It was the cry of a myna from the gardens outside that woke Malejis Asra from sleep. In his drowsy state he thought at first that it was saying, “Open your eyes, open your eyes,” and he obeyed in an instant, fearing some shapeless demon, but no, he was sitting upon a tangle of blankets in his room, and the myna was only speaking in the tongue of birds. He folded his legs into a meditative posture and recited twelve stanzas of the Lament of Kaigu to set his soul in order, and when he was done with this, he went out into the garden to have breakfast. He found a ripe mango and was taking it to the nearest bench to cut up and eat, when he saw Kasus sitting on the ground near the pool.
“Congratulations, I suppose,” he said to Kasus, sitting down next to him.
Kasus nodded. “Yes. And congratulations to you too.”
“Everything I have I owe to you. Would you like a piece?”
“You undervalue yourself,” said Kasus, accepting a slice of the mango.
“Do I really?” Majelis asked, and Kasus shrugged.
“You and I have the same blood,” he said. “We were raised in the same house. It would be quite peculiar if we were all that different.” There was something about the corners of Kasus’s mouth that told Majelis he was not being entirely sincere in what he was saying, but Majelis accepted it anyway. “You are an Asra,” Kasus added, putting his hands on Majelis’s shoulders. “You are descended from the gods. Be proud of your status and your gifts, and claim what is yours! I gave you Ssari to thank you for giving me Asatis, but I admit I also had hopes that she’d cheer you up. These dark spells of yours really won’t do now that we are the princes of the city.”
Majelis smiled, but it was a half-hearted attempt. “I know. And I do appreciate Ssari: she’s been a great comfort to me these past days. But it isn’t easy. I will pray and meditate, and maybe the gods will grant me some portion of their joy.”
“But not yet, at any rate,” said Kasus, and taking the black cloth hanging over his shoulders, wrapped it around his forehead. Majelis, of course, had slept wearing the cloth of mourning tightly bound over his brow. Having eaten what he wanted from the mango, he tossed it aside for the birds or monkeys to enjoy. “You are better at mourning than I am, brother. I think perhaps now is the time for you to take the lead.”
The royal temple was built atop the hill of Tepanaruna, where legend said that the god Dangus had descended to give three gifts to the first princes. As Kasus and Majelis ascended the path towards the temple, they were joined by a crowd of attendants, priests, and mourners, all chanting the songs of sorrow, recounting the glories of the old king’s rule and the miseries of the underworld. This was the thirteenth day of the mourning, and the old king’s ashes had long ago been scattered to the sky, his bones buried under the hill, but the son of a god deserved more than a paltry handful of days.
In the temple itself fresh fruit and bread were piled on tables for the pleasure of Dangus and his retinue, and the censers hanging from the ceiling filled the air with thick clouds of incense. All the mortals prostrated themselves before the great statue of Dangus with his hammer and his goblet, but continued their chanting without pause. Then, as the mourners continued to tear at their hair and clothes in lamentation, the priests brought Kasus and Majelis to the altar. Each of the brothers held a small loaf of bread in his hands, which they held up to Dangus and then broke and ate.
The Asra family, of course, were not literal descendents of Dangus like the Ketslisu were, but in this cycle of time Dangus had chosen the Asra to bear the cup of his royal authority. It was on behalf of Dangus that they ate the bread offered by their people, in the hopes that the god would bless them and give the city prosperity during their reign.
“The old princes are no more,” the priest said underneath the persistent chanting. “They have gone to Aratus, down to the silent depths of the world. New princes have been raised in their place, that the order of Dangus might not perish from our land, that we might always have rulers whose fathers were of the divine nature. Praise Dangus and every god, praise the light that they bring to us, praise the princes in whose veins flow the light of the gods. Praise the princes of Tsebiss.”
He raised Kasus and Majelis to their feet and then he himself knelt before them. “Bless me,” he continued, “my lords. Bless me and my temple and my city.”
“I bless you in the name of Wassi,” said Kasus.
“I bless you in the name of Nussawu,” said Majelis.
Warm blood dripped over them suddenly, and although Majelis knew better than to look up, he knew it was from a pair of doves whose necks had been wrung and whose veins had been opened above the princes’ heads.
“Our eyes are opened,” said the surrounding priests in unison. “We see you and know you for divinities, for our true lords.”
“You see, brother?” asked Kasus in a voice barely audible over the chanting. “We have taken our kingdom for ourselves, and now all will be well. Have no fear.”
And so they returned to the palace, where there was feasting and dancing in celebration of the new princes. On a couch elevated up above the others, Ssari sat at the side of Majelis, and at Kasus’s side were several of his own courtesans, laughing as they dipped their cups into the pool of sweet wine before them. Absently Majelis took the delicacy that Ssari handed him, watching the dancing girls whose arms moved together so that they appeared like some many-handed god from Gath. But his mind wasn’t on the dancers, nor on the gods of Gath, nor even on Ssari, lovely as she was. He was thinking about his own gods, about his ancestor Nussawu, the god of death, whose bargains always exacted a heavy price.
“You should smile,” Ssari told him, poking at his lips with her long fingernail. “If you’re gloomy, I’ll be gloomy too.” And she frowned exaggeratedly.
“In that case I suppose I’ll have to smile,” said Majelis, and he did.
Ssari squeezed his hand. “There, you see? The prince of Tsebiss should be glad and happy, or his people might suspect there is a trouble on him.”
“And a trouble on the prince is a trouble on the city. For your sake and theirs, I will smile.”
As for Kasus, he needed no encouragement whatsoever to smile. He was surrounded by pleasures of the eye, ear, and tongue, and his thoughts were as far away from the god of death as they could possibly be. He saw Ssari encouraging Majelis and nodded in satisfaction. He looked down at the others celebrating, and grinned when he saw Srepatssu Winare sitting in close consultation with a fortune-teller. Let him turn to such things in his ruin! They wouldn’t save him. It had been a long time since the Winare family held power, and it would be a long time before they ever did again.
Paibusru Ketslisu was approaching him now, holding out his hands in supplication. “My princes,” he said, and Majelis turned his head to him. “You know, as you know all, that I suffered great loss when my son’s ship was wrecked at sea. I beg you to let me eat the crumbs from your table until I have recovered my wealth.”
The Ketslisu family had always been firm supporters of the Asra. “You may do so,” said Kasus, and Majelis nodded. “Are you not our beloved friend?” Kasus continued. “And should Dangus forbear to show mercy to his child?”
Others came forward after Paibusru, asking for boons of various sorts, and Kasus granted them all, as was suitable for a newly raised prince. Near the end Kasus saw the fortune-teller with Srepatssu make a final throw of his finger bones before Srepatssu stood up and walked up to the Asra brothers, his eyes fixed straight ahead, a slight smile on his face. “The gods have shown you great favor. I humble myself before you.”
“What is your request?” Kasus asked, cutting him off.
Srepatssu’s smile faded away. “I only have a small, miniscule thing to ask. There is a plot of land I would like to own, a small piece of land near the forest, of no value to you.”
“Of no value to me? Is this a boon I am granting you, or is it a deal to be made in the marketplace? Well, if it’s a bargain you want, we will go together and look at this land. In fact, I will be generous and give you twice as much as you have asked.”
Srepatssu was frowning deeply now. “I can’t possibly accept such an overwhelming offer.”
“No, but I insist. I give it freely, in gratitude for what I myself have been given.” And Kasus spread his hands. “Is there anything more you wish, anything in the world?” Srepatssu said nothing as he stole away from the throne, and Kasus resisted his inclination to laugh: Srepatssu was nowhere near as clever as he conceived himself to be, and whatever his plan had been, he was now under a serious obligation of gratitude to Kasus.
Kasus leaned back and put his arms around the shoulders of the courtesans, tugging lightly on the ear of the one on his right, Ngulu, as graceful as the dove after which she was named. He looked over at Majelis and grinned, and Majelis smiled back. Tsebiss was theirs to rule, and they might as well enjoy the fruits of their office. Some day Dangus would choose others to rule, maybe, but Kasus put that firmly out of his thoughts, letting the dance, the music, the food fill his mind.
And as they had promised, at the appointed time Kasus and Majelis went forth to see the piece of land that Srepatssu desired. Royal surveyors traced out the plot according to Srepatssu’s instructions, and from the back of an elephant Kasus considered the land they had enclosed. “What do you think of it?” he asked Majelis, seated beside him.
“It makes little sense to me. Why would the Winare want this land? Only a moderate amount of produce comes from it; I see nothing strategic about its location; it is sacred to no god. Even if Srepatssu was being remarkably clever, and he intended to receive twice what he asked, there is still nothing remarkable about it.”
“Sacred to no god. Not that we know of, anyway.” Kasus called down to the surveyors, instructing them to look for signs of recent excavation, and while they were doing this, he told the elephant to kneel so he and Majelis could descend and sit in their tent while singers entertained them. Later in the day the surveyors returned with the news that a spot had been found on the far side of the plot showing marks of shovelwork and overturned earth. “Did you find anything there?” Kasus asked.
“We did,” said the chief surveyor, and signaled with his arm. Two workers entered the tent, their eyes turned away from the god that they bore reverently between them.
“Dangus,” said Kasus upon seeing the hammer and goblet that the god held in its hands. “Any land that he honored would give its owner a great deal of popular authority, whether or not he belonged to the royal family. It is apparent that some blasphemer buried the god here to try and appropriate the divinity for himself.”
“We should be thankful that we have prevented this sacrilege,” said Majelis, with that dry tone in his voice that evidenced he was rather more clever than he sometimes acted. If only he would think more often about things other than his own worries and qualms, he would be a perfectly capable prince. Maybe Kasus could discuss it with some of the priests that Majelis spent so much time pestering.
“I am quite sure that our Winare brother will be overjoyed that this plot has been uncovered,” said Kasus, and a few of the nearby courtiers laughed at his wordplay. “Let us go and tell him about our discovery. As for the god, the priests will know how he should best be honored. Bear him carefully now!”
Mounted once more upon the elephant’s back, Kasus and Majelis returned with all their retinue to the city, accompanied by songs of praise to Dangus and Wassi. And Kasus wondered, swaying high above the earth, if this was how the gods themselves felt.
“The ambassadors are here,” said Matswe, and Kasus took a series of deep breaths to calm the flow of his thoughts.
“Good,” Majelis said. “They may enter.”
It was a particularly hot and sleepy day; even in the cooler air of the palace several of the courtesans had fallen asleep. Servants fanned Majelis and Kasus, but even so it would have been difficult to stay awake were it not for the ambassadors’ arrival. If Kasus had his way, no one from Alka’al would be allowed within the city or surrounding lands, but the tradition of the priests allowed emissaries of the Lord of Dreams to do honor to the princes. And, of course, few wanted to give up the opium that came out of the north.
The doors opened and the ambassadors entered, three of them, taking long slow paces towards the royal dais, each with face veiled so that only their blood-shot eyes were visible. “The Lord of Dreams sends a message for you, princes of Tsebiss,” said the foremost ambassador, one of whose eyes had apparently been gouged out, leaving an empty socket upon which a false eye had been drawn in red paint, glaring up at Kasus. His speech was slurred but otherwise fluent. “He congratulates you on your victory.”
“Thank you. We appreciate the friendship of the Lord of Dreams,” said Majelis.
“Yes. He also warns you that it would be wise to concern yourself with your own land, no matter what you hear from the north and west. A new age of the world is coming, and if you are fortunate, it will not consume you.”
“We thank the Lord of Dreams for his warning. Tsebiss is not accustomed to have dealings with far off lands.”
“You are wise.”
“We invite you to eat and drink with us, if it pleases you,” said Majelis.
“It pleases us. We will share a meal before we return,” said the ambassador, and Kasus forced a smile. He did not particularly relish the notion of sitting in the same room as them, endlessly wondering if under their veils they bore some hideous deformity, but tragically the life of a prince involved such unpleasantness from time to time. At a moment like this he didn’t resent the arrogance of the Lord of Dreams, who sent ambassadors instead of meeting face to face as a prince ought. If the servants were such creatures as this, what would the master be like?
The three ambassadors bowed in unison. “Princes of Tsebiss,” one of them said, pausing briefly as they were walking out the door. “I warn you again. Stay here, build up your fortresses. Do not meddle in the west!”
And when they were gone, Kasus said to Majelis, “I know nothing of the western lands, nor do I care to, but now I am almost tempted to go there and meddle.”
“It would be very dangerous to go against the will of the Lord of Dreams, now that the age of heroes is over,” said Majelis.
“Naturally. I was making a small jest.”
Lowering his voice Kasus said, “I wonder if it would be safe for me to have opium tonight, in the vicinity of his servants.”
“It is never safe,” said Majelis. “Or do you think his eyes can only see within his own realm?”
“So the only relief from fear of him is to deliver oneself into his hands. It is a clever trap he sets for us. Wine, too, would make me sleepy.”
“Music will take your mind off this matter,” said Majelis, and clapped his hands for the musicians.
“We’ll see,” Kasus said.
A pale rotund man approached them now, bowing low. He was a priest of Tsuruja, wearing women’s garb that clashed with his surprisingly deep voice. “Lords,” he said. “The Lady Ugasrti desires to see you.”
“Well, there’s a request we can hardly deny. We grant our permission,” said Kasus. This was a capital distraction from the Lord of Dreams. The priest ushered in Lady Ugasrti, on whose shoulders still hung the colorful garments suitable for a queen, but her hair was bound up in the black cloth of mourning.
She bowed her head. “I apologize, my sons, for not coming sooner. Will you allow me to give a mother’s blessing for your reign?”
“Of course, mother,” said Majelis.
Ugasrti strode up to their couch and put her hands firmly on their heads. “I call Tsuruja and Nusseli to witness, the dark goddesses of Aratus; I have honored them all my life, and they hear me now. My sons are troublers of the city’s peace; they too shall be troubled. My sons have bloodied their hands with righteous blood; they shall bloody their hands with their own blood. I call Nusseli to trail after them wherever they go; I call Tsuruja to avenge her husband on their heads! This is the curse I put on these cobras in the skin of men; this is their punishment for their sins!”
A chill accompanied by dizziness ran through Kasus and his heart clenched. He grabbed at the arm of the couch to steady himself, and when he looked up, Ugasrti was walking out, her priest a step behind her. Beside Kasus, Majelis was staring blankly ahead, apparently stunned. The musicians had lined up with their instruments in hand, but Kasus waved for them to go away again. “That was rather poetic,” he said. “Poor woman, she must be absolutely distraught. Oh, Majelis, don’t worry yourself about the curse. The gods favor us over the unhappy souls in the House of Sorrows, or they would not have given Tsebiss to us. I will make sure that she is granted an extra allowance, and that will be the end of that.”
“I wish I could justify myself as easily as you do,” Majelis said. “But nothing she said is worse than the curses with which I have cursed myself.”
“Did not the gods favor us on the day of the great sacrifice? Did not Nussawu himself appear to give us his blessing? Can a mortal’s curse stand against an immortal’s blessing? We have been promised a glorious reign; it has been written in Jassel’s book.” Kasus slapped Majelis on the shoulder. “So fear not, brother! Tomorrow the Alka’al ambassadors will be gone, mother will be ensconced within the House of Sorrows, and we will be princes still.”
“The gods have said it, and the gods have power,” said Majelis, bowing his head.
Kasus woke, covered in sweat from nightmares that he could barely remember. Ngulu said something in her sleep and rolled away from him, and to calm himself he began to recite the names of the gods. Somehow this litany became instead a list of various important families in Tsebiss: Ketslisu, Winare, Leness, Iba. The Asra were bound to him by blood, of course, and the Ketslisu were bound by tradition and the gift he had given them. The heads of the Leness family were easy to flatter, easy to persuade that they would do best by full-heartedly supporting the Asra. He doubted that the Iba with their peculiar rites would stir from their estate in the east. As for the Winare, although he would need to keep his eyes on them, they had been thoroughly humiliated and indebted to Kasus, and he doubted they would stir up any trouble in the immediate future.
Before he could reach any lesser families in his list, sleep took him, and when he woke the next morning he was refreshed and filled with divine energy, despite the nightmares. He kissed the still-sleeping Ngulu (which reminded him that he really should start seeking out wives for himself and Majelis) and went out into the garden to eat and listen to the birds that fluttered about with their wings full of colors. For the moment there was a lull in the summer rains, so Kasus could sit out in the open as he enjoyed sugary cakes from an ivory plate, a recent acquisition from the P’ugdaghun traders. When he had finished this breakfast he left the plate on the ground for the servants and went for a walk around the garden’s periphery.
From somewhere in the south Kasus heard the rumble of thunder. The lull would soon be at end, it seemed. Probably the captains of the city would be awake and ready to discuss the eternal question of Beli and its allies, and whether Tsebiss would be ready if Beli chose to make war. Kasus had, of course, been trained since childhood in the ways of warfare, in strategy and diplomacy, and Tsebiss was a strong city, but then so was Beli. Kasus could think of a number of reasons that either Beli or Tsebiss could use to declare war against the other, and if it came to that, he wanted Tsebiss to win.
He walked out of the royal grounds, down the avenue towards the temple of Raimara, and as he climbed up the steps to the sanctuary of the god so he could make a brief devotion before meeting with the captains. But as he reached the last step, he was grabbed suddenly from behind and knocked to the hard stone below. “Can’t have you asking the god to help you,” a man said, and then Kasus was pulled down to the ground by his legs, step by jolting step, too stunned to fight back. He managed to cover his aching head with his arms, but by the time he reached the bottom he was thoroughly sore and dizzy.
But he was furious, too. “I am a prince, I am a son of the gods! How dare you lay your hands on me?”
“Kasus is quite right,” said another voice, and Srepatssu Winare stepped into Kasus’s view. “You should have been more gentle with our prince,” he said. Kasus kicked out suddenly and twisted out of his assailant’s grip. He jumped to his feet, but a wave of dizziness came over him and he fell back a few steps. He could see now that he was surrounded by men, many of them armed with bludgeons. Srepatssu clicked his tongue. “You may be a son of the gods, Kasus Asra, but that does not mean the gods love you. We have had enough of the Asra ruling over us with their presumptions and their luxuries. We have had enough of you.”
“When you say ‘we,’ you mean the Winare, I think.”
“The Winare have always been closest to the hearts of the people,” said Srepatssu, and spread his arms to indicate the thugs around him. “Behold the people, armed to cast you out!”
“And what will you do with me when you have cast me out of my palace? Will you shed my blood and curse yourselves? The gods see and avenge!”
Srepatssu grinned and clapped his hands together. “We will find some remedy for you and your beloved brother. Take him to the pit, but do be careful not to harm him. The gods, and all that. Farewell, Kasus Asra!”
Majelis had been still asleep when Ssari had cried out and he opened his eyes to see her being pulled from his bed by a band of strange men. He leapt up, clad only in his nightcloth, but was struck painfully over his shoulders and fell to the ground. “Majelis!” Ssari cried. “Help me!” A boot landed on his back and pressed him down, but he fought against it, lifting his assailant up so that with a thud he landed on the bed. Quickly Majelis stood up and saw the others rushing toward him, Ssari momentarily out of their grasp, and he shouted for her to run. He twisted to face the men coming towards him now, but though most were smaller than him their numbers were greater and, he saw now, some of them were armed.
“You incur judgment if you touch me,” he said. Ssari, at least, had gotten away.
“Do we now,” said one of the men. “Well, your highness, if you will kindly come with us. Our new prince wishes to have a word with you.”
“And who was it that sent you?”
“Srepatssu Winare, prince of Tsebiss.”
“I wasn’t aware that Dangus had chosen another in my place.”
“You’re aware now. Perhaps I should warn you that although I’m a pious man, my friends here would rather knock someone else down than kneel themselves, if you understand me. Are you going to come see the prince peaceably, or should we indulge their proclivities?”
Majelis sighed and followed his captors to the steps of Raimara’s sanctuary, where Srepatssu was waiting. When he saw him, Srepatssu clapped his hands together and laughed. “And now they’re both here! Well done, well done. Majelis Asra, I hope you’re ready to join your brother in the pit, where you will have plenty of opportunity to fast and meditate on why the gods have abandoned you.”
The pit was not far from the sanctuary, still within the grounds of the temple of Raimara, where it could be guarded so that none would escape, even if they somehow managed to climb the foreboding steep sides. Fortunately there were no other prisoners there at the moment apart from Kasus, who greeted Majelis with a grim wave of his hand. “Welcome to Aratus,” Kasus said.
“The great god raises up and casts down,” said Majelis, and adjusted himself in the mud of the pit. There was a cold tingle against his leg and he realized he was sitting against the drain that allowed rainwater to flow out. But what would be the point of moving? It seemed that there would be no escape from this misery that had come upon them so suddenly.
“I had everything planned out,” said Kasus so quietly that Majelis could barely hear him. “But Srepatssu didn’t do things the way they’re supposed to be done. He dared cast us out with force. He ignored the holy gods.”
“Maybe the age of Bade is coming to an end.”
“Or maybe the gods simply do not care for us, so occupied are they with their dance,” said Kasus, and put his head in his mud-caked hands. Majelis had never seen his brother like this, not even when Asatis had died.
Majelis raised his eyes to the distant sky and began to chant the lay of Rosjalu, the hero who went mad and wandered in his madness through the forest, an outcast from his family and followers, though in the end he had been restored by drinking heavenly water. There were no nymphs here to bring Majelis such water, of course, but by chanting and meditating he could share in Rosjalu’s deliverance, even while his physical body suffered.
“I won’t be taken by surprise,” he heard Kasus say, as if from a distance. Kasus took a deep breath and continued, “I won’t be taken by surprise next time. I’ll protect myself with blood and iron from all my enemies. The hunter is coming,” before trailing off into mumbling that Majelis couldn’t hear at all. Then it began to rain.
The summer winds had brought the great ships to arrive at Tsebiss full of wealth and goods, and crewed by men eager to barter with the city’s people. And with the ships also came a solution to the dilemma that faced the new rulers of Tsebiss, and the Winare family could rest easy.
Kasus walked with stiff back between his two guards, staring at the ship ahead, a vast galley that loomed over them like a thundercloud, and Majelis walked behind him, similarly warded. Both brothers had been accounted large men in Tsebiss, but those who sailed the western sea were their match for size.
Once aboard ship they were stripped and examined, then given new clothes and brought before an interpreter. “What are your names?” he asked.
“I am Majelis Asra of Tsebiss.”
“I am Kasus Asra, prince of Tsebiss.”
A whip cut into their backs. “You are no longer rulers of Tsebiss! You are P’ugdaghun. What are your names?”
“I am Kasus Asra, prince of Tsebiss,” Kasus said again.
The guards seized Kasus and hurled him to the ground, then whipped him until blood flowed freely. “What is your name?”
“Prince…of…Tsebiss. Aaaaah!” He looked up and his eyes met the gaze of the interpreter. Slowly a smile crept over his face. “I am Kasus Asra…P’ugdaghun.” He was lashed again, but repeated “I am P’ugdaghun!”
“Good. Your father is the ocean now, and your mother this ship. Her name is Kaghatil. We are all brothers now, we P’ugdaghun, but you are the youngest for the moment. You will obey your new elders and love your new parents, and in return you shall be allowed to take whatever you wish: riches, women, opium, whatever pleasures you seek. For the P’ugdaghun are the kings of the sea and all nations do us homage. I will speak for the P’ugdaghun until you learn our common speech. Follow me.”
He led Majelis through a doorway to a low-ceilinged passage where rows of men sat chained to oars, with Kasus being dragged behind. “You will start your life here in the womb of Kaghatil. You shall suffer your own labor pains and if you do well you will be born into a life of power and luxury. If you do not do well, you will be drowned in the sea. This is the way of the P’ugdaghun, and you are ours forever.”
Far to the west of Tsebiss, on the other side of the inhabited world, a young man dipped his pot into the well of water to fill it, then lifting it to one shoulder he walked back towards the camp. It was an unusually hot day and he longed to tarry at the water, but he was no longer free to do as he wished. It was the time of the Ad’os to rule and the time of the Tanos to serve, as the Fates demanded. So he carried water for Eldan and looked after his camels and should have been content. But he was Hekkzaghin, which meant “fighter against fate”, and it was his desire to choose his own path.
On his way he passed G’aghla, her delicate face made even prettier by the shadow of the broad hat she wore as a shield against the sun. She certainly deserved better than to be a slave and the plaything of Ad’os brutes – he prayed to the Fates that she was not used thus – she deserved the headdress of a free woman, and never mind what he thought about her face.
Hekkzaghin bowed as he entered Eldan’s tent and without meeting his eyes set down the pot. “Bring me some bread too,” said Eldan.
“Yes,” he said quietly, and went to fetch it from the storehouse in the rocks which, until a few months ago, had belonged to the Tanos, and some years before that had belonged to the Leka, all by the judgments of the Fates. He found Semsa there bent over her task of sifting the latest cereal from the north, and in the darkness beyond her B’oli sat in his stone chair.
“Hello, Hekkzaghin,” Semsa said with her faint half-smile.
“Hello, Semsa,” he replied. “Hekkzaghin bows to you, B’oli. Ah…your dreams…have they ended now that our doom has fallen at last?”
B’oli’s voice came deep and quiet from the shadows. “No, they have not, and they are growing darker.”
“I fear for the Tanos,” said Semsa. “I remember the story of the Gavon tribe and how it was utterly destroyed.”
“But that was long ago, wasn’t it, in the barbaric past?” Hekkzaghin asked. “The elders all say there will come a time when we rise again. Ah, I shouldn’t linger here, though. I just came for some bread.”
Semsa stepped into the farther areas of the storehouse and returned with a few flat pieces. “Here you are.”
“Thank you.” Awkwardly he turned and left, and came back to Eldan’s tent to deliver the bread.
“You may have the rest of today as a free day,” Eldan told him as he set it on the ground. “Go and pray, or eat, or dance. I have no need for you.”
Hekkzaghin, suddenly lightened in mood, went out into the heat and stumbled into a tall man coming the opposite way. To his horror he saw that it was B’elghom, and a heavy hand struck his ear, setting it ringing loudly. “Get on with you, Tanos,” said B’elghom, and Hekkzaghin quickly backed away as the Ad’os chieftain entered Eldan’s tent.
He adjusted his hat and looked up at the burning sun for as long as he could, and when he looked down all was dark save a spot in the middle of his vision. He fought the sun, too. He hoped that someday he could indeed face the Fates themselves as a champion of the Tanos, and wrest from them the destiny that he and his tribe demanded.
The next morning before dawn, Hekkzaghin was awakened by Tefgha shaking his shoulder. “G’aghla wants to talk to you,” he said.
Immediately Hekkzaghin was alert. He slipped out of the tent, careful not to wake Eldan or any of the other sleeping, and emerged from the darkness to where G’aghla stood outlined against the fading stars. “Hekkzaghin,” she murmured. “My father has a task for you. Follow me.” She took him some distance to the small house that had been given to the Tanos elders, her hand brushing softly against his and imbuing him with a thrilling warmth. He was at the same time as content as he had ever been and yet somehow desperate to break away into the solitude of the desert, where she could not trouble him. “When we meet again I may need a protector,” she said in his ear, and a thrill went through him.
Melagus was waiting for them with a dark object wrapped in cloth over his knees. He was alone. G’aghla squeezed Hekkzaghin’s hand and slipped away. “You have need of me?” Hekkzaghin asked.
“Yes. You are the greatest warrior of the Tanos.” Hekkzaghin felt blood burning in his face against his will, and mumbled incoherently. “If your sword had not broken in battle you would have done many great deeds against the Ad’os. But your opportunity is not lost.”
“So it isn’t too soon for us to rise up?”
“It cannot be too soon after what the Ad’os did to us. Their butchery and their cruelty cry out to the Fates for humiliation.”
When has it been said that the Fates are concerned with human mercy? Hekkzaghin thought, but asked, “What can I do?”
Melagus unwrapped the object he held, revealing a dimly gleaming sword that he gave to Hekkzaghin. “You can kill B’elghom.”
“B’elghom is more skilled with the sword than I.”
“It is a Khiar sword carved with powerful symbols,” said Melagus as if he had not heard. “You must flee to the Voskalo and dwell with them for a time.”
“And learn, and work, so that I can return for B’elghom.”
“Yes. Morning comes, and you shall go. Take the sword’s sheath and my camel. I will not need him: today I join my wife in death.” Melagus stood and bowed stiffly. “You shall avenge us both. The sand will have my bones and my soul will go where the Fates decide. Go, Hekkzaghin, before the dawn finds us.”
The route to Voskalo was one that Hekkzaghin knew well, for the Tanos had often traded with them in earlier years. He went north into the hills, meeting up eventually with the dry bed of the Leggal wadi and following its course. Voskalo was the northernmost tribe and was centered in the most fertile land of the Sughin realm, Ad Belaghis, where some green things flourished even outside the oases and merchants of the east often came.
As he approached he saw two sentries sitting and playing a game on a cloth board. When they looked up and saw him they remained seated, watching him in silence. “My name is Hekkzaghin,” he said when he was almost upon them. “I would submit myself to the Voskalo for a season.”
“Then you must follow us and take the oath before our chief, Ustgha.” Hekkzaghin was led to an enormous house set against a reddish-tinged bluff. One of the sentries took the camel and the other brought Hekkzaghin inside, where Ustgha sat on a palatial carpet woven with crimson and yellow threads. “This is a man who would put himself under the dominion of the Voskalo,” they told him.
“Will our dominion end by his will or by that of the Fates?” Ustgha asked.
“My own will,” said Hekkzaghin.
“Swear thus: to obey me and all Voskalo humbly; to not raise a violent hand or weapon against any Voskalo; to forswear all other oaths until the end of your service.”
“I so swear.”
“Then bring me water as token.” He gestured at a pot of water, and Hekkzaghin dipped his hand into it, bringing out a small pool in his cupped hand. He raised it to Ustgha’s mouth and the chieftain drank. “You are under the Voskalo now, Hekkzaghin. Tell me truthfully, what do you seek among us?”
“I seek sanctuary while I build my skill with the sword.”
“Sanctuary? But you are Voskalo, and I will teach you and ask no more of your past, although your speech tells me that you come from somewhere in Ad Asatni. No matter. First you must swear an additional oath, binding until the day you die. If you would learn to kill from us, you must never turn your teachings against their source. You must never kill any Voskalo with the blade. It is a hard oath, and not one to be taken lightly. By taking it you make yourself weak and vulnerable should one of us stand against you.”
He would do anything to fulfill Melagus’s last command. “Nevertheless I swear that also.”
“Then let me see your sword.” Ustgha took the blade reverently. “Have you been in service before?”
“Yes,” said Hekkzaghin.
“Then you can be my servant.” Ustgha turned to the sentry. “Bring Dasgeghu before me.” When Dasgeghu, a tall broad man, arrived, Ustgha told him “This is Hekkzaghin. He will spar with you, if you wish.”
Dasgeghu glanced Hekkzaghin over. “He looks nimble enough, though I do not know if his strength is sufficient.”
“I have killed many men with my sword,” Hekkzaghin said.
“Have you? Well, we shall see what your skill amounts to.”
“Bind your blades and let me watch you duel,” said Ustgha. “I would see now what manner of swordsman you are.”
Semsa found G’aghla huddled in a shadowy part of the house, her robes undone near the upper back to show long red cuts. “I told them he went to die in the desert,” G’aghla said without looking up. “I told them. I don’t know where he sent Hekkzaghin, but they didn’t believe me, not for a long time.”
Semsa soothed her and found water and cloth to dress her wounds. “This will end soon enough. All this will be over with.”
“Has B’oli seen something?” G’aghla asked with sudden hope in her voice.
“He saw one man kneel before another, then rise up and behead him. He saw a sword turn against the one who wielded it,” Semsa whispered. “Good omens for the Tanos.”
“Hekkzaghin will save us,” G’aghla whispered back. “I am sure it will be he.”
“We must be patient until the Fates decide to restore our fortunes,” Semsa said. She kept to herself her thoughts about Hekkzaghin: that he always looked at her out of the corner of his eye, that he held strange ideas of which he spoke only hints. G’aghla adored Hekkzaghin and Semsa did not attempt to interfere.
“When has patience ever been the tool through which the Fates worked?” G’aghla asked. “The stories are full of strong men and bold women who fulfill their destiny. Are these days any different than the old ones?”
Semsa had no answer to defend her platitude, for she knew G’aghla was right. “I am sorry. There. Ad’os monsters. But we both know that things will soon be set right, and we need have no fear.”
“Yes. I imagine you have duties to attend to which are more important than looking after me. Go see to them; I can take care of myself.”
Semsa looked at G’aghla with concern. “Very well. I will tell you if B’oli sees anything more. Do look after yourself, G’aghla.”
Dasgeghu’s sword met Hekkzaghin’s. “Forget your thoughts, boy,” he said. “Let the reality of the moment overwhelm you.” Hekkzaghin darted back and then thrust at Dasgeghu’s side. Dasgeghu turned and parried. “You are fast, but lack the corresponding skill.”
The heavy weight of Dasgeghu’s bound sword struck Hekkzaghin’s hand painfully. He could not help but drop his own weapon, although he made no sound.
“Well, we will keep working,” said Dasgeghu. “It seems that the Tanos do not teach the sword properly.”
Hekkzaghin lost his self-control. “Why haven’t you Voskalo conquered the other tribes, then, if you are so doughty?”
Dasgeghu looked at him for a while without a word. “Have you heard the story of Voskal, son of Sughin?” he asked finally.
“Thy children will be masters of death, but as a gift they give to few.”
“That is the prophecy, yes. The story goes like this. Voskal alone of his father’s sons wandered far from their home. He traveled into the north and paused at the rock of Daltenin, and there he slept. He awoke in the night and beheld a serpent coiled near his head.
“Voskal was greatly afraid until the serpent told him, ‘Do not fear me. I am Hismogh, who encircles the earth, and I offer you a kingdom to match my length. I have looked with favor upon you and will give you rule over lands from Duri to Alka’al.’
“‘If you are Hismogh in truth, then you are the enemy of all good men. I will take nothing from you, child of desolation.’
“‘Then since you have refused me, I will see that you will have nothing, and while your brothers wax and wane you will dwell without glory in a corner of the land and toil to grow your own food.’ The curse of Hismogh is as a blessing to us, and so it has been since our forefather’s time. We do not conquer nor are we conquered, although we have certainly battled the other tribes on many occasions.”
“Then do the Fates not govern you?” Hekkzaghin asked.
“They do, even though they have chosen a different thread for the Voskalo. Nothing, you know, is mightier than the Fates.”
“There is one thing,” Hekkzaghin said, almost to himself.
“And what is that, young philosopher?”
“Death. None of the Fates have ever altered death. It claims all men and all peoples sooner or later. Even the Sughin have not been around eternally; why should we last forever when no nation has?”
Dasgeghu looked at him oddly. “Let us return to the lesson, for we have wandered far from it.”
Later Hekkzaghin moved through the exercise Dasgeghu had taught him, dancing back and forth and imagining himself fighting with B’elghom, swords flashing and taunts flying between them. “One of us will die,” he heard B’elghom say. “No,” he replied. “Both of us will.” And then he was pushing B’elghom back, and B’elghom became desperate and swung his blade wildly. Then with a swift stroke B’elghom’s head fell from his body.
And then what?
If the Ad’os were defeated, would they not return eventually in search of revenge? Was Hekkzaghin’s battle only a momentary flicker in the eternal shift of Sughin’s tribes? Would death also claim this effort of his? Would nothing last?
He felt as if he were on the verge of a thought that would transform all the world. For a second it was almost there, then it slipped away through a crack between sword forms and Hekkzaghin was left alone with the void inside him. He swung his sword. The Lion form. The Snake. The Vulture. He would teach B’elghom what lay at the end of all man’s fate. B’elghom was only a ghost that was pretending to be alive, but Hekkzaghin would show him the truth. “Death comes for you, B’elghom,” he said aloud. “Not even the Fates can stop it.”
In the thirteenth week since he had come to the Voskalo, Hekkzaghin dueled with Dasgeghu for the last time but one, out in the open with many spectators watching. It was a variation of the Lion he used, a bold, almost simplistic technique, but one full of possibilities for deception. He took the offensive quickly and drove Dasgeghu back, but Dasgeghu quickly recovered and with subtle skill gained the advantage.
Even so, Hekkzaghin was faster. He constantly probed for weaknesses while keeping Dasgeghu from pressing his attack too much. He had not been victorious against him yet, and that day he was to leave. He had to win this fight. He had to!
And then Dasgeghu misjudged a distance and Hekkzaghin pounced, Dasgeghu stumbling to the ground with Hekkzaghin’s blade at his throat.
“Well done,” Dasgeghu said, smiling broadly above the sword. “You are ready to return to your people now, if Ustgha allows it.”
I could kill him, Hekkzaghin realized. I could bring death to him right now and spill his blood on the sand.
Dasgeghu’s smile slackened. “Aren’t you going to go?”
It would be so easy…
Hekkzaghin stepped back and helped Dasgeghu to his feet. “I thank you for what you have given me. You have delivered the Tanos.”
“You are sure of yourself, I see. Well, that is good. Tell Ustgha that I commend you. May the Fates protect you.”
Hekkzaghin found Ustgha speaking to his son Elggagh: a tall youth who listened dourly to his father’s words. He sat and waited until Elggagh was dismissed and then bowed low to Ustgha. “The time has come for me to leave your service.”
“So be it. Hekkzaghin, I release you from all your vows except one. Return to the Tanos, or wherever you will. Wherever the Fates will.”
“I bid farewell to the Voskalo and to you,” said Hekkzaghin, bowing again. “I will be going with the caravan that leaves today.”
“Come Hekkzaghin, you need not bow so. We are both free men now. Farewell.”
As Hekkzaghin rode along, surrounded by the camels and traders on their way to Tanos, his thoughts turned again to the overthrow of the Ad’os. He had been trained to kill B’elghom, but he certainly could not free the Tanos single-handedly. He would not fail Melagus or G’aghla, and therefore he laid his plans carefully for the gathering of allies, so that when B’elghom died the Ad’os would be utterly cast out.
Or destroyed. Death would come to their tribe eventually, after all, as it did to all things… Such a thought violated every principle that had been laid down by Maghd’u in the age of legend. Yet maybe it was time for a new age to begin. Maybe a thousand years from now stories would be told about Hekkzaghin and how he changed the tribes of Sughin irrevocably. It was a pleasing thought: the Fighter Against Fate defying the old laws and dictating how the Fates would work with Sughin in the future, and he luxuriated in it.
He was Hekkzaghin, and he could do anything…
On one occasion when they stopped for the night, Hekkzaghin wandered a short distance, looking up at the tiny bright stars arranged in the heavens. He stumbled over something and fell to his knees. Reaching back, he found the object and held it up. It was a human skull, stripped clean of skin and flesh. He ran his finger along its jaw, then along his own. An exquisite shiver ran through him, and he tucked the skull under his arm. It was, he decided, a good omen sent by the Fates. Death would accompany him on his journey.
When the caravan drew near Tanos they were met by Ad’os sentries, who greeted them cheerfully and led them into town. In minutes they were surrounded by Ad’os eager to buy goods, genuflecting men and women of Tanos accompanying them. Hekkzaghin controlled his anger and slipped out of the impromptu marketplace, his pack slung over his shoulder. He was stopped by an Ad’os who, fortunately, didn’t recognize him. “I was asked to go to the storehouse and barter for grain,” he said, and he was escorted to the cave mouth.
Semsa was not there, only B’oli, seated in the darkness. When they were left alone Hekkzaghin spoke to him in greeting, but the blind seer said nothing. So the oracle of the Earth itself was silent in his presence.
Semsa was not long in returning. She spotted Hekkzaghin and paused in the entrance. “Yes? Do – Hekkzaghin! It’s you!”
Hekkzaghin glared at her. “And the Ad’os will thank you for announcing that.”
Her voice dropped instantly. “Sorry. But then what have you returned for, if not vengeance?”
“That will come, in its due time. For now please keep me hidden. I will need to talk with some people. Tefgha, Gesil.”
He found himself unable to speak, overwhelmed by a sudden self-consciousness, and only nodded, so that he was left alone with B’oli once again. “Tell me, ancient tongue, what have you seen concerning me?” he asked.
“I have dreamt nothing of you,” B’oli said with reluctance. “But I know that your shadow is death itself.”
Hekkzaghin smiled. “Death for the Ad’os.”
“Death comes for all of us,” said B’oli. “All should fear you. I can say nothing more.”
When Semsa returned, she led G’aghla by the hand. G’aghla immediately embraced Hekkzaghin in a strange frantic embrace so different from any of the reunions he had imagined: whether tender or passionate or comforting. It was none of these fantasies, and as he looked closely at her he saw her face was bruised and cut. Her eyes were wild like those of a captured mouse. Yet she was pretty: the dearest mouse he had ever seen. He guided her into the far recesses of the storehouse and simply held her, uncertain what to do. “I’ve come back for you,” he whispered. “I’ve come back for all the Tanos. I will deliver you.”
“I know you will,” she replied, and seemed about to say something more, but subsided into silence. After an eternity he heard Gesil’s voice outside and knew that it was time to part briefly.
“When B’elghom is dead,” he said into her ear, “I will no longer have need to hide. Anything, from anybody.”
And then she was gone, and Hekkzaghin received Gesil and Tefgha. He studied his two friends closely, as best he could in the darkness of the cave. Tefgha was thick-jawed and sturdily built, while Gesil was more like Hekkzaghin himself: crafty and darting in movement. The three of them had made up a band during the Ad’os attack, and Hekkzaghin knew their strengths well. “It is time for us to plan the overthrow of the Ad’os,” he said simply.
“Is it yet fated?” Tefgha asked.
“That is a meaningless question. If it is fated, it will be. We know that our meeting here at least is fated, for otherwise it would not be. If you wish to see your brothers and sisters remain in captivity, then leave me. But I know that none of us wish that. I say again, it is time to plan the overthrow of the Ad’os. I can kill B’elghom by myself, but the great serpent will writhe still after he is dead.”
“Not if we organize our people and convince them to rise up,” Gesil said. “Have you heard what the Ad’os are doing, Hekkzaghin? They are taking those of us who commit offenses against them and flaying them alive before throwing the bodies out into the sands. Without doubt it is an outrage in the eyes of Fate.”
“We can tell our people that the Fates have decided to have mercy on us,” added Tefgha.
“They will believe that,” said Gesil. “They will believe anything of the sort.”
Hekkzaghin glanced back at the glimmering of light obscured by the seated form of B’oli. “Yes, they will. I must remain hidden for now, but you can see to it that when the time comes, all will be prepared. Tefgha, you speak to the elders: they approve of you. Gesil, see what you can stir up among the rest.” He sat back and, finding a stack of bread at his elbow, took and ate a piece as Tefgha and Gesil left.
Some days later Hekkzaghin was practicing his sword movements in his narrow confines when Tefgha came to see him. “How were the elders?” Hekkzaghin asked.
“They were some trouble,” said Tefgha. “Until I told them that I had a dream in which Melagus spoke to me.”
“Oh? What did he say in this dream of yours?”
“It was not a real dream, of course, but it is what Melagus would have said. I told them that Melagus brought a message back from the world of the dead, saying that he had seen the Fates blowing on this land of dust. A whirling pillar arose, and he saw that it was made up of the Tanos warriors clashing with the Ad’os. The Tanos prevailed and trampled the Ad’os beneath the hooves of their camels.”
Hekkzaghin saw B’oli stir, and spoke quickly. “And what did they think of this?”
“Some of them seized on it, as an excuse, I think, to do what they had wanted to from the start. Some were dubious.”
“There can be truth in lies, a fact which has saved many liars from being gnawed by Hismogh in the underworld,” said B’oli.
“There will be truth in this,” replied Hekkzaghin.
“Truth is a stranger to you, boy. You should not presume to know its name.”
After a short silence, Tefgha said, “I was talking to Gesil, and he had a curious idea.” He nodded towards the further recesses of the cave, so Hekkzaghin picked up a torch and they went out of B’oli’s hearing. “He suggested we could find a sword and claim it was that of Melagus, making it into a symbol we could use.”
“An excellent idea,” Hekkzaghin said after mulling it over. He would not mention the sword he carried: that was for a different purpose. “But I have a better one.” Squatting, he held up the skull he had found in the desert. “What say you to the very bones of Melagus?”
Tefgha chuckled. “A useful symbol indeed.”
“No. You don’t understand.” Hekkzaghin fixed Tefgha with an intense stare. “It would not be a symbol. It would be reality. We need that reality; we need to understand it again. You spoke of the world of the dead as being concerned above all with our world, but why should it be? It is death that is eternal, not us.”
“Nonsense. You sound as if the sun’s heat has touched your mind.”
“We see by the sun,” said Hekkzaghin, then shook his head. “I am sorry. These thoughts just occur to me. But unless there was something else important for me to know, you should be leaving.” He handed the skull to Tefgha and watched him go, pondering the mind of the people and what things would hold them and guide them to do what was necessary.
Hekkzaghin was awoken early the next morning by screams and cries and the sound of clashing iron. He was on his feet instantly, his sword drawn. Going past B’oli’s stool to the entrance of the cave, he looked out and saw the village in utter chaos. Men battled with swords amid burning tents; poles were swung as weapons; a group of women were running towards the cave. And in the distance Hekkzaghin saw a pole with a small white object atop it. He made his way for this, quickly dispatching a single panicked Ad’os he encountered.
“There you are. What do you have to do with this, you camel’s son?” Eldan stood in front of him suddenly, red-faced and glaring. His sword was sullied with blood.
“You are lying dead at my feet,” said Hekkzaghin.
Eldan laughed. “What do you mean?”
“Let me show you,” and Hekkzaghin lunged with his blade. Eldan parried and bore Hekkzaghin backwards, then kicked out to trip him. Hekkzaghin avoided this and swung again, his movements purposefully erratic. Eldan could not help but copy his awkwardness and when he shifted to grapple Hekkzaghin, Hekkzaghin slipped aside and struck his sword arm away, then drove his own sword into Eldan’s stomach.
Thus he fought his way to the place where the skull was being raised as standard, and there he seized Gesil by the shoulders. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “This is too soon!”
“It was D’eghi,” Gesil said with disgust. “After listening to us he apparently became convinced that Melagus had appeared in a dream to him as well, and he stabbed his master while screaming about how it was time for the Tanos to revolt. He’s dead now, the fool, but the uprising he started couldn’t be stopped. Let us hope that the Fates are not working against us.”
“Fates or no Fates, I will kill B’elghom. Where is he?”
“At the center of town, proclaiming ceaselessly that all Tanos who do not lay down their arms will be slaughtered.”
“If you are pondering some foolishness, you should know that it would be impossible to reach him.”
Hekkzaghin held up his sword and considered the figures engraved on the hilt. Sometimes he felt that he almost knew their meaning, almost knew what they were telling him. “Don’t worry, Gesil. I am no fool.” Then he raised his voice so all around him could hear. “For Melagus! Kill the butchers!”
And after a long span of bloodshed it became clear that the Ad’os had been unprepared for the revolt. They fought, too, in the traditional manner of the Sughin, forming small uncoordinated bands that struck out with abandon. The Tanos had started out in that way, but their strategy began to change as Hekkzaghin took greater and greater control. He sat beside the lone red rock where he remembered playing as a child, and those who were loyal to him, to Tefgha and Gesil, came and reported and took their orders. Those of the Tanos who refused to obey were to have one ear cut off, so as to listen better with the other. For Hekkzaghin saw his warriors not as his brothers, not as the wild agents through which the Fates would work, but as extensions of his blade, to bring death to as many as possible.
At last he saw that the Tanos were prevailing, the Ad’os falling back or fleeing altogether. It was time. He told Tefgha to take charge of the battle. “Where are you going?” Tefgha asked.
“To do what I said I would.”
B’elghom was still there. Despite being abandoned by his kinsmen he had fought on, slaying all the Tanos who approached him, and now there was madness in his eyes as he sat surrounded by corpses. Slowly, deliberately, Hekkzaghin raised his sword, letting rational thought flee, to be replaced by the moment alone. B’elghom looked up.
“Who are you?” he barked roughly.
“I am Hekkzaghin. I am here to kill you.”
B’elghom gave a dry laugh, then rose from his haunches and leapt towards Hekkzaghin. Their swords clashed. B’elghom’s movements were like water, smooth and flowing, while Hekkzaghin jerked his sword from position to position. And yet every time he blocked B’elghom’s attacks. B’elghom bared his teeth, anger flashing in his eyes. “Go back to your mother’s tent, boy. Suckle and hide from the sun.”
Hekkzaghin ignored the taunts. They were meaningless, like sands flitting past in the wind. He was a wielder of death, concentrating on that alone. He saw his opponent as a skeleton shrouded by a thin cover. He would rend that cover, reveal the truth of what B’elghom was. What all man was.
B’elghom’s sword moved faster now, desperately striking at Hekkzaghin. The enemy was growing incautious. It was time to go for the kill.
“You fight like a half-wit,” B’elghom hissed. “Better go ask your father for training, if you even know who he is.”
Hekkzaghin feinted forward, sword aimed straight at B’elghom’s heart. B’elghom spun aside and kicked at Hekkzaghin’s legs, sending him to the ground. He brought his sword wildly up. There was a cry of pain, and Hekkzaghin saw B’elghom’s weapon in the sand, the Ad’os himself cradling an injured hand. He hadn’t expected that kick. Luck alone had saved him.
B’elghom slowly raised his arms as if to attack Hekkzaghin with his bare hands. There was no fear in his eyes, apparently no realization that death was approaching. It was as if B’elghom still held his sword. “Wake up,” Hekkzaghin said quietly, and his sword swung out to cut off B’elghom’s head.
He watched B’elghom fall, staining the yellow sand with blood. He watched, and opposing feelings warred within him. G’aghla, he thought, and turned away from the bodies. Where was she?
It was done. The Ad’os were defeated and B’elghom was dead, and Hekkzaghin could…could what? Die, he supposed, but he also wanted to kiss G’aghla very much. First there were things to be organized, prisoners to be executed, a battlefield to be cleansed.
They did find G’aghla eventually, and brought the body to him. At first he could only stare in disbelief at her torn clothes and the ugly mark in her stomach. “Women are the wells of life and are not to be killed,” Maghd’u had said at the dawn of the Sughin. Hekkzaghin looked at her face: so calm, so much at rest. She was revealed as a dead thing that had only been fooling itself it was alive, trying to fool him. He ran a finger down her delicate jaw, and it occurred to him that she was more beautiful now than she had ever been. In her he saw the form of death, and he hungered for it. Quietly he began to laugh.
“Hekkzaghin?” asked Tefgha, coming upon him. “The elders…they venerate you! They sent me to ask you what you think should be done now.”
Hekkzaghin turned to face his friend. “What should we do? We should fight all the tribes. We should beat them, and then we should destroy them.” He laughed until he could hardly stand.
Ustgha and Elggagh were waiting for Hekkzagin and his followers when they rode in triumph through the Voskalo town, and when Hekkzagin reached the great house they knelt before his camel. “All the tribes of the Sughin will soon belong to me,” he said. “What do you say, Voskalo? I have sworn not to harm you, and my word is the only thing that binds me. I grant you this choice: will you submit, or be separated at last from your brothers, fellow sons of Sughin?”
“We submit to you willingly,” said Ustgha. “The Fates have delivered the rule of Sughin to you.”
“The Fates? The Fates bow to me. The work of Maghd’u is undone, his law broken. I am the new lawgiver of the Sughin.” Out of the corner of his eye Hekkzaghin saw figures garbed in white, and the scent of spices filled his nose, but then both were gone, and he focused his attention back on Ustgha. “Will you accept my laws?”
Ustgha nodded. “The Voskalo have decided. So long as you are chieftain over all tribes, the laws of the Sughin are the laws of the Voskalo.” Neither Ustgha nor Elggagh looked up as he spoke, and Hekkzaghin was pleased.
“Good. Then slaughter the sheep and make a feast to celebrate the reunion of Sughin’s children, and then we will make some new laws for you to abide by.” Hekkzaghin dismounted from his camel and placed his hands on Ustgha and Elggagh’s necks. “But do not be afraid. I foresee that the Sughin will be the mightiest of all K’itarbul’s children, and the Duri, the P’ugdaghun, and the Lakki shall serve us alike.”
And in the colder parts of the earth the east wind came from the great Dazcean lake to rush past Tailei, catching her hair and tossing it about. She breathed in the cool air and began to climb down from her perch atop the rocks, down to the encampment below. Wyscdu was there at the bottom waiting for her, his arms crossed. “What did you see?” he asked her as she set her feet on the ground.
“Aren’t you supposed to be meeting with Lord Minyshy and the Hijanr?” Tailei asked.
“If they need me, they will call for me,” said Wyscdu. A smile flickered over his normally somber face. “But answer my question. What did the winds show you?”
“I saw things that made me afraid.”
“You think that the empire will make us suffer more than they already have?”
“It was the east wind, not the west, that spoke to me,” said Tailei. “Bad weather, maybe, and our herds will find little pasture in the coming years.”
Wyscdu clapped his hands together, and his smile reappeared. “There may be bad news coming from the east, but I bring good news from the west.”
“Oh? What?” Tailei asked.
“Come and see!”
“Has Minyshy finally acknowledged your merit?”
“No, this is better news than that.” He brought her through the midst of the Zconr tents, and as they walked Tailei heard the sound of singing: one of the older songs about a great defeat the Zconr had inflicted upon the Duri empire, preserving their nation from conquest.
“Hey, Tailei, Wyscdu!” called Lufnain when he saw them, and turned from wherever he had been going. “Have you heard?”
“Heard and seen,” said Wyscdu. “On my part, anyway. Tailei was questioning the winds.”
“What is going on, Lufnain? You at least will answer me, even if my own brother won’t,” said Tailei.
Lufnain gestured ahead. “Roagryl is back from the Duri!”
As soon as she heard this, Tailei was running towards the singing. The people made way for her as she ran, and when she saw Roagryl, alive and healthy, standing next to her parents and a strange man who wore the robes of a Duri, though he certainly was no Duri himself. But at the moment she was too overjoyed seeing Roagryl to pay much attention to him. She embraced her cousin and kissed her cheek. “Now what are you doing back home?” Tailei asked her.
“It was terrible, Tailei,” said Roagryl, and rubbed her eyes. “But Alzurid paid my masters enough that they let me go.” Now Tailei looked more closely at the man with Roagryl. He was well into middle age but still appeared vigorous, and like the Duri, his skin was light and his eyes a pale blue. Was he, then, one of the brothers of the Zconr who now lived under Duri rule? He was looking around him with a keen interest: he wasn’t a spy, was he?
“We and our family are in debt forever to you,” said Wyscdu to Alzurid.
“There is no debt,” Alzurid said politely. Though he spoke the Zconr tongue well, he had a distinct accent. “The kingdom of Lazu still remembers our old kinship with the Zconr. If you like, you can buy some of my wares, for I think I have some items of western manufacture that will prove useful to you.”
“You may stay here among us as long as you like,” Wyscdu said. “I am to be the Toloazc of Kuzc Minyshy, and I can promise that.”
“I accept your generosity,” said Alzurid, taking Wyscdu’s offered hand. “I am a wanderer, and I doubt I will be a burden to you longer than a year.”
“I thank you too,” said Tailei, and smiled at him.
“Our shaman and our Kuzc will want to see you,” said Wyscdu, “once they have finished their council.”
“Yes,” said Alzurid. “I’ve heard that the Hijanr are gathering from all the clans. Great events are stirring in many of the lands I have visited, and I foresee that there will be trouble soon.”
“You see with good eyes,” said Wyscdu. “But today is a day of celebration, for Roagryl has returned from captivity, brought back home on the west wind! Let us sing and thank the winds!”
Tailei was listening to the winds when Alzurid called her name, and the breeze whistled past her ears and was gone. She stood up, turning to face him as he apologized for interrupting her. “All is well between us,” she said. “The winds were only whispering, anyway.”
“Your brother sent me. I think he might be worried you might get into trouble,” he said with a slight smile.
“I think you’re right,” said Tailei. “And there are a lot of strangers about these days.” The gathering of the Hijanr had turned into a gathering of all the clans, and though it was ancient custom for the Kuzc to be open with their followers, whatever they were discussing now was being kept a secret, no matter how much Tailei pleaded with Wyscdu. Surely it was something to do with the Duri and the bargain between the two peoples, for what else could be so important?
“I don’t know what he’ll do once I leave, but I’ve determined where my feet will take me next.”
“Still searching for your garden?”
“I have come to the eastern end of the world and not found what I have been looking for, and now I will go after the legends of the south.”
“Tell me about the garden again,” said Tailei, closing her eyes so she could imagine it better, that place that was so different from the wide open plains and the dark forests of Zconr-nraid.
“If you like. The garden of my home was ringed by great standing stones inscribed with the ancient symbols of my people and shrouded by mist on all but the brightest of days. Within, rings of pebbles surrounded pools of deep clear water that reflected all the world, and rocks shaped by wind and water into the forms of trees or mountains were set in their midst. You could walk there, or simply sit, and there would be no passage of time, not until you emerge into the world again. But all that is gone now. It is only in my memory that the garden of Lazu survives.”
“And the garden you seek now, is it much different?”
“Very different, if the stories are true, and if my knowledge of geography does not fail me.”
“I want to see it, no matter what it looks like” said Tailei. “I want to ride from one end of the world to the other and see everything that is in it. Already I have been from the Duri march to the Dazcean lake, and if it did not mean becoming a slave I would have gone further into the Duri empire. Is it not so with you?”
Alzurid thought about the question for a short while before answering. “Not quite. I am looking for something in particular, and when I have found it I think my soul will be at rest. When I was a child I never imagined nor wished that one day I would travel so far from Lazu to meet my Zconr brothers in their own homeland. But I don’t mean to imply that I take no pleasure in my travels, not at all.”
Tailei was not listening to him much. “When you go, I want to go with you, if you will let me.”
“Will your family be pleased if you run off with me?”
She scoffed. “Do you think I am a Duri woman, to be herded around by my father and brothers? I am Zconr, a daughter of the hawk, and I am free.”
“You have not met some of the Duri women that I have,” said Alzurid. “But I know that for all their freedom the Zconr are fond of deliberation and councils. Go and talk with your family, and I will consider allowing you to travel with me.” He smiled at her, taking the harshness out of his last words.
“If you think you can stop me!”
Alzurid accepted the cup of mead from Minyshy and drank deep. “The Eight bless you, Alzurid,” said Minyshy cheerfully. “I don’t know what signs you gave our shaman, but he told me that I can trust you with my life and the health of my clan, which is very great trust indeed.”
“It is a great compliment,” said Alzurid.
“Tell me, then, what you think of all the councils that we have been holding among the Zconr?”
“You have kept them in great secrecy, but if I had to make a guess, I would notice that you have been summoning not only the Kuzc, the Hijanr, and the Toloazc, the shamans and the elders, but also those who have been slaves to the Duri, even the most wretched. It seems to me that you are considering action against the Duri. Perhaps even breaking the bargain made between your peoples?”
Minyshy smiled grimly. “An oath can be broken by a stronger oath without incurring dishonor. But from a strategic view what would you say?”
“Perhaps you should ask another than I. The Lazu were conquered by the empire, after all, conquered and humiliated generations ago. Our advice on how to deal with the Duri may not be the wisest.”
“A man may be wiser than his forefathers, having learned from bitter experience. I insist that you tell me what you think.”
Alzurid, as a matter of fact, knew a great deal about the Duri’s ability to make war on their eastern borders, but he was not eager to make himself a spy for the Zconr. He was a brother to the Zconr tribe and yet a citizen of the Duri empire, caught in multiple nets of loyalty, something the Zconr with their simple oaths might not understand easily. If he understood Minyshy’s implications, then for the Zconr the Xutem oath took precedence over even the bargain they had sworn with the Duri. So he took another drink of his mead and considered his reply carefully. “I have always taken care to avoid banditry and war. Most of the struggles I have seen involve words and intrigue rather than swords.”
“I don’t envy you your choice,” Minyshy said. “But you are sure there is nothing you can tell me?”
“No more than what you have learned from the slaves,” Alzurid said.
“Well, then,” said Minyshy, “onto other matters. I wish you all the favor of the Eight in your journey to the south. Have you talked to the shamans?”
“I have,” Alzurid said, stroking his beard. “It would seem that I am walking into darkness, as they could tell me very little about my fortunes in the coming years. But I trust in the Omniscient to guide my steps.”
Minyshy extended his rough hand to take Alzurid’s in farewell. “Then I hope that your path will be light and warm, no matter what the shamans say. I hope you find what you’re searching for.”
“And may you find glory and freedom, you and your warriors and your clan.”
When Alzurid left the tent of the Kuzc to take a short walk before night fell, he was immediately set upon by Wyscdu, who stood in his way and asked, “You are leaving tomorrow? With Tailei?”
“I am,” said Alzurid mildly. “Or at least, I plan to be.”
“And you are leaving with me.”
“I cannot stop you,” said Alzurid. “But I thought you were to become the Toloazc of your clan?”
“A Toloazc is a protector,” said Wyscdu. “The Kuzc has hundreds of shields, and if I were to serve him I would tell him that going to war with the Duri now is foolishness, just as I have told him, but he has not listened. My sister, on the other hand, she has no shield but me.”
“I would urge you not to go, but then, I am perhaps the last man who should tell another not to go wandering and abandon his duty. I will warn you that we are not taking horses, but walking on foot, as is my custom. Nor can I say how long our journey will take.”
“I will be ready,” said Wyscdu.
So the next morning at dawn Alzurid and his two younger companions set out for the south, traveling along the shore of the great Dazcean. The Zconr camps and hunters that they met were amiable towards them, but all warned them about what lay ahead, even an old hermit wizard who took time from his obsessive rituals to speak to them. And eventually they passed into the far south, into the lands of the Sughin.
No man knows the grave of Sughin son of Ubdar or where in the desert he died, but his forty sons inherited the land after him: nine born to Asatni, nine born to Belaghis, nine born to Sulum, nine born to Fezetni, and four born to Kghalzik. Their father had promised them the world as their inheritance, but they quarreled with one another, brother raising his hand against brother, spilling their blood on the Earth. And the Earth cursed them through the mouths of the seers, saying “Let no son of Sughin step outside this land, lest I swallow him up.”
-The Generations of K’itarbul (VI)