by Rob Steiner
Melahara resumed the Tuathan march an hour after Taran’s capture. Fatimah still held the shield when the call ran up and down the column, and Melahara forced her to relinquish control of the shield to another priest. Just as Bessi was disappointed to give up the shield, Fatimah reluctantly gave the shield to a priest older than her, who took it with an eager gleam in her eyes. When Ahura left Fatimah, she slumped against a priest who was there to support her. She was able to stand on her feet within minutes, but her body still wanted nothing more than to lie down. She chose to stay with the priests holding the shield. If one of them should lose her concentration, perhaps she would have a chance to Wield again and forget about Taran.
She gave an involuntary glance back at the covered wagon that held Taran. Eblin still rode on the front seat with the Heshman driver, but the remaining Shadarlak flanked the wagon, including a sizable contingent of priests and Heshmen. As the column started its march, the two sides began to eye the forests on either side of them more than each other, a development that gave Fatimah hope their alliance was not dead.
After a few hours of marching, Melahara came forward and walked among the shield priests.
“I have received word through Ahura from Brya Lueng. General Myndehr arrived safely in Markwatch, and Lord Ven Demeg has already dispatched four ships. They should be awaiting us when we arrive at Tsall.”
Relieved whispers spread through the ranks of the priests, and the news traveled fast along the column of weary Tuathans. The news seemed to make the column move a little quicker toward the seaside village of Tsall. Even Fatimah felt her sadness ebb a little. At least her people would soon be safe. Relatively speaking. For there was nowhere her people would be truly safe from the Fomorians and harrowers.
As the night wore on, priest after priest held the shield, none for more than an a half hour, before being relieved by another priest. Fatimah herself eagerly took another turn at maintaining the shield, and each time experienced the torturous process of giving it up to another priest at the end of her turn. All of the priests experienced the same fatigue that she felt afterwards, but all were growing strong enough to remain standing after giving up the shield. Also, as each turn passed, the priests could Wield much sooner after a previous Wield. Though still terribly difficult, they were becoming much more disciplined about giving up Ahura when their turns were over. None wanted to suffer Pomar’s fate. Better to experience the loss of Ahura for a little while than forever.
When the night sky turned purple in the east, Fatimah spotted seagulls in the sky, and even smelled the saltiness of the sea. Others began to notice the same thing, and excited murmurs raced up and down the bone-weary column. Mothers whispered encouraging words to older children, while fathers carried young children too tired to walk. Many parents looked as if they needed to be carried themselves. It took most of Fatimah’s concentration to put one foot in front of the other.
The sun broke above the tree lines as Fatimah began to hear the faint crashing waves. The smell of the sea was stronger now, and a breeze had picked up. Within an hour, the column rounded a bend and stared at the abandoned huts and stone piers of the Tuathan village Tsall. The village had been deserted two decades ago after a terrible hurricane destroyed most of the town. Without the resources to rebuild, along with a dwindling population, the survivors simply moved to different villages inside the Beldamark.
Beyond the decaying huts, Fatimah saw the dark blue sea. White waves crashed on the crumbling stone piers and a narrow strip of sandy beach that stretched north and south beyond sight. The red sun hung just above the sea’s horizon, making the water look like sparkling diamonds and rubies.
It was one of the most beautiful sights Fatimah had ever seen.
The ragged band of Tuathans behind her surged forward to stand on the sandy beach, as if being near the sea would make them safe forever. Fatimah also wanted to walk in the surf that pounded the sand. It had been years since she had seen the sea, and the salvation from the harrowers it promised made her want to touch the water.
The first inkling Fatimah had that something was wrong was that the promised ships were no where in sight. That concerned her, but she was not too worried since the vessels could be called by communication through Ahura to the priest on the ship.
What scared her were the two harrowers who emerged from the forest and walked beside the lead Tuathans, just outside the shield. They also had a shield of their own, although theirs made everything within it distorted, as if viewed through an unevenly cast window.
As they approached, Fatimah could make out two men. One wore the same buckskin and woolen clothes of a Tuathan, though much shabbier and muddier than even the marching Tuathans.
Fatimah was even more shocked by the other harrower. He wore Recindian clothes—black breeches, white shirt, black coat, and a black tri-corner hat. He had a thick, white mustache that hung over his lips. Fatimah recognized him as the man who had shared a tent with Taran during their march from Markwatch, but she could not remember his name. She wondered why she had not smelled the Taint of Angra on him when she first met him, then realized she had never come within five paces of the man. She had only smelled the Taint on Taran when she was less than a pace from him.
The Recindian bowed, and said, “We come under a flag of truce. Please excuse the fact we have no flag.”
The second man next to him, a little older than Fatimah, gave a high-pitched maniacal laugh.
“Who are you?” Melahara said, striding toward the two harrowers, but staying within the shield.
“Kumar Ladak, proud Fomorian at your service, my lady. And my associate is…well, I don’t really know his name. Forgot to ask when I turned him into a harrower. Anyway, our names are not important, but our offer is. Give us the Zervakan, and your people may live.”
“The Zervakan, the Zervakan,” the younger man repeated, his grin showing yellow, rotten teeth. He hopped around like a dog eager for a treat.
“What makes you think we have him?”
Ladak snorted. “Who else could have created this grand shield? Quite impressive, I must say. We know you do not yet have the strength to create one. Which means you have a Zervakan among you.”
“Zervakan, Zervakan,” the younger man chanted.
“Even if we did have the Zervakan among us, you know we cannot give him to you. You will only use him against us.”
“And you would not use him against us?” Ladak shook his head reproachfully at Melahara, as if scolding a young child. Melahara’s frown said she did not appreciate it.
“Whether or not you believe this,” Ladak said, “our fight is not with you, Holy Seat.”
Melahara raised an eyebrow. “And I suppose the attack on our Heiron and the harassment along our journey was your idea of opening diplomatic relations?”
Ladak pointed a finger at her. “We were prepared to leave you in peace, but you forced us to act by allying with our true enemy—the Recindian Compact. They represent the greatest threat in this world to my people and to yours.”
“Ah, so we should band together to fight the Compact, is that right?” Melahara laughed. “We may lack your Wielding strength—for the moment—but we are not fools.”
“Think about it,” Ladak said patiently. “I’ve lived in the Compact for generations. Their Pathist priests have corrupted the people with their teachings against ‘supernaturalism.’ They’ve fought two wars against Mazumdahr, a country that has strong ‘supernaturalist’ beliefs, simply because the Compact fears those beliefs. Do you really think the Pathists in the Compact will just let you settle on their lands? Even if their government believes you, the people will not. They have been conditioned too well. You know this. It will be just like a thousand years ago, when you were chased into the Beldamark by mobs with pitchforks and nooses.”
Melahara regarded the Fomorian with a smirk, but Fatimah saw her eyes begin to narrow, as if Ladak’s words had struck home.
“This world has forgotten the powers that created it,” Ladak said, “that keep it strong and enable it to survive. Given time, the Compact’s fear of ‘supernaturalism’ will make them try to destroy you.”
Eblin approached Melahara, leaning heavily on her staff. “Since when do harrowers think of the welfare of others?” she asked.
“Fomorian,” Ladak said. “He’s the harrower. And I don’t care about your people. Look at you. You can barely hold back four harrowers. What are you going to do when you’re attacked by true-blood Fomorians? No, we don’t see you as a threat. But we will if you proceed with this doomed and misguided alliance with the Compact. We will defeat them regardless of whether you help them. It’ll just be easier, quicker, and with far less loss of life if you don’t.”
Then he turned to Melahara. “Give us the Zervakan and we will destroy the Compact within weeks. You can go back to your Beldamark homes and live peaceful lives like you have done over the last millennium.”
Melahara said, “And after the Compact is defeated you will come for us.”
Fatimah was shocked more at the tone of Melahara’s voice rather than the statement. It sounded more like a question, as if the Holy Seat was actually considering the Fomorian’s offer. Fatimah did not allow her face to show her confusion, but she hoped that Eblin noticed the undertones. If Eblin did, though, her face did not show it.
Ladak smiled. “As long as your people stay in the Beldamark, you have nothing to fear from us.”
Melahara considered this for a moment. “And what assurances can you give us?”
Fatimah could not contain her outrage any longer. “Mother Seat, do not believe anything—”
Eblin hissed, “Silence, girl!”
Fatimah stared at Eblin, but her old Master said, “Do not interrupt the Holy Seat.”
The younger harrower gave a high laugh while staring at Fatimah. “Turmoil and trouble, hee, hee.”
“So much for Tuathan discipline,” Ladak said, grinning at Fatimah.
“I said,” Melahara repeated, “what assurances can you give me that you will not come after us once the Compact is gone?”
Ladak turned his gray eyes to Melahara. “Because I know how the Barrier fell, and I can help you raise it again around the Beldamark.”
Ladak took a gold pocket watch from his black coat, glanced at it, and said, “I’ll be generous and give you one hour to talk amongst yourselves.”