Kera. For no reason that Daerus could discern, he found himself thinking about her again.
It had been happening with increasing frequency of late. It needed nothing to remind him of her, no turn of phrase uttered by the polished and courtly Lord Tomasadin or gesture of unconscious grace committed by the exquisitely graceful Tohra. Sometimes, as now, she was simply there.
Daerus sat in the drawing room with Zhedthik and Lady Risha, waiting. He knew not what he awaited but he was content to obey his resident Prophetess and keep his seat by the fire. It had been a tiring day. He had been only a few horse lengths from the Manor house and was entertaining the notion that his escort had not been needed to preserve the safety of his companions when he found himself suddenly confronted by the last of his father‘s tenants. They were older men, who had armed themselves with farm implements and angry, indignant faces to confront their Lord about his unusual guests.
“Beggin‘ yer lordship‘s pard‘n,“ said old Druthaes, “but we bean‘t set by and do naught whilst ye be bringin‘ savage beasts in t‘ old lord‘s home!“
“Druthaes, I hesitate to contradict you,“ Daerus said with thinly veiled impatience, “but Lord Laerad is dead. The Manor is my home … and I shall entertain any whom I see fit.“
“Nay, me lord!“ Gaenon said with a nod to emphasize his words. “We canna let ye smirch t‘ name o‘ Shae w‘ sech goin‘s on. Ye‘ll not be takin‘ a Throkish beast in t‘ home o‘ yer good ma‘m. Ye‘ll have t‘ go through t‘ lot of us!“
Daerus uttered a short laugh that was entirely devoid of humor. “You four would offer violence to me within sight of my own door?“ he asked gently, as he slowly drew his sword.
In unison, the four gasped. “Will ye cut us down then, me lord?“ asked Gaenon fearfully.
“What did you think I would do, when you bar me from mine own home? Did you think I would simply turn these friends away at your command? I begin to see that my father‘s tenants are woefully ill acquainted with me,“ his gaze grew mocking but, in truth, he was growing excessively angry.
The Manor door opened and Lady Risha, accompanied by the twins Sheloch and Sholeck, stepped into the forecourt.
Baer, his head groom, wailed, “But why? Lord Daerus, who are all them strange folks ye‘ve had come to Shae? Why are they here?“
“You forget yourself, Baer,“ Daerus said, sounding more like Lord Loraed than he realized. “I am not required to explain my actions to you and I am not prepared to tolerate such insolence from any who serve me on this estate.“
Laerabus, who worked with Baer in the stables and who Daerus was frankly surprised to see still with him, suddenly spoke up. “All th‘ years o‘ me life were I happeh t‘ abide wi‘ Shae acause Shae did abide wi‘ th‘ Phoenix,“ he said. “Seems t‘ me ye doan wanna do that no moar, me lord?“
“Believe what you like,“ Daerus replied, his voice flat with hostility. “Stay at Shae or go, as you please, but for now … stand aside.“
With that, he nudged Nasaeth into a walk and the horse, entering as usual into the spirit of his rider, managed to once more adopt a gait more appropriate to the massive war horses bred by Aerandos. Still armed, he parted the line of servitors before him, adding as he did so, “If any of you dares to offer violence to either of these guests of mine, I promise you I will cut you down where you stand.“
In truth, Daerus was ashamed to acknowledge even privately that he had in some wise been secretly wishing that one of them would indeed offer violence to Zhedthik. He knew that Zhedthik could not have known what had just passed between him and these four tiresome old men but he could readily imagine how the Throk warrior would react.
Would you indeed have allowed me to rip the limbs from these Old Ones, Daerus of Shae? Zhedthik asked him silently, amusement threaded through his mental voice.
At this moment, it would be difficult for me to answer that question, good Zhedthik. Perhaps, when I am calmer, I will answer as I ought rather than as my current humor would allow. Daerus replied as he dismounted before the Manor. Then, drawing the Throk forward, he said, Permit me to introduce the Lady Risha, Prophetess of Chaos, and the twins Sheloch and Sholeck. Aloud, he addressed himself to the trio awaiting them. “Sheloch, Sholeck, here is our proud Throk warrior, Zhedthik.“
The twins responded to these introductions with a blank stare and Daerus chuckled.
“Oh, no, you two. Let us have none of that. You forget that I, too, am a twin. I know very well that you understand most, and perhaps all, of what I say,“ he said with a smile.
The twins still said nothing but their carefully blank masks slipped just a little and they turned their heads to look at each other. Then they indulged in a rapid exchange in the guttural language of Ychindacht before, as one, they turned back to him with a mildly speculative gaze.
“Yes, I see,“ Daerus lifted a finger in response to that gaze. “No tricks, please. This fellow can easily hang you both from your ankles if you give him any trouble, and I shall certainly not save you.“
The pair of them grinned and turned that speculative twin gaze to the Throk. Daerus sighed.
Then he turned to Lady Risha, patiently awaiting her introduction. “Lady Risha, this is Zhedthik of the Throk.“ He could see that she was in the grip of her Sight and he wondered what she would have to say.
He was not in the least prepared for what occurred once he had performed that introduction. Lady Risha stepped forward and placed herself squarely before Zhedthik. The two stared into each other‘s eyes for several minutes, during which time his eyes slowly widened in apparent amazement and hers filled with tears. Finally, she took both his enormous hands into her own and addressed him in his own language. At least, Daerus assumed that the rasping, snarling sounds she uttered were the language of the Throk. Wide eyed with his astonishment, he exchanged a startled glance with Lueg.
With a surprisingly mischievous smile, Lueg murmured, “It is good that there is someone here who can speak his tongue.“
Zhedthik certainly understood her and responded in kind. Risha spoke again, and at length, but Zhedthik seemed to grow distressed at whatever she was saying to him and interrupted her, shaking his shaggy head in denial. Her voice grew stern as she continued, her voice taking on a curious echoing quality that held her audience captive. Finally, she stopped speaking. Zhedthik said nothing but Daerus could see that he was visibly trembling. And then, to cap his amazement, she gracefully lowered herself to her knees and bent her head to touch her forehead to the hands she still held.
Daerus was by this time afire with curiosity. What in name of Ashes had she said to him? The mind link he had forged with the big Throk upon meeting him was somehow denied him; he had been firmly excluded from this encounter and Daerus suspected that was the doing of Lady Risha herself. Something had happened between those two even if neither would say what it had been.
In the hours since Zhedthik had entered his home, Lady Risha had scarce left his side. Daerus had been considering how best to gain further information when he had suddenly found his head full of Kera, which put paid to his ability to concentrate for the time being. He had been waiting for something, had he not? What had it been?
He was still trying to remember when Lueg entered the room. “Good evening, your Grace,“ he said, waving Daerus down when he would have politely quit his chair.
“I hope you are well rested, good Lueg,“ Daerus replied cordially. He had long since come to the conclusion that he rather liked all the Brethren of Luegtha and wondered he had not encountered any of them before.
“Indeed, your Grace,“ said Lueg. “I wonder if I might ask a boon of you?“ Daerus looked enquiringly at his guest and, with that encouragement, Lueg continued. “Might we prevail upon you to serve us firstmeal tomorrow in some parlor or unused room in the upper stories of the Manor?“
“I expect that should not be too much of a problem. May I know why?“
“Ah, that brings me to my second request,“ Lueg responded with a smile. “We six will meet for firstmeal and, shortly thereafter, our Lord Luegtha will almost certainly visit us with further instructions. Since we are not in Leugoria, I must ask your permission for this visitation. We would not wish to be rude by having our God barge uninvited into the lands of the Chosen of the Phoenix.“
Daerus grinned. “My acquaintance with the Phoenix of this Age is slight but I cannot imagine that He would mind. The House of Shae will be humbled by a visitation from Luegtha.“ And he bowed formally.
“My thanks, Lord Daerus,“ Lueg said in his particular way that was both gruff and courtly at once. “I do not really know why the Brethren of Luegtha are involved in this matter. Our Lord offered an explanation but I, for one, believe there may be more to the story than we have been told thus far. Tomorrow, possibly Luegtha will finally permit us to return to our tower. I have no notion why we have been cooling our heels and trespassing upon your hospitality for so long. It is my hope that we may take our leave before we have outstayed our welcome.“
Lady Risha rose to her feet from her position on a footstool at Zhedthik‘s feet. “Lord Luegtha has chosen to involve Himself in this matter because of His special relationship with Lord Septha,“ she told them. “Our Master Septha does not choose to accept this caring interference, for He distrusts it. Our Master distrusts much about this world. This is a part of our task. As we receive instruction from Him, so we will offer instruction to Him.“
Lueg smiled and bowed respectfully to her. “Is that so? Perhaps I will tax him with this on the morrow. No doubt his explanations will prove interesting. For the rest of it, there seems little doubt that we will gather ourselves to leave here … “
“No,“ Lady Risha contradicted uncompromisingly.
“The Brethren will not leave here at this time,“ she began and then paused. When next she spoke, her voice seemed once again curiously augmented with that echoing choral tone and Daerus looked sharply at her. “The Chosen of Luegtha shall bear witness when the Chosen of Septha shall stand upon the field of battle and bar the path of the Children of Chaos. And among the Chosen shall be the Priest and the Seer and the Silent Ones and the Companion, and those five shall walk with the One bestride Order and Chaos. And this Event shall be a sign unto ye that the final task has begun and thus it shall fall once again to the One to choose and in his choice shall that which was rent asunder once again become one.“ And with that, she sat down.
The silence that followed these pronouncements was profound. Zhedthik, did you understand any of what Lady Risha just told us? Daerus asked the Throk, who was seated on the floor beside the prophetess‘ footstool.
She has not chosen to share it with me, he replied instantly. Daerus noted that there was no sense of hurt or rejection in the reply and he felt once again a sharp prick of curiosity about those two.
Well, I expect that I will share it with you, my friend, for I think it is quite important. We will discuss it when next we gather.
As you will.
Daerus knew that what he had just heard was a part of a prophecy. He wanted only to know how much more there would be. “I feel sure I should instantly excuse myself to go and write down what I have just heard,“ he murmured to Lueg.
“There is no need, your Grace,“ Lueg assured him. “Unless I am very much mistaken, one of my brothers will arrive to present you with a fair copy of what we have heard within the next few minutes.“
“Are they not too far away from this room to have heard these words?“
“No, I have a strong feeling the rest heard it as well as did I and that is just as well, your Grace, for I also have a strong feeling that you will need to spend some time in deciphering that message.“
At that auspicious moment, there was a brief knock on the door followed by the entrance of Lord Tomasadin, wearing a beatific smile and carrying a sheet of parchment. “Good evening,“ he said cheerfully. “Am I expected?“
“Well, no,“ Lueg said before Daerus could speak, “but the writing you carry is.“
Lueg relieved his brother of the sheet, read it over briefly and then courteously handed it to Daerus. As Daerus took it, he said, “By the by, can you tell me why I am inclined to call your brethren Lord Tomasadin and Lord Loasdin and Lord Brasdin but, somehow, you are simply Lueg?“
Lueg smiled. “Perhaps it is because you have instinctively recognized that Lueg is more in the nature of a title than a name. If you were to call me Lord Lueg, I fear you would be repeating yourself.“ Again, he bowed. “Good evening, your Grace. No doubt I will see you when once we have consulted with our Master after firstmeal.“
“Do remember me to Him,“ Daerus said with a mischievous smile.
It was a smile returned by Lueg. “You may be very sure I will.“
* * *
It had not been even half a year since the Imperial Princess Dia Aerandos had last seen her twin but she was already beginning to fret. “Of course there was a great deal to keep him occupied when first he did step into Father‘s shoes,“ she said very reasonably as she paced the floor of her marriage-mother‘s private sitting room. “But why have I not yet heard from him? What can he be doing?“
“Surely you do not think there can be anything amiss, dearest?“ asked her own mother, already worried.
“No, no, Mama, nothing like that!“ her Highness hastened to reassure her.
“And if it is nothing like that, I cannot think why you are fretting yourself to fiddlesticks, my dear,“ said her marriage-mother, the Empress Tamia Aerandos. “Recall that your brother passed to his father‘s honors less than one moon after the start of the New Age. I have not the least doubt that he has a great deal to occupy him, what with repairing the ravages of the Interval upon the house and grounds at Shae and the planting and perhaps he will have to do some restaffing.“
“Do you tell me that I have heard not a word from him in all this time simply because he is busy?“ Dia asked incredulously.
Lady Mara smiled. “And why should that be so difficult to believe? When he returned to Shae, it was very plain that he had greatly matured since he had gone from home … though I never did believe he was as much a fribble as your father seemed to think.“
At that, Dia laughed. “Indeed, Mama, I do not think Papa believed it, either.“
If you want to hear from him so very badly, my love, why do you not simply reach‘ out to his mind? asked Prince Caelon silently as he came into the room.
I do not wish to disturb him, was her surprisingly diffident answer.
Ah, his mental voice sounded surprised. I believe I begin to understand. Aloud, he said, “Greetings, ladies. Is it possible that we will be private for our endmeal for once?“
“No, of course that is not possible. I do not know why you should even ask. Really, Caelon, what can you be thinking?“ exclaimed his mother.
“I am thinking that ceremonious Court endmeals can be curst tedious when a man is hungry enough to eat a Throk,“ he promptly replied. “How do you do, my dear?“ he added, strolling across the room and forcing Dia to stop her restless pacing by the simple expedient of taking her hand and raising it to his lips.
“She is missing her twin,“ said the Empress.
“I think it is more than simply longing for him. I have a strong feeling that my darling Dia has not yet grown accustomed to the notion that her life and her twin‘s have diverged,“ was Caelon‘s unexpected insight.
Dia looked into his eyes, thinking as she did almost every day how fortunate she was to be wed to Caelon of Aerandos, for he seemed to know her so well and to know just how best to love her. “To own the truth, I sometimes feel that Daerus may want nothing more to do with me,“ she told him with a quiet sorrow.
“But why should you think anything of the kind?“ he asked in amazement.
“Oh, because I came away from the late Gaerud with my soul unblemished and with a wonderful mate and a lovely marriage-family and …“ and here she grinned with mischief, “a much loftier social position.“ Ignoring her mate‘s bellow of laughter, she continued. “Daerus suffered so much and, even though he chose the Phoenix in the end, he came away from it all with nothing.“
“Do you think he blames you for any of that, child?“ asked Mother Tamia.
“No but I think perhaps each time he talks to me he is reminded of everything he lost,“ she offered quietly.
“Dia, no!“ her mother said, vaguely distressed. “Daerus would never, ever begrudge you your happiness. Surely you must know that!“
There was a polite knock on the door. Hurrying to answer it, a servant admitted the archpriest Phoeday.
“Of course I know that, ma‘am,“ Dia was saying. “He would not mind that I am happy but I mind very much that he is not. But for Phoebus, he is all alone and I know he must be … .“
“In fact,“ Phoeday interrupted in his rich bass voice, “Phoebus is no longer at Shae.“
“And good day to you, Phoeday,“ Caelon said pointedly.
Phoeday responded to that greeting with a portly bow. “Your Highness,“ he said.
Dia, aghast at her brother‘s solitary state, would have none of this irrelevant exchange. “But why has Phoebus left us?“ she asked, forgetting for an instant that she was now wed.
“‘Us‘?“ Caelon challenged her with a raised brow and an air of wounded inquiry.
“Oh, do hush!“ she waved him down.
“My brother has returned to the Temple of the Fires, your Highness, but do not fret. His Grace is not alone,“ Phoeday told her, ignoring this exchange. “He entertains quite a crowd at Shae at this season. You have no cause to worry about him.“
“A crowd?“ Caelon asked quizzingly. “Surely not, good Phoeday.“
“Possibly you would not describe it so, your Highness. As I am not used to large groups of people, it seems so to me,“ Phoeday replied sardonically, refusing to rise to his bait.
“And might one enquire as to the identity of these guests of his Grace?“ Dia asked, inured to Phoeday‘s humors.
“Well, let me see … ,“ and he cast his eyes toward the ceiling in an attitude of recollection. “All the Brethren of Luegtha are currently staying at Shae.“
“The Brethren of … ! All of them?“
“There are only six, your Highness,“ Phoeday admonished her mildly. “And then there is a prophetess from the Islands of Akkam and an inventor from Gedbaen and I do believe there is an extremely interesting pair of twins from Ychindacht … “
“Great Phoenix … !“
“Do not blaspheme in my presence,“ Phoeday interrupted himself to say severely.
“My apologies, good Phoeday, but is he not?“ Dia said with a charming, mischievous smile.
Phoeday chuckled, also inured to her Highness‘ humors.
“Is there anyone else?“ she asked.
“Oh, yes, there is a beautiful princess from Pym,“ he said.
“Really?“ said Lady Mara with sudden enthusiasm.
“Indeed, your Grace, but I fear Lord Daerus does not have any designs upon the lady and, really, she would not do for him at all,“ Phoeday told her firmly. Then he cleared his throat and added, “There is also a Throk.“
“What?“ said all four of them in unison.
Phoeday, who appeared to be enjoying himself hugely, ignored the question and merely said, “These are the Chosen of Septha your Highness, and they will join with Lord Daerus to complete his final task.“
His final task, eh? Dia was frowning fiercely in concentration by this time. “And I do not suppose there is the least use in asking you what that task might be, is there?“
“Well, no, your Highness. I‘m afraid I do not know. There are two things I can tell you, however.“
“And what might that be, sir?“
“First, you need not concern yourself about disturbing him, your Highness. Whatever he may be about, he will welcome your mind-touch for all the days of his life,“ Phoeday told her gently.
“Let us have the rest of it, then, Phoeday,“ Caelon demanded when Dia, battling her emotions, did not speak.
“You need not concern yourself about his tasks, either. He is and will be equal to everything that is required of him, even as your Highnesses found yourselves to be. And he is rather too old for you to still be molly-coddling him,“ Phoeday said, his face bland.
Caelon grinned. Dia did not.
Mother Tamia, watching both of them, said, “Oh dear.“
Phoeday moved toward the door. “I came here to tell you that you also do not have to fabricate some excuse to require his instant presence here in the palace. You will be seeing him soon enough and without the least contrivance on your part.“ He gave the entire party a portly bow. “Good day to you all.“
And with that he was gone.
* * *
Grindkhuk was one of the first clan chiefs to arrive. This gathering would begin at sunset, as was the tradition among the Throk. Grundkhuk had realized that the events of that night that had so decimated the ranks of his clan had occurred because he had deviated from tradition by holding the meeting later rather than calling forth his clan at sunset. Grundkhuk would never admit it to any of the others in his clan or among his fellow clan chiefs, but he still had nightmares about that night. He was still angry with Zhedthik for putting him into that invidious position and he was still cowed by the thought of what had happened to those who had accompanied his old friend to administer punishment. There had not been a single survivor of what should have been a routine castration, so that Grundkhuk had nothing but his imagination with which to fathom what had happened.
His imagination had offered him vivid, terrifying possibilities. He had learned his lesson. Losing half his clan had had the effect of making Grundkhuk much more careful and conservative than he had once been. He would not risk his people again.
Slowly, the other clan chiefs arrived in the clearing before the hut belonging to the Chief of the Chiefs of all the Clans of Throk. It was not very often that all the clan chiefs met because it was not very often that all the Clans of the Throk did anything at all together. Life among the Throk warriors was one competition after another and there were only two things the Throk seemed to agree upon. First, those others of the south must be subjugated. And second, the Throk lived to die, to kill and be killed. That was their way.
None knew why the clan chiefs had been summoned and distrust was thick in the air as they gathered. A gathering of all the clan chiefs would be an excellent opportunity for some disgruntled underlings to effect changes in leadership without the need of waiting until the current clan chief died in the normal course of events. Even as they warily greeted each other, each of the clan chiefs sent tense glances all around them, determined to be ready for an attack if an attack came. The time of waiting was always awkward, whether on the battlefield or at the huts.
Finally, before the tension had a chance to resolve itself into a blood duel between the chiefs of one clan and another, Murthechk stepped out of his hut and into the clearing. Murthechk was a young chief, having recently come into his position. He bore his ceremonial club proudly and little insight was needed to see that he enjoyed the power he wielded as Chief of all the Clans of the Throk. He surveyed his nervous lieutenants almost with contempt and they all knew that an ambush of the current leadership could just as easily have originated from him as from their own disgruntled underlings. As the Chief of the Clans stood there, low growls began to be heard from the crowd. At that, Murthechk looked amused.
“Hear me, Clan Chiefs of the Throk!“ he began with the ceremonial greeting of his office.
“Speak, Chief of the Clan Chiefs!“ came the roaring response of the clan chiefs.
Murthechk paused, rather dramatically, Grundkhuk thought with disgust. He had little patience for posturing or power-mongering. He decided he did not much like this new Chief of the Clans.
“Once again, those others of the south have battled us to a stand-still. We have lost many warriors and our numbers grow thin,“ he said finally. Grundkhuk winced. He could not even say that his warriors had died honorably in battle and he had an abiding shame for the state of his clan. Damn Zhedthik!
“It does not suit the Throk to be slowly whittled away to nothing,“ Murthechk stated and some of his favorite toadies grunted their approval and beat their clubs on the ground.
“The Throk may be dying but we will spill much blood as we do. That is our way,“ the leader told his audience.
There was still more noise as even more of the clan chiefs voiced their approval of the Chief of Clans‘ words.
“We will go south, all the clans. We will do war upon those others of the south. We will fight, and we will spill their blood, until we have taken their lands and their feeble women. On pain of dismemberment and exile, we will not return to this place until we have subdued those others of the south or until we are all dead and gone to the Resting Place of Brave Warriors! We will not tolerate the shame of defeat any longer! We will kill or we will die!“
Grundkhuk was profoundly unexcited about this proposal but he could see that the Chief‘s words had enflamed most of his audience. Only the older warriors such as himself appeared to have reservations and none could voice those reservation or the punishment would be swift and merciless. And you should be shamed, Grundkhuk told himself, to be Clan Chief of the once-mighty Szidjik and still hesitate when your Chief has declared that the time has come to spill more blood. Unbidden, another thought came to his mind: maybe Zhedthik was right.
It was a thought that shocked him so much that he suddenly found himself yelling loudest of them all in favor of Murthechk‘s suicide mission.
* * *
“What are they saying?“ Kera‘s voice seem to come from just beside His ear.
So intent had Septha been on the Clan Chiefs‘ gathering that He had not noticed when His enforced companion had sidled up to watch the puddle of water that had transmuted once more, this time into a highly polished metal sheet that revealed the doings of the Throk. He tried to control His reaction but, undignified as it was, He acknowledged privately that he had actually jumped … a little. Just a very little.
To cover His display of weakness, Septha asked, “Why do you not understand them? They speak plainly enough.“
“I do not speak or understand the language of the Throk, my Lord,“ she said in that laboriously patient tone of voice that always made Him want to scream at her.
He took a deep breath and controlled the impulse. “Their leader does not like the inability of the Clans to conquer your people,“ Septha told her slowly, thinking as He spoke. “He instructs them to wage war, to either conquer or die.“
“Die?“ Kera asked, frowning. “All of them? But that is insane, why would they engage in such a hopeless endeavor?“
“It is the way of the Throk, evidently,“ He said, feigning indifference.
That silenced her for a moment. Septha always congratulated Himself whenever He silenced her briefly. He would not have imagined it possible that quieting the woman could be such a difficult feat. And it never lasted very long.
“Do You not care, Lord Septha?“ she asked Him. “They are Your children.“
“That may be but I can do nothing about it, banished as I am,“ He replied around the lump that formed in his throat. How He hated His many weaknesses!
“But what will become of You if all Your children die?“
And that question very effectively rid Him of any desire to weep. “If … If all my children die … I … I am not sure,“ he admitted. “I think I … .“ And His voice trailed off as He contemplated a fate so horrifying that, for the moment, He could not bring himself to say it.
For a few moments, the silence in the House of Chaos was broken only by the rasping sound of divine breath as Septha fought to get this most unaccustomed emotion — fear — under control. He almost wished that Kera would tire of waiting and speak in some way to infuriate Him. He never felt as weak as He knew Himself to be when He was angry with her.
But she seemed ready to wait for an Age for Him to speak and so, finally, He did. “If all of my Children were to die,“ Septha pronounced in a tortured whisper, “I would be no more.“
And as soon as He had said it, Septha‘s mind went blank, unable even to think because His mind was in the grip of the unthinkable horror of the death of a God.