"Indeed," Jibrith nodded. He weighed his next words against the silence and found them lacking. Because of this his mind cautioned restraint and diplomacy, but he said them anyway.
"Your men are ready, Lord Triu. The army is prepared and eager. They will follow you until all strength fails. But tell me as my Lord, what will be your orders to them? And tell me as my friend the reasons behind your orders."
Jibrith had held Triu's eyes while he spoke, but when his words were done he looked away for he knew his Lord's reply and he feared it.
"I thought I may find you here."
Triu made no reply.
Still no reply, though movements of Triu's fingers showed he had heard Jibrith's words, so the older man walked up to the younger and stood silently beside him.
The sun slid westward again, air rose from the harbour below and drifted around the High Shrine Of Enkarra. In the pale sky an early evening star appeared. It was predicted. The second sun was coming.
"A fine place for thinking, the Shrine," Jibrith spoke quietly.
Triu nodded. "And hoping," he whispered. "Let us make our hope our reality, Jibrith."
The echo of the door slamming died quickly away as Triu arose and helped Rallumi to her feet. The old woman grinned:
"Thank you, Lord Triu. He decided well... eventually."
"A truly wise man would not take so many moments to decide not to slay a fellow Advisor," Triu said sadly. "And only a fool would raise his sword in anger against one of our own."
"He is no fool, Triu," Jibrith said.
"I would be the fool were I to take him for one, good Jibrith," Triu's words were measured. And cold. "He is acting the part. But why?"
Rallumi did not take her eyes off her Lord, but she was well aware of the blade trembling dangerously at the cusp of her two different futures. She made no move but she saw the muscles in Triu's right wrist tense and knew that one explosive reflex of muscle and sinew and the blade that lay as if sleeping along Triu's thigh would sleep in Urqin's breast.
Out of the corner of his eye, Urqin saw it, too. Saw also Jibrith's hand reach for his own sword.
Urqin spun away and roared his frustration high up into the vaulted ceiling.
Urqin, glaring, drew his sword and screamed at the old woman, waving the blade above her head:
"You send us to our deaths, you carcass! You condemn us whilst we sue for peace! You are insane! She's insane, Interim Lord Triu. Insane, Jibrith!"
His words spluttered to a close and his whole body trembled with anger. He stood for one long moment, poised above the old woman, sword in hand. In that moment the hate in his heart surged through him. It broke the shackles of his control and fuelled his arm. Above Rallumi, his blade trembled, awaiting its bidding.
"Fool of a woman!" Urqin yelled, his smile gone, spittle flying into the air before him. "You advise him to go to slaughter - and for what? For a vain attempt to save his sister? Can you not understand such foolishness will cost many lives! The Interim Lord, this - this child - has no authority to send men to their doom!"
Rallumi ignored the outburst and knelt before Triu.
"My Lord Triu, the year of the Second Sun is indeed a strange time, a time of fear and of wonder. If your wisdom tells you to gather the army, then do it."
Jibrith's eyes were turned inward. He looked back into past discussions with Hevne, and with Hevne's father, and to his communions with the memories of past leaders of Kamkarra.
Rallumi's eyes were fierce. They held anger and they held concern. Triu was but a lad and could be hot-headed in defence of his own. His father had been the same, she recalled. But within Triu, she knew, lived the wisdom of all good men.
"Take our men, Triu," she spoke suddenly, surprising herself more than anyone. "If you deem it wise, take our men. Give your support to Hevne."
The air in the Court of Counsel burned with belligerence. From high windows set deep in the white stone walls sunshine threaded its way through the suppressed anger and the battle of wills, and, exhausted, lay in feeble patterns of light on the stone floor.
Silence had reigned for minutes, but it was not a gentle silence. Triu's eyes flashed from one to another of his counsellors. They settled on his hands, then on the haft of his dagger lain along the length of his thigh.
Urqin's eyes blazed black. In the circumstances, his smile looked conspicuously out of place.
Hevne signalled her warriors attend. Then she raised her voice above the tumult:
"Warriors! For Kamkarra! We must seek out and strike at the warriors of the Fire Lord. Sympathy for innocence and our emotions must not keep us from that Fate. Let your heart accept no hindrance. Let your sword accept no delay. Forward!"
And the Fists moved into positions of attack; and the bloodshed and the slaughter were great; and in the silence that ensued the only tears were the tears of Hevne and her warriors as they left the dead behind them and did not look back.
The squalling tumult of the attack continued, it's pace unrelenting, brutality undiminished.
Hevne jerked her head aside as a woman around her own age swung a rock at her. It scraped her shoulder, drawing blood, and the assailant yelled gutturally in triumph, throwing her arm around Hevne's neck. A sword flashed over Hevne's shoulder from behind, and the woman fell backwards, wide mouthed and screeching.
With horror, Hevne saw her assailant had had her tongue ripped out by the warriors of the Fire Lords. The guttural screeching and groaning of the others proved they, too, had suffered the same fate.
Surrounding her warriors the attackers screamed and shrieked, their onslaughts becoming even more unrelenting. The occasional man still fell to the crack of stone on flesh, women or girls still fell injured from the glint of blade. And the strident, raucous yelling continued as women and children, clothed only in noise, filth and hatred continued to attack and retreat, attack and retreat, as if in some bestial, drug-frenzied tribal dance.
Her warriors continued suffering injury, more of the females fell weeping and writhing.
Continuing this, Hevne thought, their deaths, like their lives, will be slow and nothing but pain.
Hevne quickly assessed their potential options.
If her Fists attacked, the massacre would be total - and over in minutes, with few, if any, casualties for her warriors. But Hevne hesitated. Enemy or not; maddened or not; was it right to slaughter unarmed women and girls?
Alternatively, they could maintain their formation until, inevitably, the attackers faltered, wearied, and could attack no more. They could then be bound and would pose no threat. But what then? Leave them bound? And leave them to starve?
Or she could maintain formation and return to the ships. A retreat. Defeated by women and children?
One command from Hevne and the Fists assumed a defence position; a circle of warriors, those on the outside bearing their shields for defence, those behind them using their swords over shoulders or between the waists of the outer defenders, using them only when necessary to defend the outer wall of warriors.
Still the women and girls remorselessly attacked. Here and there a soldier fell to a rock and was pulled into the comparative safety of the circle and replaced by a warrior from behind. Here and there a girl or woman doubled over as blood flowed from sword wounds.
These people had been beaten into less than animals.
Into objects, thought Hevne. No. Less than objects, for objects had value. These crushed women and children had no value to the Fire Lords, except as weapons.
They had been trained to dig their shallow trenches, trained to lie unmoving beneath the turf for... for how long? The biting of insects and the gnawing of small animals left bloody wounds on their skin, suggesting they hid beneath the dirt for hours...
implying the flotilla were expected?
A black thought rooted in Hevne's mind. Was there a spy on Kamkarra?
These were the women and girls left alive by the Fire Warriors. These were the women and girls who were taken as slaves in their own homeland, who had been forced to watch the remaining males of their families tortured and slain.
None could speak of the incessant physical and mental brutality that erased their mental strength; none could speak of the degradation and humiliation that robbed them of all semblance of self worth, and none could speak of the loathing they nurtured and which had no direction until it was harnessed to the perverse aims of the Fire Lords.
Mainly unarmed, they fought with nails and teeth; some, like the wiry old hag who had knocked Hevne to her knees, held rocks in their hands, some held pieces of wood or whatever came to hand. But all fought with the primordial ferocity of insanity.
Two young girls leapt at Hevne, clawing and biting; their young faces, only about nine or ten years old, abruptly wrenched Hevne from her dizzied inertia and with one movement she threw them off. Strength flowed back into her legs and by the time she was again standing for battle she had assessed their foe.
The confusion in her warrior's faces alerted Hevne, and she spun around, sword held at the ready. Prepared for the attack, she was wholly unprepared for the nature of her enemy, and her bewilderment left her exposed. When the blow smashed into the side of her head her legs weakened, dizziness confounded her and she crumpled to her knees.
These were no Fire Warriors attacking them. This foe were women and girls of all ages, naked and filth-grimed with dirt and excrement, their faces twisted into perverse grimaces of hatred, mirroring the crazed and relentless fury of their attack.
And first one, then fifty, then hundreds of creatures surfaced, spewed out by the earth, attacking without pause or breath. With raucous screams and yells the creatures swarmed at them with such speed hardly had Hevne's warriors time to free their swords. And still they came, the ground in the distance undulating then exploding as more emerged and swiftly attacked.
The shock of the sudden onslaught was quickly overcome for the warriors of the Fists, for their foe was upon them. But with the battle came the realisation of their enemy: these were not the warriors of the Fire Isles.
All eyes, narrowed and intense with concentration, were upon Hevne. But before she could speak, every eye opened wide and every mouth gasped. There was incomprehension; there was disbelief; and finally, there was horror.
Behind Hevne the long grasses waved and weaved in the gentlest of breezes., but then, as if at some hidden command, the ground beneath them rose, rearing upwards in many small, slow eruptions of the earth. First one, then fifty, then hundreds of explosions as the sod and the grasses flew upwards, thrown violently into the air by whatever it was that emerged from beneath them.
She would have reassured her warriors, told them what she had been told, that battles were rarely planned and seldom would one side have control of the outcome, except right at the end of it all. She would have told her warriors that the silence they all knew did not mean there was no threat. If the island was deserted, she would have told them, the island would not be silent - the cry of morning hunger would fill the air with the wings of many gulls.
All this she would have told them if she had been given the chance.