Chapter Seventeen


Little Stories


In every telling of History there are many stories and small incidents that happen and are forgotten soon after, which if recorded would together form the detail of a true picture of the events.  Unknown people living soon to be forgotten lives are the true pattern of history, within and around which great events occur.  These vignettes, if they were recorded, would give the student a more accurate understanding of the times, even though they would have no other relevance to the History than that.  Therefore some of these unrelated stories about incidents in the lives of famous and important, or otherwise unknown and unimportant people are included here, to assist the student of our own day and time understand the backdrop against which our History was actually lived.  These are such tales of Khanlar in those days following the fall of Vanzor to the Army of the Khan.


* * * * * * *

Iregana Matek - Citizen of Vanzor


In the weeks following the invasion, with cloth manufactured in Rolon or taken from trade vessels by their ever more successful fleet, the Khan's people had become a uniformed one.  The male citizens of Vanzor and the refugees who arrived daily, found their old clothes exchanged for green tunics and breeches which became the uniform for working citizens of the occupied territories.  Simple green gowns, cloaks and thonged sandals were provided for the women and children among the poor and the refugees.  Such clothing was available at absolutely no cost, just for the asking, which tempted many citizens who did not need the largess to take advantage of the handout, leaving them to spend their own money on finer clothes for the evening.  For the very poor and the ex-slaves in the society the issue of two free outfits each year had an extra benefit other than just having something warm to wear, it also removed the most obvious stigma of poverty.  It was very hard to know who had been free and who had not, when they wore the same working uniforms in public these days.  For some the sandals and boots which came with the issue each year, was the first footwear they had ever owned, so they were obvious for a while, until they learned how to walk in them and their feet adjusted to their change in fortune.  The heavier and more expensive military tunics and knee boots were of course reserved for those who were conscripted to serve in the Khan's Army.   

The countryside around Vanzor became a beehive of activity, for with almost unlimited labor working under military organization and discipline, the land under cultivation increased and enjoyed the first real spring planting in years and as they tilled the fields, their defense works also sprang up everywhere.  Men of military age who were not too under nourished to enter into the Army immediately, were dispatched to the island of Suvak to undergo training, or they were organized into small groups under the command of one of the Brotherhood's experts and sent back into the unconquered territories to create havoc for the already pressured Church administration and it's supporters.  Like a kettle coming to the boil the excitement in Vanzor rose by the day, as rumors spread of the Church Army only hours away in Magor, increased both the real and the perceived pressure on the people in that fortified Nation. 

Iregana Matek stood outside of her small baker's shop that bright Herthesday morning watching the traffic on the Street of Roses and thanked the Goddess for her luck over the past year.  Avigan Matek, her third husband, had gratefully died in the first month of the previous year, leaving her to give thanks for her release from his drunken stupidity and violence against her for many weeks afterwards.  Her little shop had done more business in the three months after he had died, once he was no longer around to insult the customers, than it had in the previous year.  Then when the Khan's Army had taken over the city, her eldest son, by her first husband, had the good sense to desert the Militia, rather than follow his officers off to safety.  Fine safety it had been, they had all been hung or sentenced to the galleys once the Church had got their hands on them.  Mirak however, had changed his Vanzor Militia uniform for one of the Khan's Army and had shipped out for training some days after being freed from jail.   

Whether it was the good weather, or her own good mood, Iregana could not say, but the Street of Roses looked better to her today than it had in years.  The morning rain had cleaned off the cobblestones a treat, and the street cleaner had little to do that day as he pushed his little cart along the thoroughfare picking up what little rubbish the citizens had dropped there since he had come this way the day before.  Kitrana Kisoman waved to her from across the street at her small cloth store, as she opened the doors and laid out her wares on tables on the pavement.  Iregana waved back and then went back inside to take out the first batch of loaves, ready for the customers who would start arriving within a very short time. 

The City of Vanzor's economy was booming.  Ever since the Khan had taken up residence in the Prince's Palace, the city had experienced a growth no-one could ever have imagined a few years ago.  It was only a year or so back that the first of the beggars, prostitutes and other low life had begun to disappear as the Old Order had tried to clean up the city.  They had been carted off by the Church Relocation Forces, accompanied by whispers and gossip, but to the good of the city as far as Iregana was concerned.  But since the invasion things had really improved.  The soldiers of the Khan's Army were mostly stationed outside of the town, but when they came in for recreation and rest they were polite and cash paying customers.  The Inns and restaurants in the town now bought twice as much bread from her today than they had a year ago. 

The first loaves were on the counter and she was wiping away the sweat brought out on her face from unloading the ovens, when her sister Jacana came in half an hour later.  Jacana was her youngest sibling, fourteen years younger, only three years older than Iregana's eldest daughter who was already selling loaves to the first customers of the day. 

"Good morning Iregana."  Jacana greeted her, making no move to purchase bread, but coming round the counter to hug her eldest sister.  "I see business is still good, is it possible you could forsake a little of the gold and join your sister for breakfast at the local Inn?" 

Iregana scowled without anger, for although her youngest sister was apparently hare-brained to everyone else, she had a soft spot for her and knew there were far more brains inside that pretty head than most gave her credit for. 

"I suppose Bacania can mind the store for me.  But it will be your coin that pays this morning Jacana, for if I think it proper it were me that paid the last time."  Laughing at the small joke they had shared, the sisters left the shop and within a few minutes were sat at an outside table at The Rosetree Inn enjoying their coffee. 

"I thought, with mother being dead these five years and all, it should be you, as my eldest sister, that I should first break the good news to."  Said Jacana, enjoying the moment fully.  "It will no doubt please you to know dear sister, that as of last night I am betrothed to be the wife of a Sergeant in the Khan's Army.  A certain Sergeant Ragoran Brador, of the 3rd Squadron of the Lion's Regiment, who has just returned from the conquest of the Nation of Goja with the Khan's own party.  He's a hero Iregana!" 

"Men have a habit of being a hero in public my girl, and a bully in their own home.  How well do you know him, come to that how long has my youngest sister been chasing soldiers?"  Iregana's voice did not betray whether she was joking or  truly serious. 

"It was not like that Iregana.  We met by chance, I was working in the laundry room of his Regiment.  I've known him for more than two weeks."  Jacana was obviously upset. 

"Hell, I knew old Avigan for seventeen years before I married him and found out what a useless hunk of flesh he was."  Iregana snorted the words out.

"I am going to marry him.  I love him.  How could you be so cruel?"  Jacana was more upset than Iregana had even begun to understand, which was proven when the younger girl suddenly jumped up and rang from the patio in tears, taking off up the street in the direction of the offices where she worked, gone before Iregana could even argue with her.  Feeling both upset with her sister and sorry for what she had done, Iregana paid the bill and walked back to her shop, just in time to find her eldest daughter in blushing conversation with a young soldier of the Lion's Regiment.  Beside herself with anger and frustration Iregana grabbed the young man by the collar and turned him out into the street.  Then she took a slap at her confused daughter, and missed. 

"Get behind the counter missy.  Damn men and damn the army!"  She shouted as she stamped into the kitchen, to the amazement, if not amusement, of everyone in the shop at the time.  


* * * * * * *

The Apostle Jiranir


Jiranir walked along the muddy track towards the hamlet of Samatin in the Nation of Navis wondering what might await him there.  In the last week he had visited three such places already, healing the sick where he was able and preaching the Laws of the One and Only God to groups of bewildered peasants.  This morning the light rain which had heralded the dawn, still sparkled here and there in emerald green swords of grass and had darkened the bark of the trees he passed, making the world look like a freshly completed oil painting.  The world was beautiful to him today, as it had not been only a few years back, when he had labored under the dogma of the old Church teachings in the City of Cimar. 

He had entered the service of the One and Only God only after he had listened to the teachings of the Guardian Razarian, who had discovered the Gospel of the One and Only God in an old book which had been found in the vaults of the Guardian's Palace on Lunza.  The Golden Book had stood before them on the great lectern every day of the twelve months that Razarian and the other teachers had taught Jiranir and the other eleven Apostles, called to spread the gospel.  Jiranir himself had read from it on many occasions, turning it's heavy pages and marveling at the beauty of the words and the art of the penman who had written the words onto the paper.  He carried a copy within the folds of his robe this morning as he walked along the muddy path, even now angry that the Church of which he had once been a member, had hidden this gospel from the people for more than a millennium.  How could the sinners have triumphed?  How could mere men have wiped away all traces of the true creator?  How was it possible that the people could be made to forget the Golden Age, when the priests of the One and Only God had led them through lives of peace and plenty, under the beneficial reigns of so many heroic and wise Khans in Ancient Times?  Jiranir straightened his back and felt the anger he kept hidden at all times.  The evil of this world was great and he had dedicated his life to bringing the Light of Wisdom back to mankind.  He would die before he would allow the Laws of the One and Only God to be erased from men's minds again. 

Soon he came to the poor settlement where he would spend the day converting the inhabitants back to the Truth.  The small cottages of the people who lived here were silent, standing on either side of the rutted mud track, which served as a road to transport the product of their labors to markets elsewhere.  Gray smoke rose from the stone chimneys of each abode, lifting above the damp thatch of their roofs into a clear morning sky.  A few of the people who lived here were moving about outside, but it was still early enough to be most obviously the beginning of the day.  A dog tethered to the timbers of one of the nearest houses began to bark, bringing the head of that household out of the daub and wattle cottage to investigate the cause.  He was a large man, probably in his fifties, dressed in a homespun tunic and roused before he had had the time to comb the gray hair which ringed his bald head and framed his mouth in a crude beard.  He set out to greet Jiranir, only once checking he had buckled his knife to his belt. 

Jiranir understood the man's puzzlement for he had seen it many times of late.  Who expected a priest dressed in a blue habit carrying a staff topped by a great silver ringed-cross to come walking into your home at dawn?  In this gods forsaken place which lived by harvesting the forest it was even more remarkable. 

"Just another day, just another hamlet."  Jiranir thought, and then he smiled, offering his free hand to the approaching peasant in a sign of friendship, for this was certainly not just another day for these people, in fact it would prove to be a day they would remember for the rest of their lives.  


* * * * * * *  

General Jarandar


General Jarandar hit the corporal again.  This time he let the baton fall between the man's neck and shoulder, taking some pride in the way that with perfect aim he had efficiently snapped the man's collar bone. 

"When will you learn Corporal that we are here to work these scum, not to prolong their lives?"  He knew the man was too frightened to answer and did not bother to wait for any reply that might come.  "I could place you with them little man, I could let you join them in their state.  You could grovel on the floor with them as they murder each other over the carcass of some dead rat.  You could live with them in their lice infested barracks."   

A Sergeant entered the room before Jarandar could continue his promises to the terrified corporal and announced that a new contingent of workers had arrived.  The General turned from tormenting the corporal and lifted his jacket from the back of a chair.  He carefully put the jacket on, brushing away imagined dust with his left hand and turned to leave the room.  As he was about to pass through the doorway he turned.  The two men who had tied the corporal spread eagled to the wall were now letting him down, Jarandar watched the man stagger and pronounced his judgment before leaving. 

"Corporal Voyatir is to be treated in the Camp Hospital and then transferred under guard to Camp Silar.  I trust Corporal you will learn the error of your ways.  You have been a good soldier until this incident, so I forgive you your transgression.  You will never again give any of your food, for that matter you will give no support of any kind to any of these animals we are charged with?  They are here to work or die.  Do you understand that Corporal?"   

The corporal tried to stand to attention as he answered  "Yes Sir!",  but the effort was too much for him and he fainted.  General Jarandar left the room in disgust. 

There had been a deep frost that morning and a mist still hung over the clearing as General Jarandar left the log building to view the new arrivals.  He made a point of checking every person they brought to the camp and the latest batch looked far fitter than those they had received to date.  It was obvious of course that as they exhausted the worst cases the quality of their charges would improve, as they slowly brought in all of the losers of Khanlar's lowest tiers of society.  The new arrivals stood together just inside the gate, not even bothering to try to keep themselves dry in the ice cold drizzle that had begun some five or six minutes before.  Thirty odd men, a couple of stupid looking children and a handful of women, each of them wearing manacles on their wrists and ankles, joined together with a link chain and obviously the worse for wear from their march to the camp. 

"Where are these from Sergeant?"  The General asked as he walked towards the group. 

"From Thar General.  We emptied that fair city's jail.  Drunks, pickpockets, prostitutes and thieves." 

Jarandar pushed his baton under the chin of a girl in her late teens forcing her face up into the falling rain.  She was dressed in a ragged dress and wore a blanket for a cloak.  With a practiced hand Jarandar tore away the blanket, throwing it into the mud and then he grabbed the front of the young woman's dress and ripped.  She screamed, but too late, she was already totally naked.   "She's not much Sergeant, but she might earn her keep better in the barracks for a week or two than she would on the chain gang.  Give her to the men." 

Two soldiers pushed the woman aside to stand apart from the others.  The General seemed little affected by the naked girl stood in the freezing rain sobbing quietly, as he then asked the group if any of them had any special skills.  An exhausted old woman who said she was a seamstress and a man who claimed he was a cobbler, escaped the chain gang for a few weeks also.  The others were driven off towards the slave barracks, while the three chosen ones were led away towards the administration buildings. 

General Jarandar walked with the Sergeant back to the warmth of the office building he had only just left.  The gate the newcomers had entered through a few minutes before was already bolted behind them, the world they had known before now fenced off from them forever.  The people and places they had once known would soon forget them and they were removed from them as if they had already died, which except for the fact that a doctor might scientifically insist that they were actually still alive, was in fact the truth. 

The office block stood on a small hill overlooking the camp and separated from it by a stockade and wide moat, yet from it's porch one could see the whole camp spread out below.  Forty long-houses constructed from logs with roofs covered in turf, stood in lines two on either side of wide assembly areas.  At one end of the open areas stood the latrines and wash houses and at the other the store house and the mess hall.  The whole compound was surrounded by two stockades of sharpened logs, between which ran some twenty dogs who were better fed than the prisoners they kept inside.

It was still raining when the day ended and from his offices Jarandar could see the lines of men and women filing down one side of the open areas to enter the latrines through that ice cold drizzle, then through the wash house and then along the other side right up to the mess halls.  Trustees would already be slopping the foul smelling stew of beans and salt meat onto the tin plates that the prisoners guarded as their most valuable possession.  To lose one's plate was to go hungry until you could grab another from the fist of a dying fellow sufferer in this Hell Hole. 

As the night brought darkness down below there would be the usual series of rapes, attacks and even the occasional murder before the guards lifted the bars from the doors the next morning.  On average the trustees carted out one or two bodies every morning, to be buried in unmarked graves in the ever increasing clearing that would one day be farmland.  They had already cleared several hundred acres, which come summer would be plowed and planted to provide another cash crop for the camp. 

Later that evening General Jarandar sat at his desk in the rough cabin that was his quarters.  His pipe sent clouds of blue gray sweet smelling smoke into the air and the warmth of the fire slowly brought back a feeling of civilization to his bones.  The woman he kept in his quarters was washing the dishes from his evening meal in the room that served as his private kitchen, probably helping herself to the scraps he had not been able to finish.  Spread in front of him was the paper upon which he had just finished writing a letter to his wife, who was most probably at that very moment climbing into her warm bed back home in Eron.  He poured himself a glass of wine and picked up the paper and read the letter again to himself. 

My Dearest Magira,

This is a terrible place.  It seems to rain every day and I have not seen the sun in a week.  Everything is damp and desolate here and just surviving without going down with pneumonia is a miracle.  Thank the Gods I shall be leaving tomorrow for the new camp at Cimar, although truth be told my dear I wish I were able to come home to you and the children. 

My task seems to be one which gets harder as we accomplish more.  The types they send here are the dregs of the Earth, prostitutes, criminals, imbeciles and beggars, all of whom seem to have no ambition, intelligence or self respect.  To say they are animals is to give them a title above their station, for a pet dog does more for our land than they have ever done.  They would murder their own mother for a crust of bread, I do believe.  Every despicable act they are capable of and some which I had never even heard of in all my years in the army, these people accept as the daily norm. 

We work them in gangs, chained together to make it easier for our guards to control them and even so we had two get away a few days before I arrived here.  We caught one of them, the fool had slipped over a bank and broken his leg and we crucified him as an example.  The other one is still on the loose but I have no doubt we shall catch him soon.  They really are the most unintelligent and clumsy lot any man has ever had the misfortune to command, this month alone we have had seventeen serious accidents, eleven of whom either died or had to be put down, but replacements arrive daily from the jails everywhere. 

Our output however is increasing weekly, all of which adds to my bonus my dear and at this rate I shall be a very rich man by the end of the year, which will no doubt please my little Kipena.  (Does she still buy a new dress every week?  Perhaps my dear we spoil her too much?)  This week's output alone brought us seven golden crowns. 

Our orders are to ship twenty wagons of lumber a week and twenty wagons of ash.  This week we moved out twenty three of lumber and twenty eight of ash.  The latter is the easiest quota to make, as we are able to use even the weakest of the women and the old men they send us to trim the trunks and gather the clippings and dead wood from the forest floor.  Mind you Magira, I would hate to live here for any period of time, for the smoke from this wet wood drifts across the camp all the time and it is the foulest smelling and eye-stinging smoke I ever saw.  The architects who planned this place could not have known that the wind blows mostly from the southeast and they built the camp to the northwest of the area where we burn off the waste products. 

Tomorrow I will accompany this week's shipment into Dagir, from where we shall ship down river by barge to Asiga.  There I will take the boat to Mozag and from there I will join a detachment of my men who have been gathering prisoners from all over the North East.  (I am told we have already picked up more than five hundred.)  From Mozag we shall travel north to Cimar via Zikon and Araz.  I should be there in a couple of weeks.  I think a couple more weeks will be enough time to set things going and then I shall travel to Ka to make my report to the Honorable Priest of Priests, His Highness Lord Ragarian.  At his pleasure I shall be able to come home for a week or two and enjoy the end of Spring in fair Eron with you and the children. 

Believe me dear wife, my life is harder now than it was when I commanded a squadron during the Rebellion.  Yet I believe in what I am doing more than I believe in anything I have yet done in the service of the Church.  We are taking these animals off the streets of the cities and removing these parasites from the community, thereby allowing honest men and women to raise their families in peace and safety.  I am doing something that should have been done many years ago my dear and I know that you are proud of me and that, I assure you, is my greatest reward. 

I must to my bed now my dear for the journey tomorrow will be a hard one.  Give my love to the children and take good care of yourselves. 

Your loving husband.  Atinor Jarandar.  

Jarandar folded the letter carefully and sealed it with his signet ring.  In the morning he would send a trooper to carry it to his wife.  The day was ending and he began to have doubts again, as he always did when the night came on.  The news of the invasion and conquest of Vanzor had shocked him far more than he had ever experienced from anything before in his life.  It had arrived in this backwoods place several days after these new troops of the Brotherhood had carried out their attack and he still found that it would rise from his subconscious and plague him at various times without warning throughout the day.  Last night he had had a nightmare where he was being led into the barracks below by a giant in a closed helmet, alone and deserted by his troops as these ghosts from the past invaded his camp.  The wine helped, yet even the stupor of drunkenness no longer took away the feeling of helplessness he suffered from so often these days.  It was as if everything he did took months, instead of the minutes it took him to foresee the outcome or the solution.  The invasion and subsequent capture of Vanzor had happened without it's real consequence getting home to him for several days, for he still found it hard to understand why his fellow officers had not just thrown everything they had at these upstart outlaws, until they had been driven back into the sea.  Obviously there really was as much stupidity within the upper ranks as he had always believed, yet there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, nor any way he could turn it to his advantage, for he had assumed this responsibility himself and it was gaining him great importance and wealth from the Priest of Priests.  To give it up now, before he could claim it's absolute success as due to him and him alone, would be tantamount to stupidity itself. 

He drank the last of the wine and then called his servant woman.  She came into the room as usual with her eyes looking down at the floor.  She was a tiny thing, although she looked better now than she had when he had taken her out of a line collected from the jail in Puila, in fact the food she was stealing from his leftovers had filled her out quite well.  She said she was seventeen and he had no reason to doubt her.  She had been caught stealing chickens of all things.  She was clean however, for he had taken her virginity himself and he kept her locked up in his quarters all day so none of the soldiers could get at her, even if they had dared.  He did wonder what would happen to her when he left tomorrow morning and as yet he had not decided whether or not he might take her with him, or whether he would make the men a bonus of her.  He poured himself another glass of wine and ordered her to remove her clothes.  Watching out of the corner of his eye as he poured the wine, he saw her dress fall around her ankles.

General Atinor Jarandar, Commander of the 4th Army, Field General of the Relocation and Rehabilitation Forces, crossed the room sipping his wine from the silver goblet he always carried with him in the field.  Watching her silent sobs and the glistening tears that ran down her cheeks to drip from her jaw onto her youthful breasts, he felt the excitement of his power over her stir inside him.  When he had first discovered the excitement of having complete mastery over a helpless young girl his first reaction had been shock.  Gods knew why he so enjoyed humiliating and hurting her, but he did.  In fact it was the only entertainment he had truly enjoyed in years.  Somewhere in his mind he hated himself for his need to do those things to her and yet even that made his blood heat.  The only thing to establish now was whether she would fear him more for another beating, or for being raped again and more importantly, which he would enjoy the most.  Without warning laughter brewed up from his throat.  "You know what girl?  I think I am going to keep you.  I think I am going to take you to Cimar with me."  The look of absolute terror that he saw when she lifted her head, made him decide that he would rape her first and if he still had the strength afterwards then he would beat her, just for good measure.  

* * * * * * *

Jilitar the Stone Mason  

"People live maybe sixty or seventy years Amangir, but what we build will live for centuries."  The old man explained to his son in his usual soft voice.  "Imagine how it will feel my son when many years from today, years after I am dead and buried, you will run your hands over this piece of stone and remember me.  And then you tell your son and he tells his son and this stone face will still be here for them, when they tell stories to their children about you and I." 

Even as he spoke his tanned hand stroked the limestone head that decorated the lintel they had just placed in position.  He spent a few moments looking at the stone and then climbed down the ladder and waved to the four slaves manning the ropes of the block and tackle who had hoisted the stone into position.  They took down the ropes and curled them on the floor before moving the hoist itself out of the room.  Soon block after carefully cut block would be placed atop of each other until the wall matched the height needed before they could lay the rafters. 

Amangir helped his father down the last step of the ladder, not that Jilitar needed the help, even though he was already sixty four years old, but merely out of respect for him. 

"You see my boy. . ."  Jilitar continued,  "I am still able to go into buildings that my father and his father constructed even before I was born and admire their work.  They will never be really dead as long as I can do that.  I can go down to the harbor and look at the lighthouse and I can imagine the sweat that my great great grandfather expended in building it.  I touch those stones that he cut and placed in position and I can almost hear him talking." 

Jilitar went on talking until the days work was done and his son had gone home, along with the other workers and the slaves they were using on this job.  This evening he did not walk back with the others to his house on Javinar Street, instead he walked slowly down the main street of Rutan towards the bay. 

The City of Rutan had been the home of the Samaoar family ever since records had been kept and most of the more important buildings in the town had been built by his ancestors and over the centuries the family had prospered and grown wealthy in the building trade.  Jilitar and his two younger brothers ran the business, with the help and labor of their sons and cousins and nephews, thirty two of them in all, but it was Jilitar that had succeeded their father as Master Builder in the family and it was his voice that gave the orders in the family business. 

Walking down the street Jilitar noticed each building in turn, his practiced eye noting which of them needed renovation or repair, he saw where a gutter sagged, or a step was worn, or a roof needed re-tiling.  The Corn Exchange for example had several shutters in need of paint and Morangar's Livery would soon need doors and probably a new frame for them as well.  The limestone steps of Politan's Wine Warehouse were worn an inch or two in the centers, which was to be expected seeing the traffic the place experienced and that they had not been replaced since his grandfather had laid them nearly fifty years ago. 

The Nation of Rutan's wealth was derived from three sources.  The majority of it came from the wine grapes grown on the south facing hillsides which held some of the most famous vineyards in Khanlar.  Next in importance was the export of rare herbs and spices that were grown on small family farms on the northern slopes of those same hills.  Last in earnings was the export of the limestone itself, precut into building blocks and carved by the craftsmen for which the city was famous.  Jilitar's family had holdings in all three markets.  The vineyard they owned had been purchased by his great-great-grandfather more than a hundred years ago and it produced a world famous sweet white wine, on the hillside across the river from the hamlet of Angelae after which it was named, in fact it was said to be the favorite of the Priest of Priests himself and several casks were sold each year to the Palace in the Holy City of Ka.  In the north, on the border with Asiga, the family held over a hundred acres where they grew all kinds of herbs, which they sold to Royal Chef's and apothecaries from one end of Khanlar to the other.  Jilitar's eldest son Torikir had built that trade over the last twenty years to be one of the most profitable of the family businesses.  Limestone flagstones, lintels and step risers were manufactured in Jilitar's own workshop and as of last year, his company had produced no less than twenty percent of the whole export trade in such items leaving Rutan. 

This year seemed set to break all records for the family's fortunes.  Rutan had prospered due to it's unique geographic position, as it had borders with four of the old Asigan Alliance nations, Jontal, Asiga itself, Natan and Dang and after the war the Church had poured a lot of money into Nations like Rutan, as a sort of propaganda war to impress upon it's neighbors their stupidity for not remaining loyal to the Church. 

The City of Rutan itself had served as a main supply port for the occupying army for a couple of years after the war and had therefore become a base for the merchants and opportunists, who arrived to take advantage of the situation immediately after the conflict ended.  Jilitar had not exactly liked all of his customers in those days, but their gold had made him rich, as they had risen through the ranks and earned the wealth to have beautiful houses built for themselves.  Rutan had changed of course, it was nothing like it had been when Jilitar had been a boy, in fact today the population of the city itself, was more than double of what it had been when his father had been running the business. 

Jilitar did not like the way people had changed either since he was a boy.  Today the streets were full of beggars and the poor had suffered to the point where homelessness was common place.  Crime had doubled and doubled again, since he had been a lad and even as he walked down the main street, with it's lights and troopers patrolling it, he realized that in the alleys which ran parallel to the street, someone was most likely getting robbed at this very minute.

That morning he had passed the bodies of two men, who had been hanged for some crime or another, when he had entered the Prince's palace.  It seemed that every other day more men got hung than had been executed in a year when he was young.  The extension they were presently building onto the Palace was to house the fifty new troopers old Prince Lamakir had just hired, more proof that even the royalty themselves did not feel safe these days. 

He reached the Angel Gate Inn just in time to exchange greetings with his old friend Tegorian the Butcher who was heading off home for the night.  Jilitar talked a few minutes with the man, reminding him that he would soon have to re-tile his roof, if he was to enjoy next winter and then he reserved a carriage to take him home, from the four or five that were always parked outside the Angel Gate.  Going inside he noted that the building was still settling and that the cracks in the brickwork seemed to have opened a little more since he had been there a few weeks back, then he ordered his usual pint of ale and joined his friends at the corner table. 

"Business good then Jilitar?"  Jankagor the general manager of the Corn Exchange asked as he sat down. 

"Tell me where I can find another dozen stone masons, a few carpenters and a roofer or two and I might just be able to finish the work I've got on right now on time."  Jilitar answered.   

"What do you think of the news from Vanzor?"  Astigor the draper asked, moving his chair a little to give Jilitar more room.  "I hear that they hung the whole Royal Family on the orders of the Priest of Priests himself for running away and they hung the City Guard as well." 

"I heard the same."  Jilitar said,  "I also know that the Nations of the Alliance have had even more riots than usual this past week, my son Torikir arrived back this morning from a trade trip through the cities to Atlar.  He says the whole eastern part of the country is in a state of emergency, panic more like and he sold off most of his slaves at twice their worth in Atlar.  That place is being blockaded by a squadron of enemy ships, with half our fleet confined to the harbor.  He said that about six of the warships had tried to run out of port there and had been sunk by the enemy.  They hold the island of Hamir and have our fleet all bottled up." 

"Where the hell did they come from?  That's what I want to know."  Said Astigor. 

"They holed up on Lunza, until they were strong enough to invade, or that's what I heard."  Said Jankagor.  "Mind you there can't be that many of them, I think it's just a matter of time before the government gets an army together and we'll go in and beat them again, just like we did at Mang." 

"That's a bit optimistic I think Janki."  Said Higador the wheelwright, holding his mug up to be filled by a passing serving girl with a jug.  "I was talking with a Captain of an Eronese ship this morning and he told me that they have a hundred warships of some new design, that can out sail and out fight anything we've got and it's impossible to find a ship going further east than Dala right now.  It's the truth Janki, I've got sixteen carriage wheels paid for by the Prince of Thar that I will have to send by land.  I'll be lucky if it doesn't cost me money, let alone make me a profit on the deal."

The talk and the drinking went on for another hour, as the old friends exchanged news and gossip and just as Jilitar was getting ready to leave, the door burst open and a sailor came into the room shouting,   "Goja has fallen.  The Rebels have taken Goja!" 

A crowd gathered around the man as soon as he announced his news.  A mug of beer was pushed into his hand and a hundred questions filled the air.  Jilitar pushed his chair back and stood up, looking down upon his friends, as he threw a few coppers on the table to pay for his drinks.    "I have the feeling my friends that it is not going to be so easy this time to beat the Brotherhood."  No-one said anything, so he finished his thought before he left them,  "I have the feeling that they learned their lesson well last time and they would not have started this war, unless they believed they had a good chance of winning and that means defeating everything we support and which supports us."   

And with that Jilitar left his friends and went home.  

* * * * * * *  

Parsis the Slave


Parsis had a habit of looking at his hands.  They were the hands of a slave, scarred and blunted from years of hard labor and neglect.  That cold spring morning, just as his hands branded him a slave as much as the iron collar around his neck, so the state of his being branded him with the hopeless look of one who has worked long hours with little food or comfort, for far too many years. 

Parsis had been born in the City of Dynlar, his first master had told him that.  For years he had wondered what reason his mother could have had to sell him into slavery, but it had reached the point where he could no longer even remember what she looked like any more and in truth he really could not remember her at all.  Perhaps his parents had been peasants and had sold him into slavery to pay off the debts peasants always have, or perhaps his mother had born him out of wedlock as a young girl and her parents had sold him off as a baby, to protect her from the shame.  The latter was the story he preferred to believe, imagining that she had searched for him these past twenty six years.  Perhaps she was searching for him still.  All Parsis knew for certain was that for all the years he could remember and he was uncertain of his age a good five years either way of twenty six, was that he had always seemed to have worked seven days a week from dawn to sunset and had always been hungry.  In fact Parsis had long since decided that hunger was the natural condition of all men, as certain as the need for sleep after a days work.  He liked to think that he was twenty six, even though he was already balding and what hair was left had long been gray.  His teeth were still strong however and, despite the constant hunger, he was strong in mind and body, with muscles as hard as the steel they made in the blacksmith's shop every day.  He had been shoveling coke for the last six years, six days a week, to keep the fire hot in his master's forge, the seventh day he only worked in the morning, clearing out the coke from the forge and cleaning the smithy from one end to the other ready for the next week's work. 

His first master had bought him as a child and used Parsis to watch his sheep as they grazed around the farm.  Those first years had come to be something to look back on with pleasure, for the work had not been hard, even if the hours were long and the food, as well as he could remember it, had been plentiful.  He grew up in that master's service and had considered himself to be a part of the family, if in a very restricted way and he had expected to enjoy that life for ever.  It was a woman that had ruined his security there, just as they were to be the bane of his life for many years to come.  In fact she was only a young girl, rather than a grown woman and he was still unable to understand why the farmer had whipped him so hard later, for what had appeared to the young boy he was at the time, to be no more than an extension of playing tag and absolutely no fault of his own. 

The farmer's daughter, Merela was her name, was three years or so older than him, which would have made him about eleven or twelve at the time and it was a game of tag that brought about his downfall.  She would often complain of not having anyone to play with and her father would then go to the slave house where Parsis, who was their only child slave, was kept and take him off his chain and command him to play with the young woman.  Merela was a spoiled brat, for her budding beauty had made her the apple of her father's eye and sometimes her idea of play was to pinch Parsis, or bite his arm, or anything else which would make him cry.  That evening however, the farmer and his wife went off to visit some friends and the young girl's orders for Parsis were a little more unusual than any she had previously given to him in the past.  No sooner were her parents gone than she told Parsis to take all of his clothes off.  Frightened that she might beat him if he did not, he complied and was astounded when she did the same.  Then she told him they were going to play tag and he was to try to catch her.  That was simple and soon with all the energy they put into the game they were both flushed and excited.  That was when the trouble began.  The touching and grabbing had caused his young penis to stand up like a flag pole and curiosity and newly discovered passion overcame Merela and soon she was inspecting every part of him as if he were a new toy. 

Not quite sure of what was happening Parsis suddenly experienced the embarrassment of ejaculating all over her as she played with him.  Expecting to be beaten, he tried to get away, but with wide eyes and panting breath Merela soon had him doing more for her and as was bound to happen, they shared the loss of their virginity together.  Parsis enjoyed the new game more than he had expected he would, except that Merela's sadistic nature took over as her excitement rose and she scratched him and bit him hard enough to almost bring blood while she herself rose to her climax.  She was still demanding more three highs later, when the farmer and his wife walked in.  Two days and several beatings later, the confused Parsis was sold to a passing slave dealer. 

Parsis experienced more of mankind's disgusting tendencies that night and the seven nights following it, right up until the hour he was sold to a another master in the Nation of Jontal.  For the slave dealer was partial to little boys and used this new one he had come across to satisfy his needs and fantasies, as often as time and business allowed, during the week Parsis was in his chain. 

The man that Parsis was sold to proved to be even worse than the slave master, for he also had cravings for little boys and even enjoyed watching others enjoying his new toy and so Parsis became a regular partner in prostitution that paid his new master well, as they moved through the land.  Parsis was used and insulted for three months without pause or pity by his new master and at the end of it the young boy was as cynical as any eleven or twelve year old child ever was, or possibly could be. 

Luckily for the young Parsis his depraved master had a lot of enemies and one day one of them came round and took the dirty little man's life away from him.  Parsis was put on the block with the rest of his master's possessions and found himself the property of a man called Mikon. 

Mikon kept several slaves and used them to work his farm in the Nation of Eron.  He was a religious man and even allowed his slaves to enjoy Herthesday as the day of rest it was to every freeman in Khanlar.  There followed some years of relative happiness for Parsis, seven years in fact in which he grew to be a strong and handsome youth. 

His work was hard, yet in a way it allowed him concentration on something other than being a slave, without any rights whatsoever in the eyes of the Church or the Law.  The six slaves that Mikon had purchased to work his land lived in a single story structure constructed from logs.  It was a box in which they were locked each night.  The walls, the roof and even the floor had been constructed with logs the diameter of a man's head and the gaps between each log had been sealed with mortar.  The floor of the hut was covered with heavy planks laid across a framework of logs and each of the long walls had an opening to serve as a window, with heavy iron bars preventing escape and shutters to keep out the cold in the winter months.  At one end of the hut stood a stone fireplace and the slaves were allowed to gather wood, in sacks they carried with them while they worked in the fields, to feed the fire in the evenings.  At the other end of the room was a heavy oak door that sealed their world each evening, when the bar was dropped across it at sunset.  Each night when they returned from their labors the iron cauldron in the fireplace would have been filled with a stew and six loaves of bread would be in their usual place on the table in the center of the room.  It was a better place than many slaves had and although they sometimes talked of escape amongst themselves, no-one ever did anything serious towards attempting it.  There was also the problem of the leg irons of course, for although Mikon wished his slaves to be cared for enough to be able to work well, he never allowed them freedom from those cursed shackles.  In time a slave learns to walk so well in the leg irons, that he may never lose the habit of the short paced shuffling and crouched stance that is needed to handle them, even after they have been removed. 

Mikon's farm was larger than that of most of his neighbors, some of whose slaves Parsis met and even had the chance to talk to occasionally, when they were working the borders of the farm.  It was good land too, an expanse of fertile soil that rolled across the countryside like a green cloak when the wheat sprouted, turning to a sandy gold as it ripened.  There were few trees on the property, but those that there were, were tended each year with care and their planting had obviously been done for the beauty of the place. 

The years that Parsis worked there ended during the war between the Church and the Brotherhood.  It was a year when great storms in the spring and a long drought in the summer, all but ruined the standing wheat.  The harvest that year fell well beneath expectations and he and three other slaves were sold off to make up the difference in income, for Mikon saw no sense in feeding them for another year, when he could replace them with no difficulty before the next planting.  Parsis and the three others were sold to a merchant in Eron and then sent to Karian in a slave cart, where the market was better that year.  The war was driving honest working folk who lived nearer the action to move away to less dangerous places, meaning that those who had purchased their labor on a daily basis now had no recourse but to buy slaves to replace them. 

Parsis was sold to Jirus Kinsanar of the city of Karian when he was seventeen and from that day forth his occupation became a mixture of being manservant to Jirus and stud to the chain of female slaves kept by his master as wet-nurses, for the more well to do ladies of the City of Karian and the surrounding countryside.  There was nothing enjoyable about the latter task however, for usually it was done in a very business-like manner under the watchful eyes of his master.  Sometimes Parsis was called upon to perform for the perverted excitement of the occasional guests who paid Jirus to watch the coupling take place.  Sometimes one of the guests, usually some old matron who had no other option than to pay for such service, would give Jirus a few coins and Parsis would be taken into the house to satisfy the woman's excitement.  No lover's bed was provided for slaves however and sometimes the girl would have to be tied over a stool, if she was not willing to be impregnated without putting up some resistance.  Jirus had twenty such young girls and he brought one or more of them in every week to be serviced by Parsis.  Parsis felt a great deal of pity for these young women, with their huge breasts, who were taken around from house to house to feed other women's babies.  Their own babies were sold off by Jirus as soon as he could find a buyer.  Parsis always saw the children as the girl's babies, rather than his own and during his service with Jirus he sired so many offspring for the slave block, that he lost count of exactly how many there were.   

Sometimes Jirus would allow the girls to bring their babies to see Parsis before they were sold off, but somehow he never could feel that the baby held by the proud mother was something he had any responsibility for.  Often the girls would fight to prevent Parsis mounting them, for tradition demanded that he did just, that, like a bull mounting a cow, however such problems were heartlessly overcome by their owner, who would simply have Parsis strap the troublesome girl to the mounting stool kept in the outhouse and the skinny old man would then watch indifferently, as the girl cried and pleaded all the time that Parsis was setting her up for yet more years as a wet nurse and the certain loss of their offspring sentenced by this act to a lifetime of slavery.  More than once Parsis had nightmares that he himself had been conceived for a lifetime of work and hunger by just such a union. 

The most disgusting part of it came after Parsis had finished, for then Jirus would inspect them both, with hands carefully washed before and after the act, to be sure the service was completed.  Even so, the girls would be brought back again and again for weeks for Parsis to mount them again, as a very business-like precaution against failure. 

After several years of that work Parsis suddenly found himself sold off again, this time to a cousin of his master's who lived on the other side of the City.  It was a cold winter's morning and Parsis was looking forward to getting on that little black haired girl with whom he had sired two children, he had already serviced her three times that week.  She was different to the others in that she seemed to enjoy being what she was and to her, being mounted was the most enjoyable part of her work.  Jirus even let her stay with Parsis overnight sometimes and on such occasions the girl would tell him about the world outside of Jirus's little holding.  As it was he never saw the black haired girl that morning, or ever again for that matter, for Jirus came in with a brute of a man and announced without feeling of any kind, that the man had just purchased Parsis and that he wanted to take him back with him right now. 

That was the beginning of a living death for Parsis, for his master's cousin was a blacksmith and a man who did not consider slaves to be anything more than animals, let alone grant them to be human with feelings of any kind. 

The years that followed were a continuous chain of hard labor, pain, hunger and fear.  In time Parsis lost count of exactly how long he had been inside that dark smithy.  His only view of the world was that allowed him during the day through a small window that looked out onto a copse of larch trees.  Parsis soon knew every bird that landed in the trees there.  The Blacksmith, whose name was Farigar, had once lost three slaves who had run away during the night after using a file for weeks to get out of their manacles.  Even though that had happened many years before Parsis had arrived, Farigar had never relaxed his vigilance again.  Parsis, like the other two slaves his master kept in the huge barn of a forge, was chained at all times.  The manacles on their ankles were joined to a chain, which was in turn attached to a ring behind the cage that they were locked inside at the end of each working day and Farigar inspected both manacles and chains regularly.   

Parsis spent his day shoveling coke and stirring the coals and on Herthesday he washed down the back of the smithy, while the others washed the front, with it's view of the yard that he so longed to see.  The reason he never got to look out of the doors all those years was simply that his chain was too short to reach and Farigar saw no reason for troubling to give him a longer one. 

The only conversation the slaves were allowed was with each other at night in the cage and that was no conversation at all for Parsis.  Old Kiron, who had been blinded by their master once when he had found him trying to saw through his chains, had long since gone mad and could do no more than pump the bellows of the forge by day, then mumble to himself at night.  The other slave was also old and had been brought to the smithy after the Rebellion, a war that Parsis had only heard about, but which had for a time given him hopes of a better life, as it had many slaves throughout Khanlar, but like all things hopeful it had faded into nothingness.  The old man also bordered on madness and claimed he had been a great Merchant in Asiga before the war and that one day his sons would find out where he was and come to rescue him.  Parsis had been in the cage no more than a year before the old man's mind started to go and trying to talk to him turned out to be as useless as talking to Old blind Kiron, but at least Migorar sometimes came out of his daze and exchanged some quite sensible memories of the days before he had been put into chains.  Parsis learned a lot from the older man, but he was never quite sure what was truth and what was just the babbling of a dying mind. 

Parsis spent his days trying to over-hear snatches of conversations that the rare visitors to this dark place exchanged with his master.  It was late in the Spring that he learned, by overhearing a conversation between his master and a customer, that the outlaws of the Brotherhood had invaded the mainland and taken the City of Vanzor.  He told Migorar about it as they were eating their lunch and was sorry about having done so immediately, for it got the old man so excited he received a beating from their master for neglecting the rope that controlled the drop hammer's strokes.  Migorar however was too excited to forget the news, so after they were put back in the cage that night he shouted at the departing smith.   "The Brotherhood is coming.  My sons will set me free!" 

For his excitement all Migorar received was a well aimed lump of iron on the side of his head, with an order to shut his mouth, from their master.  Migorar began to howl after that and was told to go to sleep in no uncertain way by Farigar the Smith.  Migorar went to sleep well enough -   he died that night, holding his bleeding temple and crying to himself for the sons he would never see again. 

The next morning it rained outside, but nothing else happened at all.  The house slave who usually brought them their breakfast of porridge never came, nor did Farigar arrive to open the cage.  No one came and by lunchtime Parsis began to feel more than a little fear for his predicament.  No one came all that day, nor the next and Parsis began shouting for help that third night after they had eaten last.  Farigar the smith had few friends and his death of a heart attack had gone without notice.  The house slave had taken the opportunity to gather up a fist full of coins and head for other parts as fast as she could travel.  Those customers who did come near the house saw the smithy doors closed and just assumed that the foul tempered old man who owned the place, had taken a short vacation and they went on their way without checking any further.  It was mid-morning on the fourth day, when the exhausted Parsis saw the big doors at the end of the smithy open a crack and a small boy poked his head round to look in.  It took promises of hidden gold and tales of evil goblins, before the lad could be persuaded to take the key to the cage off it's nail and throw it to Parsis.  The boy then regretted his actions immediately and turned and ran.   

Parsis struggled with the key for several panic filled minutes, before at last it turned and he was out of the cage.  It took less than two more minutes to find the file and slip it in between his teeth so that he could hold it, while he used the steel cutters on his chain and manacles.  He tried to help Kiron, but the old man kept pushing him away muttering "they hurt you if you run away".  In the end Parsis decided that he had better help himself while he could do so and leaving the mad old man, he started towards the door. 

To be free, after a lifetime of slavery, sent shivers up and down his spine.  He staggered drunkenly towards the smithy doors, which still stood slightly open just as the boy had left them.  Taking one in each hand he pushed them forward and open, holding them to balance himself as he looked out on that sparkling clear spring morning.  The rain had gone and a huge blue sky spread forever before him.  The yard with it's flowers and trees seemed like heaven itself to his light starved eyes. 

A dog barked some way off, then again nearer and Parsis realized that standing here too long might reward him with a lifetime back in the cage.  Perhaps they might even blind him, like that babbling fool who had still not had the sense to leave the cage.  He ran across the yard, vaulted the low wall and began running along an alley that ran behind a row of cottages leading away from the smithy.  In the back yard of one of them an old brown tunic was hanging out on the line to dry, Parsis jumped the fence, snatched it from it's peg and ran on down the lane, pulling it over his head as he went.  He stopped after a while, his original tunic with it's burns and holes caused by sparks jumping at him from the forge, he tore into rags and wrapped about his feet, to both protect them from the cinders on the track and to hide the iron manacles still ringing each ankle. 

Feeling more secure and realizing that no-one was chasing him, he hid the file beneath his tunic and slowed to a walk and, after a while, he came to bend in the lane, from which he could see the City gates.  He saw a sheep tethered to a peg in some townsman's yard and a wild idea suddenly had him in it's grip.  He casually walked onto the grass pulled up the stake and threw it as far as he could, then led the sheep towards the city gates.  Along his route he came across a large ginger cat that was sunning himself on a wall, sat on top of a brown cloak obviously left behind by some member of the household.  Soon, with his new cloak around his shoulders and the sheep wandering along behind him like an obedient dog on a leash, Parsis was approaching the gate.  A strolling passer-by fell in beside him and started talking about the stupidity of sheep, Parsis acted dumb and mumbled assent to every comment the stranger made, as they got closer and closer to his exit to freedom.   

Then one of the gate guards came out of the Guard House and walked straight towards them.  Even as Parsis was preparing to take to his heels his companion pulled out a bundle and shouted,  "Dinner up, son!"  The gate guard returned the greeting and turned aside with Parsis's companion of fifty paces, wishing the escaping slave a good day and even waving to him, as Parsis walked on and passed through the city gates to his freedom.

Parsis used the file to remove his shackles that night and a few days later met up with some other refugees and he joined them heading eastward towards the Nation of Vanzor and the possibility of a new life.  


* * * * * * *  

Liana the Beggar Girl 


Liana knew that she was pretty, however that can be a real disadvantage if you are eighteen years old and all alone in the world, so she took great pains to hide the fact.  The reason she had been forced to leave Paramal and how she had lost the goodwill of the woman Massira who had taken her in and treated her as a daughter, still worried her.  When Sandar and his master Tassinar had entrusted her into the baker-woman's care, she had relaxed for the first time in many years and allowed herself the pleasures of being the young girl she was.  Sandar was the only man who had not tried to use her, or do anything except be her friend.  He was the first man that she had met that she had felt safe to trust, since she had run away from her mother and the certainty of being sold into slavery to pay the family debts.  So when he told her to stay with Massira, she had been glad to do his bidding, but he had also told her that if ever she was in trouble again, she was to make her way to Norden and ask for Perigan Marlinger who would then contact him.  Well, as ever in her life, the peace and happiness did not last and she was on her way to find Sandar. 

Sandar had told her that Massira would look after her until he could come back for her, but things had not worked out in a way that had allowed her to do that.  Massira's nephew, who lived with them, had come into her room one night and crawled into her bed and that was the beginning of the end of her hope for a normal family life. 

Liana had decided that if she did not satisfy the young man's desire for her he might make things difficult, also she did not think that Massira would want to find out that her seventeen year old nephew, who happened to be the apple of her eye, had a lust as large as a fully grown man.  Massira still saw Poamis, for that was the fellow's name, as just a little boy and if news got out that he was in Liana's bed every night, Liana knew that she would get the blame for leading him on.  So it happened every night for a week, with her laying there, terrified that at any moment Massira might walk in on them, for Poamis made a great deal of noise as he learned the ways of passion.  However in the end she could just not stand being the body he experimented with every night and she had gone to Massira to explain what had happened and had asked for the older woman's assistance in bringing it to an end. 

Liana found that when everything came out into the open, it was her actions that were judged and not what had been done to her by Poamis and soon she heard Massira putting all the blame for her grandson's fall into depravity at Liana's door.  In tears Liana had tried to explain herself again, but for her pains she received a slap across the face.  She had left Paramal later that same day and set out to find her only real friend in this world, a man called Sandar.  And so she traveled the road northwards towards Norden, re-tracing the steps that had led her from there in the company of Sandar and his master, feeling completely confident that once she found him everything would be all right.  Sandar was her friend, he had told her so, in fact he had shown her more care and affection than anyone since her father, who had been a kind and frail man who had hugged her before he had left for the war with tears in his eyes, almost as if he had known what would happen to her when he did not return.  Sandar was also all she had, in a world full of men who only saw her body and forgot that there was a person living within it who had feelings.

Sewn into the hem of her shawl was the silver coin that Sandar had given her, before he and his master had moved on and sewn into individual little pockets beside it, so they would not clink and give her wealth away, were the five copper pennies she had taken from Massira's jar.  She felt that they were small payment for weeks of slaving in the bakery during the day and being a slave on her back for Poamis during the night.  It was more money than she had ever had at one time in her life and more than enough, she believed, to pay for her journey to Sandar's home city, wherever that might be.

When she arrived in Norden she went looking for the man called Perigan Marlinger, who she had heard Sandar and his master talking about as the only friend they had met in the city, the man who had provided them with the horses and pack animals.  Finding him proved to be far easier than she had expected, for he was well known in the city as an apothecary and had a little shop not too far from the Inn where the three of them had stayed. 

At first Master Marlinger listened to her with some disdain, for she obviously still looked like just another beggar girl, the way she had been when Sandar had saved her from the men who had raped her in the courtyard of the Inn, but as she talked he started to listen more carefully and at last she saw that he seemed to have decided to believe her.  After she had finished her story, he locked the door of his shop, pulled down the blind and then led her into the back where he had a little office.  He brought out a bottle of watered wine and two glasses and once they were settled down in the comfortable chairs of that quiet little room, he gave her at least thirty minutes to repeat her life-story for him from beginning to end. 

"It would seem, little lady, that apart from meeting the good Colonel Sandar you have been plagued with bad luck for a long time now."  Perigan stated when she had  completed her tale. 

"Colonel?  Colonel Sandar?"  Her face showed her confusion,  "The man I am talking about is the body servant of Master Tassinar the Merchant.  Are we talking about the same man?" 

"One and the same."  The neat little man smiled,  "Colonel Sandar, Commander of the Khan's Personal Guard.  And the man you call Master Tassinar is no other than Prince Jarin of Natan, Khan of Khanlar and Lord of the Brotherhood of Nations."  He nodded as Liana's mouth dropped open,  "Same here, when I found out who I had provided horses for. . .  well let's just say it was something of a shock for me also." 

"How did you find out that they was who they are?"  Liana asked. 

"I only found out after . . .  Perhaps I should not be telling you this . . ."  Perigan replied,  "But what does it matter?  If you denounce me who would believe you?"   He went to a cupboard behind him and returned with a sheet of paper which he laid in front of her.  "This is a Church reward poster for Prince Jarin of Natan, one thousand gold crowns for his capture, dead or alive."   He smiled a little before he continued,  "I doubt my dear that your word would be strong enough to denounce me.  However, a little while back I was summoned to attend a meeting in Lunza by the Guardians.  They called upon me because I have been helping their cause, and accepting their gold coins, for several years now.  While I was there I was introduced to the Khan.  He did not recognize me of course because we all covered our faces.  Security reasons and all that.  His Guards were there also, with your Colonel Sandar standing there as their commander.  The Khan is no other than the merchant we both knew when he and Sandar took their little adventure through the Northland!" 

There was no doubt, take away Master Tassinar's newly sprouted beard he had worn when she had met him and he was the Prince Jarin in the picture she was holding.  She found that it was hard to say anything right then.   "What were you saying about an invasion?"  She asked at last. 

"The Brotherhood has reformed and an army under the command of Prince Jarin has invaded Khanlar and taken the city of Vanzor."  He smiled, as he continued,  "No one else in Norden knows the real details yet, except those of us who serve the Brotherhood.  Obviously, the Church will of course try to keep the news quiet, at least until they have figured out what they are going to do about it." 

"Do you think I should go to Vanzor then?"  Liana asked. 

"Going to Vanzor would be rather difficult right now little lady, first you'd have to get through the Church troops between here and there and then you'd have to get through the Khan's army, before you could even begin to look for Colonel Sandar.  No, my advice would be to go directly to Lunza."  He paused, then got up and silently paced the floor of the small room for a few minutes.  "The problem is that no ships have been granted papers to sail east for several days now and asking for a ship to Lunza would probably be enough cause to get both of us thrown into jail right now." 

"So what do I do, then?"  She asked, starting to show signs of frustration. 

Perigan walked over to his door and took his cloak off the hook there.  He wrapped it about his shoulders, before he answered her.   "First you go upstairs and get yourself clean, you'll find some hot water in a kettle by the fire and some soap on the table by the window.  The rest you leave to Master Perigan, I will get you to the good Colonel Sandar if I have to carry you to him on my own shoulders."  He laughed at the obvious joke he had just made on himself, for he was a very slightly built man, then he went downstairs, opened the door and went out into the street, turning his key in the lock behind him, thereby trapping her within his house, before he walked off. 

The locking of the door brought a sudden feeling of apprehension into Liana's mind, but she pushed it down remembering how Perigan had boasted of his part in Prince Jarin's plans.  The man was loyal to a forbidden cause and Liana believed she could trust him, if only for that.  She went upstairs, found the water and the soap, stripped off and washed herself for the first time since she had taken to wearing the dirt as a protection several days ago.  It was when she turned round to pick up her dress that she saw herself reflected in the mirror. 

Liana had never seen a full-length mirror before in her life and the first one she ever saw had a beautiful young woman in it.  It came as a shock and she even looked behind her to see that woman in person, before she knew for sure that the body she saw reflected in the mirror was her own.  Quietly and slowly, as if any sudden noise or movement might make the woman in the mirror take fright and disappear, Liana made her way across the room towards it.  At last she stood before it.  She ran her fingers over the gilt frame, with it's carved scrolls and roses and finally summed up the courage to touch the cold glass itself.  The heat from her fingertips left little smudges of condensation, which slowly contracted and then disappeared when she took her hand away.  As a final check Liana poked her tongue out and a pink tongue came out of the mouth of the woman in the mirror.  It was her! 

A firm, but in no way muscular body, covered with skin that was the color of honey, moved in the mirror as she herself felt the movement take place in her body.  Liana ran her fingers across her tight tummy and enjoyed the caress the more by seeing herself doing it, then her hand traced upwards over the light bias of her rib cage until she was cupping one of her own breasts in her long fingered hand. 

She shook her head, almost as if she wished to break the spell, but instead watched her still wet hair swing across her shoulders, emphasizing the symmetry of her face, from which large dark-lashed amber colored eyes stared back at her.  She traced the fullness of her wide mouth with a finger, then withdrew it and flashed herself a posed smile that showed two even rows of white teeth.  Taking a deep breath to lift her breasts and pull in her tummy, she placed the palms of her hands on her chest and ran them down her body, while she turned and posed for the mirror.  She lifted herself up onto her toes and watched her small buttocks tighten and with her hands on her hips, she did a complete circle to come back into facing the mirror straight on.  She really was quite good looking, in fact compared to most of the women she had seen in her life, she was beautiful.  It was understandable that men wanted to use her she decided, if they had to be married to some of the fat, toothless crones she saw waddling through the streets with half a dozen children about them.  She ran her fingers through the tight curly hair which grew over that part of her most important to the men who saw her as a possible play thing, wondering while she did so that it showed no signs of the punishment it had received these past three years.  The pleasure she gained from seeing herself, was becoming almost like a drug to her when she heard the door downstairs open and someone entered the shop below.  She ran across the room to grab up her dress and had pulled it over her head by the time Perigan reached the top of the stairs.  She felt the blush creeping up her neck as he looked at her and smiled, wondering how he might have reacted if he had seen her as she had been only moments before. 

It was obvious however that Perigan had not yet developed a wanting for her and in a way he reminded her of Sandar, although of course he was no-where near the physical perfection of a man that her handsome Sandar had been.  Yet at that moment Liana felt almost a hope that Perigan might ask her to go with him, for if he did she would demand that they did it in front of the mirror, the blush started to strengthen and she dismissed the thought from her mind. . .  almost. 

"It is all arranged Liana."  The little man said as he passed a box to her,  "A friend of mine has agreed to take you to Lunza in his fishing boat and I have gained a permit for you to sail tomorrow morning.  I told them my niece needed to get to Samur, where her grandmother was dying.  Everything is set and you sail on the morning tide.  The box contains the clothes that the niece of a respected Apothecary would be expected to wear." 

He handed her the box he carried.  Liana tried on the new clothes Perigan had bought her and the soft leather slippers which were in the bottom of the box, hiding her newly observed naked beauty behind the screen Perigan kept in the corner of the room.  When she was dressed, she came out and paraded herself in front of the mirror for a long time, so entranced was she with how the clothes had changed her appearance.  Perigan sat in his chair and watched her, smiling with the smile that is usually reserved to old men who watch their grand daughters on such occasions. 

"You are truly beautiful Liana."  He said at last, quietly, almost to himself,  "How the Fates play tricks with us my girl, seeing you as you are now I can hardly remember the little beggar girl who came into my shop this afternoon.  Had you been born of Royal Blood, you could look no more a lady than you do right now." 

"But I'm not a lady, am I Perigan.  I just look like one."  Liana stopped her posing and looked at herself with the eyes of truth.  "I do look like one though, don't I?  If I didn't talk, I don't think anyone would know, would they?" 

"My dear, an accent is as easy to change as a suit of clothes, with the proper teacher and the wish to change." 

"Could you teach me how to talk and act like a lady, Perigan?"  Liana asked, a note of real longing in her voice.  "I don't like what I am, I'd do anything to change, I really would." 

"Yes, I think I could Liana."  Perigan answered after a moment's thought,  "I could teach you to read and write and know almost everything there is to know about how a lady acts and behaves, except for those discrete female things that I know only a little of, yet have guessed most of the rest.  However Liana, it would take a long time.  Far longer than you have, if your need to be with the good Colonel is as strong as you indicated it to be when you arrived here." 

"I'm not in love with Sandar."  Liana said quietly,  "In fact I wouldn't be surprised if he hasn't forgotten me already.  I needed to get to him because I have nobody else to go to.  He didn't even have me."  She stated, not realizing the effect such a statement would have on the staid and proper apothecary.  "He was just the first gentleman I ever met and I know I could trust him to help me.  He said he would, if ever I needed his help." 

"You really are a very lost and a very lonely little girl, are you not Liana?"  Perigan said softly.  "I understand that very well my dear, being alone that is, I have been very alone for a long time now." 

"Were you married ever?"  Liana asked him, thinking that perhaps she should not be so inquisitive, but feeling for him at that moment. 

"Oh yes, I was married for a very long time, in fact I guess you could say that I still am married to the memory even now, after all these years."  He answered her, his eyes seeming to stare into the past as he talked. 

"Did she die?"  Liana asked. 

"In a way."  Perigan answered,  "I married her when she was very young and I was already near to middle-age.  She was so beautiful, so kind. . .  I suppose you could say that I was father and lover to her at the same time, that was the problem you see, she saw me as someone who could always be right and provide us with the way of life she had dreamed of as a child."  He sat up quickly and smiled,  "But I am getting carried away, you don't want to hear about my problems." 

"Yes I do, if you want to tell me."  Liana said, realizing, without exactly knowing why, that Perigan needed to talk to someone.  "Go on, I want to know." 

"Well it happened when the war ended, or perhaps it started when the War did, although I did not know it then.  We lost all our savings and moved here from Zikon a few weeks after the War began.  We had a beautiful home in Zikon, with a garden, servants and all the things she needed.  When we came to Norden we moved into this little shop and financially we began to suffer, for the economy in Norden all but collapsed when the War started.  There were months when I feared we might not be able to pay the rent, although we always managed to come up with it at the last moment, as I remember."   

He got up and walked to the finely carved dresser, which like all the other furniture in the large room was of the highest quality and had obviously been manufactured as a set.  It was finer than any Liana had ever seen in her life.  He poured himself a glass of wine from a decanter which stood with several others on the dresser's polished top, then returned to his seat and went on.    "I just never realized how much that pressure got to her, or how weak she was.  You see, she was just a poor uneducated little peasant girl when I took her in.  She came from a home that no child should ever be raised in.  Her mother was not even bright enough to be a successful prostitute, she took trinkets and tips from men who used her, when a professional street walker would have built herself a retirement fund.  Her father was a resolute gambler, also without much in the way of brains, in that he invariably lost his wagers and often paid his way out of debts by loaning his wife's body to the book keeper as a way to settle the score.  Oh, I knew she worried, but I was doing the best I could do and I thought she understood.  In the end however it just all got too much for her and she just could not take it anymore.  She told me she wanted to go out and get a job, to help with the money she said.  The problem was that the poor little girl was too naive to realize that any man who offered to help her was also offering to lay her down and use her, should she be stupid enough to accept his largesse." 

"At first I walked her to work and returned to walk her home in the evening, but after a while she told me not to bother and started coming home alone.  Even then I had not worked it out that what she had really done was find a new life for herself, a life that the girls and I were no part of.  As the months went by, all she ever talked about was her job and how clever her employer was, she did well there however, she started as a house maid and worked her way up to where she was the housekeeper."  He wiped a tear from his eye as the memories were brought back to the surface,  "Her employer soon came to rely upon her, needed her you might say and he began giving her presents, presents that I could not afford.  To a man like me that soon becomes unbearable, for all I ever wanted was to be able to give her everything her heart desired and there I was trying not to get jealous, when her employer could do it and I of course, could not.  I am afraid I did not do a very good job of it, Liana.  I did not realize how much she needed the security, compliments and presents to be happy, while at home all she could see were responsibilities and me hurting.  Whatever, in the end she was all but ignoring not only me, but she was also ignoring our little children as well.  A mixture of guilt and justified reaction to my jealousy I suppose, but it started us disagreeing on almost everything.  Anyhow we slowly drew apart, for in her world at work she was respected, safe and admired, while at home I was falling apart watching her employer slowly alienate her towards me and our children.  I suppose he saw in her what I had, before she had left the children and I to build her own life and he began telling her to think of herself and that she deserved better than she was getting from me." 

"Why didn't you just tell her how you felt and tell her to stop accepting the presents?"  Liana said. 

"I did.  I did so far too many times and she couldn't understand.  She broke my heart once when she told me I should be grateful that someone else was able to give her the things she needed, seeing that I was unable to."  He wiped his eyes again,  "It was not her fault Liana, she needed that security and praise to be happy, she was just a child really, she did not need the responsibility and hurt she saw every time she came home.  She just did not understand.  She never meant to hurt me or the children, therefore to her it was just my jealousy.  Soon she began to see me as a threat, to make me happy she would have to come back and help me with my business and give more time to our daughters.  The problem was that her new friends did not have young families, so they reinforced her independence and her employer encouraged her to think only of her own happiness.  I finally had no choice but to accept that they were lovers.  In all he gave her money three times so that she could leave me and the last time, she just never came back." 

"You still love her very much, don't you?"  Liana said. 

"No Liana.  I have no doubts about that at all.  I no longer have any feelings for her other than pity and sometimes disgust.  I loved who I thought she was Liana and I miss the family we could have had, for I know now that it need never have happened, if she had only been prepared to make a few changes in her needs and ambitions or, put another way, had she had the character I thought she had when I married her.  I have waited a very long time Liana, hoping she would come back and bring my daughters with her, however now it is impossible for her to do that.  Even if she wanted to, how would she ever handle the embarrassment of admitting that not only had she been wrong, but disloyal and selfish also?  Her friends all tell her to think of herself and confirm her worst fears about me and her employer still provides her with the security she needs, far more than she needs me, or come to that any human being, even her own children.  I have come to the unhappy conclusion that my ex-wife has decided that the most important thing in life is the number of coins you have hidden away." 

Perigan lapsed into silence, closing his eyes and absentmindedly playing his fingers around the rim of the half empty glass he held.  For a long time neither of them spoke.  Then Perigan seemed to shake off his despair, opened his eyes and got up to refill his glass. 

"Do you see your daughters?"  Liana asked when he sat down again. 

"At first I saw them rarely, however a few months after she left me she tired of them and left them with her mother in Zikon.  I used a local lawyer and had the courts return them to me.  Now my ex-wife sees them on the weekends, or rather she should, however three out of four times she decides at the last moment not to take them.  You see she finds it impossible to admit that she shares the responsibility for what has happened and I am afraid she is far too proud to stand by and hear her daughters tell her so.  She could never admit that it can be her fault, that just does not exist in her character.  Therefore unless she needs to impress someone on how good a mother she is, she ignores their very existence"  He closed his eyes again,  "Gods Liana, I love my daughters so.  How can their own mother not love them?" 

They talked for several hours, until at last Perigan had to light the candles.  As he blew out the match he caught Liana's eyes and they looked at each other for what seemed like a long time before she spoke.   "I need someone too, Perigan."  Liana said quietly. 

"But I do not need another daughter, Liana."  Perigan answered after a long silence,  "I need someone to share my life with me.  Someone who will appreciate me for myself and understand my intentions, rather than store my words created in pain and worry, to use against me later.  I need someone who wants to be my partner in life, someone who I can feel next to me when I wake up in the night. . .  someone who truly needs me.  I need a wife and a family Liana, I need to hear laughter in this place.  Most of all I need someone who will respect and trust me and not run for a second opinion, every time I suggest something.  I believe in marriage as it is supposed to be, an oath to be together, where a wife is a man's helpmate, sharing whatever comes into your life with you and not worrying all the time how well off you are by the match.  That is a very hard road to walk for most people my dear." 

The hurt showed in Perigan, a mixture of loss, guilt and anger.  He could not obtain what he thought certain could be obtained, if only he was given the chance to do so. 

"I did not say I wanted to be your daughter Perigan."  Liana stated softly. 

"Liana, make sense girl, I am twice your age, plus some years, how long could such a relationship survive."  Perigan was shocked at the young girl's suggestion and wondered if he had actually understood what she had said. 

She left her chair and came round the table to stand beside his chair.  Then she put both her hands on his arm.  "It is you that do not understand Perigan."  She said quietly, but with conviction,  "I have nothing.  There is no one in the world who would notice if I died tonight.  If I disappeared no-one would look for me.  Do you know how that feels Perigan?  If we only lasted a day and a night, it would be far better than I had in life when I walked in here and I should be grateful." 

"I know that feeling well Liana, in fact sometimes I think the only thing left that I could do to make my ex-wife happy is to just die.  Then she would not have to be bothered with me anymore." 

"I loved my father Perigan, I loved him so very much.  Then he went off to fight in the war and never returned.  That was a lot of bad years ago and apart from Sandar and Prince Jarin no man has shown me care or kindness since."  A tear escaped Liana's eye and slowly moved down her cheek as she went on,  "I have been raped, I have been beaten, I have starved until I was willing to sell my body for a crust of bread and somewhere warm to sleep.  My own mother agreed to me being sold into slavery, so that she could pay off debts she had built up trying to live the way she wished, rather than the way she could afford. . ." 

"You do not have to go on. . ."  Perigan started to say, but Liana went on anyway. 

"I have cried myself to sleep praying to find a good man that would love me, for more nights than I want to remember.  Your wife was a fool Perigan.  She will learn, if she has not already, that true and honorable men are very few in this life.  If she does not need you, why should I not try to take her place?  Why should I not try to ease your suffering, if you are willing to take away the emptiness that is inside me."  She cried out, a pain-filled sound between a moan and a contained scream,  "I don't care if you are older than me, if you can be the friend I always needed Perigan, the person that I can trust and who wants to trust me, for I swear I will never lie to you.  Please take me Perigan, be my friend, my soul-mate, my other half.  We need each other, people should not be alone when they can help each other, age has nothing to do with it at all.  It's not right to deny ourselves happiness, when the God's offer it to us by bringing us together this way.  Every man needs a woman and my experience proves that every woman such as I needs a man just to be able to ensure that she will survive in this world.  Well sir, you are a man and I am a woman and we are both alone.  It would be a fair bargain if you kept me safe and fed and I in turn kept you happy and cared for, to say nothing of offering myself to satisfy all of your manly physical needs of a woman, would it not?"   

Perigan came slowly to his feet and put his arms about her and they quietly cried together for some time before the loneliness was purged from them. 

"Mind you if you do not find me attractive.."  Liana ventured with a girlish giggle, only to be swept up into Perigan's arms as his laughter filled the room.   

* * * * * * *

The Romance of Spring and Autumn


Perigan awoke the next morning to find he had not dreamt what had happened the night before.  A small dark haired head rested on his shoulder and a warm young body nestled against his own.  The knot that had laid in his heart for so many years had finally gone and the sun shining in through the window played upon Liana's peaceful features making her look like an innocent goddess.  "Gods she is beautiful", Perigan thought to himself as he moved a little to take the cramp out of his shoulder.  She stirred and slowly came awake, her big amber eyes opening, to look at him with the adoring look he remembered from his dreams of long ago.  Her lips parted in a smile, showing strong white teeth and a glistening pink tongue. 

"Not only was your wife a fool for leaving a good man. . ."  Liana smiled,  "She was a double fool for leaving so gentle a lover."   

He stroked her head, smiling as he did so and she closed her eyes, also smiling as she enjoyed his caress.  Perigan thought of his ex-wife now and then throughout that day and when he did he could only feel sorry that she had never understood the depth of his love for her.  Now however, he was learning that he could also love someone else, someone who could and who truly wanted to return his love, without worrying that it might commit her to something she did not want.  For the first time in a long time, Perigan was able to believe that life might soon be worth living again. 

Liana did not take the boat to Lunza that day, in fact she never once talked of it ever again.  Instead they began a new life together, Liana became a wife and Perigan became a husband and together they became a union of the soul, for they had been lonely for so long that one could say that there was no alternative for them.  From that first day they became a couple and began sharing the work in the shop and enjoying each other's company. 

Perigan continued serving the Cause of the Khan whenever the call came, only this time it was not something he had to hide from his partner, for Liana's only fear was that she might lose the contentment and happiness she had found and if Perigan asked of her she would give, even as he made her the center of his own life, so that she found it emotionally rewarding to do the same.   

There were of course many tongues that wagged about the old apothecary and his new young mistress, but there will always be those, who for lack of understanding, will laugh at anything they themselves will never be capable of enjoying and in the end Perigan reasoned that that too would subside and if it did not, well it was probable that neither of them would care very much about it either way.   

* * * * * * *

Tomak the Warrior


Tomak Harar was a warrior or rather he had been a warrior when the army of Zikon had still existed.  Nowadays he was an outlaw.  He rubbed his chin again, then scratched hard.  One of these days he was going to be able to wake up after a night's sleep without finding he had picked up some passengers. 

He had been using this deserted hut for several weeks now and knew that he would have to move on again soon.  Someone was bound to notice them sooner or later and not long after that, in would come the troopers as usual and he would be running and hiding for weeks.  Tomak had known too many prison cells and had been a slave in chains three times in the last five years.  He knew that sometime they were going to find a way to keep him and he had no wish to die in chains.  Far better to go out wielding a sword and taking a few of them with him.  The problem was that he knew that tomorrow, next week, a few months, maybe even years from now, it would all end anyway, for there had to come a time when he would get unlucky for a few moments and then it would be all over for Tomak Harar. 

With such wholesome thoughts in his mind he turned over and found himself looking at the latest in a long string of women he had dragged around with him these past years.  Before the War he had relied on prostitutes, camp followers and the occasional stupid wife of some other man, who saw his brashness and strength as attractive.  But since he had taken to his heels after the Battle of Zoria, he had had to make do with the likes of the vacant eyed woman who lay awake watching him now. 

"For the Gods sake woman."  He snarled at her,  "I'm awake and hungry, are you going to lay there like some cow chewing the cud until I get mad enough to beat some sense into you?" 

She got up then, obviously knowing with certainty that Tomak did not make idle threats and she began fussing around the fireplace.  He dragged himself out of his blanket and stretched to get his circulation going again.  He had long since abolished the need to dress as they both slept in their clothes, rather than bother to take them off at night only to put them back on in the morning.  Tomak glanced at the woman as he picked up his sword and buckled it on before going outside to check the weather. 

"Gods this one is a cow."  He mumbled to himself.  Was it only six months ago when he had picked her up eating weeds outside of Asiga, it seemed like years.  Funny, he thought to himself, she had seemed better looking then and she had chattered a lot of the time.  The last failing he had beaten out of her in a matter of days, but the good-looks he seemed to remember, well they were long gone of their own accord, perhaps it was just the lack of a woman for so long before he had found her, that had made him see more than there was.  Even having her was not much fun any more, she just lay there while he satisfied himself and when he complained she cried like a baby.  Lately even slapping her about a bit did not do any good either.  In fact it was beyond Tomak why women were like that, give them a few months and they turned into dummies, whimpering and acting like they didn't know how to serve a man anymore.  This one had even been stupid enough to get pregnant on him, leaving him to suffer through all the problems women complain about all the time when they are that way.

Tomak realized that this one had about served out her usefulness to him.  There was no way he was going to have her dragging a brat around with them messing all over the place.  Worse, if they got into a scrape the thing's bawling might give them away.  He began to get angry at the very idea and felt like just walking away from the bitch, even before he had eaten his breakfast, but that would be stupid because he was really quite hungry this morning.   

He went back inside the hut and crossed to where the woman was pouring the oatmeal onto a plate for him.  She would pick what was left out of the pot with her fingers as usual, because they only had the one spoon.  Then Tomak had a wonderful idea.   "What do you think we sell the brat after you drop it?"  He asked as he took the plate from her.  He should have expected her reaction, but in the circumstances he had thought she might be more sensible.  Her crying out damn near made him drop the plate. 

"I don't want to sell my baby Tomak, don't make me sell him, please." 

"Why not?"  Tomak asked, not understanding her whining attitude at all,  "What are we going to do with it?" 

"I don't have anything Tomak. . ."  She was whining again,  "I want my baby, Tomak, I want to keep him, I really do.  Please Tomak." 

It was obvious.  It had gone too far.  If there was one thing Tomak Harar did not need this morning, it was a useless belly-aching bitch.  He was angry now, really angry, for he had already been planning what they could buy with the money they would get for the brat. . .  damn she might even drop two from the size of her.  He felt his temper boiling up, as it always did when some idiot refused to see sense and as usual he showed her he was not going to put up with it.   "Well keep the damn brat.  Gods woman, it ain't even born yet, who is to say it won't pop out dead.  You keep it.  But don't ask me to work my butt off to keep the both of you.  In fact if you want the damn thing more than you want me, you damn well see if I'll go on putting food in your mouth!"  

To give his threat some more impact he knocked the pot out of her hands and into the fire.  Unable to think of any words that would make her see sense and watching her blank, frightened non-acceptance of what he was saying made Tomak explode.  His hand shot out and cuffed her across the head.  As if to prove just how much of a burden she was to him, the stupid fool tripped and fell backwards into the fire. 

She jumped up screaming, with her old dress going up in flames around her.  Tomak saw the funny side of it, at last he had found a way to make the cow move.  Seeing that in fact she might burn up at the rate she was going and worried that her screaming might bring the troopers down on them, he picked up the night-bucket and emptied it over her.  It put out the flames, but he had to laugh at the sight she presented.  Her hair was almost gone, her eyebrows were gone and less than half of her old dress still hung from her.  He knew it hurt when you got burnt, he had burnt his hand once on a fire log, but the whimpering and sobbing that came out of the stupid cow, as she turned around and around in circles, in a daze it seemed, finally made up his mind for him, he picked up what few belongings he still had and walked out of the hut.   "You want the bastard, you keep it!"  He yelled back at her as he walked away,  ". . .and don't get yourself on fire again you stupid bitch, for I will not be there to put you out from now on!" 

As he put some distance between them he began to laugh again, Gods she had looked ridiculous with most of her hair singed to the skin and her fat belly and backside all pink and naked, standing there like some grotesque child, whimpering for her mother with the more solid contents of the night bucket around her dirty feet.  He was still laughing when he topped the rise and saw the three troopers.


* * * * * * *

 All Debts are Tallied

Tomak had been laying hidden for two hours watching the troopers below him preparing to move out of their overnight campsite.  They were obviously in no hurry and he was trying to establish how he might benefit from the situation he found himself in, when he heard the twig snap behind him.  Tomak turned in a side moving action, bringing his sword up to defend himself.  The stranger also wore a sword and had a crossbow strapped across his back, but it was the spear he held to Tomak's throat that worried the outlaw the most at that moment.  Whoever this stranger was he was good.  He had judged Tomak's movement exactly and placed the razor sharp tip of the spear against Tomak's throat even as he finished his roll. 

"Hold man!"  Tomak said as loud as he dared.  "I do not know you, hold your arm, I give up!"   

To prove his point Tomak pushed his sword away from himself and then held his empty hand up as proof that he had disarmed himself, however his left hand slowly moved down his leg to gain access to the dagger he kept in his boot. 

"Take out the stick knife real slow and get rid of it."  The stranger said in a quietly dangerous voice, emphasizing his lack of patience by touching the tip of his spear into the skin of Tomak's throat, where it allowed a bead of crimson blood to rise.  Tomak did exactly as he was ordered, removing the knife from his boot and pushing it into the turf, before holding his left hand up to join his other hand in the universal sign language of surrender. 

Then the stranger saw the troopers below them and reacted in exactly the same way as Tomak had when he had first seen them. 

"Who are you?"  Tomak asked, knowing immediately why the stranger had ducked down rather then call out to them the normal morning greeting of the average law abiding citizen. 

"An outlaw like yourself."  The man replied, moving a few feet away from him.  The stranger took a long dagger out of his boot and put it where he could reach it in a hurry if Tomak decided to change his mind about surrendering to him.  Then he slipped the crossbow off his back and set it, dropping a bolt into it's place on the string. 

"You're going to need me if you are thinking of taking those three on."  Tomak said, rolling back onto his belly to look down on the troopers below them. 

"Could be."  The stranger replied, then he said,  "I think that when I take out the big fellow, the other two will make for that gap in the rocks over there. . ."  He pointed with the bow,  "I can down one of them before they make it, maybe both of them, but if you were over there you could make sure the third one doesn't get away.  That is if you don't get scared and run off the moment you're out of my sight." 

"Listen, I'm no bloody coward. . ."  Tomak said truthfully, for he was not, contrary to most tales that bullies are normally cowards underneath the bluster.  "You just do your part and no-one will get past me."  And with that Tomak rolled away, gathered up his sword and was gone. 

Just when the stranger was getting ready to accept that Tomak had taken off, a light touched his eyes, flashed off of Tomak's sword blade.  He was in position.  The stranger checked his weapon again and then stood up and took aim.  The bolt left the string and was too far gone to miss, when one of the troopers saw him and sent up a shout.  The last trooper in the group took the shot in his chest and was already falling off his horse, when the others used the spurs and started towards where Tomak waited in the rocks.  In a smooth practiced motion the stranger rewound the bow, slipped another bolt into place and had fired before the two escaping troopers had traveled ten yards.  The second trooper took the bolt between his shoulder blades and fell forward over his horse's neck. 

With another bolt already in place and the fleeing target still not out of range, the stranger waited.  Suddenly Tomak jumped up onto a rock and with a double handed swing, hit the last trooper in the chest with his broadsword.  It was not a delicate, or even well-aimed blow, but it served well enough to all but cut the victim in half.  As the man fell from his terrified prancing horse, Tomak stepped in and delivered the death stroke, taking off the young man's head with a practiced and efficient slice of his sword.  His part of the action completed, Tomak placed his foot upon the fallen man's chest and screamed a war cry of his own devising.  It sounded like a mixture of fear, exhilaration and an obstinate challenge to the world in general, as it echoed away into nothing.  Then Tomak caught up the man's horse and led it back to the camp where the others lay, with the bleeding corpse draped across the saddle.  As he walked he saw the stranger coming down the hill from the other side, crossbow in one hand and spear in the other. 

Tomak had to admit this fellow was good, maybe he could join up with him for a while, together they would make a strong team. 

The stranger watched as Tomak caught up the horses and tied their reins to a tree branch to hold them, then Tomak began to go through the troopers belongings to see what this adventure had earned them.  He was on his knees, pulling the body of one of the fallen troopers around so that he could get into the pockets, when the stranger spoke to him from a distance of about fifteen feet away. 

"What's your name?"  The man asked. 

"Tomak Harar.  What's yours?"  Tomak replied, busy in trying to pull a wad of papers from the dead trooper's pocket. 

"I passed a hut this morning and there was a woman in it."  The stranger said next, ignoring Tomak's question,  "She had been badly burnt and most of her body was covered with bruises. . ." 

Tomak did not like the quiet tone of the stranger and when he looked up, he liked even less the way the man was holding his crossbow, for the bolt was aimed directly at Tomak's heart.   "The woman was pregnant and someone had tipped a slops bucket over her.  She was in a great deal of pain before she died, most of her skin was burnt away down to the flesh itself. . ."  The stranger continued in the same cold voice,  "I asked her who had done this cruel thing to her and she told me it was an animal who used the name Tomak Harar." 

Tomak could feel the cold sweat running down his back as he realized what was happening.  He was too far from the man to charge him and his sword was still in it's sheath.  As he slipped his hand down to his boot, he had a sudden vision of the blade that should be there stuck into the turf back on the hill.  He felt his feet go cold and his eyes watered more than usual, as the stranger went on in that same icy voice.   "She told me she had been your slave since you had forced her to go with you more than twelve months back. . ."  He was raising the bow slowly towards his shoulder.  "You killed her you pig.  Don't you even care that she is dead!" 

"Come on. . ."  Tomak heard his voice trembling and realized for the first time just how frightened he was,  "She was nothing.  She was some cow eating weeds when I found her. . .  she was stupid. . .  I had to give her a slap now and then. . .  just to get her moving, that's all. . .  just to get her moving." 

Tomak knew then what fear really meant, as he looked at the bow come to the stranger's shoulder.  "For the Gods sake man. . .  she was nothing. . .  just some stupid cow no one else wanted. . .  what the Hell is it to you anyway?" 

"She was my sister."  The stranger almost whispered the words, he said them so quietly.  But Tomak heard them, even as he heard the bolt leave it's string.  He never heard anything again after that, for Tomak Harar died at the very moment he understood. 

"My name is Peran Vanquestor, Tomak Harar. . ."  the stranger said then,  ". . .and I have just avenged the death of my sister, Pirena Vanquestor." 

He stopped and looked down at the twisted corpse,  "And your life is little payment for the lady you killed.  May God punish you in Eternity for your sins Tomak Harar and may your torment be unbearable, you miserable animal."   

* * * * * * *

Outlaw and Aristocrat


Peran Vanquestor had seen much death and suffering since he had left the aristocratic home he had been born in.  He had been twenty two then, in a bright new uniform and full of dreams of glory.  That was an age ago now and it seemed that a century had passed since then and every moment in it had been designed to strip from him the kindness and honor that he had grown up knowing.  The music his mother had taught her daughters to play on the harp now came to him only in dreams.  The beautiful paintings that had hung around the house when he was a child, probably now hung in the home of some Priest.  The furniture must have been looted as well and he had no doubt that the clothes his mother and sisters had once worn were now adorning the bodies of strangers. 

They were all dead now of course.  Pirena had been the last and he had searched for her for the past two years, only to find her in the end dying in misery and pain in a broken down, vermin-infested hut, here in the wastes of Norden.  Could it be only seven years ago he had kissed her goodbye on the steps of their home in Asiga, an innocent seventeen year old girl who had been destined to blossom into a beauty as she grew into womanhood.  Peran finally gave in and the tears came.  Poor Pirena, to end up a fat, pregnant slave to a brute like Tomak Harar. 

His latest assignment for the Khan's Intelligence Corps was to travel from Mozag to Cimar, picking up what information he could and always on the lookout for any sign of the Church Army moving troops eastward.  From Cimar he would double back to the City of Araz, check that out and then back to Norden, where his section chief and friend Perigan Marlinger would take his report. 

Peran finished stripping the troopers of everything they had which he might one day be able to change into ready coin.  Their personal papers, along with a few official looking passes and documents, he folded carefully and placed inside the bag he had tied to his belt.  The larger weapons he ignored, however he filled his own quiver with some of the crossbow bolts they carried and collected their daggers and jewelry.  Between the three of them they carried only four silver pence and perhaps twenty copper coins.  He picked up his bundle to leave, almost forgetting his habit to pray for those he killed.  Yet at the last moment he remembered, removed his bonnet, bowed his head and mouthed the words he had used so many times before:    "May the Gods take you to them, for I had the need to kill you, but never the wish.  Forgive me if you can and if not, I trust you to try to understand."  Peran Vanquestor then replaced his bonnet, lifted his pack onto his back and left the scene on the best of the three horses. 

Peran kept the horse moving the rest of the morning and through the afternoon, taking care to use every stream and piece of rocky ground he came upon, to hide the trail of his escape.  In the middle of the afternoon he took to the beach that runs like a white-gold ribbon the length of the eastern side of that desolate peninsula which separates the Nation of Araz from the Nation of Cimar.  He rode in the waters edge, knowing that his tracks would be obliterated almost immediately by the frothy waters and he had taken half an hour to lay a track southward above the high-water line, before entering the surf and changing direction to head north.  The golden evening was becoming night when Peran saw the light ahead of him and he slowed the horse to a walk.  Soon he saw the source of the light.  It was a small stone building halfway up the grassy bank that rose from the beach.  Fishing nets hung like monster cobwebs from the small dwelling to the nearby outhouse and to complete the information, a boat was drawn up at the head of the beach.  The occupants of this place were fisher folk and from the look of the place, as he came nearer and saw the small vegetable patch behind it, they were obviously much poorer than most. 

Peran tied his horse to a hook that stuck out of the wall of the stone outhouse and took down his crossbow.  He wound it up and fitted a bolt to the string, before he called out.    "Hello in the house.  I come in peace.  A traveler looking for somewhere to rest his head for the night."  He waited for a while, but there was no answer from inside the house.  Peran Vanquestor smiled to himself, as if he had waited only to prove himself right, before he added,  "I have coin to pay for my lodging and wish only a meal and a bed for the night." 

A man's head appeared in the unglazed opening that served as a window, then he turned and said something to someone in the room behind him, before he shouted out of the window,   "We're poor honest folk stranger, there's no coin or luxury here." 

"I seek only friendly lodging fisherman."  Peran called back,  "Any roof is better than none.  I'll pay a copper for the bed and another for dinner and breakfast tomorrow." 

"Come on in then."  Said the voice. 

Peran Vanquestor walked to the door and knocked it with the steel cap of his boot.  It was thrown open and a skinny, wispy haired man stood to greet him.  Seeing the leveled crossbow the man backed away, the blood draining from his face as he did so. 

"Tell everyone else in there to stand with you fisherman."  Peran said. 

The man did as he was told and a woman, a youth of about sixteen and several other children ranging in ages down to about five, moved to stand beside the man who was obviously their father.  Peran moved into the house and quickly ascertained that no danger threatened him there.  He deftly removed the bolt from his bow and released it's tension, before he placed it beside the door.  He closed the door behind him and turned around smiling at the frightened family,   "My apologies my friends, I did not mean to insult your hospitality, but I have come close to being murdered far too many times to take chances anymore.  I trust you will forgive me and not let it affect our future dealings."   

Peran doffed his bonnet to the frightened woman,  "Peran Vanquestor, at your service madam and I assure you, a gentleman from whom you have no reason to fear any harm to yourself, or your family, in return for the hospitality you give to me." 

"Gods you scared us all man."  The fisherman said at last,  "Bringing up that crossbow like that and jumping in here like you did. . .  I thought for a moment we were all done for.  I don't know the life you live Master Vanquestor, but even being as poor as we are, is better than going around expecting to be murdered all the time." 

Peran smiled, but said nothing.  Instead he went to the fire and inspected the pot, inside which he found a hearty, herb flavored fish stew simmering.  He looked around for a plate to help himself to some, when the woman moved in on him with one and hefted a ladle-full of that steaming white food onto it.  She walked back to the table and put it down for him, placing a well worn metal spoon beside the plate.  She went to a cupboard then and broke a piece of bread off the loaf she kept there and laid that beside the plate also.  She said nothing and Peran did not mind that, then he was swallowing the finest fish stew he had ever tasted.  At last he had wiped the plate clean and leaned back feeling warm and full. 

"Madam, I have eaten in fine homes, fine Inns and a few Palaces in my day, yet I assure you nowhere have I tasted a dish prepared with fish that comes near to the taste of what you put before me this evening."  Peran meant what he said, for lost up here in the wilderness he had found a cook many Innkeepers he knew would offer a partnership.  The woman finally came out of her sullen mood and smiled at him. 

"In fact my friends, such good food demands to be followed by a fine wine and I happen to have such in my saddlebags."  He indicated to the youth and said,  "If you would care to go out to my horse young man, you will find the treasured bottle in the left bag.  Bring it in, that I may share it with your parents." 

The boy looked at his father, who nodded and the youth was gone.  In a matter of minutes he returned with the bottle and Peran poured cups for himself and the adults of the family who had now, not quite willingly, joined him at the table. 

"You were kind to compliment my cooking the way you did Sir."  The woman said after sipping the wine and lifting her eyebrows at it's quality,  "You being a Gentleman who knows fine food and all and probably eaten fish cooked better than my old recipes could ever make it." 

"Madam."  Peran replied,  "I am indeed a gentleman and I would not throw away idle compliments on so important a subject as fine food.  I tell you, your fish stew was magnificent and if you had a restaurant in a city, I would have paid a high price to enjoy such fare." 

The man put his arm around the woman and smiled at her as he spoke,  "There Koana, isn't that what I've been telling you all these years. . .  woman, when you came into my life the Gods gave me more happiness than most Princes have in their Palaces."

Peran watched and was amazed at what he was witnessing.  This skinny, balding old man and his plump middle-aged wife in her shabby home-spun dress, were as much in love as any honeymoon couple he had ever seen.  Seeing the obvious relaxation of their parents, the children were suddenly gathered around the table and Peran felt the happiness they shared as a family, realizing how long it had been since he had once shared the same security in his own home as a child.  The eldest boy then quietly left the gathering and went to a cupboard, returning with a small cloth-covered package which, when he unwrapped it, proved to contain four very old and well-used books.  The lad picked one up and forced it into Peran's hands, saying,  "All her recipes are in here Sir, only most of them she does not have the fixings to make here on the coast." 

"You can read?"  Peran asked in a shocked tone, for the last place he expected to find such a thing was in a fisherman's hut here in the desolate north. 

"Aye, that we can. . ."  The man replied,  "My wife's parents came from Asiga and went to the school there, they taught Koana, she taught me and together we have taught our children.  Bet you didn't expect to find fisher folk that could read and write up here, did you Sir?" 

"Gods man. . ."  Peran replied,  "Why do you stay here in this Gods forsaken country when you can read and write.  Less than ten people in a hundred in Khanlar are literate these days, you could make your fortune in any city you chose." 

The man looked ashamed, until his wife touched his arm and smiled at him reassuringly, then said to Peran,  "Master Vanquestor, in a full year we may see twenty copper pence.  Could you imagine how long we would last in a city, or even some hamlet that did not know us, without money in our pockets to buy lodging and food?  I am content to stay here and be happy, rather than risk my family in some city where I might make a few more coins." 

After that the conversation turned to general talk about everything from the weather to the state of the country, before at last Peran poured himself the last of the wine and took up the recipe book, almost absentmindedly, that is until he began to read it.  He was still reading it when the children were put to bed and when the man went out to gather and fold his nets, while his eldest son saw to Peran's horse.  Peran finally put it down when he suddenly realized the others were only waiting on him to go to bed, before they could themselves retire.  Peran Vanquestor however was not the sort of man to let go of an idea once he had taken hold of it.   "If you had the money and someone to help you get started, would you like to run a high class restaurant in a city, Koana?"  He asked outright. 

Instead of answering him she looked at her husband, transferring the question to him.  "You mean you know someone that would employ us to work in a restaurant?"  The man said. 

"No Loramir.  I do not know someone who would employ you."  Peran replied,  "And that isn't what I asked, what I asked was, if someone would put up the money and help you get started, would you like to be a partner in a high class Restaurant?" 

"Who would do that for the likes of us?"  Koana said sarcastically. 

"I would!"  Peran replied. 

"Where would you get that sort of money from, Master Vanquestor?"  Loramir Kolpor said,  "No offense meant Sir, but you are an outlaw, aren't you?" 

"In this Nation?  Yes.  And quite a few others as well,"  Peran answered chuckling,  "But times are changing Loramir and the Brotherhood has reformed and not as a gang of half-starved outlaws.  In the west Prince Jarin of Natan already rules in four Nations and he has built an army of more than ten thousand, well trained and fully equipped troops ready to expand that rule.  This time it will be the Church that will be driven back into the ocean."

The man looked at his wife in a sudden glance that showed that the Kolpors had something to hide.  She shook her head to stop him saying anything, then she turned to Peran.   "You say Prince Jarin of Natan has an army in the east and already controls four Nations?"  She was obviously testing him, trying to pull more information out of him before she would consider sharing whatever it was they were hiding. 

"Perhaps he has taken more by now, but the last word I had was that we control Lunza, Dag, Goja and Vanzor."  Peran replied, then added,  "As for my being an outlaw in the lands controlled by the Church Koana, it would be more true to say that I am a spy and saboteur, rather than just some unfortunate outlaw.  May I present myself under my true title, I am Peran Vanquestor, late Line Officer in the Asigan Legion of the Brotherhood and today serving the Khan of Khanlar, Prince Jarin of Natan, as an officer of his Intelligence Legion."  He smiled at them and continued,  "There my friends, I have told you my secret and here is the proof. . ." 

Peran pulled on the chain around his neck, bringing into his hand a medallion with a portrait of the Goddess Herthe on it's face.  Then by some practiced finger movements, the already thin medallion separated into two parts and he turned the two faces he had exposed so that Koana could read the inscription.  The result when she had read the words aloud came as no shock to Peran, for he had met many people like the Kolpors before.  The man suddenly jumped to his feet and slapped his fist to his heart.  "May Prince Jarin rule all Khanlar!"  He almost shouted, while his wife jumped up and hugged him.  Even the children were roused by their parent's excitement, but Koana rushed to put them back to their beds and then closed again the curtain that separated them from the adults. 

"You fought with the Brotherhood.  I guessed as much when I found out you could read,"  Peran said to the now happy Loramir,  "I take it Kolpor is not your real name either, is it?" 

"No sir.  Our family name is Vangoran and before the War I was a tailor in the City of Jontal.  I served the Brotherhood in the Jontal Legion and was wounded at the Battle of Gora a few months before the War ended.  They sent me home and by the time I had recovered there were Church Armies moving into Jontal for the final reckoning.  I took my family across in the ferry to Mozag where I felt we would be safer, but the end was in sight everywhere north of the waterway.  We did not dare go back, so we kept heading north, keeping to the woods and well away from any villages or holdings we came across.  In the end we found ourselves as far north as we could go and found this place.  There was an old woman living here, all on her own and she took us in.  Her sons had gone south with the Church Legions and she had already received word that they had both died.  She needed us and we her and the War was a subject we avoided.  The old lady died three years back and we decided that we would take her name and just stay here where we were safe."  He slapped his hand on his knee,  "Gods it's good news you brought us today Master Vanquestor!" 

"My offer still stands about the restaurant if you want it."  Peran said,  "I put up the money, you manage the place and your wife does the cooking.  What do you say?" 

"Prince Jarin is still a long way off,"  Koana said,  "I don't want to risk my family now, after all these years of living in hiding, just for the sake of a few months or a year or two longer." 

"I have a friend in Norden, an associate you might say, who will help you find a place for the restaurant and find some of our people to help you."  Peran insisted,  "I don't know about you, but I need to rebuild my fortunes before I go home after all this is over.  As for the danger, well the way I see it, you have lived in Norden so long I have doubts anyone would even question you, especially if an up-right citizen like my friend was your partner in the venture." 

"Like you, we have nothing left."  Loramir said quietly,  "If you really think it can be done, then I think I'll risk a boat ride to Norden this year with the smoked fish I've already got in the outhouse.  If what you say is right and this friend of yours is able to help us, then I think it won't be long before you will be our honored guest in my wife's restaurant." 

"I will be your honored guest after the Khan's Legions enter Norden, until then my friends I will just be your equal and secret Partner in the venture, you provide the labor, I provide the capital.  What say you?"  Peran put out his hand and Loramir no sooner grasped it, than his wife put her hands over theirs.  Then she leaned over and kissed her husband on the cheek and said, 

"There were times I worried husband, but I knew you would find a way to protect us and you always have." 

Peran Vanquestor went to sleep that night wondering how many men had a wife such as Loramir Vangoran's and knowing there were very few who could enjoy that man's luck, for few men could ever expect such a loyal partner in this life, or probably the next either.


* * * * * * *


Chapter Eighteen

Table of Contents