The priest-king Marcos sat at his raised chair and looked at the flame of the lantern before him. Like the other priests of Ashur, he was learned in the meanings and ways of the storms that blew off of the desert. When Zalaz told him how the sky had turned a pink color and that there had been no signs of a coming storm earlier in the day, Marcos turned quiet. None of the timidness that plagued his actions as ruler of Dacia remained as he gave orders that the palace be shuttered against the storm and word of the color of the skies was given to the other priests of the desert god. Shortly after the first shutters were set, the winds began to blow and the fine grit of the leading edge of the storm came flying with them.
The servant that Marcos had sent to the temple of Julara ventured out dressed against the storm though it had not fully broken. Zalaz was fairly certain that in the city, people were scrambling to secure their homes against the storm. He thought of Yaeli and found himself concerned that she was safely within the house rather then in the gardens. His concern for his favorite concubine distracted him for a moment from the preparations being made about the chamber. The door where Marcos's mute guards stood opened.
A small man dressed in dusty clothes accompanied by a tall man dressed in clothes that were only slightly less dirty entered. The scarves that they had worn across their faces hung down around their necks. Behind them, the high priestess of Julara, the goddess of the fertile fields and the life giving rivers, entered dressed in her black gown and double veil. Where the men she walked with bore evidence of the storm on their clothes, Mina looked untouched by the winds and sand.
Mina lifted the outer veil, a gauzy thin fabric that shielded her eyes from the flying sand, and looked at Marcos. As she lifted the inner veil, Zalaz could see the look of concern on her face. Where the priestess had always seemed utterly calm and composed in public, Zalaz found himself relieved to see her more human response to her husband's urgent call. The tall man unwound his head scarf, revealing sandy blond hair, pale skin, and eyes of a shade of green that Zalaz had only seen in the captive great cat that resided in the royal menagerie. The blond man looked over at dark eyed and dusky featured Zalaz with his expression of concern turning to suspicion.
Zalaz noted how the man kept his sword arm free even as he took the scarves off, giving them to a servant. With a small nod of approval, the general watched as the blond man gave the room a quick scan for possible threats. Again, his unsettling eyes fell on the general where he sat on the bench awaiting them. Zalaz rose to his feet and walked over to where Mina and Marcos were engaged in quiet conversation. The blond man stood near them, careful not to appear to be too close. Zalaz wondered how much of a struggle that bit of deception was for him.
“Blessed Lady,” Zalaz said, giving Mina a deep bow, “I stand ever in your service.” Mina looked at the general and wondered what news he had brought. A part of her feared that Zalaz brought their deaths upon his blade. At her right, Sorenan stood ready to draw his weapons and put himself between the general and the couple. Zalaz stood still and waited for Mina to acknowledge him.
“What news is so great that it brings you personally to this chamber? What reason have you called for me?” Mina said, disregarding a formal expression of acknowledgement. Zalaz straightened. He looked Mina in the face and saw the mixture of concern and wariness. In the chamber that held only Marcos, his most trusted servants, and themselves, Zalaz realized that they anticipated nothing but trouble from his presence.
“I bring your liberation,” Zalaz said. For a moment confusion crossed Mina's face and then her eyes widened slightly as she realized what he was saying. All of Mina's schooled poise faltered as she brought her hands up and covered her mouth. Her small gasp of amazement told Zalaz that she had not anticipated his support. Amusement at the fact that he surprised the far seeing mystical eyes of the priestess and avatar of Julara rose up at the back of his mind. Zalaz pushed it aside. He turned his gaze to the man known as the Lion of the North.
Sorenan regarded him suspiciously. “I speak truly,” Zalaz said, “I bent the council to my will and have secured Marcos freedom from their hold.” Sorenan frowned slightly. “It is whispered that you are an experienced soldier,” Zalaz said. Sorenan nodded. “Good, we will have need of your eyes going forward,” Zalaz said as he turned his gaze back to Marcos, “I have begun the process of raising the army. All able bodied men who are of age will be pressed into service, save for yourself. As king and emperor, you are the greatest of all of us and the sword bearer of Ashur.”
Marcos paled a little at Zalaz's words. Zalaz moved his gaze over to Sorenan. “You can appoint a champion who will march in your stead,” Zalaz said, “One who will serve as your hand and will wield the weapons for you.” Zalaz looked back at Marcos. “I advise you send someone whom you trust completely and has combat experience.” Mina dropped her hands and shook her head slightly. An all too human look of dread crossed her face.
“We can not do …” she started when Sorenan reached forward and set a hand on her shoulder. Mina looked over at him, her expression of dread turning to grief. “You will be …” she began and Sorenan interrupted her. Zalaz was surprised by this, for he had never seen any interrupt the high priestess of Julara.
“As sword-bearer of Ashur,” Sorenan said quietly, “what must I do?” Mina shook her head. Sorenan looked over at her. “Enemies stand all about you,” he said solemnly, “Marcos can send armies to meet their forces, but someone must stand before them. He is emperor but he does not have the skill with arms to lead them into battle. This is no different then my journey into the north.”
“That was supposed to be a peaceful message,” she said, “your place is here to advise.” Marcos reached over and took Mina's left wrist in his hands. She looked down at him. “Tell him,” Mina said, “Ashur would not send him from us.” All of Mina's efforts to hold her pragmatic, stoic response to the dangers that had built up against them were failing as the reality of it sank in.
“Ashur has come with Zalaz,” Marcos said, “He speaks in the wind. This is fate and the will of him.” Mina shook her head. “Ashur guards Julara,” Marcos said, “He protects her from the dark one. He would use any man that he sets his hand upon. It rests heavily on Sorenan. You can not deny that.”
“But it is the words of men that say he must go,” Mina said. Sorenan sighed. Zalaz watched the trio and held his silence. Mina's fear, he realized, was not a lapse in faith but rather the anguish of a woman sending her man off to war. “It is the words of men that say you must bear the sword,” Mina said, “You can send others to act as your agents. Zalaz himself would stand in your stead. He has the experience and wisdom to do it.”
Marcos reached over and took Mina's hand in both of his. He looked up at his wife with a regretful expression. “No,” Marcos said quietly, “It is the will of Ashur. My brothers come to confirm what Ashur says in the wind.” Moments later, the doors of the chamber opened and a knot of uneasy priests came in conferring quietly amongst themselves. Marcos looked over at them. He knew with the certainty of his bones and blood what they were going to say. He had listened to the winds of Ashur as they blew about the building. He heard the voice of his god clearly in them.
Though Marcos had feared men, he trusted Ashur. It was Ashur who had lifted him up from obscurity. It was Ashur who spoke to him in the storm that came during the selection of who would wed Mina. In the storm and the winds that blew off the desert, Marcos had always heard Ashur's voice. Where it had before advised him of how to rule and how to perform the rites, it spoke now of war. Ashur's anger was in the storm and giving it its fury. “Wipe them from the earth,” Ashur's voice said, “Take arms and drive them into the dark one's domain.”
The priests looked at Marcos with fear in their eyes. “Ashur speaks in the storm,” the eldest of them said, “He speaks of war. He speaks of enemies bearing blades against you. The winds command you to …”
“Take up arms and drive them into the black sands of the south,” Marcos said, finishing the man's sentence. The priests looked between themselve and at Marcos. “Ashur commands me to arms,” Marcos said, letting go of Mina's hands and looking at Zalaz, “The eagles of the desert must be fed by my hand.” Mina shook her head in denial. “As you raise your army,” he said to Zalaz, “teach me what I must know.” Zalaz frowned.
“A few months of training will not make up for years deficit,” he said. Marcos nodded.
“Ashur will make my arm strong and my blows true,” Marcos said, “He will give his sword bearer the power to wield it.” Zalaz looked at Marcos and noted for the first time that there was no uncertainty in the emperor's bearing. A look of unearthly calm was on his face. It was an expression that Marcos had worn in his priestly duties and the presence of Ashur was strong.
“And your third?” Zalaz said. Marcos looked over at Sorenan who watched him with a mixture of amazement and concern.
“He shall guard Julara's daughter when I am away,” Marcos said.
“You can not go,” Mina said.
Marcos turned to her. “It is Ashur that sends me and will keep me in his hand,” Marcos said. “It is he who commands this, not I,” he continued. A deafening clap of thunder came at the conclusion of Marcos's words. The priests looked fearfully upward. Sorenan instinctively reached for his weapons just as Zalaz did in his surprise. Mina's expression became one of despair. “The eagles of the desert shall fly and bear the storm on their wings,” Marcos said, unshaken and untroubled by the thunder.
Upon saying this, the room was filled with a heavy, eerie sense of some greater presence amongst them. Marcos gestured towards the open doors out into the antechamber. “Behold Ashur,” he said. All eyes turned towards the door. Standing in the doorway was a shadowy figure that appeared to be an armed man with an eagle upon his shoulder. He raised his right hand in a gesture of summoning. Then the figure disappeared with a whirl of dust through the antechamber despite it's tightly shuttered windows.
The priests gave cries of fear. Zalaz stared at where the figure had stood with a mixture of awe and terror. Behind him, Sorenan was speechless. Where the others had not seen the face of Ashur, Sorenan did. That face he saw was an amalgamation of his own and Marcos's. The gesture of summoning was accompanied with a voice in his head. It was a low male voice. “Stand at my side,” it had said.
Sorenan looked over at Marcos with a new respect. The voice was terrifying and seemed to hold the fury of the greatest winds in it with the roll of thunder. Once, Marcos said that Ashur's voice was that of the storm. Sorenan thought it just some saying to impress others. Having heard the voice of the desert god, Sorenan realized that Marcos was not the soft thing he had thought him for so long. The mercenary realized that Marcos stood fully in the presence of the possessor of that voice at all times and somehow continued his life with out being crushed by it.
“He spoke,” Sorenan said breaking the silence.
“Yes,” Marcos said, looking over at Sorenan, “He summons you to stand with him. You are to also be a sword-bearer. It is the bearers of swords who stand with Ashur.” Zalaz's blood ran cold. Marcos looked to him. “And through them he will give his messages,” Marcos said, gesturing towards the sword at Zalaz's side. “So it is done,” Marcos said.
Mina covered her eyes with a trembling hand. All her anger, all her plotting, and all her will could not stay the tears or the fear that washed through her. Never had she felt so fragile, so small, or so helpless before the will of the gods. The ringing sense of comfort that breathed through her as she served Julara abandoned her in that awful moment. For in that moment, she was not the living embodiment of Julara's mercy and wrath, but rather a heartbroken woman. And she wept.