The Last Banquet (Bell Mountain) (9 page)

BOOK: The Last Banquet (Bell Mountain)
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When I was alone in an uninhabited land,

The lion caught my scent and roared.

Behold, I had no hiding place,

Far from the forest where my mother raised me:

Nor could I return, for fear of my enemies.

I called upon my Lord, who heard my voice:

Who preserved me in the desert land;

Who made the lion to flee before my face.

My every hope is in my Lord, and my salvation.

That was as far as Gurun had learned the Song. The ancient language was difficult. But Loyk and his family listened reverently and bowed their heads over their table.

“The prester himself, in the chamber house in Trywath, couldn’t have spoken it better!” Loyk’s wife said.

“We will assemble tomorrow to decide whether you and your men can stay with us all winter,” Loyk said. “As for me, I think that would be a good thing, and I’ll say so. I have heard your recitation of the Song, and it is good.”

“What else can we do?” said one of the sons. “There’s no Temple anymore. There could be fighting here tomorrow. If these men will fight for us, we’ll need them.”

“You feed us, we fight,” Shingis said. He’d been fed roast chicken, and he liked it. “Our Queen Gurun, she will pray for you. Pray to the All-Father.”

Loyk shook his head and sighed. “These are evil times we’re living in. Some of us believe the harvest was so good this year because it was the very last one we’ll ever have. We shall need prayers as much as we’ll need fighting men—and maybe more.”

Gurun didn’t understand why so many people in Obann had a notion that the world was coming to an end, but at least now she would have a place to spend the winter. She wondered how these above-ground houses would stand up to the winter. It seemed foolhardy not to plant one’s dwelling deeply in the ground.

An inner voice reminded her, “Don’t forget what the filgya said. You are to go to Obann and see the king. You can’t sit here all winter.”

She wondered when the Blays would let her go.


Into the East

The trail Helki was following ended at an abandoned barn, where it was erased by the scuff-marks of at least a hundred men. There was no telling whose those were, but Helki thought they must have been Griffs.

“Martis let those two men get away,” he said to Cavall, “and I guess they ran for help. Looks to me like this bunch must have grabbed Martis and the kids. But look here—their trail runs east. Funny they didn’t head back to Obann, where their army was.”

The hound looked up at him. Helki always talked to animals, probably more than he talked to people. It didn’t bother him that they never talked back. He usually knew what they were thinking.

“What do you say, boy? Should we follow this crowd?”

Cavall wagged his tail. Helki nodded to him, and they trotted after the hundred men. What he would do when he caught up to them, he’d decide later. It was an old trail, rained on once or twice, but to Helki it was as plain as a highway. He and Cavall would have to push themselves hard to gain ground. But at least it looked like only one of the men was on horseback, the rest on foot. A hundred men can’t go as fast as one, he thought.

Crows cawed at him from a nearby tree. “We see you, we see you!” was the meaning of their call. “We know you’re a stranger here.” Helki grinned at them and saluted them with his staff. He answered with a crow-call that no one could have told from the real thing.

It was good to get away from cities!



Back in Obann, King Ryons would have agreed with that sentiment.

He was busy this morning receiving an oath of allegiance from several dozen Wallekki who’d surrendered to his cavalry. Chief Shaffur spoke up for them.

“These men are of the Serpent Clan of the Wal Hazoof, my king,” he said. “Their obedience to the Thunder King was forced: he was drying up their wells. But the Wal Hazoof have never been known as oath-breakers. I believe they’ll be true to us.”

There was no royal palace in Obann. The surviving oligarchs had given up their administration building, and the king now held his audiences in its assembly hall. Ryons had never dreamed so much space could be enclosed by four walls and a ceiling. There were paintings on the walls—gigantic men and horses—and even on the ceiling: gilded suns and many-colored clouds. Sitting on an ivory throne that was much too big for him, looking up at the warlike pictures, Ryons wondered if he were dreaming. This great hall, he thought, made people look unnaturally small. It gave him a very funny feeling.

Obst asked Shaffur, “Do these men understand that they will be fighting in the service of the living God, as do we all?”

“They’ve been told we serve the Great God,” Shaffur said. “Of course, they know nothing of Him yet. At home they worshipped the sun god and the moon. The sun and the moon are still in the sky, but the gods who inhabited them have been taken away. Except for the Thunder King himself, who is no god, these are men who have no gods. This distresses them, and they are eager to know the True God who cannot be taken away—who sent a beast to route the strongest army in the world. That they saw, and they remember.”

Obst turned to Ryons. “It then remains for Your Majesty to accept their oaths and grant them amnesty for all they’ve done against Obann, on condition that they serve God loyally.”

“I do,” said Ryons, as he’d been coached to say, “in God’s name.”

Lord, he prayed silently, am I to be doing things like this for the rest of my life?

He was sure he didn’t want to.



Hlah, the son of Spider, had a long, long way to go before he reached his home. The Abnaks lived among the foothills and forests on the east side of the mountains, so he would have to traverse nearly the whole breadth of Obann.

Young and strong, he could trot all day, eating up the miles. He traveled south of the Imperial River, parallel to its course but not in sight of it. He ate and drank what he could find each day. The land would be full of stragglers from the Thunder King’s army, many of whom had turned bandit. To a city man, it would have seemed a hopeless journey; but the Abnaks have no cities. His only shelter, most nights, was a leather bag lined inside with wool, in which he wrapped himself: it had been treated with deer fat to shed water. For weapons he had his stone tomahawk and a long, curved knife.

He didn’t fret about the dangers he could expect to encounter on the way. “If it’s God’s will that I get there, I’ll get there,” he said to himself. Time and again God had saved King Ryons’ little army, and from such desperate dangers, that it now seemed natural to Hlah to put his trust in Him. Besides which, he thought, “Anyone who wants my scalp will have to earn it!”



With no such hopes did Prester Orth continue on his eastward journey. He was losing his nerve, and he was sure Lord Reesh knew it.

“Play the man, Orth,” Reesh said. “I’ve chosen you to succeed me as First Prester. There’s no one else.

“I won’t live much longer. And the Thunder King, for all his people believe him to be otherwise, is mortal. But the Temple will endure forever.”

Brave words, Orth thought. But even the First Prester’s nerve was challenged one day, when their escort caught a young man, hardly more than a boy, trapping eels among the reeds.

“It’s time we offered a sacrifice,” Mardar Kyo said. “You and your people, Excellency, will not want to witness it. I’ll leave the coach here and go on ahead a little ways. A few of the men will stay with you.”

All the Scriptures condemned human sacrifice as an abomination. It had not been practiced in Obann since the days of the apostate kings put down by Ozias.

“It’s necessary,” the mardar said. “By this sacrifice we shall discover whether we are to cross the mountains in the winter or wait until the spring. I’d hoped to cross this winter, but there are already clouds on the mountains that mean snow.”

Reesh only nodded. Leading their captive with a rope around his neck, Kyo and his men rode off. Gallgoid came down from the roof of the coach.

“What are we going to do?” Orth said.

“Do? There is absolutely nothing we can do!” Reesh answered.

“But it’s an abomination! And what if they expect us to do the same, in that new Temple that they’ve built for us?”

“No sense howling before we’re bitten,” Gallgoid said. “Be thankful it’s not one of us, Prester.”

From somewhere in the distance, screams rang out. They wouldn’t stop.

Orth clenched his eyes shut and pressed his hands to his ears, but he couldn’t shut out the screams. Nor could he shut out the knowledge that he had sinned, that he was a party to this worst of all abominations. The young man being murdered was his countryman, a member of a congregation of a chamber house.

For the first time in his life, Orth sensed the vastness of the living God, like a great mountain cloaked in darkness. “I was wrong, I was wrong, I was wrong!” he thought. He had sold himself to evil, and God knew it. The mountain that was God was everywhere.

The screams went on and on. Inwardly Orth screamed, too. The prophets that they’d hanged in Obann’s public squares rose from their graves to accuse him. Yes, he’d given his consent to that—and preached in favor of it from the pulpit. How grandly his voice had resonated in the chapel! How the people had hung on his words! Yes, those people, his congregation—the people whom he and the First Prester had betrayed. And the God he didn’t believe in sent a monstrous beast to save the city. His treason had been all for nothing.

Damned, damned, he was damned—

“Prester Orth!”

Reesh seized Orth’s elbow and shook it, hard. The screams had stopped. Orth opened his eyes. He and Reesh were still sitting in the coach, on cushions.

“It’s over, Prester,” Gallgoid said. “At least we didn’t have to see it.”

“Pull yourself together!” Reesh said.

Sweat poured down Orth’s face, “My lord,” he said, controlling himself with grievous difficulty, “we have sinned an abominable sin.”

“Save it for the seminary,” Reesh said. “Do you think anyone can be First Prester without sinning? Don’t be a fool.

“Man cannot attain his rightful greatness without the Temple, and that’s all that matters. I thought you understood.”

Folly, Orth thought. You collect bits of rubbish from the ruins of the Empire and treat it like fine jewels, and you delude yourself. If the men of that age were so great, why is there nothing left of their greatness but useless pieces of trash? Why did they perish? You say they flew through the air, and sailed the seas, and spoke to one another over great distances as if they sat across a table from each other—but did any of that save them? Where are they now, First Prester? Why should we try to emulate a civilization that has utterly died out?

But of course he couldn’t bring himself to say any of those things: not to Lord Reesh, of whom he was now mortally afraid.

“Abomination!” he muttered.

“Yes, yes, to be sure,” Reesh said. “But it must not be imagined that bloody pagan practices shall long outlive the Thunder King. The future, Orth, the future—fix your mind on the future. It’s all that matters. It’s all there is. Live for the future of mankind. We are the keepers of that future. There’s no one else, and we must succeed—so brace up!”

BOOK: The Last Banquet (Bell Mountain)
12.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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