Chapter Forty-Four: The Confession

            Kah’len awoke later than usual. Light seeped through the closed curtains. The air was cool, despite the roaring fire in the fireplace. The bedroom reeked of sex and sweat as Kah’len swung his legs over the side of the bed and rose, reaching for his dressing robe. Once he had donned his robe, he turned to look at his wife as she slumbered. Sex had been pleasant and tender. He had showed her great affection and much of the night had been spent in conversation as he strove to set her mind at ease. After hours of talking, though, he had insisted they consummate their marriage. She had felt fragile and small in his arms and he automatically felt protective towards her, but his tastes in bed ran to the energetic and aggressive. She would be a good change of pace for him, something to keep him interested and attentive, but he knew already that his heart lay with Lahn and no other. It seemed even the Goddess could not change his heart.

            He went through the connecting door to the bathing chamber, where he washed with bracing cold water before dressing in his uniform. Once he was dressed and groomed, he strolled into the sitting room, where he found Lahn and his half-brother, Rakah. Rakah was dressed in uniform, and Lahn wore a gold satin tunic and dark trousers.

            Kah’len watched, surprised, as his brother brought fist to chest and bowed. “Good morning, Brother.”

            Kah’len saluted. “Good morning, Commander. Where do you reside now?”

            “In the cathedral until my house is built,” Rakah replied with a jaunty grin. “How was your wedding night?”

            Kah’len yawned and shook his head. “It was good. We talked a lot and are on our way to becoming friends. She was shy at first, but I persisted until she told me her story and I told her mine.”

            Rakah gave him a leer. “And the sex?”

            Kah’len huffed. “That’s my wife, Rakah! Would you have me tattle?”

            Rakah snorted. “You’re a soldier, Kah’len! Dish!”

            Lahn took a step forward. “You can dish in private. I came to tell you that the troops are heading to the docks to board the warships. All is near ready for departure.”

            Kah’len nodded. “That is good. I’m going to break my fast–”

            There was a knock on the hallway door and Lahn went to open it.

            The entire Stait family stood at the doorstep. Kah’len waved them in.

            “Divita is still abed,” he told them. “You may go see her.”

            The family hurried into the apartment. They were dressed in fine clothing and were indistinguishable from aristocrats now, although the older two still looked worn and older than their years.

            “Like I was saying,” Kah’len said. “I’m going to break my fast then I will say goodbye to my wife before I head to the docks.”

            Rakah bowed. “I wanted to talk to you about Deirohn and Uncle Kaelo.”

            Kah’len sat down as a servant handed him a plate piled with his breakfast. “They will exiled, Rakah. I will give them sufficient funds for them to live comfortably, but I cannot have them in Torahn. I don’t trust them or their supporters.”

            “I figured,” Rakah said. “But thank you for sparing their lives.”

            Kah’len chewed and swallowed a mouthful. “I won’t have their blood on my hands.”

            Lahn took a step forward. “I have to confer with the Warlord, Commander. Will you excuse us?”

            Rakah bowed. “Of course, Excellency. I will ride with you when you head to the docks. I’ll be down in the bailey until then.”

            Lahn smiled at him. “Thank you, Rakah.”

            Kah’len watched their interaction with a flare of jealousy. He didn’t know where Rakah’s proclivities lay. He and Kah’len had never been close and Kah’len had never heard of Rakah courting young women, but neither had he heard of Rakah courting young men, either. His half-brother was very private and had always been so, even as a child. He was not close to any of his siblings or parents.

            Kah’len swallowed his mouthful. “What do you want to talk about, Lahn?”

            Lahn said nothing and when Kah’len looked up, he noted that the Prei-Serren looked nervous.

            Kah’len frowned. “What is it?”

            “I did something without your permission,” Lahn said. “I did it because I knew you would oppose me, but it was a directive from the Goddess.”

            Kah’len’s frown deepened to a scowl and he set his half-empty plate on the low table. “What did you do?”

            “I had your half-brother Deirohn and your uncle poisoned and their bodies disposed of.”

            Kah’len rose. “What?”

            “What’s more, I had Deirohn’s wife and older children poisoned as well, and their bodies disposed of. The younger ones have been conscripted into the Church.”

            Kah’len’s stomach gave a sickening lurch and, for a second, he thought he would be sick on the sitting room floor. He swallowed convulsively for a few minutes until the sickness passed. He found he was drenched in sweat and his hands were fisted.

            “What have you done?” he demanded.

            Lahn drew himself to his full height and his face became a cold mask. “I did what the Goddess demanded. I can’t afford to be squeamish and neither can you. Your reign would never be safe from opponents as long as Deirohn lived.”

            Kah’len took a deep breath and released it. He covered his face with his icy hands and turned away from the young man who was becoming a monster before his very eyes. He walked to the balcony and leaned against the railing, gulping lungfuls of cold, bracing air. His mind was a nest of spiraling thoughts. He thought of Deirohn, of Uncle Kaelo, of Deirohn’s two older children, of Deirohn’s wife. While he, Kah’len, lay abed with Divita, having pleasant conversations, his reign was being marred by blood.

            “The altar will be bathed in blood,” Lahn intoned from behind him.

            Kah’len frowned. “Leave my sight, Prei-Serren.”

            “Warlord–”

            “Leave.”

            “Fine.”

            Kah’len heard the door to the hallway open and close. Kah’len turned back to the empty room. His eyes filled with tears at the thought of the two princes being murdered in cold blood by assassins. He felt sick inside. Sick in his heart and soul. Was this Atana? He took a deep breath. Yes, Atana the Destroyer, the Warrior, the Avenger. Yes. That was the Goddess most horrible aspect. And she seemed to be ruling right now.

            Kah’len closed his eyes. He shivered. “Holy, gentle Mother. Where are you?”

            He received no response, but then he had not expected one. The question now was could he forgive Lahn Obeli his crimes? For the sake of the throne and his future? Kah’len did not think he could forgive or forget this atrocity. His greed, his avarice, his ambitions had cost five people their lives. He covered his face with his hands and dropped into an armchair.

            “Oh, Mother, forgive me!”

            He sat back and gazed at the ceiling.

            The hallway door opened and Domio Obeli walked in. “Warlord.”

            “Domio,” Kah’len said. “Do you know what he’s done?”

            The priest sat down on the couch opposite Kah’len’s chair. “I did it, Warlord, at his command. The blood is on my hands. I protested strongly, told him it was a sin, but he was adamant the Goddess had directed him. I cannot gainsay the deity, for our own family would suffer. We have a curse hanging over our heads, Warlord. The Goddess holds Lahn hostage. If we don’t do Her bidding, our family will be cursed. These are difficult times, with difficult decisions that must be made. Are you willing to give up your ambitions to do what is just? Because justice is a dual-edged sword. What is just and good for this nation is not good and just for everyone inside her borders. Killing your half-brother and your uncle is good for the future of all, because it has averted a Civil War in the future.”

            “And the children and the wife?” Kah’len demanded, angry.

            Domio closed his eyes and sighed. “I disagreed with that act, Kah’len, but the children were old enough to hate you and so was the wife. They would always be a symbol of the past. The wife called you a usurper. The children looked to her for direction. The oldest was fifteen and full of himself and his importance. I’m not justifying their murders, Kah’len. Please know that. But they would always be a thorn at your side, a constant threat, an axe over your neck.”

            Kah’len wiped the sweat from his brow with an icy, shaking hand. “I don’t know if I can forgive Lahn, Domio.”

            “He’s a pawn in this, the same as you or I. The Goddess chose him, just like she chose you and me.”

            “You’re asking me to hate the Goddess?”

            “Do you hate Lahn?”

            “I don’t know,” Kah’len answered honestly.

            “Just don’t forget he has a role that is holy. The Goddess had a purpose for those who are now disappeared.”

            Kah’len shuddered. “What about my own children? Will She have them murdered one day? Will Lahn commit such an atrocity with a cold heart?”

            Domio opened his mouth and shut it with a click. He stared at Kah’len helplessly.

            Kah’len gave a mirthless laugh. “I see. She is unpredictable. I suppose I’d better stay on Her good side, if I am to protect my wife and children, my remaining brother and my mother and sister.”

            “That is all you can do. She has a purpose for you. We are all here by Her grace. Don’t forget She gave everyone their lives and our lives are Her possession, to do with as She will.”

            “Yes,” Kah’len spat, angry at the injustice of it all. He took a deep breath and released it. “Yes. We are pieces on a board game, aren’t we? Life is a board and we are pieces for the Gods’ pleasure.”

            Domio clasped his hands. “I don’t pretend to understand any of it, Warlord. I feel small now. Too small to matter in the scheme of things.”

            Kah’len nodded and sighed. He rose. “I’d best say goodbye to Divita. See that my things are taken to the ship, Domio.”

            When the priest rose, Kah’len gazed into his eyes. “Please take care of Divita and her family. Don’t allow them to be abused by the more outspoken aristocrats.”

            Domio straightened. “I won’t, Kah’len. I’ll let you know when she quickens and, hopefully, you can return by the birth of your firstborn.”

            They clasped forearms.

            “Thank you, Domio.”

            The priest bowed over their clasped hands. “An honor and privilege, my lord.”

            Kah’len went to his bedroom, where he found his wife bathed and dressed, her family sitting in the small sitting area across from the modest fireplace.

            The girl saw him and rose, curtsying. “My lord.”

            He went to her and gathered her into his arms. He felt the surge of protectiveness for her rise in him once more.

            “Divita, I must leave now. The border is in chaos and I must secure the kingdom. Please write to me. Let me know once you are with child.”

            She blushed. “Yes, my lord.”

            He kissed her tenderly then let her go, turning to her family. “I am leaving Serren Domio Obeli as your advisor and protector. You have any problems with aristocrats, you led him know. Understood?”

            Othalos Stait, the father, bowed. “Thank you, my lord.” The older man smiled. “I contacted your solicitor. We are going to see him in town this morning.”

            Kah’len returned his smile. “That is good, Mister Stait.”

            “Call me Othalos, young lord. Or father, if you like.”

            Kah’len found himself blushing. “I’ve never called anyone father before. The King always insisted on being called majesty.”

            Othalos waved a dismissive hand. “Such is the purview of kings. I am no king.”

            “But you demand respect,” Kah’len advised him. He looked at Enana Stait. “And how are your new accommodations, my lady?”

            Divita’s mother blushed. “They are so luxurious, my lord! But I would like to move to the villa until your return.”

            Kah’len considered her request. “That may be a good idea, actually. I’ll have Father Domio arrange it.”

            Enana stepped forward and pressed a kiss to Kah’len’s cheek. “Thank you for taking such good care of Divita, my lord.”

            “Call me Kah’len, please, my lady. Why don’t you all go into the sitting room and break your fast? I have to get going.”

            He turned and hugged his wife one last time. “I will return as soon as the border is secured and the King is taken care of.”

            She gazed up at him with adoration. “Yes, Husband. I will await your return.” h){this.ex

Chapter Forty-Three: The Maltika and the Tash-tash

            Kah’len gifted Lahn and his uncle a residence on the top floor of the castle, alongside his own family’s apartments. He commissioned a new wardrobe for the Oracle, including the robes and conical hats of the Prei-Serren. The vestments were gold and silver, made of velvet and satin and silk. Lahn looked at the vestments with little enthusiasm.

            “Am I to dress as a sapi bird, then? Preen about like it’s mating season?”

            Kah’len snorted. “You have to look the part, Lahn. It is a solemn office and you shall dress accordingly.”

            Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “Very well, Warlord. Know that the Goddess gave me a specific directive, to create an army for the Church in case the throne becomes corrupted in future.”

            “How will this army be paid?” Kah’len challenged.

            Lahn rolled his eyes. “There is more wealth locked in the cathedral’s coffers that will be needed.” He walked around Kah’len’s desk and out onto the balcony. He ran his eyes along the horizon. “I plan to clean house. The Church will be a way out of poverty for those worthy of joining her.”

            “You’ll have a fight on your hands,” Kah’len warned him. “The Church has always been a way for lesser born aristocrats to make their way.”

            Lahn waved a hand. “That won’t change. But the poorest of the poor can now be considered worthy of joining the Church as well.”

            Kah’len joined him on the balcony. “Did you see that in a dream?”

            “The Church will function as a meritocracy. I will choose my successor from the poorest children who have no parents, who roam the streets hungry and wild. The Church’s new goal is to care for the commoner’s wellbeing, not only the aristocracy’s. I will build an army and I will protect the city-state with my life.”

            “Thank you, Oracle.”

            Lahn sighed. “Call me Lahn when we are alone, please. I get sick of reverence.”

            Kah’len chuckled and caressed the side of Lahn’s neck with the back of his hand. “Such are the dangers of greatness, I’m afraid.”

            Lahn turned to look at him. They gazed into each other’s eyes and Kah’len got lost. Lahn’s gray eyes were speckled with blue and green and hazel. Such strange, wondrous eyes. He reached out again and cupped the young man’s face. Lahn closed his eyes. Kah’len bent and kissed him. The kiss was soft and polite, a mere rub of lips against lips, until Lahn opened up and Kah’len deepened the kiss. They tongues dueled, hot and wet. Kah’len gathered Lahn in his arms and held him close. He felt hard and strong and so right. He smelled of clean sweat and soap and a musk that was his own scent. It went to Kah’len’s head and he roamed his hands desperately over Lahn’s back to his buttocks. The muscular mounds filled his hands just right.

            Someone cleared his throat and Lahn pulled away, panting and looking dazed. Kah’len had never seen anyone more beautiful. Lahn’s pupils were blown and his face was flushed with his arousal.

            “The tailor is here with Lahn’s wardrobe,” Domio said dryly.

            Lahn turned and walked into the sitting room. “I hope some of the outfits are comfortable at least.”

            Kah’len stepped into the sitting room in time to see the tailor sweep in with several assistants. They carried three clothes chests and set them down near Kah’len’s desk.

            Amused, Kah’len sat behind his desk and sprawled out.

            The tailor opened the first clothes chest. “These are your ceremonial robes, your Excellency. The chest has the crouching maltika emblem to distinguish it from the others.”

            The man reached into the chest and withdrew the outer robes, which were gold and silver satin. The robes had a high collar that came up to Lahn’s jaw. The sleeves were belled and wide to allow for an inner tunic with long sleeves. The inner tunic was white silk with silver stitchings. Whereas the robe hem was long to the floor, the inner tunic only came down to the knees. The trousers were black velvet. The conical hat was gold satin with pearls around the brim and along the sides. A bright red crouching maltika was embossed on the panel over Lahn’s forehead. Black velvet ankle boots and a gold rope belt completed the ensemble.

            One of the tailor’s assistants brought in a body-lengthed mirror and placed it against the mantle of the fireplace.

            Lahn studied himself in the mirror.

            Kah’len rose from his desk chair. “You look every bit the Prei-Serren of the capital of North Torahn. Any objections?”

            “It’s so expensive,” Lahn murmured. “I feel like a hypocrite.”

            Kah’len placed his hands on Lahn’s shoulders. “You must look the part, Lahn. Your role is important and you are going to change Torahn for the better. Accept your importance, Lahn. You are chosen of the Goddess.”

            Lahn blushed and turned his eyes back to the mirror.

            “Your Excellency,” the tailor said. “I made two such formal robe ensembles. The gold one if for formal events for mid-year to end of year. The silver one is for formal events for the beginning of the year to mid-year. It is as is written in the Holy Soulkah.”

            Lahn gave a distracted nod and allowed the tailor’s assistants to remove his formal clothes and fold them carefully, setting them in the proper chest. “What about my every day wear?”

            The tailor turned to the second chest, which was blue wood. He pulled out knee-lengthed gold and silver tunics made of satin and silk with soft velvet brown trousers. “You wear the gold and silver as per the precepts of the Holy Soulkah, Excellency. The colors correspond to how you wear your ceremonial robes.”

            Lahn allowed the tailor’s assistants to dress him in his everyday wear. He grimaced at his reflection in the mirror.

            Kah’len smirked. “You look beautiful and formidable.”

            “Shut up,” Lahn huffed. He looked at the tailor. “What’s in the last chest?”

            “More comfortable everyday wear for when you are not in your official role,” the tailor replied. He went to the last chest and opened it. He pulled out short tunics and trousers of more modest cloth.

            Lahn looked relieved. “Thank the Goddess!”

            The tailor grinned. “Is his Excellency pleased?”

            “Yes,” Lahn replied.

            “You may take the chest to his Excellency’s residence,” Kah’len instructed. “The guards will show you where that is. Thank you for your fine work.”

            The tailor bowed. “Thank you for your patronage, my lord.”

            When the tailor and his assistants had withdrawn, Kah’len turned to Domio. “I shall marry Lahn tonight in the bailey. I want the marriage witnessed by the troops. You have received your wardrobe?”

            Domio bowed. “I have, my lord. I will marry you at dusk, a holy hour. Then I shall sacrifice a dosi in your honor.”

            Kah’len turned to Lahn. “Then in five days, you shall marry myself and Divita. We must head south within twelve days.”

            Lahn cocked his head. “How goes it at the border?”

            Kah’len shook his head. “I have gotten nothing but conflicting information. It is chaos down there. I won’t be at ease until I can see for myself what is going on.” He looked at Domio. “I will leave you here, priest, to care for my wife and her family. Send me word as soon as you hear she has quickened.”

            Domio bowed. “Of course, Warlord.”

            Kah’len looked at Lahn. “You and I will travel light, Lahn. Time is of the utmost importance. We will go by ship down the coast to the border.”

            “I shall be ready when the time comes,” Lahn assured him.

            At dusk, with the help from servants, Kah’len donned his ceremonial uniform and headed down to the bailey. He was trailed by six guards in full ceremonial uniforms. Domio, dressed in his priestly robes, led the way.

            The Great Hall was filled with courtiers, servants, and guards. The crowd parted before Domio. There was absolute silence as they made their way out into a clear night. The skies were velvety and filled with stars. Taitah was a scythe overhead. The air was cool with the promise of season’s end. Haltath was a mere two weeks away.

            The crowd in the bailey was thick. There was a circular space near the middle of the congregation and a wooden platform had been built there. Lahn stood on the platform, Kah’len’s three commanders behind him. The platform was surrounded by guards with steel-tipped spears. The crowd watched in utter silence as Domio led Kah’len up the five wooden steps to where Lahn stood. Kah’len reached out and took Lahn’s icy hand. The young man looked about ready to faint. He was pale and a fine tremor rushed up his slender body. Kah’len stepped close to him. Together they turned to face Domio.

            The priest raised his arms. “Behold! A new era begins! As decreed by the Goddess of this great land, I marry the scepter to the altar, that together they be stronger than apart, one to watch over the other, to maintain peace and prosperity throughout the land. Lahn Obeli, Prince of South Torahn, Prei-Serren of Draemin City, Oracle of Her most Holy Atana, I hereby marry you to Kah’len Tjashensi, Warlord of North Torahn, ruler of City Draemin. Together you will rule in balance, as decreed by the powers that be.”

            Domio took Lahn’s right hand and attached the sol’eka bracelet to Lahn’s wrist. The ring, attached to the bracelet by a small gold chain, went on the middle finger.

            “Kah’len Tjashensi, Warlord of North Torahn, Ruler of City Draemin, I hereby marry you to Lahn Obeli, Prince of South Torahn, Prei-Serren of Draemin City, Oracle of Her most Holy Atana. Together you will rule in balance, as decreed by the powers that be.”

            Domio then took Kah’len’s left hand and attached the sol’eka bracelet to Kah’len’s wrist, slipping the ring onto his middle finger.

            The serren then took their hands and placed Kah’len’s over Lahn’s. “I hereby join you in marriage. Together, until death parts you.”

            Kah’len stepped forward and kissed Lahn’s mouth, tasting the heat and wet honey of him. Around him, the crowd erupted in cheers and a number of catcalls.

            Kah’len ended the kiss, stepped back, Lahn’s hand still in his. Together they faced the crowd. The cheers rang throughout the bailey. Guards thumped their spears on the ground and the crowd chanted, “Warlord! Warlord! Warlord!”

            Kah’len raised his hand in acknowledgement of the crowd. Two guards led a dosi to the platform. Kah’len and Lahn stepped away from the animal. Domio stepped forward with a ceremonial dagger made of gold and embossed with precious jewels. He straddled the animal and deftly sliced its throat. The animal gave a gurgle before falling to its side. Domio cut along the belly and pulled out the entrails.

            Beside him, Lahn started to shake. Kah’len put his arms around him and lowered him gently to the platform floor. Lahn was pale, his eyes rolled to the back of his head.

            The crowd grew silent as the Oracle of the Goddess shook and trembled in the grips of a fit.

            “Speak, Most Holy Goddess,” Kah’len implored quietly.

            Lahn stopped shaking and opened his clear gray eyes. “All things in flux at rest. All things at rest in flux. Dust, blood, sweat, rain. Wash away the old so that the new may shine. Blood will atone and wash the altar. I come! I come!”

            Lahn’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and spittle rose to his lips. He shook violently and gasped for breath.

            Kah’len lifted him up and held him as the fit shook him like a small animal shaken by a tash-tash.

            Minutes passed before the fit stopped and Lahn fell unconscious.

            Kah’len rose and lifted his husband in his arms. He walked down the five steps to the bailey floor and from there into the castle. Behind him, the bailey was filled with murmurs and whispers. Kah’len walked quickly down the wide hallway to the tower stairs then up to the top floor of the castle. Once in his apartment, he gently lay Lahn on the nearest couch.

            He perched on the low table and took Lahn’s cold hand in both of his. He rubbed Lahn’s hand until it warmed a bit.

            His commanders entered the sitting room, followed by Domio.

            “How is he?” Maedoc asked quietly.

            “His fit is passed,” Kah’len replied, studying his husband’s face. Sleep rendered him innocent and so heartbreakingly beautiful. Kah’len brought Lahn’s hand to his lips and kissed it tenderly.

            “His fits and his visions take a lot out of him,” Domio stated with disapproval.

            “The Goddess will protect him,” Aud stated with surety.

            “Aye,” the other commanders murmured.

            Kah’len had his doubts, but he nodded, his eyes never leaving Lahn’s face.

            Maedoc shifted and took a step forward. “He will be well, Warlord. Be at ease.”

            Kah’len took a deep, shaking breath and released it. “I didn’t take the Goddess for a cruel deity.”

            “She is not,” Maedoc assured him. “Have faith, Tash-tash.”

            Daven stepped closer to the couch. “”You love the Oracle, Warlord, don’t you?“

            Kah’len took a breath. “With all my heart.”

            “Good,” his commander replied. “Good. Love will assure us a good future.”

            Once the others had gone, Kah’len remained by Lahn’s side until the young man began to stir. He blinked his eyes opened and looked around him, at first confused and disoriented, but once his gaze fell upon Kah’len, he seemed to come to himself.

            “What happened?” he asked in a small voice.

            “You had a vision. Do you remember?” Kah’len said.

            Lahn frowned and looked away. “I remember we were married and the dosi was sacrificed. But nothing after that.”

            “You had a fit and spoke words,” Kah’len said, repeating the words Lahn had uttered.

            Lahn rubbed his forehead with a shaky hand. “I wish I could predict Her ways, could decipher half of what I say.”

            “That may come with time,” Kah’len assured him, but Lahn did not look so sure.

            The young man sat up, removing the conical hat and setting on the couch beside him. “Now what?”

            “We are married now,” Kah’len reminded him. “And this is our wedding night, but I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do.”

            Lahn looked amused. “No, I didn’t expect you to force me. I know you are a gentleman underneath the gruff soldier.”

            Kah’len leaned forward and captured the other’s hands in his. “I am asking you to allow our marriage to be consummated.”

            Lahn sighed. “I–”

            “Lahn, the consummation of our marriage is what will tie the throne to the altar. Can’t you see?”

            “I see, Warlord. Give me time, please.”

            Kah’len sighed. “Fine, Lahn. You have your time.” He rose. “But you put everything in jeopardy while you refrain from our marriage bed.”

            Anger and a feeling of betrayal coursed through Kah’len as he rose and turned, sweeping from the sitting room into the hall. He wanted to get drunk and he wanted to get drunk now and damned be the Prei-Serren and his pride. id 0

Chapter Forty-Two: A Queen Found

            Lahn thought long and hard during those three days. He was angry, yes, and jealous. He felt manipulated and a fool, but even as the hours passed and he roamed the cathedral gardens alone, he could not shake the feeling that this is where he was meant to be. This is what he had been born to do.

            The rain had stopped last night and now the morning was fresh and clean. The grass underfoot was damp still and trees and bushes dripped water even as the sun rose in the east across a clear sky.

            The serrens of this cathedral did not know what to make of him. He had come here seeking refuge, a place to call home, but he had learned that home was where Kah’len was and nowhere else. They watched him, some with consternation, others with curiosity. Some treated him kindly, if a bit standoffishly. The cathedral itself was a sprawling, beautiful building, but it did not speak to piety or sacrifice. The priests in this cathedral were all well-fed and sleek with excess. Soon, he would change much and it would take a sword to cut away the fat and leave the lean meat behind.

            He rose from the damp stone bench and made his way through the lush gardens to the street. From there, he walked barefoot the several long miles to Castle Draemin. He purposely stepped in puddles and felt the cold water on the soles of his feet. It made him shiver.

            Around him, pedestrians hurried to and from the open air market. Rumors spoke of the R’Nonayans leaving in a huff, leaving behind several hundred men who were lost to the underground city. The R’Nonayans had gone when several hundred ships arrived from Ynha and surrounded them. Not a single battle had taken place. The people were overjoyed to open the city gates to traders and merchants and the Ynhans, who were the heroes of the day. The redheaded mercenaries now camped in Queen’s Park itself, no doubt destroying the lush gardens there. Oh well, it was none of Lahn’s concern. His concern was the Warlord’s spiritual wellbeing and that of his wife and his children. He swallowed the dizzying jealousy that rushed through his body and clouded his mind. With great effort, he pushed the emotion away. He had to wait to fall out of love with Kah’len. That’s the hope he clung to until it came true. Then he could search for his own lover. Someone that belonged only to him.

            Foolish monk! He closed his eyes as the sibilant voice echoed in his mind. Your purpose is greater than your petty emotions and limitations! Wake up!

            He opened his eyes. The world looked strange to his eyes and he shivered. She was with him, the Goddess. Always. His thoughts were an open book to Her. He was quickly losing his sense of shame.

            It took a couple of hours, but he finally made it to Queen’s Park. From the boulevard, the thousands of tents were starkly evident despite the dense treeline. The boulevard had been left clear for vehicles entering and leaving the caste proper. He walked on. Soldiers loitered near the road.

            One wolf whistled. “Ey! Little man, where do you go?”

            “Leave him be, Esthos!” growled another.

            Esthos shook the other soldier’s hand off his shoulder and stepped onto the boulevard. “What is your name, pretty one?”

            Lahn stopped when the soldier blocked his way. “Are you bored, soldier?”

            Esthos looked at his companion and laughed. “Yes, beautiful. I am truly and thoroughly bored.”

            “Surely there are whores at camp to keep you entertained until the time to move out,” Lahn continued reasonably.

            Esthos shook his head. “None as beautiful as you.”

            “Oracle!”

            Lahn looked up.

            Commander Aud Salit’, astride a bahil, cantered over. “The Warlord sent me to find you. Where is your escort?”

            Lahn shook his head. “I am in need of no escort, Commander.”

            Aud glared at Esthos. He reached his hand down. “Grab on, Oracle.”

            Lahn took his hand and was pulled up onto the bahil.

            Commander Salit’ turned the bahil around and cantered away.

            Lahn looked back over his shoulder and Esthos blew him a kiss.

            “You shouldn’t be conversing with the likes of him, Emissary,” Commander Salit’ said. “These men are rough trade.”

            “I know,” Lahn murmured. “He was not doing any harm.”

            “So you say,” Salit’ growled.

            Lahn looked again over his shoulder. Despite his rough manners, Esthos was young and handsome. Lahn thought of the army he had to create for the Church and thought that men like Esthos, who could potentially become devoted to him, were what he needed.

            Soon their mount was clopping over the drawbridge and into the bailey. The bailey was crowded with petitioners and soldiers. There were tents in neat rows to the south of the main castle entrance. The expansive bailey was full of them.

            Aud dismounted and assisted Lahn down. “I apologize for the chaos, Oracle, but we are preparing to head south to confront the King’s forces.”

            “Please, Commander Salit’, call me Lahn.”

            Aud dropped his gaze shyly. “I don’t feel comfortable calling you by your name, Holy One.”

            Lahn snorted. “I am far from Holy, Commander. It would please me if you call me Lahn while we are in private.”

            Aud gazed up again and nodded. “Very well, Lahn.”

            Lahn smiled at him. “Good. What does Kah’len want, do you suppose?”

            Aud turned and led him into the castle proper. “He did not say, Lahn. He is still weak from the alait poison, but he grows stronger every day.”

            “Good,” Lahn said, meaning it.

            Aud led him down the crowded Great Hall to the wide hallway leading to a curving stairwell in the northeastern tower of the castle. They took the rough stone stairs two at a time up to the top floor of the castle. Once there, they walked down another hall, this one more narrow and filled with paintings of  Kah’len’s predecessors. These were members of the powerful Ys’teis clan. They were a handsome lot, even if their faces looked on from their perches on the wall with severe expressions and cold stares. Lahn looked away.

            Aud led him to a wide arching door with four guards posted outside. The guards saluted them and one of them opened the door and stepped back to allow them entrance. Lahn followed Aud into Kah’len’s apartments. The ample sitting room was crowded with Commanders Maedoc and Daven, his uncle Domio, five strangers, and Kah’len. Lahn paused at the door, suddenly feeling shy. The five strangers were commoners, wearing worn, if clean, clothes. The older man and woman, who were probably the parents of the others, looked worn themselves, with haggard faces. Those faces were now filled with awe and disbelief. The other three included a young woman around Lahn’s age, another girl around twelve, and a young boy around six years of age. The older girl’s eyes were filled with tears. She was quite beautiful, although the tunic and skirt she wore were roughly darned and faded. Her face was clean and her hair was worn in a tight braid down her back. She had large hazel eyes, a lush mouth, and pale complexion. The younger girl and the boy looked with interest at Lahn, the boy sketching a brief wave and a grin. Lahn smiled back at him.

            Kah’len looked at Lahn. “Ah, Oracle. I would present you to my future Queen and her family. This is Davita Stait, her parents, Othalos and Enana, and her siblings, Salita and Tono. This is Prei-Serren Lahn Obeli, my Oracle.”

            At once, the older girl and her parents fell to their knees and bent their heads.

            The father glanced up at Lahn. “We are unworthy to meet you, Oracle. We are at your service.”

            The mother’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Holy One! Bless us!”

            Lahn walked to the older man and placed his hands on his shoulders. “I bless you, Othalos Stait. May your life be light and filled with joy.”

            He did the same for Enana Stait.

            Then he went to stand before the girl. She gazed up at him imploringly, her beautiful eyes filled with awe and fear.

            He placed his hands on her head. “Davita Stait, may you be a worthy vessel of our Holy Goddess Atana, and may you bear the future.”

            He closed his eyes as fire rushed down his arms and entered the girl. She gasped and cried out. She made to move away, but he held firmly onto her.

            When he spoke, his voice sounded different to his ears. “I bathe the womb with holy fire. I heal the scars that riddle it. I strengthen its weak walls. You are the mother of the future. From your loins shall emerge kings and oracles, holy men and greatness. Behold, the Queen of North Torahn!”

            His eyes rolled back into his head. He began to fall, but Kah’len was right there to catch him. He lifted him up and carried him to a couch, where he gently set him down. Kah’len wiped the sweat from his brow with a steady hand.

            “Are you alright?” Kah’len asked softly.

            Lahn nodded. “I’m well, Warlord. I just need to rest.”

            Kah’len smiled at him and pressed a kiss to his brow. He rose and turned to face the family. “Rise, please. I rule because of this young man and only because of this young man. That is why I will marry Davita and him as well. Do you accept this, Davita?”

            “Yes, my lord.”

            “You are both important to me and I need you to be friends,” Kah’len continued. “Now, please return to the castle by tonight. I have set aside a roomy apartment for your family. You shall live here from now on. Your family shall receive a yearly salary and a villa outside of the city. You can make the villa a working villa, growing fruit for wine and liqueurs, or keeping a herd of animals, or you can make it a vacation home. Your salary will be enough to pay the taxes on the property and to live a comfortable life. I promise you, if you make the villa a working villa, you can potentially become quite wealthy. The salary I give you rises you from the status of commoners, but you won’t be aristocrats unless you invest in some business. I have a villa that is a working villa and I own ships and employ merchants and traders. That is how I, as the son of a concubine and the second born son became an aristocrat.”

            Mister Stait bowed. “Thank you, my lord. I’d like to make it a working villa, but I don’t know how.”

            “I will give you the name of my solicitor. He can advise and guide you, Mister Stait.”

            The man grinned widely. “Thank you, sir.”

            Kah’len went to his desk and wrote a name and an address down. “Lised Sotal is a barrister, but he is also a solicitor. He owns a tavern and inn in the city. He will guide you in how to invest your salary to increment your wealth.”

            Enana Stait was sobbing and her husband wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Now, now, missus! Calm yourself.”

            Lahn sat up slowly.

            “How can we ever thank you, my lord?” the older Stait woman asked, her voice thick with tears.

            Kah’len walked up to her and took her hands in his. “This is a gift from the Goddess Herself. You devout yourself to Her, give a yearly gift to the Church, and go to mass. That is how you can repay me.”

            She curtsied. “Yes, my lord.”

            Kah’len stepped away from her. “Now, the wedding will take place in a fortnight. So, please order yourselves a new wardrobe for the occasion. I must leave the city in three weeks’ time. I will leave Serren Domio Obeli here as your guide and confessor. He will make sure you are taken care of.”

            Domio bowed. “An honor and privilege.”

            Lahn rose. He felt lightheaded and fey. Davita only had eyes for Kah’len. And why wouldn’t she? He was gorgeous and strapping, the very pinnacle of manhood. He was authoritative and filled with self-confidence. He swallowed thickly. The girl was already in love with Kah’len. He sighed and shook his head. Kah’len was polite and friendly to the girl, but there was no overwhelming lust or love in his eyes. Lahn wondered at that. As he watched, the little family was ushered out into the hallway by Domio.

            Kah’len turned to Lahn. “What do you think of her?”

            “She is beautiful, kind and respectful. She had some damage in her womb, which I healed.”

            Kah’len grimaced. “She had a childhood illness, or so her parents told me. A virus attacked her organs and she nearly died.”

            “She wouldn’t have been able to bear young without my healing,” Lahn said, recalling the amount of scarring.

            “Thank you, Lahn.”

            Lahn shook his head. “It was Atana.”

            “Do you think you could be friends with her, Lahn? Like a brother, perhaps?”

            Lahn smoothed his face. “Like a brother.”

            “Yes. She must lie only with me. She is the foundation of a dynasty.”

            Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “You think I have designs on her?”

            “I just want to be clear.”

            Lahn drew himself up. “I won’t poach your property, Warlord. And even though I will marry you to fulfill the Goddess’ prophecy, I will not lie with you in a marriage bed.”

            Kah’len frowned. “You can’t turn me away from what will be my right as your husband!”

            “You are selfish and self-centered,” Lahn proclaimed coldly. “You can found your dynasty and you can marry the scepter to the altar, but you won’t get your way with me!”

            Kah’len sighed and shook his head. “Why must this be so difficult? Why are you so stubborn?”

            Lahn narrowed his eyes. “I hate you right now, Kah’len Ys’teis. I can’t abide the thought of you touching me. Perhaps that will change in future, but I make no promises.”

            Kah’len rubbed his forehead with a hand. “Goddess preserve me! Fine. I’ll take your measly offering. You are selfish, too, and miserly.”

            Lahn gave him a cold smile. “I have my dignity and my pride, Warlord, which you conveniently forgetin order to have your way.”

            Kah’len turned away and walked to his desk, where he dropped heavily onto the chair. He looked pale and tired.

            Lahn softened when he saw Kah’len was still weak from his poisoning. He hurried to Kah’len’s side.

            “Are you well?”

            Kah’len closed his eyes. “Well enough, Oracle.”

            “You still fell weak?”

            “Yes.”

            Lahn placed a hand on the Warlord’s head and closed his eyes. His senses roamed over Kah’len’s body, seeing where some of the poison still lingered, creating havoc in cells.

            He opened his eyes. “Lay on the couch for a moment, please.”

            Kah’len did as he asked.

            Lahn knelt beside the couch and placed his hands on Kah’len’s stomach and chest. He closed his eyes. At once, a fire rushed from his core, down his arms and through his hands. He heard Kah’len grunt. Lahn shook as he burned. He tasted blood at the back of his throat and smelled the cloying scent of flowers. Lahn murmured prayers as his senses swept through Kah’len’s body, burning out the poison and forcing it through Kah’len’s pores. He could smell sweat and blood. Beneath his burning hands, Kah’len shook. Lahn healed the damage done by the poison. Part of the liver was close to dying. He focused his attention on the organ, gently burning away the poison, picking out and removing dead cells. The heart had some damage as well, as did the intestines. The blood was filled with poison that the body was trying hard to excrete through overtaxed kidneys. Lahn worked hard to move the poison to the surface of the body, where it was flushed with liquid and excreted as sweat. He heard Kah’len cry out but Lahn persisted.

            By the time, he opened his eyes, the room was filled with soldiers, servants and healers. Domio hovered nearby, concerned and uncertain.

            Lahn took in a shaky breath and released it. “He is healed. I’ve removed all the poison which still lingered.”

            The crowd cheered.

            Lahn looked at Kah’len, who slept deeply.

            “He has to rest,” Lahn told his uncle. “Please wash his body and change his clothes. They are contaminated with poison.”

            Lahn rose onto shaky legs. “Everyone must leave at once and allow my uncle to clean the Warlord.”

            Maedoc stepped forward. “I’ll help the serren, Oracle.”

            Lahn nodded. “That’s fine, Commander.”

            Domio talked to servants, who scurried away to do his bidding.

            Lahn sat down on a nearby armchair and looked at his hands. They were filled with blisters and the skin was bright red, as if burned. He closed his eyes and let his head drop back onto the headrest. He fell asleep sitting up. 2 A

Chapter Forty-One: The Return of the Tash-tash

            Kah’len carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. The room spun for a few seconds. The healers had bathed him and changed his sleeping tunic and the bedclothes. The room still reeked of alait rose poisoning.

            He said, “Bhne.”

            His voice was mournful. He missed Bhne. They had been friends from childhood. Brothers, really, since Kah’len was not close to any of his siblings, except Kahla.

            He frowned as sorrow threatened to undo him. Pushing the emotion down, he stood and almost fell before he reached out to the armchair near the bed.

            “Kah’len! What are you doing up?”

            “Domio,” Kah’len said, grateful it was the priest and not one of his commanders. “I have work to do.”

            “You need to recover,” the priest replied peevishly and gave him a fierce frown.

            “I’ve been resting for one week, priest,” he growled. “And, before that, two weeks. I have work to do.”

            “Lahn has paid your men from the royal coffers, so there is no fear of rebellion.”

            “Where is Lahn?”

            “At Draemin Cathedral.”

            Kah’len sighed. “I shouldn’t have set him free.”

            “He has his work to do as well, Warlord.”

            “Yes, I know.” He took a seat on the armchair. “Have you found my Queen?”

            “There are a hundred and twenty young women waiting to be looked over. More come every day. Some are dirt poor, Kah’len.”

            Kah’len closed his eyes and sighed as he leaned back into the chair. “That is fine. I will know her when I see her.”

            “I’ve turned away every aristocratic woman who has come calling. I believe I put out a call for commoners, but the aristocrats come anyway.”

            Kah’len chuckled and nodded. “I’m sure they do.”

            He felt Domio’s hand on his forehead. “You are free of fever.”

            “It is a weakness I have now, from being abed for so long, I imagine. Let me rest a moment and then I will bathe again.”

            “Let me help you.”

            “I would appreciate that.”

            By the time Kah’len was bathed and dressed in his uniform and boots, he was shaking from exhaustion. Domio led him back to the armchair, where Kah’len fell heavily and shook his head.

            “I can’t abide this weakness.”

            “Let’s get you fed. That might help you,” Domio suggested.

            Kah’len fell asleep sitting up. The next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake.

            “I have a stew here, Kah’len,” Domio murmured. “And some fresh bread.”

            Kah’len sat up and opened his eyes.

            Domio placed the tray on Kah’len’s lap.

            Kah’len tucked into the meal with little hunger or enthusiasm. The serren watched him like a hawk until Kah’len ate most of the food in the bowl and part of the bread.

            “Good,” Domio said. “How do you feel?”

            “More like myself. Can you get me some sweet milky tea?”

            The serren picked up the tray. “Go out into the sitting room. I’ll bring the tea to you there.”

            While Domio was gone, Kah’len walked slowly out of the room and down the hall to the sitting room. Through the open balcony door, he saw it was raining outside. He sat down on the couch facing the balcony door. The alait rose tree beyond the balcony bobbed and swayed in the strong wind. He sighed as the cool wind caressed his face and neck.

            When Domio returned with the mjish tea, the priest set the tray with a teapot and two mugs on the low table and sat down on the armchair facing Kah’len.

            After Domio poured tea into the two mugs, Kah’len picked up his mug and sipped the sweet, smoky tea.

            “It is my opinion that you should work from here for a couple of days,” the priest stated. “Once you are stronger, you can go to the Throne Room and hold an audience to find your Queen.”

            Kah’len sighed and gazed out past the swaying curtains to the portico. Puddles of rain on the rough stone floor of the balcony caught the raindrops, the sound soothing to Kah’len’s ears. His back, where he had been stabbed, pulled and ached still. It had taken fifteen stitches, he had been told with some awe by one of the healers, to seal the stab wound. Now he would have a glaring jagged scar to call his own. He shook his head and finished the tea, setting the mug on the tray with a thud.

            “Have my desk moved to there, before the balcony doors. I’ll have more natural light.”

            Domio nodded and rose. “Right away, Warlord.”

            Kah’len closed his eyes and dozed while around him servants scurried to do his bidding. He awoke a couple of hours later, feeling refreshed, although a lingering weakness in his limbs impeded his return to normalcy. He rose and went to his desk, sitting down and pulling out a piece of paper. He addressed a letter to the Commander of the troops from R’Nonay demanding that the man remove his troops at once or he would consider it an act of war. He gave the missive to a guard and had him carry it to a messenger. He then wrote a second letter addressed to the King of South Torahn, letting the monarch know that he would be joining the fray against his father. With his father surrounded, he could not hope to win. He ordered one of the guards in the hall to bring him a cage filled with carrier vinah from South Torahn. He would send three animals with the exact same missive. At least one should make it as far as South Torahn without incident.

            Three guards manhandled a large cage filled with squawking animals into the sitting room, setting it near the roaring fireplace. He would have to send the missive when the rain cleared up. Vinah did not usually fly in the rain.

            “Soldier, bring Commanders Maedoc Kalish, Aud Salit’, and Daven Halso to me here,” he ordered one of the guards.

            The guard, a Mekhi mercenary, brought his fist to his chest. “Right away, Warlord!”

            He did not have to wait long. Within a quarter of an hour, all three large, burly men crowded into the sitting room. They wore rainproof cloaks that dripped onto his throw rugs and clean floors. At least they were not dragging in mud, he thought and hid a smirk.

            The three men brought their fists to their chests and bowed.

            “Take your cloaks off and sit down,” Kah’len said and took a seat on a couch facing away from the balcony.

            Servants took the men’s cloaks. Daven sat down next to Kah’len while the other two took up armchairs across from him.

            “It was touch and go with you,” Maedoc murmured quietly. “How do you know you were poisoned?”

            “I could smell the alait rose poison on the blade,” Kah’len replied grimly.

            Maedoc nodded and shuddered slightly. “I see. Well, you saved your own life.”

            “I was spared by the Goddess Herself,” Kah’len intoned and swallowed thickly. “She has a purpose for me.”

            “What is that purpose?” Daven asked.

            “I am going to the border to confront my father. I want him dead,” Kah’len stated. “He has destroyed everything. I will take Daven’s and Aud’s contingencies and leave you, Maedoc, in charge of my Queen and city.”

            Maedoc raised an eyebrow. “You have a Queen?”

            “I am searching for her even as we speak,” Kah’len replied.

            “Your Oracle told you to look?” Aud asked with some awe.

            “The Goddess came to me while I struggled to live and showed me what she looks like. Even in my dream, I loved her.”

            “Rumor is that you are atoliy,” Maedoc said.

            “I don’t claim to know the ways of the Gods, gentlemen. I have never wanted a woman, but I want this one.”

            The three commanders looked at one another.

            “She must be something,” Daven murmured, intrigued.

            “These are strange days,” Maedoc proclaimed and shook his head.

            “Atana wants me to found a dynasty,” Kah’len explained. “I cannot do that without a woman.”

            “No, that is true,” the burly commander agreed and scratched his thick growth of beard. His swarthy complexion gleamed from dampness and his dark eyes gleamed with interest. “Wait until I tell my wives.”

            Aud shifted in his armchair. “I am hiring a troubadour to make songs of these times we live in. For the first time in my life, I fee a part of something bigger than life. Like I am a part of history somehow.”

            Kah’len grinned. “Shouldn’t I hire the troubadour?”

            Aud snorted. “You’ll pay him, Warlord. Of that have no doubt, but I am an amateur musician myself. I have friends that are brilliant but under-employed, if you ken me.”

            Daven clapped his hands. “That is a great idea, Aud! These times should be recorded in song and poems.”

            Kah’len sighed. “Don’t get carried away.”

            “When do you leave, Kah’len?” Maedoc asked. “And why must I remain behind while you have all the fun?”

            “We must protect the city until I return,” Kah’len patiently explained. “I leave everything that I hold precious and dear.”

            “And you leave them with me,” Maedoc murmured. He brought his fist to his chest and bent his head. “I am honored, Warlord.”

            “If you remain loyal to me, I shall reward you with riches and fame,” Kah’len promised. “Gods walk the earth again, gentlemen, and we are here to witness it.”

            The other three grew sober and glanced at one another with some unease.

            “When do we leave?” Daven prodded.

            Kah’len grinned. “Within the month. Once the R’Nonayans withdraw and I marry, then we can leave. I will send away for Ynhan mercenaries to boost our numbers. There are many things I want to accomplish, much work to be done.”

            “Will you unite Northern Torahn once more?” Aud wanted to know.

            Kah’len considered his words before answering. “There are many ways to unite the kingdom without war. I may not be able to unite the kingdom in my lifetime, but it will be done by my descendants.”

            The other men looked at him with respect and awe. They brought their fists to their chests and bent their heads.

            That evening, Kah’len sent a messenger to Lahn Obeli. He needed to perform the ceremony to make the monk into the High Priest, for only the High Priest could oversee his marriage. Lahn came to his apartment half an hour later, wearing a rainproof cloak and no shoes on his feet. Beneath the dark cloak he wore a simple tunic and trousers. His waist-lengthed hair was gathered into a thick, tight braid. His gray eyes were chips of ice in his face. He was so beautiful, just looking at him caused Kah’len hunger and sorrow at once.

            “I need to speak to you, Lahn,” Kah’len said, tearing his eyes away from the youth’s beauty. “Please sit down.”

            Lahn handed a servant his wet cloak and walked around the furniture and dropped onto the armchair Maedoc had occupied just a few hours prior.

            “How may I be of assistance, Warlord?” he asked, the tone of his voice cool and distant.

            Kah’len grimaced. “I thought we were becoming friends, Lahn.”

            “Were we?” he asked archly.

            “Yes, damn it! I need you, Lahn.”

            “Because I am the Oracle.”

            “Because I love you. I need your friendship and your love.”

            “That is what your Queen will be for,” Lahn reminded him coldly.

            “Stop. She will be the vessel for my children. She will be a friend, yes, but I loved you first.”

            Lahn sighed and rubbed his forehead. “You are confusing me, Warlord. You told me the Goddess will fill you with lust and love for this girl.”

            “That does not change how I feel for you. I burn for you!”

            Lahn stiffened and looked away. “Why did you call for me?”

            “I want you to move back to the castle. I want you here, in my vast apartments.”

            “And Uncle Domio?”

            “There is room for you and your uncle.”

            Lahn looked unhappy. “Once you have children, they will take up all the space.”

            “Lahn, why are you making this so difficult? There is a Royal Nursery, is there not? You are the Oracle and I will make you the Prei-Serren.”

            “Because you need me,” Lahn sneered.

            “Because I want you!” Kah’len roared.

            Lahn startled. He looked away as Kah’len struggled to control his ire.

            “Have you found her?” the Prince asked quietly.

            Kah’len sighed. “Not yet, but I will. The Goddess told me I will found a new dynasty with her. She will remain here and I shall take you with me to the frontier. Does that please you?”

            “Yes,” Lahn spat. “If I could only be sure that you truly love me!”

            “I can’t prove it to you, monk. You’ll have to trust me and the Goddess.  Domio will marry us, Lahn, and then you will marry me to the girl,” Kah’len said firmly.

            “You ask much of me, Warlord,” Lahn said reproachfully.

            “This is bigger than you or I, Lahn. You know this. I give you a choice now: remain with me as my husband, as the Prei-Serren, as the Oracle or leave. I won’t hold you back and I won’t force you. I can’t. It breaks my heart, but I can’t make you stay, Lahn.”

            Lahn rose. “Let me think on it, please.”

            After a moment, Kah’len nodded. “I’ll give you three days, monk. No more. If you can’t decide by then, then that is a choice as well. You can leave then, even if your mind is not made up. If you are going to be with me, be with me. The times are too treacherous to be vacillating like you do. You have been given a great role. You are the Goddess’ voice, her representative, her vessel. Would you turn your back on Her and return to anonymity? Would you never find a cure for Leptka’s Disease? For medicinals that will help the poorest?”

            Lahn fisted his hands. “You are playing dirty, Warlord.”

            Kah’len rose and shrugged. “I fight with every weapon at my disposal, for losing would cost me my very soul, Prince Obeli, even if you don’t realize it. If you leave, I would be half a man now and always.”

            Lahn turned and hurried from the room. 5

Chapter Forty: The Resentful Prince

            Lahn was not able to reach his apartments before there were five soldiers surrounding him.

            He scowled. “What is this?”

            The one who seemed to be in charge bowed, fist to chest. “Apologies, Oracle. You are to be confined to your apartments until such a time as the Warlord is well enough to see you.”

            Lahn gaped. “He wouldn’t dare!”

            “I’m sorry, Oracle,” the soldier said again. “Please…proceed to your apartments. There will be someone posted at each exit, including the servant’s hallway. If we can’t secure you, you will be incarcerated in the donjon.”

            Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “Then take me to the donjon. If I am a prisoner, then take me there.”

            The guard frowned. “Those were not my orders.”

            “Do you want me to curse you?” Lahn asked with deceptive mildness.

            The man blanched. “Fine. I will let the Warlord know of your request. Come, then.”

            They proceeded down the hallway to the stairs. The stone stairs curved gracefully until they stopped on the main floor. From there, he was escorted down the wide main hall past the Throne Room to a nondescript archway with two guards. The archway had no door. They went through the door and straight down a dim stairwell into an even dimmer space with a low ceiling. The rank odor of must and mold clung to the damp air. The floor was earthen and the walls were stone but slimy with dampness and a strange green growth.

            “New prisoner,” one of the soldiers told the donjon master.

            The man was tall and wide, with a craggy face and a bald pate. “He looks like he is an aristocrat.”

            “He is,” the soldier replied.

            The man’s scowl became even more fierce. “Fine. I’ll put him with the others.”

            The donjon master led, carrying a torch, down a narrow walkway, iron doors on either side. The iron doors had grates but Lahn saw no one peering through them. Finally, the donjon master stopped at a door and unlocked it, pushing it open.

            “This one was prepared for Lord Tehna, but I hear he escaped,” the donjon master said.

            “It appears so,” the soldier replied noncommittally.

            The donjon master grunted and turned to Lahn. “Inside, yer lordship.”

            Lahn entered into absolute darkness. He paused, unsure.

            “I’ll put an oil lamp inside the room, don’t fret,” the donjon master growled, amused.

            Lahn stepped to one side and watched as the mountain of man strode into the cell with an oil lamp and set it on a desk against the far wall.

            When the soldiers and the donjon master left, closing the door behind them, Lahn looked at the cell. Aside from the desk, the small space had a cot with blankets, and a waste bucket. He had had little more while at the monastery. He sighed and walked to the cot to take a seat.

            “I should have kept my mouth shut and escaped,” he muttered, disgusted with himself.

            Everything smelled of old earth and mold. Dampness clung to the very air. Strange pale roots pushed up through the ground. The silence was unnerving.

            The cot beneath him was sturdy enough, made of wood and wide enough for one person. The pillow looked lumpy. Probably filled with straw.

            He frowned and gazed at the low ceiling, where oily shadows skittered and swayed. “What is your plan, Goddess? I feel used. We never spoke of you giving Kah’len a Queen he would love and lust after. That was not our deal.” His eyes filled with tears. “That was not our deal.”

            He looked at his hands on his lap and sighed. No. He had been used and manipulated by a celestial master. What could he possibly offer Kah’len? His Queen would help him found a dynasty, but Lahn was only Lahn. He could not give Kah’len children. He could not rule at his side. He could only ever be a high priest. His eyes overflowed with tears and he sobbed disconsolately. He thought of his family and a deep ache filled his heart and chest. For the first time in his life, he missed his father, his mother, his siblings. A prayer for their safety formed on his lips and he whispered it into the dank, cool air.

            Lying down on his back, he looked at the ceiling crowded with shadows. He thought of what he could give Kah’len that his Queen could not. He was the Oracle. Through him spoke Atana, the Goddess of this accursed land. He had been chosen, but then so had she. He shook his head and tears slid down his temple to soak into the pillow. He needed to speak to his uncle, to ask his advice. A yawn overtook him and he closed his eyes.

            You throw away home and hearth.

            You seek isolation and dearth.

            You will have nothing but emptiness,

            Regret, a cold resentment that will

            Leave you destitute

            Nothing from your loins, no fruit

            No future. Darkness and sorrow

            And tomorrow

            Like a clarion will slice you life

            Until you are nothing and no one

            Until your years are done.

            Maltika.

            Lahn opened his eyes. Overheard, a strange night sky full of unknown stars. He sat up and looked around him. The air was cold and he was naked.

            Where is your faith, priest?

            He frowned and gazed around him. In the stillness, the voice was a breeze.

            I have no faith, he replied angrily. You have used me.

            You are a tool. The future is bigger than any one man or woman, priest. You will see this, in time.

            I don’t want to be the Oracle.

            You were chosen. Your will, your desire, your petty emotions mean nothing. When I am done with you, you will be done with me. Not before. You forget yourself, mortal.

            When She withdrew from his heart, a terrible loneliness and sorrow, an unending emptiness gaped inside of him. It left him desolated, destroyed.

            He screamed into that strange sky.

            The breeze danced along his hair and his skin.

            “I am here, Maltika.”

            “Don’t leave me.”

            “I will not leave you.”

            A small red animal padded along the horizon towards him. It was around the size of a dosi, but it was furry, with a bushy tail and big sharp ears. As it neared, it sniffed the air.

            “This is a maltika, Oracle. This is your spirit animal, your emblem, your strength. When you build the Church for my children, you will create the emblem of the maltika, cousin of the Tash-Tash. Separate but similar. The Church and the Throne must rule jointly. Never alone. Into your hands I give my children’s welfare and safety. Create an army of soldiers just for the Church. Keep it safe from the Throne. The Tash-Tash is a fair man, but his children may not always be. This is your task: Make a Church that is strong, there to safeguard the common people. If the Throne ever becomes corrupt, you must uproot it.”

            I understand.

            He knelt before the Maltika. The animal sniffed his neck and face, licking his cheeks. He giggled and hugged the little red animal. It smelled wild, dusty, and musky.

            Go, priest. From your mind and heart, you found a Church. Your church will be a meritocracy. Your successor must be the best, most able person to lead. Find your heir while young and feed him the milk of my teachings. You will know when a youngling is pure of heart and sharp of mind. Take him from the common stock of mankind. He must be poor and scraping by. He must be grateful and loyal to Me, but also to you. Do you understand, Maltika?

            Yes.

            Your pup must always owe you.

            I understand.

            Good. Then know you have a purpose. Your purpose is greater than what your heart needs.

            Yes.

            Lahn blinked his eyes open. The stillness around him was disconcerting. He heard voices through the grating in the door. He sat up and rose to his feet as the cell door was opened and his uncle strode through.

            “Have you lost your senses, young man?” Domio demanded.

            “No. The Goddess has spoken to me once more. I have work to do.”

            “I’m happy to hear that, but Kah’len is fighting for his life. He is unconscious, Lahn. The empathic healers are trying to save him, but Bhne Tehna used Alait Rose poisoning. Do you understand?”

            “Take me to him,” Lahn said.

            “You are no healer.”

            “I will pray,” Lahn told him. “As will you. Take me to him.”

            “You are to be confined,” a soldier said from the doorway.

            Lahn gave him a withering glare. “I can be guarded. I must lay hands on him so the Goddess may save him. Do you want him to die?”

            The soldier looked unsure.

            “Make up your mind!” Lahn spat. “But every moment the Oracle does not lay hands on the Warlord, he may die. All things are in flux. We are at a crossroads. All futures are possible.”

            His eyes rolled back and he began to shake.

            “Lahn!”

            “I must secure the throne, uncle!”

            Lahn opened his eyes.

            Domio spoke to the guard. “Make sure all exits to the Warlord’s apartments are guarded, but my nephew must come and try to save him.”

            The soldier made his mind up and nodded. “Come. Quickly.”

            They hurried away from the cell and through the donjon to the stairs. Then up the stairs to the main floor.

            By the time they made it to the fifth floor, where Kah’len’s apartments were located, Lahn had begun praying. A fire burned in him. Sweat poured from his pores, trickling down his temples and back.

            He entered Kah’len’s apartments and then ran to his bedroom.

            Two healers stood near the foot of the bed. They watched as Lahn, Domio and five guards entered the room.

            “What is this?” one of the healers demanded.

            “I must pray over him,” Lahn said and hurried to the bed.

            He sat down on the edge of the mattress and took Kah’len’s pale, icy hand in both of his. Kah’len’ lips were blue and his skin was translucent. Veins and arteries stood stark against the pallidity of his flesh. He lay very still.

            Lahn placed a hand over the Warlord’s heart. He closed his eyes.

            At once, it was like a door opened inside of him. It was blown open by a strong, hot wind. Fire boiled in his gut and licked up his insides. It was exquisitely painful and he smelled and tasted blood in his mouth.

            He opened his mouth and began to pray.

            The words he spoke were strange and ancient. He somehow knew he spoke a forgotten language, a holy language from the beginning of time. From a time before even hu’ans lived on this world. His eyes rolled back and he trembled from the strength of the heat inside of him. Sweat poured from his body until his tunic was plastered to his skin. He sobbed as he prayed.

            “Ithal! Thal! Nashta k’kan! Kaitah multho kon!”

            The Goddess was nearby. He could feel her, sense her. She was like a fire in the room.

            She filled the room with heat. The bed shook and Lahn clung to Kah’len’s hand. A strange wind moaned.

            “Ithal! Thal! Nashta k’kan! Kaitah multho kon!”

            Behind his eyes, Lahn saw the gods and goddesses of this world. So many deities filled his mind. Beyond them, there were other universes and a Will greater than all of these. Something so vast and ancient, Lahn could not conceive. He pulled away from that Conscience, for only madness waited him there. He knew that as a mortal, he was not allowed to See or Touch that entity that existed beyond what was Holy. Many lives and tasks lay before him, but it would be an eternity before he would Know that Conscience.

            Fire filled his hands. He smelled the stench of burning. The pain was excruciating. It was like holding his hand to a flame. The flame licked along his flesh and charred him. He bit his lip to keep from screaming and tasted blood.

            Finally, when he thought he would go mad from the pain, the fire left him.

            He opened his eyes.

            Kah’len lay with his eyes open, panting. Color had returned to his skin, although his eyes looked dazed. He was drenched in sweat. A smell of flower petals clung to the air.

            Lahn let go of his hand and stood up on shaky legs. “Bathe him and change his clothes. The poison has been sweated out of his body.”

            He turned and was swallowed by darkness.

Chapter Thirty-Nine: The First Sacrifice

            Kah’len waited until night fell before leading his soldiers through the shadows along the walls to the back of the castle. The walls were thinly patrolled and the moonless night assisted them as they made their way along the castle wall. The castle walls came close to flush against tall, wide bushes along the back. They had to squeeze through one at a time, which took even more time. When they came to the gap in the wall that Lahn had foreseen, they crawled inside one at a time. Kah’len went first. The stables were a large rectangular building that afforded them some safety. Kah’len proceeded to the edge of the building as more and more soldiers poured through the hole in the wall. He led them through the bailey and around the castle.

            The warning cry suddenly went out from the castle walls. By then Kah’len was running, sword unsheathed. If they ran, they would not present an easy target for the archers on the wall. Guards poured from the castle and soon Kah’len found himself embroiled in a melee. He fought ferociously, hacking and slicing his way without pity or mercy. As the bodies littered behind him, he made his way to the entrance of the castle. They fought hard as Kah’len’s mercenary forces surrounded the castle and scaled the castle walls to get at the archers. Kah’len’s archers took out many castle guards posted on the walls.

            Kah’len ran into the Great Hall, Aud and Daven behind him. He had left Maedoc in charge of the forces on the other side of the walls. Behind them, someone opened the castle walls and the bailey was flooded with Kah’len’s mercenaries. The men cheered. Inside the Great Hall, the castle guards surrendered. A sleepy Bhne Tehna was strong armed into the hall. He looked rumpled, exhausted and pale. Two mercenaries pushed him towards Kah’len.

            Kah’len sheathed his sword. “Bhne.”

            The look Bhne threw him was resentful and guarded. “Warlord. You returned.”

            “I did,” Kah’len agreed. “Where is my father?”

            Bhne shrugged. “At the border, I imagine. He bit more than he could chew in that respect. The Isemi are giving him a run for his money.”

            “I heard you killed my half-brother and uncle.”

            “They are in the donjon, along with your younger brother Rakah. The King poisoned the Queen before leaving for the front. He made sure she was dead before he headed out.”

            Kah’len frowned. “I see.”

            Bhne cocked his head. “Do you? Your father is mad. He left me here to take care of a city he does not expect to return to, with a promise that I would kill the rest of his family, but I had no stomach for that. He does not trust me, so he left me here as a way to get me out of the way. He does well not to trust me. And neither should you. It’s every man for himself.”

            “And the civil war?” Kah’len asked.

            “Each city-state is ruled by a clan, just like at the dawn of our nation’s foundation. You’ll have to reconquer the land, if you wish to be king.” Bhne shrugged. “I’m leaving, if you’ll let me, to manage Manaji city for my family. Your father’s single-minded greed has undone North Torahn.”

            Kah’len thought of the long struggle ahead of him. He looked at Aud and Daven.

            “We’ll follow you, Warlord,” Daven assured him. “We came for fortune and adventure, after all.”

            “Kah’len,” Bhne said.

            Kah’len looked at him and he had his arms open. “Can we embrace before I depart? We were best friends once.”

            Kah’len smiled and stepped up to him. They embraced.

            “I’m sorry,” Bhne whispered. “This is my price for Manaji.”

            He plunged a knife into Kah’len’s back.

            Kah’len cried out and fell onto his knee.

            Bhne ran down the hall with several soldiers at his heels.

            The pain was blinding for several seconds before it became a dull roar. Heat spread down his back to his chest. Kah’len heard voices around him. He lifted his head and saw Aud kneeling before him. His mouth was moving, but Kah’len made no sense of his words. A new, hot pain rushed along his back and his breathing became labored.

            “Find me an empathic healer,” Kah’len muttered as darkness clouded the edges of his sight. “The knife may be poisoned.”

            He fell forward into darkness.

            There was pain such as he had never known. A sharp ache of so many layers, it seemed to fill him to his very soul. All along his skin, whispers skittered like rodents or insects or a strange breeze. The smell of blood filled his nose and he found it hard to catch his breath. His heart clamored in his chest. When he opened his eyes, he found himself in an expansive grass field, a bright blue sunless sky overhead. It took all his energy to rise to his feet and look around the empty land. There was nothing to the horizon, not a tree, a boulder, or a bush.

            Tash-Tash.

            Kah’len turned. A woman stood there, dressed in a gold glittering dress that fell to the ground. She had a plunging decolletage and full breasts. Her black hair fell as a curtain down her back and her face was fair as morning and kind. Her gray eyes were full of intelligence and wisdom and were older than her years. For the first time in his life, Kah’len felt lust for a woman. As she approached him, he watched her avidly. When she took him in her arms, he took her lips in a searing kiss. He ran his hands along her bare back. Her skin was as soft of flower petals and her scent was like the sea, bracing and alluring at once. He forgot his aches and pains as he pulled her to him.

            “Who are you?” he asked when their lips parted.

            She looked at him with amused eyes. “You know me, Tash-Tash.”

            He pressed a kiss to her breasts and she gasped. In his trousers, he was as hard as he had ever been.

            “You must pay in full, but I will bless your loins. From your loins will spring a new clan. You will take the name Tjashensi and take a bride from common stock, so that you unite all castes in one. She must be beautiful, intelligent and pure. You will have four children with her and I will fill your heart with love for her and your loins with lust for her. You will not disavow or neglect her, Tash-Tash, or you will be lost.”

            Kah’len nodded and looked at her again. She now stood in full armor, her features stern and changed. She was beautiful and haughty and his lust cooled.

            “Drink from the cup of holy wine,” she said and held out a goblet towards him.

            He took the cup and brought it to his mouth. The wine in the cup was dark and thick, like blood. He emptied the contents and the taste filled his mouth. It was spicy, sweet and cloying. Soon a heat filled his legs and rushed up his body to his groin. There, the heat flared until he screamed. It was as if his kaoun were on fire and his bollocks were being pulverized. He screamed and fell down, writhing in agony as she stood over him and watched him with dispassionate eyes.

            “You wanted greatness, Tash-Tash. You shall have it. A dynasty begins today. Do not displease me again or you will be left destitute and your suffering will follow you into other realms. Do I make myself clear?”

            “Yes!” he screamed as the pain increased in intensity until it was as if he burned on a pyre.

            Darkness. His tongue felt glued to the roof of his mouth. He swallowed painfully. His body felt hot and cold at once. With great effort, he blinked his eyes open. He lay on a canopied bed in a dim room. Across the way, a fireplace with a dying fire. He turned his head and saw Lahn sitting on an armchair, head resting on the headrest, asleep.

            “Kah’len.”

            Kah’len blinked and turned his head. Domio stood at the foot of the bed.

            “You gave us quite the scare,” he said.

            He opened his mouth, but his mouth was so dry, he could not speak. The priest walked to the bedside table and poured water into a cup. He lifted Kah’len’s head and fed him fresh, cool water. Kah’len drank two cups before Domio set his head down.

            “What happened?” he asked the priest.

            “Bhne Tehna poisoned you when he stabbed you. You’ve been abed for two weeks.”

            Kah’len made to sit up. “The men–”

            “Peace, Warlord,” the priest chastised. “They are waiting on you, and no one is rebelling.”

            Kah’len sighed and fell back on the pillow with a sigh. “You must find me a woman from the commoners. She must be beautiful, intelligent and pure, priest. That is from the Goddess herself.”

            “You’re having visions, too, now?”

            Kah’len closed his eyes and gave a weak chuckle. “Never mind. Put a call out to all city-states that I seek a wife.”

            “You have a wife,” Domio reminded him.

            “Ariahl is no longer my wife,” Kah’len stated. “She wasn’t chosen by Atana. When the right girl comes to me, I will know her. I saw her in my dream.” He sighed. “Go do as I say.”

            Domio huffed but stood up and left the room.

            “Do I have to worry?”

            Kah’len looked at Lahn. “I can love two people at once, Prei-Serren.”

            He looked skeptical. “I don’t understand.”

            “Atana will fill my heart with love and my loins with lust for this girl,” Kah’len said wearily. “This was promised to me. I must found a new dynasty, a new clan. My surname will be Tjashensi.”

            “That is ancient isili,” Lahn said. “Do you know what it means?”

            “No,” Kah’len admitted.

            “Blood will atone.” Lahn shifted. “What does she look like?”

            “She is beautiful and kind and intelligent, such as you are. I am doubly blessed.”

            Lahn grunted but looked less than happy.

            “Would you have me disobey Her?”

            “Don’t use Her as your shield,” Lahn growled, a fierce frown upon his brow. “You are greedy for greatness, driven by it. This is all your doing.” He rose. “You can have your Queen, but you won’t touch me. I will find my own lover.”

            Kah’len scowled. “I intend to marry the throne to the altar.”

            “Then make her your Prei-Sarran! I’ve been used by your damned Goddess and by you! I’m going back home.”

            “Lahn!”

            Lahn whirled about and stomped from the room.

            Kah’len sighed and closed his eyes. Lahn was proud and stubborn, and Kah’len was not sure he had the energy to convince him to stay. Was this his first sacrifice? He loved Lahn with all his heart and soul, longed for him, craved him. What would he do without him?

            “Guard!” he called out with the last of his energy.

            The door opened and a mercenary hurried in. “Warlord? Shall I send for a servant?”

            “No,” Kah’len said. “Arrest Lahn Obeli. I want him confined to his apartment until I am well.”

            The soldier brought his fist to his chest and bowed. “It shall be done, Warlord!”

            Kah’len closed his eyes and sighed. Every time a fire was put out, another would start. He was exhausted. He would rest and then he would figure what he had to do to convince Lahn to stay. The youth was the Oracle and Kah’len needed him to succeed in his endeavors, but he also loved him. Deeply and abidingly. He knew he would be lost without Lahn at his side. The youth would learn to trust him and set aside his jealousy, if it were the last thing Kah’len would do.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Mercenary Army

            The visions began almost right away. They were like waking dreams. Lahn could be doing anything, his mind distracted, when the Goddess would possess him. The first vision that overtook him came when they reached Castle Draemin, riding into the vast mercenary camp. They were camped outside of the castle walls, into Queen’s Park, spilling to the north, to the very city walls. The soldiers came out of their tents when Kah’len rode into the campsite.

            “We’ve no further need of soldiers!” a gruff older mercenary growled.

            “I come to lead,” Kah’len replied coldly. “I am the Warlord of North Torahn, Kah’len Ys’teis. Who leads here?”

            A murmur of voices rose from the army.

            “I am one who leads, Warlord,” said a young man. “We are divided along national lines. I lead the Mekhi army.”

            Kah’len dismounted. “Find me an empty tent and bring the other leaders to me.”

            The young man brought his fist to his chest and bowed. “Right away, Warlord.”

            Kah’len dismounted and turned to Lahn and Domio. “Come with me, both of you.”

            Lahn dismounted and his legs gave way under him and he fell to the ground, blind and deaf, as the vision took over his consciousness.

            This army will bring the Tash-Tash his future. A price must be paid. An undoing, an ending, a beginning. Listen, Oracle: Here stands the future, at a crossroads. Have a care how you proceed, Tash-Tash, for the way is riddled with holes and sharp rocks. She would have your blood as sacrifice. She would that you paid for your childish impulses. If the cost is high enough, the lesson will be learned. The Lady’s earth beneath your feet, you will learn Her ways or fail.

            Lahn drew a shaky breath and sighed as he blinked at the late afternoon skies. Faces bent over him and it took him a moment to recognize Kah’len and Domio.

            “What happened?” he asked.

            “You tell us,” Kah’len replied and helped him to sit up. “You spoke words I suppose came from the Goddess.”

            Lahn wiped his forehead with a shaking hand. “Did I speak out loud?”

            “You did,” Domio murmured and both he and Kah’len helped Lahn to stand.

            “How are your legs?” Kah’len asked.

            “I can stand. What did I say?”

            Kah’len frowned. “You said something about a sacrifice. My blood must be sacrificed. If I pay a steep enough price, then I will learn to cull my impulsive actions.”

            Lahn shuddered and rubbed his arms. He looked around at the faces of strangers watching with curiosity and awe, a few among them showing stark fear.

            “Warlord.” The young soldier had returned. “I’ve set up a tent for you and I’ve gathered the other leaders there.”

            Kah’len took Lahn’s hand. “Lead the way.”

            As they strode through the camp, the young man held his hand out. “Aud Salit’, Warlord. At your service.”

            Kah’len grasped his forearm. “Kah’len Ys’teis. I welcome you service, Aud.”

            Aud led them to a large pavilion the same drab olive green as the others. Inside, they found a table and three chairs in the middle of the tent, two cots to the left of the entrance, and a table with a washbasin, towels and a cake of soap to the right of the entrance.

            “I hope I am not displacing anyone,” Kah’len murmured, looking over the tent.

            Aud shook his head. “This was my tent, Warlord. I can scrounge up another for myself.”

            “And the other leaders?” Kah’len asked.

            “I’ll bring them. Give me a moment.”

            Kah’len led Lahn to one of the cots. “Lie down and rest. You’re shaking.”

            “I’m fine,” Lahn protested, but he allowed himself to be pushed gently onto the cot.

            He sat down and took a deep, steady breath. Domio sat down next to him and they watched as Aud led two other soldiers into the tent.

            “Warlord, this is Maedoc Kalish. He leads the Deyianshi contingency.”

            Kah’len and the swarthy Maedoc clasped forarms. “Welcome, Commander Kalish.”

            Maedoc bowed. “It is an honor, Warlord.”

            Aud indicated the third commander. “This is Daven Halso. He leads the Ynhan mercenaries.”

            Kah’len and the redheaded Daven clasped forearms. They murmured greetings to one another.

            “We came all the way from our nations on a promise that there would be work and a salary,” Maedoc told Kah’len. “Then Bhne Tehna reneged on his promise. How can we trust you, Warlord?”

            Kah’len indicated the chairs at the table. “A fair question. Sit, please.”

            They sat down around the table and Kah’len rested his forearms on the tabletop.

            “I can take a blood vow,” Kah’len said. “There are enough coins in the royal coffers to pay all of you. I intend to pay you. You have my word, but I will take a blood vow if my word is not trusted.”

            Daven grunted. “I’ll take your blood vow, Warlord.”

            Kah’len nodded and unsheathed a dagger from his boot. He cut the palm of his hand.

            Daven then took up the dagger and cut his hand. He and Kah’len clasped hands and made a vow.

            “I, Kah’len Ys’teis, do hereby vow to pay this army and its commanders once Draemin City is mine.”

            Kah’len forged a blood vow with each of the commanders.

            “I vow by the grace of the Goddess Atana,” Kah’len said. “May She strike me dead if I renege on my promise.”

            The other three made signs to avert evil.

            Lahn rose and made his unsteady way to the table. “I am the Oracle of the Goddess. She is here. This army is the beginning and the end.” He lifted his arms to the heavens. His eyes rolled back in his head and he began to shake. “I bless you! In the name of Atana, the Warrior and All Powerful. The Mother and Maid.”

            Darkness swallowed him.

            Voices whispered.

            Atana rose from the water in full armor that shone so bright, it blinded. Her beautiful face was fierce and cold.

            Oracle! Ascend onto the altar. You must clean my house, purify the altar with the blood of sacrifice. Burn offerings of meat and pulses, grains and grasses.

            Cold swallowed him whole. He shivered and shook as his bones seemed to freeze and break. He heard screaming. A weight pushed him into the ground and threatened to suffocate him. He sobbed as the cold broke his hands and feet. Ice filled him with an almost-heat. Words filled the air with meaninglessness. Each word was like a pebble hitting the surface of his mind and skidding off. He could almost discern their meaning before they slid off him like rain.

            Lahn!

            Lahn!

            With great effort, Lahn opened his eyes and blinked owlishly about him.

            His uncle was bent over him and gently stroke Lahn’s hair. “Are you back with us, Lahn?”

            “What happened?”

            Domio sighed. “What do you suppose happened, young man? You had another vision. They are coming with greater and greater frequency, it seems.”

            The serren helped Lahn to sit up.

            The Warlord and his three commanders stood around watching Lahn with guarded interest.

            “So, he sees the Goddess?” Maedoc Kalish asked.

            Kah’len nodded. “He is the Oracle of Atana.”

            “Fascinating,” Daven murmured and shook his head. He looked at the others. “If we have a Goddess on our side, then we can’t fail.”

            Aud flashed a smile. “That is what I was thinking. I’m in.”

            “So am I,” Maedoc said.

            “As am I,” Daven assured them.

            Domio helped Lahn to stand and helped him back to the cot. He forced Lahn to lay down. Lahn was shaking and shivering, his skin icy cold. He allowed Domio to cover him with blankets.

            When Domio stepped away, Kah’len sat at the edge of the cot. “What do you recommend I do, Oracle?”

            Lahn sighed. “Offer her a sacrifice of a dosi, pulses, grains and grasses. Burn the offerings. Pray. She will bless your endeavors. Use your intelligence, Kah’len Ys’teis, Tash-Tash of North Torahn. Do not act impulsively.”

            “I will gather the things needed for the sacrifice,” Kah’len assured him. “But you will lead the prayer and your hand will kill the dosi. You are my high priest, my Prei-Serren.”

            “Yes. We will hold the sacrifice when she is strongest, at dusk.”

            Kah’len took his hand and rubbed it with both of his. “You are icy. I will wake you at dusk and we will hold the prayer ceremony to bless my endeavors.”

            “Surprise your enemies, Tash-tash. Use your keen strategic mind to find a way to pull the rug from under their feet.”

            Kah’len brought Lahn’s hand to his lips. He pressed a kiss to the palm. “I will do as you say, Oracle.”

            Lahn closed his eyes. Soon he slid beneath the waters of sleep.

            He saw the future in flashes. He saw himself in long red robes stitched with gold and a tall conical hat with the emblem of a rearing tash-tash. He seemed older and he had filled out and seemed wider of shoulder and sturdier of frame. He looked so much like his father that he thought for a moment that it was his sire he looked upon. But then he recognized himself. He led an animal by a rope through a garden. By and by, he grew weary and sat down at a stone bench. He turned his head and saw that the animal at the end of the rope was a tash-tash. The animal was gorgeous, with speckled white fur and icy blue eyes. The animal yawned, revealing two rows of sharp teeth.

            The vision shifted. Two children, both boys around the age of six, walked together, holding hands. One had the copper-colored hair of Tjish.un and the gray eyes of Southern Torahn. The other had cold blue eyes and dark hair. He was pale as milk. As Lahn watched, the blue-eyed boy pulled a knife from his tunic and plunged it into the other boy’s chest. The boy cried out and crumpled to the ground.

            Lahn screamed as his heart felt the sharp pain of being pierced.

            Already the future coalesces. Already the blood congeals. Already the pieces of the game move. Love will conquer. Love will heal. Love will seal the wound until the drops of blood dry up and blow away. What began today ends tomorrow. His hand has reached into the future and set in motion the world. Already the future coalesces. Already the blood congeals. Already betrayal. Already loss. The payment in full.

            Lahn gasped and woke up. He was covered in sweat and his tunic was plastered to his back. At the same time, he was shivering and unbearably cold. He swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat up. The tent was dim, with only the light from an oil lamp on the central table. It had been turned down to allow for only a bit of light. He looked to the other cot and saw his uncle sleeping. Lahn turned and saw that Kah’len lay next to him on the narrow cot. The Warlord slept deeply.

            Lahn rose and tottered to the table with the basin, the washcloth and towels and soap. There, he used a ladle to pour fresh water from a barrel into the washbasin. Taking up a washcloth, he dunked it into the cold water and scrubbed his face and neck. Afterward, he removed his tunic and set it to one side while he scrubbed the sweat and sleep from his arms and torso. When he was done washing up, he unbraided his hair and combed it out with his fingers before rebraiding it.

            The air seeping in through the tent flap was cold and smelled of smoke. He could sense that dawn approached.

            Dressing in his damp tunic once more, he made to leave the tent.

            “Where are you going?” Kah’len demanded from the cot.

            “Dawn approaches. I must sacrifice,” Lahn said quietly.

            Kah’len and Domio both rose from their cots.

            They washed up quickly and dressed.

            There was a scratch at the door flap then Daven entered the tent. “We’ve the dosi and the other sacrificial objects.”

            “Good,” Lahn murmured. “We must make an altar.”

            “We’ve set up a sturdy table,” the commander replied.

            “Then lead the way,” Lahn said.

            Outside, the entire camp was awake. Lahn, Kah’len and Domio followed Daven further into the camp and the mercenary army followed them. No one murmured a single word as the silent procession headed north. As they headed further into the camp, more and more soldiers joined the procession. By the time they made it to the table that had been set up outside another tent, the entire army had turned out. Lahn was overwhelmed by the sheer number of soldiers around them.

            Kah’len handed Lahn his dagger.

            Daven led a dosi by a rope to where Lahn stood next to the table.

            “Set the animal on the table, please,” Lahn instructed.

            The animal was docile and did not fight as it was raised onto the table.

            Lahn raised both hands to the sky. “Men of Mekh, Deyiansh, and Ynha! The Goddess Atana watches over you and washes you in blood!”

            Lahn watched as his hand raised and sliced the animal’s throat. The animal gave a surprised bleat and fell to the table. Lahn made sure it was dead before he plunged his knife into the soft underbelly and removed the entrails. The reek of offal and blood filled the air. As Lahn cut through the entrails, his vision blurred. He saw in his mind’s eye Kah’len leading men through a secret passageway into the castle. There was a weakness in the wall. A place where the stones had crumbled and allowed for a hole. The wall was behind a shack where the servants kept the garden tools. No one ever looked behind there.

            Lahn took a shaking breath and blinked the vision away. He motioned Kah’len near then whispered into Kah’len’s ears.

            “Behind the garden tool shed is a hole in the wall. There you can lead your men.”

            He lifted his hand and pressed a smudge of blood to Kah’len’s forehead. “I bathe you in Her blood.”

            Lahn walked to Maedoc Kalish and pressed a smudged of blood to his forehead. “I bathe you in Her blood.”

            He did the same to Aud Salit’ and Daven Halso.

            Turning to the silent army, Lahn lifted his voice. “She has given me a vision. We will take this castle before the night is done!”

            A cheer rose from the army.

            Lahn watched as Aud rolled a barrel to the table and set it aright.

            “You can burn the offerings here, Prei-Serren,” the Commander offered.

            Lahn directed two soldiers to place the dosi carcass in the barrel then the grain, the wild grasses, and the pulses were poured into the barrel. Lahn took a container of oil from Maedoc and poured oil into the barrel. Then Daven took up a torch and set the oil on fire. The smell of burning flesh and grains filled the air and rose as smoke to the sky.

            “She is pleased,” Lahn pronounced as joy filled him.

            The army cheered again and then Kah’len was striding into the crowd, followed by his three commanders. >