SEVEN MOVES ON AN ORDRULK BOARD



SEVEN MOVES ON AN ORDRULK BOARD, BY Adrian Simmons

 

1

The dead merchants, hung in the trees with their heads tied in their hands, nearly drove Muriq back from the Governor’s Forest. They had been there for a while, perhaps a little over a week. Flies swarmed around them and welled up from the stained earth beneath them. Carrion birds had already gotten the eyes and pulled out the tongues.

The boy stood frozen, with the cold of the desert blowing from the south and the greater cold of the woods in front of him, and rising coldest of all beyond the trees the bare peak of Tarq-Umal- the Forbidden Mountain.

The merchants had been caught on the slopes of Tarq-Umal looking for treasure, or perhaps they had been spies from the war in the west. The stories Muriq had heard varied on all the facts save that they had been found by the soldiers of the city of Arwhuk; that everyone had agreed on.

Nobody had mentioned that one of the merchants was no older than Muriq himself and for long moments that gave him pause. But he took some courage that he was not going near Tarq-Umal, but engaging in the much more petty crime of poaching from Governor’s Forest. Twenty lashes, if he were caught, and disgrace to his family, but surely the gods would forgive him (for, the holy stories dictated that those who feel shame at their crimes are better than those who do not), and his family would forgive him- after all, it was the gods who demanded turtle doves in exchange for blessings to drive away the blue-nail plague, and without turtle-doves his mother and sister would soon be as dead from the plague as the merchants who hung as warning near the road.

He rushed down the road, his ears straining to pick out the sounds of turtle-doves among the whsipering leaves and the calls of animals and insects. And, though he knew that the warden always moved from east to west checking his traps, and the soldiers rarely patrolled at mid-day, he listened and looked for them, too. He left the road and followed a nearly dry creek, for he had heard that doves liked to be near water.

A long and sweaty afternoon of rocks and mud and mosquitoes and grasping limbs from the tough trees around the creek and Muriq sat upon a stone and fought back tears. He had been a fool to think he could catch doves. He was a city boy, the son of a potter! His older brother, Jufta, he could perhaps have caught them, but he was away at the war four months now. And Mariq had done nothing all day but scratch himself up and– as far as he knew—had not even heard a dove.

Then, a scrabble of something large above the bank. Fearing the warden, or the soldiers, Muriq threw himself to the ground and scrambled as quietly as he could behind a large stone. The noise continued; whatever it was too small to be a man. Fears of all the demons and djinn and eeshu flooded his mind, for such beings were said to make the forbidden mountain their home, and who but a prophet would know that they didn’t venture down into the woods below to snatch up small boys?

Then, as if it owned the entire forest and the creek within it, a jackal eased up to the bank. Its long snout turned downstream, then up. It stood for a few moments and Muriq got a good look at it; a black back and honey-gold sides and grinning panting mouth. It was bigger than the dogs that prowled the bazaar, and put to rest instantly any story that those hounds were part jackal.

Would the priests take a jackal instead of three turtle-doves? Was there any sacrifice that required a jackal? None that Muriq knew of.   Its ears perked up and turned to look at the great stone. For a few moments it stared, and seemed to laugh a bit, then it disappeared back the way it came.

Muriq had seen that kind of swagger, when a lone bully went to get his friends, for example, and he knew then that his expedition to the forest was over, that he had to get home, get a beating from his father for disappearing in the day, and watch his sister and mother grow weaker.

Not two hundred paces later and he heard it: “Turrr…. Turrrrr”. Doves!

One flitted in the trees above the bank. Muriq snuck, jackal-like, over the edge of the bank and as he prepared to throw a small stone, but the creature flitted away- not far, and easy to see through the open scrubby woods.

Muriq followed. Twice more it flew and twice more he chased. He managed to get a throw at it, the stone turning lazily in the air and strking the branch tantalizing close to the bird. But when the dove flew again it seemed to flop more than fly and struggled to stay in the air!

He followed again, up a dry gulley and then froze. From below came harsh voices. The soldiers! Surely he was not on the mountain, not high enough to count! The memory of the headless merchant boy drove him higher up the gully to hide.

Picking his way carefully, and ever so quietly, Muriq moved away from the gruff voices and it was only after they finally passed that he realized that his gully was now a gutter lined with tiles no larger than his palm.

“Nothing here,” a man’s voice barked, not more than a stone’s throw away.

“Not if you shout like that, fool!” another answered. “I saw something running up the hill.”

“Probably a gazelle. You poach another one and we’re going to be in for it with the warden.”

“Not a gazelle, a man. Another spy.”

“You’re seeing things!”

“You want to go to the western wars? No? You are smarter than you look. You smart enough to know that we’d better start finding infidels and spies on the forbidden mountain or we’ll be off to the west to the fighting?”

The man’s answer, a stream of profanity such that a bazaar whore might spit upon being stiffed, was lost on Mariq as he moved, almost jogging now, up the great wide gutter.

These soldiers, if they caught him, wouldn’t care anything about why he was here, or care about his mother and sister; to them, he meant as little as a turtle-dove.

Cowering in the gutter, Muriq prayed to the gods, especially to Ulquik who gave the loom and the potter’s wheel to men that the soldiers should pass him over. He could almost sense their eyes seeking him.

Finally he heard the voices again, but this time farther away. Still, he cringed, feeling a horrid and uncanny awareness upon him.

His legs burned to run, but the soldiers were below and… and it, a monstrous consciousness was-

“Hello, boy.”

The voice echoed off the tiles and the trees and the very sky. Surely the soldiers would hear! But the men’s voices drifted further and further down the hillside.

“Would you like to be able to cure the blue-nail plague?” the entity asked, booming its question to all the world.

“Y-yes?” Muriq answered, barely above a whisper.

“All the doves in the world to your gods and their priests will do nothing for your mother and your sister. Sacrifice to me and I will give you the Power to heal the plague, to drive away fevers, to do anything you want.”

“What kind of sacrifice?” He asked. “Doves?”

“Dig a pit. Build a bonfire in it.” The voice paused, as if relishing the words. “Take a man, break his arms and legs, and throw him in the fire.”

The level of cruelty, even to consider it, struck Muriq like a blow, and in the thick throbbing consciousness that surrounded him he felt a certain deep satisfaction.

There is a game that the people of the city of Arwhuk play: Ordrulk. It is a game where it is possible to win in three moves against a novice, which is why the children of the city like to play it against the merchants.

Muriq said nothing. He licked his lips and then cracked his knuckles. To bilk a foreign merchant at a game of Ordrulk was fun, but a skillful player is far more of a challenge.

 

2

 

It took two days of watching his mother and sister grow weaker and his father grow older by months and seeing the few doves that came into the bazaar being bought by the wealthy, that Mariq was finally ready to make the first move.

On the third day, just at dawn, he returned to the Governor’s Forest. The merchants had been cut down, or perhaps fallen apart, and again he followed the creek up to the tree with the spiraling root, and from there, cautious of the soldiers, up to the gutter and further up the slope.

“Yes?” it asked.

“What do you want me to do to let me heal only two people?”

The wind blew gently and the sun shone at full strength over the horizon, and after a long silence just when Mariq thought he might have better luck with the turtle-doves: “Kill me three dogs. Here, in this depression.”

A simple enough thing. A move to draw out a novice.

“How?”

“I don’t care.”

The voice, now that Muriq wasn’t so scared, now that the day was growing instead of dying, wasn’t so booming. It came, he felt sure, from just within his own ears.

The streets of Arwhuk had curs by the dozens, so three would be easy to find. But first, to block in that move, to dare to haggle.

“What would I have to do to just two dogs?”

“Kill them with a club. One blow to the back, a second one to the head.”

That he could do, for his sister and his mother. But getting two hounds up here… He must be brave, like his warrior brother Jufta.

“And to one dog?”

And it told him.

 

3

 

Arwhuk was not a city that had walls, the Governor’s Palace did, but not the city itself. Arwhuk had very little to fear, as it really didn’t have much of anything. It was a city that existed because there were people there.

One dog, its front and back legs tied, and its mouth tied shut. Sweat turned icy cold in the night air as Muriq caught his breath and built up his courage. The god of the forbidden mountain had not spoken when he came to the depression. Oh, it was there, he could feel its presence.

The offering was a small dog, fierce and mean from a life on the streets of Arwhuk. Getting it back here had been a struggle; he had to carry it in a sack over his back, and it had whined and growled and pawed the entire way.

He had found a club, too. A stout branch from one of the tough trees that grew in the Governor’s forest.

Ten. That’s what the… the thing had said.

Muriq looked out into the woods below. The soldiers were not out yet on their nightly patrol.

The first blow landed right behind the shoulder, the second in the same place, the third on the neck. The cur gurgled a yelp and cried and struggled, flopping about the hollow and frothing. The fourth was square in its side and something gave beneath the club. The fifth in the hip; sixth in the hip again; seventh back in the stomach; eight in the side; ninth in the side. Piss and shit spilled from the animal and it struggled harder with each blow and Muriq drew back, and landed a strike with all his strength on its back.

By the long light of the end of the day he could see blood and froth pour from the beast’s bound mouth and its struggles waned. Muriq dropped to his knees, got his hands around its throat, overlapped his thumbs and squeezed. His arms quivered with a mix of passion and fatigue and even as abused as the animal was it took far longer to finally grow limp and slump from his hands than he would have ever guessed.

His head swam and he sat hard on the tiles. Sucking in air he fought and held down tonight’s meager meal of barley and freekeh. He had to strong, and tough, for his mother and sister, for his brother in the war to the west.

“What do I have to do now, to drive away the plague?”

“Just put your hands on them.”

Muriq felt that he had made a good move, but not a great one. He looked down into the trees. No soldiers. It wouldn’t be good to be caught now.

“No,” the god of Taruk-Umal whispered to him. “No it would not.”

 

4

 

Summer’s heat grew, as did the general feeling of gloom in Arwhuk. The war in the west was not going well, and the Governor began another round of conscription. No merchants came from the west and north because of the war, and none came from the south and east because of those that had been killed on the forbidden mountain.

Taruk-Umal had omens of its own. Vultures were seen circling high upon the bare peak. The carrion birds never nested there, not even their kind would tolerate the touch of its unclean ground.

The plague continued to oppress the people, and neither the surgeon of the Governor, nor the gods of the commoners could change its deadly arithmetic.

Still, the people of Arwhuk were on the whole good, and when the potter’s wife and daughter broke their fever and the color returned to their fingertips the neighbors were happy for them, and held faith in the gods. They even celebrated, in the silent way of good neighbors, when the potter’s young boy, Muriq– who had been truant and sullen during his family’s trying time, seemed to throw himself into the family business.

 

5

 

“Do you want to join the temple?”

The priest smelled of blood, doves, mostly, and sweat, and his robes were not so clean, not in the broad daylight in this part of the temple.

Muriq didn’t want to join the temple, but he had to know.

“I want to serve the gods as a temple guard when I get older. I come from a good family and-”

“Temple guard?” the priest said, squinting out at the traffic in the dusty street. “We’ll need more. The Governor has seen fit to conscript several of ours into the war. It borders on blasphemy! It is unfitting that the servants of the gods be made to do other than serve the gods. Now those few we have left must guard the temples and ensure that the common soldiers of Arwhuk patrol the forbidden mountain.”

“But, I thought-” and Muriq had worked long and hard on this, on what to say, “that Great Reyhan threw down the priest-king of Tarq-Umal and slew all of his sons. What is left on the forbidden mountain to fear?”

The priest, like a potter looking for any excuse not to go near the kiln, wiped his brow. “Reyhan, blessed by the gods, slayed sons and daughters, and all inhabitants of that accursed temple-city. But it was a promise to the prophets, they had blessed his swords and his arrows and those of his soldiers, and in return they made him swear a vow.”

This was the first time Muriq had heard quite so much about Taruq-Umal. What he knew, what was discussed in the small homes of folk like him, he had already said.

“Were they such great foes?”

“Taruq-Umal was a great seat of wickedness. A cruel empire that the righteous had thrown down. Great Reyhan, may all men look to him for example, had decreed that the city there be leveled, it’s stones unused in the houses of Arwhuk. All wood was put to the torch and the righteous built anew- Arwhuk. In the old tongue, “Arwhuk” means “guard”. We are the guardian city, appointed by the gods and their prophets.”

 

6

 

It was easier to carry six cats, once you could get them in the bag, than two dogs, and worth more to the entity on Taruq-Umal, too. Easy to catch, at least these were, much harder to tie up and impossible to gag, but most people simply assumed that Muriq was going to drown them out in the river, which is often what was done with Arwhuk’s population of near-feral cats.

Getting them out of the city was easy enough, but getting them to the sacrificial gutter was harder. It took cunning, and no small amount of nerve, but he was aided by the knowledge that the soldiers did their daily patrol in the high summer in the cool of the mornings and the evenings, and that the warden of Governor’s Forest sought escape from the heat in his hut and with cheap wine.

“What do you desire, Muriq?” the entity asked. “The girl, Sasha? You can have her, have her as your own!”

He liked Sasha quite a bit, but… he was from a good family and the old women of the neighborhood had already been asking about him, about his marriage prospects. He had lost some of his value, marriage-wise, by having been so neglectful of his duties, but-

“That’s not what I came for.”

“The war? Do you want to see it?   Do you want to be a warrior?”

“Like Great Reyhan?” he asked. A bold move!

The summer heat fled from the depression and a winter chill blew in. It was sometimes good, in a game of Ordrulk, to point out a bad move to rattle an opponent.

Muriq had not thought much about the war; he had thought about his brother, though. “What would I need to do to be a great warrior?”

“Dig five pits. Build five bonfires. Take twenty men, break their arms and legs and throw them in.”

“What would I do to ensure my brother comes home alive?”

The laughter was simple and pure. “You have made a poor move, Muriq. He is dead now two weeks.”

The idea that Jufta, so strong, so happy, so sure of himself, was dead was like a kick in the belly. The cold of the depression seemed to sink into his flesh, into his marrow.

He hadn’t come here to talk about wars or heroics, or even his brother. He had come to ask simpler questions. For a few moments Muriq struggled for composure, lost it—for honestly how could the god of Tarq-Umal not know? After a time the mewling of cats brought him back to his task.

It took a dog killed in ten blows and strangled to allow him to heal the blue-nail plague in two people.

“How many cats to make the way here safe? So I don’t have to worry about the guards or the ward?”

“Ten.”

“Ten at once or over-”

“At once.”

“And how many to make the guards never look up here?”

But the being made no answer to that, or any of his other questions that day. Because Muriq knew he couldn’t bank the suffering he caused, and because people would ask questions about why he was taking a bag of cats back into the city, he let the three he had brought go.

 

 

7

 

When Muriq came back to his home he discovered one of his neighbors, Sabah the son of Mansur the weaver, had gotten the first feelings of numbness in his fingers. Muriq had work to do for his family, and it took four more days before he even had a chance to break away from his chores long enough to round up three cats, and that morning on the seventh day after contracting the blue-nail plague Sabah was dead.

In the tiled gutter of the entity Muriq went through the six prayers of the holy wheel: five for the spokes, and one for the rim. Then he breaks their legs, and then cuts off their paws. The presence likes that part- not the pain the animals feel, but the fact that Muriq is inflicting that pain.

Muriq hates it, hates that this has almost, almost become routine. Hates that he hasn’t figured out a better way, a better deal. Hates that he can’t come up with a better move. Hates that he was ever so glad when it spoke to him again.

Once the paws were off the strangling was easier, although there was still an art to it as they had their teeth.

Two cats, killed so. Then a third. “These I offer to let the cure come to the next two people to sacrifice doves at the temple.

Now he was thinking.

“What do I have to do to ensure that you tell the truth?”

“Nothing. I have no reason to lie.” Muriq can feel it, a kind of overwhelming smug confidence.

“How many dogs to ensure that my sacrifices don’t have to be here?”

A new stirring within the presence. One that might be… surprise? Perhaps this was a move it, in its long existence, had not encountered or not anticipated. Then: delight! “Two.”

 

8

 

The potter’s son had lost most prospects for a good marriage, as he rarely helped with pottery, and instead hung around the bazaar and sometimes couldn’t be found at all.

The temple guards ran the circuit around the mountain twice daily and once at night. They complained that there once been four barracks and four horsemen who had accompanied them. Even before the war it had dropped to three barracks and two horsemen. Now, just two barracks and no horsemen.

The people’s lack of piety was blamed for the losing war and the bites taken out of the borders of the kingdom. Yet there were miracles from the temple, the plague driven away overnight for some. Gardens did better than usual. Little things that did little to turn the tide of bad news and the foul mood of the people.

The tribute to keep the war in the west going caused rebellion in an outlying province.

 

9

 

For six rats, a deep dreamless sleep for Muriq’s family, and then two more and he could see in the dark like a cat.

The Governor didn’t spend much time hunting in the woods. What sports he enjoyed Mariq could not say, but he did not often hunt. His warden didn’t even hunt that much. The Governor had cattle, and tonight Muriq made his way among them, tormenting.

One heifer stumbled, eyes gouged out, and entrails dragging. Such horrible things were required. The people needed a good crop this year. The Governor had plenty of cattle. Best of all, jackals would be blamed-

“By all gods! What is that noise?”

A guard! He swung the knife and finished the work.

The cow staggered and dropped with a horrid wet crash.

“There!”

Two guards! Muriq turned and ran.

Something thumped to the earth right beside him and with a shock he realized that it was a spear.

“Is it a wildcat?”

“Too big! C’mon!”

Muriq ran fast and low through the brush. Behind him torches flared to life, waving madly as the men fanned out.

A creek ran through the enclosure, and he eased over the bank, but the stone he balanced on slipped and he fell with a splash.

“What was that?”

They were coming! He dropped down, torn between hiding and running.

“Over here! Over here!”

His knife gripped white-knuckle tight, and he fumbled for a stone. A knife and stone against armed men! He froze, hoping the sound of the shallow creek would cover him, hide him like the darkness.

He’s aware of another consciousness, of not being alone in the streambed. A long low growl and around the curve of the creek loped a jackal; ears down. In the night, with his vision, he can see the animal’s eyes glow like embers and its barred teeth have a baleful yellow tinge.

More panic than plan, Muriq threw the stone and it thumped into the creature’s side. The jackal ran around the curve, splashing heedless.

“There!” A man yells, and they charged after. They fumbled into the creek and fight their way up the other side. One falls back, losing spear and torch and Muriq is certain he looks right at him, but then he scrambles up the bank.

Muriq rushes upstream, splashing and falling. He throws cold water over himself in an effort to get the blood off.

 

10

 

In the hot summer the flies swarmed in Arwhuk. No place was safe with the, even the administrator’s compound. That a boy from a poor family would be escorted to Ziyad al Diaab, the right hand of the Governor and the chief administrator of infrastructure and buildings of Arwhuk was, in Muriq’s case at least—at least today—of no more interest than the flies.

The administrator’s quarters and office had hangings on most of the walls, and rugs on the floor. Muriq was led to the man’s office. Ziyad was not a young man. He was on the far side of age, and his hair, what remained of it, was a dirty grey, as was his beard. The cares of keeping order in a city on the losing end of a war stooped his shoulders.

“What now?” he growled, favoring Muriq with a look one reserves for a leper.

Muriq bowed and held the letter out to him. “Muktar, cousin of the Governor was almost thrown from his horse yesterday when a mad dog bit the animal.”

That much was true. The Power always worked best with a little truth at the core. “He has offered a solution to the problem.”

That much was not true. It was something that a man might easily believe to be true, and that was all Muriq needed. He held forth a leter.

Ziyad opened the letter, read through it, muttering. “Yes. Yes. A plague of hounds roams the city. But the watch has more important duties.”

“Read on,” Muriq urged, “my master Muktar proposes a solution.”

The man grunted, read through the rest of the letter. Flies landed on Muriq’s forehead, then the back of his neck. He brushed them off. Perhaps it would not work this time? Perhaps those three poor cats had not been enough to sway both Jamshaid, Ziyad’s chief secretary, and Ziyad as well.

“Well…” Ziyad finally said, rubbing at his grey beard. “It would not be such a high cost.” He leaned back. “Arwhuk suffers from many problems, but the prophets say that when one is to eat poisoned food, it is better if it is cooked well.”

“I have heard that, too.” Then after a moment he dared to haggle with none of the Power of the Entity to help him. “I could also catch cats.”

“Their wanton wailing in the night is like a curse on this city,” the Administrator answered, not really looking at Muriq, or looking at much of anything.

The rest of the meeting was as mundane as selling clay pots- a base salary of five coppers per month and for every ten dogs another copper, and for every twenty cats another.

He got a tabard, a small one, like the watch wore, and Ziyad told him to hang a dog’s ears off the shoulder and that word would go out that his duty was an official one of the administrator of the city, and thus the Governor.

 

11

 

Arwhuk was a city without walls, yet it could still sometimes take forever to get out of it. A line of people with their animals and carts coming into the city, and a line of people with their animals and wares going out of it met and melded at the great east road. The sunlight draped off of the dust they kicked up, gleamed off sweaty brows and glistened off the wings of flies drawn to the street’s dung. The whole contentious procession is lined with beggars. Veterans from the war, the poor, those struck with the blue-nail plague. Their cries for alms, for pity, for prayers, meld with the floating dust and the flies and the shouts of farmers and tradesmen and the barking and snarling of Arwhuk’s dog catcher and his assistant and the four curs they are leading out of the city.

There is also, in the throng and the noise, singing. A man, a veteran who before begged because a blow to the head had left him blind, stood and sang (bellowed, more like) old peasant hymns to the lesser gods- for now he could see. He sang of his miracle, of his faith, of his hope.

Muriq and Ahmed added their own shouts to the throng, trying to keep the four dogs moving. They took the beasts out to the old quarry to cut their throats. Sometimes, they would let the city guard practice archery on them.

Not today, though. Today it was the knife for these. Or so Muriq had told Ahmed—he would send his assistant back into the city to continue the search while he did his work, his horrible work with these four.

Muriq allowed himself a smile. Not at the torments he had planned, but at the ex-soldier stepping back from the struggling animals that he and Ahmed part led/part dragged. He had his sight, but didn’t even see his patron.

The crowded road was the best place to ply the trade of miracles. Here were the worst, the poorest, and the most desperate. Here they came to beg and here Muriq worked his true calling, his passion, his profession of magic. Sweat poured down into his eyes and a Powerful satisfaction welled up within his breast. He had fooled Ahmed, he had swayed a handful of minor city officials, he had tested with the Entity of Tarq-Umal, he had healed the sick, and no one was the wiser!

Who today? The veteran hobbling along with a crutch in place of his leg? It would take a year’s worth of hounds to heal the leg, but it would be a small thing, a small miracle, to drive away the unending pain that tormented him from the leg he no longer had.

Not today. He was on the list, but not today.

 

7-moves-final

 

Muriq passes a woman begging for prayers and turtle doves for her daughter. The girl has the blue-nail plague; the listless sweat-glistening look of day six. She also looked somewhat like Sasha. Oh, Sasha hadn’t spared him a look in weeks. Muriq the dog-catcher. Muriq who broke his family’s hearts by turning from pottery. Muriq whose prospects of a good marriage dwindled daily. Muriq, the miracle worker!   Muriq who without any benefit of magic, with just the few coppers he had earned, already had a small cluster of adoring young whores in the bazaar.

He doesn’t even have to touch the sick girl, only to think about it, to will it to be so. He feels it, the Power he has banked within him diminish. Perhaps enough left for one more… And these four dogs would be enough to give him Power for two more.

The lines grind to a halt for some reason. A farmer entering the city brings his cart to a stop next to a man with a great dirty bundle—perhaps charcoal—on his back.

“I plant four carts of grain,” the farmer says to the charcoaler.   “Three grow. I lose one more to the crows and vermin, another half to my wretched laborers who help me harvest, and then half of what I have left goes to the Governor to pay for a lost war.”

The sentiment causes a bit of a break in Muriq’s smugness. Yes, that’s very much what it is like. A single dog, killed in ten blows in the very presence of the Entity, allowed him to touch and heal two people. It had taken offerings to allow him to make the sacrifices anywhere. It had taken more to allow him to bank the Power, and yet more to be free of having to touch a person to affect them. He has a supply of hounds and cats and rats, he could help dozens without fear of being found out, where before it was barely a handful and it had taken trips and risks to Tarq-Umal.

But… like the farmer, so much of his work went to ensuring he did not get caught. And those offerings would not last forever, he would have to re-do them. The working of miracles was Muriq’s passion, but the fear of getting caught was his fear. For they burned sorcerers in Arwhuk.

 

12

 

More soldiers began to return from the lost war in the west. Jufta isn’t with them and Muriq watches his family mourn at news he has known for months. Will his mother’s tears ever stop?

War is too great a thing. Too much worry and too much pain. He hears his father whisper that Jufta was little more than a boy himself with no business in it.

And now the kingdoms to the west will demand tribute.

The temple priests boast that their gods break the fever of the blue-nail plague like stones break the waves.

The herdsmen of the Governor’s cattle are beaten for letting one of the prize heifers die at the fangs of the jackals.

 

13

 

The way to the tiled ditch was safe. Muriq had ensured it through sufferings and pain inflected, ensured that none would see him on the slopes of the forbidden mountain. Today, though, he snuck as he had in the early summer, today he was not so confident.

The Entity was there, filling the place like a flood.

“You lied to me,” he said.

The Entity did not seem to be angered at being accused. Always that slight laugh. “I do not need to lie.”

“You said that for three dogs I could cure two people of the plague without touching them. The girl by the east gate of Arwhuk. I did as you said, and she still suffers. Her mother still brings her to the gate to beg.”

There was silence for long moments. Muriq popped his knuckles, one at a time.   The entity will not negotiate on this—he must come here if he wishes to speak with the god of the forbidden mountain. It nags at him. It seems too much like a trap.

“She suffers, but not from the plague.”

“No. Her nails are blue as the sky, and she sweats and does not know her own name.” He cracks his thumbs, manages not to lick his lips. “I will not play ordrulk with a cheater.”

Sometimes the entity will talk, will offer answers, other times it demands offerings. The weight of the Power in Muriq’s belly is slight. The entity won’t take the Power anyway, it will want an offering.

“It is the same mistake you made with your brother Jufta,” it said after a while. “You waited too late.”

A sudden hot rage came to Muriq and with a great effort he mastered it. In Ordrulk, when you can’t match the moves, you work on the player.

Instead of an angry outburst or more tears: “I drove the plague away.”

“Her nails are blue today. In another day they will turn black, then in another they will fall off. Much the same is happening in her head. You put out the fire of her fever but not before the house was ruined by the flames.”

He started on his knuckles again; pulling back this time instead of pushing forward. “So… day six is too late?”

The entity did not respond.

Muriq sighs. He knows what it wants. “What offering to rebuild the house after day six?”

“Dig a pit, build a bonfire in it, take a man and break his arms and legs, then throw him into the fire.”

The thick awareness of the Thing that filled the gutter seemed to shimmer like a heat wave as it said this. Almost… delight? Just in saying it.

And, for all the extremeness of the opening bid, it has become mundane. They haggle back and forth, from people to animals, from horses to dogs to cats.

 

14

 

Fall finally came to Arwhuk. The crops were good, which was greeted with little fanfare since the news of the war at the border was bad. The new dog catcher had his hands full with the small army of curs and cats that occupied the city. But dealing with dirty animals made Muriq dirty himself, to his neighbors at least, and the old women of the neighborhood worried to his mother that his prospects were greatly lessened by it.

Muriq discovered that it did not take long for his prey to realize their peril and he was nearly beaten by administrator Ziyad for the sudden drop in productivity. He had to enlist help. He chose Ahmed, from the bazaar, because although they were the same age he was bigger and stupider and wouldn’t notice that a certain number of animals they captured were not accounted for.

The square of justice stood on one side of the walled Governor’s palace, and today Muriq watched the horrible business of justice. Today it was three thieves. The punishment for thievery, the first time one was caught, was twenty lashes. The second was to have the right hand cut off. The third was death by beheading.

“So what is to happen to these three today?” Muriq asked one of the lesser officials as things were getting set up. The man sighed, looked at the tabard with the dog-ears and perhaps to kill time more than anything else, said. “One for each infraction.”

Muriq nodded. Arwhuk was a city of laws. Punishments were severe, but just shy of cruel. They did not drag men through the rocky wastes like some of the tribes in the desert did. They did not pull people apart, like the barbarians to the west did. They did burn people, witches and sorcerers, but that only happened once every few years.

“How is it right to give a man lashes, or to cut off a hand? Doesn’t that make you as guilty as they are?”

The man cocked an eyebrow at him and gave the answer everyone gave. “It is the law.”

Muriq nodded. Ahmed, who lived near the bazaar knew one of the thieves and claimed that thievery was just the beginning of his crimes. So the law wasn’t even close! And that big fat bully, Huskal, was a thief, among other things, and yet he roamed the bazaar without a scar on his back and with both hands.

“But how does the law get made? What gives the Governor the Power to make such decisions?”

“Don’t you have dogs to catch?”

“Today we hunt cats. Ahmed is busy with that.” He had very little of the Power, but he could tell the official tired of the conversation and so he invested most of it to get his attention and interest. “Someday I hope to catch criminals like I catch dogs. But I would not want to be a part of a system that was cruel and without justice.”

The official leaned back and spoke of the gods who gave man law through the prophets (many of which contradicted one another, and some of which were enforced and some of which were not), and of the laws of Reyhan the Great, who was blessed by the prophets and charged with administering the law, and how the Governor was now charged with it. And of the court and the judges and the need for three witnesses to see a crime in the day, but only two at night.

Muriq, though he played a good game of Ordrulk, and had matched wits with mad hounds and the Entity of the forbidden mountain, was forced to admit that he was still very young and perhaps the intricacies of the law were beyond what an illiterate potter’s son could fathom.

And it wouldn’t be worth the hassle of maiming dogs to find out.

 

15

 

The poor that swelled the streets outside of the bazaar felt no relief from the miracles of the priests. And poor Mehtar, a neighbor boy who had idolized Muriq like he had once idolized his brother Jufta, suffered and sweated with the blue-nail plague.

The sixth day, in the broad brightness of the day, Muriq goes to him. The boy’s father is at the bazaar, begging, or maybe stealing.

Mehtar’s head moves as Muriq slips in, but the boy is delirious, as are all victims on day six.

A thick leather cord, wide like a belt around Mehtar’s neck. Muriq paused, wiped the sweat from his brow. He just needed to pull, just pull. No breaking of fingers, or cutting off of toes. That much he was able to haggle. Poor little Mehtar didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve the blue-nail plague either. Neither had Muriq’s mother and sister, or the hundreds of others who had died from it.

The world swarms with cruelty and injustice. And, by the gods and the nameless thing on Taruq-Umal, Muriq the potter’s son is the only thing that stands against it all.

But the Entity wants only one thing, the suffering of men, of a man. It has become a chant in Muriq’s head first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

He pulls the cord tight and Mehtar, so far gone, barely struggles.

Mehtar is just a matter of convenience, because he does not deserve to die horribly. Because what Muriq needs to know, must know if he is ever to make a truly bold move, is who is a bad man who does deserve it.

 

16

 

The inside of the Kicking Hooves of the Victorious Horse Inn was, to Muriq, like stepping into a different world.   Like the administrator’s office without the flies. The sweet spiced smoke of Oulla smoke filled the space.

The proprietor saw him and Muriq could tell he was about to throw him out, but he walked in like he owned the place and went to Tolbar’s table. When the owner saw that he grew still.

Tolbar, up close, seems no different than other men. He was not a small man, but there were taller and stronger by the dozen in Arwhuk. He had the raw-boned look like all those who returned from the war. He also had a reputation for heroism in those battles to the west.

“Are you Tolbar, the hero of the charge of Vennia?”

Muriq had grown used to the looks he, as a dog-catcher, got but Tolbar’s look of quiet revulsion still struck him. The man’s mouth turned up in a smile. “My fame extends from the highest to the lowest.”

And that’s all he says. He’s been chewing Oulla, that much Muriq can guess from his breath. By the Power he knows that Tolbar has also chewed through all the favors owed him by his companions in the war. Muriq doesn’t have much of the Power left, and what he has he holds like water in a leaky skin, just in case.

“I have heard of you,” Muriq offered.

Tolbar said nothing.

He had practiced it, in his mind, what he would say. It seems foolish now that he’s actually trying it. The temptation to put some of the Entity’s borrowed Power into his words was strong. Still: “I have heard you fear no man or beast or even the gods and demons.”

“If you’ve come to beg-”

“I’ve come to find a man unafraid of venturing to Tarq-Umal.”

A sudden tension in Tolbar’s shoulders almost caused Muriq to falter. It was a dangerous thing to interrupt a man, and doubly so a man like Tolbar.

Again the slight smile. “I’m not afraid of the mountain. The soldiers that patrol it? That’s a different thing.”

“Three merchants were hung at the start of the summer,” Muriq blurted, “caught on the forbidden mountain.”

Nothing.

Muriq looked around as furtively as he could, then leaned in. “They were not looking for treasure. They were hiding it.”

“Tolbar my friend,” the proprietor said, appearing out of the cool darkness, “is this filth bothering you?”

Tolbar put another pinch of Oulla into his mouth before waving away the man. “Let him stay a bit longer.   Not the first cur in this place, eh?”

The older man harrumphed and stumped off.

“This treasure, how do you know of it?”

“Heard things, about making so much money they feared bandits.”

“And where?”

“Tarq-Umal.”

Again, the tension in the shoulders, a crackle of a threat, like a cornered dog about to snap at your face. “Where on Tarq-Umal? I won’t search the whole mountain.”

And this is it. For his brother and all the ones he cannot yet help. “I will show you.”

Suspicion, then, through the haze of Oulla. “How do you know, dog-catcher?”

“I followed them,” a little of the Power, a very little bit.

“Followed them where?”

“I have a shovel, bring another and meet me at the east gate tomorrow. At the height of the morning crowd.”

A snort, an utterly dismissive sound. “Get two shovels and I’ll meet you in two days.”

Muriq could see that no arguing would change the man’s mind. He was almost surprised he had gotten this far. He nodded, then slipped out.

In the broad daylight, away from the malignant charm of Tolbar, he quietly cursed himself. He should have used more of the Power! Now Tolbar, a warrior, a murderer, a fiend, knew that poor Muriq the dog-catcher knew where a treasure was. And Tolbar was the kind of man who would beat the location out of him.

It was going to be a long, nervous, two days.

 

17

 

“I told you to come alone,” Muriq hissed, glaring behind Tolbar at Huskal.

“You don’t tell me to do anything, boy,” Tolbar said.

Tolbar’s face is an unreadable mask- boredom, that much Muriq could see. A well-cultivated look of disinterest. And Huskal, his fat lips curled into a dirty sneer.

“Did you tell anyone else?” Muriq demanded.

The mask of boredom was Tolbar’s answer, and just barely breaking the surface, a quiet rage at being questioned.

“Just your friend,” Tolbar said as they neared the gate.

And there he was, poor stupid Ahmed, watching for them through the crowd. Ahmed’s face lights up when he spies them, and Muriq can’t help but notice that the boy’s smile brightened even more when he sees Tolbar.

“What are we doing?” Ahmed asked—asked Tolbar.

“Going to get rich,” the man answered, heedless of who might be near.

“Keep your voice down-“

The blow, a hard slap, caught Muriq behind the ear. He stumbled, almost calling on the Power but managed not to. He managed not to cry. Nobody did anything; more people had looked at him catching a dog.

“You don’t tell me to do anything, boy.” Tolbar said again. Huskal laughed; a kind of giggle. Ahmed laughs, too. A kind of giggle. Tolbar grinned, something a jackal would envy.

“Being on the forbidden mountain is a crime,” Muriq reminded them as quietly as he could. “They will hang us if we get caught.”

“I’m not afraid to hang,” Tolbar said—too loud for Muriq’s comfort. He passed the shovels—three of them wrapped up in a bundle– to Ahmed. The boy took them like they were made of glass. “I’m afraid of women seeing me talking to the dogcatchers.”

After a second Ahmed giggled again.

Maybe, Muriq thought, whatever Power, whatever magnetism that Tolbar had—that’s what he’ll ask for next.

 

18

 

It took three hours to get to the old barracks, and fears followed Muriq every step of the way. Fear they would see a patrol. Fear that Tolbar would turn them in to the patrol (he hinted once only that none of this was his idea, after all). Fear that Huskal couldn’t actually make it, with all his gasping and sweating and wheezing.

The structure was barely such. The roof sagged and not one of the walls was straight. Unlike the mud-brick buildings that made up most of the city of Arwuk, this barracks was made of wood from the trees upon Tarq-Umal.

Huskal leaned against one of the smaller saplings that had grown in the abandoned courtyard, bending it easily under his weight. “It looks like a whore’s mother.”

Tolbar wiped sweat out of his eyes. “Looks like some of the houses in Vennia.”

Ahmed said nothing, and Muriq, who knew well what Tolbar did in those houses in Vennia, quietly congratulates himself. This was a move to seal the game!

“We must go in and dig,” Muriq encouraged them. “The merchants hid their gold inside.”

“You dig,” Tolbar said and the others gaped at him. He grinned an easy grin, “Someone has to keep an eye out for the soldiers.”

Huskal bristled. “We take it in shifts, then.”

“Fine.” Boredom as broad as the sky. Muriq felt as if he had confused his pieces. They were all supposed to go inside- Tolbar especially!

“Did they say where they buried it?” Ahmed asked.

“No,” Muriq said. “Just that it was in a wooden ruin on the side of Tarq-Umal. Reyhan the Great destroyed all the other buildings, so this has to be it.” He thought for a moment. “It would go faster if all four of us dig.”

He expected a blow, but none came. “Only brought three shovels,” Tolbar said.

The three of them go in and look around. The barracks-what remains of it- is four rooms. One, a kind of entry chamber, and a bunkhouse, and what might have been a stable, and a kitchen.

The kitchen is the smallest, but the stable has the most wood, so that’s where Muriq leads them.

“This place is too cramped,” Huskal mutters. “It feels like it could fall in at any moment.”

“Look!” Muriq cries, pointing. “Something has been dragged along the ground here.”

Ahmed, eager to impress, jumped forward to a mess of fallen beams, one of which looks to have been recently dragged over. He pulls and prods and then: “Turned earth!”

Huskal, for such a large man, is on it in a moment. “By the gods!” His face splits into a fleshy smile. “It is true!” He begins to push the debris, the brush, and bits of wooden beams that Muriq has moved so carefully over the last weeks, to open up a space to work. He begins digging with a fury.

“What have you found?” The voice makes the three of them jump. Tolbar stood in the doorframe watching them.

“He spoke true!” Huskal says. “Someone has been digging here, they moved the brush on top of it to hide it!”

“Less than six hours of daylight left,” Tolbar said. “Better hurry.”

Huskal stops digging, glares. “I though you said you were going to keep watch.”

A thin smile crawls across Tolbar’s face. “Oh, I’m watching, Huskal.”

 

19

 

Muriq and Ahmed put their backs into it while Huskal sat on the ground and puffed; the exuberance of the initial labors long since gone. The big man dug a deep hole, then another, and a third.

Ahmed digs holes, narrow, down into the ground. Muriq, because he needs a pit, digs only a foot or so, then widens it, gradually connecting Huskal’s three holes and the two smaller ones that Ahmed has made.

“This earth is so tightly packed,” Huskal wheezes, “we should have brought more tools. Picks. This will take all day!”

“Day’s not over yet,” Tolbar says. “I’m going to go make sure the soldiers aren’t near.”

Without another word he turns and goes.

“Huh,” Huskal grunts. “My boys, that’s not what I’d call ‘taking shifts’.

Muriq and Ahmed both let out short bursts of quiet laughter.

Muriq has a few tools. There are the two bottles of oil he’s hidden in the barracks, one here where a bit of the ceiling has fallen against a bit of the wall, one in the bunkhouse, and then then one small bottle he has with him. He has banked the Power, enough for two mule kicks. He has his wide link of iron chain. He also knows just what kinds of things Tolbar did during the war.

The best plan he can come up with now is to wait. Eventually they will do a shift change. Tolbar will climb down into the pit.

Muriq did not expect either Huskal or Ahmed to be here. Huskal will be watching for the soldiers so Muriq will have no help—at least not at first. Ahmed… Ahmed is tired from hauling the shovels and the digging. Still, he could cause problems.

It would be simplest to hit Tolbar on the head with his shovel, but the Entity insists that the… the victim… be awake.

Once he sets the fire, Mariq is sure that he can get the other two to run, to flee before the soldiers come.

But it has to be now. It must be today, he’ll never get Tolbar out here again.

 

20

 

“Time for someone else to keep a watch,” Tolbar announces after the longest hour of Muriq’s life.

“Muriq,” Tolbar says, jumping easily into the near-pit they have dug in the stable in the last few hours, “you go.”

“Why does he get to go?” Ahmed demands, throwing his shovel down.

A wet crunch as Tolbar’s fist blurs out to punch Ahmed right in the eye. The boy falls straight back into the side of the hole and for a few heartbeats doesn’t even move.

“Because I said so!” Tolbar snarls, and like Huskal, and the warriors, and even his own brother, Muriq backs away- the idea that he could ever stand against Tolbar now seems as mad as holding back the dawn.

Then Ahmed lets out a howl of pain, holding a hand over half his face while tears stream out of his other eye. Tolbar takes easy steps to him, his fist raised.

Now!

Muriq steps behind Tolbar and digs into his pocket to wrap the chain link around his knuckles.

As he pulls it out Ahmed jerks himself up and back and scrambles out of the pit. With one hand still covering his eye, he jumps out of the jagged hole in the wall. And Tolbar, easy as thinking, jumps out of the pit after him.

“Damn him!” Tolbar shouts and out of his robes he draws the long curving knife- the knife he brought back from the war. “The fool will bring the soldiers down on us!”

He turns, points to Muriq, “Huskal, don’t let that one get away!” then his long legs carry him out the room in three great strides.

Muriq turns to Huskal, the big man is still standing where he had stepped back. “Keep your head, boy,” he says. “Let’s not get ourselves into any hotter water than we’re already stewing in.”

For a few moments Mariq’s head swoons in near-panic. All his plans, ruined! A monster in the shape of a man was going to catch his only friend in all of Arwuk and, if the things he had seen in dreams were true, beat him to within a heartbeat of death and then making sure—always Tolbar made sure—to break his jaw. And that thing, the Entity would laugh at Muriq’s pathetic moves, would find another, perhaps even Tolbar himself.

And he, Muriq, would never get the Power, would have grain instead of gold, and all that suffering he had inflicted would count for very little, and murdering Mehtar, and the blue nail plague would sweep like a wind over the city every winter, and he would not stand alone against the unfairness of the world.

And, and, and… And he took a breath, kept his head, and returns to digging. One shovelful. Two. A third. Because that’s what people did when men like Tolbar went on a rampage. They kept to their business. Because that was the best way to-

Huskal, grunts and turns back to his own digging. “Let’s hurry. Maybe we can find the gold before he gets back! We’ll take an extra coin or two for poor Ahmed. He’s earned that, at least.”

Hundreds had died from the blue-nail plague. The guards of the forbidden mountain had killed three innocent merchants to keep themselves out of the war. Muriq couldn’t count high enough to tell the numbers killed in the battles and in the razing of Vennia.   Reyhan the Great had put all of the people of the city of Tarq-Umal to the sword.

As Huskal pushes his weight down on the shovel Muriq spins and rushes at him, throwing his own shovel at the big man’s head.

The thick arms come up and Huskal teeters like a cow with its tendons cut, then it comes to Muriq: the feeling, the presence of the Power, of weighing as much as the great east gate of Arwuk, and the mule-kick flows down his arm and Huskal’s leg– foot still on the shovel– folds in half at the shin with a snap like green wood.

The big man howls, stumbles, puts the foot of his broken leg down and it collapses and he crumples to the ground. For a few moments he just squirms there, then he grabs at his broken limb. That’s when Muriq lands the second blow on his other leg, breaking it just below the knee.

Huskal’s eyes, white-wide, look up at him as Muriq reaches for the shovel. His scream falls to hiss, and the big man gulps air and struggles, like the dogs and cats and cows do. And like the dogs Muriq beats, Huskal shits himself from the pain, and lifts his arms to protect his head as the boy draws the shovel back with both hands.

The edge of the shovel catches a thick wrist, tearing into it. He has none of the Power now, it is just Muriq. Again and again he smashes the edge down on Huskal’s arms; beating them down until surely, surely, they are broken.

Huskal’s limbs flop as he struggles and Muriq, keeping his head, climbs up and out. He pushes brush and beams down onto Huskal’s groaning form, then retrieves the oil from its hiding place. He pours it over man and wood. Then as Huskal begs- first Muriq and then the gods- he takes out his flint and steel and lights it.

The wood catches almost instantly, and grey smoke and screaming fill the already cramped space and Muriq, grabbing up his bloodied shovel, leaves before either becomes intolerable.

He circles back around the building, watching for Ahmed or Tolbar. What he sees is smoke, pouring from leaning run of the stable. Back around to the front of the barracks and Huskal’s screams are no longer words, just horrible howls. Muriq takes out his small bottle of oil and pours it on the wood, stops, walks to the upwind side and pours the rest out there. He fumbles and botches the first two strikes of his flint and on the third the soaked wood catches.

Carrion birds do not roost on the forbidden mountain, and there are never fires on its slopes, and Muriq is certain that the guards will see the smoke and come. Too late to save poor Huskal, even if they would bother. If they don’t save Huskal then… Muriq will be able to deal with the soldiers.

But now, now he has to find Ahmed, he has to find Tolbar. Back around to the front, to the main entrance of the barracks. No tracks, no hints of where they went. No sound but Huskal’s weakening scream, and the growing strength of the fire. Muriq is no better a tracker than he was when he first came hunting turtledoves.

He keeps his head, thinks for a moment.

“Ahmed!” he yells as loud as he can; all he can think of. Then he runs off into the trees, calling for Ahmed and Tolbar.

 

21

 

The woods of the forbidden mountain rock in the gentle breeze, and Muriq outruns the smell of smoke. Twice he hears voices, Tolbar’s he’s almost sure. He picks up two first-sized stones and stuffs them in his pocket. Those and his shovel are all he has against Tolbar’s knife.

Having walked and dug and murdered, Muriq soon outruns his own stamina, and leans panting against a tree. He’s got to get off Tarq-Umal! He’s got to get to the tile-lined ditch to the Entity, or find one of his other hiding spots before-

A fist grabs his shoulder; Muriq spins, bringing the shovel around.

“It’s me! It’s meeee!” Ahmed yelps, stumbling back into the bushes with a crunch of branches and leaves.

“By Great Reyhan and the prophets! How did you-“

“I’ve chased mad dogs all over Arwhuk and been chased by them too; some clod like Tolbar can’t catch me!   And keep your voice down!”

Had he been shouting? Muriq couldn’t recall. He was so overjoyed to see Ahmed, to see that Tolbar hadn’t caught him, beaten him, then put him face-down against a stone and kicked the back of his head so that his jaw and teeth broke. That’s what Tolbar would do, if nobody was watching, and if they were watching…oh by the prophets if they were watching…

Muriq cranes his head around, “Where is Tolbar?”

“Not sure,” Ahmed says rubbing at his eye black eye. The white is stained with blood. “He tripped and then I jumped under this bush. Heard him run off.”

“Which way? Up the mountain?”

“I’m not sure-“

Muriq couldn’t find any sign of Tolbar, but over the tips of the scrubby trees he can see glimpses of grey smoke. Huskal. How long could a man survive in that furnace? He had to die in the fire, tat was what the Entity demanded. What if he survived somehow?   Surely that much suffering would be worth something, he had burned cats and that had been worth a lot.

“We have to go,” Muriq says, “Huskal managed to catch the stable on fire. He… he ran off, but the soldiers will see the smoke and they will come-”

A snapping twig silences him, and something large pushes through the woods not a bowshot away.

“Tolbar!” whispers Ahmed, scrambling back under the bush. After a moment Muriq joins him.

Tolbar bursts into the small clearing, his knife in one hand and a club in the other.

His face, dear mother his face. A sheen of sweat glistened on an expression no more concerned than his a man casting clay. Calm and collected, not angry, not anything, just about the business of murder like it was nothing.

Tolbar stood for a moment, catching his breath. He looked around, scanning the tree trunks and brush. If he saw the smoke he did not show it.

“Ahmed will go home eventually,” he mutters to himself. Then he hefted his club and turned to the direction of the barracks. “Muriq, then.”

He walks past them, close enough to touch and Muriq hugs the ground until he passed.

“We have to go!” Ahmed whispers harshly. “We have to get away from him.”

Muriq’s mind spins. How long before Tolbar saw the fire? What would he do then? Which direction would he go?

“We have to stay here, Ahmed,” he whispers back. “He’ll just go back to Arwhuk and wait for us there. He’ll catch us.”

But Ahmed is already moving, with a rustle of leaves and branches he worked his way out of the hiding place, and began running downhill.

Mariq hesitates just a moment and then rushes out after him. Afraid to shout to him, Mariq begins a mad mute pursuit through the woods. Once he considers throwing one of his stones at him.

As the trees thin out Ahmed suddenly halts and Muriq slides up behind him. Grabbing his shirt, Muriq whispers “In the open he’ll see us for-“

“Hyah! Go!” A soldier’s rough voice shouting from below! And then a sound Muriq has never heard on any of his journeys to the Forbidden Mountain: the pounding of horses’ hooves.

“They’ll protect us from Tolbar,” Ahmed says and starts forward.

“No!” Muriq hisses, hauling him back, “they’ll not care who they find, anyone on the-“

Ahmed yanks away and then flings back his elbow, catching Muriq in the gut. He slips out of his grip and ran.

One of the stones comes out in Muriq’s fist and he draws back as a sudden heaviness falls upon him. A weight within him greater than a boulder, or the gate of the Governer’s house; as if he is the very hinge of the world.

The stone flies from his hand and Ahmed falls to the ground upon his face without a sound.

Huskal must have finally died! And the Entity, as always, kept its promise. Truly it did not need to lie! Muriq’s body crackles with it, with a kind of Power- easy for the taking, easy for the using. Gold was always more valuable than grain and this he could use for anything! A great reserve of it! Useable for any purpose he saw fit!

He runs to Ahmed and shakes him by the shoulder. Tamping down the force within him he whispers, “Come quick! We’ll hide and let the soldiers pass by, then… then we will hunt Tolbar down like a dog in the streets of Arwhuk!”

Ahmed’s head lolls as he shakes him, and then he sees the great ragged hole in the back of the boy’s head, and the fist-sized stone buried deep within.

He stares for a few moments. “How much to fix it?” he whispers; the Entity will hear, because Muriq wills it so.

“All of it.”

No. Not for poor stupid Ahmed. He wouldn’t waste all of Huskal’s suffering on him, not when he had so many other things that needed doing. The boy had died without a sound, perhaps without even knowing he was dying, many people would give much to suffer as little.

Not far down the slope he hears the crash and clop of horses and the soldiers burst through the brush. “There!” one of them cries, pointing toward them.

Muriq thinks to run, but then realizes the foolishness of that. He does not need to run. He never need run again.

The men, eight of them, ride toward him and he stands over Ahmed. He draws on It a bit. To make them listen. Greater even than Tolbar’s cold charisma.

“Intruders on the Forbidden Mountain are to be put to death!” the lead horseman shouts, reaching for his sword.

“A man named Tolbar dragged us up here, to sacrifice us to the spirit of the mountain,” Muriq shouts back and man and horse grow still, eyes widening and ears straining to hear.

“We escaped from him. He is near the old barracks.” He points back toward the smoke lifting over the trees. “Find him. He has intruded on the Forbidden Mountain and the penalty is death.”

The horsemen were moving even before he finished, spurring their animals up the slope and grimly drawing weapons.

He feels within himself, that reserve of Power was hardly diminished. He will go, he will leave Ahmed for the soldiers to deal with, and he will drive back the blue-nail plague, and turn the tide of the rebellion in the south, and Arwhuk would be the prosperous city of his childhood and he will not find other men to break and burn. This is a horrible, horrible gift, and he will not ask for it again and he will not squander it.

But unlike the Entity of Tarq-Umal, Muriq knows he is quite capable of lying.

 

_______________________________________

Adrian Simmons’ genre nonfiction has appeared in Black Gate and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has popped up in James Gunn’s Ad Astra Magazine, Plasma Frequency, Outposts of Beyond, Strange Constellations, and the anthologies Apotheosis, and No Sh!t, There I Was.


banner ad


Comments are closed.