Authors: Lee Duigon
It had all happened a very long time ago, and men like Orth and Reesh nowadays didn’t believe in angels anymore. But Orth had believed in this one, as a boy; and now, to his horror and his dread, he believed in it again. The dark angel with the slaughter weapon was waiting for him beyond the mountains. Every step they traveled into the East was a step closer to that meeting. And then the angel would slay his body, and his soul would be cast into the Pit for all eternity.
He dared not speak a word of this. Reesh would despise him for a superstitious fool. “Never mind,” Reesh would say: “You’ll either come to your senses when we get to the Temple, or die.” And Orth would be carried by force to his meeting with the angel.
But if he could escape into the fens before they got there—into the watery fens, where he would leave no trail that could be followed—yes, that’s what he would do. The other seventeen men had run away, and no one brought them back. They’d escaped. He could do the same.
He would have to be careful. Kyo posted sentries at night. But since they’d captured and sacrificed the young man with the eel pot, they hadn’t seen another living soul in this country. Orth was having trouble getting any sleep at all, so he knew the sentries were dozing: there was no danger around to keep them awake. If he were quiet enough, he ought to be able to get past them. Once into the marshes, they would never find him.
If it were raining, or particularly cold, the passengers would sleep inside the coach under luxurious furs. But on warmer nights Orth and Gallgoid preferred to stretch out on the ground, cushioned on and wrapped in furs. Tonight would be seasonably cool, but by no means frigid, clear, with a full moon. “Tonight it is, then,” Orth decided. “They think I’ve lost my nerve; they won’t be watching me.” Besides, Gallgoid slept like a hibernating bear, and snored.
Having made his decision, Orth felt calm and capable. When the party made camp for the night, he ate a hearty meal and laughed at Gallgoid’s story of a fat and shrewish fiancée who inspired him to take service with the Temple.
In due time the camp settled down and everybody went to sleep. Orth lay huddled in his furs, feigning sleep and waiting for the sentries to doze off. Somewhere far away an owl hooted mournfully. Overhead the moon hung like a silver coin in the sky. Even the horses were quiet. Kyo worked them hard all day, and they slept soundly.
When he was satisfied there was no one left awake, Orth carefully crept out of his furs and rose to his feet. Slowly he stood erect, listening; but there was nothing to hear but the owl, and Gallgoid snoring.
Orth was a big man, but he had a gift for stealth. One step at a time he advanced toward the nearest stand of reeds, behind which he knew he’d find water. He would leave no tracks for anyone to follow.
Closer, closer; behind him, no one stirred. Orth proceeded slowly, making only little movements. He reached out with his hands to part the reeds before him. They rustled only slightly, but enough to make him go even more slowly. He would have to be especially careful about picking up his feet and putting them back down. A snapped twig would be fatal to his hopes.
But he didn’t snap any twigs, and no one woke while he made his way through the reeds. Soon enough he found the water stretched before him, inky black but shimmering all over with moonlight.
When he first stepped into it, the water was so cold that he almost cried out loud. He clamped his jaws together and went on. Careful, careful—don’t stumble! Take tiny steps. There was another piece of reed-grown, mushy land just a few yards ahead, and probably another stretch of water beyond it. He would have to put as much of it as possible between him and the camp. But if a massive beast with horns could disappear into the fens, then he could, too.
Carefully he climbed out onto land again. It was only a little strip of boggy ground. By now his teeth were chattering, but Orth went on. Into the water again, and back out, and in again, deeper and deeper into the shelter of the fens, where no dark angel was—
By some miracle, no one in the camp woke up till sunrise; and by then it was too late to find any trace of the missing prester. Kyo stormed at his negligent sentries, but to no avail.
“We must continue our journey,” he told Lord Reesh. “I’m sorry we can’t spare the time to find your friend.”
The First Prester took it well. “Better he fail us now,” he said, “than after we’re installed in the Temple. I’ll find someone else to take his place.”
“Don’t look at me, my lord!” said Gallgoid. “I’m not even ordained, and my reading’s none too sharp.”
“Then I hereby ordain you, here and now,” said Reesh. “Ride with me inside the coach today, Prester Gallgoid. You have a lot to learn before we reach the Temple.”
So they were going back to Ninneburky: going home. Their part in God’s affairs was over.
“But what will you do now, Martis?” Ellayne wondered. “And what will Chillith do?”
They were going to journey through Oziah’s Wood and come out on the banks of the Imperial, across from Ninneburky. The rangers made a map for Martis, showing the trails he ought to follow. The forest was safe, but there was no point in getting lost.
“I suppose I’ll go back to Obann to serve King Ryons,” Martis said. “Chillith, too. I’m sure there’s much to be done.”
“Now that the war’s over,” Ellayne added.
Jack just shook his head. How could it be over? The Thunder King still ruled the East. He’d pledged himself to take Obann. Someday he’d send another army over the mountains—a bigger one. Chillith had said so, and he would know.
“Besides,” Jack thought, “Martis swore to protect us. He can’t just go off and leave us. Things can’t just end like that.”
Ellayne went on and on about what a fine time they were going to have in Ninneburky, with everybody treating them like heroes—not to mention hot baths, feather beds, and crawfish chowder. Jack wished she’d just shut up and let them all march through the woods in peace. He liked to hear their feet swishing through the fallen leaves, and the rat-tat-tat of woodpeckers, the squawking of the jays. He should have been happy about going home, but he wasn’t. This was more like being taken away from a story before you heard the ending.
When they were some hours out of camp and paused for a bite to eat, Chillith said, “I think we ought to tell the truth to these two children. They aren’t ordinary children, and they ought to know what we mean to do.”
“I knew there was something!” Jack said; but Martis gave him a look that stopped him from saying more.
“What are you going to do?” Ellayne said. She already didn’t like the sound of this.
“We aren’t sure,” Martis said. “But we mean to travel East, Chillith and I, until we come to the Thunder King’s new Temple. My old master, Lord Reesh, is to be First Prester there. It’s an abomination. I can’t bear the thought of it.”
“What’ll you do, just you and Chillith?” Jack said. “He can’t even see!”
“He’s going to try to kill Lord Reesh,” Ellayne said. “Aren’t you, Martis?”
“That was my thought.”
Jack laughed: not that there was anything funny about it. “Don’t you think that might be kind of hard to do?” he said.
“Impossible to do,” said Chillith. “There will be more armed guards in that Temple than there are trees in a forest. Nevertheless, we will go.”
“But why—if it’s impossible?” Ellayne cried.
“That I don’t know,” Chillith said. “I just know we ought to go. I’m thinking maybe you and Jack ought to go with us, too.”
“That’s not what we agreed!” Martis snapped. His glare was wasted on the blind man. “As for armed guards, there’s always a way into the Temple. There’s a way into anywhere. So it was in Obann. No one was safe. At Lord Reesh’s command I murdered people in their beds. But to bring you children with us—no! It’s time you went home.”
“Oh, this is all rot!” Ellayne said. “It’d take the biggest army in the world to drag Lord Reesh out of that Temple.”
Chillith shook his head. “It won’t be done by any army,” he said. “You don’t understand the power of the Thunder King. He holds the whole East captive, lands and people that you’ve never heard of. His mardars are everywhere. He intends to stretch out his hand and seize the world.
“Even so, your God is calling us to go. What we are to do when we get there, I don’t know. Die, probably.”
“How do you know God is calling you?” Martis said.
“I don’t know how! How does the seed know when it’s time to sprout? It’s not as if I’ve heard God’s voice speaking words to me. Not like that. Maybe it’s another way of seeing, now that the eyes in my face are darkened. But I do know.”
Martis let out a long, deep sigh and shook his head.
“God’s not done with us yet, is He?” Jack said. “He sent us up Bell Mountain, and we rang the bell. He sent us to Obann, and we found King Ozias’ books. And now this!”
“What? Because he says so?” Ellayne cried, pointing at Chillith. “We’re supposed to hike to the ends of the earth and get killed, because this man says so?”
“We’d go if God said so,” Jack said, very softly. But God had not said so—not yet. Not like the way He sent them up Bell Mountain, with dreams and visions—nor had He spoken to them through a prophet, unless Chillith were a prophet.
But a Heathen prophet? Who ever heard of such a thing?
Orth was a city man, born and bred. He didn’t hunt or fish, not even as a recreation. He liked elegant dinners at home, with elegant guests and expensive wines. He liked to wash his hands in perfumed water and sprinkle it on his beard.
Now he was wet from head to toe, and bits of mud and weed clung to his hair and beard. Several times he fell, once face-first into a pool of stinking muck. Well before the moon went down and the first intimations of the new day tinted the sky, he was chilled to the core. His teeth chattered like castanets.
He was going to die in this forsaken wilderness. Of that he was quite sure. Disgusting animals would feast on his carcass. He didn’t care. The thought of the dark angel with the slaughter weapon, waiting for him in the East, drove him deeper and deeper into the fens.
By dawn he was too exhausted to go another step. Panting, he sank onto a tussock of coarse yellow grass, with water squishing underneath, as the sky turned grey and then reddened with the sunrise. Birds with harsh voices greeted it. Orth wished he could burrow into the grass and cover himself with mud, but he lacked the strength to try. He was too tired even to think.
For part of every day, the Blays taught the villagers how to fight. The farmers had no proper weapons, “but farm tools do just fine,” Shingis said. A man could be knocked off a horse, or off his feet, just as well with a hoe or a rake as with a spear.
The most important thing was that the men should act together. “Never alone,” Shingis said. “Bad man come in, three, four, five of you fight him. Kill him pretty quick.”
With the harvest already in, the people of Jocah’s Creek had little else to do; they took to their training eagerly. Some of them made slings and were learning how to use them. A Blay named Ghichmi taught them, with a scarecrow for a target. He could knock its hat off from fifty yards away, and the children loved to watch him do it.
“I hope we’ll be ready for the winter,” Loyk said to Gurun. “That’s when the bandits will be desperate. They’ll have nothing to eat.”
“Maybe by then some of your people will be able to hit the scarecrow,” Gurun said. She’d tried it with a sling but couldn’t get the hang of it. “But when Shingis comes back from patrol, I want to talk to you and him together.”
Shingis had dinner with Loyk’s family that evening, along with Gurun and Tim. Loyk’s wife served a fine fish stew. “The trout in the creek this year,” she said, “are more plentiful than anybody’s ever seen them. And fatter, too.”
When they’d had their fill, and the table was cleared, Gurun spoke her mind.
“I hope we’ve learned to trust each other,” she said. “This is a good place for my men, and they’ve been good for the village.”
“No one would deny that, Gurun,” Loyk said.
“We like it here,” said Shingis.
“We shall stay here through the winter,” Gurun said. “But in the meantime, there’s something that I want to do, and I hope you’ll all approve.
“I want to send Tim to the city of Obann, along with one or two companions, to see how things are—and to see the king. Then they must come back and tell us what they’ve seen.”
“She thinks there’s a king in Obann now,” Tim said. “That’s why the two of us were going there—to see the king. I’ve told her that there is no king, but she won’t listen.”
With the country in an uproar, it had been some time since Jocah’s Creek had heard any news from beyond their own little valley. From the Blays, of course, they knew that the Thunder King’s host had been driven from the city. But that was all they knew.
“Why do you think there is a king in Obann now?” said Loyk.
“When I first came to this country, from across the sea, a man told me I must go to Obann and see the king,” Gurun said. “He was not a man of Obann. He spoke to me in the language of my own people, and there are none of my people in this land. By that I knew he was a filgya.”