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.
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.
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?”
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. >