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 traveled 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 traveling 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 gray 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 traveling merchant.  Heavy gray 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 it's 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 quarter staff, 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 it's 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 traveling 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 it's 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 gray 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 traveling on to the next habitation without even bothering to stop.  High gray stone walls surrounded the city, which was perched on gray stone cliffs, with hundreds of chimney stacks spouting clouds of gray smoke into an ominously leaden gray sky.  The drizzle became a downpour even as they approached the gate house and after ringing the heavy bell to gain entrance, they stumbled into that stone hut cold, angry, soaking wet and ready to drop from exhaustion.  Inside they found two overweight guards 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 head-long onto the stone floor.  Jarin stepped around him and slammed the door back into it's 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 traveling on foot ever since our horses bolted during the night. . . They didn't turn up here by any chance, a fine looking gray 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 gate-house.

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 board walk 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.  It's gray stone walls rising up four stories with windows that looked more like crossbow defense 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 laborers 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 it's 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 again."  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 with her,  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 it's 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 gray 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's 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 mold and were unaired; 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 copper 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 it's 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 girls 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 traveled 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?"

"Don't have one."  She answered defiantly,  "Look if you want to have a go at me, you don't have to make up excuses, just mount up and get it over with, then I can get out of here.  You deserve that much for saving me from those scum downstairs, but you don't own me mister.  No one does."  And with that she stood up, turned round, hoisted her new dress up to expose her rear end and took a grip on the chair.  Sandar laughed and lifted her gently upright into a standing position again.

"That's no way to treat Gentlemen, girl.  Especially seeing that we have only just finished eating.  Cover yourself."  He pulled her dress back down, took her by the hips, turned her and pushed her gently back into the chair.  "You keep that up girl and you'll be carting bastards around on each hip before you see a year out and then you'll end up with a career of selling your milk to lazy farmer's wives."  

"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 fill 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.  It was obvious that she thought now was the time and that Sandar just preferred to do it laying down rather than standing.  She obliged by hoisting her dress once more to expose her womanhood.  

"By the God's girl!"  Sandar exclaimed,  "When I need you to open your legs, I will tell you.  Now get some sleep."  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.  Looked a lot like her."

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 whet-stone on the already sharp edge of the dagger he 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, then with a practiced movement it disappeared into it's 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 her awake 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 tap room.  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 tap room 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 honor, 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 neighbor.  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 bully boy 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 it's length a torch burnt in it's bracket, throwing a circle of yellow light onto the snow and every barn and workshop seemed to have it's 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 it's 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 plow 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 to 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 labors 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 gray beard.  

"Guardian."  Sandar replied, before Jarin could say anything.  

"Welcome to Hell, Master Tassinar.  My name is Perigan Marlingar."  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, 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 color, 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 color, 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 all the 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 gray 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 it's relentless march through time and making it's 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 it's inhabitants without ever changing, Jarin guessed.  A huge prison for humanity, where time stood still as the centuries passed outside of it's 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 traveled 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 it's 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 gray 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 forest.  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 around them. 

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, who had obviously realized that he had been seen, yet still stood where they had first sighted him.  Sandar's horse picked it's way carefully up the slope, until they could see him beside the cloaked figure holding the small brass gong, which 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 have stayed on the trail, however in a short space of 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 it's 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 plow share, 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 posts 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 it's 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 freshly 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 it's 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 it's inhabitants, hidden away as they were in their little valley.   

"This place being locked in it's 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 don't want that, an' we don't want folks to know we're 'ere.  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 was 'ere 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 an' made his way back here.  He died a month or so later though, wasn't nothing we could do for him though, 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 it's 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 has Sandar, 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 too 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 it's tranquility.  The simple morality and goodness of it's 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 traveled 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 traveled, 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 behavior 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 it's 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 labor.  

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 endeavor and in the short time they were traveling 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 laborer and small craftsman of even their tenuous security of past times.  The fields were worked by men in chains, while the laborers 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 government of Khanlar was presently controlled by the very people, the priests, the lawyers and the money-counters, who lived themselves as parasites upon the parasites.  

Jarin and Sandar traveled 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 meager meals a day.  The newcomers in the lands that had once passed from father to son for generations, then spent their ill-gained gold acquired from others misfortune and bought up the land of their poor neighbors.  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 meager 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 labor 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 it's 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 two strangers in worried silence, as Jarin and Sandar moved through the hovels which 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 it's 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 place 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, every one of them or so they say, although it's just as likely that some of them exchanged favor for favor 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 it's 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 his 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 livable 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's 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.  

"Then I will buy half of your profit for next year for fifty crowns."  Jarin replied.  

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 as quickly.   "You are joking.  Taking 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 probably being, 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 will 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 it's 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 could be no more than seventeen 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 girls eyes move to read the words, her lips mouthing them as a child will do while she did so.   

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, for these days it's 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 it entered the 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 behavior.  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 was, Sandar noted, 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 Mozag 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 row boat, employing forty slaves beneath the great open deck.  It's age was attested to by the color 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 it's open promenade.  Like a great engine it traveled across the sparkling water of Lake Asiga with a well learned purpose, it's 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 unconsciously 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.

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 traveled 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 it's 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 it's 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 splendor 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


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 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, it's greatness magnified by the great lake and forest around it.  

At the end of the half mile long causeway was a fortified gate house 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 gate house 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 travelers and soon Jarin and Sandar had entered the city over the drawbridge at the other end of the causeway 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 it's 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 valor and acts of disgrace were 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, 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 it's graduates like a great University and during the afternoons that Jarin and Sandar traded with it's 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 is 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 color 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 or 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 honor 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 it's 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 honor 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 honor and everyone knows that when that happens, you are well on your way to a lawless society."

"I thought during the last War that perhaps we might see a resurgence of our Order. . ."  Rolingar ventured,  ". . .Several of our members served well during it you know.  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'se 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, 'cause a legion of us would wipe out these leftovers of the old Brotherhood in no time, if they would give us the orders to go out and 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 plough boys, tavern vermin and laborers, 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 honor, not these 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 us and the ocean.  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/merchant, a soldier/body servant, a farmer/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 keeping away from the main cities until they came to the village of Grandar in the Nation of Natan, at the halfway point between the monastery town of Mansa and the City of Sedanna and 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 little 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 centers of despair.  

The Inn also differed from the other Inns they had visited along their route, in that the tap room 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 with.  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 necklet 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.  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 a 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 was their landlord's name,  "And our owners were not very happy about it at the time, but they still live here, some of them 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.  A raid 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, 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 in Kiba,"  Jarin said,  "Are His ways always so just and profitable."  

The Innkeeper had left them and the Priest looked first at Sandar, then 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, 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 fiber 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 your 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 instill 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 signaled 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 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 it's 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 the city was therefore only obstructed by a low balustrade of stone pillars, which stood no higher than a man's waist and the expanse of brilliant 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 favorite 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 sea gulls 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 it's ancient architecture and the peace of it's 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 no-where 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 his love affair with the beauty of Sedanna had been expected by the cynical old soldier.  

"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 less beggars, thieves and pickpockets and if we paid them living wages we might have less 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 were 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 defiantly.  

"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 towards 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 which rose in clouds from a dozen burners, stung the eyes and gave it's occupants a heady feeling as the heavy perfumed clouds were breathed in with the motionless air of the temple itself.  The majestic domed ceiling of the place was supported by a forest of pillars and in the marble floor were the mosaic portraits of many gods and goddesses, the majority with offerings of flowers laid upon them.  The entire space was inhabited by statues made of every medium from wood to brass.  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 them 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 it's 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 labor.  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 Great 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 favorite 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 it's 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 those clever old men are actually up to.  Perhaps it is time at last to bring these Guardians  to a reckoning."    

* * * * * * *


Chapter Fifteen

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