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Askar Preview -
Prologue, Chapter 1 and Chapter 8

by Bronwyn Calder

Published by IAFilm Productions
https://www.iafilm.co.nz

Printed Book and E-Book for sale at Amazon
https://www.amazon.com/Askar-Bronwyn-Calder/dp/0473131099

ASKAR Copyright 2007 Bronwyn Calder

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Any question about permissions, ASK US
Email contact:
secret(DOT)desert(DOT)of(DOT)your(DOT)mind(AT)gmail(DOT)com

ISBN  978-0-473-13109-8


BRONWYN CALDER is a New Zealand writer who has previously published short stories in science fiction and fantasy anthologies, women's short fiction anthologies and literary journals.


PREVIEW CONTENTS: Prologue plus Chapters 1 and 8 out of 24

Prologue

Chapter 1.   The Sacred Isle

Chapter 8.   Into Askar

 


Prologue

There came a time when the order of seers was corrupted and most forgot their vows of celibacy. The High Priestess Arina bore twin sons to the King of Urkan and they jointly inherited their father's kingdom. All was apparently well for many years, until they both fell in love with Hella, the fairest woman that ever lived. But Hella chose Leandro, the elder. Petrus, jealous of his brother, listened to Megorath, an evil counsellor who worshipped Dread. Megorath told him: "Your brother is a fool, you could be sole King of Urkan. Kill your brother and the people will follow you, as they followed your father."

Petrus listened to the evil one and laid a plan to kill his brother. Meanwhile news of the treachery reached Leandro. Fearing for the future of the kingdom he openly challenged his brother to single combat. They met in the open fields outside the city of Lankaren and the people gathered to see who would be king. The brothers fought with clubs - gravely wounding each other. But Leandro gradually gained the upper hand. Just as he was about to end Petrus' life, the goddess moved him to spare his brother. However, he spoke on his own behalf when he said sadly: "My brother, I would have killed you, but the goddess bade me spare your life. Go from this city to the northern wild places. Take your wives, your lords and your people and be king in Askar." Petrus, humiliated and filled with hate, did as his brother ordered. Ten thousand of his people followed him to Askar.

Petrus carved out a separate realm in the strongholds of the ancient Askan people, and their god, Radoc, the Dread. He allied his family to the household of the Corb Hola, the ancient kings of that place. He took as a new wife the Hola's daughter, and ever after the Emperors of Askar took as Empress a daughter of the house of the Holas. And the two realms were riven by warfare and treachery.

The goddess moved to reunite her people with the birth of a much-awaited child to King Rollo of Urkan, the tenth king from Leandro. In Urkan, in those days, newborn infants were taken to Narvon the Sacred Isle, if it could possibly be done, and smoke cast for their future. Prayers were said and wine and food cast into flames as an offering, hoping for a word about the child's future. The High Priestess Jethra did the smoke casting for the King's daughter, Daria, and when the word came the priestess said with great relish: "When the child Daria becomes an adult, then shall Askar rule in Urkan."

Of course there was a great deal of consternation at this pronouncement. The High Priestess said: "Take the child and slit her throat. Her blood is required to halt this prophecy." It was said that everyone on the island heard the queen's screams as the child was ripped from her arms. The King gave the child to his steward and ordered him to dispose of her. But the man took pity on the babe and handed her to a worthy family that had just lost a child still born. He told them who she was and gave them the largest piece of gold he had in his money pouch at the time. And she grew up not knowing who she was nor the doom she carried with her.

 


Chapter 1 - The Sacred Isle

The flagship captain squinted up at the mainmast. The sun struggled to penetrate a thick blanket of fog and the captain could only guess it was about noon. There was no wind so the ship was under oar and they were crawling practically blind across the face of the sea towards the Sacred Isle. The ship creaked as it shifted beneath him, but the eagle pennant atop of the mast hung limp. The captain shivered and huffed into his hands. Summer already but still cold. It was all unnatural. He kissed his crossed fingers in the age-old sign to ward off Dread.

Below him on the main deck three tall black figures stood shoulder to shoulder. They stood silent, grim faced, concentrating on the sea and the fog as if their very wills kept the fog in place. The captain shivered again and the figure on the right turned to look straight at him, his heavily tattooed face absolutely unreadable. Elir Vial, leader of the Tribes of the North. Sorcerer. The Elir's black eyes met the captain's and the captain closed his own eyes to ward them off.

The Emperor stood between Vial and his son. At the mere thought of the Emperor the captain made the ward sign again. Not tattooed, his black hair streaked with grey, one eye missing, his black patch toward the captain now, seemingly boring into his very mind - the Emperor, well known disciple of Dread, wife murderer, child murderer, slaughterer of innocents. And next to him his only son, Ahron, as like his father as possible, his beauty already showing a hardness around the mouth and a narrowing of the eye. The young Emperor followed his father in everything, but the captain fancied that he had seen, or suspected he had seen, along with many he had spoken to on long evenings in the taverns of Zersha, a look in Ahron's eye that hinted the pup would, one day soon, turn on the sire and rip out his throat.

The captain sniffed the air. A seabird landed on the top of the mast. "Two degrees port," he muttered to the helmsman.

The man looked at him sceptically. He was an experienced seaman; had been sailing with the captain for fifteen years. He was right to be sceptical. "How far to the Sacred Isle d'you think?" the captain asked.

The helmsman shrugged his shoulders. "Tomorrow morning, dawn," he said.

"That's what I thought," the captain muttered.

 

It was the first day of summer and Ash, oldest son and heir of Jevan, Lord of the Sacred Isle, was marrying the youngest daughter of Bardolph the merchant, the richest man on the island, and Bardolph, a man of modest origins, had spared no expense to impress the gathered nobles.

Galen, the groom's brother, sat with his father and the merchant's family at the top table in the dining hall of the merchant's house. Galen ate little. He leaned on his hand and scanned the crowd, watching anxiously for the arrival of his closest friend, Zarek. There were four long tables below the top table, all packed with the nobility of Urkan. Right at the back of the hall a tall serving woman was passing food through the drawn curtains of a retiring box. The merchant's middle daughter sat in the curtained alcove, waiting to enter the Temple that very evening. Galen sighed and his gaze wandered on, past Lord Ranald's second son and his wife, past the merchant's three sons, dressed for war. Galen scratched at the neck of his robes. He could not see Zarek anywhere. He realised this meant his friend was with some woman in the Red House at Lankaren, oblivious of the tide and his commitments. Galen closed his eyes and wondered whether anyone would notice if he fell asleep.

 

The tall serving woman was called Fuzz by those who loved her. Today the last of her charges was marrying, and Jena, whom she had carefully guarded against the world in readiness for her sacred vows, was entering the Temple. Fuzz was proud, excited and apprehensive about what lay ahead. After a lifetime of service what would be left to her? She handed a plate with a slice of beef on it through the curtains of the retiring box.

Jena took the meat. "Thank you," she said and carefully put it in her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully. This was the first time she'd ever tasted beef, as there were no cattle on the island, and she would never taste it again. She watched her brothers with their newly shaven heads, their armour and their swords, ready for war. The youngest was only fifteen. The King's spies had brought tidings that their ancient enemy, Askar, was preparing for war. But that was going to happen far away, while she was to be shut away in the Temple forever.

"You have always known it would be so." She smiled at Fuzz, who passed her some potatoes, not acknowledging the Voice in her head. Everyone said it was a great blessing to be able to hear the goddess's voice, but she did not feel especially blessed. It was the Voice and the future divined at her birth that had doomed her to the Temple. She peered again through the curtains of the retiring box.

There was a young man in black academy robes with the white eye on the right breast sitting with Jena's parents and the wedding couple. "Is that Ash's brother?" she asked.

"Aye, my lady, Lord Galen." Fuzz discretely flicked the curtain aside and sat in the box beside her.

"He looks very unhappy."

Fuzz did not reply. It was not really her place to have opinions about lords' sons. "He's very beautiful," Jena continued.

"They're a handsome family. His mother was a great beauty."

Jena watched the yellow haired, blue-eyed young man scan the room again and again. He was looking for something and was continually disappointed.

"Poor young man," Jena said. "He's still in mourning, of course."

"Twelve months is long enough," Fuzz sounded disapproving.

"But she was his wife, his one true love!"

Fuzz frowned at her. "Don't talk nonsense. He'll find another wife easily enough."

Jena wanted to object, but she knew Fuzz was very unsentimental about marriage. Jena bitterly regretted that she would never be a wife but had found no sympathy from Fuzz: "Most married people are miserable," she'd snorted when Jena offered a complaint.

Jena stopped staring at Lord Galen, and let her eye travel over the rest of the assembled guests - her three brothers, her eldest sister seated with her husband, Lord Ranald's son.

"Which one is Lord Zarek?" she asked, referring to the King's heir.

"I don't believe he's here. It's not unexpected. He has a reputation for carelessness," Fuzz whispered, for criticising the heir was not terribly wise, even though the King did it loudly and frequently.

The servants cleared away the last of the platters and Jena's father, the merchant, raised his voice: "My friends, I bid you attend with us the priestesses on the Sacred Mount where we shall ask the goddess's blessing on this marriage and where, on this day, my daughter, Jena, will be accepted into the sisterhood of the Temple."

The crowd turned en masse and stared at the retiring box. Jena pulled back quickly behind the curtain.

 

High on the peak of the island stood the Temple of Narvon, sacred to the goddess, where forty priestesses kept the altar fire ever alight and spoke the goddess's words to her people. The white pillars of the portico stood out against the strong blue sky silhouetted at the top of the island. The Temple was plain and white and pure like the priestesses who served and the robes they wore. As the wind swept in off the open sea, the High Priestess Jocea performed the smoke casting for Ash and Freya's marriage. The altar fire belched black fumes; the priestess pulled back to avoid the black billow; the guests gasped in dismay.

"This marriage is doomed and so are all those present," the Voice said in Jena's head.

She cried out, but no one heard her.

The priestess turned toward the assembled guests. Her face was white and drawn. Jena could see that she had heard the Voice as well. Jena clutched the sides of the litter and watched as the priestess composed herself and said warmly: "All marriages present challenges but my children, Ash and Freya, have good and loving hearts. All will be well."

She lied!

It had never occurred to Jena before that a priestess would lie about such things. She began to tremble.

"Jena," Fuzz whispered, nudging her gently. "You must go now."

Jena was still staring at the priestess, still shaking and feeling slightly sick. She thought: "How can I go on? I know the truth."

"Go," Fuzz shoved her and she nearly fell out of the closed litter.

"Who approaches?" the High Priestess asked loudly.

The assembled guests all looked at Jena. She began to tremble and to feel her face grow warm. "She whom the goddess has chosen," she replied shakily.

"Let it be known the goddess welcomes Jena, daughter of Bardolph the merchant." The Priestess held out her hands and Jena took them. Her parents were smiling broadly. Briefly she thought: "I am pleasing them." Then another priestess took her hand and led her away. She turned back, but her parents had turned away to the congratulations of their guests.

 

The flagship of the Black Fleet was now thickly shrouded in fog. The captain watched the water sliding by the hull. It was sluggish and oily and deep green. The sun was sliding lower in the sky and its dull glow penetrated the shroud no more than two degrees above the horizon, by the captain's best calculation. To the east lay the mainland of Urkan, to the south their destination, the Sacred Isle.

"You are heading too close to the mainland," the tattooed sorcerer said.

The captain would have contradicted anyone else, but the black eyes looked dead, so he kept his mouth shut. He signalled the helmsman to comply. This was the Emperor's ship, after all; he was merely a hired hand. And the sorcerer was the Emperor's trusted adviser. Trusted. The captain had enough Urkan blood to find sorcery very distasteful indeed. "My lord," he said, his voice astonishingly tremulous. He cleared his throat: "My lord, continuing through this mist in the dark is very perilous."

"Do not concern yourself," the sorcerer said coldly.

The captain felt as if a sliver of ice had been pushed into his heart. He inclined his head slightly. "As you say, my lord."

 

Jena stepped through the door behind the altar. The priestess let go her hand and gave a little shove, then closed the door. She grabbed at Jena's robes. Jena tried to clasp them to her; she couldn't see properly in the dimness.

"Don't be afraid, little sister." The voice was kind and young. Gradually Jena's eyes grew accustomed to the gloom.

"I will do it," Jena said, removing her clothes herself and putting on the white priestess's robe.

The priestess picked up a pair of scissors. "Little sister, now I have to cut your hair. It symbolises your new birth as a priestess. It is allowed to grow for the rest of your life. I have been here two years." She tugged at her curly brown hair, which stuck out in a rather large frizzy halo around her face.

The High Priestess came through the door and shut it behind her. "Greetings, little sister," she said. Jena wanted to say hello, but the priestess's beauty made her shy, she dipped her head slightly. "Welcome," Jocea continued smiling, despite the formal sounding words. She drew her long golden hair off her face and tied it in a tail behind her head with a string. "This is Mara," she said, indicating the other priestess. "She will look after you. I have some things to attend to but I need to talk to you after supper." She smiled again, opened the door and looked out. "Good, the multitudes have departed. See you after supper, then." And she left.

Mara proceeded to snip at Jena's hair, then showed her the results in a hand mirror. The face Jena saw looked unusually large.

Mara led the way out the door and closed it behind them.

"Watch the path," she said as they left the lighted circle around the altar. They descended an uneven stairway towards the Temple House. The air was very still now, and it felt warmer. Jena could smell the tang of pine and hear night insects on the hunt. Below in the town of Narvon lamps were being lit in the streets and at the odd window. Jena could also see lights far away over the sea. She stopped walking.

"Those lights - is that Lankaren?"

"Yes." Mara stood beside her. "We're high enough to see over the headland."

"I've never seen them before. I always wanted to go there, to see the midsummer festival," Jena said wistfully.

Mara looked out across the sea and sighed. "My father is High Sheriff of the city." She turned back and began walking briskly again. "Tomorrow morning at cock crow you must go up to the altar on your own. You must pray for the King."

Their path led through scrubby trees, past a deep tank, and into a courtyard with a low building set around three sides of it. Mara led the way to the right wing of the building and they entered a large, high-ceilinged room. Hundreds of oil lamps hung from the rafters. A dozen or so priestesses read or wrote or prayed at small tables set in rows. The room was silent, except for a mournful-sounding lyre that one of the women was playing. Mara led Jena to the far end of the room. "Look," she whispered. "This is what you must pray tomorrow morning. You rise and wash yourself in the tank, and then you take wine and go up to the altar. You sprinkle the wine on the altar and say this." She pointed to a prayer painted high on the wall. "The bell will ring soon. I will come and get you," and she moved away.

Jena read the prayer. "O great goddess, mother of all your people, visit the house of Rollo, our king, with a son."

Jena studied the prayer for about ten minutes before there was a sudden noisy ringing in the study hall; a handbell swung vigorously by a middle-aged priestess whose long plait of greyish hair swung about her as she bent to her task.

"Come, little sister." Mara was at her side again, and nearly pushed her out into the night.

The dining hall was a large room in the left wing of the building. The kitchen was divided off at one end with a waist-high wall painted white and decorated with a frieze of fruit and flowers. Ten or so priestesses laboured in the kitchen. As they completed each platter of food they placed it on the wall where another team of women distributed platters to the long tables, four, each with room for ten. Still more women were laying out spoons, knives and wooden bowls.

When all was ready and everyone stood in their places the High Priestess raised her hand and the room fell silent. "Great goddess," she said. "Thank you for this food and for all the blessings of life. Thank you for our life in your service." Then she said: "We welcome out youngest sister, Jena. Oh goddess, we ask that the perils that lie before us be not too onerous for us to bear." Then she lowered her hand and everyone sat.

The women sitting around Jena all stared at her. She could almost feel the shock run through them. Slowly they began to eat, but Jena realised she couldn't. Not only had she eaten hugely at the wedding feast, but also she remembered what the Voice had said at the altar. The smell of boiled vegetables and stewed mutton made her feel sick. She put her spoon down and looked at the High Priestess who looked straight back into her eyes. She knows I know, Jena thought. She pushed her bowl away.

The meal was eaten in complete silence. When all was done the platters and bowls were taken away and the High Priestess stood up to leave. As they filed out of the room the other women seemed cold towards Jena, although no word was said. The High Priestess made her way to Jena's side. "Our time is short," she whispered. "Come with me."

Mara had turned at the door and was waiting for Jena. "What did she say to you?" she asked.

"Leave me," Jena said, hurrying after Jocea, and was immediately sorry she'd been so imperious. She turned to apologise, but Mara had gone and Jocea was rapidly disappearing into the night.

Jena struggled to catch up with her. "You know you are to be my successor," the High Priestess said. It was fully dark now and Jena stumbled a bit on the uneven path. Jocea, long striding, seemed completely surefooted.

Jena tried to talk while almost running. "Well, um."

"You will be the next High Priestess. I tell you this because I know our time is short."

"I have brought some ill to the Temple."

Jocea noticed that she was struggling and stopped. "Your coming signals great peril. It is not of your doing."

Jocea walked on, but more slowly. "Jena, the goddess does not tell me all, only enough so that I can do what is right. She has told me that your coming signals a time of great suffering for us all. But there is something you must do when the evil comes." She stopped again and faced Jena. "You must find me. You must come to me, whatever it takes."

"But not soon."

"Yes, very soon. Your coming is the signal. With you everything changes."

"But...."

"That's all I know." Jocea gazed out towards Lankaren, but now the lights could not be seen. A heavy fog had rolled in over the sea. "There is great danger awaiting us all."

"Askar?" Jena said.

"I don't know." Jocea took another few steps. "Askar are our enemies but also our cousins. We were once one people."

"Yes," Jena said doubtfully.

Jocea gestured south. Over the sea in that direction lay endless mountains and forest. "In that direction lies peril."

"My lady?"

"The goddess wants her people reunited."

"But the Askans follow Dread!"

"I don't know, Jena! I'm just doing as I'm told!"

They had reached the main road and Jocea walked briskly up to the altar. Jena struggled after her.

"Why did you lie about the smoke casting?" she gasped out.

Jocea stopped again. "How could I tell those lovely young people and your parents and all the others that they are doomed?"

"But can't we do something?"

"What? Whatever we do the doom would still come. We could even make it worse. All I know is you must come to me, wherever I am."

They returned to the courtyard. As Jocea said goodnight Jena felt as if she were saying farewell forever.

 

Galen slumped in a chair in the main hall of the merchant's house staring into the dying embers of the fire. It was near midnight, as far as he knew, and all about him revellers were sleeping off their indulgences. He drew his pipe from the deep pocket in his robe. It was a pipe of the mountain people of northern Urkan, given to him by Annelise long ago when he first declared his love for her. He turned it over, thinking of her. He remembered mainly how she smelt of sandalwood, an extraordinary scent that seemed to him to embody her extraordinary essence. The pipe smelled now but faintly of her. He put it to his lips and gently blew an air from the north.

"Galen!"

It was Zarek.

"You have no manners. You offended the good merchant," Galen said.

"Well, I'll make my apologies in the morning." Zarek threw himself down in the chair opposite his friend. "Fog," he said. "The ferry captain swore and cursed but it still took us all day under oar. I should've taken passage yesterday."

Galen grunted: "Yes." Then he said: "I'm going to the Temple at dawn."

"What for?"

"Guidance."

Zarek snorted. "I thought your precious academy frowned on superstition?"

"It's your fault. You told me I'd been mouldering at the academy long enough."

"The academy's no place for you," Zarek said, settling deeper into his chair. He looked as if he might be going to encourage Galen to get on with his life. Galen held his breath, but fortunately Zarek knew not to press too hard. "So, what did I miss?"

"Usual thing. Ash was suitably pompous. Father swallowed his pride and took the money. The bride blushed prettily. Oh, and the merchant's elder daughter was accepted into the Temple."

"What was she like?"

"Small and dark and frightened. She looked terrified actually. Not as beautiful as her sister."

"Oh, well the Temple's the best place for her then."

Galen felt uncomfortable with this remark, so remained silent for a while. Then he returned to the subject uppermost in his mind. "It's all right for you, you know your life's path. My smoke casting just said 'a good friend' - most helpful."

"At least you're free to choose."

 

The fleet split in two around midnight, or around the time the sorcerer announced it was midnight. The flagship and six other ships sailed west. Shortly afterward the captain heard the slight lapping of waves on a shore and their beat on rocks. "Sacred Isle," the helmsman said knowingly.

"All ships halt," the sorcerer said. The captain ordered the anchor dropped. Around him he heard anchors running into the sea. He had no idea how they had all received the signal. The cold seeped through his sea coat and he shuddered.

 

Galen slept fitfully. Zarek snored loudly, his mouth open. The hours passed. A cock crowed somewhere in the merchant's yard. Galen put out his foot and jabbed Zarek in the knee.

Zarek grunted and half opened his eyes.

"We have to go," Galen said.

"Go?"

"To the Temple." Galen stood and stretched. He reached for his academy robe to put it on, for it was chilly. Then he thought better of it. The Temple and the academy were not best friends. Perhaps his reluctance to wear it was a sign of where his heart truly lay? He smiled to himself and slipped his pipe into his trouser pocket.

Zarek stretched and stood up. "Lead on," he said.

Galen grinned at him and they picked their way through the sleeping company. As they left the merchant's house the heavy smell of smoke came to them. It was a foggy morning; smoke always stayed close to the ground on such a morning.

 

Shortly before dawn the sorcerer gave the order for the ships to move forward. The oars dipped and rose, their slight splashing loud in the stillness. The sky began to lighten and the captain could see the dim outline of the southern head of the broad harbour of Narvon. The sorcerer leaned towards the Emperor. The captain could see them exchange a few words. Then suddenly the captain felt a slight touch on his cheek. He looked up. The eagle pennant atop the mainmast fluttered. "All hands on deck!" he called, seizing the helm and sending the helmsman scurrying on deck. "Raise the mainsail!" Six of his crew hurried to do his bidding. He glanced skywards again. The fog was shredding. Tearing away to reveal the clearest of skies, the sun still low, but their goal clearly visible. The white city of Narvon, City of the Sacred Isle, jewel of the Inland Sea. He turned the wheel. He'd sailed into this harbour a thousand times when he'd captained the fisher out of Megotha for his old master. He knew every rock and eddy.

 

It was completely dark. Jena could hear the deep breathing of others sleeping. She slipped quietly outside. In the courtyard all was still, not even a breeze rustled the leaves. The water in the tank was deep and black and smelled of earth. She took off her robe and under shirt and climbed down into it. The water was a deep mysterious darkness. She shuddered, gasping for breath, her skin bumpy with gooseflesh. She ducked her head and rinsed the sleep from her face and climbed from the tank as the sky was lightening toward the mainland revealing the roof tiles of the Temple House. She rubbed herself briskly with linen from her bed, put on her clothes again and slipped sandals on her feet. An old priestess was tending the fire in the kitchen. Jena put the linen on the pile of laundry.

"Get Loya to show you the secret way when you are up there, little sister," the old priestess said. "They say there is a secret tunnel down the mountain."

"Have you seen it?"

The old sister cackled. She stirred the embers and put on more wood. "It's an old sister's tale. Ask Loya, she knows."

The dawn was still damp and misty. Jena hurried up the path to the altar between dripping leaves. Loya was lying prostrate before the altar. Jena waited in the shadows.

"O praise the goddess, our mother, safely delivered of a new dawn!" Loya cried out. "Good morning, little sister," she said as she rose to her feet.

"Good morning, sister." The sun was glimmering feebly in the mist, barely penetrating the grey damp.

Loya blew out the oil lamps she had set by the altar. She removed two jars to the robing room and swept embers onto the fire.

"Sister," Jena said. "Could you show me the secret way down the mountain?"

"What secret way?"

"The old sister in the kitchen said...."

"Well, I don't know of a secret way, but there is a secret room. Come in here," and Loya beckoned Jena into the robing room. She bent down by the back wall, and pushed with all her might on a block by the floor. "See, here," and the block moved in slightly "I can't move it the whole way, but they say there's a secret room in there."

They went back outside where the feeble sun was beginning to find it's way under the portico. Loya carefully poked the fire. "Keep this alight."

"Yes, sister."

"May the goddess guide you!" And Loya disappeared down the steep path.

Jena looked about her as the light strengthened. Indeed, the mist had gone and she could now see a short stretch of the sea before it rounded the headland into the harbour at Lankaren. A small fleet of ships was scudding past the headland, slipping into the harbour. They were a long way off and seemed mere dots, ant ships on the broad brazen bay. She dipped her fingers into the altar wine; a greyness of spirit enveloped her as she sprinkled wine on the fire. It hissed at her.

"You are my right hand. Through you my will is done," the Voice said. Jena shuddered and sprinkled a bit more wine. The fire spat viciously. "Your time is at hand. Have faith. Follow Jocea to the ends of the earth." She closed her eyes and slowly intoned the prayer from the study hall, begging the goddess for a son for the King.

"Rollo shall have no son," the Voice said.

Jena sighed. Somehow this news did not surprise her. She turned from the altar. There were two figures walking up the road towards her. She watched them for a while. They were a long way off, but they were walking quickly. Their rapid approach made her feel nervous.

 

The harbour was unguarded. There were two fishing boats and a ferry tied up at the dock, the crews busy on deck. As the black ships neared they raised the alarm, sounding bells on their decks. Up on shore merchants setting up their stalls were alerted and three or four ran towards the garrison building which stood back from the quay and about two hundred yards away. The flagship tied up and the warriors swarmed onto the dock, putting every fisherman to the sword. The merchants on the waterfront fled, leaving their wares, but the Askans ignored the plunder and pursued the owners up into the streets of the city. Warriors from the garrison began streaming onto the quay, but by this time all seven ships had docked and seven hundred Askans were storming the town. Soon the invaders had the upper hand and the flagship captain saw the buildings on the waterfront begin to burn.

He was not a fighting man, or at least not a man who fought his battles on land. As they dragged the residents of the grand house on the quay out into the street and cut their throats, he was sitting with his back to the town, mending a rip in his sea coat.

 

"Excuse me!"

Jena turned. Below her at the foot of the altar steps stood two young men. One was Lord Jevan's younger son, Galen.

But he wasn't the one who had spoken. The other walked a little forward. "Are you deaf? My friend seeks guidance." He was tall and dressed in a warrior's leather armour with a very fine white woollen tunic over it, and his brown hair, instead of shaven like an Urkan warrior's, was long and braided.

"Remove your feet from the altar steps and lower your voice in this sacred place." She spoke very quietly and with great dignity, but she was angry and barely contained her trembling. "You will have to wait for at least an hour. I am not able to accept your offerings."

"What do you mean?" the warrior snapped.

"I am new to the Temple."

Galen smiled at his friend. "That is so, Zarek, she is the little one who entered the Temple last night."

Zarek, it was Lord Zarek! Jena felt heat rush to her face. She stood as tall as she could and looked down her nose at him.

"Well, then, introduce me to the little grey hen." The heir used an old Urkan word for hen, which was slightly obscene. "My friend here always told me the priestesses at the Temple were great beauties. I can see he was wrong."

Jena's face continued to burn.

"Er, my mother's sister Jocea is a great beauty, that is what I said." Galen stammered and sounded embarrassed.

"My mistake. I am Zarek, my lady." The warrior looked unabashed.

Jena turned away. Tears stung her eyes. She fought them back furiously, wondering whether priestesses often had to put up with such insolence.

The fire still spat nastily. Smoke blurred her vision. "I must apologise," Galen said. "My friend is out of sorts. He is not used to this early hour."

"I don't care if he is out of sorts." Jena turned towards Zarek. "You have no manners!"

Zarek laughed loudly. "I think we'll come back," Galen said, moving away. Jena turned back to the altar, shaking. Past a pillar she could see Narvon Bay - black with Askan warships - and black smoke billowing into the bright morning sky.

 

Suddenly the girl screamed. Then she screamed again. Galen was jerked into awareness to see Zarek already running off down the road. "Zarek!" he called. "What are you doing?" Then he saw the smoke curling up into the clear morning. He seized the priestess by the shoulders. Surprised, she stopped screaming. "Stay here."

Jena's head bobbled as he pulled at her.

He left her and ran after Zarek. He caught his friend and yanked him back with all his strength. "Don't run straight into it. Through the vines."

Zarek said nothing but followed Galen into the rows of grapevines that encircled the mount like necklaces. Galen knew secret ways in and out of Narvon after years of escapades as a student. He ran along the vine rows, gradually working down the mountain until he reached a vantage point where the entire academy courtyard could be seen. The academy was in flames, the heat so intense Galen had to avert his face after only a few seconds. There was no one, alive or dead, in the courtyard. "The barracks," he whispered, signalling Zarek back.

Galen went more slowly now. He left the vineyard and crouched beneath the low town wall. He followed it until he had a view of the main street. There about fifty Askans were looting Merchant Bardolph's house, the top floor of which was in flames. As they watched they heard screams inside. Zarek moved to leap over the wall. Galen hauled him down.

"Don't be a fool."

"But they're all in there!"

"And what are you going to do?"

"The merchant's family, the guests...."

At that moment a servant dashed from the burning house, screaming in terror. As he ran an Askan put an arrow in his back.

Galen fought back nausea. "We must escape," he said.

"No. I must...."

"Come on." Galen crept along behind the wall, and then, behind the Weavers' Guild building, climbed over the wall and crept down the alley to the barracks. But the Askans had already been there; the court was littered with bodies. The building had been overrun; the garrison was no more.

Zarek stood, his sword drawn, looking at the devastation, not moving.

"Come on," Galen said again, again pulling at his friend.

"We must stay and fight."

"Come on." And to Galen's great relief Zarek followed him. He led him back the way they had come, over the wall, and then he went straight up the mountain, hiding in the early summer greenness, until they had nearly reached the top. Then he pushed through low-lying bushes straight to the Temple House. Stumbling, bent double, he was about to break through the underbrush and enter the courtyard when he became aware of more screams, close in front of him. He pushed Zarek back and crouched low - peering through the brush to where a band of Askans was steadily ransacking the Temple House. He watched as they dragged the treasure of the priestesses away. He saw them set fire to a huge pile of documents. They were dragging women from the dining hall where they had been eating breakfast. Bodies were already piled in the courtyard - and, as he watched, a young priestess with a huge halo of frizzy brown hair was dragged before the man who seemed to be in charge of the attack. He grabbed a handful of the brown hair and the priestess screamed as he cut her throat. Blood flowed down the drainage channels and the water in the tank glowed red.

Galen signalled Zarek to move back. His friend stared dumbly back at him. Galen shoved him backwards. Just as he began to retreat Galen saw them lead out his aunt, the High Priestess. Her white blond hair was matted and tangled; her robe torn and already bloodstained. She was dragged before the leader. She stood before him proud and unafraid. And, just as Galen was steeling himself to see her lifeblood flow, there was a shout and an order which Galen could not hear over the screams and the crack of fire, and the man who seemed to be in charge signalled for her to be dragged away.

Galen turned and pushed again at his friend. "Back up to the top," he hissed.

They ran through the low-lying scrub to the road. There was no sign of the Askans there. Galen sprinted up to the altar. The priestess was standing where he had left her, before the dead altar fire, wringing her hands. "My family," she said, turning her tear-stained face to him.

"It's too late," he said, taking her arm.

"My sisters?"

"It's too late."

She began screaming again.

"Show us the way out!" he shouted in her face.

To his relief she stopped screaming. "I have done this," she gasped.

"Show us the way out."

"I don't know...."

"Now!"

The girl pulled herself free from him. She straightened and seemed to pull her body into line. She lifted her head slightly higher. "Follow me," she said, her voice suddenly calm and commanding.


Chapter 8 - Into Askar

The roaming man from Cor-or-sha, stole my heart away/He came upon a feast day and so I bid him stay/My father loved him not but me did not gainsay/So when he left I saddled my horse and with him rode away."

"You sound happy, my lady," Galen observed. They were trotting briskly along the road that wound its way deep into the mountains. It was a fine morning. The sky was blue and the air was clear and Jena rode with an overpowering sense of freedom and excitement. They had left the tension of Corsha behind.

"We're finally on our way," she said.

They trotted throughout the day. Finally at mid-afternoon Zarek signalled a halt for the night.

"But it's nowhere near dark!" Jena protested.

"We can't get caught any higher up at night." Zarek dismounted and took his packs down from his horse. "Marth, have you ever been over the pass into Askar?"

"No, my lord. But I'd wager it'd be pretty cold even at this time of year."

They had stopped by a copse of trees that would provide them some shelter. Galen began to take the packs from the back of his horse. Now they were about to pass into Askar he realised how ill-prepared they were. Until now he had thought it all too far off, or that they'd never get this far. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with annoyance. "Jena," he said. "What exactly do we do once we're in Askar?" He threw his pack on the ground and started removing his horse's saddle. Of course he should have stayed in Corsha. This was ridiculous. A fool's errand.

Jena's reply only deepened his mood: "We go to Zersha and rescue the priestess."

"Any idea how that might be done?"

"Forgive me, my lords. But shouldn't you have thought of this before?" Marth said, a faint note of amusement in his voice.

"We're following divine guidance." Galen rolled his eyes.

"Marth," Zarek said. "You know Seralites and the other peoples we will meet in the desert."

"Aye, my lord. But I ain't ever been to Askar, I don't know the ways of the Empire first hand as you might say." He gazed vaguely skywards. There was an eagle circling high up in the dazzling sky.

"Marth cannot come with us," Jena said. She had dismounted, her knees giving a little beneath her.

"Of course he can, it's obvious we need his knowledge of these people," Zarek said.

"So then, Marth," Galen said. "In your expert opinion how do we do this? Do we march through the desert and right up to the city to demand the priestess be released? Or do we smuggle ourselves into a city totally unknown to us and smuggle her out - the most valuable hostage in the Empire?"

"How about I build a fire before we all freeze in our boots?" Marth said, starting to do just that. Then he said, having pondered while he worked: "We enter the city incognito. Lady Jena assumes the guise of young Master Spek. You, my lords, cut your hair and become Derideans. We take lodging. We do business. We listen and learn and we may learn something that we can use to gain us what we want."

"It's not much of a plan," Galen said.

"You do better, my lord," Marth said.

Galen scowled at him and then took out his pipe. He played a song Annelise had taught him. She had written the words especially for him: "O I sing of the blue eyed boy who stole my heart from me...." He wished he'd taken up Bryn's offer. Let Zarek and his priestess die in a pit in Askar without him.

 

Their road in the morning lay on a steeper, more narrow path that crawled through stunted outposts of trees and round large rocky outcrops completely exposed to the elements. Jena looked down the mountain; the forest disappeared below into mist. She could get no clear idea of the way they had come. It was cold and the wind whipped viciously at their long woollen cloaks as they guided their horses slowly through the rocks.

"I think we should find shelter," Marth said, his words faint over the wind. "That's a fair sized storm brewing."

"I saw a cave a short way back," Zarek said. "Jena dismount, we lead the horses in this wind."

Jena slid off her horse. The wind howled up the ridge towards them, threatening to blow them off the exposed tops. Jena kept her footing with difficulty, mainly by clinging to her horse's neck. He was heavy and stood quite sturdily against the gale, seemingly oblivious to its clutching fingers. Zarek led his horse back down the path first. Next Galen led his and Jena's horse, Jena clinging to its neck. Finally Marth with the last horse. It grew dark, although it was barely past midday, and still they stumbled down.

"Are you sure we haven't passed it?" Galen's words whipped past her and up into the maelstrom.

"No, but it was some way back." She heard Zarek, his voice high and reedy in the wind.

They pushed further down, then the rumps of the two horses in front disappeared around a bend. "Here!" That strange high reedy voice from Zarek again. "Galen, here, it's here!" The voice was filled with relief.

Galen held her very tightly as they sidled around the ledge, bringing the horses behind them. Snow was beginning to mingle with the wind and, as strong arms pulled her into shelter, it had begun to sting her face.

It was not dark in the cave. A small fire burned in the centre on the floor and torches were set into the walls. All was still and warm.

"Young lady and gentlemen." From the far end of the cave a small, incredibly bent figure hobbled towards them. Age, dirt and weather mingled to give the figure no sex, no identity beyond mere humanity.

"I beg you, may we stay here while the storm rages?" Zarek asked.

"Oh, aye, I often get visitors." The old body pulled a steaming pot from the fire. "I can give you hot tea."

"I thank you," Zarek said. "We will have to attend to the horses first."

"The beasts may lie there," the old one pointed to a distant part of the cave, away from the light of torches, but also away from the biting wind. "I am afraid there is not much fodder."

"I thank you again, old one. I am sure they will be all right for the night."

"Young lady, draw forward and drink some tea," the old one held out a steaming mug. Jena drank. It was bitter, but refreshing as well as warming.

"Old one," she said. "Why do you live in such an inhospitable place?"

"This is a place of living many years and seeing many things."

Galen, Zarek and Marth drew forward to the fire and also drank.

"I know about the coming to our land of the hairless ones."

"The hairless ones?"

"The ones who shave their heads. You still have your hair, so you must be people of great rank. Except you," the old one interrupted his or her own train of thought, looking at Marth. "You are one of the giants of the north. Utterly trustworthy when the pay is enough."

Marth looked abashed. "I serve Lord Zarek," he said.

"We are from Urkan," Zarek said guardedly.

"Do not fear me," the old one said. "I know not of men's doings. I simply offer shelter to weary travellers."

"Where are you from?" Jena asked.

"I was born in Askar. I know of the great hero Ahron who went on a journey and returned with the Sword to vanquish the evil that threatened the land. It was an odd thing, for men who go on quests come back with tales strange and amazing, but the great Ahron told none where he had been, and no one pressed him. What he had learned was the nature of evil and by that knowledge he was able to prevail. Later a stranger came to our land and aided him. It was said the stranger was Ahron's son, conceived in that other place. The kingdom of the Corbs grew from that time. Alas neither the great Ahron, nor his son returned to us when the hairless ones came."

"You know much, old one," Galen said, sounding mildly amused.

"Yes, I know this. And I also know that Ahron's son will come again to rid us of the hairless ones forever." The old one threw a defiant look at Zarek.

"It's a wonder you're not murdered in your bed telling such treasonous tales," Galen said.

"No one takes any notice of me, they do not believe I know these things."

The old one shuffled around setting out a meagre supply of food. "Old one," Galen said. "Share our food. We are well provisioned." He opened his bag and handed over bacon, bread, dried fruit and cheese.

"Well," the old one said. "A truly good soul. You are greatly blessed, young man. You have the gift of love." The old one turned from him.

"What do you mean, old one?" Galen said, laying his hand upon the old one's arm. "What is in my future?"

The old one turned back, looking annoyed. "Love."

The old eyes glinted at Jena. "There is great power in you, child."

Jena didn't know what to say.

"I have startled you. But I shouldn't have. Your goddess speaks to you. But you do not know the arts of the sorcerer."

"Sorcery! No, I do not!" Sorcery was an old wives' tale in Urkan. Some said there were sorcerers among the peasants and fisher folk, but no one who was educated believed it.

"I know your people mistrust magic. You believe it is a tool of the Dread."

"It is."

"It is power that is hard for mortals to wield for ought but ill."

The old one took a small twig from the fire. A tiny tongue of flame licked one end. The old one passed a hand over the flame and it went out.

"That is not very impressive, old one," Galen said. "There are draughts in here."

The old one said nothing; merely snapping his or her fingers. The flame leapt out from the twig again. Again the old one dismissed the flame with a wave of the hand; and then again the finger snapped and the flame revived.

"It's not really out," Galen said. "Flame often revives after apparently going out."

The old one ignored him. "You could be taught," the old one said to Jena. "You will be offered this in Askar. Sorcery is a common tool among Askans."

"My lords," Marth said suddenly. "The attack on Narvon! They moved through the dawn in an unnatural sea mist and caught you all napping."

"Rubbish," Galen said.

"How else?" Zarek said slowly.

"I was sailing into Anzali that morning," Marth said. "There was no wind and the mist was as thick as oats."

"The art of slightly reorganising the natural forces," the old one said. "If you want a sea fog you cast about for a sea fog somewhere on the oceans and you persuade it to move exactly where you want it to move and to hide exactly what you want it to hide."

"And I could learn this?" Jena said, feeling excitement welling inside.

"If you hear the gods then you can also hear the powers in the world. But I must warn you. Many have found this power a curse. Do you think the sorcerer who conjured that sea mist knew he would cause so much death when he first learned to ignite a stick of wood?"

 

They slept that night on the floor on piles of furs. The old one sat by the fire and murmured songs in a language that Jena had never heard. Jena fell asleep listening to the songs and slept soundly. When she awoke she saw the old one bent over the fire.

"The storm is over," the old one said. "Tea, my lady?"

"Thank you, yes," she said.

The old one handed her a mug.

Marth groaned loudly where he lay, rolled over and sat up, moaning again. "I feel dreadful," he said.

"You have an infection of the chest," the old one said. "You cannot travel. You will stay here until you are well and then you will return to your wife."

"You know more than is natural, old one." Marth stretched and stood up.

"I know what is and what will be. Here drink this," the old one said. "It will help your head."

Marth collapsed onto one of the wooden benches by the fire, holding his head in his hands. He sipped his drink. "I'm all right. I'll get this down me and be just fine."

"If you don't stay warm in my cave you will be dead within two days."

"But I'm never ..." and Marth began to cough, loudly croaking into his mug. "Well, Marielese will be most grateful to you when I return," he muttered when his fit was over. "I did promise I'd be home for winter." He hacked a few more times.

Zarek returned from the rear of the cave where he'd been readying the horses. "Did I hear you say you had a wife, Marth?"

Marth groaned. "And why shouldn't I?"

They sat and ate and drank more tea.

"I will be sorry to lose you, Marth," Zarek said. "Your knowledge would have been useful to us."

The Voice was speaking to Jena. "I will need you," she said out loud. "Marth, I will need to send for you. The time will come, there will be a time when I am alone - I will need you."

"Send word to the province of Mithrahi. Say you need the Baron Mithrahi. I will come."

Galen laughed. "What is Baron Mithrahi doing stealing coppers on a ferry bound for the most miserable port in the world?"

Marth shrugged. "Making a living." Then he began to cough again.

They finished their food and led the horses out onto the mountain trail. The snow lay deep, but the sky was blue and the sun shone.

"It will be one day before you find the forest on the other side." The old one raised a hand. "May the gods touch your life."

Marth stood there, breathing heavily and intermittently coughing. "Remember if you need me Mithrahi is just north of the border, in the shadow of Rodra."

"I will," Jena replied. "Goodbye." And they walked their little horses back up the trail and around an outcrop and out of sight.

"That old one was the strangest Corb I have ever met," Galen said, "and I have met a few. I've never heard all that about the great Ahron, about his son coming back."

"I had the feeling that she knew those things first hand," Jena said.

"Rubbish."

"He would have to be over five thousand years old," Zarek said.

"Well she just seemed to have seen it."

"Now what was really strange," Zarek said. "How did Marth get so sick when we're all as fit as crickets?"

"The old one knew what I suspected - Marth was not to come with us." Jena shrugged. "The goddess has her reasons." As Jena said it she thought about what the goddess had said - there would be a time when Marth would be her only friend in the world. Her heart went cold.

"And him being a Baron!"

"Well, I don't believe that," Jena said. "He never behaved like a noble."

Galen sighed. "Derids are not like us. They don't give up wandering for their families. They leave their women to manage at home."

"But he's such a good man to be so dishonest!"

"Jena, everyone has their faults."

Nearer the high saddle the path widened and became less steep. Snow lay in drifts in the shade along the edge of the path, but the sun was too strong for it in the open. The wind had dropped and it was crisp cool air they gasped into their lungs. They reached the top just after midday and crossed and descended a little before stopping to eat. Then they mounted their horses and carefully picked their way over rocks and down the mountain. The old one's words proved true and they were soon riding between the gnarled trunks of trees grown mossy and bent in the harsh mountain climate. It was a weird grey blue landscape and towards mid-afternoon the wind got up again and rain began to lash their faces. They stopped in a low thick copse of tortured trunks, lit a fitful fire and sat out the storm.

The next day, as they made their way down the mountain, the forest trees grew taller and straighter, the road more sheltered. As the day progressed the landscape became dryer, and while the trees grew taller, they thinned again and soon became interspersed with golden rolling grasslands. It became warmer as well, a hot drying wind blew up from the lowlands and the travellers shed their outer garments. Soon it became necessary to find water.

"I know nothing of this land," Zarek said. "I know it is mostly desert, but I do not know how far north the city is, or where we can find water."

"We will find it," Jena said.

The sun arched across the high plateau towards them as evening fell and they came across a ravine, at the bottom of which ran a river. They led the horses down. By the time they reached the river it was pitch dark, so they stopped by the rushing water for the night. The next day they followed the river along the bottom of the ravine until the middle of the day when, quite suddenly, the water disappeared into the rocks.

"That's not possible!" Zarek cried in despair.

"I expect at this time of year it just dries up," Galen said.

"So what do we do?"

"Zersha is on the coast. We go towards the coast." Zarek had been addressing Galen, but Jena had replied.

Galen scowled at her. "It could be days away. And the whole coast is bounded by desert. There could well be no water at all between here and Zersha," he said.

"But people do travel this way, so there must be some way of going on," Jena said.

"We don't know if we are still on the right road."

"Be at ease, young sir, you have come the way of all travellers. We will take you to the city."

A stranger had appeared from behind a rock. He was tall, gaunt and yellow eyed dressed in a bright red coat in the style of the desert Seralites. He held a cross bow on Zarek and signalled with his head, which produced more men from behind the rocks, each with a crossbow levelled at one of the travellers.

The leader, the one with the yellow eyes and bright red robes, lowered his bow and came forward, taking Zarek's sword from his hand. "You were mighty foolish to wander into the desert without knowing where you were going."

One of the others took Galen's sword.

"We will take you to the city," the leader said again, binding Zarek's hands in front of him. "You will fetch good prices at the markets there. Fine gentlemen, good house slaves." He laughed.

 

The Seralites put hoods on their heads, tied around their necks. "Can't have you dying of sunstroke before we reach the markets," the leader explained. Jena was slung up behind the leader on his horse. The hood meant she had only a narrow view of the leader's long greasy pigtail bouncing beneath his red hood and the odd glimpse of sand and rock stretching straight towards the shimmering horizon. She could not see Galen or Zarek. At one point she felt her head drop and a voice calling urgently in a strange language. The leader dismounted and came round to her side and gave her water. "This one is delicate. She will make fine tirana. Worth a fortune," he said in his roughly accented Askan dialect.

"What is tirana?" Jena thought, unable to voice the question. She wondered where she'd heard the word before.

"We could meet Larcon." It was another of the Seralites. "Get rid of the males and ride straight to the city. She will be worth more if she is sold quickly."

"You're right. We ride for Gedrith." They began to gallop. Although they spoke a quite comprehensible form of Askan, which was very close to Urkan, there were many words Jena didn't understand, and the lack of understanding filled her with fear.

"Mik!" A shout. Jena roused herself and peered around her captor's back. They had come upon a small clump of trees, under which several horses were tethered and some tents had been raised. Several men stood about and one of them repeated his greeting. "Mik, what have you?"

The leader dismounted. "Such a fine catch." He helped Jena down. She saw that the men on the ground were Askans. Or at least, she guessed that was what they were. They looked like Corbs, but did not have the same uniform dark colouring - some had quite pale skin with hair of different shades of brown. But they wore the gold hair ornaments and the plain black robes and their huge darkness seemed incongruous in the late afternoon sun. The one who had spoken had a huge scar down his cheek and most of his nose was missing.

"I will give you five hundred gold pieces for the tirana."

"No fear! She's for the city. You can have the others for whatever you like."

Other men approached from the tents. They started talking among themselves in the strange tongue the old one had used. "Askan if you please, my lords," Mik said. "I want to know what you are saying."

"I will give you two hundred and fifty for the big male, he looks strong," said the one with the scar and the mutilated nose.

"Done."

Another said: "One fifty for the other." Galen was standing impassive throughout this exchange. He stood with his eyes shut, as if trying to pretend he wasn't there. A large middle-aged man stepped forward and handed over the money. He led Galen away. Jena wanted to call out something, some reassurance, but Galen scowled at her and she was afraid to.

"So," Mik said to Larcon. "Two hundred and fifty for the big one." Money changed hands and Zarek was led past Jena. She touched his arm.

"This is the end," he said. "I will not see you again." He smiled a little. "I love you," he said. And he was led away. Jena saw him bundled into a closed cart. His new master mounted a large black horse and shouted orders to his men in the Corb tongue. Soon, amid a cacophony of shouting, thirty mounted warriors and the closed cart rolled out of the camp.

Galen was taken into one of the tents. His master came back over to Mik. "How much for the girl?"

"You cannot meet my price."

"You haven't named it yet." The Askan leered at Jena. He was enormous. Not only tall like most Askans, but also bulky, with a craggy face and long greasy grey hair. The way he looked at Jena made her feel sick.

"An Emperor's fortune."

"A mite ambitious, my man. One thousand."

"Not today, my lord." Mik seized Jena around the waist and swung her up on to a horse ridden by one of his men. A skinny young man, dressed in yellow. Mik slapped the horse on the rump. It cantered away almost before Jena could steady herself.

"Why do we hurry?" she shouted.

"Because them filthy black hearted devils could take it upon themselves to steal you," the rider shouted back. She turned her head to watch the makeshift camp disappear in the distance. Mik and the rest of his men were galloping after them.

"Sorry about the lack of civility," Mik said as they slowed to a trot half an hour later. "But that monster was up for taking you no matter what. Evilest man in the Empire. Remember the kindness of your master Mik, saving you from Morg of the South."

"But you sold Galen to him!"

"Well, pretty as he is, your friend ain't so much to Morg's taste."

"And no matter what the Emperor will give you more than one thousand for me."

"Mayhap, mayhap." Mik chuckled.

"But why am I such a prize?"

"You are a witch of Urkan. It is fashionable to own such as you, as you might say."

"I'm not a witch!"

Mik smiled kindly. "Don't tell anyone that! You'll lose half your value."

That evening they tied her hand and foot. "We have to keep you secure, otherwise you might run away," Mik explained.

"I would be foolish to run away into the desert."

"You were foolish to come into the desert in the first place."

"How far is it to Zersha?"

"Twenty days. A long way. A hard ride. You see, you would have died without me."

In the night when she couldn't sleep because her arms and legs were numb in their ropes, the young one dressed in yellow, who was watching her, said: "You have to sleep. It's a long ride tomorrow."

"Well, I can't."

He was silent, considering for a moment. "One of those your man?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"The big brown-haired one."

"What? Oh, well yes, I mean no. What do you mean? They're my friends."

"Lady shouldn't travel alone without her man."

"I don't have a man!"

"No?" he moved closer to her. "Why not?"

"I'm a priestess." He looked puzzled. "Holy woman!" she said.

"Women aren't holy. That's a defilement."

"Oh, well my goddess likes to have women tend to her."

"Her!"

"You don't know much for someone who travels the world."

He looked a bit sheepish. "First time I ride with my father, Mik, leader of our nation.... What does holy woman do?"

"Live to serve the goddess."

"No man?"

Jena found his curiosity on this point uncomfortable. "I am protected by my vow."

"Not in Askar," he said shrewdly. "In Askar protected by worth. Very valuable slave." He moved closer and untied her hands. "You run away across the desert you die," he said.

"Your father will be angry."

"Can't sleep with hands tied." He kept one of her hands in his. "Pity you have no man," he said.

She tried to withdraw her hand, but it was trapped.

"I be your man," he said.

"You can't afford me." She laughed.

"No," he said, "and Mik would take my head from my shoulders if he caught me."

"No. Not his own son!"

"He sold my oldest sister because she was too much trouble. He has six other sons. He would barely miss me." He brought her hand to his lips. She felt the scratch of his weedy beard on her skin. She liked his touch and the smell of leather and horses about him. She managed to withdraw her hand.

"I couldn't bear it if you suffered for me," she said.

"And he will suffer," Mik said suddenly out of the dark. He dragged his son up by the collar and held his curved knife at the boy's throat.

"No!" Jena cried. "No, please, we were just talking. Don't hurt him!"

Mik put the knife away. "Stupid boy," he muttered, sounding regretful. He hauled the boy away barking orders at the men who stood sleepily around. One of them came forward and rebound Jena's hands. He sat at a distance and watched her.

 

The ride across the desert was straight and hard. Each evening Mik found a watering place where he could refresh his men and his horses. At these places there were usually one or two other parties. There were mostly other Seralite bands but they also met Derideans, who travelled in much larger caravans with carriages and wagons piled high with goods in parties of five or six traders and all their servants. Seralites travelled in smaller bands with only their horses and a few pack animals. And they traded slaves. The Derideans did not.

Mik spat on the ground when Jena asked him about it. "They believe it's wrong to trade people. They don't even have bride prices! And they call themselves the greatest traders in the world!" He spat again. "They deny themselves the best profits available. I made four hundred pieces off your men for no outlay at all. It's only gonna cost me a bit of feed for you and you're going to go for a fortune." He smiled at her gleefully.

After ten days they neared the coast. The sea stretched blankly out to the horizon, languid and flat and colourless in the glare. They rode upon a low rocky ridge overlooking the wide sand beach. Inland was nothing but the vast and forbidding landscape of bare rock as far as the eye could see.

After a few days the ridge track became a road. "This is Ahron's Road. The Corbs say in those days this whole country was blessed," Mik laughed. "They sure been abandoned by their gods."

At evening after three more days they came to a tiny settlement clinging to the rocky shore above the sea. They approached as darkness fell. At first Jena saw only fires burning on the beach, but then slowly a tiny gathering of huts appeared. Mik called his band to a halt high on the ridge outside the settlement and went towards the houses on foot, leading two packhorses. He returned well after dark, the horses loaded with full waterskins.

"Had to pay through the nose," he said, tweaking his own nose. "Very tight fisted people. But then they got nothing." He shrugged, unloading the waterskins.

As they rode north the miserable huddles of huts became more frequent. The people looked stunted and bent. They watched the Seralites suspiciously and never welcomed them into their villages. Each evening Mik made the journey for water alone.

One morning Mik's band rounded a low headland beyond which stretched a long bay, curving out to the horizon. "Bay of Zersha," Mik said. "Last day today." They rode along the road that ran beside the beach. The land around them had become flat and covered in dry grass. Every so often they passed a small herd of cattle or goats or sheep, and even, a couple of times, horses. As the day drew on the far end of the bay slowly separated itself from the haze and the rocky headland came into view. They camped as the sun went down over the headland, just outside another mean little town.

Zersha was built on the rock on the headland at the northwestern end of the bay. As they rode the next day the redness of its walls separated out from the grey rock upon which they were built, and then the towers and battlements stood out from the walls. Then the harbour below them and the great gates became discernible. The Seralites rode closer and closer until Jena saw windows and openings in the great red walls, and men atop them and a gull soaring above the highest tower. They rode beneath the walls, into the deep shade and Mik called to the men on the gate. "Mik Seralite slave trader, tell all the great lords and ladies I have an Urkan tirana, a witch of their goddess." The men on the gate almost fell over themselves in their haste to let them through.

Mik gestured to his men to stay outside. He dismounted and pulled Jena off her horse. Only he and Jena entered the city of Zersha.

Through the gate lay a vast open square. Thousands of people hurried about their business. Jena had never seen so many people altogether at once, not at the camp in the forest, nor in Bryn's stronghold, and certainly not on the island. Mik led her briskly across the square. She saw then that, although the Askans were all clad in black and hence indistinguishable from one another, there were other people in the square: Seralites in their bright robes, Derideans with their short hair and short brown coats and trousers, and Falhar, although they were mostly in chains. Mik led her through a thick knot of people all crowded around something - Jena peered through the crowd and saw a woman, clad in bright red silk trousers, tossing brightly coloured balls into the air and from hand to hand. A juggler. She'd heard of juggling, but never seen it. Mik tugged her hard. "A juggler!" she said in wonder. "Yes, indeed," he said impatiently and nearly pulled her off her feet. He led her from the square and through a narrow tunnel, where an old man was singing a song in a strange language holding a bowl out before him. A prosperous looking Askan nonchalantly tossed a coin into the bowl. "Beggar," Mik muttered. "Can't abide spongers."

At the end of the tunnel was another, smaller square. This square too was full of people and a lot of covered hand-carried litters. As they walked through the throng there were many eyes on Jena, appraising her. She became very afraid. They crossed the square, walking in front of a wooden dais upon which four or five chained people stood with black robed Askans inspecting them. Jena had never been in a slave market before, for there had not been one on Narvon, and in any case well-bred Urkan kept away from them, sending servants to buy instead. She averted her eyes from the dais, but Mik led her on, pushing through the jammed Askans, many of whom made offers as they passed. Finally he pushed through a heavily curtained door and into a small stuffy office.

"Tirana," he said. "Probably an Urkan witch."

"They're all dead," the man behind the counter said without looking up. Then he lifted his head. "Well," he gave Jena an appraising stare "she certainly looks like one."

Jena self-consciously tugged at her hair. It actually covered her ears now.

"She's not very pretty."

"Well born, adult tirana, what do looks matter?"

"How do you know she's a virgin?"

"She is one of the witches."

"But the chief witch warms the Emperor's bed."

Jena gasped.

"What did you say?" Mik turned to her sharply.

"Nothing, I'm sorry."

"She's tirana all right," Mik said.

"She'll go up last, plenty of time to get them all in to see her. Reserve?"

"One thousand."

"One thousand!"

"If I don't get it I'll keep her for myself."

"Right then. Move along."

"I think I shall stay with her. She's too valuable to leave." So Mik and Jena stood in the auctioneer's room waiting while the auctioneer went out onto the dais and began the bidding. The noise and confusion in the market continued while the bidding went on, but soon Jena realised that the slaves were being slowly moved through - up to the dais and off it, and somehow in the madness business was being done. After several hours in the airless office, watching through the window, the square now so jammed with people that successful bidders could hardly make their way through to retrieve their purchases, Mik finally led her out again and forced his way to the dais. Incredibly, the crowd hushed, until Jena mounted the dais in almost complete silence. The auctioneer glanced at them and continued to conduct the bidding for a young Corb woman who was being examined by a handful of bidders. "Sold to Master Resh," the auctioneer said finally, relief in his voice. "Now a fine young male, look at the muscles. Falhar, very strong." The Falhar had had his hair cut short and, despite his muscles, which were many, looked young and frightened.

"Enough! We want the tirana."

"The tirana, now!"

"Yes, stop dawdling."

The crowd suddenly seemed threatening and the auctioneer looked frightened. Jena watched the crowd and her heart thumped. "Mik," she said, "don't sell me. I will do anything!"

"You're worth more to me sold. But don't worry, you are destined to be a very highly prized concubine. You may start," he called to the auctioneer.

Highly prized until my virginity is gone and then I am worth nothing, Jena thought, her fears multiplying by the second.

"I shall start with five hundred," the auctioneer cut across the crowd noise.

"Five hundred!" someone yelled.

"One thousand!" came immediately from somewhere else.

"Fifteen hundred!" came the first voice.

"Two thousand." The crowd fell silent, then a murmuring started. The third bidder stood forward and the crowd left space around him. Jena could not see him properly, for like all the others he was clad from head to toe in black, but he was someone of importance.

"Three thousand!" someone yelled. The crowd murmured again.

"Five thousand!" the important one shouted.

"The young Emperor wishes to take himself a holy tirana, just like his father." But the voice was anonymous, and quickly lost in the frightened murmurings of the crowd.

"I have five thousand," the auctioneer's voice was failing him. "Five thousand."

And finally Jena heard the Voice: "Do not be afraid. All is meant." She saw the one who had bought her striding through the crowd. Everyone in his path yielded as if he carried a blight with him, but finally Jena felt unafraid.

"Here." He handed coins over, and the auctioneer handed the bulk of them to Mik. Then her purchaser took Jena's arm and pulled her roughly off the dais, so that she stumbled. He guided her towards the only closed horse drawn carriage in the market. Four armed guards rode atop it, besides the driver. The carriage was wooden, but the sides were inlaid with a mosaic featuring the Empire's eagle, and around the top glass had been inlaid. The man who had bid for her led her to the open door, and she mounted the step. A hand reached from within and helped her up. Inside the light was speckled, sunlight filtering through the inlaid glass. She sat facing backwards. The one who had helped her in sat opposite and the one who had bid got in beside her. The one sitting opposite closed the door and then pulled his hood back and she saw the now very familiar Corbish features, high cheeks and long narrow nose and dark narrow eyes.

"You have done well," he said.

The other removed his hood. "We will find that fool who outbid my lord."

"It doesn't matter, Edan. We have a fine prize. I would have paid anything for her. What is your name, little one?"

Jena considered not answering. "Jena, my lord," she said.

"And you are one of the priestesses of Urkan, indeed the one we failed to find when we took the island."

Jena didn't know how to reply. Despite the goddess's injunction she felt very afraid again. Finally her enemy had a face. And that face was smiling.

"Never mind, we will talk of that later," and he pulled his hood back over his head.