1

The red sun, like a ripe apple, reached its blood fingers into the new day’s darkness, mocking the cold death of night. Hunger pushed into the new day, a self-inflicted hunger of the body beside the deep hunger of the soul, both driven by commitment. Like the sun broke the day, the day would break the weeklong fast, reflection and meditation.

“They’re so young,” Garrison, Maxus of the Swordsmen of Paskar mused to the dim light, the creeping wisps of fog and the one hundred-odd men and women mustering on the hill directly below him. “Were we this young?” He set his hard jaw against the question.

Quay narrowed her sharp, dark eyes, eyes lost in the pale olive green of her face, framed by the long flow of her blacker-than-night hair. “Of course not, my husband. We were never this young, we were never this inexperienced and we were certainly never this innocent.” Her lips twisted sardonically. “And look at all the females this cycle. We know females aren’t up to the task.”

Garrison laughed mildly at the private Swordsmen of Paskar joke. “I will take any of us, trustfully and willingly at my back but when things are as bad as can be, I think I prefer a female. They struggle with a deeper passion and I know my death would come only after theirs.”

“Any of us would die before you.”

“Were we really this young?” he asked again.

“Younger, I think.”

“Let’s be older another day,” Garrison proclaimed, unsheathing his broadsword, holding the unique weapon high, a tool birthed in both tradition and science, to catch the red sun’s rays, drawing the excitement from the group below. Others, close to one thousand, milled around the hillside, the hill spreading down, spilling onto the Thumb of God, the location where the once proud city of Paskar stood and prospered, now a huge pit of organic ash – the result of Juliet’s hand.

At the sight of the sword, the one thousand-odd witnesses, full initiates, stood disciplined, attentive and proud as if to bear witness for the first time when in actuality, many, if not most stood with new anticipation, fascination and appreciation, ready to welcome new brothers into the fold many times before.

“Allow me the honors,” Quay requested, taking one meaningful step forward to tell the story everyone already knew, a story everyone could tell in their sleep.

“Welcome to this new day and the rebirth,” she told the initiates, her voice not a shout, yet carrying over the full distance, a trick of her training. “We stand here, on the very spot Juliet stood when she manifested the great power and imparted the great wisdom, setting in stone our way and sealing our fate, birthing the tradition of the Swordsmen of Paskar well before any of your parents were born.

“In that time, in the days of ruin, a great force came to our realm. This force of the mind knew no temporal limit and was bent on the destruction of all mankind and all things. Juliet, a human being in her birth and Transfigured in her manifestation, student of Makaila, she who is like God, came to Paskar and stood before the great evil. She condemned the greed, she condemned the oppression of others and she condemned the dark heart as manifest in modern man. She proclaimed to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

“The people of Paskar did not listen. Juliet raised her arms to the dark morning sky and destroyed the city and its people in whole, rendering only the ash we can see today. Great and noble Max, Swordsman of Paskar, stood witness and placed his sword before Juliet, pledging his life, his being and his soul to her. Great and noble Max, Swordsman of Paskar, did wed the beautiful Auster and together, their promise to Juliet lives on in each one of us, the Swordsmen of Paskar.”

Quay nodded to the one hundred-odd initiates. “Having undergone the training and the tests,” she asked the rhetorical question: “Who among you wishes to prove the pledge of the sword to our way?”

A path begins and ends, opening a new path and a new way. The journey begins in childhood in villages near and far. A child sees a Swordsman of Paskar, regal, strong, magical and bigger than life. The Swordsman of Paskar is in the service of man, Juliet and Makaila. Something deep within the child stirs. His soul is touched and he knows, without a doubt, he wishes to be that thing, that bigger than life servant. The quest begins for that child and the quest ends at the final right of passage, on the side of the hill above the city of Paskar.

Orderly, without reservation, with no hurry or rush, the first student stepped forward as if the order had somehow been secretly chosen. It is said in the mystical tradition of the Swordsmen, they can read minds. Only the Swordsmen know for sure. “I, Yurok, son of Garrison, pledge my sword to the way,” the student proclaimed with a steel pride.

Quay smiled wily, winking at her only son. “We shall see,” she told him, taking the sword from her husband. “We shall offer the final test of your resolve.” Quay stepped forward as the youngster opened his shirt and let the garment drop to the earth. Even in the early morning dimness, his flesh shown the pasty pale green hue, a genetic heritage from his olive skinned mother and Etiolate bloodline on his father’s side.

Planting her feet, Quay set the blade masterfully against Yurok’s shoulder. Her dark eyes held his. “How deep is your commitment?” she asked.

“As deep as my soul,” he responded stoically. “Hold fast, Mother.” Without hesitation or expression, Yurok thrust against the blade until the steel protruded four inches out of his back. Quay released her hold. Yurok turned to his fellows, arms high in the air, sword erect toward the sky as a measure of his mettle and Swordsman-hood. Cheers rose to the progressing sun, he turned back to his mother and she retrieved the sword. Yurok dropped to his right knee, his right hand over the wound and looked toward the ground for a long moment. Rising, the wound healed over leaving only a scar.

“Welcome, my brother,” Quay said with a pride due any true Swordsman of Paskar: “Let’s be older another day.”

He smirked, answering: “And do that which is right!”

Quay didn’t need to ask who would be next. Eagerly, a young woman took Yurok’s place, pushing Yurok aside while baring her chest, hungry for the mark proclaiming to all creatures of the world she was a Swordsman of Paskar and one in the brotherhood.

Quay smiled warmly. God, they are very young. “Having undergone the training and the tests,” she repeated: “Who among you wishes to prove the pledge of the sword to our way?”

“I, Leaha of Gauntlet pledge my sword to the way,” the child-soon-to-be-a woman proclaimed with frigid determination, defying her age and physical appearance.

“We shall see,” Quay told her. “As we offer the final test of your resolve.” I was this young, she remembered, when I stood under the sword. As with most of the females, Leaha didn’t get full penetration on the first thrust, shook her head quickly to indicate she didn’t need assistance and pushed hard again, obtaining the goal. Tradition held Quay could assist but success was a matter of pride, a pride well earned.

After turning to the witness for cheers and then getting the sword withdrawn as Yurok before her, Leaha dropped to her knee and performed the final test, the self-healing, successfully and, like most of the females, better than the males.

Over Leaha and beside his wife, Garrison smiled coldly, leaned to Quay’s ear and suggested: “No coincidence these two begin the day and follow each other. They are smitten.”

“Welcome, my brother,” Quay told Leaha with a nod. “Let’s be older another day.” She held Leaha’s pale brown eyes and smiled to her husband. “Of course.”

“And do that which is right!” Leaha answered, more excited than Yurok before her, obviously relieved to pass the final test. No one, in all the decades of the tradition, had failed the final test.
As the red orb reached its zenith, the year’s initiations were complete and came the end of the fast. No one was sure where the tradition of the fast started. Initiation week, they fasted. “As they are young, Quay,” Garrison told his wife: “You are old, slowing toward the end of the task.”

“I could go all day and still put you on your back,” she retorted with a laugh. “However, my body does not respond to the lack of food as it once did.”

As was the custom, the feast began at ritual’s end and the new brothers were welcomed. Garrison was the leader, if such a thing could be said of the Swordsmen, holding the title of Maxus. Though Garrison was in direct lineage with Max, the founder, Garrison was the leader by agreement, election and not by bloodline. Across the land, the Swordsmen were understood to be a single culture of single directive under the direction of Garrison but in reality, all Swordsmen acted independently, serving humanity as each individual understood that service to be. Other than the annual initiation, with attendance optional, the only common thread was school.

Anyone could be a Swordsman, which meant leaving family and culture behind, stepping forward into a new family and a new culture. Leaha was Leaha of Gauntlet. Once coming under the sword, she became Leaha, Swordsman of Paskar. Even with ten cycles of school, intense training in offensive and defensive battle, science and technology as they knew it, psychology, sociology and history and the mystical arts as inherited from Auster, Etiolate and wife of the founder, Max, Leaha carried her self-doubt to the hill over Paskar. That doubt was washed away when she faced the sword and didn’t cower. She was reborn.

“They think we’re lovers,” Leaha told Yurok as she leaned forward over the makeshift hearth preparing the racks of food for the feast, letting her sandy brown hair fall over her face to conceal the soft blush that crossed her pale flesh.

“They, being my parents?” he asked. “There’s no law against it.”

“Not now that we’ve come under the sword!”

Yurok chuckled. “I believe the first major act of learning in discipline was to avoid pursuing a handfasting with you.”

She blushed more deeply. “I can now see the wisdom in putting that temptation before us.”

“Agreed. We are not mere human beings.” He unsheathed his sword, showing the blade to the sky. “We are Swordsmen of Paskar.”

Leaha hacked off pieces of meat, stacking the meals onto a serving tray. “Yeah, we are. Now pass this among our brothers.” She made the point to be humble and serve.  

By nightfall, half the people departed, more leaving at a steady pace. By midnight, under the sliver of the red and waning moon, aside from one bonfire and thirty-four people, all signs of the great meeting were gone.

“I’d really like you kids to come back to Makailashire with us,” Garrison announced to Leaha and Yurok, loud enough for everyone to hear. He realized his error even as he spoke.

Yurok jumped to his feet. “With the stiffness still within my shoulder, you call me, Swordsman of Paskar, a kid?” He glared at his father.

Quay raised her hand. “Garrison says that as your father, not as Maxus.”

Garrison’s jaw stiffened. He winced. “I meant no disrespect.”

“Sit,” Leaha told Yurok, a light hand on his lower leg. “Allow your discipline to control you, not your temper.”

Swallowing deeply of the cool air, Yurok sat. “A mission to Makailashire means teaching in school? Is that not reserved for elders, more experienced than I – us?” He narrowed his eyes at his father. “Or do you mean for us to do simple administration?”

“All our tasks are important while we wait,” Garrison argued.

“Keeping open the way,” Leaha added.

“I know for sure that it’s cute, Yurok, that you speak, we,” Quay pointed out. “Do you mean to travel together, then?”

Looking toward the ground, the hue of the fire hiding her blush, Leaha said: “We are not a we. We will be traveling together.”

Yurok leaned toward her, cocking his eyebrow. “I did ask you to handfast.”

Leaha rolled her eyes. “Well, you didn’t. If you wish to plead your case, you’re going to have to do much better than you did earlier today.”

“I’m not ready to be a grandfather,” Garrison moaned. “I had in mind a less mundane duty for the two of you. We need watchers in the Archives and that would give Leaha the opportunity to continue her studies.”

“She is one of the brightest we’ve seen in a long time,” Quay supported. “And who knows – someday she could be a Keeper and maybe even the Roger.”

Leaha’s pale brown eyes bugged. “Really! I’d have full access? I had no idea that was possible.”

“The Roger would have to agree but yes, he is currently seeking a protégé,” Garrison affirmed.
Yurok stewed. “You just want me under your thumb. I – we – have this idea for solving the problems on the road between Paskar, Gauntlet and New Mensch. People must be allowed to pilgrim.”

“We have regular travelers –” Garrison began.

“And many people are still being robbed,” Yurok interrupted.

“And worse,” Leaha added.

“With our youth, we figure we can masquerade as simple traders. Swordsmen can be spotted a mile away,” Yurok explained.

“Just the two of you?” Garrison objected, narrowing his steel blue eyes.

“There is nothing just about any Swordsman,” Yurok reminded his father.

“And I want to go to New Mensch and Elvaina and see if we can’t get them to talk about ending this stupid war and I want to put an end to the raids by the savages and find Ensconce and give the Etiolate hierarchy counsel and – ” Leaha began in one breath but was stopped by Quay’s laughter.

“That’s fine for the morning,” Quay told her: “But what are you going to do with the afternoon?”

“She reminds me of a young woman I fell in love with,” Garrison admitted. “Very much so.” He cocked his ear to the sky. “Here comes our ride. You kids ah, eh – Swordsmen of Paskar run off and solve all the world’s ills and mysteries, then. Keep close to your mission and your tasks and never forget whom we are and why we’re here. When you tire, come to Makailashire.”

“And don’t you dare handfast without us,” Quay warned, climbing to her feet, fumbling briefly to light a flare, tossing the torch twenty yards away to guide the helicopter in. “Let’s be older another day,” she added, pulling Garrison to his feet, dragging him into the darkness.

“And do that which is right!” Yurok called after his parents.

The helicopter touched lightly, gone as quickly as it appeared.

“Do you know how very stupid you sound?” a voice across the fire asked.

Leaha’s hand came gently onto Yurok to stay his voice. “I guess not, Jergins. With your vast experience of what? Two cycles? Why don’t you tell me,” she said to the fire-lit face.

“It doesn’t take long in the real world to get a clue what can and can’t be done. You’ll see. You should stick close to the main roads, visit the towns, do what is asked of you: Judge, mediate, give counsel, comfort the sick, arrest the bad guys that don’t run too quickly and basically keep your heads low. Go looking for big trouble, you just might find it.”

Yurok laughed. “I plan on being the big trouble.”

Jergins smirked. “You’ll see. I can’t believe you gave up a chance to live in Makailashire! Must be nice to be the Maxus’ son!” A hand came from the darkness, seemingly disembodied, connecting hard with the side of Jergins’ head.

“Boy, it is not our way to the judge the ways of others,” the older man said through his dark, full beard. He used the word boy to be a poignant insult cutting deep and stinging, like the hand to the Swordsman’s head. “They let you kids out of school much too early anymore. Self-absorbed, impudent, rash. It’s just those traits that can get you killed.”

Jergins rubbed the side of his head. “I was just thinking out loud. I wouldn’t carry this attitude beyond the fire, here.” Looking beyond the man, he sincerely said: “My apologies, Yurok, Leaha. I meant no offences, just stating my viewpoint.”

“Your viewpoints are accepted as given.” Leaha nodded. “Relax, calm yourself,” she whispered to Yurok. “Your trial ahead is to keep centered. Only in that can you see what is right to do. A challenge to Jergins is not the right thing to do.”

The older man laughed joyfully. “Spoken like an true elder. I can see why Maxus Garrison wishes you in the Archives, which, I might add, has nothing to do with blood relations.”

“Thank you for your kind words, Brother Harding,” Leaha said with a slight bow. She was surprised, yet not, the man heard the whisper – or read her thought. She learned the ability to be in tune with her brothers would grow in time.

“It is I that thank you, Brother Leaha, for ascending to Swordsman this day.” He bowed in return, keeping her eyes. 

Leaha knew Jergins could have been more right than wrong. The training, a decade long, was intense with long days, rolling into weeks, months and cycles. For the past ten cycles, Leaha lived in relative isolation, a city within the city of Makailashire, separate from the rest of the world. Leaha knew of the world, in painful detail, but had no real experience with that world. She knew, with all she had learned, applying her knowledge, her wisdom, in the real world would be a continuation of her education not the end of learning. She had the feeling deep in her gut going under the sword was nothing compared with what was ahead.

Yurok explained he and Leaha planned to travel to Gauntlet, first stopping on the way at the Shrine of Juliet. “What Yurok means to ask, Brother Harding, is would like to travel with us?”
Harding looked into the deep black of the surrounding hillside. “I had planned to take the road north, toward Makailashire; however, I have not been to the shrine for years. I will go with you.”

 

Leaha woke before anyone and began the final clean up of their camp, removing all traces they had ever been there. Paskar, what remained of the city, was viewed by different cultures in varied ways. All cultures respected the city, called the Thumb of God because in appearance, it seemed as if a massive thumb had come from the sky and pushed the entire city into the ground. Most people, most cultures had a tradition of pilgrimage to Paskar at least once in a lifetime.

The founder of the Swordsmen of Paskar was a resident of the city, one of fifty survivors of the holocaust and a true witness to the same. In their history, Max, Swordsman of Paskar was just a man. In their myths, Max was bigger than life, a hero who walked with Juliet. Their traditions, their wisdom and this charter came from Juliet through Max. Max had married Auster, a true Etiolate, a witch of the old way and through her, the Swordsman of Paskar keep the old way and the mystical tradition. 

As the sun cut the darkness away, two other women, Swordsmen of Paskar, joined Leaha to prepare the first day’s meal. Leaha did not believe the task hers, the female role, to prepare the meal. Leaha knew she was the best cook on the planet. After the meal and after the final clean up, the three, Yurok, Leaha and Harding shared their partings with their brothers and set off to the west.

Soon on the road, Yurok asked: “Do you really wish to live in Makailashire and work in the Archives?”

“Oh, Yurok,” Leaha answered. “To actually work with the Roger? To maybe be the next Roger? Oh, Yurok, more than anything!”

Harding chuckled under his beard. “What are they teaching you in that school nowadays? You may not see the Roger, only under special circumstances and you certainly cannot be the Roger.” He leaned toward Leaha as if to tell a secret. “The Roger is not human.”

Leaha worked on the statement. She had heard such before. Clinically, she asked: “You were told this or you know this?” Her soft brown eyes pleaded for a truthful answer.

“I have seen the Roger!”

“Really?” Leaha asked in wonder. “Tell me!”

“I have been to the far north, to Harshawsan,” Harding said flatly.

“To the city?” Yurok asked skeptically.

“Of course not. But I have been deep into the land.”

Yurok unsheathed his sword and thrashed at the air. “As my brother Leaha aches for the Archive, I ache to go north and do battle.”

“Before you do, young Swordsman of Paskar, you had better get many years and much experience under your feet. The Transfigured are a nasty lot with no souls. I pray to Makaila our waiting is complete before they get the mind to march on the known land.”

“You think they will?” Leaha asked.

“I do – not a matter of if but when, which is why I was there.”

“Right.” Leaha demonstrated her education. “We sojourn every few cycles to the north to gather information.”

“And report directly to the Roger, which is why I met him,” Harding explained.

Leaha nodded with excitement. “Tell me. What’s he like? The Roger?”

“He is like no man.” Harding looked off to the distance as they walked. “He glows with a light of his own, his crystal eyes burning right to your soul. He stands well over eight feet tall and is a mesomorph. He just might be a god. He is perfection. When he speaks, his voice booms from his mouth, demanding your all. He looks to be only about thirty cycles but he’s well over one hundred. My words fall well short of the vision.”

“And you saw this with your own eyes,” Yurok asked to be very sure.

“With my own eyes.”

Leaha’s demeanor sank a bit and then she lit up again. “But I can still work there, right? Even if I can’t be the Roger?”

Harding nodded. “Some do serve the Archives posting data, cleaning the windows and other exciting tasks like that.”

“Exciting tasks like that!” Yurok exclaimed.

The road lazily rolled over open fields of short grasses and brush until midmorning, where the forest swallowed the road, hills rising high to the south. “The mountain of Juliet,” Leaha whispered. “I never imagined –”

“Some believe Juliet created this mountain, you know,” Harding pointed out. “When the Change of All Things occurred.”

“Mythic nonsense,” Yurok retorted. “It’s a fact that Makaila’s direct actions started the chain of events that caused the Change, which caused the earthquakes one hundred cycles ago.”

Harding sighed. “That could be another mythic rendering, my young Swordsman. We have many stories of how things were and why things are. The truth of it, or non-truth of any of it, doesn’t affect our way. What we do know is that Juliet came from the mountain and left for the mountain. You will soon see.” 

As the road sank deeper into the trees, Harding abruptly stopped his long stride, putting up an open hand.

“I don’t feel anything,” Yurok whispered.

“Nor do I,” Leaha agreed, pushing closer to the older man.

“That will come with the cycles and the experience,” he tutored. Harding drew his sword and pointed. “Around this bend. Something isn’t right.” He waved Leaha toward the trees to his left and Yurok to his right. Without question, with great prowess, silently, the two Swordsmen, weapons at the ready, flowed into the forest like water in a river. Harding knew there was no immediate danger. He felt neophytes putting their skills to the test in the real world good.

Harding came to the wagon, an open buckboard drawn by two horses and was tempted to intervene, before the teenagers emerged, to spare them a taste of reality. “Life, as it is,” he moaned to himself. Yurok and Leaha sprang from the trees at once, book ended their elder and clocked the scene, weapons ready. “Pilgrims,” Harding said flatly. “On the way to Paskar, no doubt. The assailants are gone – lucky for them.”
“From Gauntlet,” Leaha stated, dropping to her knees next to a butchered body.
“Possibly,” Harding half-agreed.
Leaha looked up at Harding with tearful eyes – a rare occurrence for a Swordsman of Paskar. “Gauntlet, no doubt.” Her voice cracked. “This is – was – my father.”

Harding’s jaw stiffened. “Sonofabitch.” He hadn’t seen, or thought about, his family since the day he left for school when he was ten cycles. He did understand most people felt a special connection, a yearning for their bloodline. “I’m sorry,” he said coolly, sheathing his sword.

Across the wagon, more pale than usual, Yurok nodded. “Me, too.” He gulped hard. “This then, must be your mother.”

Leaha sprang to her feet, caught by Harding. “Don’t. Spare yourself.”

She wouldn’t listen.

Her mother, butchered like her father, laid, clothes ripped from her body, face up on the cold, aged asphalt, her crystal blue eyes staring at the now angry red sun. Leaha fell on top of her mother and sobbed.

Harding swung his backpack off his shoulders and retrieved his breakdown field shovel. Steely, he snapped the blade straight on the handle. “I bet in school they didn’t tell you what we need these for the most,” he told Yurok.

Leaha sucked hard on the air. “One grave, please,” she told the men. “They were together in life – they can be together in death.” She looked hard at Harding. “Please, tell me: may I swear a blood oath over this?”

“Humph! Don’t you dare put that on me, young lady. That’s between you and your heart. You do that which is right. I have a grave to dig, the easier of the two tasks.”

Well into the ground, Leaha finally joined the men, sitting with her back against a nearby tree. “Brother Harding, why do they kill and devour the people and not the horses? If their intent is to rob, why kill at all and why not steal the horse, too?”

Harding stopped his work, looking hard at Leaha. “Whom do you assume did this?”

“Savages,” Yurok offered his opinion. “Human beings don’t eat people.”

“Or human beings that want us to think it’s savages?” Harding asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Those we call savages don’t rape.”

Leaha winced at the word rape. “The unfortunate groups of people that got thrown back in evolution by the Change of All Things aren’t monsters,” Leaha stated. “They’re just different kinds of people.”

“That, Brother Leaha, is an opinion.”

“That, Brother Harding, is a good opinion,” she shot back steely. “No, Yurok, the so-called savages didn’t do this. I agree, this is mere thievery but why kill and why not take the horses and even the wagon?”

Harding pointed south. “No use for either on the mountain. As for killing, well, I’d think they don’t want any witnesses to identify them. I’m sure they go to town to trade or get drunk or for other entertainments the city can offer.” 

“Does this happen a lot on this road?” Leaha asked. “This road that leads to Paskar?” She knew the answer from what she learned in school but wanted to hear the declaration from Harding.

Harding chewed over his words, climbed from the hole and sat next to Leaha. “Maybe since the beginning of time, or the beginning of man, there have been those among us that would take advantage of others. Before the Change of All Things, over the thousands of cycles, we had developed a relatively sound moral compass – society was based on solid laws, which protected the rights and freedom of the individual.”

“We learned the historical social theory,” Yurok said sharply.

“You haven’t heard my opinion,” Harding quipped. “You have learned much in school. You have learned how to live and how to take life. You have learned how to balance information, how to think. One thing, in my experience, that only time can teach the young male is how to listen.”

Yurok opened his mouth to force a challenge between them but instead climbed from the hole. “My Brother Leaha, if it’s okay, I will place your parents in the ground.”

“Please, Yurok, lift that task from my shoulders. I have said good-bye,” Leaha responded with the aloof dignity of a Swordsman of Paskar.

Harding picked up his diatribe: “Understand, I speak in sweeping generalities. As a species, man developed laws and rules of conduct based on reason within each tradition. Of course, with our drive and inner nature to survive, many of the strong would take advantage of the weak, thus the law. The Change of All Things thrust the world into chaos, right down to the cellular level.”

“The way I understand it is that the evolutionary clock was turned backwards,” Leaha offered.

Harding pulled at his dark beard. “Interesting way to see it. After the Change, man was pitted against man – brother against brother, all in the name of survival. Confusion reigned.”

“This is were Juliet comes into the story?”

“It is. Some believe that a plague was released upon all creation –”

“The Festering Death,” Leaha stated.

“Actually, no. I speak of the race known as the Transfigured. It is they who brought the death.”
Leaha narrowed her eyes. “I thought the Transfigured were a genetic and chemical manifestation.”
“Some believe that. I believe that the Transfigured are bent on the destruction of mankind – a plague and a blight on this world. I saw them up close. They have no souls.”

Leaha nodded as they paused to watch Yurok place the two bodies carefully in the ground.

“Juliet sent her only daughter to the far north to beseech God to intervene. Juliet charged Max, Swordsman of Paskar, with the task to keep the order and wait.”

“For Makaila’s return,” Leaha said with a nod.

“For Makaila to return,” Harding agreed and added: “In a form that we will know. She that is to come will show the Mark.” He put a palm to his forehead. “That is the promise and I believe it. We, the Swordsman of Paskar, must hold things together until that time.”

Leaha, with an open palm, indicated the new grave feet away, as Yurok erased her parents with cool, red soil. “They, who have done this, have offended me personally. If these two victims were not my parents, though I would be offended, I would see this action as part of the greater whole as things are now and not a personal affront. This road must be made safe for all people to travel; yet, it is not just those that did this that make it unsafe.” With stern resolve in her pale eyes, she found Harding’s eyes. “There will be no blood oath this day.”

“You are wise beyond your years and I understand Maxus of the Swordsmen of Paskar wishing you in Makailashire.” He pushed himself to his feet, then pulled Leaha upright.

“I will devote time to hunt these criminals down but because they are criminals, not because I wish revenge.”

Yurok, his labors complete, stated: “I burn to present you with their corpses, to earn your favor.”
She smiled. “Oh, Yurok, you have had my favor for many cycles.”

He looked toward the grave and then back to Leaha. “If that were my parents in the earth, you’d better believe there’d be a blood oath this day.”

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