Gazparidizik Rises

Gazpardizik Rises – 2005

Gazparidizik Rises combines the elements of political thriller, epic action, suspense, comic satire, and metaphysical contemplation to describe the defining conflict between two societies in collision. The Empire, which has endured for so many centuries, is facing crisis from without and from within. A primitive warlike tribe sends an army across the border and invades under a charismatic and capable young prince. In the capital, a growing cynicism about the ancient gods and the power block of the priests and the ruling oligarchy threatens to shake the political stability of the realm. Couched within this scene of military adventure and metropolitan intrigue is a main theme of the book which is the conflict between intellectual inquiry and the acceptance by faith.

Gazpardizik Rises


John Leahy

Works by John Leahy


Bob at the Bar (1986)

The Convention of the Gods (1986)

The Bull before the Game (1988)


Toxikleen, Inc. (1994)

Amor (2003)

“Truth lives all around me, but it’s just beyond my grasp.”

– Country Joe McDonald (from Bass Strings)

Chapter 1 The Watchtower

The grizzled sergeant shuffled up the worn and rounded stone steps to the watchtower turret. He saw the guard on duty slumped against the parapet and shook his head with disgust. He came up behind the guard and cleared his throat loudly. The guard jerked upright and whirled around with a startled expression.

“Relax, you foolish goat.” The sergeant exhaled a pungent stench of stale wine and the guard winced. “You can sleep in comfort down in the barracks now. Your turn on duty is done.”

“I wasn’t sleeping!” snarled the guard defensively. “I was watching some elk on the hill over there.”

“Yeah, the elk again.”

The old sergeant sniffed sarcastically and spat a viscous ball of phlegm over the parapet edge. He and the guard leaned over the wall and watched its wobbly descent into a bush 70 feet below. Both smiled with satisfaction when two crows squawked and flew out of the bush in great agitation. The sergeant leaned his forearms on the parapet and gazed languidly at the dawn that was slowly reaching its fingers of pale light over the rolling hills. A thin gauze of mist floated effervescently from the tree tops and open meadows that spread out like a vast carpet below them to the hazy horizon. A patchwork pattern interspersed dark green evergreens with light green leaves on trees that had still been bare two weeks earlier. Here and there white blossoms dotted the blanket of green. The sergeant picked his knobby nose contentedly. The guard shivered.

“Bah! What difference would it make if we did sleep up here anyway?” the guard grumbled. “There hasn’t been a sign of marauders on this border these last twenty years since we crunched those beetles from Gazpardizik at the Battle of Tankro River.”

He drew his dagger from his belt and tried unsuccessfully to scratch the small of his back with the tip through his thick leather jerkin.

The sergeant continued staring out over the placid landscape. “You’d better hope it stays quiet, youngster. I was at the Battle of Tankro River. It was no trip to a market day fair. We’re all lucky we don’t have to bow down to Gazpardizik masters and their brutish gods. We were hard pressed on our right with our left and center smashed to bits. It was the great General Hologath himself who rallied the remnants of his panicked lance cavalry. He brought them two miles back to the battle field and drove them into the Gazpardizik rear with us infantry just hanging on with our backs to the river. Those foul Gazpardizik bastards were already starting to celebrate their victory when Hologath caught them by surprise and cut them to pieces. Skeletons of fleeing Gazpardizik marauders still lie scattered with their cloven skulls and smashed shields for more than fifty miles from the banks of Tankro River. Maybe even farther than that, but no civilized men venture further now. No one would dare. Even our patrols don’t go that far on that side of the river any more. I should know. I went on those patrols into the waste lands for ten years before they sent me up here to this cursed tower of desolation. I’ll probably die of old age up here and even you will grow gray here. Everyone’s forgotten us here. Our beloved Shashbadeth and the ruling oligarchy slumber peacefully while we faithfully watch these remote hills change from green to brown to white and then to green again. You’ll never even know the clash of steel against steel in anger. Even those raging beasts in Gazpardizik have forgotten about this place.”

The guard had been vigorously rubbing his back against the wall and not attending closely to the musings of the old sergeant. However, at the perceived slight against his martial capabilities, he perked up with umbrage.

“I served for three years in the west against the Notofo.” he declared fiercely. “I was there with the 9th Army when we put down the rebellion. We cracked a lot of heads.” He picked at the mortar between two stones of the parapet with his dagger.

The old sergeant snorted. “The Notofo! Those farting imbeciles! They kill you with their filthy stench.”

“They are tough fighters in spite of their disgusting habits.” The guard continued to pick at the mortar. “I saw one of their festivals after the rebellion was put down and many of their men had joined us in the 9th Army. They put up a big thatch roof to protect them from the rain, but they left the walls open. Inside, they built hundreds of wooden benches and boiled their weird swamp roots in a huge copper cauldron…”

“Hark! What is that?” The sergeant had been gazing absently at the hills with half closed eyes, but now he shot his arm out and pointed excitedly.

The guard craned his neck in the direction the sergeant pointed. “Where?”

“There, you worthless oaf! In that second meadow. It just came out from the trees at the far end.” A note of apprehension rang in his gravelly voice.

“Ah, beyond that old barn! How many are there?”

“I only see one. Where’s the glass?” The sergeant looked around in confusion.

The guard straightened up with nervous embarrassment. “It’s downstairs in the guard room.”

“Well go get it!” roared the sergeant. “I’ll have you whipped for negligence on duty.”

The guard clattered down the stone steps and was back panting with a simple telescope a minute later. The sergeant had been anxiously following the slow progress across the open meadow and he snatched the glass and trained it on the approaching man. For a man it was. The sergeant could now clearly make out the Shashbadeth style tunic about half a mile away and what seemed to be a broken spear shaft in one hand.

“He’s stopped. Now he’s sitting down. By the blood of the gods, what is he doing? Quick, sound the alarm for unidentified party approaching.” the sergeant ordered.

The guard grabbed a carved leg bone of an elk and gave a strong stroke to the large, flat copper gong hanging suspended above the doorway to the stairs. The sergeant jumped and cursed and then refocused on the stranger. The guard gave three strokes on the gong and then three sharp, shrill blasts on a reed hand whistle. An answering horn sounded from deep below in the courtyard of the stone fortress, announcing that the warning had been heard.

“Skip down to the guard room and report to the officer on duty. Tell them to send up more lookouts and couriers.”

Twenty minutes later, a squadron of lancers brought the lifeless body in through the great fortress gates slung across a saddle. The lancers laid his body on the ground in the courtyard and the officer on duty gazed down at the bloody tunic. The dead man had lost his helmet and had a gash across his head. Dried blood had also crusted around wounds in his chest and leg. The faded blue wool trousers with the scarlet piping along the seam showed that the man had once served in the legendary Northern Legion, possibly even at the Battle of Tankro River itself.

“He died just after we reached him by the stone barn ruins.” one of the lancers reported.

The officer on duty frowned and stared down at the body. “Did he say anything?”

The lancers looked uncomfortably at each other. “We’re not sure, sir.” the same lancer answered. “He tried to tell us something, but it wasn’t really clear and then he died.”

“Well?” demanded the officer impatiently.

The lancers paused nervously. One finally cleared his throat and said “We all agree that it sounded like “They are coming.””

Chapter 2 A Curious Encounter in the Capital

Far from the lonely isolation of the eastern frontier watchtower, Harentowith, the ancient imperial capital of Shashbadeth, bustled with its usual activity. Wars and coup d’états had swept back and forth across Shashbadeth for two thousand years, but the merchants never ceased their lively commerce and the religious oligarchy that ruled the land never relaxed its incessant intrigues and plots. Zeltogath, at this moment however, had other pressing business of a personal nature to attend to.

He wavered slightly and leaned for support against the wet stone wall, before summoning his discipline to regain his composure and stand upright once more. He stifled a wine laced burp and narrowed one eye as he appraised the inviting face of the woman. The flame from the smoky oil lamp in the doorway flickered, but by its dim light, and his even dimmer mind, he deduced that the woman swaying gently before him was quite stunning. He felt a fluttering twinge of excitement and the muscles of his belly constricted with the thrill of new adventure. The woman’s smile split into two and he blinked to merge the pair into a solitary feature again. He fingered his coin pouch hanging from his neck under his tunic.

“Ricto theas.” cooed the woman with a thick Gathangtingol accent. The foreign words, which meant “my love” were well known throughout Shashbadeth from a popular song written by a Gathangtingol bard long ago. She must be newly arrived from beyond the wild western border, he thought.

Zeltogath leaned to kiss her, but she stepped back lightly and he stumbled awkwardly into her startled arms. They clung to each other for a moment with surprised looks on their faces. Then Zeltogath blearily realized he had captured his quarry by sheer accident and his head rocked back with a chortle of loud laughter. The woman regarded him with a bemused but still suspicious look. Half of one ear had been sheared off in the Battle of Tagpashok, but otherwise his boyish smile and warrior’s body were not displeasing.

Zeltogath ran one arm around her neck and pressed her body into his and buried his nose into her black glossy hair. He breathed her fragrance for a luxurious moment. He hadn’t touched a woman during his long stint of duty beyond the borders and his inebriated lust gave way momentarily to a flood of gentle tenderness. He clutched the woman in a tight embrace and she didn’t resist, seeming to sense his changing mood. She slowly relaxed and pressed herself against Zeltogath’s chest. They rested together for a quiet moment and then Zeltogath abruptly lurched back and laughed with his back against the stone wall. He slid part way down the damp wall and the back of his wool tunic soaked up rivulets of rain water that were trickling down the mortar between the blocks of stone. The woman leaped to catch him before he landed in the puddle on the flagstones of the narrow street.

“Ricto theas?” she repeated, but this time as a question of genuine concern. She struggled with Zeltogath until he regained his balance with one arm around her shoulder. They took a few wobbly steps towards the door and Zeltogath just stopped moving. He hung on her shoulders propped up like a scarecrow. The woman sighed with exasperation. She slapped Zeltogath sharply on one arm, but he just grinned drunkenly with his eyes closed and nuzzled his nose into her fragrant neck.

A loud sneeze crackled through the soggy night air. The sneeze was followed by the stomping of heavy boots and a large warrior clattered around the street corner towards them. His head was thrown back to launch another volcanic sneeze and his eyes were clenched shut. He discharged explosively and rammed a massive shoulder into Zeltogath’s chest. The woman squawked with fright. Zeltogath flew backwards and landed in a small puddle of cold rain water. The large warrior stepped back in alarm. Zeltogath, jolted by his battle instincts into immediate alertness, leapt nimbly to his feet into a defensive posture. The slithering ring of steel sliding against scabbard peeled through the gentle patter of the rain drops. The woman shrank away against the stone wall in terror. Zeltogath and the hulking warrior faced each other tensely with swords drawn. Zeltogath’s eye glittered cold and fierce. The large warrior darted a swift glance at the woman and the hint of a comprehending grin began to twist his mouth under his bushy moustache.

“Sheathe your sword, soldier.” he said, his grin growing broader. “I think it’s time for you to exercise your short dagger in close engagement.” His muscles relaxed, but he remained ready to parry.

“Short is it, you great clod of damp earth. Do you mock my weapon? You will not be so big yourself when my sword reduces your size by half. You will see that Zeltogath does not permit effrontery even from a mountain sized dung heap like you.”

Zeltogath stepped back adroitly into a striking position and the large warrior responded with an agile maneuver to adopt an appropriate defensive stance. They faced each other with the tension of certain knowledge that a split second error could result in immediate death. It was a tension that both men were evidently familiar with since their motions were smooth and precise. The woman gasped and then held her breath in horror. Zeltogath’s blood pulsed evenly in his temple. He eyed his opponent keenly for any weakness. He lurched suddenly forward. The large warrior shifted his stance to block the blow, but it never came. Zeltogath crumpled to the wet flagstones at his feet, his sword still clutched tight in one hand. The large warrior gaped down in astonishment at the prostrate figure and sheathed his sword.

“Is this then the famous fighter Zeltogath, son of General Hologath?”

He looked at the woman for a reply but she didn’t seem to understand. She knelt down and took Zeltogath’s head in her hands. Zeltogath snored peacefully.

Chapter 3 The Councilor

Councilor Hadfar blew his large lumpy nose into an elegant silk handkerchief and stuffed it under his velvet robe. The green robe had also been elegant in its day and had even been clean earlier in the month, but consecutive days of usage without the benefit of soap and hot water had left a film of grime on the frayed fringes and a sharp, pungent odor that overwhelmed the senses within his proximity. His servants bustled about, maintaining the maximum distance permitted by the protocol of their service.

“Well?” he snapped at the messenger that had been let into his office chamber. “What did Lady Hastis say?”

The messenger sniffed reflexively and stopped by the door.

“Master, she will not be able to come.”

Hadfar’s bulbous nose reddened with anger. “Why not? What did you say to her, you idiot? Did you give her my invitation exactly as I told you?”

“Yes, Master. Precisely as you told me. She gave no reason.”

Hadfar turned to the window and raised his hand as if to strike an angry blow at the marble bust of Telgeslip, the god of old age, but then thought better of it. He sighed. “You may go. Thank you for your service.”

Hadfar gently stroked the head of the statue.

“Even though I have only forty years of age, sometimes I think I am ready to follow your guiding lamp into the darkness, along with all the other worn out old men.” he mused, looking into the blank eyes of the god.

The door opened admitting a well dressed, portly man of middle age. The four white velvet stripes on his right shoulder indicated a high rank in the administration of the ruling oligarchy.

“Ah, Gomthatdrin, my dear friend.” Hadfar beamed a welcoming smile and raised his arms to embrace his visitor, thus unleashing a fresh wave of stale aroma that lingered on the air currents of the chamber. Gomthatdrin disengaged himself as soon as politely possible.

“Shall we take a turn in the garden? There is more sunlight and fewer ears.” Hadfar took Gomthatdrin by the arm and guided him out to the inner courtyard garden.

“And fresher air, by the grace of the gods!” thought Gomthatdrin to himself.

“Will you take some wine? I have an interesting barrel that was sent to me by the governor of Notofo. The vineyards there are still fairly young, but the soil and the sun are well suited for certain vineyards. Of course, it would never have occurred to those savages to make wine. They are so in love with their vulgar root.”

Gomthatdrin laughed. “They prefer their dream dancing and…” He checked himself in mid sentence. “to a fine tasting and respectable goblet of wine.” Gomthatdrin had been about to refer to the Notofo’s legendary custom of loudly passing wind during their ritual trance, but he knew that Hadfar, despite his own personal irregularities, was greatly offended by flatulence.

They sipped their wine and strolled along a brick path. The pattern of the bricks swirled outwards from the center, like fronds growing out from a central stalk, in the style of the classical age of Imperial Shashbadeth that reached its height over a thousand years earlier. The shade of the trees opened up in a clearing with a small fountain in the middle. A marble statue of Sagevsal, the dice throwing god of destiny, stood in the center of the fountain. The fountain was dry however, like many of the fountains in Harentowith. The ancient aqueduct that had brought an abundant water supply into the city for centuries had fallen into disrepair over the last hundred years as frequent warfare drained the formerly prosperous resources of Shashbadeth.

“The wine is commendable.” said Gomthatdrin approvingly.

Hadfar smiled, ingratiated. A light breeze rustled through the leaves of the trees and Gomthatdrin casually maneuvered himself upwind. Hadfar’s expression suddenly changed to serious concern and he glanced quickly around to assure himself of their absolute privacy.

“So, the venerable Empire of Shashbadeth has decayed to the point where it is commonplace to see our religion openly debated and the gods challenged.”

Gomthatdrin stared into his cup. “Never before within our borders would even those instructors at that viper’s nest, the College of Engineering, have dared to dispute the doctrine of the Council. For two thousand years the people of Shashbadeth have faithfully lived according to the dice throws of Sagevsal, and followed the lantern of Telgeslip into the darkness of death. The Council ruled supreme under the grace of the gods and its power was never threatened. Now, as the Council continues to struggle to maintain our borders from enemies abroad, a new danger arises from within.”

Hadfar nodded in agreement. “Although I am amazed that these traitorous fools can proclaim to believe such absurdities, yet their numbers multiply rapidly. We must tighten our grip.”

“My men are listening and my secretary is preparing a list. I think you will find it interesting.”

Hadfar smiled with satisfaction. “Excellent. I know the Council can always rely on your diligence.” He brooded for a moment. “Fowgis still remains beyond our reach, I’m afraid.”

“Fowgis is elusive. He never directly says anything that would have him condemned by the Council. He won’t say that he doesn’t believe in the gods, but he asks questions and leads you to sacrilegious conclusions.”

Hadfar gazed into the dry fountain. “And even if Fowgis were to be indiscrete, I doubt the Council would take action. He is powerful and commands a strong army that swears allegiance to him alone and not to the Council. Shashbadeth would be reluctant to lose his support.” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “But perhaps there are other ways of muting Fowgis without losing his army?”

Gomthatdrin smiled. “I am studying alternative plans of action. It is difficult, however.” he added quickly. “As you know, he is a superb swordsman and is always surrounded by a very loyal body guard. Last year he cut a paid assassin in half on his way home from the theater. The year before, he killed the son of a minister who became enraged by the impious insinuations of Fowgis’ rhetorical queries and rashly drew his sword. Fowgis cut him down as if he were a mere school boy and then concluded his discussion.”

They sipped their wine uneasily. Gomthatdrin clucked mirthlessly. “Actually, I passed Fowgis on my way here. He was with a man that I am pretty sure was Zeltogath, the son of General Hologath. They were coming out of the house of Lady Hastis.”

Hadfar stiffened.

Chapter 4 Night in the Abandoned Lands

The glow of the campfire reflected off the drops of perspiration beading across Palriken’s forehead as he focused intently on the five leather balls he was juggling. Shadows pranced on the opposite side of the fire where the acrobats practiced their routine. A soft chord strummed from a four stringed tapok. A woman’s laughter pealed from the darkness.

A young woman came up softly behind Palriken and silently watched his juggling. All of a sudden, she reached out over his shoulder and snatched a ball from mid air. Palriken gave a slight start and two of the balls fell to the ground. He glanced over his shoulder at the woman’s smiling face and grumbled under his breath. One of the balls rolled into the glowing coals and he sprang forward to retrieve it. He cursed and sucked a fingertip that had gotten too close to the red coals. The woman giggled and sat down facing him. Palriken regarded her out of the corners of his eyes.

“So Tosterich, you have burnt me again, but this time only my fingers and not my heart.” Palriken almost purred the words with a faint crease of a smile twitching his cheeks.

The woman looked at him directly with mirth still twinkling in her eye. “Your heart, my Lord Palriken? I was unaware that your body contained such a thing.”

Tosterich cackled in the rough street accent of Harentowith’s poorer underbelly. Her pretty face split in a grin that showed rotted spikes of front teeth. Palriken chuckled and gently laid his hand on the woman’s ankle. She pulled her foot back quickly.

“Remember our agreement. And remember the price on your head that binds it.” she said softly. There was no hostility or reproach in her voice, but her smile was gone.

Palriken nodded and looked into the fire. Tosterich gazed at him. He was well past thirty, but his athletic bearing radiated physical prowess. He wore a sleeveless tunic despite the cool spring evening and the shadows from the shimmering firelight highlighted the curves of his muscular arms.

“Palriken, the men are worried, you know. Maybe they don’t want to tell you, but they grumble all the time. They say the soldiers’ pay at the fortress isn’t worth the danger. And there are only eight of us.”

Palriken broke a stick and shoved it into the fire. “This old road goes beyond the protection of the Shashbadeth watchtowers, but it comes down from the high hills through the river valley and swings back to the frontier gates at Fortress Erpor in four days march. It saves at least a week of wandering around on the new road farther west through those twisted hills. Patrols from Erpor come through just often enough to keep the road passable, but nobody else ever comes to this abandoned land. I spent time on patrols here when I was still just an Imperial officer before my inheritance and promotion. There is no danger. And just remember that the soldiers have been stationed at the fortress without entertainment or women for over a year. In less than a week, we can turn a handsome profit and the grumbling will stop. Just the barrels of apple brandy alone will let all of us live comfortably for quite a while. Not to mention the theater every night and…” he paused and patted her knee. “our other profitable resources.”

Tosterich looked back archly at him. “All the same…”

Tosterich’s words were cut off sharply as a dark figure emerged silently from the blackness at the edge of the campfire’s circle of flickering light. Palriken leaped to his feet and grabbed a nearby stone. Tosterich gasped with fright. The dark figure raised both hands to show that they were empty.

“Peace, men of Shashbadeth. I am one of your people.”

The man stepped into the light and Palriken could see that he was dressed in a Shashbadeth style tunic that was well worn with heavy work and hard travel. The other men of Palriken’s little troupe quickly gathered around clutching any weapons that had been near at hand. The three women peered over their shoulders from behind them at the stranger.

“I saw your firelight and came quietly to investigate. I was relieved to hear you speak in Shashbeth and find out you were neither bandits nor more of those cursed Gazpardizik raiders. I have a companion in the trees. May we come forth and join you at your fire?”

“You are welcome to join us if you are indeed subjects of the Empire and come in peace.”

Palriken spoke politely and formally. He gestured to the campfire with one hand, but still held the rock behind his back in the other. The stranger whistled and a second man came quietly out of the darkness into the ring of light. He, like his partner, showed the grime of rigorous travel. Both men carried strung bows across their backs and long straight daggers in their belts. The men sat down by the fire and Palriken’s troupe sat warily down also and regarded them with a tense curiosity. Palriken let the rock slip quietly from his hand.

“We did not expect to find travelers on this side of the frontier.” the stranger began. He paused and grimaced as if his story was not a pleasant one. “We were on a mining expedition to the Dolawesu Hills, some seventy miles east of the Fortress Erpor. Two years ago we reopened the Hothporfolshof Silver Mine that had lain abandoned for a hundred years. During the centuries when Shashbadeth power extended to the Olgofor Mountains, many mines in that region supplied the Empire with great wealth. We were getting ready to send our first shipment of silver back to Shashbadeth.” He sighed. “It is still a rich mine.”

The man’s companion cleared his throat nervously. “Ah, it doesn’t matter any more.” the first man went on. “There is no more need for secrecy. Nobody will go back there now. A Gazpardizik raiding party came.” He paused. Both men stared glumly into the fire. “They wiped us out. There were eighteen of us. All dead. Except us. We were out hunting when they came. We could hear them cheering in their ugly Gazpardizik tongue as we returned. We watched them from the woods. There were more than fifty of them. They had horses.” The man’s words came out haltingly. “Now those Gazpardizik villains will get all the silver.”

Palriken stirred uneasily at this news. The members of his troupe stared with horror at the strangers and a low disturbed murmur rolled like a wave through them.

“When did this happen?” asked Palriken.

The strangers looked at each other. “Four, no, five days ago.” The first man answered. The other nodded his head in agreement. “We watched them until it grew dark and then we decided to escape. We came along the road from the east that joins this one about ten miles back, doing our best to leave no trail. We kept a lookout for horsemen, but we saw no one. We don’t know what the Gazpardizik raiders did or where they went next. Our only hope was to get to the Fortress Erpor.”

Palriken nodded. He could feel the eyes of his troupe trained on him.

“We are headed to the Fortress Erpor ourselves, where we hoped to conduct some business. We can not leave the road because of our heavy wagons, but maybe we can all travel together and find greater strength in numbers.”

The stranger scratched his unshaven chin. “I think there is greater safety in speed. I don’t know how much you value your wagons, but you may want to consider that they slow you down and leave you stuck on the open road. In fact, I don’t intend to spend even the night here with you. We have eaten very little the past few days and I wanted to beg your hospitality for some food and then continue on further tonight. I won’t feel safe until we reach the great gates at Erpor.”

The murmur ran through Palriken’s troupe again with heightened anxiety. Exclamations of dismay mingled with muttered debates. Palriken raised his voice above the murmur.

“Tosterich, give these men some bread and cheese and dried meat, or some of the roasted rabbit if any is left. And give them some wine also.” He looked back at the strangers. “I dare say you need a cup of wine.”

The first man nodded grimly. “We are grateful for your kindness.” His partner leaned back and closed his eyes.

When the food was served, the two men ate ravenously and then fell asleep where they sat. Palriken’s troupe gathered around him with consternation evident on every face. The elder of the two acrobats, Dalsef, spoke for the group.
“Lord Palriken, we have traveled with you and enjoyed bountiful profits these last two years since Councilor Hadfar convinced the Council of the Oligarchy to demand your exile. We were even confident that your latest plan to bring brandy and entertainment to the isolated frontier garrisons would make the rest of us wealthier than we ever could have hoped to be without you. We have suffered storms, cold, thirst, bandits in the Northern Province, and even the plague that took my young nephew, who has taken an early departure from our lives and already gone to follow the lantern of Telgeslip into the dark realm of death. But now…”

Palriken had been biting his tongue and waiting and now broke in impatiently. “Dalsef, what would you have us do? Think of our options. I would not go back if the Gazpardizik raiders are coming from that direction. That means we go forward on to the Fortress Erpor. And while we should make all possible speed, I am not ready to abandon a fortune by leaving the wagons and our valuable merchandise hidden in the woods here. Let us sleep tonight and depart at the first light of day. If we push hard, we can probably reach the safety of the fortress before the end of the third day.”

He looked around at the discontented faces. There seemed to be no better alternative. The fire was put out and the troupe turned in for as much sleep as strained nerves would allow them before daybreak. When Palriken did awake to the first streak of pale crimson in the eastern sky, he discovered that the strangers had vanished during the night.

Chapter 5 Duel in the Tavern

“She is more than beautiful. She is elegance and grace dressed as woman.”

“Don’t lose yourself in romantic dreams, Zeltogath.” Pithimiantok, the wizened and diminutive librarian chided. “Besides,” he held out his cup for the tavern keeper to refill. “She has never had a lover so don’t be too hopeful.”

“That is not true.” exclaimed Fowgis, quickly draining his cup and holding it out to the tavern keeper’s jug. “I’m surprised at you, Pithimiantok. As keeper of the Imperial archives I would expect you to be better informed. Lady Hastis is more discrete than chaste. Not that she is liberal in dispensing her affections, but she certainly has had lovers. I was not one of them alas, although not for lack of interest on my part, but Haliparn was and Genthorus before him.”

“Genthorus!” Zeltogath lurched forward across the rough wooden table with a look of distaste and splashed wine on the sleeve of Pithimiantok’s velvet cloak. “That rooster! What could she see in him to love? To hear him talk you would think he won the Battle of Tagpashok by himself. I know for a fact that he never left his post guarding the baggage train. The surgeon that stitched my ear wound reported him anxiously watching the progress of battle with his horse constantly at hand in case of urgent need.”

Zeltogath gulped a mouthful of wine in agitation and ignored the bubbling protests of the tiny librarian at his side. The veins in his neck bulged as he pondered the undeserving qualities of Count Genthorus.

Fowgis leaned back and watched Zeltogath’s discomfiture with narrowed eyes. “More important for her, you would think he wrote every new clever notion about philosophy. That is of far greater interest to her, my heroic friend, than your battle stories. In the end though, she too saw him as a puffed up humbug and turned her amorous attention to Haliparn.”

“Another posturing fool!” Pithimiantok said scornfully. “He parrots the discourse of current thinkers as if it were his own, without even the meanest notion of the underlying substance. And such an ugly, rat-faced creature! Why does such a lovely woman like Lady Hastis waste herself on such poor fare when men more worthy of her mettle abound? She would be infinitely more pleased with any of us than those dull oafs.”

Zeltogath stifled a laugh. Fowgis sniggered aloud. Pithimiantok clenched his jaw and glared at his amused companions. Fowgis clapped a hand on his shoulder.

“Perhaps, Pithimiantok, you have hidden merit that has escaped our notice, but which Lady Hastis will appreciate.” Zeltogath and Fowgis laughed heartily. Pithimiantok ruefully searched for a sharp retort, but finally took consolation in his wine cup.

For Zeltogath however, the hilarity of the moment was short lived. He frowned pensively. “What is all this rubbish about philosophy?” he asked peevishly. “What good is all that to a woman? Or even a man, most of the time? All this talking and thinking, it gets you nothing. You are what you are whether you think about it or not. A beautiful woman shouldn’t waste her time with such stuff.”

Pithimiantok gasped in incredulity. Fowgis regarded his friend coolly. “Zeltogath, you are ever such a dear dullard.” He began laboriously as if giving instructions to a particularly dull-witted potato. “Obviously you save your most fruitful mental prowess for flanking maneuvers calculated to eviscerate your unfortunate opponent in war. Apart from that, one would deduce that the elegant, though now somewhat disfigured, head on your shoulders had no function other than to operate as entry port for grilled mutton and chilled wine.”

Pithimiantok gave a high piercing twitter. “Zeltogath, you talk like an even greater fool than either of those idiots, Genthorus and Haliparn.”

Pithimiantok thumped the table with his small knuckle as he cackled with laughter. Zeltogath glowered at him, then pushed himself up off his bench and stalked unsteadily out to the back courtyard of the tavern. He was relieving himself serenely behind a bush when Fowgis appeared at his side and joined him in anointing the shrubbery with kidney filtered wine.

“What is it about philosophy that interests Hastis so much?” asked Zeltogath, as he noisily splashed the leaves at his feet.

“She, like many others, questions the wisdom of following a religion that seems to have, as its strongest merit of credibility, the fact that it has been repeated by ignorant men since the ancient times of Shashbadeth. She dares to raise the question that discomforts the uneasy ruling Oligarchy. She casts doubt on the certainties that founded an empire.” Fowgis rattled off languidly with an effort disproportionate to that which was seemingly required to aim his apparatus in the desired direction.

Zeltogath stared straight ahead into the branches. “You mean to say she doesn’t believe in the true gods of Shashbadeth?”

“Oh, you put it so exquisitely.”

Fowgis waggled his tentacle and restored it to its accustomed cargo space. The two men sauntered slowly back through the tavern court yard past the buried urns of wine. The tavern keeper’s daughter, a timid sixteen year old with buck teeth and vivid blotches of pimples, was reaching the long pole of a dipper down into an urn of red wine and filling up a ceramic pitcher. Zeltogath pinched her buttock as he walked by and she gave a start without spilling a drop of wine.

“Don’t forget to bring a pitcher for us.” Zeltogath teased her.

The girl smiled brightly. Zeltogath chuckled and then stopped suddenly and grasped Fowgis by the arm. Fowgis gazed into Zeltogath’s earnest face. Zeltogath seemed to be wrestling with a concept of challenging enormity.

“What do you think about all that, Fowgis? You don’t question the ancient Shashbadeth gods, do you? I know you like to think and prattle like a bird on a branch in the sun when you’re in the midst of all those fancy people who spend their time reading scrolls and books. But you’re a man of good sense and you’re a master swordsman.”

“I appreciate your compliment on my intelligence, by way of extolling my ability with the saber and rapier, but I hope I will some day be capable of convincing your stolid and resolute brain that thinking does not necessarily compromise good sense. In between the occasional wars to protect the Empire’s borders, the administrative and judicial obligations in my own independent, but always closely affiliated with Imperial purposes, realm, and hearty carousing here in Harentowith with such eminent citizens such as yourself,” Fowgis bowed with an ironic smile and deftly snatched a small wine pitcher from a loaded tray as the tavern keeper’s daughter ducked quickly past them with a vigilant glance at Zeltogath from the corner of her eye. “I actually manage to squeeze in a not inconsiderable amount of time in which to devote myself luxuriously to nothing but pure contemplation of the abstract concepts of the universe, punctuated and spiced by discussion with the great scholars of the Empire, as well as vast quantities of time reading in my very amply stocked library, which you really ought to visit sometime, my friend.”

They pushed back into the tavern room. A group of officers were drinking and singing old marching songs at a long table in one corner. General Kusi sat at the head of the table and was waving a dagger to direct the chorus. Fowgis nodded his head politely in his direction. General Kusi’s large red face beamed back at him with tiny bright eyes peering out from behind puffy cheeks. Zeltogath was absorbed and took no notice of the din around him. He rejoined Pithimiantok with a distracted air while Fowgis exchanged words of jocular good humor with the men of his body guard who were taking refreshment in the front courtyard. Zeltogath’s forehead was still creased with the effort of intense concentration and he paid no heed to Pithimiantok who was chirruping about how long it had taken them to go out and pee and inquiring as to whether they had gotten lost or become distracted by each other’s equipment. Fowgis sat down and Zeltogath leaned across the table with his eye cocked at him.

“It’s true what they say. You do not believe in the gods.”

Fowgis leaned towards him so that the two men were almost face to face. “I enjoy intelligent discussion, rational contemplation, and logical inquiry.”

Pithimiantok fidgeted nervously and glanced around the room. The singers at General Kusi’s table were boisterously applying their slurred voices to another Shashbadeth military anthem.

“Think about it seriously for a moment, Zeltogath. Do you really believe that Telgeslip is waiting patiently for you and every other dying man in Shashbadeth to show you and all the other dead the way into the darkness? He would be quite a busy god, don’t you think?  Does he keep a list so he can know who to expect and when? Does he keep you waiting for a pitcher of wine like this tavern keeper on a busy night? Does he have assistants or lieutenants that help or does he take whole groups of limping Shashbadeth ghosts off at once? What happens if his lantern goes out? Does he get lost himself or does he know the way around death’s darkness so he can feel his way back? Use your head, Zeltogath. Are those not just the old stories told by ancient men since our earliest times to explain the mysteries of the world? They didn’t know anything more than we do now. In fact, they knew much less. Look at the old buildings. They didn’t even understand the architectural concept of the arch. Yet, we believe them because the Oligarchy tells us to. And the Oligarchy doesn’t like dissension. You recall that Lord Palriken was exiled for his heretical talk several years ago?”

“I remember hearing about it when I was on the frontier. I never met him. He was supposed to be an important commander at one time. I never thought much more about it than that another ambitious loud mouth talked too much.”

“I didn’t know him, but I was introduced to him once at the Imperial Theater.”

“Lord Palriken was a great patron of the theater.” Pithimiantok added in almost a stage whisper. He tensed reflexively and looked to each side before continuing. “I saw him quite often. Ironically, he particularly loved the old plays about the gods. Afterwards he would always drink in the taverns with his friends. I believe some of them taught at the College of Engineering.” Pithimiantok shook his head disapprovingly. “He was an intelligent man, but stubborn. And indiscrete. He was too incautious, as if he thought nothing could ever happen to him. We should be careful too.”

“But what did he say? Was he a traitor?” Zeltogath pursued his theme tenaciously.

“He defended the frontiers of the Empire with his life and later was exiled by the Oligarchy for publicly asking too many awkward questions that were considered destabilizing for the Imperial government. You tell me if he was a traitor.” answered Fowgis in measured tones.

Zeltogath considered these words with his jaw clenched from the mental effort. He looked up and cocked his head to one side. “According to you, ancient men made religion to explain the mysteries of the world, but if that is so, what about the animals? What kind of gods do they have? Surely they can’t understand the world any more than we can. The world must be full of mysteries for them. So they must have even more gods.”

Fowgis laughed lightheartedly. Even Pithimiantok gave a nervous wheeze of amusement. “Zeltogath, you astound me.” said Fowgis. “There is ever such a fine line dividing profundity and imbecility. For all I know the flies on the wall are the sole possessors of truth and knowledge and divinity.”

Zeltogath pondered for a moment. “And does Lady Hastis say traitorous things also? Will she be exiled too?”

“All must take great care with speech.” said Fowgis.

A line of sweat had broken out on Pithimiantok’s forehead and he hastily reached for his cup with a noticeable quiver in his hand. Further commotion issued from General Kusi’s table as he stood up and loudly scraped his bench legs against the stone floor. He raised his cup and boisterously proclaimed a toast to the entire room.

“To the glory of the gods and death to all those clever, traitorous swine with their treacherous debates on our revered religion of Shashbadeth. Long live the Empire and the gods of the Empire!”

The officers at his table rose in unison and raised their cups. Other revelers in the room slowly got to their feet also as their interrupted conversations or solitary musings were penetrated by General Kusi’s booming voice. The entire room was standing except for three drunks who were snoring with their heads on the tables. An old dog with tattered ears and mangy fur was blithely humping the leg of one of the sleeping drunks at a table next to General Kusi. Pithimiantok nervously scrambled to his feet. Zeltogath was still staring intently at Fowgis, completely oblivious to the clamor and the meaningful silence that ensued. Fowgis disregarded General Kusi and gazed back at Zeltogath with an ironic and blasé smile. All eyes in the room focused on Zeltogath and Fowgis.

General Kusi’s red face beamed comradely sentiment at them. “Gentlemen, will you not drink to the Shashbadeth gods and death to the traitors of Shashbadeth who openly cast doubt on our Imperial religion?” He paused with his cup extended to them, waiting for them to become aware of his patriotic toast and enthusiastically accompany him.

“Is a man who leads his soldiers in combat against the enemies of Shashbadeth a traitor?” asked Fowgis indolently.

General Kusi was visibly surprised by the response to his toast but his comradely smile remained unperturbed. “Of course not. That is the duty of every one of us. Are we not soldiers? But come my friend, won’t you join us in my toast?” General Kusi eagerly proffered his cup again in Fowgis’ direction.

“Would it follow then that the same man who patriotically leads his troops in battle against the enemies of Shashbadeth should be able to think in his own mind and discuss respectfully in the street the questions of basic nature without the fear and shame of being labeled “traitor”?

Voices murmured through the room. Pithimiantok frantically gestured at Fowgis who took a listless sip of wine. Zeltogath looked quickly around the room trying to gauge the nature of the evidently menacing situation that was rapidly developing. General Kusi’s mouth dropped in disbelief. His puffy face flushed a brighter scarlet and a mean look of suspicion gleamed in his beady eyes.

“But surely sir, you are not a traitor against the Empire?”

“I have fought in bloody battles since I was fifteen years old for the security and safety of Shashbadeth. Nobody can call me traitor. And nobody, not even a wine saturated general, can tell me which toasts to drink.”

General Kusi’s face puffed swollen and his eyes bulged with anger. “Sir, you can not tell me that you sympathize with those insolent cow turds at the College of Engineering! They should stick to their bridge building theories. If they were in my army I would execute every damn one of them for insubordination!”

“Dear me.” sniffed Fowgis. “It appears you are afraid those foolish engineers might actually be right.”

“How so, Sir?” snapped General Kusi, slamming his cup down and splashing wine on the wooden table.

“Ah, let’s see…” mused Fowgis. The entire room looked on with a mixture of horror and fascination at the shocking and blasphemous scene playing out in front of them. Zeltogath looked back and forth tensely between the furious general and his unruffled friend. Fowgis pointed one finger in the air and, with a smile twitching the corner of his mouth, recited a verse.

“Whip the sheep and bind them down

With webs from lips of old men spun.

The rope of words that truth doth shield

Our wits do cloud with lies concealed.”

“What’s that?” roared the general. “Lies, do you say? Come sir, express yourself clearly.”

Fowgis grinned with a slight sneer. “The dried leaf gives no thought to its flight as the wind blows it from the oak tree.”

General Kusi’s eyes narrowed and he barked a sarcastic laugh. “Of course leaves have no thoughts. They are like soldiers.”

Fowgis smiled. “Or even like generals.”

“Sir, you are disgraceful. I will teach you respect, by the blood of the gods!”

General Kusi heaved himself forward around his table. A glint of silver flashed in the lamplight as he whipped out his cavalry saber. All the occupants of the tavern except Zeltogath edged back to the walls. Zeltogath watched from his seat with his mouth gaping open. Fowgis rose calmly and pushed his cape back to reveal the hilt of the épée at his belt. He slithered it out from its scabbard and pointed it deliberately at the floor in the direction of General Kusi. The general took note of the weapon without moving his eyes. He knew that Fowgis’ épée was the superior weapon if used by a skillful combatant. The speed and blade length of its direct thrust could easily beat the slashing arc of a saber blade. Even though the épée, as a thrusting weapon, didn’t have the armor penetrating ability that would make it useful on the battlefield, it had become popular, since its development by sword makers in the far western provinces, as a weapon of defense against lightly armed bandits in the crime ridden streets of Harentowith and other large cities in the Empire. Those men rich enough to afford the expense of a second skillfully forged weapon plus the extensive amount of practice time required to master the deadly instrument, were more and more often electing to wear the long, straight blades around town in addition to the traditional dagger. But as General Kusi confidently reminded himself, it was the skill of the wielder that would yield the result, not the weapon by itself, and he as a veteran of many a cavalry charge would show his worth to this pompous duck.

General Kusi set his feet and drew back his saber to be ready to slash downwards and across his opponent’s body. Fowgis adopted his stance with a graceful ease and pointed the tip of his blade towards General Kusi’s chest. The general grimly noted the casual perfection of coordination in Fowgis’ movements and suddenly suspected that his opponent might just be one of those rare bearers of fancy weapons that really knew how to use them. He quickly put the unsettling thought out of his mind and replaced it with the faith that he would certainly vanquish his opponent by his own warrior superiority. He shrieked an intense yell of attack and sliced the air with his blade. His yell faded instantly into a bubbling gurgle. Fowgis withdrew his épée from General Kusi’s throat.

Chapter 6 The Ruins

Palriken stopped and listened. A strange creaking was coming out of the fog from somewhere in front of him. He looked down the lonely road but couldn’t see anything moving except the wisps of fog that whirled at the edge of the impenetrable gray wall a short distance from him on every side. He heard the creaking again and then silence. He waited for several tense minutes and then moved cautiously on. A shape began to loom out of the mist at the side of the road about 30 yards in front of him. His horse twitched her ears nervously. He shielded his eyes from the light drizzle with one hand and peered at the dark shape. A puff of breeze parted the mist for a brief moment and Palriken saw with relief that the dark shape was the tumbled remains of an old stone farm house. He clopped slowly past and gazed at the mossy stone walls. The tiled roof had partly caved in and a slender tree poked its canopy out through the gaping hole. Behind the old house he could now discern a windmill with one spindle still hanging tentatively and swaying gently with a soft rasping moan.

Palriken was scouting in advance of his little caravan. The two ox team wagons were trudging steadily along about a mile behind. Two days had passed since their nocturnal visit from the fleeing miners and no sign of them had been seen since. The rarely used road was overgrown with grass and with even short shrubs sprouting up in places and as such did not leave any noticeable trace of boot prints from two swiftly traveling and terrified men.

Another shape emerged from the mist and then another. Palriken passed several long abandoned houses and the road turned into a main street cutting through, what must have been one hundred years ago, a sizeable town. After a dozen streets, Palriken reached the central square. He sat on his horse and looked around at the eerie, quiet scene of devastation and decay. The sun began breaking through the low hanging dark gray curtain of sky and Palriken’s visibility was no longer limited to his immediate proximity. A pale patch of blue appeared in the East and bright sunlight filtered through the gauze film of gray drizzle. A partial rainbow arced over the broken tile roofs. As Palriken gazed around in amazement, two deer silently crossed an alley on the far side of the square.

A plaza opened from one side of the central square and lead to a large circular stone building with a domed roof. Palriken realized with a sudden start that he was standing in front of the remains of the Grand Theater of Tolshif. He recognized clearly the famous structure with its distinctive dome from countless posters and illustrations at the Imperial Theater in Harentowith. Despite the nervous tension of their journey through what might now have become hostile land, a beatific smile spread across Palriken’s face. The Grand Theater of Tolshif! He remembered nostalgically the many evenings spent in rapturous joy at the Imperial Theater in Harentowith, followed usually by animated discussions of the performance at one of the many taverns and restaurants of the capital and a bawdy finale to the evening in the society of a pleasing lady of the night, or perhaps one of his favorite servant girls, or perhaps even one of his friends’ servant girls.

The wagons and their oxen could be heard clopping and creaking down the main street now but Palriken remained deeply submerged in his reverie of delight. Tosterich came up beside him and stared at the old theater in wonder. Palriken reminisced about poignantly acted stage scenes and fervent lascivious conjugations. They were all so satisfying. The distant memory distracted him and he became aware of a slight throbbing in his loins. He glanced at Tosterich and focused on her protruding bosom. She opened her mouth to yawn, displaying the brown spiky remnants of her front teeth. He refocused on her bosom and the tingling spread up to his belly in a flush of excitement. Then he remembered their agreement and his excitement ebbed. He briefly considered breaking their pact and giving in to his craving for carnal pleasure, but his rational mind wouldn’t permit the act. Their contract of mutual benefit provided him with both a lucrative revenue to replace his lost wealth as well as the protection of a guise in which he could survive his publicly announced exile incognito. Their agreed upon business deal gave him privilege of access every new moon and full moon in addition to a percentage of profit generated by the labor of Tosterich and her two companions. In return, Palriken offered protection on their journey to the remote garrisons where entertainment was scarce and prices that deprived and bored soldiers were willing to pay were exorbitantly high. The full moon was more than a week away and he remembered with a lusty grin how he had almost savagely satiated his raging desires recently with the plump older cousin of Tosterich and some of his own apple brandy after a long day of pushing the wagons through some of the more overgrown patches of road.

His mind pulled reluctantly away from the pleasure of his penis and he regretted mournfully the destruction of the famous old theater. He brooded moodily about the great poet Blothfortis who had been born here 700 years ago and performed his plays in this theater. “Those plays are some of the classics of Shashbadeth literary tradition and describe the origins of the Shashbadeth gods.” he mused to himself. “Even though I am a modern thinker who doesn’t believe in the childish stories of our ancestors, I love and cherish the language and words written by Blothfortis. He was one of our greatest literary geniuses. What a fertile mind! What a joy it would have been to share a jug of wine with him. It moves me tremendously to see the ruins of this historic place of our Shashbadeth heritage.”

Tosterich stifled a yawn and swatted at a pesky fly that was circling her head with a determined buzzing. A small snake came out into the strengthening sun and curled up on the stone pedestal of a broken statue of the god Telgeslip. The bust of the poet Blothfortis gazed down impassively at the visitors who had intruded on the eternal peace of the abandoned square. The sound of water splashing on stone jarred him from his reverie and he looked around to see one of the acrobats standing against the crumbled wall of the old theater. A surge of rage pulsed through him at the barbarous lack of respect for such a treasured place, but then it quickly passed with a sigh of resignation. He felt a need to pass water himself and he wandered across the front of the venerable old building. He was about to duck into an alleyway, but he stopped suddenly. Something stood in the middle of the theater entrance. Palriken’s heart pounded against his chest. He stalked slowly up the stairs to face it directly. Tosterich had covered her face with one hand in horror. A skull leered from the top of a spear shaft stuck into a crack in the stone floor. A vine was growing up the shaft and out one of the eye sockets and a line of ants trailed in and out of a nostril cavity. Several other skulls lay heaped against the stone wall.

Chapter 7 Kindred Spirits Meet

Zeltogath emerged contentedly to the street as the bright spring sun was at its zenith. He was content to be out in the streets, breathing the fresh air of Harentowith, with allowances made for imperfect sewage collection and dispersal, and content to be roaming on his own without the constraining annoyance of a woman constantly offering him anything he could possibly desire. He had long since been saturated by satiated desires, that is, since a hearty and delicious, although very odd tasting by his customary Shashbadeth culinary standards, breakfast had proceeded on its own course to yet another extremely gratifying episode of corporal diversion. He had partaken liberally and wholeheartedly of his pleasures of course, but that was then and now was now and nothing topped the exuberant feeling of being out from under the smothering attentions of his doting benefactor.

It was a Zeltogath at peace with the world then who turned the corner into the marketplace, stepped adroitly over a duck chased by a peasant woman, plucked an offensive hair from the front of his freshly washed tunic, and bumped into the back of an oversized oaf who was just retreating from a stall selling chunks of roasted goat. The oaf wiped the grease off his moustache ends and smiled suddenly upon recognizing the contented Zeltogath.

“I know you, Sir.” the large oaf exclaimed with an unmistakably amicable tone.

“How is that, Sir?” a slightly ruffled but still contented Zeltogath replied.

“I deposited you in the custody of a good lady when you were somewhat indisposed two weeks since.” The large oaf noted a dark look come over Zeltogath’s face and added congenially “I believe we had some sort of misunderstanding but there was no ill will on my part.”

Memories up welled from a deep alcove in his mind and Zeltogath felt a sharp twinge of chagrin. “I believe, Sir, as far as I could understand from that Gathangtingol woman’s jumbled twaddle, that you are the gracious man that carried me inside and out of harm’s way the night I misjudged my liquor.”

“One and the same, Sir.” The large oaf gave a deep and merry laugh and extended a massive hand. “I am Harvinch, formerly of the Northern Legion, but not currently affiliated with the army.”

“Well met, Sir.” Zeltogath’s embarrassment was melting rapidly in the warmth of this enormous ruffian’s heartfelt laughter. “I am…”

“Zeltogath, Sir. I know. The famous battle hero Zeltogath.” Harvinch grinned. Zeltogath’s face crinkled with confused suspicion and Harvinch explained. “You spoke your name as you prepared to lunge. I recognized the name if not the face.”

“Ah….I did lunge, I seem to recall.” Zeltogath didn’t relish reliving the details of that awkward climactic moment of his celebration the night he returned to the capital from a long sojourn of frontier duty.

“You began to.” Harvinch continued to beam his merry grin. “But I believe someone must have flung a chamber pot from a window and struck you on the head. Fortunately for me, the thrust aborted prematurely.”

“Well my head certainly did throb the next morning. And that woman would keep babbling on, doesn’t speak proper at all mind you, foreign heathen, but finally told me with gestures how some giant of a man had carried me into her house and paid her a handful of coins to take care of me. I am apparently in your debt, Sir.”

“Not at all, Sir. In fact, I believe that night I bumped into to you without looking where I was going.”

“Well at least let me offer you a jug of the best ale in Harentowith. The ale garden across the street has fresh Elderflower blossom ale.”

Harvinch’s grin spread even wider. “As it just so happens, I do have a wee bit of thirst. Your offer is most convenient.”

The two men sat leisurely on a shaded bench in the garden of the ale house and rapidly developed the intimate comradeship that few things can produce more efficiently than a moderate number of drops of alcohol. They found to their great mutual delight that they were remarkably similar in not a few of their attitudes and this seemed to cement their budding acquaintanceship with the earnest respect evoked naturally by one possessing true knowledge. During the first jug of ale, Harvinch recounted how he had carried Zeltogath to the woman’s home and struggled to impress on her the importance of taking care of him.

“She didn’t have the slightest idea of who you were and of course she doesn’t speak the Imperial tongue. I kept pointing at you and saying “Zeltogath” and she just looked at me with those big eyes of hers. A very pretty wench, by the way. You’ve done well enough.” Harvinch winked and Zeltogath couldn’t restrain a gratified smile in spite of his feelings of impropriety and his deep inner longing for Lady Hastis. “And when I tried to give her some money to take care of you, she became quite angry.”

Zeltogath nodded as the servant brought a second jug of fragrant ale and set it on a round wooden table in front of their bench. “Yes. She doesn’t speak a word of Shashbeth. Eslaka is her name and she’s from Gathangtingol and they speak some kind of ignorant gibberish there. I can’t understand a thing she says.” Harvinch hooted with derisive laughter at this report. “I’m quite serious. You should hear some of the quaint sounds she makes, chirping around the kitchen. She does cook some wondrous meals though, I must confess. Nothing like you ever tasted. I can’t imagine where those people developed their concepts of cooking. Why the other night she baked goat with…”

Zeltogath’s account of the accompanying herbs and vegetables was succeeded by raucous laughter from Harvinch who instantly recognized the absurdity with absolute clarity. The two men chortled gleefully at the barbaric folly and clicked their painted porcelain mugs together in ritualistic observation of harmony and friendship. Harvinch was well informed of the news and the talk of the town, having spent the morning in the market place, chatting with the most knowledgeable denizens of the capital. Zeltogath was relieved to find himself in dialogue with another of that rare breed, a sensible man. Harvinch had certainly heard of the duel of Fowgis and his subsequent withdrawal to his own independent but traditionally allied principality. He had heard mention even rumors that established Zeltogath’s presence on the scene as a cohort of the controversial Fowgis. Zeltogath, in turn, related the incident in the tavern and alluded more than once to the discussion that preceded the violent exchange.

“Dueling about gods?” Harvinch raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“You wouldn’t believe it, would you?” Zeltogath shook his head disapprovingly. “If it had been over a woman…”

Harvinch raised his mug with a wry grimace. “By the blood of the gods, fighting over something meaningful is one thing. It’s proper and natural. My father used to tell me he’d drive some sense into that skull with his battle axe. But leave the gods alone and they’ll leave you alone.”

Zeltogath mused. “It appears that some people are making trouble with questions about the gods and the Oligarchy doesn’t approve. I never gave it any thought, but it is odd in a way, some of the things we say. Ah well, it doesn’t pay to spend time in thought about such. Gods or no gods, the ale will still taste refreshing on a hot day in Harentowith, the bosoms of the wenches will still be round and soft, and my sword will still be hard and sharp when I go to battle.”

They refilled their mugs from the jug. In a far corner of the garden, several house servants were attending to a patron whose sole momentary ambition appeared to be coiling himself around the base of a chestnut tree and disgorging the contents of his interior clockworks. Repeated verbal references to monetary remuneration for the value of the original virgin product prior to regurgitation seemed to weave a common theme.

“You know, Fowgis even told me he reads documents written by the great thinkers and has a whole collection of them in a library at his estate.” Zeltogath went on.

Harvinch erupted with a noisy guffaw. He spit to one side. “Reading and writing!” he snorted dismissively. “I was brought up the right way, to be a fighting man. My father taught me the sword and the spear and horsemanship. He always said time spent on reading and writing was wasted. He made sure I never abandoned my duties for such worthless frippery and each day when I see people squinting at notices or grunting their way through scrolls, I thank him for that from my heart.” Zeltogath nodded in agreement and the two comrades sipped their mugs of ale with the satisfaction of perfect and profound mutual understanding. They blinked and gazed semi coherently at the blossoming flowers of a shrub on the opposite side of the raked pebble path.

After a pensive pause Zeltogath added “You know the Lady Hastis?”

“Lath!” drawled Harvinch in the distinctive expression used commonly by the population in the central and most ancient part of Shashbadeth. “She can’t drive down the street in her chariot without someone on the wayside pointing her out. She’s one of the greatest beauties in the Empire. Never even had the pox. Cheeks like fresh peaches.”

Zeltogath sighed. “Even she is absorbed by this philosophical discussion.”

A disapproving glower darkened Harvinch’s face. “What next?” he mumbled sullenly. “It’s bad enough for men…but women….Lath, you! More ale here!” He jerked up and bellowed at the servant whose head was just visible over a line of shrubs in the next pathway. The servant peered over the top of the hedge at them and raised his thumb in a universal indication of understanding. Harvinch clasped the thighs of his worn blue woolen trousers with the scarlet piping running along the seam of the leg and sat again on the wooden bench. He glanced over at Zeltogath. “Nothing good ever comes of such nonsense. Look what happened to my Lord Palriken. A few careless words when drunk and then, shap! Exiled for life.”

“Did you know Palriken, then?” Zeltogath asked keenly.

“Did I indeed!” exclaimed Harvinch. “What do you think this is?” he demanded, tugging at the scarlet fringe of his trousers.

“By the gods! You’re right. You served in Palriken’s army. I hadn’t given it a thought till now.”

“I was a young officer in his guard troop. I often carried his standard. Later I was a captain in charge of my own troops. I can’t say I knew the man personally but I do know him well enough. He might even recognize me.”

“But, you are not active in the army now?”

Harvinch shook his head. He hesitated then went on. “There was an incident.”

The servant refilled their mugs and set a jug of ale on their little table. Zeltogath took a hearty slurp and Harvinch brooded. “We were on extended patrol beyond the southern borders. Cold down there. We had a quartermaster…rotten to the core. If I ever find him…” Harvinch slammed his fist into the palm of his other hand. His eyes flashed with searing hatred. “He sold my men dried meat and fish that had been too long in the barrels. One day I walked out of camp and deep into the woods to relieve the torment in my gut. Some of those wild forest people attacked our camp. They’re still savages, you know. The Empire hasn’t pacified that region even today. Only three of us survived. I trekked back to the border in three days with hardly any food. The two others staggered in two days later. They were worthless swine, both of them. I had disciplined them on several occasions. Just a week earlier I had them tied to a tree and beaten for stealing a fur coat from a merchant’s wife. They accused me of abandoning my post during the attack. I was court-martialed. They both had gangrene from their wounds and swore on their death beds that I ran away from the fight in which my men were slaughtered. After they died, there wasn’t enough evidence against me to be executed, but I was relieved of command.” Harvinch paused, staring down at the gravel pathway. “Those cowardly villains!”

Zeltogath regarded the big man as he brooded in evident anguish and felt a wave of compassion well through him. He clapped Harvinch on his broad shoulder. “I’ll see what I can do for you, my friend.”

Harvinch turned and looked at him with unconcealable delight. “Lath, that would be just the thing. You will never regret it.”

The two men clinked their porcelain mugs and drank. The servant arrived with another jug. They promptly whistled at him for another and soon after yet again. The shadows cast from the trees in the garden were already growing long by the time they finally decided to yield to the standards of moderation and take their leave. They emerged stolidly from the ale garden and staggered determinedly towards the street corner where they would part ways, Zeltogath to his modest but dignified quarters to sober up for a visit to Lady Hastis if he could manage it or, failing that, to snore in the comfortable sanctuary of that Gathangtingol woman’s soft bosom, while Harvinch sought refuge in his rat infested room behind a bakery near the market place. As they walked, Zeltogath pursued a theme that had started out with pure clarity but had since developed an ephemeral and elusive quality.

“You see, my friend… Damn! The wretched cur! I’ll chop its…”  Zeltogath scraped his boot along the flagstone to scour off the excrement. Harvinch wrinkled his nose and looked down quickly to check his own boots, nearly toppling over awkwardly in the process. However, a valiant soul like Zeltogath’s was not easily diverted from his objective and he waggled a meaningful finger at Harvinch. “She….ah…” Harvinch squinted at Zeltogath and waited for the conclusion, despite being only vaguely aware of the subject matter. But he waited in vain for Zeltogath just waved an apathetic hand and pivoted awkwardly towards a random compass direction. They parted and Zeltogath staggered down the street, dragging one boot along the paving stone and muttering curses against defecating dogs.

Chapter 8 At the Crossroads Before Erpor

The dull rumbling grunts of vultures off the side of the road made Palriken pull his horse up abruptly. A dozen of the large birds were contesting heatedly with a great flapping of wings. More vultures soared above and landed tentatively near the turbulent cluster, looking for a way to edge into the feast. Palriken took a deep breath to calm his taut nerves and looked back along the stretch of road he had just scouted. It followed straight along the river valley for at least a mile and there was no sign of the rest of his troupe and the ox wagons. He urged his horse on and rode about fifty yards and came to an abrupt halt again with his heart thumping in his throat. Ahead of him in the dust on the road were unmistakable horse hoof prints.

Palriken immediately scanned the horizon and listened for distant sounds that might indicate that he was not alone on this ancient forlorn road. When he satisfied his apprehension that there was no apparent immediate danger, he dismounted and inspected the hoof prints. The prints were numerous and confused but it seemed to Palriken’s eye, experienced from many long campaigns, that a troupe of about a dozen cavalry had ridden up the road towards him and then off through the trampled grass and shrubs at the side of the road and then ridden back down the road again. Whoever the horsemen were, they didn’t seem to have gone any further than this point. Palriken looked more closely at the hoof prints, trying to discern any distinguishing marks that would indicate whether the horseshoes were of Shashbadeth or Gazpardizik origin, but they were too trampled to reveal their identity.

Palriken looked at the trail of beaten grass and shrubs and wondered what had led the horsemen off the road. With his heart thumping in his ears, he walked stealthily along the beaten trail leading his horse by the reins. He cursed the gods bitterly and then remembered distractedly with vexation that he didn’t believe in them anyway. He put the annoying thought out of his head and moved cautiously forward. He heard nothing more than the gentle buzzing of flies. The trail lead straight in from the road for some thirty paces and then veered suddenly to the left and angled towards a patch of forest in the distance. Palriken followed on until a grunt and a suddenly soaring vulture told him where the trail would end.

He plodded stoically on, no longer fearful but filled with a deep and morbid dejection. The trail reached the vultures, who flew away in great consternation, and Palriken saw what he had dreaded finding. In the middle of a small beaten clearing, two half devoured bodies were slumped together. The familiar Shashbadeth tunics of the miners were still recognizable.

Palriken returned to the road and tried to calm his rising panic. The road behind him was closed, but was now the road before him to Erpor closed as well? He had to find out. It had been many years since he had patrolled this abandoned territory beyond the frontier, but he reckoned that the crossroads in front of the Fortress Erpor shouldn’t be far now. But who were those horsemen? If they belonged to a Shashbadeth patrol from Erpor, why did they kill the miners? Was it possible that raiders had come this far by the old east road that used to link the trading routes over the Olgofor Mountains before the spread of swelling Gazpardizik expansion? He needed to get to the crossroads and see what was happening. But what could he do with his cumbersome ox wagons? He couldn’t hide them or outrun a cavalry patrol or even infantry. With a sinking heart, he saw the wagons approaching along the road in the distance behind him and knew he had to decide. To go back was perilous and also a long, difficult journey with food supplies already greatly diminished. To go forward seemed risky, but certainly the garrison at Erpor would have swept away any prowling bands of raiders and secured the area around the crossroads. He breathed easily again, reassured by the comforting might of the Imperial military. Those poor miners had just been unlucky, but he would probably sleep safely in the fortress that night.

The ox wagons finally trudged up and Palriken informed them that a cavalry patrol had come from the direction of Erpor. He said nothing about the dead miners. Relieved smiles and exclamations of joy showed him that his report had achieved the desired result and no one in the troupe suspected that the cavalry was anything but a Shashbadeth patrol. Palriken didn’t want to waste any valuable time at this critical moment. He knew that fear would freeze the troupe motionless and set off a long winded, pointless debate in which he would have to convince them with reassurances that he didn’t entirely believe himself. If his worst fears came true, this debate would be inevitable at the crossroads before Erpor and his arguments would be less convincing the second time around. They proceeded down the well beaten road towards the crossroads, the troupe with merry hearts and even snatches of comic songs, while Palriken advanced on ahead with a gripping dread flaying his jumpy nerves.

By mid afternoon, Palriken rounded a corner of the road and saw the distant ruins of the crossroads inn. He stopped and listened. A solitary crow cawed mournfully as it flew over the trees. A swarm of gnats danced just above his sweaty brow. No sound or sign of movement came from the crossroads. With his temples throbbing, he advanced cautiously, his horse walking slowly and his eyes peeled on the ruins ahead. The absence of smoke from cooking fires was a reassuring sign, but Palriken remained alert and on the lookout for sentries.

Step by step he approached the ancient inn. The forest along the road gave way to thick brambles where the inn’s fields and pastures had been. Palriken could now clearly see the large stones in the foundation walls and the collapsed timber supports of the upper stories. A painted wooden sign still hung from a wrought iron standard above the carved wooden door. A series of wooden stables and shacks behind the main building of the inn were in various stages of decay and collapse and overgrown with weeds. He passed a window with broken shutters hanging limply on rusty hinges and peered inside the building. Nothing but darkness within. A sudden mad whirr bolted him upright and his horse reared and spun. A pair of grouse flapped through the brush and disappeared. Palriken settled his horse and listened tautly. Again silence reigned. Palriken let out a deep breath. There appeared to be nobody about.

Still on the alert but more calmly, Palriken passed the inn and approached the crossroads. The intersection was only a hundred paces distant now. As he got nearer, he sensed that something wasn’t right. Along the road, several trees had been freshly cut. Ahead, at the intersection, he could now see obvious signs of vast disturbance. The sun came out brightly from behind a cloud and Palriken shielded his eyes. All was still quiet. He hurried forward darting his eyes from side to side. With a groan of despair, he pulled up at the crossroads and gazed at the devastation. Prints from countless boots and horses were stamped onto the road coming from the east and heading towards Fortress Erpor. Horse droppings and bits of abandoned broken equipment littered the road everywhere. Elongated patches of mud showed where heavy wagon wheels had churned deep ruts. Trees had been felled to widen the road. Palriken read the signs with horror. Gazpardizik sappers must have reopened the old eastern road from the Olgofor Mountains, the ancient frontier of the Shashbadeth Empire at its furthest extent when Gazpardizik was still an unsettled race of forest dwellers living far to the east of their current nation. And now an entire Gazpardizik army seemed to have gone past in the direction of Erpor.

Chapter 9 In the Garden of Lady Hastis

Zeltogath bought a sprig of fresh peppermint leaves from a peasant in the market place and chewed it as he walked to Lady Hastis’ house in the most elegant section of Harentowith. Many of the old wealthy families and members of the ruling oligarchy lived there in solid stone houses surrounded by brick walls with iron gates that could be sealed shut during times of civil disturbance. Before reaching this exclusive enclave however, he had to walk up the slope of the hill through a residential neighborhood of laborers and poorer tradesmen. Brick apartment buildings three or four stories high crowded the narrow streets. A shallow brick channel ran down the center of the cobblestone street and drained a rivulet of water down the hill. He turned his nose away in disgust as he passed a milky pool of water draining from a fly infested heap of garbage in a crooked alleyway.

He stopped at a well in the middle of a small square and pumped a handful of water and rinsed his mouth. He bent over and looked at his wavering reflection in the water trough. The peppermint had helped mitigate the powerful vestige of garlic that his idiot squire had heaped into the mid day meal, but Zeltogath didn’t want to court the heart of the beautiful Lady Hastis with splotches of well chewed green leaf blemishing his otherwise dazzling and complete collection of white teeth.

A young girl about six years old stood next to the well waiting to fill up a large ceramic jar. She stared with curiosity at Zeltogath as he made a variety of grimaces trying to see if any traitorous shreds of peppermint still clung to his teeth. He took a last slurp and looked up at the girl. She grinned at him. Zeltogath took her jar, pumped a few powerful strokes of water into it, gave it back to her, and patted her on the head. The little girl smiled and wandered off to her house, carefully clasping the jar to her chest.

Zeltogath continued on his way up the hill, still glowing from his unexpected afternoon invitation for wine in the salon of Lady Hastis, but unusually jittery as well for the same reason. This uncharacteristic nervousness was causing him distress and it was this distress that he was pondering deeply as he walked. He had met Lady Hastis several times and had been overwhelmed by her charms at once. She was unquestionably beautiful. Not a single pock mark or rotten tooth marred her face. And despite her young age, she carried herself with a regal and self assured grace that he admired. In fact, he even felt slightly intimidated by her level of self confidence. She had a teasing manner of conversation and he often had the disconcerting feeling that she was jesting ironically with him, although certainly not in a malicious way. Even so, accustomed as he was to attracting and holding the attention of women with his eminent physical and martial bearing and direct personal fortitude, Zeltogath found himself off balance in the presence of Lady Hastis.

Several young toughs lounged against a wall and stared at him as he marched past. One of the toughs toyed menacingly with his dagger. Zeltogath glared directly back at them and rested his hand on the hilt of his épée. The young toughs silently followed him with their eyes, but made no move. Zeltogath snorted disdainfully and continued on his way. A few streets further up the hill he came to a temple. A bitter outcry was emanating from the temple courtyard and Zeltogath glanced in with mild curiosity without breaking his stride. Two priests were supervising as a novice methodically whipped a teenage boy tied to a post. Several old men were standing by the gate of the courtyard and one of them offered Zeltogath an unprompted explanation. “The boy is a student of religion here at the temple. He asked the priests for proof about the gods and now he’s getting it.”

“Listen to him playing the wag.” one of the other old men scoffed. “It’s a shame, that is. I know we all are obliged to respect the gods, but do they have to beat him so?”

“Don’t talk like a fool or you’ll be getting a whipping next.” The third man admonished. “You know he’s going to be whipped for such impertinence, so why all the fuss? Let him take his due and learn to be a man and respect the gods.”

“They didn’t used to beat the boys so much like they do now. You can’t tell me they did. Now there is some poor lad tied to the post almost every week.”

“And well they should!” resounded the first man. “It’s time they did something about all these blasphemers. Give me that whip and I’ll lay into the brat!”

Zeltogath resumed his march. It was true that they seemed to whip and punish more these days than when he was a boy. Or was it just his memory that made it seem so? He hadn’t paid much attention to such things as a boy. He shrugged and brought his mind back to the twinkling eyes of Lady Hastis.

Twenty minutes later, a taciturn gatekeeper let Zeltogath in from the street and pointed the way to the elaborate rear gardens. Voices and shrill laughter came from behind the blossoming shrubbery. Zeltogath recognized the delicate tinkle of Lady Hastis’ laugh. He rounded the corner of the stone path and stopped. About a dozen men and women lounged on quilted cushions scattered on the grass. Lady Hastis was reclining with her head against the shoulder of a young man who was laughing and twirling a strand of her hair in his fingers. Hastis was also laughing, but she stopped and sat up straight when she noticed Zeltogath. She reached a hand out to him in greeting but remained seated.

“Zeltogath, how nice of you to come. Welcome to my home and our little party.”

Zeltogath crossed between several cushions and grasped her hand. He bent low in a courtly bow and touched the back of her hand to his forehead in traditional Shashbadeth deference. The maneuver was awkward since Hastis was sitting so low and Zeltogath felt clumsy and self conscious. Hastis fluttered a clear peal of laughter that was echoed mutedly by several of the other guests.

“Zeltogath, I can see you are from the old school of charm. You have the most divine etiquette. But here with me it is not really necessary. We are not so formal and I don’t feel it requisite to follow all the old forms just because we have been doing so for two thousand years.”

“Ah Madame,” Zeltogath stammered with embarrassment. “My rigorous training in my youth was to always be courteous, especially to ladies. We were taught one way and one way only. You must forgive me if I seem rigid in my behavior. I was raised to be a man of action, not a man of words.”

The delicate tinkle of Hastis’ laugh floated through the air again. “Not at all, Zeltogath. You are most delightful. Please be comfortable and take some refreshment.”

A servant attired in a tunic more elegant than his own placed a large fluffy cushion on the grass and Zeltogath seated himself uncomfortably. He was aware that all eyes were upon him and a hot flush of embarrassment rose to his face. He also realized that he was the only man wearing a sword, as he clumsily wrestled his own to a convenient position. Hastis introduced the group and Zeltogath discovered that most were from the very richest families in Shashbadeth, several were students or even professors at the prestigious College of Engineering, others were apparently well known celebrities from the theater and art world although Zeltogath wouldn’t have known it, and none at all were from the military. He felt himself the center of curiosity and this unnerved him further.

“Zeltogath, as most of you know, is a renowned military leader.” Hastis explained, addressing the group. She sat cross legged with her back straight and upright. Zeltogath admired her posture and poise. He also noticed with a pulsating thrill that the curves of her young bosoms were pushing out against the delicate fabric of her blouse. “He fought under his father, the legendary General Hologath, when he was still a teenager at the famous Battle of Tankro River and has since served our Empire on many campaigns.”

Hastis flashed a bright smile at him and Zeltogath felt a warm glow of fluttering butterflies in his stomach. Her lively eyes lingered on his for a tantalizing moment and then roved amongst her other guests. Heads nodded and polite smiles appeared, but Zeltogath didn’t feel the protective mantle of acceptance.

“Is that where you received your wound?” asked a plump middle aged woman with a look of concern. Zeltogath glanced furtively at her bulging low cut blouse before answering.

“I did receive a slight wound at Tankro River, but you would probably be referring to the improvement made to my ear. It is quite noticeable except in winter months when I can hide it under a fur hat. I have a barbarian’s saber at the Battle of Tagpashok to thank for that. He was a good swordsman. Fortunately, I was better, or at least I had better fortune. I still have his ring and arm bands.”

The woman shuddered, her breasts jiggling like a pork gelatin. Zeltogath felt slightly more at ease now that he was discussing a familiar martial theme. He was also excited by the proximity of so many women. He had not seen Eslaka for three days, being busy with military administrative affairs at the Ministry and also feeling the yearning for lack of constraint on his accustomed free roving masculine psyche. Now, with so many elegantly attired women surrounding him, this neglect was emerging to the forefront of his attention.

“Why have we never seen you in town, Zeltogath?” another woman asked. “I would think the son of General Hologath would be seen at all the grand parties.”

Zeltogath turned on his cushion to face her and caught the tip of his sword in the grass behind him. A barrack room oath almost slipped out, but he caught himself in time. “I have been away on border patrol duty for most of the last few years. If not with the Notofo in the west, than on pacification campaign in the wild south and sometimes keeping watch for Gazpardizik aggression in the east.”

One of the young men behind him piped up pedantically. “We can relax our warlike vigilance on the borders now, don’t you think? After all, there hasn’t been any threat to Shashbadeth for at least a generation. The Gazpardizik people have gone back to their caves and tree houses and they are the only enemy of any consequence. The other savages living beyond our borders are even more primitive. A fur merchant returning from the far southern lands was telling me the other day that there is a tribe that is so squalid and pathetic that they only have one god.” Great peals of laughter resounded through the garden at this preposterous report. “So you see,” the young man went on smugly, “all this shield and spear bashing is quite archaic and irrelevant in today’s modern world.”

Murmurs of approval spread through the cushioned group. Several small conversations between neighboring cushions began, accompanied by nods of agreement and supercilious smiles. Nobody addressed Zeltogath directly but he felt a vague sense of disapprobation. The conversations spun around him and he found himself alone with his silver goblet of wine, gazing about at his relaxed and conversing neighbors. The plump middle aged woman caught him looking at her absentmindedly and gave him a quick smile without pausing in her sentence addressed to the famous stage actor that Zeltogath had never heard of.

“When are you leaving us for the nuptial chamber of bliss, Lady Hastis?” a man called out. “There is talk in the town of great interest in high places in you. A Councilor himself we hear.”

A low chorus of surprise resonated from the cushions. Lady Hastis straightened up on her cushion and replied soberly. “I have no plans to marry, regardless of what the market place experts may say. I have my inheritance and my father made sure as an only daughter that I should learn how to manage the accounts of estate, so I have no need for a man to take care of me. Thank the gods that the Empire is a civilized place where women have had the rights of citizenship, inheritance and property ownership by Imperial decree for the past millennium. Even in that beacon of progressive thought, Tokhamut, the great democracy, women can’t own property or even vote like the men. Here we are more enlightened than even them, even though we still suffer under a stifling oligarchy. No, I have no plans to marry at the moment. But when I do, I assure you, it will be a man that I want to marry because he is intelligent, thoughtful, and knowledgeable of the topics of greatest importance: philosophy and religion.”

Several people clapped approvingly. Zeltogath stared morosely into the bottom of his wine cup, feeling completely inadequate to the lofty standards just established by Lady Hastis. If he wracked his brains while sober he could probably only name fewer than half the gods. It seemed unfair and down right inefficient to have so many gods to wheedle to. Maybe those ignorant fools with only one god, not that he really believed that wild tale, were not so stupid. Only one god to remember and swear occasional obedience to and then back to work again with minimum time lost. Or back to the tavern, as it may be, he almost chuckled out loud. Fowgis would certainly have a thing or two to contribute to this discussion, he thought. He thought fondly of his friend whom he had fought alongside during many campaigns. No certain news had arrived since Fowgis had returned to his principality, defended by a strong and fiercely loyal army.

Zeltogath left the party late that evening, later than he thought he should have and much drunker than he would have liked. Lady Hastis had fallen asleep curled up on her cushion until several servants helped her disappear sleepily into the interior of the house. Zeltogath, after many cups of wine loosened his reticent tongue, had engaged the plump middle aged woman in semi coherent dialogue for quite some time. It had helped that she had reached an even more profound stage of inebriation than he, but even this advantage could not overcome the natural obstacles preventing any significant communication. After Hastis departed for the evening, he blurrily contemplated a lusty liaison with the plump woman, but she suddenly slumped back onto the grass and remained immobile until her servants came and collected her too. Finally, Zeltogath allowed himself to be ushered into one of the waiting private carriages that Lady Hastis had hired for the evening, and they clomped back down the hill towards Zeltogath’s small house near the Ministry. After they passed through the market place however, Zeltogath woke up from a short, jolting nap, and gave the driver new directions. He couldn’t possibly take Eslaka seriously, as a barbarian who couldn’t even speak more than a few words of Shashbeth, but she was satisfying in her way.

Chapter 10 The Grim Fortress

“What better plan have you to suggest?” snapped Palriken with exasperated impatience. “Fortress Erpor lies only a few miles over that ridge.”

He pointed west, following the tracks of the vast army along the road. Dalsef stared sullenly back at him. Fear etched his face with grim lines of suspicion. The rest of the troupe stood behind him, petrified with dismay. Beads of hot perspiration formed on Palriken’s brow.

“Hide the wagons behind the old inn. If I’m not back by sundown, than something is wrong at Erpor and you will have to make your own way anyway you can.”

Dalsef grumbled under his breath and stalked off to the wagons. The others followed him and turned the wagons off the road, covering the trail with cut branches to blend in with the general devastation. Tosterich remained behind and walked up softly to Palriken. She touched him lightly on the arm. Palriken grabbed her and squeezed her in a desperate embrace. She clung to him with her nose buried in his chest. He stroked her hair gently. The stale odor from her decayed teeth wafted up through her hair. Palriken thought suddenly with regret that this could easily be the last time he ever held a woman. Memories of his two children who had died as infants and of his wife who had died during the birth of his second son, flooded through him. If he died today on this forsaken outpost of civilization at the gates of Erpor, he would leave the world without an heir to continue his name. He determined in a wild emotional hysteria to get Tosterich with child as soon as he could if he survived this day. He squeezed her one more time and turned to his horse. Tosterich turned wordlessly and hurried to catch up with the others.

Palriken rode cautiously along the road to the crest of the ridge and looked down across the forests and meadows at the great walls of the fortress before him. All was quiet. A light breeze brushed through the tree tops and gently stirred the pale green leaves of the highland spring. A flock of geese honked in distant flight well to the north. Palriken swept his eyes back and forth over the landscape. The meadows before him were empty. Not a sound came from the fortress. He drove his horse on, keeping under the trees and staying concealed from watching eyes as much as possible. He continued on for another forty minutes. He was now less than a mile from the fortress gates. Something was very odd. There was a total absence of activity which at this hour of the afternoon was disturbing. The road here was even more churned than before, as if a great volume of traffic of men, wagons, and beasts had rushed up and down frenetically in the very recent past. He watched a crow flap noiselessly over a parapet and disappear into the still and brooding fortress.

A little further along, he came to the opening of the upper meadows. The flattened grass showed trails beaten by boots and wheels leading off into the fields. The meadows themselves were torn and scarred with excavations and pits. Great swathes had been trampled by heavy horse hooves. Discarded broken equipment lay scattered, sometimes in clumps and sometimes in single pieces. Broken arrow shafts blanketed entire sections of meadow like pallets of straw and, in the softer areas of damper ground, the feathered shafts rose out of the ground like stubble in a wheat field. Tangled piles of rubble lay heaped at the bottom of the fortress walls. There was still no sound or movement from the fortress.

Palriken picked his way slowly forward, staying close to the hedge of brambles along the side of the road. The gates stood little more than half a mile away. That a siege in force had taken place within the last recent weeks was evident from the signs of battle everywhere. But what had been the outcome? Had the defenders prevailed? Had the Gazpardizik army, for army this surely was and no mere raiding party, turned and gone back to their home over the Olgofor Mountains in the east? Was a Shashbadeth army pursuing them along the old eastern road even now? Could the unthinkable have happened with Gazpardizik overpowering the fortress garrison? No banner flew proudly over the fortress battlements. What could that possibly signify? Why was it so quiet? Who was on guard in the fortress? Were they watching him as he came slowly forward? He stopped his horse and wheeled around. This was just too dangerous. Any guard keeping a hidden watch could have seen him by now. Better to go back while he still could. He looked back over his shoulder at the fortress gates. But then what would he do? Where would they go? He still hadn’t found out what he needed to know. He would hide and camp near the crossroads and come back again tomorrow. But that would mean coming down this dangerous road all over again. He was already here now! A line of sweat burst out on his forehead in a hot flash. He stopped his horse and gulped a deep breath to calm his nerves. He paused to let the buzzing in his head pass by. It wouldn’t stop. He knew what he had to do. It would be no less risky tomorrow than it was now. He turned his horse again and advanced towards the fortress. He considered tying his horse and continuing on foot to stay more easily obscured, but he immediately put that out of his mind with the thought that if he was seen and a party of mounted guards sallied out, he would be unable to outrun and escape them. Staying on his horse was his best chance for survival.

Palriken moved forward step by step, his head swiveling back and forth on the lookout for movement. Two jays shrieked back and forth to his left. A drop of sweat rolled from his brow into one eye and he wiped it hurriedly with the back of his thumb. He was only several hundred yards away now, already on the open incline that sloped up to the massive front wall. He jerked upright. The gate was open! He stopped. He listened as hard as he could, but heard nothing from within. He was well within arrow and cross bow range. Whoever was guarding the gate had to have seen him. He continued forward, expecting the whirr of an arrow shaft to announce his last moment. Why was there no sign of a guard?

He inched forward in excruciating tension. Not a motion on the battlements. Nothing at the gate. The shadow of the walls from the late afternoon sun now enveloped him. A few steps further. He was at the gates. The massive main gates stood ajar. He peeked in. Nothing stirred. He entered. A body was slumped in the shadows on the ground with its back against the stone wall. A broken spear shaft protruded from its chest. The corpse’s hand still clutched the shaft. Palriken urged his horse two steps closer and recognized the Shashbadeth tunic and leggings. He dismounted and stepped towards the corpse, holding the reins. He jerked back. Two rats scurried into the corner. A bare jaw bone jutted from beneath a helmet with tatters of flesh hanging in shreds at the jowls.

Palriken stifled his horror and looked past the gate into the open courtyard. More bodies lay strewn on the ground. All wore Shashbadeth tunics. Palriken listened. Nothing. Water dripped somewhere. He poked his head into the courtyard. No one. No one alive, anyway. One corpse had its skull cloven in two. A crow was poking its beak gingerly into the cleavage. A storage shed was partially burnt with its door shattered. Charred bits of wood and stone rubble lay on the courtyard between the half devoured cadavers. An army of ants trailed across the ground towards a body wearing a Shashbadeth lieutenant’s insignia. Palriken kicked the trail of ants and sent them scattering, but they immediately resumed their formation. He jerked his head around and jumped backwards with his breath surging. He swung around and then back again. There was nobody anywhere. He stepped around a demolished wooden cask and led his horse to the stables on the far side of the courtyard. The wooden door creaked loudly when he opened it and he stopped frozen, waiting and listening. Silence. The stables were empty. He put his horse into a stall and peered back into the courtyard. Only the crows were active as they hopped from corpse to corpse. The fortress appeared to be deserted.

Palriken pondered his situation. Could the garrison have withstood the siege and then retreated into Shashbadeth? Or did the Gazpardizik army wipe out the fortress garrison and then go back home? Why were there no Gazpardizik corpses? He answered himself immediately. The custom in Gazpardizik was to burn the bodies of the dead, not bury as in Shashbadeth. So Gazpardizik must have taken the fortress to be able to remove its dead. Was it possible that the garrison left behind was drunk in some deep recess of the fortress? But would even Gazpardizik savages live amongst the dead like this?

Palriken looked into the courtyard guardroom and then began working his way cautiously through the adjacent rooms. The barracks were empty save one dead Shashbadeth officer who had been placed in a bed. He came to the pantries and found the food supplies looted. Shattered barrels lay on the floor amidst piles of spilt grain, scurrying mice, and pungent stains of wine. Nothing remained intact. He mounted the spiraling stone stairs of the tower, stepping over the sprawled body of a Shashbadeth guardsman. At the first landing, another body lay hunched on its knees, bony fingers still reaching for a belly wound. He continued to the top and came out into the late afternoon sun on the watch tower. Laid out below him, he could now see clearly how the battle had progressed. Along the north east wall he could see splintered remnants of scaling ladders and thickly piled bodies. The ramparts had been smashed by siege artillery and stone rubble was strewn amongst the corpses. Out beyond the wall in the meadow Palriken noticed a large patch of scorched grass. Gray dust swirled gently in the breeze. The Gazpardizik funeral pyre! He gazed down into the fortress and observed signs of the desperate fight in every corner. His gaze swung around to the west behind the fortress and saw the road leading into Shashbadeth. He leaned forward and squinted into the sun. The road into Shashbadeth looked as disturbed and heavily traveled as the road from the crossroads.

Palriken gulped his parched throat. From this distance and with this light he couldn’t be sure, but it appeared that an entire Gazpardizik army had passed on to the west, invading the interior of Shashbadeth itself!

Chapter 11 Justice of the Council

“Easy on, we’re not digging for gold here.” The laborer leaned on his shovel and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of a grimy hand. The second laborer chortled and thrust his spade vigorously into the dirt.

“I could have sworn I saw the glint of a few modest coins tumbling to the ground from a country magistrate’s pocket when a Council member had him bent double in a most compromising posture.” The second laborer cackled merrily and threw a spade of dirt onto the pile at the rim of the narrow trench.

The first laborer popped a piece of birch bark tar into his mouth from a leather pouch under his tunic and grabbed his companion urgently by the shoulder. “Careful with that kind of talk while they’re about.” he mumbled agitatedly with the tar lump in one cheek, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder at Councilor Hadfar and several officials who had disengaged from their chariots and were now taking shade under a large chestnut tree.

The laborers’ words weren’t in fact intelligible to Councilor Hadfar, but the strong, course accents of western province common folk were audible and they jarred his finer sensibilities. He shuddered. “What odious vulgarity.” he thought. The laborers broke out into a comic song as they continued to heap dirt onto the rim of the trench. Hadfar could scarcely distinguish a single word even though he now strained his ears out of curiosity. He reflected on the irony that such disparate accents could prevail in the Empire where the language of Shashbeth has been spoken universally within its borders for two thousand years.

Servants unloaded a wagon and set up several small stools and a folding wooden table. Hadfar seated himself on a wobbly stool and it rocked back and forth awkwardly. He glared at the attending servant who promptly snatched the stool away and exchanged it for a sturdier one, taken from one of the other officials with a brusque lack of ceremony. When he was settled on his stately perch, a slice of fish pie was placed before him on the little table. A smile broadened across Hadfar’s face and he turned and beamed at the officials clustered obsequiously behind him.

“Will you join me in a slice of fish pie? My baker made it fresh this morning and there is plenty for all of you gentlemen. The fish came straight out of my pond first thing this morning.” Hadfar smiled radiantly at his cohorts.

Gomthatdrin had been in the act of wincing after imprudently leaning too close to the Councilor’s person and he now smiled quickly to cover his lapse of discretion. “No thank you, Councilor. We have just eaten roast pigeon stuffed with lavender with several members of the Council.”

“Oh.” said Hadfar placidly. “Well, will you at least take some desert so that I don’t dine alone? There is a remarkable pastry with crushed walnuts, raspberries and honey. You!” He spun suddenly on his stool and barked petulantly to the servant who was standing at his elbow. “Be a good fellow and bring these gentlemen some pastry. Oh, and a pitcher of wine.”

The laborers continued to sweat and dig. Hadfar and the officials sat gingerly on the little stools and snacked on the pie and the delicate pastries and washed everything down with more of Hadfar’s personal stock of new vineyard Notofo wine. When they were done eating and the wooden plates had been removed, one of the officials stood up and gestured meaningfully at the two sweating laborers.

“It would appear, Councilor, that all is in order?”

Hadfar nodded. He tapped his fingers on the edge of his stool softly. “This should eliminate at least one small portion of the problem. Not all, I’m afraid.” he sighed. “But a significant portion at least.” He smiled beatifically.

The officials respectfully took their leave and departed in their chariots, leaving Councilor Hadfar alone with Gomthatdrin. Hadfar hunched his shoulders and peered lethargically at the digging while he sipped his wine. He smacked his lips appreciatively. It was astounding what the governor had accomplished in such a short time in Notofo. The climate there seemed perfect for vineyards, despite the baffling reluctance of the native tribes to embrace wine, so steeped were they in their primitive mythology and ritualistic consumption of that repulsive tuber. Annexing the Notofo territory, or civilizing the wild lands beyond the western borders with Shashbadeth expansion of influence, which would be a preferable way of expressing it, had been a stroke of sheer genius and foresight. He made a mental note to request a few more barrels, purchased of course, but it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary or lacking in grace for the governor to make a slight gesture of goodwill in the Shashbadeth tradition. Gomthatdrin shifted his large buttocks uneasily on the tiny stool. He raised his mug for a sip of wine, which he had to admit, was of a most excellent quality, when a puff of breeze blew a stale odor from the direction of the satiated councilor and he lowered his mug to his lap with a furtive grimace.

Hadfar turned his face towards the sunlight filtering through the broad canopy of leaves and half closed his eyes. Spring was well in bloom by now and all the trees bore thick green coats of leaves. Ah, spring in Harentowith could be such a delight, but it was marvelous to escape from the noise and spend a few precious hours outside of the city. He sighed and folded his hands in his lap. Gomthatdrin breathed heavily and shifted his bulk on the small stool. Hadfar spoke softly to him out of the corner of his mouth without turning his head.

“And now I suppose my lovely afternoon will be utterly spoiled by discussing how to deal with those vile Gazpardizik pests. That’s the way it is for those burdened with service of the people and the tasks of government. The moment you get a grasp on a possible solution for one sticky problem, another just as thorny raises its unsightly head. We haven’t heard from our primitive neighbors to the east for quite some time. No doubt the relative positions of the stars and the moon have some naughty role to play in their sudden rekindled vibrancy. The reports I received from the eastern province are most disturbing and no news whatsoever has come from Fortress Erpor. There would seem to be a sizeable mob of these painted faced heathen running amok within our eastern borders.”

Gomthatdrin wiped his sweaty puffy face with a lace embroidered handkerchief. “And there is also the unpleasant issue of the duel between that fool Kusi and Fowgis.”

Hadfar shook his head with agitation. “Good honorable Kusi. How could you….” A forlorn expression betrayed the masked frustration on Hadfar’s haggard face, but then he quickly recomposed himself. “Yes, it’s a pity about Kusi. He was a reliable soldier for the Empire. Well, we shall replace him as the Empire has replaced loyal soldiers for two thousand years.”

The laborers lapsed into a new comic song apparently, although it was difficult to be certain with their thick western province accents, about the biggest pig in the farm yard getting roasted on the spit after kicking all the little pigs. Hadfar stood up and paced leisurely back and forth in front of Gomthatdrin. He put a thoughtful finger to the side of his generously proportioned nose. “It would be better if you were to recall your, ah …assistants. With Gazpardizik rampaging, we could use Zeltogath’s skills. Besides, he will be out of the way and far from the capital if he is on the eastern frontier. He might even turn back the howling Gazpardizik dogs and be killed in the battle, which would serve our pragmatic purposes nicely. We could give him a hero’s funeral and make him a martyr who died defending the ancient gods of Shashbadeth. Yes, that would be perfect.”

Hadfar clapped his hands with delight at his own cleverness. Gomthatdrin looked at him glumly. “I’m afraid I can not call back all of our men.”

Hadfar stopped his contented pacing and stared at his colleague. Gomthatdrin bit his lip. “I gave my orders through a lieutenant who in turn…” Hadfar rolled his eyes in anguish. He turned and stared icily at his companion. “Then send out more men to preempt the mission of the first. You have plenty of manpower at your disposal, do you not?”

“Yes, I just hate to waste valuable resources.” Gomthatdrin snapped with irritation.

Hadfar’s cold stare melted to a gentle smile. “My dear friend, I understand the efforts you go to for the good of all and they are appreciated, I assure you. You know what an eminent role you play in the implementation of my policy and the defense of the Empire. I apologize most profusely for any degradation of your resources that complying with my wishes may entail.”

Gomthatdrin raised his hand in acquiescence. He knew the Councilor was employing flattering words to manipulate him, but he was a pragmatic politician and administrator who subordinated all personal interests for the accomplishment of the greater purpose.

Hadfar observed his colleague’s evident mollification and changed his tone to a businesslike tenor. “We need troops and the Imperial Treasury is barren. This Gazpardizik blight strikes us with our armies nowhere near full strength.”

Gomthatdrin straightened up on his stool. “Manpower is a problematic issue. With the wars, there aren’t enough tradesmen in Harentowith and their wages have increased to dangerous levels. The noble Shashbadeth families of ancient lineage have been bled dry paying scandalous prices for basic commodities that are rightfully theirs. Landowners are petitioning the Council and complaining that more and more peasants are leaving the farms to look for high wages in the cities. The landowners are being forced by the remaining peasants to renegotiate their share cropping agreements and food prices are rising as a result. Deference to the gods still holds strong in most of the rural parts, but scattered reformist groups are frequently combining heretical thought with treasonous revolution. Some are twisting the words of the old books themselves to justify their sedition and bloody upheaval. And with all this, we need to find more recruits? It is not a providential moment.”

Hadfar nodded sagely. “Negotiate with Fowgis and recruit his assistance. His army is strong and efficient. General Kusi’s family and entourage won’t be happy, but they are not a powerful group. Just make sure that any supporters of Kusi will be detailed to other sectors to avoid damaging quarrels.

The two workers finished digging their short trench and climbed out covered with sweat and dirt. They threw down their shovels next to the ditch and bowed in the direction of Councilor Hadfar. The older laborer spit out his glob of birch bark tar. “Would you want more of our services, your honor?”

Hadfar peered over the distant tip of his bulbous nose at the ditch. “You have done splendidly. I thank you.”

The workers bowed again. “We wish your honor well on this hot afternoon.”

Hadfar smiled. “Thank you, men of Shashbadeth.” He turned to his servants lurking by the tree trunk. “You, give those men some coins to show the Imperial appreciation for their work.”

The servant pulled out a leather purse and the laborers put out their hands expectantly. A coin dropped into each palm. The hands remained fully extended. The servant turned his back on them and stalked haughtily away. The laborers grinned at each other and shoved the coins, actually generous remunerations even by the current inflationary standards, into greasy leather pouches. They sauntered away with grimy arms around each other’s shoulders. The first laborer pulled a fresh piece of birch bark tar out from his pouch and offered it to his companion who shook his head with aversion.

“Should we perhaps satisfy our thirst with a jug of ale or just wait till we get to the public fountain at the market place for the freshest drink of water in Harentowith?” Loud guffaws followed this suggestion and both receding laborers shook with mirth.

“The Empire shares its wealth and buys us drink tonight, my friend.”

“What a great shame the Councilor doesn’t need us to dig ditches for him every day.”

The two men laughed. “Well, twice last week…” The western province accents faded and Hadfar could no longer distinguish their words. He nodded and gazed pensively at the freshly dug grave. It saddened him deeply that the peasants, some of whom were like children to him, would rebel against the time honored traditions and structure of the Empire. Everything they possessed in their humble lives had been given to them by the grace of the gods and the Empire. It all seemed so callously ungracious. And those members of the privileged classes, like far too many of those students and professors at the College of Engineering, who should know better, were even worse. A cold anger burned in him against those who would wantonly destroy the greatest civilization in history and the seat of reverence for the true gods.

An officer and troop of soldiers marched up escorting two bound and terrified prisoners who cringed and darted nervous glances from side to side for a miraculous last minute means of escape. The soldiers and their prisoners halted by the edge of the trench and the officer approached Hadfar and saluted with a grand flourish. “The rebel prisoners present and ready to carry out their sentences, Councilor.”

Hadfar nodded. “Do your duty to the gods and to the Empire, Lieutenant.”

The officer saluted magnificently again and returned to the group. At his word of command, the soldiers threw the prisoners into the trench and began shoveling the piled dirt in on top of them. Shrieks of horror from the prisoners split the calm air and two finches that had been twittering contentedly in the tree above Hadfar suddenly flew away. Hadfar himself turned away now that the task of justice had been carried out and he stepped into the covered chariot where Gomthatdrin was already waiting for him with expressionless features. As the chariot drove off, the officer looked back and then gave a hand signal to his men. The half buried prisoners were bashed in the head with shovels and the shrieking abruptly stopped. One soldier leaned over his shovel and vomited into the trench.

Chapter 12 Eslaka Cooks Dinner

Eslaka raised three fingers to indicate the price she would pay and added a string of rather effectual invective about the shriveled peppers and ginger roots in her rapidly growing Shashbeth vocabulary. The grizzled old man sifted his fingers through the wrinkled peppers in his basket and protested vigorously in Shashbeth, sprinkling in the scattered words he could still remember from his childhood in Gathangtingol. Eslaka put her hands on her hips and glared. The old man waved his hand with resignation and counted out the peppers into her basket. He stopped one short, but Eslaka gave him a sharp slap on the wrist and he quickly added two more. She then picked up several leathery ginger roots and eyed them cynically before dropping them also into her basket. The old man quickly deposited the three coins somewhere beneath his Shashbadeth style tunic, mumbled good bye in clumsy Gathangtingol, sat back, and closed his eyes.

Eslaka strode purposefully through the small Gathangtingol section of the marketplace to find the other ingredients she needed for dinner. Eyes followed her as she passed by and two vendors of live chickens stopped abruptly in mid haggle to admire her proud bearing. Eslaka was clearly a courtesan of some distinction, remote and well above their means. The men of the marketplace could do no more than let their gaze linger for a brief happy moment on her lovely cheeks and then on the pleasing curve of her hips as she walked away and out of their lives. They gave themselves into brief, wistful visions of passion before resuming once again the tumultuous exchange of produce and currency.

The herbs that Eslaka used in her Gathangtingol style cooking were not easy to find in Harentowith. As the capital of a large empire with a diverse population of immigrants, it was common in the Harentowith marketplace to see vendors selling goods from every corner of the world at some time during the year. But even so, Eslaka’s homeland lay hundreds of miles to the west and the trade caravans had to travel overland, crossing first the desert in eastern Gathangtingol and then a range of high mountains, and it was a continual frustration for Eslaka to find her familiar cooking wares. The typical fruits and vegetables, and especially the herbs and spices, of Shashbadeth were strange and bewildering to her and she hadn’t yet ventured as far as experimenting with the local cuisine. Most of Shashbadeth consisted of rolling hills of forests and farms from roughly 35 to 45 degrees south latitude, as measured by the controversial College of Engineering who were among the few believers that their world was spherical in shape. This temperate climate produced an abundance of fragrant herbs and a variety of green vegetables and tuberous plants, while Gathangtingol, on the tropical northwest side of the Potilantath Mountains, made frequent use of ginger and an assortment of hot peppers.

After critically scrutinizing a variety of unknown roots and green leafy vegetables, she finally selected, at fiercely negotiated prices, what she thought would go well in her stew. Then she returned to the fish monger and claimed the beautiful five pound fish that she had reserved earlier as soon as she had seen it being delivered from the river. Its eyes were clear as glass and Eslaka could see that the vendor wasn’t lying when he claimed it had been caught only an hour ago. She repeated the name of the fish to herself so that she would remember to ask for it again, but to no avail. The awkward sounds twisted themselves on her tongue and she could no longer remember which order the syllables came in.

Her last stop was at a wine shop that Zeltogath had pointed out to her on that happy day when he had first taken her for a stroll, arm in arm, through the marketplace. He had made her laugh, pointing at the shop and making drinking gestures and then falling flat on his face, startling several old women who were sitting in a doorway shelling peas in the sunlight. Zeltogath himself hadn’t been amused afterwards however when he got to his feet and sniffed the faint but distinct aroma of excrement on his palms. He glowered down at the grooves in the paving stone where the passing of many feet and wagon wheels had ground in the contents of a chamber pot that had been emptied from a window during the night. The old women cackled merrily as Zeltogath stumped off to wash his hands in the plaza fountain.

Eslaka smiled at the memory and entered the dim shop. Long rows of wine barrels lined the walls. Other barrels stood on one end and were scattered around the cavernous room as tables. Two men leaned their elbows on one barrel with a jug of wine and a wooden platter of sliced sausage and bread between them. A teenage boy stopped sweeping the floor and stared at Eslaka with his mouth partly open. She peered around the gloom trying to adjust her eyes and see if anyone of normal intelligence was available to help her. A very fat man with a leather apron came charging out from behind a counter and cuffed the staring boy. The boy looked quickly down and began sweeping again, but as soon as the fat man bustled past him he looked back up and stared at Eslaka once more, his broom brushing the same floor stone with monotonous desultory strokes. The man came up to Eslaka and babbled excitedly at her in quick Shashbeth that was far too fast and slurred for her to understand. She raised her hand to stop his flood of words and made gestures until she remembered how to say what she wanted. The man understood right away and brought out a small two gallon keg and filled it from one of the large barrels lying on its side by the wall. Then he cuffed the boy again and yelled into his face, gripping the collar at the back of his neck. He turned back to Eslaka and explained brusquely.

“He’s an idiot, but he’s well behaved. He’ll carry your barrel for you.”

Eslaka thanked him and left the shop with the boy following her with the barrel strapped onto his back. They walked down the hill from the marketplace towards the river. They passed the boat landings where laborers scurried with heavy sacks on their backs and merchant boats waited at anchor for a mooring place to unload their freight. They walked in the shade of the great stone Temple to Sagesval, the god of destiny, with its tall circular stone tower rising high above the slate tiled roof. Several prostitutes fluttered in the alleyway next to the temple. The boy glanced furtively at them and then resumed his entranced stare at Eslaka as he followed her with his mouth still hanging open. A drunken laborer lay snoring loudly against the stone building on the opposite side of the street. The prostitutes ignored him, having already ascertained that his coin pouch was empty, but a passing dog stopped, gave him a quick lick in the face, and then leaped backwards and trotted off down the street, looking back over its shoulder nervously once before disappearing around a corner. The prostitutes took no notice and continued their bored methodical chewing of birch bark tar. Eslaka wrinkled her nose in disgust. She had never seen the custom of chewing birch bark tar until she left Gathangtingol and she thought it was not only repulsive but inexplicable. It was widespread throughout the Empire but she couldn’t see any attraction and found it strange.

A few minutes later, the rambling stone building of the Ministry came into sight with its irregular shaped additions grafted onto the original structure that had stood for well over a thousand years. Zeltogath had a modest stone house behind the Ministry where many of the military functionaries resided. She stopped at the gate and took a deep breath. She dabbed at her face with a cotton handkerchief and flipped a dainty lock of hair from her forehead. The boy stood in the street with the barrel on his back and watched her. Eslaka pushed open the gate and walked into the little garden where Imptoforch, Zeltogath’s squire, was pruning a plum tree. Imptoforch put down his machete and hurried over to her with a scowl.

“What’s all this?” he demanded belligerently.

Eslaka began stammering in halting Shashbeth that she was cooking dinner for Zeltogath that evening. Imptoforch listened for a moment and then cut her off impatiently. He glared suspiciously at the boy who stared back at him meekly. Imptoforch shrugged irritably and led them into the house. He ordered the boy to put the wine keg down and then gestured for him to be off. Eslaka clucked disapprovingly and grabbed the boy’s shoulder. He stared into her face as she reached into her purse. She pressed a coin into his hand and his face lit up in innocent delight. He backed out the door staring at her all the way. Imptoforch snorted.

Eslaka turned and picked up her basket and was about to head for the kitchen in the rear of the little house when the door opened again and Zeltogath came in, looking tired. When he saw Eslaka, his haggard face broadened into a beaming smile. He opened his arms to receive her.

“Hello, my pretty rose.”

“Ricto theas.” Eslaka greeted him with a kiss. Since their first meeting she had always called him that and it seemed to amuse him. She had once sung him the entire version of the ancient song in the original Gathangtingol, but hadn’t tried it again as it seemed to strain his attention span. He had even learned several words in her tongue which he pronounced so atrociously that she couldn’t help bursting out in laughter. He not only knew how to say the famous words “my love”, but had also become fairly proficient in naming parts of the body, particularly those of the greatest interest to him, and other utilitarian objects like ale and wine and his favorite foods. Zeltogath slid his arms around her waist. Eslaka’s eyes flashed with a momentary mischievous gleam and then she pulled away in a businesslike manner and carried her basket off to the kitchen.

Imptoforch had stood regarding the scene with displeasure and now waited impatiently for Zeltogath’s attention. Zeltogath however, ignored him and sniffed curiously at some flowers that Eslaka had arranged in a vase the day before. He wrinkled his forehead, not disapprovingly, and rubbed his hands with pleasure looking off in the direction of the kitchen. Imptoforch cleared his throat meaningfully but this tactic also failed to gain its objective. He stepped around in front of Zeltogath.

“Sir,” he began formally. Zeltogath glanced at him out of the corner of hooded eyes. “I beg your pardon, but is this really proper? There is no shortage of ladies who speak properly. This one is ignorant of the ancient language of the Empire. Please sir, let me find you a better woman. Harentowith is full of fine courtesans and all of them certainly know how to talk intelligibly. It’s not right for a man of your distinction and position in the history of the Empire, a great military leader and victor in so many important battles, to consort with such a lowly woman as can’t even speak Shashbeth.”

Zeltogath took a deep irritated breath and waved Imptoforch away. He walked off towards the kitchen and the smile returned to his face.

Eslaka chopped her roots and green vegetables and boiled them in a pot with the hot peppers and sliced ginger and then added chunks of fish. Zeltogath stood leaning against the chopping table drinking wine from a painted ceramic mug and helping Eslaka by pulling the roots away from her reaching hand and by assiduously pinching her bottom whenever he determined it was absolutely necessary. Eslaka pushed a wisp of hair from her forehead, took a quick sip of wine from Zeltogath’s mug, and reached out for a stalk of celery. When Zeltogath predictably shot his hand out to grab it first, Eslaka fended him off with a sharp chop into the table with her knife. Zeltogath hid his hand behind his back and Eslaka smiled triumphantly to herself as she threw the sliced celery into the pot.

They ate sitting on wooden benches with a low table between them. The pungent fish stew steamed in carved wooden bowls. The table was piled high with small rolls of bread, fresh fruit from Shashbadeth’s warmer northern farms, cheese, nuts, and salted seeds. Zeltogath dipped hunks of chewy bread into the stew. The spicy pepper and ginger almost made him gasp and his sinuses began to flow, but he found the strange flavor pleasing. Eslaka sliced a piece of the bland fresh cheese and gestured for him to eat. He found that the roots also absorbed some of the heat and he emptied his bowl with relish and filled it again from the pot. As Zeltogath ate ravenously, Eslaka, using a combination of gestures, pantomimes, fragments of distorted Shashbeth, sharp expressions of frustration in her own tongue, and impatient slaps on his shoulder, told him about her life.

Eslaka had grown up as the only daughter of a tradeswoman in western Gathangtingol before repeated invasions by distant northern tribes and later by a Shashbadeth exploratory expedition, destroyed her village. Disease killed many of the surviving refugees of the invasions, and she decided to leave her home. A Shashbadeth officer took her with him to an outpost in the western province of the Empire, but when he died of malaria, she was left without any means of support. A woman at the outpost introduced her to the Madame of the officers’ brothel who took her in. Eslaka earnestly related to Zeltogath how the Madame once told her “Where I was born we were poor. You had two choices. You could be a thief or a whore. I am honest and not a thief so I became a whore.” Eslaka saved enough money to travel east to the capital with some of her friend’s connections in the Military Ministry. She had planned to open an inn or restaurant, but she lost most of her money and had to resume her former occupation. She enjoyed men, as long as they were nice, and enjoyed flirting with the nicer ones and even sometimes enjoyed the natural passion if she felt anything for the man. She was not desperate and she could afford to pick and choose her clientele to some extent, but even so there were occasions when she had to resign herself to performing exclusively for the sake of financial gain and wished she could climb out of her body while it was being employed for an end.

After supper, they reclined on a sofa and drank more wine as Eslaka continued her story. She was rapidly learning a marketplace Shashbeth that made coexistence easier for Zeltogath but also caused him a twinge of embarrassment at the thought of his association with her becoming known. Eslaka talked on eagerly, content to have an audience. Zeltogath listened inattentively. He gazed at her and thought about how pretty she was. She had lovely eyes. And her lips! Her lips were very pretty indeed. He watched them move as she struggled to pronounce the unfamiliar cumbersome words. A sudden desire to kiss her beautiful lips seized him. He leaned forward with a grin and kissed her quickly. She smiled happily and he kissed her again, lingering leisurely and enjoying the now familiar taste of her mouth.

Imptoforch banged the cooking pans loudly in the kitchen as he washed the dinner plates, making as much noise as possible to distract the cuddling couple and show his intensely felt censure. But Zeltogath took no notice and if Eslaka did she didn’t show it. She felt happy. Zeltogath was kind to her and always made her laugh with silliness that was unexpected in such a highly placed person. She yearned to tell him the secret that was closest to her heart but she still didn’t dare. She was still too unsure of his reaction. She would wait until the time was ripe. She would know when that time was.

Zeltogath eventually emerged from his conjugal bliss, parched and drained. He bumped into the wall and staggered bleary eyed into the kitchen. Imptoforch gave him a starchy look of palpable condemnation. He zinged the chopping knives into their storage slots on the wall.

“Water.” Zeltogath croaked.

Imptoforch petulantly plopped a jug of well water on the wooden chopping table and slammed a mug down next to it. He sloshed some water into the mug and left it on the table as he returned to a random housekeeping task which he dispatched with maximum noise volume. Zeltogath sucked greedily at the mug and then took a long satisfied breath. Then he emitted an elongated sonorous burp and smiled to himself at the prodigious noise. Imptoforch sniffed loudly.

“That’s what comes from all that strange food she cooks.” he grumbled.

Zeltogath wavered uncertainly and then waved his hand dismissively. “You…” he began, but suddenly fell to one knee and then quickly recovered himself. “You just don’t like her.”

Imptoforch lurched to give his master a supporting hand. “It’s not that I don’t like her.” he protested. “She’s just not right for you, sir. One night here and there is one thing, but she’s becoming pretty regular. You’re eating her barbarian food more often than good Shashbadeth cooking and she’s even bedeviling you so much that you now speak her foreign words. It’s not right, sir. Two thousand years of Imperial tradition can’t be tossed aside like an old worn rag. Sir, she does not even speak the language of the Empire. She’s not right for a man of your position.”

Zeltogath had been leaning against the wall with a lazy smile oozing from beneath half closed eyes. He suddenly leaped at Imptoforch and yelled into his face. “By the gods!”

He would have continued with an eloquent diatribe against the base ignorance of his squire, but all further dialogue was drowned by a tremendous belch.

Imptoforch sniffed victoriously and gloated. “You see what her savage cooking does, sir?”

“Oh, Imptoforch.” Zeltogath sighed heavily. “Your ignorance weighs heavy on my spirit. You would eat dog turds if you thought they weaned the Empire.”

Imptoforch stiffened. Zeltogath grinned and was about to embellish with several more satiric taunts when a sharp twinge propelled him in the direction of the latrine.

Chapter 13 The Flight North to Tokhamut

Palriken shook his head and peered around anxiously. He was no longer sure where they were. They seemed to have wandered off the road in the fog. They were in a clearing that seemed to be surrounded by trees on all sides. He was no longer even sure about which direction they had come in. The sun had already set and Palriken realized that his frantic effort to find their way back onto the sure footing of the road had been a great miscalculation. They would just have to wait until daybreak brought them some light and hopefully a break in this cursed fog that had plagued them all afternoon. He had heard the musicians grumbling between themselves about the futility of continuing on in the fog, but Palriken felt pressed to move on and gain ground at every opportunity. Their food supplies were dwindling rapidly.

“We’ll camp here and find the road in the morning.” Palriken ordered.

The two musicians unhitched the oxen and the three women unloaded the wagons. They had carried dry firewood with them and a cooking fire was soon giving off a soothing glow against the darkening fog that was gradually hemming them in. They were down to six now. Dalsef and the other acrobat had disappeared in the night after learning that the garrison at Erpor had been wiped out. Palriken had tried to convince them that the roads behind them into Shashbadeth were now closed to them and that the only safe route, out of the way of Gazpardizik incursion, was the old trading road that ran northeast from Erpor to the country of Tokhamut. “In fact,” he had told to the morose troupe upon returning from his reconnaissance of the fortress, “if there is war between Shashbadeth and Gazpardizik, you might just by chance be in the safest haven on the wayside of the conflict.”

Palriken had never been to Tokhamut but it was well known that a cooperative pact of non aggression had stood between the two nations for centuries without violation. Indeed, if Tokhamut was known for anything at all it was for its legendary pacifist diplomacy which had allowed it to survive in peace for over two hundred years. The more distant past had been marked by several major wars and frequent border conflicts, but this was remembered mostly by grandfathers in legend and song or in the dusty Imperial archives where Pithimiantok meticulously cared for the documents of antiquity and supervised their transcription from the original stone and wax tablets, wooden block carvings, and tattered parchment scrolls.

Palriken calculated the border at the pass to be at least a fifteen day journey. Their food supply would not last without hunting, but if worse came to worse, they could load as much as possible onto one wagon and eat the other ox team. Palriken was loath to abandon any of his precious cargo that was now, along with his sword arm, his only basis of wealth and means of support, but if need be he could warehouse part of his stock in a hidden depot and return later to reclaim it. With his homeland a forbidden place to him, he would start over again in Tokhamut and his new beginning would be easier if he arrived with wealth.

He draped a leather jerkin over a damp rock and sat next to the fire. Tosterich handed him a steaming bowl of porridge mixed with oil, dried herbs, and salt and then sat next to him, leaning her head lightly against his arm. Palriken gazed into the fire. His musings on the immediate flight to safety and the long term outlook of survival alone in a foreign country were distracted by the gentle nuzzling against his elbow. His irritation grew and finally got the best of him and he nudged her away. Tosterich withdrew sharply, sat up straight and stared silently into the crackling flames, brushing with dignity at an apparent speck of dust on her sleeve.

Palriken noticed her reflexive recoil and transferred his irritation to himself. Why should it molest him if another person showed him affection? Was he not, after all, a learned man of culture and sensibility? And wasn’t his privileged station in his life in Shashbadeth nothing more than mere luck of the draw to be born into a family of wealth? But for the fickle caprice of fortune, might not he have been born in the same impoverished part of town as Tosterich and shared her maladies and ill breeding? Who was that ancient playwright, he wondered, suddenly more content to be pondering a subject of particular interest, that wrote the brilliant satire about the rich merchant who was reborn as his own shoemaker? It had been suppressed by the Oligarchy after the first week of performance and the playwright had vanished, but rare copies of his work were still passed furtively from hand to clandestine hand to this day. He had read it himself one night at the house of a man he had met at the theater. They had drunk wine together in a small room upstairs in a tavern near the theater and gone late that night to the man’s house to look at his collection of rare manuscripts. The man had hesitated, stared Palriken in the eye for a long moment and then showed him this outlawed play. Palriken had read it aloud, a joyous thrill shuddering through him, while the man sat before him on a sofa, rhythmically waving his wine goblet back and forth in the air with a besotted grin on his face until he sank back into the cushions in inebriated coma. Due to his own advanced state of intoxication, Palriken couldn’t remember more than the general tone of the play and a strong impression that the craft of the author was of the most masterful level. He greatly regretted this lack of clarity but he never had the opportunity to renew his acquaintanceship as the man was publicly denounced by the Oligarchy two weeks later and never heard from again.

Tosterich took his empty bowl and refilled it with the last scrapings from the pot. She handed it back to him and he gave her a friendly smile. He reached out one hand and squeezed her shoulder. Tosterich beamed happily and they both gazed back into the fire while Palriken cleaned out his bowl. Skalith, one of the musicians, spread a leather hide on the damp grass on the other side of the fire and plucked the strings of his tapok. He picked the opening notes from a comic ditty and the faces around the fire grinned in anticipation. More hides were spread and the other musician and the two remaining women settled themselves as comfortably as the damp evening allowed. A wineskin that Palriken had salvaged from the wreckage of Erpor passed around from hand to hand. They all laughed at the familiar line where the drunken farmer married his neighbor’s favorite pig and then demanded a dowry for his bride. The song came to a close and they all laughed together. Skalith gave a lusty embrace to Tosterich’s plump cousin and the second musician and the remaining woman joined hands and joyfully swung them back and forth. Palriken put his arm around Tosterich’s shoulder and she snuggled into his armpit. Skalith touched his strings and began to softly sing a well known ballad about the cherry harvest in the verdant hills of Shashbadeth. Polifus, the second musician, pulled out a flute and joined him in melodious harmony. They all hummed the chorus together, “Whoo loo loo, sa sa sa.” The darkness was closing in around them, but for the moment they drifted from their uncertain present into the pleasant, comforting memories of safety and tranquility, memories that if examined too thoroughly however, that would include the sordid poverty or political strife that had induced them all to risk their current venture.

Palriken leaned back with one hand behind him and Tosterich nestled tighter against his shoulder. He sighed contentedly and reached his other hand back into the grass. Tosterich placed her hand gently on his thigh. Palriken felt a reflexive stiffening and a sudden tightness in his abdomen. He shifted his hand to give himself better support and suddenly lurched upright with Tosterich tumbling to one side. He whirled around with alarm and sucked at a bleeding finger. His companions jumped up from their cozy seats around the fire and grasped their weapons. Palriken seized a stick of firewood and gingerly probed the tall grass. The grass parted and revealed its grisly secret. Palriken jumped back nervously and dropped his stick. A gasp escaped from Tosterich’s clenched teeth. Palriken took a deep breath and calmly parted the grass once more with the stick. By the skipping firelight he could see a skeletal hand that seemed to still hold a rusty dagger in a tight grasp. The arm bones disappeared into the deeper grass. Palriken spread the grass apart. The group clustered together behind him, blocking the light from the fire, and then spread to either side to allow enough light to pass between them. Palriken pulled up several clumps of grass and threw them to one side. The white bones of the skeleton dimly reflected the firelight. A skeletal hand was draped across the ribcage and bony fingers clutched at a spear tip wedged deeply between two splintered ribs. The jaw bone hung low in open mouthed horror and the skull’s empty eye sockets leered up at the dark sky in silent accusation. Tattered shreds of rotten cloth hung from around the neck and waist.

A sharp exclamation from Tosterich’s plump cousin seized everyone’s attention. A skeletal foot protruded from a small bush. Palriken parted the bush with his stick and the men clustered around the bones. One arm was missing below the elbow and the skull was smashed. Tosterich and the two other women receded back to the reassuring light of the fire. Palriken probed with his stick through the underbrush and the two musicians joined him. They quickly found another set of bones and then another. Within five minutes they found a dozen more and realized they were encamped on the scene of some long forgotten bloody skirmish. The tall grass and brush in the clearing was full of skeletons. The bones had long since been picked clean by scavenging birds and beasts and most of the armor had been taken, apparently by the victors of the slaughter. Broken bits of chain mail, helmets and shields were half buried under the tangled brush and grass. Palriken picked up a rusted piece of cloven helmet. He rubbed the mud off with his thumb and stared sadly at the Shashbadeth insignia.

Chapter 14 The Councilor Mingles with the People

Hadfar put down his scroll document of expenditures for public works, such as the expansion of the Councilor’s library, coincidentally located at his villa on the hill in the most exclusive quarter of Harentowith. He gazed out the window of his study at the sweating workmen placing bricks on the rapidly growing wall. A wave of contented fondness for these industrious working men spread through his restless mood. They were the pillars supporting the Empire and the common clay in the fired bricks of the Empire’s foundation. He watched them exchange gruff banter as they skillfully plied their trade. He felt, with a twinge of loneliness, the vast gulf that separated them from him and his cerebral life, but he smiled with a melancholy satisfaction at the thought that his tireless efforts protected and maintained the integrity of the Empire for the likes of these men even though they might never be aware of his contribution on their behalf.

He wandered out into his garden and strolled nervously about the manicured paths and past the dry fountain with the statue of the god, Sagevsal. He came around the corner of a shrub and stopped short. His anger flooded out in a sharp burst. He could not believe his eyes. Two of the workmen were hurriedly snapping to attention, but a moment too late. The cleaning girl was pulling her robe quickly back into place with her head cast down timidly. The first workman had hastily withdrawn his hand from under the girl’s robe but the second had not been fast enough and Hadfar had clearly seen his vigorous exploratory probing of her cleavage. The two men withdrew with apologies and the girl scurried away. Hadfar was an educated man and didn’t believe in using his position of power to render himself privileges with the fair sex that he couldn’t acquire through normal relations, but he did believe strongly in fairness and reciprocity and he had certainly made it well known to this girl that her favors would not be unappreciated at the Councilor level, and yet here she was playing the tart with these dirty bricklayers. It was a regrettable pity to be sure that she would soon be enquiring for employment without the endorsement of a prestigious house of the Empire.

Annoyed and feeling greatly let down by even those within his own establishment, Hadfar decided to stroll about town and shed his frustrations in the bustling activity of the city. He walked out the door and snapped at several servants to accompany him. They abruptly abandoned their tasks and hurried after his disappearing figure that was rapidly striding down the hill towards the marketplace. After ten minutes of brisk pace, Hadfar’s ire diminished and was replaced once again by his habitual solitary melancholy. The residents of the poorer quarter along the slope of the hill surged past him. Women of the neighborhood and servants from the wealthy villas mingled in the throng with laden baskets on their way to and from the marketplace. A small boy impassively led a goat tethered by rope attached to its short horns. Two men stood in the open doorway of a dingy, narrow wine shop, spitting birch bark tar juice on the floor as they argued loudly about a donkey race. A beggar woman recognized the affluence of Hadfar’s entourage despite the grimy condition of his velvet robe, and approached obliquely from across the street. Hadfar veered away to avoid her and strode on past a dog insouciantly defecating in the gutter.

Hadfar was frequently carried in a closed carriage when he left his villa and he habitually descended straight down the main avenue without deviation into the maze of side streets. He turned impulsively now into a wide street that he had never gone down before. A dried ditch ran along the side of the wide street. In former times during the glory of the Empire, water had flowed down hill through this ditch and carried away a great part of Harentowith’s residential filth, but now, since the great aqueduct system had lain in disrepair for the last century, no cleansing water flowed. The people of Harentowith however, had never ceased their ancient custom of throwing their household waste into the ditch, where it lay rotting in putrid piles amidst the scurrying of rats.

A woman was draping freshly laundered tunics and robes to dry over a series of sticks dug into the ground. A toddler sat at the edge of the ditch, seemingly impervious to the odors emanating from it, and gleefully tossed pebbles at the rats below. The woman was complaining loudly in the course Harentowith street accent that grated so on Hadfar’s refined ears, about the criminally high price of barley and why didn’t anyone in the ruling oligarchy do anything about it? Her neighbor slopped a ceramic bowl of personal waste into the ditch, engulfing an entire family of rats who squealed and darted in all directions for cover. A man’s voice bawled for wine from the interior of the house and the woman screeched back an acrimonious retort.

“These people are worse than beasts.” Hadfar thought morosely. “At times it seems that all my labor is in vain. You couldn’t possibly teach these vermin to live in a decent civilized manner. I struggle to maintain the sophisticated integrity of the Imperial tradition, and for what end? So that these bestial creatures can wallow unthinkingly in their own physical and mental mire? Better perhaps that they unthinkingly serve the purposes of the Empire without defiling the general society of decent citizens around them with their slothful barbarism. This entire quarter of pickpockets has no greater ambition or aspiration than another man’s coin pouch and a wine and vomit stained pallet to repose a drunken and dull witted head.”

Hadfar strode quickly on with no destination in mind but an uneasy discomfort about where he was. His entourage exchanged frequent nervous glances and hurried to keep up his pace. The street rounded a corner and emptied into the vast marketplace. A hubbub of voices and a mass of pushing people swirled around him. He passed a stall selling the brightly colored breechcloths that the men of Notofo wore in summer. In front of him, two men greeted each other with an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks. One of the men had a wineskin hanging from his shoulder and proffered it to his companion as the crowd flowed around them. “And why not?” his friend responded with a twinkling grin. “The gods gave us wine and one must humbly respect the gods.” Both men laughed loudly as they squirted wine into their mouths. Hadfar reflected that nobody ever greeted him with such affection, but he abruptly choked his mind off from wandering in the direction of any conclusions he might logically deduce about his own personal popularity. He reminded himself once again that it was the burden of the wise to govern the less capable. It was a thankless path that he had chosen many years ago and he could not harbor any regrets now. It was true that he could confide intimately about sensitive political matters with his chief colleague Gomthatdrin, but that was an impersonal intimacy, more of a cooperative effort at accomplishing the difficult tasks of government and political strategy than any real personal friendship. Besides, he asked himself, would he really willingly change places with those brutish cretins decomposing their spirits and minds with daily tavern soakings and laughing uproariously at such witless jests? He smiled grimly to himself, his resolve refortified.

A young girl was squatting behind a woven basket of fresh cut flowers, hawking her wares in a high pitched clear voice. A young boy sat next to her, watching the traffic go by with his mouth hanging open. Hadfar sniffed an orange flower and sighed with his eyes closed. It was a rare and beautiful flower, usually found only in the humid tropical forests far to the north of the mountains on Shashbadeth’s furthest border. How extraordinary and splendid to find it here! It was expensive, but Hadfar didn’t rue the cost. The young girl bent before him, counting the coins of his purchase. He noticed how lovely her hair was and suddenly yearned to reach out and caress her. He smiled down at the girl’s young brother, who was regarding him expressionlessly, and tousled his hair. The little boy grimaced and drew back behind his sister, glaring at Hadfar. His sister looked up in alarm and followed her brother’s gaze to the embarrassed face of Hadfar. The Councilor turned a frozen smile upon them and bid them good day and abruptly turned on his heel.

With the icy clutch of loneliness gripping his heart, Hadfar moved blindly on through the crowd, lost in his inner torment. Gomthatdrin had gone as far, in an early moment of their confederacy, to suggest an elegant brothel to soothe the anguish of the Councilor, but Hadfar had reacted with such petulance and fiery moralistic zeal, that Gomthatdrin had decided it was politic to refrain from such a humanitarian attempt again. Hadfar himself had once, in younger and less guarded days, left open a vulnerable glimpse into his desperate loneliness when he had embraced a colleague that he had befriended with his apparent self effacing charm and wit. However, his embrace had clung just desperately tight enough to reveal his acute need and his new friend had visibly recoiled. Soon after, it had come to light that the man was guilty of an offense against the State for which there could be no possible sentence other than death, and Hadfar had accepted the tragic fate of his friend with stony stoicism.

The shoppers paused their milling around the stalls and Hadfar became aware that they were all looking at a group that had just passed about 50 paces in front of him. Two vendors were smiling and nodding to each other and making appreciative comments. Hadfar looked ahead and suddenly caught a momentary glimpse of Lady Hastis before the surge of the marketplace crowd swallowed her up again. He looked down at the stall next to him and briefly toyed absently with some pastel colored ribbons that were greatly in fashion with the small but traditional society of effeminate male prostitutes. He realized with a choked gasp what he was fondling and tossed the ribbons down into the wicker basket. The vendor scratched the stubble on his chin and smiled slyly at him from under a scarred eyebrow. Hadfar flinched and then resumed his stroll, but with a more purposeful stride, keeping a stealthy watch on the group in front of him. His servants, exchanging pursed lipped glances and nods at the group that they were now pursuing, brought up the rear behind their master.

Hadfar jostled his way through a cluster of women haggling loudly over dyed linen and abruptly spied Lady Hastis who had stopped to admire a collection of silk scarves at an adjacent stall. He whirled away and ducked into the stall next to him, bending over and intently examined the items sprawled on display across the table top. These turned out to be interior clothing for elegant women and the vendor inquired diplomatically if he could interest his guest in a delicate gift for his wife, or perhaps even a lady of very special distinction. Hadfar was trembling with anxiety and focused only on the bartering progress of Lady Hastis. The vendor clasped his hands together and peered with a conspiratorial smile into Hadfar’s face. “Would the gentleman care for service of a particular discretion? I have a quiet partition in back where privacy is assured.”

When the words finally penetrated the veil of anxiety, Hadfar started and gave the man a loud hissing shush with one finger held in front of his mouth. The vendor straightened with an expression of haughty indignation and began loudly protesting this rude ill treatment. Hadfar watched Lady Hastis vigilantly out of the corner of his eye while the vendor drew a small crowd of curious on lookers who stared disapprovingly at the wealthy miscreant. Hadfar’s servants stood watching in horror as if congealed until one lurched quickly forward and offered to purchase an item at random for a somewhat lavish price. The vendor smiled obsequiously and happily wrapped the dainty item, throwing frequent disdainful glances at the Councilor from under hooded eyes. The crowd of on lookers melted away and the marketplace resumed its usual rhythm of entrepreneurial hubbub. Lady Hastis concluded her transaction and moved gracefully on, leaving a wake of smiles rippling behind her. When it seemed prudent, Hadfar emerged from his concealed place in the stall and crept cautiously after her.

Hadfar continued to follow Lady Hastis as she meandered her way serenely through the bubbling market. His servants persevered in their policy of judicious expenditures as necessity seemed to advise and the Councilor’s attentive pursuit incited minimal attention. From his vantage point in her rear then, Hadfar clearly saw Lady Hastis stop short and gently tap a sturdy looking man of martial aspect on the shoulder with an expression of delight illuminating her unblemished cheeks. He saw with chagrin that the man’s face also shone with delight when he turned and recognized his acquaintance. The two exchanged pleasantries and the man made an evident jest that made Lady Hastis peal with laughter. The man was obviously pleased with the success of his banter and Hadfar could even detect the quick paced breathing of nervousness in the rise and fall of his chest. The man made another comic gesture and turned. Hadfar ground his teeth silently as he recognized the famous battle hero, Zeltogath.

Chapter 15 Dark Night by the Road

Palriken woke with a start. His senses were instantly alert and a feeling of dread gripped him even though he didn’t yet know what it was he feared. Then he distinguished the unmistakable clop of horse hooves walking briskly up the dark road. Many horses. How many he couldn’t yet tell. Tosterich stirred next to him and sleepily reached her arm out to touch him. He quickly covered her mouth with his hand in warning and she became aware suddenly of the danger. The horses clomped towards them through the darkness. Palriken reached quietly for his sword. Tosterich shivered.

Palriken twisted his neck and looked around. The fire had gone out. The moon was almost full but its light was veiled by thick cloud. Their campsite off the old road was dim and the line of trees along the road stood up like ghosts in the gloom. The sleeping forms of his companions breathed softly on the far side of the fireplace. Beyond them were the dark silhouettes of the wagons with the oxen tethered tranquilly next to them. The horses drew nearer.

He estimated that a small troupe of about twenty horses was approaching them. He strained his ears for tell tale signs of identity. The horsemen came on rapidly, but wordlessly. Tosterich dug her fingernails into his ribs. There were too many of them to fight and it was too late to retreat farther into the woods. Palriken thought it unlikely that the horsemen would be from Shashbadeth and probably equally improbable that they would be anything else besides Gazpardizik cavalry. This road had not been used for regular commerce during this time of strife over the last hundred years. Most contact and mercantile transport between the Empire and the neighboring realms to the north and east, like Tokhamut, went along safer roads farther west. In fact, only the occasional military patrols or the infrequent courageous traveler, spurred by urgency, would hazard this road through the abandoned land.

The horsemen were upon them. Palriken could just see their shadowy figures passing on the other side of the dark trees. He held his breath. Drops of sweat formed on his brow. He became aware of a sharp pain and realized he was gripping his sword blade with his bare hand. Tosterich’s body quivered silently. The horse hooves clopped quickly on. Palriken felt his heart pound like a hammer. A loud fart hissed out from one of the oxen. Palriken shook with alarm. One of the horses whinnied in a low grumble. The horse hooves clopped on. They had passed the camp. Palriken listened tensely as they gradually receded into the distance. He let out his breath in a long, slow gush.

Chapter 16 Eslaka’s Secret

Eslaka strolled through the marketplace, clutching her young son to her breast as they walked. She couldn’t touch him enough and the joyful tears that had flooded down her cheeks as she recognized him walking proudly off the boat, so much older, so much taller than when she had last seen him two years ago, continued to trickle out the corners of her eyes that shone now with happiness. “Angkolo!” She cried his name over and over again. As they passed the stalls the vendor women fussed over the boy and in the Gathangtingol section one of the men recognized his distinctive features of his people and ruffled his head affectionately. The boy, with all the pride of a ten year old who has just made a journey of hundreds of miles, a journey that even most men never make, carried his head high in the center of all this admiration and attention.

At a stall of sweets, Eslaka gleefully bought her son a baked pastry with dried blueberries, pine nuts and honey. She delighted in showing him the varied pleasures of the capital. Angkolo’s face showed a quiet pleasure as he bit into the pastry and Eslaka explained animatedly to the vendor in her broken Shashbeth that he was her son who had just arrived in Harentowith. The woman exclaimed with delight and kissed the boy on his forehead. She quickly grabbed two more pastries and placed them in Eslaka’s basket, refusing any payment. Eslaka’s eyes welled with tears and she thanked the woman with quivering, grateful words. She put her hand on her son’s shoulder and guided him away from the stall. He was intent on voraciously devouring his pastry and she beamed ecstatically at him. He finished the pastry and looked up at his mother for another. He was startled by her sudden look of dismay and turned to follow her frozen gaze. Imptoforch stood glaring at them from two stalls away with a triumphant gleam in his eye.

Eslaka realized that Imptoforch had instantly recognized who her son was and knew he would go at once to tell his master. All the happiness that had illuminated her life just scant seconds ago was suddenly extinguished and her entire world was plunged into blackness. Imptoforch spun on his heel and disappeared in the crowd.

Eslaka pulled herself together as best she could and guided Angkolo through the crowd. She had been planning to tell Zeltogath about her son in her own time, when she thought he might be prepared to accept him. Zeltogath came to see her almost every day and they spent much of their time together. It was true that sometimes he seemed absorbed and distant, but mostly he was good natured and kind to her. She didn’t know if he would even consider any meaningful future plans with her, anything that would be stable and secure for her anyway, but she had realized from the first night when he had arrived so totally drunk that he couldn’t even stand up so that the big soldier had carried him inside, that he was evidently a man of some importance and distinction.

She guided Angkolo through the attractions of the marketplace and past the Imperial Theater, the grand plaza in front of the Temple of the Oligarchy, and other places of distinction, but without her earlier gaiety. Even though she was determined to not allow this apparent misfortune to dampen her day of long awaited happiness, she was not entirely successful. Angkolo noticed her subdued tone, but was too overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Imperial capital to ponder on it at length. They reached the narrow flagstone street where Eslaka lived and the neighbors greeted her with deference, arms outstretched and hands clasped in traditional Gathangtingol bows. Angkolo was surprised to hear so many familiar Gathangtingol accents and see so many people dressed in the style he remembered from his childhood. He had spent the last several years in a Shashbadeth garrison town and, unlike his mother, spoke Shashbeth fluently, though with a marked barracks influence.

Eslaka left her son in the care of her cleaning servant and went apprehensively to Zeltogath’s unassuming little house behind the Ministry. She rang the little bronze bell at his door and Imptoforch opened the door with a sneer. He led her without a word to Zeltogath’s small study where he was poring over military budget documents by the open window. Zeltogath looked up from his work, saw who his visitor was, frowned, and looked back down at his work. Imptoforch departed unceremoniously and Eslaka hesitated uncertainly in the doorway. Zeltogath’s quill scratched on the parchment and a blackbird uttered its repetitive self contented call in the garden. Eslaka took halting steps into the study. The quill stopped scratching. She laid a hand gently on his shoulder and felt a slight wincing shudder. She withdrew her hand as if it had been seared. Zeltogath stared out the window. Eslaka hovered tensely behind him.

“You have a son.” Zeltogath uttered in a monotone. It was a flat declaration with no intonation, but it cut through Eslaka like an accusation of vile treason.

“I have a son.” She answered simply.

Zeltogath continued to stare out the window. The blackbird continued its call. “You never told me you had a son.”

Eslaka’s face flushed and her heart beat like the fluttering of hummingbird wings. She could sense that she had lost Zeltogath’s trust and feared that he wouldn’t believe her if she told him now that she had been yearning to tell him her secret. Another side of her heart rebelled in frustration and she burst out in anger. “Why should I not have a son?”

Zeltogath turned and glared at her with indignant ferocity. “Why did you never tell me?”

Eslaka couldn’t bring herself to answer. This wasn’t the way she had hoped to share her greatest joy with the man she was beginning to love. She stared back at Zeltogath helplessly. Zeltogath stirred uneasily. His inflamed sense of disillusionment didn’t extend to the point of cruelty. “What is his name?” he asked, trying to mask the hostility he felt raging inside.

“Angkolo.” Eslaka gushed out. Her shoulders jerked forward involuntarily towards him and she almost reached out to touch him again. Zeltogath turned his head away and she pulled back stiffly.

“Angk…” he struggled with the strange name.

“Angkolo.” she repeated slowly.

Zeltogath nodded his head. He stared back out the window with a look of befuddled concern. Then he looked back at his writing table and picked up one of the scrolls. “I must go to the Ministry.” he said flatly.

Eslaka felt that she had been dismissed and turned away with a flush of emotion. Zeltogath sat staring blindly out the window for several minutes. He slowly stood up, collected his scrolls and walked out of the house towards the massive stone building of the Ministry.

With a satisfied gleam, Imptoforch stood against the house door and jubilantly spat birch bark tar juice into the garden. “Angkolo.” he chuckled with amusement. It certainly wasn’t a name to be heard in his village in the heart of ancient Shashbadeth.

Chapter 17 Near the Border of Tokhamut

Palriken jerked the reigns and brought his horse to an abrupt halt. He listened tensely. He heard nothing other than the lazy buzzing of flies and bees in the shrubs by the roadside. He shielded his eyes against the midday sun and gazed searchingly up the road. He saw no tell tale dust in the air. There it was again. Or…? A knot of fear tightened in his gut as he searched the folds in the gently rolling terrain for movement. There! Unmistakably now he saw the motion in the distance. Riders on horse without doubt. Coming towards him. Palriken stared for another long moment. Then he spun his horse about and galloped back to the rest of his troupe.

The two ox wagons, driven by the two musicians and three women that still remained to accompany him, plodded slowly on, a mile to his rear. Palriken cursed as he glanced at the flat featureless plain around him. No convenient place of easy concealment suggested itself, even if he could maneuver his cumbersome wagons over the uneven ground off the overgrown but well beaten old roadway. The musicians were competent enough with weapons to fight off thieves and the occasional drunken bully in the villages of rural Shashbadeth, but Palriken had no illusions about their martial worth against Gazpardizik warriors. Even though his own ability with the sword was formidable, his only real hope was that they had moved farther enough north to be out of the way of Gazpardizik patrols. The Fortress Erpor lay ten days march behind them and Palriken calculated that the frontier of Tokhamut was still another five days further.

He galloped up and shouted hoarse commands. His troupe, alarmed by his evident distress, scurried frantically to get the wagons off the road. The ground was covered with low scrub brush and Palriken feverishly hacked a passageway with an axe while the rest strained with the reluctant oxen. They forced their way a short distance off the road and stopped the wagons behind a thicket of taller saplings. The men scrambled back and tried to cover the glaring scars of their tracks. Polifus grabbed a leafy branch and tried to sweep away any visible tracks on the road. Palriken and Skalith quickly cut down a shrub and laid the crown facing towards the road in a desperate attempt to conceal the trail of the wagons off the road.

Their efforts were cut suddenly short as Polifus dived off the road into the concealment of the shrubs. Skalith and Palriken backed slowly up against the wagons where the women cowered in terror. Polifus crawled through the underbrush and joined them. The three men peered through the sapling trunks up the road and waited. A minute later they could hear the measured clop of horse hooves advancing at a walking pace. They sound grew louder. They were quite close now. Suddenly, one horse stopped and a moment later all the rest halted as well. There was a brief moment of silence. Palriken could clearly hear the humming of the bees again. One of the horses exhaled loudly through its nostrils. Another silent pause. A loud crackle sounded as one of the oxen shifted its feet and stepped on a broken branch. Palriken cursed the stupid beast. Another pause followed. Palriken found himself holding his breath. He heard a few words in a strange tongue spoken softly. Another pause followed and then he heard the horses moving away again. His heart thumped. Had the riders decided to leave? Perhaps they too were apprehensive and maybe even scared of ambush out here in the wild land. He strained his ears but heard nothing more than the horses receding into the distance. Palriken could scarcely believe his charmed good luck. Then a crack of a broken branch in front of him made him bolt upright again. He raised himself on his tip toes and peered into the shrubs below the thicket. He took a step forward and raised himself as much as he could. Something moved. A head raised and Palriken found himself staring into the eyes of a face more horrifying than he ever could have imagined. A bright scarlet face with a huge white band across the eyes stared back at him blankly.

The fantastic face disappeared. Palriken could now hear movement through the shrubs all around them. To the right, at the far end of the wagons, a figure emerged from behind a shrub. Palriken saw a black shield and black leggings with bright green feathers sewn into the outer seams. A blue feather fluttered on a pointed iron helmet. A black and white striped tunic shimmered as the man moved quickly forward. Polifus crouched against the side of the wagon clutching a spear with shaking hands. The warrior leaped towards him and Polifus turned and ran, throwing down his spear in his wild panic. The pair crashed off into the brush, followed by several more whooping warriors.

Palriken had grabbed a halberd from the wagons and now moved into the open space at the near end of the wagons to give himself enough room to wield his weapon. Skalith followed close behind him as if trying to take shelter behind his back. Two red faced warriors with the same black and white striped tunics exploded out of the thicket and ran towards them. Palriken pole axed the first with his halberd and left him twitching helplessly on the ground. Two more red faced warriors charged out of the saplings at him. One held a spear high in one hand, ready to thrust it over the rim of his coal black shield. The man wore no armor on his legs and Palriken chopped through the side of one knee. The second warrior brandished a straight, single edged sword and he faltered momentarily when he saw the fate of his comrade, who now spun on one knee in agony while his blood soaked the ground from his other stump. The brief hesitation was all Palriken needed and his halberd smashed through the shoulder plate of the man’s armor and crushed all the bones underneath. Palriken swung around. Skalith had dived under a wagon to escape and the warrior was standing above him with his spear poised to thrust down. Skalith put his hand out to fend off the thrust and gulped loudly. The warrior skewered his belly and Skalith uttered a throttled croak. Palriken drove the wedge shaped blade of his halberd through the iron plate scale armor stitched across the back of the warrior’s leather jerkin. The warrior gasped. The expression of triumph on his face, for impaling his enemy so easily, changed to surprised dismay.

Two more red faced warriors with black and white striped tunics poured out from the slender trees. Palriken was dimly aware of women screaming. He jerked at the halberd, but the blade caught on the plate scale armor and he dropped the shaft in his haste. The warriors ran towards him with swords drawn and Palriken drew his own straight sided, double edged sword from its scabbard. He stepped nimbly to one side to face one warrior alone. The warrior jumped over his stricken comrade, who was still pawing the ground with his one remaining leg. He landed uncertainly on one ankle and Palriken sliced his sword through the plate scale armor above the man’s elbow. The man’s forearm tumbled to the ground still clutching his sword. The warrior shrank back and stared in horror at the blood gushing from the remnant of his arm. The other warrior backed away out of range of Palriken’s deadly sword and stared at him, breathing heavily. Three more warriors slowly emerged into the little clearing and surveyed the ghastly, whimpering scene. Five of their comrades lay dead or dying and they could tell that the adversary in front of them was a strong one. Two more warriors came through the saplings. One had a tall white plume fluttering from his helmet. In a surreal, time suspended moment, Palriken realized that the men that were about to kill him all had colored feathers on their helmets. Most had black feathers, but one of the others had two scarlet feathers. The red faces with the white bands across the eyes made them all look barely human. Several more warriors came around the corner of the wagon behind him. Palriken noticed that the screaming of the women had stopped. The warriors looked towards the man with the white plume and he uttered a harsh command. More warriors arrived and they stood in a ring around Palriken. The warrior with the white plume pointed his sword at Palriken and spoke to him in a tone of command. The strange words sounded hard to Palriken. He heard only a disjointed mixture of k, d, and r sounds. In the midst of the violent tension of the moment, time seemed to elongate and stretch and Palriken found himself mentally absorbing minute details within each long heart beat. One of the men behind him yelled out an exuberant challenge and Palriken whirled to face him. The man with the white feather roared angrily and the warrior stepped back. Palriken turned again to the white plumed man who was evidently the leader. The man spoke firmly, but not harshly to him and accompanied his words with a gesture. He pointed to his throat and shook his head as if to indicate no. Palriken didn’t move. Again the warrior spoke calm words and made gestures. Palriken realized that he was telling him that he would not be killed if he laid down his sword. He thought frantically. He didn’t want to put himself in the power of these inhuman looking warriors, but there was no doubt that he would die if he did not. Two of the warriors carried bows and had notched arrows in readiness. The Gazpardizik officer spoke again. Something in his tone struck Palriken as being trustworthy. He stifled his fear with a deep breath and straightened his back to his full height. At least they respected his abilities as a soldier. He turned his sword around and offered the hilt.

The warrior with the white feather, who appeared to be the officer of rank, took the sword grimly. He inspected the workmanship of the blade and was visibly impressed. He looked up and solemnly surveyed the scene of carnage around him, his eyes squinting in the middle of the white band in his red painted face. He gave several sharp but calmly spoken commands and the warriors with the black feathers tended to the wounded and dying. One of the warriors dragged Skalith’s body from under the wagon and cut his head off with a sweeping chop from his sword. He peeled off Skalith’s leather cap and held the head up by the hair. He shouted gleefully, showing off the head to his comrades. He jumped into the air and clacked the heels of his leather boots together in celebration. The warriors all grinned and shouted encouragements. A warrior with a blue feather cut a strip from Skalith’s tunic and firmly bound Palriken’s hands in front of him. Several warriors came around the corner of the wagon herding the three cowed women. Palriken was amazed but relieved to see them unharmed. The warriors gestured with their weapons where they were to go, but didn’t touch them with their hands. Tosterich saw Skalith’s decapitated body and gasped. Tosterich’s plump cousin looked up and saw Skalith’s head in the hands of the prancing warrior. She shrieked and then collapsed on the ground and wailed. Palriken noticed the officer look up with alarm and quickly scan the scrub brush horizon. He shouted a command and the warrior with the two scarlet feathers walloped her in the head with the butt end of his spear. Tosterich’s plump cousin lay on the ground moaning softly.

A dozen warriors came out of the brush beyond the wagons with a great clamor. One frolicked amidst his mates, displaying the head of Polifus with great glee. The head of Skalith was held out in response and the warriors tossed apparent jocular congratulations back and forth at each other. The women huddled together. For the moment, nobody paid them any attention. The warriors looked down at their stricken comrades and shook their heads. They looked back up at Palriken and stared at him with murmured comments of apparent admiration. The officer and two warriors investigated the contents of the wagons while the warrior with the blue feather stood guard over Palriken. The group of warriors slowly dispersed and began collecting brush and piles of branches. They methodically made a large pyre and placed the bodies of their four dead comrades on top. Two of Palriken’s wounded adversaries had bled to death. The remaining wounded warrior was seated propped up against a tree with his face contorted in agony from his crushed shoulder as he stoically bore his pain in silence.

The warrior with the blue feather gestured for Palriken’s attention and pointed to the officer who was beckoning to him. Palriken walked over to the wagon and understood immediately what the man wanted. The officer pointed at the large barrels with the tip of his dagger and Palriken made drinking gestures. Palriken opened a small cask that he carried for personal use and offered it to the officer. The man sniffed cautiously and recoiled when the harsh brandy fumes struck his nostrils and burned his sinuses. Palriken let loose a nervous reflexive laugh at the man’s reaction and then quickly recomposed himself as the officer glanced sharply at him. Palriken raised the little cask and took a gulp to demonstrate. He exhaled the alcohol vapors in a puff and smiled at the officer. The man gingerly took the cask and took a few wary drops on his tongue. He drew his head back and peered into the bung hole of the cask. He poured a few drops into the palm of his hand and stared at it and sniffed several times. He licked the drops off his palm and jerked his head back again, twisting his face away with a grimace.

The officer gestured for Palriken to remain where he was and he walked a few paces off with the warrior with the blue feather. They conferred for several minutes, glancing occasionally at Palriken and the wagons. The rest of the warriors, having prepared the pyre for their fallen comrades, gathered around the officer and listened to the discussion. The women squatted on the ground behind them, too frightened to even look up at their captors. The two warriors paused in their debate and stared off at the horizon for more than a minute. The other warriors waited patiently, not moving or speaking. Finally the officer nodded his head and gave a low word of command. The warriors, seemingly satisfied that a decision had been made, dispersed and turned back to the pyre. A fire was lit and the entire troupe gathered around and watched the flames grow in silence.

The fire burned for over an hour and the warriors stood or sat in a ring, concentrating on the dancing flames. They seemed to have almost forgotten their prisoners. Palriken spent this time sitting with his back against a wagon wheel, pondering his fate uneasily. He didn’t believe he was going to be killed for the moment, but he had no idea what the future might hold for him. The three women sat huddled together quietly. Even Tosterich’s plump cousin had ceased sobbing. When the fire burned down, the warriors took the ashes and spread them around the little battlefield where the dead men had fallen. Only when they had complied with this entire ritual did they return their attention to the prisoners. First, they gathered around Palriken’s sword and felt the steel blade and uttered admiring comments, often glancing over at the seated Shashbadeth warrior with expressions of respect. One, who had witnessed the killing of his companion, recounted the story of the combat, pointing to the spot where it had occurred, still well marked by blood stained dust, and acting out the maneuvers and blows.

A team of warriors led the ox wagons back to the road and finally one of the warriors approached the women. He went over to them and clapped his hands loudly. He gestured to them and they got on their feet. The warriors collected in a curious ring around the women and commented about them, pointing and sometimes giggling shyly. One warrior turned his head away as he uttered a bashful comment and the group laughed affably but timidly. Another warrior made an apparent good natured jest at the first warrior and the whole group laughed again. The first warrior turned back and grinned at his companions. The officer walked over and put his hand on the man’s shoulder and made a comment and the whole group tittered merrily. They glanced at the women and then back at the first warrior. The warrior shrugged and uttered a word that ended in a shrill giggle. The group convulsed with embarrassed laughter. Then the warriors drifted off to follow the wagons to the road and the women were directed with gestures to follow.

At the road, they were joined by the warriors that had guarded the horses. The women and Palriken were told to get into the wagons and a couple of warriors hopped up to drive. The main body of the warriors mounted and formed a long column. The officer and the warrior with the blue feather held a brief discussion and then the officer wheeled his horse and cantered off down the road towards the Fortress Erpor. The column of riders filed past the wagons. Palriken saw the grisly heads of Skalith and Polifus hanging from the saddles and heard a choked cry from Tosterich’s plump cousin.

Chapter 18 The Scholars at the College of Engineering

“The Oligarchy wants us to construct bridges and roads for them, strengthen the city’s defensive walls, build intimidating temples to their gods, and design ports to bring them luxury goods from every corner of the Empire. They might even have us rebuild the aqueduct system so we could bring sufficient water supplies back to the growing population of Harentowith and wash away the filth in the poor quarters where the Council members never tread. But we are not to touch the questions about the dimensions of the universe. We are specifically prohibited from measuring and analyzing the cosmos and the natural laws that regulate it. We are instructed to improve the physical structures of the Empire without addressing the abstract structure of nature. We are not to continue our intellectual inquiry to its logical extension and ponder the causes and origins of the natural laws. The abstract concepts are their domain. That’s the way they keep the power over the minds.”

Zeltogath’s mind wandered to the precinct of the tavern’s serving girl who was leaning forward at just that moment to place a large pitcher of wine on the small round wooden table on the other side of the garden path. He straightened his neck imperceptibly for a more strategic angle of vision and nodded his head as if agreeing thoughtfully with the discourse of that tedious and pompous friend, or what ever he was, of Lady Hastis. Hastis was in mid sentence, expounding some sort of sincere analysis of the historical political structure of the Empire’s religion and Zeltogath admired the graceful movement of her lips and the quick flash of her pointed tongue. Pithimiantok leaned forward and spluttered several false starts in an excited squeaky attempt to expound his own views, but the tedious professor from the College of Engineering ignored him and listened with smug deference to Hastis and her earnest argument while he suavely sipped his mug of ale.

“And who’s to say that the religion of the Empire is the right one?” Hastis demanded militantly. Pithimiantok spun around and cast nervous glances at the neighboring tables. They were all now empty except for a bench under a shaded trellis, but the man seated there seemed totally preoccupied with his endeavors to slide his hand under the skirt of the giggling woman next to him. “Dompunthrik, your studies in this area are deep and your knowledge is vast. Could not a different religion from another country actually be the right one?”

Pithimiantok sat up in great alarm. A gratified smile spread across the professor’s face. He settled back and asked in a self confident voice. “And could it also be possible that all religions are wrong?”

Pithimiantok gasped. Even Zeltogath diverted his furtive attention away from the pert bosom of Lady Hastis to regard Dompunthrik. “He might be overly self satisfied,” he thought “but he was certainly courageous enough to voice such a dangerously controversial thought.” Zeltogath had to admit the flicker of a grudging admiration. Dompunthrik lapsed into a pedantic recitation of the major known religions and Zeltogath’s attention once more succumbed to its wandering nature. He was brought back to the present by Pithimiantok’s chirping voice, which had finally managed to break into the discussion with a sarcastic and derisive comment about those primitive idiots in the frigid south with their one pitiful god. The comment failed in its attempt to impress Lady Hastis with the author’s wit, but it did set Zeltogath off on his own private theological debate.

“Only one god must be an awfully lonely situation.” Zeltogath thought. “And what happens to us when he gets drunk? After all, the general of an army only has to be sober some of the time, but the gods are on duty to govern every moment and if there was only one…..? And what about the girls? Wouldn’t that mean that there aren’t any girl gods?” He shuddered at the implication of the only means by which a solitary god could satisfy his urges. “Who would want to be a god all by himself?” He shook his head. “Better to be a tavern owner” he concluded, as the serving girl passed by leaving a sweet fragrance in the air.

Zeltogath’s attention returned to Lady Hastis who was leaning her chin on her palm with her eyes intently focused on the proselytizing professor and his instructive soliloquy. His ears perked up when he realized the professor was discussing a war. Finally the conversation seemed to have drifted into his area of expertise and Zeltogath relished the opportunity to demonstrate to Lady Hastis that he possessed more dimensions than just an amusing and eccentric diversion from her usual pompous, inexperienced, know-it-all student conversational fare. He eagerly followed the didactic flow of the professor, waiting for his chance to jump in with a meaningful insight that would be unobtainable for those unfortunates without front line experience. He waited expectantly. He waited patiently. He waited stoically. He yawned. The tiresome professor was giving an in depth explanation of the causes of the war and by passing the interesting parts of how the war was actually waged. Zeltogath regarded the self satisfied professor from under hooded eyes as the fatuous puffball waxed eloquent on the philosophical motives that had started the war. He recognized the war the inflated professor was discussing because it was the only war begun over a number system, but there weren’t really any historically interesting battles during this war, either from the strategic or the military technology point of view, and Zeltogath couldn’t see the point of belaboring the causes. He was going on and on about the number systems, describing in minute detail the mechanisms that defined the original base five number system of Shashbadeth’s primitive past and the succeeding base ten system that replaced the original as a result of this war. Zeltogath was familiar with the history of the war, being a student of military history his entire life, but from the perspective of the military mind, this war was fairly insignificant. Yet, to listen to this blow hard, one would think that it was a major water shed of human development. And to top it off, Lady Hastis was obviously enthralled and captivated by every syllable. “Would you believe it!” thought Zeltogath to himself in disgust.

Lady Hastis asked several solemn questions and furled her graceful brow intently as she paid obsequious attention to the stuff shirt’s wearisome explanation. Zeltogath grabbed the pitcher and refilled his wine cup. He offered the pitcher to Pithimiantok, but just at that moment Pithimiantok launched into an opportunistic interruption in his squeaky voice and began reciting every relevant detail he could scour up from his perusals of the archives. Hastis regarded him intently, poised as if to strike if he erred on any point of detail, while the learned professor twirled the dregs in his cup and listened impatiently to the amateurish intrusion on his eloquence. Zeltogath proffered the pitcher but the professor ignored him. He gave up and offered it to Hastis, but she was too engrossed by the discussion to notice his existence. He set the pitcher down, unobserved, in the middle of the table. “The mathematical concept of zero…” the tiresome professor interjected. Zeltogath sighed. Even he knew it was first invented by a foreign Tokhamut scholar residing in the capital and teaching at the College of Engineering. The rest of the story he was only rudimentarily familiar with.

The tiresome professor anticipated the short comings of his audience and beneficently assumed the burden of edification. “At first, he was scoffed at by the priests and scholars who lead intellectual tradition at the time and were staunch adherents to the base five number system of antiquity, a number system based on the number of digits on a single hand. But the new mathematicians criticized the old system as being unwieldy for calculations and limited in the magnitude of quantity of objects it could conveniently count. They were strongly supported by the increasingly influential merchant class and their accountants. The limitations of the one hand base five system had not been significant during the era of its origin when life was conducted on a smaller scale with fewer objects to count and the number system could satisfactorily accommodate the demands of economic and theoretical life. But with the formation of the earliest tribes into the Empire and the subsequent growth of Imperial population and wealth, the numbers of the ancient system were not adequate for the counting demands of the modern world. What began therefore, as an intellectual debate between colleagues at the College, quickly spread throughout the hierarchy of Harentowith, with sides being fervently taken as the implications of increased mathematical dexterity and the resultant controversial perspectives on worldly knowledge that it made possible, became apparent. After the first accusation of treason by the Oligarchy and the public execution of the most vociferous proponent of the new zero, resistance coagulated and organized with some of the most powerful military leaders siding with the dissidents. A high ranking military official, who was married to the daughter of the Administrator of the College of Engineering, made an alliance with an early ancestor of Prince Fowgis and, after a series of victorious battles, forced the Oligarchy to accept the new ideas. A century later, at the First Conference of Harentowith, the zero and the Base Ten number system were incorporated into the traditions of the ancient religion of Shashbadeth with devices introduced to substantiate and reinforce the timeless precepts of its foundation. The Oligarchy even eventually adopted the zero into its own religious dogma and gave it a special religious symbolic significance.”

Lady Hastis nodded her head and creased her brow with pensive wrinkles. Fine and delicate wrinkles, Zeltogath thought. They evinced a sincerity that augmented her natural beauty. Pithimiantok had been quietly drumming his fingers on the table and now realized he had a chance to contribute to the discussion while the professor paused to sip his wine.

“There was…” he spluttered but then looked quickly around and continued in a muted voice. “There was a reform proposed last year by two scholars at the College of Engineering. They want to expand the number system to include numbers that don’t even exist! We have a copy of it. Those imbeciles!” He chortled derisively and his voice grew louder in spite of his perpetual caution. “And there’s another bunch of fools that want to make paper out of wood. We tried that already at the Ministry of Archives. It doesn’t last.”

Lady Hastis had been listening patiently, but as soon as Pithimiantok paused she turned back to the professor. “That is fascinating, Dompunthrik. It would appear that the numbers and the natural laws that are discussed so frequently at the College of Engineering are not in fact given to us by the gods as the Oligarchy would have us believe.”

Pithimiantok lurched forward with his mouth opened but Zeltogath clapped him on the shoulder. “Pithimiantok, don’t bore our dear Lady Hastis or she’ll think twice about ever joining us again.”

Lady Hastis shot an expressionless glance at Pithimiantok and turned back to Dompunthrik with a beaming smile. Zeltogath guffawed and clapped Pithimiantok on the shoulder again while Pithimiantok reached for the wine pitcher to conceal his chagrin. He refilled his cup and set the pitcher back down in the center of the table, ignoring Zeltogath’s outstretched cup. Zeltogath refilled his own cup, still chuckling, and Pithimiantok glared at him in silent anger.

The afternoon wore on. Another pitcher of wine gradually disappeared and the conversation continued much as it had before, with the self satisfied professor droning on and Lady Hastis appearing enchanted by every pompous syllable. Zeltogath began to realize that he was bored. Even the radiance of Lady Hastis in all her exquisite splendor seemed to wilt. He stifled yet another yawn and ran his mind over the list of unfinished chores that waited for him at the Ministry. Pithimiantok was leaning his chin blearily on his palm. The eyes of Lady Hastis were glazed and the tedious professor was caressing her forearm.

Zeltogath got up and took his leave with a semi coherent mumble. He paused at the gate of the ale garden and adjusted his tunic. Voices were chatting and he could overhear their desultory conversation. He could make out the two armed guards of Lady Hastis through the hedge as they sat on a bench and spat birch bark tar juice on the ground. “And what would become of us then, if those wise men took away the protection of the gods? As the priests say, the gods made the Empire and protected it for two thousand years. Where would we be if those fools at the College of Engineering succeeded in casting down our long standing order? The gods made some men nobles and priests and Council members and other men commoners like us.”

“Do you think you are no better than the nobles or the priests? A captain in my regiment drank a pot of ink one night when he was drunk and poisoned himself. I know because I was one of the soldiers detailed to clean up his mess. You should have seen how much bile he threw up. His innards must have been wrung dry. I never saw no mere spearman try such a daft thing and what couldn’t hold his liquor better than that. ”

“Lath! A good thing a ignorant sap like you ain’t on the Council and running things. Why don’t you know that the gods themselves never said nothing about not drinking ink nor paint nor eating roof tiles neither? At least I never heard the priests mention it and I’ve been in regular attendance at the temples since I was a lad. I was ever very particular about the sayings of the priests and I tell you sure I never once heard mention of such a thing. My uncle Falton served for many years in the service of the priest in our village and he never said nothing about that neither. They do recommend wine, if I recall right, but there’s nothing in their regulations about guzzling ink. So there’s that for your uneducated ideas.”

“By the blood of the gods, was there ever a meaner intelligence than yours? What the priests say ain’t important. The point is, would you drink a pot of ink, drunk or sober? I doubt it. Not even you, with all your half cooked notions of what the priests were babbling about when you were a wooden headed lad with even less sense than you have now, what barely knows which end of the spear to point at the enemy.”

“Ah, lath! You think you’re so clever with your tongue twisting around itself even more than your head is twisting inside that great arse of yours. I repeat. I never heard the priests ever say anything as dumb witted as to tell the people to drink pots of ink like it was ale or not to drink pots of ink either, for that matter. And when were you off the ale long enough to go talking about sober thoughts anyway?”

“Oh by the blood of the gods that you hold so precious! There are donkeys laden with heavy burdens and acorns lying on the ground that put your powers of reason to shame! My question is, and always was, in spite of your misconstruction, would you or would you not drink a pot of ink? Now answer that clearly if you can.”

“Lath! It’s too much ink that you have drunk to say such blithering lunacy. Now, a fine ale, such as we have made in the Empire since the earliest times, for that is what the priests tell us, I will take with pleasure any time. Even wine I drink and enjoy, although I much prefer ale, and I think it is now time for you to dig into your purse and buy us two mugs of ale or else how shall I listen to your twaddle more? Either I must get you drunk or disembowel you for a heretic.”

“Now we are back to talking on a level you can understand. Raising a mug to your lips is as noble an act as you will ever perform in your life. If the gods granted you independence of thought you wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“Lath! Independence! Did you ever try to throw your cat out and give it independence? What do you think will happen? The little brute comes scratching at the door and drives you mad until you let it back in again and it goes straight to its food bowl. No, you mark my words. It’s far better for the likes of us common folk that these fancy thinking brats leave well enough alone.”

Zeltogath chuckled and walked off down the hill through the unlit streets. As he traversed the poorer quarter between the wealthy villas on top of the hill and the market place at the bottom, he kept one eye out for robbers while he allowed the rest of his mind to wallow in inebriated sentimentality. In a small plaza around a statue of one of the lesser gods, whose name had slipped quietly from Zeltogath’s memory during a carefree childhood, and a fountain that hadn’t gushed water in almost a century, a rambunctious group of youths were playing music loudly and passing wineskins and birch bark tar pouches back and forth between them. Two of the youths were playing flutes and one was pounding on a drum while the rest joined in drunken chorus and boisterously sang traditional Shashbadeth marching songs or shouted local Harentowith fighting chants. Several young women sang along with the youths with their arms wrapped around their young warriors’ necks. One of the youths hailed Zeltogath in a slurred voice and held out a wine skin. Zeltogath waved his hand and said no thank you. He continued on and heard the youth mumble something and a girl laugh.

“A few hours from now they’ll either go find another neighborhood group to skirmish with or cut each other up.” Zeltogath thought. “Or maybe even the Harentowith Home Guard will come and keep the peace, but that is not likely in this neighborhood.”

Zeltogath marched on through the silent market place and resumed his brooding. He was preoccupied with his feelings for Lady Hastis. A vague feeling of dissatisfaction and disappointment seemed to have settled upon him and replaced the buoyant enthusiasm that had hitherto sprouted at the merest recollection of her. There had been moments when he had made her laugh with a natural lack of restraint, but for the most part she seemed so constantly serious. He remembered Eslaka with an impulsive quiver of excitement, but then frowned.

He rounded the corner behind the Ministry into the street where his small stone house stood like a dark shadow behind the stone wall of his garden. As preoccupied as he was with personal matters of state, Zeltogath’s years of wary experience still never allowed him to let his guard down completely. He was conscious of the furtive movements behind him even before he knew it and he whirled and parried his assailant. His mind was instantly clear and he skipped back a pace and reached to draw his épée. His quick reaction seemed to startle his attacker, but only momentarily and the man lunged quickly again with a long dagger. Zeltogath had no time to draw his weapon and could only leap backwards in retreat. His heel tripped on the stone curb of a flagstone sidewalk and he cavorted and spun agilely to land on his feet facing his foe. The man was upon him relentlessly like a charging boar and Zeltogath backed up against the stone wall of his neighbor’s house. He still had not been able to draw his épée. The assailant tensed his muscles for a final conclusive lunge. Zeltogath was dimly aware of pattering foot steps and a blur of motion behind the attacker. The man grunted and sagged to the ground. Blood poured from his neck. Zeltogath whipped out his épée and set himself on guard against any further assault.

The new interlocutor bowed his head toward him. “At your service, sir. I was dispatched by the Council to protect you because they were concerned for your safety during these turbulent and uncertain times.”

Zeltogath blinked. “Well met, sir. And I thank you for your assistance. I was but an arm’s length away from drawing and dangling the rascal on the tip of my épée as he deserved. He came on me quick and almost succeeded, I have to admit.”

The man bent down and wiped his dagger clean on the dead man’s tunic. Zeltogath studied him as he sheathed the dagger. He kept his own épée out in readiness and asked warily. “You said the Council sent you to protect me?”

The man nodded. “That is true. You must be very important to the ruling Oligarchy. I know nothing more than that I was charged to protect you from an assassin. I have done that. I believe you are now safe, or as safe as anyone is in these darkening days of the Empire. Now it would not be wise to linger here longer.”

Zeltogath glanced down at the body and the growing pool of blood at his feet. The man shook his head. “The Harentowith Home Guard will collect the body and dispose of it as a common street criminal. And now sir, I bid you a good night.”

The man turned to go in the direction he came, but foot steps announced the arrival of another witness on the scene and the man abruptly turned and disappeared up the street past Zeltogath’s house. Harvinch came running up. He had seen Zeltogath standing with his weapon out, facing one man and hunched over a body in the street. Zeltogath pointed the tip of his épée at the dead assassin.

“This brute just tried to kill me and that other gentleman stepped in and cut his throat for me.” Zeltogath laughed cheerily. “He told me the Council had hired him to protect me from an assassination.”

Harvinch pushed the dead man’s body over with the toe of his boot for a quick inspection and then squinted down the street after the mysterious benefactor. He frowned.

Zeltogath chuckled. “It looks like the rulers of the Empire value my services greatly to concern themselves with my well being.”

Zeltogath was greatly pleased by the Council’s evident high esteem for him. Harvinch said nothing. He stared down the street and listened to the faint foot steps fading in the distance. Zeltogath clapped him on the shoulder.

“Come, my friend. A cup of wine awaits us within.”

Harvinch shook his head. “Let it wait. There is work for me yet tonight.”

Harvinch started off at a run up the street after the departed man. He ran for several streets and finally heard the man in the next street. He slowed his pace and rounded the corner with his breath pushing out in hard gusts. He saw the man ahead of him and he drew back out of sight and waited to control his breathing. Then he followed the man stealthily for about ten minutes, keeping a good distance behind, until the man entered a tavern. Harvinch hurried up and warily entered the door just behind another patron who had come down the street from the opposite direction. The tavern was crowded, but he spied his quarry greeting a corpulent middle aged man. The corpulent man was attired with fine clothes that showed him to belong to Harentowith’s wealthy class, but he wore no indication or badge of rank. The two men sat at a long wooden table and ordered a pitcher of wine. Harvinch squeezed his massive body between three men who were laughing over a jest and found an empty bench at the table behind the two men. He sat with his back to them. Zeltogath’s benefactor didn’t recognize him and nobody paid any attention at all to him except the serving girl who brought him a small pitcher of wine. The noise in the tavern ebbed and flowed but Harvinch could hear most of the conversation at the table behind him.

“You can stop worrying, Gomthatdrin. That problem has been taken care of.”

“Good. He is useful now so protect him well. But as soon as the Gazpardizik rabble have been driven back to their holes, his turn will come. Watch him close.”

Gomthatdrin drained his cup of wine and left. His contracted associate pocketed the bag of coins that had been left on the table and ordered another pitcher of wine. Harvinch sat and drank his own wine with his back to the man. When he finished his pitcher, he shuffled quietly to the door and bought a handful of fresh strawberries from an old peasant woman who was hawking them from her basket. He stepped out of the tavern and yawned with a languid stretch. A doorway to a small building courtyard across the street from the tavern suggested itself as a convenient observation post. Harvinch occupied himself with a loose strap until the street was empty of drunks and other potentially observing eyes and then slipped quietly into the doorway. He pulled himself back into the shadows and leaned against the wall to wait in as much comfort as possible.

At first Harvinch leaned, then he sagged, and finally he sat down and leaned his back against the stone wall as one hour passed into a second. As the second hour was waning into a third, Harvinch woke with a start and a stiff crick in the upper part of his back. He cursed himself and scrambled to his feet. The street was empty. He crossed the street and opened the tavern door. A flood of soft light and semi coherent noise gushed out. Right in front of him, staring him right in the face, was the man he had been following. The man had his arm around the shoulders of another man and they were both singing an old song about a soldier who left Harentowith to fight on the southern borders and died without ever seeing his beloved city in the springtime again. The man smiled at Harvinch and lapsed into the chorus. Harvinch closed the door and retreated back to his post across the street. He was relieved that the man was still there, but another anxiety was now pressing him urgently. He leaned back against the wall and settled in to wait again. He stared across the street at the closed tavern door. His leg jiggled uncontrollably. He cursed. He emerged from his observation post and darted quickly into an alleyway where he promptly relieved his urgent need against the stone wall.

Harvinch stepped out of the alleyway wiping his hands on his tunic and bumped solidly into Gomthatdrin’s agent. The man staggered back cursing and looked up at Harvinch in surprise. He was lurching slightly but holding his wine well. He growled another curse and flung up one hand in an irritated gestured as he turned and continued on his way. He weaved a few steps up the street leaving indignant comments on Harvinch’s coordination in his wake. Harvinch drew his dagger and cut the man’s throat.

Chapter 19 Captives of Gazpardizik

The Gazpardizik warriors stopped and made camp that evening in a small clearing that they had apparently used the previous evening. They had taken their prisoners back up the road to Tokhamut while the main body of the troop continued on towards the Fortress Erpor. The warrior with the blue feathered helmet had ridden silently in front of the prisoners in the ox wagons all afternoon. The other warriors had exchanged jokes and occasionally the warrior with the blue feather laughed quietly with them. None of the warriors spoke Shashbeth and nobody had tried to communicate with Palriken or the women.

The warriors ground grain by hand and baked bread stuffed with dried meat. Several had taken off their helmets and Palriken noticed they all had long braided topknots with the front half of their scalp shaved. One warrior boiled water and brewed a fragrant tea from dried leaves in a copper pot. All the warriors gathered around the pot and helped themselves to the tea with small wooden cups that each carried in his personal belongings. One warrior offered a cup to each of the women but they refused silently. Palriken sipped the tea and found it bitter. He tried to place the taste but it was not like any herb he was familiar with. He signaled with gestures that he needed to relieve himself and a guard took him to the woods and waited patiently while he defecated. The guard then escorted the three women to the trees and turned his shoulder to them as they attended to their personal needs.

After eating, the warriors stood in a group by the fire giggling. One of them made a comment and thrust his chin towards the women and the rest guffawed loudly. He strutted in front of the women and displayed his erection. Palriken closed his eyes and prepared himself to witness the inevitable rapes that he had been expecting since the women were captured. The women had also been tensely anticipating a savage violation and looked at the man in silent, fatalistic horror. They were certain that their long delayed torment was about to begin. The man swaggered in front of them and gyrated his hips suddenly to make his erection bounce and waggle. The warriors behind him exploded with nervous mirth. They shouted encouraging raillery at him and he turned back to them and made a jest and they laughed heartily once again. Then he knelt down in front of the cowering women with his erection pointing stiffly at them and spoke to them in a tone that struck Palriken as being surprisingly friendly and even cajoling. The man spoke at length and appeared to be trying to convince the women of something, but the women just cringed and hid their faces. The other warriors stood a good distance behind him and followed the one sided dialogue with eager anticipation. Palriken didn’t want to watch the fate of the unfortunate women, but finally his curiosity overcame him and he opened his eyes and watched the man’s earnest supplication. The women never looked up. The man finally stopped talking. He swiveled around on his knees and looked back at his comrades with a puzzled expression. Then he shrugged and got up and walked away. The rest of the warriors followed him and they sat cross legged around the fire and discussed the interaction in subdued tones. Palriken watched them in stunned disbelief. The women still huddled together on the ground with their faces buried in each others robes.

Chapter 20 The Bathhouse

Zeltogath waited on a stone bench at the entrance to the public baths, one of the few remaining in operation. Summer was approaching fast and the warmth of the midday sun flushed his face. He watched the tendrils of smoke waft up from the chimney of the charcoal furnace that heated the water. The smoke floated off into the peaceful puffs of cloud that hung gently suspended over the restless, apprehensive capital. His mind drifted also from its habitual topography of worry and dilemma and soared effortlessly to unspecified pleasant places in the serene heights of the bright blue heavens. A boot prodded his foot and he woke with a start to see the grinning face of his old comrade in arms.

“Fowgis! I’m glad to see you back.” He jumped up from his stone bench and embraced the prince. “I heard of your exoneration by the Council and I was relieved to think that you would be riding with us to help stem this Gazpardizik incursion.”

“Yes, we shall ride together as in the old days, each at the head of his army.” Fowgis grinned and clapped Zeltogath on his shoulder. Zeltogath frowned and shook his head.

“It is not I who will lead the Imperial force. The Council has placed General Sanathoth in command. I am officially attached to his staff in auxiliary capacity only.”

Fowgis started. “Sanathoth! Those damn fools! He is no better than General Kusi. But he is a faithful believer in the Shashbadeth gods and that is what counts with the Oligarchy. If I had known this, maybe I would have stayed home with my troops. Still,” he went on more calmly, “this incursion appears to be a situation that requires sober response. But while we can, let us profit from the benefits of Imperial civilization, or what’s still left of it anyway.”

An hour later, their limp, naked bodies were still submerged in scented warm water. Fowgis’ bodyguards were just discernible to Zeltogath through the steamy fog even though they lounged a scant few paces away. He sipped his wine and let the heat flow through him. He felt completely relaxed for the first time since… but that was of no concern. His mind randomly worked its way back to the here and now. A frown perched itself in its accustomed place on his brow once more. A question surged upwards from the depths of his intellect.

“I sometimes wonder why you take the trouble to help defend the Empire.” He glanced over at Fowgis who had lowered his mouth under water and was happily blowing bubbles. “You are not required to do so and you put yourself at greater risk than the members of the Council themselves ever would. And you are not always in agreement with them despite your long standing alliance.”

Fowgis raised his head and answered languorously. “The Oligarchy is at least a familiar adversary that I can deal with easily. My military support is advantageous to the Council and we coexist peacefully. Gazpardizik on the other hand is another matter. They are an undefined factor in the balance of our external politics. It used to be a more simple matter when they were nothing more than wild, belligerent tribes. But now they have grown in power and sophistication. The same day that the emissaries of the Council brought the verdict of the tribunal hearing, merchants arrived at my door bearing news of the subjugation of Tokhamut by Gazpardizik. They described the Gazpardizik invasion as an unexpected onslaught that overwhelmed the Tokhamut home guard with almost no resistance. In place of screaming mobs of pillaging savages, apparently well disciplined troops took position at strategic points and dictated the terms that made Tokhamut a tribute paying vassal state. There is rumor of a strong leader at the head of this invasion who has reasoning powers to be reckoned with. The wealth of Tokhamut, with its silver mines, iron, grain, and trade, is now in the hands of this leader.”

A man with an oiled and braided beard approached and Fowgis’ bodyguards diligently verified that he bore no arms under his thin gossamer robe. They allowed him to pass and he bowed at the edge of the steaming pool.

“Good afternoon, sires.” The man flashed a disingenuous toothy smile. “Could I possibly interest the gentlemen in a visit to our upstairs salons? The house has a variety of delights on display for the gentlemen to complete their relaxation this afternoon. We have sweet delicacies from the far corners of the Empire and beyond, as well as our own Shashbadeth jewels. We are the oldest bathhouse in Harentowith, but we have some of the youngest treasures.”

Fowgis declined with a sigh. “But you go, my friend, if you have the appetite.”

Zeltogath shook his head and the man withdrew with an obsequious bow. Fowgis reached back for his cup and took a sip of wine. “The last several years have seen my enthusiasm for the flesh diminish.”

The two friends leaned back against the glazed tiles of the bath and gazed ahead torpidly at the steamy water surface. “You never met my wife, Zeltogath, as you have never been to my home. You must come some day, if only to see my library.” Zeltogath stifled a groan and nodded. He had great respect and admiration for Fowgis and, although he dreaded the idea, he thought he might humor his friend some day and allow him to show him the library that gave him such pride.

“She bore me sons, but was no companion.” Fowgis went on. “She was a pretty woman, but she did not possess an inquisitive mind. She would have faithfully followed the traditions and gods of whatever people she was born to. In fact, she would have argued furiously in favor of her own regardless of who that might be. They would all be the same to her. Even my sons are not companions. They resemble her more in mind and intellect, even though one would say their faces are like mine. I do have a servant girl. She also is not what one would call companionship, but she provides the basic physical needs like food and the occasional moment when the life force still stirs. The gods of the Oligarchy appear like stuffed scarecrows for ancient, ignorant and frightened people, but I despair at the lack of their replacement. If we had only false gods before, what is this godless new world then? What am I fighting to preserve? And who am I fighting to preserve it for, my sons that would be satisfied with the intellectual challenges of peasant life? Where is my hope for the future? The desolation of my soul shrivels my desire.”

Zeltogath knit his brow as he gazed through the steamy mist. “I have always fought because I am a soldier.”

“Dogs fight because they are dogs.” Fowgis yawned.

Zeltogath shook his head ruefully. Then he quickly turned and splashed his friend. “Roof! Roof! Roof!” he barked.

Fowgis jerked back and wiped the water from his eyes with a choking laugh. He tossed the remnants of his wine cup at Zeltogath who opened his mouth and flicked his tongue at the red rivulets as they coursed down his cheeks.

“My dear long winded Fowgis,” he laughed. “I must admit there is something in what you say. It was never my place to ask questions, but you do so with such eloquence.”

“There is much canine in all of us.” Fowgis rose dripping from the water. “Come. We will leave in the morning and set out to meet General Sanathoth. The Imperial army is forming at the ford of the Zoldonithilas River. I will ride with you most of the way and then join my men as they march from the north.”

Outside in the street, the two slightly wrinkled warriors still glowed with perspiration as they bade each other good day. A cleaning man from the bath house vigorously swept the horse manure from the flagstones directly in front of his establishment and pushed it into a little ditch just down the street. He swatted his broom at a dog that was arching its back to void itself next to one of the stone pillars of the bath house entrance and the dog scooted away to conduct its operation in peace elsewhere. The cleaning man cursed after it. Fowgis and Zeltogath took no notice of these pedestrian details. Fowgis stretched lazily and then straightened his Shashbadeth style tunic.

“And you, Zeltogath? Will you be leaving someone behind on this new campaign?”

Zeltogath reflected on his prospects with Lady Hastis and admitted to himself that his fascination was nothing more than a fleeting dream that he could reach out to but never touch. The warm smile of Eslaka and her musical greeting, “Ricto theas”, flashed through his mind. Then he shook his head brusquely. “No.”

Fowgis looked keenly at his friend for a moment. The corners of his mouth twitched with the faintest hint of a smile. “Till tomorrow then!”

Zeltogath began walking down the hill towards the marketplace. He paused for a moment at the intersection of a street that cut diagonally across to the far side of the marketplace where Eslaka lived. Then he abruptly jerked his back stiffly upright and marched quickly on towards his house.

Chapter 21 Arrival in Tokhamut

The guards shouted to each other and several of the warriors spurred their horses and galloped ahead. The remaining warriors waited tensely. Palriken sat up in his wagon and peered up the road. He could hear pounding hooves now, quite a few of them. They were approaching fast. They waited. Cries burst the warm tranquility of the late spring morning and the pounding hooves and shouting voices moved rapidly towards them. Several riders rounded the bend in the road at full speed, with the warriors right behind them in pursuit. More Gazpardizik warriors poured around the bend after them. The warriors shouted and the guards on the wagons jumped to the ground and grabbed their spears. The warriors caught up to one of the riders and thrust a spear into his back. The man tumbled with a cry and the warrior dismounted. Palriken saw the glint of a sword blade before the pack of pursuing warriors swirled past, blocking his line of sight. The two remaining riders were within a hundred paces of the wagons now and were bearing down hard as if they intended to blast right through the guards blocking the road. They pounded ahead furiously. The guards placed themselves together in a defensive stance with spear butts anchored against the ground and tips bristling outwards. The riders parted and veered to the edges of the road in an attempt to sweep around the wagons and the guards. The guards surged forward towards one of the riders with lunging spear thrusts. The rider turned his horse sharply to avoid the spear points and his horse crashed into a large shrub by the roadside. The rider lurched and held on desperately. He clung to his reins for an instant and then plunged sideways into the shrub. His horse galloped down the road after the other rider who had by passed the wagons on the far side. The guards rushed in and hauled him out screaming and thrashing and biting. One of the guards clubbed him with an iron headed mace and the man lay stunned with his helmet split and blood coursing down the side of his face. About a dozen warriors raced past the wagons in chase of the last rider and the rest halted their sweating horses and spoke excitedly with the guards.

The fugitive was also evidently a Gazpardizik tribesman by his thread bare black and white striped tunic and distinctive long topknot, worn by all Gazpardizik men. However, his leggings were frayed and the customary colored feathers sewn into the hems of the trousers had worn off. The most striking aspect about the man was his face. Palriken had never seen a Gazpardizik man without his face painted. Without the customary red and white paint, Palriken could see the man’s facial features and noticed with interest that the Gazpardizik people seemed to be more angular and lighter skinned than the Shashbadeth race, although it was true that the people of the Empire had been mixed so often over the millenniums with the blood of immigrants and conquered populations that it was not easy to describe the typical citizen of the Empire.

After a brief discussion, the man’s throat was cut and his body was dragged off the road into the brush. The warriors chasing the last rider returned leading two horses. The entire column formed up and resumed the march to Tokhamut. Several of the warriors that had just joined them rode past the wagons and peered at the women. One of the guards called out a loud comment in a disparaging tone and the warriors shook their heads and rode on.

Towards midday, they began passing farmhouses and soon came to a small town at the intersection with another wide road. At the outskirts of the town, a group of Gazpardizik warriors lounged under the boughs of a large tree, drinking tea from their little wooden cups. One of them put on his blue feather adorned helmet and walked over to the road. He listened to the warrior’s report and nodded approvingly. One of the guards climbed down from his wagon and sauntered over to the warriors under the tree. He pulled out his wooden cup and helped himself from the pot. He said something to the seated warriors and they laughed. The lounging soldiers called out to the mounted warriors and they exchanged friendly comments. The wagon guard finished his tea and returned to the wagon and the column continued into the town.

They passed brick houses with dusty gardens where men sprawled on couches in the shade. Other men, short, squat and dark men, grilled meat over smoky fire pits. Thickset women served drinks to the reclining men on the couches. Palriken knew that slavery was said to be common in Tokhamut, an institution that had faded out centuries ago in Shashbadeth. It had never been officially abolished but had been gradually replaced by a class of independent farmers and wage earning urban laborers during the long period of political turbulence and instability in the waning days of the Empire’s golden age when wars and political strife had reduced the populations and driven labor wages to unprecedented high levels.

At the junction with the road that led southeast towards the Gazpardizik homeland, a vast brick warehouse loomed over a dusty square. Vacant vendor stalls and bare tables were the only occupants of the square. A convoy of loaded wagons stood parked along the edge of the road on the far side of the square. The drivers, all wearing the customary black and white striped tunics of Gazpardizik, crouched in the shade of a tree drinking their bitter tea. The wagon horses stood in a corral munching hay and languidly switching their tails at the buzzing flies that seemed to be the only creatures with enough desire to move in the midday heat.

The guards brought the wagons to a halt and gestured for Palriken and the women to disembark. They entered the cool gloom of the warehouse and waited by the door while the officer with the blue feathered helmet disappeared down the narrow aisles between great stacks of equipment and supplies. A troop of Gazpardizik soldiers sprawled against a wall, some sleeping and others drinking tea quietly. A group of Tokhamut officials were playing a game with painted wooden cards. They glanced up indifferently at the newcomers and then returned to their game. Two Gazpardizik soldiers leaned on their spears and watched the game with curiosity over the shoulders of the players. Several short dark slaves lounged torpidly on the floor behind the officials. Palriken guessed that the slaves were from the wild tropical land to the north that he had heard of from merchants who traded with Tokhamut. He gazed into the dim shadows of the high ceiling and reflected disconsolately on his prospects.

A sudden movement snapped Palriken from his dark reveries and he saw Tosterich dash towards the wall, clutching her hands to her mouth. One of the guards leaped towards her with spear poised, but halted abruptly as he observed her evident distress. Tosterich braced herself against the wall with one hand and was sick. The guard watched her uncomfortably. Tosterich wobbled uncertainly back to the group and the other women reached out to her with sympathetic arms. The guard sat back on his haunches and leaned against his spear. The women exchanged subdued words with Tosterich and then all three turned and looked at Palriken. Palriken stared at Tosterich’s pallid face and their eyes locked. Her lips parted in a tender smile that revealed her spiky, rotten teeth. Her tired face flushed with a quiet happiness and a sudden joy flooded through Palriken. His eyes gleamed as he stared back at Tosterich in a moment of happiness that they shared in silence.

The officer with the blue feather returned with a gaunt Tokhamut man dressed in an elegantly embroidered tunic and finely crafted sandals. The gaunt man strode up to the women and hastily scrutinized them. Then he spied Palriken and stared at him approvingly. He said something to the officer but the officer just shook his head and pointed to the women. The gaunt man sighed in disappointment and shrugged. He made a curt comment and stalked off. The officer gave a terse command and several of the guards gestured for the women to follow the man. Palriken stood to join them but the officer gestured for him to stay. Tosterich looked back at him with an expression of terror. Palriken watched helplessly as she was escorted into the dim recesses of the warehouse.

Chapter 22 A Visit to the Villa of the Councilor

Hadfar sniffed the bright morning air with delight. “Late spring in Harentowith could be so lovely.” he thought as he gazed at the blossoming flowers in his garden. He noticed one of the serving women collecting flowers in a wicker basket in the next path and he crossed over towards her. He couldn’t recollect her name but he was sure he had seen her about his villa before. He gazed longingly at her round wide bottom. She was bent over a shrub clipping off a few of the blossoms, intent on her work. The Councilor came up behind her and reached for the blossom and laid it gently in her basket.

“There you are, my dear.” he beamed affably at her.

The woman gave a quick twitch of a vacant smile and then her eyebrows shot up and her nose wrinkled as the preciously preserved personal odors of the Councilor overcame her.

“A lovely flower for a lovely lady.” he beamed again, peering down his length of bulbous nose at her rotund hind side. The woman’s cheeks were puffy and her nose matched the Councilor’s in its total lack of linear design. The dearth of charm in these features was not an obstacle in the Councilor’s policy however, as his hand groped and clasped onto the soft mass of her buttock. The woman stared back at Hadfar with bulging eyes and clenched teeth as she bent over the shrub.

“Good morning, Councilor.” A sharp voice rang out across the garden.

The woman hastily gathered her basket and scuttled down the path and disappeared into the house, leaving a trail of blossoms in her wake. Hadfar whirled around to see his visitors framed in the doorway leading to his study. He rushed to greet them with his arms outstretched in welcome. His smile radiated a true happiness because not only did he always relish the society of the better class of Imperial citizen in his home, but he also had reason to believe he had achieved the first step of successful conquest with the serving woman. He had observed with glowing satisfaction that the serving woman hadn’t outright rejected his advances. True, she hadn’t demonstrated reciprocal enthusiasm, but women were always coy, as all men of the world well knew. He looked forward to his next encounter with the woman with a joyous thrill.

“Welcome, my dear friends.” the Councilor gushed.

An officer of evident high rank inclined his head in a sober and respectful recognition of the Councilor’s Imperial status. A well dressed man at his side stretched a thin smile across his lips.

“Colleague.” he greeted Hadfar tersely.

“Rothilofunt, I trust you have been well since our last meeting of the Council. And Madame Dostilichif, may I say what an honor it is to welcome such a jewel of traditional Shashbadeth beauty and grace to my humble home.” Hadfar lowered his head deferentially and raised his arms ceremonially. The pudgy wife of the visiting Councilor narrowed her eyes with aversion as the fruit of Hadfar’s peculiar approach to personal hygiene blossomed before her elegant sensibilities.

“Colleague Hadfar, I wish to introduce you to General Kothelink. He is a staunch defender of the Empire and its true ancient religion and he has just returned to the capital from the East, where fire and sword are the order of the day.”

“Well met, General. It is a great honor.” Hadfar grasped the general’s hand with both of his own and beamed warmly at him. The general stood stiffly with dour dignity and regarded him with an expressionless gaze. “But come, my friends.” Hadfar beckoned with a sweeping gesture to some stone benches under an arbor. “Let us sit and take refreshment and you can inform me of the news of the day. You!” he spun and shouted into the doorway of the house. A blockhead of a servant that he had never seen before – where did they find such oafs? – stuck his head out apprehensively. “Bring some food and drink for the guests. Some of that Notofo wine if there is any left.”

The blockhead’s head disappeared and Hadfar returned to his guests. Councilor Rothilofunt seated himself and his wife promptly occupied the space on the far side of his bench, leaving no opportunity for their gracious host to impose more than the minimum of personal hospitable consideration. The blockhead of a servant set a pitcher of red wine, a painted wooden platter of pastries, and four ceramic cups on the round stone table. Hadfar smiled sweetly at him and in a sudden bloom of good humor and generosity, he held up the platter to him and offered him a pastry.

“Thank you, my good fellow. Have a pastry.”

The blockhead froze in sudden confusion and stared rigidly at his employer. Hadfar pushed the platter towards him with a beckoning smile. “Go ahead. Have one.”

The blockhead reached out with a shaking hand and nervously took a pastry. He stood with his hands at his side, calculating the means of his exit. Councilor Hadfar thrust the platter at him once more. “Take another.”

The blockhead gawked at him incredulously. The Councilor pointed the platter at his chest and he hesitantly took another pastry with an expression of extreme discomfort. The Councilor beamed at him and leaned across the table to offer the platter to Dostilichif. The blockhead of a servant disappeared discreetly into the house.

Hadfar toyed delicately with an almond and peach paste cracker and sighed. “One must never forget as we toil with our burdens of state that it is the people who are the foundation of the Empire.”

Dostilichif gave an appalled look of reproof. Her husband fidgeted discontentedly with his wine cup. General Kothelink remained motionless and unruffled. Hadfar bit off the tip of the cracker and slowly dissolved the sweet pastry on his tongue. It was a specialty of the hot climate in the northwest corner of Shashbadeth and he reflected happily on the many wonders that the Empire encompassed. Then he glowered at the reminder that forces were astir that would destroy the greatest nation that had ever existed. He leaned forward energetically and addressed his guests.

“In these troubled times, it is not difficult to deduce the motives of my visitors.”

“Reports come to my office every hour of disaster.” Councilor Rothilofunt opened the dialogue. “Refugees are flooding out of the eastern province.”

“One of our own estates was plundered and burned!” exclaimed his wife excitedly.

“A commoner in the northeast has taken advantage of the general panic and set himself up as a priest.” Rothilofunt resumed. “He claims the Gazpardizik rampage is atonement from the gods for infidelity and lax morality and he will purge and clean the temples and redistribute the wealth of the Empire. Lath! Simple robbery is what he has in mind!”

“So much for your wonderful common servant!” his wife lashed out bitterly. “The moment they get the chance, their fangs start snapping.”

“We totter at a moment of severe gravity. The stability of two thousand years is threatened once again.” Rothilofunt had edged forward on his bench and now perched agitatedly on the edge.

“General,” Hadfar stared penetratingly at General Kothelink. “We need someone who will stand up to defend the glory of the Imperial tradition, our ancient religion, and our venerable gods.”

“A civilization is only as strong as its institutions. I will do my utmost to preserve the strength and vigor of our great Empire.” General Kothelink answered gravely.

“Splendid!” Hadfar glowed. “A man after my own thinking. Have some more wine.”

Hadfar poured wine into the general’s cup and then refilled the Councilor’s and his wife’s as well. He raised his own cup towards his guests and took an exultant sip. The general partook several stern and moderate sips with no evident sign of gratification.

“Who, if I may ask Councilor, are the generals leading the Imperial forces against the Gazpardizik invasion?” General Kothelink gazed unblinkingly at Hadfar.

Hadfar swallowed his wine and beamed at the stony faced general. “We are blessed to have General Sanathoth available to command our glorious troops.”

General Kothelink stared silently at the Councilor. Rothilofunt stirred uneasily. His wife looked up at him apprehensively. General Kothelink lowered his gaze to the depths of his wine cup. “I see.” he remarked simply.

A taut pause ensued. Councilor Hadfar, as accustomed as he was to spontaneous strategic thinking and the pressures of public speaking, found himself surprised and discomfited by the General’s calm demeanor and tacit disapproval. Rothilofunt bit his lip and looked nervously from one to the other, as if wanting to say something poignant but unsure of exactly what he wanted to say.

Hadfar cleared his throat. “I assure you General, that Sanathoth has an unblemished record of service to the Empire and has the complete support and confidence of the Council.”

“Indeed.” General Kothelink intoned.

“I am not a military man,” Rothilofunt interjected “but without doubt the order of the Empire is in need of a stout defender. There is too much of this turbulence, this controversy…heresy even. We need to deal with the Gazpardizik vermin as swiftly as possible and turn our Imperial design back to internal affairs. Our purity of religious thought has lapsed into dangerous deviations from the truth and many subjects of the Empire are at variance with the ancient teachings. Some go as far as profanely concocting their own private interpretations of divinity…”

“There was a man speaking to a crowd in the marketplace last week.” his wife interrupted. “A dirty, vulgar man and he smelled horrible too.” She stopped short and glanced quickly at Councilor Hadfar, but he gazed back at her unperturbed. “It was disgraceful.” she went on. “Shocking! And quite a crowd was gathered around listening. I thought surely somebody would have the integrity to put the pompous fraud in his place, but those impudent wretches didn’t lift a finger against him. They were mostly low class people, common workers and servants. What right have they to spit in the face of the Empire that has nurtured them and given them everything they have for these two thousand years? Without the strength of the Empire and the protection of our gods, they would be living like rats in filthy holes and huddling with terror.”

“Well put, Dostilichif my dear.” Rothilofunt turned aggressively towards his colleague in the Oligarchy. “You agree with me I’m sure Councilor Hadfar, the greatest danger is coming from within, not from without. We must fasten our hold or the greatness of the Empire will crumble.”

Hadfar nodded. “I am well aware colleague, that we are assailed on many fronts. As an unwavering upholder of the true gods, I personally abhor this deplorable trend to the depths of my being and you have my word that my efforts to stem this decay will never slacken.

“Is Zeltogath not available to lead?” General Kothelink asked quietly.

Another awkward pause followed. Rothilofunt and his wife exchanged surprised glances and both looked with agitation at Hadfar. The Councilor maintained his composure with the discipline born from thousands of confrontational debates. “We do have Zeltogath posted with the army to render any assistance his vast experience and charisma may render.”

“Yet he is not in command?” There was a lurking tone of suspicious indictment in Kothelink’s question.

“Again I must emphasize that the weight of the Council, after thorough deliberation, has placed full trust in the abilities of General Sanathoth to adequately deal with the menace posed to our eastern borders.” Hadfar intoned patiently, but his irritation was beginning to rise. The Council had understood on good authority that this lean old general was decidedly on the side of the ancient traditional institutions and yet here he was indelicately implying that the Oligarchy was somehow remiss in its choice of leaders and its prudent suspicion of the dangerously popular Zeltogath.

“Yes, yes.” bubbled Rothilofunt. “There is no doubt that General Sanathoth is equal to the task of squashing the Gazpardizik pests. What concerns us is the purity of belief within the armed forces. With heretical doctrine increasingly rife, it would be a dangerous situation to have a powerful army swearing allegiance to the wrong persuasion. We need someone absolutely trustworthy to monitor the temperament of the troops and intercede on behalf of the greater good of the Empire should such a drastic measure become a necessity.”

Kothelink regarded the two Councilors impassively. “Is it the will of the Council that I perform this task?” he asked softly.

“It is our fervent wish.” Hadfar answered solemnly.

Chapter 23 The Interpreter Speaks

The Gazpardizik warriors made camp under the thorny trees in the outskirts of town. A small tent was set up for Palriken and a sentry was posted at its entrance. Palriken noted with curiosity that the Gazpardizik warriors slung hammocks from the branches of the trees for their repose. For the evening meal, the warriors brought him a wooden bowl of fried dumplings. Some were stuffed with goat meat, fish or melted cheese, while others were nothing more than balls of fried dough. The warriors washed it down with incessant rounds of their bitter tea and never omitted to bring Palriken a cup when a new pot was brewed. None of the warriors tried to speak or communicate with Palriken, but neither did they show him any signs of hostility. It seemed to Palriken that they considered him a mysterious oddity, but one whose reputation as a powerful fighter merited their respect. He finally fell into an uneasy sleep to the quiet murmuring conversations and laughter of the Gazpardizik warriors hanging like cocoons in the dark trees.

The next morning he awoke to shuffling feet and he poked his head out of the tent to see garrison patrols returning and replacements moving out with an unhurried and casual air. He wondered at the apparent reticence of the Gazpardizik troops to billet themselves in the houses in town which had all seemed to him to be still occupied by their Tokhamut owners and intact to the point of still possessing their slaves. A large pot hung over a fire and one of the warriors brought a cup of tea over to him as soon as he noticed Palriken stir from his tent. Palriken nodded thanks to the warrior. By now, he was becoming accustomed to the red and white painted features, but he could discern no expression in the man’s face as he delivered the cup and turned back wordlessly to attend to his duties at the fire. Palriken ambled over towards the fire and sipped his tea. The sentry posted to guard him followed vigilantly but silently. About a dozen warriors lounged near the fire, chatting and dozing.

A group of warriors arrived and approached Palriken with a determined pace and excited conversation. A warrior with a white feather in his helmet stopped in front of Palriken and stared at him inquisitively. The officer with the blue feather that had captured him continued an explanation accompanied by occasional gestures towards Palriken. The newcomer stared at Palriken and nodded impassively. The officer’s explanation came to a conclusion and a brief silence ensued with the warriors all staring at Palriken. Then the newcomer spoke. Palriken started. He hadn’t recognized the words at first but then he suddenly realized that the man had greeted him in an antiquated traditional Shashbeth salutation. The pronunciation was so grotesquely garbled that he almost burst out in laughter, but his great surprise prevented him from doing more than gaping back stupidly at the man. The man repeated his greeting, laboriously stuttering over the clumsy words. Palriken regained his composure and returned a polite and more current salutation. The man smiled and turned to the onlookers with evident pride in his linguistic aptitude. The warriors crowded around with great curiosity to hear what kind of things the powerful Shashbadeth fighter might say.

The man introduced himself as Zudwik, but offered no other explanation. He asked Palriken who he was and seemed gratified to learn that he was a Shashbadeth nobleman. He made a comment aside to the officer with the blue feather and a murmur went through the throng of warriors clustered about. The man made several more inquiries that Palriken understood with great difficulty and then turned and walked away in consultation with the officer with the blue feather. Several warriors gestured for Palriken to follow.

They walked through the town with Palriken just behind the officer with the white feather and several guards flanking him on either side. Palriken remarked again how the Tokhamut men lounged on benches in their gardens while the short dark slaves indolently performed their domestic tasks. They came again to the dusty plaza in front of the large warehouse. Some tables were piled high with coins and several Tokhamut men were poring over the glittering heaps with wax writing tablets and counting tools. Stacks of wooden chests were lined up in rows and wagons stood by for loading. A Gazpardizik officer with a blue feathered helmet was giving instructions to a Tokhamut man dressed in military garb and he in turn was relaying instructions to the Tokhamut money counters.

They continued on to another encampment on the far side of town, along the road leading to the Gazpardizik homeland. Several large tents faced a grassy open space lined with wooden benches on all sides. Palriken noted that many of the warriors here wore red, blue, or white feathers on their helmets and he deduced that this must be the Gazpardizik administrative center. Behind the tents he saw scores of hammocks swaying gently in the trees. Palriken was led to a small tent and left there under the guard of a sentry. Inside the tent was a small but clean pallet and Palriken lay down and dolefully contemplated his potential fortunes amidst these bizarre people.

That afternoon he was brought to one of the large tents. Zudwik was seated on a reed pallet and he greeted Palriken and invited him to sit on a pallet facing him. Palriken’s eyes fixed on the assortment of objects laid out on a carpet between the pallets and recognized his sword, a small bottle of his apple brandy, his juggling balls, and his chain mail hauberk. A warrior brought cups of tea and silently ducked out again. Zudwik picked up the sword and examined the workmanship of the blade and the sapphires adorning the hilt.

“Why was a man like you traveling alone outside the borders of your land?”

Palriken took a deep breath. He was uncertain how his story would be received. “I was traveling to the Fortress Erpor for business and trade. I had brandy to sell and we also provided entertainment for the troops.”

Palriken pointed to the bottle. “This is the brandy.”

Zudwik opened the bottle and sniffed. He jerked his head back sharply with a grimace. “We do not drink such things in Gazpardizik, although in Tokhamut they do so with eagerness.” he said stiffly. He narrowed his eyes and gazed at Palriken quizzically. “And yet, you are no mere merchant. That is evident from your fighting skill which only comes from many years of training. Also this sword is not the toy of a tradesman.”

Palriken felt his mouth go dry. “I was lord of a large region in Shashbadeth where my family owned the land for centuries. I also was a military leader and fought on many campaigns to protect the borders of the Empire and expand its influence. I led several campaigns into the cold regions to the south against the wild peoples there. Before my inheritance when I was a young junior officer, I served on patrols in the uninhabited lands south of Erpor, but I never met soldiers from your nation. Several years ago, the ruling Oligarchy condemned me to exile on penalty of death and that is why you found me alone in the abandoned lands.”

Zudwik was visibly shocked. “Exiled! Then you have no family! You have no father! That is a terrible punishment.” Zudwik seemed greatly perturbed by the severity of the sentence. “Gazpardizik does not kill his sons.” He shook his head disapprovingly.

Palriken frowned. The three Gazpardizik outlaws that had been slaughtered on the way to Tokhamut were a sharp contradiction to this assertion and he asked Zudwik about them.

“Those men used to belong to Gazpardizik, but they committed grave offenses against the strict military laws proclaimed by the prince for governing the conquered territories and they were killed accordingly. They left the Gazpardizik nation on their own and followed the army and pillaged for their own personal gain. At home, we are in the family. Here, we are an army in another land and the prince gave orders for all the Gazpardizik people for the protection of the Gazpardizik nation. Those outlaws turned against their own family and that is why they were killed. Usually it is not that way.”

Zudwik picked up one of the leather juggling balls and rolled it in his hand. Palriken reached out for it and grabbed the other balls from the carpet. He began nonchalantly juggling three balls and then spun the fourth into the air. Zudwik clasped his hands and a delighted smile lit up his painted features. Palriken juggled the four balls and then caught each one on the descent and tossed them all softly at Zudwik. Zudwik batted them clumsily in the air with his mouth wide open and the balls rolled into various corners of the tent.

“A skill I learned to travel incognito in the Empire after my sentence of exile. We entertained at fairs and towns as I skulked in disguise through the country where I had once been a powerful lord and military leader of distinction. I still had friends that would help, but it was dangerous to be seen with me and fewer and fewer people would permit my visit. I carried what wealth I could when I fled and the ruling Oligarchy took all my lands and possessions soon after.”

Zudwik resumed his sober demeanor. “Why were you exiled by your people?”

“I wasn’t exiled by my people, but by the group of men that holds power in the Empire. They are the guardians of the ancient religion and I, like many thinking people in Shashbadeth, questioned the legitimacy of their old gods. Only I did so imprudently and too publicly.”

Zudwik grunted in concentration. “Does not everyone have their own gods? We have many gods and Tokhamut has gods, but our gods Rortak, the god of the sword, and Koztopokit, the god of darkness, were stronger and they led us to easy victory over the Tokhamut gods.” He paused and stared blankly as he mulled over the implausible ways of the Shashbadeth Empire. “Your laws are strange.” he mused and then continued with solemn conviction. “In Gazpardizik, warriors are valuable and we don’t want to lose them. We are all part of Gazpardizik and Gazpardizik takes care of all his children. He is the father to us all. If a Gazpardizik citizen commits an offense, he submits voluntarily to be tattooed by the council of justice. He is tattooed with an icon describing his offense and this is a compelling deterrent. If the offense is of serious nature, the offender may be shunned during….” Zudwik paused with his brow creased. “I don’t know a word in Shashbeth for this.”

He stared at Palriken with a look of great confusion. He hesitated and then continued tentatively. “In fact, it has been many generations since there was much contact between our peoples and I confess I don’t know how you make yourselves happy in your country. I and some of my men tried to be happy with many of the Tokhamut women and even some Shashbadeth women, but they didn’t seem to understand about being happy. I’m sure the Tokhamut men are happy with their women and some even offered them to us, but there is something strange about their ways. They didn’t make us happy and we don’t understand them. We all want to return home to our Gazpardizik women who make us happy and are happy to be with us.”

Zudwik gazed earnestly at Palriken who stared back in amazement at what he thought he had just understood. The terrifying scourge from the East didn’t seem to be in reality a very competent race of violators. An awkward silence followed as both men regarded each other curiously and searched for the appropriately delicate words.

“Isn’t being happy with a woman the same in all countries?” asked Palriken cautiously.

“I always thought so.” answered Zudwik gravely. “But I had always lived in Gazpardizik with my own people. Now I am not so sure.”

Palriken absorbed the answer contemplatively. “How is…” he began falteringly. “What or how is being happy in Gazpardizik?”

“Well,” began Zudwik confidently, now back on familiar ground. “all of Gazpardizik is happy at the happy time.” He leaned back smiling placidly as if his answer had left no need for further explanation. Palriken returned him a bewildered stare.

“What is happy time?” he enunciated slowly.

Zudwik wrinkled his brow at the unanticipated question. “Happy time is….well that is what we say in our language, but I don’t know the words in Shashbeth. But every night after the evening meal, all Gazpardizik people come to the happy place in their community, and there is tea and music and everybody is happy together.”

Palriken blinked. “Together?”

Zudwik cocked his head with incredulity. “Of course.”

Palriken was astonished. “With anybody?”

“Well no, of course not.” Zudwik responded with mild impatience. “but with anybody that also wants. You can’t be happy with somebody if they don’t agree, but usually this is not such a problem. In Gazpardizik, we are taught that it is blessed to make our people happy and the ones that volunteer to make others happy are highly respected and praised. Of course,” he paused and then continued with an apologetic reticence, as if acknowledging that he was laboriously stating the obvious, “sons and mothers do not partake together. That would be…” he searched for an appropriate Shashbeth word, “irregular.”

Zudwik gazed inexpressively at Palriken who strained to assimilate the information he was receiving.

“What about the fathers?” Palriken advanced cautiously.

“Gazpardizik is father to us all.” Zudwik said with complacency. “And we are all sons and daughters to Gazpardizik.”

Palriken was incapable of response.

Zudwik waved his hand expansively. “So that is why all Gazpardizik people are so obedient to our laws. Nobody in Gazpardizik wants to be excluded at the happy time when all tattoos are visible.”

Palriken’s mouth hung open as he stared at Zudwik who stared unblinkingly back at him. “What about the children, where do they live?”

“They live with the women. When the boys come of age they go live in the boys’ barracks and learn the arts of war and a useful trade. When they come of age to be men, they move to the men’s barracks and become warriors and tradesmen. But all the young children stay in the women’s barracks.”

“Don’t men and women ever live together?”

Zudwik gave a creaking chuckle and a dismissive wave of the hand. “Some do, but not many. And usually just for a short time. The people prefer to be part of Gazpardizik.”

“In the Empire, it is our custom for men and women to live together with their children.” Palriken responded, more from lack of anything more coherent to say than from zealous conviction. Zudwik snorted contemptuously. Palriken deliberated on this alien social structure. “I can’t imagine your happy time. Do you like living like that?”

“Oh yes. I am very happy.” Zudwik giggled shyly. “I am not very good with the women, but the people are kind and even though they make jokes about my clumsiness, they are kind to me.” he said guilelessly. “The Gazpardizik women are so nice. The women notice when I am left out on the side and they come to invite me and include me in the pleasure because they say I am a nice man.” Zudwik looked down at his hands in his lap. He repeated simply “They say I’m a nice man.” He looked blandly at Palriken. Several seconds went by as Palriken waited for him to continue, but Zudwik just placidly stared back with no expression and no apparent sense of urgency to express further thoughts or words.

Zudwik broke the impasse by calmly reaching out and fingering Palriken’s chain mail hauberk with admiration. “Our metal smiths are skilled at working with silver and making beautiful jewelry and ornaments, but in Shashbadeth you have iron working of higher quality. You make better armor and weapons, tools and cooking pots. I will show this mail hauberk to the prince. He will be interested in its design. You see my armor. It is not so well made.”

Palriken leaned forward and studied the iron scale plates stitched onto Zudwik’s leather jerkin. It was a simple concept that didn’t require the delicate sophistication of manufacturing thousands of tiny interlocked rings of iron.

“Gazpardizik is now trying to learn newer and better ways. In the past we were a stubborn people, always keeping to our old ways even when we lost great battles against your empire. Now we want to learn to make better arms for our soldiers and tools for our farmers and craftsmen. Our people grow in number and need more and more food and materials. Even the paint for our faces is in short supply. We always need materials for making face paint and we trade at high prices for it. I myself was a minor official overseeing this trade when I was a young man. That is how I learned to speak Tokhamut and your own language. Shashbeth is spoken in all the marketplaces of the world and often used when traders from distant lands don’t speak any other known languages. So I learned to speak your tongue even though I have never been to your land or met any of your people.”

“Was it the shortage of food that inspired your people to attack Tokhamut and Shashbadeth?” Palriken asked.

“Yes.” Zudwik answered directly. “There is not enough food for the people in our traditional lands. We are growing and we need more food, more materials, more space. We are taking the empty lands that have lain unoccupied between our countries for a hundred years. And since with our brave prince, Gazpardizik is now so strong, it is our destiny favored by the gods that we rule the weaker countries also. Even the Empire is like an old bull with strong but tired legs and is now beset by the young and restless prince who attacks with infinite energy.”

Palriken put his head in his hand. He thought sadly of the ruins of the wonderful Grand Theater of Tolshif and the sublime words of the poet Blothfortis. These were the glorious creations of the Empire that raised the mind of man to astral heights above the pedestrian mire of the mundane. If anything inspired feelings of nostalgia and even loyalty, it was for these grand moments in the history of the Empire when man achieved something more of his potential than just the daily cud chewing of small minds. If anything of value were to be lost if Gazpardizik succeeded in overrunning the defenses of the Empire, surely it would be these moments of intellectual elegance that would be lost forever. Zudwik misinterpreted his apparent melancholy as patriotic zeal.

“Do you mourn so for the country that has exiled you and taken all your possessions?” he asked.

Palriken shook his head and grimaced at the irony that only he perceived. “I mourn for fleeting moments of genius that even the leaders of the Empire do not understand.”

Zudwik looked at him uncomprehendingly. The flap of the tent opened and a warrior brought in a wooden bowl of boiled dumplings and a fresh pot of tea. Zudwik’s eyes lit up at the sight of the dumplings and it was evident that the fleeting moments of genius had fled far from his mind. The two men ate the dumplings with their fingers and washed it down with the bitter tea. Palriken realized that he was developing a taste for the tea and even looking forward to the warriors appearing with fresh cups. Zudwik bit off half of a dumpling and smiled. He showed the white inner stuffing to Palriken. “Fish.” he said. “This is a favorite fish in Gazpardizik. We are lucky to find it in a lake here.”

The two men ate in silence once more. The sounds of flutes and laughing voices could be heard in the grassy square outside.

“Did the Tokhamut defense put much resistance against your invasion?” Palriken asked.

Zudwik licked his fingers. “No. Not at all. Tokhamut was in the middle of a week long religious festival when everybody drinks strong liquor and gambles all week on card games. Have you seen their cards? Rich men have painted cloth ones and the common folk use wood. They are round like coins and either painted or carved with pictures of animals. One lion can beat one ram, but 3 rams beat one lion. I don’t know the rules. Our soldiers are learning the game. Anyway Tokhamut had not had war for two hundred years and they sent a peace delegation to our King when we began expanding our realm. The prince entertained their delegation and sent them home happy with many gifts. Then he used the winter to prepare his troops for campaign and in the spring Gazpardizik was here in force. When the religious festival was over and the heads of the Tokhamut people cleared, they found that they had new masters.”

Zudwik paused and the two men eyed each other. Palriken felt uneasy under Zudwik’s bland stare. He resisted an urge to finger his tea cup that would betray nervousness. Zudwik sat motionless and looked at him with unblinking eyes. He finally broke the awkward pause and continued.

“We have a strong king and many say an even stronger prince. King Hasdergish has been king for more than twenty winters. After the Battle of Rizgrezit River, the Gazpardizik were a sad people, very disheartened and angry at our humiliation and defeat. The old king was no longer respected and the people turned to follow Hasdergish. He was a strong warrior who fought at Rizgrezit River and learned that fighting a battle was not the same as just fighting.”

It occurred to Palriken as Zudwik talked that Rizgrezit River was the Gazpardizik name for the Tankro River and the last great shattering Shashbadeth victory over Gazpardizik. He listened, fascinated with Zudwik’s lumbering narrative.

“He convinced the men to listen to him and to prepare themselves well before risking battle again with your nation. Shashbadeth is strong. We can’t chase the Shashbadeth people away and drive them into the trees. Shashbadeth knows how to fight battles and win and then fight more battles. Gazpardizik always fought and took prizes and went home. Gazpardizik needed to learn how to fight battles against a foe like Shashbadeth. King Hasdergish was a good teacher. He had one brilliant student that outshone all the rest and now rises like a flaming star on a clear night. As a boy, Torsgish was a champion in all the contests and drew the attention of all Gazpardizik. King Hasdergish took him as his own personal favorite and groomed him to be heir to his position as king of Gazpardizik. Prince Torsgish now overshadows even his strong king in strength, weapon skill, battle organization, and government of peoples. He is the glorious heir of King Hasdergish and the mighty son of the Gazpardizik nation. He is the best and the bravest and the strongest of the Gazpardizik people. He is our leader!”

Zudwik’s usually deadpan expression had become increasingly animated during his description of the prince and he now glowed with a crashing emotional crescendo that left beads of perspiration on his brow above his bulging, feverish eyes. The hairs on the back of Palriken’s neck bristled. He was astonished. He had never seen Zudwik demonstrate even a tiny fraction of the emotion that he now radiated. Zudwik let go a long breath and resumed his usual placid demeanor.

“We will follow Prince Torsgish to all his victories.” he said in a calm, matter of fact tone.

Palriken sat, still riveted by Zudwik’s display of fervor. Zudwik gazed back at him, once again devoid of expression. Another pause ensued and then Zudwik rejoined his narrative.

“When Torsgish was just a boy, he was taken to battle by his patron, King Hasdergish. He was an athletic youth and adept at learning martial arts and the king was very proud of him. When he was still a young man, no more than fifteen winters, Torsgish killed the King’s councilor during an argument at a feast. Torsgish wanted to make some changes in military administration, but the King was against the idea. They argued and grew angry at each other. Then the King’s councilor scorned Torsgish as a boy who didn’t know his place. Torsgish drew his sword and split the councilor’s head at the feast table and then walked out. King Hasdergish never did anything to punish him for his great crime. The King wasn’t capable of raising a hand against his favorite even though his anger was great. Some people even said that the king loved the prince in an irregular way and even wanted to touch him in happy time. I don’t believe this spiteful gossip but it is true that the king did nothing about this crime and nobody else ever did anything about it either. Such was the respect for our young lion, especially when everyone could see that the changes he made were great improvements for our army. But a distance grew between the prince and his King and Torsgish strove hard for the King’s forgiveness and respect. Torsgish led several campaigns against Gazpardizik’s neighbors and always came home to the King with glorious victories. The King had no choice but to welcome him with open arms and lavish feasts in his honor. Now, the wounds of the past are healed and the two are united in great affection as they make their plans of conquest together.”

Zudwik ceased speaking. Palriken was uncertain of what to say next and Zudwik’s vacant look revealed no guiding indication. Zudwik called out a command and Palriken’s escort guard came into the tent. Zudwik stood up and led Palriken out of the tent. Several officers were playing a game in the grassy square with large carved wooden figures. The benches lining the square were filled with tea drinking officers watching the game and loudly commenting on the strategies being employed. The wooden figures were about three feet tall and Palriken realized they were carved soldiers, some on horseback and some infantry, bearing spears or swords. Zudwik stopped and watched the game. He asked a question to an officer seated in front of him who answered without turning his gaze from the game. Zudwik nodded and watched in silence. Palriken felt completely forgotten and focused on the game as well. It evidently was a mock battle in miniature with both sides taking turns. He ran his eyes across the spectators and noticed that bets were being wagered. A group of warriors with black feathers in their helmets wandered up and stood behind the benches watching. A warrior on duty at the fire brought cups of tea to the newcomers and then stood with them, chatting and pointing out various figures on the grass. An officer with a blue feathered helmet strode up and gave Zudwik a brief report. Zudwik scowled with apparent disappointment and sighed. He started off with the officer but then turned back suddenly as if just remembering Palriken.

“At dawn we leave for Gazpardizik. We are taking you to see the prince.”

Chapter 24 The Singer

Eslaka strolled through the marketplace, indolently inspecting items of clothing and attempting to ignore the steady flow of clever sardonic wit from Pithimiantok, who followed her doggedly. She had met the librarian several times in the company of Zeltogath before he had left the capital without even bidding her farewell. She gazed absently for several minutes at a silver brooch inlaid with lapis lazuli while she reflected on Zeltogath’s inconstancy. He seemed so happy when they were together and he was so kind and attentive to her in little ways, but she knew he hadn’t forgiven her for not telling him about her son. She also thought bitterly about his inability to consider her seriously as a lover since she was an immigrant who spoke limited Shashbeth and with a pronounced foreign accent. She resolved that she would learn to speak the language of the Empire as well as the finest ladies of Harentowith.

Pithimiantok broke off a lengthy anecdote and snatched up the brooch. “A fine present for a lovely lady!” he pronounced triumphantly. He turned and paid the vendor a handsome sum that the vendor immediately stuffed into the recesses of his tunic. Pithimiantok turned and dramatically proffered the brooch to Eslaka who scowled at him in great annoyance. She turned away with a sharp cluck.

“I did not ask you to buy me any presents.”

Pithimiantok’s face went scarlet. The vendor bent over and occupied himself with some particular matter that evidently consumed all his attention. Pithimiantok tucked the brooch into his coin pouch to give to Eslaka when she was in a softer, more receptive mood and hurried after her. He caught up to her and accompanied her silently for a few moments. He opened his mouth, paused, and then offered tentatively.

“Actually, it was not such a pretty brooch, not pretty enough for such a beautiful woman as you, Eslaka.”

Eslaka wrinkled her nose and looked away. Ahead, music of a flute playing against a chorus of young women’s voices wafted towards them over the din of commerce. Eslaka strained her neck and they pushed through the masses of shoppers and idlers to the sound. A crowd had gathered around a short crude stage put together from wooden boxes. A man was standing on the boxes and singing down at the onlookers and gesturing with his carved wooden flute. He wore a wide brimmed, leather hat and a leather vest, but his chest was bare, revealing a long red scar across his ribs. His face was unshaven and he glared down at his audience with fierce penetrating eyes over his long hooked nose. He sang a romantic ballad in a gruff powerful voice with two women swaying behind him and singing a delicate background harmony. He lowered his voice to a rumbling chant and talked the last verse, staring with his piercing eyes at Eslaka with the women singing their high harmony all the while. He wheeled slowly in front of his chorus singers and glared into Eslaka’s eyes as he sang of a woman he had loved long ago.

“Your breasts were like hills in the summer

Where rose petals twirl in the wind,

Every day I walk on your tombstone

And lie with you once more again,

How many miles will I ceaselessly wander

Where the shadows of loneliness gather,

Useless steps and ever hopeless roaming,

Till my broken legs rest with yours forever?”

His song ended and the man stared at Eslaka while the chorus women collected contributions. He stared straight at Eslaka, sometimes looking her directly in the eye and sometimes down at her breasts. He spat a dark stream of birch bark tar juice on the ground. She felt a hypnotic attraction to the penetrating, almost insolent and menacing man. Pithimiantok, scandalized by the singer’s brazen behavior, jumped in front of him and chastised him loudly in his squeaky voice. The singer turned, gave him a brief glance, and shoved him over backwards. A quick reflexive twitter escaped from Eslaka’s lips, but she immediately recovered her sobriety. Pithimiantok bubbled with indignant protests.

“You pathetic fart of a money lender’s clerk!” the singer scoffed. “I am only a dirty city rat now, but I have fought with the great Zeltogath at the Battles of Tankro River and Tagpashok. I found the ear of Zeltogath in the blood on the ground and gave it to him after the battle of Tagpashok. He told me to keep it in remembrance of him and that I did, right here on this chain around my neck till it rotted away.”

“You know my ricto theas, Zeltogath!” Eslaka exclaimed.

The singer looked long and hard at her. “I hear, beautiful Madame, two things. First, by the sound of your words that you are a foreigner come to live here in the Imperial Capital. Also, from the sound of your voice, that you love the Empire’s greatest son.”

Eslaka didn’t reply, but beamed with unmistakable joy to hear talk of her lover. “Tell me.” She implored. “What kind of man he was.”

The singer narrowed his hard eyes to slits. “He is a man to sing songs about. If there were more like him, we would clean out the Oligarchy. You do well, Madame,” he turned his head and spat forcefully on the ground “to love such a man.” He looked her critically up and down. “I hope he loves you too.”

One of the women offered the hat and Eslaka dropped in two large coins. The singer smiled slyly. The second woman called a low urgent warning and promptly disappeared into the crowd. Three guardsmen of the Oligarchy burst through the throng and rushed at the stage. The singer threw down his flute, drew his épée in a flash and drove it through the first guardsman’s eye. He parried the second guardsman and pricked him on his sword arm. The man jumped back but his guard was distracted just enough for the singer to puncture his entrails. The third guardsman stopped short in dismay at the quick deaths of his comrades. He hesitated and the singer regarded him coldly. Several chilly seconds passed. The crowd, including Pithimiantok, had retreated to a safe radius from the combatants. Eslaka, as if frozen in a trance, stood rooted to the spot with the dying guardsmen gurgling their last tormented breaths at her feet. The singer feinted, the guardsman parried the expected thrust, and the singer spat a thick jet of birch bark tar in his face. The guardsman flinched for an instant and the singer buried his épée into the base of his throat. He put his foot on the man’s convulsing chest and withdrew his blade. Eslaka gasped. The singer turned to her and winked.

“Tell your lover that soldier Shorfahunch sends his regards.”

With that, the singer leaped down from his stage, picked up his flute, and vanished in the throng. A great commotion showed that more guardsmen were arriving and Eslaka, noticing that Pithimiantok was no longer to be seen, made a strategic retreat. Pithimiantok pushed his way sullenly through the excited crowd. He burned with resentment at the humiliating treatment from the singer, from his frustration with his desire for Eslaka’s lovely person, and now even at his old companion Zeltogath from many a witty jest at his expense over a jug of wine. He raged at Zeltogath who had wallowed so casually in that lush meadow where he himself was not allowed to graze, even on a professional basis for generous remuneration. He walked aimlessly for some time, but as he neared the far end of the market place he veered and set off with resolve in the direction of the grand villa on top of the hill that belonged to the Councilor Hadfar.

Chapter 25 On the Road to Gazpardizik

The angry whine of mosquitoes woke Palriken but didn’t disturb him. He lay peacefully in the shelter of his hammock and looked up at the flock of frustrated bugs crawling on the fine netting draped over him. The Gazpardizik warriors ran their spears from end to end of their hammocks and hung netting over them, making effective little tents. When it rained, they also hung animal hides over themselves to keep dry. Palriken wasn’t permitted to possess weapons, but one of the warriors cut a straight sapling and gave it to him to use for his netting. They had traveled ten days by horse from Tokhamut and Zudwik had told him they expected to reach Gazpardizik the next day. The sun was up and the warriors had already brewed tea. Palriken had just time to wash down a hunk of bread with a cup of tea before the troupe was mounted and on the way once more.

They had started the journey accompanying a convoy of goods and silver that Tokhamut was obliged to pay in tribute to their new masters, but Zudwik was in haste and had ridden on with a small escort of warriors. Several other Gazpardizik officers of high rank rode with them and also one very nervous Tokhamut magistrate with a miserable demeanor who frequently talked to himself agitatedly in his own language. They had traveled for several days through the dry scrubby savannah southeast of the mountains near the Tokhamut border and gradually entered the rolling forested foothills of the Olgofor Mountains that had for so many years, contained the restless Gazpardizik aggression.

The mood of the warriors was jolly. As they rode along they exchanged light banter, frequently accompanied by the uninhibited giggles that struck Palriken as incongruous in warriors so blasé about decapitating their enemies. Zudwik looked back at his escort with a smile and commented to Palriken as they rode.

“They are happy to be going home. We want the Tokhamut silver, but we are only happy when we are back among our own people, our own women and children. Tokhamut people are very strange and we don’t like them.” He frowned thoughtfully for a moment and then continued. “We considered killing them all, but after much discussion, it was decided that it would take too long. There are many Tokhamut people. This way is better. We go back to Gazpardizik and Tokhamut sends us silver and grain and we only kill them if they stop.”

A roar of laughter broke out behind them, followed by a wave of giggles. Zudwik tittered then explained to Palriken. “There are some very famous and highly honored women who travel and visit the people at the happy time all over Gazpardizik. They have the finest face painters and are very beautiful and there is always a feast when they come. They are very special for the happy time and they receive many fine gifts. The warriors say it would be good if some of these women are visiting when we get back home. It would be a good reward after being away with the cold women of Tokhamut for so many months.”

Zudwik lapsed into a convulsive chuckle. Palriken rode on in silence. He was becoming convinced of the astonishing idea that the Gazpardizik warriors were so rigidly xenophobic that they were actually fastidious even about sex with women if it were not performed within the familiar confines of their customs. His long service for the Empire had taken him to far corners of the known world and introduced him to many outlandish people and tribes and he had never before known warriors who did not consider the women of a conquered people to be the just and valued spoils of war, along with jewels and cattle.

“Do the women of Gazpardizik also paint their faces like the men?” he asked Zudwik.

Zudwik reined in his horse to a sudden stop. Palriken halted abruptly also and gazed into his red and white face to determine any emotional expression. He thought he recognized something akin to shock and amazement.

“The women don’t paint their faces the same way as the men, of course!” he exclaimed. “Men are men! How could their paint be the same? Of course, I forget that you don’t paint your face at all. Is that the way of your people in the Empire or did you just run out of supplies?” Palriken nodded in the negative and Zudwik went on. “And the women of Shashbadeth? Do they not paint their faces? I noticed your women didn’t use paint but I just assumed it was due to lack of supplies while traveling. I didn’t think the people of the Shashbadeth Empire would be so uncultivated, like the Tokhamut savages. Those women! Aaach! The Tokhamut women are awful! And so ugly and dirty, without any paint!”

Zudwik glanced sideways at Palriken as if waiting for an answer. Palriken struggled to collect the tangle of thought debris that Zudwik’s discourse had set stirring. “Ah…oh. The women in Shashbadeth do use some kind of paint on their faces, but perhaps not as much as in Gazpardizik, although I’ve never seen a Gazpardizik woman yet so I can’t say for sure.”

Zudwik looked immensely pleased with this answer. “That proves then, what I suspected. That the Gazpardizik women are certainly the most beautiful of them all. Ha!” He let out a triumphant laugh. “If the women of Gazpardizik are more beautiful even than the women of the Empire, they must surely be the most beautiful.”

Zudwik spurred his horse and the whole column, which had been held up by the brief debate, resumed the march. He looked down the road ahead with a self satisfied beam of contentment. The rest of the Gazpardizik warriors followed along, completely at ease with their ignorance of the intercultural exchange that had just transpired in front of them in an unintelligible foreign tongue.

At midday they stopped and the warriors brewed tea. Palriken was given smoked fish and a hunk of bread. As he chewed the dark bread and watched the warriors around him eagerly serving themselves cups of tea, a strange revelation suddenly struck him about his curious captors. He had never seen any of them touch a drop of strong drink and never witnessed any drunken behavior. His precious brandy, like Tosterich as a foreign woman, was a commodity of no value to them. He thought back on the toils he had labored to carry his precious cargo of apple brandy to the very gates of Fortress Erpor. It would have brought a satisfying price upon delivery. The entertainers alone, with the music, the songs, the acrobatics, the comic theater, and of course the particular pleasures provided by the women, brought in a handsome profit, and he received his percentage of all gain in his position of leader and protector. And now where were they all? He had often found them to be tedious companions, but they had accompanied him and shared the many hardships of several years with him in his difficult times since his exile. Skalith and Polifus had been killed by the Gazpardizik warriors, the two acrobats had deserted him and vanished into the wilds of the abandoned lands, and the women, with Tosterich bearing his child, had been sold into slavery in Tokhamut. Zudwik sat down on the ground next to him and eagerly bit off a large mouthful of smoked fish followed quickly by a chunk of bread. He sat chewing contentedly, staring off at the horizon.

“What price did you negotiate for my brandy?” Palriken asked him.

Zudwik frowned thoughtfully. “At first some of the men were going to dump it out so they could burn the barrels for a fire to make tea. But one of the Tokhamut traders offered us twenty loaves of bread for the barrels and said he would give us plenty of firewood.” Zudwik chortled merrily. “He even gave us two baskets of smoked fish. The same you’re eating now.” He chuckled to himself. “Those Tokhamut traders are clever. You don’t often get a bargain from them.”

Zudwik chewed and gazed off again at the hazy distance with evident self satisfaction. Palriken put his head in hands.

Chapter 26 On the Banks of the Zoldonithilas River

Several days of hard riding after their dawn departure from the capital brought Zeltogath and Fowgis and their entourage to the mustering point at the ford of the Zoldonithilas River. As they crested the hill overlooking the river, a vast city of tents and milling soldiers spread out below them. Harvinch, who had pulled up behind Zeltogath, pointed at a sky blue banner off to the right.

“That’s the Northern Legion.”

Zeltogath nodded. The three men gazed quietly at the scene of military might. It was a reassuring sight. The threat of rampaging savages did not feel so acute in the face of such awe inspiring Imperial power. The little band descended the hill and rode towards the bustling encampment. As they clopped through the quartermaster’s flocks on the outskirts of the camp, sheep and goats scattered in front of them and attentive shepherd dogs raced in circles to keep them in the fold. They rode towards a tent in the center of the camp with a great banner bearing the red and gold colors of the Imperial insignia.

Men that had fought in famous battles with Zeltogath recognized and cheered him as they passed. Zeltogath smiled quietly and waved back to the men, even calling out to a few by name. A soldier dropped his load of firewood and jubilantly ran up to Zeltogath’s horse. He grabbed the bridle and led them on, skipping a clownish dance of joy. Three cooks hovering over a soup caldron raised ladles and goat shin bones in salute. A pair of officers abruptly halted their fencing joust and thrust their saber tips into the air with boisterous hurrahs. Two soldiers carrying an impala slung from a pole called out to him and one raised a dagger with his free hand. More and more soldiers came running to see the man that could walk anonymously through the streets of Harentowith, but was well known and respected on the front. Cheering soldiers lined their path as they continued their triumphant parade. A stubborn goose refused to cede passage and reared up and flapped its wings angrily. The soldier holding Zeltogath’s bridle leaped towards it with a mighty kick and the bird went sprawling with a squawk of indignation. Laughter and cheers rang out and the soldier grinned.

“And so we shall kick Gazpardizik!” Zeltogath called out.

The men roared. The goose was promptly decapitated and en route to a soup caldron. The procession stopped in front of the headquarters tent. Staff adjutants carrying lists of supplies on wax tablets and couriers darting out in grave haste on errands all stopped in their tracks and stared. A squad of spearmen stood guard at the entrance. Broad grins lined their faces. No such grins were to be seen on the men behind them however. General Sanathoth had emerged from the tent and stood scowling with several officers of his staff. He saluted the new arrivals and disappeared back into his tent without a word. General Kothelink swept the proceedings with his dour eye. The spontaneous display of loyalty and affection for Zeltogath had not been lost on him. Nor had he been surprised. He had fought on campaign with Zeltogath and knew him to be a fine leader. He was also not surprised by Sanathoth’s evident bitter hostility. It was a scenario rife with tragedy and Kothelink prayed it wouldn’t be fatal, but his staunch devotion to the Oligarchy and its traditions ensured his silence and he kept his disturbed misgivings to himself. He stepped forward and extended a welcoming hand to Zeltogath who received it with a friendly grin. He then turned to Fowgis and the two men exchanged courteous greetings. They were aware of each other’s ideological disparities, but were mutually respectful of their renowned integrity.

Kothelink followed them into the headquarters tent and stood quietly aloof. Zeltogath stepped up to General Sanathoth and saluted him and then held his hand out in greeting. Sanathoth hesitated and then grudgingly reciprocated. Zeltogath smiled ingenuously. A haughty oblique sneer loomed over Sanathoth’s features as he squinted back at Zeltogath’s open beaming good will. Fowgis he ignored. His duel with General Kusi was well known throughout the military and while he had always found Kusi to be a tiresome imbecile, he was at least undoubtedly committed to the cause of the Oligarchy. Fowgis was an uncertain commodity. He was reportedly responsible for a wide range of commentary, some of questionable quality at best and other verging shockingly at the edge of heresy, the kind of commentary that was no doubt overlooked only due to his position as prince of a powerful traditional ally.

“Greetings to our long time ally and to my esteemed colleague.” Sanathoth managed a smooth reception. “We are grateful to have your assistance as always. However, please remember Zeltogath, this is not your father’s army and your father is not here to cover your flank while you dash off to heroic deeds.” The rebuff was devoid of subtlety, but Zeltogath maintained his friendly smile. “In fact,” Sanathoth continued, “I don’t know why the Council felt it necessary to send you at all since we already have sufficient resources for the task, but since you are here we will certainly find some way of keeping you useful. Your duty will be assigned to you at the war council prior to battle.”

“I expect the Empire to naturally take advantage of all its resources when I put my own at risk in its defense.” Fowgis snapped in an icy hiss.

The sharp tone took Sanathoth momentarily by surprise but he recuperated with a diplomatic smile and a deferential half bow. “We would certainly always honor the valued aid of the Prince. The Empire does not have a tradition of treating falsely with its allies.”

“Then I expect that the leadership of the Empire will honor the tradition of wisdom and forego any detour down the path of folly.”

Sanathoth’s face turned red and his eyes blazed with fury. He had too many years of experience with Imperial politics however to let his anger give way to imprudence. “We would most certainly not, Prince.” he assured Fowgis through clenched teeth.

Fowgis nodded curtly. “That is as I would assume. Good day, General. We shall speak again soon.” His words rolled out softly and smoothly and then he turned and left the tent. Zeltogath saluted and followed his companion.

Zeltogath and Fowgis installed themselves at the tents that had been arranged for them and took refreshment outside by the fire. The early summer sun burned down from directly over their heads and beads of perspiration rolled down their foreheads and dripped off their brows. They sucked thirstily at their wine mixed with cool water. A camp attendant roasted a goat’s leg over the fire. Harvinch picked his teeth with a sharpened twig and stared sullenly into his cup. He had posted himself close enough to the entrance of General Sanathoth’s tent to witness the effrontery that this friend Zeltogath had received and was now struggling internally to restrain his seething rage. Only the intimidating dignity of Prince Fowgis kept him from boiling over and giving uproarious vent. Harvinch was not the only angry listener. Imptoforch had been industriously polishing Zeltogath’s armor and pretending not to listen.

“My friend, your General Sanathoth does not inspire confidence. Nor does the frigid welcome he gave you.” said Fowgis.

Zeltogath dismissed the notion with an impatient frown. “He was merely carrying out the dictates of the Council and the Ministry. Fowgis, you have to understand how these large organizations function. It’s not like your principality where you just make any decision you want because you are the prince.” He chuckled at his friend’s incomprehension of Imperial institutional subtleties.

Fowgis scoffed. “You do not need to be a prince in your own principality to see the motives of men clearly. If you ever used your eyes for more than evaluating women in the marketplace, maybe you would not be so trusting a believer in the glorious traditions of your Empire.”

The barriers of Harvinch’s reserve broke under the strain. “Lath, but the Prince speaks the very truth! General Sanathoth’s behavior to you was not right and not proper. If he were an ordinary man I would…” he stopped short of saying something lacking in discipline, but could not refrain from smacking a powerful fist into the palm of his hand. “It is not right!”

“Now then Harvinch!” Zeltogath was aghast at the outburst of his comrade that bordered on insubordination.

“Zeltogath, Sanathoth was chosen by the Council because they no longer have trust in you. They suspect you of treason.” Harvinch dripped sweat from his massive brow as he implored earnestly.

“Paff!” Zeltogath rejoined emphatically. “I am a loyal soldier of the Empire and the son of a loyal soldier of the Empire and I have been all my life. I have fought in many great battles and am well known to have defended the Empire’s borders from the Battle of Tankro River under my father to the Battle of Tagpashok. I am well respected at the Ministry as well as with the troops. Ha! You saw the way they greeted us today. Was that the greeting for a traitor? How could anybody possibly suspect me of treasonous thinking?”

Zeltogath’s confidence grew as he talked and reassured himself. Fowgis watched him quizzically. “How could anyone suspect you of thinking at all, for that matter?” he observed dryly.

“Don’t be so blind!” blurted Harvinch. “Don’t you remember that assassin in the street? I followed him. He is employed by someone that is having you watched. I don’t know who the man is, but I would wager he is in the administration of the Oligarchy.”

Zeltogath stopped short at this news. Fowgis looked disturbed. Two men strode up to the fire. All eyes turned to see who the newcomers were and whether they would cause harm on account of overheard heated words. A broad grin swept across Zeltogath’s features. The recent conversation had already receded into the haze of time. He stood up and grasped the arm of the older of the two men.


The man smiled gravely back at him. “We were greatly heartened to hear of your arrival, my old friend. Your presence here can only help. Allow me to present to you a young man of great promise. Delfolinch is an assistant on my staff. He is skilled in battle and has studied some of the mathematics. He has heard much of the learned Prince Fowgis and has earnestly applied for permission to meet you, sir.”

Fowgis nodded to the young man who bowed in sober deference. “I hope someday sir, to attend the College of Engineering.” said the young man with quiet respect.

Fowgis smiled approvingly. Harvinch scuffed his boot irritably and a grating scrape revealed Imptoforch’s ill tempered presence still vigorously employed in his task of polishing. Zeltogath recovered himself from a flustered pause and introduced Harvinch. Slodethgan greeted Harvinch in the respectful Imperial tradition. The younger man peered closely at Harvinch upon hearing Zeltogath pronounce his name. Harvinch caught the young man staring at him and flared.

“Were you never taught proper manners by your father, impudent youth? Am I here to pass your inspection like a recruit on parade?”

“No sir. I can assure you I received no such education from my father.” the young man retorted. “In fact I can say that I received nothing whatsoever from that man except his blood. Neither name nor protection nor fatherly love nor advice did I ever get from that man, and all the bounty that I ever did receive was from another man, charitable enough to give to me even though I was not of his own.”

“Well whelp, that generous man does not seem to have taught you that it is rude to stare. Did you think I am an actor on the stage?”

“I think you may have once been stationed in the hamlet of Thamlokuth when the Northern Legion was stationed there.”

Harvinch started. “Shrewd guess, youngster. How came you to know that?”

The young man ignored the question. “Am I right in imagining that you knew a certain woman, Thathkothich?”

Harvinch squirmed noticeably. He paused and peered quizzically at the young man with his jaw set grimly. “Why do you ask?”

The young man looked at him with the merest trace of a triumphant smirk. “I am her son.” He announced evenly.

Harvinch stared at him speechless. The young man looked back at him with equanimity. The others looked on in momentary surprise at the unexpected drama that was suddenly playing out before them, until they recovered their sense of propriety and looked away in unison.

Harvinch was breathing heavily. “How old would you be now?” he asked in a monotone.

“This is my nineteenth summer.” replied the youth.

Harvinch took a stoic deep breath. “Then I am your father.”

“I have no father.” the youth looked back unflinchingly. “And I have no need for one now, that I am grown to manhood and already fought in several bloody battles.”

“Have you?” Harvinch stepped forward with a sudden pleased look.

“Yes.” the young man flashed back. “And after we push the Gazpardizik invaders back over the mountains, I plan to continue my studies at the College of Engineering in the capital.”

Harvinch stopped short, his brow furled in confusion. Then a red flush spread across his massive face. “No son of mine will rot his brain studying.” he roared. “I may never have been there to guide you before, but I will do my duty as a father now by the blood of the gods! Lath! I will keep you by my side and show you how to be a real soldier and a man of the Empire. College of Engineering!” he snorted contemptuously.

The young man sneered in disbelief and then spat on the ground at Harvinch’s feet. Harvinch raised his hand to strike him, but Imptoforch jumped in first and grabbed the youth by his neck.

“Is that the way you show respect to your father?” he screamed in the youth’s startled face. “Have you no shame! Are you not a child of the Shashbadeth Empire? Don’t you know that you must always honor your father? If he forbids you to do something stupid like study at the College of Engineering, than he tells you for your own good and you should obey and be grateful for all that he does for you! You wretched puppy! If you have no manners I will teach them to you!”

The youth recovered from his surprise and drew a long dagger from his belt, but the stunned onlookers also bolted into action and separated the angry protagonists before blood was shed. Slodethgan grabbed Delfolinch and Zeltogath sent Imptoforch spinning backwards to land with a clatter on top of the armor he had been so diligently polishing. Harvinch glared at his son, but Fowgis stepped calmly in front of him and raised his hand. He stood between the restrained combatants, shook his head, and sighed.

“Harvinch, your well intended fatherly advice would have us all crawling back into caves.”

Harvinch breathed heavily through his nostrils and his veins still bulged from his neck with fury, but he recognized the menace in the calm rebuke and said no more.

A gong sounded announcing worship service by the priests of the army. Soldiers began to file past towards the meadow where the priests were congregating the troops that were zealous enough to attend. Most of the camp continued on with the routine tasks of pounding grain in hand held mortars, boiling vegetables for soup, roasting chunks of goat and sheep, sampling whatever wine or brandy that might be within grasp, repairing equipment, bragging about past military escapades, searching for peaceful and tenable latrine options, belching contentedly, and snoring the blissful snooze of a soldier on campaign that has managed to avoid further duty either through excessive inebriation or skillful evasion. Nobody stirred from the fire at Zeltogath’s tent.

Fowgis twisted his chin in a trace of an amused grin. “It appears that there is universal agreement in this group on at least one topic. I see no one leaving the snug comforts of our wine.”

“Wine!” exclaimed Zeltogath. “Imptoforch! Bring refreshment for our guests.”

Imptoforch sullenly refilled a ceramic pitcher from a barrel and mixed it with river water from a wine skin. He bowed to Slodethgan, but exchanged a starchy stare with Delfolinch as he handed him his cup. Zeltogath raised his own cup and offered a toast.

“To our guests and to the Empire of Shashbadeth!”

Cups began their trajectory towards waiting lips amidst approving murmurs.

“But not to its gods.” Delfolinch interjected boldly.

The cups hesitated en route, eyes glanced sideways, heads shook, and the cups resumed their journeys. Zeltogath stood poised with his own cup still in mid air. His forehead was wrinkled in a resolute frown of concentration. He glanced at Harvinch and caught his eye. The big man shrugged and took a hearty gulp. Zeltogath rolled his eyes and applied himself to his wine, content to have decisively dispensed once again with another complex issue of lofty morality and metaphysical philosophy.

Chapter 27 The Ugly Foreigner

A herd of goats swirled through a flock of grazing animal that Palriken didn’t recognize and the shepherds poked up painted faces in indolent curiosity as they rode by. Next they came to a series of pools with thick flocks of duck and geese congregated along the banks. Men in black and white striped tunics were fishing with nets. Smoke gushed from the roof of a small hut and men were hanging the smoked fish on racks in front of it. Several baskets of eggs lined the edge of the road. A yellow field of wheat rippled gently in the summer afternoon breeze. They came to an open walled structure with posts supporting a thatched roof. Two men were pounding grain in a mortar outside the structure. They looked up with sweat streaks lining their painted faces and waved. This was the only sign that Palriken could observe that they were approaching a Gazpardizik town.

They rode past more open walled structures and people began to come out to the road to greet the newcomers. All the painted faces turned and stared at the foreigners and pointed at their unadorned features. Palriken noted that the women wore brightly colored clothes and even more brightly colored faces. Contrasting with the uniform red and white of the men, the women’s faces were alive with pastel swirls and patterns. Several green-faced boys ran out to the road in a great clamor and Zudwik took one up on his horse with a grin. He held the boy in front of him and tickled him while the boy squealed and squirmed and tried desperately to cling on to the reins. Two violet faced young girls came out with a skin of warm tea and a cup. Zudwik and his entourage halted their horses and took a cup of tea in turns from the sober faced little girls. After serving Zudwik the girls by passed Palriken in a wide circle with their eyes cast down nervously. Zudwik made a loud comment and the girls stopped and hesitated, their eyes still on the ground. The crowd of onlookers watched in sudden silence. Zudwik entreated the girls again gently and encouragingly. One of them poured a cup and the other took a few tentative steps towards Palriken and raised the cup towards him with her face averted. Palriken took the cup, swallowed the warm tea in a gulp, and gave it back to the girl who retreated quickly back to her comrade. The tension in the crowd eased. Zudwik said something to the girls and laughed. The crowd laughed with him and the little girl smiled shyly.

They moved on and came to a teahouse where they dismounted. The patrons came out to the road and joined the throng staring at the strangers. Several minutes of greetings ensued during which at one point Zudwik gestured towards Palriken with a remark and the crowd stared at him in what seemed to be curious awe. Palriken could only surmise that Zudwik was relating the scene of battle during Palriken’s capture when he had single handedly killed five Gazpardizik warriors before surrendering to overwhelming superiority of numbers. He felt a dull glow of pride in his martial skills mixed with his apprehension and lonely despair. He glanced at the nervous Tokhamut magistrate slouching in the background and realized that the crowd was not paying him the same respectful attention. A fleeting look of inspection had satisfied their interest in him and Zudwik had made no comment to present him to the crowd.

Zudwik sauntered to the wooden benches in front of the teahouse, still engaged in discussion with a man of evident importance. The rest of the entourage was already filling up greedily on boiled dumplings and commenting on the game that had resumed on the large patch of dirt next to the benches. Palriken found himself standing alone by the road so he followed Zudwik and sat on a bench. A wooden platter was placed on a small table and Zudwik helped himself with one hand while still deeply engrossed in his conversation. Palriken gazed hungrily at the steaming dumplings and felt his stomach rumble. Nobody made him any offer to eat or drink and in fact, now that the novelty had passed, everyone seemed to have totally forgotten him except one young boy who squatted on his haunches and stared at him open mouthed and one middle aged man who stood with his back to the game and his eyes fixed dully on Palriken. Palriken looked past the man at the game and saw that it was the same strategy game he had seen the Gazpardizik officers playing in Tokhamut. The carved wooden figures weren’t the same size or shape, but he could see that the figures were carved and painted with great craftsmanship and represented spearmen, archers, and cavalry lancers. Zudwik was now leaning forward and pointing at the far corner of the game area. His companion gave an explanation and Zudwik nodded, then frowned and shook his head. Palriken reached out tentatively and took a dumpling from the platter. Nobody paid him any mind and he took another. The attention of every person present, save himself, his small audience, and the miserable looking Tokhamut magistrate, was focused completely on the next move of the game. The players stood looking over the playing area and discussing strategy in low tones while their opponent stood calmly on the opposite side, waiting patiently. Palriken helped himself to another dumpling. The players concluded their discussion and moved into the playing area and moved their figures, measuring distance with paces and a measuring rod. When they were done they nodded at their opponent who coolly walked out and made his own moves without any hesitation. Zudwik leaned back with a wry smile. A low murmur passed through the audience seated on the benches. Palriken looked over at the other players and saw them inclining their heads together in nervous conference.

Several women came and sat on benches under the shelter of the teahouse. Like all the other buildings, the teahouse was nothing more than a thatched roof supported by wooden posts. They exchanged banter with the men and engaged the teahouse attendant with a feminine flutter that intrigued Palriken. He peered furtively at them as he pushed another dumpling into his mouth. A young boy of the house was diligently fanning flies away from the women with a large tree bark fan. The front half of his head was not shaven in the style of the men. One of the women patted him on the head and teased him. The other women giggled. Zudwik stood up in front of Palriken and chuckled.

“These women say they want to see him when he becomes a man and is permitted to attend happy hour.”

The boy smiled with awkward shyness but looked pleased and applied himself to his task of fanning them with determined vigor. One of the soldiers called out something to the women and everybody laughed. Zudwik translated. “He says they must be patient and wait a few more years before they can play with the boy.”

Zudwik gave Palriken a terse jerk of the head and ambled off. Palriken got up and followed. The rest of the entourage continued eating and discussing the game without even a glance at him. The young boy got up off his haunches and wandered away without a word. The man stared after Palriken’s retreating back until he disappeared from view and then shook his head and walked off muttering to contemplate the puzzling vision.

Zudwik lead Palriken through the town without escort. Palriken was still not allowed to carry his weapons, but he was no longer restrained under strict guard. Indeed, flight would be inconceivable, particularly as an unpainted foreigner. They passed a forge and the clanking of hammers halted abruptly as the smiths paused to stare at the stranger. The next building was a tailor shop and again all activity became suspended as Zudwik and Palriken marched past in silence. To Palriken, the open sided shelters and their occupants were as fascinating as his own peculiar incongruities were to them and he took in as much of his new surroundings as he could from the corners of his eyes.

After passing several more workshops, Zudwik emerged from his distracted reverie and took notice of the reaction to his foreign companion. He glanced at Palriken and chuckled.

“Most Gazpardizik have never left their homeland and never seen different people like you.”

They arrived at an empty shelter where a woman was sweeping the wooden floor planks with a straw broom. She had her back to them and was humming a tune that struck Palriken as being most unusual in tone. Zudwik pounded his spear butt on the floor and the woman whirled around. When she spied Palriken she gasped and back pedaled several dainty steps and took what refuge she could behind her broom. Zudwik spoke to her but she merely stared in mute apprehension at Palriken. Zudwik spoke further with a note of irritation growing in his voice that was evident even to Palriken without understanding the words. The woman clutched her broom as if frozen and suddenly spun around and dashed out the far side of the shelter. Zudwik gave a cry and leapt after her. He caught her by the arm and spoke sternly to her for several minutes. Palriken watched in forlorn discomfort at the trouble he knew he was causing. Finally Zudwik lead the woman back into the shelter, but she suddenly fell to her knees with a shriek and began crying. Zudwik looked down at her in consternation. She complained bitterly between sobs and suddenly Zudwik burst out laughing. He patted her on the shoulder and said a few soft words and the woman stopped crying.

Zudwik looked over at Palriken with a chuckle and explained apologetically. “This woman cried because she thought she had to be happy with a foreigner who doesn’t even paint his face.”

Palriken looked at the woman who got up and glared at him defiantly. She made several twittering comments and Zudwik translated expressionlessly. “She says you have the body of a fine warrior, but you are horrible without any paint. She says you would at least have to wear a wooden mask if you want to be on top of her and be happy.”

Zudwik paused and then said something to the woman and she began making a fire. He watched her for a moment and then looked at Palriken and shrugged. He walked out without another word and Palriken found himself alone with the woman. He peered at the bright colors of her face and felt a revulsion at her assumptions. He sat down on a wooden bench and watched her move with quick and graceful steps as she prepared his tea and food. He became slowly aware as he watched her that she was young and slender and her teeth were straight and white. She glanced quickly over her shoulder at him and frowned. She continued her work and then looked back at him again. Palriken felt certain that she assumed he was lusting for her. His head throbbed with a dull ache. He laughed to himself at the absurd idea of making love with a flower bouquet of colors. The woman looked up sharply and even through her paint he could see her displeasure at his laughter. She let out a sharp comment and busied herself with her back to him.

Palriken felt dismayed that he had offended her and tried to say something soothing, but she ignored him. He got up and walked softly behind her as she crouched over the dumplings she was rolling on a wooden platter. He tapped her shoulder and she whirled around in alarm. She scuttled backwards on her haunches and stared in horrified anticipation. Palriken was so surprised by her reaction that he pulled back also. They faced each other for a shocked moment. Palriken recovered his wits and slowly straightened up, holding his palms out to her to show that he meant no harm. He took a step back. The woman snorted derisively at his presumed frailness and resumed her domestic tasks. Palriken shook his head and walked away.

Chapter 28 The Rank and File of the Empire

Zeltogath burped discontentedly and cursed Imptoforch and his cooking skills. He reflected on his squire and his general attributes and then cursed most of them as well. He was a pest and a burden a good deal of the time, but in his own mentally limited way, he was staunchly loyal, or at least loyal to the image that he expected Zeltogath to live up to. Harvinch sat next to him carving toothpicks. He passed one to Zeltogath who began silently cleaning his teeth while staring into the fire. Slodethgan and Delfolinch strode up and greeted them. Harvinch looked tentatively at the man who was his son and Delfolinch glared back at him and then looked away.

“We have news from the capital that may be of some interest to you, Zeltogath.” pronounced Slodethgan. “There is great violence and disturbance in the poorer quarters. A young priest apprentice claims to be a reformer and lead a mob and burned down a temple. The Oligarchy called him a heretic and a traitor but they haven’t caught him. In fact, the Home Guard seems reluctant to press too vigorously in the poor quarters. Dompunthrik, the professor at the College of Engineering, was reported to have spoken out in favor of the heretic and he also was condemned by the Council. He has since disappeared.”

Zeltogath was shocked. He certainly had no fondness for the pompous professor, but even so…. Harvinch farted loudly and stifled a chortle. Zeltogath felt his stomach tighten in a mirthful reflex but he retained his sober countenance. Delfolinch sucked in a deep breath of annoyance. Slodethgan continued.

“I also heard a tale of a Gathangtingol woman of great beauty talking about you with a singer in the marketplace.” Zeltogath’s stomach tightened again, but for a different motive. “This beautiful woman expressed great loyalty to you and even apparently love.” Zeltogath’s jaw twitched. He thought uncharitably about his hasty departure from Harentowith without even so much as a kind word of good-bye to Eslaka.

A dull rumble from the other side of the camp interrupted further critical introspection. The men all looked towards the sound. Zeltogath made out a distinct rhythmic chant of deep voices. Soldiers from neighboring tents dropped their various tasks and wandered off in curiosity.

“That is the Notofo.” said Slodethgan. “They are beginning their ritual ceremonies. They chant while they chop and boil their roots. All the Notofo mercenaries will eat the roots and perform their dream dancing throughout the night. There will be a great stench in their side of the camp in the morning.”

“Harvinch can go join them. He doesn’t need any roots.” Zeltogath chuckled. The big man guffawed jovially along with him.

A group of soldiers sauntered by, passing a wineskin between and making jests about the Notofo in the rough accent of Harentowith’s underprivileged class.

Delfolinch looked up impatiently and inquired irritably. “Where is Prince Fowgis?”

“He is discussing affairs of state with Sanathoth.” said Zeltogath. Delfolinch looked disappointed.

“I was looking forward to conversation that would elevate the intellect and gratify an inquiring mind.”

Harvinch leaned back and grabbed a ceramic jug from the ground. He pulled out the wax stopper with a resonant pop.

“There is a sound that gratifies my mind. Drink some of this if you wish to elevate your intellect.”

He held out the pitcher and a cup with a beaming grin. Delfolinch clenched his jaw in anger.

“I am searching edification and wisdom, not trite buffooneries with a country fair clown.”

Harvinch flushed. Zeltogath stiffened in anticipation of leaping suddenly to restrain his angry friend, but beneath Harvinch’s anger he detected a softer reaction.

“If you must be serious we can talk, father and son. There is much I would say to you. And you can finally know your father.”

Delfolinch sneered. “I sincerely regret our acquaintance. Now I can no longer cloak myself with the vain belief that I may have sprung from some noble root.”

Harvinch stared dully at his son, deeply stung. Zeltogath noticed a sadness in the large man’s eyes.

“You have no need to judge so harshly, young man.”

Delfolinch looked Zeltogath in the eye, without malevolence but firmly. “That is easy to say when one is the son of a national hero.”

Delfolinch turned and quietly walked away. Harvinch looked after him with his fingers curled in a tight fist. Slodethgan shuffled his feet uneasily.

“He has the impatience of youth in great quantities.” he said awkwardly. “Let it pass.”

A great shout from the Notofo sector drew all attention away from melodramatic reflection. The commotion grew louder and the clash of metal was now interspersed with curses and screams. Soldiers poured from all directions towards the disturbance. Zeltogath jumped up and ran also, pushing his way through the crowd. All around him soldiers pressed forward, some bearing weapons, others still carrying tools and cooking utensils. Scores of voices called out asking what had happened and the raucous chorus answered that the damned ignorant Notofo were paying for the trouble they started with their insolence. Zeltogath shoved his way through the ring of spectators and saw a violent melee in front of the ritual lodge of the Notofo. A dozen bodies already littered the ground under the combatants and a wounded man staggered towards him clutching his gored belly. Loincloth clad Notofo warriors fought ferociously in a circle protecting the chanting shaman and the dancing warriors that swung hypnotically from side to side, echoing the chant of their shaman. The carnage erupting in front of them did not diminish in the slightest their swaying serenity. Sanathoth stood at the edge of the ring of spectators with his standard bearer and screamed at the combatants to cease and desist. His voice blended in with the noise of the struggle and the cries of the crowd. Those spectators that stood near looked at him in confusion and then back at the brawl. The embattled Notofo warriors and their contestants paid no heed to the general and continued hacking at each other in a desperate struggle.

A soldier with a horn hanging from his neck stood next to Zeltogath, gleefully watching the spectacle. Zeltogath grabbed the horn and pulled it free. The soldier turned in surprise and snarled a drunken curse. Zeltogath shoved him over backwards and the soldier bowled over the man behind him. A shield fell at Zeltogath’s feet and he picked it up and dashed into the fray. He charged into two combatants with his shield and sent them both sprawling. Before they had time to regain their feet, he blasted the horn into their astonished faces and ordered them to stop fighting. Then he leaped over them and charged into the ranks of grappling soldiers, scattering bodies and blowing the horn furiously. Slowly the combatants began to edge away from each other. One pair remained closely coupled and wary. The Notofo warrior heeded the calls to disengage and lowered his guard. The Imperial soldier instantly stabbed him with his sword. A Notofo archer raised his bow and sent an arrow whistling into the Imperial soldier’s neck. Zeltogath blew his horn and bellowed at them to lay down their arms. A grim silence fell where swords had cloven skulls just moments before. The ring of spectators ceased its boisterous acclamation of the fight and stood gaping at the panting Notofo defenders. The Notofo shaman droned on and the dancers swayed, keeping their step and chanting back their refrain. Sweat gleamed on the faces of the personal gods that each Notofo warrior had tattooed on his chest.

The crowd of spectators parted and a fully armed company of soldiers marched through the gap in disciplined order. General Kothelink walked stiffly erect at the head of the column and barked out a terse command. The column spread laterally and drew up facing the on looking mob. The spectators dispersed and melted away without a further word. General Kothelink rapped out another command and a detachment of soldiers began hauling away the dead and wounded. The soldiers that had attacked the Notofo were rounded up and marched off under guard.

Zeltogath leaned on his shield catching his breath. Harvinch joined him with blood oozing from a cut above his eye. General Kothelink strode up to Zeltogath and saluted.

“Well done, Sir. You prevented further useless slaughter.” He said soberly. “I fear this was the work of a few drunken fools. They will be dealt with. The Notofo may be heathen, but they are part of our army. Our Priest Superior is demanding that General Sanathoth exterminate the practice of such vulgar religious rites. While I am loyal to the gods of Shashbadeth, I do not believe they would consider this to be the appropriate time for spiritual cleansing. All are here to fight and defend the Empire.”

Zeltogath nodded. “I would agree that it would not be fair to punish the Notofo. They have not been long a part of the Empire and haven’t yet had the advantage of learning our modern ways.”

“And we are all soldiers and we fight together, regardless of any gods!” Harvinch blurted out, his blunt face set in righteous conviction.

Kothelink gazed sternly at Harvinch and made no reply. Zeltogath anxiously considered the repercussions of his friend’s heartfelt but perhaps ill-considered words. A barrel of wine stood invitingly next to a tent and he followed his natural inclination.

“Shall we take refreshment?” he asked Kothelink.

The general nodded and they proceeded to the barrel where a soldier jumped to attention and poured wine into copper cups. Harvinch gulped his wine and held his cup out for the soldier to refill. He wiped blood from his eyebrow with the back of his hand, which he then wiped against his tunic.

Kothelink raised his cup. “May the prudence of Gothol prevent further such disturbances in the ranks.”

“Yes, Gothol.” nodded Zeltogath, also raising his cup. “Which regiment does he command? Is he new? I don’t remember him from the Ministry.”

Kothelink lowered his cup from his lips and studied the open face of Zeltogath who was peering back at him keenly. “One could say Gothol is in command of all regiments in a well organized army.”

Zeltogath took a pensive sip of wine. Harvinch held out his cup for another refill.

Kothelink knit his brow. “I refer of course, to Gothol the god of good fortune.”

Zeltogath raised his cup again. “Yes, to Gothol! I thought the name familiar.”

Harvinch turned around, wiping his moustache. “Lath! I’ve heard of him. He’s one of the gods for sure. No mistake about that. The General is right.” he beamed reassuringly at Kothelink. Kothelink regarded him with a steady gaze.

“We are all in agreement on this point then.” he observed and took another moderate sip of wine. Zeltogath also sipped his wine and adopted a knowing look. Harvinch held out his cup to the soldier again with a grin.

Kothelink turned to Zeltogath. “We may have need of Gothol if General Sanathoth proves unequal to the task of leadership. But even so, I advise you that favor is not always bestowed based on merit. The Empire is in a moment of fragility and those that rule look for unblemished support and have no enthusiasm for competition.”

Zeltogath looked back at Kothelink’s unblinking gaze. “Do you fear then, General Sanathoth’s abilities?”

“Confidence is not a quality he inspires in great quantity.”

Kothelink spoke slowly and deliberately and took another fastidious sip of wine. Zeltogath frowned.

“I have never served with General Sanathoth, but surely you don’t mean to tell me you think we might suffer defeat under his command.”

“Only the gods know and sometimes even they wonder.”

Like a pilgrim lost in strange forbidden lands, the slightest hint of a smile appeared on Kothelink’s habitually dour face.

Chapter 29 “The Prince Will Be Here Today!”

Palriken lifted the meat off one side of his grilled fish and draped it on top of the boiled dumplings on his wooden platter. He flipped the fish over and stripped the other side, leaving the skeleton bare. He had already dispatched the head as the tastiest delicacy, sucking the soft parts from the brain and jawbone as well as the gelatinous parts around the eyes, spitting the hard eyeballs themselves onto the ground in front of his shelter. This was the favorite dish of the Gazpardizik and Palriken was savoring it in their traditional style, dripping its grilled juices into the spongy dumplings.

He leaned forward on his bench to avoid staining his new black and white Gazpardizik tunic with the drippings. The woman was hanging up his freshly washed Shashbadeth style tunic to dry in front of the shelter. The previous day she had restitched a broken seam in his boots. Palriken watched her with increasing interest. Through her grotesque strangeness, there was a stark femininity that had begun to haunt him. Her lithe steps, her flashing teeth, her curves, all drew his attention and his eyes now followed her constantly. She had caught him staring several times with quick knowing glances that ended in haughty, satisfied sneers and Palriken cringed, knowing how completely aware she was of his growing lust.

“Tashjak.” he called to her, struggling with the strange sounds of her name.

She turned her graceful neck and looked at him suspiciously over her shoulder.

“Fish. Good.” He attempted first in Gazpardizik but she just stared at him uncomprehendingly. He repeated the words in Shashbeth, but met with the same dissatisfying result. He pointed to the fish and then rubbed his belly. Her eyes darted after his gestures impatiently and then registered recognition of his meaning. She grunted acknowledgement and turned back to her task. Palriken grimaced with chagrin at his clumsy performance and focused on her hips.

Several women came by and stopped to chat with Tashjak. Palriken listened absently to their chatter until he realized all the colored faces were turned towards him. The women exchanged a quick flutter of comments and then exploded into a cascade of shrill giggles. Tashjak smiled triumphantly and put her hands on her hips with her back proudly erect and her breast thrust forward. She looked over her shoulder at Palriken and back again at the women with a terse comment. The women lapsed into another ripple of laughs and stared with grinning pastel faces at Palriken. Palriken stared back at them awkwardly. He turned his head and feigned interest in the folds of his striped tunic, but he felt their eyes on him and their merry comments burned away layers of self-assurance and dignity.

The women dispersed and Tashjak gathered up his dried tunic and ducked into the shelter. She took Palriken by his arm and stood him on his feet. She held up his battered tunic to his shoulders and measured the fit quizzically. Pursing her lips, she tossed the old tunic carelessly on the bench and industriously tugged and patted at the stiff wrinkles of his starchy new tunic. She fixed her eyes penetratingly on his and as he felt her hand brush across his ribs, a tingling chill sank down through his abdomen to be swallowed up in his tumultuous nether region of murky pleasure.

Boots crunching on the gravel outside announced a visitor’s rapid approach. Tashjak frowned one last critical appraisal of her disappointing barbarian charge and spun away sharply to her next task. Palriken wrenched his transfixed gaze away from her and looked up to see Zudwik hop vigorously into the shelter. Zudwik’s painted face shone ecstatically.

“The Prince will be here today!” he exclaimed.

Zudwik was bursting with enthusiasm. He noticed Palriken’s new black and white tunic and broke out in a wide smile.

“Ah good! You have proper dress. The Prince will be pleased. Tashjak is taking good care of you. It is true that you still look like an animal with your naked face, but now you look much better.”

Tashjak strutted past and made a comment with a wicked flash of a grin at Zudwik and then a sharp challenging glance at Palriken. Zudwik chortled heartily and leaned against a post, heaving with laughter. Palriken looked at him mystified and then at Tashjak, who threw him another glance and then marched regally out of the shelter into the lengthening shadows of the evening.

Zudwik wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. “She says the women were all talking about what it would be like to have you at happy time.”

Zudwik stuttered the last words as he convulsed into helpless laughter again. “But come! We go to see the Prince.”

Palriken followed Zudwik as he strode through the town. Other townsfolk began trickling along in the same direction. Some carried dumplings wrapped in large waxy leaves and others had skins of tea hanging from their shoulders. Zudwik exchanged a few excited greetings and Palriken felt a festive atmosphere and a tension of anticipation rippling through the growing stream of people.

The stream parted as if flowing around a boulder and a squad of soldiers marched towards them leading a prisoner in chains. An officer with a blue feather in his helmet that was leading the soldiers greeted Zudwik somberly. Zudwik stopped and glared sternly at the prisoner who drooped under the weight of his chains and the anxiety of his pending fate. Palriken saw that the prisoner was the Tokhamut magistrate. The man looked up as he passed and noticed Palriken and his unpainted face. He glanced down and took in Palriken’s new black and white striped tunic. Then he locked eyes with Palriken with a look of hatred mixed with his terror and despair. The group marched past and Zudwik resumed his vigorous stride.

“Where are they taking the Tokhamut magistrate?” Palriken asked.

Zudwik looked irritated and continued on straight ahead. Palriken walked silently next to him and wondered anxiously if he would have been wiser to not ask questions. Finally Zudwik spoke.

“The Tokhamut people are clever, but the Gazpardizik are not so stupid as they think. We are not experienced traders like they are, but we are learning their tricks. They used funny ways of counting the tribute they have to pay. Right in front of our men they counted the same goods twice and even three and four times. Chests that were loaded onto wagons were removed and counted again and reloaded onto wagons several times. They took us for fools. Our men are not accustomed to counting such high numbers and they got confused. We only found out when a Tokhamut trader got drunk one night and killed one of our officers. Before he was executed, he boasted about their cheating. We recounted the tribute and found it to be true.”

Zudwik continued looking straight ahead as he spoke and it seemed to Palriken that he was reluctant to spoil the glory of the moment with the putrid memory of Tokhamut treachery.

“What will they do with him?” asked Palriken after a pause.

“They are taking him out of the town to be executed. First his hands and feet will be chopped off and then his head. His head and feet and hands will be taken to Tokhamut and left on a wooden platter at the counting house as a warning. The Prince commanded it. Those Tokhamut crows will think again before cheating us now.” He nodded his head in grim punctuation of his declaration.

They came to a clearing at the edge of the town. The clearing was already full of milling men and women and more people flooded in constantly from every direction. An excited babble droned over the crowd and Palriken sensed that everyone was waiting for something. The sun had set and here and there torches were lit. At one end of the clearing was a wooden platform with unlit torches standing upright along its sides. The attention of the waiting, murmuring multitude was focused on the platform. Zudwik pushed through the mob towards the platform and stopped right in front of it. While the crowd stood waiting, the dumplings were unwrapped from their leaves and passed out to anyone nearby. Skins with warm tea were also handed out along with wooden cups that everyone drank from. The evening grew darker and more torches were lit. The colored faces of the audience shone eerily in the flickering torchlight. The unlit stage had become completely swallowed up by darkness.

Suddenly, from behind the stage, a loud gong clanged and its long drawn out boom rolled out over the audience like a clap of thunder. The crowd hushed instantly. A whine of clarinets shrieked and Palriken felt the skin between his shoulder blades crawl. Warriors ran out and lit the torches lining the edge of the platform while frenzied music and drumbeats blared from the darkness behind. With the stage now ablaze in crackling flickering torchlight, musicians marched out in unison step. The audience watched with a thrilled awe as clarinets were followed by shrill flutes and then wooden drums, a variety of bronze gongs, and finally several men carrying hollow tubes of wood that they beat on with stout wooden sticks to make a rhythmic clatter. The musicians spread out along the sides of the stage and Palriken could see the bulging cheeks of the clarinet players and the gleaming white eyes of the drummers as they pounded their sticks on their wooden drums. Palriken squinted and observed that the drums hanging from the shoulders of the drummers with leather thongs were all carved and hollowed out from one piece of wood with carved adornments on the sides. The whole ensemble halted abruptly in a sizzling pause. Palriken felt the entire crowd take in its breath en masse. Then the musicians blasted a single unified note and then another and another and another. With the last note, a commotion spread from the rear of the stage and a lean Gazpardizik warrior stalked out into the torchlight. A train of soldiers and some other huddled figures followed him, but Palriken had eyes only for the lean warrior who strode sword in hand to the very front of the stage. And what a warrior! His head was bare with the front half shaven in the Gazpardizik style and his long braided topknot swung behind him with every springy step. He was not wearing his tunic and taut bands rippled across his chest and corrugated abdomen. He brazenly flaunted his rippling, flowing muscles like badges of valor and even the crescent shaped scar encircling one shoulder seemed only to enhance his projection of ferocious virility. He halted at the edge of the platform and stared out over the hushed crowd with a fierce glittering eye. He swiveled his head to scan the audience and paused when he noticed Palriken’s pale naked face reflected in the gloom below him. Palriken felt the fierce eye sear into him and drew his breath in sharply. The warrior’s other eye was hideously disfigured from an ancient wound.

The warrior raised his sword and pointed the tip out over the audience. He hesitated, poised and motionless, and then began to sing in a powerful and resonant tenor voice that filled the packed clearing. The musicians crashed in to accompany him and the audience roared its approval. A hearty chorus boomed back from the crowd and the entire assemblage sang in unison. Palriken felt swept up by the venting of emotion around him. Zudwik stood next to him, his usually placid demeanor now a fervor of ardent zeal as he sang in his loud but discordant voice. The drums pounded a vigorous tempo and the clarinets and flutes shrieked in exuberant harmony. The warrior pranced and prowled around the edge of the stage like a large menacing cat as he sang to the crowd. Palriken felt a flush of excitement flash through him. Zudwik turned to him and his eyes shone with passion.

“This is the song of Gazpardizik!” he yelled. “And that is our Prince!”

This was the Prince! This was the man who excited animation in not just the customarily impassive Zudwik, but apparently in his entire nation. This was the protégé that was following in the footsteps of his mentor, King Hasdergish, and pulling the rambunctious but backwards Gazpardizik people from their primordial tribal state into a cohesive and innovative organization now ready to significantly impact the lives and fortunes of its neighbors. As he pranced and inspired his followers, he also mesmerized and enthralled Palriken who gazed up at the charismatic prince of these painted savages with bated breath. Palriken, as a devoted denizen of the theater, had been to many a stage and witnessed countless performances and observed talented actors without number, but this prince with the fierce eye was the most riveting of them all. Palriken stared spellbound at the Prince’s every graceful movement. The Prince sang the rousing Gazpardizik anthem and three prisoners cowered in chains behind him. The prisoners’ hands were bound and they looked on in horror at the strutting prince shrieking out the rhythmic words with the veins bulging in his neck. Palriken squinted at the prisoners. He gave an involuntary jerk forwards as he recognized the Shashbadeth trousers. One of the prisoners was hunched against the chest of his neighbor in a terrified attempt to shrink away from the spectacle. The terrified prisoner was his old companion of the road, the acrobat Dalsef.

The Gazpardizik anthem was drawing to its climactic cadence with a crescendo of rolling drums and screeching clarinets and flutes. The Prince brought the song to an abrupt halt and stood posed like a statue with his sword thrust out towards the heavens. A spontaneous roar gushed from the crowd and rolled like a solid wave over the stage and out to the cosmos beyond, serving notice that mighty Gazpardizik was ready for war. The Prince waited immobile, allowing his people to admire him in all his powerful glory. Then he suddenly spun and wheeled on the prisoners and with three quick slashes, cut their bodies in half. A jet of blood spurt out and splashed across the bare torso of the gleaming eyed Prince as the fragmented bodies crumpled to the ground. He stood erect over the twitching corpses and glared down at them triumphantly.

The crowd gasped and looked on in stunned silence. The Prince raised his eyes slowly from his vanquished enemies and turned. He gradually raised his arms and his sword out over the shocked audience. A hush so profound ruled the crowd that Palriken could hear the distant creak of the Prince’s dried leather elbow guard. Drops of blood flowed down from the sword blade and trickled down the Prince’s arm and onto his chest. He held his bloody sword out to his people. “Gazpardizik!” he yelled. The crowd erupted. He was their Prince! He was their leader! He was the strongest son of a strong people. He could do what no other man could do. He had the strength, the daring, the ruthlessness, the raw power! Their fate as a people was in his capable hands that never failed. The more terrible he was to their enemies, the more comforting was the protection of his leadership. They would follow him anywhere without question. Palriken saw and comprehended all this in a split moment. The crowd cheered on and the din was overwhelming. Palriken retched on a choking surge of bile.

A great shuffling and scraping ensued and a group of sweating warriors carried and hauled a tall wooden statue out from the rear of the stage. The musicians played a low, slow melodious drone accompanied by muted steady rolling drums. The audience murmured in awestruck tones. Zudwik turned quickly and whispered in Palriken’s ear.

“That is Kraktarnast, the God of War and Hunting and he is the warrior prince of the Gods under Kriktoprok, the God of Darkness, the mightiest of all gods.”

Palriken eyed Zudwik guardedly and then looked back at the grotesque farce of a totem. After suffering exile from his homeland for questioning the gods of the Empire, which in his opinion were nothing more than ludicrous tales for ignorant old men and innocent children, it was impossible to merit these even more primitive theological concepts with anything but scorn. The statue was placed at the front of the stage, facing out at the audience. It was taller than a man and carved from wood and painted with bright colors. A wolf’s head snarled on top of a warrior’s body and both arms were raised with a sword in one hand and a battle axe in the other. The sword and axe blades were both red with blood. The body was painted with the black and white stripes of the Gazpardizik tunic and below that…Palriken looked again to be sure. Yes, it was! A sword shaped erect phallus stood out defiantly and proudly. Palriken stifled a laugh. What ludicrous savages!

The murmuring of the crowd grew louder and the slithering ring of unsheathing swords alarmed Palriken and he looked around quickly to see what barbaric menace these bizarre people were now conjuring up. Swords raised all around him and he braced himself in momentary alarm to receive the same ritualistic end as the prisoners on the stage. However, the swords were all extended hilt forward towards the statue. Palriken exhaled with relief and looked back at the stage to see the Prince kneeling on one knee with his own sword offered hilt first towards the scowling wolf head. The Prince slowly rose and stepped up onto a small log that had been placed in front of the statue. He wound his bare arm around the wolf neck and kissed the snarling mouth. The audience gasped and stared in stunned awe. The Prince turned towards them and raised his sword together with the sword of the statue. The crowd burst into a turbulent cheer of delighted surprise. The Prince thrust the tip of his sword into the wooden stage and sprang backwards from the log in a backwards somersault and landed sprightly on his feet. He grabbed his sword and extended it out to his cheering people. Then he majestically walked back to the rear of the platform and disappeared into its shadows to the unending adulation of the crowd.

Zudwik cheered with tears shining in his eyes. He turned and yelled to Palriken. “No man has ever dared to kiss the fierce god like that before. Prince Torsgish is truly blessed and will lead us to certain victory!”

He grabbed Palriken by the elbow and steered him through the mob. “Come! We will go now and you will meet the Prince.”

Palriken felt weak in the knees. Zudwik pushed his way through the feverish crowd and lead Palriken behind the stage to a large tent. Soldiers lounged outside the tent and Palriken observed that most of them had the white and blue feathers in their helmets that seemed to signify higher rank. Several of them nodded to Zudwik and exchanged terse comments with him. Palriken felt their eyes on him and he knew they were wondering about the naked faced stranger following in Zudwik’s wake like a silent dog. They ducked through the tent entrance flaps and Palriken saw the Prince standing with his back to him, drinking tea from a wooden cup with several other officers. The Prince turned and his one bright eye seared into Palriken. Zudwik made introductory comments and the Prince answered him without taking his eye off Palriken. The blood from the prisoners was still splattered across his chest and mingled with the sheen of sweat that gleamed in the torchlight.

“So you are a traveling merchant?” the Prince asked through Zudwik as interpreter. A sly glitter in the Prince’s eye put Palriken off balance. Before he could stammer his awkward answer, the Prince went on.

“You were a powerful Shashbadeth noble and general. You were exiled from your home for profaning your gods.”

The amused glitter was gone now and replaced by deadly seriousness.

“Will you also profane our gods?”

Palriken’s stomach tightened at the unanticipated question. “No, Prince.” he answered with clenched jaw muscles.

The prince kept his unfaltering gaze locked on Palriken. “That is good. Because these gods will lead the Gazpardizik people into battle.”

Palriken was stunned by a sudden thought but he strove to maintain his impassive comportment. Did this man himself doubt his own gods and cynically use them for his own political and military advantage? Could he be that cold and calculating? He certainly was shrewd enough to recognize the importance of using his gods to lead his people in his war effort. The Prince continued to regard him with a steely gaze. Palriken became aware that all other discussion had stopped and all attention was now focused on the Prince and his conversation with the weird looking foreigner.

“The Gazpardizik gods are strong and the union between the Gazpardizik people and their gods had never been so strong as now. With King Hasdergish and me and the Gazpardizik gods all together, we will be victorious.”

The Prince spoke loudly and his voice rang with confidence. He was well aware that everyone in the tent and probably even those clustered outside the entrance flap were listening to every word he spoke and every reply translated from the stranger. Palriken suspected that the words were as much for the ears of his people as for his own.

“Do you know Kriktoprok?” When Palriken shook his head, the Prince continued. “He is the greatest and most fearsome of all the gods. He is the god of darkness. When all is ended and there is nothing left, and even the weak god of light Grutzag has run away, there will still be Kriktoprok, bravely ruling the vast dark void. All men fear him as they fear the blackness of night. There is no god stronger. Kriktoprok swallows all.”

Palriken nodded. The Prince gazed at him as if gauging his reaction.

“Gazpardizik has grown strong under our great King Hasdergish. As a young man he traveled in many lands and learned many new things. When he became king after the Battle of Rizgrezit River he began to teach the new ways he had seen. He taught us about government administration and battle tactics that had never been known in Gazpardizik before. It was only under Hasdergish that we began the practice of payments and storage of grains under the protection of the King. That freed many men from the demands of harvesting and allowed us to conduct well supplied military excursions far from our home without the need to interrupt military operations according to the demands of the agricultural calendar. He also taught Gazpardizik warriors how to discipline and organize themselves by rank and how to build siege engines like the ones we used this spring at Erpor.”

Zudwik glowed as he as he recounted the translated exploits of his King. Palriken felt a queasy tightening as he remembered the grisly carnage he had witnessed at the ruined fortress.

“It was even Hasdergish who introduced to us our favorite game. Maybe you have seen it. Now every Gazpardizik warrior thinks about battle strategy instead of just running at the enemy to hammer our swords on their shields. Gazpardizik has grown from child to man under Father Hasdergish and gone now are the days when we lose battles for not being wise.”

The Prince paused and studied Palriken as he let his words sink in. “And you, General Palriken,” The Prince pronounced the awkward foreign name flawlessly and Palriken construed hastily that he must have been well informed in advance about his venerated prisoner. The man was evidently not a fool. “you are a skilled warrior. I would like to see your skill with my own eyes.”

The Prince gave a command and a flurry of activity followed. The Prince ducked through the flaps and left the tent and his retinue followed. Zudwik beckoned to Palriken and they joined the Prince in the torch lit clearing behind the tent. Several soldiers sauntered into the ring of light. Wooden swords were passed out to them and they slashed them through the air with great whoops of laughter. The officer with the blue feathered helmet that was passing out the swords turned and offered one to Palriken. Zudwik turned to him also and gestured him to take it. Palriken moved forward dully and accepted the weapon. He hefted the weight and balance and nodded mechanically to himself. It was a carved wooden training sword not dissimilar to the ones used for instruction and practice in Shashbadeth. The blade was lighter and more curved but even so the mere feel in his hand of the familiar tool gave him a natural calming confidence. He looked up and realized that all eyes were on him. The soldiers grinned in anticipation of good sport. The Prince gazed impassively with his eye glittering in the torchlight, closely monitoring Palriken’s experienced assessment of his weapon. He gave a sharp command and the group receded in a wide ring to the margins of the clearing. A solitary soldier stood facing Palriken with a grin. The soldier said something to him in what seemed to be a friendly salutation and then raised his wooden sword menacingly and advanced a few cautious steps towards him. Palriken moved his feet to an instinctive defensive stance and forced himself to allow his years of training and experience to take control over the concentration of his entire being. The soldier moved two casual steps to the right and Palriken shifted his balance in a well drilled maneuver. It was all so automatic. A parry for every thrust. An evasion and counter attack for every slash. He moved fluidly now. His footwork was precise. He felt his confidence surge and he knew he would easily outclass this opponent. The soldier charged with a sudden yelp that tailed off into a shrill scream as Palriken sidestepped and hammered his wooden blade against the soldier’s exposed elbow and ribs. The soldier stumbled out of the ring groaning with his wounded side drooping.

A murmur rippled through the crowd of onlookers. The audience had grown as news of the spectacle spread. Palriken saw the Prince watching dispassionately and Zudwik standing at his side with a faint nervous smile. The Prince waved his hand and a second warrior stepped into the ring towards Palriken. The warrior advanced without a smile this time. Palriken planted his feet and calmly watched his adversary approach. The warrior was strong and determined, but he had no refined technique. Palriken could tell just by watching his feet. This was all so easy, like playing with children. These warriors were ferocious but they lacked the stylized skill at arms of the Empire’s highly trained nobility that had developed and perfected a variety of combat techniques over the centuries. Palriken feinted with a sudden movement. The warrior reacted and opened his guard for an instant. Palriken expeditiously exploited the error and dispatched the warrior with a blow to the head that would have crushed his skull if Palriken had struck in earnest. The warrior’s knees buckled and he collapsed unconscious with blood oozing from his split scalp. Several warriors came running and carried off the wounded man.

Palriken stood alone in the center of the torch lit ring surrounded by silent onlookers. The Prince regarded him expressionlessly for another moment and then gestured for another warrior to step forward. The man stepped out from the ring tentatively and took several wary steps towards Palriken. His legs wobbled awkwardly and Palriken could see that he was unnerved by the defeat of his champion comrades. The man looked back at the Prince’s cold stare and seemed to resign himself to his fate. His face contorted in a rage and he charged impetuously forwards with a shout. Palriken awaited his attack in a well balanced stance and burst into a flash of motion only at the last second with a step and a slash that thudded against the warrior’s shoulder. The warrior dropped his sword with a gasp and teetered off clutching at his collarbone.

The Prince sprang forward and rushed towards Palriken with Zudwik on his heels. He clapped his hands and all the soldiers in attendance clustered around. The Prince held Palriken with his fierce eye and exclaimed accompanied by Zudwik’s proud translation.

“I see you are what you say you are so now we will talk. No mere merchant can wield a sword like that. Starting tomorrow you will begin to instruct my officers in technique. I want all Gazpardizik warriors to learn this new way to fight. Tonight, you and I will talk. I would have you teach me all the ways of your Empire.”

Palriken’s lips parted but no response emerged. His beaten and sorrowful heart flickered with conflicting sentiments at the recognition that he was to be a tool of destruction of the culture he so deeply cherished and the nation that had turned its cold hypocritical back on him.

Chapter 30 The Price of Bread

Eslaka pursed her lips and counted her coins. The generous remuneration that Zeltogath had sent to her by his scowling lackey the day he left the capital was trickling steadily away. She frowned and shook her head. The baker shrugged and moved on to the next clamoring customer. Eslaka pushed her way out of the crowded bakery and turned disconsolately towards the marketplace. The grain merchant in the Gathangtingol section would surely give her a more reasonable price. With all this war in the east and the recent flood of refugees in the capital, prices had tripled in just the last week.

Eslaka emerged from the narrow street, shaded by the tilted houses that seemed to lean towards each other for comfort, and blinked in the afternoon sunshine of the broad marketplace. The usual hubbub of languages and accented versions of Shashbeth reigned. Eslaka immediately noticed that something was different however. Instead of noisily haggling with vendors over purchase prices, men and women were standing in bunches boisterously discussing the disturbing current events. The vendors were sitting quietly in their stalls or complaining petulantly to their neighbors about the dearth of business.

A group of youths swaggered through the crowd with arms linked around each other’s shoulders. The youths were clothed with the styles of all the far flung nations of the Empire and their bold strut seemed to fortify an appearance of solidarity that their disparate costumes would belie. As they pushed their way towards Eslaka, one of the youths bumped a loudly arguing foreigner from the tropical northern lands. The man staggered and turned, spluttering profanities in an accent that sounded like an absurd caricature even to Eslaka. The youth spun quickly and brandished a menacing dagger. The foreigner abruptly silenced and his former audience backed away nervously. The youth cackled and sprang back to his grinning comrades. The group relinked arms and came on again towards Eslaka. She recoiled as she made out their faces. One of them was her son.

Angkolo stopped when he recognized her and ran to meet her. He kissed her taut cheek and noticed her frigid stare.

“What’s wrong, Mama?”

“What are you doing with those boys?” she hissed in her native tongue. “Do you think I brought you here to the capital to bully other immigrants like yourself?”

“Lath, Mama!” Angkolo chortled in the lowest street accent of Harentowith. “That silly loudmouth! Don’t worry. Here. Are you hungry?”

Angkolo pulled a small loaf of dark bread and a plum pastry from under his tunic. Eslaka bit into the pastry and couldn’t prevent a serene smile from spreading over her reluctant features. The pastry was a regional delicacy of the capital. It was one of the many splendors of the rich life here in Harentowith, for those who could afford them of course. Lately that was becoming difficult. She delicately licked a crumb from her lips and thought of all the bakeries she knew.

“Where did you get this? It is delicious.”

Angkolo laughed. “You wouldn’t believe it, Mama. Those Oligarchy families are so puffed up and full of themselves. We climbed the walls of a villa on top of the hill and raided the kitchen. We had a great feast and they didn’t even know it.”

“Angkolo!” Eslaka gasped with anguish.

“Ah Mama. The Oligarchy takes everything from the people for themselves. We just took a little bit back. They won’t even notice their loss.”

Angkolo glanced over at his comrades who were standing in a ring singing an irreverent comic song about a landlord who got too fat to bend over and count his money.

“You can’t…” Eslaka began breathlessly.

“Bye Mama.”

Her son kissed her quickly on the cheek and ran off to join his urchins in arms. A tear trickled down the side of Eslaka’s nose. Even with the tutor that she had hired to teach him every morning, she felt she was losing her son. She had never even really had the boy’s father, except as a brief interlude in a series of business transactions. She had lost the officer that had brought her to the Empire from her homeland and just recently she had lost the man whose curious humor had intrigued her. The man seemed to be some kind of battle hero of note, but she found him kind and gentle when they were alone together. He certainly liked his pleasure, but that was ok since she liked it with him too. He was mischievous but that just made her laugh. Anyway, none of that mattered now since he was gone.

Eslaka moved on dejectedly through the malcontented clusters of turbulent shoppers and past sullen vendors. An uproar broke out when a sweets seller suddenly undercut the price of her competitor in the neighboring stall and garnered a coveted sale. Her competitor ran over screaming and knocked over her platters of honey cakes and pulled her hair in a red faced rage. A lurking dog snapped up the spilled sweets between the thrashing legs of the combatants and ran away snarling with its cheeks bulging. Eslaka pressed through the squawking crowd without paying it any mind. She continued on mechanically towards the grain merchant in the Gathangtingol section, not even acknowledging the deferential greetings and polite compliments to her beauty that she left dangling unattended in her wake. She reached the small but lively section that her countrymen had staked out as their own and approached the grain merchant’s stall. The gaunt middle aged man in the Gathangtingol style cap rose and greeted her with a smile.

“Good afternoon, Madame.” he addressed her flawlessly in their native tongue. Despite his twenty years in Harentowith he still retained the language of their fatherland and still observed the old customs. Eslaka herself had decided to adopt the customary clothing fashions of the women of the Empire to be more easily accepted as a Shashbadeth lady, but she respected the merchant for his effort to remain true to his traditional values. When he heard her request and understood that, even she, the glamorous lady of quality, was trying to shave off his own profit margin with self righteous pleas to his conscience as an honorable fellow country man, his smile vanished. Did she think he paid nothing for the produce he made available for the hungry bellies of Harentowith? If the damned snarling Gazpardizik ferrets slaughtered all the producers of his trade, who would volunteer to feed his six children in the chilly months? In answer to her stuttered plea, he simply threw up his hands and turned to the servant from one of the villas on the hill. The servant’s crew began loading the merchant’s stock onto their handcarts and jingling coins changed hands.

Eslaka turned away, embarrassed to have heard her own voice employed in such an undignified appeal. She stepped delicately around a soggy mound of garbage and plodded through the clumps of surly housewives, laborers, and pensioned veterans. The muttering around her surged and ebbed like an angry tide. A woman shrieked at a vendor in outrage at the price of his vegetables and necks craned with resentful curiosity to see the disturbance. A tossed cabbage thudded at her feet and the roar of voices grew in a rising tumult. The woman seized baskets of produce and flung them about until the vendor struck her and knocked her to the ground. Outraged voices erupted in a tidal wave of fury and the vendor disappeared with a shriek in a tangle of whirling arms and kicking feet.

In the midst of the commotion, a new disturbance broke out behind the clustered onlookers. The servants from the villa on the hill began pushing their convoy of loaded carts into the rear ranks of the simmering crowd. As the crowd pushed forward with its collective blood running hotter, the pent up frustration from perceived injustice and growling bellies vented in a spontaneous roar, accompanied by splintering stalls and the crackling of stomped produce. The petulant servants of the villa on the hill shoved their loaded handcarts into the rear of this crescendo of mob frenzy. Their own frustrations from pushing their sweaty loads frayed their delicate sensibilities to the point of striking indiscriminately at any and all the blunt objects in their path. The mood of these blunt objects was growing increasingly fractious and they turned in ill humour upon their molesters and the unthinkable occurred to the vassals of the houses of the mighty. A curse was followed by a blow and then blood trickled and soon flowed. The entire crowd turned and focused its ire on this new target.

Eslaka backed away through the surging crowd with a shaking hand covering her mouth. She had witnessed a scene of violent carnage as a young girl and she had hoped to escape such terrors and protect her son from them by moving to the capital. She stopped short and gasped. She saw Angkolo yell a taunt at the beleaguered servants and grab a sack from an overturned cart. Then he disappeared in the throng. Eslaka moved through the crowd in the direction of her son. Broken stalls and trampled goods lay in wrecked heaps on all sides. A horse neighed and reared not far from her and the press fleeing the kicking hooves drove several bodies under the pounding panicked feet. A woman with a bleeding gash across her scalp crawled in front of her and Eslaka jumped aside. The crowd closed around the woman and Eslaka saw her no more. Like a cork bouncing on a wave, Eslaka was borne away from the direction she wished to go.

A loud gong rang at one end of the square, followed by the blare of horns. At first the frenzy of the mob was too great for it to take notice, but as the horn blasts echoed through the square and grew gradually closer, one after another, people began to look up with alarm and edge away. Some looked around to quickly snatch whatever of value was at hand before melting away from the approaching horns. Cries and shrieks mingled with the horn blasts and running people now rushed towards her to escape.

The smell of smoke tinged the air and Eslaka saw flames behind her. The crush of the crowd now pushed her away from the new menace and pulled her along. A man stumbled towards her supported by a comrade. He was clutching his stomach and Eslaka saw the dark red blood seeping through his tunic and staining his trousers. Eslaka turned her head frantically in every direction searching for some sign of her son. She stopped as she neared the opposite end of the marketplace and tried to hold her ground against the flowing ebb to look for Angkolo in the carnage behind her. The fire had spread and smoke now hid large parts of the marketplace. More people streaming past her now bore bloody wounds. A great outcry went up in the congested avenue where the fleeing people had run. Horns and gongs sounded in the avenue and the escaping people now ran and pushed in every direction. Marching boots tramped in the avenue and Eslaka could see spear points bristling above the heads of the shrieking mob. The soldiers poured into the marketplace and began impaling squealing rioters. Eslaka saw a portly, elegantly dressed man directing orders to the soldiers. To one side of her, a teenage girl was pushed to the ground behind a stack of barrels. Eager soldiers quickly surrounded the girl. A middle aged man was dragged out from behind a pile of baskets and gouged through the belly with a spear. Eslaka turned and ran.

Bodies littered the ground and wounded crawled and groaned for help. A wounded man shrieked as a pile of burning debris collapsed over him and he lay immobilized and unable to escape. Through the smoke, Eslaka suddenly saw Angkolo throwing a stone. She hurried through the smoke towards him. The smoke cleared and she caught sight of him again. He was cackling and cavorting with glee. Two of his urchins-in-arms turned and dashed away into the smoke hovering over the debris. Several soldiers ran up behind him and he spun around in alarm. She saw his expression change in an instant to panic. He darted frantically for a gap between a vendor’s stall and the smoldering remains of his competitor’s goods. A soldier lunged to grab him and tripped with a curse. Angkolo desperately jabbed a dagger into the leg of the soldier who howled with pain. A second soldier sprang forward and clubbed Angkolo to the ground. The wounded soldier reached with his dagger to cut Angkolo’s throat but the second soldier gave an order and he stayed his hand. The soldier reached for a medallion hanging around Angkolo’s neck. The insignia of Hadfar the Councilor had caught his attention. The soldiers dragged him by the hair at dagger point towards the portly elegantly dressed man and Eslaka followed, heedless of all danger. As they got closer she could see that he wore four white stripes on one shoulder, signifying high rank. The portly man looked down dispassionately at Angkolo who panted on his knees in front of him. He bent down with a start and plucked at the medallion. He rapped out a blunt order and the soldiers tugged Angkolo to his feet. They bound his hands and lead him up the steep streets towards the grand villas of the Oligarchy. Eslaka hovered behind and followed with noone taking any notice of her.

Councilor Hadfar looked up with weary eyes from his budgetary accounts and gazed at the statue of the god, Pethingkesh, the giver of laws. The god gazed back down at him, oblivious to the fatigue lining his devotee’s unattractive face. The Councilor frowned pensively.

“My dear cherished idol, Pethingkesh, I am wondering, if I encounter such difficulties in administration of just one empire, what must you endure as the god entrusted with all mortal life. I shudder to imagine. We share to some extent the same burden, only I, that of a younger brother.”

The god offered no illuminating revelation and Hadfar gazed on, pensively scratching a pesky itch in the nether component of his body that caused him so much moral uncertainty. His eye meandered across his library to a painted tapestry of a minor goddess bathing in a wooded stream. The pensive scratch evolved to a firm caress that increased gradually in vigor. A vague wisp of heretical fancy combined synergistically with the caress to yield a most gratifying stiffness that had been dismayingly absent from the Councilor’s life of late. He stared with a suppressed guilty nervousness at the curves of the goddess and delighted in the triumph of his swollen article.

His reverie was crassly interrupted by a loud bang and the door burst open. The Councilor transferred his hand to neutral territory and glared at his intruder with the demeanor of the tireless public servant distracted from his urgent duties of state. He identified the man in front of him as someone he knew and then recalled that he was one of the kitchen and pantry staff servants. He noticed the man’s profusely bleeding scalp and exclaimed passionately.

“You block of wood! How dare you bleed all over my library! Out this instant!”

The bleeding head made a hasty retreat and Hadfar clucked with great displeasure at the drops of blood that stained his polished marble floor.

“That ape! He has as much appreciation for refinement as those Gazpardizik savages burning down our eastern province.” He sniffed disapprovingly and glanced back at the statue of Pethingkesh. “You see what I must put up with in my efforts to govern? I am surrounded by boorish louts on every side.”

The stomping of boots in the hallway announced fresh intrusions upon his musings. Soldiers clattered in, pushing Angkolo, bound and cowering before them. The officer in charge gave a clipped report of the riot in the marketplace. Hadfar glowered and his fury grew as he realized the dismaying depth of ingratitude nestled so firmly in the souls of the traitorous rabble. As the details of the carnage in the market place became revealed, it became clear to Hadfar how tragically unnecessary all the lamentable bloodshed was and how grossly irresponsible were the perpetrators of this unwarranted disturbances of the peace against the realm. Those damn reckless rioters! It wounded him to the core that the very ingrates he strove so hard to serve, repaid him with such violent acts of civil disturbance. A glimmering reflection in the torch light caught his eye and he lurched forward. His own personal medallion was hanging from the neck of the cowering youth. He seized the medallion roughly and roared in the boy’s face.

“Where did you get this, little rabbit?”

The servant with the bloody head entered the library and exclaimed “That boy! He is one of the beasts that assaulted us!”

Outside the barred gate of the Councilor’s grand villa, Eslaka stood weeping with glistening cheeks. Her tearful entreaty to the guards had fallen on deaf ears and she had been left with no further consolation than a curt order to remove her person from the gateway. Her sobs prevented her from hearing the approaching horses and she only looked up when a gentle hand touched her shoulder and beckoned towards the interior of the carriage. She wiped her eyes and rose with her natural grace and approached the dark doorway. A stiffly aristocratic but kindly voice addressed her from the shadows within.

“My dear woman, why do you cry so, here in the heart of the bounty of our glorious Empire?”

Eslaka unburdened her tale of maternal misery and the sigh from the depths of the shadows indicated a sympathetic chord delicately played.

“And you say your boy was brought here by the Councilor’s men? Well my dear, let’s have a talk with him. He is a most reasonable and honorable man. I have known his family and watched him grow since he was just a studious child. My late husband, may the gods bless his bones, was a Councilor himself and worked with Hadfar’s father to administer this great Empire of ours for many years. Come, let us go in.”

The formerly rejected Eslaka now passed through the open gates of the villa in the dowager’s opulent carriage. A servant obsequiously led them to the library. The doors opened and the dowager marched in. The Councilor Hadfar paused in his vitriolic tirade against the ungrateful renegade trash that bit the nurturing hand of paternal guidance, and scooted towards his vaunted guest with a welcoming smile.

“My dear…” he began and his eye ran quickly past his vaunted guest to the comely attendant in her wake. “How honored and delighted I am by your visit. And who…” He leaned conspiratorially close to the elderly woman. “is your esteemed companion?”

The dowager sniffed. “Is there a dead animal in this room?”

The Councilor looked perplexed. His servants retreated an involuntary step backwards. The dowager snorted. “You should have your servants look more carefully in the corners, young Hadfar. Aaaah…. but so good to see you again. Your father would be so proud of your leadership. Now listen, my dear. This young woman has a problem and you must listen to her.” The Councilor bowed fawningly in the direction of the esteemed companion who returned a stare of congealed anxiety. “Never forget, my dear, that the people are the children of the Empire and the gray hairs you gain are all earned in the service of their care and maintenance. Go ahead, my sweet, tell your story.”

Eslaka bit her lip nervously. She raised a shaking finger and pointed at the crouching youth. Angkolo looked back at her with fear in his darting eyes. With careful and laborious enunciation, she identified the guilty young prisoner as her beloved son. The Councilor moved attentively closer and lingered his eyes on various parts of her figure as he righteously considered the justice of her supplication. She finished speaking. He frowned and absently twirled the medallion in his fingers. A tense silence was broken by the dowager’s authoritative drone.

“My dear, you are so lovely it breaks my heart. Look Councilor, how the immigrant woman tries to dress and speak like a civilized citizen of the Empire. Shashbadeth has always been a caring mother to its multitude of children. Here in this good woman is proof that the Empire is the greatest and strongest civilization in history. Aah, Pithimiantok, our Imperial librarian! What a delightful surprise.”

The diminutive keeper of the Imperial archives smiled in response to the great dowager’s greeting, but turned pale at the sight of her esteemed companion. Eslaka however beamed a relieved smile at him as a familiar face who could perhaps offer succor to her distress, a smile that Pithimiantok construed quite naturally as a welcoming libidinous invitation.

“The wench whistles a different tune now that she realizes that her gallant war hero has discarded her and she remembers the pretty little attentions I paid her that she so casually shunned.” he thought.

He bestowed a smug smile upon her that would certainly establish his patrician patronage of her as she humbly implored for forgiveness. His kindly nature would then in course forgive and restore her to favor after the most lenient period of purgatory, after which she would perch in her rightful place with a fresh slate as the unblemished queen at his side.

“Pithimiantok.” Eslaka began breathlessly. The librarian swelled from the obvious passion ignited by the lovely immigrant woman’s recognition of his suave, urbane self. “In the name of friendship for me and for your friend, my dear love Zeltogath, you must help me.”

At the mention of Zeltogath’s name, both Pithimiantok and Hadfar stiffened reflexively. Eslaka however was too impassioned to notice. As she closed her plea, the librarian fidgeted noticeably.

“Venerable Councilor,” he hemmed, his face now red and hard. “I must defer to your…”

“Councilor.” Eslaka pounced on the word and took a step towards the vaunted figure of power who wrenched his besotted stare from her breasts just in time to realize she was referring to his own august person. “You must certainly know of my dear Zeltogath! He is somehow in the military.”

Hadfar recoiled as if lashed by a whip. “Yes, my lovely. I do know the man. Who does not know the legendary hero of Tagpashok?”

Eslaka beamed to hear such fine words about the object of her tender memories. “If you know my Zeltogath, Sir, please send him word to come back to Eslaka who still waits for him.”

Hadfar’s smile crystallized at the edges with frost. He felt a sensation that brought back a childhood memory when some of his brutish school comrades had grabbed him one day behind the Academy and dipped his bare wriggling toes into a steaming curled pile of fresh dog shit.

The dowager moved across the room with a rustling of fine fabrics. She took Angkolo by the hand and raised him to his feet. “Come, my dear. My coach will take you both home.”

She swept from the room, ushering Eslaka and Angkolo before her. At the door she paused and turned.

“And by the way, Councilor, there are reports of plague in the poorer quarters of the city. With all the refugees pouring in we are overcrowded. Take heed before plague accomplishes the Gazpardizik task for them.”

The dowager fussed and Eslaka clutched her son with grateful tears as they left the villa and mounted the carriage. Two soldiers standing guard at the gate watched them go.

“Cheeky little flea!” said one of the soldiers. “I don’t half blame him really. My own grandfather can’t afford to buy food in the marketplace these days and I had to give him some of my own rations.”

He bit off a morsel of birch bar tar and handed the pouch back to his comrade who took it back with a sneer. The comrade grunted and spat birch bar tar onto the ground.

“Lath! We all have our duty and we must squash these snarling rioting weasels.”

Hadfar exchanged a fleeting glance with Pithimiantok and turned his head away quickly. The two men had stood helplessly watching as the dowager and her charming companion made their exit, leaving a numb void in place of the sparkling tension they had created. Hadfar paced towards the window and his servants backed away on either side. Hadfar threw up his hands in exasperation and shouted.

“Out, you useless cretins!”

The servants scurried to the door with a variety of bows and servile gestures. Hadfar harrumphed.

“Children of the Empire indeed! Did a mother ever suffer birth to such miserable wretches!”

Pithimiantok stirred uneasily and cleared his throat to take his leave. The Councilor whirled on him suddenly and his eyes flashed with a keen anger.

“Zeltogath again! So, he associated with foreigners!” he declared with grim triumph. “It seems to me we were right to suspect him of treason. Aah, but we must all be on our guard in these difficult times when our cherished nation is besieged from without and within. Now, you knew the man, Pithimiantok. Did you not ever hear him involved in heretical debate, blaspheming the true gods of the Empire? The kind of debate that I, as keeper of the realm, have every right, nay even the duty to hear? Come, Pithimiantok, I know you to be a loyal citizen of the realm. Did you ever hear Zeltogath engaged in such talk?”

The librarian turned red. He stood gawking at the Councilor, too frozen to speak. Finally, he nodded his head. Hadfar grimly curled one corner of his mouth.

“So.” was all he said.

Pithimiantok bowed and walked shakily from the chamber. At the door he was jostled aside by a portly man who charged in and stood panting in front of Hadfar.

“Yes, Gomthatdrin. What is your report?”

“The rats came out from their holes and attacked my troops. There were so many of those stink… those gutter scum that I had to send back to the barracks for reinforcements.”

Gomthatdrin related the effective put down of the riot, smoothly passing over his errant faux pas that could have so easily provoked the vindictive ire of the Councilor. Hadfar regarded him keenly, his eyes still burning with outraged fury at the swine that had so ungraciously assaulted his personal servants. He made an impatient gesture, bidding his lieutenant to continue. Gomthatdrin smiled contemptuously.

“There were more than a thousand bodies in the streets.”

Hadfar nodded grimly with his eyes still blazing.

“That should lower the price of bread.”

Chapter 31 Gazpardizik Nation’s Sharpest Sword

Palriken licked his oily fingers as he stepped over a large puddle in the muddy street. The delicate flavor of fried fish swirled pleasingly around his teeth and down his palette. A light bubble effervesced from his interior plumbing, accompanying an agreeable reminiscence of oil and salt from the highly gratifying platter of fish dumplings he had bought in a somnolent side street off the village center. As an advisor to the Prince and a teacher of swordsman technique, Palriken was now remunerated with a generous quantity of currency with which he could avail himself of whatever bounty Gazpardizik craftsmanship could provide.

For several weeks now he had instructed the higher officers in the refined maneuvers of traditional Shashbadeth martial style. Some of his pupils suffered their learning bruises with sullen resentment against an alien influence, especially an obviously superior alien influence, but most, particularly the younger men, were jovially enthusiastic in their admiration for their veteran professor and their exhilarating new knowledge. Palriken warmed to them and delighted in their good natured smiles and squeals of pain as he foiled their eager and unsophisticated assaults with clinically pure and mechanically efficient parries, thrusts and slashes. The occasional crusty barnacle that advanced with grim lip curling in hate, he dispatched with maximum corporal punishment allowable within one standard deviation from the norm expected in training.

Palriken hummed an awkward rendition of a tune he had heard the women singing in the town. As a boy, Palriken had been taught to sing by his father, in what were some of Palriken’s most cherished formative moments, but Gazpardizik music had an unnatural tilt that seemed to evade him. He stepped with a buoyant spring as he saw Tashjak vigorously sweeping his shelter and he fingered the shaving blade that one of his devoted young students had lent to him. He hopped onto the wooden floor platform of his shelter with a loud thud and Tashjak whirled from her task in startled surprise. Palriken greeted her in comprehensible Gazpardizik and Tashjak almost betrayed a smile before she resumed her official frown of disapproval and turned her graceful back on him to resume her all important task. She spat out a quick stream of words over her shoulder. Palriken had learned just enough Gazpardizik to tease his housekeeper with silly banalities, but not enough to comprehend the rush of rapid words that his nonsense elicited in response. He was, however, vividly cognizant of her lively eyes, watching his reaction to her barrage and the corners of her lips straining against the curl of a smile.

Palriken held out the shaving blade and waited for her to notice. When she did, her pleasure was evident. Palriken’s heart bounced to the treetops to see her pleased reaction. Tashjak bustled about preparing to shave Palriken’s unsightly beard. As a stylish Shashbadeth lord, he had kept a trimly manicured moustache and clean shaven chin, but the years and persona of exile had nurtured a different look. Tashjak sat him down and diligently went about the operation. Palriken admired her skill and her efficient touch and still managed to peek down into the opening of her robe as she bent over him, assiduously attending to detail in exquisite fidelity. When she finished, she cocked her head in appraisal and struggled to restrain a delighted grin. She held up a polished bronze plate and he swiveled his neck until the angle revealed a vaguely recognizable image of someone who looked a lot like him as a younger version of the passionate devotee to traditional Shashbadeth theater.

He turned to Tashjak and smiled. She graced him with a smile in return. He pointed to his forelock. Tashjak glowed. She picked up the instrument again and applied herself soberly to the transformation of the Shashbadeth lord to Gazpardizik warrior. Palriken breathed in the fragrance of her body as she pressed against him in her task. Every minute touch tingled Palriken’s consciousness as thigh pressed hip, forearm rested on shoulder, and most delicious of all, noticeably firm breast rubbed against bicep, aided by judiciously timed flexing. Tashjak hunched over him and eyed her work intently. Palriken luxuriated in her palpable proximity and stared into her bright attentive eyes. Well before Palriken could have desired it, Tashjak applied the last touches, wiped his pate clean and held up the plate of polished bronze for him to admire the stranger that peered curiously back at him. The stranger disturbed him profusely. His head was clean shaven and glistening from an ointment Tashjak had rubbed vigorously into his flaky scalp. Only the typical Gazpardizik topknot was left intact as a long lock that tickled the back of his freshly scraped neck. Tashjak regarded him with a critical eye and shook her head disapprovingly. Palriken’s hair, which he had always kept at shoulder length, was not long enough to make a respectable topknot. She put her hands on her hips and her painted face slowly curled in smile. She spoke but the syllables trilled past his ears with charming incoherence. She sensed his non comprehension and bent close to his face and said with the clarity reserved usually for an audience of meager intelligence.

“I make you a man.”

Palriken waited tensely for the implementation of her edict, uncertain of her means. She bustled off and left him forlornly waiting and curiously wondering where she had gone. He sat tapping a nervous finger for several minutes and finally saw her approach with her rapid gracefully swaying steps. She hopped lightly onto his shelter platform and set a basket down next to him. Again she set to work and again Palriken submitted to her diligent care. When she pressed the last strokes of paint onto his eyelids, she gave a quavering giggle that half swallowed her words.

“Now you are a beautiful man.”

She looked down at him with her colorful face smiling. His stomach tightened into a hard knot. Now was the moment to seize her and kiss those weird painted lips that intrigued him so. Why did he find himself hesitating? Why this unsettling uncertainty?  She still smiled at him. The moment would pass! He forced himself to break his frozen inertia and reached trembling hands out to her slender waist. She swatted his hands aside with a sharp comment and a quizzical upturn of one eyebrow. Palriken could see her smooth skin and the curve of her chest through the opening of her robe in front of his face. He lunged forward and sank his nose into the cleft of her bosom. Tashjak pulled abruptly away, chattering in her tongue. She tugged her robe closed and regarded him coolly, an amused twinkle flickering in her eye. She turned and resumed her domestic tasks and Palriken was left abandoned on the lonely throne of his bench. He watched her tautly and then wrenched his gaze away from her to forlornly examine a random point on his wooden floor.

He was still staring in sullen self absorption when Zudwik hopped energetically into his shelter and hailed him with a hearty greeting. He gaped at Palriken’s painted face in astonishment and then exclaimed in delight.

“Ah! Now you look like a proper Gazpardizik man!” He approached Palriken and stared critically at him. “You actually look quite normal. I am so accustomed to your ugly nakedness that it surprises me now to see how dignified you look.”

He uttered a brief request over his shoulder to Tashjak and sat down on the bench next to Palriken. Tashjak brought him tea and addressed him earnestly at length in a formal tone. Zudwik listened gravely and frowned. When she finished speaking, he nodded, grunted a terse response and then stared into his wooden tea cup while she went off to her chores. Zudwik thought quietly for several minutes with his brow knit in serious deliberation and then turned to Palriken.

“The woman says she would like to be in happy time with you now that you look like a man.” He paused and took a deep breath. “But I am not certain.” He hesitated again, looking very concerned. “You are still a foreigner. You have adopted our clothes and cut your hair and painted your face in the proper style, but nevertheless you are still a foreigner. It is not regular that foreigners enter happy time with Gazpardizik. Maybe it is not permitted. I must think about it. Perhaps I need to speak to other men who are wise in our ways and customs. The great Gazpardizik spirit protects us as his people, but what would happen if we weren’t the same people because our blood became tainted? Would our gods reject us and no longer protect us? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I need to think deeply and understand what the Gazpardizik spirit wants before you can be happy with her.” He paused and bit his lip gravely. Then he grunted a light chuckle and looked at Palriken with a twinkling smile. “You would enjoy being happy with her though, if the gods permit it. As you can see, she is a great Gazpardizik beauty and she is very popular at the happy time.”

Palriken felt a tightening is his stomach and his heart beat suddenly faster. “I would be very grateful if you would consider this matter. I also would like to be happy with this Gazpardizik woman.”

Zudwik smiled with satisfaction and then set down his cup and stepped into the sunlit street. “Come. There is a famous woman who has arrived and she will perform today.”

Palriken perked up with his dormant passion for the traditions of the theater roused in an instant. “Perform?” he inquired, hurrying to keep abreast with Zudwik as he marched purposefully through the muddy street. “What kind of performance does she do? Is she an actress? Or a singer? Will she be performing traditional Gazpardizik theater?”

Palriken’s enthusiasm gushed out from his pent up soul, tormented by the years of misfortune and hardship. He was engulfed by a sudden animation for the familiar pastime that had been so long absent from his life. He thrilled to the delight of the anticipated intellectual stimulation. Zudwik tousled the hair of a green faced boy as he strode past and looked over his shoulder at Palriken.

“Yes. It is Gazpardizik tradition. Did I not tell you about the famous Gazpardizik women that travel to all the villages and perform for the people?”

Palriken responded with a look of such utter incomprehension that Zudwik grimaced with impatience at such colossal ignorance.

“She is a great beauty and will perform the happiness with men chosen by the people of the village that they want to see with her. Everybody will come and watch. It is one of our most popular traditions. This woman is loved and admired by all the Gazpardizik people. We are honored to have her visit us.”

Palriken stopped short in momentary shock and then took several quick steps to catch up with Zudwik again. He strove to affect nonchalance and hide how deeply disturbed he was by the practices of these grotesque savages. A stream of people of all ages led them to a bustling amphitheater dug into a grassy hillside. People milled around outside chatting and drinking tea purchased from roving vendors with skin bags. Eager spectators were sprinkled throughout the half filled wooden benches and they were gesturing excitedly at the stage that was still hidden from view. Three laughing women pushed past Palriken and ran towards an empty bench near the stage. A group of children stood giggling around an old man who stooped over and teased them. He pinched the cheek of a lavender faced girl and then tickled her ribs while all the children laughed. Zudwik grasped Palriken’s arm and tugged him along towards a bench in the lower section. He gestured at the stage pit below them.

“That is not the famous woman. She will come later.”

Palriken looked down at the stage and started. Behind the stage was a wooden palisade windbreak with an empty fire pit in the middle. In the center of the stage in the warm afternoon sunshine, a man and a woman were engaged in an uninhibited act that Palriken had always performed in at least the semi privacy of a friend’s salon, perhaps accompanied by several other inebriated friends and consorts. This couple wore no such cloak of drunkenness, nor any other.

A cry of delighted surprise greeted Zudwik and he clasped arms with a man who joined them on their bench. Zudwik introduced Palriken to the man who smiled and then turned to Zudwik with a furrowed brow. The two men were soon lost in deep discussion and Palriken let his eye wander through the colorful crowd around him to the shameless spectacle. The smell of fried fish and sizzling meat wafted to his nose and he heard the cry of a vendor walking through the crowd with a platter of dumplings. A man in the second row turned away from the writhing performance and called out to the vendor. The vendor wended his way down to him and the transaction was conducted to the accompaniment of jests bandied merrily back and forth. The man offered dumplings all around and his neighbors turned and sat hunched over the dumplings with their backs to the passions of the flesh being enacted scant feet away from them. The performers concluded their act and bowed to the audience at the edge of the stage. The crowd responded with hearty and genial applause. A man brought a wooden cup of water to the stage and the performers gulped it down with grateful smiles. Two women brought flower garlands to the stage and placed them reverently on the sweaty heads of the performers. The man that had brought the water kissed both performers on the cheek and they all melted into the crowd.

A dull buzz of anticipation now hummed through the crowd. The empty seats began to fill quickly. Palriken looked down at the empty stage. Zudwik and his comrade still conferred together as if the surrounding world had ceased to exist. A man sat down on the bench on Palriken’s right and clasped his forearm. The man pointed at the stage and chattered eagerly. Palriken caught the words “beautiful” and “love” out of the torrent flooding past his ears. The man turned to his companions, three men and a woman, and they carried on a crisp conversation as they passed a skin of warm tea between them. Zudwik and his comrade still talked soberly and Palriken was left alone with his observations. All the benches were filled now and still people pushed into the amphitheater.

A series of bells and gongs rang and the amphitheater hushed instantly. All eyes peered at the empty stage. Palriken felt the familiar tingle of anticipation that usually preceded a theatrical event. In spite of his natural aversion of these perverse barbarians, he couldn’t help feeling the excitement of the show. Clarinets blared. Zudwik stopped talking and nudged Palriken.

“Now comes the beautiful Gazpardizik woman.”

He spoke with obvious pride and Palriken realized he would be wise to praise her beauty no matter what barbarity awaited him. Several young women and girls scampered out from the wings and strewed flower blossoms about the stage floor. The women and girls disappeared. A taut silence followed. A clear note from a bell sounded. Nothing happened. The clear tone of the bell sounded again. A small commotion began near the edge of the stage. All eyes followed the rippling excitement as it rolled out through the crowd. A figure gracefully mounted the stairs to the stage. The pent up breath of the crowd gushed out in an appreciative wheeze. The figure traipsed through the flower blossoms and Palriken recognized clearly the feminine aura that she exuded, even at that distance. And even through her hideous savagery, she transfixed Palriken as she did the entire audience.

The woman took her place at the center of the stage and her painted face smiled out at the crowd. A growing hum of approval waved down at her and she cocked her hands out to either side as if to put her centerpiece on full display. Her red linen robe was fastened at the throat with a silver brooch and tied at the waist to tuck in around her sickle shaped hips. She paused to allow the audience to admire her elegant figure. A spattering of applause broke out and quickly spread and soon the entire crowd was clapping, calling out, and stamping their feet. The woman smiled at them beatifically. The applause settled down and the woman addressed the audience at some length with a high clear voice. Palriken had no idea what she was saying, but the audience was enraptured. She stopped speaking and the crowd clapped and stomped its feet once more. Zudwik whispered excitedly in his ear.

“She just spoke a famous Gazpardizik poem. It has been recited by the poets and the women entertainers for hundreds of Gazpardizik kings.”

The woman raised a hand theatrically above her head and lowered it gradually to the brooch at her throat. The crowd silenced as if orchestrated. The man on Palriken’s right sucked in his breath. The woman kept her hand poised at the brooch and left the crowd waiting. Then, in one swift movement, she opened the brooch, tugged her waist sash apart, and let the robe fall to hang partly open and reveal her naked flesh. Palriken gulped. He hadn’t realized how dry his throat had become. The woman slowly raised her hands with the entire audience taking in her every move. Her hands hovered at the lapels of her robe. Palriken’s neighbor craned forward. Zudwik nudged Palriken with his knee. A sudden blur of motion and the robe tumbled around her feet. The woman stood naked to the world. Nobody so much as breathed. Palriken’s interior clockwork throbbed. She was a very beautiful woman. She could have dominated any stage in Shashbadeth. Wild cheers broke out and an appreciative din erupted. The woman basked in the warm approbation of the crowd in her naked splendor. Palriken stared at her and almost forgot his repulsion for her barbaric culture. The woman beckoned to one side of the stage and welcomed a man who hopped up and took her extended hand. The crowd cheered and the man grinned nervously back. The woman kissed the man on the cheek and he beamed with an idiot’s simplicity.

Clarinets blared at one side of the amphitheater and the audience and even the woman and man on stage looked over in curiosity at the interruption. The crowd parted deferentially and a small procession approached the stage. Zudwik grabbed Palriken’s arm even as the entire crowd tensed in recognition of the newcomer.

“It’s the Prince!” hissed Zudwik. Zudwik stood and cried out emotionally. “The Prince of Gazpardizik!”

The whole crowd rose to its feet. A rolling thunder of cheers and stomping feet grew in volume as their prince approached the stage. Palriken noticed that the woman and the man on stage stood rooted to the spot in clearly visible elation. The Prince bypassed the stage steps and leapt nimbly up next to the astonished woman who gazed at him with clasped hands. The Prince turned and saluted the cheering crowd. The cheers turned to a roar. Even the man and woman on the stage cheered. Palriken saw tears course down the painted cheeks of the man. The Prince bowed graciously to the man who seized his hand with both of his and then sank to his knees in humble reverence. The Prince then turned and gracefully curled his arm out to take the woman by the hand. The woman beamed with pleasure and pride at the honor paid her by the stalwart young leader of their nation. The Prince turned back to crowd, raising the arm of the woman and they both bowed to crowd. The woman seemed breathless with the thrill of being at the side of the young Prince. The Prince opened his tunic and strutted across the stage demonstrating his regal erection for the ecstatic crowd. The crowd roared. He turned back to the woman and laid her down on the pallet. He caressed and squeezed various sensitive parts and she twitched and moaned responsively. He leaned forward with an avid gleam in his eye and sucked heartily at her round breasts that he held with both hands and aimed upwards towards his eager lips. Then he pushed her legs apart and entered her. She gave a slight gasp. Her Prince plied her with great vigor as the crowd looked on in thrilled silence. Every neck in the amphitheater stretched to see their Prince practice his virility. The woman rolled her eyes back in her head and hung her arms limply behind her off the edge of the pallet in total helpless submission to her overwhelmed senses. She suddenly sucked air in with an involuntary jerk and then her body went limp like uncooked dough. The Prince arched his back in his last powerful lunging spasms and paused with his eyes closed and his mouth hanging open. Droplets of sweat dripped from his brow and splashed onto her face making her blink. The crowd was spellbound. The Prince finally lifted his head and turned his face slowly to the crowd. A slow smile crept from the corners of his eyes outwards and radiated over his face. He thrust his arm and fist upwards into the air and the crowd exploded. The woman propped herself up on her elbows and gazed groggily at the roaring crowd. The Prince held his dramatic pose of salute to the moment of the crowd’s zenith of crescendo and with the perfect timing of a master stage actor, turned with extended hand to his collaborator and, gently taking her hand, raised her to her feet and presented her in her naked, sweaty glory to the appreciative crowd. The roar was volcanic. The actress, accustomed as she was to stardom and the acclaim of the adoring masses, had never been so honored as by this public moment with the Prince and she covered her mouth in girlish embarrassment. The Prince put his powerful muscular arm around her neck and kissed her cheek with a big happy grin. He was Gazpardizik’s shiniest and sharpest sword! The din of the crowd went on and on.

Chapter 32 Peeking at the Realm of the Gods

Zeltogath and Fowgis halted at the top of the hill and looked back down at the robust activity of the encampment. Harvinch and Delfolinch drew up behind them and followed their gaze absently. Imptoforch and the Prince’s Royal Guard reined in and waited patiently on the pleasure of their masters. Zeltogath drew a long satisfied breath as he surveyed the regimented familiarity of the military world.

“You know my friend, Harentowith is all very well and it certainly has its advantages, but I sometimes think I am more at home here than I am with the life in the capital. People are so much more complicated there.”

The two men looked tranquilly out over the sunlit valley, absorbed in their relative thoughts, some orderly and coherent and others not quite so. Fowgis cocked his head thoughtfully to one side. “Sometimes I have moments of perfect clarity, of complete revelation about life and the heavens above. But then, the moment passes and fades into an intangible shimmering just as I reach my fingers out to grasp the truth in my hands. I realize then that I understand nothing of the mysteries of this world and my moments of clarity are just an illusion.”

Harvinch spat a glob of birch bark tar onto the ground and gazed quizzically at it as if recording scientific observations for the advancement of posterity. Zeltogath nodded. He had a vague sense that he understood exactly what his friend was saying, but it was just formless feeling, devoid of articulate definition.

“But come,” Fowgis turned his horse back to their road. “I will show you something that will really prove we know nothing. My friend Lord Tegontilith has a remarkable instrument. It allows you to see truth as it has never been seen by man before.”

Zeltogath smiled. He was always ready to please his dear friend and humor his complicated fancies. What really pleased him of course was the exhilaration and feeling of freedom of being on his horse and seeing new country. They rode to the East, beyond the limits of that part of the Empire that was secure from the threat of marauding Gazpardizik raiding parties. Harvinch, as always these days, was at his side and also thrilled with the excursion. Delfolinch had begged eagerly for the opportunity to accompany Fowgis whom he admired almost to the point of idolatry. His father’s presence however, he tolerated with a simmering hostility.

After several days of riding they came down out of the hills to a somnolent pastoral valley. A river coursed lazily across rolling fields and meadows and a castle crowned a steep, craggy hillock overlooking a narrow bend in the river. Their horses ambled lethargically along the dusty rutted road towards the high walls and turrets of the stone castle. Flies buzzed inanely in the fields of grain around them but no field workers were to be seen. One boy jumped out from a hedge and ran off across a field and disappeared into the woods. They clopped tentatively towards the great gate. Not even a wisp of smoke indicated any activity in the manor. Zeltogath shot a questioning glance at Fowgis who shook his head.

“I have never been to his estate but this must be it. We knew each other and exchanged ideas frequently when he was a young man at the College of Engineering.” Delfolinch perked up his ears at the mention of the venerable institute of learning.

They approached within a few hundred yards and could now make out a black figure that appeared to be seated on a stone bench by the manor gate. As they got closer, the black figure did not move or even acknowledge their presence. They drew up their horses in front of him and waited for some kind of greeting. The figure was completely draped in a black woolen cowl with the pointed hood pulled down and hiding the face in shadow.

“Good afternoon.” Fowgis ventured.

“Rain!” the figure answered without looking up.

The entire entourage looked up at the blue sky that stretched to the hazy horizon.

“The sky is clear.” said Fowgis in evident confusion.

“Looks like rain.” the figure intoned.

Again the men on horseback swiveled their necks and inspected the sky and verified the absence of clouds. A door creaked open and slammed shut inside the manor and a commotion of running feet and bleating goats broke out. The manor’s great gate opened with squeaking hinges and a gaunt tousle haired man rushed out. He peered at the men on horseback and noticed the wide grin of Fowgis.

“My dear old friend! What a surprise! What brings you here to see me after all these years?”

Suddenly, without waiting for a reply, the tousle haired man leaned over the seated figure and sniffed loudly.

“Uncle!” he shouted. “How long have you been sitting here? Did you relieve yourself?”

The cowled figure started frantically. “I’ve been! I’ve been!” it protested.

An old woman emerged from the gate and glared menacingly at the cowled figure. An impatient blaze of anger creased the tousle haired man’s face. “You coil of tripe! Off with you or I’ll chop off your arms and feed them to the pigs!”

The cowled figure jumped up and hobbled briskly into the manor muttering. “Chop me! Chop me!”

The old woman hurried after the cowled figure. The tousle haired man snorted and flicked one hand in a gesture of irritation. Then he turned and stared past his visitors at some puffy clouds on the distant horizon. Fowgis cleared his throat.

“Tegontilith, I have brought friends with me. The Imperial army is camped several days ride to the west and I am on my way to join my troops marching from the north. We are going to punish the Gazpardizik invaders and drive them back to their lands.”

“What? Is there war again?” Tegontilith demanded irritably. “Didn’t we whip those Gazpardizik apes already? Politics! Lath, I can’t keep track of your wars. Fools! Well, I guess you’d better come in.”

Tegontilith stomped off into the manor and yelled for attendants to care for the horses. After several minutes a timid man emerged and silently received orders from his master, ducking his head constantly in obeisance. Tegontilith disappeared and the visitors were shown to their quarters by the timid servant. As they moved through the labyrinthine corridors they occasionally passed other attendants who all ceased their hushed conversations and bowed obsequiously as soon as they came into sight.

“A queer place.” Harvinch pronounced with a frown. His apprehension evaporated the next moment into a fizzing delight as an attendant brought in a painted ceramic pitcher of foamy ale. “Ah, but he serves a fine brew at least.” Harvinch’s moustache ends dripped with a satisfying froth.

The satisfying ale and a chunk of fresh sheep cheese helped Harvinch retain his good humor till they were summoned by the timid attendant for dinner in the main hall. There they found their host at the great table, feverishly scribbling what appeared to be numeric calculations by the flickering light of a dripping wax candle. The cowled figure of his uncle sat huddled on a bench in the shadows by a wall. The old woman served him a tankard of ale and he slurped it greedily. Fowgis greeted Tegontilith with a polite salutation but Lord Tegontilith merely grunted and held up one hand without looking up from his scroll. The attendant showed them to their seats around the table and began serving platters of roasted fowls, cheeses, boiled leeks, rye bread rolls, and dried fruits as if their lord’s behavior was the normal routine. The guests ate in silence while Tegontilith snarled and gnashed his teeth in vexation at his errant computations. Finally, an inspiration seemed to come to him suddenly and he exclaimed ecstatically and rushed from the room clutching his scroll. The attendants poured wine and the diners exchanged puzzled glances. Tegontilith came back in rubbing his hands.

“That was the crucial solution!” he cried, snatching up a goblet and filling it with wine. “I have been working on that formula for weeks and I finally made the numbers balance. Look at this.”

Tegontilith thrust the scroll under Fowgis’ nose and jabbed his bony finger at a blurred set of numbers. His eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. He tossed back his goblet and drained it with a loud slurp. “That will make those charlatans sit up and think!”

Fowgis held up the scroll to make out the ciphers in the faint light of the oil lamps recessed into the stone walls. He nodded his head slowly and then gave a start. He looked up sharply at Tegontilith in amazement. “But this is astonishing. Your reckoning of celestial mechanics goes entirely counter to the beliefs taught by the priests. The Oligarchy won’t be pleased. There are those who claim it is impious to try to understand those things only understood by the gods.”

Tegontilith chortled with glee. He set his goblet next to a pitcher of wine and pulled a lever. The pitcher tipped forward and wine poured delicately into the goblet. Tegontilith smiled proudly as the rest of the table watched in wonder at his invention. The attendant standing behind him stiffened. The cup filled to just below the brim and Tegontilith confidently tugged again at the lever. The pitcher lurched violently and toppled onto its side, splashing red wine in a huge stain across the white linen table cloth.

“Damned inanimate devil!” he screeched.

“Inanimate!” echoed his uncle in a howl from the dark corner.

The attendant rushed forward with a ready rag and dabbed it at the spreading stain. Tegontilith puffed peevishly and then sighed and waved him away blithely. “A little inside, a little outside. What real difference does it make where the wine goes? When you look at the stars, you see the relative importance of it all.”

Harvinch gaped at his host with an expression that revealed to an attentive observer just how critical he considered the relative importance of the ultimate destination of good wine.

Fowgis looked coolly at his old friend. He was eager to impart the warning that he had journeyed hither to deliver. “We also have news, Tegontilith. We bring you news from the Empire.”

“News! I have no need of news about the Empire and the ludicrous doings of insignificant man. But I trust you have been faring well?”

Fowgis summarized the main events of the times, punctuated by occasional supporting commentary from Zeltogath and Delfolinch. Even Harvinch contributed sporadic passionate annotations, which caused exasperated gurgles from Delfolinch and subtle twitches of bemusement from Fowgis. Lord Tegontilith seemed to regard these interjections with the same degree of indifferent attention he paid to the rest of the discourse as he plucked morsels of crisp skin from the carcass of the roasted fowl. When Fowgis gave a brief synopsis of his recent duel with the conservative general and his subsequent flight and ultimate expedient reconciliation, Lord Tegontilith finally perked up.

“Kusi dead?” he cackled. “Ha! One less glob of ignorance pestering the planet! Good for you, Fowgis. At least you made a positive contribution.” He whirled suddenly on his uncle who had crept around behind him and pinched his buttock. “Out!” he screeched. “You coil of tripe! Or I’ll bake the sap out of you and throw your dust to the wind!”

The cowled uncle screamed. “Bake my sap! Bake my sap!” He held his hands up to his misshapen face and staggered to his shadowy corner where he melted onto the bench.

Lord Tegontilith turned back to the table and grabbed a pear and squeezed it for ripeness. “In any case my dear friend, all of this is neither here nor there. I have finally perfected the instrument that has preoccupied me since my days at the College of Engineering. You must all come up to my observatory and see it. Here, bring some of that wine and brandy and try those apples. Don’t you love apples? I planted some trees in the high hills. Come! Come!”

Tegontilith lead them through a series of dim passageways and up a spiraling set of stone stairs. A cool breeze flowed down from the darkness above them. Faint yellow light from Tegontilith’s oil lamp flickered against the stone walls around them, leaving an impenetrable blackness in their wake. Tegontilith kept up a constant eager chatter of explanation about the finer details of lens grinding that quickly put Zeltogath’s mind to pursuing the topic that had been concerning him for the last half hour. To wit, were there any reasonably attractive young women available to liven up this nightmarish castle?

They climbed up and up and finally emerged onto the top of the tower. A large instrument gleamed metallically in the light of the oil lamp. Fowgis looked out over the parapet at the shadowy landscape. A half moon glowed dully behind a thin bank of clouds on the horizon. Tegontilith busied himself with his telescope, aiming it at a clear patch of sky.

Fowgis turned and watched his friend feverishly tinker with an adjustment dial. “Tegontilith, I strongly urge you to at least take some precaution to protect yourself and your estate from any possible Gazpardizik raiders.”

“Lath!” Tegontilith spat over his shoulder. “Those Gazpardizik rats won’t come up here. Besides, you and your friend here can easily sweep those savages back to their dark forests where they belong. I’m so tired of your puny wars! And your petty Imperial politics! I am happy out here on my hill top, far from the noisy mobs and the slithering politicians and bellowing priests. You go off and fight the barbarian pests and have fun splitting their guts. I will stay here with my telescope and keep my peaceful vigil with the stars. I am searching for truth on a higher level and I refuse to interrupt my observations of celestial mechanics just for the sake of yet another idiotic war of the Empire and that ludicrous crew of cretins that calls itself a Council.” He crouched over his eyepiece and squawked with delight. “Look! This is what I wanted to show you!”

Lord Tegontilith beckoned agitatedly and Fowgis deferred to his zeal with a sigh of submission. He squinted into the eye piece and gasped. Lord Tegontilith shivered with delight. Fowgis stood up and stared at his friend with his mouth agape. Tegontilith pounded him excitedly on his shoulders.

Delfolinch jumped forward and peeped into the eyepiece. An ecstatic smile creased his face and he bounded up and exclaimed “This is stupendous! It proves the falseness of the priests and the Oligarchy!”

Fowgis smiled quietly at the astute youth. Lord Tegontilith stepped towards him and poked him in the chest with his bony finger. “That is exactly correct, young friend. You see the significance of my work.”

Zeltogath took his turn peering into the strange instrument. He saw nothing remarkable. In fact, he saw nothing at all. He stood up with a dumbfounded look. Tegontilith squatted down and gently twisted the dial. He motioned for Zeltogath to look again. The vision that greeted his eye took his breath away. So crystal clear that it appeared to be only inches from his nose, a round flat shiny disc hung suspended with a ring encircling its middle. He stared in amazement. He had never seen anything that so compellingly illustrated the wonders of the universe, anything so beautiful. Thoughts seemed to start spinning uncontrollably in his head. The disjointed threads of conversations with Fowgis began to take a new shape. The shape was still vague but it intrigued him nevertheless. Now he noticed two other smaller shiny discs next to the large one. He stared at the beautiful vision until he finally felt Harvinch breathing heavily over his shoulder. He moved away and stood gaping at the dark sky with its pin points of light. Harvinch grunted suspiciously behind him and stood up and peered into the top lens of the telescope. Lord Tegontilith laughed disparagingly.

“No it is not a trick. It is just a telescope but with a much larger glass. It is stronger by far than those used by the military.” He cackled proudly. “Nobody ever thought to use them to look at the sky before. Nobody ever imagined that the stars were anything more than just tiny points of light. Nobody ever guessed how far away they must be. If a man is standing a long distance away from you, he appears to the eye like a tiny dot. But with a normal field glass that every frontier lookout tower of the Empire carries, he is identified as a man. So if a star appears to be a tiny point, what would it look like with a strong enough telescope?”

Harvinch gawked at Lord Tegontilith. Delfolinch glowed with admiration for Fowgis and his astronomer friend.

“Your priests never told you about that, did they?” Lord Tegontilith laughed shrilly. “Those fools! They know nothing!”

Zeltogath continued to stare up at the sky and puzzled over the new thoughts swirling in an undisciplined charge through what had formerly been the simple and happy order of his world. Fowgis and Lord Tegontilith discussed the ramifications of scientific inquiry and other similar sounding topics that were just too overwhelming for Zeltogath to attempt to follow at the moment. Delfolinch eagerly inserted his own enthusiastic contributions to demonstrate his appreciation of the portentous implications and was heeded with paternal tolerance. Harvinch stood to one side with a disturbed frown.

Zeltogath felt the call to nature beckon to him with urgent force and he wandered down the steps of the tower in search of a suitable place to discharge his needs. Occasional torches and oil lamps on the stone walls created flickering pools of illumination separated by long stretches of darkness where his boots followed along the smooth flagstone floors without the benefit of his guiding eyes. He followed a corridor to an alcove that he had observed earlier in the day when light from a slit window had revealed a hole in the floor for the use of discrete defecation. He concluded his transaction to satisfaction and rinsed the portal with water from an earthen pitcher. The swill flowed through the orifice and cascaded down the outside wall to join centuries of depositions in the dry moat below. Zeltogath felt the presence of something behind him in the gloom and turned his head slowly to look. He gave a start with bulging eyes, but was too shocked to move. Tegontilith’s crippled uncle had crept up stealthily behind him and now stood holding up the front of his cowl with his erect penis pointed directly up at him. As Zeltogath watched with open mouth horror, the crippled wretch slowly pulled back his hood and revealed a wide toothless grin on a ghastly misshapen face. Zeltogath leaped back in alarm and reached for his dagger as the wretch took a grinning step towards him. A flurry of padding feet exploded past him and the old woman rushed by and sharply whacked the offending exposed article. The crippled wretch howled with pain and doubled over. The old woman smacked his bare buttocks with a series of determined thwacks and chased him down the corridor. Zeltogath listened to the tormented whimpering fade down the stone passageways into the dark lugubrious inner depths of the castle. He took a deep breath and quickly mounted the steps back to the roof top observatory for the comforting familiarity of friendship and the less disturbing awareness that the gods that he had hitherto never made the earnest effort to profoundly acquaint himself with, may not in fact even be the omnipotent beings that could require so great a mental effort and such a pointless time expenditure in a life already greatly preoccupied with slicing apart enemy soldiers, plucking clothing off bodies of the wonderful and sometimes the not so wonderful women of the Empire, laughing at tavern drolleries, and prosecuting a relentless and diligent search for the wines, ales and brandies that made all things sweeter.

They returned finally from the rooftop observatory to the main hall and the source of the wines, ales and brandies and the animated conversation went on late into the night. Fowgis and Tegontilith pursued a rigorous scrutiny of the natural and unnatural qualities of various physical objects, abstractions and states of mind. Delfolinch sat tense with excitement and eagerly interjected whenever the discussion passed through familiar territory. Harvinch was content with his tankard of ale as companion and his contented smile eventually acquired a glazed quality. Zeltogath listened at first with curiosity, and then with fatigue as the conversation spun at a level just above his easy comprehension, and then finally fell asleep with his head on the table.

And there he awoke the next morning with a stiff neck and the ephemeral memory of a curious dream. He kept his eyes clamped shut and concentrated. Then the vision returned and Zeltogath watched as his friend Fowgis strolled through the stars away from him. Suddenly he turned and beckoned to him to come up and join him. Zeltogath felt himself hesitate and then spring forth with a joyous leap, but he went nowhere. He jumped again and again and saw with dismay that the vision was fading away from him. He opened his eyes and looked around him. Tegontilith’s uncle was dunking a chunk of bread into a bowl of steamed milk and leering at him in a comradely way. He pushed his bowl of milk towards him invitingly but Zeltogath shook his head in refusal. The crippled uncle flashed crooked teeth at him and then bit off another hunk of bread and chewed contentedly. Zeltogath reflected on the marvel he had seen through the telescope last night. That beautiful clean shining disc hanging in outer space with the bright halo encircling it! That image certainly ran counter to the astrophysical teachings of the priests. He couldn’t imagine any other possible explanation for such a bizarre phenomena but it seemed clear that the answers offered by the ancient religion of the Empire were not infallible.

His companions clattered into the hall and made merry with his choice of sleeping accommodations and his eloquent contributions to the intellectual forays of the previous evening. When the hilarity subsided, Fowgis attended to the matters of the day.

“We must take our leave. The horses are packed and all is in readiness. We have given what words of warning we could deliver and my task here is through. If this is a godless universe, my dear old friend Tegontilith will have to make his way with his own intelligence, or in spite of it. It is time now to rejoin the armies as they make their way east. I will rendezvous with my troops and the rest of you will continue on to the Imperial army.”

The companions assembled with their horses in the manor courtyard and looked around curiously for their host who had not been seen the entire morning. Finally the old woman padded out and, in a few brief words, told them her master would be soon with them. A minute later they heard irregular footsteps on the flagstones and Tegontilith’s crippled uncle shuffled out towards them. He carried a tattered scroll tucked under one arm and he approached Zeltogath and held it out to him. Zeltogath unrolled it and gaped at it in astonishment. It was a treatise on the mechanics of the stars and had mathematical annotations in the margins. The crippled uncle made a gurgling noise that faintly resembled laughter and receded. A hearty halloo echoed in a passageway and Tegontilith rushed out to greet them.

“Off so soon? Why are you leaving? You should stay awhile. In just two weeks there will be a marvelous planet visible that I want to show you. Surely your affairs of state can wait two short weeks!” he scoffed.

Fowgis grinned. “My dear old…”

A sudden cry of pain startled them and they all whirled around to see the crippled uncle hurl a rat’s body against a wall. Tegontilith let out a cry of alarm. The crippled wretch groaned and reached a bleeding hand out towards him. A face etched with misery peeped out from the hooded cowl. Tegontilith rushed over and enfolded his arms tenderly around him. The cripple sank into the protective shelter of his breast and sobbed. Tegontilith stroked his hooded head and sang a soft comforting song in his misshapen ear. The cripple grew calm and Tegontilith took his bitten hand and squeezed it to force blood from the wound. The cripple submitted to the treatment in stoic silence. Tegontilith shouted for the old woman and ordered her to fetch some apple brandy. When it arrived, he poured some into a cup and pushed his uncle’s hand into it. The cripple jerked his hand once reflexively and then remained calm as the wound soaked in the strong liquor. Tegontilith pulled the wounded hand out after a minute and threw the contents of the cup onto the floor. He filled another cup with a dram of brandy and gave it his uncle. The cripple eagerly snatched the cup and gulped it down. A bright smile lit up his twisted face. Tegontilith tousled his hooded head and laughed.

“Now go off and play and be careful, you rascal.”

The cripple hobbled off chortling.

“Farewell Tegontilith. Be careful and please heed my warning.” said Fowgis soberly, his brow furrowed with concern.

Tegontilith waved a casual hand in the direction of his departing visitors, still staring after his cavorting kin. Then he pulled a scroll from his pocket and glowered at the mathematical calculations and muttered irritably under his breath. Fowgis shook his head and turned his horse towards the road.

Chapter 33 The Prince Rides to War

The town bustled with uncharacteristic vigor and Palriken tried to decipher the meaning of the constant hum of discussion, commands, and shouts. He had not seen Zudwik for almost a week and in that time he had observed stockpiles of supplies growing in various parts of town. In that week also, he had exchanged many passionate glances with Tashjak and once had seized her by the waist and held her for what seemed like a breathless eternity. She had let him hold her and as his tense hands had moved gently but firmly across her body, he had felt her quiver beneath his fingertips.

Zudwik came striding briskly up the dusty street towards his shelter. “The time has come. The Prince goes to war. Quick! We must prepare to leave.” Zudwik’s painted face glowed with excitement. “Tashjak will help you.”

He turned to Tashjak and brusquely rattled off a string of orders. Tashjak glanced quickly at Palriken and then began carrying out her tasks in silent obedience. Zudwik rattled exuberantly on about the pending campaign. Palriken nodded as if he was paying astute attention and struggled to quell the churning in his gut. In all his long journeys he had finally found an object for his deep and boundless passion in this miserable little shelter of savages that didn’t even have the civilized advantages of walls and with a woman whose basic femininity had reached out to him with so much strength that it had transcended through the thick mask of paint and all the trappings of culture and civilization that had hitherto defined for him who he was and who he recognized all other creatures as being. The thought of leaving her and the space he shared with her in his little shelter crushed his spirit. He realized now with a sudden desperation that his shelter and this one little woman had come to be a tiny bubble of happiness floating on the turbulent ocean of his existence. He gazed intently at Zudwik wondering if the blathering man remembered anything at all about his request concerning Tashjak. Zudwik was gloating gleefully on the glorious victory his powerful Prince was going to inflict on the crumbling Empire.

“He will at last avenge the defeats of our forefathers by total conquest and subjugation! The gods of the Empire will kneel at his feet and beg for mercy from the mighty Gazpardizik spirit that burns in the eye of the Prince!”

Zudwik spoke fervently with his clenched fist held out before him. Tashjak stood behind him and stared at Palriken. Even through her paint and the stoic façade of her people, he could see the sadness etched in the corners of her eyes. A harsh irritation grated through him.

“Zudwik!” he snapped sharply.

Zudwik halted in mid sentence and gazed at Palriken in puzzlement.

“Have you forgotten…” Palriken began with vehemence and then paused and moderated his tone. “You said you would consider my case with Tashjak.”

Palriken winced embarrassedly and Zudwik stared at him blankly. Tashjak came forward and spoke to Zudwik who looked back at her uncomprehendingly. Finally a spark of recognition flared in his eyes.

“Oh yes. That is another thing I meant to tell you. I spoke with the Prince last week and he said that if you served him well that the Gazpardizik spirit would take you as a son and you would become part of the Gazpardizik nation.” Zudwik glowed with pride at the magnificent honor that he was able to bestow upon his foreign companion. Palriken considered his words for a moment and felt himself sinking beneath the oppressive weight of belonging to such a barbarous people, but then a light effervescent exhalation reminded him that he could now possess this woman that intrigued and consumed him so. He glanced at Tashjak and saw her smiling at him. Zudwik jumped down into the street and called back over his shoulder as he marched purposefully off.

“I will come back for you later. We ride today!”

Palriken approached Tashjak with quaking knees. She waited for him with a welcoming, shy smile on her painted features that had become the most dear and beautiful of all the objects he had ever cherished. He stood before her and thrilled at the closeness of her body that he now felt permitted to touch. He reached out his hand but it shook with an annoying spasm of nervousness. Tashjak giggled. Palriken frowned in irritation and then laughed. He reached his hands out again and slowly opened her robe. She let him look at her. He touched her smooth belly. Palriken’s day and entire life melted into a soft warm dream. He wanted never to come out. Never had woman’s flesh tasted so sweet.

Tashjak took a sudden step backwards and closed her robe with a sigh. “This is not the happy time. You must wait.”

She smiled tenderly at him. Palriken gaped at her in disbelief. “What ridiculous savages!” he thought. “Their ritualized customs didn’t even allow them to exercise their passions at the moment of their choosing.”

He lurched forward and wrenched apart her robe. She squealed in protest but succumbed nervously to her own longing as he pressed the warmth of his body against her skin. He kissed her and sank blissfully into her moist lips. Tashjak shuddered in fear and excitement, but gave herself to him with feverish ardor. His frustration surged forth and filled her completely.

They lay together on the floor panting gently and damp with sweat. Palriken had wrapped one arm around her neck and was holding her to him tight. Tashjak buried her nose into his neck. All the trials and miseries of Palriken’s life ebbed and seeped away and swirled like wisps of smoke up into the sky and disappeared into the vastness of the heavens. He still couldn’t come to terms with the twists and ironies of his life that were now leading him to a campaign of destruction and conquest over the civilization that he cherished and the nation that had ruined and exiled him for the crime of thinking for himself and questioning the dogma of the Oligarchy. The idea appeared suddenly that perhaps he himself, riding at the side of the conquering Prince of Gazpardizik, could be destined to be the savior of the lineage of culture even as the political structure of the Empire crumbled before this vigorous and crude advancing tide. A flush of excitement raged through him. He would be the protector of the ancient poets! He would safe guard the theaters, the libraries, the cumulative knowledge of two thousand years of culture from the flames and axes of these barbarous warriors after they crushed the power of the corrupt Oligarchy and the stranglehold they exercised on the minds of the Shashbadeth people! He smiled happily and ran his fingers gently through Tashjak’s hair. She stirred and pulled away and sat up. She quickly tucked her robe around her and turned away from him and busied herself with the plate of polished bronze. She carefully retouched her face paint and tidied her hair. Palriken called softly to her but she continued without looking back at him. When she was satisfied with her appearance, she came quickly to his side with the paint. Palriken reached to grab her, but she rebuffed him with determined slaps.

“We didn’t wait for the happy time as is the custom of the Gazpardizik people. I am afraid the Gazpardizik gods will punish us.”

She looked at him earnestly with fear of the consequences of her tragic act of passion in her eyes. Palriken scoffed.

“Paff! What nonsense! Come here my love. Let me hold you.” he said in an awkward combination of Gazpardizik and Shashbeth.

Tashjak shook her head. Palriken saw that she was resolute and cursed all the gods that had never existed except in the ignorant minds of pitifully weak and absurd human beings. Even cattle wouldn’t allow their actions to be controlled by such stupid superstitions! Tashjak put the last touches on his face paint and bustled about the shelter performing perfunctory tasks to prepare for his departure. Palriken sat on his bench and watched her and contemplated with dread, the idea of participating in a communal happy time in front of all these alien people. He knew he could never be a true part of the Gazpardizik people. He shuddered gratefully at that acknowledgement and then sighed as he watched the dear object of his affection flit gracefully about her chores.

Palriken was still sitting ruefully on his bench when Zudwik returned to pick him up.

“The horses are ready. The escort of the Prince is assembled. We ride within the hour!” Zudwik exclaimed enthusiastically.

Palriken turned and glanced at Tashjak. She stood up and stared back at him with her mouth covered with her hand. Zudwik hopped down into the street and stood waiting impatiently. Palriken grabbed his sword and turned to look again at Tashjak. He stepped towards her with leaden feet and stopped in front of her. Zudwik called out to him to hurry but Palriken paid no attention. He reached out and took Tashjak’s hand and pressed her slender fingers in his. Then he turned and briskly strode out to join Zudwik who clapped him on the back.

“Now you will ride to war with Gazpardizik!” Zudwik grinned joyously.

Palriken made no reply. He stared straight ahead as they marched through the streets that teemed with activity. Several people recognized Zudwik and his foreign companion who was such a famous swordsman and they cheered them on as they passed by. Zudwik waved and cheered back boisterously. At the road leading west from the town towards the Olgofor Mountains and the abandoned lands beyond, the standard of the Prince stood over a group of warriors in white and blue feathered helmets. Palriken recognized the Prince in a magnificent silver plated helmet tufted with large green and orange feathers of a bird Palriken had never seen. Cavalry troops filed past and raised their spears and lances in salute. The Prince sat proudly on his horse and grinned at his men. A warrior called out to him and Palriken recognized that it was a jest about his public happy time exhibition with the famous woman and the Prince roared with laughter along with the rest of the warriors. When the Prince noticed Palriken he gestured with his hand at the passing warriors.

“You see the strength of Gazpardizik before your eyes. My army has ransacked the eastern borders of the Empire and defeated all opposition, but they are marshalling forces and a great battle is coming. I go now to fight.”

A gong clanged and all heads turned to see another group of mounted warriors approaching the road. Great exclamations of surprise and joy went up on every side. Zudwik grasped Palriken fiercely by the arm.

“King Hasdergish has come to say farewell to the Prince!” he hissed breathlessly.

The Prince dismounted and walked towards the approaching troop. The cavalry column halted to witness the meeting of the Prince and their King. The Prince stopped in front of the procession and a powerfully built man with bright yellow feathers on his helmet jumped down from his horse to greet him. The man seemed to be in his middle ages but he still carried himself like a warrior. Palriken noticed that the hair of his braided topknot was gray. The man clasped the Prince by the forearm and the two men regarded each other with comradely grins. The troops cheered raucously. The gong tolled on at slow regular intervals.

“The King!” gushed Zudwik into Palriken’s ear.

The King turned to the cheering troops and put his arm around the Prince’s shoulder. He began speaking in a clear, powerful voice and the warriors silenced to hear every word. Most of the words flew past too quickly for Palriken, but the tone of encouragement for the coming campaign was unmistakable. The King drew his speech to a close in an emotional crescendo that sent shivers up Palriken’s spine, even without understanding all the words. The warriors cheered and chanted the King’s name and clashed their spears against their shields. The gong beat furiously. Palriken felt his skin crawl with excitement and when Zudwik grasped his shoulder and shouted some gleeful cry of celebration that was drowned out in the din, he couldn’t refrain from grinning heartily back at him. Zudwik grasped his hand and raised it high. Palriken felt Zudwik squeeze his hand tight and a surge of affection for this peculiar but honest man pulsed through him.

The King drew his dagger and held it theatrically towards the troops. The cheering ceased and the gong silenced. The King then held out his other arm and sliced across it slowly to draw a thin rivulet of blood that ran off his elbow and dripped onto the ground. He held his bleeding arm out to the Prince. The warriors collectively held their breaths as they watched. The Prince took the King’s arm and put his lips to the wound and sucked his blood.

Zudwik looked on with glowing excitement. He leaned towards Palriken. “The King is giving all his strength and power to the Prince in his blood so that they will aid him in his coming battles. It is the greatest sign of friendship and Gazpardizik brotherhood and is especially highly regarded for a powerful older man to give his strength to a young man, rising in station.”

The Prince turned to the warriors and Palriken could see the King’s blood smeared on his lips and chin. The warriors erupted into an ecstatic roar. The Prince ran to his horse, leaped on, and reared it high in the air. Then he gave a last arm raised salute to King Hasdergish and galloped up the road. The troops gave a cheer that rippled down the length of the column and resumed the march. Zudwik turned his horse up the road and Palriken gave a final glance at the King before following. The king stood staring after the disappearing Prince as his mounted warriors trooped past.

They marched out of the town and as the cheering bystanders dissipated Palriken returned to his habitual solitary brooding. The excitement of the King had for a moment driven out his own personal melancholy. He now saw the face of Tashjak as she had looked at him at their parting.

The troop column moved on and rode through a village surrounded by fish ponds. On the far side, the troop column passed a small procession of villagers with a weeping and wailing woman at the head. The villagers had to move off the road to make way for the mounted column and the warriors rode past with scarcely a glance at the outpouring of grief at their side. It suddenly struck Palriken that he had never seen anyone cry since his arrival in this strange land. Zudwik rode alongside of him, gazing forward vacantly, apparently absorbed in his own thoughts, whatever those might be for a savage with a painted face. Palriken asked him out of curiosity about the crying woman and he looked up with sharp surprise.

“Of course she is allowed to cry!” he exclaimed defensively. “This is still her day of mourning for her deformed child that was exposed in the morning. She has the right to mourn until sundown. That is the Gazpardizik way. She is doing nothing wrong.” He glared indignantly at Palriken as if the question had been a preposterous accusation.

They rode west along the old road towards Shashbadeth until an hour before sunset and camped in the woods in the foothills of the Olgofor Mountains. The early autumn evening was warm but the warriors huddled around campfires anyway after slinging their hammocks from the stout branches of the ancient trees. Pots of tea were constantly brewing and the warriors washed down their cold fish pies with cup after cup as they chatted and jested into the night. Palriken lay in his hammock and listened morosely to a group of warriors at a nearby fire singing a soft song that reminded him of longing. Way after the warriors had retired to their peaceful savage dreams and the fires had died down to glowing embers, Palriken still lay with his disturbing recollections of the passion of the morning. He had seen Tashjak’s sadness at his departure and now realized he couldn’t bear to think of her feeling sad. When the campaign was over and he was helping the Prince administer his newly annexed lands, he could send for her and live with her in a manner that was not so alien and indigestible. He struggled to capture the memory of her fragrance and every touch they had shared. He was reliving yet again their gushing climax when he noticed with dismay that the fringe of the eastern sky was tinted with the first pale light of dawn. He groaned and finally fell into an uneasy sleep that was abruptly cut short by the stirrings of the waking camp as the sun poked over the forested hills of the Gazpardizik homeland behind them. Palriken struggled sleepily to open his eyes but succumbed again to his fatigue until a boot jolted him awake with alarm. He scrambled out of his hammock and heard a gruff disparaging comment about foreigners as the warrior stomped back to the road and his waiting comrades. He quickly packed his gear and saddled his horse as the mounted column passed by with stern disapproving glances.

Chapter 34 Night at the Theater

Pithimiantok tapped the Councilor Hadfar on the arm and pointed excitedly across the theater to a private box in the mezzanine. The Councilor grimaced irritably at him for he had interrupted his concentration during one of the famous scenes of classical Shashbadeth Theater in which several of the principle gods bless the founders of the Empire and promise them their eternal support in their role of governing the wild peoples of the world. Pithimiantok just would not be subdued however, in spite of his clear gestures and expressions of annoyance and the Councilor finally looked across the audience to see what the diminutive librarian was pointing out to him. He saw a couple of finely dressed ladies and a nobleman who looked somewhat familiar but he could see nothing that would merit the excitement effervescing out of that bubblehead of a librarian.

“Really!” he clucked to himself. “This new comrade has proven a loyal ally lately, but he is such a pest at times that he seems only marginally worthy of a Councilor’s valuable personal time.”

“The one on the left.” hissed Pithimiantok.

Hadfar squinted and gazed harder at the two women. The flickering light from the stage played across their faces. Yes, they were both attractive now that he thought about it. Yes, quite indeed, in fact. He leaned forward and peered at them with interest.

“That is the same one?” he asked with a glimmer of recognition.

Pithimiantok gurgled in the affirmative and the Councilor searched his overtaxed memory and suddenly recollected the charming attendant of that bothersome old widow. He admired the venerable dowager tremendously of course for all the fine support she had provided in the administration of the Empire in former times, but she still seemed to think of him as that child she would scold for having poor table manners.

“And you say you are acquainted with…” he let the question float delicately like a feather on a light breeze.

“Oh yes!” the librarian chirped enthusiastically. “Quite well, in fact.” and accompanied the latter remark with a knowing nod.

The Councilor took no notice of the self inflated response, being well aware that no lady of sophistication and beauty such as this would take such an obsequious runt seriously. A Councilor of the Empire on the other hand…..He smiled as he imagined the reintroduction at the conclusion of the performance. Then he gave a start and frowned. There was that little wretch of a troublesome son, wasn’t there? Oh well, he was just a boy and all boys were thoughtless and mischievous. He thought back fondly to his own boyhood memories of leaving a broken family heirloom out where it would be readily noticed and taking great delight in the stupid servant’s corporal punishment upon its discovery. There was another disturbing memory attached to this woman that lingered tantalizingly just out of reach. But no matter! What ever it could be, was it not the grace of a benevolent ruler to practice magnanimity? He gazed across the audience and remembered with pleasure the subtle protrusions of her bosom.

“You!” He turned and snapped his fingers at the idiot servant slouched against the wall behind him.

“Damn these thick headed louts!” he thought crossly. “Don’t any of them have names?”

“Go to those women over there in that box and express my compliments and my wish that they join me later.”

The Councilor pointed across the audience and the idiot servant leaned forward to see where he was pointing while still trying to remain outside the radial sphere of influence of the Councilor’s personal hygiene. The idiot servant noted the theater quadrant of interest and departed in haste from his employer and his employer’s aura to track down the desired females in question. As he crossed to the far side of the grand old theater, he speculated logically about the persons he had been detailed to identify. They were seated in a box so they were obviously women of nobility and not just commoner floozies who attended these events more in the interest of promoting business sales than in any great passion for the arts and the genius of mankind.

“Probably some Oligarchy political connection.” he shrugged and then broke into a smug smile as the first box he came to in the far section contained three stout matrons that were undoubtedly cast from the Oligarchy mold. Congratulating himself for a delicate mission adroitly accomplished, he delivered the Councilor’s invitation, which was ecstatically received by the excited ladies. The idiot servant bowed with a confident flair and withdrew from their box. Upon his return to the Councilor’s box, the great administrator beamed graciously at him and pressed a small coin into his palm that the idiot servant decided he would hold in reserve along with other similar gratuitous remunerations until the accumulated quantity should be sufficient for a modest purchase in an ale garden.

When the divinely acted performance ended, the Councilor abridged his customary raptures over the profundity and spiritual integrity and so on and so forth of the play and rapidly rose and seized his cloak with the excited fluttering of anticipation clutching the flaccid muscles of his abdomen. It had been a dreary span of time since he had last had the good fortune to dispel those flutterings of excitement and never, even with the advantages of his vaunted position of power, had he managed to dispel them into a woman of beauty and charm like this foreigner. Pithimiantok also seemed to be percolating with a strong dose of good spirits.

“The tedious little fool!” thought the Councilor. “Let him dream for the moment. At least one should have a moment of dreams.”

Hadfar beamed a warm smile at his confederate. “Ah…Now where are our charming ladies?”

His question was answered by the jubilant squawking of three charming ladies who had doubtlessly been great beauties during the stewardship of his grandfather, himself a great Councilor of the Oligarchy at the Imperial helm during the tumultuous era in the early part of this century. The Councilor groaned. Pithimiantok seemed not to notice the mature vintage of charming ladies descending vigorously upon them and still wagged his head around excitedly on the lookout for Eslaka. The mature vintage took both the Councilor and the surprised librarian by the hands in turn and expressed their gratitude at great length and volume of voice for the courteous attention paid to them. The patrons of the theater all glanced at them as they filed past and several smiled in recognition or gravely saluted the Councilor and his cortege. Pithimiantok bobbed his head from side to side trying to see over the abundant coiffure of the charming lady in front of him at the moment and brusquely dispensed with any and all of her useless platitudes of appreciation. His boorish negligence went unnoticed however as the mature vintages were so intent on articulation that they quite omitted the contrary passive part of the dialogue. The Councilor meanwhile, conducted himself in this delicate moment with somewhat more aplomb, his years of public service allowing him to steel himself from the onslaught of the mundane and the ugly while the precious passing moments still held the delicious anticipation of the beautiful foreigner joining him at his side.

Suddenly he saw her. Eslaka was looking away from the Councilor and speaking earnestly to her companions. They walked right past them without so much as a glance in their direction. Pithimiantok called out over the coiffure and immediately succeeded in attracting everyone’s attention except for Eslaka who was so deeply engaged in her theme that she was oblivious to the commotion around her. On the third attempt however, Pithimiantok’s loud chirrup finally caught the ear of one of her companions who discretely pointed in the direction of the gesticulating librarian. Eslaka turned and her expression of surprise visibly changed to one of obvious tired vexation and she gave a curt wave of the hand and returned to her conversation as they left the venerable old institution. Pithimiantok felt his face sting and turn crimson with humiliation. The chin of the Councilor was set in grim anger. The exiting throng had all witnessed the exchange and paused momentarily in shocked silence and then hurriedly went on their way, distancing themselves from the angry administrator as quickly as possible. The matrons of mature vintage alone seemed to not have noticed the awkward incident and continued blithely exclaiming ecstatic utterances of gratefulness to their dear Councilor. Hadfar turned irately to one of his servants and whispered between clenched teeth.

“Take them for some refreshment with my compliments.”

The servant drew himself up regally before the mature vintage and announced elegantly that they should follow him directly at the pleasure of the Councilor of the Oligarchy. The ladies expressed another round of gurgling platitudes and disappeared with the proud servant. Pithimiantok ran out the theater gate and caught up with Eslaka. He drew himself up in front of her with haughty wounded dignity. Eslaka, noticing who was blocking her path, sighed impatiently and glared irritably at him.

“I’ll have you know your arrogant insolence to one of the leading members of the Oligarchy will not be forgotten.” he sneered punitively. “You may await your retribution.”

With that, he spun on his heel and stalked off into the crowd. Eslaka looked after him in amazement. Her companions looked quickly around in great alarm and seized Eslaka by the arm and hurried her away from the theater.

Hadfar exchanged salutations with several members of the upper echelon of Harentowith society and finally wandered dejectedly off to collect his servant. He found him lavishly bestowing exquisite and expensive deserts from the most exclusive confectionery in the capital to his charges along with small glasses of an extremely fine liquor distilled from the famous summer berries in the southern province. Hadfar quickly calculated the expenditure of this diplomacy and ground his teeth.

Eslaka and her friends quickly disappeared into one of the narrow side streets leading away from the Theater Plaza and her friends abruptly took their leave, cautioning her to take great care if she had indeed incurred the wrath of the powerful. Eslaka continued on alone with her thoughts, perturbed that an unnecessary predicament had apparently arisen when she had finally had a bit of good luck and could now feel secure with the comfort of financial independence. She walked on through the zig zagging maze of streets up the hill from the marketplace towards her simple but comfortable lodging in a respectable yet not affluent part of the capital. The streets were dark and quiet for though other quarters bustled with taverns and restaurants and brothels, this neighborhood had few denizens abroad during the night.

All of a sudden, she became aware of the regular padding of footsteps in the street behind her. She half turned her head and peered from the corner of her eye and saw a man’s form a short distance behind her. She involuntarily hastened her step and the footsteps behind her quickened their pace immediately. A sickening surge of panic choked her and she broke into a desperate sprint. A voice cried out behind her and the footsteps pounded up the street in her rear, closer and closer. A hand seized her arm roughly and she shrieked. The hand let her go at once and she heard surprised laughter. Blindly she ran on and the hand seized her again. She struggled but the man spun her around and grabbed both of her arms and held her still. She looked up and suddenly recognized the smiling unshaven face of the singer from the marketplace. The singer took off his wide brimmed leather hat.

“Lath, beautiful Madame! Are you always so rude to your friends?”

Shorfahunch the Singer had been conducting his own performance in the less venerable institution of the street in the Theater Plaza and had witnessed the little scene that had interrupted his requests for a modest reward following his rendition of a comic song about a Councilor whose underwear had been shrunk by the careless washing of his valet. His initial vexation at losing his audience had been greatly mitigated when his practiced eye caught sight of the lovely lady and he recollected her attachment to his former commander.

“Oh.” exclaimed Eslaka with relief, glancing quickly at the fierce long scar across his ribs under his leather vest. “You’re the soldier that served with my dear ricto theas.”

“I am Madame.” He spat birch bark tar juice onto the ground. “And I saw that you may have a problem. That squeaky little man at the theater threatened you.”

Eslaka looked at him with a perturbed frown and trembled slightly. “Ahh!” she exhaled with vexation and knit her brow.

“Beautiful Madame,” Shorfahunch said. “I don’t think the squeaky little man is anyone to fear, but if he has friends in the Oligarchy, his venom may yet sting.”

Eslaka remembered seeing the librarian at the villa of that powerful Councilor and she covered her mouth with a noticeable cringe of anguish. The cringe did not go unnoticed by Shorfahunch who nodded grimly.

“If you need help, ask for me at the tavern behind the grain warehouse by the river. The owner is my friend and you can trust him. I will tell him to expect you. Now let us go. I will accompany you to your door.”

Chapter 35 The Zealous Fidelity of the Defenders of the Empire

The Head Priest beamed with solemn dignity at the regiments of Imperial troops lined up before him in their well ordered ranks. The well ordered ranks beamed back at him with good humored expectant grins. The head priest’s voice rang out clearly across the meadows where the Imperial army was assembled to receive its blessing before the upcoming battle. The omens had been read and the Shashbadeth gods had rendered their collective approval for the military venture through their usual efficient means of communication by cleverly planting unmistakable signs in the livers of goats, deliberately arranging juxtaposition of stars and other celestial flotsam, and most conclusively of all, orchestrating the maneuvers of a flock of black birds who flew around in a great circle and then departed in the direction of the sun which act was joyously interpreted by no less than three of the superior ranked priests to mean conclusive annihilation of the enemy. The priests were all supremely confident that they were supported unanimously by their gods who would add the weight of their venerable might to the crushing swords and battle axes of the Imperial army.

General Sanathoth also reviewed the troops on parade with satisfaction. His army had lumbered east from the capital at the greatest speed possible given all the logistical short comings and bureaucratic obstacles he had to maneuver around and the criticism that he was moving too slowly in response to the Gazpardizik menace was totally unjustified and unfair. At last his forces were properly assembled and supplied and had crossed the Pilok River into the eastern provinces and were about to come to grips with the enemy. Reconnoitering patrols had reported signs of a large body of Gazpardizik forces within several days march and had skirmished with foragers and scouts. He would slaughter the vicious swine and return victoriously to the capital in a matter of weeks. In fact, he had a wager on with one of his adjutants that he would be home in his comfortable villa near the main temple of Harentowith before the first days of frost and the beginning of the new theater season.

The Imperial troops stomped their feet and shouted their allegiance to various upper echelon gods in Shashbadeth’s complex pantheon of supernatural powers. The head priest looked down at his flock arrayed below him with glowing pride. Thousands of soldiers were displaying their loyalty to the ancient religion and he, a humble son of the Empire, was guiding them to glory. His servants labored with the huge casks of ceremonial wine while he delivered his inspirational words of spiritual leadership. The troops responded with boisterous fervor. The head priest breathed in with deep satisfaction for the moral purity of his troops and the victory he was sure they would achieve. The eyes of the soldiers followed the progress of the wine casks.

The head priest raised his voice in laudation of the gods and the casks were breached to serve the blessing to the faithful. The faithful murmured and the head priest basked in a muted roar that demonstrated their zealous fidelity. The head priest droned on with his motivating eulogy and delighted in the evident passion of the troops. The wine casks were decanted into pitchers. The head priest gave the word and the orderly rows advanced to accept the blessings of the gods. Each file of soldiers received their blessing of wine decanted into their waiting cups that they held out before them reverently. After gulping their blessing greedily, they made the necessary obeisance to whichever gods that happened to be in attendance and marched off sharply with beatific smiles of grace. The next file replaced the first and the regiments advanced with smooth precision. The soldiers manning the wine barrels sweated and watched the departing soldiers. It came as no surprise to them that a good part of the departing soldiers melted away from their detachment and formed ranks again in the rear of the waiting columns. A few words were exchanged accompanied by knowing nods of heads and those soldiers manning the wine barrels that had discarded their weapons to work unimpeded, now grimly buckled back on their sword belts.

General Sanathoth contentedly watched the impressive demonstration of loyalty and piety played out before him on such massive scale and held his cup out to one side. A diligent attendant promptly filled it and Sanathoth brought it to his lips. At the first sip he grimaced and splashed the wine on the ground. He spun around with a furious glare and the diligent attendant scampered off to replace the blessing wine with a higher quality beverage kept in special reserve in the regimental stocks for occasions of state that would require the general to observe proper protocol. Definition of such occasions of state was of course highly discretionary and it was fortunate that the Imperial tax structure prudently provided for ample supply for appropriate observation of such occasions.

General Kothelink had gravely imbibed his blessing along with the first ranks and stood sternly observing the proceedings with occasional economical sips of ceremonial wine. He did not share his commanding officer’s sense of bien etre. His experienced officer’s antennae were on the alert. If his piety and sense of propriety were not so deeply ingrained, he would have suspected that this evident outpouring of religious fervor was somewhat exaggerated.

General Sanathoth held out his empty cup yet again and his diligent attendant hurried forward to comply in his duties with steps that appeared to the careful observer to waver slightly. However, the only careful observer remaining on the scene was aiming his watchful eyes at the progress of the army’s blessing, which seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time. Wagon loads of wine barrels had already been decanted into the bellies of the pious soldiers and yet the mass of troops waiting for their blessings did not seem to have decreased significantly in volume. The Head Priest performed the sacred rituals tirelessly and unperturbed by the slight hoarseness creeping into his voice.

Zeltogath threw his bones of roasted goat into the campfire in front of his tent and rose to his feet.

“Time for our blessing.”  he yawned absently.

Harvinch wiped his greasy moustache and levered his large frame lethargically to his feet. Delfolinch remained seated, picking his teeth with a sharpened twig.

“Are you going to join that parade of unthinking sheep?” he inquired sharply.

Zeltogath paused, looking bemused and uncomfortable. Harvinch winced and turned away, wondering how he could possibly have rendered such an offspring. Zeltogath smiled noncommittally at the youth and turned to leave.

“After all that Lord Tegontilith revealed to us about the nature of the heavens, do you still choose to keep your eyes closed to the truth? Lord Tegontilith is right when he says man prefers to follow than to think.” Delfolinch sneered.

Zeltogath stopped and turned back with his brow knit with mental effort.

“There may be truth in what you say and what Lord Tegontilith says and what Fowgis says. But nothing has changed from yesterday to today other than our discussions and I am still an officer of the Imperial army. Therefore, I do what we have always done. Shall we go Harvinch?”

Harvinch belched an affirmative and glowered at his son. “This upstart youth seems far too clever to be any son of mine. The men in our family as far back as I can remember – that would be my father, but no matter – the men in our family received their marching orders and they marched. It was never up to us to decide the fate of the gods. As my father used to say “Never…” Lath! I forget what the old man said, but you can be sure that it was short and with no words wasted on intelligent talk!”

Harvinch glared triumphantly at his hopelessly wayward son and looked to Zeltogath for confirmation. A gelatinous smile wobbled across Zeltogath’s lips. A sarcastic leer wrinkled Delfolinch’s chin.

“I am so proud to have such a father and such a long, illustrious ancestry.”

Harvinch considered the words carefully and drew no satisfactory conclusion. Zeltogath shook his head and turned to go. He patted Harvinch on the shoulder and the big man followed in his wake.

The Head Priest was suffering the first pricklings of alarm. Soldiers were now lurching forward with barely recognizable order in their ranks. The soldiers manning the ceremonial wine barrels were frequently involved in shoving matches with disorderly troops grappling the decanters with shouts and threats that grew louder and more violent. Fist fights were breaking out in the rear of the ranks where it appeared that new troops, eager for their blessing, were pushing their way into the ranks of soldiers already properly waiting their turn. The Head Priest wondered where all these new soldiers could be coming from, but he was mollified by the gratifying proof of the depth of religious zeal in these men who were after all, the backbone and the defenders of the Empire.

General Kothelink was not so mollified. He returned from performing some perfunctory administrative tasks and was greatly displeased at the performance of buffoonery orchestrated so unknowingly by the Head Priest. He tried to muster some troops to restore order to the ranks of shoving and brawling soldiers, but all that he found were already too inebriated to respond with any proper discipline or coherence. In a fury, he stamped off to General Sanathoth’s tent and stormed past the slouched guards snoring at the entrance. General Sanathoth received him affably and attended his outraged report with a glazed and puzzled expression. General Kothelink brought his report to a crisp halt and stood stiffly before his commander in chief awaiting orders.

“Sir, shall I summon Zeltogath to restore order?”

Sanathoth shuddered and looked momentarily flustered. When general Kothelink realized he would receive no answer, he took his leave respectfully and went out. Sanathoth blubbered aside to his aides.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Zeltogath himself had started this riot. You know the infidel rascal consorted with Lady Hastis and all her College of Engineering friends. Who knows what kind of irreverent acts were committed in those lawn parties of hers. The damned dog probably tasted some ripe delicacies there!”

Sanathoth held his cup out and beamed with bleary eyes at his diligent attendant. The diligent attendant grinned back at him with red stained teeth.

As Zeltogath and Harvinch traversed through the camp, an ominous clash and din rolled towards them from the blessing meadow. Clusters of Notofo warriors dashed past them in the direction of their own section of the camp with their faces taut and anxious. Zeltogath noted with curiosity that they all bore arms as if ready for combat. An Imperial soldier with blood dripping from his mashed nose stumbled past them, oblivious to their queries. Another soldier staggered towards them dragging a comrade who was bleeding from a wound in his abdomen. Zeltogath seized the man by the shoulders and demanded to know what was happening. The soldier slurred incoherently with breath so laced with wine and rotten teeth that Zeltogath winced and shoved the man aside. He raced towards the blessing meadow and Harvinch lumbered behind. More wounded soldiers streamed past them towards the camp and all around them groups of drunken soldiers wallowed under the trees, singing boisterously, arguing, wrestling, or snoring wherever they had collapsed in their debauchery. Zeltogath reached a low crest and looked out over the tapestry of chaos in the meadow. The disciplined ranks of troops had melted into masses of drunken men reeling with determination towards the wine barrels while the Head Priest looked on in horror, no longer even going through the motions of the blessing. Zeltogath grabbed a passing soldier and yelled into his face but the soldier just plopped down backwards and sat there mumbling nursery rhymes from his infancy in one of the southern provinces. Zeltogath looked about in exasperation for any sign of troops that still retained some recognizable symptoms of normal function.

“Harvinch! We have to stop this rabble!”

Harvinch smacked his lips. “Yes, I’ll be right with you, but first I think I’ll go get my blessing. I mustn’t offend the gods.”

He gave Zeltogath a wink and waded into the broiling mass towards the wine barrels. Zeltogath spied the Head Priest waving his arms desperately and set off towards him. General Kothelink hailed him and pushed through the mob with his stern visage lined with sweat.

“I have just come from General Sanathoth’s tent and I fear we will receive no direction or assistance from there. And the Notofo have withdrawn to their camp and taken up defensive positions.”

Zeltogath pointed at the Head Priest. “We need to stop the blessing!” he shouted.

General Kothelink nodded. “Yes, but that may not be possible until the wine has run out.”

Harvinch ambled back with a grin and a glistening wet moustache.

“Lath! That would not do so well at the table but it certainly is potent fare.” He laughed and puffed alcohol vapors across Zeltogath’s face. “I met an officer I know from the Northern Legion. He was wounded in one of the excursions against the wild Southerners and I haven’t seen him for years. Anyway, he has a force of disciplined men under his command near the wine stocks and is waiting for orders.”

Zeltogath brightened. “That is good. You are a good soldier, Harvinch!”

The sun was settling placidly beyond the forested hills to the west before the turbulence of the riot began to subside into the last occasional outbursts of noise and violence and an embarrassed calm spread over the exhausted camp. Zeltogath sat drooped in front of his tent and Harvinch lay snoring and farting next to him. Zeltogath was disturbed. Not only was his deeply embedded sense of Imperial military tradition outraged by the shocking lack of discipline displayed by the troops, but Harvinch, who had accompanied General Kothelink when he was finally able to make his report, had told him bluntly what General Kothelink had with deliberate discretion only obliquely hinted. General Kothelink had greatly praised Zeltogath and his efforts in cutting off the blessing ceremony and organizing an effective defense of the army’s provision stocks and in finally dispersing the great bulk of the drunken mob. General Sanathoth, already furious from being awakened where he was drowsing in his camp chair, seemed displeased to hear of Zeltogath’s exploits.

“You see how he interferes with the ceremonies of the ancient religion!” Harvinch had quoted.

Zeltogath brooded and stared at the clouds tinted purple by the disappearing sun. He listened to a black bird chirping and a sense of peace began ebbing through his tired and anxious mind. Imptoforch staggered past him drunkenly, muttering coarsely under his breath. He stopped suddenly and picked up a stone and drew a sling from his belt. His knees wavered but then he turned and struck the black bird who tumbled from its branch in mid chirp. Imptoforch picked it up, wrung its neck, and tossed the limp body under a bush.

“Damn birds!” he growled and lurched away.

Zeltogath sighed and in the sudden stillness of his clearing he listened to the sporadic sounds of revelry and destruction still erupting throughout the camp in the growing dusk.

Chapter 36 The Spirits of the Ancients

The advance scouts came clattering back to Prince Torsgish at the head of the vanguard with a great clamor. Palriken heard the note of anguish in their voices and saw the looks of dismay on the faces of the Prince’s retinue and concentrated to understand what the scouts were reporting. The horses sensed the anxiety of their riders and the whole column quivered and wavered on the brink of panicked flight. Palriken caught fragments of speech and picked out the word “spirits”. He yelled at Zudwik whose face was taut with apprehension.

“Evil gods!” Zudwik replied tersely and then ignored Palriken’s further inquiries as he listen fretfully to the frantic discussions erupting on every side.

The Prince glowered fiercely and spurred his horse forward. He roared out one clipped word of command and the column wavered tensely as he rode forward. Palriken dug his heels into his horse’s flank and surged forward after the Prince. Zudwik gave a cry and sprang forward as well. With a unified roar of reinvigorated confidence the warriors turned en masse and galloped forward after the leader of their nation. The Prince stopped his horse and turned to address his warriors as they rode past.

“Soldiers of Gazpardizik! The strength of Kraktarnast is behind you and his sharp sword will defend you from all lesser gods prowling in the wilderness. You have no need of fear. The time for the Gazpardizik people has come and Kraktarnast and Rortak will watch over you as I, your Prince, will lead you into battle to throw down the power of the Empire!”

Swords rang as they slithered out of their scabbards and the warriors rode past with their swords held high in salute to their Prince. Prince Torsgish sat on his mount and grinned at his soldiers as they filed by. Palriken and Zudwik sat on their mounts next to him. Zudwik’s head was held high with pride.

With the column well on the move again, the Prince rode forward and took his place at the head to confront the menacing spirits. They were traversing the eastern province of the Empire after taking a road that crossed over the Olgofor Mountains and passed to the south of Tolshif in the abandoned lands and the Fortress Erpor. Part of the Gazpardizik army had occupied and ravaged the fertile grain basket of the eastern province of the Empire and another army had swept down to seize the rich mineral deposits in the southeast. The Prince was on his way to join forces with this army and defeat the Imperial army moving east to meet him. Palriken had never been this far in the southeastern corner of the Empire and he gazed with interest at the southern upland topography and scenery. They were not so far south as the cold climate regions south of the Imperial border but the landscape on this plateau was certainly different from the moderately temperate climate that dominated the vast expanse of Shashbadeth. After an hour of riding, the scouts pointed excitedly ahead at the hills lining the road. The hills were a hardened clay and small excavations were hollowed into the hillside faces of the soft rock. They rode closer. A wave of tension pulsed through the column of warriors. The gap between the hillsides narrowed and the road passed close to the holes. Small stone monuments lay in tumbled ruin outside the entrances to the little cavities. The bones of carefully laid out skeletons could now be clearly seen inside the hollowed out tombs. The column stopped as if by tacit command and the Prince rode forward alone.

Even the Prince seemed struck by the simple, tranquil beauty of this ancient place of reverence for the dead. He stopped his horse and gazed at the hillside for a moment. Then he pushed his horse ahead slowly toward the tombs. Palriken flicked his reins and came up along side of the Prince. Zudwik joined them, his face resolute and steady. They stared at the shallow cavities carved out of the hardened clay hillside. The skeletal remains rested peacefully in their little tombs. Palriken remembered an officer from the southeast province telling him about these vestiges of a people that had disappeared during the dawning of the Empire. He felt a curious fascination for these primitive ancients and their odd burial methods. He explained to the Prince in a mixture of his halting basic Gazpardizik and assisted translations through Zudwik. The Prince stared silently at the tombs. The warriors in the column stared at their leader and at the weird frightening homes of these foreign spirits.

The Prince turned suddenly and addressed his troops. “These spirits mean us no harm! They see our gods and honor them. They are resting peacefully and will not disturb us as we pass through their homeland. Let’s move on! We have a glorious battle to fight with the army of Shashbadeth!”

He spurred his horse and galloped vigorously back to the road and on ahead with Palriken and Zudwik in his wake. The mounted warriors cheered and the column surged forward. The warriors passed by the tombs confidently now with curious glances at the savage relics replacing their previous dread. Their Prince and their strong gods were protecting them.

Chapter 37 A Strange Friend

The lace of the table cloth fringe caught Eslaka’s eye and caused her to smile again with a happy pride as she surveyed her new establishment. The sun flooding in from the rear courtyard patio was so bright there was no need to light the oil lamps tucked into recesses on the bright fresco walls. She had bought the table cloths from a marketplace vendor that traveled frequently to the southwest province whose natives specialized in this delicate lace work. In this fine autumn weather, several patrons were eating at wooden tables in the inner courtyard. One of the patrons tossed a scrap of fish to a cat waiting stoically on the grass at his side and the cat sniffed the spicy fish, took a tentative nibble, and stalked off with a disgusted switch of its tail to a more promising customer.

The endowment from a few benevolent patrons and a dedicated frugality had permitted Eslaka to open a small restaurant on a quiet side street not far from the marketplace. She had employed one of her countrymen to prepare the gastronomical specialties of their homeland and several young women of her acquaintance that possessed the particular qualities required for entertaining a clientele of refinement. Another sturdy fellow countryman stood at the door to regulate entry and assist in all tasks requiring more muscle than her feminine staff had at its disposal. The sturdy fellow countryman was an honest plain speaking man who addressed her and her employees with polite deference in his own gruff inarticulate way but Eslaka did insist on him consistently wearing a clean Shashbadeth style tunic during business hours.

She looked up at the door to the street and smiled when she saw her son returning from his studies at the modest academy she had placed him in. She saw the anxious look on his face and drew him into the kitchen, politely begging off an entreaty from a fellow countryman patron to sing another traditional Gathangtingol song. Angkolo told his mother that he had seen two strange men lurking near their house and asking for her. Eslaka quivered and then tried to hide her sudden terror. Almost a week had passed and the words of warning from Shorfahunch had faded into a comfortably forgotten corner of her mind. After her initial concern, she had dismissed the anger of the librarian as nothing more than some silly words of resentment that would evaporate and leave no trace like steam from a boiling pot. Now, the warning suddenly took on a new and frightening significance. She hastily told Angkolo where to go to find the singer. The boy’s face glowed with stern pride at his important mission.

A fretful hour passed and finally the boy returned leading Shorfahunch the Singer who swaggered behind. Eslaka greeted him gratefully and burst into a torrent of passionate words, some in Shashbeth, others in her own tongue, and others some kind of arbitrary mix of the two. Shorfahunch looked her up and down with evident pleasure and then sniffed the air and smacked his lips.

“Something smells good. I haven’t eaten yet today in fact.”

Shorfahunch sat down at a table and smiled up at Eslaka. She paused bewildered for a moment and then called for some fish stew and wine to be brought. A steaming wooden bowl was placed in front of the singer and he poked his wooden spoon gingerly at the contents. He spooned up a morsel of fish with some broth, blew on it, slurped enthusiastically, grimaced once at the hot spice, and then smiled approvingly.

“Unusual taste but quite good actually.” he pronounced and ducked his spoon in again.

A mug of wine was also brought to him and he indulged in a lusty swig. Eslaka tensely watched him eat. After a few mouthfuls had sated the sharpest pangs of his hunger, he turned to her.

“I will go to your house and see these men. If they are from the Oligarchy you will not be safe there any more.”

With that pronouncement, he turned again to his food as if the problem had been forgotten. Eslaka felt her heart rapping inside her rib cage, but was soothed by the man’s presence. Shorfahunch tipped the wooden bowl to sip the last drops of stew, held out his wine mug for a refill, and then drained his mug with one long quenching gulp. He stood up, bowed to Eslaka, and took his leave without another word.

The oil lamps were casting dim quivering shadows across the inner courtyard tables by the time Shorfahunch returned. The Gathangtingol doorman had just steered the last patron into the street and pointed his way home to him when the singer strode briskly in the door and sat down heavily at the first table. The doorman looked inquisitively at him.

“Wine.” uttered the singer in a monotone.

The doorman beckoned to the serving women and stood attentively next to the table till a pitcher of wine arrived. He poured wine into a porcelain mug and handed it to the singer and watched him gulp it down. When the singer held out his mug again the doorman refilled it and then poured another mug for himself and sat down sipping quietly until the mistress of the house arrived. Eslaka hurried in from the kitchen pushing a damp wisp of hair away from her handsome brow that was etched with worry. Shorfahunch gazed at her and took another swig from his mug. He reached slowly under his tunic and tossed a metal object on the table with a thunk. Eslaka recoiled. She had seen the object before.

“It is the medallion of a Councilor of the Oligarchy, beautiful Madame.” Shorfahunch said.

Eslaka gasped an oath in Gathangtingol as the menacing significance crystallized into horrifying clarity. The singer took another swig of wine and licked his wet lips. Then he stood up and slowly drew his sword. By the dim light of the oil lamps Eslaka could see a dark stain on the tip of his épée. She shuddered.

“Yes, beautiful Madame. Those two perhaps will not trouble you, but the Oligarchy has many rats in its den. I will go with some of these women and collect your clothes. Then I can take you somewhere safe.”

His sharp eyes peered relentlessly at her over his long hooked nose. She nodded her consent and motioned with her hand for two of the serving women to go with him. A chair leg scraped against the flagstone floor in the shadows of a corner and Angkolo scrambled to the singer’s side.

“I will go too.” he announced determinedly.

Eslaka looked pained but Shorfahunch laughed merrily.

“It should be safe tonight, but you must prove that you have some sense to go along with that pluck. I will have no use for foolish boys that know nothing better than getting themselves killed.”

Angkolo glared back at the man, less self assured than he had been a moment before, but reluctant to reveal his shaken confidence to the stranger. Shorfahunch chuckled and tousled the boy’s head.

“You can come, but listen to me and don’t be stupid.” He glanced at Eslaka who was about to vent her maternal apprehensions. “The boy will be safe tonight. We shall return well before midnight.”

It was well before midnight but for Eslaka’s taut nerves it seemed much later when with relief she saw her son stride proudly in past the doorman struggling stoically under the burden of a large basket full of clothes. The serving women and the singer also carried baskets and sacks and piled them on a table. Eslaka reflected dejectedly that the pile might be all the possessions that would be left for her to call her own and was no more than the baggage she had on her arrival in the capital. But she quickly put that useless thought out of her mind and concentrated again on her problem at hand. She gave some last instructions to the cook who trembled and reached a shaking hand for a pitcher of wine. He asked his mistress tremulously in Gathangtingol what sort of danger would prompt her to leave her home so suddenly. Eslaka spoke calm soothing words to him in their tongue, but the cook kept drinking and asking in blubbering despair what was to become of them. Eslaka gave some further instructions to the serving women who stared at her with wide eyes and bobbed their heads silently in acquiescence. She turned to the doorman and spoke to him at length, glancing occasionally at the sobbing cook who was now staring at the floor and muttering incoherently. The doorman calmly nodded and reassured her in their tongue that everything would be well taken care of in case of her absence until she could return. Eslaka gazed at him thankfully and patted the arm of the sobbing cook. One of the serving women raised the cook reluctantly to his feet and helped him stagger to his bed in a small alcove behind the kitchen.

They slept uncomfortably in the restaurant that night and the following afternoon the singer returned for them. Carrying sacks and baskets of their most valued possessions, Eslaka and Angkolo followed him towards his apartment in the tumbled down quarter near the river. They trudged through the maze of twisted ancient streets past squawking crows strutting and flapping their wings on an odorous garbage heap in an empty lot where a fire had burned several apartment buildings. A young woman with pock mark scars covering her face crossed over the street to them and held out a worn tunic which she offered to sell to them for a few modest coins. When they refused she followed them for several streets with her arm outstretched in supplication of alms and muttering entreaties of generosity. She finally gave up wordlessly and peeled away from them to stand forlornly in a doorway. Several workmen strode past carrying tools and the dust from their morning’s toil. They glanced at Eslaka and nodded approvingly to each other before ducking into a tiny wine shop where they called out loudly for wine and bread. The street curled around a corner and the buildings tilted so closely together that they shaded the noon sun. Several women sat on the flagstones grinding grain in hand mortars and singing together in high pretty voices. They nodded and grinned at Eslaka who smiled radiantly at them even though her face was streaked with sweat from the strain of carrying her basket. An old man leaning passively against the stone wall of his house gave a jesting salutation to Shorfahunch who nodded in return. The old man spat out birch bark tar juice on the ground and gummed impassively. In the next street, two drunks sharing a wine skin in an alley started up when they saw Eslaka and stumbled towards her calling out incoherent obscenities. They grabbed at her from behind and Shorfahunch threw them both to the ground. One got up charged at him with an angry bellow but Shorfahunch kicked him in the belly without setting down his load and the man doubled up on the ground wheezing. His comrade yelled menacing threats but when Shorfahunch took a quick step in his direction he cringed and backed silently away.

Shorfahunch stopped in front of a four story building. Several children were playing with carved wooden horses and they ran to him with a great clamor. He patted a young girl on the head and nodded to Eslaka and pointed to the dark entranceway. The young girl clasped Eslaka by the hem of her skirt and held out the wooden horse. Eslaka took the horse and examined it politely. It was crudely carved but the features were cleverly detailed. Eslaka laughed when she noticed that the horse’s face was smiling. The little girl turned to Shorfahunch and held his hand.

“He made this for me.” she announced proudly.

Eslaka looked up at him in surprise. Shorfahunch chuckled. He squeezed the girl’s shoulder and ducked in through the dark doorway. Eslaka and Angkolo followed him and they climbed up a dim staircase lit only by slit windows on each landing. On the top floor he knocked on a wooden door and they heard the sounds of feet shuffling across the floor inside. A bolt was pushed back and they entered a smoky room lit only by a charcoal brazier in a corner under a small open window. A short elderly woman briskly relieved Eslaka of her heavy basket and guided her by the hand to a carved wooden chair, cooing sympathetically all the while in a thick Harentowith street accent. Shorfahunch eased his load from his shoulders and grinned at Angkolo.

“This is my grandmother, the sweet Thilonaris.”

The spry old woman was kneeling at Eslaka’s feet and had removed her sandals and was vigorously rubbing her feet. She glanced up at Eslaka and smiled and Eslaka beamed back at her gratefully. Angkolo was looking around the gloomy room inquisitively and he wrinkled his nose disapprovingly when he noticed the sooty ceiling. His scowl didn’t escape Shorfahunch who laughed and waved his hand at the dismal room and the bedroom beyond.

“It is not a villa for the Oligarchy.” he laughed. “My father was injured in a work accident when a piece of marble toppled over and crushed his leg. After that he had to beg from his brother to feed us. Then my mother died from the fever and my father drank wine until he grew ill and died. I sang songs in the streets and the marketplace for coins until I was old enough to join the army. You can see that this quarter is a good breeding ground for soldiers.” He turned to Eslaka. “You will be safe here, beautiful Madame.”

Eslaka stood up and gazed at him earnestly. “Will you go to my ricto theas Zeltogath?”

Shorfahunch snorted and furrowed his brow incredulously. “I have no desire to rejoin the army. It is all the same to me if I die from a Gazpardizik spear or an Imperial sword thrust in the marketplace.”

Eslaka looked down sadly and clenched her hands in despair. Shorfahunch cursed and laughed ruefully.

“For you, beautiful Madame,” He paused and gazed fixedly at her breasts and then looked straight into her eyes again. “It is not in my power to refuse a wish even if I am never allowed to taste those tender parts that moist my lips. And in any case I would gladly give service to the best man I ever knew and wish him well to stroll where my feet can not tread.”

Eslaka smiled joyfully. “Go, steadfast man. Take my friendship and my kiss of gratitude and be content.”

She kissed the Singer on both cheeks. He took the coin purse that she pressed into his hand and chuckled.

“I will have to buy a horse or acquire one through other persuasive means.” he sighed. “I have not been on a horse since I was a scout for our Zeltogath.”

He turned to go. He spoke a few brief words to his grandmother that were too quick for Eslaka to understand. Angkolo understood his words and said proudly that he would look after both the women while he is gone. The Singer squeezed his shoulder and laughed.

“You stay out of trouble then if you wish to help the women, young puppy. And when I come back I will teach you how to use a sword properly.”

Angkolo’s face flushed with delight.

Chapter 38 The Prince Chooses His Ground

Prince Torsgish looked down from the ridge top at the mixed tapestry of meadow and pine groves spread out below him. A flock of sheep flowed across the meadow, blithely oblivious to any blood and slaughter that might visit their pastoral tranquility. The meadow descended the gentle slope and curled around a wooded hill. Below the hill a willow lined creek trickled lazily through wide wheat fields. The Prince examined every feature of the terrain with studious diligence. Then he turned and spoke with his piercing eye directed at Palriken. Zudwik interpreted with stuttering pauses.

“Your generals of the Empire do not have much respect for Gazpardizik generals?”

Palriken shook his head. The Prince smiled with a bright gleam in his fierce eye.

“Here is where I will fight and destroy the Shashbadeth army.” He laughed confidently and strode away with vigorous steps. His entourage gazed down at the peaceful scene and glanced cautiously at one another, reluctant to reveal that they did not share the vision of their Prince. Palriken focused his gaze on the evergreen forest on the hill and estimated the number of infantry and cavalry that could be hidden in its dark depths.

After several weeks of marching, the Prince and his regiments of reinforcements had joined the marauding army that had ransacked much of the eastern provinces of the Empire. He had conferred into the late hours of the night with his commanders in the field after the joyful embraces of reunion and this morning he had sprung out of his hammock before Palriken had emerged from his own brooding dreams. Scouts were roaming the abandoned countryside at will and returning with a constant stream of intelligence about movements of Imperial forces, terrain features, autumn harvest crops ripe for foraging, and sources of water and pasturage in sufficient quantities to supply the large number of cavalry horses. The reports pleased the Prince greatly and he radiated a natural self assurance when he moved through his fellow men of Gazpardizik, instilling in them the confidence that their advance into the Empire’s heartland was unstoppable and their conquest over the ancient mighty power of Shashbadeth was their manifest destiny.

The Prince shouted a few words of command and a wagon rolled forward into the clearing and warriors began unloading its cargo onto the grass. Palriken recognized with curiosity the carved wooden military game figures that he had seen so frequently back in Gazpardizik. Dirt was piled in several parts of the clearing and Palriken realized that they were reconstructing a diorama approximating the local geography. The hill they were standing on with the meadow covered slope and the forested hump below them were diligently recreated and to the west at some distance they gouged the course of a river with a stick. Palriken guessed it was the Ungthil River, which fed into the Pilok River near the southern border. The Prince consulted his officers and placed figures with the traditional black and white striped tunics of Gazpardizik lined across the upper slope of the meadow below them. He then placed figures, all mounted Palriken noted, on the eastern side of the Ungthil River, but apparently not in great strength. The Prince looked up at his entourage from where he sat on his haunches next to the figures by the river and grinned. His entourage looked back at him soberly. The Prince hopped up and grabbed several figures from the pile of the unused and tucked them under one arm. He threw his head back and laughed. The eyes of his entourage were fixed on his every move. He stalked over to the forested hump and hid the figures behind a shrub that had been placed to represent the thick evergreen woods. Palriken felt a surge of admiration for this visionary savage.

Chapter 39 First Contact

Harvinch sat with his back against a tree and bit off a mouthful of dark rye bread. He chewed impassively and then took a bite from the hunk of hard cheese he held in his other hand. Thin smears of dust lined his face, sweaty from riding in the morning sun. The troops had fallen out by regiment for a cold midday meal. They were under orders to remain ready at arms for the scouts had reported large bodies of enemy troops in the vicinity. After a week of meandering through the eastern province following the trail of Gazpardizik destruction, they had arrived at the ford of the Ungthil River.

A tired horse ambled towards him and the rider peered down and pulled in on the reigns. Harvinch glanced up at him and continued chewing.

“I am looking for Zeltogath.” the rider said in a gruff voice.

Harvinch gazed inquisitively at the rider’s wide brimmed, leather hat and leather vest. The man was not in any kind of military uniform, but the épée hanging from his belt was itself a badge of some distinction. Harvinch jerked his thumb towards the man lying next to him sleeping contentedly with one arm draped over his face to block the sun. The rider smiled and dismounted. Harvinch prodded the sleeping man in the leg with his boot, both hands still occupied with their task of primary concern. Zeltogath lifted his drowsy head and gaped blurry eyed at the visitor. He jumped to his feet with a surprised smile.


He clasped Shorfahunch the Singer by the arm in a joyous greeting.

“Well, our old sword instructor has come to join us. Did you get bored with your cultivated life in the big city? How did you find us here?”

“It was not difficult to follow the wake of the army. Trying to buy a meal was not so easy though. The thousands of hungry bellies that marched through sucked out all the food in the region. Even hay for my horse was hard to come by.”

Zeltogath looked at the horse critically and nodded approvingly. “Not a bad horse, Shorfahunch. It appears your fortunes have treated you well in the years since you were with us.”

Shorfahunch chuckled. “That brings me to a tale that would interest you. A tale about a beautiful woman.”

Zeltogath grinned with delight.

“A tale about a beautiful woman in some peril.” Shorfahunch went on.

Zeltogath’s grin turned to an expression of concern. Shorfahunch related the story of Eslaka’s troubles. Zeltogath squinted in agitation as he listened. Harvinch stopped eating and stared at Shorfahunch with his mouth hanging open. Shorfahunch concluded his narrative and Zeltogath stared at him in stunned disbelief.

“But surely there is some mistake that can be clarified. Why would the Council….”

“Lath!” exploded Harvinch. “You can’t see with your eyes closed. Haven’t I already warned you?” He angrily threw his crust of bread into a bush.

Zeltogath frowned uncomfortably. “She was always good to me. It pains me to think that she has difficulties with the Oligarchy on my account.”

Shorfahunch sneered. “Sometimes in the street you can more clearly see the policies of the Oligarchy put into effect. Anyway, she is under my safe care now, both her and her son.”

“Ah…” said Zeltogath uncertainly. “her son.”

“Yes, a plucky good looking youth. He is audacious enough to get himself into trouble but he needs some guidance to learn the wisdom of avoiding trouble. He will be a good soldier some day if he has the right training.”

Zeltogath pricked up his ears at this comment and smiled. “Good old Shorfahunch. You have done well! I am grateful.”

He dug out a coin purse and emptied several large coins into the singer’s palm. Shorfahunch slowly closed his fingers on the coins and smiled slyly at Zeltogath.

“A poor man always benefits from the generosity of his superiors.”

A loud gong boomed and began beating a deep slow steady beat. It was joined by other higher sounding gongs and everywhere soldiers jumped up and formed ranks. A rider came galloping along the column and pulled in his reins.

“A message for Zeltogath!” he roared.

Zeltogath stepped forward and the messenger relayed orders from General Sanathoth that all regiments were to advance and ford the river. Gazpardizik troops were drawn up for battle on the far side. The messenger rode off and Zeltogath nodded to Harvinch who strode down the column of spearmen barking out orders. Zeltogath grinned at Shorfahunch.

“Are you planning to stay with us?”

Shorfahunch thrust out his lower lip. “What” he paused to choose his words carefully. “would be the rate of pay?”

Zeltogath laughed. “I’ll see you officially reinstated at your old rank and tattooed for this campaign. And we will find some armor and combat weapons for you.”

Shorfahunch nodded. “Well since I’m here I may as well profit from my fortune. I’m sure I can keep my neck out of trouble.”

Imptoforch brought forward Zeltogath’s horse and looked up with surprise at Shorfahunch. “Lath, by the blood of the gods I didn’t expect to see you in the army again.” He looked disdainfully at Shorfahunch’s leather hat and vest. “Now that’s a uniform! What regiment are you with, the Imperial rat catchers?”

Shorfahunch’s hand moved in a quick fluid flash accompanied by a metallic slithering ring and the tip of his épée wavered menacingly at Imptoforch’s throat.

“Would you like to see how I dispatch the rats that I catch?”

A thin cold smile gently curled the corners of Shorfahunch’s mouth. Imptoforch stood motionless and silent. Zeltogath chuckled.

“Well Shorfahunch, I see your skill has not diminished with your years in the capital. But save your prowess for the enemy and leave my poor silly valet to continue his noble career of cooking indigestible meals for me and saying the occasional bit of foolishness for my benefit.”

Shorfahunch returned his blade to its scabbard and turned away from Imptoforch who remained frozen in place for a moment and then stalked off with an ashen pallor. Many of the soldiers had stared with alarm at the scene played out in front of them, but there were several who had served with Zeltogath in former days and they smiled at the performance of their old sword instructor.

Zeltogath mounted and waited at readiness at the head of the column. After a delay of half an hour, the column in front of them moved forward and the regiment of spearmen advanced with a steady measured tread. They marched for a mile and then the woods opened up to a long hay field that sloped gently down to the placidly flowing river. The regiment in front of them was bunched up at the shallow bank with spearmen wading up to their hips through the slow moving water. On the opposite bank, Imperial cavalry covered the crossing of the infantry. Beyond them the hay fields continued up a long hill and at the top Zeltogath saw the distinctive black and white blur of the tunics of Gazpardizik cavalry. He felt a quick familiar tightening in his gut but then relaxed as his mind began mechanically analyzing the tactical possibilities. The cavalry force that was visible was of significant size, but by itself could do no more than harass cutoff isolated units. No other indications of Gazpardizik forces were to be seen. Zeltogath chafed with frustration for the first time at what Harvinch had immediately discerned as a deliberately degrading insult on the part of General Sanathoth and his Oligarchy cronies. As the commander of a spearman regiment, a position well below his rank, he was not privy to the intelligence reports that should be guiding the decisions of their commander. Where was the rest of the Gazpardizik army, he pondered.

The regiment in front of them laboriously slogged across the river and deployed in bedraggled formation at the foot of the slopes with the cavalry fanning out on the wings. Zeltogath gestured to Harvinch who rapped out an order and the regimental gong tapped out a dull rhythm. The troops sloshed wordlessly to the beat of the gong under the silent gaze of the Gazpardizik horsemen. It took almost half an hour for the regiment to cross and they reformed and drew up uneasily alongside the first regiment of infantry.

“I’m half surprised they didn’t charge down the hill while we were crossing.” muttered Harvinch into Zeltogath’s good ear.

Zeltogath nodded and stared up the hill and then passed his eyes in a long searching arc over the woods and hilltops on the horizon. Another regiment was crossing the ford and the rest of the army was bunched up behind waiting. General Sanathoth and his banner were still stationed on the west bank, observing the crossing and gazing intently at the far hill top and the Gazpardizik warriors. The tension of the troops, advancing in full view of the enemy, had shut down all chatter and the clanging of the gongs and the shouted commands of officers could be clearly heard along with the splashing of a thousand bodies through the water. An hour passed and several more regiments had joined their comrades on the east side of the river. The Gazpardizik horsemen still had not stirred from their motionless position. General Sanathoth crossed with his staff and they conferred excitedly for another quarter of an hour. The discussion grew heated and the soldiers in the nearby ranks turned to try to catch the angry words. Finally a decision was made and the great gong rang.

The Imperial troops moved forward, rank by rank, up the slope. The regiments of infantry stretched shoulder to shoulder in a broad line and the squadrons of lancers and heavy cavalry curled ahead on either flank like the tips of a horn. All the gongs in the Imperial army beat furiously now, in a rhythm that increased slowly in pace. The advancing soldiers felt the beat of the gongs throb in their chests and their blood pulsed quicker and their steps trod lighter. General Sanathoth quivered with excited gaiety as he watched the spectacle. “Surely, this terrifying din by itself will send those painted savages flying back to their caves.”

Indeed, a moment later, the Gazpardizik line seemed to suddenly falter and then break. First a few stragglers seemed to peel away and disappear and soon great streams of horsemen were on the run, heading down the far side of the hill and quitting the field. A great cheer went up from the Imperial forces and they pressed forward eagerly. Sanathoth laughed delightedly.

The cavalry gave chase and the infantry pressed on after them but the Gazpardizik horse troops remained just out of contact. They repeatedly drew up in formation and slowed the pursuit as the Imperial forces halted to reconnoiter the new situation. Each time however, the Gazpardizik warriors broke and fled once the Imperial assault began in earnest. At dusk the vanguard returned with the cavalry to make camp several miles in from the river where they were joined by other regiments that had crossed in their wake. Still more troops and the great part of the supply train had yet to make the crossing and would have to catch up on the following day.

Zeltogath crossed the camp towards General Sanathoth’s quarters weaving his way around lines of soldiers. Gongs were sounding all over the camp and the officers had begun the traditional rite of tattooing an insignia for the upcoming battle on the hands of all the soldiers. The tattoos were badges of glory and could be presented as documentation when applying for veteran’s retirement benefits but they could also be used after a battle to identify deserters. Zeltogath found the General in excellent spirits. He could hear boisterous revelry as he approached and as he joined the throng around the blazing fire one of the regimental commanders slapped him on the back and poured him a mug of wine with gleeful enthusiasm. The cavalry had reported the presence of a larger mass of Gazpardizik forces to the east and a feeling of confidence in the outcome of the expected battle on the morrow pervaded in the festive atmosphere at the general’s quarters. Zeltogath’s queries to several staff members as to in depth estimates of enemy strength received only carefree shrugs and boastful guffaws in reply. It was also apparent that no fresh news had arrived from the army of Prince Fowgis and nobody appeared concerned about the planned rendezvous. Several cheers went up and General Sanathoth teetered in the center of the throng and held out his cup.

“We’ll thrash those rodents as soon as we catch up to them.” he bellowed with a thick slurred voice.

Several staff members laughed heartily along with him. Zeltogath frowned and noticed that General Kothelink was scowling and biting his lip. Kothelink glanced up and they exchanged a silent expression of misgiving.

Chapter 40 Regal Serenity

Palriken pulled up his new Gazpardizik style leggings with the green feather fringe on the outer seam and sauntered away from the slit trench latrine. Two Gazpardizik soldiers detailed to the latrine duty quickly ran over and shoveled piled dirt into the trench and covered his deposit. Then they returned to their task of digging a fresh long trench to service the hundreds of warriors that needed to visit the latrines every hour. Warriors streamed in steadily towards the latrines from every part of the camp. One youth scuttled hurriedly, slightly hunched forward and with an expression of grim determination. The other soldiers called out teasingly to him as he passed quickly by and Palriken understood some of their jokes and grinned.

As he ambled through the camp he noted the high spirits evident on every side as soldiers industriously sharpened blades, repaired scale armor, or sat drinking mugs of tea and chatting. The confidence of the Gazpardizik army was soaring under the leadership of their valiant Prince who moved frequently through the camp, talking to the soldiers and letting them see him and feel his strength. Some officers that Palriken had trained greeted him and offered him a mug of tea. Palriken stopped and talked with them for a few minutes while the men under their command sat smiling at him admiringly. Palriken was pleased to see that his fame as a swordsman had gained him some popularity with these strange beings.

The clearing around the black and white striped banner of the Prince was crowded with officers and soldiers running to and fro on errands. Some cavalry scouts had dismounted and stood before the Prince. Palriken quickened his pace to hear the news. The officers in the entourage looked apprehensive and muttered uneasily to each other. Palriken found Zudwik eating bread stuffed with dried fish and tugged on the sleeve of his tunic. Zudwik turned with a frown.

“There are many soldiers in the Shashbadeth army coming towards us. Some of the scouts say we should run away.” He twitched his neck and glared defiantly. “But that is not going to happen. This time Prince Torsgish will lead us to victory and we will beat the Empire’s army.”

Zudwik breathed heavily through flaring nostrils. Palriken glanced at Torsgish. The Prince was smiling calmly.

Chapter 41 The Gods Will Sing Their Praise

The regimental gongs and hand bells began their martial melodies at dawn and the camp of the Imperial army stirred to active life with a prolonged chorus of grunts and shouts and bad tempered oaths as the army lumbered on its way forward to meet the enemy and the climatic victory that was generally assumed. Arguments for waiting till the rest of the regiments could cross the river or until the army could unite with the troops from the Principality of Fowgis, were swept aside peremptorily by Sanathoth who waved his hand at the spineless advisors of caution and clutched his head to soothe the pulsations induced by the reserve stock of fine wine consumed in liberal quantity the night before. The army had pushed forward several miles when skirmishers came streaming back with reports of contact with the enemy. The rumor quickly ran through the regiments that the Gazpardizik army was drawn up for combat just ahead. The vanguard emerged into wide rolling wheat fields and began deploying laterally so that the regiments of infantry could draw up alongside each other rather than in column formation. When Zeltogath’s regiment took its place at mid morning, he looked across the wheat fields and the willow lined creek and saw the black and white stripes of the Gazpardizik troops lined up on the long slope above the creek. Behind the line of men, a meadow curled up the slope on one side and a deep evergreen wood crowned the hill on the other side. The Imperial advance would have to cross the creek and push up the slope to the waiting Gazpardizik line. A sound defensive position, he thought to himself grimly, but the Gazpardizik were not known for their defensive tactics.

Suddenly the gongs ceased their clanging and a silence fell on the field. A squawking line of crows flew across the metallic gray sky and crossed the creek to disappear into the evergreen wood on top of the hill. The Gazpardizik army faced them with mute stoicism. A stiff breeze that had been blowing all morning grew stronger and the tall stalks of wheat rippled like waves on the ocean. General Sanathoth and his staff rode out in front of the drawn up regiments and the great gong sounded commanding the attention of the entire army. Sanathoth rode out alone to face his troops. The regimental officers moved out in front of their ranks to relay the General’s words so that they would be heard by every soldier. The gong stopped beating. Sanathoth looked at the rank upon ranks of soldiers under his command on this great historic day with immense satisfaction.

“Soldiers of the Empire, today will be a glorious day that will go down in the history of our beloved Shashbadeth as we crush the invaders that have defiled the soil of our homeland. We fight today to defend our homes and our Imperial traditions and our civilized culture against the unprovoked aggression of a savage and ignorant race. The governing Oligarchy that has so faithfully guided our destiny is now relying on you to drive out this pestilent foe. Let me remind you that we follow in the ancient and hallowed tradition of the Imperial military which has known success against the lesser peoples that surround us for over two thousand years. Today we will continue that tradition.”

Cheers erupted at this point from every direction as the General’s words were relayed to the men in the deepest ranks. Sanathoth smiled with satisfaction and let the cheers die down.

“Remember that Gazpardizik warriors are brave individual fighters, but they are undisciplined and untrained in unit tactics. This has always been their downfall and will be again today. When they come charging and shrieking at us in their barbarous way, we will cut them down en masse like rabbits on chopping blocks.”

Again cheers went up and the soldiers stomped their feet rhythmically as if marching on parade, making a low pulsing rumble that washed across the wheat fields and over the Gazpardizik line. Sanathoth started to raise his hand but then paused. The words he was about to say seemed empty and ineffective and he felt hesitant. The soldiers saw his partially uplifted hand and took it as a salute and cheered again. Sanathoth laughed with surprised relief and saluted his army and then turned and rode to a vantage point where he and his staff could observe the battle. The regimental gongs clanged and the troops kept up their rhythmic stamping.

Movement and noise now broke out in the Gazpardizik line. A hideous shriek of clarinets and flutes and the clattering thud of sticks pounding on wooden drums answered the Shashbadeth army. A troop of musicians marched in unison out in front of the jagged line of spear points and the Gazpardizik warriors sang out together in a dissonant roar that made the Imperial soldiers shudder with a loathing revulsion. Only the most brutal savages could possibly render such a noise and call it music!

A shaft of sunlight broke out momentarily from the gray overcast sky and Zeltogath gasped as he saw what looked like a flash of steel glinting in the sunlight in the trees behind the center of the Gazpardizik line. He froze and stared at the point but the sun had gone back behind a sheet of dull cloud and he could see no more reflections. He began now to doubt what he thought he saw. Maybe his eyes had just played a trick on him. He turned his horse back towards Imptoforch and asked “Did you see anything just now behind the Gazpardizik center?”

His squire stared out across the battle lines and shook his head. Zeltogath trotted his horse over to where Harvinch stood to the right of the regiment’s front line. Harvinch had one hand inserted below his tunic into his trousers and was scratching vigorously.

“Harvinch, did you see any reflection of steel in the sunlight in those woods there?”

Harvinch looked up with a pained expression, gave a last ferocious scratch and sighed with relief. He squinted at the point indicated and frowned. “No, I saw nothing but I will keep an eye on those woods. A surprise from there could be most troublesome.”

The regimental gongs changed their rhythm and gave the order to advance. The ringing of hand bells accompanied the clanging of the gongs and the troops moved forward through the waving stalks of wheat. The sky darkened and hovered close over the battlefield like a layer of smoke and the breeze grew even stronger and flapped the brightly colored regimental standards. The whistling wind muffled the thousands of trudging boots and even the bells and gongs were muted. Zeltogath’s regiment broke into a traditional Shashbadeth military anthem and the soldiers sang out loudly and felt their blood pulsing in time with the vigorous battle song. They marched into the wind for several hundred yards singing and their buoyant eagerness to shed the blood of their enemy mixed with the tension gripping their guts.

Zeltogath glanced over at the regiment of Notofo mercenaries on his right and saw with distress the trancelike dance of their shaman and the rhythmic swaying of the warriors dancing behind as they followed him across the wheat field. The shaman was chanting and the warriors droned their refrain. The whole regiment surged through the field, fluttering back and forth like a ghostly dream. Harvinch followed Zeltogath’s eye and spat.

“Those crazy savages must have drunk their damn tea again!”

Zeltogath clenched his teeth grimly. “As long as they can fight. Better keep an eye on them too. They are our right flank.”

The advancing line of Imperial troops reached the tree lined creek and broke formation to scramble across, hopping over the narrow course of running water or jumping from stones in the channel to the opposite bank and then clambering through the brush to reform ranks on the other side. Arrows began whistling down in thick showers, wounding and distracting the soldiers already somewhat disoriented by the constantly buffeting wind and the broken march rhythm of the creek crossing. Many of the arrows were carried by the wind over the advancing regiments to disperse harmlessly in the fields behind them, but wounded men began falling out as the gongs sounded and line pushed forward again. The Notofo pressed forward hypnotically without faltering despite the casualties lying in their wake and Zeltogath felt a resurgence of confidence in the renowned fighting capacity of these eerie barbarians. The Imperial regiments were moving up a gentle incline now as they marched through the wheat fields. Another shower of arrows pelted them and clanged off helmets and shields. A soldier near Zeltogath collapsed with an arrow shaft sunk in above his collar bone. They reached the low stone wall that marked the border of the wheat field still in good order and clambered over into the meadow that wound uphill towards the Gazpardizik position.

A great clash and roar went up from the right wing and could be heard over the blasting wind. The Imperial lancers had crashed into the shield wall of spearmen at the end of the Gazpardizik line and a troop of Gazpardizik cavalry had then swept from the rear to take the lancers in their flank. The fighting raged furiously but the shield wall held its ground with good discipline and the unexpected drive into their flank stunned the Imperial lancers and the whole mass wavered and then broke. Half of the lancers fled back down the meadow with the Gazpardizik cavalry in hot slashing pursuit and the other half remained locked in combat, caught between the shield wall in front of them and the horsemen plunging into their rear. The regimental gongs and hand bells clanged out a rapid beat and the infantry regiments charged. The slope was steeper now and the chain mail hauberks of the Imperial regulars jangled with every heavy step.

Suddenly, a great shrieking of clarinets sounded from the Gazpardizik rear and the whole line in front of Zeltogath turned and withdrew rapidly up the meadow. The Imperial soldiers cheered wildly at the receding enemies and surged forward eagerly. Zeltogath frowned. The withdrawal had been too orderly, too well organized. There was something out of the ordinary. He felt suspicious but he wasn’t sure what of. The Gazpardizik warriors reformed further up the slope and the Imperial regiments pounded uphill towards them. A gap had now opened between the two wings of the Gazpardizik line. Zeltogath looked to the left and saw the white and black striped tunics still lined up in front of the evergreen wood. The first assault wave was just smashing into them and the clash of steel on shield rang out over the gusting wind. Between them and the shield wall in front of him, the shadows of the dark woods loomed and veiled the secrets hidden in its deeps. Zeltogath felt uneasy but the shield wall was right in front of them now. Just a few more steps!

With a hideous crash and grinding the front rank of Zeltogath’s regiment slammed into the Gazpardizik shields. Spear shafts snapped with loud cracks and wounded men screamed as they were impaled and tumbled backwards and trampled on by friend and foe alike. Imperial halberds smashed down and splintered both shields and arms and Gazpardizik iron headed maces crushed helmets and drove Shashbadeth soldiers to their knees. Zeltogath saw the streak of a red and white painted face charge towards him and he thrust his spear downwards over the black shield and the face sank out of sight with a gurgle. Zeltogath lost his spear and drew his double edged sword and hacked down and wreaked horrible carnage on all sides. The Gazpardizik warriors backed away from the terrible fighter on the horse and Zeltogath spurred forward into a cringing knot of warriors and chopped arms and split helmets. The deadly Imperial halberds were cleaving a deep dent into the Gazpardizik formation and Zeltogath looked up in a moment of unexpected calm and saw that his men were getting the upper hand.

“On soldiers! We’re beating them!” he bellowed, encouraging them onwards.

He lurched his horse into another knot of warriors and scattered the survivors in every direction. He spun and saw Shorfahunch thrust his sword between the shoulder blades of a fleeing warrior. Shorfahunch had decided to keep to his horse and fight mounted and Zeltogath had let him do as he wished. He knew the former sword instructor was capable of many modes of combat and Zeltogath had told him to choose his preference. But now something was happening. Shrieks from the left were now rippling a wave of tension through the Imperial ranks. Zeltogath looked to his left but saw only a confused mass of brawling men. A spearman charged him and he hacked away the spear and then swiped off the top half of the warrior’s head. The bloody body sagged and disappeared. He turned and with anger and dismay saw his own men running past him and down the meadow in headlong flight. He looked again to the left and now beheld what his suspicions had warned him of. White and black tunics were mixed in with the Imperial troops and a band of Gazpardizik horsemen were whooping and riding down Shashbadeth spearmen that were trying to flee. A group of spearmen were standing solidly in a block and had turned one wing to face this flanking onslaught. Zeltogath caught a glimpse of Harvinch and then lost him in the commotion of the battle. More and more men were running away in panic and a large body of enemy cavalry charged through them and scythed them down. Zeltogath spurred his horse and galloped to the left wing which seemed in danger of collapsing completely. Now he could see more Gazpardizik reserve troops storming out from their hiding place in the woods and realized that a trap had been sprung. The Imperial line had been severed and taken by enemy reserves in a swirling flank attack that had turned his left side and was now coming in from the rear and encircling the Shashbadeth regiments. Zeltogath flung himself into the mass of Gazpardizik horsemen and chopped his way through them. The mounted warriors retreated in front of his prowess and melted away to find easier pickings of slaughtering fleeing soldiers on the run.

A momentary respite of calm gave Zeltogath a chance to look around and he saw Harvinch leaning on his spear and breathing heavily. The battle had turned into a route. The encircled Imperial regiments were being cut to pieces and soldiers were running away in every direction. Looking back across the wind swept wheat fields for the Imperial reserves, Zeltogath saw nothing except running men and Gazpardizik horsemen galloping amongst them and cutting them down. Zeltogath yelled out some orders to Harvinch and the remainder of the regiment that still kept its good order formed a square and began marching back downhill at the double. Pursuing Gazpardizik horsemen and infantry parted around the disciplined square and they continued down the meadow towards the creek unscathed. Zeltogath saw the swaying Notofo shaman inside a protective circle surrounded on all sides by white and black tunics and red faces. The Notofo warriors fought furiously but they were now gravely outnumbered. Shorfahunch rode up to his side.

“I could have chosen a better day to visit my old commander.” he said dryly.

Zeltogath nodded. He looked down and saw the tear stained face of Delfolinch. Delfolinch gaped back at him with his jaw hanging in despair. Harvinch barked out orders and kept the square moving briskly. The soldiers moved mechanically with their limbs frozen with shock and fear. Zeltogath wondered for a moment how Delfolinch had ended up with his regiment but he knew that anything was possible in the confusion of combat. They hit the tree lined creek and pounded through the brush above the bank. Two Gazpardizik warriors were caught cutting the head off a captured Imperial soldier and they were skewered and trampled. The square emerged into the wheat fields again and saw before them racing Gazpardizik horsemen galloping in every direction. Imperial soldiers were running away in groups or in long streams of individuals and the horsemen were mowing them down at will. Several groups of soldiers remained coherent enough to withdraw in well ordered unison and they were retreating back the way they had come in the morning. Squadrons of cavalry were covering an orderly retreat on the opposite wing and Zeltogath caught a glimpse of Kothelink’s banner still held high.

Chapter 42 “Celebrate O My People, for You Have Thrown Down the Mighty!”

Palriken pulled his black and white tunic tighter around his throat as the wind whipped across the darkening battlefield. Bodies of Imperial troops were strewn throughout the wheat fields where they had been struck down while fleeing the catastrophic battle. Occasionally he heard a wounded man groan or a horse thrash in agonized pain but they were few since the triumphant warriors had left few survivors. Some of the corpses had just gory stumps protruding at the neck as the Gazpardizik trophy hunters had cut off the heads as cherished prizes. Above the stonewall, he had come across a large pile of corpses and he had recognized them to be Notofo mercenaries. They had all died fighting inside their own circle. He reflected gloomily that they had died in a distant foreign land for a conquering Empire that was as strange to them as their Gazpardizik adversaries.

Palriken had watched the battle from the hill top. The Prince had asked him in the morning if he wanted to fight against his homeland that had exiled him. Palriken had hesitated and the Prince had nodded and told him to remain with the camp. So Palriken had watched with mixed feelings of horror and sadness and resentment as the proud Imperial banners had marched across the fields and up the meadow in their brisk confident assault and then finally turned and fled back down the meadow or disengaged gradually and withdrew in whatever order was possible after the miscalculated attack had turned into a disastrous route. He had watched with amazement as they had blundered so eagerly into the Prince’s cunning ambush and then had seen the howling victorious Gazpardizik warriors chase and hamstring the vaunted Imperial troops as they fled the field of battle. A deep melancholy pervaded through his whole being. As bitter as he was against the conservative ruling Oligarchy and its ruthless obstructive policies against all intellectual progress in its tenacious attempt to maintain its grip on power, he still could not feel it in his heart to feel any sentiment but grief when he witnessed the bloody slaughter of so many of his countrymen.

A shrieking blast of clarinets and flutes and wooden drums sounded for an assembly of the warriors. Palriken looked up and saw the banner of the Prince flapping in the powerful gusts of wind. Most of the horsemen were still following up on the flight of the defeated Imperial army. They had smashed the advancing reinforcing regiments and looted the supply wagon train. Other warriors were celebrating the victory in the hilltop camp or were wandering around the battlefield searching for trophies. They began to heed the summons and slowly gathered to hear their victorious Prince. The musicians played continuously and strove valiantly to play over the loud buffeting of the wind. The warriors assembled around the banners of their units, waiting eagerly for their leader, fatigued from a long day of battle tension and the smiting of lethal blows, but jovial in their success. They exchanged stories of the battle and cups of warm tea that they carried in skin bags slung over one shoulder. The clarinets blasted a screeching chord accompanied by an accelerated pounding on the wooden drums and an expectant hush fell over the battlefield. Prince Torsgish emerged energetically from the flap of a tent and leaped up onto a boulder to the cheers of his warriors. He thrust out his arms in jubilation and held out an object for the all warriors to see. The warriors roared. Palriken squinted and saw the severed head of General Sanathoth with a sad expression around the mouth and a vacant look in the eyes. The Prince shook the head and bellowed to his men.

“Here is the Shashbadeth general! Gazpardizik swords have conquered! The Gazpardizik gods have slain the weak worn out gods of the Empire!”

The warriors cheered on and on. When the Prince retired back into his tent, Palriken ambled slowly through the milling crowd and pushed his way into the Prince’s tent. A crowd of officers in white feathered helmets were standing and talking noisily about the great battle and their great Prince. Palriken saw Torsgish seated on a small wooden stool in the rear of the tent. He was quiet but looking around at his officers with a glowing pride. He beckoned and Palriken went over and sat on the ground next to him.

“We crushed the army of the Empire today. Never will they forget that! Our gods are strong now.” Torsgish said assertively.

Palriken nodded. The Prince fell silent again. Palriken noticed that a special gleam seemed to light up the Prince’s one good eye. Then he noticed the beads of perspiration lining the man’s proud brow. He gazed at the man he had grown to respect and admire and even feel a certain affection for. Torsgish breathed lightly and stared blankly into the throng of his loudly chattering officers. It seemed almost as though the utterance of his obligatory proud words had sapped his remaining strength. Palriken could see the weight of a great fatigue pressing heavily upon him.

Chapter 43 The Code of Loyalty

A chilly yellow dawn broke over the stunned men in Zeltogath’s shattered command as they got up uneasily from their exhausted sleepless night of horror. The water carriers gathered up the water skins and crept cautiously down through the drizzle from their hiding place in a hemlock wood to a little rivulet. With their eyes nervously glancing at the horizon like hunted animals, they bent and hurriedly filled their skins with the precious water they would need to keep moving all day, moving as fast as they could to a place of safety where they could reorganize and defend themselves from these howling slaughtering savages.

“Quick lads. Let’s fill up and get away from here.” A grizzled sergeant admonished.

No sooner had he spoke when the sound of hooves thudded dully in the woods on the opposite bank. The soldiers jumped up and grabbed their weapons. A moment later there was a wild whoop and a troop of mounted Gazpardizik warriors bore down the bank on top of them with their weird painted faces contorted with wild war cries. The soldiers backed up the bank and ran for the protective cover of the thick hemlock wood. The noise roused the rest of the regiment and the soldiers formed a line of spear points and rushed at the attacking horsemen. A warrior hacked down one of the water gatherers and shrieked to the heavens with a yell of glee. Zeltogath leaped forward and hammered a halberd down through the warrior’s clavicle and the gleeful yell faded to a dismal gurgle as the warrior sagged off his horse. Zeltogath had already moved past him before he slouched to the ground. A ragged volley of arrows whizzed out at the horsemen and several dropped from their mounts. Seeing the line of spears bearing down on them, the warriors turned and, still whooping ferociously, rode off back over the rivulet and disappeared again.

The soldiers listened to the hoof beats fade and then relaxed their tense muscles and began tending to the dead and wounded. The melee had left a dozen casualties but the bodies of eight Gazpardizik horsemen also lay strewn amongst the boulders by the stream. Those that were still writhing from their wounds were quickly dispatched and the Imperial dead were hastily buried. Harvinch ran up to Zeltogath with a pained expression and pointed limply to a dense patch of raspberry brambles. Zeltogath saw Imptoforch lying sprawled in a tangle of raspberry vines and ran and knelt at his side. Imptoforch was gasping and clutching a broken spear shaft impaled in his belly. A full water skin lay on the ground at his side, still intact. His face was twisted in a hideous grimace of agony. He saw Zeltogath and reached a shaky hand out towards him. Zeltogath grasped his hand and squeezed it. Shorfahunch leaned over with a studious clinical glance and walked away shaking his head. Imptoforch worked his mouth to speak and his chin shook with spasms. Zeltogath wiped his forehead with his other hand.

“S…Sir.” Imptoforch stammered. He inhaled with a deep groan and his jaw snapped open and shut spastically. He worked his mouth again making an effort to put words together. “I’m sorry, Sir.” he gasped. “I can’t help…” A horrible rattle gurgled in his throat. “I can’t help you any more.”

“Easy, my old friend.” Zeltogath’s eyes grew moist. “You’ve always helped me and I can never thank you enough.”

The corners of Imptoforch’s eyes creased with a happy smile and he squeezed Zeltogath’s hand feebly. “Your friend?” he wheezed.

Zeltogath clutched his hand and nodded tearfully. A sudden violent rasping shook Imptoforch and he struggled frantically for air.

“Imptoforch!” Zeltogath screamed.

Imptoforch croaked and writhed and his face turned blue. Suddenly, his body relaxed and his eyes glazed over. His mortal struggle was over. Zeltogath drooped over his limp lifeless body and wept. The men standing around gazed down in a respectful silence.

Chapter 44 The Gods Take Their Bounty

Muffled voices murmured in a low drone around the campfires as Palriken wandered through the somber camp that had been so joyous two days before. The warriors drank their tea and huddled under skins to stay dry in the cold steady rain. Some looked up at him as he passed by and Palriken detected a feeling of suspicion in their glance. The celebration in the Gazpardizik camp had faded on a gloomy note and a gnawing apprehension had spread through the warriors and stifled all their cheer. Their stalwart Prince was suffering from some strange affliction.

The gleam that Palriken had noticed in the one eye of Torsgish had turned glazed and his proud painted brow remained damp with perspiration. For an entire day now he had lain in his tent, tossing in his hammock and wracked with a burning fever. The medicine men had set up painted wooden statues of the most powerful Gazpardizik gods around his hammock to summon their assistance and they had also smeared drops of goat’s urine on his throat, accompanied by monotone chants and droning flutes. Torsgish fell at times into deep delirium and at other times he woke to a lucid but weary consciousness. Palriken had spent long hours during the night squatting on a small stool at his side. The Prince had talked to him when he had the energy and had faded in and out of his tormented sleep. Palriken had put a cool damp cloth on his head, much to the suspicious skepticism of the medicine men. A warm pot of tea was constantly ready and Palriken had gently lifted the Prince’s head to help him drink. He noticed patches of sores opening on his neck and chest. When he showed these to the medicine men, they stepped back with alarm and withdrew to huddle outside for a conference. Shortly afterwards Palriken heard a new chant and the tread of feet as they danced away the evil spirits.

For the first two days after the battle, the horsemen had run rampant in pursuit of the stunned Imperial army and had spread pillage and slaughter in every direction. The camp was piled high with booty and trophies, sacked from the Shashbadeth wagon supply train or from the bodies of the dead Imperial soldiers that lay strewn from the battlefield all the way to a day’s march west of the Ungthil River. But then the word had begun to sift through the camp that Torsgish had not left his hammock that day and the ravaging warriors were no longer tempted by stolen riches or blood while they feared for the fate of their Prince. The camp had turned into a quiet eerie place and the piles of cherished plunder lay neglected.

Palriken entered the Prince’s tent. Attendants went about their tasks in silence and two officers in white feathered helmets stood staring at the floor. They looked up and nodded nervous greetings to Palriken as he took his customary seat on a stool by the hammock. Torsgish looked over at him with sunken eyes. One of his attendants had painted his face in the morning but even through the paint Palriken could see the haggard expression on the Prince’s face. He rolled over and fixed Palriken with his still powerful eye.

“Our gods were strong and they helped me lead Gazpardizik to beat the army of the Empire.” he rasped. “But now the fickle gods take me for their own pleasure. Even a strong man must obey the will of the gods when they command. What do the gods want? Do they not want Gazpardizik to conquer the Empire? Do they want the Gazpardizik people to stay in their forest homes? I go now to meet the gods and tell them with my head high that I did the best I could. Better even than any other Gazpardizik ever did. I will demand an answer why they cut me down before my work was done. Maybe the gods themselves need my help and bring me to them in their time of troubles. Maybe even the gods need a strong man to lead them.”

The Prince groaned and the feverish light in his one eye dimmed.

“Give me my sword.”

Palriken placed the sword hilt in the palm of the outstretched hand and the Prince’s fingers closed reflexively around it. The Prince fixed his one eye on Palriken and for a moment it blazed with all his usual fire.

“Now I will be ready for them. Come see me when your time is come. We will do great things together, you and I, in the land of the gods. We will conquer the heavens. But beware, I will train against the swordsmen of the gods and when next we meet, we will again have a contest and next time I shall be the victor.”

A contented smile softened the hard face of the Prince and then the light in his eye went cold. Palriken leaned forward and pressed his ear against Torsgish’s tunic. A low wheeze still rumbled softly in the Prince’s chest. Palriken sat back on his stool and waited in silent vigil. Torsgish had faded into the world of dreams again and only occasional groans and coughs betrayed the life that still clung precariously in his fever wracked body. Hours passed and Palriken didn’t move from the Prince’s side. An attendant brought him a wooden cup of tea before lying down himself to sleep. The oil lamp threw a dim flickering light that bathed the face of Torsgish in a soft yellow glow and left the rest of the tent swallowed up in dark shadows. At one point during the night, Torsgish sat up with a cry and reached out and seized Palriken by the hand and squeezed it for one long moment. Then he sank back slowly to his hammock and gripped his sword hilt firmly. Palriken watched his face and saw the faint contour of a smile creep across his fevered features.

Just before dawn the Prince breathed his last and Palriken woke with a start. He leaned his head against Torsgish’s chest again but this time heard only a deep stillness. Palriken got up slowly and woke the attendant and then pushed out the tent flap into the gray dawn. A sentry spun around and gaped at him. Palriken shook his head and the warrior gave a strangled cry and ran into the tent. Palriken walked blindly, not caring where his feet took him. Behind him, a mournful howl of sorrow rent the damp morning air. The camp began to stir and warriors on every side went running towards the tent of the Prince to hear the news. Palriken found himself on a crest overlooking the battlefield and he stood and gazed out blankly with his mind looking inwards at his brooding thoughts. A stench of unburied death wafted over him and his bleary eyes scanned the bloody meadow. The wide black circle of charred ground showed where the death pyre had consumed the collected Gazpardizik dead on the eve after the battle. A pack of wolves yipped in the distant woods where they had no doubt discovered bodies that the burial crews had missed. He turned away and walked back to his tent and threw himself down on a dry fur. The wailing of an entire army of mourners didn’t keep him awake.

Later that morning, Zudwik ran in and shook him vigorously.

“You must rise and flee at once! They are coming to kill you. You have no time to talk. Your horse is ready. Take your weapons. You will need them. I will pack you some food. Go! Quickly!”

Palriken jumped up and shook his groggy head. Zudwik handed him his belt and dagger.

“The Gazpardizik people have suffered a great loss. We are a doomed people. The gods have taken our great Prince Torsgish.” Zudwik choked and tears coursed down his painted cheeks. “There are those that blame you for his death.”

Palriken started in disbelief and opened his mouth to protest. Zudwik waved him quiet.

“That is what they are saying and now many people believe it. There were some that never trusted you as a foreigner or that you humiliated by beating them in sword contests and they are taking their revenge now. Their anger at the loss of our Prince is now aimed at you, the ugly foreigner. They are repeating through the camp that you had happy relations with a Gazpardizik woman as a foreigner and you even did it out of the sanctified happy time. They say that the gods have smote down Torsgish for not punishing a foreigner who spoiled a Gazpardizik woman. There is no more time. They will be coming for you soon. Take your horse and disappear.”

Palriken stared at Zudwik in disbelief. Zudwik pushed him towards his horse and scrambled about stuffing bread and dried fish and meat into a sack. Palriken frantically snatched up his scale plate armor and stowed his weapons on his horse. A great roar broke out from the center of the camp and a minute later a warrior came running towards him, clutching his side. Blood flowed over his hand and left a trail on the wet grass. He called out in Gazpardizik and Palriken understood that he was warning him to run. Zudwik exchanged excited words with him and turned to Palriken.

“They have fought by the Prince’s tent. Your friends that you have taught the skills of swordsmanship are fighting against the others but many in the army didn’t know you and they are calling for your death as the foreigner who is to blame.”

To punctuate his words, a great clash of steel and howls of battle roared again. Zudwik packed the sack of food onto Palriken’s horse and grasped his arm. Palriken grabbed Zudwik by the shoulder. The two men stared at each other for a moment. Then Palriken tore away and jumped on his horse and took off in a gallop. He went several dozen paces and then reined in his horse and wheeled around. He opened his mouth to yell out to Zudwik. He had never thanked that odd barbarian. But Zudwik was already running back towards the Prince’s tent with his sword brandished. Palriken turned again and this time galloped out of the camp.

Zudwik arrived at the bloody scene in front of the Prince’s tent in time to perish with his comrades.

Chapter 45 Post Pugnam

“Not much meat on this rabbit.” grumbled the soldier as he turned the spit over the small flame. “We better eat quick before someone else comes along and wants to share.”

“Lath! Let them catch their own grub.” snarled his companion.

The men licked their lips and stared at the roasting little body as if that would speed up the cooking. A squadron of cavalry scouts came galloping past them towards the Imperial camp and the men looked up with mild curiosity and then back at their cuisine.

“They say the savages have up and disappeared.”

“Now why would they bugger off when they could have walked right into the capital?”

“Ah, don’t be so sure. Just because they were lucky once…”

“Lucky! With a general like that drunken errand boy of the Oligarchy Sanathoth, we’re lucky any of us are still alive! He led us blind into a trap.” The man spit birch bar tar juice on the ground to punctuate his point.

“Trap is right. Like sheep to the slaughter pen. Zeltogath got most of his regiment out. And old Kothelink almost held out on the left, but after the center fell apart he had to pull back.”

“May the gods bless their faithful old general. He got us out of that death trap of a meadow. I helped carry his body after the arrow hit him.”

“Lath, many good men and bad ones too went down. A sour day for Shashbadeth.”

“There’s some that say it is the end of the Empire.”

“Lath, don’t say that! Here, stick this rabbit in your gob. That’ll keep you from talking treasonous nonsense.”

At another camp fire Shorfahunch was industriously breaking branches to feed the flames and pontificating on the history of Imperial military tactics to his avid listener Harvinch. The two old soldiers had both fought on many of the same campaigns and could now, from their vantage point of wisdom and the better part of a skin of wine, wax eloquent on the various blunders of the Imperial higher ranks. The various blunders had been numerous and the discussion had reached a lively pitch. Shorfahunch made a caustic comment on the strategic brilliance that had just lost the army’s food supplies and he cracked a branch over his knee with emphatic vigor. Harvinch munched methodically on a resistant chunk of stale bread and opened his mouth to respond excitedly. A chalky morsel of the defiant chunk sucked into his windpipe in his animation and rendered him mute and his response null and void. He gesticulated wildly with his face swollen and red, but Shorfahunch was meticulously selecting the next branch for the fire and thoughtfully choosing the words of his diatribe against the late general of the army. He gazed at a branch in his hand as if anticipating the perfect crackling flame it would produce.

“They’re all toadies of the Council.” he sneered. “Their appointments were based on their loyalty to the Council more than their battle ability.

Behind him Harvinch clutched at his throat and thrashed the air with his hands desperately. Shorfahunch looked a twisted branch up and down analytically and leaned it against a rock and threw out several expletives in summing up the collective intelligence of the Oligarchy. He brought his foot down hard on the twisted branch and let out a yelp of pain. The branch snapped back up at him, still intact, and whacked him sharply above the knee. Shorfahunch cursed and picked up the branch and shoved one end into the fire. Then he hobbled over to a rock and sat down and pulled off his boot. Harvinch was crawling around on all fours and he finally gagged out the unrepentant crumb. He wheezed and looked across the fire at Shorfahunch who was holding out a short thorn and rubbing his leg above the ankle.

“Vile little villain!” he snarled. “No Gazpardizik warrior can touch me and yet this loathsome sliver of firewood has crippled me.”

A group of mounted soldiers clopped towards them and stopped next to their camp fire. Harvinch looked up from his sprawling position and lumbered to his feet with a grin.

“I trust we are not interrupting some new military training maneuvers.” said a man looking down at him with an amused expression.

“Lath, Fowgis!” laughed Harvinch. “If you have a bit of roast mutton to spare for your hungry friends, we can surely suspend maneuvers for you.”

“Harvinch, my dear old rogue. My army, and even more important, my food supplies, are right behind me. I think we can spare you some hearty scraps and crumbs. But I must find Zeltogath. It appears from all the scouting reports that the Gazpardizik have departed. These are surprising tidings to be sure.”

Harvinch gave directions for finding Zeltogath and hustled off to the colorful banners of Fowgis’s well provisioned army encamped half a mile away near another clear flowing stream. Shorfahunch declared himself indisposed to move for the moment and stayed to await the bounty that Harvinch would bring him. His strategic retention of the wine skin greatly augmented the probability that his comrade would remember to return for him. Fowgis joined Zeltogath for a jovial reunion and, after Fowgis was done earnestly congratulating Zeltogath for managing to survive the catastrophe, the two old companions exchanged news and tried to piece together a coherent picture of the general strategic situation. The remains of the mangled Imperial army were reassembling. Stragglers were still oozing timidly out of their hiding places in the deep woods. The Gazpardizik cavalry had smashed the Imperial regiments that had crossed the river to join the main body and the battle. The wagon train had been ransacked. General Sanathoth himself had been killed when Gazpardizik cavalry lead by the Prince himself attacked his retinue as he had led a charge of reserves at the marauding horsemen. Kothelink was dead. A nightmarish evening had passed in which units of both Imperial and Gazpardizik soldiers were often running side by side in the same direction without realizing it until, with a sudden shocking discovery, they struck out with wild ferocity in a deadly fight for survival. For two days the Gazpardizik horsemen had run rampant with sack and slaughter of the scattered Imperial soldiers and any unlucky peasants that had not already fled to safety in the west. Then there had been an eerie quiet. The pillaging and marauding attacks suddenly ceased. For the last several days there had been no sign of the Gazpardizik onslaught. The Imperial army timorously waited for the next attack.

A messenger arrived with a parchment scroll. Zeltogath read through it, handed it to Fowgis for his perusal, and scratched out a hurried response. The messenger departed and the two friends looked at each other. The other Imperial officers stood quietly in the background waiting.

“It is what should have been done from the beginning. Even Kothelink, although a pious and religious man himself, disagreed with the Council’s decision to put Sanathoth instead of you as general.” Fowgis said softly, breaking the silence.

Zeltogath looked away, feeling awkward. Fowgis gestured at the waiting officers.

“The men have chosen you to be their leader. They are angry at being falsely led to such shameful defeat.”

The officers cheered. Zeltogath shook his head and motioned for quiet. He turned and addressed the small assembly.

“I have always been a loyal son of Shashbadeth. I will carry out whatever orders they send from Harentowith. If they ask me to lead this army, I will do my best. If they send another to act in my place, I will give him all my support. For the moment, I will make the decisions we need to reorganize the army and prepare it again for further campaign. We do not know where the Gazpardizik are or why they have gone and we need to rid all the eastern provinces of their menace.”

The officers stared back with mute disappointment evident in their grim faces. Too much of their blood had been spilt to be trusting of another general sent from Harentowith. However, they nodded their tacit acceptance and dispersed quietly to their units with low mutterings. Fowgis opened his mouth to voice his disagreement with his friend’s passive attitude, but the set jaw of Zeltogath convinced him of the futility of argument and he resolved to bide his time.

Shorfahunch was also biding his time but not bearing it with the aid of philosophical reflection. He cursed Harvinch roundly as the sun dipped ever closer to the distant tree tops and his stomach growled in protest at a whole day spent with nothing but wine for sustenance. He looked up hopefully as a boot scraped the dirt. A young soldier looked down at him uncertainly.

“I am looking for Harvinch.” Delfolinch said hesitantly. His jaw was taut with strain.

Shorfahunch grimaced. “You will doubtlessly find him sleeping off a feast in some ditch, probably contentedly drunk as well.”

Delfolinch bit his lip. “He is my father.”

Shorfahunch squinted back up at the young soldier. “Ah. So, you are the young son?”


Shorfahunch gestured towards a rock near the fire. “Sit down and enjoy our hospitality. I have heard of you. Your father is supposed to return soon.”

Delfolinch sat down tensely. The older man gazed at him silently and then stared impassively into the flames. “That was quite a battle.” he finally sighed.

The young man nodded keenly. “Yes. I never thought it was possible that an Imperial army could be beaten so badly.”

“There are many things that shouldn’t be possible, and yet they are.” Shorfahunch answered dourly.

Delfolinch started to speak and the older man looked up at him. Delfolinch paused and seemed to struggle with his thoughts. “I saw my father fight.” he uttered at last.

Shorfahunch nodded his head. “He is a good old soldier. Quite a few men here owe their lives to him. He stayed calm and kept the retreat organized in the middle of all that chaos and butchery.”

“I have been in several battles, but they were never like this.” Delfolinch’s eyes gleamed eagerly as if Shorfahunch had broached on the subject he wished to discuss. “When they attacked us from the woods, everything fell apart. All of a sudden men were running away all around me. I didn’t know what to do. I felt frozen. And then I ran. I didn’t even know where I was running. I just ran. Men got cut down right next to me and still I ran. Then I saw the banners of Zeltogath’s regiment and the ranks of soldiers still in good fighting order and I joined them. I saw my father yelling orders and then I saw him kill a Gazpardizik warrior and then yell some more orders. I saw the fear in the faces of the men but they obeyed his orders and kept fighting. I felt safe.”

Delfolinch stared into the fire in deep introspection. Shorfahunch eyed him steadily and then reached out and handed him the wine skin. Delfolinch swallowed several deep gulps and then put his head in his hands. A raucous tune sung by a familiar but unmelodious voice came to them out of the growing dusk. The voice warbled huskily about the thief who broke into the widow’s house one night and was so warmly received by the widow that he returned every night even though there was nothing left to steal. Soldiers at neighboring camp fires joined in for the refrain about the thief learning an honest day time job so he could afford to visit the widow at night. The singer stopped and howled out the last line of the song and laughter sounded out of the gloom on all sides.

Shorfahunch chuckled. Delfolinch looked with excited anticipation into the shadows for the owner of the voice. A heavy boot trod towards them and Harvinch staggered into the circle of fire light with a huge grin. He carried a basket in one hand and a small wooden cask under one arm. He set the basket down in front of Shorfahunch and wavered as he pulled items out for his inspection.

“Roast fowl!” he bellowed and as he did so he puffed a strong blast of brandy laced breath at Shorfahunch who cringed away from him laughing.

“Harvinch, you are pickled yourself!”

“Lath man, it’s a very fine brandy that our friend Fowgis brings to war with him. And look here, a fine ripe cheese.”

Harvinch tottered and caught his balance and then rummaged in the basket muttering oaths. He pulled out a chunk of fragrant cheese and thrust it under Shorfahunch’s nose for approval. Shorfahunch shrank back.

“Agh, yes. Wonderful cheese, but the smell is almost as strong as your breath!”

“And here is bread. Still warm from baking in the Prince’s camp fire. You see how your comrade takes care of you?”

Harvinch laughed heartily and reeled backwards and spun around. His bleary eyes fell on his son who had been watching him with tense delight. Harvinch didn’t notice the warmth in the young man’s gaze and turned away with a scowl. He busied himself pouring some of the brandy from the cask into a skin and then hefted the cask under his arm.

“I must bring the brandy to Zeltogath.” he announced and then lurched off into the dusk with a loud burp.

Chapter 46 Palriken Looks Back

Palriken chewed a dumpling of dried fish and gazed out from his hidden shelter on the hill top. From his vantage point he could look out over the valley that he had ridden hard through the evening before. He wasn’t sure if he was being followed and he couldn’t even take seriously the idea that anyone would want to pursue him. It was totally absurd that these ignorant savages would blame him for the Prince’s death. It was some kind of fever and even an Imperial army surgeon might have been able to cure him. The damn primitive fools! A bitter sadness engulfed him as he thought about his life and the sequence of events that had led to his exile from his comfortable home, his capture by the savages and the loss of his child with Tosterich, his heartrending infatuation for the Gazpardizik woman Tashjak, and now the loss of his new strange friend Torsgish. For he had come to think of the Prince as a friend. Torsgish had come with more and more frequency to search him out and talk with him. He always wanted to learn about the other countries and peoples that Palriken could tell him about, but after listening intently, he would always find some way to declare with pride the ways in which his own Gazpardizik nation was superior. Palriken had gradually taken a regular place at the Prince’s side and his presence there, even as a foreigner, had soon become acknowledged and taken for granted. He felt that he alone had been allowed a brief glimpse into the Prince’s inner thoughts, laid bare from their usual coverings of unrelenting bravado. He also had come to take solace in the company of the fierce Prince, finding comfort in the welcoming behavior and respect accorded him.

And what would the Gazpardizik do now without their great leader? King Hasdergish was too old for life on campaign and no other Gazpardizik general had the audacity or the charisma or the intelligence to take the place of Torsgish. Torsgish alone had the vision and the personal power to achieve the tremendous feats that Gazpardizik had accomplished over this past year. Without him at the helm what would they do? Push impetuously on deeper into Shashbadeth towards the capital until the vast resources of the Empire finally enveloped and crushed them? He mentally reviewed the Gazpardizik officers of rank and discarded them one by one as potential effective leaders. Would they descend into a disorganized rabble and go rampaging through Shashbadeth in different marauding bands until the Imperial armies hunted them all down and destroyed them all? Would their shamans be able to convince the deeply superstitious warriors that their gods were still strong and still protecting them?

And what was he to do now? Where was he going? Palriken didn’t know. His desperate flight yesterday had merely been a reflexive attempt to get as far away as possible to immediate safety. He had no further ideas than that yet. Did he even need to run any more? Would he be better off away from these savages now that his friend the Prince was gone? Where else could he go? He was a man without a home, without a nation, without a friend.

His thoughts turned to Zudwik and he wondered how the friend and companion that had aided him so much in his life with the Gazpardizik was faring in the dispute over his own fate. Maybe he had even been able to convince the ridiculous savages that he was not to blame for the Prince’s death. A sickening anxiety seized him as it occurred to him for the first time that his friend might even have died in the conflict on his behalf. He slumped forward and hung his head in morbid dejection. After several minutes of melancholic introspection, he raised his head and gazed at the sun creeping over the horizon and the first rays sweeping their bright light across the tree tops of the valley. He smiled and sighed at the beautiful tranquil scene. He leaned back on his elbows and his thoughts drifted back to Tashjak bustling gracefully in his shelter. How wonderful it would be to have her here with him to share this lovely view. He wondered if she would even appreciate it or if she would glance quickly at it and then return to some cleaning task. He laughed tenderly at the thought of her. A dull throb pulsed in his loins and his hand began to mechanically move downwards. Then he gave a start and bolted upright. He squinted into the distance and shielded his eyes against the sun. He scanned back and forth across the woods at the far end of the valley. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? There it was again! He scrambled hurriedly to his horse. He had not passed any dwellings in his flight through the valley yesterday, but that faint smudge was clearly smoke. The savages were coming after him.

Chapter 47 The Reward for Service

The quartermaster barked out the list of remaining food supplies for his regiment and an adjutant scribbled hurriedly on a roll of parchment. The quartermaster from the next regiment then stepped up to the scribe’s writing table and recited his inventory. Zeltogath peered over the scribe’s shoulder and shook his head. He stood up and walked wearily away from the writing table and the cluster of waiting officers. He squinted at the bedraggled remains of the Imperial regiments drawn up in formation along the riverbank. Officers were taking roll calls to report unit strengths to Acting Commander in Chief Zeltogath. Several units were still at nearly full strength, but others could muster no more than a few dozen stragglers who milled aimlessly about their regimental standards. Harvinch stumped to his side and muttered an oath as he looked out at the disheartening scene. He fished his great paw down under his tunic and turned his muscular bulk to one side towards a sapling.

“Ssst!” Zeltogath hissed.

Harvinch turned to eye him blithely and then wandered farther into the sapling grove to conduct his affairs a bit further removed from the place of army staff business. Zeltogath looked disconsolately back at the assembled ranks of the Imperial army. The defeat had been devastating and the losses had been substantial. The entire army had been in a deep state of shock for several days after the unexpected disaster and morale amongst the shattered Imperial forces had been shaken and trampled. Since then Zeltogath had worked tirelessly to reassemble the units at a central muster point and collect the stragglers trickling cautiously out of the woods to put the demoralized army back into effective fighting order again. The arrival of Fowgis with his fresh and well trained troops had been a reinvigorating boost to the spirits of the Imperial soldiers and Zeltogath dared to hope that he would now again be able to field a cohesive fighting force to counter the Gazpardizik threat. He was quietly grateful that their mysterious disappearance had given him the precious few days he had needed to restore order within his ranks. Probing cavalry patrols had proven that the main body of the Gazpardizik was fast moving back to the east and the roving bands of marauders were becoming less and less evident in the region. The combined forces of the Imperial army and the compact and stout army of the Principality of Fowgis would now prepare to move after it in its wake.

Shouting voices behind him made him turn and he saw a troop of soldiers on horseback that had just arrived in the camp. They were mud spattered from the road but the finely dressed appearance of the officers drew the attention of the campaign veterans and marked them as high ranking members of the Imperial staff from the capital. A sharp dispute had broken out between them and the camp headquarters guards and all the activity around the scribes table had halted as everyone stopped to listen to the conflict. Zeltogath stifled all his wandering musings and rushed over to the newcomers.

“Stand fast and hold, men!” he shouted as he ran in front of the angry guards who were already brandishing spears and swords. They glared at the officers on horseback but remained in their places. Zeltogath turned and looked inquiringly at the scowling face of the officer in charge of the mounted retinue.

“We are looking for Zeltogath.” the officer barked curtly.

“Well, you have found him. Here I am. Welcome to army headquarters. What is your business?” replied Zeltogath with growing wariness.

The officer dismounted and drew himself up stiffly in front of Zeltogath, clutching a parchment document and holding out a medallion of the Council for all to bear witness. His entourage dismounted also and gathered behind him.

“By the command of the Council of the Oligarchy, ruling body of the grand Empire of Shashbadeth, I hereby place you under close arrest for treason and cowardice. You will accompany my escort back to Harentowith to await the justice of the Council.” He turned to his retinue of armed soldiers. “Take him into custody.”

A great cry erupted at these words and the surprised camp guards leaped forward and pointed their spears menacingly at the newcomers who halted frozen in their tracks. The commanding officer of the arresting party spluttered with rage at the soldiers blocking his path.

“Villains! Traitors! Get back, you dogs, and let my men through!”

The camp guards roared and snarled and stepped closer. Zeltogath stared at his accuser with his mouth open in stunned disbelief.

“Are you all mad?” he finally wheezed.

“The disgrace of the Imperial military tradition, the treacherous leadership that obliterated several venerable regiments, and the death of one of the finest generals in the army will be answered for. The efforts of loyal General Sanathoth will be avenged!”

Another mad howl of protest roared back at the arresting officer. A whir of motion blew past Zeltogath, accompanied by pounding boot steps and Harvinch leaped through the curtain of bristling spear tips. With a bellowed curse, his arm swung down in a great arc and he struck a powerful blow with a battle axe onto the top of the officer’s helmet. The helmet and skull split asunder and bits of feathers from the elegant helmet crest plumage mixed with brains and blood and spattered in all directions. Before the stunned group could react, Harvinch quickly turned and hammered the axe against the shoulder of the soldier behind the officer, crumpling the armor and the soldier’s shoulder. The soldier sagged to the ground screaming. With a shout of fury the camp guards set upon the remaining retinue of arresting soldiers and slaughtered them. Harvinch gave a one handed chop and severed the battered remains of the officer’s head from his shoulders. Then he savagely kicked the gory pulp under a shrub. He turned to Zeltogath with blood splattered on his tunic and his moustache.

“Fornication of the gods! You see now the friends you have in the Council!”

Zeltogath breathed heavily, still stunned by the vile accusation. Galloping horse hooves crashed through the brush on the river bank and Fowgis galloped into the clearing with his personal guards. He leaped down from his mount and gaped at the strewn bloody corpses.

“Blood within the ranks of my Imperial allies?”

He looked inquiringly at Zeltogath. Voices shouted out angrily on every side.

“Zeltogath has been accused of treason by the Council!” exclaimed Harvinch.

Fowgis stared at Zeltogath and then laughed sourly. “Those fools!” He sighed deeply. “I guess now you must choose. Open rebellion against the Council with the backing of the army or flight.”

Zeltogath thought frantically. His head felt clenched and he thought over and over of his choices without being able to clearly conceive of a solution. Fowgis and Harvinch and the soldiers of the guard all regarded him intently. It was too horrible, too improbable. He, Zeltogath, a traitor! His instincts as a man of action told him he must choose his course and choose it immediately.

“I am not ready to rise in rebellion against the Oligarchy, no matter how unwise or unjust.”

Fowgis nodded. “You can take refuge in my castle. Harvinch, you go too. The Council will not be expecting you to travel towards the north. Wait for me there.”

Zeltogath nodded and set his jaw grimly. There could be no other way.

“But wait! Harvinch, go and get Shorfahunch and tell him to come with us. I need him still.”

The big man shook his head. “I doubt he will be moving fast for some time yet. His swollen foot will let him neither walk nor ride far.”

Zeltogath started and stared dejectedly at him. Harvinch’s head jerked with sudden comprehension.

“Ah lath! I know what you need. I will talk with him and go myself. Have no fear.”

“But you will have to go to Harentowith!” Zeltogath protested.

“That’s all right. They won’t be looking for me.” laughed Harvinch. “I am not the great enemy of the Council.”

Chapter 48 The Shadow

The copper pot fell on the paving stone with a clang and Eslaka started with a nervous cry. The old man wavered as he bent over to pick it up and the vendor jumped to his feet with a loud curse. The old man handed the pot back to the vendor with a wan smile. The vendor jerked the pot out of his hand and gave him a hard shove that sent the old man staggering back against Eslaka. The old man clawed at Eslaka’s robe to keep his balance and screeched in anger, blasting her with a rancid gust of apple brandy breath. The old man flew at the vendor in a wild fury but the vendor just threw him to the ground and stood back jeering at him. A crowd gathered to watch the struggle and eyes from all the surrounding market stalls turned towards the distraction. Eslaka shrank into the hood of her cloak and moved away from the disturbance. For the last few weeks she had kept out of sight in the dark cramped apartment with the ancient grandmother of Shorfahunch as much as possible and only ventured into public places like the market when she absolutely had to. She turned to squeeze past a knot of enthusiastic onlookers and stared up into the startled face of Pithimiantok the librarian.

With a sharp gasp she spun around and rushed off through the crowd in the opposite direction. She wasn’t sure if Pithimiantok had recognized her under the shroud of her cloak but he had certainly looked right at her. And that man that had been with him, there had been something odd about him. She had only had the quickest of glances but the man seemed to have an odd look. She hurried through the crowded stalls and left the marketplace. The twisted streets fanning out in the direction of the river were teeming with morning shoppers and tradesmen. Eslaka looked back over her shoulder constantly but couldn’t recognize any pursuit. Her pounding heart began to settle back into its customary comfortable rhythm after several minutes and she slowed down to a normal pace. She walked through the crumbling neighborhood that had now become familiar to her and she exchanged greetings with several of the inhabitants that she passed in the street. A woman carrying a baby called to her and Eslaka stopped and cooed at the sleeping infant. She talked animatedly with the mother about the child and lost herself in the soothing comfort of mutual maternal cares. She was in mid sentence when she happened to glance down the street and her heart instantly froze. Without a further word she scurried away around the corner into the street where Shorfahunch’s grandmother lived. The mother with the infant said good bye to Eslaka’s retreating back and gazed after her curiously. Then she turned and looked up the street in the direction where Eslaka had glanced before leaving so abruptly. What she saw made her uneasy and she wrapped her infant tighter in its swaddling cloth and slipped into her open doorway. Up the street, a man with one crossed eye smiled with grim satisfaction.

Chapter 49 Reaquaintance with Old Friends

Zeltogath and Harvinch clopped forward apprehensively, hands resting on sword pommels in readiness. Last night a bright orange glow had lit up the dark sky. This morning a bitter scent of charred wood accompanied them as the road wound through the trees towards Lord Tegontilith’s estate. They emerged from the forest and looked out across the fields towards the castle. Wisps of smoked still trailed away on the breeze from the smoldering buildings. As they rode through the fields they noticed a familiar figure sitting huddled on the stone bench by the great gate. They rode forward warily through the silent harvested wheat fields. The breeze rustled softly through the dried chaff and a crow sitting on a fence post called out in a solitary melancholy caw. They got closer to the gate but nobody came out to greet them. The hooded figure sitting on the bench remained motionless.

“Hoy there! Hey!” shouted Harvinch. The shout echoed off the castle walls but the slouched figure didn’t move. “Lath, the twisted freak is deaf too!”

They rode to within a few feet of the shrouded figure. His motionless bearing was unnatural. The whole silently smoking manor caused a stir of great misgiving that twisted in their guts. Harvinch dismounted and pulled the cowled head back. Three feathered arrow shafts were sunk deep into the torso and the misshapen head lolled back with a grimace contorting the warped features. Harvinch let the head drop and shook his head as he looked up at Zeltogath. Inside the manor gate, the charred ruin of the stables still smoldered. The wooden stable door swung with a gentle creak from one hinge. The slit eyes of a cat peered back at them from the gloom within. A leg with a booted foot protruded along the ground from the behind the corner of the building. Harvinch advanced with his battleaxe raised. He saw the mangled remains of one of the servants and lowered his axe. A dog snarled and scurried away, scattering a swarm of flies in all directions. Harvinch looked up and the beady eyes of a vulture perched on top of a stone wall peered back at him. Harvinch angrily tossed a stone which thwacked into the stone wall and the vulture flapped off with a squawk.

“There’s noone left except the scavengers!” he called out.

Inside the great hall they found their host. Lord Tegontilith was lying face down on the stone floor. He had been skewered in the back by a spear. His face was twisted to one side and his arm was stretched out towards a parchment scroll lying just beyond the grasp of his extended clawing finger tips. His eyes were still bulging open and staring intently at the scroll that quivered on a flicker of wind that was wafting in from the open door. Zeltogath picked up the scroll and tucked it under his tunic. His action had been reflexive and unthinking and he was surprised at his own act. He considered tossing the scroll back onto the floor, but something undefined in his consciousness convinced him to retain it in his possession.

They reprovisioned their food supply from stocks left untouched as undesirable to Gazpardizik palates and requisitioned several skins of wine and strong brandy. Enemies, whether clad in the Gazpardizik black and white stripes or in Shashbadeth style tunics, dictated a policy of haste and they set out again from the great gate. A glimmering reflection in the grass near the wall under the high tower caught Zeltogath’s eye. He urged his horse in that direction until he could see the prized telescope of Tegontilith lying on end where it had fallen.

Chapter 50 Meditation on a Calm Autumn Morning

The cool water trickled down Palriken’s chest and he rubbed off the last remaining spot of paint from his neck. He gazed down at his shimmering reflection in the lake and sighed. He was no longer part of the Gazpardizik nation. Of course, he was also still exiled under penalty of death in the Empire. He was nothing now. A man alone with a satchel of dwindling food supplies. Whither now? He looked out at the scrubby trees that clustered in clumps across the heath covered plateau. He could return to his hidden fugitive life in Shashbadeth where at any moment he might be discovered and executed. He was a dead man in Gazpardizik. The lands to the south were even more savage and also cold, especially with winter coming on. Tokhamut to the north was warm but he had not been favorably impressed with what he had seen there and in any case Tokhamut was now under Gazpardizik control. He had heard interesting things about the principality of Fowgis, who seemed to be a thoughtful and educated man. But his land lay not only to the north but also to the west, directly north of Harentowith, and he would have to cross first the Gazpardizik occupied eastern provinces and then the north central region of Shashbadeth. “I should have asked for refuge there long ago when I had the chance.” he thought ruefully. But the truth was, he had never even thought of Fowgis. He had only met him once, at the theater of course, but they had never met again.

A shout in Gazpardizik rang out and Palriken hunched down and spun towards the noise, the damp hairs on his neck bristling with alarm. He backed away from the water’s edge and hid behind a shrub. As he peered between the leafy branches a Gazpardizik warrior strode towards the pond with a water skin. A comrade behind him in the scrubby woods shouted a jest to him and he laughed heartily and bent over the water to fill his skin. Palriken listened intently. Sounds of branches snapping came from the woods.

“Don’t talk to your friends the fish all day.” The voice called out again and Palriken understood the Gazpardizik. “We have to get back tonight and report that we haven’t seen the ugly foreigner.”

The warrior by the water’s edge laughed loudly. “I’m just talking with your cousins here. They are proud that even with your Gazpardizik paint you still look just like them.”

Laughter came from the woods. “The two are alone it would seem.” Palriken thought. He silently unsheathed his sword. The warrior filled his skin and fumbled with the stopper to close it. He lifted his head with a grin to shout another jest but a movement behind him made him turn his head. His grin froze into shocked surprise and Palriken’s blade flashed down. Palriken picked up the skin, now dripping with blood, and stalked alertly towards the trees. Two horses stood tethered to a willow in a little clearing and a warrior was bent over, blowing on the flames of a fire. He looked up and gave a start when he saw Palriken. Palriken threw the water skin at him and the warrior swatted it away as he scrambled to his feet. Palriken bounded three steps towards him and slashed down in a long sweeping arc. The severed body quivered and lay still.

Palriken mechanically washed himself in the pond and thought furiously. The savages were evidently still trailing him and not too far behind. He returned to the warriors’ horses and rummaged through their satchels where he found some dried fish and boiled dumplings. He had no choice now but to continue on into the abandoned lands.

Chapter 51 The City of Our Fathers

From their vantage point of the hilltop over looking Harentowith, Zeltogath and Harvinch gazed over harvested fields and orchards at the greatest city of ancient Shashbadeth, enthusiastically pointing out the grander buildings to each other. The bright colors of the open marketplace contrasted with the long dark shadow cast by the Imperial Theater and the sun sparkled off the curling ribbon of the river that ran through the middle of the city. A jumbled patchwork of twisted streets and decayed houses stretched up the hill through the poor quarter from the marketplace up to the grand elegant villas of the Oligarchy on the hilltop in the center of town. They both recognized the familiar tower of the great temple and Harvinch chuckled.

“Lath, what a pretty woman there was that lived behind the temple when I was just a sergeant. And a snug little ale shop there was there too.”

The two men lapsed into their respective reveries. Harvinch no doubt lapsed into a pleasant reminiscence of a long past ale soaked ardor. Zeltogath reflected ruefully that he was forbidden to enter the city of his birth and, with a touch of nostalgia, pined that this might be the last time he looked at the capital of the Empire he had served all his life. The afternoon sun slanted across the tiled roofs with a golden glow and reminded them that the hour was getting late for travelers. Zeltogath grasped Harvinch by his huge hand.

“Thank you, my friend. You are doing me a great service.”

The big man laughed heartily. “It should be no more than a Saturday trip to the market. We’ll meet you in a week’s time.”

Harvinch turned his horse and clopped down the hill towards the eastern gate of the city. Zeltogath watched him go and then took a last look at the city before turning in the opposite direction.

Chapter 52 Harvinch Introduces Himself

Eslaka unbolted the door of Shorfahunch’s apartment and looked timorously out into the dark landing at Harvinch’s sweat lined face. He had talked to her through the door for several minutes before convincing her that he was a friend. Now she recognized him even in the dim light as a man she had seen in the company of Zeltogath.

“Oh, you are a friend of my ricto theas.”

“Lath, that is what I have been trying to tell you. All your neighbors know who I am by now. Even the spies of the Council have probably got nasty smiles on their ugly faces.”

Eslaka opened the door and let him enter the cramped apartment with a strained smile of embarrassment. “I’m sorry.” she said in her heavy Gathangtingol accent that made Harvinch scrunch his brow in his effort to follow her words. “I have been so worried. I think they are watching for me. A man followed me home from the market last week.”

Harvinch furrowed his brow momentarily in a worried frown, but then gave her a broad smile. “He probably just wanted to marry you.” he chuckled. His easy going warmth and confidence soothed the tension that was stretching her taut. “I’m going to take you to Zeltogath. We should make haste. How soon can you travel?”

The door opened behind him and Harvinch spun around brandishing his long dagger. A young boy stood congealed in the doorway, staring intently at the sharp tip of the dagger pointed at his nose.

“That is my son.” gasped Eslaka, taking quick steps to his side.

“Oh ho!” laughed Harvinch, sliding his dagger back into its sheath. “And what is your name, young lad?”

“Angkolo.” mumbled the youth, eyeing the sheathed dagger with an intense excitement. Harvinch tousled his hair with gruff friendliness. The youth looked up into the big man’s smiling face and couldn’t help breaking into a broad grin. “Are you in the army?”

Harvinch pointed proudly to his trousers with the scarlet piping. “Don’t you know what that means, young turnip?”

Angkolo examined the leggings and shook his head.

“For many years, I was in the Northern Legion, one of the most legendary regiments in the history of Shashbadeth.”

The youth’s eyes shone with admiration. He pointed at the dagger. Harvinch laughed and pulled it out and handed it to him. Angkolo handled the weapon with fascination.

“Did you kill many Gazpardizik barbarians with this?” he asked eagerly.

Harvinch snorted and took back the dagger. “That blade has found its way into a throat or two.”

The youth cackled with glee. “I would kill the Gazpardizik swine if I was in the army.”

Harvinch grinned with broad amusement. “Well we could have used your help in the battle last week.”

Angkolo looked up keenly. “Were you in the battle?”

“Lath, you silly wretch! I’m lucky to have survived it. The Gazpardizik swine gave us a thrashing.” The youth looked disappointed. “But don’t you worry.” The big man grinned at him reassuringly. “The Empire is safe from the savages for now. They turned around after the battle and went home.”

Harvinch looked up at Eslaka. She was gazing at her son with tenderness mixed with a mild horror for his bloodthirsty fascination for the big man’s evident familiarity with the martial world. Angkolo was now transfixed by the long, straight two edged sword hanging from Harvinch’s other hip. He reached an eager hand to grasp the hilt but Harvinch thwacked it away with a backwards slap.

“Impudent little fellow!”

But a pleased smile beamed from the old soldier’s face and he reverently drew out his sword and held it out for Angkolo to see. The youth drew closer and stared at the blade and the workings of the hilt.

“It is the only thing my father left me.” said Harvinch simply.

The youth looked up at him ingenuously. “Will you leave it for me some day?”

Harvinch laughed loudly and sheathed his sword. “Maybe I will, young turnip.” He turned to Eslaka. “My horse is at a stable nearby. We must now make some traveling arrangements for you.”

Chapter 53 A Walk in the Woods

Harvinch turned in his saddle and looked back. He pulled his cloak tighter around his neck, spat out some birch bark tar juice and grumbled impatiently. The horse drawn wagon carrying Eslaka and her son were not even in sight. The last three days had been the same, always delays, always waiting. “Even though she’s with child they should move faster than this!” he thought irritably. The wagon finally came into view, driven stoically by a fellow Gathangtingol countryman that Eslaka had hired. The man had been well paid by Harvinch from the coin purse supplied by Zeltogath. More importantly, he had been swayed to accompany them on this perilous journey by a passionate entreaty from Eslaka in their own tongue and by the silent appeal of her worried eyes. The horse team plodded up to Harvinch and the driver gave him an expressionless and taciturn nod. Harvinch resumed his position in the lead and they approached the small market village where he had planned to spend the night. Years ago when he had bivouacked with his regiment in the region, the ale house had featured a gratifying local brew and Harvinch smacked his lips in anticipation of verifying his memory of the quality.

Harvinch dismounted in front of the gate in the hedge row of the village inn. A stable boy came out to assist with the horses and the Gathangtingol driver helped Eslaka down from the wagon. Angkolo stared curiously around at the tan brick buildings of the stable and the two story inn. Harvinch stretched and then playfully slapped Angkolo on the shoulder. The youth grinned and dove at Harvinch’s ankles but the big man hopped back and placed one powerful foot on the back of the youth’s neck. Angkolo squirmed but couldn’t escape and he squealed with frustration. Harvinch laughed.

“Hey little turnip! Why are you lying on the ground? Are you looking for ants?”

The youth scrabbled out from under Harvinch’s foot and charged head first at the man’s waist. Harvinch grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him up side down into the air until his feet wagged in the air above his head. Angkolo shrieked with laughter. Harvinch put the boy down and ruffled his hair affectionately. The youth clasped his arms around the big man’s waist and hugged him.

“Lath, we’re going to make an Imperial soldier out of you yet.” chuckled Harvinch.

A miserly fire glowed in the chilly common room of the inn and Eslaka sat huddled under her cloak on a wooden stool in front of it. A man lounged languidly against the serving counter nursing a mug of warm brandy and picking his nose absently. Harvinch took in the room with one glance and his face contorted with anger.

“Hey there you! Put your hands to good use and put some wood on this fire! Lath, can’t you see the lady is cold?”

The man looked up abruptly with a sour expression of defiance, but on seeing the size and temper and obvious martial aspect of his haranguer, he scuttled quickly out and brought back in an armful of firewood. A comforting blaze was soon crackling and Eslaka gave Harvinch a grateful look. A few more authoritative words from the big man and the clatter of pots and bowls was heard in the back kitchen and a few minutes later a steaming broth was served with barley along with chunks of goat cheese on a wooden board with tooth picks. Harvinch saw that his charges were well fed and a grin spread across his broad face. He called again to the man at the counter and the man hurried to hear his request, his former surliness transformed into servile obsequiousness.

“And now let’s see if your ale is still as good as I remember it.”

The man smiled and bowed and came back a moment later with a painted ceramic pitcher and filled a small ceramic mug. Harvinch gazed with tender longing at the mug of foamy ale and the beads of condensation sliding casually down the side of the mug. He raised the mug reverently to his lips and sipped delicately at the foam and then drank deeply with hearty gulps. The serving man stood at his side waiting for his reaction. Harvinch belched then smiled with his moustache dripping. He slapped the serving man on the shoulder and laughed.

“Ah lath, that is good. After all these years, it is just like I remember.”

He held out his mug and the serving man smiled with proud satisfaction and refilled the mug.

“Would you be the owner now?” asked Harvinch.

“I would.” the man answered. “Since my father died during the great disease ten years ago, I have been master of this house.”

“Well I’m glad to see you keep the family tradition of ale brewing.”

The man smiled. “Not everything in the Empire is falling apart.”

Several local tradesmen entered and called for ale and the man went out to pour fresh pitchers. Eslaka finished her supper and went off to her bedroom upstairs. The Gathangtingol driver drank his ale in silence on his stool near the fire and Angkolo sat next to Harvinch, excitedly taking in the general hubbub in the room. Harvinch ordered a second pitcher and poured a small glass for Angkolo. More tradesmen and several farmers had also joined the throng and Harvinch now turned and listened attentively. A farmer limped in the door and a chorus of jests greeted him.

“Hey Lowgith, did that mean old ram butt you again?”

The farmer leaned heavily against the counter and accepted a foamy mug. “That old villain may have mounted his last ewe. You lads may be enjoying a feast of roasted mutton soon. The scoundrel caught me from behind when I had one of his own offspring in my arms.”

Laughter roared throughout the room. Angkolo chortled and Harvinch chuckled.

“If your ram doesn’t get you from behind, the tax collectors of the Oligarchy will anyway.” yelled out a merchant who had his back to Harvinch’s table. A sudden silence in the room left the merchant’s laugh echoing in a void as all the other revelers buried their noses in their mugs. A surreptitious nod from a comrade made the merchant turn and notice Harvinch. He blanched and held his hands out pleadingly to the stranger.

“Lath sir, I swear I meant no harm. I didn’t mean what I said. It is only the froth of ale speaking, nothing more.”

Harvinch grinned and held his hand out to halt the apologetic flow of words. “Lath, I would do to the Oligarchy what the ram has done to our fine friend here. The Oligarchy is no friend to the people of the Empire.” Relieved smiles appeared nervously on the faces of the ale drinkers and some even braved furtive glances at the newcomer to gauge his sincerity. Angkolo grinned with pride at his friend who dared to openly defy the ruling Oligarchy. “Or to the soldiers of the Empire either, for that matter.” Harvinch continued. “That I can attest.”

Harvinch plucked at the scarlet piping on his trousers and the townsmen leaned forward to look. “The Northern Legion.” announced Harvinch with great solemnity. A fresh pitcher of ale was fetched for the amiable stranger and Harvinch beamed with comradely contentment. Angkolo listened to the spirited conversation spiraling around Harvinch as long as he could but his head began sinking onto his outstretched arms on the table.

Angkolo awoke groggily and looked up. His arm was stiff. His mother was shaking him vigorously. He yawned sleepily.

“Where is Harvinch?” he finally heard.

Angkolo looked around and noticed the pale light of day coming in through the window. He looked around. The Gathangtingol driver walked in and announced in subdued tones that the wagon was hitched. In response to questions about Harvinch, he just shook his head. Eslaka clutched her hands to her mouth. She had already asked the innkeeper but the man had just shrugged and gone on with his chores. She saw the stable boy in the yard and called out to him. The boy came running over.

“No.” he assured her. “Harvinch’s horse is not in the stable.”

Eslaka nervously waited in the inn for an hour while the driver sat stoically on the wagon. Harvinch did not appear. As she paced fretfully in the yard, a woodcutter arrived with a wagon load of firewood and while the innkeeper was paying him he glanced over at Eslaka with curiosity. When the innkeeper went back inside, the woodcutter came up to her with polite deference.

“Your pardon lady, but I just came from Slowintuth, the village near the great road, and there were some men asking about a lady traveler. I thought they might be your family.” Eslaka broke into a relieved smile. Zeltogath must have come to look for her. The woodcutter continued, pleased to be of assistance to such a pretty lady of substance. “One of the men had a queer twisted eye.”

Eslaka froze. She thanked the woodcutter with a stammering murmur and went quickly out to the street to the wagon where the driver was dozing peacefully. She told the driver what the woodcutter had reported and asked him if he was sure he knew the way to the village where they were to meet Zeltogath. The man nodded. Eslaka ran back into the inn and instructed the innkeeper to tell Harvinch to follow them if he returned. The innkeeper frowned and grunted without even looking up from the figures he was calculating on a wax tablet. Eslaka climbed into the wagon next to Angkolo and they lurched off to the road.

The snorting snore at his side caused Harvinch to pry his eyes open to a squint and take his bearings. When that failed to remind him of where he was and where he’d been, he sat up with a dull groan. A deep nasal snort made him look down and he saw the woman next to him. Ah, a cloudy memory was forming in the dim light of his memory. He smiled broadly at the vague recollection of plump round breasts. A pulsing throb made him grab at his temple. “Eslaka! By the blood of the gods!” He bounded out of bed and crashed to the floor with one foot caught in a linen sheet. The snoring paused and then snorted back into life again. Harvinch threw open the shutter and cursed as he saw the high angle of the midday sun in the sky. He pulled on his trousers and his tunic and grabbed his sword. He reached for the door and then paused. He scratched his massive head and then pulled out his coin purse and added a few more coins to the ones he had spread onto the table the night before. Outside he found his horse and a boy in the street gave him directions back to the inn. He pushed his horse to gallop all the way and pulled up outside the inn with his horse panting lightly. He ran into the yard but found no one. He ran to the stable, but it was empty. Eslaka’s wagon was gone!

Harvinch raced into the inn and shouted for assistance. A sweating young woman came from the washroom and answered his queries that yes the elegant lady had departed earlier that morning. Harvinch unleashed a string of strong curses and the woman covered her ears. He bolted towards the door but the young woman called him back.

“Wait sir. I should tell you, several agents of the Oligarchy came by looking for the lady.”

Harvinch froze in his step and turned to look at her. “Are you sure they were agents of the Oligarchy?”

The young woman wrung her hands uncomfortably. “Yes sir. One man was bearing a medallion of the Council.”

Harvinch turned ashen. “By the blood…” He dashed out and leaped onto his horse and galloped out to the road. His eyes flashed a deadly fire and his jaw was set with grim determination. His horse thundered under him and he cursed himself vehemently for failing his comrade Zeltogath. He galloped through the light drizzle without noticing the chill on his neck and hands. He had to reach Eslaka before those dogs of the Council did! Fornication of the gods, why had he got so drunk! Woe be to those scum when he caught up with them. They would feel all his fury. He had to get there in time.

Beads of rain water began dripping off the end of his nose into his thick moustache as he pushed his horse onwards. Suddenly he reined in and listened. No doubt about it. Horses coming towards him. He moved forward at a leisurely walk like a traveler in no particular haste. He could hear voices now through the trees around the bend in the road. The first man came into view. Yes. A soldier. Now he could see them all clearly. Three men, all bearing arms. The man in the middle wore a shiny medallion from his neck over his dark cloak. They were riding unhurriedly at a comfortable walk with no apparent sense of urgency. They shot him a quick glance but took no further note of him as they chatted leisurely. What? Had they already achieved their purpose and were now on their relaxed journey home to the capital?

They clopped past him and Harvinch returned their nod. Then he spurred his horse around and smashed his battleaxe down on the crest of the first man’s helmet. The man lurched forward in mid sentence. His horse bolted and dashed away down the road, dragging the lifeless rider until the body tore loose from the stirrups. The other horses bolted in fright as well and Harvinch charged after them with a maddened howl. The second soldier looked back over his shoulder in terror at Harvinch who was galloping hard behind him. He drew his sword and tried to wheel and face his attacker but Harvinch was upon him and his battleaxe swung down on him with a vengeance and smashed through his helmet cheek guard, obliterating bone and flesh. Harvinch pulled up his horse to turn to the last man in the dark cloak but he suddenly felt a slashing pain in his side. A plague on all the gods! The man had stabbed him under his arm with a spear. Harvinch dug in his spurs and his horse surged forward. He swung his axe and caught the man a glancing blow that stunned him. The man toppled from his horse and Harvinch leaped to the ground clutching his throbbing side. The man was on all fours and crawling away but Harvinch reared back and sank his axe between the man’s shoulder blades. The man’s back bone shattered and Harvinch gazed down panting at a crossed eye that looked back up at him.

The three agents of the Oligarchy writhed in their last convulsions of death and then laid still. Their bodies were contorted from the force of Harvinch’s powerful blows and the falls from their horses. Harvinch slowly caught his breath and looked at the corpses with grisly satisfaction, but a burning anger still raged inside him. Eslaka was gone! And the boy too! He had arrived too late! His side pulsed with pain and he knew he had received a severe wound.

He painfully pulled himself back onto his horse and rode back to a farmhouse that he had passed on the way. The farmer’s wife looked out the window of her kitchen at the sound of the approaching horse and went out to greet the stranger. When she saw Harvinch bent over in pain she helped him down and brought him inside. She laid him down in front of the fire and dashed out to call her husband in from the sheep pen. Harvinch lay clutching his side with beads of perspiration lining his brow. The farmer opened his tunic and saw the deep gash from the spear point. He shook his head reflexively. Harvinch stared back at the farmer and nodded comprehendingly.

“You must grant me my last request.”

The farmer nodded soberly. Harvinch groaned softly, and then continued.

“You must find my friend Zeltogath who is waiting for me. Tell him I am sorry. I let him down and now I am paying with my life.”

The farmer promised and mounted his pony with his eyes gleaming with the urgency of his mission. His wife tended to the wounded man and tried to make him comfortable. Harvinch lay staring at the dark ceiling, stoically bearing his pain with an occasional groan but tormented by his failure in his duty to his friend.

Zeltogath paced anxiously in the stable yard of the small inn. Harvinch should have arrived with Eslaka several days ago. There were so many things that might have gone wrong. Maybe he had been caught. No, that was absurd. Nobody would be looking for him. But he may not have found Eslaka. That was more likely. Or Eslaka might have moved. Or the agents of the Council might have found her. What then? She might disappear for ever in that case. Nobody ever knew what happened to the people that the Council arrested. Then another thought occurred to him for the first time and he found it disturbing. What if she just didn’t want to come to him?

The creaking sound of a distant wagon made him look up. A horse drawn wagon was plodding slowly towards him. But there was no man on horseback accompanying them. Harvinch wasn’t there. It must be just a farmer. He resumed his fretful pacing. The wagon lumbered on and pulled to a halt in front of the inn.

“Ricto theas!” a joyful voice rang out.

The familiar musical ring of the Gathangtingol accent yanked Zeltogath from his somber thoughts and he looked up in surprise. Eslaka was seated in the wagon beaming with happiness with her arms stretched out towards him. With his heart overflowing with a warmth that astonished him, Zeltogath bounded towards her. He leaned into the wagon and kissed her. The smell of her hair and the taste of her mouth set his heart pounding and memories of pleasure and laughter flooded through his mind. Eslaka smiled serenely and kissed him again and again. A wave of excitement fluttered through Zeltogath’s belly and down to his suddenly alert loins. He moved his hand up to envelop one of her breasts. Eslaka laughed and pushed his hand away.

“Ricto theas, look. This is my son.”

Zeltogath stepped back and noticed the youth staring at him. They regarded each other for a moment, Zeltogath with surprised curiosity and the youth, he thought, with inquisitiveness tinged by suspicion. Zeltogath extended his hand and the youth took it, still staring at him. Eslaka stood up to get down from the wagon and the driver gave her his arm for support. Eslaka climbed carefully out of the wagon and stood smiling at Zeltogath with one hand resting on her belly. Zeltogath blinked. Eslaka’s smile broadened.

“In here, ricto theas, I am carrying your new son. Or maybe your daughter.”

Zeltogath’s mouth opened. An unexpected happy pride filled him and an imbecilic and cherubic smile diffused across his face. His feet shuffled a quick spastic dance and he chortled gleefully. He grasped Eslaka in a tight embrace and kissed her again. Then he held her close to his chest and softly caressed her hair. Eslaka tucked her face into his shoulder and leaned against his stolid protective torso. They remained in their embrace and unsorted thoughts of ecstasy whirled through Zeltogath’s overwhelmed head. Suddenly a clashing memory intruded on his blissful reverie and he disengaged from Eslaka’s clutching grasp.

“Where is Harvinch?”

Zeltogath stared at Eslaka with dazed dread. “Why would Harvinch disappear like that?” he thought anxiously. “By the blood of the gods, where could he be?” Eslaka and Angkolo felt his trepidation and watched him in silence. A farmer mounted on a pony trotted towards them on the road. The Gathangtingol wagon driver eyed his approach but the others were too absorbed by their desperate thoughts to notice. The farmer reined his sweating pony to a halt next to them.

“Your pardon, sir.” he deferentially addressed Zeltogath upon observing his dress of military rank. “I am looking for the friend of a man named Harvinch who lies perilously wounded in my house some miles back.”

Zeltogath galloped away down the road, following the farmer’s directions towards his home. He pushed his horse at a vigorous pace as he rode past sheep meadows and forest. After several hours he saw something on the road ahead of him. As he drew closer, a large animal slunk away into the woods and a flock of crows rose into the air from the branches overhanging the road with a great squawk. His horse trotted past the body of the first agent and he spied the other two bodies further on, three bodies just as the farmer had told him. He slowed his horse to a walk and examined the bodies as he rode past. The medallion of the Council still hung from the bloody neck of the agent and glistened dully in the calico patches of afternoon sun that now filtered through the trees. A coin purse lay empty on the road where it had been tossed. The farmer had stopped and paid himself for his pains, thought Zeltogath. He spurred his horse onwards and soon came to the farmer’s house. He galloped to the door and leaped to the ground. The door opened a crack and a woman’s face peered timorously out.

“I am a friend of Harvinch.” Zeltogath announced.

The door flew open and the farmer’s wife cried out amidst a stream of tears. “Oh sir, he is gone!”

“Gone?” echoed Zeltogath. “Gone where?”

“He was lying by the fire and I was bathing his wound when he suddenly stood up and walked out the door. He could barely walk from his wound and he groaned from the pain with every step, but he wouldn’t stop. I tried to stop him but he kept on going. He wouldn’t listen to me and he didn’t say anything. He just kept going forward with his eyes burning from the fever. He walked that way towards the woods. You can see his trail. I went with him as far as the woods but I was too afraid to go further. I’m afraid to go into the woods by myself.”

Zeltogath looked down and clearly saw a trail of dark blood where the drops had soaked into the ground. He ran through the field towards the forest, easily tracking the bloody steps of his friend. The trail led into the woods and even though the afternoon sun was waning, he could still make out Harvinch’s grisly wake in the dim light. He climbed upwards through a grove of mixed conifers and hard woods. The trees were old and huge and a tranquil stillness reigned in the shadowy underworld beneath their massive boughs. Suddenly he saw him. Harvinch was sitting up with his back against a great old oak tree. Zeltogath shouted to him and rushed forward. Harvinch didn’t respond. He sat motionless and stared straight ahead with unseeing eyes. Zeltogath sank to his knees at his side. Harvinch was pale. He no longer breathed. Zeltogath clutched Harvinch’s hand and held it up to his tear streaked cheeks.

“My dear friend, you need no forgiveness. You have protected my loved ones and me with your own life. Be at peace. Don’t despair. I will have a jolly drink of ale for you the next chance I can. I can do no more.”

Chapter 54 The Greatest Moment on the Stage

“How many days have I ridden in desperate flight?” Palriken mused, remembering the dust of forced marches that had brought him here, to the ancient town of Tolshif in the abandoned lands, one step ahead of his vengeful pursuers. Even now, as he nursed his lame horse across the square in front of the circular stone theater with the famous domed roof, he could hear the distant thud of horse hooves approaching the deserted town. He gazed with veneration at the statue of Blothfortis on the stone stairs in front of the grand theater. “This is a good place to die.” he thought, with melancholy. “My bones will lie at the feet of the greatest poet in the history of men. Thus will be the soothing balm of my death.”

The pounding hooves were coming closer to the town. Palriken was tired. He was tired from days on end in the saddle and tired of running from his pursuers. A hard cold wrath churned inside him with the rage to turn and obliterate his relentless tormentors with his sharp slashing sword. He had fled north and east from the eastern provinces of Shashbadeth into the abandoned lands to try to lose himself in their wild emptiness, but the damn savages had kept up their ridiculous pursuit day after day. He kept waiting for them to forsake their chase, but they kept on coming. The bust of the great poet Blothfortis kept silent vigil over the darkening square and the broken statue of the god Telgeslip and the skull perched on the broken spear shaft in the theater entrance stood behind him like a supporting chorus. A shout in Gazpardizik came to his ears over the dull thud of the horse hooves and a refrain of triumphant voices called out in response. Palriken felt a chill of dread creep up his spine as he stared up at the statue of the poet.

“I will certainly die now, so what better place than at your feet, you the greatest of poets. You can watch from the front row as one of your greatest admirers plays the greatest performance ever seen on any stage. What tragedy that no living bard will witness the tale of my slaughter. Your cold eyes of stone alone will bear testament as my blood drains cold over the bodies of my slain assailants. Think well of me and know that I would have always defended you and the words you have made immortal. They are coming for me now. Adieu.”

He mounted the broad stone steps to the main theater entrance and stared at the leering skull face. He reached out and grasped the smooth skull and lifted it off the shaft. A vine trailed out from one eye and he yanked it free. He tossed the skull lightly into the air and then cradled it in one arm. He stared at the heap of skulls on the ground and grabbed two more. He turned and walked slowly back down the broad stairs to the statue of Blothfortis. He stood in front of the statue and waited, half way up the stairs to the theater entrance. He could hear the horse hooves in the street leading to the plaza.

He spoke to the statue of the poet over his shoulder. “Greatest of playwrights, watch me now play out the concluding scene of the tragedy even your skill could never envision, as a host of enemies gather before us to crush out my wretched, insignificant life.”

No sooner had he uttered the words than the clop of horses hooves echoed against the empty stone walls of the square. Several Gazpardizik warriors came into view and stopped when they saw him on the steps. They conferred quietly amongst themselves and waited. A score of warriors joined them and they gazed quietly at the prize they had chased over so many hard miles. The voice of an officer rang out in the tone of command and the warriors dismounted and moved cautiously forward. Dozens more followed and the square filled with painted faces and bristling weapons.

A nauseating wave of fear rippled suddenly through Palriken and gripped his gut with a tight clutch. A chill sweat lined his brow as he looked out at the mob of warriors that were going to kill him with absolute certainty in the next minute or two. A desperate fatalistic recognition that he was about to perish washed through him and cleansed him of all other worries and memories and concerns. The cold anger came flooding back through his veins and he stared down haughtily now at his approaching attackers. He strode down several steps and held out the skulls. The advancing warriors stopped and watched him. Palriken threw one of the skulls in the air and caught it gently. The Gazpardizik warriors hesitated and then came on. Palriken tossed up the other two skulls one at a time, and juggled them dexterously as he had done in the village fairs during his traveling exile. The warriors halted again and regarded him with awed curiosity. Although his attention was focused with determination on his art, he could tell that the warriors were watching him with mesmerized eyes. He grinned suddenly and then laughed out loud. He took a step down towards them and, still juggling the grisly skulls, he raised his voice out loud in heavily accented but clear Gazpardizik. “Look on me, weaklings! I am one man alone and ready to die. But how many of you will end up like our friends here by the end of this day? My death will not be cheap. Prepare yourselves. My sword is ready for your blood.”

The line of warriors stood still, immobilized by the renowned warrior in front of them and his strange rites of preparation for death and battle. The spell was suddenly broken by a hoarse bellow of command and the warriors surged forward. They gave a shout and raced across the flagstone square eagerly, each one vying to be the chosen one to deliver the killing blow and deserve the right to bear the head of the powerful vanquished enemy. When they reached the bottom of the steps, Palriken threw the skulls at them one by one and then drew his sword and waited. The first neck entered the killing zone of his sword and a head rolled down the steps under the treading feet of his comrades. The headless body wavered, then toppled backwards against the shields of those behind him. Palriken shifted his stance and decapitated a second assailant. Moving his feet dexterously, he became a whirlwind of controlled, precise motion and his arcing sword blade sliced death with every stroke. Half a dozen bodies on the steps in front him already impeded the advance of the warriors towards him. Their feet stumbled on the quivering corpses of their companions and the momentary loss of focus cost them their lives too. Palriken’s breathing was calm. Although he had already killed a pile of his adversaries, his motions were deliberate and efficient and his strength was preserved. A warrior flanked him to his right and Palriken spun to leave the warrior crumpled and bleeding and then whirled back to hew the arm from a warrior scrambling over the pile of bodies in front of him. Quick step. Slash. Step. Slash. It was like a sublimely beautiful choreographed dance on a stage. The steps below him were slick now with blood and the warriors pressing up towards him slipped and fell and added to the defensive barrier building steadily around him. One warrior dived forward over the mound of bodies and lay with his head at Palriken’s feet. Palriken stepped on the back of his helmet and swept his blade through his neck. He cut open the face of another charging warrior on his upstroke without even moving his feet. He moved two steps to the left, delivered a lethal blow and then three steps to the right to deal out death yet again. He paused inside his circle of corpses. The warriors had fallen back away from him. The dead that lay around him and the wounded that writhed in agony were without count. Palriken glared down the steps at his quaking, hesitant assailants. His lip curled in a disdainful sneer. The warriors breathed hard and stared up in awe at their unconquerable foe. Their whole line wavered and was on the verge of turning away. A whirr whistled past Palriken and he looked around startled at the arrow that had shattered against the statue of Blothfortis and clattered to the stone steps. A loud curse was followed by another whirr past his head and then another that he never even heard. A powerful thud smacked into his chest and knocked him back on his heels. The arrow had glanced off his breast plate and given him a bruise but no serious injury. Several more whirrs buzzed past him and a blow in his thigh told him he was hit. A torrent of arrows shattered on the steps behind him and he reeled from blows to his chest, arms, and helmet. The rain of arrows halted and Palriken could catch his breath. Then he could feel the pain and realize how badly he was hurt. An arrow had gone through his thigh, a second had torn open his forearm, and another had penetrated his armor under his collar bone. He stared down at the transfixed warriors.

“You creeping toads!” he mocked them.

An arrow whistled towards him and bounced off the front of his helmet. Palriken staggered back and another arrow furrowed through his eye. He collapsed backwards and twitched only once. His remaining open eye stared sightlessly at the statue of the great poet who gazed out dispassionately over the death in the square. The warriors rose out of their spellbound reverie and rushed forward with a whoop of celebration. Palriken’s head was held aloft as the trophy of victory.

Chapter 55 The Proclamation

A chilly drizzle, like a harbinger for the on coming cold of winter, pelted lightly on the stone pavement of the square in front of the Oligarchy Meetinghouse in the center of Harentowith. A doorkeeper for the meetinghouse struck the great bronze gong and its metallic boom rumbled its announcement through the bustling streets. From all sides tasks were dropped and transactions were postponed and conversations were left hanging unfinished as the denizens of the capital, the tradesmen, the merchants, the money lenders, the laborers, the scholars, the pickpockets, the whores, and the retired veteran soldiers set adrift in civilian life on their meager pensions, all flocked to the sounding of the gong to hear the latest pronouncement of their ruling Council.

Huddled inside the doorway, as if taking refuge before leaving their shelter to go out into the storm, a knot of Councilors hesitated with nervous anxiety. Mutterings of doubt about the wisdom of the proposed course of action murmured through the group and fretful frowns adorned the faces. Only Hadfar was steadfast and confident and he looked scornfully at his faltering colleagues.

“Come, come, my dear sirs. What is this wavering in the moment when we need all the strength and pride of our ancestral heritage? Our army and our eastern provinces have suffered great blows, but the marauders have returned home and we need to demonstrate that the protective arm of the Empire will once again embrace its territories and its people. The burning ruins must be rebuilt, the estates of our brethren in the Oligarchy must be reclaimed and the temples of the ancient gods of Shashbadeth must be restored. The destruction and disease of the last six months will spiral into a total godless chaos if we do not act firmly now to restore stability so the people can return to their lands and our borders can be once again fortified. We hang now in the balance. The Empire that has endured for two thousand years under the protection of the true ancient gods is in danger of collapse. It is time now for the ruling Council to step forward and show the people that we still govern.”

A sullen chilly silence met his impassioned words. The Councilors fretted apprehensively, knowing the truth in Hadfar’s words of the dangers faced by their ancient Empire, but also tormented by the sickening fear that they were impotent to avert the course of the crushing fate that had wreaked such carnage over almost half the Empire.

“What if the people no longer want to be governed?” piped up a worried voice and a chorus of dissident mutterings echoed the concern.

Hadfar glowered at his colleagues. “Don’t forget that the people of Shashbadeth are the children of the Empire.” he reminded them. “Their fathers need to show them the way and lead them to the truth. The Council and the gods of Shashbadeth will teach and guide the children of the land.”

Hadfar raised his arms dramatically as he spoke and the Councilors nearest him stepped back with their faces averted. Hadfar smiled beatifically at his comrades. They were all from the great ancient families of Shashbadeth and they had ruled, as rightly they should have, since the beginning of history and they would continue to do so. It was the will, nay even the desire of the gods that it should be so. There had been difficult times before, but the Empire persevered. The rumbling of the voices of the crowd outside grew louder as the people were becoming impatient to hear the pronouncement that they had been summoned to hear. Hadfar turned and walked quickly to the door, flanked by two loyal servants of his house. At the door he looked out at the square and the sullen angry faces of the mob and the belligerent tone of their shouts caused an unexpected feebleness in his knees. His years of experience in public service however gave him a reserve of strength and he continued out the door into the plaza. The murmuring of the crowd turned to an unwelcoming roar.

Hadfar spread his arms out wide. “My people of Shashbadeth, people of the Empire, children of the ancient gods!”

The murmuring grew quieter but individual voices still cried out in clear mocking jeers. Hadfar looked angrily out to see the faces of the taunting troublemakers. Gomthatdrin would see to them, but where was the man? He should have been here by now. Suddenly Hadfar looked over his shoulder and he spun halfway around in astounded alarm. He was alone with his two servants. The Councilors had seen the temper of the crowd and remained inside. By the gods, those damned cowards! He turned back to face the crowd with his face ashen and his mind a frozen whirl of panicked thoughts.

“Children of the Empire!” he started again, frantically hoping that the act of uttering words would conquer his sudden terror. “The gods of Shashbadeth and the Council have ruled you benevolently for two thousand years and always led you to victory over the barbarous savages beyond our frontiers.”

“What about the beating those Gazpardizik marauders gave us?” a voice yelled from the crowd.

“Yes, and where are our dead sons now?” added another.

“Where was the Oligarchy when the savages were ransacking the east?”

“What have the Council or the gods done except punish the people while the Oligarchy got richer?”

Hadfar was stung by the impudence of these ungrateful stupid brutes. “The Empire was betrayed!” he yelled out. “Our faithful commander Sanathoth was treacherously betrayed by that godless traitor Zeltogath!”

A roar of outraged derision erupted from the mob.

“Liar! I was there!” rang out a clear voice. “It was that fool Sanathoth that led the army to its doom. It was only the courage and leadership of Zeltogath that salvaged half the army that remained after the slaughter! And then the Council tried to arrest Zeltogath.”

“Liars!” shouted another voice.

The shout was repeated and soon the mob had taken it up in a loud ringing chant. Hadfar peered into the crowd to identify the villainous rabble rouser that had started the commotion. Oh, he would pay. A sudden thwack on his chest jarred him and he looked down and saw with revulsion that he had been struck by a clump of horse manure. His face burned with rage.

“You ignorant swine!” he bellowed.

An angry howl surged up from the crowd and Hadfar recoiled with sudden fear. He stood trembling and facing the furious mob that now began to push forward menacingly towards him. A stone whizzed past his head and clattered on the ground behind him. He looked desperately around for the protection of his house servants and saw to his horror that they were gone. The scum! They had deserted him! A paving stone crashed at his feet and bounced against his ankle. Hadfar cried out in pain. More stones pelted the ground around him and one glanced off his shoulder causing him to wince in surprise. He turned in panic to the door of the meetinghouse but it was closed. He ran towards it and pushed on the latch. It was locked! Those lumps of excrement! Stones smacked into the wall and one hit him on the buttock causing him to rear up in sharp pain. The stones flew at him with dizzying relentlessness and Hadfar could no longer even think. He covered his head with his arms and a large paving stone crashed into his arms, breaking the bone and knocking him staggering backwards in a dazed stumble. Stones bombarded him and he dropped to the ground whimpering. The crowd closed in over him.

A gong clanged loudly and the crowd turned to see the portly figure of Gomthatdrin directing a tentative squad of soldiers to the attack. An infuriated roar burst forth from the mob and they set upon the soldiers. Paving stones flew through the air and the charge of the soldiers’ spears was blunted. The line of soldiers wavered and looked back at the high ranking official. A stone crashed into Gomthatdrin’s forehead and he fell to his knees clasping his bloody brow. The mob rushed forward with a cheer and the soldiers ran away in terror. Gomthatdrin’s four white velvet stripes of rank were ripped from his bloody tunic and the mob stomped in victorious dance over his bones.

Chapter 56 The Castle of Fowgis

Zeltogath sipped the odd tasting but refreshing fruit juice that the servant handed to him. The man spoke in dialect as he explained proudly that the pulpy sweet fruit was typical of the warm valley below the capital. He had squeezed the fruit and strained the juice from the pulp himself. Eslaka sat next to Zeltogath on a stone bench savoring the pleasant sun in a sleeveless dress and warming him with her presence. He bent over and kissed the soft skin of her exposed shoulder. She beamed happily at him and he turned and gazed out from the stone terrace at the patches of farms that faded into swirls of mist hovering over the lush valley that plunged downwards in the distance. Beyond the valley he could just make out the hazy blue line of the high snow capped peaks that walled in the principality of Fowgis. Even though his realm bordered the tropical forests that spread in an impenetrable tangle to the north, the high mountains and plateaus made a temperate climate and separated the principality from that sweltering heat and dampness where few men lived.

An old Harentowith ballad wafted out to them from the garden behind them. Eslaka laughed as she recognized the singer’s voice. Zeltogath grinned at her and they listened together.

“The days since your glance never end.

To me, to me, I crave your heart should bend.

I yearn to touch your hand and sigh

And bow before the glitter of your eye.”

The singer stopped and they heard a woman’s tinkling laughter. Then the singer erupted in mock exasperation.

“What Madame? You take my passion for insincerity? Do you know how many perilous roads I traveled just to arrive at your feet? Surely you don’t think all my hard journeys were just for the pleasure of stabbing our dear Gazpardizik neighbors!”

A trill of laughter floated to their ears and then a curiously non sequitur silence followed. Eslaka cocked her head to listen but the troubadour was no longer singing. She looked at Zeltogath with a knowing smile.

“It’s the merchant’s daughter.”

Zeltogath chuckled. “Shorfahunch has recovered from his firewood inflicted wound.”

Shouts in the heavy dialect of the principality drifted out from the castle courtyard. They heard a wagon creaking and a gang of workmen unloading its cumbersome cargo. The servant, who had been lurking next to the food platter and waiting for the opportunity to serve another local delicacy to his esteemed foreign guests, leaned in with a conspiratorial undertone.

“It’s the seeing machine that the master brought with him. It was made by a friend who was killed by those Gazpardizik rats. Puuuh!” He spit on the ground with scorn. “The wagon driver told me with this machine you can see even beyond the land of the gods. He knows that for sure because he saw them load it and he drove the wagon himself all the way.”

The servant leaned back with a satisfied air and waved a fly away from the food platter. His eye lit up and he enthusiastically plucked a greenish purple fruit and thrust it under Zeltogath’s nose.

“You will like this, sir. It grows only on the slope going down from the capital to the valley. There, it is neither so hot nor so cool. No, no, sir. Not like that. You eat it like this. Let me show you.”

The man snatched the fruit from Zeltogath’s fingers and adroitly bit off the stem end and squeezed the bulbous body pushing the soft orange meat out through the tough skin. He held it out for Zeltogath and gestured impatiently for him to eat. Zeltogath reached his fingers out tentatively and the man shook his head and clucked. “No, sir. In your mouth.”

Zeltogath leaned forward and sucked in the proffered pulp. A sweet tartness swirled across his palette leaving a surprising but not unpleasing taste. The servant watched him intently waiting for the expected approval. Zeltogath nodded. The servant smiled.

“I said you would like it, didn’t I. But how could you not like it? It is very tasty. Of course we have many wonderful fruits here. Our principality is small, but we have the best fruit in the Empire. As we say, if you want to talk to priests go to Harentowith, if you want to eat good fruit stay here. This one is the Prince’s favorite. It is called…”

A shout of greeting rang out and Prince Fowgis himself appeared at the entrance of the garden. He strode energetically towards them and embraced Zeltogath warmly.

“My old friend, I’m sorry I haven’t had time to greet you properly since my arrival.”

Zeltogath waved an unconcerned hand. “You’ve had a long journey, first from the eastern provinces and then to Harentowith and now here. Besides,” touching Eslaka gently on her cheek. “I have been well entertained.”

Fowgis turned to Eslaka and gazed at her. “I am happy to meet you finally. Perhaps together we can fill his head with less ale and more sense.”

Eslaka laughed lightly. “In fact, he has already filled me with something that grows every day bigger.” She patted her belly.

Fowgis looked at her with surprise. Then he turned to Zeltogath with a laugh. “Well done, my friend!” He threw his arms around Zeltogath and squeezed him with a powerful hug. “Let me con…”

An urgent shout from the work gang made Fowgis turn abruptly. He snorted in exasperation and took several steps towards the man standing at the entrance to the garden. Then he spun back around with a delighted smile.

“But Zeltogath, that is terrific! I am so happy!”

His chin quivered with excitement as he looked back and forth between Zeltogath and Eslaka who smiled quietly back at him. Fowgis turned hastily and shouted a terse command at the workman and walked back and sat down on a bench facing his friends. They sat grinning at each other for a moment. Fowgis for once seemed at a loss for a clever appropriate word. He paused and then started as if just remembering.

“Oh, I salvaged the great telescope of Tegontilith.” He furrowed his brow sadly. “Why would he not heed my warning? But that is how he is, dear quaint fellow. That is what they are unloading now.”

“Ah yes.” murmured Zeltogath, removing a parchment scroll from a deep pocket in his tunic. “I wanted to show you this. It was the last thought of Lord Tegontilith. He was reaching out to grasp it as he died.”

Fowgis took the parchment and unrolled it carefully. His eyes sparked with excitement as he saw the numbers scrawled across the parchment. “This is it! The missing scroll! I scoured his castle searching for these formulas. This was his last and greatest mathematical calculation. If it had been lost, who can guess how many generations would have to pass before another gifted and intense mind would recreate the same steps of discovery. With these figures, one can predict the movements of the natural objects in the skies and with the great telescope one can see the results of the predictions. It proves the words of the priests to be false and could mark the beginning of a new age of man’s understanding.” Fowgis shook with emotion. “We will no longer be led by the nose ring of ancient beliefs from the dark past.”

Another shout came from the courtyard. Fowgis turned with annoyance and called out an impatient reply. He turned back again and fixed Zeltogath with a wry grin. Zeltogath’s face darkened with a sudden remembrance.

“You have heard about the death of Harvinch?”

At the mention of the name of the man who had braved perils to bring her out of Harentowith, Eslaka bowed her head and wiped away a trickle of tears. Fowgis shook his head and sighed. Zeltogath slapped the stone bench in anger.

“Harvinch was a good man, a flawed man, but a good man. He should be here with us today.”

Fowgis nodded. “We are all interwoven threads in the great tapestry. Some of the threads are short, but they are still woven into the whole.”

Another call from the workmen snapped Fowgis from his introspective reverie and he jumped to his feet. “Come.” he said to Zeltogath. “I need to tell them what to do, but walk with me and we will talk more.”

Fowgis bowed to Eslaka and he and Zeltogath strode to the bustling courtyard. The oxen stood in their harness gazing apathetically at the workmen sweating and straining their muscles around them. A fat man wearing only loose trousers and sandals was talking rapidly in heavy dialect and waving his hands about excitedly as he explained the problem to Fowgis. The man’s protruding belly glistened in the sun from his toil. Fowgis listened patiently for a moment and then tried to cut off the flow of impassioned words but to no avail as the man shook a distressed finger at the doorway. Fowgis nodded with a sudden awareness and gave some calm clear instructions. The man frowned and looked up at the high walls of the manor. He thrust his lips out in skeptical acquiescence and walked off shouting directions to the men. Fowgis turned to Zeltogath.

“After carrying the biggest piece all the way up the stairs to the top, they couldn’t get it around the last corner and had to bring it all the way down again. Now we will pull it up with chains and pulleys from the top.” His lower lip twitched with amusement. “They are not very pleased with their Prince at the moment.” he added dryly.

Fowgis moved away towards the double doored entrance of the main hall. “In any case, by the time they gather all their tools it will be time for the midday meal. I have much to tell you.”

Zeltogath laughed mirthlessly. “What is the mood in the capital then? I can not imagine any happy events. We have already heard of the death of Councilor Hadfar.”

“Yes. That might be of some import. He was a powerful Councilor to be sure. For the moment, the Oligarchy is afraid of the people in the streets, but there is no other leader coming forth to fill the void. There is only directionless congregation in the great plazas and pointless fires and destruction. The energy of the mob will soon be spent and the people will once again be more concerned with the price of fish and leeks. The Oligarchy bides its time now and hides behind high walls waiting for the moment to strike. It will be soon, very soon. Several prominent personages have already disappeared unexpectedly. Meanwhile, in the eastern provinces, there are varying reports of a charismatic heretic who is growing in power in the devastated countryside, using the carnage as a warning from the gods that the priests have led the people astray for their own evil profit. It would seem that his armed band travels from village to village enjoying the generosity of the destitute and slaying the priests. The Councilors that I met in Harentowith plan to stabilize first the capital and then direct the army to restore the Imperial order through the east. More mercenaries from Notofo have already been recruited.”

Zeltogath stopped and gazed up at the high ceiling of the reception hall. He opened his mouth to speak but just shook his head. He sighed and opened his mouth again.

“The Council has outlived its purpose. Even I have finally seen that it exists to protect its own perpetuation and nothing more. The Oligarchy have had their day. They have had too many days. The Empire of our fathers was not built and defended for the glory of just a few.”

His words trailed off and he continued to gaze into the dim recesses of the distant ceiling. Fowgis turned energetically towards him and threw his hands out emphatically.

“If not the Oligarchy, then who will govern? Will you raise an army and make yourself king? Who will rule when you are gone? Will you have a son with Eslaka that the people will bow down to? Will someone else challenge his right to rule? Someone must rule. What other option is there?” Fowgis snorted ironically. “The people can’t be abandoned without a leader to rule themselves.”

Zeltogath groaned with dismay at the intricate problems presented by the concepts of government. Fowgis coolly regarded his friend.

“You have administered and provisioned an army. That is good practice for administering an empire.”

Zeltogath flinched. “I am not ready for such a task.”

Fowgis chewed his lip pensively. “Not yet, perhaps.” Fowgis paused strategically. “But the army will have you.”

Zeltogath thought with his brow clenched with concentration and then nodded. “I know. The army is easy. But what about the gods?”

Fowgis emitted a derisive nasal sound. “The gods? The gods are not so much the problem as the priests. The priests don’t even need real gods to rule the minds of the people. The people fear the gods even more than they fear your sword. The priests can always invent new gods to strike terror into the hearts of the people.”

Zeltogath chewed his lip. “But many people….ah…many people…well they don’t seem to need or want or believe in the priests anyway so maybe it won’t be so calamitous and disruptive to abolish the priests.”

“But what will the people think if you take away the priests? Won’t they be confused and even terrified to find themselves alone without the shelter of their absurd beliefs? Even though they make a mockery of the gods, even their imperfect existence is still a comfort. Most people wouldn’t want to choose a king, much less a god.”

Zeltogath wore an expression of pain. “I am just not the man to have all the answers all the time.” he said ruefully.

Fowgis laughed. “Who said leaders were always right? Let’s not set the standard too high.”

The two men continued on through the hall and passed through a door to a corridor on one side. Doors led to a series of chambers and Fowgis steered them to the first and largest. Sunlight from a broad window lit a row of writing tables and another door on the far side led into another great hall where Zeltogath could see several rows with bookshelves through the doorway. Voices from another chamber could be heard where a scholar was giving instructions to young boys who answered his rhetorical queries in high squeaky voices. Two youths were sitting at a table with their heads bent together over a parchment covered with mathematical calculations. Delfolinch read the inscriptions Angkolo had made and snickered.

“Why don’t you spend your time more productively and go to the wine shop and get drunk.”

Angkolo snatched the parchment proudly away from the laughing older youth and reread his calculations, meticulously searching for errors. He groaned with frustration and pounded on the table with his small hard fist and scratched furiously with his pen on the parchment.

Fowgis pointed at Delfolinch and Angkolo.

“That is the hope of the future, if there is any to be found. But they will need leaders.”

Zeltogath cringed.

“I tell you, I despair. They have won. Our brief spark has been snuffed out. How long will we now remain plunged in darkness in the netherworld of gods?”

Fowgis laid his hand on Zeltogath’s arm and steered him through the far doorway into the depths of the library with its endless rows of shelves.

“My friend, expand yourself. We live within the limits of the mind of man.”

– Finis –