WWWpic DARK LIBERATION
 
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NOTHING DARKER THAN THE LIGHT

 

 

 

Nil luce obscurius.

Isaac Newton

 

 

 

 

 

 

volume one

 

THE WHITE CITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we unbound this earth from the sun? Where does it move now? Where do we move? Does not the night and only the night come constantly on?...’

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Fearfully, Korkungal parted the tall grass and stared across the headland with growing disbelief. Behind him, old Kandrigi hissed excitedly:

‘Do you believe me now? Did I not tell you about this place?’

Korkungal shook his head impatiently and motioned with his hand for Kandrigi to be quiet. The old priest mumbled complainingly, then fell silent. He fingered the edge of his cloak - a sure sign that he was agitated and consoled himself with the thought that no matter how long Korkungal stared at the Ka, he would never learn as much as he himself knew about the place.

Suddenly Korkungal slithered back down to join him. He was grinning foolishly. Cocking his head to one side, he asked:

‘Is it a farm?’

It was Kandrigi’s turn to be impatient:

‘No, it is not.’ He sighed. ‘Korkungal, I have told you many times about this place. Do you not remember my words?’

Korkungal grinned again, a glint of cunning hardening his blue eyes: ‘I did not believe you, old man.'

Kandrigi snorted in exasperation:

'You are like a child, Korkungal, you will believe nothing you are told.’

Korkungal’s face contorted with quick anger. His battle-land clenched and unclenched rapidly. Kandrigi reacted hurriedly to this familiar expression of warrior-rage, but he nonetheless managed to remain dignified:

‘Never be angry with the truth, Korkungal, for it is better to he a child than a fool.’

The sweetness of the words soothed Korkungal’s fighting blood; the wisdom passed over his head. He was intimidated by the old priest’s knowledge, he lowered his face in mock-shame and said:

‘Tell me again, Kandrigi, and I will listen and believe.'

Kandrigi sniffed and pulled his stained cloak closer about his thin body:

‘Very well, come and sit closer to me, so that I can be sure of your attention.'

Obediently, Korkungal shifted his thick bulk and sat on his feet before him.

‘It is not a farm, Korkungal,’ Kandrigi began rhetorically, 'nor is it like any dwelling of our race. It is not a king’s palace, though it contains the wealth of a powerful king. It is not the fortress of a bandit tribe from the East, for it is too comely and agreeable to the senses. It is not a harbour of the Bir Karsh of the North, our enemy, though it is close by the sea and ships beach at its foot, for these people are not dark and hairy. In all, it is not many things, some of which you know, many of which you do not know: they are not of the races of the Inland Sea, nor cattle men, as we are, nor mere fishers of the sea and rivers, nor timber men, nor diggers after metals...'

At this point Korkungal raised his head and shot a burning glance of impatience at the contented Kandrigi:

‘Tell me what they are, Kandrigi, before my brain melts through trying to understand the meaning of not-being. I am a warrior, not a player-with-words.’

Kandrigi made a sour face and pulled his cloak more tightly about him.

‘I will tell you, Korkungal, of how I found this place,’ he said in a stronger voice. ‘As a young man I decided to visit the land where the world ends, it being then a country of great curiosity to me, though I had heard but little concerning it. I set out from Ullenbrig, our homeland, in early spring and went through the lands or our races following the old tracks and seeking the advice and wisdom of the priests on the way. I traveled many months, protected by the Grace of the Goddess, until I passed into the country of the Savages. I listened to their legends as best I could, for their language is strange and trying on the ears. They told me of a great sea that covers the world to the West and of huge monsters that dwell in its waters. The Savages warned me not to cross it, for, as they said, this sea has no end, except where it meets the sun and boils eternally. But I did not believe this, for the Savages are a rude people, steeped in curious superstitions.

'I walked on across the plains, fording great rivers and bypassing broad lakes, until I reached the sea's edge. I could find no boats there, nor men willing to build me one. But I did hear of a majestic race to the south, who sailed this sea, and so I decided I would go to them and seek their help...’

Again Korkungal interrupted the garrulous priest with a mean look.

'What or this place, old man?’ he said shortly, pointing over the grass.

Kandrigi made an expression of pain: storytelling was like a journey in a storm when a warrior was the audience. He preferred old kings and young men.

'Patience, Korkungal, for I am about to tell you. I walked a great distance along the sea's edge, sleeping at night in a hollow in the sand and eating shellfish and berries. I was strong in my walking, for I had great hopes of this sea people. Then one day I sighted a big boat not far from the shore, with many oars and a tall blue sail, and I saw that it was headed in towards a point on the coast not far away. I hurried over the sand, striving to keep pace with the boat, but I tired as the day wore on and it sailed on out of my sight. That night my sleep was troubled by excitement. On the morrow, I knew, I would at last reach their settlement. And when I saw it, after walking for not more than an hour, I was struck down with amazement. I had never before seen nor had I ever conceived in my youthful phantasies, such a sight.'

In memory of the event, Kandrigi glowed with wonder.

'You, too, Korkungal, have seen this sight. Do you not feel wonder and awe?’

Korkungal glowered. ‘You have told me nothing yet, old man,' he said threateningly.

Happy in his wonder, Kandrigi ignored this.

'But do not the great white walls of stone strike you with awe, Korkungal? Their immense proportions?'

Korkungal resented Kandrigi's attempt to induce awe in him. It was a feeling more like terror than love to him. His training demanded that the feeling of awe be reduced to a level his warrior-strength and weapons could deal with.

‘Are the inhabitants warlike? What weapons do they use? What stratagems?' His voice had all the gruffness of a man used to dealing with practical affairs.

'Korkungal, they do not carry weapons, nor will they allow strangers carry weapons in their Ka.’ The old priest was bubbling over with inward joy.

The seasoned warrior was incredulous: 'They are unarmed?’

'Oh, they have arms, but they are stored away until they are needed. They do not appear to like wars or any kind of fighting. Yet I have seen their battle-boats and believe me, Korkungal, they are vessels of great power and daring.'

Korkungal stared at Kandrigi for some time, his mind busy. They were now dealing with matters he could readily understand. Finally he spoke:

‘Kandrigi, I will not go into this place, this Ka, as you call it, without my weapons. I trust no man, this I have learned from experience. I do not know why we have trekked across such great distances, though I suspect you have a reason, one you are not willing to tell me. I have come with you to protect you, for it is my duty to protect my priest against any danger. You say that the inhabitants of this Ka are peaceful, but perhaps time has changed this and has made them defensive and suspicious of strangers.’

‘Do not seek trouble like this, Korkungal. This race of men of very ancient lineage and do not change like the wind. I ask you to leave your weapons here, wrapped in your sleeping-skin, and come with me in trust to the Ka.'

Korkungal was stubborn: ‘No, So long as I do not understand I will not lay down my arms.’

Kandrigi sighed.

‘Oh, very well, Korkungal, I will tell you what is proper for your profane ears. But I will first of all tell you something of the people or the Ka. There are many slaves, of many races and skin hues though Lamla the Yellow Priest of the Temple of the Great Mother told me that they were not slaves, I did not believe him and they are ruled over by a regal race of tall men, who have bright, burning bodies. When I first arrived in the Ka, I was ignored by the inhabitants and I wandered amongst the dwellings and storehouses until I chanced upon the Temple.

‘I was curious, for it is a mighty structure made of gigantic blocks of stones and I climbed the steps and entered. The interior was in darkness, except for a flickering light away in the distance. I heard singing Korkungal, what singing it was, that ineffable harmony I heard sung there for the greater glory of the Mother. Helpless with joy and gladness, I fell on my knees and worshipped She whose grace guides us through life. Then some men came and led me out of the Temple and brought me before one of the Burning Ones. He did not understand my speech, nor I his. He went away and presently returned with two others, one a man with the yellow skin of a sick man, though I was assured later that such a hue was proper to his race, which originates at the far end of the earth, and the other was much like you and I, with red hair and fair skin. But again I could not understand the tongues of these men, though that of the red-haired man was distantly related to the language we speak. Then I saw the sign the yellow man wore on his cloak and I recognised it as a symbol of the Great Mother. I traced it in the dust and at once he went into the Temple and returned with a large clay tablet which was covered with many secret symbols of the Mother, most of which I knew.

‘We spoke for hours together through the secret language of the Mother, and though I had little to tell him other than my curiosity regarding the lands of the West, he imparted a great amount of knowledge to me. I remember it all, even after all these years. But though I can repeat many sayings of great wisdom and many spells of great potency, I am no nearer to understanding them now that I was when I first heard them. They have words which have no meaning in our language. They explain going on water and going in the air, moving things and causing things to happen far away... I will never understand them.

'I stayed with them for many months and lost my desire to travel to where the sun sets. As time passed I grew homesick for Ullenbrig and became curious to know what was happening among my people. I told Lamla the Yellow Priest this and he understood and told me to return to my home. The Burning Ones gave me food and gifts, one of which is the bright sword you now carry, Korkungal, and as I left Lamla told me to return and visit the Ka again, especially if I were ever in need of help or advice.

‘Now I return to seek his advice. You would not understand, Korkungal, for these matters do not concern you, but I have seen a strange thing in the heavens that frightens me and makes me anxious for the future. I do not fully understand it, but I think the priests of the Ka will. That is why I have come this great distance. I asked you to accompany me because I am old now and cannot march across whole countries on my own.

‘Do you understand now, Korkungal, my great warrior of the Briga?’

Korkungal had listened patiently to Kandrigi this time, mostly because the speech dealt with, in the beginning at least, a matter concerning him and his skills, he had not understood the greater part of it, if only because it was useless, priestly business, but what he had understood, the seeming-gentleness or the inhabitants and the hospitality given to old Kandrigi, in his youth, swayed him into accepting the request that he disarm himself and approach the Ka in peace and trust.

He laid his thick hand on the priest’s and shook it. ‘Very well, old Kandrigi, I will do as you ask,’ Kandrigi smiled wizenedly in relief. ‘I am glad, Korkungal, We will sleep here tonight and go up to the Ka in the morning. We have passed most of this evening in talk and we are tired.’ His face settled in complacence: he was no warrior, victories did not buoy him up for long, Besides, he had one more wonder to show.

'Tonight, Korkungal, before we sleep, I will show you another thing belonging to this people that will amaze you.’

Korkungal, busy pulling meat and grain from his skinbag, merely nodded. His mind was busy with tactics for the following day. With the passing of the mood of conciliation he had forgotten his promise to Kandrigi.

He trusted nobody.

When darkness descended, Kandrigi showed him the White Light that beamed down on the Ka from the top of the Temple and lit not only the walls and dwellings but also much of the surrounding countryside. Enthralled, Kandrigi pointed to the inverted cone of light that ascended to meet the stars.

Badly scared, Korkungal became bad-tempered and hid himself in his sleeping-skin.

Kandrigi prayed to the Great Mother with tears in his eyes.

Could harm come to the world when such power as the people of the Ka possessed existed?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Korkungal awoke with the first light of the dawn, as was his habit, and paused but an instant before leaping up out of his sleeping-skin. The morning was clear and sharp and spoke well of the day to come, Naked, he ran up and down the hollow in which they had spent the night, swinging his arms vigorously and lifting his knees high in order to warm his stiff, chilled body, He was always a happy man in the early morning, greeting the new day with the enthusiasm of a young man, because his sight was bright and his memory dull.

When the blood was coursing briskly in his veins and his limbs were supple in their bending and stretching, he threw himself on to the grass and rolled about, delighting in the shock of the icy dew on his flesh. Gurgling deep in his throat, he threshed about in abandon. Then he jumped to his feet and ran up and down a few times to dry himself.

He dressed quickly, putting on his best shirt, of fine white linen, his belt of red-dyed bull-leather, and sandals of tough oxen leather soles and intricately worked calf-leather strapping. Next, he attended to his weapons, taking them from under his cloak, which he had used to protect them from the night. He polished the smooth lengths of his throwing sticks with the shirt he had worn the previous day and checked the thongs of his well-finished flint axe, a weapon he always kept by his side for the task of ritual-killing his enemies. Finally, he took the bright sword from under the cloak and held it up to the sun, marveling as he had done many times before at the uniqueness of it. The fact that he did not use it in battle (he did not know how to wield it against a rush of axe-and club-hearing raiders and he would not cast it like a throwing-stick for fear of losing it) did not weaken the wonder if it. It was the gift of the priest, a sign that he was especially favoured by the Goddess, and he invariably held it in his battle-hand at councils, He wiped the dew off it, rubbing it energetically to make it shine.

His warrior-tasks finished, he turned his attention to food. He tore off a piece of salted beef and sat on his sleeping-skin and chewed contentedly, savouring the familiar juices of the meat.

Kandrigi was by now awake. He lay curled lip in his cloak, his old body numb with the cold, and uttered the ritual morning incantations to the Goddess in gratitude for a new day’s dawning. When he had done praying, he rolled over on to his back and opened his eyes. Korkungal saw this and spoke, his words distorted by a mouthful of chewed meat.

‘Are you well, Kandrigi?’

The priest blinked rapidly and opened his mouth a number of times, but did not speak.

Korkungal wiped his lips.

‘Are you cold, old man? It is like our home here, is it not? Do you feel the cold air of the sea in your bones?’

Kandrigi did not like the mock-bravado of the taunting warrior and so did not speak.

Again Korkungal spoke, ‘Will I assist you in your rising, old man?’

'I will be on my feet very soon, Korkungal,' Kandrigi said stiffly, his voice full of aged dignity, ‘I am engaged in certain thoughts.’

‘Do not hurry, Kandrigi. The day before us is long.’ He paused, and then added slyly, 'The sun will he soon warm.’

Immediately he heard this, Kandrigi pushed his cloak away and got stiffly to his feet. Shivering in the chill air, he faced Korkungal and said:

‘I do not need you to tell me that, great warrior, for I have witnessed the fact on every day of my life,’

Korkungal, feeling he had lost face, bowed his head in mock-shame and spoke into his lap:

‘That is true, Kandrigi. I acknowledge your wisdom.'

‘It is well you do, warrior, for the world has great need of it.'

‘I believe you, priest.'

Kandrigi turned his back to Korkungal and began to beat his arms against his sides to get his blood flowing. Korkungal watched him placidly, busily chewing on a new piece of meat, Soon, he knew, the morning happiness would leave him as his memory grew bright. Already he remembered the strange light over the Ka, he chewed more vigorously. The priest stopped beating his arms and took to wriggling his shoulders.

‘It will be a great day for us, Kandrigi, will it not?’ Korkungal said to his back. ‘It is always a great thing to be at a journey’s end and to look forward to a crowded council house and a warm bed afterwards.’

Kandrigi stopped wriggling his shoulders and turned about to face Korkungal. His eyes were brighter his face more coloured.

‘It is, Korkungal. I have waited a long time to visit the Ka again and to see the great Temple of the Mother. I see you have dressed as it is fitting. I am glad of that, for it will give honour to our hosts.’

Korkungal looked down at himself, grinning with pride. Then he stood.

‘Will you eat now, Kandrigi? Some meat? Some of the berries we picked yesterday?'

'No. Korkungal, it is not proper for me to eat on a day like this. But I will take some water.'

‘I will get it for you, Kandrigi.’ He brought a bowl of water. ‘I have eaten and I am ready now to go up to this Ka with you.’

‘I will not he long.’

‘There is no hurry, Kandrigi, though I am impatient to go and meet these strangers. But while I await you, I will climb up and look at the Ka again.’

He automatically took his axe with him when he scrambled up the side of the hollow. The white wall of the Ka glittered in the early sun, rising many times the height of a man above the grassy headland. Many streams of dark smoke eddied up from the place, drifting in the light sea wind. Korkungal saw a group of men come through the tall gates and walk down the track that led to the beach. He heard a low murmur of activity from within the wall, and knew from it that many, many people lived there. It was a strange sight, sure enough, but yet it gave him pleasure to see such a clean thing as this encircling wall that gave protection to so many. It would need a large band of warriors and strict stratagems to conquer it.

‘It is a strong fortress, Kandrigi,’ he said when he had returned to the priest’s side, ' it is also a pleasant sight to gaze upon. It was so placed by good strategy, I tell you, with a wide, deep sea behind and a flat, grassy country in front, It would be foolhardy to attack it,’

‘Bah, Korkungal, why do you talk like this? We come as friends to the Ka. Must you think always of fighting.’

Korkungal was deep in his wisdom and therefore spoke in a caressing tone.

'Tell me then, Kandrigi, why this people built such strong walls about their dwellings, if it is not to defend themselves in time of war?’

Kandrigi jerked up his head and stared closely at the stocky warrior.

'They have goods of great value, Korkungal, which they must hide away. But what is this to us? We come on peaceful business.’

Korkungal was nodding away to himself and rubbing his axe with a pensive thumb, he let his silence speak for him.

Kandrigi became impatient with this posture.

'Come, Korkungal, we must go now.’

Korkungal came to life and set about roiling his sleeping-skin and spare clothes into a bundle. Then he picked up his weapons, sticking the axe and the sword into his belt. Seeing this, Kandrigi waved his hands in the air and cried petulantly:

'No, no, Korkungal. You are to go unarmed. We agreed to this yesterday, do you not remember?’

‘It is better that we show them the kind of men we are, Kandrigi: you a priest and I a warrior. We do not want to stand at their gate like two beggars.’

Kandrigi pressed his hands together in agitation.

‘You said you would not arm yourself. Why do you break your promise?'

Korkungal blushed hotly: ‘I will not meet strangers bare-handed like a hairless youth, old man. I am a proud warrior and will not he guided by you in matters that are not a priest’s business. So,' he waved his throwing sticks above his head. 'I am ready now, with the bearing proper to a renowned warrior of the Briga.'

Kandrigi shut his eyes tight and swayed, his body trembling with temper. ‘It will do us no good,’ he repeated over and over.

Korkungal stopped waving his throwing sticks and stood still and watched Kandrigi in silence. He waited to see if the priest would stop his tantrum, and when he showed no sign of doing so, he said loudly: ‘I am going up to the Ka now, Kandrigi.’

At once, Kandrigi opened his eyes and said:

‘Leave you axe and throwing sticks, at least. Korkungal. Do not shame me by disobeying me.'

The words softened the warrior's heart.

‘I will leave all my throwing sticks except one. There, old man, will that satisfy you?’

Kandrigi nodded and said:

'And your axe? Will you put your axe with the sticks, Korkungal?’

Korkungal shook his head violently.

‘Have I not done enough? Without my axe I am helpless.’

‘But you have the bright sword. That will do you much honour in the eyes of the people of the Ka. More than a simple axe will.’

Korkungal relented and reluctantly pulled the axe out of his belt and laid it on the grass beside the sticks.

‘You are a tough old man, Kandrigi,’ he said, more in affection than in anger.

Kandrigi smiled, his jowls creasing deeply.

‘I will cover them with my old cloak, Korkungal, so they will be safe.’

Outflanked, Korkungal sighed and raised his brows.

‘Let us go then, old man. The morning is passing and we have spent too long in talk.’

He picked up his ample cloak, woven from undyed wool, and spread it across his shoulders and fastened it at his throat with a gold pin. He waited while Kandrigi did likewise, his cloak being dark blue in colour, which signified the priestly rank among the Briga. Then they climbed out of the hollow and stood for a moment at the top, conscious of being fully exposed to the inhabitants of the Ka.

'We will walk with even measure, Korkungal, and approach without fear,’ Kandrigi said with unconcealed excitement.

They set out across the grassy plain in the direction of the high, white wall, which glittered brightly in the strong sunlight. They could see columns of men coming through the open gate and going down the track to the beach below, backs bent under bundles of merchandise. Others walked in the opposite direction, some laden, some not. No one seemed to notice the two strangers approaching.

'Does it not impress you, Korkungal?’ Kandrigi asked from the corner of his mouth.

The stocky warrior, wrapped in his cloak, his battle-arm exposed across his belly, throwing stick held parallel to his arm, spoke gruffly.

‘I do not wish to he impressed, old man.’

‘Ach, my fine warrior, you are as ever suspicious.'

‘Fine things are nothing more than distractions. This wall you praise so much is a thing of purpose, these slaves are creatures of purpose. They must he studied to discover whether they assist our purpose or interfere with it.'

Kandrigi was silent. They could see detail in the wall and in the faces of the burdened men now. Still they had not been noticed.

‘Perhaps you are right in your own way, Korkungal. You are a warrior, a pillar of strength, staunch in defense, daring in the raid. It is proper that you watch these things. But I am a priest and I have my business to attend to, matters you do not readily understand.’

Korkungal was glaring at the wall and gate. A well thrown stick could strike them down: the inhabitants of the Ka had all the advantages, he gripped his stick more tightly.

‘Leave me to my business then, Kandrigi, and you attend to yours. I am here to protect you.'

They stopped at the gate. Korkungal had never seen so many races and skin hues before. That so many different types of men lived on the earth disconcerted him. More than this, the fact that the slaves ignored him gave him the greatest unease. He could not understand. A stranger in the home village is the most ambiguous of men, capable of arousing the strongest curiosity: yet these labouring men did not show the slightest interest in him.

Kandrigi touched his elbow to signal him to follow. Korkungal went into the Ka behind him. The first thing he saw was a seething mass of men and women, all naked except for loin clothes. They sweated at their tasks: lifting, carrying, packing and unpacking. Those who had the breath sang; those who did not, listened. They were everywhere, no matter where Korkungal put his face, and it was not long before he was gripped by terror. As his eyes swivelled from side to side, in an attempt to encompass all that was presented to his vision, he was vaguely conscious of the buildings beyond: storehouses and dwellings of good proportions and strongly made.

Kandrigi sensed his fright and turned to him. His eyes were blank and moist. ‘Ignore them, Korkungal. Believe that they mean no harm. In time you will grow used to them.’

Wide-eyed, Korkungal nodded.

With sure steps, Kandrigi led him deeper into the Ka. The press of people eased as they entered the quarter of the artisans, where men worked at their benches and wheels to the accompaniment of much scraping and hammering. Korkungal became calmer and began to single out individuals to study, he happened to stare down at a silversmith as he passed his workshop, and discovered a thin, dark face staring back at him. Korkungal's expression changed to a glower. The smith’s face broke into a good-humoured smile that wrinkled up his eyes. Korkungal was startled and he looked away. About to turn a corner, he glanced back and saw that the smith was still watching him, his face cocked in childish amusement.

It was very strange indeed that the man had shown no fear.

‘We are almost there, Korkungal,' Kandrigi said.'

Korkungal followed the pointed finger and saw a massive building, grey in colour. It took him a while to realise it was build entirely of stone. Stone! Korkungal's heart sank. If the race that ruled this place could build such a building, then of what use were his puny weapons against them. The shame he felt was in no way playful. Sunk in his impotence, he saw that Kandrigi was looking at him with benevolence.

‘Do you understand, Korkungal, my great warrior?’

Korkungal glanced down at his wooden throwing stick. ‘I do, Kandrigi. You are a wise man.'

‘Remember I have been here before.

‘Then you did not explain it well to me.'

‘I tried my best, Korkungal. I do not always know how your mind works. '

Korkungal gave a heavy sigh and pulled his cloak more tightly about him.

'Let us go then, Kandrigi. It is a hard lesson for one of my years to learn.’

‘Will you leave your throwing stick here?’

‘No, priest, I am still a warrior, though perhaps not so great as before, and it is still my duty to protect you as best I can.’

‘You are still a great warrior, Korkungal,' Kandrigi smiled with mock-conceit. 'You are a good man in your simplicity.’

Korkungal grunted and walked on towards the stone building. Kandrigi had to hurry to keep up with him.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

They halted at the foot of the flight of broad stone steps that led up to the Temple. This part of the Ka was deserted and the bustle of the labouring masses seemed far away. Korkungal had not recovered from the succession of shocks he had experienced so far that morning, but his warrior-nature tried to assert itself by means of a feeling of being scandalised by all these new sights and lessons. Confused, fearful, and angry, he glared from under beetling brows at the great facade of dressed stone, blank except for a small door through which nothing could be seen of the interior. He clutched his throwing stick defensively across his chest in his two great fists.

Kandrigi had drawn apart from his protector and was straining forward, head to one side, trying to catch at least one note of the heavenly music he remembered with such clarity. The noises of the Ka, however, were too loud. Losing patience, he signalled peremptorily with his hand to Korkungal.

'Let us go up the steps, Korkungal, for I can hear nothing down here but the shouting of slaves at their work.’

Korkungal said nothing in reply and did not mount the first step until Kandrigi was halfway up the flight. He followed slowly, lifting his feet with care, shoulders crouched with tension.

Kandrigi's expression changed as he approached the door and heard at last the harmonious strains of the sacred Temple music. Bliss settled on his wrinkled features and he forgot for the moment the fears and premonitions which had haunted him for so long and which had finally driven him to undertake this journey to the Ka. Head bowed, arms across his breast, he walked slowly into the dark interior of the Temple. As so long before, it seemed immense in its darkness, with no apertures in the walls to allow in the daylight, the gloom relieved only by a lamp at the far end of the hall, yellow and guttering in the distance. But the singing filled the space, to the delight of Kandrigi’s ears, echoing loftily from the high ceiling, booming with holy dread in unseen corners. His will weakened in worship and he dropped to his knees, hands clenched before him, moist eyes raised to rest in the infinitude of the dark.

Korkungal heard the singing from his station outside the Temple, at the top of the steps in the bright sunlight. He would not enter the Temple on any condition, knowing that a warrior's struggle is with the human enemy and not with the dark unseen forces of the otherworlds. That was the business of the priest. He rested his throwing stick in characteristic pose, his cloak hanging loosely from his shoulders, head forward, weight thrown onto one leg. The eminence gave him an overall view of the Ka: the high, encircling wall, the ramparts visible, the ramps of beaten earth slanting up above the dwelling. And the dwellings! There was a multitude of them, square, rectangular and circular; timbered and wattled, thatched and mud-roofed. Korkungal had never seen so many crowded in to such an area. Towards the gate were the storehouses and granaries as long as council houses, but taller, built of stout timbers and heavy thatching. The sounds of unrelenting labour came to him as a continuous rumble.

In time he became restless. He went to the end of the platform and looked towards the back of the Ka. Here was quieter, the buildings less crowded in upon one another. Below him flowers and bushes grew among trees in a square garden. Buildings of many kinds were grouped a round it, from tiny beehive-like cells to a tall mud-brick dwelling of two stories. Behind this, there was a pond, and beyond, reaching to the wall, were two enclosures containing horses. Korkungal studied the quarter with puzzlement as well as curiosity. There was an atmosphere about the place that was strange to him. So many well-ordered buildings, the garden, the horses stock-still in the sunlight, flicking at flies with their tails, yet no man that he could see. It was the fact that nothing was happening that struck him as strange. For a short while he was as happy as a child, the stillness touching a far-off memory, but then he was deeply unhappy and he knew that he did not like such a sight as this. He turned away, strange-feeling and troubled, longing all at once for the homeland he had left so many months before to accompany the priest on his private mission. His eyes grew sightless and he envisioned Ullenbrig, its plains grassy and well-watered, and the ramparted dwellings of the Briga, and saw himself in the company of his kind, fleet-footed after game or resting in the evening above the sea. He heard the horns warning of raiders and experienced the excitement of the gathering outside his King's fort, weapons ready, the air alive with the boastings and the calls.

Then, the longing satisfied for now, the visions faded and Korkungal saw again the high white wall and the crowded dwellings of the Ka. He paced back and forward along the platform before the Temple, throwing stick across his shoulder, patiently awaiting Kandrigi's return.

He spied two figures walking towards the Temple from the direction of the artisans quarter. Both were dressed in long robes of saffron-dyed material, which were wrapped and tied about them in a complicated way. As they drew closer, Korkungal saw that both were of the same skin-hue: yellow. One of them appeared to notice Korkungal, the first person in the Ka to do so, and he paused and spoke to his companion, pointing up to the platform. Now both of them stared at him with calm faces and again conversed together. They resumed walking, coming in the direction of the steps. Korkungal edged along the platform until he had placed his bulk in the doorway to the Temple, where he raised his stick across his chest. Calmly and with steady practiced movements, the two yellow strangers mounted the steps, heading straight for him. Korkungal recognised his dilemma. He had no right to prevent these men from entering the Temple and yet he must protect his priest against possible danger. Because his duty to Kandrigi was greater than all alien rights and duties, he stood his ground and took a strong grip of his throwing stick. He felt the familiar inward plunging of the death-possibility.

The two men halted within an arm’s length of him. Calm, sad eyes stared back into his bright, battle-tense eyes, Korkungal shook his stick. One of the men raised his hand, palm outward, and spoke in a language of a strange fluting quality that Korkungal could not understand. For the sake of doing so, Korkungal spoke

'I defend my priest with my life, so beware.'

The stranger who had spoken shook his head, smiling wanly, and spoke again. Korkungal replied:

'I am the warrior Korkungal of the Briga, renowned throughout Ullenbrig and kindred lands, Terror of the Northern Raiders and their allies. I am King Mekdan’s right arm in battle, the leader of a company, the flank of an army...'

The stranger raised his arm and spoke again. Then he pointed over Korkungal's head into the Temple.

‘Kandrigi, the priest of my family, is within, stranger. I stand here to protect him.’

The stranger shrugged his shoulders and turned and spoke to his companion, who nodded and went clown the steps.

The remaining stranger faced Korkungal without movement or expression, while the warrior stared back, his tension losing force until he was only a statue in the doorway. The brown eyes in the oval yellow fare were remote and did not convey authority, yet Korkungal could not act against them, could not make even a tiny gesture or intimidation. He felt his will drain away and his arms grow as wooden as the throwing stick he held. Yet he was not fearful.

From within the Temple, Kandrigi suddenly said:

‘What are you doing, Korkungal? Why do you block up the door?’

Korkungal remained unmoving.

Kandrigi grasped his shoulder and shook him, 'Korkungal! Do you hear me?’

Dazed and stiff, Korkungal turned.

‘I was protecting you, Kandrigi.’

The priest stepped around him into the sunlight. He blinked rapidly. The second stranger followed him, a shy smile flickering on his lips.

Kandrigi raised his brows: ‘You are as ever eager in your tasks, Korkungal. That is a good thing it has rightly made you famous among the Briga. But I wish you could judge matters in ways other than at the end or your throwing stick.'

The strangers had meanwhile been speaking among themselves. Now the one who had gone into the Temple to find Kandrigi turned to him and gestured towards his companion. Kandrigi made a stiff bow and greeted him by drawing the forefinger of his right hand across the tips of the fingers of his left hands The stranger greeted him with a similar gesture. The three men then began to converse in the finger language of the Goddess, stiffly at first, for Kandrigi used many archaic expressions that were unfamiliar to the strangers. He introduced himself at length, informed them of his previous visit to the Ka the reference to Lamla the yellow-skinned priest, drawing an abundance of nods and smiles and gave a brief history of his journey to the Ka and his reasons for it. Then the strangers introduced themselves as priests of the Temple and welcomed Kandrigi, and his warrior escort, to the Ka and the Temple. They ended their speeches with many low bows and invitations to refresh themselves in the priests’ house. When they had eaten, Lamla would be notified of their arrival.

Korkungal had remained to one side during all this finger-talk, watching suspiciously, disregarding the rebuke he had received. Now Kandrigi turned to him.

'They welcome us, Korkungal, as I said they would, and invite us to eat with them in friendship. They are priests of the Temple, which accounts for their dress and manner, for they remind me of Lamla, my old friend. I will now accept their invitation and remind you that they are our friends, to he treated with cordiality and respect, and not with glowers and grunts, and the handling of a throwing stick.’

He hand-spoke to the two saffron-robed priests and was answered with broad smiles and much tapping of fingers. They led the way clown the steps and around the Temple in the direction of the garden. Kandrigi and Korkungal followed them at a distance.

‘They are not men of much importance, Kandrigi,' Korkungal said in a low voice, notwithstanding that the priests could not understand him. ‘They smile and bow too much.'

‘Do not make that mistake, Korkungal. Their Priesthood is important among the peoples of the Ka. They are possessors of profound knowledge concerning the workings of the world and the ways of the Thrice Blessed Mother. As for the bowing and smiling, their ways are gentle ones, and seek more to ingratiate than challenge. Such is their wisdom. But do not he mistaken in this, for it is not the accommodation of the weak that they practice, but the magnanimity of the powerful.’

' Then where are their warriors, Kandrigi?' Korkungal hissed. ‘I see great walls and a few horses, but I do not see armed, reckless men. Tell me, do the slaves defend the walls with their toiling hands?’

'Ach, you do not understand, Korkungal. Why do you not think? Where is the enemy? Who is the enemy that seeks to despoil the Ka? See! You do not know. Do you think the inhabitants would throw up such great walls for the protection of their rich merchandise and yet have no men to defend it? You must think on these things.’

They reached the garden and followed the two priests around its perimeter. Korkungal was silent for a moment, then he spoke.

‘Do you know what I think, Kandrigi? You are a wise man in the ways of the Briga and our enemies. You are wise in the matters of the seasons and the progress of the moon. You are wise concerning the workings of the minds of such simple men as I. But for all that I do not believe you understand this Ka in any way better than I do.’

Kandrigi shook his head with impatience.

‘Bah. Believe this, Korkungal. I have more important things to think on than the dispositions of the warriors of those I hold to be friends.’

Before Korkungal could reply they rejoined the company of the two priests, who stood smiling before the entrance to a large timbered dwelling. They made finger-talk with Kandrigi.

'They invite us to enter and wash after our long journey'' he told Korkungal.

‘I will go first, Kandrigi,’ Korkungal replied, smiling with mock-friendship at the two priests, who smiled in return.

With a firm grip on his stick, he strode through the door and entered the dimly lit room. A small fire glowed in the hearth in the centre. In a corner, beside a large earthenware howl containing steaming water, an old man sat on his heels.

Kandrigi joined him in the room.

‘You will assuredly never learn, Korkungal,' he said acidly.

The two priests pointed to the bowl and Kandrigi went to it without hesitation. Korkungal, however, walked with stiff steps to the end of the room and stood with his back close to the wall. From here he had a clear view of the room and its occupants. Kandrigi unpinned his cloak and slid it from his shoulders. One of the priests spoke and the old man got to his feet and gathered up the fallen cloak, folding it carefully. Then he brought a small ewer and poured some of its contents over Kandrigi's hands, he washed his arms and face, and when he had dried himself, the old man pulled a low stool from behind the large bowl and signalled that he was to sit. The old man washed his feet slowly and with care.

‘Now, Korkungal, will you leave your station and bathe, for I must confess that I an faint with hunger.’ Kandrigi said, stroking his face with his fingertips. ‘The water, by the way, is very pleasantly scented. It is sure to soothe you.’

Korkungal went to the bowl and laid his throwing stick against the wall close by. The old man unpinned his cloak and removed it before he could stop him. Seeing the bright metal sword, he went to pull it from his belt, but Korkungal stopped him.

Kandrigi spoke at his back: 'Let him, Korkungal. There is no shame in it,'

Korkungal glared at his priest but did not resist the old man. He submitted to his directions and ministrations with ill-grace, refusing to admit to enjoying the gratuitous attention.

When it was done, he leaped to his feet and threw his cloak about him. Grabbing his weapons, he rushed from the room.

Kandrigi and the two priests followed him.

‘You are beginning to shame me, warrior, with your childish actions,’ Kandrigi said petulantly.

‘Leave me be, Kandrigi. I will not suffer gladly such attentions from a slave.'

Kandrigi turned to the priests, a look of mortification on his face. They continued smiling and seemed not to notice the look. They pointed to the house at the end of the garden, beside the back wall of the Temple, similar to the wash-house in materials and construction, and set off walking in its direction. Kandrigi and Korkungal followed, ignoring each other and fuming.

The interior of this house was better lit, lamps hanging at intervals from all four walls. Brightly coloured cushions were arranged in a rough circle around a straw mat and three graceful chairs stood side by side against the wall opposite the door through which they entered. The smell of fresh bread pervaded the air.

The priests together indicated first the chairs, paused, and then the cushions, smiling more widely in encouragement as they did. Kandrigi made a slight how in the direction of the cushions. As he prepared to sit, Korkungal caught him by the arm.

‘Will they have us on the ground, Kandrigi?’

‘That is their custom, Korkungal. They do not use the couches we use, but recline instead on these deep cushions. Would you rather sit in a chair, as a cowherd will sit on a

rock to eat his bread and cheese.'

Mollified, Korkungal followed Kandrigi’s example and sank gingerly on to the soft pile of cushions. One of the priests disappeared through a small door in the corner of the room, while the remaining one knelt opposite them on the other side of the straw mat. Tilting his head to one side, he stared expressionlessly at them.

Kandrigi sighed: ‘Korkungal?’

‘Yes, Kandrigi?’

'I know well that you are ill at ease in this place, Korkungal, for if I am to he truthful and open-hearted with you, I must say that I am also ill at ease. It is a confusing thing to he among strangers who have not heard of Ullenbrig and its people, who do not show fear or respect on account of our greatness. We are here like men come back from the dead, with no reputation going before us, travelling unknown and unseen, worse even than slaves for slaves have the name of their masters to give them some significance like ghosts abroad on a winter’s night. The confusion I speak of has before been unknown to you. You wore always joyfully greeted by friends and ever-watched by enemies while hitherto you were abroad. But I knew this confusion once before, when I first visited the Ka. Then I was a young man, fluid in mind and easy in habits, for whom strangeness held all the gaiety of adventure. Nevertheless, I was clumsy and light-headed and many times in later years, when I learned the true meaning and purpose of manners, I cried over my foolishness during my days here. But later again I learned that it was better to be foolish among strange things and strange people than to he ungrateful and arrogant, for such foolishness admits of ignorance where ignorance is to he expected, while ingratitude merely compounds ignorance with stupidity and boorishness. I know that I am a long-winded old priest, Korkungal, but do you understand me?’

Korkungal raised his head and allowed the light to fall on his face. It was long in misery and tears welled in the corners of his eyes.

‘I understand you, Kandrigi. But I believe it is right for me to remain a warrior in this place and see things through the eyes of my experience. You were young when you were foolish, and that is a good excuse. I am old, well-formed in my years, my knowledge and experience well-proven by numberless exploits. Your wisdom is made up of much brain-spinning and fine words and it is a pleasant thing to hear on a winter’s night, when our enemies are vanquished or far away. But this is not the time for it and it is your constant correcting that creates my confusion by shaming me and my warrior title. I know well enough what it is like to be a stranger among men, for is not a warrior in battle a stranger to the world at large and him full of death-possibility? Is he not a stranger to himself? Does he not struggle with demons that rise up out of the ground at his feet and come hurtling from the sky at him when he goes out to face the enemy?...’

Kandrigi held up his hand for Korkungal to he silent. The second priest had returned, followed by two youths, also yellow-skinned, wearing loin clothes, who carried trays

loaded with bread, fruit and jugs of milk. These they laid out on the mat.

Kandrigi made finger-signs to the two priests and then spoke to Korkungal:

‘Now, Korkungal, let us eat and he content. I am famished.'

But Korkungal ignored the food.

‘I have not finished speaking, Kandrigi.’

Kandrigi slapped his thigh.

‘I understood you, Korkungal, and I now acknowledge the truth of your wisdom. When we have eaten and are alone again we will discuss these things, if you still wish it. Now we must show gratitude to our hosts for all this fine food. Great Mother, I am hungry.'

Korkungal reddened in anger and gripped his throwing stick. Kandrigi smiled at the two priests and reached for bread. The warrior, realising that he would get no satisfaction for his anger, grunted loudly and fell to eating.

The priests drank only a little milk during the meal and spent most of the time staring at Korkungal and Kandrigi with blank eyes. Kandrigi made noises of appreciation for their benefit, to demonstrate his enjoyment of their food, but Korkungal ate with downcast eyes, munching sullenly.

When they had eaten, one of the priests got to his feet and spoke to Kandrigi with his fingers, saying that he would now go to Lamla and announce the arrival of Kandrigi, priest of the Briga, and his escort, and ask for instructions concerning their lodgings. Kandrigi replied, thanking him, and begged him to tell Lamla that his business was of the greatest importance to both of their peoples. The priest bowed low, smiled, and went out.

Korkungal was in better temper, now that he had eaten his fill, and lay on his side, supporting his head in his hand.

'We have eaten well, Kandrigi.’

‘We have, Korkungal. Do you believe their hospitality now?’

Korkungal was reluctant.

'A farmer would do as well, Kandrigi. I wish now for company. Musicians. A king’s troop for boastings and tales. And a maiden to fill my cup.’

‘Huh. You do not wish for much, Korkungal.

'I do not. It is what a warrior of the Briga would expect in the fort of his friends.’

‘These are the quarters of the Temple, Korkungal, not the house of a King strong in the defense of his land.’

'More's the pity then, Kandrigi. You have brought me to a barbaric place.'

‘Let us have no anger, Korkungal. I will speak to the priests and explain the matter. It will take time, for it is a delicate business broaching the subject of your legendary sensuality in the precincts of a great Temple.

Do that, Kandrigi. I am not a priest, to keep a tight rein on my appetites.'

Kandrigi pushed himself stiffly to his feet.

'Will you walk with me in the garden, Korkungal?'

'No, I will not.'

'It is still daylight, and it is a green and pleasant place.'

'I will rest here. It has been a long journey, Kandrigi.’

‘Very well. I will not be long.’

He bowed to the yellow-skinned priest and went out.

Korkungal gazed about him for some time and frequently glanced over at the smiling, smooth face of the priest, who seemed to watch him and yet not to watch him. Soon, his eyes grew heavy. Lulled by the silence in the room, he fell asleep, his head slipping from its perch on his hand and sinking into the deep pile of the cushions.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

His shoulder being shaken awoke Korkungal, he started quite suddenly, alarmed at finding himself in a strange room, and floundered among the cushions. A youth was bent over him, whom he had never seen before, studying him with amused curiosity.

‘Who are you?’ Korkungal demanded roughly. The >events of the day came back to him.

The youth straightened himself and stood back. He remained silent. Korkungal rolled off the cushions on to the flagged floor and leaped to his feet. He clasped the hilt of his sword menacingly.

‘You’re an impudent brat. Now answer me!’

The youth was beardless and red skinned, his face round and handsome, as tall as Korkungal himself. A red cloak of some fine material covered his shoulders and hung to his ankles. He took one step back and lifted the cloak and tossed it onto his shoulders with practiced movements to expose a lithe body clothed with a white tunic, from a thin belt at his waist hung a sheathed dagger made of the same bright metal as Korkungal’s sword.

‘So you will fight me,' Korkungal roared in heavy irony, drawing the sword from his belt.

The smile vanished from the youth’s face, but reappeared immediately when he saw how Korkungal held the sword: brawny hand grasping the blade just below the hilt as though he would throw it. He raised his two hands, palm outwards, in peace and spoke in the same fluting tongue as the priest had earlier that day outside the Temple.

Korkungal put his sword back in his belt. ‘What do you want?’ he asked, disregarding the fact that the youth could not understand him.

He must have guessed the nature of the question, however. For he turned towards the doorway and beckoned Korkungal to follow. Korkungal picked up his throwing stick, a weapon the youth paused to stare at with unconcealed incredulity, and strode out of the room. But he had no sooner taken two steps in the open air than he recoiled in horror and turned and ran back through the doorway. He collided with the youth, who had been hurrying to catch him up. Korkungal grabbed him by the wrist and shook him, asking earnestly:

‘Where am I? Am I in Hell?’

The youth was puzzled by the terror obvious in Korkungal's voice. He pulled himself free of his grip and went to the door. But once he understood. He returned to Korkungal, his finger to his lips, to silence him, and took him by the wrist. Gently but firmly he led him to the doorway. Korkungal stared out. Everything had lost its colour! Trees, bushes, dwellings, even the Temple, were no more than black silhouettes superimposed upon one another. Yet he could see these shapes with remarkable clarity, for the air itself seemed as though white, like milk, eddying among the black forms, separating them.

The youth laughed and pointed upwards. Korkungal bent forward and followed the line of the finger. Above the Temple he saw a ball of white light, which radiated a cold, brilliant aura of light. The youth laughed again and skipped out into the glowing air, beckoning Korkungal to follow. Fascinated, he did so. The youth had turned black in the light, and when he looked down at himself, Korkungal saw that he too was black, merging without seam into the black ground under his feet. The youth clasped his hand in his, squeezing it, laughing and pointing at the ball of light, crying, ‘Lula! Lula!'

'Lula,' Korkungal repented, amazed, terrified, overwhelmed.

‘Lula, Lula,’ they shouted in unison, the youth encouraging Korkungal by squeezing his hand and pointing.

It was Korkungal, though still in terror of the effects of the light, who calmed first. His practical nature did not grant authority to abstraction from the senses. The frightful scene about him did not attack him, did not threaten him physically, so he accepted its passivity, though not liking it. The youth continued to chant the word at the top of his voice, body jerking, eyes starting from his head, as a kind of hysteria took him over. Korkungal stared at him, but when he felt his own nerves begin to respond in sympathy with the hysteria, he caught the youth and shook him until he quietened.

Brows raised, mouth slack, the youth mumbled a final 'Lula' and then suddenly laughed in Korkungal's face and threw himself on him. Korkungal exerted his great strength and freed himself, pushing the grinning youth away.

‘Ko'kunkul,' the youth said, pointing at him. Then he laid his hand on his own chest and added: 'Harmesh.' He intertwined his fingers, drew his arms in against his body, and spoke at length in the alien, fluting tongue, bowing often, his voice ranging over almost every tone of expression from sadness to gaiety. When he had finished, he became grave; he pulled his cloak tightly about him and walked away.

Korkungal followed him as he went around the garden and behind the Temple. They crossed an open area and skirted a number of buildings, which stood out against the murky air as flat silhouettes, and presently the youth stopped before a tall, tower-like building. He paused until Korkungal caught up and then led him through the heavy doorway, the lintels and jambs constructed of large stone blocks. Thick candles guttered in wall sockets, and Korkungal looked about him in relief, glad to see colour again, while the youth swung the heavy door to and shot a bolt of wood into a hole drilled in the jamb.

The room was circular, the walls of rough, unmortared stone and bare except for the candles. Steps of stone followed the curve of the wall and disappeared through a small opening in the ceiling. Korkungal steeled himself against the chill in the room.

The youth came and faced him. He had thrown his cloak back and stood with both hands extended, palm upwards.

‘Ko'kunkul,' he said, his eyes hooded and shy-appearing.

It took some time for Korkungal to understand what the youth was saying. He remembered hearing him say it before.

'Korkungal,' he said. The youth tried to mimic him but in the end succeeded in correcting only the last syllable.

‘Ko’kungal,' he said at last, grinning widely. Then he pointed to himself: ‘Harmesh.'

'Harmesh,' Korkungal repeated.

Immediately the youth grasped Korkungal's free hand in both of his and squeezed it.

‘Ko’kungal, Ko’kungal,’ he chanted, seemingly delighted with himself.

‘Harmesh, Harmesh,' Korkungal chanted in unison, happy to make a game of it.

Harmesh became excited and began to dance up and down. Korkungal remained still, though he was infected with the youth’s gaiety. Suddenly Harmesh rushed forward and kissed Korkungal on the cheek. He whispered ‘Ko’kungal’ and then ran away up the steps, his laughter echoing in the room and up through the building.

Korkungal went up the stops after the youth. The first floor was in darkness, but the winding stairway was illuminated from the chamber above that again, He could hear Harmesh’s shrill voice, talking rapidly and laughing. The lit chamber was empty. There was a couch in the centre, covered with furs. On the wall hung weapons: swords, throwing sticks of various lengths, each with a head of metal, and axes with heads of metal. Shields too: square, round and oval, constructed of leather and wood, some with metal edging, all brightly decorated. Korkungal was too tired and numb to feel either great shock or surprise at seeing such a quantity of superior arms in one small room.

He ascended to the next floor. Harmesh stood in front of a couch talking to a figure hidden in wrappings of blankets and cloaks, his hands demonstrative as he spoke. He stopped and turned when Korkungal grunted, and eagerly beckoned him forward. He pointed to the swaddled figure on the couch and said:

'Klimbah.'

Then pointing to Korkungal:

'Ko'kungal.'

Korkungal bowed stiffly, leaning on his throwing stick. The figure named Klimbah began throwing off his coverings. Then Korkungal saw a spectacle that made him wish for his snug bed back in the land of his family. Klimbah was literally a giant, a massive figure who had to stoop in the relatively high room. His hair was white with age and his blue-black skin was wrinkled all over. He stared at Korkungal with livid eyes and grunted a greeting. Those formalities over, Harmesh indicated that Klimbah was to sit, which he did, drawing the blankets about him again.

Smiling, Harmesh then led Korkungal to the far side of the room. Leaning against the wail was a gigantic stone axe, its handle the dimensions of a small tree. Harmesh pointed to the sword in Korkungal’s belt and mimed bending it with ease, as though to explain why the giant used stone weapons. Beside the axe stood a shield of wood, as tall as Korkungal and as wide as Harmesh’s extended arms. Finally, he showed him the giant’s spear. Lying on the floor, its shaft stretched across the room behind the couch, The head was made of a blue metal, which, Harmesh demonstrated, was capable of piercing stone.

He stood back then and grinned with amusement at Korkungal‘s bemused face and the throwing stick he held with habitual firmness. Korkungal, out of pride, resisted the temptation to touch any of the weapons, and to distract himself he turned his head to look at the seated giant. Klimbah stared impassively before him, ignoring both Korkungal and Harmesh.

'He is old, this giant,' Korkungal said to Harmesh, who twisted his face quizzically in reply. Korkungal pointed to his own hair and then pointed to the giants s hair. Harmesh understood immediately and nodded vigorously, grinning. He nodded in Klimbah’s direction, thrust out his chest and began to beat it with his fists, his eyes bright and wide with mockery.

Suddenly uneasy because of the youth's insulting behaviour, and feeling the strangeness of his own presence in their company. Korkungal threw a quick glance at the giant. He was watching Harmesh with placid eyes, apparently unmoved by his mockery. Korkungal was outraged, mostly because he had felt an instinctive respect for this huge blue man and his weapons. He caught Harmesh's arm and shook him forcefully, saying thickly, ‘Stop it, boy, or I will beat you.'

Harmesh broke free and staggered back, holding his arm. He began to scream at Korkungal and now and then he seemed to appeal to Klimbah. Korkungal sensed the alliance between them and realised that he had made a serious mistake. Seeing Klimbah slowly and ponderously getting to his feet made him more certain. He began to move back to the stairway, taking care to make no gesture that could he interpreted as an expression of fear or aggression. Klimbah, meanwhile, took one step, which was sufficient to bring him to Harmesh’s side. He spoke a number of words in a booming voice, and when these seemed not to have the desired effect, he cuffed Harmesh gently. At once Harmesh switched the direction of his verbal assault and began to punch the giant’s midriff. Korkungal stopped at the stairway and watched them. Klimbah stood still for a moment, showing no reaction to the punches; then he laughed aloud and picked Harmesh up. He shook him until he cried out in terror. Then he brought him In against his breast. Harmesh threw his arms about him and clung to him, his voice now whimpering and pleading. Klimbah laughed again, this time indulgently, and put Harmesh on his feet.

Korkungal saw that it was safe to come back into their company. What he had witnessed made no sense to him as a sequence of actions between three men. There had been actions which were proper between men, between men and youths; and between men and young children. Korkungal had acted as a man should with a mocking youth, then he had been repulsed by an alliance of men, only to see this alliance turn into a man teasing a child. It was very strange, and the strangeness made him momentarily timid and watchful.

Klimbah had returned to the bed, where he wrapped himself in blankets and cloaks, a doting eye on Harmesh, who was quickly recovering from his fright. He smiled shyly at the giant.

Korkungal coughed.

Harmesh spoke to Klimbah, who then looked over at Korkungal and nodded. Harmesh signalled to Korkungal to go to the stairway. He slapped the giant’s knee playfully and skipped across the room after Korkungal. They went down the stairs past the lit chamber with the furs and shields and metal weapons. In the dark below Harmesh touched Korkungal's arm as a signal that he was to wait. He went below to the ground floor and returned soon carrying a candle, which he pushed into a socket.

The room had the same dimensions as the chambers above. In the centre stood a couch, on which lay a number of folded blankets. The wall was completely bare, broken only by a small window covered by a heavy curtain.

Harmesh shook out the blankets, chattering away in his own tongue as he did. Korkungal watched him, leaning on his throwing stick. The sight of the couch and the prospect of rest caused him to tremble with fatigue.

When he had laid out the blankets, which varied in richness of decoration, Harmesh turned and gracefully indicated that Korkungal was to take possession of the chamber and treat it as his own. He even went so far as to lay his hands on Korkungals shoulders and gently push him backwards until he was sitting on the edge of the couch. Then he relieved him of his throwing stick and sword and stood them against the wall. With a final bow to Korkungal he went to the stairway and paused to throw an ironic glance at both the warrior of the Briga and his weapons before darting up the steps and out or sight.

Korkungal entered the world of sleep as though he were escaping from Hell.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

Kandrigi sat facing the window, looking out at the Temple buildings. They were black planes only, inert in the streaming white, misty air. He was praying to the Great Mother. Earlier, he had prayed furiously, clinging to Her because there was nothing else in this unearthly night-place to cling to. By now he had grown calmer, secure in the bosom of the Mother, the vertigo eased by distraction. His prayers were a beam of concentration.

He sat on a comfortable cushion, a soft fleece about his shoulders. The brazier to his left threw pleasant rays of warmth on to his face and intertwined hands.

The young yellow-skinned priest came quietly down the broad stops from the High Priest’s quarters. Kandrigi heard the swish of his robes. The young priest’s face was as unmoved as ever. On his fingers he said:

‘Lamla, our High Priest of the Temple, will see you now, Kandrigi of the Briga. Will you follow me.

Kandrigi reacted immediately to the increased formality.

‘I will assuredly, Priest or the Temple. It gives me great joy to go to meet my old friend, Lamla, your High Priest.'

They bowed to one another and then the priest led Kandrigi up the steps and along a corridor of bare stone walls relieved only by small doors inset at regular intervals along both sides. At the end of the corridor, they were confronted by a more massive door. The priest pulled on a silken cord and Kandrigi hoard the tinkle of a bell somewhere above him. After a short pause the door was opened by a youth dressed in a short tunic, his hair and eyebrows shaven off. The priest spoke to him and then stepped back and bowed Kandrigi forward into the care of the youth.

The first thing the youth did once he had closed end latched the door was to bow to Kandrigi with a surprisingly reverential intensity. He was caught off-guard by this and the best he could manage by way of reply was a quick nod. But the youth did not seem to notice this, for he kept his eyes lowered all the while, even when he pointed towards the flight of steps with a languid, graceful gesture. Kandrigi pulled his cloak firmly about him and ascended.

A curtain separated the top step from what Kandrigi saw, when he pulled it aside, to be a large room. He took one step through into the room and stopped in amazement. He had all his life been content to dwell in a dry hut with a well-packed earthen floor and clean straw under his feet and water-proof thatch over his head. The only decoration had been a few ancient skins bearing the most important family legends, simple picture stories executed in black and red inks, and a groups of figurines representing the more public aspects of the Great Mother, grouped together in a corner. This room, however, was chock-ablock with decorative didactic works of all kinds: the walls had been plastered and painted with bright colours, figures of men and women in strange dress and tall headpieces; figures carved out of stone and wood stood about the floor. The room was brightly lit by candles in clusters on stands in all parts of the room, and the colours on the walls and statues reflected the light brilliantly, making the very air appear to tremble with the beauty of harmonious colour and ring with accidental dissonance.

But what really gave the room its cluttered appearance were the many pieces of furniture that stood about everywhere, lacking sense or organisation. Except for the bright coverings on a few of the couches, the sombrely painted furniture: chairs, tables, footrests, chests, cabinets, and coverless couches, interrupted the bright play of light and colour and stood out as mysterious and menacing nodes of darkness. The contrast tickled Kandrigi's poll-hairs, and he experienced a further, and sharper, dart of terror when one of the pieces of furniture appeared to move. It continued to move, slowly, until it was detached from a heavy table. A voice issued from it; a voice that was reedy in the large, bright room.

‘You are well, I hope, Priest of the Briga, and rested after your long journey.'

Kandrigi started and then quickly recollected himself.

‘It is you, Lamla, now High Priest of the Great Mother, is it not?’

The figure turned and the light of the many candles fell on his face.

'Who else awaits you, Kandrigi? Who else but the friend of your youth, Lamla?’

Kandrigi went forward into the room impetuously, his hands extended.

'I have waited impatiently for many months for this moment, Lamla. Your friendship I have always treasured in my heart.'

‘It is good to hear that, Kandrigi. Our friends are our past, especially in old age. Come closer, that I might see you more clearly.'

He held out his hands. A great black cloak was wrapped about him and a woollen cap covered his head, so that only his face was visible. The face was not as Kandrigi had remembered it. The skin was a dull, sickly yellow in colour, mottled all over with brown, and stretched tightly over his round skull. His eyes were moist with strain, the whites dulled and speckled with the blood of ruptured vessels. The hands that gripped Kandrigi’s were thin and bony, but firm in their grasp.

'You look well, Kandrigi. Age has been good to you.'

Kandrigi shrugged complacently. 'The Great Mother has been kind to me.'

Lamla's eyes flickered.

'Indeed, Kandrigi, that is the truth.’

He grasped his visitor by the elbow in a vice-like grip and continued:

‘Let us sit, We have much to talk about.’

‘Yes, Lamla. It has been a momentous day and I will be glad to sit in the quiet of your fine room and converse on matters of mutual affection.’

They sat on high-backed chairs, firm cushions under them, before a brazier in a corner of the room, away from the brilliant light with its radiance of reflected colour.

‘Your escort, the warrior Korkungal, is he being taken care of? I gave instructions that he was to he brought to the watch-tower and given a chamber.'

'I believe so. The young priest assured me that he would he taken there and given company for the night.' Kandrigi suddenly laughed and slapped his knees. 'Ho! Poor Korkungal! He would not admit to the wonder he felt at seeing such a mighty place as this Ka. He is a simple man, but strong and loyal.’

Lamla’s eyes flickered again. 'Indeed, Kandrigi, and what were your feelings?'

‘Oh, I have seen the Ka before. I was joyful. It is a long journey from Ullenbrig and hard for a person of my years.'

'It is a great thing for just two men alone to undertake such a dangerous journey, is it not? You must have crossed many strange lands and met with many strange peoples.’

'No, it was not dangerous. If it had been we would have come well prepared. There are only the Savages, a strange people, thinly spread throughout the northern lands. They are poor and primitive, with no religion but childish superstition. They pay us great respect when we go into their lands, but we do not go often, for there is little tribute or booty to he gained from it. To the West are the Dark Lands, The Briga have not ventured so far, not having reason, and the stories of the Savages concerning that quarter are garbled fancies about dragons and giants and fires that burn in the land. To the south are the Grasslands, with little water and less rain. The Savages sometimes go there, but no one else.'

‘And who dwells to the east of the Grasslands?'

The tribes of the Briga and their kindred, as far as the Inland Sea.’

‘Are the Briga and their kin many?’

'Yes.'

Lamla sat back in his chair. He gently drummed his fingertips together and stared at the floor. Then he spoke.

‘You heard the singing in the Temple, Kandrigi?’

‘I have indeed, Lamla. It is a subtle heavenly thing. The Ka must gain great grace by pleasing the Great Mother in such a manner.'

‘It is a subtle music. It has taken many generations of study to produce it. I remember that you loved it in your youth and I was sure you would not have forgotten it.'

'No, music of such high entreaty could never be forgotten, once heard.'

'You are a man of deep sensibility, Kandrigi.'

‘I am a priest, Lamla, as you are. We study the ways of the Great Mother and the proper responses to her Being.’

Lamla sighed.

‘You are right, Kandrigi.'

He drew a small bell from under his cloak and rang it.

‘Will you drink with me, Kandrigi. It grows late and there is yet much to he done this night.’

Kandrigi bowed his head ceremoniously.

‘I will be glad to, Lamla.’

The shaven youth walked noiselessly across the room to them. Lamla spoke to him and he bowed low and went away. Kandrigi realised then that the high Priest had been conversing with him in his native language.

‘You have learned the tongue of the Briga.'

A thin smile lit Lamla’s face for an instant.

'Yes, Kandrigi. The priests of the Temple nursed a navigator who had fallen on hoard his ship. He was of your race – his tribe trade on the Inland Sea. It was he who taught me. I have a great curiosity for things like this – for the customs and tongues of people... He now serves here in the Ka. I appointed him Captain of the Ships. Would you like to meet him? I can easily arrange it.’

Kandrigi rubbed his hands together.

'Yes,' he said slowly. ‘But later, when I am more rested.'

Lamla bowed his head.

'Very well, Kandrigi. Tell me when you wish to meet him and I will have him sent for.’

The shaven youth returned carrying a tray on which stood a flask and two cups made of silver. He set it down on a low table and dragged it to within the High Priest’s reach. Then he bowed low and went out of the room.

Lamla filled both cups with a reddish-brown liquid. He handed one to Kandrigi.

‘Drink it slowly, Kandrigi.’

Kandrigi followed his advice.

‘It is sharp, Lamla, and distinctive in taste.’

Lamla had drained his cup and was filling it again.

‘The plant came originally from far away to the east. The race who tend it and who make this liquid from it worship a god to whom they sacrifice great quantities of their best produce each season. Afterwards they drink until they are filled with the passion of this god, for he is in many ways more beast than man, and exhaust themselves in singing, fighting and whoring their women indiscriminately.’

‘A god like a beast, Lamla?’

‘Oh,’ Lamla said with some warmth. He is of course the son of the Great Mother...One of many, I fear.’

Lamla was again filling his cup. Kandrigi had just taken his third sip.

‘I do not readily understand, Lamla. The Great Mother has but one son, he that she rends in the great mystery of Fate.’

‘That is our belief, Kandrigi, our truth. But these uncivilised people do not know it. And there are many other races like them. They worship beasts and kings, even the moon and sun. They say they worship the Great Mother through them, that is what they say.’

‘But surely the truth is evident, Lamla?’

Lamla sniggered shortly. He filled his cup for the fourth time.

‘The truth is evident, Kandrigi, only to those who can see it. Why one should know it and another not is a mystery. Perhaps the Great Mother reveals it to one and hides it from another. If that is so, then it is a greater mystery.'

Kandrigi nodded.

‘You have great experience of the world, Lamla. Perhaps we will have time to talk at length about it. I would like to know more about your race.’

'Yes, yes, Kandrigi, we will do that... Now, drain your cup and let me refill it.’

Kandrigi did so and grimaced. Lamla leaned forward and poured liquid into the proffered cup. He then emptied the last of the contents of the flask into his own cup, his hands tremoring ever so slightly, and leaned back and gazed down at the liquid. He sighed hugely, compressed his thin lips, and spoke in an extraordinarily reedy voice:

‘Ah, Kandrigi, I cannot believe you are here before me. I cannot. I am man alone with myself for many hours without end, preoccupied with affairs not suited to the temperament of a priest. Do you understand me?’

As Kandrigi was about to reply. Lamla raised his hand to silence him.

‘Hear me, Kandrigi,’ he said with unguarded abruptness. Kandrigi slumped back on his chair, nodding.

‘Do you remember, Kandrigi, the days of your youth spent here with me?’ Lamla’s voice was sharp and precise with passion. ‘Do you remember our long walks across the grassy plain outside the Ka? The hours spent at the sea’s edge, watching the tide’s ebb and flow? What did we not discuss? Did we not examine all, the attributes of the Great Mother? The mystery of Her son’s suffering? Did we not find the wisdom there to maintain us in the days to come?’ He shook his head violently, knocking his cap askew, and drank from his cup.

Kandrigi took advantage of this pause and spoke:

‘There is no doubt that we did, Lamla.’

Lamla got to his feet, shaking his head again. He wandered into the middle of the room, into the midst of the bright colours. Kandrigi pushed himself into a standing position and stared vaguely after him. Lamla slowly looked about him, at the paintings, the statuary, at the carelessly arranged mass of furniture.

‘I am not a practical man, Kandrigi,' he said evenly, speaking into a far corner. 'I live in terror of the stupidity and greed of man. I do not understand them, yet I must organise and control their lives.’

Kandrigi would have spoken if he had known what to say. His feelings were warm, but inarticulate: his brain was bright, but it was the brightness of a river in moonlight -flowing, flowing, though the moon’s reflection gave the appearance of solidity like ice in winter.

Lamla turned and came across to him. His mouth was down-turned in irony. He lifted his cup.

‘It is a surprising liquid, is it not?’

Kandrigi looked into his cup. The little of the liquid that remained glowed in the light of the candles,

‘A deceptive drink, Lamla.’

'It makes men beasts. It makes me mad.'

‘It is a night drink, Lamla. It does not make me happy.’

'A cup of sorrow, Kandrigi? Yes. A poultice for sad minds. I drink it each evening, when night comes on, with anticipation and relief... Soon this effect will pass away.’

‘I am melancholy now, Tania. I do not like Lamla it.’

Lamla laughed for the first time, a shrill laugh, and threw his cup to the ground.

‘Finish it, Kandrigi. Its effect will soon pass.’

He resumed his seat and indicated that Kandrigi was to do likewise. He hid his hands within his cloak.

‘Tell me, Kandrigi, why have you come to the Ka? It is a matter of curiosity that a man of your years should undertake such a long, arduous journey merely to sit here and talk of old times. Surely your people have need of you?’

'You are right, Lamla. I have come on important business. It is good to see you again, to sit and talk, do not misunderstand me, but I am too old to come for that alone.'

'Have your chiefs sent you with articles of treaty?'

Kandrigi showed momentary surprise:

‘Treaty? No. It is not that. I have discussed this matter with the priests. Some agreed that I should travel to the Ka; others disagreed, saying it would be of no use. Many did not believe me, nor would they accept the evidence of their own eyes.’

Lamla, more his usual self now, sighed.

‘Tell me what it is, Kandrigi, and I will see if I can help.’

‘Do you still study the heavens, Lamla?’

‘Not often. Other priests have that task.’

‘Have they reported anything exceptional among the stars?’

‘For example?’

'The new star.’

‘A new star?’

‘Yes. But it may not be a star.'

‘What might it be then?’

‘I am not sure.. It shines like a star but does not move as stars do.’

Lamla nodded, ‘Have you noticed anything else about it?’

‘I think it grows bigger. My eyes are old.’

‘Yes. I have heard reports.'

Kandrigi sat bolt upright.

‘What do they say?’

‘A strange star, moving in a strange path, and growing bigger. As you have told me.’

‘Do they know what it is?’

Lamla leaped to his feet.

‘I do not know. Let us go and see the priests and ask them.’

He drew out the small bell and rang it. The youth came, bowed, received instructions, and departed. Lamla turned and waved Kandrigi to follow. At the foot of the steps the youth had lit a large torch of pitched rushes and was now running his narrow hand back and forth over the wall beside the massive door. Lamla and Kandrigi waited on the steps, the former impassive, hands hidden in his ample cloak, the latter curious and attentive, if somewhat befuddled still by the drink. They heard a low click and a section of the wall slid open.

Kandrigi gasped and Lamla turned and smiled benignly.

They followed the youth into the revealed tunnel. Its surfaces were faced with smooth stone. It was high enough for a man to walk upright and sufficiently wide to allow Lamla and Kandrigi walk side by side in comfort. The youth went ahead with the smoky torch held high. He was obviously familiar with the tunnel.

‘That door is a clever piece of construction, Lamla. '

‘A spring and fine balancing, Kandrigi.’

Their voices boomed hollowly.

‘Nevertheless, it is exceedingly skilful. I would not have known of its existence if I had not seen it open.’

‘That is the object, Kandrigi.’

‘I am deeply impressed by the advanced mechanics of the Ka.

‘You did not think it was magic then, Kandrigi?’

'Magic? There is coincidence, Lamla, and chance and fortune. Then there is contrivance, bluff, persuasion.’

‘And no magic?’

'Such as?'

‘Occult power. Prayer. Does not the Great Mother favour a few with special powers?’

‘I do not know. I have never met such a person. Prayer salves the anxious mind.’

‘You are inordinately sceptical, Kandrigi.’

'Is there magic, Lamla?’

‘Affairs can be guided to a desired end if a certain state of mind is adopted, Kandrigi.’

‘You have this power, Lamla?’

‘There are traditions among my people. Metal can fly high in the air; stones can be made to move and gates to fall open; voices can be heard in the sky, and forces can destroy a city at a stroke.'

‘Do you believe these traditions, Lamla?’

'Who could invent such stories, Kandrigi?’

'It is a good argument, Lamla, but it would require much discussion to prove. But tell me, Lamla, what of the Light above the Temple? Is that part of your magic. I confess I do not know how it operates.’

'It is magic insofar as no one knows how it operates. I will tell you what I know of it another time. There are other lights like it throughout this region.’

The youth halted in front of them. The light of the torch illuminated an ascending flight of steps. Lamla spoke brusquely to the youth and he began to climb.

‘We are almost there, Kandrigi.’

There were many steps and they were steep. By the time they reached the top Kandrigi was breathless and found it necessary to push himself from step to step by pressing his hands down on his knees. Lamla swayed and panted with open mouth.

The youth used his weight to raise a small square trapdoor. When he had done it, he stood back and bowed low to the two priests. Lamla led the way into the tiny chamber.

'This, Kandrigi,’ he said between short gasps, ‘is the Khumsung, our observation tower. Do you remember seeing it high upon the headland beyond the Ka?’

‘I do, Lamla. Have we walked below the ground from the Ka?’

‘We have, There is no other entrance. You see, Kandrigi, that it is also a useful fortification.’

The youth reached up and lowered the torch into a bracket on the wall. Lamla spoke to him and he went and pulled on a length of frayed rope. A section of the ceiling was pulled away and a beam of light shone down. A head appeared in silhouette. The youth spoke, bowing and gesturing in their direction with a graceful. sweep of his arm. The head disappeared and then a short, stocky ladder was thrust down. Lamla went to it immediately.

'Will you follow me, Kandrigi,’ he said as he began to climb stiffly.

Three men stood together in the chamber above. One was old, with white hair, while the remaining two were younger, their black hair cut to a stubble on their yellow scalps. Each wore a heavy woollen gown of bright yellow. They bowed low before Lamla, their eyes intent upon Kandrigi as they did. Lamla acknowledged their greeting with a nod and then addressed them, introducing Kandrigi. They made the hand-sign of priests to him and Kandrigi swept his fingertips in return.

The old priest approached Lamla and spoke in a curt tone.

‘We have come just in time, Kandrigi,’ Lamla said. ‘The moon is about to rise. Tonight is the first night of the new moon. It is a propitious occasion for your visit.’

‘I am glad to hear it, ' Kandrigi was formal in front of the observatory priests.

The old priest led the way, Lamla and Kandrigi behind him, while the two young priests came last. The youth remained below. They went through a dark opening in the wall and Kandrigi found himself stumbling up a narrow, winding stair in pitch blackness. It was not pleasant to climb in the dark, for the steps were worn and uneven, and he was relieved when he suddenly emerged into a brightly lit, low room. However, he had hardly time to get his breath and look about him before he was politely ushered forward to a short ladder by one of the younger priests. He caught’ a glimpse of low couches, a pile of rolled skins and clay tablets in a corner, and a star chart that covered one wall, the stars dull gold on a background of deepest blue.

Kandrigi went up the ladder and discovered himself on a kind of platform with the soft night-wind eddying about him.

Lamla joined him.

‘It is a calm night, Kandrigi. For that at least we should be grateful. On a windy winter’s night this place is a penance.’

Kandrigi stared about him. The sea glimmered in the light of the stars. To the north. the land was dark, all unbroken night. But in the south the Light of the Ka glowed and pulsed coldly, lighting the land and the air above, the great wall of the Ka casting a short contrasting shadow.

‘Now, Kandrigi, admit to wonder and excitement,' Lamla said at his side.

Kandrigi’s eyes glowed and his face wreathed with hesitant, childlike smiles. ‘I do, Lamla. To see the night-world like this is a strangely moving sight. This is what the Mother sees when She looks down upon us.'

Lamla’s mouth twitched in the flicker of a smile.

‘The Briga have nothing like this, have they?’

Kandrigi smiled with more certainty.

‘We do not need towers in order to see the heavens, Lamla.'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

The two young observatory priests were busy with an instrument, a long tube of polished wood mounted on a conical stand, on the eastern side of the platform. The old priest spoke at length to Lamla.

Kandrigi stood to one side staring vaguely out to sea, the warmth of contentment filling his breast. His mind was bright with unrealised thoughts; he was worshipping creation, and yet he was not – he was contented with himself and a tenuous line of unconditioned feeling encountered the contentment in the night-world outside.

The old priest finished speaking and stared significantly at Kandrigi’s back. Lamla spoke now and made conciliatory gestures with his hands. Tile old priest pursed his lips, hesitated, and finally nodded, Lamla gripped his elbow and squeezed it, a thin smile of intimacy tightening his lips. He turned to Kandrigi.

'They have sighted the viewer, Kandrigi. Very soon now the moon will rise and we will know if their predictions are correct.’

Kandrigi started; ‘Why should they not be? They are trained men.'

‘Ah, indeed. But Ma-Tin's calculations are not always what they should be. He is a hasty man. I hope his successor is an improvement.’

‘Who is he? Is he here?’

‘No. He is in the Temple awaiting our signal.'

The three observatory priests were gathered around the viewing instrument.

'Lamla - did you speak to them about the new star?’

‘No, I have not. We will let them complete this ritual first. There is time enough.‘

Ma-Tin suddenly cried out. One of the young priests ran to the ladder and disappeared down into the tower. Soon he was back again, carrying a newly lit torch. Ma-Tin shouted at him, gesturing sharply for him to hurry. He wrenched the torch from him and waved it over his head. It flared up and sparks flew in every direction. The two younger priests began to chant loudly and Lamla at Kandrigi’s side echoed them in a low voice.

Then from the Temple came the murmur of voices, swelling and lowering in chant. Now the choir joined them, penetrating the night with a long sonorous metre of praise, Soon the uneven rattle of chanting voices quietened and the splendidly intricate harmony that the choir was developing was alone and clear on the night air. It seemed to gain strength from an access of power in the knowledge that it was unchallenged. It would reach the ends of the earth, flowing out over the glimmering, heaving sea in one direction, and echoing through the silent, pensive nightlands in the other.

Lamla silently took Kandrigi’s arm and led him to the viewing tube. He bent and put his eye to it. Then he invited Kandrigi to do likewise.

The bore of the tube was blackened and Kandrigi's eye was filled with the soft, yellow light of the sliver that hung low in the sky. The light poured endlessly through the transparent space from the new moon into his eyes. Spots danced before his eye and the music filled his ears.

Lamla touched his shoulder.

‘Kandrigi, enough. Do not look any longer. It is bad for your inexperienced eyes.’

Kandrigi continued to stare with fascination at the yellow slice of the moon. Tiny white and ice-blue spots appeared and vanished along the bore of the tube. The singing came clearly to his ears.

Lamla touched his shoulder again.

‘Come away, Kandrigi. You will blind yourself.’

Kandrigi remained glued to the tube. Lamla called Ma-Tin, who took his time about looking around – he was gazing down on the Ka, his assistants on either side of him. He spoke to one, and he reluctantly left his post and came across and helped Lamla pull Kandrigi away from the tube. As soon as they managed to do it, he went back to his place by Ma-Tin’s side, ignoring the dazed and violently blinking Kandrigi.

‘Did I not warn you, Kandrigi?’ Lamla said angrily.

Kandrigi looked at him with his unaffected eye. His head felt strange, as though it no longer belonged, to him. There was a humming sound in his ears and his eye burned and flashed redly. Lamla caught his arm.

‘Answer me, Kandrigi, ‘ he said, mere anxious now than angry.

Kandrigi tottered and Lamla steadied him.

'Help him sit! Help him sit!' Kandrigi cried out in a strange commanding voice.

Lamla started and called the three priests to come and help him. The voice had startled them too and they needed no further command. The four of them crowded around Kandrigi and lowered him to the stone surface of the platform. Lamla attempted to create order so that he could have time to think of what to do next, but his voice was drowned by Ma-Tin’s as he told one assistant to get cushions and the other to help carry Kandrigi down the ladder to the chamber below.

Kandrigi boomed again: 'Stand back! Give him room!'

Lamla, Ma-Tin and the assistants jumped back and gathered at the edge of the platform, their eyes unswervingly on the seated figure of Kandrigi, who had now drawn his feet in to his body and wrapped his arms about his knees. He cocked his head to one side, as though to listen. Then he straightened up and said in his usual voice:

'I do not understand it.'

Again he listened. He nodded.

‘Why must it be so? Give me a cause.'

‘No. Should there not be a cause?’

He paused, listening, then spoke again:

'I do not understand. I am a simple man of faith. There are others more capable than me.’

Another pause.

‘No! No! All this talk about time makes no sense to me. Tell, me man’s part in this. Is he to blame?... Then who is to blame?... I do not understand these laws. Can they not be controlled?... No! I will not believe it!... Freak? Accident of nature? I cannot accept that. It is insane... I will listen patiently.’

Kandrigi listened with what seemed to he exaggerated attention. Then he said:

‘It is no help for you to say that what must be must be. Why do you tell me about it if I can do nothing to stop it?... No! You are either a fool. or you are a madman. I refuse to do what you ask... I am not a fool. Do you think I would tell men that? It is insane – yes it is, even if it is inevitable. Do it yourself. I will not... No. no. I would die first... You can. If you can tell me you can tell everybody... Then I do not want the honour. You are a coward as well as a fool... Do? Stop it, of course... No. I do not understand it. You are making excuses. You must have the power... Who has, then?... I do not believe you. You must be mad. If you are not, then I must he... No! Leave me. I want no part in it... I will no longer listen. Go away!'

Kandrigi waved his arms furiously.

‘Go away, go away.'

He bowed his head and raised it again and called:

‘Lamla, Lamla, where are you? Come and help me.’

All four priests rushed forward and surrounded him. When Lamla’s hand brushed his arm. Kandrigi grabbed it with both of his own and pulled himself to his feet.

‘What happened to you, Kandrigi?’ Lamla asked feverishly. Ma-Tin asked him a similar question in his own language and the two assistants repeated it brokenly.

Kandrigi was staring at Lamla, his face strained.

‘Did you speak, Lamla?'

‘Yes, Kandrigi. I asked you to tell me what had happened to you.'

‘I cannot hear you. There is a tremendous roaring in my head. Is it the choir in the Temple? Or has a storm sprung up?’

Lamla spoke more loudly: ‘Can you hear me now? The choir has finished its hymn and the night is calm and silent.’

Kandrigi saw Lamla’s lips move but he heard nothing except the roaring in his head, like the incessant ocean crashing on to a rocky shore. He shook his head.

‘There is only this roaring, Lamla. I see your lips move but I do not hear your words.’

Ma-Tin told Lamla that it was shock and that Kandrigi should he taken below to rest. He did not try to conceal his impatience. This stranger could not be forgiven for interfering with the sacred ritual of the New Moon.

Lamla spoke to Kandrigi on his fingers and told him Ma~Tin's suggestion.

‘I will go down after I have seen the star. I must see it first.’

Lamla translated for Ma-Tin, who snorted in exasperation and replied that it would take too long to find. Lamla asked him if he had not made calculations of its position and Ma-Tin curtly replied that it was impossible, that its course was not clear. Lamla pursed his lips and paused, as though he was considering this reply, then he sharply ordered Ma-Tin to search the heavens for the star and to keep searching until he found it. Ma-Tin baulked, clenching his hands, but his eyes soon wavered under Lamla’s steady gaze and he turned on his assistants and shouted at them to set up the tube in the centre of the platform, When they had done this, he pushed them out of his way and bent his eye to the tube.

Lamla hand-spoke to Kandrigi: ‘As you can see, Kandrigi. Ma-Tin has now assented to search for the star. I hope it will not take long.’

Kandrigi nodded abstractly. He began to scan the heavens himself, his mouth clamped tight with nervous expectation.

Lamla felt this tension. For a second it unnerved him, but his sense of responsibility asserted itself and cooled his mind. He called one of the assistants, who were standing to one side talking in low tones, and dispatched him to bring Hepteidon, Ma-Tin’s deputy and successor, over from the Temple. The assistant, relieved to get away from the platform, leaped down into the chamber below.

Lamla approached Kandrigi and attracted his attention by tapping his shoulder.

‘Are you cold, Kandrigi?’ he asked on his fingers.

Kandrigi shook his head rapidly. ‘It is a cold no clothing will cure, Lamla. It is deep within my bowels.’

‘You have my sympathy, Kandrigi.’

‘I am grateful for that, Lamla.‘

‘Will you tell me now what happened to you?’

‘Do not press me, Lamla. Let it remain my secret. Let it die with me, for it would do you, or any man, no good to know it.’

Lamla shook his head. ‘Do not talk of death, Kandrigi. You will rest and my priests will attend to you.'

‘You were always a good, patient friends Lamla. I do not wish to grieve you, but my body grows as cold as a corpse.'

Ma-Tin joined them and spoke to Lamla, pointedly ignoring Kandrigi. ‘I have found the star.'

Lamla asked: ‘Are you sure? There are many stars in the sky.’

‘I am sure. It is now the brightest star.’

Lamla told Kandrigi this news and led him to the tube. Kandrigi stooped and peered up the tube.

‘It has grows bigger, Lamla. I am certain of that.’

He stood erect.

Lamla addressed Ma-Tin: ‘Has it grown?’

‘It is brighter,’ Ma-Tin replied stiffly. ‘That this is due to increased size I do not know, for there is no way of knowing.

‘Ma-Tin says it is brighter, Kandrigi,’ Lamla said on his fingers, 'but that this is no proof of increased size.’

‘We have traditions among my people as to the nature of the heavens. They say that brightness is an indication of distance from the earth.‘ Kandrigi spoke slowly, his eyes intent upon the star.

Ma-Tin’s retort was sharp when Lamla had translated Kandrigi‘s reply.

‘There is no proof for such a tradition, besides, how would the stars remain at the various distance from the earth?’

Lamla relayed this to Kandrigi.

‘I do not know, Ma-Tin. I am simply repeating an ancient tradition of the Briga.’

‘Pah, it is superstition,’ Ma-Tin spat out.

Lamla did not relay this reply. Instead, he asked a question of his own: 'You learned something tonight, Kandrigi, that persuades you to accept this old story?’

‘No, I have always believed it.'

'Superstition,? Ma-Tin repeated, resentful because he was being ignored.

‘I will accept what you say, Kandrigi,’ Lamla spelled out on his fingers. ‘Come now and rest. You have seen the star, as you wished.’

A figure appeared through the opening in the platform.

He was dressed in the yellow robe of the observatory priests. His hair was not cut; it fell in dark waves on to his shoulders. His face was smooth, the colour of his skin that of the rising sun. Lamla greeted him warmly and took him by the hand and led him to Kandrigi. On his fingers he said simply:

'Hepteidon.’

Kandrigi bowed and then stared at the handsome young man. He saw that the eyes which returned his stare were green. About to speak, he was suddenly seized by a bolt of pain. He shut his eyes in agony. When the pain had passed he opened them again.

All was black.

'Lamla, help me, he said in a strangled voice, ‘I am blind. I cannot see.'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Lamla, the High Priest of the Temple of the Ka-Bil, sat wrapped in his black cloak. He occupied the straight-backed chair in the corner of his cluttered room. Hepteidon, Deputy to the Temple Astronomer, sat opposite him in the chair Kandrigi had occupied earlier in the night, when he had drunk with Lamla.

The High Priest stared with sunken eyes at the floor between them. He sighed hugely as the question arose into his mind once again.

‘How could such a thing happen, Hepteidon?’ he asked for the hundredth time.

Hepteidon looked at his High Priest. His young face was impassive.

‘I do not know, Lamla,’ he replied for the hundredth time. ‘If it concerns the body, then I am not a practitioner of cures and the art of making well again. If it is the spirit, then I am not the practitioner of spells and incantations. My business is the movements of the stars in the heavens and the portents to be discovered therein. I chart the seasons and make harmonious the ordering of the Ka within their rhythms.’

Lamla threw a fleeting glance at the red-skinned mane but made sure to keep his eyes veiled, for Hepteidon was of the ruling race and had influence above his station in the Ka.

'You do not give me much assistance, Hepteidon,’ he said wearily.

‘Then it is because I cannot,’ Hepteidon replied with a certain finality.

Lamla pulled his cloak more tightly about his shoulders.

‘Is is on this point that I disagree, Hepteidon,’ he said warily.

Hepteidon raised his brows a fraction. ‘You have said this before, Lamla – many times. Yet I cannot accept it. If I am an agent in this matter. I am an agent without my knowledge. Therefore, I cannot enlighten you. This I have previously explained.‘

Lamla sighed again. The question was rising in his mind again: How could such a thing happen?

‘Oh, Hepteidon. How could such a thing happen?’

The Deputy to the Temple Astronomer compressed his lips a fraction. ‘I do not know, Lamla.’

Lamla raised his long thin hand to stop Hepteidon finishing his well-worn speech. He spoke himself.

‘Consider this, Hepteidon, as I have myself considered it many times during this night. The Temple Guest, Kandrigi, the Priest of the Briga, looks at the moon and is rendered deaf. Then he speaks in a strange voice, engaged, I believe, in a conversation with some unseen person, nothing of which he would afterwards divulge to me. Finally, when he sees you, he immediately becomes blind. I do not understand what has happened this night, nor will I pretend to understand. But between these three strange occurrences I sense there is a connection. Do you understand me?'

Hepteidon shifted in his chair. ‘I understand you, Lamla, However, it does not follow that I accept what you say.’

The High Priest allowed himself to betray an instant of impatience. ‘Can you offer a better explanation, Hepteidon?’

The young priest paused before replying. 'I cannot, Lamla, nor will I pretend that I can.’

Lamla felt himself to be repulsed. Nevertheless, he made his face stern.

‘In that case, Hepteidon, I would be grateful if you would exercise patience and listen to what I have to say concerning my intuition.'

Hepteidon bent his head slightly and said in a noncommittal tone. ‘Because of my respect for you, High Priest, I am prepared to listen.'

'You have my gratitude, Hepteidon. I will make no great demand on you.'

Hepteidon’s lips flickered in what appeared to be a smile. ‘And I will pay close attention to your words.'

'First, Hepteidon. I want you to appreciate my assurance that I am not a superstitious man. I am a practical man who believes that the affairs of man are the sole concern of man. I have no interest in tales of miracles or visions, except where they are of use in guiding the affairs of man.'

‘I appreciate your assurance, Lamla, and accept it.'

‘I am glad, Hepteidon. We will therefore avoid misunderstanding. Now, while I am not superstitious, I am yet of the opinion that what we call religion contains elements that are superfluous to the ordinary, everyday needs of man. We may say sceptically that what is called religion is no more than the expression of man’s experience through the ages, or we might accept the tradition that tells us that it was the Great Mother who gave man this wisdom in the form of revelation and ritual. It is not important to my argument which you believe.'

Lamla paused. Hepteidon chose not to speak and instead merely stared unhelpfully at the old priest. Lamla took a deep breath and went on.

‘The religion of the Empire placates the terrors of its subjects: it can justify death, loss and pain to the comfort of those who suffer. It provides an outlet, a channel, for the expression of joy and happiness, to the satisfaction of those who wish to celebrate. These services form the greater part of the priests’ duties. In the history of the Empire no greater challenge has arisen to test the wisdom of our religion.

'This is a source of pride and comfort. It is good that man can order his affairs in such a way. But what of the ages which preceded the establishment of the Empire? We know that man existed for generations before the founding of the Empire. We are told that they were days of darkness and chaos, when man was a savage fumbling in the dark of ignorance. There are legends to prove it, legends filled with barbarity and tumultuous events. But there are many strange things in these legends which we do not understand. And because we cannot understand them, we say therefore that the men of those times could not understand them either. That is false logic.’

Lamla wrinkled his face and sighed.

‘However, I am not concerned with these arguments. What I wish you to understand is that our religion contains not only the experience of the Empire but also the experience of the generations that went before it. This is what I mean when I say that there are elements in it that are apparently unnecessary for the ordering of our societies.’

Hepteidon rubbed his palms together with deliberation.

'I understand your argument, Lamla, but I do not understand why you take the trouble to expound it.’

‘If you will forbear, Hepteidon. I will explain.’

The young priest sat straighter in his chair and folded his arms. Lamla felt a pang of unease. The gesture had been a fraction too exaggerated.

'You must exercise patience with me, Hepteidon. I am an old man, who must sift his mind a great deal in order that he might make sense.'

Hepteidon slowly unfolded his arms. ‘I will be patient, Lamla. But I tell you bluntly that it is a hard thing.’

Lamla slumped and looked down at the floor. After a short while he looked up again. His eyes were more sunken and they glittered redly.

‘Very well, Hepteidon, I will also be blunt. You have studied the new star in the heavens? Will you tell me your opinion of it?’

Lamla was grimly appeased to see Hepteidon start.

‘It is no more than a curiosity,' he said with forced nonchalance.

Lamla decided to provide him with another shock:

‘The purpose of Kandrigi's visit here was to seek advice about this star. He did not think it was merely a novelty.’

Hepteidon was better prepared this time. Nevertheless, his voice carried the tension of resentment.

‘And what is his opinion of the star?’

Lamla permitted himself the flicker of a smile.

‘I do not know, Hepteidon. But when you consider that he has come a great distance to seek our advice, it will become obvious that it is more than simple curiosity that brings him here.’

Hepteidon was still struggling to remain aloof and uninvolved.

‘He is surely unduly alarmed, What cause for fear can a simple priest of a barbarian tribe find in the appearance of this star that remains hidden from our great science? I am tempted to suspect superstition. Simple people are always alarmed by things they do not understand.’

Lamla’s smile widened.

‘Does it follow then that you know the cause for the appearance of the star, Hepteidon?'

'No,' Hepteidon covered his confusion by means of a show of impatience, ‘it does not follow. But I do not find grounds for alarm and terror in its appearance.’

Lamla arched his brows: ‘A strange logic, Hepteidon. However, that is not important at the moment. I wish you now to consider the events of this night.’

Hepteidon's sudden passion did not surprise Lamla.

‘I have told you many times since that Kandrigi’s afflictions are outside my province. If you believe that they are connected somehow with his mission concerning the strange star, why do you not ask Ma-Tin’s advice? He is the Astronomer of the Temple. His knowledge and experience far surpass '

Lamla reached out and grasped Hepteidon’s hand.

‘I am glad you are beginning to understand, Hepteidon.'

‘I do not, Lamla, I swear I do not.’

‘Consider, Hepteidon, the course of events. Kandrigi is made deaf when he looks at the moon, and yet afterwards he hears the voice of someone unseen. He is deaf to nature and yet he hears a voice we do not hear. When you appear on the Khumsung he looks but once upon you and is immediately struck blind. It is as though be no longer needs his eyes because he has seen all that is needed to see. He now has but two senses remaining, those of touch and speech. Tell me, Hepteidon, what does that suggest to you?’

In his distraction Hepteidon clutched Lamla’s hand.

‘I do not know, Lamla. I do not know.’

‘You do, Hepteidon. You have known from the moment you first saw Kandrigi.’

Hepteidon was beside himself now. He bent down and kissed Lamla’s hand.

‘It has happened without my knowledge, Lamla. I do not know what I am to do.’

Lamla’s gaze became very gentle.

‘Then I will try to tell you, my young Hepteidon. From the beginning of these strange events. Kandrigi has been deaf. Therefore we are to understand that we have nothing of use to tell him. Yet we are made witnesses to his conversation with the unseen being. It was plain to me, at least to me if not also to Ma-Tin, that Kandrigi struggled mightily to refuse the task imposed upon him. He would tell me nothing afterwards, wishing rather to die instead. Lastly, his sight is taken away from him once he has seen you. Therefore we are to understand that there is nothing more for him to see in this world that would be of use to him. It is ironic, Hepteidon, and it is no harm if we see this irony and are amused, that the sense that Kandrigi would most want to lose, that of speech, remains with him, It follows from this that though there is nothing further for him to see or hear in this world, there is something he has to impart. And who is he to tell, Hepteidon?’

The young priest was weeping. His tears fell on to Lamla’s hand. He shook his head vigorously.

‘There is no need to be afraid, Hepteidon. It is a great honour to be chosen in this way. Have trust and you will not be afraid. But I must finish. Kandrigi has been left with the sense of touch. Therefore, a question must be put to him. And you, Hepteidon, must ask this question. I do not know what it is but perhaps I may discover it for you.'

Lamla was relieved. He stood up and placed his free hand on Hepteidon’s head. Slowly, Hepteidon quietened and then raised his face. Lamla stooped and kissed both his cheeks.

‘The sun is risen, my son. Eat with me and then sleep here in this room so I will be near if you should need me.’

Lamla produced his little bell and rang it incessantly until the shaven youth appeared, his eyes swollen with sleep.

‘Bring food and drink, and then prepare a couch for Hepteidon.'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

The first light of the sun lit the sky, then the land, then the wall of the Ka. The birds that inhabit the ample grasslands behind the fortified city began their morning song.

The sun rose higher and its light struck the taller dwellings in the Ka. It lit the massive blind walls of the Temple. The watch-tower gleamed.

The sunlight fell on the thick curtain that covered the small window of Korkungal’s chamber: a weak milky glow penetrated the curtain into the room.

Korkungal awoke when the light was strong enough to outline the grosser details of the chamber. This was a habit so engrained in him as to be an instinct by now. He rolled onto his back. For an instant he experienced confusion – then quick enthusiasm for morning time, like that of a youth, swept over him and he threw off the blankets and leaped from the couch. The chilled air caused him to shiver mightily, hissing noisily through clenched teeth, he skipped a few times and then pulled his tunic off. He neighed like a horse as the cold struck his naked body and pranced vigorously, happiness surging in him, delight plucking the roots of his hair, and joy in the freedom of his body giving him the strength of ten young warriors. He ran and tore the curtain from the window and greeted the clean light of the sun with a quick hoarse shout. It warmed his flesh.

Now, while yet without memory, while as innocent as the morning itself, Korkungal wrapped himself in his ample cloak and descended and went out into the open. He trotted around the back of the Temple, between the dwellings gathered about the little garden, past the pond, and across the stony common to the corrals. Throwing off his cloak, he ran among the horses, slapping the rumps of those that happened to come within his reach, grunts of ecstasy escaping spontaneously from his throat. When he had thoroughly heated himself, he dropped on to the grass and rolled about in the dew, Like a young animal, he threshed his limbs, his flesh tingling from contact with the moist grass. Growing chill, he scrambled to his feet and commenced to run around the corral, lifting his legs high to quicken the blood. He circled the corral three times, following the rough wattle fence and passing under the shadow of the wall of the Ka, until his pulse raced and his breath came in short pants. With a last burst of his early morning high spirits he grabbed up his cloak while running and held it above his head as he leaped over the fence and landed, tumbled and rolled on the other side. There he lay still for a moment in order to regain his breath.

During that moment his memory returned. He sighed fatalistically. He remembered Harmesh and Klimbah, the warriors of the Ka. He was amused by his memory of them, but impressed when he recalled their weapons. And the Ka and the many new things he had seen during the previous day. He grew confused and lonely. He pressed his hot cheek into the dewy grass: he accepted. He calmed. He would be ever-watchful.

He rose to his feet and swung his cloak over his shoulders. At the pond the woman of the Ka had come to fetch water. They lined the pond’s edge, their full jugs at their feet, watching him. Korkungal wrapped his cloak tightly about him. It was unseemly that women should spy on a warrior at his exercises. If he had known...

He blushed. The women saw the bright blush on his white skin. They lowered their eyes – their dark skins did not permit a flush to convey their embarrassment. Korkungal approached the pond with strong, measured steps. The women hastily took up their jugs and retreated, giggling and eyeing one another in their excitement and confusion.

But one woman remained, hands on hips, a small table jug between her feet. When Korkungal reached the pond, she spoke to him in a clear voice:

‘It is a fine morning, Warrior of the Briga.’

She had the firm features and level glance of a woman in her middle years.

Korkungal was non-plussed. The woman called again:

‘Are you thirsty, Warrior?’

Korkungal was very dry. He nodded and stooped to the water.

'Stay,' the woman said. ‘I will bring you water.’

Korkungal froze and followed her with straining eyes as she walked around the perimeter of the pond. She would be a strong wife and mother, Korkungal thought, with a husband who knew his business and kept to it, with a strong son near manhood whom she teased and spoiled, with perhaps young daughters whom she treated severely.

The woman stood before him, gazing at him with irony. She produced an earthenware bowl from under her shawl and poured water from the jug.

Korkungal gulped the water down.

‘I thank you, woman,’ he said, wiping his mouth with the end of his cloak.

‘You are a strong, agile man, Korkungal,’ the woman said. Though her skin was dark, her eyes were blue. They glittered brilliantly in the early light.

‘You know my name, woman, and you know my tongue,’ Korkungal said confidentially. ‘It surprises me. Will you tell me how these things are known to you. Perhaps the priests have sent you to me.’

‘Not the priests, Korkungal. They will send you boys and old men, nothing more.

‘Harmesh, then?’

The woman curled her lips. ‘Harmesh? He would drive the Mother herself to distraction.’

‘I am known as a patient man in my dealings with women, but will you now tell me who sent you to me.’

‘What is it to you who sent me, Korkungal? Is it not enough that I am here for you to look on?’

‘I do not understand. Why have you come?’

'Sacred Mother, Korkungal, but you are a simple man. All these questions. I have come to offer you company.’

She looked him up and down. Korkungal knew then that she was not the wife of a strong man, nor did she have any daughters.

‘What is your name, woman?’

‘Chorsa.’

‘You are a fine woman, Chorsa.’

She laughed musically. ‘I am? Be truthful, Korkungal. Would you not prefer a younger woman? A maid, perhaps, shy and submissive?’

And before Korkungal could reply, to protest his preference for her, Chorsa seemed to change. She seemed to grow younger, her skin to soften and dimple, her eyes to lose their experience and become tremulous and trusting.

‘A young girl, Korkungal, shy and without blemish?’

Korkungal's throat was dry again.

‘Yes,’ he said hoarsely. ‘If there is a choice. Though I do not understand how this is possible.’

‘You are not a priest, Korkungal, to try to understand. Accept the evidence of your eyes, no more. You have the choice. Make it.’

Korkungal made his choice with speed: ‘The virgin, Chorsa. The virgin.’

‘As you will. A virgin it will be.’

Her body lost weight and became slender under her shawl.

‘Come with me now to my chamber in the watch-tower.’

Korkungal could hardly contain himself.

‘Not now, Korkungal.' Her voice seemed soft and sweet. ‘Tonight, when it is dark, I will come to your chamber and share your couch.’

'Now,' Korkungal insisted. He reached out to touch her.

‘Tonight,’ Chorsa repeated gaily, evading his hands.

'Oh, very well. I will wait for you.’

'She will come. Go now.’ She seemed to assume her original appearance. She waved her hands at him. ‘Be off with you now, Korkungal. You have much to do.'

Korkungal reluctantly left her and retraced his steps to the watch-tower, walking slowly with head bowed, his body excited and his brain bemused. Soon, the wonder of it passed beyond him and he began to doubt Chorsa’s existence.

I have been too long without the company of women, he told himself gravely.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Harmesh was stretched out on the couch in Korkungal's chamber and he raised his head in greeting when the warrior climbed into the room. He mimed sleeping to ask if Korkungal had slept well.

‘I did,’ Korkungal muttered, forgetting in his distraction that Harmesh could not understand him. ‘But now I am hungry.’

He threw his cloak off and hurriedly slipped his tunic on. He was cold after standing for so long at the pond. Harmesh watched him, giggling, and spoke in his own tongue. Korkungal mimed eating, doing it with ill-grace. The instant he understood, Harmesh slid off the couch and went and called up the stairway. There came a gruff reply, and in a moment Klimbah appeared, obviously having difficulty in negotiating the cramped stairs. Harmesh tipped Korkungal’s arm and indicated that he was to follow him down. Klimbah came last, huffing and puffing, arms outstretched to balance himself.

They walked to the eating house at the edge of the garden, passing in the shadow of the Temple. Harmesh chattered to Klimbah and had to trot to keep pace with the shambling giant. Korkungal did not hurry. He let them go on ahead, though making sure to keep them in sight.

The meal they were served was similar to that of the previous evening: bread, milk and fruit. Korkungal ate ravenously. The warriors of the Ka ate sparingly, Harmesh punctuating a ceaseless stream of words with hastily bitten pieces of fruit and Klimbah chewing steadily on tiny morsels as he nodded and grunted monosyllables by way of reply.

Afterwards, they went and sat under the trees in the garden and dozed in the rising heat of the early day. The hubbub of the Ka seemed far away. Towards noon, a young priest came and spoke to Harmesh, who rose up, complaining loudly to Klimbah, and sulkily followed the priest out of the garden. He returned not long after and shook Korkungal petulantly and signalled him to follow him. They left Klimbah dozing in the buzzing warmth.

Harmesh led him to the two-storied mud brick building behind the garden square and mockingly bowed him into a large room on the ground floor. There was a wide flight of stairs at one end and a tall glowing brazier at the other. The room was otherwise bare of furniture or decoration. An old priest stood before the brazier, draped in a black cloak, his hands held out to the heat.

‘You are Korkungal, Warrior of the Briga, escort of the priest, Kandrigi,’ the old priest stated with assurance.

Korkungal hesitated before nodding. Here was another stranger of the Ka who spoke his tongue without difficulty.

‘I am Lamla, High Priest of the Ka.'

‘Where is Kandrigi?’ Korkungal asked importunately. The room was cold and he was beginning to shiver in his thin tunic. The cold made him uneasy.

‘He is resting, Korkungal.... And you? Are you content with your quarters in the watch-tower?’

‘I do not complain, High Priest.’

Lamla nodded abruptly in acknowledgement. ‘Is your company to your satisfaction? There are few in the Ka who speak your tongue. This you must expect, as we are not of your race. However, there is one of your people in my service, a navigator. He is the Captain of our ships, a valuable and useful man. I will inform him of your arrival and invite him to join you as companion and guide for the duration of your stay in the Ka. Would that be to your liking?’

Korkungal nodded uncertainly. A guest was not usually treated like this in the forts of the Briga. A warrior would find his company among warriors, priests among priests. What would a sailor have in common with he, Korkungal, except to chatter on about his trade?

Lamla waited until Korkungal's face cleared of the strain of thought before speaking again.

‘Very well. I will send for him and he will come to you tomorrow.’ He paused again and stared into the brazier. ‘Tell me, Korkungal, did you have a hard journey here?’

Korkungal started: ‘Is Kandrigi ill?’

Lamla smiled a very thin smile. ‘It is not that, Korkungal. I am merely curious. It is impressive to hear that two men should undertake such a long journey alone. Was there no danger?'

‘Little danger, High Priest, to men of good experience,’ Korkungal said shortly. He was shivering now.

‘You have great self-possession, Korkungal. You are truly the great warrior Kandrigi holds you to be.'

'We knew the lie of the country and prepared ourselves for it..’

‘The Savages?’ Lamla hinted.

Korkungal looked at him sharply. ‘Kandrigi has spoken to you of our journey, High Priest, he said.' he said harshly.

'Yes, yes.' Lamla had to struggle to hide his anger. 'But warriors and priests view things differently. I am curious to hear your opinion of them.'

‘They are poor and weak. There is no honour in fighting them.'

‘Why do the Briga not conquer them? Your people are renowned for their might and valour.’

‘Their country is large and they are thinly scattered. We have no fear of the Savages and we have no use for their land.'

‘But what of your enemies? Do they not try to make treaty with the Savages and persuade them to attack you?’

‘The Savages will not gather as an army. Besides, the Bir Karsh are a sea people and raiders rather than conquerors.'

Lamla's eyes gleamed for an instant.

‘You have sound knowledge of your enemies' Korkungal.’

‘It is to be expected, High Priest. I am in the councils of kings.’

Lamla raised his smooth black eyebrows.

‘And what of the Dark Lands?’

'They are of no interest. They are too far away. We have never seen the inhabitants. There are stories among the Savages, incredible stories, but they are not significant.'

Lamla nodded and resumed staring into the brazier. Korkungal watched him, feeling little heat though he was close to the fire.

'Tell me of your country, High Priest. Your yellow skin intrigues me.' Korkungal did not feel intimidated by Lamla or by his authority in the Ka. Had not the High Priest said that warrior and priest see the world through different eyes?

Lamla smiled and nodded towards the brazier as he would if asked a precocious question by a child.

'I have never seen the land of my origin, though it is part of the Empire of the Sun. It lies far to the south. There are many races in the Empire, many-hued and many-tongued.'

‘Which race rules this Empire, High Priest?’

Lamla laughed, though Korkungal thought it was a snigger.

‘The question of a warrior, Korkungal. For sixty six generations it has been ruled by the red skinned Merura, which means the Dwellers on the High Plain. They came from the west many ages ago and conquered the Empire through victory in one great battle. Before them, the brown-skinned races ruled. It is said that they established the Empire in the young days of mankind, when the earth was on fire.’

‘You are yellow-skinned, yet you rule,‘ Korkungal said pragmatically.

'This is a small Ka, It is a mere outpost of the Empire, established no more than five generations ago.’

Korkungal could not stop himself from looking about the room. Lamla of course saw this.

‘The Ka impresses you, Korkungal,’ he said, the thin smile on his lips again.

Korkungal bluffed: 'It is strongly fortified, but defended by slaves.’

Lamla turned his head to him.

‘Slaves?’ he feigned, ‘Do not say that to Harmesh,’

Korkungal bristled: ‘Harmesh is a child.’

Lamla smiled broadly and his face wrinkled.

'Harmesh is a child,’ he echoed. He shook his head, ‘A child indeed, but a noble child. Capricious but influential. I would be grateful if you were to be generous to him.'

‘I have no reason for being otherwise.’

Lamla inclined his head, ‘You are a complacent man, Korkungal. However, Harmesh has come to look upon you as a friend. He wishes to prove this friendship to you and has spoken to me concerning the proper thing to do. He is shy, as you can well understand. He is also uncertain. He does not wish to show disrespect for the greater age and experience of you. I have therefore undertaken on his behalf to make you a small gift and express his ardent wish that you accept it as a token of his affection for you.’ He clapped his hands and a group of priests appeared at the head of the stairs, each carrying a wrapped bundle.

Korkungal turned to face them and as he did he moved closer to the brazier. Now one side of him at least was warm.

Lamla gave instructions to the priests. They placed their bundles on the floor and opened them, First, they brought forward a breastplate of thick oxhide reinforced with a lattice of bright metal and strapped it about the torso of the unresisting Korkungal. Next, a scabbard made of thinly beaten sheet and a brightly decorated belt of leather, which they fastened about his waist, Then a cloak of bright red was ceremoniously laid on his shoulders. It hung, many-folded, to his ankles. Finally, Lamla himself pressed a finely finished helmet of shaped hide down on his thick red hair.

'There now, Korkungal,’ he said, bowing. ‘You are dressed as befits the guest of the Empire of the Sun.’

Korkungal was quick to recover from his surprise at the suddenly conferred gifts. He looked down at himself, grinning self-consciously, delighting in his new appearance. He wished he had his throwing stick gripped in his battle-hand.

‘You do me great honour, High Priest.’

‘It is not I alone, Korkungal,' Lamla replied evenly. ‘You must remember '

Korkungal looked up, his eyes hard with cunning: ‘I do, High Priest.’

He swung about and watched his new red cloak swirl out around him. The priests stepped back. The scabbard struck his leg, just behind his knee.

Lamla was impassive.

‘I will go and speak to him now, High Priest,’ Korkungal said. His delight remained in him, but the trust it sprang from began to seem misplaced. He remembered that the gifts declared no true friendship.

He wished he was armed.

Lamla’s precise voice stopped him: ‘Before you go, Korkungal, there is a favour I would ask of you.’

Korkungal turned to face him,

‘You are a warrior of wide experience. This I have said before, but there is no harm in repeating it. I would deem it a great favour if you would impart some small piece of this experience to our warriors.’

‘I am willing, High Priest.'

‘Good. You are a generous man, Korkungal. To help you, I propose to confer on you the rank of Captain of Military Advice to the Defenders of the Ka upon you. It will not be by any means an onerous post, but it will command the respect of the inhabitants of the Ka who are ignorant of the greatness of the Briga and their chief ' He produced a medallion and chain from the folds of his cloak, ‘Wear this around your neck at all times. It is the emblem of your rank.

Korkungal slipped the chain over his helmet and settled it on his breast.

'You may go now, Korkungal. I give you my blessing.’

Lamla raised his hands and muttered in his native tongue. Then he bowed to Korkungal and went with his priests towards the stairs at the far end of the room.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

After standing for a short time in the sun, Korkungal’s head became hot and he was forced to remove the helmet. Once he had done this he felt at a loss. There was a new swagger in his movements: he was aware of the new strength implicit in the breastplate and the bulk of the helmet under his arm was commanding and sweet.

But what tasks awaited him?

The blank wall of the Temple rose up before him in the sunlight and the dwellings fronting the garden were inert and silent.

Momentarily useless, he felt foolish.

Then he took a deep breath and let the foolishness pass over him and go beyond him. He plunged through the sunlight, finding relief in this activity, his new cloak flapping out behind him, and marched between the thatched wooden houses.

Klimbah had not moved. He lay out under the same tree, the crown of his head touching the lowest branches. Harmesh lay beside him, his head resting on the giant’s broad chest. Klimbah stroked his brow. His eyes were closed, but they shot open when he heard the rustle of Korkungal’s cloak. He pushed Klimbah’s hand away and jumped to his feet and ran towards Korkungal, crying excitedly. Korkungal stood still, a self-conscious smile softening his features, as Harmesh danced about him, touching his cloak and exclaiming rapturously at seeing so much finery. He quietened then and approached Korkungal with a secretive look and lifted the cloak apart. Seeing the new armour, he raised his eyes to Korkungal’s and smiled proudly. He called repeatedly to Klimbah until the giant laboriously pushed himself to his feet and came over. He circled Korkungal, nodding in sleepy appreciation.

Harmesh remained relatively quiet while Klimbah inspected Korkungal, but now he sprang to life again. He grabbed Korkungal’s hand and pulled him in the direction of the watch-tower, calling Klimbah to follow.

In the watch-tower, he led them up past Korkungal’s chamber to his own. Aware of being in control of the situation, he fussed about behind his couch, out of sight of Korkungal and Klimbah, talking to himself and now and then throwing remarks at the giant, who, however, remained silent. Suddenly, he drew himself upright and pressed his palms to his cheeks, and brushed past the two warriors and disappeared down the stairway. Soon he was back again, Korkungal’s sword in his hand, He wiped the blade perfunctorily on the furs that covered his couch and brought it, ceremoniously laid across his open palms, to Korkungal, who looked from it to Harmesh’s face in puzzlement. Harmesh returned his gaze and appeared to wait. When Korkungal failed to make the desired response, he shook his shoulders in annoyance and swiftly slid the sword into the scabbard. Arms akimbo, he stepped back, nodding away in satisfaction. Korkungal stared down at the now mated sword and scabbard, the light of understanding widening his eyes. He pulled the sword part-way out of the scabbard and pushed it back in. Now the blunt end of the sword made sense to him.

Harmesh had meanwhile returned to fussing about behind his couch. At last he straightened, a look of triumph on his face. He held a long spear in one hand and a shorter one in the other and gestured that Korkungal was to take them. Korkungal wrapped his battle-hand about both shafts.

Now Harmesh gathered up an assortment of weapons: swords, spears and axes, and headed towards the stairway, nodding that Korkungal was to follow. Outside, he threw the weapons down on to the grass in the open space between the watch-tower and the Temple, Korkungal joined him and stood looking down at the jumbled pile of weapons. With pent-up excitement, Harmesh clenched his small fists and flexed his slim shoulders, talking all the while. Korkungal slipped his cloak from his shoulders and stood uncertain for a time watching the antics of liar mesh. Obviously, he was now to begin training the youth.

Harmesh glanced slyly at him and suddenly darted and picked up a spear from the pile on the ground and ran at Korkungal. Instinctively alert at once, Korkungal fell back,

dropping the shorter spear and levelling the longer one. Harmesh came on at him without slackening his speed, a broad grin on his face. With practiced deliberation, Korkungal swung his spear to deflect Harmesh’s, but the youth surprised him by executing a deft counter-stroke with lithe speed. Before Korkungal could retreat and take up a defensive position, Harmesh had swerved to his left and struck him with his spear on the breastplate. Korkungal bellowed more in anger at being so easily beaten than in pain. Harmesh careered past him and came to a halt behind him, chuckling breathlessly. Korkungal swung about, intent now upon teaching the youth a lesson, He raised his spear and cast it. But a metal-tipped spear is not a wooden throwing stick and Korkungal did not take account of the extra weight and unfamiliar balance in his haste. Harmesh stood his ground, spear at the ready, and watched Korkungal’s missile quickly lose height and bury itself in the ground a man's length from his feet. He cried out to attract the fuming Korkungal’s attention, and when he had succeeded he raised his own spear and threw it. Korkungal watched it arc towards him, its head burnished in the sun, with a kind of silly fascination. At the last moment he leaped to one side and saw it shoot through the space he had just vacated and thud into the turf.

Harmesh whooped and leaped in the air with delight.

Korkungal stared at the trembling shaft for some time. He was angry; he was confused. To train the young in arms was a source of great pleasure of condescendence for the teacher; it also had the merit of being necessary knowledge and of instilling respect for their elders in youth. But this youth, Harmesh, required no training in arms. Yet he was lacking in respect for his elders. This shamed Korkungal, it shamed him because it transgressed the ordering of things among men, and he felt himself grow small and alone in the world. He glanced at Klimbah, who stood to one side. The giant watched them both with an impassive face. Korkungal pulled the spear from the ground and turned to face Harmesh, knowing that what he had to teach him might bring him into conflict with Klimbah, whose prowess he respected, and the inhabitants of the Ka. He levelled the spear and began to advance slowly, his eyes riveted upon the slender form of the youth. He must rid himself of the shame, for it unmanned him, and he must do it regardless of the cost to himself. The familiar sink of death-possibility gripped him and the world at the edge of his vision warped and became monstrous.

Seeing Korkungal approach, Harmesh grinned broadly and picked up the spear the Brigan warrior had thrown so clumsily. He flexed his shoulders and crouched, imitating Korkungal’s grave manner. When they had drawn close, Korkungal jabbed at Harmesh’s breast. The youth sprang to the right and raised his spear with the intention of driving it once again into Korkungal’s breastplate. But Korkungal followed his thrust by suddenly swinging the shaft of his spear and striking Harmesh behind the knees. He screamed with pain and began to fall, and screamed with pain again as the flat of Korkungal’s spearhead came down on his shoulder. He writhed on the grass, crying shrilly in pain and spite. Korkungal made the rhetorical gesture of placing the point of his spear against Harmesh’s throat and then stood back and resumed his crouched position over his spear. Somewhat mollified, he spoke:

‘You are a difficult pupil, Youth of the Ka.’

Harmesh stared up at him with tear-filled eyes. His surprise was great, but his outrage was greater. He looked about him and shouted for Klimbah. Immediately, Korkungal fell back and took up a position that gave him sight of both Klimbah and Harmesh. The giant had not moved and he remained still, his massive arms folded across his blue-black chest. Harmesh called him again, his voice more imperious now. The giant remained unmoved and merely spoke a few words in reply.

As Korkungal watched, prepared for his end, he saw Harmesh throw a tantrum and Klimbah stare impassively at him. Harmesh screamed and yelled and beat the ground with his fists, but when he realised that no one would help him he quietened. Slowly, he got to his feet and rubbed his bruised body. He tried to move Klimbah with pathos, by whimpering and stretching his face; but the giant was unmoved.

Korkungal relaxed his guard, set his spear in the grass and leaned on it. Again he was seeing the peculiar relations that existed between Harmesh and Klimbah, which reminded him of those between nursemaid and child. It was strange to see warriors behaving in this manner, and though he should feel unease, for it reflected upon himself as a warrior, he was instead amused. It confirmed his opinion that the Ka was defended by slaves. And yet the superior weapons and the fighting skills of the two men could not be doubted.

Harmesh had continued to whimper and now Klimbah jerked one massive arm out and spoke. Harmesh listened intently, looking from time to time at Korkungal. He nodded once sullenly, then brightened and nodded again, a grin spreading across his face. He clapped his hands and ran to the pile of weapons. Klimbah went into the watch-tower. Korkungal stiffened and raised his spear. Harmesh chose a sword, weighing it with evident satisfaction, and came towards the watchful Brigan. Klimbah brought a shield and helped fit it onto Harmesh’s arm. He resumed his pacing, only his eyes visible above the rim of the shield. They were bright with mockery. The shield, strapped with bright metal, was like the setting sun, brilliant as fire. The sword, by contrast, gleamed hard and cold in the sunlight.

Korkungal readied himself. He did not complain about the imbalance of arms, for this was no game. He came into himself instead and felt his whole being and experience gather about the death-possibility. He was immensely satisfied, for he was about to justify himself or die.

What other purpose had a warrior?

Harmesh approached until his shield touched the tip of Korkungal’s spear. His eyes were smiling, but they no longer held the gaiety of youth. Like Korkungal, he saw death-possibility, and it satisfied him, though he was young and would lose much of the experience of life.

He rattled his shield against Korkungal’s spear and spoke a few words, as though incantating. Then he raised his sword and cut at Korkungal, who leaped away and jabbed his spear at the youth’s belly – it was deflected by a twist of the shield. They circled one another. Korkungal feinting and Harmesh tapping his sword against the rim of his shield. They grew dazed at seeing each other against a swirling, fluid background, and when the dizziness brought on the sudden surge of energy and exultation they both shouted aloud and rushed together. The confined space between the Temple and the watch-tower rang with the sharp clatter of arms in combat, Korkungal feinted and thrust, testing Harmesh’s ability with the shield, to find a blind spot in his defense. Harmesh concentrated upon this defense, his mouth grim as he countered Korkungal’s skill, and contented himself with making frequent slashes with the sword, which however were harmless, for Korkungal kept him a spear-length away.

They fought like this for a long time, then Harmesh broke and fell back, shield high and sword pointed into the ground, Korkungal followed him eagerly, thinking that the youth was tired, lie rammed his spear into the shield and Harmesh staggered and turned and dropped on to one knee. Korkungal saw the exposed flank of flesh and his mind lit in anticipation. He did not see the sword rise but felt only the shock down his arms as it sliced through the shaft of his spear just behind the metal head. Harmesh was immediately on his feet again, coming forward, and Korkungal fell back, momentarily stupefied by the cunning and skill of one so young. He stared at the splintered end of his spear. Harmesh sliced at his head and only instinct saved him from decapitation. He continued to retreat, trying desperately to control his confusion, using the shaft to ward off Harmesh’s cuts and sweeps. Now Harmesh began to circle him, teasing him, delaying the final moment, And now Korkungal the Victorious, the Warrior of Kings, saw the humiliation that was about to be made his. Who was to sing of his death? Who of his people were here to mourn and praise him? Korkungal, the Warrior of the Briga, grew smaller than he had ever been before, grew small to the point of extinction. His pride and his self-glory vanished and he was alone in a way he had never been before. He was without past, without friends, almost now without name. He would have cried to the sky and would have sank to his knees in submission if one thing had not remained in him. Life for the sake of life surged in him, made his head hot, made his face quiver with insane need. He went forward with a power and a strength that was not warrior-made, that was not tribe-made, not even, perhaps, man-made, and brought the shaft down upon the shield of the unprepared Harmesh. The shaft broke into splinters and the shock paralysed Korkungal’s hands and arms. It folded the shield outwards and bits of metal cracked and shot away and Harmesh lifted off the ground and tumbled over, his screams lacking the mediation of his vanity. Korkungal was remorseless. He fell on the semiconscious Harmesh and tore at him with his numb hands, his breath coming in short, hot bursts, his throat tight but trying to form words of scorn and hate. He found the slim neck and his hands attempted to encircle it, to strangle the life out of the one who had aroused this murderous passion – but they could not, for they were stiff and numb.

He slumped over Harmesh and cried out of frustration.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Kandrigi, Priest of the Briga, knew he lay on a couch, a warm blanket of wool covering him. Otherwise, he did not know where he was. It was not important. Nothing was important.

It comes in time, Kandrigi, the voice said in his head. He did not know whether it was his memory which spoke or the voice he had heard on the Khumsung. All are helpless against time, Kandrigi.

But Kandrigi would not speak. He had vowed not to.

It comes, Kandrigi, through cold eternal space.

Be warned, Kandrigi, and let your race be warned.

I have seen it, Kandrigi. It is a great body, capable of great destruction,

Let your race he warned, Kandrigi, for I grieve for them and their destiny.

Through time it comes from afar, Kandrigi; in time it will cross the path of your earth.

Believe me, Kandrigi, believe me, I grieve for you and your race. There is no stopping the body, for it goes beyond my power. I warn you. Let your race be warned, so that they might prepare themselves for their destruction.

Kandrigi, it comes in time. It comes with time. Tell your people, that they might prepare. Nothing else can be done. I have seen it. Irresistible it is, plunging through dark immensities of space.

Be warned, Kandrigi. It will grow large in your sky and you will know then that you have been forewarned.

You must tell them, Kandrigi, for I cannot. They will honour you till the end of your race. They will honour you for your wisdom and grace.

Believe me, Kandrigi, I grieve. You do not understand me, as I feared. I cannot save your race. I can only warn it. One of your race must reveal the coming destruction, for if I were to tell all, there would be madness and despair. One man must tell all men so that they can weigh the warning within human comprehension.

You are honoured, Kandrigi, for I honour you with this revelation...

Someone touched him. He felt a finger move over his palm and fingers. It said:

‘It is I, Hepteidon.’

Kandrigi pulled his hand away. In his head he heard:

It comes in time, Kandrigi. All are helpless against time.

Hepteidon took his hand again and moved his finger over it.

‘You have my sympathy, Kandrigi, in your affliction. I wish to help you.’

Again Kandrigi pulled his hand away. He had vowed not to speak.

It comes, Kandrigi, through cold eternal space.

Hepteidon spoke with his finger again. This time he held Kandrigi’s hand.

‘You must allow me to help you, Kandrigi, for I believe I can.’

Be warned, Kandrigi, and let your race be warned.

'Tell me what afflicts you, Kandrigi, and I will help you.’

I have seen it, Kandrigi. It is a great body, capable of great destruction.

‘What have you heard, Kandrigi? What have you seen?'

Let your race be warned, Kandrigi, for I grieve for them and their destiny.

‘Tell me of your vision, Kandrigi. Let me share your burden.’

Through time it comes from afar; in time it will cross the path of your earth.

‘There is a mystery here that I do not understand, Kandrigi. I have been told that I can help you, that I must help you, and though I am frightened I have come to ask you to tell me your secret.’ – Believe me, Kandrigi, believe me, I grieve for you and tour race. There is no stopping the body, for it goes beyond my power. I warn you, let your race be warned, so that they might prepare themselves for their destruction. – ‘If this secret concerns the Empire, then we, the priests of the Empire, have the right to know the secret and therefore you must reveal it to us. We claim the right to know and we will take steps to discover it if you do not tell us.'

Kandrigi felt his hand being released. He had vowed not to speak.

Kandrigi, it comes in time. It comes with time. Tell your people, that they might prepare. Nothing else can be done. I have seen it. Irresistible it is, plunging through dark immensities of space.

His hand was gripped again and the finger touched his fingers.

‘It is a sad state you are in, Kandrigi, without hearing or sight. Will you ever see your homeland again? Will you ever hear the tongue of your people again or see their welcome? How will you find your way back to your people again?’ Kandrigi heard this and wrinkled his face in pain. The grip on his hand tightened. – Be warned, Kandrigi, it will grow large in your sky and you will know then that you have been forewarned. – ‘Do you not wish to see the lands of your people again? Tell me your secret and your afflictions will fall away. Of this I am assured.'

You must tell them, Kandrigi, for I cannot. They will honour you till the end of your race. They will honour you for your wisdom and grace.

The hand that gripped his tightened more. ‘Tell me, old priest, what you know, or by the power of the Empire I will have it dragged from you.’

Believe me, Kandrigi, I grieve. You do not understand me, as I feared. I cannot save your race. I can only warn it. One of your race must reveal the coming destruction, for if I were to tell all, there would be madness and despair. One man must tell all men, so that they can weigh the warning within human comprehension.

His hand was freed and throat was clutched. Yet still the finger stabbed at his fingers.

‘I warn you, old mane I will have no pity for you. You do not know my rank, but believe me I can call on all the machines of torture to my aid in this quest. No man will stop me. Do you understand me?’

You are honoured, Kandrigi, for I honour you with this revelation.

There was a struggle and the figure that had lain across him was pulled away. Another hand touched him and spoke:

‘I regret this, Kandrigi. Hepteidon is young and headstrong. I, Lamla, will seek mercy for you. Sleep now, the sun sets.’

Kandrigi sighed. He had vowed not to speak.

 

Lamla drew the resentful Hepteidon away from the couch on which Kandrigi lay and led him to the far end of the room, to the wall that was covered by the star chart. The gold of the stars glowed in the candlelight.

'I will permit myself this blunt remark, Hepteidon: You are exceedingly tactless. This is a matter for generosity and goodwill, not threats and bullying.’

Hepteidon’s green eyes glittered.

‘I have little patience with the old fool.’

Lamla’s retort was quick. He was not inclined towards hiding his anger. ‘It is not your place to consider the demands on your patience. As you have admitted, this affair is not of your own making. You are an instrument of events, perhaps beings, far greater than you.’

Hepteidon snapped suddenly: ‘And I grow impatient with you, old priest. If it were not that you have been considerate and fatherly towards me, I would have you taken to the homeland of my family on the next boat, together with the story of your insolence during this day. There would be no fine talk then, for we have quick, efficient ways of dealing with such things... Do you doubt me?’

Lamla checked himself. He composed his face and spoke without emotion.

‘I will make my appeal to reason, Hepteidon, and I will be pleased if you listen to you.'

‘Very well, I will listen. You are wise even if you are insolent.’

‘This morning we discovered that Kandrigi would speak if the proper question was asked, did we not?’

‘That is true.’

‘You have now spoken to Kandrigi without success, therefore we are to presume that you have not discovered the question. Do you agree?’

‘I agree.’

‘Do you believe then that the question will be found in the tongs and whip?’

'He must be made to speak.’

Lamla betrayed a trace of his earlier anger. ‘Do you believe our puny instruments will persuade him to speak when whoever had the power to strike him deaf and blind could not?’

'He is a man. Many men have been made to speak.’

‘Is he only a man? Is there not a new spirit in him?'

‘That is superstition, Lamla.’

‘I made myself clear on that point this morning, Hepteidon, and I am not one to be expedient in my opinions on matters of this nature. It is not superstition. Consider the events of last night. The most sceptical of men is forced to admit that something unusual occurred. Do you not agree?’

Hepteidon shrugged. The unease of that morning was returning.

‘It could be a trick. It is not difficult for a man to pretend to be deaf and blind. Many beggars do it.’

‘For what end, Hepteidon?’

‘To demoralise us. Perhaps he is a spy for his people.'

Lamla allowed himself a tight smile.

‘And that is why you cried this morning?’

Hepteidon wrinkled his face in his discomfort.

‘I was unguarded and tired. Now I am impatient and I wish to resolve this so-called mystery as quickly as possible.’

Lamla's tone was caressing.

‘And you are no longer afraid.'

Hepteidon started and stepped away from Lamla’s side. ‘Fear? Who has spoken of fear? I have not.’

Lamla appeared resigned.

‘Very well, Hepteidon. Take Kandrigi to the Temple cellars and examine him, if it will please you. but remember that he wishes for death. He will have no fear of your instruments.'

Hepteidon had regained his composure.

‘That remains to be seen. No man wishes to die, Lamla. You must know that.’

Lamla smiled smoothly.

‘Again I ask you: Is he only a man?’

Hepteidon replied with arrogance.

‘Lamla, you begin to argue in circles. Your old brain grows tired.’

Lamla bowed slightly.

‘I ask the question a second time because you did not answer it the first time.’

‘Well, I will answer it now: He is only a man, for he could be nothing else, except mad.’

'Is he mad?’

‘I do not know yet.'

Lamla glanced at the supine figure of Kandrigi at the far end of the room.

'Now that you have answered this question, Hepteidon, may I continue my reasoning?’

‘You may. But do not detain me long. The sooner this old man is examined the better.’

‘What is the best method for formulating a question, Hepteidon? No, I will tell you. By knowing the answer.’

‘Come, Lamla. This is a trick of logic. I am not a tradesman to be fooled in this way.’

‘It is not. Consider that most questions seek confirmation rather than knowledge.'

‘There are questions that have no answers.'

‘Such questions are merely provocative and entail matters of belief rather than fact.’

‘Do you then know the answer?’

‘Not entirely. It concerns man, and may be of the greatest importance. It also concerns the new star. The evidence points to some connection.’

Hepteidon laughed outright. Lamla checked his anger.

‘Is that all, Lamla?’

‘It is a beginning.’

‘You are free to ponder on this question and answer. Meanwhile, I will take Kandrigi to the cellars and have him examined.

‘I cannot stop you, much to my sorrow. Will you promise me one thing, Hepteidon?’

‘Not to cause him too much pain?'

‘No. The pain will be meaningless to him. It is this: if I succeed in discovering the answer will you ask him the appropriate question?’

Hepteidon, excited now, sneered.

'Yes, yes, Lamla. If it gives you comfort, I promise. Now, let us put an end to this talk. Your reasoning becomes too subtle for my practical mind.’

Lamla bowed more formally this time.

‘As you wish. I will go up to the platform and study this star with Ma-Tin. Perhaps I will find the answer tonight.’

‘Perhaps.’

Hepteidon spun on his heels and walked briskly from the room to get priests to carry Kandrigi to the Temple.

Lamla crossed to Kandrigi’s side and spoke to him on his fingers:

‘It is I, Lamla, your friend. You have my pity. I will do what I can for you.'

 

Kandrigi was not warmed by the woolen blanket that covered him, his bowels were like ice.

It comes in time. All are helpless against time.

It comes through cold eternal space.

Be warned, let your race be warned.

I have seen it. It is a great body, capable of great destruction.

Let your race be warned, for I grieve for them and their destiny.

Through time it comes from afar; in time it will cross the path of your earth.

Believe me, believe me, I grieve for you and your race. There is no stopping the body, for it goes beyond my power. I warn you. Let your race be warned, so that they might prepare themselves for their destruction.

It comes in time. It comes with time. Tell your people, that they might prepare. Nothing else can be done. I have seen it. Irresistible it is, plunging through dark immensities of space.

Be warned, it will grow large in tour sky and you will know then that you have been forewarned.

You must tell them, for I cannot. They will honour you till the end of your race. They will honour you for your wisdom and grace.

Believe me, I grieve. You do not understand me, as I feared. I cannot save your race, I can only warn it. But one of the race must reveal the coming destruction, for if I were to tell all, there would be madness and despair. One man must tell all men, so that they can weigh the warning within human comprehension.

You are honoured, for I honour you with this revelation.

Kandrigi felt himself being lifted from the couch.

I have vowed not to speak.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Korkungal's chamber in the watch-tower was in almost total darkness. The only light was a faint glow of the White Light that oozily penetrated the thick curtain.

Korkungal did not know how long he had lain on the floor near his couch, nor did he care. Klimbah had carried Harmesh away after the fight and had completely ignored him. He did not care about that either. He had been too preoccupied with struggling against the terrible things that attacked him when he collapsed upon the unconscious Harmesh. He had known of the existence of these monsters, they had been the subject of many childhood stories, but he had never before been confronted by them in this way. He had seen them before, certainly; he had seen them many times on the eve of battles, hovering at the edge of vision, always watching for the opportunity to strike and carry off their victims to their horrifying world. But he had managed to spite them by being victorious always in battles and had laughed at them, exulting in his spite, in the manner of a warrior, taunting them with his love of life, of food and drink, of woman. He had swaggered before their memory at the victory feast, condescending as he granted them the vanquished, when secretly he had been really mustering a great number of slain enemies for them in order to placate their desire for him. But they were not to be placated, for their appetite was insatiable – they were the devourers of all life. It was a battle without compromise.

Out of the wall of the Temple had come the Beasts, their breath of fire, their talons tense for tearing: their fire burned but did not scorch; their talons tore but did not wound. From out of the ground came the green-eyed snakes, mouths agap, fangs poised, tongues flickering in anticipation. They wriggled forward, eager but cowardly, for they retreated when sighted. Their poison twisted the bowels and stiffened the neck, but did not kill. From the sky, from the sun, flew down the Sons of the Otherworld. Their skin was scaly and red. They had the heads of animals; all were sturdy and virile, livid with the intention of slaughter, gloating at the prospect of blood. They were armed with axes and knives, which shone with fresh blood, as though they passed from killing to killing without ceasing through all time. And yet their weapons did not kill, though they sank a thousand times into the flesh of their victims. And Korkungal had known this as he struggled with his will against them. Let a hundred of them fail upon his exhausted body and they would leave no mark. But this knowledge did not lessen the terror they struck into Korkungal's heart. He must struggle against them, for if he did not, if he surrendered his will to them, his very life would ebb away and he would pass into their world, where, eternally helpless, he would twist and scream as the talons that did not wound tore him, and the poison that did not kill convulsed him. He would burn, he would be wracked, torn, consumed in a world without time, while yet he remained whole and conscious. He knew this was possible, for he had seen warriors suffer like this, a living screaming terror that even death could not end...

The sun was low in the western sky, the common hidden in the shadow of the Temple, when he finally came back to himself. He had rolled onto his back and stared up at the turquoise sky, a good colour to return to, and had cried out of relief and gratitude, the tears flowing freely across his cheeks and into his hair. The ground was solid and cool under him, he loved it for its persevering density, and a breeze eddied about his trembling body. The city was quiet, the artisans finished their labour for the day, the warehouses empty of their labourers and the great gate in the wall through which the porters filed endlessly closed for the night. Korkungal thought these last thoughts and was surprised – he would not normally consider the doings of ordinary men, slaves, worthy of his attention. His love of life was all-embracing, all-consuming.

He breathed deeply and felt the torpor fade from his sinews. his joy was overwhelming. He did not triumph, nor did he taunt or swagger. No enemy had been vanquished, no battle won. There would be no celebration this night. He had survived a contest with a younger man armed with superior weapons, that was all.

He was getting old, but he was with himself now and was content.

Then he remembered the White Light and had pushed himself to his feet. He stared down at the shattered spear and the buckled shield and felt, not shame, but acute embarrassment. The contest had grown out of the pride of an older warrior and the arrogance of youth, false and wasteful grounds for a killing. He thought of Harmesh with tenderness, a spoiled youth, not his own man: he had almost killed him today and perhaps he would have to kill him some day in the future.

He walked slowly to the watch-tower, his limbs aching, his throat dry, his hands hanging limply at his sides. No one came to greet him with water or food; no one offered to rub his tired body with oils. He climbed the winding stairs of the watch-tower and stumbled into his chamber. With a sigh he collapsed on to the floor and slept...

Korkungal did not know how long he had lain on the stone floor; nor did he care. Night had come on and the chamber was dark, except for the faint glow at the window. He moved, and grunted because of the stiffness of his limbs. He pushed himself into a sitting position. His hands were strangely numb, his wrists and arms tingling. His whole body shivered with cold. He put his head between his knees.

Ah, he lamented for himself in his loneliness, it is a terrible thing to grow old.

His pity was sweet and he felt less lonely.

Now he took a deep breath and endured the pain as he stood on his feet. His head went hot and he swayed dizzily.

'You fought well today, Warrior of the Briga.’

Korkungal almost fell over. This dizziness was gone in an instant and was replaced by tremendous shudderings.

‘You were told you had a day of great doings before you, were you not?’

Again Korkungal shuddered. He thought he was dead and in the hereafter. He tried to speak but no words came. He swallowed and tried again.

‘Who speaks?’

‘It is I, Agnanna, the maid.’

‘Where am I?'

‘In your chamber in the watch-tower of the Ka, such being the name they use now. Long ago, it was called the Tower of Bil-La. It was once the Keep of a mighty tribe, now alas gone, their blood mixed through all the tribes of the world...’

‘Where are you?

‘Sitting on your couch. I have waited while you slept, thinking it wiser not to wake you. But you have slept a long time, Korkungal...'

‘Why have you come? Who has sent you?’

‘Do you now remember the promise this morning? You were eager then with anticipation.’

‘Are you Chorsa, the woman at the pond?'

'I am not.’

‘Are you her daughter?' There was a merry laugh.

‘I am not, Korkungal.'

'Her sister?’

‘Neither her sister.’

‘Her niece?’

'No, not her niece. Oh, Korkungal, you ask so many questions! You would have difficulty in understanding how Chorsa and I are related.’

‘Why did Chorsa not come?’

There was a rustle of clothing.

'Oh, Korkungal, you are a tenacious man! All these questions! Be satisfied that I have come and ask me no more questions... Now, sit on the couch while I run and get candles.

He caught a fleeting glimpse of movement and heard the pad of bare feet on stone. In a moment he saw a glow on the stairs and she returned bearing a candle in each hand. She pushed them into sockets in the wall above the couch.

'I have brought food and drink, and ointments to ease your pain. Great Warrior.'

She went and pulled a bundle from a shadowed spot near the window. Korkungal watched her. She seemed little more than a child and her dark skin was lighter than that of the other brown-skinned people he had seen in the Ka. It was pleasant to look at her, though it was true that her garments concealed her natural shape. She wore a cloak of yellow-dyed wool bordered with stars of gold and underneath that a plain vestment of black-dyed linen which fell without dent from her neck to the floor. Her eyes were hazel and lustrous, made vivid by bands of a black cosmetic painted around them. The rest of her oval face was also heavily made up: carmine lips, rouged cheeks and throat, all liberally dusted with a coarse-grained white powder. Her hair was long and straight, but brittle and badly split at the ends; it was a woody brown, unevenly tinted with a lighter brown.

She opened the bundle and from it took a small ewer and a small howl. She poured a white fluid and handed the bowl up to Korkungal.

‘Drink this, Warrior. It is milk and honey, good foods that will refresh you. You are tired in body and spirit, no doubt, for it was a difficult task that you surmounted today.'

Korkungal drank the sweet, thick fluid with little formality and braced himself contentedly afterwards. Agnanna shook her head in approval.

‘See? It is good. Soon the contentment of the cow and the peace of the flower will flow through you. Now, I would wash you first, but I think, looking at you, that you would not have the patience for it, so instead I will give you food. It will make you content and restful and better disposed to the enjoyment of the service of cleansing.

She gave him a wooden platter piled with white bread, fish and fruit. Korkungal ate ravenously, his whole being concentrated upon the food. Goodwill and ease gradually took the place of his earlier loneliness and pain. Agnanna stood back and watched him eat. She chattered and gesticulated all the while, and such was the force of all her nodding and smiling and talking that particles of powder became detached from her face and fell like a gentle snow upon her cloak and vestment.

‘I am adamant in this matter of food, Korkungal. Good food partakes of the goodness and beauty of the earth and when a man eats he partakes in this goodness and beauty. Some believe that they merely satisfy an appetite, which they disdain and treat economically because it is an instinct. They will pick at stale bread and dried fruit and believe that they are wise, and rise from their meal filled with a curious complacence. Ha! They are fools and you may be sure that they waste the rest of the day in telling themselves that the pangs in their bellies and in their souls are signs of a rational mortification. They will call it discipline and their bodies will shrivel and their minds will grow feverish for the want of nourishment.

'But look at the man who understands his appetites. He comes to his meals rubbing his hands, preparing himself for a happy event. He knows that beyond the need to eat there rises the pleasure and contentment in satisfying an appetite and that these superfluous feelings exalt him.

‘It amazes me, Korkungal, that men will spite themselves in the way that many do. Consider the priests. They but nibble for need’s sake, and then stare miserably out of windows or into dark corners of rooms. I do not understand their denial, for they murder life. I can tell you that once upon a time there lived a great people in this region, when it was covered by thick vegetation and all the fruits of the world grew in natural abundance, who offered up a prodigality of gladness and happiness each day. Ah! They were a blessed race! But the land changed and it grew dry and barren, and this people went away and mingled throughout the world. Oh, they were searched for, but they are now finally all gone and commingled. Do not think that I am unhappy, though it is true that I regretted their passing. I am a patient girl, and I know that there have been other peoples here to match their happy spirit, and know that others will come in time.

‘But these Merura and their confederation of races give me no pleasure, though I am constantly among them with advice and encouragement. And as for their Temple, that great barn of stone, and their music, sure they have me circumscribed and anticipated to such an extent that I fear to listen to it...’

Korkungal had finished eating and was staring at Agnanna with vague expectancy. She recollected herself and looked closely at him.

‘Do you wish for more, Korkungal?’ Already she was bent over her bundle.

‘No, I am content.'

'I am glad to hear it. Take your armour and tunic off and lie on the couch. I will serve you tonight as it is proper to serve a victorious warrior.’ She began to lay out jars and vials on the floor. ‘It does not surprise me that no one came to serve you when your fighting was done. Priests do not think of these things. They do not understand that warriors are solitary men. They themselves have many servants and cooks and other classes to supply their needs, and because of this they believe that man is self-sufficient...'

Because of his numb hands, Korkungal could not undo his scabbard belt. The girl leaped to help him, her small hands darting expertly between his. She then removed his breastplate and pulled his tunic over his head, too intent upon this to notice Korkungal’s hisses of pain as she forced him to stretch his arms.

‘Lie out now, Warrior. I will clean and anoint your tired body, for I can well believe that it is sore and stiff. See, your skin is red here, white there – it is dry and unsupple. It is a sad thing to see you in this state. In your own land, I know, your kin would have sent their women to you, to see to all your requirements. But here, in this Ka, the priests know no better than to send two fools to serve you. Do not let it surprise you, Korkungal, that they should do this. It is typical of them. They will sing and pray to the heavens till they are out of their wits, and engage in logic that cannot call an apple an apple, nor a man a man, but which spins like a top and cause them to tremble with love for their own wisdom...’

She threw off her cloak and pushed up the sleeves of her vestment above her elbows. From a jar she poured a scented oil into her cupped hand and began to rub it into the flesh of his arm.

Korkungal could no longer remember the events of that day, though many momentous things had happened to him. Nor did he want to remember. He watched Agnanna. Her hair had fallen over her face and it trailed on his skin. Her voluminous vestment no longer concealed her bent form.

And Korkungal could not conceal his pleasure.

Agnanna saw this. She looked frankly at him and said with a merry laugh:

‘Ha! You are not so tired after all, Warrior, are you?'

Korkungal chuckled and shook his body. He knew nothing else but his contentment.

Agnanna laughed again. She bent over him and worked the oil into his broad chest, growing breathless with the exertion.

‘Oh, Korkungal,’ she panted, ‘I have not begun to tell you what these priests do not know!'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

The dawn found Korkungal still on his couch, sweet scented and asleep. The sun rose and the Ka came alive as it did every morning and yet Korkungal slept. The murmur of work grew into a clatter and a babble, and this did not disturb him.

The visitor who entered his chamber at mid-morning was surprised to find it in twilight, the curtain still drawn. He looked about him with pursed lips, scratched the back of his head, sniffed, shrugged, and sat on his heels beside the couch. Within a few minutes he was asleep, his head resting on his fists, overcome by the heat in the dark room.

When Korkungal did finally awaken, around noon, he blinked, grunted, and sat bolt upright. He looked about him, saw nothing in the dark, and swung off the couch, stumbling because his legs were stiff, and pulled the curtain from the window. The sunlight was intense, and Korkungal fell back blinking furiously.

These actions had been automatic, Korkungal was still without memory. But when he looked about the chamber and saw the crouched figure, he started violently and gave a hoarse shout. The strangeness of the stranger was appropriate, for Korkungal was beginning to remember all the strange things that he had experienced since he had come to the Ka. He staggered forward, intending to grab the stranger and drag him to his feet, so that he might either beat him or question him. Instead, he floundered down on to the couch and did no more than stare at the now awakened stranger, who returned his stare.

Moments passed. Korkungal heard the babble of the artisans' quarter and intermingled with it the murmur of the sacred music of the Temple. As he heard this he remembered many things. And the things he remembered made him jump to his feet and shout at the stranger:

‘Who are you?’

There was little of the authority of the warrior in the question, for Korkungal sensed that he was no longer a warrior. He did not know what he was because he no longer knew where he was in the orders of creation.

The stranger smiled hesitantly, an ingratiating smile, a plausible smile.

‘I am Ferlung, the navigator, Captain of the Ships of the Ka.’

‘Why are you here? What business have you here?’

The stranger pushed himself to his feet with deliberate slowness. When he raised his head again his smile was more certain.

‘I have been sent to keep you company and to show you the Ka. They say you are interested in it.’

Ferlung had light, wavy hair, receding from his temples and clipped short. His face was broad and jowled, burnt red by the sun. He wore a jerkin of brown leather, worn and creased, knee-length trews of soiled linen, and a pair of new buskins, solidly constructed and finely decorated. Around his neck hung a medallion of silver.

‘Your accent is strange, Captain of the Ships. You do not belong to this place.’

‘No, Captain of Military Advice, I do not.’

‘Why do you call me captain? I am Korkungal of the Briga, a King's Warrior among them.’

Ferlung grinned disarmingly.

‘Like me, you are a Captain in this place.’

‘I remember now. It means nothing.'

‘Oh, but it does, Captain, for if it was meaningless you would not have it.’

'I don’t understand you.’

‘It is not important.’

'In that case, do not address me as Captain, Captain.'

‘I must, Captain. For on one hand you have been made a Captain by the ruler of the Ka, and on the other you insist upon addressing me as Captain.’

‘But you are a Captain. You are Captain of the Ships, which I assume is an important post among those of your trade.

‘I can apply the same argument in your case, Captain.'

‘The Ka has no defenders that I know of that are in need of training.’

Ferlung laughed.

‘Well, Captain, the Ka has no ships?’

‘This is strange, Captain. We are Captains of nothing, it seems.’

‘Indeed, Captain. And it is an occupation that suits my temperament.’

‘You are not ashamed of being idle, Captain?’

‘I do not think about it. It is better to be a Captain of non-existent ships than no one in charge of nothing in this Ka.’

‘Why do you not leave.'

‘I am forbidden.’

‘Are you a prisoner? Or a hostage?'

‘No. I have my responsibilities to the ruler of the Ka.’

‘But your trade as a navigator is surely more useful to the Ka.’

'There are no ships.'

‘But ships come and go every day.’

‘They do not belong to this city.’

‘Do these ships not need navigators? I am surprised they are not eager to employ you.’

'That is true. But I cannot leave here. I have duties and responsibilities.’

‘It is all very strange, Captain''

'Surely not, Captain. Your own situation as Captain of Advice to non-existent Defenders will explain it to you.'

‘I have not been here long, Captain.’

‘Then you will understand in time, Captain.’

Korkungal scratched his head.

‘Are you unhappy, Captain?’

‘No, I am not unhappy, Captain. I have no cause for unhappiness here... Are you happy, Captain?'

‘I am. I must admit this, Captain, though I can find no cause for it.'

‘Then do not complain, Captain. You want for nothing here and you have the respect of the people.’

It was then that Korkungal realised that he was naked. He jumped to his feet and searched for his tunic, and found it neatly folded on top of his equally neatly folded cloak on the floor beside the head of the couch. He pulled it on and slipped his feet into his sandals, which lay beside his folded clothes.

'Do not forget your emblem of rank, Captain.' Ferlung was sitting on the edge of the couch, arms folded. ‘It is difficult to remember it in the beginning, but with the passing of time you will not be able to remove it. I, for instance, never take it off.’

Dressed, Korkungal found his sword hanging from two pegs on the wall. The scabbard and the belt hung below it.

‘You will not need your weapons, Captain. I can assure you of that.’

‘I am a military captain, Captain''

‘And I am a Captain of Ships, yet I do not carry the instruments of my trade with me.’

Korkungal looked about him. Nearby, his breastplate and helmet hung on pegs.

'I have always carried weapons, Captain.’

‘Where is the enemy, Captain? There is only peace in this Ka.’

‘Very well, Captain, I will accept your advice.'

‘Do not worry, Captain. Your badge of rank will suffice among the merchants and tradesmen. If you are ready, we will go. I think we should eat first – I do not think you have eaten this day.’

‘I have not, Captain.’

Ferlung jumped to his feet, flexed his shoulders and led the way down. Once out on the common he took a deep, appreciative breath, thrust his hands behind his back and began to walk slowly towards the cluster of wattled houses that was the quarter of the artisans.

Korkungal had turned towards the eating place of the priests and had hesitated when he saw Ferlung go off in the opposite direction. About to call him, he changed his mind and hurried to catch him up. He measured his pace to his and also thrust his hands behind his back.

They strolled into the narrow streets of the quarter. The noise was very great and the street was thronged with people of all ages, who took the trouble not to obstruct the progress of the two pale-skinned officers of the Ka.

Korkungal very quickly realised that he did not have to take much notice of the people about him. As Ferlung remarked, the tradesmen and their families were quite willing to do it for them. And this was true, for he heard them anxiously chiding each other in their own tongue to watch out.

Once the two men were settled into their walk, Ferlung inclined his head and said in a low voice:

‘You are from the north, I believe.'

‘Yes. From beyond the Grasslands.’

‘On the coast?’

‘Within sight of it.’

‘A dangerous coast. It is impossible to trade along it because of pirates.'

‘Yes. They raid us year in year out.’

‘A great nuisance. There is a coastline over a month’s sailing long which we could not cover. I don’t know how many times my people have taken ships up on to the Northern Sea and tried to clear it for trading.’

‘Oh, we have learned to live with it. As you say, they are a nuisance more than anything else. But tell me, don’t your people trade on the Inland '

'Yes, mostly along the western shores. The competition is pretty strong. A confederation in the east, who call themselves the Empire of the Dawn, control most of the sea and its hinterland east of us. We expanded into the Western Sea, only to come up against this Empire. I was taken prisoner during a battle between two of our ships and a fleet of theirs. That is how I came here...’

They now entered a broader street flanked by tall warehouses. It was quieter here. Korkungal happened to glance to his right. A woman sat on a low stool by a door combing the hair of a young girl. Korkungal stared hard at her. It was Chorsa, the woman who had spoken to him at the pond.

He grasped Ferlung's arm and asked:

‘Do you know that woman?’

‘She is the wife of the merchant Tograt. Why do you ask?’

‘What is her name?’

‘I am not sure. I think it is Pilha. Do you know her?’

‘She gave me water to drink one morning at the pond''

‘Do you wish to talk to her?’

Ferlung walked back to the woman, Korkungal on his heels. He bowed slightly to her and spoke in a very formal voice, fluent in the tongue of the Ka. The woman looked up, freezing in the act of combing the girl’s hair. She nodded. Ferlung spoke again, smiling warmly. He pointed to Korkungal, who stepped forward.

‘Are you the woman who gave me water to drink at the pond?’

The woman’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. Ferlung translated for him. The woman seemed to grow even more puzzled.

‘Are you sure this is the woman, Captain?’ Ferlung asked.

‘Yes, I am certain, Captain.'

‘Then she seems not to remember. She is confused.'

‘Nevertheless thank her for me.’

Ferlung spoke and the woman’s expression changed to suspicion. She stood up and began to retreat towards the door. Ferlung bowed and brought Korkungal away with him.

‘Hardly the woman to be so forward, Captain,' Ferlung said as they continued down the street.

‘I agree, Captain. I cannot explain it. Tell me, do you know a woman similar in appearance to the one we have just spoken to, who is called Chorsa?'

‘Chorsa? Is this the name you were given at the pond?’

‘Chorsa? It rings a bell, but it is not the name of any woman in the Ka,' Ferlung grinned, ‘at least, not the name of any of the forward women.'

They walked on, hands behind backs, till they came to the main thoroughfare, near the gate, where Ferlung pointed to a low building and then led Korkungal across to it.

It was a place for eating and drinking, at this time of day uncrowded.

'I live here, Captain,' Ferlung said as he gave a general nod to the customers.

It was small and dark, smelling of food and grease. Forms and low sturdy tables were set along the walls. Most of the customers were men, porters and warehousemen taking a break from their work. There was only one woman to be seen and when she looked up to see who had darkened the doorway, Korkungal got a second shock. It was Agnanna, the girl who had come to him the previous night.

Korkungal followed Ferlung to a table at the far side of the room. An elderly man appeared from the back of the building and Ferlung spoke to him in the language of the Ka, apparently ordering food and drink. When the old man was gone, Korkungal twitched his companion's jerkin and asked:

‘Who is that girl over there?’

Ferlung raised his brows, which wrinkled his forehead.

‘Do you know her too?’

‘What is her name?’

‘Oh, that is Sora. Where did you meet her? She hardly ever leaves the place, except to go with one of the men.'

Korkungal would not tell him. For an instant it seemed as though a curtain had been drawn and he had seen behind it a world confused and contradictory beyond the wildest imagining of men. Two women had come to him, had been sent to him, with strange names and frank proposals, and he had seen these two women in the Ka, one a respectable wife and mother, the other a common prostitute, both with different names. Korkungal was sure it had happened, these woman had come to him, and yet seeing them this day contradicted his memories. He felt a great agitation sweep over him and he became frightened – then it vanished and he felt that it was not important.

He was happy again.

The food was brought, mostly meat, and bowls of a golden brew laid by their hands. Ferlung set to eating with relish. Korkungal ate with restraint. When they had eaten, he asked Ferlung:

‘Are you sure her name is not Agnanna?'

‘Agnanna? No, it is not. I have told you it is Sora. I am not mistaken in this, Captain, for I know her well.’ He grinned hugely.

‘Do you know anyone with this name?’

‘No. But the name itself is familiar. Agnanna, Agnanna. Now I remember.’ He stood up and shouted a name at the top of his voice. Nobody but the girl, Sora, looked up. Ferlung called again and this time there was a movement in the shadows beside the door and a thin old man shambled into the light. Ferlung called him and waved his arm impatiently.

Sitting down, he explained to Korkungal:

'This old codger is Uöos, the storyteller. I am sure I have heard him mention the names Chorsa and Agnanna in the course of his eternal storytelling.'

The old man leaned on their table and stared down at then with bright, yellowed eyes.

‘It is you, Captain,’ he said raspingly. ‘What do you want with me? I was taking a short nap. I cannot get sleep when this place is crowded and it is always crowded except for this short while in the afternoon. Though I am old, I still need rest, a fact that everyone constantly overlooks... What do you wish to hear? Tell me, and I will prepare it in my mind. I must do this for my wits are scattered and grow more scattered with each passing day. Meanwhile, will you be so good as to order me something to drink. My throat, it hurts constantly. It is my age, you see: one thing that time cannot cure.’

‘I will get you drink, and in return I want you to answer a few questions. Sit here by my side, Uöos.’

The old man did what he was told and a large bowl of beer was brought to him. Korkungal leaned over to Ferlung and whispered:

‘He speaks our tongue.'

‘Yes. I think he learned it from me, though I am not sure how. Since the day he arrived here he has spoken to me in my language.'

The old man bent close to them and said:

‘I can speak every tongue, Korkungal, and I can see everything.’

Korkungal drew back.

‘You know my name? How is that?’

The old man laughed. ‘I told you I know everything.’

Ferlung interrupted: ‘Do not take him seriously, Captain. He has heard it mentioned in the Ka, that is all. There is not much that he misses. Nor should you take his boastings seriously – he is old, too old, perhaps, for sanity.’

The old man laughed again. 'What do you know of age and sanity, Ferlung the Navigator?’

Ferlung pressed his lips together in anger and then smiled broadly and said:

‘No matter, Uöos. We have not come to argue with you. I wish only to ask you a question.'

The old man had taken the bowl to his lips and they had to wait until he drained it. He wiped his mouth with his bony hand.

'Well, what is your question?’

‘Tell me who Chorsa and Agnanna are.’

The old man's eyes lit up and settled on Korkungal.

‘Do you not know, Korkungal?'

Korkungal shrank away from the old man's stare.

‘No. I do not.'

'Ah, you do, Korkungal. And what you do not know I cannot tell you.'

Ferlung looked closely from Korkungal to Uöos and back again.

‘What does he mean, Captain? I confess that his riddles often pass beyond my understanding,‘ he said.

‘I do not know,' Korkungal replied. Then he said to Uöos: 'I do not understand you, old man. You say you know everything.'

The old man replied in an insinuating tone that disquieted Korkungal:

‘I know everything that can be known, Korkungal. What I do not know cannot be known.’

Ferlung suddenly raised his head. A bell was ringing somewhere out in the Ka.

‘I must go now, Captain,’ he said, rising and pushing past Uöos. ‘The ships of the Imperial Army are in sight. I must go to the beach. Will you come? It will interest you.’

Korkungal jumped up, glad to get away, and followed Ferlung.

‘Come again, Korkungal,' Uöos called after him, 'and I will tell you a story. A true story of long ago.’

Neither Korkungal nor Ferlung had touched his drink and the story teller took advantage of this by draining their bowls of beer.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Going through the gate of the Ka, Korkungal remarked that there was no guard.

'Why should there be a guard, Captain? No one comes through here but porters, merchants and sailors,' Ferlung replied.

Both walked at a faster pace this time, their arms swinging. The broad path curved away down to the as yet concealed beach.

‘I think I would have a guard on the gate.’

‘Oh, Captain, you must learn your duties. You are the adviser of the defenders. It is not your task to dispose them. Besides, there are no soldiers in the Ka.’

‘There are the two who live in the watch-tower.'

‘The youth and his servant?’ Ferlung laughed. ‘They are guests of the Ruler, no more. The youth is exiled here from the far end of the Empire. It seems he tried to usurp his brother, who rules a great city on the islands where the sun is hottest.’

Korkungal sighed. Again he had been mistaken; yet his memory could not be untrue. The agitation rose in him again. He looked about the rolling grassland and the pacific sea and felt it subside. He became happy.

They passed a file of sweating porters carrying great bundles and boxes. Each porter lowered his eyes and moved aside to let them pass. The path curved down and slowly the beach came into view. The beach was short, bounded on both sides by cliffs that extended into the sea to become the protecting heads of the perfectly formed bay. On the head to the right was situated the observatory tower, the Khumsung, bare and alone outside the white wall of the Ka. The city itself, of which only the uppermost part of the seaward ramparts could be seen, was a brilliant inert thing: it was hard to believe that many men, women and children lived out their lives there.

A scattering of ships rode in the bay, of all sizes: some with masts and rows of long oars, others no more than enlarged canoes powered by the labour of slaves. Skiffs and rafts plied between them and the beach, where groups of porters collected while awaiting work. For all the crowding of the beach and bay, it was quiet, except for the occasional shout or cry – which, however, was quickly sucked away into the wide hemisphere of clear blue sky.

But the attention of Korkungal and Ferlung was concentrated upon the three military ships. Two were already at anchor, while the third, the smallest, had edged past them and was gliding evenly through the swell towards the beach, its oars rising and dipping in unison. The two larger ships had only just anchored, lying out in the northern part of the bay, away from the merchant shipping. Their huge white sails hung unfurled, flapping aimlessly in the breeze, and their oars jutted out at rest, still wet and glinting in the sunlight.

Ferlung nodded with satisfaction.

‘They carry soldiers,’ he whispered confidentially to Korkungal. ‘However, I do not think they will stay here for long. See, the sails have not been furled nor the oars shipped. I think they will take on provisions. It is not often that such ships come here. I myself have seen them only once before... Be sure of this, Captain, there is war in the making in some nearby land.

‘These ships must interest you, Captain, for you are a military man. Long ago, the Empire perfected the science of moving large armies across the seas of the earth. A necessary thing: the Empire is spread throughout many lands and separated by vast stretches of ocean, and from time to time she is threatened by raiders and invaders. To maintain standing armies in each land and island would be beyond the resources of the Empire, so she instead has centred large armies in certain places, in homelands of their own where they live and breed, support themselves, manufacture arms and train endlessly. When there is danger, the nearest military city is instructed to embark a sufficient number of men to deal with it.’

The small military ship struck the seabed and swung about until it was parallel with the beach. A canoe went out to it and uniformed men descended into it. A column of priests, in ranks of two, came down the beach.

Ferlung rubbed his chin.

‘The soldiers may bring instructions for the Ka, Captain,’ he said, his voice lower this time. ‘Perhaps they also seek information from the priests. If this is the case, then they must be sailing north. I do not see the reason for this. North of us is the Unknown Land, or the Land of Fire, as some call it, which is inhabitated only by a few savages. What profit is there in making war against them?’

Three soldiers stepped on to the beach and walked across the tidal sands in the direction of the priests. Two figures detached themselves from the group, one robed in black and the other in yellow, and went down to meet the soldiers.

‘It is the High priest, Captain,’ Ferlung whispered. 'It is indeed important. Rarely does the High priest leave his quarters. I do not recognise his companion, but he wears the robe of the observatory priests. Perhaps he is to give information on the stars above the northern seas for the purpose of navigation.'

The soldiers and the two priests bowed low to each other and drew close in conversation. Lines of porters filed to and fro, on and off the beach, without taking the slightest notice of this consulting group: the world carried on as normal around them.

‘Why do they go north?’ Ferlung mused. ‘What is there for them? For generations my people have awaited the war that must be fought between them and the Empire. Now, instead of going east into my homeland, they sail north into empty and useless lands...’

He stopped suddenly and gripped Korkungal’s elbow.

‘The High Priest,’ he hissed excitedly, ‘he points in our direction, Captain. This is significant. He speaks of us to the soldiers. Perhaps we are to be involved in this mission.'

Korkungal saw that the High Priest had in fact gestured in their general direction and that the soldiers had turned and looked at them.

Ferlung shook Korkungal more fiercely.

‘Let us go forward, Captain,’ he said, trying to sound dignified, but without much success. ‘It might be that they will wish to speak to us.’ Korkungal hesitated, so Ferlung added testily: ‘Come quickly, Captain, for it is our duty to go when we are called.’

Korkungal allowed himself to be drawn forward across the sand. Ferlung at first trotted eagerly, but as they came closer he slowed to a walk, then to a shuffle and finally halted twenty paces from the group. He stared at the priests and soldiers, then out to sea and then at Korkungal. He coughed and spoke very slowly:

‘We will wait here, Captain, until the moment the High Priest requires us. It would not do to rush up and interfere with their talk, which, you may be assured, is of the greatest importance to the well-being of the Empire and our Ka.’

The priest in the yellow robe raised his head and looked over the High Priest's back at them. His impassive face offered them no encouragement. Ferlung took one step back and pulled Korkungal with him.

‘Not yet, Captain,' he muttered hastily. ‘We are not yet required. I tell you, Captain, it is hard at times to know rightly what these priests want of a man. You must always watch them closely and be accurate in interpreting their nods and stares. If you approach them when you are not wanted or remain at a distance when you are, then they will glower at you and put all the blame on you. They will not contemplate the possibility that they might be at fault.'

One of the conferring soldiers noticed the priest's distraction and he too looked over at Ferlung and Korkungal. A second soldier, the leader of the military, looked up. Ferlung was undecided as to what he should do, go forward or fall back. The High Priest, realising he had lost their attention, turned to see what diverted them. His face was severe. Ferlung squeezed Korkungal’s arm and nodded with disarming eagerness. The High Priest spoke to his companion. The yellow-robed priest compressed his lips and lifted his shoulders in the merest shrug. It was only when the High Priest clenched his thin hand that Ferlung came to understand that not only was he not required by the priests but that his presence was fast becoming an intolerable nuisance. He strengthened his hold on Korkungal’s arm and backed away.

When they were half the length of the beach away, Ferlung released Korkungal and rubbed his face vigorously with his two palms.

‘That incident is a good example of what I was saying about the priests, Captain,’ he said loudly, his voice muffled behind his hands. ‘You see now how difficult it is to get good clear instructions from them. In the beginning I believed they required our presence at their conference, and with good reason, for am I not a man of the sea and you a soldier? Are we not better suited to advising a floating army than these priests, who spend all their lives behind the walls of their Temple? But when we come closer, so that we might instantly be consulted, we discover to our vexation that we do no more than disturb them in their talk. Tell me, Captain, what do you make of it all?’

Korkungal was staring up at the Ka, his brows shielding his eyes from the sun. The wall, brilliantly white in the sunlight, aroused in him a peculiar fascination. His voice was slurred as he replied to the Navigator:

‘I must confess, Captain, that I am too inexperienced in the ways of the Ka and its priests to judge one way or the other. And for my part, there is little I could tell these sea-soldiers. I know nothing of the sea.’

The High Priest bowed to the soldiers and walked slowly to join the huddle of priests. They formed themselves into a procession and left the beach. The yellow-robed priest remained with the soldiers for a while longer, then he bowed to them and walked up the path to the Ka alone, his hands buried in his robe.

Ferlung sighed hugely. He gave a final glance at the soldiers, he laid a hand on Korkungal’s shoulder and said:

'Let us, too, return to the Ka, Captain. We have no more business here.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Lamla, High Priest of the Ka, sat on a low stool in a corner of the Temple. It was dark here, but that did not matter: the Temple was totally bare. The edges of his mind were prickled by the sound of low chanting. Beautiful, harmonious, pathetic and exalting though it was, Lamla was little moved. The core of his mind, all his wisdom and experience, was engaged on a problem.

What is the question? he asked himself once again. He posed this question whenever he felt the oncoming of vertigo as his brain laboured to exhaustion against the outer walls of his incomprehension. The question asked, he felt his mind clear – and there, just beyond his grasp, he saw the answer. He knew the answer, he had always known the answer – perhaps he had been born knowing it – and yet no amount of logic and reason could bring it into the light of consciousness.

His tired brain began its hunt once again. He recalled the night on the Khumsung, his conversations with Hepteidon. Many clues had been unravelled concerning Kandrigi’s experiences. Taking only the signs that were evident to all men, as was proper, and ignoring the speculations concerning their origins, thus evading the charges of credulity and superstition, it was logically veritable to say that something had happened to Kandrigi. Both Hepteidon and Ma-Tin had conceded this.

But neither would concede much more than that.

He heard the dull thud of leather striking stone, its echoes whispered all about him, and he saw the smoky contrast of yellow loom out of the dark. Purposively, Hepteidon walked directly towards him.

'I see you, my Lord Priest,' Hepteidon said in a subdued tone, which nevertheless seemed to boom in all quarters of the massive building.

Lamla forced his attention outwards, suffering with resigned anticipation the momentary giddiness as he crossed the threshold between the inward and outward worlds. He did not rise.

‘I greet you, my son,' he intoned without emotion. Hepteidon stood over his High Priest and stared down with mixed feelings of anger and fear.

'I have searched many places for you, Lamla,' he said, ‘thinking you might have instructions for me.’

‘In what regard, Hepteidon?' Lamla countered without looking up. ‘There are many duties and missions about which you might be instructed. Do you have a specific duty or mission in view?’

He heard Hepteidon hiss.

‘There is an event of which both of us are well aware, Lamla,’ he retorted, thinly disguising his anger, ‘which is of the highest importance to the Empire. I have reason to believe that I will take a leading position in a mission connected with this event.’

Lamla did not reply immediately. He let the young priest's temper rise and waited to see if he would lose self-control.

‘Lamla!’ Hepteidon finally burst out. ‘You are making fun of me! I swear that I will throttle you if you do not answer me.’

Lamla raised his head. He knew that Hepteidon would not see his thin smile in the gloom.

‘Which event do you refer to, Hepteidon?’ he asked, letting his voice lilt with humour. ‘More than one great thing has happened in the Ka in recent days.’

Hepteidon bent and brought his red face close to Lamla’s.

‘The ships, Lamla,’ he hissed, not caring that his spittle spattered Lamla. ‘I refer to the ships in the bay. Do I have to make myself more clear?’

'You should have done so in the beginning, Hepteidon,’ the old priest said levelly, ‘in which case we would have avoided all this heat and anger.’

'I thought you would understand me,' Hepteidon said in a softer voice than before. ‘What else has happened to match in significance the coming of the ships?’

'You have undertaken the examination of Kandrigi, the Priest, Hepteidon, have you not?'

‘That is only a minor matter, Lamla. How can that compare with today's event?’

'But you have made no report on the outcome of your examination, Hepteidon. How can the well-being of the Empire be maintained if we rush from duty to duty, leaving each unfinished in our desire for the novelty of the new?’

Hepteidon paused, audible swallowing, and stood back. Lamla sighed in relief.

‘Will you make your report now, Hepteidon?' He could afford to be tender towards the young priest.

‘There is nothing to report, Lamla.'

‘Did he speak?’

'No.'

‘Did you apply the tongs?’

'Yes.'

‘And yet he did not speak?’

'No, Lamla. Not even when the whip and the weights were used.'

‘Did he suffer much?’

‘Yes, though he did not cry out or scream.’

‘Does his fortitude surprise you, Hepteidon?’

‘Very much, Lamla. No man could withstand such torture. Either he has no feelings or he is somehow mad.’

‘Are they the only conclusions you have reached?’

‘What else can I think, Lamla?’

‘Have you thought about what I said to you? Do you remember?’

‘I have made myself clear on that subject, Lamla. I neither understand nor accept what you say,'

‘I will not argue with you, Hepteidon, for there would be no point to it at this stage. In time you will understand, and in understanding you will accept, for that is the secret of knowledge.'

Suddenly Hepteidon fell on his knees and pressed his forehead against the dusty stone floor.

‘Then I do not wish to understand, Lamla. I beg to be freed from this obligation to understand this matter, for I am sure it will be the death of me.’

Lamla leaned forward and caught Hepteidon's arm and gently pulled him close. He stroked his hair as he spoke.

‘You misunderstand me, Hepteidon. I have not placed this obligation on you. Therefore I cannot release you. Once before, I tried to explain this to you, but I failed. I do not know why you were chosen for this awesome task nor what purpose it will serve, though I have passed many hours thinking about it… Tell me, were you afraid while you examined Kandrigi? Tell me the truth. There is no shame in admitting it.’

Hepteidon raised his tear-stained face. His eyes continually rolled in their sockets.

‘Yes, yes, Lamla. I was in constant terror of the old man.

‘Do you know the cause of your terror, my son?'

‘No. And that is the worst of it.’

‘Do you think that by killing the old priest you would rid yourself of this terror?’

‘How else can I rid myself of it?’

‘By doing what is demanded of you?’

Hearing this, Hepteidon loudly groaned and pressed his face into the floor. Lamla watched him for a short while and then he reached and pulled the trembling priest up.

'One last question, Hepteidon. Do you see only terror? Is there nothing else?’

Hepteidon stopped his sobbing and stared at the wrinkled, now kindly, face of Lamla.

‘I feel only terror – terror and fear.’ He shook violently, then subsided, as though this frank admission had taken him through a crisis. Composed, he asked: ‘What else should I feel, High Priest? Tell me, you have told me many things about myself that I do not accept.’

‘Do you not see love for old Kandrigi?'

'Love – Are you mad?’

‘No. I am not mad, though we talk of feelings that are close to madness.’

Hepteidon jumped to his feet and backed away.

‘No more of this, Lamla. I have examined the old priest and have reported to you on the outcome. I have fulfilled my duty and I am finished with him.' He came closer. ‘Let us discuss the ships in the bay instead.’

Lamla pursed his lips. It was difficult to guide the mind of the young.

‘Very well, Hepteidon. Come and kneel by me.'

Hepteidon knelt and Lamla laid his thin arm across his shoulders.

‘You heard the Commander's report, did you not? As soon as they have taken on provisions they will sail north for the duration of a month and then make camp on a prominent shore. The small vessel will return south tomorrow and will lead the main fleet to join the scouts in the north.’

‘They seek guides and navigators from the Ka,’ Hepteidon prompted.

‘Yes. The two scout ships will require someone familiar with the stars of the northern sky and also the council of any who have been in the north. The main fleet needs only charts. If there is any danger, one of the scouts will return to warn the fleet...’

‘And I?...’

Lamla smiled tenderly. “I have been ordered to send you with the scouts. You are to interpret the stars for them. You will also chart the far north stars and map the coastline... It is a great honour, Hepteidon, for one so young. The Commander said that the order came from the Emperor himself. Someone in Ka-Ra has taken a great deal of trouble on your behalf.

‘My uncle. He is an Imperial diplomat.’

‘You are blessed, Hepteidon, I wish you good fortune.’

Hepteidon acknowledged this with a condescending nod.

‘You mentioned the two red-haired barbarians to the Captain,’ he said slowly. ‘What do you plan for them?’

‘I am not sure. They would be more useful to us if they sailed with the expedition. They do nothing in the Ka. I know nothing of these northern lands, except the little I have gleaned here and there. Most of this is no more than wild phantasy, for if these lands are all that rumour says they are, then they are unique on earth. Lands of fire and dragons? There is great heat in parts of the world, but no fire such as is attributed to this strange quarter. And dragons? You have heard them described: eaters of fire that fly in the heavens. I find all this difficult to believe. However, we must allow that it is possible, if only because we have not yet seen these places. It is because of this that I have contemplated sending Kandrigi’s companion, the warrior Korkungal, with you. His race dwells to the north and he might have experience of the climate and conditions there, though he has not admitted this to me, Also, if by chance you are shipwrecked, he could lead you to safety through the country of the Savages, as they are called, It is also possible that your voyage may take you to the territory of the Briga, in which case Korkungal will ensure your welcome there, As for the other white-skin, the navigator, I will send him tomorrow to join the main fleet. They might have use for him, more use than we have.’

‘One more thing I would like to know, Lamla: What is the greater purpose of the mission? To send an army into the north merely to see if wild rumours are true will bring no profit to the Empire. I suspect some other object,'

Again Lamla smiled his doting smile.

'I have not been told this greater purpose, Hepteidon, but I have given thought to it. I suspect it is an attempt to outflank the Empire of the Dawn, Soon they will gain total control of the Inland Sea and they and their confederates will push out into the Middle Ocean and attack the Empire. If we can establish colonies to their immediate north, among the Briga and their kindred tribes, for instance, we might be able to forestall their aggression. As you know, the Empire of the Sun seeks only harmony and peace among the nations and peoples of the world, We are obliged, because of our strength and influence, to maintain this peace against the ravages of the more war-like peoples of the world.’

‘I see the sense of this strategy, Lamla.’

‘Are you satisfied now, Hepteidon?’

‘I am, Lamla.

‘You will be gone from here in a few days, Hepteidon,' Lamla said in a low voice. He caressed the long locks of the young priest at his knees. 'Then I will never see you again, for you know that your future will be in Ka-Ra, close to the Emperor.

‘It is a sad thing,’ Hepteidon replied. He spoke too quickly and Lamla knew that it was no more than rhetoric.

‘You have been a long time in my company, Hepteidon. I have seen you grow to manhood under my care. I have been like a father to you,’

‘They were happy years, Lamla.’ The words were spoken grudgingly.

‘I will miss you.’

'I must obey the order of the Emperor,' Hepteidon was becoming sulky.

Lamla could not prevent his irritation showing. ‘I understand that. We must all obey the Emperor. Nevertheless, you will not depart immediately. We will have time together, Hepteidon.’

Hepteidon pushed himself to his feet.

‘I have many preparations to make, Lamla. I will be very busy,'

Lamla's voice rose and it echoed in the Temple. ‘There will be time,’ he said, half peremptory, half pleading.

Hepteidon began to walk away. He was no more than a blur of contrast in the dark.

'Hepteidon!' Lamla cried, rising.

The shape halted.

‘What do you want?’ The voice echoed all around Lamla,

'One more thing.’ Lamla was composed again. ‘Have Kandrigi moved into my quarters. And see that he is cared for.

Hepteidon resumed walking and he disappeared into the dark. All Lamla could hear of him was the thud of his sandals on the stone floor.

He stood still for a long time. The chanting came to him, but did not touch his heart.

He had found the answer to the problem that vexed him. He had seen it in the death of love. It opened up a new prospect: he saw why Hepteidon loved Kandrigi and not him. And –

He knew the question. And in knowing the question, he knew the answer

He fell on his knees, whispering. ‘So be it.’ In the dark, he heard the chanting. It ascended melodiously, pathetic and exalted.

He let it into his heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

The tavern was crowded, now that the day’s work was finished. It was noisy and hot, the drinkers euphoric through relief, rather than riotous. There was a lot of giddy laughter.

Korkungal and Ferlung sat together in a corner, protected from the clamour by a line of men who leaned against the tables. They were untouched by the atmosphere of the room, Both sat very erect, Ferlung because he was a Captain, Korkungal because he wanted to sleep and was afraid to. They had drunk a lot of the sweet golden beer in the early evening, but since the porters and the workers of the Ka had come in none had been brought to them. Ferlung was used to the drink and temperamentally suited to it, for he submitted willingly to its tender influence. But Korkungal did not like its effect upon him, He could not understand this reaction to the beer; he merely expressed it by his fight against sleep.

Now, when the celebration of the evening was at its height, and Ferlung sat erect in a trance and Korkungal sat erect in the midst of a struggle, the line of men in front of them was violently broken and a figure came hurtling through to collapse on their table. Ferlung blinked once and creased his bald forehead; Korkungal wanted to arise in alarm and defend himself, but managed only to stare in a dazed manner at the convulsed body. Then they heard the dry laughter, and focusing their eyes more carefully they saw that it was Uöos, the storyteller, who lay before them, helpless with provocative laughter, jolliness and drink.

Uöos must have known that Ferlung and Korkungal were there, for when he saw them he showed no surprise. Instead, he used his elbows to push himself off the table and slide down to the floor.

'You see, Captains, I have been brought to you!’

He did not explain himself. Setting himself on his heels, he began to rock and croon:

‘I see you everywhere, my dear,
I see you everywhere,
In the grass, in the sea and sky,
Everywhere in the stones,
But most of all in the stars,
I see you everywhere, my dear.’

When he had finished, he looked up at Korkungal in particular, clapped his hands and said:

‘The story! The one true and glorious story!’

He scrambled to his feet and grasped Korkungal’s hand,

'The story you wish most of all to hear.’

Korkungal made a feeble attempt to protest that this was not true, He pulled his hand away and the thought sprang into his battle-weary brain: What is the story that I most want to hear?

Uöos meanwhile pushed his two hands between Ferlung and Korkungal, and when they shifted he squeezed his back between them and burrowed energetically until he was securely seated. Korkungal gave way to him: he was preoccupied with trying to remember what story he had asked to hear. Ferlung, on the other hand, resisted, wanting only peace and his trance. Uöos gave him a final shove and grinned at him.

‘You are an ingrate, Ferlung the Navigator. You are a man born of earth and water, Beware of this: Water always returns to the sea, and if the earth does not resist it will be carried away with it, I tell you this for nothing.’

Though Ferlung's eyes widened, he did not understand the old man. Nevertheless, he moved over.

‘Now, Korkungal, this story. It is an old, old story. How old, I could not begin to tell you. It is also a simple story, as stories should be, and conveys great wisdom to him who understands it. I have not often told it, not many have asked me to tell it, for the inspiration to ask to hear it is greater than the inspiration to tell it. Do you understand me? A story needs a listener before it needs a teller. So, I am a slave to the need and curiosity of others, yet where would they be without me? Which is the most miserable? The listener in need of a teller, or the teller in need of a listener? I do not know, for I have never been in need of listeners in places like this. And yet this problem haunts me. It should not, I know, for who ever heard of tellers without listeners, or listeners without tellers? It is the possibility of such a divorce that haunts me, for like everything else it is possible... Will you get me some drink, good Korkungal. I cannot go on until I wet my throat.’

Uöos abruptly fell silent and bowed his head. Korkungal got to his feet and searched the room for the tavern-keeper. All he could see was a sea of dark heads,

‘Did you get the drink yet, Korkungal?’ Uöos asked pettishly.

Korkungal swung around, Uöos was standing on the seat staring at him.

‘It is difficult in so crowded a place, old man,’ Korkungal said lamely.

‘It is not, Wait,’ Uöos took a deep breath and shouted:

Sora!'

Immediately, the line of standing men parted and Sora appeared. She carried bowls in one hand and balanced a large jug on her hip.

‘Ah, Sora, my daughter. As swift as ever you are.’

He jumped down and sat, Sora poured him a bowlful of beer and he drained it at once, As he drank she glanced up at Korkungal and motioned that he was also to sit. When he had done so, she filled a bowl and handed it to him.

Korkungal stared at her, He could not believe that she was not Agnanna, the virgin who had visited him in the watch-tower. She wore the same black vestment and her face was as heavily coated with cosmetics. But Sora's eyes were different, They did not sparkle or dance: they were level and calm, He took the bowl and drank.

Sora placed the jug on the table in front of Ferlung and sat on the floor at Korkungals feet. Before Ferlung could reach the jug, the old storyteller had tipped it over his own bowl and was filling it again.

Korkungal did not drink more than a mouthful, having taken so much out of courtesy for Sora and Uöos. He put his bowl on the table and looked down. Sora was staring at him, as though appraising him.

‘Are you not Agnanna?’ he asked with a kind of wonder.

She wrinkled her nose and looked at Uöos.

‘She does not understand your tongue, Korkungal,' he said without taking the bowl from his mouth, ‘She speaks but one language and speaks it rarely. She would tell you, if she could, that she has no need of words in her life. And that is true.’

‘Will you ask her my question, then?’

‘There is no need, for I can answer it for her. She is not Agnanna, and in a little while, when I have told you the story, you will understand why.’

‘But I will not doubt my memory,’ Korkungal began, his earlier agitation returning. Uöos interrupted him:

'I do not ask you to doubt your memory, only to understand it. I know your trouble. You are not the first to experience it. But do not make Sora responsible for it.’

Korkungal shook his head. The agitation moved in him and he could not rid himself of it. Sora continued to stare at him. The expression in her eyes had changed. It questioned him and seemed ready to relent and accommodate him. Korkungal returned her stare with a strange fury. His agitation increased.

'Did you tell her to come here,’ he asked Uöos angrily, 'in order to tease me?’

Uöos fell back against Ferlung, his face wide with mock-fear.

‘I called her. You heard me.’

‘How was it that she came so quickly, bringing this drink?’

Uöos laughed, edgily provocative:

‘What else would she bring me, an old man, Korkungal?'

He stroked the girl’s hair. She glanced up at him in a quick, child-like way.

‘You will not believe this, Korkungal, though I will tell you in any case. She is my consolation in old age. She is the fairest, the gentlest creature in this world. I need only raise my head, need only sigh, and she comes running to me, anticipating my wishes, be it food or drink, or perhaps some liniment for my throat, She is like a daughter to me, Korkungal. And yet I do not know why she is like this, for I am an ugly, misshapen, irascible old man. I am perverse and cantankerous, while she is sweet and considerate.’

Sora seemed to understand this. She looked at Korkungal in triumph. Uöos pinched her cheek and chuckled.

'Now, Korkungal, let us get on with this story, otherwise we will be here till dawn. It is, as I have said, a simple story, capable of being understood by a child, There are no great events, no burning of worlds or the drowning of whole races, no conflicts between empires with heroes dying by the thousand, There are no kings, no princes, no great personages at all in my story. No mighty deeds of daring, nothing that will fill you with awe or fear, nothing that will overpower the senses with the passions of love. Finally, there are no gods or goddesses, no demigods, no half gods; no strange creatures, no demons, no weirds, or other phantasies of the demented...'

Korkungal had been listening with growing impatience. Now he burst out:

‘Tell me what it is about, storyteller. I have no interest in things that are not.'

In his distraction he noticed that Sora was once again staring at him, a playful smile on her lips.

‘Very well, Korkungal, I will proceed to the subject of the story, though I am pained that you lack the patience to enjoy the storyteller’s art. I will tell you first who this story is concerned with. An old woman and her orchard. There! You have spoiled it. I will have to pause and recollect my wits with a bowl of drink.’

As he drank, Ferlung leaned over his back and whispered to Korkungal:

'He is right, Captain. Lack of respect for a storyteller is a sure sign of barbarity.’

‘There are proper times for stories,' Korkungal hissed in return, 'and this is not one of them.’

‘Drink up, Captain,' Ferlung said, winking. ‘Your bowl is before you. Be peaceful and co-operative. What else is there to do at this time?’

‘I do not know, though I feel it within me to do something else.’

Uöos replaced his empty bowl and sat back. He wiped his mouth with vigour.

'An old woman and an orchard, Korkungal. Do you see it? An island in the middle of a great ocean, a small island with rocky shores and patches of bright green grass in places. And in the centre, on the brow of a low hill, an orchard, with the old woman’s hut snug in its shade. There was music in those apple trees: the wind played without pause on the leaves and they rustled, chipped and sang all day and all night. The old woman loved this music. She would sit each day in the centre of her orchard and listen in rapture to it, her eyes wide, her tongue hanging out. And though she loved this music and was grateful to the leaves and the wind for combining to provide it, her greatest love was the fruit itself. All summer long she would watch the apples grow, her upraised face speckled with the sunlight filtering through the leaves, seeing them first as little green pips of things, then swell and colour until they were red and bursting with the good sweet sugar of the earth. In the autumn she would pick them, placing each red apple in her apron with the greatest care. She would store them at the back of her hut, bedding them in straw, and eat one a day through the winter and spring, seated in a warm corner out of the wind. She would savour each bite, each spit of juice.

‘And the old woman herself? She called herself Asta. In height she was no taller than a ten year old. She had bowed legs, her knees the length of an arm apart, the result of some obscure misfortune. There was no grace in her body: dugs hung flapping to her waist and her hips and buttocks were wasted away to the bone. Her face was cracked and wrinkled, made worse by running eyes and a toothless hanging mouth that dribbled constantly. She had no hair, except for the odd wisp not worth notice, and her nails were broken and filthy. She was a wilful creature, and satisfied with being on her own, and satisfied, too, that the universe should concern itself solely with ripening her apples. But for all this, she was not a happy woman. It would be truer to say that she was a woman mollified.

'Asta lived in her orchard for longer than most people can remember, watching her apples grow and then eating them during winter and spring. Of course, this could not last for ever; for if it had, I would not have a story to tell you. One day in autumn, a man came out of the water and stole all her apples. He was a giant of a man, taller than you, Korkungal, and you, Ferlung, with bushy eyebrows and a thick black beard, His eyes seemed equally black, and both hair and eyes contrasted strikingly with his skin, which was as white as milk. He wore a coat made of the skins of black goats, badly made – it trailed the ground in places; and over his shoulder he carried a huge club made of some dark knotty wood, which he had apparently chipped into shape with a rough stone. He came striding out of the seas mumbling to himself, and stopped in amazement and delight upon seeing the rosy apples in Asta’s orchard. She had not yet seen him, she was busy making preparations for the picking of the fruit, arranging the straw in anticipation, and the first she knew of his presence was when she heard his shout of glee. She ran out of doors and found him among the trees, his great hands tearing away apples, leaves and branches in greedy haste. She screamed at him, cursed him, and beat his back and thick buttocks. But all to no avail. He did not see her, being too intent upon the apples, though she cursed him with all the resources of her venomous mouth, and when he had eaten them all, and a fair amount of leaves and twigs as well, he turned about and marched back into the sea.

‘For most of the following winter and spring the old woman was no longer mollified. Instead, she was filled with the cruellest, the most shocking plans for revenge. She sat watching the shore for days on end, hoping that the robber would be tempted to return, though she did not know what she would do if he did return. Then she grew tired of waiting and grew tired of looking out to see, so she went up to the orchard and cleared up the mess of broken branches as best she could. When in spring the buds appeared she felt her heart lighten and the black moroseness in her brain lighten a little. The blossom helped her feel better; the first sign of an apple cheered her up no end. She resumed her vigil in the orchard, gazing up at the growing apples with the sun dappling her face. Autumn came on and the fruit ripened. She had by now forgotten all about the giant from the sea and no longer did the memory of his smelly coat or, more to the point, his total indifference to her as he ate up her crop of apples, rouse her to insane anger. She prepared as usual to pick the apples, getting the straw ready, making sure her apron was cleaned and darned. Then, on the very morning she planned to begin, the giant came marching out of the sea and repeated his actions of the previous year. Again he ignored her and got on with his work, and when he had stripped the trees completely, he went back into the sea.

‘She had been angry the first time it happened, but her feelings this year bore no comparison with her original anger. Not alone did she curse him, she cursed all of creation, making it an accomplice in the deed, and more than once swore violently to destroy it. Creation took no notice; it went on as usual and when spring came round it produced bud, blossom and apple-to-be, as though nothing had happened. It lightened the old woman’s mood, but this time she did not forget the giant. She lived in dread of his coming and watched her fruit ripen with a kind of fascination, the anticipation of old strong in her out of habit, but mingled now with a contrary foreboding that the anticipation would again be frustrated. Sure enough, on a day in autumn, just when she had decided to take a chance and pick the fruit a little earlier than usual, the giant appeared and ate the lot.

‘This happened in the next autumn and again in the autumn that followed. Asta tried to pick the fruit earlier and earlier in the season, though it had not ripened fully and it went against her nature to do it, but each time the giant came out of the sea and foiled her. Her temper grew as black as could be, until she began, out of spite, to wish for her own destruction. However, she had one hope. Chorsa came and listened to her. In no time at all she found a solution to the problem...’

At this point Uöos was interrupted. Two soldiers thrust their way through the standing men and presented themselves before Ferlung. They addressed him in the fluting tone of the Ka and he replied and stood up, shaking slightly.

‘The priest, Hepteidon, wishes to see me, Captain,' he told Korkungal. 'Perhaps he has orders for me...’

Korkungal stood up also. ‘I will come with you. It might be that I am included.’

'Stay and hear the rest of the story,’ Ferlung said slowly, the drink thickening his words. 'Your name has not been mentioned. The instructions of the priests are always precise and no implications should ever be sought in them. When you are required you will be called by name. Surely you have experience of this.'

Uöos coughed loudly and filled his bowl, speaking as he did:

‘He is right, Korkungal. Sit down and let me continue with my tale, for if I say it myself, it is progressing well.’

Ferlung smiled, rubbed his forehead, spoke a word to the soldiers and followed them out of the tavern.

Korkungal sat again. Uöos drained the bowl and wiped his mouth, grunting loudly to clear his throat. Then he clapped his hands and looked about him. Seeing Sora, he said to Korkungal:

'Perhaps we could make room for little Sora now. She would rather sit beside you than on the floor gazing up at you.’

Korkungal said nothing. He looked at Sora. When Uöos spoke to her she jumped up and settled herself between them, drawing her vestment in about her legs.

‘Now,’ Uöos said, petting her arm, ‘she is happier. She is a patient girl, but there is no harm in making her more contented.’

Korkungal merely blinked and sighed. The agitation was still in him. The story had calmed it but now it grew strong again.

‘Go on with your story,’ he said shortly.

‘Assuredly, Korkungal. That is why we are here, is it not?’ Uöos said with mock-moderation. ‘Where are we? Ah, yes. Chorsa has a solution to the problem of the giant. It is a simple solution, though not immediately evident within the scheme of the story so far told. It was spring and the trees had budded and blossomed. Old Asta had cleared the orchard of broken branches and twigs. The tiny apples were appearing and she was desperate for them. Chorsa returned with a small army of men, their wives and children. She had them camp on the shore and provided them with sweet water and dried meat. Throughout the summer Asta sat in the orchard and watched her apples grow. Chorsa had her men prepare weapons of stone and wood and laid plans for the coming battle with the giant.

‘Autumn came and the apples ripened. Asta set the day for the picking and Chorsa continued to train her men. Sure enough, on the day that Asta put on her apron to pick the fruit, the giant came out of the sea and marched up towards the orchard, his black eyes set on the trees and nothing else. Asta screamed at him and Chorsa gave her men the word. What a day for screaming and shouting! Half of the men were maimed or killed, but half of the crop was saved. The gluttonous giant swung his club and Chorsa’s army attacked with stick and stone, and Asta filled her apron as fast as she could, ducking and dodging the battle that raged around her. Afterwards, Chorsa was content that her plan had worked and Asta was mollified by the sight of the low pile of stored apples.

‘At the time of the next harvest the giant was attacked as soon as he came ashore. This was a better plan, for the giant had eyes only for the apples and so did not fight well. Nevertheless, many men were killed and the giant succeeded in stealing part of the crop. In the next year, Chorsa set the wives and children of her fighting men to help Asta harvest the apples. The giant was forced to retreat to the sea with his appetite unsated, the men belabouring his broad back with long sticks. When the autumn came round again, the giant came to the shore and no further. Chorsa’s men, their older sons helping to swell their sadly reduced ranks, lined the beach and the giant merely looked at them in perplexity before turning away and disappearing into the sea. Asta, her store filled as in years before, thanked Chorsa and sat in a secluded corner throughout winter and spring, eating with relish one apple a day.

'Then, in early summer, Agnanna came to play among the men and their families. In the autumn the giant did not appear. Chorsa began to talk of taking her army away, now that they were no longer needed, but Asta shivered with fright and rage and insisted that they stay in case the giant should decide to return in the future. The wives and children helped with the harvest – it was fast becoming a custom among them, singing and dancing merrily as they did, much to Agnanna’s delight – while Chorsa oversaw the maintenance of the weapons and the day-long vigil on the beach by her men.

'Years passed. The men remained on their guard, weapons at the ready, although the giant did not appear, and the women and children helped with the harvest. Many times Chorsa suggested taking the men away and each time Asta grew pale and trembled, begging her not to do it. Chorsa would complain then that she was tired of providing for them and Asta would plead with her to be patient and remember that her labour served a useful end. Agnanna, in contrast, was happy among the people. She played with the children, gossiped with the women and teased the men. She loved their company and they seemed to love her in return.

‘It was because of this love that Agnanna one day proposed to Asta and Chorsa that the men and their families should receive a share of the apples each autumn. She wished only to increase their happiness. Asta reacted in horror at the idea, but Chorsa, seeing that her labours would be reduced, agreed. She dismissed Asta’s unwillingness with the remark that she should pay for the protection the men gave her against the possible return of the giant. Between them, Agnanna and Chorsa decided that the orchard should be shared equally by Asta and the people...’

Here Korkungal got to his feet and stretched, his great fists clenched above his head. Uöos regarded him with a comic puzzlement.

‘Do you grow tired of my story, Korkungal?’

'It tells me nothing, storyteller.' Korkungal spoke without looking at Uöos.

‘You have not heard the ending. Perhaps it will tell you something. Come, sit again and let Sora fill your bowl.’

He spoke to the girl in her native language and immediately she jumped up and filled the bowls of Korkungal and Uöos. Korkungal refused the proffered bowl and instead stared with fear-widened eyes at Sora.

‘Are you not Agnanna?' he asked her gently.

Sora smiled and nodded. Uöos had been watching Korkungal with increasing amusement, now he suddenly leaned forward and said:

‘No, Korkungal. She has not understood your question. She thinks you make a different request, one she is more than willing, it seems to me, to fulfil. I have told you before that she is not Agnanna and it should be clear to you by now why she is not. Sit down and drink. Let me finish this story, for you can do nothing better this night than listen to it. The last part, concerning Asta’s wrath, will making the meaning of my tale plain to you.’

The agitation rose in Korkungal until it filled his head. He could no longer control the terror that burned in him. With a rage that strangled his throat, he rushed forward, knocking over the table and some of the standing drinkers, and ran to the door. In the twilight he hurried through the noisy streets, finding his way by instinct to the Temple. Here he was confronted by a night world dominated by the White Light. The Temple was a black plane floating in a sea of milk. Korkungal began to tremble violently, his brain burning and his legs as immobile as stone.

How long he stood like that he did not know. He heard a rustle close to him and this acted like a filip to break the spell. He turned and saw Sora at his side, her features hidden by the peculiar effect of the Light. She raised a hand to him, whether to signify her reason for being there or to lead him away, he did not know. He recoiled and cried:

‘The old man has sent you, has he not?’

The silhouette of her head tilted to one side and she replied in the fluting tongue of the Ka.

Korkungal clenched his hands and shouted:

‘He wishes to make fun of me by sending a common whore to my chamber?’

Sora spoke again, her voice sad-seeming, and she fell on her knees before him. Korkungal took one threatening step forward and shouted at her to go away. Then he spun round and ran towards the watch-tower. He did not look about him as he ran through the milky air, but kept his eyes on the tall black shape that was the tower. His lungs heaved and his heart pounded painfully. In his throat a scream was stuck, unable to find expression, and it seemed to choke him.

He saw an inexplicable shape at the foot of the tower, beside the door. Drawing close, he recognised the figure of the blue giant, Klimbah. He stared morosely before him, knees drawn up, his two arms laid across them.

Korkungal halted beside him and murmured a hoarse greeting, instinctively wary. But Klimbah did not acknowledge it and so Korkungal threw his weight against the door and gratefully found himself in the candle-lit lower chamber of the tower. He paused to rest.

The door opened and Sora came slowly in. She stood by it, her hands clasped together at her breast. Korkungal looked down at her. The face, the vestment and the cloak were all Agnanna’s.

‘Are you not Agnanna?' he asked helplessly.

Sora smiled briefly and remained silent. The smile was indulgent. She took a candle from its socket in the wall and turned expectantly towards the stairs.

Korkungal continued to look at her, his arms loose by his sides. He panted still, but his heart no longer thumped in his chest. The agitation had eased, partially relieved by the run through the Ka. It was with resignation that he mounted the stairs. A strange resignation: it was outside of him, beyond him, having no end or object. Not even death would satisfy it.

Sora followed him. He heard the swish of her cloak on the stone. In his chamber, she put the candle in a socket over the couch. Korkungal looked at her again. Her features trembled in the flickering light. He pointed to the couch and she climbed on to it, betraying neither reluctance nor enthusiasm. She unfastened her cloak and let it fall behind her. Korkungal motioned that she was to lie down, which she immediately did. He laid a blanket over her. She stared at him for a moment, then suddenly she sat up, grasped his hand and kissed it.

Korkungal moaned and jerked away. He wrapped his cloak about his shoulders and sat on the floor by the foot of the couch.

He thought of Kandrigi, his priest. Tomorrow, he would go and see him and ask him to come away from this strange place. Living among the Briga again would not settle this agitation, he knew, but it would at least make him once again what he had all his life pretended to be:

A warrior.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Kandrigi lay on a couch, He knew this. But it was not important. Nor was it important that he was cold, or that his limbs trembled with shock and pain.

All was silent, Kandrigi was grateful for this. The voice spoke to him occasionally, repeating only fragments of its original message.

The silence was a void. Perhaps it was death.

Lamla sat on a stool in his chamber. Behind him, the paintings on the walls reflected the light of many candles. The clutter of furniture stood out like islands in this sea of brilliant colour.

Kandrigi lay on a couch in front of him. His feet were bandaged and his body coated with a soothing ointment. Lamla had sat for a long time watching over his old friend. Grief was like a spike in his heart. The wounds were terrible: deep scores crisscrossed his body and his feet had been gored and torn with the pincers. His left hand, too, was crushed and disfigured - but Hepteidon had preserved the right hand for communication.

Lamla steeled himself and touched this right hand. He spoke on it, moving slowly over the fingers:

‘It is I, Lamla, your friend. The sight of your wounds moves me to deep pity.’

Kandrigi waited until Lamla finished his speech before withdrawing his hand.

Lamla sighed. Kandrigi was a stubborn man, Like Hepteidon, like all men, he refused to see that he resisted the inevitable. Tonight, both Kandrigi and Hepteidon would be forced to recognise this. He sighed again.

He spoke on Kandrigi’s fingers again:

'Believe me, Kandrigi, I speak to you as a friend. I did not approve of this torture, but I was powerless to stop it. This fact will not console you, I know. Nor does it console me.’

Kandrigi pulled his hand away. Lamla stood up and produced his little bell from under his cloak. He rang it and the bald youth hurried across to him.

‘Have word sent to Ma-Tin and Hepteidon that they are to come to me immediately,’ he instructed him.

The youth bowed low and hurried away, Lamla pulled his cloak tightly about him and began to pace up and down the room, his impassive face radiant with the reflected colour of the paintings. His mind struggled for detachment from what was about to happen. He took no pride in having found the solution to the problems of Kandrigi’s silence. Was it not ordained that he would? In such a mystery as this, could matters be otherwise? Hepteidon would understand this before the morning came. It is a truly divine twist to the whole mystery that the answer which Hepteidon might destroy himself in eliciting from Kandrigi is already known to me, he thought; yet I cannot reveal it, for I lack the authority. Lamla was forced to smile inwardly at the atrocious irony. He hoped Hepteidon would be wise and accept his fate; if he was not wise, he would assuredly be mad.

Ma-Tin entered the room and at once his bright yellow cloak began to irradiate the reflected light. He walked quickly across to Lamla, his thin smile a slit of irritation. He bowed perfunctorily to his High Priest.

‘I am grateful to you for coming so quickly, Ma Tin,' Lamla said slowly, his inward irony entering his voice.

‘It is my duty to obey you, my High Priest,’ Ma-Tin replied drily, not knowing why Lamla should show amusement.

‘How goes it with the heavens? Do the stars hold their places? '

Ma-Tin cocked his brow. Lamla’s speech was beginning to puzzle him, However, he remained unmoved:

‘As they have moved throughout the past ages, so do they move this night, High Priest.’

‘That is good to hear. Tell me, Ma-Tin, will the stars always move in their correct courses?’

Now Ma-Tin became uneasy. Some change had taken place, he told himself; but the stars do not change, therefore it is Lamla who has changed.

‘The heavens do not change, High Priest,’ he said slowly, his eyes narrowing watchfully, ‘And there is no reason for believing that they will.’

Lamla pursed his lips in what might be a smile.

‘Tell me about the new star? Does it not change?’

Ma-Tin paused before answering.

‘It changes, Lamla. But it obeys its own laws. Like the seven great bodies, its law is different from that of the stars.’

‘Is its law eternal, Ma-Tin?’ Lamla pressed with peculiar excitement. 'We first observed it no more than three winters ago.’

‘Its law cannot be otherwise. I will admit that it is different, as I have said. We have traditions of earlier appearance of this star. It grows in brilliance and then fades again. Perhaps that is its cycle, as it is the cycle of other stars.'

Lamla bowed. When he looked up again, his face was subdued.

'You are our Astronomer, Ma-Tin. I respect your knowledge.’

Ma-Tin inclined his head, feeling justifiably proud.

‘I am grateful for your respect, High Priest.'

Lamla took his arm and led him to the couch on which Kandrigi lay.

‘I have brought you here so that you might act as witness to an event,’ he said deliberately. ‘You recognise Kandrigi, the priest of the Briga?’

Ma-Tin had been staring at the supine figure with distaste.

‘Yes, I recognise him.’

‘Hepteidon is convinced that Kandrigi withholds a secret from the Empire. He has examined him on this point, but without success. You see that the examination was thorough.’

Ma-Tin glanced at the bandaged limbs.

‘Did he speak?’

‘No. Hepteidon admitted surprise at the old priest’s fortitude.' The irony had returned to his voice.

‘It must be a secret worth keeping, to have withstood such pain.’

‘Indeed, Ma-Tin. Tonight, however, Hepteidon will question Kandrigi again. I wish you to witness it.’

They heard footsteps. Hepteidon walked purposefully towards them, Lamla clasped Ma-Tin's arm.

‘Remain here, I wish to speak to Hepteidon alone.’

He met Hepteidon in the centre of the room. The young priest was visibly impatient.

‘Why have you brought me here, Lamla? I told you I had much to do before I embark.'

Lamla grasped his wrist and smiled tenderly.

‘There are various matters, Hepteidon,' he said gently. ‘I am glad that you prepare for your mission with such eagerness. It is the way a man of affairs should act. Has the navigator been notified of his new duty?’

Hepteidon was mollified by Lamla’s tenderness.

'Yes, Lamla. Already he is aboard the naval ship.’

‘Did he accept the instructions willingly?’

‘He was intoxicated, but he appeared to welcome the change.’

‘Good, It is well that he will be useful. He has grown fat in the service of the Ka.’

‘Ma-Tin is here, Lamla, Has he brought the charts? Is that why you sent for me?’

Lamla lowered his eyes. He did not want Hepteidon to see the sudden flush on his face. A strange excitement burned in his blood at the prospect of telling Hepteidon the reason he had been brought to him. Not since his youth had he experienced such a commotion within himself.

‘The charts will be sent to you tomorrow, Hepteidon, Do not fret on their behalf. You see also that Kandrigi is here.

Hepteidon looked over at the couch and then bent slightly to peer at Lamla.

‘I see that, Lamla. It was your instruction. What is it to me? I want no more to do with him.’

Lamla strengthened his hold on Hepteidon’s wrist. His voice rose in excitement as he spoke.

‘I have discovered the question, Hepteidon.'’

The young priest replied with genuine puzzlement:

‘What question, Lamla? All the questioning has been done. There is nothing to be learned from the madman.'

Lamla shook his wrist.

‘It came to me in a flash of inspiration, Hepteidon. I had known that logic could not discover it, for logic is useless without presumption. It is a simple question, and the answer is equally simple. I want you to put this question to Kandrigi, for I believe he cannot refuse to answer it.'

Hepteidon did not seem to understand. He shook his head.

‘There is no question, Lamla. Do you not understand that? We have finished with the old priest. It is better that you send him back to his tribe with a few gifts as a compensation-price.

‘I cannot order you to ask this question, Hepteidon, for I have not the authority. But I can tell you the question and let you decide for yourself whether it should be asked or not.'

‘I do not want to know what the question is. I will not listen, Lamla.’ He pulled his wrist free and pressed his hands to his ears.

Lamla looked at him, paused, and instead of speaking, he raised his fingers and began to spell on them. Immediately, Hepteidon closed his eyes, Lamla smiled at the sight. He stepped forward and spelled the question on Hepteidon’s fingers.

The young priest turned away, bent double and swung back to face Lamla in a single violent movement. He opened his mouth, shook his head, and then quite suddenly went completely still. Slowly, he took his hands from his ears and opened his eyes.

‘I do not believe you,’ he said simply, his voice full and calm. He interlocked his fingers at his chest and pressed them together until the skin around his knuckles was white. ‘It is an absurd thing.’

Lamla shrugged, feeling detached from Hepteidon’s behaviour.

‘What you think of it is not important.’

‘You are mad, Lamla. What you say is beyond reason.'

‘I am not mad, Hepteidon, though I admit that what I have told you is beyond reason. It came to me through inspiration. However, we will not waste time discussing the unreasonable. Before I ask you for your decision regarding the asking of this question, let me say this: if, as I believe, Kandrigi reveals his secret to us in reply to this question, I feel certain that he will be cured of his strange ailments. He will regain his sight and hearing, because there will no longer be any reason for his remaining stricken like this. Kandrigi will be whole again and in a month his wounds will have healed, so that he will return to his land with his health. Do you see the wisdom of this? Soon, you will begin a journey into the north and perhaps you will sail as far as the land of the Briga. What welcome do you think you will receive if a crippled Kandrigi is among them and it is discovered that you are the cause of his misfortune? Say the question on Kandrigi’s fingers, no more. Ma-Tin and I will be with you. We will take note of what he has to say.’

Hepteidon continued to press his hands together; his muscles stood out on his neck. Lamla took him by the elbow and drew him over to the couch.

Ma-Tin had watched them with growing curiosity and when Lamla led Hepteidon to the couch, he curled his lip and asked:

‘What ails Hepteidon? I have never seen a man so terrified.’

Lamla’s reply was curt:

‘Then he is afraid of nothing, Ma-Tin,’ He stopped Hepteidon as the edge of the couch. ‘Now, Hepteidon, look down on Kandrigi and then give me your decision.’

He looked down, groaned, and slipped to his knees. Ma-Tin hurried to support him, but Lamla stopped him with a sweep of his arm.

‘Tell me what ails him, Lamla. What are you doing to him?’ Ma-Tin asked angrily, ‘Why do you make him suffer the sight of the man he has examined?’

‘It is not my doing, Ma-Tin, believe me. It is a necessary thing, beyond my control.’

Hepteidon had taken Kandrigi’s hand between his two and now he covered it with kisses. Lamla’s detachment grew and he turned to Ma-Tin and said:

‘You see, Ma-Tin, it is as I thought. Hepteidon loves old Kandrigi.’ Then he added, his voice trailing away: ‘But it is a pitiful sight.’

Ma-Tin snorted, ‘This is an evil game, Lamla. Let me take Hepteidon out of here.’

‘No, There will be time enough for that,’ Lamla replied. He bent down and placed his hands on Hepteidon’s shoulders. ‘Tell me what you will do, Hepteidon,’ he said softly.

Hepteidon turned his tear-stained face to Lamla and nodded. His green eyes were filled with hate. But Lamla did not feel the sear of his hate: he saw that it turned back in Hepteidon; that it was unsure of its object.

Hepteidon bent over Kandrigi and slowly spelled out the question:

‘Tell me of the world’s end,’

Without a flicker of reaction, Kandrigi began to speak:

‘It comes in time. All are helpless against time.

‘It comes through cold eternal space.

‘Be warned. Let your race be warned.

‘I have seen it. It is a great body, capable of great destruction.

‘Through time it comes from afar; in time it will cross the path of your earth.

‘Believe me, believe me, I grieve for you and your race. There is no stopping the body, for it goes beyond my power. I warn you, let your race be warned, so that they might prepare themselves for their destruction.

‘It comes in time. It comes with time. Tell your people, that they might prepare. Nothing can be done. I have seen it. Irresistible it is, plunging through dark immensities of space.

‘Be warned, it will grow large in your sky and you will know then that you have been forewarned.’

Lamla could not conceal his triumph. Ma-Tin stared before him in stupification, then he shuddered and ran from the chamber.

Hepteidon pushed himself to his feet and stood squarely before Lamla, His voice was venomous, projecting the hate at Lamla:

'His senses have not returned to him.’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Korkungal had a dream as he slept crouched at the foot of the couch upon which Sora lay. Three small men came and pricked his body with tiny spears. They took no notice of Korkungal as they industriously attacked him. Becoming annoyed, he swept them away. They returned and set to pricking him again, and again Korkungal brushed them away like flies. A third time they came and darted at him with their spears and a third time Korkungal reached the limit of his patience and drove them away.

They did not return. Later, Korkungal heard a mighty thrum-thrum, like an army on the march, and he shook in his sleep for the want of powers of resistance. His fear became so great that he awoke and sat up, shouting in alarm and groping about him for his weapons. The clamour as of an army diminished and in its place he heard a solitary beat, thrud~thrud, coming from outside the watch-tower, He calmed and looked about him. Sora stood by the window. She had drawn the curtain and she stared wide-eyed down at the common below. Korkungal took a deep breath, leaped to his feet and strode to the window.

In the centre of the common between the Temple and the tower, lit by the rising sun, a figure stood, legs apart, beating his spear on his shield. It was Harmesh. He was covered from head to foot by leather armour, each piece closely moulded to the contours of his slim body. On his head he wore a metal helmet surmounted by a golden disc. Korkungal could not doubt that the challenge was for him: Harmesh's dark eyes burned into his. And when Harmesh saw him, he raised his spear and shouted in the tongue of the Ka.

Korkungal shook a clenched fist in acknowledgement and turned away. Sora was staring at him, her brows arched quizzically. Korkungal glanced at her face – sleep had smeared her make-up and tumbled her hair – and then down her vestment to her tiny feet. He was happy to look at her and in his happiness he felt himself grow strong and self-united. He pressed his fists to his chest and grinned widely at her. Sora replied by softening her features and lowering her eyes.

Korkungal went over to where his weapons hung, flexing his muscles to drive the stupor of sleep away as he walked. Sora followed him and helped him dress for battle. She strapped the breastplate about his body, then the scabbard about his waist; she fetched his red cloak from the foot of the couch and stood tiptoed as she fastened its clasp. While Korkungal put the helmet down on to his head, she lifted his sword from its place on the wall and presented it to him with mock-serious ceremony. Then she sat on the couch and appraised him, a quick smile playing on her lips – a smile composed of pride and the humour of a woman seeing the doings of men.

Korkungal raised his cloak for her to see him more clearly. The weapons and armour were still strange to him, but he had to trust them. Sora clapped and pointed to his hands and made signs to say that he had neither shield nor spear, while Harmesh below had. Korkungal went up to Harmesh’s chamber and selected two spears and a light round shield of bull leather. Now that he was prepared for fighting, he felt the familiar surge of excitement that goose pimpled his skin and tickled the nape of his neck. The death-possibility came to him in a new way, filling him with a strange relief. It made him unusually confident, almost reckless, as though his life was charmed.

He ran downstairs and out into the sunlight. Harmesh had kept up his beating of spear on shield; seeing Korkungal now, he increased its tempo, as much to incite himself as to insult Korkungal. Sora stood by the door, her eyes hooded against the sun. She raised her hand as though in blessing. Korkungal gave her a quick glance of pride and walked past, his eyes riveting on to the crouched figure of Harmesh.

He walked forward, every instinct alert, shield high and the two spears resting against its rim. Harmesh peered over his shield, serious and also watchful. The disc atop his helmet glinted brilliantly in the sun. They closed on one another, pace by pace, until they were shield to shield. Korkungal dropped one of his spears behind him and lowered the other and tapped it against the youth’s shield. Harmesh sidestepped and plunged his spear at Korkungal’s flank. The Brigan deflected it with his shield and drove his own spear into Harmesh’s arm, tearing a gash through the leather of his armour. Surprised at being so easily outmanoeuvred, Harmesh fell back and took up a more solidly defensive position. Korkungal bared his teeth at him in a mocking smile and padded forward, moving faster now and darting to left and right to confuse Harmesh.

Suddenly, a figure rushed past him and stopped in front of Harmesh. It was Klimbah, towering over his young charge, his massive arms gesticulating angrily. Korkungal heard him shout in the fluting tongue and Harmesh reply in thin insolent tones. Klimbah seemed to reach the limit of his patience: he wrenched the spear from Harmesh’s hand and swept the slight figure to one side with an almost casual swing of his arm. He held the spear high and pointed to it as he continued to scold the momentarily dazed Harmesh. Then he grasped it with his two hands and with little effort broke it in two. Harmesh screamed with rage and ran at him. Korkungal saw what Klimbah did not : the glint of the sword blade; but before he could shout a warning Harmesh had sunk it into the giant’s belly and was twisting it with well-practiced skill. Klimbah dropped the broken spear but he was dead before he could use his hands to defend himself. Korkungal did not think, this reaction had been in him before: he hefted his spear with care and cast it. It pierced Harmesh’s armour and entered his heart, as Korkungal had intended, and he jerked forward and fell across the body of Klimbah.

Korkungal paused to regain his breath before he walked over and took up his other spear. He approached the two bodies slowly, tremoring as usual at the sight of death. With his foot he rolled Harmesh off the giant. He had been prepared to kill Harmesh, though it would have been more fitting if it had been a warrior's death in combat. The sight of Klimbah filled him with pity for the waste of his life. It grieved him that it would not be avenged. Harmesh would have died that day anyway. Putting a spear in his heart had been a mercy he was unworthy of.

He threw his spear and shield to the ground and loosened his cloak and laid it over Klimbah. Then he dragged Harmesh’s body across the common to the side of the Temple. Using his sword, he mutilated and dismembered it. He threw the pieces out on to the grass, scattering them well, and when that was done he sighed a long sigh of relief.

Hearing Sora call, he looked up. A line of soldiers stood between him and the watch-tower. The captain in charge stepped forward and called to him, but Korkungal did not understand him because he spoke the fluting tongue. The Captain waited for a reply and when none came he signalled four of his men to advance. They came up to Korkungal with a certain nonchalance, their spears held in relaxed positions. He waited until they were about four paces away before rushing them, his mighty warrior-arm arcing the sword in great bloody swathes. Surprise was on his side and by the time he had crushed all their resistance to him three were lying on the ground, two of them dead and the third grievously wounded, and the fourth was running away, crying with terror. Korkungal took advantage of the ensuing confusion – the line of soldiers broke and retreated and their captain was totally occupied with calling them to order – to run and retrieve the shield. He went back to the wall of the Temple and faced the soldiers, shield up and sword ready, the red glaze of battle-lust lighting his eyes. A great peace filled him and he was happily without memory.

The captain managed to bring his troops under control and get them in line again. He slapped the frenzied soldier into some kind of consciousness and sent him running off in the direction of the gate and the beach. Then he called to Korkungal again and signalled that he was to throw down his arms. He made gestures of peace and reconciliation and then gestures of a terrible death to show Korkungal the alternatives open to him. When Korkungal made no response of any kind, he ordered his line of soldiers to advance. They came forward slowly, their spears ready and their faces contorted with fear and concentration. The captain followed behind, chanting encouragement in a monotonous voice.

Korkungal did not move until they were close; then he ran along the wall and attacked the soldiers at one end of the line, swinging his sword and sweeping his shield. The remainder of the line broke into confusion as it tried to turn to face Korkungal and found itself jammed against the wall of the Temple. The captain ran among the soldiers, screaming and manhandling them in an attempt to get them to reform further out on the common. Korkungal carved a path through the tangled mass, leaving dead and wounded soldiers behind him. They made some resistance, but it was difficult to wield a spear at such close quarters. All at once. as though obeying an unspoken command, the surviving soldiers turned and ran away. Their captain paused only long enough to look about him in wonder before running after them.

Korkungal leaned against the wall of the Temple. Blood and sweat commingled on his skin, trickling out of his hair, down his arms and from under his breastplate. He was grateful that the wall was in shadow, for the sky and the watch-tower were brilliant in the sunlight.

He rested, content to feel the excitement of battle, ignoring the cuts and gashes on his limbs and back.

Sora crossed the common to him. She surveyed the battlefield with some wonderment, but without any sign of revulsion for the carnage that littered the erstwhile green grass. She produced a jug of water from under her cloak and handed it to him. As Korkungal drank, she wiped his body with the end of her cloak, indifferent to the fact that it became stained red. Korkungal returned the jug to her and she went back to the doorway of the watch-tower.

Six soldiers appeared on the edge of the common, reinforcements armed with shields and heavy metal axes. One visibly gagged at the sight of his dead comrades. They did not advance; rather, they seemed to be waiting. Another group of axe-bearing soldiers came around the back of the Temple and took up station between the common and the quarter of the priests.

Korkungal took a fresh grip of his sword and shield and crouched in readiness. He feared the axes. but his destruction would be hard-won and paid for many times over. Such is the value of a warrior in comparison to a common soldier.

Three captains, one of them the routed captain, came marching up the street leading from the beach at the head of a column of over twenty soldiers. They formed themselves into ranks of six while the captains walked out on to the common. They were deep in conversation and did no more than glance across at Korkungal. Then one of them stepped forward and addressed him in a loud voice. He gestured to the dead soldiers and pointed behind him at the ranked troops. Korkungal did not understand him and replied by crouching lower. The captain who had spoken shrugged and spoke to his fellow captains. They nodded in agreement with what he had to say and the three of them retreated behind the line of axe-bearing soldiers. Just then, two priests came round the front of the Temple and hurried over to the Captains. Another priest appeared, walking more proudly. He had long black hair and wore a yellow cloak. Korkungal had seen him before, down on the beach. He spoke to the captains and they listened attentively. He looked with keen eyes at Korkungal and then gave orders, pointing and demonstrating with condescension. The captains shouted to their troops and immediately the two lines of axe-bearing soldiers began to walk towards each other. The ranked soldiers divided into two groups, one going over to the watch-tower, the second taking up position at the corner of the temple to Korkungal’s left. Meanwhile, the other two lines of soldiers met in the centre and turned to present Korkungal with two ranks of certain death.

The yellow-cloaked priest borrowed the sword of one of the captains, the routed one, and strode purposively across in Korkungal’s direction. He made a show of wielding the sword with vigorous ease. When he reached the first body he stopped and stared down at it; then he stared at the other bodies that were strewn about at Korkungal’s feet. He spoke in a harsh, blunt voice, gesturing at the massed soldiers about him and pointing with the up of his sword at the dead bodies. Korkungal did not understand him either. He took one threatening step forward and shook his sword at the priest. There was a general stir among the soldiers in response, but the priest did not flinch. Instead, he stared at Korkungal until he stepped back to the wall. Then he shouted over his shoulder and one of the priests bobbed his head and ran away around the front of the Temple. The longhaired priest gave Korkungal one last hard look before walking with the same measured steps back to join the captains at the edge of the common.

In the pause that followed the only sounds to be heard were the creaking of leather and the odd jingle of metal touching on metal. The sun beat down on the soldiers and again Korkungal was thankful that he was in the shade of the Temple.

A black-robed priest came out of the priests’ quarter and walked slowly on to the common. Korkungal recognised him as the High Priest, with whom he had had an interview not many days before. The High Priest signalled to the captains that their soldiers were to fall back and the captains hastened to obey this order. He approached Korkungal until he was within a spear’s length of him. There was no fear in his face. He looked at the dead soldiers with an impassive expression.

‘You have done terrible work this day, Korkungal, warrior of the Briga,’ he said reflectively. ‘The Ka pays dearly for an example of your prowess.’

Korkungal had difficulty in speaking: the exertions of battle and the tension of awaiting death were very great.

‘It is nothing much, priest,’ he said slowly. ‘Many more will die before the sun sets.’

Lamla raised his brows slightly.

‘I believe you, warrior. It is not a vain boast. I have never before seen so much destruction by the hand of one man. But tell me, Korkungal, is this mere sport or is there true justification for this slaughter?’

‘I was challenged and I defend myself,’ Korkungal said with a shrug.

‘Did these soldiers challenge you?’

No.

‘Who then?’

‘Harmesh.'

‘Ah,’ Lamla sighed. He walked over and lifted the red cloak. Then he walked about looking at the ground. He bent stiffly and lifted an object, which he brought back to Korkungal. He raised it for him to see. It was the head of Harmesh. In death, his lips were curled in spite and arrogance.

Lamla studied it for some time before speaking.

‘You made his death very shameful, Korkungal. Was this necessary?'

‘He murdered Klimbah in treachery, priest. His life was already forfeit to me, so his death was not a price for the death of Klimbah.’

Lamla dropped the head and rubbed his hands.

‘A harsh morality, but a just one, Korkungal. I will respect it. But why the slaughter of so many fine soldiers? Did they also challenge you?’

‘They attacked me,’ Korkungal replied bluntly.

‘I see. Be patient with me while I speak to the captains, Korkungal. I think there has been a sad misunderstanding.’

Lamla picked his way over the bloodied grass and was met halfway by the three captains and the yellow-cloaked priest. All bowed to him, except the priest, who merely nodded. He spoke to them in a gentle voice and the captains answered him respectfully one at a time, repeating themselves often. As he returned to Korkungal, one of the captains shouted orders and the soldiers who bore axes and shields broke rank and retreated to the vicinity of the watch-tower. The remaining soldiers raised their spears and rested them on the ground. They broke into an excited chatter, which sundered what had hitherto been an intense, brooding silence.

This time Lamla came up to Korkungal’s shield. He smiled a wan, weary smile.

‘It seems, Korkungal, that the Captains merely want to retrieve their dead, Will you allow that?’ he said with mock-irony.

Korkungal grunted and looked down at the High Priest.

‘When the fighting is at an end they can bury all their dead.’

‘No, no, warrior of the Briga,' Lamla cried, raising his hands as though in sudden alarm. ‘The fighting is at an end. The Captains recognise their error. They had interfered merely to prevent bloodshed. Though you may not know it, fighting is not permitted within the walls of the Ka. But Harmesh knew this and it was he who incited you to battle, so the blame for all this slaughter lies with him. It is regrettable that this misunderstanding has caused so much death and I have explained to the Captains that you cannot be held responsible.’

‘I will wait until the soldiers leave before I sheath my sword, priest.’

'They are leaving now, Korkungal. Besides, I will myself guarantee your safety. You see that I stand between you and the soldiers.’

‘Very well, I will put up my sword.’

Korkungal cleaned the sword on the grass and slid it into his scabbard. Lamla waved but once and instantly the captains shouted and the soldiers began to leave the common. They had to push their way through the crowd of artisans and their families that had gathered in the streets leading to the common.

Only the priest in the yellow cloak remained. He pointed the sword, which he had not returned to the captain, at Korkungal and shouted angrily at Lamla. Korkungal drew his sword again and stepped forward, but Lamla laid his two hands on his shield and said:

'Have patience, Korkungal. Hepteidon’s anger has other causes. I will speak to him and quieten him. Put up your sword.’

He hurried over to Hepteidon and laid his hand on the fist that held the sword. He spoke soothingly and gently eased the sword away from him. For a second it looked as though Hepteidon would strike his High Priest, but Lamla continued talking to him and finally succeeded in persuading him to leave the common.

Lamla smiled to reassure Korkungal as he approached.

‘There, Korkungal. We will have no more fighting in the Ka. Hepteidon is amenable to reason, that must be said to his credit.' He smirked in a peculiar way as he spoke these last words, and Korkungal was surprised to see something break in the otherwise level gaze of the old priest. ‘However, you will want to bathe and rest now after this morning’s work, Korkungal. If you will come with me, I will see that my priests attend to you.'

Korkungal looked with mistrust at the huddle of buildings behind the Temple. Then he looked over at the watch-tower.

Sara stood in the open doorway, wrapped in her stained cloak. Lamla followed his gaze and said:

‘That old tower is a cold, gaunt place, Korkungal. My priests will give you better attention.’ Lamla deliberately paused before adding: ‘Besides, I am sure you would like to see your priest, Kandrigi.’

Korkungal’s expression changed, much to Lamla's secret astonishment.

The sternness of the warrior was replaced by a distant look of longing. Korkungal remembered his vow of the previous evening: he must persuade Kandrigi to leave the Ka today.

But then he had a vision of the evening he first laid his eyes on the white wall of the city, and he saw there a man different from the one he was now. He trembled and tears pricked his eyes for the Warrior of the Briga the Ka had finally destroyed.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Lamla led Korkungal to the priests’ wash-house and ordered the old priest there to his feet. As the old man patiently arranged his bowls and ewers of oil, Korkungal hesitated and then turned to Lamla.

‘I will not be served by this slave, High Priest,’ he said with sudden fury.

‘It is his allotted duty, Korkungal,’ Lamla said reasonably. ‘It will not shame you to submit to him.’

The old man approached Korkungal and tried to unfasten his scabbard. His mouth hung open and dribbled in his senility and he seemed amused by the Brigan’s resistance to him. When he made a more determined effort to grab the buckle, single-minded in his desire to fulfil his duty, Korkungal swung his shield and struck him to the ground. Lamla hissed in anger and Korkungal turned to him, drawing his sword.

‘One more death this day will be as nothing, priest,’ he said with fierce conviction.

Lamla stepped back and studied Korkungal.

‘Why this obsession with death, Korkungal? You do not embrace life with the joy of a victorious warrior. Are you unhappy to he alive?’

The doorway darkened and both Korkungal and Lamla looked over. Sora glided into the room and went straight up to Korkungal without glancing at either of the priests. Silently, she took sword and shield from Korkungal. She undressed him and brought water and oil and washed away the sweat and blood.

She had cleaned her face and neck of all the cosmetics. Her skin was smooth and dark-brown, her eyes less luminous now that the contrast had been removed.

When she had finished washing and anointing him, she put a clean shirt on him, taking it from the corner where the old priest cowered. She kicked the breastplate, shield and helmet away and gave him only the sword and scabbard to wear.

Finished, she nodded to herself, then left the wash-house without looking at Lamla or the attendant.

Lamla stepped forward and said:

‘Do you know that she is only a common whore?’ His voice turned acid as he spoke the last word.

Korkungal suddenly seemed very tall to Lamla, like a Merura. noble. He replied with a stinging contempt:

‘What do you know of women, priest?’

Lamla stared at Korkungal, thinking, remembering the new rumours about this barbarian. He turned to the door, through which Sora had gone.

A whore? he thought, seeing irony. Then he shrugged and dismissed the matter.

It was not his concern. ‘Come now and see Kandrigi, Korkungal.’

They walked side by side to Lamla’s quarters, Korkungal tall and strong beside the old priest. In the corridor leading to his chamber, Lamla said:

'I must forewarn you that Kandrigi has been very ill. Even now he lies near to death. My priests have tended him to the best of their ability, but they are not workers of miracles.’

Korkungal was unmoved by this news.

'Kandrigi chose to come to this place. He boasted of his knowledge of its ways.’

‘He is without sight or hearing, Korkungal. The illness is mysterious. My priests can find no known cause.’

Korkungal made no reply. He walked with a firm step by Lamla’s side.

Though it was still daylight, the curtains in the chamber were drawn and the multitude of candles cast a brilliant light on to the walls and furnishings. Lamla led Korkungal to the couch where Kandrigi lay.

‘You see how wasted he is,’ Lamla said evenly. ‘We have had to bind his limbs because of the sores.’

Korkungal looked at the shrunken form of the priest without feeling. His cheekbones stood out on his face and his lips were blue. Lamla stepped forward and spoke on Kandrigi ‘s fingers:

‘It is I, Lamla. I have brought Korkungal, the warrior, to see you. Will you greet him?’

Kandrigi paused before drawing his hand back. Lamla caught it again.

‘Is this the way to greet a warrior of your tribe, Kandrigi? Korkungal suffers to see you thus,' he said on his fingers.

This time Kandrigi wrenched his hand away. The sigh that escaped between his lips showed that it pained him to do it.

Lamla remained still for a long time, his hands hovering over Kandrigi, as though undecided on what to do next.

In that space of time Kandrigi felt the cold at last engulf him. Turning all his attention to the dark that accompanied the cold, he died.

Lamla finally stood erect.

‘He is very ill, Korkungal,’ he said, allowing a note of sympathy to enter his voice. ‘He will not speak to you today. Perhaps tomorrow he will be better.'

He signalled that Korkungal was to follow him into the centre of the chamber. Sitting down on the high-backed chair, he said:

‘Do you know, Korkungal, that Kandrigi came to this Ka a long time ago, when we ware both young?’

Korkungal nodded. He did not speak.

‘We were friends then,' Lamla said musingly.

Korkungal remained silent. He was staring across at Kandrigi. Something warm and active stirred deep within him, but he ignored it and it went away. Then he grew restless and he wanted to leave. He circled the chair that Lamla sat on. Lamla clasped his hands, waiting for the sword to strike. Korkungal appeared before him again.

‘Will he live?’ Korkungal asked.

Lamla looked up. The figure before him was huge and powerful, yet he did not fear him. If Korkungal were to kill him, it would not be an act that originated within him.

‘I do not know,’ he replied.

Korkungal glanced over at Kandrigi.

‘Will he live?’ he repeated doggedly.

'No,' Lamla said quietly. He felt an immense surge of pity, as sharp as cloves and without end. It was not pity for Kandrigi, nor was it pity for himself. ‘He does not want to live.’

Korkungal settled his sword belt on his hip as though in preparation for leaving. When he spoke, his voice was calm and full:

‘I do now know what has happened here, priest. Nor do I care. Only one thing do I know: I no longer fear death. I will go now. I will not return to the land of the Briga. I will go into the Grasslands.’

He spun on his heels and walked with firm steps from the chamber.

 

Korkungal went to the watch-tower and selected a shield and two spears from among Harmesh's collection of weapons. Then he walked down through the artisan quarter. The streets were filled with an excited and restless throng. Many recognised him. They either drew back in superstitious fear or shook their fists at him for the slaughter of Imperial soldiers. But they gave him passage through the streets, partly through fear and awe, but mostly because he was not the real cause of their unease. He went down past the warehouses and out through the gate, the soldiers on guard there offering no obstacle.

He walked to the hollow where he and Kandrigi had slept the night before going into the Ka. He opened his bundle and took out his stone axe. The throwing sticks did not interest him now, so he thrust them away. He put Kandrigi’s old cloak around his shoulders.

He ate some dried meat and then climbed out of the hollow and sat on his heels in the grass. The white wall of the Ka was touched red by the setting sun. He could hear the shouts and screams in the city clearly. The sight and sound fused with his own deep, incoherent rage. He sat on, working out tactics whereby a force might take the city. He pictured the taking, the destruction and the burning. He trembled with the lust that such a picture aroused in him.

 

Lamla took out his little bell and rang it. When the shaven youth came, he ordered him to bring a flask of the reddish-brown liquid. He drank from the silver cup and immediately felt its effect. His head lightened and seemed to expand in concentric circles of increasing vagueness. He filled the cup again and drained it. He expanded without limit and grew aware of a silence about him. Fear gripped him for a moment, then it passed away and was replaced by indifference. He told himself that, logically, nothing of the past had been changed, that he was still High Priest of the Ka, with the duties and responsibilities of that charge. Tomorrow he would attend to the affairs of the city as though nothing had happened.

He drank again. Something had changed, however. Korkungal, the simple-minded warrior, realised it too, though how he had come to know it Lamla was not sure. Not to fear death was in itself a source of great fear. He began to feel restless. The Ka remains real, he told himself, no matter what happens. And then the terrible thought struck him, coming as though from outside: It is real only because you want it to be real.

At the End, he realised, the fact that the past was unchanged was a fact of absolutely no importance.

He drank again, draining the last of the liquor from the flask. He did not feel frightened, and he was too old, too wise for terror. Instead he saw the comedy of it. The limitless universe moved in laughter.

Lamla was grateful for his wisdom.

 

Later in the night he was awakened by the arrival of Hepteidon. The young priest no longer wore the yellow gown of the Astronomy Priesthood: a sleeveless leather jerkin covered his body, revealing muscular limbs as yet pale for the want of sun.

He was a different man now, more livid, restrained through physical control, not through piety. He treated Lamla as a complete stranger.

‘Ma-Tin is dead,’ he said factually. ‘He fell from the top of the Khumsung. Perhaps it was an accident.’

Lamla nodded. Ma-Tin had not been wise. But then he had never been a wise man.

Hepteidon swung about to look at Kandrigi lying on the couch in the corner of the chamber. His tunic creaked, being new.

‘What is Kandrigi’s condition?’ he asked., showing more warmth at the mention of the name.

Before Lamla could reply, before he actually knew what he would say, Hepteidon walked across to the couch. He bent over the shrivelled figure and touched an arm. He straightened then and called:

‘Come here, Lamla.’

Lamla hastened over.

‘Touch him.

Lamla grasped Kandrigi’s hand and tried to raise it. The hand and arm were rigid.

‘He is dead, Hepteidon,’ he said weakly, feeling a sense of betrayal. He could not avoid the thought that Kandrigi had somehow been graced by his death. He had faced something directly, an act that would be impossible for most other men.

‘He is to be buried within the Ka,’ Hepteidon said curtly. ‘The people must honour him as a saint. It may help to calm their growing fear.’

‘There are always rumours among the common people,’ Lamla interjected sourly.

‘Nevertheless, they begin to fear the star. They already know Kandrigi’s prophecy. It will become harder to restrain them.’

Lamla cocked his head with impatience: ‘We will keep order by force if reason and piety will not do it.’

‘This is only the beginning, Lamla.’ Hepteidon turned away. ‘Tomorrow I sail into the North. I will not see this place again.'

Lamla broke through his introspection: ‘Go with my blessing, Hepteidon,’ he said automatically.

Without replying, Hepteidon left, his tunic creaking and his swinging arms flashing in the candle-light.

Lamla knelt by the couch, sinking back into his introspection. The massed candles flickered in the chamber, lighting the wall paintings and the furnishings.

Lamla did not see this. Everything was transparent, without foundation.

Lamla saw this, even though his eyes were closed.

It was dark and a warm breeze blew at Korkungal’s back. The scents of the Grasslands came to him now and they were sweet. The White Light above the Temple glowed. The shouting and crying and the sound of fighting were loud in the city.

A figure approached him from the direction of the Ka. Sora walked up to him, paused, and then knelt before him. He looked at her and she returned his look. He stretched out his right hand and touched her clear cheek. It was warm and dry. She clasped his hand in hers and kissed it.

Korkungal stood up and went down into the hollow. The Light of the Ka did not penetrate here. He lay out on his back and gazed up at the stars. One of them was brighter than all the others. It stood out with brilliant starkness, suspended clear above the warm, odorous air of the Grasslands.

Sora came and stood over him. She watched him for a while. Then she raised her black vestment and lay on top of him, drawing her yellow cloak over both of them, until Korkungal could no longer see the stars or feel the eddying air.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

The sun had not yet cleared the mists from the Grasslands when Korkungal awoke. He blinked, then rolled out from under Sora's cloak and scrambled to his feet. The air was cool and fresh; the sky above was unbroken blue. He ran up and down the hollow to warm himself, beating his arms against his sides.

Sora awoke. She shivered, huddling in her cloak. Korkungal encouraged her to run with him, but she declined. She watched him run for a while and then climbed out of the hollow.

She returned not long after, bringing fresh milk and bread. Behind her trotted Uöos, red-eyed and blue with the cold. He slid down the incline and hunkered low.

‘You are leaving the Ka today,’ he said forthrightly to Korkungal. ‘It will be a good day for starting a long journey.'

He eyed Kandrigi’s old cloak, until Korkungal slipped it off his shoulders and gave it to him.

Sora shared out the food and the three of them sat in a circle and ate. When they had finished, Korkungal began to wipe the dew off his weapons. Uöos watched him for a while and then said:

‘Your stay in the Ka was short, Korkungal. And yet it was momentous, was it not? Little did you expect visions and slaughter here, eh? No matter, greater things are to come. I will tell you this in friendship – for whoever Sora loves I must also love: like a rock you are, impervious to water; but when the land twists and tears, the rock will shiver and lie as sand beneath the sea. Do not be frightened of what I say, for all things must come to an end.

‘Now, while you are busy I will take the opportunity to finish my tale. It is not long. You remember how Chorsa and Agnanna decided to share the orchard equally between Asta and the people against Asta’s will. Well, they went ahead and did just that. Asta was furious and threatened all kinds of revenge, but Chorsa easily quietened her by telling her that she would take the people away and so leave her without protection if the giant should return. The people, of course, were happy to get control of part of the orchard. During the years that followed they divided their time between working in Asta’s portion of the orchard and their own. And in time Asta became mollified and reconciled to the arrangement.

‘Now, as time passed Chorsa came to see that she was no longer needed. She was only too glad to get away, for the strain of seeing to the wants of the men and their families had been very great. Agnanna continued to play with the people, delighting in their happiness. But she soon recognised that there was a limit to the happiness and so she began to think of asking Asta to surrender part of her share of the orchard. She mentioned it to the men and they agreed to support her in this demand. Asta was furious and tried to resist, but it was of no use. Agnanna drew a new boundary in the orchard which cut Asta’s share in half. The happiness of the people increased in proportion and Agnanna basked contentedly in the warmth of their joy.

'This arrangement remained the same for several seasons, when the men spoke among themselves and decided that they should own all the orchard. They said nothing to Agnanna and she knew nothing of the conspiracy until the men rose early one morning and drove Asta away. She cursed them and promised to inflict the most terrible punishment on them for their presumption. They laughed at her and told each other that an old woman could do little against the men who had driven away the giant, a creature she herself had been helpless against.

‘So Asta went and lived on a rocky part of the island, well away from the orchard. Agnanna did not trouble herself about the methods the men had used to get rid of Asta. Why should she when the happiness of the people positively overflowed? However, they came to her one day and told her to leave, explaining that they had need of her no more. Agnanna was heartbroken; even so, she left them. The men organised themselves for the proper government of the orchard. They elected a king and he created nobles, to carry out his commands and see to the welfare of the people generally.

‘Asta, meanwhile, had been brooding away to herself on her rocky patch. She made her plans. One night she crept down to the orchard and set fire to it. The men could not put it out and by morning nothing was left of the apple trees except charred stumps.

‘Afterwards, they called on Chorsa to come and help them. She felt obliged to come; after all, she had introduced them to the island. She showed them how to pick berries and roots, how to fish and search the shore for shellfish. Agnanna returned too, knowing that a little happiness, no matter how hard it is earned, is better than no happiness at all. Asta never returned, and nobody knows what became of her.

Uöos looked up when he had finished and grinned broadly.

‘Do you understand my tale now, Korkungal?' he asked.

Korkungal continued to wipe his spears as he replied:

'No, I do not, storyteller. I am a simple warrior. Tell such subtle stories to the priests.'

Korkungal spoke with a public tone; but he also glanced over at Sora.

Uöos noticed both facts. He grinned triumphantly:

‘Ah, but you do, simple warrior. You can’t hide that from me!'

 

Hepteidon spent his last night in the Ka among the soldiers camped between the corrals and the pond. These were the heavily armed troops who had confronted Korkungal on the previous day. They had not been used to quell the riots in the city during the night: their weapons were not appropriate.

In the morning, military patrols were sent out to locate Korkungal. It was not till noon that the report was brought, that he was in a hollow just outside the city, in the company of an old man and a girl.

Hepteidon took it upon himself to seize Korkungal. He requested and received a troop of the axe-men and he led them out of the city.

Using the old man as an interpreter, he commanded Korkungal to come with him to the beach, where he would embark on the ships sailing north. Korkungal refused and retreated to the far side of the hollow. He crouched behind his shield, one spear stuck in the ground at his back and the other at the ready, and offered battle to anyone who dared. Hepteidon had the axe-men surround the hollow and then ordered them to attack Korkungal from all sides. At the cost of one soldier wounded, not seriously, Korkungal was at length disarmed and subdued. Then Hepteidon had to take personal charge of Korkungal to protect him from the axe-men, who wanted to revenge the death of their comrades.

Before taking Korkungal away, Hepteidon, as though on an afterthought, ordered that the old man and the girl be taken to the ships as well. Korkungal would be more tractable if his woman remained with him. The old man could act as interpreter.

 

It was early evening before the two ships were finally under way, gliding smoothly out of the bay, their prows turning around the headland to point into the north.