The Zenith's Warrior
SOFT PANELS OF WORMCLOTH shimmered in the afternoon breeze on the open pavilion. They softened the courtier's lavish and colorful dress, while mingling before the raised platinum throne with its design of multicolored feathers across the seatback fashioned from the highest quality, precious jewels. Guards formed an outer perimeter spaced every ten feet. They wore sandals made of soft leather and golden braces. Gold cuffs inset with onyx stripes denoted their rank. Their legs stood bare below the short fustanella made from the purest white linen; long and slender red, orange, and yellow feathers rose above their foreheads, held in place by an elaborately woven design in matching white linen. The pavilion guards, selected for their beautiful bodies and pleasing mores, stood at position, their certain and considerable fighting skills hardly needed in the most guarded spot in the empire.
Maidens of the Empire complemented the guards. Chosen for their beauty, knowledge, and artistic talents, they came from all levels of society. Soft pastel colors of sheer, overflowing material covering white undergarments of the same fabric clung to them, tied with a golden belt at their waist. Their soft sandals copied the guards' in design. The courtiers may call on them for information on many areas of interest. Their sisters-in-training of lesser beauty or social status enjoyed the same opportunities for advancement in the empire. Training classes in a wide variety of subjects shored up any shortcomings, and prepared the maidens for service to the empire in their chosen fields of endeavor. Their male counterparts, the Attendants of the Empire, served as learned and informed assistants for one or more nobles. Both groups rose in status through well-rewarded abilities.
Ta-Cern, late Captain of the Guard for the High Lord of Deepwells in the lands called Jewel, stood behind a panel of white wormcloth, waiting. His handsome face equaled any of the guards around him, and his excellent physique belied his age. He wore a platinum torque and cuffs, a fustanella of silver cloth, and sandals with silver braces; the large headdress of slender feathers from the rainbow's every color befitted his rank as Seeker of the Empire. He had not seen his empress and cousin in five years. His nerves wracked him, not from seeing the Empress, but for the emotional explosion he would cause.
Harps waxed and waned, emitting waves of melodious sound in harmony with the pounding surf a hundred yards away. The flute's shimmering crystal notes provided soft counterpoints darting among the lush notes. Suddenly, full deep chords resonated from deep-bellied string instruments played with a bow. The familiar cascading sounds, and the warm welcome he received from family and friends, made his homecoming complete.
Courtiers moved at once to stand behind their cushions arranged in orderly rows according to rank. They dropped to their knees at a flourish of notes from the harps, and bent forward to touch their heads to the floor. Ta-Cern chuckled at the image of the empire's most noble buttocks stuck up in the air behind an elaborate sea of feather headdresses. He wondered again how his cousin kept a straight face. Va-A'Cil, Empress of the Aviaries of Heaven, entered the pavilion while Ca-Ra'IL from the Noble House of the Stork, Truth-bearer of the Empire, followed close behind and to her left. Ca-Ra'IL wore a sarong of shimmering black wormcloth with a silver design of a magnificent eagle in flight outlined in black pearls. No other jewelry adornments graced her fingers, limbs, or neck. Her stature and movements showed no evidence of her one hundred and twelve years. Her eyes blazed with an inner fire, and her silver hair fell to a few inches above the floor. Smooth skin projected the quintessence of a woman a quarter her age.
Va-A'Cil wore a pale violet sarong of iridescent wormcloth, the color of the imperial house and only worn by her, a headdress fashioned from platinum and precious gems in the form of long slender feathers rising above her forehead. Ta-Cern once tested its weight, and decided it was the reason she did not often smile while on the throne. Platinum cuffs encrusted with sapphires encircled her wrists and a matching belt surrounded her waist. Her legendary beauty radiated from within, and outshone all the jewels in the pavilion.
Ca-Ra'IL moved forward and struck a silver triangle hanging from a leather cord, three times. The courtiers raised their heads and sought comfort on their cushions as Va-A'Cil ascended the throne. Her fourth strike on the triangle caused surprise. A Maiden of the Empire's golden voice flowed over the assemblage, "Ta-Cern, from the Noble House of the Hawk, Seeker of the Empire, comes forward to impart knowledge to the Empire."
A guard pulled the panel to the side, and Ta-Cern made his way up the center aisle while startled courtiers whispered amongst themselves; they stopped to bow when he passed by. Another sound from the triangle silenced them. Kneeling on the silver cushion before the throne, he bowed half way to the floor for exactly three seconds, and then rose upright. Ca-Ra'IL approached and knelt at Ta-Cern's left side on a black cushion. A scribe in white linen approached, bowed to the Empress, to Ca-Ra'IL, and then to Ta-Cern before kneeling on a white cushion. He took white parchment, a glass pen, and made ready to write with black ink. Ta-Cern leaned toward Ca-Ra'IL and whispered close to her ear. Her eyes widened for a brief moment while the memory of Ta-Cern's introduction to Jarod Greatstone, Zenith Lord of the Seven Realms and the Visage of Visions to the seers of the empire, flooded and merged into her own memories. Her voice cracked when she spoke, "I have seen the true memory of Ta-Cern, from the Noble House of the Hawk, Seeker of the Empire." Her eyes moistened.
Protocol ruled the scribe would write out the message, Ta-Cern would sign and seal the document followed by Ca-Ra'IL's perusal and seal, and then Va-A'Cil would read the document and decide if it should be presented to the court. Ta-Cern leaned toward the scribe and whispered his discovery in his ear. The correct protocol flowed well except when he imparted the message to the scribe. The man fainted, spreading black ink over white robes.
Ca-Ra'IL rose and bowed to the empress who nodded once while guards attended the unconscious scribe. She turned to face the courtiers. Her stance once again firm and her voice strong, said in a crisp tonal voice, "Hear the truth! The Visage of Visions has been found!" Pandemonium struck.
LENZEL crouched behind the green and brown foliage that constituted his cover from sharp eyes. His mind wandered over the last year's extraordinary events. He had completed warrior training. In addition, he had finished and mastered the fighting skills of Desert's Ire in three years, something few warriors ever accomplished and extremely rare for one not named a warrior, gave him honor and status yet unrealized. His youth for such accomplishments amazed some. The strange man from Stonefire took him through much of his training in stealth, including hunting the woodlands several miles distance from the low hills marking the boundary to the High Desert People's domain. His name appropriately reflected the skills he taught, Forrest Workman. Lenzel mastered the skills easily, as if born to them. His friends, familiar to stealth in the high desert, found the woods and forests challenging.
The Seven Realms' fighting styles Forrest taught differed from those Lenzel knew, but he had adapted well. This summer would mark his seventeenth year with the High Desert People. His clan agreed to Forrest's intermittent training over the past year, again based on his accomplishments. He had met the Highest One, called the Zenith Lord by those other than the High Desert People, on two occasions in that year. Lenzel possessed certainty that he would never match the fighting skills of the Highest One and the strange priest that often sparred with him. He had never seen a priest fight, or one so large, muscular and quick. The two men's pure physical power and skills with swords left onlookers in awe. They sparred mostly without shirts, the Highest One with his sandy blond hair bound in a warrior's knot and the priest with his silvery white hair, loose and long flowing to the base of his spine. The vibrant jewels embedded in their chests, pulsing with their exercise was wondrous to see. The Highest One, perhaps two inches shorter than the priest and nearly as muscular, won the sparring battles most times. They would finish their match grinning like children with a new toy, sweat running over taut rippling muscles. They would emerge an hour later, bathed, in fresh clothes and ready for the many other duties that Lenzel knew lasted far into the night on many occasions. Their constant vigilance impressed him the most.
Alertness to a small sound of hoof against leaves snapped Lenzel out of his memories. He silently peered through his cover; a large buck and doe hesitantly approach the natural clear pool where the stream spread out over shining rocks. The buck relaxed and edged to the pool to drink and the doe joined him a moment later.
The buck never started until the arrow drove deep into his chest. The second arrow cut off the doe's shrill cry of alarm. His last task completed before consideration for warrior status elated him. The meat would feed the clan and the hides would make the leathers he needed to meld into the high desert's shadows. Neither of their hearts pulsed when Lenzel examined his kills and that gladdened him. He hated the unnecessary suffering misplaced arrows often caused. Giving thanks to Light's Source for the bounty received, he dressed out the deer, washed in the pool and went to get the horses. His peers mercilessly teased him when he had left with two packhorses. Now, he needed them as he had planned. He left the viscera for the scavengers away from the rapidly clearing pool.
He arrived at his Battle Group's camp. Reddish golden rays from dying sunlight cast coruscating reflections from quartz and glorious striations of color wrought by wind and ancient waters that disappeared millennia ago; golds, tans, reds and browns fought for attention. Welcoming cries soon brought many clansmen gathered around his pack animals. He watched his packhorses being led away for warriors to unload and groom, the hunter's partial reward for a successful hunt. His satisfaction grew with each smile he saw.
"You did well." Lenzel turned with a smile at the voice that made his heart gallop. Ellrill's smile held warmth and his blush betrayed him. "Will you walk me to my tent?" A question that needed no answer.
Round tents were arranged in two circles, one within another. Stout leather, in desert colors, formed a tent within a tent, the inner wall three inches from the outer with a fine leather mesh for escaping air. Plush rugs and mats covered the interior. Cushions covered in fur and several in wormcloth divided the area into sections with colorful wormcloth panels hanging above. A tent large enough to hold the clan stood at the middle of the circles. The encampments, often established near a box canyon, gated with ropes the size of a man's forearm, left the horses much freedom and their smells away from the tents. Lenzel knew the High Desert People got the idea from a canyon large enough to support five thousand horses located near the Spires in Stonefire, millennia ago. He could not comprehend the support people it would take to keep so large a herd, or herds, in health and separated when needs required. Nor could he understand the Spires' size and was not sure he believed the stories he had heard. Large crowds of anything were definitely not what he wanted now. His nerve peaked and he reached for Ellrill's hand. Their touch excited emotional sparks.
Too soon, sounds of running feet startled them and they withdrew a step from each other, breaking the momentary first contact. One of several boys delivering messages to the three hundred and twelve tents rushed by, slowing enough to quickly say, "Clan meeting tonight!" and ran toward his assigned area.
Ellrill shyly asked, "Sit with me tonight?" Lenzel nodded happily and left for his tent wondering about the subject of the meeting.
Sated on the finest cuts of venison-the hunter's right-Lenzel wanted to curl up on his soft furs and sleep; but one did not miss a hurriedly called clan meeting, especially a man of seventeen summers. Soft voices stirred around him while he fell in with others making their way to the central tent. Many lights filled the great tent and Lenzel spotted Ellrill in the first row that surrounded the raised circular dais. Ellrill waited and carefully protected the space next to her.
Lenzel did not know until that moment that one's heart could dance. He recovered nicely and soon sat beside her. Her beauty and soft brown eyes flustered his mind. Speaking came to a stop when three men and a tall woman entered and made their way onto the dais.
Lenzel started, somewhat surprised. He identified Debgril, leader of Desert Ire, as the woman. He met her briefly when he finished his training-or as much of their training she allowed a man to receive with the Maids of Desert's Ire. Mecqua, Warrior Commander of the Cat Clan, looked everywhere except at him. Welguo, Ellrill's father and the clan's spiritual leader looked at his daughter and him sitting together. Barqua, the fourth person and Horse-master for the Cat Clan, lagged behind. Meetings with the four leaders were rare and always important. Welquo's deep, well-modulated voice sounded out over the clan. "Lenzel of the Cat Clan, step forward."
Surprise, followed by embarrassment and worry flashed through Lenzel's mind. Ellrill smiled and nudged him forward. He climbed onto the dais and looked across some smiling, some questioning faces. The four leaders stood, each facing out, in a square formation with Lenzel uncomfortably in the middle. Welquo's voice almost made him jump. "When does a man become a man? When does a man become a warrior? Tradition states that both occurrences happen on or after one of our boys reaches his eighteenth summer and has met all the training requirements given him. This tradition is the same throughout the clans for men, or women, if they choose the warrior's path. Now comes Lenzel to challenge tradition. This summer will be the boy's seventeenth summer and he, as of today, has met all the requirements to qualify as a warrior, except one--Tradition. Mecqua, Warrior Commander of the Cat Clan, how say you?"
"Welquo, Spiritual Leader of the Cat Clan, Lenzel has the training of a warrior."
"Barqua, Horse-master of the Cat Clan, how say you?"
"Lenzel rides as a warrior."
"Debgril, War Leader of Desert's Ire, how say you?"
"Welquo, Spiritual Leader of the Cat Clan, Lenzel, the warrior may ride with Desert's Ire when need's be.
Welquo remained while the other leaders left the dais and took the seats held vacant for them. He motioned Lenzel to his side. No doubt existed that all those within the tent could hear him. "Lenzel will not be named 'Warrior' tonight." Lenzel's hopes crashed, but then, he thought, I knew nothing of this before tonight. Why should I be upset about a great honor? He relaxed.
Welquo continued, "Lenzel will be named 'Warrior' before his eighteenth summer if a call for warriors is issued by the Highest One. A newly acclaimed warrior leaves the clan for two months. He is to use that time to reflect on his choice of becoming a named warrior and the responsibilities that come with that honor. He may upon his return, renounce himself as warrior, without shame. We will allow him to leave us for two months. He is bound to the Light's Source, as we all are bound to his clan as a warrior, bound to the Highest One as a warrior and bound to himself as a warrior in all except name. The clans will shun him if he renounces his warrior oaths once taken. Is anyone against the words of the clan's leaders?" There came a long silence, perhaps the longest moment in Lenzel's young life. "So it will be entered into the clan's history." Wild yips from Lenzel's friends and general applause from the rest of those gathered did nothing to reduce the sizeable lump caught in his throat.
His friends hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him out while he regretfully looked at Ellrill's tranquil smiling face before others moved in front of her. They deposited him near a large fire pit where many younger men and sometimes younger women often met. Taccaw, Lenzel's trusted friend asked the obvious question. "So, Lenzel, when are you leaving?"
SHADURE, chief among the minions of the Source of the Dark, hovered unseen, observing the scene below him with great amusement.
"YOU SON OF A PIG!" Daktar eased forward on his throne. His black eyes bore into the officer trembling before him. "You were ordered, specifically, not to enter the capital."
"Supreme Dynast…please, they made it look safe. They showed no resistance at all until we were half way to the palace. Your courier never reached me; I swear, Supreme Dynast."
Daktar taped his little finger against the golden arm of his throne. Two guards dragged a limp form face down before him and dropped it a few feet from the officer. Two arrows protruded through the dead man's chest and clanked against the marble floor. The kneeling officer shrieked and touched his head to the floor. His trembling caused his words to sound disjointed. "Supreme Dynast, I…did not do this." Daktar's voice softened to an oily purr. "Oh, my dear general, I know that you did not loose the arrows that killed my courier. This man did!"
Guards pulled draperies aside. The general looked on his assassin and moaned in deep despair and anguish. Ropes held him up; his feet dangled at the edge of a vat containing sand to absorb his blood. Long strips of bloody skin lay atop the sand, taken from his head to his knees.
"Do you know, it is very hard to keep a man alive while flaying his genitals? My men worked hard to keep him flourishing as long as possible. I am not displeased with their efforts. He talked, oh my, how he talked."
The general cringed and then suddenly stood upright with all traces of obsequiousness gone. He pulled a knife from his tunic and made ready to throw. Four arrows pierced his chest before his arm even moved. The knife and the General's hand hit the floor at the same time. Daktar regained his usual commanding voice. "Clean this mess up and get this vermin out of here."
He turned aside as servants rushed forward to comply. He was alone within a few minuets, looking out onto his spotless audience chamber-dead men and gore no longer in sight.
"Was it not as I said?" These words whispered in his ear proved ever so slight, but very distinct. Daktar slowly looked around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. "Do you really wish to see me?"
"Enough of these games! Who are you or are you what I suspect, my own mind and abilities?"
The laugh that filled Daktar's mind was evil and long. "Very well, as you say, enough of these games." A force moved around him and darkness entered the room, coalescing into a man's form with a cloak. The ebony face beneath the cloak's cowl showed strikingly beautiful features, masculine and virile. The aura of evil miasma surrounding it would have changed that attractiveness to ugliness in most men's eyes. Daktar was not most men.
"Now, let me speak plainly," the being started.
In an act of intimidation, Daktar slowly elevated until his feet hovered at a level with the top of his throne. Yet, the being matched his rise, slightly smiling. Fear scuttled through Daktar, repressed almost instantly, but it must have showed on his face for it did not go unnoticed.
"You wish to become the master of all the lands of this continent. A worthy undertaking, but one I fear you will not succeed in accomplishing. Well, not without help…my help."
Daktar tried to answer but did not find his voice. Anger flashed through him. The apparition laughed.
"You may call me Shadure. I have the power that will allow you to accomplish your goal and much, much more. You could be master of this puny land in three years with my assistance."
Daktar's anger abated a notch or two.
"You could be master of a considerably larger land and infinite riches in approximately ten years."
Shadure settled to the floor as Daktar gently floated back to his throne. Being the highest minion of the Dark's Source, he seemed content with his choice of Daktar.
"Why would you offer me help of any kind?" Daktar asked, finally locating his voice. Anger did not tinge his tone, but greed did.
"I have no need for riches and I am far more powerful than you could ever imagine. I do have an enemy I wish to destroy. One that has gold and precious jewels beyond your scope of thought. I wish to dominate everything he is and all he owns. You may rule his lands for and through me, after we bring him down."
Daktar made no effort to hide his dubiety.
"Ah, I know," Shadure said. "An undertaking of this type requires trust and I will provide the foundation of that trust by helping you first with your adventures here. There are eleven kingdoms and you have taken three. Do you really think you can conquer the remaining seven in under ten or fifteen years? You do not have the time to assimilate the people as you take their domains. Can you sustain them while constantly burdened with rebellions and skirmishes behind your lines? Supply lines will become a nightmare. I can greatly expedite your efforts and show you how to keep your lands once you have them.
"But, hear me well. I admired your handling of the traitor. Flaying a body to death is an exquisite act, but I exact a heavy price for failure and my ability for torture extends beyond anything you can imagine."
Daktar's spine chilled. He instinctively knew the words he heard were true.
"Enough of threats," the being added. "I will advise you. Only you will hear my voice. I have a gift that will make it easier for you to hear me and through it, you may call me."
A heavy gold chain appeared in the air above Daktar, and then gently settled around his neck. Its pendant consisted of a dull black stone that pulled in the surrounding light. He had the distinct feeling he would never take it off while alive. He'd always been a bright fellow.