No Affiliation Alliance

BALATAR By R.J. Marco Book One

Chief Peace Pipe (sized) JPEG(1) cover shot

“Balatar”

Book One

Revised Edition

“The Cosmic Forces of Mu- a series

By R.J. Marco

COPYRIGHT 1984 by ROBERT MARCOCCIO
All rights reserved. No part of the publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author or the publisher.

First published in The United States of America in 2012 by Marco Communications and Publication

www.marcocommunications.com

Dedicated to Sue Ann Wilkie which without her knowledge of metaphysical principals would not have the wisdom or detail that makes this story uniqueDedicated to Sue Ann Wilkie which without her knowledge of metaphysical principals would not have the wisdom or detail that makes this story unique.

Edited by Sue Ann Wilkie

Book Cover Design by:

http://www.angelurena.net/

Prelude

         In a forgotten tongue from the ancient book of the dead, the old chief told his story. His words drew images upon the young boy’s mind sitting across the open pit fire. Though the words of this forgotten tongue were strange to the young boy, he listens and understands as their minds meet on a plane of time and space. Here, the world of the ancient fathers, join with the new, forming a common bond that breaches the significant of words.
         Glowing embers of fire spirits dance upon the cave’s blackness as the old chief stirs the fire with his stick. His voice strained by age spoke the forgotten words of the ancients and in a gentle tone his story begins. The chief’s words are deliberate in their recollection. “In my life I have been witness to the great wrongs of the human beings. I have witnessed the rise of great cultures and the destruction of vast societies. Now left in this awkward shell of my own humanity it comes time for me to prepare myself for my journey home to be again among my people in the spirit world. It is time for me to pass on the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient ones. We, Grandson, are the bearers of lost secrets, the keepers of the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient fathers.” The old chief removes the stick from the fire lighting the broken sage mix with sweet grass in the bowl at his feet inhaling deeply he is consumed by a long silence.
         The boy watches as the smoke swirls upwards disappearing in to the blackness of the cave beyond the fire light – ghost spirits watched from above as the ritual begins. The old chief picks up a decorated skin from the ground beside where he sat before the fire. His crippled fingers manage the lace loose and he removes a pipe placing a bud of tobacco in it, then lighting it. Taking the pipe in both hands he gestures with his head bowed in respect giving it his blessing before extending it across the fire to his grandson. “Take this pipe. Inhale its herb and let it be your commitment to the task bestowed upon us by the ancient ones.” The boy takes the pipe feeling its stone texture etched with the ruins from a lost culture. He draws a deep breath and feels its warmth pass from the pipe in to his lungs.
         The old chief chants raising his hands upwards – destiny has been full filled. His chants diminished settling to smile upon the young boy who offers the pipe back to his grandfather. With the gentle touch of a finger the old chief nudges the pipe back at the boy. “The pipe is yours grandson. It is the first of many gifts from the Great Spirit that is passed to you. To smoke from this pipe you vow to protect the laws of nature and the secrets of the ancients. It is the pipe of truth…Chenupa it is called in the ancient tongue. Smoke from it with those you feel are worthy and never allow it from your possession.” A cold chill blows through the cave challenging the flames, but the flames will not fail for the magic of the old chief is great. The old chief wraps an animal fur around his shoulders. He speaks proud his voice bold and defying the unwanted spirit that has entered the cave and he continues. “In the days before the first kings of men, there existed a land called Mu. It was a land not ruled by the power of men, but by the power of nature from which all things flow in peace and harmony. The people of this land were descendants of a simple clan of wanderers that found content in this land and made it their home. They fished off the shallow bay for many generations before the foreigners came. The first of these foreigners were exiles from many other lands escaping the tyranny of Pharaohs, and Emperors. Here in this land of Mu they found peace and with them they brought much knowledge and were able to build a great canal which extended to the north lands bringing trade from the Mayan tribes. It is not an easy journey to reach Mu since its location was a protected secret. The only passage to Mu from the south was through a guardian city of Alantasia and its only route was by sea. The tribal leaders from the original clans of Mu allowed the foreigners to settle providing that the customs of the clansmen were never interfered with. As a tribute to the agreement the foreigners built a temple. This temple took many years to build and became the center of what soon became the city of Mu – the Motherland. The temple became a place of knowledge where scholars which came from many lands beyond the sea to gather and share the knowledge of cultures and methods of communications…Life was simple for the people in Mu. Each man could practice their own beliefs inside their home. A council was formed to deliberate conflicts and even though the clansmen accepted the foreigners they still kept much to themselves in their own traditions and customs. The place called the Motherland became an attraction for the reverence of intellectual freedom causing many of the visiting scholars to stay once they arrived. Many studied the native ways taught in the Temple of Ra….In the Temple of Ra the knowledge was transcribed to scrolls by the priests of the temple. It is in these scrolls that the secrets of nature prevail sponsoring a society of scholars that bore the symbol of union which was expressed by two loops intersecting with a dot above and a dot below….Its concept being the study of Earth, Heaven, and Humankind which are the Cosmic Forces of Mu. The story I tell you, my grandson, is about the powers of the land and about the few chosen to guard these secrets. This is the story of the Balatar.” The old chief took his hand, his fingers twisted by age, circled the fire. The sparks and smoke began to swirl and figures began to appear before the child astonished by his grandfather’s magic. “Close your eyes grandson and see the journey of your people and accept it as your own. Be one with the universe for it is you, Grandson, that will be the link between man and the spirit world” As the young boy is consumed by the images in the darkness of his mind a simple truth reveals itself to him- all roads to the future, lead from the past.

CHAPTER ONE

“The Motherland”

         A cool morning breeze carries the scent of salt air off the bay. Ramu, the High Priest of Mu, looks down from his chamber window as the first merchants prepare their shanty shops for the day. He breathes deep the morning air.
         With the Moon still full in the sky, farmers from the north, descend from the highlands along the dusty road toward the city. Barges from as far north as Maya flow along a steady current full of farmers and traders with their commodities. Lines are cast from the barges to shore men who secure the ropes to the moorings of the plaza market.
         Flickering lights from cottages and barns along the eastern pastures gave indications of farmers loading wagons, with grain, vegetables and fruit. Shepherds drive their flocks through fields that separate the city from the forest. Already some wagons cross the stone bridge that spans the canal, loaded with produce.
         As the morning sky lightens, the first wagons from the forest village of Tarkas emerge, bringing herbs, roots, spices and animal pelts to market. The wagons rumble heavily, traveling all night from their village a day ride from the city and would return as full carrying needed lantern oil, grain to feed their livestock and wheat to bake bread.
         To the west of Mu loomed the jungle land. Its perpetual darkness and mystery, separated by the scorched white sands of the desert, unchanged since the beginning. Few have dared to venture within, for those that have, none have returned. It is a place of taboo, of tales of flesh eating monsters and of voodoo men that drank the blood of their victims and shrank their heads. It was spoken of in low voices, so not to tempt the power of demons contained within its boundaries.
         As the first rays of the Sun burst over the horizon, the citizens stop their task. They kneel low and praise the rise of the morning sun, with a ritual of harmonization. The Ritual of Ra it was called, was believed to enrich the crops and symbolized man’s unity with the universe by returning to nature the elements used by them in the daily life of the day before.
         Today was an important day. Soon the merchant ship from Alantasia would arrive. The bay being shallow forced the ship to anchor far out in the bay and relying on the smaller fisher boats moored to the beach docks. These boats were the homes of many of the original family clans that settled this land, even before she was called Mu, and on this day they did not fish because the bounty to make transporting cargo to and from the merchant ship would be efficient enough to buy their monthly needs. This is why a single fisher boat sailing from the bay attracts Ramu’s concern. It was strange that any fisherman would ignore this profitable day.
         This boat belongs to a man called Evas. A seasoned boatmen and fisherman had startled awake from a horrible dream. The dream being so compelling that while the other boat people slept, he untied his boat from its mooring and set it adrift towards the bay. He sets the sail into the wind and waits as his family sleeps unaware.
         A chilled spray mist blows across his face as he searched the wind to catch his sail, envying his family as they sleep. His son Octivus sleeps undisturbed on a floor mat of straw. The young boy of twelve was his father’s pride. In the cradle is his infant daughter, Cora. He watches the cradle rock to the gentle rhythm of the water swells. The sail billows as the wind carries the tiny boat away from shore.
         Sitting on a neat pile of nets, Evas steers out to sea, to a place his family has fished for generations. It was a secret place hidden within the shoals of coral rock. Entering required skill to maneuver through the coral reef without damaging the boat’s hull and could be dangerous when the waters were rough.
         Evas looks back to Mu. The weathered wharf buildings glow in the bright morning sun. Crowds of merchants and farmers were scurrying about. Then, all stops as the mystical sound of thousands joined in the ritual of the morning sun. Evas joined in.
         By now the other fisherman must think he has lost his senses. Even he must question his own sanity to allow a dream to have such an influence on the fate of his family. What if he were wrong? What if his dream was nothing more than a dream?
         Everything was at risk by this foolishness – his reputation and the very welfare of his family with winter not far off, provisions would run short. They could starve! What madness was driving him to ignore tradition and to fish on this day?
         Treasa woke from a sound sleep alarmed realizing they were sailing from the bay. “Why are we not at our mooring? We will miss the merchant ship. Did you forget what day this is? Meshel will have packages…what will he do when we are not there?” Her voice began to shriek. Evas could not answer her and looks away feeling he had let her down. “How will we feed our family? She continued.
         “I cannot explain…this is something I feel I must do.” The boat was already too far out and Treasa sat in her chair glaring at her husband.
         As the tiny boat made its way around the rocky shoal that separated the bay from the sea. Evas called to his son to ready himself at the sail. Treasa still angry grumbles to herself as she takes the oar lever from her husband’s hand. Octivus rubs the sleep from his eyes. He woke up to his mother’s voice scolding at his father. Looking back toward Mu he knew why.
         This was a dangerous time for the family, since the currents and the winds of the sea were so much more powerful than in the bay. Evas took a sturdy pole from the deck and manned the bow. He watches as his son takes hold of the rope that would secure the sail closed. Their safety depended on them all working together.
         Should the boy fail to secure the sail at his father’s command the wind would carry the boat through the reef too fast for Evas to maneuver clear of the rocks and the boat’s hull would smash on the reef – they would drown. It was important too that Treasa raises the oar from the water as they cross over the reef, or it would be sheared off leaving them stranded.
         “SECURE THE SAIL!” Evas shouts.
         The boy pulls the rope tight, forcing the wind from the sail. The boat drifts toward the reef. Its speed slowed as Evas poised, watching for the first of the sharp rocks below the surface to appear. His pole lands firm pushing them clear of the dangerous obstacle. “RAISE THE OAR!”
         Treasa raised the oar and the boat drifts through the reef to the hidden place of their ancestors. Octivus ties the rope to a cleat, as his father drops the anchor into the clear calm water of the hidden pool. Treasa returns to nursing her infant daughter, less angry but still annoyed.
         Evas could feel the tension from his wife as she bangs about the cooking pots making a morning meal. He attempts to act as if nothing was different from other days by teaching his son to weave the weak loops in the net. Together Evas and his son lowered the net into the water with gentle care not to disrupt the fish below and scare them away. Once this was done, there was little to do but to wait.
         The boy would sit, as always, upon the deck throwing a thin blade into a plank of wood. His game was to see how many times he could make it stick before he missed. He had become very good at his game.
         Evas sat in the same old squeaky chair his father sat, smoking the same old pipe. He enjoyed watching the dragon flies dance about the marsh grass that spanned out endlessly beyond his vision. He watches as the clouds drift by while the gentle rolls of the tide swells calm him. With his eyes closed, he enjoys the sound of the pond about him. The water slapping gently against the boat’s hull relieved Evas from his nightmare that woke him.

****

         Though most of the citizens of Mu prepared for the market, one man looked forward to a good long sleep. His name is Lon Che and is the night guardsmen along the western wall of the city. There were no other guardsmen in Mu, just Lon Che and the wall was a mere two feet high extending along the western edge of the city, more to keep the desert sands and small animals out than for defense from attack.
         War was not a concern to the people of Mu. It had natural defenses – the jungle land to the west, thick forest to the east and its placement between two allied countries, Alantasia to the south and Maya to the north. The citizens of Mu took for granted their peaceful existence.
         on Che walked along the wall with a large stick he used to ward off small animals and desert lizards that strayed into the city in search of food. The merchants and farmers valued his service to them and left food for him as he made his rounds while they slept.
         Though the farmers and merchants had a high regard for the guardsmen, Lon Che spent most of his time alone. When he was a very young child he had an unfortunate accident with a lantern that burned his face and his scars frightened the children so he stayed to himself.
         The early morning sky draws shade of purple hues, hinting of the coming day. Lon Che walks along the narrow alleys, checking the stable doors were shut and locking those he found open. As he walks he hums a song. The full moon above tells him that it was again time for the merchant ship. This meant his friend Meshel would be preparing for market and would need his help.
         The guardsman stops in a small court and takes a handful of water to his mouth from the fountain. It is cool and refreshing. A glimmering light was coming through the shutter boards. Meshel an elderly man opens his door and comes out. He is happy to see Lon Che standing at the fountain.
         “Good morning, my friend. How are you?” Meshel greets the guardsmen.
         “All is well. The merchant ship will arrive today.”
         “Yes…and I have many things to do. I am expecting a valuable package to arrive from Alantasia. Can I hire your services briefly, Lon Che?” Meshel is excited by the arrival of his package. He had sold his entire pen of chickens to raise enough to purchase it.
         “I am at your service as always, my friend.”
         “Can you take this bucket to the sewer and dump it for me please? It is heavy and my back is not what it used to be.” Lon Che picks up the bucket as Meshel hands him a few coins for the deed.
         Preparations for the market began before the sun rises. Farmers load their wagons with slaughtered fowl, eggs, and dried beef from their smoke shacks. The competition between peddlers made it necessary to be early to market or risk being left with excess commodities to spoil in the hot afternoon sun. Mules carrying burlap sacks of fruit moved slowly along the narrow alleys. Merchants carrying tall poles strung with peppers and dried beef, shouted to be heard above the rabble of noise. Lon Che stayed in the shadows carrying the bucket to the sewer to dump.
         Crowds gather around jugglers and story tellers at a place called the wall. Men with their sons gather to hear the tales of far off lands, told by any strangers who hoped someone would like their story enough to spare a few coins to buy a bowl of soup and bread. In the background merchants shouted from their shanty shacks above the cackling, baaing and squealing of penned animals. The aromas of the soup kitchens linger in the air. The many shops displayed a colorful array of garments and pottery from the distant lands of Babylon, Troy, Rome, Ethiopia, and Utopia. A festive atmosphere buzzed about the marketplace. The guardsmen stopped briefly at the wall, but soon the sun would be bright and he should be home asleep.
         Towering above all the confusion was the Temple of Ra. From his balcony, Ramu marveled at the complexity of it all. Confident of its power with only one other place of equal intensity on this to be a prosperous day – the fisherman’s wharf.

CHAPTER TWO

“Fisherman’s Wharf”

         To pass beneath the gateway arch, separating the inland city from the wharf, it is easy to imagine stepping from one foreign land to another. The weathered piers and docks called Fisherman’s Wharf was a city all to itself, bearing its own traditions and superstitions.
         The docks are lined with fisher boats tied to their moorings. On a clear day as this, the boats that housed families of fishermen would be anchored out in the bay. Instead, on this particular day of the month, the families unload all their furniture and belongings on to the dock to make space for hauling cargo from the merchant ship. The merchants depended on the fishermen to transport packages and crates of merchandise and supplies to the ships, or to bring cargo from the ship to land. A strong bond of trust was earned between merchants and certain fishermen. It is one such bond that is causing the merchant Meshel distress, unable to find the fisherman Evas at his usual mooring. “Excuse me? Where is the fisherman Evas?”
         Stopping her task, the old woman turns to face the stranger, shrugging. “He has gone fishing.”
         “Fishing!? Did he lose his mind?” Meshel throws his arms upwards in frustration. The old woman shakes her head returning to her task.
         Angry Meshel paces back and forth along the crowded pier. How could this be possible? He had an arrangement with Evas. Swearing to himself, he knows his predicament. In his pouch was his life savings and he is now forced to trust it to a stranger – even worse – he must trust the package! What if the clumsy oaf drops it into the bay? OH! The pain to think about it! “How could you do this to me, this day of all days?” Pacing nervous eyeing each of the fishermen, evaluating and second guessing his choices, Meshel finally decides. On the verge of panic his voice shrill he approaches a fisherman about to cast off. “Are you able to take on a small package?”
         “I am full. I have no more room.” Picking up a pole he begins to push away.
“It is only this pouch and must be delivered direct to the captain…see? It will fit in your hand…see?”
         The fisherman scratches his brow. “For five coins I will make the space.”
Meshel stands back “That is ridiculous! I have never paid more than two coins for a cargo ten times its size.” Meshel shrieks back.
         “All the boats are full. That is my price.”
         Angry he hands the fisherman the coins. “Fine. I want you to know the package is very valuable. DO NOT LOSE IT!”
         “It will be safe” The fisherman says with confidence handing the coins to his wife for keeping. Meshel watches as the boat drifts out toward the bay. The deal was done and his fate lies in the hands of a stranger. Not the ideal circumstance for the most important business deal in his life.
         A bell rings out and a young boy atop a lookout platform that is erected high above the docks cries out. “I see the ship! The ship is here!”
         Meshel walks not too far. His heart is racing with anticipation, mixed with anxiety. He must find a place to sit before his old legs give out from under him. Sitting on an empty crate, he wipes the sweat from his brow and catches his breathe. This was all too much for his bad health.
         A wagon pulls to a stop next to him. Two young brothers sit in the rear of the wagon to help their father transport cargo coming from the ship to the inland city. Meshel watched with envy thinking back on a bittersweet memory of when he too had a family. His memories always ended in the same nightmare when soldiers murdered his two sons and wife in their beds. He alone managed to escape and has since wished he had died with them. He was weak and could do nothing to save them instead he fled to find sanctuary in this distant place. The stone was within his grasp, perhaps now his luck was about to change.

****

         Captain Mono looks out across the bow to the distant land on the horizon. Twenty or more years have passed since his maiden voyage brought him to this mysterious place. Still, after all these years, this land fascinates him more than any other port. It was the one port he allowed himself land privileges and looked forward to visiting old acquaintances that lived along the wharf city main.
         “How long will it be before we anchor, Captain?” A voice comes from behind him.
         The Captain turned about to find a passenger he took on board at the last port. Looking the man over, Mono sensed in his gut a trouble about this stranger. “About midday, Sir…. have your baggage on deck.”
         “Thank you Sir. I shall have my slaves bring them from below.”
         The stranger called himself Niobe. His slaves called him Master. Adventure was his game as he often boasted to others. He had a story to tell of his encounters with headhunters and wild beast of unknown lands. Much of it was lies, still Niobe marveled at his assumed superiority over others. His arrogant tones made him an enemy at a glance. He was rude, mean and obnoxious to most everyone he met, more so to his slaves. “Sylas! Sylas!” He shouts.
         “Yes Master.”
         “We have arrived. Have the other slaves bring up my gear to the deck and make sure they are careful with it.” Turning back to his interest, Niobe looks out across the water toward a faint image in the distance. It was the dark lands to the west that intrigued him – his destiny was at hand! There it was just as it was described to him by a sailor in Port Wert. It was a land not yet explored holding within it the dangers of the unknown lurking in the darkness for anyone who dared to enter. Niobe knew this would be his greatest adventure of all!

****

         The heat of the mid day Sun wakes Evas from his nap. He had slept longer than he wanted and splashes cool water from the pond onto his face to clear his mind. He shouts to his wife who had also fallen asleep, snuggled at either side by her children.
         “We have overslept. Quick, we must raise the nets! It will be late when we reach the wharf, maybe too late. Come here Octivus, wet your face it will wake you.” Evas takes the net lines in his hands and begins to pull up the nets but instead of the nets coming up the boat jerks and leans. Evas fears his nets are snagged on the rocks below. Looking over the side of his boat he thinks he sees a dark shadow over his net – it must be sea weed. He pulls hard with all his strength but it is too heavy for him alone to rise. His voice near panic, calls to his family. “The net is caught! Octivus? Treasa help me!”
         Together they pull hard and the net begins to pull up slow and heavy, taking all their strength with the ropes cutting into their hands. Treasa could see her husband’s fear and pulls harder knowing they would lose everything. The young boy pulls, his teeth gritting from his agony to try and help. He is small and his help makes little difference. If only there were another adult.
         Water begins to rush over the boat side. “We will have to cut the net loose or we will sink!” Blackness took over his heart knowing his foolishness has now cost him everything. Turning to his son he shouts “Cut the ropes my son…cut the ropes before we all drown.”
         The boy leans over the side of the boat and cuts the first rope.
         “Quick my son…we are sinking!”
         The boy looks down into the water and sees the shadow over the net moving, stepping back excited he shouts at his father. “Look father, the nets are full of fish!”
         With new hope, the fisherman and his family pull with all their hearts to save themselves and with a heavy thud the net splattered on the deck. They stood stunned with their feet buried in a heap of flapping fish. It was the best catch Evas ever made and Treasa throws her arms around her husband and hugs him tight.
         Still in a wonder, the boy exclaims “Father, you have caught all the fish in the pond.”
         Suspicious of his own good fortune, Evas begins to throw fish back into the water. “We must throw some back. We have taken too many and must not be greedy. There will be other days.” With joyful glee the family tosses the excess fish back into the pond. What a foolish site they must be…Evas thought…A fisherman throwing fish back.
         “Look Father, it is the merchant ship!”
         The vessel with its huge sails billowed to the wind sails past the hidden cove with grace. They stop to watch it pass taken by the ships presence and awed by its magnitude.
         “We must hurry now…Octivus take the pole.”
         Evas pulls up the anchor and together he and his son push the boat with the poles toward the reef. Evas hurries now to the bow and readies him to push his boat clear of the underwater rocks. He strikes the pole down into the water and with a horrific crunch the hull wedges on the reef throwing Evas headfirst into the water.
         Screaming for her husband, Treasa hurries to where he stood. He appears alongside the boat unhurt holding his boat back from the reef managing to hold it steady best he could. “We are too heavy in the water…quick toss more fish back into the pond.” The wake of the ship now makes it a battle for survival between the fisherman and the strength of the sea and he prays to his ancestors to give him the strength to save his family. Soon the boat clears the reef and Treasa pushes with the pole till they are clear.
         Exhausted Evas pulls himself aboard his boat and lies upon the deck. His feet were bloody from the course rock of the reef. They were safe now. Octivus unties the sail and maneuvers it to catch the wind. He can hear his Grandfathers voice on the wind guiding him “–feel the wind and turn the sail into it. You got it.” And the sail billows taking them quick towards land. The family is exhausted but could only rest for a brief moment before they began to gut and clean the pile of fish.
         Treasa laid a wet tarp over the pile of flapping fish to protect them from the sun’s heat. Evas tied the oar in position and joined his family. On occasion he would dip a bucket over the side of his boat and splash it over the fish.
         As the young boy cleaned a fish, he saw a large fish flopping around the deck not yet ready to give up life. It slaps itself with a wild thrusting flip upwards towards the boat railing. In one swift movement the boy flings his knife and pins the fish to the rail inches from its freedom. Amazed by his own shot he jumps to his feet and retrieves his knife and prize.
         “You have become a seasoned thrower my son” Evas was proud of his son.
         “This will be our dinner tonight, Father.” He says as he begins to gut it. Hidden within the muck the boy feels something hard and dips his hand in a bucket of water to clean it off. Excited he holds up a crystal rock shouting “Look what I have found!”
         Let me see it?” Evas takes the rock and holds it against the sun and gasp at the rainbow of colors it emits “It is beautiful! “ He concludes.
         “It has been a most fortunate day for us.” Treasa’s anger forgotten she turns in reverence to her husband. “I should not have doubted your insight, Evas.”
         In the bay, the merchant ship drops anchor, as eager fishermen drift astern. Evas sailed pass unnoticed by the others as his family worked hard to clean the many fish, but there were so many, it was impossible to have cleaned them all before reaching land. Evas was not worried. He would have the only fish in the market.
         As his boat drifted to its mooring, Treasa’s father came running up to them waving his arms in a panic. “Did you lose your mind, Evas? The ship is here and we have lost valuable income…there is still time if we hurry.”
         “Catch the rope, Pec. We will not haul cargo today.” Treasa pulls the tarp from the mound of cleaned fish.
         Pec steps backwards startled. “You have done well.”
         “I have done very well, indeed. Go about and tell the kitchens we have fish to sell and bring your cart. I will need to bring the fish I have cleaned to the marketplace.”
         “Yes, yes…Come with me Octivus and you can bring the cart back here to your father…I must hurry and bring news of fish to the kitchens…FISH! FISH! WE HAVE FISH TODAY!” The old man shouts running along the dock toward the kitchen. It was a good omen to have fish on this day and Evas got a high price. He sold the unclean fish for less, though this price was still double the price of a cleaned fish on an average day.
         Soon the boy returned with the cart and helped his father load the fish. “Treasa, I will take Octivus with me to the market. Pec will return shortly with orders from the kitchens: Can you manage it alone?”
         “I will be fine.”
         “Come, my son. They disappear pushing the cart of fish through the crowded wharf main.
Evas was stopped by those passing by, eager to buy fish. He was certain his cart would be empty before he reached the market. There would be no spoilage today. This was good.

****

         Boata was a big man with two sons, Ethan and Humbert who sat patient in their father’s wagon. It would be a long time before the cargo will be unloaded and sorted by the fisherman families. When the merchants came to claim their crates and packages, Boata would sell his services to haul the cargo to the merchant shops and barns. For now Boata sat with his eyes closed resting.
         The first boats tie to their moorings and began to unload. Boata pulls his wagon closer to the boats. He watched intent to see which of the merchants would need his services. He knew which of the merchants would haggle about the price no matter how fair and avoided them. He has no time to squabble when he knew other merchants would pay his fair rate without reservation.

         Captain Mono watches the stranger from a distance. The crew hoisted Niobe’s crates and baggage over the side to the tiny boats below, with the stranger shouting insults at them all the way down. Captain Mono could not wait till this intolerable man was off his ship.
         It took two boats to transport Niobe’s gear to shore and one more for him and his party of ten. Once ashore Niobe inspected his crates for damage then paid the fishermen. They would have showed more appreciation for the work, if the stranger had not called them names and made threats against their families.
         “Sylas! Find a wagon and bring it to me at once.”
         “Yes, Master.”
         Sylas looks about the crowded docks anxious. An empty cart or wagon will be hard to find. Stopping to look about the strange place he senses a difference in this place from other port cities they have been. The people had calm about them, peacefulness in their manner as they greeted him hello. This is a good place, Sylas reasoned to himself. He spots a wagon. “You there! You there!” He shouts.
         Boata sees the man coming at him waving his arms. It has been a long day and he is tired. He has done enough and continues to ignore the stranger. Sylas pushes his way through the crowd till he reaches the wagon. “Are you deaf? Cannot you hear me calling? I need the service of your wagon.”
         “I am finished working and am returning home with my sons…We are tired.”
         Please, my Master will pay double your fee.” Sylas grabs the mule’s harness.
         Boata is annoyed by the stranger’s persistence. “Let go of my mule.”
         “Please…” he continues to beg. “…my Master will beat me if I do not return with a wagon.”
         “Boata never heard of anything so harsh and sees the fear in the stranger’s eyes as he kneels before him. In good conscious Boata could not allow this fate to happen to this stranger and sighs. “Where is your Master’s cargo?”
         “It is this way.” Excited he leads the mule.
         The strangers had no place to stay and Boata offered his stable for shelter and storage of their crates. The wagon heavy with the strangers’ gear rumbles along the cobble stone street of the inland city. Turning into an alley, the wagon halts about halfway to the other end. “Here is my stable…I will open the door.”
         “Sylas! Go with him and make sure it is suitable.”
         “Yes master.”
Boata leads the stranger inside. “I do not like this Master. You need not come.”
         “The Master says I must go…I must.”
         Baffled by the man’s fear of this man called Master, but it is not his place to interfere with the customs of others. “What is your name?”
         The stranger looks about nervous. “Sylas.” He says in a low whisper.
         “I am Boata…This is Lona my wife and my sons Ethan and Humbert…you are welcome in my home. “
Sylas nods, bashful and not use to anyone being friendly or respectful toward him, as Boata removes the heavy timber from the door and sets it aside. The door creeks open and in steps Niobe. He looks about the stable loathing the idea that he must spend the night here. He sniffs in disgust at the smell of the live stock, but it must do.
         “Do you provide meals?”
         “It cost one coin per day for use of my stable. Meals are one coin for each man.”
         “Have your wife cook us a meal at once. I am famished.”
Boata did not like the tone the stranger spoke to him. “I will ask her.”
         “Good…Sylas! Make me a place to sleep in the loft. The rest of you will sleep down here.” He walks to the door and watches his slaves struggle with the heavy crates. So far things are going well. Soon after dinner Niobe climbs into the loft and lies in the bed of straw. He could not sleep thinking about what supplies he would need. If all goes well he would embark on his adventure within a few days. He could not wait.

CHAPTER THREE

“Temple of the Sun”

****

         Evas shouts pushing his heavy cart. “FISH! I have FISH today!” People grabbed at the fisherman. “I will have one.” Evas could not keep track of the hands passing coins to him. It was chaos and so confused that he did not know who had paid and who had not. His cart full of fish never made it to the market place and was jammed in the middle of the main street.
         Octivus was awed by the beautiful things displayed along the sidewalk shops. He reaches to touch a bright color robe – “SHOOO!” An old woman swipes her broom at him. Startled the young boy rears backwards into the path of a hurrying merchant. Meshel falls over the boy and drops his precious package into a mud puddle. “Blasted boy! Watch where you are going!” Frightened, Octivus bolts up the street after his father. As he nears the market center, the aroma of different cooked meats and sweet cakes filled the air, reminding him of his hunger.
         Curious of the strange things about him he forgets his father, approaching a pen full of strange animals peering through the fence boards. “You are a strange thing.” He studies the beast curiously and wonders out loud as he reaches. “Can I touch your fur?” The calf is nudged aside from the fence by its mother and now the young boy stares face to face neither knowing what to make of the other. MOOOOO
         What a horrible sound the boy thinks backing away, then colliding with a grown up, that knocked him down to the ground. Getting up he is covered in a foul smelling lump on the ground and cries out in dismay. In a hurry to clean off he grabs at the nearest thing to wipe off the stench. A man who had stopped at the soup kitchen for a meal turns to see the boy wiping his hands off on his new garment. Shocked he grabs for the boy. “HEY YOU KID!”
         Wide eyed, Octivus bolts with the man close behind through the crowded street. Ducking Into an alley the boy crawls through a loose board in a fence. The irate man is too large to follow and kicks at the fence angrily.          Through the fence the terrified young boy watches till the man has left. His heart pounding admits to himself. “I do not like this place.”
         Meshel stops sudden not believing his eyes. There was the fisherman. Without hesitation the angry merchant confronts Evas. “Where were you this morning?” His voice shrilled and demanding an explanation.
         Caught of his guard, Evas could only stammer. “I went to fish.”
         “We had an agreement…Is this your honor? I was forced to use a stranger. I risked everything! Our bond is broken. You have let me down and I demand restitution, now.”
         “Will you accept my apology?”
         “You give only your apology? Is that all you will offer?”
         “You have received your package? Yes?” Meshel nods.“Then I have not caused you loss. I cannot explain why…Please, select a fish. It is a good omen to have fish on this day…Here, there is no charge.”
         Meshel sniffs at the fish then takes his choice from a heap on the cart. “It is agreed.”          Satisfied Meshel hurries off into the crowded market street.
         It was close to dark when Evas sold his last fish. Stretching his weary arms, tired from the long day, he wonders if Treasa and Pec sold the rest of the fish as he turns in direction of the wharf. Then taken by panic he remembers. “Octivus!” The streets and market was still crowded with people and merchants. He calls in to the crowd. “Octivus! Where are you?” Thoughts of fear ran through his mind – Is he hurt? Is he lost? Did he already return home? Maybe he is in the market square?
         Forgetting the cart behind him, the worried father pushes through the crowd searching for his son. “Octivus? Octivus? Where are you son?” Seeing a boy ahead of him he grabs the boys shoulder, but it was a stranger. His heart is pounding as he goes through the shops asking if anyone had seen the young boy, but no one could remember if they did.
         Up one alley and down the next he walking calling and praying to mighty Ra. “Let me find my son, please…please.” His bare feet tired and aching from the cobble stone streets. He stands before the Temple of the Sun. “Is this my punishment for breaking tradition?” Overcome by his grief, Evas sits upon the stone steps and weeps.
         Ramu sat in the temple court. He watched the sky through the open roof change from dusk to night. The first flickering stars shone on the deep vastness of the heavens. Very rarely did the High Priest appear in the market in day. He preferred to wait till the market was empty of people. This is how he came upon the man crying on the temple steps. Concerned he touches the man on his shoulder, Evas turns startled. “Why do you cry, brother?” Ramu asked.
         “I have lost my son.” Ramu takes a seat on the step next to the stranger. “How long ago did you lose him, brother?”
         “Today.”
         “How?”
         “I was not paying attention to him…now he is gone.” Evas sobs.
         “Your pain I see is deep…things like this happen…I am sorry you son has died…was he ill?”
Puzzled. “You think my son is dead? No, NO! My son is not dead!” Evas defends “I have lost him here in the crowd and cannot find him that is all.” He dried his eyes with his hands.
         Ramu humbled by his err laughs embarrassed. “I am so sorry…I mistook your grief.”
         Evas laughs too. “I must have been a pitiful sight sitting here crying this way, but I am worried for his safety. My wife will not understand how I could lose our son.” Evas notices the Silver sash dangling from the Priest’s robe, recognizing it as the symbol of the high Priest, Ramu. He kneels upon the steps. “You are Ramu?” He trembles with remorse that he has spoken so boldly.
         “Do not kneel before me, my friend. Sit and we shall continue to talk.”
         “I am not worthy of such an honor.”
         “Sit.” Ramu smiles. “Sit, please, it has been a long time since I have spoken to a more worthy man. You are a good man. I see that in your eyes. What is your name?”
         Uneasy speaking with the holy man, he begins. “Evas, I am a fisherman and came to market to sell what I had caught. I brought my son…it was his first time in the inner city…I should have watched him closer, but things were so insane and I lost my son in the chaos.”
         “When the market shops close the crowd will thin. I am sure he will be found.”
         “I feel as if I am being punished for what I have done.”
         “You are doing what is natural for a fisherman…there is nothing wrong with earning an income to support your family.”
         “It is not that Ramu…I broke tradition today. I took my boat out of the bay and fished. No one else had fish today and I received a very good price. I did very well, Ramu, but if I must lose my son. I will throw all that I earned back into the sea. I do not want it.”
         This was the tiny boat he saw this morning. “What made you do this?”
         “A dream, Ramu. A very bad dream three nights in a row…It scared me so much that I woke up early and cast off my boat to sail far from the shore. I was foolish and I will be punished.”
         “You called your son Octivus. Why did you give him this name?”
         “He is the first born son, of the eighth generation of my family. Is it an ill-fated name, Ramu?” Then from beneath his garment wrapped in a rag stained by fish blood, he reveals the crystal rock. “This my son had gutted from the belly of a fish. What is it? What does it mean?”
         Ramu uncovers the crystal running his fingers across it recognizing that it had great powers. “It is Lamor!” Ramu could not believe that he held it in his hands.
         A chill rushes up the fisherman’s spine. His voice shrilled with fear, “You take this thing, Ramu! I have no use for such a thing; it is a bad omen I think.”
         Ramu stands. “It is not a bad omen, Evas. You are right that I should keep it…Who else knows of its existence?”
         “Just me and my family.”
         “You must say nothing about the stone to anyone else.”
         “I promise…I should go and find my son. My wife will be worried that we have not returned home and it is after dark.”
         Ramu grips the crystal tight and sits again. “No, sit by me. We will wait together for your son to come. I am anxious to meet the boy now.”

****

         Octivus, his face swelled from crying, sat on an old wooden crate. His feet ached from walking, and his stomach growled with hunger. “Where are you Father?” He wonders to himself.
         “Hello?” A friendly voice says from behind him. “Why are you crying?” Octivus turns to see another young boy staring curiously.
         “I am lost.”
         “Oh? Where are you from?”
         Octivus wipes his tears. “I live in the wharf city.”
         “How did you get here?”
         “I came with my father, and I got lost in the crowd. What is that?”
         “It is a kick sack. My father made it. He fills it with hay and I kick it around. It is much fun. Would you like to play?”
         “Can I?”
         “My name is Eli, what is yours?”
         “Octivus.”
         Eli kicks the cloth full of hay at Octivus, who kicks it back. They played and laughed for hours. Being lost and hungry was replaced by fun and laughter of a young boy and a new friend.
         The two boys run along the alley. Octivus followed his new friend till they reached the canal Plaza where a group of boys were already playing. They yelled and laughed as they charged the ball, kicking it with all the force they could muster. One boy, no matter how intent he aimed, could not kick the sack to go straight. The boys laughed and teased.
         Octivus had never seen the canal so close before and stopped to watch as a team of mules pulled the heavy barge against the canal current.
         “Come on Octivus! We can watch the barges later. I will introduce you to my friends. “This is Josef, Otto, Nezzar, Cerus, and Markus. . .This is my friend Octivus.”
         “Can he play?”
         Eli looks at his new friend. “I do not know?”
         “He cannot be any worse off than Nezzar!” Says Josef
         “No one is that bad.” adds Cerus.
         “I am not that bad. I just have trouble kicking straight.” Apologizes Nezzar
         “That is because you have two left feet!” Jokes Eli.
         Nezzar looks down at his bare feet. “I do not!” He defends.

****

         The last of the shanty shops closed. The tired merchants walk home to the Western City, where most of the merchants and politicians lived in elegant homes surrounded with extravagant gardens full of beautiful flowers. It had been a prosperous day for everyone.
         “It is late, Ramu. Treasa, my wife, will be worried. I must bear the news that I have lost our son. She will cry. I feel so ashamed.”
         “Patience, Evas. Do you catch fish the moment you cast your nets into the water?”
         Ramu?” A voice from behind them calls out.
Ramu turns. “Meager?”
         “I have searched all over for you. There is a matter that concerns me. Can we speak?”
         “Sit with us a while, Meager.”
         “Is there some sort of problem, Ramu?”
         “Evas has lost his son about the marketplace. We are waiting for him.”
         “I am sympathetic to your dilemma, Evas. Would you mind if I speak with Ramu?”
         “I do not mind me, I will watch for my son.”
         Meager is anxious to present Ramu with his own situation and is blunt. “I have been asked by Brother Tasio to join him on his visit to his friend in the forest. We will pass close to Tarkas. Would it be unwise for me to seek out my family?”
         Ramu contemplates his answer, turning to Evas he asks. “What do you think? Should a boy, abandon by his family, seek them out after he has become a man years later?”
         Evas is not distracted from looking out over the marketplace for his son. His voice is distant as he answers. “Family is family. That never changes.”
         “But will they remember me?”
         “Is this what you fear?” challenges Ramu.
         “No, I am more afraid of what they will remember. I do not wish to burden them with the renewal of a bitter memory. It may be better that I do not go?”
         “You are a man today, Meager. You must face your fears as a man. The answer you may find may not be what you seek, but knowing, you may put to rest the demon that is preventing you from finding your inner peace.”
         “Then there can be no other choice?”
         “Ease your mind to this matter, my son.”
         “THERE HE IS! OCTIVUS! I AM HERE!” Evas jumps to his feet, startling the two priests. “You were right, Ramu.” The fisherman runs to his son.
         “Do not be harsh with your son, Evas. Remember what is important!” Ramu turns to Meager. “A father can forgive his child for his mistakes. I think what you need to resolve is: can the child forgive his Father of the mistake he made?”

CHAPTER FOUR

“The Moon Stone”

         As the first light of a new day filters through the shutter cracks, the morning Sun ritual of harmonization vibrates the air in every part of the city. Niobe, the fearless adventurer, cowers within the shadows of the stable with his slaves, petrified by the ominous sound.
         “Sylas!” He whispers. “I do not like this place”
         “The ship has not left yet. We can still leave.” He offers also unnerved by the sound.
         Niobe looks at his hands, they are trembling. The look in the faces of his slaves told of how his pathetic behavior must appear to them. “Nonsense! Niobe, Son of Yitah, Emperor of Ethiopia, fears nothing – I CHALLENGE THE EVIL OF THIS GODLESS LAND!” He shouts in defiance. Opening the stable door, he steps out into the alley, and as sudden as the sound began, it stopped.
         A light drizzle gave the alleys a sweet scent of freshness, as the strangers made their way in direction of the marketplace, Niobe walked before his slaves with long strides. He was their Master verbally mocking the slaves with insults to let it be known to all he passed. These men belonged to him, sold into his service because of bad debts. This power over these men full filled his inadequacies acquired from being the fourth youngest son in line as heir to his father’s throne. His chance was slim to none of ever being Emperor. So he left his home to make his own fortune, rather than live in the shadows of his older brothers.
         Sylas grew and played as a child with the man he now calls Master. The big man was born a child of slaves, subjects in service to the Emperor. He knew no other way of life, and was loyal. He knew Niobe better than anyone. That is why he follows behind, watching close, should the others try to run away.
         Niobe showed little respect for the shop keepers. In his homeland these light skinned peasants would not be allowed to own property. People of color were the true rulers over all other men. He mangled and tore things he thought to be inferior in quality. The shop owners were stunned, and demanded payment, but Niobe just walked away.
         When they reached the marketplace, Niobe ordered soup for his slaves. For himself, he ordered lamb, and pita bread. Merchants called to the stranger and offered bargains for their merchandise. Niobe scuffed at them, insulting their products. He had only contempt for these people of this lesser race, and bought what he needed for his journey and squabbled over price at every opportunity. Sylas stood silent embarrassed by his Master’s actions, but could do nothing to stop him. In a few days they would be gone again.

****

         The day began early for Tasio and Meager. The younger Priest escorted Tasio through alleys to buy tea for Odem, and dried beef for the journey. Meager had bought two silk scarves. He hoped he could give them as gifts to his mother and sister.
         Their path led from the Temple through the marketplace, across the stone bridge that spanned the canal to the Eastern farmlands. Here the land became steep slopes and they stopped to sit before entering the forest. Looking back the way they came, Meager saw the Temple tower above the city amidst the market shops. Rows of mud and clay houses stretched out from every direction. It was beautiful to behold.
         He could see the ship in the bay, its sails set to the wind, returning to Alantasia. The many sails of the smaller fisher boats scattered about, grateful for the prosperity, the ships monthly visit brought to them. The buildings in the wharf city appeared grey and weathered in contrast to the rest of the city. It was crowded with merchants claiming shipments delivered the previous day.
         Meager had never seen Mu more beautiful – the grey wharfs, brown clay dwellings that surround temple towering from its center whiles the masses of people going about their business. Each was living a life separate from the other, but yet all part of something far greater and more complicated than he could imagine. “What a beautiful sight! I have stood upon the observatory of the temple many times and looked out over Mu – never have I seen her in such magnitude or beauty.”
         “It is said – a flower seen in a new light reveals a different beauty in different ways. We must make hast, the darkness comes early in the forest.” Tasio enters the forest path. Meager nods in agreement gathering his bags. Looking back one last time on the field of daisies and dandelions he waves his hand. “Good bye Mu, take care of all those I care for while I am gone.” The scent of rotted leaves fill his nose as he enters the forest, awaking memories lost deep within him. As he walks along the path next to the oriental, images from his past flash into his mind…A mule drawn wagon appears on the road. A man with his young son sitting beside him rides in silence. The boy looks about the trees with wonder, he had never been this far from his village before, the man’s face is bearded, his hair long and unkempt, stared straight ahead. There were many things on his mind. Meager knew them well – they were himself and his father. This was his last memory of leaving home.
         “We will reach Odem’s cottage by mid morning tomorrow” Interrupts Tasio. “There is a clearing where we can camp a little ways further. It is best that we gather dried wood for a warm fire as we walk. It will be too dark soon, and we must have fire to keep away the animals that hunt in the night.”

****

         His nets in the water, Evas leans back in his chair watching his son toss his knife into the plank of wood. Treasa nursed the infant as bread baked in the oven. Nothing seemed any different than before, but something ached in his heart. There was something more to do, but he does not know what.
         The pouch of coins set in view on a table. He did not have to fish but he longed for this peaceful tranquil place. It helped him think. He told his wife and her father, Pec, what had happened in the marketplace. He told them of his encounter with Ramu and about the crystal rock. They agreed with his decision to give the crystal to Ramu. It had little use to them anyway. Evas cautioned to his family, the stone was to be kept a secret.
         Evas sat quietly, smoking his pipe, there was purpose for all these things to happen – He worries he may be too naive to understand and feared he would fail to act, not knowing the moment was at hand. Convinced his luck had purpose he decides to seek the wisdom of the old woman, Ayrea.

****

         Meshel sat astounded by the beauty of the moon stone, and how unlike a usual stone, it shone only in the moon light. By day, it looked an ordinary stone, a dull lusterless Black orb. Where, at night, in the light of the moon, it glistens of hues in bright colors.
         There were many legends that were told about the moon stone, that it brought virtue and fortune to the bearer. That it protected them from all harm. There were other stories, that it tempted the fate of any who looked into it by the light of the moon and drove the weak of mind to madness. It made the wicked a slave to their own greed, wretched souls obsessed by the power. Deeper lore told of how it was forged by a Druid priest and how it slipped away, stolen by a slave child who later became a King. For centuries since, these Druid priests searched to recover it, but the stone has eluded them for more than a century. It is believed that should the Druid priests regain the Stone of Ur, they alone would control the forces of nature. The power of the stone was great beyond the comprehension of even the Druids, but with one weakness – it had no power over the innocent of heart.
         The worry that obsessed the merchant most as he gazed into the orb in the moon light was the stones ability to draw its masters to it. They were coming for it. He could feel their searching. He knew the Druid priests would not rest until it was back in their possession – He swore – His eyes wide with madness – they will never take it from me!
         The moon stone glistened in the moon light as it drew the life energy from its newest victim….

CHAPTER FIVE

“Tarkas”

         Birds sang their songs in high branches, as the fog lifts from the trail. The sullen grayness of morning shadows hinting with foreboding secrets lurking in the forest around them. Each step brought the young priest closer to home. Walking along, Meager tries remembering his family’s faces, but they are vague shadows in his mind. He recalls a hut on the edge of the village, and a creek that flowed behind it where his mother washed clothes.
         An image of his mother washing clothes makes him smile. He has not forgotten everything. Tasio stopped to rest along the side of the road. Meager sat on a fallen tree nearby and watched the thousands of tiny beams of sunlight, dancing about the Monk as he kneeled, gathering mushrooms. “Do you eat mushrooms, Meager?” Tasio calls from a distance.
         “Yes, sometimes.”
         “You have been quiet.”
         “I was thinking how much a stranger I feel here in this place, yet it is my home.”
         “Mecca mentioned you were from Tarkas.”
         “Yes…but it was a long time ago.” Meager removes the heavy pack from his back and stretches.          They have traveled far this morning, and he did not sleep well last night. Meager had forgotten the pitch blackness of the forest night, and the sounds of creatures that hunted in the dark. He kept the fire burning bright, while Tasio slept sound. Meager watched the oriental move about the bushes picking berries. Often he wondered about the monk who arrived at the temple three years ago. “What is your home like?”
         Tasio looks up to check the sun, it is still early and he takes a place sitting next to Meager. Holding open the pouch full of berries for Meager to take a hand full, he sighs, gathering his feelings and thoughts to answer the young priest.
         “My home is very different from Mu. There are many mountains and valleys of beautiful flowers with powerful waterfalls. In the winter, snow falls to the ground, and can be seen atop the peaks of the mountains in the distance.”
         “I have never seen snow. Brother? Do you think of home much?”
         “It is my first thought when I wake. It is my last thought, before I sleep.”
         “Will you return someday?”
         “Maybe, someday.” Tasio removes a sandal, rubbing his sore feet.
         “Do you think it will have changed?”
         “It will be I, who changed. This will make it seem different.”
         ”Why did you leave?”
         “It is personal.”
         A long silence follows. Meager did not want to intrude, but a thousand questions raced through his mind. The idea of traveling to far off lands fascinates him, but he cannot see leaving the Temple. It was the only home he knew. He thinks for a moment wondering what his tutor would be doing at this moment and worries if he is missed. He felt hollow inside, and this emptiness haunted him every day of his life. His worse fear was that no one would remember who he was.
         Tasio stands, slinging over his shoulder his pouches of mushrooms and berries.
         “What is your friend, Odem, like?” Meager changes the subject.
         “Old, very old.” Tasio answers, adjusting the straps of the bags over his shoulder.
         “Will I be welcomed?”
         “You are my guest, you are welcomed.”
         They walk for a while. “I was wondering, Brother, will we pass through Tarkas?
         “Not far ahead the road will fork. The path leading left will take you to Tarkas.”
Meager is silent. He had hoped to catch a glimpse of his village from a distance. He pondered a thought, maybe he would stop, but he was nervous and feared they would reject him, and was not sure if he could bare the pain.
         Tasio stops ahead of the young priest and turns. “If you would like to visit Tarkas, you may do so. But, I must continue to my friend Odem’s cottage. He will be awaiting me.”
         “I am not sure yet, Brother”
         “You are uncertain?” Tasio begins to walk again.
         “What if I am not wanted?” Meager scurries to catch up to Tasio.
         “You will not know unless you go.”
         “But what if I restore only bad memories?”
         “No place holds a greater bond in a man’s heart, than the place he is birthed. Your home is the Temple of Ra. The priests who raised you are your family. You are not alone.”
         “It would be painful. I do not think I can bare it.”
         “No pain is deeper than the rejection of those you hold closest to your heart, nor is there such darkness, as deep as the darkness of never knowing the truth.”
         “Will you go with me?”
         “It is your dragon to slay, young Brother. I will be an obstacle, distracting the natural flow of events. I cannot go.”
         “Then I must face this alone.” The burden is heavy in the young man’s face. Tasio worries that perhaps he was not ready to face this fear.
         “Our fear to face the uncertain is our greatest obstacle. The fear to learn knowledge of ourselves that may be contrary to what we hope to find, depriving us of the truth we seek. From our first breath to our last, we discover one piece at a time: who this being is we call our self? To find peace of mind you must face the challenges life presents before you. No man knows how he will react when he must face the beast of his inner self. Will we run with fear, or stand defiant. The choice is ours alone to make.”
         Meager thinks for a moment. Then, inspired by the monk’s words, he decides to face his dragon. “Then I will go to Tarkas, Brother.”
         The forest road slopes down and away, then up a steep incline. The young priest strode with vigor. His thoughts were on his deed, and determination was set in his eyes. Reaching the height of the hill he turns to see, he has left Tasio far behind.
         “We have reached the road’s fork, Brother.” He shouts back excited.
Out of breath, Tasio manages. “Good.”
         Realizing he had exhausted the monk with his pace. “I did not mean to walk so fast.”
         “It is fine, Meager. You have direction now. Go and slay your dragon and be safe.”
Meager felt reassured. “Travel safe, Brother, and thank you for your wisdom.”
         Tasio bows low respectfully. Turning away Tasio says “I will meet you back in this place in two days. Do not be late.”
         Meager watches the oriental disappear up the winding trail thick with overgrowth. He then turned to face his own path. It sloped down into the forest shadows. It was time to face his past. Taking a deep breath he takes his first step.
         Meager reached the outskirts of Tarkas late in the day. He sat upon a large rock and contemplated how he will approach his family. “Hi! I am your son, Meager, remember me?” Maybe he should pretend he is a stranger. Maybe he should say he was sent by the Temple of Ra on a mission. After long deliberation he decides, the truth is best. So, as he walks the final mile to Tarkas, he practices. “Hi, I am your son Meager. I was just passing by and thought I would drop in and visit.” He shakes his head, not sure how he would begin.
         The village is beyond a line of trees ahead. Tiny swirls of smoke rose up from chimneys filling the forest with a scent of hickory. The sun descends casting long shadows on the path before him. His stomach churned in nervous knots as he approaches. The village children stopped their playing, and run shouting. “A stranger is coming.” Men came to the doors of their huts, while the women peered from windows. He felt their suspicion as eyes watched him pass. He felt alone, and it was already too late to turn back.
         A large young man steps out in front of the stranger blocking his way. Meager felt intimidated by the man’s silent glare. Bewildered by the crowd gathering about him he attempts to explain. “I am a priest from the Temple of Ra I have journeyed since yesterday morning and I am tired. Can you offer me the hospitality of a meal and perhaps lodging for the night?”
         “Why does a priest come here?” The villager asked suspiciously.
         “A personal matter.”
         “Personal? What personal matter would that be?”
         “It is a private personal matter.”
         The crowd mumbles and moves back, leaving the two young men standing face to face.
         “Strangers have been stealing our stock. A woman was raped less than three nights ago. Children have been stolen from their beds at night. Strangers are not welcome here. Go away. You are not welcome here!” The big man pushes the priest.
         “I am a priest. I would not do such things!” Meager did not like being bullied, clinching his fist, he glares back at the villager. They move closer.
         Odel came from her hut to see the commotion. She had dark black hair streaked with grey, which hung loose about her shoulders. Her eyes search the stranger’s face, unsure she circles about the crowd for a better look. “Can it be?” She wonders.
         Brian pushes the priest down. Meager, angered and insulted, stands. His fist clinched tight and his eyes burned with contempt for this oversized bully. He would not tolerate this disrespect, and was about to strike at the stranger, when a woman voice yelled out from the crowd. “Have you no respect? He said he is a priest, are you hurt?” She offers her hand.
         “I am fine.” His voice was strong, and his green eyes flared at the big man.
She questioned the stranger disbelieving what her heart was telling her was true. “Can you be? Is it truly you?” She began to tremble, as he takes her hand. His touch was gentle, and skin soft, and without callous.
         Forgetting his anger, Meager looks into the woman’s face. Her eyes searching deep into his sent a chill up his spine. “Mama?”
         “Meager?” It took her breath away, and she sobs. “My baby has come home!” Odel turns to the crowd. “This is my son…” Then angrily to the villager. “…and your brother, you should be ashamed for the way you have acted.” Her eldest son Brian stood dumb founded.
         “You still recognize me after all these years?”
         “The fire still burn in your eyes when you are angered is something a mother never forgets about her children.” She takes him by the arm, and they walk. “Let us go home now, my son. It has been a long time.” She smiles, savoring the touch of his arm in her fingers. He had grown into a fine young man untouched by the hard life of a hunter.
         It was a happy time for the villagers. It is a good omen to have a priest amongst them. By midday a slaughtered pig is skewered over a pit fire, and the smell of bread baking fills the air. The villagers celebrated with songs, and children played games. It made everyone proud that one of their own had become a priest of the Temple of Ra.
         Sitting at the table in this place, where he was honored, he felt strange. He searched about hoping to see a familiar thing, but he did not. Nervous, he asked questions “How are David and my sister, Ella?”
         Odel touches her sons Arm. “David is hunting with your father.”
         “And Ella?”
         “She died five summers ago, Hubert is her son …. Hubert? This is your Uncle Meager” The boy climbed on Meager’s lap. He had never been called Uncle before, and feels the child’s face with his hand. His feelings were mixed with joy, and sadness. The news about his sister’s death stunned him. “How did Ella die?”
         “In birth” Whispers Odel. It is still hard to mention.
         “How is Father?” The words nearly choked him.
         “He is well.”
         Brian nudges Meager’s arm “I am sorry for pushing you down.”
         The news of his sister’s death numbed him. He could not remember her face, which disturbed him more. He could see the pain in his mother’s face as she took Hubert in her arms.
Meager looks into Brian’s eyes, “I remember you were always a bully. I should have recognized you right off…Let us say it was for old time sake.”
         Brian pats his youngest brother on the back. “For old time sake, little brother, and I will fill your tub with hot water, and you can relax. Then we will sit, and you will tell me what a priest does at the Temple. OK?” Brian was happy his youngest brother had returned.
         Night had come to Tarkas. Odel sat in her chair and rocked slowly back and forth. Brian and Meager feasted with the villagers most of the day, Brian made it his intention to get his little brother drunk. He did, and together they staggered home laughing and carrying on about nothing.
         “Mother, when will Father return?” Meager slurs.
         “It is hard to say, Meager…Sometimes he is gone two or three days. It all depends.”
         Meager turns to Brian, “I have never hunted. What is it like?”
         “Never hunted?” He laughs.
         “I am embarrassed.”
         “There is nothing to be ashamed of, Meager, though it is odd that the son of a hunter has never hunted. But then, I wager you know more about things than I. Do you know how to write?”
         “Yes, and I know how to read too.”
         “See! Anyone can learn to hunt. You just have to be hungry and it all comes naturally, but to write, little brother, that, I envy.”
         “I can teach you how to write. I can teach you to read, as well.”
         “What reason does a hunter need to write?”
         “To know he can, is all the reason.”
         “I missed you, Meager. We all have.”

****

         Tasio rested his aching body in the cool stream water. He enjoyed the serene peaceful seclusion of the stream as birds flew from branch to branch above him. A deer drank from the water upstream. All was in harmony and he fell asleep. He dreams of a beautiful valley, of tall snow capped mountains and a pond of water and the sounds of laughter with many young boys swimming naked, thrashing about playfully. It was a happy time – a time he remembered from his boyhood. He and his brother would dive from the rocks to impress the others that cheered from below. They dove many times that day, and Tasio was tired, and sat on the rocks below resting. Yong set himself on the cliff, shouting to his brother below. “Look at me?” and the moment his brother jumped Tasio knew Yong had not pushed himself clear of the rocks below. He shouts out “Yong!” Startling the forest quiet, he finds himself standing naked in the stream of water bewildered by his dream. He becomes alarmed realizing he dozed off. It would be dark before he would reach the cottage of his friend.
         When he arrived, the cottage was dark and silent. This made Tasio anxious for his friend, Odem. It was usual for the old man to have a warm fire going at this hour, but no smoke came from the chimney. Entering the cottage, a strong odor confirms his worst fear – his friend is dead. He searches in the darkness for a candle to light, finding Odem’s decayed body on the floor next to a table. A plate of food scattered across the floor and a fork still clutched in his fingers.
         In what little light there was, he could see that some small animals had already eaten much of the body. Too dark to bury his friend now, he shrouded the corpse, placing it in a storage bin outside. Tasio then gathered wood from a pile, and built a warm fire. Sitting silent he poked at the logs with a stick and thought of his hermit friend. There were so many questions yet not answered.
         It has been a long day for the monk. Tasio sits meditating. It was his belief that until his friend was buried his spirit was still present. Searching inwards, he enters the darkness within, a void of nothingness. He feels he is floating amidst the blackness. There is no sound and darkness prevails throughout. Then about him stars appear filling the void with billions of flickering sparks of light. Emerging from a mist Odem appears. Tasio is overwhelmed by his joy to see his friend again. Odem bows his head respectfully. Tasio awed with a spectacular sensation as the words of his friend speaks from within his mind. It was an ability he had not experienced before.
         “This is pleasant, how is it done?”
         “The book is the key to all your questions.”
         “What book, Odem?”
         “We have spoken for many long hours, Tasio. Still, there is much to learn. I appear to you this one time to tell you of the many books that are on my shelves. There are several which will open gates within the universe. There is one book that explains how the rituals work. Together they are dangerous to the existence of all mankind. Do not destroy them though, for within their content are important matters. You are now the Guardian of the Gates. When your time comes to pass, as mine has, you will find another as worthy as I have, to take these books into trust . . . I caution you, Brother, others seek the powers of the gates. They will track you across the seas and mountains, and will kill you if they get the chance. This is why I came to this place, to live alone, it was my fate.”
         “Tell me what I must do?”
         “I am Odem, Son of Letche, Chieftain of the Iotots, creators of the Theorem of Opathesis, and keepers of the secret laws of nature.” Odem’s voice carried a power as it spoke. “You, who call himself Hun Chen Tasio, have been chosen to be Guardian of the Seven Gates. The books I leave to you are hidden behind a brick in the hearth. Take them far from this land….” Odem is silent. The expression on his face changes to dread. “…They are coming for them now. The powers are gathering in this once simple land, and its destruction will come in the wake of a new era of mankind.”
         “Who is coming, Odem? How will I know my enemy?”
         “Avoid the confrontation, my friend. They are powerful men. Run like the wind, Brother. It is your only chance. Reveal your secret to no one.”
         “I will do as you say, Odem…should I destroy the rest of your books?”
         “No! There will be others to follow. The books will find their own way. We have come to the threshold in time where mankind will not follow the land. Respect of the old ways will dissolve in the hearts of many and the few will be in control of the masses. Another thing you must do before you leave this land, Tasio. You must find the Stone of Ur. It is called the Moon Stone, and possesses power. It should not fall into the hands of those that come seeking the power.”
         “Where should I look for it?”
         “It has found its way to Mu, and is in possession of a jewel merchant. Already he has become sickened by the stone’s power. He knows of its power and wants it, and is performing rituals to gain its power. He must not succeed. Go my friend and trust no one.” The urgency in Odem’s voice sends a chill up Tasio’s spine. Openings his eyes, Tasio searches the hearth for a loose stone, removing a silk cloth. In it were the eight books. He sat awake that night unable to sleep with all Odem had presented to him, he felt an urgency to return to Mu, but needed to meet with Meager in two days.
         The warm fire crackles as Tasio places another log into the fire. It had been a sleepless night, and the Oriental browsed through many of his friend’s books and journals. The sky is grey and threatens to rain. The monk steps outside the cottage taking a deep breath, stretching his tired arm muscles. He picks a place beneath a giant willow and digs a grave for his friend.
         It began to rain as he placed Odem’s body in the hole, covering him with dirt. The sound of raindrops splattered on the fresh dug ground. “Good-bye my friend.”

****

         “Wake up.” whispers a voice. “It is time to rise and shine!”
         Meager stirs. “It is still dark?”
         “Of course it is. We must set the traps before the animals finish feeding. Come on, little brother…Time to learn the trade of your father!” Brian pulls the warm blanket from Meager. Meager leaps naked from the cot grabbing back the blanket from Brian grinning.”You are cruel, brother. I am not ready to wake. Give me back the blanket!”
         Brian puts a log in the fire. “You are spoiled, little brother…The day of a hunter is long and hard. To sleep till sunrise – you would starve. It is colder outside, here. This animal skin will keep you warmer than that silk garb you wear.”
         “Thank you.”
         “Here, drink this. It is called Brog. It will warm you”
         Meager sips the drink, “Why is it so bitter?”
         “It is an herb. After a few sips the taste will not matter.”
         “It warms the blood.”
         “Shhh! You will wake Mother. Here, take these traps. I will carry the bows.”
         Brian closes the door behind them. It is dark and he holds a torch before them as they walk, Meager looks out into the trees beyond the forest. The moon gives the trees a spooky glow. The song of a thousand crickets surrounds them as they follow the road from the village.
         “So, how long will you stay?”
         “I have to meet another priest who is visiting a friend in Hallow Woods by midday tomorrow.”
         “Father and David may not have returned yet, you will miss them. Can you stay longer?”
         “Brian? How do you think Father will react when he sees me again?”
         “I do not know. He has not allowed your name to be spoken since he returned that day, long ago. In fact, he has not been to Mu since.”
         “I hope he returns before I have to leave.”
         “We will set the first trap here, and another there, off the road.”
         The villagers went about their chores even though it rains while the steady clanging made by the iron smith carried on the wind through the village, The smithy stopped long enough to wave to Brian, who nodded back his hands full carrying the pelts of small animals caught that morning.
         Meager carried the traps over his shoulder. It was so quiet and tranquil. Unlike Mu, where at this hour the markets would be loud with shouting merchants. It was all different from anything he remembered. The smell of hickory wood filled the air as meat smoked in sheds behind the huts, and Oh! How it’s mingling with the smell of wheat bread baking make a most splendid aroma. They both stop for a moment to inhale deeply, as he listens to the song that an old woman sang. It was new to him, and he hummed the melody to himself.
         When they reached the hut, Brian hung the pelts behind the door. His mother had a meal cooking and it smelled good.
         “Ummm! What are we having, Mother?”
         “It is a potato cake with eggs…You used to like it when you were a child.” Odel smiles at Meager.
         “It will be the first time since you left it has been cooked in this home, little brother.”
         “I remember it. We ate it almost every weekend with honey and baked bread; I remember you spent hours cooking our breakfast. Nothing ever tasted so good at the Temple.”
         “Better eat it before it gets cold.” She could not remember being so happy.
         Ubert and David came down from the high trail. They walked a slow pace weighed down by the heavy layers of animal pelts slung over their shoulders. Three days of hunting, left them exhausted. It was a good hunt and the pelts were the best they have skinned in a long time. They would bring a high price.
         Ubert listened as the leaves rustled to a gentle breeze. It was near midday and the temperature had warmed. Already the leaves showed signs of fall. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The dirt road that led them through the village formed puddles of rain.
         Ubert opened the door and stepped inside. He hangs the pelts behind the door and takes notice of the pelts hanging there already.
         “Who has been hunting?” He turns and is greeted by his wife. “Look who is here!” She watches his eyes, but they do not know the stranger. “…It is Meager, our son!”
         Ubert stood silent. The smell of the potato cakes and the site of Meager turned his face deep red pushing past his wife. “I have no son named Meager. Go from my home!”
         “What are you saying, Ubert? He is our son!”
Ubert turns to his wife. “Ramu made me take an oath, to never claim the boy as my son again. I have given up my right as his father, I will be dishonored!”
         Meager, stunned, could think of nothing else, but to get away, and hurries to the door.
         “What? I do not believe this! Father, he is your son! He is my brother!” Brian protest.
         “No. He is not. You must understand. I swore an oath!”
         “No Meager. He does not mean it!” Odel reaches for his arm.
Meager looks in to his mother’s eyes and sees her pain. What had he done? He walks out into the rain. Brian follows pleading.          “Do not go?”
         Odel looks to her husband. “After all these years, still I do not know who you are! You have hurt me, Ubert.” She moves away from him. Ubert puts his hand on her shoulder, but she pulls away. Will this feeling he held inside ever pass.
         “I have no choice, Odel. I swore to the priest that I would never return to claim him as my son. How can I make you understand?”
         “Meager comes here on his own. You have kept your word. He has come with the knowledge of a priest to reclaim you and me.” Odel turns to face Ubert.
         “Odel, I have lived with a guilt no man should ever endure. For ten years I have lived with the knowledge, I abandoned my youngest son…God only knows how it has torn me inside…And now, and now? Oh why God can I not escape this pain in my heart?” He cries.
         Odel takes her husband in her arms. “You are not the only one who has suffered.”
         “Can you forgive me, Odel?”
         “It is not for me to forgive…Go to him Ubert.”
         Brian chases Meager up the path out of town. “Come on little Brother, he was caught off guard. He did not know how to react. Come back! Please?”
         “I think he reacted just as I knew he would.”
         “It does not matter, Meager! Do not leave like this. You will hurt Mother! You do not know how she cried for you when Father returned home alone. Do not do this to her again!”
         “If you knew how many nights I have laid awake wondering just what you have told me. If you knew the tears that flowed from me each night till I was exhausted of all emotion to sleep? If you could only imagine the pain I felt here in my heart, then you would know the pain I feel now to have to leave it all again. That man, who is my father, wants nothing of me! I cannot look into his face and know he has forsaken me for a thing I had no control over. I was the drought, and the famine that covered this land, Brother!”
         “You were a child, Meager.” Brain reasoned.
         “No Brian I was the famine! I must go now – never to return.”
         Brian stood in the pouring rain. He watched as his little brother hurries up the path, turning to the sound of feet running up from behind them. Ubert rushes past Brian, catching up to Meager. For a moment the two stood there face to face for the first time in ten years. Without a word, Ubert hugs his son tight, tighter than he ever held any of his children before. Meager hugs him back – he was home. They were a family again.
         The family sat quietly around the table. Brian passed a basket of bread to his nephew, Hubert, who passed it to Meager. David sat across from his brother. He had many questions, but beginning was hard. “What is the Temple like, Meager?” He asks finally.
         Meager tears a piece of bread and dunks it in his soup. “It is a beautiful place. The floors are made of marble. The walls are etched with ancient ruins, each telling stories about events that occurred long ago. In the Temple there is a garden, beautiful with flowers, I sat there many times thinking, mostly about all of you. Up a dark stairwell is my room. From my window I could see endless rows of roof tops.” Meager takes a bite of bread.
         “Did you meet Ramu?” asked Hubert.
         The entire family stopped eating waiting for his answer.
Meager smiles. “Yes. He gave me lessons to learn. He taught me to write and how to pray. He taught me many things about the lore’s of Nature.”
         “Did they treat you well, my son?” Ubert forced the words out. There is a silence. Meager looks at his father and clears his throat. “Yes, they were very good to me. There is one priest called Mecca, he raised me from the time I arrived at the Temple. We are very close.”
         “Like a father?” Ubert puts down his fork and folds his hands together awaiting an answer. Meager looks into his father’s eyes and with sincerity answers. “Yes, like a father.”
         “Someday I will have to thank him. He has raised you well.”
         “He has offered to teach me how to write. I can make letters already, and he has been here but one day! B-R-I A-N, Meager says that is my name.”
         “That is good. A hunter has no need for such, but it could not hurt to know. There are many children in Tarkas that you could teach. Have you considered staying?”
         “I cannot. I must meet my friend by mid day tomorrow to go back to Mu. But, I promise to visit often and I will teach anyone who wants to learn to read and write.”
         “Even me?”
         “Especially you, Father.” It was the first time he called Ubert that. It felt awkward, and his father smiled to hear it.
         The rest of the night went quiet. His father sat and smoked his pipe. Mother twisted yarn to make socks. Meager taught Brian more letters as Hubert watched. That night, while everyone slept, Meager woke and sat on the edge of his cot in silence. He watched them sleep and listened to the sounds of their breathing knowing he would miss them all very much when he leaves.
         Ubert stirs awake. He watches his son wipe a tear from his eye. Sitting up, he motions with a hand leading Meager outside to talk. Ubert lit his pipe, looking to the sky. “It is a beautiful night, Meager.”
         “Yes, it is.”
         “I have stood here many nights and wondered – How is Meager? What is he like now?”
         “I stood on the Temple observatory many nights and also wondered about you all.”
         “So many things have happened since. If I had to do it all again, I would probably not have given you up. At least that is what I thought till tonight. I look at you, my son, and I see all the things that I am not, nor could ever be. You can read. You can write. People have respect for you, as for me? I am an old trapper. That is all I will ever be and that is how I will be remembered. You, my son, are special and I am very proud of who you have become…so would I give you up again? I am so proud of you my son…Proud!”
         “There were nights I cursed you for abandoning me. As I grew and the pain lessened, I realized what a gift you gave to me. Of all that I am now, and of all that I have learned, the most important thing to me, is that I am your son.”
         “I thought you would spit in my eye when you saw me again.”
         “Priests do not spit, Father.”
         Ubert suppresses a laugh. “Of course not, let us go back inside. It will be morning soon and you will have a long journey.”
         When morning came, Odel cooked potato cakes again, Ubert joked about how much he regretted banning the cakes. David and his wife, Lisa, came by to see Meager off. Brian hugged Meager close and they watched as the young man walked from the village. Meager turned and waved, and then he was gone.
         By mid day he reached the fork in the road where he and the oriental had parted. Tasio had not arrived yet, so he sat on a log to wait. The time passed too fast and he became sad. He reflects on his visit and smiles. All had gone well. Why does he still feel so empty?
         From the overgrown path appears Tasio. He is carrying a large sack over his shoulder, “How was your visit, Brother?” Meager reaches to take the heavy sack.
         “Odem had passed. I buried his body yesterday.”
Shocked. “I am sorry, Brother . . . How do you feel?”
         “Sad. He was old. It was his time.”
         In two days many things had changed for them both. Meager had found his family and felt a peace which he had never known before and Tasio had lost a good friend. He would miss Odem, and Tasio will not forsake the task given to him.
         The leaves were turning brown and red. The air was brisk, and Meager could not get his family from his head. His sister, Ella, was dead. He would never know her now. Mother and Father were both old, and the death of Odem played on his fear – What if he returns to find his father or mother had passed. He stops.
         “My Brother?” He begins. “I do not know how to say this.”
         Tasio stops. He searches the young priest’s face and can see his torment. “What is the matter, Meager?”
         “I cannot return to Mu.”
         “What? I do not understand.”
         “Two days was not long enough. Suppose I return and they are dead? They are old, Brother. There is not much time left to know them. I wish to stay longer.”
         “How long, Meager?”
         “I do not know. A month I think, maybe more?”
         “Longer perhaps?”
         “A possibility, please explain this to Mecca and tell Ramu I am sorry. I must do this. Tell my teacher thank you for all he has done for me. Tell him I will return to my studies as soon as I have learned what it is to be a family….Tell Mecca I am sorry.”
         “I will tell them. Go to your family, Meager.”
         Meager bows low with respect” Tasio knew as he watched Meager run back to Tarkas, that Meager had found his peace, and was happy for him. As for him, a new journey along an old path has already begun. He picks up the heavy satchel of books and begins his walk back to Mu.

CHAPTER SIX

“Octivus”

         The jetty of rock separating the bay from the western shoreline was a favorite place for the children of the fishermen to play. Sea gulls swoop-glide over the boys, throwing cut pieces of fish up into the air for the sea gulls to catch.
         Octivus was a good-natured child with a gift for getting into mischief. He had two good friends he played with every day, Jimi and Gorge. Jimi, the tallest of the three, lived inland. His father was a master carpenter and repaired many of the fishing boats when they became damaged. That is how he became friends with the two fisher boys.
         Gorge was fat. He, like Octivus, lived on one of the many fisher boats along the pier. Gorge was a second cousin to Octivus. Knowing each other practically since birth, were very close. So when a tall thin boy with red hair called Gorge a name. The three boys gathered to make a plan to get even.
         When Chester was not looking, Jimi sneaked from behind the big kid, bending down on his hands and knees. Octivus walked in front of Chester and faced him. “Do not call my cousin fat!” and pushes Chester over Jimi. Chester tumbles backwards surprised. He sat humiliated while the other children laughed. Angrily he stands and waves his fist at Octivus. “You will pay!” He chases after the younger boys.
         He could have had Gorge easy, but he wanted the boy who pushed him more. So he chases after Octivus and Jimi. Octivus knew these alleys best. Leading the way, Octivus pulls himself up and over a tall boarded fence, landing in a newly planted flower bed. The woman stands admiring her flower bed after working hard all morning could not believe what just happened. “Hey!” shouts the old woman, waving a shovel at the boy as he ran off. Then before she could react, over the fence came Jimi. She swipes at him, but misses. “You!” The woman yells. She moans looking over her destroyed garden. Then, as suddenly as the first two came, a third boy landed almost on her, managing to swing her shovel, hitting him in the seat of his pants. “Ow!” He cries out as he runs off.
         After that narrow escape, Chester stops, rubbing his butt. Down the end of the alley were the two boys taunting him, and the pursuit was on again. Chester was faster than either boy expected. Already he was right on their heels. It was every man for himself and Jimi runs passed the younger boy to get away. Octivus felt fingers reaching out for him.
         “I GOT YOU NOW, RODENT!” Chester reaches forward the tips of his fingers could feel the fabric of the fisher boy’s garment. Then unable to stop Chester zings pass the smaller boy who turns a corner suddenly, crashing thru the thin sticks of a chicken pen – feathers flying about and chickens cackling with a pile of crushed eggs beneath him. Expressing his disgust with egg yolks dripping from his hands he stands.
         At the end of the alley the two boys mocked him again, but before he could pursue them a hand grabs his collar. “Got you!” Octivus and Jimi laughed together as the pen owner and his son held Chester fast.
         It was the kind of excitement that made them friends. The day was still young. They forgot all about Gorge, who probably got bored and went home anyway. Not having Gorge around was an invitation to mischief. See, when Gorge was around they had to mind their deeds, because Gorge could not run fast and would get caught. Then he snitched them out, and they would be punished too.
         The alleys of the wharf city were dark, even during the day. The tall wooden structures, weathered grey from the salt air, were homes of the eldest families in Mu. It was told that the very founding fathers of Mu walked these same streets. There were many alleys and it was easy to get lost, but Octivus knew the way.
         He came to a door and went inside. “My Grandparents live here. I must say hello.”
Octivus returned shortly, tossing his friend an apple.
         “Come on!” He runs up the alley.
         “Where are we going?” Jimi shouts running to keep up with Octivus.
         Octivus stops at a dark alley peering around a corner. He turns and whispers. “There! A witch lives here. Let us have some fun.” Jimi was scared to go with Octivus, but the fisher boy beckoned for him to come. Eventually Jimi complied, and together they walk soft towards the open door. As they closed, the scent of incense filled the air. It was thick. Both of their hearts raced. Then upon reaching the door, Octivus dares Jimi to look inside. His throat dry he takes the dare, and slowly peers around the door. Octivus could not resist, and pushed his friend inside. Jimi stood there for a moment terrified. The room was dark, and full of amulets, and charms that dangled from the ceiling. A cat startled by the boy hissed, and a noise came from behind a curtain.
         “Witch! Witch! Crazy old Witch!” Octivus shouts into the door, and ran stopping at the end of the alley. Jimi comes running from the building looking like he had demons chasing him. He did not stop when he reached Octivus, but kept on running till he was almost within the divide between the wharf city, and the inland.
         Meanwhile, coming from behind the curtain was Evas. He had gone to see the old woman Ayrea, and was startled by the boy’s outburst. He turns to the old woman. “The children today, have no respect. It is the problem with the parents. They do not teach them as our parents taught us. Thank you for your wisdom Ayrea. I will have to think about what you have said. It will be a hard thing to decide.”
         “Change is coming, Evas. We must adapt ourselves to the new ways, or become victims to its consequences. You must trust your instincts. Your dream should not be ignored.”
         Evas nods respectfully to the old woman. With much to think about, Evas wanders along the alley, returning home late in the day. His questions sought answers deep within himself, to ignore his fate would no doubt have consequences unimaginable. He could see only one way. The way Ayrea advised, and this saddened him.
         Octivus finally catches up to Jimi resting at the end of the alley out of breath.
         “Did you see her?”
         Jimi shakes his head no. “I will get you for that….Hey where are you going?”
         “To visit my new friend. Come on!”
         Eli swept the floor of his father’s shop. This was a chore to do, once a day. His mother arranged silk robes across a table. His grandfather sat in a chair sleeping, while his grandmother stood near the door watching for customers. Eli’s father was out and about in the marketplace.
         The two boys walked in. “Is Eli home?”
         Eli, hearing his name comes to see. “Can I go out and play?”
         “Have you finished your chore?”
         Eli looks at the broom. “Yes Grammy.”
         “Do not be late for dinner.” The old woman points her crooked finger at him. She watches the three boys run off. “Be careful Eli, and do not play near the canal.”She calls after them.
         The three boys walk through the plaza, stopping for a moment to listen, as a stranger talked to the crowd. The people of Mu loved to hear stories. The young boy’s moved up close. They had never seen a man with such dark skin before. His eyes lit with excitement as he spoke. “…As sure as my name is Niobe…” The stranger promised. “…I will enter the jungle and return with treasures never before seen by civilized man. I will bring back with me stories of adventure, from a land few have dared to challenge, and to this day, none have returned from within.” Niobe looks drawn to see the three young boys watching him, mouths wide open. He nods to them and smiles. Eli gets a chill from the man’s glaring look, tugging on Octivus he turns. “Come on! The other boys will be playing.” Eli runs off.
There were plenty of boys at the plaza and they played all day. Jimi had never played kick the ball. He and Octivus laughed loudly and ran about together with Eli, till it was dark. Octivus returned home and found his family waiting. His Father and Grandfather stood together with troubled looks on their faces. He sees his Mother crying, Grandma with her arm around her sat silent. The young boy’s heart raced, sensing something was wrong.
         “Come and sit with me, Son.” Evas motions with his hand.
         “Is there something wrong, Father?”
         “There are things we must discuss.” He puts his arm over the boy.
         Octivus worries Gorge told on him again, but his Father voice was not scolding, but a gentle consoling voice.          Maybe something happened to one of his relatives. “Did someone die?”
         “No son, it is not that. I have been thinking much these past days. Many things have occurred, bringing change to our simple lives. My son? Do you remember the rock you found in the fish?”
         “Yes Father.”
         “It is a great gift from the sea; I gave it to the High Priest, Ramu. This morning I went to the old woman Ayrea, and she said this was right to do, but she said there was much more to do, my son. This woman I have much respect for and what she tells me to do is against my will to do, but she has great powers and her wisdom cannot be ignored. I have decided that you will not be the next generation of fisherman.”
         Stunned, Octivus looks to his grandfather confused and asks. “What then will I be? I love the sea, Father? I always wanted to be a fisherman . . . like you, Father.”
         Evas fights to hold his tears. He must force the words from his throat. “I have decided that you will go to the Temple and learn the scrolls of the Ancient Ones.”
         Octivus, scared, looks to his mother. “But I do not want to go away! I will not see you anymore! Mama?” He reaches for her, but she does not reach back.
         “You do as your father instructs, Octivus.” Her voice quivers.
         “But I do not want to go!” He cries.
         Evas takes the boy finally. “Listen to me, my son. Changes are coming to Mu, and the fate of the fishermen is uncertain. The old woman says you are the hope…Understand?”
         Octivus shakes his head. “But I do not want to go away.” He sobs.
         Evas wipes his son’s tears. “I understand. I do not want you to go either, but Ayrea says it is right. It is your destiny, my son. Study at the Temple, and learn the ways of a priest. The days of simple fishermen are short.”
         “I will do as you wish, but I will return to visit someday.” Octivus reaches into his father’s arms. Evas’ eyes, weld with tears, but he must be strong for his family. He is not sure the trembling he feels is his son, or himself. It was so hard to imagine he would give up his son, and was not sure if he could. Still the words of the old woman are on his mind – He is the hope!

CHAPTER SEVEN

“The Journey”

         Niobe complained and shouted at his slaves, while they loaded the wagon. Boata makes a final adjustment to the harness, trying hard to ignore the stranger’s insults. The wagon master wanted nothing more than to rid this contemptible man from his home.
         Sylas did not sleep last night. He worried about the journey to this dark land. It was the many warnings echoed by people about the market shops that the others that have gone in to jungle, and were never seen again. Perhaps this same fear was why three slaves escaped. Through a loose board they slid, and for his failure to prevent this escape, Sylas was beaten.
         Niobe paced about anxiously. “How much longer?”
         “We are ready. Open the door, Ethan.” The heavy wooden door creaked open slowly. The wagon rumbled along the cobblestones, turning into the next alley, exiting to the main street of the western city. Niobe laid across his supplies, in the rear of the wagon. His men guarded by Sylas, followed carrying what gear could not be carried by the wagon. Ethan watched his father and younger brother ride away with the strangers, and was worried for them.
         Torches lit the street casting shadows as the wagon turns into the Market Square. Niobe looked up at the Temple towering above them. Its presence ran a shiver up his spine. A full moon illuminates the garden, as the wagon continued slowly through the western city. Humbert, Boata’s younger son, looked about curious, as he rides alongside his father. The elegant structures of scholars and merchants, line both sides of the street with stoops made of marble. Enormous archways decorated with statues, and urns full of flowers, were just a hint of the beautiful gardens within the stone walls.
         Curious faces looked from their windows awakened by the uncommon noise, as the wagon rumbled below. They stared and shook their heads at the foolishness of this dark skinned stranger. They were all too sure of his fate, and would soon forget the stranger as they did the all others.
         Niobe had planned each detail. He knew it would be too hot to cross the desert during the day, so he began early morning while the air is still cool. He carried a bag of fresh water, and a supply of dried food, fruits and extra clothes. Satisfied he had not over looked any details, he folds his arms under his head, watching the night sky full of stars.
         From the balcony of the Temple, Ramu watches. He had been preparing a star chart when the sound of the wagon drew his attention. He had heard of the stranger, Niobe, from merchants as he shopped, Ramu too, was convinced they would not be seen again.
From a shadow, Lon Che watched the strangers. It was the first time in his life he remembers anyone going into the desert. He watched as the wagon passed beneath the archway, and continued to watch until they were lost in the shadows of the desert.
         Boata was afraid, never before traveling beyond the city. It was barren and lifeless. The sand illuminated by the moon, gave him eerie foreboding. The desert night is crisp, and soon the road turns to sand, making the mules strain under the weight of the heavy crates. They were far from the city when Boata stopped his wagon. “I can take you no further.”
         Annoyed, Niobe sat up, and looked about. They were still long ways from the jungle. Niobe protest. “I have paid you to take me the entire way.”
         Boata was angry. “I will not kill my mules. The wagon is too heavy in the sand. I refuse to go further.” Taking half of the coins in his pouch, he offers them back to Niobe. “You will not be charged for what I cannot do.”
         Niobe stands up on his gear and shouts at Boata. “YOU DARE TO REFUSE!” He rages reaching for the whip at his side. Boata puts down the reins, and stands to face Niobe. Sylas was sure the big man would throw his Master to the ground, but instead Niobe gets down quickly from the wagon without further debate. Sylas sighs with relief.
         Upset, Niobe shouts up from the ground at Boata “UNOAD THE WAGON! Your service will no longer be needed.” Niobe felt his whip as he glared at the large man. Sylas tugged at his Master. “The sun will be rising soon.” Niobe eased, remembering the more important task at hand. Boata lifts a heavy crate from his wagon, dropping it to the soft sand, just inches from Niobe’s foot. Humbert sat wide eyed, afraid his father would fight the stranger, and unloaded the wagon quick as he could. The morning air grew tense with emotion.
         “Sylas! Carry my bags.” Niobe walks off toward the jungle leaving his men scurrying to gather the supplies from the ground. The jungle seemed far away and it was hard to walk as their feet slipped away in the sand. The slaves complained amongst themselves. Their leader walked empty-handed, turning occasionally to yell. “Hurry up!”
         Reaching the perimeter of the jungle, they stopped and turned back to face Mu, which was a shadowed haze in the distance. The sun cracks the horizon and the morning Ritual of the Sun reaches out across the desert to them. “I am glad to be away from that place.” Niobe says to no one in particular.
         Boata stopped his wagon upon entering Mu, turning to look back across the desert where he left the men. He cannot see the expedition, but was sure they had reached the jungle lands by now. “Fools.” He shakes his head.

****

         The small fishing boat of Evas’s did not sail today. A matter more important brought all the family, and friends to see the boy off and wish him well. They knew it was possible they would not see him again. Each had a special thing to say, or a treasured ornament for him to take. It was not easy to say goodbye. Especially for Gorge who cried all morning.
         “Come, my Son. We must go now. Give your Mother, a hug, and a kiss.” She had always been there for him, now she stood numb. Her hands trembled as she held him tight for one last time. She would not cry. It was a good thing, she convinced herself. She is torn by the fact her son will not be here tonight as they slept. “I love you, Mama.” It was a moment that she would relive her dreams for months. Her voice full of emotion manages to whisper back. “You promise to be good and do not cause mischief.”
Evas took his son’s shoulder. “We must go.” His voice was gentle, almost a whisper. Evas kissing Treasa on her cheek tries to comfort her.
         It is hard, I know.” He says softly in her ear.
         “Go with your father. . . I love you, Octivus.”
         The young boy looks into his father’s dark eyes. They are swollen with tears. “We must go now, Son.” Evas takes the boy’s hand, avoiding eye contact with Treasa, as he leads the child away. Octivus looks back on his family one last time. Grandma and Grandpa hold Mother as she cries. Gorge waves bye. Everyone was there except his best friend, Jimi. Why did he not come? He wondered.
From the distance, a young boy stands watching from the shadows, unable to say goodbye, finally turning to run away. He knew it would not be the same, ever again.
         Evas walks slowly with his son. Looking at things hanging from shop racks and spread about tables, he speaks to Octivus. “Is there anything you want, my Son?” Octivus finds a beautiful silk cloth. He touches it smiling. “I would like this, Father.”
         “It is pretty, but what use do you have for it?”
         “I do not want it for me, Father. I want it for Mother. Will you give it to her? Then she will have something to remember me.” Evas takes the scarf from his son’s hand, paying the shopkeeper.
         The man and small boy stand awed before the Temple. The deed is at hand, and doubts raced through Evas, and on this cool morning, beads of sweat form on his brow. How foolish to think, the son of a fisherman would be worthy to study the scrolls. It was arrogant to think his son would be accepted. Only the words of the old woman, Ayrea, kept him from turning away.
         Octivus grips his father’s hand tightly. His stomach ached, twisted with anxieties. They climb the stone steps. With each step taking him closer to his new life, he trembles to worry what if he fails? He had never been this scared his whole life.
Mecca sees the man and boy. He knew why they had come. He has seen the look in their eyes too often and he watches them standing in the archway of the door – lost souls desperate for guidance.
         “Good morning. Might I assistance you?”
         “I have come to see Ramu, if that is possible?”
         “What is the matter of concern?”
         “I wish for my son to become a student, if Ramu will accept him.”
         “I will let him know you are here. What are your names please?”
         “I am Evas, and this is my son, Octivus.”
         Mecca sees the wide-eyed boy fascinated by the high ceilings of the Temple. He wondered if the boy understood what was about to occur . . . He hated this moment.
         “Please, have a seat in the garden. I will return shortly.”
         The young boy had never seen so many beautiful things. His mouth was open wide in astonishment as he sat nervously with his father. A single cloud passes over the open courtyard in the garden of the Temple. The chirping song of a bird hidden above in the rafters attracts the boy’s curiosity. “It is beautiful here, Father.” Evas put his arm around the boys shoulder more to comfort himself than his son. The thought weighed on his mind, half hoping to be turned away.
         “I am Ramu. You wished to see me?”
         Evas is quick to rise. “Yes, yes” He is nervous.
         “What matter brings you to the Temple?”
         My son, I hope that you will accept him as a student in your Temple?”
         “I see. You are in hard times?”
         “No” I have all I need. I have recently bought a kitchen in the wharf, and I am doing very well. Will you accept my son? I know he is just the son of a fisherman, but he has good wits, he is very strong for his size.” Evas sways as his legs go weak.
Ramu remembers the man from the other night. “You had given me the crystal. This is the child who found it?” Octivus stared up at Ramu. He was much older than Grandfather and much taller than Father. The High Priest smiled down on the boy, and there was an unexplained connection between them as their eyes meet. The moment seemed eternal, and the boy’s fear was gone. He smiles back. “I will take him, but there is a condition.”
         “Whatever you wish from me, Ramu.”
         “You must give up your right to claim him as your son. You must avoid seeing him. He must belong wholly to the teachings of the scrolls. Do you agree to this?”
         Evas could only nod.
         “I think, Ramu.” Interrupts Mecca. “The usual disclaimer to their family bond has proven to be too harsh, as we have learned with Meager. Perhaps it is time to try new ways.”
         “A point well stated, Mecca . . . Evas, I will not require you to give up your right to claim this child as your son, but, you will not be allowed to see or to visit him for one year from this day.”
Evas bows before the High Priest. “Thank you. I swear.”
         “Then Mecca and I shall leave you and your son to said goodbye.” Ramu felt good about accepting the boy. He was proud of Mecca to make his suggestion. Change was not to be feared.
         Evas looked down into his son’s eyes. It all had come to this. The first time he held his son, the sound of his infant cry. The laughter of a young child at play, are the moments that fill a parents heart with joy. Now will become bitter sweet memories, knowing his son will grow and learn without him. “I must go, my son. I will miss you every day.”
         “How long is a year?”
         “Not long. Be good.”
         “I will make you proud.” Octivus smiled.
         “I am proud now, my Son. Farewell. I must go.” Evas breaks away from his son and does not look back. The tears roll dawn his face, unable to contain them any longer. Overwhelmed by his grief, he sobs. He would not return to his boat until late. For hours he will walk aimlessly about the Marketplace. With every turn he witnessed a man with his son, and he sat for awhile watching, hoping to see his own son one last time. He does not.

****

         It was late when Tasio arrived back to the Temple. All is quiet as he climbs the steps to the observation platform – the highest point of the Temple. There he found Ramu with a star chart spread out on a table. It was the habit of the High Priest to read the star charts into early morning. Ramu turns to see Tasio standing in the door. “I am glad you are back. How was your journey?”
         “Sad. My friend, Odem, had passed. I buried him and gathered his belongings.”
         “Odem is dead?” Ramu stands shocked.
         “I have more bad news. The young priest has remained in Tarkas.”
         “What? He has abandoned his duties here? Will he return?”
         “He said it was temporary. I do not think it is temporary. I saw a spark in his eyes that I had not seen there before. Have I failed your wishes?”
         Ramu looks out over the quiet Market below. Taking a deep breath, he answers. “No, Brother, I am surprised by his decision and find myself in an unforeseen predicament.”
         “Is it a matter that I may be of assistance?”
         “The Temple has received a new student, a child. I was considering that Meager being the youngest of all the priests here, to be best suited to take on the responsibility, as his tutor.”
         “And what of Mecca?”
         “I feel I am imposing upon him. He was looking forward to his independence. Perhaps Brother, you can help?”
         Tasio is silent. He would not have time for a child, but he remembers his friends warning to keep his secrets. Still he debates to himself. This is Ramu and he must trust someone. “I will help as I can. There is a matter I must settle concerning my old friend, Odem, and then I will be leaving Mu.”
         Ramu nods. “Change will come quicker than I thought.”
         “There are matters of which I will require your assistance, Ramu.”
         “How can I help?”
         “Odem has place upon me a responsibility to protect certain things I cannot speak of. He has also instructed me to seek out a merchant that has brought into Mu a certain powerful source. Mu being such a large place, I am bewildered as to where to start. I was warned not to trust anyone, but I need help. You are the only one that can know of this. Do I have your pledge of secrecy?”
         “Absolutely…I know Odem from many years ago when he first came to this land. I assume you know he is a Balatar.”
         Tasio is stunned that Ramu knew such about his friend. “Then you know?”
         “I know. What thing has come to Mu?”
         “It is called the Stone of Ur. It is a Moon Stone, and has a power over its possessor. Odem instructed me to find it, and to take it away from Mu. This is what I need help for.”
         “It is here?” Ramu is disturbed these events were not revealed in his chart readings.
         “Yes. Odem warns that forces are converging in Mu. Disaster waits in the near future.”
         “The scrolls tell how the prophecies begin…It has all happened so suddenly.”
         “Odem believed that someone will come in search of the stone. He could not say who they are…I feel I must reveal to you that I have inherited the status as Keeper of the Book of Keys, and Protector of the Seven Gates.”
         “You carry the Theorem of Opathesis?”
         “Yes. You know of it?”
         “I too am a Balatar, Tasio. Let no one know of this. In this book are all the names of the Balatar and the secrets they protect. The book of keys is the code to decipher the names. Your life is in great danger. They will be searching for you.” Ramu is concerned for the monk.
         “Who will come, Ramu? Who searches for these powerful sources?”
         “The Druid Priest and I assure they are close, and we should be careful as we speak.”
         “What fate awaits Mu?” Tasio is concerned for his friends.
         Ramu looks up at the sky, as if the answer is there within the millions of flickering specks. He shakes his head. “I do not know, Brother.” He is confused to why there is no indication of coming disaster. What plan has the ancient ones set in motion that even he knows not of what it is?

CHAPTER EIGHT

“A Storm Coming”

         In the months that have passed, many strangers came to Mu. Many built homes in the lands north of Mu. Ramu watched as the city expanded beyond its boundaries to the north and east. Rumor of clashes between bands of travelers, and Mayan hunters over food rights was a pending disaster. Still, he welcomed the travelers from Alantasia. He only wished they were not so aggressive upon the land.
         Each morning before sunrise, Octivus looked out toward the dark bay, from his chamber window. Though he cannot see his father’s small boat, he knew it was there. “Good morning Papa. I love you Mama.” He waived, certain they knew he was watching.
         Mecca knocks on the chamber door. “I am awake.” A young voice came from within. Entering, Mecca waits for the young boy climbing down from a trunk he had slid below a high window. Reluctant at first, Mecca accepted the assignment of the young boy, as his student.
         He was grateful the boy was not so much an emotional challenge as was Meager. The boy seemed eager to learn, but lacked the ability to focus on his lessons and was often distracted by objects and insects that happened along during the course of lessons. More than once Mecca found himself reciting a lesson only to find the boy wondered off chasing butterflies. At first it infuriated him, but then as he grew to know the boy he realized the innocents, and sometimes let the joy of discovery become the lesson for the day.
The day began early for the Temple Priest. Octivus helped his tutor bake bread. It was his job to milk the goats, and have a pitcher set on the table for breakfast. The priest and the guest of the Temple sat about a common table. It was sometimes hard to remember the names of the guest, as they were constantly coming, or going. On this day there were two new visitors. Octivus could not help but wonder from where they came?
         “Has anyone seen Ramu?” Mecca asks concerned.
         “He may have overslept I will bring his plate to his room.” Tasio bows respectfully as he leaves. The stair leading to the chambers was dark, and narrow. Knocking on Ramu’s chamber door, he listens, but there is no sound coming from within. Pushing the door open, he peers inside to find no one is there. The bed still made, and he hurries up the stairs to the observatory.
The Observatory was a platform high above the Temple and Tasio was relieved to find Ramu asleep in a comfortable chair, and places the plate of food on a table next to him. Looking briefly at the star charts rolled out before Ramu, realizing the elder priest must have been awake all night.
         “Ramu? Wake up.” Tasio shakes him easy.
         Ramu rubs his eyes. The sky is still full of stars, as the horizon in the distance hints of the coming of a warm day with purple hues mixing with fiery amber. “I must have fallen asleep. Is there something the matter?”
         “Everything is fine, Ramu, You were missed at breakfast. I came to see if you were hungry. You should not exhaust yourself so, my friend.”
         “Thank you. You are right, my brother. I am perplexed about my readings.” He breaks the fresh bread with his hands. “I am concerned. I have plotted stars for many years, and always, they have revealed to me things to come. Now, it is as if the lid of a box has shut me inside. I can see nothing.”
         “When I was a young student, my teacher Yang, who was very old, said to me – A day will come when there is not a written future for mankind. In which time, events will rely solely on the actions of men.”
         “Do you think we are in this time?”
         Tasio admits “Yes.”
         “Have you learned anything new about the Stone of Ur?”
         “No…I listen quietly about the market, and shops. I do not want to bring about any unnecessary curiosities though I am sure it is not far. It is strange how it occupies my dreams at night, and my thoughts are always of it…Its power must be great.”
         “Very…I caution you Tasio. Do not take your task lightly. The stone has been told to consume the possessor. Only those of the innocents are unaffected.”
         “I thought I would have found it by now. More people come each month and the task has become complicated. I cannot be sure that I will find it, and am afraid, Ramu.”
         “Odem has chosen well, Tasio, I have kept my ears open too. Whoever has the stone has kept it well hidden.”          Ramu finishes his meal, rubbing his eyes he begins to roll up a chart.
         The traveler from Elbe hides in the shadows of the stairs. He had come to Mu on the last ship, with a Hebrew Rabbi, but they were not together. He listens to the priests talk, returning to his room later. Writing a script, sealing it with his emblem he plans to send it out on the next ship acknowledging to his affiliate – the stone is here.

****

         Meshel was troubled. He had become obsessed with the stone and would not leave his home, even to eat. It was his constant worry that someone lurked about outside, waiting to steal his prized possession.
About his small quarters, books lay strewn about. Candles burned themselves into lumps of wax on the table, as he gazes into the black stone, attempting to unleash its power.
         His neighbors banged on his door till he answered, complaining of the stench that reeked from within. They had no idea of the dead carcasses of sacrificed animals which lay about, nor of the dark rituals did he perform each night. They were concerned for their neighbor who was a friendly man under usual circumstances. His change in temperament toward them made them suspect he may be ill, but no one was close enough to him, to pry deeper.
         Meshel drank animal blood with amulets of evil draped about his room and body. A pentagram drawn in goat blood on the floor compelled his delusion that it protected the stone from thieves. By this time, Meshel was wide-eyed with madness as he begins another spell, but it too ends in the frustrated cries of a madman, striking the table clear of objects, he rants about the room never taking his eyes from the stone. “There must be a way!” He shouts.
         Lon Che sits at the fountain knowing his friend is ill, but what could he do? He listens in silence as the sound of his friend’s torment reach out for him. It is a full moon, and the ship will arrive by mid day. Lon Che, concerned for his friend, knocks upon his door. All becomes still inside. “Meshel? It is Lon Che. Are you well?”
         Meshel gathers himself and whispers through the door. “I am fine.” He must have heard his cries. Does he suspect? Meshel worries…No one should be trusted. “Go away!”
         “When the ship comes today, will you need my assistance?”
         “No. I have all I need.”
         It was the second month in a row that Meshel did not have trade to pick up from the Merchant ship. This was peculiar since fall was upon them, and winter not far off. How would Meshel survive? Lon Che walks along the narrow alley. A deep feeling his friend was in trouble filled his gut. Who can he ask for help?

****

         Perili was an Alchemist of sorts, and prepared remedies for the aches of his older friend, but every once in a while he brings a new contraption for his friend to see. Holding an odd shaped glass in his palm, he is excited as always about new things. Ramu, in his usual reserved curiosity, reaches for it.
         “If you hold the glass close to your eyes, everything seems larger than it is. I thought it may be beneficial to your eyesight, so I brought it over.”
         “What is it?”
         “My brother sent it to me from Athena. I do not know what it is called exactly. He said he found it in a shop and thought I could make some use of it.” Taking the strange glass looking about. “I see what you mean. This will make my reading easier.” Fascinated, he smiles observing an ant on the bench arm next to him.
Perili looks to the sky. “There seems to be a storm moving in. What do the planets forecast?” Perili ask as moves to the railing of the observatory. The wind is picking up a bit.
         “The star charts make no sense to me. It seems as if a piece from a puzzle is missing.” The frustration strains his voice. Ramu glances over the chart with his new lens.
         “Perhaps you should let your mind rest.” Perili suggests. “You are searching too hard for answers, and the obvious conclusions are eluding you. Try another perspective. What I do is forget about the matter for a few days. Then when I return to the problem, it is new, and my mind is fresh.”
         “You may be right.” The sea gulls flying over head, foretelling the storm out at sea. He squint his eyes, but can see nothing on the horizon. The storm must be far away.
         “Why not come to dinner this evening. My daughter, Elisa, has become a good cook.”
         “I have not seen Elisa, in many months. How has she been?”
         “She has matured into a young woman. A spitting image of her mother, rest her soul.”
         Ramu turns to see the young student standing in the door, “Yes boy?”
         “I was curious, Ramu. I have not been upon the Observatory before.”
         “Come then, satisfy your curiosity.” Ramu watched the boy from a distance. He noticed the boy had a keen fascination to learn. He also noticed the boy’s flare for getting into mischief, and hoped he would soon out grow it.
         The young boy stepped onto the platform from the stairwell. His stomach tingles with anticipation as he looks down from the railing, never been so high before. To his amazement he could see the hidden pond and shouts “There is my Father’s boat!” Astounded by the extent of the marshlands that surround the pond he leans up high on the rail. He could see the farmhouses across the canal, and the tree tops of the forest painted in colors of fall. Its beauty took away his breath.
         Ramu stays the boy with his hand fearful the boy in his excitement would lean too far over the rail. “Easy boy, you will fall.” It had been many years since a child this young had come to the temple. Ramu was not sure he had the patience to keep the boy under foot. A bird flies passed and the boy turns, excited. “We are higher than the birds fly!” Then a silence took the boy, it was the first time he saw mountains. Blue grey humps in the distance. A plume of dark smoke rose from one of the peaks. “What is that?” He points to the jungle in the distance.
         Ramu looks hard. “It is a volcano.”
         “This must be your student?” Perili smiles.
         “Yes. This is Octivus. He is a very bright boy.”
         “You must have a fine Tutor.”
         “Speaking of which, where is Mecca?”
         “I do not think he is feeling well.” Curious, Octivus walks to a table where a pile of rolled parchment set.
         “He is ill?” Ramu asked concerned.
         “He is not happy. Mecca has been sitting in the garden and has not uttered a word to me all morning. I think he is mad at me…Are these the scrolls of the Ancients?”
         Ramu puts his hand on Octivus shoulder. “Yes. Were you late for your lessons again?”
         The young boy nods. “He says I test his nerves.”
         “Understandable, perhaps we should give your tutor some peace and quiet for the rest of the day. Would you like to stay with me?” Ramu knew he would regret his offer, but Mecca needed some time to think.
         “My father says they are holy words.” Octivus touches the scrolls.
         “Someday you will learn the words.”
         He is filled with enthusiasm. “When will my lessons begin?”
         Perili realizes that Ramu had his hands full and excuses himself. “I will go and tell Elisa, you and the boy will be coming for dinner.”
         “I am looking forward to the visit, my friend, and should arrive around dusk.”
         Looking down at the boy at his side, Ramu instructs the boy. “Help me carry the scrolls to my chamber, Octivus. A storm may be coming”

****

         Mecca sat alone in the garden. Ramu held the boy’s hands and approached unnoticed. “Mecca?” Mecca turns to face Ramu, so deep was he in his thoughts, he did not realize the boy had wondered off.
         “Ramu.” He stands.
         “Are you well?”
         “Why yes. I am feeling fine.”
         “I was worried. The boy said you were ill.”
         “No. Tired, that is all.” He looks down at the boy. No doubt the boy had been pestering.
         “There is something eating you, Mecca. We must talk . . . Octivus, go and play. I will come and find you when I am ready to begin your lesson.”
         Concerned for his friend, Ramu sits next to Mecca on the garden bench.
         “I have a lesson prepared, Ramu, I am sorry I let the day get away.”
         “Have you received any letters from Meager?”
         “Yes. This latest letter arrived this morning.” He hands it to Ramu. “He is teaching the village children how to write and count numbers. He says he is happy, and it sounds more like he is considering staying permanently in Tarkas. I did not think I would miss his company so.”
         “Did he say this in his letter?”
         “Not exactly, but he has met a girl. He is considering having a family.”
         “Maybe you should go to Tarkas, and remind him of his responsibilities here.”
         “No, I will not interfere. Actually, Ramu, I am proud of him and his decision. He has chosen not to be trapped in this place.”
         Ramu is taken back by these words. “You are not happy here?”
         “Yes…No…I mean…I mean I feel confined. Every moment of my day was dedicated to raising Meager and he has grown into a fine young man with a good heart. Ten years, Ramu.” Mecca clutches his fist with the frustration. “Ten years I was his parent and now he has left. Now there is another boy to tutor. For twenty years I have not seen my family in Copan. Ramu, I must see what is out there. Do not ask me to explain to you why. But this premonition to go away from this place fills my soul. It feels like I am dying inside.”
Ramu is disturbed by Mecca’s revelation. “Is this such a terrible place that everyone must leave? Meager and now you too wish to leave? I know it is not easy, but we have responsibilities, Mecca.”
         Mecca is taken back by Ramu’s abruptness, “I did not realize I was abandoning you. I will stay.” Mecca looks down at the ground. He could not leave. He was needed here.
         Ramu sees the sadness in Mecca’s eyes. “You have been a dedicated man and you deserve more than anyone to reach out beyond these walls. It is just your timing. There is so much happening. I need you here, because you are one of a few that I know I can trust.”
         Pathos listens from the stairwell. He had sent his correspondence with a messenger, who awaited the Merchant Ship. In a few days time the ship will sail again, it is then all a matter of time before the plan will be set in motion. In the meantime he too searched for the Moon Stone. He must be careful not to raise suspicions about himself, or reveal his intentions, secrecy was important, and many years of searching were coming to an end.
         Tasio knew the stone was in possession of a merchant, so he spent many hours walking through the shops. He became familiar with certain shop keepers, and on occasion would ask if they heard of anyone selling a black stone. No one had. His disappointment grew with his failure.
         “Good morning, Brother.” Came a young voice.
         “Octivus, What are you doing here? Is Mecca not giving you your lesson today?”
         “No, he is not feeling well, and Ramu said I could go and play.”
         “Would you like to walk with me awhile?”
         “You will not mind?”
         “No, I could use some company. Perhaps we can make a lesson of it.
         Octivus smiles as they walk to the border of the Western city. The boy had not been so close to the desert before, and looks across the bleached sand to the dark shadows of the jungle.
         “My father says there are people who live in the jungle.”
         “He does? He is probably correct, what do you think?”
         “My people have told many stories about them. I am afraid to talk about the stories.” He whispers.
         “Sometimes the stories are more frightening than the people they are about.”
         “What made you come to Mu?” Octivus looks up at the Monk.
         “Curiosity, I thought that I could find the stories of man’s soul.”
         “Did you?”
         “I have found that there are many more questions than answers.”
         “Why do you stay in Mu? Do you have family where you are from?”
         “In Chen Chung, I have much family, I hope someday to return but for now I have to resolve a matter.” Tasio looks away from the jungle land.
         Octivus is silent for a long time. He turns to see a man standing in the shadows. The man sees the boy, and hurries away up an alley. “I miss him sometimes…I wish I was fishing with my Father right now, but Father says I must learn the ways of the inland people. I do not understand, Brother. Why can I not be who I was born to be? I am a fisherman’s son. The sea is my life. I do not understand.”
         “My father was a farmer, he grew rice and spent long days in his fields. He taught to me his techniques so that I too would be a good farmer someday. Then change happened, and we were forced from our land by a war lord family. Anyone who resisted was murdered. My father took our family from that land, and we migrated to a village along a powerful river. It was there I came to meet a monk, who had sowed the seed in me. It has become this pursuit, the secrets of the soul that has taken me far from things I love so dear.” Tasio sighs realizing a truth in his words to the boy, and he understands now – it is his destiny.
         “My father says family is eternal. It is from where we come, and is to where we belong. Father says that there is a speck of every ancestor within us. This is why we dream. It is our memories of past lives, for this reason, Father says we never die. We live in the linage of our children.”
         “Your father is a very wise man, Octivus.” Tasio smiled as he walked along the short wall with the boy aside him. He turns to see a shadowy figure standing in the alley. The figure slips into a doorway.
         Tasio worried, returns with the boy to the temple. Immediately he goes to his chamber. The eight books of the seven gates were safe, stuffed inside his mattress.
         Lon Che had followed the monk and small boy all afternoon. He wanted to ask the monk for help, but he was shy, and afraid to approach. So now he stands across from the Temple of the Sun, and hopes tomorrow he will have the courage. Covering his scars with a cloth, he goes back to his home, and after a small meal goes to sleep.

CHAPTER NINE

“Prophecy”

         Again the merchant ship came, and went. Ramu watched from his balcony, as the ship sailed from the bay with grace and ease. He envied these men born to wonder, perhaps Mecca was right. They are all trapped in this place. Each day a mere continuation of the day before, bland and uneventful, life lingering until it expires in old age.
         As a Priest, we are expected to learn the ways of nature. Is it so inconceivable that Mecca should want to experience his life too? Ramu had decided to allow Mecca to leave, and would also encourage his departure.
         Fall in Mu was short. Though the nights were cold, and the wind blew hard enough at times to blow a grown man over. It was not so severe as winter in lands to the north. Leaves swirled about the ground. The trees once full of color, become bare and brown, their branches gnarled and exposed. Ramu watches Octivus seated at the table, baffled by a new word, and approaches to look over the boys shoulder. “The word is prosperity.” The boy looks up curiously. “What does it mean?”
         “It means to have good fortune.”
         Tasio enters. “Good morning, Brother.”
         “Do you have any news?”
         “None. I fear that it has found its way from the city.”
         “That may be more good news than bad, Brother.”
         “If I only knew for certain, I am frustrated with the search. It seems so futile. Could I be looking in the wrong places?” Tasio is troubled by his failure to find the Moon Stone.
         “Maybe you should search with your heart and not with your eyes.”
         “Perhaps.” Tasio begins to leave and stops. “I understand Mecca is leaving the Temple.” Octivus turns surprised. He did not know this.
         “Yes. He says he must get away for a while.”
         “You are taking the boy as your student?”
         “He is no trouble.” Ramu touches the boy’s head.
         “I can make more time to assist with the boys training.”
         Ramu could see the boy is excited by the oriental’s proposal, and nods.
         “It may be a good thing Tasio, but will you have the time?” The question is never answered, as a commotion below attracts their attention.
         People from the Marketplace are hurrying up the western street. Concerned, Ramu looks to see, but his vision is blocked by the rows of homes. Mecca rushes up the stairs excitedly as he gasps for breath he manages to say, “They are back! The stranger, he has returned from the jungle!”
         It was true. As they watched from the temple balcony, the strangers appeared from between the rows of homes into the marketplace. A crowd swarmed around the men carrying a huge cage, draped with a canvass. The realization came to Ramu with the sensation of a dagger in his heart. He gasped the words. “Prophesy is upon us, Brothers.” Ramu sits and his face is pale, and he feels weak.
         Tasio feels alone in his failure to find the stone and he excuses himself.
         Ramu watched as the oriental left the Temple. No one was to blame. It was beyond the power of man to avoid the forces of nature. Forever creating, changing, and destroying. It was the arrogance of mankind to think nature exists to serve man, when in fact it was man born to serve nature. “Come to my chambers tonight, Mecca. There will be matters for us to discuss.”
The guests of the Temple gather about the High Priest, as he and Mecca came from the stairs leading down from the chambers. The Rabbi turns to Pathos whispering. “I think it is time for me to leave this place.”
         Pathos did not like the Hebrew, turning away without a single word. He follows the oriental from the Temple, stopping for a moment, allowing the monk distance. He had followed Tasio for weeks knowing that the monk was in search of the stone.
Distraught, Tasio walked on. His mind muddled by the dishonor his failure brought him. He could hear the crowd cheering the strangers. “Odem, I have failed you!” He says out loud. Just then, a stranger comes to him. He was a big man and Tasio looks into his scarred face, startled by his abruptness.
         “You are a Priest? You are from the Temple?” The stranger stutters.
         “Yes.” Tasio had no mind to listen to the problems of others, and continues around the big man blocking his path on the narrow street.
         The stranger rambles on. “I-I have a friend that is sick…I do not know what to do for him…I – I was wondering if you would come see to him?”
         “I cannot help.” Tasio continues to walk.
         “But you are a Priest. He may be dying. Help my friend, please? You are a priest!” Lon Che insisted hurrying after the Priest.
         Tasio takes a deep breath. Succumbing to the strangers beckoning he agrees to go. His own problems would have to wait. Following the stranger along a maze of alleys, they stop standing awkwardly at the door of the ailing man.
         Lon Che bangs hard on the door. “Meshel! Meshel! Open the door!” He begs. They wait a moment, there is a long silence.
         Tasio becomes concerned for the man inside. “Your friend may be sicker than you thought and may not be able to open the door. We will have to break it in.”
         Lon Che turns the door knob and the door opens, squeaking on its hinges. The stench made them stand back. Tasio expecting to find the worst enters. There was no one home. Looking about the darkness he becomes concerned about the strange pentacles and amulets scattered about the room. Candles melted, mounds of wax dripping from the table’s edge to the floor. Rotting carcasses festering on the floor drew swarms of flies and maggots.
         “What profession is your friend?” The smell making him gag as he pushes open the window shutters letting the fresh air in.
         Lon Che had never seen such things before, and is puzzled, and frightened. “He is a merchant who sells jewels and makes things with Gold and Silver. Evil, I can feel it is evil!” And he rushes out the door. Tasio continues to look about the room. Bugs crawled over molded scraps of food, infesting the bed and cupboards, falling from the ceilings on him as he searched disgusted by the filth, and reeking odor. Kneeling down he opens a book of rituals left discarded on the floor. At once he knew he had found the stone. He left the home and waited by the fountain for Meshel to return. But Meshel never showed.
         Convinced that it was not longer safe there, Meshel moved into a stable he owned, not far up the alley. There he made a bed of straw and slept deeply. It was his first rest in days.

         The streets are packed with curious onlookers. Niobe, thin and exhausted, walked ahead. Sylas and one other slave survived the ordeal. Between them they carried a cage covered by a canvas concealing the contents. Their clothes ravaged, and skin was blistered from the desert.
         They walk the streets of Mu heroes, doing what had not ever been done before. They stop before the Wall, where travelers told stories. Niobe climbs to the top step, and in a voice rasped form lack of water, he managed to boast “Niobe has returned!” The crowd cheers.
         Niobe looks into their faces. Their energy filled him. A young woman offers a water skin up to him. Merchants handed him and his slaves’ skewered meat to feed their hunger. They ate and drank until their stomachs stopped aching, and their thirst quenched.
         The people cheered. Nothing like this had happened before in Mu. It was a great day for the people. The news of Niobe’s return would go far. That night, the city did not sleep as people lined up, hoping to be amongst the first to view the creature. Niobe kept the creature concealed within the tent, a donation made by a merchant in exchange to being the first to see the creature. Niobe, Sylas, and Nathan sat in shifts to guard their secret. Tomorrow they would begin to make their fortune.

         It was late at night. Ramu looked down from the Temple helpless. He could do nothing. Looking up at the night sky, he sighs. If only he knew what to do. “Why do you deny me the wisdom to save my people? What fate does nature bring to us?” Ramu, his eyes welding with tears turns away. He is stopped abruptly by two arms holding him about his waist. The young student had brought tea up to Ramu, had overheard his distress.
         “Everything will be all right, Ramu.”
Ramu takes the child close. “I needed to hear that. Come, you can help me make a star chart…Why are you not in bed?” Ramu ask realizing how late it was.
         “I could not sleep. The crowds are making too much noise.”
         Mecca enters the chamber. He is startled to see the boy with Ramu. “Is there something the matter? Why are you not in bed, Octivus?”
         “It is all right, brother. I will start teaching the boy about star charts tonight.”
         “Is he old enough to understand?”
Ramu looks down at the boy who smiles back. There is a bond between the two. “I think he will have a natural ability. Join us Mecca, up in the observatory.”
         Ramu showed the boy the nine reference points to the stars. It was a time-consuming task to chart the stars, and the boy was left alone while Ramu and Mecca spoke about many things.
         The boy full of enthusiasm carefully plotted each flicker in the sky on the parchment. After a long time, he became tired and sat down resting his sleepy eyes. There on a table next to him was the strange piece of glass Perili brought to Ramu. Taking it up the boy looks through the glass, and is delighted by its effect. Then, as a child would play, he looks up at the sky, and sees a new star appear, and logs the new star on his chart. Strange he thought. How the star would only show itself when looking through the glass…the glass was a magical thing obviously reserved for use only by the High Priest, he reasons. So he did not mention how he found the new star.
         It was early morning when Ramu finished his discussion with Mecca. Mecca was happy about Ramu’s encouragement to leave and agreed to stay until the stranger, Niobe left. Tired Ramu goes to the young boy who fell fast asleep in the chair. Curious to see what the child had done he compares the new chart with that one he did a few nights earlier, and was impressed by the accuracy of his plotting. All except for this one speck, and he erases it…there.
         Nudging the child awake gently, Ramu smiles. “You have done extremely well for you first lesson in plotting. There was just one mistake.”
         The boy rubs the sleep from his eyes. “Then I can help you again?”
         “Yes, my boy, but for now you must rest, it will be a long day tomorrow.”
         Octivus stands, the glass falls to the ground and breaks in two pieces. Afraid he looks up to Ramu expecting to be scolded. “I am sorry, Ramu.”
         It was only a piece of glass. It is not important.”
         As Ramu tucked the young boy in bed he gives the broken glass to the child. “I can have it?”
         “It will have more use to you than I.” Ramu closed the chamber door. He had a good feeling about the boy.          There was so much for him to learn with his only concern being; was there time enough to teach him?
         Though he was sleepy, the young boy treasured the two pieces of glass. He wondered if he could still see the star he found from his window and climbs up on the trunk beneath his window – looking up at the sky – he places the glass up and sees the star is still there. Then he takes the other piece and place them one before the other. Amazed he gasped. “There are so many stars I cannot see with my eyes, but I can see with these glasses.” There was one star that shone brighter than the rest. He named it Cora, after his sister. Jumping down from the trunk he places the glass pieces under his pillow and falls into a deep restful sleep.

CHAPTER TEN

“Innocent of Heart”

         The City was in chaos. Fields of grain were trampled and supplies ran short. Shops closed because they had nothing left to sell. The people kept coming and Niobe became rich. He had filled two trunks with gold and silver. Sylas wore silk and a turban. He too, had made his fortune. Almost a month has pass since Niobe returned from the jungle. In a few days the merchant ship would return and there would be supplies. But there were so many people in Mu already. The merchants were afraid these supplies would be gone within a few days, and their shops would be bare until the next shipment a month away.
         Mecca came to find Ramu standing silent looking down at the crowded marketplace from his chamber balcony. They had become very close. Now he must search within himself to find the words to tell Ramu, goodbye. “It is not like Mu…” Mecca begins. “…I have walked thru the streets late at night, and I see vile things taking place.”
         Ramu deep in thought does not hear Mecca enter and is startled turning surprised. “Mecca.”
Mecca stands beside Ramu silent. Taking a deep breath, he begins. His voice trembles with emotion. “The strangers will be leaving on the merchant ship in a few days. I have decided to leave at dawn for Copan; unless there is anything you require before I leave…You have been good to me, Ramu. I will stay longer if you need me too.”
         Ramu sighs. He had prepared himself to accept the departure, and tries to smile. “You have been a good friend, Mecca. I will miss you.” Ramu looks into his friend’s face. For a moment he could see the young man that arrived many years before, so full of enthusiasm in him to learn the scrolls. He had become use to having Mecca around.
         Mecca sensed the sadness. “You know that I will miss this place when I am gone. This is something I must do. I cannot explain. I have this aching feeling that I must go.”
         “You owe me no explanation, Mecca. I have cherished your friendship all these years and I too, will miss you.”
         “Good morning, Brothers.”
         Mecca nods to acknowledge Tasio as he enters the balcony.
         Ramu bows to Tasio. “Have you found Meshel?”
         “It is impossible with all these strangers about. If only I found the stone in time.”
         “What stone?”
         Tasio looks to Ramu. Ramu turns to face Mecca. “It is called the Stone of Ur. I did not inform you of it for your own protection.”
         Mecca is silent; hurt by Ramu’s secret from him, and jealous of the oriental to hold the confidence of the High Priest. He was sure not to be missed when he left. How easy it was to be replaced. Finally the truth was at hand. He was insignificant.
         “We believe a merchant named Meshel has it.”
         “Meshel! Meshel!” Mecca thinks out loud. “I know of a merchant named Meshel. He deals with jewelry and precious stones. He is a good man, a Hebrew who escaped from Uri Shalom many years ago. I know him well.”
         “Do you know where he can be found?” Asks Ramu quickly.
         “I remember he lives in the West City. . .Hmm . . . He raises chickens now, and has a stable, but I do not know where it is, exactly.”
         Tasio remembers the Guardsman. “Then that is where he will be! Lon Che would know!” He hurries from the balcony down the steps.
         “Go with him, Mecca. Find the stone.”
         Ramu and Mecca turn to see the young boy, Octivus, standing in the doorway. Octivus walks up to them shyly.          “I came to see if you wanted tea, Ramu? I did not mean to listen, but I was curious.”
         “You did nothing wrong, my Son. And yes, I would like tea.”
         Octivus bows and leaves. He passes close to a dark figure hidden in the shadows, but does not see him. Pathos knew they had found the stone and in a few days his associates would arrive.
         Ramu sat in his chair. He was in deep thought, when the child retuned. “Ramu? I have brought you your tea.”
         “Place it on the table.” His voice was tired and drained.
         “Will you teach me my lesson today?”
         “I am thinking, Octivus. Go play. There will be no lesson today.”
         The young boy leaves his feelings are hurt by the sharpness in Ramu’s voice. Turning to stop in the doorway he saw Ramu, his head in his hands – crying. A feeling of dread filled the boy. There was something wrong. His stomach felt sick. Not knowing what else to do, and he goes to find his friend, Eli.
         He finds Eli sitting on the step to his parent’s shop. His kick ball was between his feet and he was bored.          “Hello, my friend. Why are you not at the plaza?”
         “There are too many people. There is no room to play, and my mother will not let me leave the shop, she says there are too many strangers and they may steal me away, or something.”
         “I will sit here with you. Ramu thinks the strangers will be gone soon. They will take the beast away and things will be normal again.”
         “My father says things will never be the same.”
         Octivus is silent.
         “Have you seen it?” Eli continues.
         “The creature? No. Mecca says it is not for a child to see.”
         “It will be gone before we are old enough to see it. Nezzar has seen it. It did not harm him…It’s not fair.”
         An old ragged looking man turns the corner. The boy’s watch as he approaches. His eyes wide with madness with foam formed around the corners of his lips and he smelled foul. “Would you spare a bit of food?” He asked.
         “Go away!” shouts Eli.
         Eli’s mother hears his shouts and comes to the door. It was obvious to her the man was insane. In a shrill voice she shrieks, “Get away from my boy!” She swipes at him with her broom.
         Meshel hurries away. Looking back, he sees one of the boys following. His hand is out, holding a folded piece of corn stalk. “Here, you may have this. It is left over from breakfast. You can have it all.”
         Hesitant, Meshel looks the boy over. In a quick movement he snatches the corn silk from Octivus and opens it.          It contained sweet cakes and he shoves a handful in his mouth. Nodding thankfully to the boy, he hurries away, feeding himself in frenzy.
         Octivus watches the man turn up another alley. How sad it made him feel that there was no one to care for him. Things have changed in so short a time. Before all this commotion about the strangers and the beast, the man would not have been turned away hungry.
         At his feet lay a black silk cloth, dropped by the man. Picking it up the boy feels it with his fingers. It is smooth to touch. He feels something hard and round within it. Opening the cloth, he finds a single black rock, dull and ordinary in the bright sun light. He hurries up the alley to find the man, but he is gone, so he folds the silk cloth closed, shoving it into his pocket, and forgetting about it.

         The two Priests search for Lon Che, but the streets were crowded. Mecca was appalled by what he saw as two men fought over a stick of dried beef, and another urinated in a doorway in full view. Beggars rummaged through piles of trash for food. This was not Mu.
         “What has happened to this place?”
         We are, my Brother, in the cusp of time.”
         This scared Mecca. “What are you saying?”
         Tasio stops. “We must be careful, Mecca. Great change is occurring. Each event will have consequence in what fate lays before mankind. This stone we search, it must be found and a way to destroy it must be sought.”
         “What power does this stone have?”
         “The stone is the key to a gate. Others are also in search of it. When they find it they will open the gate, everything that we know will be gone.”
         “What will you do when we find it?”
         “I will leave and take this thing away.”
         “Will you be in danger?”
         “It is a consequence of my duty which I accept.”
         “HELP ME! HELP ME!” A woman cries. The Priests run into an alley to see a man snatching a fowl from the hands of an old woman. Mecca chases the thief into an alley. Cornered in a dead end alley the thief turns to face Mecca, drawing a long knife. In an instant he lunges at Mecca who stumbles backwards. Tasio pushes Mecca aside and using an old broom stick, disarms the assailant. Stunned, the thief runs off without his knife. The fowl scurried as the old woman chased it about.
         “I could have been killed! What kind of man would draw a weapon against a Priest?”
         “A desperate one, Mecca, what were you thinking?” They turn and find Octivus standing, watching.
         “What are you doing here?” Mecca asked the child.
         “I heard the woman scream. I came to see.”
         “Go back to the Temple, Octivus. It is too dangerous out here for a boy to be wondering alone…Go now!” Mecca shouts at the boy.
         “Yes, Mecca.” Octivus looks at Tasio. He had seen how Tasio fended off the thief and saved Mecca. He did not know that a Priest could fight. It was contrary to the passive means taught in the scrolls. This intrigued the boy more about the oriental.
         The two Priests searched all night for the Guardsman. When they found him sitting on a stack of empty fig crates at the western wall, he was eating pita bread full of lamb’s meat.
         “Lon Che? We have searched all day for you.”
         The Guardsman recognized Tasio, and placed his diner back in a satchel which he carried at his side. “I was here. I am always here.”
         “We are still searching for Meshel.”
         “He has a stable. Do you know where it is?” Tasio is abrupt.
         “Yes, but he is not there.”
         “Show us. He has to be someplace.”
         “I will show . . . Come, it is this way.”
         It was not far to the stable, and like Lon Che said, Meshel was not there. Tasio searches about and finds the books of rituals under the hay stack.
         “He has been here!” Mecca opens the books. “They are evil.”
         Lon Che steps outside the stable. What was happening to his friend, the Merchant? What has become of Meshel?          Then from around the corner came the ragged image of a man. Lon Che slips back inside. “He is coming!”
         Mecca and Tasio blow out the candles and hide. Lon Che stands off to the side as Meshel enters. He lights the candle and sees the Guardsman. “What do you want?”
         “You are sick my friend. I have brought someone that will help you.”
         “Get out!” Meshel holds the candle up to Lon Che, who cowers from fear of fire.
         “Do not burn me!” He cries.
         Tasio takes the candle from Meshel and pushes the crazed merchant to the ground. “Where is it? Where is the Stone of Ur?”
         “Stay away!” He gets up and bolts for the door.
         Tasio did not want to hurt the man, and hold him fast. “I will not hurt you. I only want the stone! It is evil and must be destroyed!”
         “No! You cannot have it. It is mine!” He pulls away and falls backward into a pile of hay. Mecca rushed to him, but the merchant does not move, his eyes wide open in shock.
         Mecca reaches down and finds the merchant had fallen on a hidden pitch fork. In disbelief he turns to Tasio.          “He is dead, Tasio!”
         “Search him, the stone must be here.”
         Mecca and Tasio searched the stable and body of the merchant, but found nothing. Lon Che pulls the pitch fork from his friend’s body, crying for his friend. He only wanted to help.
         “Why did you kill my friend?”
         Tasio stops searching. “It was an accident.”
         “I brought you to him. He was sick.”
         “I know you do not understand this . . . Your friend was sick because of this stone we search for. It took power over his mind. That is what made him sick.”
         “I have many stones. They do not make me sick.”
         “This one does. We must find it.”
         “What will happen to my friend now?”
         This turned out to be a mess. The man was dead over nothing, and Mecca attempts to comfort the sobbing man.          “His body will be taken to the Temple and will receive proper care.”
         Lon Che nods. “May I come to the Temple to watch?”
         “Yes, his body will be ready for the offering by morning. You may come.”
         “I must return to my post now.” Lon Che looks at the blood on his hands. Wiping a tear from his eyes, he leaves without a word. Mecca and Tasio are left in their own silence. The stone had not been found. Meshel, the only one who knew of the stone’s whereabouts was dead. Tasio worried that the stone may already have been found by someone else. He must tell Ramu.
Mecca sat next to the dead man gently stroking Meshel’s face. “Your pain is gone now my friend. Your spirit is free. Return to the forces from where all life comes. Be one again with the universe. Be one again with creator to whom you are familiar.” Mecca looks up from the dead man to see Tasio standing in the stable door and finishes. “It was not his fault. He was a good man.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

“Of Fire and Blood”

         The merchants and farmers came from the lands to the north and east. Their wagons and carts were full. They had heard of the creature and of the stranger, called Niobe, but they were too busy with their own matters to care. So now they come unaware of the danger that waited.
         The first wagons were attacked for their supplies. The farmers were beaten, their wagons stolen – mule and all. Merchants shouted at mobs that broke into their shops stealing food, blankets and valuables, but they could do nothing to stop the thieves.
         A man lay murdered in the street for his boots, as people walked over him without pity. Pick-pockets stole pouches of gold from the travelers and all was in chaos and Ramu could do nothing except watch it happen.
         Tasio and Mecca prepared Meshel, washing his body with oils and wrapped him in silks. A platform was built in the outside garden, where the body of Meshel would be offered back to the Earth through a Ritual of Fire. His ashes would be scattered amongst the garden.
         Octivus carried the bucket of used water to the rose garden, and watered the plants with it. He did not recognize Meshel as the man who dropped the black cloth, or that the ordinary black rock was the stone, being searched for.
         Lon Che entered the Temple garden. He had passed it many times on the way to the canal. This was the first time he entered the gate. He watched silent as the priest cared for his friend. Admiring how gentle the priests were when they bathed him. He was happy that his friend was being cared for.
         Ramu comes down from the Temple, followed closely by Pathos. The High Priest walks to Lon Che and greets him. Lon Che falls to his knees. “Please do not kneel.” Ramu pleads.
         “You are Ramu. You are the High Priest of Mu.”
         “Stand, please.”
         Lon Che rises. “I am the Guardsman of the west wall…Meshel was a good man. He was my friend. Why did he die?          I do not understand Ramu. I am alone now. I have no other friends.” He looks over sadly to Meshel, wiping a tear. “He was all I had to talk too.”
         “I remember you, Lon Che, from a long time ago. You were a boy and your mother brought you to me when you were burnt by a lantern. It was a terrible thing.”
         “I do not remember.”
         “No…you would not. You were ill for a long time. I thought you would not live. I sat at your side through your pain. Before your Mother died, she asked me to watch out for you.”
         “I remember! It was you who made me guardian of the wall. You gave me a purpose to live. I have many people that depend on me to watch their stables when they are asleep.” He touches his deformed face. The pain all comes back as he thinks. “Meshel was the only person who would not turn away when he talked to me. He looked into my eyes…Mama used to say that was how to tell when someone was your friend. He will look you in the eyes. Meshel was my friend. My only friend…He is gone now. I have no one left.”
         “You must come and visit me, Lon Che. Your mother was a dear friend and your father a good man.”
         “He left when I was a boy. Why did he go, Ramu?”
         “Guilt, Lon Che. He was careless with the lantern. That is how you got burned. He could not face what had happened to you because of him.”
         Lon Che is silent, not remembering how he got hurt.
         Tasio comes over. “We are ready to begin.”

****

         Niobe nailed the crate shut. He and Sylas moved the heavy chest into a wagon next to six other chests filled with silver and gold. He smiled, content. He was rich beyond his own imagination. The merchant ship would arrive tomorrow and he wanted his treasure convenient for transport. He even went so far as to prepay one of the fishermen to reserve a place on his boat.
         Boata still did not like Niobe, but he had offered so much for his services that he could not refuse. It was dangerous to haul the chest and his two sons rode with him. Sylas and Nathan rode along as well to a stable on the pier and chained it shut from the outside. Niobe slept with his treasure while Sylas and Nathan watched the tent.

         Many things had changed on the wharf. Many of the families moved inland. Evas still slept on his boat, but had a home on land as well. It was not easy getting use to still land, but occasionally he tried. Sometimes he went to fish, but now his new kitchen occupied most of his time. He and Pec was preparing today’s smoked fish.
         The strange foreboding weighed heavily about the wharf, but no one spoke of it. Not a single boat left their mooring. The elder fishermen were wary of the bad moon of the night prior sharing their feelings spoken in low whispers about them. The sea was rough and the tide was high. The sky swarmed with sea gulls hinting there must be a storm at sea. By mid day the merchant ship still had not been sighted. They knew then it would not come. It may not come at all was a rumor of fear.
         “Pec? Can you smell it in the air?”
         “Yes. It will be a strong wind with heavy rain. Perhaps we should move the family inland?”
         “There is no place that will be safe when this storm hits land. I can feel it in my gut.”
         “Then we should take the boat out of the bay.”
         “I agree, Pec. The kitchen can be rebuilt. We can take the kettles with us, but not too much. We must ride the water high, and take plenty of fresh water and oil for our lamps.”
         “We will eat a full meal tonight. I do not think the storm will hit land till morning.”
         For the rest of the day the fishermen watched the sea, as waves broke over the piers and boats bounced off their moorings. The winds picked up and sea gulls flew further inland.
         Everyone worried. Merchants locked down their shops. Women took in their window plants. Octivus, Eli and Nezzar sit, throwing stones into the canal. The Plaza, overcrowded with traders and merchants, made playing kick ball impossible, so they sat quietly bored, as young boys will get. The young fisher boy was restless and wondering out loud. “What does it look like?” The other boys knew what he was referring too. It was on their minds too.
         “I heard someone say it had teeth like a cat, and claws.” Eli said to his friends who were as bored as he was.
         “I heard it ate men alive. It killed a traveler. I heard it ate his heart when it was still beating – they couldn’t stop it.”
         “Sure Nezzar.” The other boys moaned.
         “It is what I heard. I swear it!”
                  “Well, I would like to see it myself.”
         “They will not allow children inside the tent.”
         “Mecca says…if there is a will, there is a way.”
         “But what if we get caught?” Eli was scared.
         “We will not get caught, Eli. Follow me. I know a way.”
         “We should not go, Octivus. It is an evil thing. It can steal our souls, because we are not strong enough to resist the power it has.”
         “Nezzar seen it, it did not steal his soul.”
         “I was too afraid to look.”
         “I cannot believe you paid to see this thing and kept your hands over your eyes the whole time…I would stare it in the eyes, and not be afraid.” Octivus boast.
         “Well if I ever got the chance again I would stare it down too.”
         “Well, I am going. When the ship arrives the strangers will take the beast away…We will never have the chance to see it again.” Octivus stands, heading in direction of the tent.
         “Come on Eli. There is no need to be afraid.” Teases Nezzar.
         “I will go with you to the tent, but I will not enter.”
         “Fine. But wait for us to come out before you go.”
         “I will.” The boys rush off toward the Plaza.
         Sylas enters the tent with Nathan. Niobe paces before the cage. “Is there any word?”
         “There is a rumor of a storm coming.”
         “Are we safe here, Sylas?”
         “They say the Merchant ship will not come, it may be lost in the storm”
         “It must come! I cannot stand another day in this place!”
         Octivus slid under the canvas first. Looking about he could see the strangers walking away. He signals the next boy, Nezzar, to slide under.
         “This way, follow me.” Octivus leads Nezzar behind the crates, careful not to make any noise. They stop below the wagon holding the cage with the beast. It was quiet. The two boys wait till the stranger goes by. Then slowly and carefully they lift the canvas and look inside. It smelled foul and Nezzar turns away.
         “Where are you going?”
         “I have changed my mind and do not want to see it. I am getting out of here.”
         Octivus watches Nezzar disappear under the tent. He stops breathing as he feels something taking his hand. He looks up to see the creature reaching down from the cage. It had long claw like nails with skin pale white. Most horrifying was his eyes. They were pinkish red and stared deep into his. He trembled with fear. Stunned and unable to move, and for a moment he feared the beast would rip his arm from his shoulder, but it did not. It was gentle and when the boy pulled back it made no effort to hold him.
         Octivus looked at the creature looking back at him, each wondering of the other. The creature was wrapped in a fur skin to keep warm. From beneath the skin the creature brought out a green stone, and held it out to the boy.
         It took a great deal of courage for the boy to reach into the cage and place his hand upon the stone. A tickling feeling took his body. Then an amazing thing happened. He heard a voice inside of his head. It was the voice of the creature, and it spoke to him. At first he was afraid, and wanted to run away, but he fought his fear and listened.
         “I am not a beast.” The voice said. “I am a man. I am Kamutu, holy man of my people, and this is the stone of knowledge. Danger awaits your people. Bring to me the one called Ramu. He must help me. Niobe has killed Kenya, daughter of Chief Atutu. They will avenge her. Get Ramu! Tell him Zieru is here.”
         Nezzar had come back for his friend, and panicked to see the beast had his hand. He shouts “Let him go!” He pulls Octivus free of the beast.
                  “YOU THERE!” Sylas shouts, lunging at the boys.
         Niobe came from the other side, reaching for the boys. He catches Octivus by the collar and holds him up, his feet still running. Nezzar comes back for his friend and is caught by Sylas.
         “What are you doing here?” Niobe demands from the boys.
         Octivus looks into the stranger’s eyes.
         “MURDERER! YOU KILLED KENYA! MURDERER!”
         Niobe stood frozen. How could he know?
         Sylas looked at Niobe, shocked. How did the boy know about Kenya?
         Then, before Niobe could react, he is hit in the leg and drops Octivus to the ground. In pain he cursed at Eli standing with the shovel. Nezzar turns and kicks Sylas in his shin. The big man hops on one foot. Octivus and Eli together kick him hard in his one good leg, and he crashes to the ground, howling in pain. The three boys flee from the tent, disappearing into the crowd. They did not stop running until they reached the bridge. There, they caught their breath.
         “It spoke to me!”
         “I was too late. It took your soul!”
         “No. I am all right…It did not harm me, and is not a beast it is a man. He called himself Kamutu. He is a holy man.”
         I never saw a man like that before!” Nezzar said.
         “I knew we should not have gone.” Eli whined.
         “I must tell Ramu!”
         “But you will be punished.”
         “That does not matter. I must tell him.” Octivus runs off back to the Temple.
         Tasio trimmed his bushes in the Temple court for the last time. He was leaving on the next ship even without the stone. It was the plan to detract the attention of the others that searched for the stone, to think that he had indeed recovered it. Perhaps they would leave Mu, and pursue him instead. He sees Octivus running through the Temple, concerned he follows the boy up to the chambers.
         Mecca was sitting alone in his room when the boy rushed past calling for. “RAMU! RAMU!” The urgency in his voice caused Mecca also to follow. Ramu is startled as the boy burst onto the observatory platform, coming to a sliding stop against the railing. “Watch it boy! You can fall.” Ramu catches the boy shoulder.
Octivus looks down, but his news is too important. “He is a man!” He blurts out.
         “What are you talking about?”
         “Kamutu…He is a man!”
                  “Who is Kamutu?”
         “The creature, he is a man!”
         Mecca enters the platform. “You went to see the beast thing?”
         “Yes.”
         “You are punished. Get to your room now.” Mecca shouts at Octivus.
         “But he is a man! I’m telling you the truth!”
         “Let the boy finish, Mecca.”
         “I snuck into the tent and saw it. It showed me this green stone, and when I touched it I heard him speak! He said to get Ramu. He said to tell you Zieru is here!”
         “It could have ripped your arm off. What were you thinking to do such a thing?” Mecca shrieks at the boy upset that he took such a chance.
         “Mecca, please, let the boy finish.” Ramu words were sharp.
         Tasio and Pathos entered. “What is happening?”
         “I am not sure yet. Please continue.”
         “I touched the stone, and I heard words in my mind. Niobe murdered the Chief’s daughter. He said they would come to avenge her death if he were not freed to stop them. He is a holy man. I swear it is all the truth!”
         “Zieru? Come I will need all of you.”
         The Priests hurries down the steps as the others rush to catch up. The strangers have opened the tent to viewers again and a crowd stands before the tent entrance. Ramu pushes ahead of the line, and confronts the stranger Niobe. “I am Ramu, High Priest of Mu. It has come to my attention that you have a man caged inside your tent. You will release him at once.”
         A crowd gathered. “That thing in there is not a man. Who ever told you this is a liar.”
         “I am not.” The boy steps forward.
         “He is a little boy? You take the word of this child over me? I can assure you, fine Priest that no man is caged here…I have even freed my slaves, and made them very rich.” His voice had a raised tone almost mocking the priest.
         “I will see it for myself.” And Ramu pushes his way passed the stranger. Sylas stands before the Priest. “Let me pass.” Ramu challenges Sylas.
         “There is nothing here for you to see.” Sylas pushes the Priest out of the tent.
         “He is the High Priest. You cannot touch him that way.” Shouts a man standing in the line.
         Sylas disappears back inside the tent, as Niobe blocks the priest. Tasio walks up to Niobe. “Move or I will move you.”
         Niobe steps aside. Ramu enters the tent. The strangers are gone along with the wagon. Ramu pushes out of the tent to find Niobe gone too. “Find him. Find the stranger and have him brought to me at once!”
Niobe disappeared into the crowd concealing himself beneath a robe. Sylas and Nathan waited until the Priests were not watching then pushed the wagon into an alley. Sylas found his way to Boata’s home. Boata would not allow the creature into his home, so he led them to his stable along the wharf where the trunks were stored.
         Meanwhile the Priests searched the city for Niobe, but he had disappeared. Stable to stable, house to house, they knocked on doors well into the night. They even knocked on Boata’s door. He denied knowing the stranger. He turned to see his wife. “You lied to the Priests?”
         “He has paid me much money, and will be gone soon. I do not want to speak about it.”
Pathos searched for the strangers. He cared little about the beast, and less about the strangers. All he wanted was the emerald. He had heard the stranger tell of it in a story. If it was here, he must have it. It was truly fortunate for him to be the one to be in this place where so many powerful sources are converging. He would be rewarded well.
         Late into the evening they searched. Ramu was tired as were the others. “He cannot get away. When the ship comes he will have to come out of hiding to board her. We will wait for him on the wharf. We can return to the Temple and rest for now.” Ramu could not remember ever being so angry, and was embarrassed by this fault in his nature.
         As the city slept, Lon Che sat in his usual place and prepared his diner. The moon was full tonight. He thinks of his friend Meshel and misses that there will be no one to greet him as he made his rounds down the alleys. He would not earn any coins to buy soup and bread. For this he felt alone.
         Half finished with his dinner, Lon Che stands to look out over the short stone wall into the desert. Clouds began to stretch across the sky, blocking out the moon. Shadows cast across the desert sands. He thinks he sees something, but the wind blows a gust of sand and he turns away to finish his diner. Taking a huge bite of his food, Lon Che looks up at the menacing clouds above. A sound from beyond the wall makes him stand, then a sharp pain in his chest. He drops his food to the ground clutching a spear shaft. He looks up as a black shadow leaps over the wall hacking him…He falls dead.
         Kew Kew Atutu led his warriors across the desert to avenge the murder of his daughter and her unborn baby. He cries out as the first slain enemy lay dead at his feet. No one was to be spared. No one would be left alive.
         The warriors searched house to house killing whole families in their sleep. No one escaped. Crying infants were tossed up onto spears. Fires raged in the western city as hundreds of spectators, traders, and merchants were slaughtered in the streets. Cries from below woke Ramu to be a witness of a cruel execution. A man pleading for mercy had his stomach sliced and his guts pulled from him as his scream pierced the night. Ramu ran down the stairs to find the others already barricading the doors and windows. The young boy worried. “My parents, they will be killed!” Slipping out the door unnoticed.
         Ramu sees him too late, running along the marketplace.
         “The boy is out there!”
         Without a word Mecca runs out after him. Ramu tries to call him back, but the priest is gone, Mecca knew the boy would head for the Wharf, and ran down the main street. He ran faster than he could ever remember, and could see the boy ahead. All around him were dead men and women. He tried not to look at their faces. Suddenly he slips on the stones wet with blood. Even in his pain he manages to call out. “Octivus? Come back!” The young boy turns.
         Two tribesmen come from an alley and see the boy. A spear lands to his left, another to his right. The boy ran scared. His only fear was for his family. He reached the wooden arch separating the Wharf City from Mu and turns to see Mecca wrestling with the two warriors. He runs back to help his Tutor, but Mecca, struggling with the two, shouts at him. “Run boy! Run!”
         A third warrior appears, and before Octivus could shout, the warrior spears Mecca in the back. Octivus stood stunned. “Mecca! NO!” Horrified he runs away.
         The mooring where his family lived was empty. They had already sailed and were safe, but many of the boats were quiet, with sleeping families. Taking up an axe, the boy begins to chop the ropes that tied the boats, setting them adrift. A fisherman, awakened by the noise, comes out of his cabin.
         “Hey! Stop this!” He shouts as his boat drift away from shore.
         “You must get out into the bay!”
         “This is not a funny joke.” The old man looks at the youth and recognizes him. “I know who you are. Your father is Evas. Why do you do this? I will tell him to spank you.”
         “Look!” Octivus runs as a spear sticks into the wooden boat. The fisherman scrambles to push his boat away from the pier, shouting to the boy to jump into his boat, but Octivus runs away, with the tribesmen chasing. The fisherman could only watch. “RUN BOY, RUN!”
         Octivus pounds the bell. Sleepy, angry fishermen come from their cabins shouting and complaining. “Wake up! Wake up before you all die!”
         The warriors came from the alleys and ran along the piers. The fishermen cut their lines, pushing their boats adrift in the barrage of arrows and spears. Their lives spared by a child they left behind in the dark.
         Octivus, knowing these alleys well, crawls through holes and broken boards in fences and barns, escaping the warriors. As he sat in the dark he heard screams and smelled fire. Through a voice in his mind, he heard Kamutu calling to him. He followed it and came upon the stable where the strangers were hidden. Finding a broken board, the boy crawls inside.
         “So we meet again, boy.” Niobe stands over the boy.
         “Let Kamutu go.”
         “He is not your concern boy.” Niobe picks the boy off the ground with one hand.
         “What is going on here?” Protest Nathan.
         He is a murderer, and the creature he has caged is a man from the jungle. He must be freed or we will all die.” Octivus shouts.
         “He is a child. You do not believe him?” Niobe rears his hand back to slap the boy, but Sylas stops him. “Let the boy go.”
         “They come for the creature.” Octivus insisted. “Listen to them outside. They are killing people searching for their holy man, and are avenging Kenya.”
         “How do you know about Kenya?”
         “Kamutu told me this.”
         “You lie!” Niobe tosses the child to the ground.
         “You must free Kamutu. He will stop them from killing.”
Niobe draws a sword. “He is mine!”
         Sylas wrestles the sword from Niobe, knocking him to the ground. Niobe stared up stunned. “He is only a boy. You should not hurt the boy.”
         “You forget your place, slave?”
         “I am a free man now.”
         Octivus crawls to the cage removing the pin that held it shut. Kamutu comes out. He stands over Niobe and Sylas and the boy was sure he would kill them all, but he did not. Instead, the giant walks to the small boy and kneels before him.
         “You must stop your people. They are killing everyone.” The young boy pleads. Kamutu opens the door walking out into the night letting out a long piercing howl which carried on in the night air. Kamutu was free, and the killing stopped. The holy man stood at the stable door looking at the boy who had freed him. He knew he had found the one he searched, but was puzzled. How could this powerful object be placed in this young child’s possession? Perhaps it was not meant to be passed on at this moment, so he kept it, and would have to think before fore filling his obligation and commitment to those that left this power to his protection. As for the strangers that took him prisoner? What punishment can be justified for being the chosen pawn of fate?
         Octivus stood to face the giant man. He could feel the greatness in him, and for some reason he knew, they would meet again someday. He holds up a hand, and wave’s good bye. Kamutu smiles, and leaves disappearing into the night with his tribesmen.
Kamutu and Chief Kew Kew Atutu stood before the great Temple. In his voice he called up to Ramu, and Ramu appears in the archway of the Temple. He is silent. The City burns around them. There was little he could do to stop it. Now, standing before him, was the fate of his people.
His voice rasped, unused to speaking words aloud. “I am Kamutu. I am the Holy one of all my peoples of the jungle lands. This should not have happenee is so much death now, because of a single man. I am sad.”
         “I kd between our peoples. We have known about your City since the men first came across the great waters. We have lived as neighbors. It is sad thernow this name, Kamutu.”
         Kamutu holds forth the emerald. “The stone of knowledge has been trusted to my people since the time, when the Ancient Ones lived. It was proof of the bond between our peoples, and was one day to be passed on.” Kamutu bows low. “I regret Ramu, this cannot be, and I must take the stone back with me. Trust no one amongst you, High Priest of Mu. The enemy is within and his plan is in motion.”
         “Tell me what is happening?”
         “On the seventh day look to the western sky. A new star will be born and all your questions will have answers. They are coming, beware!” Kamutu rattles a bone filled with beans to ward off evil spirits. He continues. “The stone does not reveal all answers. We enter a pause in time where there is no wrong thing, or right thing to do. We are the future, the present and the past. The way of the old world has passed. The ways of the new world are not yet found. Many men will die. Many cultures will perish. Those of us who carry this knowledge will be forced into seclusion, to be witness to the chaos where man leads man blindly down the path of his own destruction.” Kamutu places the emerald into his sash, leaving quietly, followed by his people. Ramu watched as they walked between the burning buildings. The fire seemed to part way for Kamutu, leaving Ramu, and his people to awaken to a new destiny, born in a baptism of fire and blood.
         Tasio and Pathos come down from the Temple. Smoke burned their eyes as flames turned the wooden shanty shops to ashes. Survivors managed across the bridge, seeking refuge from the heat and fire. Scattered groups formed, tending to the wounded with the brisk morning air full of children cries for dead parents. Men carried lifeless bodies of loved ones in their arms and as the sun rose in the early morning the fur traders came from the forest to see the horrid sight. They turned their wagons about racing back to Tarkas bringing the news…Mu is a fire! The city is burning!

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Free Men at Last”

         Fire consumed the City. The wooden roofs flared up like kindling, forcing many of the people to flee beyond the canal, and take refuge in the open pastures. Through the night, an eerie wailing of the people carried on the wind. Perili walked along the rows of dying, their moaning pierced his heart. He is numb realizing there are so many dead. No one was spared.
         The old, the young, men and women both we subjected to the slaughter which came swift and without warning. He was searching for his daughter who had become separated in their escape to survive. He searched the faces of the injured, hoping to find she is alive.
         Every part of the city was threatened by the fire. Octivus ran along the alley of the old wharf city, but was met with a wall of fire, cutting him off from his Grandparents home. “Grand Mama!” He shouts into the fire. He was too late. The wooden wharf buildings exploded into flames, as the heat drove Octivus back from the alley.
         Then as the young boy stood facing the inferno, the wind picked up, and the rain began. The storm that the fisherman feared the day before had arrived and is now met with a reverence, a blessing from God that would save their homes from the flames. Octivus looked up at the heavens. “Thank you.” He ducks his head down and makes his way back into the city. The wind blew ferociously, knocking down simple structures. Roof shingles began to fly, and the young boy is knocked over by debris. It was more than a storm, it was a hurricane.
         The homeless found shelter in barns and stables, spared by the fires, as the Temple became a refuge for the hundreds of wounded. Many bled to death with wounds too severe to mend. The marbled floors became stained with their blood. Ramu worried for Mecca and the young boy. Neither had returned. Tasio and Pathos cared for the wounded as best they could, there was just too many.
         “Come inside Ramu. You have been awake all night.” The Rabbi attempted to comfort.
         “They may be hurt or dying. I should be looking for them.” Ramu searches the streets below with his eyes. The fires begin to falter to the heavy rain and winds. The streets deserted except for the corpses that lay strewn about the market.
         “There are many here who need our help. Mecca will take care of the boy.”
Ramu is deaf to the Rabbi’s wisdom. His heart torn with worry for the boy and his friend, the rain concealed his tears, but the Rabbi knew they were there. Shrugging he leaves Ramu alone. There were others who needed him more.
         Hours had passed, the winds blew harder and rain pelts hurt his face, still, he watched. Debris was strewn about the streets. The bloodied streets washed clean by the rain. Then, below he sees a young child struggling against the wind and Ramu without regard for himself hurried down the Temple steps. His heart pounding, his body numb, and with trembling hands he reached down, taking hold of the child.
         Octivus looks up. He was covered with blood, but it was not his own. “Dear boy, you are alive.” Ramu struggled to pick the boy up; fighting the wind against his back he manages to reach the steps of the Temple. Falling, he is met by Tasio and the Rabbi. Octivus was trembling and hurt. Tasio wrapped the boy in his warmed cloak, hurrying up the steps to the child’s chamber. Immediately he removes the child’s wet clothing he turns to the Rabbi. “You must boil water, fast!”
         Ramu turns back to face the storm, hoping to see his friend, Mecca, but the storm was raging and the wooden shanty shops began to break apart. He could only hope Mecca had found shelter from the storm. He goes back inside the Temple, turning back one last time hoping to see Mecca.
         Tasio wiped the blood from the child’s forehead. The young boy’s body trembled all over he was going into shock. The Rabbi returned with hot water, and together they rubbed and massaged life back into the child.
         “I will get Ramu. He will help you.” The boy spoke deliriously. In his nightmare he could see his tutors face. “Closer…” The boy puts his head closer to Mecca, whose words are but a whisper. It was hard to hear him above the howling wind. “I need to know, was I a good teacher?” Octivus tried to sit up, but Tasio laid him back down gently. “Yes, you are the best tutor, Mecca.”
         The Rabbi turns to Tasio. “Who is he speaking too?”
         “Spirits…His condition is grave. We must warm his body.” Tasio takes his own body and lays it over the boy, hoping his own warmth would help save the boy.
         “Yes…Do not die, I promise I will never be late for my lessons anymore.” The boy cries out, his nightmare too real. His heart throbbing. Tasio could feel his pain and weeps. “What have you been through boy? What?” The boy reaches out his hand.
Mecca’s voice was still clear in his mind, “This pouch contains all that has ever meant anything to me. They were gifts…take them, see that he knows…” His last breath drained from him as his body went limp. “MECCA! MECCA!” Octivus struggles beneath Tasio holding him down. “The pouch! Where is the pouch?” The boy cries.
         Tasio turns to the Rabbi. “Check his clothes. See if you can find a pouch?”
         The Rabbi picks up his blood soaked garment. As he reaches into his pocket he finds the small leather pouch. “Found it.” Unnoticed the dull black rock falls from the garment and slides under the bed.
         Tasio hands the pouch to the child, and he is calm.
         “We need more blankets.”
         “There are none left.” Replies the Rabbi.
         “In my room, there is one on my bed.”
         Pathos was now at the door. “I will get it.” Using the opportunity to search the Monks room, Pathos finds the book of Keys, shoving it into his pocket. He returns to hand Tasio his blanket, then disappears down the steps to read what he has just stolen.
         Debris blew through the air, slamming into the sides of the Temple. Rain poured into the open roof garden. Thunder clapped, sending children and adults for dark corners of the Temple.
         Many went down into the cellars. The Temple was safe. It was made of stone. When the storm ended, the bright sun shone through the roof of the open court. People came out of their shelters searching for food and fresh water.
         Tasio stayed the night by the boy’s bedside worried. He watched him sleep and could only imagine the horror the child had been through. His nightmares made his sleep restless, reliving the horrors. Tasio wipes the sweat from the boy’s brow.
         “How is he?” Ramu sits next to Tasio.
         “Not good. He tossed and turned throughout the night. No doubt, he has been through a great ordeal, Ramu.”
         “Perhaps you should rest yourself. I will watch him now.”
         “I do not think I can sleep, Ramu. There are so many who need my help.”
         “Pathos and Josef have everything under control.”
         “Has Mecca returned?”
         “No. He would have returned by now if he could. Rest, then we will search for Mecca.”
         Tasio nods and retires to his room. He slept soundly, exhausted by the events. Ramu wipes the boy’s brow.          “You must get better.” He tucks the blanket snug under the boy’s chin laying his head on the boy’s chest resting his own weary eyes. The boy’s subtle heart beat gave him comfort.

****

         Evas and his family slept well that night, safe in the hidden cove on his boat. When the rain began to fall, he woke to check the anchor. Pec and his wife slept on the floor. In another hour they will all be in for the fight of their lives against the storm.
         Pec wakes, slowly, not to disturb his wife, he gets up and joins Evas on deck. Already the water is rough and wind blows strong against them.
         “The storm is upon us now.”
         “Yes, my son. I will wake the others, and prepare them.”
         Evas looks back toward Mu, where a strange glow envelopes the sky above the city. A wave breaks over the side of the boat. It would be all they could do to hold on and ride out the storm.
         The storm was fierce, and the fishermen held onto their families. If they died tonight, at least it would be in each other arms. The power of the sea tossed the tiny boat about. The mast pole broke in half, as water broke over the sides of the boat. Evas began to doubt his wisdom to ride out the storm at sea. He should have headed inland when he had the chance.
         The storm lasted well into mid day. When the winds subsided, Evas and Pec, decided that they better head in toward land before night came. With no sail the family together used boards to paddle to the shore. From a distance everything seemed normal. Exhausted from their ordeal they tied to their mooring, Evas and Pec took notice the wharf was in shambles.
         “I smell smoke, Evas.” Treasa looks about the wharf. People seemed in a daze and she assumed it was shock from the storm.
         “I will go and check the kitchen, and see if there was damage.” Pec offers, as he steps from the boat.
Evas looked about. The old archway that separated the wharf from the inner city was scorched, and burned. The platform that housed the bell lies across the dock, and smoke could be seen coming from the city. He stops a passerby. “What has happened?”
         “Demons in the nights…Everyone in the city is dead.” He cries.
         Evas stepped from his boat. His only thought was his son.
         Pec came back in a panic. “It is gone…It is all gone.”
         “What about the kitchen?” Treasa worries.
         “No, the kitchen is safe, but our home. The whole section of the wharf is ash. It is all gone. Our neighbors are dead. It is horrible, Evas. If we did not go with you we would have all been killed in the fires.”
         Evas was stunned, and walked to the archway. It was as if he were dreaming. Bodies lay dead about, and it was only when he checked to see if they were alive did he take notice of the grizzly wounds. The storm had washed the streets and bodies clean of blood. The butchery became more apparent as he searched about. Only a few buildings were untouched by the fire. Was it true? Was everyone in the city dead?
         The other fishermen came back to their moorings. They came and found Evas to tell him how his son saved them.
         “Evas? Evas? It was your son.”
         “What about him?”
         “He saved us…He came in the night, and woke us from our sleep.”
         “He cut the ropes to my mooring himself, and cast me adrift…I owe him my life.”
         “Where is my son? Is he with you?”
         “No…He would not come. They chased him into the old city.”
         “Who? Who was chasing my son?”
         “Warriors…With spears they chased him.”
         “I must find him. I must!”
         “The old city is gone, my son. There is nothing left.” Pec holds Evas who breaks down in his arms. The other Fishermen looked on with sympathy.
         “We should be grateful we were spared…Everyone! Gather everything you can spare and take it to the Temple as an offering for our own good fortune.” Treasa suggests.

****

         It was mid day of the second day after the attack, when the men from Tarkas reached the road leading down to Mu. Meager stood with his brothers, stunned by the destruction. The entire city was in ruin. The only untouched structure was the Temple. As the forest men walked down the road, they were taken by the suffering they found. Children wailed for dead mothers. Men and women begged for food and water. The forest men gave all they had, saving not a bit of food, or drop of water for themselves.
         Meager picked a lone child up from her dead mother, her face was dirty. He wipes her tears with his hand and hugs the little girl close. Farmers came from their houses and offered what they could. Groups of men slaughtered cows and fowls, and built fires amongst the wheat fields to stay warm. The farmers watched as all their stock and supplies are taken. They offered no protest. They could only stand in disbelief at the suffering around them.
         Brian turns to one of his men. “Take your wagon back to Tarkas. Have them fill it with all the food it can carry and bring it back. Make haste!”

         Niobe had escaped with his life. He searched the ruins of the Wharf City for their treasure but it was gone, washed out to sea by the storm. Niobe cursed and swore, consumed with losing the treasure. Fearful to be recognized, the strangers covered their faces with hoods. Niobe gathered anything that could have value and stuffed it in a sack. He stole from the dead as he made his way along the streets. He would not be denied his wealth. He cuts off the finger of one man to take his ring.
         Sylas watched Niobe strip the dead of coin and jewelry. It disgusted him so much that he stopped looking for food and stood before the thief. “Why do you do this? Is it not enough that you brought this tragedy upon these people, you must steal from their dead bodies?”
         They do not need this anymore.” Niobe holds a handful of coins in one hand.
         “That is all you care for? Even when you were a boy you stole. You stole all these years, but until this moment I did not see what you were! You are a thief, a petty common thief!”
         “You cannot speak this way to me!” Niobe raises his hand to Sylas.
         Sylas grabs Niobe’s arm. “You are not the great man you boast to be. I wish never to see you again. I will go now. Do not try and stop me.” Sylas pushes Niobe backwards before turning away.
         “I take back everything. You are not a free man. You are and will forever be a slave! You hear me! You are my slave. Get back here at once! Get back here!” But no matter how loud he shouted Sylas was gone from his life forever. “I will have you whipped!” He turns to Nathan. “Get me my whip!” Nathan shakes his head no “I’m finished too.” And he followed after Sylas.
         Before turning the corner and walking to their freedom Sylas looks back on the pitiful man. “If I knew our returning would bring this, I would have choked your life away with these two hands when I had the chance. Being your slave never was so humiliating to me, as it was being your friend.”
         “You cannot leave me like this. I have taken care of you all these years. You cannot make it without me!” Even after Sylas and Nathan are gone from sight, Niobe calls after them.
         “I can make you rich…Rich! You hear me? Without me you are nothing!” Niobe was alone. He saw himself in a puddle, wretched and alone with nothing left.
         Together Sylas and Nathan ran away and were free men at last.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“The Hope Among Them”

         Meager sat alone in his teacher’s room. It all came back to him in a flurry of bittersweet memories. His lessons, the games Mecca taught him, it was so hard to believe he was dead. He held in his hands a carved wooden box where Mecca kept his most personal memories; he found a script – yellowed with age. It was signed. “Your loving brother, Tecumseh.” He places it back in the box, taking a golden finger ring from the box and wonders why his teacher never wore it.
         There was a carved wooden toy of a monkey. He remembers the stories Mecca told him of the thick jungles of Copan.
         “It is time Meager. We are waiting for you.”
         Drying his tears, Meager opens the door. Brother Tasio bows his head respectfully, knowing how hard it was for the young man. Meager turns giving the room a last glance and closed the door.
         The boy lay still. Pathos watched him as the temple priest joined a mass burial for all those that died during the attack. The survivors marched through the western city no one spoke as they carried the shrouded body of the felled priest above them.
         A wagon piled with bodies rumbled before them. Bereaved, many people walked aimlessly. Children sat silently with no more tears left in them to cry. Searchers dug through the debris to find more charred bodies, and brought them to the wagons as they passed. One after another the wagons passed. Ramu fought his tears, but they came anyway. So much pain in the faces he saw. His knees weak from the strain, he buckles and falls to the ground. Meager’s father helps the old one up.
Ramu leans on him as they walk. There was no time to prepare a proper ritual for Mecca. Ramu thought it would be arrogant to arrange one with so many other who died nameless. Instead he laid his friend along with the hundreds of others. Fires were lit and he watched as the flames consumed the dead. Who were they all?
         Captain Mono came ashore to offer any assistance he could. He came to the Temple by way of the main street. The burned out city and marketplace sickened him, and stood stunned by the carnage about the marketplace. About that time, the priests were returning from the funeral, and Mono with his men approached them, offering his condolences.
         “I am Captain Mono, are you, Ramu?”
         “Yes.” Ramu looks into the stranger’s face.
         “Who did this?”
         “Men from the jungle land. They came in the night to avenge the slain daughter of their Chief. It was a massacre. No one was exempted, not even the children.”
         “How did this come about?”
         “The stranger Niobe, ventured into the jungle, seeking treasures. I thought he would not return, as was the fate of so many before him. This is what he brought back with him.”
         Captain Mono had a vague memory of the stranger he delivered so many months ago. He would have thrown the bastard overboard if he had known this. There was nothing to do now. He can only apologize. “I am sorry. If there is anything I can do?”
         “We need food to feed the hungry and herbs to make medicine for the sick, and injured. Whatever the cost, the Temple will compensate.”
         “Every piece of cargo, no matter how slight will be unloading from the holds of my ship. I will explain to King Agar. He will not expect compensation.”
         “I will send a communication requesting whatever help he may be able to offer, and to thank King Agar for this generosity. I will prepare a script when I have some time to think of the appropriate words. I will send it to you before your ship sails.”
         “An envoy from the king has already arrived. I expect he is waiting at the Temple. His name is Alder.”
         “The king’s envoy is here?” Ramu surprised and concerned to why the king would send an envoy without requisition. He hurries back to the Temple. The king’s envoy should not be kept waiting. Mono watched Ramu climb the steps. The weight of the world upon his back made each step a tremendous effort. Mono surveys the market place in total ruin he knew many of the merchants and hoped they had survived, but fears the obvious, they did not.

****

         Octivus woke to find himself alone, and wondering how he got there. He crawled from under blankets still weak, draping a blanket over himself as he crossed the room to the windows. He wondered where everyone was. Standing upon the trunk, he looks out over the ruins of Mu. It was not a bad dream, and tears come down his face as he remembers the terrible night.
Pathos expected the envoy to arrive with the ship and met him in the Temple Court amongst the sick and wounded. He was nervous, and fumbled to appease the envoy in any way.
         “What has happened here, Pathos?”
         “Demons came forth from the jungle lands in the night.”
         “Did you find the stone?”
         “It was within my grasp, Alder.”
         “You have it?” The Envoy’s voice was excited.
         “No, unfortunately, I had tracked it to a merchant named Meshel, but he is dead now, and there are no other leads as to where it may be. On the other hand, I have learned of another stone that has the power of vision.”
         “Another stone is here?” Alder is curious. “You know where it is?”
         “Not exactly, but it is close.”
         “Then why have I been summoned here?” The Envoy is angered by his subordinate’s incompetence. He glares at Pathos who trembles as he speaks. “I know where it can be found.”
         “And where is that?”
         “The jungle, there, across the desert. We can track it back to their village. A traveler named Niobe has been there, and can lead us. That is . . . if we can find him.” Pathos adds beneath his breath.
         “Hmmm, if this stone has the power you say, then we cannot give up our search. I expect you to bring me this adventurer immediately. Do not fail me, Pathos.”
         “I will not fail you, Alder, but there are powerful associations in this place. I think I have come across an important journal. I have not yet deciphered it, and it is written in the old language. I am sure it has relevance.”
         “You must show me this journal.”
         “I have it hidden.”
         The boy listens while hidden in the shadows of the stairs. The Rabbi from Uri Shalom appears from the bakery, and he must hurry back up the stairs not to be seen. Josef stops at the foot of the steps, hearing something moving in the shadows. Curious he follows the sound of scampering foot steps to the child’s chambers, and opens the door. There was something about this child, he senses as their eyes meet. Josef sits on the edge of the bed, and feels the child’s forehead. “Your fever has broken…We were worried for you. How do you feel? Are you hungry, child?”

         Ramu approaches Pathos talking with the Envoy in the temple court. Ramu bows. “It is good you are here. I am Ramu.”
         “I am Envoy Alder” Pathos has explained to me what has occurred. I am sending correspondence to the king requesting armed forces to embark immediately. This savagery is not to be tolerated.”
         “There has been enough death. Let them be.”
         “That is not a decision for you to make. There is more at stake here. If other providences see it is so easy to strike a providence of Alantasia without retribution, then there will be other attacks. No, there will be no peace for these demons. I will see to it.”
         A small group of men and women interrupts. Evas holding his wife’s hand excuse themselves. “I have come to learn of my son’s fate…Did he survive, Ramu?”
         For a moment Ramu did not recognize the fisherman. Then in a comforting tone he admits. “You son is alive, but is ill.”
         “Maybe we can see him? My wife, she can care for him.”
         Pardon me Alder.” Ramu apologizes. “Brother Tasio will bring you to your son.”
         “What is this all about?” Asked Alder mystified.
         “They are the family of a student.”
         “All these people?”
         “We are grateful to the boy who risked his own life to save ours.”
         “What is the boy’s name?”
         “He is my son, Octivus.” Evas declares proud.
         Ramu did not realize the boy had made it to the bay. It was a miracle he had survived at all. The group of twenty men, woman, and children stood looking at the many wounded laying about. “We have brought many supplies with us, and we can help with the dead and wounded too…Whatever you wish, Ramu…we are here.” These simple people who had little brought anything they thought of excess and carried it with them. This was the spirit of Mu, and Ramu was proud of his people, and he breathed easy – maybe all is not lost. There still is hope.

****

         The next morning Tasio comes to wake Ramu. Tired and strained, he struggles from his sleep. His heart is heavy with grief, his mind in a fog. “What is it?”
         “You have a visitor.”
         “She says she is an old friend.”
         “A woman? Did she say her name?” He raps his shoal across his shoulders.
         “No Ramu, but she said you would know her.”
         “I will see her then.” Puzzled, the High Priest splashes water from a basin over his face to wash away the sleep from his eyes. When he turns, wiping his face with a cloth, he sees an old familiar face. “Ayrea!”
         “You remember!” She smiles.
         “I did not know you were still alive. Forgive me for my surprise.”
         “I have stayed well hidden. There, in the Wharf City. I have come with a warning, Ramu, and must speak with you alone.” She turns to the monk standing in the door.
         “You may leave now, brother.”
         Tasio bows to Ramu and then to his guest. Pathos waits until Tasio passes. Then quietly he comes from his chamber room to listen at Ramu’s door.
         “You say you have a warning?”
         “Your enemies are within. You cannot trust even the smallest insect with the knowledge I have to give to you. We must speak in the old tongue.” She steps close to Ramu her fragrance fills him as she tells him what she knows. She speaks the words of the ancient tongue. Pathos listened frustrated that he could not understand the dialect. Ayrea began. “Send the oriental away soon. It must look as if he has found the Stone of Ur and takes it with him.”
         “But he will be killed.”
         “There are many more lives in the balance, Brother. No man, woman or child is safe in Mu anymore. Send away the young priest. Here is a list of names. They are the names of children. Send them with the young priest to Alantasia. They will be safe there. Do it before the next full moon. It will be the last voyage to freedom. Amongst them will be our last hope.”
         “Who are my enemies? I must know if I am expected to stand against them.”
         “You cannot confront them, Ramu. Any resistance will bring your death. You must live until the one returns to whom you will pass on your commitment as Balatar. If you die before then, mankind will be alone in this world, without a path, doomed by his own greed for knowledge. You must make sure the secrets of man are passed on to the next generation of Guardians, as our journey along the paths of the ancients is over. In seven days, a gift will come. Be careful, my love. If it should fall into the hands of your enemies, they will become invincible.”
         “I will heed your warning old friend.”
         “Ramu, it is good to see you again.” As she leaves the old woman smiles joined with Ramu in pleasant thoughts of two youthful hearts, in a place where memories live on forever. Ramu walks to the door and watches as she descends into the shadows, a moment of regret for the choice in separate paths so many years ago. “Good bye, Ayrea.” His voice is but a wisp to be carried on through their eternity.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“Of Ordinary Men”

         It was not easy to leave Mu in its turmoil, but Meager had a life in Tarkas that awaited his return. Sad about his tutor’s death, Meager walked alone. He should have been there. Maybe he could have prevented Mecca’s death. Weighed down with his grief, he took a path leading to the forest highlands. A fishing pole in hand, he thinks sad thoughts.
         It was mid day when Meager came to a stream of rushing water. It was a beautiful place of quiet solitude. He dug the earth for worms and baited the hook with what he found. For a long time he sat and thought with memories of his tutor managing to slip in as tears weld his eyes, and wondered if the pain would ever leave him? He trembles taken completely by his sorrow until he could cry no more. Then he sat for a long time falling asleep.
         It was the cool brisk night air that awoke him. In a panic, he hurries back to the path that led him to the stream from the woods, forgetting his fishing pole. So lost in thought was he when he left the village that he was unsure which way to go. With little daylight left he chose a direction. At first he ran, hoping to come to a familiar spot, but the deeper into the forest he went, the more unfamiliar it all seemed. He was lost.
         It was stupid. He had no kindling for fire and no food to eat. He had no blankets to keep him warm. Soon it was pitch black around him. The cool evening air made him shiver as he walked along where he thought the road was to be. It was foolishness to continue. So he sat with his back to a tree, feeling around himself for anything dry enough to burn.
         Managing to gather a few handfuls of brush, he attempts to light a fire. After a long time, and much determination he finally gets the fire going. Wondering a short way from his fire, Meager gathers more wood. His eyes adjusting to the darkness of the forest sees the silhouette of a cottage off the trail, obscured from view by a tall weeping willow tree. Hesitating at first, he heads for the cottage. It is dark and still. Who would live out here alone, he wonders.
         Fumbling in the darkness of the cottage, he finds candles and lights one. Looking around he sees the room strewn with books and furniture. Using the discarded books and pieces from a broken chair, he begins a fire in the hearth. With the warmth of a fire at his finger tips his only concern now was for his family. They would be worried.
         Accepting that there was little he could do, he prepared to spend the night. There was no food or water in the cottage, but there were a blanket and cot. Meager ate the piece of dried beef he carried with him. It was all the food he had to easing his hunger for now.
         Time passed slowly. Meager, intrigued by the journals he found, browses through them. They were very old and the dialect was from the words of the Ancient ruins, the same as in the scrolls of the Temple. A certain journal stands out from the others on the shelf. Blowing the dust from it, he opens to the first page to find the name – Odem – inscribed. Knowing now he had stumbled upon Odem’s cottage. He became curious to the many books on the shelves.
         What was most intriguing was many of the journals were scribe in runes and symbols he had not seen before. He opened them one by one, not knowing the power or value of the knowledge he held in his hands.
         Hours had passed as he tried to understand the words. Tired, he fell asleep on the cot. The fire warm and comfortable, the doors and windows bolted shut, he felt safe. He was not asleep long when he began to dream. In his dream he found himself walking along a forest trail. There was no sound – not a bird’s song or rustling of a single leaf. How queer it was, he thought.
         Then, in a moment, the forest was pitch blackness. Fearing to move because he could not see an inch in front of him, he stood there. Though his feet did not move he became lost and disoriented. There was no forward, no backward no East or West, no up or down, just a feeling of his own presence within the void of darkness.
         At the moment he reached this conclusion, a small light appeared in the distance and was growing larger. Meager did not know if he were being drawn to the light or if the light was being drawn to him. Soon he could see it was not a light at all, but an old man. The first sound was his words. “I am Odem, Guardian of the Seven Gates. Who has breached the Gate? What is thy name?”
         “I am Meager. Where is this place?” He stammered scared out of his wits.
         “It is the place deep within you.”
         “Why am I here?” No sooner did Meager finish his words, than a blinding flash forced him to look away from the old man. When his eyes could see again, Mecca stood before him “Mecca? Is it really you?” Meager reaches out to touch the image, but Mecca steps away to avoid being touched. “It is so good to see you again Mecca. I am sorry I was not there when you needed me?”
         “Do not weep, for death is not the end, but the beginning of a new journey.”
         “I feel I have failed you. I should have been with you.”
         “Then we both would be dead. It is better that you lived, as you will come to understand. Much is depending on you, Meager. You must know it in your heart you could never fail me.” Mecca’s voice was soft with understanding.
         “If only I could believe that.”
         “Have I lied to you ever?”
         “No Mecca. You have always told me the truth, even when it hurt, but I feel this guilt inside me…Why do I feel this guilt Mecca? What could I have done to change this?”
         “Your decision to stay in Tarkas was impulsive. It changed many things. I see things much clearer now, than before and I am now an observer. Your guilt is that you did not say goodbye, and that opportunity passed without warning. It hurt me too when you left. I understand now why you had to stay in Tarkas. I do not blame you. Instead, I am proud. It has become a good decision with hind sight.”
         “I was selfish. I should have returned to the Temple and explained.”
         “You did what you felt in your heart, and that is never the wrong thing. It is the only thing you can trust. Never ignore your heart, my friend. We all have choices that lead us down many roads. You be happy with your decision. My fate is my own, you cannot postpone the decisions of the future, with regrets from your past…Meager, you must listen now, I have little time left.”
         Mecca stood silent as the darkness filled with trees. A river flowed down from a mountain landscape. Mecca sat upon a huge rock. Meager sat on a log and watched his tutor, enjoying the peaceful tone in his distant voice as he spoke. “You are about to embark on the greatest of journeys.” Mecca continues. “You have a destiny to full fill. Your questions will be many and they will all be answered in time. For now, you must return to Mu.”
         “But what of my family? I do not what to leave them now.”
         “They will wait for your return.”
         “Why must I go? I have a life here now.” Meager is upset.
         “Ramu is alone as Tasio will leave soon. He needs you. You are the only one left he can trust.”
         Meager knew this was right, sighing. “Will I see you again?”
         “I will be with you always Meager. I will come to you in many ways.”
         Meager reaches out to touch Mecca – whose every particle dispersed from the image. Meager was left alone again in total darkness. A sensation of falling took him, as he jumps from his sleep shaken. His heart pounds in his chest. The book, which he fell asleep reading, fell to the floor. Reaching to pick it up, he notices the pages folded over where it had landed. He read the story and understood it completely although it was written in the old tongue. It began…I am of the Balatar, protector of the Ancient rites of old, last survivor of the Secret Order of Twelve. There are many orders of Balatar, each unknown and separate from the others, and this is because we hold the secrets of Sznor. Each Order has the key though it is not known among the members to which individual is the actual key bearer. It is the obligation of the members to find and select followers to ascend into the future with the knowledge we guard. To carry it and pass it through the ages after we become consumed by our mortality. When I left my home in Ur, I was a boy of fifteen years. I escaped captivity or most probably sure execution by the Ur-nammu for stealing his amulets of power. They searched for the stones, but they did not find me as I took the hardest path to Uri Shalom. I carried the stones with me and escaped, only because my sister saw in a dream, the plan of Ur-nammu to use the stones to steal her abilities and use them in contrary ways against her own will. So I left under the dark of a moonless night abandoning my elder sister to a fate of captivity in the dungeons of Nesu Ur-nammu…I see her torment in my dreams, but I cannot go back for her.
         The En rode white horses and wore black robes that made them appear as shadows under the moonlight searching across the land for the stones. Because of my excursion through the mountains of Sinai-an almost impossible task – the En search went far beyond my travels but eventually rationalizing I could not have travelled as far as they, began to back track and on the very night I was to leave I returned to the mystics home in Uri Shalom to witness Ira, his wife and family dragged crying with Ira begging for his family life, out into the street. Their heads were chopped from their bodies and left. The flames from their burning home brought me every detail of the horror to include the faces of the men who done the deed. I burned their faces in my mind, and can see them now as clearly as on the day it happened. Before Ira met his fate he said loud for me to her it where I hid ‘You have been chosen,’ the mystic shouted to me. ‘You must take the book and hide.” Were the last words before the blow sliced through his flesh. So I slipped away as the flames consumed the mystics home and walked four days and nights into the desert. I thought I would die and would have, but was found by a family of gypsy and brought me within sight of Rome.
         I was given water, food and clothes. The carts left me to continue my journey on foot. I found Giovanni on the first day after reaching Rome. I told him of his brethrens fate. Here in the village called Rome, I lived safe for six years…Uri Shalom, now called Jerusalem, was conquered by the Philistines that were in alliance with Demonian mercenary that found their way through the gate. Rome had grown from a small village aside a great mountain, into a prospering city with a massive army. I felt safe here, but then there came a messenger. Giovanni, who was now three hundred and twenty years, called a meeting of the Secret Order of Twelve. The ancient society gathered one last time…It was said that a new priesthood was formed calling themselves Druids had joined with an army of Celt worriers, and they were going to invade Rome. We all laughed.
         Yaset that had brought the message warned us that the Gaul’s, as he called them, had received a powerful Amulet from the Druids and could not be defeated. No one believed such a powerful thing existed. Two legions of Rome’s elite army joined within a month’s time against the Gaul’s, and were massacred. Not a single man returned. This caused a panic, not only among the Romans, but with the Balatar. If the Druids marched on Rome, all would be lost. So Giovanni dispatched groups of Balatar from Rome. A list of their names and destinations existed in three Master journals. I do not know who carries the other two, but I have the third. I remained with Yaset until the Celts were upon Rome. He revealed to me that he was the one I awaited to learn the next leg of my search for Adeana – he said that the Druids would come and there was no longer a safe haven for him. They knew his name. He then with some sadness gave me a journal he had possessed for very long and handed this treasure to me saying, ‘It is called the Fujar – the book of names. Contained within are the members of the Balatar and should not fall into the hands of the enemy.’ As we stood there together Yaset said to me, ‘Odem, you must flee this place at once.’ He handed me a map and bid me to go that night, which I did. Yaset killed himself before the Druids could force him to reveal the secrets of the Balatar or the location of Adeana. The Gaul’s did not ride into Rome. Instead, they took a ransom and withdrew. The Druids, disappointed, continued to search out the Balatar on their own, finding them one at a time, killing them as they were found…I crossed many mountains and rivers and came to a forest so dense with trees it was dark, even during the day. Here I came upon a people called Ematoch…
         Meager stops reading as a chill blows in through the window shutters. The wind howls outside. The fire is getting low and he breaks up another chair, adding it to the flames in the hearth, wrapping himself in a warm blanket, he continues to read the story…

         …These were ancient people, dedicated to the Earth. They were great hunters and when meat was scarce in winter, they lived on roots and herbs that they collected in the summer months. They had a great power with the Earth and made remedies that cured many illnesses and mended wounds which I had seen many men die of. They watched me close and learned my language. I stayed twenty years among the Ematoch people. I was taught many things. I learned of a people who lived beyond the forest – people who had found their way around the forest and settled in a land the Ematoch called Adeana – Land of the Great Gorge. I thought – perhaps hoped they were of the Balatar, and wanted to find them.
         The Ematoch people escorted me to where the trees ended and a plain of long grass began. Tian, the Chief of the Ematoch, pointed me in the direction of the village. Ten days I traveled and came within sight of the village. As I came down the steep slope, people came from their huts. They said nothing and were not hostile in any way. They stood in silence as I walked among them. That was when I met Etio. Etio was the family Elder. He refused to be called a Chief because it reminded him of the land from which they escaped. Instead, everyone called him Father of the Motherland – Ramu.
         Meager turns the page. The words on the page which had been so easy to read on the pages prior had become obscure and meaningless. It was as though it was not meant for him to know the rest of the story. The words of his Tutor assure him…when the proper time comes, you will know. So he placed the book down beneath his pillow, and slept fast for the rest of the night. He understood at last all the events of his life have brought him to his destiny. Like the stones of the mighty temple of Mu, all now fit into place and chaos became order.

****

         A week passed, leaving Ramu to ponder over his predicament. He had heeded the words of his old friend, Ayrea, and gathered a group of boys, their names matching those she etched on the parchment. Most were orphans since the attack, and were living in the burnt out ruins of what was left of their homes. Their faces dirty, and stomachs empty, Ramu and the other priest fed and cleaned them. In two weeks the merchant ship would return. He must have the boys prepared for the voyage to Alantasia. His concern is who to send with them as their Guardian.
         The Hebrew had disappeared without word or trace. Mecca was dead. Tasio must leave; making it believed the stone is in his possession. The Druids seeking the stone will kill him if they can, and that alone would not make it prudent for him to be with the boys. Pathos was the last choice. Though he was familiar with Port Wert and knew their customs, Ramu could not bring himself to trust him. A peculiar feeling he got when speaking to the priest. He could sense some hidden thing about Pathos that made him suspect for his good deeds around the Temple since the death of Mecca. How could he trust the fate of these children to this stranger?
Meager climbed the narrow steps to the Observatory where he knew he would find Ramu. He had come unannounced and was eager to see the surprise on the High Priest’s face.
         “Can I bring you some tea, Ramu?”
         Turning, Ramu could not believe his eyes. The words caught in his throat. He puts his arms around the young Priest. “You have come home!” He knew it would be all right now. Pathos saw the young Priest, and follows him up the steps. He listens in the shadows. “I am so happy you have come home, Meager” Ramu continues, standing back to admire the young man.
         “It is good to be here.”
         “We must find Tasio. Everything is happening so fast, and there is so much to show you now that we are together.”
         Pathos started to descend the steps hearing the two approaching, but there was someone coming up. Trapped, he appears suddenly from the shadows, startling the two priests. “Excuse me – I saw you had a visitor and thought, perhaps, you would like to have cider or tea?” Ramu could feel the insincerity in the man’s voice. Tasio then comes onto the platform sensing his appearance had interrupted something. Pathos is standing awkward, excuses himself “I will go for the tea, now.” and hurries down the stairs.
         “A peculiar sort he seems to be.” Meager observes.
         “He steals his way around the Temple always lurking in the shadows. Sometimes it is as if he appears from a crack in the wall. I do not trust him, Ramu.” confesses Tasio.
         “I share your distrust.” Ramu confides. “I do not trust him either. He has attached himself to me as a leach, asking me questions of things that are personal to me. You both must leave Mu when the ship arrives. Quickly, I must show you some things before Pathos returns.”
         Tasio and Mecca follow Ramu into his chambers. The old man reaches for a stone in the mantle of the hearth in his room. A hidden passage appears in the stones next to the hearth. Ramu leads them inside, as the heavy stone closes behind them.
A single ray of sun light shines down from a tiny opening in the roof illuminating the pedestal amid the pitch darkness of the hidden chamber. Ramu passes his hand over the pedestal and inserts in a hole the narrow crystal the fisherman gave to him. In an instant the room lights in a rainbow of colors about them, as celestial objects float in the darkness, surrounded by stars and moons.
Amazed, Meager asks “What is it?”
         “It is Sznor. It is time and matter, the essences of all existence. This is our universe with all its secrets. From it comes life. To it all life belongs. Each is relevant to the other. The demise of one means the altercation to the rest. Each evolves in time and for each change that develops, there is a counter change that allows for it, Ying and Yang as your people call it, Brother.”
         “How is this done? From where do they come if there is only darkness around us?” Tasio asked excited at all he is seeing.
         “It is called Lamor. A crystal forged generations before the Balatar was formed. You both must listen to my instructions carefully. There is so little time left. Meager will take the boys from Mu. It is too dangerous here. Tasio, you must make it known you have acquired the Stone of Ur and are leaving with the ship. I know this will place you in great peril, but it must be done. It will detract any attention from the boys leaving Mu. Meager will sail with you, but once you reach Port Wert you must separate. You must protect the boys at all cost, Meager. I was instructed that the boys with these names will have the solution.”
         “Where will I go with these boys?”
         “Alantasia, it is no longer safe here. Here I have prepared this transcript addressing King Agar. It will explain to him the need for these boys to be trained in his army. It will not be an easy journey, Meager.”
         “You want the boy’s to be trained as soldiers?”
         “There is a time for peace. There is a time for war. We must be prepared for either!”
         Tasio fascinated by the images that surround every inch of space in the room turns finally to Ramu and asked          “Has the stone been found?”
         “I have been told it is in safe hands. I do not know of its presence. This is the way it must be – envision this place in your minds, you will not see it again.”
         “What does all this mean?” Intrigued by the mystery, Meager wonders through the images studying them from each perspective as he moves. As he changes his place within, he sees new things not seen before. There were many things to see. Images so strange, so beautiful and Meager is elated to have seen them. Never before had he thought such mystery existed and would look upon the heaven will new wonder. There was power in these images. He understands now, the importance of all Mecca has taught him.
         “Each point in space will give the seeker information. With the right calculations, time and events can be manipulated. This is the power the Druids want, but cannot be allowed. It has consequences. Nature must be allowed to alter, and regenerate at her own pace and requirements. It is why the Balatar was established. It is our primary duty to allow the natural order of nature to occur.”
         “It is all coming clear to me. In the forest I came upon the abandoned cottage of your friend Odem. I saw in a vision that I was needed here. That is why I came back.” Meager hands the journal he found to Ramu. Ramu runs his fingers over the seal of the Balatar, handing the book back to Meager saying only. “Protect it. Never let it fall into the hands of the ambitious ones.”
         “It has many symbols I do not understand. Is there a book of keys?”
         “Yes. This I have.” Tasio reaches into his satchel, but the book is not there. “It is gone!”
         “It must be in your room.” Ramu hopes.
         “It must be…I must find it!”
         Ramu takes the crystal from the Pedestal and the images disappear. The stone passage opens and they step out into the chamber.

         Pathos came from the cellar with a pitcher of cider. About to ascend the stairs to the observatory, he is stopped by the Envoy. “I have been looking for you.”
         “I am bringing refreshments to Ramu.”
         “Come, we have important things to discuss.”
         “He is in conference with the oriental and the young priest has returned. I should find out what is happening.”
         “The General is in the garden. We should not keep him waiting.”
         “Very well.” He puts down the server and pitcher. He could not make the Envoy realize the importance of what was taking place between the priests. Frustrated he follows the Envoy.
         Octivus sat in the garden court, playing with bugs he found on flowers when he saw Pathos leave with the Envoy. Noticing the abandoned cider, he pours himself a glass. It tasted bitter sweet. He better take it up to Ramu before it loses the coolness from the cellar. As the boy passed Ramu’s chamber, a rumbling sound caused him to stop and look into the room. Startled as the three Priests came out from an opening in the wall, he drops the cider, with the pitcher shattering at his feet.
         “What are you doing here?” Ramu snaps realizing this most secret of secrets was exposed to one as venerable as this boy.
         “WhI brought you cider. I heard a noise.”
         “What did you see?”
         “You came out of the wall.”
         “You must repeat this to no one. Do you swear?” Ramu knew immediately the risk, and without hesitation decided to send the boy away with Meager. “He goes with you to Alantasia.”
         Octivus nods. He was afraid Ramu was mad at him. “I am sorry.” Tasio hurries past. “I will search my room.”
         “I will help you.” Meager hurries after the Monk.
         Ramu, looks down at the boy. He can see the child trembling as he picked up the broken pitcher. “You have done nothing wrong, but you must realize you have stumbled upon something very secret. I did not mean to yell, forgive me child.” He leans over touching the boys shoulder.
         I did not mean to see it. I thought you were waiting for Pathos to bring you the cider.”
         “Where is Pathos?”
         “He is with the Envoy and General, talking in the garden. He left the server on the table and went out into the garden with them.” Ramu takes the boy by his hand and they go to join Tasio and Meager who were searching for the book of Keys. Tasio pulled all his clothes from the trunk. Meager turned the mattress over looking under it.
         Tasio looks at Ramu. “It is gone!” His body trembles and tears weld in his eyes. Putting his hands over his eyes to recollect the last time he seen the journal, but his memory cannot recollect. “I do not know what has happened to it. I have been so busy tending wounded bodies, I may have dropped it. When did I see it last? Where is it?” Tasio sits on the bed. Octivus could feel his pain.
         “It could be missing days ago! What if it falls into the wrong hands? What will happen, Ramu?”
         “Nothing, unless other writings fall into the same hands, or worse; if the Stone of Ur should come into their possession as well, this makes it more important that you leave.”
         “I will find it Ramu, I promise.”
         “No. The thief may not know of its value and an intense search may alert them. Brother, you must leave on the next ship. Things must continue as planned.”
         Meager watched as the oriental wept. He thought of the Monk as being infallible, responsible and dedicated. Now he sees he is not more than any other man, far from perfection, and as capable of failure as any ordinary man.
         Meager saw through his own allusion of priestly perfection, and saw the whole ordeal as the plight of ordinary men and this frightened him. Now, as he watches with empathy, the little man sitting on the bed, he realizes his own mortality. Mecca was right. When he reaches a new higher awareness of himself, no one would have to tell him. He would know it beyond any doubt. What confused him, and he thought many hours about was this insecurity he felt. He questioned his own abilities. He felt so small, so fragile, and alone. How could any one thing he can do in his life have such significant merit to the whole of the universe?

****

         On the seventh day after the attack of the jungle men, Ramu stood upon the observatory looking up at the stars, awaiting the birth of the new star, as Kamutu had predicted. There! In the North sky a new light appeared. Ramu went to his plotting table to pin point its location. Much to his surprise the star had already been filled in.
         Curious he referenced his plotting back for two weeks, and the star was there. A tinkle sound made by a piece of broken glass as it hit the floor draws his attention, and bends to pick it up. It was the boy – The mistake was not a mistake after all – It was there, and had always been there. He just could not see it, but the boy! His eyes were sharp. He could see what I could not.
Quickly Ramu calculated the equation, and his knees buckled from beneath him. It told of the coming danger. He could have stopped it. His realization brings tears to his eyes.
         A fluttering of wings causes him to look up, and a large bird, one that he had not ever seen a likeness to before, landed on the rail. In its claw was a cloth. Ramu stood, and approached with caution, not to frighten the bird with any sudden movement. Then in a sudden burst the bird flies up startling Ramu, and from the black of the night sky, the cloth with object inside falls into his palm.
         Ramu sets the cloth on the table. Carefully he opens the cloth revealing the stone. “Zieru.” he whispered awed by the stones beauty. It was said to contain the heart of the earth with in it. All questions would be answered, if the question was asked of it. He now held the most powerful force in the universe, and even Ramu felt its temptation to know all the answers to every question he could think of, but no. He could not. He would not. It would interfere with the natural order of events. If it is a time of unknown events, the appropriate actions of men must unfold to the unsolicited occurrence of these events.
         A shadow appears in the door, and Ramu scrambles to hide the stone. “Who are you? What do you want?”
         “I am a friend.” said the voice. His hood falling back revealing Josef.
         “I thought that you left!”
         “No, just chose to stand back to observe. That is all.”
         “And what do you see, Josef?”
         “Treachery, Ramu. It is all about us now.”
         “I know. Why did you come to Mu, Josef? What dark secret do you bring with you?”
         “I have been assigned a mission, Ramu. A mission that will result in the death of thousands, and it is my dreaded deed that brings me to you this chilly night. I have seen all, and now I know why I have been drawn to you since the first day I arrived. I was not sure, but tonight I seen it and I am sure without doubt. You are of the Balatar.”
         “And what does this knowledge have to do with you, Josef!”
         “I am with the order of the Meek, a soldier sworn to protect the secret and to ensure that deeds are carried forth to the ends that are determined by the great order.”
         “And what deed is it that so inspires you to reveal yourself!”
         “I wish to help you save your people.”
         “How can you promise this? We are but two men. The Envoy and General is an army.”
         “They are not your threat, Ramu. Your threat lies beyond the sky, and comes with projected force to kill every living thing for a thousand miles. Nothing can stop it.”
         “Then how can you help save my people?”
         “First I need your oath that what I say will never be said to another.”
         “I swear as Balatar that your words will not be repeated ever.”
         Josef walks close to Ramu. Gently he speaks. “I have travelled many years to come to this place, but I did not come alone. You see, Ramu. Mu was plotted by the Sznor long before this land was settled by man. It is, and was the point of impact for a great comet. This the ancients knew in their time. The events that occurred were situated by a man you know as Odem. It was he that showed the great leader Drago how to cross the great ocean. It was he that designed and constructed the Temple of Ra. It was he that has brought all these foul men unto this once pleasant place, as part of a plan devised by the ancients to gather all the Druids, and their evil sources to this land. A plan that has taken centuries to contrive and in one well calculated effort will destroy the Druid priesthood and all the contained powers they possess. It is the plan to use the forces of natural disaster against them, the only power that can assure the total obliteration of these orbs, and amulets.”
         “Then we have all been doomed since the beginning.”
         “I am taking a chance with my own life by telling you this, but I have seen many good people in this land. I wish to save them. The problem is not raising suspicion in doing so.”
         “What is your plan?”
         “It is a simple task of ordinary men. You must not leave Mu. You must contain all the factors of the Druid priesthood in Mu. You must make them think there are powerful sources awaiting their discovery. Spread rumors. Allow tidbits hinting of more intriguing information to fall into the hands of the enemy, and we shall conquer this enemy once and for all.”
         “And how will I know when to send my people away?”
         “Your answer will come from the sky. There will be little doubt of the sign.”
         “I will do as you ask. You can trust me, Josef.”
         “I am glad, Ramu. Now that we have a plan, my primary task can be avoided.”
         “And what task would that be?”
         Josef turns with a smile. “I would have had to kill you.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“Port Wert”

         It took fourteen days for the merchant ship to sail its course back to Alantasia. Captain Mono sat alone in the darkness of his cabin drunk. He stared at the whiskey bottle, one last swallow cresting from side to side with each roll of the ship. One last swallow and it will be over. His ship was being decommissioned ending his career as a Captain. This was his last voyage. The door opens flooding the dark cabin with daylight.
         “Captain Sir, we are approaching land.” The mate familiar with the Captain moods pokes his head in.
         “Go away.” Mono slurs.
         “But Captain you are needed on deck, Sir.”
         “GO AWAY!” Captain mono flings the whiskey bottle across the cabin. Alone he wanted to be. How could they do this? He was a worthy man and a competent Captain. There was no reason for this. He carried only trade between the main land, three islands and Mu. He clears his table with a violent sweeping arm, bearing his frustration.
         Forcing himself to stand, he staggers from his cabin. It would be his last time seeing the land from the sea. He looked out upon it and felt her spray upon his face. What had been his home for forty years would not be his home any more. His fingers held the railing fast as he closed his eyes. Would he ever feel the deck beneath him again?
         It was a clear day. The distant land appeared an illusion, a distant haze on the horizon. He watched his men lift heavy cargo from the hold and stacking it on deck to be transferred to shore once they anchor. The ship dipped its bow into waves as it headed for land as white foam ran along the deck. The “Sophia” is a sturdy ship and her sails billow proud, and strong. On the bow, the two Priests stood with the boys from Mu. He manages himself down the ladder and takes his place along the rail.
         “Good morning Captain.”
         “Morning.” He grumbles.
         Tasio could smell the liquor. “Celebrating Captain?”
         “Na, dying is more like it.”
         “Are you ill?”
         “Na, healthy as ever.” There is a long silence before he continues. “They have taken away my ship. This is my last voyage.” The words caught in his throat.
         “How will supplies reach Mu?” asked Meager.
         “The Navy ships will bring supplies. Damn those mercenary seamen. This was my home, and my route to freight. Who gives them the right to take away a man’s life? Who can do this to me I ask?” He spits over the rail.
         “I am sorry Captain.” Tasio worries for Ramu and the others that remained in Mu. Change was coming fast, just as Ramu predicted.
         “Casted off like rotted rope I am. Twenty years I have sailed this passage. Forty years the sea has been home to me. Never did I lose a ship arriving at every port with all cargo intact. My whole life is over without as much as a hand shake, or a farewell. Gone, my whole life gone and I have not to say about it.” He spits again into the water as if to rid his mouth of the vile taste the words leave.
         “You must find a new path.” Tasio offers
         “This is all I know.” He confesses.
         “You should Captain another ship?” Meager tries to ease the captain’s pain.
         “I will be lucky to be given a squabber to fish with.”
         Tasio felt sorry for the Captain and offers him some comfort.
         “There are other ports.”
         “Aye, there are, mate, but a Captain without a ship has not a ship for a reason. I will be marked by rumor. I am ruined.”
         “It is not fair, Brother, this happening to a man after years of dedication to service. Surely there is something we can do?” Meager turns to Tasio.
         “I am afraid there is not, Meager. As you will find out soon, we are strangers in a strange land. We have no authority here. There is no one who will hear our complaint.”
         “Aye, he is right; and me on land will be as much a stranger as you. I am dying. I feel it. A fish out of water is what I will be on land.”
         “He can travel with us. I can use his guidance with the boys.”
         “You want me to be a nurse maid? I would rather be dead, Mate! Cast me over board and drown me first, but a nurse maid I will never be.”
         Captain Mono walks off insulted. Meager watches him climb back to his bridge and there he stared out, not towards the land, but out towards the open sea. “I did not mean to offend him.”
         “It is out of our hands, and we have matters of our own.”
         Octivus could not forget the face of the Captain, distraught and alone. He remembers the many times he and his father attached tiny pouches of bounty for cargo to the tow line and how this man waited at the bulkhead, waving down that all was in order.
         Here in Port Wert, the bay was deep and the ship aligned with the dock. Sailors hoisted ropes to men ashore, securing them to tiers as the gang plank is slid from the deck to the dock and secured. “Captain?” The young boy approached. “I understand how you feel about the sea”
         Mono looks down at the boy. “My Father is a fisherman, and I was born aboard a boat. I remember and missed the way the sea she swelled as I laid in my cot, rocking me gently to sleep. I lay awake sometimes, unable to sleep in unfamiliar quarters. I understand why you are feeling bad. There is a comfort in the sea, one that only a few will ever enjoy.”
         The Captain takes a deep breath. “What is your name, Lad?”
         “Octivus, my father is the fisherman, Evas. He has brought many packages to your ship. Do you know of him?”
         “Evas? No, I never did know their names. Faces I have seen, but not names, there were so many. I will miss all those faces. I wish now I could have known their names.”
         “What will happen to the fishermen now that you will no longer bring in trade to Mu?”
Mono thinks and concludes, “I do not know, Lad.”
         “I know they will miss you.” Mono smiles down as the boy continues. “You see? I am well. Still I will always miss the sea. She is in my blood, though she is no longer part of my life.”
         “You are right, boy. Perhaps there is another life for me now. It all has changed. You be safe on your journey, young boy. You take care.” The words of this young boy soothed him for the moment. For an instant he was compelled to offer his assistance and take the boys in his guidance, but what the hell did he know about children?
         “Good-bye, Captain.”
         “OCTIVUS! COME ON!” Meager shouts impatient to get to ashore.
         The boy waves to the Captain as he runs to catch up to the others. It would be many years before he sees the Captain again. Many changes will have come by then. Only one link will tie them to a singular destiny. A tiny city in a far off land, called Mu.
         Meager stood awed at the activity of the wharf. “This is amazing, Brother.”
         “Yes. It has been a long time since I have been at this port. It has grown.”
         “You have been here before?”
         “Many years ago, it is the only route to reach Mu.”
         “I did not know this.”
         “I will walk with you until we reach the city gate. I want you to be careful, Meager, and make sure you keep the children close. This place is not like Mu. Children bring a great bounty for knappers who steal children and sell them into slavery. Trust no one.”
         “Where will you go from here?”
         “I must take another ship. I cannot reveal its destination to you. Meager? Do not forget why you are here. Remember, you are a keeper of ancient lore. What you know, will be sought out by others. You must be strong for the children.”
         “I understand, Brother.”
         “We are here and I must go now.”
         “I will miss you, Tasio. Will I ever see you again?”
         “No, most likely not.”
         Octivus walks up to the oriental and hugs him close.
         “Do not weep young boy. It is your job to help Meager watch over the others. Be safe, my boy.”
         “Bye.” Meager takes the boy’s shoulders, and together they watch in silence as the oriental disappears into the crowd. Meager faced the city gate. The script Meager carried with him requested the acceptance of the boys into service of the king’s army for training. The young priest’s stomach twisted with anxiety, unsure of the fate that lay before him.
         The walls were made of stone, grey and mildewed from lack of sun, as structures towered high above them. He could feel the presence of watching eyes as they walked each street and alley searching for a warm dry place for the children.
         Places that hung the sign of an INN were brothels and drinking establishments which would not allow the children in. The temperature dropped after the sun set and Meager realized that they did not have warm enough clothes for this climate. The boys shivered and complained. Their feet clad in sandals became red and chapped. Desperate, Meager entered the next inn confronting the keeper. “You must give us shelter. They are children and I was not prepared for this coldness. They will freeze to death. I must insist on a room for the night. I can pay what you want.”
         The inn keeper looked at the small boys. “Three pieces for the whole lot of them, for one night in advance.”
         The young Priest paid the inn keeper from a fund given to him by Ramu for the venture. He counted the three coins as the keeper watched closely, eyeing the small boys. Meager worried all that night. He was alone with no one to help him. He was unfamiliar with the land and with their customs. The people in this land spoke in a strange tongue and though he could understand a few words, he was not fluent to hold detailed conversations making it difficult to ask directions.
         There are eight boys in all. Meager had their names written on a script which he referred to often. He remembered the eldest boy was Chester. He relied on him to keep track of the smaller boys.
         “Meager?”
         “Yes, Octivus.”
         “How long will it take to reach Alantasia?”
         ”I do not know for certain, a few days perhaps.”
         “When we get there, will we meet the king?”
         “I expect so, Octivus.”
         “What do you suppose Alantasia is like?”
         Meager looks at the boys, he can see the worry in their faces. Perhaps a story would ease their minds so they can sleep. They will need their strength for the journey. From his pack he removes the book he found in the cottage. He opens to a page at random and began to read from it. He begins: “In the distance beyond the small village of huts were seven mountain peaks that glistened like silver in the bright sun. I knew by this sight I had found the secret land of Adeana. The winter was brutal and if I had not come upon the village when I did, I may have perished. These people who saved my life spoke in an ancient tongue, one which I was not familiar, but managed to communicate. I lived in Adeana for many, many years. I was there when Agar and a few years later Bartholomew was born to Etio, by then I had become a respected member of the tribe.”
         “Then a stranger came he called himself Simon. He accepted the hospitality of the Adeanean’s, and then one night he disappeared. With him he took an ornament that was held sacred to the tribesmen. I knew the stranger had returned to his true masters with the ornament as proof that he found Adeana. It took a long time to convince Etio that danger would come to his people. So in the first of the summer months the village was burned and the people of Adeanea moved southward. After three days of walking, we reached the mountain base, and we searched for a passage to cross the mountain range. It was almost fall when came upon a place. A crevice barely six feet across snaked through the rock. Upon reaching the other side of the mountains, we turned eastward…Years had passed and as I feared, war came to the land as the Ebonite army approached, by that time Etio was very old, and his sons Agar, and Bartholomew now young men led the army to war. I could not stay in fear that what knowledge I carried would be found. I now stand in a meadow of tall grass with the mountains to my back. I carry with me the stone of Lamor and the Fajar book of names and I must find a place of sanctuary for them. I know the Druids are searching for them. I will be killed if they find me. What caution I will say is that I must separate each from the other and only upon the coming of Ioffantazia, will they come together in one place again, and the reckoning then will be upon them that stand against Lo Abli Don.”

         Meager looks about and sees the boys are fast asleep. It was strange how the book revealed itself little by little. He began to realize the journal was in fact a history of the origin of Alantasia, and Mu. This compelled him to read on. He flips to the next page and again he cannot read the words. He sighs knowing only that the rest of the story the journal told would be revealed in proper time. What he did not know was that, as he read the words aloud, those in search of this precious journal became aware of its presence in the city.
         While the Priest and boys slept warm and comfortable in their beds, a dark shadowed figure sitting in a dark corner of a distant lodge became aware. It is here! He thinks to himself, standing startled of sure absolution that filled him, there was no doubt, the day he has waited so long is now upon him. He rushes from the lodge in the blackness of the forest night and rides off in direction of Port Wert.
         Meager dreams of this lodge called Wayward Inn. He sees the dark figure and knows he is coming for him. Out of a deep sleep he awoke to find the fire had gone out and the room was cold. The boys shook beneath their blankets as Meager tried to rekindle the fire. His teeth chattered and misty breathe puffed from his nose and mouth. It never got this cold in Mu.
         “It is cold.” complained the boys.
         “I wish we were back in Mu.” moaned another.
         “Huddle together. You will stay warm this way.”
         The younger boys cried. “I want to go home.”
         “Stop it. We cannot go home.”
         The boys were afraid. Chester spoke out against Meager. “You are responsible. You must go do something or we will all die.”
         “I did not know it would be like this. I am cold too. Help me get this fire started.”
         “Look, Meager! What is that?” Octivus stands back from the window. Meager goes to the window. A white flake fell out of the sky and covered the ground and roofs. Panicked he leaves the room and finds the inn keeper.
         “What is that which is falling from the sky?”
         The inn keeper laughs. “Snow? You have never seen snow before?”
         “Snow? Is it dangerous?”
         “Not usually, unless you are buried in it, or spend the night out in it, then you could freeze to death.”
         “Where can we buy warmer clothes?”
         “In the market I am sure, but the market will not be open on a day as cold as this, perhaps you may find a shop along an alley which may be open.”
         “I do not know my way around the city. Can you help me?”
         “I will show you later when the Sun comes up.”
         Meager nods. He began to doubt his ability to keep the boys safe. Ramu did not tell him of these things. He returned to the room to find Chester and Octivus had a strong fire going and the room was warm again. Meager looked out the window as white flakes fell from the sky, blowing in swirls of wind. The streets below were aglow with eerie shadows.
         “Oh, Ramu, what have I gotten myself into?”
         The inn keeper watched the priest return to his room. The door bolt clacks shut. He smirks as he walks down the hall and knocks on the door at the far end. It cracks open.
         “In the room at the other end is a young priest with eight children.”
         “I will have my men ready when they leave. You know the way to send them?”
         “Yes.”
         The inn keeper takes the pouch of gold from the man, tucking it into his pants. He smiles. He is rich! Too bad for the children…No matter, their masters will give them warm clothes and they will have a dry place to live.
         In the dark hours of morning came the inn keeper to knock on their door. Meager opens it a crack. “It is time to give up the room.”
         “We will be down shortly.”
         “Make it quick. I have patrons waiting.”
         Meager leads the boys down the stairs through the bar. Strangers eyes watched them as they passed, whispering and laughing. The inn keeper held the door as Meager stepped out into the snow. “It is freezing cold. I cannot take the children out in this!”
         “Your room is already rented and I have no others.”
         “Then let me leave the boys here with you until I return with warmer clothing for them.”
         “Me? Watching your children? In a pig’s eye man. How long do you think your children, or I would last in this place! It was chance enough letting you stay the night. No way… you must go now. Follow the street to the end until you see the blacksmith’s sign and turn left. There, you will find the shop I told you of.” He closes the door and bolts it shut.
         The wind howls and the snow bites their bare skin. It was hard to see where they were going, but Meager pushed onward. His feet became numb. His hands clinched, and his ears were stinging from the bitter cold. The boys struggled to keep up with snow crunching beneath their feet as they walked. Meager kept the boys huddling close together for any bit of warmth it could give them.
         The youngest boy, Eli, cried “I want to go home. I want to go home!”
Meager did not know what else to do except to keep walking. Soon he found the blacksmith’s sign and turned into the alley. It was a dead end.
         “We must have missed the shop. We must turn back.”
Turning the boys back up the alley, he sees six men blocking their way. Meager stood between the boys and the men. “Who are you? What do you want?”
         “The children simply, nothing more, Master Priest.” Said the man as he steps forward with the others spreading behind him across the alley to trap the boys.
         Meager raises a stick at the men. “Leave us be.” The men came at him slow drawing weapons from under their garments. Meager was certain he would die, and his hands tremble. So be it, and accepts his fate stepping towards the men. His only thought was to protect the children. Perhaps they can escape.
         The children ran this way and that, each being yanked and pulled down by the men, and bundled into sacks kicking and crying. Meager fought the men briefly but he was out numbered and the men over came him. Meager fell to the ground, and when Octivus saw him laying there, he could see it happening all over again. He could hear Mecca’s voice “Run, boy. RUN!”
Octivus scurried behind a barrel, darting over a pile of crates as one of the men grabbed at him slipping in the snow. The young boy kicked the knapper in his face. Stunned, the man spits out a tooth and growls, blood oozing from his mouth, swearing. “I will cut off your arms and feed them to wild dogs! Come back here!” He reaches after the boy. “Little bastard!”
         Scared out of his wits, the boy escapes from the alley cornering the end of the building watching over his shoulder as the angry knapper pursued him. Then with a bump that knocked him backwards, the boy runs smack into something solid and he stared up dazed. A tall figure draped in a black robe stood over him. His face was hidden beneath a hood. He knew he was caught, and was so afraid he could not move.
         The stranger reached down with a hand, helping the boy stand as the knapper came around the corner. With a gentle hand the stranger moves the boy behind him. With a smooth long stroke, he drew his sword which was hidden beneath his robe. It glistened even in the dim light of this snowy morning.
         “This is not your business.” The knapper protested.
Without a word the stranger slays the man, and blocks the others coming up the alley, pulling their sacks filled with the struggling boys behind them. They see the stranger, and are bewildered that anyone would interfere with them. Letting go of the sacks, the men drew swords against the stranger – five against one. Octivus watched from around the corner. The stranger in Black quickly slew the first knapper, without mercy. He had no tolerance for such men.
         His sword meets against the others and now, just two men stood before him. Octivus could see the fear in their eyes and in a moment, there was only one man standing, pleading for his life, but the stranger in Black did not hear his words. He knew the villain would return to do his deed elsewhere on another day, and slew him. It was over. They had been saved.
         The stranger bent over Meager, who was not dead. Lifting the unconscious priest over his shoulder, he carried him from the alley. With his sword he cut the ropes to the sacks and freed the boys. They scurry from the sacks.
         Coming around the corner he looks down at Octivus cowering against the wall. With the end of his sword he flipped the leather pouch the boy dropped in the snow, back to the boy.
         “This, I believe, is yours.” His voice was deep and rich and said no more to them. The stranger kicked in a stable door and set the priest on a bed of straw. He bowed and left without another word.
         Hours passed, Octivus rubbed cold snow over Meager’s face till he came about. Still groggy from the blow to the head he asked. “What happened?” Holding his head he tries to sit up. Octivus pulls at his arm to help when the leather pouch falls from his garment into Meager’s lap. Taking the pouch he looks close. He sees the marking he made on it when he was very young.
         “Where did you get this?”
         “From Mecca.”
         “You took it from his body?”
         “No. He gave it to me.”
         “This was a gift I gave to Mecca for his birthday. He would not have given it away.”
         “I swear! He gave it to me the night…the night he was killed. He handed it to me and said to me…Remember me boy, remember me…Then he died.” He could not fight the tears. “I did not mean to get Mecca killed! I loved him. I was just afraid for my family.”
         “You were with Mecca when he died?” Meager touches the boys head.
         “He died to save me. ‘RUN, BOY, RUN!’ He shouted, and I ran away. I was so afraid. Meager, everything was on fire. Everyone was being killed around me. I saw it happen, and could do nothing, but run away. He tried to fight them, but they kept coming. If he had a sword he could have killed them, but he had no weapon, and he died to save me.”
         “He would not have killed another to save himself. It was his way. Did he not teach you this?”
         “He taught me, to take a life was to deny ourselves destiny, and that the soul of a priest should be free of this deed of man. The taking of human life was to embellish the ego of one man’s power over another. One who has such thirst for such power can never find peace in himself or in others. It seems evil has so much more power over good.”
         “It can appear that way, but to be true to one-self, and stand for what is right, has more power. It is eternal and will live on by your example. Evil dies when it dies…May I look inside?”
         The boy nods. He watches the priest as he pours the contents of the pouch into his hand. He recognizes it all. “I gave him this when I was nine. I thought he had thrown it away by now. I can see that he would have given it to you. He wanted me to know.” His voice cracked with emotion. “I was his last thought.” Meager holds the pouch tight fighting back the tears. Then in silence he replaces each piece carefully into the pouch. Each tiny object – a shell, a carved piece of wood, a string of beads, all had a memory – except one. It was a strange black rock. Dull and ordinary but smooth as silk to the touch. “What is this?” He asks puzzled.
         “It is a rock. I found it in Mu. I have never seen a rock like this before, so I kept it. You can have if you like.”
         Meager had a strong urge to keep the rock, but he had a feeling about it, and places it into the pouch with the other things. It was the Stone of Ur and neither he, nor the boy, knew of its powers or of its secret lore. In the hands of innocents it had no power, and they were safe. His mind still not clear, he wonders. “How did we get away from those men?”
         “A stranger saved us.”
         “Where is he? I would like to thank him.”
         “He is gone. He carried you in from the cold and then he left.”
         “What happened to the knappers?”
         “He killed them all.”
         “Well, I guess they had it coming.” Meager surprised himself that he felt no remorse for these men. It contradicted everything he was taught about compassion. He would have to think about this. Meager rubs the bump on his head as the boys sat huddled together with a lit lantern at their feet. They complained their feet itched beyond relief. The young priest laid his head back and shut his eyes. He was exhausted, and in pain, but at least they were safe.
         The stable was warm. The wind howled outside, as the boys huddled together asleep. Then the stable door opened and the owner came in to find the priest and the boys. He was not surprised to find them, and greeted them with a friendly hello. A note explained the circumstances and a few golden coins wrapped in a cloth, was somehow shoved under his door. It more than covered the use of the stable, and food for the next few days.
         Two days had passed. The furious snow storm had ended. When Meager told Ebert of his intentions to leave, Ebert insisted that they stay. The roads from Port Wert to Alantasia would be impassable until the snow melted. It could be weeks before they could travel. Meager was grateful for the stranger’s hospitality. The deed to Ebert was nothing any good man of conscience would not do.
Ebert and his wife, Agnes, took good care of their guest. She made them clothes and provided them with warm boots. They were as concerned for the boys, as parents to their own children. That night everyone gathered before a warm fire. The old man told a magnificent story of a day when he was very young, and he began….
         “It was a long time ago. I was just a boy, not any older than you when news of war came to our land. At this time the city of Port Wert was a small village on the shore. The city of Alantasia was a village itself called Adeana back then. It was not the great kingdom that is built upon the gorge now, but a small village amid the plains of tall grass. Here men lived of their own free will and were governed by a man called Etio. It was through this passage all the peoples who settled here in Port Wert passed that became the sentries to all the lands that were South, and no man passed through who carried a sword or amour. Sadly that has all changed now…Etio had two sons, Bartholomew and Agar. Then one day, as the men plowed their fields, a rider came with the news that an army approached. The men gathered their swords, sending word to all their neighboring villages. Within days the villagers from the five tribes gathered to form a scant army.” Ebert is silent, recollecting the events and then continues. “…The army marched to meet the enemy in a field beyond the passage between the mountains. It had no name then, but now we call it – The Field of borrowed time. It was here the first battle was fought. So many died there that day, it is said the grass is still red with their blood and I still remember as I stood upon the ridge that overlooked the pasture my fear as I looked upon the foreign army for the first time. The opposing army glittered in shining amour as the morning sun shone above, as they were preparing to attack. The men of the gathered villages – Nangelio, Arithima, Pastlem, Humit, and Adeanea, lined the summit edge. The villagers had no armor and their weapons were bamboo stalks, and bows and arrows of hunters not soldiers and very few of us had swords. I was barely fifteen. To me war was a gallant game played by children bored by the lack of things to do. That had all changed now. I can remember the fear that ran through our ranks as the enemy began their descent into the valley. They banged their swords upon their shield that echoed like a drum in my head. I never experienced fear so intense. It could be felt in the air. Heavy, drawn out, each moment seeming be an eternity. It left a taste in my mouth. Like death, dry and swollen. I could see it in the eyes of everyone around me, and it touched me in my very soul, a dread not only of dying, but of the unknown beyond death. I could smell the stink around me. The smell of bowel as men sure to die lost control of functions as the mighty legion of the Ebonite army moved forward. Agar, the eldest son of Etio, stood fast and waited, holding his men against their own fear until the enemy was in the cusp of the valley. He knew that if he held the enemy here for two days that our distant allies from scattered villages beyond the five tribes would have time to rally.” Agnes disturbs her husband’s story to bring sandwiches and tea to the boys. “…Agar and the rest of us depended on their swift arrival. My heart was pounding in my chest. I fought every desire to turn and run. Then Agar gave the order to attack. Each man knew the fate of all the ones we loved was in our hands and Agar reminded us as we charged. ‘For your wives, for your children, and for your freedom!’ He shouted as he led the charge. I remember how the flesh felt as it tore around my sword’s blade. The blood splattering in my face blinded me as I swung my sword in a panic. I will never forget the sting of the Ebonite sword as it slashed my skin or the dying eyes of my enemy as I pierced his heart with my dagger. I was only fifteen, one day prior, a mere child. We fought with the ferocity of the north winds of winter. We resisted the Ebonite’s not two days, but four, and the coming of the allies sent the Ebonite’s in retreat.”
         “The war lasted ten years; it was the veracity we fought in this first battle that we earned the name Emach Guard…” A tear was in his eye as he remembers the dead faces of all the men who lay in the field. Friends he played with as children not more than weeks prior to this invasion were all dead now. “…It means to fight with the ferocity of the North winds. The mounds of dead soldiers gave this once tranquil valley its name – Shanazit – Field of blood. So we of the Emach Guard became legend and the five villages converged on the high mountain gorge to build great walls and a city of silver towers and streets that glittered with specs of silver and gold. It was called Alantasia. Agar, first son of Etio, declared he the first king. The hollowed horn he blew before each battle against the Ebonite’s has been silent for sixty-one years. No army has ever challenged us since.”
         “And Agar is still the king?” Asked a Eli.
         “He must be very old.” Adds Chester.
         “He was sixteen when he led the attack at Shanazit. I am seventy two; I was fifteen when Agar led us to our victory.”
         “Do you still have your sword?”
         “Yes, I will show you.” It has been many years, and it hung over the hearth mantle. It was heavy and it shone with fire in this dim room. The boys were awed. Even Meager sighed.
         “Careful, it is sharp.” Ebert cautioned Octivus as he ran his hand along the smooth surface.
         “It is warm…Why is it warm?”
         “It is said that the souls of the slain are drawn into the sword as death comes. Thus the sword gathers the enemy life power making the bearer stronger in battle.”
         “Have you killed many men?”
         “In battle, yes I have.” Ebert was not proud of this. He still dreams of the faces and the look in their eyes as they fall dead to the ground. He believed he could see in their eyes the faces of loved ones they would never see again. On his hands their warm blood spilt, bodies trembling from the agony. There was no glory, just terror in the eyes of the living, and the horror in the faces of the dead meeting their mortality.
         Meager could see how it bothered Ebert to talk of the slain, and changes the subject. “You boy’s better get ready for bed. It was a good story my friend. You did what must be done, and we honor you for what you did.”
         Ebert nodded saddened by the memory. He replaced the sword back into its sheath, and placed it above the mantle. A shrine to those faces he left on the battlefield so long ago of both, friend and foe.

****

         Two weeks have passed. Meager grew restless. They should have been in Alantasia by now. He enjoyed the old man’s stories and hospitality, but it was time to go.
         “The road to Alantasia must be clear by now, Ebert.”
         Ebert knew the Priest was eager to leave. They could have left days ago, but he grew fond of having the boys here. For the first time he had a family and his wife sang as she baked bread and cooked. He knew she would miss them after they leave.
         “Yes. The roads should be clear. I must ready the horses for the journey. I will take you in my wagon.”
         “But you and your wife have done so much already.”
         “Nonsense, I cannot allow children to face the dangers of the forest alone? No, I will take you to Alantasia.” Ebert knew the dangers that lay before the priest, and children. He knew too well that children brought a high bounty. Looking to his wife and she smiles proud. He simply shook his head, only a fool would take on such responsibility.
Meager was glad they had made a friend in this place. He felt guilty to take advantage of this man’s kindness, but he knew he needed Ebert’s help.
         The next morning the wagon rumbles along the cobblestones towards the eastern gate of the city. The boys sat huddled beneath a tarp. Ebert thought it best not to draw attention to the boys. The forest was dangerous enough without tempting ambitious thieves to follow. His sword and bow at his side lay ready.
         Meager sat next to the old man. He was afraid for the children and worried what dangers lay ahead. Ebert watched the road ahead feeling the watching eyes from windows as they left the city through the eastern gate. The old man had no doubt they would be ambushed somewhere along the road. Each mile drawing them closer to their fate, and he submits himself to his fate accepting there was no turning back now.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

“Wayward Inn”

         No one spoke or made a sound as the wagon left the stable. From beneath the wagon tarp the boys watched people going about their routines, unaware of the presence of the boys. There were strange animals here called horses and these people raised dogs to live by their sides. In Mu, these animals roamed wild in the deserts and hillsides. Ebert said here dogs were considered man’s best friend.
         The rumble made by the wagon wheels on the cobblestone streets became soft, now that the road has changed to dirt. The stench of the pigs was replaced with pine and rotted leaves. Many of the boys never been within a forest before, poked their heads from beneath the tarp, watching in quiet astonishment at the tall trees about them. Not far off the road, a deer watched the wagon roll passed as curious of them as they were of it.
         The rustling leaves made Octivus feel sad, reminding him of waves breaking on the beach. He could see in his mind his father’s boat and worries if he would ever see his family again.
         The road ahead twisted and turned through the trees, reminding Meager of the road to Tarkas. His father and brothers would be out hunting, while his mother would be baking bread. He could almost smell it. He wondered if they were thinking of him, as he was of them. He had been teaching the village children how to write. A girl named Sera, he had become fond of, helped him with the children and he worries, would she remember him when he returns?
         Chester looked up at the sky about the trees. He, like the other boys, lost his parents in the attack by the jungle men. He did not miss Mu. There was no one left there to miss. Now, being so far away from the tragedy, he began to feel at ease again. Still, he was at a loss, not knowing where the future would lead him.
         The mule lumbered at a steady pace. Ebert kept his crossbow ready at his side. These woods were full of thieves and murderers. A wagon full of young boys would bring a king’s ransom to a band of knappers. A temptation he knew would bring trouble when their presence was learned. The risk brought to him a feeling long forgotten. That feeling he felt the moment before the charge into battle, where every movement no matter how slight was noted. He could taste his own fear and the intense feeling of being alive the moment before death comes.
         The wagon stopped. Ahead, just beyond a break in the trees was Wayward Inn, the midpoint between the two cities. Ebert knew its reputation as a haven for criminals, and worried for the boys’ safety. It stood three stories high and had two high chimneys with smoke billows coming from each of the stacks. The wind began to pick up, and he knew he must get the children out of the weather before night set in.
         “Wait here with the wagon, Meager. I will go in and rent a room.”
         Ebert handed the reins to Meager climbing down from the cart. A long time passed. The sun was going down and a chill cut through the boys and the priest as they waited for Ebert. When he returned, Meager could smell the whiskey on his breath. “Come. The inn keeper does not want the boys here, but I convinced him otherwise. Keep the boys close and do not let them leave the room at anytime. There is a mean lot lurking about this place and the owner is afraid having the boys here will start trouble.”
         “I will keep the boys behaved.”
         “It is not trouble from the boy’s that is his worry. Keep them close. Keep them very close, and do not stare at anyone, understood?” The priest huddled the boys together as they entered the lodge. The room went quiet. Meager could hear his own heart beating as he led the boys upstairs. His eyes met with a stranger’s. They were cold. Ebert pushes him forward. “Do not stare!” The stranger slams down his mug sending a chill up the Meager’s spine as he ushers the children up the stairs and upon reaching their room, bolting the door behind them. Ebert could see the fear in the boys and the priest. “We will be safe in here. Let us get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow may be a hard day.” He attempts to reassure them, but a gut feeling told Ebert, the danger was about to begin. The presence of the boys would be known to all before daybreak.
         Though Ebert tried to hide his fear, Meager could see it in his eyes. He listened in the darkness as the old man sat awake all night, with his back against the door, and his sword drawn. The next morning Ebert woke the priest early. It was still dark outside. “Come, we must leave now.”
         “But it is still dark?” Meager complained.
         “Our best hope is to get as far away from this place before they have time to set an ambush for us. Quickly, and be quiet.”
         “Do you think they will?”
         “For certain, quickly Meager! Wake the children.”
         Quietly, not to arouse the men sleeping in their rooms, Meager guides the children out of the inn to the wagon. Ebert lifts the smaller boys into the wagon to keep down the noise. Quietly they go in the dark. A safe distance away, where then Ebert snaps his whip and the horse break into a hard gallop. He hoped to put as much distance between them and the inn before daybreak.
         The sun came shimmering through the trees. Ebert stopped the wagon and loaded his bow. His eyes scanned the thickets for movement. Seeing nothing he continues the horses at a walking pace, listening hard for what he cannot see. “Something feels strange.”
         “Bandits?”
         “I will go ahead. At the first sign of trouble you get out of here and stop for nothing. Do you understand? Stop for nothing!”
         “What about you?”
         “I will be fine. Do as I say.”
         Meager nods as Ebert takes up his crossbow from the wagon and disappears into the bushes ahead. He reappears shortly a fair distance away waving a hand for them to follow. As Meager drove the wagon up to Ebert, he could see six dead men laying aside the road, the snow dyed red with blood.
         “You killed them all?”
         “No. They must have had a disagreement over who had claim of the children. Greedy men the whole lot of them.”
         “Is that good?”
         “There are less of them now. That is good, but we are still in danger.”
         The wagon continues by offering the opportunity for boys to look over the bodies as they pass. Some of the younger boys cried as the sight reminded them of that horrid night in Mu.
Ebert drove the wagon faster. The horse snorted, climbing the steep incline. “The road goes up. We are close to Alantasia.”
Meanwhile not far behind, a group of men ride hard to catch the wagon full of children. As they come round a bend in the road they stop. A lone rider blocks their way.
         “Get out of the way, you!”
         The lone rider stands fast. In a moment a long sword appears from beneath his black robe and he points it downward, an officer soldiers command for the men to stand down, but they drew swords in opposition. In a single movement the lone rider charges the men.
         Meager heard the shouts from behind. “They are coming!”
Ebert whipped the horse to go faster. The wagon almost flips as they take a curve. “Take the bow. Shoot anything that follows.”
         “I am a Priest! I cannot kill a man!”
         “Then we are dead, Priest!”
         Meager picks up the bow. His hand trembles as he aims it behind them. He looks to see Octivus staring up at him, and he knew at that moment he must do what was necessary even if he must sacrifice his own soul. Fortunately, no one came.
When the wagon reached the summit, Ebert stopped. The walls of the city, Alantasia, rose up from the rocks, touching heaven it seemed. “Those walls were not built when I left her.”
         “The walls are ten times that of the Temple of Mu.” Meager gasps. They climb up the slope until they reached the gate. Ebert gets down from his wagon and knocks with his sword upon the heavy oak boards of the gate. A guard shouted through a small door.”
         “State your business!” He grumbles.
         Ebert stumbles with his words. “We have come to see the king.”
         “Where have you come from?”
         “I am Ebert, Son of Yatat. I have come all the way from Port Wert as escort to these young visitors from Mu.”
         “You may escort them back. No one can enter.” The guard shouts back thru the door. Meager gets down from the wagon. “We cannot come in?”
         “Wait!” Ebert pounds the gate with his sword hilt. The guard opens a peep hole in the door again. The eye looking thru the hole surveys the group, and Ebert. “Are you deaf? You cannot enter!” The voice booms again.
         “I am a rider of the Emach Guard and you better damn right open this gate or I will kick it in and cut your foul tongue from your wretched face!”
         The Guard’s voice is less offensive. “Emach Guard? Proof, Show me proof of who you are?”
         Ebert takes a silver medallion from his pocket and hands it through the door opening. In a moment the heavy gate is hoisted up and the wagon enters. A crowd gathers around the wagon. The guard salutes Ebert.
         “Forgive me for my harshness, Sir – If I knew who you were…”
         “Stop sniveling and take us before the king.” He demands. Ebert had changed. He was no longer that gentle old man that gave them shelter. He walked proud, and erect. His face glowed with a presence only a hero could project onto all that watched. The guard led Ebert and the boys passed a gathering crowd of curious on lookers, stopping at a second gate. The first guard whispers to the second guard and without hesitation were allowed to enter the Castle Court. Whispers came from the crowd. “Emach Guardsmen he claims he is.”
         It was a beautiful garden twice the size of the Temple itself and twice as beautiful if that were possible. A group of servants appeared. The head servant looked over the visitors and shook his head, “No, no, no. You will not be able to appear before the king in those shabby things.”
         “But it is all we have to wear!” Meager defended.
         With a snap of his fingers the head servant had three young girls escort the boys, priest and Ebert to rooms inside the castle where they were bathed and clothed.
         Octivus, amazed by the size of the room, touched the elegant furniture about him. “I have never seen such a large room. Will I be here all alone?”
         The young maiden giggles at his innocence. “Yes. You are a special guest to the king. All of the king’s guests have their own room. I will prepare a hot bath for you.”
         “If you show me where to get the water, I can fill it myself, thank you.”
         She giggles once again. “It is the servant’s place to do these things.”
         “We do not have servants in Mu.”
         “Mu? I have never heard of this place.”
         “It is across the sea.”
         “Then you must be very tired.”
         “And very hungry too if I can have something to eat?”
         “There will be plenty to eat at the feast tonight. Now, you must rest. I will fill your tub, and get you something more appropriate to wear before the king.”
         Octivus sits on the bed and sinks down into the soft mattress. At first he reveled in its softness, but he could not sleep. It was too soft and sitting up became a chore in itself. About him were beautiful things that reminded him of his mother. How she would like this reflecting glass and oh! How smooth the silk feels in his fingers.
         “You will have to take off your clothes now.”
         “Pardon?”
         “You cannot bathe in your clothes, can you?”
         “No, but do you have to stay?”
         “I will turn about while you get into the tub. I will wash your back.”
         “I would be more comfortable doing it myself, thank you. What is your name?”
         “Miriah. Do I embarrass you?”
         Yes.”
         “Then I will leave. I will return with clean clothes, and you are called?”
         “Octivus.”
         “I will return shortly, Octivus.”
         Octivus waited until she left the room before disrobing and stepping into the warm water. He had not met a girl so beautiful before and had not given girls a thought, till now. He smiles. She was very friendly, and hopes he will see her again.
Meager gathered the boys together after they cleaned up, and put on the new clothes supplied by the king’s orderly. They met with Ebert along the corridor, dressed in shining armor and together they walked proud. The Royal Guardsman led them to the king’s chambers. Meager was worried. Doubting fear turn his stomach to knots, making his palms sweaty, and his throat dry. For the first time he feared the children may not be accepted by the king. What would he do then?
         When they reached the chamber door the Guardsman posted at attention. The boys watched the soldiers. This is what they were sent to become and for the first time they were proud to have been chosen, and for the first time in months, the children had good things to dream about again.
         Octivus looked about the hall curiously as they waited. In the dim light he could make out three large murals of men dressed in colorful garments, welding swords with shields set at their feet. He wondered who they were. The images were faint, and some of the paint peeled, but still in the face of one figure there was a familiar resemblance.
         The chamber door opens, and they are led in as a soldier announced them. “Visitors, Sire, from the Providence of Mu and Ebert, Rider of the Emach Guard, their escort.”
         King Agar rose from his throne as the visitors were instructed to kneel before him. “Is this true? You rode with my Guard?” The king’s voice echoed thru the chamber. Agar wore no crown, but a colorful piece that bore the emblems of his royal stature amongst his people. His throne was not of precious gems, or stones, but a plain wooden chair, larger than the rest about the room, but still common. Ebert held out his sword to the king, who took it and held it close to study the markings. “You rode with my brother into battle. This is his seal.”
         “Yes and this is the silver medallion you gave to all the men after the victory.”
         “Forgive me if your face is not familiar. It has been many years. How did you come to be the escort for these boys?”
         “They were brought to me by a stranger who left payment and a message to help the children reach you. There was a terrible snow storm. They were lucky not to have frozen to death.”
         “And who was this stranger?”
         “I do not know, my King. I had not met him. When I woke…a pouch of gold wrapped with a note was slid under my front door telling me of the children in my stable.”
         “And why have you come before me?” His question directed to the Priest. Meager takes a script from his pouch.          “This will explain, my King. It is from Ramu, the High Priest of the Temple of Mu.” In saying his words he realized how far away from home he was, and his doubt overwhelmed him.
         King Agar takes the script from the Priest and breaks the seal. He is silent as he reads the words. Returning to his throne, he sits leaning forward. “Word has come to me about this tragic event. I have ordered mercenaries to protect your land. What else does Ramu wish?”
         “Only to have these boys trained in military tactics, my King, so someday they may return home to Mu to protect her from such things that have left these boys orphans.”
         The king eyes each of the boys. “Is there a General amongst you, I wonder? A skimpy lot of you I see before me. I doubt there is one who can hold a sword! Is there?”
         “They are just boys, Sire.” Meager defends. Meager could not understand why the king was harsh toward the boys. This was sure to be a mistake. He sees the fear in the boy’s faces.
         “I expect no apologies from you, I will train the boys. My Captain of Arms will train them all, personally, but it will be no easy task and I will not hear any whining once the training has started, or I will make them galley servants. It is a great honor to be trained in my legions; I have no tolerance for weakness, understood!”
         “Thank you, my King.” Meager bows low.
         “And you, Ebert? Why have you not come forward sooner? Did you know the riders of the Emach Guard are the same as royal family?”
         “I have taken a wife, my King. It was her wish that I leave the Emach Guard behind me. Forgive me, Sire. Love makes men do foolish things.”
         “This truth I know too well. I understand.”
         “They were grand days, my King.”
         “None have been better since. Come, sit at my table and share memories about them days of old. There are so few left to remember them.”
         “Aye, whatever happened to Bartholomew, your Brother?”
         “I would give a ton of gold to know for certain, myself. He left forty years ago to fight the Babylonians at Athens. He has never returned, nor has there been any word. He is dead, no doubt, or he would have reached me one way or another.”
         “A great man he was.”
         “And soldier.”
         “And how be your sons, my King? I heard you have three.”
         “Let us talk of other matters my friend. Family seems to depress me a bit these days.”
         The two old companions sat late into the evening and feasted. Meager sat with the boys in a distant corner, and they ate until they could not take another bite. Octivus looked about at all the strange faces about the room. As each young maiden servant passed, he hoped he would see Miriah, but she was not present.
         Meager felt alone. He knew no one, except the boys who were much younger than he. He remembers his brother, Brian, and lifts his challis of wine to his lips and drinks a silent toast. “Until we meet again.” He turns to see Octivus staring at him. Removing the challis of wine from his lips he justifies. “It eases my home sickness.” Octivus nods understanding. He can see how out of place Meager felt. It was as if he was being consumed by the greatness of the things around him, Octivus worried for him.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

“The Black Rock”

         The story of Mu was long, and the old chief slumps forward slightly, his body tired, his bones aching from sitting so long. “Give me your arm, Grandson. Help me up to stretch my legs.” He had many more tales about the city called Mu, and it was important his grandson heard the stories through, but first he must rest. The young boy helps the old man stand. “Take me out of this place. I need to breathe fresh air.” The Chief stretches his arms upwards and he can feel the crisp winter air on his face.
         He chants loudly, his voice carrying on the wind, across the desert under the full moon. Cacti silhouette the distant horizon, and a shooting star arcs across the sky. He places one hand on his grandson’s head. “The day will come, my grandson, when our people will lose sight of their being. They will roam the earth, lost, with no purpose. It will be then, grandson, you will go forth and walk among them. They will ask you…Who are you? And you will answer – I am the land. If they do not understand, you will say to them. My heart is the sun in the sky; my blood is the rivers which flow across the lands; my breath is the wind that gives life to all things; and my flesh is the Earth from which all things are born. To it I return when I die. If still they do not understand, you will say; I am the hope.”
         “And if they still do not understand, Grandfather?”
         “Then walk away. You are speaking to idiots.”
         The old chief breathes deeply. His legs are tired and he sits on the rocks overlooking the prairie. The boy captured by the story could not wait for him to continue. “Grandfather?”
         “Yes, Grandson?”
         “What happened to the priest and the children?”
         “Patience, Grandson…I will finish the story. First, we have concerns which I must express so you may perceive the essence of what the story is I am telling you. It is important, so listen carefully.”
         “I am listening, Grandfather.”
         “I am weary and want to enjoy this moment, to breathe the air, and to hear the sounds of the desert night. Look upon the land and the sky, grandson; is it not a wondrous thing to behold? So far beyond the comprehension of mankind to understand he is vital to its existence. We are a mere grain of sand in a desert of time to the Earth. So insignificant, and yet as important it is true that a storm of sand begins with a single grain. Man searches for the answer that evades him. When the answer he seeks so desperately is before him, crystal clear – his spirit and the land and the universe are one.”
         The old chief rests, feeling all the spirits of all his ancestors around him, touching him and beckoning him to join them, but he cannot yet and opens his eyes. Looking into the young eyes of his grandson sitting next to him, he continues. “Life, the simplicity of breathing so natural to us we do not notice we are doing it, but should we not, we die. The challenge to survive the forces beyond our self, to exist for no other purpose than to be, creates the question in every human heart. Are we born only to die? Then why live at all if this is all that life is?” He is silent for a long time before he continues. “Out there is the answer. We exist for one thing. The answer is there, grandson, can you see it?”
         The boy looks out across the desert, intent on seeing what his grandfather is pointing to, but he sees only one thing. “I can see only the land, Grandfather. What is it that I do not see?”
         “You see all there is to see. You see the truth as it is, as it was, and as it forever shall be – the land.” He was happy Hatonock could see the truth. A tear rolls down his cheek. He must now finish his story.
         Hatonock felt the power of the truth within him as he looked out across the desert. He takes the old man’s hand. “It is beautiful, Grandfather.”
         “It is eternal, be one with it. Keep its serenity within your heart. When men make war with you, offer up your spirit. Your blood will mix with the land and you will not die. When there is draught, let it not dismay you. Instead, feed upon it and gain strength from it. When the winter freezes over the land, keep in mind the mystery that lay beneath, knowing that through nature’s course all will be revealed. The food of spring will be your feast. Savor the experience of hardship so that nature’s strength will become your own. Words spoken from the heart have power; words spoken from rhetoric are but common words of liars. Speak from your heart, whether it is from fear or from courage. Great men know both. You have one purpose, grandson, to keep the ignorant from killing the land. When you hear the voices of our ancestors calling out to you as they pass, listen. They will tell you what you must know. Be one with them though you are here in the material world of life, and they in the spirit world of another life. You are the link between all that was and all that will come. You are the present moment and every function of your life here forth will lead you to the conclusion of your journey, as it has me.”
         The boy stands silent with the old man as the wind blows over them, refreshing them. The full moon gave the desert an odd glow. Breathing deep they together listened to the voice of the wind, and it brought to them the drums of their ancestors who chanted songs long forgotten. It was a good night to hear the spirits, and they spoke many things to them. They approved of the young boy. He had a good heart.
         “Come let us return to the warm fire. I must finish the story now.”

The story continues…..

         Weeks have gone by. Ebert returned to his home in Port Wert. Meager sent a script with him to be sent to Ramu, telling him of all that has taken place on their journey, and that the king has accepted the boys into his army for instruction. Everything seemed to be going well.
         The young maiden, Miriah, watched the boy, Octivus, from a distance as he played in the long dark corridor leading to the king’s chamber. She watched entertained while the young boy from Mu mimicked the postures of the soldiers, painted in a mural.
Octivus gestured with his imaginary sword, mocking a sword fight slaying the evil enemy. Gloating with victory, he turns to see the maiden watching and he is embarrassed. “How long were you there?” He felt like running away hiding.
         “Not long.” she walks toward him smiling. “Do you know who they are?”
         “No, but they must be very important.”
         “They are Etio, first ruler of my people and on his left is his his sons, Agar and Bartholomew.”
         “Who is the one separate from them?”
         “He is Drago. He was not family, but was a hero to my people.”
         “My people have told stories about Drago. He was the founder of my homeland, Mu.” Octivus almost blurted out his secret linage to Drago. He wanted so much to tell her, but Ramu warned him not too. “He was a great warrior.” He stopped himself abruptly.
         “He was – My people owe their existence to his bravery. I did not know he left Alantasia. I thought he had returned to his village in the forest where he died of old age.”
         “Village?”
         “Yes. It was called Eotupian. They were wonderers. He left after the war against the Ebonite’s and was not heard of again.”
         “That must have been when he led his people across the ocean and founded Mu.”
         “Then you are of his blood?”
         Octivus was startled by Miriah’s perception. “You must not ever say this to anyone!”
         “Why? You would receive great honors.”
         “I do not seek honors. I am a student of the Sacred Scrolls of the Cosmic Forces. It is not our way. No one can be told of my linage. It will bring great danger.”
         “Then I will keep your secret.”
         “OCTIVUS! OCTIVUS!” A voice echoes down the corridor.
         “It is Meager! I am coming.” He calls back.
         “Come on, boy. You are late for your lessons again.”
         “I must hurry, Miriah. I want to hear more about my people and of Drago. Bye.” He dashes off. The young girl watches and smiles. She liked this boy from Mu. He was kind and gentle in nature. She looks up at the mural, the faces faded by time, looked down upon her. A queer resemblance struck her between Drago and the young boy of Mu.
         Meager stops the boy. “She seems to like you.”
         Octivus smiles and continues passed. He was elated.

         It was the worst winter anyone in Alantasia could remember. Each afternoon the boys from Mu practiced their swordsmanship in the mews protected from the harsh winds. Captain Anvelot taught the boys technique as Meager watched from a distance. At first Meager would not allow Octivus to participate, but after extensively debating the cause the young student convinced him his interest was for sport, and not to become a soldier. Meager made it clear that to take a human life would banish him from the order of Priest of the Sacred Scrolls.
         Months passed, the boys all grew taller. Meager was proud of his children. He wrote letters to Ramu and still there has been no response. He kept his concerns to himself though in his mind he worried for the worse may have happened.
         “Meager? May I go and practice with the others?”
         “Have you finished your studies?”
         “Yes.”
         “Then you may, but be careful, boy.”
         Octivus had come to think of the Priest more as an older brother than as his tutor. “I promise.” He runs from the room grabbing his shield that leaned against the wall.
         Chester was the biggest of all the boys and strongest too. His long red hair tied back, flung side to side as he swung his heavy sword made of wood. Leffus, a smaller boy, defended himself from the blows with his shield made from wicker. Octivus watched as they moved round and round. Captain Anvelot shouted at them “Thrust! Thrust! Use the shield, you are letting him beat you, damn it! Fight! Fight harder! You will be killed if you fight like that in battle!”
         Leffus could not fight back any longer and falls to the ground, exhausted. Chester smiles in his victory. “You are dead.” He declares boastfully as he walks back to join the others.
         Humiliated, Leffus sobs. “He is too big for me, it is not fair.”
         Captain Anvelot stands over the boy. “In war, nothing is fair. Good men die alongside cowards. Weak men survive while strong ones lay lifeless in fields. They die because weak men run with fear, because they are disadvantaged. The difference between a good soldier and a bad one is not his size, but how hard he fights to endure. To die in battle is the greatest of honors any man could have, but to lose the war? You lose more than just your life. Your home is destroyed. Your family is butchered. Your life will mean nothing because no one will be there to remember it. To survive the battle has less to do with size than with determination to live, and that determination to live does not come from hate of your enemy, but for the love of those you are willing give up your life to save. Rest up and we will try again later.”
         Octivus moves with the other boys. Leffus sits alone in a corner feeling bad. Octivus felt sorry for him.          “You there, the little one sitting on the end of the row? Priest boy, it is your turn.” Octivus gulps as he picks up the wooden sword – He is even shorter than Leffus and Chester stood over him grinning. They touched swords and the fight begins.
         Octivus felt the heavy blows against his shield. Chester has a strong dislike for the student priest and hit him mercilessly blow after blow. The smaller boy felt weighted down, but swung his sword back. Anvelot watched the smaller boy’s aggressive swings and cheered him on.
         “Beat him! That is right, you can beat him!” Infuriated as the Captain cheers against him, Chester, using all his weight and strength, pushes the smaller boy down. Octivus drops his shield to the ground beside him. Chester, caught up in his own hate for the other boy, strikes down at him, but is caught by Anvelot and thrown back. “ENOUGH!” Chester steps away embarrassed by his own action and apologized to the Captain and the smaller boy. “I am sorry.”
         “You could have killed him. No soldier in His Majesty’s Legion ever draws swords against one of his own except in practice. Honor, Chester, this is all we have.” His voice was softer. He spoke to the boy, more as a boy than as a soldier.
Octivus looked up at Captain Anvelot. He saw a man with compassion, a person trained to be hard but still in mind of his humanity. Anvelot looked down at Octivus. “You did well for your size. You would have died well, young man.”
         “Thank you, Sir.” As he gets to his feet wiping the dirt from his butt.
         “You all may go. I think we have had enough lessons for today. I will see you all early tomorrow, and Leffus, you fought well too, just not hard enough.”
         Meager is looking out from his bedroom window at the snow covered fields. He missed his family and wondered if they missed him too. Then he wondered about Tasio. Has he reached home yet? And Mu, how are things there? Then below his window in the garden of the king, he sees the young girl, Miriah. She sat on a bench, bundled beneath a rich fur to keep warm. Then, to his surprise, Octivus appears, taking a seat next to her. He worries about the boy’s relationship with Miriah.
         Octivus looked into her brown eyes and saw all the warmth of a summer’s day. He touched her face with his hand and she shy’s away, blushing. He takes her hand and together they stare out at the pasture lands in silence. She snuggles close.
         They spent hours together, walking about the castle, talking and laughing. She taught him the history of great battles that were fought in the beautiful meadows below. His favorite story was the battle of bloody fields, where thousands of men fell in a final battle in the war against the Ebonite’s. His favorite part of the story was when the armies of Adeana were at the brink of defeat and the lone Ematoch warrior, Drago, rode upon the battlefield and challenged the General of the Ebonite’s to Tomah – a ritual form of a battle to the death. If he lost, his men must lay down their swords, placing themselves at the mercy of their enemy, which meant certain death.
         “I could tell that story a thousand times and you will sit there as if it was the first time you heard it.” She looks into his eyes, and smiles.
         “I like hearing it.”
         “Walk with me through the garden?” She whispers. Together they walk along the tall mazes of shrubs. Their breath misting from the cold, as the snow crunched beneath their feet as they walked.
         That night as Meager wrote in his journal, reasoning with his words about doubts which grew inside him. “Today I am eighteen. I have never been with a woman. I have observed today an affiliation between my student and a young servant girl. How I envy him. I wonder though, what advice can I give to him on their relationship, when I myself have not had an experience in this matter. I feel inadequate. I wonder if Ramu has mistaken to put me in charge of this party. Today I have written my sixth letter home. I have yet to receive an answer from Mu, but still I will send out this one to keep Ramu informed of our progress. I hope that when the weather clears a letter from Ramu will come. If one does not come, I will have no other choice but to return to Mu. Something is not right.’
         Meager sips warm liquor from a glass while he re-reads his journal entry. A fire crackles in the hearth and a candle flickers to the draft that flows throughout the castle. If it were not for the liquor, the cold would be unbearable.
         The castle is quiet at this late hour. The corridors lit by torches, cast shadows as Octivus steals his way up the dark stairs leading to the chambers of the servants. He is careful not to make a sound, since it is forbidden for males to enter this section of the castle. This would be his second time sneaking up here to see Miriah. He held his breath, tapping softly on the door. Miriah smiles as the door opens. “What are you doing here?”
         “I had to see you.”
         “We will get into trouble.”
         “Please?”
         Miriah slips out of her room, following him hand in hand to the dark stairwell.
         “Where are we going?”
         “A special place I have found. I want you to see it.”
         Octivus brought Miriah to a room he had lit with a hundred candles.
         “What is all this?”
         “I have something special for you…A gift I made myself. I want you to have it.” Octivus takes a long delicate chain from his robe. He had spent a week drilling a tiny hole in the Black stone he brought with him from Mu, attaching it to the chain of soft silver that he bent and fastened every link by his own hand.
         “It is beautiful, Octivus.”
         He places it around her neck. Miriah’s skin was smooth and her perfume filled his nose.
         “You are all that means anything to me, Miriah. I love you.” He puts his arms around her, but Miriah pushes him away. “This cannot be!” And runs off, leaving him standing bewildered and alone. “Miriah! What is wrong?” He runs after her, but she is gone. She did not love him. He returned to the chamber and sat amongst the flickering candles till they burned themselves out.
         He lays there in the darkness, his heart is broken. He had offended her in some way and was miserable. Tears streamed down his face. He remained there in this black void falling asleep at some point, until a loud noise awakened him. Sitting up on the floor where he had fallen asleep, he listens to what sounded like voices. Curious, he goes to see.
         He saw a light coming from the cellar below and wondered who it could be? Hidden by shadows he can see two men, though he could not see their faces. He could hear their voices.
         “How long will it take?”
         “We do not want this to occur too quickly. It will cause suspicion. It must occur slowly.”
         “But how long will it take to work?”
         “Two weeks. Put a little each day in his food and drink. He will die slowly. It will appear a natural death. Do not drop it, it is all there is.”
         “No one will suspect?”
         “He will take on the symptoms of an illness.”
         “Are you sure?”
         “As sure as I am his physician, trust me.”
         “I have learned never to trust anyone, Kalo.”
         In the darkness Octivus stumbles, finding his way to the stairs. He runs in fear.
         “There is someone here!”
         Octivus scurries up the stairs not stopping until he reached his room, bolting it shut behind him. He stood at his door for a long time and listened. No one came.
         The king’s councilor and physician chased the shadow up the stairs, but whoever it was, was gone. “What do we do now?” questions the physician.
         “Damn it! It is too late to change the plan now. Everything is set for the first day of summer. Damn! This better not fail!” He threatens.
         “It was a boy. I did not see his face.”
         “Are you sure?”
         “Let us hope the boy has not seen our faces.”
         “We must find which of the boys it was, Kalo.”
         “What will we do then?”
         “Kill him!”
         “Is that necessary, Nimbus?”
         “If he speaks a word to anyone fool, we will both lose our heads! It is our only option.”
         Suddenly, all the gold Nimbus had given him did not seem worth it. If there was some way out of this he would have to think, but no matter what. Even if he ran, the punishment would be death, so he would keep quiet, and hopes the poison works.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN/strong>

“The Visitor”

         King Agar stood at his chamber window looking out over the fields, which were covered by the white snow of winter. Beyond the field the brown thickets of bare trees lined the horizon. How still and peaceful it appeared.
         “You’re Majesty?”
         Startled, King Agar turns. “I did not hear you knock, Nimbus.”
         “I apologize, Sire. I thought you might still be asleep and wished not to disturb you. I brought you tea.” Nimbus stirred the tea as he set it on the table next to the king’s bed.
         Agar turns his attention back towards the field, lost in a moment of his youth when all seemed to have purpose. How very much he missed those days. He had it all, and never appreciated what he had. His wife, his children, how did it all slip away?
         “My brother was right, Nimbus, a warrior who out lives his own cause dies a sick and a lonely man. Life seems so empty and hollow. There is no objective no purpose anymore. Life has become to me, as barren as the trees in winter.”
         “But you are a king of a great nation and you have three sons who will someday follow in your footsteps.”
         “Three sons? Humph! Stephen has abandoned me. To where he has gone, I do not know. Not even for his own dear mother’s funeral did he return! He is gone, perhaps dead, but then of course, there is still Elymah. His mind filled with a lust for women. He, as far as my Captain is concerned, has no mind for battle. He disregards all the lessons given on battle tactics. If war ever rises, great God help us. What fool would follow him into battle? And for my son, Truinaught? He is a boy. You know what he told me, Nimbus? He told me he had no desire to serve in the king’s army, he will not kill. So I sent him to live with my sister, Ester. I could not stomach to have him around me. It was his mother who poisoned his mind with these thoughts. Damn it! If I did not love her so, I would have stopped her. Instead I did nothing to interfere with her in any way, even long after her death. I allow my son to keep her thoughts. There will be no one to follow in my footsteps, Nimbus. When I am gone, my kingdom will dwindle into oblivion.”
         “Here is your tea, Sire.” He despised Agar. He thought of him as a spoiled old man, weak with age. Agar had the power to build a formidable army, but instead became so arrogant his army plunders about, fat and lazy. This tea is all it will take to defeat this king and his army.
         “Thank you.” King Agar takes a sip. “There, beyond those hills was the greatest of all battles to remember – Field of Blood it was called because so many men died there. So much blood the soil is stained red even to this day. We stood that morning on the ridge facing the enemy army, outnumbered and out armed but yet we prevailed!”
         “There has been peace for more than sixty years. No army would dare attack you, Sire.” Nimbus was tired of old memories. There were lands to the south that bore riches of unforeseen wealth, waiting to be conquered. Instead this wretched old pathetic man who dares call himself king stays within his own boundaries. To protect, he says is his destiny. It is his folly, and once Agar is ridden of, he, the king’s councilor will reign. Then these people will see what a real king can do. As for now he must control his urge to gag at the stories of old days, and glory so long ago and out lived by the few people that remember them.
         “If I felt such was truth, I would disarm my legions and accept my wife’s philosophies as my own, but I know the truth, Nimbus, someday an army, stronger than my own will appear on the horizon, and there will be no one competent to face them. The region south will be open, and unprotected.”
         The councilor watched as the king drank his poison – In ten days Agar will be laying in his death bed and Elymah will be crowned king. Then Agar’s nightmare will become truth as an army will appear to destroy Alantasia. Nimbus smiled at the thought of his wealth as his army of mercenaries in Mu would lead the Babylonian army coming from the North to conquest the unknown lands south of Port Wert. Alantasia was all that stood in his way, and with Agar dead, Alantasia would collapse before their enemy, and he, Nimbus, would become king. The reality was at hand, and the plan was in effect. There was no turning back now.

****

         As the days grew warmer, the snow and ice melted. It had been a cold winter and the boys longed to go out into the field to practice their swordsmanship. The boys seemed consumed by the glory of war, honor and death in battle. Meager felt himself losing control over the boys. They were not following the ways of the scrolls. They had become destructive and their thoughts were to kill other men.
         Chester asked Meager for permission to leave the castle to practice.
         “Have you studied your lessons?”
         “No. I would rather practice with my sword.”
         “I am responsible to teach you how to read. Why do you not have a desire to learn?”
         “I have chosen to become a soldier in the king’s army. I have no need for the lessons.”
         Meager sighs. “Then go. Learn the way of a soldier. It is what you have come all this way to learn. I shall not prevent you from doing so. You, other boys, may join him if you wish.” Without a word the boys dashed from the room, excited. Meager faced the window, his sadness apparent in his reflection. The door opens and he turns to see Octivus.
         “I will not go with the others. My place is with you, Meager. Teach me today’s lesson. I am eager to learn it. Besides, a priest destiny is knowledge and not to learn how to kill.”
         “Come then, and let us begin.” Meager saw the ironic contrast in the boys conclusion, and realizing that what is important to some, may be useless to others. Now he understood what Mecca said to him long ago. That each man has a purpose, and the boy was right…priests are to learn, and soldiers are to make war and understood he should not judge a person for who he is, but rather than to respect him for what he does. So he sat with the boy, his only student, and teaches the lesson for that day. Still it was hard not to feel he has lost.
Octivus can hear the strain in his tutor’s voice. “Is there something the matter, Meager?”
         Meager was alone. He had felt this way since he parted ways with Tasio upon reaching Port Wert. “I cannot explain what I feel. It is as though I have no control over anything anymore. I cannot make the boys want to learn. I cannot make them appreciate life over death. I have failed.”
         “Ramu chose the boys for a reason. They are to learn to be soldiers, to return to Mu to command an army for the protection of our people. This is their purpose. This is what they want also. You have not failed. They have different paths than us.”
         “It is sometimes hard to understand what is expected. I have no one to council me about my own doubts, or to hear my complaints. I feel so alone, Octivus. I have no friends.”
         “You have me, Meager. I am your friend.” Meager is silent. Octivus goes on. “Sometimes I too have problems that I cannot discuss with anyone else. The boys tease me about my feelings for a young maiden girl. Could I ask you for some advice?”
         Meager was surprised by the boy’s openness. “Yes, of course.”
         “I feel this aching feeling in here.” Octivus clutched his belly with one hand. “I cannot describe it, but I want to be with her every moment. When I am with her, I feel this joy that radiates from my soul. Then there is this other feeling… this feeling of dread when I am away from her. It is a pain so deep; I lay awake at night unable to sleep. I see her face even when my eyes are closed.” He is saddened by his own revelation. “I love her! What can I do?”
         “You are sad. Why? Love should make you happy.”
         “I would be, but she has refused to see me.”
         “You love her. Does she know this?”
         “I have told her. She says this cannot be so.”
         “She cannot explain?”
         “She has been promised to another.”
         “In a few months you will be fifteen and will take the vows of priesthood. I will not have to look upon you as my student, but as my equal. It will be a proud day for us both. I wish I could give you advice about this girl. I knew a young woman in Tarkas, Sera, she and I became very close as she helped me teach the village children, but that will never be. It seems that for me, there is always some special duty that takes me away from the life I truly want. I envy you, my friend, that you are living your chosen life.”
         “I was born upon the sea. My father and all the fathers before him were fisherman. I did not choose this way as much as it seems to have chosen me, Meager. I just have accepted it. You are to me an older brother, showing me the path of the sacred scrolls. Maybe there are words in the scrolls that can ease our pain to the commitment we both bare.”
         “That is a wise assumption.”
         “Do you miss Mu?”
         “Yes, and Tarkas too, I miss the smell of fresh bread, and the sound of the trees in the night, especially when the wind howls in the night. I miss my mother, my father and my brothers. I have a nephew you know and he calls me Uncle. I was teaching him to write when I was called to return to the Temple, and I had a young girl, very pretty, her name was Sera, I thought maybe we would marry someday. It is all just a dream so far away.” It was like a dam burst from within him. He wanted to tell everything to Octivus, everything that has been on his mind for the last year he has been here.
         “What I miss the most is the smell of the sea and the feel of the waves beneath me when I sleep. When I came to stay at the Temple, it was hard to get use to the stone around me. I cried many nights and each morning I awoke to look from my window. It was too dark to see my father’s boat sailing from the bay, but I knew it was there, but now I do not know. It is all so far away, as you say, it is like a dream.”
         Octivus looks out the window with Meager. Together they watch the boys practicing in the meadow. This must be as it was to be, Meager reasons to himself. Finding comfort in this, he smiles. All things have a place, Mecca would say. We must allow ourselves to see them, even if what we see is not what we want. He understood this lesson now, given many years ago by Mecca. Still he hopes he can teach these young boys something that will make them good men.
         In the meadow below, the king’s son, Elymah, rides his horse hard passed the strangers from Mu, taunting at them as he shows off to young maidens, waving from the wall battlements.
         Meager looks at the younger boy and puts his arm around his friend. In the distance a coach came over a hill along a stretch of road to the East. They watched it approach. An escort of twenty soldiers rode before it. Someone important was coming to Alantasia.

CHAPTER NINETEENChapter Nineteen

Truinaught

         The heavy wooden gate cranks open moments before the coach rumbled through. A crowd gathered about the royal coach, as the boy exited. He stood awkward, unexpected by even his own father, King Agar. He is escorted to the castle turning to look back on the curious crowd that followed him. He was sent away at the age of nine after his mother’s death, and could not help but feel a stranger in his own home.
         “Truinaught?” King Agar stands in the door. He cannot believe this is the same boy he sent away. “You have grown into a fine young man, my son.”
         “I am sixteen, Father.”
         There was no embrace, no showing of affection. King Agar responds. “Why are you here? Is there something wrong with my sister?”
         Truinaught hands his father a script. Agar read it and is taken by the news of his sister’s death. “How did she pass?”
         “In her sleep, there was no suffering. This was the only place I could think to come.”
         Agar looked his boy over. He was tall, with long dark hair. He had his mothers face and hazel eyes. He smiles. “Your mother would be proud, Truinaught, welcome home.”
         “I still will not kill, Father.”
         For now, Agar would ignore this. “We will feast tonight and celebrate your return. As far as your intellectual preferences, that will be a matter for another day. Come.”
         The entire royal family, aunts, uncles, cousins, some of whom he vaguely remembered, and others gathered around. Elymah stood at a distance, not so happy for his brother’s return. He had gotten use to being the only son. The resentment returned of his little brother, who upon his birth drew all the attention from his mother and his father too. The bitterness still lingers after all this time.
         Meager stood with Octivus before the king’s chamber. He strained to see the young man amongst all relatives that gathered. Octivus went down low and stepped amidst the crowd of excited relatives and family to catch a glimpse. Then, as he stared up at Truinaught, their eyes came to meet and a feeling came over them both, as if they had met before. Chills shivered up their spines, as he continued past his eyes remain fixed on the stranger.
         The crowd passes into the chamber and Octivus stands with Meager and some others, who were not family or close to the royal family. They would not be permitted into the king’s chambers uninvited. “I did not see him well. Did you?”
         “Yes. I looked into his eyes and him into mine!” Octivus stood awed.
         “What did he look like?”
         Octivus turned toward the mural and pointed to the head figure. “Like him.”
         It was not uncommon for relatives to resemble ancestors. Not until he saw Truinaught later did he realize how identical the boy resembled Etio, the first leader of Adeana.
         More than a week had passed since Octivus heard the councilor and physician talking in the cellar. He did not think anyone would believe him, but these past three nights he has awakened from a nightmare and now he comes to Meager.
         “What is wrong, Octivus?”
         I cannot sleep.” He sits on his tutor’s bed.
         “Are you sick?” Meager touches the boy’s forehead.
         “Well, yes…a little, but that is not what is keeping me up.”
         “Then what is?” Worried, Meager dresses.
         “A few weeks ago I snuck from my room to see Miriah. Together we went down into the cellar, where I found a room. I gathered many candles and had them lit for her. Well, I told her I loved her and that is when she ran off. She said it could not happen. Well, I stayed in the room all night. I fell asleep. Then I was awakened by a loud sound. I heard voices from below and went to see. There were two men, the councilor and the physician to the king. They were discussing a plan to poison someone, but I do not know the details. It has bothered me so these past nights.”
         “Well, we should not accuse anyone unless we know for certain they have wrong intentions, especially the king’s councilor and physician. It was probably nothing to be concerned about. Perhaps you would like to learn to meditate. It is something that Mecca taught to me when I was young to help me relax. I still do it when my mind cannot rest. Would you like to join me?” Octivus nods.
Meager guided his student through the steps of meditation. He began instructing him how to sit, how to breathe, and how to focus on a thought, a pleasant thought. Octivus searches deeper into the blackness. Soon he can see the blue sky with puffs of white clouds. He is happy. The trees below are small, extending far and distant. Over the mountains he soars, high, higher. “I am a bird, Meager! I am flying!” He is elated. Meager was surprised the boy had such clarity in his vision. A special gift, if only he could reach Ramu, he would know how to make it stronger.
Octivus could feel his mind ease. He saw a solution to his pain over the young maiden and accepted that he could not have what he loves so much. His solution would bring him deeper into his learning as priest to the forces of nature. That was the way, and swore that moment to dedicate every possible moment towards his studies.
         The next morning he awoke to a knocking at his door. Draped with his blanket around him, he crosses the room. He found Eli and Leffus standing in the hall. “You have not been to practice in so long. We came to see if you would join us. They will be giving us real swords soon, you know.”
         “I have been studying the scrolls.”
         “Chester says you are afraid to fight.”
         “I am to be a priest, Eli. I do not need to be trained to fight. Please understand?”
         “Come then, and watch, Octivus. It is not the same without you.”
         The group of boys gathered in the field. Octivus sat on the ground watching them spar. Captain Anvelot came to him. “Do you want to learn?”
         “I do not think it is necessary for me. I will be taking vows as a priest soon.”
         “Swordsmanship can be a sport as well. If you wish not to be a soldier that is fine, but to be able to defend yourself can only add virtue to a man’s confidence, whether he is a soldier, a commoner, or a priest. Come.” Anvelot offered his hand to the boy.
         Octivus followed the Captain to join the others. He took up a wooden sword and wicker shield. Eli volunteered to be his spar partner. Captain Anvelot watched the priest boy spar. He took to the sword like no other boy in the group. If it was not for the wall built up by the boy’s desire to be a priest, Anvelot was certain he could be the best he had ever taught.
         From a window in the castle’s keep, Truinaught watched the foreigners. He had been trained by the best swordsman, taught by masters and nurtured to become a subject in service to the king. How he wished he could be a common man. To hunt and fish, and not have to worry about the responsibilities his birth right bore. Turning from the window he lies on a soft feathered bed.
         A parchment lay stretched out before him. He draws a single rose flower, using the charred end of a stick. His room was adorned with drawings of animals, trees and faces. One, he cherished most of all – his mother’s face which he drew from memory.
         A knock comes on his door. It was Nimbus.
         “Your father wishes your presence in his chamber.”
         King Agar sipped his tea. He had not seen his son for seven years. The chamber door opens and he faces Truinaught. “You can go Nimbus.” Agar was silent as he looked over the boy. He had grown well. He looked very much as he should for a king’s son. “You have grown up, my son.”
         “I am taller if that is what you mean, Father.”
         “Your tone is sharp, Truinaught. I do try to understand your bitterness with me.”
         “The physician said it was chills.” Truinaught says sarcastically.
         “Pardon?”
         “She died of pneumonia…Ester. You remember, your sister. That is how she died. Or do you care?”
         “I do care. Was she sick for long?”
         “Two months.”
         “Why did you not send a messenger?”
         “I did not think you cared.”
         “I cared. She was my sister!”
         “Who had not heard from you in seven years!”
         The words cut into Agar, but he fought his anger. “I hope the day will never come when you must choose between your idealism and your duty to your people. As for now, you are home and I will not argue. As for my relationship with my sister, it is none of your damn business. I am your father, and will not have you talking to me this way.”
         Truinaught watched his father walk across the room, pouring himself another glass of tea. He had gotten very old. “I do not mean to be so insolent, Father. I just have not seen you, or heard from you in so long. It is hard to believe you care.”
         “I ask you what do you want from me? Do you want me on my knees to beg for your forgiveness? Do you want me to call before a court and publicly denounce my callous self centered ways? What? What is it you expect from me, son?”
         “What I want father is for you to accept me for who I am, and for what I believe, nothing more, nothing less.”
         Agar is angered by the boy’s insolence. If it were not his own flesh, he could see himself drawing a sword to the youth, and striking him down. Instead he turns away. “Be vindictive for your ideals. They are what make you a man.” He raises the glass as a toast to his son and drinks it down, hoping to avert his anger. He must restrain himself from smashing the empty glass against the wall. Turning back to face his son he could feel his face flush, and could not breath.
         Then, to Truinaught’s horror Agar keels over before him in agony. “Father!” He rushes to him, helping him over to the bed. He could feel his father tremble in pain. His hands got cold, as he gasped for breath. “Get my physician!” He manages to lay his father back in his bed, running from the room in a panic. Nimbus enters, watching the king cringing in pain on the bed. The poison was taking effect. He smiles wickedly – it will not be long now!

****

         Meager walked with Octivus through the market place. It was far greater than the market in Mu. The aroma from soup kitchens filled the air. A minstrel played his flute for passers who gave coins for his music. Merchants shouted, bargaining with anyone who stopped. Wagons pulled by horses, and carts pulled by mules traveled in both directions along the streets leading to the main square. A baker takes fresh bread from an oven. It smelled so much like home.
         Meager stopped to buy a loaf. Octivus sits with Meager before a fountain and together they indulged in the fresh doughy bread.
         “It is good.”
         “Yes. It makes me miss home.” Agreed Meager shoving a handful to his mouth, he loved fresh bread and would eat a whole loaf himself.
         “Have you received any news from Ramu?”
         “No, and it worries me. I should have received a communication by now. There has been plenty of time.”          Tearing off a huge piece of bread and stuffing it in his mouth, licking his fingers clean afterwards.
         “Do you think Ramu is ill?” Ripping another piece for himself.”
         “It could be so, but why has Pathos not informed me of this? I am worried. Something is not right.”
         “I do not trust Pathos.”
         “Neither did Ramu? I met him briefly, and cannot form an opinion myself, but what has he done to make everyone suspicious of him?”
         “No one knows from where he came or for what purpose. I observed him eavesdropping on Ramu and Brother Tasio once. He is up to something. I just have that feeling.”
         “I have been thinking about returning to Mu. I have this strange intuition that something is wrong. I must go and make certain, Ramu is well.”
         “Will we all be going?”
         “No. Ramu sent us away because he feared that it would become too dangerous for us to stay. I did not understand his concern then, but I think he knew something was happening in Mu. That is why he sent us away – to protect us.”
         “I should go with you.”
         “No. You should stay here. If I do not return, then it will be in your hands. I will send you a script as soon as I reach Mu. If you do not receive it by a month’s time, then you know something has happened to me. You must think of what to do on your own.”
         “You should go before King Agar. He will help.”
         “That is a good thought Octivus. Come, we shall go to him now.” Meager rips the remaining loaf in two shares and they stuff their mouths laughing young boys as they ran back to the castle.
         They are stopped before the king’s chambers by a guard. “State your business.”
         “We came to see the king.”
         “The king is with his physician. You cannot see him now.”
         “Is he ill?”
         “Yes.”
         “How ill is he?”
         “It is believed he may be dying.”
         “I am a priest. I must be allowed to see him.”
         “I am sorry. No one can enter.”
         “Where is the Prince? I must talk with him.”
         “Elymah cannot be found.”
         “Then who is in charge?”
         “Nimbus is in charge.”
         “Then I must speak with him urgently.”
         The guard nods as he goes inside the chambers, returning with the councilor. “What urgent matter has you, to disturb me in this grievous moment?” He says angrily about the intrusion.
         “I must arrange my returning to Mu, accompanied by a special envoy. I suspect there is trouble and I must return at once.”
         “I will have to think about this later. My concern is with the king.” He scowls down at Octivus, closing the door.
         The two priests were left standing in the dimly lit corridor. They were just starting back to their rooms when the door to the king’s chambers opened once again. “You two, come here. I have a deed for you to do for me in service of His Majesty. I need you to go into the village and find Elymah. He frequents an inn called Hog’s Head. I am sure you will find him there, bring him back immediately.”
         The village surrounds the castle and spreads down a steep slope to where the shops and homes of prosperous merchants transcend into brothels and slums. There were beggars and thieves standing at every turn, and night fall was not far off. Hog’s Head Inn was in the worst of all the sections of Alantasia. Their presence was known by all as they entered the lodge. The room fell silent. The prince sat in a corner pouring ale over the head of a whore, laughing with madness and lust. He stops abruptly upon seeing the two standing in the doorway. “Who in the hell are you?” The prince challenges them.
         “I have come to tell you that your father is gravely ill. You should go to his side at once.”
         “If this were so, councilor Nimbus would have come himself.”
         “He could not leave the king. Your father is dying. Do not delay another moment.”
         Elymah stands, dropping the woman to the floor. Drunkenly, he stumbles. “He is dying?” Upset he rushes from the brothel, mounting his horse and riding off, leaving the two priests alone. He was gone from sight by the time they came onto the street.          The Sun was low, and the streets had filled with shadows, changing the appearance of the buildings.
         As they ventured onward through the empty streets they became disoriented and lost. A beggar asked them for food. Meager handed him a pouch with a few pieces of dried beef. By this time it was night. The castle was out of sight, hidden by the tall rows of stone buildings. Uphill they continued, hoping to reach a familiar corner. Turning the bend they were surrounded by a gang of thieves led by the beggar Meager had given the pouch of dried beef to a short time earlier.
         “Let us pass.” But the men did not answer.
         “What do you want? Here, these are all the valuables I have. Now, let us pass!” He tossed a pouch of coins at their feet. They made no attempt for it.
         Then one of the men stepped forward. Meager noticed he had only one hand. Sign of a convicted thief. “We want the boy.”
         Meager steps in front of Octivus. “What for?”
         The men laugh. “To sell, damn it! What do you think?”
         “You cannot have him.”
         “Says who?”
         “Say I!” The voice came from behind the men. They turned to see a tall man in black, his face hidden by a hood.
         “It is him, Meager.” Octivus says excited.
         “Better mind your own. There be five of us and one of you.”
         “Two.” From beneath his dark robe a sword appeared. Its long blade glistens in the moonlight. The five men draw their own swords. Octivus watched the stranger weld his sword. Each move and counter move. The man with one hand swung at the stranger with staggering blows. One after another, the clanging echoes thunder off of the stone walls. A knapper fell to the ground; his face grimaced in pain as he died. Then another fell to the hooded man’s sword, as two others ran off leaving the one handed man alone against the stranger.
They fought and then with a swift rotation of his sword, the stranger sends his opponent’s sword clear into the air. The knapper falls to his knees begging for his life. The stranger had no mercy for a man this low. He raised his sword to render the final blow, but an object dangling from the knapper’s neck stops him. He had not seen one for many years. “Emach!”
         The knapper holds the medallion up. “It was given to me by the King, himself.”
         “Liar! No one with such great honor would stoop to become a scoundrel and steal children. From where did you steal it?”
         “I did not steal it. I am Po, you have heard the name, yes?”
         “And you expect me to believe that a man worthy of such an honor could steal children in the night?” He draws back his sword unwilling to believe the story.
         “This! He holds up his limb….This is why. I lost it in the battle of Shumar. I took a blow meant for Agar. Cut it clean. I was stunned to see my own hand lay on the ground still clutching my sword. The King used a silk bandanna, tied a tourniquet which stopped the bleeding. Here, I still have it.” He holds a cloth. “It was Agar’s! Is it not his emblem?” The cloth was very old and worn.
         “You could have had anything, Po! Why this?” The stranger lowers his sword.
         “In wartime this wound bore me honors. I was proud of it. It was glory. I was treated like royalty. For years after the war ended, I was remembered for what I had done. The years passed and the stories faded. So did this badge of glory, becoming my demon instead. You see, it is the sign of a thief, a scoundrel. I could not find work. No one trusted me. I went from place to place, but everywhere I was turned out with dishonor. No one believed who I was. No one cared. I tried to see the king but I could not get passed the gates. This is how I became what I am. If only I died in that battle. I will not be this way if I were able to work to feed myself honestly. I swear on my oath as an Emach Guardsman. This is the truth.” He pleads.
         The stranger felt compassion for the man who once shone with glory. “You saved the king. That alone deserves mercy. Here, this is all I can offer.” The stranger tossed a heavy leather pouch full of gold coins. “It is enough for a wise man to live out the rest of his life. Take it and go. It is all the mercy I have for you, and should our paths ever meet again. I hope you will have used my gift well. There is no more compassion in me for you. The king’s debt to you is paid in full.”
         Po took the pouch, bowing low. The stranger turns to the foreigners. “You will be safe now. The castle is that way, go swiftly. I will be close if you need me.”
         “You are he, the stranger who saved us in Port Wert! Who are you?”
         “Who I am is not important. You must go quickly.”
         “Thank you, again.”
         The stranger bows politely. “I will not be far, Octivus.”

****

         In the chamber of the king, women cried. Soldiers stood unblinking as the king lay dying. His sons, Elymah and Truinaught, were at his side. The king asked his son for a glass of water and Elymah stood up and shouted. “Get my father water quickly!” Tears rolled down his face.
         Octivus ran from the chambers down the corridor to the kitchen and filled a goblet full of water. That was when he stopped to listen as the Councilor spoke with the cook. The cook was objecting. “What are you doing to his food?”
         “It is an herb. It will make him well again.” Nimbus had grown impatient with his own plan. This dosage should be enough to kill Agar over night.
         “Are you sure?”
         And then it all made sense. The plan he had overheard in the cellar was to poison the king. His blood ran hot in his veins as he followed Nimbus to the king’s chambers. He watched as he stood aside the king and convinced the two sons that this food would help.
         “Stop! He is poisoning the king!” Octivus yells.
         Elymah grabs Nimbus’s hand. He never had a trust for the man.
         “You dare accuse me of such treason! It is death to you for such an accusation. DEATH!” Nimbus shouts at the boy.
         Elymah is silent, his hands gripping the councilor tightly. “Only should his accusation is false.” He knew too well his own father’s strength. This illness had come on too sudden.
         “What are you saying, Elymah? I have been with your father for thirty years!”
         “EAT IT YOURSELF, NIMBUS!” Elymah insist.
         The councilor takes up the fork full of food and puts it to his lips. Without warning, he burst loose from Elymah’s grip, fleeing for the door. Captain Anvelot wrestles Nimbus to the floor, struggling briefly. Nimbus cursed and swore. His plan foiled by a child.
         Octivus walks to the king’s side. “Here is your water, my king.” And places the goblet to Agars lips, and he drank ever grateful to this boy for what he did. Truinaught wiped the sweat from his father forehead. His eyes looked upon the stranger, and could sense a power about him.
         Octivus set the goblet down on a table. Looking over at Truinaught he smiles. “Everything will be all right, now.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

“The Hunt”

         No longer were the visitors from Mu treated as foreigners. Maidens catered their every wish. Meager and Octivus feasted and ate at the king’s table with the royal family. Octivus was a hero to the Alantasians, but still he was not happy. Miriah would not see him or talk with him.
         Nimbus was banished from the kingdom, his face scared by the sword of the prince for treason. The physician was beheaded. His body dragged from the city by a wild horse as a warning to anyone who dared threaten the life of King Agar.
         Truinaught had found a friend. In the few short days they have known each other a bond had formed. This morning they awoke to go hunting in the forest together. Octivus looked forward to the adventure. He had never hunted before, and more exciting he would ride a horse for the first time ever.
         Meager became the physician to the king. He used the old remedies he learned from Mecca to ward off the effects left from the poison. He read to King Agar, writings from the scrolls. Agar laid still and listened. The old stories were a comfort.
         In the face of his father’s mortality, Elymah assumed his status among his people. He sat in his father’s chair, looking down upon the vast room that now stood empty. This was his place, and the experience had changed him. He no longer sought the brothels of the lower city to escape his father’s interruptions. Instead he sat for many long hours thinking of ways to please his father knowing that Agar’s days were short and soon he would be king.
         There was a new calm about the city. Apparently a unity of old patriotism filled the people, or was it just the spring air? Truinaught saddled his horse. As he did, he spoke. “To the East…once it was a place where the king had great hunts. I was very young then and no one has hunted there for many years. The trails will be overgrown.”
         “Is it safe?”
         “No, but it will be fun.”
         “I have never hunted before, or rode a horse.”
         “Do not worry; you have the gentlest of all the stock. Do you have a sword?”
         “No. I am a priest.”
         “Sorry, I forgot. I have never had a priest for a friend before.”
         “Nor I a prince…Is it true, you have refused to serve in your father’s legions?”
         “Yes.”
         “You refuse to kill?”
         “That is how I feel.” He pulls hard to strap the horse harness.
         “Then why bring a sword?”
         Truinaught is silent. He did not have an answer. He mounts his horse and looks down at his friend. “You are right, my friend. I must think about this contradiction. Until I come to a conclusion, these bows will be all that we need.” The Prince hands his sword to the stableman.
         “It was only a question.” Octivus pulls himself up into his saddle. Truinaught holds the horse steady for his new friend, and walks him easily till Octivus felt comfortable with the mount beneath him. Octivus reveled at the powerful animal. “I am afraid.”
         “You must not be afraid, Octivus. The horse will sense this, and try to throw you”
         It took awhile to gain confidence in the horse. When Truinaught was sure, he led his friend from the city. It was before sunrise when they left the city along the eastern road into the forest. The road ran along the deep gorge. The spectacular white rushing waters roared far below, revealed by the morning sun. Octivus looked back to see the castle looming up from the land, a giant rock, a mountain of stone towering above all else in the land. Soon it was obscured by the tall trees as they continue along the gorge.
         It had been many years since the prince had traveled this road. The path was vague to him now, as he tried to remember where the trail began that would take them deep into the forest. “It has been a long time, but if I am correct, we will come to a fork in the road. We will follow the path deeper into the forest. That is where the true game is found.”
         Octivus remained silent, awed by the beauty of the land. They rode at a walking pace, enjoying the nature about them. Deer ran across the trail. Birds flew through the trees while chirping beautiful songs. The air smelled fresh with pine. There was plenty of game around them, but Truinaught insisted on going deeper into the forest.
         All that morning they rode. By midday Truinaught became concerned he had missed the trail. “The trail must have grown over. We have gone too far. We should turn back.”
         But a feeling came over Octivus. “What is up ahead?”
         “I do not know. I have never come this far.”
         “Well, since we have come this far we might as well go and see?”
         Truinaught looks up at the sun. “It is getting late.”
         “We can camp.”
         “Might as well…It will be too dark to find our way back shortly.” So they gathered wood and built a fire. Truinaught killed a squirrel, and skewed it above their fire. As night came the two friends huddled together close to the fire. Truinaught wished that he had brought his sword realizing how vulnerable they were without it.

****

         Meager prepared the king’s bath, testing it was not too hot. His worry for Ramu did not subside, though the turn of events had distracted him for the moment. His new position as the king’s physician made it hard to say he must leave. It would seem ungrateful. “Meager, help me up.” Agar sat up on the bed’s edge, waiting for the priest to help him stand. Taking the younger man’s arm, he pulls himself up. He stepped uncertain, using the strength of the young man to reach the window. “It is a beautiful day, my King.”
         “Yes, my favorite season, when the trees sprout tiny buds and the flowers begin to come forth. I use to stand by this window with my wife. For hours we would stand here without speaking a word, and enjoy the splendid view.”
         “Are you feeling better, my King?”
         “A little weak, but well. Where is your student?”
         “He went hunting with your son, Truinaught.”
         “Alone?”
         “I imagine. Are they in danger?”
         “Truinaught will take care of Octivus, Meager. I remember taking him on a hunt when he was just five. I taught him how to shoot his first arrow. He took to it like a champion archer. I was proud. I remember him shooting his first rabbit, and how he cried when he realized he had killed it, more the fault of his brother Elymah teasing him. My wife of course punished Elymah. Truinaught was her favorite, and she spared no effort to spoiled him, teaching him to take no aggression against any living thing. After that he would not hunt. I am glad he has gone, perhaps there is still hope.”
         “Being passive is not a bad thing, my King.”
         “For a Priest, maybe, but for a member of the royal family, it is an embarrassment!”
         “Tell me about your sons, my King?”
         “My eldest son, Stephen, is assumed dead. Fallen in some great battle in a distant land I’ve never heard of for a cause that had little merit, if any, to his home. I do not know where he lays. This bothers me sometimes when I sleep at night.”
         “And your other son?”
         “Before this attempt on my life by Nimbus, my opinion was not favorable. He took his position too lightly and was sure to fail as a leader. I cannot stress the pleasure I am feeling to be wrong. In the days that have passed he has delegated his authority diligently and with cause. I think my near death shocked him into reality. If I died, he would have been the next king. Perhaps I should have rewarded Nimbus instead of banishing him. He had done for me what I could never have done alone, and prepared my son to be heir to my kingship.”
         “Surely it must have been a frightening prospect for someone who with intent avoided his responsibility and what of your youngest son, Truinaught?”
         “He could have anything he so desired.”
         “But he made no choices?”
         “Only to be passive. Do you see those fields beyond that row of hills?” Meager nods. “It was the place the first war was won from the Ebonites. Thousands of men of the two opposing armies lined in ranks in the final deciding battle – One man stood between the armies. His name was Drago, son of a mighty chieftain who lived deep in the forest. His face was painted as part of a spirit ritual of his people. He called it his death face. He challenged the Ebonite chief to do battle and the challenge was accepted. They battled amidst the corpse strewn battlefield for what seemed an eternity to everyone who watched. If Drago won, the enemy would disarm, returning home defeated and in dishonor. If he lost, our people would lay down their arms, placing themselves at the enemy’s mercy and certain death. We had survived because of Drago. He defeated the Ebonite chief and there was peace for many years after.”
         “Drago was the founder of Mu. He is the father of my people.”
         Agar turned to look at the priest in his eyes. “It was believed he had died in the forest. This is news to me. Maybe that is why he never returned to the city.”
         “It is written that Drago took his people across the great sea by boat. They found the shallow bay after a storm blew them for two days. It is said that he laid down his armor and his sword, vowing a life of peaceful existence. This had become the first law of Mu, there would be no army or weapons. Mu would be a land of peace, and a sanctuary for knowledge.”
         “That was to be the way of Adeana, but war seems to find these places anyway. It is the nature of man to kill. I do not think man can escape his fate.”
         “Perhaps this is true, my King.”
         “It is a hope in everyman’s heart to find peace and to raise families without fear, when I was a child, we did not fear war. We were hidden for many years deep within the forest. We know of the great powers of the northern lands. It was from them we escaped our bondage. The Ebonites came to reclaim their slaves and were defeated. It was the origin of the Emach Guard, which I led with my brother, Bartholomew.”
         “Where is your brother, now?”
         “Bartholomew left after the war to fight against the Grecians. He never returned.”
         “He may still be alive somewhere.”
         “He has been gone for forty years. He would have gotten word to me by now, someway, no, he is dead. This I am sure of.” Agar is sad. They were close brothers. He thinks back on a fond memory he missed those old days when life had meaning.
         “Not knowing is the hardest thing I assume.” Feeling his pain, Meager offers. There is a long silence as they watch out of the window. A cool spring breeze carried the scent of the flowers to them. All seemed so peaceful.
         “My King?”
         “Yes, Meager.”
         “I have some concern about Ramu and my homeland. I have been here a year now. Each month I wrote a correspondence home and I have yet to receive an answer. I would like to return to Mu to make sure that all is in order and Ramu is well.”
         “Why have you not come forth sooner?”
         “I tried to, but then events became so entangled and the timing seemed so inappropriate that I could not ask. Now I am your physician. It is even more difficult now.”
         “I will have an envoy escort you on your return to Mu. Whatever is going on there, we will get to the quick of it. In two days your escort will be ready. Yes, since the attempt on my life, many things have become obviously wrong. There is an evil plan out there trying to unfold. Alantasia is its target. You go back to Mu. I expect to hear from you soon, letting me know if all is well. If I do not hear from you after a month, I will send my army. Mu will not be forgotten.”
         “Who will take care of you, Sire?”
         “I will have to find someone I trust as much as you. Do you have any suggestions?”
         “Tomorrow my student becomes sixteen. He will take his oath as priest. He has learned of herbs and is knowledgeable about the teaching of the scrolls.”
         “It is a demanding position for one so young.”
         “He is much more mature than his age reveals, Sire. It will be temporary, just until I return from Mu.”
         “He did save my life. Perhaps he is the best choice. At least I know he can be trusted. At least I know his plan is not to poison me.”

****

         It was a long dark night. Truinaught and Octivus sat with their backs to an oak tree. A small animal, now half eaten, hung over the fire. Truinaught breaks the silence. “How did you become a student of the ancient scrolls?”
         “I was brought to the Temple of Mu by my father.”
         “Did you want this?”
         Thinking back he admits. “No, I wanted to be a fisherman.”
         “Then why did you accept his choice?”
         “It was what my father wished of me. I can now see his wisdom and am glad.”
         Truinaught picks his teeth with his finger, thinking about what Octivus said. “When will you become a priest?”
         Octivus is silent. Then in panic, he gets up, “Tomorrow! Tomorrow, I will be sixteen!”
         “You will be sixteen tomorrow? Happy birthday!”
         “You do not understand. Meager will have to perform the ceremony initiating me as priest. We must return at once. I cannot be late.” Octivus hurries to his horse.
         “It is too dark. We must wait until morning.”
         “But we are a day’s ride from the city. I cannot be late.”
         “We will get lost in the dark. It would be better to wait, Octivus.”
         “I cannot be late for this. We must go now.” Octivus saddles his horse. Truinaught kicks the fire out, complaining. “I thought we were going to hunt.” They rode off in full gallop
         Then the rain came. It poured for hours. Tree limbs fell down around them, still Octivus rode hard. He could not see for the rain. Then all at once the horse stopped short and Octivus flew straight off landing chest first in the mud. His momentum slid him still another twenty feet. With the wind knocked from him he laid there still.
         Truinaught chased after Octivus shouting for him to slow down. Then, before his eyes, he saw the young boy fly through the air landing hard on the ground, jumping down from his horse, Truinaught rushes to his friend who has not moved. “Why did you not listen?” He yells. “Why did you ride the horse so hard in this rain? Do you not have any sense?” Coming quickly to aide his friend he realizes the near catastrophe. Octivus had landed inches from the edge of the great gorge. If it were not for the sense of the horse to stop they would have rode to their death.
         Octivus groans as Truinaught rages on like a distressed mother. “You could have killed us both. You could be dead right now, all for not being late. Damn you Octivus! When I say something you better listen.”
         Octivus sits still in pain. He looks to his scolding friend. “Is this because you are the prince?”
         Truinaught stops his shouting. His tone quiets. “No… because you are my friend.”
         “I think we better make camp.”
         “We had a camp – with a strong fire. Now everything is wet, and so are we. Are you alright? Is there anything broke?”
         “I do not think so.” Turning and looking down he realizes how close he came to death. “Whoa! That was close! You have my permission for the next time I do something stupid to slap me!”
         Truinaught laughs. “I will make that a point.”
         It was too dangerous to continue. With regret, Octivus admits. “We are lost.” They were drenched and had no place to get out of the rain.
         “We will die of the shakes by morning.” Truinaught complains.
         “I am sorry, Truinaught.”
         “Over there…Those thick trees should give us some shelter.”
         A loud crack of lightning flashes startling the horses. The boys hold them fast. Turning to Octivus, Truinaught stroked the horse to calm it. “Do you think I could someday become a priest?”
         Octivus laughs. “If we do not die of the shakes first, I can teach you. I will be a priest. That is if Meager performs the ceremony. I know he will be mad. I can hear him scolding me now. Boy! He will say, someday you will late for your own funeral.”
         “Hold your horse tight to yourself. Its body heat will keep you warm.”
         The storm flashed around them, and the rain pelts the ground. Then, as the morning sun came, clearing the misty fog from the ground, Octivus woke Truinaught. “We slept too sound. It is late and we must find the trail back to Alantasia.” Helping his horse to its feet, Octivus looks about with a feeling of being watched.
         From a distance, a dark shadow watches as the two strangers saddle their horses. “Octivus?” Truinaught whispers. “I think we have company.”
         Octivus turns to see the stranger. The man stood alone. He was dressed in a skin groin cloth. His face was painted with animal blood. Upon his head he wore colorful plumes of feathers, adorned with animals teeth tied fast with sinew. They stare at each other for a long moment. Then the stranger waves his hand in the air. From the bushes around them a hundred forest people emerge looking curiously at the two young men.
         “I think we are in big trouble, Octivus.” Truinaught instinctively reaches for his sword, forgetting he left it back at the stable. “Damn.”
         The man stepped forward speaking in slow clear words. “I am Hunotu. Why have you come to my land?”
         “Your land? I am Truinaught, son of King Agar. These lands are the provinces to his majesty. What are you doing on my land?” His tone almost shrilled. The old man is silent. He comes closer to see the young men’s faces.
         “You are from Adeana, and you are not!” He says to Octivus.
         “He is my guest. Direct your questions to me.”
         “I am Chief! I speak to whom I will speak!”
         “I am called Octivus, son of Evas.” He looked into the old man’s eyes. “Ayo-tulaha-khumi-enatu.” It was a word his grandfather taught him when he was very young. The chief replies “U-gotem-neigh.” He kneels before the boy, and chants a prayer rising to face his people when he finishes. “He is Ematoch.” The warriors gather around the strangers, curious.
         Truinaught is amazed. “What does he mean?”
         “They are the Ematoch – People of the wind. These are my people.”
         “I thought you were from Mu?” Octivus walks off.
         “Hey, where are you going?” Asked Truinaught concerned.
         “With them, come, we will be safe.”
         “I do not know? They look hungry to me. They are savages. They do not even wear clothes!”
         Octivus turns to Truinaught. “Do not criticize what you do not understand, my friend. That is your first lesson as my student. Keep an open mind there is much to learn.”
         The village set along the bank of the river. The huts made of animal skins were scattered among the trees. Several fires burned about the camp, with small animals skewered above. Children scurried around the strangers curious. The wife of the chief took her husband’s bow – She glanced curiously at the strangers, smiling as she leaves. Elders came over to see what the chief has brought to the village and they whisper amongst themselves in speculation.
         The chief turns to Octivus. “Come, we will talk.”
         “Can my friend come?”
         “No, we must talk alone. My son will take care of your friend’s needs.”
         Octivus turns. “I must go with the chief, you will be safe.”
         Truinaught looks around him at the painted faces. He was afraid, but he trusted his friend and nods. Hunato’s son offers food to Truinaught. The prince refuses, neither spoke not trusting the other.
         Octivus followed the chief to his hut. It was small and dark. A small fire glowed at their feet between them.          There was quiet before the chief began to ask questions. “From where do you come?”
         “A place called Mu.”
         “It is a word familiar to me. It means Motherland in our tongue. You knew the word for the master. How did you come to learn it?”
         “I was taught the word by my Grandfather when I was a boy. He said someday I would learn its meaning. What does it mean?”
         “Ayo-tulaha-khumi-enatu – From the breath of God we come. U-gotem-neigh – as all else that I know. It is the ancient greeting of Balatar. It has not been spoken in this land for many years.”
         “You are the Ematoch. Is this the place my father’s came from?”
         “Yes. How far is your village from this place?”
         “It took two weeks by ship, and three days from Port Wert to reach Alantasia.”
         “Ship?”
         “A big boat that travels across the sea.”
         Your home then, is beyond the great water?”
         “Yes.”
         “We have heard of lands beyond the great water, but no one has been there. You are Ematoch. Tell me how this has come to be?”
         “My people were led across the sea by a great leader. His name was Drago. He was the father of my father’s before me. He took our tribe to find the land we call Mu.”
         “Then we are of the same lineage. Drago was brother to my ancient father as well. Legends told that the ancient leader left the village after a great war with the foreigners from the North – It is legend that a great one who called himself Odem entrusted to him a great gift, a crystal that possessed a power of the universe. That is why he left, to keep it hidden from those who seek the power it holds. We did not know he had crossed the great water.”
         “I have not heard this in the stories told by my Fathers. Tell me of my ancestors, Hunotu.”
         “We will have time to discuss old legends. Why have you returned to this land?”
         “Our city was attacked and nearly destroyed. Ramu, he is our holy man. He sent a group of boys across the sea to learn to be soldiers, to someday return to Mu and defend it. King Agar is training them in his army…I am happy to have found you.”
         “Ramu, in our tongue, means Father of Motherland.” His name bares honor. We will come with you and together we will fight your enemies, as brothers. This must be why we rejoin. The spirits have guided us together to meet on the trail.”
         “I am grateful, but King Agar has sent his army to defend us.”
         “Then this King Agar is our friend, too.”
         “He will be pleased to hear this. They tell stories of an ancient war that the Alantasians fought along with the People of the Wind. Why has the bond between our peoples been broken?”
         “It was in the final battle of the great war. It is said that the leader of the men called the Emach Guard in his lust for battle, trampled my father and his warriors with horses and left them crippled, and dying amid the battlefield. It was a great dishonor for our people to die this way in the place they call the field of blood. This is why the bond was broken.”
         “This makes me sad to hear.”
         “Yes, sad, but now you say that this King Agar has sent an army to protect you. There is still a bond. We have not been in contact with the city dwellers, perhaps now it is time we should.”
         “It would be good to see the friendship rekindled.”
         “Will you stay among your people and learn our ways, and teach us about your land.”
         “I am a student of the Ancient Scrolls of the Cosmic Forces. I will someday become a priest of the order…Meager, he is my tutor, was to perform the ceremony today, accepting me to the Order of the Rainbow. I will, no doubt, miss this great day. He will be very disappointed with me. Is it possible for you to get me back to the city?”
         “I respect your wish to return to the city, but must ask you to remain.”
         “But why?”
         “You are a holy man. You will be honored by your people. We will celebrate on this night.”
         “I am not a holy man until I have received the ritual of Fire and Water. I cannot do this without Meager. I must go back, you see, it is very important.”
         “You are in the land where the ceremony was consummated. It is still a powerful source, and the ceremony you speak of, is powerful amongst my people. You can be consummated here by our holy man, in the way that it has been since the beginning.”
         “My friend, Truinaught, he is the son to the king. We will be missed if we do not return soon. They will come looking for us.”
         “He will be escorted home by my son. You will stay with your people and accept the Ceremony of Fire and . It is your destiny, my son.”
         “I will be honored, but I must let Meager know I am in no danger. He will be worried.”
&nbWatersp;        “Word will be sent with your friend. Come, we must prepare you for the ceremony.”
         Three old women washed his body with scalding water. His raw flesh was then soothed by an ointment that cooled his pain. His hair was cleaned, and brushed, and tied back with a feather head dressing that flowed down his back, and shoulders like a bird. Hunotu explained the bird was the most powerful symbol to his people. A cloth made from animal hide covered his groin, and beads hung from his ankles. His feet were painted as bird feet.
         The village medicine man prepared paint from roots, and leaves. Then adorned Octivus’s face, and body right down to his toes with images, he explained as he painted, these images were to be his protectors during his journey. Octivus stood before Hunotu, proud. Hunotu smiled and nodded his approval. He knew this boy had power. It was why the spirits brought him home.
         A great presence was felt about him, as Octivus stood before the chief, and he no longer worried about Meager, or Truinaught. This was a path he would have to walk alone, his being here on this very day had to be destiny.
         There was no doubt the power drawn from this land would bring special benefit to him that no other land could bring. He was home, and these were his people – untouched since the beginning – the ritual in its purest state would consummate him bringing alive a power no one could have imagined.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

“Fire and Water”

         Three days had passed since the king’s son and Octivus went hunting. Elymah prepared his men for the search.          Agar watched from his window along with the priest from Mu. Meager knew something had happened. Octivus would not have missed the ceremony of priesthood. Excusing himself he watched as Elymah led his men from the gate.
         Meager returned to his room to finish packing for the trip home to Mu. There is a knocking on the door. “Who is there?” Anxious he hurries to the door to find Eli.
         “I have come to help you with your baggage, Meager.”
         “Thank you, it will be awhile. What you can do is gather all the boys and bring them here. I have instructions for them after I have gone.”
         “Chester, too?”
         “Especially Chester.”
         Meager could only sigh with the regret that he may be long gone before Octivus is found. It was not easy to leave not knowing his student’s fate, but a delay for even one more day would cause him to miss the ship sailing to Mu and he has no desire to spend the next month in Port Wert waiting for the next.
         Images of what he would find when he returned to Mu raced through his mind. He feared that his returning to          Mu prematurely would show his incompetence. Meager worried most that maybe his concern about Mu was an excuse to abandon his responsibility. He questioned his motives repeatedly and caused his head to ache.
         The boys begin to file into the room. Meager closed the last bag and faced them. He saw how much they had matured, wearing the armor of the king’s army with real swords at their sides. They were no longer the same children he brought from Mu.
         “I will be leaving in a short while. That will mean that you are on your own. I do not want to leave you here like this, but I am not sure as to the extent of the danger I am returning too. There is something wrong in Mu. Ramu has not written a single word in all the time we have been here. So I must go back to find out why. If all is well, I will return in two months time. If I do not return in two months then some ill fate has befallen me. I want to remind you of your obligation to your homeland. This is why you were sent here to learn to become soldiers. Whatever has happened in Mu, I suspect Ramu had foreseen it coming. Chester, you are the oldest and you are in charge of the boys until my return. Take care of them and do not bully them. Do you understand?”
         “Yes, I understand.”
         “Good. As for the rest of you, listen to Chester and do as he says.”
         “Will Octivus be coming back?”
         “I hope he is all right, Eli, however, I have no way of knowing.”
         “What shall we tell him?”
         “Tell him what I have told you and give him this.” Meager hands Eli the book he found in Odem’s cottage.          “Tell him to protect it.”
         “I will give it to him.”
         “Thank you Eli. I must go now. Take my things to the coach that is waiting and I will be there shortly.”          Meager goes to the window for one last look over the forest. His concern for his student overwhelms him.
         “Where can you be? Where?”

         The village pounded with ceremonial drums as the Elders did the Sun Dance. Octivus remained with Hunotu.          “This is the final journey.” Hunotu pours the herb into a cauldron of boiling water. “If you survive the test of fire and water, your soul will be one with the spirit world and you will be their link to this world. You will become a link of the Ancient Lore of the One.” The Chief pours a second herb into the water and the water sparks and crackles. “Are you ready for your journey, Eighth Son?”
         “Yes.”
         The chief fills a bowl with the brew and hands it to the young man. Octivus takes the bowl. Closing his eyes, he places the bowl to his lips, feeling the warm liquid flow down into him. It was sweet nectar and he thirsts for more. Then he began to itch, causing him to squirm uncomfortably. The itch became a fire and he stood up gasping. He could not breathe. He escaped the hut falling face down before the Elders. The pounding of the drums ended, the dance stopped as everyone gathered around. He was dead. Hunotu knelt down beside him unsure of what happened. The old women cried, and the elders began a death chant. They were wrong. He was not the one who would lead them.
         Octivus saw himself in his vision. He was beyond his body looking down. He could hear the old men whisper he was dead, and was afraid. His spirit rose higher and higher, until the villagers were mere specks on the ground. From his height he saw all the land around him. He was high upon a mountain top, and it was beautiful. He sighed, taken by this sight. Everything was alive, the rocks, the trees. He listens to a song and follows it down the mountain slope. He is elated that he can fly and lands amid a field of flowers. It is then that he realizes the song he hears is coming from the flowers. They are singing to him each with their own sound and in harmony to the others about the endless field. He can hear their voices of life. All that is about him is singing, and he knows now, song is the language of nature. As he soars above the tree tops, each species having their own song sings to him. The clouds, the insects, the rocks in the ground radiate beautiful colors, and Octivus sees and hears the sound of the colors as they dance about him. Everything was alive. Even darkness had its own song, very deep, and solitude, reminding him of death that awaits all of men, not a sad song, but more soothing.
         The wind caresses his skin in the same way as he remembers his mother doing when he was a baby. It was then he saw the wind was life itself. Without her, all would be still and dead. The Mother carried him up high to the heavens, and brought him to the water where it spoke to him with voices of rapid currents. It told him of its power and how only the wind could change its mighty course. “I am…” it told him “the strongest of all the forces. I can split mountains in two. I can drown whole continents. I can divide them and I can provide for them. Without me, man is, but dust, and all that exist would be the empty howl of the wind.”
         Then the water lifted him upwards and placed him back on the mountain. The ground shook beneath his feet “I am the earth.” Cracked the voice which came up from the land with a mighty quake and rumble which knocks Octivus to the ground. “From me comes food and shelter. I am mankind’s closest friend. Every particle that you are is of me. It is from me that you were born. It is to me you return when you die. Savor me, and from me you will never see famine. Scorn me and plagues will devour humanity. I will no longer protect you from the wind and water and their storms will wipe all men from the earth.”
         Then, with tremendous force the mighty Earth erupted with volcanic force, hurdling Octivus toward the sun. The flames reached out and tried to burn his flesh. Octivus cries out in great pain. “I am Fire. You will kneel before me or will turn your flesh to ash and cinder.” Octivus kneels low. The heat is intense and he could feel his skin blistering. Then as he had done since a little boy, he performs the sacred Ritual of Ra.
         The Sun looks down upon his humble servant. The sound made by the man appeased him and he liked him. He drew back so not to burn the mortal. Octivus felt the flames cool and looks up. The Sun is warm, bright and peaceful. In a warm voice the Sun speaks. “I am the warmth on a cold day. I bring the crops to your lands and draw the water up from rivers and oceans to shower your seeds and make them grow. I am the light of day and night. I am the force that the sparked life emitted from the absolute nothing of the void whence humanity emerged.” The Sun burst outward with arms of fire and consumed Octivus. He cried out. “Why are you burning me? What have I done?”
         “To remind you of your own mortality, never forget that you are but a mortal man, and will die someday. Do not assume to be in my favor. I will favor those I choose and cleanse the Earth of all who are not worthy.”
         “How can I remain in your favor?”
         The Sun cools and continues. “Pay homage. There is nothing more I expect. Go in peace, human. Remember, we are all part of each other. Earth, Wind, Fire and Water long to hear songs of mankind praising them with gratitude for all that we provide, but keep in mind human, mankind exists to serve nature and not nature to serve mankind. There will come a time when man will seek the knowledge to make nature his slave. They have come before and they will come again. You, human, called Octivus, are chosen to lead your people away from catastrophe. Do not fail, the future of humanity relies on you, and all those that follow you in your linage are bound to this task.”
         “How will I lead them? And from what catastrophe?”
         “It will come from the sky, carried by the wind. It will scorch the Earth clean of the disease. They will be swallowed by the Earth and then submerged beneath the sea forever.”
         “But when will this happen?”
         “In time, human, all in time.”
         “Is there no way to avoid this?”
         “No. It will be important for you to prepare the Balatar, to keep the secrets of nature from those who will use the power to destroy. Take this knowledge forth with you. Man and nature are as one, in peace and in war, everything that mankind does have effect. We, the Forces of Nature, bring forth changes so that we survive, so that you survive. Floods, storms, fires and earthquakes are the voices of nature. Listen to them always. They will tell you if you are on the path or have gone astray. Go now, human. Return to your people and teach them all that you have learned.”
         Octivus wakes from his vision. He sits on the edge of his cot, his body fatigued. He looks down at his arms. They are scarred with the symbol of eternity on one arm, and the symbol of nature’s forces – the four points of the wind on the other. He touches them with his fingers, but feels no pain.
         He is alone in the hut. Candles burn around him, an animal had been sacrificed and its blood drawn. It hangs in the doorway. Weak, he staggers from the hut and feels the soothing heat of the sun upon him. He hears a flute playing not far and walks up behind the old man lost in his own music, unaware of Octivus standing behind him. “That is a beautiful song, old one.”
He turns to thank for the compliment seeing the stranger is alive he jumps to his feet excited, the Elder shouts and dances about. “He has returned! He is alive!”
         Chief Hunotu comes from his hut startled by the alarm soon realizing the miracle that has occurred and smiles. The drums begin and the people rejoice.
         “You have looked into the face of the maker. It is in your eyes and you wear it upon your head for all to know.” Hunotu bows low.
         “How have I changed?”
         “Your hair has turned white. Your eyes, they are deep, and blue. What did you see, Eighth Son?”
         “I saw the face of God, my friend, and it was beautiful.”
         The ceremony of Fire and Water was different here in the Ematoch village than in Mu. In Mu the ceremony was merely a recital of the oath of the Balatar. Here in this land of the Ancient Ones. It was a ritual that challenged death. The herbs taken were poison that induced certain death to those that drank them. Octivus was the first to survive. He defied death, and walks amongst the living. Hunotu, and the village medicine man knew that a great prophecy had unfolded. A leader has returned to this land, and the power of the cosmic forces lived in him. They knew that with him comes the great change, and to the ends of the Earth they would follow him, and into eternity he would lead them – He was the hope!

****

         Truinaught met with his brother along the way back to Alantasia. They could hear the drums and Elymah wanted to go and rescue the foreigner. Truinaught convinced him after a lengthy argument that Octivus was safe. Together, the two brothers returned home, both feeling uneasy about the unknown fate of the visitor from Mu.
         A full moon cycle had passed and Octivus stayed with his people, learning of the ancient ways preserved by the Elders. A queer feeling came to the priest and he stood to face the north. He does not know what it means, but he can feel it coming.
         “What is wrong, Octivus?”
         “I do not know, Hunotu. There is a feeling on the wind, but it is not clear to me.”
         “Then you must search into your heart. You hear the wind’s call. There is something important for you to hear.”
         “I must be alone. Excuse me.” And he leaves.
         Hunotu raises his hands feeling the wind against his palms. He feels danger is near, and returns to his wife and family to be with them when the moment comes. The village is quiet now. The fires will burn throughout the night. It is time for uneasy sleep. The wind in his hair as he walked back to his hut, Hunotu looks up at the moon between the branches. “I thank you for my people that you have returned my brother from beyond the sea. I know, Wise One that he has come to lead our people.” He chants a prayer to himself as he continues to walk.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

“Matters of the Heart”

         The stream that flowed through the Ematoch village was soothing, as Octivus walked beyond the village camp. Finding a large rock that bordered the stream, he climbed upon it. For a long time, he sat looking up at the sky through a clearing between the trees, wondering if Ramu was plotting stars tonight as was his habit. He wonders about Meager, and how worried his tutor must be that he has been gone so long, and not sent word. No doubt, he will be greeted with an angry tone, when he returns to Alantasia.
         The night air brought a chill. He tries to hear the wind’s voice, but it is hard to focus. Hunotu had given to him a pouch containing powerful medicines to help. The instructions given by Hunotu was simple, to try the various herbs. Hunotu explained, each would have a different effect, and only experience would show him how much, and which was right for him.
         Each medicine was kept separate, in a tanned skin with its own marking. Laying them out before him he chooses, placing the other medicines back into his pouch. Carefully he unwraps the medicine, seeing such a thing only once in the market place, in Mu. He placed the mushroom in his mouth grimacing at the taste. A thick purple fluid dripped from the packaging, and he licks it clean.
Not long afterwards he felt the affect. Closing his eyes, relaxing, he could feel the sensation coming up from within and taking his whole body. His mind races, his heart pounded with euphoric pleasure. The land about him became crystal, the intense sensation, made him aware of every movement around him. Reaching out to touch the air his fingers leave trails of colors. He felt light, and was sure to fly away, but not to forget his purpose. He calls his energy back to him.
         Octivus again closes his eyes, and focused on what news the wind was bringing to him. The winds gust through the trees. It sounded like rain drops. As he listened, he understood they were not rain drops, but tears of sorrow, and he felt the sadness in him. What made the people cry? He wanted to know.
         His heart beat faster, and faster, and thought it would explode! Then he understands that it is not his own heart he hears, but the many, as they fled the storm. He could almost see their faces, and tries too, but could not. Focusing hard he wants to know, why they run in fear? He asked the wind.
         Octivus felt his body lifting up, and opened his eyes. He saw himself still sitting on the rock as his spirit lifted high above. The wind called to the north, and he followed. Over trees and land his spirit flew. A sound from below concerns him, and flies lower to see. It is a small village, and it is on fire. The people are running. Their heart beats pounding in his ears, but no, they were not heart beats. They were the hoofs of horses pounding the dirt as they charged into the village.
         In horror, Octivus watched the soldiers butcher the innocent, women, and children, young and old, without discretion. They begged for their lives, but there was no mercy. Who would do such a thing? He demanded to know!
         His feet were on the ground amid the village with fire all around him. Blood flowed at his feet, and the wailing of the massacre stopped, drowned out by the crackle of fire. Then a lone figure walked his mighty horse among the cinders of this village. A man of great power, Octivus could feel it in the wind. This General of this unknown army could feel the priest’s presence and looks to where he stands. Their eyes meet, and he lunges forward in a full gallop.
         Octivus stood proud, and did not flinch as the heavy sword cut through his image. The General turned to face the spirit. Awed he questions. “Who are you? What omen has been revealed to me?”
         Octivus walks closer, looking into the eyes of the General. He saw only the darkness. He could feel only contempt for this soulless being. His voice hissed the answer to the General’s question. “I am your fate!” His spirit lifted, and their eyes did not blink, looking deep into the other with menacing hate. Into the night sky he flew back to his people. The General watched a shiver rushed through his spine. Still he would press onward, burning and killing everything in his path.

         The first crack of dawn on a new day, all seemed well. Through the field rode a lone rider. The sentry yelled down to open the gate, allowing the rider to pass. Captain Anvelot catches the exhausted rider in his arms. Blood oozes from the arrow wound in the man’s back. In his dying breath, he breathes one last word. “War!”
         “Sound the gathering of the guard. Have them assemble to march from the city…Anvelot runs into the castle, and stands before the chamber of the king. He knocks, and enters. Agar stirs, the young maiden Miriah sitting at his bedside nursing his health since Meager had gone away. “My King! A rider has entered the gate, and brings news, war is upon us!”
         Agar sits in his bed. “Who are they? How many do they bring?”
         “I regret I do not know, my King, the rider had passed before he could say. The only clue was this arrow. I have not seen such detailed feathering before. The enemy comes from beyond the furthest northern region.”
         “Have you sounded the assembly?”
         “Yes, my King.”
         “You will lead the first companies to battle then.”
         “Yes, my King.”
         “I envy you, Anvelot.” I must sit here like an old woman. I am too ill to ride.”
         “I understand, my King.” Anvelot bows his head with respect before the king. “I will not fail you, my King.”          Interrupted by the sounding trumpets he hurries to the window.
         “What is happening?” Agar pushes himself from his bed stumbling to the window aside the Captain, puzzled to see his men marching from the gate without him. A lone officer, his sword thrust upwards rallies his men. “War is upon our land! We will show them what force protects this land. To glory!” He shouts.
         “To glory!” His men shout back as they ride from the gate.
         “Is that Elymah? My son cannot ride and engage this enemy. He is heir to my throne, and cannot be killed!”
         “I will stop him, my King!” Anvelot runs from the chambers.
         Elymah rode the Calvary hard. The infantry would have to catch up at their own pace. It was critical that they head off the enemy advance beyond the mountain passage. To achieve this, the infantry could fortify the passage and hold for weeks until reinforcements could arrive.
         Anvelot caught up to Elymah at the pass between the mountains, and they argued. In the end Elymah won his argument. “Unless you intend to kill me yourself, Anvelot, I will not turn back.”
         “Very well, Sir.” He knew the young prince too well. He was stubborn, insolent, and undisciplined. Now he waged the whole of his kingdom on a single moment of glory. Any seasoned soldier would know, it meant certain death to all the men that engage on the first days of battle. Anvelot looked into the faces of young boys eager to taste the blood of their enemy. None had ever seen the site of battle, heard its cries or saw its horror. They only knew the sweet stories of victory, and the songs of gallant men that drove off enemies. By the end of this day, they would all be dead. This he was sure of.
         The columns rode for a good part of the morning until they came to a ridge a few miles north of the passage.          It seemed like they waited an eternity. The anxiety built in them all. Elymah paced back and forth wanting the moment to be here. Anvelot sat patiently knowing the moment would come soon enough. For now he would not wonder about the enemy, but he would enjoy his last moments of life remembering the things that made his life worth living.
         Dust came from beyond the horizon. It was their first glimpse of the army coming. By mid day the first ranks of the enemy appeared on the opposing ridge. It was then the cackling among the young inexperienced soldiers ceased, and the quiet dawn of reality was upon them.
         Their throat parched, their knees trembled. Some heaved up from sick stomachs while others stood fast, and for the first time doubted their judgment to have wanted to be first to battle.
Elymah mounted his horse, taken by the powerful force he faced. Anvelot was right, he should not be here, but it was too late. He could not leave his men now. He turns to Anvelot. “What should we do?”
         “Wait…Let the enemy make the first move.”
         The enemy ranks continued to build. There had to be a hundred men abroad on each rank. It was no secret before long that the powerful enemy force would swallow them whole. A few of the men turned and ran. Anvelot headed them off, his sword drawn.
“Not what you expected!” The boys stood frightened. “You would run and live in shame, leaving your brothers to die. Coward is what you are! I give you one chance to return and stand among your brothers, or die where you stand. Shall I spare you the shame of your cowardice? Return to your ranks and die as brave men on this day? Death is your fate! With honor or in disgrace is your choice!”
         “We are afraid.” said the one boy, tears streaming down his face.
         “We are too young to die.” quivered another.
         “You think I am not? We are all afraid. Pick up your weapons and die like men.”
         Hesitant, they pick up their swords and return to the ranks. No one spoke of what they did. It may have been because they thought to run also, but they did not have the courage. Now the enemy drums beat a cadence as the first ranks marched down the slope.
         Anvelot gave the first order. “Dismount.” The young soldiers looked puzzled, Elymah questions his Captain.          “Why do we dismount?”
         “The advancing ranks are a trap to draw you into battle prematurely; the stationary ranks above the ridge are archers. If we ride into battle mounted we will be easy targets, and they will cut us down before we engage. Their infantry will over run the rest.”
         “Then there is no hope.”
         “That is why I tried to send you away. So be it. You are here now. What is your command, Prince? Should we attack and die? Should we run like rabbits?” The young men looked to Elymah. He could see their fear in their faces. To attack, they will die. If they turned and ran the enemy would be upon the passage before night fall. The passage would surely fall in a matter of days. He saw little choice. “This is the plan. We will send half the company to flank from the east and divide the rest of the men into two columns.
         “What?” Anvelot drew back. It was already too small a force, splitting up into smaller groups would make the enemy’s work easy. Still, he listened to his prince.
         “Yes, that is what we will do. Split into groups. The second group will draw back beyond the crest in that far hill. The first group will charge the enemy, delaying them here. A third group will remain hidden in the ravines and will flank the enemy that is committed to pursue.”
         “You think this will work?” Anvelot doubts.
         “Our only deed is to delay the enemy until our infantry can fortify the passage. If we can draw out the play, then we can buy more time for our men in the passage. Hopefully we can convince the enemy to suspect we are a larger force.”
         “And which group will you lead?” Anvelot asks.
         “The first.”
         “And me?”
         “The second.”
         Anvelot is silent. He knew the first group was a sacrifice. It was not easy to walk away, but the plan was to delay the enemy for as long possible. The first enemy ranks were in the cusp of the valley. Anvelot took the second group, and rode for the crest in the hills a quarter of a mile back. The young soldiers watched the other groups ride off, and wished they were with them.
Elymah walks his mount before his men. “The deed is upon us, ranks one two, and three. Prepare to charge!” Elymah looked into their faces. They were the faces of the dead, pale and trembling. It will not be their fear, and horror remembered. The songs will be of brave men with stout hearts. These were frightened boys with whole lives ahead of them. This would be their final act of life. God save the souls of these brave men. He thinks to himself.
         “CHARGE!”
         The young men cried out “TO VICTORY!” as they charged down the hill. Elymah flinched at the great impact the first ranks made as the two armies clashed for the first time. The charge of the second and third ranks, are so forceful that the first ranks of both armies is crushed.
         “Fourth, fifth, and sixth rank…Prepare to charge. CHARGE!” Elymah fought to hold back tears as he watched the young boys die in the field below. He turned to face the last of his ranks, they were watching him, and he wiped his tears. He sat and he watched until the last of the boys in the valley were dead and the enemies ranks realigned, then advanced up the slope. The young soldiers called out to Elymah.
         “Sir? Are we to attack?”
         “Stand fast…Another fate awaits us.” The ranks of the enemy were almost upon them when Elymah gave the order. “Retreat! Mount your horses and flee like the wind.”
         The young soldiers hesitated at first. Unwilling to run away, one boy charged alone down the hill. He was dead before landing his first blow. The soldiers wanted to fight. Elymah shouts his order. “Retreat! We have done all we can here. There will be other battles…Save yourself! Damn it you all will listen to me. I am your Prince!”
         The enemy came over the ridge as the young soldiers scrambled for their horses. The enemy’s infantry chased briefly then halted. Up from the battlefield came the sound of hooves. The infantry parted and the enemy Calvary emerges giving chase after the fleeing army.
         The young soldiers rode like the wind, the Elite Guardsmen of the enemy closing on them from behind. Elymah and his men were almost upon the second position. He could not see Anvelot or the others, for a moment he thought Anvelot had abandoned him. Then as they came over the crest, Anvelot stood up and shouted. “CHARGE!” His young men mounted in one movement, and drove hard against the enemy flank.
         The enemy infantry watched with startled eyes as the second unit appeared and engaged their Elite Guard. Elymah regroups his men in haste and charges them into the melee. It was then the flanking detachment charged from their position along the ravine and the Elite Guard of the enemy is devoured whole. Not one of the enemy troops escaped.
         The enemy infantry advanced no further, stayed by their officers who were uncertain of how large a force they have encountered. They hesitated, exactly as Elymah had hoped.
         Silently, the enemy troops watched as two riders approached. The younger of the two, obviously of great stature called out to them.
         “I am Elymah, son of King Agar, ruler of Alantasia, who is my enemy?
         The soldiers of the opposing army shouted. “Babylonia!” Echoing through the fields, so all would know their powerful army was here.
         “I give you this chance to turn and leave this land without further death. So save yourselves, and return to whatever land you came.”
         The enemy spit and cursed the Prince. Their disdain squelched by their own leader that appeared over the ridge. He was surprise to find his army stopped. He questions his officers who told him what happened to his Elite Guard. “Why did you stop the attack? Get your men into their ranks. I want their bastard heads on the end of spears by night fall, or your heads will be in their place.” General Tehran without warning brutally slays the officer standing before himself to emphasize his order to attack. There will be no hesitation.
         Anvelot turns to Elymah “You just had to piss him off!”
         “It seems to be a virtue I am sure my father will attest to…I think we should head for the passage.”
         “Good idea.”

         One full day had passed. The infantry had fortified the passage. Elymah was certain this front would hold for weeks, maybe months. It was the first days of summer, and the sweltering heat even in the early morning hour made even the slightest movement an effort. Then it began. The enemy legions appeared on the horizon, Elymah turned to his messenger. “Tell my father, that the enemy is far greater than anticipated. We must send word to all providences to reinforce as soon as possible.” The messenger rides off in full gallop.
Tehran humiliated, swore he would bring on a campaign of carnage like none ever known on this earth before. He swore these Alantasians would beg for the slaughter that awaits them to end their misery.
         The enemy faced the mountain. The crevice passage was the only path to the other side. Tehran, determined to make this a quick battle would commit every troop to charge the passage. The battle would be without end until the passage was his. It mattered not if he lost two legions of men to do so. His plan was to beat the enemy with numbers. The first ranks prepared, and at his command. “CHARGE!”
         It went without end all day. Elymah and Anvelot found themselves falling deeper and deeper into the passage. Hundreds lay dead in mounds of carnage already is reeking foul from the heat.
         Onward they advanced charging the barrage of arrows and spears. No matter how many men fall dead, more, and more came in endless waves of human sacrifice. It seemed as though they were more afraid of their leader and his wrath, than that of death itself.
         A sea of soldiers pours into the passage. The Alantasians struggle to hold but are pushed back into the passage. Elymah turns to Anvelot. “They will own the passage by night. What should we do?”
         “Fight! It is all we can do. Let us hope that reinforcements arrive.”
         On the ninth hour of fighting, the Alantasians were drained of any fight left. Elymah falls back. He can see the southern opening of the passage. It was lost. The enemy was relentless and had no regard for life, not even for the lives of his own men. An enemy like this could not be defeated without help. It became a question of would there be time enough to gather a force large enough to resist the direct assault on the city.
         Anvelot turned to Elymah “I want you to go, Elymah. You must save yourself.”
         “What will you do?”
         “What I must do, my Prince. Go and organize your men beyond the passage. You will be all that remains between the enemy and Alantasia. Go, and do not argue anymore. This is my place to die!”
         Elymah nods. He knows that Anvelot was right, turning to leave. He watches as the Captain of his guard rallies his men for one last charge against the enemy. As Elymah moves along the dead, fighting his way to escape certain death in the passage, he finds he cannot leave.
         Anvelot gathered his men. He looked into their faces covered by the blood of their enemy. He recognized them. They were the boys from Mu.
         “Chester, Leffus, Eli…the greatest moment of a soldier’s life is at hand. Die well.” He turns to face the approaching enemy.
         “We will make you proud.” Says Chester.
         Tehran could taste victory. The passage clogged with dead slowed their advance, but it would not matter. The boys cried out and raised their swords, and a strange thing happened. Without any reason the enemy soldiers stopped. Their faces change from grimaces to looks of horror.
         Anvelot surprised drew up his sword, and stepped forward, and to his astonishment the enemy turned and fled. Bewildered he turns to see the most horrifying thing. They looked to be a ghost. They charged up the passage along the rocks from above, hundreds maybe even thousands.
         They were the Ematoch warriors. With his long white hair changed by the Ritual of Fire and Water, Octivus charged his enemy, carrying no weapon. His people slew the enemy in retreat, and by dusk the beaten enemy meandered about in the fields beyond the passage. They had gained nothing, but the carnage of futile battle.
         Tehran could not believe his eyes. His men were fleeing. He ordered them to advance, but they ran past him. What power did these Alantasians have to make the strongest of armies run? Then his answer came as the tribesmen came from the passage, hallooing triumphantly. A lone man comes from amid the taunting thousands to face Tehran.
         “I am Octivus, the eight son and holy man of the Ematoch people. You are not welcome in our land. Go back the way you came. To continue forth will bring you and all that follow you, certain death. It is your choice.”
         “I choose death!” Tehran stands fast. He will not run.
         “Then so be it!” Octivus turns walking back into the passage.
         Elymah and Anvelot escort Octivus and his chiefs back to Alantasia. The walls of the city echo with cheering citizens as they enter the city gate. Maidens throw them flowers. Men offered them wine. The enemy has faltered, and for the moment victory was theirs.
         King Agar was beside himself. His son Elymah had somehow pulled off the greatest act of heroism since the day he rode against the Ebonites sixty years ago. Agar stands before the men he steps down and embraces his son. “You have made me so proud, Elymah.”
         Elymah whispers to his father. “I now understand your arrogance. You are a great man, Father. Forgive me for my insolence all these years.”
         Agar holds him close and felt a bond he knew with no other of his children. He shakes Anvelots hand. “I did not expect to see you again. I am glad I was wrong, and you my friend, have saved my kingdom again.”
         “I do not see Meager. Is he here?” Octivus said looking around for his tutor.
         “Your friend has returned to Mu.”
         “I am sorry I did not get word to you that I was all right.”
         “Truinaught gave us the assurance that you were safe. I have had much time to think, my friend. You came upon this land many months ago, and have brought back a spirit to my people that had been lost. For this I owe you everything. Whatever you desire in my kingdom is yours, and that includes my throne for be not for you I would not own it. I am in humble debt to you and your people, forever.”
         “I have no desire to be king. I cannot think of anything that I want except that the bond between our two people is rekindled. The wrongs from long ago must be consummated with an apology.”
         The hall mummers, only a few knew the truth of the event of the final battle of the Ebonite’s. Apologize? Whatever could he mean? They wondered. Agar thinks back. It was a secret he buried deep within him. He justified that day with his victory over the Ebonite’s, but knew in his heart he was wrong. He was sorry for what he had done, and Agar concedes. “It was by my order the event occurred. I am sorry. I will make it up to your people in any way.”
         “This acknowledgement was all we wanted. Now the spirits of our ancestors are freed from their bondage, and our people are brothers again.”
         “Come let us feast.” King Agar shouts to everyone in his court.
         Octivus and Hunotu, and Chemote sit with the King and his sons. A face off in a far corner catches Octivus’s attention. He turns back toward Agar. “My King, there is something I do desire in your kingdom.”
         “Agar waves his arm and the room became quiet.”
         “There is a maiden I have love for, but who will not have me since she is promised to another. If she will have me now, I would like her to be my wife.”
         Hunotu and Chemote are bewildered by the holy man. He must marry an Ematoch woman, but they are silent and do not object. It was not their place to question their holy man.
         “The marriage commitment of this woman is relinquished. Who is this maiden so strong to your heart?”
         “Her name is Miriah.” The young sweet voice announces from across the room. She walks through the crowd and approaches the King. Agar slumps in his chair. What has been going on here that he did not know?
         “First though, I think to introduce my family to my future husband is only proper, Sire.”
         “He does not know?”
         “No, my King.” Octivus comes down to meet Miriah, and they hold hands. “Octivus? I would like for you to meet my father…King Agar, and my older brothers Truinaught, and Elymah.
         Octivus felt his knees go weak. “I did not know.”
         “Does it matter?”
         “My King, I must apologize. I thought she was a servant.”
         “You are not saying my daughter is not good enough?”
         “Not at all, my King, but if you think it is I that am not worthy, I will withdraw my request.” Miriah takes his hand.
         “It would not matter if he did say no. I would be yours anyway.”
         King Agar shrugged. “Then so be it…You are husband, and you are his wife. I expect grand children by next fall.”
         “That is all? We are married?” Octivus could not believe it was so simple.
         “I am King. I say it, and it is done.”
         So it came to be. The visitor of Mu became the son by marriage to the King. Cousins and aunts whisked off the two to a chamber in a high tower overlooking the kingdom. Still the war went on in the distant fields. Reinforcements came from lands east, west and south. The dead burned in piles in the fields could be seen a glow in the dark night.
         Alantasia was set to make a long stand against Tehran, and his Babylonian legions. The Ematoch Chief and his warriors returned to the battle front, leaving their holy man and his new wife in the city. They were happy and their only concern was that Octivus had taken a wife who was not from the tribe.
         He has a great power, and his wisdom was questioned with reserve, by the elders. There are times when traditions should not interfere with matters of the heart. It is better to allow the wisdom of nature to take its course in the natural flow of life. Many mysteries of nature were not to be understood – Love to be one of them.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

“New Paths”

         Truinaught hesitated; he knocked, waiting for a voice from within to acknowledge. “Who is there?”
         “Truinaught.”
         The door opens a crack and Octivus peers out, his face only a shadow in the dim light. “Is there something the matter?”
         “Would you come with me to speak before my father?”
         “Why?”
         “I need your support. I have made a decision, and will not be favorable to my father. Come with me, please.”
         “Let me get dressed.” Octivus closes the door.
         Miriah could see the concern on his face. “Who was that?”
         “Truinaught wants me to appear with him before your father. I must go I will not be long.”
         “Do not be long, my love.” She says in a seductive way.
         Octivus blushes. “I will be swift as possible, Miriah.” Octivus walks with Truinaught through the dark corridors. He sees in Truinaught’s eyes it was serious. Soon they were standing before King Agar, and he is happy to see them both “I have not seen you for days. My daughter is keeping you happy?” He said lightly. Octivus smiles embarrassed. “For what matters do I owe, to have the presence of my son, and the High Priest of the Ematoch people?” He continues in a light tone full of joy to see them both. Nothing was going to ruin this joyous day. Octivus looks to Truinaught wondering for an answer.
         Truinaught stammers. “I have decided to become a priest.”
         It was as if the world went dead of sound around them. Agar’s face went expressionless trying to comprehend this in his mind. First he tried to smile, then cleared his voice, then went into a rage. “WHAT? A PRIEST! What kind of insanity is this?”
He could not think of a way to avoid this moment. Truinaught thought his father would strike him and braced himself for the blow. Agar stayed himself, his voice straining to hold back his anger as he spoke. “You asked me for my daughters hand in marriage, and this I gave consent without regret. Must you take from me my son as well? A Priest of all things.” Agar paces back and forth. “I will be a laughing stock. My son, the PRIEST!” He swears.
         “It is a decision I reached on my own, Father. Octivus had no influence over me at all.”
         Agar’s heart burned with fury, at the thought of his youngest son becoming a priest, and not a captain in his army. He breathes out with great restraint. “Then do as your heart bids you. I wash my hands of the matter. Your mother would have been proud, I imagine.”
         “And you, my King?” Octivus probes.
         “I accept his decision.” Agar says withdrawn.
         Truinaught turns to Octivus. “When will my lessons begin?”
         “In due time, for now I have other matters that require immediate attention.” Thinking of Miriah awaiting his return makes him smile.
         Agar turns away from the two young men. Then giving in, he turns to face the young priest. “When Meager left Alantasia, he left me without counsel I expect you will fill his position as my councilor and physician.”
         Octivus bows low. “I am at your service, my King.”
         “Good. You may start immediately.”
         “My King? I wonder if I may have some more time with my new wife. She expects me to return promptly. I wish not to disappoint her.”
         King Agar makes a slight gesture of approval, and the young priest leaves in a hurry without a word. He was out of breath when he reached the room in the highest tower, panting he closes the door behind him.
         “So, what did Truinaught want to tell my father, which could not wait?”
         “He wants to be a priest.” He laughs.
         “Oh? So, it was indeed the ground I felt shake beneath my feet!”
         “Your Father has a strong heart. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight when your brother said the words. I had no idea, or I would have bolted from the castle. You should have seen it…Your father’s eyes bulging from his head spit coming splattering from his mouth…Only a stout heart could take the punishment your brother provokes.”
         “How stout of heart are thee?” She drops the robe standing naked before her husband. Octivus gaped wide eyed, and speechless. It was going to be a long night.

****

         Tehran sent his captains east and west in search of another way over the mountain. He maintained a skirmish line at the passage entrance, testing his enemy. Months would pass without word from his captains. Rumors whispered about the camp that the captains had not found another passage, and deserted in fear for their lives.
         The summer passed into fall. The enemy soldiers chopped down trees and splintered wood, preparing for the cold winter of this foreign land. They had experienced the cold winter the year prior, losing many men to the frost. These last months they gathered animal skins and prepared for the harsh weather.
         Tehran expected reinforcements to come by spring. He had sent a messenger with a map, and warning them of the harsh weather. He hoped the second commander would make a quick march to join him.
         Elymah watched the movements of the enemy from the fortifications of the passage entrance. There has not been a scale attack on the passage in a week. What was his enemy up to?
         “Hunotu? Is there another way around the mountains?” Elymah wonders.
         “Yes, it will take many months to reach.”
         “How long?”
         “Three months, not less.”
         “Which direction will they come?”
         “The way is to the west.”
         “How desperate is Tehran?” He wonders.
         Tehran sat in his tent with his advisors. He alone knew of the true quest of his mission. Nebuchadnezzar, Emperor of Babylon, wanted the Moon Stone returned. It made his army invincible, and without it, his power dwindles away. For several years Tehran’s army followed the rumors, and the trail has led them to this land. So far they have come, he wondered if he would ever see home again.
It took years to find the way south to reach this foreign land. So unfamiliar was the terrain that all the tactics of warfare familiar to him have become obsolete. The enemy fought in a different way. They were familiar with the land and fought a defensive battle. He had to take this advantage from them somehow. Coming from his tent, Tehran looks up at the height of the mountain. It was then, his plan came to mind. “Captain! Captain, come here at once!” He shouted excited.

         Elymah sent a messenger back to Alantasia stating his suspicions. King Agar read the script. He sat back resigned.
         “What is wrong, my King?” Octivus asked.
         “My son believes the Babylonians are looking for another way around the mountain. According to your Chief, Hunotu, there is another passage three months march from the west. It will be midsummer when the Babylonians will flank our battlements.”
         “What will you do?”
         “I will call back my mercenaries from Mu.”
         “Meager said if he had not sent a correspondence in a month time that I should return to Mu and find out what fate has befallen my people. It weighs very heavy upon me, my King. I volunteer to go and bring your word for the mercenaries to return.”
         “No. I will need you here.”
         The chamber door opens and in walks Truinaught. “Tutor? I am ready for my lesson.”
King Agar shakes his head in disbelief. His son is dressed in a robe of fine silk and had shaved his head bald. He even plucked his eyebrows clean from his face.
         “What have you done?” Octivus asked shocked.
         “I want to start anew. So I washed myself in scalding water to cleanse myself of my old life, and shaved my hair off’ I want nothing that was before I took my oath as your student.”
         “A bit extreme, my student, but will consider it a symbolism of your desire to reach perfection. This is a good beginning.”
         King Agar slumps in his throne. Soldiers are dying in battle, and my son is romping around in silk robes and a bald head. He thinks to himself in silence.
         “May we be dismissed, my King?”
         “Yes go.” His voice resigned of emotion, anything to rid himself of this ridiculous sight of his youngest son, a mockery to his linage.
         Octivus bows low. Truinaught copies and follows the priest from the king’s chamber. Agar looks on as they leave, baffled by it all. He sits alone, rereading the script from Elymah. Going to the window, opening the shutter he looks off beyond the western fields. It would be the way the enemy would come. His hope was that the mercenaries would return in time from Mu.

         Winter was upon them, as the messenger returned from the west. The way around the mountain had been found. Tehran was happy expecting reinforcements would arrive in spring, and he would make a full scale attack from two fronts. First he must send the bulk of his army toward the second passage so they would be in position. This must be done without tipping his enemy of his weakness, encouraging a frontal attack. He did this by erecting more tents and fires at night for his enemy to see, to mislead them to believe they were still camping in force.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

“Fallen Heroes”

         The foggy haze lifted revealing the ship sailing upon the sea. Men stood aboard her decks erecting her mast and with billowed sails chopped through the rough waters. In the distance the dark shadow of land loomed on the horizon. As they came closer he could see the strange city. Octivus stood at the bow railing. The land he saw in the distance was Mu but not Mu! It was not as she was when he left. Tall stone walls surround the inner city. The Temple was the only structure that stood over them. The Wharf city was a brothel for sailors and soldiers. Tiny boats of the fishermen were splintered wrecks upon the shore. Then the wind came against the ship and turned it away from Mu. Voices cried out from Mu. OCTIVUS! OCTIVUS! One voice stood out above the rest.
         Ramu! Octivus jumps up from his nightmare, his skin covered with sweat, his heart pounding in his chest. He walks to his window, looking out over the land. It was bitter cold, but not much snow had fallen. Each day a messenger came from the field with names of the fallen men. Women cried who were awaiting the return of their loved one their hopes shattered by bad news.
         The King awaited word that the Romans were on their way. He had also sent his ships to Mu to bring back the mercenaries. When the Babylonians flank the city from the west, every man will be needed.
         Truinaught came to his tutor’s chamber with warm tea. “Good morning teacher and good morning Miriah.” It was an awkward situation having the son of the king, as his student. “Set the tea down, Truinaught.”
         “What will my lesson be today?”
         “There will be no lesson today, Truinaught.”
         “Is it something I have done?”
         “No, no. I must talk with the King on a certain matter. I may have to leave for Mu immediately.”
         “I will go with you.”
         “That is your choice, my friend.”
         “Why must you return to Mu?”
         “They are calling to me.”
         Truinaught asked no more questions. There were many things he did not understand about the priest. He follows’ Octivus down the hall to enter the king’s chamber. “You will wait here. I must be alone.”
         When Octivus entered the chamber, he found the king looking from his window. He turns to see the priest.          “They will come.” He says.
         “Yes my King. They will come.”
         “Do you think we will fall to the enemy?”
         “I do not know, my King. I have seen many visions in my dreams, but the fall of Alantasia is not one. I must return to Mu.”
         Agar is calm. “I would allow you to leave this very moment, Priest, but you would not get far. The ships I sent to retrieve my mercenaries from Mu none have returned. There is no way for you to cross the sea.”
         “Not a one ship?”
         “None, not a single ship strange is it not?”
         “Very. Why do you suppose they have not returned?”
         “A storm perhaps, possibly they are engaged in the problems of your land. They will not abandon your people if they are under attack. Perhaps war is upon Mu? I do not know, I am baffled, it all seems beyond control.”
         “There will be no reinforcements then. What will we do when the enemy comes?”
         “I do not know. It is strange how less snow has fallen in this season than any I have known before. The weather has been to their favor. If they are reinforced our defeat will be eminent.”
         “My people will stand with you until the last man.”
         “Thank you. Your people have already fought bravely.”
         “Have you heard from Elymah?”
         “All is well, yes, all is well.”

         The Babylonian Commander sent his strongest force to meet with his Captain. Their orders were to march down on the enemy from the west, but not to attack until the first day of spring. He must wait now as the cold has change the battle to a game of tactics.
         Elymah waited for the enemy to attack. When the attack did not come, he grew suspicious. “They must have found the second passage, Hunotu.”
         “Yes. What shall we do?”
         “Strategically, we should build a defense against the western attack, but we do not have enough men to defend two fronts.”
         “Then we should attack first. Maybe they are weak.”
         “Yes, but if we are wrong, Hunotu it will be fatal.”
         “I will send spies into their camp. They will let us know how many men the enemy has.”
         “That is a good idea, Hunotu. Tomorrow, there will be no moon. Send your men then.”
         It was the evening of the second day when the king received his son’s message. Alarmed he turns to the Priest. “He will attack the Babylonians at day break!”
         “That will be suicide, Father!” Truinaught stands.
         “Did he say why he is doing this?” Octivus asks.
         “He believes the enemy has sent the larger force through the second passage. Elymah concludes there will not be reinforcements coming to our aid, and to wait will result in sure defeat.”
         “You do not agree?” Octivus questioned.
         “What if he is wrong?” Agar worries.
         “What if he is right?” Truinaught defends his brother.
         “The enemy will still be too large for him to defeat. He will have weakened us to the point of breaking.” Agar says.
         “Then I will ride out to him tonight to stop his attack.” Octivus offers. There was little time to prepare. Octivus wore a heavy fur to stay warm on this frigid night. Miriah fought back her tears as he and her brother rode off together. Their chance of surviving the terrible cold night without fire was not good. Truinaught draped a quilt over each of their horses. Octivus led the way in full gallop. The freezing cold biting through the furs as they ride off into the night.
         Elymah stood warming his hands over the fire. He can see the tall fires of the enemy camp. He fought his doubts about the plan he had. It could be a trap.
         “Sire? It is too cold to make battle. Winter is upon us, perhaps we should wait?”
         “We are outnumbered, Anvelot, and if we do not use the cold to our advantage now, when spring comes we may find ourselves fighting a two front war. We do not have enough infantry.”
         “What if it is a trap, Elymah? We will be giving up the passage and it is our only strong hold?”
         “I have thought of that, Captain. This is why I choose to attack before sunrise. I am expecting that if they have hidden armies beyond the ridge an attack is not expected in such cold, they will not be ready.”
         “No one has ever led an attack in the cold of winter. The men will have frost bite. We will lose too many men just to weather conditions.”
         “Enough, Captain! It is clear in my mind that if we do not attack, I see little hope of winning this war.” Anvelot nods, turning away to rejoin his men.
         The enemy camp was quiet. They expected nothing with only two sentries posted. Soldiers cuddled the fires and paid little attention to the enemy camp in the distance, obscured to darkness with no moon, and with the sky threatening to snow an attack seemed unlikely. The wind blew in gusts, cutting through the warm furs the soldiers wore. They did not hear the sound of the approaching army until they were upon them by then it was too late.
         Anvelot took his men across the meadowland on foot, so not to arouse the enemy. Calvary would come after the initial attack. He could see the two sentries and orders his two most capable men to oust them before the alarm could be sounded.
As his men sneaked into the enemy camp, tent to tent they searched, finding them empty. Was it a trap? Then they came upon a ridge deep within the camp. There before them laid the sleeping enemy. He had his men form in ranks.
         The camp was quiet and Tehran slept soundly.
         “CHARGE!” Anvelot’s command echoed on the still night.
         The first ranks charged down the slope into the camp. The enemy woke stunned. Unformed and off guard, they joined in battle. The Alantasians were cold too, but they soon forgot the cold as the warm blood of the enemy covered their chapped fingers. Tehran came from his tent, trying to rally his men to stand and fight, but they ran passed. Tehran had no choice but to retreat with his men or risk capture.
         Anvelot followed the enemy, burning their tents and spilling their stores of fresh water. A wagon full of food rode off, back toward the passage. He drove the Babylonians back into their reserve camp. By this time first light lit the horizon, exposing the ranks that had formed on the opposing hill. There were too many. “Halt!” The Alantasians stopped. Anvelot stayed his desire to crush the enemy. He knew he did not have the strength. “Prepare to fall back to the passage!”
His men protested. “We have them on the run.” Chester shouted.
         “You will not question me, soldier. We will fall back to the passage and form ranks to defend.”
Elymah saw the enemy camp afire. He had caught them off guard. He gathered the ranks of his horsemen. They would protect the infantry as they regroup. He wondered how much damage he had inflicted on Tehran.
         Tehran charged his men after the fleeing enemy. His rage made him blind to the trap. They were upon their enemy in retreat when the horsemen appeared from the shadowed darkness of daybreak. He took his worse defeat ever. When the Sun shone bright over the land, he could see the camp in shambles with his men wandering aimlessly about, taking food and clothing from the dead. Then snow began to fall. Anvelot and his men cheered Elymah as he rode into the passage, victorious. They were proud of their Prince.
Tehran hung his head low, disgraced. How could his army be beaten this way? In a last attempt to save his honor, he formed his army into ranks.
         “Sire! They are coming.” Elymah turned to see the Babylonians forming.
         “Fortify the barricades! Withdraw into the passage. They will not stand a chance. This may be our final battle!”
         The enemy came in force. The barricades fell, overrun by Tehran’s men. The Alantasians retreated deeper into the passage to reassemble and to fortify the position. Elymah faced his enemy, but they did not come.
         He could see them at the passage entrance. Why did they stop? Sure, they knew they could overrun them. Anvelot rode for reinforcements stationed beyond the passage, while Hunotu and his tribesmen awaited Elymah’s orders of what to do next.
         Tehran held his men fast, as the snow fell around them. With a shiny metal piece he signaled his men above the passage. He had ordered a detachment of men to climb up the side of the mountain and was waiting for spring to unleash his diabolical plan. He had little choice now but to use every last asset. From above the passage, hidden in the rock cliffs, the Babylonian soldiers dropped rocks into the entryway, causing an avalanche. Below the Alantasians cry out as huge rocks crushed them beneath.
         Octivus and Truinaught came riding into the camp, Anvelot surprised, greets them. “What are you two doing here?”
         “We have come to stop Elymah’s attack.”
         “You are too late, my friends. We attacked before dawn and it was a success.”
         “That is wonderful news. Where is Elymah?”
         “He is with his men in the passage. Apparently the Babylonians are not ready to accept defeat and are countering at this very moment. I am readying reinforcements.”
         “I will go with you.” Truinaught volunteers.
         “It will be an honor to have you at my side.”
         “I will go as well.” Octivus says to his friend.
         “Will you draw a sword, my friend?”
         “No, I wish only to see Hunotu.”
         A wounded soldier rides up with the news, dropping from his horse into Anvelot’s arms. “What has happened?” Anvelot lays the soldier down on the ground.
         “The enemy has taken the passage.”
         “What! How?”
                  “They caused a rock slide from the cliffs above the passage.”
         “Where is the Prince?”
         “He is still in the passage.”
         Before anyone could think Truinaught mounted his horse, galloping off toward the passage. Octivus chased after him. When they reached the passage, soldiers were still stumbling from the dust.
         “Where is my brother?” Truinaught called out. No one knew.
         “You cannot go in there.”
         “He is my brother and because he is the Prince, he cannot fall into the hands of the enemy. Alive or dead, I must bring him out!” Octivus saw no other choice but to follow.
         The passage was full of dust and they could not see. They stumbled over men moaning from pain. They turned over bodies searching for Elymah. Octivus found the Ematoch Chief buried beneath a large boulder. He was dead. He took the blood of Hunotu using it to paint finger lines across his own face.
         “Here! Octivus! Here!” Truinaught found Elymah. He was alive, but hurt. His legs are pinned under rocks.          “Help me free him.” Frantic for his brother, Truinaught tossed rocks to the side with the priest’s help. Elymah stirs. “Truinaught?” He says surprised.
         “Silence Elymah, I will get you out of here!”
         “They came in a charge of death. Beware of the enemy, little brother. He fights for more than conquest and honor. His mission drives him to the point of suicide.”
         “Do not speak.”
         “I am dying brother. I am hurt inside. My legs are broken, but I do not feel pain.”
         “You will get well again, Elymah.”
         “Take my sword, Truinaught. Avenge my death.”
         “I will not take it.”
         “It is my sword, no longer. The seal on the hilt, little brother, is the seal of the heir to the throne. It is passed on to you now. I am sorry.” Elymah’s life passed from him. There is a silence.
         “NO!” Truinaught’s voice echoed through the passage. “You cannot die!”
         Octivus could only stand and watch, helpless. Stones fall from the mountain of rocks that now block the passage. A soldier jumps down on Truinaught. Octivus grabs the soldier’s arm and stays the deadly blow. Octivus wrestles the soldier from on top of Truinaught. Now the soldier turns on the Priest, lunging at him pushing Octivus back. The Priest takes up a shield from a fallen soldier and fends off blow after blow, until he falls over a body and to the ground.
         Staring up at the soldier, defenseless, he knew he was dead. As the soldier drew up to strike, he stopped, starring down at the blade that pierced through him, falling to his knees. His face torn in disbelief slams hard to the ground dead. Truinaught stood shaking. His knees weak, he trembled as he heaved vomit. Octivus stood over Truinaught. “You saved my life.”
         “I killed a man.” He groaned.
         “You saved my life.”
         “I cannot be a Priest. Can I?”
         “Destiny has made that choice for you, my friend.”
         “I did not want this.”
         “Let us dig your brother’s body free before other soldiers come. We must not be here when they come.”
         “Are you now the leader of your people, Octivus?” Truinaught gathered himself, and they dug fast to exhume his brothers body. “No…the responsibility now falls to his son.” After freeing the Prince from the fallen rock slide they ride hard from the passage with his dead body draped over a horse.
         Anvelot formed ranks before the passage, ready to defend. He worried for the three men. What a loss if none return, and he is soon relieved to see them emerge from the dust carrying the dead body of Elymah. The men watch as they passed their victorious moment dwindles in the lost of a great leader. It was a sad day.
         The Ematoch warriors follow Octivus. Hunotu was dead. Chemote, Hunotu’s son, approached the Priest. “Why did you leave my father’s body?”
         “He was pinned beneath a boulder too big for us to move. We will return when the time is right.”
         “You must guide me, Eighth Son. How shall I lead our people?”
         “Rule according to heart, my brother.”
         A great day of victory ends with the tragic death of Elymah, and the Ematoch Chief, Hunotu. The Babylonians held the passage with a second attack force coming from the West. Truinaught knelt beside his brother. Anvelot tried his best to return some dignity to the fallen hero, turning to the boy he sees Truinaught and can see he is not ready to lead, but he must. Standing he salutes his new commander. “What orders do you have, Sire.”
         Truinaught looked up unsure. Anvelot turns to his men. “The prince has ordered that we prepare to defend. Form up ranks!”
         Octivus helps Truinaught stand. “Come friend. I will help prepare his body for transit back to Alantasia.”
         Truinaught stands, drying his eyes. Clearing his throat, he gives his first order. “Bury my brother here. My people must be spared this grief. They must not lose their hope. It may be all we have left to keep fighting…And Captain, thank you…Tomorrow we shall avenge my brother’s death!”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

“The Final Days”CHAPTER TEN

         Tehran worked his men day and night to clear the passage. It took five days, and his men, exhausted, sat about. Up and until now Tehran pushed his men relentless, and they had no doubt that the order to attack would come soon. “Should I regroup and plan an attack at first light, General?” Asked his commander.
         “No, post a company of men to protect our ground. They will not dare attempt to recover the passage. It would cost them more than they can give. I expect they will have had enough time to make defenses. Have the catapults brought forward.” Tehran walked to the end of the passage. It was obvious he had caused heavy casualties to the enemy. Bodies lay about, some still buried beneath the rubble. They were brave men. “Remove the enemy’s dead from the passage and dispose of them.”
         “I will assign a detail at once, Sir. What will be the plan of attack?” The larger of the two forces was headed for the second passage to flank the enemy, with the primary passage in his control he could wait until spring, and rest his men.
         “I want our best archers up there in that ridge of rocks. Barrage their camp throughout the night while our men rest. Establish a perimeter and we shall wait.”
         The halls of the great castle were cold, and dark. Places where children ran and played were still and quiet. The winter months passed without any more than a skirmish from the Babylonians. Prince Truinaught sat with his Father. “Our fate is in your hands now, my Son. I trust your wisdom and I know you will fight a good fight until the end. The enemy is strong, and our hope relies on reinforcements from the lands to our south. Our allies cannot forsake Alantasia. Should we fall, they too will be subjected to Babylonian tyranny. They will come they have no other choice.”
         “I am afraid, Father. I never anticipated the death of my brother, and find this situation I am in out of my control.”
         “I have seen great men fall in battle. Your eyes cannot believe one so stout could die. That moment, a feeling weights down your spirit. You fear all is hopeless. Then one rises in the ranks to become greater than those who have ridden before them. Your brother taught you many things. Use this knowledge he learned you, but most of all, listen to the voice within you. From your actions is how the men will judge you…What plan of defense do you have once the enemy has broken free of the passage?”
         “I have set a line of traps that will slow his advancement and make it costly. I have made the men build a wall to give height and range for the archers. Each time the enemy passes another trap another will open in his path before him, all the way to the wall of the City.”
         “You will make this commander pay the full price.”
         “And more.” His eyes meet with Agars sending a chill up his spine. In this moment the young man felt for the first time ever, his father’s approval. “I must return to my men. I will do my best, Father.” He bows to his King with a new found respect.
Octivus spent the next days with his people in the forest. Tribal leaders came from many villages for miles around. When Octivus returned to Alantasia, his people came with him. His cousin, Chemote is now the Chief of the Ematoch, and stood at his side before the King, to pay respect to Agar’s fallen Son. “How is Truinaught?”
         “He is fine, thanks to you.”
         “I will go and be at his side.”
         “He told me what you had done in the passage. I know that you are not willing to kill. It is your belief, I will respect it. You have now saved all three members of the royal house. If you ask me for the right to my throne, I would stand and leave it, bowing at your feet. That is my debt to you.”
         “The power I seek is not over men, but over my own will.” His words were like a key to a door. An awareness to his destiny flood in on him, and he knew that soon the plans of the Ancient ones will enact. He knew he would be the pivot on which many fates will fall.
         “If this were so with other men, there would not be a need for kings of armies or for war. For it to be as it once was here long ago. A simple village full of happy people. To hear the laughter again I long for that moment…There is so little time left, Priest. I am but an old king, waiting for the moment, when I cross from life to death. My only regret, being I have little control over my own final moments. What awaits me, priest. How do I rate with the Gods of this land and by what demand of this mortal soul in me do they require? I have done all that a good king would for his people. I gave peace all these long years. What favor do you think it has won me in death?”
         “I have seen beyond the great mountain, Agar, and there is peace. I must go, my King, to join your son. Chemote will lead our people to join yours, now that Hunotu is resting among the Ancient Fathers.”
         “Be safe, Chemote.”
         For three nights in a row, the archers’ arrows rained down within the camps. The Alantasians huddled close to the wall for protection…on the fourth day they came with the fury of a storm. Soldiers emerged from the passage and the Alantasian archers shot their arrows straight and fell them in their path.
         The Babylonians formed ranks and advanced on the fortifications. They were fifty men across. Arrows bounced off their shields. Tehran knew there was no defense against his tight ranks. He would be upon the enemy before mid-morning. Then, before his disbelieving eyes, the entire first rank disappeared from his sight. The second rank stopped short of the trench, seeing the first rank impaled upon the pointed stakes, unfortunately the third rank, not realizing the trap, marches into their comrades, pushing them to their deaths. This happened to them as well until the frantic sergeant called the column to halt. A hundred and fifty men dead before a single blow, what kind of enemy were these men from Alantasia? Traps, and attacks in the night? Where was their honor to deny men of a good fight?
         The men of Alantasia cheered Prince Truinaught their hero. His plan had worked. Additional men arrived from Alantasia with more supplies. The next morning at first light the Babylonians came again. They bridged the trenches with tree trunks and crossed to form ranks, advancing again on their enemy. Traps, planks of wood with wooden spikes, sprung up at random taking out groups of surprised soldiers as they marched. The Archers shot them down, but still they came until they reached the next trap.
         The Alantasians waited until the first three ranks crossed the fire trench and then the archers took careful aim and ignited the pits with flaming arrows. Truinaught led his Guardsmen, charging around the battlements, and engaged the enemy. The enemy, cut off by the fire, is consumed by the Alantasians without mercy.
         “Kill them all! Kill them all!” Shouts Truinaught.
         Octivus stood and watched as the prince swung and chopped his enemy with ferocity and hatred that made him fear for his friend’s soul. The last soldier slain, Truinaught led his men back to the battlements to await the next attack.
         Weeks passed before the enemy reached the first wall made of mud and wood. Thousands lay dead in the fields and the new snow covered their bodies. The smell of death lay hidden beneath the cool white blanket. It is night and a single candle burns in the tent. Octivus calls inside. “Truinaught? Are you awake?”
         “Yes. Come in.”
         lies on his cot. “Why do you not sleep?” Octivus asks.
         “I cannot stop thinking, one plan after another goes through my mind relentless with questions. Which is the right tactic? Which one is wrong? The weather has given us time to reinforce, but it will not last.”
         “I have watched you in battle. I see a rage in the way you strike your enemy down. It has become more than battle with your enemy.”
         “What are you accusing me of?” Truinaught stands uneasy.
         “You have lost your compassion. You slay faceless uniforms, not men.”
         “They are my enemy. I slay the men who killed my brother, or have you forgotten!” Truinaught paced the tent, aggravated by the insinuations of the priest.
         “I have not forgotten, Brother. I fear for you.”
         “You worry for yourself. I can take care of me.”
         “You are consumed by this thing! I watched you hack a man to bits during the last battle. You cut him limb from limb, before you finally cut off his head to end his misery. That was not the friend I knew before the war. Did you not see the faces of your men as they watched?”
         “That friend is gone. He lives no more.” He is ashamed and turns away.
         “You are the Prince and future King of these people. You must not act out of moral contrast with your authority. Ask yourself why you butchered this mortal being the way you did.” His words were forceful, but still he reaches to touch his friend’s shoulder.
         “He was the enemy.” Truinaught insisted.
         “He was a man, a soldier.” Octivus challenged. His voice raised, his hand turns Truinaught about to face him. They stare eye to eye. “So what do you want from me? To cry? No, no, I will cry not for my enemy. It was not I that brought war to their land! It was not I that slew his brother. No, I did not change him into a murdering animal. That is what he has made me, and I will have no remorse. I hate my enemy for what he HAS MADE ME!” He pounds his chest hard to emphasize his inner pain. “They took from me what no one could replace. I lost the last piece of myself that belonged to my Mother. I lost her humanity. My soul is blackened by the blood of other men!” Tears weld in his eyes, but he would not cry in front of the priest.
         “I understand.” Octivus touches his friends, arm.
         “At least one of us does.” And turns away so the priest could not see the tears he could no longer contain them. He was alone, no one could understand his pain, and it was eating him alive.
         “I will go. Think about what you do, without compassion you will have become as evil as your enemy. I say this not to condemn you, but to save you from this thing inside you, that it will not break you down from being the leader I know you are.” Octivus turns away from Truinaught.
         This was how Octivus left his friend, in his own silence to think. The snow crunches beneath his feet as he walks toward his horse. He would return to the city till spring.
         Through the winter the two armies skirmished in the field and could be seen from Agars window. They fortified the battlements and set new traps. Soon the snow melted, leaving the trampled fields in a sea of mud. The remains of corpses lay upon the battlefield, a grim reminder of the coming spring and what death awaits them.
         Truinaught worried, should the enemy receive reinforcements and supplies. If he could get a man beyond the passage he thinks he could gather information on the enemy army. The reality of the matter is that it was hopeless.
         It was the first day of spring. The ranks of the enemy army filed out onto the field. Twenty ranks, fifty abreast. This was to be the moment of decision. Anvelot ran to get Truinaught “Sire, come quick! You have to see this!”
         Truinaught ran from his tent. He stood with his captains and surveyed the situation. “We will be over run.” Truinaught paces thinking of a plan.
         “Captain Kikpoot! Your men will hold this position until we have withdrawn. We will regroup on the ridge of Bloody Meadow. Do you remember the plan engaged by my father in that battle, Anvelot?”
         “Yes, but the enemy army was not as strong as this. They will march right over us.”
         “There is no time to dispute. Send a messenger to the city. Muster every available man left in the city, Captain Hubert, march your men west. They can be well hidden within the brink of the gorge. When the enemy engages you will act as a spearhead and penetrate his side, arching toward the city. Captain Kikpoot, do not hesitate to run when the time comes. I will need every available man back inside the city if my plan fails. Good luck.” The captains hurried to rally their men.
         The messenger came to the King in his chamber bringing the news the enemy had begun its final offensive. If Truinaught could fight off the attack, the enemy would have exhausted all of its resources. Tehran would either retreat or face utter defeat.
The trumpets blew assembly and all the men, most of whom were mid-aged, assembled before the castle court. There were soldiers who had served in the many years of peace, and had retired. Most of them had never seen battle, and were farmers, blacksmiths and shopkeepers.
         This was their home, and it was now their time to protect it. Agar looked down at the men. He had great respect for what they were about to do. None of them were prepared for this day. They had lived peaceful lives and grew fat with age.
Agar remembers the fields before they became a battlefield. He pictured his children, Stephan, Elymah, and Truinaught with Miriah not born yet, running and playing among other children. He remembered the days when in his youth he and his brother rode through those same fields. It was a day long before the walls of the city, when Alantasia was still a simple village. Now, in the hours of their final days, he wondered of his eldest son. What fate had become Stephan?
         The door opens and Octivus enters. “Am I disturbing you, your Majesty?”
         “No. Come in. Have you heard? The battle begins. It will be decisive.”
         “Yes. Your son had done a fine job defending the city. The Babylonians have not reached the city walls and have taken many casualties.”
         “If they break down our defenses this time, they will be at our wall in five days. My son plans to make a stand at Bloody Meadow. Thousands died in that place years before. I think he has made a wise decision, ironic as it may be. If we lose this war it will be lost in the very place it all began.”
         Octivus moves to the king’s side and together they watch the reinforcements march from the gate, leaving behind crying wives, lovers and daughters. Some men loaded wagons and sent their families out of the city, should they fail.
         The enemy breached the first battlements and Captain Kikpoot ordered his men to fall back. The archers gave them support as they drew away from the advancing enemy. Truinaught prepared as Captain Hubert awaited his signal to attack. They sat and waited, hoping Captain Kikpoot could ward off the Babylonians until dark. Tehran pushed his men onward. “Attack! Attack!” was his order. “Do not stop until you are dead, or the enemy defeated!”
         The Alantasians regrouped and waited for this first enemy ranks to appear on the ridge across from them. It was not a long wait. The Babylonian general halted his troops and sent a messenger to inform the commander that the enemy was making a stand. Tehran brought his own guards to join the fight. It was time to deal a fatal blow.
         A trumpet sounded and the first rank advanced. Truinaught lined his men along the ridge to face the enemy. When they closed, he gave the order, and the two armies were hurled together in battle. Sounds of the great battle rages in the fields within sight of the city walls, as the impact of the charge echoed for all to hear foretold the fate of many men, as wagons full of families left the southern gate.
         The signal for Captain Hubert to attack trumpeted. He came swift and cut into the Commander’s Elite Guard. The battle raged for three hours. Captain Hubert, killed with most of his men had done their job. They had caused many casualties for the Commander’s Elite Guard. Tehran drew back and that night his men camped along the opposing ridge, again foiled by the Alantasians.
         The commander sent a messenger looking for the hidden army. He would delay another attack until he knew they were in a position. The next day was quiet. Truinaught made plans to fight the enemy all the way to the city walls. Things were not looking good and the men’s morale was low. He walked between them and he spoke of the great battle fought in this very place. He knew though, what was most on the men’s minds – the next day they could be dead.
         It was early morning. The sun peeks over the horizon. On another day it would have been noticed for its unusual beauty. On this day, it brought new fears to the men. Truinaught kept his men ready, expecting an early morning attack, but it never came. Unsure of what to make of the quiet, Truinaught went over his plans with his captains.
         Anvelot watched from the fortification, the Babylonian soldiers constructing their own barriers using wooden branches tied tight, they created a fifteen foot mobile structure that would keep a platoon of men well hidden from the arrows of the Alantasian archers.
         Days passed before the enemy attacked. The last of the reinforcements from Alantasia arrive – they were merchants, shopkeepers, and blacksmiths and wagon masters – the last of the able bodied men. Left behind were the old men and women, wives and children of the soldiers that refused to give up on their husbands, and their fathers. Truinaught stood with his captains. It seemed that the enemy who had pushed forward with great force was now lax. The enemy did not attempt to advance.
         “Why are they waiting?” Truinaught paces back and forth. Looking west from the battlement he knew. “They are waiting until their second force is in place.”
         “When will they attack?”
         “Keep an eye on the enemy at hand. When they attack in force, we must protect our flank, and send word to my father to keep his eyes west. They are coming.”
         New snow fell, and both armies battled against the cold winds that came with the storm. The winter extends to early spring stopping the war for a time. It plays to the advantage of the Alantasians by delaying any attack in force by the enemy, but they would not dilute themselves knowing eventually it would come spring. Each man felt the pang in his gut that the end was near. Prince Truinaught sat alone in his tent. Wax for new candles ran low, so he sat in the dark, thinking. He had spent the entire winter in the field with his men. Food ran short and spirits were low. Many of his men died of exposure to the weather.
         Octivus stayed with Miriah in the Palace. Each day he spent with the King discussing many things. The Ematoch warriors returned to the forest to take care of their families through the cold winter.
The Babylonian Commander watched his men force the catapults through the passage. Stuck in the narrow part of the passage, the catapults were hastily disassembled. Tehran knew he would need these immense catapults to breach the city walls.
         “Commander, a messenger has arrived.”
         The messenger came from a reinforcement unit two days away. Tehran could not suppress his excitement. It was indeed a good day.
         “Tell General Miriam I am glad he has made it.”
         Walking among his men, he delivered the news himself. Morale became high. They were ready to fight and he knew they would be victorious. In two days Tehran and his men cheered as Miriam and his men marched into camp with food and supplies. General Miriam was disappointed to find the rag tag remnants of his forward army. He could not believe the state they were in. Tents were pieced together, scorched where fire had burned them. The men were dirty with uniforms missing pieces of armor plating. Soldiers, feet wrapped in torn clothes to cover the holes in their boots.
         “What has happened to your command?”
         “This army had defended well, General. This passage was the only way through the mountain. I managed to obtain it just as the snow began.”
         “Then why have you not marched your army through?”
         “There was a rock slide, blocking the passage. Now we must disassemble the catapults because they are too wide to fit the passage.”
         General Miriam was not happy with the results. “Employ all hands to reconstruct the catapults.”
         “At once, Sir. I have discovered another way around the mountain, General. I have dispatched the larger portion of my men west awaiting your arrival. They will be in position to attack by mid spring.”
         “How do these people fight?”
         “They are capable, Sir. The terrain is difficult. The weather is harsh. They will not fight a direct fight. They have well planned traps that have slowed our advancement. They use the terrain as well and this passage took many of my best men to capture.”
         Miriam rode along silent with Tehran, to see for himself the battlefield. He rode through the passage passed the disassembled catapults. He reached the end of the passage and gasped from the stench of the rotting corpses. Tehran had taken many loses.
         “How far is your second command?”
         “At least a two-month’s ride.”
         “This is what I want – Take the remainder of your force north. I will give you ample time to organize and form an attack line. You will move at night without fire so the enemy will not see you. My men will replace your men at the battlements. They will not know you are reinforced. In seven days the final attack will begin.” Miriam could taste their blood. This would be his land, and from it he would become rich. All he had to do was find the Stone of Ur, and return it to his Emperor.
         “But the remainder of my force will still not have arrived.”
         “It does not matter. You will have enough men to cause the enemy to divide his force and fight two fronts, or to retreat to his city. If they retreat, then when your second army rejoins us, we will engage the enemy full scale and run their city into the ground.”
         “Yes Commander Miriam.”
         “Now, tell me more about their tactics.”

         The ground was soft and muddy, but the men dug deep trenches filling them with sharpened stakes, covering them with thin layers of grass. Truinaught realized he did not have enough infantry to fight a two front war. Drawing his army into a position, he would fight along a narrow front, by protecting his flanks with obstacles.
         The Palace was cold as King Agar had all available oil sent to his men in the field. They burned the royal furniture in hearths to stay warm and spent many days under warm furs. Pregnant by two months, Miriah cuddles close to her husband beneath the fur. “Spring is coming.”
         “I know.”
         “It will be warm enough to go into the garden like we use to.”
         “Yes. I remember. Warm enough for battle too. Many men will die Miriah. It is hard to welcome the good weather.”
         Miriah lays back. “What will happen to us?”
         “I do not know. Without reinforcements, without food – it looks grim.”
         “What of our child, Octivus? Will he live?”
         “I have thought of that, Miriah. If the day comes when the walls of Alantasia fall, I will send you off with my people into the forest. You will be safe there.”
         “You will be at my side?”
         “I will try to be, Miriah, but I have no idea to what destiny lays before me.”
         “You stir in your sleep at night what do you dream of?”
         Octivus is silent. Thinking of his dreams, he begins. “I dream of Hunotu’s spirit. He comes to me and he says to me, things never before done, words never before spoken, with all its powers submitted to innocents. They are the keys! Then, he drifts away into the blackness. He reaches for me, but cannot hold on. His words call out from the pitch blackness – a feeling never felt. A deed caused by innocents. An evil destroyed forever…Then he is gone.”
         “I love you, Octivus.” He places his arm around her and they hold each other close. She places his hand on her stomach. “Can you feel him move?” Octivus smiles.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

“The Final Battle”

         Tehran and his men marched from the camp under a moonless sky following a gully that ran along a ridge to conceal his departure. He knew it was the opinion of General Miriam his engagement against the enemy was a failure and knew his fate that after the enemy is defeated Miriam would strip him of his rank, and he would be lucky to be left with his life.
         The Alantasians slept light not knowing when the next attack would come. They became exhausted, denied restful sleep, and wished for the battle to come – win or lose.
         Captain Anvelot could see this continuous state of readiness wearing down his men. He felt the strain too. They were all battle worn, a dangerous state of mind for soldiers. To become disinterested to the outcome of the battle, to live or to die, became irrelevant; just for it to be over was enough.
         Truinaught watched the western horizon anticipating at any moment the ranks of the second enemy army to appear. He, too, felt the strain. If only there was relief coming. His father had sent the ships off before winter came, to bring back the mercenaries from Mu, but they never returned. Groups of men that traveled many months straggled in from the South lands. Sparsely armed and tired from the journey, they were welcomed.
         General Miriam waited until the sun broke the horizon to start his offensive. A dozen drums began to beat a single thump – thump – thump. Each rank moved behind the mobile barriers, advancing one step to each thump of the drums.
Captain Anvelot went to Truinaught, worried. “They have begun the attack.”
         Truinaught rushed for the frontal barricade and watched the enemy barriers advance in order. Something was not right and he watched closely, listening to the drum beat, turning to Anvelot, his face pale, his words faltering with his realization.          “They have been reinforced!”
         “How do you know this?”
         “Listen. The drums, Anvelot! They have never been heard during an attack before. There is a new Commander!          They are fresh and rested troops.”
         “Then we stand no chance.”
         Truinaught looked out from the battlement. He watched his traps springing with no effect on the barriers. Pits were breached, with sturdy planks. His first thought was to retreat inside the city, but no, he could not give up all this ground without a fight. It was futile. They could not win no matter where they fought. “We will make our stand here!” Truinaught was surprised at the calm that overcame him. There was a peace in knowing, it would all be over soon.
         “WHAT?” Anvelot almost fell backwards.
         “They want my home? Then they will pay for it!”
         “It is suicide.” Anvelot argues.
         “If we retreat, they will follow. Here is where I choose to die. This meadow is where the first village, Adeana was built. This is the rightful place for the final battle to be fought.”
         Anvelot accepted Truinaughts decision, and turned to his sergeants. “Tell the men this is the last stand. We will not retreat from this place under any circumstances.” His orders were given in an easy tone. The sergeants merely nodded – the moment was at hand.
         A strange mood took the men of Alantasia. The fatigue left their bodies and they were full of a new strength. To feel victory in your heart in the face of the certainty of death to know they will die well.
         Truinaught had one last thing on his mind. “I must return to Alantasia one last time. I will deliver the news to my father myself.”
         “We will not falter.”
         “I know you will not. I am proud to have had you as my captain, Anvelot.”
         “And I to have you as my Prince, Truinaught.”
         “FOR GLORY!” Truinaught raised his sword.
         “FOR GLORYI” Anvelot repeated.
         “FOR GLORY!” All the men on the battlement cheered.
Chester, John and Leffus were the last of the boys from Mu. They had become strong soldiers and fought bravely in battle. They felt no regret to die here. Instead they felt for the first time, it was a place to call home. Chester turned to the younger boys. “Stick together, fight as one.”
         General Miriam was in no hurry. His plan was to keep the enemy on alert and tire them. He watched his barriers advance. At this pace they would be close enough to the Alantasians battlements to hear them breathe, but he would not attack until mid morning tomorrow.
         Truinaught rode through the open city gate. An eerie aura filled the vacant streets once full of marketers and citizens. His steps echoed as he ran through the court, into the castle. The halls were long and dark. He stopped before entering the king’s chambers to look up at the mural and the giant figures that seemed to scorn him for his failure. King Agar saw his son enter, and knew that soon Alantasia would fall to the enemy. He could not help but weep.
         “Father?”
         Agar had no words to speak. He opened his arms to his son and together they cried.
         “All things must end someday, my son.”
         “I tried to hold, but they are now reinforced. Soon the second army will come over the ridge and we will be overrun.”
         “I do not know why my friend, Dimitri, has abandoned me. The boy I sent must not have gotten through and Dimitri does not know of our plight, is all I can think. My ships…my ships are lost. The mercenaries have not come. It is not your fault, my son. It is the fate of our people.”
         “I must go now to see my sister.”
         “She and her husband have gone down to the garden to walk. She will be happy to see you.” Truinaught walks away from his father to turn one final time at the door, to see not the king, but his father. It was then he understood, and knew that they were one of the same heart.
         Mother would be proud of them both. “To Glory, Father.” His words spoke soft as he held his sword high. “To Glory, my Son.” It was to be the last time either would see the other again, alive.
         After seeing his sister and Octivus, Truinaught rode from the gate alone to rejoin his men. As he left the gate he turned to see only the old remained. They would not flee. This was their home. This is where they would die. It seemed all that remained to fight for was stone.
         The next morning the Babylonians formed ranks, but they did not attack in force. Truinaught grew frustrated with these new tactics. He wanted a fight as did his men. Miriam saw the Alantasians flexing each time his men charged and retreated. Time was on his side, and he toyed with them. It was all part of a plan to degenerate morale. This continued for five days.
         The Alantasians had become disconcerted by the actions of the enemy. Anvelot warned Truinaught of the severity of the situation. Truinaught walked between his men and spoke with them. By mid morning he had his answer and called his Captains to quarters. “I asked the men what they think and this is what they told…The men would prefer to attack even if defeated and I agree. To sit here waiting is certain death, crushed between the two forces. Maybe? Maybe we can surprise them with a full scale counter assault. If we are swift and concentrate our force on the center, we may find a weak point and drive the enemy back into the passage.”
         “They will only fight out again, and we will be too weak to defend. We may just as well set down our swords.          We can retreat to the city. There we can buy time, and hold the enemy for months. Maybe by then help will arrive.”
         “We are out of options. The plan is foolish, but this is not what they expect. Face the truth, Anvelot. If help was coming, it would have been here already. We are the last defense.”
         “What is your plan?”
         “No plan at all. We will bring up the reserve under the cover of darkness. In the morning when the enemy plays with our defenses, we overrun his forward positions, undoubtedly causing chaos. If the Commander is convinced that we are reinforced, maybe he will fall back to reorganize.”
         “But when he figures out it was all a bluff?”
         “I intend to lead a company of men straight to the main camp. Hopefully, I can kill enough of their leaders to cripple his plan of attack.”
         “I cannot let you go, Truinaught. It is my position to lead these men. I will not allow you to take that honor from me.” Anvelot looked deep into the prince’s eyes.
         Truinaught nodded. “Very well.” That night the Alantasians prepared their bold plan. Every man pushed up behind the forward battlements. No one would remain behind. It was the last charge in the final battle.
         Over the past days, Octivus spent many hours with the king watching out of the window toward the west. Agar waited silently for the night to come. Another day they have held the front. Octivus breaks the silence. “Truinaught should retreat. He should bring his men back to the city. The walls will give him protection.”
         “He will not do this.” Defends Agar.
         “He stands no chance in the open.”
         “My son has chosen his place to die.”
         “I do not understand, my King.”
         “He will await the coming onslaught with dignity. He will make his stand and will fight until the last man falls in the field of blood.”
         “Then his decision is to give up? The enemy will march into the city without a fight?”
         “There will be very little left for the enemy when he arrives. Look…They stay behind knowing, certain death awaits them. They prepare to burn their homes and possessions so the enemy will not have anything to help them as they advance south.”
         “Then we have accepted defeat.”
         “I want you to take my daughter away from this place, you hear? I want some part of me to survive this tragedy.”
         “And you?”
         “I have made preparations.” A pitcher sat with a glass filled near his bed.
         “Poison?”
         “Must you know everything?”
         The door opens and in stumbles an Ematoch elder, Tumot. He spoke in the old language. Octivus listened, turning toward Agar. “Tumot says, the second army has made its camp a half day’s ride west.”
         “They have arrived earlier than expected. My Son will not be prepared. He will be out flanked. There is nothing left, but to wait.”
         “I will ride out myself and deliver the news.”
         “No. It will be too late. If the enemy plans to march down from the west in the morning, Truinaught will not have time to make defenses.”
         “Then he stands no chance.”
         “None, it is over.” Agar hangs his head low. “If only there was a way to support his flank. It could buy him time.”
         Octivus puts his hand to the king’s shoulder. Agar opens his eyes to see the horn of the Emach Guard held in front of him. “Perhaps you can.”
         Agar laughs. “You are so naive. There is no Emach Guard left! They are all dead and even if some have survived, look at me? I can barely make a fist to hold my sword.” He pushes away the horn.
         “So instead you will do nothing at all. Then take your poison old man and accept your fate. The great king of a hundred stories is, but an old man waiting for a silent pitiful death.”
         “HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO ME THIS WAY! HOW DARE YOU!!”
         “HOW DARE YOU FORSAKE YOUR SON…He needs you! You speak glory, but you have none left in you. You speak of honor, but you will take a coward’s death with poison at your own hand.” Octivus raged at the king.
         Agar backhands the priest, knocking him to the floor. They are both stunned. Is this what it all comes too? How pathetic Agar realizes – an old man, and a priest bickering with no hope, only death to look forward too. He shakes his head in disbelief.          “You dare to speak of honor…YOU KNOW NOTHING! I felt the lives of brave men bleed out over my fingers. I charged into the face of death and I lived beyond the battles. You will never know the glory.”
         Octivus stands, taking the horn up to the king. “Show me the glory, King!”
         “And if no one comes? Should I ride against an army of thousands alone?”
         “No. I will ride unto death with you, together.”
         Agar stares silently at the horn, and after a long moment takes it in his hand, placing it to his lips he blows with all his strength. Phuaph!“I do not have the strength.” He shakes his head.
         Octivus takes the horn turning it over tapping it on the sill he knocks loose the clump of dust and a spider which had made the idle horn its home. “Now try.”
         Agar stood before the open window inhaling deeply. The single note blew from the horn and carried throughout the city. Its single note carried over the walls into the forest. It had been a sound not heard in sixty years and those who were left, stood stunned upon hearing it. Agar leaves his room and walks along the hall.
         “Where are we going, my King?”
         “To the Armory, Priest, you do not expect me to ride into battle in pajamas!”
         In the city below the king’s court, the old who remained heard the sound of the horn and stopped what they were doing. At first they thought it was their ears going bad, but then it came again. EMACH?
         Again for a third time it blew and then they were sure. EMACH! A flicker of life came to old eyes as they scurried about, searching for swords in hiding places forgotten long ago.
         EMACH was on their lips, as they tossed through hay stacks and ripped planks from stable walls. King Agar squeezed into his old armor. His sword hung at his side. Octivus could see the king’s discomfort.
         “Perhaps the armor is too tight?”
         “Nonsense, it fits like it has always, sucking in his gut. “Maybe a little snug, but it fits.” He finally admits.
         “It has been many years, my King.”
         “Well, I am as ready as I will ever be. There is plenty of armor to choose from. Take a sword of your choice. They are all worthy of battle.”
         “I will not need a sword, my King.”
         “Suit yourself, Priest.”
         The King’s armor clanked as he walked along the dark hall. Octivus stops as they come to his room. “There was one more thing to be done, my King.”
         “Yes, Priest?”
         “I must say goodbye to my wife.”
         Agar nods. “I must say farewell to my daughter, too.”
         Entering the room, they find Miriah lay in bed crying. She had heard the horn and she knew her father would ride into battle.
         “Miriah?”
         “Father?” She turns.
         Agar walks to the bedside. Her pregnancy was starting to show beneath her robe. He placed his hand upon his unborn grandchild. “I must go. I have come to say farewell.”
         Miriah hugs her father tight. She knows he will not return. Her fingers squeeze his flesh as if to make a permanent image in her mind of how he felt. Kissing him on his cheek, she backs away. “I am proud.” She wipes away her tears.
         “There is more…I will be joining your Father, Miriah.”
         “Oh no, Octivus!” She sobs.
         “The Babylonians are coming from the west. They will be upon your brother by morning. It is the only way.” He caresses her, knowing this may be the last time he holds her.
         “But you are a priest. You cannot kill!” She knows he will die if he goes.
         “None the less, I must go.” He holds her tight.
         “But you will be killed!” She trembles in his arms.
         “I love you, Miriah.”
         “Father? Make him not go!” She demands.
         “I cannot Miriah.” Her maids gathered about her.
         Miriah falls to the floor trembling. “Do not leave me!”
         Octivus could not hold back his tears as he leaned down to hug her tight. “I will always be with you. Please, be brave. It is my fate.” Miriah looks into his eyes, touching his long white hair. She takes a chain from around her neck, placing it over his head. “It is the necklace you gave to me the first time you said you loved me…Remember?”
         “Yes. I could never forget something that meant so much to both of us.”
         “Nor will I forget you. If there is a way for you to return, let this bring you home to me and hold in your arms our first born.” She kisses him. The Black stone hangs from his neck sparks being confined by the power of their love. So the black rock, the Moon Stone of Ur, return to his possession by an act of innocents.
         “I will return if I am able, and promise, I will not take this from my neck. It will hang close to my heart.          I must go now.” He strained to push her away.
         She touches his face, kissing him. “I will wait.”
         “No, Tumot will take you back to my people’s village.”
         It was hard to let her go, but he must. He turns one last time to see Miriah on the floor. Her face was hidden in her arms as she weeps. Agar puts his hand upon the priest’s shoulder. “It was no different for me when I left her mother to do battle. They do not understand that we have no choice.”
         King Agar comes from his palace. A hundred or more men, half armored stand before him. Agar looks them over, hoping to recognize familiar faces, but he saw only old men. A figure dressed in a black cloak rode a silver grey horse. His hood was drawn about his face. Agar approached the dark figure with caution.
         “Draw back your hood, man and let me see your face.” Slow at first the dark figure drew back his hood revealing a familiar face. “Bartholomew?” Agar could feel his heart skip a beat.
         “Did you think the Emach Guard could ride without me?”
         “Where have you been all these years? Why did you not let me know you were alive?”
         “It began with a man called Odem, whom I met many years ago on one of my adventures. He exposed me to many truths, and I took an oath to him. I have never been far and now that I have heard the horn of the Emach, my duty to Odem is finished, my brother.”
         Octivus came forward. “You are the one who saved me and the others!”
         “Are you the child? You have changed greatly.”
         “I have. Without you I would not have been. Thank you for my life, Bartholomew.” Octivus bows low.
         Agar looks about the rag tag bunch of old men on horseback. “I do not remember any of you. Has age changed us so much?”
         “Armetus.” Shouts one.
         “Illiss. “ Shouts another.
         “Samoti.” Shouts still another. They were the closest of all his guardsmen. They rode by his side into each battle. He rode to them and shook their hands. “I am ashamed I could not recognize you.” Then between them came a one handed man. “I am Po…Do you remember me?”
         Agar remembered and reached to hold his one hand tight. “Whatever did happen to you, Po? I waited many years for you to come and stand with me in my court. You could have had anything, but you did not come. Why?”
Po looks to Bartholomew, who had spared his life. “I traveled far for many years. When I returned I was banished from the Kingdom because the wound I received in battle was in peacetime, the marking of a thief.”
         “I would have hanged the men who denied you your honor.”
         “It does not matter, Agar. We shall find that final honor in one last ride together. Can I ride at your side?”
         “It is my privilege to have you here.”
         Agar rides his horse before his men.” Drawing his sword, he looks into their eyes. Their bodies wrinkled and shrunken in armor too big, or bodies too bloated to fit. He spots a sparkle of light in them and he knew they would be gallant.
         ”TO GLORY!”
         “TO GLORY!” they echoed.
         As the King leads his men along the streets toward the gates, the streets lined with old women. They watched silent and proud of their men as they passed. Agar stops before leaving the gate to look back on those who remained. “I am proud to have been your king!”
         They rode through the night. It was still dark when they reached the ridge opposing the enemy forces. Agar and his brother spied the enemy, but they were not in readiness. It was strange. Agar decided to attack at the crack of day, focusing on the center of camp where the officers slept. It made the logical objective. They would not form ranks, but ride in force, tight and swift. It would be a battle to the last man. It would be their final battle. Agar turned to Octivus. “You will not have to ride with us into battle.”
         “I will go where my King goes.”
         “You will do as I say. We are old men. This is our last battle. You, my son, have my daughter and grandchild to look after and you carry no sword. You serve no purpose in this battle. Go, Priest, and remember us on this day as a witness to the bravery of these old men, so that our death may not be in vain.”
         “All will know. I will carve the deed in stone, so that it will never be forgotten, my King.”
         In a moment the king led his men down into the darkness. All was silent. Then, as the first rays of sun touched the land, Octivus could see the tents of the enemy spread along the meadow. They suspected nothing.
         “TO VICTORY!” The king’s voice rang out.
         Octivus watched from a distant hill as the Emach Guard rode with thunder into the camp. He did not feel sadness for those about to die. He knew they had found their final glory!

         Meanwhile, at almost that precise moment, General Miriam began his skirmish tactic. It was not until his men were upon the Alantasians that he saw the forces built up.
         “CHARGE!” Truinaught led his men into battle.
         Miriam turned to his Captains. “It is a suicide attack. Bring up all the forces from beyond the passage. This will be the final day. Send a message to Tehran not to wait, attack at the soonest possible moment.”
         He watched from his position as the Alantasians cut deep into his defenses. He rides down to begin a formation, but it falters and he must retreat. By mid day the Alantasians had fought up the meadow before the passage. Anvelot bleeding from wounds, as were most of the men, rallied his men. Blood oozed from Truinaughts forehead, but still he fought on. By late day most of the Alantasians were on foot. Their horses cut down by arrows as the Babylonian archers barraged them from placements in the cliffs above the passage.
         Truinaught stopped his advance, calling his men back beyond the reach of the arrows to form ranks. Miriam gathered his men and they awaited his orders. The Commander wanted his reinforcements before he would attack, but they did not come. Soon it would be dark and he worried that the Alantasians would retreat to their city. He had them beat. He could not wait.
         “Advance!” He ordered his men.
         The Alantasians knew this would be the final charge. Truinaught stood with his Captains. “Wait until they are upon us. Order your men to shield up, and wait.”
         The enemy approached the last slope. Then, as the first ranks clashed, a trumpet sounds above the cries of battle. For a moment both armies stood baffled by the sound, neither recognizing the call to arms. Truinaught could see, from his mount, the first troops ride from the passage. They were not Babylonians! “Romans!” He shouts.
         The Babylonians faltered caught between two charging armies. The battled continued into the night. The enemy engulfed by Roman troops was defeated, and Miriam was struck down dead. His captains, what was left, surrendered. Truinaught went to find the leader of his ally. “I am Truinaught, Prince of Alantasia. Who do I owe this victory?”
         The figure came from amid his men. His shield and armor stained with his enemy’s blood, he removed his helmet and stared into the Prince’s face. “You have grown much, little Brother.”
         Truinaught looked into the stranger’s face. He did not know it. “I do not know your face stranger. What is your name?”
         “I am Stephan, son of Agar.”
         Truinaught dismounts. He could not believe it as he walks to meet his older brother. He was an infant when Stephan had left. “How did you learn of our plight?”
         “This young boy, Eli, found my camp. He was nearly dead when he stumbled into my tent with this script from our father. Demitri was dead for many years and I could not take leave, which is why I was not here sooner. It seems we were not a moment too soon. How is everything?”
         “Elymah is dead, so is Mother. Why did you not return for her funeral?’
         “I did not know of her death until this moment.”
         “Father will be happy to see you again. Miriah will have a child soon.”
         “Miriah? Who is she?” Many things had happened since he left long ago.
         “Our sister…She was born after you left.” A messenger rides up. Truinaught takes the script…It is from Miriah. Our Father has ridden against the second army.” She hoped her brother could reach their father before it was too late. Truinaught and Stephan rode with speed west. The night slowing their pace, but they continued until they came to the site of the battle. They were too late.
         As the coming sun hinted over the horizon, the Alantasians and Roman mercenaries formed ranks above the ridge. The first light revealed the opposing force along the opposite ridge. Between them were the remnants of a camp where hundreds lay dead. The staff of King Agar marked the place where he fell. As the morning mist clears, the two armies prepared to face off, when a single figure came from the mist dressed in white.
         The figure in white rode among the dead, a curiosity to the Babylonian Commander who went forward from his ranks to see clearer. Tehran could see this was no ordinary man, and watched. Octivus took the shroud he brought for the king, and began his descent onto the field. He would take the king’s body away.
         General Tehran watched as the lone rider came to within range of his bows – His archers aimed. “NO!” He stayed their arrows. Octivus dismounted and walked among the dead men. A tear came to him as he looked into their dead faces and knew great men died here.
         “Who is that?” Stephan questions. “He is leading them to our father’s body…Bowmen!” Stephan commanded.
         “NO. He is my friend. I will not have him killed.”
         “Brother? They will take our father’s head and put it on a pole, carrying it before them as a banner. Is this what you want?” Stephan words are strong. He had fought this enemy before. This was their way.
         “He is also our sister’s husband. What will be, will be done.”
         Stephan stayed the archers and he watched to see the enemy general dismount and approach the lone rider. “You are the one from my vision.” They heard his voice say. The wind carried the words to every ear on both sides. Octivus places the silk shroud next to the King’s body.
         “Yes.”
         “Whose body do you claim?” Tehran steps forward curious.
         “I claim the body of my wife’s father.” Octivus says proud.
         “Of what rank was he?”
         “He was King, a great man of his people and a father.”
         “King? Such consequence for so trivial a battle.” Tehran could not believe his good fortune. Surely to secure the head of a fallen king would bring him back into favor of Miriam. His failures would be over looked. He would be a hero.
         “No death of any man, King or soldier, is trivial.”
         Tehran steps forward. “The head of this king would inspire my men to fight. I must have it to post before them for their honor.”
         Octivus stood appalled. His hands clinched into fists. “You will not mutilate this good man’s body.”
         “There is no choice, Priest. Step aside and I will spare your life. I need not mean to kill a holy man.” Tehran steps forward.
         “I will not.” Taking a step toward Tehran defiant.
         “Step aside, puny Priest! Do not waste my time!” Tehran draws his sword.
         Octivus had never felt hate before. The dreams of Hunotu were coming true. His blood grew hot in him as this cruel being approached. He remembers the cruelty he saw in his vision, of the slaughter of old, young, women and children. “To have his head, Tehran, you must first take mine!” Octivus drew up the king’s sword from the ground. The stone grew warm around his neck.
         “You have courage, Priest, but you stand no chance against me. Step aside and I will make you my own priest. You will become rich beyond your dreams.”
         Octivus raises the sword in defiance. “This is where I will stand. You have nothing I want.” The stone glows with fire.
         “Then you will die, little Priest.”
         It was then that he spoke the words, never before spoken. “It is a good day to die!” The words carried on the wind for all to hear. The great words were the song in every warrior’s heart. They were the poetry of the spirits of the dead men scattered about the field, and those who clung to their mortal lives, with a last dying breath, turning to witness the man who spoke such great words, easing them from this life, into the world beyond to watch in spirit the battle of two men. Yes they agree, it is a good day to die!
         Tehran hesitated himself and knew this priest carried strength within him. He felt fear rush through him. Octivus slashed at the air, poising himself to fight. Tehran charges with furry and their swords crash with thunder. The ground shook and the sky flashed with lightening as the two men fought, while the two armies watched from opposing ridges.
         The battle went on with both men sustaining serious wounds. Tehran felt his boots fill with his own blood. He was in pain. Not a soldier from either side interfered. The champion would decide the fate of the battle.
         The white silk robe the priest wore was red with his blood. He stumbled, exhausted, but neither would yield before the other Tehran lunges for the priest, missing and falling to the ground. Octivus stood over him. One blow and it would be over. He drew up his sword as Tehran looked into the priest’s eyes, awaiting his death.
         “Kill him!” Came shouts from the ridge.
         He drew back his sword again, but he could not. The Stone of Ur burned beneath his robe. Hate was its power over men. Slay him. It beckoned his will. Kill the one you hate. The stone would be free from innocents. Evil would be victorious. “I cannot.” Octivus fell to his knees. He saw before him a man, vulnerable, mortal and helpless.
         “Kill me!” Tehran begged. “One must live, one must die. It is the way…Kill me!”
         “I cannot.”
         Then, with all his strength, Tehran rose up. His eyes filled with tears. He must do as he must, though he did not want to. Drawing up his sword he swung down his final blow, but the stone could not allow its master be destroyed. A prisoner of innocents, it exploded in a flash of blinding light. No one saw what had happened exactly. Even the priest looked up from the ground surprised to find Tehran dead before him. His throat cut by his own hand. The deed of innocents had occurred, and the thing of great evil destroyed itself to protect the master.
         Octivus stood over Tehran. He could not believe he was alive. His chest burned and he tore open his robe to find his skin burned black where the stone hung no more. He knew it was Miriah’s love that had saved him. Upon the ridge Truinaught readied his men, but the Babylonians tossed down their weapons and turned back the way they came, never to be heard from again.
         Octivus went over to his King and finished his deed. Truinaught and Stephan carried their father to a wagon. Slowly it traveled back to Alantasia with each of the Emach Guardsmen who died that day, tied over their horses. The Ematoch people stood close to their holy one, it became news to Octivus that Chemote was slain. He was now the chief of the Ematoch people. He sent word to his people that they were to come to Alantasia and bring his wife. They would not be returning to the forest so they should bring all they needed for a long journey.
         On the march back to Alantasia, Octivus walked along with an elder who told him a story. “Many years ago two brothers fought in a war such as that we have fought this day. Their father fell in the final battle. When the brothers returned to the village, both claimed the right to be Chief and both had that right, since they were born twins, moments apart. It was tradition that they fight until one was dead. The survivor would be Chief. After much debate between themselves, they decided, they would not draw blood against each other.”
         “What did they do?”
         “They parted ways. Those who followed Lunatan stayed here in the village. We are his descendants. The other was called Drago. You are his. You are the chosen one by blood rite. You are the Eight Son of the Chief’s son, Drago. The decision so long ago denied by the blood fight between two brothers has come at last to an end. You are our Chief.”
         It all made sense. All that had happened had brought him to this place to face his destiny as Chief of his people. Nature will always find a way to accomplish her will.
         Truinaught led the wagon with his brother, Stephan. The gates to the city opened and the victorious army rode in. A silent crowd viewed the wagon with their fallen King as it passed.
         The crowd, old women and cripples who could not ride into battle, dressed and armed with weapons left to them by husbands who died along the years gathered about it. Alantasia would not have fallen without a fight. One old woman raised up a heavy sword.          “HAIL AGAR, King of Alantasia!”
         The Palace was opened to all its citizens and they were curious to see what a king’s home was like. They did not intrude. Their king earned this elegant home with his blood. The Roman mercenaries stayed a week and feasted with Truinaught and Stephan. Octivus had left with his people to offer Chemote up to the heavens. Miriah sat with her brothers. She tried to be happy, but she missed her husband, and mourned for her father.
         On the eighth day since the end of the war Octivus returned to Alantasia. He brought with him all the people of his village. They were greeted as friends and food and gifts were offered to them and their new Chief. Truinaught met his friend in the garden court where they talked.
         “I was beginning to worry you were not returning.”
         “It took time to pack our things. I must return to Mu now, Brother. There are matters there that must be resolved…I will miss you, friend.”
         “I will send a legion of men with you. The enemy that has taken your land will soon learn the true power of the Alantasian people.”
         “Thank you, Truinaught. I think, though, this battle is one that the Ematoch people must fight alone.”          Octivus could not see his own fate, and would not lead his friend into blind fate.
         “I do not understand. We are brothers. Should we not fight side by side?”
         “We have brought together an old alliance. This fight is not for glory, honor or for land. It has to do with a responsibility left to my people by the Ancient one.”
         “You said to me that day in the forest. ‘Listen and you shall learn.’ I hope to someday know the reason you cannot share this secret and should you need anything, Octivus. You only need to ask.”
         “I ask only for ships to carry my people across the sea, and food enough to feed them.”
         “I do not know if there are any ships in Port Wert. The Navy has not returned. I can have them built, but it will take months.”
         “I will find a way.”
         In two days all the food that could be gathered was placed in wagons. The Ematoch tribe walked from the southern gate and began their journey. It was spring, and the flowers began to bloom and everything smells fresh, and good. Octivus holds Truinaught close. “I will miss you, my Brother.”
         “Someday you will return.” Octivus was silent. He hoped to feel that this was true, but he felt a void of blackness. He knew they would never see each other again. “Someday perhaps.” He hoped in spite of his feeling.
Miriah held her two brothers close. “I will think of you every day, my Brothers. Stephan, the brother I have never known. I heard so many things about you. I regret that now that our family has been rejoined, it is I who must leave.” She is sad.
         “It seems to be the way of our family. We regret most that we will not see your child born.” Stephan holds his sister’s hands tight with his.
         “But I have chosen his name, Stephan-Truinaught.”
         “Good-bye, Miriah.” Truinaught kisses his sister on the cheek.
         Octivus helps his wife into a wagon. “I will take good care of your sister.”
         “I know you will. Good-bye, my Brother. You are my best friend.”
         The wagon leaves the gate. Riding next to the wagon are the last surviving boys from Mu – Chester, John, Eli and Leffus. They wore shining armor plates that bore the emblem of the King and rode black stallions. Experienced in warfare, they now returned to free their homeland.
         The Ematoch tribe begins their journey through the forest towards Port Wert. It was a strange place to them. They looked upon it with wonder. A new path to unfamiliar places as one elder described it.
         Miriah felt her baby. “Our child moved in me.”
         “Will you be able to make the journey?”
         “Yes, I will be fine. Will they be alright?” Her concern was for his people. Octivus looks at his people. He saw the curiosity in their eyes as they walked. They have been wonderers all their lives. He knew their future was uncertain, he could feel it in his heart that their future was not yet written, he replied. “They will be fine.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

“Return to MU”

         It took three days to reach Port Wert. Octivus did not want to strain the women and children who walked beside the supply wagons, so he camps them outside of the Wayward Inn for a day to rest. The lodge owner, hearing of the Priest’s coming, prepared a great feast for them.
         Skewered above an open pit was the largest pig the lodge owner could find. The Ematoch people were said to be great warriors and had saved Alantasia. “All that is mine is yours.” He said to the Chief.
         When the Ematoch reached Port Wert, people watched from their windows as they passed through the streets.          “Those are the people of the wind.” They whispered to their children. Octivus could feel their eyes upon him. A familiar place makes him think about Ebert and his wife. Here they passed the alley, and his thoughts were of Meager. What has happened to his friend and tutor?
         When they reached the wharf, Octivus found no ships in the port. All the sea worthy ships had sailed, never to return. Still, Octivus did not give up hope. His great grandfather crossed the sea in a boat made of reeds. He would do the same if he must. For a brief moment he enjoyed the scent of the sea – He had forgotten it. He could think of nothing else, but to get home to Mu.
         The Tavern went silent as the men wearing the emblem of the Sunburst signifying they were of the Alantasian Guard who entered. They had heard of the white haired one and the stories of his great powers. “I am in need of a ship to take my people to Mu. Do you know of any?”
         The tavern keeper heard of the coming Priest, shaking his head. “There are no ships.”
         “I will give you all the gold in this pouch to anyone that can help me get a ship.” The Priest throws a heavy pouch on the counter. Others gather to see as the tavern keeper empties the pouch. “There is one who may know.”
         “Where can I find him?”
         “There in the corner, the drunk.”
         The seaman was asleep, face down on the table. The four soldiers carry him from the tavern, laying him on the dock, while Octivus douses him with a bucket of water. The Captain jumped. “Man overboard!” He looks about him and sees the soldiers. “Who in the hell are you?”
         “I am told you have a ship.”
         “No. . .Hick. . .No ship.”
         Octivus looked into the strangers eyes. “I know you. You are Captain Mono.”
         “At your … Hick … service… but I do not know you.”
         “I was a little boy when I came here aboard your ship. We came from Mu. You do remember that place?”
         Captain Mono thinks. He is sad as an old memory is renewed. “I can use a drink.”
         “No. We are trying to return to Mu. We need a ship. Do you know where is there one?”
         “Mu is no more.”
         “What are you saying?”
         “He is a drunk, forget him Octivus.” Chester insisted.
                  “You said Mu is no more. What do you mean?”
         “The mercenaries took it. Rumor says they made an alliance with the Mayans. It is not Mu anymore. Terra is its name now.”
         “What?” Octivus is upset. “Where is a ship?” Octivus turns. His patience is worn. “Where is the ship old man?          The tavern owner said you had a ship!” Octivus grabs the Captain and shakes him.
         “It was the old merchant ship, the Sophia. She is in the dry dock, that there building to the far left.”
         “Bring him along.” Octivus says to Chester.
         Chester takes the Captain’s arm and pulls him to his feet. Octivus takes his people to the wharf building, and there, pulled up out of the water resting on a ramp is the “Sophia.”
         “Will she sail?”
         “Soon as we can get her in the water, yes she will sail.”
         “Whose boat is it?”
         “Was mine. I bought her from the Navy. Paid every last savings I had to buy her. Then I had her hauled here for repairs, she’s been here ever since.”
         “Why?”
         “I did not have enough to pay for the repairs.”
         Two young men and their father come up. “Are you here to pay me, fool?” ask the father.
         “I am working on it, Ian.”
         “You were working on it for two years, you old drunk.”
         “How can I earn what I owe you if you will not let me use the ship, you old fart! It is the only means of income I have you blasted idiot. He calls me the fool.”
         “You will sail away and I will never see you again.”
         “Where will I go? Off the earth you damn fool? This is the only major port of trade in these waters I will have to return here eventually!” Mono shouts back.
         “ENOUGH!” Octivus was short with the two men arguing. “How much will it cost?”
         “Three pounds gold.” Demands the eldest son.
         “What? That is double what we have agreed!”
         “Storage.” Added the younger brother.
         “SILENCE! Both of you. I do not have that much gold. Here is a script from the King of Alantasia. He will give you what you ask.”
         “But I will have to go to Alantasia to get it. No!” Protest the father handing the script back to Octivus refusing to accept credit.
         “Are you refusing the King’s script?” Chester draws his sword.
         “I will take the script. My sons will launch the ship in the morning.” He says quickly.
         “No. You will launch the ship now.” Insisted Chester his sword removed from its sheath.
         With the help of the Ematoch men, the ship was in the water by dusk. Mono smiles as he looks out from her bow. He had all but given up hope. By late evening the holds were full of barrels of food and fresh water. It would take two weeks to reach Mu. Octivus looked out at the open sea. He had forgotten how it felt beneath him, rolling with gentle swells, the water clapping against the hull, as it made way out to sea.
         “What are you thinking?” Miriah touches his hand.
         “Of my home and my family.”
         “I have never been on a ship before. Does it always feel this way?” Octivus looks at Miriah. “I was born on a tiny boat upon the sea. When I was a child, the sea rocked me to sleep. My father was a fisherman. It was not a prosperous life, but the sea was all we needed to be happy. Yes, it always feels this way.”
         “Are you worried?”
         “Yes.”
         “Are you worried about your parents?”
         “I am worried about them all, Miriah. I do not know what to expect. I am afraid I will be too late and that something terrible has happened to Mu. I can feel it.”
         “Feel the baby turn, Octivus.” She takes his hand to her stomach. He smiles. “Everything will be all right. You are the great white haired one everyone whispers about.”
         Captain Mono shouts. “Raise the anchor, cast the sails, and get those damn youngin’s off my deck!” The sails billow to the wind and he smiles. It was the most beautiful sight he had seen in years. It was the oceans salty spray upon his face welcoming him back home. He laughs with pleasure to be at sea again and was as giddy as a school boy in love for the first time. His spirit soared with the sea gull’s that flew above – He had his life back.
         The Sophia was a worthy ship. New planks replaced the worn deck and the new mast bore new ropes and sails. She was a prize in her Captain’s eyes. There was little time to find a crew so Octivus showed his men how to tie knots, in case the weather changed and the small crew that was assembled needed help. Mono watched from his cabin porthole, he would never forget what this Priest has done for him.
         At night Octivus walked with his wife along the deck. The air chilled, he held her close watching up at the star lit sky. The water around them was pitch blackness on this moonless night. The sails flutter in the wind. It was the third day of voyage. Many of the Ematoch people were sea sick and hung their heads over the railing. Octivus worried that they would not survive the voyage. Captain Mono stayed in his cabin much of the voyage. He sat with a half full bottle of rum before him, thinking. He missed the sea and he knew he would not have many more voyages left. This was where his soul was at rest. This was the place his body would be interred forever to mix with the waves and currents. He asked for no more.
         On the thirteenth day they came in sight of land. Captain Mono came from his cabin. The deck was full of people. He could see the Priest upon the bow with squinted eyes, checking his bearings with his compass, he confirmed. “It is Mu!” He shouts up at Mono. “I do not want to sail into the bay, Captain. We must use caution until we know what is happening. There is a shoal of rock before you enter the bay. I want you to anchor your ship there. I will take my men and use the small boats to reach land through marshes.”
         Using the stars as a guide, the Captain approached the land as instructed under darkness. Three boats launched and Octivus guided them through the coral reef to the hidden pond of his ancestors. Octivus remembered looking from the Temple balcony and seeing how the canal emptied into the marshlands that formed to the southeast of the city. He remembered, too, the pond could be seen from Ramu’s balcony and they must reach the canal before day light, or be discovered.
         It was just before dawn when they reached the summit of the canal where it emptied into the marsh. Octivus climbed from the lead boat. “Chester? Hold the boat fast. I must see if all is clear.”
         Climbing the rocky divide, he looks out to see if his Father’s tiny boat was sailing out of the bay. There were no boats at all. A sick feeling took him as he saw the hulls of the fisher boats splintered on the beach. Where was his family? What had happened? The huge naval ships anchored close to shore. The shallow waters had been dredged deeper, and docks built to suit the large ships.
Returning to his men, he split them into two parties. John led his party toward the farmhouse, while Octivus led his men to an underground sewer that flowed beneath the city. “It will take us deep into the city undetected. We will come out near the marketplace. We must be quiet.”          They waded through the filthy water to come out an opening in an alley where citizens dumped waste water into the sewer. Reeking of a foul odor they made their way to the edge of the marketplace. The merchants were preparing to open their shanty shacks. They must be careful not to be seen.
         A man turns the corner. Chester grabs him before he can shout. “Do not make a sound or I will cut you.” A blade to the man’s throat, he nods in compliance.
         Octivus looks at the man. “What is your name?”
         “I am called Sylas. I will not give you away.”
         “You are not from Mu.”
         “No, but I am not the friend of the Councilor, either.”
         “Councilor?”
         “Yes. He came on a ship one day and nothing has been the same. He dredges the bay deeper for his big ships.          He has built these walls around the city, and no one is allowed to leave. It was once a pretty place.”
         “I know. Where is the High Priest, Ramu?”
         “He is held prisoner.”
         “Prisoner? Where is he being held?”
         “In the Temple, I think. What will you do?”
         “Do you have a place for us to hide?”
         “I do, but you will have to cross the market to reach it. It is almost light. You will be seen. The soldiers here are too many. You stand no chance.”
         “He is right, Octivus.” Eli agrees.
         “I know of another place.” Sylas offers.
         “Where?”
         “He is a friend. I will show you. I know he will help. He does not like the Councilor either. Follow me, it is this way. “Sylas takes the strangers to his friend’s stable. Knocking first he waits for a voice to answer through the closed door. “Who is there?”
         “It is Sylas. Let me in, friend.”
         The door opens a crack and a face peers out at the strangers. “Who is with you?”
         “They are friends, Boata. They have come to free the High Priest from the Councilor.”
         The door opens. “Quickly, before you are seen.” Boata worries as the strangers entered his home.
         “We apologize for the foul odor, friend. We came by way of the sewer, for lack of a better path.” The family stared without a word. Standing in their home were four soldiers from Alantasia and eight tribesmen with painted faces.
         “We are told that Alantasia has fallen.”
         “This is not true.”
         “They say that King Agar is dead.”
         “He is. He died in the last battle to save his people. His son, Truinaught, has taken his place. Alantasia is still sovereign, and we have come to rescue Mu from these traitors.”
         “Then they will come to free Mu, and our homes will be ours again?”
         “Yes, my friend, and it will be as it was before.”
         “What must I do?”
         The men from Alantasia stayed that day in Boata’s home to rest. They washed and changed into fresh clothes waiting for the Sun to set. Octivus and Eli went out and walked along the alley that led to the market. They were strangers in their own home. No one looked into their faces as they passed. No one greeted them as they walked. It was a city full of frightened people.
         Octivus knew a way into the temple through the rear garden. Sylas said the general of the mercenaries had taken the temple as his headquarters. It was heavily guarded. “I have seen enough, Eli.” They returned to the stable to make a plan.
         Sylas and the two sons of the wagon master went to the market place. They would create a diversion and distract the guards at the temple. That night Octivus sent Eli back through the sewer to deliver his plan to the elders. They would sail away and come ashore a safe distance down the coast. Eli would lead them in from the East.
         Eli found his way back to the sewer inlet. The foul odor caused him to heave up his dinner and made him sick as he hurried from the sewer. He sat and rested when he reached the end, thinking back on a day when he and Octivus played in this very spot. It all seemed unfamiliar and strange to him now.
         He continued his way along the canal until he reached the stone wall that separated the canal from the marsh. Quietly, so not to arouse the guards who walked above the wall surrounding the city, he lowers himself down. Uncovering one of the boats he rows back to the pond. Eli becomes alarmed to find the ship was not there. He manages to find a place along the rocky cove to climb up and see the ship in the bay. He knew Mono was not stupid and would not sail into the bay of his own free will. They must have been captured.
         It was just before sunrise when Boata drove his wagon from his stable. He took the priest and four Ematoch warriors hidden beneath hay in his cart to an alley across from the Temple. There they waited. Merchants rumbled by with their wares to sell. Boata was nervous. If he was caught he would be killed along with the strangers.
         Hues of purple lit the horizon with the coming of a new day. The market swarmed with buyers and sellers. Sylas wandered about the square watching the guards in the temple garden. He stopped to purchase a bowl of soup waiting until the guards were relieved. At the moment when the guards changed, Sylas threw his soup at the cook. “This soup tastes foul!”
         The flustered cook shouts back. “It is good soup!”
         Boata’s sons had also bought soup and were not far. Together they also throw their soup to the ground. “It tastes like dirty water!” They shouted.
         With his reputation at stake, the cook defends his soup and the three men shout at the cook. The guards are drawn from their post wanting to see the ruckus. The priest and warriors slip by and enter the Temple through a rear passage and up the stairs unseen. Quietly they climb in the darkness reaching the inner garden where he can see the general talking with two men. He could not see their faces, but he heard them speak.
         “With the Mayans tracking Kamutu and his people, they have followed them deeper into the jungle. Niobe has proven to be useless. He cannot remember the direction he travelled.”
         “I want the jewel I do not care who finds it.”
         The voice sounded familiar to the priest. He listened in the shadows as they continued to speak. “I am doing all that can be done. I have lost many men to a fever. It has slowed my advance and the men are convinced the fever is a curse put on them by the jungle holy man.”
         “Nonsense, the Druids have power over these primitive curses and they assure me that it is not being caused by the jungle men.”
         One of the men turns to face the stairs. Octivus could see him now. Pathos! He says to himself. A guard walks up the stairs. An Ematoch warrior slays him from behind, but his heavy amour crashes to the marble floor, alerting the others. More guards were coming up the steps and Octivus was forced to lead his men out into the temple court. In a moment they were surrounded by archers. Octivus stayed his men to save their lives. The third man came close to see the intruders.
         “Nimbus!” Octivus shouts surprised.
         Nimbus smiled. He could not believe the child, now a man, guilty of his demise, was standing before him. He has not forgotten and runs his fingers along the scare put on his face by Elymah – the sign of a traitor. “We meet again.”
         “What have you done to my people?”
         “You have changed a great deal. You are a Priest?” Octivus struggles to free himself from the guards that have taken hold of him from behind. “Where is Ramu?”
         “Where are the others?”
         “There are no others.”
         “You expect me to believe you have come alone? How many men have you?”
         Octivus worried for his people and his wife. “I am alone.”
         “Take him to the cellar. Kill the others.”
         The guards drag away the priest. “Kill me, not them!”
         The Ematoch Warriors watched the priest struggle to get free. He would be shot down if he succeeds and the warriors chose certain death to save the holy one. The warriors break for the door, and are immediately shot down by the archers. Octivus looks away. “Pity, I had hoped to use them to demonstrate my technique in making men talk. I imagine you will have to learn firsthand.”
         “I will tell you nothing!”
         “Strange. That was exactly what the other priest insisted, I will guarantee this, you will bow before me as your master before I am finished. This I promise.”
         “What have you done to Ramu? Where is he?”
         “Take him from my sight. I will tend to him later.”
         The guards pull the priest along, down the steps into the cellar. Octivus fought them but they held him tight. As a boy he had gone down these stairs many times. There were many rooms and corridors he had once searched with a child’s curiosity. He was dragged passed the room where Tasio showed him how to make cheese. Then, passed the room Mecca made his wine and passed the room where the herbs hung drying for medicines and tea blends. It was hard to imagine this place as a prison.
         The guards push the prisoner to the ground, slamming the door shut. He listened as the guards fumbled with the chains, locking him inside. His eyes focused on the dark shadows around him. He heard a slight movement in a far corner and approaches.          “Who is here?”
         A weak voice manages an answer. “Ramu.”
         Pathos watched through the opening in the door. He could hear the young priest fumble in the dark. He taunts          “He is an ordinary man; he stood no chance against the Druid powers as you will find out soon enough. Enjoy your stay, Priest! Tomorrow you will die, just as the priest who returned before you did. It is all so hopeless.”
         Octivus holds Ramu close. He could feel his bones and could hear the old man’s strained breathing. He was not worried for his own life, but for that of the High Priest.
         “Is it true? Is Meager dead?”
         “They wanted me to tell them where the scrolls were hidden. I could not. They took Meager away. He did not return.”
         Pathos laughter echoed outside the door, growing faint, then silent as he left the cellar.
         “Why are they doing this?”
         “They want the power.”
         “Why did you not try to escape?”
         “I was waiting for you to return. You must lead our people away from this place.”
         Octivus takes a water skin from his waist and touches it to Ramu’s lips. “Drink, we must restore your strength so we can escape together.”
         “There is no time to explain things. There is a way out of this place, and I can show you, but I am too weak to walk, and will need your help.” Octivus picks up Ramu. He is startled how light he is. “Which way?” Ramu runs his hands over the young priest’s arms. He feels the markings. He touches the young priest’s face and shoulders. “You have grown much. You have experienced the ritual of Fire and Water.”
         “Yes. I found the Ematoch village and the elders performed the ceremony.”
         “Then you have great power my son. Meager, he could not tell me what had happened to you. I was worried.”
         “Save your strength, Ramu. Show me the way out from this place.”
         “Has your hair turned white?”
         “Yes, can you see it?”
         “I know it to be so. It was the same as with me when I took the journey. There is a block inscribed with a monkey head. It is on the longest wall about knee high, if you push it hard a passage will open.”
         Octivus held Ramu in one arm as he felt the blocks in the dark. It was hard to tell if he had the right block, so he pressed each block as he went, till the heavy wall pulled back, exposing a stairwell leading up.
         “Where will this take us?”
         “To my chamber.”
         “But how will we escape, Ramu? We will have to go passed the guards to leave the Temple.”
         “There are many things I must show you first.”
         It was a long climb to the top of the Temple. When the stairs came to a dead end, Ramu felt along the wall. A stone jutted out at one corner. “Push there.” The door swings open a crack. Octivus peers out to see if it is clear. No one is present in the chamber and he goes out into the light. His eyes hurt at first, but soon he could see. That is when he realized Ramu was blind. “What have they done to you?”
         “They blinded me when I refused to tell them where the scrolls were hidden. I could not allow them to take charge of these ancient writings. In them are the secrets of nature. They must not fall into their possession, ever.”
         “Where are they hidden?”
         “In a secret room not far, I can feel the Sun. It must be a beautiful day, tell me what you see.”
Looking down he could see it all. One thing was different. He could not see the wharf city. It was blocked from view by the walls that had been built around it.
         “It is not the same, Ramu. Below is the market, but there are many soldiers and the people move about with caution. I can feel their fear. There are still many buildings that bare the scars of when the warriors came long ago. The city does not have the brightness it once had. The tall stone walls cast shadows over most of the city.”
         “I thought I would never feel the Suns warmth again. Let me stand a moment. Ahhhh!” He sighs in pleasure.
Octivus places Ramu down. He was a skeleton with skin wrapped tight. His facial features were sunken and he fought to hold back his tears. Octivus takes a robe that is slung over a chair and covers Ramu. “What must you show me?”
Ramu takes a deep breath. Taking small steps he walks with his hand along the wall. Octivus takes his arm to support him. Looking out over the great wall that surrounds the city, Octivus looked out beyond the Bay and stops, alarmed. “The ship is gone!”
         “What ship?”
         “It was anchored off the Cape. I did not realize it could be seen. They must have been captured.”
         “You cannot worry about them now, my son. Come, I must show you things.”
         “My wife, Ramu, she is pregnant with my child, she was aboard the ship.”
         “You took a wife?” Ramu feels along the stone wall. His long crippled fingers find a marking in an obscure crevice between two stones. The wall opens. “Light a torch.” The door slides closed behind them. Using a flint Octivus strikes a spark in a nearby urn and starts a fire, lighting a torch in the flame. Octivus looked about. He sees the many scrolls in a pile upon the floor. Ramu walks slowly, finding his way to a pedestal, opening a carved wooden box. His hand takes up a crystal. “Do you recognize this?”
         Octivus held the torch closer. Even in this dim light it emitted a rainbow of color. “It is the rock I found in the belly of the fish!”
         “Help me sit, my son. It is time for the truth to be told.” He is silent for a long time as he gathers the memories from long ago. “Many hundreds of years ago a man called Odem came to our village in the forest. He was the grandson of one called Lo Abli Don, an elder of the secret lore of nature, and Priest of the Ancient Society of Balatar. He had become a friend to another man named Drago and it was Odem who showed Drago how to construct the boats to carry his people across the great water to this land we call Mu. Odem and Drago formed a society built on the worship of the land and all this you see about you was of his design. Odem lived amongst us for many years, teaching Drago the law of the Balatar – It was called the ‘Theorem of Opathesis. Then came a time when Odem said he must leave explaining to Drago about the Crystal of Lamor holding within it the secrets of the universe. That he must leave this crystal with Drago and take the other sources of power and the book of keys away for it was too dangerous for all these powers to be in one place together. Many years passed and Drago grew insecure about possessing the crystal. He feared those that seek the power would come someday, and then a ship came and anchored in the Bay for the first time. It brought strangers from distant lands, escaping the tyranny of men calling themselves Pharaohs and Emperors. Drago did not repel these men, women and children. Instead, he welcomed them and allowed them to live amongst his tribe. One day as Drago looked across the land from the hills to the east he saw in this place the sanctuary and name it Mu – the Motherland. But he knew the crystal was no longer safe here, and sailed his boat out of the bay into a hidden pond in a cove of rocks. There he sat for many days and meditated. A voice came to him in the black void of his mind that he should drop the crystal into the dark water, until a day came when it would be found by the hope of his people. He would come in the name of the Eighth Son. Then by chance, I encountered a fisherman sitting on the Temple steps. He was crying for his lost son, Octivus, and he gave Lamor to me. I knew then, the eighth son would be the descendant of Drago who was the first son of the eighth Generation.”
         “Then it was my destiny to find the crystal, but Ramu, I have read all the scrolls in my lessons with Mecca. I do not remember reading of this prophecy. How do you know of this?”
         “I…I am Drago. I am your great grandfather.”
         “How is this possible?”
         “When you passed through the fire, you are blessed with an extended length of life. You too had been chosen, and I do not know of what power you hold, but I must pass on my power to you, I am dying.”
         “You are eternal, how can you die?”
         “I am too weak. I am blind and crippled. I wish only to give up this shell of mortality for my eternal life in the spirit world. I will be dead in flesh only.”
         “You have so much to teach.”
         “This was to be my tomb, grandson. So it will be. You must now lead our people far from this land, go far from the Mayans who can no longer be trusted. There is a land far north of Maya. Do not make the mistakes of your ancestors. Man was not made to live in these cities. Roam the land as the Ematoch, free as the wind.” As he finished his story, Ramu placed the crystal into a hole upon the pedestal. In an instant the most spectacular thing occurred. The room filled with a glowing light and planets appeared on the darkness. Stars shone with brilliance before a startled Octivus.
         “What is it?”
         “It is called Sznor. From it each moment of time can be calculated. This can never fall into the hands of the Druids. From it they can control the outcome of events. Bear your eyes upon it one last time, for your eyes will be the last to see this miracle.”
         Octivus walks through the images. Each time he turned he saw a different perspective as if he existed in each point of space. His hand passed through the Earth and he looked back to Ramu. “Is this where we have come from, Ramu?”
         “It is all a part of us, and we of it. The secrets of our existence are within every being. It is why we are drawn to its beginning. Some will inquire why, hoping to understand man’s nature, others ask why; so they will know how to control it. They are our enemy, Grandson. They through attempts to manipulate the forces of nature will destroy the very thing they seek to possess, which is not for them to possess, but to revere. This is why I must not allow this to remain.” Ramu takes the crystal rock from the pedestal, throwing it to the ground, shattering it beyond repair.
         “You destroyed it!”
         “As we must destroy the scroll writings, they are no longer safe. When they find that we have escaped the cellar they will know of the secret passages hidden in the walls. They will find this chamber and its contents will be in their control. Light a fire and toss them into it. Make sure they are utterly destroyed. The Druids must be left nothing.”
         “But they are the holy writings of the Ancient Ones.”
         “They are parchment. The knowledge is in this.”
         Ramu finds an urn and with his hand sifts the ash till he finds the stone, handing it to Octivus. “Take the emerald and keep it from even those you trust. It can be used for good or for evil. It holds the answers to all knowledge and will, if asked the right question; it will divulge the appropriate answers. Unfortunately the knowledge then becomes subjected to human nature and venerable to manipulation.”
         Octivus holds the emerald in his palm. “Can I ask of it a question, Ramu?”
         “Ask with caution, my grandson. The answers revealed will be subject to your wisdom to use the knowledge. What knowledge may seem to be of a benefit has also the consequence to also bring about your destruction. The power is yours to use, but remember your lessons and choose to rely on its use when there is no other solution. Be cautious, grandson.”
         “I must know what happened to the ship. I must know if Miriah is safe.” He closes his fingers around the jewel and he sees the Councilor’s naval ship alongside the Sophia. He watches the image and witnesses the death of Captain Mono. His warriors fought off the soldiers. He sees they abandon the Sophia. He sees his wife. She is taken prisoner by the Captain of the other ship along with many other women that could not escape into the marshlands. Octivus is silent.
         “What did you see?”
         “It is as I feared. They have been captured. Some have escaped, but are lost in the marshlands. The women and children are in the hands of the Councilor’s men. The men who remained were executed.” Octivus felt the weight of his people’s torment. He feels helpless.
         “Then you must hurry. Nothing can be left.”
         “But how will I free my people? I am but one man against an army.”
         “You will find a way. There are important matters you must first attend to, or nothing else will matter.”
         “You are right, Ramu.” He places the jewel into his pouch. It was the same pouch Mecca had given to him and he kept it all these years. Then, taking a torch, he lights the pile of scrolls on the floor and watches as they burn to ashes. He could not help but feel sad that all these ancient writing could not be saved.
         The Councilor came up the stairs to stand upon the balcony. It had been an extraordinary few days. He looked out over the Market Place. He was tired of searching. His patience wore thin. He knew that in the cellar was the answer to end his search, but how to get it from the young priest?
         Below he sees a crowd form around a group of his men. They have more prisoners. How large a force did the priest bring to Mu? He turns to leave, but smoldering smoke finds its way through a crack in the wall. “Guards! Guards! Help me there is a hidden room! We must find how to open the door.” They press each stone.
         Ramu could hear the men outside. “We have been discovered.”
         “Is there a way out of here?”
         “The wall with the painted eagle, take me to it.”
         Octivus takes Ramu by his arm, guiding him thru the darkness to the far end of the room.
         “What are we looking for?”
         “A Sunburst.”
         Octivus finds it just as the outer door slides open. For a moment he faces Nimbus, startled to see the young priest free from his cell. His guards flood the room as the young Priest hurries down the steps, carrying Ramu. The guards give chase. The opening is narrow and they must walk single file. Their long swords were useless in this passage, so they drew knives.
         Octivus reaches the bottom of the stairs. “It is a dead end. They are coming!” He puts the High Priest down, prepared to fight. “Stand close to me.” Ramu pulls a lever. A panel above them opens as the floor beneath them rises. They are lifted into an enormous chamber.
         “Where are we?”
         “It is called the First Chamber. It is my tomb.”
         Octivus looks about. There are old swords and armor in piles about the room. He picks up the short sword, its blade chipped and dull. “Why are these weapons here?”
         “When we came from our old home we took on a pledge not to make war, but instead to live in harmony with all living things and the land. We became fishermen. With the help of Odem, we formed a belief based on the philosophy of peace, and knowledge. The Temple was the center of all we taught – a place where anyone was welcome to read the doctrines of the Ancient Ones. It was a place where they could learn of the nature of man…We gave up our weapons, but I could not destroy them knowing the nature of men…We would have need someday to use them again…I am so weak.”
         “I must get you food. When have you eaten last?”
         I do not remember.”
         “Come, I will get you away from here.”
         “No. Leave me be.”
         “You will die.”
         “I am old…very old. It is my time.”
         “I will not leave you, Ramu.”
         “You must. Miriah needs you now. You cannot take me and save her too, my Grandson. First, there is more I must tell you. Look to the night sky in the North. A bright star is what you will see. It is not a star, but a comet. It will strike down upon the Earth and Mu shall be no more. It is all a plan to destroy the Druids and the powerful amulets they are in search of. We are all a part of this plan made when the ancients walked the land. It is the power of the Sznor to predict the coming disaster. It is the only way to destroy the Druids power using the natural power of nature and is the only power capable of such a cleansing. You must take our people from this land. They must survive.”
         “How shall I gather our people? What words can I use to make them leave their homes and to follow me?” Ramu does not answer. Octivus leans down and touches him. He felt no heartbeat. Ramu was dead and the young priest wept a long time.
Octivus placed Ramu on the altar, covering his thin body with fine silks he found in the trunks. He knew what he had to do and tied the sheath about his waist, sliding the short sword into it. Taking the jewel in his hand, he asks. “Show me the way out of this place?”
         A brick begins to glow and he crosses the room. With his hand he presses the mark and the wall again slides open. Before leaving he turns to look back on Ramu. “I swear to you Ramu. I will not fail.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT.

“The Death Star”

         Octivus found his way from the temple using the stone to guide him. The passages led him down into the sewers and out to the canal, where he sat for a long time, reflecting on all that has happened. “What shall I do?” The jewel glowed in his palm. His wanting to confront Nimbus, to free his wife and the others floods his mind with erratic pace, but instead the stone influenced him to escape from the city to the East. He wades across the canal as two guards at the far end of the bridge search a wagon, making it possible for him to slip pass unnoticed.
         He hid in the bushes just beyond the bridge, and was almost dawn before another wagon left the city and was searched allowing Octivus the opportunity to slide below it taking hold tight until he was dragged beyond the sight of the guards. A safe distance away, he scurries from the road into the field of corn, looking back seeing only the dark walls, built by the mercenaries. It was true what Captain Mono said – Mu was no more!
         His only motivation now, was to save his people. His eyes focused on the bright light of the North sky. The Death Star comes. How much time does he have? A puzzle put there by nature, a powerful factor of the cosmos that will bring an end to all that he knows. He worried for his wife, Miriah, she was alone. How will he find her?
         Coming to a farm house, Octivus knocks on the door. From inside came a voice, afraid and suspicious. “Who is there?”
         “I am a Priest from the Temple. Can you help me?”
         “How do we know you are who you say?” The young woman looks through a crack in the door. “All the priests of the Temple are dead or imprisoned. My Father, he was a friend with the temple priest. You do not look familiar.”
         “I was sent to Alantasia when I was a boy. It has been many years, but I have returned.”
         “Were you the boy that came to dinner with Ramu?”
         “Yes, then you would be Elisa. Where is your father? He can help me.”
         “My father is dead. He was murdered by Nimbus, as were all our leaders. I do remember you, but you have changed so much.”
         “I need your help to reach Tarkas.”
         “Come inside.” Octivus steps in to find a family seated at the table eating breakfast. It smells good and he was hungry. They stared at him silent as they continued eating. Elisa brought out a chair and set it at the table. “So, you are a priest from the temple, begins the farmer. Why then are you not imprisoned or dead like the others”
         “I was able to escape.”
         “Then they will be looking for you. They will come here, you know. If they find you here, we will all be dead. Stay to eat, but you must go soon as you are finished. For my family, please.” He says matter of fact.
         “I understand the danger. Thank you for the food. Is there a horse I might borrow?”
         “My son will escort you to Tarkas. He will bring back the mule once you have reached where you are going. Peter, you must go with the priest to Tarkas.”
         “But Father? Who will take care of the fields?”
         “You will not be gone long. I can manage. They will search for you, Priest. You must dress yourself different and be careful of the patrol that guards the forest against the rebels.”
         “Rebels?”
         “Yes, a band of men that have taken arms against the Councilor. They have attempted raids on the Temple to free Ramu. They have failed and are now hiding about the forest.”
         This must be the reason the stone guided him here. “I must find them.”
         “Enter the forest, and they will find you.”
         “Who leads this band of rebels?”
         “Another had come in the night long ago. He too claimed to be a priest of the Temple. They called him, Meager.”
         “Then he is alive!” Octivus was excited.
         “Then you know of him?”
         “He is my friend. I thought he was dead.”
         “He tried to free Ramu, who is captive in the Temple, but he was captured himself…He managed to escape.”
         “Will you try to free the High Priest?” Asks the farmer wife as she dishes the priest a portion of food on his plate.
         “Ramu is dead.”
         Ramu is dead?” The old woman gasps. “How can this be?”
         “Then who will lead us?” Asked her husband.
         “I think that will be me.” They are silent, and Octivus ate without another word. The day seemed endless, waiting for night to come again. He shaved his head bald, knowing his grey hair would give him away. The family stared as he sat. Disturbed by their staring, Octivus snaps.
         “What? Why are you staring at me?”
         The old wife of the farmer speaks softly. “You look like him. You look like Ramu.” Octivus found a looking glass on a wall. He could see the resemblance himself.
         When night came, Octivus, and the farmer’s son rode the mule together into the forest. It was very dark and the strange sounds of the night were all about them. It was mid morning the following day when the patrol challenged the two travelers. They had been searching for the rebels deep into the forest for the past week, and were not yet alerted about the escape.
         Peter leads the priest, and by midday they reached the village of Tarkas. As they rode down the dirt road, the villagers came out of their huts. They were dirty and starved, and there were no men about, only woman, and young children. It was not the place Meager described, happy and full of life. Instead as he looked into their faces, he saw their pain. Their suspicious eyes on him, he wondered where his friend could be.
         Then a young man came from the woods “What do you want here?” The young man was hostile and carried a bow in one hand.
         “I have come to find Meager.”
         “Are you sent by Nimbus?” He aims his arrow.
         “No – If you know where Meager is, tell him I am here and I want to see him.”
         “Who should I say awaits him?”
         “Octivus, Chief of the Ematoch people, Priest of the Temple of the Sun.”
         The young man looked toward the women. They were quiet. “I will go, but you must not see which direction . . . Grandma, take these men inside your hut and do not let them see where I go.” The old woman takes them into her hut.
For a long time Odel was silent. Then she asked suspiciously. “All the priests of the Temple are dead. How could you be from the Temple?”
         “I have recently returned from Alantasia.”
         “You have brought the king’s army?” The woman hoped.
         “I returned with my tribe. They were captured by Nimbus, and my wife is among them. I must talk with Meager. I do hope he comes.”
         A younger woman enters the hut. “They are here, Odel.”
         “Odel brings the strangers from her home, and watch a dark figure as he comes down from the forest path with forty men. For a moment they stare at each other both had changed very much.
         “Meager?” He smiles.
         “Octivus? I cannot believe it is you!” They embrace, thinking the other was dead. Relief took them as they were no longer the last of the priest of the temple. “When I saw you, at first I thought you were Ramu. He is a prisoner. We must get him out.”
         “I have bad news about, Ramu…He is dead, my friend.”
         “It cannot be. How do you know?”
         “I was with him. They tortured and starved him. When I held him in my arms he was so light, nothing more than skin and bone. I do not know how he survived so long that way.”
         “I tried to free him, but they moved him. I lost ten of my men, and was captured for a while myself. Since then, Nimbus had tripled the guards. What will we do without, Ramu?” Meager shakes his head.
         “Why has Nimbus not taken Tarkas?”
         “He is more concerned with finding Kamutu. The stranger, Niobe has led the Councilors army into the jungle in search of a powerful stone. If they find it all will be lost, why did you come alone? Why did King Agar not send a legion of men to take back Mu?”
         “Agar is dead, his son Truinaught is now king, and he did offer. I refused.”
         “What? Many things must have happened since I left Alantasia, I understand, but why would you refuse the help? We must somehow get word back to Alantasia. They must assist us in any way possible.”
         “I could not ask Truinaught to come. This is a battle for power over nature, it is a holy war, and though I am brother to the king by marriage. I know I could never make him understand what the war was about without revealing the secrets we are sworn to protect. It was much too dangerous to trust anyone outside of the secret order of Balatar. Do not worry about the stone Meager. I am sure they will not find it.”
         “I wish I had your confidence.”
         Octivus takes the pouch in his hand and hold the stone before Meager. I have it. Ramu has passed it to me. He says it contains all the knowledge of the Ancient One. Having Nimbus chasing through the jungle after Kamutu was part of the plan. Ramu had it all the time.”
         “Why did he not escape?”
         “He was awaiting my return. He knew too that if he had escaped, Nimbus would kill all of our people in retaliation. Ramu would not have let this happen, so he remained a prisoner.”
         “Then it is you who will lead us.”
         “Yes, but first I must free my people.”
         “But we do not have enough men.”
         “No, we will not attack. The stone will lead me to Miriah and the other prisoners. I will somehow get back into the city and find Chester and Eli. I wonder what has happened to John? He was supposed to head east.”
         “How many men have you brought?”
         “I have brought the Ematoch tribe with me about Five Hundred. Many have died already. The others have escaped capture by fleeing into the marsh. They are in grave danger there, but I cannot worry for them now. My concern is of the women and children and what Nimbus will do to them to find me.”
         “The patrols will burn Tarkas. We must move our families to safety.”
         “I must be alone, Meager. I will ask the wisdom of the stone to guide me.”
         “My brother’s home is beyond the village. It is safe there.”
         “In the North sky is a bright star. With it comes death to this land. We must leave or perish. This is the message I bring from Ramu.”
         “But where will we go?”
         “I will know by morning.” That night Octivus sat alone. He listened to the wind blowing outside the hut. The leaves of the trees rustled and a breeze blew open the hut door. “Tell me wind, where will I take my people?” He breathed deep, and could feel the wind around him. His skin tingles to its touch, and soon he saw himself hovering above his body, drifting upwards until the village below was small disappearing in the forest’s blackness.
         He flew high above the trees and could see Mu in the distance. Stopping above the wall he looks toward the marshlands, seeing his people lost, struggling to find their way back to land. He goes to them, appearing to an elder in a vision, showing them the way out from the marshes. Many had died of snake bites and alligators that lived in the marsh, and they were afraid, but now their holy man appears to them and the fear is gone.
         After he saved his people, he returned to the wall. There he saw John with his men preparing to enter the sewer. John searched for the others, but did not know where to look. Octivus instructed him to wait there for him. Again in a vision he appeared to his men and gave instructions to the men in Boata’s stable where Chester waited for his return. Then he searched for Miriah.
Seeing himself high above the city, he watched the soldiers on the western wall, and ranks leading away from the city. He saw the soldiers coming from the Temple, searching for him and Ramu. He saw them begin to search house to house.
         Octivus found himself inside the Temple court garden and looked into the faces of the Commander, Pathos, and Nimbus. A chill filled their spines as they felt his power. He felt Miriah’s love and it drew him to her down deep into the bowels of the Temple. She was alone in the darkness, afraid. With all his thoughts he appears to her, and light fills the darkness. His warmth sooth her chill and she was no longer afraid. “Octivus?”
         “I am coming, my love, I am coming.” His vision fades. She is alone again, but not afraid anymore. He is being pulled from her. Octivus sees himself falling backward into a black void. He fights the power, but it is too strong. Then, in an explosion of light a figure stands before him. “Kamutu!”
         “You have exposed the stone to your friends and to your enemies. They know now it is within their grasp and will abandon their search in the jungle. You have endangered us all!”
         “I had no choice, Kamutu.”
         “There was no other choice, but to save the stone and the knowledge it contains, you should not worry over these mortal men when the existence of life is in your trust. You are Balatar, and you are committed to protect the secret lore of nature, not to use it for selfish needs.”
         “I cannot abandon my people!”
         “They are lost. So is everything if the stone is not beyond the distant mountains north of Mu. Leave by morning or all will perish. It is your duty as Balatar. You have no other priorities!”
         “My wife and unborn child…I cannot leave them!”
         Kamutu is silent for a long time as he faced the young Priest. “I will lead my people against the Commander’s army. He will not think of the stone when his life is challenged. Free the prisoners, but you must take the stone away.”
         “Is there no other way?”
         “No – The stone was passed into your possession. It is your responsibility alone to protect it. The consequences are too great to take unnecessary risk. Go my friend. Leave this place before it is too late.”
         “How will you survive, Kamutu?”
         “It is not important. The stone is all that matters. You are Balatar. You must protect it. Go! You have little time. It has begun.” Kamutu fades into the blackness.
         Octivus wakes to the trembling ground. He tries to stand but is thrown down. It stops and he stumbles from the hut. The villagers of Tarkas scramble about the streets. They cried out in fear. “I have never felt such a thing!” Meager comes running.
         “It is the beginning of the end of Mu. There, that is a comet and it comes with powerful intent. The land will erupt and the ocean will devour this place. You must leave at once with your people, Meager. I must entrust this to you my friend.” He hands the worn pouch containing the stone to Meager. Meager recognizes it as the one he made for Mecca. “You are the only one I can trust with it. Take your people north. You must be beyond the mountains before the death star comes.”
         “But what will happen to you?”
         “I cannot abandon my people. Go Meager. You must survive. The stone will tell you what you must do.” Octivus could not let Miriah die. Her love was more to him than all the powers of the universe, and he abandoned everything for her. In spite of what Kamutu said he passed the responsibility of the stone to Meager.
         “You do not think you can make it?” Meager fears his friend’s fate.
         “I may not.”
         “Then you cannot do this Octivus. You are the hope of our people. You must lead us.”
         “I cannot lead my people if I have deserted them to die. How can I live knowing I have left my wife and unborn child to die? If this is the pain that I must endure to full fill my destiny then I rather accept a fate with those I love. The stone has the knowledge of all the scrolls. Seek from it the knowledge you must, but heed the temptation to use it frivolously. Use your wisdom as a priest to the scrolls to guide you and all will be fine.”
         “How will you free them alone?”
         “Kamutu will draw their attention to the western wall. I will sneak into the city and gather all the citizens that will follow. Go Brother.”
         “I will leave before the first light. Good-bye Octivus.”
         “Good-bye, Meager.”
         Octivus rode from the village, followed close by the farmer’s son. They traveled through the night and were past the midpoint of the forest when the ground rumbled again. “Earthquake?”
         Octivus listened. “No, quick! Get off the road!”
         They watched from the bushes as the patrol rode by them with all speed. There were at least a hundred or more men. After they passed, Octivus came from the bushes and looked up the road after the riders.
         “They are going to Tarkas. I must warn Meager!”
         “How Priest?”
         Octivus closed his eyes in deep thought. Meager loaded a wagon. His thoughts were of his young friend. Then an image flashed into his mind, and dread took him as he turns to his brothers. “Riders are coming. We must defend! Everyone must go now. We cannot wait. Brian, we must stay and fight!”
         “No, little Brother, the priest gave you the duty of protecting the stone and leading our people away. You must lead them, Meager. I will stay behind and hold off the Councilor’s men.”
         Meager turned from Brian and knew he was right. Then, from his pocket he took the pouch and removed the stone. “Show me the way?” Brian gathered the men at the edge of the village, but Meager came to him. “You must go Meager.” Brian insisted.
         “I have a plan, Brian. The village will be empty when the soldiers arrive. They will follow the path of our people and we cannot out run their horses, especially at night. You will lead your men down the road toward the next village. Make your trail obvious so they will think the entire village was together. When you reach the river, you and your men will follow it. They will realize then that we have divided, but it will be too late.”
         “Your plan may work, but how will we find each other?”
         “With this I will guide you to me.” Meager holds the stone before him.
         “I do not understand this thing, Meager, but I trust your wisdom.”
         “Promise me you will not fight them. You cannot win. Promise me, Brian.”
         “I swear it little brother. I will run swift as a fox.”
         “I will see you then in three days time.”
         Brian nods, holding each other one last time. David goes with Meager and their journey begins. At first light Octivus and Peter come from the forest. They run along the road to the farmhouse and Elisa meets Peter with a hug. Octivus could think only of Miriah.
         “Peter, you must take your family away. Go north until you reach the mountain range and wait there for Meager.”
         “And you?”
         “I will be there eventually. I must go now. There is little time.”
         The farmer and his family watched the priest running toward the fields of corn, disappearing between the rows of tall stalks, turning to his family he instructs them. “Elisa, you help my wife pack the wagon with food, blankets, and water. Peter and I will inform our neighbors of the instructions the new High Priest of the Temple has given us.”
         “But father, we have lived on this land all our lives. How can we leave it?”
         “The words of this Priest have great power. I could see it in his eyes. We must follow his wisdom. We must have faith in Octivus; he is our only hope to survive.”

         Octivus ran until he reached the edge of the crop. It is still dark with the horizon hinting of the coming day. He must cross the clearing before the Sun rises, but as he takes his first steps. A feeling in his chest, a pain that went deep through him, paralyzing him leaving him gasping for air and unable to breath. Finally he falls to the ground.
         He wakes amongst the blackness, several beings shaking beads over him as he rises to face the tribunal of the ancients. Kamutu hissed at him.
         “You have been summoned!”
         Octivus stood up frightened. He stood in the center of a circle of hedge stones surrounded by the ancient order of Balatar Priest.
         “I am Odem.” Said the first subject of the tribunal.
         “I am Symortu.” Said the second.
         “I am Treon.” Said the third
         “I am Colis.” Said the fourth
         “I am Hudron.” Said the fifth
         “I am Juno.” Said the sixth.
         “I am Kamutu.” Said the last.
         “You have been summoned to appear before the sacred tribunal of the Balatar. The charges are that you have abandoned your oath to protect the ancient lore of nature. That you have passed on a powerful source to one that is not of the Balatar. How do you plead?”
         “I have not abandoned my oath…I wish to save my wife, and my child.”
Kamutu approaches the young priest. “You have given the stone to one that has not passed through the ritual of fire and water. The knowledge will corrupt him. He will use it and from his use consequences beyond comprehension will be done to all of nature…Do you deny this?”
         “Meager has a good heart – I trust him with my life.”
         “Your life holds no significant to the stone…You have no case here. Your punishment is death, and I submit the sanction of death before the tribunal.”
         “I love my wife, and if death is punishment for loving a woman. Then so be it. I ask only to be allowed to save my people first.”
         Odem is silent for a moment. “This request is denied, the survival of the people of Mu are not relevant to the order of nature. It has been our knowledge since the beginning that this land would someday perish. It has been the plan all together to have convergence of these powers to this land in hopes of leading the Druid Priest here at this time. They are here for the gathering of powerful sources, to include what they have brought with them that we are unaware of. It is the plan to destroy them in one fatal blow with the only power capable of such a feat, and that opportunity will not come again for five thousand years. No, Octivus it has been determined long ago the fate of your people. I see no reason to change it now.” Odem raises his arm to pass the final sentence.
         A familiar voice speaks at the young Priest’s side. Octivus turns startled. “Ramu?” He bows at the High Priest feet.
         Odem lowers his hand. “You wish to speak on Octivus’ behalf?”
         “No, what my grandson has done is wrong. He has gone against the orders of the Balatar, and the punishment you imposed is just and right. What I appeal to is the why he abandoned his oath. We all must think back on our lives to our youth, before we became callous, and buried our emotion to love. Do you not all remember those that even today we hold in reverence? Let us not forget the pain as we watched those of mortal nature die slow deaths, sick with age, our wives, our children, our brothers and sisters. This is where his heart is now. It is the place where we all have been to choose our duty over love…We are the cowards not to have stood up for the one thing in this life, which shines so bright in human eyes, which it blinds us from our duty. Remember the Stone of Ur? It was their love that destroyed it, a powerful source that only a power of nature could destroy. A power of nature so strong the stone obliterated itself, scorching the man who wore it over his heart. You see the powers of nature as lore. You see it as a stone, amulets, and rituals to conjure the spirits, but it was love that destroyed the most powerful of all evil, and you condemn this man that stands to protect the most powerful source of man’s nature…His love for wife and child. He sees what we could not. How can we condemn him for our failure to reach his level of consciousness? He does not find power in the knowledge he protects, the power emits from within him, and his choices are made of innocents, the bounding force over all evil.”
         Odem thinks for a moment his heart fills with regret remembering for his duty he had abandoned his sister to her fate at the hand of Nesu Ur-Nammu. “It is true…” He nods. “We have been the fools not to recognize that Octivus has far reached awareness beyond the conception of this ancient council, and thereby can never judge him for what we ourselves cannot understand…Go save your wife, and your people.” With his words, the young priest vanishes. The tribunal stands alone. “He can only save one, Ramu”
         “I know…Forgive me grandson. I did all I could.”

         Octivus wakes, as the ground began to quake, the death star in the sky grew red. It would not be long, before it came with a force that would wipe this place from existence. Octivus manages his way to the wall. He gripped the jagged edge with his fingers and pulled himself up foot by foot until he reached the top of the wall.
         He hurries to reach the canal and waits there a moment to catch his breath. Knowing John would be waiting. He wished he had the stone to guide him, but he could not risk the chance of its being captured. He hoped that Meager could get his people far enough away. “John? John?” He calls into the darkness of the sewer passage. Then at that moment a platoon of the Councilor’s soldiers surrounds him, and again he is taken prisoner.
         Escorted through the street, a crowd gathers to watch as the last of the priest of the Temple is lead before Nimbus. “So we meet again Priest – Where is the stone?” His voice impatient, and his eyes wide with madness with the power at his finger tips, yet he could not have it. He wanted it. He must have it, and would do anything to achieve it.
         “You will never have it, Nimbus. Never!”
         “We will see. Take him away.”
         Octivus was held a prisoner in the open court of the Temple. Nimbus was taking no chance that the priest would escape through any more unknown passages. Looking out of the open court at the sky, Octivus could see a single star in the sky above even though it was a bright day he can still see it approach.
         Nimbus came to the garden. “Why did you return?” Nimbus drew close to the priest.
         “To kill you!” Octivus tried to reach for Nimbus, but was struck down by a guard. Nimbus leaned over the Priest. “No…That is not why you have returned. I know why you have returned. You under estimate the power of a Druid Priest they too have the power to see!”
         “Then they know you are doomed.”
         “Bring me the pregnant bitch!”
         Shackled in chains, Miriah stands before her husband. She had been beaten about the face and she turns away with shame from her husband.
         “Miriah? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HER?” The guards almost lose their grip he pulled so hard.
         “AHHH, so I am right! You have come for another.”
         “You have me now. Let her go and I will do what you say.”
         “Now we are making progress, but I am no fool, Priest. You will give me all I want to know and then I will let her go.”
         “No. I am not a fool either, Nimbus.”
         “But you are weak with love.” He snaps his fingers and a guard kneels Miriah over with her neck exposed, drawing up his sword. “Where is the stone?!”
         Octivus looks into Miriah’s eyes. He can see her fear. He knew the information no longer mattered. He knew the death star would protect all the secrets. “It is in my pocket.”
         A soldier rushes in. “Commander! The jungle men have overrun our forward positions and are crossing the desert. The western wall will be under full attack within the hour.”
         “Impossible.”
         “What shall we do, Commander?”
         “Councilor! I must have every available man to protect the western wall.”
         “Do as you must, Commander. I can handle what is here.”
         Nimbus approaches the priest. He grins with madness in his eyes as he reaches down into the priest’s pocket.          The guard holds the priest tight. He could feel the priests power, and backs off a step.
         “It is in the other pocket.”
         “Release him.” Nimbus says to the guard. “Hand it to me!”
         “Yes. Here is your stone, Nimbus” In a moment Octivus reaches from his pocket the knife he gutted fishes with in his childhood, and cuts a deep gash in his enemy’s throat. In a single motion he flings the blade at the guard across the room standing over Miriah who fell dead grasping at the blade protruding from his eye.
         Nimbus grabs his throat, blood gushing from it as he staggers falling to the floor. Octivus takes the short sword laid upon the table and fights his way to his wife. There were too many soldiers around him. He looks into her eyes and they smile, willing to accept death and eternity together.
         A soldier walks across to them huddled together, but he takes no action against them but instead removes his helmet. “It has been a long time my friend.” Octivus searches the strangers face. “Jimi?”
         “I never liked the bastard…Come let’s make a fight of it!” And together the two childhood friends make their stand.
         Chester stepped out from the stairs with the Ematoch warriors. Their bows cut down the guards and save the priest and his wife from certain death. Chester and Octivus, boyhood rivals, embraced. “I owe you my life.”
         “Let us get out of this place before the others return.” Chester had found John slain and his body thrown with the Ematoch warriors into the canal, leaving only Chester, Eli and Leffus to lead the way. Without hesitation they begin cutting a path through the mercenaries. “We have gathered all that would follow. Many refused to leave their homes. I could not convince them.”
         “It does not matter Chester. You have done well.”
         “We must make speed with our escape. We have little time and must not hold back the strong and young for the weak and old. They must escape. I will remain with the old and those who are sick and cannot keep up.”
         “No, I will stay with them, Octivus. You must lead them away.” Chester insisted.
         “I came to save my wife and child. Miriah cannot keep up with your pace. I must stay with her.”
         “Who will lead us, Octivus?”
         “Meager will be waiting for you at the mountain’s base.”
Chester led the first group out of the city in wagons, and on horseback. There was little opposition since all available men had been called to defend the western wall. Octivus put the old men and women, and children too young to keep up with the others on a barge and three pack mules pulled the barge against the canal current.
         From the barge Octivus looked out across the land. He could see Kamutu’s men advancing on the mercenaries in the desert. He looks up at the sky. It is late in the day, and dusk will come soon. The death star grew larger and redder, until it filled the sky the color of blood. He held his wife in his arms and cleaned her bruised face with water.
         “I knew you would come.” She smiles.
         “I could not leave you.”
         “Our son will be born soon.” She looks worried, sensing something was wrong. Octivus felt her stomach. “We will be safe.” He hoped she would not birth until they had reached the mountain. They traveled through the night. The sky filled with fire as the comet burned into the earth’s atmosphere.
         It was almost morning. Evas and Treasa sat with their son. No one spoke as Miriah began to give birth. Evas took his son away while the women took care of his wife. “We have not had time to speak, my Son.”
         “I was surprised you were alive, Father. I saw the boats. What happened?”
         “It happened soon after you left with the others. The soldiers that came to protect us soon took away everything we owned. They destroyed our boats so we could not feed ourselves. They turned my kitchen into a drink house and we were exiled from the Wharf City. Your sister Cora became sick and she died leaving your Mother sad for a long, long time.”
         “I should have come sooner.”
         “There was nothing you could do.”
         “I have learned so much wisdom from the scrolls, Father. Still, I cannot understand the nature of man. Why is there so much evil in a man’s heart?”
         “Man is not of this Earth, my Son. He is the life the Earth breathes from nothingness. We are not part of nature in the way that mankind conceives himself. That is the part of man that makes him want to destroy. He cannot face the reality, that man is no more important than the wind in your face on a hot day. We are but the Earth beneath your feet as you walk. We are one as the grain we make our bread of. The water we drink and the birds and animals that live with us on this land…we are no better. We are no worse. We are just another ingredient in the creator’s plan.”
         “How have you become so wise, Father?”
         “You think that wisdom can only come when studied from the Ancient Scrolls? Observe all that is around you, my Son. The lessons of our nature are about us constantly. You only need to open your eyes to see it.”
         A woman comes. “Your wife is in trouble. She needs you to come.”
         Octivus hurries to Miriah. She takes his hand tight.
         “What is wrong?” Octivus looks into his mother’s eyes. “Is it the baby?”
         “She is dying. There is nothing I can do.”
         “Miriah? You cannot die now. We are almost safe.”
         “I do not want to leave you, but our son must be born.”
         “There is nothing?” Octivus hopes someone would have an answer, but they are silent. If only, he had the stone. He tries to call out with his mind to Meager, but he cannot concentrate.
         “She is having the baby. You must go now, my Son.”
         “What shall I do?”
         Evas takes his son away. They are silent as the elder men of the Ematoch come to his side, chanting low whispered sounds. They pray for his wife’s spirit and the child’s life. A child cries out. His son is born. “Go see your child, Octivus.” says the elder.
         “I do not think I want to.”
         “He is yours.” Insist his father.
         Octivus goes, but all he could feel was his pain. “MIRIAH!” He cries out. His pain carries on the wind, and all of nature stops a heart beat knowing his pain was so deep. Evas, his own heart torn with pain for his son, cries too as did most aboard the barge as it pulled up the canal.
         By daylight the barge had been pulled as far as the canal would permit. The water way made by hundreds of workers had ended. Octivus stood with his people and buried his wife in the soft earth. Evas and Treasa gathered flowers, placing them on her grave.
         “Look!” A woman pointed to the sky and it began to spark and burn in the distance.
         “It is upon us – RUN!” The people ran about in panic, screaming and praying. Some found a ravine and ducked down into it, shaking with fear. Evas turns and sees his son standing over his wife’s grave, facing the burning fire soaring towards Earth. “OCTIVUS, MY SON!” But he was too far to be heard. Treasa pulls him down with her and they hold each other and pray holding their new born grandson.
         Octivus looks up at the fireball that almost seems to be headed right for him. He is defiant and challenges the force of the death star. “I walked into the fire and I lived. I have done all that I was asked! I full filled your prophecies and yet you want more? I will not let you take them. I will not!” His blood boiled inside him as he rages at the coming end to his people. “The power of my love consumed the Stone of Ur. So too will it consume this fire that hurls toward me.” He raises his hands to cover his face from the object’s heat, imagining he too is an object.
         all the powers of the Stone of Ur within him, he gathers in mass and hurls himself up at the comet as a massive ball of fire. Together they explode. The ground shakes and opens around the people. Some fall into pits of fire and are gone. Others cling onto whatever is near. Their screams voided by the sound of the impact on the earth. The ground heaves and tears apart with fire shooting up from the depts. It seemed to never end then soon it is over. The people came from cover slow with many injured, some were crying, others stood in shock.
         Evas looked out from the ravine. His son was gone with no trace. The sky above them those moments earlier was angry with fire, cooled into a silvery flake that touched the ground around them. Snow had never fallen in this land, but that is what fell to the ground now. The Ematoch elder gathered the people. “We have seen the great power of our Holy One, who gave up his life so we may live. Let us not forget what he did for us. We have a long journey ahead. Let us go now and never forget this day.”
         The Ematoch people mixed with the citizens of Mu walked to the edge of the cliff, and found where the city of Mu once was and is now gone. The green fields they crossed just hours before were barren and scorched by the heat of the comet. The ocean was still, and Mu was no more. They wept for all those that perished with their home, swallowed by the sea.
         It was a long journey and the snow turned to rain. It became a death march for these old men, women and young children. The elders held little hope. They rested many times and then night came. Some of the very old did not survive that first night and were buried in the morning. Soon the young warriors returned and they were saved. Two days had passed by then.
         Meager and his people joined with the second group. He looked for his friend, Octivus, and news that neither he nor his wife survived touched him deep in his heart. They moved onward to find food and water. Each night Meager sat alone looking out into the stars. It was the first full moon since the comet.
         In the distance he saw a small animal moving about. It came closer and Meager wondered. What creature could have survived the destruction? Getting up and moving to get a closer look he realizes it is not a beast, but a man.
         The man was upon him and Meager stood, stunned. “Octivus?” He was naked, his skin cold to the touch as he fell into Meager’s arms. Meager fed him water and poured what was left in his water skin over his friend. Hurried, he comes into camp carrying his friend. “Get blankets and food. He is alive!”
         The elders came at once to revive the Holy One. They fed him herbs and kept him warm. They chanted songs to the Spirit Gods and thanked them for their leader’s life, and for his return. The next morning with the camp asleep, Octivus woke. He did not know how he came to this place.
         He felt very different. He felt new born. Getting up, Octivus walks to the fire, and placed another branch into the flames. Soon the camp was awake and they asked Octivus what happened. He did not know. He woke up on the beach naked and began to run. That was all.
         Meager sat with his friend. Treasa showed her son, his son. All seemed right not to remember his anguish over losing Miriah, but that was not to last. In his sleep it all came back, the pain… the sorrow.
         The next day they broke camp. Meager gave the stone to Octivus, but he refused it for now. He explained it.          “I must grieve for my loss first. I am wounded and do not trust my thoughts and ask many questions about why things happened. Some answers are better not known. So you keep it my friend, until my mind is free from this sorrow.”
         Then, one day, the Ematoch hunted for food while the women prepared fires. The elders told stories about the war fought in a place called Alantasia. Evas and Treasa listened to the deeds of their son and how he became Chief of their people. Octivus was shaving a branch into a bow when the quake erupted, throwing him down. He heard Meager cry out and he crawled to where he had seen him last. The Earth had opened beneath him, but he held on for his life to the root of a great tree.
         “Take my hand.” The Earth shook again and Meager slipped down further. His fingers bleeding, he held on. Octivus hangs down until their fingers grip, but Meager is a large man and Octivus cannot lift him. “HELP ME! SOMEONE HELP!” He cried. Others nearby ran to them and grabbed the Priest’s feet.
         Meager feared he would fall, attempts to hand up the stone to Octivus. His fingers slipping away he looks into his friend’s eyes. Octivus reaches down to take a firm grip, but then a flash of blinding light and a quake made the men pull Octivus up, fearing they would all fall into the pit. Octivus crawled back, looking over the edge, and all he saw was the blackness. Meager and the stone were gone. Octivus felt unworthy. He banished himself from their presence, but they would not leave him. Maybe it was that they did not understand what had been lost. He did not speak for days. Evas sat by his side. Treasa brought him food. “I have lost everything.”
         “You have us?”
         Octivus looks to his father. “Yes, I have.”
         He walked amongst his people and the people from Tarkas. They sit close to the fires seeming lost with no direction. That night he spoke to Brian, Meager’s brother. He would not take his people further. This would remain their home.
         In the morning at first light Octivus woke with his mind clear as crystal and he knew what was not right. He bowed low to the ground and for the first time in many, many years, performed the Ritual of Ra. It had been so long that the ritual was allowed that it took the people of Mu that knew of it a few moments to set themselves to participate. Octivus stands upon a rock with his son in his arms. It was the first time he held the boy since his wife’s death.
         “In the past days we have lost many things that we loved. No one who stands here can say he does not feel the pain. We ask why? I can see that you expect an answer from me, I am the Holy One. All I can say is there is no answer. I was given a great power by Ramu. One that could have given us the answers we seek, but I allowed my personal pain to interfere and now that power is gone, forever. I am not worthy to be your leader and I will not put blame on any of you in choosing a new chief. Our friends from Tarkas wish to remain here. They will be our friends for eternity. Meager was like my older brother. I will miss him. We, my people of the wind, will head north. There is a place my tutor, Mecca told me of. It is called Copan. The journey will be long and slow. There are many elders and many sick. There are many children. Those children who do not have parents will be taken by those who have no children for we are one with each other, as we are one with the Ancient One, as we are one with the land…My son, his name was chosen by my wife…Stephan-Truinaght, but that world is gone now and a new one has begun. The two tribes of the Ematoch have been united and so must they unite their minds and become strong. I will take the Ancient name of the wind, Atoh, and my son will take the name of the new morning, Sulateh. These names are to remind us of our oneness with the Earth as it is our destiny. All that we need shall come from the land. All we are given shall go back into it. We are the Ematoch! We are the people of the wind. This is our destiny.”

****

         The old chief finished his story. The fire before him crackled over the long silence that followed. The boy gazed into the fire. “What happened to the Ematoch?”
         “They became a great nation of many people.” The old chief took a deep breath. “I will rest now, grandson. I am very tired.” On a blanket covering the ground he laid himself closing his eyes. When it came time for the old Chief to pass into the spirit world, he took one last handful of the earth in his hand, and one last breath. All his possessions passed over to the young boy. All except the emerald that perished into the Earth with Meager.
         The young boy dressed the old chief in silk and as he washed his body clean, he touched the black marking on the old Chief’s chest where the Stone of Ur destroyed itself so many centuries ago. Atoh, the great leader was dead and the flames that cleansed his body carried his spirit up on a wisp of the wind, to be one again with the universe. So was the life, of the young fisher boy, Octivus.

THE END

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