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.
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 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 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.