Chapter Eight


Manator the Guardian


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

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

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

They had slept their second night after leaving Havor's Holding beneath a centuries old spreading oak tree, taking advantage of the shelter it's branches provided from the night dew.  It had been a restless night but they had both at last fallen into a sleep of exhaustion, into a night world inhabited by real and false threats.  Now came this apparition to haunt them, yet as Rune awoke and the words were translated into his consciousness he finally realized that for some reason he did not feel there was any real reason to be afraid.  Kirene came awake at the moment the stranger spoke also and as their straining eyes separated the intruder from the rising sun behind him, they saw that this Manator was by far the best dressed man they could ever remember seeing.  He stood more than six feet in height and wore a rich purple cloak over a gown of the same color.  His hair was pure white, hanging past his shoulders in full waves and framing a wise face and long white beard.  About his head Manator wore a golden band and he carried a black staff which was topped with a cut crystal ball the size of a man's fist.

How could Rune ever explain to someone who has never been without memory themself how Manator's words affected him?  Part of him screamed to hear everything Manator might know of him, his family, his past, his friends. . .  and yet another part of him wanted to label it all just a vision and refuse the rescue so long awaited.  What if this well dressed intruder were no more than a clever old man, hoping to lure them with lies into the arms of their enemies while posing to have the answers for all Rune's doubts and fears of these past five years?  He also had Kirene to consider.  Her face showed her near to panic and hysteria, for to her Manator was just another stranger, possibly one of the strangers who had dealt destruction to all she held dear back at the Holding.  Rune realized how much she needed him at that moment, as she moved without sound nearer to him and grasped his hand, never taking her eyes off the old man, eyes which looked as frightened as a wild stallion that has been roped for the first time.  The woman in her had gone and in it's place was the worried little girl who had shyly kept to the shadows when the troopers had visited them that winter morning so long ago.  With that uncanny fear that all women can summon forth in the wink of an eye when someone threatening comes near them without warning, Kirene sought the protection of the nearest male she could trust.

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

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

The old man then carefully removed some small cakes from his pouch and offered two to them.  Their hesitation brought another understanding smile and the stranger took a small bite out of each one before passing the cakes to them.  They all but swallowed the cakes whole.  Manator nodded towards Kirene before he spoke again.   "The child has indeed seen the worst side of the human character Prince Jarin and has experienced man's ability for evil, yet there are many who have lived through much worse and they have more often than not learned to live with it and in time to laugh and enjoy a normal life again."

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

Manator smiled again and nodded knowingly,  "You are Prince Jarin of Natan. Despite your lack of knowledge or belief of it right now, I assure you my boy that you will be able to believe it soon enough.  You are the last of the Royal Blood that led the Brotherhood and the time has come when you must claim your place and title again.  Too much time has passed while you have lived the simple pastoral life of a peasant, now you must put all that behind you and go on to fulfill your destiny."

He then directed his attention to Kirene, whose initial fear had obviously been slowly replaced by better feelings towards the stranger,   "You, my dear, are Kirene, the daughter of Casper Havor the charcoal burner and a subject of the Nation of Natan.  I understand what you feel my dear, for over the years these old eyes have seen much of a kind to what you have experienced these past few days.  I can only ask you to trust me and to believe that I mean you only good."  To Rune he said,  "As for needing a companion, you may believe me that you have need of this companion Prince Jarin, for I can take Kirene and yourself to safety through places where on your own you would end up the property of slavers, fall victim of robbers, become prisoners of the Church or even worse."

Manator handed them some more oat cakes and gave Rune/Jarin a small flask to draw on that contained a sweet liquor.  The brew warmed his throat and heart at the same time.  It came as a shock to him that he was thinking of himself under the name of Jarin already and wondering why after all these years of being known as Rune, the very word that had been his name was fast slipping from him as anything personal.  Even so, he realized that if they did not let the man travel with them there were only two other choices open to him.  They could leave Manator to his own devices and the old man might betray them, or he could kill him.  Rune saw that the former would only increase their danger if Manator did indeed wish them harm and the latter Jarin knew was beyond him at this time.  There had been far too much killing already for him to contemplate any more at this moment.   "We will travel with you old man and you can tell us your stories as we walk, but should you play us false. . ."   Jarin's words died as he saw the warmth in Manator's face and the twinkle in the old man's gray eyes.

And so it was that that morning they traveled on, still eastward but this time in the company of Manator the Guardian.  As they walked Manator related tales of wonder to them, of the past Jarin had forgotten and the old man imparted an understanding of the history of Khanlar that fascinated both of them in it's telling.  The words came like a reading from a book.  For seven long tiring days Manator continued, answering their questions, repeating himself when asked and always without fault, as they made their way through the forests and countryside towards the port city of Atlar, although during their trek they never once suspected that to have been his intended destination, for from the very start he never mentioned it by name.  Along the way they stopped at many isolated farms and holdings and always they received food and assistance, for it seemed that their guide was held in awe by those they met during their journey.  

* * * * * * *

Manator's Tale

"Many years ago in an age before you were born Jarin, a young man inherited the title of Prince in the Nation of Asiga.  His name was Zorigan and he had not expected to gain his grandfather's crown, for he was only the second son of a living father and his father had two elder brothers who preceded him in line to the title.  However the God's decide who shall rule and by the time Zorigan's grandfather passed into the after-life the young man had buried his father and older brother and both uncles had died without sons to follow them."

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

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

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

"Zorigan's wisdom and care for his people, you could say for all people, was the cause of all his pain in later life and was in the end to bring his death.  When Zorigan moved into the Palace at Asiga, Khanlar was a land of violent extremes and dogma and had been so for centuries, much as it is again now that he is gone.  The poor lived knowing that in all probability their children would spend much of their lives sold out to bond owners, if not end up on the slaver's block as debt slaves.  The rich knew that nothing could ever threaten them in their fortress palaces, surrounded as they all were by their feudal armies.  Merchants grew fat and Priests even fatter, for the poor were more numerous than trees in a forest and they were kept poor and illiterate and without any hope save that of a rich man's favor.  As the Gods have always seen fit to allow, the ruling classes seemed to despise the poor and heaped upon them more hardship with every passing year."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"In this City of Commerce huge stone built merchant halls competed with each other for the business of Khanlar.  Each Hall was dedicated to a particular trade or industry and Prince Zorigan founded Trade Guilds to manage the affairs of each of them.  In fact, even today they remain the center for all governing matters of the Great Guilds, for even the Church did not dare to change that, for every freeman in Khanlar knows that his livelihood is dependent upon Guild membership or association.  Even the badges now worn by each Guild's members were designed by Prince Zorigan himself, although many have forgotten that and the Priest's deny it.  Every Hall in the Great Market is the same in construction and architecture as all others, except for the Guild Badge above it's doors and the flag which flies over it's tiled roof."

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

"Below the Great Market on the shore of the Lake and built on a man-made promontory fifty feet above the high water mark, is a granary larger by three times than even the one in the Holy City of Ka.  It was kept full by the cargos of the great grain-ships traveling the Waterway with the produce of fields from Dynlar to Vanzor."

"However my dears, it is the Architecture of the Great Market that is the most impressive thing about the place, for each Hall is like an enclosed town contained in walls four feet thick, decorated with columns and balconies, with Inns and shops, meeting rooms and offices, even private apartments which can be hired for daily or yearly rents by members of the Guild.  The doors of the Halls swing open at dawn and stay open until well after dark and these doors are works of art in themselves, solid oak covered with the most beautifully worked bronze plating, fifteen feet high and thirty feet wide.  The streets are cleaned constantly by bondsmen in blue uniforms or were, until the Priests took over and regarded cleanliness as expensive.  In Zorigan's days you would never see an animal loose anywhere and even trade animals were not allowed to be driven through the market to the pens, except along one well hidden way devoted to that purpose alone.  Trees grew in uniform beauty along each street and small cafes and Inns, temples and shops dealing in rare and special items of great value, stood like gems between the Halls.  There were flower beds, lawns, fish ponds and fountains and it was the joy of every cultured Khanlarian to be able to spend time in that place."

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

"The Prince's greatest stroke of genius however, was the road building program he financed to feed this great trading center and it's beginnings concerned your paternal grandfather Jarin and Prince Moragan of Dang, who was an old man even then.  Zorigan convinced them to allow him to build the Southern Road, paved all the way and wide enough for three carts to pass abreast of each other, from the Great Market on Lake Asiga to the port city of Dang on the Southern Coast."

"Zorigan also brought in the great port architect, Kotaror of Navis, to create a port beneath the Great Market, where the largest ships could berth and unload onto stone quays.  Kotaror worked the remainder of his life in Zorigan's service Jarin and it was he that built the port of Dang to be the tributary of a great trade route, from what had been a small almost deserted fishing quay."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Jarin, you will learn that the ways of politics are more often than not completely stupid, like a one-winged goose trying to fly with grace.  The more that is said, the greater the confusion.  Misinterpretation of the facts were further misinterpreted until a series of small clashes between troops loyal to Prince Zorigan and Church Troopers began to happen almost daily.  Soon some of the more bigoted Priests led a call for a Holy War to dispose of the  "devil possessed"  Prince of Asiga."   Removing his hand from the younger man's shoulder Manator resumed the pace and the story, and Jarin felt as if an important moment in his life had just taken place.

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

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

Manator's voice had taken on a tone which edged between anger and pity as he continued to explain what the Church's dogma and insecurity had wrought upon the people of Khanlar.   "Worse than all else however, is the Church control of everything.  Dogma is the philosophy of those allowed the luxury of discussing any philosophy at all.  Nothing new is started that will be finished without the Church owning it, no crops are planted that the Church will not tithe away no less than a third of the harvest.  Any new system or invention that could help the problem is ignored simply because it is new.  People starve in this land Jarin and yet the Church builds a new temple every month somewhere rather than take that money and feed them."

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

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

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

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

City of Dismay

Finally they came to the City of Atlar on the southern coast of the continent and as they approached the gates of the city, walking down the dusty earth road which led to them, two well armed guards came out of the gate house to meet them.  Behind the guard's surliness was an arrogance born of the total lack of concern for anyone and the knowledge that the power which backed their petty pomposity was great enough to protect them from almost, if not everything that might call in retribution for their brutality.  Manator bid Kirene and Jarin wait and he walked ten or so steps ahead of them to meet the guards.  The smaller of the two men took the papers Manator offered with what could only be called a sneer, while the larger guard passed Manator headed towards the young couple waiting as they had been asked.  He stopped short of them however and returned to his partner as he heard the smaller guard reduced to audible fawning before Manator.  Jarin was to learn later that the reason for the respectful treatment was the huge wax seal on the scroll Manator had handed to the first guard, for it was the seal of the Priest of Priests himself which gave Manator passage throughout the land.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When they reached the Inn the doorman gave great courtesy to Manator and led him inside as if he were a Prince in his own right, leaving Jarin and Kirene to wait on the patio, looking back down the street they had just traveled.

The little patio in front of the inn was walled in and housed several tables, a few chairs and some benches.  A beautiful old jacaranda tree spread it's purple flowering branches over the patio with softly dropping flowers adding to the purple carpet that already decorated the red clay tiles beneath it.  Jarin and Kirene took chairs at a small empty table, immediately bringing forth a young servant to place a carafe of cold water and two pewter mugs before them.  Sipping the icy water they looked back along the way they had come and Jarin heard Kirene swallow a sigh which made him realize just how deep her despair of this place was.

The street looked even more disreputable looking back than it had while the had walked along it dodging the traffic.  Daub and wattle, stone, brick, thatch, logs, planking, tiles and slate, in fact every material possible had been used to build the jumble of houses, shops, stables and other buildings stretching back to the gates.  Everything either seemed about to collapse, in need of repair, or had the look of something that had been repaired many times over by uncaring hands.  Barrels, boxes, piles of wood, dung heaps and Jarin would have guessed many much worse things lay in confusion everywhere.  Chimneys smoked gray smoke from damp wood through soot clogged escapes into the dead windless air and then a damp, half-hearted drizzle began, bringing the smoke down to sting the eyes and nostrils of those in the street.  It was the most dismal sight Jarin had ever seen and a place he would never re-visit if he had the choice.  Kirene was affected by the scene no better than himself and as he put his arm around her shoulders he felt her shudder.

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

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

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

Manator excused himself and retired immediately the Innkeeper left them, even though it was yet three hours before sunset.  They followed his example within a few minutes, each of them taking one of the small rooms.  However, Jarin had not been under the freshly laundered cotton sheet for more than a few minutes before his door opened and Kirene, naked as the day she was born, walked in and climbed into his bed beside him.  It is amazing how quickly a man's tiredness evaporates when an eager-for-love woman enters his bed and Kirene was without doubt eager at that moment.  She snuggled up to him, as warm as a new pastry, yet her nipples pushed into his back like a child's fingers.  He turned over.  Her eyes were closed and the lightest of sighs breathed through her lips, already enlarged with the heat of her blood.  Stroking the inside of her thighs just made the sighs turn to moans, giving him a feeling of power over her emotions that he relished and within seconds her body was punishing his with a need far beyond anything he had expected her capable of.  She kissed him without tiring and crushed him with her arms as he took her, finally exploding into a hugging spasm that caught one of his arms awkwardly.  Then she relaxed as fast as she had heated, kissed his cheek, his lips, informed him she loved him and was sleeping almost before he could return the words.

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

* * * * * * *

From Shame to Respectability  

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

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

The lad removed the remains of breakfast and soon he and another young fellow were carrying kettles of hot water into the room to fill the great tin lined brass tub they had extricated from some place or another and placed in front of the fire.  When it was full the youths gave them soap, a razor, scissors and several rough towels and then left them and soon the two young lovers set to washing the dirt of the journey from their bodies.  Kirene entered the water first and Jarin enjoyed himself washing her and exciting her at the same time, running his lathered hands all over her eager young body.  It took more than an hour to remove the grime from their bodies and for him to satisfy the excitement he had created in Kirene, but when done they smelled as fresh as any angel servant of the Gods.

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

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

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

Several hours, tailors shops and hairdressers later they returned to the Inn looking for all the world like aristocrats in their new splendor, but as they entered their rooms Manator lost his calm manner for the first time since they had known him.  He jumped from his chair and exclaimed,   "What have you done?"

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

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

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

"As planned and expected."  Manator replied,  "There is a Lunzan ship in the harbor awaiting us, it has been here several days and now that we have come it will sail on the evening tide.  It would appear my friend."

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

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

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

 The Arrow

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

The ship itself was beautiful and while Manator talked with the captain in his cabin, Jarin and Kirene stood on the bridge and watched the Arrow cut through the waves.  Extra sails were hoisted, again without the expected shouted orders and soon the vessel was four parts light blue canvas billowing before a fair wind from the South.  Her speed was amazing to them for they were without any doubt land people and the slight sway of her being was like a horse stretching out from an uncomfortable canter into a flowing gallop.  Gulls screamed overhead and the passage became enchanted for the two young lovers. 

Kirene was beside herself with excitement.  Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkled as she circled Jarin in her arms and hugged him.   "Mother told me about the ocean Rune, but she never could have explained this.  It stretches to the end of the world, it's huge.  I know I should be frightened but I'm not.  I could never have believed that there could be a ship like this one.  It's like being outside in the middle of a thunderstorm, or watching a shower of falling stars, or. . .  or like making love when you lose control. . .  It is wonderful Rune, isn't it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * *


Chapter Nine

Table of Contents