In the following excerpt, Kel, a young Pallideen woman, has been given sanctuary in the Garden by Tristramacus, one of only two Elder beings who remain to walk the earth. One is so young, the other so very, very old; one has seen too little, the other far too much.
“Oh, what a lovely flower! What is it?”
He came over to see what she was looking at, a vine that wound around a crumbling stone pillar. It had spiky leaves and a trumpet-shaped bloom the color of a twilight sky. Tristramacus groped in his memory, searching for its name. Such a cluttered attic, piled deep with layer upon layer of images, names, scraps of conversation, painful barbs of unfinished business and failed attempts that were remembered more vividly than the successes. An attic that defied all attempts at organization. The unneeded and unwanted items resisted purging; others, more precious, got lost and refused to be found. A grand thing, this superior brain of his species, yet still a frustration of stubborn flaws.
“I don’t recall,” he confessed. “It is a pretty thing, isn’t it?”
It was, and to his surprise, he felt delight in it because of Kel. She intoxicated him with her joy.
“Look, a brook!”
“A brook?” Tristramacus frowned. There shouldn’t be a brook here. Had they gotten turned around somehow? No, there were the cedars above them on the slope, the oldest of the trees bent and gnarled. He had spent a few summers some centuries ago cultivating the cedars, starting new plants and setting them out where the soil was rocky and there were outcroppings of ledge. It was something Ceresiverdia had spoken of doing but had never gotten around to. The hardy cedars would do well there, she said, and she had been right. He could see them dotting the slope, most of them jagged with age now, but new seedlings bravely clinging here and there. This grove at the bottom which marked the edge of where the herbarium used to be was becoming choked by fast-growing deciduous trees and invasive brush. It had once been a pretty place. The impossibility of accomplishing anything of lasting value defeated him. He gave up trying to do anything, to make any attempt to maintain what had been.
She was speaking to him, drawing him back to the present. He focused on her with difficulty, preoccupied with black introspection. Kel, his bright, beautiful tormentor. What would he do when she finally died?
When she dies, I shall drink a draught of poison, as Ceresiverdia did. My corpse shall be her monument. My bones shall mark her grave. The flesh will give way and my skull will grin, then the jaw will fall open in laughter. Free at last!
“These berries,” she said, and he forced himself to pay attention to her words, “they smell very strong. Are they good to eat?”
“Let’s see. Ah. Not really, no. Soaked in alcohol and diluted, they make a fine, invigorating beverage. Eaten on their own, they’d likely make you ill. Perhaps deathly so.”
It was Dram who had shown him what the Pallideen had discovered, how to flavor a distilled alcoholic beverage with these berries. Clever apes! Didn’t need us to teach them everything! Marvelous stuff, with a vicious kick. They’d made a good pot of the brew for the victory feast after that first war. He hadn’t yet appreciated just how powerful the stuff was. Damn, had he gotten stinking drunk! How they all laughed—of course they made utter fools of themselves. And how their heads all hurt the next day!
Of course, discovering something simple like using juniper for flavoring alcohol was a far cry from cellular biology. But maybe they could progress to that. Maybe there could be Pallideen scientists. There might be individuals among them who had the intellect for it.
Then Kel pulled him over to a crumbled heap of masonry that reminded him of something else. Everything had associations. There was nothing he could do, no place he could go, that wasn’t haunted.
Kel and her three companions could not begin to understand the chain of events they are about to forge by waking Brinnalamaya, upsetting the toxic equilibrium of nearly two thousand years.
“You want to go in there?” Per asked, staring at the great stone edifice. “Are you sure?”
Kel nodded. “I believe we must.”
She had told them nothing, merely asked them to follow her, the better to get them away without the need for lengthy explanations that might alarm the group or excite the curious. She wanted no one else involved should something go wrong.
“You know more of these things than we,” Dale said, marveling at the white marble stags.
“What is in there?” Yan asked, looking at the silver door uneasily.
“I will show you, and explain what we must do.” The holes had disappeared, and she had to find them again.
“Is it locked?” Yan asked, a trifle hopefully.
“Nothing in this city is locked,” Kel said. “They never saw the need. Anyway, I have been here already. I know the way.” The key holes appeared and she opened the door.
“Ai-yi-yi!” Yan shook his head.
Dale shrugged and followed Kel in without hesitation, which shamed Per into doing the same.
“Look at this!” Per whispered, gazing around himself.
“Riches beyond imagining.” Dale ran his finger over the gilt scrollwork of a chair.
“Books!” Per cried. “Look at the books! So many of them!” He admired the rows of neat leather bindings holding their secrets folded shut on the shelves.
“What are all these devices?” Dale asked, touching a curiously shaped metal box.
“Don’t!” Yan was hanging back in the doorway.
“It’s all right,” Kel assured him. “None of these things can harm us. Tristramacus explained them and their uses to me. That is called a ‘messenger.’ They used it to contact each other across long distances. This is a lamp, which casts a strong light, the better for writing or reading. I am not sure about that one over there.” There had been a device like it in her residence. Tristramacus had dismissed it as frivolous.
“How soft everything is, and beautiful,” Per murmured. “The Sanctum of the Holy Master must be like this.”
“She was their leader?” Dale asked.
“Yes, but these luxuries were not for her alone,” Kel said. “Most citizens in their city also enjoyed them. They all lived in comfort and plenty.”
“How is that possible?” Yan asked.
“They believed in science, not superstition. They studied the world and pried loose all its secrets, then shared the wealth freely with all their citizens.”
“And yet,” Dale said, “their civilization perished.”
Kel nodded. “For all their wisdom, still, they made mistakes.” She picked up a blanket that was folded neatly over the back of a couch, and gestured to them. “Come, what we seek is through here.” She led them to the inscribed door.
“This is the chamber where she sleeps?” Per asked.
“Yes,” Kel said.
“We are going in there?” Yan cried. “What if Tristramacus catches us?”
“He will not be pleased,” Kel admitted, searching for the key holes.
“Then let us be quick about the business,” Dale said.
The door slid away, and the chamber was revealed. Kel gave them a moment to take it in. The Prime lay as she had before, unaffected by Kel’s previous intrusion. Kel approached her again, motioning the others to join her.
“She doesn’t look dead.” Per looked down at the face of the sleeping Prime in wonder.
“She doesn’t look alive, either,” Yan said. “Is she breathing?”
“I can’t tell,” Kel said.
“What sustains her?” Per asked.
“This chamber, these crystals, it focuses energy in a way that can sustain them. They had a way of using the heat of the earth to make power for their city. Even after all this time, it still works.”
Yan looked up at the glittering, tinkling ceiling. “It can’t hurt us, can it?”
“No,” Kel said. “It’s just light.”
“What now?” Per asked.
“We must try to wake her.”
“Wake her?” Yan stared in horror. “You cannot be serious!”
“I am serious,” Kel said. “I believe she is the only one who can help Tristramacus.”
“How do we wake her?” Dale asked.
“Tristramacus said that after all this time he doubted they would have the strength wake up. So, we must provide her with the strength she needs.”
“If light sustains them,” Per mused, “a stronger light, then?”
Dale said, “I’ve heard that the Holy Master often goes and meditates in his courtyard on days when the sky was clear and the sun bright. It is said that he was speaking with the Supreme God, taking strength into himself with this holy communion. Perhaps it is merely the sunlight.”
“It is,” Kel affirmed. “Tristramacus does the same. There is something in their skin which takes in light and gives them energy.”
“So, we need to get her outside,” Per said.
“Wait, you’re not thinking of moving her, I mean, carting her out of here bodily?” Yan asked, incredulous.
“That’s why I brought you all with me,” Kel replied. “I can‘t move her by myself.”
“Wait,” Per said, “we’re supposed to carry her? She’s huge!”
“Shhh!” Yan hissed.
“Shh what?” Per shot back sarcastically, “Afraid I’ll wake her up?”
“I think we can manage it,” Dale said, “with all of us working together.”
Kel unfolded the blanket she had brought.
“We can use this,” she said. “We just need to slip it underneath her.”
Yan recoiled, unable to compel himself to touch her. Per, following Dale’s lead with determination, gently took hold of the Prime’s clothing and rolled her to one side. It was not easy.
“Come on, Yan!” Per snapped.
His jaw tight, Yan steeled himself and pitched in. The Prime was completely limp, heavy and loose as a sack of grain. They managed, with a bit of undignified shoving and shifting, to get the blanket beneath her.
“All right,” Kel said. “Now, let’s go.”
They positioned themselves around Brinnalamaya, each taking a corner. Kel held her breath as they lifted the blanket, hoping it wouldn’t give and tear.
“May the gods forgive us!” Yan said through clenched teeth.
It was hardly a dignified way to treat so hallowed a person, especially when they bumped up against things in their struggle and were forced to let her drop to the ground when they had to rest. Still, there was no one to witness the indignity, and the Prime herself was after all, oblivious. It was an awkward business, especially given the difference in the strength of the four bearers. But they finally managed to reach the Garden transport and get their noble cargo loaded into it. When the doors opened onto the bright morning light, they struggled out, half-dragging their burden onto the grass. There they collapsed in exhaustion.
“We made it!” Per groaned. “I can’t believe it!”
“This had better work,” Yan swore, “because I’m sure as damnation not carrying her back!”
Kel carefully arranged the Prime on the grass in a position of dignified repose. The morning sun fell on her face. She looked pale, lacking the rich, reddish brown hue of her kind. In the strong light, her skin appeared waxy. Kel bit her lip, riddled with doubts.
“Brinnalamaya,” she called softly, not really expecting a reaction.
The being suddenly sucked in a deep breath. The four of them jumped.
Her heart pounding, Kel called her again. “Brinnalamaya?” She thought she saw the Prime’s eyelids flutter slightly.
“She seems to be breathing steadily now,” Dale said, his hand on her chest. “And I can feel a steady heatbeat.”
“Brinnalamaya,” Kel said again.
The Prime sucked in another deep breath. “Who calls me?” she murmured in a slurred, weak voice.
“I am Kel, of the Pallideen,” she said.
“The what?” Per asked in a hushed voice.
“Pallideen,” Kel whispered back. “Tristramacus told me it was their name for us.”
“Tristramacus,” Brinnalamaya echoed, “Oh, no. Not again.” She seemed to sink back into oblivion.
“That didn’t sound promising,” Per said.
Kel frowned. It certainly didn’t. They waited, undecided.
“Try calling her name again,” Dale suggested.
“Mmmm.” She blinked. “Ah!” She shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand. “What is this? Where am I?”
“You are in the Garden,” Kel said.
“The Garden? What am I doing here?”
“We brought you here.”
She squinted up at her. “Why? How dare you disturb my rest? Who are you?” Her voice was growing stronger but she still sounded disoriented.
“I am Kel. My Lady, with all respect, forgive this offense, but you are needed. These are times of crisis.”
“It’s always a time of crisis,” Brinnalamaya sighed, closing her eyes again. “I am weary of crises.”
“Forgive us, my Lady, but we did not know what else to do,” Kel pleaded.
“They never do,” she murmured, “and always expect that I shall save the day. Very well. Help me to sit up.”
Dale and Per did as she requested, assisting her up.
“Oh, dear,” she said, and coughed. “I’m afraid—one of you must go back to my chamber. Just outside the door on a table you’ll find a container—“ She stopped, frowning worriedly. “Can any of you read?”
“We all can,” Kel said with pride.
“Oh, good,” Brinnalamaya said. She closed her eyes, swaying dizzily. “It says, ‘Antimorphia’ on it. It says a great deal more, but that word will be in large print. Kindly fetch it for me. Quickly. I believe my life may depend on it.”
Dale galloped off without further prompt.
The Prime seemed to be struggling to breathe. “One goes through…certain preparations…prior to entering oblivion…I must now…counteract those measures…don’t expect you understand…”
“I understand better than you might think,” Kel said, “But I guess not as well as I should have. Is there anything else we should do?” She helped the ailing being to lie back down again, and her breathing became easier.
“Water,” she whispered with difficulty, “would…be nice…”
“Yan,” Kel said urgently, “there are cups and a pitcher in my shelter. Run and get some water!”
“All right,” he said, jumping to his feet, grateful for an excuse to escape from the scene of the crime.
By the time Dale returned, Brinnalamaya had begun to slip back into oblivion again. Dale was panting, and slid to a stop on the grass next to them. “I hope this is it! There were all kinds of containers, but this box was the only one that had that word on it.”
They roused the groggy Prime and showed her the box.
“Ah, yes, this is it.” Brinnalamaya opened it with a touch to the side of its lid, and squinted at the instructions written on the cover. “I’m afraid my eyes won’t focus. It really was never intended that a person should come out of oblivion without assistance.”
“Shall I read it for you?” Kel offered.
“Well, I suppose you could try,” Brinnalamaya said doubtfully, handing her the box.
The text was clear and simple. The Prime followed the instructions as Kel recited them, first swallowing several tablets from jars inside the box. Then she scrutinized a small envelope.
“I’ll need to dissolve the contents of this packet in water. Might I have a cup?”
“It’s on it’s way,” Kel assured her, scanning the bushes for signs of Yan’s return.
While she waited, Brinnalamaya took some kind of cream from another jar and began rubbing it over her skin. It looked as if the surface layer began to peel off. “Ah, that’s better. I’ll need a good bath, and a second application, but this will do for now.”
Yan returned, walking as gingerly as he could without spilling the pitcher of water held out in front of him. Kel took the cup from his belt and filled it from the pitcher, then handed it to the Prime. Brinnalamaya tore open the packet and emptied the contents into the water. She looked around, and then resigned herself to stirring it up with her finger. When she had drunk the contents of the cup she uttered a contented sigh. “Much better. Yes, I believe it’s all taking effect. I should be all right now, I think. Now,” and Brinnalamaya looked from one to the other rather severely, “I seem to remember hearing a name that I’d rather I hadn’t. Did that old warstag put you up to this?”
They glanced at one other uneasily.
“You mean, Tristramacus?” Kel asked, almost apologetically.
The Prime winced and nodded. “Yes,” she sighed, “Tristramacus.”
“No, my Lady, it was my idea. My friends Dale, Per and Yan helped me. But I take full responsibility for it.”
The Prime nodded. “Very well. But he must have had a hand in it somewhere along the line. You couldn’t have come up with this on your own. Unless things have changed rather radically.” She frowned. “Just how long have I been asleep?”
“I think about two thousand years,” Kel said.
Brinnalamaya gasped. “Blessed stars! That long? My word! And Tristramacus is still around and stirring up trouble? Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“No, my Lady,” Kel said, “It’s not he who is making the trouble. It’s the Prophet of Lies, Mirramarduk.”
“The prophet of what?”
“He calls himself the Holy Master,” Per said, “And he has enslaved our people.”
“Excuse me, ‘Holy Master’? The last I knew, Mirramarduk was merely a rather overly ambitious junior member of the Council. May I have another drink please?”
Yan, who was holding the pitcher, said “Yes, Ma’am,” and carefully filled her cup.
“Ah, thank you. That’s much better.”
Kel noticed several sets of eyes peering out of the underbrush. It seemed that Yan had brought an audience back with him.
“Let’s see, Mirramarduk,” the Prime said. “I remember him well. Charming, intelligent and completely unscrupulous. Vindictive perhaps, a bit volatile if provoked, but more or less harmless. Who elevated him to sainthood?”
“He did, himself,” Kel said, “And he destroyed the City, and the Temple–”
“Wait a moment,” Brinnalamaya said, holding up her hand. “Before I become even further mired in complete confusion, would you please tell me as best you can, in chronological order if possible, what has been going on in the last two thousand years and how it involves my dear old Commander Tristramacus? But first, I am starving. Might there be some fruit growing in the general vicinity?”
Dale started to stand up, but Yan beat him to it, hastily offering to go. Kel sent him off in a likely direction. “You might as well take some of the others with you. We could all use a good breakfast.”
“I shall direct them, with your permission,” Dale said with a slight bow. Kel nodded. An informal chain of command seemed to be developing. She was grateful for it.
“Go ahead, thank you. See to it that everyone is fed.”
Then Kel, with occasional footnotes from Per, tried her best to explain. The Prime, sipping water, and then daintily eating the berries Yan returned with, listened.
Brinnalamaya and Tristramacus are reconciled (more or less) and agree to guide the Freefolk to a new home far to the North. But their plans become complicated by their old adversary.
It was the last stretch of their journey home and Tristramacus was very glad of it. As much affection as he had for the Pallideen, they had begun to get on his nerves. The mission was accomplished; he had gotten two representatives of the Pallideen people to the place he planned to settle them and gotten their approval of the site. They had explored the trail and figured out the best route to get the whole caravan there with whatever supplies they might need to bring along. Soon he would be seeing Brinnalamaya again.
A heavy rain had slowed them down, days of dark clouds and drizzle with occasional downpours. He missed the sun, and it made him even more cranky. He had no patience for the whining misery of the little folk. It was finally beginning to clear and they were now only a day away from home, certainly not much more than that. He walked briskly, staying far enough ahead that he could tune out the constant chatter of the little folk. The incessant chatter. The constant, incessant chatter. Tristramacus found himself longing for the silence and solitude of the Subcity.
And longing for the company of Brinnalamaya. He missed her, missed the strength and reassuring stability of her touch. Particularly at night, when the little people’s need for sleep forced him into waiting, Tristramacus fell into melancholy. With his mind unoccupied by practical distractions, he tended to brood. This was a fool’s mission. This fragile little band of temperate zone primates couldn’t possibly survive in an alpine wilderness. There would be hardship, suffering, sickness and death. And Brinnalamaya? How would she adapt to such a life, she who was accustomed to the gracious ways of a City aristocrat? Madness. Complete madness.
Yet, the Pallideen boy had been enchanted with it, convinced with mystic certainty that the Valley was where they were meant to be. How much stock could he put into that intuition? Could these animals—sentient and intelligent though they were—possess a perception beyond the appearance of things? Surely such an ability was a manifestation of a more highly evolved brain. And yet, from the way the boy spoke…
His own sense of things was as unsettled as the skies. Though he could not see it clearly, he felt ripples of violence disturbing the waters around him, ill tides that could not be explained away by the mere presence of that vortex of pain in the City. Something was wrong and he did not know what. In his dark mood, he kept to himself and the Pallideen were smart enough to let him be.
As they came to the place where the last brook crossed the trail, he began to think he heard voices. But it may only have been an illusion created by the cheerful noise of the water, compounded by the cheerful noise of the creatures behind him. Noise, noise, noise. He would surely go mad.
But, wait. He was certain he distinctly heard voices, and they were ahead of him.
“Kel, Per.” He gestured for them to stop.
“What is it, Lord?”
“Stay here.” He cautiously moved up the rise and peered over to the other side. There, making their way across the brook, was what looked to be the entire colony of refugees, led by Brinnalamaya. She had shed her elaborate robes for more practical wear, a shirt and breeches made of plain brown cloth. She leaned on a staff and carried a pack on her back. They all were heavily laden with bags and bundles, tools and cooking pots, even a crate with a live chicken. The pregnant one whose name escaped him was awkwardly trying to get across the water on the slippery rocks, her brother-in-law and that ex-captain on either side, helping her to balance.
“By the balls!” Tristramacus exclaimed.
Brinnalamaya looked up and smiled, leaning on the stout staff. “Commander! Am I ever glad to see you!”
He strode down to her. “What is all this?”
“I’m afraid it became necessary to move the people rather suddenly,” Brinnalamaya said.
“Mirramarduk,” Tristramacus growled. “I knew he couldn’t be trusted!”
“Well, I may be partly to blame for this. I’m afraid I provoked him.”
She sighed. “It seems word got back to Mirramarduk that I had risen. I had the dubious honor of a personal visit.”
“What did he want with you?” Tristramacus demanded.
“Well, to be frank, he invited me to be his consort.”
“He did what!?” The air fairly sparked around him.
“Of course I refused in no uncertain terms,” she assured him hastily, “but he was most obnoxiously persistent. I’m afraid I did something rather unwise.”
“What? What did you do?” He was bristling with fury.
“I struck him.”
“You struck him?”
“Across the face, quite hard. I know, it is beneath a person in my position to resort to such a crude act, but he was behaving in such an odious, revolting way–”
“You struck him?” Tristramacus roared with laughter.
“Commander, please! It is hardly a source of humor. You were right, he is quite insane, and striking him sent him into a murderous rage. He pulled a dagger on me.”
Tristramacus sobered immediately. “Are you all right? He didn’t–!”
“I’m fine, believe me,” she soothed him. “I am quite able to defend myself. There’s never been anyone yet I couldn’t overcome hand to hand. Well, almost no one,” she added with a significant smile at Tristramacus. Her smile distracted him for a moment, but then he blinked.
“You didn’t lock hands with that-that–!”
“I really had no choice. He was going to carve me up like a festival gourd. Anyway, I put him firmly in his place. I confess it wasn’t easy; he possesses a surprising degree of personal energy.”
“Hm! I take it he did not accept defeat gracefully.”
“Not a bit. He swore he’d hunt us all down and kill us.”
“But how did he come to be so bloody well-informed?”
“My wife,” Ston said, joining them. His face was weary with long soul-searching. “She was not pleased with her lot as a refugee. It amused her to secretly defy the Church, but its harsh consequences were more than she cared to endure. She left me to return to the comforts of the City, no doubt beating her breast and weeping great tears, eager to buy mercy by telling them everything she knew.”
Ston’s son and daughter straggled up beside him, carrying small bundles of things wrapped in blankets. Their faces were dirty and their fine clothing was torn, but their backs were straight with determination. The girl said, “Mother tried to make us go too, but we refused.”
“We stand with Tristramacus!” her brother cried, and she nodded her head vigorously. Ston smiled at them sadly. His allegiance came out of resignation more than idealism, and he was painfully aware of their bleak future.
“Hm!” Tristramacus snorted. “Your mother may have made that a poor choice.”
“She is a coward!” the boy said, and his father shushed him sternly.
“Frankly,” Brinnalamaya interrupted, “all this might have been prevented if we had sealed the entrance to the Subcity.”
“I’d forgotten the codes,” Tristramacus admitted. “Too late now, I suppose.”
“Actually, I went back and took care of it,” Brinnalamaya said. “I sealed the Subcity before we left.”
“Excellent!” Tristramacus said. “I presume Mirramarduk is bringing his army through the High Pass.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Dale said. “We kept watch, and moved the people out as soon as the first scouts were sighted. We had just time enough to prepare for the march.”
Tristramacus nodded with satisfaction. “And having to stop and figure out which way you’ve gone will slow them down a bit. That gives us a good head start.”
“True,” Brinnalamaya said, “but we cannot move very fast. The people are heavily laden, as you can see.”
“I bloody well can see! Where did they get all this truck?”
“Some of the people felt it necessary to return to the city covertly,” she explained. “Fortunately, no harm came to anyone as a result of their foolhardiness–”
“You permitted them to do it?”
“I wasn’t even aware of it at first,” she said, feeling rather embarrassed to admit it. “I grew suspicious, and spoke to Dale—“ She turned to him.
“I did try to discourage the practice,” Dale said, “But—“
“Per and I discussed this,” Kel interjected. “It was their choice, freely made. The option to return was always open to me, and I was not going to deny any of them that same right.”
“The circumstances were somewhat different,” Tristramacus replied, his jaw clenched.
“There were things we needed!” protested a man carrying a young child, “and people we could not leave behind!”
“Yes, yes,” Brinnalamaya said, “so you insisted. And now you must drag it all with you.” She gestured towards a woman hauling a litter laden with household goods.
“Or leave it behind,” Tristramacus said pointedly.
“Lord,” Dale said, “Even if it were not for their burdens, we still would not be able to travel quickly. There are those among us who cannot endure a rapid, sustained pace. Jule might go into labor before her time, and then we would be forced to halt altogether.”
“I’d give damn near anything for a couple of good mounts,” Tristramacus grumbled. “Or a draft beast and a wagon. Although we wouldn’t be able to get a wagon all the way to the valley.”
“The roads are gone, then?” Brinnalamaya asked.
“Not completely,” he said. “But large stretches have been washed away or overgrown. It wouldn’t be a problem if we were able to take our time. Obviously that’s out of the question. What exactly are we facing?”
“About five hundred foot soldiers fully armed,” Dale reported, “including a company of swordsmen and a company of spear-bearers, with officers mounted. They are being led by the Holy Master himself, accompanied by two score attendants.”
“Bloody balls!” Tristramacus swore furiously. “What does that pious madman want? What can he possibly hope to gain?”
“Revenge?” Brinnalamaya suggested. “What more excuse does a madman need?”
“He got his revenge,” he growled. His shoulders sagged somewhat, the memory sour. “I’m not certain how much good I can be to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I swore an oath I would not do battle with him again.”
Brinnalamaya groaned. “Oh, Commander! How could you?”
“He had the Pallideen at sword point! I had no choice!”
“Tristramacus,” Kel interrupted urgently, “That wasn’t exactly what you swore.”
“Eh?” He glanced over at her, mildly annoyed. “What do you mean?”
“I remember,” she said. “At the time it seemed a terrible price to pay. But now, I realize that it is a thing of little consequence. The Prophet of Lies was not wise in the words he chose.”
Tristramacus frowned. “Wait. Now, let me think. I believe you are right. Hah! By the balls, you are right!”
“Kindly elaborate, if you would,” Brinnalamaya requested with an edge of impatience.
“Kel,” Tristramacus invited her, and she repeated it.
“He made you swear that you would never again set foot in the City, you would never again pass through the Gateway, you would never again make war on him or act to undermine his power there.”
Tristramacus nodded with satisfaction. “Not a word about defending myself and the refugees under my stewardship against attack by him.”
“Thank goodness,” Brinnalamaya sighed.
“Excellent!” he said, warming to the anticipated rematch. “Madame Prime, may I borrow your staff?”
“Of course,” she said. “Karl made it for me, and a fine job he did with it.”
“Indeed,” Tristramacus agreed, nodding towards the boy, who flushed proudly. “A good choice of wood, sturdy and light, well-finished. It shall do nicely.” He gestured up the trail with it. “Now, you take the Pallideen up ahead. Per and Kel know the way.”
“And where do you intend to go?” Brinnalamaya asked him sharply.
“Why, I am off to meet the foe, of course. I shall delay them as much as possible while you make your escape.”
“Excuse me, I don’t think so. All you’ll manage is to get yourself killed, and the soldiers shall catch up with us eventually, anyway. No, we remain together and present a united front. It is our best chance.”
“Hardly! You must get the people to a safe place, cover your trail–”
“Cover our trail?” she cried. “I might as well try to cover for a herd of elk! Don’t be ridiculous! You are staying with us.”
“Don’t start in with me, Brinnalamaya!” he warned her, “You don’t have the authority to order me around anymore!”
“A pity, seeing as you obviously need it!” she retorted. The two of them glared at each other in stubborn, tight-lipped defiance.
“Please!” Kel cried, “The soldiers! We must hurry!”
“She is right,” Brinnalamaya said, “This is wasting precious time.”
“Good, then you’ll stop arguing with me.”
“Fine, so long as you’ll agree with me.”
He struck the ground angrily with the staff. “I am going, and that’s the end of it! Now, you’d best get moving!” He began striding off down the path.
“Tristramacus! I forbid it!” Her voice rang like a brass bell.
“Try and stop me!” he shouted over his shoulder, not even breaking stride.
“Damn it, I stopped you from committing suicide once, I’m not going to let you do it now!”
“You have precious little faith in my fighting ability!” he bellowed.
“Against more than five hundred heavily armed professional soldiers? Even you aren’t that good, you damned fool,” she shouted, starting after him.
“Hah! Don’t underestimate me!”
She caught up with him, planting herself in his path immovably, the air shimmering around her, charged with the intensity of her determination.
“Tristramacus!” she said in a voice that could have felled trees, “I engaged in an act of utter lunacy committing myself to you–at your request, I’ll thank you to remember–but now that I have, I intend to honor that commitment! The stars know you are a damned difficult ally, stubborn, infuriating, and completely irrational, but so be it! I am your ally in all matters so long as we both shall live! And if you are bull-headed and determined to go through with this, well by the balls, I am going with you!”
“Absolutely not!” he roared.
“Try and stop me!” she countered.
Slamming the staff against the ground again furiously, Tristramacus spun on his heel and began storming back up the trail. “I’ll think of something else,” he growled.
“I thought you might,” Brinnalamaya murmured, following him in quiet triumph.
Kel and Per both sighed simultaneously with relief. Dale smiled slightly. “All right!” he cried, “Let’s go!” then he bowed slightly to Kel. “Lead the way.”
Kel nodded. “This way!” she called, and turned to retrace her steps. The people hoisted their burdens and began to move.
Tristramacus stood at the top of the rise, watching them go by, leaning on the staff and glowering. “Damned fools! Look at all that truck! A goat!” he exclaimed. “You risked your life to go back for a goat?”
“She’s a good goat,” the man replied. “I’ve just bred her. If she has a buck, we can start a herd.”
“Fine, if we ever make it,” he grumbled. “Blessed bloody stars! Did any of you think to raid the palace for Mirramarduk’s treasures?”
“Can’t eat treasure,” retorted an elderly woman, dragging a litter laden cages of squawking fowl.
“Can you eat a stool?” Tristramacus snapped, pointing to the piece of furniture strapped to the top of one cage.
The old woman met his criticism squarely. “With all due respect, m’Lord, you who do not know age cannot appreciate the value of a comfortable seat!” And with that she labored on by.
“Hmmph!” Tristramacus snorted and took his place in the back of the procession, keeping an eye out for their pursuers. Brinnalamaya kept an eye on him.