BEYOND THE CURTAINS OF FIRE

PART I - THE MESSENGERS

In the eastern area of Cathassa Continent, the populations of all villages were anxiously waiting for the spiritual leaders and the landowners to tell them when the planting was to start. This especially was the case in Aketha Province where severe crop failures due to drought had led to near starvation for many. Only the supplies laid by in the granaries housed in caverns under the compound of the religious and secular leaders had kept the people from succumbing to lack of food and even made it possible to reserve enough seed for the next planting. This practice was followed by the eganul's representatives who saw to matters in all of the larger cities. Conditions at times varied widely throughout Aketha Province which encompassed eroded limestone plateaus interspersed with broad fertile valleys, forested hills with settlements as well as extended lowlands which lay towards the border with Saranji province. Nevertheless, everyone had lived through a desperate struggle to survive; the majority fortunately had made it through the weeks and even months of privation as there had been no epidemics as often accompanied such events; however, nearly every family had lost a member or more: the very young and the weak had not been able to survive.

The commercial and cultural centre of Aketha province, Samagaltayi, a small town of pale limestone merchants' residences, craftsmen's workshops, storage compounds and a central marketplace which was enclosed on three sides by the walls protecting the rulers' compound, lay on and around a low limestone outcropping close to the river, just on the edge of the alluvial plain and protected by a sheer wall of limestone masonry made of stone so exactly fitted it was impossible to get even a blade of grass into the interstices. The river's yearly floods never reached the town or the villages which were built well outside the flood valley and its fertile area. Only a very few times had conditions been so extreme that the inhabitants had had to take refuge in the Eganul's compound and the main city.

On a day far beyond memory, the town's emplacement had been established according to the directions of the spiritual leaders of the wandering tribes who had first settled this region. Their knowledge of the star patterns accompanying the changes of the seasons, the signs of shifts in the climate and indications of its potential vagaries had been passed on from generation to generation, from father to son or daughter who had the 'gift of seeing'. The population respected and honoured their religious leaders, the Khessari, because this knowledge made them seem like representatives sent by the Bringer of Light himself.

Now, on this very day, the planting season was to start. At daybreak, all of the farmers together with their families had assembled, anxiously waiting for the sign to begin their work. The teams of gettle were decorated with small woven garlands of seed crops to ensure abundance; to the delight of the children, the beasts at times tried to eat each others' ornaments, provoking shouts from their owners.

"Let's hope He grants us a better year," Jalon said to his neighbour who had just pulled away his pair of gettle from his neighbour's. "In spite of planting more fields, drilling wells, adding to the irrigation system and restructuring it, there was not nearly enough food for the people in this district, even after the last harvest was brought in. The few extra crops harvested from our own fields hardly made any difference, just barely kept us alive. Without the foresight of the Khessari, we would have either died of starvation or been forced to try our luck elsewhere: find work or, at worst, beg in the cities to the south, possibly. My parents did so repeatedly in bad seasons, when dust and stones were the only crops brought forth by our fields."

"I have heard the Khessar has said that all signs indicate we should have good crops this year, so that the eganul has promised us larger rations during the working period," replied Mertoj while adjusting the traces on his team of gettle. The ungainly but immensely strong beasts that looked like a rather unattractive cross between Terran cattle and iguanas were as emaciated as their owner, as were all of the villagers waiting to begin the planting. "… if this season is not, …." he looked up at the sky and fell silent, afraid that by pronouncing the evil he feared he would bring it down on them all; Mertoj covered his sudden unease by walking forward to scratch his animals' heads.

Jalon pushed back his sleeves and met his friend's eyes. If not, you will leave for another province, hoping to be allowed to settle there for some time or even permanently. I do not have your courage, nor even if I had it, could I take the risk, not with my large family … And this land is fertile – there are bad seasons even in the most fertile of regions. It never pays to depart, to be a stranger dependent on the charity of other strangers. With the population as large as it is, there is always the risk of returning only to find someone else has taken over your land and home, thinking them abandoned.

Everyone knew from experience that those who left for the Imperial City of Loo'Wess or any of the lesser capitals for that matter, rarely returned apart from yearly visits for the traditional family reunions at the end of the solar year; they consistently sent funds and goods to their families, promised to come back to stay within a year or so, but finally lost the feeling for the land, invariably seduced by the physical ease and unceasing activity and excitement of city life; they adopted a rhythm of work and leisure measured in units of time shorter than the slow change of the seasons, gradually became inextricably caught up in administration, or in research that increasingly went beyond the limits set down by the Bringer of Light…. Research for weapons, as destructive as possible, to fend off or to defeat the rulers of the continents on this world in an ongoing effort to unify all continents under one government was being encouraged by all means and this on all continents of the planet.

"There was an uprising in West Vagarasi Province half a year ago. Remember the refugees who passed through our district shortly before?" Kagal joined the conversation. "One of the men said that he and his family refused to return if the old Eganul and his hangers-on remained in power."

Seffor nodded. "Cannot say I blame them in the least. Eganul Dugai is said to have feasted with his friends and the spiritual leaders who were every bit as depraved as he; their servants were ordered to produce alcohol from the stores of grain laid by in case of catastrophe. While those 'leaders' were stuffing and drinking themselves senseless, celebrating whatever they had to celebrate, their subjects were starving, dying like gettle in a dryland or leaving for other provinces in sheer despair. A servant questioned by some villagers who had waylaid him willingly gave details of the goings-on in the compound as well as weak spots in defenses and structures in exchange for his freedom and escort to the border." Seffor smirked derisively, "Even the servants were disappearing like vermin before a flood. To make a long story short, the leaders of neighbouring villages joined forces and, together with the inhabitants who grabbed whatever promised to make an effective weapon, marched on the eganul's and Khessaris' compound under cover of night, prepared to do battle, and willing to sacrifice their lives. However, they entered it without striking a blow; the men captured their rulers who were in a drunken stupor. Not even the guards put up a fight, they were that sodden. The soldiers? They switched sides at once." He drawled the last words contemptuously. "The administrators in the cities did not raise a finger to rescue their erstwhile ruler, but swore allegiance to Silesh as soon as he had taken over."

"What happened to those khessari and the eganul?" Jalon and Mertoj urged, curious to hear the rest of the account. They had heard rumours, but knew no facts.

"What happened? The lot of them were executed on the spot, strung up in the hall in which they had feasted on cost of the population – they deserved no better. It is said they made the most unbelievable promises to save their miserable lives. Only the children were spared as they were innocent. The village leaders agreed on renaming them before sending them to childless couples who were only too happy to raise them. Be sure these families live in villages far away from the compound and know nothing about the heritage of their new members, whose parents allegedly died of illness. The children they have taken in thus will either forget or never even learn who their parents were. Dugai's line is gone forever – unofficially."

"Executed …" Mertoj whispered, horrified. "Murder goes against the Rules given our ancestors!"

"So did the actions of those leaders, Mertoj. Remember another law: 'A ruler's duty is to be just and always ensure his subjects' well-being. He is bound to them as a father is to his family, he must give guidance and protection.' Eganul Dugai brought his fate upon himself."

"Eganul Dugai's neighbour, Silesh, immediately made use of the rebellion to absorb the leaderless region into his own realm." Kagal continued the account. "A cousin of mine who lives in his district says he began his rule by taking a binding oath upon the Book of Light never to overstep the laws governing the responsibilities of an eganul towards his people." The farmer laughed bitterly, "It would seem that Eganul Silesh is very careful indeed not to make any errors of judgement. He has even appointed three merchants from among the local population to maintain the ledgers and commanded the administrators to follow suit."

"A good start, but what if those merchants and advisors become victims of greed in turn?" Jalon inquired.

"Then they in turn will be deposed and punished according to their crimes together with their eganul," Seffor stated bluntly. "Whoever allows his people to suffer in spite of having the means of alleviating the suffering commits a heinous crime against the Bringer of Light."

Kagal inclined his head, "That phrase has never stopped rulers from exploiting their subjects. Eganul Messan himself took over when our own fathers rose up against Eganul Terkel who had all the decency of a vole in heat, and all the mercy of a raging fire." And it remains to be seen how Messan's eldest son will be when he takes over in a few years, and those who will follow him.

When the sky brightened and the first pale rays of the sun touched the hills, the conversations came to an end; a collective murmur of prayer rose from the crowd of farmers who were assembled for the ritual.

The moment the sun rose fully above the horizon, its light, muted by the ever-present cloud cover, was reflected from highly polished metal panels inserted in the low towers at each corner of the compound. The rays flared back up into the sky, drawing the eyes of all those present to the low hill on which the Khessaris' compound and the house of the regional leader had been erected generations ago, flanked by a shrine, at the end of the First Empire.

A cry from all those present went up. "Grant us plentiful harvests, healthy children, strength and resolve to serve you and your representatives in the coming year. See us, see the land, we are in your hands now and forever!"

The lower-ranking Khessar, chanting benedictions, walked along the row of villagers who wore new work clothing, loosely cut, in shades of tan or brown; he knew other khessari were performing the same ritual in villages throughout the entire region, forming a network of faith to ensure the prosperity of the province. This was a yearly ritual throughout Aketha Province, throughout Cathassa Continent, performed since the very beginning, and for the most part, the Bringer of Light had been pleased….

When the ritual was concluded, the Khessar stood facing the rising sun, arms raised, hands spread in worship for some minutes, praying to the Bringer of Light in silence, then called, "May your labour be considered with approval and blessed by the one who sees all. May He grant you strength."

As one, the farmers replied, "May our labour be considered with approval and blessed by the one who sees all. May He grant us strength and a good harvest."

With that call, they went to work, leading their gettle to the fields to prepare the soil for the planting.

This phase of work would take roughly three weeks; the communal fields which were the mainstay of the community as a whole came first, followed by those of the spiritual and secular leaders, finally those assigned the villagers themselves. The last yielded crops that either served to ensure supplements for the families in times of need, or produce that could be sold or bartered for other goods on the market.

Each year the fields were redistributed according to the size of individual families so that everyone had to cope with poor soil at regular intervals. The Irdil, who periodically surveyed the fields to determine when new lands had to be placed under cultivation or older fields permitted to lie fallow, inscribed the names of the farmers on thin wooden leaves, then called upon a child to draw the lots after the Khessar had ensured all was according to custom. As the villages were small, no one had an inordinately long way to 'his' field of the season and everyone derived pride from being able to pass the land assigned him on to his successor in good or even better condition at the next drawing of lots.

Certainly, rivalry among the farmers for good fields, for prime gettle, other livestock and necessary material was only natural, but never permitted to erupt into open conflict – everyone knew that only by mutual assistance could a community survive. Most of the time, disputes were settled by the opponents themselves who selected a mediator, usually a village elder. Only if an amicable arrangement could not be negotiated, were arguments settled by the Khessar. If even this was to no avail, one of the conflicting parties moved to another village where they had relatives – no one wanted to take the risk of a community divided, lest it endanger the whole.

Aketha Province was one of the wealthier provinces on the continent because of its rivers that permitted merchants to transport produce to other regions and the fertile, extensive alluvial plains between the ranges of low limestone hills which formed a good two-thirds of the entire area. This fertile region continued into Saranji Province far to the east which lay on the coast of the continent.

When they gathered at the compound on the plateau during harvest ceremonies, the villagers had a view of their own region: low hills, broad valleys, forested areas, fields enclosed by low walls pierced with clay irrigation pipes, small villages here and there …. and, only to be imagined in the far distance, lay the border where hills ceded to a low, broad plain leading to Saranji Province, the ocean and, finally, a cluster of islands forming an archipelago. None of the villagers had ever been there. For most, it was inconceivable to leave their home provinces. Only some few merchants did so, and even they usually contracted with their counterparts in neighbouring provinces to transport and market their goods in exchange for the same favour.

During the three weeks of planting, it was the custom for the local religious and secular leaders to provide food for the farmers and their families in a different village each planting season. True to the phrase, "A leader does not place himself above his people – he offers protection and guidance, in return, the people offer him support, loyalty and obedience." the local dignitaries shared meals with the population at the same table in a sign of respect for the work that sustained the entire population, no matter of which rank or profession.

Jalon looked over at Khessar Saitor who was sitting next to one of his neighbours. "We have heard the situation in Gessecha province is rapidly deteriorating so that warfare may be imminent."

"Indeed." The Khessar replied to the comment. "One of the six regional leaders, Eganul Saleyn, is a warlord who keeps his subjects in near-slavery; he uses most of the produce to fund his private army. Within the past two years he has attacked five neighbours and placed two large districts under his jurisdiction. A few families from these very districts have come to settle in villages some miles to the north, as far from the border as possible." Saitor added, "They had to travel at night, or risk being captured and taken back by force."

"There have been reports …." Denran had come over to listen, "… he is currently planning to attack yet another neighbouring eganul, add that one's territory to his own. Does he want to add and add and add until he rules the entire province?" The man was honestly puzzled. "He does not even know the villages in his territory; his own people are strangers to him, names in ledgers along with the land and its produce. That is not as it should be."

"And he forgets that it is the people who will pay the price for his greed – how can you take away all the young men, waste them in continuous warfare? Who will tend to the fields during those wars? Who will care for the families and the children orphaned by the battles, for the invalids who will return?" Elanis, Denran's wife, shook her head. "The Bringer of Light provides. If there is no harvest in one province, there are always goods that can be used in trade to purchase at least some necessities. We do not need war to stay alive," the woman stated.

There was a murmur of assent from those who had heard her – warlords were considered with contempt and seen as carriers of evil who would be mercilessly punished for their pride and arrogance by the Bringer of Light.

"You are right, of course, Elanis, but those who crave power over others have either forgotten this or else think this very power will protect them from judgement of their deeds. There have always been eganuls who think only of might; however, there are changes in the making …. The news from the imperial city is cause for great concern as well." The Khessar looked around at the people. "At this point, we can only hope the unrest will not reach us. I fear for the future, for our ways….."

"Yet, to abandon research … it has always been an integral part of our lives – learning about our world, preserving the knowledge of the old times," was Ukar's protest. "But weapons to take the lives of thousands…" he shook his head, "Why to want to do such a deed."

"No, believe me, no one among us would ever wish to stop learning, as scientific research has always been an integral part of our faith, unravelling layer after layer of mysteries to reveal ever more into infinity," said Saitor.

Adran the Merchant added, "My younger son who lives in Rakato City says that research, is being perverted. Inquiry is rapidly degenerating into a search for weapons meant to take as many lives as possible in a quest to subjugate all other peoples on this world." He shook his head, "Not a Cathassan Empire alone, like the First Empire that encompassed this whole world, nor even most ancient of all, the Hebitian one which has become a legend in its greatness in art, architecture and knowledge. It will be an Empire such as has never been seen before, one of conquest."

"Ultimately destroying the awayin of those who use the weapons and ultimately rule," were the Khessar's words.

"Indeed," added Lenkath, "As diverse as our cultures are, we all believe in peace and in the Bringer of Light in his many manifestations." He gazed over at the children sitting with their parents, "And in making it possible for everyone to attain his or her full potential."

"Possession of land …. Power over others…" said Gaarud, Lenkath's assistant, "Isn't it enough to own our homes, livestock, gardens and tools, use our respective skills to help others? Family and community and our awayin are more important than any material goods could be. We have what we need."

They fell silent, the farmers, labourers and craftsmen, the eganul and the khessari. These unfortunate things happened, but the warlords inevitably were defeated when they became too arrogant, and their subjects returned to the peaceful, spiritual life they had always led; at least that was the way it had always been up to now, with struggles for power limited to times of famine and epidemics, when society was in upheaval. At present, however, these individual quests for power were apparently gaining in momentum. Now there were eganuls or kerani, even varasi and retani who made use of the slightest hint of a vacuum of power in neighbouring provinces as soon as it appeared in hopes of expanding their own territories as much as possible, perhaps even of being the one to create the Third Empire.

Two evenings later, those working in the fields heard faint piping calls in the sky and looked up to see a huge whirling cloud of small winged creatures, not birds, not reptiles, but a strange combination of both. The 'cloud' spread, doubled in on itself, whirled through the sky, unceasingly changing form like a veil of finest sefrak floating in a fitful breeze.

"The Kyssíli! The dance of the winds! The rains are not far behind!" a woman called out joyfully, laughing with pleasure at the sight.

Her call was picked by others in spontaneous celebration. For the kyssíli to arrive so early in Aketha Province was a good omen, a sign that the yearly ritual had met with divine approval.

The farmers hurried to finish the planting, rejoicing at this sign of the Bringer of Light's blessing. When the Kyssili began breeding some days after arriving, it was usually a matter of one or two weeks before the first rains came, soft at first, then intensive, penetrating the earth, rendering the alluvial soils fertile.

These days of rain, which coincided with the end of the planting season, saw the villagers indoors, making routine repairs to equipment and clothing, or to the machinery which they had at their disposal. The power of the wind and water was used to make work easier, some craftsmen were even experimenting with light, knowing that, if it could be used to light fires, this very power could be used in other ways as well.

In a constant exchange, craftsmen and their families or other people with special skills produced goods for their fellow villagers who traded their own crops and products for those articles they could not make themselves. Trade in rural areas was as yet predominantly a barter system, with coinage restricted either to the purchase of luxury articles which were out of reach of the general population in the country and indeed of no use to them, or as emergency funds to be kept carefully hidden in case of direst need.

After the harvests merchants from other provinces arrived in the town to offer their merchandise on the main market which took place three times a year. The more refined and elaborate wares, some of them only meant for decorative or ritual purposes, offered additional income to that earned by producing the functional yet beautifully executed articles the villagers required for daily use.

Much of the work was done in groups; the villagers took turns meeting in each other's houses to help one another with the basic, often monotonous preparations or routine tasks while exchanging news and relating traditional stories to pass the time. The children, who were given easy tasks of their own, listened avidly to the tales their elders told, absorbing the traditions and the values they illustrated, enjoying the new stories that told of recent events. No one saw any contradiction between tradition and progress, knowledge and faith – each element had its firm place in their lives. These evenings and afternoons were a pleasure for everyone involved – the sound of the rain, the dim light were comforting, the knowledge of being protected by their homes and by their ruler, of being part of a secular and spiritual community, gave everyone a sense of well-being. This feeling of being part of a greater whole created cohesion even in hard times, in spite of the conflicts that arose because of rivalries or differing opinions.

In spite of this outwardly simple life, the Akethi were a highly cultured people, their agricultural system very sophisticated. The Khessari together with their assistants educated both children and young people extensively in the knowledge of the time, furthering each one according to his or her talents, sending the best to study at the university in the Imperial City in Locaris Province or in one of the educational centres in the province's main cities.

"The Land" itself was considered a gift from the Bringer of Light, education and the search for knowledge were integral elements of Cathassi worship; physical work and mental effort equally respected as faith united both elements as necessary aspects of life. Even daily chores such as spinning, weaving, carving, masonry, producing implements for farming, building homes, planting the fields constituted acts of faith. To know and to inquire further was a religious service of sorts, unravelling as it did the mystery of life, creation and the immensity beyond the stars …. The religion of Cathassa Continent, of all the continents was no threatening religion, no religion of fear, but an all-encompassing awareness of being members of a greater family that transcended all else.

Only a few weeks later, a low rumbling, as from distant thunder, distracted a woman who was working with two of her children at weaving a fence to protect the fruit-bearing shrubs they had just planted. Ersun was particularly pleased about them as she and her neighbour had haggled for quite some time over the exchange. Ten tightly-woven bushel baskets for storage for eight of those very bushes whose parent plants Nura had brought with her from Saranji Province at her marriage were a fair exchange; the elaborate negotiations though had been entertainment for both women, who had made use of the session to share family news and details on Nura's home province.

When the rumble became a hissing, as though of burning, she looked around, disquieted …. No, my house and its storage area are all right, as are those of my neighbours …. Within seconds Ersun realized the sound had become too loud to be that of a simple fire and was coming from far above … What she finally saw at glancing up had her paralysed, nearly suffocating with fear for a few seconds before she was capable of any reaction.

"Look! Up there! Flame from the sky!" Ersun screamed piercingly, horrified beyond belief as she pointed at an incredibly bright light shooting across the sky in a fiery descent, losing small pieces of its flames which in turn arced down far more slowly, dying as they descended.

Those who had heard her cry started, only to stare upwards motionlessly, mutely, fascinated by the sight – no one had ever seen anything even remotely like this. Suddenly, just beyond the hill on which the compound and the marketplace lay, a bright flash flared up, followed by a detonation that shook the ground.

"The khessar and the eganul – they have to be informed if they do not know already!" The call galvanized all of the villagers into frantic activity.

Ersun's husband, Khevron, the head of the village, was already on his way. "Ersun, everyone is to call in the children. Under no circumstances are they to go exploring now. We could be under attack. May the Bringer of Light protect us all!" As an afterthought, he shouted, "All of you, into the shelters!" before he broke into a run.

Other men came racing to join him and, together, they hurried up to the compound while the rest of the villagers rushed to stone houses that were built against the limestone cliffs whose caverns had often offered them protection in times of war.

At the same time, the Eganul, his counsel and the Khessar had been discussing policies for their region and also as regarded neighbouring rulers. Once again, the danger of attacks from Lesana Province seemed imminent. Eganul Reikar, who had built up a powerful army, was looking to expand his territory.

The group heard the noise, as did the villagers and looked up and at each other, startled.

"Do you hear that?" was the question all asked, and, as one, they rushed to the windows. Outside, there was a loud outcry as his household, family members and servants, rushed into the main building in a commotion of screaming children, utensils quickly taken in and hastily placed wherever possible. Finally, the sounds died away after the outer doors were shut and locked.

Suddenly, an ear-splitting detonation shook the ground. The silence which followed seemed more ominous in its depth than the noise that had preceded it.

"What was that?" Eganul Messan shouted, "To the arsenal, prepare for attack. Secure the compound and the shrine!" He addressed one of the guards, "Aivat, alert the village militia they are to report to the arsenal at once and prepare for battle."

For some moments the local ruler remained alone before leaving for an adjoining room where he stored his own armour, to get his weapons. Eganul Reikar of Lesana Province? … But what kind of a weapon is that? Who has created it? Mentally, he went through the list of his other neighbours; such a devastating attack from any of them was unimaginable.

Voices rose outside, calls of disbelief and apprehension …he quickly glanced out of the window at leaving and saw what had his men staring out over the walls of the compound: in the distance, a crater, from which smoke and flames issued, had appeared in the ground; debris was scattered around it, even to a greater distance.

He rejoined his men and heard a knocking at the gate to the compound followed by the immediate report of the guard.

"Eganul Messan, the militia has already arrived; the men from the other villages are also on their way."

The leader of the guards in the compound, Kaytor, reported, "There are no enemy forces to be seen anywhere, not even from the direction out of which that missile came."

Khevron, now fully armed, entered to hear the conversation; at once he informed the others on what he and his fellows had witnessed, "Eganul Messan, Ersun saw it first. She says it came like a ball of flame, from high up and afar. It came out of the sky, not from Lesana Province, but from the approximate direction of Saranji Province. We only know it descended with great force. If it has struck a village, there will be no survivors."

"Fortunately it has not – it came down in an uncultivated area, only two miles from here at most," stated one of the soldiers.

"We cannot say for sure what it was until we have seen for ourselves. Be prepared for everything. It could well be that this is a means of attracting us to the site, of drawing us out into the open so that we are at a disadvantage." Messan called to one of the guards on the closest tower. "Any troop movements?"

"No, still nothing, Eganul." Indeed, the countryside was as it always was, peaceful, undisturbed except for the crater….. Even optics revealed nothing.

"We leave."

Led by the Eganul who was joined by Khessar Saitor, the local religious leader, the group moved out of the compound, leaving behind half their number in case of a surprise attack. The courtyard was empty, except for the men who were preparing to launch a counterattack in case this incident meant the onset of hostilities.

Saitor was not a warrior, but he was always at the side of the Eganul; this was expected of a khessar as even in warfare certain limits had to be respected; more than once, the presence of the religious leaders had precluded the worst excesses.

Saitor went over to the militia to face Khevron who inclined his head before the khessar. "Khessar Saitor."

"It is good that you and the others have come." It was obvious that Saitor was shaken, although he was trying to disguise it. "Nothing like this has happened in all the Empires of which we know."

Apprehensively, Khevron met his eyes. "The warlord of whom you spoke, Khessar…?"

"No. Fortunately no one on our world has such weapons … yet, and may the Bringer of Light never grant anyone the knowledge to create them." Khessar Saitor made a gesture as if warding off danger sent by those who would destroy the Bringer of Light's beings. "But we must see exactly what has happened."

Eganul Messan, accompanied by his guards, joined them. "Are you prepared to face this? It may prove dangerous and you have families to consider."

"Yes, Eganul Messan, we are prepared. Whatever has happened, it concerns us all, and you also have a family. Please, let us lead." Nemak and Khevron offered, speaking for the men who had come with them. "We have pledged to stand at your side in times of peace and in times of war."

"We cannot be sure that this is not a weapon of immeasurable power, Khessar Saitor. Such knowledge is being actively sought. Weapons and warfare are gradually being considered more valuable than peace, with mass destruction a worthy goal….." Dessan turned to the villagers, "Move out carefully – there is no telling what is waiting for us."

The men exchanged worried glances and followed Messan's general who was giving his men last-minute orders.

After staring at the crater which was very easy to locate, even though it was two or three miles out, Nemak gestured over at it. Every now and then flames shot up, piercing the slowly dispersing cloud of smoke and steam rising from its centre.

"Khessar Saitor and Eganul Messan, you should not put yourselves at risk. You are our leaders, you protect us."

"That is true, but you are not only soldiers who have been trained to fight; you are my subjects whom I will not put at unnecessary risk without sharing the risk with you." Messan looked at the men from the three villages closest to the compound, all five hundred of them, as they stood there, in ranks, waiting for his orders. No one would have thought they normally worked as craftsmen or farmers….. If necessary, he could muster 50 000 men and women in this province within a matter of a few days, triple the number in times of protracted conflict.

Khevron, who was their leader, now advanced to the dignitaries with his second-in-command, Nemak.

The dignitaries met his eyes, then considered the other men before the Khessar briefly, gently touched Khevron's, then Nemak's central scale in a gesture of blessing and said, "You are good men, as are you all, but if this is a punishment sent upon us, it is I who have been remiss in my duty to the Bringer of Light, not you, thus it is I alone who must face His anger."

Preceding the others while murmuring prayers, the Khessar approached the site. On the way, they exchanged worried glances when they saw pieces of debris, half-molten scraps of metal… The very fact that the pieces lay around, unclaimed, showed the metal used to be part of whatever had fallen from the sky. On their world which was relatively poor as to resources, every piece of metal was treasured no matter how small, worked and reworked until it disintegrated, and even then, scraps were collected for later smelting to produce usable ingots to be processed.

Within half an hour, they had reached the site only to discover that the flames had consumed whatever combustible material there had been so that, after an hour or so, it was possible to examine the remains more closely. Cautiously, the men drew closer, afraid, but trying to conceal their fear of this unknown object.

His voice was little more than a hoarse shout when the Khessar said, "This is not divine! Yet, it has come from the sky – no people I know have the knowledge to build a sky ship of this kind! Not on Cathassa, not anywhere else on this world!"

At the same time, some twenty metres further out, Nemak stopped in his tracks, whispering, "What is this?" He had found something that held his attention – glittering pieces of fabric that, by sheer chance, had not been transformed into slag; a few scraps were still attached to the light metal rods that lay scattered a little further out … it was woven like the finest of cloth, glittered like the brocade the Khessari and the Eganul wore during ceremonies and yet, when he cautiously touched it, he recognized it for what it really was. "This is metal, but look!" He lifted up a large shred, folded it, draped it over his forearms. "No smith, not even with Attal's skills, can make metal wire this fine!"

Messan and his men came over to inspect his find before looking around; they spread out only to return, carrying other, smaller shreds which they inspected, puzzled. "As fine as sefrak brocade from the Southern Continent …" murmured Gelayn, Messan's chief of guards. He held it in both hands, spread it and held it up. "It apparently serves to catch the wind as do the sails of our pumps and mills."

In the meantime, Khessari Saitor had slowly, apprehensively, advanced towards the edge of the crater and was now staring at the blackened remains from a short distance. All that could still be recognized was a tangle of half-molten struts and scraps of a metal those present had never seen before. Saitor was uncharacteristically silent, even hesitant, at realizing they were encountering the unknown. This is not from our world. But – there is nothing and no one beyond the limits of the sky, except for the Giver of Light …. Or could it be He sent a messenger who met with an accident on the way? The Khessar shook his head. No - a messenger would have been guided and protected. Perhaps it was an enemy who had presumed to desecrate the sky itself and was punished for his presumption. With a shudder, he thought, How to explain the inexplicable if even I, after all my years of study cannot fathom it?

Lenkath, the village's healer, came over to stand next to him. At peering into the crater, attentively scanning every inch he could see, the man uttered a startled call before staring fixedly down at something, mute, eyes wide, neck membranes spread. "Whatever it was… it carried people." He pointed at what looked like charred pieces of a skull embedded in the side of the crater, some few barely recognizable scraps of bone nearby, then crouched to consider them more closely from a safe distance.

"From whom are they?" Geran inquired.

"I …. don't know," was Lenkath's reply. "Whoever it was, this person definitely was no native of our world."

There is no reason for fear; whoever it was, the remains are those of a person, a mortal as we are, and who has met with an untimely end. We must know more. Suppressing his agitation, Lenkath said, "The crater walls should have cooled enough in the meantime. I want to see something." The healer scrambled down partway to cautiously pull the piece of what indeed had been a skull out of the soil. Lenkath turned it this way and that only to recognize that he held part of a brow and the lower part of the forehead, just enough was left to prove its structure was remarkably different from those he had studied while in the Imperial City's medical centre.

"Look at this! The forehead is smooth, the brow ridges barely present, even less pronounced than those of our youngest children … and here," he held out a charred vertebra he had found underneath, still attached to some calcinated sinews, "They do not extend to the sides like ours." He held both pieces up, wanting the others to see this mystery for themselves.

It was obvious to those looking down at him and his finds that he was struggling to disguise his disquiet and apprehension before the totally unheard-of every bit as much as they were.

Gaarud, his assistant, finally pronounced the words neither Lenkath nor Saitor or even Messan had dared pronounce, "They were messengers from the sky, weren't they? But if so … why were they not guided to a safe landing?" After a second he added indistinctly, "Why did they look so different? Surely He would send messengers who resemble us, or so it is said in the accounts – we are His children after all." He desperately clung to his belief, frightened by what he saw.

In turn, Eganul Messan, accompanied by some of his men, made his way down to the wreck and, with his guards, looked around before indicating the remains of the vessel that had crashed; after hesitating for some seconds, he wrapped his hands in the edges of his cape before quickly pushing aside a strut, grasping and holding up a partly-melted panel which still showed barely discernible inscriptions.

"No spirits would need this to find their way to us. …The Bringer of Light sends us his messengers in visions and dreams." He indicated the crater and the remains of the vessel. "No, they can only have come from beyond. This script which, as far as I can see, apparently consists of ideograms, is not used in any region of our world." He stared at the symbols that were still visible, wishing for insight in their meaning.

This is …." The Healer looked at the Eganul and up at the villagers, saw the wonder and shock he felt reflected in their eyes. "… the proof of His word – they belong to one of the many other peoples besides us He has created."

"Come with me." Khessar Saitor indicated the compound. "This is a matter that requires a quiet discussion; we must decide what to do with the remains of His messengers. It may well be a test of our faith in and obedience of His teachings." In a low voice he told Eganul Messan, "This occurrence has to be related in a way that the people realize that they need not be afraid of what has just happened, that this is not a sign of evil to come, lest there be unforeseen consequences. Everyone is disquieted enough already because of what is happening in the Imperial City."

Messan inclined his head in agreement. After the last drought and associated near-famine, the people were anxious, watching the sky for signs that would indicate their fate …. This object had come from the sky – a threat or a good sign or a test of faith? Any error he or any of the ruling caste in this province made could provoke a dangerous situation.

He indicated six of the guards, "Protect this site and let no one approach it. We shall return shortly."

Once they had assembled in the hall, the Khessar preceded them into the inner chamber where he always prepared for his spiritual duties and where decisions concerning the people within the Eganul's area of influence were made. The men kept strangely silent as they took their places. Nemak briefly looked up at the 'Bringer of Light', a spiral of finest stone mosaic with a yellow and white centre that, when the first rays of the morning sun illuminated it, seemed to glow from within. It was forbidden to make any images of this being apart from this symbol. He was the one who knew everything and was itself the greatest, most unfathomable mystery of all.

"The Bringer of Light has seen what has happened, and you know His commandment that no one among his feeling and thinking beings is to be left without burial." Saitor waited for a few moments before stating, "Thus the remains of these travellers from beyond cannot be left where they are, to sink into the soil of our world among the debris of their vessel. It would make us seem like untaught animals. We do not even leave an enemy unburied, without a prayer in his name."

Khevron spoke for the representatives of the villagers. "Khessar Saitor, it is our way, it is our law. Their families respectively their own eganul may be searching for them even now, and to show the searchers a pit in the ground when they arrive would indicate a lack of respect for their people who have departed to the world beyond the stars, exposing us to their contempt - and rightly so."

The Eganul nodded in agreement. "Yet, we do not know their customs…" He hesitated briefly, "When I was a young man, I travelled extensively on this continent in preparation for my responsibilities and saw unbelievably divergent customs. There are some we would consider offensive, others which closely resemble ours. But at closer observation, one element soon became clear: they all express the same – respect for the departed, so we must do these victims justice and treat them as though they were our own."

One of the other representatives, Nemak, added, "I am only a simple farmer and soldier … but for me it seems best to have Attal the smith make metal containers for the remains of the travellers; they could be kept in the shrine in case other people come from the sky. Metal does not corrode or decompose as quickly as other material might. It may be a long time until their brothers find their way to us, if ever they do."

The Eganul met the eyes of those present in turn. "Much my own thought, Nemak. I would suggest erecting a separate shrine as a memorial to them at the exact place where they have crashed." He turned to Saitor with a gesture of deference. "Khessar Saitor, the remains can be preserved in a separate chamber, together with what is left of their vessel. The rim of the crater is to be marked by a low wall, the centre itself kept clear of vegetation, paved with the palest stones taken from the fields."

Saitor gazed out of the narrow window. "Thus those who may be searching for them even now shall be guided in their quest when they, in turn, find our world." He felt a wave of fear he quickly suppressed. If they are not His messengers, who are they? How will they be when they finally come? What will happen to us, to our ways?

Messan turned to the head of the village. "Khevron, when you return to your village, have Attal come to the compound together with Yedan and his sons to discuss the plans for the shrine so that they can be drawn up as soon as possible. Tell both that their family's subsistence is assured according to custom."

The healer briefly conferred with his assistant Gaarud and the Khessar, who nodded in agreement before adding, "I wonder why they were sent only to meet with such a fate; they were not able to give us His message."

The Khessar answered, "I wish I could tell you. There is, however, a purpose in what has come to pass. He does not do anything without reason." The man repeated, as if to himself, "This once, there is no answer. Nowhere. Not even in the Book of Light." For a moment, the Khessar felt renewed apprehension. This event will change us forever, in which way depends on its interpretation by us and by those who are to follow.

Afterwards, Messan together with Saitor accompanied the healer to the impact site to search for remains, while the Eganul's guards salvaged as much as they could find of the ship. To the people, who had become restless, frightened as they were by the occurrence, the Khessari assigned to the villages said that it was neither a warning nor a threat of evils to come, but rather a test of their faith, to see how they treated strangers and, indeed, this interpretation was the only valid one in the eyes of Eganul Messan and Khessar Saitor.

Within a few days, Khessar Saitor and Eganul Messan called a meeting with the craftsmen to negotiate on the details.

"The shrine will consist of a subterranean chamber where we propose keeping the elements of the vessel, whereas the main area will, as is custom with our shrines, be reserved for worship. The windows in the spire, though, will be arranged so that, every year at this time, the light will be reflected by mirrors so as to focus on the fire pit and light the materials within." Yedan proposed.

Attal nodded. "Six individuals, as far as Lenkath can tell… thus six containers. I, for my part, have a supply of tefa wood and can make the basic structure out of it. The outside will be coated with a layer of metal alloy." He turned to Khessar Saitor, "Khessar, is it permissible to emboss the metal with our sacred symbols? The victims are not of our people, and yet… it seems fitting."

The Khessar exchanged glances with Messan before giving a slight nod of agreement. "You can do no differently, Attal. We do not know their ways. Should their own ever come to look for them here, they will see that the deceased have been treated with respect in accordance with our beliefs. Furthermore, we will have a yearly ritual in the shrine, as we do for our own ancestors, to ask the Bringer of Light to bless them and us."

Attal added, "The containers will be lined with heavy sefrak, the remains wrapped in gauze of the same material."

Messan commented, "You would do with their remains as is the custom with the remains of Khessari."

"I realize this, Eganul Messan, and that it may well appear presumptuous. Yet, they have come from the sky and may well be messengers after all; in dying, they are testing us to see how we treat strangers." Attal avoided the Eganul's glance.

The Khessar smiled at him. "Your proposal is not presumptuous, Attal; but rather appropriate."

"One more detail about the containers: I propose leaving a niche in the farther wall of the inner sanctuary and fitting them in to resemble a panelled door," Yedon said. "It would preclude their intentional destruction in case of revolution."

"What this door truly represents will be passed on only from Khessar to Khessar." Saitor called out, "Those present will not speak of this to anyone. Is this understood?"

"We promise by the Book of Light that no word will be uttered about this," replied the others.

"Then that has been settled," said Eganul Messan. "How long will construction take?"

Attal calculated then said, "If I obtain the material at once, the six elements can be fully completed within two or three months, provided I work with my sons and my assistant on this task exclusively."

"And you?" Messan now turned to Yedan.

"I will draw up the plans for the shrine. a matter of five days … submit them to you for approval, Eganul Messan and you, Khessar Saitor, as soon as they have been completed. Should you consider the plans adequate, the building as such, provided deliveries of basic materials from the masons, carvings, woodwork can be effected without greater delays, will take roughly two years with one more to complete the interior. Essor, the icon painter, can do the interior paintings and the mosaic. I have already spoken to him." Yedon took a deep breath, "We also have pressing commitments in Perali Village where my assistants and I are cooperating with Ardesh, my colleague; a bridge and two large houses are under construction in Yeguna City. In Merekal Village, Tuvor requires a storage building and workshop." He hesitated, "I will have to negotiate with my colleagues who are also involved. There should be no difficulties, however, as we always cooperate on larger projects."

The two dignitaries briefly conferred before Eganul Messan stated, "Accepted."

"There is one more detail that has to be considered; as I stated before, the area has to remain visible from above. Suggestions."

Khevron promptly offered, "Our fields no doubt can be recognized from the sky because of their distinctive shape and low walls – the limestone in our area is a pale yellowish colour. Fill the crater with such stones, erect a low wall of the same around the rim of the crater… and keep the entire area clear of vegetation… " his voice trailed off when he realized the scope of the task.

"No, Khevron, your idea can be realized without neglecting other work or increasing your labour even more. This can be done as part of the ritual - work given in respect, besides the normal sacrifice; after all, we do the same for our own after their burial, erect small tumuli." replied Khessar Saitor. "In time, that crater will fill."

"Then we are in agreement on all details." Eganul Messan rose. "Khevron, you will arrange for Attal's and Yedan's families to receive the support they need from the villagers and from the reserves in the compound."

"Kayrit," he addressed his steward, "You will accord those involved in the work a monthly allotment of food, work clothing as needed, logistic support. Khevron will keep you informed on the details. In case of an accident, the injured will be treated at communal expense, should a worker die in an accident, the family is to be paid support until the older children can take his or her place."

Construction began sooner than expected. During the stages of planning and execution, Khevron had arranged for the fields of the craftsmen involved in construction to be tended by the villagers in return for their service. Craftsmen were highly regarded for their abilities. Even though the villagers were all capable of supporting themselves in every way, each village had a number of specialists who possessed superior skills their compatriots willingly enlisted.

Craftsmen and artists were highly respected in society; their creations were often of breathtaking beauty, reflecting nature and stylized into flowing nearly organic lines that seemed to shift at every change of perspective. Aketha and Lesana provinces were famous for their crafts which commanded high prices, especially as those who made them did not produce masses of sameness. Each object was subtly different: the khorem of the artist or craftsman had to be expressed, thus giving the work life and a soul of its own.

As soon as the memorial was completed, it was consecrated, the remains of the dead travellers were placed in the innermost chamber of the shrine, and their names chanted – names given the victims by Khessar Saitor, as there was no way of finding out their true ones. With the sealing of the chamber the ritual ended and the story of the incident was registered in the Eganul's archives. Each year, after The Ancestors had been honoured, a parallel ceremony took place in the shrine. For the spiritual natives of what would one day be Cardassia, it would have been inconceivable to abandon these people who had come to and died on their world to the elements and, finally, to oblivion.

Months became years, years became decades, finally two centuries. In the course of time the account of the crash slowly became a story as it was passed from one generation to the next, one legend among many relating the wonders brought about by the Bringer of Light, and finally, a dim memory recounted in the evening by the village elders when everyone was gathered to work together before they, too, lived on in the memories of the villagers and finally as lives registered in the province archives in the compound. And otherwise, too, circumstances changed …

Tevrak and his wife, Numia, silently rose to prepare for the events of the day. He, as well as all of the farmers in Perali Village, was apprehensive. A quick cleansing, then both dressed in their festive clothing – well-worn, even poor, and had a simple meal together with their children before going to join the others in the village square. The harvest had been exceptionally good, so that the village's storage building was filled with bushel baskets of grain and other crops, all of the best quality. In spite of the bounty the season had brought, all of the farmers were grim, even sullen; there was none of the joking and the good-natured teasing that would normally have been expected at such an occasion.

Sikar said in a low voice, "Our harvests have been the best in years."

"Certainly," answered Tevrak, as he, too, shouldered one of the heavy loads to carry it to his assigned place in the village square. "We'll see whether we have any reason to rejoice about it after Kendro has left." He gave the mill at the farther end of the village a passing glance. "Half of our harvests this time…."

Side by side with Sikar, he arranged the goods as was prescribed.

Jevarro nodded to Tevrak, the head of the village, in greeting, and said, "Now we wait."

"Ah yes, as usual. I wonder how much we are to turn over this time as dues. One half has been demanded, but you can be sure there will be requests for supplements." He laughed. "I would pay a year of life for a look into the Compound's ledgers, how much of what is exacted is taxes and how much is allegedly laid by for bad times. Did you see how he inspected the fields some weeks ago?"

"… and added at least a fourth to his estimates. Be assured very little remains, if anything, once it has passed through the steward's hands, and even less once the Eganul has taken his share," was Atroj, the village healer's and Elder's, reaction. He added after some moments, "Above all, you have forgotten the Khessari."

There were resentful mutters of agreement or suppressed derisive laughter from all sides; everyone had heard rumours about what went on up in the compound. Ranok, the Chief Khessar, was immensely huge; obviously he never suffered from hunger as did the simple people, not even during famines.

"But if we attempt to conceal anything of what should be ours by right, … the Bringer of Light will bring destruction on us all!" called out one of the younger men, imitating the Khessar in a sneering tone of voice. "Remember Artos, who collapsed and died within two weeks after asking why his prize gettle was to be sacrificed to ward off the coming drought – a drought of which there was not the slightest indication." He lowered his voice, "I heard it said he was poisoned."

"Or what about Jevarro's daughter, Yossa?"

Jevarro went over to the group, spreading his neck membranes in anger and resentment when he spoke up. "I'll continue, as she is my daughter. Yossa was chosen to spend a year as a servant to the Eganul's wife because she is attractive, a good and attentive worker and has a quick mind…" he made a pause for greater effect, "… for a village woman. She returned after the year was up carrying more than the pay that had been agreed on. The supplement is very much alive and lay next to her in the birthing room within five months after her return. She refuses to say who abused her."

Atroj said quietly, "I tried to find it out myself, and so did Renia, who assisted her, but she is too afraid to say anything lest she or the child have an … unfortunate accident."

"Indeed. She runs off to hide every time someone from the compound comes here. Yossa has changed so much…. If Eganul Celan ever finds out about that child, he will take it from her as it belongs to his bloodline, that is for sure." He hesitated, "I doubt it was fathered by anyone outside of that lot, considering what goes on up there."

"She was forced," said a young man, Kadro. "She told me that much. This very deed goes against everything we are taught. I believe Yossa when she says she was not a willing participant." He briefly fell silent. "The child is healthy and strong – when I have taken her for my wife next month, I will consider him ours; neither she nor that child should pay for what was done. Raising him to be a farmer and craftsman is revenge of sorts. He will not be exploiting us once he is grown."

"Everyone knows she is not the only one, be sure of that … Those up there have only contempt for us, but our young people are welcome enough to serve the purposes of that house." Agnor said in a barely audible voice. "At times I have heard some of those from up there speak among themselves on the market when they think no one is close enough to hear them."

Terek remained silent – he, along with some of his most trusted friends, had spent the previous nights carefully steaming the grain enough to increase its weight, taking care it did not become sticky and thus betray what they had done. The male shrugged slowly to reduce the soreness in his shoulders; at glancing to the side, he met one of his friends' eyes and risked a brief smirk. That grain was now heavier by roughly a fourth.

At that moment the children rushed in from where they had been working and stood behind their elders, trying to seem unafraid. "Kendor is on his way."

"There is nothing to fear. We have obeyed the Eganul's orders. The harvest will be enough for all. This year we will not go hungry," Tevrak said to them, attempting cheerfulness, but feeling sympathy with the children's parents who hissed derisively at his words when he said, "Now let's pretend to be as dull as our gettle…"

Kendor the Steward went to the centre of the village square with his guards and called out the names of the farmers together with the amount each one was to give. Those called up suppressed their outrage, whereas the others avoided eye contact. Whether good harvest or bad, they invariably had to hand over more than two-thirds of what they had harvested even though but half had been stipulated. How to feed their families under those conditions! And yet … each acre of land belonged to the Eganul; his house possessed the best land ever since the old ritual of redistribution had been abolished two generations ago; he demanded part of the harvest from the farmers in exchange for the privilege of working that land. Even the crafts they produced to sell on the market … one half of the profit they made was the Eganul's, allegedly to help defray the costs of his standing army; and what did the Khessari do with the donations they got?

The farmers were not allowed weapons of any kind – their master had an army of mercenaries, none of whom came from Aketha Province, so that the population they protected was nothing to them. They served whoever paid them. Only lately had some of the young Akethi from the border villages covertly joined their number in neighbouring cities, posing as mercenaries from border regions because their poverty had become so great that any source of income was invaluable.

The men, inwardly seething with hatred, watched Kendor strut arrogantly along the line of farmers, checking what they had set out against the list of obligations, while the soldiers reluctantly helped load the produce on the carts which were drawn by the finest gettle the farmers had ever seen. Markai and Agnor exchanged glances – they well knew where those animals had come from ….. and the muttering and blaspheming of the soldiers showed they resented having to do the work they obviously thought the farmers should be doing.

"Is this all?" Kendor asked, as he looked at each of the farmers in turn, at their wives, their children. When no reply was forthcoming, he called out loudly, with a hint of a threat, "I ask you again, 'Is this all?' "

"Yes, Kendor, it is all, and what you said belongs to the Eganul and the Khessari. We would never think of trying to cheat the Eganul and his people of what is rightly theirs. It would be a serious crime in the eyes of the Bringer of Light," Tevrak whispered, eyes lowered, attitude submissive. Forgive me, Bringer of Light, but if only I could crush this parasite as he so much deserves to be. Only half a year ago, he had sent Mireya, his eldest daughter, to stay with relatives in Lesana Province to keep her from the same fate Yossa had suffered after he had seen Kendor looking at her appraisingly even though she was little more than a child.

Kendor waited for a moment before stating, "One more matter. The following men are to report to Divak tomorrow at sunrise. He will assign them their duties. Repairs to the compound have to be effected. Markai, Sotar, Reman, Unat, Kevor, Yassit, Soltan, there is no work in the fields now, so you can make yourselves useful instead of wasting time doing nothing."

Those who had been named only nodded. "Yes. We will be there."

When the steward had left with the produce, the farmers slowly dispersed to stand around in small groups.

"He's out of sight, together with his men." called out Agnor, who had gone out of the village under guise of looking for his young son, Gevro, but in reality had been the lookout.

"Quickly!"

At once, the villagers entered their houses and sheds, only to emerge out the back doors, carrying sacks and sealed ceramic jars.

One by one, at intervals, they entered various houses, hiding the crops they had secreted in a system of caverns that they had found generations ago and had begun using as refuges during times of conflict, respectively as clandestine storage areas.

After they had finished, the villagers, discouraged in spite of the provisions they had smuggled to safety, met in the square, knowing that both the little they had been allowed to keep and what they had set aside clandestinely was all they had to support them until the next harvest.

"Nothing to celebrate this time…."

"Perhaps that we have been allowed to keep even this much? Or, even better, that we have not been caught just now?"

"Mind your words, Kadro; remember Denor's youngest son? He was arrested and executed two years ago for allegedly inciting revolt, whereas all he had done was to complain about the last drought and how little we had been allowed to keep for ourselves that time."

"I wonder how many of those men press-ganged into helping with repairs will come back still able to put in a day's work. Last time two died in accidents, and one man from a neighbouring village, Tamor, was injured so severely that he can only do the easiest tasks. His neighbour and his family are working together now, but it is not easy. His eldest children are not yet old enough to take an adult's place." He looked over to a house some distance away. "Or think of Mysit. There is no compensation, no help for those who have been hurt while serving the Eganul, and as to the families who have lost a son or a husband, there is not even an explanation why the accident happened. We are nothing to those up there." He shook his head, "No work in the fields – and does he really think this time now consists of only lying around?"

"Ah, this is it, then, to be less than the gettle. Our role in the Great Order," Markai sighed. "We work, they take, we work and remain poor and get poorer. I swear by the Bringer of Light that Ranok the Khessar is fit to strangle on his own fat, together with the others of his kind." He shrugged, "So, we work…. to stay alive another year."

"For what?" was Agnor's defiant query.

"There are ways," murmured Jevarro. "Remember Eganul Ressot."

No one asked further, but the older men drew away instinctively as they realized what he was implying … Their own Eganul had tried to keep the news from reaching his people, but it was virtually impossible to keep information and news from travelling along the network established by the merchants, farmers and their relatives. In silence, the men parted company to return to their own houses and families where they had enough work waiting.

The next day, the populations of the villages closest to the compound were expected to come to its shrine where the chief Khessar found it necessary to address the farmers' sullenness.

"The order among living beings was established by the Bringer of Light himself, with His representatives, the Eganul and the Khessar leading all in their wisdom and kindness, as a father does his family. This order was established when our ancestors first settled in this fertile area. We are to obey our ruler as the ruler obeys the Bringer of Light. Unquestioningly, faithfully. To speak against a ruler is to speak against the Bringer of Light himself, who will send disasters, illnesses, destruction upon the people as punishment, until the rebellious ones are either cast out or finally return to the path laid out for them. Consider the Site of Judgement! Uncountable years ago, He sent fire from the sky as a warning to all – the evidence is yet visible – every year sacrifices are made on that very site to make restitution for the wrongdoings committed in the course of the year. I plead with you: accept your position in the order created by the Bringer of Light, lest you call down destruction upon us all because of your impure and rebellious thoughts…"

The people listened, a few of them, especially the children, frightened, some of them critical, most of those present, however, recognized the words as threats meant to keep the people in line, and exchanged derisive glances. After calling out the ritual phrases of blessing, the people were free to return to their homes and, as the Khessar put it, "… reflect upon the fatherly love the Eganul, the Khessari and the Bringer of Light have for even the simplest of their children."

On the way back, one of the oldest men turned to his neighbour, Terek, and motioned him to come closer. "I clearly remember my own grandfather telling me that, in his youth, there were buildings in every village where the Khessari and other instructors taught the children. All of them without exception were educated in the knowledge of the time and their best sent to the capital to study. Now these buildings are used as storage areas."

Terek, a young man who was returning home with his family, met the elder's gaze and said, "Indeed, Kaigol, it must be true; why else would we be doing as we are…." He glanced at his children as they walked towards their house – two daughters, three sons. All condemned to lead the same life of incessant labour we, their elders, are forced to lead…. "…having them taught in secret, by those who have managed get an education, a very few clandestinely sent to their relatives in the Capital to study there. And, whenever anyone from up there comes to speak to us, we speak as though we were untaught."

The old man, silent now, thought We are supposed to be uneducated servants, incapable of thinking beyond the next season, incapable of realizing that we are being cheated of what should rightly be ours… He again glanced over at the young man who was still walking by his side. May this generation or the next act before it is too late. For three long years my grandfather and his peers, the entire population, in fact, ceaselessly worked at rebuilding the town and the houses in their villages after an earthquake that had been followed within weeks by a flood which together carried away nearly half the population. We were promised that the schools would be reopened and staffed….. but, there never was any time, it never was the right time; our labour was constantly needed. There are and were always excuses…. It is fear of our power when educated.

After dark, the children slipped out of the houses and went to one of the larger buildings where they began working at mastering basic tasks – outwardly. An older youth stood guard outside while the others were taught the knowledge that had been passed on from generation to generation since the Visitation, or transmitted by some few villagers who had moved in from areas near the border to Lesana or Saranji Provinces and brought back texts or verbal accounts. The children themselves were so used to secrecy that they could hide every sign of their illicit activities and resume their manual work within seconds, nor did even the youngest ever mention what they were doing to anyone outside the group. Thus, even though the farmers were not as highly educated as their forefathers had been, their rulers had not yet reduced them to illiterate serfs, although they pretended to be thus in the presence of the Eganul's men. Certainly, the situation was less extreme outside Celan's immediate sphere of influence, with the population's having direct access to education and the benefits of rapidly developing technology, but, as a whole, many counties in Aketha Province had regressed in the past three generations.

Only six years later, severe flooding once again made planting nearly impossible; first the population starved, then was decimated by water-borne diseases which took on epidemic proportions. The following year, the planting, which had been done with so much hope, was done in vain. The farmers watched helplessly as the plants withered; the water they carried to the fields in their efforts to save at least some of their crops was but a drop in the bucket. The pumps drew up no more water, so much had the aquifer dropped, even the deepest wells gave no more water. The streams in the underground waterways themselves had been reduced to a trickle. Drinking water could only be found in some caverns – a trickle where cataracts had been. It was then that some of the people decided to leave clandestinely for other areas, avoiding the roads as the eganul had them guarded for fear of too many people leaving the province. Those who departed arranged to have members of other families occupy their houses during their absence for fear they would be taken over by strangers.

Too late to save the crops, rain finally came. Yet even in these direst of circumstances, Eganul Celan exacted his share. To supervise the farmers, he had instructed the Khessar to send some his students to live and work in the villages with the understanding that they were to observe the inhabitants very closely and report anything that hinted at revolt or even preparations to leave. These students invariably came from other provinces – it was an integral element of Khessari education to travel to and study in as many regions as possible before they were taken on as aides to a Chief Khessar. Thus the idea that the situation of this population would not evoke as much sympathy in these young Khessari as would be the case were they their own people.

Andrak, a student from Vagarasi Province, had been assigned to work in Perali Village. After a time, the people noticed that even though he preached as was expected, he appeared disturbed at the poverty he saw when he walked through the village. Certainly, everything was impeccably clean, the houses, the villages and the surroundings, even to the clothing of the youngest, but there was no mistaking the signs of destitution. His subtle change of expression did not escape the people, who, as he was a newcomer, observed him very carefully, curiously, trying to assess him as a person.

"Tevrak, my wife and children died in the floods and the last famine." Jorek said to his friend. "I have nothing more to lose. Whatever the outcome, I will go to Khessar Andrak after the service. The situation as is has become nearly unbearable."

"You realize that you may well be throwing your life away for nothing? Why do you think this khessar will help us? Be sure he is no better than the others of his kind! Those we have had so far are as power-hungry and greedy as the lot up in the Compound. You can start anew with Simara, who is a good woman and a hard worker." Tevrak grasped his friend's shoulders. "I plead with you: think it over carefully."

Jorek did not answer, only shrugged indifferently and went back to his house, leaving Tevrak to stare after him.

After the service was over, Andrak was putting his robes away when he heard a knock at the door and opened it only to see one of the farmers standing there, waiting patiently. He looks ill, no doubt half-starved, as are most of the others. With a brief, quickly suppressed surge of guilt, Andrak realized how he looked to this farmer: so well-fed his scales glistened with health; he wore good clothing, was equipped with a wealth of knowledge and had the time to accumulate ever more, did not have to worry about his subsistence.

"You are…." He met the man's eyes.

"I am Jorek of Perali Village, Khessar Andrak." The man made a gesture of respect and again resumed waiting.

"Come in and sit down, Jorek. Obviously you wish to speak to me about a problem. The Bringer of Light willing, we can find help." Andrak sat down behind his desk, facing the man; shaking his head in annoyance at having placed a barrier between himself and this petitioner, he rose to pull over a chair and sit within touching distance; the younger man noticed the look of astonishment that briefly flickered across Jorek's face.

Jorek remained silent for some time, watching Andrak, suddenly afraid of the audacity of what he wanted to ask, but then thought of his family, the situation in the surrounding villages, and said, his voice nearly inaudible, "Khessar, I have nothing at all to lose any more, not after the last season which took my entire family." His voice trailed off and he looked to the side before he resumed. "When I was a child, a very old man told us that his grandfather had once said that the Bringer of Light was benevolent, that the Visitation was not a divine warning, but rather a test of our piety towards strangers." Jorek had uttered these words very rapidly. Now he hesitantly met the Khessar's eyes, his own frightened. "How can that be, Khessar Andrak? He also said that in those days we farmers and craftsmen, and even the children of the simplest labourers had the same access to instruction as the rulers' own youth, that our best were even sent to study in the Imperial City. He also said that the Eganul laid by supplies in case of need, that we were not left to starve as we are now, that he made the round of the villages and cities in the egulchai once a year to speak to the people. The old have always told the truth. I … do not understand the changes." He fell silent and waited resignedly for what he was sure would happen.

Andrak did not answer at once, taken unawares by the man's words. "He did tell the truth, Jorek of Perali Village. But times have changed. The situation at present is a test exacted from you, from all his children. Remember, though: the Bringer of Light is benevolent and merciful, if we only obey his will without question, never doubt Him, and act in accordance with the will of those whom He has given power. Trust in Him, Jorek, and you will find true peace and fulfilment."

Jorek met the Khessar's glance, his own once again dull with despair and disappointment at hearing the customary phrases and exhortations. "Then I shall try to do as I am bidden by Him." The farmer rose and left, his entire posture revealing his discouragement. He did not look back, or else he would have seen the pensive expression in Andrak's eyes.

In the following days, Andrak went about his studies and, one evening, in the Khessaris' library and archives, was gazing out of a window overlooking the valley. The landscape here was much different to that of Vagarasi Province: hillier, the climate slightly wetter so that there were springs and underground watercourses which the people used to irrigate the fields and, in the middle of the valley, a narrow river with a large marsh. The limestone cliffs, which had once been a vast plateau thousands of years ago, stood in contrast to the reddish-green of the vegetation. He inhaled. The night air was fresh, smelt of vegetation and earth, of sun-heated rock with, just at the limit of perception, the scent of incense. He again drew a deep breath and stood back from the window, only to start and turn around, taken by surprise, when he was addressed by the Chief Khessar.

"You seem disturbed, in conflict with yourself, Andrak. I take it the farming population is proving somewhat difficult to reach for someone who is only starting on the long way towards becoming a devoted and faithful servant of the Bringer of Light?"

"Not at all, Khessar Ranok." Andrak turned to face his superior, making the ritual gesture of respect and submission. "I have found them to be gentle and simple folk, seeking the truth in their own way as do we all." He smiled slightly. "They desire counsel about their families, their work…"

"I heard Jorek spoke to you after the last service. What was his reason for addressing you? He had already come to me for counsel after suffering his losses." Behind the fatherly manner in which the Chief Khessar had just spoken, Andrak sensed profound, indifferent coldness. He is willing to resort to any means to keep the people from thinking and speaking their minds; for him I am meant to be but an observer, expected to report everything that is said in my presence. He suppressed the thought and the sudden fear it elicited. "No. He only wished to request a prayer for good harvests this coming season."

As the Khessar considered him, Andrak felt as though his entire being became heavy, like lead. Even though I have just lied, it is a lie to protect that unfortunate villager. I have nothing to fear, and, indeed, the same question Jorek asked has come to my mind repeatedly. He held eye contact, calmly, confidently.

His superior seemed satisfied with his answer. "See that you do not let yourself be manipulated by the country people into adopting their point of view. They are incapable of recognizing that they are meant to serve, no matter what their situation. The more hot-headed ones refuse to accept their role in society, and some few older ones – fortunately most have joined their ancestors or else they would have to be punished for spreading lies – persist in believing that their condition was once different. All of this is but untruth spread among the simple people by agitators who are attempting to incite revolution so that their eganul can invade Aketha province the moment it has been destabilized."

"No, I assure you I shall not; after all, the first element we are taught is to remain apart even while listening to the most pressing concerns of the people we help. If we fail to do so, the weight of their concerns will only serve to crush us and defeat our attempts and ability to offer true help." Andrak gestured at the surroundings, "No, Khessar Ranok, I was not disturbed, but have only realized it is so peaceful here, a place well-suited for meditation."

The other considered him briefly. He would appear far more … spiritually-inclined than I would have expected. All the better. He will not get too involved in affairs that are none of his concern, but prefer to study the way of the Bringer of Light. "Do so as much as you want, my son, and for your studies, Andrak, everything you require is in this one place: copies or originals of all the sacred texts are here together with the province archives, the whole of these writings is at your disposal."

"This is a great kindness, Khessar Ranok, and I shall make use of it. The collection is truly comprehensive." The young Khessar turned his hands palm upwards in a gesture of thankfulness.

"It is, I assure you, one of the largest collections of manuscripts on the Cathassan continent; if you so desired, you could read and study for the rest of your life." Ranok proudly indicated the array of volumes on the shelves before he left.

Once his superior had slowly walked out of the room, Andrak went to inspect an array of volumes on one of the shelves; after some moments, he pulled out a selection of holy texts, opened it at random and began to read. The archives have to be kept for later. Ranok's mentioning them was too obvious. To read them at once would raise questions which I am not prepared to answer, not without arousing suspicion. For a moment, Andrak thought of Jorek. He saw the farmer every now and then when he went to the village to perform his duties. Jorek had not addressed him anymore, only briefly glanced up from whatever work he was doing, gave him the traditional greeting, quickly averting his glance as soon as the slightest eye contact was made.

Some weeks later, Andrak finally felt safe enough to read parts of the archives. Roughly five generations ago, it should be…. He pulled out one of the loosely-bound folders. The names of the people were unfamiliar, but soon he was absorbed in the text … in the following volume, a set of numbers and construction plans for a new shrine to the east of the compound caught his eyes. This must be the shrine of the Visitation! Quickly, he paged back. … messengers fell from the sky with their vessel. Eganul Messan and Khessar Saitor have decided a shrine is to be built on the site. Attal's and Yedon's families will be accorded support while the craftsmen named and their assistants construct the shrine and make the containers for the remains of the strangers from beyond. Khessar Saitor and those who will follow him are to perform a service for the dead travellers every year on the Day of the Visitation to show the Bringer of Light our respect for His will and for the many beings He has created in His great wisdom… Andrak paged through the book, searching for the pages before and right after – they were missing, obviously removed by someone or another … to conceal critical facts from the eyes of a chance reader? Without thinking, he carefully removed those pages he had read and secreted them under his robes before returning the ledger to its place. To hide his tracks, Andrak took out an account of the previous fifty years and began reading it, but found it hard to concentrate. What he had just done so impulsively was, he realized, a great risk. If he was ever found out, ….

After roughly another month, Andrak was replaced by another student while he received intensive training from Khessar Ranok – Outwardly, he accepted the interpretations he was taught, but inwardly, he began to question them together with the entire 'order' he had seen so far. In his own home province which was ruled by Eganul Gheitan, the Khessar were as powerful as the ruler of the province, but spirituality and belief were not used to terrorize and exploit the population as was the case here. Research was furthered, the Khessari shared their knowledge by teaching the children and young people; high art and architecture were but the material expression of their beliefs … Aketha Province and its entire society appeared like a throwback to the time just after the fall of the Hebitian Empire and before establishment of the First Empire, a time of chaos, interminable, brutal warfare and uncontrolled epidemics which had severely decimated the populations of all continents in a series of global disasters. So much of what was great had been lost during that time of upheaval: literature, philosophical works, art in all areas, cultural and religious unity…. Whatever was found was revered, stored in shrines as a sign of the ancestors' greatness.

Every two months, there were reunions of the Eganul, his officials and the Khessari in the Great Hall; these conferences allegedly saw the discussion of long-term projects as to diplomatic relations with other provinces, infrastructure, all aspects of political life. The students were, as yet, not admitted to these sessions and made use of the time off to catch up on studies or simply to meditate.

On one of these evenings, Andrak made the rounds of the entire compound, at times looking out over the landscape which was so much different to that of his home province which was mainly deserts and some rare fertile areas; at turning a corner and entering a courtyard he had not seen before, his curiosity was aroused when he heard shouts and laughter, bursts of singing from a long way off.

This is not a time for celebration; the people are in need. He shook off the thought. Even direst deprivation is but a test placed on those who suffer from it by the Bringer of Light. Yet, the moment he thought them, the words seemed hollow, meaningless, if not cynical. Why only the people? Why not those who lead them? Do they not share the fate of their subjects?

Curious, the young man slowly made his way towards the sounds only to see light streaming from the windows of the Great Hall in the Eganul's compound. Quickly, he squirmed into the shelter offered by the climbing shrubs in the furthest corner and pulled himself up. What he saw in the Hall was no session of council, but a celebration that was rapidly turning into the worst kind of immeasurable waste and debauchery. Incredulity, disgust at the duplicity of the religious leaders he saw, at Celan's and his family's, distress about the situation at hand, nearly overwhelmed him with profound anger.

Suddenly he heard footsteps in cadence and, frightened at his own audacity, carefully lowered himself to cower in the shadows, hardly daring to breathe. He well knew that, all considered, what he was doing and what he had witnessed could cost him his life the moment he was discovered. The guards stopped, stood in the middle of the courtyard for some time, talking quietly among themselves, then resumed their patrol. Shortly after, the footsteps faded into the distance as the guards left the courtyard, no doubt anticipating their own celebration back in the barracks. Andrak opened his eyes and, after making sure no one was nearby, pulled himself up again to observe some moments longer, hoping against hope he had misinterpreted the scene. The Eganul's oldest son, Lissok, had left in the meantime, most likely with one of the young women who had stood at the door to serve; she had also disappeared.

The young khessar had seen enough … while making his way back to the Khessari's area he felt chilled when he recalled a phrase he had read at the very beginning of his studies: "A ruler who permits his subjects to suffer when he has the means of alleviating this suffering is not worthy of his station."

Hugging the wall to avoid the open area, Andrak returned, pensive. Once in his room, he quickly drew out the pages he had smuggled out of the archives from under the corner shrine and slipped them into the cover of his Book of Light. He lay down to rest, but perturbed as he was, sleep was a long time in coming. Before drifting off, Andrak remembered that, in another three weeks, he was to return to his duties in Perali Village.

A month later, it was with a feeling of apprehension rather than confidence in his work as a spiritual guide that he prepared for, then held the service in the village shrine. Andrak looked over the rows of faces turned to him and thought, What will Jorek do with the knowledge? Bringer of Light, I hope I am not unleashing a catastrophe beyond belief on this village and its inhabitants, on the entire province. For a moment, he was tempted to forget about the whole affair and see to his spiritual duties as Khessar Ranok expected. In another year, I will be on my way to Ubari Province, whose Chief Khessar is known as just, will have left this province behind together with its rulers and its population …. Who am I to presume to change what is? How to be sure the situation is not the way it is meant to be, a test placed upon the people by the One Who Sees All, to measure their faith and moral strength? Bringer of Light, guide me, or, should I be overstepping your sacred rules, forgive me and grant me the means to redeem myself.

Afterwards, however, he felt at peace, confident about what he had decided to do and prepared to face and accept whatever awaited him. He left the shrine and called over a girl who was waiting for her parents. "Child, tell Jorek and Tevrak to come to me at once. It is important."

The girl looked up at him wide-eyed and shrank back very slightly in fear.

"I promise you they will not be harmed and assure you by all that I hold holy and dear that I am speaking the truth. Please, child, you can believe me." He was disturbed at her obvious fright. We should be trusted, not seen as threatening!

"Yes, Khessar Andrak." She turned and, once she had left the vicinity of the shrine, the child ran off as quickly as she could.

Andrak sat down in the room behind the hall, waiting, once again realizing that what he was about to do could bring about the worst kind of bloodshed, see many villagers dead and injured and, in spite of these sacrifices, a very uncertain justice in the end. Yet repeatedly, in his mind, he saw Jorek as he had looked at him in despair.

"Khessar Andrak?" It was the girl. "Jorek and Tevrak are here."

Andrak went out to the adjoining room and returned within moments to give the child a coin. "This is for you and yours, Ilani." He knew it was a large amount he had given her, but thought it justified. "Blessings upon you and your family."

With a gasp of disbelief, she stared at it before whispering, "Khessar Andrak, your kindness be rewarded!" Tightly clutching what she obviously knew would support her and her family for nearly a month, she left, repeatedly looking back.

The two men came into the shrine, once glancing through the door at the departing form of the girl.

Andrak came out, carrying two brooms. "Sweep this hall at once – the dirt from the fields has been carried in yet again! Look at the floor - perhaps I should have straw scattered here! Will you yokels never learn to leave your shoes outside? This is a shrine, a place of worship, and not a shelter for livestock!" His anger seemed real, so that the men took the brooms he thrust at them contemptuously to begin working in resentful silence.

Following the two as though not trusting them to work properly, Andrak explained in a low voice, "Jorek, your coming to me put a face to what I had been feeling and seeing ever since my arrival here; I have had the chance to look through the archives. Tevrak, you are here to witness what I will be showing your friend. The truth." The young Khessar was serious, grim even.

The men did not answer, working quickly and efficiently, at times exchanging suspicious glances.

"Once you have finished, come to me as though you were expecting payment." He briefly smiled, "If you had addressed me of your own accord, there may have been suspicions. Questions would have been asked of you – and of me."

"We have finished," said Tevrak after a time, and Andrak came out to inspect the cleaning.

"That will do. Come with me."

The two men followed him into the inner room where Andrak took out the four pages he had removed from the folder and laid them on the table. "I'll read this to you quickly. If we remain here too long, my aides will come to check and see what we are doing."

When they had heard the text to the end they remained silent while Andrak put the pages back into his book.

"Why?" Tevrak asked simply.

"For the sake of unlimited, unchallenged power and wealth. Fear is for people like a spur for a gettle. The people obey, the creature obeys. Initially, they are unwilling, but both are forced to obey until their will is broken and they can do no differently. When you muttered in protest against what you had to give to the Eganul, you were warned of the anger and vengeance of the Bringer of Light and ceded immediately, fearing retribution, either divine or from Eganul Celan. The fact you are kept ignorant makes the task easier. You can read, but have no texts at your disposal which would permit you to get the knowledge and education you would need to question things as they are." All I am allowed to read to them are the passages which speak of obedience towards those superior in status, to the fact the population is here to serve….

The men nodded once, eyes narrowed. Tevrak risked a glance at Jorek and knew his thoughts reflected his own. Apparently the khessar does not know of the clandestine education we have and pass on to our children.

For a moment, they saw apprehension in the young Khessar's eyes, heard it in his voice as he said, "Tevrak and Jorek, above all I plead with you not to do anything rash, especially when I give you the following information: The supplies allegedly laid by for times of need – and this certainly is such a one – are being used to produce alcohol and to make it possible for the Eganul and the Khessari to feast together with their families and hangers-on." He took a deep breath. "I looked at last year's accounts. Separate ledgers for your supplies and those of the Eganul are no longer being maintained, have not been kept for the past two generations. Everything belongs to him and to him alone to use at his discretion." He hesitated, "Of course, I have no knowledge of the situation in the other cities in this Province."

"Why are you telling us this? How do we know you have not told Khessar Ranok about my coming to you? Could it be you have been given the task of winning our trust to make it easier for those up there to spy on us? You have everything you need, Khessar Andrak. Look at yourself. You have good clothing, your hands are soft – obviously you have never had to labour in the fields or exercise a craft to earn your food and a roof over your head; you are well-fed even now whereas we are nearly starving. You, Khessar Andrak, you can spend hours every day studying And we would be grateful could we do so but an hour a day!…. What are we to you anyway? Why should you want change?" Jorek snarled suspiciously. "You belong to those up in the Compound, not to us."

The young man ignored the open anger in Jorek's words, preferring to explain his motive rather than to counter the accusations. "After you had come to me, I recognized the injustice behind the differences all too clearly, realized they were not right, that they were not an element of local tradition accepted by all, but a sign of …. misrule. I wanted to know and finally to share. At home, in Vagarasi Province, it is not thus, not in Lesana, Saranji or Ubari Provinces either," was his simple answer.

Jorek and Tevrak exchanged glances, then Jorek shrugged, looked over at the young Khessar. "I am willing to take the risk."

"I only hope that you are not making the wrong decision," Tevrak said, with an apprehensive glance over at Andrak.

"Khessar, truth for truth. To me you seem sincere in what you are doing, especially as you have accepted the risk involved in taking these pages out of the Archives and bringing them to us." Tevrak inhaled deeply to steady his voice. "We are not illiterate, and have been given an education throughout these decades, clandestinely. Knowledge is power, and to deny someone this power is a crime against all that is Cathassan."

"I suspected as much – you were following the text with your eyes…. An illiterate would have had a different way of looking at a text." He then met their eyes and, after a moment of thought, he pulled the sheets of paper out of the cover of his Book and held them out to the men. "Jorek and Tevrak, I give these to you as proof of my words and my integrity. Keep them well hidden and be careful of whom you trust. I must leave now."

With that he went out with the two villagers and where his aides could see his every motion, gave the two men a coin each for their work before rejoining his aides to go to his house on the outskirts of the village with them.

He sighed resignedly and told them, "Those farmers! They are like small children, always in need of advice or of help; and yet, in spite of their simplicity, they are good people. The only thing they need is our guidance. All the while they were working there were questions." He briefly fell silent, mentally asking the farmers' forgiveness for the question he was about to make up, "Does the Bringer of Light hear a prayer better if it comes from the top of a hill rather than from way down in a valley?"

His aides laughed derisively and, to allay any suspicions they may have had, he briefly joined their laughter. Is this the way the Khessari here see the inhabitants of the land? Only as servants, with little more intelligence than their livestock? Can time be turned back, conditions be improved for these people and the old ways recreated? Eganuls have always been powerful but realized that they and their people depend on each other, thus are responsible for each other's well-being. Exploitation thus is forbidden. The Akethi used to be as highly educated as everyone else on this continent until Messan's grandson made use of natural disasters to establish a rule based on exploitation after the Year of Retribution as it is now called. Messan was the last truly good ruler of his line. He was silent for the rest of the evening and retired early, suddenly afraid of the catastrophe he might have unleashed upon Aketha Province.

In the meantime, Tevrak and Jorek had arrived at their respective homes. Later on that night, Tevrak watched Numia and his children … thought of his friends and neighbours, of the populations of the other villages and cities in this province. How to change things? We alone do not have the means of communication, nor the weapons to fight against the Eganul's soldiers. Best get into contact with my relatives in the other villages, and they with those people they can trust absolutely. One traitor and we are all lost. We have to find out about conditions in other parts of this province, and, if Celan's representatives are as exploitative as he is, see to it there are consequences.

"Has something happened, Tevrak?" His wife had come over to him and, concernedly, placed a hand over his. "Ever since your conversation with Khessar Andrak you have seemed distracted, if not worried and have been observing us as though you had never really seen us."

"No, everything is all right. I am only tired beyond belief, that is all." He tilted his head to meet Numia's eyes and smiled up at her. "Nothing a night's rest won't put right."

An elder looked in the door after knocking. "Tevrak, your children can come now."

That was what they had been waiting for impatiently. Picking up their tools that lay prepared near the door, they went out, speaking happily, anticipating the time together with their peers in the lessons.

"Numia, now we can talk freely. Andrak, the new Khessar, showed Jorek and me an account of the time of the Visitation which he had taken out of the archives in the Compound. It is written proof that the stories that the Khessari have told us throughout the past decades are lies, each single one of them." He took the pages out of a pouch on his belt and gave them to his wife. "These are no forgeries, anyone can see that. Read this, Numia, and tell me that we are being told the truth by those who live up in the compound."

The woman slowly read the texts, examined the page of bookkeeping that concerned the construction of the shrine, the provisions made for the craftsmen and labourers, before giving the pages back to her husband, her dark eyes glittering with anger. "And the Khessari who are lying to us along with the Eganul with the goal of reducing us to mindless servants …"

"Throughout the past three generations…" added Tevrak.

"The Second Market will take place in a month's time." Numia whispered. "... a few of my relatives will be there; they are from Saranji Province, certainly, but their presence may prove useful. Because they are merchants, they know nearly all of the village leaders here and at home; they know whom they can trust … There will be time for them to initiate further valuable contacts."

"Then we are in agreement. I shall speak to those of Perali Village whom I know I can trust to keep this a secret from any but their own most trusted and reliable friends, and you, the same. We have to be sure of our contacts in the nearby villages before they can begin spreading this information and establish the network that is needed to make our … work a success." Tevrak secreted the pages behind a support. "We must also see to it that we do not lose the little we have; above all, the safety of our families has to be assured as far as possible."

Two weeks after the pages had been given him, Tevrak was addressed by Jorek who had come to see him long after the children had returned from their instruction and gone to sleep.

"Tevrak, I regret disturbing you, but this is the safest time." Jorek said, and added, "Cover the window – I have brought some friends. There is so much to prepare for the Second Market that we have to begin now, or else risk not having enough wares for trade."

Understanding what he meant, Numia quickly hung a leather panel over the window of the main room, then called out , "Come in – we are ready to begin; we thought you would not come anymore."

"Can't risk having nothing on our stands, can we?" Yulan the Carpenter entered first, followed by Markai and Agnor, as well as Tivar, Edim, Bekar and Sevruj.

Yulan unpacked the bag he was carrying and quickly handed out pieces of tefa wood, some of which were in various stages of processing. "Take these. We have met to work together, and tomorrow I will assist you in preparing the leather for embossing. Nothing in that to arouse suspicion."

"Jorek has told us about what is being done and we offer you our support in whatever you are planning; we, too have had enough," said Edim.

Yulan did not raise his eyes from his work, only nodded to indicate the youth continue after saying, "Sevruj, it is for age to speak, offer guidance based on the experience and knowledge of a long life. You, Bekar, Edim and your friends, it will be your fate to live and raise your families in the new order, should it come about. So, give your report on what has been done so far to realize your plans. Afterwards, they can be discussed."

"For now we are forming a network of relatives and of friends in the closest villages; we need as many trustworthy people as possible who will have to be in place at the right time. This, however, is yet in the very beginning. Today, I have decided to speak about the safety of our families, supplies and, if in any way possible, our livestock. Be assured that all of our possessions will be destroyed in a punitive response if we fail." Bekar looked at everyone in turn.

Terek stated, "I fear the passages we use for storage in the cliff are known to the Eganul. What we need are new, as yet unexplored ones that have access to water, but also larger caves where we can find refuge. They would have to have separate accesses."

Bekar and Sevruj exchanged glances before speaking. "We may have found something just behind Tivar's house. Its entrance is well-hidden by boulders and vegetation. Tivar's grandfather unintentionally broke through the wall while expanding his storage rooms, then blocked up the hole again, afraid vermin might get into his supplies."

"Good. Check it out, but have someone stand guard at all times. We are being observed for some reason, now more than ever." Terek added, "I have a feeling that there are listeners in the village."

"Wait a minute," Numia said to her husband and the others. "Listen, all of you. We must take into account that it will not be enough to depose of Celan alone. His representatives will have to be captured as well, at the same time, so that he cannot get any help. There are also barracks in all of the larger cities. What about messengers, communications?"

"That is definitely a point that will have to be considered and which must be organised in those districts. As far as I have heard, not all of the administrators follow Celan's example. There are some who care about the population in their regions. Those must be spared." Yulan hesitated, "We definitely have to eliminate any risk of a call to arms being transmitted to them, as they have sworn to render assistance whenever necessary."

"No message, no deployment. We will have to consider that when the time comes."

Within days, Edim and Sevruj contacted Jorek. "Come with us. Tevrak has to work up in the compound – you can tell him about this later, but we only have this chance now."

"Good."

After a march made longer because the young men did not want to make their goal too obvious, they arrived at an overhang just behind Tivar's home. "He allowed us to poke around after he had heard about the plans. You can be assured that he is reliable. Tivar is planning to come see you and Tevrak this or tomorrow evening." Edim jumped down a boulder and Jorek followed. They found a low passage and within a few metres Jorek was standing inside a huge cavern from which he could dimly recognize passages branching out.

Edim explained, "There is fresh water up there…." He indicated a smudge he had made further back. " … and down this one," he indicated another mark at the branch of two passages, "you get to a series of paths leading to more or less large caverns, many of which get some light from above. I have looked. You cannot recognize the openings from on top of this hill because they are disguised by thick shrubs. If need be, the inhabitants of four villages could hide here, together with whatever they need to survive, and," he laughed, "... their livestock. We have examined the rock carefully: the water supply will not be contaminated by waste should we be forced to hide here for a longer time. Too bad these caverns are not connected to those under the Eganul's compound. He could have everything then – especially the dung."

"And the entrance?" Jorek looked around. "How can we disguise our tracks when the lot of us go inside, together with our animals and supplies?"

"That is where my friends' families come in. They have agreed to let those who will be sent to safety in through their homes which have access to these very passages. I know you would have preferred totally unknown ones, but this is the best we could do. Those accesses can be collapsed at a moment's notice if need be. As for the animals, their tracks are all over the place anyway."

"So that is taken care of, at least for the time being."

"One more element. Tikram, Janyk, Devor, Rano and Danro from Perali and Ukar Villages have joined the Eganul's forces together with a number of other friends. That will make it easier for us all. Patrols of the compound are always the first duties before everything else. They will know the place inside out before further training."

"Are you sure they are trustworthy? One wrong word or gesture, and we are lost. I know Tikram. He's reliable, but I have never seen anyone like him for enjoying all kinds of pranks and jokes."

"Each single one of my friends, including Tikram, has more than reason enough to despise the Eganul and his cronies. Believe me, not one of us would defend him against a villager's attack if there are no witnesses: Even if there were witnesses that guard would react too slowly. Ah, such a miserable oaf of a farmer – can't even guard his ruler properly…." Edim added, "I know Tikram very well, he is my closest friend. Anyone would want him close by when things get tough."

In the distance, a door slammed heavily. Sevruj and Edim looked around and said, "We have to leave now. Before the Third Market, we will meet you and Tevrak together with some of our friends to finalize the plans for attack."

Jorek cautioned them, "One more thing: I do not trust Kevor. He must not even suspect our plans. If he does…"

Sevruj interrupted him. "If he does, he will not be able to pass on what he knows. As to my friends, I can vouch for them, including the women, of whom some work up in the compound. They well know what was done to Yossa and a number of others and want their revenge."

The next day, Jorek finally met Tevrak and informed him of the developments. He nodded in approval.

Tevrak appeared well satisfied with the news and gave his own. "Third Market is four months after the Second, so we have time to prepare for all possibilities. You should know that the heads of Ukar, Ressetu and Khedara villages have already notified me they will come, those of Mereka and Suvinda will send their representatives, but have also said they agree to the new terms of trade. I know them all – they will not go back on their word, and each one of them has more allies than not in their respective villages."

"What about the inhabitants of Samagaltayi? They have to be considered, especially as they may know some details that can be of use to us. They will also run the greatest risk of reprisals if our plans go awry as the Eganul will think they were in league with us."

"That has already been taken in hand by Devor and Rano who have friends and relatives there and will take care of the matter. When we meet for the competitions, the information will be passed on to us. After the Second Market, the heads of the villages will come to visit us anyway, ostensibly to help organize our newly-developed irrigation schemes to alleviate the effects of a renewed severe drought. Some new cisterns have to be created, and their walls limed." He assumed an expression of greatest astonishment. "Those farmers are finally showing some initiative and foresight! Let's press-gang as many as possible into this new scheme!"

"Excellent – the canals leading down from the hills have to be cleaned out and expanded periodically so that the water reaches the outlying villages and fields around Samagaltayi and the villages close to the river. After the last drought there is a thick deposit of hardened sediment that has to be removed. In fact, its removal will have to begin within three weeks to ensure we have enough water to begin cultivation on time."

His eyes narrowed, Jorek added, "And some of these very canals lead to the compound, and many of our wells reach the canals to ensure a steady supply of clean water – In the Compound, there is a well fed by one of the canals, steps lead down to it…"

"That will be another point of entry," Tevrak said as if to himself.

"We will have another ally. Keshana, Atroj's granddaughter, has been party to our plans and is trying to have herself selected by the Khessar's or Eganul's men to work at the compound. It is risky, but she is right in saying that she will be have a chance to listen in on many discussions and chance comments. Two of her close friends are already there." Jorek said. "I am not happy about her offer, but she maintains whatever happens, it is worth the risk."

The Second Market, as projected, was used to establish contacts throughout the province to see who was going to join in the uprising. It was a series of meetings, each taking but a few seconds, people gathering in twos or threes as though by chance, exchanging some news, a few harmless words. As it was a minor occasion, there were no merchants from outside Aketha Province apart from one or two from Saranji. Yet, it was enough to exchange and assemble a mass of information and recruit allies.

At one point Chekat, one of the men from Perali Village indicated Bergil, the head of Suvinda Village, look over at a young woman, a tall slender beauty with large grey eyes, thick black hair and glistening scales. "Look, this is Keshana."

Bergil watched with him as the Chief Khessar approached her. "She's even more beautiful than I thought she was after you had described her."

Ranok caught sight of her after she had left a group of dancers, and waved her over. "The season was not blessed by the Bringer of Light, and yet you sing," he commented, quickly taking her measure, This one is superb, far too good for those village louts – Avera will reward me for bringing her into the compound …

"Khessar Ranok, the Bringer of Life guides us all, guides the seasons and what they bring. There is always another season that will be better to follow the season that is bad. Whatever happens, good and evil, is but a test of our faith and our will. Khessar Ranok, we are alive, we breathe, we work – and we can sing." Her grey eyes were bright as though she was suppressing her joy, her manner animated, full of life.

"Your name is ..." inquired Ranok, who was now determined to suggest this girl be taken on as a servant to the eganul's wife.

"Keshana, Khessar Ranok," she inclined her head in respect. "I am of Perali Village."

"You are a true daughter of the Bringer of Light. Blessed be you for your faith and your willingness to trust in Him." He made a sign of blessing at which she smiled at him in pleasure and responded with the ritual words, "I am your servant, Bringer of Light, now and always."

"After this market is over, I will send a messenger to your home, Keshana. There may well be employment for you up in the compound."

"It is as you wish, Khessar Ranok, and as the Eganul wishes." She inclined her head in respect, apparently disguising her happiness at the prospect, then rejoined her friends, her stance graceful, proud.

From a little way off, Atroj watched her, uneasy on her account. Certainly, Keshana had decided to catch the eye of a member of Celan's household who would recruited her to serve in the Compound; it was much against her grandfather's will, but from her entire attitude as she walked back to her friends, she seemingly was totally unconcerned about possible consequences.

Later that evening, she told him, "I think I am in. He has decided to negotiate for my employment in the compound."

"And I can only hope we will not have cause to regret this step." Atroj looked as unhappy about the news as he felt.

The young woman looked at him evenly, saying, "My elder, I want to play my part in this. Whatever happens, it is to the good of all our lives. Should I suffer Yossa's fate, it will be revenge enough that the result will be raised to follow our ways, that, unwittingly, those up there will be exploiting one of their own. And be assured I will see to it that they discover that very fact one day."

Planning the uprising went on throughout Aketha in the course of preparations for the third market which took place in all towns and cities with the largest in Samagaltayi. That much had not changed in the past generations – the villagers still met in each others' homes to share tasks and news from other regions of Aketha Province, listen to the legends told by the elders … only now, plans for the uprising were being established, disguised by events in new tales for fear of listeners, or hidden in additional verses to old songs or in the subject of newly composed ones. These would be presented in the course of the competitions that always had been a part of events associated with the week-long markets which were as much a possibility to purchase goods as they were to renew old contacts, socialize or demonstrate skills, listen to wandering storytellers or agree on apprenticeships.

It had soon become obvious that there would not be revolts throughout the province, as not all of Celan's representatives were repressive and exploitative; in essence, this complicated matters, while, at the same time, potentially saving thousands of lives.

Shortly before the market proper, Danro and Tikram had the chance to spend some hours in their home village. They spoke to the village elder who notified the others, advising them to meet well after dark in the cavern they had found. "We know there are some who want to know what does not concern them, Kevor among the lot."

"Why do you say that?" inquired Chekat.

"Haven't you noticed he has been turning up in places where you do not expect him to be, listening in, or at least trying to do so. I swear he has been taken into the employ of the Eganul," commented Terek who had come by at seeing the two others.

Atroj added, "I may be mistaken of course, but he does seem to be markedly better off than he has been in the past few months, although his harvests have not been more plentiful than ours, nor has he sold more at the last market either. I pity his wife. She does not know why things have changed, obviously, he has not told her anything at all."

"He may well become too much of a liability…" Danro stated the facts coldly, "… a liability that will soon be a part of the past. Someone will have to find out whether his wife is as innocent of all knowledge as you think she is. If she knows, her fate is sealed. She dies with him. If not, she will be given the choice of dissolving her union with him or sharing his fate."

There was no reaction, not one word, but everyone knew exactly what the man implied.

"Unless he realizes we are on to him and he flees to his benefactor…."

"No safety there, either," Tikram assured the others. "Remember who has volunteered to guard the main gates and who has infiltrated Celan's mercenaries."

After dark they met as agreed, and crouched around a smooth area of the floor, listening to Danro and Tikram.

"Three interconnected wings of two stories each set behind a courtyard about 40 metres wide, with shrubbery planted along the walls of the building; the wall of the compound encloses the marketplace on three sides. The walls appear as solid as the stone of which they have been built. However…"

Tikram took over. "Besides the gates that permit access from outside to each wing, there are smaller doors disguised as panels of decorative masonry." He quickly drew a sketch in the dust. "These are not heavily guarded as they lead into a narrow passage which is easy to defend even though it opens into the courtyards, or, if you continue along the wall, slants downward to a stairwell, one part of which leads into the buildings and another branch, this one disguised, underground to a large protected area that was established generations ago in case of attacks."

The group remained silent until Devar of Merekal Village stated, "I do not trust the plan to use those passages – if something goes wrong, we will be trapped and be picked off one by one when we try to get out."

"We are enough men to avoid just that; first, there are small apertures in the wall to the courtyard, so any suspicious movements can be seen in time. Besides, my friends and I have volunteered to push guard duty during the last two days; and, don't forget, we have met other men from neighbouring villages who, like us, have joined the Eganul's forces to escape the poverty of their life rather than for the sake of serving him. Ah, what is celebrating in comparison to the honour of protecting our revered leaders' lives!" The man smirked, "No questions were asked about our volunteering. After all, if we are such fools as to willingly forego the feasting and drinking, all the better for the others, there'll be that much more for them; they can celebrate to their hearts' content. You should have heard our superior praise our sense of duty, as well as our fierceness in combat training."

"And through the courtyard?" was Jorek's hesitant query. "Andrak says that there is no cover whatsoever – we will be fully exposed to anyone's sight as soon as we leave the passage in those inner walls."

"That is indeed a problem; the only solution is to form groups of three and march abreast as though you had every right to be where you are. If you are challenged before you reach your station, you have no other choice but to fight."

The men exchanged glances. "So that is settled. And …"

"Some men, about 40, will be posted throughout each courtyard to cut off the escape of the eganul, his family and the Khessari as soon as the attack has begun. The rulers can be taken easily as the attack will not take place until well after dark. Be sure they will be staggering drunk by then. How many men have you recruited?"

"We are 432 in all," said Devar, "with another 689 volunteers at the ready, posted so that they can immediately react to a call for assistance in case they are needed; they are soldiers, farmers, craftsmen and merchants who have reason enough to despise those up there."

"That is a good number! A group of one hundred at each gate should be enough. 30 will search each floor, 40 hold the courtyard. The remaining men will be deployed in the underground passages and abandoned corridors leading to the Great Hall after they have cleared the area of the prison and eliminated the guards there. We start at this point here…." Tikram indicated a door just outside the south wing as well as those giving access to the two others. "You will find that each wing has two entrances. They will be open, unguarded." He paused and signed for attention. "Remember: the entire operation has to be fast, the quicker we manage, the better, or else Celan might be able to send off a message to set reinforcements into march, and you know what that means."

He nodded at Devar, who continued, "We will see to that or else find individuals who can keep messages from going out. Again: 60 fighters will enter each wing, comb each room; Keshana and her friends will have the main doors unlocked, the suites marked to save you any unpleasant surprises. We will take any family members who have remained behind captive and meet in the centre, where there is one large, windowless room – a supply room - that will need only four guards to provide security at the door once it has been locked. Search everyone you take carefully for concealed weapons – you have better use for them. Once all is over, the captives will be taken to the subterranean area – prison cells, to be precise. One cell can hold ten prisoners."

"Good. Like that we have our backs free and can gather for the attack on the eganul's Great HallWe will meet in the courtyard Andrak described after having secured the living areas." Danro quickly sketched the interior of the building before making a diagram of the way to the Great Hall in the South Wing. "There is direct access to the hall from the East Wing, but, behind a hanging in the corridor, a secondary entrance which apparently serves as path of escape across from the Hall which leads to the tunnel below the main gate."

"In fact, there are four besides that one so we will not use it. In case one is blocked or guarded, the others can be used. Of course, that means we must take all necessary precautions when advancing. Let the soldiers take the lead."

Ferray of Ukar Village added, as if to himself, "Our clothing has to match that of the servants or else we will be recognized at once for what we are."

"Wear your normal clothing. It is much like that of the servants; some of those may even join us, but I do not trust them. Best is either to confine them to one room for later questioning and eliminate those who try to raise the alarm or put up a fight." Danro informed him. "Keshana has told me that she has secreted emblems in the safe area I have mentioned. They will be enough to disguise us, at least at first sight. She will also, if in any way possible, join us in the course of the fighting."

"There is one question which has to be resolved at once so that all of us are of accord: What is to happen to the Eganul, the Khessari and the adults of their clans?" Tevrak seemed disquieted. "If we banish them, you can be sure they will work incessantly towards enlisting supporters in some other province and afterwards retake Aketha; if that happens, then all of us are doomed. They have to be eliminated down to the last man and woman."

"It will be done as was done four generations ago in the case of Eganuls Saleyn and Dugai. The adults were executed, the children given to other families to be raised, as is the custom with orphans; they can be brought up by villagers and thus become useful members of their communities. No one will know whose children they are. As to the adolescents, decisions will be made individually." Markai's voice was firm. "If you are too soft-hearted to see to that task, I make you no reproach. You can believe me when I say I'll gladly take care of the ruler and his own myself – for me, there is no problem in doing that part of the work."

Yulan agreed, "And you are welcome to do so," he looked around, "… along with a fair number of others who will be invited. However, the executions should under no circumstances, take place in the Compound, where someone or another may still contrive to give the rulers' bodies a burial in accordance with their status." With a contemptuous hiss he suggested. "Our canals empty their sewage into Yasuri Swamp, where the vegetation and the soil filter out the waste, leaving pure water to flow back into the river. I suggest taking them exactly there after the executions, but into the deepest area, and disposing of them as the filth they are. I know the safe way to get there as shown me by my own father; there is no chance of the bodies being retrieved. Certainly they cannot poison the water any more than does the waste that flows from the compound and our villages into that same swamp. In a matter of weeks, nothing will be left to prove they ever existed."

Setol, who had dropped in and had been listening, commented, "Fortunately, Celan's grandfather also dispensed with the custom of sending his sons out to travel across the continent to see various forms of government, for fear they would perhaps fall victim to accidents or illness. That makes it easier for us – no fear of a son returning after the revolt to seek revenge and reinstitute the rule of Celan's clan."

Atroj and Kadro whispered for some moments, then Atroj suggested, "Invite those wronged by the Eganul or his family to witness the execution, or, if they so desire, participate. The perpetrators of the crimes should go to their deaths knowing those who have been given reason to despise them are watching and rejoicing at every detail of the execution."

Kadro hesitated for a moment. "I know that my wife, Yossa, for one would not want to miss the occasion; she has told me she will bring Khemor, dressed in the clothes of a true villager's child, and reveal his identity to her abuser to see just before he goes to his death. To judge by her expression when she told me about this, she has thought of something the witnesses will greatly appreciate." He smiled with anticipation, "From that moment on on, his heritage will be forgotten; he will be ours alone as are his three younger brothers and sister, and let no one dare speak of it ever again."

There was silence for some time while those attending considered the young woman's intentions. None of those present had anything else but wholehearted approval of Yossa's idea.

"What you are planning is an offence to the teachings of our ancestors who were peaceful, worked the land, invented and perfected the crafts we practice today, and obeyed the laws of the Bringer of Light," Kaigol, one of the elders, said in a barely audible voice. "The ease with which you speak of taking these people's fates into your hands disquiets me."

"Elder Kaigol, there is no law that says that even an evil ruler has to be obeyed and treated with the respect due his status. I, for one, think the sentence is just, even though I, too, feel uncomfortable about it." Atroj continued. "Remember my son, Artos. There was no reason for killing him!"

"You feel we are committing a serious crime. As everyone else here, I can understand your reservations; we know that murder is the most heinous of crimes. In this case, however, we have to do what is right and protect ourselves. The list of evils the Eganul and the Khessari have committed will be read out by the witnesses, even though everyone knows them well enough already, having suffered under his rule. He and his fellows remember well enough what they have done. The sentence is to be pronounced and carried out that very same day," Jevarro stated. "Even the slightest delay represents a danger to us all. Justice must always be swift and merciless, like the attack of a tosik."

Tevrak urged, "Before starting the attack, it must be made clear to all those who have joined us that there is to be no plundering whatsoever. By no one at all. Those goods which have been taken by force will be returned afterwards to those who made or once owned them. We are not beyond the law, especially not now, lest we place ourselves on the same level as common criminals who are tried and executed within a day."

The others nodded their agreement.

He waited for a moment. "There is still one entirely different matter which has to be addressed. Aketha will need a new eganul as soon as possible, lest another move in, one even worse than Celan. I have listened around during the past few markets. No doubt you have heard about the Eganul who rules Saranji province as well."

"Indeed. His subjects invariably praise him. His sons, upon reaching adulthood, are encouraged to travel across the continent to learn about the various peoples and their respective forms of government, as our own eganul's forbears did up to the time of Eganul Messan's son. He is said to be a just ruler who deserves loyalty." Sevruj added, "In fact, his two eldest sons returned just a few months ago and are sitting in his council. They seem to be following in their father's path."

Berak gestured at his neighbour. "My friends and I may have been forward in what we have done, but Sevruj was sent to him with a message we had written and which was countersigned by the heads of nearly all townships and villages of Aketha Province in the course of the last market; he has since returned with an answer."

At this bit of information, Atroj and Kaigol exchanged startled glances. "We knew nothing about that! You should not have done this without permission."

"I know we have been presumptuous to act on our own and ask your forgiveness," repeated Sevruj. "However, Adon of Sessanit Town, a close friend of my father's, suggested we choose this course of action. He made it seem I was actually in Ukar Village by inviting me. He is absolutely trustworthy and arranged everything so that I travelled with one of the merchants." The young man hesitated before continuing, "My elders, had you known of this, and someone found out the truth, you would have been the first to suffer Celan's anger."

"Then what was the result of your journey?" inquired Berak.

The young man drew a sealed roll out of a pouch on his belt and held it out in both hands for Atroj and Kaigol to take. "This."

The two elders did so and met his eyes. "Then recount what happened, Sevruj."

With a hint of a smile, he inclined his head. "After some discussion, I was admitted into Lenok's presence together with Rekar, the merchant from Rodinia Province with whom I had travelled. At first, he doubted the sincerity of the request and the veracity of the message, thinking it a trap mounted by our Eganul and two of his neighbours." Sevruj interrupted his account. "Look at me – I am only a youth, certainly no one who could be mistaken for a messenger. After some time, Lenok invited us into his courtyard and had refreshments brought. I was there, only in the company of three guards and three of his advisors as well as Rekar while we spoke about the situation in Aketha in some detail. After questioning me intensively for some hours, and having my report corroborated by Rekar, whom he knows very well, he and his advisors decided that the message was indeed genuine and stated the truth in every way. Eganul Lenok gave me this…" From under his tunic Sevruj withdrew a neck ornament such as was only worn by members of an Eganul's household and held it up for all to see, "… to prove, in turn, that his message to us is no forgery."

The ornament was inspected by the others– indeed, there was the seal of the House of Lenok; the metalwork was Saranji style to the smallest detail.

Satisfied, Kaigol and Atroj broke the seal and began to read the reply. "People of Aketha Province, your situation has been known to me for some time already. While subjects are bound by law to be loyal and obedient subjects to their rulers, as the Bringer of Light has set down in his commands, and revolt set down in his order as treason of the highest order. Yet, at the same time, He has also established unalterable guidelines determining the duties of a ruler towards his subjects. The conditions of which you speak are indeed untenable. While I condemn the revolt as such, I recognize the right of any population to oust an unworthy master."

Kaigol took over from Atroj. "I am honoured by your asking me to become your sovereign as you write that you have heard only good about my house and thus wish to swear loyalty to me; yet understand that I cannot take on the administration of so large an Egulchai in addition to mine without compromising the stability of both. My second son, Khayel, however, has travelled widely; he has the makings of a good ruler and has declared himself willing to take responsibility for Aketha Province provided this alternative meets with your approval."

Suddenly, Kaigol started, showed the passage to Atroj, and the two burst out laughing in spite of themselves.

"What is it?" Jevarro asked, irritated by the reaction.

"Nothing offensive. He only requests that we find a good woman from among our people for his son, so that Khayel's branch of the family will combine both heritages and traditions. It is the woman who brings up the children, thus it is she who transmits her people's customs and values to the following generation. The two provinces will thus be linked by family ties."

"Keshana!" Kaigol suggested without a second thought. "She is worthy of that honour; taking on the risks connected with service to the Eganul's household in order to help the population as a whole shows high moral strength."

"Tikali and Iruna are also candidates. They both are very intelligent, healthy and attractive; the heads of Perali and Ressetu Villages have seen to it that they could study in the Imperial City and they are now working there. I know their parents will gladly agree to their return once things show signs of a change for the better," was Atroj's suggestion.

"If you wish, I shall address her – and them - when all is over; in another two years, Keshana will be of the appropriate age." Jevarro said. "I do not think she is spoken for … yet."

As if there had not been an interruption, Kaigol read on, "… and to notify me at once if you have emerged victorious…." The elders looked around at the circle of their fellow Akethi; their faces were expressionless, their eyes barely visible as they held their heads slightly inclined so that their scaly brow ridges shaded their eyes.

"Emerge victorious…" Tevrak repeated in a barely audible voice, suddenly afraid as he thought of what lay ahead. "We still have that to do. Who knows how many of us will survive to remember this day and this message."

"Those who survive will be honour-bound to ensure the well-being of the families of those who are killed or too severely injured to put in a full day's labour. That has become our responsibility as we are the ones who initiated the revolt, even though the burden may well be a heavy one."

"All of us accept this obligation as we have agreed, as is the custom. The leaders of the other communities will do the same for theirs."

"Before-last day of the market then. We will take our positions in the course of a harvest dance performed out of sheer high spirits. That should please everyone no end, especially the eganul, who will be convinced that we are perfectly happy with our conditions and do not plan to revolt." Atroj said. "That will make it far less suspicious when you take your positions rather than if you come marching over to the walls and stand near the gates."

"Agreed."

"Just a moment." Bekar gently drew a large box with air holes and a narrow opening at the lower edge out of a sack he had brought along and, with suppressed laughter, held it out for all to see. Irritable hisses, squeaks and scrabbling resounded from inside; at one point, a set of slender toes with hooked claws appeared through a slit at the side, curled into a fist and were withdrawn. "And this is the messenger who will bring him the news – a paluwa bred for speed and aggression. 'Feed Kurruy well,' was the order that came with him. He has eaten ten fat young voles in only two days and tried to add me to his diet." He held out his hand on which the others saw a long, narrow arc of pin-prick bite marks.

"Perhaps Kurruy can feast on select titbits of Eganul after this is over," suggested Tevrak. "That fellow is well-fed."

"Better not risk poisoning this innocent being – he does not deserve such treatment. After all, Eganul Lenok wants him back alive and well. You should see the creature! A wingspread of over a metre, brown and white coat and large, pale yellow eyes. Beautiful…" Berak said wistfully. "Up on the cliff near the swamp, there is a nest with five young, at the right age to be tamed."

"Perhaps when we have our new ruler …" Tikram added. "Then we may have a few less laws beginning with 'It is forbidden to possess…' What will we do for now?"

Atroj grinned. "For now, we lie low, do our duty to our beloved ruler, enthusiastically applaud his every appearance. He will be pleased at how much we adore him." The elder added under his breath, "He will pay for taking away the land that belonged to us, and for killing my youngest son."

"Be assured the price exacted for everything he has done will be high. I have seen the list of grievances; it is quite impressive and still growing like havil grain in the wet season.."

With that, the company dispersed one by one.

After waking up, Tevrak quietly lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling which he had given a fresh coat of lime two days before. He felt his wife awaken and whispered, "This is it, then, the day … I ask you to do one thing, Numia. When the revolt begins, leave everything as is and get to safety, as far from the compound as possible. That is where the action will be concentrated."

Tevrak was tense, worried about whether the revolt would not end in disaster after all, in spite of the strategy they had agreed on, the weapons they had managed to acquire by whatever means at their disposal.

The villagers had spent the night before driving their livestock into the caverns and passages behind Tivar's house while carrying whatever they could in order to avoid arousing suspicion by coming and going repeatedly. Afterwards, a number of young people, elders and all of the children entered as well, carrying more goods they would need in case of a longer stay. Once that had been done, the men involved in the uprising had disguised the entrance with boulders, rocks and finally a layer of moist sediment that hopefully would appear like a solid mass of rock once dry.

She nodded, apprehensive. "See that you return alive, Tevrak." With unaccustomed vehemence, she embraced her husband and said in a rush of words, "Tevrak, I have not regretted my choice for one moment, and love you. I promise that, should something go wrong, that I will never permit our children to forget what you did."

He returned her embrace before saying very gently, "I have every intention of coming back to you, but all possibilities have to be considered. Kaigol knows what to do. He will grant you protection until Tebo from Ubari leaves for Saranji Province. He has promised to take you and the children to your home village."

"May it not come to such a pass." In a very low voice, she said, "I trust Tebo – he is a good friend, but if at all possible, I will stay here. If there is retribution, it will be swift and deadly, like the attack of a tosik. There will be no time for any of us to seek concealment." With a defiant undertone she added, "And I would rather rely on the help of neighbours until Kitaal is adult than live as a refugee in Saranji Province, even if it is my home. I belong to your family now and do not plan to leave."

With that they got up and set about preparations. Their children had already been taken to safety the evening before.

At leaving the house, Numia looked around to see the other villagers ready to leave as well, all dressed in their best clothing – the men in hand-woven loosely-cut trousers and belted tunics with embroidery along the neckline, the women in heavily-embroidered dresses and their hair done up in the elaborate style of the region. With a smile, she waved over at her friends and neighbours, who returned the greeting. In spite of the fact that they were wearing their finery, a second glance would have revealed that it was threadbare, not new was normally would have been the case. With a low sigh, she got onto the cart and covertly pressed Tevrak's hand. "May the Bringer of Light preserve us from the worst. And if we do not return, the old ones and the young people left behind will raise the children."

"…and tell them what we died for…" murmured Tevrak. There was no more turning back.

When they arrived, the market place was already crowded with farmers, craftsmen and merchants from all over Cathassa Continent, even a few from Western Ongul, a continent beyond the archipelago of Saranji Province, had come for this main exchange of the year. The entire city resounded with voices speaking different local languages and dialects; there were the scents and the colours of uncountable kinds of foods and merchandise, the exotic clothing of foreign merchants. It was impossible not to be infected by the excitement. When he had reached the place he had been assigned for his display, Tevrak saw that Tebo, the Ubari he knew from the last few markets, was his neighbour. The three of them exchanged greetings.

Numia looked around, puzzled. "Tebo, where is Djemina? I wanted to purchase some lengths of her embroidery for Mireya's ekiman."

"My wife is in the storage room, unpacking the crates; she will join us in a little while. I can tell you in all honesty that, for this season, our craftsmen and –women have outdone themselves. But what is the news I have just been given?" Tebo grinned in delight and clasped Tevrak's shoulders, touched Numia's hands. "So Mireya is marrying! Who is the lucky one?"

"Lekay, of Ressetu Village, a weaver of fine cloth and sefrak brocade. Mireya herself can do the finest embroidery and weaving you have ever seen, as well as work with sefrayek, so the match is perfect – in every way," answered Numia. "They met during last year's First Market in Sereka Town at the border to Lesana Province so that our two families could begin the negotiations at once. At least this is not yet the Eganul's affair. We have send her to live with his family for certain reasons instead of returning here first."

Tebo did not react apart from a low hiss. He had no love for the Eganul who had exacted 'donations' from him more than once. "I am still unpacking and will have the material sent you for you to inspect as soon as it has been unwrapped. For the occasion, I offer it to you at a bargain price, too." He lowered his voice, "Jorek sent me a message some weeks ago not to expose anyone of my family to danger. I thought there was an epidemic here, but …"

"No, there is not. You and the others will be warned in time before everything starts, but, I beg of you, do not speak of this to anyone." Tevrok urged. "This is important."

"You have my word, as that of the other merchants who have been forewarned as well." Tebo quickly whispered, "So that is why there are hardly any children here at all… I had been wondering. Those little ones, we always enjoy watching them."

"They should not be left to perhaps suffer the consequences of what is to come in three days." Numia whispered, "Should something go wrong, everyone, even those just learning to speak will be suspects. Like this they are as safe as possible."

Under the surfaces of the stands which looked as innocuous as ever, various weapons had been secreted either hidden in wooden structures, or concealed in lengths of wood from which they could be drawn within seconds. Yulan had done an excellent job, as had the young men who had joined the Eganul's forces. Apparently the quartermaster was not all that conscientious when it came to weapons inspections or replacing such as were allegedly lost or damaged beyond repair, or he would have realized how many sheaths and casings were empty, their contents to be replaced by new materiel at some time or another.

Some hours later, all of the stands had been set up and the population waited for the Eganul and the Khessari to officially open the Market; everyone was anticipating the activities of the coming days. These events were an exhilarating change from the routines of everyday life, a break from the hard work they all performed. It was all done in honour of the Bringer of Light, who recognized the dedication of His people; but in the course of the last few generations the conviction that everything they did was service to Him had been replaced by the feeling that everything they did was to make the Eganul and his kind richer and even more powerful. Conditions had made work nothing but unremitting, unrewarding hard labour, with everyone remaining as poverty-stricken as before.

And yet, when the gate of the compound was opened by the Eganul's guards and the dignitaries came out to assemble in front of the main shrine, resplendent in their elaborate sefrak robes, all those present, infected by the excitement of the occasion, cheered loudly, calling out wishes for long life, prosperity and joy.

"People of Aketha Province, the Bringer of Light has granted our land a bountiful harvest so that all of His children can live in plenty and in the knowledge that He has blessed our labours. He has granted us strength, health and fertility, each one of you has reason for rejoicing." Eganul Celan called out basking in what he obviously thought was the adoration of his subjects, "To you, people of Aketha Province, and to those who have come to share this time with us, may these coming days be a time of peace."

The crowd did not react to his words beyond the ritual reply and some scattered applause; most of the people went to the open area to watch the presentations as quickly as they could manage. To everyone's surprise, the first was a dance jointly executed by young people from Ukar, Ressetu, Khedara, Merekal, Suvinda and Perali Villages. Circles of dancers, alternately moving clockwise and counter-clockwise to a complex melody and rhythm, suddenly broke up and, in a series of intricate steps and sequences formed a spiral pattern. At one point, one of the singers uttered an undulating, high-pitched call - the dancers suddenly unfolded long translucent streamers of gold and blue cloth, keeping them in constant motion so that, from the dignitaries' stand, the group was nearly concealed by a moving spiral of darkness and light.

The song accompanying the dance praised the Bringer of Light, the land and its rulers, the beauty of the region, the harvests and ended in a call of praise.

"A truly splendid performance!" the Eganul called out, and his people joined in the applause. "It is not custom to ask the name of the one who has composed the song and organized the dance, but everyone can recognize he is indeed blessed by the Bringer of Light to bring forth the like of this!"

For a while, the young people nearly forgot the meaning behind the song, the reproach it made so covertly, so that they smiled with pleasure at their success when the dignitaries applauded them. Danro, the one who had composed the song and planned the dance together with his friends, was satisfied; in spite of the hints, the Eganul and his Khessari were so smug and self-assured that they had failed to recognize exactly what had been sung.

During the next hours, more local dances and songs were performed, much to the pleasure of the audience; everyone took pride in the singers and dancers who transmitted the traditional compositions of the past to new generations, but also created new ones. As in former times, the storytellers and elders who knew the arts of their respective peoples were honoured. Hours later, the performers rested, then went over to the stands to help their relatives finish the last preparations before the market proper began in the late afternoon.

Very briefly, Tevrak felt apprehensive at considering what lay ahead. Not yet, two more days before it begins… Everything seemed strangely unfamiliar to him, as though he was seeing it for the first time … the market place proper – protected from the elements by an immense structure of stone and wood – the proximity of the Compound, the crowd. In former times, how exhilarating it had been to walk through this market which was the largest in Aketha Province.

He again looked around, noticing in a glance here, in signs of tension there that the local farmers and craftsmen were on guard as they rearranged their displays; outwardly they were as excited as everyone else as this was a time to meet friends from other villages and towns in the province and make new contacts. For the young people themselves, it was a welcome change. As marriages among families in the same village were not allowed, a few would get to know potential mates in the course of various activities, leading to negotiations between the families involved. Tevrak briefly smiled to himself. That was how he had met Numia, a Saranji woman – she had worked the stand in front of his father's some hours every day while her parents traded for merchandise to take back to sell in their home province. Tevrak had accuse her of blocking the way to his and his parents' stand. The young woman turned and considered him seriously for some moments. After a low hiss, she had begun responding to his comments and jokes. He turned to her and commented, "Remember?"

She nodded and smiled in turn, her dark eyes soft. "Indeed. How could I forget?"

Late in the afternoon, Khessar Andrak walked through the marketplace alone. He looked at everything with interest, slowly and unobtrusively making his way towards Tevrak's stand. A number of potential customers were already there, carefully examining the wood and bone carvings on display. Alongside his stand two couples were inspecting samples of purely decorative woodwork obviously meant for the homes of wealthier citizens. Such orders were always welcome – the rich disliked waiting, and would willingly add up to a third of the price to the total for quick delivery, but only admit to paying the basic price.

When Tevrak came to where he was standing, Andrak picked up and looked at a container decorated with an intricate tracery of leaves and intarsia. "Fine carving, whoever has done this is truly blessed by the Bringer of Light." He held it up, turning it to see the silky texture of the wood as it contrasted with the brushed surface of the bone intarsia.

"You are kind, Khessar Andrak. We take our motifs from what we see around us. Adapting them to the material at hand," Tevrak explained. "We believe in celebrating what He has created by including it in our art. Actually, even tools and equipment meant for everyday use are made to be attractive as well as functional; our work not only supports us. It is far more than that: everything we do is also an expression of our spiritual life."

Even though these people are being exploited they keep their belief and its precepts intact… "It seems the season has come to a close with this Third Market of the year," the young Khessar stated. "Steps to prepare for the vagaries of the coming season may very soon become necessary." He glanced at the compound. "This market is said to be the oldest in the Province. To judge by the buildings, it may well be true. How much work and foresight are needed to keep it all in such excellent condition. I have not seen one flaw in any place."

Tevrak met the other man's eyes, understanding the implications of his words. "You are right. Samagaltayi market has its beginnings in the time of first settlement. To keep it thriving demands constant work such as repairs to the wall along the road and the roofs, checking that the canals are clear together with expanding the underground passages bringing us water from the hills. All this has been done, we have worked to ensure His blessings and bounty. If this is enough to please Him lies in the will of the Bringer of Light.… Now there will be time, unless the season shifts earlier than normal. We are prepared for everything, though. It is a comforting thought that, in other regions, other people like us are doing the same: preserving and treasuring what is ours, materially and spiritually."

A customer, a fellow merchant from Gessechi Province, who wanted to purchase a number of carvings gestured at Tevrak, who went over to conclude the transaction, then returned to the Khessar. After a quick glance around, he admitted. "I am deeply concerned. How will all of this end? How will it end for us, for our province? Khessar Andrak," he murmured, " ... is what we are doing…" he did not continue, afraid that, if he questioned the plans, they would seem preposterous in their scope.

There was no reply, nor was there any need for one. Their eyes briefly met when Andrak made a sign of blessing. The young Khessar had been the one to point out the corruption of the present rulers and provide evidence for his claims. Now the time of retribution had come, and Andrak was as afraid of the potential outcome as the others involved in operations.

"Tevrak, please have this sent to my rooms before the final celebrations in two days." He did not haggle before paying him. It was good value, that carving – anyone could see that. "It should still remain in your display to attract other customers. Seeing such a beautiful object marked as sold will have the other customers more willing to buy."

"It shall be done as you wish," Tevrak smiled in genuine friendliness. "You have chosen a fine piece of work."

The Khessar inclined his head in greeting before walking on, exchanging a few words or a greeting with the villagers he knew, before he returned to the Compound.

"Numia, take over for some time. There is a transaction I have to attend to." Tevrak's voice was very low.

She looked up at him to meet his eyes, but said nothing. Numia had observed the conversation her husband had just had and realized that he was deeply afraid of what he and his fellows had undertaken. He is not a fighter, despises bloodshed with all his being, but there is no more way out.

In the course of the next two days, Eganul Celan repeatedly inspected the market with his aides and family. Every now and then, he made some purchases, and in doing so, unerringly homed in on the finest pieces of work. He was constantly flanked by bodyguards whenever he strutted through the aisles of the market, at times exchanging a few words with one merchant or another, but invariably keeping his distance as though resenting the very fact he had to appear at all and mix with the general population. Nevertheless, he made use of this time to obtain further objects that would grace his already overstuffed residence or be passed on as presents to visiting dignitaries. Whenever he drew near, Andrak's choice was concealed.

To the annoyance of the merchants, he did not bother to make the slightest effort to haggle because he knew the exact value of every piece, paying only as much as the necessary materials had cost. The already narrow margin of profit the craftsmen made was further narrowed by these proceedings. There was no way of avoiding this kind of loss - it was well-known to everyone that, if someone even so much as tried to discuss the price, the merchandise would later be confiscated.

In spite of the tension, the various groups met for spontaneous singing or dancing, as though rejoicing in spite of the tribulations of the drought and their circumstances.

When the evening of the fifth day set in, those involved in the plot began to circulate through the marketplace, all passing on the same message. "The market ends at nightfall today. Secure your merchandise and retire to the guest rooms, barricade the doors leading to the merchants' compound and do not open them to anyone who does not know your password. There have been rumours about potential attacks from outside, so that our leaders have requested we warn you of the danger. But keep this to yourselves. The eganul does not want the Third Market to be a time for concern."

In all of the coming and going, no one noticed groups of two or three people leaving and dispersing just outside the town. They were to hide along the roads and paths to intercept messengers sent out to call for reinforcements.

Otherwise, however, everything seemed normal. Towards sunset, a large group of men from diverse villages gathered, and, as if in irrepressible high spirits, burst into song while the majority of their number began to perform a harvest dance, advancing towards the walls of the compound, then retreating, their movements choreographed to perfection as though someone had, on impulse, thought of a new dance which they were practicing before performing the next day which, at midday, would see the end of the Market. Curious, a few of the merchants and customers came over, watching and commenting.

"Jivar," Samit, one of the visiting merchants asked of his neighbour, Jivar of Ressetu Village, "Look at those men - this is unusual, I have never yet seen your people practice like this, openly." He listened for a few minutes, " …the rhythm is different, too."

"Ah, this is a special occasion, one that is meant to honour the eganul and to thank him for his justness, guidance and protection throughout the years." Jivar met the other's eyes, "Samit, you, too, have thus honoured your own sovereign, Eganul Temmin of Gessechi Province, more than once."

"Indeed. This is only unexpected. Your people have much different customs to ours." For a moment Samit stared at the men and froze. "Wait, was that a…"

"For the sake of the Bringer of Light, be silent, and do not speak of what you have seen!" Jivar spread his neck membranes, eyes wide, suddenly afraid of what might happen. "You and the others here are in no danger, Samit, that I swear by all I respect and honour. Only get to safety the moment you notice this dance end."

The reply was a nod. "I have seen you and your comrades cautioning the other merchants as well. Then I shall follow your advice," Samit met Jivar's eyes, "…remain silent and wish you success for whatever you are ready to undertake."

There was some surprise at the new arrangements among the other guests as well, but when the first lights came on, fewer this time, as there was not enough water to drive the dynamos that produced electricity, a new technology that had been adopted throughout the province, at least in the larger cities, the market slowly fell silent as the stands were closed. In their area which, besides the rooms, had a separate courtyard, the visiting merchants sat together, listening, discussing trade and the new tariffs which had been instituted in Aketha Province. The increase in taxes was a sore point among those who crossed the border to Aketha Province; that, and the fact that they were not safe from the eganul's greed was a factor which had a few wondering whether they would even bother to return in the next season. This time, the discussions were hesitant, sporadic at best … everyone felt something was going to happen, something potentially catastrophic … Tebo and Samit made the rounds of the doors and windows, checked the latches to see everything was properly secured. "That is all we can do; now we have but to wait what will happen." With that, they rejoined the others who were still sitting in the courtyard, too uneasy to retire to their rooms.

Outside, Tevrak and Jivar were met by Danro. "It is time. Our own men are on shift. There may only be about twenty of the loyal ones who could possibly raise the alarm, but we have them under supervision. One wrong move and ... gaaaak!" He made a gesture across his throat.

No more had to be said. "Once more … there were some sour notes in the song and you, Jorek, you got confused in which direction you had to turn!" Danro clapped his hands and called out, "Again! Take up your places!"

"Not again!"

"Isn't four times enough?"

"We have a full day ahead of us!"

"One more time, and we can call it a day. Come on!" Danro cajoled them, urged the men to take up their positions. "After all, it is in honour of our ruler, Eganul Celan!"

They complained loudly, and, with seeming reluctance, protected from the chill of late evening by hooded cloaks, they came out from behind the stands they were securing for the night to gather just outside the market, forming a tight knot.

Sevruj and Berak shouted, "Take your positions!" before Berak began singing, the rhythm of the song like a heartbeat. At once, the dancers began to move, at first in a circle, then, gradually, drifting up into the area of the market as the verse was sung three times, each time with a different melody.

The farmers' toil brings forth the harvest

Their work blessed by the Bringer of Light,

If the rules he has given are obeyed.

Sevruj took over,

The sovereign who guides us all,

The Khessar who blesses our work in His name

They too, obey His will

Both together called out,

They share in the blessing of the harvest,

Are bound to us as we are to them

Guide us, protect us, save us from need

All of us serving the Bringer of Light,

serving and served, today and forever,

According to His immutable law, ….

Gradually, the others joined in, their voices strong, clear, confident; in the near-darkness there was hardly any way to recognize what they were holding in their hands, farm implements or weapons, staffs or banners ready to be unfurled. Indeed, some of the men had opted for cleavers and hoes, years of farming had taught them how to wield their implements with deadly precision, as many an incautious vole had learned to its detriment.

The dance continued …

"Listen," whispered Maluktan, a Gessechi trader. "Is this wise, to draw attention in times of danger? Surely their voices can be heard at a great distance, quiet as everything is now. Unless it is a display of confidence."

"It is best we hear nothing, the same as some of us have seen nothing, either," stated Tebo, one of the oldest of the merchants. "These affairs are none of our concern." He turned to Selkut. "Let us speak of other things, things that are not of Aketha Province." In a very low voice, he added, quickly glancing around, "There may well be listeners where none are expected … or desired. Within a few more hours, if everything goes right, we will be given a task of great importance for this province."

"You had mentioned the problems in obtaining Sessej oil from Ongul Continent these past months?"

"Indeed. But the matter has been resolved. There was a blight that nearly destroyed the entire crop – the replanting has only just begun. My suppliers have assured me that trade should resume in another five months."

The merchants were uneasy, their conversations halting and uncertain as they tried to ignore and not think of what could possibly happen within a matter of hours….

Suddenly, the lights grew dim, flickered repeatedly before going out for good. The merchants looked around, startled, then got up to light the oil lamps.

"It has begun," murmured Tebo. "It is best we wait this out in our rooms."

"What has begun," was Selkut's question.

"If all goes as planned, a new time for Aketha Province."

On the market place, the men were pleased at their success.

"Akor and Sanak have succeeded!" whispered Terek.

In the meantime, the two were making their way to the market place before the guards could reach the dynamos. They quickly secreted the screws they had removed from the generators in a place agreed on with a few insurgents who, working as Celan's servants, were to report a power failure in the city and thus gain entry to the underground installations that supplied the compound proper.

Further along the line, problems occurred as well. The men looked towards one of the heliographic relays – no light whatsoever. This fastest of transmissions was now curtailed, and would not be reactivated before the end of the revolt, if all went as planned. It was most unfortunate, as they heard later, that the stationed had broken down because of frayed wires, or operators who did not report for duty, either because they belonged to the insurgents or because they had been strongly encouraged to stay at home, where they remained, under guard to keep them from sneaking off to a relay station or a messenger's post.

"That leaves us with the messengers and the paluwa, but that has been taken in hand." Commented Tevrak.

"The paluwa? Very effectively indeed," Danro added. "Keshana has been working towards a solution of the first all this time and, as to the second, you may have noticed dome very early, discreet departures."

"No doubt those people have been press-ganged into one or another of Celan's projects. Not even at this time can we enjoy ourselves!" hissed Jorek.

In the meantime, the dancers, a milling crowd by then, had reached the gate to the shrine. A crack of light appeared, and a familiar voice cautioned, "Silence when you come in here. Tevrak, Atroj, Tivrak, enter quickly."

"How do we know we can trust you?" hissed Atroj.

"I will stay out here, with you. Here." Andrak gave the elder a ritual knife. "You can use this on me should I have laid a trap for your men. Touch me."

Andrak held his arms out to the sides, permitting himself to be searched for concealed weapons or protective armour.

"Nothing." Atroj turned to the others. "His willingness to be examined should be reason enough to trust him. I do."

Andrak again addressed the first three. "I request you go to that brightly-lit window and take a quick look in, then return at once. You cannot reach the compound from here, but you should see evidence of what I have told you before setting out."

The men went in, keeping to the shadows and pulled themselves up until they could look in the window. They felt deep resentment well up when they saw the feasting, the drinking, the elaborate new sefrak brocade robes of even minor clan members. After a few seconds, they rushed back, eyes cold, neck membranes fully spread.

"It is as you have said. The tables are laden with food and drink, more than enough to feed five villages, and the clothing … I have never seen anything like it," was Atroj's description of the scene. "We are in direst need, but the leaders have forgotten us, the people. They have forgotten the bidding of the Bringer of Light," the older man said under his breath.

"Let's attack them at once." suggested Jivar.

Jorek said quietly, "No, it is too soon. They could still put up a fight. Tikram says we have to wait another hour or two until they have filled up properly. Moreover, we must not forget their mercenaries who also have to be put out of action. Certainly, we have a number of friends among them, but no one knows exactly how many fighters Celan has and how many are on our side. They would otherwise outnumber us. I fear we may be facing a harder fight than expected, and it is well possible many of us will not live to see the outcome of this night."

The others nodded. They had accepted the risk when they had agreed to this attack.

Kagai turned to Andrak, "Khessar Andrak, I plead with you to get to safety. There is no guarantee you will escape harm when the fighting begins; under circumstances you may even suffer the vengeance of those we are trying to depose as they will inevitably suspect you of sympathizing with our cause; you did spend so much time with us of your own accord. We will need someone like you, with a sense of justice and honour, for the time that is to come."

"I shall remain in the shrine, my friend. That has always been a refuge, a safe place, and will always remain so." He briefly hesitated, "I only wish this could be done without bloodshed."

"So do, I, Andrak, so do we all."

Before Andrak withdrew, he still added, "Later on you will get to meet Senggor and his friend Shentak. I have already spoken to them as they have certain skills which will be quite useful; both are reliable friends."

With that, the young Khessar silently drew the door closed while the others, still singing in low voices to allay suspicion, gathered at the gates and the doors, waiting for their allies to let them in. From beyond the wall, the celebration became audible; the men did not comment as they heard the bolts being drawn back, and the doors open only moments later.

The first gate opened fractionally. "It is me, Yokim. The soldiers on the off-shift have begun their own celebration. Those among them who are on our side will come and join us as soon as they can get away without rousing suspicion. The other gates are being unlocked as we speak. Take up your positions and remain silent. You will be met by the others and taken to your area of operations."

Further on, there were similar discussions and commands as the villagers were taken in charge by their guides, as it were. They parted company at a gate leading into the interior of the thick wall.

Danro said to Atroj and Tivrak, "I will take you into this passage. One of my comrades is waiting for you there; it leads under the central wing of the building and directly into the hall leading to the accounting room. Take what you find on the table for later; I will be waiting for you just outside and take you to the quarters for the foreign merchants; I know a safe way. You, Tebo and his fellows will have to begin checking the accounts I have found as soon as you hold them in your hands."

"You need not worry about the rukhar; they have been dealt with," Rano informed them.

There was a collective sigh of relief. The knee-high predators were usually left loose in the courtyards to guard them. They would not so much as touch the people who belonged there, but attack anyone whom they did not know.

One group of sixty left the entrance and quickly raced to the further wing of the compound, tried the door and entered silently, listening for any sound that could mean a concealed guard.

"The entrance is open." Danro said, quickly waving over his group. Four of you," he indicated Sessok, Mevan and two others, "Watch out for any suspicious movements, you see something unusual, you raise the alarm at once!"

The others soundlessly darted in, past the four guards, taking up their places in the entrance hall to the north wing of the compound. Elsewhere, they knew, other groups were following suit.

"Remember, there are rooms at either side of the corridor, some communicating, but never more than three interconnecting." They went up to the top floor, the second, and tested the first door.

"Ah, good, Keshana," Devron murmured. "This makes it slightly easier. She has marked the doors that lead to suites and has contrived to show how many rooms form a unit." He uttered a silent laugh, "If we survive, she will be a fine wife for the new ruler."

There was a brief clatter of weapons and shouting outside; alarmed, the men exchanged glances. "We go on, no matter what. Forwards, lest this has raised the alarm!"

Without a moment's hesitation, they proceeded through the first rooms, at times staring in angry astonishment at the wealth displayed so ostentatiously, and all of it easily recognizable as choice products of local craftsmen, at other rooms in sheer disgust, thinking of their own conditions. After each room was checked, it was locked – here, too, Keshana had proved an invaluable helper; the skeleton keys had been smuggled out weeks before in small packets of gifts she had prepared, observed by Avera, Celan's wife, whose trust and protection she had quickly won.

"Wait," Yokim went ahead and stood near a door. "Double mark. Open it carefully."

Ten others ran to the next one and, simultaneously, both groups rushed in. "No one here."

"I wonder… could this possibly be a trap laid for us? Get us all to scatter throughout the building, then pick us off one by one?"

"Perhaps, but it is more likely that no one wanted to miss the occasion." Yekor, one of the younger farmers muttered, suddenly apprehensive. "Wait! Look at this…." He quickly retrieved a chain from under a chair. "I'll take this for my wife – those here have enough and to spare, and have not worked even half as much as she has. Strange that something as beautiful as this was left on the floor. The ones who were here must have left in a hurry." He held it up, letting the necklace's engraved metal surface glitter silkily in the light before tucking it into his belt. He looked over at his companions, "I don't know if it is only me, but I have the feeling they have been warned."

His comment put into words what the others had been thinking.

"Warned?"

"By whom?"

"There are always those who want to curry favour with their rulers by spying on their fellows."

"Kevor?"

There was no answer. "Let's just get on as quickly as possible and take all precautions. At least we know we have to be even more vigilant than before." Danro opened one of the windows very slightly and looked down. "No one here."

From the ground floor they heard renewed sounds of armed conflict, but, as had been agreed, the men systematically combed the rooms they had been assigned, finding no one, much to their surprise, but, in place of people, there were valuables lying around in each of the rooms.

"Ignore the lot. These objects have been left out on purpose to distract us, tempt us into plundering and stuffing our pockets on our own account. Then they could surprise us easily enough and, at finding us carrying these valuables, they could then describe us as common thieves who had no grievances, only the wish to plunder." Danro urged, "Get down to the ground floor – I think that is where the guards have assembled, along with the members of the family who have stayed behind for some reason or another. Split up!"

From outside there was a sudden burst of shouting, a single male voice shrieking piercingly for assistance.

"He'll wake up the whole compound! Can't someone silence that loudmouth?" muttered Danro.

As if on cue, they heard the sound of running and the shouting abruptly stopped.

"On!" The two groups of twenty ran to opposite ends of the wing and ran down the stairs, weapons drawn, heading towards the sounds of fighting; at entering the corridor, they saw some of their comrades lying dead along the walls. In silent anger, they raced past to join the fray.

"How many?"

A call came from further on, "At least 65. Stayed behind. Expected us!" The voice was Jorek's.

The next half hour was a frenzy of blows and surprise attacks – of falling over the injured or dead, using what ever weapons came to hand when the conditions shifted to hand-to-hand combat. After what seemed like an unending frenzy of parries and blows and stabbing, everything was suddenly over. Finally, silence fell except for the moans of the wounded, the heavy breathing of the exhausted combatants.

"Those others, get them into the detention area on which we have agreed," was Kagai's order, "and ... wait a moment…." he put his head to the side, listening, then, with one motion, pulled open a door and stepped back to present his find to all, "Well, my friends, look at this. What have we got here?"

He stood aside to reveal a family, a woman with her children, as well as a number of servants, all in the finest clothing. "Get out and into the corridor. You will not be harmed. Yet. We are still feeling quite compassionate."

The men opened cupboards, pulled out lengths of cloth, sheets, all they could gather and thrust them at the group. "For once do something useful. There are wounded to attend to, both yours and ours." At seeing them exchange glances, Kagai added, "We will leave behind guards, so don't think you can kill anyone secretly."

The captives picked their way through the suite of rooms, turned away from the dead, looked with horror at the injuries, at the blood on the floor.

"Sh'cha!" Jivran hissed derisively, "You yespar that burrow under the skin of diseased gettle to eat their flesh! You cause the wound yet cannot stand the gore when you leave it behind! Help those walk out who can, and you," he gestured at the servants and ordered, "stop gawping and get a move on. Hey, you there," he gestured at four male servants who were hesitant to comply, "Carry those who cannot walk or do you need the same encouragement as you have always given us?" There was a burst of whispering among their captives. "Make just one wrong move, you blood-suckers…" the farmer smiled happily, raising his hoe, "This is not only good for killing voles in my field, you know. I think I may just try out how it works on larger vermin if you make just the smallest move I do not like!" He hissed in mock rage, lunged at the group, then burst out laughing at their frightened screams.

"Stop being so playful, Jivran. I don't think they can appreciate our simple form of humour. After all, it is far more amusing when we are at the receiving end of theirs." Danro said, grinning in spite of himself. "Any news how the others are faring?"

"No."

"How many of us are still able to fight?"

A quick head count showed that 15 men had been killed, 23 injured, with six of those sidelined. "10 of those with minor injuries stay behind. Watch the servants and help. We'll identify the dead when this is over." There are still fifty in the other parts of this wing. Hope they have fewer casualties….

As soon as their captives were in the room, they set to tending to those fighters with more serious injuries, observed by the men left to guard them. It was obvious that some of the wounded would probably not survive.

There was a knock at the door. "Please, let me in."

"Who is it?"

"We praise the bounty of the Giver of Light…" was the verse quoted from the other side.

"Let him in. He is one of Andrak's friends."

Jorek opened and a young Khessar entered at once, carrying a large box which he put down before crouching in front of it to undo the straps while explaining. "I am Senggor, from Gessechi Province. I cannot offer you any skills with weapons, but have been extensively trained in field medicine, thus have agreed to help tend to your wounded. Andrak has sent me for that purpose."

There was a quick exchange between Jorek and Senggor, then a nod of agreement from the khessar. Aloud, he said, "With the guidance of the Bringer of Light, I may be able to save even some of those who are very seriously injured. I promise to do the best I can." He quickly looked around before pointing at a few people he either judged trustworthy or too frightened to try anything potentially disastrous.

Jorek whispered to the others who were to remain behind. "With him here, everything should be under control. He is on our side, and has his … methods. I have told him to use one of them to keep that vermin …" he indicated the captives "… from doing even more harm."

"Lock this room when you leave," Senggor said while setting out his equipment. "No one is going out of here before you have finished what you have come to do. I will be waiting with the others. Ah, yes, Shentak will give the same assistance in the East Wing."

With a nod, the men ran out of the room. The group split up, one half going directly to the East Wing, the others through the courtyard after rapidly scanning it for enemy movement. No one there…

"Only fifty metres to the entrance – we go in groups of seven."

One by one, the groups rushed over, entered. In the building proper, they again hesitated, uncertain, wondering at the silence, then cautiously moved in, looking around in surprise. There were no signs that anyone had been here at all, let alone fought; everything was undisturbed.

"This is … strange." Sevruj listened, disquieted. "I don't like this." He looked around repeatedly pulling at a door leading into the corridor. "It's locked!"

"Jotan and I will check." The two men went up the stairs to find the doors to that corridor open and, at entering, saw signs of fighting. They called down the stairs, "This way!"

Their pace slowed while they cautiously advanced; there was no sign of life anywhere in the hallway, even though there had been a conflict: hangings had been torn down, bodies lay along the wall, but there were no wounded of either side.

"Seems to have been a success."

"For whose side, that is the important thing."

"With losses, hopefully they lost more than we." With a low call of distress Danro knelt next to one body, gently touched it. "Soltar is dead," he said in a dangerously even voice. "He was always a good friend you could trust to watch your back."

Jorek stated grimly, "I fear all of us will have reason for sorrow after this is over, even if we do win and clear the compound of its parasites." He jumped up, neck membranes spread, and called out, "Test each door. It looks as though this hall has been cleared, but check nonetheless."

They discovered nothing until they arrived at the middle door that had been described to them. Danro cautiously pulled at the door to the storage area. "It's locked! It seems the group assigned to this wing have been successful." He moved aside, back to the wall, "Could be a trap." Moments later, he went to the door, keeping to the side, and called, his mouth close to the key hole, "North Wing group."

"Danro, is that you?"

"Yes. The North Wing has been taken, everything is under control, the passages below blocked, the main entrances obstructed."

"Some good news – come on in!"

The door opened and when the newcomers had entered, the group of guards showed their own prisoners. "All we got is a few servants – they were waiting for us on the bottom floor. Those … " He pointed at a number of mercenaries who were tied up and lay along the further wall, guarded by villagers, "…put up a good fight until they heard a man screaming outside, "Send men to the North Wing! We need reinforcements! Nearly all of us are either dead or wounded! And there are even more attackers on the way even now!"

"Whoever it was, he did us a favour." Berak shrugged, "That is when their loyalty to the Eganul collapsed like an old shed in a storm. They surrendered their weapons on the spot and have already asked to be allowed to return to their home provinces when this is over."

"I told you it would work!" Tikram whispered to Edim.

"Tikram! You were the fellow I heard yelling like a maniac while we were fighting. I was sure we would find ourselves neck deep in mercenaries when that shouting began." He then asked the most important question. "Survivors?"

"We lost twenty-seven men of the one hundred who went in," Berak stated and looked away.

"Of our group fifteen have been killed, five or six of the injured may not survive and ten of those who can still move have been left behind to help Senggor tend to those who have been sidelined."

"Better tell him before he asks," whispered one of the others to Berak.

"What should he tell me? Out with it!" Jorek ordered.

"Tevrak is among them." Berak said angrily, and slammed his fist against the wall. "So is my cousin Marret. They went down fighting, but it was one of the Eganul's family members who came out of hiding while the fighting was on and knifed Tevrak as we would a sacrificial gettle." He fought for composure. "I know you wanted as many captives as possible, but I could not help myself…" He pointed at a body lying doubled up against the wall and made a gesture across his throat. For a moment he clenched his teeth in his effort to remain controlled.

"It's all right – I would have done no differently." Danro clasped his shoulders. "We continue for them and, afterwards, we will grieve together. Where are the others now?"

"Massed in the inner courtyard, in the passage leading up to the South Wing. Once your group has joined them, the decisive phase will begin." He showed his bandaged arms. "I wish I was going there with you. I have some massive bones to pick." He held out a curved weapon which, Danro noticed to his grim amusement, was a modified hand scythe.

Berak noticed Danro's reaction and said, "Smile all you want, but in the right hands this is an excellent thing to have in close combat. I gave it a fine edge …. and now, Danro, I ask you to strike the enemy with it in turn; it has already seen some action. Here." He held it out to Danro who took it, weighed it in his hand.

"I shall, believe me, and will return it to you afterward."

"That is all I ask." Berak turned away to watch over his captives again. "I plan to rejoin you as soon as I can. Those few slashes are of no importance."

The others left, silent now.

"Tevrak dead. We owe it to him to see this through and above all, win. Two wings are ours, but the South Wing may be harder than the first two because that is where the celebrations are held. No doubt all the most dedicated soldiers have been drawn together there as well as the remaining rukhar."

"We are still over three hundred people, and Danro's men volunteered for guard duty, so among the soldiers stationed near and in the Hall, a good fourth may well be on our side, if not more." Jorek shrugged. "Tevrak was my closest friend, our families often worked together. Thus I have to speak to Numia, tell her what has happened …"

"I wonder whether Atroj and Tivrak have the ledgers, and, more importantly, have managed to take them to the merchants' compound." Jotan said. "Without that evidence, it will be difficult to prove the wrongdoing."

In a body, they rushed down the stairs and two flights down, found themselves facing a heavy metal door. "Ah, here is the door Markai described. The corridor behind this leads to the South Wing – it has been abandoned for decades, possibly even forgotten, so be careful of debris. There are more passages, but the doors that issue into the corridor to the Great Hall are locked, as far as I have been able to find out."

He cautiously pulled it open and stood in front of the opening, listening before he stepped in. Suddenly he started and crouched, weapon in hand.

There was another whisper in the passage, closer this time, that made the group draw together and ready their weapons.

"Do not attack me. I am Markai." The speaker held up a small light so that the others could recognize him. "I was sent to guide you. We have to take a detour, or else risk being picked off. I fear someone has betrayed the last part of the plan to Celan."

"I don't like this," Jevor said to his neighbour. "For all we know, we may be heading into a trap, and in such a narrow place, we have no way of fighting our way out – especially if there are others in the back, as may well soon be the case."

"I heard you, Jevor," was Markai's retort. "I assure you, the corridor through which I am to take you is no trap. One of the traps about which you are worrying is in the corridor that branches off at the left, the one which leads up to the accounting room and the other in the one leading directly to the South Wing. Don't worry. Atroj, Kaigal and Tikram are safe, I saw them to the Merchants' Courtyard myself, under guise of checking whether everything was secured."

Jevor did not answer, only eyed him wordlessly.

"Then, Jevor, take this and do not hesitate to use it." The young man held out a short knife. "Walk right behind me and, should there be any hint of betrayal, take revenge at once. This is the only assurance I can give you at this point." He laughed, "Armour is only for the higher-ranking officers. The foot soldiers make do with leather, so you will have no problems dispatching me."

Jevor took the knife to gaze at it pensively for a second. "You are one of us. What makes me suspicious is that it seems Kevor has already done his work. In the East Wing the Eganul's mercenaries were obviously waiting for us, and in the North one, valuables were scattered about the rooms to distract us, to make us start filling our pockets like fools."

"You will see our friend soon enough, I promise you. Now, hurry up – the way is slightly longer, but safer."

They set off at a run, keeping up their pace until they saw light up ahead. Markai waved them back and crept onwards. "Tivrak?"

"Yes. All is clear."

At his wave, the men entered the underground hall; astonished, they looked around. The windows were narrow openings chiselled through the rock, some still filled with primitive glass, some partially blocked with thin layers of stone; the walls were bare, the floor artificially smoothed. Jetarro the mason inspected everything rapidly and said, "Adapted and expanded a cavern to suit the people's needs." He touched the walls, "Somewhat rough, kept to the basics." Small round holes in the floor showed where poles supporting partitions had formerly been inserted.

"The oldest part of the compound, actually, the first compound, come to think of it. It was the seat of the ruling family and also served as a shelter against marauding tribes at the beginning of settlement," explained Danro. "My squad leader said that times were hazardous then, so that the farming population often had to flee up here for protection. This one hall is but a small part of an entire complex. The storage areas are further back in the plateau. This rock is literally a warren of natural passages, some rough, some hewn to form regular corridors complete with stairs, the latter leading directly into the South Wing – another path of escape for those up in the compound."

"Where is Atroj?"

"I told him to remain in the Merchants' compound where he would be safe. He is one of our elders and has seen more than enough hard work in his life, enough fighting for survival. He has done his share for us." He went over to another door and listened. "The others are on their way as well. We have decided to gather here, then redeploy through the South Wing. You may have noticed there was only a minimum of guards on duty in the other two wings of the compound. As of now, we have to expect far more determined resistance which may take quite a bit of fighting and cost even more lives. We may have to wait for some time, so I would advise you to get as much rest as you can."

The others leaned or sat down against the walls, silent now, avoiding eye contact, not permitting themselves to react to what they had seen and experienced. While each single one of them killed livestock for food, killing fellow Akethi was a deed that went against all of the teachings of their religion and their social rules. Now that the excitement had passed, nearly all felt exhaustion begin to overwhelm them. It was not the exhaustion of normal physical labour, but of nerves strained to the breaking point, of blocking off reactions to what they were doing and seeing.

After barely an hour, they were roused by a loud voice, "Wake up! No time for sleep! We have to press on under all circumstances! Here are the plans for taking the South Wing andI need you alert!" It was Sessok. "Listen carefully. First tell me: how many of you have come through the first phase of the conflict?"

"Of two hundred men, forty-two have been killed, and about sixty injured; of those sixty, 29 are unable to continue with us. Leaves us with 158 of the North and East Wing groups, 362 in all to take the South Wing," Mevan reported.

"The odds are not bad at all." Markai stated calmly. "We do stand a chance of coming out of this victorious."

"Yes, seen in numbers only, but there are ways of defending such a compound. There is some good news, though. Massun has told me that he has drugged the remaining rukhar; they at least will present no more danger, he has even expressed serious doubts that they will even awaken again," was Sessok's report.

He could hear the breaths of relief. The rukhar were knee-high, sharp-toothed creatures which resembled oversized voles and with a fierceness to match. If attacked by one, the only possibility was to kill it as it would hang on until its last breath. "…so, one hazard less."

"I have something else that will work in our favour." Markai held up two fistfuls of small metallic spheres. "These contain an irritant which will put the people in the hall out of commission for a matter of half an hour before it settles. This will make it more difficult for us, but as we are forewarned, we can take precautions." He passed out wet, translucent cloths. "Drape these over your heads just before you throw these devices. Your vision will not be blocked much, but this cloth will serve to filter the air at least slightly."

"Makes us look as though we were about to face a firing squad," muttered some of the men.

"The ones who perform executions do indeed wear something much like this," Keshana came into the room, dressed and helmeted like one of the soldiers. "I have to return to the feast to serve, but remember, I have locked all but two of the doors – one of them the main entrance to the great hall, the other the servants' entrance. The others are less important unless in case of an attack when those in the hall have to get out quickly." The woman waved for silence.

"Listen: The doors to these passages," she pointed at the drawing that had been made in the dust, indicated four places, "… that open into the main corridor are now unlocked. As no one uses them anymore, they have not been checked, nor are they even being searched. Kadro suggests 20 men for each passage; be as silent as possible. Remember: The servants are only using two doors to the Great Hall so you can pick them off easily enough. Your clothing matches theirs. Guards? 120 men in and 60 around the building. They may prove more difficult to eliminate – they are Eganul Celan's elite. Take what you find in the niches when you leave this cavern. Be careful, though. There may well be patrols in the passages." Before leaving, she quickly stripped off the armour to reveal an elaborate dress of sefrak. "Someone can make good use of this."

"One last detail. Each single one of us would like to be the one to take Celan or Ranok," Mevan said. "Cover the entire hall, concentrate on the person closest to you. The goal is to disarm, overpower, secure your captive and move on to the next enemy until the hall has been cleared. Remember, too, that they are to be taken alive, if in any way possible."

The men exchanged glances and as of one accord, broke up into small groups and took the various narrow corridors. "Wait, here." Sevruj reached into a niche on the side, and drew out a carefully-wrapped bundle, unrolled it. "Weapons like those of the guards." He held one up and looked at it. "Easily used but far more deadly than what we have at our disposal."

The others crowded around. In a covered, rotating wheel there were pointed hollow cones of metal that would be ejected by an explosion of chemicals. By some method or another, the detonations could barely be heard, no doubt to make them more frightening in their effects. "That can pierce the leather we are wearing with ease!" Sekor whispered, horrified. "We were not trained to use those weapons!"

"And these are not even the deadliest. We were unable to get to the most destructive of the lot; those others can tear a body apart as easily as you or I would paper. However, the quartermaster is singularly careless. I expect he will be looking all over for the key to gain access to the side room of the arsenal where they are stored. They are only issued to the most trusted men of the Eganul's elite guard."

"How did you get hold of that key then?"

"It would take too long to explain, but it will make a fine story. We owe our men, Keshana and her friends our greatest respect." The way Sevruj said the words had the others exchange glances at seeing he carefully avoided theirs.

Suddenly he made a gesture for silence. There were steps further on, as though someone was walking along the corridor, trying to make as little noise as possible. The men pressed themselves against the walls, scarcely breathing and clutching their weapons, eyes narrowed to avoid any glint of light.

Twelve heavily-armed guards appeared around the corner, came closer. Everyone held his breath. When the guards were abreast of the group, Sevruj stepped out into the passage. "Ah, good, Saikar. You have decided to patrol the same area as I did."

"What are you doing here? This is not your beat, Sevruj."

"Everything else was quiet, so I decided it would be wise to take a look at these corridors so that no unauthorised persons are up to something that might compromise our rulers' safety." Sevruj answered. "Their exits may be locked, but you can still hide in them well enough."

Saikar and his men stared at the soldier suspiciously. "Come with us. You are under arrest. We have been ordered to take any individuals who are not where they are supposed to be for questioning."

Sevruj turned and held out his wrists, murmuring, "I regret my presumption and accept the consequences."

Fettered, he walked for a few paces, then, with a scream of anger, fell and simultaneously struck out at Saikar's legs, felling him. That was the cue the invaders had been waiting for; they burst forth from their hiding places and began to fight at close quarters. To their disgust, they saw the refined weapons were useless and immediately tossed them aside.

In spite of the relative darkness, they saw enough to recognize the men they fought and realized they were those who had accompanied Kendor during the last gathering of the harvest. Rage and resentment gave them renewed strength. The fight took only five minutes, but seemed far longer.

Suddenly, one of Saikar's men broke free and began to run back towards the entrance, "Attackers! Raise the….!"

He suddenly fell, silenced permanently. "You shall raise nothing," Mevan said with a derisive hiss.

"Quick, before reinforcements come – I hear nothing from anywhere else!" Mevan looked around. "Where is Sevruj anyway?"

The man quickly turned back only to be engaged by a young mercenary eager to prove himself. He concentrated on his adversary, but fell when a guard who had been thrown to the ground rallied enough to find an opening in his defence and dealt him a killing blow.

With a yell of pure outrage, Danro twisted to drive his weapon into the attacker's throat after having dazed the soldier with a flurry of blows. "You bastard – remember us? We heard you whispering that we should be the ones loading those sacks onto the carts, not you! Where is your superiority now?" He drew out his weapon and used it on another attacker, then, for a fraction of a second, tried to regain his breath before realizing that he himself had been dealt a deadly blow and would not draw another. Darkness overwhelmed him.

"On! Two of us will stay behind, see to whomever we can still help, and will return for you later," Markai ordered his team. "… no time to take a head count. All now depends on reaching the rallying points within the shortest possible time. If the alarm has been raised during this fight, every second will count!"

To his apprehension, there seemed but a very few men following him. "Better to go down in combat than to abandon what we have come to do."

"A light!"

"Advance but keep to the shadows…."

Markai waited until they were within three metres of the exit, then waved to the others to stay behind and crept onwards, only looking back once at hearing an exclamation of surprise.

"You're safe – we are all here. I slipped through one of the side tunnels and came out behind you – managed to intercept one of the soldiers who was trying to make his way up to the compound."

"Ferray! I'll remember this moment when I again complain about your constant yakking!"

"I'll remind you, of that, Markai." The other laughed, but then became grim when he saw the others come out into the small room where the corridors interconnected. "How many of you…." He stared wide-eyed at the men. Not one had escaped injury.

"Danro and Mevan are gone, some others, too, I fear. I have ordered two to stay behind and see to the injured. We took heavy losses."

"Kevor's work." snarled Sevruj. "It may be small comfort for you when I tell you we have taken him. He will do no more harm than he has done already. There may only be an argument about who gets to execute the bastard when this is over, we have been victorious, and are standing at the edge of Yasuri swamp with our prisoners."

"The others?"

"Have assembled and are concealed in the positions agreed on. We have some moments yet."

Of the twenty men who had gone into the corridor, only six had arrived at its end and were now waiting; the door had been opened very slightly, no one could be seen outside.

"Before we continue: How many of you can keep on?"

"All of us," was the determined statement from one fighter who was being seen to by his comrade. "Once this cut is bound up, I'll be as good as before."

There was no doubt in Tivor's words, nor in the nods of the others. "And are those assigned to the other two corridors still able to fight?"

"Yes."

"We have decided to attack in about half an hour, hardly sooner. Keshana said that the participants are not yet drunk enough – and they have their weapons nearby."

"Warned, no doubt," whispered Bekar. He had refused to stay behind and had rejoined his group, much to Shentak's irritation.

"Let's get back into the corridor where no one can hear us," Edim pulled him back and drew the door shut.

From within, they heard the door to the hall briefly open, permitting the sound of celebration to pour into the hallway, laughter, singing, raucous calls. Then, for a moment, there was silence.

Footsteps in the hall, someone running.

"Let me enter at once!" They heard a breathless shout. "It is important – the message must be given now!"

The two guards in front of the door intercepted him. "Who are you anyway and what are you yelling about?"

"I have a message for Eganul Celan! It is about the attack. Let me in or take the blame for whatever happens!" The man sounded desperate. "I'm one of his soldiers, you idiot!"

Carefully, Markai looked around the corner. "Damn that Tikram! He'll get himself killed!" He hissed under his breath. "He's dressed in his uniform and has gone into the hall!"

"Bringer of Light! He's Danro's younger brother…." Sevruj moaned with horror. "Oh, Bringer of Light! What will I tell his parents – two sons in one day!"

Strangely enough, there was sudden silence in the great hall so that the even rhythm of Tikram's speech could be heard, then suddenly, the listeners heard a burst of triumphant yells, applause, shouts of praise; moments later the soldier came out of the hall, escorted by two of the Eganul's guards who were supporting him. The listeners only caught the words, "You may have saved the Eganul's life, before by raising the alarm, thus making defence possible, and now you have become a bearer of good news. You will be taken care of and, tomorrow, amply rewarded for your bravery."

"I have only done what is right – we cannot leave the egulchai to vagrants and the lawless." He fell silent briefly, then, as they went past the door to the passage where the others were hiding, "Now the celebration will not be disturbed any more. Our protector deserves this time of joy."

"But we must remain cautious. Those 50 guards inside – our leader has decided some of them can be sent to celebrate in their quarters with the off-duty forces now that the danger is past. The remaining soldiers will be rewarded later."

"Ah, good. That fellow is over confident." Bekar smiled. "Now we know what expects us."

"What?" Markai sagged against the wall, aghast, not believing what he had seen and heard. "What in the name of the Bringer of Light did he do this time?"

"He went into the hall – said the rebels have been contained and are even now being taken into custody…"

"He's insane! If he is found out as one of us, we're lost!" His neck membranes spread, eyes wide, Markai looked as though he'd given up all hope.

Sekor took Markai by the shoulders and shook him. "Markai, listen! Or have you been whacked brainless by your own gettle? Tikram is one of Celan's soldiers. He won't be suspected of being one of us. Listen." He gestured out towards the hall after cracking the door just a fraction.

From inside the hall they heard laughter, then Celan's voice shouting a command followed by the steady rhythm of drums before various instruments took up the measure. After a few calls of appreciation, a song was intoned in a clear, high female voice, accompanied by two other, deeper ones. "That's Keshana – she's singing 'The Victory at Akkhayet.' "

"The last great battle before the First Empire collapsed. She's as much of a fool as your friend Tikram." Markai stated in a barely audible voice. "That inflection she is using…."

"No she is no fool, only courageous and willing to take quite a risk for our cause. Right now she is doing her part in allaying any suspicions that those in the Hall may still have. They don't recognize the mockery, or if they do, think it is aimed at us. Listen to her."

The men waited in silence for some moments until the final verse had faded into applause and calls of praise.

"As you see, she is not as much of a fool as those inside that hall. They think she is praising the Eganul's power, his ability to cope with any rebellion started by a disorganized horde of invaders and even win against an organized army twice the size of his own. We are safe for now. Eganul Celan and the others will think that the uprising is over, that we have been defeated and taken captive. They are no doubt anticipating another game later on: Put The Rebels to Death…" He sighed, "Now all we need do is to wait until we get the signal for the last engagement." After another breath, he added, apprehensively, "I only hope that she knows enough to keep the men from the Eganul's household at bay. Their celebrations are …" his voice trailed off. Don't let her meet Yossa's fate.

"Nothing to fear, not today at any rate; she is no doubt his favourite of the moment, and thus under his protection," said Edim, who had come over from the other team. "Our men have watched her all the while. She has not drunk anything but water to keep a clear mind, and not touched any of the food either. When she was asked why she was doing so, she explained: 'I am fasting – a ritual among the farming population to ensure a good harvest and your continued good health and power, Eganul Celan. My lord, I make this sacrifice with joy.' " He grinned. "She is a clever one, that Keshana."

"I think you will appreciate her even more after you find out just what she has done." Jevor said with a laugh. "In passing she told it to me. I won't let anyone in on the secret quite yet; it should, if everything has gone well, become evident for all to see."

"Listen – we are up against 60 people in all up here, not all of them armed and those 50 soldiers of which that guard spoke; some of them are our own men." Bekar said quickly. "If we begin taking the servants, we can reduce that number. They can be stunned and pulled into the corridor through which we came and left in one of the junctions, under guard." He hesitated for a moment. "Those guards outside the building, they are the problem. The moment they hear the sounds of our attack – and we will never be able to silence everyone right away – they will be in here."

Just then, there was a shout of laughter, and a loud command; moments later some soldiers left the Hall, talking animatedly.

"Finally! Our turn to join the fun in our quarters; Kassek says that the Eganul has sent more than enough food and drink for all. Let's hurry before everything gets started; most of the men who have been shoving guard duty outside have also been given the rest of the evening off."

"Better be – we were keeping his hide safe all evening. As if a mass of gettle-drivers had the brains to plan even the simplest attack!"

"Get a move on – things are going to be lively there," shouted one of the men, giving his comrade a shove.

"Can't wait to get hold of some of that kensaar they've imported from Varagasi Province. They say it has a clout like an enraged gettle."

"You already speak like those villagers – you've been here too long; why don't you join 'em?"

"Hardly, I'm not about to mix with that lot. But that kensaar is strong, just what we need!"

The rebels could not hear more as the men rounded the corner.

"Fourteen down, 36 soldiers to go. I wish I knew how many combatants including those of the eganul's household, are still in there."

"I'd be more worried whether there are not more forces here than expected, and whether Celan will not be able to call for help, which would mean our being run over by his mercenaries."

"No. Most of them are in barracks throughout the Province, to ensure peace and ward off possible attacks from outside. Celan feels safe in his compound." Jotun took a deep breath, "If he had all of them here, we could never have managed to get even this far; in fact, we would have called off the uprising in that case. As to a call to arms, we can only hope the various people have managed to pull off their plans."

"We'll know soon enough how many are inside that Hall, and it is those who are important for now. The others will not come marching in once everything is over. They will wait to see what happens and then either swear allegiance to their new master or else return home and look for another posting. Now, the first question …"

Sevruj edged out of the narrow passage, darted across the corridor and positioned himself in a niche close to the door and waited. Within moments, a female servant came out and as soon as she had pulled the door to, he grabbed her in a blur of motion, and dragged her into the corridor to his companions in spite of her struggles, closing the door behind him.

"Don't scream. We are not here to harm you, but we certainly will if you make a commotion." Sevruj spoke to the frightened woman gently. "We only want to ask you some questions. Afterwards, you will be free to go – unharmed."

Yekor crouched next to her, ready to silence her in case she tried to shriek for help.

"How many guards are in there?" Sevruj's voice was gentle, nearly kind. "Calm down, we won't do anything to you. Just answer us."

The woman was so panicked she could hardly speak, but managed to whisper, "Thirty-six. Fourteen have just left."

"Others?"

"Sixty-two, counting some of the Eganul's family members and the Khessari and their own."

"Armed?"

"Only the men, and those of the Eganul's family."

"There. That is all we wanted to know. Now, my friend is going to take you to the others we have taken. You will understand you have to remain here until the end of what we are doing. You have nothing to fear unless you have lied to us. My friend, Yekor, will accompany you."

Yekor smiled and helped her to her feet. "You are from Suvinda Village, aren't you? Your dialect is familiar. I have relatives there."

"Yes. My name is Sedana. I came here a little over a year ago…" The young woman looked up at him uncertainly. "My family needs what I earn here." After a moment she whispered, "That's why I have to stay here in spite of everything."

"It has come to that…."

Talking together, the two left, but Bekar could see that Yekor had a knife at the ready. Good man – puts her at ease, and still remains prepared in case she's a traitor after all.

Those who remained behind relaxed marginally.

"The odds are not that bad after all," commented Jivar. "There are still over 300 of us."

"Walking wounded for the most part. Only about 200 can still put up a fight worth the name, and we do not know whether there are not more forces hidden around the Hall." Yulan stated, looking around. "I hope I can get my hands on Kevor the Traitor."

"You will have to get in line." Unat, who had arrived to hear the last words, laughed, "We all owe him thanks."

"Then leave enough life in him for me to still enjoy my turn." The man's voice was dangerously level.

"I'll see what I can do."

"That waiting is going on my nerves! Something must have gone wrong," murmured Jessat. "It's enough to drive anyone insane – this waiting and waiting…"

"Gather your strength, relax – that is all we can do, and that too will help us," was Jotun's comment. "Any error now, and we will pay dearly."

Another hour passed, far more time than had originally been agreed on. Slowly, the unease spread among the men.

Jivar pressed his ear to the door, straightened and pulled at the latch, cracked the door. "Strange … listen…."

"Those in there should be louder – after all, it isn't that late."

They barely heard one of the side doors open. At hearing steps, Jivar quickly pulled the door shut again. There was a light tap.

"It's me. Zhimani."

He let her in. "What are you doing here? I thought you were at the market, helping your father, Samit."

She waved off his question. "Quick. Keshana cannot leave anymore without arousing suspicion, so she has sent me. Remember; I was here until half a year ago so that I was rehired to help during this market time. I've deactivated the locks so that, when you open the door, both wings will automatically open, permitting all of you to rush into the Hall in a body. It would appear that those in there have already had their fill and are not all that steady on their feet any more, either. About 16 of the remaining guards are on our side, as are a good number of the servants." With that she rushed out and, after quickly calling into the two other corridors, went towards the kitchen area as though to fetch more food.

The moment she had pronounced the words, the others in the respective teams were being notified and as agreed, burst forth from their hiding places, leaving behind only a few men to guard the prisoners they had already taken, respectively watch their wounded.

Jotun carefully looked inside the hall, "Guards along the wall, most of them near Celan, his family and the Khessari. Servants alongside the tables … would be nice to know who is on our side."

"We will see who; I know there are a number who support us, and others who are nothing but flags in the wind who will join whichever side seems to be winning. Everyone in position." The voice was Devor's.

"This morning Sevruj gave Kurruy only a skinny vole, more a worm than a vole – hungry as he is, he will carry the news of the outcome as quickly as he can to get his reward all the sooner."

"All right, our hungry friend should not be forced to starve much longer." Jivar whispered. "Wait until the corridor is clear and then, outside the doors, pick off the servants first, but do not kill anyone unnecessarily."

Bergil, who had put on the clothing of one of the servants they had already taken, walked to the other three doors and whispered after opening them slightly. "Take captives into the old area as agreed. The prison area is directly connected to it, so it will be shorter than the way we had originally planned, thus less dangerous. Otherwise, you know what to do."

As soon as they heard no one outside, the men came out and grouped along the wall, out of sight of anyone who should happen to come out of the great hall.

There was the sound of someone running towards them and as one, they turned around. Tikram had managed to slip away from his benefactors after pretending to fall asleep on the spot. A soldier leaving the now-empty barracks area was nothing all that suspicious.

"Listen to them… You would think that we have had a harvest as has never been brought in…" he muttered angrily.

"For once don't do anything foolhardy."

"No. I want to stay alive long enough to repay those bastards for the death of my brother, Danro, and for everything else."

Two male servants came out – obviously they did not belong to the villagers as they froze and stared at the invaders in shock, eyes wide. One made a motion to turn and Ferray rushed forward and stabbed him while Devor and Yulan overpowered the other in a brief struggle.

"Was that really necessary, Ferray? We had agreed on as little bloodshed as possible."

"Sure," Ferray hissed over his shoulder while dragging the body into one of the corridors, " … but not this one. Remember Artos?" he came out, wiping his hands on his tunic. "This one brought him 'compensation', well-seasoned tefa wood impregnated with a poison that was released as soon as Artos began working it; he never even realized what was happening to him because that poison was very slow-working. It took three weeks to kill him."

There was another slight commotion at the further end of the main corridor as another four servants were captured.

"So far none of ours…."

"There is no time to check on that. Remove them now, and the men who take over will see who belongs to us and who not. Those who can will rejoin us. There is no chance of trickery…"

The conversation stopped when three more men came out and then two women, also servants.

"I think that is all we can do out here without raising suspicions in there when the people go out and do not return." Markai said. "Remember, you make for your respective targets – we can't have all zeroing in on Celan. Disarm, capture, remove – kill the rulers and their family members only if they leave you no choice."

"My thought exactly. Take out those cloths Keshana brought and, here…." Sevruj distributed the small metal containers as did the other group leaders. "Wait until you are inside before you throw these to roll along the walls and towards the middle of the room. Like that the gas will spread." He held one up and indicated the release.

One gesture sufficed and the entire group of 273 raced into the hall; ignoring the urge to look around, they activated, then quickly pitched the metal containers to roll along the floor with a slight clatter of metal against flagstones. For a second, there was absolute, stunned silence in the hall; at regaining their wits, the leaders and some of the guards shouted; as if of one accord, everyone rose, those who were armed reaching for their weapons or else trying to flee if they were unarmed. One or two tried the windows to get into the courtyard and escape from there, or at least let out the gas that was making everyone cough and fight for breath, but tugged at the levers in vain – they had been blocked so effectively that they offered neither escape nor a way of dissipating the gas which was rapidly spreading throughout the hall.

As one, the insurgents turned their attention to the soldiers who were left as well as to the dignitaries, while a few others slammed and locked the doors.

"Get those criminals, no matter how!" was the order they heard from Celan. "Kill as few as possible so that we can make an example of them tomorrow! Those cowards don't even have the courage to show their faces!" The voice was muffled – apparently the warning had been passed on ….

"That sounds like our beloved Eganul…." snarled Jorek, who was countering the blows a mercenary was aiming at him. He screamed once at a sudden burning pain, struggled to stay on his feet, then, with a desperate lunge, managed to trip up his opponent and deal him a stunning blow with the handle of a short hoe he had chosen as his own weapon. Quickly, Jorek hogtied his captive and felt his leg before ducking with a yell of, "… some have percussives!"

"I'm on your side. You know me."

He turned and saw Zhimani crawl over to him to check his leg. "You are lucky and only have a flesh wound." She quickly wrapped a length of cloth around his thigh and said, "Have this seen to as soon as this is over. I have an account to settle in here."

She had seen Lissok edging along the wall in an attempt to slip out, unnoticed. She jumped up and with a low hiss, touched one of the men who was about to run past her, "Quick, get that bastard over there before he can escape. If he does, then one of the worst elements of Celan's family will escape justice!" Lissok stared at her in rage and horror when she called out, "For Sedana – and myself!" then rejoined the others.

Without answering, Jorek dashed over with two comrades and, in spite of Lissok's struggles, beat him senseless before dragging him out.

The entire hall had become a mayhem of fighting and shouting; to his relief, Markai saw that at least a third of the mercenaries who had remained behind were fighting on the side of the farmers and craftsmen. He looked around, then called out, "Where are Khessar Ranok and the others? Get them before they make their escape!"

He raced across to where he had last seen the Khessar, and once there noticed a doorway that was barely recognizable against the patterned wall. He nearly screamed with the urgency of despair, "Janyk, Tikram, Jevor, Bekar and Edim, quick! Through here! We have to stop them at all costs!"

More men than he had called hurried over to join him, so that it was a sizeable group that raced through the narrow passage.

"Where does this go to anyway?" asked Janyk.

"I have a good idea of where," said Vetor, a mercenary who come with them. "You'll see soon enough. It is their usual way of entering and leaving."

"Why join us?" Edim inquired, suspicious of this unexpected helper.

"Have seen too much." Vetor answered simply. "That is why."

Suddenly … bright light ahead … when they burst out of the passage, they briefly hesitated, disquieted in spite of themselves at finding they had entered the restricted, sacred area of the compound's shrine. In it, as expected, the religious leaders had sought refuge. A shrine has always been a refuge, a safe place for those in danger of injustice and in danger of their lives….. Now it has become a refuge for exploiters. With a surge of contempt, the men saw the heavy robes of sefrak brocade the Khessari wore, saw more of the same material, as yet unused, stored in cases along the wall and knew various weavers would be pleased as these goods had been confiscated only a year or two previously ….

"Finally." Bekar said, "We know you for what you really are." He quickly looked around, saw the wealth stored in that one room and realized with a surge of anger that this was only a fraction of what had been taken from the people of the province throughout decades.

"If you so much as touch us this sacrilege will place you among the accursed, the curse pursuing you and your children throughout each single generation until the end of time itself!" Pointing his index fingers at the men, Ranok stretched to his full height, as did his aides and the lesser Khessari. "The Bringer of Light will send such evils upon you and yours as you have never seen or imagined. The Year of Visitation will appear as a year of benediction."

From the very edge of sight, Edim saw a blur of movement, heard a brief urgent exchange that became a struggle … he looked to the side, drew a breath of horror. Oh no, Andrak … what can you hope to do….

The young Khessar had come in and was now desperately trying to wrench a weapon out of the hands of one of his fellow aides who had been taking aim at Jevor. The men rushed the group of Khessari without a word, and at the same time, Ranok, surprisingly agile for his size, whirled around and, with a shout of "You incited this revolt with your ideas of righting what you saw as wrongs! You - the lowest of the low and most accursed of all traitors!" he stabbed Andrak in the neck as he would have a sacrificial animal. The young Khessar fell without a cry and lay motionless.

Enraged by the murder and at all that had happened in the past decades, the men, howling incoherently with anger, rushed the leaders, striking them wherever and however they could. If a telling blow could be landed they struck it; the struggle was over almost as quickly as it had begun – taken by surprise at the ferocity of the attack and at the total disregard the attackers showed for their threats, the khessari offered no greater resistance. Finally they too were bound and gagged. With grim satisfaction, Bekar and the others looked at their captives while catching their breath before roughly dragging them to their feet, getting in a few well-aimed kicks to speed up the process.

"Off with you, you nest of tosik. We have a nice home for you to coil up in …. Get moving, damn you!" Prodding them with their improvised weapons, they marched them through the hall to the corridor leading down to the prison area. There, one of the cells had already been unlocked and the wardens, 'faithful servants of Celan and Ranok' as Jotun called them, forced inside.

"Here, you can discuss a few more curses you can put on us with your dear friends. You should have time enough to think up some really impressive ones. All of us will be waiting to hear them tomorrow." Temok stated with a broad grin. "Don't worry. You will not be alone here for long. I promise we will bring some more friends for company later on." With satisfaction, Temok locked the door and, together with Jotun, Sessok and Sikar, settled down to wait for the next delivery….

Subdued, the group went back.

"Andrak killed, stabbed like a gettle…." said Jorek, struggling to keep his voice steady. "I was hoping that he would take Ranok's place when Khayel takes over. He would have become one of the great spiritual leaders."

"Then we shall have to find a new Khessar, hard as it may seem."

"That is then and now is now - we must get back as quickly as we can. I fear there is still some work to be done before we can count our losses and send Kurruy off on his own mission."

When they arrived at the corridor to the great hall, they again heard the sounds of fighting, but less loud than before. After a few more moments, they saw a few men, dragging two captives between them, rush out of the hall, laughing.

"Unat and Reman!"

"Take over these blood-suckers, Jatol and Leykar, two more of Celan's sons." They laughed, "There was not all that much fight in them, sodden as they are. Their beloved father, Celan, is already stewing down in the safe area with a good number of his close friends; by the way, we have begun moving the people we took from the two other wings and the junctions to the prison. The few that are left are being taken down here directly."

"Good." Edim and Jorek went down to the prison once again with the captives, where Sessok happily showed them who had arrived in the meantime to sit in or pace the cells.

For a moment they stood aside as another group of three or four was brought in and secured. One of the men accompanying the group, Reman, came back, trying hard not to laugh. "Two of these tried to send off Celan's paluwas with messages to his officials to take counterinsurgency measures. But – the exits were nailed shut and the paluwas that overfed that they just crouched where they were, half-asleep." He paused for effect. "They picked one of them up, equipped him with a capsule and dropped him out of the window. He glided down, nearly fell over at landing and no doubt is still waddling around in the courtyard, snapping at anyone who comes too close."

"Come on… What happened?"

"Every time Keshana had some time, she came up to speak to Hodak the keeper who comes from a neighbouring village – she knows his elders - and helped him feed and clean the paluwas' area. After some weeks, she was allowed to take over for him from time to time. Yesterday was one of those days."

The men burst out laughing, then again became grim when they looked at their captives, thinking of what those individuals in the cells had done to them and their families.

"Look at all of this vermin." Sessok struck one of the metal bars with a metal pole he had found, making the captives start and stare at the doors in panic. "I'd like to throw away the keys, seal the doors to this area and forget the lot down here forever, let them rot like the filth they are. It would be a fitting punishment."

"They'd only eat each other and guess who would survive."

"Celan and Ranok, who else!" laughed Edim. "Shit swims atop the water, but poisons it throughout!"

"Speaking of filth…." Sessok smiled grimly, pointing to a cell with only one inmate. "Kevor. He has cost us so many lives. That son of a diseased rukhar managed to overhear the last part of our plan and could not inform the eganul quickly enough. Remember how he seemed to be better off than all of the others?"

There was no reply to his words and, suddenly apprehensive, Sessok looked at his comrades more closely only to recognize their subdued expressions. "You look like there's bad news…" In a low voice, he added, "We have succeeded, haven't we?"

"So far, we seem to be winning, but…" Jorek said with difficulty, "Andrak has been killed. His murderer is sitting right in there." He indicated the cell where Ranok and the other Khessari were imprisoned.

Exchanging glances, Jotun and Sikar came over. "What did you just say?" Jotun asked, in horrified disbelief. "Tell me what you have said was either a slip of the tongue or a damned lie!"

"You have heard everything correctly. I said, 'Andrak is dead'." Jorek repeated. "Stabbed like an animal." He took a deep breath. "Who will replace him? He was our friend."

"Then let's see to finishing what we started – concentrate on the task at hand," Markai urged in a low voice.

"You don't have to remind me of that!" Angry at his own reaction, Jorek signed to the others and rushed up to the Hall, where the last members of Celan's household and his followers were being taken out to the prison cells.

"We have them all – those one or two women are of no concern – we have sent out two of the servants, Deslak and Herev to notify those outside to watch out for them."

Markai shouted, "Let everyone assemble in the Hall after securing the cells. Lock the main entrance to them as well so that there is not one corridor left open for them to escape!"

Vetor, one of the mercenaries who had remained behind and pleaded with Jorek to be given leave to join the rebels, stated, "And those among my friends who support you, have posted our own guard at the ends of those passages you had not managed to find. A few of Celan's people will have sneaked off at the very last moment, but they'll be picked off and left to lie where they fall. You can do what you want with their bodies."

"What is in it for you?" Tikram inquired contemptuously. "All of us are locals who, out of need, swore allegiance to Celan." His reaction will show whether he is really a friend or only someone who want to trick us.

"Then you are as much of a traitor as I am. Have you heard of Yetoli Village?" The man's voice was dangerously level before he shouted, outraged. "Recall what happened there and then still call me a traitor!"

"The village was razed, the people dispossessed because Celan's grandfather wanted the land for a secondary residence, and when the villagers protested, he had their spokesmen killed, refused them burial; my father heard about it when he was a child," said Janyk.

The mercenary added with grim satisfaction, "Luckily for us, he made the mistake of leaving enough of the inhabitants alive to pass the memory of that crime on to later generations. When I leave, I will leave with the satisfaction that I have done my duty towards my ancestors."

Once the villagers had assembled in the corridor, they looked around, dazed, shell-shocked by the events of the past hours. Some of their number were helping those who were wounded, a few others pulling bodies to the side, sorting them in grisly order according to whether they had been enemies or friends.

Those who had been guarding the cells came to join the rest. "Everything is secure. We double–checked the cells to make sure there are no exits, nor did anyone know of hidden ones. Ten soldiers are constantly observing our guests so that they cannot try anything."

"How … many of us are left?" Jorek asked in a loud voice, hiding his apprehension.

There were some moments of silence interrupted by calls or quiet replies as every team leader accounted for his men.

"265 have come through this alive," Yulan, who had entered last, said. "The Bringer of Light has exacted a high price.

Another man reported, "Those who were stationed outside had no problems at all. The vermin that managed to escape us were too shocked to put up a fight; they surrendered at once and have joined their friends in the prison."

"Where is Sevruj?"

"He'll be back in some moments. Don't worry, he's safe, even though he was injured," replied Bekar.

There was a call from outside; the men went over to the windows of the hall and looked down. Sevruj was in the courtyard and slid open the door of the container he had retrieved from one of the passages. Kurruy jumped out, biting at the strap of the harness which was still attached to a ring in the transport box. Taking off the ornament he had from Lenok, Sevruj attached it to Kurruy's harness together with a capsule, then released him. With a cry and a moment of circling, the messenger was off.

"There, now we wait. We have work to do: take our dead back to their villages, get rid of those that were part of this house and, finally, clean up this compound so that it is in fitting condition for Khayel to take over." And, Jorek said, his voice very low, "We have to tell the families of those who have died what has happened."

He looked around again, "I am the one who instigated this revolt. I went to Khessar Andrak with questions about whether the old accounts of a benevolent rule were true."

Sevruj had just entered and heard his words. "Then it is to all of us, each single man and woman to step forward when Khayel arrives in a few days. We could have refused to join you, Tevrak and, in the end, Andrak"

Yokim and a number of men entered, along with some servants. "Senggor and Shentak have left to request assistants to take the wounded to the clinic. Those in the North and East Wings have been given at least basic aid, but some of the injuries may be too severe even for the healers."

Rano was already on his way and shouted back, "Those who were waiting to support us in case something went wrong – they can join the cleaning crews to get everything in order. I'll tell them if they have not heard about everything yet."

"At night?" was Jorek's query.

"No, look out," Yulan answered in a low voice.

Astonished, Jorek stared out of the window closest to him. Dawn had long since come. As if to himself, he said, "We have been successful but at what cost? How many of those who came in with us have been killed? How to tell their families? How to support those left behind?"

"Enough ill-gotten wealth to support at least five villages for an entire year," commented Edim who had entered moments before. "A group of merchants, their family members as well as villagers attending the market have come to the compound to set things to rights. They met Rano on his way out. Some soldiers are, under guise of helping them, watching very discreetly to ensure no one is tempted," he briefly hesitated, "... especially those who are desperately poor. I must not forget… Kaigol has directed to take 30,000 lek out of a stash found in the Khessari's area to be shared out among those families who have lost a member as a first compensation. 181 lek each may not be all that much, but is a beginning. As to the wounded, their care is to be a donation." He placed his hand on Jorek's shoulder and told him, "You have done your part. Now it is to the others to prepare for Khayel of Saranji Province."

Jotar and Tikram entered, "Those who have survived relatively unharmed have joined the work details or organization."

Jorek turned to them, his eyes bleak as he murmured, "So many good men lost…."

Those present nodded mutely – they had seen good friends fall, neighbours, chance recruits. "There is no one but will see we had no other choice. Tebo and his fellow merchants have given the ledgers a cursory examination, but it is enough to prove the misuse of goods during the past three generations." Kagai laughed, "Khayel can be pleased when he sees what has been amassed here!"

"And he can prove exactly what kind of a ruler he will be, by doing justice to those whose goods were confiscated," added Tikram. "Tebo, Maluktan, Samit and Selkut have begun the exact examination of the ledgers, and are trying to estimate what belongs to the villages, to the supplies that should have been kept, and to the rulers. They have expressed the suspicion that quite a lot of it is off the record, as was the hoard in the Khessari's shrine."

"Quite a task, all considered."

"That is why they decided to call in three more of their colleagues."

When the men left the room, they noticed that the compound was full of people coming and going about their assigned tasks. The wounded had long since been taken out, and now the bodies were being removed, those of the enemy thrown on an open cart, those of the insurgents laid on another one to be taken to the clinic's hall of mourning.

"One last duty," Jorek said quietly, "and the one I dread most, telling Numia."

"She knows," Jotar replied, "I saw her waiting in the hall for Tevrak's body to be brought in. She is still there with the other women, waiting for you. Tebo has promised to accompany her to Perali Village, where Djemina will stay with her for two weeks."

"What about the captives?"

"The children have been separated from the adults; fourteen infants, ten below five, and eleven between six and fifteen. They are being supervised by servants who are loyal to us."

Sevruj, Jorek and Berak went down the main stairway, through the courtyard and out into the marketplace, followed by a few others whose shift had ended. The men looked around, disoriented, as if awakening from a dream, or rather a nightmare. The atmosphere was tense yet, at the same time, animated; Groups of people were discussing what had happened. The stands had been reopened or were being reopened, while a few soldiers were making their rounds. Jorek briefly nodded at one of them. Good idea – everything has a semblance of normalcy. The market ends this evening. Tomorrow morning then, the sentencing…. In spite of himself, he felt the chill of apprehension.

Without even realizing it, he had taken the direction of the clinic and entered after looking up at the sign. As soon as he had entered, a caretaker came towards him and inquired, "Looking for someone or in need of care?"

Jorek did not answer at once, only looked down at himself – I am as bloodied as any of those people brought here, but the least of it is my own. "No, I am looking for Tevrak…"

"I know where he is, Ukran and will go with him."

"Djemina!"

"Numia said I should watch for you, that you would be coming as soon as you can." The Ubari woman took his hand. "You have nothing to fear," she said gently, "Numia is mourning her husband – who wouldn't – but bears you no hatred or ill will."

In the Hall of Mourning the victims, already cleaned and prepared for burial, were laid out in cubicles to ensure privacy. Their rites would take place at sunset as was the local custom. Outside, at a separate exit, Jorek saw covered carts waiting to take the dead back to their home villages.

"Here she is," whispered Djemina. "I shall leave you and help Ukran."

He entered the cubicle. "Numia," Jorek whispered, as he sat down next to her, "Tevrak was my neighbour and closest friend from childhood onwards. If only …"

"We knew the risk, he knew it, I did, and we accepted it." she turned to Jorek, "I make you no reproach, but only wish it had been different. But I am not alone in having lost a companion." Her voice broke and she turned back to her husband's body, which she had already enveloped in cloth with the emblem of the Bringer of Light woven into it.

"You and your children will receive as much support as can be managed.," he told her, "I know it is small comfort, but assistance will be given to all. Hopefully, Khayel…."

"Kaigol was already here." After another moment she murmured, "So many….., so many …. I knew nearly all of them from the markets, from meetings, from shared tasks…How to tell their families…." For some minutes she seemed oblivious to Jorek as she said in a barely audible voice, "I cannot imagine returning home without Tevrak at my side, or living without him…"

When the orderlies came to carry out Tevrak, he rose and said, "Let me. He was my friend." In silence, he grasped the poles at the head end and, Numia following, went out to carefully help position him alongside the four others who were already on it. In silence, Numia and two other women got on. Jorek remained where he was, watching them leave; funeral rites were only for the immediate family, all mourning was done in seclusion. As if in a trance, he returned to the market.

"How is she?" inquired Tebo when Jorek arrived at his stand.

"Very calm." He drew a deep breath, "Eighteen men dead. Perali Village has paid a high price, as have the others."

"I have been taking care of Tevrak's stand. He would have been pleased at the sales and at having no Eganul to exact more than his fair share…" The Ubari shook his head, "We were fortunate in a way. It could have gone wrong, with a general massacre in the end."

Selkut and Khassar joined them for a moment. "How will things proceed from this moment on? Your province is open to all comers."

"We will have a new ruler within days; in fact, he may well be on his way even as we speak. It is Khayel of Saranji Province."

"From the House of Lenok! His father is as just as Celan was evil. He exacts his share as do all of his kind, but does his duty to his people."

From all appearances the attendees from the other villages and abroad were in no hurry to leave, even though the news had spread. As was custom, all transactions were concluded by early afternoon and, contrary to custom, the market ended without the usual ceremony. The merchants quickly dismantled their stands, storing them in the merchants' compound to await First Market in four months.

Restless in spite of his exhaustion, Jorek returned to the Compound which was a hive of activity. A young woman was carrying a length of heavy material and dropped it on a rapidly growing pile.

"Zhimani?"

She turned to him with the comment, "A shame to just pitch out all of this, but it can neither be cleaned nor repaired – too stained, but it will serve one last purpose." She stretched. "The rooms have been nearly put to rights, but some few floors and walls still need a decent scrubbing." She permitted herself a slight grimace of disgust.

"Where are the others?"

"In various rooms, looking for valuables and taking what they find to the storage areas of each wing. As far as I know, Jotan, Bekar, Yulan and Markai are back there," she indicated the East Wing. "It could be they are discussing matters with the Khessari who helped us."

Ferray came out to join them. "Ah, Jorek, here you are! Just to keep you informed: Andrak will be given his last home in Perali Village; as to Senggor and Shentak, I have good news. They have agreed to stay here, provided the Khessar bound to Khayel takes them on. They did not know about the situation, being far too low in rank to be included in the goings-on and immediately joined Andrak when he told them about the plans."

"How do they react to our taking Ranok and his aides and having them share Celan's fate?"

"We told them that these revered holy men were anything but and first invited them to look at the evidence, which they did, then come to the edge of Yasuri Swamp if they wanted to know more. They declined the invitation, but did say that, when misrule becomes too great, retribution follows in its path."

By mid-afternoon, most of the cleaning had been finished and the men decided to station guards in shifts to permit everyone to have some much-needed rest.

Jorek could not sleep, reliving the scenes again and again; he walked through the building, astonished in spite of himself at the size of the complex, the ornamentation of the rooms, the sheer wealth reflected in every area. Everything was quiet, abandoned, as though nothing had happened. Not the slightest sign of the events of the previous day remained: sand and metal brushes had seen to that. Hangings had been taken down, doors locked….

Terek, who had worked in the cleaning crew to "remove every last sign of misrule" was patrolling the East Wing with his brother, Rano. "Everything quiet. Just met some of Celan's mercenaries who want to stay on if Khayel wishes to have them. No problems anywhere in this complex. Tomorrow repairs will be effected, but surprisingly enough, only little needs be done," Terek stated, "Jorek, you have done your share."

"I keep thinking of those we have lost and blame myself for their deaths. I and no one else kicked that landslide loose," the man shrugged. "Once Khayel is here, I will throw myself on his mercy and accept whatever sentence he finds fit to pronounce."

Terek stared at him, not knowing what to say.

As if to himself, Jorek said in a low voice, "When our new ruler arrives, I will deliver myself into his hands for execution or whatever he pleases to do. I was the one who asked the questions which set this …" he indicated the prisoners, the crowd, "… into action, thus it is to me to accept the responsibility."

"At first the sentence and the execution," Terek's eyes glittered with anticipation. "That will be done at dawn tomorrow and not a minute later. We have informed everyone."

"I shall be there, of course." With that, Jorek left for the merchants' quarters to see what the accounting had revealed.

The next morning, just before sunrise, the Elders of the closest villages, together with the soldiers and mercenaries who had decided to stay on, as well as the surviving insurgents, prepared for the trial, such as it was planned. Kaigol, Atroj and Kumray, flanked by guards, went to unlock the cells.

Into each cell they tossed simple clothing to the prisoners with the call, "You will wear this for your great day. It is in accordance with your status. Your fine robes, earned with our labour, not yours, you will discard at once."

"Whom do you think you are addressing? You have not won yet. We have called in reinforcements and forces throughout the province. If you give up now, you will be spared; if you do not, I can promise you a slow death which your families will be invited to witness," retorted Celan.

Kaigol, feigning panic, looked around in shock and began a hissing wail, "Oh, Bringer of Light! We've forgotten about that, fools that we are! Ah, the horror! We shall all hang!" hurried to look out of the various narrow windows in the area then laughed. "What forces? You have none, at least no more. Your mercenaries? Here to see you off or on their way home. Your winged messengers never even left the compound, your runners and riders were intercepted. Those three or four who escaped us made no difference at all. And we? We are no longer your subjects." His voice level as he returned to the cells, he repeated, "Now put on that clothing or be stuffed into it."

The prisoners, silent now, complied and as soon as they had dressed as demanded, soldiers entered each cell to hobble them, thus making escape impossible.

"Move!"

"I demand to know where we are going!" Lissok shouted, " Certainly we are not to be put on display?" He sneered at the men.

Voluble cursing came from another cell, then silence apart from the words, "Keep your threats for your meeting with the Supreme Arbiter, Ranok. We are weary of them."

The captive ruler and his family as well as the Khessari, no longer looked all that impressive, dressed as they were in countrymen's clothing. They were marched up the stairs, through the courtyard and out by the gate to carts. Atroj was waiting there with other elders who were admiring the gettle in harness.

"Up with you – and don't you even think of making a move to escape!"

The groups of erstwhile rulers looked like a parody of a village outing; the carts had been decorated and draped with the ruined hangings, the benches in the carts proper were padded with bolts of material still in their protective coverings, that had been taken from the craftsmen who would be given them back after all was done.

"It is only a short journey, my beloved rulers; so do take the time to look around. This land is beautiful, and it is our land!" Ettela, one of the servants, shouted and waved. "Enjoy viewing the land you have disgraced by your very presence on it!" With those words, she ran up to one of the carts, tore off an ornate necklace and pitched it as hard as she could at Jatol, one of Celan's sons. "And you thought this was compensation for what you did to me!"

Jotan went to her, feeling her trembling when he took her by the arm. "Ettela, I do not know what happened, but can well imagine. If you want, you can have a home with us."

"Only let me take my child and return home," the young woman said in a subdued voice. "Mertak, my fiancé, already knows what has happened and has assured me that nothing has changed for him or for his family. All I want to do is leave this place as soon as these have seen justice. My only reason for remaining was the poverty of my family."

"Where are you from?"

"Arkarit Village. Dessok the Merchant has agreed to take me home when he leaves for Lesana Province in another two days."

Side by side, they watched the carts move off, before joining the crowd which was following.

The insurgents who were uninjured or only slightly so and a mass of other people had gathered on the outskirts of Yasuri Swamp to listen and watch, either to see for themselves what would happen or out of sheer curiosity. It was to Atroj to read the list of grievances which he did slowly, his voice clear, his diction precise. At times, there was a shout, adding a detail or additional reproaches.

When he had concluded, he asked the captives, "And how do you justify this?"

"All of it lies! Exaggerations and lies made up by layabouts who resent being expected to fulfil their role in the order of life," Celan called. "You, a man not trained in jurisprudence, have no right to pronounce judgement. All I see here is the lowest of rabble, a mass of dull peasants demanding more than is their right, thinking they will be better off with another ruler. You will be punished for your rebelliousness, live in total servitude. Even if you find a new ruler, your leaders will be executed as untrustworthy or enslaved…"

"… which is no difference to the life we have been living!" was the shrill yell from a woman in the crowd.

"The Bringer of Light…" began Kaigol.

"Don't you take His name on your tongue, lest you be struck down where you stand, blasphemer and committer of the worst of sacrileges!" yelled Ranok.

"Silence him," Kaigol ordered before continuing, unperturbed. "…has laid down the laws governing the relationship between ruler and ruled. We have experienced only exploitation since the time of your great-grandfather onwards; you store no supplies for times of need; you feast, we starve. You have the best healers from other provinces in your compound – Samalgatayi Clinic has the rejects. The Shrine of the Visitation was not erected in memory of punishment sent by the Bringer of Light – it was built in memory of strangers who died on our world to test how we treat even the unknown."

There was angry muttering from the group of Khessari.

"You take whatever excites your desire: our crafts, the greater part of our harvests, the best of our land, abuse our young women. This is not the Order as was laid down in the Book of Light." His voice became gentle. "Now you tell an old, uneducated, illiterate farmer: what is the fate of those who break the laws of the Bringer of Light in all ways?"

For the first time there was total silence among the captives.

"I see we understand one another."

Jorek came forward. "Khessar Andrak, whom you stabbed like a sacrificial animal, searched for and found the truth in the Archives. His memory and his sacrifice will be honoured and respected as will those of our fellow combatants."

A slight commotion in the crowd was followed by sudden silence when a woman, her child at her side, went to Kaigol and urgently spoke to him. A few recognized Yossa and curiously waited for what would follow.

Her attitude submissive, she pleaded, "Elder Kaigol, my first child has not yet been blessed by the Khessar! I live so far off and have only managed to reach Samalgatayi, and will hardly have a second chance. I do not know what you are doing as I am only a simple labourer's wife, but this is of such great importance to me!"

"Who am I to refuse you this desire?" Kaigol touched her cheeks in a fatherly gesture, then preceded her to Khessar Ranok. "Khessar, here is one faithful to the Bringer of Light, come to ask a favour."

Once she stood in front of him, she kept her head inclined as if in awe of the erstwhile religious leader and said only loud enough for those closest to hear, "Khessar Ranok, please bless my child. I only arrived two days ago as I live on the far border to Lesana Province."

She whispered to her son, a sturdy, handsome child who was wearing new clothing identical to that of the other farmers' and craftsmen's children. "Khemor, go to the Khessar and show him the honour due him." With great reverence she whispered, "Remember, he speaks to the Bringer of Light himself!" She gave the boy a gentle push.

Khemor slowly went forward, then held out his hands, saying in a clear voice, "Servant and Messenger of the Bringer of Light, Khessar Ranok, in your great kindness towards the simplest of His children, I ask you: bless me for this year and those to follow."

Ranok gazed at the boy, touched his central scale and murmured a prayer before telling the child, "The Bringer of Light will guide you to preserve the traditions and beliefs of your parents, excel in your work and believe in Him who sees all." With a smile that did not reach his eyes, he went over to the woman to bless her as well, then said, "And blessings upon the child you will bear in a matter of weeks."

To the others he called out, "This woman, a simple labourer's wife, recognizes what justice and respect are, gives the one willingly, accepts the other. You should follow her example, and not presume to judge your betters!"

Her voice now raised enough to be audible to the crowd, Yossa called out in turn, "Khessar Ranok, I thank you for the blessings you have given my son, my child to come and myself." She raised her head to face him. "Look at Khemor well, and listen to me. He will be raised a craftsman and farmer, and, above all, never learn of one fact…" She paused, waiting.

Kadro came over to lead the child out of earshot.

Her voice lower, she addressed Ranok again. "Khemor is your son, Khessar. Doesn't he resemble your own children? You forced yourself upon me when I came to you to seek guidance and repeatedly thereafter. He is of your bloodline."

Ranok stared at her in horrified recognition as she stood in front of him, enjoying his discomfiture, meeting his eyes directly. "Your son is being raised with Kadro's and my children and the ones yet to come. Rejoice in this thought and may it be the last one you think!"

Without another word, she turned, went to her father to greet him, then rejoined her husband and Khemor.

Sedana, holding her daughter, who was only a few weeks old, left the crowd in turn to address Lissok with nearly the same words. "Lissok, Adena will become one of us, she is mine alone and when I marry Unat next month, she will be ours, the first of many to come."

Close to the group Ettela was waiting with her little daughter and stated, "None of your children will ever learn of their heritage, neither those born out of your contempt for us, nor those born into your true families. All of them are to be scattered throughout Aketha Province and beyond so that no one will ever be able to gather them together again in a Clan. Your line is dissolved as of this day!"

A male voice called out, " A ruler who permits his household to do such deeds is without honour, without responsibility and unworthy of his station. We are not property to be used as needed. We are equals." The man added, I have come for this reason: to see justice done. I am Mertak, Ettela's fiancé. This child will be raised as ours, in every way the same."

Stunned, Ettela turned and slowly went over to him. He spoke to her in a low voice, touched the child's forehead gently then, side by side with Ettela, waited for the last part of the revolt, after which he would return to his home village with her.

Kaigol had observed everything, unmoved, and, when Ettela was standing next to Mertak, called out, "It is done! Justice will now be served! Return to your villages, to your homes, mourn your dead and prepare for the new Ruler. The guards, the witnesses are to stay. Galtan the Butcher and tanner will do what has to be done! First of all, though, there is one execution that all of you should witness."

Tikram and Bekar elbowed their way into the group pf captives and came out dragging Kevor between them. "This one here tried to betray us from the inception of the revolt on. He cost us at least sixteen of our comrades. This he did for the sake of privileges and benefits given from his beloved ruler."

Kevor was terror-stricken, unable to protest.

"Who wants to see him off?"

"We all do, but will not cover our hands with the blood of this traitor and opportunist. Let him die with his beloved ruler, but, Galtan, take your time about it!"

With that, the sentencing was over, such as it was. The loss of the new generation to Celan's house demonstrated that the death sentence had been pronounced. Many of the onlookers dispersed, well satisfied with the outcome, some on foot, others from nearby villages crowded together on carts, all talking, yet uncertain about the future, hoping, yet not daring to hope, but even after the departure of a good two-thirds of the onlookers, there was still a respectable crowd left.

Later in the evening, the witnesses returned to report how the Eganul and his people, and the Khessari had faced the end. Celan's sons had struggled, crying out for mercy whereas the others had died defying their enemies and questioning the legitimacy of the sentence to the end. The descriptions were spread, told and retold.

Once the dead of each village had been buried, all that could be done was to wait for Khayel and his staff to arrive. Some few insurgents waited in the compound for the messengers who would bring news in the situation elsewhere in the province.

The next day the first arrived, most of them with news given them by others who had travelled on riding hounds to established meeting places elsewhere in the province. In the compound proper, some paluwas landed, the capsules on their harnesses containing messages with good news.

It was with relief that Jorek and the others read and heard the reports; in all but a few cases Celan's representatives had either ceded on the spot, or else had fought to the end. All of the roads and paths had been so well guarded that only three or four of Celan's messengers had managed to get through – these had made no difference at all….

Within another three days, the last arrived from the border to Lesana Province. "Administrator Teskar has ceded; he knew of the situation and has agreed to swear an oath of loyalty to the new ruler."

"That is done…" Jorek nodded at his comrades and, feeling his tension dissipate, went to one of the rooms in the compound barracks, collapsed on a bunk and slept.

The next morning he woke to shouting followed by a loud and sustained cheer. Looking out, he could not see what had elicited this response so, after pumping some water to wash, he quickly dressed in clothes he found waiting and rushed over.

"Jorek, what we have waited for has arrived!" Karit and Hodak were in the courtyard with Hodak feeding Kurruy shreds of meat. "He's back. Sevruj had mated him with one of Celan's paluwa, so he returned here, thinking it his home." Karit detached the capsule on Kurruy's harness and handed it to Jorek.

"Come," said Jorek, and with a hiss, he told Sevruj, "You have stolen Khayel's prize paluwa!"

The reply was unrepentant, "Khayel will be living here anyway, so that is no problem and, for your information, Kurruy found his own mate."

"See to it you call the others to hear the message!"

In the presence of a number of fellow insurgents, he read, "I shall arrive in Samagaltayi within two days, Notify all of the representatives that they are to convene in the compound within 18 days to take the oath of loyalty to me and my house. Whoever feels he cannot do so is free to leave for a neighbouring province without fear of persecution." He looked around, "Sixty representatives in all…"

"The list is in the archives." Orin, the leading archivist, left and within minutes returned with the list. "Of these, only eight resisted, with three going down fighting, two others leaving and the rest choosing to stay. My staff can have the invitations written and sent out within another hour."

It was but a little over two days later that Khayel and his retinue arrived. With some apprehension, the population who lined the main road saw that he had brought his own staff from Saranji Province, yet, at the same time, this apprehension was mixed with relief because there was no show of power, no ostentatious display of wealth. Many trailed behind the future eganul's retinue, wondering, curious to see what would happen. Once they had reached the compound, he dismounted, turned to the onlookers and called, "People of Samagaltayi and its villages, after I have seen the representatives of Aketha Province's district capitals, I shall confer with this district's village leaders."

Even though arrangements were provisional at best, the representatives, each of whom arrived before the deadline, were accommodated in the North Wing without problems. In a simple ceremony, they swore to serve and support their new ruler; three days later, they departed, each to his own district.

The next day, Orin was called into Khayel's office. "Orin, see to it that the leaders of all villages in this district are notified to report to me within four days. Those who have more than half a day's journey will be given rooms here in the compound."

Orin inclined his head, "Eganul Khayel, consider it done." He left, trying to absorb the difference between Celan and Khayel, not quite trusting the latter to be much different, but still hoping.

The group of men and women assembled in Perali Village before setting out for the compound the morning of the assembly. All of them were apprehensive, uncertain of what was awaiting them. Atroj and Kaigol were among them as provisional leaders of Perali Village, a role they would fill until someone was found to replace Tevrak.

To their astonishment, Khayel himself met them at the main gate to welcome and precede them to the Great Hall, then send for refreshments. The representatives exchanged glances at seeing most of the servants had stayed on.

There were some clandestine whispers, "You have remained?"

"Yes. The contracts have been renegotiated, and they are better than the original ones." That was the report that served to put the village leaders slightly more at ease.

After some minutes, Khayel rose and addressed them in Akethi, "We noticed that those who saw my convoy were disquieted at seeing I have brought staff from Saranji Province, thus you deserve an explanation. There was no way of knowing who among Celan's staff would still be in place, thus my precaution of bringing in my people. The difficulty is, however, that they are not fully familiar with your traditions, or with sources of information and goods. Nor do I wish to keep them from their homes and families."

He made eye contact with the representatives at hearing them whisper among themselves. "I have invited you for this reason: I require the following: six accountants, preferably merchants, to maintain ledgers and inventory; six advisors, three stewards to administer goods and agricultural concerns. As a number of Celan's officers and mercenaries have departed for their home provinces, I will need a yet to be determined number of replacements, servants will be engaged as needed. The advisors and stewards will have their residences in the North Wing once the building has been restructured. My Khessar has accompanied me, but requires six aides." He again looked around at his guests and saw their expressions had relaxed. "You who have been born here know your compatriots' needs better than anyone else. If you can give me names for some of these positions, negotiations could be initiated as of tomorrow. Much has to be done, that is obvious, and I will give improvements priority. However, not everything can be effected at once, at least not before I know what means I have at my disposal, but a year should suffice to see some changes for the better."

As soon as the group was absorbed in their deliberations, one man rose to slowly approach Khayel and come to stand nine paces away, head slightly inclined. "Eganul Khayel, I am Jorek of Perali Village. I ask leave to address you."

"You may do so, Jorek."

"Last year, circumstances compelled me to ask Khessar Andrak about our conditions. He subsequently searched for and found the truth, shared it with me and I with my friends. Eganul Khayel, I am the instigator of this revolt. What has happened is my responsibility alone. A people is bound to their ruler – that means that I am guilty of treason, thus you are justified in considering me untrustworthy lest I present a danger to you as well. Do as you wish with me. I place my life in your hands."

There was a moment of silence, then whispered conversations, muted protests as the representatives stared at Jorek and Khayel with dismay. Khayel, in turn, listened very carefully to what was being said and, at the same time, considered the man standing in front of him.

"Jorek, you correctly state that people are bound to their ruler, but conditions were no secret to me, even before Sevruj came. My merchants gave us reports. Strictly considered, you are a traitor, an instigator of revolt against and murder of your ruler: each of these crimes constitutes a capital offence." In a lower voice, he said, "You did not do it alone, yet you take the onus of guilt upon yourself."

He addressed the village leaders. "There is no doubt whatsoever that all of you are guilty, not only this one man." At seeing their consternation, he added, "To start my rule in this province with a round of executions would not be auspicious, especially as I have seen and heard evidence of misrule on my journey here. Be assured you have nothing to fear."

He again turned to Jorek, "This individual here, however, will be kept under strict observation."

"Aikanethi," he motioned to one of his advisors, a woman, who came over immediately. Together they discussed some matter in their own language until an agreement was reached.

"Jorek, it is obvious you have extensive knowledge of this province and, in the course of planning the insurrection have established a network of contacts throughout Aketha Province. I plan to make use of this very fact. You and your family are to take up residence in my compound as one of my advisors as soon as the building has been restructured."

Taken by surprise, Jorek stared at him in disbelief, then said, "Eganul Khayel, you will never have cause to regret placing trust in my integrity."

The first step taken, all of the other candidates were agreed on within a matter of a few hours so that negotiations could begin. After a month, Khayel's Saranji staff had left. The entire administrative structure had been changed, with the various departments reporting to a special staff of advisors who, in turn, reported to the Eganul. By the time of First Market, the ledgers had been examined and organized according to the old system in effect under Messan.

"All goods and funds are accounted for. It would appear there was no plundering during the revolt." Khayel mentioned the fact with surprise at the end of a meeting with his advisors.

"Eganul Khayel, that was a mutual agreement. Certainly, some of the objects on this list were confiscated or exacted as donations. There was a separate ledger for these very elements which we found secreted in Celan's rooms. In part, the names of the craftsmen or owners have been registered, or are still attached to the goods proper." Kaigol fell silent.

"Then establish the list of names and merchandise as soon as you can manage. This is of greatest urgency."

Two weeks later, the accountants sat back and gazed at the three ledgers they had just finished examining and amended in part. "Tebo, Selkut, Maluktan, Samit and their colleagues did excellent research under difficult conditions; hopefully everything has been accounted for," said Erkat.

"As far as possible anyway. Entries from one ledger subdivided into three, a number of goods, confiscated and exacted ones, were not even entered in the lists but rather in Celan's private ledger of alleged donations. We'll have to recheck these goods together with Edor, who has been given responsibility for the compound's finances," added Samit. "So much was totally off the record. Actually it makes me wish we could execute Celan all over again."

Khayel, accompanied by two advisors, entered and the accountants rose in respect.

"I see you have completed your task," Khayel gestured at the ledgers. "What are the results?

"The merchants have done well in subdividing the ledger into three elements; taxes and land use rights are fully accounted for and we have proceeded as follows: a fourth of the harvest for the compound, a fifth for times of need, the rest for the farmers, a fifth of profits from sales are for the compound with another fifth for reserves, with the option of lowering demands in case of a bad harvest."

"What about the goods and coinage in the shrine and the other funds secreted in the archives?"

"Some objects still have the names of their producers, respectively their owners – those were entered as 'donations', " the speaker hesitated. "The coinage was pooled."

"Speak openly, Madano."

"Celan and his people pressured us into selling whatever we produced to them at cost, and if anyone tried to haggle, he or she had reason to regret it. The object was confiscated as a donation for the privilege of attending the market. Whatever pleased them, be it livestock or crafts, they took."

"Jorek, Setal the Elder of Ressetu Village, Garit of Merekal have given us the lists from their villages and we have been sent the others as well. All has been considered here." Ferdal indicated the fourth ledger.

Khayel nodded in agreement. "I shall inspect the products in this list" He indicated Celan's ledger. "Hangings and other objects damaged during the conflict have to be replaced; Zhimani has given me the list so that I can select replacements from among the goods in storage. You will be informed on my choices."

"Setula," He indicated a Saranji woman at his side, "You and Atroj will establish the prices and send payment to the 'donors.' "

"You have established the list of people killed or injured in the revolt?" was his next query. "A son or a daughter killed or incapacitated will mean compensation yet to be agreed on. Families who have lost a wife or husband will receive a stipend until the eldest children have become independent. Kaigol states here that 30,000 lek were taken out of Ranok's clandestine funds and distributed. 181 lek can support a family of eight for roughly two months."

"Nothing else has been taken," continued Khayel, "You have done well. Only one oddity. Kurruy has come back here."

"He has found a mate – not without help, I fear," said Jorek. "Mates …" He hesitated, then said, "Your father stated the following request, that we are to find you a good Akethi woman. We have selected three for you, they can be invited and you can choose from among them."

Taken by surprise, Khayel stared at the Akethi before saying. "I do not wish to humiliate the other two who will be asked to leave afterwards. Jorek, which one would you like for your son, if you had one of the appropriate age?"

Jorek, uncomfortable, quickly glanced at the other advisors and saw Kaigol nod. "I lost my children and my wife in the disasters two years ago," he replied quietly, "but if my son was alive, I would be pleased if he chose Keshana. She is intelligent, has been educated in Rakato City, is loyal and honourable. She is helping in administration here in the compound and often works together with Hodak."

"I take it all of you have agreed on this matter?" Khayel was finding it very hard not to show his amusement.

"Yes. It was discussed before Celan was deposed."

"Then it is decided. When you meet the elders of Perali Village and her elders, tell them that my father will address them on this matter." He turned to Jorek, "The date should be in three years. This area has gone through too much to celebrate such an occasion any sooner. It is to be combined with my taking office here." He hesitated briefly, "In Saranji Province it is custom for a ruler or his son to celebrate his ekiman together with three other couples."

Jorek was lost in thought. Simara has been courted by Odjat of Ressetu Village and has accepted.

"Tevrak left a message with one of the Elders. I think now is the time to read it. Tell Atroj he is to come here after Second Market."

Jorek inclined his head, "I submit to your will, Eganul Khayel. As to the claims, we have a meeting tomorrow and should have the list ready within two weeks at most."

"Good. You may leave," Khayel watched his advisors depart. It was a wise decision to spare Jorek and take him on as one of my advisors – he is a good man, thinks of his people first and foremost and he is helping Numia in every way he possibly can. Tevrak's message may just contain my own proposal.

At Second Market, Khayel gave a report on the situation, his priorities and admitted it would take years to rectify conditions, introduce new technology, create an advanced educational and medical system together with a social system to supplement the existent clan support system. Khayel ended his speech with the statement, "For my own revolt, I require your cooperation and advice. My advisors will field requests and suggestions submitted to the village elders." He waited for a few seconds before adding, "You use only one name to identify yourselves. I wish to institute the following: select a family name – it can designate a characteristic, a craft, a talent, all according to your choice. The administrators who will proceed village by village will register it – in one year, this process will be completed. I am officially Khayel Lenok – Lenok founded our family line. It will make identifying individuals easier."

When his Khessar, Nevor, joined him to open the Market, there were scattered shouts of approbation when Senggor and Shentak came to stand beside him. As was custom, the Eganul and his staff together with the Khessari took their places on a dais to watch the presentations. The atmosphere was relaxed, yet excited. Yet one thought occurred to the people again and again. All has turned out for the better; we have a new ruler who is just, but how will his children and his children's children be?

After Second Market, Keshana's elders and Khayel's arrived in the compound. Keshana had seen Khayel more than once, they had spoken together, and she had been included in a number of decisions as an unofficial advisor. Without hesitation, she had agreed to the betrothal, as had Khayel. One more matter remained.

Kaigol was present, with a sealed paper in his hands.

"Kaigol, Elder of Perali Village, read what Tevrak wrote before the revolt."

The Elder opened the folded paper then read, "Chances are our plan may go awry and all of us be sentenced to death, or I be killed while taking the compound. Jorek, should you survive, take my place in my home. And you, Numia, know that Jorek, having lost his own, will help you and the children. Give him the place I had once you feel ready to do so."

Silence followed. Jorek, stunned, was unable to say a word, but was so tense, his neck membranes were fully spread. He looked over at Kaigol who appeared every bit as surprised.

"Jorek, I know how much you have been doing for your friend's family; what Tevrak requests here was to be my own suggestion and, being Saranji myself, I spoke to Numia in her elders' presence when they attended the last Market. A second pairing does not require as many formalities. Numia has indicated she is willing. It is up to you now."

"What has been lost cannot be replaced, but it is a start." Jorek was uneasy, that much was obvious.

"You are thinking of your friend, Tevrak," Khayel stated. "It was his desire that you do so if something happened. You would not refuse his request…?"

"No. We were like brothers."

"Good, in two and a half years, just before Third Market. Negotiations are to begin within a month." with that, Kaigol left.

Five years later, in the course of ceremonies at the Shrine of the Visitation, Khayel was told the story behind the ritual held at this place, why the area was kept free of vegetation, and had been kept thus for four generations. For some moments, he looked up at the sky, wondering. If their people come to search for the remains of their lost friends, they must come to a place where there is no misrule, but justice, and realization of the Bringer of Light's bidding. And yet, just beyond the border to Gessechi Province, his neighbour was preparing to wage war again, one battle among many raging across the planet in a quest for power. Even if we are forced into warfare, we must preserve our ways… With that thought, he turned and followed the others back to the compound, side by side with Keshana.

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