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Blood Vow

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Blood Vow 1
THE GODS' LAND
 

CHAPTER ONE

I had searched half the mountainside before I found him where I did not expect him, sitting in the window of the gods' house. I had come to tell him, in the cheerful manner boys have, that our world was about to be destroyed. My announcement came true sooner than I would have expected, and that was the day when I lost all that was dear to me and was forced to hide within a mask I later found I could not remove. I remember that day most clearly, though, because it contained the moment at which I first placed myself under the care of a master who was already present but whom I did not yet know.

I stood for a long time, looking up from the steep slope below the gods' house, unable to believe what I saw. To a stranger from a foreign land, perhaps, the sight would have seemed quite ordinary. The window in which he sat was low and broad, like all Koretian windows, though otherwise the building was unlike those in our capital nearby. Like the modern priests' house, this ancient house of worship was made of stone, a building material that always seemed odd to my eyes, living as I did in a city of wattle-and-daub homes. The trees that covered the north side of the mountainside – and covered every bit of Koretian countryside, as far as I could tell from my mountainside perch – obscured most of the crumbling facade, but I could tell that some pious and very brave man had decided in recent centuries to restore the wooden door at the building's entrance.

I stood a while in indecision. I was brave, but I would not ordinarily have been foolhardy enough to trespass on the gods' forbidden territory. The figure in the window, though, was a challenge to me, and since I never allowed him to go unprotected into danger, I decided that if the gods were going to strike him down for his deed, they would have to confront me first.

I raced up the mountainside, waiting until the last minute to dodge each tree, simply for the thrill of the danger. Then I stopped at the entrance and cautiously opened the door.

A corridor ran left and right of me, well lit from the summer afternoon sun casting forth its glow through the corridor's windows. Whichever man had restored the entrance door had also taken the trouble to restore the doors to the priests' cells, but several of these were open. As I walked by, I peered in boldly to see what I would find. I was disappointed to discover that the windowless rooms were not much different from those in the present-day priests' house. Oh, small differences existed. A tiny hole was cut in the ceiling of each room, just above a shallow pit for the central fireplace. These cells, I had been told in the past, did not possess the modern hypocausts that Emorian engineers had installed in the priests' house the year before, which had caused half the city pilgrims to cease visiting the house during the installation, lest they be contaminated by contact with our enemy. The only other objects in this cell were a small stone ledge against the wall, which could serve as a table, and a man-sized stone slab on which one could place a pallet. This made the gods' house look luxurious in comparison with the unfurnished cells of the priests' house, lower below on the mountainside.

I had dulled my curiosity concerning the house's appearance – and incidentally sharpened my courage, since this did not seem to be so mysterious a building after all. I swaggered my way down to the left end of the corridor and paused at the open entrance to a large chamber.

This must have been the sanctuary in ancient times, but the altar had long since vanished, and all that was left were warped, wood-lined walls and the windowseat opposite the door. Though not the type of boy who was granted visions from the gods, I could nonetheless imagine vividly the room as it must have looked in the old days: priests in hooded brown robes surrounding the altar where the goat was bound, while over the sacrificial victim was poised a dagger held by the priest who spoke for the god. No – I corrected myself – for I had heard about the fearsome nature of the ancient rites. The priest was the god, taking on the god's powers for the length of the ceremony.

Then the vision vanished, and all that I could see was a boy sitting in a windowseat, staring intently at nothing I could see.

John was in his tenth year at this time, two years older than me. Our age difference had caused no breach between us – indeed, I was usually the leader of our expeditions, decreeing with the imperiousness of a king what we would do and how we would do it. John almost always meekly complied with my orders. The "almost" was a qualification I preferred not to think about, for his infrequent refusals invariably came with such composed self-assurance that I was the one who ended up feeling foolish.

He was dressed in the shapeless brown tunic that was worn by all of the orphan boys at the priests' house, which made me grateful for my own single, leaf-green tunic, lovingly woven by my mother, who managed to keep both of us alive by selling her weaves. Clipped at the left side of his belt, nearly hidden in the shadow of his body, was the leather sheath of his dagger. If I had been wearing such a dagger, I would have found it hard to keep my hands off it, but his own hands were loosely wrapped around his knee-bent legs, while his head was tilted back against the post of the window. He was looking at something, but the object of his witness was not in this room.

I felt a pang of loneliness bite into me, as I often did when John departed from me in this way. Without thinking about what I was doing, I reached my left hand toward the slingshot at my belt while my right hand dipped into my belt pouch for one of the smooth stones I stored there. For one glorious second I lined my shot toward John's head; then, at the last moment, I turned the aim of the sling and let the pebble fly.

The stone passed closer than I had intended, missing John's face by a hand's length. His body did not move, but he turned his head, startled out of his vision. Then he saw who sent the shot, and his expression relaxed.

"You'll kill somebody one of these days," he said soberly.

I laughed as I skidded my way up to where he was sitting. He gestured me onto the windowseat, as though this were his own house, and I said, landing with a bounce, "I wanted to see whether you would draw that dagger of yours."

A smile eased its way onto his face then, and he looked at me with open affection. "Not against you," he said.

His smile had a way of lighting up even his eyes, which otherwise looked solemn under his straight eyebrows. Like nearly all Koretians, he had dark hair and brown skin – light brown, since neither of us yet had the dark skin acquired after years of living under the scorching southern sun. But his eyes, rather than being brown or hazel, were completely black, like those of a mountain cat that is staring hard at its prey. The color always made it difficult for me to tell what he was looking at, and they made even more irritating his tendency to withdraw from conversation and stare at visions I could not share.

"John," I said, "why do you bother to carry a free-man's weapon if you're never going to use it?"

"It is dedicated to the Unknowable God, as I am," replied John. "My parents didn't leave any note with me telling the priests which god they wished to dedicate me to, but they did leave the dagger, so that must mean something. It's up to me to discover which god I'm meant to serve. Besides," he added, more to the point, "I might need the dagger for a blood vow."

I stared at the weapon hungrily and felt my palms begin to tingle. "May I hold it?" I asked.

I knew what his answer would be, but as always, he made me wait while he silently assessed my face. Then he carefully slid the blade out of its sheath and offered it to me, hilt first.

I took it tightly into my right hand, feeling the rough leather bands press patterns against my palm. The dagger was made of a single piece of iron; John had wrapped the hilt in blackened leather so that he could hold the dagger more securely. Now he folded his arms on top of his knees and watched as I leapt back onto the floor, thrusting the dagger at an imaginary opponent. For several minutes I practiced the lunges and feints and guards that the boy in the house next to mine had taught me during the previous year. In turn, I had taught those same movements to John as fair payment for the lessons he was giving me in how to perfect the Emorian and Daxion I'd picked up from travellers, as well as learning the older version of the Emorian tongue, used only in the imperial law documents and chronicles. Thus John now knew how to defend himself as well as any city boy, and I knew the languages of the Three Lands as well as any learned priest.

John was still watching me closely, so I reluctantly returned the weapon to its owner, saying, "I wish I had a blade like that."

"Why don't you?" John asked, slipping the dagger back into its sheath. "The priests don't like to see me carrying a dagger, but that's because I'll be an unarmed priest some day. There's no reason a boy your age shouldn't own a free-man's weapon. Can't your mother afford to buy you one?"

I sat down again, curling my legs up against my chest and resting my chin on my knees. "I asked her for a dagger last year. She said she didn't want me to carry a blade because I was too much like my father, unable to control my bloodthirst. She was afraid I would end up like him."

"But that sort of thing happens all the time," said John in a matter-of-fact manner. "Some Emorian soldiers who are escorting an ambassadorial party swagger into a tavern as though they've already conquered this entire land, they boast about how the Chara's armies will defeat the Koretian army, and the next you know there's a fight. Your father isn't the first soldier to lose his life in a sword-duel with the Emorians."

"It's more than that . . . ." I hesitated, my gaze firmly fixed now on a blood-fly that was crawling up John's leg. John would always ignore such attacks, as he would rather allow a small portion of his blood to be drained than to kill a creature without need. I felt my face grow warm, but John said nothing, and I knew that if I spoke of something else, John would never raise this subject again, never probe for my secret. So I said in a low voice, "My mother told me how my father really died. He was killed by an Emorian soldier, like I'd always been told, but not because they had been duelling. The soldier was exacting vengeance. My father had already killed another Emorian, one of the army clerks. The man was unarmed."

A light breeze leapt in through the window, blowing aside the fly that had just found its drinking-spot, and providing the first and last relief that day from the heavy, muggy heat. John said softly, "I'm sure the gods forgave him for that."

"I hope so," I whispered. Unable to bear my feelings, I jumped up and whirled my way into the corner of the room, where some of the ancient wood panelling was beginning to crumble. "Speaking of the gods' forgiveness, what sort of punishment do you suppose the gods will give us for invading their house?"

John shook his head as he unhurriedly rose from the windowseat. "I asked Lovell whether I could come here, and he said that only superstition kept people from visiting. He said that of course I must show reverence here, as I do at the priests' house, but that the gods won't strike down any pious person who comes here seeking their peace."

"Is that why you came here?" I asked, dancing my way around the perimeter of the room like a bird doing a mate-dance. "Just for peace? I would think you'd have enough of that in your monotonous life at the priests' house. Look at what your day is like! Up at dawn, worship, spend the morning with Lovell studying languages and healing and priests' rites, worship again, spend half your afternoon working in the crafts shop, and then spend a few hours free here on the mountainside or, if you're very good and study hard, maybe visit me down in the city. And after all that, there's more worship and more time spent reading books before you go to bed at midnight. Is that really how you want to spend the rest of your life?"

John bowed his head and scuffed the floor with his sandal, sending sun-specked bits of dust spiralling upwards like tiny beads of flame. He said softly, "I think I'd be a good priest."

"You'd be good at anything you did," I replied firmly. "You're skilled with your dagger – why don't you become a soldier like me, so that we can fight the Emorians together? That way, we'd never have to part."

John raised his head slightly, tilting it so that one eye peered up at me. "Actually, I'd been thinking about that today – about how we could find a way to see each other when we came of age. You'd be off travelling with the army most of the time, and I'd be busy offering sacrifices to the gods, so I thought it would be nice if we had a place all to ourselves that we could stay in whenever you visited the city."

"A house, you mean?" I said idly.

"Well, sort of a house." He leaned back against the wall and looked at me steadily with his night-black eyes.

I grasped his meaning in an instant and halted my roaming. "John! We couldn't— I mean, wouldn't the gods be angry?"

"Why should they be angry?" John replied calmly. "It's not as though the priests or other people worship here any more. If I were a god, I'd want my house put to good use rather than have it stand empty year after year. We could fix it up so that this was a chapel where I came to worship. There's a big room at the other end of the house; I think it was both a dormitory and a kitchen at one time, but it would be a perfect place for you to practice your blade-play."

"That's a strange pairing of activities," I said, laughing.

"Well, we're a strange pair. Besides, the gods are like that as well, both fierce and merciful. Look at the Jackal."

I bit my lip but could not keep a smile from creeping onto my face. "What is it?" John asked uneasily.

"Would you like to meet a god?" I replied, battling to keep myself from bursting with the news.

"Of course," he said with the serene confidence of a boy who had grown up amidst the terrifying rites of the priests. "Actually— It's silly, really." He began kicking his foot against the floor again.

"No, tell me," I urged.

He turned his head so that his face was shielded from the burning midsummer sky-blaze. His shadowed face turned nearly as dark as his eyes. "Actually, that's why I came here today. I suppose I'm as superstitious as the city folk, but I thought that if the gods ever visited this land, they'd come here, to their house. I thought maybe my god would be waiting for me here."

I was bouncing up and down on my toes now, unable to contain my secret any longer. "I know where to meet a god. I saw one today."

John stared at me, his eyes wide, but without the slightest mote of disbelief on his face. After a moment, he said, "The Jackal?"

I nodded, pleased that he had understood so quickly. "It must have been him – he was wearing the god's face, just like the stories say. He was dressed all in black and moved as quietly as a mountain cat. I was scared into stone," I confessed unabashedly.

"Did he speak to you?" John asked with a hushed voice.

I shook my head. "It happened in the entrance to the cave. I was just about to travel through our passage, because I thought you might be waiting for me there, but I heard somebody coming, so I hid in the passage and looked out, and there he was, slipping out of the main tunnel. He didn't look my way, but I suppose he must have known I was there. I mean, he's a god."

John tilted his head back against the wall and stared reflectively at the smoke-hole in the ceiling, located above where the altar had once stood. "Maybe not," he said hesitantly. "I asked Lovell once why the Jackal hasn't been able to drive the Emorians from Koretia. The Jackal has been in this land for twenty years, after all, and he has the god's powers. Lovell said he supposed that the Jackal must be limited in the ways he can use his godly powers, just as the gods limit the ways in which they interfere in men's lives. So perhaps the Jackal acts like an ordinary man most of the time. If that's the case, he may not have known that you were there."

"Then I'm sure he didn't know I was there," I said confidently. "I've taught myself to be quiet and stealthy – you need to know how to act that way when you're a soldier, so that you can creep up on the enemy. But don't you see? The Jackal has made his lair in the cave! If we went there, we could ask the Jackal to make us his thieves, and we could begin fighting the Emorians now, before we became men."

"But the Jackal has been up north, harassing the Emorians who have settled in the conquered portions of Koretia," John said, a frown creasing his forehead. "Why would he be here?"

"Perhaps the Emorians are going to attack the capital next," I said in a matter-of-fact manner.

John stood very still, his empty dagger-hand hanging next to his free-man's blade. Seeing his face, I said hastily, "Don't worry – if that happened, I'd protect you. I wouldn't let the Emorians kill you."

"They'd kill other people," said John in a strained voice. "They'd kill lots of people, and if the city was captured, the Emorians would win the war. People are saying that our army can't hold out any longer in central Koretia – that the only reason our subcommander is still fighting is to keep the Emorians from reaching the capital."

"Well, they won't," I said, hastily grasping for words that would reassure John and prevent him from worrying about the merciless Emorian soldiers. "I heard a trader talking last night who had just come back from the north. He said that our army is continuing to hold the Emorians back and that the Chara is furious, because he has been fighting this war for twelve years now, and his army still can't reach the capital. The Chara thought he had won the war when he killed our King last autumn, but even with no one on the throne, the King's Council has been able to keep the war going. So there's no way that the Emorians will be able to attack the city any time soon."

John's expression eased somewhat, but he said, "The Emorians could cut across the border from Daxis. There are gaps in the mountain range not far from here."

"Daxis won't allow Emor to do that," I said patiently, drawing closer to John to place a reassuring hand on his. John had been standing in the sun all this while, and his skin was moist with the sweat that clothed all of us in the south from spring to autumn. I closed my palm hard over his loose hand, as though I were wrapping my hand around a dagger hilt, and said, "Koretia has an alliance with Daxis that forbids the Daxions from allowing passage to the Emorian army. And anyway, we have border guards at the mountain gaps who would raise the alarm if the Emorians came near. So the Emorians can't attack through Daxis from the south or the west, and unless the Chara has suddenly acquired a navy, his soldiers can't attack from the eastern sea-coast. And our army is holding the Emorians back in the north. So you see, we're quite safe from being conquered by that godless ruler."

John still had misery scribed upon his face, so I added, "I heard a new joke about the Chara."

John smiled tentatively. "Tell me."

"The joke asks: Which god does the Chara worship? The answer is: Only himself."

John laughed then, a laugh I heard so rarely that I had come to welcome it like a cool breeze on a heat-snared day. He said, "I learned something about the Chara today too, during my lessons. I learned all of his titles."

"What kind of lesson is that?" I asked, moving to where I could stare through the window to the city below. From this vantage point I could see the haphazard cluster of timber-framed houses jammed into the tight noose of the block-and-mortar city wall. Toward the south end of the city, nearest to me, was the glowing face of the Council Hall, with its cavestone-paved courtyard shining like a gold piece under the sky's fire. Tiny figures moved back and forth over it like dust specks: lords or free-servants or slave-servants, going about their appointed tasks.

"It was a lesson in memorization. Listen to this . . ." John drew a deep breath and said, "Nicholas, the Great Chara of Emor and Its Dominions, Judge of the People, Commander of the Armies, Lord of the Marcadian Mountains, Ruler of the Arpeshian Nation, Master of the Koretian Land."

"Master of the Koretian Land!" This infuriated me so much that I jerked out my slingshot and flung a missile wildly through the window at nothing in particular. A bird squawked in protest, but I could see, as it flew past the window, that it had only lost a few of its tail-feathers, so I was not disturbed.

"Master of the Koretian Land." I snorted. "The Chara will never be master to me or any other loyal Koretian, not even if he wins this war. Now that the King is dead, our land belongs only to the gods. I can't see why Lovell made you memorize such a ridiculous set of titles."

"I was asking him about the Chara," John said, staring so pointedly at my slingshot that I thrust it back under my belt. "Lovell says that the Emorian council gave the Chara that last title this spring in anticipation of the end of this war. Lovell thinks Koretia should become a dominion of the Emorian Empire – I wanted to know why."

"May the Jackal eat his dead!" I said, losing hold of my temper entirely. "How could Lovell say such a thing?"

John's breath whistled in. "You shouldn't swear such words," he said softly. "It's not wise to call down the god's vengeance without reason."

"I'm sorry," I said, instantly chastened, as I always was when John scolded me. Then, wishing to make reparation, I said, "Well, tell me – what did Lovell say?"

"He said that the Emorians would end the blood feuds – that in the conquered areas of Koretia, the Emorians have forbidden men from making blood vows to murder, and because of this, whole families aren't wiped out while fighting each other in feuds."

I creased my brow in puzzlement. "But what about when somebody breaks the gods' law and refuses to submit himself to his god's judgment? How can people avenge crimes without taking blood vows to kill the law-breaker?"

John leaned against the window jamb, folding his arms and cocking his head to one side. The long hair of his boyhood brushed against his shoulder. Already he was talking of having it cut and going through the coming-of-age ceremony several years early. Somehow I had not been surprised to learn that John was eager to become a man.

"That's what I don't understand entirely," he said. "It has to do with one of the Chara's titles: 'Judge of the People.' Apparently, in Emor, the Chara and a few other men working under him are given the right to decide whether men have broken the law and what punishment they should undergo."

"But that's awful!" I exploded. "The Chara isn't a priest – the gods don't tell him whether their laws are broken. When we take a blood vow to murder, we know that the gods will punish us if we break our vows or fulfill our vows against the wrong people, but what's to prevent the Chara from punishing the innocent or giving law-breakers harsh punishments just because he doesn't like them?"

"That's what puzzled me," John replied. "Lovell said it had to do with the law – not the gods' law, but Emorian law. But he couldn't explain to me how the Emorians have laws when they have no gods. Some day I'd like to learn more about the Emorians. Maybe they're not as evil as everyone says. Maybe our lands don't have to be fighting each other."

"That's—!" I stopped. A look of quiet stubbornness had entered into John's eyes that I recognized well. Knowing that I would not win any battle I now waged, I graciously admitted defeat. "I suppose there must be something good about the Chara and his people, or they wouldn't have conquered most of the Great Peninsula. But Daxis is still free, and so is Koretia, and we'll never let the Chara be our ruler. We don't need his law. We have our gods, and they watch over us. Like the Jackal," I added, impatiently prodding the conversation back to where it belonged.

"The Jackal," John murmured. I could see the glint of interest in his eyes.

"He'd make us his thieves, I'm sure he would," I said. "Wouldn't that be a treasuresome experience, speaking to the god and pledging ourselves to his service?"

"I wouldn't want to kill anyone," John demurred. "I'm not sure it's right to kill a man."

"I don't suppose all of his thieves kill Emorians," I said. "Armies have men who don't fight, and I imagine that the Jackal does as well. Maybe he needs doctors to tend his thieves' wounds – you're good at that, thanks to your training."

I could see enthusiasm fighting across John's face in an attempt to defeat uncertainty, so I said, "We could just ask him. If he didn't want us, we'd go away, but at least we would have the chance to talk to a god."

"Well . . ."

In that single word I read a slip into assent. I leapt toward the door, shouting, "I'll race you to the cave!" Without looking back, I darted from the sanctuary, charged out of the gods' house, and began running down the northern slope of Capital Mountain, toward the cave entrance.

o—o—o

The impact of my leather sandals striking the forest floor was the softest noise on the mountainside. That sound was cowed into submissive silence by the force of the cicadas' song, the ravens' hoarse cries, and the harrowing call of a jackal who had started his night-prowl early.

I passed a patrol on the way. The dozen soldiers were sitting on logs, chatting with each other as they ate a mid-afternoon meal. They greeted me in a friendly manner with fingers against heart and forehead, and then continued their talk.

They did not look eager to return to patrolling. I could not blame them. Because it had been centuries since the Daxion army had last invaded us, and since most Daxions who tried to breach the border did so at the gaps on either side of this mountain, the patrol guards' main duty on this mountain was to track the Jackal, who was periodically rumored to make his lair near the city. They might as well track a shadow on a moonless night.

Many minutes later, as I neared the clearing that led to the mouth of the cave, I glanced over my shoulder to see whether John was following. He was close behind, making no effort to overtake me. My brief look nearly caused me to tumble over a log, but with a crow of laughter I jumped over the obstacle, spreading my arms like wings as I soared through the air. Then, in a very few steps, I could see the cave entrance.

Like the rest of Capital Mountain, it was composed of a pale sandstone too soft to be used as building material. The main cavern, I knew, was made of a stone that glowed a soft gold – not through any power of its own, but because of the algae that grew upon it. "Jackal's fire" the alga was commonly called. Yet beneath the algae, the stone was golden as well, and reflected brightly when brought into sunlight. This golden stone had been used to construct the walls and courtyard pavement of the Koretian Council Hall, though it was so hard to remove from the cave walls that most of the glowing stone had been left in the cave where it formed.

I flung myself behind the ridge of rock that partly obscured the entrance on both sides, and then stood on tiptoe and peered over the ridge to watch John run the remaining ground with easy grace. As he reached me, I turned toward the main tunnel. After an eternity of winding, the tunnel would eventually reach the main cavern. But John caught hold of my sleeve and said, "Wait."

"Why?" I asked, trying to pull myself free. Then I saw his face and ceased to struggle.

He said quietly, "I thought about it more while we were running. The stories always say that the Jackal summons his thieves into service. I've never heard of a case where anyone came to him and begged to be taken into his service. The Jackal knows who we are and what we have to offer. If he wants us as his thieves, he'll let us know."

"But you said before that his godly powers might not tell him everything, so—" I stopped. John had made no protest at my words, nor even moved, but the look in his eyes made me feel uneasy. I said quickly, "You know best about such matters. But couldn't we just watch him?"

"Spy on the god?" John gave a relaxed smile. "You're braver than I am. I wouldn't want to face the hunting god with explanations if he caught me in such an act. Come on, let's go to the sanctuary."

I shrugged to hide my disappointment and followed John as he slipped through the boy-sized hole that was hidden in a shadow of the hollowed-out entrance area. The light-truant passage that lay beyond the hole was a shortcut to the main cavern, but we rarely used it as such. It was not safe to do so.

The land of Daxis lay to the west and southwest of Koretia, with the Daxions' capital city on the south side of the mountain. The cave – actually a series of caverns that had been carved through the mountain by men long ago – ran north-south from Koretia to Daxis.

Both lands could see the strategic importance of the cave. Both wanted the cave. Various skirmishes had taken place over the centuries to determine who claimed this territory. At present, at least in theory, the cave was divided between the two southern lands of the Great Peninsula, with guards posted in the middle to prevent crossings over the border.

It made no difference. Though the Daxion guards were skilled at keeping back genuine border-breachers, they had a tendency to turn a blind eye to men who wished to slip temporarily over the border from Daxis in order to cause trouble within the cave. As a result, Daxion troublemakers were wont to drill arrows into Koretians that they found in any part of the cave.

The Koretian border guards in this cave, frustrated at their inability to prevent a conspiracy between the Daxion border guards and the troublemakers, were rumored to have called for a larger force of guards at this border. But the attention of the King's Council had for some time been focussed on the far more important border between Koretia and Emor, which was slipping south day by day.

In the meantime, the arrow-drilling continued. So John and I would usually stop halfway down the passage in an area that John had christened the sanctuary: a small, round nook, like a bead on the string of the passage. It was located directly under a breach between the mountainside and the passage, and it therefore received a bit of the sun's light.

It was here I had first met John two years before, on a day when I discovered the passage entrance, too small for a man and therefore of interest to no one except myself. Or so I had thought, until I reached the sanctuary. Furious at finding my new hideout claimed, I had offered to fight John for possession of the site, but had been discouraged to find that he both refused to fight and refused to leave. I had therefore taken out my frustration by asserting one of my radical new beliefs – that men, like women, should marry upon coming of age, rather than waiting several years, as was customary for men.

My efforts to voice-duel with John were stymied, however, when I discovered he held the same view. I was further subdued when I learned he believed this, not because he wished to marry early like me, but because, as a future celibate priest, he was concerned with the welfare of the couples to whom he would minister.

Puzzled by this self-possessed boy, I had accepted his invitation to visit the priests' house. There I found that, while John was well liked by the other orphan boys, he was isolated from them by his priestly ambitions and therefore had no close friends. With the impulsiveness I inherited from both my hot-tempered father and my affectionate mother, I promptly placed John under my care, resolving to protect him against any troubles that might come his way. I explained this resolution to him immediately, not out of pride but so that he would know he had nothing further to fear. He had accepted my proclamation of mastership with quiet submission, but there had been a faint smile on his face I could not interpret.

Now, as we reached the bright, humid area of the sanctuary, John paused at the threshold with the same smile on his lips, and he whispered the words that priests speak to the gods when asking permission to enter holy ground. I waited impatiently behind him; I honored the gods, but I was not one to waste my time on customary demonstrations of respect. As the prayer reached its end, I jostled my way past him in order to kneel beside a pool of water that had collected from the morning's rain. Reaching down to dip my hands into the cool relief of the water, I paused to stare at my reflection, which I rarely saw. At the moment that I caught sight of myself, I had been chuckling inwardly at John's determination to worship the gods wherever he went, so the lines of my face were struggling to contain the laughter that poured out of my eyes and trembled upon my lips. I smashed the reflection in a gleeful assertion of my power; then I turned to look at John.

He was kneeling beside a small heap of twigs he had taken from a pile he maintained in this place. His tinderbox had been taken from his belt pouch, and he had just succeeded in sparking the flint. The kindle-light fell upon the twigs and started them smoking.

I waited until the tiny blaze was well under way and John had whispered the ritual words above his play sacrificial fire before I said, "That fire is the reason the Emorians haven't been able to conquer our land. The Jackal and the other gods aren't on the Chara's side; they would never allow the Emorians to win over us."

John, sitting cross-legged beside the fire, cupped his left hand briefly over the flame before snatching it back from the heat. "The ways of the gods are mysterious, but certainly the gods must watch over those who seek their protection. The Chara claims he can shield the Koretians against our enemies if we surrender, but the gods can protect us better than any man. Perhaps the Chara should spend less time fighting and more time building fires to the gods."

"Or building fires of any sort," I said with a laugh as I drew myself over to his side. "The reason the Chara hasn't won this war is that he doesn't know how to fight properly. What's the use of holding a battle over a town if the Chara leaves the town standing afterwards? Only a weakling would leave a town unburnt after he conquered it. No Koretian could fear an army commander who showed such mercy."

"I don't think they fight with fire in Emor," murmured John. He carefully extinguished with dust the last of the sacrificial flames, and then rose to his feet and stared with bowed head at where the fire had burnt.

I rose too and placed an arm around his waist, saying firmly, "Stop worrying. It won't happen."

John did not look my way. He said softly, "Will you promise me something? If the Emorians attack, and you're not in immediate danger, will you stay at your house? I don't want to have to search the entire city for you."

I gave him a reassuring squeeze before releasing him in order to twirl over to the opposite side of the small sanctuary. "I promise you, I'll stay where I am," I said. "If you get frightened at the priests' house, just come to me, and I'll take care of you."

John raised his head then. "It's not that. It's that people become separated in war. It could take us years to find each other again . . . and if one of us died, we'd be separated by death. We might not even recognize each other when we met again."

"That's silly," I said, speaking brusquely to cover my nervousness. "I'd know you even if we met in the Land Beyond."

"Maybe not." John pushed back a forelock of hair that sweat had plastered against his brow. "People change, you know. Maybe one day, years from now, you'll be working in the city as a soldier, and I'll have become a priest who ministers to the Emorians—"

"You wouldn't," I interrupted. "The Emorians don't worship the gods."

"Maybe they will by then. Perhaps I'll turn up at your door and speak to you with an Emorian accent because I've spent so long with the Emorians, and you won't recognize me as a result. So you'll say, 'I beg that you impart to me your name,' and I'll tell you who I am, but you won't believe me because I've changed so much, and since I work with the Emorians, you'll shut the door and refuse to welcome me into your house."

This dreadful little tale caused me to sag into such misery that I had no energy left with which to fight John's vision of the future. Watching my face, John said with the same quiet conviction, "I'll tell you what we should do. We should become blood brothers. That way, we'll always have the marks of our vows to remind us of one another, even if we never see each other again."

I lifted my eyebrows in surprise. "You didn't want to do that when I suggested it last year."

"I didn't think the time was right. I believe that you should wait for a sign from the gods before pledging your blood. You saw the Jackal today, so perhaps that's our sign. Do you remember the words?" He slid the dagger out of his sheath as he spoke.

I nodded eagerly. "Can we swear vows of service to the gods also? That would make it even better."

John was silent a moment, touching the tip of the dagger lightly with his finger. Then he said, "If we do that, I think we should offer a sacrifice. The gods have to help us keep our vows, and I don't think it would be right to ask their help with two vows unless we were willing to offer them a gift in return."

I smiled, hopping from foot to foot at the thought of making three blood vows at once. John stared beyond me for a moment, his eyes focussed at the darkness of the passage beyond. Then he placed the dagger tip against his right wrist, selected the spot that all Koretians are taught from the moment they are cradle-high, and bit the blade into his arm, digging deep enough to make a scar that would remain. As he did so, he said, "I, John, do swear unto the Unknowable God and my blood brother's god that I will show true faith of friendship toward Andrew son of Gideon, protecting him against all harm and helping him to keep his vows. I bind myself with this vow until death and beyond. I further swear that I will do all that lies within my power to bring peace to this land. In token of my willingness to obey the will of the gods . . ."

For the first time John hesitated. Then he said firmly, "I sacrifice unto the gods my desire to become a priest. If it be their will that I take up some other duty, I will do as they wish."

I stood in hushed silence, watching a flicker of pain pass through John's eyes as he offered his sacrifice. Then he smiled at me and handed me the blood-stained blade. Cutting into my left wrist with a stoic determination not to flinch, since even John had kept from doing so, I said, "I, Andrew son of Gideon, do swear unto the Jackal God and the Unknowable God that I will show true faith of friendship toward John . . ." I hesitated and looked over at John, but he gave a quick shake of the head. Unlike the other orphan boys, he had not randomly selected a patronymic, any more than he had randomly selected a god to serve. I continued, "Toward John, protecting him against all harm and helping him to keep his vows. I bind myself with this vow until death and beyond. I further swear that I will do all that lies within my power . . ." I paused. An idea had formed in my mind; rather than give myself time to doubt its wisdom, I finished quickly, ". . . to bring freedom to Koretia and to kill the Chara." I grabbed John's arm and pressed his wrist against mine so that our blood mingled and our vows were joined.

It was not until after John had gently pulled his arm away that I looked up at his face and realized what I had done. I offered him the dagger, hilt-first, and said, "You don't have to help me with that last part. That's just my own vow."

John looked at the blade without moving. "We'll have to kill the Chara To Be also."

"Who?" I asked, inwardly relieved that I would have help in fulfilling my difficult murder vow.

"The Chara's son, Lord Peter. The Emorians regard him as also being the Chara, since he's the heir."

"So we'll kill him too," I said testily, nonplussed at being burdened with a second murder. "It won't be that hard if we find them together."

"I suppose not," said John softly. "The Chara's son is only a boy."

Faintly above us, I could hear once more the eerie howl of the jackal as it closed in on its spoils. Angry at myself now for my impetuosity, I thrust the dagger forward once more and said, "Here. Clean it before the blood dries on the blade."

John searched my face with his eyes before saying, "You didn't finish the vow. You have to offer your sacrifice."

"Oh, that," I said carelessly. "I don't know what sort of sacrifice the god would like me to make, so I'll let the god choose whatever he wants. I'll give him anything I have."

John said quietly, "You ought not to make that sort of offer unless you mean it."

"I'm not afraid," I said with a laugh. I barely heard what I was saying; I was simply trying to hide my continued annoyance with myself at forcing my peacemaking friend to swear a murder vow. "I know that the god won't take anything from me that I truly need, and you may be sure I'll make good use of whatever he leaves me." I tossed the dagger into John's hands and then, since there was little room to move in the small passage, I twirled in one place like a bird caught within the vortex of a death wind.

When I finally stopped, clutching the wall to steady my dizzy body, I saw that John was smiling as he wiped the blade clean on his tunic. He said, "Let's go see the Jackal now."

"You mean it?" I bounced toward him in delight.

John nodded. "Not to offer him our service – just to tell him about our vows and how we made them because you saw him. He'll be pleased to hear that."

I did not wait for John to have doubts again but began to race down the dark passage toward the cave. I knew the passage so well that I could do this without fear of running into any obstacles. I had nearly reached the boy-sized opening that led to the final, shadowy stretch of the passage when John grabbed hold of me from behind and whispered, "Quietly! You can't burst into the god's presence like that. Pretend that you're a bottom-ranked soldier meeting your commander."

This image sobered me, so I followed John's lead as he wriggled through the hole and began walking quietly toward the golden light. Already I could hear the sound of men's voices. Before we had stepped out of the masking darkness, I stopped to stare at what lay ahead.

The glowing stone always filled the main cavern with dim light, but now the cavern was daylight-bright because a large bonfire had been built in the center of the area before us. The smoke, tickling our noses with the scent of pine needles, rose into the high ceiling, leaving the cave floor free of the dark mist.

There would hardly have been room for the smoke in any case, so close-jammed were the men. Dozens of them stood near us, all dressed in soldiers' armor and all going about their business with an efficient intensity. Their hurried yet steady movements reminded me of the visits I had made as a small child to where my father worked. There at the Koretian army headquarters I had watched soldiers burnishing their shields, whetting their blades, and securing their spearheads. Here too I could see all these activities, but with one difference. As I felt John draw close to me, I realized that he too had noted the difference: these men had skin the color of sandstone.

We had found the Emorian army.