large earthenware plates piled with fried potatoes, slices of grilled gammon and fried eggs. Fresh rolls, butter and coffee came next and it took them half an hour to do justice to all that food. When they had finally eaten all that their night-starved bellies could contain, they paid their coppers to the girl, watching her eyes widen as they dropped an extra coin into her hand for her attention. Then they went out into the street to inspect the new day and the city it found them in.

Jarin fell in love with the City of Sedanna the moment he stepped out of the Merchant’s Rest that morning ,and if it was not love at first sight, then it took very few seconds for him to be overcome by the beauty stretching out before him. The city was perched on a promontory, overlooking the most wonderful bay he had ever seen and one that was contained within its own safety barrier, for it was as if the world was held protected within the circle of mountains that surrounded the city. In the center of that world was a large expanse of blue water where the ocean comes into the natural inlet, created he was sure, by the Gods just to be admired by the eyes of man. Between the sea and the mountain peaks, forests of pine, oak, maple, beech, alder, larch and ash climbed the slopes on carpets of lush green spring grass. Man, in his usual quest for coin, might well have destroyed all of the beauty they were able to admire as it stretched before them, however wise architects, now long dead, had ensured that the Market Square was built with buildings only on three sides, for the fourth side of the square was free of structures of any kind. The open side of the square was built at the edge of a cliff, which dropped some seventy feet to the dock area of the town below, which was invisible to the observer unless he walked to the edge and looked down. The view of the bay beyond was therefore only obstructed by a low balustrade of stone pillars, that stood no higher than a man’s waist and the expanse of blue green water lay before the city for all to enjoy. The cherry trees planted at intervals along the promenade, separating that low barrier from the square itself, must have been a favourite walk for young lovers and aged citizens alike. The ancient and well cared for trees were already in blossom, reflecting light and shadow in the early morning sunlight and seagulls floated above them like white angels seeking souls. Like many other men before him, Jarin fell in love with Sedanna at that moment and knew he would love it forever.

The problem with all love affairs however, is that they are based for the most part on a fantasy you wish to live in, rather than the reality of fact and experience that exists in the objectivity of hard truth. Just like a woman will love a man, never noticing that he ages or abuses her love by slowly turning her into his servant, only to realize it when he leaves her for a younger mistress, in a similar way Jarin’s love affair with the City of Sedanna received a sudden, if not crude awakening. Jarin wanted to see the grandeur of Sedanna’s location, the beauty of its ancient architecture and the peace of its flowering cherry trees sheltering strolling lovers from the sun, but instead his morning was abruptly brought back to reality by the sight of a line of slaves in chains being paraded past him into the square and herded towards the selling block that stood in the center of it. It was only then that he realized that during his rapture with the beauty of the city overlooking the bay, he had taken a table outside the Inn and had obtained a flask of iced wine. Sandar was nowhere to be seen and the smells of the market suddenly assailed his nostrils, breaking through the imagined perfume of cherry blossom. Jarin stood up suddenly, overcome by anger that his fantasy could be torn apart in so cruel a manner and in so doing he jolted the table, so that only instinct made his hand catch the wine flask before it crashed to the ground.

“Back among the living then?” Sandar took the flask from Jarin’s hand and filled himself a glass, refilling his master’s at the same time. He was smiling in a way that made Jarin feel rather childish, as if the cynical old soldier had expected his love affair with the beauty of Sedanna.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a place so beautiful, but then reality . . .” Jarin pointed to the slaves now being pushed and bullied to climb the steps up onto the block, “. . . crashed into my day dreaming.”

“There will always be slaves.” Sandar said offhandedly, as he sipped the wine and watched the human movement around and across the square.

“Why?” Jarin asked feeling that a point must be made and made at that very moment. “Grandar and Paramal seemed to work very well without them. Perhaps if we educated the people better we would have fewer beggars, thieves and pickpockets and if we paid those living wages we might have fewer debtors. If we could achieve that, then slavery would be without a steady supply of product, would it not?”

“More likely we would just end up with more intelligent thieves and even more ruined landowners and merchants. Anyhow there would still be slaves, the price of buying one would just go up that’s all.” Sandar replied.

“Well . . .” Jarin said slowly, “. . . if the cost was higher, maybe they would be better treated.”

Unable to continue the argument on such a morning, the Prince/Merchant got up and walked round the table.

“Where are we going now?” Sandar said, finishing off his glass and joining him.

“I am a merchant. I have money. I am going to buy some slaves.” Jarin said.

“Wait up.” Sandar put a hand on his arm, then looked around to see if they could be overheard, decided that they would not be and continued. “I was down at the docks. There is a Lunzan sloop sat down there ready to take us back home. If you have no objections, I think we have learned enough about Khanlar as it is today to last us a lifetime, so why don’t we thank the Gods for our luck to date and just sail out of here today?”

“Good idea.” Jarin snapped, “Us and as many slaves as I can purchase with the coins in my purse.”

“Whatever you say, Sire.” Sandar said indulgently and they began walking toward the slaver and his wares.

The sight of Jarin and Sandar leading two dozen slaves down the steps to the docks, without guards and having removed their neck and wrist shackles, caused more than a few stares and a lot of comments, but the looks only increased Jarin’s sense of accomplishment. Once aboard the Lunzan vessel, they instructed the captain to remove the slaves remaining chains and send out for food to give them. Jarin had decided that there was one more thing he wanted to do before he returned to Lunza.

The temple was impressive. On the outside fluted columns supported the roof, with a flight of steps leading up to the entrance that would tire a grown man to climb, without him stopping from time to time to regain his breath. If the exterior was impressive, the interior was overpowering in both size and design. It was dark inside the temple, even though hundreds of candles flickered throughout the space and the incense that rose in clouds from a dozen burners stung the eyes and gave its occupants a heady feeling as the heavy perfumed clouds were breathed in with the motionless air of the temple itself. A forest of pillars supported the majestic domed ceiling of the place and in the marble floor were the mosaic portraits of many gods and goddesses, the majority with offerings of flowers laid upon them. Statues made of every medium from wood to brass inhabited the entire space. Gods in such profusion that neither Sandar nor Jarin could name them all, surrounded as they were by more than a hundred effigies which stood in the shadows towering above the faithful who had entered the dark and cluttered interior of the temple this sunny afternoon.

Rich Merchants purchased offerings of lambs and birds and joined the line of peasants who had spent their copper on bunches of fresh flowers. Everyone in the line was waiting his or her turn to climb the steps that would bring him or her to the ledge, where a priest was chanting prayers, as he tossed the offerings by scattering flowers or throwing squealing lambs into the huge iron cauldron that contained the Holy Fire. As they watched, a farmer with a pigeon reached the ledge overlooking the fire and the Priest took the bird, neither looking at the man nor pausing in his chanting, as he wrung the bird’s neck and let its dead body drop through the air to plunge into the fire.

Jarin and Sandar were standing beneath the plinth that supported the Priest’s ledge when Sandar saw the treadmill. Observation showed that it controlled the fan, which drew the smoke from the sacrificial fire out of the temple, pushing it through the back wall of the structure. Three scrawny men trod the steps of the wheel, their eyes blank and their faces without emotion. One of them tripped and fell even as Sandar watched, the man’s body being bruised as he tumbled around trying to regain his feet, while the steps of the wheel thudded into him as his fellow prisoners continued their pointless march, as if they had not noticed him fall.

Sandar looked around him and realized that no one thought the tread wheel worthy of any attention, stood as it was in the shadows against the wall. He slipped across to it, drawing the knife from his right boot. It only took seconds for him to pry off the padlock which secured the door of the wheel, and then push the blade through the moving bars and slammed it into the step next to the nearest man, removing his arm as fast as he was able so that it should not be caught up by the slow moving spokes of the wheel. Emotion had returned to the faces of the slaves treading the wheel but it was surprise rather than hope that showed there. The man nearest to them took the blade and looked at Sandar almost without understanding.

“Use it on your chains.” Sandar whispered urgently, watching the man suddenly catch on and smile.

“Come on . . .” Jarin said taking Sandar’s arm and pushing him towards the exit, “Any minute now all hell is going to break loose in here.”

As they hurried towards the exit, through it and then through the town towards the docks, Sandar asked Jarin a question.  “Well? What do you think of Khanlar’s Church, Gods and Priests now my Lord?”

“I think they need to be destroyed and as soon as possible.” Jarin replied, wondering if those men in the treadmill would ever enjoy life again the way the ex-slave Innkeeper in Grandar was able to enjoy it. Perhaps not, but it did not stop him from hoping, nor would it stop him from spending his whole life to bring such a state affairs into being, if there was any way at all for it to be done.
 

* * * * * * *

A Holy Battle Plan

 

Even as Jarin and Sandar were descending the steps from the City of Sedanna to the docks where their ship awaited them, Ragarian, Priest of Priests, was entertaining several of his staunchest supporters to a light luncheon in one of the dining rooms of the Great Temple of Ka. They had gathered that day to discuss a plan they had put into place only a few days before and Ragarian was still evaluating in his own mind whether or not it was enough, or too much, in his constant worrying about the Order of Guardians.

“General . . .” Ragarian addressed General Toragor with the respect of an old friend, “You say your spies have already been dispatched to find out exactly what those magic makers are up to, however have you considered what we shall be able to do, or should do for that matter, if we do find that what they are doing threatens us in any way?”

“We shall have to wait and see Sire.” The good General replied, easing a morsel of the cold chicken into his mouth with a finger from where it had perched itself upon his lip. “For all we know they are merely clearing and planting the Land as they told us they were planning to do. If they are actually doing something other than that and you decide that it threatens Khanlar in any way, well then Sire the entire Army is at your disposal.”

“Sire.” It was the Prince of Rigan who spoke, “I have seen with my own eyes no less than three or four thousand men, women and children board Lunzan ships since you gave them Dag and allowed them to export outlaws and the remnants of the Brotherhood. I have heard Sire that there are several cities where as many have embarked in similar numbers.” The little man was obviously angry. “These people do not leave in chains Sire, nor do they leave with any fear, as one would expect of men going off to a life of slavery and hard labour. They go with eagerness, sometimes they cheer as the ships come in, as if they were being saved or offered a great prize.

Something is wrong my Lord. This is not right! I fear that Lunza is building a new Army and if it is, then my Nation will be one of the first to suffer the consequences.”

“They are building a great causeway that links all four islands into one My Lord.” This time it was Bishop Fradaran of Vanzor who spoke, “One of our fishing boats, which has used the passage between Palan and Dag for years to reach the kelp beds there, came upon a great stone wall where a year ago there was an open water passage to the Eastern Ocean. He also reported that he saw a great fleet of strange ships a week or so later, when he sailed round the southern tip of Palan to reach his favourite grounds. He says there were no less than fifty of them, but the idiot can not count so who knows how many he saw, yet there remains the question of why the Guardians would need such a fleet Sire.”

“Indeed there does.” Ragarian said, feeling as if he was again missing something in this great play that had begun many months before in his own chambers, when he had granted deed of Dag and its two small sisters to the Guardian’s delegation. “How soon will your spies return with factual news General?”

“A week or so Sire. However long it takes for them to gather real intelligence and get back to the mainland.”

“When they return General you will bring them to me immediately.” Ragarian lifted his glass for a servant to refill, “It will be interesting to discover just what these clever old men are actually up to. Perhaps it is time at last to bring them to a reckoning.” 
 

* * * * * * *


 
Chapter Fifteen

INVASION

 

The ship that took Jarin and Sandar out of Sedanna was very different to any ship they had ever seen before and although Jarin would never call himself knowledgeable about ships in the normal run of things, even he could feel that strange mixture between elation and worry, that one feels when experiencing something completely new and beyond all previous experience. All the ships in Khanlar had their hulls painted, usually either white or in the colour of their nation and for ships of lesser importance in a dull green, brown or grey. The hull of this ship however, was painted black and that was something which was not only unheard of in Jarin’s experience, but in fact went against all tradition, for black was a colour avoided by anyone with the slightest sense of superstition, a trait that most sailing men are well known to possess. The ship was also very much longer from stern to prow than felt right, especially when one related the length of the ship to the narrow width of the deck and as they left the harbour it seemed to cut through the waves in a way that the Arrow had never done. What happened when they were far enough out to sea for the coastline to be no more than a strip of brown and green between the ocean and the heavens, proved to both Jarin and Sandar that this ship was indeed a strange vessel.

With well-practiced efficiency, detachments of sailors assembled in teams to man the capstans, while others worked aloft in the rigging, manhandling into position even greater areas of black sail to catch the wind that blew from the south. The men working above them moved into position quickly, working the ropes through waiting rings and pulleys as they ran extra sails into place and Jarin realized that even he should have noticed before that the masts were far too thick for either the size of the vessel, or the weight of sail they had previously carried as the vessel had left Sedanna. It was not until those extra sails caught the wind however, with what appeared to be acres of canvas spread above them, allowing the wind to fill them to their full extent that Jarin began to understand the real value of this strange new type of sailing vessel. They were driven before the wind faster and faster, into an ever-increasing spray breaking over the prow, as the ship slammed and cut through waves a vessel of the Arrow’s size would have had to ride. Then and perhaps not fully even then, he began to understand the revolutionary talents and capabilities of this amazing ship.  The captain proved to be a young man, young that is for a sea captain of such a ship, being in his mid-thirties at the most and his joy, as he explained the innovations incorporated into the design of his command, was plain for all to see. His blue eyes sparkled with pride from his deeply tanned face and the wind threw his shoulder-length sun-bleached hair all over his head, as he shouted his orders to his crew above the noise of the wind, sending uniformed sailors scampering across the varnished deck and up into the rigging.

“Is it not like a fairy tale ship, Sire?” He said like a child with a new toy, “We can travel at twice the speed of any ship built before her and the Sword could still manoeuvre in the Great Waterway, she is that responsive to the wheel Sire. She is a sailor’s dream Sire, that she is, a sailor’s dreamt’

“Our vessel’s name is the Sword?” Jarin asked, prompting the captain to continue.

“Aye Sire and already there are twenty three more like her at sea in trials.” Soon the captain was pointing out the less obvious changes in the ship’s engineering to Jarin, when Sandar joined them.

“How many men will this vessel carry Captain?” Sandar asked, with the lack of ceremony only a soldier can show when interested in new aids to his efficiency.

“Seventy-five cavalrymen with their horses or two hundred infantrymen with full equipment.” The captain smiled at Jarin then and added, “But your flagship Sire would take both contingents and still have enough room left over for fully equipped and spacious officer facilities, for yourself and your staff Sire.”

“My flagship?” Jarin questioned quietly.

“Aye Sire. The Angel!” The Captain continued, a look of some puzzlement on his face, as he realized that all of what he was saying was obviously news to Prince. “We saw her as we left Lunza, with almost twice the sail we are carrying, leaning into the wind she was and half as fast again as the Sword I have no doubt at all Sire, the Angel is without a doubt the finest ship Khanlar has ever produced.”

“Excuse us captain.” Sandar said and led Jarin aside, leaving the captain manage his command without them. When they were out of the hearing Sandar let his excitement come out.

“Twenty five ships like this and flagship even better! By the Gods Sire, we could travel with an army of near two thousand cavalrymen and create havoc anywhere we chose. Imagine the church’s panic, they could never catch us at sea, nor could they ever be sure where we were going to strike at them next. It’s like a solder’s dream come true. Complete control of the place and time to strike and the ability to withdraw whenever the going gets a little too hard on the troops.”

“Let’s wait until we are sure of all of our facts, before we start planning campaigns Sandar.” Jarin felt like a general who has just found the solution to all of problems and then is almost afraid to use it, just in case it should fail him. “I am giving you an order Colonel and one I want you to follow diligently until we dock in Lunza.” Jarin said, “I want you to spend this trip looking for any possible flaw in the design of this ship from a general’s point of view, or any problems we might encounter using such vessels in the future. Then we will talk about the benefits.  Agreed?”

“Yes Sire.” Sandar replied. He did not like the order that was obvious, for it hard for him to give up the tactical advantage he had already granted himself, but like the professional he was, he would test each theory and hunch until he was sure of every aspect of the design and the performance potential of this vessel.

With the southern coastline off the port bow the ship moved at a tangent to the coast moving further out to sea, even as they progressed eastward through the southern ocean. After less than an hour the shoreline to the north of them was little more than a smudge on the horizon. The wind was building as they cut through the heaving waves that had yet to adorn themselves with their white caps, as they would when the wind picked up a little more. The rudder was hard over and the sails were turned as they caught the wind, with the ship leaning a good twenty degrees towards the port. When at last the island of Goja came into sight off the port bow the Captain made no move to reduce the area of sail, which would have been absolutely necessary for him to drop the ship’s speed to negotiate the narrow deep-water entrance to the Straits of Calvazan.  Instead, the Sword moved even further south before it turned before the south westerly into its second leg, which would be almost due north. The wind crackled the sails as the captain made his turn and everyone aboard felt the surge of power as the ship picked up even more speed as the rudder came straight and the ship stood straight before the wind. The Captain had chosen to take them back to Lunza by the Outer Passage, sailing around the islands along their course and going far further out into the open ocean than would normally have seemed necessary, ensuring however, that they prevented suspicious eyes on any passing ship they might meet, from seeing more than they wanted for them to see. It soon became obvious that it was likely that the Captain sailed on orders that demanded he prevent spying eyes from seeing the full miracle that was this new ship.

Even so, the journey was done in two thirds of the time the old Arrow would have taken on the shorter route and when they finally sailed around the island of Lunza to enter the city from the north, Sandar and Jarin felt the exhaustion only continuous excitement can bring to a man. An excitement that was crowned by the sight of three more sleek black vessels of the same design as the Sword docked at the quay in the harbour. They had passed the Arrow and two other ships of the older style sailing patrol outside of the harbour entrance carrying plague flags, with catapults loaded and their decks lined with crossbowmen as an obvious warning that no foreign ships would enter Lunza’s harbour without dire consequences at this time.  In the few weeks they had been away, Lunza had changed far more than Jarin would have thought possible in so short a space of time. It now looked like the great headquarters town for the Army that it was. It was even cleaner than Jarin had remembered the obvious benefit of many hundreds of men with the need to be kept occupied. Their horses awaited them, along with twenty of Jarin’s personal Guard, who looked as if they had been cast from the same mould and freshly painted no more than an hour before. All through the city men-at-arms stood to attention every few feet, right up to the Great Wall, the gates of which were open to them. There was no doubt whatsoever that all the activity they saw was the result of the Duty Officers doing everything they could to keep the thousands of ready-for-action troops fully occupied, when they were not working in well-disciplined teams on the many building projects going on all around them.
 

* * * * * * *

Absence Intensifies Change

 

Jarin had expected Manator to be waiting to greet them at the Palace; however a servant informed him that a meeting was to be held at ten in the morning the following day that would require his presence, at which time Manator would be in attendance. Jarin therefore went directly to his apartments.

Kirene had changed also while Jarin had been away. Her face was a little harder somehow than what he had pictured in his memory of her, as he had tramped the roads of Khanlar. A little more mature perhaps or maybe the education she was getting was reflected in her appearance? Whatever, he pushed the thought away from his mind and then forgot it entirely, as she ran across the room to throw her arms round him.

“God’s I’ve been worried about you, Jarin.” Were her first words to him and strangely Jarin recognized her mother’s tone, even though the voice was Kirene’s own. That thought too was pushed aside however, as he felt himself enjoying her feminine scents and her firm softness against his body.

“I’ve missed you too sweetness.” Jarin replied, realizing the complete truth of that statement as he saw how beautiful she was becoming with every passing day. “Far more than I ever dreamed I would miss my little sister.” He joked, to her obvious amusement.

The pride that he was a father somehow or another seemed to give added reason to everything Jarin was doing, although he would wonder later if he truly realized it during its happening, The Kirene he had watched grow up and had made into a woman, retreated into herself again and it was as if he was looking at her through an invisible glass screen. Jarin could not pin it down, but somehow she was not as much his as she had been before she had become a mother. He let it go, there was little else to do for the feeling was so weak, like the forgotten name of someone one will never meet again, nor can one really remember the consequence of the last meeting.

The total bond that had been theirs had eased its tightness somehow and Jarin was not sure what to say or feel about it, so again he found it easier to put it from him.  He had barely finished dressing when there was a knock on the door and after being bid to enter, his son’s nurse brought little Jatrin into the room. Jarin soon had his son in his arms and was whirling the boy around much to the child’s delight if the chuckles and smiling face were any proof of it.

The next hour was to pass faster than any Jarin had lived through in the past month. He hugged Jatrin to him and felt the comfort of the boy’s heat as his head laid against Jarin’s neck. He watched and encouraged as the toddler tried to stand, yet failing to do so exhibited great excitement as he crawled around after his father, while the greatest Prince in the land pretended to be frightened, running and hiding behind chairs, only to be found by his fast moving offspring. Finally, with a little more tartness than Jarin appreciated, Kirene bade the nurse take the boy for his bath.

After the nurse had left with their son, Kirene showed Jarin some of the things she had gathered while he had been away and shared some of the things she had learnt in her studies and they talked for an hour or so before going to bed.

It was not until the door closed behind him when he left their rooms the next morning, and Jarin was walking down the corridor towards the meeting with Manator, that he realized Kirene had not mentioned his trip even once during their time together, nor had she asked him what had happened during it.

Again that strange feeling of un-ease played just outside of his control and understanding and again Jarin pushed it down, only this time he realized that he was doing it.
 

* * * * * * *

The Paradox of a Trusting Life

 

Manator had changed more than anything, or anyone, else since Jam had been away. Only the change in his friend Jarin soon understood was very obviously for the worse. He looked much older and very frail, he had lost a lot of weight and his face was drawn and pale. He began to stand as Jarin entered, but then thought better of it and slumped back into his chair.

“Have you been ill, my friend?” Jarin asked, as he took the offered chair across the table from the Guardian General, “You’ve lost weight and you look pale.”

“Was and am ill, Jarin.” Manator replied, “I caught a cold the day after you sailed then it got worse and worse still. In the end I spent two weeks in my bed, however that is unimportant compared to what we have to talk about today, so I thank you for your concern, but I would also suggest that we waste as little time as possible on an old man’s ailments.”

“As you wish.” Jarin said and changed the subject. “These new ships are unbelievable; it is like riding a hawk.

“Aye, but that too can wait for later as well Jarin. Let me tell you of what we are facing on the political and tactical fronts at this time and offer you my advice, before the difficulties we are up against become insurmountable problems.” He shifted his weight again and then launched into his usual monologue.

“Two nights past we picked up a man just outside of the City. Obviously he had landed some way to the north during the previous night, much like our own operation with you and Colonel Sandar in Norden a few weeks back. Then yesterday we found another on the eastern coast of Dag of all places. They are spies sent by the Church that they admitted openly and their presence shows that our religious friends on the mainland have discovered, or at least suspect, what we are doing. One thing you can rely on the Church for, is their inability to forget a worry once they have discovered it, so sooner or later they will have chapter and verse of everything that is happening here; then any chance for the benefit of surprise we may have at this moment, will immediately be denied to us.” He paused, sniffed a little and then said defiantly, “Therefore we must invade the mainland now!”

“Is the Army you promised me ready to mount an invasion?” Jarin asked, as if Manator had requested him to do no more than to accompany him to lunch.

“Ready and champing at the bit. In fact if we don’t invade soon they will have polished every stone and rock on the island.” The older man smiled for the first time since Jarin had arrived and then continued, “But joking aside Jarin, we have nearly eight thousand crack troops awaiting the order to sail and within six weeks another twenty five hundred will be ready to follow them. That is the Army that I promised you during our walk in the woods when we first met, if you remember. There are no more men here to enter training at this time, ten and a half thousand is all of them and in truth the best came first. Oh, you can invade all right, the Church has less than ten thousand men in uniform these days and the seeds of our call to arms will begin to grow and, like we have planned all along, the slaves and the oppressed will come to you as you advance. With training and experience, under good officers and endowed with the discipline they will be given, they will become your infantrymen, your engineers and of course, your garrison troops as the invasion moves across the country.”

“So when do we go?” Jarin asked, still refusing to rise to the excitement he could feel pounding inside his chest.

“Not so fast my young friend.” Manator smiled again. “There is more to it than just jumping on a ship and landing in Khanlar. There is the matter of politics and a lesson that you should by now be ready to learn and put into action.”

“You mean debates, meetings and never ending arguments as usual?” Jarin said with a laugh.

“No!” Manator coughed a little after his loud statement, “I mean stopping the politics once and for all and you taking command of the situation as the Khan of Khanlar, as I have wanted for you all along. The time has come to claim your inheritance. Many of my brothers in the Order of Guardians have looked upon you as a child ever since you first arrived here, a figurehead to lead the army into battle and someone to sit on an impotent throne after the war is won. The fact is however, that our Cause has need of a true leader, not a figurehead to stand around while his advisors begin a debate every time a question comes up. It is my wish that you will take command and hold it if you can. I shall advise you when you wish me to and will allow me to, but from the moment you leave this room; the future of our Cause must be your only thought and your ultimate personal responsibility. The Guardians must in time learn to accept the fact that eventually they must go back to their original place in the order of things, as librarians and teachers, academics and researchers. You alone Jarin must command from this day on.”

Manator was obviously tiring fast and as he sipped from the water glass he took from the table beside him, his bony blue veined hand shook slightly.

“To do that my friend, you must gain the respect of your people and you must put their interests before everything. For a leader is no more than that, when it all comes down to reality. He is only ‘someone who leads’. Without believers and followers no man can be a leader. The leader takes the praise if things go right and the blame if they go wrong, therefore he must be allowed to lead, for there can be no responsibility without the authority to carry it out. Forget the ‘all men are created equal’ tales of your lessons, for you will find that you will have to be far more than just equal from now on and you will have to learn also to carry the responsibility for being so. You should listen to all the advice you can gain of course, but never allow yourself to be swayed away from what you know to be right. Take no qualified changes from the path you choose my boy, for one will follow the other until you are lost, then the people will seek someone else to take them back to where they were when they urged you to leave the path in the first place. If you cannot decide, do not decide. If you are not sure what to do, wait until you are, but allow no one to lead for you. Should you so decide and I know you must from time to time, you may give away the authority, but the responsibility will always be yours.” Manator had tired himself and was breathing heavily as he took another drink from the glass beside him.

“You make it sound like a sentence to slavery my old friend.” Jarin said jokingly.

“It is!” Manator replied, “A self-induced, self-directed, self-maintained slavery, or you will not be a ruler in the real sense of the word. But fear not Jarin, I, and many others have more than enough faith in you, even if your own faith should fail you from time to time. You are a good man! Stay a good man and you will be a good leader for your people.”

“Thank you Manator, you know that I have always been grateful for your confidence. So when does all this begin?” Jarin poured himself a glass of water and sat back, expecting a long and detailed explanation of Manator’s plan, instead of which his old friend laughed out loud, a laugh that ended in a wheezing cough.

“It started ten minutes ago Jarin when you walked in here. I have nothing left to say. When you leave this room you must go out and take command. There is nothing left for anyone to tell you, no advice, no opinion really either . . .  until you have won the first battle in Khanlar.”

“Right now?” Jarin said, quite shocked at the immediate responsibility, “Just go out there and take over. Will not a few of your people feel that I am jumping in before they hove finished?” He asked.

“Of course they will. So will some of your officers, some may even argue your tactics.”  He put his frail blue veined hand on Jarin’s hand, “You are their Khan, Jarin. Rule them! Lead them into the future we have talked about for so long. You have been taught by the best teachers and you have a ready intelligence. Use it! Deliver to them their inheritance!’
 

* * * * * * *

A New Order of Things

 

Manator was right and so was Jarin of course. A lot of people did object, some openly, some in more devious ways, but thanks to Colonel Sandar and Jarin’s personal Guard the grumbles and other dissenting whispers did not last long. Jarin had walked back to his rooms after the meeting with Manator and had given his first independent command within sight of his own door. Jarin ordered himself to have more faith and of course he found the order very hard to obey and would do for a long time he guessed.

His second order that day was also questioned. Jarin asked a passing servant to find Colonel Sandar and the Regimental Commanders and have them report to the Council Chamber at four of the clock.

“I will check that the room is not being used Sire.” The servant said politely.

“If it is, throw the occupants out and have my officers there at four.” Jarin snapped back, “Otherwise my man you will be spending the rest of your life quarrying rock in Dag.”

“Yes Sire.” The man paled visibly and hurried away.

At four Jarin entered the Council Chamber to find his staff sat in the seats normally reserved for Guardians. Sandar was on his feet first, but the salute came from all of them at the same time. The two Guardians present did not take part in the salute, as was their custom, but they must have dropped everything else they were working on to be there at such short notice and that in itself was respect enough. Everyone remained standing until Jarin had taken his seat at the table in front of the great wall map and from that sitting position he announced his plans.

“Gentlemen, we invade Khanlar in three days time.”

The shock was obvious and it was Zavir, Colonel of the Wolves who spoke first.  “Sire, no one has informed me of this action, I have half of my men engaged in tactical exercises on the other side of the island of Dag.”

“I have just informed you, Colonel Zavir.” Jarin said, more sharply than he had intended, “If you can not bring those men back in time Zavir, then we shall have to sail without them.”

“They will be ready Sire.” Colonel Zavir answered, obviously somewhat confused at Jarin’s tone.

“Gentlemen. Two Church spies have been picked up in the last few days and I believe that there must therefore be more. Therefore we attack now, or we shall be defending Lunza from an invasion as soon as one of them conveys to Ragarian what we are doing here. I want you to act as my council of War, along with our chief naval officer, Admiral Kovis, who has been sent for and will arrive in Lunza this evening.

General Sandar . . . ”  He announced Sandar’s promotion “ . . . you and the others will decide on any other officers who could serve us well on our General Staff and you will assemble everyone in this chamber this evening at eight of the clock.” Sandar nodded his assent and then Jarin added as he rose to leave. “Gentlemen there is much to be done and very little time to do it in. Bring your regiments to readiness and prepare for the invasion we have all waited for; for so long. I trust you to assemble a team that can assist us in the planning of our campaign and in the actual invasion itself”

They rose and saluted again as Jarin left the room. Outside he paused and listened as they started to talk in hushed tones. Obviously his announcements had shaken them more than just a little.
 

* * * * * * *

A Life without Recognition

 

Later that afternoon Jarin met in the very same chamber with a vastly different group of his supporters. They represented every social class in Khanlar, every age group and no less than one in four of them were women, or so Razarian had informed Jarin earlier that day. They were dressed for this occasion in the uniform dark blue tunics of the Brotherhood, except that this group wore round fur hats that carried a silver disc bearing a sunburst symbol mounted on the front. From the sides and the back of these hats a veil of dense dark blue silk several layers thick, fell to where it was meticulously tucked into the collars of their tunics. Only the eyes of the wearer could be seen and it added a sinister look to the people gathered there that evening. The same disc device was worn on the left side of the chest, while on the cuffs of their tunics a series of silver braids denoted their ranks. Jarin soon established that no one in the room it seemed was below the rank of Lieutenant.

Razarian, who had been at the earlier meeting with his officers, was now seated at the table when Jarin entered. He rose as the assembled officers jumped to their feet and saluted their Khan. Jarin returned the salute and moved to take his place beside the small Guardian. Razarian nodded to Jarin and smiled slightly, as he re-seated himself and waited until his audience had done the same.

“We all look very military tonight my friends, but your ability to salute me is secondary at this meeting, therefore I suggest you all make yourselves comfortable. This meeting could take several hours I believe.”

Jarin then listened as the General of his Intelligence Corps, who came from the audience to the table after Razarian’s introductions, explained the Grand Plan. The fact was that the General, a large middle aged Asigan who went by the name of Kramakor, had spent an hour before the meeting with Razarian, briefing Jarin on the main points of the Grand Plan, however it was still an exciting meeting for Jarin to be a part of. General Kramakor did not wear a veil, yet his face showed little or no expression as he began to talk.

“Your Highness, Guardian Razarian, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . ” Kramakor’s voice was very soft and assured, something that had surprised Jarin when he had first heard it, coming as it did from such a large body. “This is the first time that the Officers of the Khan‘s Intelligence Corps has ever met as a body and it is very likely that we shall in all probability never do so again, until our Khan rules all of Khanlar as a peaceful land and perhaps not even then.” The soft confident voice continued, “Even here we wear our uniforms as a disguise, for we of all people in this world will never be able to claim recognition for what services we will and have performed, for the Cause. We came together here for a briefing my friends, on the actions we should take during many months of preparation. Instead, we find that we must return to active duty to prepare for an invasion that will take place a few weeks, perhaps even days from now.”

Jarin tried to guess what those people sat before him guarding their identities with such carefulness, would think, if they knew that in only a day or so the Brotherhood would be landing an army in Khanlar. Colonel Kramakor, Razarian and Jarin had debated whether to tell them the truth prior to the meeting, but it had been Kramakor himself who had warned against trusting even the men and women he trusted with his own life, saying “If one of them was caught Your Highness and the torture proved too much for them, you just might find an army waiting on the shore to kill your men even as they struggled through the water to the beach. It is better that no-one knows the exact date, hour and landing place until the invasion is actually taking place.”

A hundred pairs of ears hung on every word the General spoke as he continued:  “You are our secret weapon my friends. You are farmers and fishermen, housewives and even a few priests, you are shopkeepers and tradesmen, clerks and merchants and you are our ears and eyes on the mainland. The Church will not be able to assemble a troop of cavalry, or move a shipment of grain, that we will not hear of it. The pigeons that the gentle monks of Suvak bred and kept for so many years will see to that. Already your contacts on the mainland have had thousands of those winged messengers shipped to them in secret and thousands more are being bred and trained even as we speak. You get your messages to your contacts and they will get them to us without delay.”

Kramakor turned to Prince Jarin to address his next words, “Your Highness, the people you see here this evening are only the officers of your Intelligence Corps of course and each of them has his or her own group operating with them. There is a group in every major city of every Nation and there are also groups that operate in all the Nations, keeping their eyes on special functions of the Church Government. We have a group who watch the fishing industry, another which works in the City of Ka itself, other groups have special responsibility for monitoring the movements and postings of the Church Army, another which monitors the Church’s transportation and distribution activities and another that watches the operations of the Guilds throughout the mainland. Even I do not know eighty percent of my own troops Your Highness and should the Church interrogators capture one of our people, they could only get to a very small number of others, for each person has only two or three contacts that are known to them. It would be like trying to catch a flock of geese with one’s hands, Sire. You can catch one, maybe two, but the others will always get away before you can deal with what you already have. If one of our people is picked up, then the others who were linked to that person are able to disappear before the organization can be damaged in any real way.”

Still seeming to address Jarin, Kramakor continued: “It is amazing just how much damage can be done to an economy from within Your Highness. A slave freed here, a building burnt down there, or a field of wheat, even a pin removed from the wheel of an already loaded wagon . . .  it all leads to a constant drain on the ability of the Church to govern efficiently and it ties up great numbers of their Army in trying to stop it all, or to catch those responsible for it.”

Jarin heard of some of the tactics that his Intelligence Corps had been brought to Lunza to learn also, things similar to Sandar giving his knife to the slaves inside the wheel in the Temple of Sedanna. Most important of all however, he understood by the time that the meeting came to an end that his officers would plan their campaigns with more in-depth and reliable information, than any commanders had ever had available to them at any time in History.  Eventually the meeting did end and that group of secret individuals again stood and saluted him and Jarin left the chamber wishing that he could somehow get to know exactly who they were. Perhaps he would one day, when all the intrigue was no longer necessary. Tonight however, the ships posing as trading vessels and fishing boats, would sail to put each of these men and women ashore at their appointed spots to prepare for the invasion to come.
 

* * * * * * *

Who wears the Crown?

 

Perigan Marlinger sat on the bench beneath the bridge and watched the cliffs of Bizon slipping by them. The sun was turning the western sky crimson and the cliffs and the surface of the Waterway reflected its magnificence. The oarsmen had taken up the stroke as they had entered the waterway; their great drum booming beneath the deck to every rise and fall of the blades of their oars into and out of the dark water. The Captain had slipped the sail as the waves of the ocean had slowly lost their power to this majestic, even-tempered flow of water from the center of the continent. A night bird called some way off, but otherwise it was a silent world that the trading vessel moved through that evening. It became dark almost immediately, the sailors lighting the navigation lamps while Perigan enjoyed the solitude. His uniform as a Captain in the Khan’s Intelligence Legion had been returned to its locker somewhere in the Guardian’s palace and he was back in his own comfortable clothes again. He lit his pipe and carefully drew the first mouthfuls of sweet smelling smoke into his mouth, even as the voice addressed him.

“I believed that we were fellow travellers, but upon smelling that tobacco my friend I know it for a fact.”

Perigan looked up to see a young man, his back to him, applying a match to the travel light hanging from its bracket next to the bench.

“We are aboard the same boat young man, obviously we are fellow travellers, and how would the smell of my pipe affect that.” Perigan answered, noting the strong features of the young man and the aristocratic cut of his clothes as the lantern came to life.

“I mean fellow travellers in life my friend, not upon the same boat. I thought I knew you, but when you lit your pipe I knew it for sure. My name is Peran Vanquestor.  I sat next to you during the Khan‘s introduction and the scent of it pervades your clothing. We are of the same Legion and well met, for I for one would welcome the company from here until we reach Mozag.” The man took a seat beside Perigan and held out his hand and without thinking Perigan took it.

“You break every rule we have been taught in exposing yourself to me Master Vanquestor, the fact that you look like an honest man and that I too recognize you, from your signet ring I would add, not from your smell, argues that I bid thee welcome to share my journey.”

Peran offered a small cup to Perigan that he poured from a small silver flask before he continued the conversation. “I guess it is a little dangerous to go talking to someone you do not know, however we ride the Khan’s boat, on his mission and we did share the same room with him, so I feel the risk is small.” He poured himself a cup, sipped it and continued,

“I have an offer for you my friend, one that I have been seeking to make to someone for many years now. Why you? Fate? Circumstance? Lack of another to offer it to? However, before this is out I have a feeling that I may have need of a friend, and I offer you my friendship in return for your own.”

“You do this often?” Perigan chuckled, “Go up to perfect strangers and offer to be their friend? It would seem Sir, that you are far to impetuous to be a friend to an old conservative like myself I think.”

“Do you think that we shall win this War we are about to embark upon?” Peran Vanquestor’s face had suddenly become very serious, as had his tone.

“I truly hope so; otherwise Sir we are both fools to get caught up in it.” Perigan answered, “But there is of course a great deal of sense in knowing that we may not. What does this have to do with us being friends?”

“I believe that we shall win the War.” Peran stated flatly, “However, the winning of it may be a few years off and much can happen in a few days, let alone a few years. Therefore, it makes sense to provide oneself with a place to run should something untoward happen during that time. I have established an identity for myself in a small hamlet called Kiren in the Nation of Karian. I have taken a wife, and I have set myself up as a merchant in fine leather. To cut a long story short; the girl’s father was killed during the Great War, her brothers took off and her mother died a few years back of the coughing sickness. When I turned up looking for a meal and a place to sleep we struck a deal. The point is, that should you ever need it I could build up a story of how I was trying to get my uncle to come live with us, so that should a few months from now you need a place to hide, it would be easy and pre-arranged, for you to disappear from wherever you are in trouble and drop into a prepared new life. In return I would ask the same assurance from you.”

“That’s it? I tell you where you can run to should you ever need to, taking the time between now and then to establish a long believed reasoning for your sudden appearance when the time comes, and you do the same for me?” Perigan laughed, holding out his cup for a refill, “You really do plan things out Master Vanquestor, don’t you?

“Have you ever been on the run? Hiding out and starving for months on end, always waiting to be turned in or caught?” Peran was serious again. Perigan shook his head, agreeing he had never been pursued in the way his young friend was describing.

“Well I have!” Peran stated, “I made up my mind after that, that I would not go through that again unless there was absolutely no alternative. That’s why I am making the offer. Over the next few weeks you can visit me and I will introduce you to everyone in town as my uncle and then I will visit you and you do the same for me. Then if things ever go wrong for one of us we will have a bolt hole to run to. What do you say? Gods know, there can be few we can trust as well as we can trust each other, now is there? We may be very glad to have made such an arrangement a few years from now.”

Perigan drew deeply on his pipe and looked out on the now moonlit waterway. The lad had a good idea actually. Who was to know when a place to re-appear might have a great value if his present cover was taken away? He reached out his cup for a third refill.

“My name is Perigan Marlinger. I am an apothecary in the City of Norden. I live alone and I have a shop on the Church Garden Walk in the southern section of town. I think you have a worthwhile idea my young friend. I suggest that you come visit your uncle sometime soon, so that I can introduce you around. I can come down to Karian later in the year for the Autumn Fair, they say they have a good selection of Apothecary jars there every year, and then you can introduce me to your friends there. I suggest however that neither of us actually spell out where we have come from more than we have to. You never know when even the stupidest Militiaman will add two and two and still come up with four.”
 

* * * * * * *

The Great Game

 

 The next two days were like a ball in a madhouse, Jarin thought, with everything seemingly needed Jarin’s undivided attention at the same time. His General Staff added members with every new crisis in the organization and when Jarin was not determining what each of his officers should be doing as their part of the Grand Plan; Guardians who were determined to make him change his mind were harassing him. Some of these academic gentlemen were drafted into his group of close advisors, including Razarian of course and others like Lapetar and Tamerin, a seemingly timid little Guardian, whom Jarin had first met in that initial meeting called by Manator to introduce him to the Order of Guardians. Poor Manator himself however, seemed to be growing weaker with every hour and had spent most of the time in his bed since the meeting when he had handed Jarin the ultimate responsibility, which the young Khan was now struggling to develop and hold.

The preparations for the invasion seemed to run more smoothly than Jarin could have even wished for when they started the task and the hours spent in the Council Chamber using the map of lights proved that his officers had been debating every possible alternative for months.

The Navy had also been hard at work dreaming up plans that would use the advantages of the new fleet to the best effect and his fleet commander seemed intent to work every sailor under him to exhaustion if that were needed, to prove his tactics could bring great victories to their Cause. Old Kovis had spent his life on the deck of one ship or another and had ended the Great War with the valiant rescue of a hundred of his fellow Sedannese, whom he had picked up under the very noses of Church Troopers at Dala. He had then evaded a squadron of eight ships to get them away to Lunza. His great solid frame, which he balanced on a rolling deck with two tree trunk-like legs placed firmly apart, his large hands clamped firmly behind his back, only served to emphasize his tanned face and grey beard which made him look like Navitan the Sea God himself.

It was only late in the evening on the day before the invasion that all the plans were finally agreed to and had been put in place. The last of the ships necessary to mount the invasion had been declared ready in Lunza harbour a little after noon that afternoon. Jarin stood before the illuminated map in the Council Chamber that evening as the twilight gave way to the dark skies of a moon less night. With a long pointer he indicated their main target to a room full of officers, the blue green light flooding the darkened room from the wall map and making the silent men sat there look a little like the ghosts many of the peasants on the mainland would soon believe them to be.

“Vanzor it is then gentlemen.” The light seemed to increase in its intensity as he touched it with the pointer.

“We are agreed that fear is our greatest weapon and the more magic we can introduce into this affair the more certain we can be of a quick victory. Of course the garrison an the city will be outnumbered to the point where their defeat is virtually assured, however we need to be firmly established before the Church can raise reinforcements that can be sent in against us. Also the morale of our own troops will be helped if we suffer few or no casualties in our first engagement, therefore no heroics if you please gentlemen.”

There were a few laughs at that and Jarin let them chuckle themselves out before he went on.

“The Lions and Dragons land to the north of the city and the Bears and my Guards to the south in the first landing. We go as infantry and the horses will be brought over when the town is secure.” Jarin knew there were some who had doubts about this decision, but none were voiced as he continued. “We sail in at night and Land as early in the morning as the ships can put us ashore. Kovis will then take command of our fleet and stand off shore just in case we need to get out fast for any reason. Once we have secured the city the fleet will set to sea and will raid all the port cities that might be able to come to Vanzor’s aid, their task being to sink everything they come across from Thar in the south to Rigan in the north. Any trade vessels that offer surrender will be taken and escorted to Dag.”

Jarin went on, “As you know gentlemen, Colonel Zavir and the Wolves are charged with capturing the island of Hamir for us, in fact I believe some of you have bets on whether it or Vanzor will fall first.”

Laughter rose from his audience again, this time accompanied by good natured claims and counter claims for who would take their target first. Hamir was in fact only a monastery town on the island of the same name, which lived under the government of the Nation of Atlar, but strategically it controlled both the mouth of the great waterway and the port of Atlar Without Atlar the Church would essentially be without its main navy base in the Eastern Sea, whose access to the open ocean the island of Hamir controlled.

The decision for a secondary invasion to take the island of Hamir had been a much-argued one, but finally the good sense it made had saved the day. Intelligence had informed them that the Church fleet was divided into three parts at this time, the largest contingent in Navis, another in Norden and a small fleet of eight ships had recently put into Atlar. The island of Hamir guards the entrance to the Great Waterway and therefore the port of Atlar; it was squarely placed to overlook the entrance to the Atlar Sound, along which any ship wishing to approach or leave that port, would need to tack or be rowed to find the open sea. A battery of catapults set up on the western side of Hamir would effectively blockade that channel; thereby holding the fleet within the Sound.

Afterwards to take the island from the land across the mile or so straits of Calvazan would be almost impossible against the strength of the Wolves, even if the Garrison Commander in Atlar could get the sailors aboard the Church fleet under his command. Six or so of the new ships of the Sword class could lay off land to the north of Hamir and effectively control not only the Atlar Sound, but also contain any amphibious force coming from Bizon or Utan to try to lift the blockade of Vanzor. Once they had landed their contingent of Dragons at Vanzor the fleet would attack Utan and Bizon first, before sailing to create havoc in other eastern Nations.  And so the plan to render the Church’s Naval Forces in the east ineffective was formulated and everything was established for it to be enacted.

“Thank you gentlemen.” The room was now completely serious and Jarin continued. “Our friends on the mainland have been instructed to make the Church’s life as difficult as possible and their actions for the next few days will do just that, in fact we expect them to have Church troopers chasing hither and thither all over the countryside long before we go ashore at Vanzor. Our friends of the intelligence Corps do not know of course that we intend to invade the mainland tomorrow morning and probably do not know that they are part of a concentrated and widespread action to keep the Church busy, as far away from Vanzor as they can. Tonight, if everything goes according to plan, there will be garrison outposts on fire, or under attack, from Dynlar to Predon. For the climax gentlemen . . .  the uprising should be beginning right now.”

That statement brought a few cheers from the officers facing him.

“Well gentleman, this is it. This is what we have planned for all these years and at last the time has come to have our revenge. We get a few hours sleep and then we embark our troops onto the ships. A few days from now we should have put the fear of God into the heart of every Priest and the minions who serve them, from one end of Khanlar to the other. I wish you all good luck gentlemen, may your next night be slept as victors in Khanlar itself.”

Jarin had to admit to himself that he enjoyed the cheers and the obvious faith everyone there that night expressed in him. It was not until an hour later, as he climbed into bed to join a sleeping Kirene that he wondered what might happen if victory did not come as easy as they all expected it to. That thought did not keep him awake long however and it seemed that no sooner had he put his head to the pillow than a servant was waking him, talking in an excited voice about the events to come that day before Jarin was even fully awake.

* * * * * * *

Embarkation

 

A squadron of six black ships had left a little before sunset earlier the night before to take Colonel Zavir and the Wolves to Hamir and now the docks were crowded with troops moving in orderly formation to go aboard the sleek black ships that awaited them. It was only a little after midnight when Jarin reached the docks and a light rain had only just stopped falling, leaving small puddles to catch the light of the street lamps as the Army prepared to embark. The Angel was already loaded with the few horses Jarin and his officers would need and a contingent of a dozen of his personal Guards stood on the deck waiting for him to board with his officers and their aides, who presently were moving about checking last minute details with each other.

Manator and several of the Guardians, to say nothing of a hundred or so officers who were staying behind with those troops newly out of training, had come to the docks to see the invasion fleet off. When Kirene and Jarin stepped out of the coach he saw again just how frail Manator had become, for the Guardian General walked to join them with two younger Guardians supporting him on their arms.

“So I kept my promise, Prince Jarin, did I not?” Even in his weakened state Manator managed a smile.

“To the letter friend.” Jarin replied as Kirene hurried forward to assist the old Guardian General, “Now I must carry out my part of our bargain and lead Khanlar into a better and brighter future.”

“You have a lifetime to fulfil that promise my young friend, do not take chances to bring it about sooner than it wishes to come, remember what we talked of at our last meeting.” He looked serious and Jarin feared he might start lecturing him again but he was saved by the arrival of an aide who informed him that only his presence was needed for the fleet to be ready to sail. Not being one who enjoyed long drawn out farewells, Jarin took the opportunity to say his goodbyes quickly and went aboard the Angel.

It was a fine feeling and a proud feeling, as the ships cast off and set out to sea in formation with their banners flying from every mast head, while those aboard crowded the gunwales to see their loved ones waving them good fortune from the quays as they sailed out of the harbour and into the new day to come and the open sea.

“A great fleet, carrying a great host and bound to achieve great things,” was the way Kovis put it as they sighted the mainland, a shadow between the moonlit night sky and the dark ocean. Jarin for one thought the Admiral’s words about summed up everyone’s feelings aboard the fleet at that moment. So they proceeded down the coast in stately procession, eighteen black ships with the Angel at their head. On trials the Angel had sailed two hundred and four miles in one day, an all time record for any ship, but the fleet that day sailed at a more regal speed before a steady wind, that would take them just over fifty one hours to make the three hundred or so mile trip from Lunza to Vanzor.  The campaign to take Vanzor was over so fast it was an anti-climax. The city’s Prince, his family and everyone rich enough to own a horse left the place as soon as they found out that an Army was coming ashore, with the Vanzor Garrison following not far behind them.

By the time the Khan’s officers had assembled their troops into formations and reached the city, the sun had risen over the eastern sea. All that was left to greet them was a frightened band of citizens waving a flag of surrender, which Jarin took with as much ceremony as he could manage.  Jarin actually walked into the throne room of the palace of Vanzor even before his trousers had dried from when he had jumped into the water from the landing boat. After that it was just a matter of moving their people in and making the necessary arrangements for holding the town and long before noon every able bodied citizen of Vanzor, slave and freeman alike, was working on the defences Jarin’s military architects had planned a long time before.  The only down note heard came a few days later, when it was learned that even with the ease of their victory, Colonel Zavir and the Wolves had won their bets on which target would fall first. The island of Hamir had surrendered even faster than Vanzor, the Abbot of the Monastery there meeting the invaders on the beach to actually hand over his surrender even before most of the troops had disembarked.
 

* * * * * * *



Chapter Sixteen

ESCAPE FROM DESPAIR

 

Razarian held the nib of his quill pen a little away from the paper, brushing the feather lightly against his chin. His signature on the document before him would seal the historic decision that three of the four men around the table that night had already signed. It was written in language that made it little more than any other memo the four of them might issue, yet it did much to shape the future of the government they represented, in fact it might well affect the fate of all of Khanlar, for many years to come.

“My friends, we are changing the way warfare is conducted when we issue this order, you know. Since History began, every disagreement, every revolution and every war, whatever its size or importance, has been fought with the concept that he who controls the land also controls the world. We are changing that today. We are stating that he who controls the Sea controls the world.” Razarian added his signature to those of General Sandar, Admiral Kovis and the Guardian Tamerin, looking at the latter as he finished it with a final flourish and asking in a careful voice. “Are you absolutely sure about this my friend?”

“More than anything I have ever supported.” Tamerin replied. “But understand, it was not something that I arrived at by natural intelligence or instinct.  I was trying to collect together the various options the Church would have when our invasion was discovered.  As I collected and examined the options the Church would have, I realized that each and every one of them depended to a great extent upon their being able to use the ocean routes to deliver their counter attack.  Without the freedom to sail into the cities of Khanlar the Church is denied the speed and supplies it needs, for until they can repair the super-structure of bridges and roads that connect the cities together, they will not be able to manage the supply necessary for an all-out offensive against us, unless they can control the sea routes.”

Tamerin took up a pointer lying on the map of Khanlar that was spread out on the table between them, touching it first to the Nation of Dynlar in the West and then to the Nation of Vanzor in the East.  

“Khanlar is a continent, but it is also an island. Twelve hundred miles from east to west.  Nine hundred from north to south. If we can deny the Church the ocean, we deny them time to retaliate and we make their task ten times harder. It is the simplest and the most unexpected defence we have available to us. The fact that it is available to us is provided by the simplicity of the way a man’s mind will work and the fact that history in Khanlar has designated that war is fought on land and trade is maintained by sea. Even we island dwellers on Lunza have always considered this to be fact, yet this time the facts are changed. We are not the Asigan Alliance, land-locked where our defence is considered, neither are we without the wherewithal to change the way warfare is conducted.”

“You think that is why Manator pushed through the building of the fleet? “ Admiral Kovis asked, leaning forward to look at the map, almost as if he had never considered the facts that Tamerin was pointing out to them.

“I doubt it.” Tamerin answered, “Don’t get me wrong, I do not belittle the knowledge of the Guardian General, I just think that he saw the fleet as a way to establish the necessary link between Lunza and the invasion forces on the mainland.  If he had understood the advantage he had given us, I have no doubt he would have pointed it out to us.

“Run over the concept again, I may have to defend this independence of ours to Prince Jarin one day.” General Sandar had signed the document willingly, yet had kept his own counsel most of the session.

“We have taken Vanzor and Hamir.” It was Razarian who spoke, “We have built the greatest fighting fleet the world has ever seen, and here we are after our first victory with complete control of the whole Eastern Seaboard. Now we use my Intelligence Legion’s operatives throughout Khanlar to attack every ship and installation that could be used by the Church to mount a naval campaign against us. Admiral Kovis leaves this room tonight with a copy of this order we have just signed, to take on every Church Warship he can bring to battle. Every ship of every Nation that he can get out to sea and engage he either sinks or captures; until the seas are denied to any vessel flying the colours of the Church or their allies. General Sandar; this gives you the time to build defences and make your troops ready for the next stage in our plans. As for explaining this to Prince Jarin . . .  well I believe he had given us the power to do this in his name, we are just pre-empting anything that might arise to prevent it.”

“Guardian Razarian.” General Sandar’s voice was low and sincere as he spoke, “I understand that Prince Jarin is not ready to take complete control of the situation, even though for all intents and purposes we are the only people that will ever be allowed to voice that fact. I understand better than any of you the gaps in his experience.  I travelled with him through Khanlar and I have been his constant companion since he took the title of Khan. I know that in terms of life experience he is guided by the fully lived experience of a ten year old, yet he is the Khan. By blood and by appointment! For as long as we work to promote the Cause he proclaims and recognize that he is our anointed sovereign, then I am your man; should I ever feel that we go counter to that goal and understanding I shall be your greatest enemy.”

Admiral Kovis nodded and his demeanour proved his loyalty to the Khan was no less sincere than General Sandar, but it was Tamerin who spoke the words that followed Sandar’s statement that evening.

“General Sandar, the loyalty of every man in this room to Prince Jarin is beyond doubt. Razarian and I swore a bonding oath to the Khan before Manator would allow us the positions we hold within his administration. Our loyalty to the Khan is above that to our own Order. Yet we must protect him from that which he needs to be protected from.”  Silence reigned for a few moments before Admiral Kovis took up the conversation and continued the examination of the policy they had just signed into being.

“My fleet will engage and destroy, or capture, every ship that could be used against us. For that purpose I have divided the fleet into four squadrons of six black ships, each with a flotilla of lesser vessels to act as supply and service to them. Yet there is little or nothing we can do to stop the trade along the Waterway; that is where your men must prevail Razarian. If we stop all the ocean traffic of the Church, yet the Waterway stays open, well then, they can still supply an army to attack us here in Vanzor within the month”.

“And they will” Tamerin said, “There is almost nothing we can do to stop them. Within a week or so the whole Waterway, from Jega to Bizon will look like a military zone. Even so, if we can control the seas we will still have the advantage. Razarian‘s men will cut the mooring ropes, pull the plugs, or set the torch as often as they can, but the Waterway will still serve the Church. The point is gentlemen; it will make their lives ten times the more difficult if they can not supply those cities that have for generations neglected their roads and relied upon supply and trade by the sea.”

“And the Khan? “ Sandar asked quietly, “I have no stomach for what I still have doubts may indeed by subterfuge, although I understand well the reasons for it.”

“General Sandar . . . ” It was Tamerin who spoke, “if the Church had known of our invasion and been waiting for us with a Division of Cavalry and a few siege engines, the Khan’s decision to attack Vanzor without Cavalry might well have been the death of us. As it was, our intelligence proved correct and the day was won. Prince Jarin made a major tactical error in public and he stated it so loud that we had no choice but to go along with it or prove his lack of knowledge of tactical warfare. We cannot allow our present naval superiority to be compromised in any such way. When we have achieved our objectives the Khan will rule Khanlar, the end of this is far more important than the methods and deception used to achieve it.”

The little Guardian began to roll up the map as he signalled the end of the meeting, addressing Razarian and Kovis as if he were doing no more than inviting them to join him for dinner later.

“Razarian, let urgency be your motto in this, by week’s end we need ships burning from Karden to Sedanna. Admiral Kovis, I expect a report to reach me every day for the next month of another successful sea battle where we have sunk or captured the enemy. Now gentlemen I suggest we end this meeting and put our plan into immediate and urgent action.”

General Sandar stood up and took up his helmet to leave the room, remembering almost at the last second to address Admiral Kovis. 

“May God go with you Admiral!  May the Khan be victorious by your actions!”

Admiral Kovis came to his feet and slapped his fist to his chest in salute at Sandar’s words, saying, “Victory to the Khan!”

And then the secret meeting ended and the four most important men in the Khan’s forces left the room to enact the program they had just formulated.
 

* * * * * * *

Imperial Confusion

 

Ragarian found it hard not to lose his temper at the sight of the dozens of terrified administrators rushing all over the place in the Great Hall, trying to assemble and interview everyone who had news of what was happening. The latest messenger he would have had put to death, if it would have helped anything, however nothing appeared able to help the situation at this moment, so Ragarian had the babbling fool dismissed as fast as possible.

A large and ornately decorated map of Khanlar had been laid out on a large table, not twenty feet from Ragarian’s throne and from it the picture of the situation was fast becoming that of a disaster. That morning he had been enjoying the Spring beauty of his garden, when the first messenger had arrived and summoned him to the Great Hall. When he arrived there he found a group of tired and travel-stained couriers waiting for him. His advisors and administrators had assembled no less quickly and soon almost everyone of any importance, including General Toragor, was in the room when the nightmare began. After less than fifteen minutes Ragarian had managed to instil some semblance of order and sanity to the assembly and had then decided to leave, to enjoy his lunch while they analyzed the situation.

He returned an hour later to discover that anarchy had again taken charge. Ragarian entered the throne room and it was a riot of confusion, as senior officers of the Army and officials of the Church ran around in little less than studied panic. His throne, raised on its carpeted platform as it was, stood isolated and empty of course. Suddenly it seemed to Ragarian that the scene was a portent of the situation. The throne was serene and isolated from the anarchy that raged beneath it.

The Priest of Priests did not need to look at the map to know the details of the latest disaster. He could see the smoke through the windows, far off in the distance behind the land bridge which separated the Bay of Rangar from that of Karden, where at this time no less than fifteen of the twenty Warships anchored there, were going up in flames. The galley slaves of all people, who had somehow managed to free themselves during the night, had set the fires. Many of them now lay dead on the shores of the Bay of Karden, where his troops had started murdering them before he had been able to get orders to them not to, and a lot more of the poor creatures had drowned while trying to swim to safety across the bay to the coast of Samur.

Vanzor had fallen! The absolute impossibility of that fact made Ragarian wince.

How could his people have been so blind and just not know that an army had been building itself on Lunza readying itself to launch an invasion? That was the only place it could have come from. How could he have been so stupid not to have guessed what those hell cursed Guardians had been up to, when he had blindly sold them the ability to build an Army. Why had he left it so late in the day to send spies to discover what they were doing on Lunza? Vanzor had fallen! The whole Royal Family, the garrison and everyone who had a horse, or a pair of frightened enough feet, had run away so fast they had nearly made it to Magor before the invading army had actually landed.

A messenger had recently informed him that the remaining Warships of the Eastern Fleet were bottled up in Atlar Sound. From the latest reports several had been fired as they had tried to escape and a couple more had driven themselves onto the rocks and sank, while trying to keep out of range of the catapults the enemy had installed on Hamir. Ragarian began to follow the servant who was clearing a way for him across the throne room, fuming at the lack of viable alternatives he appeared to have available to him to react to the present situation. If he had been able, he would have dispatched the Eastern Fleet to