The inner cell door squealed as Abdeel and Dumah hurried in with their charges' swords, withheld as always until combat was about to begin. They strapped on the harnesses for both longsword and dagger, gave them grins that were anything but friendly, and hurried out again.
A moment later, the arena doors swung open, and Abramm gasped to see what they revealed. The sand had vanished, replaced by a gleaming gold-and-lapis court from which a long, marbled stair rose to a railed platform. White partitions, some appearing solid, others clearly illusion, rose up here and there around the set. High overhead a massive chandelier depended from a vaulted ceiling that looked for all the world like it must block the view of the spectators at the higher levels, and yet, he knew it did not. It was an illusion, like all the rest. Double-sided, appearing solid from one vantage and as the sheerest veil of gauze from the other.
But he was ready for that, having seen glimpses of the phenomenon in the parade last night. What astonished him was that this set was a near-perfect replica of the king's court at Whitehill.
The courtiers had hurried out when the doors opened, were busy taking up their positions, while Abramm stood entranced. Now he heard his own name blare across the arena, fractured miserably by the Tahg, and the crowd fell silent. With a glance at Trap beside him, he drew a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and stepped into the light.
It was only a moment before the laughter began, and once begun, it escalated quickly. People pointed and slapped each other's backs; they screamed and squealed and howled, doubling over and falling on top of each other in their mirth. Abramm walked with his head high, his back straight, his eyes ahead, as he'd been taught as a child, ignoring them. Taunts flew out of the general melee. "Yelaki Kiriatha! Hashta kermaad!"
He slid into that place of calm detachment, as on the beach at Qarkeshan, thinking what a curious thing it was to be mocked and disdained by people who knew nothing about him. Even more curious that they should do it with such vehemence.
The strains of a popular waltz started up around them. At once the courtiers began to drink and prance and primp, apparently having been coached, or maybe just making it up, for no one Abramm had ever seen at court acted like this.
The girl in yellow met them at the court's "entrance". Her tears had dried, and she avoided their eyes as she guided them up the stairs to the platform where Abramm was to sit on the throne. Another ran up the stair with empty silver goblets, wagged her finger at them, as if they were naughty boys, and hurried away.
The stentorian Taleteller--Abramm could not imagine how he made his voice so loud--launched into his introduction. The Fall of the King of Kiriath, this act was called. With somebody or other as Beltha'adi and somebody else as Beltha'adi's second--not that he would find anything to do today. The joke was received with a surge of laughter and applause.
Abramm was then introduced as playing the role of the King of Kiriath, courtesy of Katahn ul Manus himself. "And in the role of His Majesty's retainer we have the Heathen Shield Trap Meridon, formerly of the Kiriathan Royal Guard. Or so Lord ul Manus claims."
Wrathful, contemptuous screaming greeted this announcement. Pieces of rotten fruit splattered the outer edges of tile, and sailed through the ghost wall that stood between Abramm and the audience on the court's far side.
The courtiers postured and bowed and fluttered, the men directed here and there by the women, tripping and reeling exaggeratedly as they slopped wine down the fronts of their doublets. The crowd laughed contemptuously.
"Drunken and dissipated..." said the Taleteller, as the men grabbed at the women and tore at their gowns. "Indecent and immoral..." The women welcomed the advances with embarrassing writhings. "They are unable to control their lusts, unable to make themselves worthy of any real god's attention. Only the Dying God will have them. Serving such a god, they know not how to fight or die like men, nor will Eidon be able to defend them. They are fit only to be conquered and ruled by their betters!"
The Taleteller's voice rang stridently, igniting the crowd. The roaring, screaming voices filled the arena like a living thing that pulsed and quivered, tearing at ear and heart and belly.
Light bloomed on the far side, illuminating a door in the arena's wall, now trundling open to admit a troop of black-and-gray-garbed soldiers. Amidst them strode one clad and cloaked in gold, a black crescent moon standing atop the crown of his helmet. Impossibly, the crowd's passion rose another notch, screaming Beltha'adi's name.
With a wail the courtiers scurried to a corner of the set, crowding together like frightened hens. As the newcomers reached the main court most of the soldiers stopped near the courtiers and only the substitute Beltha'adi and one other drew their swords. Advancing casually toward the foot of the stair atop which Abramm sat on his throne, they waved to the audience, exchanged jokes with their followers, and barely glanced at their opponents.
Abramm stood up, feeling a strangely familiar rage.
The crowd began to chant. "Yelaki! Yelaki! Dormod anahdi!"
From Abramm's side came the hissing rasp of Meridon's blade as he drew it free of its scabbard. Abramm's hand closed upon the hilt of his own sword, hesitated.
I will touch no weapon of warfare.
Violence feeds the Shadow.
He swallowed. Could he really kill another man? And if he did, was he any better than his opponent?
He watched the men laughing up at him, listened to the crowd, calling for his blood, remembered the Dorsaddi just before him, heart blasted out of his chest. And knew the answers to both questions.
Yes. And Yes.
As he pulled his blades free, something changed within him--his pent-up frustration finally found release. Suddenly he was no longer helpless. Alloying with all he had endured and seen this day, his anger forged a fierce determination to deflate their self-righteous assumptions of superiority.
He glanced at Trap, received a barely perceptible nod, and together they leapt down to meet the two who would challenge them, closing with them in a burst of aggressive parries. The two fell back, made awkward and desperate by surprise.
Abramm's opponent overparried one time too many. Before Abramm even realized what he had done, his own blade had slid under the southlander's weapon and up through the man's ribs. Blood blossomed on the golden tunic as Abramm pulled the blade free. He glimpsed a dark, surprised face as the Esurhite fell to his knees.
Meridon's man sagged to the marble floor an instant afterward, the battle over almost before it had begun.
But even as Abramm drew a shaky breath, hardly daring to believe it was over, a flash of metal caught his eye and he turned, lifting his weapon instinctively, deflecting the blow of one of the soldiers who had spontaneously assumed the role of backups for the first two.
Another was closing from the side, and he felt Meridon step around behind him back to back, as they battled the four who had taken up arms at the fall of their comrades.
Blood pounded in Abramm's ears as he parried, lunged, and ran his opponent through the forearm, drawing a howl of pain as the man's weapon clanged to the marble floor. The disarmed Esurhite flung himself at Abramm with bare hands and Abramm's dagger slipped between the side slits in his armor, just as he had practiced a thousand times. The soldier fell forward, and Abramm jumped back, jerking his weapon free and slamming into Meridon. He twisted left, blocked an incoming thrust with the dagger, and whipped his longblade around, slashing his opponent's arm.
A reddish haze had sprung up around him, blotting out all but the new antagonist in front of him, whom he saw with exquisite clarity--the hate-filled eyes, the clenched teeth, the rivulets of sweat streaming down the dark face. He could hear the Esurhite's breathless muttered curses and could see that the man was caught in the grip of a self-righteous fury that did not allow him to acknowledge that he faced a superior opponent.
Abramm was surprised at the man's sluggishness, at the way he seemed to telegraph his every move and struggled to keep his blade in time with Abramm's. It was a simple matter to parry his slow thrusts, to ignore his awkward feints and pay him for the failure with a stab to the leg, the arm, the waist. The man grew angrier by the moment, and before long he fell for a double feint that left him open to Abramm's killing stroke, in and out in an instant. The wild eyes widened, then rolled back as he toppled to the floor.
It was over. Six southlanders lay dead or wounded on the tile, surrounded by a rapidly dissipating haze. The distant roaring had stopped, replaced by the pitiful cries of the injured. Blood streaked and spattered the tile, and there was far more of it than he'd expected. He felt suddenly cold and weak, a great shudder staggering him.
Then Trap was at his side, gripping his arm, pulling him up and around. When he tried to resist, tried to look back over his shoulder, his friend shook his arm. "You did what you had to do, my lord."
Abramm swallowed, and stared at him, heartsick and bitter. "Is that how you deal with it? Just ignore it?"
"Be thankful it's not you lying on that floor. Because it easily could have been."
His brown eyes bored into Abramm's, bearing the truth deep into his soul. Yes. It was supposed to have been his blood that stained the tiles.
The haze was gone now, and finally he noticed the crowd. Its shocked silence filled the arena with palpable force. He realized then that the man in the golden tunic, the one with the black crescent moon helmet lay among the dead. The portents in that event--coming on the heels of the Dorsaddi's prophesying--struck even him, raising the hairs up the back up his spine.
He stepped back, his gaze falling at last upon his courtiers. To a person, they gaped at him with wonder and outright worship in their eyes.
He looked back at them, wiping the sweat from his upper lip on his sleeve, smearing red paint on the fabric. He was surprised to find himself panting.
Suddenly, to his utter astonishment, each of the courtiers went down on one knee. "Hail Eidon!" they cried. "Hail Abramm, King of Kiriath!"
A rumble arose from the spectators as, in the Broho's box across the ring, a man stood and stretched wide his arms. As the Kiriathan courtiers screamed and cowered, the king's court disappeared, and Abramm found himself standing on packed sand.
The man's chest swelled as he drew breath, then opened his mouth in a bellow that flung forth a gout of violet fire. Abramm toppled backward as it slammed into his sword, sending it sailing through the air to land with Trap's in a twisted, smoking heap on the sand some ten yards away.
At Beltha'adi's side, Katahn had leaped up, jabbering and gesticulating furiously. Already Zamath and the others were rushing in, interposing their bodies between their charges and the box and hurrying them out of the ring.
Katahn met them in the corridor not long afterward, bursting with excitement. "Wonderful!" he crowed. "And that bit with the courtiers at the end? They'll be falling all over themselves to get at you next time."
Shettai, who had trailed in his wake, looked at Abramm as if she'd never seen him before, while Abdeel and Dumah swirled out cloaks with which to enfold them. The chamber throbbed with excited babble as news of the Kiriathans' victory spread....
Until a familiar high-pitched voice cut through it all, producing an instant shocked silence.
Katahn's priest, Master Peig, stood in the aisle, shaven dome gleaming, dark eyes glaring, Regar at his elbow in silent support.
"You must kill them both, Lord Katahn!" the man said again, his voice hard and condemning. It echoed away to silence, every eye in the packed chamber suddenly fixed upon the two men.
Katahn laughed. "Do you have any idea how much money these men will make me in a single season?"
"Greed brought down the Dorsaddi, Katahn." Peig paused, narrowed his eyes. "I told you not to make a warrior of him. I told you this would happen. But you paid no heed, and so your task is harder. I tell you these two carry the mark of destruction. If you do not destroy them, Katahn ul Manus, you will lose everything. Everything."
The silence could not have been more absolute. Even Katahn seemed momentarily taken aback by the intensity of the holy man's warning. For a long horrible moment Abramm feared all his grasping after survival, all he had sacrificed and endured, would come to nothing after all.
Then Katahn smiled. "How many of your prophecies have come true in the last year, Master Peig? Half of them? That's probably too generous. A quarter, then? And if we consider the last handful of years, how many times, then?"
The priest jerked up his chin. "They have all come true, sir, it is only the interpretation--"
"A prophecy is useless if not properly interpreted before its execution, sir. And considering your record, why should I believe that this time you've done it correctly?"
Master Peig ignited in a flaming rage, loosing a volley of words Abramm had no hope of following. When Katahn clearly still resisted, his son Regar jumped in, but he too argued in vain. Finally Peig surrendered with a bitter epithet and strode away. A moment longer the son regarded the father, tight-lipped, clearly distraught. Then he too took his leave.
Katahn watched them go, smirking openly. He made some irreverent comments to his men, then gave orders concerning his slaves' treatment and rewards and departed.
Shettai lingered, her gaze once more on Abramm. Their eyes met for a long fierce moment, as if she searched for something of vital importance, and he thought again of the slain Dorsaddi's earlier prophecy to Beltha'adi. "Even now the Deliverer is coming to slay you."
She turned away, finally, and it seemed to him there was something very like a secret smile upon her lips.
The Light of Eidon (Legends of the Guardian-King, Book 1) by Karen Hancock
Copyright © 2003, Karen Hancock