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Chapter Eighteen

The Mongs were trekking again. A week had seen vast reorganization in the warrior class and the several tribes, and under Rahstum's firm and relatively merciful guidance the various factions achieved at least the appearance of unity. The Captain made a swift recovery; after the first two days he ignored his pain and was in the saddle constantly. Some days he snatched but two or three hours sleep. Even so he had to delegate many tasks to Blade, who in turn had Baber and the dwarf as his aides.

Gradually, as time wore on, the four of them came to constitute an unofficial, shadowy, but authentic quadruplex of authority that was not questioned. Rahstum commanded, Blade implemented. Baber, who now had a gentle old mare to draw him about on his cart, was learning to ride again and wielded power far greater than his rank, Rahstum being too cunning to immediately elevate another Cauca and so cause jealousy.

Morpho, with skill and determination, set about organizing a new provost and a secret spy network so that Rahstum might know all that was whispered or plotted. Business was very slack. The Mongs seemed satisfied.

They moved to the south, following the line of the seashore, and after twenty miles they topped a rise and saw the great yellow wall glimmering along the horizon. Blade and the Captain were riding at the head of the column. Scouts had been sent ahead, but had not returned or sent any word.

Rahstum signaled a stop and looked at Blade. "So there is our wall again, Sir Blade. What say you now? We come in peace, for I will keep the promise you extracted from me, but who can parley with a wall?"

Blade studied the wall for a long time, shielding his eyes against the blazing sun. There was no sign of movement, no life, and the wall did not reach the sea. As best he could make out it tapered off, unfinished, some five hundred yards from the ocean.

"I think nothing has changed," he told Rahstum. "We can pass between the end of the wall and sea and then turn back west again, just as we had planned. Just so your outriders do not disobey orders and provoke fighting. Make sure of that, Captain! The Caths must understand that this time we come in peace."

"I have made sure," grunted the Captain. "The officers know they will pay with their heads if they provoke a fight."

The column moved on. They skirted the end of the wall and swung back to the west. The wall snaked away, deserted and desolate, to the far faint beginnings of mountains. That night, just before the sun dropped out of sight, it hovered over those mountains and a wondrous green light lay shimmering along the edge of the world, like a jade mist that moved and swirled and formed fantastic pictures of itself.

Blade watched it with a feeling of awe. It could not but mean that the range ahead was another mass of the Jade Mountains he had seen in Serendip. This was raw stone, uncut and unpolished, yet of such purity that it dyed the heavens with its color.

Remembrance of his last night with Lali came. What of Lali now? Who had replaced him?

The long column of Mongs, a fat disjointed serpent, crawled over to the west. The land began to revert to steppe, though fertile and with many trees, and one day Blade caught the scent of banyo trees. After that the air was increasingly soft and sweet. They were getting into the heartland of the Caths. Still they met no opposing forces, saw no towns or villages, and nothing moved along the wall.

It was some little time before Blade noted that the dwarf seemed to be avoiding him. One day he taxed the little man with it.

Morpho, sitting his pony, nodded. "That is truth, Sir Blade. It is not of my own wish, but I thought it best.

Time will heal, but until it does I thought it best to stay away."

Blade understood and smiled and patted the little fellow's shoulder. "It could not be helped, Morpho. In your place I would have done the same. You were in a rage and thought only to protect your child."

"And slew yours, Sir Blade." Morpho did not look at him. His eyes were on the horizon.

Blade was silent for a moment. He had put the matter from his mind. No good came of thinking too much in the past, or grieving over what might have been. In his case especially. For the last two days now he had been having dull headaches, and now and then a stroke of real pain. Lord L was groping for him with the computer.

"Avoid me no more," he told the dwarf. "We are friends. I tell you I would have done the same - only I would have killed the Khad, not Sadda."

Morpho flexed his grin. "As I would have, had I not known him already dying of my poison. Sadda counted on that because she did not know about the poison. We were fortunate in the way things fell out, Sir Blade."

Blade nodded in agreement. "We were lucky. She reckoned that the shock of seeing Nantee would drive you to slay the Khad. Then I was to kill you, and Sadda would reign. It was a good plan. Had there been no counterplot it might well have worked."

Their eyes met. "Would you have slain me, Sir Blade, to save yourself?"

"I cannot answer that," answered Blade. "Forget, Morpho. Let it blow with the wind. She sleeps now, in a decent grave, and the matter is best forgot."

"So it shall be." The dwarf pointed to the horizon. "See yonder. Dust. I think our scouting party returns."

Blade had duties back along the column and it was an hour before he rode back to the vanguard. The Mong scouts, fatigued and dirty, their ponies drooping, were still being questioned by Rahstum. When Blade rode up, the Captain beckoned to him with an odd smile on his face. He held up a small object that glittered in the sun.

"Come and see yourself, Sir Blade. You are now become a house god of the Caths."

Puzzled, Blade rode into the group. The Mong scouts eyed him curiously. Rahstum handed him the little object with a thin smile. His tone was sardonic.

"I had not known you so famous, Sir Blade. I think we waste time in this long march to treat with the Caths. You and I might settle matters between us, since you are so great in Cath."

Blade, staring at the little statuette, was dumfounded. He reached to take it in his hand. It was a foot high, of faultless jade, and carven in the exact image of himself as he had been in Cath. He wore the wooden armor and carried a sword, standing erect and calm with one foot slightly advanced. The artisan had caught his features exactly.

Blade looked at the Captain and shrugged. "You speak in riddles, Captain. How came you by this? What does it mean?"

Rahstum signed to the lieutenant of the scouts, a little man with a fierce beard and dusty armor. "Tell him, man."

The Mong lieutenant spurred closer, his eyes glassy with fatigue.

"We came on a Cath village, Sir Blade. As ordered, I sent in a man to parley and promise peace. When this was agreed they let us ride into their town. In the center was a great statue of you, Sir Blade, like this one but much larger." The man raised a hand over his head to indicate size.

"And in every house - for we remained a time and became friendly, especially with the unwed Cath girls - in every house there is a small statue of you such as this one. The Caths have many gods, as we knew, and now you are added to them. When we left I begged this statue of the head man, saying that I thought it would please you."

Blade was still slightly in shock. He held the little statuette to the sun and watched the sun strike through the pure jade.

"Did they give you explanation of this, lieutenant? How these came to be?"

The Mong nodded. "They did, Sir Blade. By order of the Empress Mei. Every Cath village and town in her domain has a big statue of you, and every house a small one. All this in your memory."

Lali thought him dead.

The Mongs trekked on. They passed the first Cath village and Blade rode in to see for himself. The villagers saw him and fell on their faces. The children screamed and ran and Blade wondered if mothers were using his image to threaten the children into obedience.

"Mind now, or Sir Blade will get you!"

He sat his horse before the statue and gazed at it a long time. It was ten feet tall, on a pedestal, and of the same immaculate jade. Blade thought he looked noble enough and was not displeased. But why? He had not thought Lali capable of such love and devotion.

As he rode back to join the column the pain smote his brain again and he gasped and fell forward in the saddle, clinging to the horse's mane to keep from falling.

They marched on. Still no movement on the wall, but now signal fires blazed ahead of them night and day. At last they reached the first of a long series of signal towers. Each tower had three wooden arms atop it, each painted a different color, and operated by ropes from the base. The towers all stood on high land and within sight of another farther to the west. Never did they find a Cath, or a party, operating the signals, but occasionally there was a faint cloud of retreating dust on the western horizon.

Rahstum was growing impatient. "How can we make peace with these wall Caths if they will not parley? They are like ghosts, or carrion apes, always scampering out of sight."

"Be patient," advised Blade, "and send out more parties, weak ones, only a few men, with our message of peace. One day we will have an answer."

Rahstum grumbled, but he followed the advice. Small parties, not more than ten men in each, and lightly armed, were sent ahead with the white horsetails of peace on their lances.

Far ahead of them the semaphore arms wigged and wagged and the fires blazed incessantly. And still the wall loomed barren and no Caths came to meet them.

Rahstum forgot his impatience and became uneasy - and wary. He scowled at Blade and muttered of traps.

Baber was riding again now, having learned to grip the saddle without his thighs. He was armored in leather and carried sword and lance and made as fierce a warrior as any. As the days passed he became increasingly worried. His was a personal dilemma.

He rode beside Blade one day and voiced his anxiety. As usual he spoke bluntly and to the point, and with his poet's fluency.

"I am torn," he admitted. "If Rahstum is right and we are riding into a trap I know not how to turn. I am your man, Sir Blade, and I am also Rahstum's man. A fickle fettle, I think, and most serious. We are deep in Cath land now, at your bidding. If we are ambushed, fallen upon, J will have to kill Caths, Sir Blade. But you have brought us here. Will you kill these Caths you came to see?"

Blade regarded him unsmiling. "Did I not kill Sea Caths? Did I not lead across the moat when no one else could? Answer that, Baber, and you have answered your own question."

The old man pushed his helmet back on his bald brow and gave Blade a knowing look. "You were slave then, Sir Blade. You had to fight. Now you are a free man and a leader. You are a Cath god! All this could make a difference."

"It will not. If the Caths attack us first, I will fight with the Mongs. I have promised the Captain that. I promise you now. But there must be no fighting - and if I have a chance to parley first with the Caths there will be none. Tell me in truth, old man. Are you not sick of war?"

Baber squinted and tugged at a hair in his nose. Then he nodded vigorously. "That I am, Sir Blade. For a long time now. I am old and I would like to enjoy my last years. But you dream if you think there is an end to war! There has always been war and there will always be war." He shrugged. "How else can a young man earn a living? And yet I wish as you, that there was another way."

Pain lanced at Blade then and he closed his eyes and held tight. For a few seconds the pain was almost unendurable and he trembled and sweated. Then it passed. Lord L was getting closer to him. Blade shook his head and wiped his face with a cloth. He was ready, but not before he had finished his task.

Baber said: "You do not feel well, Sir Blade?"

"It is nothing. I am tired, as we all are, and worried, Baber. I admit it. I wish the Caths would come to meet us and talk of peace. I do not like this running game of theirs any more than you."

Early next morning, after having marched but two hours, they climbed a long rise that overlooked a deep bowl-shaped valley. In the center of the valley was a neat Cath town. The moon flag of Cath fluttered from a pole in a center square and, even at the distance, Blade saw the iridescent glitter of his statue. The town was busily going about its business, the people hurrying here and there and paying no attention to the Mong host on its doorstep.

Rahstum, scowling, signaled a halt. He eased his stub in its sling and turned to Blade, indicating the easy pass that led down into the valley.

"I do not like this, Sir Blade. It is too easy." He gestured to a ring of low hills surrounding the valley on every side.

"There could be a million Caths in those hills. And we, as who knows better than you, are not strong. The march over the mountains, the fight at the sea, and now this long march, has left us weak. You took census, Sir Blade. How many able warriors?"

It was true that Blade had just made a head count.

"Some forty thousand who can fight," he said now. "But I see no Cath armies. No one threatens us, Captain."

Rahstum, still staring around at the hills, frowned. Then he spat decisively. "No! We halt here. Your Caths must come to us, if they come at all. I will not lead my people into that." He motioned to the valley lying placid and fertile below them and for a moment his face lightened.

"It is a fine valley, for all that. It would make a fine home for the Mongs, did we but own it. We could live well here, and find other ways than war, and grow strong again."

Blade had been watching his face. "You are no Mong," he said. "Yet I think you are, Captain, in a way no Mong would understand."

Rahstum nodded. "I am no Mong, as you say. I am a Cauca and proud of it. But they are my people now. I killed their leader and I am responsible for them. I would do my best."

Blade, who had been watching the hills, tapped the Captain's arm and said, "Then control your temper now. Do nothing in haste. And send me to parley. Me alone." He pointed to the hills. "You were right." On three sides of the valley the Cath host was moving into position. They left concealment and rode to the crest of the first line of hills and began to take formation. Pennons waved and the thin call of trumpets game across the distance.

Rahstum fingered his beard and muttered. "I told you, Sir Blade. See how many! If we fight now we are finished."

From the left, around to the center and back to the right, the Cath hordes were wheeling into line. Cavalry by the thousands. Foot soldiers by the hundreds of thousands. Blade, counting rapidly by rank and depth of files, estimating, put them at over half a million. There was planning here. That he knew instantly. This place and time had been deliberately chosen by the Caths. Had he, after all, led the Mongs into a trap?

All about them the Mongs, Rahstum's chosen men and guard of honor, were muttering in consternation. One of them, a grizzled veteran with a dozen scars, began to hum the Death Song.

Rahstum glared and rebuked the man sharply. "Time enough for that. We are not dead yet!"

But when he turned back to Blade his smile was arid. "I wish now that I had proclaimed myself Khad before this - for it looks as though I have left it too late."

A rider left the Cath town and came toward them, riding hard, a single rider, spurring, the dust rising behind him in a saffron cloud. They watched his approach in silence. As the horseman grew gradually closer, Blade thought he detected something familiar about him.

Blade leaned close to Rahstum, a hand on his arm, and whispered, "Do nothing yet, Captain. Pass the word back that every Mong remain calm and in his place. I think I know this Cath and I alone will talk with him. It is possible that we will not fight after all."

Rahstum agreed moodily and passed back his signal.

The Cath rider reined in at the mouth of the pass, below them, and waved a pennon. He removed his helmet.

It was Queko.

"I do know the man," said Blade quickly. "Queko, the Empress Mei's chief captain. He is to her as I am to you."

"He is signaling parley," said Rahstum. "Go and talk to him. And come back, Blade. You have given me your word of honor and I hold you to it."

Blade smiled. "I will come back."

He spurred down the pass to meet Queko. As he approached, Queko raised a hand in greeting and friendship. He was fine in resplendent wooden armor, the moon symbol brave on his breastplate. For the first time in months Blade heard the sweet singsong of Cath speech, so like to music.

"Greeting, Sir Blade. It has been a long time. We thought you dead until a few days since, when one of our spies brought word that the man of the statue was riding with the Caths."

Blade grinned at him. "I have seen the things, Queko. It was the doing of the Empress?"

"Yes. She has been desolate since your capture. Nothing pleases her and nothing can console her. Not even my fine plan to annihilate the Mongs forever."

He waved a hand around the valley, at the serried ranks of the waiting Cath host. "You came well Into the trap. Too easily, and I have been wondering. This had been your doing, Sir Blade? You had our message, then? One of the spies got through? We have sent a score or more."

Blade frowned. "I had no message. Saw no spy. We come in peace, Queko. That is my doing. Listen well to me."

He explained much of what had happened since the Mongs left off attacking the wall and began their trek, omitting only personal matters and that which was not to the point.

Queko said, when Blade had finished, "You believe this Rahstum truly wants peace?"

"I do. As you must believe also, and the Empress."

Queko stroked the soft down on his chin. "You undo me, Blade. I have planned long and hard for this moment, as has the Empress. Together we plotted the whole thing. We let a Mong prisoner 'escape' after letting him overhear what he thought was a high conference. We spoke of a lack of troops to man the wall this far to the east. We spoke of the wall being unfinished and defenseless. We spoke of the Sea Caths being cowards and poor fighters..."

"You spoke a lie," Blade said grimly. "I know. It was all part of our game. I knew that the trek over the northern mountains would kill many Mongs. The Sea Caths would kill more. The trek back west would be long and hard and more would die. I summoned help from Pukka and many other provinces and arranged that we should meet you in this valley, where we hold the high ground. And now, Sir Blade, you come to me and cry for peace!"

So that was it. So much for the counsels of Obi, the dark God in the wagon. The Khad had listened to the "escaped" Mong and made his decision and given the credit to Obi.

Blade fixed Queko with a stare that contained all the arrogance and the authority he could muster.

"It was a good plan. But now it is not needed. There will be peace. I have pledged my head on it. If there is not peace, and we must fight, I fight with the Mongs! Understand that well, Queko."

After a moment the Chief Captain of the Caths looked away. "As you say, Sir Blade. But I cannot make this peace, only the Empress can do that." "Where is she now?"

Queko pointed to the little village in the center of the valley. "There. Where else? As soon as she heard you were alive she came. She is waiting for you now. Come. I will take you to her."

"A moment. I will be straight back." Blade pulled his mount around and went galloping back up the pass. Lali so near! He was conscious of excitement. Even knowing what she was, very little better than Sadda had been, still he was excited. It was only physical, of course, but there it was. Those green eyes. Those marvelous green eyes into which a man could fall forever.

The body that was perfection and the color of ancient ivory. Lali!

Fool, he told himself. You have a job to do before the computer makes final adjustment and finds you and snatches you back to H-Dimension. Attend to it. He would not take back any treasure this time, nor any great knowledge. Or was peace a treasure? A moral treasure?

Blade spoke briefly with Rahstum and they came to agreement. They rode off to one side and were alone for the moment.

"Make fair terms if you can," Rahstum said. "But do not surrender our honor. If we must fight and die here we will die well, as warriors should."

"I will do my best, Captain. And if there is to be no peace I will return to die with you. Farewell for now."

"Farewell, Blade. For now."

As Blade spurred away he waved at Baber sitting his horse nearby. The old warrior waved back and shouted, "Bring us peace, Sir Blade. I like this place. I will get married again and raise little Mongs."

Someone scoffed and there was laughter. Blade saw the dwarf alone, dismounted, sitting on a rock and peering down into the valley. He rode to him.

Morpho spoke first. "Goodbye, Sir Blade. It is as it must be. I am only sorry for Nantee, who spoke of you last night. She is fond of you and would see you again. Remember her, and me, in this place you go."

Blade smiled at the little man. "How do you guess at these things, little man?"

The dwarf's frozen grin did not change, but his eyes were eloquent.

"I am a fool, Sir Blade, or was until you came. I know. And I know not how I know, any more than I know how it came to me that I should warn you before the fight with Cossa."

"That was wasted." Blade laughed and leaned down to clap the little man on a shoulder. "Goodbye, Morpho."

"Goodbye, Sir Blade. Nothing is wasted." Blade pondered that remark as he rode into the Cath village with Queko. He could make nothing of it.

They jogged past the statue of himself in the square.

Blade now thought that the jade man looked a little smug. The thought was torn away by new pain in his head. Not yet, Lord L! Not quite yet.

They halted before the finest house in the village. Queko pointed to the door where Cath sentries stood guard. "She is in there, Sir Blade."

Blade entered and stalked down a corridor, conscious of eyes watching him. Tall, brawny, in his dusty Mong armor, he knew he inspired awe in these slim Cath soldiers. How would Lali greet this great hulk of a soiled apparition? A thousand miles had separated them. Many weeks and bloody events. Would she be the same Lali? His smile was wry. Must he be on guard again so soon, and begin the playing of a new role?

A Cath sentry indicated a door with his lance. Blade threw it open and stalked in without knocking. He slammed it behind him. Lali must know, now and for once and all who was master.

Pain struck at his head.

"Blade. Ah, Blade. You come back to me at last."

She was lying on a round bed in the center of the room. She wore the silken body sheath, nothing more. For a long moment they gazed at each other and he felt himself devoured by those green eyes.

By the bed was a small block of wood. On it was one of the small statuettes of Blade. He picked it up and looked down at her.

"You have made me a God, Lali?"

"I thought you dead, Blade, yet could not bear to lose you. But put it down. A statue is no comfort now! You are here at last. Come, my Blade. Here beside me."

"Soon," he promised. "First there is a matter of which we must speak."

"Speak, Blade? This is not a time for talking."

"I'll keep it brief, then. Listen." He told her what he wanted.

For Lali she was immensely patient. She had paper and brushes brought, and summoned Queko. In his sight and witness she signed a pact of peace with the Mongs. She handed it to Queko.

"Take it to this Rahstum. Arrange a council at once. Twelve of the chiefs from each side. You have all my powers behind you, Queko. If the Mongs desire this valley, to dwell in peace, they are to have it. Now go, Queko, and do as you are bid, and do not disturb me until you are called or I will have Sir Blade cut off your head. Go!"

She raised her arms to Blade. "Now, my love. Come to me. I have ached and dreamed of this too long and will not be denied another moment. Put down that likeness and let me feel your body against mine."

He still held the statuette of himself, so delicately wrought, so clear that his fingers were limned through the stone.

"I am filthy," said Blade. "I have been long on the march."

"I will cleanse you. Come now."

Blade fell to his knees beside her on the bed, still clutching the jade statue, and leaned to kiss her. Her eyes were narrowed, cloaking the green depths, her mouth half open and quivering and she put her hands on his face and gently drew him down.

The pain clawed him like a tiger. Blade gasped and fell forward and felt her soft breasts on his face, her fingers entwined in his thick hair.

"Blade! What, Blade? What is it?" He heard himself uttering strange sounds, senseless noises. She was raising his head now, coddling him and crying and peering into his eyes.

Blade fell through the jade curtain. He was very tiny now, a Tom Thumb, a midget of a midget, and he fell into her eyes. She snatched at him, with an enormous hand, but too late and he was gone. Down and down, falling and falling, into greenness that shouted at him and shocked and hurt him and was so green that it could not be true. He fell into a green splashing fountain and was shunted into a drain and was gaining speed and more speed and at last was shot out into a green sky where he knew he would be forever and eternally lost. He went curving around a green orb that had Blade printed on it in green letters.

He was in an echo chamber and the sound waves kept thrumming at him and would not cease: Blade - Blade - Blade - Blade - blade - blad-bla-bl-b. Nothing.

Chapter Seventeen | The Jade Warrior | Chapter Nineteen