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NOTHING DARKER THAN THE LIGHT

volume two

 

 

 

THE LAND OF FIRE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One.

 

Evenings here are longer: cooler, the air like clear sweet water. The sun sets towards the northwest; hanging in a soft golden sky. The silence is strange, for with it there is a sense of distance which is not of the world. The sea beyond the cape appears to stretch to infinity, flat, shining like silver plate, but marbled towards the shore with hues of green and blue. The coastline of the north is incised in the sea in exact detail, a dark tracery the eye can follow away into the hazy gold of the horizon.

The contrast with the homeland is total. There the sea is always swollen and deep blue, bulging up from the horizon, warm and sensual. The sun burns all day and then is suddenly gone. Always a moment of shock, I now realise, having seen other sunsets.

But I think the main difference is this: the homeland is full; this land is empty. Again, it is only now that I realise the nature of that fulness: a crest; we are always carried on a crest of heat, of movement; a ritual of life always at its peak. Here I feel expanded, stretched out like the sea, flat, silent and passive. This land is empty and in itself at peace. But even though I expand to fill all the space between sea and sky, land and sky, I continue to move inside myself. In the homeland all things seem to move in unison, but here I am learning that men have their own movement. And that movement outstrips the world; it is restless, not at peace. It is at times frightening, because sometimes I think it has no limits.

Beyond the stockade, the soldiers returning from the forest can be heard singing. Ingrained habit formed them into ranks of two, marching in step, leaping and double-stepping at times over the rough ground of the track to maintain the rhythm. They wear no uniforms and carry no weapons. Some are naked, but most wear breech clothes to protect themselves. They carry saws, axes, hammers, rasps, bars and a lot of rope. They march, fumble, tumble, hop, skip, all the time singing at full throat, all the time balancing and rebalancing the tools they carry. There are over a hundred soldiers in all. They return along three different paths to the stockade. One leads up from the beach opposite the cape, where an area has been cleared of scrub and grasses for carpentry work, where the benches, bunks, doors, windows, shutters and frames are being fabricated. The second comes from a clearing in the forest, a meadow beside the river. Here the planking is being cut, for which water is needed, water to cool the tools and the men. The last path comes from the heart of the forest itself, where the trees are felled and stripped. Along these paths during the day there is a constant traffic of men and materials. Trunks dragged from the forest come to be sorted, some going to the meadow, others going to the beach. From the meadow comes planking, carried or dragged by teams of men, again being sorted, some for the carpenters at the beach, some for the construction going on within the stockade. Finally, along the track from the beach comes fabricated sections and finished artefacts, all going straight into the fort. The smell of new timber is pervasive, and the noise can be appalling.

Marching in groups, in ranks of two, the soldiers keep a good pace, even at the end of the day. But once they clear the trees and the high stockade of barked trunks comes into view on the other side of the river, on the shoulder of the low height of the cape, they instinctively increase their pace. By the time it comes to ford the river, their songs have usually degenerated into cries and whoops, or a pensive, determined silence. Most of the soldiers run the last section from the bank of the river up to the fort.

The official routine at the end of a working day is for the soldiers to return to the fort and check in their tools. Troop leaders meanwhile give the Engineer details of the work done, number of trees felled, stripped and subsequent destination. Again, there are the details of the planking operations, number and size of planks, and their destination. The carpenters usually present themselves as a group when their report is made. Their reports are exhaustive, so accounts are taken with direct reference to the Engineer’s plans and the visible additions to the structures surrounding them in the fort.

While these reports are being made, the soldiers, once their tools have been checked in, return to the river to wash themselves and their clothing. An area on the river below the stockade, but in sight of it, has been cleared, the river partially dammed and dredged, so that a large clear pool with a slow current has been formed. Here up to thirty soldiers at a time could wash without crowding one another. The water is groin deep, shallow enough to allow freedom of movement, but deep enough to allow complete submersion with ease and without danger. Coarse sand has been brought up from the mouth of the river and strewn over the bed of the pool. This gives a sure footing and is also useful for scrubbing.

The coolness of the evening seemed at first to present a problem. It was hoped that rapid acclimatisation would solve this problem - the Brigan hostage shows no discomfort at all while bathing. Meanwhile it was thought that a number of large fires at points along the bank of the pool would encourage the soldiers to use the pool regularly. But only a small proportion of the soldiers use the pool on any one evening. Most are content to splash and wash as they cross the river on their return from the forest. In the event, no fires were lit: those who use the pools usually run back to the fort and dry and warm themselves in that way.

The evening meal is then prepared, served and eaten within the stockade. This had not been the original intention. The fires, for one thing, are a real hazard within the fort. But the decision to cook within the stockade was unanimous. In the mornings and evenings, then, there is the inconvenience of smoke, for the days are calm, and often grease irritates the eyes and nose. Yet no one complains. Perhaps it is the newness of the settlement, the strangeness of the terrain, but every communal activity is carried out within the high walls of the stockade, within which nothing can be seen but the sky. The soldiers eat, sleep and play within the fort. It is a good thing that it is designed to hold five times their number.

In change,
The old and the new dwell together.
The constant must measure the novel.

The sun, sea, land, and man. Difference, when it appears, always comes from the same. How could it be otherwise? There is nothing entirely new. With that knowledge a man can accept anything. I am restless because there has been a break in rhythm. Soon the rhythm will reassert itself.

Yet the paradox of this place. There is a cool peace here, stretching out into such distances. Everything mirrors the utter stillness. The sea mirrors the sky, but it has the silver sheen of the moon. The sky is like the sea, but with a fixed placidity that belies the waves and the tides. And the land, even there the sun is seen: the bronze glow of this northern sunset.

These mirrors show an infinity.

Yet the paradox. A man can be active without pause. No deadening heat in the day, no sultriness at night. There is no lassitude in this stillness.

But how can an infinity be filled by the action of men?

We start here with this little square of wood. One hundred men labour tirelessly for three months. Within this place there is no infinity, only noise, heat and smells. We are here together.

Yet - why is the land empty? Why do no men live here?

The Brigan guide says there are savages; wild harmless nomads. He believes it to be a middle land, between the Land of Men and the Land of Fire.

A land that marks the end of the world.

The Astronomer laughs at him and says that there can be no end to the world. For my part, I have never heard of such a tale from any other part of the world. And how can a world have only one end? An island is bounded on all sides. Everything is bounded.

Yet the superstition must have some basis in fact. But I have never heard of a Land of Fire, ever. Not even where the sun is hottest. So how is it possible in this place, where the sun is cool?

The old man says that it is a place where land is made again. I don’t understand that at all, and the old man only laughs when he is asked for more detail. Yet the Astronomer remains silent on this point, so there may be sense in it.

But a young land should be active and unfinished, like a child. This land is still and distant, like an old man.

A place of paradoxes. But the priest says that there is no such thing as a paradox, that paradox is a peculiarity of language. Here, he says, it is only a question of novelty. The novelty is simply that of place, which in itself betrays no strangeness. Men can act here, and materials are no different here. In time we will grow used to the place.

He is right. As always.

But there is a difference. I feel it.

While it is usual at a time of construction or temporary settlement for us to sleep on the ground with only rudimentary shelter, here the coolness of the climate has made it necessary to construct proper dormitories. It was fortuitous’ that such buildings were intended in the first place as part of the plan of settlement. Otherwise, their construction would have seriously upset our schedule. It is arguable that they need not have been constructed first. But as there were no hostile tribes or enemies in the vicinity, construction of dormitories for the soldiers was undertaken alongside the establishment of the foundations of the stockade. Again, it was a unanimous decision. We could not do without proper rest at a time of great industry while awaiting adequate acclimatisation.

The evening meal is usually finished, the fires banked for the night, and the night sentries in their huts by the time twilight has come on. Even now, it is a strange moment. Out here at the limit of the Empire there are no settlements to provide diversion and entertainment for the soldiers. There are no lighted dwellings of homes or taverns or show-houses. And there are no women, except the Brigan's concubine. It is a moment when everyone seems non-plussed. In the beginning, groups of soldiers would walk aimlessly about the compound, talking, singing, or laughing. It was pleasant because it filled up the silence of the night. Now most go into the dormitories once they have eaten or finished their tasks. Before it is dark, the compound is deserted, a few lights to be seen in the dormitory buildings only. But then the shutters are fastened and all is black.

We are like chastened men, worse even than slaves. But in our great Empire, which spans much of the world, it is rare that its limits are crossed. Especially in the exploration of a new land. We should remember that and be proud of our task. The new should always make men cautious. Care, restraint, and a balance of work and rest are required until there is establishment and the new tamed.

And there is this I would like the priest to answer: why are we afraid? It is not the fact of the new star which concerns me. His explanation is plausible. But it is the matter of fear that concerns me. That and the rumours of a prophecy.

It is not man's reason that is vulnerable, but his heart. /P>

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Pol-Chi was called in from the platform.

His two aides awaited him by the door. Neither being armed, each had stuck the thumb of his left hand into his belt.

‘The Engineer’s report?’

'Yes, Commander.’

Pol-Chi searched about and found his cloak lying across a trunk near the window. He swung it around his shoulders, and then realised how chilly he was. Immediately, he began to rub his hands together briskly.

‘Everything up to date?’

‘Yes, Commander. Though he says he will have to search out some tall hardwood very soon.’

‘Well, he’ll be best able to organise that. Tell him that when next you see him.’

His body was warming. But his face remained cool, the skin tingling. The air was peculiarly refreshing in the evenings here. His mood, expanded and light, seemed to hover above everything, poised at some edge of reality.

It would be pleasant to sit on in the dark here and continue his thoughts. However, the affairs of the expedition must be attended to.

‘The reconnaissance patrol has returned.’

‘Yes, Commander. It will report at the meeting’’

‘Good. That report could help to decide matters. We can see from here that the forest is not too extensive, and that the Grasslands continue north.’

‘And the coastline is unindented for at least three days’ journey north,’ the other aide put in helpfully.

‘As I suspected,’ Pol-Chi said warmly. But it was good to confer with one’s companions, to attend to practical matters.

There was a low knock on the door and the sound of many feet on the wooden floor outside.

‘Quick, lights,’ Pol-Chi urged, turning his small, thick body nimbly and retreating towards the window.

The sun was down, and the sky was the most beautiful clear indigo.

His Captains filed into the cabin, followed by the Temple Astronomer and the Brigan guide. Pol-Chi saw how, as usual, they sorted themselves out on the forms along the walls. His Captains chose their seating companions on the basis of kinship, not military specialism. The two outsiders were left, again as usual, isolated together near the door, facing him. Even the priest of the expedition avoided them, coming to sit as expected at his Commander’s right hand.

The aides brought oil lamps from the hall and hung them from hooks in the low ceiling. Then they sat on a form facing Pol-Chi, on the other side of the door from the outsiders.

The balance in terms of kinship among the Captains, Pol-Chi noted, was subtle and a remarkable exercise in diplomacy. The three who sat to his right were related to him through his father and his kin; the three on his left were related to him through his mother and her kin. And the priest, who sat closest to him, was also his closest relation there, his nephew. Again, his young aides, who sat facing him, were related to him also through his own generation, being sons of his sisters.

The bonds here were unbreakable. Such tight and subtly interwoven blood relationships were the strength of the Empire.

As the gathering grew accustomed to the light and settled into the cabin, Pol-Chi continued his meditation. Even the strangers were in balance with the network of relations. The Temple Astronomer was of the Merura, the red-skinned aristocracy of the Empire, whose weave of kinship straddled the whole Empire and maintained cohesion at the very highest levels. Naturally, there was no kinship between the black skinned military of the central provinces of the Empire and the Merura aristocracy, whose origins were specific but whose homeland was now the entire Imperium. Here the obligation of caste obtained in the awareness of the well-being of the Empire.

On the other hand, the Brigan was a complete outsider, having no formal relations whatsoever with the Empire. His people were not tributaries nor were they subordinated. He precisely balanced the Merura priest in an axis that related the Empire to the remainder of the world, except of course in the matter of the enemies of the Empire, with whom no relationship was possible.

Even the various postures expressed the complex of relations. He himself, as Commander, was most at ease, yet most alert to the whole group. His priest mimicked his alertness, but not his ease. His Captains were at ease but not particularly alert; his aides were attentive to him and not particularly at ease. The Astronomer was most erect and restrained, neither at ease nor alert to the group. The Brigan, on the other hand, was most indolent, resting his arms on his knees, staring at the floor, totally indifferent to the group.

Pol-Chi saw that everyone was prepared. He coughed and threw open his cloak and leaned forward slightly. Everyone became alert and leaned forward expectantly. Except, of course, the strangers.

About to speak, Pol-Chi suddenly saw a new set of correspondence. All the military were black. The Merura was red-skinned and black-haired; and the Brigan was red-haired and white-skinned. The military and the Merura corresponded through blackness, but differed where the Merura and the Brigan corresponded, through redness. And as should be, there was no correspondence between the military and the Brigan; in fact opposition existed, between black and white.

He realised that his thoughts ran on too long. He coughed again and spoke into the attentive group;

‘Tan-Sha, how much remains to be done in the settlement?'

The Engineer answered immediately, but easily:

‘With the material to hand all the buildings will be completed within three days. Then there remains the matter of the watch-towers. The timber for the stockade towers is to be cut and trimmed tomorrow. As there will be at least fifty men available for this task, the towers should be built in five days. However, we have not yet found trees appropriate for the main tower. As more men are freed from other work, I will put them to help the search. Once found, the tower can be built in about six days.’

Pol-Chi digested this information deliberately.

‘Is there a quicker way of building this tower?’

Seeing Tan-Sha sit back, Pol-Chi realised that what the Engineer was about to propose was not agreeable to his training.

‘We could place the tower on top of the administrative building.’

‘But...?’

‘Militarily, as you know, it is best if the central watch-tower and the command communicated by sight. So they should occupy the diagonal corners of an inner square clear of all other buildings. In any case, the actual superimposition of the tower could take over eight days. The administrative building would have to be reinforced before the tower could be constructed...'

‘I see.’ Pol-Chi looked around to all his Captains. ‘As you know, the main fleet will arrive here in about four days’ time. I had hoped that by then we would be ready to continue up the coast. There will be a lot of confusion with the landing of the Land Reconnaissance Army. We could not avoid becoming involved with it. That would keep us here for a further six or seven days.’

He looked at the floor. His Captains did likewise. In the silence, Pol-Chi felt the reluctance of his men at the prospect of moving on. Here the fear showed its irrationality. It threatened to make all action subject to its influence. Any pause in forward momentum would lead to inertia and a desire to return to the homeland, to hide from the fear.

A voice from his left spoke:

‘Could the main fleet not complete the tower, especially if we prepare the materials?’

The female practicality was required. But it jarred with routine.

‘We are to complete the fort,’ Pol-Chi said softly. ‘That is our task.'

‘But we are to continue north once the main fleet arrives.' This voice came from his right. Pol-Chi smiled at the floor. ‘Yes. We are.’

Only one person laughed. But it was too sharp and Pol-Chi could feel the tension in the cabin immediately.

My men are tired. I must give them purpose.

‘We will do this. We will complete the work on hand as quickly as possible. Meanwhile the search for the trees for the main tower will continue. Once they are found, everyone will concentrate on that final task.'

There were nods and murmurs of assent.

‘Now, in about four days’ time we will provision the ships and prepare them for sea. We will have to move them from their present anchorage, because the fleet will require that road. I think we should move them across the river mouth to the beach. Where exactly they should be anchored I will leave to the Captain of the Ships, Set-Wun.’

Pol-Chi nodded to the Captain closest to him on his left, who acknowledged him with an almost imperceptible sign of relief.

Pol-Chi now looked intently at all his Captains and finally at the priest at his elbow. ‘What we should do as the main fleet arrives is to move ourselves over to the beach. We could occupy the area cleared for the carpenters.’ He suddenly pitched his voice firmly. ‘In that way we avoid the confusion of the landing of the Army.’

Pol-Chi knew that he wanted this done. It would be difficult to force his men to do it. One of the drawbacks of such a closely knit military structure was the impossibility of forcing soldiers to obey unpopular orders.

The Captain of the Archers spoke from his left:

‘We could move into the ships themselves.'

Pol-Chi cut the air with his hand with more force than he had intended. ’No!’

He quietened himself immediately. ‘No. The ships must be kept prepared for sea. You can see that.’

The sag in the group’s morale made him realise how habituated his men were to the fear now. Yet how long had this fear been with them? Only about three months and a half. From the time of their stop-over at the Ka-Bil. Those riots there had infected his men. The curious rumours of the inhabitants about the end of the world had seemed appalling at first, like witnessing the delirium of a madman. But the star was there, that was incontestable. But it is not the star that my men fear, it is the rumour. The prophecy that the star will destroy the world. That is intangible: even the priest cannot prevail against it, mostly because he refuses to acknowledge its existence.

What did happen in the Ka-Bil to precipitate the panic there?

‘We will leave the last proposal aside for now,’ he said more softly. ‘The winds are light, perhaps the fleet will be late. There are, I admit, so many contingencies involved that it would be better to plan some things from day to day.

‘For the present, we will concentrate on completing the fort. But we will move the ships to a new anchorage. Set-Wun will see to that.’

He sat back and crossed his legs. It was a gesture he knew would break the tension engendered by his proposal for moving out of the fort.

Once the group had resettled itself, he turned to his right and addressed the figure furthest from him on that side.

‘Lat-Pi, will you report on the reconnaissance you made.’

The slim Captain leaned forward and raised his hands, palms facing one another, before him:

‘We marched for seven days north along the coast. Then we went inland for half a day, then spent nine days returning to the fort.’ He turned his left palm upwards. ‘The coast remains unbroken, except for a small river, running north-south. For the most part the shore is sandy; there is an outcrop of bare rock just south of the small river. The sea currents seem regular; there are no rocks or islands.‘ Now he brought the tips of his fingers together, his palms again facing one another. ‘From the northern-most point of our journey, we could see no change in the coastline or the sea. But at the very edge of the horizon we saw banks of cloud. They remained in sight as we travelled inland on the next day. I suspect that these clouds are high and stable. This suggests a range of hills about ten days’ journey north.’ He now let his left hand drop and he stared at his right hand, which remained bent. ‘Inland, we found no tracks or signs of habitation. The only animals we saw were herds of deer and a kind of dog. There are also rabbits and hares. Surprisingly, there are few birds. We sighted no large beasts of prey. There is little surface water, but I suspect the presence of many wells and waterholes, though we did not search for them. The earth, you see, has a moistness that comes upwards, not from the heavens. The grass is tall now, but brown, which suggests the end of the growing season. In the Ka-Bil I was told that this happens. All growth ceases for the length of about four months.’

Pol-Chi involuntarily looked down. As he should have known, his Captains read this as a sign of disappointment. They would, he knew, be asking themselves what it was their Commander sought.

He raised his head, trying to appear equable. ‘It is good that the sea offers no obstacle,’ he said; lamely, he thought.

Lat-Pi, his report made, suddenly brought his hands together and shook them: ‘But it is a weirdly silent land, Commander. There is a vastness to it which...which... we... I...'

Pol-Chi held up his right hand:

‘It is a new land.’

But this sounded wrong. It echoed his earlier thoughts and prompted him to look at the strangers.

‘It is a novel place. It is new to us. No doubt in time we would become accustomed to it,’ he said, trying to take the discordance from his first remark. He heard the assumption in his words - ‘we would become’. We are poised to retreat. There is fear in this place, too. The fear is everywhere, working like a poison.

But the strongest feeling in the group was one of anticlimax. They all visibly sagged. Except the strangers.

He had to arouse them again before the meeting finished.

‘Brigan,’ he said formally, head up. 'What do the clouds indicate?’

The Brigan did not raise his head:

‘I don’t know. I told you before that my knowledge of this place is scanty.’

Pol-Chi was angered by the barbarian’s indifference. Yet one thing, at least, stopped him from showing his anger. The Brigan carried the insignia of a Captain. How he had obtained it and what it signified, he did not know. But it must be respected.

The Merura Astronomer interjected here suddenly, his head turned slightly to stare at the Brigan’s bent back:

‘Perhaps, Korkungal, it is smoke from the Land of Fire.’

The sarcasm was cutting, but Pol-Chi saw that it served as much to exclude the Captains and himself, and to obtain a particular kind of contact with the Brigan, as it did to hurt the red-haired barbarian.

The Brigan, in any case, was unmoved. He nodded slowly at the floor:

‘Perhaps. It could be the smoke from the Land of Fire, though I never heard of such a thing.’

The voices and postures of the two strangers said so much. Pol-Chi suddenly had an insight that shocked him into unreasoning terror. He used all his powers of self-discipline to control it. Out of the mask of control he spoke.

‘There is nothing in this report that requires us to change our plans. In that case, we will continue as we agreed tonight. We must work to complete the fort as soon as possible and Set-Wun will move the ships and prepare them for sea.

He brought his hands together at his breast in a sign that they all knew. Immediately the priest beside him began to speak in a persuasive practiced way about the requirements of religion and of the Empire. They were all familiar with the rhetoric. It made them conscious of higher causes and purposes, and lessened their experience of individuality. Thus it released them from the tension created during the meeting.

For once, at least, Pol-Chi did not listen, was not elevated and purged. Slowly, behind the mask of pious attention, he re-approached his terrible insight. Coldly, he surveyed the two elements of it.

One, the Brigan did not seem to be possessed by the fear which pervaded the camp.

Two, the Astronomer seemed almost the source of the fear itself. And he was fighting it in the name of an even greater terror.

Pol-Chi composed himself in the face of the tension involved here.

The Brigan knew something which released him from the fear. While the Astronomer knew exactly what the source of the fear was.

Pol-Chi shivered: it was the star. The Astronomer knew something about the star. The Priesthood was lying.

The truth must indeed be terrible. That the military had not been told implied that military power offered no solution.

The world is doomed.

Pol-Chi sank down inside himself, trying to think, trying to pray - fighting not to scream there and then. The emptiness and silence inside him were terrifying.

The priest concluded his sermon and the Captains rose, stretched, and rubbed themselves sleepily. With a warm, homely intimacy, they wished each other and their Commander good night and left.

Pol-Chi stepped quickly across to the Astronomer. The fear had to be naked in his face, but that could not be helped:

‘Will you wait behind, Hepteidon.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three.

 

Hepteidon remained seated by the door.

The Brigan rose and left without lifting his head. But Pol-Chi saw a light of anticipation enter his face as he passed through the door.

He has real companionship, Pol-Chi thought without rancour.

Moving in the cabin, Pol-Chi felt the growing chill now that all except the Merura had left. He went to the window and groped about outside for the shutters. From this vantage point in the gate tower he could look out into the dark land. There was no moon yet and no other light, except the faint glow of the stars. The land was dark and silent: but now, in the dark, it was strangely close. This land breaths, Pol-Chi realised: it is alive. It was a heartening thought.

In time, we could grow accustomed to this place.

Down to his left he saw the glow of the brazier of the guard on the other side of the gate. The guard, deep in his but, could not be seen.

One light in all this land. Ours.

He broke his concentration with gladness in his heart. The shutters he closed and fastened with a curious tenderness amounting to regret.

‘It is cold at night here, Hepteidon,’ Pol-Chi remarked as he crossed to the door and drew the felt screen across. ‘But I suppose Ka-Bil was very similar.’

Hepteidon remained silent, body erect, his hands lying tense and awkward on his thighs. The austerity of the pose moved Pol-Chi. The military tunic he wore instead of the priestly robe reinforced the impression of hard asceticism.

I have never tried to ease this man’s isolation. He is always a 'stranger' to us. Yet he is not.

Pol-Chi returned to his seat in front of the window. He sat and drew his cloak about him.

‘We will be moving on from here soon, Hepteidon. Have you completed the charting of the stars yet?’

Hepteidon unbent slightly, and in this movement Pol-Chi saw, as though through a chink in a screen, a living quality in him, a warmth that was denied expression.

When did this man love? he thought. And what happened to it?

‘It is completed. It is a matter of noting which stars can no longer be seen in the southern sky and what is new in the north.’

‘It is no doubt a hidden science.'

‘Not entirely. The evidence of the science is available to everyone. One need only look up at night. It is the computation of the courses of the stars which requires knowledge, time and patience.’

‘But it is a great skill, in any case.’

Hepteidon used his hands to demur.

‘As with any science, one becomes aware of the limits.’

‘But the constancy of the heavens, even in its irregularities, must allow for great exactitude.’

‘Only if all the details are available. There are things we do not know. And we cannot be sure that new knowledge will not contradict the principles of the science.’

Pol-Chi arose suddenly and went to a bench in a corner of the cabin.

‘What new thing, for instance?’ he asked over his shoulder.

‘We know nothing of the stars to the far north, or to the far south. Consequently, we cannot be sure of the nature of our world, or its relation to the stars.’

Pol-Chi returned with a stoppered jar and two wooden bowls.

‘Will you take some beer, Hepteidon? It is a useful protection against the chill of the air.’

Hepteidon nodded and accepted the brimming bowl that Pol-Chi brought to him. Then seating himself, Pol-Chi drank, wiped his mouth, and asked:

‘Is our world not a star?’

Hepteidon paused to drink, then replied:

‘The stars shine at all times. This world is dark in the absence of the sun. No, it is not a star. It is the world, a receiver of light and heat, a receptacle of life.’

‘There is a poignancy in your voice, Hepteidon.’ Pol-Chi felt the space between them weaken. The beer was having its effect.

'Man can create light and heat, it is true. But compared with the sun and stars, life must be a puny thing if light and heat are a standard of comparison.’

‘But life is free and active.’

'But as motion human action is irregular and short-lived.'

Pol-Chi heard pity in Hepteidon’s voice now. I must force him on to regret.

'But, Hepteidon, we do great things in our sphere. We make good lives for ourselves.’

Hepteidon drained his bowl. Then he went forward, hunkered, to the jar and refilled his bowl. He paused, and offered the jar to Pol-Chi.

It is good. He begins to move in the circle.

‘It is not certain or constant, Commander. Nothing ever displaces the stars or the sun or moon.'

Pol-Chi was surprised to hear, not a pious regret, but bitterness, in Hepteidon’s voice.

Now, while I do not dwell too much on fear: let me ask the question:

‘But what will displace man?’

Hepteidon stared into his bowl with the moroseness of youth and loneliness. When he looked up, Pol-Chi was unaccountably shaken by the realisation that the Merura’s eyes were green. Now they were livid, set off by the red rimming his eyes.

‘Himself. His own doubts and fears. His rancour and spite.’

The reply was so off the point, and yet so conventional and predictable in other circumstances, that Pol-Chi felt both stunned and deflated.

Hepteidon, he realised, was using the occasion to escape the cause of his fear.

‘That is the nature of man,’ Pol-Chi replied lamely. ‘We cannot escape it.’

Hepteidon shrugged his shoulders and drained the bowl. The way he put the bowl down on the bench beside him showed that he was ready to leave.

Pol-Chi knew that doubt was rising in him but he fought it. Later he could reflect on the possibility that their fear had no basis in reality. Now, however, he wanted to make one last desperate test. If their conversation ended on this note, Pol-Chi knew that the subject could never again be broached.

‘Tell me, Hepteidon, what do you think of this place? No.’ He raised his hand to signal that he had more to say. ‘For my part, I find this place strangely unsettling. It is cool, silent, and remote. I feel an infinity here which mocks man and his actions. An emptiness which cannot be filled.’

Even as he spoke, Pol-Chi knew that this was no longer entirely true. This evening he had glimpsed the possibility of acceptance, even love, of the place.

Hepteidon shrugged his shoulders again and looked around him.

‘The world belongs to man. There is no strangeness here. It is in the heavens that strangeness is found, which man cannot control.’

Pol-Chi pressed all his attention on Hepteidon’s reply. The reply was conventional, priestly stuff. Except for one word - ‘control’. Pol-Chi felt excitement. There it was, in that word. Neither part of the context of our conversation nor part of priestly logic. Only a god could control. Lesser beings directed or submitted.

The fear is real!

When Pol-Chi spoke again, he did so delicately, so as not to arouse the other’s suspicions and defences.

‘Why should man think to control the stars, Hepteidon?’

Hepteidon looked up sharply, remembering. It blazed in his face.

Again Pol-Chi spoke, this time to relieve Hepteidon: to give him the conventional answer. But he spoke with having reflected:

'Only a god can control the heavens, surely.’

Hepteidon lay back against the wall behind him. He threw up his hands and laughed boyishly.

Such relief I give him. Pol-Chi felt a warmth for Hepteidon, for being able to help him.

‘Oh, Pol-Chi. That’s the secret! One that no one knows yet. The Gods do not control the stars!’

Hepteidon now leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. The shudders of his body were, Pol-Chi saw, shudders of an immense relief.

He was glad of this, to have purged Hepteidon. But what burden was he himself taking on?

Hepteidon had said so much. How had he come to know so much?

Yes-

There has been a revelation. A prophecy.

The soldiers are right, then. Something did happen in the Ka-Bil.

‘Hepteidon.’ Pol-Chi waited until the Merura raised his face. ‘What happened at Ka-Bil? Why is there so much rumour and fear?’

Pol-Chi was surprised at his own humility. He betrayed the depth of his own fear.

Hepteidon looked closely at him. There was a human warmth in his gaze.

‘I cannot tell you. It would do no good.’

‘But there was a revelation, wasn’t there? The gods spoke to an old priest in that city, isn’t that so?’

‘That is not the point, Commander. It is not a question of what was said. There are other matters. Such as that of truth. And also the assuaging of regret.'

‘Regret?’ Pol-Chi said involuntarily. How well he had suspected that!

‘A personal matter, Commander. It shames only me.’

‘Can no one help you there, Hepteidon? If it is a matter of debt or duty...’

‘There are no longer the conditions under which recompense can be made, Commander. This is why regret is involved.’

‘You are noble, Hepteidon.'

Hepteidon turned his capacity for sarcasm against himself:

‘Much better if I had been noble then, Commander, instead of cowardly.

‘But in matters of honour recompense can be made in principle.’

Hepteidon flared. ‘It is a matter of love and loyalty. Where my life should have been given, another was taken instead. There is no recompense possible there!’

Pol-Chi finally lowered his head. ‘That is true. You have my sympathy.’

Hepteidon arose and moved stiffly.

Feeling the moment for departure come, Pol-Chi rose also. But before Hepteidon could bow, he asked:

‘Tell me about the new star. You surely are studying it.'

Hepteidon was almost a head taller than Pol-Chi and seemed even taller within the proportions of a cabin designed for the more compact soldiers.

‘There is little I can tell you about the star. It requires more study in order to discover its track and periodicity.’

‘Does it threaten us?’ There! The kernel.

‘Does the moon or sun threaten us? They are larger.'

‘But the prophecy?’

‘The prophecy is a matter of words, not of truth. The star does not threaten us this night.'

Pol-Chi could see Hepteidon’s reasoning. What he said was strictly argued and logical. The fear is real but has no correlative reality. A good argument.

Is this the Brigan’s view? But a barbarian warrior is hardly that sophisticated in his thinking.

‘Your point is a good and wise one, Hepteidon.’

Hepteidon smiled down at Pol-Chi.

'Whatever else, man has the power of reason, Commander.'

He bowed, and Pol-Chi was constrained to bow in reply.

Hepteidon turned and went to the door immediately. There, he paused and said:

‘Thank you for the beer, Commander. It was thoughtful of you.

'You are welcome, Hepteidon. Please believe that.’

Hepteidon bowed in acknowledgement, hesitated, and said:

'And thank you for your consideration.’

He was gone before Pol-Chi could reply.

The cabin became totally silent. Pol-Chi became aware of the smell of new wood.

I have much to think about.

He paused.

Or nothing to think about!

He poured more beer into his bowl.

He felt relieved. The conversation had been a help to both of them. He drank. Then he knew that one question had not been answered:

What was the source of the terror that enabled Hepteidon to control his fear?

But Pol-Chi felt he knew. Certain of Hepteidon’s statements were derived from the prophecy. The knowledge of the powerlessness of the gods, for one thing. But before this Hepteidon had talked about the infinity of the heavens which men could not control.

Pol-Chi sat down, and drank some more beer.

Hepteidon wants a new god.

Therein lies his terror. What would happen if all men came to desire that? Chaos. Utter chaos and destruction.

It is a greater fear indeed. May it never infect me.

Pol-Chi drained the bowl. He lay back against the shutters of the window and closed his eyes.

Help me, he prayed.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Uöos was doubled up with laughter again. It echoed through the bare dormitory building.

‘But,’ he spluttered, ‘these tales you tell them! What else can you expect? You are their guide into fabulous lands. Middle lands! Lands of Fire! What questions do you expect them to ask you?'

Korkungal looked properly aggrieved and also chastened. Wrapped in his cloak, sitting on a skin with his back to the wall, he allowed his eyes to bulge slightly, while his mouth pursed into what appeared to be both a pout and a smirk.

‘I tell them the stories of the priests and the old men of the Briga. That is all. I know nothing else of these lands.’

Korkungal’s command of the fluting tongue of the Empire had developed rapidly during the voyage. But many subtle sounds and inflections still escaped him. Uöos had still to speak to him in a mixture of the tongue of the Empire and the tongue of the Briga.

The storyteller bent forward and poured more beer into his bowl. He sat cross-legged facing Korkungal, nothing but an old tunic covering his thin body. At his right knee stood a jug of beer and at his left knee an oil lamp in need of trimming guttered, throwing Korkungal’s huddled shape on to the wall in a series of erratic shadows.

‘Korkungal, old warrior of the Briga,’ Uöos said, gazing at the beer in his bowl. ‘Try to understand this. You are their guide in this unknown quarter. Never before have these soldiers of the Empire ventured so far north outside the borders of their Empire. You are different. The Briga are conscious of only filling the corner of a vast land. They live in a world which is not theirs. But this Empire believes itself to be master of the world. For these soldiers to leave their dominion means that they have in a way left the world. Now, can you see that?’

He gulped beer from his bowl.

Korkungal watched him, his own empty bowl hanging between the fingers of his right hand. When Uöos had finished drinking, Korkungal said:

‘But I tell you again, old man, that all this does not interest me. If that priest had not used the axemen to overpower me, I would have gone my own way into the Grasslands.’

Uöos hawked and spat to his right, into the darkness of his shadow. He felt the argument following its usual course. So be it. Soon it will find a new route.

‘Then why don’t you leave now, Warrior? It would not be difficult for a man of your skills to creep out of this fort. By morning you would be far away out on the Grasslands.

‘I told you before, I have no food. The necessary provisions are on the ships. Here there is only fresh meat and corn.

‘Pah. You could make a kill this day and dry the meat. You have your weapons here.’ He indicated the corner of the building, in the darkness to his left.

‘But you will not come. I cannot go without you. It is because of me that you are here.’

‘I am too old to wander in the wilds.’ Uöos made his replies in a flat voice, indicating that he was repeating what he had said before.

‘There, old man, how can I leave you?’

‘Never mind me, Korkungal. I will survive among the military. I am valued as a storyteller, though, the Goddess knows, they take little time to listen to me now. You go with Sora, she is young, and she is glad to be in your company.’

Korkungal’s voice rose to a wail, though whether it was feigned or not was not clear: ‘I cannot take her. I told you this. I believe she is pregnant. though she herself will not admit it.’

This was the point at which Uöos looked Korkungal in the eye and brought the exchange to an end;

'Well. then. Warrior. it seems as though you will not leave here and go into the Grasslands as you want to.’ He paused. drank. and then said: ‘So. what will you do? Sulk in corners or listen to me?'

Korkungal’s answer was to reach for the jug and fill his bowl. Uöos realised that another round of argument was to begin. And he knew the course of this one. too.

‘There is nothing I can do here, old man,Korkungal started after he had drunk. ‘All I can do is to try to answer their silly questions.’

‘But why, Korkungal, did they bring you?’

‘To guide them to the Land of the North.’

Uöos exploded, betraying impatience for once. ‘You are to mediate between them and the Briga. Don’t you understand why this force sails north? They intend to subdue the Brigans and open the flank of the Empire of the Dawn. Is that not obvious to you, old warrior?’

Even Korkungal’s response betrayed real bewilderment. He shook his head violently and shouted: ‘I don’t understand this!’ Now he glared angrily at Uöos: ‘And I don’t care! I want no part in all this scheming.’

Uöos felt the real emotion in Korkungal and sat back, shocked but also relieved.

‘Why?’ he asked softly and simply.

Korkungal drank more beer, feeling something open in him, something dark and awful. To speak now required him to place himself, as he saw it, to one side of that darkness. He spoke directly, seeing the strange thing here: for once there must be no banter. Uöos must listen, and in listening, he, who pretended to know everything, must understand.

‘Uöos, I tell you this from my heart, I am not what I seem to be. I am no longer a Warrior of the Briga. I do not know how this came about, perhaps it is the result of the strangeness of the Ka. But, also, I do not know who I am. I do not know how I am alive, here, talking with you in this strange place. Nor do I know how it will end: I no longer believe I will die. I feel that I am nowhere, and that I will always be there.’

Korkungal was surprised to see Uöos bow his head low before him. He did not understand the gesture. Instead he felt his heart swell. Such love and anger he felt for that thin, mocking old man.

Uöos raised his head slowly and looked at Korkungal with an unusual expression. Korkungal read a weary contempt in that expression, but did not believe it. In not believing it, he ignored it.

‘The trouble with you. no-man from no-where.’ Uöos began sarcastically, ‘is that you do not understand how you understand. No doubt you are frightened of your new understanding, that is to be expected. But it is unforgivable that you fight to ignore it.

‘However, I will tell you two things which may help you.

‘In the first place. I will tell you why it is that I know all things that man can know. It is because I know the forms of all the stories that men tell and listen to. Every action of men finds an echo in these stories. When I trace that echo and discover the story. then I know what has happened and what will happen. My understanding is that simple.

‘Now, the second thing is this. I could tell you a story, and it is a great story about this world, which would show you what it is you and Hepteidon, the priest, are about. But I will not. If this story is told this night, then all endeavours would cease, for all endeavours would have no useful purpose. This story must be enacted in this world, to the bitter end.

‘But I can tell you this, Korkungal, and you can use your new understanding to unravel it. The Warrior of the Briga is, as you have said, dead. He died in confusion in the Ka-Bil. You know this. But his shadow lives on. It inhabits you, keeping you from knowing the truth about yourself. There. You cannot die, Korkungal, the warrior of the Briga, because you are already dead.'

Korkungal listened to this with two feelings competing in him for dominance. One was of utter horror. The other was of a distant, cold, mocking confidence. Caught between the two, drunken, muddled Korkungal was frightened of his horror, but terrified of the mocking confidence. In one lay fear for himself; in the other lay an awful weariness that had no relief.

When Uöos had finished speaking, all the fear and terror in Korkungal gathered and emerged as a raging blood lust. Korkungal recognised the rage, knowing he had experienced it before. In knowing this, he saw his purpose.

Uöos saw the heat come into Korkungal’s face; saw his hands ball into fists, the half-filled bowl falling on to his knees and splashing him with beer.

Korkungal pushed himself up, hiking his back up the wall, his cloak falling to the ground, his Captain’s medallion swinging. He glared at Uöos. He was shaking, crying in his heart. On his feet, he staggered once, and then leaned against the wall to steady himself, At last, the tears came into his eyes. The assuaging was sweet and filled him with love.

And he knew from the way Uöos looked at him, now with pity, that he must reply.

‘I tell you this, storyteller, for you are still the storyteller. I see the bloody, fiery destruction of the whole world, as I once saw the bloody, fiery destruction of the Ka. I see confusion already in the world. And I see the end to it in many deaths. Such dying is a weariness, for it has no end.

Uöos was about to speak, but Korkungal, beginning to feel stronger, put his hand up.

‘I see a great futility, a great weariness without end. I see no hope, and I see no desire for hope. Only a desire for death, death, and more death. I see a lust after fire; I see men screaming for fire and death, for great convulsions and wrecking. For pandemonium and murder, for the pain of others and the death and destruction of others.

‘And I will reveal two other things, for your storytelling. In the first place, I see these things even though all men deny that they are true. And the second thing is this, the reason for man’s desire is this: they believe that the universe has gone awry, that it is falling to pieces. But why do men deny this? Because they cannot believe it possible. The very foundation of their living cannot break while yet they go on living.’

Korkungal felt wonderfully calm now. He tested his footing away from the support of the wall and found that he was steady. He went and helped Uöos to his feet. The contact with the bony, cold arms and back of the storyteller was a comfort to him. Feeling how Uöos clung to his own forearm made Korkungal aware that he also gave comfort.

‘Korkungal, I must admit this, the movement of your understanding is unexpected. Perhaps I have been at fault in judging you.' Uöos’ eyes expressed a sincerity which Korkungal had never seen before.

Korkungal laughed down at Uöos. ‘Though there is less restraint and logic in you, storyteller, you are in some ways like a priest. Many times old Kandrigi, the priest of my kin, and I argued in the same way as we two have. He could never accept that I have my own understanding and that it was not like his.’

He stepped across and bent and picked up his cloak, about to swing it over his shoulders, he stopped, and threw it instead around Uöos, muttering as though to himself, ‘You must ask the soldiers for a cloak, old man. The cold here will kill you.’

Uöos settled the cloak around him without any remark. Instead, he said: ‘Kandrigi was the old priest who died in the Ka-Bil, was he not?’

‘Yes. He went too far with his meddling curiosity. I warned him of that, but of course, like all priests, he would not listen.'

Uöos grinned, beginning to look impish again. 'Hah, old vision-man, that’s what you say. Why do you believe you understand the thought of priests? If they do not understand you, how is it that you understand them?'

‘Because I have always been right in my arguments. The world of men does not obey priestly logic. It obeys the laws of power and force, not reasonings.’

'That's what you think, dead-warrior. Take away reason and men would destroy each other.'

Korkungal thought about that, because it struck a chord in him. It was a complicated thought, for though the answer was plain, the argument that supported it was strange.

‘You cannot prove that, old man. But when the foundation of reason is gone, and this can happen, then the sword and force of men are the only things left.’

‘And you do not believe that, new-man in no-where. I can see plainly that you do not. For you know that the time of the sword is the time of death.’

‘Oh, but no, storyteller, that is not what I mean. It is the force of man which in the end confronts that which threatens man. Logic cannot do that, because logic cannot act.'

‘And that is not what you mean, either, new-man from the dead. Let me tell you what you have already said. You believe that force is used in the end, but only after men have lost hope.’

‘And so? Hope can be lost. There are times for despair.’

Korkungal's understanding suddenly faded. But he saw that Uöos was, for once, also lost for words. He seemed to struggle for a while, then he said:

‘That isn’t what I mean.’

‘I know,’ Korkungal said with a light-hearted warmth.

Uöos turned on him suddenly: ‘What I mean, dead-warrior, is that you have not gained your new understanding yet.'

Korkungal went utterly blank. The darkness moved in him again.

‘But at least you no longer ignore it, though you are still afraid of it.’

The darkness waited. But Korkungal felt, obscurely only, that it was a good thing to admit to being dead. It was a barrier crossed. Beyond, all was dark.

Yet I am in the dark too, he suddenly realised.

'Uöos, you believe a new thing is possible, don’t you?'

‘Ah,’ Uöos vented a long sigh which crumpled the cloak around him. Then he smiled wizenedly. ‘A new thing, Korkungal, and an old thing. A complete end to things can bring relief. But there may not be such an end here.’

He raised the lamp above his head and peered towards the corner to his left.

'Come, Korkungal, let us go to Sora. I am cold now.’

He led Korkungal across the earthen floor. Soon the corner came within the aura of the lamp. Sora slept, wrapped up in Kandrigi’s old cloak, along the wall.

Uöos chuckled softly.

‘Korkungal, did Kandrigi ever tell you that simple-minded warriors are the most difficult of all to teach?’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

A hundred disciplined men working together with dedication can accomplish great things. Working with true will and effort from dawn to dusk and resting deeply from dusk to dawn, these soldiers in the time of two months constructed and completed the new northern-most settlement of the Empire, the Ka-La-Tlu. This new city, built behind strong walls made of the trunks of thick trees, has habitation for over five hundred men. Within the walls there are dormitories, eating places, a hospital, granaries and curing cabins; a temple, command and administrative buildings. There are squares for drilling, practice and games; areas for rest and amusement, already laid out as gardens, and there are corrals for over one hundred horses and as many cattle. Furthermore, the site of the city provides for the construction of warehouses for trade and industry, and housing for merchants, tradesmen and labourers, and their families. Close to the city there is ample water, wood and grazing. The sea is rich in fish of all kinds. The port is deep, the main road sheltered by the cape and little affected by the tide. A nearby beach will provide a convenient landing for trade, materials and men. Behind this beach, a meadow has been cleared, which in time can be the site of warehouses and houses for maritime trading.

Thus, Great and Holy Emperor, Your new city of Ka-La-Tlu will become a great Imperial centre, the Imperial Jewel of the North, extending Your Peace into the northern lands of this continent. But even now it can serve as an example of the great energy and worth of Your Empire. Here, one hundred of Your soldiers, industrious and obedient, have given an example of what such devotion can accomplish. A city for five hundred built in two months! Such is the great energy of Your subjects. Think what is accomplished daily by the millions of Your subjects throughout the vast range of the Empire! It is no exaggeration to say that Your Holy Majesty’s Imperium daily makes and maintains this world! Without Your Wise Guidance, the affairs of men would be as chaos! With Your Care, Attention, and Direction the world, instead, is a Place of Peace, Order, and Contentment!

I pray that Your enemies, and those still ignorant of Your Blessing, soon come under Your Holy Guidance and Wise Direction! Then the World and Your Rule will be One!

The matter of the naming of the city must be broached, for there are numerous difficulties involved. In the first place, it is at least six generations since it was last necessary to name a new settlement. While some account of the procedures followed then, and in earlier cases, may be contained in the Imperial archives at Ka-Ra, or in the archives of our Priesthood on Il-La, these procedures are unknown to me or the other priests I have consulted since the undertaking of the Northern Expedition. The naming of the Ka-Bil, the most recently established of the cities of the North-Eastern Provinces, was a straight forward matter of adopting the traditional name of the earlier settlement there. This procedure, according to the priests of Ka-Bil, encountered neither opposition nor censure from either the Imperial authorities or the Hierarchy of the Priesthood.

However, in the case of the naming of Ka-La-Tlu, this procedure could not be followed. There is no sign of previous habitation, and more, the land itself is empty of inhabitants. In this way, the city is a new place, void of traditions or history, a very rare occurrence, I know, which has obliged us to seek elsewhere for inspiration. We first sought inspiration in the land, but except for the forest, the land is flat, broad and featureless. The name, City of the Forest, is not apt, for the settlement is a coastal one and is intended to serve as a port and place of entry into the northern lands. The coast is also largely monotonous, except for the cape on which the city has been built. However, the indentation here is to the north of the cape, so that from the south, which will be the main approach to the city, the cape appears as an uninteresting hill in an otherwise flat coastline. Again, the sea is without character, wide, regular, without exceptional features, either as to colour or effect.

The initial proposal was to call the settlement the City of the Ships. This was an obvious choice in the circumstances, as for long the only attractive feature of our surroundings here was the two ships anchored out in the bay. While most of the Captains were in favour of this name, I and the Commander were of the opinion that it contained a resonance of homesickness and, perhaps at the time justified, dislike of the strangeness of the place. It was the Commander, with my approbation, who suggested the name Ka-La-Tlu, and it was easy to persuade the Captains to accept it.

The name is obviously taken from the nature of the light of the sun here in the north. It has a remarkable clarity and, according to the Commander, Pol-Chi, who is a noted poet, stillness. In this regard it is an apt name for the settlement, for the light of the sun here, especially at sunset, which is long and lingering, is the most notable feature of the place. However, as you will readily appreciate, the name Ka-La-Tlu is open to a number of interpretations, and I think that it is important that certain meanings are emphasised and others are disregarded. It was our intention that Ka-La-Tlu should indicate simply the City of the Light of the Sun of the North. The secondary meaning we intend here, which should became the rhetorical designation of the city, is of the city as the Jewel of the North. I have already implied such a metaphor in my report to the Emperor. The sense is obvious. The city, which is northernmost in the Empire and which will become an important centre for trade, exploration, and pacification, is to be seen as the Jewel which sits atop the Empire as the Ruby of Kar surmounts the Imperial Crown. You may think that in detail, such as the poets seek, the yellow light of the sun here has not an exact resemblance to the red fire of the ruby, but Pol-Chi assures me that the lingering glow of the sunsets will serve as a complete correspondence. As an aside, I will mention the legend of the existence of a Land of Fire in these parts. While it is but a legend, and as such an impossibility, nevertheless it will provide a supplementary, whimsical image for those poets who have a taste for the phantastical.

There are two literal meanings of the name Ka-La-Tlu which we emphatically do not intend. In the first place, no sense of the mysterious or the paradoxical is intended. In other words, we do not intend the meaning ‘The City of the Light of the Dark’. Such paradoxes are perhaps unavoidable when using words, but here there is light when there is sun and dark when there is no sun, as it is elsewhere in the world. I know that in our usage ‘North’ is used sometimes as a metaphor for the dark, but our undertaking will have, among other purposes, the effect of opening the dark north to the light of the Empire.

The second literal meaning implied in the name Ka-La-Tlu which we do not intend is the use of ‘Tlu’ to indicate the 'Profound'. We mean no religious appellation here. We do not wish to imply that the new city is the focus of religious belief or devotion, as some might see in the image of ‘The City of the Profound Light’. Once again I emphasise that there is no mystery here, only the expression of the natural order in novel, attenuated conditions. Admittedly, the stillness of the place is striking at first, but one soon grows accustomed to it. The broad land and flat sea can at times bring to mind a feeling of the infinite, but practical affairs and purposes soon make such tenuous experiences irrelevant. And so it will be in the time to come, when this city, The Jewel of the North, has grown and found its appropriate place among the cities of the Empire. In time I can see farms and pasture extending to the horizon on the land, a bay full of ships from all parts of the Empire, a large city straddling the river, ample docks where the beach now is, and the steady sound of the industry of many men, a busy tumult of affairs, a happy contentment of human purpose, and the Peace of the Empire giving order to the generations of men.

'My brothers, we have now come to the end here. Tomorrow we depart our new city and head once again into the unknown lands of the North. But our achievement here will serve as an example to us in the future, We know the strength of our combined power now; we know what we hundred can do working together like brothers under the direction of our Holy Emperor. See about you the fruits of your labours! See the new city which you have constructed in so short a time! This is the fruit of our labour! This new city, Ka-La-Tlu, the Jewel of the North, the Jewel in the Crown of the Emperor, will in time be great and famous and all will tell of the Hundred who built it in the period of two months.

‘Yes! We built this city!

But I want to tell you another thing. It is less self-evident, perhaps, but it is nonetheless true. Have you ever considered the true power of the Empire? I do not mean the evident power of the labour of its subjects, such as we have witnessed to here. No. There is a deeper power. It is the correspondence which exists between the Holy Purpose of the Empire and the Sympathy of the World. It is not for nothing that it is said that the Will of the Emperor maintains the world, for there is a deep relation between His Will and the disposition of things of this world. For consider this, In the last days of our work here we sought certain trees in order to construct the Central Tower. Is that not so? All other tasks were completed and the time of the arrival of the Main Fleet drew close. And what happened? At the moment we actually required these trees, they were found! Not only this. They were found precisely where we most wished to find them - beside the river and above the settlement. Because of this, it was possible to cut out the trees, prepare them, bring them down the river, and build the Tower in only five days!

‘Such is one example of the blessed relations between our Empire and this our world. But that is not all, though in itself it is sufficient. Today, as we completed the Tower, as we withdrew to rest after our great labours, what happened? At precisely that moment the masts of the Main Fleet were sighted to the south! Is that not further evidence of a Blessed Plan overseeing the affairs of the Empire? I ask you, is not our expedition a Holy Cause? I tell you, as your priest, that it is! Your great adventure is guided by the most profound and holy powers. Take confidence in that! Under this protection we are safe, free to press on with our task to our glory and the glory of the Empire!

‘Now, this is out last day in Ka-La-Tlu. Tomorrow we sail north. Today we will feast and rest. Our work here is complete! Today is a day of rest, of enjoyment. A day well earned and well deserved. On the morrow, further adventure. Remember, our task is Holy, and guided by a Sacred Plan. Remember that! Remember that before resting for the morrow. Tell yourself that your mission is sanctified by the True Light of the Holy Plan, the True Light which is exemplified in this city, the Ka-La-Tlu, the City of the Light of the North.

‘Peace, my brothers.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

He will come immediately, Pol-Chi thought, smiling. Bustling in, trying to deal with everything at once.

He could see the masts of the Fleet above the trees, crowding into the bay. They were being formed into two lines along the road under the cape.

Oh, he could feel the warmth of anticipation. It is so strangely like a home-coming. Bursting with tales to tell.

The sun was warm on the platform of the Gate Tower, bright on the new wood of the structures of the settlement. Deserted except for the guard of honour, it was like a new home awaiting the young couple. Yes, there is potential here. A happy beginning.

He looked down at the guard of honour. Ten men in full battle dress. No doubt glad to be back in arms. Their black uniforms merged with their skin. Dark, powerful-looking fighters, the red tropical sun insignia of the Army of the Central Provinces on their shields brazen with force and power in the noon sun. Their spears glint like tongues of fire.

It is good to remember that we are above all soldiers.

Behind all the talk and reasoning and rhetoric, we are the force that sustains the Imperial power.

Everything is ready for Tan-Set. There is even food and drawn water for four days, grass for the horses, and beer for his men. A homecoming.

Is that why I feel sadness? Did we make a home here, after all?

The canoes came up the river on the tide, skimming along. There was Tan-Set, standing in the bows of the first craft, searching the stockade with his eyes. If I move, he will see me.

There. He waves.

Pol-Chi waved in return, watched the canoes for a small while, and then looked about him one last time. Satisfied, he ducked into his cabin, calling his aides. He had beer, meat and bread brought, and arranged for the feeding of Tan-Set’s staff. That done, he sat with his back to the window and waited.

Out of the sun, in the stillness of the cabin, the dark thoughts began to stir. Pol-Chi sighed.

They cannot be avoided. But let them be framed in context. On their own, they are senseless and paradoxical. Our journey into fear seems remorseless and inevitable. Everywhere there is talk of light and all I can feel is a growing darkness. The priest babbles about jewels and a True Light and drunken soldiers cry at the setting of the sun. Ten broken men must be returned south. Stupid, unnecessary waste.

The priest will not admit to his fear. Yet every word of his speaks it. A destructive pride. The Priesthood know, but they will not admit the implications even to themselves. They are no longer to be trusted.

When Tan-Set bustled into the cabin, Pol-Chi jumped to his feet, blinking away his brooding mood. Tan-Set came straight up to him, embraced him, kissing his cheeks. Pol-Chi found himself smiling bravely, clutching the stiff curves of his Chief-Commander's moulded battle armour. Then Tan-Set held him at arms length and regarded him with crinkled happy eyes,

‘Pol-Chi, I am proud of you! You have worked wonders here.'

Pol-Chi bowed his head slightly.

‘They are good soldiers, father.’

‘Aye, they are.’

He took Pol-Chi by the arm and directed him out onto the platform. Sweeping his free hand around him, he spoke with force:

‘This is perfection, son. It is so...just exactly as it should be. It is hidden from the sea, yet commands it, and it is easily defended.’

'But, father, it is to be a settlement of trade, not a fortress.’

‘Yes, yes, of course. But from our point of view, which for now is the important one, it is a centre of military power. You have done well. It is to your credit, and I am very happy.’

Tan-Set left Pol-Chi and walked around the platform, looking out at the fort and the surrounding countryside from all sides.

Pol-Chi stared down towards the river. Now his father's soldiers were marching up on both sides of the river from the bay. They looked fresh and vigorous, their pennants unfurled, glad to be on solid ground again. A troop of cavalry came galloping along the edge of the river, whooping exultantly with relief, the horses’ hooves throwing up sprays of glistening water.

He could understand his father’s attitude. The stillness of the day was broken by the bustle of human activity. His father’s soldiers attending to their proper affairs. It was a fortress; a place of power. It did hearten him, pulling him from his new habit of brooding.

His father reappeared, coming around behind him. Pol-Chi faced him more openly this time.

‘You look well, father, though the journey from the island must have been long.’

Tan-Set smiled hugely and fondly, lifting out his great cape. Pol-Chi guessed he had worn full armour especially for the occasion. Moulded ox leather, dyed a blood ruby, silver buckles, brass plates on his shoulders. Heavy sword and plumed helmet, leather calf armour, arm bands, everything.

‘This is a secret, Pol-Chi,’ Tan-Set confided in jest. ‘but the sea trip was a luxury. Never have I rested so well!’

Pol-Chi laughed, enjoying his father’s humour.

‘And your soldiers obviously enjoyed the holiday as well. I have never seen them look so alert and fit.’

Now he took his father’s arm: ‘Come and eat. And let us talk. I must sail this evening.’

Tan-Set went ahead and in the cabin removed his armour.

‘Why must you go so soon, Pol-Chi? Your men deserve a rest, too, after this labour.’

‘Oh, it is better if we sail on today. We have been here long enough.’

He sat his father in the chair by the window and pulled out the end of a form for himself. He filled two plates with meat, bread and fruit. As he poured beer, he heard the rising bustle below in the confines of the fort, the dull thud of marching feet, the shouts of command, cries, horses neighing.

His father cried once, 'Fresh meat!' and then ate with relish, eyes bright as he revelled in the food and noise. When he had eaten, he pushed his plate aside and filled the two bowls again. A long drink, then he sat back and sighed.

‘That was good, Pol-Chi. You do me proud in every way. I am so happy for you.’ In the pause, his eyes widened slightly. ‘You have a poem for me now. Yes?’

He could not avoid the feeling of awe when he considered his son’s gift. But he was thankful not to feel fear.

Pol-Chi smiled, suddenly in command. ‘Yes, father. There are two. I will give you one now, it is short, then we must talk.’

He closed his eyes, his body stiffening:

‘Clear water here,
Long day, still sky;
The earth is new,
The sea silent;
The sun is slow,
Dying as a cold light:
Infinity is night.’

Pol-Chi could see immediately that his father was surprised. He was surprised himself by the final line.

'You were lonely here, Pol-Chi?'

‘Not lonely, father. At first the place seems empty. It is strange. But you will get used to it.’

'Is that why you sail so soon?'

‘No, no. We have nothing else to do here, you know that. It’s as well that we continue north.’

As though he had suddenly become aware of it, Tan-Set said:

‘But there is still an emptiness in you, a remoteness. Why is this?’

Pol-Chi was dismayed that this matter had arisen before the ordinary affairs had been reported and discussed.

‘I will tell you truthfully, father. There is a fear like a sickness in my men. I fear I am infected too.'

‘What fear, tell me? I will do what I can.’

'You have heard the rumours in the Ka-Bil, down the coast?'

‘Yes, yes. They are spreading like fire throughout the Empire. A prophecy about the end of the world, is that it?’

‘Yes, father. It is not the prophecy itself that concerns me. There are always prophecies and rumours. This time the connection between the prophecy and this new star has engendered a real fear, as though some mood which has festered for a long time in the Empire has come to a head. I should not speak of a sickness in the Empire, I know. Properly, such a thing is not possible. But there are real limits to the Empire and men’s thoughts and wills are not going beyond those limits.’

‘While what you say might be true, son, there is still no reason for panic. These rumours will lose themselves in the ordinary affairs of men in time.'

‘But there was a remarkable prophecy, father. The Astronomer on my ship knows the details of it, I am sure. His speech has revealed this to me.’

‘What could be remarkable about it, Pol-Chi?’

His father was becoming agitated: he would divert that unease into action at the first opportunity. Yet it must be said. The truth must be known, no matter how painful it was.

‘The prophecy says that the gods have lost control of the universe. It falls apart and nothing can stop this happening.’

Tan-Set leaped to his feet and instinctively clutched for the hilt of his sword. As he was no longer wearing it, he hooked his thumb into the waistband of his shirt instead. He looked about him and then turned to the window.

‘That is absurd.’ He stared intently at the sky, realising that it was still and remote, just as his son had said, ‘How is it that we are still alive? The sun is there in the sky. The earth and sea are as they should be.’

Pol-Chi followed his father to the window.

‘I don’t know. I am simply telling you what the Astronomer has said in his talk.'

Tan-Set was thinking now.

There is something new, Pol-Chi saw. His father was about to tell him something new; something which had a connection with what he had just said.

'Pol-Chi, there is a barbarian warrior and a woman here with you, is there not?’

'Yes, father. He is from a tribe of the north, and our guide.’

‘Where are they now?'

‘On my ship.’

Tan-Set continued to stare intently at the sky.

‘Bring them and the Astronomer here. I will get to the end of these rumours today.’

‘But what have the Brigan and his concubine to do with the rumours?’

Tan-Set finally turned and looked at his son:

‘This Brigan, Korkungal, or whatever his name is, is said to be the Chosen of the Goddess. He is said to be the new Incarnation of Her Son. And his concubine is said to be the personification of either Chorsa the Mother or Agnanna the Virgin.’

Hepteidon’s new god!

Pol-Chi’s thought took him over even as he stepped back in shock. A surge of hope accompanied the series of realisations. Hepteidon was right. There will be a new God and a new Order. There is no End after all. We are Saved!

He wanted to kneel. Instead, his father said:

‘Pol-Chi, what’s wrong with you? I have told you to bring them to me. They must be questioned carefully and this madness ended here and now. You don’t know the effect the rumours are having throughout the Empire. People are leaving the cities, marching blindly through the countryside. There is chaos everywhere. Even the Priesthood is infected. We, the Army, must put an end to it or the Empire will fall and be overrun by its enemies.’

‘But, father, how can you stop a prophecy fulfilling itself?’

Tan-Set clenched his two hands between their faces:

‘I will kill it!’

Pol-Chi tripped back from the force of his father’s sudden hysteria. He fell on to a form, slamming his back against the wall. His father stood over him, hands locked together, suddenly without an object for his passion.

Pol-Chi waited until he got control of his breathing before he spoke:

‘You must think about this carefully, father. Can you trust our soldiers if you set about torturing the barbarian. Think! You play with powerful forces here.’

‘Do you believe all this superstition, Pol-Chi?’ his father shouted. ‘Are you a mad poet, after all?’

Pol-Chi smiled, knowing his ground now.

‘It is not the content of the prophecies or beliefs that concern me, father, I assure you of that. But it is the passion they arouse in men, and what they will do in the heat of these passions. Let me tell you. Can you imagine our soldiers crying like babies because the sun sets? No? Well, last night the priest ranted about True Lights in his sermon, and half my soldiers, the men who built this fort, cried on their knees and begged the sun to stop sinking. That is what I mean. Men who do that must be treated with care, otherwise they would tear you from limb to limb. That is why I take them from here today. I fear they may infect the main body of the Army which you have brought in.’

Tan-Set had relaxed as he listened to his son. Now he sat beside him and took his hand in both of his.

‘And I must tell you the truth, too, son. You are right in saying that the Empire is already infected by fear. The new star caused that. And the Priesthood made matters worse by trying to ignore the popular response to the star. The soldiers, even some of the Captains, would not stay on deck at night. The silence at night in the ships was strange, riding at anchor in line, no laughter, no lights, no movement at all but the sound of the sea. No, I was not particularly brave. You know that to be responsible for frightened men in a time of fear can give the appearance of great courage. But it is only the sense of duty that has made us Commanders that sustains us. Without that sense of duty we would be just as frightened.

‘But the rumour about the barbarian, which we heard in Ka-Bil, has given hope to my men. They still will not look at the star, but at least they now have patience. But despite this, there have been outbreaks of hysteria. Four nights ago we had the worst outbreak. The whole crew of one ship went completely mad. They cried, screamed and wept all night below decks. I went across, no one else would come with me, and it was impossible to force them, but I could do nothing to reassure them. I must admit that I cried too, but that was for their sufferings.'

Both were now silent, heads bowed. Pol-Chi could feel the warm reassurance of his father's hands about his own. Then he felt compelled to speak:

‘Father, what you have told me about the Brigan has given me hope too. But I must say this to you. It might be just another aspect of the whole illusion. We must wait. In any case, even if there is cause for hope, there will yet be greater chaos and pain. We may be living in a time of great change.’

Tan-Set squeezed his son’s hand: ‘Yes, yes. You are wise, Pol-Chi. You can see into the illusions of men. You are a true poet, I see now. But what shall we do now?’

‘Continue to do our duty, of course, father. First I will make my report to you. Then we will discuss the next step.’

'There is no need for reports, Pol-Chi. The fort and the arrangements speak for themselves. I will report on this to the Emperor.’

‘Thank you, father. Then the next stage of the Exploration. We have explored a distance of seven days’ marching up the coast. There is no change in the terrain or coastline, but Lat-Pi, who led the exploration, said he saw banks of cloud about a further three days’ march north. I think this may indicate mountains. If so, the coast could well turn there. We will sail there, placing markers every two days on prominences. What do you say to that?’

'Yes, that is a good strategy. For my part, we will follow in seven days. We must clean the ships and restock. The Land Exploration Force will leave in two days’ time, From what you say, they should head inland and north to arrive on the northern coastline in about fourteen days time. And I will leave fifty soldiers here. We have also brought two merchant ships with us, with settlers and their tools. This is the beginning of the city you spoke of.’

‘It could be a great city, father.’

'Yes. Have you named it?’

'Ka-La-Tlu.'

Tan-Set bowed his head, Pol-Chi knew that the various meanings of the words were playing through his mind.

‘Is it prophetic?’

‘It is not meant to be. You will see that it describes the place well.’

‘But which meaning do you intend?’

‘Two, father. It was the Astronomer who suggested it first. He said that the North Star, Le-Tlu, can be seen clearly here. He is a man of the night sky, but I am a man of the day, so I chose La-Tlu, the Light of the Sun of the North. The priest calls it the Jewel of the North.’

Tan-Set slapped his knee. ‘There is light everywhere here, Pol-Chi. It is a good omen. Perhaps the new future is here.'

‘Oh, there is a future here, that is for certain, father. But no omens are intended. There is no other appropriate name.

‘Oh, but there is, Pol-Chi. I will have the bright star as the insignia of this fort.’

‘But which star will be understood. father? You must be careful.’

'I will show you which star.’ He went to his armour lying on the bench by the door. Returning with a small silk bag, he said:

'Your wife, Sora, sends you her love and her thoughts, and also this gift.’

Pol-Chi remembered his wife, his two sons and his daughter, their home on their island, and reached forward eagerly.

It was a ring of silver. In the centre, backed by blue enamel, was set a yellow sapphire from the east.

Pol-Chi's hands shook. Omens did gather here. Some new thing entered him.

'You see,' Tan-Set said joyously. ‘There is an omen. You did not know of the ring, yet you speak of it in the name of your city!’

The ring fitted the forefinger of his right hand. Its sparkle did draw his mind away from its obsession with, as he was now aware, redness, with blood and setting suns. They had been his defence against his fear. He wondered at his wife's insight. How could she know of the secret meaning of the name of the city? Not even the clumsy priest had guessed it.

The City of the Bright Star of the North. The fear of the new star must be fought by night, not by day as the Priesthood and the Army wish.

‘Now, Pol-Chi, tell me your second poem. I think I know the subject now.’

Pol-Chi smiled at his father. Yes. There was a new confidence.

'Perhaps you have, father.’

He composed himself again:

‘Beyond the fire,
Beyond the coming blood,
One star will stand.

Beyond the fire there is always the dark,
Beyond the blood there is always the death,
Beyond the star there is nothing.

Beyond the dark there is light
Beyond the death there is life
And beyond the nothing
There is hope.'

'That is a more heartening poem, Pol-Chi,' Tan-Set said, his relief visible.

‘But, father, remember that there is only hope.'

‘And you place no faith in it?’

‘The alternative is unthinkable.'

‘But the omen?'

‘Omens and prophecies, what are they? They are either illusion or inevitabilities. Men must live somewhere in between.'

‘Oh, well said, my son. I will have your words written down, as I always do. But now, I have a favour to ask of you.’

Pol-Chi stood up, looking quickly at the bright stone on his finger. An omen is an omen, after all.

‘What is it?’

‘Before you leave today, may I speak to the barbarian and the Astronomer?'

'They are not clowns, father.’

'No, I am sincere. I want to know for myself what sort of men they are.’

'Just you alone, father. Unarmed?'

'Yes, yes. We will go down to your ship by canoe. The tide will have turned by now. I will come aboard alone with you, cheer the soldiers, then speak to the stranger.’

‘Come as you are, father, no cloak or armour. And no arms on the canoe.’

‘Pol-Chi, why this insistence on conditions? I mean no harm, and I am your father.'

Pol-Chi isolated himself near the dark things within him.

‘I trust no man now, father, not even myself, for no man trusts himself now.'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

The tide had turned. They swept down the river, past the trees and columns of soldiers, pressed onward by the strength of the four paddlers. The current carried them out into the bay, beyond the broken water of the beach shelf. Pol-Chi was satisfied to see the ships of the Fleet anchored in two lines under the cape: it was as he planned it. The canoe turned then and began to surge through the wavelengths, heading parallel to the beach toward the two anchored ships of Pol-Chi‘s command. They were ready for sea, canoes stowed, oars jutting above the water, locked but ready, and sails untied.

The beach was deserted. Pol-Chi realised that he had left Ka-La-Tlu, now hidden from sight by trees. He also realised that he had not looked back when leaving the fort. More, that he had never seen it from the outside.

I had always been inside the stockade, part of the fort and separated from the countryside.

They were seen approaching Pol-Chi’s ship and soldiers gathered to help them aboard. When it was known that Tan-Set, Chief-Commander of the Expeditionary Force, was coming aboard, the complements of both ships came on deck to cheer their leader. Tan-Set waved in acknowledgement, slapped backs, spoke to men near him as he followed Pol-Chi forward.

The soldiers quickly realised that the Chief-Commander had come aboard for a particular purpose, so once they had welcomed him and received his acknowledgement and salute, they fell back, some going below again to the oars, others withdrawing amidships.

The low, narrow passage was dark after the bright light outside. Groping in the gloom, they heard sudden loud laughter of several voices. When Pol-Chi tapped upon the door at the end of the passage, the laughter continued, dying to snickers and guffaws. Then a laughing voice told them to enter.

When the three soldiers saw Pol-Chi and Tan-Set, they jumped up, gathering their dice, looking from the other occupants in the cabin to the Commander and back again.

But Tan-Set had eyes only for these other occupants. He saw the skinny old man speak, as though concluding a conversation: ‘...tell Peli that the next time he is not to cry out until the Beast actually has his hands on his throat’, and laugh too loudly, nudging the powerful red-haired man beside him.

The soldiers nodded quickly and sidled away through the door. Then a space opened in the small dimly-lit cabin. Tan-Set pressed into this space but found he could not fill it. He was asking himself with uncontrolled urgency, ‘Which is it? Which?’ looking from the old man to the red-haired man and then to the young woman beside him.

Pol-Chi caught his father’s arm discreetly to restrain him. He was faced with an unexpected problem: he know who the two companions of the Brigan were. Yet he must fill the gaps before his father decided to become active.

‘Father, this is the Brigan Guide, Korkungal,’ he pointed to the red-haired man. Now Tan-Set knew and was for the moment placated. But Pol-Chi was moved by obscure ceremony. For the sake of some future, a balance must be maintained. ‘Korkunga1, this is my father, Tan-Set, who is the Chief-Commander of our expedition. He wishes to ask you some questions about our next destination.'

He hoped his father would take this hint. There were some things that could not be spoken of openly. But there was one more tactic available to him.

'Also, Korkungal, perhaps you will introduce us to your companions.’

Korkungal remained unmoved, private and distant, in the company of the old man and the girl. And it was the old man, not Korkungal, who answered.

‘I am called Uöos, the storyteller. And this is the lovely Sora the Silent, beloved of Korkungal, a Captain of the Ka-Bil, as you can see from the medallion on his chest.'

There was an unpleasant mocking quality in the old man’s voice, the tone of one freed by age from all convention. But more than this, his introduction created greater distraction. Pol-Chi felt his hackles rise. His wife’s name on this anonymous girl, who, furthermore, was given the holy epitaph ‘the Silent’. He glanced at the bright stone on his finger, then at Sora, feeling that what had been regarded as merely an omen was in reality part of a Holy Operation. The ring is meant for someone else here as a Holy Sign. The ring burned his forefinger. But the time for presenting it has not yet come. He was sure of that.

For his part Tan-Set was initially moved to regard Korkungal as the Chosen, even though he immediately had reservations: a Stranger as the Chosen? What would happen to the Empire? But upon being told that he was a Captain of the Ka-Bil and seeing the medallion of rank for himself, he switched his attention to that aspect: it was the least ambiguous. On this level he spoke:

‘Captain, what is your knowledge of the Northern regions? My Fleet will follow in seven days and it is as well that we have prior knowledge of the terrain.’

Tan-Set was surprised to see Korkungal close his eyes as though in weariness, Uöos interjected at once:

‘Will you sit, Commanders, and drink with us? We can offer you beer or water.’

Pol-Chi pulled his father’s elbow down, and Tan-Set automatically crumpled into a cross-legged posture, his son following suit.

‘Thank you, Uöos,’ Tan-Set said formally, bowing his head slightly. ‘For my part I will have water.’

Pol-Chi asked for water, too, all the time studying the girl. She seemed to be asleep, propped up against the partition wall, her long black gown caught between her legs. She was well formed, but yet nondescript, obviously without rank or lineage.

When they had taken a token sip of water, Korkungal sat up, wrapped his arms about his knees and said simply:

'Commander, it may be that I am the only one here who possesses some knowledge of the Northern lands, but that knowledge is scanty and has often been mocked as superstitious legend.'

'Perhaps,' Tan-Set replied, feeling secure on this ground of practical talk. ‘But if you are willing, I wish to hear this knowledge for myself. My own instructions are vague, perhaps purposely so as a matter of Imperial policy. Nevertheless, I am to explore the northern coast of this continent or island, establish Imperial outposts in the empty lands, and make friendly treaties with such inhabitants as I encounter.’

‘Well, Commander, we appear now to be on the coast of what my people call the Dark Lands. But they are not dark, so perhaps we have not yet reached the Dark Lands.'

‘What do your people say about the Dark Lands?’

‘Our knowledge comes from the Savages, who live in the lands to the west of our territories. They say that monsters and giants inhabit those Dark Lands. But we, the Briga, have no direct experience of this, so I do not know whether this is true or not.’

‘That is reasonable, Korkungal. What you report should nevertheless be borne in mind. Part of my Army will march overland to the northern coast. They shall be informed of these legends, and also made aware of the existence of these Savages. Are they many or strong?'

‘They are mostly nomads, and peaceful.'

‘Good. You see, Korkungal, thanks to your information, the Land Army will be disposed to peaceful relations with the Savages. Without that knowledge there might have been a sad misunderstanding.’

It was now obvious to Tan-Set that for the first time Korkungal’s knowledge was being taken seriously. Korkungal showed this in the straightness of his back and the glint of interest in his eyes.

'Commander,' he said, leaning forward earnestly, 'it is your ships which face danger, not your soldiers.’

Tan-Set also leaned forward, eyes crinkling. ‘How so?’

‘Our main enemies are the Bir Karsh, who are a sea people, raiders and pillagers.’

'Ah,' Tan-Set rubbed his nose, sensing with pleasure the concreteness of the threat. ‘Where is their homeland?’

‘It is not known. They approach our coast sometimes from the north, sometimes from the west. So their homeland is either on an island further north or far down the coast to the west, perhaps in the Dark Lands.’

‘So you do not know if they sail this west coast?’

‘I do not.’

Tan-Set laid his hands, palms up, on his knees. ‘You give useful information, Korkungal of the Briga. The Empire is grateful for that.'

In the pause that ensued Tan-Set looked askance at Pol-Chi and whispered, ‘The Astronomer?’ Pol-Chi nodded, got up and quietly left.

Tan-Set looked at his hands, steeling himself. Now, he thought, I must approach the other level. But while he prepared himself, Uöos suddenly spoke:

'Commander, your army is from the Il-Tan, the Island of the Home, isn’t it?’

Completely thrown, Tan-Set could only stare at the old man and nod. At the same time he realised that this little group showed no especial awareness of their holy status.

‘Yes, Uöos, we are.' But, he asked himself with some surprise, how should the Chosen act? He didn’t know.

'Then you are of famous lineage, Tan-Set. Your ancestor, the Great Tan, led the army which brought the Merura to power in the Empire so long ago.'

‘That is true. My whole army claims descent from Tan and his kinsmen.'

‘Then you have a long past and a long memory. When you look back down your ancestors you see all the aspirations and achievements of men as represented by the Empire, do you not?’

Tan-Set felt an involuntary start of pride. It is true. Our past and memory are illustrious. Our loyalty to the Imperial line is unquestionable.

Now Uöos said:

'Korkungal, here, was of warrior lineage among the Briga. Korkungal, tell us of your lineage.’

Korkungal's tone in reply was mild: 'My original human ancestor is the Hero, Galla. His father was the God, Kor or Kar, the Brigan God of War.’

Under other circumstances, Tan-Set would have laughed at this barbarian habit of claiming descent from gods. It showed the depth of their superstition. But if the Brigan was the Chosen, then it was appropriate that he should have divine blood in his veins. And again, Kar was venerated by the Merura as a Son of the Goddess.

Uöos was watching him closely, Tan-Set knew, a look of trickery in his eyes. This old fool should not be here, he decided. A clown and a mocker.

‘And what of your lineage, storyteller?’ he asked.

'Ah Commander. I have none.'

Tan-Set smiled with satisfaction. On his own admission he was a nobody. Yet, given the circumstances and his mood, Tan-Set felt the edge of another interpretation, but he dismissed it with annoyance, realising that too many ambiguities were about him.

Act now!

‘Korkungal.’ He waited until he had his full attention. ‘Tell me truthfully. Are you the Chosen?’

Korkungal’s mouth fell open. Even the girl at his side stirred, drawing her legs in.

But it was Uöos who answered:

'Tell me, Commander, who are you to ask such questions?’

Losing his temper, he saw Korkungal throw back his head and laugh. Tan-Set clenched his hands at his knees, realising his son’s wisdom. It was an absurd question. He lowered his head, feeling the tears prick his eyes with shame.

Inside his shame he saw that his action had been ambiguous: he did not know whether he had come to worship or kill!

Hands touched his shoulder and arm, soothing him. The girl knelt beside him, consoling him. Her eyes held a depth of compassion. So bright and steady was the gaze that he felt himself soften and the tears flow. He had done a stupid wrong!

Then the name of the girl came back to him. Sora! The name of his son’s wife. Instantly, he saw the bright star in her eyes. Yet Korkungal and the old man continued to jeer with their laughter!

He began to scramble to his feet. The Chosen is here. Religious awe overwhelmed him. The girl helped him rise, her touch a balm. On his feet, he stared into her eyes, his very being melting.

The Chosen is within her.

He bent down and kissed her hands.

‘Forgive me, Mother.‘

He spoke the word without thought. But he knew instantly that he had spoken the True Words.

Now he was calm. He saw that the Brigan and the storyteller had quietened, looking at one another. Korkungal said triumphantly.

‘You see, old man. I told you so!'

When this calm left him, Tan-Set knew, he would fall into a dark bottomless pit within himself.

He glanced a last time into those bright eyes, then turned and left the cabin.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

The passage-way was darkened by the presence of two figures, one of them bent in the low passage. Tan-Set was startled. Trying to remember where he was, he heard his son say:

‘Why have you left, father? I have brought the Astronomer. He is the Merura priest, Hepteidon.’

Pol-Chi had turned to the stooped figure.

‘This is my father, Tan-Set, Hepteidon, about whom I have told you.’

Both Tan-Set and Hepteidon muttered greetings in the gloom, both feeling awkward, trying to see one another.

‘We must go back into the cabin, father. There is a commotion on deck. You really should not have come. I knew this would happen.’

He squeezed past Tan-Set and knocked and entered the cabin. Korkungal had his arm around the girl, a fond expression on his face as he gazed at her. The old man followed his gaze, clutching the Brigan’s arm and shaking it. All three were evidently united in a deep happiness.

Pol-Chi coughed, fighting embarrassment. His was no position for a Commander of an Army.

‘You must excuse us for coming back here.’

He stepped aside and allowed his father and Hepteidon enter. Tan-Set immediately went to the nearest corner, as though to hide in the semi-darkness there. Hepteidon stopped on the threshold, looking from Pol-Chi to Tan-Set, then to the group on the floor. Pol-Chi acted to overcome the complex tensions growing in the cabin.

‘Come, Hepteidon, let us sit here, Father, will you join us? We should continue our talk. That is the purpose of this gathering, which has been arranged at your command.’

Tan-Set hesitated and then came over and sat down beside Hepteidon. Once again his son had managed to find the official level of intercourse. It was an impressive feat.

Pol-Chi waited until their presence in the cabin had turned the attention of the Brigan and his companions outwards towards them before speaking.

‘Now, father, Korkungal has imparted his knowledge to you. Here then is the Astronomer of the Expedition, with whom you also wish to speak. It is as well if this conversation is witnessed by the Brigan, for he may have further information of use to the Expedition.’

By now Tan-Set was ready to speak. He addressed Hepteidon with the formality due to the Merura, the nobility which commanded him. But as he spoke he noted his son’s more familiar treatment of the Astronomer. It implied a friendship which both made him feel proud and uneasy.

‘Sir, for the purposes of travelling north both by land and sea, are there any new stars of use to us in this quarter of the sky?’

Hepteidon bowed his head towards Tan-Set. Protocol required this. A Chief-Commander of an Army had his own peculiar authority.

‘Except that the Le-Tlu, the North Star, and the stars indicating its position are higher in the sky, and consequently more clearly seen, there is nothing new, exceptional or useful that I have yet seen in the northern sky, Chief Commander.

‘You say “yet seen”, Astronomer,’ Tan-Set adjusted his mode of address because his military rank had been acknowledged. ‘Do you imply that there may be stars of especial use in the north?’

Hepteidon shrugged. Suddenly, Korkungal, who had begun to lean forward during the conversation, interjected:

‘Tell me, priest, if we were to follow the new star, where would it take us?’

The glare in his face showed that he intended to shock and insult Hepteidon. In the stunned silence, Hepteidon sat upright and returned Korkungal’s glare. Tan-Set struggled as though to rise. Even the old storyteller was taken aback; he pulled at Korkungal’s shirt. Only the girl was unaffected. Obviously she approved of anything the Brigan did.

Pol-Chi was initially mortified, but he knew that this was for his father’s sake. He had known that the Brigan and the Astronomer would set to provoking one another. In bringing them together like this in his father’s presence, he had had obscure motives which were still not clear to him.

When Hepteidon replied, Pol-Chi knew he spoke from the great height of his reason. Yes, that was important: this reason had to be challenged:

‘Your question is frivolous, old warrior. The sad thing is that you seem not to know this. But then, why should a barbarian butcher know anything of the stars? Destruction and death are the only things you understand.’

But Pol-Chi was dismayed by the turn here. Hepteidon was touching on the Brigan's pride. That was dangerous, even here. But before he could intervene, Tan-Set suddenly rounded in support of Hepteidon:

‘You are impertinent, barbarian. I will have you thrashed for this.’

Pol-Chi leaped to prevent his father from leaving the cabin. He caught his head and hissed: ‘No, father, there are personal matters here. They must be settled privately.’

Tan-Set indicated Korkungal with a violent gesture:

‘But he insulted a noble of the Empire!’

Pol-Chi replied with desperation. The soldiers could not be brought in here: ‘Father, we are no longer in the Empire! The formalities are different now.‘

Tan-Set pulled back. Behind him, Korkungal showed satisfaction, and said evenly to Hepteidon: ‘Destruction and death are the only things which will concern us from now on, priest. Believe that.’

Tan-Set shouted at the same time to Pol-Chi: ‘That may be so. But I have the power and authority here! I will call my soldiers if necessary.’

Uöos pulled Korkungal and said above the other voices, ‘You are in no position any longer to talk of death, newman from no-where. You believe that!’

Hepteidon spat out his reply to Korkungal, ‘You speak only of your own death here, barbarian.’

Pol-Chi pushed his father sideways off balance and bundled him towards the corner.

Uöos turned on Hepteidon now: ‘The priest talks of nothing but death! What are you afraid of, priest of the stars?’

Hepteidon jumped to his feet, fumbling with his hand in the front of his jerkin. He pulled out a short knife.

Pol-Chi felt real fear now: ‘Hepteidon! Don’t!’

Korkungal rolled back and came to his feet with his back to the wall. Uöos scurried across the floor, away from the stanced Hepteidon, shouting: ‘Speak your fear, priest! Speak your fear before it is too late!‘

But Hepteidon balanced the knife in his hand and began to approach Korkungal warily.

Pol-Chi slammed his father once into the wall, then hissed in his ear: ‘You stop this, father! You know why. If anything happens to the Brigan, we are all dead.’

Tan-Set stopped struggling. He knew what had happened; he had planned that it would. His canoeists had spoken to the soldiers on the ship.

Hepteidon lunged forward, sweeping the knife without much skill. Korkungal leaped sideways easily and Pol-Chi had to shout:

‘You kill your god, Hepteidon!’

And Tan-Set shouted immediately:

‘Mother, stop them!’

It was Hepteidon who was most surprised by the shouts. He faltered and Korkungal kicked low and hard, propelling himself away from the wall at Hepteidon. The priest folded and screamed in agony. Korkungal collided with him and threw himself down on the exposed back. Uöos ran suddenly and grabbed at the knife in Hepteidon’s dangling hand. The three fell in a bundle, Korkungal and Uöos grappling and struggling over the bent body of Hepteidon. The knife clattered and skidded across the floor towards the empty corner near the window.

Pol-Chi ran, but Korkungal had found Hepteidon’s neck. Both Uöos and Pol-Chi fell on Korkungal at the same time. Their combined force toppled him off Hepteidon. Then both contrived to sit on him, Uöos shouting, ‘Enough, enough!’

Korkungal slumped and then there was silence except for their breathing and Hepteidon’s groans.

Tan-Set approached the figures lying on the ground, a blank look on his face. Sora began to pull at Uöos, who immediately slid off Korkungal. Still astride the Brigan’s legs, Pol-Chi looked up at his father:

‘Help Hepteidon, father. He may be badly hurt.’

Then he leaned over Korkungal, bringing his face close to his: ‘It is over now, Brigan. Will you be quiet?’

Korkungal looked at him, abstracted, and nodded.

When Pol-Chi got up, Sora immediately went to Korkungal, taking his head in her hands.

‘Pol-Chi,’ Tan-Set said grimly behind him. ‘Come here.’

Hepteidon lay on his side, legs drawn up, unconscious yet still groaning.

‘Look.’

There was blood all over Hepteidon’s thighs and on the floor where the end of his jerkin rested.

Pol-Chi said to Korkungal: ‘Where did you kick Hepteidon?’

Korkungal was sitting up on the floor, Sora caressing his face and hair. He looked, Pol-Chi was surprised to see, sick and empty.

‘It is how I was trained to kick,’ he said, looking dumbly before him.

‘It is bad,’ Pol-Chi said to his father. To Korkungal he said: ‘You defended yourself unarmed against a knife, You could not do otherwise, perhaps.’

Uöos spoke from near the window: ‘The priest was a fool. But what has he done?’

‘He must be treated now, Pol-Chi,’ Tan-Set said. ‘Who will do that?’

‘Not our priest anyway, father.’

Uöos spoke again: ‘There is less blood than there seems. He will have to endure great pain. The healing will be slow and tedious.’

Pol-Chi spoke with open surprise: ‘You are a priest, old man?‘

‘I have the training, if that is what you mean,’ Uöos said sharply.

‘Will you treat him here then? Korkungal, will you allow that?’

Korkungal came across the floor on his hands and knees to Hepteidon. He touched his shoulder. To Uöos, he said:

‘He is young. And he is like Harmesh.’

Korkungal thought of Harmesh. A warrior can have no remorse, he knew, but the foolishness of both Harmesh and Hepteidon overcame him. He cried. Being soldiers, Tan-Set

and Pol-Chi saw what moved in Korkungal. The latent horror arose in them too. Here, they saw, duty gave no support.

Uöos moved suddenly, as though from sudden decision. He knelt at Hepteidon’s waist and lifted the skirt of the jerkin. Then he looked up at Korkungal.

‘Why do you cry? The deed is done, whether justified or not.’

Korkungal shouted in reply: ‘It was his foolishness that caused his injury.’

‘And it was your foolishness and fatalism which did it,’ Uöos sneered.

His throat tight, Pol-Chi snapped with sudden impatience:

‘Never mind that now, Uöos. What must be done now?’

‘We must lay him out before his muscles begin to lock. Sora, unroll the bedding skins.’

Tan-Set spoke now, his voice sombre: ‘I will take him to the fort, Pol-Chi. Conditions will be better there.’

The prospect of losing Hepteidon appalled Pol-Chi:

‘No, father. I do not want the soldiers to know what has happened here.’

‘But they will have heard the shouting and the screaming.’

‘Nevertheless, I do not want him to leave. ‘

‘But I can send you a navigator, Pol-Chi, if that is what worries you.’

Uöos called them to lift Hepteidon. They also helped to undress him before he was laid out on the skins.

Pol-Chi said to Uöos: ‘Go to Set-Wun for whatever you need to treat him.’

Then he spoke to Korkungal: ‘This is a command, Korkungal. You are not to go on deck. I will explain later why I give you this order. Please do as I ask you.’

Korkungal nodded. Pol-Chi wondered if he had absorbed the order, so he said to Sora:

‘Make sure he stops below. His life, and yours, may be in danger.

Finally, he said to his father:

‘You must leave now. I will go with you.’

At the door he said: ‘I will come back once we are under way, Uöos. Make sure you ask the Captain of the Ships for what you need.’

In the corridor, he stopped his father and said:

‘I love you as my father, Tan-Set, and I obey you as my Commander, but what you have caused here is unforgivable. You knew your canoeists would talk to my soldiers and tell them this new rumour about Korkungal. Why did you do that?’

‘There is no need for you to sail, Pol-Chi. Return all of you to the fort and rest for a few days.’

‘You didn’t do it just to keep me here for a while longer. In any case, what has happened in that cabin is only between us. It does not affect the general disposition of my soldiers.’

‘But the news about Korkungal will. It will give your men hope. Let them rest and think about their new hope.’

‘But, father, you don’t believe that rumour. Why did you call the Brigan's concubine “mother”? What did you learn while you were with them on your own?’

‘Pol-Chi, let me take all the strangers and Hepteidon to the fort. They are a burden to you.’

‘What do you want with them? What new thing do you know?’

‘I think of your welfare, son.’

Reaching to grasp his father’s shoulder, the faint gleam of the bright stone on his finger caught his attention. His thoughts suddenly leaped.

‘Is there really a Chosen, father?’

Tan-Set relented. ‘The girl, Sora, she carries the Chosen.’

Some things now made sense to Pol-Chi, but others looked much worse. He realised now that Korkungal could have killed and it would have made no difference. Instead, the noble priest, whom he saw as a friend, had been ruined as a man.

Pol-Chi was suddenly disgusted with the whole affair of rumours, prophecies and omens. He was tired of the burden of fear. Have the Brigan executed; send the girl and the old man back to Ka-Bil. These are the things he should do. But when he thought of Hepteidon, all the complexities returned.

What part has Hepteidon in all this?

He was tied in friendship to Hepteidon through the fear that wearied him. Uöos was now treating him. He could not have the Brigan executed. Everything returned to being the same as before.

‘Do you understand me, Pol-Chi?’ Tan-Set said with an edge of religious fervour: ‘The girl is Holy. She must be treated as befits her dignity.’

Now Pol-Chi clearly saw into Hepteidon’s part in the affair. Everything must be treated with circumspection and scepticism. Hepteidon had shown him inadvertently that the fear was real while showing him how to avoid being overwhelmed by the fear. Suddenly he remembered Uöos’ words as they had first entered the cabin: do not fear a demon until it actually threatens you physically. Uöos understands too.

He is to Korkungal what I am to Hepteidon.

Now, I know that Hepteidon learned something of the prophecy in Ka-Bil, and perhaps witnessed it. But what did Korkungal experience or learn in that Ka? There was some complementary principle involved...

I am witnessing a Sacred Operation to do with the very existence of man.

‘You are not listening to me, Pol-Chi. Do not be blasphemous.’

Pol-Chi stared deep into his father’s eyes: is he just an old fool or has he a part here too? In that case, how should I behave? Should I obey him or not?

Do as you will, he realised:

‘Leave my ship, father. Do it immediately. I will leave markers as I have already told you. We will meet again up on the northern coast.’

He pushed his father before him. Out on the deck both blinked in the sunlight. There was a huge cheer, followed by an equally loud cheer from the second ship.

‘Remember your dignity, father,’ Pol-Chi whispered.

Both were surprised to hear another cheer from the shore. The beach was crowded with soldiers, and many canoes bobbed on the waves near the shore.

‘Father, this is chaos! You had better attend to practical affairs or else there will be no army.’

Tan-Set blustered: ‘You know what they want, Pol-Chi.’

Signalling to nearby soldiers, Pol-Chi gripped his father’s arm and drew him forward:

‘Get off my ship, Tan-Set.’

When they reached the ladder, Tan-Set struggled free and shouted: ‘They want Korkungal, the Chosen. Let him free!’

Those on the ship who heard this began to chant, ‘The Chosen, The Chosen’, until Pol-Chi silenced them with an abrupt sweep of his arm. He called to his Captain on the stern deck:

‘Prepare to get under way immediately’’

To the soldiers he had signalled to earlier, he said:

‘Help the Chief-Commander descend to his canoe.’

They obeyed him, and Pol-Chi was relieved to discover that he still had authority. The presence of the Brigan on board no doubt helped.

His Captains began to shout orders and the soldiers, slowly at first, filed below to the oars. The order was relayed across to the other ship, but it was unnecessary: the movements on the command ship clearly indicated what was happening.

From the canoe Tan-Set shouted at Pol-Chi:

‘You blaspheme, son. You endanger the life of the Chosen.’

Pol-Chi ignored this. Instead he called to the canoeists to back off in order to clear the way for the oars.

When the sail was dropped, the massed soldiers on the beach began to shout. Their anger was palpable. Again, Pol-Chi ignored this. He gave the order to begin the rowing beat and headed towards the stern deck. Taking charge of the rudder, he ordered the anchor raised. The chant of the capstan crew, as always, matched the beat of the drum below. Before the anchor had been raised, the ship itself began to surge, again in time with the drum beat. With the rudder hard over, the ship immediately began to swing out towards the open sea.

Behind him, Pol-Chi saw his second ship begin to move, swinging out in train.

Pol-Chi could not suppress a cry of relief now that they were under way. The ship, and then the second ship, picked it up. It was an answer to the roars of rage on the beach.

His father was standing up in his canoe, gesticulating with both arms. He shouted, but Pol-Chi could not hear.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Now that Hepteidon cannot do it, I keep the vigil of the stars.

Pol-Chi was wry in his tiredness, leaning on the rudder-shaft. Under the setting moon the ship glowed dully, deep shadows in unlikely places. Away to the right, the waves on the shore were phosphorescent.

The light of the moon had encouraged enough soldiers to stay on deck to watch the sail, The ship moved steadily but surely under the wind.

Most of the time Pol-Chi watched the North Star, the Le-Tlu, dip and rise in front of the ship. The Ka-La-Tlu, which he and his men had constructed, the City of the Light of the North, he knew, had been a fearful limit placed on fear. The star was the real Light of the North: it guides us on.

Now and again he looked straight up at the new star, the brightest star in the sky. He braced his fear when he did that, separating the source of his fear, the rumours of destruction and death, and the new star itself, fixed and bright above him. Then he could see the space Hepteidon had made for himself, a middle ground between the growing fear of men and the severe geometry of the sky, between man’s fear of what he dreaded happening and what he saw and did not fully understand.

But Pol-Chi knew the space he was making for himself was different to Hepteidon's. The terror in the heavens must be fought in the heavens. For now, this was to be done with symbols. Later, it may have to be fought in some other way. Perhaps fighting would not be possible. In any case, it would become a battle in men’s hearts. For now, the constant assurance of Le-Tlu, the Bright Star of the North, would be opposed to the threat of the new Star.

You turn the heavens, Le-Tlu,
Bright Geometer,
Doing what the gods cannot do.

Such blasphemy I keep to myself. Pol-Chi smiled at the night. The priests would not permit that in the poet. But what of this:

Defend us men, Bright North Star,
Great Spindle of Night,
Against the Beast from afar
.

When the poet prays, the priests become watchful. Then the poet should become careful.

But what is faith when...The Beast?

Where did I get that word? Uöos? Is that what the soldiers call it? Ah! How real their fear is then! And Uöos said wait until the threat is real. Yes. And in the meantime what is faith when it is shored up by a desperate hope only? When there is no power to act?

Oh, there is nothing to pray to!

The Dark moved in Pol-Chi. It was a giddy deep hole in him. He thought against it:

In nothing there is only nothing.

The Dark is dark, that is all. Then Pol-Chi saw the pain that lay beyond the fear. To endure the Dark, the nothing, was the real agony. The Beast? The fear produced the Beast. Men called up the Beast to block up the gate to the Dark. That is how it is in men’s hearts now. Thus their fear becomes merely the fear of death. The Beast will kill them, but it will stop the agony.

Is that where their hope resides?

Yet, consider the actions of men. They seek the Chosen, the Son that will deliver them. There are two things here. Men have two hopes: the Chosen and the Beast. Wait. Men need these two hopes. Both can deliver them from their fear. One will give life; the other will give death. One is possible; the other is certain. But man wishes for life. That is why they have their Chosen now.

In their hearts, men act all the times There, hope and prayer is possible. It is within men, in their hearts, that this battle is being fought! In that case, then-

who is the Beast?

Out of the shadows a figure moved, creeping up the ladder to the stern deck.

Pol-Chi gripped the rudder-shaft with all his strength, sudden nausea washing him. He pulled his cloak more tightly about him.

Coming closer, Korkungal whispered:

‘May I speak with you, Commander?’

Pol-Chi thought the concatenation of symbols and images in his mind would kill him. It took him all his will to fight through to the reality about him. All he could do to find coherence was to ask himself over and over:

Are the Chosen and the Beast the one being?

He held up his hand to Korkungal, as much to acknowledge him as to bid him to be still. He struggled inwardly for the official level, the level of duty. When he finally spoke his mouth was dry. He did not try to conceal the tremor in his voice:

‘I ordered you to remain below, Brigan, did I not?’

Korkungal bent slightly, moonlight playing across his body. He waved his hand in a playful manner, an irresponsible and perhaps dangerous gesture.

‘You cannot call your soldiers, Commander. You know that.’

Pol-Chi stared at the powerful man, remembering the skill he had used on the day before.

‘Why are you here then?’

‘Uöos says I should talk with you. He said you would understand this.’

So Uöos had recognised his tactic! More, despite its failure, the old storyteller had found another tactic. There was a nice balance in it. While Hepteidon was with Uöos, Korkungal was sent to him.

‘Do you have something to say, Korkungal?’

‘Uöos has told me what I should say to you, Commander. But he also said I was to tell you that the words are mine, not his. I am to say this: “I am the no-man from no-where. I am the darkness in the Dark.”’ Korkungal raised his hand to indicate that he had more to say. ‘But I tell you this. These words are not mine, but those of Uöos. He has the command of words that I do not. Perhaps he means me to say that I am what he says I am.’

Is this a different formulation or a different reality? Pol-Chi wondered, feeling his own perfect understanding of what he was being told.

‘What do you say you are, Brigan?’ He remembered Uöos calling him the ‘no-man from no-where’. But what else had the storyteller said at that moment?

‘I came to the Ka a warrior of the Briga,’ Korkungal said flatly, remembering words and a past only, not reliving them. ‘And the warrior died, and I left the Ka with fear and death in me.‘

That’s what Uöos said: who was Korkungal to talk about death? Uöos was speaking to the Chosen then!

‘Are the fear and death in you now?’

Korkungal's face glowed for a moment: an intense feeling of some kind, Pol-Chi saw.

‘No.’

Pol-Chi was suddenly urgent: there is an answer here!

‘What is in you then, Korkungal?’

The Brigan smiled and looked at Pol-Chi with what appeared to be pity.

‘Nothing, Commander, I live in the nothing. I am, as Uöos says, the darkness in the Dark.’

No! No! Pol-Chi felt the full depth of his disappointment. It has passed from the Brigan already. He is not the Chosen. But yet...

‘Will you answer two questions, Korkungal?’

‘I will, Pol-Chi.’

‘What happened in Ka-Bil?’

‘The priest of my kin, Kandrigi, and I came to the Ka. Kandrigi went to the priests and he died there. The Goddess offered me a virgin and I took her, though there is a great joke there, one that I now appreciate.’

‘The Goddess, Korkungal?’

‘These names were used by the women: Chorsa and Agnanna. They are familiar to you.’

‘Yes, the Mother and the Virgin. Is Sora the Virgin?’

‘That is the joke, Pol-Chi. First she is Agnanna the Virgin, then she was Sora the Whore. Now she is my wife.’

‘She carries your child?’

‘Yes, though for long she refused to admit it.’

‘Is the child the Chosen?’

‘Yes.’

‘Will he save us?’

Korkungal’s face again glowed. Now he seemed infinitely gentle: ‘There is no need for salvation, Pol-Chi.’

Pol-Chi fell into the Dark. He realised that there was one thing, at least, lacking in men. That was patience. From his darkness he screamed, though it issued through his mouth as a firm question:

‘Surely there is need, Korkungal. At least, men desire salvation.’

Korkungal smiled blithely: ‘There is a difference there which even you can see.

‘But men’s desire for salvation is very great. They seek salvation in the Chosen.’

‘Men have many strong desires.‘

‘What of the star, then? What connection is there between the Chosen and the star that threatens us?’

‘There is no essential connection, Pol-Chi. The star heralds a new age, and it may be the instrument of change.’

‘I do not understand you. The star will destroy the earth, will it not?’

‘It might and it might not.’

‘Great Goddess, don’t you know, Korkungal?’

‘I don’t know, Pol-Chi. Nor, to answer your next question, does anyone else. It is a material thing, an accident of an infinite material universe.

‘What is the role of the Chosen, then?’

‘He is the man, the God, the Hero, the Teacher, and other things, of the new age.’

Pol-Chi finally lowered his head and pressed his brow against his arm. He felt a great confusion, but also a great joy. When he raised his head, he asked:

‘The great change originates in the hearts of men, is that so?’

‘In part, Pol-Chi, But the fear of men will drive them towards the change.’

Pol-Chi let his breath out in a long satisfying sigh.

‘I begin to understand, Korkungal, I give thanks for your knowledge and wisdom.‘

‘It is yours now, poet.

Pol-Chi nodded, telling himself: this is Korkungal’s and perhaps Uöos’, interpretation. But is it true? Where is scepticism to be applied here?

'You have a second question, Pol-Chi?’

'Yes.'He could see the line of it. He remembered his confusion when Korkungal appeared. ‘You say there is no death in you. Yet you tried to kill Hepteidon. Why did you do that?’

‘Hepteidon sought to kill me, I defended myself.’

‘But you say the warrior in you is dead.’

‘I acted in the way a man remembering a childhood trick or game would.’

‘Then you regretted it?’

‘No. The foolishness of it dismayed.’

‘But you were intent on killing the Astronomer!’

‘He wanted to kill me.’

Pol-Chi looked about him, thinking. He did not want to ask the question that must now be asked. Outside of him, the night was now sweet. The moon was big and yellow, setting into the sea in the northwest, to the left of the sail. Its light waned. Soon, Pol-Chi knew, he must turn towards the shore and anchor until the sun came. There would be rest then.

‘Korkungal, why did Hepteidon want to kill you?’

‘He wishes to murder regret.’

Pol-Chi was very surprised: ‘What do you mean?’

‘Ask Hepteidon.’

And now the real question:

‘Did he not believe you to be the Chosen?’

‘I do not think so. He had not heard the rumour the canoeists brought.’

Then Pol-Chi remembered Hepteidon's surprise when he had warned him that he was about to kill his new God. Then he realised he had made a serious mistake. The one question he had overlooked, or avoided, in his analysis:

Where did Hepteidon get his belief in the coming of the new God from?

Ah! Even Hepteidon was not safe from the fear after all!

This realisation made Pol-Chi aware of two things, one which caused an unwarranted disappointment, and another which gave him relief: Hepteidon was only a fallible man, his science was not a sure defence against fear. At the same time, it was clear that Hepteidon was not the Beast.

This immediately brought him back to Korkungal. He was not the Chosen; he may never have been. Could he be the Beast then? But how could the Beast be the father of the Chosen?

The question must be asked in any case. Pol-Chi returned himself to his Dark: Korkungal was very powerful and skilled. If need be, I will die in darkness:

‘Korkungal, who is the Beast?’

This time Pol-Chi passed through his surprise to a sudden anger. Korkungal merely laughed with indulgent good humour, looking at Pol-Chi with tolerant warm eyes.

‘Answer me, Brigan, if you know!’

Korkungal waved his hands in order to mollify Pol-Chi, but continued laughing, his shoulders shaking.

Pol-Chi passed from anger to puzzlement. What have I said? The Beast is real. The soldiers show this to be so. They seek a guard for the gate to the Dark. And they will find one.

No!

Men will make their own Beast!

That is it!

Men will make their own God!

And that is why the Brigan laughs.

‘You laugh because men will make the Beast, is that not so, Korkungal?’

The laugh died to a chuckle. Korkungal turned away.

‘But, Brigan, do you know who will be the Beast?’

Korkungal paused, then spoke without looking back:

‘It could be me, poet. Or it could be you. It could be anybody.’

Pol-Chi tried to raise his voice. He was suddenly afraid that some of his men might be listening.

‘You know that is not true, Korkungal. It will be one particular person. Events are already moulding him.’

Korkungal chuckled again. He waved farewell and descended into the shadows of midships.

Pol-Chi felt the night close in about him. He was confused and lonely, as vulnerable as a child. He was helpless, without a role. He was bitter then.

All I have done is to bring a shameful wound to Hepteidon.

Once again he was sick and weary of the fear. I merely think about the fear while other men act. And it was better to act, because nothing else can he done. Any action is better than bearing the sickness and weariness of abiding, overwhelming fear.

Yet I do act. I am acting now, heading north on a mission of exploration. And I will continue to do my duty until the earth splits and the sea buries all.

Are they not the thoughts of the Beast? Am I the Beast? But I cannot be. I do not have the purpose. No, I am the servant of the Beast, as all the millions on earth are the servants of the Beast.

But I will not serve the Beast! I will not serve fear. Better the Dark, the emptiness. Abruptly, he remembered the fort, the Ka-La-Tlu, and the emptiness of the place. In there, he realised, in my experience of the stillness there, lies knowledge of what I must do.

He heard a shout and looked back at his second ship. It was turning away, heading in towards the coast. Pol-Chi realised that the light from the moon had weakened greatly. It was difficult to make out the shore now. He acknowledged the shout by pulling the rudder-shaft over. The sail shivered and flapped. Soldiers scrambled from the shadows and grabbed at the lines. When they looked back at him, he pointed in towards the coast.

They would not need the oars. The sea was calm, and the dull, now murky, glow of the wavelengths on the shore were regular right up to the beach.

I will rest soon, he thought with pleasure. There is that.

To the west, the setting moon grew in size and deepened in colour. Above it lay the new star, still bright.

It turns with the stars, Pol-Chi thought with surprise. It was of little significance, but it gave him back his poetry:

Turn on, Great Light,
Sweep up your net;
Trawl in our fright,
Wipe away our death.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

‘Brothers, I thank you for meeting so quickly at my request. My purpose in calling you together is to discuss certain rumours I have heard among the soldiers, which I have investigated in depth, and to seek clarification in areas of policy pertaining to the circumstances that are the sources of the rumours.

‘First, however, I must make certain observations. I hesitate to do this, for I am in the company of experienced men, who have proven their loyalty to the Empire many times in the past. My first observation concerns the respective spheres of jurisdiction on the exploratory mission. Now, I know that you are all well aware of your duties, there is no question of that, but there are certain areas, which concern my own sphere of jurisdiction and responsibility, which perhaps are not entirely clear to you.

‘On this mission a number of levels of the ordinary Imperial civil administration are unavoidably lacking. You, the military Captains, fulfil some of these, most notably those of policing, justice and correction. To the Commander, Pol-Chi, has also devolved certain of the functions normally reserved to the Merura aristocracy, to do with matters of overall policy and the legislation of new laws.

‘Now, in my own case, as well as fulfilling the duties proper to a priest, I have responsibility for other matters, some of which are difficult to describe, but which are easily recognised when particular examples of them arise. In normal circumstances, that is, within the full civil administration of the Empire, the Priesthood has responsibility for the spiritual welfare, morale, health, and education of the people. But it has other, perhaps more important responsibilities within the administration, civil and military, itself. Here the Priesthood acts as historians, scientists, lawyers, moralists, advisors and teachers at the most advanced levels. It is our duty to monitor the activities of the administration, to advise, report, and correct by admonishment as necessary. To complete this scheme, I will refer to the Priesthood’s responsibility at the very highest level. Here we teach and advise the Emperor himself, exercising at this level what can best be called Wisdom. Thus, the Priesthood has three levels of spiritual competence: in descending order, the divine, the Imperial, and the social.

‘The relevance of this scheme to our present situation is this: in terms of the holy power conferred on us, of the Imperial power granted to us, and in terms of our social function, it is an accepted principle that every priest possesses all three competences, even though he may pass his life exercising only one of them, or, in the case of specialist priests, none of them. The point to be borne in mind here is that each and every priest, regardless of his actual duties at any time, possesses this universal competence.

‘Now, such a competence is of the highest relevance in a situation such as ours. Our two ships at present comprise, as it were, the Empire in microcosm. Cut off from the guidance and power of certain kinds of authorities, those who possess authority within the Empire as a whole here have this authority extended analogically to areas where normal authority is lacking. Thus Set-Wun, for instance, as Captain of the Ships, becomes a kind of territorial Lord, having jurisdiction as magistrate, and overseeing, as such a Lord normally would, the supply of provisions and the maintenance of the material fabric of our lives. And it is by means of a delegation of powers by Set-Wun, which in this case reflects the usual policy of the Empire, the other Captains on the ships, who have purely military powers, receive authorities which augment these and so fulfil offices otherwise absent here. Thus Lat-Pi, the Captain of the Spear, is also Officer of Supply, and Tel-Chan, the Captain of the Axe, serves also as Officer of the Police. Again, the Commander, Pol-Chi, as I have said before, as well as being the military leader of this missions is also our provincial Duke, as it were, fulfilling the duties normally undertaken by such a Duke.

‘For my part, within the Empire I am a priest who exercises what I have called the Imperial competence as adviser to a section of the Commanders of the Army of the Central Provinces. Thus my duties have been connected with the affairs of the third highest echelon of that Army. Here, however, as the only priest officially attached to this mission, it is necessary for me to exercise authority at other levels. I fulfil a social duty, in exhorting and guiding the soldiers. On another level, I advise you, the Captains, in areas of policy, precedent, and ethics. Finally, I fulfil my usual office in relation to the Commander.

‘It is obvious from this general comparison that one crucial level of authority is lacking on this mission, one which by its very nature could not be fulfilled. In the area of civil and military authority there is no analogue for the Emperor himself. In this way, when viewed in terms of the Imperial administration, our two ships are not in fact a microcosm of the Empire. They are instead more analogous to an Imperial province taken in isolation: where the offices from Duke downwards are exercised.

‘Now, it is not necessary for me to point out to you that such a thing as an autonomous Imperial province is an impossibility. Such a structure of authority is not possible in Imperial law. But, more important, and this I emphasis, it is utterly inconceivable from an even more superior point of view, I will return to this. In legal terms, as you know, all authority comes from the Emperor himself. But, and this must be made clear, it is a principle of Imperial law that Imperial authority does not operate at a distance, incarnated, as it were, in the person of a duly empowered official. Imperial authority emanates continuously from the Will of the Emperor, an emanation which is at once always in force throughout the Empire and at the same time dependent upon the very existence of the Emperor. That is why the Intended automatically becomes Emperor at the death of the existing Emperor. For sixty-six generations the Ta-Shan dynasty has continuously and without cease been the Imperial Will within the Empire. And to the extend, and this is a secondary matter at present, though it can be of crucial importance, as it was at the time of the annexation of the Land of Sep in the east fifteen generations ago, to the extent that the first Ta-Shan Emperor, Pon the First, assumed the Imperial function upon the death of Rash the Forty-fifth, the last of the Ker-Al Emperors, the Imperial Will has been effective continuously and without cease for three hundred and thirty-three generations. In other words, the Imperial Will has been present in the world since the creation of man.

‘Thus, as you appreciate, the Imperial Will must be effective here continuously and without cease, in other words, the Will of our Emperor, Van the Twenty-third, must be present here now, continuously and without cease. But how, you might ask, is that possible? The administrative chain of office, military or civil, is broken at the provincial level. Thus, as a result of this, it can be said that strictly speaking you Captains, and you, Commander, do not hold your offices and authorities directly from the Emperor, as you had done within the Empire.

‘How, then, does the Imperial Will emanate here? I see that some of you already know the answer. That is good. It is better policy always to be in the act of reminding people of what they already know, rather than in. the act of telling them what they do not know. Now, I will outline the matter for those who have not yet remembered: put in simple terms, in a situation such as ours, the Imperial Will emanates through the priestly function. It is a fact! But for the sake of those who appear forgetful and thus surprised, I will outline both the theory of how, and the actual means whereby, this emanation is possible.

‘In theory, because of the universal competence of the individual members of the Priesthood, any priest can, if necessary, fill any gap which might occur in the administrative chain of office. Examples of this abound, and I am certain you have had direct experience of this. For instance, at the local level, priests often assume the office of village or town Head between the death of one civilian or military Head and the appointment of another. And as you know, two generations ago a priest functioned as territorial Lord of the northern part of our homeland for six months until the new Lord was appointed. The most famous case is that of the priest, Pil-Tisi, who functioned as Prince of the Western Provinces during the Great Rebellion and who directed the Imperial Armies to victory over the rebels.

‘Again, and at another level altogether, many cities and regions, especially in remote and outlying areas of the Empire, are normally ruled by priests. The most obvious example of this is Ka-Bil, which has been ruled by the High Priest of the Temple there since its foundation. Most of you met the ruling Priest, Lamla, during our visit there. By extension of this practice, a priest could be appointed to fill any office in the Imperial administration, civil or military, though as you know, it is rarely done, and then usually because that priest possesses exceptional abilities in time of exceptional needs. Thus, Se-Kon, the great Navigator priest, took the rank of Lord of the Fleet when he led the expedition into the Great Eastern Ocean, a rank he continued to hold upon his return until his death. Moreover, this theory extends to the highest level, for it is possible for a priest to become Emperor in the event, Goddess forbid it should ever happen, of the existing Emperor dying without there being an Intended to follow him. This has never happened and I pray it never will.

‘However, this theory applies here in this way. I, as priest, fill the break in the administrative chain of office between the Commander’s analogous rank as Provincial Duke and the Imperial Office. But as these particular high offices are not necessary for the maintenance of the mission, I can therefore be seen to hold an unspecified Office which in effect bridges the gap between Pol-Chi and the Emperor. But again, this Office of itself carries no specific duties, for none is required. It merely acts to transmit, in theory, the Imperial Will to the Commander. Thus, at the level of legal theory, but also in actual law, should the question ever arise, and in my Imperial competence, I am the direct agent of the Emperor here. Thus I am the final authority in matters to do with the Imperial Will. My interpretations, advice, guidance, and instructions at this level are final and without appeal for the duration of our voyage...

‘Yes. What you say is true, That is why I will now outline the actual means whereby I exercise this power. It is true, as you say, that all delegated Imperial authority emanates from the Emperor personal1y and so all Imperial authority requires his presence. Admittedly, in theory his presence here is lacking, so that in theory, but not, as I will show, in actual law, the chain of authority I have outlined is incomplete and therefore lacking in power. This

is true. So how is the presence of the Emperor made effective here?

‘You will see that in presenting, in theory, the chain of office as it exists for us, I was referring only to my Imperial competence. Now, the actual means whereby I exercise my power here is derived from my divine competence. In other words, my overarching power here is derived from the fact that I am a priest. The actual means to this are clear. They can be conceived in two different, though complementary, ways. In the first place, at the time of the creation of man, in the Age of Fire, the Goddess created three ranks of men - the priestly, the Imperial, and the social. They exist as a necessary hierarchy. The priest extends the divine power to the world through the Emperor. The Emperor in turn extends sovereign power to the social man by means of the establishment of a hierarchy of administration. For their part, the social rank, which comprises all men except the priests and the Emperor, has the function of the maintenance of the material world of all men, the priestly or divine, the Imperial or sovereign, and the social or human. But the divinely instituted religious and Imperial powers require from the social man unquestioned obedience as the prerequisite for the guidance and control of their affairs to their proper ends, which is the piety, peace, and prudence of men as an eternal precondition for their happiness.

‘You will notice that in this hierarchy of men, the priestly rank is highest. For this reason, it is truly said that the Priesthood maintains the Imperial power. Of course, the Imperial Will is not derived from the priestly power. It is in itself divinely instituted. But the Priesthood have the duty, implied in the divine nature of its origins, rank and function, to guide and maintain the Imperial Will at its source, which is, again obviously, the Goddess of Whom the Priesthood is the particular and direct agent. By this means, the divine duty of the Priesthood can guide and maintain the Imperial Will in all its manifestations throughout the Empire. In doing so, it exercises a power prior to the Imperial power, a divine power which, in special circumstances, includes the Imperial Will and so capable, again in special circumstances, of actually exercising the Imperial Will.

'So, Brothers, by means of the power invested by the Goddess in the Priesthood at the time of the creation of man, and also by means of the divine duty of the Priesthood which it fulfils at present, I sit before you as the Imperial Will, insofar as it is included in my divine office of priest. On this mission, therefore, I am your Emperor...

‘Despite the surprise which some of you express, I believe I have succeeded in reminding all of you of what you already know, of what was an elementary part of the education of all of you...

‘It is on the basis of my divine authority that I now intend making certain observations concerning the rumours I have heard and the facts I have learned. I will then issue instructions which, when implemented, will rid this mission of a number of anomalies...

‘Brothers, Brothers, it is in the interest of all of us in authority here that you continue to listen to me...

‘Commander, please curb your Captains...That is an order!

‘This is chaos, Commander, I order you to control your captains...

‘Very well, Commander. It might be as you say. I will give your Captains, and you, two days in which to come to an understanding of what I have told you. In two days time, Commander, I expect...

‘THIS IS CHAOS! CHAOS! CHAOS!’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Uöos applied the healing ointment to the burst flesh. Hepteidon hissed lightly, but not as much as he had done before. It was unavoidable. The seeping had ceased, so the healing of the wound could begin.

It was good that the wound was small, though deep.

Uöos drew the cloak up over the red body.

‘May I have water now, Uöos?’

‘Not yet, Hepteidon. You must drink nothing until the internal wounds have knit. We will bathe you again soon, when Sora returns, before the sun sets and your body closes in the chill. You may feel thirsty, but the bathing provides your body with the water it needs.’

It is good that there is no fever. When he tries to piss, and that will have to be soon, I will know what damage has been done to his organ. But it is in any case clear that Hepteidon is no longer a man...

As though reading Uöos’ mind, Hepteidon said frankly:

‘You should have cut away all the damaged flesh, Uöos. You know that is the safest procedure.’

Uöos looked at Hepteidon's face. There was resignation and acceptance there.

‘It may not be necessary, Hepteidon.’

‘But I am no longer a man. I have seen the wound. So what difference would it make?’

Uöos saw that Hepteidon accepted a fact. But full realisation had not yet entered him. A priest is celibate, yet he is also a man. Even a priest will suffer such a loss.

‘The body can heal itself, Hepteidon.’

Hepteidon grimaced a smile: he could not laugh. ‘You are a considerate old man. Not a butcher.’

Uöos pushed himself over to Hepteidon’s head, how approachable some men are in sickness. A living thing in Hepteidon could be approached now.

‘The motion of the ship causes you no great discomfort?’

Hepteidon’s eyes glittered greenly: ‘Not now, old man. It is restful in its regularity.’

‘That is good.’

Uöos saw that there was a peace in Hepteidon. Is this calamity in some way welcomed?

The door opened behind him and the Commander stepped quietly across the cabin. After greetings, he asked about Hepteidon.

‘The wounds are healing,’ Uöos replied simply, deliberately preventing Hepteidon from replying.

Pol-Chi sat down beside Uöos.

‘Can Hepteidon speak? There is a matter that must be discussed out of the hearing of the Brigan.’

Hepteidon spoke this time. ‘I can, Pol-Chi, though Uöos might not wish it.’

Uöos nodded, sitting back: 'Korkungal and Sora are on deck.

‘I know,’ Pol-Chi rubbed his nose. The ring on his forefinger sparkled once, brilliantly. All three stared at it, as though surprised. Pol-Chi paused, momentarily distracted, then continued: ‘I saw them. The soldiers gather round them. Once they played dice with him and laughed and joked. But now they are silent and in awe. Korkungal is at a loss, I know. All he can do is tell them stories about his life and his people. But they listen to everything he says.’

Pol-Chi stopped speaking abruptly. He knew he was evading the point. And he must hurry:

‘Hepteidon, what are your feelings towards Korkungal?’

Looking at the ceiling, eyes narrowed, Hepteidon obviously composed an answer. Pol-Chi would rather the Astronomer did not have to answer this question, but it had to be done: he was implicated in the affair.

‘Pol-Chi, I do not hate Korkungal. What he has done here is clearly the result of my own foolishness. But I must also admit to a desire to kill him. I have seen his capacity for death and destruction. He is dangerous. I say this in your presence, Uöos, knowing your love for him. But I cannot say otherwise.’

Pol-Chi nodded, looking once at Uöos and seeing a mask there. In some way, Pol-Chi felt, Hepteidon was lying. He had prevented the axe-soldiers from killing him in the Ka-Bil. Hepteidon did wish to kill Korkungal. That much could be plausible. But he did not wish anyone else to kill him. Why was that?

Korkungal is a rival!

But in what game? The answer leaped into Pol-Chi’s mind, before he could reject its absurdity:

Hepteidon thinks Korkungal is the Beast.

The absurdity and insanity of the notion sickened Pol-Chi. There had to be another reason. Something more mundane. Perhaps connected with the prophecy of the Brigan priest.

No! Connected with the death of the Brigan priest. Hepteidon killed the old priest. He fears Korkungal’s revenge!

Hepteidon broke through Pol-Chi’s distraction:

‘Why do you ask me this, Pol-Chi?’

‘The priest moves against Korkungal. He is disturbed by his effect upon the soldiers, and perhaps upon the Captains. All those connected with the Brigan are therefore in danger. This obviously puts Uöos and the girl in danger, but because you are here, Hepteidon, and accept Uöos’ treatment, you may also be in danger.’

Hepteidon the Merura aristocrat retorted with what strength he had: ‘Not I, Pol-Chi.’

Pol-Chi rubbed his nose again.

‘He claims to speak on behalf of the Emperor. This might seem madness, Hepteidon, but you, and perhaps you, Uöos, know the reasoning involved. He claims it in his office as priest.’

Hepteidon slackened. Pol-Chi saw that the point was made.

‘We face him in council again tomorrow. Perhaps we can forestall him on the level of argument. However, if he is intent upon having his own way, he will go over our heads to the soldiers. Today he is on the other ship, preaching to the soldiers, I cannot stop him doing this, for that is his duty.

‘But the possibility of turning the soldiers against their Captains is not what concerns me. Whatever else, he will not turn the soldiers against Korkungal. But he will break the unity of command on the ships. The men will be divided between Korkungal, the priest, and their Captains. The priest, for his part, may gather enough soldiers to attack you here. If that were to happen, then there would be chaos.

'Now, I asked you about your feelings for Korkungal, Hepteidon, in order to help me to decide what should be done with you. Here you have been receiving good treatment and attention,’ Pol-Chi nodded at Uöos, ‘but while here you are in danger. If I move you astern, you will be safe from the priest, but I do not know what kind of treatment you will receive.’

‘I will stay here, Pol-Chi. I can also help defend the place.’

Both Pol-Chi and Uöos immediately rejected the latter proposal. Pol-Chi went on:

‘No, I don’t want you to stay here in order to defend the cabin. While I wish you to receive careful treatment, I also want to keep you all as a group together in one place. I would move you all astern, where you could be more easily protected, but then the priest would move here and there would be a dangerous polarity on the ship. No. Korkungal will have to do the defending. He is well able for it. His arms are here. If he wants any other weapons, I will get them for him.’

Pol-Chi paused. He stared down at the ring on his forefinger. But it caused his mind to wander.

I must keep to practical matters.

‘Hepteidon, I have one other thing to ask of you. Answer this freely, because it involves matters which I, as a soldier, cannot command. If it becomes necessary, will you act as our priest? No, let me finish. The priest’s madness and blindness may lead to his destruction. This could happen in a number of ways, which I will not detail now. In that case, I think it is imperative that the soldiers, no, the mission as a whole, should have a spiritual focus. You see, regardless of the beliefs of the soldiers, I do not think Korkungal should become the sole focus of their religious feelings. It could be dangerous both for the soldiers and the Brigan, and for the whole mission.

‘Hepteidon, Uöos, can you see this? Everything here could collapse in chaos. We must maintain the traditional orders of authority, even if they become hollow. Do you understand this?’

Hepteidon suddenly became abstracted, his eyes wide and sightless. But Uöos reached and touched Pol-Chi’s arm:

‘What you say is wise, Commander, I am a clown, I know, but a clown needs order. Perhaps he needs order more than most.’

The door opened. Korkungal came in ducking his head at the lintel, followed closely by Sora. Seeing the huddled group, he lowered his head and went to the opposite wall and sat down, his head still low. Sora looked over at the group, watched for Korkungal's reaction, and immediately followed him and sat down beside him.

Uöos leaned over to Pol-Chi:

‘You should speak to Korkungal, Commander. He should know something of the danger he is in.‘

Pol-Chi braced to raise himself to his feet, then stopped. He looked again at Korkungal, then at Hepteidon, who was still abstracted. Korkungal may have gained an enviable calm, but it left him a child in the company of men. He felt sympathy for him: he did not seek the dubious glory of being called the Chosen.

Pol-Chi pushed himself to his feet and went across the cabin. He waited in front of Korkungal until the Brigan finally looked up.

‘Korkungal, will you come and join us. I have a serious matter to discuss. You come, too, Sora. It involves you as well.’

Korkungal did not move until Pol-Chi had seated himself beside Uöos again. But this time he arranged himself in such a way that a circle would be made when Korkungal and Sora joined them.

It was Sora who rose first. She came and sat by Hepteidon’s legs. This left a space between her and Pol-Chi. Soon after, Korkungal slipped down into this space.

Pol-Chi spoke immediately:

‘Korkungal, and you, Sora, I wish to speak with you on a practical level. The priest is trying to rouse up the soldiers against you. He seeks to act in the name of the Emperor and so command us all. Whether he is successful or not is not a problem yet. But there may be contention, and you and your companions, and I include Hepteidon in this because he does not wish to leave here, may be in danger. In particular, the priest may succeed in gathering some of the soldiers about him and attacking you here.

‘The question is this, Korkungal, can you defend this cabin against such an attack? It need be only for a short time, for many other soldiers, including myself and my Captains, will hurry to protect you.’

Korkungal smirked in what Pol-Chi thought was an unpleasant way. There was a defensive arrogance in the Brigan. Repelled by the unpleasant smirk, Pol-Chi nonetheless felt renewed sympathy for the Brigan’s situation. To be an outsider and an object of misplaced veneration must threaten a man’s sanity.

‘Of course, Commander,’ Korkungal said in too-easy a tone, ‘I will protect the cabin.’

Hepteidon suddenly interrupted:

‘Why not tell the soldiers the truth!’

Pol-Chi swung around, thinking: No! Not now! Don’t let this bickering start again.

Hepteidon’s eyes were brilliant. He was staring at Pol-Chi.

‘You don’t believe he is the Chosen, Pol-Chi, do you? Why not tell the soldiers that he is not the Chosen they seek?’

Pol-Chi felt the rivalry suddenly return to the plane of absurdity. This nonsense must be broken open now.

‘Who is the Chosen, then, Hepteidon?’

Uöos interjected sharply, pitching his voice above Pol-Chi’s. ‘It is not a question of who we believe the Chosen is. It is a matter of what the soldiers believe. And they will not believe us if we told them otherwise.’ He lowered his voice, now that he had their attention. ‘Don’t you see, Commander? You plan on the basis that the soldiers believe strongly in the existence of the Chosen. It is not a question of realities, of a real Chosen, but of the beliefs of a frightened band of men. As far as the soldiers are concerned, Korkungal is the Chosen. Whether he is or not is immaterial.’

Pol-Chi acknowledged Uöos’ words.

‘You are right, of course, Uöos. But here that is not the point. Hepteidon, you introduce division into the group here. That is dangerous. Now tell us, so that we will, know what is in your mind: who do you think is the Chosen? ‘

It was strange, Pol-Chi realised, but neither Korkungal nor Sora showed any interest in this dispute.

Why is that?

‘I think the rumours about the Chosen are superstition, Pol-Chi,’ Hepteidon said flatly. He cut the air with the edge of his palm. The pain it caused him was evident. 'Korkungal,' he suddenly shouted, ignoring the further pained he caused: ‘tell us all now, did you speak to the Goddess in the Ka, as the rumour says you did?’

Korkungal’s amusement and slow response acted like a taunt, though perhaps they were not intended as such.

Hepteidon is jealous.

Does he want to be the Chosen, the new God?

‘Answer when you are spoken to, barbarian!’ Hepteidon tried to be the Merura noble; instead, in his physical weakness, he screamed.

In the silence that followed, Uöos spoke gently:

‘It is best to tell him what happened, Korkungal. Let him make his own sense of it.’

Korkungal looked quickly at Sora, then spoke with his eyes lowered.

‘In the Ka a woman spoke to me by the pond beside the Temple. She knew me though I have never seen her before. She said her name was Chorsa. She promised me a virgin. One night a girl came to my cabin in the watch-tower. She knew me, though again I had never seen her before. She said she was called Agnanna.’ Korkungal faltered, as though there was more to say, then he raised his eyes to Sora. He looked at Hepteidon and pointed to Sora, ‘It was she who called herself Agnanna that night, though she will not admit it.’

Hepteidon immediately shouted:

‘See, a trick of disguises played on a simple barbarian!’ But he suddenly quietened and stared at Sora. Then he said softly to Korkungal: ‘You mean to imply that this whore is to be the Mother of the Chosen?’

Korkungal leaned forward in sudden rage, clenching his fists in the air between himself and Hepteidon:

‘Be careful, priest! Or I will kill you now!’

Pol-Chi raised his hand with the intention of rebuking Korkungal, but on an impulse he turned instead and spoke to Hepteidon:

‘Tell us what happened to you in the Ka-Bil, Hepteidon. There is a secret there too.’

Hepteidon was obviously taken by surprise. He lay back and stared at the ceiling.

Uöos spoke, again gently:

‘Korkungal, I have said this before: Have patience with your own lack of understanding and with the misunderstanding of others.’

Korkungal slumped down and Sora leaned over and touched his arm. The Brigan slumped more and his shoulders trembled. Sora caressed his arm soothingly.

‘Won’t you speak, Hepteidon? We are all waiting.’ Pol-Chi saw that here the tangle of rivalry could he broken open.

‘I cannot,’ The resignation in Hepteidon went deep, Pol-Chi saw.

He must be prompted: ‘Hepteidon, there is no great mystery. You witnessed the prophecy of the Brigan priest. What was his name? But what had you to do with his death?’

The sudden tears in Hepteidon’s eyes were a surprise. They trickled across his temples into his hair. The tremors in his body would cause him great pain.

Uöos interjected: ‘He is still weak, Commander. You might open his wounds again.’

Pol-Chi saw this. But he must be remorseless. What wounds had been opened in Korkungal by Hepteidon’s question?

‘Answer, Hepteidon. I demand an answer now. You attack and mock the Brigan and endanger your life, and perhaps all our lives. What is it that you are hiding?’

Hepteidon abandoned himself to his pains:

‘Lamla said I loved Kandrigi. But I hid it from myself because I was afraid of what I must do. Because of my fear I caused the death of Kandrigi. But I could not do what Lamla told me must be done. I was afraid.'

The confession eased him and he quietened. His face was taut now with physical pain.

Pol-Chi loosened his tongue in his dry mouth. He turned deliberately to Korkungal:

‘Do you blame Hepteidon for the death of Kandrigi, your priest?’

Korkungal’s gaze was distant:

‘That was Kandrigi’s affair. I told him many times that his curiosity would be the death of him.’

‘What curiosity, Korkungal? What brought you to the Ka-Bil?’

‘Kandrigi wanted to know the significance of the new star, as he called it.’

Pol-Chi now turned to Hepteidon:

‘Kandrigi was given a prophecy about the new star. Is that right, Hepteidon?’

The Astronomer nodded reluctantly.

‘And the prophecy warns of the destruction of the earth. That is also right, is it not?’

Again Hepteidon nodded. ‘What was it that Kandrigi was to do?’

‘He was to tell men of the impending destruction,’ Hepteidon spoke in a flat expressionless tone.

Some barriers had been broken down in him, Pol-Chi saw.

‘Is that all? Was he told about the Chosen?’

‘There was no superstition in the prophecy.’

Pol-Chi slipped forward in surprise. The Dark embraced him, lit in one corner by a gleam.

There are two threads here. The thread Korkungal follows is separated from the thread that draws Hepteidon. The rivalry between the two returned to the level of absurdity and insanity. Even so, Pol-Chi saw that Korkungal had conquered the fear he had of his particular role, while Hepteidon had not. The Merura’s confession had not touched the core of his fear: it had not released him.

It is Hepteidon who is the dangerous one! He has not begun to act yet. What circumstances does he require?

Control! What has it to do with controlling?

Hepteidon prepares himself for chaos. That is how he controls his fear. He wants chaos.

But why?

He wants to control. There is no new God. Hepteidon knows this. So he will control instead. No, No. Though he does not know it yet.

Hepteidon will be the Beast!

That is it! The insane logic of our priest betrayed the madness of the Priesthood!

The Priesthood is the Chosen of the Goddess. They will brook no rival.

Jealousy, jealousy.

A divine jealousy! It is madness, but it is real.

A lamp was lit and the darkness was gone. Pol-Chi discovered he was looking at the ring on his forefinger. He shook his head violently:

The polarity has already been created.

He jumped to his feet.

'Quick, all of you! The danger is here now!’

Only Uöos moved, but he was already on his feet, holding the lamp.

‘Understand me! The priest has been on the other ship since the council yesterday. He has not returned and there has been no reaction.’

There was no Captain on the other ship! They had all stayed here in order to discuss the claims of the priest.

Running to the door, he shouted back:

‘Korkungal, arm yourself! Uöos, see to it!'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Once on deck, Pol-Chi knew immediately what it was that had alerted him. The rowing had stopped for the night on his own ship, but the beat had continued on the ship behind. Running under the sail, he saw the mast of the other ship. It was closing rapidly.

One of his Captains stood on the stern, looking at the approaching ship. Pol-Chi peered through the twilight gloom.

‘Set-Wun!’ He leaped up the steps on to the stern deck.

The Captain of the Ships turned, puzzlement in his face.

‘They are throwing things overboard. What can they be, Commander?’

Pol-Chi grabbed his Captain’s arm: ‘Quick, Set-Wun, recommence the rowing. Tell the beater that I want battle speed. Quick, Captain! Do not question me. There is great danger.’

Set-Wun suddenly understood. ‘They are throwing soldiers overboard! But why, Commander?’

Pol-Chi pushed Set-Wun in the back. ‘Later, Captain. Get the rowing started at once. Hurry.’

At last Set-Wun raced off, leaping down to amidships, and running, shouting, to the nearest entry to the rowing deck.

The alarm cries brought soldiers onto the deck. Pol-Chi called them to him. His Captains appeared in a group and Pol-Chi shouted to them to arm their men. The Engineer, not having the command of men, and who captained the other ship, came up to the stern deck.

‘Tan-Sha, the priest has control of your ship. He means to attack us. Look. He is throwing those who will not side with him overboard. Get some men and lower half of our canoes into the water. Put one man in charge of them. It might he possible to save some of the soldiers. Please hurry!’

Tan-Sha moved nimbly, shouting for men, running towards the stacked canoes amidships.

The beat began below, fast and relentless. The ship surged, paused, and surged again. Pol-Chi went to the rail and shouted down at Set-Wun as soon as he appeared on deck:

‘Have the sail tied up. Quickly.’

Shouts came from the ship behind. They have realised that they no longer have the advantage of surprise. Pol-Chi peered back For an instant he saw the priest on the stern deck, arms raised, his long priest's robe billowing. There was confusion on the midships deck. Fighting. They had stopped throwing men overboard.

Even so, he saw that the rhythm of rowing on the other ship had also speeded up.

One after the other, his Captains climbed back on to the stern deck.

‘How many men have we in arms?’ Pol-Chi asked.

The Captains looked at one another. It was Set-Wun who spoke.

‘Nineteen. Eleven spear and eight axes.’

How many had the priest?

‘How do you compare our speeds, Captains?’ Pol-Chi asked.

They waited, each estimating relative speeds by individual sightings and reckoning.

Tan-Sha spoke, ‘We draw away from them.

‘They are using less oars, then?’

‘Yes. But remember they have thrown some of their complement overboard.

The first arrows began to come over, guttering in the gloom. Pol-Chi suddenly realised that he and his Captains were still unarmed. He told them to get arms and armour, then ran to the rail and ordered the nearest soldiers to bring protection for the steersman.

Set-Wun brought him leather body armour, his sword and helmet. Donning them, he asked:

‘Should we reverse and hoard? Think carefully.’

With the sail tied up, it was easy to deal with the flying brands. The soldiers had spread out amidships to deal with them.

‘If they turned quickly while we manoeuvred, they might ram us.’

Pol-Chi thought of the men thrown into the sea. At least eight men wasted. We cannot row away like this!

There was a cheer below him. Korkungal was on the bow deck, helmeted, sword and shield at the ready. The chant of his men was taken up in the ship behind.

This is madness, Pol-Chi reflected bitterly. Both groups will fight for the same object.

But here there is still order: over there chaos reigns now.

‘There was fighting on the deck, Captains. They did not have time to throw all the dissenters overboard.’

‘In that case, they are dead by now,’ Tel-Chan said glumly.

Who would Korkungal fight? Pol-Chi suddenly asked himself. Would he fight at all?

‘Well, do we keep rowing or do we turn and fight?’

What do we want? We might regain control, but it would cost more lives. If we keep rowing, we might wear down the allegiance to the priest. Or, at least, lose them in the dark.

‘That is for you to decide, Commander.’ It was Set-Wun who spoke.

And so it is.

‘Very well. We will row through the night. Perhaps they will tire and come to their senses. Do you all agree? If not, voice your opinions.’

Lat-Pi spoke: ‘We agree. But bear this in mind, Pol-Chi. They may not tire. A fanatic leads them.’

‘I do, Lat-Pi. But it is the wisest tactic for now.’

The last rays of the sun tinted the sea red and white. There was a mounting sense of isolation. It seemed to affect both ships. Korkungal now sat on the edge of the bow deck, surrounded by soldiers, he had put his weapons down and he was, as ever, telling them one of his stories. The soldiers pressed eagerly about him.

Pol-Chi suddenly saw that the Brigan was a hero, like the Heroes of legends. His men were like children in his company. What kind of assurance does he give them, who are just common soldiers far away from their homes and families? And the chanting had stopped on the other ship.

Pol-Chi spoke softly to Tan-Sha, who was nearest him:

‘They are keeping pace, are they not?’

Tan-Sha nodded.

So they are all rowing. The dissenters must be dead. How many?

How many more lives wasted? How many more will be wasted tomorrow?

‘We must rest tonight. We will all take our turn at the oars tonight. Set-Wun, arrange the rotation. Partial changes, one oar in three at the appropriate periods for this rate of rowing. We will all be tired in the morning, but I want no man exhausted.’

He paused and saw the moon rising above the land to his right.

‘Put one man on watch. Ask Uöos, the old storyteller. Tell him the circumstances. There will be light tonight for surprise manoeuvres. We must be on our guard.’

The moon rose rapidly, swollen and yellow. On the other side of the sky the last of the sunlight glowed redly up from the northwest.

Like fire. Is that the explanation of the Brigan legend of the Land of Fire? The place where the sun sets. It is plausible, Pol-Chi judged, but it is too naive. They might be barbarians, but they are not fools. Korkungal and his priest, Kandrigi, showed that much.

He looked forward at Korkungal. Now he lay sidelong on the bow deck, his head resting in the palm of his hand. The soldiers were resting about him, some up on the bow deck, other down on the amidships deck. They kept their weapons close by.

There is battle tension there. They are free of all cares now, united in a common danger. He saw that his soldiers were talking more freely now. Good. They will forget their awe for this night.

It is strange to think that those spearmen and axemen once faced Korkungal in battle.

Set-Wun approached the group and spoke to them. They began to rise up, some looking down the ship at their Commander. Korkungal slid over and dropped onto the midships deck.

He would row. That is good. If I can unite this ship in one purpose, then perhaps we might deal with the priest without too much loss of life. I need Korkungal on my side.

Pol-Chi looked back. The other ship kept pace, ploughing through the sea, cresting waves regularly, sending flying sprays that were lit redly on one side and milkily on the other. The decks were deserted, one man in view, leaning on the rudder shaft.

The priest must keep talking to the soldiers to keep their resolve. He is not sure of his command.

Set-Wun reappeared on the stern deck, accompanied by Uöos.

Pol-Chi went forward.

‘Thank you, Uöos. We need the help of everyone.’

‘It is nothing, Commander. I willingly do it.’

A short stabbing sword hung loosely in the storyteller’s hand.

‘There is no need for you to take arms, Uöos. You eyes will be sufficient service.

Uöos hefted the sword: ‘It is for my reassurance. Do not worry, Pol-Chi, I have used a sword before, many years ago.’

Pol-Chi smiled, ‘I believe it.’

Set-Wun stepped around Uöos: ‘The rotations have been arranged, Commander. I, Tel-Chan and Shu-Ken will go below now. Later, you and the remaining Captains will form part of the first relief.’

‘Good. Set-Wun, thank you for your diligence. I see the Brigan has taken an oar.’

‘He has, Pol-Chi. And he did it voluntarily. It heartened the men to see him.‘

‘I will express my gratitude to him in the morning.’

Set-Wun called the two Captains he had named and together they went below. One by one the relieved soldiers came on deck. Some looked back at the other ship with curiosity. They seemed puzzled rather than angry.

‘Lat-Pi,’ Pol-Chi called softly. ‘Arm the soldiers and tell them to keep their arms close by them at all times. There may be surprises in the night.’

As he went off, Pol-Chi called after him: ‘Then rest yourself in some quiet corner until the time comes to row.

He nodded at the remaining Captains, ‘Tan-Sha, Tel-Sin, you, too, find a place to rest.’

Tan-Sha hesitated. ‘You will rest, too, Pol-Chi?’

‘Yes, yes, Tan-Sha. I will settle here on deck. But I will rest.’

He went across to Uöos: ‘May I keep watch with you, old man?’

Uöos glanced back, flickered a smile of welcome, and returned his gaze to the ship behind.

The sunlight was almost gone. As though it leaves reluctantly. He understood the feelings of his men on that last night in Ka-La-Tlu. A lingering painful death.

But the moon was rising high, beginning to light the sea with its cold calm light.

‘It is the eve of battle, Uöos. Tell me of your battles.’

Uöos laughed at the pursuing ship : ‘I will tell you of one battle, Pol-Chi. When the armies of the Empire of the Dawn invaded our land, which is to the south of the Inland Sea, I helped defend our city. For one year we held them off, expecting relief every day. We did not know that our whole country had been devastated, our armies broken. But each day we faced them on the walls and we kept them at bay. Even the best men grew sick of blood and death. In the end we broke out towards the south. Our women and children got seven days’ start. Then when the enemy discovered this, we broke out too and fought them off for days, until we reached the great forest of the south.‘

‘The details of such a story would take a year to tell, Uöos.’

‘A lifetime, Commander.‘

‘Yet you reached safety?’

‘Sickness, hunger, attacks by the tribes of the forest reduced our numbers further. Only fifty of us reached the Imperial city of Ka-Vind, in the uplands to the west of the

forest.’

‘How many had been in your city.‘

‘Over five thousand men and women.’

‘A sad story, Uöos. I grieve for you.’

‘It is a long time ago. I was young and much has happened since then.’

Pol-Chi heard something in the tone. ‘You were a priest there, were you not?’

‘I was the High Priest. The office was hereditary among my people.

Beside the moon, Pol-Chi saw the new star, big and brilliant. In reaction he looked forward for the Le-Tlu, the North Star. It was there, directly in front of the ship. He turned to the steersman:

‘Keep the ship in line with the North Star. There. Do you see?’

The steersman sighted, then nodded, dropping back into his reverie.

Pol-Chi turned hack to Uöos. The moonlight showed that his face was kindly now, moved by memories.

‘Tell me, Uöos, you have experienced great devastation. How does a man keep his senses?’

Uöos’ face sharpened. He looked over his shoulder at the new star.

‘As you have said yourself, Pol-Chi, you attend to the practical affairs on hand. If the world were to cone to an end, there is nothing you could do about it, except carry out your duty.’

‘Yes, I have thought that. But what if that duty itself entailed destruction?’

‘I see what you are trying to say. I had somewhere to go. At the end there would be no place to go.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘That will be a new kind of story, Pol-Chi. I do not know what will happen.’

‘What about the Beast, Uöos? What purpose will he have in the end?’

Uöos stared keenly at Pol-Chi.

‘You do not fear the Beast, too?’

‘No. But I think of the part he has to play. Perhaps there is some way of stopping him.’

‘It is strange, the people of your Empire are taught nothing concerning the Beast, yet your common soldiers know of his approach.’

Pol-Chi felt his hackles rise - the soldiers know of his approach? He felt a sudden urgency:

‘What do you know of the Beast, Uöos?’

‘Our religions differ, Pol-Chi, though both worship the Goddess. Our religion is a matter of initiation and enlightenment. Each person receives his own truth. But, do you know, these truths are limited, though each one seeks his own individual truth. In your Empire, religion is indoctrination. Each one is directed towards one truth, but a truth which exists only because it can be formulated in words.

‘In our religion, there are truths concerning the End, as there are truths concerning the Beginning, and, of course, concerning the Middle. The truths concerning the End differ, some in important ways. However, one common thread concerns the Beast of the Last Days. It is said that the Beast has a million heads and carries a million swords. It is said that he will devour the world. But at the last moment, a shining God of Light will come and vanquish him.’

Pol-Chi felt the images glow in his mind. The two threads!

But Uöos continued:

‘But I must tell you two things. In my enlightenment I saw only a child with white skin. He was naked, but I felt he was watched over. I was told that he takes another path, the hardest path.’

Pol-Chi ejaculated: ‘Sora!’

Uöos laughed: ‘Poet, you are making legends before their time.’

Pol-Chi controlled himself, thinking ‘the hardest path’ - what is that?

‘However,’ Uöos resumed, suddenly serious again, ‘the second thing I wish to tell you is this. You will have realised by now, and if you have not then I am telling you now, that the Imperial religion teaches nothing about the End. The Empire is conceived to be eternal, Divine. If you want to know what the Beast will be like, consider that fact, Pol-Chi.’

Pol-Chi sat down on the deck. The Empire! The Empire itself is the Beast? But he immediately dismissed the thought. The Empire had as its main policy its expansion throughout the world. Was this mission not part of that policy?

Then the burgeoning insight failed. He could not use Uöos’ words. He must find his own way. But this much was clear: The Beast was within the Empire now. He will soon appear.

Pol-Chi realised he was looking at the ring on his finger again. It glowed in the moonlight. The sight of the ring suddenly filled him with an intolerable tension.

Am I imagining everything? Have I gone mad with omens and rumours and questions about Beasts and Gods?

At the same time he wished he could he rid of the ring. It was a great, senseless burden. He heard Uöos murmur, ‘But it is a fine night’, and suddenly there was blankness.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

When he was awakened, the first thing Pol-Chi was aware of was the beat of the rowing drum, then the splash and suck of the oars in unison. Like an echo, he heard the oars of the pursuing ship.

Set-Wun was bent over him, shaking his shoulder, Pol-Chi shook himself and stood up.

‘Do you know, Set-Wun, that they row in unison with us?’

Set-Wun looked and listened. He laughed.

‘They are used to doing that, Pol-Chi.’

‘Are they chasing us, I wonder, or are we really racing to the North?’

Set-Wun laughed again, loudly enough to distract Uöos, who was on the other side of the stern.

Pol-Chi picked up his sword and went across to the old storyteller.

‘Why are you over here, Uöos?’

‘They go from side to side. They do it irregularly. I don’t understand the tactic.’

‘Perhaps they wish to keep you awake.’

Uöos grinned wizenedly; his eyes were deep in their sockets:

‘Or perhaps the priest needs new action all the time.’

Pol-Chi mused: ‘There is that.’ Constant action. Can the priest not control the fear any longer by means of ritual and rhythm?

Then he noticed something. The sail of the other ship had become untied on the port side. A large area of it dangled and flapped. That weight and movement would soon pull the whole sail loose. It would make their rowing more difficult and tiring. Good.

They could not afford the men to tie it up!

‘Set-Wun,’ Pol-Chi called softly. When the Captain came over, he asked him: ‘Could our more skilled archers strike that sail with ease?’

Set-Wun estimated, ‘Shu-Ken would he a better judge than I. But I think so...You intend to set it alight, Pol-Chi?’

‘Yes. When the moon has almost set,’ the moon was at zenith now, ‘get three or four of our best archers to put as many brands as possible into the sail. It will confuse them, but we will also know their location in the dark.’

Sat-Wun nodded, grinning tightly.

‘And once beyond their range, we could raise our own sail?’

‘Perhaps, Set-Wun, But do we want to lose our second ship? Is it my time to row?’

'Yes, your partner waits below.‘

‘I will, come now. But first: gather our archers now. Consult with Shu-Ken if necessary. Have a brazier prepared out of sight below. Uöos, if they send up men to retie the sail, call the archers at once. They should try to fire the sail then.’

‘As you will, Commander.‘

Pol-Chi then followed Set-Wun across the stern deck, down to amidships. There Pol-Chi‘s rowing partner, a spearman named Pi-Set, awaited them.

The change of rowing crew was executed smoothly. The oar was locked above the water, the relieved pair slid off the bench and were gone, and the spearman and Pol-Chi slid into their places, Pol-Chi on the outside in case he was called out in an emergency. From there on, Pol-Chi followed the spearman's motions, for he had rarely rowed, and then only when young, so that he would have knowledge of it. With the spearman he oiled his hands, gripped the oar and lifted it out of its lock. Then they counted the drumbeats, at the same time integrating the rhythm of the rowers in front of them. Boom, boom, boom-drop, pull, lift, rest; boom-drop, pull, lift, rest; boom-drop, pull, lift, rest. Then they dropped the oar on the next beat, let it trail in the sea, lifted, rested. Then drop, pull, lift, rest. Drop, pull, lift, rest. At first they concentrated on what they did. They tensed for the drumbeat, but soon they gave their attention to the stroke, exerting their whole body for the duration. In time, all the movements became automatic. They exerted themselves less in the stroke as they meshed with the combined exertion of the other oarsmen. Then, suddenly, they were in the rhythm, their bodies working freely, no longer requiring attention.

For a while Pol-Chi felt elated, his mind floating above his body’s toil. In the gloom, lit only by the lamp above the drummer, he saw some of the fourteen crews, manning the seven long oars which worked on either side of the ship. They bent, pulled, rested, in unison, their skin gleaming. Of necessity, each man wore only a loincloth, his armour and weapons pushed under the bench beneath him. Then, they pulled, the oars strained, a curious complaint of wood on metal. But, Pol-Chi heard with surprise, the whole ship also strained, timbers driven against timbers, or else timbers driven apart from timbers. The ship was like a living thing, exerting itself, groaning and relaxing by turns, struggling with great opposing forces of the driving labour of men and the sullen resistance of the sea.

The rowing deck was clammy rather than hot. The sea kept the hull cold, so that the radiated heat of the labouring men was converted to a chilly condensation, which fell back upon their hot skins. They sweated and yet they shivered also. There was no effective relief available for this unpleasant condition. The best remedy was to insulate the skin with oil. But the skin could not he fully sealed, for the heat and sweat must be released. The oars-master, then, went along the central gangway and rubbed oil diluted with fresh water on the oarsmen, sometimes on their faces, sometimes on their shoulders and hacks. This gave momentary relief, which prevented the spirits from sinking too far, for it engendered an anticipation of relief which greatly exaggerated the actual relief, and also served to keep the oarsmen’s minds off the discomfort.

Once Pol-Chi had taken in the sights available to him and he had exhausted their novelty, he became aware of the dense, restricted quality of the atmosphere of the deck. At first it appalled him. He and the men about him seemed in this density to be no more than a great blind machine. Consciousness was superfluous. Ultimately, once the beat and the rhythm of effort had taken over, there was nothing to know. For a while, Pol-Chi cringed, pulling, lifting, resting, dropping and pulling, while his eyes darted about him seeking one thing he could concentrate on, to still the rising panic. Pull, lift, rest, drop, pull, lift, rest, drop - there was nothing that he could see that could counteract the awful, inert and blind seduction of these mechanical actions. But, he told himself, these men do it all the time. Why are they not mad?

There was a space here for him. He pulled, lifted, rested, dropped, pulled, lifted, rested, dropped. Above him, around him, in him, the drum sounded remorselessly. BOOM... BOOM...BOOM... signalling each time the coming exertion, preparing his body for it. Dropping the oar when the BOOM sounded created a hole in him. Into this hole flowed energy. It filled the hole, expanded, overflowed at the lift. Then it ebbed at the rest. The instant of rest became an instant of teetering on a brink. Then, BOOM and the hole appeared. It was strange. Such a teetering should be frightening. But it was not. It was a surging thing, like the instant before sexual climax. There, too, an instant existed when the body knows not what is to come. It teeters at the edge of an abyss. Then the first muscular contraction - BOOM - then the glorious surge.

Pol-Chi was agitated again, pulling back from the sexual image in the realisation of the difference. With the surge, there is the pumping that lifts one up and up to the light, to the long sigh of satiation and silence. Here, the surge is limited, circumscribed, measured. It is applied - there! - then shut off, the total emission of energy restricted, measured out in exact amounts at exact intervals. The drum totally controlled the men. It spoke the deepest rhythm in them, that of sexual desire and gratification. But it controlled it. It dealt it out in exact amounts at exact intervals - and refused the gratification.

Where there is control there is the deepest slavery!

There was a slick of oily water across his back. His spine jerked, and shivers of relief passed pleasurably along his arms. But the muscles in his neck knotted, acting as a fulcrum that allowed his body as a whole to continue its machine-like rhythm of pull, lift, rest, drop, pull, lift, rest, drop. The relief as pleasure passed over the surface of him only and dissipated rapidly. In the aftermath, it is true, his consciousness leaped up, free for a moment. Then forgetfulness returned, forgetfulness of the body, forgetfulness of the momentary relief.

But - the mind is not a machine! It could not run on cycles of rhythm. It could not be bent over on itself in the way the body could, totally controlled and dominated by the periodicity of the drum, BOOM...BOOM...BOOM...BOOM-drop-energy-pull-swell-lift-drain-rest; BOOM(hole)drop-energy- pull-swell-lift-drain-rest; hole, energy, swell-drain; hole, drop, run-out; BOOM! agh! ugh! ahh...

But the mind cannot get free of the body here. It tosses, at best blindly and passively; at worst, in panic and fear. Sometimes, as Pol-Chi now saw and felt, there is rage. But the rage, he soon realised, only ties the mind more firmly to the body.

What is this rage? It is like struggling in a marsh. Rage merely reinforces its cause. But his men do not rage! Priests rage, all the time. His father rages.

Does the Emperor rage? Is his rage the mightiest? No. The priest’s rage is the greatest. They have the greatest pretensions.

Why do his men not rage? They seem to have the greatest cause. They are trapped here day after day...

The Beast!

My men rages A mighty, destructive rage. They want to destroy this world that enslaves them. They want to do it now. This instant as they sit and - pull, lift, rest, drop(BOOM), pull, lift, rest, drop-BOOM...

But there is one sound here that is continuous, Pol-Chi listened, reaching for it behind the straining, the groaning and tearing, the slap and suck...one sound. The hiss of the sea under the ship. A sibilant, rushing, bright murmur.

Listen! Go down to it! Shiiiiih... A white, dissolving, slipping murmur. Do my men hear it?

The eyes of the spearman beside him were open and unfocussed. His body bent, strained, pushed, paused, bent, strained, pushed, paused...But his head remained up, his eyes straight before him, open, unfocussed, sightless.

Anywhere else, such an expression would betoken madness! Was my poor spearman now mad? Just so this ship can race through the night into an unknown space?

Are my men mad? Is there a madness at the bottom of the Empire? A mighty rage and resentment?

Pull with your arms, your hands grasping and knotting; brace your legs and push; take it on your back, feel your stomach clench, your chest collapse; breath quickly, push down with your tired arms, let your stomach lift, your back arch, your legs lighten and spasm; feet all go slack, your chest quivers, your hands clench involuntarily, your feet shift; BOOM - up come your arms, bracing in anticipation, a shiver across your groin, your scrotum tightening - the oar bites - QUICK - PULL...

Your mind loses that grasp, unable to transcend the awful drive of the body, unable to stop the body, unable to think the action to extinction...

The mind in its rage thinks death. What it cannot know it seeks to destroy!

But what does the mind desire? To think everything but its own thinking to oblivion. It wants to think its own divinity.

It wants to he God!

Hepteidon! There! Yes, it is there! Hepteidon wants to think the world to extinction!

Hepteidon wants to be God.

There is a cheer. Feet pound across the deck above him.

What?

A voice shouts: ‘The Sail! We got their sail!’

But there is no reply. Some heads lift, but most don’t move at all - the beat goes on remorselessly.

At the end of the world all the beats will go on and on until they are overwhelmed from outside.

BOOM, pull...BOOM, pull...BOOM, pull...BOOM, pull...

Pol-Chi suddenly imagined fire. Burning with a great continuous roar. The susurration of the sea had re-entered him, below all the chaos of the order of straining, groaning, tearing, pulling, pushing, dropping, BOOMing...

My men hear that too. They hear the light. They must do. Their minds must seek the continuous, the...

Infinite. The threads intermingle again.

Light and dark. Lightness in darkness; darkness in lightness. They are together.

Somewhere, they are one.

Somehow, all contradictions must be reconciled.

The Beast and the God are one.

Yes.

Hepteidon.

It is Hepteidon! Somehow, he has the motive. He can have the power, if he seeks it.

My men seek in the wrong place for the Chosen.

Pol-Chi laughed.

He pulled mightily; great pulls, great lifts, great rests, great drops - great energy.

I KNOW!

I know the secret of men!

Figures approached along the gangway.

I know my own madness!

Abruptly, there was no pull on the oar. The spearman was staring up, refocusing, naive.

The hand on his shoulder stopped him. When he stood up, the hand steadied him. Someone slipped around behind him and took his place. The spearman, Pi-Set, was still there. Pol-Chi hesitated, pointing to his rowing partner.

It was Tan-Sha who steadied him. The oars-master was close by. Above the BOON...BOOM...BOOM...Tan-Sha said: ‘The ship has caught fire', and pointed up. Pol-Chi nodded and put one foot out. His leg wanted to brace itself, but Pol-Chi’s consciousness was rising, longing to get away. Tan-Sha helped him make the first few steps. Still the oars-master hovered nearby. Pol-Chi looked up at him, then at the sweating oarsmen. The master understood immediately and returned to his cloth and bucket of oily water.

Tan-Sha left him for a moment. He continued walking, touching the wooden supports as he went. Before him the drum BOOMed. On and on. With the lamp as focus, Pol-Chi realised that it was an altar.

The drum was a kind of God.

Up the ladder. The air lightened. It was good on deck. Pol-Chi breathed deeply, washed by relief. His body still jerked in rhythm.

Behind the ship there was flickering light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Tan-Sha was regarding him, watchful.

Pol-Chi took the leather body armour from him. Strapping it on, he said:

‘It is a long time since I rowed, Tan-Sha. But never before at that speed and at night.’

‘It is hard work, Commander.’

‘It is. I hope it is worth it.’

Tan-Sha handed him his helmet.

‘The men are used to it.‘

Finally, Pol-Chi buckled on his sword.

‘What has happened?’

‘We set their sail alight when the moonlight began to fail, as you ordered. But they were slow in reacting. They must have been confused. Part of the sail fell on to the deck. I think their canoes took light. The spar is alight now. They have begun to fight the fires. I think they will have to throw the spar and sail overboard.’

Pol-Chi clucked in annoyance and set off back along the deck.

The other ship was falling behind. It was stark in the firelight: the sea red and black about it. The flickering light accentuated the surrounding darkness.

‘Uöos, what is happening now?’

‘They are trying to get up the mast to cut away the spar. But the heat seems to be too great.’

‘Are they still rowing?’

‘Yes, four oars. Two others ceased just now.’

‘They are taking men off the oars. Tan-Sha, stop the rowing, except for four. We must keep under way, so we can steer. But slow the pace. Steersman! Keep the ship towards the North Star.’

The drum beat slowed by degrees. Pol-Chi realised then that there had been the tension of urgency on the ship all through the night.

When Tan-Sha returned, Pol-Chi asked him:

‘Is there a tactic available to us now?’

‘What do you want to do, Commander?’

‘Save the ship. And save the men on it.‘

Pol-Chi remembered that it was Tan-Sha’s ship.

‘It depends on what has happened to the priest’s control of the men there.’

‘Yes. That’s it,’ Pol-Chi snapped. ‘Uöos, do you think they can see us now?’

‘The fire does not reflect on the ship.’

‘Good. Tan-Sha, will the men row without the drum?’

‘Yes, but not so well.’

‘Tell the oars-master he is to call out a good pace. All oars. We will go around them. Do it now. I will steer.’

Cross-checking constantly between the light of the fire and the North Star, Pol-Chi steered the ship out to sea and around in a great arc. The oars splashed softly. The men must know what is afoot. There was no beat. They glided over the water, with only the creak of their spar as an accompaniment.

By the time the manoeuvre was complete the first streaks of dawn had appeared over the land to the east.

Just then, there was a flare of light on the other boat and a shower of sparks.

Uöos shouted reedily from his position in the bow:

‘Their spar has come down. It’s on the deck.’

Pol-Chi gave the order for the ship to go ahead at a moderate pace. He kept to seaward.

‘Tan-Sha, what soldiers have we under arms now?‘

The Engineer checked and shouted from amidships: ‘Six axe, thirteen spear, and the Brigan.’

‘I want two more axes. Quick.’

When Tan-Sha returned to the stern, Pol-Chi said:

‘This is what we will do. I want to put the axemen on their stern. Then I will speak to the priest. We must have him surrender. The men will not disobey him. The only other way is to fight it out.

‘This is important, Tan-Sha, and you must explain it to the oarsmen. When I call, I want the best speed, but without the drum. When I call again, I want the ship stopped. The oars-master will best know how. But he must stop the ship when I call, otherwise there will be a collision and the ships will be damaged.’

Tan-Sha nodded once and disappeared into the dark.

‘Steersman, I am going to the bow. I will give you instructions from there. Listen carefully!’

Amidships, he called the axemen to follow him on to the bow deck. There, he asked Uöos to report.

‘They cannot move the spar. The deck is catching alight. See! I think they are trying to cut it up. There is no one rowing. But some of the oars are trailing. I think there is panic.’

Pol-Chi nodded and shouted for fast rowing. At once, the ship surged forward, gathering speed. Pol-Chi now turned to the soldiers around him.

‘We are going to come up alongside their stern. You are to get aboard and take control of the stern deck. Now, you are to prevent them from getting up there. Do not strike them. Your armour and shields will protect you. But watch out for your legs. Remember, they are your kin, swayed by the priest’s rhetoric. Prepare yourselves.’

Pol-Chi noticed the white skin behind the axemen. ‘Korkungal! You are to remain on board. None of your tricks now.’

The Brigan slipped away, a smirk on his face, looking dangerously tensed.

But Pol-Chi had no time for that. They were approaching the ship with speed, again gliding smoothly, almost silently except for regular low splashing.

‘Uöos,’ he hissed. ‘If they see us, shout.‘

To the steersman he called, ‘To starboard!’

He checked the new heading, calling adjustments to the steersman.

‘They see us!' Uöos suddenly cried.

The ship surged, and surged again, all the time shooting forward. Pol-Chi concentrated, calculating by eye. Then, without turning his head, he told Uöos to back off the bow and the axemen to come forward. Excitedly, he clutched the arm of the soldier to come closest to him.

‘Ready, men. You must leap when I tell you. Trust me!’

The ship was headed as though to race under the stern of

the other ship. Then, squeezing his eyes and judging, Pol-Chi suddenly screamed:

Stop the ship!

The order was relayed and immediately the surging ceased, to be replaced by a tumult of crashing water and complaining wood. The ship slowed rapidly, bucking as momentum was broken violently. Some of the oars cut the surface of the sea, slicing sprays of water into the air; others moved in reverse, pulling against the motion of the ship.

Pol-Chi crouched forward to judge again. Closer, closer the other ship seemed to come. Then he leaped back and called:

‘Hard to port.’

The rudder went over, the ship’s stern wallowed. Slowly at first, the front of the ship moved left, beginning to slidder sideways. The stern of the other ship now loomed forward and left. Then they were in its shadow. Then the bow lifted, still slowing, and Pol-Chi suddenly cried at the backs of his axemen:

‘Now! Jump! Jump!’

They cluttered forward, on the rail, four leaping then one, then another, then the last two.

Then Korkungal leaped, shouting and laughing.

Pol-Chi screamed after him, but there was more to do. The ship was turning on its length almost. The bow grazed the stern, then slipped past and began to slip along parallel to the starboard side of the stern. The bow was still skewing, bucking threateningly at times. Pol-Chi now called for ropes. Spearmen came up, went to the rail, watching Pol-Chi. Judging it again, he suddenly cut the air with his hand, calling to the steersman.

‘Hard to starboard.’

The ships slammed together.

Now there was a confusion of men and ropes around him. On the other ship, his axemen lined the rail of the stern deck, two men to each of the ladders leading up from amidships. But none of the soldiers on the other ship had come forward. Amid the smoke and heat and confusion they gawked at Korkungal, standing on the rail of the stern deck, sword and shield over his head, laughing.

Then the priest came out of the smoke, pointing at the Brigan, obviously trying to rally the soldiers.

With sudden fear in his heart, Pol-Chi ran forward, calling the spearmen. He leaped up on to the stern, steadied himself, and ran towards Korkungal. But the Brigan gave a huge shout and dropped over on to the amidships deck. Pol-Chi was in time to see him buffet the priest with his shield and then swing his sword down.

‘Korkungal’

Nobody moved, even now. Korkungal straightened and looked back, eyes gleaming, the same smirk on his face. Slowly, he raised his bloodstained sword, glinting in the firelight. The smoke swirled around him. The light danced across his face, lit his red hair. He screamed, a blood-sated primitive howl of death and destruction, turning his body round and round, sword over his head, gleaming red.

When the soldiers began to echo his cheer, Pol-Chi knew:

They are Korkungal‘s men!

Pol-Chi leaped over the rail, landing solidly on the amidships deck.

‘Korkungal!'

He is like a child now.

Pol-Chi walked forward, hand away from his sword. Is he capricious? The smoke stung his eyes. Wood crackled in the fire and light danced over the deck. The ship is burning!

Korkungal still danced, humming to himself. Remember, he is a warrior, not a soldier. But he had lowered his sword. What do I do now?

Pol-Chi walked up to the Brigan, looking up at him as steadily as the smoke would allow.

Korkungal stopped turning, sighed, glanced down at the body of the priest, and said with light reasonableness:

‘No one else could do it, Commander.’

I did not want death. Not even the priest’s.

Pol-Chi nodded. He looked at the priest. The stroke had been powerful. And skilful. Pol-Chi shuddered as always at the sight of death.

But Korkungal was not the danger.

‘Go back to the ship, Korkungal. Your work is done here.’ The Brigan sagged, suddenly without purpose.

It is an awkward, dangerous moment.

Pol-Chi spoke so only Korkungal could hear:

‘Go to Sora. She has been alone all night.’

He raised his right arm high and immediately all the soldiers cheered. Korkungal perked up, smirked again, and swaggered, brandishing his bloody sword.

But he moved to leave the ship.

Pol-Chi raised his arm twice more, and each time the soldiers cheered loudly.

He is their Hero!

He unites them, even while they have forgotten about their salvation.

Everyone stopped to watch him leave the ship, leaping onto the united rails, sword raised one last time. A crowd of soldiers waited for him on the other ship.

Then Pol-Chi beckoned to the Engineer.

‘You have your command again, Tan-Sha. I will send over soldiers to help clear the deck. At the same time, Tan-Sha, I want to intermingle the soldiers from both ships. I will send you twenty soldiers from the rowing teams. They will not have seen what happened here. You send over to me the injured and exhausted from your complement.’

Day was coming. In the early light of the sun, the smoke and blackened timbers looked worse. But the fires seemed less threatening.

‘When you are ready, we will row to the shore. The men need to rest today. We must study our situation and decide what to do next.’

It was not until he stepped on to his own ship that Pol-Chi felt, or let himself feel, his own weariness. It came to him like an agony. His response was like a prayer. It rose in him, passing up and out into the lightening air. There was a grievous ache, but there was also the serene beauty of relief.

Korkungal sat slumped, his head hanging in dejection. He had thrown his sword and shield across the bow deck.

Pol-Chi could not restrain the euphoria he projected at the Brigan:

‘Korkungal’

The light skin of his face was streaked with dust and blood where Korkungal had obviously rubbed his eyes.

Has he cried? Why?

‘Korkungal, I cannot say this publicly, so I say it personally between us. You were right. None of us could have stopped the priest as you did. We must observe the order of the Empire. But if the priest had had his way, there would have been slaughter today. It is not much consolation, but perhaps you saved the lives of many of my soldiers.’

Korkungal nodded blindly. Pol-Chi knew that the Brigan’s heart screamed. But with what pain, he did not know.

‘Rest now, Brigan. Later we will go ashore.’

Pol-Chi turned to leave, his feeling of helplessness finding an echo in his weariness. His euphoria was attenuated and poignant.

Even one death is too much!

But Korkungal suddenly spoke. He spoke from the depths of his apathy.

‘Once, Commander, when I killed in battle, I felt that I had given my life back to myself. This is hard to explain otherwise, but as a soldier you must have experienced this feeling yourself.’

Pol-Chi had not: he had done his duty.

‘But now that there is no death, or no life, I am not sure which it is - but that is not important - I feel there is no place to go when I have killed. This is hard to explain, and I am reluctant to speak. But you have shown concern and I do not want you to feel pain on my behalf.

‘I will explain it this way. it is said that when the soul comes in contact with the material of the body that it dies a kind of death and thereafter it awaits with a motionless hope for its time of release. Now, this motionless hope is hope without the feeling of anticipation, and it is the same state as that despair which also lacks feeling. I am like this, Pol-Chi. The state I am in has no motion. But unlike the soul, I do not foresee release. Unlike the soul, Pol-Chi, I have no other place to go to.

‘Do you understand me now?’

Pol-Chi suddenly remembered the white murmur of the water under the hull.

‘Korkungal, is this state always painful?’ Pol-Chi did not think it was, but he wanted to hear what the other had to say.

‘No, Pol-Chi. Only when I act out of will and decision does it ache. In repose, it is a sweet and blissful nothing. This, too, is hard to explain, but they are the best words I have.’

Perhaps my weariness helps me understand, Pol-Chi thought.

The first sunlight suddenly struck the deck, bathing Korkungal’s face.

‘Korkungal, I rowed last night. I had not done it for a long time, since my youth. I thought it was...I will speak candidly...down there I saw madness and rage and a lust for destruction. But all the time, beyond this turmoil there was the murmur of the sea passing under the hull. The murmur was continuous and without cease. I thought of it, strangely, as light. White, unchanging light. I think my men, who row all the time, listen only to that murmur. It makes the wretchedness bearable. Is your nothingness like that?’

Korkungal peered up in the sunlight.

‘Ah, Pol-Chi, how well you describe it! Except for this one thing. That murmur, which I heard too in the night while rowing, is a thing in itself. The wretchedness and the murmur are separate things. You experienced the wretchedness only, that is clear. Your soldiers listen only to the murmur. Unlike you, Commander, your soldiers have no place to go. They have learned to listen only to the murmur, to ignore their bodies.’

‘Then there is a wretchedness in you also?’

The blithe smile had returned to Korkungal.

‘There was only wretchedness before Uöos taught me to accept the dark.‘

‘Dark, Korkungal?’ Pol-Chi prickled as he felt himself move into the area of fear.

‘Oh, Pol-Chi, dark or light, it is either or both.’

Pol-Chi experienced the crest again. But it frightened him this time: he saw the utter remoteness of it.

The Dark is two things: it is here and it is also there.

‘Do not be afraid for me, Commander,’ Korkungal's tone was gentle. ‘I accept.’

Pol-Chi was suddenly bitter at Korkungal’s naivety. He does not think that I can be afraid for myself.

Yet the Brigan has surmounted the fear.

‘And for your part, Korkungal, do not feel obliged to act on our behalf. It causes you too much pain.’ Pol-Chi began to walk away. An insight which had approached him before now arose again. Behind him, Korkungal said:

‘I am still a man, Commander. I will still act to help my comrades.’

The word ‘act’ cut across Pol-Chi‘s thoughts, but even when he turned his attention to that word and what it implied, he felt his whole concentration sag. His weariness returned.

Set-Wun approached him amidships.

‘We have untied the ships, Commander.’

‘There is no tension among the soldiers?’

‘No. They are too tired and too shocked.’

‘When Tan-Sha has cleared his ship, take us in to the shore. Choose your own landing. Call me when we have anchored.

The day was already settled. Light streamed across the placid sea. To his tired eyes it seemed unduly harsh. There was a brittleness somewhere, either in the world or in himself.

Then Uöos came to show him a new sight.

They had reached the land of cloud.

‘Lat-Pi was right then, Uöos. There are mountains here.’

The foothills rose almost from the coast. Beyond them were the purple heights of the mountains. Great folds of cloud hung about the peaks, brilliantly white where the sun shone on them.

‘Are we in the North?’ It was a rhetorical question, spoken in a new dejection.

Uöos looked tired and dried up after the night. He pointed up along the coast. His weariness weighed him too.

‘There is always the north, Pol-Chi. We are simply here, as we always are.‘

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

‘You chose a good landing, Set-Wun.‘

‘It might he possible to go into the river mouth. Tan-Sha has gone to examine the channel. His ship needs to be repaired and cleaned. Also, we have few canoes now. All except one of Tan-Sha‘s were destroyed, and we left half of ours for the... survivors.’

The day was bright, now that Pol-Chi had rested. The foothills were close, covered with brown grass and low bushes. The mountains had become blue, glittering in places with cascading water.

‘We should put a hunting party ashore now. Fresh meat would be a b1essing’’

‘I had thought to send about twenty men ashore to prepare an encampment and fires.

‘Yes, do that. But we...’

There was a rush of feet behind them. Shouts and dull thuds came then. Turning and running, knowing it had come at last, Pol-Chi saw Tel-Chan charge across the amidships deck and literally collide with the swirling struggling group. Like all axemen, he was broad and heavy. He pulled soldiers away, cuffing and barking commands. behind him, soldiers he had separated recommenced fighting. It was the Captain of the Slings, Tel-Sir, who broke up this group by simply interposing himself between them.

Pol-Chi allowed his Captains time to stop the fighting. Timing it, he arrives on the amidships deck at the right moment. In front of the panting, watchful men, he said simply,

‘Tel-Chan?’

The Captain of the Axe came over, all the time running his eyes back and forth over the soldiers.

'Yes,' he nodded as he spoke.

Nothing else needed to be said.

‘Send those men there,’ he eyed the group to his left, who had been brought over from Tan-Sha’s ship, ‘To Set-Wun. He has work ashore for them.’

When his own men saw what was happening, they began to shout, ‘Murderers!’ Tel-Sir moved quickly towards them and Pol-Chi followed, trying to remain sedate. We must keep order.

Tel-Sir quietened them without much trouble. Then Pol-Chi walked to the biggest soldier, an axeman.

‘What happened, soldier?’

Habit worked on the axeman. It showed in his slight stammer.

‘They threw our comrades overboard. They just threw them into the sea to drown, Commander‘

Is there identification with the victims? Are the other men now marked as the priest’s men?

Pol-Chi pointed across at the soldiers from the other ship, who were filing up on to the stern deck, followed by Tel-Shan. He indicated the last one. A gash down his arm made him distinctive.

‘Who did he murder, soldier?’

The axeman stared and swallowed as the point was made. But he blustered:

‘But they all did it!’

Pol-Chi eyed him to quietness. Then he pointed to the soldier beside him.

‘If the priest had told you to throw that soldier overboard, soldier, would you have disobeyed him?’

The axeman made as though to answer immediately, glancing from Pol-Chi to the soldier beside him and back again, Pol-Chi interjected more sharply:

‘Remember, soldier, the priest. Your priest.’

The gap between hypothesis and reality produced confusion in the axeman. Pol-Chi knew what he was thinking. ‘If I had been there, I would not have refused. But I was not there!’

Pol-Chi waited. The axeman could not answer. But Pol-Chi knew he could not.

‘Remember the priest's part in all this, soldier. Now, get about your duties, all of you. And no more fighting. I will not be lenient in future.’

Pol-Chi waited until the soldiers had dispersed, then he turned to Tel-Sir, drawing him with him towards the ladder to the stern deck.

‘What have you heard among the men?’

‘There are rumours and exaggerations, as expected. They say that up to twenty men were thrown overboard. And that they were beaten and blinded, and other things like that. But most of the men that were brought over from the other ship had spent the night at the oars. They know hardly anything of what happened. They simply obeyed the order to row. Some of them believe that they were obeying your orders, that we were on the final stage of our journey.’

‘I don’t want them separated, Tel-Sir. That would lead to serious trouble. We must find out exactly what happened.’

‘Lat-Pi is on the other ship. He will talk to his own men and find out.’

‘Good. Keep among the men, Tel-Sir. Be discreet. Let them argue. Intervene if it seems sensible. Do not defend the priest. But no fighting. If there is a death, we will have an end to our journey.‘

On the stern, Set-Wun said:

‘Tan-Sha is waving us in. He wants his own ship to go first.’

Pol-Chi nodded. Set-Wun called across.

There was a series of rumbles and creaks followed by splashes below as the oars were unlocked. Set-Wun gave a hand signal.

To Pol-Chi, the drumbeat seemed to come from inside his head. Could he ever hear it again without that dread of enslavement? Perhaps never, but there was deep knowledge there.

‘I sent those men ashore to prepare camp,’ Set-Wun said. ‘They are still too tired to do much else. The priest never changed the rowing crews.’ This fact scandalised the Captain of the Ships. ‘He could have broken the men in a few days.’

‘The hunting party?’

‘Not yet, Pol-Chi. I want all the soldiers together ashore. Let them bathe in the river. I want to see how they group and interact.’ His face was suddenly bleak. ‘We may have to separate them and decide which way to sail, north or south.’

Pol-Chi saw the practicality of Set-Wun’s decision. But the Captain of the Ships was prepared to let the soldiers decide for him.

‘We are not in the north yet, Set-Wun. There is still our mission.’

He left the stern deck without looking at his Captain and went forward.

I am afraid to stop going forward.

It was action that kept things together now. We are coming to the end of the time of thought and dreams. Even Korkungal could not avoid acting. What of men who wanted to avoid thought? There is nothing any longer to prevent them acting.

This is the way of the Beast.

We will go on! I will cut out the troublemakers and send them back to the Main Fleet. We must have order! We will go on into the north, even if there are lands of fire and monsters.

Then the sour thought struck him:

And when there is no longer any place to go?

Pol-Chi saw the simple answer there:

Why then, it will be the Time of the Beast.

The Last Days.

He paused at the entrance to the dark passage. He looked up at the bright blue sky and let his thoughts complete themselves:

The Beast is the body turned back on itself, trying to turn thought back on itself. When that has failed the Beast will consume itself.

It is fear that will kill man!

Pol-Chi regarded his thoughts as bravely as he could, knowing he could not get beyond them.

He ducked into the dark passage.

The door was open and the first thing he saw was Hepteidon limping across the cabin, supported by Korkungal. He looked at Uöos, who stood by the window watching Hepteidon.

‘So soon?’

Uöos shrugged: ‘He insists. If the wound does not open, then there is no harm.

Sora was a bundle in the darkest corner. She seemed to be sleeping.

Hepteidon and Korkungal turned at the wall. This time the Astronomer pushed away from Korkungal and walked alone. He limped on his left leg, his face tense with concentration and pain.

‘The bone is badly bruised,’ Uöos explained to every one, ‘It is not the leg. In time the limp will disappear.’

‘Even so, Hepteidon, you should rest. There is no need to force yourself like this.’

Pol-Chi asked himself mockingly where his sternness had gone to.

Hepteidon turned at the other side of the cabin and paused.

‘There is every need, Pol-Chi. For instance, who will map the mountains?‘ He walked again, now concentrating on removing the limp.

‘Korkungal, what do your legends say of these mountains?‘

The Brigan moved away from the wall, but continued to watch Hepteidon. ‘Nothing, Commander. It may be that we are far from the homeland of the Briga.’

‘Well, we will sail on,’ Pol-Chi said more loudly. He was establishing his intention here, too.

Uöos suddenly looked impish. ‘Tell me, Commander,’ he asked with mock seriousness, ‘how will you know the North when we reach it.‘

It was Korkungal, who was used to the storyteller's banter, who answered, ducking his head and looking idiotic:

‘The Astronomer will see it written in the stars!’

The tension lasted as long as it took Hepteidon to find his response. Meanwhile, he continued walking towards Korkungal. In that time, Pol-Chi saw that he had no authority here. Nor, he saw, was there any order here either. It was true, in their company he was outside the Empire.

Hepteidon stopped in front of Korkungal and stared levelly at him. His mood was still uncertain.

‘I’ll tell you, Barbarian, how I’ll know when we are in the North.’ His pause was deliberate. Korkungal's curiosity grew with that of Uöos and Pol-Chi. ‘There will be no stars.’

Pol-Chi knew he gaped as credulously as Uöos did. But Korkungal slapped Hepteidon’s arm and laughed with cunning:

‘Then we are there, red man. Look out the windows!’

Hepteidon's stare broke. Uöos released himself in loud laughter. Korkungal rumpled Hepteidon’s hair and pummelled him, laughing and guffawing. To Uöos he said between gasps and bellows: ‘Look, he walked into it. He walked right into it!’

Now Pol-Chi laughed, also releasing himself. With so much to release, he laughed loudly, without restraint, slapping his hands, pointing when Hepteidon looked over at him.

In a while, Pol-Chi realised that it was for him to release the Merura, because there was that link between them. He said simply, between sobs of laughter:

‘You had better laugh, Astronomer. What he says is true!’

He could see that Hepteidon was engaged in analysing a puzzle: how could anything he said be funny? But then he saw back to his original intention, his intended cruelty. In there had lain some kind of ambiguous gesture, a drive for contact. There!

Hepteidon swung his hand through Korkungal’s hair and a kind of joy leaped in him. Korkungal ducked away as his hair splayed up before the hand, guffawing more loudly in reaction. Hepteidon went after him, lit by a joy that contained release, yet was still cruel, hitting the Brigan's back and flank with his open hands, flaying with them, head up and back, the gleam of pleasure lighting his green eyes.

Then Korkungal suddenly turned, ducked, caught Hepteidon about the waist and lifted him on to his shoulder. He spun him around, still laughing, pointing at Hepteidon’s upturned rump as he passed Uöos and then Pol-Chi.

Uöos looked dubious, beginning to worry about the effect the horseplay would have on Hepteidon's wounds. But Pol-Chi, for his part, could do nothing. More, he realised he wanted this disorder and boisterousness. There was a deep release in it.

Suddenly, Korkungal stopped spinning, and, holding Hepteidon firmly pressed across his shoulder with one arm, he put his other arm akimbo and said,

‘It’s hard sometimes to remember that this red man is still a spoiled youth.’

Abruptly, he slapped the rump beside his head. Hepteidon responded by kicking and shouting to be let down. Uöos came forward, gesturing to Korkungal that he should let him down.

'Very well,‘ Korkungal said, and bowed forward. Hepteidon slid back, struck the ground and staggered. Straightening up, his face suffused with simple good humour, Korkungal then said, ‘He may be a spoiled brat now but we’ll make a man of him yet.’

Simultaneously, Korkungal saw that Hepteidon was in agony and fighting to keep on his feet, and realised what he had said. He rushed forward and grabbed his shoulders, pulling him up and into him. Wrapping his arms around Hepteidon’s body, he hugged him, bending his face into his neck.

The moment lay open in the cabin like a great angry wound. Helplessly, Uöos and Pol-Chi watched Korkungal. Now, Pol-Chi knew, something had to be folded back on itself without justice, as a thing between men. It was a matter purely of feeling, having no justice or guarantee.

Korkungal pushed Hepteidon away from him and sought his eyes. When he found them, he saw tears, and pain, and a youth’s enormous regret, in them.

‘I am sorry, Hepteidon. I am sorry for what has happened to you. Believe me, comrade.’

Hepteidon cried openly, the realisation now running through him. It had had to be mirrored for him in another man’s admission.

Korkungal shook him gently and then drew him in again to comfort him, caressing his hair, crooning to him. There were tears in his own eyes, tears of deep naive sympathy.

Korkungal was learning what it was like to be unmanned. And it hurt deeply. The regret was terrible.

Pol-Chi watched and wondered who Korkungal would turn to now. Uöos perhaps, for some kind of dim hope. Me? But for what?

He looked and saw that Sora was sitting up, watching Korkungal and Hepteidon. There?

But Korkungal actually turned to Hepteidon. He pushed him away again and looked closely at him. He shook his head as though he had confirmed a suspicion. Taking Hepteidon by the shoulder, he helped him over to the sleeping skins near Sora. When he had lowered him into a sitting position, Hepteidon refused to lie down. Korkungal hunkered down in front of him and said with a menacing edge:

‘You are just like the other red man, Harmesh, spiteful to the very end.’

Hepteidon lashed out with his leg, but Korkungal was up and away with a bound.

‘See!’ Korkungal said to Uöos, ‘Harmesh was like this too! He would learn nothing, just went on wilfully until he got a spear in his heart,’

He swung in sudden fury and kicked Hepteidon’s heel. ‘Unforgiving brat! I warn you, Aristocrat, either you learn to be a man or I will stop your heart too! Remember, broken balls or not, you will still have to be a man. As you are, even the puniest, stupidest weakling on this ship is a better man than you are. Balls or not! Aristocratic or not!’

He gave Hepteidon’s heel a final swat and walked away. Raging, he said down to Pol-Chi:

‘Put him on the other ship, Commander. Or I swear that I will break his back next!’

He slammed the door after him.

Pol-Chi looked at Uöos. There was shame between them. Uöos shrugged dismissively and beckoned to Sora.

The girl pointedly walked around Hepteidon. Her eyes were wide and bright.

At the door, Uöos said:

‘You had better do as Korkungal says, Commander. Or he will murder him. You saw what it cost him to take on Hepteidon's pain. He will never do it again.’

Pol-Chi found himself left alone with Hepteidon. The Astronomer lay slumped with bowed head, hands tightly fisted, knuckles white, his whole body quivering.

Duty came before shame. The ambiguity in the shame surprised him. The Merura noble had failed him, and so failed the Empire. Yet Pol-Chi felt he had failed his friend. Yet Korkungal was right.

Why did he feel friendship for this spoiled youth?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

It is possible to sit under the sun at zenith here without danger. The heat was enough to invigorate, to ease his stiff joints, to take the pain out of his feet and blistered hands. The breeze from the sea tingled his warm skin.

Set-Wun and Lat-Pi approached in a long curve up from the mouth of the river. They picked their way over the thick grass, looking about, sometimes pointing, up-river or across to the more level land beyond the river, which stretched away, brown and bright, to the horizon. They, too, were enjoying a moment of ease.

Pol-Chi turned and took a few paces up the slope away from his other Captains. Where there had been an immense open stillness at Ka-La-Tlu, here on the north side of the river the coastal strip seemed squeezed between the flat sea and the first slopes of the mountain range. The effect was not entirely pleasant, but he guessed that any settlement in this area would be established on this side of the river. The southern bank was too exposed. The land ran level from the river, with the exception of one or two mounds on the bank a little inland, to the distant horizon. Here, however, there was a terrace just above the beach and river mouth, then a slope, and then a wider terrace. This second terrace could accommodate a good sized settlement while offering convenient tillage and grazing to the inhabitants. Behind this terrace the land began to climb, steeply and then shallowly, and steeply again, up to form the outriders of the mountain chain. The only approach was along the river, easily guarded and defended.

Yet the bare, blue mountains, with their great crown of clouds, were oppressive, gaunt and remote, offering no welcome to man. Pol-Chi once again stiffened in response to their challenge. They dared to be conquered. But all that was to be found there was a woolly mist, rain, bare rock and the sound of clattering water.

No. He stopped himself. There is no omen here. The world still remains open to man. The North is the place to go to -

The North is that Place under the North Star.

Hepteidon was a spiteful fool to have said what he said. The question had been a serious one, not to be bantered with so dangerously.

But why had he called it the place with no stars? That had not been said out of mere spite. It had been a deep retort to something in Korkungal.

The Place with No Stars, that was Korkungal's Darkness. The Brigan is, who said it, Uöos or Korkungal himself? the Darkness in the Dark.

Who is Hepteidon in the Place with No Stars? The Astronomer’s depths are a product of his secretiveness. They can be understood by means of analogy and correspondence. Korkungal is the being who makes...no, who constitutes the Dark. Identity. There are two things in Hepteidon’s description, and they are different. There is the Place and there is the No Stars. But there is something in the Place. What is it?

Perhaps. Yes. Perhaps the one thing is a star. Perhaps Hepteidon conceives of a Place with only one star - and he is that star. But which star?

No. No. This is too attenuated...

The call was fainter than he expected. He must have wandered further than he intended. He raised his arms in acknowledgment and looked up. Two spearmen stood close by, on guard, regarding him idly. When he looked, they turned away, turning their attention to the north, as they were supposed to.

Look the way you go, not the way you've come, behind you there is nothing now...

What a time to find a poem. I grow melancholy in my weariness. We all do. The fear in our hearts grinds us down slowly and surely.

Pol-Chi turned away, his eyes surveying the north, the coast and the sea.

But we are far from the North. The inclination of the Le-Tlu shows that. But we go on! We will go on until there is no more going on!

The guards down on the beach were seated. That is no way to keep watch. He looked south. The soldiers seemed to work with a will on the damaged ship. Doing work helps. And in the river, the soldiers bathing seemed boisterous, splashing, diving and pushing. And the fires were lighting, smoke bending over in the breeze. They awaited fresh meat now. He could not see the guard up-river.

Do they know how far it is to the North?

Above the plain of crystal glass
Stands the fortress Northern Light;
Beyond the sun, the moon and stars,
It guards the everlasting night.

Suddenly released, Pol-Chi walked down the hill, spreading his toes in the grass. He hooded his eyes against the sun.

And we the men of trembling fear,
Pursue ends that cannot come near,
Seek to penetrate beyond the veils
Of light, of night, of all that fails
To give..
.

‘Commander, there is still much to be done if we are to sail this evening.’

‘No, Set-Wun, we will remain ashore one night. The soldiers need rest. Their spirits as well as their bodies were racked last night.’

Pol-Chi sat into the circle. He laid out his hands in greeting.

‘What is the situation among the men?’

Set-Wun looked at Lat-Pi, then said:

‘They are surprisingly chastened. There is a shame among them, among the two groups for different reasons. But there is one problem. A group of axemen has developed a grudge. Of the eight men thrown overboard, six were axe. These axemen have now fixed on a group of spearmen as their executors. Tel-Chan has spoken to them. They will, of course, obey him, but a chance encounter could lead to trouble, because the spearmen remain unrepentant. They say they obeyed the legitimate orders of the priest.’ Set-Wun looked into his lap. ‘And so they did.’

Lat-Pi spoke then with urgency. ‘Commander, the danger may be greater than this. The traditional rivalry between spear and axe has sharpened here. The spear will protect their comrades.’

Pol-Chi nodded, looking over at Tel-Chan. ‘And the axe likewise?’

Tel-Chan nodded grimly.

‘Tell me, were these particular axemen part of the boarding group?’

Tel-Chan’s eyes widened as he suddenly understood Pol-Chi’s question.

‘Of course! Yes, they were, Commander. They witnessed the barbarian‘s murder of the priest. So. Their blood is up. They want to imitate the barbarian. Do you think that is the root cause?’

Pol-Chi pursed his lips in order to restrain his Captains. The word ‘murder’ was ominous.

‘But the spearmen, as Set-Wun observed, were, strictly speaking, only doing their duty as soldiers. We must consider the justice involved. The priest ordered them to do certain things in order to maintain his authority on the ship.’

‘But, Commander,’ Tel-Chan interjected, ‘six axemen were drowned!

‘No, Captain,’ Pol-Chi looked at his Captain of the Axe steadily, ‘eight soldiers were thrown overboard. We launched canoes and put a soldier in charge of them. Those soldiers wore no arms or armour, only loincloths, if anything. They are not necessarily dead. They could survive on the shore until the Main Fleet arrived.’ Pol-Chi leaned forward, suddenly intent, drawing the attention of his Captains: ‘There will be no fighting and killing here in the name of unwarranted assumptions. Keep your heads clear when you deal with your men.’

As expected, the unspoken rebuke was recognised. His Captains sat back, smarting in silence. I must be ruthless here. If I lose control of my Captains, then everything will fall apart.

It was Tel-Chan who spoke first, softly, as though from a distance.

‘There is still the matter of the barbarian, Commander.’

‘What matter is that, Captain? Our appointed guide has fulfilled his duties as required.’

‘It is the matter of the disruption he causes among the soldiers.’ Tel-Chart was making his stand with firmness, but also with delicacy. ‘It was on his account, from what I have been told, that the priest acted as he did.’ He paused. Before he spoke, everyone knew what he would say: ‘And the barbarian was quick to murder our priest, before he could explain himself.’

‘Very well, Tel-Chart, and you too, Lat-Pi, tell us what the priest said to the soldiers.’

Adroitly, Tel-Chan appeared to shrink back and so transfer attention on to the Captain of the Spear.

Lat-Pi coughed, leaned forward and extended his two hands, resting his arms on his knees. Turning up his right hand, he began diffidently:

‘In general, it is not clear what the priest's objective was. The rowing teams, in the first place, were told by the priest that under the Commander‘s orders they were to work through the night, that it was the last stage of the journey. Believing this, they worked with a will. This is why the teams were not changed. And they seemed to have known nothing about what happened on deck.’

Lat-Pi now turned up his left hand: ‘Now, he told the remaining soldiers that the Commander was plotting with the strangers to take over the ships, leave the Empire and ally with the Brigan tribes man invasion of the Empire. His proof for this claim was the imprisonment of the Astronomer, who was to be forced to act as navigator for the journey north and then for the invasion.

‘But he also claimed that the barbarian was acting under duress. That the Commander, and the Captains, were using him to rally the soldiers to their cause. What he called for then was an attack on the ship to release the Astronomer and the barbarian and to imprison the Commander and the Captains. Once this was done, he promised that the ships would return south and join the Main Fleet.’

Pol-Chi wrinkled his face and rubbed his nose: ‘What do you say, Tel-Chan?’

Now Tel-Chan leaned forward.

‘They say that the soldiers were thrown overboard because they insisted on claiming that the barbarian was the Chosen, as the rumours say he is.’

Lat-Pi interjected: ‘But the spearmen and the archers say that they were thrown overboard because they refused to acknowledge that the barbarian was the Chosen!’

Pol-Chi held up his hand to check Tel-Chan, who had leaned towards Lat-Pi.

‘Wait, Captains. For us now, the motives of the priest are not of direct importance. There is obvious contradiction in what you have heard. But there is also intentional misdirection, to the rowers especially. It is plausible that the priest told different groups among those on the deck different things.

‘But what would be of importance to us now, if we could discover it, is the larger strategy of the priest. I need not remind you of his claims at our last meeting. There he claimed authority over all of us in the name of the Emperor himself. Now, he may have realised that we could plausibly counter his claims by limiting him to the instructions concerning the mission. In that case, if he was intent upon asserting his claims in fact, what else would he have done but take control of a ship temporarily without a direct command?

‘The question is this, if he had succeeded in taking control of the second ship, what would he have done the ? He had two options. Continue to sail north, or return to the Main Fleet. But why should he continue north? He had no interest in the mission or its objective, that was always clear. Even so, why should he return to the Chief-Commander of the Main Fleet and say, “I have returned with these two ships in the name of the Emperor”? What reason could he give for this? An absurd claim about a plot by us to invade the Empire with the help of the Northern tribes?’

Pol-Chi paused, beginning to see the path his argument traced. Perhaps it is well. We have not been candid about certain things.

‘Now, Captains, the question is this: what was the priest's real motive behind this farrago of claims? Remember his address to us. There he said he wished to tell us about rumours among the soldiers. What rumours, Captains? Plots to invade the Empire? But it is he who revealed that plot to the soldiers. But look where we find the most direct contradictions in the claims he made - about the Brigan as the Chosen! And that is the rumour the priest wished to advise and command us on.

‘But, Captains, what did the priest want us to do with the Brigan? As I see it, when he spoke to us he was preparing to tell us, in the name of the Emperor, to deal with him in such a way as to quash the rumours. But, and I stress this, once aboard the other ship, with command and authority, he was not quite so sure of what he should do. Either he continued to want to destroy the Brigan and so end the rumours of the Chosen, which he saw as a threat to the Emperor,’ (I am not being entirely truthful here. But it is too complicated.) ‘or else he wanted to join forces with the Brigan and exploit his influence over the soldiers. This second alternative echoes what Lat-Pi heard from the soldiers. Captains, the priest was a traitor!

‘I need not tell you that from this point of view, the Brigan’s action expressed a kind of natural justice. The Priest wished the Brigan guide to do what he has otherwise showed no indication of doing: of acting against us in any way!

Pol-Chi paused and gathered his wits. How much of that is true? The priest was obviously mad. The fear had eaten into his innermost part.

Tel-Chan looked at the ground.

‘If what you say is true, Commander, and to the extent that we can know anything of the priest’s mind now, what you say is plausible, it is also as you have already said, the priest’s motives are no longer important. Therefore, permit me to say this with disinterest: the barbarian remains the living cause of what has happened and, more to the point, what is happening now. His presence endangers us all.’

Tel-Chan’s eyes remained downcast, so Pol-Chi could not easily engage him. Instead, he looked around the circle of faces and asked:

‘Does anyone else have anything to say?’

Pol-Chi saw that Tan-Sha wanted to speak, but his isolation from the soldiers seemed to restrain him. As the silence lengthened, however, he looked about him. When no one else seemed prepared to speak, the Engineer said in a dry voice:

‘Commander, let us discuss the rumour.’

Pol-Chi rubbed his nose in order to cover his mouth and so hide his relief. He said to the circle:

‘What that precisely is the rumour?’

Who will answer? Someone from the peripheral commands?

Of the two Captains who rarely spoke, Shu-Ken and Tel-Sir, it was the Captain of the Slings who replied:

‘It is said, Commander, that while in Ka-Bil the barbarian warrior, Korkungal, was visited twice by the Goddess, once in her aspect as Mother, and once in her aspect as Virgin. It is said that he was promised a special role in the great events in the world. As a sign to the Imperial Army of his role as the Chosen, he undertook a series of feats of arms, in one day, in which he successively fought and killed a Tendu giant of the Old People, a Merura noble, and fifty spear and axe...’

‘No axe were killed that day, Sling,’ Tel-Chan suddenly shouted. ‘It is we who have the keeping of him!’

Pol-Chi thought: I know nothing of this business of the Brigan as a sign to the Army. But Tel-Chan’s assertion reveals much, in any case.

Tel-Sir hesitated and looked at Pol-Chi, who nodded to him, to continue.

‘Tel-Chan, I merely repeat the rumour. The truth or falsity of it can be discussed later.’

When Tel-Chart nodded grudgingly and sat back, the Captain of the Sling continued:

‘These feats of arms, which do seem extraordinary, have been taken as a sign of the Brigan's special relationship to the Empire and especially to the Army - our Army of the Central Provinces. But there are two versions of what is to come. On the one hand, it is said that the Brigan will lead all the Imperial Armies in a great victory, a victory which will herald a New Age. On the other hand, it is said that the Brigan will be made the next Emperor, and that under him the Empire will conquer the world.’

Pol-Chi looked at his hands, clasped in his lap. The ring was bright in the sun. Has Tel-Sit censored his version of the rumour? He raised his head to all of them:

‘Is this the whole rumour?’

No one spoke, so Tel-Sir was forced to reply:

‘There are some wild exaggerations and superstitions, but I have given you the essence of the rumour.‘

‘What exaggerations and superstitions are there?’

When no one answered, Pol-Chi suddenly spoke with a mock-annoyance:

‘I am your Commanders I need to know what our soldiers think and believe!’

Every face was set and blank; all eyes avoided his.

‘Then let me guess. Tell me, Tel-Chart, what do the soldiers say about the Beast?‘

Everyone jerked, some looked up quickly, then looked away.

I have spoken the unspeakable!

‘It is nothing but a superstition, Commander. The common soldier always has his superstitions’’

This common soldier’ Tel-Chan speaks about is our kinsman! What new elitism is here among the axemen?

But I was right to ask Tel-Chan!

‘Tell me the superstition.’

‘They speak of a Beast. However, the accounts are garbled. Some see him as a monstrous enemy of man, which the Imperial Armies will defeat. Others fear him as the demonic Chief, who will lead the Army into destruction.’

Contradiction! Contradictions everywhere! Have my thoughts been too tidy? How could all these rumours and beliefs be focused on a small group who happen to be on this mission?

‘Very well. Tell me, Lat-Pi, what is told of the relationship between the Brigan and the Beast?’

What will his reply reveal?

‘It differs from man to man, Commander. Some identify them, others say the barbarian will vanquish the Beast in combat.’

Perhaps there are rumours like this in every one of the Imperial Armies. Perhaps each has its Chosen and its Beast.

If I only knew! It would explain much about what is happening here.

But there is a focal point for the whole world!

‘Tell me, Tel-Chan, what do the men say of the so-called New Star?’

He could see that his Captains were beginning to resent his mode of interrogation. But they will not answer otherwise.

Tel-Chan did not look up. He plucked grass beside his knee, a diffuse gesture surprising in the Captain of the Axe.

This is the core!

Tel-Chart answered levelly, and Pol-Chi could hear the control in his voice:

‘They no longer speak about the star. They have become used to it.’

Pol-Chi could not stop himself saying in exasperation:

‘But, Captain, you know they will not stay out of doors once the sun has set!’

Tel-Chan gripped a sod tightly, but did not speak.

Should I push him?

No! I push his fear

He looked around at his Captains. Each was afraid. Each was dumb with fear!

Am I not afraid?

He remembered his earlier scepticism, learned from Hepteidon. But that was gone: destroyed in the recognition of the depth of the Merura’s own fear.

The Place of No Stars.

He looked instinctively to the north. There the sky was bright and blue. Have I, too, already entered the Dark?

He suddenly had to trust himself. He closed his eyes and let prayer rise up through him.

Come, bright sole starry light,
Lead me through endless night.

‘Captains, it is important that I break through this silence. You need not acknowledge my words now.

‘Captains, there is a fear each knows, but about which no one will speak. Very well, I will speak. There is a prophecy that the New Star will destroy us and the world. It is said that men are helpless against this threat. It is further said that the Goddess cannot control the Star, that it has its own will.

‘Now, I see the rumours concerning the Chosen and the Beast as rationalisations of the fear of this Star, where the Beast is the Star and the Chosen is a divinely appointed human challenger who will defeat the Beast, that is, the Star.

‘If all men have this fear, then all men will have their Beast and their Chosen protector. In this case, every group and every region will have its rumours and perhaps its representation of the Chosen. Everywhere in the Empire and beyond, then, the tension and disputes such as we are experiencing will also take place. In this way, the Imperial, and human, order will be eaten away from the inside by our fear.

‘All I can say to you now is this: it is our fear, not any actual physical threat, which weakens us. Remember that. Our enemy is not a Star or a Beast, but our own human fear. You must strive to conquer your fear. Yes, your fear. I am not talking any longer about the fear of the soldiers, as though they were a different order of being. You, too, are afraid. I do not ask you to admit it. For I, too, find it hard to admit the depths of my fear.

‘As a means to controlling our fear, then, Captains. I suggest we attend to our duty as soldiers of the Empire.

‘Captains, we attend to our mission and maintain order to that end. We will attend to our fear in the way any soldier would: when we see the enemy that attacks us, we will defend ourselves as best we can. No more than that can we do.‘

He pushed himself up onto his feet. The sun seemed distant and cold, its light tenuous and brittle. The world about him seemed remote. It was beyond his reach.

Oh, let not the fear claim me now, for having spoken its name.

He walked down through the grass: remote hard spikes beat his toes. A hard light poured clown on him, crushing him, turning him to stone.

Walk! Walk! Focus on something.

The vertigo was appalling. But he found a tiny distant ship, with a tiny mast and a tiny spar. He saw in his imagination the oars tied up along the hull, overlapped in careful order. He saw the cabins and decks. The rowing deck where he had slaved - here anger moved in him. The cabin where Hepteidon had lain - there a pain of sympathy ran out for his friend’s mutilation. He suddenly saw that Hepteidon could never turn back.

How is that? he asked. Then he saw a turning back. Korkungal turned back, and turned back again. And Uöos turned back in his own way.

Do I turn back? he asked himself, vacating himself in his temerity, fearing the answer but finding the need for it. Yes, I have turned back! But long. long ago.

Then... he saw he had tried to turn back last night. But he was not let turn.

Then there was the hole.

Pol-Chi hurried himself. Quick, think back! Think back!

It was dark in the hole. No, it was dark in the whole. There was one light. Within the glow of this light, a seated figure said:

‘Turn back, turn back.’

And then he saw the turning back. Oh, he saw Korkungal turn back, and felt deep jealousy. Korkungal turns back all the time. Around and around! The figure in the glow in the dark was pleased by this.

Pol-Chi murmured towards the bright sea, stumbling over the grass:

‘Goddess, teach me to turn back!’

Then he saw it all.

SORA!

Then he knew the great word!

‘GODDESS, GIVE ME LOVE!’

 

 

 

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