Authors: Lee Duigon
The rangers stared at each other, speechless. Jack and Ellayne stared at each other, too. Many times had Martis told them that the First Prester was a wicked man. Ellayne had never quite believed it. After all, the First Prester—the holiest of all God’s servants in Obann—how could it be?
“Tell us the rest,” Martis said.
Chillith wiped his face with both hands and spoke to Arvaush. The prisoner answered: he would have waved his hands in sweeping gestures, had his wrists not been tied together. When he’d finished, Chillith translated.
“He says the fire in the city, where the Temple burned, rose all the way to heaven. But when he looked again from a hilltop some miles distance, a heavy rain was falling and the fire had gone out. The city was saved. Arvaush heard from other fugitives that the Temple was completely destroyed, but that the fire hadn’t spread to the rest of the city.
“That’s all he knows. All he wants now is to go home, and never come again to Obann. He believes the Obann God has cursed the Thunder King. He’s very much afraid.”
Silence fell over the rangers’ camp. At last Bibb said, “These are the worst tidings that were ever heard in my time. No Temple! What shall we do? It’s not the Heathen that God has cursed, but us.”
The men murmured their agreement. Martis stood up, steadied himself with a hand on Chillith’s shoulder. The Griff sat with his head bowed, as one who mourns.
“There’s no call to lose heart, friends,” Martis said. “There may not be a Temple anymore, but God has saved the city, and He has true servants everywhere—never more than now. Obann the city has survived, and the enemy is broken. You’ll be hearing from God’s servants, and they will know what to say to you. But I know now.”
He looked beaten, Jack thought, like he was when they’d led him down from the summit of Bell Mountain.
Ellayne squeezed Jack’s hand. “I wish Obst were here!” she said. “He’d know what to say.”
Jack wanted to tell these men that it wasn’t as bad as it looked, not by a long shot, that they’d found missing books of Scripture, written by King Ozias in his own hand. But it was too much to tell at this time. Maybe later.
“Gentlemen,” said Martis, “we have given you this prisoner’s tidings. I would recommend you don’t hang him. But for the time being, I want to be left alone—except for Chillith.” He prodded the Griff’s shoulder. “Come, friend. I need you.”
Puzzled, Chillith let Martis help him up and lead him away. Jack and Ellayne tried to follow, but Martis didn’t let them.
“Not now,” he said.
He and Chillith passed out of sight of the camp. “Let them go,” said Bibb, “and God have mercy on our country! How are we to live without the Temple?”
No one answered. No one knew.
Out of sight and earshot of the camp, Martis told Chillith the story of his life: how Lord Reesh took him in, a young cutpurse from the streets, taught him to read and write, made him an assassin in his service and the Temple’s, how he committed murder, suborned and corrupted witnesses—anything the First Prester asked of him, he did.
“It was for the greater good, always,” he said. “I let my master decide what that greater good was, and did whatever he required of me. It was all for the Temple, and the Temple was everything. And then he sent me to Bell Mountain.”
Chillith interrupted. “Your grandson, Layne, is a girl,” he said. “I don’t suppose either of them is your grandson, or any natural kin of yours.”
It took Martis a moment to recover from surprise. “How do you know that?” he said.
“I know. It’s clear to me now. You’ve never had a wife, never any children of your own. You have no family, Martis. All you ever had was the Temple.”
“It’s true,” Martis said. “If any man could be called my father, it would be Lord Reesh. He was my master, the First Prester: the servant of God, God’s steward, the keeper of the Temple. And he destroyed the Temple. All those terrible things we did, he and I, all in the service of the Temple—and all for nothing. He has betrayed the Temple.”
“You loved him very much,” Chillith said. Those words were like an arrow coming out of nowhere to slam quivering into the target. Martis flinched.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s true, too. I did love him. I never thought of it, but I suppose I did. But hear the rest of my story, while I have the nerve to tell it.”
He told Chillith how the First Prester had sent him to find the children who were going to Bell Mountain, to follow them up the mountain and stop them from ringing the bell, if indeed the bell was there. He was to kill them, if that was the only way to stop them. Otherwise he was to capture them and take them back to Lord Reesh, where they would be murdered when the First Prester had finished with them.
“But I couldn’t complete my mission,” he said. “God laid His hand on me. I was given a reprieve. And yet God’s noose is around my neck, and I am conscious of His mercy every day. I protect those two children now and would give my life for them. That’s what my new master requires of me.”
Chillith tried to see him, but of course he couldn’t.
“So they rang the bell, those two—the bell that was heard in all the countries of the East,” he said. “No man knew what it was or what it meant. The Thunder King’s mardars forbade anyone to speak of it.”
“God’s bell,” Martis said. “Ozias put it there, so that God would hear it someday. And I believe He has. The world is changing.”
“And meanwhile the Thunder King has given your old master a new Temple,” Chillith said.
“So it seems!” Martis clenched his fists. “I want to follow Reesh there, to his new Temple,” he said, “and there, to his face, perform my last act as an assassin. Let him be destroyed by the weapon he himself made.”
They sat in silence for a little while.
“Why have you told me all these things?” Chillith asked.
“Because the hand of God is on you, as it is on me.”
“If you go to Kara Karram, how will you protect the children?”
“Drop them off at Ninneburky, where they belong, and go on without them,” Martis said. “Alone, if I have to. But I thought you might come with me.”
Chillith smiled, and this time there was warmth in it.
“I will,” he said. “Do you remember when we first met, and I said we might be friends, were it not my duty to put you to death? There was always something that drew me to you, as a friend. We shall go to Kara Karram as brothers, you and I. Probably the Thunder King will kill us both.”
They shared a quiet laugh over that.
“Tell me one thing, though,” Martis said. “Do you still believe the Thunder King to be a god?”
Chillith shrugged. “If he is,” he said, “he is an evil god, and the world would be a better place without him.
“The God of Obann performed a miracle to save His city. He let the Temple be destroyed because it was rotten at its heart and served itself, not Him. He made me blind; but here in the country of my enemies He has raised up friends and protection for me. It shames me now that I ever served the Thunder King. Your God now shall be my God.”
No sooner had the Blays been accepted by the people of Jocah’s Creek, and given space in several families’ houses and barns until some new houses could be built, than they started scouting the countryside. They needed to learn the lay of the land, and it was needful to patrol for enemies.
“These people lucky nobody come and kill them yet,” Shingis said to Gurun. “Easy to take this place. We could, if we want. They make no protecting for themselves.”
“You will have to teach them how,” Gurun said.
“You bet! My country, bad men always try to steal food and girls. Village people always have to fight.”
Some of the young men went out patrolling with the Blays. They couldn’t speak with them, and they were hard-put to keep up with them.
“Those men run like deer!” they complained to Loyk, after the first day. Their legs and feet were sore, but most of them went out again the next day.
Meanwhile, the women and the older men were putting up a fence around the village. Shingis would inspect it in the evening when he came back from patrol and explain to Loyk what more would have to be done, or undone.
“Make fence so horses can’t come in too fast,” he said. “Also, men can move behind fences and enemy outside can’t see them.”
The fence went up quickly, but after three days’ work, Tim didn’t think much of it.
“Look how flimsy it is,” he said to Gurun. “Anyone could knock it down.”
“I know nothing of these things,” Gurun said, “but Shingis does. Leave it to him.”
In the evening she recited Sacred Songs for the villagers and prayed for them. A few of the old men and women said it wasn’t right to pray without a prester, and didn’t attend the services.
“Don’t mind them,” Loyk said. “I’ve never known anything to make them happy. Everyone else is very pleased.”
The Obannese had very peculiar ideas about prayer, Gurun thought. But in light of the ancient traditions of the wickedness of the South, it was something that they believed in God at all.
A few of the Blays slept during the day and patrolled all night. When they woke, they helped supervise the building of the fence. In three days the villagers knew all the Blays by name, and the Blays knew many of the villagers’ names. The children followed them around at every opportunity. When they weren’t following the Blays, they followed Gurun. She told them stories of Fogo Island; and as she had grown up with three younger brothers, the children’s company made her happy.
Three days they had to strengthen the village. As dawn was breaking on the fourth day, one of the scouts came running with an alarm. Tim woke Shingis to translate, and Shingis woke Loyk, who sent his sons to rouse everybody else.
“Wallekki riders coming,” Shingis said, “eight of them. They look hungry, dirty. Bad men.”
He made most of the women and all of the children hide in the houses closest to the center of the village. The men were to take farm implements and hide behind the fence.
“Any horse come in,” he said, “you men must fight, all at once.”
“But the bandits will be on horseback!” one of the men protested.
“No matter,” Shingis said. “Five, six men with rakes fight one man on horse, they kill him quick.”
The sun was just rising when the riders emerged from a stand of trees and came clattering down a hill, heading straight for the village. They brandished spears and whooped.
Gurun, with a sturdy hoe in her hands, waited to see what the Blays would do. She’d never been in a fight before, but island women were expected to defend their homes from outlaws, side by side with their men. It didn’t happen often, but there were many historical songs and stories about it.
On came the marauders. The villagers trembled. The Blays crouched behind the fence, uncoiling their slings, checking their supplies of stones. When the riders were within fifty yards of the fence, the Blays ran out through the gaps, cheering, whirling their slings above their heads.
It was over fast. The slung stones flew through the air, and the eight saddles were emptied in a moment. Two of the bandits never rose again. The rest of them died before they could collect themselves and make a stand, brought down by the Blays’ short, stabbing spears. The victors then scattered to catch the horses, which took longer than the battle. They led the horses back in triumph, singing barbarous songs and dancing little jigs.
“We’ve won!” cried Loyk’s eldest son. “The bandits are all dead!”
“Did you see that?” cried another man. “The bandits never had a chance. My, how those stones did fly!”
The whole village rejoiced, the children coming out to dance around the Blays, the men cheering and thumping them on the backs and shoulders. Gurun laid down her hoe and joined the headman.
“There, Loyk,” she said. “I told you they could fight, and now your village is richer by eight horses. But someone will have to bury the dead.”
“That task won’t distress us,” the headman said. “But what if it had been twenty horsemen, or thirty? This country isn’t safe anymore.”
“My men will teach your people how to fight,” Gurun said. “The rest is in the hands of God.”
Back in Obann, Obst did not know what to do.
An entire seminary class had just walked out on him. As the young men pushed their way out of the lecture hall, he heard them mutter words like “heretic” and “blasphemy” and “crazy old fool.”
“What you say is out-and-out paganism!” a student spoke up, as Obst tried to finish his talk. “The only thing to do is to rebuild the Temple, and the sooner, the better. As for your so-called rediscovered books of Scripture”—the student snapped his fingers loudly—“you’ll have to do a lot better than that to fool anybody here!”
Another young man stood up from his seat and shook his fist. “You made up that story about the First Prester—didn’t you! As if you could be First Prester in his place!”
“You aren’t even ordained,” said another. And then they all got up and left.
After a few minutes of standing alone in the hall, Obst went outside and sat alone on a bench by the door. That was where Uduqu found him.