The Key to Creation
By Anderson, Kevin J.
Orbit Copyright © 2011 Anderson, Kevin J.
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316004237
Saan had never seen anything like it,
and for an instant, amazement
washed away his fear.
She called out, not in a titanic voice like her mother’s, but in an eerie, compelling tone that nevertheless sliced through the storm. “Bouras, Father of Serpents!” Her voice seemed to resonate in Saan’s very bones.
The monster’s enormous eyes fixed on Ystya and knew her somehow. The slitted pupils widened in sudden recognition.
In a tone of absolute authority, she said, “You have endured this punishment long enough! Ondun condemned you—but now I release you. Your curse is lifted. Go, and cause no further harm!”
Ystya brought her hands together in a clap as loud as the shattering of a world.
Praise for Terra Incognita:
“If you like your fantasy sweeping and epic, with a smattering of giant sea monsters, this is the ideal book for you.”
“A well-built world that can encompass a truly vast storyline, appealing characters, intense action and a lust for adventure.”
1 Outskirts of Calay
As he rode across Tierra, the constant pounding hoofbeats echoed the pounding of his heart. After days of hard travel, Jenirod no longer heard the sound. He fought hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, keeping himself awake only through sheer determination, and pressed on. He had already crossed half a continent, but he had to reach Calay.
Queen Anjine needed to know what had happened at the Gremurr mines. After two decades of war, the Aidenists had finally secured a major victory against the evil Urecari.
Jenirod had pushed two of his three warhorses nearly to death before turning them loose and riding on. The animals could take care of themselves until some other traveler found them. Son of the Eriettan destrar, he had grown up with horses, won countless trophies and ribbons in Landing Day cavalcades; he couldn’t believe he was abandoning such fine mounts. In fact, mere months ago, Jenirod’s proud and shuttered mind would never have imagined that any mission could be so all-consuming. Now he rode long past the point where common sense told him he should sleep and let the horses rest.
If the queen pulled all her forces together, the Tierran army could ensure the final defeat of the soldan-shah.…
After the military triumph at Gremurr, fires had been extinguished, Uraban bodies dumped into the sea, and brave Aidenist fighters buried in graves marked by fishhook posts. But the queen needed to know of the victory as soon as possible, so she could plan for the next phase of the war. Jenirod had volunteered to make the long and crushing ride; no one was more qualified.
He had taken off as if demons were slashing at his horses’ flanks, determined to go faster than anyone believed possible, needing to do something, anything, to blot out the stain of his foolish, immature actions. And after so many tragedies suffered, so many innocent Aidenists killed by the vengeful Urecari—including Prince Tomas—Jenirod longed to deliver unabashed good news for a change.
He had crossed the rugged new mountain path by which the Tierran military reached the undefended mines at Gremurr. At the Corag stronghold of Stoneholm, Jenirod paused for only a few hours to refill his waterskins and pack his saddlebags with food, then rode down through the foothills to the river and the well-traveled road that led to the Tierran capital.
All Tierra would celebrate the great Aidenist triumph, though cheers and applause no longer mattered to Jenirod. He would offer Queen Anjine whatever advice he could, but doubted she would accept it from him. Those scars would not heal soon…if ever.
These past few months had shown Jenirod that war bore little resemblance to the glorious depictions in pageantry, stories, and songs. During the interminable, exhausting ride across the land, he had time to ponder all the destruction that had flowed from his blind naïveté. How he regretted his earnest but juvenile suggestion to Destrar Tavishel that they attack a defenseless Urecari shrine, just to impress Anjine. Jenirod had never considered the consequences, never imagined what the Urecari retaliation might cost. Poor Tomas!
Now he felt shamed and soiled by what they had done. Jenirod had changed much in his heart, but the queen would never forgive him.
Still, his news would give hope to countless saddened families across Tierra. In the victory at Gremurr, the army had freed hundreds of slaves from the mines, innocent Aidenists who had been captured in raids or seized from fishing boats in the Oceansea. They were alive, and Jenirod carried a complete list rolled up in his saddlebags.
In the aftermath of the battle, Subcomdar Mateo Bornan had gathered the freed slaves and instructed scribes with paper and ink (confiscated from the Gremurr administrator’s office) to take down all their information so their families could be notified. The scribes covered sheet after sheet with the names, homes, and occupations of the survivors. Those names would bring joy to so many in Calay. Their loved ones would be coming home as soon as possible. Subcomdar Bornan and the first group of freed prisoners would arrive within a few weeks.
But first, Jenirod had to see the queen.
It was sunset by the time his wobbly, weary horse reached the outskirts of the capital city. Jenirod didn’t know what day it was. Ahead, rivers flowed into the harbor and buildings clustered around the waterfront, where long piers extended out past the tidal mud into deeper water. And, silhouetted by the low, blood-orange sun, he could discern the outline of Calay Castle in the distance.
Half dead, he pulled his horse to a halt outside a warehouse at the harbor’s edge and slid from his saddle as a curious merchant emerged, blinking at him. Jenirod knew he was filthy, wild-haired, and unshaven, but none of that mattered. He was intent on a thin bay mare tied to a fencepost. “A horse—I need your horse, in the name of the queen.”
The merchant eyed Jenirod and his mount, noting the flecks of foam at the horse’s mouth and flanks and seeing how it trembled just standing there, but he recognized fine horseflesh. “Have mine. It’s a more than fair exchange.”
Jenirod took the saddlebags, patted his mount on the neck. His legs could barely hold him up. “Take care of this horse. He’s served me well.” Jenirod didn’t even ask for water or food. So close now. He staggered over to the spindly bay mare, climbed onto the horse’s back—no time for a saddle—clutched the mane, and rode off into the city.
In less than an hour, he reached the castle gate and shouted in a ragged voice, “Guards, bring me to the queen! I must see the queen!”
Jenirod looked like a wild man, and the royal guardsmen were skeptical, but Guard-Marshall Vorannen recognized him immediately. “Jenirod? By the Fishhook, what’s happened to you?”
“A great battle at Gremurr…we defeated the Curlies! Please, I have to tell Queen Anjine!” Guards helped him down from the mare, and Jenirod heaved, then reeled, nearly collapsing, but two men held him up. “All right…I think I’ll take some water first.” He didn’t see who handed a cup to him.
“We’ve sent word to the queen,” Vorannen said. “Maybe you’d like to change your clothes, wash up, rest?”
Jenirod realized that he stank of horse, sweat, and horse sweat, but he knew his priority. He shook his head, and Vorannen saw the unexpected ferocity in his eyes. “Follow me.”
Jenirod knew that seeing him would remind Anjine of the Uraban emissary tossing her brother’s severed head onto the throne room floor. When he stood before her, Jenirod swallowed hard and sketched a hurried bow. He had practiced his speech to the rhythm of thumping hoofbeats, and the words that had been running through his head during the endless ride now spilled out of him. “My Queen, your armies conquered Gremurr! We slew many followers of Urec and kept others alive to work the mines and foundries. It is the most crushing defeat of the enemy so far in this war.”
As her eyes widened, he talked faster. “And we freed the Tierran prisoners who were forced to labor in the mines. Hundreds are alive and able to return home.” He handed her the rolls of names. “Here is a list.”
Astonished, Anjine unrolled the papers, scanned the names. A flush had come to her cheeks. “I didn’t know you or Mateo had gone to Gremurr.” She sat straight, entirely a queen now. “Give me a full report.”
Wasting no words, Jenirod described the surprise attack led by armored mammoths from Iboria, how the Tierran army had captured the mines and foundries, as well as seven armored Uraban warships. “Destrar Broeck is eager to take those ironclads and strike undefended enemy cities on the Middlesea shore, but he sent me here so you can plan our final Tierran victory.”
“And what of Mateo…Subcomdar Bornan? Is he well?”
“He was healthy and uninjured when I left him. Subcomdar Bornan will lead back as many of the prisoners as are able to make the trek. Ondun surely has smiled on us, my Queen.”
Anjine sat back in her chair in silence. Waiting for her reaction, Jenirod began to feel even more weary, more hungry, more filthy. Finally, she gave him a cool, formal nod. “I will have this list copied and distributed as widely as possible. The people need to know.” She looked down at the names, as if unable to comprehend so many. “This news has been a long time coming, Jenirod.”
2 Olabar Palace
Soldan-Shah Omra sailed back to his capital city, eager to tell his people of the great Uraban victory at Ishalem. The remarkable cannons of his new Nunghal allies had utterly destroyed a Tierran fleet that had come to burn down the holy city. Every one of their Fishhook ships had been sunk, and Omra had left the mangled foreigners for the sharks to devour. His satisfaction was as clean and sharp as a fine steel blade: the followers of Aiden had gotten exactly what they deserved.
When the soldan-shah arrived in Olabar, however, he found his land being torn apart from within. The Urecari church was in an uproar, the ur-sikara dead, the palace reeling from an assassination plot against his First Wife Istar. Hearing the report from his palace guard captain, Kel Rovik, Omra felt blood pounding in his temples. “Is she safe?”
“Your family is unharmed, Soldan-Shah.”
“Call for them! I need to see my wives and daughters, now. Let me look into their eyes and assure myself.” He had fought in Ishalem to preserve his faith and his land, only to find that corrupt sikaras posed their own danger, right here in his capital. He had been at odds with the self-centered priestesses for some time. “Chain the doors of the main church until an investigation is completed. Question all the sikaras!”
Rovik gave a quick formal nod. The man had always been competent and reliable. “Your father issued exactly those orders, Soldan-Shah. We have already uncovered many participants in the plot.”
Omra exhaled, barely containing his fury. Years ago, his father had resigned as soldan-shah because of the treachery of Villiki and the previous ur-sikara. When Imir had unshouldered those burdens, Omra accepted the challenge, vowing to be different…but apparently nothing had changed. “Where is my father? I need to speak with him.”
When Rovik’s face went ashen, Omra felt a deep chill. “He has sequestered himself, Soldan-Shah, in his grief.”
“His…grief? What else happened?”
“A disaster at the Gremurr mines. A large Aidenist army crossed over the mountains on giant, shaggy monsters and struck Gremurr from the rear. They seized the mines and our ironclad warships, murdered our troops, enslaved others to work the mines.”
Omra had to sit on a cushion to hide his sudden feeling of weakness. Across the open balcony, the curtains waved in the breeze. In the afternoon light, the red silk hangings gave an eerie crimson cast to his private rooms. Gremurr…lost! Those mines supplied metals, ships, armor, and swords for all of Uraba.
Rovik looked like a statue as he forced himself to stand straight, keep his voice flat, and deliver the rest of his report. “And there is more, Soldan-Shah.”
Omra suddenly knew why his father was in mourning. “Tukar?”
Kel Rovik lowered his dark gaze. “The ’Hooks sent his head back as a message. That was a week ago.”
Each breath chilled him like an icy wind in his chest. He knew exactly what sort of message the Tierrans intended to send. Queen Anjine had received a similar horrific gift after Kel Unwar impetuously executed her young brother. Just an innocent boy…
But Tukar was innocent, too! He’d been exiled to the Gremurr mines through no fault of his own—a result of his mother Villiki’s treachery—but he had served his soldan-shah faithfully.
Though Omra understood intellectually the pain Queen Anjine was trying to assuage with this barbaric retaliation, he shoved those thoughts from his mind, leaving no room for even the idea of sympathy. She had killed Tukar! Tukar…
Omra’s hatred for Aidenists blazed like a bonfire built from bone-dry tinder. He tallied the appalling atrocities the ’Hooks had committed over the years. What pain and misery they had inflicted on his poor people. Omra’s vision blurred, and he breathed faster and faster. There had to be a reckoning!
Istar’s arrival at his doorway startled him. “My Lord, I am happy to see you back. I’ve missed you.” Her tone carried clear relief.
But when Omra looked up at his wife of more than twenty years, he recoiled from the sight of her blond hair and blue eyes, her pale skin, her narrow features. Though she was the mother of his daughters, the mother of Saan, he momentarily saw only a Tierran woman. He loathed all Tierrans and everything to do with their hateful culture and religion. He covered his eyes. “Go away!” He drew another breath and calmed himself. “Please…just go away, Istar.” He loved her, but he couldn’t stand any more right now.
Whispering to her, Kel Rovik led Istar away, leaving Omra alone with swirling hatred. He clenched and unclenched his hands, squeezing the rings on his fingers. When Naori came with his two young sons, and then his three daughters arrived, he embraced them, but found his thoughts churning like a stormy sea.
Though he had come back to Olabar with hopes of winning this war, the soldan-shah now reached a harsh conclusion: total genocide of the Aidenists was the only acceptable victory. He was certain of that.
Trapped in the whirlwind of anger, Omra reached out for a moment of calm, thinking of Saan, who had sailed away aboard the Al-Orizin many months ago on a quest to find the mysterious Key to Creation. Such exciting adventure for a young man—to uncharted waters and new lands. Saan’s ocean voyage must be peaceful, so far away from politics.…
3 The Al-Orizin
Iyomelka’s resurrected ship chased after them, borne on storms and vengeance. From his own deck, Saan watched the island witch through the spyglass. He and his crew were in terrible danger, yet he did not regret his decision to rescue the intriguing and beautiful Ystya from her exile.
“I’m sorry I caused this, Saan. I wanted to be free, but Mother won’t let me go.”
Saan smiled at her. “I don’t intend to let her have you back.”
The young woman had delicate features so perfect that sculptors in Olabar would have lined up for the chance to reproduce her face in marble. Her hair was the color of ivory with a hint of honey, her green eyes shone with an innocent hunger to see and learn. Now Ystya looked pale and dizzy, but when she took Saan’s arm she straightened like a wilting blossom given water. “I just wanted to see the world for myself.”
“And that’s what I promised you. I don’t go back on my promises.” He tried to look brave and confident, not only for her, but for his entire crew. The sailors looked to their captain for answers, sure he must have some kind of plan to save them. He would have to figure something out.
Iyomelka summoned ripples of sorcery and flung them at the ship. The Al-Orizin fled before the wind—away from the island witch’s wrath and headlong toward another formidable obstacle: ahead, growing ever closer, towered the scaly body of Bouras, a sea serpent so huge that it was said to girdle the entire world, condemned to bite its own tail until Ondun’s curse was lifted. The Al-Orizin had no way to get past it.
“I would feel better if I knew how we’re going to get out of this, Captain,” Yal Dolicar said. “Just a hint, perhaps?”
Ystya turned to stare at the racing, endless body of the Father of All Serpents, which blocked the sea from horizon to horizon. “My mother is no match for Bouras.” The increasing howl of the winds snatched at the girl’s quiet voice. “But she will not stop.”
“Neither will we.” Saan tried not to show how his mind was racing. “Don’t you worry.”
Dolicar, a man thoroughly familiar with half-truths and exaggerations, saw through the captain’s cocky façade and turned pale.
Through the spyglass, Saan looked aft to study Iyomelka’s jagged gray ship. Long ago, that old vessel had sunk in the reefs around her island, but the woman had used her sorcerous powers to raise it from the depths. Strands of seaweed held the tattered sails together, and the hull was encrusted with barnacles and starfish. A sharp, twisted extension of antler coral protruded from the prow. Iyomelka stood on deck beside a crystal coffin that held the preserved body of her husband. The witch’s hair and garments whipped in the gale that she herself had summoned.
In front of them, the barrier of the gigantic sea serpent’s body looked insurmountable, but at least the Father of All Serpents had no quarrel with them, as far as Saan knew.
Neither choice seemed particularly pleasant.
One of the Al-Orizin’s silken sails came loose and flapped wildly. The painted Eye of Urec folded, then stretched tight again, as if winking. The reef diver Grigovar grabbed the rope, using all his weight to pull it taut, then wrapped it around a stanchion until riggers could connect it properly.
From the bow of her ship, Iyomelka hurled black thunderclouds toward the Al-Orizin like missiles from an unseen catapult. Next, she summoned two waterspouts, whirling columns of water and air that marched across the waves.
The Saedran Sen Sherufa, her brown-and-gray hair whipping loose around her, shouted into the noise of the gale, “Captain, how will we get past the sea serpent?”
“I’m working on that.”
They sailed ever closer to the enormous reptilian body of Bouras. The titanic thing reeled past with such speed that the armor scales—each the size of a mainsail—were a blur. The spray and ripple of Bouras’s passage tossed the Al-Orizin about like one of the toy boats Saan’s little brother played with. In minutes, their ship would ram into the reptile. “Turn south! Hard starboard!”
Grigovar used his considerable strength to turn the rudder hard over. The riggers set the sails to catch the wind, and the Al-Orizin heeled about until it cruised alongside the serpent, riding the swift currents drawn along in the wake of Bouras’s unending circuit of the world.
Ystya stared hard at the infinite serpent. “My mother told me stories of great titans like this, and how only my father was powerful enough to impose order on them. He protected the seas by containing Bouras.”
The wind increased as Iyomelka closed in, and Saan had to shout, “But he’s in our way!”
Although the Al-Orizin sailed along at top speed, Iyomelka still closed the distance. Her sorcerous waterspouts swept closer, only to be caught in the turbulence that paralleled Bouras. They struck and rode over the serpent’s body, then dissipated.
As increasing storms buffeted them, the island witch’s voice boomed out, carried on the thunder, magnified by the gale. “You stole my daughter! Return her to me!”
A tall wave crashed against the Al-Orizin’s side, sloshing water across the deck and throwing Yal Dolicar and Sen Sherufa to their knees. A terrified Sikara Fyiri, pretending to be a bastion of strength, emerged from her cabin with a heavy unfurling-fern staff; she wobbled as she attempted to stand firm. “Captain Saan, you have no choice—give the girl back. Surrender the demon’s daughter and save us all!”
Saan held Ystya’s arm. “I will do no such thing.”
As the crew muttered in fearful agreement, Yal Dolicar yelled out, “Don’t be foolish, men—the only reason the witch hasn’t sunk us yet is because she wants Ystya alive. That girl is our only bargaining chip!”
Ystya, no quaking flower, raised her chin. “We can’t outrun my mother, Saan—she has powers you cannot imagine—so we have to find some other way.”
“If we don’t have weapons or powers to match Iyomelka’s, then we’ll just have to outsmart her.” Saan held on as another wave rocked the ship from side to side. “I’d appreciate any suggestions.”
Up in the lookout nest, a sailor had lashed himself to the mast to keep himself from being thrown overboard into the violent waters. “Captain, look at the serpent! Something big is coming our way!”
The crewmembers crowded to the side of the ship as lightning crackled around them. Bouras’s scaly body seemed to be tapering off, until it abruptly changed to a huge angular shape with ridges, scales, flared horns, and a pair of golden, glaring eyes. Biting its own tail, the serpent’s mountain-sized head split the waves and threw off sheets of water twice as tall as the Al-Orizin. As it plowed toward the ship, the reptilian eyes spotted them, and the pupil slits widened to drink in this unexpected sight. Scaled lips curled back to expose ivory fangs as long as mainmasts piercing the flesh of its tail.
Bouras came toward them like a battering ram.
4 The Dyscovera
It was a trial for mutiny. As captain of the Dyscovera, Criston Vora could not forgive what Prester Hannes and his followers had done.
Unresolved tensions weighed down the ship more heavily than any anchor. Criston was responsible for the lives of every sailor aboard, and had to ensure that their mission succeeded against all enemies…even those among his crew. The Dyscovera had sailed farther than any explorer had ever gone, well beyond the reach of Tierran courts or justice. The captain could rely on no one but himself, even for spiritual guidance.
Prester Hannes was the worst offender of all.
During the senseless uprising against the mer-Saedrans, their Captain’s Compass had been smashed, so the Dyscovera could not find the way back to Calay. Fortunately, the ancient Aiden’s Compass pointed the way to Terravitae. For the first time during their long voyage, the sailors were confident they would reach their holy destination—if they could survive the journey.…
In a hazy dawn, Criston summoned the crew to the foredeck for his pronouncement. His ship’s boy Javian stood next to the young woman Mia; their support had been invaluable during the fight, helping to free the mer-king’s daughters from the mutineers. The Saedran chartsman Sen Aldo na-Curic looked shaken and saddened.
The prester wore his dark Aidenist robe and stood straight, his gaze fiery, his expression unrepentant. He clasped his Fishhook pendant between his palms; Criston had agreed to that small concession when the sailors had bound Hannes’s wrists with cords.
Everyone waited for the captain to speak. Criston felt a wave of disgust and disappointment as he faced the haggard mutineers. Some of the men were bruised and battered from the fight. Many looked cowed; only a few remained defiant. The prester looked up at him, unflinching and without anger.
Criston had meant to shout a thundering pronouncement. Instead, his voice dropped low. “I thought you were my friend, Hannes. I trusted you.”
“That changed when you betrayed me and betrayed Aiden, Captain.”
The crewmembers grumbled at the mutineers, Javian the loudest. Now Criston did shout. “I am the Dyscovera’s captain. I lead this ship! And you”—he jabbed a finger toward Hannes—“you cost me Kjelnar, our shipwright and first mate, a good man! You cost us our alliance with the mer-Saedrans, who could have been our allies against Uraba.”
“Allies are not worth the price of our damnation, Captain,” Hannes said, cold and calm. “Those people did not believe in Aiden and refused to hear the truth. You were too blind to see the dangerous course you were setting.”
Sen Aldo added the edge of his voice to the captain’s. “For centuries the mer-Saedrans studied the seas, the coastlines, the islands. They could have added to our knowledge of the Map of All Things. They could have taken us to Terravitae, but you turned them against us.”
“I have all the knowledge I need,” Hannes snapped back. “My loyalty is not to the Saedrans or to your map.”
“Your loyalty should be to Tierra,” Criston said.
The prester chuckled. “No, my loyalty is to Ondun and to Aiden. That has always been the case.”
“Our enemies are the followers of Urec—not everyone who seems strange to you.” Hannes did not appear to see the difference.
The morning sun beat down on them all, and the Dyscovera sailed onward in calm waters. Javian looked nervous and restless. He reached out to squeeze Mia’s hands, and she did not pull away. The cabin boy cleared his throat, making a nervous suggestion. “Captain, if these men give us their word that they’ll follow only your orders, maybe you should give them another chance. They are our shipmates…” Several of the bound mutineers nodded, promising to do just that.
Even Aldo lowered his head. “I’ve had many philosophical disagreements with the prester, Captain, but I never wanted the man’s death. The pull on Aiden’s Compass is so strong that we must be near Terravitae. Perhaps it would be best if we let Holy Joron decide their fates?”
Hannes straightened. “In this matter, Joron is one of the only arbiters I would accept.”
Criston was not in a forgiving mood. “The choice is not up to you, Prester.” Though his heart was torn, he had to be strong. “You yourself advised me, Hannes: when Enoch Dey and Silam Henner tried to rape Mia, you were the one who insisted that a captain can show no mercy, that justice is absolute. You told me that for the sake of my command, I had to set a harsh example.” Dey had been thrown overboard to his death, while Henner suffered the lash.…Even the lash had been a mercy, and now Henner was among those who had turned against the captain. Criston narrowed his eyes. “Surely the crime of mutiny deserves an equally harsh example. By your own advice, I cannot spare you.”
Hannes did not beg for mercy. His face was reddened from exposure to the sun and elements, though the burn scars on his cheek remained pale. He clenched the Fishhook in his hands, praying. He seemed to be daring Criston to make the decision.
Before Criston could pronounce the dreaded sentence, though, an excited shout rang from the lookout nest. “Land ho, Captain—coastline dead ahead!”
5 Middlesea Coast, Near Sioara
Holding his Book of Aiden, Ciarlo walked into the Uraban harbor town. He wore a calm smile; he whispered prayers. Despite the previous rejections, he kept believing these people would listen to a stranger.
Larger than a typical fishing village, this town boasted several long docks where Middlesea trading ships could tie up and unload. As he walked along the streets, Ciarlo passed crowded mud-brick homes, a small marketplace, a craftsworkers’ district, and three Urecari churches built of wood and stone.
He didn’t know the name of the town; in fact, he’d never even seen a map of Uraba. Making his way down the coast, he merely followed the roads that took him in the general direction of Olabar, where he hoped to find clues about his sister Adrea. During his travels, he had another calling: when he saw those poor, misguided followers of Urec, he had to preach to them.
Ciarlo went through the village, responding with a benevolent nod to anyone who glanced at him. His faith was a barricade against the resistance and hostility he had encountered so far. Very few of the stubborn Urecari were receptive to his message—in fact, they didn’t want to hear him at all—yet he continued nevertheless. Now that he had met the fabled Traveler in person, he was more certain than ever.
The mysterious wandering hermit had appeared in camp one evening, told him stories, and left behind a new volume of handwritten tales. The Traveler had also healed Ciarlo’s lame leg—a true miracle. Now Ciarlo felt he had to repay Aiden by preaching his word.
As the Uraban villagers stared at the stranger’s pale skin and odd clothing, he raised his hand in blessing. When he showed his Fishhook, they recoiled as if a monster had just appeared in their midst. Women rushed children into their homes and closed the doors.
“I am glad to see you,” he said in pidgin Uraban. He understood the language now and could communicate well enough, though his accent marked him as a foreigner. He held up his Tales of the Traveler, knowing these were safer stories, and even Urecari were more likely to listen (though these people erroneously believed that the Traveler was Urec rather than Aiden). “I have good news! Let me tell you about Aiden’s voyage and his encounter with the Leviathan. Let me tell you—”
A woodworker stepped away from the bench he was building, still holding a hammer. “We don’t want to hear it. Go away.”
A potter came out of his shop and nudged his young apprentice down the dirt street. “Bring the sikara—now! Tell the mayor, too.”
Ciarlo spread his open hand. “There is no need to be frightened. Ondun loved both of His sons. You should not cover your ears against the words of Aiden. We can learn much from the examples of his life.” He lifted his book. “Aiden sent me a dream that led me here.”
Someone threw a rock, which struck his shoulder with a stinging blow. Startled, he turned to them, his face plaintive. “Why are you afraid?”
Another rock grazed his cheek, though he raised the Traveler’s tome to fend it off. More craftsmen emerged from their shops and began shouting, finding bravery in numbers.
Several guards marched down the streets, escorting a pompous-looking man who wore the maroon olba of a mayor. The official yelled such a rapid stream of Uraban that Ciarlo had difficulty understanding the words.
Ciarlo greeted him, offering explanations even before the man could ask. “I’ve come here to tell you of wonders.”
The man’s face flushed. He straightened the maroon olba on his head, tightened the silken sash that held his shirt closed over his potbelly. “You are not welcome here. Why do you come to this town?”
“Because Aiden guides me.”
A woman in the red robe of a sikara strode down an intersecting street and said in a loud voice, “Cover your ears against his lies!”
In his travels, Ciarlo had received varied receptions from the sikaras; if not tolerant, at least they had not called for his death or imprisonment. Not yet. This one, though, looked very angry.
The woman’s arrival gave the official all the impetus he needed, and he ordered the guards to grab Ciarlo. When he clung to his two books, the mayor yanked the volumes out of his hands. Squinting down at the pages, the mayor saw Tierran writing and looked as if he had swallowed a large insect. “What is this?”
“The Book of Aiden,” Ciarlo said proudly. “I can read it to you. I will teach you, and all of your people.”
The mayor threw the books to the dirt. “Gag him and bind his arms. Make him watch while we burn this blasphemy.”
At first Ciarlo did not resist, but when the official tore pages from the books to make a pile for burning, he struggled to break free. A rag stuffed into his mouth by one of the guards prevented him from crying out. Without being asked, a lampmaker doused the torn pages with scented oil and set them ablaze. Ciarlo felt great sadness to see the Book of Aiden perish, but far more grievous was the loss of the unique Tales of the Traveler, each sentence in Aiden’s own handwriting. Those stories were irreplaceable.
In only moments, the fire consumed the paper. Curls of ash drifted along the streets like funeral veils.
Ciarlo’s shoulders sagged. He wanted to weep, but he was not weak, and he would not give up. He tried to convince himself this was merely another trial that Aiden had given him. The roads, and his beliefs, had brought him to this place, and he was here for a reason.
“Throw him down a well!” a shrill woman yelled.
“Why not stone him right here?”
“Or chain him out in the sun until he repents and accepts the word of Urec.”
The sikara offered a hard smile. “I could instruct him. We have many implements to assist us.”
Ciarlo struggled, more frightened by the thought of indoctrination than torture.
“No.” The official turned to his guards with a flourish of one hand toward the sea. “The Moray came to port last night.”
Some of the townspeople chuckled; quite a few seemed disappointed. The guards dragged Ciarlo along the street toward the docks. He tried to speak of Aiden on the way, but the gag muffled his words.
They approached a long galley tied up to the longest dock. Its silken sails were furled. Striding out onto the pier, the mayor whistled toward the ship. “Captain Belluc, are you still in the market for workers? You go through men quickly.”
A bronzed man with a single earring came out on deck to greet them. He sized up Ciarlo. “I can always use new men at the oars.”
“And you always pay gold.” The mayor smiled. “Part of which goes to the church, of course.” He extended his hand, and Belluc placed shining yellow coins in his palm. “This one’s an Aidenist, so you won’t need to pamper him.”
“I don’t pamper my men, Aidenist or not.”
Through the galley’s open hatch, Ciarlo could make out a dark, stuffy hold filled with long benches and shackles at the ends of long oars. When the guards finally took the gag from his mouth, he spluttered, “I came here to preach.”
The bald captain raised his eyebrows and laughed. “You’ll be too busy rowing to preach.” He called to two other sailors aboard the galley. “Take him below and put him in chains with the others.”
6 Corag Mountains
The rocky Gremurr coastline was no place to keep a herd of shaggy beasts that required tons of food each day. After defeating the Urecari at the mines, the battle mammoths were restless, unruly, and dangerous. Destrar Broeck dispatched his nephew Iaros to guide the big creatures back home to the high cold steppes.
Mateo joined him on the trek, along with two hundred freed Aidenist prisoners who desperately wanted to go home. Other Tierran captives were too weak to make the long journey, having been driven to exhaustion by their bloodthirsty Uraban workmasters, and so they remained behind to help defend the mines if necessary. Once they recovered, the prisoners of war would make the return journey to Tierra the following spring. Now that Gremurr was under Tierran control, the mines would not be such a hellish place—at least for Aidenists. For Urecari prisoners of war, it would be a different story.…
Mateo was glad to be going back to Calay at last, where his new wife Vicka was waiting for him. He had spent too little time with her since their wedding. After remaining aloof for decades through a succession of superficial relationships, he had chosen to settle down with the daughter of the blacksmith Ammur Sonnen. No woman could match Anjine, the standard by whom he measured all others, but Vicka Sonnen came close.…
He accompanied the lumbering monsters along the rough new road into the Corag mountains, still haunted by the things he had been forced to do in this war. He felt some reluctance to return home, since the guilt weighed so heavily on his shoulders.
But taking these refugees back to their families, who had surely thought their loved ones dead for so many years, would help heal his heart. Days ago, Jenirod had ridden off with his report for Anjine. Soon the queen would know that Mateo was alive and that he had helped secure a major triumph for Tierra. She would be waiting for him when he came home.
He and Iaros rode Eriettan horses, while a few of the men rode on the swaying mammoths. In a nervous habit, Iaros stroked his ridiculously long mustache. “That was a victory to be proud of, wasn’t it, Mateo? We did a good thing.”
“Don’t ever doubt it. God was on our side.” Mateo looked behind him at the hundreds of shuffling Tierran prisoners. “Ask any of those refugees—I think they’ll agree.”
The lead mammoth raised its long trunk and trumpeted, a sound so loud it echoed up the mountain canyons. Mateo was afraid the noise might trigger an avalanche from the snowy slopes, but Iaros didn’t seem concerned.
When the group reached the top of the pass, Iaros looked north, beyond the gray mountains. “I’ll be in charge of Iboria Reach for as long as my uncle stays in Gremurr.” He dropped his voice. “But I must confess, the local problems of Iboria don’t seem nearly so pressing, given the state of the war.”
Mateo smiled wistfully, recalling his year of soldier training under Broeck. “The Iborian people are independent, Iaros. They can take care of themselves.”
When they halted for a meal, Mateo distributed every bit of their remaining food, so the refugees would have full bellies for the march into Stoneholm. “Give someone else my share. I can do without for now. These people have missed too many meals over the years.”
A grin appeared between the tails of Iaros’s long mustache. “Then I’ll do without, too.” His stomach suddenly growled, as if to challenge his resolve.
As the former captives ate, Mateo and Iaros strolled among them, offering encouragement about the long march ahead. They packed up and moved on. An early season snow dusted the path through the high meadow, but the mammoths trampled it down. Some of the prisoners from the northlands shared legends about ancient frost giants, who came with the winter cold and could freeze a man solid in between the words of a sentence, but the day was warm and they laughed at the stories.
Before nightfall, the group reached Stoneholm, the capital city of Corag, built into the mountain under an overhang. A rider came out to meet Mateo and Iaros. “Our scouts spotted you and rushed back to inform Destrar Siescu. He has prepared a victory feast, which awaits you when you arrive.”
“A feast is well and good,” Mateo said to the messenger, “but they’ve been on low rations for quite a while, so bland and wholesome food would be best. Also, make sure there are lodgings, or at least tents and campfires for everyone.”
“It’s already done. Destrar Siescu sent word throughout the Stoneholm warrens asking for families willing to share their homes. For any who need to sleep outside in tents, we have extra blankets.”
The freed Gremurr slaves burst forward with increased energy as they reached the city built into the mountainside. Corag residents came out to welcome them, commemorating the victory, cheering the refugees and the soldiers. Mateo’s heart warmed to see thirty of the haggard refugees reunited with their own families from Corag. He had come to know these tough, whip-thin men during the march along the mountain road, and he knew which ones had grown up in the rugged mountains. He watched the Corag men bound forward like gaunt antelopes, while women in woolen shawls and spun skirts came running out, calling names, searching the returning prisoners for familiar faces.
Laughing and weeping, women kissed their shaggy and dirty men. Children stared at unfamiliar fathers while the mothers spilled out a flood of words that had been pent up for years. Most of the returning Corag slaves just clung to their wives or sweethearts, rocking them back and forth. Warm tears filled Mateo’s eyes, and he drew a deep breath, let it out slowly. He would be home soon, too. The palpable joy in the air heartened the others, who now looked forward to the long trek back to Calay.
The bald, pale-skinned Siescu came out to meet Mateo and Iaros with a grin wide enough to stretch the skin on his angular face. “This is cause for great celebration, gentlemen. We are glad to have you.” The Corag destrar looked skeptically at the herd of large and restless russet beasts. “But your mammoths stripped the vegetation clean the last time they came through. They won’t find much forage. You’ll have to move along as soon as possible.”
“My soldiers will guide them back to the steppes tomorrow,” Iaros promised.
Siescu led them to his cavernous hall, where an ever-present fire blazed in the huge hearth. Tureens of hot soup and platters of steaming bread were laid out on the long table. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “You must be frozen to the bone after that long journey. You can be warm in here.”
Mateo ate his soup, a broth of some unknown meat enhanced by sliced root vegetables. The warmth and nourishment felt very good. “Destrar, can you send riders ahead to the river in the morning to secure one of Sazar’s barges? That would make the journey easier for our returning friends.”
“Consider it done,” Siescu said. “We are all part of this war, and I sense it will soon be over.”
Tearing into a chunk of bread, Iaros raised his chin. “I’ve decided that Iborians can take care of themselves, and I’ll return to Gremurr after all. My uncle needs me more.” When Mateo looked at him in surprise, the other man shrugged. “Capturing Gremurr was only the first part of the battle—now we have to hold it. They are already growing short of supplies.”
Destrar Siescu considered for a long moment. “I’ve got a hundred soldiers to send with you—and I will go along, too. And a load of supplies. I don’t much like to leave my hall this late in the season, but I want to see these mines before winter arrives. Raga Var can lead us safely over the pass.”
“Winter will soon close the pass, Destrar.” The mumbled voice came from someone not accustomed to speaking before a large group of people. Mateo spotted the shaggy-looking guide in tattered fur garments. “If we are going back to Gremurr, we’d better leave quickly.”
7 Gremurr Mines
Destrar Broeck had never been much of a sailor, but now that he’d captured seven warships, he enjoyed hunting on the open Middlesea.
The ironclad vessels were quite different from the barges and carracks frequently used along the Tierran coastline, and the Uraban rigging style made the ships handle in unexpected ways, which was why Broeck insisted on so many shakedown voyages. Should there be open naval battles against the Curlies, he needed his fighters to be familiar with their commandeered ships.
Now, at the end of another successful patrol voyage, the ironclad sailed back to the docks at the mine complex. Behind it came two newly seized Uraban cargo ships, which would drop anchor with the other enemy vessels he had captured—seventeen so far.
Gremurr harbor was full of ships that Broeck’s ironclads had seized in the Middlesea waters. While most were not suitable for naval warfare, at least they would no longer be delivering cargo to the Urabans. Sooner or later, as word spread, maritime traffic would avoid Gremurr entirely. Traders would be afraid to sail from port to port on their regular commercial runs. And that was a good thing, too.
Broeck smiled. Soldan-Shah Omra must be trying to figure out how to recapture the mines, but his minimal navy in the Middlesea could never stand against his own ironclad juggernauts. Isolated and protected by mountains, closed off by the isthmus of Ishalem, Uraban cities along the Middlesea coast had never faced an Aidenist attack and therefore had no defenses.
In the meantime, the destrar was eager to move. Regardless of how many enemies he had slain during the conquest of the mines, Broeck didn’t feel he had avenged his grandson Tomas. Besides, although he needed to ensure that the mines continued producing vital metals for the Tierran war effort, he was a warrior, not a mine manager.
The high cliffs of the Gremurr shore were coated with a fresh layer of soot now that the smelters and refineries were operating again, and the air stank of sulfur and smoke. Standing on the ironclad’s deck, Broeck regarded the bustle of activity with satisfaction. While he missed the cold, clean air of the north, even this tainted breeze had a heady quality that reminded him of a battle well fought and enemies crushed.
The armored warship tied up beside the other six ironclad vessels at the long pier, and sailors threw boarding ramps across to the dock boards. As Broeck tromped down the pier, his new mining chief, Firun—a former household slave of the defeated Uraban overlord—came out to greet him, knowing the destrar would want a report. From the smile on the old man’s sunburned face, Broeck could see that the report was a good one.
“We are fully operational, Destrar. The damage has been repaired, the forges are relit, and the miners are back in the tunnels, pulling out iron and copper ore. As of today, our production is back at its prior capacity.”
Firun had been captured fifteen years previously and put to work in the mines; when he grew too old to perform hard labor, he became a household servant for Tukar, the mine administrator. Having served here for so many years, Firun understood the workings of the mines, where the veins of metal ore were in the cliffsides, where the tunnels led, how the forges worked.
“A day sooner than expected—good! Were there any problems?”
Firun shook his head. “The Urabans spent years bullying Tierran slaves, and now they see what it’s like to be on the other side of the whip. I don’t think they like their reversed roles!”
Broeck was especially pleased to learn about the amazing chemical mixture called firepowder. During the Urecari administration, Aidenist slaves had been forced to mix batch after batch of the explosive for blasting mine tunnels, and thus knew the chemical recipe. Envisioning how Tierra could use firepowder in the war effort, Broeck had sent the secret back to Calay along with Subcomdar Bornan and the freed refugees.
Broeck walked with wobbly steps, getting used to solid ground again after a day aboard the sailing ship. Firun took him to the row of smelters that were producing new metal to be fashioned into armor and blades. The temperature was blisteringly hot inside the smelter building and the air nearly unbreathable with fumes. The defeated Urecari slaves looked sullen as they went about their labors. Theirs were the bloody backs now.
Firun was troubled by the aggressive punishment, however. “I know they are only followers of Urec, Destrar. Vengeance is one thing, but we do need those workers. If they are injured by harsh treatment, then they can’t produce for us. Workmaster Zadar was a cruel man, but he understood how to enforce strict discipline without damaging his laborers.”
Broeck brushed aside the concern. “It gives our men a much-needed sense of justice. For now, let them have their fun.” He turned his attention to the crates stacked along the far wall. “Have you completed the inventory yet? I am anxious to know what sort of bounty we seized.”
Firun lifted the lid of one crate to reveal packed, shining swords. “Nearly three hundred blades to arm three hundred Tierran soldiers.”
Broeck ran his eyes along the piled crates and gave an appreciative nod. “I don’t like the curved style of blades favored by the Curlies, but I suppose they’ll chop through flesh and bone well enough.”
8 The Al-Orizin
Overhead, thunder pounded like drumbeats from the angry clouds. From her spectral ship, Iyomelka’s voice boomed out in a desperate scream: “Give me my daughter!” The island witch looked horrific, her dark hair blowing in the wild wind.
Yet she was a far lesser threat than the gigantic sea serpent. The fearsome head of Bouras split the water as it hurtled toward them. “Hang on!” Saan yelled, certain that no ship, no weapon could drive away the Father of All Serpents. As the first of the monster’s bow waves slammed into the Al-Orizin, he held Ystya, trying to maintain a brave face.
The young woman shouted into the rising crash of waves, “This is not what my father would have wished, but what else can I do?” She tore free of Saan’s grip and dashed for the stern, somehow keeping her balance on the lurching deck. “If Bouras has not learned his lesson, we are all in grave danger.”
“That’s nothing new,” Yal Dolicar said. Sailors cried out to Ondun; the smart ones lashed themselves to any sturdy object.
Ystya reached the port rail and raised her face toward the oncoming dragon-like head. Great sheets of water sprayed up on either side of the massive serpent body.
Sure she would be cast over the side, Saan struggled to reach her in time.
The ethereal girl lifted both hands and began to glow. Ystya’s skin, her hands, even her pale hair shimmered with a power that came from within. Saan had never seen anything like it, and for an instant amazement washed away his fear.
She called out, not in a titanic voice like her mother’s, but in an eerie, compelling tone that nevertheless sliced through the storm. “Bouras, Father of Serpents!” Her voice seemed to resonate in Saan’s very bones.
The monster’s enormous eyes fixed on Ystya and knew her somehow. The slitted pupils widened in sudden recognition.
In a tone of absolute authority, she said, “You have endured this punishment long enough! Ondun condemned you—but now I release you. Your curse is lifted. Go, and cause no further harm!”
Ystya brought her hands together in a clap as loud as the shattering of a world.
Bouras’s scaly lips curled back to reveal tusk-like fangs as large as trees, but flesh had grown around the yellowed teeth. The jaw strained, and with a great sucking sound the long fangs slid out, leaving scarred craters in the creature’s tail. The Father of All Serpents opened his mouth for the first time in countless centuries.
Finally free, Bouras recoiled like a tight spring being released—the tail snapped downward loosely, the head reared back. The great body thrashed about, carving a huge canyon in the water, raising tsunamis on both sides and leaving a deep gulf between them. The tail struck the Al-Orizin and knocked the ship about like flotsam. The vessel careened out of control, rode high up on a mountain of waves, then crashed down into the valley between them.
Saan reached Ystya and pulled her down to the deck while he wrapped his other forearm around a stanchion. The Al-Orizin was airborne for a few seconds and crashed down with a splintering of hull boards and spars. Two crewmen were flung overboard into the churning sea.
Yal Dolicar flailed wildly as he flew past and managed to snag a post with the hook attachment tied to his wrist stump. Dangling over the edge, he kicked and struggled. Grigovar hauled himself forward, muscles straining, until he grabbed the other man and heaved him back aboard.
Sikara Fyiri, her red robes flashing bright in Saan’s peripheral vision, clung to the side, wailing. As the deck bucked like a wild stallion, Sen Sherufa slid toward her, and Fyiri clutched the Saedran woman’s robe, refusing to let go. Sherufa instinctively helped the priestess back aboard, though Fyiri was not likely to thank her later.
Farther away, the moving mountains of water smashed Iyomelka’s ship with the force of several tidal waves, flinging it toward the horizon.
The Father of All Serpents continued to unwrap itself from the world and sank back beneath the sea at last, while uncontrolled waves drove the Al-Orizin far away to the southeast.…
When the waters had calmed enough that Saan could regain his feet on the sloppy deck, he surveyed the ocean around them and knew they had been thrown a great distance. Far away, he could see Iyomelka’s storm clouds dissipating. The Al-Orizin wobbled, battered but still seaworthy.
“We survived,” Saan said, barely believing it himself. He hugged Ystya, confused by what he had witnessed, and more than a little intimidated. “How did you do that?”
She seemed utterly drained. “I just…did. My mother isn’t the only one with powers.” She smiled at him—and fainted. He caught her, then rested her gently on the deck.
With an increasing urgency, he watched the open sea around them, sure that Iyomelka’s ship would come chasing after them again. He shouted to his crew, “Get the sails in place! We need to get moving—now! Bouras gave us a chance. Let’s not waste it.”
A drenched Sen Sherufa tried to wake Ystya. “Grigovar, help me. I’ll get her some dry clothes. She needs to rest.” The reef diver picked the girl up like a bolt of sailcloth and carried her to the Saedran’s cabin.
Sikara Fyiri kept her distance, staring after Ystya with awe and fear.
9 Olabar, Main Urecari Church
The main church of Urec had never been so empty. The soldan-shah had commanded that the sikaras be evicted, and the main doors had been chained shut to keep the public out.
Entering through a guarded side door, Omra and his party walked toward the central worship chamber. The empty building felt as devoid of life as a tomb. After the recent appalling events, he had decided to demonstrate that he was the center of power in Uraba. He had let it be known throughout the city that he and his First Wife would be paying a visit to the main church. The sikaras had forgotten that the soldan-shah was the true descendant of Urec, and that by attempting to kill him or his family—not once, but several times—they had committed an unspeakable atrocity against Ondun Himself.
Not all the priestesses had been involved in the plot, but they had implicitly cooperated in the twisted system. Many sikaras had been imprisoned, and many more were humbled and sent off to serve in smaller houses of worship around Olabar. Meanwhile, the main church remained closed to the public. For now.
Istar followed Omra into the cold, empty worship hall, quiet and respectful. The soldan-shah knew he had been uncustomarily cool to his First Wife since returning home, and he struggled to separate his hatred for her people from his love for her. Istar was the mother of his two daughters, the mother of Saan; she had been his wife for two decades. Though he could not forget that she was of Tierran birth, he forced himself to remember all the good things she had done for him, and how he had allowed her into his heart.
The six guard escorts kept their distance so the soldan-shah and his First Wife could continue their inspection. Omra knew their entrance into the empty church today had resembled a victory procession: the soldan-shah reminding everyone who he was and flaunting a blond-haired foreigner as his wife. Just by bringing Istar, he showed everyone that she had survived the sikaras’ plotting.
Omra maintained his silence as they walked across the polished floor tiles that formed the spiral pattern of the Unfurling Fern. When they were far enough ahead of the guards, he took a deep breath and pushed past his dark mood. He whispered, “It is not your fault, Istar. I am sorry for the way I’ve treated you. When I think of the heinous crimes the Aidenists committed, I just want to kill them all. But I do you a disservice by including you among those animals.”
She regarded him with her sincere blue eyes, well aware that she herself had hated him for a long time after he burned her village and took her away from everything she’d known. But over the years, Istar had accepted her life, and now she looked on him with affection, even love. “I understand your pain, Omra.” Her businesslike tone brushed aside the awkwardness. “The people don’t care about internal politics. They want to go to their church and express their beliefs, but you’ve locked the doors. You know that can’t go on. They’ll need a new ur-sikara soon. Give them one, before the priestesses make their own choice.”
Omra knew she was right. If he didn’t heal the rift between himself and the church, there would be great turmoil, and the people would begin to feel they had to choose between their leader and their religion. And he didn’t dare allow those scheming women to dictate his decisions.
He stepped up to the main altar from which the ur-sikara delivered her homilies. When Istar had been just a palace slave, Ur-Sikara Lukai had betrayed the church, scheming with Villiki to poison Omra. Now Ur-Sikara Erima had been manipulated into a similar betrayal and had taken her own life.
Omra would not trust the sikaras. “It has gone on far too long. If I let the priestesses select their own successor, I’ll be in the same predicament as before. I need an ur-sikara who is not politically insidious—a woman who has no ambitions or schemes beyond the church.”
“Such a priestess might be difficult to find,” Istar said, then added in a soft voice, “However, with your permission, I could suggest a name…someone I believe would be both pragmatic and loyal?”
He raised his eyebrows. “What do you know of sikaras?”
“I know that I was impressed by Kuari, your new emissary to Inner Wahilir. Soldan Huttan’s First Wife.”
“Huttan’s wife? That would be asking for trouble. I am already annoyed with that man for his incursions into Yuarej soldanate. He’s too ambitious.”
“And his wife knows that full well. Kuari will never be her husband’s puppet. I’m surprised he hasn’t found a way to strangle her before now. The fact that she has survived also speaks in her favor.”
Omra had met the woman and was also impressed with her. He had spoken to Kuari in her capacity as emissary, but would never have considered her as a potential ur-sikara. Istar explained that Kuari had been raised in the church and trained as a priestess, but chose to marry Huttan instead because she was frustrated with politics and power plays among the sikaras.
Hearing this, he nodded slowly. “That would indeed send an appropriate message to the church of Urec. The priestesses have to be reminded of their role, and their limitations. I am the secular ruler, while the sikaras guide the spiritual lives of the people. Will Kuari let herself be kept on a tight leash?”
Istar gave him a wry smile. “She’ll view it as keeping the sikaras under control.”
Omra drew a deep breath, wanting to close the gulf between them. “I do value your counsel, Istar. I will speak with Kuari and see if she can abide by my conditions. If so, I’ll anoint her myself, and the church will have its new leader without further ado.”
Without a body, it was difficult to give Tukar a proper funeral; nevertheless, Omra insisted on honoring his brother with a special ceremony.
Imir joined him, looking gray and wasted in his sorrow. The older man had surrendered his rule because he could no longer bear the weight of consequences, yet those consequences continued to dog him. Although the former soldan-shah attended the ceremony, he did not wish to participate in any speeches. Imir didn’t trust his voice to deliver a eulogy for his fallen son.
Clad in formal olbas, sashes, and robes of state, the two stood in the main square outside the Olabar palace. On the worn flagstones, workers had set up a huge pyramid of kindling and logs. A scarlet banner with the Unfurling Fern fluttered like a battle flag from the top. Without a body, the funeral pyre was only symbolic, but the people of Uraba would understand the message.
Omra raised his voice and shouted to the crowd, “My brother has been murdered by the followers of Aiden.” A reverent hush fell over the people. “Tukar’s work at the Gremurr mines provided thousands of swords and shields for our war against the enemy, but the Tierrans killed him. They sent us his head, but refused to give us his body for these purging fires, and so our memories must be enough.”
Omra carried a scimitar from the Gremurr mines—not an ornate one, just a soldier’s blade, but it was appropriate. He placed the sword on the pile of dry wood and stepped back. “Let these flames shine so brightly that Ondun Himself knows our anger. I ask my faithful subjects not to forget Tukar, or the slain priestesses at Fashia’s Fountain, or the thousand heads of innocent prisoners strewn along the Ishalem wall. The Aidenists want to weaken the heart of our beliefs, but we will not let them. We must hold Ishalem and show all the world our true faith.”
He gave a small signal, and two guards cast lit torches onto the pyre. The flames caught in the kindling and the fire grew. Omra let the orange glow fill his vision, but Imir averted his eyes. His father spoke quietly. “Do not be so obsessed with Ishalem that you forget to rule the rest of Uraba. Olabar is your capital, not Ishalem.”
“I have two capitals, Father. I must attend to them both.”
“There is more to Uraba than just those two cities. You have five soldanates. When was the last time you traveled to Missinia to see your mother? Or visited the people of Abilan, or far Kiesh? When did you last go to Lahjar?”
Omra’s nostrils flared as he heard his father’s criticism. “But Ishalem is the heart of it all—our history, our heritage, our beliefs. If we lose Ishalem after so many years of struggle, then we lose everything.” The pyre blazed higher and brighter.
The former soldan-shah simply shook his head. “We had Ishalem before, Omra, and even then we didn’t have everything.”
Despite a complete victory, the visiting Nunghals were appalled by their first experience with naval warfare. Memories of the horrors they had inflicted on the Tierran ships—the explosions, the blood and flames, the screams of the dying—shamed and sickened even the bravest Nunghals.
Asaddan was not surprised when all but seven of the hundred shipkhans decided to sail away in a large flotilla and head back to familiar coastlines. They would leave Ishalem behind. His friend Shipkhan Ruad and Kel Unwar joined him at the docks in the western harbor to say goodbye.
Unwar had built the impregnable wall above Ishalem, and was nearly finished excavating the canal across the isthmus, but losing these allies seemed to be a challenge he didn’t know how to face. From his distraught expression, the city’s provisional governor could not understand the Nunghal reluctance to stay and fight. “Your comrades know how much devastation the Aidenists meant to inflict on us. Do they not see we were right to use any means to crush them?”
Asaddan looked out at the ships in the harbor and tried to explain. “They don’t understand war at all. Our clans have rivalries, but nothing that justifies outright slaughter. For the most part, we want to explore the world and make a profit.” He shrugged by way of apology. “After that sea battle, the shipkhans and their crews just want to go home.”
Since he couldn’t speak the Uraban language, Shipkhan Ruad did not understand the conversation between the other two men. Impatient, he prepared to climb into the small boat that would ferry him from the docks out to his gray-sailed ship. He and Asaddan slapped each other on the back. “Are you certain you won’t come with us, cousin?”
Asaddan shook his head. “The offer is tempting, but not yet. There are still parts of Uraba that I want to see. Khan Jikaris can rule well enough without me.”
“You’re just afraid of getting seasick again,” Ruad said with teasing disappointment.
“I’ll admit the voyage aboard your ships isn’t a gentle one, but sailing with you was more comfortable than walking across the Great Desert. The new sea trade route will benefit all of our clans, but next time I think I’ll go home aboard a sand coracle.”
Surprisingly, tears sparkled in Ruad’s eyes, and he turned his thin face away. “Thanks to you, Asaddan, I am no longer viewed as a joke among my people.” He adjusted his sharkskin vest, brushed a hand across his eyes. “Long ago I made mistakes that cost me my ship and my crew, but I’ve redeemed myself. The khans will remember my name with honor now—and yours.”
“Oh, they always would have remembered mine.” Asaddan smiled, then noticed Kel Unwar fidgeting, not understanding a word they said. He lowered his voice and continued, “I wish you would stay, cousin. As soon as the new canal is open, you can sail through to the Middlesea! Think of all that coastline to explore.”
Ruad shook his head. “It is tempting, but I’m looking forward to the next clan gathering.…” He broke into a grin. “Just imagine how many women will throw themselves on me, now that I am a famed explorer.”
Asaddan whistled through the gap in his teeth. “Yes, I suppose they might even charge you less for their affections.” Ruad winced and burst into laughter.
After a formal farewell to Unwar, with Asaddan serving as translator, the shipkhan climbed into the boat and rowed out to the clustered ships. Before long, the Nunghal vessels set their accordioned gray sails, weighed anchor, and caught the afternoon breezes to sail out into the deep Oceansea. From the dock, Asaddan and Unwar heard a loud succession of booms as the departing ships fired their cannons into the air in farewell.
At the very least, Asaddan was sure that Ruad’s successful voyage had reawakened the spark of curiosity among the Nunghals. From now on, the clans would no longer be content to sail the familiar southern coastlines, but would strike out and expand their knowledge of the world.
When he did return home, Asaddan intended to speak to Khan Jikaris. The nomadic Nunghal-Ari wandered across the great plains, caring little where they were, so long as they had water and game. On the flat grasslands, the terrain was monotonous, but Asaddan suspected that ambitious riders might find wonders if they ventured beyond their familiar territories. Perhaps next season, when the winds changed, he would fly back to see his clans.…
As the Nunghal vessels sailed away, Kel Unwar was clearly troubled. “Losing all those warships is a great blow. I was able to buy four large cannons from your cousins—only four—but the other shipkhans would not part with them.”
“They need them to defend against sea serpents on the long voyage.”
Unwar blew out a slow breath. “Maybe so, but without the rest of the Nunghal cannons, Ishalem will be hard-pressed to defend itself. The Aidenists are sure to come again.”
“Their war fleet was destroyed—they will think twice before they attack. You have some time.”
“Time for what?”
The answer seemed obvious to Asaddan. “Time to install those four cannon in emplacements at the opening to the harbor.” By now, most of the gray-sailed Nunghal ships had disappeared into the distance. “And time to complete your canal.”
11 The Dyscovera
Aiden’s Compass had guided the Dyscovera to this island. The ship eased close to the unknown shore where the hills were dark with evergreen groves and golden with dry grasses—but Criston could see that this was not Terravitae.
By now, however, they were sorely in need of fresh supplies. After dropping anchor, Criston dispatched the ship’s boats to refill their casks with water and take on fruits, vegetables, and fresh game.
He had not yet delivered his verdict against Hannes and his fellow conspirators. When he instructed three of the accused mutineers to go ashore with the supply party, the men looked suspicious of what he might have in mind. Criston snapped, “There’s hard work to be done and heavy barrels to fill and haul—or would you rather have the lash instead?” The mutineers decided they were eager to help. “Prester, you will accompany us as well.”
Hannes had the look of a martyr about him and displayed no remorse whatsoever. “As you wish, Captain. Aiden’s Compass directed us here. There must be a reason for it.”
As Criston considered the island’s hills and pine trees, he called to the Saedran chartsman, “Sen Aldo, I’m sure you’d like to look around?”
Aldo had been staring at the coastline, filing away in his mind the details of the land. “Yes, Captain. Everything I see is vital to my maps.”
Javian joined him at the ship’s rail, bright-eyed and eager. “May I go with the shore party, sir?”
Criston glanced at him with a paternal smile. The cabin boy had seemed so young when they set off from Calay, but during the long voyage he’d matured into a solid and reliable young man. Criston could easily see that Javian’s affection for Mia was progressing beyond boyish infatuation. “Yes, you and Mia will come with me in the first party.”
The supply party used both of the ship’s boats, and as they rowed toward the shore, Prester Hannes sat in the bow, intent on the uncharted island. When they were close, men from each boat, including Silam Henner and one other mutineer, slipped over the side and sloshed up onto the beach, pulling the boats along. Once ashore, Sen Aldo looked closely at the native plants and studied fruits that hung from scrubby trees. Javian and Mia bounded off along the coastline, heading into the hills to explore what the island might offer.
The three cowed mutineers shouldered empty barrels and trudged off, following the sailors Criston had designated to watch them. The accused men were on their best behavior, eager to prove themselves to their captain, but Criston felt a knot in his chest, as the decision—the only decision—brewed in his mind. Silam Henner seemed convinced they were all going to be executed on shore.
Throughout the day, the men filled barrel after barrel with stream water and ferried loads back to the Dyscovera. Additional parties came ashore to help with the work, including the rest of the accused mutineers, who were eager to contribute their labor. Scavenging parties gathered sacks of exotic vegetables and fruits, and the cook was particularly happy when he found a patch of wild onions. The crew used hunting bows to bring down six dwarf antelope in the hills, and they all had a feast of roasted meat on the beach, after which they dug a smoking pit and lit a greenwood fire to preserve the rest of the meat.
They found no sign of human habitation, however—no ruins or any other indication that Aiden had ever set foot here on his journey. By late afternoon, when the Dyscovera’s hold was reprovisioned and most of the men returned to the ship, only a small group remained ashore. By design, Criston had made sure that Prester Hannes and the accused mutineers were among them, as well as some of his strongest sailors.
Having worked so hard on the island, the mutinous crewmen looked hopeful that they might be forgiven. Hannes merely raised his chin, as if he hoped that the captain would finally accept the rightness of what the prester had done.
But Criston’s voice was hard and heartless as he announced his decision. He had rehearsed his words many times. “You all stand convicted of mutiny, and the law of the sea is clear. Had we continued to sail, I would have had no choice but to cast you overboard.” The men groaned with fear; Hannes said nothing. “However, this island gives me an alternative. Maybe that’s why Aiden’s Compass directed us to this place.” He looked at them all with steely eyes. “I will maroon you here. Call it mercy, if you like.”
Hannes looked incensed. “We are nearly to Terravitae, Captain! What would Holy Joron say?”
“I hope I can ask him myself—and soon. In the meantime, you men can build shelters for yourselves, hunt food, remain alive—and that’s a chance we did not offer Enoch Dey. You have an opportunity that he did not.”
Now the prester was shaken. “You must not deny me the chance to see Joron!” His skin turned red, except for the pale patches of his burn scars.
The mutineers pleaded. “Please reconsider, Captain! We will be perfectly loyal.”
Silam Henner fell to his knees in the sand. “Don’t maroon us here!”
“My decision is made.”
Turning his back on them, Criston saw Javian running down the hillside path, with Mia fast on his heels, yelling, “Captain, captain—don’t leave yet!” They hurried up to the others, breathless, their excitement shattering the tense mood.
“It’s a monster,” Javian said, more astonished than terrified. “We found a monster!”
12 Calay, Sapier’s Lighthouse
At the mouth of Calay harbor, the bright flames of Sapier’s Lighthouse guided ships in the dark of night and symbolized the light of Aidenism, which guided the hearts of men. Now, in daylight, Queen Anjine met with her closest advisers in the open chamber atop the lighthouse; after Jenirod’s news about Gremurr, they had to plan the next step in the war.
Anjine stood before the open windows, felt the chill breezes whipping in from the sea; far below, waves foamed against the rocks. Her heart remained hard since the murder of Tomas, and she would not allow her own counselors to forget all that was at stake. She had chosen this place for the discussion instead of the castle’s war council chamber because she wanted them to look out at the city and the Oceansea and be reminded of the true scope of this conflict.
She turned back to the group of men who sat around a rustic plank table. “We have captured the mines at Gremurr, gentlemen, and it’s time to launch our death blow while the Curlies are reeling. I’ve already studied our best approach, and I’d like your input on my plan.”
Comdar Torin Rief, leader of the Tierran military, was prepared to offer advice if asked; on either side of Rief sat Subcomdars Hist and Ardan of the army and navy, who held their silence. The comdar pointed out, “Excuse me, Majesty. We might have taken the Gremurr mines, but we lost at Ishalem—again. Don’t forget what happened to Destrar Tavishel’s fleet. All of his ships were destroyed when he sailed to attack Ishalem. The Urecari possess a mysterious fleet we have never seen before, and a new kind of fiery weapon.”
She shook her head. “We don’t know how the Urabans destroyed the Soeland ships so easily, but Destrar Tavishel acted without my knowledge or my orders.” She tried to keep the anger from her voice. “Because of his foolhardy actions, Tierra lost many ships. We are better than this!” Anjine paced the length of the table.
Destrar Shenro from Alamont fidgeted with impatience. “I am ready to ride with the army, Majesty, whenever you decide to move against the Curlies. I can go tomorrow.” He seemed to expect applause for his eagerness.
Jenirod spoke up, “The army won’t be ready tomorrow, Destrar.” He seemed a new man after his grueling ride across Tierra; he had shaved and bathed, eaten and rested—but Anjine sensed that the change went deeper than that. “And if we set off without proper preparation, they will massacre us—like the last time our army tried to breach the wall.”
The knife edge of Anjine’s voice cut off the angry mutters. “We’ve got to do everything right this time. We have to factor in the time it takes to gather all our forces, move them into place, and supply them while our plans take shape. The operation must be well coordinated. It could be our last chance to end this war, once and for all.”
Destrar Unsul, Jenirod’s father, was a man who liked everything planned to the last detail. “Excuse me, my Queen, but perhaps you could tell us more about this new strategy?” He and his son had not seen eye to eye for some time, since his son’s priorities of horse shows and brawny bravado didn’t match his own scholarly interests in agriculture and engineering.
She raised her eyes to the old Saedran scholar. “Sen Leo, shall we have a look at the world?”
Sen Leo na-Hadra began to unroll his largest chart, stretching out his arms until Subcomdar Ardan of the navy had to take the far edge so he could spread the whole map on the table. Anjine leaned over the chart, tracing her finger along the coastline from Calay to Ishalem on the thin isthmus that connected the two continents.
“Ishalem is vulnerable at several points. Even though the wall blocks us from the north, a large enough army could lay siege to it. Meanwhile, the Tierran navy could blockade the Ishalem harbor on the western side of the isthmus. And, if we can time it carefully enough”—she pointed to the rugged pass over the Corag mountains, the newly captured Gremurr mines, and Tierra’s unexpected access to the Middlesea—“Destrar Broeck could sail with his ironclads and strike Ishalem from the unprotected eastern side. We will squeeze them from three sides at the same time, and by the Fishhook, Ishalem will be ours.”
Khalig, the miserable Uraban messenger, sat on the floor against the wall of the lighthouse chamber, his wrists and ankles bound. He groaned out loud. “Why have you brought me here, Queen Anjine? I don’t want to hear your battle plans. I am not part of this war—I’m just a merchant!”
Anjine rounded on him. “You brought my brother’s head to me. You are definitely part of this war.”
“I did only as I was commanded!”
The man had huddled in a dark cell ever since arriving in Calay with his grisly message from Kel Unwar. In her heart, Anjine understood that the messenger was merely a pawn, an innocent…but Tomas had been innocent as well. “Be silent, Khalig, or I will have you gagged.”
The distraught man clamped his lips shut. He squirmed uncomfortably, and his haunted eyes were wide.
Comdar Rief spoke up, approving of the queen’s plan. “This strategy will require a precise schedule. We’ve got to send a message to Gremurr so that Destrar Broeck knows how we expect him to assist the war effort. Our operation will take months to coordinate properly.”
She smiled at them all. “The war has lasted two decades already—I’m willing to invest a few more months.” Noting Destrar Shenro’s eager bloodlust, Jenirod’s unexpected new reticence, and Comdar Rief’s businesslike determination, she added quietly, “The hearts and backs of the Tierran people cannot bear the weight of this war. We must finish it, and we must win. We will crush the followers of Urec, and when they beg for mercy, we will turn a deaf ear.”
Khalig moaned. “I don’t want to hear this! Why are you telling me?”
“So you understand that your people will be defeated.” Anjine’s voice was like a bludgeon. “I want to extinguish every spark of hope in your heart before you go to your grave.”
The messenger cringed; the bindings at his wrists and ankles were bloody from his struggles.
“It is a small repayment on the debt of justice. You are indeed a messenger, Khalig, but you are not innocent. No Uraban can claim innocence after what your people have done. However, each drop of blood helps to balance the scales.”
She called in Guard-Marshall Vorannen and another guard. The terrified Uraban messenger struggled, begging for mercy, but the guards went about their grim duty without sympathy.
“Alas, we have no prester-marshall to give you final prayers,” Anjine said, “but I don’t suppose the fish will mind.”
She had hoped to feel satisfaction as the two men tossed Khalig off the lighthouse balcony. She didn’t. Sen Leo looked sickened by what he witnessed, but Anjine refused to acknowledge the Saedran’s expression. She turned back to her advisers. “Now then, on with the war.”
13 Corag River Port
After resting for three days in their Stoneholm camp, the Gremurr refugees were eager to set off for home again. Thoughts of seeing Vicka after his long absence filled Mateo’s mind, and these liberated slaves had similar dreams of their families. Free men needed little encouragement to march; all of Tierra lay before them, and the road was open.
Mateo led the refugees down the path into drainages that joined with the river network. He noted their energy and anticipation in sharp contrast to how weary and bedraggled they had looked back in Gremurr. Now they had a spring in their step—and hope.
And so did he.
He set an easy pace along the dirt road. The refugees talked with colorful cheer, reminiscing about their homes, their families, their once happy existences. After seeing the joyous reunions of some of the freed slaves at Corag, they all expected the same, imagining that they could seamlessly rejoin their old lives.
“I used to complain about working on my farm in Alamont, but now I can’t wait to get the good, dark dirt under my fingernails.”
“My family raised the best butter melons, as big as your head! Almost no seeds, and as sweet as a honeycomb.”
“Ha, the sweet I want is the taste of my Jemma’s lips!”
“I know, I’ve tasted them,” another man quipped, which spurred a round of raucous laughter.
“A lover’s kiss is sweet, but there’s nothing like the excited hugs of your children. By the Fishhook, my two boys must be old enough to be apprentices now…or journeymen!”
“Kelpwine from Windcatch…have you ever tasted it?”
“I’ve heard about the Windcatch stench when all the seaweed rots and floats out to sea.”
“My mother made the most delicious herb-rubbed lamb, with wild garlic and dandelions.”
“One thing I’m not going to miss is the taste of Uraban food.” In odd unison, several of the men spat on the ground.
Listening to the easy chatter, Mateo could not stop thinking about how long these men had been gone. He feared they might return home to wives who had remarried, children or parents who had died, or households that had simply moved away.…
Mateo was himself a different person from the man who had left to do the queen’s bidding. An eternity ago, when he’d kissed Vicka goodbye and departed from Calay, his hands had not been stained with innocent blood. Now he shouldered the weight of a thousand severed heads.
When the group topped a hill and saw a small river town with wooden docks that served as a port for Destrar Sazar’s boats, they let out a spontaneous cheer. With great relief, Mateo saw an empty barge tied up waiting for them. He faced the happy smiles and bright eyes of the refugees. “We can rest on the journey downriver—we’ll be in Calay soon! Queen Anjine will host a feast and celebration for us when we arrive.” He knew the return of these former slaves would be seen as a glorious victory for Aiden, a way to lift up a land full of battered hearts.
And Mateo just wanted to go home as well. Hadn’t he earned it? He so longed to feel like a human being again, not just a soldier but a man with a loving wife and a warm house. He had just married Vicka, and he could only imagine—not know—what a normal life would be like with her. She would be wondering why he had been gone for so long, but he had not been ready to face her, or Anjine, when the horror of the thousand heads was so deep and fresh.
Scarred and shamed by what he’d done, he had ridden off in search of some kind of cleansing. The victory at Gremurr gave him part of what he needed, and bringing these once hopeless men home would do the rest.
As the refugees came down the dirt road to the river, the townspeople emerged from their homes to welcome the crowds. Having received word from Destrar Siescu’s riders, they had prepared large cookpots in the town square and were ready to serve a hot meal. The village prester came out to bestow Aiden’s blessing on them all.
Aboard the waiting barge, rivermen and their families brought out flutes and fiddles and struck up a lively tune. Giddy refugees grabbed townspeople and began to dance. The joyful laughter sounded strange coming from the throats of the former slaves, and Mateo felt some of their hope rubbing off on him.
He spotted Sazar, the burly black-bearded man who led the river clans. He had helped Mateo ferry the thousand Uraban prisoners from their slave camp down to Ishalem for the slaughter. Seeing Mateo now, the river destrar opened his arms in a gesture of welcome. “This is one human cargo I’ll be most pleased to transport, Subcomdar.”
“And I’m most pleased to deliver it to you. Let’s take these men back home to balance some of the dark things we’ve done.” He tried to swallow away the lump in his throat. “Maybe that’s a victory we can hold on to.”
14 Mountain Road to Gremurr
After Iaros relinquished the herd of mammoths to the Iborian soldiers, who took the beasts back to the cold northlands, Destrar Siescu and his scout set off over the mountain road with reinforcements and Uraban slaves for the mines.
Raga Var bounded along like a mountain goat on his moccasined feet, guiding the group into the windswept pass. Siescu pulled his furs tighter as the train of pack animals, soldiers, and Uraban slaves plodded along. Weather permitting, Siescu knew he would have to deliver engineers, professional miners, and metalsmiths to the former Uraban mines as well. Destrar Broeck had demonstrated his military prowess by capturing the outpost, but Siescu did not expect an Iborian to know how to operate mines or smelters. That required Corag expertise.
The path wasn’t hard to find, considering that mammoths had trampled the route; he placed his complete trust in the scout to lead the way. Accompanying them on the mountain road, Broeck’s nephew was impatient to get back to Gremurr. “We couldn’t have taken the enemy stronghold without this new road, Destrar. Your Urecari prisoners did very useful work.”
“They were human tools, nothing more. And now they can continue to serve.” He glanced back at the line of roped-together captives shuffling along the path. If one of them were to slip off the cliff, the slave’s nearest companions would be pulled down as well. To minimize losses, the Urabans were tied together in groups of no more than three.
Raga Var trotted back to them in his patchwork fur garments. “Part of the path ahead is covered with fresh snowfall. Treacherous going.” The scout rubbed at a scrape on his elbow. “Even I slipped.”
Siescu pressed his lips together. “We’d better send some slaves to break trail.” The winds picked up as they passed along one of the steepest sections of the road. Sharp crystals of new-fallen snow swirled around them, sparkling in the sunlight.
Raga Var pointed ahead, sounding encouraged. “There’s a wide patch once we get past these cliffs. Good place to make camp.”
The wind blew around Siescu, cutting like a sharp knife through his furs, and he shivered. “Will we be able to have a fire?”
“I’ll find enough firewood for you, Destrar.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Corag guards herded two roped trios of prisoners to the sloping, snow-covered path. Iaros stroked his long mustaches. “That dropoff would make me nervous even in good weather.”
The reluctant slaves argued in their own language, which Siescu had never learned to speak. Impatient to set up camp and warm himself by a fire, he barked, “Go forward or die now! We need to make our way through.” Afternoon shadows descended quickly in these canyons, and the temperature would drop further.
When the first group of slaves resisted, Siescu’s guards prodded them forward with spears. The lead man stumbled into the snow, which covered a sheet of ice. Before he had gone three paces, he slipped and tumbled off the edge. The two behind him dug in their heels as best they could, but they slid over the side as well, falling in a rush of screams.
Fortunately, the commotion also knocked loose some of the snow on the path, which cleared the way somewhat. Behind them, the roped prisoners moaned and shivered; even Iaros looked ill, but Siescu knew it was necessary. “All right, send the next group forward. Maybe they’ll make it through.”
After more prodding, the second trio gingerly moved ahead, finding their footing, slipping, clutching at rough rocks on the cliff face until they made it across the narrow ledge. Once beyond the treacherous part, they hunkered down on rocks and sat shaking and shuddering on the other side.
“There, now you all see it can be done! Nothing to fear.” Siescu was sure many of the captives spoke Tierran well enough to understand him. Terrified, the next trio moved gingerly along the path and also completed the passage without mishap. Next, one of Siescu’s guards volunteered to cross so that he could watch the prisoners. Then more of the slaves.
When the path was well trampled, Iaros and Siescu made the passage, careful to keep their balance. The pack animals went across, one by one. Raga Var sprang back and forth with an agility that shamed them all. He was anxious to move along, watching the thickening gray clouds overhead that presaged a winter storm.
When the whole train of people and pack animals reached the stony clearing Raga Var had chosen as camp, they huddled for the night in the shelter of rocks. The winds picked up, funneled along the sheer cliff faces.
True to his word, the wiry scout gathered scrub bush and dry wood to make a campfire for his destrar, and Siescu sat close to the flames, shivering no matter how many furs he wrapped around himself. He offered to share the blaze with Iaros, but the Iborian seemed not to feel the cold at all.
The younger man turned uneasily, surveying the snow-capped mountains around them. He sucked in a long breath of the cold air. “Have you heard about the frost giants—powerful beings who look for unsuspecting travelers in the ice and snow?” He rubbed his hands briskly together. “They can bring winter with a breath.”
“Never heard of them,” Siescu said. The idea of such a being shrouded in cold was particularly unpleasant to him. “We don’t have frost giants in Corag.”
Iaros bobbed his head. “I heard they are even older than Ondun, titans that once tried to snuff out the Fires of Creation and freeze the whole world.”
Siescu tried to hide his shudder. “How could any creature be older than Ondun?”
Iaros shrugged. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t want to meet one.”
Siescu called for more wood to build the fire higher.
Next morning, they awoke to find that a blanket of snow had settled on the road again—not enough to block passage, but sufficient to hide slippery patches of ice. Once again, Siescu ordered slaves to take point and trample the path clear.
When the road began to descend at a steep pace, Iaros looked ahead. “We’re near the coast now, Destrar. Soon enough, we’ll see the canyons and smell the mines.”
Raga Var trotted up to them, concerned about the gloomy day. “There’ll be another storm tonight, Destrar. Once winter sets in, the passes will be closed. We might not get back to Stoneholm this season.”
“Oh, we will get back. I trust you to lead us,” Siescu said. “For now, our destination is Gremurr.”
In a side canyon above the mines, Shetia drew her young son deeper into the bushes as the party of Tierran soldiers and Uraban captives marched past. The boy’s eyes were wide; he knew what terrible things they would face if the bloodthirsty Tierrans should capture them.
Shetia wished again that Tukar could be there to protect his family; she didn’t think she would ever stop mourning his loss. Her husband had sent her and their son to hide in the hills when the enemy attacked on their monstrous hairy beasts. Shetia had never seen such violence. They were wildmen, barbarians, setting fire to the tents and buildings, slaughtering countless Uraban workers.
And dear, sweet Tukar had tried to defend Gremurr. She had not seen him since. Though she clung to hope for Ulan’s sake, she knew in her heart that her husband was dead.
As the hated soldiers marched along the road, heading down toward the mines, Shetia told the boy to remain absolutely silent. Their greatest danger lay in the rambunctious puppy. Ulan clamped his hands around the dog’s muzzle, holding him as still as possible. With the marching men so close, the puppy wanted to bark, but Shetia and Ulan dragged him deeper into the canyon.
When they were hidden behind the rocks, she forced herself to breathe. She had seen the haggard Uraban captives being herded like animals along the road, no doubt to be put to work in the mines. If she were captured, Shetia expected to be treated roughly, abused by the uncivilized men.
The Tierrans passing on the road looked foreign, their armor and weapons strange. One soldier carried a round shield that sported the Fishhook design. She couldn’t imagine what heathen rituals they did in their worship services. Did they sacrifice Uraban children by impaling them on a large cast-iron hook?
Instinctively, she squeezed Ulan’s arm. The puppy whimpered, but he sensed their terror. Somehow, they kept him from barking or breaking free as the last of the men filed past. Shetia let out a long slow sigh of relief. “We’ll be safe now,” she whispered.
The boy swallowed hard. “I’m hungry. We should go up the road and find their last camp. Maybe they left food behind.”
Shetia’s stomach clenched and growled; for more than a week they had eaten only the scraps, berries, and plants they could forage. They had eluded discovery by Aidenist forces so far, but survival required much more than that. She didn’t know how she and her son were going to live out here in the wilderness.
15 Ishalem Canal
When the final section of blasting was complete in the canal, water flowed freely across the isthmus like lifeblood, connecting the Middlesea and Oceansea for the first time since the creation of the world.
Standing at the western mouth of the new waterway, Kel Unwar admired the culmination of his work, and tears streaked his cheeks. This was a moment of unparalleled triumph for his soldan-shah, for Ondun, and (far less important) for himself. The feeling of joy—instead of hatred toward the Aidenist animals—seemed unnatural. Perhaps he could make improvements later, but for now, no one could deny the breathtaking accomplishment.
Unwar raised a shout to the crowd that had gathered to celebrate the inauguration of the waterway. “With this magnificent canal our ships can now sail from one end of Uraba to the other—from Lahjar to Kiesh.” He meant to continue, but the cheers drowned him out.
Soldans Huttan and Vishkar were in attendance, for this canal was a symbolic joining of their two soldanates—Inner and Outer Wahilir—though the men had no great fondness for each other. The soldans had been commanded to build two giant churches on either side of Ishalem, as a contest. Huttan and Vishkar had brought their own engineers, workers, and resources to Ishalem. Huttan had vowed to finish first, and his church already towered higher than its counterpart; Soldan Vishkar, meanwhile, devoted himself to the details, planning meticulously, double-checking the work.
No matter how magnificent the two new churches might be, though, Unwar’s accomplishments overshadowed both: the towering wall across the isthmus that kept out the Aidenists, and now this seven-mile-long canal that connected all of Uraba for trade and naval protection.
“It’s a shame Soldan-Shah Omra could not be here in person for the celebration,” Vishkar said with a wistful sigh. He was a pleasant and reliable man, the father of Omra’s original First Wife.
“He would not have wanted us to wait,” Huttan added sourly.
Unwar didn’t want to hear the two men argue. “Uraban ships can now sail to all parts of the land, and I have completed my work ahead of schedule. The soldan-shah will be pleased, whether or not he is here.”
As provisional governor of Ishalem, Unwar ordered casks of wine to be opened and a feast served to launch the day’s celebration. Feeling generous, he even granted extra rations and a day of rest for the Aidenist slaves who had dug the channel. Then, while the people of Ishalem reveled, Kel Unwar slipped away from the noise and crowds.
Though the honor was rightfully the soldan-shah’s, Unwar had decided to take the first boat through the canal. It was the only reward he wanted—he had no interest in greeting nobles or returning toasts that were made in his honor. He hurried down to the pier and chose a slender boat that he could row from west to east, from Oceansea to Middlesea, along the placid waters. He climbed into the boat, loosed the rope, and took up the oars.
As he paddled along the channel, the water was so peaceful, so smooth. Passing the city’s bright new buildings, tiled roofs, silken awnings, and numerous churches brought both an ache and a warmth to his heart. Soon ships could sail through in both directions: cargo vessels carrying supplies for the city’s defenses, war galleys filled with soldiers.
For now, though, Kel Unwar had the canal—his canal—all to himself. His mind was as placid as the water, and he let his thoughts wander, watching the landscape and skyline pass. He crossed the seven miles much more quickly than he’d expected.
People were also celebrating on the Middlesea terminus of the canal. Bustling crowds stood on the docks, though he had told no one of his plan to make the solo passage. When his boat approached, the people applauded. Most of them didn’t even recognize him until they spotted his governor’s sash and olba.
Unwar pulled up to the small pier and tossed the painter rope to a young man in the crowd, who grabbed it and tied up the boat. He climbed onto the pier, and suddenly Unwar’s knees went weak as he realized what he had just accomplished. He had done the impossible. His canal had changed the world. Commerce throughout Uraba, and naval warfare against the Tierrans, would never be the same again. And now the Urecari could win the war and eradicate every living follower of the Fishhook.
Despite the applause and smiling faces, he felt a bittersweet emptiness instead of overwhelming triumph. He had dug the canal and been the first man ever to traverse it. He had also built the great wall, God’s Barricade.
Unwar’s smile faltered as he walked past a group of merchants who seemed delirious with the new opportunities before them. What more could he do in his life to compare to that? What else was left? He could retire, retreat to a private estate where he could relax and live well for his remaining years. It would drive him mad.
A hush fell across the joyous chatter, a creeping shadow of silence. Unwar spotted the Teacher walking through the crowd. People backed away from the ominous silver mask, the black-gloved hands. But Unwar knew who the dark figure was and what had driven her to become this enigmatic person. Aidenist barbarians.
Unwar stepped close to the mask, while everyone else moved away. The people must think him particularly brave as he extended his hand and grasped the Teacher’s gloved one. He spoke in the barest of whispers. “It’s done, Alisi—and now what am I supposed to do?”
Her voice was muffled through the small slit in the mask. “You will do whatever Ondun calls you to do. Defend Ishalem against the heretics. There is still much killing to be done.” Though her body was concealed by voluminous dark robes, Unwar could tell she wanted to embrace him. That in itself was an odd thing, because after the crushing abuse she had suffered from Tierran sailors, his sister rarely wanted to touch anyone.
“I am proud of you, brother,” she said. “Very proud.”
16 The Al-Orizin
After the waves from the unleashed giant serpent drove them far from Iyomelka’s vessel, they saw no sign of pursuit for two days, but Saan was sure their calm would not last.
He stood on deck, looking out at the waves and the empty sea. Sitting on a crate next to him, Sen Sherufa wrote in the sympathetic journal with tight, painstaking penmanship. Whatever the Saedran woman marked on these pages at sea was mirrored on the magically twinned volume on the other side of the world. She frowned as she reached the torn bottom of the half page. “I need to be brief, Captain. I am almost to the end of the journal’s bound sheets, and our voyage may still last for many more months.”
“Maybe the rest of the journey will be uneventful,” Saan said in a joking voice, “if we can keep our distance from Iyomelka. Or maybe we’ll discover the Key to Creation sooner than we expect.”
Sherufa raised her eyebrows, gave a little snort, then wrote with even tinier letters, cramming words onto the torn paper.
Interrupting, Ystya ran up to them, flushed and obviously upset. “That priestess keeps teaching me the wrong things! Please tell her to leave me alone.”
Saan automatically folded her into his arms to protect her. Ystya had collapsed after liberating Bouras from his curse, but she recovered quickly. When he’d pressed her for explanations about the power she had exhibited, she wouldn’t discuss what she had done and seemed almost embarrassed by it. Nevertheless, he encouraged her, talked with her when he could, and hoped she would tell him more.
Now, before the young woman could explain herself, Sikara Fyiri barged up to them, equally incensed. “Captain, you must let me continue the girl’s instruction! She lived alone on that island for a long time, and her education is woefully lacking. How can she follow the Map if she doesn’t know what it is?”
Saan let out a sigh. They seemed like two sisters having a quarrel. “Ondun knows, I had to endure the sikaras’ schooling, year after year. Why won’t you listen to her lessons, Ystya?”
“Because she will not listen when I correct her,” the girl said simply.
Saan chuckled, imagining Fyiri’s expression when the impertinent young woman pointed out errors in the sikara’s doctrine. “Maybe you should learn from each other.” Continues...
Excerpted from The Key to Creation by Anderson, Kevin J. Copyright © 2011 by Anderson, Kevin J.. Excerpted by permission.
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