Thran's Testimony

by David Blalock

The man standing in the pentagram blinked once, twice, and said, "Oh, no. Not again." I cleared my throat and gave him my most engaging smile. "Hello, Jarl."

Andalarn IV, Jarl of the House Thran of Adylonis, grimaced and wiped his face with his hand. He was dressed in the white and gold tunic and soft leather trousers indicative of his office as the patriarch of House Thran. Gold and silver threads glimmered from the sleeves of his tunic and a heavily-bejeweled scabbard hung from a deep blue sash around his waist. His jet-black hair was long enough to brush the collar of the tunic and was gathered in the back to keep it out of his violet eyes. The pupils of those eyes were shaped like eight-pointed stars and bore into me with an intensity that always made me uncomfortable.

"Now what?" he asked. "Um, well, I need your help." "Again?" "Well, you see, there's this fantasy story contest---" "And you need an idea." I shrugged helplessly and grinned at him. "Yeah." "You know, the first time you called me up I thought it was an interesting experience. The next three times I thought, well, this way posterity will get to know the truth. The last few times, though, it's just been irritating." "Look, what else do you have to do?" I reminded him. He frowned. "Just because I've been dead for over twelve thousand years doesn't mean I can't get irritated," he mumbled under his breath. "What?" "Never mind. I suppose you need this story idea right away?" "That's right. You have such interesting stories to tell---" "They aren't just stories." "Okay, okay," I said, holding up a hand to prevent him from launching into one of his tirades. "The events you describe make good stories." He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. "Humph. Well, I guess I don't have a choice, do I?" I smiled at him and shook my head. He bared his teeth at me mirthlessly. "Very well, how about this:"

"Kill it! Kill the damned fey bastard!"

Unable to fall for the supporting arms of his tormentors, the elven warrior groaned through his pain. Blinded, bleeding, no longer able to talk from his crushed throat, barely able to breathe, he clung to life. Though his form was thin, naturally gaunt, and looked fragile, he had taken more punishment than any human might suffer and live. His human captors knew this, and it angered them even more.

They stood on the bloody field at the North Cross roads, where the east-west trade route branched south toward Moorkai. Here, the troops of House Suum had engaged elven forces from the Kels, or forests, of Mari and Oran. The Mari had come nearly three days west to meet the threat of the human expansion to the Oran's day and a half, and their combined forces had proven barely enough to stop the Suum advance. The blood of thousands from both forces was spread along the trade route west to Arnotle Suum for nearly half a day's ride, ending here at North Cross. Here, less than a day from Kel Oran, the elven forces had stiffened their defenses and the human advance ground to a gory halt. Bodies, more human than elven, lay thick on the surrounding countryside. Still, the Suum forces, comprised of home guard and mercenaries, seemed likely to overrun the elven lines.

A low rumble brought the Suum troops' attention to the southwest. They squinted into the distance, saw an approaching dust cloud, and tried to puzzle out what it might be. There seemed to be a large force approaching. Alarms began sounding through the human camps. The elven captive was dropped and forgotten immediately as his enemy went to meet this new threat. He fell on all fours, gasping for breath, and began the long crawl east toward home.

The new enemies were almost to a man short in stature, but heavily built and armored. As they marched, a sound preceded them, which soon the humans heard as a guttural song, low and monotonous. It was a song of strength and stamina, something one might utter to keep time on a long journey.

At the head of this forces were three figures of differing heights and shapes. One was obviously elven, one built like the forces that walked behind it, and one unmistakably human.

The smallest commander held up his right hand and the song changed tempo suddenly until, as a man, the entire force rolled to a stop. The elven figure took a few more steps forward, away from the main force, and examined the battlefield impassively. He seemed to take in the situation, gauge its gravity, and come to a decision within just a few seconds. He beckoned the human figure to stand beside him.

Andalarn Elder Thran moved up from beside Sientar Bendle, the Dwarven commander, and took a position beside Baliak Kel Mari. "Are we too late?" he asked the elf. Baliak grunted. "We are for many of my people, and many more of theirs. This must stop. House Suum must not be allowed to spread its poison any farther east."

Elder nodded his understanding. He lifted his eyes to look at the clear sky, to drink in its calm beauty. He breathed its presence, its life-giving openness, and fought back the fear that ate at his resolve. He had never seen combat in his short years. In all the time he had lived with the Dwarves in their mountain settlements, he had never participated on their raids on the non-human settlements. Nor would they have brought him on this expedition if it had not been for the insistence of the Kel Mari scout. It had taken nearly a decade to gain their trust. He had made the long trip from the mainland to open a trade route with the legendary island armorers, never realizing that nearly twenty years would pass before he would step back out of the mountains. That his return was prompted only because his own kind was murdering innocents gave him no comfort.

"Have you reconsidered?" the Kel Mari asked at his hesitation. There was an almost threatening edge to the question that set off alarms in Elder's mind. "No," he assured the elf. Bendle stepped up beside him and faced the battlefield. His presence was calming and solid, a sure guard against the uncertainty Elder felt building inside. He stood quiet and waiting. Elder followed the Dwarf's gaze and took in the battlefield landscape. He began to chant, weaving his words into the air between the cries of the wounded and around the shouts of the reforming Suum troops. The Dwarven troops tensed as the spellsong rose in volume. It sang of blood.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" "What?" "Look, Jarl, I'm sure the history of your family is fascinating, but I need something with a little more detail, more meat." He mumbled under his breath again and gave me a sour look. "Very well," he growled. "Let me think. How about:"

Baliak Kel Mari leaned over the wall and scanned the cleared area that extended about three hundred yards to the edge of the jungle south of Alak. His brittle gray eyes caught a slight movement just inside the vegetation. With a deft movement, he drew his bow and notched an arrow, sighting along its shaft toward the motion.

"What are you doing?" the man standing beside him asked. "It's nearly a thousand feet to that target."

Baliak ignored the remark. He slowly exhaled, caught the movement again, and let fly. A moment later, there was a flurry of frenzied activity at the jungle's edge. A humanoid figure staggered into the cleared area, the fletching of Baliak's arrow protruding from its chest. Its clawed and furred hands plucked vainly at the arrow, but the treble barbs only dug deeper into its flesh. It howled in agony as blood poured more quickly over the ragged skins it wore to drip onto the dust under its hoofed feet. Baliak notched another arrow and sent it directly into the thing's throat. The missile's head penetrated just under the elongated jaw, bored through the sinewy neck, and protruded from under its skull. With a choking grunt, it staggered backward and fell within inches of the jungle growth. Almost immediately, several of its like appeared to drag the corpse back out of sight.

"That should give them something to consider for a while," Baliak said, turning to Tourin as the man stared at the retreating humanoids. "They're not very intelligent, but they understand the threat."

Tourin gave Baliak an appraising look. The elf was typical of his kind in appearance. There was the ageless complexion that remained inviolate, it was said, until just before death when the full press of their years hit. The starred pupils in the grey eyes were startling in their alienness, a trait that often carried over into the hybrid offspring they fathered on human wives. In build, he was slimmer and taller than most humans, lending him a deceptive air of the fragile, something anyone who had fought hand to hand with the fey tribes of the far north could attest to being anything but true. Baliak preferred the muted, nearly black, forest greens for his garb, marking him as Kel Mari. Tourin knew that one of the few things the fey tribes honored was tribal color, even when it might place them at a disadvantage. The Kels were fiercely proud of their family ties, fought, died, and lived by them. They tolerated no amount of subterfuge amongst themselves concerning tribal honor, although they recognized the human inconsistency bred into their hybrid children. For the feyan children, they would blink at the use of human colors and garb.

But appearance was all that was typically fey about Baliak. Tourin had found Baliak to be disturbingly knowledgeable of humanity; its thought processes, its decision making process, its capabilities, its drawbacks. He surmised this must have come from centuries of human contact, which would be most unusual for a fey. Even those who chose to breed with human women seldom remained faithful for more than a decade or so, hardly long enough to acquire Baliak's intuition about human motivation.

Baliak had come to his attention in the retaking of Sumagh from the forces of House Suum. House Thran, having retaken Moorkai and reopened the Great North Road, had marched against House Suum troops garrisoning the port of Sumagh on the southern coast. During the seige, Baliak had arrived with a contingent of Kel Mari archers and had proven invaluable in dislodging the defenders. The Kel Mari had covered the storming of the city walls so effectively that not a single attacker was lost during the breach until they actually gained the battlements. Beyond that point, the archers had devoted themselves to ensuring that no defenders escaped across the wharfs into the warships at dock. It was this expertise Tourin hoped to exploit in the peculiar battle he faced at Alak.

Tourin had been appointed by his king, Hrothgar, as defender of Alak, and he took that duty most seriously. The southernmost human settlement on the main island, Alak guarded the isthmus that connected Adylonis and the peninsula known as the Gluith. No one ventured into the Gluith, an impenetrable mass of jungle and raging rivers. No one human, that is. Tourin had seen evidence of more than a dozen non- human races in his time at Alak. Nothing that came out of that cursed jungle surprised him any more.

"That's more like it, but it doesn't really grab me," I told him. "I'd like to grab you, you ---" he growled. I stepped back and then straightened when I remembered the pentagram. "Try again." He sighed in resignation and began again.

They were magnificent. Multifaceted, glittering red and yellow and white, they hung like five droplets of beauty from the ears of the idol.

Jarl Thran licked his lips and looked around him again. Dust lay heavy everywhere, evidence of abandonment nearly two inches deep in places. The tapestries that hung in tatters from the walls of the chamber might once have been gloriously colorful, even breathtaking. Now they were reduced to threadbare, faded memories of what they had once been. The ceiling of the chamber rose nearly thirty feet over his head, dust motes dancing in the sunbeams that shot through the grimy stained-glass windows where a tinted pane had dropped out or weathered away. The head of the idol, a monstrous toadish squatting thing, bumped against the roof, its body alive with jewels of all kinds, a treasure to put even that of the Emperor to shame.

Crowning those stones were the five prizes; two from the right and three from the left ear of the idol, throwing myriad-colored light around the chamber in an ever- changing dance.

Jarl crept forward, keeping to the plentiful shadows along the walls, unwilling to expose himself even though it seemed likely no one had trodden this hall in centuries. His cautious nature kept him quiet and patiently hidden as the day progressed. So slow was his advance that the light breaking through the windows had taken on the orange of sunset before his boot bumped against the stairs that led up to the altar before the idol. In all that time he had seen no more dangerous an inhabitant of this temple than the occasional serpent, which went on its way about its inscrutable business with little interest for the man or the idol.

As the dark descended, he began the ascent up the body of the idol, finding cracks in the stone sufficient to allow purchase. Like a tiny spider on the belly of the beast, he crawled toward his goal, the pendant stones dangling overhead, ignoring the smaller stones he used for footholds in his anxiety to feel their weight and gaze into their flashing depths.

Although it was nearly full dark when he was finally level with the jewels, he failed to notice that light still shone in the chamber, a subtle low light that emanated from the idol itself. It pulsed so slowly as to be nearly undetectable, and indeed Jarl had missed it in his haste to close on his goal. It was not until his fingertips actually slid around the body of one of the jewels that he felt the faint vibration that permeated the stone beneath him. He paused and listened for movement that might explain the vibration. He squinted into the twilit chamber, his eyes adjusting to the lesser light now that his attention was drawn away from the glittering gems.

He thought he could make out a figure standing on the floor of the chamber about halfway between the idol and the main door, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to grasp it in detail. If he looked to one side or another of the thing, its form was more identifiable, but to look directly at it was impossible. It seemed to slide away from a direct gaze, as if slipping from this existence into another.

Jarl froze and the hairs on the back of his neck slowly rose. He was suddenly aware of his vulnerability, clinging to the smooth stone so high above the hard floor. A well placed arrow or sling stone could send him plummeting to his death. A light sheen of sweat, which the actual exertion of the climb had not pulled from him, now glistened on his forehead.

He sensed the movement rather than saw it. The other was coming toward the idol, slowly and deliberately, unhurried. Jarl swallowed and tried again to see the other, without success. Quickly, he scrambled over the nearly non-existent shoulder of the stone idol and onto the thing's nape, trying to keep the bulk of the head between him and the threat.

No one has been here for a long time, something said in the near dark.

The skin on Jarl's neck rippled and itched to the voice as it went on. With a major effort, he resisted reaching around to scratch.

Have you come to make sacrifice, man?

A thousand responses rose in him, but he choked them all back. There were too many unanswered questions for him to open any doors without knowing how they might be closed. He chose silence and hoped the question had been rhetorical.

Why are you hesitating? Bring the sacrifice and we will begin.

Like a thunderclap, everything he had been told about Sulak and its damned temple crushed in on his mind.

In the Old Times, men had come to Sulak to sacrifice to the Diur, offering up their firstborn and the first fruits of their fields and cattle as homage. The Diur, then the unchallenged masters of mankind, gave prosperity to those who sacrificed properly, and horrible scourges to those whose sacrifices were found wanting. The fate of families, tribes, whole nations, had turned on the sacrifices offered here.

But that was thousands of years ago, he thought. How is it possible a priest of the Diur might still be here in Sulak, waiting for the sacrifice?

My patience has been strained for too long, the voice said, seeming to speak more to itself than to him. For more seasons than even I can remember, I have waited. My master decreed that I guard his house forever, and I fulfill my office. The voice stopped.

A great wailing began, at first low and full of pain, then building in volume and pitch until Jarl flinched at the rage it contained. The walls of the temple shook and masonry dust fell from overhead. Somewhere he heard a soft crash as an ancient tapestry and its frame finally dislodged from their hangings.

Come down, man, the voice commanded. It is time the sacrifice was made.

Jarl shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. Desperately, he cast about until he caught sight indirectly of the dark figure at the foot of the idol. Its shape was manlike, but somehow misshapen, as if it wore a massive headdress. It seemed to be carrying a staff or scepter.

Come down, the voice was urgent. It is past time.

Jarl caught a glitter of light reflected off the floor behind the thing and realized it was reflected sunlight coming from the jewel in his hand. If he could just get a good look at what he was facing, maybe he could figure out how to defeat it, or evade it. Twisting the jewel, he guided the light along the floor to play across the shadow that hovered below him. The light struck the priest and Jarl was suddenly awash with a feeling of awe and humility that swirled at him from the thing.

My Lord, forgive! it mewled, throwing its full length to the floor. It has been so long since I have felt your light, I had forgotten. please, Lord, spare your faithful servant. I have guarded your way for so long, night and day. Do not look unfavorably on me for my blindness.

Blind? And now it seemed to think he was someone else, someone of greater power. A plan began to form in his mind. Carefully, Jarl worked his way across the statue's shoulders to the second stone and gathered it from its place, always keeping the first stone's light trained on the darkness at the idol's foot. The fading light from outside was making it more difficult to keep the target in sight, so he knew he had to work quickly. The shadow seemed content to remain where it was as long as the jewel's light touched it.

With both jewels in hand, he began the long trek down the idol, made even more difficult as he tried to hold the fading sunlight's reflection on the shadow priest. At last, he reached the floor, but he was faced with a new challenge. There was no sunlight at all between his position and the main doorway. Once he moved outside its protection, he was certain the priest would strike, in spite of its current dormancy. It thought he was its master, but only so long as the light from the idol's jewel held it under sway. What it might do otherwise, he shuddered to think. Even from where he stood, nearly thirty feet away from its huddled form in the fading jewel light, he could feel the cold it radiated, a deep, cutting cold that limned the stones near it in hoarfrost that grew even as he watched. There was no doubt in his mind that cold would eat into not only his body, but his very soul once loosen.

The jewel light, once bright, now was muted and toned a deepening orange. He doubted he could escape before the light was altogether gone and he knew torchlight, no matter how bright, would not be steady or natural enough to emulate what the jewel emitted.

Jarl had lived on the edge all his life, taking this chance and that, sometimes fighting, more often running, to stay alive. He did not believe in defeat, so the thought did not occur to him. He weighed his chances and came to the only conclusion that might possibly save him.

"Stand," he commanded the thing, in the most solid and confident tone he could muster.

The thing wavered and stirred in what might have been uncertainty. Had it realized it had been tricked? If so, his life was certainly forfeit.

It rose from the floor and remained still. Jarl looked around wildly. What now? What would the thing expect his master to do? It had waited probably thousands of years, guarding this place. It had no other existence. Jarl tried to make out any detail in the shadow priest's form, but the deepening shadows in the chamber itself worked against him.

He decided to press the one advantage he had: it thought he was in charge. He had to act that way.

"You have been faithful," Jarl stated, careful to keep his voice steady and calm. He went on as the priest bowed. "Now your reward is at hand." Jarl thought he saw a shivering in the shadow priest. It hesitantly moved a bit nearer, the cold got somehow more intense. Jarl could feel his skin rise in gooseflesh. He tried to ignore it and continued. "You are released from your charge," Jarl proclaimed, whatever the hell that is, he thought to himself.

There was a slight pause, then a low keening began, a soul-wrenching cry that tickled the base of his spine and rode it up to the back of his neck, leaving a trail of itching in its wake. Jarl realized it was the priest's despair he felt. The shadow priest moved even closer, so close Jarl had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

Mercy, Lord! Do not punish me by releasing me from your service. I am, have always been, loyal. Command me, Lord! Test me! I will do whatever you command, only do not send me into the dark!

The priest was not willing to be released, it seemed. Jarl turned this over in his mind even as he realized that the last rays of the failing sun were about to go out. He had to stake everything on one last massive gamble.

"Your loyalty has been tested and I am pleased," he began. The priest's form stopped its shivering and seemed to slump forward. "I now give you a new task. Wait for me. Do not concern yourself with this ruin any longer. I am building greater places, moving larger forces. Your faithfulness will be rewarded in due time, but for now, wait."

I hear and obey, Lord. I shall wait, though time itself expire, though the stars go out. I shall wait for your word.

Darkness settled over the room. Jarl held himself absolutely still, eyes closed, heart pounding, expecting at any second to feel the icy clutch of the shadow priest's hands around his neck.

The room warmed.

The priest was gone, and, within seconds, so was Jarl.

He finally stopped long enough to take a breath when he reached the boat. Drawn up on the rocky beach, it was a most welcome sight. It promised escape from this cursed island and safety in moving water, the universal barrier to unquiet spirits. Jarl turned briefly to glance behind him at the hulk of the ruined temple. Its angled walls and roof made a bizarre shape against the stars. For a second he felt spellbound, the aura of power the temple gave off holding him for one more moment, one last look, before allowing him to escape. It seemed to be saying it was still something to be reckoned with, something not to be ignored or violated with impunity. It still commanded respect from somewhere deep inside him.

In spite of himself, Jarl nodded at the temple in recognition of that demand. Then he turned to the boat and shoved it to scrape along the bank and into the lake.

I took a breath. My skin stopped crawling as the echoes of his voice stilled. "My memory of that day will never dim, so long as there is existence," he said. "On that day, I sealed the fate of my House and my world." I waited for him to go on, but he seemed lost in thought. Finally, I asked what I had always wanted to know. "Tell me about the last battle for Moorkai." He did not look at me, but seemed compelled to respond. He took a breath.

Storm clouds hovered over the city walls. Moorkai's colors were muted gray against the blackening sky. Saren stood, eyes closed, arms outstretched, the air around him veritably crackling with the energies he controlled. The Thran infantry drew back from him as they would from a dangerous animal, warily watching. Spellcasters were not unknown to House Thran, yet the fear of the power they wielded was enough to instill healthy respect. The wind off the Smaele freshened from a gentle breeze to a stronger flow, bringing with it the scent of the damp and of the city. Debris borne by the wind pelted the sides of the wagons, pinging off the infantrymen's shields.

Jarl, Merrick, Jalanin, and two runners stood atop the small hill. Jarl squinted into the wind, studying the walls. There was furtive movement there, but he couldn't make out enough detail to determine exactly what was going on.

"Moorkai is wending," Jalanin said suddenly.

Jarl tensed. Moorkai was the seat of the largest school of magicks in the archipelago. They would be able to mount a formidable defense, but Jarl knew even Moorkai's mages had their limits. He would not subject his troops to possible attack until he knew Moorkai's esoteric defenses were either heavily crippled or eliminated. The casualties would be too high.

Saren's knowledge of the school and its faculty was invaluable. He could tailor his attack and defense to the weaknesses of his enemies and, so long as the Moorkai mages did not recognize him, they would be restricted to defense. Jalanin, with her abilities, could advise them of any sudden turn of tactics, hopefully in time to prevent disaster.

"What do they intend to do?" he asked her. She tilted her head and her eyes went soft. "They are confused and uncertain. The wending is unorganized, mostly individual defenses." Jarl nodded. They were aware of the threat, but unaware of its depth. "Has there been anything concerted?" She slowly shook her head. "They are still more involved in sealing the Tower than anything else." She frowned. "They seem almost frantic about it."

Jarl saw that the wind has stiffened sufficiently to render all but the best archers useless. He signaled the engines forward and ordered the infantry to stand by. The catapult wagons rumbled up and were quickly anchored. Within minutes, a barrage of blazing, pitch-covered boulders roared over the city walls, cutting bright crimson arcs against the glowering sky. The glow of fires within Moorkai blossomed as the engines were aimed at the main gates. Boulders weighing as much as three great oxen crashed against the portals, but the gates held. The engineers cursed and loosed another volley, again to no avail. Jarl waved them off.

"The entry's warded," he told one of the runners. "Tell Merrick to move the towers forward as quickly as he can." The first runner broke for the lines as Jarl turned to the second. "Order the commander on the river to fire the wharfs and stand off to prevent evacuation." The second runner bolted away as Jarl turned to see Saren looking at him. "I need to keep the city defenders busy," Jarl told him. "Can you start some more fires, something closer to the Tower?"

Saren nodded grimly and lowered his head until his chin hit his chest. The mage's hands stood out at right angles to his body; then his head snapped up. A sound like a clap of thunder burst from him, as if he'd shot a bolt from himself into the clouds overhead. An answering rolling growl waxed above, growing in volume and power. Saren's hands raised over his head. Jarl caught the gleaming of an electric spark in the man's eyes, a blue light giving his skin a sallow cast. Suddenly, Saren snapped his hands down to his side.

Hundreds of lightning bolts flashed into Moorkai, jumping from roof to roof, splashing off metal gratings and dancing along eaves and corners. Electric fire spawned holocaust behind it as it licked the underside of a wagon or the nails in a roof. Thousands of tiny fires began, to join and grow and feed on the fine lacquered woods of the storefronts, the painted facades of the houses. Dozens of Moorkai were killed where they stood as the lightning passed through them in its course.

Thran sappers, under cover of the darkness after the lightning, began tunneling to undermine the walls. Working through the night, they would replace the earth the foundations were sunk into with wood. Near dawn, they would fire the wood and the weakening foundations would sink farther, dragging the wall with them, cracking the defenses and opening holes for Thran forces to penetrate the city. Thran archers kept the defenders' heads down and covered the sappers' actions.

Jarl watched the glow of the fires against Soprum'Nek's Tower. Shadows flickered against it as Moorkais rushed about, trying to quell the destruction. Occasional explosions would herald the fall of another building and a spray of bright embers would rise like thousands of fireflies into the smoky night.

Such beauty in that city, he thought. Artifacts, works of art, books, all gone. A sadness began to touch the edges of his awareness, but he shoved it away, forcing himself to remember why it was necessary he do this. Baliak. This is Baliak's doing, not mine. Maybe some of it can still be saved. I'll send an envoy in the morning. Surely after a night like this, with the city falling around him, surely he'll see reason.

"Why are you doing this?" Tess had come up beside him without a sound and stood watching the city burn. Her face was carefully neutral, but Jarl could still see the confusion underneath. "Baliak is your friend, Jarl Thran," she said. "He has defended House Thran since its beginnings. He delivered your enemies into your hands. Suum is no longer in control of Moorkai." "Then let him tell me to my face why he refuses House Thran entry into Moorkai," Jarl snapped at her. "My sources tell me he is hiding something at the Tower, something powerful. Why would he do that while refusing me, if not because he plans to use it against me?" Tess looked at him with something akin to pity. "Your ambition has made you mad." "Go back to your tent," he commanded her, pointedly turning away from her to survey the carnage. Her loyalty to Baliak irked him. She might have to be put under guard. He heard her move off and made a mental note to talk to Merrick about it as soon as he got back to the command tent. -- "Any word?" Merrick shook his head. "Moorkai still refuses to answer our demands. And, there is worse news, Jarl." "What could be worse? We're pushed up against Moorkai's gates and can't let go. What could possibly make it worse?" "Tess is missing." Jarl took a second to hear the words correctly, and only another second to understand the implications. He set his jaw as Merrick spoke. "She will take everything to Baliak: our numbers, our strengths, and our weaknesses." "Do you think I'm a fool?" Jarl shouted at him. "I know that!" He paced fiercely within the confines of the command tent. "We must press the attack now, before Baliak can mount new defenses. He will know about Saren, now, and Jalanin." He spun on Merrick. "Mount a full offensive from the river and the road. I want every man committed." "We'll need a reserve, in case." "There will be no reserve!" Jarl cut in. "We have only one more chance to take Moorkai. I will not have it fail for lack of courage on the part of my officers!" Merrick's back stiffened and his face went hard. He bowed deeply, formally, and turned on his heel to step quickly out of the tent.

Jarl watched him go with growing irritation. Would even his most trusted servants now turn against him? Baliak, Adyl, now Tess, maybe Merrick? Who next would put their interests before the destiny of House Thran?

Sudden rage welled up in Jarl, a dark red wave of more than anger. It filled him until he felt he must burst. He found himself outside the command tent, his hands raised to the sky, mouth open, and a sound pouring from him that shook the very earth beneath his feet. He channeled all his rage into that sound, felt the power of it touch the foundations of the city he wanted so badly, felt the walls crumble, and still it was not enough.

He channeled the rage to touch the sky itself, and the sky came down in torrential rains that washed the streets and roads and fields around Moorkai, carrying away the ash that had fallen during the night from the city fires. Blood and unburied bodies were carried away to mingle in the waters of the Smaele, and still it was not enough.

He threw the rage into the fabric of things around him, between the places that exist and those that do not, the skein of reality, and it thrummed like a stringed instrument played by a titan. Soprum'Nek's Tower shook from its base to its height and there was a shifting deep beneath it of something not quite within the physical. Moorkai mages scattered like motes of dust in a windstorm.

It was enough.

Jarl sank to his knees and wept, the futility of his life finally too much for him to bear. A weariness was in him, deeper and more profound than simple fatigue. His soul ached for relief. His very being cried out for satisfaction.

He became dimly aware of shouting around him, of people running. He felt hands under his arms, lifting him, helping him to stand. He looked into the face of Sanda, a face harrowed and pale.

What now? he thought. What new horror does House Thran face? Has Baliak already organized a counter-offensive using the information Tess has given him? Jarl put some steel into his back and gently removed Sanda's hands.

He looked at Moorkai. He looked at chaos.

The walls were breached in a dozen places, places where the sappers had not worked. Thran forces swarmed through, easily cutting down the defenders. Fighting men splashed through mud sometimes ankle-deep to push into the city. A constant drizzle moistened the panorama and sent a few drops into his eyes. He rubbed his face and his hand came back crimsoned.

"Jarl!" He looked at Sanda again. She seemed close to tears. He looked again at his hand and tried to understand how he could have been wounded.

Then a velvet darkness settled over him.

He woke in an unfamiliar place.

It was a stone chamber, approximately the same size as his room at the D'al, but with no windows and no ornamentation. For a second he was startled into thinking it was a cell, but a quick glance around showed him Sanda sitting nearby on a low stool and Merrick standing with weapon drawn in an open doorway. Beyond Merrick he could see the faces of other Thran householders; servants and mercenaries. When he stirred, there was a murmur of sound from the hallway that traveled away from the doorway.

"He is alive!" Jarl looked at Sanda, puzzled. She smiled softly at him and took his hand. "We thought we had lost you." "What?" "He's alive!" someone shouted outside, echoed by other voices and carried farther away.

He looked around again, taking in the pallet on which he lay. The room was clean of any ornamentation, though there was plenty of evidence that at one time it had been richly bedecked. Hooks for tapestries hung askew or broken in the walls. Lighter areas in the stone indicated where large paintings may have hung. The floors were marked in some areas, unmarked in others, as if previously covered with thick carpets.

"How do you feel?" Sanda asked, placing a cool palm against his forehead. "I'm fine," Jarl asserted, taking her hand away, but not releasing it. "Where are we? How long was I out?" "You are in Moorkai. You've been unconscious for nearly three days." Jarl looked toward the voice and saw Adyl shouldering his way past Merrick. He levered himself into a sitting position, fighting off the giddiness the sudden movement inflicted on him. "Merrick, what is this man doing here?" Jarl growled. "Saving your life, sire," the Housemaster bit back. His face was stone, his manner stiff. "I sent for him," Sanda explained. "Please, don't be angry. You were in such pain, and I didn't know who else to trust." Jarl patted her hand reassuringly. "I'm not angry, my dear, just confused." He turned to Adyl. "And I don't know if I trust him as much as you do." Adyl moved beside Sanda. "Your wife's instincts were correct, Thran. She called me at the proper time." Jarl struggled to stand, waving away Sanda's protests. He squared off against Adyl. "Have you come to remove me from Moorkai?" Jarl asked. Adyl seemed amused. "Little point now. You are here, it is done." The priest waved his left hand in Jarl's direction. "You have placed things in motion that were destined to happen sooner or later, Thran. That it happens in my lifetime makes me a part of it." Jarl frowned. "What the hell are you talking about?" "Time enough for explanations later," Adyl said, stepping back toward the door. "We will see each other again soon." Merrick let the priest through, then planted himself again in the doorway. "He's angry with you," Sanda said. "How can you tell anything about that priest?" Jarl said, shaking his head. "Not him. Merrick." Jarl took in the straight back and high chin of his Housemaster. "I know." "What happened between you?" Jarl looked back at her, leaned forward and kissed her. "Maybe too much," he told her. He had a sudden thought. "What about Baliak?" Sanda's eyes darted to Merrick. "He's under guard." "Was he hurt?" Jarl asked, concerned. "No, but I think you should see him." Jarl clenched a fist and grit his teeth. "I intend to."

Jarl went out to survey the damage. The majority of the city was in ruins, as if an earthquake centered in the city square had struck. Rubble filled the streets in places making them impassable. Bodies of combatants and civilians lay strewn among the rubble in varying stages of decay. Work parties carried the remains to fires that burned day and night, sending a pall over the city that the river breeze did little to alleviate. Wherever he went, he noticed the people watched him with what could only be called awe and a little fear. He was at a loss to explain this. Never had he mistreated his household, never had he tolerated injustice amongst his charges. House Thran was a responsibility he took very seriously, one he wished to see grow and expand in influence and power, but never at the expense of fairness. Yet, here he was, being treated like a despot. People scrambled away from him when he spoke, as if afraid they would be beaten if they disobeyed. His lieutenants, once outspoken with their own ideas about tactics and strategies, obeyed his orders without question or the slightest resistance. Worst of all was Merrick. The Housemaster spoke only when spoken to, and then only to agree or acknowledge an order. When Jarl asked his opinion concerning the disposition of certain supplies, Merrick diplomatically, and coldly, deferred the decision to Jarl.

The House had been installed in one of the buildings close to Soprum'Nek's Tower, where House Suum had previously been installed. Jarl found the accommodations more than satisfactory, almost luxurious, compared to Thran Keep. Still, he realized that House Thran was only, as yet, another in a line of usurpers. If House Thran was to reinstate itself in the graces of Moorkai, he would have to convince the Council that his actions were not only necessary, but in the best interests of Moorkai. That meant locating the Council members among the Moorkai and explaining himself, something Jarl did not look forward to.

"Aren't you going to ask?" Merrick said. Jarl pulled himself away from his reverie. "Ask what?" "Aren't you curious about what happened, why you were unconscious for three days?" I'm not, am I? Jarl realized. I haven't even thought about it, never questioned it. I've lost three days out of my life, and it just seems right. He felt a twinge in his chest, as if something moved there that was not part of him. "Do you even remember?" Merrick asked, leaning toward Jarl, looking into his eyes directly for the first time in days. Jarl could not break that gaze. "No," Merrick said, almost to himself. "No, you don't. You don't remember the earthquake, the flood, the breaking of the ward." Noises rattled in Jarl's head, memories jumbled beyond comprehension. Merrick's words were bouncing around inside him, riding herd on the memories. Jarl tried to put a pattern to them. "Do you remember ordering the frontal assault?" Jarl nodded. Yes, he did remember shouting at Merrick, but then things got gray and distant. "I remember being angry at you," he said slowly, trying to form his words into the patterns that skipped past his awareness. "Being outside the tent, angry. I remember the earth shaking. Rain. Something moving. The Tower." He shook his head. It was no use, there wasn't enough left to fill the gaps. "You came out of the tent like a wild man," Merrick began, his voice tense with the memory. "You threw your hands into the air and there was a crash of sound that shook the earth. The rumble went down the hill and struck Moorkai like an army. The walls fell like paper under the impact. You shouted again, and the sky opened up. It rained for nearly three hours straight, made a flood that broke the levies and swamped the fields to the north. You shouted a third time and I heard a crackling behind my ears, like the cawing of a great raven when it fights with another, and the gates of Moorkai fell open. I saw a bluish light stream from the Tower and reflect off the rain clouds. It gave me a cold feeling, that light." Jarl sat with his mouth open, staring at Merrick. Spellcasting? I was spellcasting? "Moorkai fell not to your mercenaries, not to your siege engines, not even to your own House regulars." Merrick leaned back and studied Jarl for a moment. "It fell to your voice."

"No more," he said, voice heavy with pain. "No more." In spite of what I knew of him, of what he had done, of the evil he had designed and carried off, I felt sorry for him. He had destroyed his family, his home, his world, and yet it seemed he was little more than a pawn in the hands of a fickle and mischievous force beyond his control. I relented. I drew back from demanding more of him. Perhaps this would be enough. Perhaps this would be what I needed. This time, when Andalarn Thran faded from my world, it would be into eternal peace. Or so I thought.


© 2000 David Blalock

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