Over her teary eyed protests, I handed J'le to a young Odar woman who
promised to tend her needs.
I felt horrible that I must abandon her. What could I do? Her mother
dead, her father missing, presumed killed, Saja incapacitated by the vicious,
cowardly attack of Horas, J’le needed administration beyond the skills
of this poor warrior.
She needed an Amatan woman who shared her legacy of survival in these
underground lairs a desperate society called home. In the bosom of the
Odar, J'le would find the solace she required.
At once, Orjik emerged from the fissure. “We found a mechanism like
those controlling the entrances to Tamor. That and traces of blood.”
“I'm going after them,” I said bluntly and moved towards the passageway.
“No!” Randak stepped unexpectedly in my path. A bold action dangerously
played. I felt his hands on my chest and I growled. Though his eyes filled
with surprise, his hands stayed. “Use your head, Kdal. I empathize
with your anger. We all feel equally violated, but a thoughtless and fiery
reaction is exactly what Ksanj wants, it is what he expects. Consider what
happened to N’tu and realize that beyond this cavern, a trap waits!”
Randak turned to face all the gather of the Odar.
“We are being systematically and methodically manipulated. Do you not
see it? Ksanj knew of these chambers well in advance of his attack upon
the Kul Aren. The attack upon the Dulara proves that even as it proves
he plans yet other and larger assaults. He shall wipe us out to the last
man unless we prepare, and we begin by radically alter our thinking.”
T’lu eyes animated by powerful emotions, stepped between Randak and
I, a cool draft between hot blowing winds.
“Ksanj sits in the Kiel Aren as he stood in the fields and laughs at
our predictability. Well, if predictability is our shame, than let unpredictability
be our salvation.”
Powerful words, they stayed my hasty rush to probable death. I considered
the wisdom Randak voiced and, in that wisdom, hatched a plan.
“I have often accused others of thinking with their swords and not their
heads,” I opened. “Perhaps, as Randak suggests, we better serve the Dulara
sheathing our temper and using our brains.”
“What are you suggesting Kdal?” T’lu asked pointedly.
“That I go after the Dulara Olana, alone.”
T’lu grinned. “Fear the quiet beast!”
I did not know the I’bar, but approved of the metaphor.
“I stand with Kdal,” Orjik exploded. “Ksanj will be looking for avans
of spiteful warriors. He will brace for noise, not stealth.”
R’li looked to T’lu for guidance. “Whether one goes or a thousand, we
must do something.”
“Do you intend to abandon this cavern?”
“No. There is nowhere else. Like the last blades of grass before the
darkness of Kal Har, we live or die where Ana has placed us.”
“Then make your people ready,” T’lu said with grim finality. Drawing
his sword, he turned to me. “Ksanj expects directness. We will send deception”
“I am going with you.”
“Your duty . . .” I began, but T'lu waved me off.
“My duty has not changed since those first moments together in the Kiida
sanval. While Olana lives I am honor bound to her rescue.”
“I join you as well!” Orjik announced.
“No,” T'lu said shaking his head vehemently. “Your presence here is
indispensable. What remnants of the Odar, what missing patrols or lost
souls still wonder the Val Ponada, must be found and returned. That is
your mission, Orjik.”
The giant bowed acquiescence.
“The two of you would be as two blind men in the inner caverns.
Take me with you. I can not only lead but perhaps, as Randak the Vor, be
I looked at T'lu and he inclined his head yes.
The time to talk past, Orjik leading, we entered the fissure which barely
accommodated our four bodies. The cleverly concealed lever we found embedded
in the far right corner. The passage beyond, about the width and height
of a stout Hisl, led off into a deep darkness clove by a thin streak of
“Bring her back,” Orjik grunted.
In turn, Randak, T’lu and I slipped into the corridor and the artificial
entrance slammed shut in our wake. The next leg of my Jatoran odyssey begun.
The cleft ran straight for twenty kota at length widening into a larger
passage that gave evidence of recent excavation, incontrovertible proof
of a well-considered, long laid plan against the Odar. My blood seethed
at the knowledge that in neither the novevar nor the Kiej Dular had my
supposed heroic actions altered or delayed those plans. In truth, I may
have escalated his timetable!
T’lu pointed to clear easily read marks in the earth. Horas, indifferent
or insolent, had made no effort at covering his tracks. Hisl footprints
abounded in the dusty corridor and, as T’lu noted; “Only one pair of moccasin
prints, those of a man by their girth.”
“Olana would not walk willingly,” I said and the Dular O’Odanal nodded
We moved quickly but alertly through the endless Amatan mines. The track
of the Hisl clear in the dust, abetted by a lingering scent all too familiar.
According to Randak, reading the cavern markings, we moved upward and west
but as to how long I am at a loss, for my mind riveted upon the fate of
Suddenly, Randak dropped to a knee with an excited exclamation. “Look
here,” he cried pointing to the ground. “Blood!
I fixed upon the spot and found multiple bright red droplets prominent
in the dust, surrounded by blurred Hisl tracks.
“That is human blood,” I told T’lu breathlessly. “Perhaps J’le
wounded Horas more seriously that she realized.”
“Or the Dulara is making herself a most troublesome victim.”
With renewed vigor, we plunged along the glowing tunnel in the wake
of the beasts, human and otherwise. As we ran, T’lu mumbled to me under
“I once thought Ksanj the most vicious man upon Jatora. I may have been
premature in that assessment. As stale and misguided as his revenge may
be, at least we understand his motivation. What under the rays of Emo,
I ask you, drives Horas?”
Abruptly, I stopped dead in my tracks T’lu looked at me with a challenging
frown. He knew my heart and demanded I be forthcoming.
“Motive! That is what has been bothering me, what is missing from all
this! Despite his noxious declarations in the novevar, Ksanj made no effort
to preserve the Dulara from the Ryka fires before destroying Tamora. Yet
now, suddenly, in what we perceive as a prelude to striking again, he sends
an assassin to save her.”
Randak spoke first, saying, “Indeed, you make a point Kdal. Why the
change of heart?”
T'lu, a grim shadow darkening the tired outline of his eyes, provided
the answer. “You have struck upon it, Randak. Heart. The heart is the greatest
motivator of all. At times overriding every scrap of education, logic,
and rationality. The pattern fits. Kdal humiliated Ksanj in the novevar,
destroying his Vors and rescuing Olana and I while Mose and that Camtar,
Lerok, watched. Furious, he reacted not with reason but blind spite. Now,
with at least a portion of that hostility satiated, his desires towards
the Dulara and the D’ jarval resurface. Desires which, as you said, he
made appallingly clear in the novevar.”
“I am not so sure.”
T’lu cocked an eyebrow.
“Power! Power, ambition and greed, they can be as driving a force as
either love or hate. It could be Ksanj had nothing whatever to do with
the attack upon the Dulara.”
“Horas acted alone?” Randak whispered. His voice filled with skepticism.
“Impossible! No man not of the Blood would dare risk it. The vengeance
of Ksanj would bring against him would be . . ."
And words failed him.
We marched again. T’lu convinced his assessment the actions of Ksanj
correct, I sensing some deeper, darker plot. I could not justify my feelings,
but they haunted me surely as the walls of the Val Ponada surrounded me.
We reached branching corridors. Ahead, a mass of conflicting footprints
led into both tunnels. Again, the alarms working the collective memory
“If Horas wanted to avoid pursuit, he would have taken pains to camouflage
“Your point is well taken, except” T’lu offered, “Ksanj would anticipate
at the least a full avan of warriors.”
“Either way, this smells of a trap.”
“Agreed and, would not the logical approach to dealing with a pursuing
avan be divide and conquer? Split your enemy in two halves and then fall
upon them at a time and place of your choosing?”
I nodded numbly, still plagued by some nagging fact I could not hold.
I knew only that as I gazed at the two paths looming before us, I had the
keen sensation of an elk at the end of the sighted bow.
T’lu, staying his course, determined we should remain together and,
by the simple expedient of a guess, follow the right corridor.
“We came believing stealth would win where force would lose. We continue
on and trust Ana to guide us.”
The decision made, we advanced into the right corridor, with an added
measure of stealth missing from the first phase of our journey. At a distance
of two hundred yards in, moisture showed upon the ceiling. The moss glistened
and tiny liquid jewels formed on the lorqua rock. Another hundred yards
and small pools formed under foot and the seepage was noticeably chilling
to the touch.
“Run off from the snow caps?” Randak wondered aloud. “Can we be that
close to the summit?”
In over a mile, ankle deep in what had become a steady stream, our feet
splashed through swiftly running waters that had suddenly reversed and
warmed. I remarked as much to T'lu, who, through narrowed eyes, quoted
me an ancient Jatoran verse.
“Like the thoughts closest to your heart, the sea warms as it nears
the sand.” He put a hand to Randak’s shoulder and bid him pause. “We have
been going downhill the last kotal.”
“I have wrestled with the same idea. It is possible,” the Thief returned
thoughtfully. “Without the d’alpol, who is to say what unknown path we
may have followed.”
Neither man elaborated their thoughts and so, wet and ignorant, I pressed
on. The tunnel continued to descend and widen until we moved three abreast.
Then, dimly at first but building rapidly, the distinctive tumult of water
over rock filled the cavern. A slope of fifty yards and the corridor ended
at cascading falls.
“We chose wrong. Horas did not come this way,” Randak observed bitterly.
“We must go back and . . ."
Above the boisterous falls, the sounds of scratching leather and clanking
of swords, accompanied by unmistakable fetor of Hisl, rose at our backs
I pulled at my longsword but T'lu put a hand to my wrist. “You will
not need that.”
“There is no concealment here. We are exposed!”
T’lu nodded to the falls behind us. “Hisl do not swim and yet they advance.
What does that suggest?”
For a moment I hesitated and then blurted, “Another of Ksanj’s confounded
“Then Horas may yet have used this passage?” Randak hissed excitedly.
“We will give the Hisl a few ar, then follow.”
“But that may be the very band we seek, and the Princess!”
“Stealth, my Mar, and trust in Ana.”
I trusted my longsword more but held with the bidding of T’lu, waiting
tensely. Listening as Hisl pads splashed through the shallow water,
expectant. The sounds failed to abate, growing louder, drawing closer.
T’lu, jaw set, met my gaze in silence, but his right hand fell to the hilt
of his sword.
The stench of Hisl strong in my nostrils, with the beasts not more than
a fifty feet from discovery, their stride ceased. The echoes died and there
“Now,” T’lu hissed and we crept forward.
Suddenly, Randak gripped my arm and pointed to the froth buffeting our
ankles. At first I did not grasp his concern. Then I saw what had drawn
his attention. The agitation had increased markedly, as if some great body
moved beneath the surface. Though the significance escaped my witless brain,
“Ana, what a fool I have been!” he exclaimed. “We knew we entered a
trap, but no the nature. We expected combat and got deceit. I should have
remembered my heritage and the teachings of my fathers!”
I was lost and it showed on my face.
“Ksanj has lured us into a G’har fal.”
The phrase meant a false level or floor.
“The ancient Amatans emptied and filled passages such as these countless
times over the eons,” T’lu explained breathlessly, “allowing men and, in
larger caverns ships, to pass out in safety but barring or destroying any
foe foolish enough to pursue a watery entrance to Amata. Once we passed
the concealed doorway, he sent the Hisl to block retreat and . .
“And now he floods the G’har fal,” Randak finished, voice wavering.
Already the water pushed at me knee high an irresistible force edging
me backward. The slick walls offered no purchase and all thought of advancing
upon the Hisl, no matter how desperate an act, was washed away with the
silk and mud beneath my feet.
There was but one option and I voiced it to T’lu. “We go over the falls
voluntarily or we are swept over.”
To my amazement, T’lu smiled. “We have survived worse.”
My thoughts shot to the Legions of K’Aldan and our harrowing escape
off the ravaged slopes of the Val Ponada. Yes, we escaped and we survived.
But how often can one joust with Death before Death wins?
Shrugging in resignation, as I had done so often since finding Jatora,
I followed T’lu and then Randak over the edge of the embankment and down
the rocky steppes of the cascading falls.
Pushed by the accelerating flow flooding the passage we bumped and banged
at a fierce pace. One arm anchored my longsword to my body for fear it
would wedge in the rocks and entangle me while my free arm attempted to
negotiate the punishing boulders flashing by upon either hand. Shoulders
and back bearing testimony to the danger of that mad slide into the unknown,
my left arm bleeding from a ragged gash just above the biceps, I fought
to keep my nose above water and my head free of the rocks.
We bounced, slid, and banged that ragged course for perhaps two hundred
kotal before the falls abruptly leveled, fell away, and sent us plunging
into the unknown.
Cold air rushed by me. I shot through space in a dizzying descent exacerbated
by spill form the falls battering my head and shoulders. Then, with a sudden
jolt of pain, my twisted body hit water but I continued to fall, into the
depths of dark, cold pool.
It took several frightening seconds to arrest my downward momentum.
When I at last surfaced, spitting water and gasping for air, I found we
had arrived in deep quarry hemmed on all sides by worn and polished walls
glistening with lorqua and radiant moss. T’lu and Randak treaded water
beside me and beyond minor scrapes and bruises, neither of my companions
had sustained serious injury.
We had arrived in a well, bell curved towards the lip of the falls over
which we had tumbled. Randak already searched the slick walls for handholds.
“These walls are worn smooth as malnor.”
“Any chance there is ship at the bottom of this well we could
use to sail out of here?” I sputtered with open sarcasm.
T’lu responded with a grin. “No, but perhaps there is something else
that offers us a chance at life. If we find where the water drains, it
may lead to safety.”
“We had best find it fast,” Randak cried, “before the G’har fal fills
to the roof and we are drowned!”
Then as though to echo his words, two heinous forms dropped form the
skies. Drowned Hisl, their bloated, soaking bodies reeking beyond description.
Soulless creatures that had voluntarily stepped into the same diabolical
trap that ensnared us.
In rapid succession, a dozen more bodies plummeted the open space from
falls to water. I dove, as much to seek the hoped for drain as to avoid
being knocked unconscious by the raining Hisl.
To what depth I descended is impossible to know. The natural gleam of
the lorqua, while giving light, tempered that gift with a false sense of
height and breadth. Perhaps the true depth was measured in the pain suffusing
my lungs as I circled the walls seeking a lever or some such mechanism
hinting of an escape passage.
No surprise, Randak and T’lu stroked downward right and left of my position.
In estimating how long I could hold my breath before being forced to
surface, I made a near fatal error. I had failed to account for the filing
G’har fal. The well had risen at least thirty feet and I but barely broke
the surface with my mouth closed.
Hisl bodies bobbed aimlessly all about me. Then Randak and T’lu broke
the plain. Taking but a second to shake disappointed heads and refill our
lungs, we dove again.
It was Randak who found it. I felt his hand pulling at my shoulders
as I scoured the seemingly endless rock wall before me. I turned and found
him gesturing wildly to a position about 10 kotal below me along the opposite
wall. It could not have been simpler. A metal grate installed in the rock
with a sliding door. As to what variety of pumps and bellows might also
be associated with the operation of that drain, I plead ignorance.
Site marked, burned in our brains, we surfaced.
“It will take the three of us and our daggers,” Randak offered breathlessly,
“but we should be able to pry the grating loose and enter the passage beyond.
After that, it is up to Ana.”
A desperate man, I thought, might hold his breath perhaps two minutes?
If the passage proved longer than that, we were dead.
It took four dives, with the ceiling so low upon that fourth foray that
we all realized the futility of a fifth. The trap had closed; the jar had
So, with every resource that remained, we dug our blades at the edges
and pulled upon the crosshatched bars. At last, with an audible groan,
it gave way and floated quickly from view to the bottom of the well. Now,
as Randak had delineated, everything depended upon the length of the tunnel
ahead. Either breath or death waited.
T’lu first, then Randak, we swam into the unknown. I struggled with
the gash on my arm. My muscles ached and my lungs burned. The tunnel went
on without hint of end. How many minutes passed? How many seconds of breath,
of life, remained?
I felt myself weaken. The burning in my chest became an irresistible
cry to breathe. Breathe! Breathe! A dozen strokes more I forced through
that endless burrow. Then, vaguely aware that the kicking feet of Randak
were no longer visible before me, all resistance gone, I blacked out.
When I recovered, I lay upon solid ground. A panting T’lu knelt over
me. Randak lay a few feet from us, breathing dramatically, his chest heaving
as though driven by a great internal bellows.
“I thought I was dead.”
“He,” T’lu said nodding to Randak, “went back for you. I could not have
done it. How he ever held his breath that long is beyond comprehension.”
“If there is one thing a Thief never lacks for, it is air.”
Randak had sat up and sat looking at me with a large grin. Slowly gaining
my feet. I strode to his side.
“Thank you.” I offered simply. “You are a brave man.”
The look in Randak’s eyes said volumes.
We had reached a small sandy strip of land some ten kotal in length,
no more. The waters of Tamor flowed past us in an unhurried stream. At
the back edge of the beach, a stone pile rose up and barred the way. At
first blush, it had the appearance of a damn, but T’lu thought otherwise.
“It looks to me as though the stones were moved here as excavators hollowed
out the tunnel we just escaped.”
“Well, shall we see what lies beyond?” I asked.
“Yes, but cautiously.”
Climbing quickly, excitement of the unknown putting vigor to our tired
muscles, we attained a position from where we could see over the stony
barrier. T’lu gasped.
“The docks of Amata!”
Randak shook his head. “A dock, yes, but not the main docks.”
Our heads lowered that our eyes only peered upon the scene before us,
we observed Hisl, Bujan, and podar moving about the crowded sands in the
pursuit of individual or group tasks. An air of anticipation pervaded.
Racks of aerlors stood dry and ready for imminent action and a full avan
of Hisl, under the direction of Bujan Van in red cotral, stood eerily congregated
at the great bridge to the city. A second group armed to the proverbial
teeth, gathered by a large boulder set against the wall furthest from our
At once, a commotion rose in the waters we had so recently quit. T'lu
clambered agilely over our rocky cover, moving stealthily to a second knot
of boulders strewn haphazardly a few kota left. Randak and I followed.
We had barely ensconced in our new position when an aerlor of Hisl emerged
from hidden cave mouth some hundred years behind us.
We drew back as they passed our position. There were six beasts, commanded
by a Bujan Sor Van. A heavily muscled brute with semi-regular features
suggestive of an officer advanced to the green cotral and pendant via above
average intelligence. The aerlor beached and the Bujan strode purposefully
across the sands towards a Bujan Van standing by a rope bridge leading
into the mountain, bellowing as he walked.
The Van, whom had a beard in need of a scythe and two red-rimmed eyes
above a nose that dipped awkwardly left, turned towards the new arrival.
“Mulct,” he cried advancing to meet the others. “What notal? Did you
They met, Mulct shaking his head.
“We found footprints. Clearly, they reached the point of the two branches.
We divided and I followed tributary below the falls. They did not perish
there, for we found no sign of them, only Hisl.”
“Well, if they retreated back in the depths of the mines, no harm. Let
them live in ke’halm. If they have somehow avoided our traps and still
advance, well, they are but three! We will stay vigilant. Great Halm to
the Bujan who brings Ksanj their hides!” Droko’s pendulous lips were drooling
The pack moved across the dock, towards that opposite walls, their voices
fading. I nudged Randak. “My guess is, had we taken the other branch, we
would have arrived there, by that bridge.”
Randak nodded and suddenly added. “Incredible as it may seem, it would
appear we found the one safe path to this dock.”
Safe path, he said? I smiled.
T'lu hissed in our ears. “Look!”
A large rock by the bridge moved! Another of the cleverly concealed
passages that I now suspected honeycombed the Tamor. A figure emerged from
the widening mouth and my blood roared in my temples.
Behind the V’Koo came a stinking Hisl, a biting, kicking Dulara Olana
slung across its shoulder. Horas ordered the Dulara lowered to her feet.
Upon which, she struck at him with a sharp blow that brought blood to his
nose. In response, the V’Koo grabbed the Dulara by the hair and forcibly
dragged her towards the bridge.
I do not know what possessed me or why. Perhaps it was the sight of
the Dulara Olana unctuously towed by her raven hair, or my promise of T'
Alar to J'll, or maybe just Fate pronouncing a time to react. Whatever
the motivation, I went mad. With a cry of vengeance burning my throat,
I leaped from concealment and raced across the golden sands of the heavily
armed, enemy-riddled dock, longsword drawn, calling to Olana.
The stupid, impetuous actions of a krekal in love, earmarked for disaster.
Every eye in that cavern turned and, from the surprised roar of exultation
rising from the podar, I knew that stupid or not, reckless or not, T'lu
Recovered from their momentary shock, the Hisl and Bujan galvanized.
Horas, eyes wide in horror, found his voice and screamed at the Bujan to
kill me, though the scion of Ksanj needed little urging.
Flashing spears sang perilously close to my head. Under the howls of
the Bujan and the silence of the Hisl I dodged death and darted towards
the V'Koo and his stolen prize. I had deliberately angled my path towards
the bridge to intercept Horas, but he dragged the Dulara towards the beach
instead, and a waiting a two-seat aerlor, a move that caught me by surprise.
I turned to follow. Hisl intervened and forced me to delay my charge that
might end their miserable lives.
Two Hisl died and a half dozen more took their place. Mulct screamed
from a safe distance. I did not see Droko. I could but groan helplessly
as Horas gained the aerlor, dumped the Dulara unceremoniously into the
stern and pushed-off. The Hisl died and I raced for the water.
Olana looked unconscious, for she neither struggled nor rose to throw
herself from the craft. Cognizant, she would be a veritable She-Jal forestalling
Horas's effort to paddle.
Horas, for his part, paddled furiously. Once, his head snapped around
and found me, drawing close, tearing through a wave charging Hisl while
T’lu and Randak freed podar and advanced the fight to the withdrawing Bujan.
A nasty sneer curled his pulled his twisted features, but no sign of panic.
A dozen dead creatures stretched behind me, a dozen more confronted
me as the women I loved moved out upon the bosom of Tamor, I became running
death. A power that no mortal on any world could stand against. I had failed
Olana too many times before. Not again!
Not ever again.
Horas leaned into his solitary paddle with stringy tough muscle. The
aerlor shot swiftly into the current. Escape seemed within his grasp.
The clamor behind me assured me T’lu, Randak and the podar had the
fray controlled. Still, I turned me head to check, and in that brief instant
I found Droko. He had crossed the bridge headed for the surface.
We did not have much time.
A half dozen Hisl remained between the water and me. We closed in a
clang of metal. A swirl of noxious Hisl odor swept my nostrils. A furious
exchange of lightning cuts and thrusts and I plowed through them as Mecca
had done the Iochis at the walls of Asynth!
I sheathed my sword on the run and hit the water flying. Diving shallow,
I surfaced immediately, striking out with bold, urgent strokes. Horas pulled
fifty yards out; his back bent to his task. My heart leaped, for Olana
stirred and her head and arms hung weakly over the gunwale. She looked
dazed, her eyes unfocused. I swam on but dared not call out to her lest
I make Horas aware his undoing had regained consciousness. I kept my eyes
fixed on the Dulara and at last saw the light of reason return.
Here gaze found me, swimming towards her with long desperate strokes.
For but a second they clouded in question, then she gripped the sides of
the aerlor and rocked left and right with all her might. But the aerlor
was too big, too heavy to capsize. She succeeded only in antagonizing Horas.
With an angry scowl, the sisk turned. Olana struggled to rise and leap
to safety as I had envisioned, but Horas, coward of cowards, rose, took
two steps towards the stern, and swung his bone-handled paddle in a vicious
arc that would have killed the Dulara had it connected.
How Olana avoided the sweep of that improvised weapon I do not now.
Somehow, Horas managed only a glancing blow that laid the Dulara once more
into the bottom of the aerlor.
Horas laughed, but Olana had done enough! The delay she caused proved
the edge I needed. My right hand closed upon the hardwood frame stretched
over with Jal hide. With a surge, I pulled myself into the prow.
My weight tipped the aerlor. Horas spun about, upper lip curled into
a victorious sneer. The heavy paddle swung again and I saw two things at
the same time. Hanging from the scabbard slung crisscross from Horas's
shoulder was the Redke Vandl, the Holy Sword of K'si, and a dazed and bleeding
Olana launch herself at Horas's legs.
Through her intervention, that deadly missile missed me, thudding heavily
against the thwart of the aerlor. With a cry of dismay, Horas hoisted it
again and strove to retry his attack. I stepped under the pendulum sweep
of the paddle and drove a terrific uppercut to his exposed jaw. Staggered,
reeling drunkenly, he almost toppled from the boat. Though a sycophant
and traitor, Horas was not a weakling.
Viciously, he kicked free of Olana, wiped the smear of blood from his
mouth and, with cat like quickness, lunged for my throat. His hands closed
around my windpipe with surprising strength; strength made more robust
by desperation. For out of the corner of my eye, I had a quick glimpse
of second aerlor pushing away from the docks, with T'lu, Randak, and dozen
willing podar straining mightily at their oars. Behind them launched the
Hisl, all in a mad race.
I reined punches at Horas's head and face until he lost his grip upon
my throat. With a surge, my fingers found his throat. The situation reversed,
I determined not to let go until Horas died.
I squeezed, enjoying it, watching as the V'koo's eyes bulged in their
sockets and his tongue lolled against the sides of his open mouth. He turned
blue. A few moments more and there would be one less V'Koo in the world.
His body went limp. I dropped him with an oath and freed the Sword of
K'si. I can not convey the welling of strength that blade sent surging
through my limbs. Perhaps it is a magical sword -- though I have never
believed in magic.
I helped Olana sit upright. She was groggy, nursing a bruise upon her
right temple. The aerlor carrying T'lu and Randak pulled alongside, the
latter shouting at me in a voice that sounded strangely uneasy.
I glanced beyond Randak at the closing Hisl and considered our next
action. Stand and fight or flee into the nearest channel with little to
no chance of outdistancing the tireless Hisl.
And then, Olana screamed, her face ashen, her eyes spread wide as heaven's
gate. She buried her slim fingers into my arms until they drew blood. Nor
could I do more than follow her gaze and gasp as, from the mouth of the
main channel, raced a thunderous wave of roaring death.
The Valcar, Demon Flood of Amata!
Gray Allen, whom Destiny granted Remembrance where others knew oblivion,
could not collectively dredge a vision as imperious as that black-faced,
frothy-white wall of death.
But now was a time of action and not refection. Already the fury of
the Valcar churned under our aerlors. Our small crafts rocked with a sickening
motion that filled me with an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Absorbed,
mesmerized by the savage ferocity that bore down upon us with irresistible
certainty, almost too late I felt the hairs stiffen at the nape of my neck.
I spun even as T’lu shouted madly.
Blood flowing from his mouth, rage running at his eyes, the supposed
new King of Amata had risen from the dead. Or had he only been shamming?
He swung his paddle at my head. In reflex, my sword arm shot upward to
cover my face. The Redke Vandal took the brunt of the blow, but still paddle
slid along its length and bounced hard off my skull. Head snapping backwards,
Olana's terrified scream ringing in my ears, I toppled over the thwart
and into the teeth of the roaring Valcar.
Barely conscious, I felt the Pentecostal waters close over me, and the
helpless aerlors. Incalculable power whipped me head over heals. Ramming
me through pounding walls of water a twig in a gale. Conflicting currents
dragged me to frightening depths then tossed me pell-mell upwards with
such force and such height that my back cut on the razor-sharp ceiling.
Breath battered from my lungs by ramrod arms of black-water, disoriented
and bleeding, I floundered helplessly on that angry white crest, certain
of a swift demise hammered to a pulp against the rapidly approaching cavern
A great wave scaled upwards as a watery Pegasus seeking the sun. I straddled
precariously upon its winged back. Then it curled upon itself and raced
for the far wall of the dock. As one, we pounded the ancient innards of
the Val Ponada with bone-jarring intensity. That I survived I do not comprehend
to this day, even so, blood flowed freely from a deep gashes to my chest
and arms. Consciousness became an illusion. As the retreating breaker dragged
me away from the wall by the retreating breaker, I breathed sporadically,
at the whim of the Valcar.
Then another great wave lifted me up. This time I toppled from its crest
with a compelling smack upon the churning water beneath. The horrific undertow
gripped me with pincer strength. Held fast beneath the surface, I spiraled
down into murky depths. A body smooth, swift and hairless brushed me. A
terrified Tagor, bellowing and whistling, its one eye rotating in a blood-red
arc searching for escape; leaving me ignored.
As erratic as a jilted lover, the surging Tamor that took me down then
spit me up the way a skimmed stone darts across the surface. I bounced
fifty Kota through a rollicking kaleidoscope of water, rock and debris,
my buffered body passed to a second wave. It was then, locked in its curling
embrace, that I saw the fate of the Hisl that had pursued T'lu onto the
Carried helplessly to the cavern walls, their aerlors lay smashed into
tinder-wood. Bloodied corpses Hisl dotted the laughing waters. My eyes
shut, but images of this same fate overtaking T'lu, Randak, and my precious
Olana punctured through.
Too battered to feel the pain, I succumbed to the inevitable and stopped
struggling. In the dimming glint of life, I gave myself over to vague rambling.
Why did Ksanj do it? Why send Horas to spare Olana from the T’solavan,
then loose the flood to kill anew?
My lungs ached and my mouth flapped as a fish on land. Tamor, clogged
with grit and sand, flooded my mouth and chest.
Did passion or expedience make Olana a tool in his conquest of Jatora?
Was the D’ jarval sincere? Or was all this some connivance of Horas to
which I had no insight, only the hint of a hazy inner voice.
I knew that I floated upon my face, as dead men supposedly do. Would
that I had retained the Redke Vandl that its weight could carry me to the
bottom and lie as a headstone for my watery grave.
The Redke Vandl! Symbol of Horas' supposed title of Dular of Amata.
The windfall for his deliverance of the Odar, the O' Odanal, and the Dulara
Olana to Ksanj -- and perhaps even the immortal skein of Gray Allen. I
wondered what lives, what destinies I would miss. What blueprint of Fate
would be left unfulfilled, or had this always been the predestined path?
Tamor, Daughter of the Anor, whispered her song of dissolution and I
wondered that seemed to move up. Truth skewered the fog of my benumbed
brain. These were human voices shouting at me; voices attached to strong
hands that gripped me hard by my arms, hair, and harness. Desperate hands
that hauled me from the Tamor into the aerlor of T'lu and Randak where
I lay gasping and spitting, trying to inject life into my soggy, violated
The aerlor, solid and whole, bounced violently on top of a dark, cresting
wave, hovering wildly in mid-air before plunging into the next billowing
trough as the Tamor bellied out between mountains of white-capped water.
“You floated up just in time!” T'lu cried into my ears. “I thought we
lost you sure this time.”
“And I, all of you,” I gasped, only half believing my senses. T’lu offered
a grim, waterlogged smile.
“Even under the yoke of Ksanj, the Amatans take pride in what they build.
My ancestors would be quite pleased with the construction of these aerlors,
and the skill and daring of they that row them!”
These, T'lu said these. My head snapped to the mouth of the grotto.
Horas paddled a man possessed. I could not see the Dulara Olana. T'lu easily
read my mind.
“The vektal struck her down, again.”
The viciousness of that fiend had me spewing venom from my heart that
worked as a tonic for my pain. Another notch added to my inevitable accounting
with the D’Notan V’koo.
“But the Hisl . . .”
“They are not danor,” Randak replied succinctly and then suddenly smiled,
guilefully. “By the way, you dropped this.”
Randak reached down and raised up the Redke Vandl.
I breathed a deep sigh of gratitude and relief. Randak continue to speak.
I listened through closed lids.
“Three are three major protective installations surrounding what used
to be the main dock. We have rode out the first two waves, but we are running
out of room.”
My eyes focused. I found where I assumed the main island had stood.
There was nothing! A wall of water abutting solid rock, even the bridge
to the Amatan fields submerged or destroyed. I could not verify which.
At once, I noticed the cavern roof had dropped significantly. Flooded
Tamor had risen fifty kota. T'lu had been modest. The Amatan's were consummate
ship builders, and the group of freed podar with us upon this incredible
voyage, consummate sailors. That we had not perished quickly with the balance
of life upon the Amatan Docks defied credence.
The Jatoran's called it Je' ndal.
To me it was Destiny. Incomprehensible Fate dangling me by a fragile
thread while She plays, She toys. She throws before the Devil’s hand and
then succors me.
“I am bored today, Let us do something creative!”
It is a difficult and astounding Kismet.
There were six warriors aboard. They held oars in the water to keep
us upright. We pitched and yawed, rolling with the inward surge, waiting
tensely as the hard current pushed our aerlor toward the speechless walls.
Randak, surprising me with his expertise, shouted synchronous orders.
The Valcar broke against the rocky cavern, giving the walls the voice
I had said they lacked. The roar warped across the riled Tamor a signal
for the Odanal to bend their broad backs and pull with the natural motion
of the wave. We shot forward if slung from a bow.
Ahead and to the left, Horas steered toward a narrow cleft just sufficiently
above the water line water to embrace his craft. That he survived, paddling
alone, confounded the odds and yet, without his cunning mastery of the
waters, the Dulara Olana would lie drowned at the bottom of the river.
A distant roar built in my bones, for truly I felt it before I heard
it. The third wave loomed in the wide-mouthed tunnel ahead. Horas increased
his effort to a near frantic attack. Randak hollered encouragement in our
ears while urging us to stroke for our lives.
“We have to make that fissure before this last arm of the Valcar strikes!”
“There!” cried one of the men. “There it is!”
Never had I seen so dark a force, so thick and voluminous a well of
water. I looked ahead, measured the distance. Horas would make it – we
I held my breath. Horas vanished into the cleft. The tempest struck.
A liquid battering ram it pounded our careening craft. T'lu screamed at
the men to pull their oars, to drive against the fury and top that rolling
behemoth and ride it for our lives.
The first swell nearly swamped us straightaway. Our aerlor groaned like
an old man struggling against the pain ripping at his bones. Forced to
take on more water than it could hold, the aerlor listed dangerously left.
Randak, T’lu, and I all bailed wildly with our bare hands. We righted the
aerlor, which then plunged into the trough of the first wave, which swept
us onto the curl of the next. A roller coaster going up, straight up, with
incredible speed. As a hurtling spear soaring high above the swollen lagoon,
we scarped the jagged ceiling and then angled back towards the racing,
En masse, we stowed oars, bent low, and clung to the thwart and fragile
I can still recall the awful sound of that impact, a sound of wood against
water that rang like sword on stone. We had missed the rising crest and
hit in the belly of the beast. For an absolute eternity, the frothing Valcar
teetered overhead, then crashing inward, buried us in an endless galaxy
of blackness and brine.
I recall a sensation of incredible pressure and then slowly the watery
night receded. The Valcar finished, its fury spent.
Ana still rode in our sturdy little craft. We bobbed upon the shining-black
surface of Tamor. How in Kal Har we were still in one piece defied logic
-- though only two of the Odanal remained at their oars. Nor did several
minutes of frantic search find those we had lost. They had died free, with
The worst over, the waters stabilizing -- though they continued to roll
forward and backward with an angry swell -- we turned our attention
to Horas. There was no sign of his aerlor, nor sign of splintered wreckage.
“I saw him make the fissure,” I said aloud.
T'lu offered that, “The wash would have carried him safely beyond the
final crest of the Valcar.”
I crawled into a vacant place and grabbed an oar. “If Horas got through,
than the Dulara Olana lives.”
Without urging, T'lu and Randak took seats before and behind me. It
took some hard stroking against the current to reach the fissure. The choppy
waters of swollen Tamor thumped against our gunwales as we steered left,
leaving the death and destruction of the Amatan docks behind. Ahead lay
the only life upon Jatora that mattered, the Dulara Olana.
The volume of the Tamor had swelled incredibly. From obliterated channels
flotsam and jetsam floated onto Tamor, but only the surviving passage drew
our attention. It seemed unlikely Horas could have pulled through into
one of those branches, the currents were too severe draining into the main
“Engineered drainage,” Randak said. “The Valcar will recede rapidly
now. Ksanj enhanced the natural draw off of the Tamor. The purpose of the
Valcar was to destroy an enemy, not end all commerce through the Tamor.”
It was as Randak said. The worst over, the water rose no higher and
within ten, maybe fifteen minutes, had receded to near normal levels. We
rowed blind. No quarry presented itself or visible evidence of Horas having
taken an alternate course, though there always lurked the possibility of
a concealed corridor. Still, we kept on and followed the main flow of the
river. Our distance stretched out, the river calmed and widened in a downward
flow that now emptied into a flat, bowel-shaped basin with numerous verging
tributaries. Here, confounded, we drew oars and stared blankly at any of
a dozen different channels Horas could have used.
I turned to the surviving warriors.
“Have either of you been here before? Do you have any idea which path
Horas might have taken?”
The first man, a dark swarthy fellow from Syjal named Granal, shook
his head. “I never left the docks in all my years in Amata,” he said sullenly.
Then his eyes brightened and he turned to the other fellow, an Amatan.
“M'ol! You have been all the way to Agar, which way would Horas go?”
M'ol gave the matter serious reflection. He was an older man, with telltale
gray in his Aal and hard learned patience in his eyes.
“It would help if I knew were he wanted to go.”
T'lu and I exchanged astonished stares. Randak laughed aloud. Perhaps
it was just a reaction, a catharsis after the extreme tension and terror
of the Valcar, the anxiety of the pursuit, but we all laughed at the sagacity
of M'ol's question.
“Well struck M’ol!” Randak declared smiling broadly.
“Indeed,” T'lu seconded. “Where would Horas go and why?”
Insight illuminated my dun senses.
All eyes were upon me.
“I believe,” I ventured bravely, “that Horas acts alone. Unaided, he
planned and executed the kidnapping of the Dulara, and his escape from
the docks. Horas ran from Ksanj. The Valcar was for him. We just got in
Randak pointed to the Redke Vandal. “That blade and the title Dular
of Amata were rewards for his treachery. It is what every V’Koo wants,
power and wealth. Why would Horas throw that away?”
My eyes narrowed. “For something even more provocative than riches and
power, the Dulara Olana.” My heart whipped against the gently lapping water
on which we bobbed. “He approached me in the docks, at the time of our
ill-fated rebellion, hinting he had friends in D’Nota that would shelter
him and reward those who defended him. He threatened to go to Ksanj with
our plot if I did not include him our plans. Though I dismissed him as
a V’Koo, I have since grown to believe there was more truth than lie in
Horas’s desire to escape Amata.”
“What are you suggesting?” T’lu asked. “That Horas has his own designs
upon the Dulara Olana?”
“We discussed the contradiction in Ksanj’s actions. First, he condemns
Olana to death in the Kul Aren, and then mounts a new abduction.” I paused.
“I do not know T’lu. It is only a feeling, but a strong one. There is a
game at play here, a heavy handed conspiracy we do not as yet understand.”
T’lu let a slow smile spread his face. “You present me with more than
I care to worry about, but you make sense. Still, if there is a plot between
Horas and Ksanj, it is their concern. Ours is to recover the Dulara Olana.
That accomplished, we can address curtailing the traitorous career of Horas
of D’Nota forever.”
Randak spoke, cold and detached, the Thief orating to his peers, a man
experienced in the conspiracies and convolutions of politics, and human
“While I understand our Dular’s wanting to move forward, I submit we
must paused a moment and consider what Kdal has laid out. His theory has
merit. Horas had ambition, a trait that put him in conflict with Ksanj.
He knew he could not trust Ksanj once he had outlived his usefulness. With
his ways,” and Randak spat the word, “he may have gained insight to a threat
against his life and struck against it. It would be consistent with how
Ksanj treats those he mistrusts.”
“By struck against it,” T’lu said quietly, “you infer kidnapping
“Yes, for the safe return of Olana to Syjal, Horas could name his price
anywhere upon Jatora, and under a pledge of Halm none would ever dare break.
No matter how vile his crimes or how badly we wanted him brought to justice
to account for his treachery against the Odanal, he would be safe and he
would be rich.”
“Patar!” Granal, speaking for all of us, spit into the river. Patar
has no literal translation, but then it hardly needs one.
“We blundered into the middle of their private war,” Randak smiled.
“An unresolved war, for the docks will be serviceable in less than two
ar and Ksanj will follow in force. And it is that point upon which we must
attend. We trail Horas, yes, but Ksanj trails us both. A man of unbounded
vengeance as we already know, and have known for three thousand years,
his pursuit will be without reserve, his accounting without mercy.”
Suddenly, M'ol stood and pointed. There, bobbing out of the mouth of
the opening to our immediate right, as if sent by Ana, appeared a sodden
moccasin, fallen -- or dropped -- from a small, delicate foot.
Grabbing up my oar, I singled handedly propelled the aerlor. T’lu leaned
over the side and scooped the tiny prize aboard.
“Was there ever such a woman!” T'lu cried.
Could I argue?
We needed no further encouragement to bend our oars and, bucking the
current, struck out into this beckoning passage. We had traveled two or
three kotal when our paddles struck bottom. We adjusted our stroke and
forged ahead into the increasingly shallow water. Ten minutes more brought
us to a long, narrow peninsula jutting cleanly into the dark waters. Drawn
upon the sandy bar was an abandoned aerlor.
“Horas,” I breathed.
I stuffed the tiny moccasin into my harness and vaulted over the side,
sloshing the remaining yards to the vacant aerlor, surveying the empty
beach as I ran.
“No question they came this way!” I cried as T'lu joined me.
Muddy prints in the soft sand lead up the narrow neck of beach into
a cramped fissure. Dimly glowing, lorqua laced the passageway. Not a man
demurred. We entered the constricted passage of one mind, one purpose,
and proceeded for a lengthy period without incident. I recall growing hungry
and reasoned a considerable distance traveled; a considerable time passed.
Then we made a startling discovery. Empty Jal skins of meat and water,
lines of rope made from Votag gut, and whatever else Horas had carried
away without trace. They lay near a recently excavated mound of earth.
Those empty skins spoke volumes of the long term treachery and cunning
of Horas of D'Nota.
“By the Aal of my K'may,” T'lu growled. “The guile of the man.”
It would be pointless to recount the monotony and anxiety of that endless
trek beneath the Val Ponada. I sensed we had moved far from Amata, though
just how far I did not realize, yet. Wearied, spent, we conceded the inevitable
and holed up to sleep.
“Horas will camp,” T’lu surmised. “He is only one man dragging a resistant
Olana. He will stop.”
In my mind grew an image of Horas camping, sleeping, while a trussed
and tortured Olana waited on his next pleasure, her next abuse. I slept
Refreshed, if hungry and thirsty, we struck out again. Several more
hours of heavy plodding passed and then abruptly the corridor ended, bursting
without notice into an enormous subterranean hollow reminiscent of the
area where T'lu and I first fell into the underground universe of Jatora.
Except that it was more of a crater than a grotto, solid rock dry as dust.
The chasm gleamed brightly in the planetary luminance of Jatora, suggestive
of an elevated topography. Unlike the caverns of my recent experience,
this cave presented evidence of cliff face erosion rather than underground
“We are near the surface,” T’lu said bluntly.
“Perhaps even the Anor,” Randak added.
While being of no practical significance in our search for the Dulara,
the thought of reaching the great ocean of Jatora thrilled me.
M'ol and Granal rested while T'lu, Randak and I, paced various directions
in search of a fresh spoor.
“Over here,” Randak gestured feverishly.
What he had found were two flat, fan-shaped shells that I immediately
recognized as dropped from the girdle encircling Olana's waist. My memory
whirled back to the Mu' Derj and the deceptive serenity of that entrapping
glade where I had found a similar marking -- and had first done battle
the Kiida and the Votag. And suddenly, I drew cold. T'lu caught my eye
“You seem untouched.”
“It is too obvious,” I said.
“I agree. One shell, maybe. But not two; Horas knows or suspects he
is trailed. He arranged this.”
Another sharp underscore to the cunning and preparedness of the D’Notan.
I grew more resentful of the creature each moment that I lingered in the
interminable underworld of the Val Ponada.
So again, standing before dozens of yawning mouths, I asked which
“We will split up,” T'lu announced, shifting easily into command. “Each
of us takes an opening. Advance no more than K' lk (one thousand) paces,
even if you find traces of their passage. Return here that we may go on
as a unit. Though it is time consuming, we shall have what each cave offers.”
Indeed, while not expedient, trial and error presented our only reasonable
course of action. Yet, after hours of tedious exploration, we again grouped
by the two discarded shells no closer to Horas and Olana than before. All
indications that man or beast had ever passed through this labyrinth underground
world eluded us.
Astutely, M'ol reminded us that we could expect to see the Bujan and
“We have been over every Kota of this cavern,” T’lu sighed.
“That is not entirely true,” I said. T'lu looked at me with surprise.
“We only went in a short distance. Some of these caverns go on for miles!
I know your strategy was to keep within hailing distance, but . . .”
“But a thousand yards is not every inch!” T'lu grinned.
“It may not be safe,” Randak commented, “but I am forced to agree with
Kdal. We need to expand our search.”
“Perhaps we should go in pairs?” M'ol suggested.
“There are five of us,” Randak noted.
“I dragged you all out here,” I prompted. “I will take this passage!”
I gestured to the man-sized fissure at my right. “Randak and T'lu, you
take the one to my left. M'ol and Granal, the one to my left.”
“Who made you Dular?” T'lu asked with a slow spreading smile that beckoned
an embarrassed response.
“I think it was Foot!” I laughed, and T’lu joined me. The others had
no idea. “And since you are the Dular, that makes you too valuable to be
“Sometimes,” T'lu breathed almost wistfully, “I get very tired of hearing
I turned to my corridor and entered at a brisk walk with T'lu's trailing
voice warning, “No more than two n'ar!”
My choice took me through a bland, monotonous corridor with a gentle
upward slope. Bereft of constructive conversation, only my lamentable conscience
for company, the hike was less than pleasant. I almost hoped for a stray
Votag or lost Hisl.
As I searched, a thought occurred to me. Had T'lu meant I should not
advance in over two hours, or an hour in and an hour to return to the rendezvous
point? I pondered that bit of miscommunication to a fare-the-well, to relieve
my overriding concerns for the Dulara.
The path I followed wound right, while the grade declined gradually
until I almost ran to keep upright. From a distance, I heard the distinct
drone of pounding surf. Not lapping, such as I would associate with the
river Tamor caressing its banks, but powerful breakers combing a broad
Now indeed I ran, even when the ground leveled I kept my legs moving,
drawn as a bee scenting nectar, filled with a sudden, overwhelming urgency
to see what my heart heard. Then, suddenly and incredibly, the cavern floor
broke around a faintly glowing corner and I drew to a breathless halt fifty
yards from where the great cavern emptied onto golden sands touched by
a magnificent, blue ocean. Sweeping waters rolling free and clean beneath
the great fire-red eye of Emo, sun of Jatora.
I gazed at last upon mighty Anor . . . and a score of terrifying creatures!
Such was my first impression of the strange apparitions framed in the
glinting sunlight and watery mist. Ghouls barring my path to the ocean
cuffing the rocky inlet with powerful surf, dousing me in salty spray scented
My heart leaped many directions, but my hand only one -- to the Redke
Vandl. In response, the creatures stepped forward. Moving wraith-like from
sun to shadow but clearly hewed of flesh and bone.
The closest of the beings stood six feet, its general anatomy akin to
human, proportioned and muscular. But the hands and feet were webbed, suggestive
of aquatic proclivity. Their fingers were slim with long nails like knitting
needles, sharply angled tine that looked exceedingly formidable for gutting
fish -- or foe.
The creature’s face was unremarkable in contour, with squared chins
and regular mouths, but two, great egg white eyes literally popped from
their skulls. Lidless, and without irises, those disconcerting eyes neither
focused nor blinked – though I did -- at sight of the crawling, wiggling
mass of tentacles surmounting its head. If it was hair, it was alive. A
slimy army of green worms radiating like antennae.
If my appearance among the fish-men generated any untoward emotions,
they lay locked behind those expressionless faces and deadpan eyes. The
lead warrior had stopped advancing and now stood regarding me coldly, waiting.
He had the advantage of numbers, two swords -- one long and one short --
to each of the dozen strong bodies inhabiting the cave mouth. I thought
of Olana possibly traversing this identical path to the sea with only Horas
for protection and panicked.
No! I knew, or hoped, for better. These were humanoids, preternatural
but human. If there had been contact between them and the Dulara . . .
Boldly, I sheathed the Redke Vandl and offered the Jatoran gesture of
The unblinking fish-man said nothing. Two of their number advanced and
stood to either side of the first, a menacing move. Or was it defensive?
Suddenly, eerily, the bizarre growths on their heads turned away from
me and stood on end. The ghouls matched the bend of their wiggling antennae.
A moment later I detected the scuffle of running feet and then T'lu, Randak,
M'ol and Granal burst into view, swords at the ready.
That I was long overdue and then had come to my rescue I did not doubt.
I was grateful, for I now fully expected a fight. Experience dictated the
fish-men would draw swords and attack, but instead, the wiry mass of hairs
on their heads stiffened and glowed red, like heated irons, challenging
the white radiance of their bulbous eyes. And one, he whom I had surmised
as the leader, threw his wiry arms in the air and shouted, “T'lu of Amata!”
With an answering whoop of delight, T’lu bounded passed me and embraced
this odd creature like a lost brother. I was flabbergasted. The other creatures
cheered; or rather they whistled and stamped their webbed feet with noisy
T'lu turned to me grinning ear to ear.
“Kdal, this is Ao, son of A, Dular of the Agala.”
“The Agala!” My mouth hung open. I must have looked both sheepish and
foolish. “I had no idea . . . I thought they were monsters!” I was babbling;
the Agala were whistling.
“Monsters?” Ao said, his face spreading into a revealing and pleasant
smile, “T'rk said you were an interesting pavan!”
Had Ao thrown a handful of Ryka at us he could not have dropped a more
thunderous bombshell. T'lu spun him by the shoulders and almost screamed
“T'rk! T'rk is alive? You have seen him?”
“T'rk is well, as are most of your men.”
“The rest of my men! How many . . . how . . .”
“Be calm my friend,” Ao urged in a soft voice underscored by a breath
that came in gentle whistles. “All in good time. There is much good news
Ao sounded excited, but it was impossible to gauge from his snowball
orbs. Ana those eyes were unsettling!
“You will be surprised to know this is no accidental encounter.” Ao
continued. “We have been searching these openings for hours, hoping we
would cross paths.”
T'lu's eyes, already circles of incredulity, opened wider. Ao explained
quickly, and it became my turn to start whistling.
“The Dulara Olana is safe at Furi, and we have a vektal named Horas
tucked safely in our strongest thielhar.”
Outraged nature, pushed to exhaustion, gave up all pretense of composure.
I dropped to my knees in the damp mud and closed my eyes in thanksgiving;
inwardly I wept.
Olana was safe. T'rk and others of our ill-fated expedition upon the
Val Ponada apparently lived and T'lu stood delivered into the hands of
friends. Fate, by design or by coincidence, had reached out and guided
my quest, granting my deepest wish.
“How,” T'lu demanded, equally drained. “How did all this happen?”
“Come,” Ao said, raising his voice energetically. “We shall return to
our ship and sail for Furi. There will be an Ialora and a great telling
I strained my eyes through the salty mist for sign of a vessel, an aerlor
on the bosom of the ocean. “You have ships? Where?” I asked.
Ao smiled patiently. “If our ships were to stand so easily exposed to
Ksanj, would there still be a free race of Agala on Jatora?”
I looked at T'lu and saw only amusement tinged with great relief. He
came and put a hand on my shoulder.
“The Agala have their ways my Amar. For today, our turmoil has ended.
Olana is safe, rejoice.” T'lu turned quickly to Ao. “I forget my manners.
I have not introduced my other companions.”
Brief introductions followed. Randak, known by name to Ao, received
a respectful greeting. Afterwards, several of Ao's warriors turned and
headed out of the hazy cavern mouth towards the sea, into which they simply
walked and were gone.
“Our Dre’ danor stands several miles off shore, anchored and manned,”
Ao explained. “We swim under the sea, safe from observation.”
A Dre’ danor is a War Ship, larger and more elaborate than the mast
trimmed Gaelors of the Bujan Avedor. It suggested -- as T'lu had said long
ago -- that the Agala were the vastly superior aerdors.
One by one, the Agala entered the ocean while I watched transfixed.
I knew I lacked pieces of this newest Jatoran puzzle and patiently waited
explanations from either T'lu or Ao. I was getting proficient at waiting
for the ambiguous Jatorans.
Randak stood silent and content while Granal and M'ol sat in the wet
sand and stared at Ao. I wondered if either had seen an Agalan before.
“In a few minutes, we shall follow,” Ao said.
“Follow where? Into the ocean?” I exclaimed. “I am not a fish. I do
not breathe underwater.”
T'lu and Ao exchanged glances, and broke into sputtering, happy laughter.
“Kdal thinks you are a gipos,” T’lu declared merrily. A gipos being
Deftly Ao reached up to his head and face. In the next instant, that
writhing mass of fiber that contorted atop his head lay at his feet, and
those confounding eyeballs were in the palm of his right hand.
One can only imagine how stupid I looked, staring open mouthed at a
warrior who, under all that rigmarole, was quite handsome. The light in
his frank, green eyes told me Ao enjoyed my discomfort immensely. It dawned
upon me that the Agala had a well-developed sense of humor.
“The era,” Ao said, nodding cheerily to his unique focal attire. “We
grind malnor with trace amounts of Lorqua and Aspar, added for color. The
lenses refract light out of seawater, allowing us to see reasonably well
underwater, and it filters out the salt. Without the era, one could not
even open one’s eyes out there.” And Ao nodded toward the breaking surf.
“And that stuff?” I asked pointing at the still dancing fungus writhing
merrily in the wet sand at my feet.
“That is the Ledal!” Ao laughed again. Then drew suddenly serious. “The
Ledal is part of the heart and soul that are the Agala. It lives only upon
Agar and has no known Hon D' jar. Having never experienced the P' dare
Mor, it is what it is, what it has always been, having survived since the
dawn of our world without change. It lives regenerating as the vines of
the Mu' Derj. A harmless creature, its only means of self-preservation
to avoid those who would devour it.”
Randak had picked up the queer looking creature and examined it closely.
The tentacles immediately arched towards him, seeking, probing. “What does
it do?” he asked. “And, so as you will not think me as krekal as Kdal,
I realize that it in some manner aids you in the water. But how?”
Apparently, Randak also enjoyed my embarrassment.
“When the Ledal is in its natural, underwater habitat, it moves in clutches
of several hundred or more, always wary of predators. Through the intricate
system of feelers in its tendrils, they sense motion from great distances
and transmit warnings to each other.”
Randak handed the Ledal to me. It felt more spongy than hairy. Immediately
I sensed a palatable gentleness to its arching feelers.
“Ages ago, we Agala learned how to share those sensory perceptions with
the Ledal, channeling their impulses directly into our minds. When carried
in the manner you observed, we sense what the Ledal senses, we feel what
“Incredible,” I breathed. “What a remarkable creature.”
“There is more,” Ao noted. “The Ledal is not true gipos in that it lacks
gills, but is equally at home in water or on land. In the Anor, breathes
by circulating water through its tendrils and converting waste into oxygen,
(Ao said daunor) which it circulates through its tendrils.” Ao took the
wriggling mass from me, which immediately leaned to him like a stroked
pet. He put a few of the tendrils into his mouth and sucked lightly. “You
need only inhale so . . . the Ledal can remain submerged indefinitely.”
“Anything else I should know?” I asked peevishly, though I did manage
a large smile.
T'lu winked at Ao. Then the big Amatan slapped me hard on the back.
“Show him Ao!”
Abruptly Ao whirled. His left arm shot forward. One of his long, slender
nails broke away, hurtled across the intervening space, and imbedded in
the slick rock wall of the cavern with a loud, metallic ping.
Ao grinned like a drunken groom. “Underwater, the Anu are vastly superior
to a longsword, even that longsword!”
I thought how close I had been to learning of their efficiency the hard
way. I shuddered as Ao reached into his leathery pouch hung at his hip
and extracted a fresh Anu, which I now noticed as hollowed at the fat end.
He slipped it over his now very ordinary finger.
The waters beyond the cavern rippled. The first two Agalans reappeared,
with several warriors until their total reached a dozen. They brought with
them medium sized sacks from which the warriors produced Ledal and era.
Outfitting our party took but a moment. Becoming acclimated to the Agalan
panoply took considerably longer.
T'lu laughed at the sight of me, as did Granal and M'ol. Randak attempted
a stentorian disposition but without much success. Ao and his warriors
laughed the hardest. I bid they all visit Kal Har -- and soon. The laughter
turned to whistling.
The era presented no encumbrance. Despite their ungainly appearance,
they were light and fit comfortably. Through them, the surface world turned
a whitish tint reminiscent of reflected snow. Adjusting to the Ledal proved
Ao fitted one fellow upon my head. Thousands of tiny probes that lined
the underbelly of the Ledal affixed themselves to my scalp, tapped into
my mind. What at first was a disquieting intrusion, an invasion of my innermost
senses, faded into a benign exchange of emotions that was at once euphoric
and relaxing. I was in communication with the creature, though how it conveyed
that knowledge I cannot conceive. Thoughts simply came to me, a communion
as a mild narcotic.
Distances seemed enhanced and perceptions altered. I gained a sensitivity
and awareness of animate and inanimate objects I had never before experienced.
I had attuned with the environment through a creature that weighed no more
than a bowler hat.
Roughly snapped from my empathic trance by Ao, the Agalan urged me to
learn the Ledal breathing technique. What trepidation I still nursed, vanished
under the comforting vibrations of Ledal as I took its undulating tendrils
in my mouth and inhaled, breathing effortlessly, accepting not taking.
In all, the Ledal comprised a unique experience I would not soon forget.
In turn, each of us experienced the joining of the Ledal. Then, flanked
by Agalan warriors, we left the cavern and headed for the Anor, joyously
welcoming the warm Jatoran sun back into souls too long denied its glorious
touch. My own heart responded like a folded flower opening its petals.
My lungs filled with the aroma of sand, sea and salt. With a sense of the
paradoxical, I felt reborn.
The Anor itself was a graceful ocean, bountiful and eminently unique.
Common to my memory was the rolling surf and limitless expanse, as its
blue-green coloring, uniquely tinged with the orange glow of the red-eyed
furnace above, under whose austere mantle and peach colored sky, life teemed
I closed my eyes and remembered. Eternal pools of lovely pale colors
suspended in darkness. The sifting sands of time upon which Gray Allen
had walked for a million lifetimes, listening to the surf and hearing the
Hardly immune to the romance of Anor, T'lu stood beside me smiling,
great chest puffed. I smiled back, hearing the rich, ancient voices of
Mecca, Bodine and Falsworth whispering that the dark journey of Kdal of
Jatora neared the foretold end. Ahead, lay sea and sunlight, the promise
of a bright, new Destiny.
Ao, not privy to my altruistic vision, herded us quickly across the
soft, gold sand and, without preliminaries, ushered us into the surprisingly
As we dove, I reflected on the strange the pull of that mighty ocean
upon my aged soul. Fifty kota above my head the surface waters lapped ceaselessly
toward the sprawling landmass of the Val Ponada. Fifty kota below, new
life and new terror lurked in a strange, otherworld silence. I swam suspended
between them, Iccarus on his wings of wax.
I wanted to dive, to test the Gods who created the Deep and see what
wonders challenged my warrior's heart. But urged by common sense -- and
the Agala -- I held my place.
Submerged, the Ledal became an even a more provocative wonder. We communicated
freely, the images and impressions I received understood without consideration.
T'lu later said that experienced warriors, like Ao, were able to send commands
to these wonderful, symbiotic life forms. Ao swore many of his people knew
their Ledal by name and kept the same Ledal in the family for generations.
Seeing-eye dogs, the mind of Gray Allen mused, though Kdal knew nothing
of such things.
Clearly amphibious by nature -- I am certain the P’ dare Mor lay through
the ocean -- the Agala proved adroit swimmers. Their webbed feet propelled
them rapidly through the pristine sea. So rapid did the Agala churn through
the sun-drenched ocean that we land-lovers needed help to keep from falling
behind. Held by the elbows, kicking frantically to match the Agalan effort,
we raced through the water with breathtaking speed.
As we progressed, my affinity with the Ledal continued to grow. Perceptions
of large, ominous shapes in the dim below impinged upon my subconscious.
With chagrin, I hoped never to learn their true form, close up. But as
is my lot, my hopes and my realities rarely coincide.
Ao lead, swimming easily a few yards ahead of T'lu, Randak, Granal,
M'ol and myself who were bunched together with eight flanking Agalan aiding
our progress. The remaining four Agalans swam to our right, left and two
to the rear. Sentries I never doubted.
Suddenly, my Ledal tingled with an alarming, prickling sensation stabbing
at me brain. At the same instant a large, brilliantly white form shot from
the depths. Straight at Ao it fired, a Votagor or Sea Lion; though not
so tame as the name implied.
The Votagor so named for its pure whiteness of color and stout and yellowed
horn centered, was six Kota long. Further, when the beast rolled right,
a position it assumed in order to gore it prey, it exposed a blue-stripe
running the length of its amphibious body, again reminiscent of the land-bound
Votag of the Mu' Derj and Val Ponada.
As the beast neared, my Ledal tingled furiously, with a heat impossible
to ignore. The Agalans yanked on my arms, helping to pull me hard from
the path of the saurian, which bubbled passed me, rolled right, and bore
hard at Ao.
My personal danger addressed, the Ledal’s itch changed, the message
reconfigured. I had not worn the creature long enough to divine each new
nuance, but in this matter, the message rang clear. I tried to draw my
sword, a useless enterprise underwater. The Agalan at my right placed a
tined-hand over my knuckles and, at the same time, kicked backward, pulling
away from Ao, leaving him alone to face the frenzied Votagor.
I was aghast, but it was needless worry. The Agala knew exactly what
they were doing.
Ao's Ledal burned a bright red with tendrils stretched stiffly upright.
The Agalan had turned at first appraisal of the danger and now treaded
water, directly in the path of that hurtling saurian -- his vital organs
invitingly open to the Votagor's lowered tusk.
Calm, almost nonchalant, Ao waited. The two, large and unblinking pink
eyes of the Votagar zeroed in on the Agalan. It surged through the water
a sleek, seeking arrow. Then, at that the last instant, impeccably timed,
Ao pulled his hands close to his side and slipped beneath the snowy rush.
No contact, no blood, no sounds, only a stream of expelled bubbles and
the ripple of agitated sea.
The Votagor turned and rolled, surely aching to gore the upstart thing
that had spoiled its charge. In turning, the saurian exposed itself. Ao
reached high with his razor-sharp Anu and, with a single, savage stroke,
disemboweled the beast the length of that blue-streaked belly. Streaming
yellow blood and entrails, the Votagar floated back into the murky night
from whence it came.
The Agalans pulled upon my arms, resuming our journey with no more care
than had we stopped to pick flowers!
A tremor ran through me, like a wave rolling over the sea. And, like
the sea, where one wave follows another in endless procession, I knew that
the joyous news of Olana, T’rk, and Odanal would soon cool. Elation exchanged
for the harsh reality of Ksanj waiting in the wings.
And like the eternally rolling waves of Anor, the currents of Destiny
carried a revelation that was still forthcoming. Who was Ksanj that he
should know the name of Gray Allen? Though suggestion and possibilities
clung to me like heavy garments, Ksanj and the conniving, ever reinventing
Fate that had brought me to the shining mountains and glistening seas of
Jatora withheld the truth of it; a trial for another time. With a renewed
commitment to the moment, I swam on.
The forced pace of the Agalan warriors had my legs and lungs ready to
give out. But there loomed above us, riding on the surface, a massive,
brown shadow. We angled upwards and ten yards from its bulk bobbed to the
I let the Ledal take leave of my mouth and swallowed healthy draughts
of real air peppered with salty spray. Gentle waves broke over my head,
and through the curtain of water raining across my eyes, I beheld a magnificent
full-rigged tall ship. A flag-bearing full canvassed trireme galley impressive
and majestic, easily out-classing the Bujan fleets of Amata riding high
upon the open sea, glistening in the unrestrained light of Emo, fire-red
sun of Jatora.
The patched and filled-wood hull was a hundred kota long, with bowsprit
and three square-rigged masts glowing luminous like all things Jatoran.
I later learned, as protection against exposure to the sun, sea and windblown
brine, the Agalans painted their Dre’ danor in a transparent lacquer of
Aspar, the aluminum-like metal of Jatora. The resultant sheen radiated
bright white against the soft peach horizon.
A ship encased in a cloud, the Dre’ danor was haunting – and no other
Beyond the beauty, the fire-hardened coating of Aspar also formed an
effective armor plating against the formidable saurian and other foe roaming
everywhere upon the broad bosom of Anor; more of these other foe in time.
The hull curved at either end. Six banks of single row oars, now at
rest, extended through open portals lining her sides. Decorating the prow,
a sumptuous wood carved Qualo, wings drawn back, head thrust into the wind.
I wondered at its significance, for the Agalans were a seafaring race.
A rope later dropped over the ship's side, and we clambered over the
metal railing onto the brown and gold planked main deck. It was a full
third the ship's length, sloped, with a large cabin at the northern end.
This was the Goel or Captain's Quarters. The seaward sides of the cabin
formed galleon-like from the upward thrust of the ship's bows.
No sooner were we aboard, than Ao gave curt orders to raise anchor and
make sail. His warriors moved briskly to their tasks. The main mast, which
rose tapered and glowing from the center of the main deck as the Lu' tajalo
stretched out of Amata, hung silken sheets to the wind. Sails spun from
the golden threads of the K' kjor, a wondrous and deadly spider that lived
upon Agar, island home of the Agala. Rapidly filled, the rigging fluffed
and flapped and the ship lurched forward.
No other expression captures the sensation that gripped me upon the
deck of that powerful Agalan Dre’ danor. A symbolic conveyance to carry
Destiny forward. Sun on my face, friends at my side, I felt liberated.
Kdal of Jatora emerged from the darkness.
Our Ledal we stored in large water-buckets below decks. I wondered if
they ate, and what they eat. I later learned that, like true aquatic plants,
they sustained on water and light.
T'lu and Randak were provided a room in the forecastle. Ganar, M'ol
and I shared one astern, small but adequate seagoing quarters in which
While M'ol and Granal slept, there snoring pounding the slim knot-holed
boards of our aren, I moved about the deck, too excited to rest, adrenaline
With sails unfurled and aided by happy Agalan warriors who took voluntary
turns at the oars, the rakish bow of the galley flew through the chaste
waters of Anor. I stood by the gilded rail and watched the undulating blue-orange
waves roll passed and fell in love again with the wondrous world of Jatora.
Night fell. The ship transformed and glowed a ghostly white, gliding
as a pale phantom on the deep, dark sea. Where as upon the Val Ponada all
about me had glowed, here, all about me drew black, a canvas upon which
our ship shone.
We sailed due North, a bright running rig of liquid fire. I was enthralled.
But, at last, the flush of adrenaline fled and my flesh could take no more.
My head light with ecstasy, my eyes heavy with exhaustion, I returned to
my cabin and the best sleep I had had in a thousand years.
Daylight found me on deck, hovering by the rail, staring into the misty
horizon. Somewhere ahead, in the vast unsullied panorama of the Anor, lay
the magical island of Agar. There, Olana waited.
My heart quickened. Under the spell of sea and sun, false hope for unrequited
hope climbed the mast and unfurled in the cool, salty breeze. I knew the
truth of the Blood, but I dared dream.
More realistically, I pondered what awaited T'lu in Agar. Joy, reunion,
thanksgiving, yes, that for sure. Then the long journey home to Syjal where
the unending war against the mad tyrant of Jatora would resume, Ana granting
we escaped Agar before Ksanj found us and the Hisl hordes descended from
All this was plain, easily pictured. What part Fate carved for Gray
Allen, vagabond voyager in the continuing saga of Jatora, only She knew,
and to this, the wind, the sea, and even the birds kept a couched silence.
But, facing the brilliant light of a glorious new day, feeling light, free,
and rested, I forced pessimism under the rock of optimism and, the wind
at my back, I spat into the sea.
Ao, up since dawn with the tasks of command, came to stand at my side
on the busy quarterdeck. He regarded my reverent expression gazing out
across the rolling waves and again read my mind. The Agalans were quite
an intuitive race.
“Only the great island continent of Agar and the smaller island kingdoms
of Mopal, Derhetti and D'Nota to the Southeast of Agar disturb her pristine
“There are no other inhabited lands upon the Anor?”
“Some small islands,” Ao responded. “But they are home to the Ava Camtar
and not a place a sane man would go!”
Ava Camtar, Black Pirates; once or twice before I had heard the reference
among the podar of Amata. The words painted a swashbuckling portrait that
plucked the strings of my warrior heart. I wanted to know more, immediately,
but Ao seemed bent on other thoughts.
“I shall be ill at ease until we make Furi. The Winds of Ana have been
silent too long. We shall be fortunate to avoid them.”
Experience made the immediate and correct analogy. These Winds of Ana
were to the Anor as the Legions of K'Aldan to the Val Ponada. I prayed
Fate spared me firsthand experience with this seagoing Goddess of thunder,
lighting and mayhem. Perhaps just as tired of peril and obstacles, a generous
Providence granted my wish; at least for this journey. Our trip aboard
the Krill, the name of Ao's Dre’ danor -- and another Jatoran first, a
ship with a surname -- passed in blissful serenity. Storms did not threaten
our trek nor did we encounter the mysterious Camtar, although I would confess
to a discreet disappointment concerning the Black Pirates of Jatora.
By noon, the crisp wind brought the Krill to docks of Furi, Capitol
City of the five principalities of the Agalan protal.
Agar, largest of the islands, rambled for five hundred square miles.
A tropical wilderness hemmed by a meandering coastline and indented with
hundreds of inlets and coves. The lush tropical interior covered in green
forests gave rise to tall rangy mountains abounding with life.
The timbered mountain range, the Bl'an, formed a natural barrier, a
protective curtain, against the storms that blew out of the North. All
five of the cities, Furi, Rali, Ject, Haro and Vol, had built their walls
and ports on the leeward side of the great island. The southern slopes
stood virtually deserted -- except for heavily manned patrols. Isolated
and inhospitable, they were a favorite approach of the raiding Camtar,
a testimonial to the bravery and audacity of these seagoing pirates.
The dock at Furi dwarfed the underground piers of Amata. Multi-tiered,
weathered and ancient, it stretched two miles along the sandy peninsula,
a devils-horn around her quay. I estimated a hundred clustered ships of
every size and description and everywhere a drone of life. Life without
podar, Jal whips or Bujan officers, just free people who fished, traded,
flirted and laughed.
The Krill sought berth. Willing hands tossed long stout lines of woven
hemp to her deck. Eagerly we took the lines and made the great craft fast.
With a final groan as her wooden belly rubbed against the slime slicked
posts of the dock, the Krill moored.
Thus came Kdal to Furi.
An appreciable hum of excitement accompanied our arrival. Magically,
for I never see how these things happen, the working population of the
Agala knew T'lu of Amata rode aboard the Krill. To me, T’lu was a comrade
in arms. Prisoners of the Kiida become best friends. We were two savage
souls fighting across a world. The deferential treatment accorded him everywhere
we went continued to confound me.
Again, it crossed my mind to wonder at T’lu’s familiarity with the Agala,
in particular Ao. When had he been here before? Reaching the Agala from
Syjal was an arduous journey the involved crossing the horrid Mis Lew swamps
along the southern tip of the Andar. Had T’lu made such a journey. When?
What stories of daring-do might that adventure hold!
However, at that moment, my primary thoughts centered on the Dulara
Olana. Disembarking under the cheers of the Agala, our little group headed
towards Furi, where waited Ao's father, A, Dular of the combined cities
Years of primitive, civil wars between the original five sharns, or
clans, had resulted in a single surviving house over which A ruled supreme.
The lesser cities, retaining a semblance of independence, were governed
by A’s handpicked Thiefs.
Our way lead down a large spiral stairwell and across the warm, sandy
beach. The city lay inland about a mile, raised at the base of the Bl'an
“By Ana! What is that!” M'ol cried in alarm.
We all turned. From the edge of the ocean, a bizarre half-lizard half-man
creature regarded us with almost laughable intent, so utterly queer was
its deportment. It stood the height of a German shepherd on frog-legs splayed
like wickets. Its head and chest had human contours but its features were
distinctly piscine with pop-eyes, bloated cheeks, and pursed lips that
blew constantly. Hence the comical appearance.
A yellow-colored spine sloped from the joint of the neck to the lizard
tail, ending in a broad green and white fan. The more man-like areas of
skin were pink while from the hip to legs to tail it was a curious blend
of greens and blacks with specks of white. I did not know whether to be
amazed or amused.
“That is a Blusk,” Ao said. “It is not very aggressive, but watch out
for the pilyns. They are deadly.”
“Pilyns?” I asked.
For an answer Ao shouted at the Blusk, which immediately turned tail
(forgive me) and ran for the ocean. As it turned, several of the white
specs on its posterior shot into the air. Ao pulled me out of the line
of fire and let the specs pass.
They flew in a wide arc, circled, and headed back to the tail of the
Blusk, arriving just in time for the ride into the brine.
“They are parasites. If they get into your blood you will be dead in
. . .” and Ao snapped his fingers, an adequate gesture.
We marched, without further incident or Blusks, into the luxuriant
green forest of Furi. A forest of arrow-straight trees and regular brush
colored in greens and yellows and mottled browns. Nothing twisted or demented
as in the fantastic Mu' Derj of my first rebirth. A mile inland we emerged
before the rising alabaster walls of a mighty city. A city like Amata though
I immediately sensed not so rich in art and history as that great citadel
of the Val Ponada.
On three sides, her walls rose thirty kota high. Again as Amata, the
rock face of the mountains formed her rear. A park-like clearing of a hundred
yards fronted twelve-foot high wooden doors. The inscribed hieroglyphics
proclaimed it the province of the Sharn of A. Slowly those doors drew back
and a crowd of eager and curious men, women, and children poured forth.
They surrounded T'lu, dancing, their happy voices singing his praises.
Randak received some small amount of attention. M'ol, Granal and I were
ignored. Anxiously scouring the crowd, I saw a smaller, more dignified
group approaching through the throng of jubilant Agalans.
By mien, bearing and the fineness of his leathers, I recognized A, Dular
of Furi. At his side walked T'rk, the grizzled van of the Odanal, grinning
broad as an ocean sunset. And beside T'rk, she whose path I had followed
since the moment the fire cooled upon that death ravaged plain of the Mu'
rala. Olana, Princess of Jatora -- one dainty foot shod, the other bared.
An Agalan warrior high upon the thirty-foot balustrade above Furi blew
a series of long blasts on a great conk shell. T'lu embraced A, then T'rk,
then Olana. The Agalan people crowded close.
Randak took his turn, beaming, even M'ol and Granal, who looked a little
out of place and unsure of themselves in their heroes garments. Everyone
seemed swept-up in the joy and the festive mood, and when large gourds
of tup appeared, the joy turned to wild jubilation.
I got a great hug from T'rk, who grinned at me through a face marked
with fresh scars. Wherever he had been, whatever wild road had brought
him alive and whole to Furi, it had not been without trials.
For reasons difficult to understand, a sense of loneliness overwhelmed
me. Surrounded with joyous, laughing Jatorans, I wished that I could disappear,
a puff of smoke on a windy day.
Remaining inconspicuous in that crowd was impossible. Pressed by bodies
on all sides, seeking an avenue of release, I suddenly found myself face
to face with Olana. There I stood, naked and alone. I might as well have
been on Ias, the invisible moon world that supposedly hung forever over
Kal Har. It was awkward. I did not know what to say or do. Why did Ana
give us hands, if one can not figure out what to do with them?
Olana spoke first. One word that told me everything there was to know
about the nature and heart of this beautiful woman.
I dropped my eyes and shook my head. Her breasts heaved slightly. A
single tear forced itself grudgingly from her green eyes and rolled down
her graceful cheek. With an effort, she squared her slim shoulders. Her
back straightened as if shrugging some unseen weight.
“A Princess should not cry,” she said quietly.
I knew better. Saja deserved at least that one tear from the Dulara
Odanal. Later, in private, there would be more.
“You were very brave to come after me, again.”
Again! My poor heart leaped. What tiny kernels of hope desperation finds.
Casual words, spoken without forethought, but to me an outpouring of optimism.
“You risked much to show us the way. You are the brave one,” I answered
My eyes were at her feet, as was my heart. Awkwardly, I fumbled in my
harness. Olana's eyes widened. Those emerald crystals that had devoured
my heart and my soul opened and glowed. Ana help me for my weakness as
I handed her the waterlogged moccasin.
She took it from me and just gazed at it. Wondering, I am sure, at my
puppy-dog stupidity. My mouth opened, then closed, fearful of some idiotic
response. “Anyway, we, T'lu and the others, we did little enough. It was
really the Agala who rescued you.”
Olana looked at me for a long moment with a quizzical expression. “Don't
you know? Hasn't anyone told you?”
“Told me what?”
Another voice broke suddenly over my shoulder. “That it was I who rescued
the Dulara from Horas!”
I turned in disbelief to stare upon the youthful, smiling features of
Land of Syjal. “What! How . . . when . . .”
The young Syjalan warrior smiled merrily. “There will be time enough
for talk,” he said. “But not now, look about you Kdal. The Agala have call
for an Ialora, and reputation has it when the Agala dance all other troubles
Nor could my hardiest demands change Land’s mine. Dance now; talk later.
T’lu and Olana were safe in the bosom of the Odanal and that was all the
mattered, until the sun rose upon a new day and the stern tasks of war
came again to hand.
Land personally conducted the Dulara away. Further conversation, or
revelation impossible, my hands bound, I relented to the Ialora.
It took little time for word to spread from ocean to mountain, from
city to field. Throngs of excited and festive Agalans crowded the avenues
to celebrate the coming of the Dulara and Dulara of the Odanal. I rode
the festival wave of jubilant Agalans into the city until I could extricate
myself and find a shadowed corner in which to hide and watch.
Purveyors of very variety of food and drink -- especially the ever present
tup -- pushed wooden carts along the rutted dirt streets. Local musicians
stood before shops quickly drawn and shuttered. They played unknown songs
on unknown instruments, lovely and energetic melodies that urged the people
to dance, occasional pieces of rounded, carefully sized Tr'qual thrown
by the delirious populace their reward.
I knew little of fey, the monetary system of Jatora, other than the
look and relative values of denomination varied according to different
cultures. Nor was coinage the sole means of exchange. The barter system
lived and prospered on Jatora and, among the working classes, was often
preferred to momentary exchanges. A man could take pride in using his skills
to help a neighbor build a table in return for a loaf of bread or shank
of meat. Only in the trades, as in a Ram Ser, would coin be the preferred
the method of transaction.
Care banished, the upper and lower terraces of the city flowed with
life and happiness. A carnival atmosphere pervaded, still I knew better.
Across the Anor a madman lurked, a fanatic who fumed and plotted in lost
Yes, I knew better, and so brooded on the retribution I saw lurking
like a stalking tiger stealing upon a tethered lamb. Retribution, in the
form of a thousand Hisl on winged Qualo, clove through my thoughts, though
not the Agalans.
My worry strayed to the last great celebration I had witnessed, in the
caverns of the Odar when we thought Ksanj destroyed. I contemplated the
stark contrasts between those moments and these, the gaiety of the Odar
night and the tragic morning that followed.
Ksanj, the T’ala T’sol lived. Unless serious minds took immediate heed,
this reveling stronghold would be next to feel his wrathful hand.
A singing maiden happened by my lonely nook. She offered me food and
drink in a wooden bowl and cup. I politely declined. She shrugged and danced
on, leaving the victuals behind.
Engrossed in my morbid predictions for the Agala, I hardly noticed the
timid approach of a curious five-legged creature. It was, as I learned,
a Mu’t, I will call it a dog. It had the physical attributes of a beagle,
a squared nose and long, floppy ears at opposite sides of an elongated
face. Its legs were short, two behind and three in front. The third hind
leg gave the animal incredible dexterity, both in hunting and in combat.
It could turn on a . . . whatever passed for a dime on Jatora. My education
lacked to a fault.
This particular fellow regarded me candidly through large, oval eyes,
black with brown rings. A long red tongue lolled against the sides of his
mouth, exposing the hard canine points of its teeth.
My eyes drifted casually to the bowl of meat; I doubted it wanted tup.
I emerged from the shadows and, with some kind of perfunctory good boy,
pushed the bowl forward with my foot. Moving passed the happily eating
Mu't I stepped into the whirling party that filled the streets.
Superficially, I saw no sign of the ancient war touching Furi. The city
stood remarkably free of the ravage and wear that had so deeply touched
Amata. This I ascribed to both its rugged, sea-bound isolation and the
tactile state of truce between the Agala and Ksanj. A truce I suddenly
thought might explain their apparent indifference to the approaching storm
of vengeance. A position seriously compromised by their sheltering of T’lu
I walked the crowded streets immune to the merriment. I tried to fix
blame upon the lighthearted attitude of the Agala. But, in the depths of
heart, I knew the truth. My pain sat in a striking pair of emerald eyes
floating in a sea of raven hair. I loved the Dulara Olana. She rejected
me. I had little stomach for the Ialora.
So, in something less than a cheerful mood, I found A, with T'lu at
his side, seated at a great banquet table spread in the main square of
the city's market district.
“Katal!” A beamed to me, eyes lit with ample amounts of tup. “We were
all wondering where you were hiding!”
“I have been walking -– and thinking.” I responded.
“Thinking?” A replied with a wink at T’lu. “Pray tell, about what?”
“Ksanj,” I told him. “We should prepare. Ksanj will follow after the
“We know that,” A grumbled. “I have ships out, scouts ring the island
and wend their way all the back to the Val Ponada. And, as may or may not
know, we have Qualo upon Agar. The skies are watched.”
“I am sorry,” I said quickly, feeling every bit the Hoded I had acted.
“No need to apologize. You are new here and do not yet understand we
Agalan. Bn' harat teaches that a wise man enjoys each moment of pleasure
against the time that pleasure is taken away.”
Bn' harat, I learned, was the Agalan spiritual leader. Not a God, but
a Prophet and a warrior ruling and writing about the time of K’si and Vopar.
Ana was the only true deity upon Jatora. I held the opinion she did not
I had to admit A, in quoting Bn’ harat had a valid point. Still, fear
and worry for the ongoing safety of the Dulara Olana overrode all other
sentiments. I asked A would he at least grant me access to Horas, that
I might question the V’Koo on his motives and plans.
A demurred, saying “We shall deal with Horas in the morning. Your concerns
our noted, but tonight you will eat, you will dance, you will drink, and
you will sleep. Tomorrow, you may worry all you wish!”
I turned to T'lu, leaning upon his familiarity with the politics of
the Agala and the traditions of the Ialora. He greeted my entreaty with
a faint shrug. I knew he echoed my concerns, but I read patience in the
slight nod of his handsome mien. Then suddenly, he broke into a wide smile.
“Who is your friend?” He asked.
At first, I did comprehend his question. I followed his gaze and with
some chagrin discovered the doe-eyed Mu't seated beside, albeit lopsided
on his three hind legs, panting. His black nose dripped with tup. Obviously,
I had erred in original assumption. I seem to have made quite a few errant
assumptions since arriving in Furi.
“I seem to have a picked up a stray,” I said.
“Indeed,” T'lu responded.
For reasons I may never know, Mu't stayed at my side the rest of that
long boring evening –- and for the rest of my days upon Jatora. After T’lu,
the fiercest and best friend I had upon the magnificent planet.
“Does he have a name?” T'lu asked as the night and the dancing wore
on. Unconsciously, I wrapped my right hand around the M'ut's floppy ears,
delighting the fellow with a hardy scratch.
“Mut,” I said with a laugh. “Mut the Mu't.”
T'lu shook his head. Many were the times he failed to understand my
humor. Many were the times I failed to understand myself! Thus Mut and
I watched a procession of dancers and jugglers and tellers of tales, he
helping me nurse my anxiety whilst I satisfied his strange craving for
As for the Agala, what unusual sentiments they roused. Not one warrior
would speak of unpleasant things or looming danger. They rebuffed my trepidation
until I felt like a child afraid of the dark when all the adults knew better,
always quoting Bn’ harat and bidding me dance and be merry.
At last, unable to tolerate the monotony of the Ialora a moment longer,
I made my excuses and headed for the Kiej Dular, Mut loping at my side.
The Kiej Dular of Furi was a sterling edifice, but it paled before the
imposing Kiej Dular of Amata. Built to house and shelter, it stood lean
on embellishments, a symbol of the Spartan philosophy of life common to
all Agalan cities. Ao explained:
“The less you have that tyrants and Camtars want, the better!”
A guard announced us at the gate to a comely young woman who came to
escort my new best friend and I to a quiet and unadorned aren. A fresh
set of leathers lay upon a wooden bench. I had a nest of sleeping silks
and furs, and a warmly drawn bath -- the tub being a Tr'qual fixture that
looked too much like the Blusk for Mut's tastes. I laughed as he growled
and bristled and snapped at its ceramic legs. From the stone terrace abutting
my third story quarters I could see the glimmering coast, with its golden
sands turned black under the starless night and eclipsing shadows of the
While not as flamboyant as the Val Ponada, the Bl'an owned its own unique
glow. An amalgam of textures, as though Ana had taken the riotous flora
of the Mu' Derj and lacquered it upon the face of the rolling mountain,
most remarkable gleaming off the ocean. The Agalan's called the mirror-like
effect of the Bl'an on the Anor, Lo' fal. Weaves of colors like a maiden's
blush, spilling into the night air and sparkling in the nocturnal world
above Anor. I confess it was an aesthetic loveliness I would have found
more pleasing -- and more soothing -- without my troubled heart.
With a growl that startled poor old Mut, I decided to end this endless
day. Saving the bath for morning, I took A's advice and slept. The knowledge
that tomorrow would bring answers to the presence of T'rk and Land upon
Agar, and a chance to interrogate Horas, cradled me. Though, I am certain
I slept with furrowed brow. With Mut sprawled at my feet and a gentle rush
of wind from the ocean caressing my face, I slept in the emptiness that