D’Ahid burst into the woodsmith’s shop, scattering clouds of sawdust under his feet. “The Imperials captured Kestor. They’ll execute him.”
The woodsmith continued to work. “Good.”
D’Ahid could scarce believe his older brother’s words. “Abra…”
“That criminal and glory-hound names himself after a figure from legend, and thinks us stupid enough to believe he’s that same hero returned. I pray to Ruala he dies in agony.”
“Has your gumption galloped off? Kestor saved our lives.”
“Father died. I’d pay to spit on Kestor’s head when the Imperials put it on display.”
“Kestor has helped us all.”
Abra glared at him. “Helped? Thanks to Kestor, our homes and shops were searched time and again at governor Katral’s whim. All the while Kestor remained safe in those mountain caverns.”
He blew some sawdust aside. “At last life can return to normal.”
Normal? D’Ahid thought. Without Kestor, matters will downslide.
Abra resumed working. “Have you finished packing?”
D’Ahid stabbed a finger at a canvas bag in the far corner.
“Off with you, then. Best you don’t run late.”
“You don’t care what befalls Kestor?”
Abra sighed and ran his hand through his thinning blond hair. “Enough of Kestor. Concern yourself with your journey to Serlo and your apprenticeship to Drenu. Few enjoy that honor.”
D’Ahid grit his teeth at Abra’s obstinacy. He’d have better luck teaching fish to fly. Abra wouldn’t listen. He never listened.
“I know. I appreciate the opportunity, but I– Are you sure you don’t need me here?”
“I’ll be fine. We’ll all be, with Kestor now in chains.”
D’Ahid exploded, despite himself. “You ungrateful, callous… mule brain! You’d be dead if not for Kestor; and if the Imperials kill him, we’ll all be antelope among the lions.”
He grabbed his bag and slammed the door behind him.
* * *
Abra blinked away the sawdust, and resumed sanding the plank with quick, sharp thrusts. D’Ahid was ungrateful, not him. Because that terrorist had caused Father’s death, Abra had been forced to raise D’Ahid and forego the opportunity to study in Serlo.
In time, D’Ahid would understand. At least they didn’t idolize Kestor in Serlo; and Drenu would keep the boy busy, teaching him woodworking skills that would exceed Abra’s own. D’Ahid would soon forget about Kestor.
* * *
The village of Ijnag lay nestled in a small valley in the Ikswok mountain range, and was home to both the wood hovels of the six hundred residents and the stone garrisons of the less than two hundred Imperial invaders who ‘policed’ the community. As he walked north along the cobblestone L’Eroii Road towards the carriage station, D’Ahid glanced to the west, at the old mines where villagers of all ages had once toiled.
“I warrant Abra would gripe about Kestor causing their closing,” he muttered. He kicked a stone, and watched it skitter ahead of him.
Time and again, over the decade since his arrival, Kestor had sabotaged mining operations until the Imperials had wearied of the battle and abandoned the mines. They should have left Ijnag as well.
Why couldn’t Abra understand that Governor Katral had killed Solmon; and if not for Kestor, the sons would have died with the father?
A funeral atmosphere permeated the market stalls. Even the gossips kept quiet. Perhaps the people realized that without Kestor the Imperial terror would worsen. But if they had any gratitude, they’d storm the ancient castle at the southern end of the square and free the rebel leader, the Imperials’ penchant for ruthless reprisals be damned.
True, some had given Kestor covert succor over the years; but now no one spoke for him. The people would remain quiet, denying Kestor if asked where their loyalties lay.
The thought filled D’Ahid with disgust, but who was he to complain? How had he helped Kestor?
He looked to the eastern mountains, and knew he’d never see Serlo; never study under Drenu. For years, he’d vowed that one day he’d join the rebels. He’d wait no longer. Let others cower in their homes. He would take a stand.
He didn’t move.
For a long moment, D’Ahid worked to dredge up his courage. Then, steeling himself, he stepped into a nearby shop and purchased a lantern.
On the way out, he paused to pet the stray silver-furred cat the shop owner had adopted years ago. Soon after Kestor’s appearance many had asserted that the animal— whose fur was the same hue as the rebel leader’s hair— had heralded his arrival. Many also believed that showing kindness to the cat would bring good luck. D’Ahid needed luck. As did Kestor.
Suppose the rebels didn’t want his help? He forced the doubt aside. He owed it Kestor to try.
As Abra’s brother, D’Ahid had leave to enter the greenwood at the foot of the mountains and fell trees as needed for the woodsmith’s shop. The guard on duty, used to seeing him on a regular basis, gave him an indifferent glance as he went by.
Once out of sight, D’Ahid climbed the slope toward the caverns. Once, years before Kestor’s arrival, he’d gone into the mountains, imagining himself a great explorer. But he’d found the caverns dark, cold and frightening, and had run away.
Not this time.
The chilly, dusty caverns proved a labyrinth. No wonder the Imperials raided about as often as a full-twice moon in one month. Slim odds of finding the rebels. And often the rebels made lightning strikes against those troopers still in the village during those raids. But they should have done more than act as a burr under the saddle; more to make clear their displeasure.
After upwards of an hour, D’Ahid came to a passage that curved to the left; and at that curve shadows danced on the wall. He tip-toed forward. Someone had anchored a sconce to the rock, and set a lit torch within it.
Several feet further on, another sconce had been set on the opposite wall. His pulse quickened and he hurried on.
And found no one.
He wandered through more torch-lit passages and caverns for what he reckoned was another twenty minutes, before stepping from a large open cavern into a smaller cave. He’d scarce taken another step when a voice echoed around him.
“Who are you?”
D’Ahid spun around, his heart hammering. A lithe, comely girl had come into the cave behind him. She held a torch in her left hand, and her shaved head— save for a single lock of red hair on her forehead— marked her as one of the Noret Mountain people. How had she ended up in Ijnag, as one of Kestor’s followers?
“I want to help Kestor.”
She chuckled. “You help Kestor, lad? You?” She spoke with a pleasant burr, despite her challenging tone.
“I….” She spoke truth. What help could he give? He should go, not embarrass himself further.
No. He’d come this far. He’d not turn tail. “I’m no child. I’ve reached twenty summers, lass. How many have you known? Eighteen?”
She smiled. “Twenty-four. I like your attitude, boy. But why would you help Kestor?”
“He saved my life. My name is D’Ahid, and long ago–”
“In Phaned’s name!” She grabbed his arm. “Come with me.”
She rushed him through the labyrinth until they came to a large cave lit by a score of torches. Her words echoed through the cave as she called out.
“Lan, Telrac. I have an intruder in the council chambers.”
Several tunnels extended from the cave like the tendrils of a spider’s web, and D’Ahid had no idea which they’d taken. If they didn’t believe him and left him here, would he ever find his way out? He’d heard that the caverns extended as far as Noret, and the girl’s presence— the woman’s, he corrected himself— seemed to confirm that.
“I— I did come to help. Kestor once saved–”
She waved him off. “He makes an interesting claim.”
“What does he claim?” A voice came from somewhere to D’Ahid’s right. He held out his lantern and two men stepped into the light. One was a head taller than D’Ahid and muscular, with thinning gray hair and the thick beard of a farmer— though D’Ahid had never seen him in the market. The other stranger was leaner, and wore his long brown hair braided on the right in the custom of the southern Cinat region.
“Who is this, Jeni?” The bearded man spoke as if D’Ahid were a dinner guest. The Cinat said nothing, but he wore an aura of alertness; his eyes darting about the cavern.
“He claims he wants to help us, Lan,” the woman— Jeni— said. “Tell them your name, boy.”
“My name is D’Ahid. I’m-”
The men exchanged glances. The Cinat caught D’Ahid in his gaze, and his eyes narrowed. “Impossible. Thou cannot be D’Ahid.”
“D’Ahid.” the bearded man— Lan— spoke with an almost reverent tone. “We witness the fulfillment of Kestor’s first prophecy.”
“He can’t be D’Ahid,” Jeni insisted.
“Kestor’s prophecies have always come to pass.” Lan grasped D’Ahid’s shoulders, as if bestowing a blessing. D’Ahid tensed.
“Welcome, my friend. Long have we expected you. You wish to help Kestor?”
D’Ahid was nonplussed. “I- If I can. I don’t understand. What do you mean? I didn’t tell anyone I was coming.”
“Why didst thou come?” Telrac demanded.
“I— I wanted to help. To repay Kestor for saving me.”
Lan nodded. “And you shall help us rescue Kestor.”
“By becoming him.”
* * *
Governor Katral drank in the sight of the silver– haired man standing shackled before him.
“Can this be the mighty Kestor?” He cast a disdainful glance at the outlaw’s ‘clothing.’ Barbaric. Unlike Katral’s own machine-stitched, tailored uniform, Kestor wore a hand-sewn stiff leather jerkin reinforced with interconnecting bronze links, and leather trousers protected by bronze greaves.
The outlaw’s one blue eye blazed with defiance. Even in shackles and rags Kestor projected a commanding aura. As a soldier, Katral admired that defiance. He also would not cower under threat of death.
“Can this be the insignificant Katral?” Kestor’s raspy voice— the result of an incompetent assassin’s attempt to slash his throat four years earlier— sounded bored.
A guard struck him. “Show respect.”
Kestor laughed, as blood flowed into his thick beard. “Respect for a murderer and coward? Never.”
The guard raised his hand again, but Katral shook his head. “Let him be. He attempts to cover his fear of impending death with bravado. I don’t skulk in the mountains, Kestor. I don’t hide behind a mask.”
Kestor chuckled. “Fear of impending death? I’ve known for years I would die today. Do you Imperials not know the legends of my people? ‘Kestor sees beyond tomorrow.’”
“Then I trust you’ve seen the need to say your final prayers. You should have killed me years ago when you had the chance.”
The outlaw smiled. “That would have been a joy; but you weren’t destined to die that day. You will soon enough; and if I told you the circumstances, you’d wish I had killed you. At least you’d have died with a modicum of dignity.”
He grinned. “The knowledge of your fate is satisfactory revenge.”
Katral frowned. Revenge? He’d never met Kestor before the outlaw’s arrival in Ijnag. Yet, there was a familiarity about him, though a census at the time had accounted for everyone. So where had he seen the man? No matter. Kestor would soon die.
And his own death lay decades away.
“Shall I escort him to the square, my Lord?” the guard asked.
“No. The people will see his head on display soon enough.”
Kestor watched with a calm, indifferent expression.
“Shall I reveal your future? You’ll not be governor much longer.”
“Indeed. Your execution means my promotion.” And about time. While lesser men wield power back home, my talents have been wasted in this insignificant colony.
Kestor smiled, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “In a manner of speaking. Shall I tell you something else? If you had not agreed to Rehar’s request for access to Enkelrea— in the hopes that whatever science he found there would help extend your power and prestige— I would never have come here. You would not have faced my rebellion.”
“That’s not possible. Rehar—”
A knock interrupted Katral’s reply. He turned to the lieutenant in the doorway. “Yes, Josald?”
Lieutenant Josald bowed. “My Lord, Lord Tragh will arrive within the hour.”
Success. At last, Lord Tragh had consented to visit. And at the moment of Katral’s greatest triumph. He’d soon enjoy responsibilities at the Royal Court.
“Excellent. Kestor’s head will greet him.” He gestured to the guards at the doors, even as he dismissed the outlaw’s ramblings. “Bring in his followers.”
Katral regarded the outlaw. Kestor still showed no concern, and instead appeared to await the climax of some private joke.
Moments later the troopers shoved three shackled and bloodied outlaws— two Cinat women and a Noret man— into the room. Hatred blazed in their eyes. The man was lanky, and blood encrusted his blond lock. One woman was stocky and had a hint of gray in her dark, braided hair. The other was of medium build; with hair that might be honey-colored when cleansed of blood.
Katral turned back to Kestor. “Any final words? You may beg forgiveness, but that will not accord you clemency.”
“Beg? We will beg for nothing from you. We need nothing from you. Noule is a free country, and we will drive you out, just as we closed your mines.”
Katral laughed. A free country? Noule was a loose assemblage of city-states with no central government and meager trade. No one from Ijnag had traveled more than twenty miles from home; and travel was the only means of contact with another community.
He glanced at the burnished bronze oval receptacle on his desk. By contrast, he could dispatch messages throughout the castle via a network of pneumatic conduits; and another pneumatic system, beneath the streets, communicated with garrisons in neighboring villages. The Empire brought such civilized benefits to these primitives. If Noule ever did become a country, it could thank Imperial guidance.
No, Kestor and his rabble had only been a local nuisance. Katral could have re-opened his mines with ease, had the Royal Court not focused Its attention on mining operations elsewhere. Those operations had continued unabated, while Katral’s mines remained closed. Did those incompetents at the Royal Court not understand how that decision had bolstered Kestor’s credibility?
He forced himself to relax. He’d soon transfer out. Let another deal with Ijnag’s problems.
“We’ll still be here long after you’ve faded from memory.”
The outlaw met his gaze with a look of calm assurance. “Kestor will never die.”
With a fluid movement, Katral unsheathed his ceremonial dagger, and drove it into the outlaw’s chest. “Indeed? Tell me more about this amusing theory.”
As Kestor sank to the ground, blood pumping from the wound, a trooper burst into the room. He drew up short as the guards raised their swords.
“M– my Lord, we’re under attack.”
Katral regarded the dying outlaw. “Seems your followers are a bit tardy. Underlings. How unreliable.”
He nodded to the guards, who lowered their swords. “Why the panic, trooper? Without Kestor, the outlaws are only a rabble.”
The trooper stared wide-eyed at the man at Katral’s feet. “Sir, they’re- they’ve-”
“Out with it!”
“My Lord, Kestor leads them.”
“Impossible! Kestor is here.” Katral kicked the outlaw, who groaned.
“I swear by all that’s holy, my Lord. Kestor and the other outlaws are at the inner gates.”
Katral rushed to the balcony and looked down at the courtyard. “It’s not possible,” he whispered. A man dressed like Kestor, but also wearing a bronze breast plate and the outlaw’s famous battle mask of heavy gauge leather, had engaged the palace guard. He fought alongside the rest of the outlaw’s followers.
He looked back at the man he’d stabbed, and blanched. “It’s a trick.”
The dying man managed a weak smile. “Kestor is eternal, unlike you.” He fell back and lay still.
“My lord, what do we do?”
Katral said nothing, his attention torn between the dead outlaw before him and the living one leading an assault on his stronghold.
* * *
As D’Ahid squeezed the trigger of a stolen Imperial weapon again and again, he shouted curses at the troopers. He didn’t care that they couldn’t hear him over both the noise of the fight and the material of the battle mask he wore. What joy to see fear in an Imperial’s eyes for a change.
Even so, he trembled beneath his disguise. How could this impersonation help? So much could go wrong. The metal mesh eye patch over his left eye let him see— after a fashion— but he still lacked peripheral vision. And even if he hadn’t needed to hide the fact that he had both eyes, how could he hope to rescue Kestor?
It seemed as if a windstorm had swept him to this moment. The rebels had rushed him to a cave where they kept a copy of Kestor’s battle armor. Before he knew it, he was wearing it. Then they’d taken him to a small, hidden dell. There, the rebels stabled their horses, and kept a humble garden for food.
D’Ahid stole a glance at his companions as they pressed forward. The horse he rode had been well trained, and responded to his clumsy attempts at commands. Jeni, at his right, fired a steady salvo of shots. Lan and Telrac, to either side of them, unleashed their arrows with lethal accuracy.
“Don’t give them a chance to regroup,” she ordered. “Imperial troopers fear Kestor. Use that fear.”
“But I’m not Kestor. They must see that.” And the castle guards outnumbered the rebels at least four to one.
“No. They only see the armor and what it symbolizes.”
A volley of shots rang out from within the castle. Telrac drew his mount up next to D’Ahid’s. “There. Our brethren hath escaped.”
“Give them cover,” Lan ordered.
Two Cinat women and a Noret man raced across the courtyard. The man carried the limp form of a silver-haired man over his shoulder. Kestor.
“Kestor’s dead,” he said. He lay the rebel leader’s body across Lan’s mount, as D’Ahid clutched tight the reins of his own steed. His ears must have deceived him. Kestor couldn’t be dead. And if he were, how could that man sound so calm?
Before D’Ahid could speak, the women doubled up behind Jeni and Telrac, and the man behind him. Then the rebels galloped into the mountains. The man and one of the women fired back at the pursuing troopers. The other woman regarded D’Ahid with narrowed eyes.
“Who be this?”
“Later,” Lan said. D’Ahid saw that he fought back tears. “Let’s get Kestor home.”
* * *
D’Ahid kept looking over his right shoulder as the rebels raced toward one of the caverns.
“Worry not,” Telrac said. “Our enemies will not find us.”
“That man said Kestor is dead. Of course I’m worried.”
“We still live and shall continue to fight.”
As the rebels rushed through the maze— the way illuminated by the tiny lanterns they’d pulled from their saddle bags, and lit while still moving— D’Ahid felt renewed respect. Even in half darkness, and at a full gallop, they knew their way around the labyrinth as well as he knew his own hovel.
At length, they dismounted in a small cave. The stockier woman took Kestor, and lay him down at the far side of the cave with reverence. Then she turned on D’Ahid, venom in her voice.
“Who be thee? How dare thou mock us?”
D’Ahid’s trembling fingers struggled to remove the battle mask and armor. “I– My name is D’Ahid. Lan asked me to wear this. I’m sorry.”
“D’Ahid?” The woman turned to Lan with an expression of disbelief. Lan nodded.
“He’s the one, Marifo. The one Kestor said would come.”
What one? “I don’t understand. How could Kestor— or anyone— have known I’d come to you?”
“He doesn’t know about the prophecy?” the Noret man asked.
“Not everything, Adrow. I’d hoped we’d have succeeded, and would’ve thwarted the second part of the prophecy.”
Adrow looked over at Kestor’s body, which Marifo had begun wrapping in a linen shroud. “Katral killed him just as you began your assault. You couldn’t have saved him. Not even I could have, and I stood as close to him as I do to you.”
Lan bowed his head. “Kestor said we’d fail to save him. I’d hoped he’d be wrong this once; that he’d train the boy himself.”
“Thou hast always said prophecy cannot be averted,” Telrac said.
“I- I’m not a boy. And what are you talking about? Please.”
Lan gave D’Ahid a wan smile. “Forgive us. Ten years ago, Kestor came to the people of Noule, and he saved both your brother’s life and your own.”
“Not even we know whence he came, but he arrived as if in fulfillment of the ancient legends that he’d return when needed. On that day, he made his first prophecy.”
“Lan,” Telrac cut in, a warning tone in his voice. “I would speak with thee.” He indicated the far end of the cave.
Lan nodded. “If you’ll excuse us, D’Ahid?”
“All right.” D’Ahid glanced at the others. What lay behind their stares? Did they blame him for Kestor’s death? He hadn’t wanted to impersonate the rebel leader. He’d only wanted to help.
* * *
“What is it?” Lan asked.
“Are thou certain he be the one?” Telrac whispered.
“‘The boy named D’Ahid will come to the followers of Kestor. And on that day, he will be your leader. He shall be Kestor,’” Lan quoted. “Has anyone else named D’Ahid ever come to us? And remember, only we knew of the prophecy.”
“I know what the prophecy says, but can we trust this boy, indoctrinated in the Imperial schools? Where lie his sympathies?”
“How can thou be certain?”
“Aside from the fact that he sought us out and risked his life in the rescue? Because Kestor saw D’Ahid as one of us. Have not all of Kestor’s prophecies come to pass?”
Telrac glanced back at the tall, young stranger. “Thou speaks true, but we need more than faith.”
* * *
After an eternity, Lan and Telrac returned.
D’Ahid licked his lips. “What were you discussing?”
“Kestor’s instructions,” Lan said. “He told his first follower, Monsi of Trepe, that one day you’d come to us, and that you would become the new Kestor.
D’Ahid jumped back. “That’s insane. I’m just a woodsmith. Or will be. One day.”
Adrow regarded him with a jaundiced eye. “No one can replace Kestor.”
D’Ahid held up his hands. “I don’t want to replace him.”
Lan turned to Adrow. “Kestor chose the boy. Just as he called on each of us to follow him. You know that as well as I.”
“You must have misunderstood,” D’Ahid said. “Why would Kestor choose someone as unimportant as me?”
“Thou makes a good point,” Marifo said. “Wouldst thou have a child lead us, Lan?”
D’Ahid bristled at that. He was no one who mattered, but he was no child, either.
“Don’t take offense,” Jeni told him. She turned to Marifo. “Kestor saw the leader he’ll become.”
“You hope,” Adrow muttered.
D’Ahid turned on the man, surprising himself. “I helped save you. I don’t want to lead anyone, but show some thanks for the risks I took.”
“These last two years I’ve risked my life more times than you can count to protect Noule from the Imperials; so don’t you ever–”
Lan stepped between them, and D’Ahid sighed with relief. He didn’t want to fight Kestor’s people.
“Enough.” Lan’s tone was stern, and his eyes flashed as he fixed his gaze on Adrow. “Kestor’s prophecies have always come to pass. He saw that D’Ahid would pick up his banner when he fell.”
Adrow snorted. “I’ll take the horses to the dell.”
“But why him?” asked the other woman they’d rescued. Her tone seemed to balance disappointment and disbelief. D’Ahid seethed, but kept his tongue as she went on. “How long do we wait for him to become a leader?”
“We don’t wait, Amthra. D’Ahid leads us now, and I’ll follow him so long as I draw breath.”
He’s mad, D’Ahid thought. He’s never seen me before today.
“I want to join your fight, but I can’t replace Kestor. And no one knows the future. Whatever Kestor told your friend, you misheard.”
Jeni lowered her eyes. “Monsi of Trepe. He and Jada of Serdow gave their lives to deliver Kestor and myself two years ago.”
“I’m sorry.” D’Ahid looked over at the shrouded body of the man who’d once saved him. The man he’d failed to save. “I’m sorry we didn’t rescue Kestor, too. I tried my best, but–”
“You helped save the others,” Jeni said.
“No. They escaped on their own.”
Amthra stepped forward. “No. Thy attack gave us the diversion we needed. If not for thee, we’d have been slain.”
“Thanks. But Kestor is dead, and no good can come of that.” He started towards the body, but Marifo blocked his way.
“No. Thou may have helped us, but thou be not one of us.”
“I only wanted to pay my respects.”
“Let him pass,” Lan said. “He’ll do no harm.”
“Of course I won’t.”
Marifo seemed to consider, then stepped aside. D’Ahid knelt before the body of his hero. He’d always wanted to meet Kestor, talk with him, learn from him.
“How can I replace him? I failed him.”
Lan’s voice was gentle. “You weren’t meant to save him. Kestor knew his destiny, and he didn’t shirk from it. I wish I had half as much courage.”
“Did Kestor prophesy about all of you?”
“No,” Jeni said. “Yours is one of the few names he mentioned.”
“We still know naught about the last prophecy,” Amthra said.
D’Ahid stood. “Last prophecy?”
Lan joined him. “Kestor wrote and sealed the only prophecy that has not yet come to pass— so far as we know. We are not to open it until a date five years hence. He didn’t say why. Nor do we know why a message for Marifo is not to be opened until then.”
“Did Kestor write many prophecies?”
“Only the one to be opened in five years,” Jeni said. “Kestor made few prophecies, but he spoke them.”
“Then how can you be sure what he told Monsi? Kestor couldn’t have intended for me to lead you. I could never replace him. Besides, the Imperials know he’s dead.”
“A handful saw Katral kill him,” Lan said. “Many more saw you in the courtyard. They’ll believe Kestor is invincible. You knows the legends?”
“Kestor was a great warrior and just king who ruled long before the Imperials came. They say he couldn’t die.” D’Ahid looked at the body again. “I wish that were true.”
“But it is. For you are now Kestor.”
“No, I’m not! That is Kestor, and Kestor is dead!”
“The man is dead, but Kestor is a symbol of freedom. He passed that symbol to you.”
“Was he the original Kestor?” D’Ahid asked, as Adrow returned. The question seemed almost blasphemous, but he had to know. “Or was he another impostor?”
“He came to us in a time of need, as the ancient legends foretold,” Adrow said. “He is the only Kestor.”
“I said I don’t want to replace him.”
D’Ahid turned back to Lan. “But if he’s the original Kestor, he should be immortal.”
Lan smiled. “Immortality takes many forms. Consider the poet Eniarr. Even the Imperials acknowledge her work as great literature. Has she not gained immortality through that work, written centuries ago?”
“Do you jest? That’s not the same.”
“It is in the ways that matter. Just as Eniarr’s words keep her alive in our minds and hearts, that armor keeps Kestor and his dreams alive.”
Lan turned to the others. “The legends said Kestor would return, but they didn’t say he’d not be reborn. I believe the man we followed all these years came to us to prepare the way for the one who would come after him— D’Ahid.”
D’Ahid said nothing. Why bother? He couldn’t reason against Lan’s fanaticism.
“Whether the man who led us was the original Kestor doesn’t matter,” Jeni said. “He led the fight for independence. If D’Ahid will help continue that fight, he can call himself the Goddess Ruala for all I care.”
“Abra wants me to be a woodsmith,” D’Ahid said. “Kestor wanted me to succeed him. What about what I want?”
“What do you want?” Jeni asked.
“I… I want to make a difference. Somehow.”
“You will,” Lan said.
“I pray so. What was Kestor like? Did he have family?”
“He never spoke of them,” Amthra said. “We became his family.”
“I think he had children,” Jeni said. “He seemed protective of me, as though I reminded him of a daughter; but he never said why. I never asked. Perhaps I should have.”
* * *
Lord Tragh holstered his weapon, and regarded Katral’s body. He’d come a long way to see Kestor’s corpse, only to find that an uncomfortable journey had wasted his time. Then that coward had unleashed a litany of blubbering excuses for his failures. Worse, Katral had let the outlaws escape with Kestor’s body. The fool should have executed him in public.
Lord Tragh called for his lieutenant. He’d have Katral’s head displayed in the capitol as a warning. As to the body, burial in the inner courtyard gardens. Katral failed as a governor; perhaps he’ll succeed as fertilizer.
Vainglorious fool. No wonder it had taken a decade to capture Kestor; and then only by blind luck. But Katral had to foul that up, too.
“Send a dispatch to the capitol for a replacement.”
* * *
Governor Garn leaned back in the plush velvet seat of the gold-plated, horse-drawn carriage and frowned. How could civilized people travel in this manner?
She sat in comfort, but that comfort was offset by the carriage’s constant jarring as it navigated the cobblestone street. Then there was the steady clip clop of the horses hooves; the driver’s shouted commands to the animals; and worst of all, there was that stench.
Damn Katral. Because of him, she’d endured an interminable journey from civilization with neither rest nor her belongings. Those would follow sometime “later.”
Very well, if she must live in this sty, she’d not only rid it of the ersatz Kestor, she’d also introduce civilized transportation. Every major Imperial city utilized a network of pneumatic transport conduits for both passengers and cargo. It was efficient. It was… civilized. Under her guidance, this region would renounce its primitive ways.
The carriage offered one advantage. She could see her subjects lining the streets; and they her. Let them believe she was, at heart, one of them. Easier to guide them.
A quarter hour later, she stood in the square, flanked by an honor guard of troopers, and spoke in dulcet tones.
“I am Governor Garn. In recognition of his efforts in helping this fine community become a productive part of the Empire, Governor Katral has returned to our beloved mother country of Lakorci and received a promotion.”
She made an inward smile as she pictured Katral’s head adorning a pike. “I now command here, but I ask your help in moving forward into a glorious tomorrow.
“It saddens me that some selfish individuals want to prevent you from improving your quality of life. They’ve mocked you good people and our just laws by assisting in the escape, two days ago, of the outlaw who insults your ancient traditions by calling himself ‘Kestor.’ We’ll find them, and will ensure your continued safety.
“I know you want the best for the community, and will help us bring ‘Kestor’ to justice.
“Furthermore, in the spirit of mutual cooperation, I declare a full pardon for any crimes which do not involve ‘Kestor.’ These include all penalties on unpaid taxes.”
The crowd cheered.
“Anyone with information regarding those who helped him escape will not pay taxes for six months. ‘Kestor’ threatens the peace and safety of Ijnag. Together, we’ll make it safer.”
The crowd cheered again. If only she could have told them their precious local hero lay moldering in some unknown grave. Instead, because of Katral’s blundering, she had to play the outlaws’ game and pretend Kestor still lived.
But Kestor was dead, and the impostor would prove a minor obstacle.
As Josald left Governor Garn’s office, he cast a surreptitious look at the petite, regal woman who’d taken command. What sort of monster had the Empire sent, and why such fanaticism about wiping out the outlaws?
Thoughts of her plan for tonight churned his stomach, but he took some solace in the knowledge that she didn’t want to be here. If he could orchestrate matters, she’d be gone— disgraced— and he’d take charge. Although Lord Tragh had appointed Garn, he wouldn’t condone such barbarity.
And Garn’s contention that the outlaws would follow the impostor who’d led the failed rescue attempt was ludicrous. They all but worshipped Kestor. They’d never obey another.
Josald reached his desk, and drummed his fingers on the smooth maple surface. To try to dissuade Garn from her plan would be suicide. She’d come within a whisker of executing him for the mere suggestion that there might be a better way. Still, there had to be a saner alternative than having an impostor hired by Garn claim to have killed Kestor, and announce he’s taking a more extreme stance against the Empire.
Well, that part of her plan had strategic value, given that Josald would “capture” and unmask Garn’s impostor before his “escape.” If the outlaws’ impostor continued his impersonation, he’d have to reveal himself to prove he wasn’t the same man. But the way Garn intended her impostor to prove his point— that was insanity. They could undermine the people’s faith in Kestor by less barbaric means.
That faith made no sense. “Eight hundred years ago, the warrior king Kestor united several once-combative tribes into the beginnings of a nation-state,” Garn had told him. “That nation-state fell apart after his death, leaving the scattered city-states of today, but he remains their greatest leader. One legend claims he never did die.”
A conflicting legend held that Kestor had declined the throne, and went into the wilderness, promising to return when needed. That same legend claimed he can conquer death.
Did the people believe Kestor immortal? Josald would like to think they weren’t that gullible.
Garn believed they believed it. Maybe that’s why she knew so much about Kestor. The history of some backwater colony didn’t concern him, but information about Kestor’s influence could prove useful.
“Josald, report at once.” Garn’s words echoed along the marble corridor, slicing through his thoughts.
He hurried to her office. “My lady?”
“One last thing. Kill our impostor at the rendezvous point.”
As she spoke, Garn continued to mark selected points on a wall map depicting the mountains. She’d ordered him to seal all the cavern entrances. An impossible task. More than one hundred known caves dotted the eastern slope alone. What’s more, Kestor’s people have ridden into Ijnag from both east and west, suggesting connecting passages beneath the village. Perhaps through the mines. But Josald wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to explain that a second time.
“Yes, my Lady.” Josald hadn’t expected anything less of her. By all rights, she should die, too.
* * *
Adrow threw a rock across the cave. It hit the far wall, and clattered to the ground.
“How much longer do we wait? The people need to know we haven’t abandoned them; and we must avenge Kestor.”
Amthra clenched her first. “Thy words ring true. To the people, these past two days must seem two years. We must strike hard.”
“We will,” Lan assured her.
Marifo turned to him. “I still say thou was foolish to send D’Ahid into Ijnag. He is meant to be in Serlo.”
“Worry not. Only his brother knows that, and D’Ahid said Abra remains in his shop afternoons. Unlike any of us, D’Ahid won’t attract undue attention as he helps restock provisions.”
“Others must know of his apprenticeship. And he has been in Ijnag since before dawn. He may encounter such people before night.”
“Perhaps, but they’d not give it much thought. The greater risk would be if he were seen either coming from or going into the mountains.”
“Risk to whom?” Adrow demanded. “We know D’Ahid comes from Ijnag, because I’ve seen his face before. But not all in Ijnag support us.”
“D’Ahid does,” Lan replied.
* * *
The archaeologist stood in respectful silence before Garn’s desk as she studied his report. After a moment, she looked up.
“Three thousand years?”
“Give or take a century, my Lady. We’ve only begun our dig, but we already know the people who lived there had a more advanced culture than our own in some ways. Governor Katral supported our work. I hope you will also.”
Garn turned her attention to the wall map. The dig was ninety miles to the south— well beyond Cinat— amid farmland. What had befallen the great city that once stood there?
She turned back to him as she tried to recall his name, then dismissed the thought. The man was only a minion. “You have my interest. More advanced? Explain.”
“It appears they achieved powered flight.”
“Incredible. You’ll discover how, of course. Such technology would prove useful. What else?”
“We found no indication of a conduit network, although flying machines might make one superfluous.”
“One would think. Continue your work. I expect regular progress reports.”
The archaeologist bowed. “Yes, my lady. I must point out that it could take several years before we can make a full report.”
“Of course. Some things cannot be rushed. Still, I believe you stand on the cusp of a significant discovery. I envy you.”
As the archaeologist bowed again and left, Garn let out a wistful sigh. Beyond doubt, she’d chosen the wrong profession.
* * *
The thunder of galloping horses drowned out the carefree tones of families gathered in the school yard to sing the Songs of Remembrance. From out of the shadows four masked riders bore down on parents, children and teachers.
The leader wore a reasonable duplicate of Kestor’s armor and battle mask, with the darkness obscuring the more obvious flaws. He threw an oil lamp into the wooden school. A conflagration erupted.
“You sing praises for the heroes of Imperial wars. Where are your songs of praise for Jarno, for Xervan, for Kestor?”
His voice rose in intensity. “Those who attend Imperial schools or sing Imperial songs are our enemies!”
Hidden in a merchant’s stall further up the street, Josald watched the attack. Was the impostor’s histrionic speech Garn’s words, or his own?
Josald gestured, and one of the three troopers with him opened fire. The horse beneath the ersatz Kestor collapsed. The impostor leaped from the animal and fired wild, into the crowd, even as his “companions”— disguised troopers— fled.
Another shot struck the impostor’s shoulder, and his weapon clattered onto the cobblestones.
As two troopers seized the impostor, Josald aimed his weapon at the man’s head. “It’s over, Kestor. Remove his mask. Let’s meet a living legend face to face.”
The man beneath the mask— a mercenary named Miklar— was dirty and unshaven. He stank of an overabundance of ale, but his apparent intoxication was part of the deception.
“Kestor, you’re not the man you were,” Josald said.
“He’s not Kestor,” someone shouted.
“So it would seem,” Josald agreed.
“Kestor is dead!” As rehearsed, Miklar wrenched free and produced a blood-stained knife from within his jerkin. “I killed him. He was weak. I am not.”
He feigned a lunge at Josald, who dodged the thrust, grabbed Miklar’s wrist, and twisted it until the mercenary cried in genuine pain and dropped the knife.
“Aren’t you? You kill helpless children, and then your friends desert you. You define weakness.” He gestured to the troopers. “Remove this animal.”
“My blade will yet taste of you, Imperialist,” Miklar shouted, as the troopers dragged him away.
As a woman wailed over the bloodied body of a little girl, Josald vowed that Garn would soon suffer her own lamentations. And the outlaws would help see to that. For now, Garn presented the greater threat to the Empire.
Sudden shouts of ‘alarm’ sounded from behind him, as Miklar made good his rehearsed escape.
Now you belong to me, Josald thought.
* * *
D’Ahid stood with clenched fists in the L’Eroii Road. A thick plume of smoke rose into the early evening sky. Why had the rebels done nothing to stop that maniac?
No one noticed as he slung the carryall of provisions across his back, and strode towards the mountains. Kestor had never allowed such an atrocity to happen. Why did he die, and abandon the people who counted on him?
D’Ahid gritted his teeth as he climbed up to the honeycomb of caverns. He’d hunt down that maniac, with or without help from the others. Damn their prophecies. Let them believe whatever they wished, so long as they protected the people.
A sharp, low voice from somewhere in the darkness cut off his thoughts, making him jump. “Identify yourself!” Adrow.
“Take slow steps. Stay to your left.”
After D’Ahid had gone about twenty yards, Adrow pulled him into a fissure.
“Did you get everything?”
“Forget that. Look.” D’Ahid indicated the smoke far below, as he thrust the carryall at the rebel. “Someone impersonated Kestor and did that. He also murdered several children.”
“Ruala! Did he say anything?”
“He killed them because they sang the Imperial Songs of Remembrance. He also said he killed Kestor, and promised to kill anyone who opposed him. I don’t like those songs either, but he has to be punished. And if you won’t do it—”
Adrow’s jaw tightened. “We’ll deal with him. Come.”
Moments later, D’Ahid told the others what he’d witnessed.
Jeni rushed forward. “In Phaned’s name! He killed children?”
“Didst thou see this impostor?” Marifo demanded. “What manner of countenance had he?”
“I caught a glimpse when the Imperials unmasked him. He looked begrimed.”
“How did he escape?”
“I think he shot someone. His friends slithered away when the Imperials captured him.”
“Didst thou not notice their direction?”
“No, I didn’t. Not in all that chaos. You wouldn’t've fared much better if you’d been there. But you weren’t there. None of you were. You sat up here, doing nothing.”
“How dare thou speak thus—” Amthra began, but Telrac cut her off.
“No. He be right. As Adrow said, we should not have sat about.”
“We would not have if we’d not been ‘training’ him.”
“Don’t fault me,” D’Ahid shouted. “I don’t take to this prophecy nonsense.”
“Enough.” Lan’s tone was quiet, yet commanded attention. “This impostor must work for the Imperials.”
He turned to D’Ahid. “They know someone has replaced Kestor, so they engineered this atrocity— complete with unmasked impostor— to complicate matters for you.”
D’Ahid’s stomach somersaulted. “How do I prove I’m not that murderer unless I show my face? But if I do, everyone will know I’m just another impostor.”
He forced his stomach to quiet itself. “We must find him.”
He turned to Jeni. “What do I want? That monster caught; those Imperials who helped him exposed. I’m not the one Kestor prophesied about, but I will help hunt down that animal.”
“And so you shall,” Lan said. “Tomorrow, you will wear the blood-stained armor and ride with us into Ijnag. You’ll refute reports of your death; and you’ll vow to capture the impostor.”
“No. Who’d believe I’m Kestor unless I removed the battle mask? We don’t wait. We hunt this fiend tonight, and we bring him before the people tomorrow.” His assertiveness might have surprised himself if he hadn’t been too angry to care.
Marifo seemed to study him. “Perhaps Kestor chose well, after all. Thou speaks with wisdom beyond thy years. We must respond to this outrage without delay.”
“If the impostor be still alive,” Amthra said. “If they have not yet done so, the Imperials will kill him.”
“Why would they kill him?” D’Ahid asked.
Amthra gave him a sharp look. “So we can’t prove they planned the attack.”
D’Ahid glanced away. Any fool should have realized that.
“If he suspected a double cross, he might have hidden in the caverns,” Jeni said. “He’d try to reach Noret.”
“Then we’ll start the search here.” D’Ahid tried to sound sure of himself.
“Agreed,” Lan said. “If our quarry hides in the caverns, we’ll bring him into Ijnag come morning. If not, we ride down anyway; and D’Ahid will denounce him.”
Telrac grasped D’Ahid’s forearms. “I welcome thee. I saw how thou fought at the castle. Thou thirsts for revenge for thy father, and for tonight. We will have that revenge.”
“Justice,” Jeni insisted. “Kestor believed in justice, not mere vengeance. If we let the latter blind us, we’re no better than that monster.”
“Revenge be the only justice that matters. How could thou— of all people— not embrace it?”
D’Ahid couldn’t help but admire Jeni. When Lan had escorted him from the caverns that morning, he’d said that three years earlier her family had been victimized by the Imperials. Yet she didn’t seek vengeance.
But sometimes revenge was justice. Like now. “Telrac is right. We find that worm, and then we hunt down Katral. He murdered my father and burned our home. We should tie both those scum to a horse team and drag them through the streets, until their screams drown out the horses’ hoofbeats.”
“And would that barbarity restore either your father or those children to life?”
“Don’t patronize me, Jeni. Of course not. But it’d keep others from dying. And it would tell the Imperials to leave our lands forever.”
“Nothing’s so easy. And while I ken your rage, we must first clear Kestor’s name. If we fail, everything he fought for, everything we’ve endured, will have been for nothing.”
“I said don’t patronize me. I know what’s at stake.”
Marifo clasped D’Ahid’s forearms like Telrac. “Kestor was my world. No one can replace him, but it be clear he saw something in thee. I welcome thee in whatever role destiny has for thee.”
* * *
Josald’s gaze bore into Sergeant Reda. “No one must know why you’re searching for Miklar. Only a few know the truth about him. If I should suspect this knowledge grows more widespread, it will mean your life. Clear?”
Reda’s voice quavered. “Yes, sir.”
“Excellent. Take a regiment into the caverns. Miklar murdered three troopers. I want him in the ground by this time tomorrow. Find him before the outlaws do.”
As Reda hurried off, Josald smiled. After killing the troopers he’d accompanied to the rendezvous with Miklar- and then wounding the mercenary- he’d forced Miklar to flee into the caverns. As Josald had anticipated, Reda believed Miklar had killed the troopers.
Would Reda find Miklar before the outlaws did? More likely the presence of his regiment would signal that the man who’d massacred children hid in the caverns. The outlaws would root him out, revealing Garn’s deception. The Royal Court would recall her and demand explanations. And Josald would have command.
And if Reda should reach Miklar first? Josald took a ceremonial knife from his wall and slid it into his tunic. Perhaps he should handle things himself, rather than rely on either the Royal Court or Lord Tragh. If a pitched battle broke out in the caverns, the confusion and the shortage of troopers in the castle would allow him to give Garn his person attention.
She’d used Miklar like a licar in a game of Altars, forgetting that a careless player’s licar can be turned against her.
D’Ahid, again attired as Kestor, hastened along a torch-lit passage with Lan, Marifo and Jeni. He prayed that the impostor lurked within the tunnels his team would search.
Warned by some instinct, Jeni motioned for silence. She exchanged glances with Lan and Marifo, then slipped down the passage and into a transverse tunnel. D’Ahid bit his lip.
After several moments that might well have been hours, she returned, and he unclenched his breath.
“I saw three troopers. But more are about.”
“How do you know?” D’Ahid asked.
“The Imperials never send in just three troopers.”
D’Ahid felt himself blush. “Could they find us?”
“Depends how many troopers be here,” Marifo said. “Didst they say anything, Jeni?”
“No. I just heard their footfalls.”
A wry smile crossed Marifo’s lips. “How could you not?”
“You’re certain they didn’t see you?” Lan asked.
“Positive. I spied them from behind.”
“How do we warn the others?” D’Ahid asked.
Jeni smiled. “If I could hear them, Telrac also will.”
“But how do we capture the impostor before the Imperials do? These mounted torches also help them.”
“They have more need of them,” Lan said. He doused the nearest torch, plunging the cavern into blackness. “Light your lantern.”
D’Ahid did so, and opened all four hinged metal doors.
“Now close those.”
The cavern became dark again. D’Ahid grinned as he opened the doors again.
“Clever. We can close off our light, but the Imperials won’t douse their torches. But suppose they have lanterns?”
“They won’t put them out,” Jeni said. “They don’t know these caverns as we do.”
* * *
D’Ahid leaned against a cavern wall, ignoring the cold, and punched his open palm. “An hour of this and nothing. I say we get to Noret before that swine does.”
“And if he slips past us in the thick greenwood above Noret?” Marifo asked.
“In case it evaded your notice, he’s slipped past us in here so far. We’d have a better chance of catching him near Noret. We’ll deal with the forest… somehow.”
“I agree,” Jeni said. “The others can continue to hunt him in the caverns.”
“I agree as well,” Lan said.
D’Ahid gave Marifo a questioning glance.
“Thou be our leader,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Let us go.”
“This way,” Jeni said. As she and D’Ahid started ahead, he wondered how often she’d returned to Noret, if at all.
“What happens after we’ve exposed the impostor?” He glanced back at Lan and Marifo, a few yards behind them. “We both know Lan misinterpreted the prophecy.”
“I know nothing of the sort. But I’ve never concerned myself with prophecies. Both the passage of time and your actions will reveal whether you prove worthy of leadership.”
“How did you come to join Kestor? Lan didn’t give me any details.”
Her sea-green eyes began to moisten, but she didn’t shed any tears.
“No. He respects my privacy.”
D’Ahid gave her a hurt look. “I’m sorry, but you people seem to know everything about me, and I know little about any of you. How fair is that?”
“Not very.” Her voice quavered- just a bit. “Three years ago, my younger sister was raped and murdered by a drunken trooper. We appealed to the Prefect of Noret for justice, but the trial was a sham. They acquitted him and sullied her name.
“Grief overcame my father and he attacked the trooper in the courtroom. The Imperials beat him, then hung him in the square as an ‘example.’ I wanted to tear out their callous hearts with my bare hands.”
“When I got home from school, full of plans of revenge, I found Kestor waiting for me. He knew my plans, even my thoughts. He said he’d known others who’d felt the same; and then he asked whether I wanted revenge or justice.”
“What did you say?”
“That I wanted both. He told me revenge accomplishes nothing, while justice benefits us all.”
“He was wrong.” D’Ahid felt as if he were committing some great sin at questioning Kestor’s wisdom. “For us, revenge is justice. My father failed to report a runaway mine worker. Katral decided to set an example by executing not only him, but my brother and me as well.”
“But you were children.”
“Katral said age is no excuse for disobedience; that we should have reported our father. His words are seared into my brain: ‘Your first loyalty is to the Emperor.’”
“What loyalty has the Emperor ever shown us?”
“None. We’re less than cattle to him. But right about then Kestor appeared. He saved Abra and me, but couldn’t reach Father in time. Katral made his example, but that didn’t satisfy him. He also burned our home.”
D’Ahid met Jeni’s gaze. “Revenge is justice. Garn must answer for tonight; and one day I’ll hunt down Katral, and again there will be justice. That’s my prophecy.”
* * *
D’Ahid emerged from the caverns a few steps ahead of the others. In the starlight, he could make out the edge of a forest.
“Spread out,” Jeni said.
D’Ahid and the others melted into the greenwood. He watched the middle cave of the five caves near their position. A hunch told him the impostor would come out of that one.
He hefted a heavy branch, testing its weight.
Another hour passed before he thought he saw a furtive movement in the shadow of the cave he watched. He tensed. No sound reached his ears save the hoots of a few owls, but his eyes remained fixed on the cavern. Had he imagined it?
After an eternity, and as the sun began to rise, D’Ahid saw movement again. A man emerged, crouched low, and holding a direction finder. He wore an imitation of Kestor’s battle mask. A grim smile played across D’Ahid’s lips, and he offered Ruala silent thanks for granting his wish.
D’Ahid gestured toward the man and started forward, hoping the others saw his signal. He moved in stealth from tree to tree, and soon stood a few yards from his quarry. He tensed, ready to render that monster into a pulp.
“Murdering bastard, I’ll kill you!”
The man spun at the sudden shout. So did D’Ahid. Lan stood a few yards away. The man reached into his jerkin, and D’Ahid saw his chance. He charged with a yell, swinging the branch. The startled impostor froze. D’Ahid struck him in the ribs and he went down.
Before the impostor could recover his breath, D’Ahid tossed the branch aside and ripped off the man’s battle mask. He pummeled him with one hand as the other gripped the man’s throat.
Through a red haze, D’Ahid heard Jeni implore him not to kill the man.
“We need him alive. Remember?”
D’Ahid gave the impostor one final blow. “Bind him.” He kept his voice low and raspy, to sound like Kestor. “We’ll take him back come morning.”
“It’s a trap.” The man sounded terrified. “Imperial troopers are all over those caverns.”
“We know,” Lan said.
The impostor whimpered. “They forced me to dress like this and enter your caverns. Lieutenant Josald threatened to kill my children.”
D’Ahid hit him again. “Liar! You murdered those people tonight.”
“Oh, Gods, sir. No. Another man did those terrible things, but Josald killed him to keep him quiet. Then he realized he could have used him as bait. He made me-”
D’Ahid dragged the man to his feet. “I saw you myself.”
“Impossible. You weren’t there. None of you were.”
D’Ahid threw him to the ground again. “Kestor is everywhere.”
* * *
“Excuse me, sir?”
Josald looked up from his work. An imposing figure stood framed in his office doorway. Despite his size, the man seemed almost timid as he showed due deference to an Imperial officer.
“I don’t know if you remember me, sir. I…”
Josald beamed as he came forward and clasped his visitor’s hands. “Good morning, Abra. Of course I do. Wonderful cabinet you made for my wife and me last year. But I’m sure you’ve come on more important matters, at such an early hour. How may I assist you?”
* * *
After the woodsmith had left, Josald considered Abra’s fears that Kestor had harmed his brother. D’Ahid could have had a rendezvous with a girlfriend as Josald suspected, or had otherwise decided to delay his journey to Serlo. Or perhaps he’d joined the outlaws. Abra had let slip that D’Ahid didn’t share his feelings about Kestor.
Garn would find this information useful. Reason enough to withhold it. D’Ahid had been one of four villagers who’d received travel visas in recent days— all approved weeks ago. Josald had confirmed the journeys of the other three. As far as Garn was concerned, he’d confirmed D’Ahid’s as well. Oh, he’d investigate, as he’d promised Abra; but if his suspicions proved true, Garn would never know.
Once she learned that the four journeys had been confirmed, Garn would order him to check the records for any unaccountable recent visitors. It would be ironic if a recent visitor now impersonated Kestor, but Josald doubted it. Even so, why would the rebels have accepted D’Ahid, let alone allowed him to masquerade as their leader? From Josald’s vague recollection of the boy, D’Ahid lacked a commanding presence.
Sergeant Reda had reported his regiment’s failure to secure Miklar, along with his belief that the outlaws had captured him. If so, they’d produce Miklar this morning, perhaps while Garn visited the school. Josald couldn’t move against her until then, as he’d realized last night. Even if she didn’t have guards with her, killing her now would only brand him an assassin. But once her role in the massacre had been exposed, her death would be an execution.
* * *
Abra shook as he beheld the charred remains of the school. The odor of burnt wood still hung in the air. Only criminals and cowards fought the Imperials by attacking children.
As Abra and a carpenter from Trepe named Tusnic worked together under the sharp eye of a squad of troopers, other troopers hiked into the mountains.
“That murdering outlaw deserves summary execution. No, the Imperials should seal every cave. Let those wild dogs starve.”
Tusnic shook his head. “Wouldn’t work. They say some passages lead to Noret. Those outlaws are clever.”
“Doesn’t take cleverness to kill children. And sealing the caverns would keep those animals away from us. Let the Norets deal with them.”
The new governor’s carriage came down the road and stopped before the school. Abra listened with care as she stepped from it and spoke.
“My friends, I share your sorrow at your loss. Rest assured we will find and punish the monster who calls himself Kestor. And you can help. In fact, anyone providing information leading to his capture and execution will pay no taxes for one year.”
“I like that idea,” Tusnic whispered, as cheers rang up among the other workers.
“So do I. But I’d rather be the executioner.”
The thunder of hoofbeats cut off Tusnic’s reply. Kestor and his band rode with brazen arrogance into the village, and reined in their horses several yards from the crowd.
A trooper reached for his weapon, but two of the outlaws had already raised their longbows and drawn back the bowstrings.
“Unwise,” Kestor rasped. “We are outside your range, but you are not outside ours.”
Abra thrust his hands out and mimed wringing someone’s neck. “Come closer, outlaw,” he muttered.
Kestor shoved the man on the horse next to him to the ground. The man, who was ill-kempt, wore identical armor, but no battle mask. He seemed to be fettered.
“This man attacked the school, using my name. He is Miklar, a thug hired by Governor Garn.”
The bound man said nothing.
Abra turned to Tusnic. “He isn’t Kestor. Kestor is dead. He must be.”
“I see the bloodstains, but that is not Kestor’s shade before us. Maybe he can defeat death.”
“No!” The gods would not be so cruel as to let a monster like Kestor escape death, while condemning D’Ahid to an unknown fate.
“Governor Garn is not your friend,” Kestor rasped. “She hired this man to attack you and to discredit those who fight for your rights. Don’t let her soft words and empty promises deceive you.”
Abra glared at the outlaw leader, as he heard people muttering. They must have noticed the bloodstains. Then Garn’s voice rang out.
“Arrest them all. Now.”
A trooper started forward only to collapse in agony, as he clutched the arrow that pierced his arm.
“Arrest yourself, Governor,” Kestor said. “You hired this mercenary.”
“So you say. I never saw this man before now. Nor do I lurk in the mountains like an insect scurrying from the light. My office is open to anyone; and I go out among the people.”
She stretched out her hands, as if to prove her point. “Remove your battle mask, ‘Kestor.’ I’m told Kestor went without the battle mask more often than he wore it. These good people all know your countenance. Prove you’re the man you claim to be, and I’ll have this man punished for the attack on the school. And before all these witnesses, I promise you and your followers may go free.”
Abra started forward. “No! He’s a murderer. Kill him.”
Two troopers restrained him. “Don’t harm him,” Garn said. She turned back to the outlaws. “Well, ‘Kestor,’ can you convince this man that you didn’t commit these atrocities; that the man you accuse isn’t some hapless innocent onto whom you intend to shift the blame? Do you accept my terms?”
“No. I won’t dance to your song. Lieutenant Josald?”
Josald appeared puzzled that Kestor had singled him out. “Yes?”
“A few years ago, Governor Katral fell ill with fever, leaving you in command. Do you recall?”
“A renegade legion from Trepe saw his illness as an opportunity to attack and plunder Ijnag. We forged a temporary truce to fight and defeat them.”
“Kestor and I did, yes. That fact is well known.”
“We met alone. You said mutual trust would be impossible, but I said I would and did trust you. True?”
“Yes, Kestor,” Josald replied, his eyes on Garn. “He is Kestor, Governor. Only Kestor knows what we said that day.” He turned to the crowd. “Kestor also speaks the truth about Governor Garn.”
Garn glared at him, and reached for a weapon, but saw, as Abra had, that Josald had already drawn his. “You’ll die for this, Josald,” she said.
“We’ll see.” Josald turned to the troopers. “Arrest that mercenary. And arrest Governor Garn, pending a full investigation under Article Thirty-Seven. The outlaws may leave.”
Abra struggled against the troopers holding him. “No, you can’t! They’re killers.”
“Muzzle him,” Josald ordered. “But don’t harm him.”
Josald rode up to the outlaws and spoke to Kestor for a moment. Then the outlaws started to leave. Kestor glanced back. Abra was certain he was laughing behind the battle mask.
* * *
“What did Josald say?” Lan asked, as the rebels raced away.
“That he and Kestor must not have been alone that day; and that whoever coached me must have misheard.” D’Ahid paused. “Then he said I owe him a favor.”
“We’ll deal with that when the time comes. You did well. You’re a natural actor. The people believe Kestor still lives.”
“What of Abra?”
“I’ll go to him this evening.”
“Will you tell him you’ve joined us?”
* * *
Garn regarded Josald’s bloodied form with disdain. Incompetent fool.
“You overestimated your influence, Josald. You have fewer friends than you believed. You’ll die a traitor.”
He shot her a defiant look. “I’m loyal to the Empire, but you’re a butcher. By all rights, you should be under arrest. If not-”
“If not for my personal guard, I would be? Perhaps; but we don’t live in a world of perhaps, Josald. We live in the real world, a chaotic world. I will bring order to it, and I won’t tolerate disobedience.”
She fired a single shot at his chest.
He coughed blood. “The people have seen your true colors, and you’ll no longer charm them. You went too far with Miklar.”
“People are malleable. They won’t believe I had anything to do with that. And Miklar won’t tell anyone otherwise.”
“You’re a fool. The new Kestor now has a personal grudge against you.” He smiled. “I… know… his… name…”
Garn was nonplussed at that, and Josald’s lifeless eyes seemed to mock her.
* * *
Abra opened his door to D’Ahid’s knock and D’Ahid saw a torrent of emotions play across his face. After a moment, Abra broke the silence.
“Where have you been? Drenu wrote, saying you’d never arrived. I thought you’d been killed.”
He took a step forward. “Did the outlaws take you prisoner? How did you escape?”
D’Ahid stepped inside. “No.”
“Then what happened?”
“I never went to Serlo. I had a more important task.”
D’Ahid took a deep breath, and prepared for the explosion.
“I had to help rescue Kestor.”
“Are you insane? Kestor’s a criminal, and he’s responsible for Father’s death.”
“Governor Katral killed Father. Kestor saved us. I owed him something.”
Abra tensed, and took slow, steady breaths through clenched teeth.
“Even if that were true,” he said at last, “you have repaid your ‘debt.’ You can put aside this childish infatuation and begin your studies. It’s not too late.”
D’Ahid shook his head. “I can’t. The others need me.”
“What others? What do you- The outlaws. They’ve done something to you, confused you. You’re not a criminal. You don’t belong with them.”
He held out his hands. “No one knows you’ve been with the outlaws. You can still come back to your life.”
“I’m sorry, Abra. I’ll visit when I can, but I have a purpose now. I’m still trying to figure out what it is; but I know I’m not meant to be a woodsmith. The rebels are right to fight for our freedom. You could help us. I am the new Ke-”
“I will never help Kestor. He may not have attacked the school, but he’s still a criminal. If you stand with him, you’re no longer my brother.”
“Abra, listen. Kestor is no longer—”
“Speak no more of Kestor! You’ve made your choice. Go, before I call for a trooper.”
D’Ahid’s jaw dropped. “Abra…”
Abra turned his back. D’Ahid stared at him for a moment. Then he sighed. “We’ll talk again later. There’s something you need to know. Something important, but I’ll wait until you’re calm enough to hear it.”
Abra said nothing. After another moment, D’Ahid stepped into the night.
One day he’d make Abra understand. Somehow.
Five years later…
Garn steepled her fingers as she listened to the archaeologist’s report.
“This machine you uncovered served as a means of capital punishment? What method?”
“Disintegration, my lady.”
“Indeed? Does the device still function?”
“Yes. We’ve tested it on some cats. All were disintegrated.”
“I had no idea the ancestors of our charges were so ruthless. What else can you report?”
“With regrets, very little. The few surviving records of that era don’t reveal anything related to the device’s history or under what circumstances they used it. However, it seems to have been the center of controversy. One fragment of an editorial condemns the ‘terrible device that tears us apart.’ But perhaps this editor stood alone in his or her condemnation.”
“Perhaps. How did you unlock this mechanism’s secrets?”
“By happenstance. We observed an alcove just large enough for a full-grown adult, and a large lever near it. So we decided to test it on a stray cat. We weren’t sure what to expect, but I daresay none of us anticipated what resulted.”
“Nor, I imagine, did the cat. Does it have other controls?”
“Yes. Several switches and levers of uncertain purpose. We determined it best to leave them be.”
“Wise decision. Can you bring this machine here?”
“At once, my lady.”
After the archaeologist left, Marifo stalked forward from her hiding place, her weapon aimed at Garn’s head. She’d have pulled the trigger long ago; but she had her orders.
She made no sound until she stood just behind Garn, and thrust the muzzle of her weapon into the governor’s neck.
“Say nothing and remain still. We must talk.”
“Must we?” Garn looked up into Marifo’s eyes, an expression of amusement in her own. “Come to kill me?”
“Not today. I bring thee information. Stand.”
Garn stood. Marifo gestured her away from the desk.
“You haven’t come to kill me? You surprise me, Marifo.”
“Were it my choice, I’d have killed thee long ago. But I have my duty.”
“What duty might that be?”
“Thou wishes to capture Kestor? I will tell thee how.”
Garn laughed. “Am I to believe that one of Kestor’s most dedicated followers would betray him? You’re a rabble, but you’re a loyal rabble.”
Marifo fought back the urge to shoot, to silence that smug tone. “There be a woodsmith named Abra. Threaten to kill him unless Kestor surrenders. Kestor will come.”
“Abra hates Kestor. Why should Kestor surrender for him?”
“If thou wishes to capture Kestor, that be how. I have followed my orders. Whether thee listens means nothing to me.”
“Orders from whom?”
“Whom indeed?” Marifo bound and gagged Garn, then slipped out of the castle. She knew that despite her suspicions, Garn would do as instructed. Before long, D’Ahid would be in their enemy’s hands.
“It be the right thing,” she whispered. “I am doing the right thing.”
* * *
“I had an interesting conversation with one of the outlaws earlier,” Governor Garn said as she strode into Abra’s shop like it were her own. Abra looked up from his work at Garn and the two troopers with her, masking his annoyance at the interruption.
“She said you could help us capture Kestor.” She spoke as if she and Abra passed the time of day.
Abra was nonplussed. “Me?”
“Curious, yes? You’ve been quite vocal about your hatred of Kestor.”
“Yes, I hate him. I hate the suffering he caused my family.”
“Then you’d want to help capture him.”
“I’d like nothing better.”
“It gladdens me to hear that. Yet I’m curious why that outlaw named you.”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you ever fished, Abra?”
His brow furrowed. How did that relate? “Once or twice.”
“We’ll do that now. You’re the bait.” The troopers grabbed him and forced him to the door.
“Why are you doing this? I said I wanted to help capture Kestor.”
Garn turned to face him. “You will help. I’m told Kestor will surrender to prevent your death. Unlikely, but I’d be a fool to pass up any opportunity, wouldn’t I?”
She seemed to study him. Abra shivered. He’d never trusted Garn, despite her affectations of neighborliness.
“Why would Kestor surrender for you? What connection could you two share?”
Abra’s stomach lurched. Had she learned that D’Ahid had joined the outlaws? He’d never forgive that betrayal, but he also didn’t want Garn to know. So he’d kept his peace all these years.
“Only that Kestor caused my father’s death. That outlaw lied, Governor. Kestor cares only about himself.”
“Believe me Abra, I don’t take anything that woman said on faith; but why would she lie about you? After all, excepting the unfortunate incident involving your father, you haven’t had direct contact with the outlaws, have you?”
“Of course not.”
A thought struck him. If Kestor could be captured it might break his hold over D’Ahid. Abra would give his life without hesitation to save his brother. But would Garn distinguish between true outlaws and an innocent in Kestor’s thrall? Doubtful. Lieutenant Josald might have, but Josald was dead.
“When you capture Kestor, you’ll kill him? You won’t give him a chance to escape, like Katral—?” He broke off, expecting a rebuff, but Garn said nothing. Nor could he be sure what to read in her steady gaze. “I’d give my life with gladness if it guaranteed Kestor’s death.”
A smile played across her thin lips. “Indeed? I’d hate to lose such a fine woodsmith. Perhaps we’ll catch our fish, yet also keep the bait alive.”
* * *
D’Ahid grinned as he waved to the young family making its way towards the greenwood above Noret.
Adrow seemed to sense his mood. “It makes you feel good.”
“It does. They’re free of Garn’s pitiless tax levies. But we need to do more.”
“We’re making a difference.”
“A sliver of a difference. Like how I keep Kestor’s name alive. But I’m just playing a role. Even this new battle mask I made doesn’t compare to Kestor’s own.”
“You sell yourself short. If people have souls, Kestor’s lives in you. Despite my initial doubts, you have proven yourself.”
D’Ahid wished he could share Adrow’s confidence, but he knew he’d never measure up to Kestor. “We’d best head back.”
When they rejoined the others, D’Ahid’s good spirits plummeted. A pall seemed to have descended over the others. No one had said anything, but the look in Jeni’s eyes spoke volumes.
“Abra’s been arrested,” she said.
A sharp pain sliced through D’Ahid’s gut. “Why?”
She took his hand. “No one knows; but Garn will release him only if Kestor comes alone and surrenders.”
“Thou must not,” Telrac insisted. “It be a trap.”
“Could she know you’re now Kestor?” Adrow asked.
D’Ahid shook his head. “If she knew I wasn’t the real Kestor she’d proclaim it to the Empyrean.”
“Then why arrest Abra?” Jeni asked.
“Doesn’t matter. I won’t let harm befall him.”
“You can’t surrender.”
“I can’t let Abra die.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “When must I— I mean Kestor— surrender?”
“You have two hours.”
“Can we free Abra?”
Jeni bowed her head. “No. They have him in the square, guarded and tied to the machine that archaeologist— Rehar— claims our ancestors used for executions.”
“The Imperials allow no one near,” Telrac said.
“Then I’ll have to surrender.”
“No,” Telrac shouted. “Thee be not expendable.”
“I won’t let Abra die. I couldn’t save Kestor, but I will save my brother.”
“How can thou be certain he be in true peril?”
“Abra would never put me in danger.”
“Abra doesn’t know you’re now Kestor,” Adrow said. “And he hates Kestor. You must not go.”
“I must. I won’t risk his life.” D’Ahid again cursed his cowardice at never having told Abra the truth. He’d always pledged to do it “next time”, and the days and years had raced on. But would knowing the truth have spared Abra this fate? If Garn knew the truth, why hadn’t she denounced D’Ahid? If not, how had Abra attracted her attention?
He turned to Lan. “What do you say?”
“You must go. True, Abra wouldn’t endanger you, but somehow Garn knows of a connection between him and Kestor. How?”
“Because I told her.”
D’Ahid turned. Marifo emerged from the shadows at the far end of the cavern. She took slow steps, as if in a daze, and stopped several feet from the others. A parchment dangled between the fingers of her left hand.
Jeni grabbed Marifo’s shoulders and shook her. “You told Garn? In Phaned’s name, why?”
“I did as instructed.” Marifo held out the parchment. Jeni snatched it and read it. Her eyes widened, and her voice was tinged with disbelief.
“Kestor wrote this.” She turned to Marifo. “The sealed message for you. This is it.”
“The day he died, Kestor told me I was to unseal the message on this day.”
“That’s right. I remember,” Adrow said.
“Kestor wrote that Marifo must go to the governor— today— and tell her to threaten Abra,” Jeni said. She sounded as shocked as D’Ahid felt.
He made a vehement shake of his head. “Impossible. Why would Kestor order the betrayal of his chosen successor?”
Jeni handed Lan the parchment. “Lan knows Kestor’s script better than any of us. He’ll confirm this is genuine.”
Lan studied the parchment and nodded. “This is written in Kestor’s hand, but that isn’t all he says. He assures Marifo that this action is necessary to ensure the freedom and safety of all Noule, and that neither Abra nor D’Ahid will come to harm.”
He turned to Marifo. “Why did you not come to us before you acted?”
She wrung her hands. “Would thou have had me disobey Kestor? How could I do that? I have never disobeyed Kestor. Nor hast thee. Even so, I could not let any of you share my burden.”
She turned to D’Ahid, her tone both confident and imploring. “I have faith in Kestor. He would not allow thee to come to harm. I would not have done what I did if I had believed otherwise.”
D’Ahid regarded her with narrowed eyes for a long moment. If not for his faith in Kestor, he might throttle her. He still might. “Your reasons don’t matter. I won’t take any chances with Abra’s life.”
He turned to the others. “Whatever happens to me, see to it that the prophecy about no harm to Abra comes true.”
* * *
Two hours later, D’Ahid reined in his mount several yards from the north end of the square. There Garn had secured Abra to her strange device.
“I must admit I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Garn said.
D’Ahid affected Kestor’s raspy voice. “Release that man.”
Garn offered him a friendly smile as she cut Abra’s bonds. “Of course. But why surrender to save a man who hates you?”
“All the people are under my protection.”
Abra spat. “We do not want your ‘protection’, outlaw. No one asked you to come here.”
D’Ahid fought to keep his tone emotionless, lest Garn reconsider that there might be a connection between himself and Abra. “Kestor goes where he’s needed, woodsmith. I’m needed here.”
“A comforting delusion, I’m sure,” Garn said. “But you’ll not be among us much longer.”
“Perhaps. Others have said the same, and yet Kestor remains.” Even as he spoke, D’Ahid was surprised at his calmness. It helped that the real Kestor had foreseen that both he and Abra would emerge from this unharmed.
Idly, he wondered if he’d ever see himself as more than a substitute. Perhaps one day he’d come close to getting halfway there. If Kestor’s prediction proved wrong, he prayed the others would carry on. Lan would be best suited to assume the mantle.
He offered a silent prayer to Ruala, dismounted, and allowed himself to be secured to the device.
* * *
Abra hurried back to his shop. Bait for Kestor or not, he still had to finish an important order by sundown. Even so, he’d pause in his labors to witness the execution in an hour’s time.
Without warning, a hand reached out from a narrow alley and pulled him into the shadows.
“Say nothing,” a low voice hissed. “Thou be in more danger than thy know.”
Abra faced two of the outlaws, a farmer about his build, and a leaner Cinat.
“Release me,” he cried, as the outlaws forced him further into the shadows.
The farmer gave him a hard look. “You wish to live?”
“Then listen well, and we might save both yourself and your brother.”
Abra was nonplussed. “D’Ahid? What of him?”
“He be in Garn’s trap,” the Cinat said.
As the Cinat spun a web of lies, Abra snorted with disdain. What kind of fool did they take him for? If D’Ahid was in the trap, that coward Kestor had forced him.
The farmer’s eyes narrowed. “Do we? Come with us.” The outlaws led Abra behind homes and through back alleys until he could see the device from a hiding place. He shivered. D’Ahid was bound to it, unmasked, but wearing Kestor’s battle armor.
Two competing thoughts tore at him— that he’d led his brother into a trap; and that D’Ahid had betrayed the memory of their father by impersonating the man who’d caused his death.
“I must tell Garn D’Ahid is not Kestor. She’ll release him.”
The farmer held him fast. “You know she won’t. Even if she believes D’Ahid is a decoy, she’ll not release him. And if she got hold of you again, she’d make you act as executioner— to prove your loyalty to the Empire. Would you like that? To be your brother’s executioner?”
“To the Imperials, an outlaw be an outlaw,” the Cinat said. “She won’t free him.”
“She will when Kestor surrenders.” Abra put steel in his voice, even as he shuddered at the memory of words spoken long ago.
“Thou still does not understand. D’Ahid be Kestor. There be no other.”
“There will be. I don’t know how you forced D’Ahid to join you, but I won’t let him die because of it. One of you will masquerade as Kestor and surrender in his place. I know you have spare armor and battle masks. How else could one of you have impersonated Kestor to distract the troopers when you rescued your fellow criminals from Katral?”
“No harm will befall D’Ahid,” the farmer said.
“No harm? You and your ilk have corrupted him, and put him in harm’s way.”
The farmer remained calm. “Kestor not only prophesied that D’Ahid would succeed him, but also that D’Ahid would surrender himself to save you— and that no harm would befall either of you.”
“I should believe such fancies?”
“Kestor’s prophecies have always come to pass.”
Abra grit his teeth. “You’ll do nothing? You’ll leave everything to fate?”
The outlaw smiled. “I did not say that.”
Abra grabbed the outlaw’s tunic near the throat. “If you had any decency, you’d let D’Ahid return to a normal life.”
The outlaw remained calm. “This is his life, and he has helped people. He captured and exposed Miklar.”
Abra’s grip loosened. “That was D’Ahid?”
“Yes. He tried to tell you when you last spoke, but you would not listen.”
Abra released the other man and glared at him, but said nothing. None of the outlaws would impersonate Kestor and offer himself in D’Ahid’s place. They didn’t care about D’Ahid. If they had, they’d never have used him.
He had no choice. As much as it galled him, he’d have to pretend to be the man he hated and offer himself in his brother’s place. He’ll say D’Ahid was a foolish boy who’d tried to protect him, but that he can’t allow others to sacrifice themselves in his place.
He’d die, of course. But D’Ahid would be away from that foul machine by then. Perhaps Abra’s sacrifice would also snap him out of his spell, and he’d understand the truth of things.
If he’d accompanied D’Ahid to Serlo, or if he hadn’t chased him away when he’d revealed he’d joined the outlaws, all of this might have been prevented. He had one last chance to set things right.
“If none of you will impersonate Kestor, then I will.”
The Cinat gave him a dubious look. “Thou?”
“Yes. To save D’Ahid, I would even pretend to be Kestor.”
* * *
Tied fast in a small alcove of the metal apparatus, and under heavy guard, D’Ahid was displayed, unmasked, for all to see. The others would protect Abra, but he had failed them all. Even now, he didn’t understand why Kestor had chosen him.
The expressions of anger, disappointment and betrayal on the faces of the villagers who’d gawked at him for the past hour felt like daggers. He prayed they’d forgive him for letting them down.
“This is your legendary hero?” Garn asked, her tone mocking and derisive. “The one who knows the future and can defeat death— a would-be woodsmith?”
“That’s not Kestor,” someone shouted. “He is D’Ahid. I attended school with him.”
Garn nodded. “Nor does he have Kestor’s famous silver hair. Or his beard. And he has both his eyes. Could it be that Kestor— the true Kestor— is dead, and this boy has used— and mocked— you all these years?”
She offered D’Ahid the faintest hint of a smile, as the crowd jeered him. He glared back at her, and recalled something Lan once said.
“Kestor is the symbol, the spirit of freedom,” he shouted. “That spirit can move from one person to another. I may die, but the spirit of Kestor will live on in another. Kestor is eternal.”
A few people nodded, and D’Ahid prayed his idea would work. If they could think of Kestor as a symbol passed from one person to another, perhaps they’d accept someone who might come after him. The others would know that while no one could replace the real Kestor, they’d still have a way for the people to accept someone else using his name. Someone like Lan.
“The spirit of Kestor died with the man,” Garn said. “This boy, for all his poetic words, is just a pretender. And since I view D’Ahid’s crass impersonation as akin to sacrilege, it is fitting and proper that he be executed in the manner proscribed by your ancestors.”
She slipped the battle mask back onto him. “Let Kestor’s famous battle mask serve as the impostor’s hood of execution.”
Garn nodded to a technician, who pulled a large lever. The machine began to hum with a gradual increase in tempo. D’Ahid struggled, wishing for one last moment with Jeni.
Then came a blinding flash.
* * *
“Justice is do—” An arrow slammed into Garn’s chest. She stared at it as she felt her legs turn to rubber, then looked up. Her dying eyes widened as she saw a figure in the familiar battle armor urge his mount down the hillside.
* * *
Lan saw a torrent of emotions play across Abra’s countenance as the woodsmith removed the battle mask. “It’s my fault. If I hadn’t let grief and anger blind me, I’d— Now I’ve lost my only family. This,” he gestured at the armor he wore, “was all I could do to atone. I’d hoped to rescue him, but–”
“We’ve destroyed that machine,” Jeni said. “No one else will die in it; and your actions reinforced Kestor’s legend.”
Abra slammed down the battle mask, and began tearing off the armor. “Do not speak that criminal’s name in my presence.”
“How dare thee…?” Amthra began. Lan held up a hand. Now was not the time to fight; not with D’Ahid’s brother.
“Let him be. We understand your feelings, but we still appreciate what you’ve done for us.”
“I ‘appreciate’ that I failed to be a proper guardian to D’Ahid, and that led him to such as you. So much for your hero’s prophecy that no harm would befall him.”
Lan’s soul felt as if it had been seared. “I don’t understand. Kestor’s prophecies have never been wrong.”
“I just realized something,” Jeni said. “This is the day we’re to read the last prophecy. Maybe it will explain what happened.”
Amthra spat out a bitter, mirthless laugh. “Perhaps he names another to lead us, now that D’Ahid be dead. Or perhaps he tells us the prophecies all be for nothing.”
Jeni crossed to the small alcove where they’d stored the sealed prophecy. “I don’t believe that. Nor did Kestor. He never gave up.”
She returned with the parchment, broke the seal and unraveled it. “In Phaned’s name!”
He hand trembled as she handed Lan the parchment.
“What does it say?” Telrac asked.
Lan handed the parchment to Abra. “You should read this.”
Abra scanned the document. “It’s not possible,” he whispered.
Lan said nothing as he knelt and picked up the battle mask. He considered it for a long moment.
D’Ahid stumbled, then frowned as he regained his balance. He stood alone. How had he gotten free? The others must have come for him, and he’d become dazed in the fight.
Just then he noticed a large crowd at the far end of the square. Had his friends been captured?
He started forward, then stopped. He wasn’t alone. A man stood in the doorway of a small shop to his right, and stared at him with an expression of awe. D’Ahid found it disconcerting. By now the man must know he wasn’t the true Kestor.
“Kestor! By all the Gods, can it be true?” The man’s reverent tone carried the same degree of awe.
It seemed he didn’t know. D’Ahid made an inward shrug. “I am Kestor, my friend.” As he drew near the man, he saw that he was a stranger, doubtless a newcomer to Ijnag. “Do you need assistance?”
“Not me, but the governor means to execute a good and decent man.” He pointed toward the crowd. “You must stop it.”
“I intend to.” As a boy, D’Ahid been helpless to prevent Katral from killing his father. But now he’d keep Garn from murdering some other family.
He and the stranger wend their way behind the shops, unobserved. As he drew nearer the crowd, D’Ahid wished he had time to find the others, and that he could remember how he’d gotten free; but that would have to wait.
He could now see the people in the center of the crowd, and his jaw dropped as he tried to accept the reality of what he beheld. One thing was clear, he no longer doubted his destiny.
He turned to his companion.
“You are Monsi of Trepe.”
The man looked startled. “How did you–? You are Kestor.”
“Will you follow me, Monsi?”
“Until my dying day.”
“Do you see that family there? The younger boy is called D’Ahid. One day, the boy named D’Ahid will come to the followers of Kestor. And on that day, he will be your leader. He shall be Kestor.”