An iron mesh had dropped across the palace of Ksanj.
No rumor or hint to the fate of the Dular O’Odanal or the Dulara Olana
filtered from the city. Least none to which Foot would allow.
I sulked about the Ulg fields forfeit of patience. Unable to cultivate
productive contacts with other podar, I had reached a point of desperation.
I had all but committed to a reckless effort to breach the gates and storm
the city single-handed. A mad, foolhardy action I knew doomed to failure
ere it began, when, upon a hot Jatoran afternoon, Fate, too long quiet,
“Katal, Van Flar!”
My head shot up from shoveling Ulg at the happy greetings of Foot. The
familiar figure of the Bujan Captain approached accompanied by several
Hisl and supporting Bujan. With Foot distracted, I sat beside the foul-smelling
pile of manure and, in a rare respite from my labor, watched, hoping against
hope to learn some news of T’lu and Olana. Flar came directly to the purpose
of his visit.
“I have come to move this podar to the docks. He will work on the aerlors.”
I was dumbfounded. Foot was just dumb. He scratched dully at his head
and said, “I see no reason to object. Look how he just sits and does nothing.
He is not a very good worker; never has been.”
Not a good worker! I was probably the best worker Foot ever had and
. . . I cursed myself for a Hoded, waxing vain over shoveling Ulg! With
man already the vainest creature in the universe, I sought to push that
dubious honor to unprecedented heights!
“Perhaps so,” Flar said solemnly, “but a promise is a promise. This
podar spoke well of me to Mose. I am here to satisfy my Halm.”
So that was it, Bujan honor, the mechanism by which Fate cracked open
the door of opportunity. The irony gave me cause to smile.
Foot snorted, “That is your affair. I am glad to be done with him.”
He turned and shouted at me in his most pompous voice. “You will go with
the Van Flar. I have no further use for you.”
Standing slowly, smiling broadly, I moved aside the misbegotten Bujan
and patted his beefy back.
“Good-bye Foot. I will miss you. Give my regards to Halod.”
Foot, head shaking dismally, squinted as if the sun had fallen in his
eyes. Underneath his Bujan bravado, I believe the foolish fellow truly
pitied my incompetence.
Under the baleful guard of the Hisl, Kdal of Jatora marched to the main
docks of Amata. Flar and Fate had installed me where I would soon have
the companionship and complicity of strong and able warriors. Men like
Falja and Hifel, though it was another old friend first met as my entourage
stepped onto the soft sands of the Amatan grotto.
“Katal Grod! How is that jaw of yours?”
The burly Sor Van had his back to me, haranguing another podar. At the
sound of my voice, and the less than respectful tone, he turned, as did
many pairs of eyes.
“You!” he erupted with a lisp, for his broken jaw still swelled black
and blue. “I will kill you!”
Grod lunged. Flar intervened. “This podar is under my command, Grod,”
he snapped curtly. “You will kill him when I say you can kill him, unless
you wish to challenge for my cotral?”
The Sor Van growled a sullen, begrudging acknowledgment, though his
glowering eyes remained fixed upon me as Flar carried on with what seemed
an endless litany of his Halm and Grod’s responsibilities.
Bujan Halm, hard to understand and easy to overlook. Over time, I came
to realize their complex code of honor provided them an intuitive link
to their human origin. A sense of order and discipline even the gopal could
not destroy. An inherent discipline that held Grod still until Flar had
finished his oratory and exited the docks.
“Find yourself a place in the fourth nenodar,” Grod snarled darkly.
“And stay out of my way.”
Good advice, I thought. In particular as I wished my interaction amongst
the Odanal veiled from Grod as much as possible. Yes, I thought as I turned
to find my nenodar, Grod’s directive suited my purpose perfectly.
Without warning, something struck me hard across the back of my head
and the world and all within it went black.
“In the future, you will not turn your back on the Sor Van Grod!”
A grinning Falja of D’Nota greeted my clearing senses.
“After I kill Grod,” I shot back, “I won’t have to worry about him.”
I attempted to stand but fell back awkwardly, rattling the chains clasped
tight about my ankles; the shackles I had sworn never to wear. A sudden
and unreasoning dread had me yanking at the dehumanizing bonds, growling
“The okar will not come off that way,” Falja said grimly, quietly. “Trust
me, I have tried.”
I favored Falja with a humble smile. He had not advocated surrender,
only that I not act like a Hoded.
“The okar are a condition of slavery that binds ankles, not hearts,”
“A wise I’bar.”
Apparently, I had found, or been dragged to, my nenodar. The warriors,
I counted ten, sat around an earthen fire and ate their Emosapors. A bitter-gruel
which, though it smelled slovenly, stimulated my growling stomach.
“Then eat,” Falja said waving toward the stew. “After, we will talk.”
“And he can bathe,” noted one of the warriors. “He stinks of Ulg.”
I looked up sharply at the author of the remark, a grinning hawk-faced
warrior with an earthen plate in his outstretched hand.
“I am Durn, from Sojas,” he said. Sojas being a small city to the East
of Syjal, near the southern extremity of the Mu Rala where it formed a
narrow neck between the Mu Derj and the Mis Lew. Sojas was the northernmost
city in the triangle formed by Sojas, Loer, and Tlast. Durn looked to be
a hearty fellow with wavy black hair and a well-meaning smile, from which,
several teeth had abdicated.
“I lost them in the neck of a Bujan Sor Van when he fell overboard.”
I was amongst men again! Allies of the kind I, in the name of T’lu and
Dulara Olana, required. I ate feeling renewed, sensing the Hand of Fate
floating within the flickering shadows of the river Tamor. I ate studying
the hard, bitter faces of the enforced podar. The dark lines under their
eyes, the drawn lips and stubborn chins that would not conceded the fatigue
and frustration of their lives in the docks. I saw and grew excited, for
them, knowing all they needed to rise-up and overthrow their taskmasters
was a spark, the ember to ignite freedom’s fire.
I owed to be that spark!
Meal finished, I bathed in the lagoon. A short time later, refreshed
and eager, I huddled with the Odanal of the fourth nenodar, my sense of
impending fruition heightened by the appearance of Hifel making his way
across the sands from the second nenodar.
“I waited until Grod slept,” he began. “It is good you survived. What
Talk forbidden, in the universal way of the oppressed, we conversed
in short, quick sentences between rounds of the Bujan guards. Though disjointed,
we communicated well enough while Durn, Falja, and the other men of my
nenodar, sheltered Hifel from the eyes of the sentries.
“My question to you,” I returned to the thief-evar. “Is what word of
Ksanj’s Jo’ dulak?”
Hifel shook his head. “The day grows close, for there is much activity
inside the city, but that is all we know.”
“Then we assume the worst and plan accordingly. We must strike quickly.”
The palatable rumble of concern shocked me. It showed in my eyes.
“We understand your sentiment,” Falja said assuming the role of spokesman.
“We all share your concern. But what can we do?” He shook his chains. “What
action can we take other than to die?”
“I have a plan. Is it desperate? Yes, still I believe it has a chance.
I am going after our Dular and Dulara. Who is with me?”
None said a word. They did not have too. Through steely eyes glittering
like points of light on a sea of sorrow, the men pledged their support.
The only question came from Durn, a podar for fifteen long, suffering years.
A Jal whip cracked the air, perilously close to my right ear.
“If you chose not to sleep, then you can work!”
It was Grod, awake and snarling ugly. As I stood, ankle chains clanging
loudly in the great hollow cavern, I smiled at Durn and let my lips frame
a silent, one-word response.
Two days had passed.
Two days spent acclimating myself to the routine of the docks and stealthily
imparting bits and pieces of my master plan to Hifel and Falja, whom I
trusted to be frugal in their choice of co-conspirators. Two days anxiously
hoping for news of T’lu and Olana, news that did not come.
The morning of the third dar, roused by Grod after only a few, pitiful
hours of sleep, I found myself busily loading aerlors with polished Bujan
swords I coveted with sweaty palms.
Behind me, where one would expect his kind, pasty grin drawn over yellowed
teeth, stood Horas the D’Notan.
“Talking can be dangerous,” I stated bluntly.
“I am a careful soul," Horas replied with lips spread in a caustic grin.
“What do you want, Horas?”
“You plan an escape,” he said plainly, the grin gone. “I too, should
like to leave Amata. I have friends in other cities, Kdal. Friends who
would shelter me and generously reward any man who befriended me.”
Frankly, I doubted there was shelter anywhere upon Jatora from Ksanj,
lest it be in K’al Har. Anyway, if Horas really had such friends, I held
them in contempt. Still, I wondered what scheme brought Horas to me, and
so I lead him on.
“You feel we could help each other, is that it?”
“Indeed, we could,” he hissed with a knowing smile.
I conversed with spilled oil. A surge of resentment swept up from my
guts. I beat it back saying instead, “You talk as though I could just pick
up and leave Amata.”
“Oh, nothing so severe,” Horas protested. “It will be a struggle in
which many may die. Nevertheless, you do plan the attempt. The podar in
the docks know it, the podar in the fields, too. They speak of nothing
The implications chilled me.
“How would you know what the podar in the fields speak of?” I asked
“Don’t be an Hoded. Only the Bujan are without a clue. And they will
remain so, unless . . .” His voice trailed into a shrug.
Unless I betray you! He did not say it, but I heard it clear as polished
“When it is time, you will take me with you.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Horas of D’Nota can be a help or hindrance. You decide.”
The hunter had crawled out of his blind.
“I will give your threats the attention they deserve.”
"You would make a fine Thief, for you play well with words. Think hard
upon your course of action, Kdal. The I’bar says carry your sword before
you, but lead with your head. Ksanj has no inkling to what you plan. He
would never permit your continued presence in the docks. Flar’s intervention
was spontaneous and without sanction. I am in a position to keep it that
way. Do we understand each other?"
Horas smiled, bowed slightly, and slithered away.
From twenty yards, I caught Hifel gesturing discreetly. The thief-evar
had observed my conference with Horas. He was suitably alarmed and anxious
to talk. However, at that moment, my dear friend Grod ambled along. Grudgingly,
I bent to my work, explanations postponed until the Emosapors.
“The man is worse than a V’Koo,” Hifel spat. He pockmarked the sand
with his frequent speech embellishments. “He does not just betray the blood
for greed and profit, no, he relishes the suffering he inflicts. The man
is despicable and yet, somehow, he survives.”
"He wants us to believe he needs to get out of Amata. Do you believe
“Horas was with us our first day in Amata,” Hifel answered. “He was
there again when they brought you to the Ulg fields, and now he is the
docks! No, there is much to mistrust in Horas. Watch your back, Kdal.”
“That is twice I have had that warning,” I said, remembering the words
of Mose. Then, with an exaggerated yawn, I told Hifel, “I am too tired.
You watch it for me.”
Hifel spat again.
The following day, the bow of insurrection strung, I wondered how long
could I hold the tension, waiting until Destiny played her hand.
Under a cloud of worry, I sat alone on the soft sands, pensive, my mood
dark. I knew that we must act and act soon but fretted over the exact timing.
When was the Jo’ dulak to take place? A miscalculation, striking too early
or too late, and we were defeated ere we began.
Distracted, I ignored my labors. Thus, I should not have been surprised
when that Jal whip snapped sharply across my back.
“On your feet podar,” Grod growled with jaws still swollen and thick.
“Ksanj’s Jo’ dulak is in two dar and you sit around doing nothing.”
I was dumbfounded. Of all the creatures that walked, crawled, swam or
flew upon Jatora, Grod had truly been the last I expected as Fate’s messenger.
I smiled grimly. Even now, from afar, I recall the old adage of Gray Allen’s
Earth. Do not kill the messenger. Unfortunately for Grod, he was of Jatora.
Again, Grod cracked his whip, drawing blood from my right shoulder.
Anesthetized by the stronger sting of the words, ‘Ksanj’s Jo’ dulak is
in two days,’ I felt only the fighting fire of a thousand past lives too
long dormant in this world of the podar. My heart beat as a hammer on a
forge shaping my resolve, and I hoped, the Destiny of the Odanal.
At last, the arrow would leave the bow.
“You want your Halm, Grod? Here I am. Why wait any longer? You have
struck me for the last time. This day, one of us dies!”
I had shouted my challenge that all within the cavern might hear. Hundreds
of eyes swung upon us. I shuddered, in apprehension not fear. Our lives,
and the lives of T’lu and Olana, and quite possibly the lives of all the
Odanal, now hinged upon the Bujan response.
With anxious heart, I watched the mass towards Grod and I, the Hisl
ever close at their sides. A vocal and belligerent ring formed quickly,
urging Grod to kill the outrageous podar that dared challenge his Halm.
“We all heard his challenge,” cried one.
“Halmdat! Halmdat! Halmdat!”
The Halmdat signified the Bujan right to battle, and the chant rocked
the cavern walls, egging Grod on. Surreptitiously, I sought the eyes of
the nearest Odanal. They nodded and made themselves ready.
Grod postured indecisively. I watched his bullet head shift sideways,
hesitant. Was he remembering our first encounter, his orders, or both?
Fearful he would yield to duty, I shuffled toward the Sor Van and slapped
him open handed across his disjointed mouth and even the River Tamor dared
not echo in the ensuing silence.
Legs flexed, I waited or Grod expectant of a bullheaded charge, whip,
sword, and self-control forgotten. When would I learn to stop underestimating
the cunning and the intelligence of the Bujan?
Laughing, rubbing at his jaw as though reliving our first encounter,
the Sor Van Grod drew his longsword and advanced, circling cautiously,
putting his back to the water and mine to the surrounding Vopodar and Hisl.
With a curse for my own shortsightedness, I threw caution to the wind
and dove at Grod, hitting him low about the ankles. My tactic worked. Head
snapping backwards, Grod tumbled into the shallow waters lapping the beach.
I followed with a half leap half lunge, such as the Okra permitted, and
landed atop the burly Sor Van my knees digging deep into his chest, expelling
air. For a moment, we rocked in a mad embrace and then my hands found his
rat’s nest of a beard and drove his head beneath the surface.
At last, Grod reacted as I hoped. His hands dropped the longsword and
went for my throat, my chest, my shoulders; any part of my anatomy that
would lift the crushing weight from his chest and raise his head above
water. I released Grod and gripped the blade he had dropped in his panic.
Realizing the tactic I had struck, Grod proved quick as he was strong.
His stabbing right hand locked on my wrist. We fought for control and in
the struggle the sword flew free. Hurtling overhead, it embedded blade
down in the soft sand, waving as a stalk of gleaming wheat.
I attempted to disengage from the brute but I became hopelessly entangled
in the Okar. Grod, on his feet, and spitting water and vitriol, closed
his mighty arms round my chest with crushing force. My breath all but wrung
from my body, I butted the Bujan hard upon his oft broken jaw and dropped
I whirled to face Falja of D’Nota, who had used the confusion and rapt
attention of the Bujan, to race forward and rip Grod’s bobbing blade from
the sand; which now sailed into my waiting hand. I spun and the Sor Van
Grod, attempting to close with me again, lumbered full upon the point of
his own gleaming death.
A mammoth cry of consternation rose from the gathered Bujan as, with
an oath, I kicked the impaled Bujan free and watched him fall back into
the Tamor face up, stone dead.
I wasted not a second in freeing the keys to the okar from his soiled
belt. A twist of metal and the weight of my bonds were no more. I was free!
In a symbolic gesture I prayed liberated a world, I hurled the offensive
chains far out upon the bosom of the river then quickly passed Grod’s keys
into the outstretched hands of Durn, now huffing and puffing to my side.
As for the Bujan, Grod’s death had dropped a wintry hand over the Docks
of Amata, ice formed on a barren branch. They stood frozen as a ground
swell of “Odanal, Odanal” built upon the walls and rolled towards the water.
When the men of the docks, freed of their chains and armed from the caches
of weapons they had labored to stack, closed with their hated captors,
the trauma thawed and Hell erupted.
The Bujan ranted and ordered the Hisl forward. The beach resounded with
their vicious oaths. Though not so loud, as rang the podar song of vengeance,
a glorious chanting that rose and fell in the bloody din.
Freedom the goal, the warriors that surrounded me gave a full accounting
to any Bujan or Hisl who argued our intent. As for Kdal of Jatora, I flourished!
To battle again! To feel cold steel in my hand and the flow of a warrior’s
blood in my veins was food for a starving soul. I took down a silent, unfeeling
Hisl and found Falja heaving through the milling combatants with great
cuts of his confiscated longsword. A crude swordsman, the grinning, blood-splattered
redhead compensated for his lack of skill with his great strength and appalling
ferocity. When he reached my right elbow, he barked, “The men have deployed
as you directed. The docks are taken!”
Premature (if optimistic), Falja was correct that, while the Bujan had
watched Grod and I battle, the Odanal had superstitiously encircled and
blocked all access to the bridge, strangling retreat and preventing an
escaping Bujan from raising the alarm.
The Bujan, eventually, recognized our strategy and so at the base of
the bridge the battle raged. Glorious, while it lasted, we were as two
great elks locking horns, thrusting and clashing for dominance. In the
end, the Odanal triumphed, the docks were ours, the enemy vanquished without
The cost of that triumph was high; we lost fifty of our number, though
no one mourned. They had died taking their revenge, swords in hand. A death
with Halm beyond anything thought possible a few, short days ago.
We that lived gathered at the foot of the bridge to Amata in breathless
exultation. A rough two dozen ready to storm the walls of Amata. To die
in service to T’lu, Olana, and the Odanal.
Hifel, a natural leader and experienced orator, took immediate control.
Nor did I begrudge him that position.
“Well fought men of the Odanal,” he shouted. The men cheered. “You all
know what follows. Kdal, Falja, and I go to the city.” His voice rose.
“Hold these docks until we return! Tamor is our only way out of Amata,
protect the secret of what has happened here at all costs.”
“We will see it is so,” Durn cried.
“If we have to kill every Hisl in Amata to do it!” shouted another,
a burly redhead shouldering his way through the crowd. “I am Folnar of
Derhetti,” he cried, “in my own land a Van with many under my command.
Entrust me with defense of the dock.”
Hifel deferred to me.
“Granted,” I said and the man bowed. “Pick six men. You will accompany
us as far as the mouth of the tunnel and post your first guard there. Durn,
you will be in charge here, the first line of defense behind Folnar.”
Folnar disappeared into the crowd, emerging a moment later with his
chosen, a grim and ready half dozen.
I told all, “As we have discussed, and planned, we can expect to proceed
unmolested through one rotation of the guard. Beyond that, someone will
ask why no Bujan or Hisl return from their posts.”
Folnar said, “Agreed, they will suspect an uprising; it has happened
before. Ksanj will send the Hisl to sweep the docks clean.”
“We are not afraid to die,” Durn cried, his bravado echoed in a chorus
of cheers. “To a man we would prefer a death that offered some measure
of Halm to continued life as a podar.”
I admired the courage of these warriors, but forced myself to be more
pragmatic. “Let us hope for life over death, victory over sacrifice. The
next rotation is in six hours. Hifel, Falja, and I, have that much time
to find the Dular and Dulara and return safely to the docks. However, while
Tamor is the most likely avenue of escape,” I draped a friendly arm over
Hifel’s shoulders, “the thief-evar was not entirely correct about the docks
being the only way out of Amata.”
For a long moment, none grasped the significance of my words. Then a
light glowed in Hifel. He stared me square in the eyes.
“The Lu’ tajalo?”
I nodded and there was an appreciable rumble of awe at the audacity
of my plan. I turned to Folnar, Durn, and the others.
“Should Ana grant us that option, you will have no way to know it. Therefore,
you must assume, after one rotation passes, that we have either succeeded,
and the T’lu and Olana are free and winging their way back to Syjal, or
we have failed and are dead.”
“We will follow . . .” Folnar began but I waved him off.
“No, our failure means Ksanj will send the Hisl. You are safe here for
one rotation and no more, after that, use the aerlors, seek your own freedom.”
My statement fielded no rebuttal. Yet, in the hard, gore-splattered
faces of the men of the Odanal I read their answer. They would wait
a hundred rotations for T’lu and Olana, standing ground until the last
I looked at my own bloody hands and wondered how much more would be
upon before this day ended.
Falja saw my glance and said, “We need to cleanse ourselves and the
dock less the smell of death reaches the fields before we do!” Turning
to his compatriots he shouted, “Come, we have work to do. We must make
the docks presentable. We will burn our dead. As for the Bujan, let the
okar weight their rotten corpses to the bottom of Tamor!”
Cheering mightily, the warriors dispersed to their grizzly chores. Left
alone, Hifel, older and wiser and therefore more cautious, demanded to
know, “what other bits and pieces of your plan have you yet to share? Perhaps
you would care to discuss how you propose to storm the city with just three
“Storm the city and commandeer Qualdar and use the Lu’ tajalo!” I corrected
him, smiling broadly. Hifel spat. I hesitated to tell the wise thief-evar
everything for fear he would have insisted I fall upon my sword and save
us all a lot of grief.
“Let us say I have a friend on the inside and leave it at that.”
We bathed the blood from our bodies. As I saw the docks cleared and
the bodies burning upon the cooking fires of the podar, a chill swept my
“Hifel,” I said suddenly to the thief-evar, “where is Horas?”
We could only exchange blank glances. Hifel spat and added. “He has
the ability to come and go as he pleases.”
“If he . . .
“Do not even think it. If he is not amongst the dead, he was not in
the docks when the battle began. No one escaped across that bridge, no
My heart echoed, across that bridge. However, I had to put it aside.
I could not alter my plans now; Horas be damned!
Less than a half an hour from the moment Grod had dropped his thunderbolt,
we started for the fields of Amata, advancing to the edge of the great
cave where sunlight greeted us in a hopeful embrace. I handed Falja my
sword, bidding he and Hifel away from the opening, likewise, Folnar and
“I will be back in five ar.”
“With your friend?” Hifel asked with a slight grimace.
“With concealment for our weapons, then we see about my friend.”
With boldness not felt, I strolled into the Amatan sunlight, my steps emulating
the shackled gait of a podar and directed towards the stables. An objective
easily gained. The Bujan Vopodar lolling in the shade of a small tree paid
me no heed. I was a familiar sight about the pens. The creature I sought
grazed in the far right corner, and I thanked Ana it had not been out in
the fields, working. This beast, I knew as reasonably tractable. A bellicose
Hoded courted disaster. Hitching the slate-gray animal to a fully loaded
and unattended Ulg cart, I started back at a conservative pace, eyes low.
Though outwardly calm, my heart drummed. A noise I feared obvious to
any passing Bujan. I never knew minutes so long. Pangs of doubt gnawed
at me. Bujan or Hisl had escaped the cavern and sounded the alarm, or worse,
Horas betrayed us to Ksanj.
“No,” I swore under my breath. “Hifel had taken pains to notice. Horas
had not been in the docks when we struck.”
Despite my excessively active imagination, not an interested eye swung
my direction. I returned to Falja and Hifel without incident.
“By the Aal of my grandfather,” Hifel exploded. “I hope you do not
expect me to hide inside that, that . . ."
His stammering made us all laugh.
“We hide only our weapons in the Ulg.” I told him merrily. “The cart
give us the appearance of working podar, and hopefully gains us unrestricted
access to the fields.” Slow and tedious was our pace as we moved
across the Amatan fields. Bujan passed without comment, reinforcing belief
that our mutiny remained undiscovered. Time to complete our mission endured.
And then . . . “Podar, what are you doing here?”
My blood curled as I recognized the voice of the Bujan Van, Flar.
“I gave you relief from Foot,” Flar noted confronting our group, backed
by a half-dozen armed Hisl. “Why are you again pushing an Ulg cart? Is
this Foot’s doing?”
Our fragile freedom hung upon my response, and I was at a loss for words.
Falja was not.
“We are Kdal’s replacements,” he lied glibly. “Foot instructed Kdal
to teach us all he knew about Ulg.”
“What?” Flar admonished, his face flushed red with rage. “What is there
to learn about Ulg? And why two of you?”
“Foot said he would need that many to replace the work I did,” I pitched
in, getting as good at this as Falja.
Suddenly, Flar grinned. “I must speak with Foot,” he said. “Finally,
he shows some inspiration! Two podar to replace one!” With an onerous laugh,
the Bujan Flar left us, his mirth dissipating in the humid air. While I
shook my head and conceded I would never fully understand the Bujan culture.
“Who is Foot?” Falja asked.
“Foot, is the Bujan who is going to get us inside the Kiel Aren!”
I put a preemptory hand before Hifel’s open mouth. Now was not the time.
Each passing second increased the chance of another incident as with Flar,
with an outcome less favorable. We picked up our pace, as much as we dared
risk without attracting undue attention.
By a thousand worlds, I swore to myself that it had never seemed so
distant from the fields to the Ulg piles. However, at last we reached our
objective. I spotted Foot asleep under the familiar shade of his gnarled
tree; the Jal curled languidly at his side.
We had reached the next phase of my plan and the next barrier to success,
Slipping a dagger inside my harness, I bid Hifel and Falja hold their
position and moved on alone. No more than a dozen steps had I taken before
my footfalls reached the Jal’s delicate senses. Appraised of my presence,
the beast raised her sleek black head and sniffed the air. A low, rumbling
growl rose from her chest, but no outward sign of hostility. As I had hoped,
as I had prayed, it had recognized my scent.
Heart in hand I passed the great black feline, and the sleeping Foot,
and made my way to the rough wooden trough from which it drank. Coiled
upon the ground lay several lengths of chain Foot used for securing the
Jal when he must leave it unattended. I hefted one for weight. Satisfied
to its strength, I secured one end in the metal ring set in the wood and
moved back to the Jal, making the other end fast about it’s collar.
Immediately, the Jal tested the restraint and the chain jangled. Foot
stirred, swatting some invisible bug of which he dreamed. Foot settled
back into his slumber and the great followed, lying down quietly with its
sleek head nestled on crossed fore paws. With a sigh of relief, I turned
my attention to Foot.
Placing the dagger lengthwise under his rolling chins, I hissed into
his ear, “Wake up, Foot.”
His eyes opened dully, his cheeks red with confusion. Upon feeling the
blade pressed against his neck, his befuddlement faded and his skin paled.
“One sound I do not instruct you to make and you die, understand?”
Much as I thought of Halod and my feelings for their unwitting involvement
in the travails of Jatora, I meant what I said. Foot bobbed his head, gently.
Any harder, he would have decapitated himself.
“What do you want?” he asked. I noticed he refrained from calling me
podar, a wise move on his part.
“Get up,” I ordered.
Foot struggled to his great feet. I motioned Hifel and Falja to approach.
They did so, rapidly, wide-eyed with wonder.
“This is Foot,” I smiled. “Today, at least, our best friend on Jatora.
Foot takes us to the Kiej Dular!”
“Assuming your scheme works, what do we do once inside the Kiej Dular?”
My mind’s eye formed an image of T’lu, poking a stick in the swirling
multicolored snow far up the forlorn crags of the Val Ponada and I answered,
“I will think of something.”
A slow smile filled the wizened eyes of the thief-evar of Syjal.
“How often,” he remarked of my myopic plan, “men of action envision
the beginning and the end of a quest, but leave what lies between to guesswork
I turned my attention to Foot. Deprived of both his Jal and his whip,
aware of the weapons hid within the Ulg cart, he grew profusely cooperative,
assuming the role of escort with amenable gusto.
We passed through the great portal of Amata without comment or resistance,
save a casual epithet from a Bujan sentry. Ulg deliveries, as compost to
the gardens of the Kiej Dular, while not as common within the city as the
fields, were still routine. My greatest concern lay in the presence of
my companions. Three slaves for one Ulg cart would stand as unusual. Still,
no one thought to raise an alarm. Yet I knew the further we advanced into
the city the more conspicuous our tactic would become, as would the likelihood
of encountering more astute Bujan.
We advanced to within a hundred yards of the Kiej Dular. Ahead marched
two Bujan warriors and a dozen Hisl spearmen. They had entered the great
square from the avenues beyond the palace, an area of the city foreign
to me. At sight of our tiny troupe, one officer hailed Foot by name, then
altered his avan and drew abreast. My heart plummeted. A wrong word from
Foot bolstered by superior numbers, and disaster writes a swift end to
my mad Amatan insurgency.
Erok was a monstrous fellow with bleary, red-rimmed eyes, one ear, and
a beard that looked to be the nest of several species of vermin. His cape
and pendant identified him as an Ul Van, a Lieutenant. His features, as
compared to Mose or even Flar, suggested this fellow came upon his rank
the hard way. I prayed his intellect matched his appearance.
Erok turned to his companion, a green cotral Sor Van. “A very long time
ago, I too was a Vopodar of the fields. I knew Foot before my advancement.
Foot remains a Ulg keeper.”
“We must each serve in our way,” Foot said, either unaware or unconcerned
with the insult. “Will I see you at the Jo dulak?”
“What?” Erok erupted, fat lips falling open. “Ksanj invites an Ulg keeper
to his Jo’ dulak?”
“It has been my humble task to ensure that the flower beds around the
Kiej Dular sparkle. I have done that faithfully for many years. Ksanj has
chosen to reward my diligence.”
So! Foot had not missed Erok’s slur, and he countered it with a glibness
of that gave me pause. As for Erok, his unfocussed eyes made his thoughts
impossible to discern. Remembering Gald, my right hand inched toward the
foul-smelling heap that covered our weapons.
“I will confess, Foot, I had always thought you a dullard.” Erok said
at last. “That opinion may have been rash; I will remember you for the
next opening in my avan.”
Foot was certainly receiving notice, thanks to me! As the Bujan officers
marched out of earshot, my former taskmaster turned to me beaming like
the cherub he so comically resembled.
“You have done me a great service,” he blubbered. “To obtain a position
with Erok would be a great Halm. Halod would be so proud. I promise that
I will not kill you now. You are all forgiven!”
As I have already said, I will never truly understand the Bujan culture.
With Erok departed, the path to the Kiej Dular of Amata stood open,
only two monumental Hisl barring our way. Hifel put a hand upon my shoulder.
“We are here great seer of Amata. Has anything occurred to you yet?”
I had to laugh at the cantankerous nature of the old Thief. Fact was,
I had given our situation expeditious consideration. My eyes fixed upon
the rose-colored edifice of the Lu’ tajalo.
“As I stated in the docks, there are two ways out of Amata. One, requires
Hifel’s ancient eyes narrowed to mere slits and his head rose slowly
skywards. He too drank in the gleaming crimson edifice basking in the midday
warmth of Emo, albeit with less optimism than I. That said, his ability
to read my thoughts continued impressive.
“You want us to separate. That is too dangerous. We would have no means
“We are running out of time. The docks lay half this great crater behind
us. The Lu’ tajalo is here.”
“And heavily secured by Ksanj,” Hifel countered.
Falja gripped Hifel by the arm, “Kdal is right, the Lu tajalo is the
fastest way to exit Amata.” He turned back to me. “I am not so fast as
Hifel, but I think I understand your plan.”
“You know where Ksanj corrals the Qualo?”
“Yes. I know the corrals.”
“Take Foot for cover. Find us at least one good mount.” They did not
require an explanation. One Qualo could carry the Dular and Dulara away
from Amata; one was a necessity, two or more a luxury.
“Falja, are you familiar with the circular stairs beyond the central
“Yes, what you presume is correct. All levels of the Lu’ tajalo entrance
and exit from there. Use the dle g’har (fifth floor) armory, it is the
least trafficked of all the g’har.”
“Good. Fly there and I will meet you, with T’lu and Olana, or I will
not come at all.”
Hifel asked, “And if we are not there?”
“Then I will have to get T’lu and Olana to the docks.”
“You might try growing wings!” Hifel spat with a smile. “It is
no more preposterous than the rest of your plan!”
“Just get me that Qualo,” I said with eyes of fire, adding, “When you
no longer need Foot, let him go his way.” I turned to the Bujan. “Betray
us, and I swear I will return to Amata and find you.”
“I have already told you I will say nothing,” the fellow replied with
an almost offended air. “The affairs of the Keij Dular are as nothing to
me. However, to have a position in the ranks of an avan! That is a great
Halm. One I would loose, along with my head, were Ksanj to learn I allowed
an Ulg keeper into the Kiej Dular.”
I looked at Foot. He stood very tall and his eyes were firm. A new sense
of self-awareness permeated his body and somehow, he looked different,
a shade brighter, a tad more adept. My heart told me we had nothing to
fear from the Bujan Foot.
Hifel reached into the Ulg cart, offering me a sword. I shook my head.
“I cannot risk it.” Again, I turned to Foot. “Get me past the Hisl.”
He nodded and together we approached the doors.
“This one goes to fetch old sleeping furs to line my carts.”
How much the Hisl understood or cared was immaterial. It was enough
the doors opened. While Falja, Hifel and Foot departed for the Qualdar
pens of Amata, a location I had stupidly forgotten to ascertain, I entered
the lion’s den.
As upon my previous visit to the Kiej Dular, the halls, landings, corridors
and steps conspicuously lacked for Hisl or Bujan, at least in the capacity
of sentries. I did come upon numerous errand bound Bujan as I moved, from
memory, toward the Kiel Aren. At each instance, I lowered my head and assumed
the shuffle of a lowly slave. None paid me heed. Unarmed podar were a common
sight in Amata. True I was unfettered, but even this was an everyday condition
in a city of broken hearts and battered spirits, the lust for life crushed
under the heel of the T’ala T’sol. Only the podar of the docks and fields,
where strength and wit remained a component of service, wore the okar as
matter of course.
One again, I passed through the Hall of Kings, my spirit drinking the
fine wine of this ancient vineyard. Those earliest monarchs, so proud,
so magnificently preserved. I paused for a moment beneath the unblinking
gaze of K’si, looking into dead eyes I imagined berated the barbaric rashness
of my quest. How, alone and unarmed, I thought to find and carry T’lu and
Olana from the heart of Ksanj’s stronghold, was beyond him. I hoped it
was not beyond me.
I exited this museum of monarchs with a fresh crispness to my step,
a boldness that belied my natural misgivings. A stride to set aside doubt.
Though my mind fielded a furious array of mental images of what could happen,
should happen, or might happen, I felt equal to any possibility. Call it
ego; call it irrational. I simply knew that beyond the fringe of my lunatic
design, Fate smiled.
I reached the Lu’ tajalo. As before, two massive Hisl stood stationed
by the iron rungs running to the heavens. I told myself when next here,
I best carry a sword.
Pressing on to the second spiral staircase, the one climbing to the
main floor of the palace, I ascended quickly, cracked open the door at
the head of the landing, and peered through. The core of activity surrounding
the impending nuptials centered here. Throngs of Bujan, Hisl, and
podar moved along the corridor. The Bujan bedecked in their best leathers
and finest weapons. The podar carried loads of silks and furs, flowers
For a minute or two, I studied the scene pondering my next move, stuck
for a course of action. Then a Bujan Van passed. Sight of his trailing
cotral awoke sleeping inspiration. Disguised as an Amatan V’Koo, I might
pass through the bustle with impunity, blending with the masses and, most
importantly, going armed!
I needed to transform myself. Across the hall, I observed an inviting
doorway. Perhaps the private quarters of a V’Koo where what I needed, waited.
Fixed upon that strategy, I stepped into the corridor and into the streaming
crowds bearing plates of food and wine; baskets of flowers and vines; and
bolts of silken cloths of every color and description.
Reaching my intended sanctuary without discovery, I pushed inward and
the door yielded. In my flush of inspiration, I had failed to consider
someone may have locked the door, and so breathed a silent thank you to
Ana as I slipped into the apartment.
Well-appointed, it intimated the owner as someone of importance. Perhaps
a high standing V’Koo or powerful Bujan. I was about to offer further thanks
to Ana, when I realized I was not alone.
On a spacious bed, spread thick with furs and silks, a man and women
wrestled violently, so much so that neither was aware of my intrusion.
The man was Syjalan, heavily armed and wearing good leather. He pressed
himself upon the woman seeking what she did not wish to surrender. That
she was a slave, I guessed. That he was a V’Koo, I knew.
The girl, though defenseless against his amoral advances, fought like
a She-Jal, scratching him hard across one cheek, drawing blood. Angered,
the brute rained heavy blows at her head, which she vainly tried to ward
off with arms folded across her face.
I grinned savagely. I should have my V’Koo trappings, and retribution
for this unknown daughter of Amata. Striding hard across the intervening
space, my left-hand closed upon the man’s harness and yanked him roughly
from the struggling girl, anger lending superhuman strength to my action.
The felon hurtled the full length of the room, his head smacking against
the heavy door with a resounding thud.
I started after him, thinking him stunned, only to see him scramble
to his feet with a surprising show of resilience. Sword drawn, he met my
advance with an upper lip curled in contempt, lecherous eyes betraying
a shallow soul.
“Vektal!” He screamed at me. “How dare you!”
He had compared his naked weapon to my bare hands; imprudently believing
he had the advantage. I heard the girl gasp as his blade clove for my skull,
an attack both angry and clumsy that I sidestepped easily. Darting in quickly,
I plucked the man’s dagger from its jeweled scabbard and drove upwards.
Again, my opponent surprised with his agility as he twisted to the left.
My strike, aimed at his heart, instead buried in the muscle of his right
arm. With a mingled scream of pain and rage, the fellow leaped back. Our
eyes locked. Through the blinding cloud of his arrogance, he saw the retribution
Ana had sent me to deliver and that recognition exposed the insipid weakness
of his blood, the cowardice of his V’Koo heart.
With a quickness that would do justice to a sisk, he dashed toward a
long multi-colored tapestry that adorned the right wall, threw it aside,
and leaped into a darkly yawning corridor. The tapestry fell back into
place and he was gone.
I bounded after, tearing the heavy broadloom from its tacking with angry
hands. Where only a moment before a passage had lain open, a solid wall
blocked my path. Cheated of justice, the quarry escaped, I pounded useless
fists against the insolent stone. There had to be a trigger mechanism,
concealed close to hand.
The girl! Perhaps she knew.
I turned to find her sitting wide-eyed and wondering on the edge of
the bed, though it is dubious who was the more amazed.
I had found her, the golden girl with emerald eyes!
“You!” she cried.
Again, the bizarre, incomprehensible road of Destiny had wound its way
to her side. A warm thrill swept over me, quickly supplanted by chilling
apprehension. A tiny voice that whispered sagely, it had been too easy.
Now seated beside her on the thickly spread furs, I gazed sheepishly
upon that lovely face flushed with wonder and said, “Me again. And it would
seem I arrived not a moment too soon.”
At once, those smoldering green-eyes fired wide.
“So! The jilan has found a tongue!”
The word meant mute and I blushed under the frankness of that harangue.
“That is a long story, Dulara,” I returned quietly.
Her eyes narrowed. “Dulara?”
“Yes. You are the Dulara Olana?”
The girl regarded me strangely, face contemplative. Then she laughed.
“Whatever made you think that? My name is Lys. I am a shalan from the
House of Balkar.”
A shalan is a handmaiden, friend, and confidant, assigned to members
of royal households, usually for life, unless they incurred someone’s displeasure.
That explained the interest Ksanj had in her. Another tool he hoped to
turn against the Dulara Olana. Frankly, I should not have felt any
surprise. Too easy, I came to this place, too simply had I found the Dulara
Olana. My short-lived exultation was but Fate still playing her tricks,
riddling the path with twists and turns.
Still, I confess, I was not entirely disappointed.
Jatoran I’bar that says if a man is pure of heart, Ana will not deliver
him a snake when he needs a fish. I do not know that there is a God, or
Ana, or any of a thousand other All-powerful names lingering with the collective
memory. What I do know is that though I came in search of the Dulara Olana,
I was grateful to have found the Shalan Lys, and I was too much a Hoded
to understand why.
“You are Kdal.” Lys said suddenly, her turn to surprise me. “Yes, you
name is known to me. I have met but one pavan in my life who so fitted
the description of the pavan accompanying T’lu to Amata. Have courage,”
she paused, biting at her lower lip. “The docks have been retaken.”
She read the concern stiffening my back.
“As best I know, Hifel and Falja are unaccounted for, though it is known
they entered the city with you. Though how it was accomplished is a mystery.”
Suddenly, almost without thinking, I asked, “How do . . ."
“How do I know all this?” Lys nodded toward the unyielding wall. “Vok!”
The name brought me to my feet with a great Jatoran oath. “Vok! One
of the authors of this entire intrigue! I had him in my hands and let him
escape. A chance to avenge T’lu, and the Dulara Olana, slipped through
“Do not blame yourself,” Lys comforted. “He has the luck of a sisk!”
She took my hand, bade me sit down. I tingled at the contact. “The V’Koo
tried to impress me with his intimacy to Ksanj. As all bullies, he thought
power made him desirable. I could not imagine a creature more loathsome.”
At once, her eyes darted to my face. “When Ksanj learned of your role in
the uprising, his rage was boundless. Van Flar was the first to feel it.
There is not much left of him.”
Mentally, I crossed another Bujan off Revenge’s list.
“I suppose I had counted too much on miracles.”
“That you got into the Kiej Dular, let alone reached these rooms, is
Je’ ndal enough!” Lys answered quickly.
“Then getting back out, with T’lu and Olana, will be the Je’ ndal of
I expected an argument, but Lys offered none. I should have remembered
from our time together battling the Hisl and the Kiida, Lys did not lack
“It may be, Kdal, that Ana had a purpose to this continued crossing
of our paths. I can help you with your Je’ ndal, but we must act quickly.
Tell me your plan!”
Her peremptory tone startled me, but I considered her aristocrat billet;
such things do rub-off I suppose. I did as she bid, detailing events in
the city and at the docks, and how I happened upon her boudoir at so propitious
“And how,” she asked with a faint smile, “how did you propose to find
“T’lu and Olana,” I corrected her but Lys shook her head.
“It is T’lu that needs your help The Dulara Olana is quite safe. Even
now, she is in the hands of a brave and loyal warrior. One she trusts beyond
“What! Who, how?”
“We do not have time. I said I can help, but you will have to trust
me. Ksanj’s patience is exhausted. The Dular will he never willingly endorse
a marriage, not even to save his life. His Blood is strong, but, when force
and threats fail, T’lu will face the novevar.”
“Hifel feared as much.”
“Yes,” Lys said slowly. “Though I fear for Hifel.”
For a moment, I wondered how she knew of Hifel – and why I felt so riled
at her tone. Was she not from Syjal, a shalan to the Dulara Olana? Surely,
she would know the foremost thief-evar of her city. I growled, refusing
to acknowledge that a sudden, green-eyed demon had raised its ugly head.
Jealousy does not become a warrior. Inwardly, I laughed. Hifel was too
old for Lys!
“Lys,” I asked squeezing her tiny hands in mine, a pressure from which
she did not withdraw, “do you know where Olana and this warrior are? Can
we get to them?”
Lys frowned at me. “I told you, do not worry about Olana. All that can
be done to save the Princess is being done as we speak.” Her tone half-pleaded,
half-commanded. “I know her better than anyone; she would die before allowing
anybody to sacrifice T’lu over her. The Odanal need their Dular.”
“But,” I stammered, searching for words, “the Dulara is the only reason
T’lu is not now safe behind the walls of Syjal; he sacrificed much to attempt
Lys drew quiet. She drifted into a private thought I did not disturb.
“Brave and heroic, but utterly foolhardy. I know the Blood demanded it,
but sometimes a warrior should try carrying some common sense in his scabbard.”
She looked up quickly. “You must understand that no matter what Ksanj intends,
the Dulara Olana will not live to be his bride. You saw what almost happened
to me. Should the same befall the Dulara, the Blood tainted by such a beast
as Ksanj . . .” Her voice trailed away into a litany of pain. “T’lu should
never have followed.”
Suddenly she rose from the bed, went to the left wall of the apartment,
and, from behind a smaller tapestry covering that wall, withdrew an ornate,
splendidly wrought longsword. She handed it to me.
“You will need this.”
I hefted the weapon and gasped. It was easily the most wondrous blade
I had ever felt. The handle formed a great Qualo contoured for a warrior’s
grasp. The tempered blade a gleaming red. I favored Lys a look of awe.
“One of Vok’s toys, a stolen treasure!” When Lys sneered, her nose wrinkled
engagingly. “Never did a man deserve it less. You hold the Redke Vandl!”
The Redke Vandl! The Red Death, the sword of K’si, first Dular of Amata.
From somewhere deep inside my immortal soul, Mecca felt the weight of that
great blade and grinned in savage approval.
From a chest of drawers, Lys outfitted me with a clean harness, tanned
and studded with small shells, it’s buckles shined to a gleam. Soft leather
moccasins and a silken red cotral completed my transformation. I blushed
at how quickly Lys had conceptualized her plan, when measured against my
From another drawer, she withdrew a bright yellow-green scarf to veil
her face below her emerald-eyes. From my brief association with Vok, I
did not need to ask how he happened upon such comely apparel.
“Come!” Lys led me to the door of Vok’s room. “Walk as if you are a
V’Koo and have run of the palace, no one will say a word.”
We emerged into the busy throngs that moved along the crowded corridor.
Lys stepped quickly in the general direction of the Kiel Aren. I followed,
though my heart was not nearly as blithe as my steps. Twenty yards from
Vok’s room, she stopped. Turning the handle of an adjacent door, she whispered
over her shoulder, “Be ready. If the room is occupied . . ."
“Whose apartment is this?” I hissed.
Before I could protest, she had pushed into the chamber. With mixed
relief and disappointment, I found the well-appointed and richly styled
apartment empty. Sleeping arrangements lay to the right. No feminine garments
here, naught but a warrior’s leather and several stout blades waiting to
Lys provided little opportunity for introspection. A Qualo embroidered
tapestry covered the left wall of the apartment. To this, Lys advanced.
“Another passage lies here. It leads directly behind the dais. There,
Mose watches for his Master. Determining who is loyal and who is not. Who
lives and who dies. Such secret posts honeycomb Amata, a remnant of the
fear and suspicion that permeated the Dar’ Alur, resurrected anew.”
I shuddered at the deceit but said only, “A place where I can learn
where T’lu is being held?”
“What if Mose comes back?”
“You have the Redke Vandl.”
I marveled at her directness, and unabashed confidence in my fighting
skills. Her confidence lifted me.
“There is more to all this than you have allowed Lys.”
She nodded, pensively nibbling upon her lip, perhaps slightly troubled
by my display of intuition.
“You have been lucky; more so than you realize. Vok’s attack upon me
would mean his death if Ksanj learned of it, and so the sisk will keep
our secret safe, for a while. Eventually Ksanj will discover your presence;
he has eyes and ears everywhere. He will send the Hisl. They will scour
the Kiej Dular until they find us. They never tire!”
“How long do we have?”
“Assume none. It is the only reasonable guess.”
She pulled the hidden release to the passage and we entered.
Darkness can be imperious can be limitless, neither and both. This blackness
stretched forward into a secret world to which I did not belong but from
which I would not withdraw. Lys held my hand. Though my eyes accustomed
rapidly to the dark, and the contact no longer seemed necessary, we continued
on content with the arrangement.
Presently the corridor emptied into a small, barren room. Taz bulbs
illuminated the paneled interior. Two adroitly fitted doors stood left
and right, the one to our left had a slotted hole cut into the frame, centered
at just about the eye level of a normal man.
“From there,” Lys stated, “you can see into the Kiel Aren.” Turning,
she pointed to the opposite door. “Through that exit, you can reach the
That Lys knew a great deal about the innermost workings of the Kiej
Dular gave me pause, but more, it gave me hope. For reasons I only just
began to comprehend, I trusted her implicitly. If not her then Destiny!
“You are certain you wish to go on? Avail yourself of the other door
and freedom waits. Though the Val Ponada is beset with dangers that would
kill most warriors, I am certain you would survive.”
“Would you come with me?”
“No!” She said it sharply. The glow in her emerald eyes dashed and replaced
by a glint of horror. “Not as long as T’lu . . .”
“Neither would I,” I interrupted. Her smile returned, laced with a derisive
“Did I pass your test?”
“I am sorry. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, are these not Mose’s rooms?”
Lys shuddered and pulled put her arms about her shoulders, as if her
words had drawn a cold wind into the tiny alcove. I sought to comfort her.
“Knowledge of this hidden exit is significant Lys. I told you of our
plans. Clearly the docks are lost to us, and, should the Lu’ tajalo become
equally impossible, this room, that door, offers a third chance, known
to but a precious few. I would use it then, but only when I have T’lu and
Olana with us, not before.”
“I told you not worry of Olana.”
“Then T’lu. We go through that door with the Dular O’Odanal or not at
I blushed, suddenly thankful for the semi-darkness. Turning without
comment, I stepped to the left door and peered through the slotted hole,
one hand pressed to my sword lest it rattled against the wooden frame.
Beyond those timbers lay the throne room of Amata. I could see the simple
lines of Ksanj’s throne and the throngs of milling Bujan, Hisl, and V’Koo
assembled in the great Kiel Aren.
What a position of power, what intelligence I could gather wielding
the secret of this chamber.
Lys pressed close, peering over my lowered shoulder. Through the silken
cotral draped over my back, I felt the insistent pressure of her firm breasts.
Every nerve in my body seemed aware of the sensation. Suddenly a great,
overpowering fear surged through my heart. Involuntarily, I unsheathed
the Redke Vandl half its length, the blood-red blade scratching softly
against the scabbard. I turned to Lys.
“For this blade, and what it must do, I thank you.” My eyes were hot,
my lids drawn. “Now, you must go back to your own rooms. The dangers grow
too great. I cannot allow you to risk yourself further.”
“Too dangerous?” She said laughingly. “More dangerous than the attentions
of Vok, or the constant parade of Bujan and Hisl that surround me? No.
I stay with you!”
I shook my head. Though my heart wanted me to stop, my head urged I
“I cannot permit that Lys. If I die, I must know you are safe.”
“Safe? So long as I am in Amata, I will never be safe.” She laughed
again, piteous of my incontestable stupidity. Suddenly, deliberately, Lys
pressed close. There was no need of it beyond a blatant desire to demonstrate
her control. She knew the trap she baited. A snare sprung with the warmth
of her body and the fire of her emerald eyes. I could not escape; I did
not want to escape.
“Leave me,” she hissed, “and the first passing Bujan locks me behind
guarded doors forever. You could never fight your way back to me. Not ever!
Is that what you want warrior?”
“No, never!” The words came as a harsh rasp falling from a crumbling
“Then no more argument, I stay! You need me. I need you.”
With half-closed eyes she leaned her supple body forward, speaking without
talking, giving without demanding, allowing me to fold her into my arms.
Her head dropped to my chest and we stood thus for a long, silent moment.
My spirit absorbed the sweet scent of her hair, tasted the perfume of
her passion. Intoxicated, I reached down and tilted her chin upward. Her
breath came in short, excited gasps. Our lips moved together. Then suddenly,
harshly, her hands flashed against my breast.
“No! The Blood!”
Her eyes had flown wide and wild, flashing hot, the words jerked from
her lips in short, quick bursts. A hedonistic cloud overlaid my senses
and the line of judgment that separated men of morals from men like Vok.
What may have happened next, had not a sudden distraction burst like thunder
through the thick fog of my passion, I dared not even consider.
From the other side of the panel, inside the Kiel Aren of Amata, came
plaintive voices! Lys, still panting, breasts heaving, slipped under my
arms and peered through. Her body still trembled as she whirled about,
but with a new passion: cold, stark terror!
“Ksanj! And T’lu is with him!”
Gently, I swept Lys aside and pressed my eyes to the opening. The doors
of the throne room stood flung open and a large procession of armed Hisl
ushered a drawn but dignified T’lu of Amata toward the dais. From the make-do
throne of ancient Amata, Ksanj watched. From whence he had come, I could
not possibly fathom, unless it was the same manner of secret closet in
which Lys and I hid. Then I recalled his first entrance to the Kiel Aren
and wondered only to how many more such chambers circled the dais.
I watched, attentive, assessing the circumstances, gauging my chances.
The room filled with Amatan dignitaries, and while it may seem a poor
choice of words, it accurately described the gathering. Many were V’Koo,
though I did not spot Vok amongst their number. Others were elitist Bujan.
I wondered again how Ksanj went about establishing their superiority, other
than the obvious preeminence of Mose.
The Bujan formed a thoroughfare down which T’lu marched at Hisl sword
point. He looked thin and worn, but his eyes were clear. A predator surrounded
by carrion. On the dais and stretched down the steps to the tiled floor,
Ksanj girdled himself with the fiercest of his spawn. When the procession
came to pause, he rose and, with a grandiose gesture, silenced the Bujan
jabber. Ksanj raised a sinewy arm and pointed. All eyes turned to the doors
of the Kiel Aren.
A murmur as crickets in a field filled the room. A lone figure entered,
walking with a swagger I thought familiar but could not quite place. Then,
as the man neared the dais, I knew him and his name burned my lips.
Lys pressed a hand into mine, and this time I felt only fear and loathing
surging through those delicate fingers.
“He is more treacherous, more vile, than all the Voks in the world combined.
I have no doubt that vektal is the one who betrayed you to Ksanj.”
As thought to underscore her words, a cheer rang from beyond the wooden
panels. Quickly I turned, my heart sinking fast to the pit of my stomach
as down the inhuman corridor of Bujan and Hisl, chained and beaten, more
dragged than walking, came Hifel and Falja.
I moved slightly aside as Lys pressed for a view. I heard her gasp and
whisper Hifel’s name. I felt no jealousy then; her emotions for Hifel vastly
removed from the fire that I only now admitted to myself. A truth my heart
had known from the start.
With T’lu, Falja and Hifel lined before him, Ksanj rose from his throne
“So Hifel, your little adventure ends,” he roared. “Tonight, you will
spend time with your Dular. Tomorrow, you will be guests at my Jo’ dulak
to the new Dulan of Amata.” His head and came up and spun to this grotesque
but attentive audience. “What say you Bujan!”
Derisive laughter and calls for death fell upon the heads of noble Thief-evar
of Syjal. Ksanj smiled wickedly.
“My children are not so beneficent as I. Death is not for you, Hifel.
For you, it is the novevar!”
I dropped the cotral from my shoulders. It fluttered to the floor a
silken heap as I turned to Lys with desperation in my heart but calm in
my voice. “Again, I beg you to leave. Find Olana and the warrior who protects
her. See that they escape! Her life is in your hands now. Go!”
I shoved her backward and went through the panels, leaping across the
dais with the Redke Vandl drawn and ready. The heavy doors thudded noiselessly
shut; drowning out the scream of protest I knew followed me into this insane
action, this final desperate gamble on the patronage of my immortal Providence.
Five yards to Ksanj. Five yards! I crossed but two before other closets,
as cleverly concealed as the one from which I had emerged, swung open.
A foul wind whipped over me as the Hisl converged, dragging me to the ground,
my blade ripped from my hands.
I fought them, with the desperation of the hunter become the hunted.
Several felt the furor of my fists, falling from the fight never to rise
again, but the sheer weight of their numbers ruled. My arms pinned and
my heart broken, the Hisl hoisted me to my feet and dragged me across the
dais, throwing me roughly at the feet of Ksanj.
Horas had emerged from the crowd and slithered to his place of honor
beside the tyrant as I struggled to my feet, shrugging off the foul hands
of the Hisl. He smiled at me, a gloating, leering grin of triumph. The
Ksanj moved between us, standing close, the spiteful glare that had
shriveled and subjugated an entire world pressed to my face.
“You fool. Did you think single-handed to save all Amata? I have
known your every move since the moment you took the docks. You have achieved
nothing but your death.”
I do not know what possessed me that I answered; “I have died before.”
Ksanj went livid. He reared back and dealt me a hard blow to the face.
No backhanded slap but a balled fist delivered flush to the jaw that rattled
me, blurring my vision. I took the blow and smiled.
“Stubborn!” Ksanj ground his teeth with a biting acrimony. “Always the
stubborn one. Willing to die for a cause that is not yours!”
Controlling his temper, Ksanj moved around to my side, then behind me,
then in front again, as if searching for something hidden about my person.
When he faced me again, he smiled grimly.
“I will deal with Vok later.”
Whirling about, he pointed a long sinewy finger at Falja and Hifel.
“Enough of these fools. Take them to the novevar.”
A chilling cry rose from the Bujan. It froze the marrow in my bones.
I watched helplessly as a contingent conducted them from the room, a piece
of my soul going with them, knowing I should never lay eyes upon either
My head turned, slowly to Ksanj.
I watched the unfathomable T’ala T’sol of Jatora clapping his hands.
In mounting horror, I saw Hisl drag Lys from our sanctuary and usher her
to the side of Ksanj. I could neither prevent it nor change it, only rue
she had not bowed to the logic of my final demand.
“I was weak,” Ksanj cried out, sweeping Lys into his embrace. “ I thought
to toy with you before dispensing with your meddling ways forever. I wanted
you to understand what it meant to challenge me, to experience the full
measure of my hate for you and all that you stand for, but was unsure of
how to bring that about. I need not have worried.” He glanced meaningfully
at Lys. “You have given me the answer.”
A million lifetimes would not suffice to express the emotions cascading
across my mind, my soul, and my immortal spirit.
Deaf, the blood-red haze of a thousand fighting ancestors washing my
eyes, I saw only the Redke Vandl in the hands of a Bujan sisk not two feet
away. The muscles of Mecca, Lord of Asynth and Ruler of the Seven Worlds
of Caan, flexed. With speed and strength born in a fugitive madness, I
tore through the intervening Hisl, dropped the Bujan with a broken neck,
and reclaimed the Sword of K’si!
Horas screamed like a woman and bolted down the steps and into the crowd.
No one else moved, seemed capable of movement. It was as though an icy
blizzard of hate and revenge froze the throne room of Amata. The Bujan
and the Hisl were icy phantoms powerless to stop the man who had been Mecca,
the first of all that came later; he who had been Falsworth, Bodine, and
I had imagined it could happen, planned that it should happen, and prayed
that it would happen. None could stop me now. With a cry of unmitigated
joy, I plunged the Redke Vandl deep into the putrid heart of Ksanj, evil
genius of Jatora.
T’sal Lan, I had struck the Deathblow!
But, ere I could move to embrace T’lu, to rejoice in the lifting of
this plague from his world, our world, Ksanj, sharing counsel with the
Devil he so resembled, stepped backwards. He laughed contemptuously as
the sword of K’si slipped from his body clean as the day it was tempered.
I stared openmouthed at the gruesome but bloodless cavity carved in
his chest. Lys screamed, horridly, and then the Hisl came for me.
My mind fogged, my head reeled. Instead of closing the book on the suffering
of Jatora, I had opened a new chapter that elevated the deathless legend
of Ksanj to bewildering new heights, and plunged Jatora to new depths.
Self-recrimination must wait; vain regret shunted aside as a sea of
soulless, stinking Hisl swarmed the dais seeking my life and my immortality.
For no simmering glow of change accompanied my stand in the throne room
of Amata. The fire was cold.
I swung the sword of K’si in a great circle and waged into the Hisl,
determined to exact a terrible toll on those who would snuff my timeless
exemption from death. One last battle for the ages.
The Redke Vandl wove an impenetrable net the Hisl could not breach.
One tried and its head spun from its shoulders, the blade cutting through
muscle and bone like a serpent through grass. I took comfort in the bloody
mess that collapsed at my feet. At least the Hisl bled. At least the Hisl
Beyond their tightly compacted numbers, I heard Mose issuing commands.
I edged left, guided by his voice, for there I hoped to find Lys. However,
the Hisl massed too thickly. The sheer weight of their numbers constricted
my actions, pinning me to a scant few meters foothold upon the dais as
they came at me in numbers that would not diminish. For every Hisl that
fell another appeared, with two more behind it.
Without room to move, I struggled under the onslaught. Engaged by three
beasts at once, I saw a fourth crouched beneath my defense with leveled
spear. It lunged forward and I was helpless against it. I thought the end
come. Then suddenly, miraculously, a golden giant interceded, grabbing
that speeding spear in his bare hands and snapping it like a twig, while
I, having dispatched those that pressed me, clove my blood-streaked blade
into the beast’s barren brain.
In the consternation I had created, T’lu had found his moment and had
battled through the slaughter to my side. I had not thought about it consciously,
but I am certain I had intuitively counted on the great Amatan Dular.
We had no time for words of welcome or thanks. The Hisl pressed while
the Bujan held back, letting the beasts do their fighting and dying. My
upper lip curled in disgust.
For T’lu and I, the war of Jatora degenerated into a contest for inches.
We hacked and hewed for dominance of a space no larger than our bodies.
In my mind, each of those inches represented a triumph of good over evil,
every Hisl that died a victory unto itself.
Choosing the human foible of rationale to mask my monumental failure,
I construed mean butchery into victory.
For, in truth, Ksanj reigned supreme. He had beaten me, us, at every
He had the Dulara Olana, he had Hifel, Falja, and he had Lys. I had
failed, he had a won and that, above all else, would stand as the final
testament to my life upon Jatora, and perhaps my existence in the cosmos.
With a rising fury fuel by rage and frustration, I doubled my efforts
against the clogging Hisl, widening the arc of our domination around the
throne of Amata. Ksanj, sensing the flow of the fighting, retreated down
the stairs dragging Lys. From there, he ordered the Hisl on. For his contribution,
Horas hurled ineffectual taunts.
The steps of the dais ran red, littered thick with corpses. Where once
stood a thousand living, breathing foe lay three quarters that number dead
and dying. Yet even as a half dozen more dropped beneath the Redke Vandl
and the equally ferocious attack of T’lu of Amata, reinforcements poured
through the doors of the Kiel Aren. Fresh Hisl avans that surged the dais
a choking, compacted chaos without formation, without structure. Any thought
of bestial intellect seen or surmised that long ago day at the edge of
the Mu Derj vanished. This was savage, thoughtless killing, nothing more
and nothing less.
On they came; their ill smelling bodies clogging the stairs, those behind
pushing those ahead in an endless flow falling upon the eager Redke Vandl.
Whether we fought a moment or an eternity, I leave to those who bore
witness. It may have been minutes or months until, above the ring of longswords,
Mose, shouting loudly, halted the Hisl onslaught. He ordered the dead dragged
from the steps, clearing a path for what I knew would be a renewed charge,
perhaps the final charge. Wearily I leaned upon the sword of K’si and turned
“It is good to see you again,” I said with a weary smile.
“I cannot imagine why,” he returned with an equally wearied smile. He
glanced at the blood-spattered weapon of his mighty ancestor and his face
brightened with a broad grin. “Nice sword.”
Ksanj called to us.
“Lay down your weapons and I will spare your lives!”
“Somehow, Ksanj, I doubt that is the truth,” I returned.
Ksanj grinned malevolently. “Perhaps so, for you. But T’lu need not
die in this manner.”
“In what manner should I die?” the O’Odanal shot back. “As a podar,
or an experiment in your novevar? T’lu of Amata, the one true Dular of
Amata, prefers to die sword in hand. This war is not over,” he shouted
that all could hear. “It did not end with K’si; it did not end with Balkar;
it will not end with me. I told you once; I will tell you again. There
will be others; there are always others!”
Ksanj shook his head, but wasted not another word. With a wave of his
arm, he sent the Hisl at us. They stormed the slippery steps of the Kiel
Aren and we took up our crimsoned blades, slaying the silent monsters until
our arms sagged. Ana but such fighting. A day all Amata, all Jatora, would
remember and sing about for eons to come. A new I’bar born as, like two
disembodied spirits, we cut and slashed until the blood of our foes covered
every inch of our golden hides. We smiled, and the Hisl died.
Still, what demoralizing opponents these Hisl. Devoid of feeling, of
sensitivity, they fell in total apathy of their condition. A moment of
Life an eternity of Death, the Hisl saw no difference. They were but numbers,
numbers so vast they must eventually wear us down. Their stamina was indomitable,
their persistence absolute.
From the corner of my eye a blade descended, a screaming eagle that
clawed at my heart. I parried and dodged while a second blade cut beneath
my armpit, letting blood. My steel answered in a lethal tally, but the
Hisl had exacted a price, another pound of sapped endurance.
A beast emerged from the sordid mass of fur and flesh that hemmed me
on all sides. It leaned in, then fell back, mortally wounded. Another replaced
it. The Hisl kept coming and the Hisl kept dying. An overpowering stench
bubbled from the river of gore that flowed across the dais and down the
steps. An odor that threatened to asphyxiate my soul, to blind me and burn
the breadth from my lungs.
Still the Hisl came. In discordant waves, they rolled onto our arching,
singing swords. We survived. Yet, how much more could T’lu and I withstand?
How many more assaults before we must succumb? No two souls could have
The overlapping echoes of sword against sword, the labored breathing
of our panting chests, rose and fell in the windless room, but it was the
Hisl silence, as deep as death, I heard the loudest.
The end neared. The final wave of that great battle swept over T’lu
and I with irresistible certainty. We struggled against it, but our position
was hopeless. Hisl hordes poured into the Kiel Aren; avan after avan sweeping
up the dais, driving, surging, pounding until a rift formed that separated
T’lu and I in a living sea of muscle, bone and sword. Only by the din of
colliding blades did I know my Amar endured.
I held my place at the top of the dais, beside the throne. T’lu had
been backed to the left and down several stairs. I could see Ksanj, at
the foot of the steps, with that hole still showing white and bloodless
where his heart should have been. He held Lys close to him, the point of
a slim dagger pressed tightly to the delicate flesh of her unprotected
The sight drove me mad. Goaded to a new frenzy, a new height of rage
and forbearance, I transformed into an irresistible force sweeping off
the topmost step, a whirling wind of sudden death. The blood of Mecca of
Asynth roared in my skull; the arm of Bodine lifted the Redke Vandl; the
cunning of Falsworth wielding it with a skill beyond the stupid Hisl that
ran upon its point and died. I heard Ksanj calling.
“Kdal! Look to your Amar!”
Through the carnage dealt, I saw and shuddered.
The left arm of O’Odanal dangled at his side, lain open at the shoulder.
A deep cut lacerated his scalp and blood blurred his vision. With a cry
of consternation, I tried to hack to him, but a wall of death-masked Hisl
blackened the way. I fell back. The Hisl pressed forward. It became all
I could manage just to hold my precarious roost upon the dais.
Then T’lu of Amata, Dular of Syjal and O’Odanal of Jatora, disappeared
beneath a wave of Hisl swordsmen. For a moment, the universe paused. Silence
reigned. A deafening stillness that hung as a shadow over the spot where
T’lu had stood.
Lys screamed. A lonely, incongruent scream so filled with anguish, that,
for a moment, I did not recognize her. Not so that other voice, the snarling
evil calling to me from her side.
“It is over,” Ksanj hissed, the toying cat ready to devour its exhausted
prey. “T’lu is dead and you killed him.”
The agonizing truth flooded me.
“Now it is your turn. I might have spared him, but not you, not ever
Ever again? In the deepest recesses of the collective memory, something
stirred. Something bitter and distant, a silhouette without substance.
Surrounded by Hisl waiting on the word of their master, stunned and battered,
unable to piece the puzzle together, I leaned upon my sword with my lungs
heaving in great mouthfuls of air. I stared at the cause of this misery
with eyes fired by hate. My eyes moved to Lys and that fire softened, becoming
a smoldering flame of a far different order. Ksanj saw and understood,
making an overt act of pushing his dagger dangerously close to her lovely
“Leave her alone,” I shouted. “You have me. It is enough. Let Lys go.”
The eyes of Ksanj lit as though suddenly bequeathed a great insight.
He threw back his head and laughed, a garish cackle peeling high and harsh
into the thick air of this throne room turned charnel house. Then he stopped.
His eyes found mine, glittering, hate-filled points of evil. His lips curled
and he screamed.
“You blind, naive fool! A fool for all the ages! Your precious Lys,
is the Dulara Olana!”
Her eyes met mine. Our hearts locked. So much passed between us, Eternity
in an instant. I could not sort it out or comprehend its magnitude. Not
for one, tiny moment did this grim, final travesty of Fate find forgiveness
in my soul.
I wondered that I could have been so blind!
I berated Olana for her secret, while admiring her the more for keeping
it. Knowing the truth, that she was the Princess for whom half a world
searched, I would have used that secret door behind the throne and fled
Amata, insuring her safety above all other commitments. Olana had known
that from the instant I had burst in upon her and Vok. She used my ignorance
to forestall my abandoning T’lu, forsaking safe passage from Amata in a
futile quest to save her King.
I remembered her words, sitting upon the silks overspreading the bed
in Vok’s quarters.
“Olana is safe. She is in the hands of a brave and loyal warrior One
she trusts beyond all else!”
I knew then, as surely as I know now, that I loved the Dulara Olana
My mind fled into the oblivion of the eons, where pain and suffering
stilled and a dying spirit could pass beyond the turmoil of his lives and
destinies to an eternal rest. When the Hisl came, I fought magnificently.
If this were to be the end, the final death, then I would meet it as I
had always lived, on my terms, naked steel in my hands.
Ksanj had already stripped me of my Amar and my love, and was about
to strip me of my immortality. What then was left but simple vengeance?
In that thought, I found my final strength of purpose.
The Sword of K’si took the Hisl in an insane blood thirst. Gone was
that veneer of intellect that had separated me from them. In its place,
a savage brutality to match, and even surpass, theirs. One last time I
summoned up the fiery warriors of my antiquity.
Mecca, Bodine, Falsworth!
So often, I had counted on them. Lived and died as them. They came in
spirit to answer this final summons and it was glorious. We fought as one
upon the dais of Amata, a final draft of air in a suffocating universe.
The steps ran dark red. The bodies fell about me until I stood knee deep
in stinking corpses, and still they came.
My strength deserted me. My eyes blurred and my arm, grown too heavy
to raise the great blade of K’si with a speed equal to the beasts about
me, faltered. For the merest fraction, my guard dropped, all the time the
I felt the frosty bite of cold steel slipped between my ribs, a sound
like cutting glass. My body recoiled. The Redke Vandl slipped from my numbed
fingers and fell noiselessly onto the mountain of dead bodies piled high.
That was when it started.
I think I laughed. Perhaps I even shed a tear over the warm sensation
just touching my loins, the slow, warm glow foretelling my death and my
The fire burned!
But, had it come too late? Could I hold on? I must! Somehow, I must.
The fire grew, flared, and filled my eyes. A blinding inferno blazing
white-hot towards another day, another Destiny. A glorious chance fueled
upon a devastating loss.
From beyond that wall of flame, I heard Olana screaming, calling my
name, sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to answer, but lacked all voice.
My legs buckled, but by sheer force of will, I held myself upright and
sought Ksanj. When our eyes locked, his cry of anguish shook the Kiej Dular
There could be no doubting. Ksanj saw the fire, knew it keen for what
it was. How, I could neither fathom nor contradict. It defied all I knew
of my Nature, my place in the order of all things. Ksanj saw the fire and
the recognition spread his ashen face with something previously unimaginable
in the T’ala T’sol of Jatora, wide-eyed wild horror!
From a place already moved far beyond the plain of this existence, far
above the roar of transition inundating my senses, I heard his hateful
scream. One word that filled the Kiel Aren of Amata, lost city of Jatora,
and followed me into death.
One word, one single word, spat with deathless fury. Across all the
eons, it flew at me. One impossible word . . .