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´╗┐Title: Si'Wren of the Patriarchs
Author: Cheney, Roland Jon
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Copyright (C) 1998 by Roland J. Cheney

Si'Wren of the Patriarchs

by Roland Cheney

To my wife, Jacquelyn.

Author's Remarks

The story of Si'Wren was culled out of a veritable treasure trove of
hundreds of little clay tablets which were found sealed and submerged
for over 4,000 years in stone jars. The jars were brought up from their
place of discovery on the floor of the Persian Gulf, where they had
lain half-buried under successive layers of sediment for over four
millennia, by an internationally renowned team of archaeologists,
oceanographers, and professional deep sea divers.

Although few realized the true significance of the find at the time, it
was to be recognized later as a momentous event on that fateful day
when the very first stone jar was actually removed safely intact from
the bottom of the sea by a crude, squealing, grease and rust encrusted
loading crane, to be hoisted free after so many centuries and set at
long-last on the heaving deck of the aging expedition ship.

Monetary funding for the expedition was so short at times that the only
affordable ship permanently on duty throughout the entire venture was
an extremely dilapidated and barnacle-festooned vessel of third-world
registry. No doubt many of the people involved viewed it as a minor
miracle that the near-constant threat of mechanical breakdown did not
endanger the success of the mission proper.

But the mechanics and engineers worked more than a few miracles of
their own when catastrophe loomed, as it did more than once, and their
determination ultimately prevailed.

Safely deposited on dry land after having been lost and forgotten for
almost all of recorded human history, the stone jars were finally
opened to reveal, instead of wine or oil, the curious little clay
tablets safely dry and cushioned in a packing medium of loose straw and
uncombed wool. The clay tablets, finally exposed to the light of day
after holding their secrets for so long, were gently removed from their
stone keepers and carefully packed in crates to be secretly shipped to
the back rooms of a major museum. There, it was hoped, they could be
systematically catalogued, transcribed, and translated by the dedicated
ministrations of a team of the foremost scholars of our time.

After careful and intensive study, the story was derived and adapted
-by express and exclusive museum permission- by the author, who poured
himself out in an exhaustive work upon this unspeakably priceless
literary treasure, to such an extent that a state of chronic ill-health
and increasingly strained and weakened eyesight had begun to set in
toward the end of the project. Every effort was taken to achieve the
highest possible standard of accuracy, integrity, and authenticity in
highlighting every nuance of meaning from so obscure an original tongue.

The author has since recovered, and the story of Si'Wren is therefore
presented now in modern literary form, which -it is hoped- will be
found to have suffered but little from the inevitable abuses of such a
distant cultural disparity and linguistically disjointed translation.
The rigorous demand of a simple, honest, and straightforward retelling
of the story of Si'Wren owes it's true success, not so much to the
tireless and unstinting efforts of the author, working with a bank of
modern university supercomputers, but rather to the remarkable purity
of Si'Wren herself, and the crude directness and honesty of the
original telling.

Here, then, is the final result of so much work, such danger and
heartbreak on the high seas, unrelenting secrecy, and endless scrutiny,
the goal, the prize, priceless beyond all calculation, the translation
of those ancient hieroglyphs so painstakingly stick-marked upon the
unimpressive-looking little tablets; a story written in the softness of
clay, and hardened to the rock of ages. It is a brittle, harsh tale of
a tormented adolescent girl who lived out her tragically short life in
a time of the greatest moral evil and physical beauty that the world
has ever known, a story from the dawn of human history.

PRELUDE

She never knew Jesus, the Christ, the only begotten Son of God, by
name, although He most assuredly knew her when He formed her in her
mother's womb. His time was not yet come.

She was never to hear of the Tower of Babel, or of Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob, and of Egypt and Moses, of Babylon or the Jews, the Roman
Empire, the Cross, or any of the modern religions of the world. They
were not yet.

She lived out her short life, and eventually died, about the time when
mocking rumors were being widely spread abroad of a foolish old man
called Noah, a wise old Patriarch who was rumored to have been directly
commanded by no less a personage than the Almighty Himself to build an
ark, a great wooden ship. This man, Noah, was given Divine instructions
that he must waste no time, but work diligently to prepare a safe haven
for his family and himself against a terrible day of judgement to be
rained down upon a sinful world, a day when a wrathful God would bring
forth a watery flood so deep as to utterly wipe out the unspeakable
evils of an accursed race.

Many were amused at the rumors of Noah and his strange Invisible God.
Whether the rumors of impending doom were true or not none could say,
although there was none who would not readily agree that it was a world
worthy enough of such punishment. It was a cruel, backward world, where
"...every man did what was right in his own eyes...", sometimes for the
better, but more often, for the worse. Much worse.

It was into such a world that the little slave girl, Si'Wren, was
born...

Chapter One - Little Jars

The young girl sang softly to herself as she filled another container.
Topping it off, she carefully stoppered the neck of the dainty clay
vase and laid it to one side with the others.

An orphan prize of the conquests of the House of Rababull, she was
small for her age, with long ebony hair nearly down to her waist in
back, and perpetually of a rather plain appearance as a child, which
safely hid her flowering beauty, unbeknownst to herself, from the
lustful eyes of others.

She liked to hum and sing while she worked, although not too loudly,
and was a painstaking, diligent servant. She had just finished filling
nine of the little clay jars. They contained a medicinal salve
comprised of rare aromatic resins and spices which were intended to be
sold by an agent of Rababull, her master, in the market place at great
profit.

Rababull kept many slaves, wives, and concubines, and had many sons and
daughters. He was a strong, wealthy gentleman of noble birth, a titled
land owner who wore much crude jewelry, together with the softest of
furs and robes, and was always dressed in the finest weaves of red and
purple.

He had long distinguished gray hair upon his head. His beard was
elaborately curled every morning on a carefully heated rod of iron
which was always cleaned and tested first with the judicious
application of a wet thumb by his personal man servant, who kept it
meticulously polished and free of rust with a dash of virgin olive oil
and a cursory, daily polishing.

Rababull had hard, no-nonsense eyes and speech, and he always drove a
hard bargain, whether it be something of as little consequence as the
selling-off of an old slave or animal too advanced in years to be of
proper use to him anymore, or the buying and selling of great tracts of
land. He also saw to the scourging of slaves and the torture and
questioning of thieves and miscreants, not infrequently even unto pain
of death itself. Life could be cheap, depending on who you were, or who
your father was.

Master Rababull was more than six hundred and fifty years old, although
by the standards of the moderns, more than four thousand years in his
future, he would have been described as an exceeding fit fifty-five.
His life experience, like his age, was vast.

He was not afflicted by an old man's failings of the mind. He was
missing no teeth, neither smitten by cavities. He was sound of stature.
He was still keen of ear, and ate and drank as freely as any rash
youth. He suffered no impairment of bone, limb, or mind, and had
suffered no ailment since the day of his birth.

His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated, and he craved a good
physical match or a hard bet as much as any man 500 years his junior.

It was morning, and Nelatha labored steadily beside Si'Wren. Nelatha
had been originally sold into slavery at birth for the unfortunate
offense of having been a firstborn female, and her first owner had been
fond of tatoos and ritual scars, of which Nelatha had received many all
over her body.

Nelatha was accustomed to making no little ado of her mere five years
seniority over Si'Wren, though not in an unkindly way. Nelatha's limbs
were tireless and unfailing, for she was a large woman of short stature
and powerful girth. The plenteous flesh of her upper arms rippled to an
odd meter as she worked, grinding successful handfuls of spices and
herbs in the stone pestle and mortise, to be portioned out into equal
shares for each lot of balm.

The balm was made with fresh olive oil, pressed and drained out of a
great wooden casement and ram located in the back yard of the compound.
The ram was comprised of a flat, wheel-like lid, with many heavy stones
laid on over the top of the lid by two powerful male slaves, crushing
it down onto the open-topped barrel of olives. As the slaves piled on
the stones, the progressively increasing weight of the ram steadily
crushed out the fresh, strong-smelling olive oil which was drained
through a bung hole at the casque's base.

This was a most pleasant time for Si'Wren, who, not having had any
tatoos, not so much as one, applied anywhere on her body like Nelatha,
and neither desiring any, yet greatly admired and envied Nelatha for
her expert ability and wealth of worldly experience. Si'Wren always
looked on with beaming countenance as the piles of freshly sorted and
washed olives were slowly crushed down under the weight of so many
heavy stones. She would watch the pooling olive oil in the collection
bucket, diligent to pluck forth the bugs from the fresh pressing. Then
the oil would be covered to settle out any remaining bits of dust,
twigs, and dead insects.

Finally, the oil would be sieved through several layers of coarsely
woven cheese cloth, to be stored in tall slender vases with narrow
bottom ends into which the finest pollen grains and motes would
eventually settle out during storage. She knew of no other method to
obtain the olive oil, but this way worked quite well, and Si'Wren was
faithful to obey all, and question nothing that she learned.

Pharmacopoeia was a noble trade to work in, and well-praised by all for
a multitude of reasons, of which several might be mentioned.

Firstly, because of the wonderful, aromatic scents which lingered in
the spice tent and were so soothing to mind and soul.

Secondly, because of constant skin contact with the salves, balms, and
countless varieties of resins and floral concoctions used to make
incense, which were prepared by her and Nelatha on an almost daily
basis, which had a most beneficent effect, giving perpetual advantage
to good health by virtue of being so frequently in direct contact with
the ingredients.

There were but few drawbacks to the natural enjoyment of her work. The
purgative herbs, for example, could be powerful and curiously
disturbing to the bowels in their effects, and their dry powders
sometimes drifted in the air in the confines of the spice tent, having
a drastic effect upon her breathing passages and causing her to gasp,
wheeze, and sneeze in a most extraordinary fashion sometimes.

But that was only because of their natural purging qualities, and she
was soon over it with no harmful aftereffects. One of the herbs was
poisonous to consume whole, whereas the oil of the seeds, pressed out
in it's own little separate bucket and ram and imbibed in small
quantities, acted as a safe and effective purgative to the bowels.

Yet by and large, Pharmacopoeia was interesting and rewarding work, and
was pleasant enough to do. Work in the spice tent forbade the intrusion
of flies or bugs, and except for the sun-drying process, there must be
no direct exposure to the natural elements, lest the product become
spoiled.

A well-trained Pharmacopoeist was worth much money, and merited the
perpetual good favors of the Master for all of his or her days. Praise
for the worker would assure eventual success and praise for the work.

Compared to this, the backs of those working the harvest fields, the
threshing floor, and other more common or menial tasks such as
brick-making, invited the whip, because that could not impair the work
nor harm the product, and would only increase the yield of bricks or
harvest of grain.

Si'Wren was knowledgeable and proficient in almost every aspect and
phase of the work of Pharmacopoeia. She was well tutored in how to
recognize and gather fresh herbs on foraging expeditions with Nelatha
in the wilds, under the protective guardianship of an armed male slave.

Whatever other herbs were not found locally could be purchased readily
enough in the market place for a fair price. Even in this, Si'Wren was
becoming skillful in identifying, grading, and haggling over the prices
of herbs according to their several worth, and she had already gained
much knowledge and experience in this.

But sometimes when at market, she still required the presence of one
with a heavy beard and a deep voice, to help her strike a good bargain,
for many of the traders were so proud and vain of their ability to make
a profusion of crude marks on the tally slate, as 'proof' of their
ability to 'read and write' as well as to cheat and connive, as to be
unwilling to bargain in any manner except 'man to man', and could on
occasion be outright fiendish in their unwillingness to permit a mere
slave girl to get anything like a fair deal out of them.

Si'Wren did not mind. If her Master wanted something, he would see to
it that she was afforded whatever means was required to get it, and
send her out with some broken-nosed, one-eyed brawler of a slave with
cauliflower ears, a total illiterate who was willing enough to trade
'look for look' in the market place, in order to back her up in the
demeaning cut-throat little realm of the traders.

Perhaps Si'Wren's most notable challenge of all, however, was her
resolute refusal of becoming involved in any form of Sorcery, and a
natural fear and reluctance of serving it's horrible totems and mystic
signs employed publicly with such pomp and ceremony. Besides this, as a
female she was ineligible to rise to a very high rank in the priesthood
anyways.

Few women rose to such positions of power. After all, it was a man's
world. Where superior strength was needed, of what use was beauty? Woe
to the man who became physically useless, in such a world.

And so, through no fault of her own, Si'Wren had already missed out on
the basic qualifying factor in life of being born male, a crucial
qualification if one was to become a true Master of Pharmacopoeia. But
she had always shunned, in heart and deed, the vile pursuits of being a
Sorcerer, and secretly regarded it as no great loss in her young life.

Neither did Habrunt, the sage Slavemaster, take part in any Sorceries
himself, ceremonial or other, and from what she saw, Si'Wren indirectly
perceived a like sentiment in Habrunt to her own. She had never seen
him so much as partake of such dark activities, even when she saw him
off by himself at such and such a time as he felt mostly unobserved by
others.

Habrunt was an exceeding strong man, and his true age was a mystery to
all. He had a naturally weathered face, with deep, dark, friendly eyes,
which held a slight but perpetual squint, as if he were ever vigilant
against the many evils of an uncertain life. Si'Wren basically
entrusted herself body and soul to Habrunt's unassuming tutelage in the
many curiosities of the world, as if nothing could be more natural.

Habrunt was a formidable man. His tireless, muscular physique was
battle-scarred, but although she knew him to be a fearless man, she had
never seen him actually fight anyone. He had no tatoos. His dark hair,
like his beard, was slightly wavy, and like his face, very pleasing to
behold in the eyes of young Si'Wren, and he kept his hair cropped to a
proper shoulder length, but no longer than that, as befitted his low
station in life, for he was but a slave himself. Habrunt was greater in
stature and strength than Master Rababull, but unlike that other, he
was no idle boaster and displayed no jewelry upon his nearly naked
person.

Although only a slave, Slavemaster Habrunt ranked second in importance
in the House of Rababull after only the Master himself. The cast of
Habrunt's eyes was of a dutiful mein, but his normally pleasant,
preoccupied expression as he looked after his many responsibilities,
could become hard and unyielding at a moment's notice, even piercing by
aspect, such as when he was wont to evaluate a slave even unto his very
soul with a mere look. For this, and other, less notable reasons, all
of the slaves under Habrunt's fair-minded authority held him in regard
of great fear and respect, and because the mark of Habrunt was so
universally the mark of excellence throughout the House and it's
surrounds, he received much praise from Master Rababull for all that he
did.

Such widely-held acclaim for Slavemaster Habrunt, the chief agent of
Master Rababull, was in no small part maintained by his sage words of
advice, characteristically brief, unerring, and straight to the point,
and by the certain knowledge in every servant's mind that if one failed
at the fore to heed mere words from Slavemaster Habrunt, one must
harken at the last to the whip of Master Rababull.

For Master Rababull always kept a large, blood-encrusted bull whip
ready to hand for his most grievous personal judgements, when the real
punishments must be meted out.

The two girls, Nelatha and Si'Wren, being naturally shy and
industrious, counted themselves privileged to work together in the
shelter of the spice tent. The tent of animal skins was located well
off to one side in the large front courtyard of the House of Rababull,
which was surrounded on all sides by a high stone wall.

The Master's holdings consisted of but a very small portion of the
Emperor's kingdom, yet they were large tracts of land nevertheless.
They were located on a broad fertile valley plain covered by dense
scattered forest and jungle. Across this plain, the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers flowed and converged together into one. This dry land,
this lush fertile plain, would one day be known to all mankind as a
large body of salt water, named the Persian Gulf.

The wide tent was open at both ends and shielded by thin gauze veils to
keep out flying insects, and preserve the salves and other herbal
preparations. Infestation by insects could cause the finest ointment to
give forth a stinking savor, and invoke the certain displeasure of the
Master. The tent was also equipped with extra flaps so that it could be
closed up at night or during the day when it became too misty.

L'acoci, an old slave woman of the House, spoke once of seeing the
colors of a virgin's garments, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and
violet, as a banded scimitar slash in the heavens, a colored arch, a
wound in a darkened noonday sky misty enough that it wetted her
upturned face and garments, and obscured her vision most strangely.

None had ever heard of such foolishness, and all, even Si'Wren, had
laughed her to scorn. Colors in the sky? L'acoci was deluded. No one
had ever heard of such a preposterous thing, and the very suggestion
was flatly impossible.

A heavy dew came out of the ground every night and often in the day,
and caused all life to flourish. But as Si'Wren well knew from
unfortunate firsthand experience, such enshrouding mists could cause
rare herbs and spices, if they were left exposed, to quickly turn
stale, causing Master Rababull much displeasure.

To guard against such calamity, the tent was equipped to afford proper
shelter from the clammy, clinging mists, which could arise on a
moment's notice and transform the torches in men's hands into pale
blobs of moon glow, like spirits at large upon the land.

Within the sheltering confines of the tent, Si'Wren counted herself a
cherished and defended slave, safe within the walls of her Master's
House, where strange men could not ogle or frighten her. For savage,
rogue men walking in the lusts of their wicked hearts went out at all
times of day or night, seeking human prey, upon whom they might work
their unspeakable evils, men who loudly proclaimed their honor before
others, and yet were so wicked in their ways that no woman or child
dared venture alone beyond the protection of some trusted strong man or
tribe.

Sometimes a local sorcerer was rumored to have kidnaped an
unsuspecting victim for occult and sacrificial purposes. Such men were
oft upon the land by night, when swords slept in their owners' grasps,
and brave men retired upon their racks behind the stoutest walls and
doors they could manage. There was no law except the law of the pack.
The only real law was right of might and sword and the dictates of
powerful warlords and landowners, even unto the changeable whim of the
Emperor himself. Against such, mere empty words were but as the ring of
brass or a sounding cymbal, dumb bells all, and the clink of the
condemned slave's heavy chains. Too often, the ring of a sword was the
only proper answer.

The world was a place of much beauty, but even greater evil.

Si'Wren prayed oft in her bed at night, that she might one day be given
in marriage to some strong and decent man. Was it not supposed to be
one man and one wife, as had once been that great and mythical
Patriarch Adam and his helpmeet, Eve? Eve first bore Cain, then Abel,
and then after the sons of Cain were already abroad upon the land even
unto the sixth generation, Eve bore Seth. Adam and Eve were, then, one
husband and one wife in the beginning. Yet now, after fewer generations
than the fingers on one's hands, men stole, bought, and murdered for as
many wives and female slaves as cunning, sword, and gold could get.

A good husband, if Si'Wren should one day become so blessed as to find,
could be both protector and benefactor to her. She was young, and still
had her whole life ahead of her. A wise woman must overlook her man's
faults, and stand beside him, even help lift him up when he might
otherwise perish, and Si'Wren believed in the promise of the proverb
that a faithful woman who served well might hope to find such a man,
together with riches, happiness, and a houseful of many offspring.

Abruptly, as she worked, there came the crack of whips and the sound of
curses, and Si'Wren looked up in momentary astonishment as a team of
two big oxen straining against their yokes plodded slowly past the open
end flap of her tent accompanied by several dirty-looking boys and
driven by two brawny slaves who presently followed the beasts into
view. Truly, Si'Wren observed meekly, a woman's place was under a man's
protection, for what woman could match such men in the daily toil of
such backbreaking labors as this?

The oxen were dragging a stone boat. A stone boat was no boat at all,
but actually a great, wheelless, wooden sled or sledge used to
transport big building stones from the rock quarry, or round stones
from the harvest fields where they were unearthed by the plow, to be
dragged as deadweight upon a platform made with two wooden skids, and
transported across the dry land to the construction site for use in the
making of more stone walls and buildings.

The young slave boys walked alongside the grating and squealing runners
of the stone boat with goat skin bags, ready to provide grease or water
to make sludge or mud under the runners, when the sled ground to a halt
sometimes and must have something extra added to unstick it. The boys
also carried straw brooms for the same purpose, as well as staffs to
load and unload the sledge.

One of the young boys had suffered a massively crippled hand from the
carelessness of his overseers when he was ordered to apply the grease
and water and insert the end of a broom more closely beneath the
runners. Such boys must reach in and work the water and grease and dirt
together with their brooms and fingertips, because sometimes what was
poured on would merely run off as quickly again without sinking in.

The older or more experienced boys could also employ the ends of their
staffs for this purpose, but when a boy was especially young or new to
the job and had never seen a stone boat before, it sometimes pleased
the others who had the charge of such a green and inexperienced youth,
to order him into the worst labors possible, and few other boys would
give the temporary loan of their sticks and staffs, lest one of them
suffer a similar ghastly fate. Si'Wren had once heard an agonizing
episode of high-pitched screams that began so suddenly as to jolt her
right down to the very pit of her stomach. The pitiful childish screams
had gradually subsided into long dismaying moans that had continued
long into the night, and thus had she known that something of the sort
had happened, and she spent the night praying desperately on her bed
for the sufferings of the hapless young victim.

The stones comprising this particular load, broken by the stone masons
into crude blocks of two and three times the weight of a man, were for
the Master's garden wall, which Si'Wren must pass by every day on her
way to and from the spice tent. As the two sweating drivers were helped
along by the boys, many looked on disinterestedly and more than a few
openly laughed and mocked at the slowness of their progress.

One onlooker shouted gleeful insults, bringing on the inevitable vile
curses from the aggravated drivers.

The men kept the oxen at their yokes with cursings and whippings, as
they dragged the stone boat screeching over the exposed surfaces of
rocks and stones in the ground and the wooden runners scraped over them
with ear-splitting squealings. Si'Wren watched also as the team made
their way slowly past the spice tent and beyond, to where the stone
masons labored to build the new garden wall.

Si'Wren bowed her head a little, and shut her eyes gently as she softly
sang a prayer for the physical safety of the young boys. She often sang
prayers during her work, swaying gently to the rhythm of her own soft
sweetly-uttered syllables. It was not merely a prayer she sang always,
but sometimes rather, a long-favored tribal song, a song of old which
kept alive the promise about the Garden of Heaven to which all good
souls must surely one day go.

The day was warm and pleasant. It was the kind of day to lull one into
a drifting somnambulance, inviting weary slaves to seize upon the
unwatched moment now and then to pause, and wander freely with their
eyes across the inner mind and the far skies, in spite of the
ever-present risk of sudden discovery and displeasure by the Master.

Nelatha's sudden intake of air accompanied by a frightened gasp of
startlement caused Si'Wren to cease abruptly from her labors and look
up quickly.

Immediately Si'Wren shrank back in an involuntary motion as she beheld
the terrifying sight of a hairy, muscled giant of a man, easily twice
the height of any normal individual. The giant had six great fingers,
like stout wooden pegs, on each hairy, enormous hand. Because of his
size he appeared to be walking with exaggerated slowness, although the
long strides with which he covered the ground took him across the level
courtyard and up the front steps of the House of Rababull in a
surprisingly short time.

His size was truly staggering to behold, and Si'Wren counted it her
good fortune that he was already moving away from the tent entrance in
such a way that she was not so much as glimpsed by him.

Such men, if they be men, could be unpredictably violent, and who could
withstand such a one when he should happen to suddenly lose his temper?
Although they were too big to ride horses, they could run on their long
legs almost as swiftly as any horse, especially in a short sprint when
attacking in a burst of speed. When they did ride, they were fond of
more fitting steeds, such as elephants.

"Was he not terrible to behold?" Nelatha barely breathed, her voice a
terrified series of gasped utterances.

"Aye, he is possessed!" Si'Wren agreed readily.

Indeed, he looked every bit of that.

Demon-possessed men had abnormal strength. How much the more so, such a
one as this human tree?

With trembling fingers, Si'Wren carefully finished filling another tiny
bottle and stoppered it carefully, checking to ensure that it could not
possibly leak if accidentally tipped over or upended within some
traveler's pouch.

"There," she said softly, still shivering in fear. "Ten bottles."

"So soon?" asked Nelatha, looking over her shoulder and double-checking
Si'Wren's finger-count swiftly.

Si'Wren nodded. "I do good, aye?"

Nelatha, sensing how frightened Si'Wren still was, smiled her approval,
and leaned over to hug Si'Wren in a reassuring embrace.

"You keep up a good pace," Nelatha agreed with evident satisfaction. "I
am proud of you, Si'Wren."

They were charged to labor without ceasing, but sometimes both girls
would alike find themselves the free time to rest and watch others, for
which neither girl was apt to criticize the other too unfairly.

Outsiders could not easily see into the tent, thereby to voice any
complaint of idleness, for the veil screened the girls while they
worked, keeping them safely out of view while they labored happily
within it's shadowy confines.

Even so, the two girls did try to be faithful and willing servants who
would scarce conscience the deliberate wasting of their Master's
valuable time and resources, and whose household they rightly
considered themselves to be a part of. To be sure, they counted
themselves but inferior members of the House, and yet, if not heirs,
nevertheless exceeding fortunate to be the property of so great a one
as Master Rababull.

This, then, was their fate and fortune, and it was good in their sight.

Master Rababull had never deliberately mistreated either of them,
although he was known to deal harshly enough with rightly deserving
wrongdoers or habitual slackers if they pushed their luck too far.

He had more than enough of those to preoccupy his attentions. According
to the elder slaves, times were never so evil as now. Si'Wren wondered
at this, being too young to say for herself. But she was inclined to
agree with them.

The giant came out again, and made equally short work of his brief walk
across the wide courtyard to the foundry. To the tune of many hammers,
a group of talented artificers was busy at their labors there as they
worked diligently to create numberless idols of stone, brass, silver,
pearl, ivory, gold, wood, bone, and sparkling, mystically colored
gemstones and jewels.

These skilled men worked together like tireless oxen under the
unflinching eyes of the sweating, dirt-streaked Foundryman, the
traditional Task Master of their Trade, and could readily produce any
sort of cleverly carved and molded artifact, and an endless variety of
molten and engraved idols and gods of all sizes, shapes, and
descriptions. These were always sold or traded off at a handsome profit
for Master Rababull, although some were given as gifts instead. The
handiwork of the clever craftsmen went mostly, as did the wares of
Si'Wren and Nelatha, to the market place in the nearby city of Emperor
Euphrates, ruler over all the land.

Across the yard, the giant stood talking in a voice so deep that it was
like the continuous lowing of a great talking ox. His huge, ugly face
was like a terrible stone mask, and all men of ordinary stature were
utterly dwarfed by him, and so afraid of him that they stood frozen in
stark fear if he so much as but glanced in their direction momentarily.

"The gods of the giants are exceeding mighty!" breathed Si'Wren,
keeping her voice low so as not to be overheard. To this Nelatha made
no reply, but watched only, and kept her silence.

Because of the six-fingered giants, one could speak of another race.
But the way of ordinary men, throughout the known world, was; one kind,
one race, one speech, easily recognized and understood by all. This was
the way it had always been and it would scarce have occurred to any to
so much as question it.

Only two kinds of men might speak and not be understood; drunkards, and
the possessed, and though foul be the reproaches and slurred speech of
a drunkard, so much the worse be the abuses one risked in knowingly
dealing with some possessed madman!

Giants, Si'Wren was told, were all possessed.

The two frightened girls stayed hidden, watching motionlessly in the
spice tent as the giant stood like a temple god himself and conversed
at great length with the Foundryman. They could not hear clearly what
was said, but the giant gesticulated with his huge hands so much that
it was interesting to watch and try to figure out.

He wanted an idol made. This much was plain to see. Verily, for that,
he had come to the right place.

Si'Wren knew no Polynesians, Asians, Eurasians, or Mongolians. She knew
no Amerinds northern or southern, no Hispanics, Negroids, or Pygmies.
She knew no Caucasians, rain forest people, or Eskimos. She knew no
people other than her own kind, for there was but one race of Man the
world over.

Yet these unknown future races -with their diverse tongues yet to be
born out of history- were hidden in the bloodline of Si'Wren's one
world-wide race, one day to emerge, and then would come proud evil
speeches of 'the purity of the race' with exclusive regard to
individual strains, and a need to 'ethnic cleansing' and racial
'purges' of the 'mixed breeds'.

The human race, of which Si'Wren was but a single leaf, one lone, timid
female, had spread abroad by a plethora of land bridges. There were
many shallow seas and easily crossed land bridges in this, the world of
Si'Wren, land which was but slightly above the level of the seas, with
broad exposed continental shelves, vast coastal plains, and virgin,
fertile land. Much territory was given over to swamp, tropical jungle,
and dense forest.

Thus there was but one people in the world, medium-color, and more or
less medium-dark of hair. To suggest that from the loins of a single
man and his wife would one day spring forth all future races in their
manifold colors and countless differences would have been a source of
great astonishment to Si'Wren, could she but have known. One might as
well harken unto the daffy old woman, L'acoci, and her crazy talk of
colors in the sky, as to speak of many differing colors among the skins
of men.

There was no other kind of human, except for the giants, and even these
spoke the same language as the rest of the human race, in spite of
their great difference in size. Even those with six fingers were not so
different as all that. Yet in spite of the fact that there was only one
race among men -which included the giants- there was hatred in almost
every heart, wickedness such as to compound every evil, and deliberate
mimicry of the savage wild beasts which roamed this wild primitive
world so overflowing with such indescribable natural beauty.

Si'Wren reached for the water skin, and fumbled as her fingers plucked
for it, and accidentally dropped it in the dirt. She reached down and
picked it up, ignoring the rough coating of caked-on mud which clung to
the bag as she raised it to her lips. The water ran freely out of the
bag's horn spout, it's mud coating wrinkling across the contracting,
silken wet goat skin, giving rise to many miniature ridges.

When she had drunk her full, she heedlessly hung the depleted goat skin
back on the stub of a knot-end on the tent pole upright, a small
axe-hewn sapling. The half-dried mud clung to the goat skin in a
curious pattern of broken and layered ridges that were partly crushed
together wherever their broken edges collided and overran one-another
as a result of the escape of water beneath the muddy leather, which
Si'Wren had taken to quench her thirst.

The water skin forgotten, she rubbed her hands lightly to brush the
coating of mud off her palms and turned to her work, while unheeded
behind her, some of the water skin's encrusted mud crumbled and dropped
to the ground behind her bare feet in little broken clods that
contained the tiny seeds of plants, and the remains of a few dead
insects.

Even as there was but one race of man, which included the giants and
the six-fingered ones, there was also but one breed, likewise, of the
dog.

Hardly a noble creature to look upon, the common camp dog was a
different breed altogether from the huge and fearsome dire wolves that
stood as tall as a man at the shoulder and roamed the farthest and
deepest wilds in savage packs.

The dogs of men more resembled the small wild plains dogs.

Yet, like the wolves, which ran in packs, this hardy domesticated breed
retained a strong pack instinct. It was used as a guard dog and camp
scavenger, but could, like any wolf, become dangerous if starved too
long or unduly provoked, as by the tauntings of foolish children.

Covertly watching the giant visitor, Si'Wren found it a relief not to
be seen by him, unlike the unhappy Foundryman, who, normally considered
by all to be no runt in his own right and anything but a coward, looked
now equally as puny and scared as any small boy. He looked so scared
that Si'Wren could not help but feel sorry for him. The giant was so
tall that the Foundryman must needs tilt his head back and look almost
straight up at the hairy visitor. What an ugly head, to behold against
the majesty of the skies.

"Their gods may indeed be strong," said Nelatha, "but the fight is not
always to the strong, nor the race to the swift, and I have heard
speakings in my time, of an Invisible God."

Si'Wren was so distracted by observing the giant that she forgot
herself and suddenly had to look at Nelatha and say foolishly, "Huh?
Forgive me Nelatha, what did you say?"

Nelatha sighed patiently.

"I said, the gods of the Giants may seem exceeding fierce and large,
and like themselves, false-hearted, but there is an Invisible God that
I have heard of, who is strongest of all."

"Indeed?"

"Aye, and He is a loving, forgiving god. But," Nelatha said, her voice
lowered to a conspiratorial whisper, "the idol makers despise this
Invisible God, because they cannot make any money selling idols of Him."

Nelatha giggled, and Si'Wren smiled also.

It must be a joke, of course.

Si'Wren and Nelatha both loved to privily mock the moneymakers. The
wheelers and dealers must provide their own fare, and were much
obsessed with money-making schemes in the market place. They were
shrewd cheats, long accustomed to swapping not only goods, but lies and
lives, and often resorted to savage ambushes and bloodlettings after
dark. There was ample reason to be fearful of the night. Hence, they
deserved not only to be feared, but mocked on occasion.

Nelatha giggled because the artificers who made the idols always acted
so godly and superior, and were so full of the greed of dogs but could
never seem to suspect the similarity of themselves to such lowly
creatures. It seemed to the two girls like Heaven's well-deserved gift
of madness to such evil ones.

At least, that was Si'Wren's unspoken opinion. However, it would never
do for a mere slave girl to be so blunt as to speak with such open
foolishness. Si'Wren always guarded her thoughts. For as the wise men,
who ever sat in the city gates, were fond of repeating so often and so
well-deservedly, 'What is foolishly uttered in private, will surely be
regretted openly in public'.

Wise counsel dictated that one such as Si'Wren must not criticize
others more important than herself (which was virtually everybody),
even if she saw cutthroats setting up their gods of greed under every
green tree, with which to furnish themselves an imagined, perpetual
divine approval of their moral filth and wickedness.

For the idol-makers, greediness begat holiness, and their chief deity
was the god of gain. But Si'Wren could not help wondering whether such
be gods at all. Hence, her sudden and immediate interest in Nelatha's
words.

"How could a god be invisible?" asked Si'Wren. "How could one make
proper obeisance to him? Which way would you bow?"

"Well," Nelatha thought a minute, pausing in her work. Then she said,
"Little one, when you close your eyes in prayer to the Master's family
god, and then bow, tell me this; do you see him at the precise moment
of bowing?"

"No, I do not," said Si'Wren. "How interesting! I have never thought of
that before. One can bow in any direction, then?"

"I think so," said Nelatha, showing with her slowness of speech, that
she was becoming very, very preoccupied about what had up until now
been mere conversation to Si'Wren.

Si'Wren, noticing this sudden onset of seriousness on Nelatha's part,
sought how to retreat from the imagined danger of causing any possible
offense to Nelatha.

"There are many gods," said Si'Wren quickly. "I am sure yours is just
as good as anyone else's, in spite of the unfortunate fact that you
cannot see him."

"Not so," said Nelatha flatly. "The Invisible God is the only true god.
It is not so difficult if one cannot see him. Consider, Si'Wren, such a
time as when you are suddenly frightened while lying in your bed after
dark, when it is not possible to go to the House temple which the
Master has built, therein to pray. Then, surely you must make prayers
to the Master's god without seeing him."

"Aye," agreed Si'Wren, wondering at this, for, of a curiosity, she
perceived strange new truths in Nelatha's words.

"Well, then," Nelatha said simply, "that's all there is to it."

"Pray tell; 'that is all there is to what?'" inquired an imperious and
sultry female contralto, coming from almost directly behind their
unguarded backs.

Both girls started like birds and together as one bent swiftly and
automatically to their tasks as if bowing to one of the many idols of
the House of Rababull with an instinctive zeal born of grievous prior
experience. One must never be caught openly slacking, and the voice was
that of Sorpiala, standing just at the opening of the tent flap.

Sorpiala, so slender and tall for her sex, with long glossy dark hair,
and such lovely almond-shaped eyes, was a beautiful young slave woman
greatly favored by Master Rababull. Like the Master, Sorpiala was not
always so agreeable with the sometimes carelessly chosen words of
others, unlike amiable Nelatha.

What made Si'Wren even more afraid, was that some of the others had
been heard to remark of late on how beautiful Si'Wren was becoming. In
fact, some said Si'Wren was even more beautiful now than cruel, proud
Sorpiala.

It gave Si'Wren a scary feeling. In fact, sometimes a positively
dreadful feeling. From the warnings Si'Wren had been privately given by
others in the House, it was evident to all that Master Rababull had
been making eyes at Si'Wren in the months since young Si'Wren had begun
to physically blossom, and as was increasingly clear to all, had begun
at long last upon the path of becoming transformed from a human reed
into something a little more shapely, after the manner of all womankind.

Si'Wren somehow found herself becoming progressively more aware of such
dire warnings by the older female slaves in the House, who seemed to
feel that it would be Si'Wren's very life if Sorpiala should perceive
Si'Wren as a threat to her domain.

But, being so young and innocent, and not able to fully comprehend the
meaning of such dark speakings, Si'Wren could only shrug inwardly,
knowing not how or what she might do to avoid such an unintended
confrontation of fates. Lives should intertwine and complement, not
strangle, one-another. And it seemed to her that sometimes now Si'Wren
felt Master Rababull's eyes lingering inordinately long upon her, and
could only feign not to notice, for she was utterly at a loss to know
how to behave, even without the unconventional idea of some unguessable
danger stemming out of Sorpiala's secretly harbored and uncontrolled
upwellings of jealousy.

It was well-enough known to all, that syrupy sweet Sorpiala could
without warning become subtle and vicious at the slightest perceived
insult. For Sorpiala's lips were quick to smile, although her
almond-shaped eyes had always betrayed an hardness, and Sorpiala could
be unrelentingly vindictive about her jealousies, which were countless.
Sorpiala had been the Master's favorite for as long as Si'Wren could
remember. Cross up Sorpiala, and you could end up strapped to the
nearest alter with a stone knife hovering in a pair of hairy fists over
your chest.

There was no way of knowing how long Sorpiala had stood behind the two
of them in deathly silence, listening at their backs while Nelatha and
Si'Wren spoke foolishly, uttering what could all too easily become
their own death warrants on a moment's notice, for appearing to so
willfully and heedlessly forsake their proper duties.

Deep in her heart, Si'Wren had always held as deep a love, reverence,
and respect for Sorpiala as if she were an elder sister, although they
were unrelated by blood. An orphan, Si'Wren had no known siblings. As
for the other slaves in the House, many were known to be the children
of Master Rababull, for he was a man who had many wives, and the
slave-offspring which he had sired might at least claim many
half-brothers or half-sisters among their kin. Not being freeborn, this
was anyhow counted an honor among those slaves who could boast of it,
for it gave them many incidental advantages they might not otherwise
enjoy in their low estate.

But Si'Wren had none to call blood kin. Not a soul.

Si'Wren had also been afraid of Sorpiala more recently, purely aside
from the warnings of others, because of the queerest look Si'Wren
thought she saw in Sorpiala's eyes now and again. It was an alarming
expression, like a deep, searing mask of thinly-veiled hatred, the way
that a surface layer of whitest ash masked the red glow of a fire
living in a long-burning bed of coals while betraying no visible flame
or spark on the surface.

Such confused goings-on both frightened and perplexed Si'Wren, and she
was naturally at a loss how to respond, and so did nothing. What could
she have done anyway?

Si'Wren had been given special warning by old L'acoci, and now also
began to understand, dimly, that to a slave girl, any degree of beauty
could be a terrible curse, if it brought the wrong kind of attention
from the wrong kind of person. To a slave, especially a young girl such
as Si'Wren, were not all others superior to herself? She was virtually
at the mercy of whoever chose to molest her, for she did not even know
how to run away or where to go.

Now, fearful in the presence of Sorpiala's ominous silence, Si'Wren
kept her eyes downcast on her little jars, pretending with an agonized
trembling and the barest amount of fumbling over everything she
touched, to be utterly oblivious of anything out of the ordinary.

Unexpectedly, Sorpiala stepped forward to face Si'Wren and smiled
tenderly from one side.

"Si'Wren, what is this? Did I not just have the good fortune to hear
you talking about the Invisible God?" Sorpiala asked in the sweetest
tone of voice. "How curious," Sorpiala went on, "that I have never
before noticed your belief in him, dear. Is He not wonderful?"

Si'Wren lifted up her eyes to Sorpiala in a shy smile. Of course she
could trust Sorpiala! Who could dare to think otherwise?

"Aye, Sorpiala," said Si'Wren, looking up and nodding readily and
continuing to smile beamingly. "We were just talking about him. I have
never before heard of a god so unusual that one could not even see him."

But abruptly, as Si'Wren turned from smiling at Sorpiala in order to
include Nelatha in the conversation, she was struck dumb with shock by
the stark, thinly veiled terror in Nelatha's trapped-looking eyes.
After betraying that one warning look to Si'Wren, Nelatha bent over her
work and pretended not to be aware of anything around her, especially
anything in the direction of Sorpiala.

Si'Wren looked back at Sorpiala again quickly, blinking rapidly in
confusion.

"Fear not," soothed Sorpiala, reaching to stroke Si'Wren's cheek gently
with her fingertips. "I have heard of the Invisible God. Does he not
watch over all the world and even ourselves at this very moment?"

"Aye," Si'Wren nodded doubtfully, casting her round eyes from
Sorpiala's curiously reassuring countenance, to Nelatha, who, looking
sick at heart, seemed ready to die of fear on the very spot.

Si'Wren suddenly wished that Nelatha would stop worrying. Could Nelatha
not see how loving and faithful Sorpiala was, both to them and to this
Invisible God?

"Don't work too hard, Nelatha," Sorpiala said, and then let out a funny
little laugh. "Remember; the Invisible God is always watching every
move, and hears every word. Bye-bye, girls."

"Bye, Sorpiala," said Si'Wren, smiling fondly.

But Nelatha did not return the farewell, and when Sorpiala was gone,
Si'Wren stood motionless for a long time, as motionless as any dumb
graven idol, as she struggled with some nameless, faceless inner
turmoil in her effort to take proper stock of the situation.

Why was Nelatha so troubled, and so unwilling to so much as speak of it?

* * *

In the following days, Sorpiala seemed to harbor a special look of
affection which she secretly displayed for Si'Wren's eyes only,
whenever they chanced to meet. It gave Si'Wren the most deep-down,
sisterly feeling for Sorpiala, and made her feel inexpressibly
contented with life.

But with each passing day, Nelatha became if possible even more
fearful, and finally, she would no longer so much as speak scarcely a
word to Si'Wren or even acknowledge her presence with so much as a nod,
causing Si'Wren much anguish when they worked together in the spice
tent at their labors and causing her to long desperately for their
former good times together.

Whenever Master Rababull would chance to pass by, he would nod and beam
and smile at her, filling Si'Wren's day with consternation and no
little dismay that she should feel so dumb about everything. Any simple
slave girl might quite sensibly have experienced a right and proper
bliss, even a contentment, at such attentions, but all Si'Wren felt was
a terrible sense of foreboding.

Si'Wren occasionally saw Sorpiala standing in the shadows, frowning,
but only once did Si'Wren chance to deliberately spy on Sorpiala, as
she stood across the courtyard in the shadow of the House and stared
down at an overripe fruit that had turned partly rotten. The fruit had
already begun to dry up, and Si'Wren could see the shrunken, wrinkled,
flattened side on which it had lain in the dirt, and the flies that
scattered when Sorpiala shooed them away with a distracted frown.

It was uncharacteristic for Sorpiala to touch such filth with her
hands, and Si'Wren could only wonder at what could have motivated one
such as she to do such a thing. It fretted Si'Wren to see her elder
sister in bondage grieving so over a mere rotting fruit. Were there not
an hundred fresh ones, ripe for the taking, to replace the rotten one
that seemed to concern Sorpiala so?

Si'Wren was fairly mystified at this.

Suddenly three of Sorpiala's female consorts approached, catching her
off-guard with the offending fruit still held openly in her palm.
Sorpiala seemed to give a sudden start at the appearance of the others,
as if not expecting them and for some reason seemed
uncharacteristically at a loss how to face them, although Si'Wren could
not say why. There were many such slave girls under Sorpiala's personal
power, who were virtually as answerable to Sorpiala as they were to
Master Rababull himself.

Si'Wren watched in blank astonishment, secure behind her tent skirts,
as the other three women made carefully orchestrated faces of sham
sorrow over the fruit to Sorpiala's face, and then when they departed,
delivered with equal skill and dispatch the most despicably reviling,
hateful looks to Sorpiala behind her back.

Sorpiala's slave attendants were like flounders, fish that could not
swim with a proper motion, that dwelt in the mire at the bottom of the
sea, and looked strangely at one with the peculiar oddness of two eyes
both wrongfully on one side only, but no eye on the other side. So
that, wherever the flounder looked, it looked while concealing it's
other side, all the while appearing to be as falsely over-sincere as
only a flounder could seem.

The following morning, Si'Wren found herself working in the spice tent
beside a disturbingly quiet Nelatha. It was early enough that the
morning mists still drifted thickly over the glistening outer walls and
swirled wetly through the compound and softening and obscuring all form
and substance.

Softly, Si'Wren sang a prayer to herself for a day filled with
blessings from Heaven for all who lived in Master Rababull's House,
respectfully beseeching various and sundry gods as she followed a
tribal melody with the words of her prayer. Forgotten were her fears,
for there remained only, from time to time, that distressing silence of
Nelatha, which Si'Wren had been so vainly at odds to dispel with her
cheerfulness.

She had never been so happy, working in the spice tent. Only now, she
was aware of the fact that she did pray to unseen gods. Gods whose
graven idols were not in her immediate, visible presence, just as
Nelatha had scornfully pointed out earlier when still on speaking terms
with her. This led Si'Wren to consider more seriously the strange
Invisible God of whom Nelatha had initially spoken.

Nelatha still adamantly refused to speak of the Invisible God, in spite
of the fact that Sorpiala clearly meant no harm, and stubbornly refused
now to so much as say one word about this or practically anything else.

But Si'Wren could not stop herself from wondering about this strange
Invisible God. For the whole idea was still very unclear to her. She
was still so young, and the world so vast.

She supposed that the elders of every village must know all about this
Invisible God, and imagined that they must surely understand why His
image could not be somehow made visible by the contrivance of wooden or
golden idols made with hands. Yet, she was fearful of going to any of
them and asking.

The least of the elders of any of the villages round about, and those
also that sat in the gates of the Emperor's city, was each and every
one of them, from the highest to the very lowest in rank, a great civil
dignitary. That was how Si'Wren had always viewed them.

Such great men should not be trifled with, especially by a mere girl,
and might severely chastise Si'Wren for her boldness, and perhaps as
well for her blatant ignorance of such matters. What if, in their
anger, any of them was to complain to her Master Rababull and shame him
openly for the stupidity of the foolish girl slave called Si'Wren? The
more that even one of them should happen to laugh and make mention of
it to him, the more Master Rababull would punish her, it seemed to
Si'Wren. No, it was not worth such a risk, merely to ask such a curious
and doubtful question.

"Nelatha, I have longed that I might speak with you once more about
this curious Invisible God," Si'Wren finally said, eyes meekly downcast
to her work. "Why has He given us eyes, and then made Himself
invisible, that none might ever look upon His face? Is it because He is
ashamed?"

Nelatha worked on, as if she had not heard.

"Why would God be ashamed?" Si'Wren whispered, as if to herself now.

Finally, Nelatha looked up with an expression of open impatience and
exasperation.

"Only man is ashamed," Nelatha said with quiet assurance, at long last
overcoming her reluctance of speaking of the Invisible One again. "Not
God. Foolish Si'Wren, you must try your best to live a sinless life. Do
good, and shun evil! Does not the wisdom of our folk lore teach us that
Adam, and Eve his wife, saw God openly and spoke to Him freely and
often, before they were both cast out of the Garden of Heaven for one
sin? No wonder He never shows His face! And does this not also teach us
that there is but one God?"

"It is curious," Si'Wren agreed, "that Adam and Eve should have been
created by only one god, when all men say there be many gods. Of a
truth, I have never considered it before. How can this be?"

"There is but one God," said Nelatha, "and in this life, no one may see
God and live. For all are sinful. Sin, before God, burns like charcoal
in a fire. But you will see Him on high some day, if you go to Paradise
after you die."

"You mean; if I have lived a good life?" Si'Wren said.

"Aye," nodded Nelatha, "that too. More, it will be to your good and
everlasting fortune if you have had good inside your heart, which like
Him is unseen, and not just in your outward behavior. Then you will
surely rejoice to see Him in all of His eternal glory. Aye, you shall
stand before the living God for all eternity, and live, and not die."

Chapter Two - A Most Curious Invisible God

"Ho so!" breathed Si'Wren with mounting satisfaction, as she kept her
voice cautiously low. "One day I will see Him, then. But, why can we
not worship images of Him now? Will He not be pleased?"

Nelatha looked around this time, checking wearily over her shoulder
before answering, "Sister, if I make an image from dust, so..."

Nelatha took up the water skin and hunkered down into a squatting
position, then took up a clump of loose dirt in her fist, and carefully
dispensed a little water into her partly opened hand. She put the water
skin aside, and worked the moistened handful of dirt with utmost care,
making it into a rounded, flattened lump of dark mud. Then with her
fingertip she poked three times, and made it into a crude face having
two round eyes and a round mouth.

"Behold," Nelatha said gravely, as she held forth in her hand the
small, round, flattened visage of an idol made out of mud, "a child's
plaything. Pretend that you are a child, Si'Wren, and that this is the
doll face you made of Habrunt. As long as Habrunt is not here, you may
talk freely to this as much as you like. But when the real Habrunt
comes, why talk to dumb clay? Now, unlike Habrunt, who comes and goes,
if the Invisible God knows all and sees all, and is so all-knowing that
nothing escapes His knowledge, why should you speak to a mere fruitless
idol about getting a man, or of many babies, a house, health, and
wealth? Why speak to that which sees and hears not, of avoiding meeting
savage men or beasts without a strong swordsman to shield and protect
you? Why ask that which is itself made of the barren earth, of gaining
good crops without needless sweat, thistle, thorn, or pestilence?"

Nelatha waited, watching closely. But Si'Wren only regarded the idol in
Nelatha's palm in open perplexity.

"I... I do not know," Si'Wren stammered uncertainly. She stared at the
clump of mud, which had already sagged and cracked a little in
Nelatha's upturned palm. Si'Wren somehow felt the wrongness of it,
although she could not say why.

"Well?" Nelatha demanded of Si'Wren. "Is there yet no understanding in
your stony heart?"

But Si'Wren could only stare at her blankly.

Nelatha propped her fists on her ample hips and frowned crossly at
Si'Wren.

"Speak, foolish one."

"Forgive me, Nelatha. I do not understand this," Si'Wren pleaded, with
an apologetic expression. "Why did you not pray directly to the
Invisible God?..."

Si'Wren's voice trailed away.

Then understanding struck like a thunderbolt, as Si'Wren suddenly
perceived the futility of all graven images in the presence of a real
God, even an invisible one.

"Ooh!" she said. "Now I see!"

"Aye! Ohh!" Nelatha mocked Si'Wren imitatively, as her eyes and mouth
becoming like wide round circles, to match Si'Wren's expression, which
in turn exactly resembled the little round-eyed mud face.

"Si'Wren, if the Invisible God is all-seeing, why should you speak to
the dirt which was formerly between your toes, when you can pray
directly to He who made the whole world instead? Why bow to idols,
which neither see nor hear? The real wonder is why you who are made of
dust, are as dense as a rock. Who needs a stone idol, with you around?
Stupid, ignorant, half-witted slave that you are sometimes, I can only
marvel at how fittingly you were born to such low estate, for your
thick-headedness. But that can be cured, and without the use of the
rod, or such herbs as these. I may speak of mysteries, Si'Wren, but at
least I do not speak falsely. I only faithfully repeat that which the
old woman L'acoci taught me in secret, and it must not be repeated, on
your life!"

"I swear, Nelatha," Si'Wren eagerly reassured her, "I shall not breathe
a word to anyone!"

"Enough for now, then," Nelatha said, in satisfaction. "We will talk
again later."

With that, both girls returned to their labors, but now Si'Wren had a
new wonder to marvel over. Why, ever again, should she worship a graven
image?

The next day was just a little chilly throughout the early hours, and
Si'Wren wore a coarsely woven dried grass shawl that was no longer
green, but a faded, mottled gray.

Early in the morning swirl of drifting mists, the two girls worked
together in silence, safely observing the many inhabitants of the House
of Rababull perform their morning routines from an unobserved vantage
point. It was as if they, too, were invisible behind the gauzy insect
veils stretched across the open tent flap at one end, and it gave
Si'Wren much to think about.

Others could be watched or glimpsed briefly as they led the horses from
the stables, to brush them, and check their hooves and remove the
stinking clots from them with blunt points, and so on, while another
group could be observed at length as they filed out to spend the day
laboring in the Master's vineyards and grain fields.

They also watched the familiar faces of the womenfolk of the House of
Rababull, lifelong slaves every one. Each had her bundle of soiled
clothing, and many bore their babies suspended from forehead slings
draped down across their backs, and as the women walked past in the
direction of the back of the compound, many were accompanied by a
number of tiny, naked toddlers. The womenfolk, some of whom were
accompanied as well by elder daughters, were taking their bundles of
wash out through the two tall narrow rear gates of the walled compound,
to the nearby stream where they would pound and slap the soiled
garments on the rocks whilst wailing together as one the old,
long-familiar tribal ditties.

Si'Wren's memories of such were too vague and distant, to recall her
own mother and father. For she was an orphan from earliest memory, a
slave taken or sold out of her own mother's arms too long ago to have
any recollection of it.

But she was not entirely alone. Did not the House of Master Rababull
claim and feed and protect her just like any family member, albeit one
of the very lowest possible rank?

As a mere slave, was she not more privileged than the richest of
beggars who dwelt in their so-called glorious 'freedom' amongst the
flies and dogs and dung of beasts without number, and who called out
incessantly as they begged by the wayside in the filth and scum, and
despaired of their very lives? They who had freedom and family had it
worse than Si'Wren, as they waited and begged and cowered, not knowing
whether it be for a shred of food or the bruising end of a staff in the
dirty gutters and tilting hovels of the Emperor's numberless narrow
city streets and alleyways.

Still, Si'Wren could not help thinking that the washer women had it
best of all. To sing, and slap wet rags, and raise babies, and cook.
Was this not bliss?

As she remained thus lost in her contemplations over her work, Nelatha
turned slowly to face Si'Wren and made as if to speak. Sensing
Nelatha's hesitation, Si'Wren paused in her work also, waiting and
watching respectfully.

At this, Nelatha reached up and took the water skin bag from it's hook.
She tilted down the spout, made from the leg-end of a dumb brute beast,
and carefully poured some clear water into an unglazed, shallow clay
bowl.

Then Nelatha said, not to Si'Wren, but to Si'Wren's reflection in the
shimmering watery surface, "Look, Si'Wren! Open your eyes, and behold
Wisdom! Do you not see my reflection in the water, more perfect a
likeness than that of any polished shield in the Master's armory?
Behold how the clear water is almost totally invisible, and yet can you
not see my perfect likeness in it, just like a waking vision? The
Invisible God is so, and sees us in like fashion. We do see Him
indirectly, Si'Wren, just as we see each other in the water's
reflection. For does not all Creation reflect His glory?"

Si'Wren nodded, blinking and smiling timidly as she leaned close beside
her beloved slave sister and replied eagerly to Nelatha's watery
reflection in the clay bowl, "Aye, Nelatha, it is good to pray to the
water, yes?"

"No!" Nelatha slapped Si'Wren's hands away irritatedly, mystifying a
crestfallen Si'Wren, whose weeping brown eyes immediately betrayed her
shock and confusion.

"Stop looking at me like that. I have no sympathy for fools. Or do you
expect me to admire you for your skillfulness with tears? You bow to
the ground before Him, yes! But remember; He is in Heaven! Si'Wren, the
Invisible One created all things, but He looks down from on high, and
sees all things, and has set before us a life of good mixed with bad to
see which we might choose, day after day, all of our lives. He sees our
hearts, and searches them always, for there he finds the treasure of
our souls, and desires to know what we hide there, or whether it be
good or whether it be evil."

"Oh, forgive me, Nelatha!" breathed Si'Wren. "It is so difficult to
understand this Invisible God. Do even evil things, like scorpions and
vipers, show His glory?"

"Don't be silly!" Nelatha said. "Of course not. Well, perhaps they do
show His awful terribleness somehow. Of that, I know little. Ugh! How
could you even think of such a question?"

Nelatha reached down, and drew with her fingertip in the dirt, a
brawny, disembodied male arm extending from a cloud, and holding a
thunderbolt.

"Observe," declared Nelatha with hushed emphasis, "the hand of God,
from a puff of cloud, and does not fog wet the skin?"

Si'Wren stared, her eyes fastened upon the scene before her.

Nelatha regarded Si'Wren. "What think you?"

Si'Wren stepped back and bowed, and said, "I am overwhelmed, and must
think greatly upon what you have said and shown me."

"Aye!" Nelatha whispered. "But tell no one, on your life!"

Nelatha raised her eyebrows significantly, and finally turned away with
a satisfied nod, to return to her perpetual labor of grinding herb into
powder with pestle and mortar.

* * *

Late the next afternoon, a stranger called from without the compound
gate, and the guard answered, and it was breathlessly announced by a
runner boy that a caravan was waiting to enter. There was a concerted
rush by whoever could free themselves from their duties to go and see,
and as the gates were thrown open they beheld the sight of a long line
of human porters, with oxen, and riders upon camels and burros, all
standing idle.

Master Rababull appeared quickly, and more than a few watched fearfully
to see if he would lash out at anybody for recklessly opening the gates
too soon to the strangers, or contrariwise, for not opening them
quickly enough to show his proper hospitality to important visitors.
But when his fierce countenance broke out into a toothy welcoming grin,
it was sufficient reassurance to all that the good times had come
again, and a celebration would no doubt soon be in the making.

The camels were all heavily laden with trade goods, and teams of stout
oxen stood patiently in front of great two-wheeled carts, accompanied
by attendants almost without number.

Under heavy guard entered also a troupe of exotic, half-veiled,
half-naked courtesans accoutered in their virgin colors and finery
(hence their perpetual jesting and self-mockery, for they be no
virgins), seated each upon her own soft-looking little burro. Many
fierce guards accompanied the line of travelers, wielding shining
swords and broad hide-covered shields.

With the gates swung wide, the caravan began it's long drawn-out entry
into the great inner walled compound of the House of Rababull,
accompanied by the loudly proclaimed boastings and pronouncements of
the noble Camel Master's crier, and thereby setting up such a din as to
put all the House astir. It seemed that everyone had stopped to watch,
and all work fell idle as more and more paused and came to gawk.

Master Rababull had girded himself in his finest robes and was by now
in a thoroughly good humor as he marched hither and yon across the
front courtyard, puffed up with unabashed conceit as his servants
voiced loud and shamelessly their praise and admiration for both the
Master and his important visitors.

In a seemingly endless procession, the caravan paraded with stately
dignity through the front gates in a grand display of riches and
home-spun glory. As the long line of great beasts continued to enter
the great courtyard in sedate single file, they halted one-by-one and
stood waiting patiently for their handlers to unload them.

Strapped securely upon their backs were bulging, tightly bound oilskins
and pungent, coarse burr-lap wrapped bundles of herbs, spices, and rare
woods with which to make the finest idols, furniture, and fixtures, as
well as priceless swatches of the most extraordinary block-printed
cloth, and gourds of rare, hard-to-obtain dyes -especially scarlet and
purple- and a cornucopia's horn of other riches.

Before he finally left in a few days for other lands, the Trade Master
would leave behind his entire treasure trove, having exchanged all for
the finest works of Master Rababull's clever craftsmen. The beasts
would be heavily laden with countless intricately graven idols adorned
with gold, silver, copper, ivory, ebony, black- and red-striped woods,
and other rare woods, and gem stones with which to make crudely faceted
jewels for their eyes. The precious stones and metals with which the
idols were adorned were dug out of Rababull's secret underground gem
mines, the precise location of which, under heavy guard within his own
lands, was a closely guarded secret known only to Rababull himself and
the captives who slaved in the mines.

Now, Master Rababull and Slavemaster Habrunt were everywhere, weaving a
web of commands to the servants as everything was seen to.

First, the Camel Master and his entourage must be courteously escorted
to the bath house by servants, who would bathe and minister to their
every whim, and other servants would follow along with baskets of
culinary delights and wine from tall, slender clay vases.

When they were finished with their bath, Master Rababull would hold a
huge feast, as was his general custom. He would be sure to invite
numerous friends, many of them business associates from in and around
the Emperor's city, each with his many fat wives and even more
numerous, wickedly spoiled offspring.

Si'Wren watched as one of the caravan travelers shyly approached the
Camel Master. The other turned and, before the petitioner had been
afforded adequate time to voice his request, nodded his immediate
approval as if being reminded of something that he had already been
informed of by the meekly beseeching one at an earlier time, no doubt a
petition granted during the long journey on the overland trade route.

The Camel Master clapped a reassuring hand on the timid underling's
bare right shoulder, whereupon both walked across to Master Rababull
and bowed low, to which he courteously bowed also. Woe to any, to whom
Master Rababull should ever bow and later become offended by. They
would then find that there was a price for such courtesy which was
beyond their ability to repay, should their lack of good manners touch
upon his ireful eyes.

But for today, it seemed that Master Rababull could see no wrong. His
smile easily set the men to working with greater dedication and zeal
than any whip. It was known that the whip ever shadowed the smile of
Master Rababull. The larger the smile, the longer the shadow cast by
the ever-present whip at his side.

While the Camel Master stood near him, looking on and nodding his
encouragement, the supplicant began talking animatedly and fearfully to
Master Rababull and gesticulating into his own opened mouth, with many
repeated dips of the head in impromptu gestures of respect, and making
praying motions with his hands beseechingly to Rababull, as he
displayed the most genuine and grievous expressions of personal torment.

The man had a toothache.

Rababull showed impatience at first, but then seemed to think better of
the man's plight, and peered somewhat distractedly into the
unfortunate's mouth. After he had indulged the other with various
expressions, by turns, of critical appraisal, agreement, and sympathy,
he gave the nod and granted off-handed approval to the man's immediate
treatment, as he turned to Habrunt and gave instructions.

Habrunt bowed low when he had heard all, and turned to one of several
runner boys who were standing by and sent him out the front gates at a
jog. The boy had no doubt been sent to go and call upon Rababull's
favorite Physician from the city.

Rababull would probably pay outright for cost of this man's treatment
as a gesture of personal favor to the Camel Master, whose successful
arrival from across vast and dangerous lands heralded the advent of
huge new profits to be made in the market places of the nearby city,
and Rababull could well afford to be magnanimous with such riches now
seen to be quite safely and literally in his hands.

It was Rababull who had paid for this trading expedition in the first
place. Si'Wren remembered it's original departure two years ago as an
event of momentous significance and great portent. One never knew
whether any of the caravan's members, or the Master's money, might be
seen again.

Si'Wren continued working, but paused often to watch as the unloading
of the camel train continued, with teams of men laboring tirelessly to
transfer the goods into the heavily fortified and well-guarded store
rooms behind the stables, on the far side of the courtyard.

Suddenly one of Rababull's slaves came running from the back gate of
the compound, which opened out onto the path to the nearby grain
fields. The new arrival ran over and abruptly seized another slave by
the shoulders and began arguing rather vehemently as he shook the
smaller, terrified man in furious anger.

Habrunt stepped over and thrust himself bodily straight into the midst
of the exchange, immediately taking charge.

"Aye!" exclaimed Nelatha, shaking her head fearfully. "What a time to
come looking for trouble!"

"You said it!" Si'Wren agreed readily, with a frown. "But those two
have always been close friends! I wonder what it's all about?"

An argument like that at a time like this was not a good idea, because
the only possible winner would be the Master. Rababull could easily
become angry at both for acting like spoiled children in front of the
newcomers, causing him to be disgraced in front of them, as well as
spoiling his own good humor.

But Master Rababull had not even noticed yet, so there was still a
chance of settling the matter before it got too far out of hand. He was
too busy taking care of the caravan's needs, and a wise Habrunt was
determined that it stay that way.

But the argument, surprisingly, heated up again, with the one slave
persisting in his accusations and waving his arms even more wildly -if
it were possible- than before. Obviously not caring who heard him, he
kept imitating the motion of hitting himself in the eye, and then
shaking his fist at the other slave.

Then Habrunt, with a visible sense of renewed urgency in his entire
manner and physical posture, sent another runner boy scurrying across
the yard. The boy quickly returned with Prut, one of Rababull's biggest
and most trusted slaves.

Nelatha and Si'Wren, still keeping up a pretense of labor as they
watched unseen within the veil of their tent, exchanged dire, fearful
looks.

Prut was a powerful man, and whenever he was called in to help take
charge of a situation, it usually meant grief to whoever Prut was put
after. Prut could lift two times his own weight over his own head,
maybe even more, and although not a giant, he was certainly big enough
by ordinary standards.

A stone-faced Prut listened to Habrunt's instructions, and then turned
and tromped over to a large group of boys who had gathered to help
unload the caravan, and as soon as he had relayed Habrunt's
instructions, the boys all fanned out searching in all possible hiding
places and out-of-the-way corners.

Habrunt, meanwhile, had gone off to the fields, perhaps to go looking
for himself. Whatever it was, it was no small matter. He soon came back
carrying the agonized, writhing figure of a small boy in his arms,
followed by a small crowd of openly angry women and other children.

One-half of the boy's face was covered with blood, emanating from one
of his squinting eyes.

This time the interruption did not go unnoticed, and while the
distracted workmen finished unloading the caravan, with many a turn of
the head, the team of boys that Prut had organized had worked their way
through the courtyard and outlying structures as they called anxiously
to and fro to one-another, and rapidly expanded the territory of their
searches. Others ran out both the front and rear gates and could be
heard out in the fields, shouting to one another as they went about
poking and beating at the bushes with long sticks.

Finally the hue and cry went up from a number of them, and a concerted
chase ensued. Presently, they returned through the rear gates with two
of the biggest boys half-walking and half-dragging a lone struggling
boy, holding the unwilling youngster firmly by the upper arms and hair
to keep him from getting away again.

Habrunt came over and stood listening to them all arguing, and finally
raised his finger and pointed at Prut with a terse word to stand guard
while he turned and marched with an ominously slow, deliberate
reluctance across the courtyard towards Master Rababull. A sense of
dread fell upon the entire assembly, and gradually all fell silent,
watching as Habrunt resolutely approached Master Rababull.

Up until now, Rababull had been deliberately ignoring the whole fiasco.
But when Habrunt finally stepped up to him and bowed low, he turned to
listen, still grandly smiling, and after a few barely whispered words
from the bowed face of Habrunt, Master Rababull quickly turned, and his
smile froze into an expressionless, unreadable, and somehow
all-the-more terrifying mask.

Master Rababull was, after all, many hundreds of years old, the better
part of a thousand, in fact, and no man's fool. He knew men, and he
knew how to deal in kind for kind, and had survived the most evil
schemes that men could throw at him by managing to anticipate them
sufficiently in advance whilst devising even more evil ones in return.

Together, Master and Slavemaster returned to the silent crowd that had
gathered around the two boys, and all of the women, except one old
grandmother, fell away like chaff before the wind. The one woman, whose
name was Breeka, stood her ground, though old and stooped, and her face
was as a gargoyle's, very terrible and unmoving, as if naturally grown
from some dark and twisted tree bole.

If Master Rababull's years exceeded six hundred, and his wit be steeped
in the tap root of the ungood, this old crone was the very epitome of
evil and practically a great-grandmother to him by comparison, with the
crime of the hour engendering within her shrunken breast a fearless,
savage desire for revenge.

Si'Wren felt cold, numbing fear. Something big was up. Something evil.
She knew everyone there. Only the very newest additions to the House of
Rababull did she not know by name as well as by face. She watched with
dire feelings and the gravest of misgivings as Rababull examined the
injured boy who lay moaning and writhing in the arms of his weeping
mother.

Then he turned and questioned the two slaves who had argued, each of
them the father of one of the two boys around whom the entire matter
was centered.

The boy who had previously hidden himself was a known trouble-maker. He
was a bully of the worst sort, always picking on others smaller than
himself. Si'Wren had never known what to think of him, except to steer
clear at every opportunity, for she knew that all too soon, he would be
a man and whereas now was only a pest, would then be dangerous to her
and the other women. The unruly boy had been disciplined before many
times, invariably as much for his actual excesses as for his spiteful
and miserable attitude.

Rababull finally took the little trouble-maker by the arm and
frog-marched him over to the injured boy. He said something to Habrunt,
who responded by holding up the injured boy's head so all could see the
ruined eye socket.

Si'Wren felt an agonized pang of sympathetic grief for the injured
child. She knew him well, and he had always been so harmless and
gentle. Now, the boy's left eye was gone and only a emptily staring,
bloody cavity remained where his innocent soul had once looked out on
the world. Only his good right eye remained, and that one, coupled with
his occasional shrieks, betrayed his continuing agony.

Again, Nelatha and Si'Wren exchanged knowing, fearful looks. Rababull
suddenly ordered several men to seize and hold the little bully's
father immobile before him as all looked on to see what would happen
next.

As Rababull questioned the father of the offending boy, the man, scared
witless, jerked his head back anxiously, and replied loudly and
emphatically in the negative.

Then he looked at his own boy and nodded his head as he gabbled out his
protest of the suggested judgement through lips black-stained from his
secret addiction to some foul intoxicating substance, and Si'Wren could
easily read the gesture.

Not me--him!...

The father was clearly expressing his opinion that whatever punishment
was merited, although it had been charged directly to him as penalty
for his own boy's misbehavior, he clearly preferred the boy to suffer
for his own wrongdoing.

The boy's voice rose to a hopeless wail as Rababull himself stepped
forward without a word and seized the youth, and made a brief motion
over the youngster's face with his hands. The boy let out a series of
guttural screams, and then, his work done as a Judge, Master Rababull
turned and walked back to his unloading without another glance, but he
left behind a screaming boy who had been a bully once too often, with
his crime to be paid for this time in blood. Both boys now had but one
eye.

An eye for an eye.

The suddenly animated crowd turned away with a shared look of
satisfaction at the outcome. Did not every free man do that which was
right in his own eyes, and his neighbor also, whether it be good or
whether it be evil, and the slaves too when they could get away with it?

Even the fathers, both of them, approved. Better a disciplined boy with
one good eye remaining, than a criminal offspring with two evil ones.
Perhaps the little rascal would not be so much trouble to them in
future. If not, there were cases where the other eye had eventually
been put out also, rendering the blinded evildoer a more or less
harmless beggar for the rest of his miserable life.

Si'Wren thought on this with all of her might. The ignominy of it. The
injustice. But what was justice? What, but that which Master Rababull
saw fit to declare so?

She had not been alive too long, especially compared to the hundreds of
years of her Master, but the boy who had been in the wrong was
obviously too young by far to merit such grievous punishment. For one
of so tender years, there were always other ways. The good boy could
have been set free for the sake of his lost eye, for instance, and the
bad boy who had put his eye out could have been taken to the front
gate, the better to watch with his two good eyes, the other go free. To
Si'Wren's mind, that would have been a perfectly fair and reasonable
punishment.

Except that Master Rababull would have lost a valuable slave in the
process. The old idol gods whom Si'Wren had known all her life would no
doubt have strongly approved of Master Rababull's harsh decision. Would
the Invisible God have approved also?

What a question. Si'Wren thought on this, but in the end, she could
only reflect that she could not bring herself to agree with Master
Rababull's harsh decision. Perhaps in time, she might gain a better
idea. It was certainly a question to nag at one's conscience.

Soon enough, as Nelatha had expected, Habrunt sent a runner boy over to
the spice tent as Si'Wren and Nelatha watched silently. The runner boy
stood before Nelatha and breathlessly announced that he needed fresh
salve for the injured eyes of both boys.

Si'Wren could still hear the tormented screams of the boy who had been
punished. He was in agony now not only for his eye, but for the unlove
and lack of sympathy from those around him. The other boy, his smaller
victim, was moaning constantly from his unrelenting agony.

Nelatha turned to Si'Wren and repeated the request, and Si'Wren
hastened to fetch what the boy requested, a salve made from a specially
combined mixture of herbs which could help ensure that neither boy died
from infection and also alleviate much of the suffering they must
endure.

While he waited for Si'Wren to give him the salve, the runner boy,
whose name was Gafa, spoke glibly to Si'Wren and Nelatha of the boys'
fathers requesting that the Physician might see their sons, and of
Rababull hesitating at first, but finally relenting.

Human life was cheap, and Rababull's reluctance stemmed from the fact
that he already owned both men and their families, which left them
nothing further to offer him. Whatever they might promise, was it not
already his?

Did they not already owe him their daily labors for the rest of their
lives anyway, before any of this happened? If both boys eventually died
of their infections, could not Master Rababull's human property breed
more children for less than the cost of the Physician's fee?

But, to further his own glory and honor among men, Rababull had finally
approved this thing, that others might call him gracious. Anyway, the
Physician was already coming for the man with a toothache who had
arrived with the caravan, so Rababull could readily afford to kill
several birds with one stone.

Si'Wren already had some salve in a jar that had been prepared only a
few days ago. She brought this out, gave it a fresh stirring up, and
measured some out into a little clay bottle, which she gave to Gafa.

"See that you do not drop it," she instructed little Gafa, using her
most good-natured tone of voice to remove any sting from her
admonition. "You are fast, Gafa, but enough boys have been punished
today and I do not want to see you punished too."

"I promise I will not, Si'Wren," he smiled timidly and nodded. He bowed
low in peremptory fashion and hurried off in a rush.

Si'Wren watched him in chagrin, knowing that he could easily stumble,
but also that he was invariably expected by those in charge of his
duties to do all things as if he could run like the wind.

Several days old was better than fresh, because the herbs would have
had time to suffuse, whereas, if she had immediately prepared something
from the raw materials, it would not have had time to steep and cure
properly. In Si'Wren's world, that which was fresh and new was not
necessarily that which was best.

Si'Wren heard a gentle swish of the tent veil behind her, and turning,
smiled as she watched Sorpiala enter in all her finery. Sorpiala was
holding something close to her breast, an object as long as her
forearm, folded up in a swatch of natural burlap. The undyed cloth was
the color of cow's milk. It was apparently a rather heavy burden from
the way she moved, as she approached Si'Wren and Nelatha and sought to
unfold the cover to show it to them both. Within was an exquisitely
carved jade goddess with sapphire eyes, still enshrouded in several
layers of semi-translucent, gauzy veils.

She started to hand it to Si'Wren, then hesitated, and seemed to make a
sudden decision as she turned sharply at the last and held it out in a
most abrupt fashion to Nelatha instead, saying, "My arms grow weary;
hold this for a moment will you, Nelatha?"

What happened next was over almost in the blink of an eye, but frozen
forever in the mind of Si'Wren.

The goddess seemed to be almost in Nelatha's outstretched hands, when
somehow Sorpiala's retracted hands seemed to catch at the gauze and
jerk it back, and as it fell, Nelatha was left clutching only the loose
edges of the silken folds.

With a dull clunk the goddess thumped heavily on the hard dirt surface
of the tent floor and broke clean in half. Si'Wren thought she had seen
it already coming apart into two halves in mid-air, but that was
absurd. Why would Sorpiala bring a broken idol to show them? Anyway,
Si'Wren had not seen it clearly and could not truly be sure.

"Oh, forgive me, Sorpiala!" Nelatha wailed as she stared, eyes wide in
abject terror, at Sorpiala.

"What? Oh, it was only a mistake," said Sorpiala, already trying to
console Nelatha.

She turned and smiled brief reassurance at Si'Wren also, to show that
offense had been neither perceived nor taken.

Si'Wren blinked, and, remembering her manners, bowed low, uttering
quickly, "I am most grieved, Sorpiala," in a formal utterance of
deepest consolation which gesture alone seemed appropriate to such an
unhappy event.

"No, it is nothing," Sorpiala said, bending down and picking up the two
broken halves herself to gather up in the folds of the gauze and burlap
again. "Do not worry."

She turned as if about to go, and then paused and looked directly at
Si'Wren.

"Si'Wren, you know, I am not so sure that a goddess which can be
dropped and broken is anything worth believing in. Do you suppose some
time, you could tell me about your Invisible God?"

Si'Wren, caught off guard, smiled hurriedly.

"Why, certainly, Sorpiala," she said. She nodded her head and bowed in
a gesture of respect. "I would be most honored."

"Very well, then, since you seem to know all about it..." Sorpiala said
mysteriously, and bowed in perfunctory fashion. Then before Si'Wren
could say a word, Sorpiala turned and stepped out still clutching
broken goddess wrapped in burlap.

Si'Wren turned away and looked at Nelatha, who was bent over her work
again, grinding and grinding with anxious energy. Nelatha's eyes looked
terrified and miserable.

"Do not worry, Nelatha," said Si'Wren. "Did she not say it was an
accident?" But Nelatha did not say so much as a word to Si'Wren.

After staring at Nelatha a moment longer, Si'Wren finally turned away,
feeling glum, and began to busy herself grinding a new batch of herbs
with the stone mortar and pestle.

Preparations for the caravan feast had already begun. Many of the
Master's fattest livestock were being shepherded into the compound by
their handlers to be slaughtered. Big iron cauldrons had been put on to
boil, for scalding the hides to scrape off the hair. Knives were
sharpened for killing, bleeding, and skinning the animals. By tonight,
all things would be ready for the big feast. But Si'Wren refused to eat
any of the meat, for it was a strange and barbaric new custom.

Si'Wren watched Master Rababull as he marched to and fro in the wide
courtyard, ordering men about and personally seeing to every detail.
The magnificent curls of his long locks swayed rhythmically across his
powerful back and shoulders, while his coarse dangling beard stood out
more stiffly.

Master Rababull was older by far than what might have been Si'Wren's
personal preference, but he was nevertheless a powerful and wealthy
man. She secretly hoped that another, younger man might choose her one
day soon. Many men already had their eyes on her; this she could not
help but notice. She had dreams of a large family with many children
and in-laws, but not, hopefully, as just the umpteenth wife of some fat
old curser.

Master Rababull, Si'Wren knew, already had many wives, and she was wise
enough in spite of her youth to realize that it would be no fun
spending the remainder of one's life in direct competition with an army
of female rivals for so much as the merest bit of time now and then
with one's own husband.

Si'Wren watched Master Rababull turn to make his way across the wide
courtyard yet again in long hurried strides. Always so serious, even
about the business of his many pleasures, such as now with the
anticipated celebration.

As Si'Wren watched incuriously, Master Rababull stopped abruptly
mid-way across the courtyard as he was interrupted respectfully but
unexpectedly by yet another slave, who approached rapidly and bowed
low, clearly needing advice or authority in the furtherance of
something.

After the incident with the two boys who had each lost an eye, Master
Rababull was not in the best of moods. Clearly impatient, he stood
frowning distractedly as he heard the man out.

Si'Wren looked beyond, musing that Master Rababull had been headed
towards the huge, sprawling, open-air mansion which was the actual
House of Rababull, with it's many rooms and beautiful central garden
with a stone fountain that was surrounded on all sides by a wide border
of smooth paving stones.

There, cushions were being laid out so that all of the guests would be
well taken care of when they arrived. He must be sure there was enough
of everything for everybody, and that included floor cushions. None
must have any visible stains or dirt marks on them. Otherwise, some
guest might be insulted.

When it came to fixed seating, invariably the master of the house
himself must unerringly decide in advance who should sit closest to
himself, and who sat on whose right hand, even unto those who must sit
progressively farther and farther from his own seat of honor. It was a
daunting task to so order the hierarchy of the ranks of gluttony, that
none should be insulted by a lower seat than they properly deserved.
Greater men than Rababull had literally lost their heads in sudden
revenge at the sword hands of their former guests for not paying
greater attention to the exacting particulars of such a seemingly
insignificant detail as the proper seating of all guests according to
favor, rank, or privilege. The absence of one important guest, or
unanticipated arrival of another, was always sure to throw everything
into a bewildering chaos of renewed choices over who must come before
who.

To avoid this, Master Rababull chose to let almost the entire house be
used to party in, while he refused to call any seat his own but
wandered about seeing to everyone else's comforts or pleasures, so that
there should be no one spot that could be called better than any other.
An offended brother was more difficult to win back than many cities,
but Master Rababull was already so old and he was no doubt well
schooled in such matters.

Rababull finished his impromptu consultation, and the anxious slave,
having obtained his Master's decision, stepped back with a low bow and
hurried off.

Then as Rababull turned to continue across the courtyard toward the
House, Si'Wren watched as graceful Sorpiala hailed Master Rababull in
her musical voice and pulled him aside with what he obviously regarded
as yet another unwanted distraction. And as Si'Wren looked on unseen
from the spice tent, Sorpiala unwrapped the broken goddess and revealed
it to Master Rababull, talking in a low but animated voice.

Wise Sorpiala, who could always be so proper at even the worst of
times. There she was, soothing a time-conscious Master Rababull's
undoubtedly offended wrath over the expensive, broken goddess. Such a
large piece of jade was surely worth a king's ransom. Si'Wren found it
somewhat amazing the way Sorpiala could resort to her unrivaled
feminine charms to soothe the Master's outrage so confidently. Sorpiala
was clearly greatest in favor with Master Rababull over all other women
in his Household.

Si'Wren looked down at her little clay vase as she carefully filled it,
momentarily distracted. For herself, she would never behave like that.
A proper woman must be modest in all ways possible.

Then Si'Wren paused and looked up again to further observe Sorpiala and
the Master, and started in shock as she suddenly realized that Master
Rababull was glaring fiercely in her direction, as if he could see
through the screening veil of the tent with the eyes of a wrathful god.

Oh no! What could be wrong?! Please, Si'Wren begged her own heart, oh
please let Sorpiala's charms soothe Rababull's off-endedness. Let no
punishment befall her for the sake of the broken goddess.

Suddenly Rababull broke away from Sorpiala and began marching straight
for the spice tent like an avenging destroyer.

Si'Wren looked over at Nelatha, whose head was bent industriously over
her work. Nelatha did not even realize yet that Master Rababull was
almost upon them both. Si'Wren had just enough time to see Sorpiala
scurrying away on swift, dainty little footsteps, leaving the broken
goddess in two pieces on the ground as she made fast her escape--with a
smirk on her face.

Si'Wren's voice froze in her throat as she felt terror. Master
Rababull's face looked so terrible and angry! She was too scared to
warn Nelatha, too confused to think of what to say!

Master Rababull did not bother to come around to the back of the tent
where it was most expedient to enter. He simply stepped up to the front
of it, seized the flaps in both fists, and jerked savagely, ripping
them apart.

Nelatha let out a terrified little 'Eeeek!' as he stepped in and loomed
hugely over her, his trunk-like legs sending mortar, pestle, and all
crashing noisily in a dust heap. Master Rababull reached down and dug
his clawed fingers into Nelatha's long tangled locks like talons of
steel and with a single lifting motion of one bulging arm he twisted
his rippling torso and heaved upwards as he jerked Nelatha bodily to
stand before him. Then with his other arm he reached out and seized
Si'Wren's hair and yanked her painfully before him also.

Standing over them with eyes glaring like lightning and a voice like
thunder, Rababull looked fiercely from one terrified girl to the other
as he shouted, "I was told a tale of a wicked slave who threw down one
of my goddesses, and broke her to pieces, Nelatha!"

But Nelatha, utterly speechless, could only shrink back helplessly from
that terrible stare.

Obtaining no response from Nelatha, Master Rababull turned his awful
look onto a quailing Si'Wren and snarled down at her, "And another was
heard to speak praises of the Forbidden One, the Invisible God!"

He held both paralyzed girls in his iron grip for a long, moment of
dreadful silence. Around her, Si'Wren realized that all the compound
had heard Master Rababull's furious voice and involuntarily stopped
what they were doing to watch. Then Master Rababull turned himself
around with both girls still helplessly in tow and dragged them
physically from the tent by their hair.

"Habrunt!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Habrunt!"

Habrunt came running with two boys trailing close behind him as they
struggled to keep up on their skinny little legs. As he approached he
slowed to a stop and immediately knelt down on one knee and clasped his
fist rigidly across his chest to signify his immediate readiness to
obey Master Rababull, come what may. That he had already taken in the
plight of Si'Wren seemed inevitable, but he betrayed no sign of it.

The two runner boys finally caught up and, terrified by the mask of
rage on Master Rababull's features, immediately threw themselves
face-first flat in the dirt and lay trembling as they fearfully hid
their eyes.

"I come at thy bidding, oh master," Habrunt intoned in his deepest and
most servile do-or-die manner.

Master Rababull stared at Habrunt deliberately for a long moment,
before speaking.

"Slavemaster, I have found corruption, in the spice tent, of all
places," said Rababull. His allusion to the spice tent was especially
ironic, as spices were commonly used to cure infections in the living,
and to embalm the dead to delay the onset of corruption and rottenness
as long as possible. Of course, only those who could pay were so
embalmed. Most could not afford it.

Speaking as to the earth, Habrunt declared emphatically, "Speak, Lord,
and it shall be my will!"

"My prize green goddess has been broken. For this crime, let Nelatha be
slain," said Rababull.

Nelatha's eyes closed as she keened silently in helpless terror.

"And let this little one--" Master Rababull's voice faltered, so strong
and so deep were his feelings for her. "Let this foolish one who spoke
so rashly against her Master's gods, never speak again, only--let her
live."

With that, he hurled both girls to fall prostrate before his kneeling,
perplexed Slavemaster.

"Master," Habrunt protested, "perhaps, with sufficient time for reproof
and correction--"

"You will carry out my commands immediately or you will be next!" said
Master Rababull harshly.

"I hear and obey, Master," intoned Habrunt, clasping his right fist
hard across his chest again as he bowed low in formal acknowledgment.

Screeching hysterically, Nelatha helplessly protested her innocence, as
Si'Wren remained trembling, too shaken to speak.

Habrunt straightened himself up to full stature, and looked stoically
upon the two prostrate girls, his stiffened legs like the trunks of
oaks. Nelatha clutched desperately at his ankles as she continued to
beg for mercy, but his wooden face seemed not to hear her pleadings.

Speaking as if to no one in particular, in a voice as that of one
already dead, he thrust out his right arm empty-handed, and commanded
loudly, "Fetch me a sword!"

Both boys, too scared to think, ran at once into the House. Their
squeaky voices could be heard begging desperately for a sword, any
sword. Si'Wren heard the laughter of some guest, an early arrival, as
he commented upon the humor of sacrificing a human being instead of a
mere animal to commemorate the beginning of the feast. Moments later,
both boys reappeared flying down the front steps and came running at
breakneck speed across the courtyard in returning to a motionlessly
waiting Habrunt, his right arm still stiffly out-held, open-handed.

While all of this was happening, an increasing number of onlookers had
stopped to watch, with the late-comers asking others in hushed voices
what was going on. Upon hearing, each cast by turns horrified looks of
revulsion, disgust, and loathing for Si'Wren and Nelatha, together with
shock, disbelief, and horror at the two pieces of the broken jade
statue, still lying where they had been cast aside by an enraged Master
Rababull. There was no danger of the valuable pieces of jade being
stolen; to touch the broken jade now would mean certain death. No one
was bold enough to say anything directly to Habrunt or the two hapless
girls.

Some of those watching displayed a certain sickening delight at the
sight of a motionlessly waiting Habrunt and the two prostrate girls
kneeling with faces downcast in the dust at his feet.

As the two runner boys dashed across the courtyard to return with the
swords to Habrunt, more people came out of the House to stand at the
head of the front steps to see what had occasioned their unusual
mission.

"Master, here are two swords," one of his runner boys gasped, nearly
out of breath as they both bowed low and held the shining blades out to
Habrunt. But he stood a moment, staring down at the dirt before him, as
if he had not heard.

"One will do," Habrunt said finally, as he looked up, and reached for
one of the shining blades.

With the sword in his fist he stood looking down at Nelatha and she
suddenly paused in her terrified protests, looking up at him with
tear-streaked cheeks as she searched his face with glazed eyes, mutely
imploring him to do or say something to save her.

But Habrunt's countenance was terrible to look upon, so stone-faced and
determined was he now.

"Pray, Nelatha," he said only, too afraid of Master Rababull to risk
more open defiance of either his Master or any temple god.

Nelatha nodded again, jerkily, and bowed her head.

Then, as Nelatha prayed in a series of hysterically rising whispers,
Habrunt slowly raised the sword high into the air in front of a numbed
Si'Wren, held it trembling in his great fist, and then brought it down
in a mercifully swift flashing arc.

Nelatha's prayers were suddenly cut short, and a collection of gasps
was heard from the watching crowd. Habrunt held out the sword behind
him without looking, and the visibly shaking runner boy took it back,
dripping with Nelatha's blood.

Habrunt's eyes, shot through with grief and an inconsolable look of
self-condemnation and awfulness of purpose, looked upon Nelatha's slain
body momentarily. He was no longer Habrunt the kind Slavemaster, to
whom one might look when trouble raised it's ugly head, but had become
an unwilling angel of death instead.

Habrunt finally turned to Si'Wren, who knelt still before him, utterly
speechless and motionless. Looking dazed, she gazed long upon the
bloody corpse of once-cheerful Nelatha, divided in half at the neck,
like the broken jade goddess.

Master Rababull, who was still watching, had said let her never speak
again, but live. What could that possibly mean? thought Si'Wren.

Habrunt reached down and almost lovingly slid his trembling,
work-roughened fingers into the hair at the nape of her neck with his
left hand. As Habrunt tilted Si'Wren's head back her face was lifted up
and her tear-streaked cheeks were revealed beneath eyes looking
ever-trustingly up into his, in absolute surrender to his will,
signifying that she had not the slightest thought of resisting her fate.

But Habrunt could not do what was commanded of him, and hesitated.
There were any number of alternatives, all contrary to Master
Rababull's wishes and hence instantly fatal, but he had a sword.

He could do much with a sword...

Suddenly a third runner boy suddenly came hurrying past them both and
bowed in perfunctory manner as he quickly announced a breathlessly
gasped utterance to Rababull.

"Master, the great Physician is here!"

As Si'Wren lifted up her eyes slowly, her soul quailed at the sight of
Habrunt's upraised fist, yet still she stared submissively into his
tormented eyes, showing that never would she strive against nor resist
he to whom she looked up as to a light in the spiritual darkness for
all of her life however brief. If Habrunt could but know it, Si'Wren
trusted him even more than she ever did Master Rababull or any living
human being.

Then, Habrunt lowered his right fist slowly, as well as his head,
although his left fist remained clenched tightly immobile in Si'Wren's
crush of locks.

"Master, may I speak?" said Habrunt to the ground, as he maintained his
steady grip upon the unresisting girl whose eyes his own had no
strength to meet.

"Speak!" commanded Rababull impatiently. He was barely able to contain
himself in his rage and impatience to get it over with.

Habrunt hesitated further, and dared not look up at his Master as he
spoke.

"Most gracious and noble Master, was not this one greatly in thy favor
before?" pled Habrunt.

He was taking a terrible risk, to speak so boldly of Master Rababull's
former personal fondness for Si'Wren. Master Rababull had but to say
the word, and the remains of Habrunt could end up in the dirt beside
Nelatha.

"What is it?" said Master Rababull, somewhat irritably now, rather than
in a full rage. It seemed Habrunt had struck his mark with the unerring
accuracy of a master archer, as usual.

"Master, I am but a coarse and brutal man, and thou alone art high and
noble and altogether good. Invisible Gods deserve invisible praise,
from invisible voices. If it be your pleasure, let this little one show
with what purity of purpose she might have served her foolish Invisible
God, by swearing a vow never to speak instead. The more she speaks, the
more her Invisible God may be viewed as false."

There was a moment of silence, as Master Rababull thought on this.

"Well spoken, Slavemaster," Master Rababull finally said, his voice
almost back to normal, almost relieved, in fact. "Let her never
speak--forever! If she speak but once, let all bear witness to the
falsehood of her Invisible God by the falseness of her broken vow, and
her life be forfeit! Let her so swear!"

Habrunt had not bargained for this! But what could he do? What was
determined now was not as vile as what had been declared before, hence,
was not enough justification to turn his sword in furious rebellion
against the House of Rababull.

Grief-stricken, he lowered his eyes to Si'Wren, and said resolutely,
"Little one, do you swear by your God never to say one word for the
rest of your days, so long as you shall live and breathe and have life
in you, and to suffer death to yourself and dishonor to your Invisible
God if you should ever fail to do so?"

Si'Wren realized that here was the chance, not only to redeem herself
but her newfound Invisible God as well.

"I swear it," Si'Wren said.

"She has so sworn, Master," Habrunt immediately declared to Master
Rababull.

"Let it be so," rasped Master Rababull. "A fitting conclusion to the
matter."

At that moment, Master Rababull's attention was diverted as he was
approached by the Camel Master. His face remained stern and obnoxious
to look upon, which unintended visage of evil, coupled with the sight
of several slaves carrying away the remains of Nelatha, and the sight
of all the spilled blood in the dust, made the all-observant Camel
Master extraordinarily nervous, although he tried rather desperately
not to show it and failed miserably.

The Camel Master spoke briefly to Master Rababull about something, and
when he had politely heard out the man, Master Rababull turned to
Habrunt.

"Go to now, Slavemaster, and take this silent one with you," said
Master Rababull. "The good Physician must not be kept waiting, for he
will have need of her herbal skills."

As Habrunt listened to the footsteps of Master Rababull and the
obsequiously over-attentive Camel Master receding across the dusty
courtyard, he let out a sigh, sickened by what he had done, and by his
own feelings on the matter.

Harsh, unforgiving punishment must ever hang over Si'Wren's head now,
all because of a broken piece of green rock! Would that Si'Wren was but
stone herself, that she might suffer nothing further. How she trembled
so.

He took Si'Wren gently by the hand, indicating that she should rise to
her feet.

"I am sorry, little one," he rumbled in a low voice when she had risen
to stand upright beside him, speaking so quietly to her that the other
slaves still watching could not discern his words. "Return with me now
to the spice tent and bring what you need, quickly! If any should tempt
you to speak, hold your silence, on your life!"

Si'Wren nodded mutely, waiting for him to lead the way.

Habrunt regarded her a moment, his face unreadable. Then he composed
himself, and in a quiet, firm voice, said, "Come."

He scattered the onlookers, the gleeful and the merely curious alike,
with a wrathful look, and walked Si'Wren to the wrecked spice tent to
help shield her from their otherwise ruinous persecutions.         At what
had once been the spice tent Si'Wren trembled at the sight of the
damage. Not only was the tent ruined. Priceless herbs and salves had
been scattered and spilled. The powders of many different sun-dried and
painstakingly ground-up plants had been intermingled in the dirt, and
the bugs were already starting to get into things.

Such was the measure of her Master Rababull's outrage, that he cared so
little for the damage to the spice tent, his own property, in the
course of executing his punishments. The thought of this, and of the
severed body of Nelatha, made Si'Wren afraid to even think of ever
facing her master again, and the fear that possessed her now stifled
any desire to speak, on top of the fact that she had already sworn an
oath not to talk anyways.

"Take what you need," Habrunt said, his face grim. "Hurry!"

His words brought her out of her momentary confusion, and Si'Wren
worked quickly to sort out only that which was needful. Perhaps she
could come back and clean up the rest of the mess later.

When she was ready, she turned and dipped her head in a little nod as a
signal to Habrunt.

Without a word, he turned and led the way. He took her across the big
open compound near to the place where the long caravan of heavily laden
beasts stood chewing their cuds along one high stone wall, just inside
the front gates of the sprawling compound.

He proceeded with Si'Wren still in tow, her small hand engulfed in his
huge one as he approached to where a large number of onlookers was
gathered idly around some unseen activity, and as he approached the
outskirts of the crowd he barked commandingly, "Step aside!" and "Make
way there!"

So speaking, Habrunt shouldered through their midst. When he reached
the center of the crowd, he stood with Si'Wren before the old
Physician, who was already busy at his work with the man with a
toothache from the caravan.

Onlookers were conversing with one another in hushed voices from a
respectful distance, still too fearful to speak directly to Habrunt or
his young prisoner. When a slave met such a fate as Nelatha's, it was
dangerous to risk even the slightest unintentional aggravation. Better
to let well enough alone. None dared say so much as a single word to
grim-looking Habrunt or the timid one he escorted.

Nelatha was dead. Habrunt, supremely miserable, hid his grief and
pretended to ignore them all. When he looked once into Si'Wren's eyes,
he found only continued fear and bewilderment. Well, he had at least
done her this little kindness, and spared her the dread of her original
sentence. Perhaps she did not, even now, realize what had been
pronounced upon her head, before he interceded so recklessly.

That he had actually succeeded in sparing Si'Wren life and limb from
punishment was beyond his wildest expectations, but now she must
forever remain in constant danger of forgetting herself and speaking
out of turn for the rest of her life. Had he really helped her, or only
prolonged her suffering, before the final, inescapable, damning
judgement? Why could he not have thought of a better alternative for
Si'Wren?

"Your pardon, great Physician," he said, boldly stepping forward.

"Aye, what is it?" the white-bearded old Healer asked with a wry and
good-natured impatience, scarcely bothering to look up from his work.

Many bystanders and well-wishers were already there, looking curiously
on at his work as they stood idly by in whispering attendance at every
hand.

"She has brought you the herbs you requested," said Habrunt.

"Good!" the Physician said, studying his patient critically. "Not a
moment too soon."

The Physician took advantage of Habrunt's momentary distraction to set
his mind afresh upon his work, for he was in a crucial part of the
operation, and the patient would never be so ready as he was at that
very moment.

Already in position, he reached in carefully, and clenched down, and
seemed to set himself, and with a nod to those helping him to hold
tightly onto the patient, he pulled hard with a pair of crude iron
pliers or tongs, and yanked out a stinking, rotten, bloody molar from
the jaw of the patient, whose gopher hole of a mouth emitted an
agonized outcry. There ensued a veritable chorus of gasps and
utterances from the crowd.

"There!" the Physician patted the shoulder of the sufferer, as
expressions of relief could be heard from the onlookers on all sides.
"Now, if I may have the herbs I was promised?"

The Physician turned to look directly at Habrunt.

Habrunt looked down at Si'Wren, and said, "Attend, little one!" in a
mild pretense at impatience.

Taking her cue, Si'Wren raised her eyebrows quickly and nodded as she
stepped forward and bowed wordlessly, holding out to the old doctor the
proffered items which she had brought.

"Ah yes," said the Physician, nodding as he sniffed and tasted the
various samples with evident satisfaction. "Whoever prepared these has
done well!"

He turned and said to the dental patient, "You must rinse with this tea
of borage leaf, or the grass that the cattle eat if you run out too
soon. Perhaps also, a little dandelion. Blend it with a pinch of this
barberry herb," he held out in his weathered palm a small leather pouch
noosed at the neck with a cord of dried gut which Si'Wren had furnished
him, "and flush the socket faithfully for seven days. It will stop the
pain and bleeding almost immediately, and you will suffer little or no
infection."

Besides the herbs he was dispensing, the verbal prescription which the
sage Physician had just uttered was known to stop bleeding, and the
anesthetic effect of mere words was already well-known to mothers the
world over in the eternal pooh-poohing of their childrens' many little
wounds of life.

The man from the caravan tried to grin and nod and bow his agonized
thanks all at the same time while moving respectfully backwards to go
and do as instructed. The other members of the caravan gathered close around him to
escort him carefully away. One held up a wine flask, making obvious his
intention to get his comrade drunk, which would afford obvious
immediate relief but no doubt add to his later miseries when he should
awaken with a biting hangover the next day.

Seizing the opportunity, Habrunt leaned conspiratorially close, and
when the Physician inclined his ear Habrunt whispered so low that none
could hear what was said.

As he listened, the Physician's expression became, by turns, first
shocked, then angry, and finally--resigned and infinitely saddened.

He turned his head once, to look critically at the two one-eyed boys
waiting on the sidelines. If he felt anything, it no longer showed on
his wise old face as he studied their identical physical maladies.
Finally, he nodded, turning away from a still-whispering Habrunt and
cutting off the other in mid-sentence.

He was an iron-willed, dutiful man who knew how to do what must be done
when called upon to make decisions. It was not his business to judge
the Master of this House if he, too, did what he saw fit. But he
sighed, a heavy, tired gesture, as if all the evils of the world were a
weight upon his shoulders alone.

Out of a vague sense of fairness, he decided to examine the smaller boy
first, the gentle one who had been innocently victimized, while saving
the bully, on Habrunt's judicious advice, until second.

The Physician called for the two boys with their missing single eyes to
be brought to him. Then, while Si'Wren watched with passionate
sympathy, the Physician prepared to go to work on them.

"Eh--" the Physician hesitated, nodding indistinctly in the direction
of the two injured boys, "--which one did you say first?"

Habrunt made an end of niceties and reached forth an arm,
simultaneously barring the one while favoring the other with one and
the same gesture.

"Ah!" the Physician nodded.

The guilty boy tearfully begged to be helped first or at least at the
same time, but was firmly commanded by his own father to wait his
proper turn.

Waiting patiently until after the interruption was settled, the
Physician beckoned gently to the innocent, smiling in a fatherly
fashion.

"Come, child," he beckoned with a kindly nod of his wise old head.

The little boy hesitated, and Habrunt nodded encouragingly.

"Trust him," Habrunt advised the boy in a quiet but stern tone of
voice. "He is a great Physician, who has been paid much money and come
a long ways to treat you. You must obey his commands without question."

Still somewhat fearfully, but more obediently now, the boy stepped
forward and, at a slight gesture from the Physician, stood motionless
before him.

"Face this way," he smiled, crinkling his eyes. Then he said, "Now that
way." He regarded the boy with just a suggestion of teasing admonition,
and said, "Hold still now."

"That's it," the physician smiled and nodded his approval again
encouragingly, as he inspected carefully. "Aye, I see."

The boy fairly trembled all over, and Si'Wren watched with the others,
mourning the suffering of both boys and temporarily forgetting her own
miseries.

The Physician had turned to rummaging in his kit bag, and now he pulled
out a beautiful unglazed clay jar with dark-colored berry stains all
over the rim and sides. The jar was stoppered with a cracked and
discolored wooden cork.

It seemed only right and proper to the old Physician that the
noble-born Master Rababull, no doubt put on the spot at times by the
mischief of those beneath him, should be the proper court of final
recourse, and in the Physician's view of things, what must be done must
be done. Too bad about the gentle boy's suffering, but right was right,
and the bully had received his just recompense.

"No, that's not it," he said, frowning as he sniffed at the contents.

Although the Physician might secretly have wished for a fairer and less
vindictive world, he could but observe that well had the gods fated
Rababull to be Master.

Could even one of his servants have inflicted such drastic punishment,
and have done it so impartially and without undue hesitation, as he had
just done? The Physician sagely reflected that another could not have
done it at all. Perhaps instead, the other fellow would have become too
emotionally involved and done too much.

Or a man of more timid nature might have betrayed cowardice and chosen
to talk it off haughtily and do nothing at all, thereby engendering a
smoldering spirit of outrage and rebellion in his own subjects. If the
master could not settle the matter to the adequate satisfaction of all,
who could?

But there was more to it than that. What Master Rababull had done was
to make all fear him, and justly so. It was no doubt a telling reason
as to why the man was still alive after so many hundreds of years in
such a deceitful and vicious world.

Anyway, why question what was obviously the will of the gods? Even most
fools knew better than to do that.

He rummaged around some more in the bag.

"Ah!"

He pulled out a soft leather pouch as large as his gnarled hand, and
measured some powder out into his palm. He looked up at the boy,
seeming to estimate his diminutive size and stature visually, and then
poured out a good deal more, peering down and studying the exactness of
the amount with a frown as he openly took the time to gage it's weight
against that of the young boy.

"A little wine is needful," he said, raising his hoary, bewhiskered old
head and looking around vaguely at no one in particular.

At the sight of the Physician waiting patiently with the powder already
measured out into his sweaty palm and ready to be administered, Habrunt
turned to one of his boys and clapped his hands sharply with a terse
nod.

"Do not keep the great Physician waiting!" he admonished sternly. "Get
white wine if you can, or red if you must."

"Aye, Master Habrunt!"

The boy raced off at a dead run, presently to return staggering under
the weight of one of the flasks meant for the party-goers.

The Physician took a small cup from his purse, dropped in the powder,
and Habrunt assisted directly by taking over from the boy and pouring
in the clear, fragrant fruit of the vine. Si'Wren watched as the powder
was commingled to the stained brim with the crystal clear liquid, for
the boy had brought white wine.

Then, in front of the trembling boy, the Physician solemnly uttered a
few gravely-spoken nonsense syllables, and passed his free hand before
him as he gazed deep into his one good eye, and put the cup into his
grasp.

"Drink!" he smiled encouragingly, crinkling his eyes again in the most
engaging and kindly manner, although it screwed up his whole face into
a mass of hairy wrinkles. "Drink every drop, and praise the gods. It is
all you have to do."

The boy took it, held it up, and then began to drink. It was -in
Si'Wren's knowledgeable estimation- possessed of an almost intolerably
bitter taste, but the fine white wine would no doubt commute the
bitterness with it's rare ethers. The boy gasped for air, and declared
bluntly, "It burns in my stomach!"

"Finish it," Habrunt urged firmly.

"Hut!" said the Physician, stopping the boy before he could obey.

The Physician took the cup from the boy, swirled it's contents expertly
to stir up the remaining powder from the bottom, and reached it up to
the child's lips as he soothingly breathed the words, "Drink quickly
now!"

The boy gulped down the rest.

"Now--sit," the Physician said, taking the cup from the boy's hands.

Obediently, the child tried to sit down, and would have fallen clear
over backwards had his mother not anxiously enveloped him in her arms
and ample bosom as she crouched quickly behind him.

In a shy, soft voice, the boy exclaimed breathlessly, "It's bitter!"

"Aye, it is, isn't it?" the Physician nodded. Then, staring deep into
the boy's one good eye, the Physician said, "Look, deep, into my
eyes..."

The boy seemed to fall into a swoon.

Without another word, the Physician took over from the boy's mother,
and laid the unconscious boy out flat on the ground and began
immediately to treat his ruined eye socket.

Habrunt quietly oversaw everything that the Physician was doing for as
long as he could, the better to assist if needed, but as Slavemaster,
he had many duties, and presently he was called away by a runner boy
with yet another message from Master Rababull. Habrunt was a man of
many responsibilities.

Before going, he turned to Si'Wren and leaned close to whisper into her
ear, "Fear not, only keep silence lest any watching should find
occasion to bring an accusation against you. If any should do so, true
or not, remain silent and abide until I return, when I shall make
judgement upon them."

Then he turned and marched away without so much as a backward glance.

Si'Wren watched him go for a moment, and then feigned utter unconcern
for her Slavemaster as she resorted to watching the Physician again.
None must realize how desperately she looked to Habrunt or cared for
him now. For he had not only saved her life but had won her trust, and
somewhere in all this was bound up her heart and soul as well. This she
was anxious that none should learn of and mock.

At long last, finishing with his ministrations to the first boy's
missing eye, the weary old Physician turned finally to the bad boy who
had lost his own eye as punishment.

Eventually the Physician was done, and both boys were given over to the
care of their mothers, and Si'Wren, having no mother or father, bowed
low to the Physician after being dismissed by him, and decided to
return to the ruined spice tent.

By this time the sun had just dropped below the horizon, and it was
fast turning to dusk. The first of the party-goers had already arrived,
and the celebration was already beginning.

Arriving at the spice tent, she stared at the unbelievable destruction
and felt tears stream down her cheeks. Master Rababull had been
virtually a god to her! She had worshiped the very ground he had
walked on.

Fog drifted through the courtyard, transforming the torches in their
fixed stanchions on the nearby walls, into glowing orbs like spirits,
or like the moon above. Aye, the spirit of the moon was upon the land
tonight, the spirit of madness. Gloomily, Si'Wren reflected that the
celebrants were to be spared the sight of the slain young woman's body.
Of course! That would spoil their fun. Such must never be even dreamed
of. Si'Wren wiped ineffectually at her tears, smearing her wet cheeks.
What should she do?

She stared at the wreckage of the spice tent, and wondered helplessly
if she was expected to spend the entire night if necessary cleaning it
up. No one had said anything about what was to be expected of her now.
Should she abandon her work, or what?

Close by, she suddenly heard extremes of laughter. Abruptly she turned
from the wrecked tent and walked toward the rear gate. When she
arrived, she found it guarded by two brawny slaves standing beneath the
torches of the closed and barred gate. They ignored her contemptuously,
no doubt having already been informed of her evil belief in the
Invisible God, and of her complicity in the destruction of the
priceless green jade goddess.

She turned and walked back through the grounds toward the front,
turning aside into the shadows whenever possible to avoid meeting
others. The smells of cooking food came to her, and she realized that
she had already missed her supper as hunger gnawed at her insides.

At the front gate, as she had anticipated, the guards were admitting
the celebrants, under Slavemaster Habrunt's watchful eye. Habrunt
seemed too busy to notice her. Did he, too, secretly despise her now?
Si'Wren held back, until the guards were preoccupied with the arrival
of yet another dignitary and his extended family, and when the
attention of all seemed temporarily diverted, she walked forward
quickly and slipped out of the front gates and into the wide path.

She turned sharply, and walked away from the direction of the nearby
city, into the gathering darkness of the wilds. Cold fog enveloped her,
and in what seemed like no time at all the torch light behind her was
swallowed up in the swirling mists.

She walked on, oblivious of her surroundings, looking neither to the
rear nor to the right or left. What did it matter if some foul beast
should leap out and seize her in it's jaws? It would be a blessed fate,
compared to what she must face if she should return to the House of
Rababull now.

She heard something behind her, and looking around anxiously, thought
she saw a large shadow, as that of a man, following her, too far back
to make it out for sure. Si'Wren's heart began pounding fearfully as
she stared, eyes widening in fear.

Abruptly she turned, and began to walk quickly, looking for some place
to turn off the road and hide. When she glanced back again, the figure
was gone. Slowing, she stopped and stared behind her again, to see if
it had been her imagination. Then her ears pricked, as she thought she
heard the distant scrape of a sandal on the path.

She turned and began walking swiftly away from the House of Rababull,
deeper and deeper into the night. Whenever she looked back, she saw and
heard nothing. Was someone there?

"Hello?" she called out, looking back again.

But there was no answer.

Still staring behind her as she began to walk away, Si'Wren suddenly
blundered straight into a tree, and screamed as two of the tree's
branches seized hold of her.

She struggled helplessly as she was held in a vise-like grip by a
laughing young man, whose alcohol-laden breath caused her to choke and
gag.

Another man, as brawny as the first, towered above her.

"I've caught me a night spirit!" laughed the man, holding onto her
tenaciously.

"Make her give you a wish before you let her go," jested the second.

"She'll give us more than that, and no one the wiser," said the first
in an evil, crafty tone of voice.

Si'Wren jerked instinctively to free herself from her attacker, and
found her diminutive physical power to be as nothing compared to his
godlike strength.

He spun her around, and she bit him in the hand.

"Ouch! You filthy whore!"

He slapped her, a stunning backhand to the cheek, and she felt her head
jerked backward by the blow. The young man's foul spittle-laden breath
assailed her, together with the stink of his alcoholic excesses.

"Help me!" Si'Wren shouted, knowing she was too far from the front
gates to be heard now.

Her captor laughed, enjoying her fear.

Then she screamed out in hopelessness and despair, "Habrunt!!!"

"She calls her Slavemaster," said the one, gripping her tightly. "He
favors her. You're going to die for sure, pretty one, after we've had
our way with you."

"Oh God, please help me!!" Si'Wren screamed like a lost soul, sensing
her doom upon her as supreme fear overcame her and she crumpled,
sagging nervelessly in the man's irresistible grasp.

"Shut up!" he gritted tightly, striking her a series of stunning blows
across the face delivered alternately with the open palm and the bony
back of his hand.

"Aye, she must die alright," said the second. "Her very identity must
be hid, lest Rababull's Slavemaster should find out. Hurry and let us
be done quickly with her, before someone else comes along!"

"Wise words--spoken too late to do you any good!" suddenly declared a
deep voice.

Si'Wren whirled her head around, and watched disbelieving as out of the
shadows of the mists stepped the shadowy and indistinct figure of a
powerfully built man with a golden bronze sword gleaming in his hand.

"Habrunt!" Si'Wren shrieked desperately as, reeling from the blows, she
struggled anew and stared.

"We've got swords!" the first young man declared nervously and
self-importantly, "and our fathers are high-born. You're a slave! You
better run along home, before we decide to report you to your master."

Habrunt said nothing.

"The girl is not half as willing as the others," the second one said
offensively.

"Aye, she's worthless, like you," the first one laughed contemptuously.
"Here, see for yourself!" Still gripping Si'Wren by the upper arms, he
suddenly flung her forward in the direction of Habrunt, so violently
that she stumbled and fell to her knees before him.

"We didn't want her anyways," the second chipped in, emboldened by
Habrunt's continued silence. "She's far too ugly."

Habrunt stepped forward until he had come just past Si'Wren's kneeling
figure, with her head still downcast in shame, and then he halted
again, standing protectively between Si'Wren and her two tormentors now.

"What is she to you, anyways?" said the first young man. He was already
growing nervous because of Habrunt's refusal to reply. "Here," the
young man said, dipping into his money satchel, "I'll pay you for her;
twenty, no, thirty pieces of silver! You can keep her in the bargain.
What's the matter with you? My money's as good as anyone else's! Go on,
take it!"

Habrunt took another menacing step forward, as he slowly raised his
gleaming sword.

"Take it!" the young man repeated, in a high voice. He waved his sword
in the air in a series of menacing arcs, which Habrunt seemed not to
notice. "Keep the girl and take all of it! What do you want of us?!"

"Aye! Leave us out of it! You'll be sorry for this! Our fathers--"

Habrunt's sword abruptly flashed in the night in a swift series of
arcs, to the accompaniment of a succession of metallic clangs followed
by several meaty whacks and the cut-off screams of the two young men.

There was no more sound for a moment, except for the sliding of a sword
blade on the clothing of they who had been destroyed. Then she heard
the sound of footsteps, as Habrunt turned back to her. In his right
hand was the money pouch that had been offered to him, and in his other
was his sword. He switched hands, and hurled the money pouch into the
night. Far off the trail, Si'Wren heard the distant clink of the money
when it landed. Their swords quickly followed, and Si'Wren heard the
swish of grass as they landed unseen in the darkness.

She remained kneeling in despair, waiting for Habrunt to pronounce
judgement upon her. Now what was to become of her, for her broken vow
of silence?

Then she felt his hands touch her shoulders, so gently that the fear
with which she was shaken was transformed into surprise and numbed
disbelief.

"Little one," said Habrunt, his voice heavy but full of compassion.
"Are you alright?"

"Oh Habrunt," Si'Wren lamented, her voice a whimper. "I have betrayed
my vow of silence to the Invisible God! I am worthless, and now I shall
be punished by the Master!"

But Habrunt knelt down beside her, and shook his head slowly.

"Not so," he said. "Come."

He helped her rise to her feet, and began leading her back towards the
House compound.

"But I did!" she persisted, leaning on him for support as she walked,
for she seemed to be hurt worse than she had first supposed. "In the
very confession of my sin, I betray my vow of silence, my sworn oath
given before the Invisible God, to you and Master Rababull!"

"Then stop talking," Habrunt said mildly, still leading her confidently
through the night, as the moon cast it's glow through the swirling
mists.

"How can you say that?" Si'Wren said. Then she blurted out, "Have you
no sense of right and wrong?"

"I am as good a keeper of the law as any," said Habrunt.

"Aye, and you slew those two evil men, who would have taken me upon
their lusts, and cast me aside afterward as lifelessly as you have done
unto them instead."

"Because they struck you without cause," Habrunt replied. "And also,
lest they betray the truth of your broken vow of silence."

To Si'Wren, Habrunt's second remark seemed an astonishing thing to say.

"Then--" she hesitated in confusion, "you shall be as guilty as I! You
must not do this thing."

"It is already done. If not for my foolishness, you had not taken such
a vow in the first place."

"But--I did vow."

"Aye. Tell me this, little one; who shall speak of it when we return,
seeing how you have taken this vow of silence?"

"I--" This time, Si'Wren could not think of what to say, so perplexing
and marvelous were his words.

"Aye," Habrunt assented. "I am as guilty as you. But am I not
Slavemaster of the House of Rababull? My word is final. Not even Master
Rababull can overturn my decision, for behold, I have covered the sins
of yourself, that by my own guilt you may be counted innocent before
all. Who then shall gainsay me in this? The Invisible God? Aye, and may
He ever be the right and true judge of all, more so than even the high
and mighty noble Master Rababull. Methinks the Invisible One shall but
praise me in the justice of what has transpired tonight."

Si'Wren listened mystified to all of this, and when she had heard all,
she found that Habrunt's strange words eased her conscience, having
such an effect upon her that she found herself wishing to be loosed
from Master Rababull and bound to Habrunt instead. But to imagine such
was rank foolishness, for Habrunt and all that he had or ever would
have; did they not already belong to Master Rababull? One might as well
wish for the moon.

Still reeling from the blows she had received, Si'Wren planted a
misstep in his path as she staggered into Habrunt, and would have
fallen if he had not caught her.

Without the slightest sign of visible effort, Habrunt dipped down and
scooped her up into his arms, cradling her tenderly as he looked down
into her beaten face.

His anger was gone now, and he was thinking about what must be said
when he returned with her to the compound. Since he was not a talkative
man in the first place, it would not seem out of character if he said
nothing at all and let others do all the talking amongst themselves.
That way, they could freely invent their own explanations to their
hearts' content and might even think of a better answer than he could.

The two young men would be missed, but those who went a wandering so
drunkenly into the wilds of the land as if to a fool's paradise would
be said by many to deserve the sorry fate they had so evidently brought
upon themselves. Even knowing the truth, Habrunt could readily agree to
this.

He had checked them out when they had left earlier of their own accord,
taking two of the traveling harlots from the caravan with them as
playthings. Habrunt had thought poorly of the midnight excursion even
then, before he had the slightest inkling that it was to eventually
involve Si'Wren. However, the two young men were freeborn and of age,
and it would have been rank insubordination for Habrunt to have uttered
the slightest contradiction to their plans.

It was when Si'Wren had slipped out, that he had commanded a nearby
guard to take over, so he could follow her.

An expert tracker, Habrunt had been alert enough to notice the trail
signs and discovered the two hapless slave girls which the two young
men had taken with them, a short distance from the gates. There in the
dark, by the colorless light of a full moon obscured by heavy night
mists, Habrunt had located the remains of the two unfortunate harlots
from the caravan.

He almost wished he hadn't, because of what he found.

The women had evidently been abused and mistreated most evilly, as by
devils, and then murdered and discarded like playthings to be tossed
into the bushes by the wayside. For Habrunt, the manner of their deaths
was even now something to live on in his nightmares.

Since their money and the valuable swords they had brought were
unlikely to be found and would be noticed to be missing, the deaths of
the two young men could easily be credited to bandits. Habrunt held his
own sword awkwardly as he cradled Si'Wren in his arms.

It was his own absence, and the badly beaten physical condition of
Si'Wren, which must somehow endure the gainsayings of others, and which
concerned him the most now. Let them talk on, and wonder, and dream but
once of a fitting explanation according to their own dim lights, and by
their own mouths would they deceive themselves.

Chapter Three - The Light of God

When Si'Wren opened her eyes, she realized that it was night time. She
lay on a low wooden sleeping rack, and before her was the cobblestone
fire pit, the yellow flames of which warmed and illuminated the slave
quarters, a long low bungalow of rough-hewn cypress beams.

Deliriously, she half-raised her aching head and took in her
surroundings. She realized, looking unsteadily around in the
semi-darkness, that she was alone, and she could hear the distant
sounds of celebration emanating from the Master's House.

Her head was swimming and there was a terrible pain in it.

The lilting sing-song sounds of the musicians drifted across the
compound and teased at her ears, lulling her somnambulantly to the
accompaniment of the rhythmic chi-chi-ching-ching of finger cymbals,
and the reedy reeee-eeeee-eeeee-ree-ree-rooo-rooo-roo-ooooooooooooo of
the wood pipes.

Shame filled her soul as she remembered the death of Nelatha, and the
terrible danger that had befallen her later after dark, when she had
narrowly escaped after wandering foolishly out into the wilds all alone
when Habrunt had come suddenly and unexpectedly to rescue her from the
evil ministrations of the two evil men he had slain.

But for Habrunt she would surely have suffered a terrible fate at their
hands.

Now, only now, did Si'Wren fully and truly understand what Habrunt had
risked to slay the sons of the noblemen in favor of one so lowly as
she. Should Master Rababull ever find out the truth, his vengeance upon
both herself and Habrunt would be fearsome and terrible.

At thought of this, Si'Wren's remorse was compounded ten-fold by the
bitter memories of the many fond smiles and cheery looks which Master
Rababull had so often bestowed upon her from earliest memory.

Habrunt had shown his concern for her safety this night, but the memory
of earlier, when she had seen his terrible face and felt of his iron
grip in her hair, doing his utmost to convince Master Rababull that he
had not the slightest concern for Si'Wren's life, would not leave her
now, and tears streaked her cheeks as she shut her eyes in silent
anguish.

Downwind from the House, she could smell the wonderful scents of the
Master's best ceremonial incense mingled with the pungence of tobacco,
the tang of wine, and the huge feast with it's jasmine tea, roasted
melons stuffed with baked vegetables and breadstuffs, sweet seed cakes,
sugar-spices, candies, and honeyed foods.

Her head was woozy from the beating. Her bruised face seemed numb to
the touch, wherever she chanced to touch be it ever so delicately.
Raising her fingertips to her puffed lips, she felt a dried crust of
blood all around her nose and mouth and down the side of her upper lip,
chin, and throat. The inside of her mouth felt scummy. She had an
uncontrollable thirst, but found nothing to drink.

Then, a noise and a dark silhouette at the entrance to the bungalow
caused her to look up in unconscious renewed terror. She felt her eyes
widen, and then she saw Habrunt standing there, his downcast
countenance and the gleam of his bulging muscles appearing in the
flickering uncertain firelight like an apparition as the curtain was
drawn back by his large hand. In his other hand was a fire-hardened
clay cup.

She sensed his eyes upon her, and looked up with the same open-faced
showing of subservience and unthinking trust with which she had always
looked to him before. Then her eyes fell, and she became as a downcast
wretch, a hag before her time, weeping uncontrollably on the dirty cot
before his compassionately kneeling figure.

Tears of shame fell from her closed eyelids, but she felt surprise as
she felt Habrunt's strong hand placed gently upon her shoulder, and
with his other hand, he held up the clay cup.

From the odor of it, she dimly perceived that it was simple herbal tea,
and not a powerful potion such as she had delivered to the Physician
earlier.

He placed it gently to her lips. From the feel of it's even warmth, she
sensed that he had warmed it a little, though not enough to be too much
for her. She let it's tasteless liquid slip through her feverish lips,
and could not discern it, either as warmth nor coolness. It was neither
sweet nor sour, and faintly but not unpleasantly bitter.

When she'd had a little, he removed the cup from her lips and set it
down on the earthen floor, already forgotten in the dark shadows
beneath the cot.

He remained frozen for a moment in the stillness of the deserted
bungalow. She thought he must be angry at her, and deservedly so, but
she saw no wrath in the quiet look of compassion with which he studied
her. His eyes were steady and calm.

"Fear not, little one," said Habrunt, his voice a deep, soft
reassurance to her. "No one shall pluck thee from my hand."

At this, her eyes lifted up to his in surprise, and she saw his
forefinger raised vertically against his pursed lips, beneath
cautiously furrowed masculine eyebrows, the universal gesture for
silence and secret comradeliness.

He leaned forward towards her, and bent down, and kissed her gently on
the forehead.

Eyelids shutting reflexively, she tingled all over, from her aching
head to her tiny feet, at the soft touch of his lips. She quivered all
inside at the furriness of his thick beard, and the brush of his long
wavy locks where they fell from beneath his leather headband against
her numbed face.

He took out a clean cloth and formed it into a cup-shape in one hand,
and poured out a little tea onto it, letting it soak in. Then, he
carefully began ever so gently wiping away the congealed saliva and
dried blood from her face, her lips, her chin, and her throat. After
that, he untied a small clay bottle from his belt, refolded the
dampened cloth to a clean side, and unstopped the little bottle to tilt
it's mouth over the cloth, and applied some of it's contents thereon.

Again, he wiped her entire face and forehead, her throat, up around her
ears, and across the back of her neck. His touch was gentle all over
her head and neck, as he anointed the semi-conscious girl with a thin,
soothing layer of purest olive oil.

He surveyed her face again, noting once more, with the same inner, grim
satisfaction as before, that she had suffered no apparent lasting
injury despite much swelling and bruises. He felt small solace in this,
but as it was yet within his power, he would surely command whatever he
might in her behalf.

Suddenly, footsteps could be heard approaching the entrance from
outside, and she sensed him rise in the flickering shadows and step to
one side of the door. There he stood tall and motionless before her,
waiting for the footsteps to carry past. The approaching footsteps were
accompanied by an admixture of slurred male and female voices, perhaps
four people in all.

Their unseen progress could be followed by the changing aspects of the
snatches and sudden outbursts of laughter to which they resorted in
their senseless and continuous amusement at everything around them,
including themselves.

The golden gleam of Habrunt's bronze sword flashed before Si'Wren's
eyes, making her catch her breath in fear.

Some of their words could be indistinctly made out, and Habrunt
realized that the men were from the nearby city, talking with pent-up
anticipation of having a good time with a couple of lush young girls
from the caravan, whom they were taking to a nearby garden gazebo, a
flimsy trellis of bamboo, stone, and clinging green vines.

Habrunt scowled. Still more of Rababull's 'party favors', no doubt.
Four had already died this night, besides Nelatha, and another savagely
beaten. What would be the tally by dawn's light?

As their noisome prittle-prattle faded into the distance, Habrunt felt
the danger pass. He turned away from Si'Wren, and stepped out into the
night without another word, gone with such stealth that he slipped away
as silently as he had come.

She shivered, beginning to tremble feverishly all over.

The music from the House rose to a faster and louder tempo as riotous
laughter and the excited shrieks of women was accompanied by the
generally raucous bellowing of many foolishly happy male voices. Then
the voices died down a bit, and the music picked up a thumping tempo of
heavy drum beats. The scent of the incense, exotic and strange, came to
Si'Wren again, wafted through the drifting mists in the chill night air.

Chills racked her. The cold of night was at her back, and it's embrace
was beginning to seize her with shivers and cramps. But the flickering
fire was before her still, accompanied by the emotional warmth of the
memory of Habrunt's kiss upon her forehead.

She lifted herself up until she was propped on one elbow, and tried to
ignore her chills as she basked in the velvety, mesmerizing warmth and
stared long into the glowing fire pit. She had a fever, and was too
full of wonder at the behavior of Habrunt to go back to sleep. In the
background, the rhythmical chi-chi-ching and reedy reeee-reeeee-reeeee
of the music lulled her senses, as her eyes became half-lidded.

Suddenly, as she watched the flickering flames, they began to change
shape before her delirious eyes, and became--fiery dancing girls.

Eerily tall, the tireless shapes of the dancing girls pranced and
danced and jumped and leaped to the distant music from Master
Rababull's House. They shifted and changed positions with each other
again and again and yet again, as around and around them jumped up the
black shadows of demons, chasing the breathlessly fast fiery dancing
girls.

The demons were fast, but the thin, leaping, fiery dancing girls were
swifter than lightning, impossibly fast and elusive, so much so that
the persistent demons could not catch even one of the fire girls, who
kept disappearing miraculously out of their clutches and slipping
through their clutching black claws as easily as a collection of
brilliant feminine fire wraiths.

The yellow firelight flashed in brilliance from the eerily thin leaping
flame figures, and suddenly, Si'Wren became one of them.

As they danced, she danced, and as they leaped, she leaped with them,
in an entrancingly intricate pattern of leaps and prances, as the light
of the Invisible God shined from within herself to light the way for
her tiny dancing feet.

All around her the demons whirled and chased, ever seeking to carry her
away from the others, and away from the holy light of the Invisible
God, but she, like the fiery dancing girls, could not be caught by them
for all of their efforts, for that Perfect Light was like a living fire
within Si'Wren.

The smell of the fire's smoke reached her once, and she realized that
the demons were tormented by the fiery light of the eerily beautiful
dancing girls, for she smelled the smoke of their torment, and as she
lay staring unblinkingly at the fire, she danced endlessly into the
darkness of the night.

* * *

When she awoke again, it was to the morning sounds of the sleeping and
hung-over alike, sighing and snoring all around her in the cypress
bungalow, and to renewed thirst, chills, and constant tormented
shivering from the pronounced effects of the fever.

There was an aching in her beaten head and face, and a curious,
inexplicable emotional void in her soul where once her long-fervent
love of her Master Rababull had long flourished eternal.

Soon the bungalow's occupants had all risen. Tired and hung over from
all their ravelings of the night before, they ignored her. It was
Master Rababull's custom to get the slaves as drunk as they could
possibly manage and exclusively on red wine, but not in the House with
his honored guests, so that by their hangovers they might not desire
the fancies of a freeman with quite the same vigor in times to come.
Their lusts were gone from them now, and they all went through their
daily preparations for a day's work in the Master's fields in a curious
pinch-faced, silent expression of unaccustomed suffering, their heads
aching miserably as they shuffled out without so much as a single
solitary civil word from the lot of them.

None dared speak to Si'Wren, in spite of her worse suffering than
theirs. What she had done was taboo. Selling idols was an important
means to gaining much gold. What she had done was tantamount to the
symbolic ruination of the very economy and foundation of the entire
House of Rababull, and moreover, an overt rejection of the very gods
themselves.

The unknown few that might have dared befriend her were no doubt too
afraid of the others, and especially of Master Rababull himself. Had
they even desired to do so, which she suspected none did, not a one
dared show sympathy even by so much as the merest wink of an eye.

Si'Wren felt her heart and soul wrenched by the realization that
because of what she stood guilty of she was henceforth to be counted by
all others as an utter and complete outcast, a living abomination even
amongst her own kind--lowly slaves all.

Many hated her, but dared not show that either, lest Slavemaster
Habrunt should learn of it somehow and make his displeasure known to
them instead. For that, Si'Wren was doubly-taboo. Besides all of this,
she would not have dared to give the slightest verbal reply to any of
them anyway.

She spent the day in a lethargic state of abject misery, feeling as if
her head would split open from aching, an agony which she would have
readily traded places with the slaves for their pains instead, as they
went out suffering visibly and openly from being so obviously hung-over.

The old slave-woman, L'acoci, a toothless, gray-haired scarecrow of a
crone, too old and decrepit to do much useful work out-of-doors
anymore, had been instructed by Habrunt to make use of herself and be a
nursemaid to Si'Wren. With a lifetime of experience to draw upon,
L'acoci gave Si'Wren a tea poultice to sooth her bruises, and some rich
broth skimmed from the vegetable stew to strengthen her.

Throughout the afternoon, Si'Wren continued to suffer from her beating
and the fever. L'acoci was kept busy at the simmering stew pot for the
sake of the other slaves. They were due to come in from the fields just
as dusk dimmed into night, and the old crone did not appear to take
especial notice of Si'Wren's physical distress.

But when Si'Wren finally began to moan in pain, at long last L'acoci
deigned to hear her cries as the old hag came over to her and took her
firmly by the shoulders, whispering urgently to her to be silent and
lie still.

She could not. The rejection by Master Rababull, the slaying of
Nelatha, the humiliation, and the beating all seemed increasingly
overwhelming to her. Such torment and emotional anguish as she had
never known filled her being, so real and so indomitable. She could not
will it away. She could not face up to it. She could not escape it nor
answer it.

Then, suddenly, Habrunt was there, momentarily putting aside his many
responsibilities, kneeling beside her with a clay cup of herb tea in
his large hand as his other hand gently supported her head.

He spoke to her soft words of comfort, and somehow the unwavering look
in his eyes and the warmth of the beverage offered by his very own hand
filled her with such a sense of reassurance that it seemed to suffuse
her very soul with an awareness that without Habrunt, she should surely
have known damnation.

After that, he came daily, sometimes in the morning and again in the
late afternoon. That Habrunt grieved for her suffering was no secret,
although what he ever thought of anything was purely his own affair.
Moreover, he came boldly, openly, letting all see that he was Habrunt
the Slavemaster, and the servant of but one man.

If the Master of the House was aware of any of this, yet did Habrunt
brave the danger willingly enough, apparently heedless if Master
Rababull should experience displeasure.

But Master Rababull, although fully aware of Habrunt's behavior because
of the many tattletales he listened to, found it expedient to consider
the matter settled, and his Slavemaster too useful to chastise for so
light an infringement. Instead, Master Rababull pretended that it was
so unimportant as to be beneath either his notice or his dignity. Had
he not graciously spared Si'Wren's very life? Was she not then worthy
to be restored meekly to a useful, if lower, status in the House, her
social ostracism as a total outcast notwithstanding?

Master Rababull's only publicly announced edict, an iron one, was that
Si'Wren must never again work in the spice tent. It was an honor she no
longer deserved. Habrunt never openly showed the slightest affection to
Si'Wren, but ministered to her with stoic mein. Whenever he came, he
commanded the ever-present runner boys to wait outside. Then he would
enter in and give her tea and broth at his own hand. When Si'Wren tried
to whisper secretly to him once, his eyes widened in alarm and he
immediately put his hand firmly over her mouth and shook his head and
frowned in an urgent but barely perceptible negative.

Then after each visit, he would depart again after speaking scarcely a
word, and that only to L'acoci.

In the face of such scandalous activity, none dared bring rebuke
against Si'Wren before Master Rababull, lest they incur in turn the
thinly veiled wrath of Habrunt in his official capacity as Slavemaster
of the House. Habrunt was careful in all of this to make certain, with
every opportunity, that all saw his total devotion and unfailing
allegiance to Master Rababull.

Thus, mercifully, there were no complaints against Si'Wren, and she did
not suffer nearly as much as she might otherwise have done.

* * *

Si'Wren chewed her food, as she pretended not to notice the other
slaves filing out of doors to their day's labor in the fields. They in
turn shunned her company, for she was the despised idol-breaker, in
spite of the well-known fact that it had been Nelatha who had taken the
actual blame for this.

For, unlike the one-eyed boy who had bullied his one-eyed victim,
Si'Wren had committed no mere worldly crime. No, not she. Si'Wren had
done much worse than that.

She had broken faith.

She had shown her belief in the Invisible God, the only forbidden deity
in a world of visible and valuable idols. She was forever an outcast,
the lowest of the low. She was different, evil, taboo.

Each of the two one-eyed boys was still permitted to speak and converse
naturally with others. Not she. No, she was somehow subhuman to them
now, and it was only fitting that she should never speak again, but be
as some dumb animal instead.

Seeing this, she had abandoned the idea of ever trying, knowing it was
useless.

* * *

Harvest time had come.

Slavemaster Habrunt was compelled to attend to his duties first and
foremost, and so could not visit Si'Wren as frequently as he had done
at the first. He had commanded L'acoci to care for Si'Wren with all
diligence. No longer dared he come so often, lest the Master take
notice and be moved to great displeasure, and perhaps in the end decree
some worse punishment for Si'Wren to be rid of her once and for all.

L'acoci was under instructions to bring Habrunt word again when Si'Wren
was feeling better, that he might come and personally escort her to her
newly appointed place of labor. L'acoci had informed her that she would
be working in the Master's fields; why else, adaged an observant
L'acoci, would Si'Wren have been bedded down to recover from her
injuries in the bungalow of the field laborers?

Until then, Habrunt had no further, legitimate excuse to come and seek
after Si'Wren's welfare. How she longed to see his face again!

L'acoci was treating Si'Wren with borage and red clover blossom tea,
together with dandelion, which was quite agreeable and most healing to
her. Yesterday morning, L'acoci had smiled at her and announced that
today Si'Wren might leave her sickbed at long last. Together with
L'acoci, Si'Wren had gone to the stream where the women all gathered to
wash clothes, to bathe and wash herself under L'acoci's fiercely
protective guardianship, lest any of the other women or their children
molest the wretched, defenseless outcast of a girl, so none dared.

Then, after she had first fed the other field slaves in the cypress
bungalow their dinner, L'acoci had gone to tell Habrunt that night of
the progress Si'Wren had been making in her recovery. L'acoci then
returned and, with a twinkle in her eyes, informed Si'Wren of what she
had done. Knowledge of this event had filled Si'Wren with such a
perplexity as to what would become of her that she could hardly go to
sleep that night. All she could think of was Habrunt and what he would
say when he came for her in the morning.

Sure enough, as soon as Habrunt had a chance to make his morning rounds
to see that the affairs of the Master's Household were all in order for
the day and that the slaves were all well and truly at their duties, or
that the inevitable one or two dropouts had given him sufficient excuse
and been temporarily reassigned one way or another to easier work, he
came personally for Si'Wren.

"Well, little one, are you ready?" Habrunt spoke to her in his deep,
gentle voice, as he stood in the doorway with a stern look on his
formidable features, and secretly gave her a quick wink. He folded his
muscular, corded forearms across his hairy chest and presented an
exceeding handsome figure with his long wavy locks held back by the
plain leather headband, and his unadorned but carefully trimmed beard.
He looked rugged and formidable, despite his beaming countenance.

Inwardly pleased at the way he had winked at her with no one else the
wiser, Si'Wren bowed low, then rose to her full, diminutive stature and
nodded to him in mute obedience.

"What good are words anyway, eh?" he said, in a not-unkindly fashion.
"Come, then, little one."

Habrunt's eyes sparkled as he regarded her, for when she had bowed, her
dark hair, which hung nearly to the waist in back, had fallen
gloriously across her shoulders in dark shining splendor.

He stepped outside, and held the tent flap considerately for her as he
waited for her to follow.

Habrunt's countenance was like lightening, as his eyes which seemed
ever to smile upon Si'Wren, somehow managed to appear so fierce unto
all others as to strike terror into their hearts, be they of a spiteful
mein or no, and all of this with but one and the same expression of his
stony features.

When she was ready, he started out at a deliberately slow pace to
enable her to keep up easily and follow dutifully close behind him. As
they neared the fields, he could tell from glancing back at her once
that, weakened from her long illness, she was already badly winded
merely from the walk.

He brought her to Geth, the short, stout old Fieldmaster, Geth of
balding head, all white of hair and long-fringed beard, with a wrinkled
old face that had seen more summers in the fields than the rocks
themselves, for all Si'Wren knew.

Across the windswept waves of undulating grain, interspersed with a few
weeds and brush, the harvesters worked steadily, too far to clearly
discern their bowed and sweaty faces.

Clasping hands, Habrunt greeted Geth with a man's greeting, and
accepted the offer of a drink from the water skin. Si'Wren respectfully
declined to do likewise.

After an habitual inquiry as to the progress of the harvest, Habrunt
said to the old Fieldmaster, "This is Si'Wren, of the spice tent. She
had the misfortune to be held accountable for the very stones that come
from the ground as well as the herbs she was so skilled at grinding,
and found wanting by the Master. She is sworn to a vow of silence, and
now she is to become a field worker."

Geth, as aware of events as anybody, nodded his shrewd understanding,
frowning with a face like old leather.

"Always use more help during the harvest," he said, characteristically
sparse of words. One's very breath, so Si'Wren seemed to gather, was
the better to be employed in more productive pursuits.

"Good," said Habrunt. "See thou to it, and to her health as well.
Methinks she was attacked by a madman during the last full moon and has
been some time in the recovery. Now that she is nearly well again, the
good Master would see some recompense at her own hand. She is still of
tender years, and as yet infirm from her days of recovery. The House of
Rababull would be greatly displeased, if she should be worked too hard,
and fall ill again before full repayment has been made to the Master
for her foolishness."

Habrunt leaned forward significantly at this point, his menacing manner
quite obvious.

"Do you get my meaning, Geth?"

Geth nodded, squinting to show that he was fully aware of Habrunt's
true wishes and was of no mind to make bones to dry in the sun about it.

"Aye," said Geth. He turned to Si'Wren with a wry look, appraising her
carefully and noting her slack posture. "So she is ready for the
harvest, is she? From the look of her, your pretty new field hand has
many good years in her yet, but just between the two of us,
Slavemaster, quite frankly; she looks tired out already."

At this, Habrunt reached down and clenched his right hand around a
fistful of grain stalks, and uprooted the clump up by the roots. Then
he looked at old Geth pointedly.

"This little one is not half as tired as you shall become, if you do
not plant your words as carefully as your crops. If I say she is ready,
she is. Give her tools, water, and provender, and spare your heavy hand
when your eye would mark her shortcomings. Put her over by herself, and
keep a proper shepherd's watch on her. Any good shepherd boy knows his
sheep by name. Behold, I have brought you Si'Wren! If she so much as
lifts a finger to her work, tally the ledger for a full day's output
and see that the others make it up to you, until she can carry her own.
See also that there is peace kept in your fields, lest another mightier
than thou shouldst come and replace you, the better to set all in
proper order again."

Habrunt stood immobile, a handful of grain still clenched tightly in
his fist as he confronted old Geth with a hard look as the other
quickly nodded.

Properly abashed, the Fieldmaster bowed low as he intoned, as
ceremoniously as to the finest idol, "Thy words are gracious and
learned, Slavemaster. All shall be as you have spoken."

Habrunt kept his eyes hard upon Geth for a moment, and finally nodded,
apparently satisfied.

"Good!" he said loudly and pointedly to Geth.

Then he raised his fistful of grain and regarded it with equal levity,
before turning to Si'Wren. He held out the grain to her. Regarding it
dumbly for a moment, Si'Wren saw him nod encouragement to her, and she
took the clump of grain together with the clinging dirt and roots from
his hand.

"Go with him, little one," he said, in a soft and kindly voice. Then,
turning suddenly on Geth, he tilted his head back and declared, "Geth,
does she not come to you with grain already to hand? Take it, and be
satisfied. Behold, I, Habrunt, Slavemaster of the House of Rababull,
have spoken."

This was intended purely and solely for Geth's wise old ears, and had
been formally pronounced to show that Habrunt was in dire earnest, and
would be greatly displeased if further contradicted.

Then he turned brusquely on his heel and strode off to go and make his
rounds.

As Habrunt departed steadily through the gently waving fields, Geth
hefted a large, ungainly scythe in one hand, and turned almost timidly
to Si'Wren.

"Come," he said.

Si'Wren looked up with fearful eyes at his weathered old countenance.

Geth regarded her queerly, as if he had never seen her before, and then
repeated more quietly to her, "Come girl," this time with a more
reassuring nod.

He crinkled his face in an unaccustomed smile, and tilted his head as
he nodded unpracticed encouragement to her. For as Fieldmaster, he was
accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed without question,
and greatly unused was he to meting out such pampering as he had been
gravely challenged by Habrunt to bestow so freely upon this shy one.

Meekly, she followed him in total silence.

"You must not be afraid," Geth said, leading the way. She followed him
over a low hillock to where a clump of trees grew at the edge of a
nearby field. Beyond the knoll, a peaceful stream meandered through.

The low mound of the hill blocked from sight a direct view of the other
field hands, and their view of the stream was also obstructed, neither
could they see the place in the field where Geth had decided that
Si'Wren might work alone and unmolested. That place being closer to the
compound than the area where the other laborers were gathered, Si'Wren
hoped that this would make her safer from attack by any of the
countless roaming, rogue men of the land.

"Fear not. Am I not sworn to defend you?" reassured old Geth, with an
unaccustomed grimace of a smile. "You will be perfectly safe here."

Si'Wren stood silent, looking up at him as she awaited his instructions.

Geth had not brought her to this particular place by sheer
happenstance. If he was to successfully accomplish what Habrunt had so
gravely commanded, it would be easier if the other slaves did not have
the opportunity to judge for themselves whether Si'Wren had produced a
proper day's work in the fields or not. For Geth to permit them to see
her harvest so little, regardless of her weakened physical state, would
produce much griping in their ranks. This way, what they did not know
would not matter to them.

Holding out to Si'Wren the large, heavy scythe, he bade her grasp it.
She took hold of it, and could not help it when the heavy blade tilted
down and banged on the ground after he let go. Then he stepped behind
her and reached around from both sides, took her tiny hands in his
gnarled old ones, and showed her the precise motion of how to swing it
in a rhythmical motion that seemed to roll as naturally as the tips of
the waving grain stalks, over and over again. Geth took her through it
very slowly at first, then at a more normal pace with a smooth,
repetitious motion that was very easy to follow once she got the proper
swing of it.

Although his breath was close upon her from behind, Si'Wren felt no
danger from such close contact with Geth, as he made no attempt
whatsoever to corrupt his handling of her, but only wanted to show her
how to reap. Geth's kindly old soul was visibly harmless, although his
heart was evidently as tough as his gnarled fingers, easily hard enough
to meet the world head-to-head on it's own terms. But the memory of
Habrunt's stern warnings left his behavior so impeccably holy as to
rival the sanctity of the dumb idols themselves.

He was an expert reaper, and when he finally thought that she must have
caught on properly to the idea, he released her. She wobbled,
staggered, and tumbled down in a heap in the tall stalks of grain. Geth
stood looking down at her in consternation for a moment, and then
without so much as a by-your-leave, he bent down and scooped her up in
his arms, and carried her to the shade of a nearby tree where he gently
set her down.

She lay gasping for breath with an extremely drawn, exhausted look on
her face.

"Well," Geth said, a smile transforming his harsh features, "ye have
heard what Slavemaster Habrunt commanded. A full day's work have I just
had of you, and I shall tally the ledger so."

Then, in a much lower voice, with a quick look around of his shifty
eyes, he said to her further, "Sit. Eat; drink! Stay and rest under the
shade of this blessed tree, while I go and get the proper measure due
to your account from the unwilling labors of those slackers over
yonder. Behold I, Geth, Fieldmaster of the House of Rababull, have also
spoken."

So saying, with a crinkle of his eyes at the wry wittiness of his own
mock-pomposity, he held out to her a large coarse-woven drawstring
pouch of food, which was his own portion and a full man's share at
that, and when she had accepted it from him he smiled at her again and
departed. She watched him cross the field with long sure strides which
soon took him away across the low hillock until he was out of sight, as
he went off to supervise the others.

She was so exhausted already! Must she swing this impossibly heavy
scythe day-in and day-out for the rest of her life, as reward for her
worship of the true Invisible God? The thought was a daunting one.

Careful not to spill any of the provender which Geth had given her, she
unfolded and regarded it contemplatively. All must have food, and now
he had none. Evidently, he knew where to get more for himself. Was he
going to get his food by taking it from someone else, perhaps from the
worst 'slackers' among them, and enjoy their additional grumbling at
such added insult all the more while they unknowingly made up for her
lack of production? If so, she could do nothing about it.

Suddenly, she started as his coarse voice called out unexpectedly
across the field to her, "Si'Wren!"

Si'Wren looked up anxiously, as she saw his head and shoulders reappear
over the top of the small hill, peering narrowly across the crest at
her. Too weak to stand, she dipped her head once quickly to show her
compliance, and regarded Geth attentively to see what he wanted.

"Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee? One
thing more is needful, and then I shall leave you be for awhile. If you
see any wild animal," said Geth, "scream very loudly, and I will come
with my field hands and their sharp sickles, and cut it in pieces."

Eyes widening in sudden alarm, Si'Wren nodded quickly, and bowed low in
acknowledgment. Suppose they did not come in time? Better to endure
the insults of the others than that. And how should she dare to scream,
seeing she had taken a vow of silence, lest she dishonor her Invisible
God, and die for it too? Oh, would that he had not gone off and left
her so all alone like this out in the open!

She made as if to wave him back, but Geth had already turned away
again, and shyly she sat watching with deepest regret as the back of
the friendly old Fieldmaster's bald white-fringed head slowly
disappeared over the crest of the low hill.

Si'Wren sat under the shade tree in the midst of what little fallen
grain Geth had harvested in showing her how to reap with the scythe,
her eyes round with fear as she thought of all the great and truly
savage beasts that were known to stalk this wild land. She stood and
looked around fearfully, but all seemed quiet and peaceful enough.
Several birds flitted across the field, and a pair of jet black ravens
could be seen gliding in the distance.

Moving with slow, unsteady progress, she walked up the gentle slope to
the top of the low hill. There, she craned her neck as she shifted her
position several steps over, and found a slightly elevated place to
stand, peering over the tops of the gently undulating field of grain at
the others. Should she even dare to scream, would they arrive in time
if a wild beast should suddenly try to savage her?

She turned her head, taking in the land on all sides, and decided that
if she remained alert enough, perhaps she would have just enough time
to flee and so thereby possibly safeguard her life, should anything try
to come and get her.

Thinking better of it again, she found renewed appreciation for her
compulsory separation from the others, the better to escape their
sullen, silent persecutions. To be amidst them, and not work, would be
to invoke their supreme contempt and irritation, and leave her feeling
so low as to wish she were already dead, and that on top of her status
as the lowest of the low for her reputation as an idol-breaker.

Si'Wren considered all, and felt renewed remorse at what terrible fate
had befallen her. As long as she could remember, Si'Wren had always
been a hard worker, and a willing one too. Just like Nelatha, whose
comforting, characteristic voice she missed so desperately.

But now she was to be in constant fear for her life, alone in the
world, and alone among men. All by herself now, she peered
expressionlessly across the wild landscape, as the wind blew strands of
dark hair across her eyes, and began weeping for fear and loneliness.

Her eyes, blurred by tears, swept the nearby foliage, seeking anything
that moved. Was not a swift hunting beast's charge always a surprise to
the victim? Who could resist such an advance? Or how could such a one
as she manage to resist even so loathsome and demeaning a danger as the
attack of a mere pack of scavenger dogs, with their many snapping jaws?
What of the giant dire wolves, or the huge roaming bears, and fierce
prowling wild cats, and other even more unspeakable monsters such as
she might not even dream of? She remembered the trophies of the
hunters, and such were the stuff of nightmares, and she found that her
harvest field had become a place of terror.

She wiped at her tears, and looked down at the place where the sickle
had fallen. She walked down the slope and stood over the ungainly
reaper's scythe, fighting back the demons of the unknown. Finally,
quelling her terrors somehow, she knitted her brow as she stooped to
kneel down beside the scythe. Then, with exceeding care, she touched
her finger lightly to the feather's edge of the blade in all of it's
wicked keenness. Sniffling and wiping ineffectually at her face with
the back of her forearm, she examined the sharp scythe, and considered
how pitiful and inept a fighter she must portray to any animal.

Was she not but a girl, scarcely one-forth the size of a good fighting
man and as nothing to one of the human giants? Could she make as ready
use of whatever came to hand, or of her own muscles if necessary, to
settle an argument as brave Habrunt might do? Thinking unhappily on all
of this, she felt disconsolate to such a degree as never before in her
short life. Turning from the heavy scythe, she decided to go and seek
relief in the shade of the trees overhanging the dank and shadowy banks
of the wide, peaceful stream.

The gurgling of the water over heavy stones partially blocking a
narrows downstream was a pleasant sound to her ears. The backup of
water from a beaver dam had created a wide pond in front of her.

As Si'Wren watched, a huge dragonfly, easily as large as both of her
outstretched hands together, flitted fast and low over the glassy
surface of the water. Out in the middle of the tranquil water was a
beaver almost as large as herself, which could be glimpsed moving
smoothly across the surface and leaving a thin wake of vee lines from
the tip of it's button nose.

She sat down on the grass, legs curled beneath her skirts, and stared
unseeingly down at the surface of the pond where scooter bugs jinked
across the placid water by rowing with their two long oars of legs.
Green plant scum floated in the nearby bulrushes, where pussy willows,
cattails, saw grass, and tall hollow reeds could be seen swaying as
they rustled gently in the wind.

What she thought to have been a submerged rock came to life suddenly,
startling her as a giant catfish half the size of the beaver moved
sluggishly to deeper water in a swirl of disturbed sediment.

She did not realize at first that she had visitors. Not, that is, until
a long double line of armed men became progressively visible as their
leader emerged from a far clump of trees and led them on a forced march
that took them steadily and silently through the field beyond the far
banks.

As they began passing through the field of waving grain on the opposite
side of the pond, she cowered instinctively and ducked down low behind
a clump of bushes to watch anxiously as they came into view, marching
briskly two-by-two, every one of them in perfect lock-step, moving
silently as one with only the distant sound of their tromping sandals
to mark their passage.

They carried swords or spears in their right hands, and on their left
arms they had great heavy shields, and helmets on their heads. So many
fierce-looking beards. She could tell that they were not soldiers of
the Emperor of this land, or they would have had standard bearers, and
other elaborate devices, including uniform hammer-beaten metal shields,
all alike with the Emperor's great seal of the sun god embossed thereon.

Nevertheless, it was a formidable force, at least a hundred and fifty
men-at-arms.

She remained in hiding, peering narrowly through the grass at the side
of a gray boulder. The rock of the boulder was actually minutely white
and black flecked with her eyes so close to it. Totally obscured from
view, she watched them march past her position, as silent as the wind,
and breathed a pent-up sigh of relief as their steadily marching ranks
slowly disappeared from view across the far field, moving in an
upstream direction.

When they had gone, she looked anxiously in the direction whence they
had come, watching to see if more might be forthcoming. When none was,
she finally returned to where the food pouch had been left with the
scythe, and realized how hungry she was.

None of those in Geth's charge, nor Geth himself, could have seen the
men, for a series of other low hills blocked their direct view of the
low-lying stream and what lay beyond. But it was no concern of
Si'Wren's. She knew nothing of such matters, and was afraid to draw
attention to herself anyways. How could she even tell them, seeing she
had sworn an oath of silence?

So she merely tried to put it out of mind, although she continued to
deliver many an anxious look both in the direction which the unknown
warriors had come, and that in which they had gone.

She opened the burr-lap pouch which Geth had given her and found fresh
coarse dark bread, and a musty smelling, whitish, oily goat cheese,
with some dark shriveled sun-dried fruits, and an ample provision of
hard unshelled nuts. Realizing how famished she was, she ate some the
provender, cracking the nuts with a small rock on a large flat boulder,
and did not stop until it was all gone. Then she went to the beaver
pond for a drink of water.

Everything took more energy than she was normally accustomed, and she
had to stop and rest frequently. It had been a long time since she had
eaten and exercised properly, and she grew faint too easily for her own
liking but could do little for now except take what rest she could.

At the pond, she knelt down by the water's edge and brushed the thin
skim-surface of dust and swirled parallel lines of bright green algae
apart in order to cup her hands and bring some of the clear underlying
liquid to her parched lips.

There she remained, and regarded the distant shore of the pond whence
the soldiers had marched past, taking up more water in her cupped hands
as needed.

Finally she arose and turned her head to take in her surroundings anew.
But suddenly she froze at the totally unexpected sight of tall Sorpiala
and her female slave servants, dressed in all their finery and waving
irritably at the flies as they all approached along the stony path.

Si'Wren grimaced wryly to herself, although she would never have dared
to do so openly where she could be seen, at the perceived justice of
their plight under the persecutions of the flies and mosquitoes they
openly swatted at. If one ate too many sweets and pastries, as they
always did, one's sweat stank, as theirs did. Thus; no matter how
frequent the bathing, hence cometh flies. Moreover, one's teeth soon
rotted, after which one became fit to eat nothing but that which all
babies ate, prechewed gruel, and no mother to do the chewing.

At first as they approached, she could see only the tops of their heads
from over a slight ridge of the grassy hill's broad hummock. They were
scanning variously about themselves with sharply turned heads and
frowning faces.

As they worked their way closer, she was able to see more clearly their
shoulders and upper arms, then their torsos and elbows, and finally
their wrists, hands, and waists. Eventually, she could also see the
uppermost parts of their legs sometimes, as they waded through the
tall, coarse grasses of the uneven and unworkable parts of the hill.
One stumbled and fell, to arise quickly afterward cursing with the most
filthy and vile language, and none of the others so much as noticed the
flood of curses or deigned to help their unfortunate companion to her
feet.

As Si'Wren watched, slowly, like the dawning of a new day, she also
began to remember. Suddenly, it all became clear to her, and suddenly
it came over her all at once that she who now approached Si'Wren was
none other than dear Sorpiala the once-trusted elder slave-sister, the
very one whose privily-entreated words in the ears of Master Rababull
were what had brought Nelatha to her death and Si'Wren to such a new
and low estate.

Swept by dire apprehensions, Si'Wren sought about fearfully where to
conceal herself, and was about to resort to ducking down in the tall
grass, when suddenly one of Sorpiala's cohorts cried out oddly like
some wild bird as she victoriously pointed out Si'Wren's location.
Sorpiala and the others looked also, and immediately altered their
course to intercept Si'Wren.

Caught flat-footed, Si'Wren quailed within herself as she stood stock
still and waited hopelessly for them to draw near. Si'Wren felt
overwhelmed by a dizzy, empty feeling of utter helplessness. She felt
her heart pounding rapidly within her as she tried to calm herself, but
in spite of this her breathing became even more tortuous and labored.

The women strolled over to her through the tall wild grasses commingled
with the waving stalks of grain, chatting animatedly to one-another as
they all stared boldly at her. This was their hour of victory, and they
reveled openly in it, flattering themselves with a pretense of
false-charity towards Si'Wren while beneath the surface, as with the
pond earlier, could be seen, symbolically, the lurking, half-seen
catfish of their muck-racking innermost thoughts.

"You know, I had heard that Si'Wren's face was all scarred up," said
one young woman.

"Curious," said another, "she seems perfectly normal. You know, it must
be like her personality. What's really wrong is invisible."

"Aye, like her invisible god!" volunteered a third, gaining a laugh
from all sides.

"Now girls," admonished Sorpiala lightly, "if you can't say anything
nice, just don't--say anything! Right, Si'Wren?"

Clearly to Si'Wren now, Sorpiala had harbored a secret and unreasonably
jealous attitude toward her, since seeing all of the attention which
Habrunt had so openly bestowed upon a recently convalescing Si'Wren.
Sorpiala never cared a whit for Habrunt, but it vexed her no end that
anyone should enjoy themselves so much. But now, behold, here was
Si'Wren, defenseless!

Sorpiala stepped boldly in front of Si'Wren and said, "I'm sorry about
before, Si'Wren. I must also apologize for the inconsiderate manner of
my friends here. They do not mean to be so rude. Surely you of all
people must understand. I mean, it's just that nobody has quite gotten
over the shock of learning that your personal beliefs were
so--different--from everyone else's."

Si'Wren stood silent, surrounded by them all, and unable to reply.

"Well?" said Sorpiala. She stared full-face at Si'Wren. "You could at
least nod or something when I speak."

"Yeah, what's the matter?" said another, delivering Si'Wren a rude push
from behind. "Are you deliberately trying to be insulting, or have you
had all of your senses beaten out of you?"

Several girls giggled at this.

Someone else pushed her again, and she staggered and almost fell down.

Screeches of laughter ensued.

As Si'Wren turned her head to see who had pushed her, she was suddenly
flung to the ground by a sharp push from Sorpiala herself.

"Look at me when I speak to you!" said Sorpiala angrily.

Lying helplessly at Sorpiala's feet, Si'Wren put one hand back
unseeingly for support as she looked up at her, and felt her fingers
touch the toes of the one who had first pushed her from behind.

"Ahh! Sorpiala, this--this idol-breaker has tried to trip me!"

Sorpiala confronted Si'Wren with an indignant, self-righteous stare. It
was a hard, cold look of the most imperious hauteur.

"You don't say?!"

Glaring down at Si'Wren, Sorpiala said to the other woman, "It seems
that Si'Wren has not gleaned enough trouble yet. Not content to break
idols, she seeks to trip us and break our heads as well!"

Si'Wren lay in the grass, shaking her head in mute, pleading denial as
she looked beseechingly up at them.

"The guilty are ever speechless, in the face of their accusers," said
another, with a self-righteous, knowing air.

"Come, girls!" said Sorpiala. She regarded Si'Wren contemptuously. "It
is our proper duty to see that justice is speedily executed! Let us go
and report this new outrage at once!"

"Aye," and "At once!" agreed several others almost in unison.

As one, the group of women turned and hiked up the slope, away from
edge of the pond where a trembling Si'Wren sat watching helplessly with
tears in her eyes.

"You know, she never could talk clearly, even before," said one
indistinctly, as their figures disappeared over the rise.

The last thing Si'Wren heard from them was a sudden chorus of more of
that awful, catty, girlish laughter. Then they were gone, leaving her
in her torment and abject sense of total abandonment, in the very
thrall of terror over what to expect next.

Eyes stung by salt tears, she averted her head abruptly from their
departing voices, and found herself staring at the peaceful stream
through blurred vision. Rising to her feet, she approached the water
unsteadily.

She cleared the water again with a sweep of her hand, and dipped up
some of it to wash her face.

Kneeling there, she beheld herself in the water's reflection.

There, like a stranger, she beheld the oval face of a timid-looking
girl of twelve years framed in long straight dark hair, an orphan who
had never known her parents, whose beauty, unperceived to her own
as-yet childish understanding, was as the beauty of the fruitful land
itself, even as the stars at night, or the radiant moonglow at it's
softest.

Staring down into the water's surface, she remembered Nelatha's
admonition that Another's likeness could also be seen by reflection in
water. That was to say, by inner reflection; only thus might one
supposedly 'see' the unseeable One, the Invisible God.

She was already kneeling.

She bowed her head over the water, knowing now that it was but mere
water, yet realizing that here was a vision to marvel at. Timorously,
as her tears ran down her cheeks to fall and ripple it's surface, she
prayed over the mirror-image of the heavenly realm to the Invisible God.

She did not know how long she remained there, praying incessant
confused petitions to a long-forgotten Deity in a world hopelessly lost
to every kind of evil, before she finally fell asleep by the water's
edge.

The next thing she knew, Habrunt was kneeling over her and touching her
shoulder. Startled, she gasped as she looked up into his eyes. Eyes
that were uncharacteristically fierce and angry now--and fearful for
some reason, too.

"You have been accused by Sorpiala and many witnesses," Habrunt
declared to her, "of attempting to harm one of their number!" Then he
rose to his feet and cast about curiously, before raising his voice and
shouting at her, "Si'Wren, can you not stay out of trouble just this
once, your first day in the fields?!"

Si'Wren shook her head in mute denial, her look of hopelessness as of
one who is utterly doomed to destruction, an enemy to be permanently
removed from all civilized human society, as one hated and despised by
all.

Habrunt reached down and took hold of her by the upper arm and pulled
her bodily to her feet, although he did not jerk so roughly as to hurt
her in the slightest.

"Come!" he commanded.

He marched her up the slope, his calloused hands holding tightly onto
her as he marched Si'Wren up the grassy slope to the top of the rise.
Si'Wren felt so weakened by fear that only his strong grip kept her
from stumbling and falling.

The wind partially obscured her vision by casting her dark hair across
her face, as she occasionally glimpsed the other field slaves pausing
to gawk at the sight of their Slavemaster and his diminutive miscreant
making their way to the top of the low hill.

Habrunt faced her and made certain that what must happen next would
take place in the sight of all field workers, and declared loudly and
formally, "Sorpiala has charged thee before the Master, and behold,
thou hast been judged and found wanting. Now you shall learn what
happens to those scoffers who dare to offend the House of Rababull!"

Habrunt let go of her suddenly, causing her to fall backwards into the
heavy standing grain in such a way that she tumbled harmlessly into the
tall stalks which made a gentle whispering sound as they cushioned her
fall. Weeping, she lay looking up at him through tear-flooded eyes and
the wisps of her own hair, from a bed of bent and broken stalks,
entirely obscured from the view of those watching in the nearby fields.

Habrunt was already uncoiling a heavy bull whip, and there was a
strange look of ferocity and despair on Habrunt's troubled features.

Shaking her head slowly in hopeless denial, Si'Wren raised her arms
defenselessly and remained mute as he took hold of the whip by it's
heavy pommel and shook it out behind him on the grassy knoll, snaking
the long sinuous coils into a long scythe-like arc as he prepared to
deliver the first stroke.

"Ten lashes!" he declared.

He tensed the bulging muscles of his right arm as he raised the braided
leather pommel to shoulder height and brought it around once to round
it out properly, and then hooked it in at the proper moment with all of
his strength in a viciously aimed shot.

CRACK!! The whip banged like a thunderclap, the sonic boom echoing
across the fields as a scream was ripped from Si'Wren's throat and a
distant flock of surprised birds took suddenly to flight, darkening the
sky with their panicked multitudes of beating wings.

Men and women who thought they too, had hated Si'Wren, felt sudden
horror at the astonishing impact of the whip's bang upon their eardrums.

He brought back the whip behind him for the next stroke and rotated it
around forward again, his bulging muscles gleaming with sweat.

CRACK!! The sound echoed across the land, sending gophers, rabbits, and
other animals scurrying for their dens and holes in the ground.

CRACK!! Slave women in the fields began weeping.

Habrunt was visible to all as his tall figure towered above the waving
grass on the hilltop.

Several of the men looked away, already feeling sick to their stomachs,
while others watched with clenched jaws, remembering the way Master
Rababull himself had put out the eye of the boy who had once been a
bully, because Master Rababull's word was law.

CRACK!! An eye for an eye.

CRACK!! Back in the Master's compound, Sorpiala went on humming softly
and pleasantly to herself as she heard the distant knell of doom, and
full of gloating, she pretended to be oblivious to it's meaning in the
presence of her totally silent, fearfully listening cohorts.

CRACK!!--CRACK!!--CRACK!!...

On and on, to the tenth and final lash.

Gasping for breath, his face, hair, and naked torso streaming with
sweat, Habrunt held his hands low in the tall grass, and made sure that
no one saw when he took a small leather pouch from the left side of his
belt, swollen with animal blood, pinched it's contents upwards and drew
the end of the whip through it several times to coat it. Then he also
dipped the heads of a handful of long severed wheat stalks in the blood
pouch and shook it over Si'Wren, spattering her skin liberally with the
blood.

Then he knelt down in the tall grass so low as to be completely out of
view from anyone watching, stooping close beside Si'Wren.

Still in shock, Si'Wren watched as he scooped up a handful of small
pebbles and cupped his hand carefully as he poured them into the pouch.
Without a word to her, he noosed the pouch and knotted it tightly so
that it's contents might not chance to escape.

Then he rose to full stature and he stood over her, his face
expressionless as he coiled the bloody whip and held it in a
red-stained fist. Without so much as a backward glance at her, he
turned on his heel and marched down the slope to the stream, where he
cast the pouch far into the middle of the peaceful beaver pond. It hit
with a small splash and sank. Because the pond was on the far side of
the hill from the others and blocked them from view, none saw what he
did.

Then, finished, Habrunt turned and marched off to make his regular
rounds.

Up on the top of the hill, Si'Wren lay motionless in the grass, utterly
bewildered.

Each time Habrunt had cracked the whip at her she had cringed
involuntarily, only to hear as it banged harmlessly above her and spent
it's fearsome energy upon the air before falling uselessly across her
prostrate and quivering body.

After her first bloodcurdling scream, she had lain silent and only
trembled uncontrollably each time at it's evil, snakelike touch,
fearing that he had simply missed, and that surely the next delivery,
or the next, should not fail to find it's mark. Of a truth, she was
covered with the rain of fallen grain stems, cut by the whip as by the
sharpest scythe, and her eardrums still rang from the deafening bang of
the whip-crack so close to her head, but there was not a single scratch
on her.

As soon as Habrunt had gone, Geth himself came scurrying as quickly as
his bent frame could carry him up the opposite slope of the hill, with
a group of field hands following fearfully behind him.

The fact that Geth the Fieldmaster had not so much as looked back at
them with the usual admonishment to return to work only emboldened the
other slaves to follow all the faster on his heels, the sooner to see
to the poor girl's condition. Most whippings were conducted with
punishment in mind, something to return the violator to useful duty.
But what they had witnessed from afar was the virtual destruction of a
human being, and they expected to find almost a slaughtered corpse,
something more akin to the remains of a wild animal attack.

When they finally arrived on Geth's heels at the top of the grassy
knoll, they found Si'Wren looking about her with a dazed expression,
propped up on one hand in the soft grass with which she was sprinkled,
totally unscathed.

"I see blood on her, but--the maid is unharmed!" cried one man in
disbelief.

"There's blood in the grass!" cried another.

"It's a miracle!" cried a woman in a quivering voice as she sank to her
knees and raised her hands to the sky. "Gods be praised!"

Old Geth surveyed the scene with a sage and skeptical eye, considering
all as he shook his tired old head, looking down at the mysteriously
unharmed girl. She had suffered so much already. What Slavemaster
Habrunt had accomplished was good enough at the fore, but--where would
it lead to in the end?

But finally he threw up his hands in the air and bowed low his hoary
white-haired old head, as he cried out loudly with the others, "Ahh,
what a miracle is done here, for with mine own eyes did I see the
cruelly flayed flesh of this poor wretched girl, and her wounds all
laid open like gaping mouths and the slitted bellies of so many gutted
fish!"

"Aye," cried out a stout middle-aged slave-woman, picking up on the
pretense the better to seem a part of the miracle herself, although she
could not have cared less if Si'Wren had lived or died. "The red flesh
closed up again before my very eyes!"

Si'Wren, watching them all as if they were mad, found no difficulty in
holding her peace in the face of such folly. Indeed, although she had
always been upright and honest in all her dealings with others as to a
fault, she could in all good conscience speak no evil thing this day,
for she was sworn not even to speak anything at all for the rest of her
life.

"Did you not feel the cruel whip against your flesh?" cried the stout
woman to Si'Wren. Si'Wren stared at her wordlessly a moment, then
nodded once, abruptly, with an expressionless, emphatic look. It was
only the truth, for after every time the whip had banged above her
head, it had fallen harmlessly upon her immediately afterwards.

Geth, momentarily unnoticed in all the excitement, studied Si'Wren a
moment longer.

"Come!" Geth clapped his hands in stern, proprietary fashion.
"Everyone; back to work! Have you all so soon forgotten your duties? To
the fields, lest the Master see you so slack, and tempt the gods to
work more such miracles on your backsides!"

At this, the foolish gawkers fled from their marveling over Si'Wren
and returned anxiously to their work in the fields.

* * *

Slavemaster Habrunt approached his Master Rababull and dropped to one
knee as he bowed low, and clapped his right fist across his hairy chest.

"You called, oh Master."

It was in the afternoon, and Master Rababull had heard strange tidings
from the slave quarters.

He had sent for his Slavemaster to come to one of the most ominous
places, the head of the wide, hand-hewn stone steps leading up the
broad entrance of the House proper. It was where Master Rababull
frequently met with those in whom he had found reason for some
particularly odious displeasure, and the significance of this was not
lost on Habrunt, who was at pains to look oblivious.

"Slavemaster," said Master Rababull deliberately, "did I not command
you to punish my servant Si'Wren for her reckless abuse of one of
Sorpiala's noble slave-cohorts? What is this mad talk I hear about
'miracles'?"

Habrunt kept his head bowed, eyes locked on the stone steps as he
replied in a low, and what he hoped would be a genuinely confused tone
of voice, "I know not, Master Rababull. I only know that I fulfilled my
Master's wish to punish the servant; ten lashes of the whip, which I
laid upon her as commanded."

"Interesting," ruminated Master Rababull.

Not looking up, Habrunt found insufficient reason to respond to the
informal remark of his Master.

"Look at me!" said Master Rababull, his voice sounding tighter.

Habrunt lifted his head without expression and regarded Master Rababull.

Behind Master Rababull was a blood-encrusted bull whip coiled on the
flat top of a waist-high stone pedestal which stood beside the House
entrance proper. The blood was the color of rusted steel, and the
fearsome braided leather bull whip was never placed on the stone
pedestal -nor left there for very long- unless it's owner had found
some particular reason and intended to use it in very short order.

Master Rababull regarded his chief underling with a faint sneer and
barked, "Swear to me Slavemaster that all you have spoken is truth and
that my every command was obeyed to the fullest!"

"I, Habrunt, so swear it!"

Habrunt dared not say more. One must be utterly unshakable, and make no
effort to justify one's self upon another's blind graces at such a
time. Was he not entrusted with the charge of all the slaves of the
House of Rababull? Should he then waste mere empty words with such
self-justification as any common thief would not hesitate to do?

Master Rababull said nothing to this, but remained frowning silently
for a long time. Suddenly he turned and clapped his hands, cocking his
head in an imperious gesture and called, "Bring her in!"

Huge and powerful, Prut promptly emerged from the House, where he had
obviously been waiting all of this time just out of sight. His big fist
held Si'Wren's thin upper arm in an unshakable grip as he escorted her
forward to stand in front of Master Rababull at the top of the front
steps.

Others who happened to be going about their duties in the huge
courtyard began to stop and stare, but said nothing lest they should
suddenly become unwilling victims of Master Rababull's unpredictable
wrath and irritation. Danger lurked. Let the slightest offense occur
now, and it could mean certain death to the offender regardless of the
reason, for here was every sign of a fearsome judgement already in the
making.

Si'Wren stood before Master Rababull and Slavemaster Habrunt, eyes
downcast as she waited for it all to begin again. The horrible
pronouncements, the endless anguish, the shame and torment--this time
with the promise of real punishment. In her heart, she was utterly
defeated. There was no hope anymore. There was only Master Rababull's
relentless, inescapable justice, and this time his word must surely
spell her doom.

Master Rababull regarded her, and tossed an open-handed gesture to Prut
that he might release Si'Wren's arm.


As one totally insensate to his immediate surroundings, Prut, his
empty-looking eyes locked straight ahead, dutifully let go of Si'Wren's
arm and remained standing on guard at her side.

Master Rababull walked around her, one slow step at a time, his spotted
leopard-skin robes and purple garb trailing graciously behind him as he
surveyed her untouched skin critically.

Most of the blood had been cleaned off her by now, and so far as Master
Rababull could determine, no whip had touched the girl's skin, ever.
Not so much as a single lash.

Completing his examination, he paused and stood looking scornfully and
distrustfully at Habrunt, who was still kneeling.

"A miracle--in our very midst!" admired Master Rababull mockingly. He
looked at Si'Wren as if the better to marvel, and back at Habrunt.
"Praise the gods! Six hundred and seventy-eight years have I walked
this earth, and many wonders have I seen, but never, ever, have I seen
such a thing as this!"

Master Rababull turned his head toward Si'Wren again, but she was too
afraid to meet his scornful look, and he surveyed her contemptuously
before returning slitted eyes to Habrunt's bowed figure.

"To which of the gods shall I give thanks?" Master Rababull demanded
rhetorically. "After all, seeing that my explicit orders were destined
to be put at naught, I must hasten and make obeisance, that I might not
displease the deities. What totem might I have offended, had my
punishment been carried out? What must I do to show myself blameless
before men and gods alike, in the face of this colossal supernatural
marvel?"

Master Rababull paused, walking slowly from one end of the upper
landing to the other, with a dead-silent Habrunt on the one hand on the
steps, and Si'Wren with Prut looming beside her, on the other hand at
the entrance to the House. Master Rababull's anger was obvious, but
still in check, if only barely. Reaching the far end of the landing, he
turned to look back at them both and remained ominously silent, during
which interval Sorpiala and two of her maidservants peeked out
whispering excitedly to one-another and then ducked their heads back
before Master Rababull should deign to properly notice them.

For who knew what he might do at a time like this?

More onlookers had gathered in the courtyard to watch, knowing from
past experience, that by now, Master Rababull would enjoy their
audience more than their intrusion. It was too much of a spectacle for
them to miss. This was real entertainment! Perhaps heads would even
roll, as had happened with the still comparatively recent punishment of
Nelatha. In fact this was even more fun than to throw stones from the
stream banks at a drowning animal or person, another popular pastime.

"Slavemaster, what I find here is a signal act of the gods which I,
even I, Master of the House of Rababull, dare not contradict. What
would my servants -my friends?!- think of it? In fact, should word be
passed around, I must ask myself before I cast doubt on the
authenticity of such a marvel, whether the Emperor himself might not be
displeased to think of such religious insubordination on my part."

Master Rababull paused again, as if regaining his breath before going
on. He pretended to be unaware of the presence of Sorpiala, and as he
looked out on the gathering crowd, there was a frown locked on his
brow. Their word-of-mouth would hound him to his dying day if he made
the wrong decision now.

He turned like a strutting peacock, and stared at Habrunt from the side
as he went on, but Habrunt dared neither turn his head nor look up in
acknowledgment as Master Rababull waxed eloquent.

"But still, in spite of my generosity and many past mercies upon such
acts of stupidity and foolishness as I have witnessed in all of my
days, I must ask myself the following question..."

Master Rababull stopped to look out across the courtyard of the great
House of Rababull, and fairly glared at the trembling slaves who had
gathered to watch.

"Come!" he commanded loudly. Hesitantly, a few shifted forward several
steps, but not too close. Master Rababull repeated, "Come, and behold
the handiwork of the gods! Come and see the foolishness of the mortals,
for what man is there who can put at naught what the very gods have
decreed?!"

The crowd watched with lurid interest. Many resented Habrunt his
position. Perhaps here was a chance at long last to watch Habrunt be on
the receiving end for a change, for clearly Master Rababull was vastly
displeased.

Master Rababull turned to stand between Habrunt on the one hand, and
Si'Wren on the other. Prut was a nonperson, seemed almost as invisible
as the mythical Invisible God Himself, and would remain so until called
upon to do whatever Master Rababull commanded of him.

"Look at me!!" Master Rababull shouted at Habrunt suddenly, and
automatically Habrunt lifted his head and froze.

Master Rababull's eyes were like coals of fire, locked upon Habrunt's
like those of an eagle upon it's four-legged prey.

In an unexpectedly mild tone of voice, Master Rababull went on, almost
conversationally, "Slavemaster Habrunt, I must ask of you, my most
noble and trusted servant; Which is the greater miracle? The cruel lash
of the whip, which cuts through a young girl's flesh like a hot knife
through lard, and leaves her very skin unharmed?..."

"Or..." Master Rababull turned to Si'Wren, "the dewy eyes of love,
which but lightly touch upon the stony heart of a slave, and leave that
worthless organ slashed to RIBBONS?!!!"

Habrunt, still kneeling, did not so much as dare to flinch nor venture
the slightest response.

Master Rababull walked jerkily, haltingly, a step at a time, like a
dusty, strutting cock bird preparing to fight and make love at one and
the same time as he walked thusly down the stairs until he could step
across behind Slavemaster Habrunt, and continued in this manner on
around, climbing the steps again slowly, with agonizing slowness, to
his original starting point where he halted and remained standing in
front of a kneeling Habrunt at the top of the wide stone steps again.

Habrunt had not dared to move so much as his eyes during this malignant
promenade.

Then without warning Master Rababull suddenly turned in a whirl and
snatched up the blood-stained bull whip from the pedestal and gripped
it by the pommel as he jerked his arm back and snaked it's slithery
braids out behind him.

"I propose a test," declared Master Rababull, "to see this miracle for
myself. How much more is it my privilege and my delight as one
noble-born to witness the repeat of such a miracle with my own eyes? I
desire to know, and I have a right to know; was the miracle bestowed
upon my loyal Slavemaster, the girl, or the whip?"

Still Habrunt dared not make a reply to this madman.

Master Rababull jerked his whip arm out behind him, turning his head in
the direction of Si'Wren as if about to lash out at her, while watching
cleverly out of the corner of his eye to see if Habrunt might betray
himself.

Habrunt silently, invisibly clenched his right fist as he held it
solidly across his chest, impotent to do the slightest thing to stop
the Master, with Prut and any number of omnipresent slaves ready to
mindlessly oppose him at a moment's notice, and no sword readily to
hand.

Master Rababull froze, and lowered his whip hand, laughing with wicked
indulgence.

"Not so, Slavemaster! Witness another miracle, the stayed hand of
justice. The high price of her sale is needed to pay for the cost of
the broken jade goddess. With her unsullied beauty, Si'Wren shall bring
much money in the slave market, when I sell her myself to some
wretched, stinking, foul-breathed old man with rotten teeth and many
diseases, and gold coins for eyes."

At this, Habrunt stifled his rage but still dared not so much as
protest.

"Forsaking that, there remains but one way to appease my nagging
curiosity," declared Master Rababull with bitter sarcasm, "and may the
gods strike me dead this very day if I have ruled unjustly..."

At long last, Master Rababull suddenly lashed out with his whip and
brought it snapping around with expert timing, catching an unprepared
Habrunt fully across the side of the head.

CRACK!!

Although he did not cry out, Habrunt's head jerked as the whip left a
red gash across his head and he fell cowering across the stone steps
with his forearms across his face, fearful of being blinded if he
should be struck another blow like that one again.

"Aye!" triumphed Master Rababull. "The most memorable sound in the
world, is the sound of the lightning bolt to be found at the end--"
CRACK!! "--of a whip!!" Master Rababull grunted, gasping from his
exertion with the bull whip.

Blood welled from a slash where the whip had struck again, this time
across Habrunt's back. The skin gaped in a long thin gash, with the
matching white lines on both sides of a thin exposed fat layer just
under the skin, and a shallow division into the deeper red of Habrunt's
underlying back muscle.

CRACK!!--CRACK!!--CRACK!!...

Explosions echoed across the courtyard as the bystanders watched the
physical destruction of the former Slavemaster of the House of Rababull.

Master Rababull proceeded to whip Habrunt mercilessly, again and again,
and Habrunt tried in vain to bear up under it as he lay shielding his
precious eyes with his arms until he finally collapsed into
unconsciousness, lying limp and bloody across the stone steps.

Finally, Master Rababull laid off, gasping for air.

"Interesting," he wheezed, wiping at the spittle in the corner of his
mouth. "I see nothing miraculous! Prut, take him away and let that old
hag L'acoci see to his wounds. When he is well, let him be sold also,
beside his intended bride!"

A wild-haired and sweating Master Rababull turned callously on his
heel, and as he staggered into the House past a silently weeping
Si'Wren, he interrupted his stride and turned to shake the bloody whip
in Si'Wren's face.

With every gesture, Master Rababull flecked Habrunt's blood on Si'Wren
as he shouted, "He has paid your debt! Verily is he your betrothed, for
he has paid also for your dowry with his blood and his rank, and shall
partake of your ignominy as well when you are finally sold at the next
auction, for he has entered into your own punishment! But even then he
shall not have you! I will see to that!"

In a towering rage, Master Rababull hurled the whip down at Si'Wren's
feet. It landed with a flat slapping sound and splattered red the
paving stones, still loosely coiled like a serpent poised to strike.

Then without looking as he walked off into the House, Master Rababull
said, "Take him away!"

Behind Master Rababull, Prut called briskly for several of his men to
come and pick up Habrunt.

Si'Wren, unharmed, waited until Master Rababull had finally departed,
and hastened to follow the bearers of Habrunt. She avoided the scornful
jeers of the other slaves, who were still too fearful to do anything to
her. When she arrived at the bungalow where they had taken him, Si'Wren
mourned at the sight of Habrunt lying unconscious on his stomach upon
the very same blood-stained litter which she had been given for a
sleeping rack during her convalescence.

Habrunt's entire body was in ruins, covered in a maze of criss-crossed
wounds and caked with blood both dried and oozing. If he did not die
first before the night was out, he would still almost certainly be
crippled for life from wounds like that, if only by the very number of
them. The underlying muscle, and not the skin only, had been slashed
innumerable times by the cruel bite of the bull whip.

"Come!" said old L'acoci, her wizened eyes beckoning to Si'Wren
urgently. "We have only a little borage tea, such as this one treated
you with before. It can work it's own miracles, but in his case, I
fear--"

Ominously, she did not finish her sentence.

Si'Wren was determined to do her utmost to try to help old L'acoci, and
set immediately to work as she began to gently bathe Habrunt's wounds
with the simple herb tea, which was all she had since being banished
from the spice tent. She began dipping it up into successive pads of
old rag-weave pasted with lard, and layering it onto Habrunt's ravaged
skin and flesh before finally wrapping him up in dandelion leaves and
covering it over with a bandage of coarse burr lap.

* * *

Later that same day, a messenger came riding his horse at a full gallop
through the front gates and sending stray chickens and goats scattering
madly for their lives in all directions as he lurched his snorting
horse to a stop directly before the front steps of the House.

He flew from his saddle before the foam-flecked charger had fully
stopped and pounded up the steps two and three at a time at a dead run.

Rushing past the two startled guards at the entrance, he ran down the
central corridor, filling the House with the strident echoes of his
high-pitched voice as he shouted repeatedly, "Master Rababull! Master
Rababull!"

Master Rababull was still in his private chambers.

The messenger arrived outside his door and shouted through the closed
curtains that he had urgent news that dared not wait.

At this most uncouth of all possible intrusions, Master Rababull's
personal valet pulled back the heavy drapes with a long-practiced,
decorous slowness, and faced him with a disdainful and dangerously
menacing look, whereupon the messenger declared again in a loud voice
that he had a message of direst urgency for the Master's ears.

Finally, Master Rababull himself stepped forth in an imperious rage,
deeply vexed at being thus disturbed on this of all possible days, for
he had lost his Slavemaster and his most favored junior female slave
all in one fell swoop, and the messenger promptly threw himself
face-down on the floor directly at the Master's feet before shouting
out his message.

"Sire, our water has been cut off!" announced the messenger. "The
fields and indeed the entire House shall thirst for the merest drop ere
the day is out if battle is not joined immediately!"

"What is this?!" asked Master Rababull, truly alarmed at such important
news. "Speak quickly, slave! Who has done this thing?"

"It is Kadrug, who lives to the north and proclaims himself the
anointed of the gods. He hath magnified himself greatly against the
House of Rababull, and has sworn to slay by the edge of the sword
whoever seeks to drink of the water without paying him tribute of gold
and silver!"

"Impossible!"

As Master Rababull regarded him incredulously, the messenger sucked in
more air, and went on breathlessly.

"Of a truth, sire! Kadrug has taken two hundred swordsmen, and they
have slain the watchmen of the canal, and clogged the sluice gates with
boulders, and diverted our water! He declares he will not let it out
again until much money has been paid. The crops will all soon be dead
and dried, but Kadrug has sworn this day that the House of Rababull
shall henceforth have no more water until there is enough dammed up to
utterly wash away all ere it is finally released again!"

"My croplands--dry?!" spluttered Master Rababull. "You mean--I have
been cheated of my own water?"

Master Rababull turned to Prut, and hesitated. For all of his great
size, the stupid oaf wasn't half the man that Habrunt was--or at least,
had been. Now, too late, Habrunt was worthless, crippled for life by
Master Rababull's own hand, just when he was needed the most, and now
it looked like he had a real battle on his hands!

A fight for water rights. No deadlier contest could there possibly be
than this. Kadrug promised first no water at all and then a flash
flood, unless paid much gold and silver. And of course, it would not
end with that. Unless he won this battle, he was as one already
destroyed.

"Send for my sons!" commanded Master Rababull. "While they are coming,
see that the war god is brought out and a human sacrifice prepared, and
slay and burn two of my bullocks! Have the slaves assembled at the
temple where I will make obeisance and pray for victory. Issue spears,
swords, shields, whetstones, and bows, for today we march on Kadrug at
the sluice gates!"

Prut clapped his right fist across his huge hairy chest and declared in
a loud and perpetually hoarse voice to the wall behind Master Rababull,
"I hear and obey, oh Master!"

Then Prut turned and ran out swiftly on his long hairy legs. As he
departed beyond view, there came the sounds of heavy blows and
shoutings as Prut knocked down several unfortunates who happened to be
blocking his path.

Master Rababull felt his eyes go stark with fear. At a time like this,
when he needed his best men, Habrunt was reduced to a beggar's status.
If not for the lying schemes of Sorpiala...

But it was too late to look back now. There remained only Prut to help
him. Stupid Prut! Everything about Prut was hairy. Master Rababull
sometimes imagined that even the insides of Prut's entrails must be
hairy.

Master Rababull turned fiercely on his personal valet as if about to
attack the quivering coward.

"Fetch me my armor and weapons! Hurry, you fool!" he shouted urgently.

Then, without waiting for a reply, he turned to a frightened-looking,
beautiful House slave girl, one of the pampered indoors concubines, and
said to her, "Go and tell the kitchen crew to begin preparing full
marching rations for every able-bodied male!"

"But--" she stammered helplessly, "but Master, how can I do this,
seeing I am but a concubine?"

Pampered from birth, and taken from the same mold as Sorpiala and her
kin, the foolish girl could not help but balk.

Wrathfully, Master Rababull took one step forward and backhanded the
surprised woman to the floor with a single blow.

"I said move! My men cannot fight on empty stomachs, you wench!"

Sobbing, the woman held her hand to her bruised cheek as she scurried
out of his reach and ran weeping to go and relay his orders to the
kitchen staff.

Master Rababull nodded to himself in satisfaction.

With a slap mark like that on the face of a beauty like her, there
would be no mockery in the kitchen when she arrived to give the orders.
Whoever contradicted her would surely be boiled in oil. It had been
done once before by Master Rababull, two hundred and eighty years ago,
and he knew the cooks still spoke of it on occasion, when the day's
work was done and they could at long last magnify themselves upon the
young and impressionable with their idle words.

Moments later, Master Rababull could hear Prut's voice, shouting from
the top of the stairs. Then a horn was blown repeatedly, with much
force and vigor of the blower's lungs, urgently calling all slaves to a
general assembly.

Would that women could fight, fumed Master Rababull, that he might
double his fighting force! As well to wish that the stone idols should
come to life! But he was pragmatic enough to realize that mere temple
idols could not so much as move themselves, let alone that they should
wield weapons.

When his personal body slave had arrayed him in his bronze and leather
body armor, he turned and marched in haste for the temple. The war god
did not have to move anyways, a contemptuous Master Rababull
deliberately reminded himself. It only had to make his slaves move--to
swing their swords and throw away their own precious lives in the face
of any possible enemy, the better to save his own precious hide.

He watched as the temple priests prepared the shoulder litter, putting
the solid ebony war god and trophy bones on the platform and brushing
off the dust.

The temple was a miniature copy of the Emperor's, barely large enough
to permit two or three priests to move about and conduct family
ceremonials. The Emperor himself would not trouble himself to lend
assistance, Master Rababull knew. To the Emperor, any fight amongst his
subjects over what he would consider petty water rights was a mere
squabble, too far beneath his dignity to so much as notice.

Indeed, Master Rababull reflected sourly, from the Emperor's point of
view, a new landlord might be more successful with the harvest and
produce greater taxes. Why waste the lives of the Royal Guard, over
such? Master Rababull had seen it before, from the sidelines, as it
were. That was how little the Emperor cared for his own, although it
was seldom proclaimed in so many words.

The temple was built out of stone pillars on a raised mound of
flat-topped, hard-beaten earth, a level berm six steps above the
surrounding compound courtyard, with heavy carved cedar timbers for a
roof. When it got too damp, they threw down coarse-woven grass mats to
keep the mud down.

There weren't too many sources of building stones in the Persian
Valley. Just an endless vista of fertile croplands to fight over, which
was how he had acquired much of his own property, both human and
otherwise.

The skulls surrounding the House war god on the litter were from the
heads of past possessors and contenders for the land owned by Master
Rababull. All of the skulls had their two front teeth knocked out and a
hole punched through the center of the forehead.

When all was ready, Master Rababull was adorned with a ceremonial red
and black robe and walked out in front of the litter, carrying his
sword in his fist.

There were four priests out in front, the two foremost blowing war
pipes, which were also used on New Year's ceremonies, and the two
hindmost bearing smoking clay incense pots blackened by soot.

Sounding their pipes, the two priests in the lead started blowing hweee
and hwaaa fanatically while the whole procession, with the acrid
incense smoking putridly, marched from the assembly area behind the
temple and worked their way slowly toward the temple proper.

Hweee-hwaaa, hweee-hwaaa, hweaeaea they sounded in unison, blowing
continuously in a deafening discordance as they proceeded. The priests
and their attendants were all shaven-headed and splattered with wet
pitch black coal dust, scarlet red goat's blood, and white ashes from
head to toes.

At the temple, a female baby lay squalling on the flat stone alter,
while the baby's mother, a slave-woman, was held back by two temple
attendants who held her by the wrists but allowed her to scream wildly
for her baby.

Her outbursts were the unintentional focal point of the ceremony,
signifying by her very real torments and anguished outcries, the
ceremonially-expressed feelings and sentiments of the House of Rababull
over the foreign danger to it's property holdings and, specifically in
this case, it's water rights.

For where there was no water, there could be no life.

The temple drummers were already there, beating on huge drums that sent
out a deep rolling beat that put the slaves into a zombie-like state of
mind.

A state of mania, for war...

Too late, Master Rababull thought of having the baby thrown, alive,
into a cauldron of boiling water. Such a sacrifice would signify his
humility, a generous gift of the fruit of his human possessions. The
boiling water would signify that it was his water, and his anger bound
up in the water, an impressive liturgy to the war god.

No time now. Have to do it the old way.

The entire procession halted, and as the drumbeats rose in tempo to a
heightened furor, shaking the very bones of all present as by the
impending battle sounds of the hooves of war horses, Master Rababull
stepped momentously around to the fore, facing them all front and
center in a grand entrance.

At the raising of both of Master Rababull's arms, the drums increased
in a furious tempo, and when the arms dropped the sound of the drums
abruptly ceased, although one witless soul kept beating a fraction of a
second too long before realizing that he had overlooked the cut-off
signal.

Master Rababull made the slightest turn of his head to see who it was,
and marked the terrified fool for a thorough whipping later.

In the sudden silence, the terrified slave-woman could be heard weeping
and begging desperately for the life of her daughter, as Master
Rababull stood with his arms raised again like an eagle before the
general assemblage.

Before him were all available members of the House of Rababull, men to
the fore, women to the rear, children hindmost, and freeborn family
members to the right.

The first row, signifying the first-line defense arm, was comprised of
his many sons. It would be Master Rababull's long-awaited opportunity
to have a few of the more ambitious of his offspring lead the battle
charge and see them finished off before they could come home to glory
and threaten his personal authority over all his holdings. Immediately
after these, in the second row beginning on the right and trailing off
to the left, stood male in-laws beholden unto him enough to show up or
risk serious loss of status.

He surveyed their ranks, noting whoever was absent and deserving of
punishment for it. There were a few. Punishing in-laws was a necessary
thing, best done while the sword was still dripping red from the
victory of a battle well-fought.

He made a mental note that a small war-party would have to be detailed
to go take care of the drop-outs when he had finished off Kadrug's
forces.

Old Maskron, one of his fathers-in-law, was there at the fore as usual.
Maskron, a fierce, white-maned old scoundrel, always showed up with his
dinged old bronze sword polished and gleaming like gold, and he was
always asked to come forward to utter the closing prayers, shaking and
waving his sword in the air in wild gesticulations of false bravado.

Maskron was too old to fight, and too proud to stay away, so it was
exceeding helpful, in saving face for both of them, to permit him this
signal honor.

One distant cousin of the son of his sixth wife, whose name was Puffat
and whose mother bore an illegitimate connection to the Emperor
himself, stood with one armpit held up by a crutch, his broken and
splinted right leg having recently been the source of much grief at the
hands of the bonesetter.

The leg was beginning to turn green. If sorcery was of no avail, the
young man was doomed either to lose the leg, or die in agony of the
gain-green.

He was excused from battle, but there would be no time now to send for
the Sorcerer and have a ceremonial procedure. Later, though, they
would. Then, Puffat's leg could either be exorcized, or amputated and
cauterized.

Master Rababull gave a brief announcement detailing Kadrug's activities
to cut off their water, and called upon the entire House, all
able-bodied males both bond and free, to fight.

A loud outcry rose up at this as everyone present, women and children
too, screamed and howled for the death of Kadrug.

Satisfied, Master Rababull turned to the Chief Priest and commanded
that the sacrifice should proceed.

Two priests held the squalling infant from both ends on the stone altar
before the war god, one at her tiny feet, one at her little hands.

The infant's mother, insane with terror, shrieked her protests as the
priest lifted up the ceremonial sword, much abused from previous
impacts with the stone surface, and brought it down on the defenseless
child's naked body.

The tiny voice was cut off.

"To war!" shouted Master Rababull.

"TO WAAAAR!!" howled the crowd, drowning out the hopeless sobbing of
the baby's mother as she fell brokenly to the dirt when she was finally
released.

Drowned out, also, were old Maskron's shouted invocations as he stood
in front of them waving his flashing bronze sword.

In the back of the crowd, Si'Wren dropped her head in anguish, for had
she not also screamed in the past for the death of their enemies when
Master Rababull led the war cry for a neighbor's field? Had not little
Si'Wren once prayed to that ugly physical thing to which other babies
had been sacrificed in the past, and which the others even now still
worshiped so blindly? Would that she might dare to speak and tell them
what her heart had learned, reflected from it's own inner pool, upon
the graces of the Invisible God.

She, who alone might have spoken truth, stood silently amidst the
screaming and drum beating as the shouting went on in a frenzy to kill
the enemy. Master Rababull brought on renewed cheers as he mounted his
stallion, a half-wild white-spotted gray beauty, and rode to the head
of the long riotous formation of shouting men and neighing and stamping
horses.

Behind him the drums thundered until the very air seemed to pulsate
with the blood-lust, and in the midst of this Master Rababull suddenly
raised his sword high in the air and held it up for a long moment as he
whirled it around and around, and finally pointed it straight ahead of
him in a sudden lunging motion.

"Onward--to the battle!" he cried.

"WHOO-RAH! WHOO-RAH!" chorused the marchers, and at this, the great
crowd of men formed a disorganized marching column, many abreast, the
men's hoarsened voices bellowing their war cries as they chanted in
time to the marching drums and war pipes, over four hundred men-at-arms.

As the ragged formation tromped out the front gates and away down the
road in the direction of the sluice gates, which were at the
northwesternmost limits of Master Rababull's property holdings, their
voices and figures dwindled with distance, and the screams of blood
lust from the cripples, women, and children left behind gradually died
out.

Si'Wren noticed the boy who had been punished earlier for putting
another boy's eye out, by having one of his own put out, and suddenly
realized with shock that his other eye had also been put out, and his
nose broken. The second eye was so infected that the boy was staggering
drunkenly in an extreme delirium. His mouth opened and a hoarse,
plaintive croak emitted from the depths of a tortured soul.

Shaken to the core of her very soul, Si'Wren began to approach the boy,
when his mother came walking from her left toward the boy. Si'Wren
naturally held back, thinking how the mother must yearn upon her
savagely punished child. But when the mother sought to walk past the
boy without paying any attention to him, she happened to clear her
throat involuntarily.

The sound was instantly recognized by the boy, who took a step in her
direction and reached out to her with another croaking plea.

Instantly the mother, who was barefoot, stepped back and jerked herself
clear just before the boy would have touched her. With a loathsome
leer, the mother froze just out of reach, totally silent, watching her
own son as he continued to stagger in the same direction he had
initially chosen, until his own footsteps had carried him away from her.

Without a word, the mother turned on her heel and continued on her way
but did not look back either at her bleating son, nor did she notice
Si'Wren watching open-mouthed.

Eventually after they had almost all cleared out, all that could be
heard was the broken, muffled sobbing of the woman whose daughter had
been sacrificed.

Si'Wren watched as a couple of naive young slave-girls walked past the
grieving mother and one of them cursed her for her lack of loyalty to
the House of Rababull.

"Fool!" cried the girl. "What is your one daughter's life, to the loss
of all our water? She has died for the glory of the House of Rababull!
It was only a girl anyway! Why do you cry like that?!!"

The girl and her friends walked on, puffed up with their borrowed sense
of self-importance, all worked-up into a feverish blood-frenzy at the
spectacle of yet another gory victory for the family name.

Si'Wren looked long upon the girls' departing backs, desiring to tell
them the truth, to tell them all that it was they who were the fools,
and to scold them for their senselessness. Then she noticed that one of
them was an especially vengeful member of Sorpiala's inner clique, and
fearfully, Si'Wren turned and faced away from them.

What could she have said to them, anyway?

Deeply disturbed by all that she had seen, and still pondering the
madness of it, Si'Wren hesitantly approached the sobbing mother. How
could she have been so blind as to embrace such evil before, to copy
and mimic such horror?

What a curious thing it was, that it took an Invisible God to open the
formerly blind eyes of a seeing person such as herself, to the evil
that lay right under all their noses, and still none could see this but
Si'Wren.

She knelt down beside the sobbing mother, but was immediately rebuffed
by her.

"Get away from me, you filthy idol-breaker!" the woman screamed, wildly
slapping Si'Wren off. "Get away!"

Shocked and mute, Si'Wren looked on numbly as the sobbing woman raised
herself up and, stricken with grief, stumbled in a hysterical
staggering traipse across the yard to fall down at the feet of a
half-finished idol in the workshop, wailing desperately to it to bring
back her daughter, or give her a son to replace the daughter who was
lost.

Si'Wren knew that she had not broken the other idol, that dismembered
thing of glistening green jade and jeweled eyes. It was Sorpiala who
had cleverly broken the idol earlier, and only blamed it on poor
Nelatha. But she also knew that it was beside the point who had broken
it; idols -she now knew- deserved to be broken.

Anyways, it did not matter so much anymore. She was as guilty in their
eyes as if she had. What mattered the most now, was that it was
Sorpiala by whose evil machinations brave Habrunt, former Slavemaster,
now lay a beaten and broken-spirited man on that blood-stained sleeping
rack in the slave quarters.

Si'Wren turned away. She must go to him, and help wise old L'acoci tend
to his wounds.

Chapter Four - Emperor Euphrates

Si'Wren turned away from the sobbing mother whose daughter had been
sacrificed. The fact that she could do nothing for the poor woman left
her with a twisting feeling in her gut. As she walked away, bitter
tears stung her eyes as she began weeping hopelessly.

Si'Wren jerked suddenly as a flying pebble struck her on the cheek.
Stunned, she looked up to see a group of dirt-streaked children
gathered around. They had approached her so unexpectedly that she had
been unaware of their presence.

As they jeered and threw more pebbles and small stones at her she put
up her arms in self-defense, although a larger boy managed to cast some
larger rocks that bruised her badly when they struck her shoulders and
forearms.

When Si'Wren turned and fled, they chased her, calling vile names. They
reviled her Invisible God, crying out, "Stone the idol-breaker!" and
"Where is he?--I can't find him!", mocking her as an outcast of the
people, a scourge upon the land, and an enemy of the gods.

They followed her as she hastened to return to the cypress bungalow of
the field-hands. She continued to shield herself from the stones by
holding up her arms. At the door flap to the bungalow, she threw
herself through the barrier tarp and ducked within, gasping for breath
and weeping from her injuries as they danced without the bungalow,
chanting evil rhymes against her.

They were too afraid to enter, until the brash older boy stepped inside
with a large rock upheld to smite her with. Quick as a flash, L'acoci
seized him by the hair and knocked his own rock against his own head
with his own hand.

With a surprised scream the boy staggered and fell over backwards, then
jumped up and ran bleeding out of the bungalow, at which point the mob
of kids broke and ran. The din of their screams, added to the larger
boy's outraged squeals of terror all rapidly diminished as they fled,
scattered like a flock of magpies.

L'acoci ignored Si'Wren's weeping as she pushed into her hands a crude
clay pot of herbal tea, a bowl of paste made from honey mixed with lard
and clay and crumbled leaves and flowers, and a coarse, dirty,
wadded-up old rag.

"Ah!" she exclaimed wordlessly, and blanched at her imagined 'error'.
L'acoci looked long and meaningfully at Si'Wren, but said nothing and
turned away finally without comment.

Feeling guilty about the monosyllabic utterance, although she had not
truly spoken any word, Si'Wren, trembling in fear, stepped over to
kneel carefully beside a stoically suffering Habrunt, her own concerns
temporarily overlooked. Head still reeling from the blows, she forgot
her bruises as she flinched at the renewed sight of his terrible
injuries.

She changed the bandages polluted by the stink of corruption, and
soothed on the paste L'acoci had made, before gently applying the
layers of fresh tea-soaked replacement gauze over Habrunt's ruined
flesh, exercising special care over the most fearsome gashes. Habrunt
trembled in agony at this, but when he realized who she was, he somehow
managed to hold still for it, although with much difficulty.

As she worked on Habrunt's terrible wounds, Si'Wren thought with great
trepidation about possibly having violated her oath of silence again,
but could not help wondering if she actually had or not. Of a truth,
she had sworn never to actually speak again, but now it occurred to her
that perhaps she might at least intonate. The idea was such as to be
normally of no great import, but now seemed so great a revelation that
she felt a sense of surprise out of all proportion. The simple fact
was, she realized, that one did not need mere words to express one's
feelings.

Si'Wren reflected upon this at length, and considered that although she
might never again know the joy of singing, she could still hum her
favorite melodies, and imagine the words in her mind or merely close
her eyes and sway gently to the rhythm.

The thought of this seemed like a great consolation to her.

She began humming softly as she worked gently on Habrunt's wounds,
filling the silent, deserted bungalow with the quiet, lovely mood of
her melody.

Habrunt sighed, and seemed to relax a little. She noticed this, and
felt that he was more than a little eased in his sufferings. So she
continued humming, ever so softly.

Presently others began to arrive, a few at a time, all of them female
slaves or their children.

With L'acoci hovering over the stew, no one dared bother Si'Wren,
kneeling so close nearby.

The ravaged figure of brave Habrunt convalescing on the sleeping rack,
fallen from favor, gave them equal pause. Until the day he died,
Habrunt would never be the kind of man whom others might dare to mock
openly or deal so lightly with.

But Si'Wren hummed more softly anyways, and more quietly, that others
might not overhear so readily, to avoid giving them sufficient reason
to take open notice of it and perhaps voice false objections out of a
spirit of trouble-making. Presently, the others began murmuring amongst
themselves over the anticipated victory, and Habrunt and his young
nursemaid were ignored and forgotten.

Presently, L'acoci dipped up some stew into a clay bowl and gave it to
Si'Wren.

"You must feed him as well as yourself," said L'acoci, as she noticed
Si'Wren holding the one bowl in puzzlement.

Si'Wren had clearly expected two bowls, one for herself and another for
Habrunt. Hesitantly at first, she began alternating a portion for
herself and another for Habrunt, using sea shells for scoops. Habrunt
could not bear to move his tortured body, not so much as to lift a
finger, but Si'Wren was more than willing to make up for this by
helping him. Occasionally, she lifted a cup of water to his lips, and
resorted to wiping his beard with the dampened hem of her skirt.

But then, noticing his worsening condition, she took up a rag and
dipped it in tea and pressed it to his feverish brow to try to ease the
torment that visibly shook his trembling, half-naked body with
increasing vehemence.

Slowly, as Si'Wren endured the passing of the hours thus, evening fell
and twilight was transformed into the blackness of night and the
flicker of the cooking fire in it's cobblestone pit in the cypress
bungalow of the field slaves. A mist began to rise from the land,
covering all with it's creeping white vapors, obscuring everything
under a drifting, gauzy white veil of dimly-cast moonglow.

"Si'Wren," whispered L'acoci, leaning close so that others in the
bungalow might not overhear, "I would have a word with you."

Si'Wren beheld the old woman, and waited respectfully.

"Si'Wren," repeated L'acoci, her voice as whisper-dry as a pile of
dried leaves as she bent close to Si'Wren's head and Si'Wren sensed the
parched lips hovering close to her ear, "I have heard the stories of
old, told of moon-madness, shared in the bungalows in times past. I saw
when you yourself, as a tiny orphan girl new to the House of the
Master, were told such horrible stories by the fireside when the slaves
hid in fear of the full moon shining in the blackness of night, with
tales told about how the moon drives men, and women, and even little
children, to madness. And I see you now, watching over your brave
Habrunt, as he lies in the delirium of pain and fever and torments upon
his cot. Are you wondering if Habrunt might be in danger of the
moon-madness?"

Si'Wren considered this momentarily, and then she shook her head,
signaling her answer in the negative. Yes, she believed in
moon-madness, but never had she questioned the power of Habrunt's
might. She did not believe that a mighty and valiant one such as he
would or could ever go moon-mad.

"Good," whispered L'acoci. "Hear me, girl, and mark me no fool. There
is no such thing as moon-madness. During the full moon, demons stalk
the land, seeking to afflict weakened minds, that people might blame
the moon, and call those so afflicted moon-mad, and thereby curse God's
creation which He hath called good. For this reason, yes, we must
beware the coming of the full moon, but not for it's own sake, but for
the madness and evil deception worked by unseen demonic powers, seeking
to deceive us mere mortals into thinking that it comes from the full
moon. But the full moon itself is nothing to worry about. Know this,
girl, and know it well. Behind every evil act of man is the still more
evil provocation of a horde of demonic and deceiving fallen powers,
for the unseen demons ever lurk, and ever shall until the very end of
time itself, seeking the souls of every man, woman, and child upon the
face of this accursed soil we walk upon, and the demons are very real,
and they are organized into an entire fallen kingdom of the damned, an
army of intelligent evil spirits, dedicated to the overthrow of the
Invisible God Himself."

Si'Wren considered this, as she regarded Habrunt, and nodded that she
understood.

Then L'acoci added, still whispering so faintly that it was as if
Si'Wren's own inner consciousness had formed the words, "Si'Wren, far
from the demons driving Habrunt mad, he drives them mad. They hate him
for his righteousness and goodness."

Then L'acoci was turning away, and Si'Wren realized that the
conversation was over, and rejoiced that she had learned this new thing
about demons. Now, they could no longer deceive her as before. She
would never again fear the full moon, but only be on guard, in prayer,
against the evil demons.

Sometime around midnight, Habrunt began to grow delirious from the
fever, and she fell into a kind of stupor, sitting on a woven mat and
leaning against his sleeping rack with her head leaning close to his,
while the bare skin of her face and exposed extremities basked in the
fireside glow.

Habrunt began to moan in his sleep from his intense sufferings, and
Si'Wren began to hum a melody, so low and muted as to be inaudible to
all but herself and Habrunt, and after a short time he stopped his
pitiable lamentations for a little while.

In an exhausted somnambulance, Si'Wren lapsed into her slumbers as
well, until his groanings woke her once more. Then she patted his
forehead with the tea-soaked rag, and from her heart and soul arose in
her throat soft compassionate intonations, so low that only his ears
could hear her as she leaned close, hovering over him with tender eyes
and a softened look.

Something seemed to be bothering Habrunt in his sleep as he murmured to
himself unintelligibly, but although Si'Wren tried her utmost she could
not seem to make it out.

In the delirium of a feverish dream, Habrunt heard a voice calling
sweetly in the jungle. It was the voice of some incomprehensible
vision, a beauty, a paragon of virtue, a woman like unto no other such
as he had ever seen in all of his unfathomable years.

He searched for her, sometimes walking, sometimes running a few steps,
expecting any moment to break through the dense foliage of the lush
greenery and glimpse the unearthly vision of her eternal spirit,
ecstatically alive, wild, and free, as the mysterious woman with a
voice like an angel roamed the deep jungle, seemingly heedless of it's
wild beasts and other horrors, entirely unharmed, and moreover,
unaffected, as if it were her rightful kingdom and the savage beasts
her royal subjects.

But every time he managed to brush the vines and fern fronds aside with
a burly arm to reveal what was beyond with a sweep of his haunted eyes,
he saw only a little brown wren bird, singing from a branch across the
little thicket-like clearing.

He turned away, and again he heard her, like the calling of a siren,
causing the steaming jungle to throb and tremble invisibly with the
incredible sweetness and beauty of that trilling, passionately
enthralling voice, piercing his soul like a javelin tipped at the point
with the sap of some unknown, virulent love concoction.

Madly, he spun around and charged through the vines, their ropes and
boughs whipping at his skin as he ignored the pain, calling desperately
and chasing with hastened steps towards her swiftly moving shadow which
could barely be glimpsed ahead, highlighted against the glimmerings of
sunlight that sparkled like the beams of coruscating, living jewels
before his eyes.

There she was! All sparkling bright shimmerings of brilliant golden
yellow sunlight flashes. Through the mottled and rippled interplay of
light and shadow patterns, he saw her silhouette against the sun, a
living vision come to life amidst the dank dark kaleidoscope of jungle,
blinding his eyes with her beauty!

He crashed wildly through, stopped to rub his eyes, and looked again,
and, disappointed, saw yet again the plain little brown wren bird,
there!, on a branch, so small, so insignificant, singing sweetly.

Where! Where was the woman who called to him?!!

He looked around, and staggered off, heartbroken and despairing.

Where was she?

He heard her again, far off, singing, calling like an eternal, winged
Holy Angel of the Invisible God, and as he turned to go to her he felt
his limbs whipped by the passing branches and weighing like lead, and
he slowed helplessly, becoming tired, so deathly tired.

The siren, he thought feverishly, as he staggered and fell headlong,
unable to catch himself.

Where was the siren?!!

"Si'Wren," remanded wise old L'acoci in a hushed and quavering crone's
voice as dry as dead leaves. "Si'Wren! Come to sleep now. Your brave
Slavemaster will live."

As she ceased her crooning, Si'Wren looked up at the withered
countenance of old L'acoci by the light of the cooking fire coals with
a tired, dreamy stare, and sighed in a heedless shrug. Then she turned
her eyes softly back again, looking compassionately down upon her
precious Habrunt, who had finally stopped his thrashing, and fallen
into a deep slumber again.

Ageless Habrunt as half a man was yet even now all the more to her in
his ruin, than any ten ordinary men in their youth and prime could
possibly have boasted.

Si'Wren hummed softly to him, as he began his moaning and thrashing
again, and she wondered what chaotic dreams passed through his sleeping
mind.

So the long night passed.

* * *

The sweat-covered, dirt-streaked slave runner came at a quick jog
through the compound front gates and sought first after the whereabouts
of Slavemaster Habrunt.

He did not know yet that Habrunt, the former Slavemaster of the House
of Rababull, had so recently been deposed and punished. He did not know
that Habrunt was slated to be sold for next to nothing, as soon as his
wounds were healed. The messenger would speak to no one else at first,
and the others were too frightened by the former Slavemaster Habrunt's
terrifying fate to even so much as speak of him to the runner.

Not finding Habrunt, the runner ran straight up the front steps into
the House, where Old Maskron quickly sprang to his feet and raised his
bronze sword in a challenge to yield and declare himself.

The gasping runner took in Old Maskron with a wild-eyed stare, and
finally decided he could withhold his dire news no longer.

"Master Rababull is dead!" declared the breathless slave.

"Whaaaat?!" croaked Old Maskron, his eyes going senselessly round and
wide.

The clatter of the sword rang loud on the stone steps, as Old Maskron
reached out with both hands to seize the runner's tunic by the front to
confront him bodily face-to-face and shook him as he howled, "You
lie!!!"

"It is no lie!" the runner sobbed in a broken utterance. Then he went
on, "Kadrug--giants!--they fell on us from all sides!"

He stopped suddenly, his lungs gasping audibly for air as he stood
sniggering like a whipped boy in a torment of anguish, fear, and
remorse at what he had seen.

"Master Rababull," he moaned, "and all--of the rest of us..."

He fell silent, staring into emptiness as if at the terrifying aspect
of unseen demons.

"Talk!" demanded Old Maskron finally, shaking the other again and
infuriated at the runner's balking manner.

"A trap!!" the slave wailed. "They are all--g-gug--dead!!
Maskron!--what shall we do for I alone have escaped to tell you?!"

"Do?" croaked his interrogator. Old Maskron shook the weeping runner as
he gripped him, staring him down for a long moment while his eyes took
on a maddened look.

"Do?! You tell me this, and dare to ask of me, 'What shall we do?!'"

He shook the hapless runner again, a human god damning the dishonored
vessel of calamitous news to all the imaginary hells of the soul, and
violently cast him backwards as if the man had himself brought this
dire fate upon the House of Rababull.

The runner fell backwards and hit the hard, hewn stones of the stairs
full stretch against the back of his head, and lay sprawled backwards,
head-downwards and facing sightlessly into the heavens on the
unforgiving stone steps.

* * *

The fields stood empty. No slaves worked their softly undulating waves
of ripening grain.

The water in the irrigation canals was already low and getting lower,
the water ways steadily dropping down to unprecedented levels. The
silent compound stood with it's great gates closed tight shut and
cross-barred through the heavy iron rungs. No confident soldiery
patrolled it's upper walkways. They were all dead.

At the top of the front steps of the House proper, no great Master
stood confidently facing the world on it's own terms as a favorite of
the gods.

Master Rababull was dead.

Prut was dead. Geth the Fieldmaster was dead. All of their able-bodied
male slaves were dead, their blood spilled in the fields surrounding
the hotly contested sluice gates.

It was not a pretty sight, with the vultures already at work on what
the corpse-strippers and ritual mutilators had left.

The compound was filled with quiet groups of motionless women,
solemn-faced and terror-stricken. Their children clustered anxiously
around them, some quiet, some crying, but none laughing. The few
innocent toddlers who occasionally frolicked were quickly spanked into
confounded wailing obedience, if not outright silence.

In the long and seemingly vacant cypress bungalow of the field slaves,
one sang wordlessly, and almost inaudibly.

Close beside the cooking fire, Si'Wren, forbidden to form words, hummed
and sang in sweet soft crooning sounds.

Keeping her voice low, she sat tirelessly beside the sleeping rack
where Habrunt lay prostrate, hovering attentively over his tormented
form and watching over him with tender devotion.

The others, preoccupied with vastly more important concerns now, could
not be bothered to deal with Si'Wren anymore for her imagined
blasphemies.

As one made ritually invisible, as well as silent, and an outcast for
life, Si'Wren was lost in a world of her own. Clearly, she had eyes for
no one but Habrunt. She saw nothing besides this mighty man who, laid
low, remained on the rack and languished perpetually before her.

They had done this to him, and behold; they were now dead whereas he,
Habrunt, still lived.

* * *

The compound's front gates boomed loudly as someone pounded at the
door. In the drifting predawn mists of the interior yard, people
cowered and watched from their doorways, peering fearfully across the
compound, waiting for Old Maskron to go answer or at least send someone
to see who it was.

Old Maskron finally came out to peer through the gray-white veil of
dense fog with eyes reddened and pouched from lack of sleep and too
many years of heavy drink and overmuch worry, his face a scowling mask.

At the side of Old Maskron, a nervous-looking, handsome young boy of
perhaps ten appeared next, dressed in rich robes, his hair polled oddly
in a manner which bespoke his noble birth.

Old Maskron clapped the boy on the back.

"Go! See!" Old Maskron growled the terse command.

The boy ran and climbed up the diagonal brace of one of the gates to
peer out of a peephole. He was seen talking momentarily, then turned
and ran back across the courtyard and up the House front steps.

"They are blood kin of the House of Rababull!" he proclaimed excitedly
to Old Maskron.

"What? Impossible!" Old Maskron brandished his bronze sword as he made
his arthritic way down the front steps.

With the keyed-up little Master at his side, white-haired Old Maskron
wobbled and wheezed his way across the courtyard, his sandals scraping
audibly in the dust of the dirt, while fearful eyes watched his slow
progress to the gates from their ill-concealment on all quarters.

He arrived at the gates and peered out of the peephole.

Long seconds went past as he stood and talked with whoever was outside.
He nodded occasionally several times, pausing to listen now and again,
his hand idly fiddling with the sword.

Finally, he nodded approval as he turned and ordered several crippled
slaves to open the gates. Limping, they reached for the cross bar. With
a mighty heave, the heavy oaken cross bar slid sideways out of the iron
rungs and into the receiver off to one side.

Old Maskron stepped back and self-importantly ordered them to open the
gates with a show of bluster. With a series of ineffectual lurches, the
crippled slaves put their backs into it, and slowly the big gates began
to creak open.

Suddenly a spear lanced through the air, flying through the space
between the opening gate doors, and struck Old Maskron in the chest,
it's iron point erupting in a welt of red from the backside of his
spine as he collapsed with a single amazed croak of disbelief, dead
before he struck the dirt.

In sheer terror, the boy screamed and turned to run. Halfway across the
courtyard, he was struck down by a flight of arrows that zinged through
the air and thunked sickeningly into his body and became inextricably
embedded in his back, which he arched agonizingly even as he tumbled
forward to hit the ground with an awful, nerveless slap and slid a
half-step in the dust.

At this, the terrified shriekings and screamings of the women and other
children suddenly filled the compound's surrounding buildings.

As the war party entered, their men marched quickly past the boy's
crumpled figure. A huge half-breed giant fully seven feet tall thrust
him through with a spear point and casually levered the honed steel
blade out of the boy's body again as he marched past without even so
much as breaking his stride.

They broke into all buildings and searched for any males of noble
birth. There were none such, of course, except in the House proper.

These they brought out kicking and screaming, one by one, to the top of
the front steps.

They were immediately confronted by a tall, fearsome-looking man who
appeared to be the leader of the invaders and summarily thrust through
with the sword and their lifeless bodies cast down the stone steps.

The more the dead were piled up, the more terrified the living became
as they were dragged to the fore and arrived at the stark sight of the
growing pile of bodies.

None were of fighting quality. Either too old or too young, they were
nonetheless potential claimants or heirs to the Deed of the House of
Rababull, and systematically eliminated.

The killing process only stopped when the executioners finally ran out
of heirs.

Then, the final prize, virile young Puffat was dragged out between two
bedraggled but powerful-looking swordsmen, his gangrenous leg causing
him much agony, making pathetic attempts to free himself and loudly
protesting his innocence to whatever gods there be.

The snaggle-toothed, smiling executioner listened to him a moment, and
then, still smiling, thrust him through with a sword and stepped back,
jerking his weapon out of the victim as his body was released by his
captors to plummet lifelessly down the blood-spattered steps where it
eventually came to rest at the top of the heap of other victims.

There, others with spears were systematically thrusting through any who
showed any signs of remaining life.

Technically, the invaders were no longer blood-kin to their victims,
because they had murdered them all. This marvelous bit of genius had
also portended a direct line of succession that now led straight to
their leader, Conabar.

Now Conabar was chiefest blood-heir.

That was the object, that their leader might remain sole heir and
possessor of the Deed to the House of Rababull and all of it's holdings
and slaves.

He might even move a marker stone or two and get a jump start on his
new neighbors. Let them complain if they dared.

Conabar, a distant relation of Master Rababull, had sent word that he
would come when called to battle against the common foe, but craftily
delayed his coming and stayed home instead. Then he had sent out his
scouts, and made his long-awaited move when opportunity presented
itself upon the Master Rababull's untimely death. The power play was
finally working out, because of his iron patience and the fickle turn
of events.

In past times, it had been with much weariness and not a little
conniving that Conabar had played up to the endless demands of Master
Rababull's contemptuously-worded family obligations, while he had
watched and learned and waited for over four hundred years for this
singular opportunity to finally present itself.

Kadrug was still in possession of the sluice gates, but what was that
to Conabar? He had his own House, and his own fields, to which might be
added the holdings of Master Rababull. What could Kadrug do to him?
Kadrug's men were spent, whereas Conabar's men were fresh and spoiling
for the battle! All he needed to do now was to fight off Kadrug, or
better yet, try to make an ally of him. Kadrug, with only the fields to
bivouac his fighting forces, could not hold out forever against an
entrenched, battle-hardened evil-doer like Conabar, who had the staying
power of his riches to bribe others, and such vast holdings to sustain
himself and his warriors.

"Long live Conabar!" yelled his men, the noise of their hollering and
hooting voices deafening in the confines of the stockade.

Yea, thought Conabar to himself while his men cheered on, long live my
ways and my word. Much blood must be spilled this day. But he knew he
would live only so long as he kept his back to the wall and his wits
about him, and his men remained loyal to him in his occasional absence
and his nightly sleep. He would live as long as another like himself
did not take similar advantage of him, as he had done to the former
Master Rababull.

There was a sudden outcry of several of his men at the back gates. One
of them came running and knelt before him on one knee to report that
Rababull's many widows had escaped and were even now fleeing into the
nearby city.

He scowled. They were to have been for him and his men, but now they
might bring trouble instead. Too late now. The Emperor of the city
would be too powerful to attack just to get back a few women, any of
whom might easily be old enough to be his mother several times over.

With vile oaths and many despicable and filthy curses, and much
spitting in the dirt, Conabar ordered the enslavement of all remaining
women who were of noble birth and no longer virgin.

As for those women who were freeborn and had not yet known any man,
they must be sorted through. The best would be his to keep or to sell
off. His men could squabble over the rest.

There was even a tale told of a certain beautiful young slave girl who
was an outcast even among her own kind, a redoubtable beauty whose
flower of womanhood had only just begun to bud. A woman sworn never to
speak for the remainder of her life. As soon as he could find the
proper time to investigate this ridiculous old wives' tale, Conabar
intended to go and find her.

A woman who was sworn never to talk back to any man, and was allegedly
of such incomparable beauty; now there was a rare prize! As for the
rumor of idol-breaking, that was a quandary to think about.

But for some reason, they were having trouble locating her.

In the meantime, the men must be given free rein to make merry, lest
they riot.

"Red wine!" Conabar called out. "I want the best!"

A warrior clapped his chest and went out to go slap a few slaves
around, abusively demanding where the wine vats were, and the women
readily granted him his every wish as they pleaded tearfully for their
lives and the lives of their children.

The wine was quickly located, and Conabar savored his moment of victory
as he thrust skyward the golden goblet of sparkling red wine, the very
scent of which, penetrating and ethereal, made his head giddy with
newfound power and glory.

Sloshing it's contents in a reckless gesture, Conabar waved his sword
in the air and shouted, "Rababull be dead! Long live Conabar House!!"

"WHOO-RAH! WHOO-RAH!" shouted his men, crowding around on all sides as
they routed the wine bearer for his plunder and brandished their
weapons, toasting Conabar in a crash of armor.

The raucous cheering and noise-making grew to a deafening din in the
compound.

* * *

Somewhere past the bungalow of the field slaves, beyond the back gate
that let out into the fields behind the compound of the once and mighty
House of Rababull who was no more, and yet beyond, out in the tall saw
grasses and swaying bulrushes beside a peacefully meandering little
stream, Si'Wren crouched low beside a collapsed Habrunt as she listened
fearfully. In the distance, the madmen howled their anger and
frustration at not finding her, and their mounting desperation at what
Conabar would do to them for their failure to deliver one called
Si'Wren into the hand of their master was driving them to extremes.
They had already run old L'acoci through with a sword, for refusing to
tell which way Si'Wren had gone.

Bent over in agony and unable to defend her now, the savagery of his
punishments making him the very image of evil and degradation, a
crippled Habrunt had counseled Si'Wren to flee, and against his
protests found himself dragged along rather than be abandoned to the
invaders. He had known what to do, but it was she who had actually
accomplished their escape so narrowly in time.

Beside him, a heavily gasping Si'Wren felt deep fear. The way that the
men who came searching had looked for Si'Wren, describing her so
accurately, and the way her fellow slaves had named her so freely as
she listened in the bushes nearby, had chilled her blood.

While the searchers ran off to look elsewhere, she had helped a
crippled Habrunt to escape, fearful of being spotted at any moment. It
was a relief to rest now, as she and Habrunt cowered together in the
bulrushes by the stream.

Then, Habrunt said under his breath, as much an agonized groan as any
recognizably human utterance, "The Emperor's Law is broken. If
judgements are to be determined, we must go to the Emperor!"

He levered himself laboriously to his feet, and Si'Wren ducked under
his shoulder to prop him up. As he indicated the direction of their
flight, she helped him to get on his way with surprising strength for a
girl her size.

Si'Wren refused to give up so easily. Yea, she only feared the others,
but reverenced Habrunt, and whither he led she would surely follow.

* * *

"All bow!"

There was a general sound of the physical movements of many attendants
and lawful petitioners as the masses bowed low to virtually scrape the
floor with their noses. In addition to the Court Officers representing
various royal functions, the riff-raff of the spectators' galleries
looked on in gleeful anticipation, as sometimes the judgements could be
quite severe.

Under the watchful eyes of the Palace Guard with their weapons at the
ready, his Royal Majesty, singular ruler of the fertile gulf plain and
self-proclaimed Anointed of the Gods, his Highness the Emperor
Euphrates, father of many noble offspring and husband of countless
wives, entered at a sedate pace accompanied by various officials and
took with unfeigned boredom to the throne, his back against the stone
wall and a pageant of armed guards in watchful attendance on either
side. He was huge and gross of body, fleshy of face, hair and beard
molded into one mass of shining streaming black all streaked with gray. To
look up at him from the floor at a time like this was to die.

The proper doctrinal announcements were made by the Royal Crier, a tall
thin reedy-looking fellow who could by now have pronounced them in his
sleep without interrupting his own dreaming, and the great and terrible
Emperor Euphrates was duly installed for the day.

The Public Hearings came first, during which he lounged on his amply
padded stone throne and ate purple plums -a favorite delicacy; and gods
have mercy upon the slave who dropped and stepped on so much as a
single plum in the act of serving them- as he sat in state and heard
out the wearisome, endless complaints of his subjects.

'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' was the customary rule, but
men of means could get out of that if enough money was paid to satisfy
their legal indebtedness to the Kingdom for whatever offenses.

One pair of contestants were given swords and, under the watchful eyes
and ready lances of the Palace Guards, invited to fight it out on the
spot in a bloody battle. In the end, both died of their wounds and
their survivors fled the palace to grab what they could before the
sacred arm of the Emperor's covetous priesthood could contrive a
sufficient excuse to come and take all.

* * *

By and large, Emperor Euphrates got around to hearing about the death
of Master Rababull, and of the pleas for sanctuary by his many wailing
widows and concubines.

According to their general testimony, it seemed that things had been
happening at a drastically accelerated pace recently with respect to
the affairs of the late Master Rababull, and it was not at all to their
liking, these widows of Rababull's.

One named Conabar had taken over the House of Rababull, a blood
relation. Conabar's friend was the savage outlaw warlord Kadrug, an
enemy of the great Emperor Euphrates.

To this, Emperor Euphrates was characteristically unresponsive. To have
enemies was nothing new, and more than a few had dined on a last supper
of live coals for speaking the merest word against him.

The usual complaining went on. Conabar wanted to ravish their ailing
old bodies. Conabar this. Conabar that. The wailing, the screaming, the
emotional invectives presented quite a spectacle. When Emperor
Euphrates had just about had enough of their nonsense and was almost
ready to waggle a finger and have them all sent away as the pests that
they were, he heard the name of Puffat, and at mention of this he
abruptly held up his left hand to forestall the womens' chatter.

Raising his bushy eyebrows quizzically, Emperor Euphrates turned to his
Chief Adviser, Borla, and held out his right hand to Borla like a
peasant in the heat of barter.

"Puffat?" said Emperor Euphrates. "Where before have I heard the name
of one called Puffat?"

For he knew he had heard it somewhere, at least once.

Borla, a tall, thin figure who invariably appeared in royal court
wearing the darkest of robes, who was fond of keeping his
haggard-looking head deeply and perpetually hooded, and who was not
Royal Advisor for nothing, astutely put his long left index finger
straight up beside the right nostril of his long, thin, protruding nose
with a heavy frown, and sniffed not once but several times, somewhat
noisily and theatrically. This was not done to insult Emperor
Euphrates, but to further magnify His Majesty. Noses had much to do
with majesty, as any proper emperor could tell you. It was Borla's
formal thinking posture.

Finally, Borla nodded his head in satisfaction, and bowed peremptorily
before looking up at his Emperor wisely.

"Puffat," rumbled Borla, who had a very deep voice, "is the offspring
of a distant but honorable relation on your mother's sister's
daughter's cousin's side, thrice--Ahem!; removed, in each instance."

"Ah! 'Thrice', you say? A most noble number," Emperor Euphrates agreed,
raising his eyebrows and then frowning over the more meaningful
possible aspects of this curious twist of fate.

"Quite so, your Majesty," agreed Borla dryly and noncommittally.

Emperor Euphrates turned to the widows and waved encouragement with an
imploring motion of his right hand, using the common bartering gesture
of the market place, and imploring them with a partially raised, cupped
hand.

"Say on," said Emperor Euphrates, with a brief, commanding nod of royal
encouragement.

One called Puffat, said three or four women, who all began to speak at
once and in various overweening affectations and mannerisms -the dreary
virtues of long-ago beauties, these- had been extremely sick and in
pain beyond torment with the gain-green in his leg, when Kadrug had
taken over the sluice gates, and slain Rababull with the edge of the
sword when he valiantly went forth to battle.

Meanwhile, the women further alleged, Master Rababull's trusted
blood-relation, Conabar, had crept to the House gates unawares and
mercilessly slain Old Maskron when that unsuspecting worthy came and
opened them.

Then the intruders, acting on their leader Conabar's orders, had
promptly searched out and summarily executed all of Master Rababull's
remaining children in a pathetic blood-bath.

At this, Emperor Euphrates had somewhat testily held up a forestalling
hand, and after their jibber-jabber had died away, he said with a
frown, "Eh, about one called Puffat..."

There was a moment of stunned silence, as the women seemed to take a
moment to realize that any number of personal complaints would get them
nowhere near as much sympathy as whatever they could conjure up about
Puffat.

Then all at once the recriminations resumed, centered perfectly on the
outrages suffered by one called Puffat.

One called Puffat, the women alleged, was seen crying out in extreme
agony on account of the aggravated torments from his gain-green, as he
was summarily dragged out and executed by no less a personage than
Conabar himself, to eliminate him as a possible contender for the
Headship of the House of Rababull.

As the perceptive widows watched him and played on his sympathies like
shameless minstrels singing a love song for a handful of coppers,
Emperor Euphrates, his eyes growing more fiery with their every word,
slowly drew himself more vertically upright whilst sitting in his stone
throne, and angrier still as he leaning successively still farther and
farther forward until he seemed to ready to fall upon them all, until
the widows finally began to quail at the sight of him and one by one,
fell silent.

All but one old crone.

Oh yes! she declared, playing it for all she was worth. Old and
useless, she would have death or glory, and cannily raised her cracking
voice in shameless petition for the lost virtues of Puffat, a
many-times thrice-removed relation of the Emperor!

Puffat suffered horribly before execution, declared she, with one
squinted eye and one enlarged, red-rimed one in her woeful lamentations
to an increasingly wrathful Emperor. Puffat's beautiful brown eyes were
put out, wailed she. Puffat's big toes and thumbs were hacked off,
gesticulated she, jerking at her own toes and thumbs with either bony
hand and a rising croak of wheezing lungs and that unnerving, squinting
stare.

Puffat's excruciatingly agonizing gangrenous leg was kicked repeatedly.
Puffat this. Puffat that.

"Enough!!"

Emperor Euphrates finally slammed his fist down on the chair arm and
jerked himself straight upright in his seat, towering over them all in
a furious rage.

In the sudden silence, he glared down at the silent cluster of
terrified widows.

"Borla!!" pronounced Emperor Euphrates, grating out his Chief Advisor's
name.

"Hmm?" said Borla, somewhat jittery at the rank savagery of his
Emperor's expression. But he was nothing, if not competent, and showed
no further sign of his nervousness as he quickly recovered himself and
fell smoothly into the litany of his accustomed royal pronouncements.

Borla turned to face the audience, and cleared his throat loudly.

"Ahem! His Majesty the Emperor Euphrates, is off-ended," said Borla as
he turned significantly to Ampho, the Royal Crier.

"Eh? What was that?" asked the latter, starting upright as if he had
been lost in a daze.

Ampho, the Royal Crier, beaked of nose and as thin as a reed, blinked
in a rapid fluttering of his rheumy, myopic eyes as if he were suddenly
roused out of a deep trance, and perked up his ears anew as he finally
managed to take his eyes off the quacking old crone. He raised his
bushy eyebrows and turned his hoary-haired and white-bearded
countenance in an aside to Borla as he raised his bushy eyebrows
alertly.

"Say again?" repeated Ampho.

The Royal Crier's occasional impudence was tolerated by Borla because
he always managed to put on quite a show, and also because the Emperor
Euphrates was so fond of the old ditherer, who was endeared to his
majesty by virtue of having been old and gray-haired at such a time as
his Imperial Majesty was still playing naked in the royal mud.

Betraying ill-concealed impatience, Borla repeated himself.

At this, Ampho, raised his voice and replied quickly with an air of
self-importance and officiousness, "Ahem! As his Highness wishes!"

Then he raised and settled his shoulders bravely as he opened his
mouth, screwed his eyes shut tightly, tilted his head back, and bawled
loudly into the high vaulted stone ceiling, "All keep silence before
the great Emperor Euphrates!"

A chorus of Court Officers immediately chanted, "All give ear and keep
silence!"

In the sudden silence, the widows shifted their eyes nervously around
the crowded court, fearful of the awesome power of the great Emperor
Euphrates that so many should automatically kowtow to him with such
unfailing ritual precision.

"Mark my words," said Emperor Euphrates. This was spoken for the
benefit of the Royal Scribe, one called Ibi, who was also a man of
great age like unto Ampho. Off to one side, aged Ibi promptly reached
for his marking sticks, and impatiently signaled an apprentice to
deliver a fresh clay tablet to him.

"One called Puffat," declared Emperor Euphrates, "has died an honorable
death."

"Here ye all! One called Puffat..." Ampho cried out, howling Emperor
Euphrates' pronouncements. When he had finished repeating the
proclamation, he turned his head to his emperor and waited for the next
royal pronouncement.

"One called Conabar," said Emperor Euphrates, "and one called Kadrug,
both of whom doth magnify themselves against the Imperial throne and
doth conspire unlawfully to slay his relations and diminish his blood
line, shall appear before His Majesty, and their entrails shall be read
to determine their guilt or innocence."

When Emperor Euphrates paused for breath, Ampho raised his voice and
howled the decree loudly. Thus were pronounced both men's death
sentences in typically indirect fashion.

Emperor Euphrates's claim to being a divinely appointed ruler and
sorcerer depended most frequently and blatantly upon the habitual
practice of killing off some victim for who-cares-what offence, and
then ceremonially 'reading' the victim's entrails, invariably
pronouncing that their guilt and worthiness of death by execution was
clearly foretold there.

It was a most convincing and persuasive prophecy, in spite of it's
self-fulfilling nature, which others took especial note of in their
earnest praises of their beloved Emperor for his great powers of
divination, and also, his even greater powers of extinction.

It made him an Emperor to be feared beyond all reason in the eyes of
his people. He was always 'right', and if someone was later found by
delayed discovery of direct physical evidence to the contrary or some
such nonsense to have been innocent of all charges, Emperor Euphrates
had their entrails formally brought before him again -which were
magically brought forth from the bowels of a living chicken- whereupon
he typically reread them, and found the poor soul innocent.

What a truly miraculous display of the supernatural powers of royal
divination.

He was always faithful to grant an immediate pardon.

Next, Emperor Euphrates said significantly, to Borla, "What is mine, is
mine."

The meaning of this was long-rehearsed by so many repetitions gone
before, that Borla knew exactly what Emperor Euphrates meant by it.

Borla bowed low, and straightening, turned to Ampho and pronounced
dryly, "The Emperor giveth, and the Emperor taketh away. The former
House of Rababull is to be seized from one called Conabar."

Ampho raised his nostrils to the rafters and howled with considerable
vigor for one of such advanced years, "It pleases his Majesty the
Emperor Euphrates that the House of Rababull, and all it's bond
persons, shall become the property of the Emperor, as compensation for
the death of one called Puffat, the son of a distant and honorable
relation!"

Deceased relations of the Emperor always "died honorably". If they
could not be said to have "died honorably", they were first formally
disowned, that their affairs might be judged the more harshly.

"Lastly," Emperor Euphrates finished, "a stipend is declared for the
widows of one called Rababull." He gave the nod to Borla.

Borla braced himself with an ever-so-slight, momentary lift to his
heels and shoulders, and said simply to Ampho, "His Majesty's mercies
are everlasting; let the widows become street beggars."

"The widows of the House of Rababull," Ampho bawled appropriately,
"have been granted royal permission to beg in the streets without
molestation, provided they do not impede pedestrian traffic or
interrupt the bar-gaining of the traders and honored thieves."

In other words, they could beg if they kept their silence about it and
managed to stick out their alms bowels in the paths of travelers
whilst keeping out from underfoot of both man and beast.

After all, it was a great honor to be permitted to beg without offense.

The astonished and indignant widows of the House of Rababull, formerly
of such self-serving pride and cruelty towards those pathetic and
tormented slaves immediately under their harsh household rule, were
herded from the court amidst the jeers and laughter of the throngs by
the rude barks and gestures of the stern-faced Palace Guards.

Emperor Euphrates rose to his feet, whereupon Ampho immediately bawled
out in a veritable falsetto screech, "All bow!"

This wasn't just good protocol. It was exceedingly difficult to throw a
knife, shoot an arrow, or hurl a spear at Emperor Euphrates if one was
bowing so low as not to be able to even look at him, or anything else
for that matter, except the tiny section of floor being rubbed clean by
the tip of one's prostrated nose.

By the same token, any who did not bow were immediately perceived by
the watchful guards as the threat they very possibly were, and would
immediately be thrust through with lances on the spot.

It was a very good and safe way to exit and enter. Kings and Emperors
who were so foolish as to allow the crowds to cheer them on while they
gloriously entered or exited ran the risk of being skewered in the
process simply because it was so hard for a guard to pick out the one
who had smuggled arms past the Royal Checker of Weapons and
Headcoverings, both of which must be removed in the Emperor's presence
anyways. It was too easy to let fly amidst the mass confusion of bodily
movements of such agitated throngs.

This way, no one could move besides His Majesty the Emperor Euphrates
himself. Thus, he was safer, because a man had to move before he could
use a weapon, and if he tried he would instantly be picked out and
dealt with soon enough to assure the Emperor a good long life.

* * *

But a spy warned Conabar, who abandoned the House of Rababull and
immediately fled.

Kadrug, seeing that he had not nearly enough advantage of position or
force of men to withstand Emperor Euphrates, wisely chose to retreat
also and withdrew to the wilds.

Throughout the coming week, rumor had it that Kadrug and Conabar had
sued one another for peace and pledged themselves in a blood oath to
become allies against Emperor Euphrates, and it was avidly rumored that
Kadrug had giants.

Emperor Euphrates had no giants.

* * *

Several days passed, during which time all property transfers were
effected from the former House of Rababull to the royal treasury of
Emperor Euphrates. The fate of the slave holdings of Master Rababull
was of low priority, but they were finally got round to.

* * *

"Well, don't be frightened, step up!"

At the wizened old Court Officer's bidding, a reluctant Si'Wren, whose
turn had finally come, stepped forward several awful, final steps to
stand, eyes miserably downcast, before the great and terrible Emperor
Euphrates.

"Your name, slave?" requested the court officer, a minor underling
named Baschal.

Si'Wren, having made a vow to the Invisible God never to speak,
remained silent.

If only Habrunt could be here to speak for her, but she had not seen
him since being left here by him several days ago, and did not know
what had become of him since. She knew him to be useless for work
because of his injuries from the merciless whipping. Habrunt's last
words had been to reassure her that in a world of such unsurpassing
evils, only in the royal household would she be not mistreated, and
that only there would she, without his strength to protect her, be
safe. He said that she should not worry about him because he knew he
would be given his freedom rather than unduly burden the food coffers
of the slave quarters as an unprofitable cripple.

Si'Wren was grieved to hear Habrunt speak down on himself in this way.
She would never call him useless or unprofitable, no matter what his
condition. But unfortunately, it was not for her to decide, so she
trusted Habrunt implicitly in everything he said. Si'Wren desperately
yearned to see Habrunt, and missed him beyond all reason, but there was
no one to turn to now.

"Well, speak up!" the man said gruffly to Si'Wren.

There ensued a momentous wait, perhaps a span of three or four breaths,
while the great Emperor Euphrates grew increasingly impatient at first,
and then, with a narrowing of his eyes, actually showed genuine
interest in her. After all, this one was not only harmless, but an
astonishing beauty. She could easily be excused of any number of
imagined insults, and made to toe the line readily enough when final
judgements were proclaimed.

But the girl -eyes downcast- remained stubbornly silent.

Frowning darkly, Borla finally stepped forward from his position of
direct attendance on the Emperor's right hand, and motioned away
Baschal with a little impatient flick of his fingers.

Gazing skeptically down upon her from within the deep folds of his
hooded robe, Borla grimaced at her distastefully and said, as from a
great height, "It seems this rebellious slave has lost her manners,
Highness. Perhaps she should lose her life as well!"

At this, Si'Wren's eyes grew wide with fright and surprise, but still
she said nothing.

Borla suddenly turned and said sharply to one of the Captains of the
Palace Guard, "Give me a sword."

The requested item was promptly produced by a guard, and handed over to
Baschal, who promptly took it and handed it over in turn to the Chief
Advisor to the Emperor.

"Now," said Borla testily, with no small degree of impatience. "For the
last time; what is thy name, girl?"

Si'Wren stood immobile as she regarded the edge of the gleaming sword
which Borla held up just beneath her chin at the throat, and slowly
shook her head.

"Very well," said Borla, as he withdrew the sword and held it up for
the death stroke. "His Majesty can be quite reasonable at times. You've
obviously chosen to die for your insolence, and it is His pleasure to
grant you your wish..."

"Withhold thy hand," said Emperor Euphrates suddenly.

Borla hesitated, his arm tensed for the downswing, and regarded his
Emperor in a look of self-evident deference.

"As you wish, Highness," said Borla, as he bowed low and handed the
sword back to the underling again. "What is thy pleasure, Sire? Name
it, and I shall not hesitate..."

"Bring her to me," said Emperor Euphrates.

The Emperor's words echoed throughout the absolute, dead silence of the
throne room as a thousand spectators looked on in shocked horror, and
Si'Wren gasped involuntarily as Borla's heavy hand dropped firmly onto
her slender shoulder, filling her pounding heart with sudden dread.

Escorted forward, Si'Wren kept her eyes dutifully lowered as she sought
not to behold her Emperor, whom she had never ever seen before in her
whole short life, let alone heard the remotest details of the daily
existence of. She vaguely recalled her first, distant impression of his
great bearded countenance, his fleshy features, and his eyes so full of
overwhelming intelligence and power upon first entering the judgement
hall.

As soon as Borla halted, Si'Wren stopped and stood utterly motionless
beside him, eyes downcast as her great and terrible Lord leaned
slightly forward on his throne. Borla kept his hand on her shoulder.

More curious than offended, Emperor Euphrates regarded the shy but
stubborn slave girl as Borla looked on intently from within his hooded
visage. Indeed, the whole court seemed to hold it's breath.

"Come here, child," said Emperor Euphrates, as he wiggled an index
finger to beckon her nearer.

In the midst of that frozen silence of so many disbelieving and
incredulous faces, Si'Wren kept her eyes downcast and remained immobile.

"Come," bid her Lord and Emperor again.

After another long hesitation, Si'Wren finally shuffled forward, a step
at a time, while the fierce-looking Borla let his hand fall without
impediment from her shoulder to slip away unnoticed.

Si'Wren stopped again, instinctively realizing that she had seen no
one, throughout all earlier court proceedings, approach so close
before, especially with such menacing guards looking on from all sides.

"Closer," Emperor Euphrates commanded. "Why so shy? Let me get a good
look at you. That's it. Now tell me, why do you not speak when
commanded?"

Eyes downcast, Si'Wren shook her head, giving her answer to this and
also clearly showing her ability to hear and understand quite plainly,
and remained standing utterly silent and resolute before him.

Emperor Euphrates peered narrowly at the stubborn girl.

"Do you not know that it is death to disobey your Emperor? Speak, I
command you."

But Si'Wren could not break her vow again, as she had done that
terrible night when Habrunt came to rescue her. She must never speak
again, no matter what, lest she dishonor her Invisible God.

Raising his eyebrows in frustration, Emperor Euphrates looked up at the
throng and proclaimed, "Is this child a deaf and dumb mute? Is there
any present who knows why this child refuses to obey her Emperor?"

Off to the left, one of Sorpiala's consorts stepped several quick steps
forward and fell down prostrate on her face with the muffled cry, "Aye,
Highness!"

"Ah," nodded Emperor Euphrates approvingly. "What say you?"

"She is neither deaf, nor dumb, nor mute, but has been sworn to a vow
of silence by her former master, on her very life, as fitting
punishment for being a filthy idol-breaker!" declared the young woman,
turning her head about quickly as she swept the royal court with her
flashing eyes.

A general gasp of horror rose up from the crowd, with many individual
exclamations of outright shock and disbelief.

"You so bear witness?" formally asked Emperor Euphrates.

"Aye!" the woman said with ill-disguised spite, looking up from the
floor. She was obviously relishing the opportunity to inform everyone
of the horrible crime and subsequent vow. "If the evil girl should
speak but once in a lifetime, her disloyalty to her own vow shall
constitute faithful witness against her and her forbidden god, the
Invisible One, that they are both false, and she is to be immediately
executed! So sward she herself in front of her former owner; one called
Master Rababull."

Emperor Euphrates digested this new bit of information in ruminative
silence for a moment without showing the slightest sign of what his
personal opinion might be of it.

"Very well," said Emperor Euphrates finally. "It is most unusual, but a
vow is a vow."

Then, looking around the court, he said, "Who else bears witness?"

Sorpiala unthinkingly raised her hand and responded, "Aye!" as she
stepped forth and -bowing low- remembered too late that it was
dangerous to fool with the truth so, when her own consorts were so well
aware that both Si'Wren and the other one, Nelatha, had actually been
falsely accused by Sorpiala's own scheming manipulations. Let even one
of her consorts be so much as threatened with the tiniest scratch, and
Sorpiala's lies could be mercilessly exposed to save their own skins.

Well, it didn't really matter, did it? Sorpiala reassured herself
silently. Was she not a past master of the connive, being just over one
hundred years old, yet still in outward appearance seeming no more than
a young woman just entering her prime?

"Two witnesses!" declared Emperor Euphrates formally. "Are there three?"

Sorpiala turned and gave the nod to another one of her most trusted
consorts, who immediately and unthinkingly said "Aye!" and bowed low.

Emperor Euphrates nodded formally to the third witness, as he returned
his eyes to the silent, fearful girl who stood before him without the
slightest peep or murmur of protest against those testifying against
her.

"There we have it," said Emperor Euphrates conclusively. "Scribe, mark
the names of the accusers for the record. We have three witnesses who
say this girl is guilty of breaking idols. How say you?" said Emperor
Euphrates, turning his head.

A heartsick Si'Wren, having remained motionless as each deadly 'Aye!'
was pronounced, realized suddenly that Emperor Euphrates had spoken
this time directly to herself, and her eyes grew wide as she stared
back at him in fear.

"How say you, child? Hut!--"

Emperor Euphrates looked away and frowned impatiently at himself,
remembering that she was sworn to silence and evidently would prefer to
face the sword rather than to go back on her vow. A most remarkable
girl, really.

Anticipating some unforseen lack, Borla as Chief Advisor nonetheless
wisely waited for Emperor Euphrates to correct himself.

Emperor Euphrates opened his mouth to begin again.

Then he shut his mouth, a veritable study in consternation, and looked
up at the audience once more, automatically shifting his inscrutable
gaze to Sorpiala, whom he instinctively perceived, wielded some sort of
secret power of coercion over the other two witnesses.

"What is this child's name?" he asked Sorpiala.

"She is called, Si'Wren, Emperor," responded Sorpiala elegantly.

"Ah!" Emperor Euphrates returned his intelligent eyes to confront
Si'Wren face-to-face. "Stand closer, child," and then, with a
beckoning, drawing wave, "Come hither..."

Si'Wren approached the throne haltingly, until she stood so close as to
be almost nose-to-nose when he finally leaned forward and murmured to
her in an almost inaudible tone of voice that the other women could not
overhear.

"Si'Wren," said Emperor Euphrates gently, in a low, confiding tone, "do
not fear. For I, myself, have destroyed many false idols, but you ought
to obey your Emperor, and only indicate to myself, your Lord; are you
an idol-breaker?"

Si'Wren took a moment to find an answer in a mindful of terrors, and
shook her head once emphatically.

Negative!

Emperor Euphrates' eyes widened almost imperceptibly at this. Then,
thinking further of it, he added, "Have you in fact sworn a vow of
silence to the Forbidden One?"

With a pent-up sigh of weariness, defeat, and resignation to her doom,
Si'Wren nodded in the affirmative this time. Then, she remembered that
it was not a vow of absolute silence, but merely that she should not
speak, so she added, lips pressed tightly shut, "Um-hmm."

At this, Emperor Euphrates leaned back ever so slowly, and creased his
eyebrows in a bushy frown as he thought this over until he had
adequately perceived the precise nature of the vow as demonstrated and
interpreted by the girl herself. For while she had not actually spoken,
she had in fact made a noise.

A quandary! Pondering this mightily, he worried, for there was
something about this whole case that was most distinct and unusual.
What was it? He pondered this at length while the whole court waited
and watched, scratching at his beard, and finally arrived at an
understanding.

This young girl's open and forthright responses to his inquiries seemed
too emboldened by the light of inner truth. Furthermore, she had
remained utterly adamant in upholding her vow of silence in the face of
certain death for disobeying so openly and blatantly his commands to
speak, vow or no vow.

The other one, contrariwise, had an attitude.

That was it.

One called Sorpiala exhibited an attitude that was like the undeclared
and unpunished crime of having stolen a three-day old fish, a crime
whose very nature declared itself to all who happened to venture
downwind of the evildoer. It was exactly like that; a stink in the
discerning nostrils of the mighty and terrible Emperor Euphrates, whose
mercy customarily extended to the tolerance of such attitudes, although
it was his desire that only pure worship and obedience should ever be
seen or demonstrated in his subjects. He tolerated their impious and
disrespectful attitudes usually because ones such as Sorpiala simply
did not realize how much their sage Emperor saw and forgave. Often they
did not so much as realize that they even had attitudes with which to
offend him.

For attitude was like human will, a contrary condition under the best
of circumstances or at the best of times. But in his royal court,
Emperor Euphrates viewed attitude as an innately unpardonable offense,
and only rightly to be forgiven absenting any other lawful infractions.
It was an offense against he whose majesty respected no person. It was
an offense, moreover, against his very person, yea, he who was favored
by the gods, and who favored or condemned, in turn, whoever it was his
royal pleasure to favor or condemn.

Emperor Euphrates said quietly to Si'Wren, "Fear not, and see to it
that henceforth you do not break your vow of silence, but only go and
stand over there," he indicated the right-hand, far edge of his royal
dias, which was about ten steps distant, "and tarry there until I bid
you draw neigh unto me again."

He waited while Si'Wren backed uncertainly away to his right, and an
ever astute Borla reached out carefully to halt and steady her when she
would have backed clear off the edge of the raised dias and fallen flat.

"You, you, and you," Emperor Euphrates bid the three women, "step two
paces forward and remain where you are."

Mystified, the three exchanged ill-concealed expressions of alarm as
they complied with Emperor Euphrates' commands.

"You," Emperor Euphrates pointed out the third of Si'Wren's three
accusers. "Come hither."

He nodded and raised a forestalling hand to wave off the nearest guard,
who had automatically raised a spear to point it at her as the slender
woman stepped forward.

Abruptly, Borla suddenly thundered, "Silence!" as he spotted the first
woman whispering to Sorpiala urgently and confidentially.

The woman let out a tiny, terrified "Eeep!" and gulped as she fell
silent with anguished, desperate eyes. Sorpiala merely held her peace,
and looked straight ahead in a penetrating look of ruthlessness,
evidently determined to stand her ground and see this vile thing
through to the bitter end, no matter what.

The woman initially called forth had also frozen at Borla's sudden bark
to be silent, and Emperor Euphrates repeated his command that she
approach the throne. Now she, the third-in-line of Si'Wren's accusers,
who had not dared to volunteer herself, but only had spoken up at
Sorpiala's initial bidding, hastened forward to fall flat at the very
feet of Emperor Euphrates under the watchful eagle eyes of a dozen
nearby guards, who automatically leaned ever so slightly forward on the
staves of their upright spears in poised and menacing vigilance.

Emperor Euphrates leaned forward over the prostrate woman and could be
seen whispering to her in a low indistinct voice, to which she answered
fearfully now and again. Finally, he gave a little wave of the hand,
temporarily dismissing her to the far left side of his royal dias.

She arose and stepped back, literally gasping for air in her newfound
terror, for she instinctively realized what was coming and desperately
yearned that she might not have accused Si'Wren in the first place.

"You," Emperor Euphrates pointed out the second of Si'Wren's three
accusers, "Come hither."

Outwardly confident before all, Sorpiala smoothly and adroitly copied
the first woman's awkward approaches and fell at Emperor Euphrates's
feet. Another whispering conference ensued.

Finally, he dismissed her to his left, and did likewise with the last
of Si'Wren's accusers, the one who had voluntarily and initially spoken
first of her own free volition. When he had heard all, he dismissed her
in like manner, and sat in silence.

Emperor Euphrates remained motionless for a long time and said nothing,
staring straight ahead as if in a trance.

The entire assemblage of the court waited upon him, many of them quite
familiar with this process from past experience. Others who were less
experienced in the ways of the court, Si'Wren and her three accusers
being numbered among these, experienced deep agitation as they also
waited.

Finally, Emperor Euphrates blinked and seemed to come out of his trance
as he heaved a sigh and seemed to nod to himself.

Then he turned his head and regarded Si'Wren's third accuser, the one
whom he had questioned first.

"Tell me," he commanded her. "What should be the punishment for such a
one as remains silent when commanded to speak, and for the crime of
idol-breaking?"

Utterly terrified, the woman's round eyes flicked to Si'Wren and back
to her Emperor again, before finally blurting out, "Oh great and divine
Emperor, it may be that I have erred most grievously, and that what she
has done be no wrong thing at all, although it was also rumored that
she was a believer in the Invisible God--if that be a crime.
Perhaps--perhaps she should even be forgiven in case she has actually
done nothing!"

At this, Sorpiala and the other woman suddenly exchanged conspiratorial
looks, and Sorpiala fairly hissed her disapproval with an insucking of
air.

Emperor Euphrates ignored the scandalous behavior as he regarded the
woman directly being questioned. Then his eyes moved to Sorpiala.

"How say you?" he asked her. "What punishment would you prescribe for
such an idol-breaker as stands accused before you?"

"Why--I do not know, Highness," Sorpiala wheedled. "She has already
been punished. Perhaps," she dropped her eyes and barely suppressed a
gloating smile, "might I but whisper in your ear--"

Dropping his eyes to grant a less than sincere approval, Emperor
Euphrates nodded as he said, "Come forward, then."

At this, Sorpiala -pridefully imagining herself as a strong contender
to become the new queen of the kingdom of Emperor Euphrates, and
Si'Wren as her first victim- readily tip-toed to the Emperor's side and
leaned forward upon the upraised balls of both tiny feet.

"Perhaps one called Si'Wren should suffer..." said Sorpiala
dramatically, and leaning forward, she began to whisper at long length
in his ear.

Sorpiala pronounced dire punishments, worse than anything she had ever
seen or heard of anywhere in her hundred years upon the earth.

"Ah!" said Emperor Euphrates, nodding like a master thief who has
joined hand-in-hand with a cunning new ally. "But this one has already
been punished with a vow of silence under pain of death, has she not?"

"It was not enough, Highness!" said Sorpiala, her exotic almond eyes
moving sideways as she pronounced her personal opinion upon the matter.

Emperor Euphrates nodded, and appeared exceeding thoughtful.

Sorpiala suppressed a look of triumph. Finally, she was at long last
about to have the supremacy over Si'Wren, the little wretch!

Emperor Euphrates looked to the last woman, Si'Wren's initial accuser.

She spoke up before even being asked.

"Idol breakers should..."

Emperor Euphrates listened at length, taking no formal notice of her
lack of proper respect in crudely omitting to use even one of his many
glorious titles of formal address.

When she had finished speaking, Emperor Euphrates nodded, eyes heavily
lidded in judicious contemplation. Finally he heaved a long, heavy sigh
of resignation as he looked up and gave the nod to the Royal Crier.

Tall, thin Ampho, the Royal Crier, pointed his beaked nose straight in
the air and opened his yawning mouth as he bawled loudly to the
ceiling, "All keep silence before the great Emperor Euphrates!"

A chorus of court attendants' voices dutifully chanted, "All give ear
and keep silence!"

Emperor Euphrates sighed. Ah, the grandeur of formalities! Who needed
those foolish idols anyways? He'd broken one of the silly things
himself once, right in front of everybody, and had the devil's own time
talking himself out of it.

That had been only two hundred years ago, and he still winced every
time he thought about it.

Even Borla had been temporarily at a loss what to advise. It simply was
not a thing to be done, ever. You could deliberately destroy the idols
of your enemies, but that was an entirely different proposition and not
the same thing at all. This had been a stupid blunder, obvious to all.

Finally, on Borla's advice, he had called in the Royal Sorcerer, also
known as the Fort Rune Tale Heir, since it was an inherited position.
He was a filthy, huge, grossly obese individual of exceptionally
obnoxious character who went by the unlikely moniker of Fatoo the
Dread, and the obliging fellow was persuaded to conjure up a bit of
hocus-pocus to make a bigger and better statue of the idol appear in a
cloud of ashes and smoke, right where the old one had smashed.

Fatoo had done him one better, nearly breaking his own foot when he'd
accidentally dropped the new statue on it in the process of letting it
fall from it's place of concealment beneath the voluminous skirts of
his bulging belly, after poofing up a huge cloud of noxious, stinking
smoke. No wonder the fellow always smelled so bad. It was rumored that
he never bathed, either, and there was no need of chicken entrails to
figure that out.

Fatoo had meant to stoop halfway into a squat and 'give birth' to the
idol while the spectators' view of him was temporarily obstructed by
smoke. At least the replacement idol had been provided with a nice
cushion for it's unexpected fall, and all of the moaning and groaning
which Fatoo had suddenly exhibited had been a very mystical and
convincing performance and well worth the ordeal, especially since it
was Fatoo's foot and not the Emperor's.

Better yet, Fatoo had limped for such a long time afterwards that the
Royal Sorcerer's hobbled gait had provided a convenient stigma with
which to draw away any possibly adverse attention from Emperor
Euphrates' blunder in breaking the original idol in the first place. It
was all so simple; Fatoo's limp was a sign from the gods. So much for
idols.

Emperor Euphrates finally looked up, and cleared his throat noisily.

"Because of the seriousness of the accusations, I, Emperor Euphrates,
chosen of the gods, even I, shall now declare the outcome before all."

He paused, and looked round upon all present. Ampho remained frozen, as
if he were no more than a dumb idol himself. Borla was merely silent
and watchful as always. Let them all watch and learn.

Emperor Euphrates looked upon Si'Wren, and smiled as he inclined his
head graciously.

"I have examined the soul of one called Si'Wren," Emperor Euphrates
declared, "and find no fault in her."

Surprised gasps arose on all sides.

Then, with a dire and accusing glare Emperor Euphrates looked to
Si'Wren's three accusers and went on without further hesitation, "I
have mercifully examined all three witnesses in great detail without
the customary and usual questioning by torture, and have found none of
them to be in agreement with each other in the slightest particulars."

Si'Wren felt shock. She wasn't expecting him to say that!

But Si'Wren's three accusers were terror-stricken as Emperor Euphrates
went on.

"Your punishments be upon your own heads!" he suddenly pronounced,
finally declaring imperial judgement. Then he became as one made of
stone, as he gave the nod to Borla.

"On your own heads..." Borla repeated, stepping forward in front of
Si'Wren's three shocked accusers as he rubbed his hands together
thoughtfully, for he had overhead everything.

The absolute silence, which had ruled for but a heartbeat, was
shattered by wailing protests from Sorpiala and her one vengeful
consort.

"Guards!" Borla commanded, taking proper charge of his duties, and not
without a certain satisfaction, for he fully appreciated the virtually
divine means by which Emperor Euphrates invariably seemed to discern
truth where others -including Borla himself- invariably failed
miserably.

He quickly barred the guards' access to little Si'Wren with an
outstretched arm, while the guards, stupid oafs, laid off and left her
alone, to go for her three terrified accusers instead.

"This one said, 'Let her be forgiven'," said Borla, with a brief wave
of summary dismissal. "Therefore, she is forgiven."

"Oh thank you Sire!" gibbered the terrified woman, immediately falling
down before him.

Borla ignored the prostrate woman groveling before his feet, as he
regarded the next one.

"This one said..."

As Borla repeated the proposed punishments of Sorpiala back at her, she
shrieked, "NAAAAAAAAA!..." with a wide-eyed look of insane terror,
backing away in a series of quick, shuffling half-steps and retreating
blindly backwards into the ready hands of two burly guards approaching
from behind her.

What Sorpiala had sentenced was too elaborate to be carried out in
court, so the guards dragged her away, struggling and shrieking out a
prolonged series of thin shrill screams, long and utterly
soul-despairing. The bloodcurdling screams were partially obscured by
her removal to the halls, but therefrom emerged the echoes of her
departing wails, as of a living soul descending into the very pit of
deepest, darkest hell itself.

"And now this one..." said Borla finally, extending his arm out to one
side and holding out his hand without looking.

Hastily, the ceremonial arms-bearer stepped forward and planted Borla's
sword in his hand. Like the late and unlamented Master Rababull, the
ability to unflinchingly execute the harshest judgements was one of the
most terrifying things about men like Borla. Si'Wren longed to beg
Emperor Euphrates to have mercy upon her accusers, to forget their
awful, unreasoning hatred, but could only remain utterly and eternally
silent, lest she betray her vow.

While four separate burly guards kept an iron grip on her to immobilize
her, the third one, screaming like one possessed, suffered her own
intended punishments before the Emperor and all the general assemblage
at the hand of Borla himself as Si'Wren shut her eyes and wished she
could shut her ears also as she turned her head away and felt sick to
her stomach.

Sorpiala's unmerciful consort fainted in the process of receiving her
punishment, and was dragged away unconscious to the slave quarters, to
be revived for the finishing of her intended punishments.

At last, Borla handed the bloody weapon back to the ceremonial
arms-bearer.

Si'Wren and the woman who had ordained mercy stood beside one another
throughout the entire ordeal of the punishments. On impulse, Si'Wren
turned and hugged the woman, who embraced her desperately in return.

"What is to become of these, your Highness?" Borla inquired dutifully,
bowing low even as he indicated Si'Wren and the other woman with an
extended palm.

Emperor Euphrates, who had remained motionless and impassive before the
excited crowd throughout the entire phase of the punishments, softened
his gaze as he finally permitted himself to formally take notice of the
two women again.

"One called Si'Wren," said Emperor Euphrates, "fainted not in her hour
of trial. I, even I, have not observed so great courage, as was found
in this little one! Borla, you have been rightfully bested in Royal
Court by this brilliant child."

"A thousand pardons, Highness," responded Borla.

He bowed low, and while Borla was bowing, he was unable to see Emperor
Euphrates incline his great head as he smiled at Si'Wren merrily.

The girl's eyes flashed with momentary astonishment, as she remained in
respectful attendance and stood awaiting his word, and Borla rose again
to full stature with a grand flourish.

Borla continued observantly, "Of a truth, Highness, this mere babe in
her innocence has scorned fearlessly the edge of the sword and bested
Borla in all of his wisdom and power, even as his munificent Highness
has declared. For verily do I perceive that she has indeed kept her vow
honorably, a fact which your esteemed self has astutely discerned
without the slightest hesitation, whereas worthless Borla himself had
failed to understand, even after ample opportunity was afforded him to
discover this with his own two eyes."

This was true, which was why Emperor Euphrates was an emperor, and
Borla only a chief advisor. However, a normally brief, succinct, and
to-the-point Borla did know when to praise his Emperor with more than
the usual flourish.

"And what say you, Borla, of the former Master of the House of
Rababull?" prompted Emperor Euphrates.

"Rababull was a fool!" declared Borla succinctly.

"Verily, Borla," intoned Emperor Euphrates.

 "To have so punished a mere child, an underage girl who hath no
breasts," Borla went on. "Is it not harsh and unfatherly? Those of
tender years are known for their perpetual blunders, short-sightedness,
and pure love of rank foolishness. How easily might the girl rather
have been corrected instead by any number of more suitable lesser
punishments. Even for having broken a nobleman's idol, a proper ransom
might have been paid to redeem her of her crime. I mean..."

Emperor Euphrates nodded approvingly, waiting for Borla to go on.

Borla cast about for the proper words, seeking to assuage the harshness
of his legal status, seeing how obviously fond his Emperor Euphrates
was of the girl.

"I mean..." Borla hesitated. "After all," he shrugged innocuously, with
an engaging show of teeth, "it could not have been a very powerful
idol, for all of that, if it could not even prevent itself from being
broken by a mere girl."

"Customarily, the subject is sacrificed to the idol," remarked Emperor
Euphrates in round-about congruence, "and not the other way around. It
is a powerful sign, is it not?"

"It is all of that, Highness," Borla agreed, displaying more of his
uncharacteristic crocodile grin.

Borla's grin faded, as his astute mind went on to other considerations.

"Now about the vow...?" Borla went on suggestively, and paused.

Emperor Euphrates shrugged.

"What of it?"

"Well, what is to be done with her, Highness?"

Emperor Euphrates paused for a long moment, while the entire court
looked on. Then finally his look brightened.

"Let her become a Royal Scribe in my court," said Emperor Euphrates.

"My Emperor," protested Borla in confusion, "truly, forbidden to speak,
your royal secrets shall indeed be safe with this fearless child, but
if she can neither read nor write, of what use can she be?"

"Then have her trained, Borla!" said Emperor Euphrates.

"But--" Borla halted, trying to imagine all the difficulties of this
impossible task.

Then his hooded figure bowed even lower, scraping neigh unto the floor.

"Behold thy servant Borla, who diligently seeks a right finish to all
royal affairs! Thy judgements are Wisdom incarnate for I perceive that
thou hast pronounced fitting judgement, as always."

Borla turned, and gazed forbiddingly upon the remaining woman,
Sorpiala's other consort, standing close beside Si'Wren.

"And--as for this one, Highness?" he inquired in a mercilessly flat
tone of voice.

Shaking uncontrollably, the hopelessly terrified woman would not let go
of Si'Wren. The woman, having already been spared punishment, still did
not know what her ultimate fate might be and clung fearfully to
Si'Wren, who steadfastly refused to push the woman away.

Emperor Euphrates, seeing this, said merely, "Oh, let her go free," and
waved her off with a disinterested nod of dismissal.

"The gods praise thee, merciful Emperor!" the woman gasped as she fell
on the floor at his feet. Emperor Euphrates nodded patronizingly with a
gratified look at the outcome of events. Then he raised his eyes to
look beyond the prostrate woman, and gaze upon the surpassing beauty of
Si'Wren, and his eyes fairly twinkled with doting joy.

Si'Wren smiled as she shut her eyes and bowed in meek formal obeisance
to Emperor Euphrates.

Unbeknownst to all, she also gave silent, prayerful thanks to a most
inscrutable, but eternally wise and most mysterious Invisible God.

Chapter Five - A horse.

"Si'Wren," said old Ibi, "you have worked hard and diligently. I look
forward with great pleasure to declaring you before all to be fully
studied and prepared for your royal station, as formally commissioned
by his Majesty the Emperor. When he hears of this, I have no doubt that
you will be so appointed and given all due honors and tributes
pertaining to the Order of Scribe."

Si'Wren stood before Ibi with the flush of joy and accomplishment on
her face.

After her momentous court debut four years ago as the stubborn young
girl-slave whose lips Borla's own sword could not open, she had been
escorted to what was to become her very own personal, private quarters
in the same wing of the palace as the other royal officials. Since
then, as an underling to virtually everyone but the slaves themselves,
she had been introduced to general grooming and appearance standards
acceptable to palace etiquette, and ways of acting and behaving that
conformed suitably to court protocol, and had begun her long and
arduous internship as an understudy of the great and illustrious Ibi
himself.

During these four years, she had managed to develop a somewhat foggy
understanding of 'delicate subjects' having to do with politically
potent and sensitive issues which one must always try to heed in order
to properly show 'manners'. In view of how little she knew, it appeared
that she did not merely have her marks to learn, she also had to pick
up on the royal ropes. Many doors, some good, some evil, would
henceforth stand open to her, but she must choose which.

Seemingly from her first month at the palace, Si'Wren had begun to
assume the mantle of womanhood. Now, at sixteen, she was beginning to
take on some of the physical characteristics of an adult, although in
stature she still appeared to be somewhat small compared to others born
of the same year. She was developing a trim, athletic figure as a
result of avoiding the many fattening and corrupting foods free for the
taking as a palace resident, and was becoming more womanly of form now
with each passing year.

She who had once bathed in the stream, now dipped herself in the
magnificent public baths of the palace dignitaries. Indeed, her
privileges were such that she could have indulged in many spoiling
luxuries, although -except for a simple desire for natural purity and
cleanliness- by and large she tended to shun the physically and morally
polluting diversions.

Her early years living on the plain fare of the slaves, together with
her experiences in the spice tent, had engendered in her a natural
awareness of how the vices of the rich could lead directly to one's
personal destruction. Having preferred from earliest memory not to
adopt the superior airs and affectations of Sorpiala and her clique,
who haughtily deemed themselves to be above their fellow beings,
Si'Wren did not see fit to change her humble and unassuming ways as a
Royal Officer of the Court.

In his endless daily instructional sessions with her, Ibi had developed
a fierce vicarious pride in the proper and dutiful studies of Si'Wren,
and developed a habit of grilling her relentlessly, so that the poor
girl spent her days perpetually neigh unto exhaustion from unrelenting
fatigue.

In view of these and other considerations, and especially for moral
reasons, Si'Wren deliberately avoided the many royal orgies of
banqueting, and worse, open to her, choosing instead to spend much time
cloistered alone in her personal chambers, there to catch up on her
work assignments and neglected slumbers unmolested. She still slept on
a mat of rushes, by choice, whereas the others in the palace all
preferred more luxurious accommodations such as straw or down
mattresses. Si'Wren seemed to sleep so much the better that way, and
yet, in spite of her efforts at getting sufficient physical rest, ever
did she labor with the circles of learning under her eyes. Truly, much
study was a weariness to the flesh. But she always worked hard at it,
and she was a fast learner.

She always wondered what had happened to Habrunt, but in addition to
her vow never to speak, she could not so much as write his name at
first. No person ever volunteered any information about him to her. And
why should anyone care, seeing they knew neither her nor this curious
unknown stranger called Habrunt? In fact, she had not overheard even
the most incidental of news about him, and grew especially wistful
whenever she chanced to think on Habrunt, and prayed for his well-being
every day.

As for false religion, Si'Wren was not formally required to attend the
worship ceremonies for any of the temple gods, nor did she ever once
volunteer to go. For, marvelously, the Emperor had exercised his
absolute power over his domain by indulging himself in the most
peculiar manner, by openly declaring that one called Si'Wren was free
to worship her forbidden Invisible God if she so chose. This unheard-of
privilege especially rankled certain others of the court, and was to
them a particularly vile concern, although they dared not so much as
hint at their displeasure to Si'Wren's face. For equally obvious was
the inescapable fact that Si'Wren had found much favor in the eyes of
Emperor Euphrates, and because of this Si'Wren's neglect of the temple
idols must be overlooked.

And that was that.

Whether this was because Emperor Euphrates was so far removed from the
desperation of life that he had no proper appreciation for the
resultant undermining of the idol-maker's profit motive by such an
endorsement, was hard to tell. Perhaps instead, Emperor Euphrates
actually found something to marvel in, at the very idea of a speechless
young woman silently worshiping an Invisible God.

In view of recent developments, no ranking official would have dared to
compel an alleged idol-breaker, and a known favorite of the Emperor
himself, to attend upon the ceremonies of the gods. Unknown to Si'Wren,
the very subject was what those-in-the-know at the palace considered
'an especially delicate matter'. For to lead her into some deathly
blunder of etiquette, and inadvertently besmirch her newfound dignity,
to which were attributed not her own, but the highest of royal graces
clearly imbued by Imperial decree, was virtually to besmirch the
character of Emperor Euphrates himself, and who would be so stupid as
to dare risk such an awful eventuality as that?

Si'Wren daily prostrated herself on a rush mat in her private quarters
and gave thanks to the Invisible God in wordless praise of both him and
his perpetual blessings. For she did feel blessed, richly blessed, to
know the one true God in such an evil world of scowling idols.

Si'Wren's awareness was constantly filled with the wonders of the
palace, beyond the impregnable walls and outer battlements of which,
stretching far and wide, existed a savage land of perpetual misery. She
had grown much in wisdom, and in native understanding of the
frightfully wicked ways of the world, and found nothing but evil in a
society to whom such idols were a perpetual source of deliberate and
intentional foolishness.

But in seeking real spiritual truth, Si'Wren could only confess to
herself in private that she still knew next to nothing of the Invisible
God. Free to believe in the Invisible God, she had launched herself on
an inner voyage of discovery through vast uncharted realms of the
spiritual unknown. It was a deep and ongoing struggle to overcome
unrelenting feelings that she was as lost as ever, with only her
untutored conscience as her guide.

She could only try not to mimic the false worship she had been formerly
taught for idols, trusting blindly that Holy God would not find some
reason to be offended at her clumsy attempts to give obeisance to Him.
She sought in her heart how best to worship, but at first could only
bow low upon the woven rug in her private chamber, prostrating herself
humbly before an imaginary, holy countenance which she believed to be
all-seeing, and speak in her heart as if to an imaginary personality
that surely must be all-hearing, but she could only wonder what he
truly wanted.

Silently, Si'Wren humbly petitioned this invisible, nameless God that
he might accept her uninstructed worship of him. She prayed that he
would never forsake her. Sworn never to actually speak, she prayed to
him in silence. Unable to actually see him, she often closed her eyes.
Unable to imitate him, knowingly appease him, or observe anything he
might desire, she begged him to pity her and merely accept the fact
that she worshiped him, the Invisible One, the only true and living
God.

One thing she felt sure of. The worship of idols was an act of false,
direst evil. Surely, without a doubt, the Invisible God desired true
worship from her, and not evil idolatry. Si'Wren felt instinctively
that in this must be found true virtue, and thought that she already
had some misty idea of the proper difference between good and evil, but
prayed for perpetual enlightenment in this.

That day, finished with her prayers, Si'Wren turned to an intricately
woven basket on a carved wooden stand laden with ripe fruit, and began
to consume some of it. Preoccupied, she absent-mindedly tilted her head
this way and that as she ate thoughtfully. When she had finished
eating, she sucked the pulp off her fingers, and set the beautiful
basket back on it's stand. Having nothing else to do for the moment,
she looked around her quarters, inspecting everything anew, for she
could not help but marvel all over again every time she reentered her
own private domain at all the fine things which were for her personal
use, and to be considered her permanent possessions.

Imagine, Si'Wren thought to herself, having one's very own private bed
chamber. It was located in the administrative section, the part of the
Imperial palace reserved for the living quarters of the numerous palace
civil servants, and occupied one entire wing of the imposing,
rough-hewn stone fortress which contained many similar fine rooms as
this, each one more glorious than the next.

All around her, in the palace, and in her own private room, were
countless royal delights. The stone walls were paneled in planks of
rough hewn wood, and hung with crude but richly woven tapestries and
curtains.

The floors were of flat stone slabs, not perfectly flat but naturally
smooth and hence very slightly uneven, being arranged so as to make a
level surface, and frequently covered by rugs. Such was the slab floor
in her very own personal room.

She turned to a little round side table and paused to examine anew, a
polished wooden carving of an ox, dark, smooth and gleaming. The
beautifully carved ox was short-legged and stout, with stubby horns,
the whole artistic style being deliberately simplistic, having a
tendency to look like a series of arcs fitly joined together; the horns
and front legs both being arcs that went from side to side, the arcs of
the hind legs, belly, backbone, tail, and head being arcs from front to
back. All arcs.

She looked around, her eyes roaming the room, and admired a decorative,
single-handled water vase that was flat, wide, and round at the base
and gracefully slender for the upper two-thirds. Propped on a small
round table, the tall vase was artfully and tastefully colored in
earthtone shadings of tans and browns. Beside it was a fired clay wash
basin. On the basin were to be seen engraved pictographs of the sowers,
reapers and gatherers of grains. It wasn't so much a collection of
idols, as a picture-script, a visual record of the entire harvesting
process, above which was depicted a simple circle with lines pointing
from it, indicating the rays of the sun as a source of light, and not
as a false idol god.

There was, she perceived, a deep, real difference between the symbolic
meaning and morally acceptable symbolism presented in such hieroglyphs,
or picture-carvings, as opposed to the rank evil of outright, false
idolatry. The symbolic images of honest work seemed most right, proper,
and inspiring, and not at all like the false worship of mere graven
things as false gods.

Hence, she perceived that the pictograph of the harvest inscribed in
the sides of the water basin bore less of the idolatrous, and more of
the earmarks of honest record keeping and written language, which
itself comprised her new profession, rather than of the evil mysticism
of idols, depending, of course, on how one looked at it. Anything could
be made to be idolatrous, but some things, like these pictographs,
could be viewed as mere pictures, and as just another form of written
communication. Dimly, Si'Wren sensed that she was onto something new
and vastly different from anything she had ever conceived of in her
mind before. A whole new way of looking at things, far beyond what the
idol-makers of the House of Rababull had been engaged in doing. It was
good to understand this, and she wondered greatly at the clever artist
who had so faithfully decorated the water basin.

Turning to reach past the polished dark wooden ox, Si'Wren retrieved
the vase. In a perfectly expressionless and somber mien, she poured
water into the shallow basin, filling it almost to the rim, and paused
to consider it's reflection, seen by the light of a tall, narrow,
decoratively barred siege window. One could easily understand that
although water might reflect all things, the water was itself
'invisible' to the extent that one might see through it. Further, the
water itself had no particular shape.

So might the Invisible God, she thought to herself, be seen in all
things, and yet not be seen, even as one looked into the reflection of
the water basin and by this marvelous result behold all mere physical
things of the world. Yet one could no more touch the Invisible God than
one could reach into the reflections in the water and touch them
either. In spite of this, she could easily perceive what was real, and
what was illusion. What great spiritual riches she had found in a bowl
of water.

How could anyone possibly make an idol of the Invisible God? Why, one
might as well try to make an idol of the wind itself, and did not God
so breathe the very wind of life into the first man, the Patriarch Adam
himself?

Adam and Eve had seen God, and talked with Him, when He came walking in
the Garden of Eden, before they were cast out. Was not man said to be
made in God's image, according to the ancient but discredited folklore
and children's fables about Adam and Eve? Hence, the form of man must
resemble the form of God, although man was but man, meaning mankind,
which included womankind, and God was God. Nelatha had once said that
if one went to Paradise, one would see God and live, a God Who walked,
and talked, and could be seen, and Who was yet spirit.

Si'Wren was perplexed, and her thoughts ran to confusion. It was then
that the very real wisdom of Nelatha, which had come from L'acoci, now
betrayed its deeper truths, for Si'Wren remembered at the last that it
was sufficient in Nelatha's understanding as a lowly ignorant slave
girl, like Si'Wren herself, to compare the Invisible God to water,
which one could see, and yet remained invisible. For could not one hold
pure water in one's hand, and both see the water, and yet at one and
the same time, see right through it? And water, she remembered,
reflected all things faithfully. Thus might a righteous and holy God
reflect all men's souls to them in the hereafter, rewarding the good
with more good unto life, and the evil with more of their own evil unto
eternal wailing and damnation.

Thoughtfully, she turned to the window, the frame of which was
overgrown by clinging vines which stretched forth their profusion of
white-streaked, green ivy leaves in every direction. Looking out, she
saw a collection of dirty beggars sitting by the wayside in the street.
They were the maimed, the blind, the diseased, always to be found among
the countless throngs of city-goers and inhabitants.

She turned from the decoratively barred window and went back to the
table, where she stood gazing down at the finely carved wooden ox. To
the poor beggars, it would represent a fortune in coppers. She picked
up the carved wooden ox, so dark, so smooth and lifelike, and returned
to the ornate window. There, she paused for a long time, looking out on
the beggars.

She already thought of the Invisible God as all-powerful by his very
nature. But somehow she could not help imagining that surely he must
desire at least a little agreement, some form of willful participation
on her part, to better the lot of her fellow creatures.

Let the beggars sell the wooden ox, for money to buy food.

So saying to herself, she looked carefully, and tossed the wooden ox
out through the ornamental bars past the green ivy vines.

It turned over slowly in the air and landed unbroken in a pile of dirty
straw beside a group of filthy, crippled street beggars.

As Si'Wren stepped back into the shadows of her window sill, an outcry
arose below in the narrow street. The anxious voices of the beggars
could be heard talking animatedly about this perceived 'miracle'.

When at last Si'Wren dared to lean once more into the deeply recessed
window sill for a peek, for the stone of the fortress wall was
exceeding thick, her delight was turned to dismay.

They were worshiping it.

There they all were, kneeling and bowing to the dumb wooden ox! They
had it propped up on the ground in front of them, off to one side out
of the way of the busy foot traffic.

Shocked, she looked down upon them and stamped her little foot in mute
frustration. They were impossible!

She opened her mouth, fervently wishing to call out to them and let
them know the terrible error of what they were doing.

I threw it! she longed to say. But she had to shut her mouth again, and
could only watch unhappily, with useless, tightly pursed lips and
flashing, angry eyes.

So this was what she was up against. Remorse filled her soul, until she
felt rent in twain by her anguish.

Why God? Si'Wren implored him, dropping in despair to her knees on the
carpet. Why must I thus remain silent in this evil world so full of the
praise of idols? Why God? Why?

Her sorrow multiplied rapidly over what she had unwittingly done in the
name of idolatry, until her eyes blurred over and the unhappy vision of
the beggars happily bowing before their new ox-god became washed away
in a sea of salt tears and she turned away from them in anguish.

Brokenly, she fell across her bed and sobbed herself to sleep.

* * *

The next day, Si'Wren was formally presented by Ibi to the court and
officially assumed her new status as Court Scribe. Emperor Euphrates
was exceeding pleased, which would have made her all the more so by
turns, were it not for her so recent experience with the polished
wooden ox just the day before.

After she bowed low before him, he beckoned to her to sit on his right
hand, several places removed. There were other, more important
dignitaries who with all their robes and finery, considerably outranked
her and sat closer to the Emperor. In fact, immediately to her right
stood a royal palace guard, a rough-looking fellow, with his motionless
back to the stones of the wall and a fearsome-looking spear in his big
hands.

Seeing that the others were seated, she sat down also, and turned to
stare curiously up at the guard standing beside her, but that other
worthy only blinked in irritation and refused to look back at her or so
much as acknowledge her presence.

Si'Wren dropped her eyes from the guard's aloof, stoic countenance,
unaware that already many in the court room were covertly watching the
newly appointed Royal Scribe with shifty, appraising looks, secretly
wondering if she could be induced to sell out to them and at what
price, in rank opposition to her Emperor's open claim to all her
loyalties.

In contrast to the others' extravagance and finery in choice of
raiment, Si'Wren had wisely followed Ibi's sage advice and foregone
such vain nonsense in favor of a simple outfit consisting of
pantaloons, blouse, long cape, and removable head covering, all loose
in the folds but tight at the cuffs and waist, and all in starkest
black.

By contrast, there was easily enough jewelry on all other royal
dignitaries present to assure their inevitable drowning should one of
them happen to accidentally fall into the moat.

Her hair was still the same length as always, almost to the waist in
back. Sometimes, she kept it in a single long braid fastened at the end
with a tiny black ribbon.

She took with her everywhere now her kit, consisting of the various
tools and artifacts of her trade.

This consisted of two little wooden marking sticks kept in a black
leather pouch, and a small honing stick of rough-surfaced lava rock
from the stone masons quarter, for resharpening the marking sticks when
the moist clay softened and distorted their tips. Actually, one had to
set aside the dampened one to dry and use a dry one, and when the
dampened one was dry, then to sharpen. She blinked ruefully at the
memory of the day she had unknowingly tried to sharpen a dampened
stick, and shredded it instead, thereby incurring the wrath of Ibi. How
far she had advanced since that fateful day.

Also, she carried in her writing kit three thin soft clay tablets for
writing on, housed in flat split-bamboo frames fitted with more bamboo
strips to make a back support and allow for greater thinness, and a
small fired clay bottle of water to soften the clay with the judicious
sprinkle of a few added drops as needed.

These articles might be supplied in any desired quantity by the
Emperor's slaves. However, she had been rigorously instructed by Ibi in
all aspects of locating and gathering her own materials in the
marketplace or -escorted by a pair of palace guards- out in the wild,
until Ibi was satisfied that she knew as much about her profession as
those who made her supplies.

She was becoming progressively more skilled in working with these raw
materials, having learned how to manufacture them at her own hand out
of fresh supplies, a technique she had mastered long ago using the
herbs in the spice tent, with dear Nelatha. Momentary recollection of
happier times with Nelatha caused Si'Wren to suddenly realize how truly
long it had been, since those long-ago days.

She took her kit daily with her to the court and carried it openly
before all, as an outward sign of the integrity and mastery of her
trade, justly proud of the way her knowledge of its use and upkeep
demonstrated to everyone that she rightly deserved her appointment to
her office as Royal Scribe. Few could boast half as much, and although
she was not the type to do so anyways, she felt herself to be beyond
all need of boasting.

Ibi did all of the regular and customary record-keeping. Or rather, one
of his shaven-headed underlings sat behind him and did it for him.

Si'Wren was there more than for show, to perfect herself as a studious
worker before her Emperor Euphrates. She was Ibi's most beautiful, and
indeed his only, female Scribe. It was a memorable day spent in service
to the Emperor, and Si'Wren adapted readily and willingly to the
routine.

Afterward when court was recessed for the day, Si'Wren was called to a
private consultation with Ibi, who examined her in great detail and
gave her further instruction in all that he felt needful pertaining to
what she had seen that day.

So was her Royal routine established.

* * *

"If you'll just stand before me, Si'Wren..." said Ibi one day,
mysteriously but calmly enough.

Ever obedient, Si'Wren complied and waited to see what was up.

Ibi turned and waved an arm to signal someone unseen just beyond her
range of vision in the next room, and an exceeding rough-looking
character stepped in. The newcomer, with as many fighting scars on his
skin as any other might have had tatoos, was dressed in a leather skirt
supported by wide, criss-crossed leather straps across his hairy chest
and over the tops of his bulging, heavily muscled shoulders.

He had a leather thong across his dark, thick, unkempt hair, and
sandals fastened by calf-straps like a soldier or professional
sojourner. He carried a sword in his right hand, and the presence of
dirt and grime on him was self-evident by the smell.

The newcomer entered and greeted Ibi formally, and -at Ibi's bidding-
turned and looked upon Si'Wren with bold, appraising eyes that were
unusually bony across the brows, while his blunt, step-ladder nose
looked as if it had been broken and rebroken many times, and his ears
had been boxed so many times they scarce resembled ears anymore. The
newcomer was clearly not a man to be fooled with.

He also stank like an animal. His odor filled the room, but she was
used to being around animals from having spent her earliest years as a
slave, so that she really didn't mind that nearly so much as she might
have, had she been noble-born instead. It just made him that much more
imposing and disquieting to be around.

His face was hard and unflinching, and his eyes were openly appraising
of everything he saw as if he were already preparing for the battle.
She felt his eyes on her, sizing her up. Not that there was all that
much of her to be sized up, she being so small for her age.

"You want to give spurs to this chicken?" the newcomer ventured, with
an skeptical look that Si'Wren found somehow insulting.

"Aye," Ibi sighed with a studious nod of his haggard, hoary old head
and long, flowing white mane. "Do what you can, Mearch. It is our
Emperor's desire that she should learn to do more with horses than to
look at them. I'm getting too old to ride along with his Majesty on the
odd excursion, so a competent replacement has been wanting for some
time. I have any number of young male understudies, but his majesty has
taken a fancy to the girl. Anyway, you're to set her up with her own
mount, and see that she learns how to handle herself on four legs as
well as two."

Si'Wren's eyebrows quickly raised in astonished hope, disbelief, and
anticipation.

For her--a horse?

"She is also to be given ivory marking sticks," Ibi remarked
significantly, "and knows how to make proper use of them, too. You're
looking at a lady of station. We're having them carved now."

"It's your show," Mearch shrugged. "I can give her no ivory, but we can
definitely take care of the horse. If that will be all--"

Ibi paused, looking up at Mearch with a serious expression.

"No, that will not be all. I've seen your negligent attitude toward
outfitting junior officers of the court in the past, and it was
entirely too careless for my liking."

Ibi rose up off his seat suddenly and leaned forward, propping both
bony arms firmly and authoritatively on the workbench as he regarded
the other intently eye to eye, with a look of menace.

"Mearch, listen well. I was given an ill-mannered, ill-treated
ruffian-girl straight from the slave fields, when she came to me. She
was as fresh as the clay on the banks, and it was my job to train her
up in all ways needful until she was found fit to present in court as a
royal officer. I worked hard on polishing her coarse ways, and she has
repaid my efforts beyond all expectation, which pleases me greatly as I
do not relish the prospect of being made a public spectacle by having
fools for underlings.

"Furthermore," Ibi went on, "she is still of tender years, and has
taken a vow of silence for life, and I will not stand for her being
given the customary business-as-usual rough handling at the coarsened
hands of your cocky young studs. If she cannot speak, she cannot
protest, but it would be a fatal mistake to think she is as easily
intimidated as all that. The Emperor himself failed to get a word out
of her, in spite of Borla's ready sword held close under her pretty
little nose. I saw it myself, and it was most impressive."

Whether it was Si'Wren's beauty or her fearlessness that he found so
impressive, Ibi did not elaborate, although a fondly doting Mearch
seemed to have his own ideas already.

"She has since found favor in his Majesty's eyes," Ibi went on dryly,
with an acid look for Mearch's wayward eyes, "and gives better reports
in fresh clay than others seem to manage out of so much bad breath! Am
I getting through to you?"

Ibi held Mearch's eyes for a long, hard moment of utter silence, while
Si'Wren stood self-consciously with eyes downcast, trying to appear as
if the last thing on her mind was to get in anybody's way.

Mearch nodded with an off-handed ease of manner, avoiding Ibi's hard
stare as he examined his dirty fingernails, which smelled as if they
had horse hoof diggings under them, a distinct possibility.

"I will train her personally."

"Mearch--"

Mearch dug at his fingernails momentarily, persisting almost to the
point of disrespect, and finally looked up, to fully meet Ibi's
jaundiced eyes again.

"What?" said Mearch.

"I'll stand for no nonsense!" said Ibi, making the bench clatter as he
pounded it once with a bony fist for emphasis. "She's no plaything. I
expect regular reports on her progress, and her personal safety will be
on your head."

"I hear and obey," said Mearch, somewhat sarcastically, bowing
obsequiously with a formal fist clap to the chest as he turned away, to
the end result that he bowed to the side wall instead of to Ibi, who
sniffed loudly in open disdain of either acknowledging or censuring
such mockery.

Mearch stepped in front of Si'Wren, his massive arms hanging straight
down at his sides as he towered over her. He stood there and stared
down at her expressionlessly for a moment.

Si'Wren merely stood her ground, respectfully avoiding his eyes like
any proper woman, but neither did she try to shrink back from him.

"She is young," said Mearch, a remark which, in an age of
penta-centurions, adult human beings of 200, 400, and even 700 or more
years old, was no idle comment.

"She is that," Ibi mused, staring idly past Mearch at the crudely hewn
stones of the far wall. "Well, Master Royal Armorer? Will you get on
with it?"

Abruptly, Mearch turned to Ibi and hesitated significantly, before
saying to the old Scribe, "How much?"

Ibi stared blankly back at him a moment, until enraged comprehension
filled his features.

"Forget it, Mearch," Ibi rasped in a gravel voice fraught with caustic
skepticism. "She's royal property, and if you so much as petition the
Emperor for her hand, you'll find there are bureaucratic punishments
against which you shall find no proper shield or defense. I have no
intention of losing her services so soon after training her up. She is
brilliant."

"But--" Mearch faltered. "She would become my most favored wife, and I
have but six now!"

"What you ask is unthinkable! She is not for sale and you are not to
molest or entreat her in any disrespectful manner, or you'll be hacking
your way out of a dungeon cell with your fingernails, if they're not
pulled out by the roots first. Is that clear?"

"Aye," said Mearch, looking back at Si'Wren with eyes which were
curiously lacking in their customary boldness. "Such beauty." There was
another long pause. Then he said, "Me, I know weapons, but this one has
slain me already."

Nervously, Si'Wren avoided meeting his eyes. She was ready to listen
and learn, but he was so fearsome to look upon that she found it
difficult to face him. Besides, for a woman to meet a man's stare too
openly was to appear wanton.

Yet, for some odd inexplicable reason, she somehow already felt
agreeable to fierce Mearch's tutelage. He was fittingly warned by Ibi,
and his treatment of her should not be too harsh. Although still very
much unsure of him, Si'Wren fully expected him to behave himself, in
view of Ibi's stern admonishments that she should remain safe from all
harm or harassment in his care.

"Why has the Emperor not taken her for himself?" Mearch asked, in a
disdainful and skeptical voice.

"His Majesty is fond of praise, whereas this one finds talk a bit too
cheap for her liking, even to please an emperor. Anyway she has found
special favor by virtue of her uncommon vow, and has shown iron
resistance against breaking it in the face of honed steel. As Royal
Scribe, she is sworn under oath to strictest secrecy and loyalty."

"She'll never talk, eh? And what better way to keep the king's secrets?
A great pity. But, seeing she shall never speak again, how did she
swear her oath of loyalty to his Majesty?" Mearch asked smugly.

"She can give the nod, and that with a true heart, which is more than
most so-called honest witnesses are called to testify with their lying
lips. That will be all, then, I trust?"

"Aye," Mearch said. "I get the idea. Even so, from what you have said
of her, I still say one could not give in equal trade one's best
stallion for such a woman. But I have a stallion, my best, that she may
have, for to ride upon. Send her down to me at the stables in a week.
No, better make it two weeks. My men only just caught this one
particular horse recently, and I still have to break him in, if I can."

"What are you saying? Do you mean, an unbroken, ungelded stallion?" Ibi
asked in disbelief.

Mearch shrugged.

"He has already broken three of my best trainers' numbskull heads, but
never -never!- have I seen such a fine creature," he barely glanced at
Si'Wren, and added, "or woman. But I, Mearch, can break him to ride
without ruining his spirit. It takes much strength, courage, wisdom of
the heart, and patience, and one dares never use too heavy a hand in
the matter. Yet it is possible, I think, but only by me. That girl and
that horse; they are the same. I feel it. It will be right. You will
see."

Mearch turned for the door.

"No harm will come to her," he called over his shoulder on the way out.

Ibi studied the surface of his desk until Mearch was safely gone.

Then he glowered down at his withered old hands, and said, as if
speaking in Mearch's presence instead of Si'Wren's, "It had better not,
Mearch."

* * *

Si'Wren sat at court every day, whether her Emperor appeared or no.

When Emperor Euphrates did not show, Borla usually heard the cases. Any
problem which he did not feel himself adequately competent or suitably
authorized to deal with, he literally bound the suspect over for
Emperor Euphrates to dispose of later at his convenience.

Si'Wren learned the complex, elusive ebb and flow of court politics,
the petty social concerns, the lawsuits, the drastic and petty
religious differences, and a host of other lost causes.

For practice, she always had to record everything, even if one of Ibi's
shaven-headed underlings was present making official copies. Si'Wren
did not write it out word-for-word, which would clearly have been
impossible, but only took down names, dates, and a few crucial details
about any complaints or petitions.

Then, tiredly, she would retire to Ibi's quarter, and knock the clay
filler from the frames, kneading the used clay with a little water
until she had worked it soft and pliable again. Then she would prepare
the boxes by refilling them and wiping their outside frames clean of
dried-on clay dust and leaving them covered with moist cloth of flax
weave. She would also set her dampened wooden marking sticks neatly
laid out to one side to dry at day's end, and also saw to various other
details of her daily chores. Finally, exhausted, she would retire and
sleep soundly until the cock crew in the early predawn darkness to
signal the start of a new day.

Upon arising and finishing with her toilet, she would take with her a
set of dry sticks to sharpen with a small piece of honing stone, and
lift the dampened linen from her restored clay tablets to find them
looking fresh and soft with a dull smooth gleam when she took them up
to bring along with her for the day.

Mearch appeared one time in Ibi's shop, equipped with a wooden staff.
Advising her that he was still working on his assignment for her, the
Master Armorer made crude knife marks on the rod with a stubby but
wickedly sharp flaying knife as he measured her height, the length of
her limbs, and some other proportions, accomplishing all with a
swiftness and unconscious poise that betrayed long practice at this
sort of thing.

"I shall go, and do, and then I will return, and then you will see," he
finally said. Then his face briefly illuminated with a cheery smile.

Shyly, Si'Wren bowed, and smiled briefly in return. Although she had no
desire to become his next wife, she found him to be well-mannered and
likeable enough, in spite of his crudeness.
        "Do not fear," he said, all businesslike again. "When you come
to the royal stables, I, even I, Mearch, Chief Armorer to the Emperor
himself, will not suffer you to come to the slightest harm."

Si'Wren slowly bowed low to him again.

Mearch grinned, and turned to go back to the stables.

* * *

Si'Wren continued to increase in knowledge and wisdom as she observed
her astute Emperor in court, learning intuitively from the inevitable
daily exercise of her mental faculties how to sift truth from lies, and
how various evils and perplexing situations were to be properly
adjudicated.

There were several ways that crimes were judged. One was by the
severity of the crime itself. Another way was to judge the criminal by
his or her own attitude and intentions. Equally important were the
question of whether the suspect was high born and wealthy, or low born
and bondable, or a beggar, or--most unfortunate of all, a mere
penniless slave.

To Si'Wren, they were all human beings first and foremost, but she was
no judge and could not voice an opinion regardless. However, she was
well aware of the fact that high station was no proof of good
character. In fact, there was very little to call good in any of the
people she saw. They all seemed intent upon doing evil to their
neighbors, and were only sorry to be caught, not for doing wrong.

* * *

One day, Si'Wren was finally given her new ivory marking sticks. They
were beautiful, with different-shaped ends at the tips, for greater
writing versatility, and she felt as if she had been given a gift from
heaven.

Si'Wren was learning how to snatch up her marking sticks and write
swiftly when called upon, mimicking her mentor Ibi and copying the
flood of new words she heard by seeing what he wrote and duplicating it
exactly in clay with the white ivory marking sticks. They were
marvelous. The beautifully carved marking sticks did not grow soft from
her almost ceaseless jabbing of the moist clay when at court, and never
needed resharpening.

At the stables, where she went almost every day during her free time in
the afternoons, she was learning to ride, but not on the horse Mearch
had chosen for her. He refused even to tell her yet which one it was
that he had chosen to be her personal mount. Mearch had chosen instead
to pursue her training period on a gentle mare, to give her a chance to
develop a proper background in horsemanship. Later, he began to put her
on other horses, to give her a greater diversity of experience.

He had every horse in the stable to choose from, and only withheld the
most unpredictable, hostile, or otherwise dangerous animals, which he
would never change his mind about. He reserved those for his hardened
men-at-arms, to be their battle mounts.

However, he did not fail to notice which one caught her eye most often.
It was the one he had secretly chosen for her, a dark, lustrous,
highly-spirited black stallion which the men were afraid to even think
of riding. Mearch believed that the stallion, so wild and untamed, only
needed to have it's trust and cooperation gained, and to be given a
chance to develop a sense of mutual trust and respect for it's rider.

In her other rounds, although no man or woman in the palace went
deliberately out of their way to show any special respect for her,
Si'Wren was not actively persecuted. As Royal Scribe, her appearance
anywhere in the palace might mean nothing but idle curiosity on her
part as an inexperienced member of the palace staff, or it could be
that she was acting in official capacity, and how were the others to
know? To deliberately impede or interfere with her could mean death to
an offender, if she were on official business. Thus none dared lay a
hand upon her or bar her path for the slightest reason.

She got her share of incidental looks, though. Some accepted her, some
despised her, some merely took a good look to see who she was and then
left her alone.

Meanwhile, rumors flew like birds on the wing, telling of Kadrug and
giants, Kadrug and Conabar, Kadrug and this, Kadrug and that, and so on
and so forth.

Si'Wren watched Emperor Euphrates prostrate himself once in private
prayer services to the sun god, beseeching deliverance from Kadrug and
his giants. Emperor Euphrates seemed very worried, though she could not
imagine why. His army certainly seemed large enough to handle any
possible enemy, giants or no.

* * *

One day, Mearch marched into Ibi's private chambers, and returned
Si'Wren's polite bow and Ibi's imperious look with equal aplomb as he
delivered to them both a careless greeting with a wordless wave of the
hand.

Si'Wren's eyes were riveted upon Mearch's other arm, in the crook of
which was tucked an oiled chamois skin wrapping, which was carefully
folded and tied around something rather bulky.

Mearch had only come calling, in Si'Wren's rather short-lived
experience, with a direct regard to the pursuit of her education with
horses, and as she looked on with no small degree of excitement and
anticipation, she suspected that today was to be the day she had been
awaiting anxiously for so long.

"Si'Wren," Mearch beckoned, his face impassive.

Si'Wren had long since discovered that Mearch had a deep and subtle
sense of pride and good will, in spite of his frankly ugly features.
She felt curiously safe with him, as she still could not with so many
others who never smiled at her, and had come over time to count Mearch
as an unspoken ally, until it seemed that the less either he or she
acknowledged it, the more each became aware of this secret bond of
trust between them. Today, with his flashing eyes, he regarded her with
a look of satisfaction and unvoiced promise, for he was, she suspected,
come to fulfill his duty to Ibi on her behalf, and it evidently gave
him great pleasure, though he dared not show it lest Ibi misunderstand
his motives and give him another chewing out.

"Today, little one, you shall ride the horse I have promised," said
Mearch. "Behold."

With a flourish, he flicked his razor sharp stone knife through the
binding of thongs and swept aside the chamois skin, and revealed a
stunning black leather harness and saddle, intricately trimmed with
ivory and silver.

Si'Wren looked on with astonishment, as he held it out to her.

This, she reflected, clutching the riding gear with both hands and
smelling the fine black leather, was for a horse. A horse of her own!
She held the saddle as she smiled at Mearch, and shut her eyes
momentarily in thanks to the Invisible God.

Chapter Six - Coming Out

The following year passed uneventfully, with Si'Wren on an endless
course of private study and practical exercises both in and outside of
court, during the course of which she found little time to think on
other, less pressing concerns.

Emperor Euphrates declared one day that he had decided to review his
kingdom and would greet his loyal subjects openly in the city streets,
and so a date was set.

On the appointed holy day, the royal criers carried out the decree with
much pomp and ceremony and fanfare. There was a large turnout of the
citizenry in the narrow streets. Attendance from the palace was made up
of a long procession of court officers, underlings, self-serving
hangers-on, and peons of every station and calling in life. The display
of royalty was to be immediately followed by a military parade.

It was a grand and wonderful procession.

There were the royal wives and concubines, Fatoo the Sorcerer, Borla
the Royal Adviser, with many beautiful young girls to act as flower
bearers and dancers.

There were the Captains of Fifty with their long lines of soldiers
marching four-abreast with their shields, spears, swords, and bows
carried openly in their hands, together with the lines of proud and
haughty horse and camel soldiers riding two-abreast.

Long lines of filthy slaves in filthier rags, captured in war or
sentenced for various crimes against His Majesty's Kingdom would also
be forced to march in the parade, mercilessly chained together in long
lines at their necks, and with their elbows tied tightly together
behind their backs, and compelled to stagger with their heads bowed
agonizingly.

A single-file of elephants bore close on the heels of the slaves,
causing them to roll their eyes frequently in terror, lest any should
stumble, or the riotous throng stampede the beasts and cause them to be
trampled without warning.

Following after all of this was a loose-knit crowd of stragglers who
had found any number of excuses to follow behind the royal procession.

Every manner of self-styled high-born and social climber showed up to
be in the parade or at least be seen cheering it. They took great
relish and delight in hurling garbage and dung as accurately as
possible at the cringing slaves, who found it difficult to duck what
was thrown at them.

There was much prestige involved in this sort of thing, and it was well
worth the effort to participate with a great deal of obvious show and
personal public visibility.

Natural intoxicants were not in short supply, nor red wine, nor coarse
behaviors, nor physical altercations, but all such were to be seen at
almost every hand, and in almost every direction one chose to look.

* * *

First came the conch-blowers, appointed by Ampho, Royal
Crier at Court. By the time the whole procession got lined up and under
way, there really was no need of criers, but it was all part of the act.

Then came the dancing girls, followed by bamboo woodwinds, and a line
of steadily pounding drummers.

Then came the Royal Guards, all with long pikes or flashing swords in
their grasp.

Then came the litter upon which Emperor Euphrates sat in royal splendor.

On the front of the royal litter stood a pair of live peacocks. A tame
spider monkey rode in the Emperor's lap and skittered restlessly about,
chattering animatedly on it's braided tether leash.

The spider monkey made lewd faces at the crowds lining the streets,
pleasing and entertaining them as they called loudly and repeatedly to
the Emperor, "Peace! Peace!" and "Long live Emperor Euphrates!"

The royal litter was followed by a small flock of ostriches tended by
several boys with switches. One boy had already had to be taken back on
a litter for treatment by the Royal Physician. He had been kicked in
the side of the head by one of the huge birds, but word had it that he
seemed to be doing fairly well, and it was taken as a good omen that he
had only been stunned and not killed instead.

Close behind the ostriches came Si'Wren, riding on her magnificent
black stallion, which, not having been gelded, was, in the hands of any
but Si'Wren, about as controllable as a wild cat on the scent of blood.
The contrasting light as he constantly moved cast his black coat with a
rippling purple-black sheen of dark hues.

Many called out as Si'Wren rode past them, and she rode aloofly,
nodding to whoever seemed dignified enough to merit it, and
infrequently waved back when others waved first. Clearly, many of her
would-be admirers knew nothing of her scandalous reputation as an
idol-breaker.

Bound by her oath of silence, she might as well have been one of those
pathetic, pitiable lunatics who constantly drooled and were ofttimes
possessed, and were either utterly as speechless as idiots, or spoke
the language of the moon, isolated in the midst of all.

She knew that it was really demons which afflicted the minds of men,
and not the moon. However, lunatic or no, she followed the calling of a
different god, and felt as one moonstruck in broad daylight. It was an
odd sensation which persisted steadfast, that somehow she no longer
spoke, spiritually in her heart, the same language as they who
worshiped wood and stone.

Her head elevated above the multitudes, Si'Wren pretended not to notice
as more than a few openly ogled her. The tirelessly prancing black
stallion was clearly of noble lineage, and had the lines of a thunderer
and was blessed not only of classic lines but also of an inordinate
swiftness which, with little Si'Wren on him, made the combination of
horse and rider as swift as a rushing rapids and left the Emperor's
horse-messengers perpetually envious.

Si'Wren's raiment consisted of a long-sleeved blouse and leggings, tiny
slippers, and a riding cape. Every item was absolute, total jet black,
and tight at the cuffs of wrists and ankles and at the waist, but free
to ripple over her slender limbs in the sun and wind. Attached to her
black saddle, chased with silver trim, were her official writing kit
packed in wrapped punk moss in a saddlebag, and a few other items.

Upon Ibi's strict orders, she was forbidden to use berry juice to stain
her lips, or make use of any other form of makeup, or any sort of
adornment or jewelry, because it would have detracted from the
appearance of royal dignity and absolute asceticism in her calling as
Royal Scribe. It was bad enough, decried Ibi one day, that she was only
a female. Worse, she was small even for her age and sex. On top of
that, Si'Wren, born into a world of penta-centenarians, men and women
of five hundred or more years of age, was, at a mere seventeen, so
infernally young.

What was needful, said Ibi, was for her physical appearance and
wardrobe to convey a sense of royal station. Instead of bearing the
appearance of a junior scribe, she needed to carry about her some sort
of outward dignity as a signal to all who observed her, of the terrible
sense of majesty which her high station demanded. She desperately
needed to personify somehow, with but her mere appearance, the fearsome
aspect of sheer awe and awfulness of her high station in Imperial
service to his highness, the Emperor Euphrates, said Ibi.

With that in mind, Ibi had exactingly prescribed and appointed her
formal court uniform, under strictest guidelines, and had put her
totally in black to signify before all and sundry that she was no mere
plaything, but a Royal Officer of the Court.

Never, said he, was she ever to appear in any other color. Else, how
could she possibly expect to be taken seriously by her peers at court,
not to mention the coarse and disrespectful public at large?

Her hair, he observed, must never be cut, neither broidered except
according to his strict guidelines. When actually in court or appearing
in public, she was to braid it in one or more long braids, which she
had permission either to wear straight down the middle of her back, or
coiled up in any one of several formal designs according to his precise
dictates.

He forbade the artifice of vanity in any way, shape, or form, and no
color was to be added to her face. She must not pluck her
eyebrows--which were not that heavy anyway.

That she should only wear black was an agreeable but meaningless edict
to Si'Wren at first, but she was beginning to understand. One must keep
an unflinching eye to the practical business of court. Many unlettered
buyers went to market to look upon the wares of the merchants like so
many red-eyed judges, and they drove exceeding hard bargains. Such
covetous types were everywhere, with a true talent for the sneer kept
ever just below the surface of their gladdest smiles. Such sneers could
be her undoing, Court Officer or no.

Without such unthinking respect on the part of others, how could she
effectively conduct herself, how pursue her royal duties, if held in
perpetual scorn by palace peers and the public? Without the unthinking
esteem of the crowds, the common masses of peoples who thronged daily
to the Emperor's court, how could Si'Wren face up to such coarse souls
as would just as soon laugh in her face and make sport of her meager
person?

It was one thing for the whores to mock a laughing soldier by parading
around half-naked in his armor. No one took them seriously, and the
soldiers enjoyed it.

But such was not to be the case for Si'Wren, declared Ibi sternly.

Si'Wren strove always to follow Ibi's orders, and as time passed she
had learned to appreciate the shrewd wisdom of his directives, and in
the end, Ibi's peculiar ways had somehow come to actually inspire her
willing and enthusiastic devotion and loyalty, where before he had but
only commanded it.

Si'Wren was appearing solo in public for the first time today. That was
because Ibi had not been feeling well lately, and had remained back in
his private palace chambers to try and rest. His body, he complained,
could not 'get heat'. Si'Wren gave him a look of sympathy. She would be
fine by herself.

And she was. Today the roaring crowds cheered her on with the rest of
them as she paraded past. Behind her, a twin-column of murderous
mounted camel soldiers, cut-throats all, brought up the rear and she
felt quite safe in their immediate presence--in public at least. In
private, she would not have permitted herself the extreme risk of being
left alone in the same room with a single one of the filthy scum.

When they came to the outer walls of the city, Si'Wren was already
engaged in turning repeatedly from one side to the other as she waved
grandly at the noisome, chaotic sea of faces, and chanced to look down
upon a cluster of elders, sitting in the city gates.

She smiled and gave the nod in cursory fashion from her perch high up
on her prancing mount, and started to look away...

And looked back suddenly, for there in their midst, sitting by the
wayside in the city gates and clothed in a robe of coarse burr-lap, was
Habrunt!

Si'Wren's heart pounded like thunder as she abruptly pulled the reins
suddenly, halting and wheeling her black steed as she turned him out of
formation and walked the high-stepping stallion skittishly up in front
of him. Then she adroitly slipped a leg over the top of the saddle and
plummeted down with a sudden rush of air to alight on her feet and
stand smiling impishly down at him with her little fists on her hips.

Habrunt peered narrowly at up her, and she bowed ceremoniously to him,
an unprecedented gesture of respect from such an exalted member of the
Emperor's royal court to a mere beggar, which caused no small commotion
among the other elders sitting around them.

Habrunt's dull eyes grew slowly wide as he took her in disinterestedly
at first, and suddenly stared at her in dumbstruck disbelief. All of a
sudden, he was struggling with his walking stick to rise to his feet.

"Si'Wren!" he said in a hoarse voice. "Can it truly be you?"

Si'Wren nodded vigorously, and stood beaming cheerfully at him as
Habrunt wrapped his burly arms around her with an inarticulate
exclamation of joy, and suddenly Si'Wren found herself weeping, crying
and laughing all at the same time, heedless to the sea of faces
surrounding them cheering the Emperor in a continuous deafening roar.

Realizing that she had something she must show to him, she pulled free
of his embrace and wiped quickly at her tears with one rippling silken
black sleeve and turned to the black stallion.

As the stallion shook his dark head and long shaggy mane, and neighed
and snorted loudly and lifted and clopped his hooves on the street with
a series of heavy thuds, Si'Wren steadied him with her hands, and swung
her arm back to sweep her flowing cape out of her way, and reached up
to pull from one of her saddle bags the ivory cuneiform writing sticks,
and a used clay tablet already covered with writing, in a bamboo frame.

Turning to Habrunt, she smiled her most radiant as she held these up
for his appraisal.

"Aha!" said Habrunt, taking and examining everything carefully.
"You--wrote this?"

Si'Wren nodded vigorously.

Habrunt could not seem to believe his own eyes, as he looked
alternately at Si'Wren and her clay writing tablet.

"I see," he said, and Si'Wren saw that his astonished eyes were full of
surprise and incredulity. "I too, can read and write. Your scribner's
style is well-practiced and most admirable! Of a truth, the Invisible
God has worked a mighty work in your life! Because of your selfless
example of faith before all, Si'Wren, I have been mightily uplifted in
spirit, and inspired to speak the more boldly again of the Invisible
God myself before all!"

Full of astonishment, Si'Wren stared up at him as her eyes lit up in
round-eyed wonder, shocked to the roots by this startling and
unexpected revelation.

"Now as for this writing," said Habrunt, "this is most amazing. I know
not what this surprising series of events may portend, Si'Wren, but
verily is the Invisible God the Almighty. For look here who it is that
I have with me."

Habrunt turned, and Si'Wren looked down at an old, old man, who was
totally ignoring the crowds as if they had all gone mad.

"Bassdag!" said Habrunt loudly.

The aged one, who was almost entirely bald-headed, stirred as if
shaking himself out of a fitful slumber.

"Eh? Who is that?"

"How can you sleep at a time like this?" jested Habrunt. "It is the
Royal Scribe of the Emperor, who rides in his procession, and has
dismounted to pay us a visit!"

Habrunt kept his voice loud, to be heard over the river of noise from
the tumultuous throngs that crowded them in at every hand.

"So you say, Habrunt," scoffed the bowed and weary-looking old Bassdag.
"Royal Scribe to the Emperor, eh? Well, where is the illiterate snob?"

Quickly, Si'Wren knelt down on both knees and dipped her head in a
perfunctory bow before the ancient, as she smiled with a merry look to
a proudly grinning Habrunt.

As she bowed low before old Bassdag, sensing her presence, he peered up
at her.

"Your face is awfully girlish, young man," said Bassdag. His speech was
very slow and deeply pitched. "No beard yet?"

"That is because she is no man at all," laughed Habrunt, "but a woman!"

At this astonishing revelation, Bassdag said nothing at first, but only
lifted up his great old white-bearded countenance to stare at her
disbelievingly.

A smiling Si'Wren peered narrowly back at Bassdag, whose eyes surveyed
her critically from under snow-white bushy eyebrows, and she felt the
power of his keen mind, especially in the sharpness and incisiveness of
his voice.

"A girl?" said Bassdag.

Si'Wren kept smiling, but held her peace.

"Why do you mock her," said Habrunt soberly, "seeing she has taken a
vow to the Invisible God never to speak, on her life?"

"Eh?"

"I said," Habrunt went on pointedly, "that one Si'Wren, who kneels
before you now, is no empty-headed minstrel, or some plaything in the
Emperor's harem, but a Royal Scribe in the palace court. She sits
before kings. She prays to the Invisible God."

Bassdag's keen, intelligent frown seemed to bore powerfully through
Si'Wren to her very soul, when the aged man turned his eyes upon her
again.

"Oh!" said Bassdag, with a quick raise of his eyebrows. He seemed to be
genuinely impressed. "That changes everything."

Then Bassdag rose with difficulty, using the assistance of a shepherd's
crook and Habrunt's helping, steady hand.

"Come here, girl," he said.

Timidly, Si'Wren took a step closer, and Bassdag reached up and took
Si'Wren's slender forearm in his large and knobby old hand.

"This old man," said Habrunt, "who is older than anyone I have ever
met, invented--writing."

Si'Wren stared up at the white-haired old face, and was awestruck.

"Aye," said Bassdag, nodding in the affirmative. "Verily I thought I
had created something with which to enrich men's souls. But since
inventing it, much has happened to cause me to believe otherwise.
Sometimes, I think it was all just a waste of time."

Then Bassdag, in a tired, quavering voice, went on, "Tell me, Habrunt.
Is this one sincere soul all that remains in all the world, to follow
after the one true God now, besides ourselves? Just one soul, and that
but a youth and a mere girl? Hath God in truth sworn to love the whole
world, but settled in the end upon only this one soul, but not the
rest?"

Habrunt shrugged.

"I know not, old one," he said, "but methinks you have spoken the truth
in this."

Bassdag stared owlishly at Habrunt, and seemed shaken by the admission.

The shrieks of many in the crowd suddenly increased wildly for no
reason which Si'Wren could discern, the inherent madness of the
outcries making her uneasy as she sought to ignore them and focus on
Habrunt and his friend.

"Surely, Habrunt, these maddened, screaming multitudes, which surround
us at every hand and froth madly at the mouth in the name of sanity;
are they with their voices then to be counted more blessed than she in
her silence?"

Bassdag squinted up at Si'Wren.

"Ye who can read and write, are the only remaining true believer
besides ourselves, and on top of this, thou art sworn never to speak?
This is a mystery! Look around you, girl! Look how they have forgotten!
Aye, they have forgotten all, even unto their one true God who is the
foundation of the world, and the judge of their very souls!"

Bassdag paused, and looked around, his eyes searching the souls of
individual faces in the deafening throngs. Si'Wren felt insignificant
compared to old Bassdag, because she was so much younger and
less-imposing in appearance than he. His frowning, wrinkled countenance
appeared all the more impressive and terrible for it's lack of a
singular target to fasten upon because of his half-blindness.

Continually assaulting Si'Wren's ears were the screams of the crowds at
every hand, as they loudly proclaimed their praises to the Emperor. The
torrent of noise made it difficult for her to listen to the two men
without craning her ear constantly.

Tilting his great white-haired old head to one side at her open young
face, Bassdag said to her in a quavering voice, "Si'Wren, you must
never, never stop serving the Almighty Lord God."

"She does," assured Habrunt confidently, "and she shall!"

"That is good!" said Bassdag, with a slow, ponderous nod of his tired
head and stooped shoulders. "May the Almighty bless you, Si'Wren, and
may your name be remembered forever in Heaven."

He patted Si'Wren on the shoulder. Then, he let fall his arm, and
awkwardly, lowered himself back down again with the use of his
shepherd's crook and seemed not to see her anymore.

"You must come see me again," Habrunt said to Si'Wren. "I am always to
be found here, sitting with the elders in the gates of the city."

Then, Habrunt's face became more serious as he put his hands gently
upon both of her shoulders and looked down into her upturned, questing
eyes.

"Si'Wren, I would speak quickly of a certain matter, before you go. We
no longer have the Master Rababull to worry about. It is possible for
us to hope of living to the Invisible God, and--to ourselves..."

Si'Wren studied him as if seeing him for the first time, marveling at
his strange manner of speech. But Habrunt was so involved in putting
together his words that he was already going on, as if oblivious to the
way she suddenly changed her expression from one of attentiveness to
one of wonder while still looking up at him, her wide-open eyes
fastened upon his so intently.

"I have convinced many of those whom you see here, these wise ones
whose custom it is to sit in the gates of the city, that they must give
up their blind idols and worship the true and living God," said Habrunt.

"All," Habrunt went on, "except Bassdag, who was already a true
believer. But they would never listen to him, until I came along, and
sat with them, and spoke of the same God. Then, when they saw that
Bassdag and I were in agreement, each separate from the other, then
they finally began to believe both of us. While I have not been
entirely successful in convincing them all, I have managed to save some.

"It is you who inspires me, Si'Wren. I have never forgotten you
Si'Wren. Si'Wren, listen to me! Should I be forced to-- to continue
without you a day longer, now that you are of proper age and we have
found each other again, I-- I mean--"

Si'Wren had been staring up at him with eyes full of amazement, and
when he faltered, she blinked, and came to a full, sudden realization
of what had been happening between herself and this beaten-down wreck
of a man called Habrunt, who though he be of ordinary stature, had a
heart that would dwarf a giant's.

Overwhelmed, she nodded earnestly up at him. She reached up with her
writing implements still in her hands, to carefully wrap her slender
arms around his whip-scarred neck and pull him down to her. He held
her, half leaning on his stick, and trembling as he kissed her proudly
on the forehead, and then, after gazing deep into her eyes, he kissed
her again -ever so tenderly- upon the lips, a long, burning, unbroken
contact, putting a lifetime of pent-up passion into one searing eternal
moment. If broken in body, he was still yet noble in spirit. Then they
broke apart, and stood looking long into each other's faces with a
newfound understanding such as rendered all of Si'Wren's lifelong
torments but a chaotic dream.

Habrunt held her in his strong, gentle hands and looked at her, really
looked at her. He searched her eyes again, desperately seeking
something, and finally, crinkled his own in a willing expression of
deep inner rejoicing.

"Do not fail to come back to me, Si'Wren," said Habrunt, becoming more
serious. "If your heart has not cooled these many years apart from me,
let no meddlesome soothsayer tell you that mine has done otherwise.
Remember; if I do not hear from you soon, I shall come and petition the
Emperor myself, and your own hand as Royal Scribe shall record it."

Si'Wren, still looking straight into his eyes, did not move in the
slightest degree, and her face became luminous and radiant as she
finally nodded, her eyes utterly lost within his.

"Good!" Habrunt said heartily, grinning self-consciously in spite of
himself, and showing to Si'Wren a totally different side to the man
whom she had always known before as being perpetually so stoic, just,
and reserved. "It is good, Si'Wren! As your husband, I shall exercise
my right as a free man to redeem you from your vow of silence. But for
now, I think the royal procession is about to leave you behind!"

Si'Wren started as she looked suddenly around at the receding lines of
the procession, and then looked back at him with eyes that lived for
promises to come, of a new world with Habrunt together with her, and of
vast far-flung visions of new life and of laughter, and yet in her eyes
she also showed the apprehension of eternal loss already looming, and
of anguish beyond the torments of the utterly lost, lest there be the
remotest possibility of more than this one final separation.

Yet as he had said, it was time to go. Just like Habrunt, to be always
so dutiful!

She put her things back in her saddlebag, and then turned and reached
up to embrace him quickly. He swept his arms around her again, and held
her tight, and she longed for the moment never to end. Then Habrunt let
go again, and turned to her horse, to hold out a helping hand to her.
Habrunt's back might be weak, but he gripped the saddle for support and
showed that he intended to help her up. Si'Wren flashed a quick smile
at him, and dipped down and gave a little hop as she got the sole of
one tiny foot into one of his large hands like a makeshift stepping
stone, and as he curled his biceps and lifted her in this manner she
eeled herself up in one smooth, perfectly timed motion and swung her
leg over.

Remounted as lightly as a butterfly, she beamed down at Habrunt, and
then looked up and swept the narrow, jam-packed street a fleeting
glance. Then she flicked her reins and kicked her heels in lightly with
a hand-slap on her horse's neck.

The black charger responded instantly, and surged forward in a hurtling
motion of buried muscle as she cantered him down the narrow street past
the noisome throngs. His hooves clomp-clopped the ground in a heavy
rhythm as she caught up to her proper position in the royal procession
and slowed to rejoin them again.

She could not stop herself breathing heavily as her heart continued to
pound. The memory of his scent and the lingering sensation of his
kisses had sent her blood to singing.

* * *

It was a grand procession. Every so often, Emperor Euphrates would cast
a handful of gold coins to the crowds, and their cheering would be
transformed to lunatic crescendos as the throngs dived together in a
sudden concerted rush to get at the coveted coins.

There were people with grievous impairments and afflictions at every
hand, and they were also caught up in the mad scramble for coins. Some
of them were trampled shamelessly by those more able, who should have
known not to be so abusive and unfair.

Si'Wren was aware of all this, yet, brushing tears from her eyes, she
could not help looking back in the direction of Habrunt. But she could
not pick him out now, although she knew he was still there, sitting
with the elders in the gates of the city.

How her heart yearned to see him again--and soon!

Then her eyes noticed something, and she looked far to the rear of the
long line of the procession. There, far behind her, she saw a
boisterous crowd of evil men, bringing up the rear behind the long
lines of battle-hardened camel soldiers.

What were they doing there, she wondered?

Just before they turned a corner to begin heading back into the city by
another route, she heard a loud commotion, angry shouts and wild
screams amidst the cheers, far back at the gates of the city. She
turned in her saddle to look, but could not see what was happening, and
dared not break ranks and turn her horse out of the procession again,
lest she risk incurring the displeasure of Emperor Euphrates or some
other senior dignitary.

Anxiously she craned her neck to see better, but it was no use, and she
finally turned away again, for she must go on.

* * *

Scarcely had they returned to the palace, when word was passed around
that a respected trader had come with important news for the Emperor's
ears only. Such was his nobility and reputation with the Emperor that
the sweating and dust-caked trader was escorted directly through by two
armed guards to an inner chamber for an immediate private audience with
his Majesty.

Soon after, Emperor Euphrates sent word that an emergency session was
to be held in his private chambers, and, with Ibi lying ill, Si'Wren
was called to attendance.

Anxiously, Si'Wren delivered her horse to the stables, and stopped by
Ibi's workshop to retrieve fresh writing supplies. With a proper kit in
hand, she hastened through the royal gardens and made her way through
the crowded palace passages toward the meeting chamber. Around her as
she approached the meeting, the palace dignitaries were still
celebrating, for it had been declared a day of feasting, and the sounds
of continual merrymaking were on every hand.

In a private chamber just large enough to hold them all, Si'Wren took
her seat several positions to the right of the Emperor, and when all
officers of high position had arrived, the wizened-looking old trader
was invited to retell his story.

The sojourner began, and spoke at length.

It seemed there was a great prophet in a land far to the northwest,
whose name was Noah. He was a Patriarch, and a man to be reckoned with,
and all held his words in high esteem, although no one believed the
prophecy he had been speaking imploringly to all of late. Noah, said
the trader, was the son of Lamech, who was the son of Methuselah. These
were all great Patriarchs of wide renown, individuals commonly known in
their own time and country to be men of vast intellect and lofty
pursuits.

This Noah, the trader continued, was no exception. Noah had begun
building a vast ship, of a size well beyond the scope of any known
shipwright of the day, out of gopher wood.

Si'Wren duly recorded the name of Noah, son of Lamech, son of
Methuselah, and awaited further recording instructions or questions.
People could be quite long-winded, and her writing capacity was rather
limited by the relatively small size of the clay tablets, versus the
set size of her cuneiform marking sticks. By Ibi's own oft-repeated
instructions and judiciously worded admonitions, she knew that one must
be frugal with one's free space on a clay tablet. One could only get
just so much down on one slab.

Si'Wren must frequently sit at court, virtually unnoticed on the
sidelines, for interminable periods as the great lords droned on and
on, lulling her almost to sleep with sleepy blinked-back tears of
utmost boredom. Only, all of a sudden, for some speaker to abruptly
begin an unexpected, long string of names, all of them sons and fathers
and in-laws of this or that important personage, and she must suddenly
scramble to record all before they slipped from memory. She rarely
slipped up, but it could be grueling at times.

Fortunately, only three generations had been mentioned this time; Noah,
and his father and grandfather along with their common titles of
Patriarch. That was easy.

As Si'Wren continued to follow the words of the trader, she noticed
that Emperor Euphrates seemed to be unusually agitated by what was
being said, and she could not help speculating distractedly on why this
should be.

What seemed to scare Emperor Euphrates so badly, from what Si'Wren
could garner, was that this great Patriarch called Noah wasn't just
building another ship by the sea shore, for ordinary fishing or
trading. Oh no, not this one called Noah. He was a different kettle of
fish altogether, for he was working far from the sea shore, over by the
forests where he would not have to haul his wood so far.

It was a little backwards, and in fact seemed outright senseless on the
face of it. Customarily, as all knew, you must haul the wood to the
seashore, and build beside the sea. Very close beside it, in fact. For,
who could haul a finished ship? Even a rowing bark was carried upon
it's owner's back no further from the sea than absolutely necessary,
which for such a one happened to be the grass-tufted dunes just beyond
the line of the high water mark.

But as for Noah, the vessel which he was building was enormous, and was
referred to as an ark. A great ark. It was so far from the sea that all
peoples in the land round about him had begun to mock him for his
foolishness.

According to the trader, this Noah was declaring openly to all who
would listen, that he had a direct revelation from the one true God,
the God of legendary Adam himself. Adam, who was rumored to have first
pronounced the long outmoded and unpopular prohibition against any
making of idols.

At this, everyone paused to turn and stare thoughtfully at Si'Wren, who
froze and, after a momentary, unintentional confrontation with them
all, dropped her eyes humbly and stared red-faced down at her clay
tablet and ivory marking sticks. She suddenly wished her hair was not
braided, that she might hide her face even partially from their eyes,
behind it's natural veil.

The trader paused and stared at her also, clearly wondering why they
should all react in so peculiar a fashion, as to respond by singling
out a mere Scribe, and a female at that, for such untimely scrutiny as
this.

Then, without explanation, Emperor Euphrates bade him go on, and the
trader forgot their odd reaction as he continued his tale.

The trader related that, according to the Patriarch Noah, God was going
to send a great flood to judge the world. Water, declared the
messenger, would actually rain in droplets from the sky in so great a
quantity, and for so great a time, sufficient as to drown all the earth
even unto the inundation of the tops of the highest mountain peaks,
because of the perpetual wickedness of men.

At mention of this unheard-of 'rain of droplets', the room was filled
with rank consternation and the openly expressed scoffing of more than
a few of those high-born present, momentarily interrupting the
apocalyptic narrative. But perceiving a disapproving frown from Emperor
Euphrates, a stern-faced Borla silenced them all with a warning look
and lifting of fingers upon a momentarily uptilted wrist at the end of a
black-enshrouded arm, and the trader finally went on.

This Patriarch Noah, said the trader, was calling upon all men to
repent in sackcloth and ashes of their evil ways, before God's thinning
patience should finally run out and his wrath bring this harsh
judgement upon all their heads.

"This is indeed a far-fetched tale," mused a deeply frowning Borla in
his customarily heavy, foreboding tone of voice. His head was bowed
thoughtfully, with his hand to his chin, stroking his beard sagely.

"Humph! Mm, yes," Emperor Euphrates nodded, as he agreed readily enough
with Borla's idle comment. "It has been fetched far alright; all the
way from the land of Noah. But--how can one possibly determine what
degree of truth there be in such a case?"

The question was asked of no one in particular, and there was no reply
forthcoming.

Then Emperor Euphrates turned to Si'Wren, and said, "Well chosen were
you, Si'Wren, of all possible souls, to be appointed Royal Scribe,
against this day of judgement by your strange Invisible God, who
regards all idols with such abomination, and whom this great prophet
Noah also worships, even as you. Make a proper summary of our words,
and so mark the record as befits all that you have heard. You may use
one tablet."

Si'Wren bowed low and quickly began to enter long, tiny lines of dainty
hash markings with her ivory sticks.

When Emperor Euphrates told her she had one, two, three, or more
tablets with which to record, he was usually giving her a pretty good
idea of the scope of the spontaneous summarizing and editing which was
expected of her.

One tablet, here, was significant because of the brevity and impact of
the record called for. There were so few relevant details, anyway. It
wasn't like a murderously complicated property boundary dispute, for
instance. Or a tally of gifts to the Emperor, so many articles of gold,
so many chalices of silver, so many horns of incense, and so on. Or
worse yet, an Imperially granted Honor. For Honors, you had to get
everybody's relations correct and in order, an exacting task which
could take long and leave her hollow-eyed over such labors.

Borla moved to stand close behind her shoulder and watched silently as
she made her marks.

She used to grow nervous when he did that, but she had since learned
that all he desired was to make sure she put in all the truly relevant
details, made no unnecessary errors, and left out that which was
obviously unnecessary.

Under such impromptu tutelage from Borla, Si'Wren had soon learned what
to put in, what to leave out, and how best to arrange it, working
swiftly, neatly, and accurately. Now she unconsciously strove for
greater excellence than ever before, as Emperor Euphrates questioned
the trader further.

Halfway through, Emperor Euphrates paused and turned his head to regard
Si'Wren's progress, and said, "Another tablet shall be wanting, Scribe."

Si'Wren nodded as she quickly finished the first frame and picked up
another, and bent to her writings, expertly marking the smooth clay.
After that, there were a few more details to be recorded by Si'Wren,
who paid diligent attention to whatever else Borla might see fit to
prompt her to enter into the record.

The Royal Advisors, wise men all, and known to Si'Wren to be wicked
beyond measure, conversed with their Emperor, occasionally directing
pointed questions to the trader concerning various particulars, while
she caused her ivory marking sticks to fairly fly over the smooth
glistening clay of her tablet.

Unbidden, she finally pulled out a third clay tablet for the record,
and none challenged her decision.

Listening anxiously to the story of Noah, the attitude of Emperor
Euphrates and his Royal Advisers gradually changed from frightened
alarm, to nervous mockery. By and by, the Royal Advisers became
unanimous in advising their concerned Emperor to disbelieve this weary
traveler's mad tale. Besides which, this so-called Prophet Noah didn't
even have true religion. A single god who could not be seen, and the
universal worship of idols spoken so openly against as a vile and
divinely forbidden practice? The very idea!

But Emperor Euphrates would not be placated. He was very much afraid of
the words of this prophet and his one Invisible God, this Patriarch
called Noah.

Finally, Emperor Euphrates signaled straw-thin Ampho, the Royal Crier,
who stuck his beaked nose into the air and closed his eyes as he
sounded out, considerably less loudly than in open court, "All keep
silence before the great Emperor Euphrates!"

"Mark my words," said Emperor Euphrates, for the benefit of Si'Wren.

Si'Wren shifted to a fourth clay tablet and waited, her marking sticks
poised to fly.

"One called Noah, a noble patriarch who has pronounced both prophecies
and judgements before God," said Emperor Euphrates, "shall be visited
by Emperor Euphrates, and petitioned with all royal gifts and honors
befitting his noble reputation, to determine if he is a true prophet of
the God who hates idols, or a liar and mocker. I, Emperor Euphrates,
have spoken."

The nobles present all betrayed their unexpected surprise at this
pronouncement, yet obediently gave the customary nod, but this they
seemed to do a bit reluctantly, it appeared to Si'Wren.

Did they resent the idea of their Emperor risking his life thus, or did
they, too, fear as their Emperor obviously did, the stunning revelation
of this strange prophet and his industrious work upon an ark of such
immense proportions?

An ark made so far from any body of water, intended for the day when a
great flood such as no man had ever witnessed should cover the whole
earth! Such a tale was frightful beyond all imagining.

Emperor Euphrates turned and said to Si'Wren, "Scribe; Ibi is not well.
You will make immediate preparations to accompany me on a journey into
the far land wherein dwells this Noah, to see what the truth of this
matter may be."

Si'Wren nodded readily at this, and bowed low.

"Along the way," added Emperor Euphrates, "I would hear more from you
about this strange Invisible God who so despises idols."

Si'Wren looked up at him in momentary confusion. If she had sworn a vow
never to speak, how was she to do this?

But Emperor Euphrates waved an idle hand at her clay tablets and
marking sticks with a nod.

Abruptly, Si'Wren flashed a look of understanding. How silly of her to
forget, and she nodded and bowed hastily to show her acknowledgment.

The meeting having come to it's conclusion, all bowed before Emperor
Euphrates as he rose and went out. Then Borla dismissed them all after
an announcement that an expedition was to be mounted and various
individuals were to be expected to go, and the meeting was over.

As the murmur of astonished male voices went on around her, Si'Wren
entered the date, with her personal 'signature', two short squiggles,
one upright and one laid over. Lastly, she marked a quickly executed
pictograph of a king's crown. It was an oft and well-practiced suffix,
to signify that it was Emperor Euphrates's own decision, rather than
that of an underling such as Borla.

* * *

That evening, as Si'Wren prepared herself for the long journey, on
which Ibi could not come because of his extreme age and many
infirmities, Si'Wren learned from her mentor of truly shocking news.

There had been a great commotion in the city gates, said Ibi, after the
royal procession had passed by. A huge crowd of evil men had stormed
through, and beaten off the elders of the city and taken over the
gates. Many were killed.

Si'Wren's eyes grew large and serious at the hearing of this.

Then Ibi, still ailing and in a very weakened physical state, put a
heavy hand on her shoulder, and said to Si'Wren, "Among the dead,
little one, was one of great and noble reputation, called Habrunt."

Si'Wren stared up at Ibi, eyes disbelieving.

"Aye," said Ibi quietly, with a woeful, tired nod. "I knew of him, and
of your love for him. When two such hearts as yours and Habrunt's beat
so strongly for one another, even the deaf can hear that noble drum
beat. It was said of him that while the elders all fled like cowards to
save their own skins, Habrunt remained in spite of his injuries and
rose up to his full former stature, and knocked down his first attacker
with a staff of hard wood which the sword had failed to cut in twain
despite repeated blows. So Habrunt prevailed against the first one with
his staff, and then used the man's own sword to cut them down like
tares before they finally surrounded him and slew him by their
overwhelming numbers.

"Who could have preferred it any other way, least of all Habrunt
himself?" Ibi went on. "Many grieve besides you, Si'Wren, for the
memory of lost Habrunt. They say Habrunt stood his ground with none to
help him, and sought valiantly to defend the aged one who invented
writing, and who was slain together with him also. Yet his majesty the
Emperor Euphrates, on being informed of this, washed his hands of the
entire wretched matter and has chosen to do nothing whatsoever about
it."

Si'Wren felt hot tears well up in her eyes, stinging them, and blurring
her vision as she dropped her eyes from Ibi's, and stared numbly at the
stones of the floor where the tears fell from her cheeks in an
accumulated pattern of insignificant spatters.

So, that which she considered the greatest news of all, was no news at
all to her Emperor.

She felt at her pouch, without looking, for her ivory marking sticks,
and slowly drew them out with trembling fingers.

The great Emperor Euphrates was desirous that Si'Wren should instruct
him, on this long journey, on the virtues of the Invisible God, a God
who hated idols.

Bitterness filled her heart and soul, as Si'Wren clutched her beautiful
ivory marking sticks with unseen fingers and hung her head in grief,
staring blurrily down at the splashes of her tears like mythical
'raindrops' upon the dull smooth unevenness of the stones.

This strange Invisible God had suffered a speechless one to 'speak'
through clay tablets, to an Emperor whose ears were perpetually
deafened by the turbulent but illiterate praises of the crowds.

It was a hard-won 'miracle', her speechless literacy, considering the
mortal sufferings she had endured under Ibi's sage tutelage to bring it
to pass. For the sake of God, if not her past miseries, she would have
a thing or two to inscribe for her Emperor's pleasure, along the way.

She would consult her own broken heart in the instruction of his stony
one, that it should burn within him to hear more of the truth about the
Invisible One, as Habrunt's once had.

This she must do. Let there be no mistake about it.

Chapter Seven - On The March

The expedition made good time for the first few days. A considerable
body of men at arms was taken along to act as a bodyguard. Mearch,
Royal Armorer, stayed behind to keep the city garrison.

They marched parallel to the river through the midst of the gulf plains
for a good distance, and were able to travel with little danger through
the fertile lush vegetation.

Eventually, they left behind the last outpost of the Emperor's domain,
and it was with a lonely, forbidding feeling that Si'Wren watched the
trader urged his camel forward at the head of the long column. From now
on, he was to act as their only guide, and they were to put their trust
in him, as he lead them into an unfamiliar and hostile world in which
all men were to be automatically regarded as enemies until proven
otherwise.

The trader had traversed the entire distance himself, and had kept a
good record of his travels, which journal was employed now as their
only hope of locating the legendary Patriarch Noah. However, chance
encounters with various refugees fleeing in the opposite direction
later in the day, brought out the news from several independent sources
that a terrible war between two kings, rival brothers, had made their
chosen route impassable.

Borla finally called a halt and a short conference was held. He looked
deeply concerned, and for good reason. Although Si'Wren was called to
attendance, she was not asked to make a record of it because it was
felt that once they had decided which way to go, there would be no need
of further mention of their predicament. Borla was reluctant to see the
men caught up in some local squabble, and Emperor Euphrates readily
agreed that it was better to keep the troops fresh and in high spirits,
for they had a great journey ahead of them.

Hence, Si'Wren was able to learn firsthand of their deep-rooted fear,
as the fateful decision was finally made to turn aside. It was
something of an eye-opener for Si'Wren to learn that her mighty Emperor
could possibly be afraid of anything to the point of actually avoiding
a deliberate showdown, and taught her much about the immensity and
hostility of the world.

She could not help but share their fear, when they finally concluded
their impromptu conference of the leaders of the Captains of Fifty, and
with false bravado, announced to the men their intention of striking
out across-country into an uncharted domain, in a forced-march across a
profligate wilderness in which both men and beasts were so savage that
civilized souls did not venture forth unless they went in large,
heavily armed groups and then only with good reason.

To Si'Wren, it was readily apparent that they would no longer know for
certain how best to direct their path. The trader himself would only
have the most vague idea of which meander to take at every fork. What
with the unbelievable twisting of the various water courses and almost
complete impassibility of various forms of terrain they had encountered
so far, their journey had become a maze at which the most intelligent
and informed of them could only guess which way to turn. Even with
experienced scouts sent ahead on horseback to search out their route,
they were in a constant quandary over which way to go next.

After several days, their journey took them up out of the plains into
the humid highlands of a continuous jungle in which plants and animals
grew in a great profusion such as Si'Wren could not have believed
possible had she not seen it with her own eyes.

Each evening, the Captains of Fifty posted their outwatches, and
Emperor Euphrates summoned Si'Wren to him, and by the light of a
bonfire would question her at length about the Invisible God. Si'Wren
tried to instruct him as best she could using her clay tablets,
portions of which she sometimes hastily backtracked and obliterated
with the heel of her palm, to make way for better explanations. She
hardly knew what to write but seemed to make sense enough to please his
Majesty, if not herself.

For it was a bewildering contest in which the established deities stood
linked rank upon rank against her Invisible God, and the thought of
what the Patriarch Noah would have said weighed heavily upon her mind.
As a result she was frequently plagued by hesitation and confusion as
Emperor Euphrates waited patiently to read each reply from her, and
Si'Wren was thankful that scornful Borla was not a participant.

But always, upon retiring to her tent each night after yet another long
'discussion' with her Emperor, Si'Wren was left feeling wrung dry.
Then, surrounded by pitch darkness and the strange distant cries of
unseen night creatures both great and small, she would pray fervently
to Him in private, and finally slip away into sleep wondering yet again
what sort of a God could have produced such a far-reaching creation in
which man and beast alike so readily displayed such unbridled savagery
and madness.

* * *

One night, as they sat encamped on a broad hilltop clearing, Si'Wren
watched the thickening night mists roll over the land, swathing the
jungles of the hills and valleys in a gauzy white shroud, and she
considered at length what the Invisible God would have wanted her to
communicate to her Emperor, if she could but guess rightly even one
time what that might be.

But she was left, as before, with a wilderness of the soul like unto
that surrounding them, in which the elusive refuge of Divine Truth
seemed as remote as the tale of the Prophet Noah's mythical ark.

They were resting and warming themselves at fireside, having just
finished the evening repast. She had extra clay tablets stacked beside
her, with one in her lap, having just finished the dictations of
Borla's notes about the day's journey into this strange land.

* * *

A little earlier, right after making camp, one of Emperor Euphrates's
Captains of Fifty had approached and thrown himself down before Emperor
Euphrates, to complain loudly to the dust under his nose that Si'Wren's
beauty was exceeding distracting to the men because of the way they
could not help watching her while she consumed her food. He also
alleged she was coquettish in her manner and playing the flirt to his
men. They could not bear it, he said, and had voiced numerous and
bitter complaints to him about such an unconquerable distraction.

Further, he declared that they were justified in their protestations,
for behold, were they not all under enforced celibacy because they
could not bring along their accustomed camp prostitutes on the long
forced march to Noah's land?

Si'Wren, of course, could say nothing in her own defense, but expected
that her Emperor might, because he already knew that she was sworn to
such higher callings as precluded by their very nature the rottenness
of character necessary for her to act in the manner she stood accused
of. It was simply beneath her dignity, not to mention her calling.
Besides which, her suitably modest behavior did not seem to have
displeased Emperor Euphrates or Borla in the past, and this was the
first time she had ever heard of such complaints.

But after her Emperor had ordered the Captain to return to his men, to
her chagrin, he had commanded Si'Wren that she should retire to her
tent whenever eating.

To Si'Wren, it seemed ridiculous, but henceforth she knew that she must
comply obediently without question.

* * *

Now, the memory of her indignity was put aside as Si'Wren sat before
Emperor Euphrates and inscribed in her tablets her intuitions regarding
the Invisible God.

Tonight she was attempting to explain, out of her own ignorance, with
but her own trueness of conscience to guide her, that the Invisible God
was not the same thing as his creation, the world, and also that,
although he was also spirit, or 'wind', he also liked to compare
himself in some ways, although not all ways, to water.

For instance, one might venture to 'see' the Invisible God by a most
curious trick of the eye, as by the discovered reflection of one's face
when looking into the still, motionless surface of any pond or wash
basin of water, which was also, after a fashion, invisible. In the same
manner that might one 'see' all things by looking obliquely at their
reflection in the still water, so also was the Invisible God both
'seen' in his creation, as by reflection upon water, and yet not seen
at all, since water was itself invisible.

Emperor Euphrates read this upon her clay tablet, and smiled as he held
low before her eyes the mirrored surface of a golden goblet of red wine
and suggested, "This also, yes?"

Si'Wren hesitated long and contemplatively, as he held it low before
her eyes, so that she might study his grinning reflection in the deep
red of the wine.  God was spirit. Wine was a spirit drink. This
perplexed her deeply, for she wished not to blaspheme. Finally, after
thinking it over intently, she bowed low and agreed with a brief
hesitant nod. Yes, she wrote, praying she would not offend Him; The
Invisible God might be like wine.

Getting back to her basic belief that He was like water, she wrote
further, begging the question; Who can make an idol to represent water?
Water flows like a living thing, and can bear no set shape, and how
shall the finest sculptor thus fashion copies of silver or gold to sell
and get gain?

The happenstance mention of the Invisible God's remarkable immunity to
the touch of filthy lucre, a truth conclusively established by the
impossibility of selling idols of him, seemed to impress her Emperor
beyond all measure. For he spent all of his days, dealing with the
contests and affairs of men who all wanted it, and who were all,
without exception, corrupted by it's touch.

Later, Emperor Euphrates sat staring out into the gathering dusk, and
appeared deep in thought, as if much affected by what she had written.

Si'Wren had long since come to learn that even when one conversed with
Emperor Euphrates, and seemed to have his entire, undivided attention,
part of his mind was ever awander as he considered all things in his
great kingdom. He had that look about him now. He had a marvelous mind,
that seemed to find clarity where others might perceive only the sheer,
blind face of an inner stone wall.

The advancing fog of eventide had already covered and obscured the
lowlands, giving one the exalt sensation of looking down as from heaven
itself upon all the world, and cloaking symbolically with the gathering
darkness it's all-encompassing evils as with some inscrutable divine
forbearance. A forbearance, Si'Wren reminded herself, which the
foreboding ark of Noah bespoke to be nearly at an end, and which
thenceforth would be turned to wroth.

She listened to the unseen cries of creatures in the jungle, while the
fire crackled and snapped, warming her. Basking in it's heat, she felt
lulled by the flickering flames.

"You are most obedient and dutiful," said Emperor Euphrates.

At this, Si'Wren looked up at him expectantly, waiting respectfully to
see if he would say more.

"Must you always wear your hair up in such dreadful braids?" he went
on. "You should let it out. You are a beautiful girl. You should
display your beauty, for your Emperor's glory and enjoyment."

Si'Wren looked up at him in involuntary surprise, and when he smiled
further encouragement, she bowed low, and raised herself again to full
upright sitting posture.

After a moment's awkward hesitation, she dropped her eyes shyly as,
unsmiling, she reached back with both hands, her countenance downcast
in deep modesty, and self-consciously undid the tie that held her long
braid secure at the end.

She played her fingers through her hair, unraveling it until it fell
loosely across her shoulders and she was able to shake it out in a
glossy reflective black that shone with red-orange highlights from the
dancing flames.

Tired from the day's riding, she gazed again into the fire pit, feeling
infinitely more relaxed by the loosening of her braid and secretly
gnawing a corner of her lip in unconscious self-doubt. First she was
instructed to eat in her tent so as not to unduly arouse the troops,
and now--this. She did not know quite what to make of it.

"The Invisible God who hates idols," said Emperor Euphrates. He paused
thoughtfully, before going on. "Is he not like unto this fire before
us, a 'living fire', as it were?"

Si'Wren frowned at this new idea. Then, after a long hesitation, she
finally wrote on her clay tablet, 'It is possible', and tilted the face
of the tablet so the fire itself could illuminate it.

"Then, is not the Invisible God the same thing as our very own Sun
God?" asked Emperor Euphrates quickly, as if pouncing on the winning
point of a most cleverly-worded argument.

'Not so', wrote Si'Wren, without hesitation.

She showed this to Emperor Euphrates. Then she turned the tablet
towards herself, and wrote further upon it. Finally, she turned it
towards Emperor Euphrates again.

'The Invisible God,' Si'Wren had now written, 'in Whom, like water, all
things are reflected, is the Creator of all things. But if He made all
things, then He must be higher than all things or idols.'

"I see," said Emperor Euphrates, when he had read this. "Tell me, then,
shall we see this Invisible God, when we die?"

Si'Wren thought at length, and finally, without writing anything more,
turned her tablet to him and indicated, using her ivory writing stick
as a pointer, her earlier line wherein she had written, 'It is
possible'.

Emperor Euphrates regarded the line for a long moment, and finally, he
said quietly, "So..."

He nodded thoughtfully to himself, and remained silent.

After a short time, during which interval he said nothing more, he
retired to his tent for the night, while an honor guard of four
spearmen stood outside of it's four corners in silent, constant
vigilance.

Si'Wren was left sitting before the fire, staring down at her
assortment of clay tablets as she thought intently about the true
nature of the Invisible God.

For, besides the parable of a reflection in water, she did not truly
know. There was so little to go on, certainly nothing written, whereas
others had such magnificent idols of wood, ivory, noble metals, and
fine gemstones crafted by the gifted hands of talented men. They also
had their ceremonies, their priests, their temple servants. It was so
easy for them to give an answer to any difficult question, and to
reassure one-another that they were so right.

But as for Si'Wren and her Invisible God, she could only feel a deep,
chiasmic remorse that there was no one to ask, and she knew of no other
living true believer in the whole wide world now, besides herself, and
the Patriarch Noah, whom she knew not.

* * *

That night the clouds gathered thick and dark, and the very air itself
seemed charged, and deathly still. It made the men grumble uneasily,
fearing what monsters or insanities their imaginations might conjure.

All of a sudden, there was a blinding flash in the black night as a
bolt of lightning struck the ground just outside the camp, it's searing
brilliance accompanied by an ear-splitting CRRRRAAACK!!! and an echoing
thunder that rumbled across the darkened heavens.

Terrified, the entire camp scrambled for cover.

It was the beginning of a terrible lightning storm. Far into the night,
coruscating bolts like living javelins of fire struck the ground again
and again with their blinding stabs of jagged light. Si'Wren hid also,
wondering as she cowered whether the Invisible God was angry with her
for giving such clumsy explanations to the Emperor, or so pleased as to
reinforce her mere clay words with divine, jaggedly brilliant writing
sticks of his own.

One foot soldier could suddenly stand it no longer, and ran off
screaming thin shrill cries into the darkness. He had just reached a
little hilltop, a mere rise in the land, when -still shouting madly and
hysterically- he was hit and blasted. His body lay in a heap, twisted
and blackened, the clothes shredded.

Thunder rolled across the darkened land. The camels, horses, and other
pack animals were already thoroughly spooked, and Borla gave orders
that the precious, irreplaceable animals be given hands-on guarding
throughout the night lest they break their tethers and run away.

But some of the watchmen refused to go out into the lightning-filled
darkness of this strange and foreign land at first. Then a new form of
thunder could be heard throughout the camp, the crack of whips as the
Captains of Fifty drove their fearful watchmen out of their tents to go
to their duty posts.

Si'Wren sat in her tent and fought hard not to cower or grovel before
the storm, and would have passed the entire night in prayer to the
Invisible God, had she not finally collapsed into an exhausted slumber
filled with tormented dreams and terrible, awful visions.

* * *

With the coming of the dawn, the world seemed a saner place again. The
sun rose, and the sky slowly brightened, and soon, except for a certain
sullenness in some faces, the soldiers were about their appointed tasks
almost as if nothing had happened. Si'Wren arose, and groomed her
horse, and saw to his provender. Only after she had taken care of the
glossy black stallion, whom she admired more than any horse in
existence, did she think of her own needs.

"Am I not," Emperor Euphrates said over a sumptuous breakfast, as he
sat gazing speculatively into the freshly fagoted flames of the
morning cooking fire, "Emperor Euphrates, ordained of a God who rules
even the lightning and sees fit occasionally to pass men through the
burning mantle, even as he struck down one of my subjects this past
night? And as Emperor, am I not able to do and command as I please,
that I might order a child to be passed through the fire, the better to
imitate and please this God?"

Si'Wren's eyes grew large in shock and alarm as she paused in preparing
her repast to look up at him suddenly. She was about to retire to her
tent, but all thought of nourishment was forgotten as she shook her
head vigorously in the negative. Then in response to his words she put
aside her breakfast and rose to her feet. Resorting to her tent, she
retrieved the clay tablet of the night before and emerged holding it by
it's bamboo-backed box frame.

'Not so', she wrote, and showed it to him.

Then, growing bolder, she turned it to herself, and underlined with
exaggerated slowness this direct refutation, and turned it again to
show him, regarding him eye to eye with a certain sense of somber
gravity. She was not talking so much with words now, but with her
entire physical posture for added emphasis.

He could have had her executed, for it was dangerously disloyal to
contradict him like that, especially with any question having directly
to do with the gods.

"Ah, so," said Emperor Euphrates, nodding. "Not to kill unnecessarily,
I suppose, eh? But, of a truth, we all know that without shedding of
blood, there can be no sacrifice. According to the old legends, was not
Adam himself covered with an animal skin when he was banished from the
Garden of Eden? Surely, if this Invisible God--"

He paused, looking obliquely past Si'Wren, as if searching for some
clue of more than passing significance, the better to pursue his
unusual chain of logic.

'To be merciful,' Si'Wren wrote, remaining carefully apropos of his own
words. Then she added, 'Kindness is better than cruelty.'

"You think so? But does not even this depend upon the circumstances?
Foolish men must be punished, and what the gods declare must be carried
out. Do you not agree?"

Si'Wren hesitated, and felt a great upwelling of truth that would no
longer be quelled. She paused with marking sticks held poised in
stilled fingers above the moist clay, and then made her first markings
in its smooth freshness. What she was about to write would be rank
blasphemy, but she could no longer contain herself.

'The smith', Si'Wren wrote, 'labors hard in the coals, using tongs. He
pounds his many gods with endless hammerings, working by the strength
of his arms. He is mortal, for he hungers, and his strength fails, and
if he drinks no water he soon grows faint, yet he has created his own
gods, which if they truly lived, would be battered witless anyways from
the noise of hammer and anvil, even as they are shaped to make them
ready to sell.'

That seemed a fitting beginning.

Seeing she had her Emperor's complete and undivided attention, Si'Wren
was emboldened to inscribe further, 'The craftsman measures with his
eye, and marks with his forearm; he whittles pegs to pound into the
holes he has made, and attaches a head and arms onto a graven block of
wood, making block-heads to bow down to. He marks eyes, nose, and mouth
with the dividers, and showers the ground with the unwanted kindling as
he fashions the figure of a monster man, to stand in the nook by the
front door and impress his visitors as they come in.'

Then, still dissatisfied, she took a deep breath, poised and motionless
with her marking tools in her fingers, and finally set to work as she
began to really spell it out, knowing she might not get another chance
if she were to be executed for her troubles.

'He plants trees which are watered by the hind leg of his own dogs.
Then he hews down the beautiful trees; cypress, oak, and ash.'

Running out of space, she laid the tablet before the Emperor and drew
another to her, and as he read and watched in benumbed astonishment,
she continued resolutely;

'Then shall his god warm him: for he will take the kindling and wood
chips to make his own fire, wearing down his gnashing teeth on coarse
stone grit bread baked with the coals made from the self-same trees,
and bowing down to the termite nests hidden in the hearts of his gods.'

Si'Wren felt she was on the right track at last, after so many doubts
in her own heart. Ever since the death of Nelatha, she'd had such
doubts, but no more.

The ivory stick-ends moved to an enchanting, arrhythmic tempo as she
marked on swiftly;

'He burns the cedar fleas of his god to begat roasted pig's flesh, and
says, Aha!, I am warm, my god is a wood fire. He falls down before such
and tearfully worships their acrid, stinking smoke, and licks dust,
crying loudly, Spare me oh gods!'

Si'Wren thought of the wrath of Master Rababull, long-dead, and what he
had done to poor defenseless Nelatha. Then she thought of the sudden
fate of Sorpiala, and how one never knew when one's time might come.

Si'Wren sensed a great consternation in Emperor Euphrates, though she
barely glimpsed him out of the corner of her eye as he continued to
read her words as fast as she could write them.

Then, she finished her statement as her sticks worked almost in a blur;

'Shall I bow my living face down and eat of the dust that not only
covers all things but also collects upon their dumb wooden heads?'

Si'Wren stopped and sighed, waiting, and expecting any moment for an
avenging sword to be loudly and vehemently called for, that she be
dispatched in no short order with the same gruesome fate such as
Nelatha had suffered.

But all she heard was the heavy breathing of her mighty Emperor
Euphrates, as he stared long at her clay words. She knew he was
especially fond of her personal manner of marking the clay, her
especially delicate but incisive 'writing style', which was as rare art
to the old monarch, but she knew also, that this former fondness of his
toward her would only serve to make him all the more angry, should he
finally pass the boiling point in his outraged idolater's heart.

The pale morning fire danced and flickered, the flames hot and
virtually invisible in the gathering light of day, and she remembered a
delirious dream from that terrible, dark night immediately following
her evil punishment by Master Rababull. Then, she had only imagined
demons--or had she? Si'Wren considered silently, reflecting upon events
in her mind. Were there not real demons round about them in the
wilderness, following them by day like an invisible cloud of spirit
gargoyles, and hemming them in by night, seeking the death of one such
as she by the hand of some mad possessed sword-wielder should her
Emperor but once command it?

"Truly, no mere idol-worshiper has ever spoken to me thus," Emperor
Euphrates nodded wryly, as she perceived that even as he read her
words, he was now thoroughly enjoying himself with the game of foolish
girl and divine Emperor. But which would he honor; the 'false truth' of
his idols, or the 'truth made foolishness' of her Invisible God? For,
far too often, her words did seem foolish, even to herself.

Then he looked up in grudging acknowledgment, a mighty Emperor's
honest tribute to a mere girl scribe's simple wisdom, and said;

"Si'Wren, oh my beautiful, literary one, I suppose if the same
spiritual laws were applied by this Invisible God to all without
exception, would it not be made obvious that God is no respecter of
persons, and that even Emperor Euphrates himself is but one more humble
subject before him?"

At this, Si'Wren, regarding her now-cooled wooden bowl of porridge,
hesitated a long time. She felt deeply overawed, that she should be
given such unprecedented favor in her Emperor's eyes as to blaspheme
his gods so freely and treat them all as false. Perhaps he was only
playing with her to mock her beliefs, before finally putting her out of
her misery. Any conversation with the Emperor was a matter deserving of
the most serious consideration, regardless of whether it be mere jest,
or otherwise.

Si'Wren sipped a little water, and considered what to write next,
whether to pursue the argument this way or that way. She did not want
to seem to belittle her Emperor, even by his own example. She was no
fulcrum of understanding. However, in her heart, she could only believe
that mere idols were most difficult to obtain a verbal reply from,
notwithstanding the obvious fact that the Invisible God had been
equally silent to her throughout her entire short life.

It was hazard enough to agree with the willing self-criticism of the
common man; how much more so that of one's own Emperor? But his
questions were unusually persistent this time.

"Is it not truly so, little one?" Emperor Euphrates inquired, trying to
give her encouragement. "See now; you have thrown down such a gauntlet
as no master swordsman has ever dared to hurl, in valiant challenge to
my gods and hence my own majesty and empire. Your marking sticks are
mightier than their swords, and as Royal Scribe, surely you are not so
afraid of what a few 'chicken scratches' in the clay on your part will
reap. For if you would share thoughts of majesty worthy of your
Emperor, you must consider that if you quit now like a coward, how
shall such stillborn beliefs bring any hope of a harvest of reason,
instead of the expected whirlwind?"

Si'Wren looked up at the dense, impenetrable foliage of the treetops
covering a steep forested hillside nearby, and considered this at
length. She finally lifted and poised her marking sticks over the soft
clay, her fingers hovering as she prepared to reply further.

But just then Borla approached, and so Si'Wren merely bowed low to her
Emperor and waited respectfully for Borla to speak.

Emperor Euphrates looked up at Borla and said to him without the
slightest preamble, "Borla, is not even the great Emperor Euphrates a
mere humble subject before God?"

Borla, put on the spot so directly, hesitated, and finally stammered
fearfully, "My Emperor, you are ordained of the gods."

"If God can ordain," Emperor Euphrates persisted, ignoring the
difference in their words, for Borla had said 'gods' whereas Emperor
Euphrates had said 'God', "can he not unordain what he has already
ordained?"

"God--is God!" said Borla, finally catching on to Emperor Euphrates's
unusual, singular form of referring to divinity. He had never heard his
Emperor refer to the gods in the singular like this, and seeing Si'Wren
present with her tablets, instantly suspected the truth and seemed to
shrink back visibly from Si'Wren's openly blasphemous notion of only
one God.

"God--is," said Emperor Euphrates, as if ruminating to himself.

An awkward silence ensued.

"Highness," interrupted Borla finally, "if I may speak of important
matters pertaining to the camp. I have made my morning rounds. A
foraging party was sent out, and has just returned with unfortunate
news. Two of the men in their group departed from the main party to go
off on their own in search of better fare. They were surprised and set
upon by a most fearsome-looking creature with great saber-teeth. Both
of them perished. Utterly torn asunder. Unfortunately," Borla
concluded, "it seems that the hunters became the hunted, for their lack
of vigilance."

He went on, "Nevertheless, they were only seeking provisions for the
camp, and I gave permission for an honorable burial to be made."

"Ah, yes. Is not vigilance ever and anon, a most curiously wanting
virtue?" pronounced Emperor Euphrates. "Well done, wise Borla."

"The wisdom of your judgements exceeds that of all men, Highness,"
Borla said in unthinking self-deprecation. "I also ordered a man to be
executed, a foot soldier who vowed he had forsaken all other gods, in
favor of the Invisible God who hates idols."

Si'Wren jerked to her feet suddenly and stood before them both, her
tormented eyes beseeching them disbelievingly that she had heard wrong
this accursed man's words.

At this, Borla turned his head toward her as if not realizing quite why
she had reacted so violently, whereas Emperor Euphrates merely observed
her with inquisitively raised eyebrows and a certain unexpressive
watchfulness.

Glancing away from Si'Wren, Borla inclined slightly to Emperor
Euphrates with a thin smile of the very finest and most cultured
cordiality, and said with an exaggerated mildness, "I only seek ever to
do your will, Highness, but it seems another has perhaps--found
fault?--"

Borla shifted his slyly conniving eyes innocuously back to Si'Wren's
grieving, outraged countenance.

She stared up at him, having just finished a quick inscription, and
held it up with no small measure of anger and impotence for him to read.

'Is the thing done?' read the newest line of her clay tablet.

For, above this, many wonderful messages about the Invisible God had
been written for the Emperor's benefit.

"Ah!" said Borla, nodding peremptorily.

He held out his hand, and after a moment of confusion, Si'Wren placed
the ivory writing sticks into his upturned palm.

Then, Borla insolently took her clay tablet, wrote mockingly upon it,
and handed it back with a contemptuous flourish.

'It is finished,' read Borla's new line.

Si'Wren looked down at the tablet, eyes full of anguish, and reached to
snatch one stick back from Borla to write quickly and far less
perfectly, 'Where have they laid the body?'

Borla looked into her eyes with a serpent's wisdom as he nodded at this
remark, and letting her hang onto the tablet, he merely inscribed the
even more carelessly written reply, 'In yonder field.'

Then he waited with his arm half-raised, until she had finished reading
this and looked up at him to see whence he pointed.

He raised his arm a little further and aimed a bony finger across the
camp beyond it's far southern boundary, past which could be glimpsed a
vast, sloping stretch of outlying fields, with the higher foothills to
the right, and the far lowlands whence they had all come, somewhere
beyond and to the left.

These were no level, cultivated fields, but were totally in the wilds,
as was most of the world. They were riddled by a network of deep,
almost impassable erosion gullies that were choked through their
centers by dense clusters of bamboo and great interwoven hoops of
enormously spiked, thorny vines, and bordered by dense copses of green
trees interspersed by tall grass.

"You may go and do with the body as you please," said Borla, half
deprecatingly. "I know it is a difficult place to search, but you will
find it in the nearest gully. I oversaw the entire unfortunate
business myself."

Borla turned to Emperor Euphrates, and continued, "As with all
dishonorable deaths, the body was left exposed, and not buried."

Angry tears in her eyes, Si'Wren stood there with the clay tablet in
her right hand and stared up at Borla malevolently for a long, frozen
moment.

"Highness," Borla said mildly, "it would appear that the great flood
has already arrived, if one would judge by this maid's cheeks. Perhaps
the messenger's story was but a clever parable pertaining to such."

Emperor Euphrates said nothing, and Si'Wren reflected that one's
Emperor could do as he pleased, with none to dare speak against him. On
the other hand, there appeared to be nothing to prevent her from going,
either.

Mindful of what her unaccustomed task would entail, Si'Wren turned and
gently laid the clay tablet with its marvelous truths, and terrible
last inscriptions, just inside the entrance to her tent.

Inside, her fingers trembling with every move, she turned and retrieved
a stone oil lamp and a sparking flint from her tent. As she did this,
she realized that one thing more was needful, to accomplish what must
be done.

She needed a tarp, and a woven blanket would not do. It must be
something strong and durable enough to serve it's purpose and not snag
on the weeds or rip open, that the burial should be fittingly
accomplished.

Looking up, her eyes fixed upon the leather door flap of her tent,
suspended across the opening.

Setting down the stone oil lamp, she reached up to one upper end of it
and tugged steadily while sawing at the thin strong threads of sinew
with a knife, until she popped the corner loose.

Ignoring the disapproving and contemptuous look of Borla as he watched,
and oblivious of the stares of the guards, and the Captains of Fifty
who had accompanied Borla to received their Orders of the Day, and the
Emperor himself, Si'Wren reached up to the lone dangling corner of the
tent flap for a fresh grip, and applied the knife to the binding
threads of sinew as she pulled steadily at it, until it also came loose
and dropped into her arms in a thin swirl of dried dust.

She folded the tent flap over and rolled up various items within it.
Then she went out resolutely to her horse, and tied the bundle behind
her saddle.

Then without so much as a backwards glance, she led the black stallion
to a nearby rock, which she climbed, and mounted, and turned and
galloped him across the compound toward the far perimeter of the camp,
with many a warrior's lusting eyes looking on as she rode out of camp
with the oil lamp in one hand.

Oil lamps were made for darkness. Plainly, seeing it was still but
morning, the men watching her ride away were not a little curious as to
her destination with a lamp at such an early hour.

* * *

When she found him, it was not yet as she had feared.

She quickly located the body by the sight of a large flock of vultures
wheeling and circling overhead. Nearby, a cluster of hyenas was already
sniffing around, still trying to find the body.

Hyenas, with their silly laugh and ugly, death's-head faces, could
crush ox bones with their powerful jaws. They usually ran in packs, and
she considered them -as did any decent folk- to be cowardly, dangerous,
and disgusting animals.

But they had not quite succeeded in locating the body yet, and the
man's motionless remains lay virtually unscathed, except for the mortal
wounds from his execution at the orders of Borla. His lifeless body had
been left lying face-down beside a series of downwards sloping, shaded
stretches near a gently banked, zig-zag ravine that meandered through
the broad field.

A wide ground covering of white-streaked, blue morning glory flowers
interlaced throughout with green leaves, adorned the banks of the
ravine, trumpeting silent praises to God. Their little green vines,
with their countless green stepping-stone leaves were outstretched like
a living carpet that extended away from her in an uneven boundary
restricted to the shade in a series of wide, irregular patterns,
patches, and grassy missed sections.

Farther from the ravine, tall sawtooth grass clumps fountained
perpetual white floral sprays into the air from shooting star sticks in
their centers. The clumps were surrounded by field grass interspersed
with bare sand and gravel patches. The field stretched away from the
banks of the crooked watercourse, in which the morning glories kept
mostly to the sheltering canopy of overhanging tree boughs.

If his body had slid or rolled just a little farther beyond where it
now lay, it would have gone down the side of the more steeply banked
inner run of the ravine and continued into the bottom, which ditched
down much more sharply into a pronounced drop-off.

The center of the ditch contained a profusion of spiked briars and
berry brambles of a size such as to give pause to the most determined
invader, and was undoubtedly rife with scorpions, spiders, flying
stinging insects, huge venomous vipers, and other unguessable horrors,
from which depths it would have been plainly hopeless for her to
venture the recovery of the foot soldier's body again.

But to her good fortune, the body had not gone too far, and the
impromptu pall-bearers -his former comrades-at-arms- had not bothered
to make a better effort of their thankless task.

Si'Wren knelt down beside an exposed rock, placing her little stone
lamp upon it. Pouring carefully from a small oilskin pouch, she filled
it with oil, taking care not to spill any. Then she took the flint out
of a pouch, together with a little bit of punk, or fine, dried grass,
and placed it beside the oil lamp, whereupon she contrived with several
deft strikes of the flint and a series of expertly aimed sparks to
start the punk to glowing with a single precious spark enmeshed deep
within its crushed dry bosom, and blow gently upon it, and soon had a
flame. With this in turn she lighted the oil lamp's pour spout.

Successful at last in doing this, she paused and somberly studied the
lighted lamp with it's pale flame wavering a little in the still
morning air.

Abruptly she heard a noise, and looked behind her in alarm to see that
the pack of hyenas she had passed while riding in, had already cut off
her escape route and was preparing to close in on her. The stallion
still stood his ground, but was already becoming spooked and would not
be manageable for too much longer. A few of the hyenas were already
trying to work up their nerve to make the initial charge.

Protectively, Si'Wren picked up the oil lamp and stepped forward
between the pack of hyenas and her nervously neighing horse.

The black continued stamping his hooves and neighing loudly, rearing
animatedly several times to show his readiness to defend himself from
all comers. It appeared that he might decide either to attack or break
and run at any moment if they continued to provoke him much longer.
That must not happen, for to Si'Wren the stallion represented survival
itself in a land like this.

She stopped and stood motionless, a puny figure of a wayfarer, with her
silly little oil lamp in her hand. Lamps were used to dispel darkness,
and to carry their blessed light into any place where evil might lurk,
but here was evil in the day.

The biggest hyena finally made a run for her. She stood her ground
until almost at the last, then with a deft side-step she shifted
lightly to one side and swung the lamp out in a quick little
semi-circle at the big scavenger.

Fire gouted from the lamp and engulfed the hyena. Immolated in living
flames, the surprised beast spun around and ran madly across the field,
squealing and howling shrilly as if demon-possessed and leaving a
series of burning and smoldering green vegetation patches that smoked
and roared and popped as they burned in the aftermath of it's wayward
wake. At it's approach, the other hyenas broke and ran, the whites of
their eyes rolling in maddened fear and squealing their weird frenzied
laughter as they scattered mindlessly in all directions.

Si'Wren wrinkled her nose at the stink of the hyena's burning flesh and
singed hoary hairs, watching the smoke from it's still-flaming hide.
The unity of the squealing pack had been thoroughly disrupted. After
watching a moment longer, Si'Wren set down the little clay lamp on the
rock, experiencing a grim sense of momentary relief. She had expected
hot oil to come out, not fire.  Next, she turned resolutely to the
ravine.

It was a daunting task she had chosen, but she set herself to the job
with a deep, shuddering sigh and stepped in, her mere presence
sufficient to scare off any vulture that might have dared oppose her.

Behind her, the sounds of the scattered hyena pack could still be heard
as they screamed for their lives, with the burned one screaming
endlessly the loudest. The few visible remaining hyenas stood at a
respectful distance and watched in great agitation, but none
demonstrated the slightest tendency to challenge her authority a second
time.

She stood over the ruined body of the executed foot soldier, eyes set
to the task. With the scavengers safely backed off, she had a little
more time in which to consider what to do next, and returned to the
stallion and took a braided hemp rope from the saddle, and knotted one
end through a leather pack strap.

Then she untied the tent flap, and took down her little sewing kit in a
leathern bag, which consisted of a single thin bone needle, a
collection of fine sinew strands, and a flint cutting stone too small
to be called a knife, but more like a crude flaying tool.

Backing away from the blessedly stationary horse, which still neighed
and stamped his hooves at the distant hyenas, Si'Wren began to uncoil
the rope as she descended the broad, gently sloping shoulder of the
ravine again. It was not too steep where the body lay, and she did not
need to use the rope to keep her from losing her balance.

Nearing the body, which lay face-down, she waded ankle-deep through the
white-streaked blue trumpet flowers and little round green leaves of
the morning glories and positioned herself, before spreading out the
tent flap with a quick shake and a sudden snapping motion to lay it out
close beside the body. Because of the morning glories, the tent flap
did not fall immediately flat, but suspended itself just above the
ground, in a lumpy sheet that continued to settle gradually but more
slowly after the initial crush.

After a brief, distracted visual once-over to make sure the flap was as
well-positioned as she could get it, she bent over the man and
endeavored to roll him over onto the expanse of the tent flap, so that
he should come to rest lying squarely upon it face-up.

This she finally accomplished, although not without considerable
difficulty.

Weeping now, she pretended that she could not see what she could not
help but see and which only her tears could blur mercifully, which was
the terrible ravages of his torment in the final stages before his
death. She reached across to gently fold the two exposed edges of the
tent flap together full-length, and over the crossed arms of the man's
ruined body, covering all with the animal skin, and stopped suddenly to
bend low over him, eyes blurred and sobbing quietly and hopelessly.

She remained this way for she knew not how long, unable to go on.

Then, realizing that she dared not delay lest some other fierce
creature should happen to pass by and take notice of her activities,
she endeavored to continue. Her fingers trembling and shaking with
grief, she sewed together the two sides of the tent flap that met over
his criss-crossed forearms and waist, creating a crude shroud for the
man's body.

Somberly, she regarded the battered face within the shroud with a
terrible sense of foreboding. She was no longer able to obtain spices
so freely as she once might have done in the spice tent of Master
Rababull, in order to properly prepare the body for burial. So in place
of spices, she swept up a bunch of morning glories and gently laid them
about his head, framing his battered face.

Finally, she sewed up the ends, covering all.

Blinking back her tears, she turned to one side and reached for the
flint flaying tool, with which to cut off two short pieces of hemp
rope, measuring carefully. Then, one end at a time, she gathered
together the two ends of the shroud that extended one beyond the head
and one beyond the feet, folding each one over and tying it shut in
turn.

Lastly, she passed the loose end of the long tow rope, the other end of
which was attached to her horse's saddle, under the folded and knotted
end of the shroud, just above where the head of the man's body was.
This way, she could draw him, without actually tying onto his body,
which would have been too much like dragging a mere dead animal and a
thoroughly dishonorable act.

Finished at last, she stood up suddenly, and then swayed giddily,
almost physically overcome by everything for just a brief moment.
Regaining her composure and sense of balance, she turned to her horse.

Standing beside him, she began backing him up slowly, moving together
with him when he moved, his great clopping hooves stamping the earth
mightily one at a time like the sound of a giant's hammers, as he
backed away slowly until he progressively drew the rope taut.
Continuing with him in this manner, Si'Wren encouraged him until he
began to drag the shroud containing the lifeless man's body from the
gentle slope of the wide, shallow ravine and up onto level turf. The
shroud vaguely resembled the color and shape of a boat being dragged up
a dried-grass beach from a shadowy blue-white and green sea of morning
glories.

Although the land beyond the ravine was fairly smooth, it grieved her
in no small measure to have to treat the foot soldier's mortal remains
even so disrespectfully as this, but at least the tent flap could
afford some small measure of protection.

Spying a steep upjutting hill of fractured rock nearby, the base of
which consisted of jaggedly strewn loose shale and myriads of angular
rock fragments, she worked her horse like a draft beast and drew the
burden the remaining distance directly to it's base, until it came to
rest within the split of a rock, the split being just wide enough to
admit the shroud, so that it was closely sheltered on both sides by the
rock. There, she untied the tow rope from the saddle and shroud,
although she left the shroud entirely closed up with it's end-ties
intact.

She looked up at the pinnacle of the tall hill, and then down at the
field of broken rock around her. Much loose shale had fallen from the
slope, affording her with plenty of raw material.

She began lugging the heaviest stones she could possibly move one at a
time and building them up in successive layers in a protective barrier
around the shrouded body. Finally, she stopped to look around, and
realized that she was running out of the right-sized rocks. Dismayed,
she realized that she was nearing the limit of her strength, and had
not half-covered the body yet. What could she do?

The fact of the matter was, the rocks must not only be large enough to
keep the hyenas and other large animals from digging through, but in
spite of this, they must at the same time be small enough for her to be
able to physically move them. What remained to her now were stones
which were all either too large to lift, or too small to be of proper
use to her. She was left in a quandary, for much work remained if the
burial mound was to be properly constructed. The hyenas had gone, but
they were sure to return after her departure. Then, as she looked up at
the steep, uneven slope, she thought of a way that she might resolve
her dilemma.

First she walked her horse a safe ways off, and stood him there.

She knew he would remain wherever she left him until she returned, and
was extremely unlikely to simply run away. He was very loyal to her,
because of the way she dealt with him, being consistently sensitive and
gentle, but firm. Moreover, he had to be free to defend himself or flee
for his life, if necessary. Left to himself temporarily like this, the
most he might do would be to graze at successively farther locations,
which was only natural.

Then she climbed the slope, and began picking out more of the
right-size stones. These she dislodged, to send tumbling down near the
body, one by one, where they landed and lay scattered, providing plenty
of new material for the unfinished cairn.

Then, with the unintentional dislodging of an especially large boulder,
she watched aghast as it rolled with a monumental grinding, banging,
and crunching down the slope and quickly picked up speed and momentum.

As she watched it whacking and pounding it's way downhill like a
runaway battering ram, suddenly the entire slope below her gave way
with a huge roar, sending up the billowing wave of an immense rising
dust cloud as the slope below her began to disintegrate and collapse in
a great tilting-over cascade of grinding and smashing rock.

Helpless to stop what she had unleashed, Si'Wren watched in fear and
dismay as her horse neighed in terror and reared and galloped away. In
the distance, thousands of frightened, fleeing pure white birds arose
above the treetops to blacken the sky with their furiously beating
wings and filled the air with the sounds of their distant squawking
cries.

The short-lived avalanche seemed to be over almost as soon as it had
begun. When all was still again, the towering, choking dust clouds took
some time to clear. When she could finally see again, peering over the
swirling dust clouds, she discovered that the collapse had utterly
buried the body and all the ground round about it under an immense mass
of broken shale and great flat broken slabs of slate, together with
myriad smaller rocks.

She managed to climb carefully down without falling and hurting
herself, and was even able to retrieve her horse. Loyal to her, he had
only tried to run at first, but no more than a little ways off, after
which he had stopped and turned, remaining curious enough to linger and
watch.

However, he was understandably a bit more skittish and agitated than
usual, and although she approached him without much difficulty, she had
to resort to calming him by holding and stroking his head and breathing
on his nostrils. He tossed his head frequently at first, swaying her
bodily on her feet whole arm-lengths this way and that by the power of
his head alone as she sought to hold on and calm him down. But she
persisted, trusting him not to harm her, and when she had quieted him
sufficiently, she finally took hold of his halter and walked him over
beside the landslide.

One look had already informed her that no savage beast, no matter how
enormous, would ever dig down through that mass of broken rock and
great tilted slabs of flat slate to violate it's sanctity.

She knelt there, and prayed to the Invisible God, beseeching him to
welcome this lost soul into whatever comfort or rest he might be
pleased to grant.

Fitly was she garbed in black, the better to meet this unforseen hour.

She remained kneeling there throughout the entire morning, bowing
often, weeping in fits and starts, as she pondered the events that had
led her to grieve over this common foot soldier, whom she had never
known. This, so soon after losing Habrunt.

This poor man had obviously secretly admired and imitated Si'Wren's
beliefs, what little he could learn of her without arousing the
suspicion of his comrades-at-arms, without her ever even knowing of it,
and for only this, upon being finally discovered or found out somehow
in the matter, he had been miserably and wretchedly set upon without
her knowing of that either.

Now he lay buried under a monumental cairn of broken slate, the
enormous flat slabs of irregularly-shaped rock heaped up over his
mortal remains as by the hand of the Invisible God himself, never to
know with what grief that she, who had once been his shining example,
his supreme inspiration and witness before the Invisible God, or with
what intense longing and remorse that she, the one whom he had adored
from a distance, would eventually suffer as a result of his decision to
follow her in her beliefs.

Never had he attempted to speak to Si'Wren, to impose himself upon her.
He had evidently not so much as dreamed of taking it upon himself to
actually approach her, she -Si'Wren- the silent, literate female scribe
for whom he had no doubt secretly harbored such tender-hearted
sentiments of closely shared spiritual beliefs that he must have felt
at times as if his own soul were being rent asunder as he trespassed
unsuspected upon such starkly forbidden spiritual territory.

She could only guess how he must have felt, seeing how he dared not
presume himself upon her, lest any -including herself, for all he knew-
should object with a most self-righteous, vainglorious, and
presumptuous offendedness such as nearly all of humanity was so fond of
imitating and out-doing one-another in feigning. Would that he had
intruded, that she might have shown him otherwise!

Perhaps, he might even had ventured to court her as well, to which she
would not have objected, but rejoiced. But he -a common foot soldier-
had not so much as dared.

Certain others might have objected, if only out of spite, but not she.
Moreover, could she not write? Was she not in a position to petition
the very Emperor himself, personally, on any affair she deemed fit?
Surely Emperor Euphrates would have given her to him, and kept both in
his service lest he lose Si'Wren's valuable services as Royal Scribe.

Now, it was too late to tell this slain foot soldier how miserably she
felt. Perhaps he, like Habrunt, could have redeemed her vow. Perhaps
not. He undoubtedly could not read, and seeing she was sworn never to
speak, their love would have been something to marvel at, even to
themselves, all their days together.

How awful it now seemed, that now, he would never know that she should
come so soon to mourn and lament him, with his body not yet even cold!
That she should so soon bury him with her own fingers, and here remain
weeping uncontrollably, her face buried in her hands, kneeling over his
grave like the beloved wife of many years that she should have been.

Nay, more than a wife, a spiritual sister also.

Reflecting upon such an unfamiliar notion of spiritual kinship,
Si'Wren, an orphan from her earliest recollection, bent down low again
suddenly, before she could collapse from grief, and wept even more
bitterly at her fate.

This man, whom she had never been privileged to meet face-to-face in
life, lay now at the center of all her attentions, hopelessly beyond
her reach. How she longed that she might but one single time, have
revealed to him what his unintentional self-sacrifice meant to her. And
now, with what grief she must regard his brave act and cruel fate, all
merely for imitating her beliefs!

Who had he been? Would that she had been his wife! Seeing all would
have known that she could not speak, and that he could neither read nor
write, yet would they have remained but strangers to the world only,
but never in each others' eyes.

To think how he had finally found what was, to himself and her alone,
in this awful, accursed paradise, the true meaning of spiritual life.
That he had found it through the notorious persecutions and
back-bitings of others, preying viciously upon her nonidolatrous
beliefs.

For others had hated her, she knew, and talked behind her back. It was
by means of such spiteful, privily expressed hatred that the details of
her God had been so published abroad as to eventually reach his ears.
Others in their malice had spoken against Si'Wren for her beliefs, but
in their restless evil had only served God's good.

This was how, she was certain, that this lone man, this common foot
soldier, hearing of how evil she supposedly was, had dared to question
that spirit of unthinking hatred, and eventually believed also, and
paid the ultimate price for his beliefs while she had gone on about her
own business, blissfully unaware of his peril while she in her lofty
station had remained perfectly immune to all reproach.

This thought tore at her as nothing else. Now, she would suffer also,
for the sake of his memory and what he had believed and suffered and
died for. At least, she had made sure his cairn, that the largest of
wild beasts might never violate the grave. That little, she could and
had done for he who never knew her.

There was something between them now, spanning the spiritual chasm like
a bridge of their two kindred souls. She would mourn him forever in the
secret places of her heart. It was like gruel without milk and fruit
which, if one consumed nothing else, would eventually lose its slight
taste of bitterness and ground husks, and become at least indifferent
to the palate. Nay, worse. For the rest of her life, she would mourn
this stranger long after she had left behind this desolate far-away
place, in which he must forever remain buried.

But henceforth she would feel closer to him in her heart, than to any
living person or location. She could not forget the memory of this
place, though she might never return.

She rose up finally, looking cautiously about her. It was evening. The
thickening mists were rolling over the land, spilling their whiteness
across the hills into unseen, hidden valleys. Such beauty--such
emptiness. The gentle wind had a lonely, desolate sound.

The last of her tears had already dried, but she wept anew when she
finally turned to remount her horse for the journey back to camp.

She rode back to the campfire burning in front of Emperor Euphrates'
splendid tent, and near his tent was her own, where she halted and
dismounted drearily. Merely going through the motions, she groomed down
the stallion and staked him to a long tether rope so that he might
graze, roll on his back, or do practically whatever he pleased with
some measure of freedom.

Chapter Eight - Si'Wren Challenges Emperor Euphrates

Solemnly, Si'Wren dipped out her portion from the pot over the fire,
pointedly ignoring the Emperor's personal bodyguards and everyone else
around her. She retired to her personal tent to eat, and immediately
remembered that she must first tie something over the entrance to
replace the missing tent flap, or risk another complaint of
coquettishness from a certain one of the Captains of Fifty. In mute
observance of this she soon had a coarse-woven wool blanket tied up
over the entrance. Later, she could get another animal hide from one of
the camp skinners.

The brave and fearless souls of the camp, mighty men of old, fearsome
warriors all, must not have their valiant spirits inflamed with
uncontrollable lust at the carnal sight of a mere maid consuming her
food.

* * *

The next morning, she arose and stepped out of her tent, ducking past
the makeshift blanket. Still as much asleep as awake, she squinted and
blinked uncertainly in the morning light. Merely going through the
motions, she made tea, and cleansed her eyes and face with it's clear
amber fluid. Then she made gruel and mixed it with some fruit pulp and
goat's milk.

After this, she surveyed her surroundings, struck by the uncultivated
beauty and wild appearance of the land.

Somewhere in the dense nearby forest, she heard the scream of some
fierce monster. The ferocity and bestiality of the sound chilled her
blood and sent shivers up and down her spine even as a host of lesser
animals took up a warning cry, broadcasting an alarm of the unseen
predator's passage through their midst.

She could not identify the repeatedly screaming animal with anything
from her memory, for she had never in her life heard such a terrible
sound. Eventually, it began to move farther away from the camp, as it's
terrible cries gradually diminished into the distance. For a long time,
she could still occasionally hear it's banshee screams as it prowled
somewhere beneath the high canopy of deep forest. Many of the soldiers,
she noticed, seemed greatly discomfited by the savagery of the sound,
clutching their weapons tightly as they looked anxiously in its
direction.

Si'Wren could not help shivering again when she chanced to hear it one
last time, far in the distance, through some quirk of the gentle wind
across the uneven land. In spite of the undulations of the terrain, it
had continued -day after day- to slope progressively upwards ahead of
the expedition as the royal procession had made more or less steady
progress to the northwest, marching ever deeper into the wilds.

Blocked by a series of steep ridges looming ever before them, the
entire royal expedition had been encamped in the same place these past
few days, while the scouts searched for a way to go on.

Hunting parties went out daily for provisions to restock their marching
fare. Others found honey, and gathered fruits, berries, nuts, and
roots, with armed guards always standing at the ready.

In camp, those assigned to the Chief Cook worked at preparing, drying,
preserving, and packing away the food for the next portion of their
long and uncertain journey.

* * *

"Today, we march," said Borla, watching her closely as Si'Wren emerged
from her tent with her empty wooden porridge bowl and set it down.
Si'Wren was unaware of the way he watched her, and she had not bothered
to braid her hair in the usual manner as was her custom, in accession
to her Emperor's wishes of the night just past. Momentarily, Borla
stared at her as if he had never seen a woman before in his entire life
and could no longer control the direction of his eyes.

To this remark, Si'Wren nodded with a thoughtlessly off-handed look of
such distraction and unconcern that she must have somehow greatly vexed
Borla, for he suddenly rounded on her in what must have been a
masterfully concealed fit of anger as he regarded her expressionlessly.

"Highness," Borla bit off tersely, "of what can this doctrine of the
Invisible God of our Junior Scribe consist of--but nothing; like
himself! If her beliefs were to become adopted by others, it is
possible that eventually all idols would be destroyed, much gain from
the lucre of their sale lost, and their hearts turned to such nonsense
as I cannot possibly imagine!"

Borla had his lips drawn back into a sneer now as his brow also became
fretted into a terrible frown and he paused to await an answer.

When Emperor Euphrates made no immediately reply, Borla turned to
survey Si'Wren boldly, and went on in an even more irritable and
sarcastic vein;

"To follow such blind madness is tantamount to treason! Why, it would
serve as well if we were to cast out all law and reason and let the
people decide for themselves what laws to follow. Come to think of it,
they do that enough already. Thou alone art law, oh mighty Emperor.
Would thou give thy glory to another?"

He waited, and finally Emperor Euphrates shrugged.

"The girl is sworn to silence," Emperor Euphrates replied. "How many
can she possibly convert anyways, if she be thus bound by her own word
to this god?"

Borla seemed to mull this over, but somehow failed to find enough honey
in his Emperor's words to nullify the bitterness of his mounting
irritation with Si'Wren's beliefs.

Si'Wren watched him implacably, but gave no sign of a response. Neither
did she volunteer to hand over any of her writing tablets used earlier
to explain the Invisible God to her Emperor.

"What are we to make of this Invisible God," Borla went on in a biting,
petulant tone of voice, "who permits himself to be worshiped, and
preached to others, by a single, silent disciple sworn never to speak
in a world deafened by the ceaseless praise of idols?"

This much was true, Si'Wren reflected. Silent was she, and silent would
she remain.

As Borla went on, ranting over the stupidity of worshiping that which
could only be seen through the eye of inner reasoning, Si'Wren thought
of the Patriarch Noah, whom they were seeking, who apparently shared
her beliefs in some measure, and in light of the fact that she must not
speak, Si'Wren found herself reflecting upon the interesting truth
which Borla had proposed and it's apparent absurdity.

How did one worship the unseeable? Sometimes the surest way Si'Wren had
of knowing the Invisible God to be the true God was by reflecting upon
how foolish it was to think of worshiping dumb idols. But perhaps there
was another way to show Borla the truth.

Si'Wren reached for her water skin, poured out a little water into her
cupped palm, and being mindful of Nelatha's long-ago remonstrance that
the reflection of water held a suggestion of how one might manage to
'see' the unseeable Invisible God, she held it out to Borla, moving her
arm until one of her eyes met his in the tiny reflection of cupped
water in her hand.

The very moment their two eyes met in the mirrored bit of out-held
water, Borla's reflected eye flashed in alarm as he realized what she
had done, and he started with an astonished grunt as if he had been
cursed to within an inch of his life, and jerked his head back as if
kicked by a horse.

"Agh!" he cried out. "What vile sorcery?!..."

Si'Wren quickly raised the cupped water to her lips as if she had only
been drinking it, so as to avoid the risk of offending Emperor
Euphrates with the possible idea that she had been casting an evil eye.

Emperor Euphrates seemed to be staring at Borla as if he had suddenly
got a burr in his sandal or something, and Borla, unwilling to stoop so
low as to risk being mocked over some empty accusation, said nothing.
Then, as if thinking better of it, he negligently spat in the dirt at
Si'Wren's feet as if she were not the deliberate but only the
unintentional target, trading water for water and giving reply to her
in such manner as befitted the imagined curse.

Si'Wren stepped back, afraid of political ruin should Borla find the
right words to vent his anger upon her. One might as easily have
glimpsed the reflection of the sun in any common lily pond, or even a
mud puddle. It would only have shown forth all the more clearly, the
beautiful symbolism of an Invisible God who created all things, and was
above all things. Even the wind, which could be seen in the motion of
the clouds and trees and in the waving fields of grain and prairie
grass, was of a truth not seen at all. And when the wind blew, did not
fire burn so much the more greatly?

Oh, that this supreme, Invisible God, who must be so like water, and
fire, and even the wind itself, and who surely hated all stupid idols,
might once show himself in all of His eternal glory!

Still Borla paused, no doubt bent upon her destruction for the imagined
curse, or at least very real insult, which she had apparently inflicted
upon him with a mere handful of water, but it was pointless for him to
persecute her merely for so mundane an act as slaking her thirst.

Gaining no satisfaction in any of this, he said to her, "Scribe, thy
services are needed. Hand me a tablet."

Obediently, Si'Wren turned to her kit, and fetched out and handed over
one of the requested objects to Borla.

Borla took the tablet, which consisted of smooth clay within a
split-bamboo frame, and turned it this way and that as he examined it
as if cherishing some holy relic in an almost reverent manner.

Then, with a look of perplexity, he turned it face-down and began
shaking it vigorously. With a dull series of wet plops, the clay shook
loose in a series of irregular pieces and tumbled out onto the ground.
He continued shaking it and turning it this way and that and slapping
it with his other hand, his dark locks and beard moving rhythmically
with the effort until all of the clay had fallen out onto the ground.

Borla observed the empty frame in his hands.

"That's better," said Borla. "No, better yet--" he gripped the frame
with it's intact backing tightly in one hand.

He made a fist with his other hand, and with a series of crude punches
began knocking out the split-bamboo backing which normally supported
the backside of the soft clay in it's sturdy frame.

When all of the pieces of split-bamboo backing were broken loose and
had fallen to the ground, he smiled at last, with a dry, irritated look
in his eyes which only served to accentuate the haggard fierceness of
his deeply lined face, and held up the empty frame to the light.

"Behold, the Invisible God!" declared Borla, as Emperor Euphrates
looked on most interestedly, but without comment.

Emboldened by his Emperor's look of curiosity, Borla observed dryly,
"Rather looks like an open door. Odd. Most such doors are located in
temples, wherein idols are to be found."

Then with a vengeful, jerking motion of his arms, Borla broke the empty
frame into pieces, and handed them back to a silent Si'Wren with a curt
but formal bow, as he eyed her contemptuously.

Si'Wren took the pieces in her hand, and stood looking back at him
without expression.

"Well?" said Borla to her. "I see no thunderbolt."

But Si'Wren made no reply. She was still grief-struck from the events
of yesterday, and in spite of all, had never intended the slightest
harm to Borla, even after what he had done. Perhaps the Invisible God
was more wise than even she suspected, in permitting her to be
subjected to such a vow of silence.

After all, what could she possibly have said to Borla? There was no
fitting reply; not to him at least.

"I trust, Highness," Borla said, "that the Invisible God can defend us
in battle as fittingly as he is able to bury another in the grave. I am
told by one of my Captains of Fifty that she brought down neigh unto
half the hillside of yonder hillock, to the glory of her Invisible God
no doubt, and all for the sake of merely giving an honorable burial to
an avowed enemy of thy throne."

Borla paused to look significantly over at Si'Wren, who had frozen with
the pieces of her ruined clay frame still in one hand.

"Battle?" said Emperor Euphrates, his interest suddenly piqued.

"Aye, Highness," said Borla. "I am told that campfires were spotted in
the distance last night, down in the lowlands whence we came," said
Borla. "We are being followed. I regret to be the bearer of bad
tidings, but wise counsel must bear in mind the possibility that it
could be Kadrug."

Si'Wren's ears pricked at this.

"Kadrug!" exclaimed Emperor Euphrates, looking greatly alarmed.
"Following me?"

"Aye, and perhaps also--Conabar. It was rumored, you will recall,
Highness, that they had sought to join forces."

"A pact made in hell!" said Emperor Euphrates, as if it were a
slanderous oath. "I gave orders that their entrails should be brought
to me, that I might read of them."

"...to their eternal regret," suffixed Borla decorously, as he stood
looking contemplatively across the vista of the lowlands they had
already traversed so laboriously.

"Highness," Borla went on, tugging thoughtfully at the fringes of his
beard, "if we should run across them before eventide, it might very
well become the expedient thing to do that one of my foot soldiers
should inspect their entrails with a common sword, ere the day is done."

Borla always kept his beard carefully trimmed a fraction shorter than
Emperor Euphrates', out of a canny sense of deference. By this, and
other, equally subtle devices, he was left free to maximize his own
powers to the fullest possible extent, while at the same time seeming
always, ever to be the scrupulously faithful servant and minutely
lesser intellect. This flattered Emperor Euphrates in no small wise, a
fact of which Borla was well aware, although he took utmost pains not
to touch upon it in any false light or pretense.

"Aye!" Emperor Euphrates laughed harshly. "Quite enough ceremony for
the occasion, I will grant!"

Emperor Euphrates turned then to Si'Wren, and said, "Scribe, you will
study further, to show yourself approved, for I would hear more of this
Invisible God."

Si'Wren, marveling at the open-handedness of her powerful rival,
Borla, merely bowed to Emperor Euphrates in formal acknowledgment.

Then, in a more engaging tone of voice, Emperor Euphrates went on and
said, "Almost, little Si'Wren..." he paused, looking at her wistfully,
"...almost, you persuade me to believe in your remarkable Invisible
God. Your arguments are--most entertaining."

Si'Wren blinked, and hid her disappointment as she bowed again even
lower this time.

As Emperor Euphrates turned away to discuss other matters with Borla
and the Captains, Si'Wren looked down at the sticks of her ruined clay
frame. The frame was, she could see, beyond saving. She dropped the
pieces, and they fell in an irregular criss-cross upon the uneven pile
of moist clay lumps, which she regarded for a long, silent moment.

She turned away without a word.

The whole camp was taking down equipment and packing it away as they
broke camp for the day's journey. Borla's scouts had finally found a
way ahead, through the thick foliage interspersed by broad grasslands,
that led up into the mountains, and hopefully down through them again
into the distant land of Noah.

Si'Wren inspected her horse's hooves one by one, cleaning and caring
for them as she had been taught, while several men took down her tent
and camp gear for her and stowed it away on a pack animal.

She always saw personally to the packing of her writing kit. She had a
small stack of thin clay tablets in their bamboo frames, three of which
went in a durable bamboo box in a saddle bag strapped on her mount, in
order to have them ready for use on a moment's notice. Being Scribe was
not a responsibility to be taken lightly.

While men and horses formed up into long columns, Si'Wren finished her
own preparations and prepared to mount up. She had managed so far to be
always ready before the others, lest they complain.

Borla was standing with several of his captains, as they discussed with
him the anticipated route and possible obstacles that might be
encountered today.

Emperor Euphrates sat on a pile of cushions in front of his tent,
before which stood his royal camel bedecked and festooned with all the
tassels and ornamentation of it's kingly station.

It was unbecoming that an Emperor should sit on his camel and wait
while the common soldiers went about their occasionally lengthy
preparations for the march. More fitting, rather, was it that they
should all make ready, and then wait on their Emperor until he should
mount and give the command to Borla for the day's march to commence.
Borla, as was customary, would then loudly pass the word on down the
chain-of-command through his Captains of Fifty, and the march would
commence.

The order to begin the long grueling day's march should be coming
through any time now.

Suddenly, above the general background noise of many voices
coordinating their preparations to march, Si'Wren heard from across the
camp a distant cry;

"Kaaaadruuuug!"

An icy chill coursed through her body as Si'Wren looked up anxiously,
and Borla jerked up his hand savagely to cut off one of his Captains in
mid-sentence.

"What was that?!" Borla asked sharply.

Everyone, including Emperor Euphrates, seemed to suddenly be listening,
and the entire camp seemed to fall silent, their very ears itching to
hear the more clearly that dread outcry again.

"Eeeeeahhhhgh!"

Si'Wren's ears informed her of the shocking indication that someone
must have just been brutally murdered, out a little past the screen of
trees beyond the far end of camp. All the camp seemed bewildered.

Then the awful cry came again;

"Kadrug!" came the yell of a distant sentry, "and giants!"

Suddenly everyone seemed to be shouting at once. Si'Wren looked around
and saw men falling back from the nearest line of trees, their ordered
lines breaking up as men and horses fled under a flight of incoming
arrows.

Si'Wren took a hesitant step backwards, and froze at the sound of much
hoarse shouting from the other end of camp. She turned her head and
searched the field, heart pounding, and through the tall grass appeared
first speartips, then helmets, and then the heads and shoulders of
hostile men advancing in line-abreast formation, swinging flashing
bronze swords in ragged unison and driving back Borla's surprised
soldiers in a staggering, disorderly retreat.

There came the unfamiliar call of a horn trumpet from yet another
direction, and suddenly a troop of horse soldiers came thundering up
the path whence Emperor Euphrates's expedition had come, the ground
vibrating under uncountable hooves and cutting off their retreat as the
invaders plowed recklessly through Borla's shouting and screaming
rear-guard.

In mere seconds, all hope of organizing the men was lost, as they were
left in a shambles by the concerted charge of the attackers. The clash
of steel filled the dust-laden air, together with the desperate cries
of the Emperor's men as they tried to rally themselves together against
the ruthless attack.

"I see Conabar himself!" declared one of Borla's captains.

"Where?" demanded Borla.

"There, on a horse!" said the captain.

"Give me a spear!" said Borla.

The captain turned and yanked one out of the hands of the nearest guard
and handed it over.

Seizing hold of the spear, Borla mounted his horse and began waving it
over their heads as he sought to round up the Emperor's men and muster
them into some kind of manageable defensive formation.

But it was too late.

"YAAAAAAAAAAA!!!--" The challenging war cry rang out from a thousand
throats as Kadrug's forces suddenly charged as one and drove the
Emperor's forces backwards across the camp perimeter, mercilessly
cutting down everyone and everything that stood in their path.

Si'Wren watched helplessly, cringing as she retreated step by step
until she was abruptly brought up short against the heaving flanks of
her black stallion. He stamped his hooves and neighed, for the thunder
of hooves from the invader's horses was shaking the very earth itself.

Si'Wren had never been in any battle before and never expected to be
caught in one, but she had worried about something like this happening
ever since their departure for the land of Noah. Breathlessly she
looked around, trying to make some sense out of the situation and
decide upon the best move to make.

Abruptly she froze in stark terror as a giant fully twice the height of
a normal man came striding out of the tall grass behind the Emperor's
tent. He carried a shield the size of a cartwheel on one arm, and a
spear like a well-pole in his other hand. No one else seemed to even
notice him yet.

He walked forward as if in slow-motion, covering fully one-half of the
intervening distance between himself and a terrified Si'Wren in two
huge strides with his great spear and shield raised to the attack, and
stood staring down at her as if trying to make up his mind whether to
kill or capture her.

Si'Wren took a step back from her horse, and became paralyzed with fear.

All at once several of Emperor Euphrates' archers looked around, and
reacted with blinding speed. One quickly nocked and loosed an arrow
from close range, hitting the giant in the right thigh just above the
plank-sized metal shin plate on his lower right leg.

"YAAAAAAWWWW!" he howled in a deep ox-bellow of a voice as he staggered
in anger and pain.

Swiftly another archer drew and fired, hitting him in the neck.
Finally, two more shots hit him in the chest when he let his guard down
momentarily, and he let out another outraged yell.

Emperor Euphrates' personal guards finally turned and saw the giant
then, and quickly fired their powerful bows, transfixing the staggering
giant with several more arrows.

Seeing he had lost all hope of scattering them, the giant came forward
in a berserk charge, ignoring his many injuries as he rushed the guards.

Behind his royal bodyguard cowered a fearful Emperor Euphrates with a
useless curved and jeweled little dagger in one hand.

The charging giant's spear went through one of the guards, and the
other was killed by a single blow of the giant's huge fist.

A brawny archer nocked an arrow, stepped forward, aimed, and fired from
point-blank range at full draw, straight into the side of the giant's
torso.

At this he let go of his victim and howled as he turned in a demonic
rage, pivoting with huge arms outstretched while Si'Wren stood rooted
to the spot. The giant stomped forward, towering over Si'Wren as he
drew near and began reaching down for her, and as she stepped back
involuntarily out of his reach he simply kept on falling headlong until
he hit the ground with an earthshaking slam at Si'Wren's feet and lay
still, his stubby fingers twitching several times. His great yellowed
teeth gnashed reflexively and after a final wheeze he lay utterly
motionless.

Si'Wren stood as one frozen, staring down at the dead giant, until she
heard several of the archers yell in unison and she turned her head
just in time to see a final charge upon the Emperor's tent. Across the
camp, Si'Wren gasped at the sight of Borla's crumpled black form being
trampled under the hooves of the enemy's rampaging horse soldiers.

Emperor Euphrates' foot soldiers were fleeing for their lives as the
mounted foe chased them down and shot them in their backs or cut them
mercilessly to ribbons with their bronze swords.

The archer standing beside Si'Wren nocked another arrow, drew, and
fired high. Si'Wren watched his arrow sail forth and come down in the
midst of the enemy, to penetrate the face of an upraised wicker shield
and embed itself in the chest of a raider. The enemy soldier staggered
backwards, fighting to maintain his balance with the arrow in his gut.

But too much else was happening for Si'Wren to watch the enemy soldier
any further, and she searched wildly for any sign of resistance in the
Emperor's men but could not find such.

Suddenly her upturned eyes spied an incoming flight of arrows, and she
had barely time to blink before they began raining down. The arrows'
whistling sounds filled the air, followed by the sounds of impacts and
screams of the fallen all around her.

Thunk! Si'Wren staggered, and stared disbelievingly at the long
feathered end of an arrow sticking out of her right shoulder.

Numb with shock, she half-turned, and saw Emperor Euphrates staring
sightlessly at her from where he lay fallen, his fat body bristling
with arrows. Her blood pounding in her ears, Si'Wren turned and
staggered to her horse. Neighing loudly, the stallion reared up, and
dropped down again, shaking his mane. He had, she saw, two arrows in
his deeply corded neck muscles.

Si'Wren reached out for him as she stumbled forward and almost tumbled
beneath his hooves, but fell against his forequarters instead and
reached up to seize hold of the coarse black hair of his mane, and
tried to pull herself up.

Lacking the necessary strength and coordination, she hung on, not
daring to let go for any reason. Turning her head, she saw running
enemy soldiers advancing through the camp, with none remaining to
oppose them as the Emperor's archers broke ranks and fell back under
the flashing bronze swords of the enemy.

Si'Wren reached up and slapped hard with the flat of one hand on the
flank of her horse. At this, he finally bolted, jerking her bodily off
her feet as she clutched desperately onto the lunging stallion's mane
with the fingers of both hands.

She felt nothing when she heard the arrow in her shoulder snap off
against the stallion's heaving flank. Her feet bounced once on the
ground as the stallion lunged forward, and she dropped and bounced her
feet again in a coordinated leap and sailed upwards with a sharp
two-fisted pull on his black flowing mane, and she twisted her torso
and legs upwards with the benefit of the transferred momentum and
leverage.

Suddenly she was up and riding, with the black stallion's hooves
pounding the earth in a thundering tempo as he carried her swiftly away
and left all behind. Si'Wren was so small and light that her horse ran
virtually unimpeded, whereas her pursuers were large men equipped with
heavy weapons and armor, all of which was a respectable burden for
their mounts.

Ignoring the stub-end of the arrow in her numbed shoulder, Si'Wren
ducked her head down and dropped her eyes to the neck of her steed,
hearing the steady blast of breath from his muzzle as the shafts of two
embedded arrows vibrated in a rhythmic blur to the thunder of his
galloping hooves.

Small rivulets of blood pulsed redly from the arrows as he maintained
his breakneck gallop, and Si'Wren wondered at his unrelenting power in
the face of such injuries as his hooves pounded, pounded, pounded the
ground tirelessly with the wind whipping his black mane into her bowed
face and stinging her eyes to wind tears.

He might be wounded, but her beautiful black was a fearless meteor. A
horse could run itself to death for it's master, but Si'Wren only
wished to escape her pursuers. But what of the black's injuries?

Knowing she must soon stop or risk his death by overexertion, Si'Wren
turned her head to look back and saw many attackers separating
themselves from the battle to ride after her, and cold fear filled her
soul. She looked ahead again just in time to avoid getting knocked off
by a low-lying bough as she entered a copse of trees and quickly became
hidden in their depths. There had been many men riding after her. Could
she possibly outrun them all?

She had been ready to mount up when the attack came, and she could hear
the sound of something slapping lightly and rhythmically on the back
flanks of the black stallion, and remembered the pair of leather saddle
bags containing her writing kit together with the clay tablets in their
sturdy bamboo frames. Little good they would do her now, for no longer
could she fight the Evil One with mere clay words, and the Emperor
himself was past all saving.

She burst out of the far side of the trees and began to ride up a
grassy knoll. The black stallion pounded up the rise and she drew back
on the reins at the crest, slowing him to a halt at the top and looking
back as she paused and listened to the distant pounding of hooves.

She watched with anxious eyes as they appeared out of the far line of
trees below, and as they burst out into the open, the pursuit spied her
almost immediately, and shouting wildly they swerved in unison,
whipping their mounts in merciless pursuit of her.

She turned and cantered the black stallion down a momentary dip in the
land, then urged him up the steeper ground to the next higher rise.

For a brief, fearful moment, she almost fell off her horse as he
lurched up the opposite slope, but she clutched his shaggy black mane
as she toppled suddenly forward against the back of his neck and hung
on with all of her failing strength, slowly righting herself.
Momentarily out of their line of sight, she could hear their distant
shouts. Triumphant shouts, urging each other on.

Si'Wren raised her eyes and looked beyond to the vista of the distant
lowlands, whence she had come so far with her Emperor. Then she dropped
her eyes, and noticed for the first time that her dark mantle of hair,
left unbraided, had been woven by the wind into a knotted mass of
tangles like a black flame.

Seeing that her stallion was also wounded, she doubted if he could
carry her for very much longer, and dreaded the prospect of falling
into the hands of such men. But which way to turn? Then, despairing of
what to do next, she seemed to hear a distant roaring.

A waterfall.

The black stallion's muzzle and forequarters were flecked white with
foam, and his neck was streaked with blood. His flanks were heaving
from his exertions and injuries. Loathe to go on like this, she turned
him and rode down another little dip and then up again to the next
higher rise. She was ascending a rising series of gently rolling grassy
steppes, interspersed by long wide strips of gently sloping meadows and
successive narrow courses of green trees.

Then she came to the last rise, and slowed her horse again.

The muted, distant sound of the waterfall became an open roar as she
pulled her horse abruptly to a dead halt barely in time, before she
would have plunged over a steep drop-off.

The waterfall upstream descended in a streak of white from the crest
above, arcing and fanning out majestically from a high ridge. At the
waterfall's base shimmered a wide pool, whence emerged the continuation
of the deep fast-flowing stream before her. The undercurrent sucked and
churned violently as it passed immediately below her position.

After much hesitation, Si'Wren pulled gently on one of her reins,
turning her steed upstream towards the waterfall, as she brought in her
heels and pressed lightly against the black's heaving flanks, urging
him forward along the edge of the bank, seeking some way to get safely
down and across. But the closer she came to the waterfall, the higher
and steeper became the bank along which she rode, and the more her
mount labored. Already suffering from the arrows in his neck, he was
drawing near to a state of total exhaustion.

Then behind her she heard the fresh shouts of her pursuers as they
topped the final rise and began to fan out, cutting her off while they
surrounded her in a half-circle.

They lusted upon her with evil stares, until the stub-end of the arrow
in her chest was seen by several of them and indicated to the others
with much arm-pointing. Then their looks were transformed to insolent,
harsh contempt. What was her life to them anyways? The sight of her
suffering engendered nothing but contempt in their looks. Loftily, they
all kept back from her by a distance of several rods, with newcomers
doing the same as they arrived, and forming a great semi-circle around
her with both ends close to the river banks, effectively cutting off
her escape.

Then their leader finally came cantering up into their midst on his
speckled gray steed and lurched through their enclosing line to get a
good look at her.

He paraded back and forth on his nervously prancing steed, displaying
an aura of wickedness. One look into his heavily lidded, toadlike eyes,
so lifeless and sickeningly dead, utterly convinced Si'Wren that this
man's soul must surely have already died a long time ago while his body
was yet alive.

Then she realized when he pulled at his reins, that he had six fingers
on each hand. Surely this must be Kadrug, because if it were Conabar he
would have had only five like his dead relation, the late Master
Rababull.

It occurred to Si'Wren without even questioning it that Kadrug must be
possessed, and she realized that in looking at the six-fingered one,
she was looking also upon a combination of the personality of the
possessor, a demon, and of the outward man, a vain soul, and she sensed
that this great 'free' warrior was but a proud and unknowing slave,
indwelt by hideous evil.

Now more than ever, Si'Wren found in this, even in the face of evil, a
proof of the righteous, Invisible God. For she could easily see an
unmistakable spiritual side to life, wherein evil and good, and all
men's souls, truly dwelt. All life within the visible world, like a
finger-drawing in the sand, could show only a muted portrayal of that
spiritual side. Like sand, or dust, it must eventually be blown away at
death, and give place to the true inner self, the spiritual identity,
and there would be found in the hearts of mens' souls, either the good
and true bedrock, or just so much foul and polluted slippery sand.

Looking into the man's lizard eyes, Si'Wren perceived all of this in a
flash, and shuddered. Surely, as Nelatha had said, it must be that all
men must die and see the Invisible God someday when they finally came
face-to-face with Him.

These were wicked men, lost souls living in sin. Men who forced their
evil lusts upon all around themselves. But they would not have their
way with her!

Feeling light-headed and drastically weak, she swayed slightly in the
saddle as she turned her head and looked out fearfully over the steep
drop-off. There was only swift water directly below her, at the outside
shoulder of a natural crook in the river's meander.

Directly below, the current ran fast and deep past the near-vertical
base of the high bank where it descended almost straight down into the
dark water. Just upstream from this was the beginning of the wide clear
pool, into which the waterfall thundered in a continuous roar.

She was having considerable difficulty remaining upright in her saddle
as she turned her mount away from the edge, and felt her head nod from
an involuntary heaviness as she turned to look this way and that.

She realized that she must be quite a sight to them in her present
condition, for her horse and her attire were all black, with the slick
glistening red of a coating of blood upon the black stallion's
muscular, corded neck beneath where the two arrows were embedded, and
much blood also upon the front of her tunic where the stub-end of a
broken arrow also protruded from her shoulder.

Scores of swords, bows, and spears were to be seen raised on every
hand, but no arrows were nocked and no spearheads aimed her way, for
she held no weapon herself and represented no threat to them or their
leader Kadrug. Indeed, she could only regard herself as a natural
target to them. Si'Wren resolved that she must not allow herself to be
treated as just another conquest by this lunatic mob and their leader,
Kadrug.

What if these, mad with lust, intended to take her?

Kadrug suddenly said loudly, "Who is this woman?"

Then, getting no answer but shrugs from the ranks surrounding them both
in an irregular half-arc, he said directly to Si'Wren, "Woman, look at
me!"

At this, Si'Wren lifted up her eyes, and regarded him eye to eye, well
aware that the men surrounding both herself and Kadrug were no doubt
prepared to commit any evil upon her person at the other's slightest
word or nod.

"What is this child's fable I hear from those we captured, about a
flood that is to destroy the whole world?"

To this, Si'Wren, by now in a state of complete and utter exhaustion,
responded neither by word, sign, nor gesture, but only continued to
regard him expressionlessly.

Becoming visibly more impatient, he repeated contemptuously to Si'Wren,
"I said, What is this talk we hear from our captives of a great flood?
Answer me!"

Still Si'Wren said nothing.

The great warrior fumed silently, and exhaled audibly before continuing.

"Just as I thought! Too cowardly to speak. The only flood I see," he
gestured contemptuously at the red-stained figures of Si'Wren and her
stallion, with his white-spattered and foam-flecked, blood-streaked
forequarters, "is the blood of our enemies!"

He waited, and then added impatiently, "Well? What have you to say?"

Suffering increasingly from shock and exhaustion from her wound and the
hard ride, Si'Wren's face remained unreadable, and her eyes seemed
somehow not to see him at all, even as she regarded him steadily.

Suddenly Kadrug raised his spear and shook it menacingly in Si'Wren's
direction. Si'Wren remained frozen, trembling greatly, and when he made
a fierce, menacing expression of hideous anger, her eyes widened, but
she still remained immobile.

Then, tilting his hoary head back in an imperious look of emboldened
masculine hauteur, Kadrug lifted his reins and prodded his horse once
with his heels, starting the animal slowly towards her.

At last, Si'Wren moved. Motivated by fear of capture--and worse, she
jerked sharply back on her left rein and kicked smartly with her left
heel into his still-heaving flank. The black exploded into action,
pivoting around towards the unseen bank of the river as Si'Wren dug
into his sides with her heels and reached back at the same time to
strike her horse's rump a quick sharp slap.

The black neighed and surged powerfully beneath her like a living thing
of fire and iron, surging toward the edge of the drop-off in a mighty
lunge until the ground suddenly fell away beneath his pounding hooves
and he had hurled them both far out into the air, high above the river,
rider and horse caught in a terrible rush of the wind of their falling.

They both went down, both Si'Wren and her horse, plunging with a mighty
impact and a great, arcing spray of white into the cold, swiftly
flowing mountain waters. Si'Wren's submerged ears heard the roar of the
waterfall, like a continuous, muted thunder in the rushing river
waters, as the horse fought his way to the surface again.

The men all jumped down off their horses and rushed to the edge of the
cliff and stared down at the surface of the river, but by the time they
could look, the foam of impact had moved far out of bowshot downstream.
The black was swimming steadily toward the opposite bank, but at first,
the girl was nowhere to be seen.

Still clinging to his mane, Si'Wren finally raised her head from the
water and gasped for air, and shook the water from her eyes to find the
black swimming powerfully for the other bank even as the swift current
swept them further downstream with every breath.

But he was not altogether tireless, and it seemed as if he might sink
and go under at any moment. Still gripping his mane with one hand,
Si'Wren reached back with the other and quickly untied the paired
saddlebags containing her writing kit and clenched them in her free
hand to lighten his load.

They were nearing the far shore, while far behind her she could hear a
chorus of hoarse voices as the men howled in frustration.

A few shot arrows in her direction, but it was too far for good aim and
their shafts did not come down at all close to her. They could no
longer reach her, and none dared follow the path she had taken.

Si'Wren felt her grip on his mane slipping, and letting go
involuntarily, she was dragged under by the weight of her waterlogged
kit with it's heavy clay tablets.

Underwater, she struggled to keep a tight grip on to her slippery
leather saddlebags as the river swirled and tumbled her over and over.

Up on the cliff, Kadrug abruptly thrust his sword into the air and
shouted in triumph, and as his men waved their flashing bronze swords
in the air, a chorus of hoarse voices howled in victory.

Then their leader jeered his derision as he turned away abruptly, and
after a final contemptuous look at the river from his followers, they
all retreated from the precipice and returned to their horses.

Still deep underwater and unable to hang on any longer, with a curious
roaring in her ears, Si'Wren finally resorted to more drastic means and
let go of her writing kit, with it's beautifully carved ivory writing
sticks, and the precious clay tablets wherein was written everything
she knew about her great, Invisible God Who was so much like water.
Unburdened by the weight of her kit, she rose to burst at long last
through the surface, gasping and straining for the life-giving air.

She quickly realized that she was so near to the far bank that, gasping
heavily, she merely let herself drift in closer, and swam a few tired
strokes to finally reach it on hands and knees. She dragged herself
halfway out of the water and collapsed, and felt the stub-end of the
arrow in her shoulder grate on a rock in the soft sloping bank. She
rolled halfway over onto her side to avoid doing that again, and lay in
the miry clay of the bank.

Clay. She had lost her writing kit, with all that she had written about
the Invisible God, but all around her was clay, miry clay, enough clay
to fill the whole world with tablets about the Invisible God. And then
she realized that she still had every word she had ever preached to her
Emperor, written in her heart.

Looking back upstream, she peered up at the far bank, high above the
water, where her many pursuers and their leader were no longer visible.

Than she looked around unsteadily, and a little ways downstream on the
same side of the river as herself, she saw the black stallion.

He was bogged down in the mud and reeds of a sheltered shallows, his
head sagging ever lower as he gradually gave up his fight for life by
successive stages, with weaker and weaker struggles. What a sadness,
that such a magnificent creature should ever have to die!

Si'Wren turned her head and lifted up her eyes, and shifted her gaze
over a little, to look up at the sky just beyond the waterfall, up into
the shining white mists of it's far-flung, billowing overspray.

And then she gasped, awestruck, for there in a perfectly stationary arc
stretching across the billowing, towering plumes of white mist, she saw
a multi-hued sweep of pure jeweled light, arrayed in the most beautiful
translucent bow of vivid colors, red above, and purple beneath, with
orange-yellow and blue-green streaked through the center of the
miraculously motionless curved arc.

Gasping with increasing difficulty for air from her tortured lungs, and
still gazing up into the white mists, Si'Wren stared, spellbound, as
the bow of colors and the thundering roar of the waterfall slowly faded
from her senses.

* * *

And Si'Wren died.

And these were all the years of her life, and she was but seventeen
when she died. I, Ibi, have made proper record of it and shall now seal
all away in a great stone jar, for a strange and unheard-of thing
happens even as I write these words. Water, falling from the sky for
almost a solid week! This miraculous thing have I beheld with mine own
rheumy and tired old eyes that thought they had seen all that there was
to see, and still it falls! The gods harken not unto the lamentations
and sacrifices of men. The rivers, the lakes, and the very sea itself,
all are tumultuous, swollen, and rising. Great fear has fallen upon all
flesh, upon every man, woman, and child, and upon every beast, and fowl
of the air, and lowly creeping thing alike. For the space of six days
and six nights has this cursed divine waterfall descended from the
heavens upon all the formerly dry land.

I go again to pray. Ye gods, why do ye not listen? Perhaps the great
Invisible God of Si'Wren, the Holy One Who is like water, will hearken
unto my prayers if the other gods will not, and surely tomorrow, on the
seventh day, He will rest.

* * *

The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful
men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away
from the evil to come. - Isaiah 57.

THE END





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