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 There are rumors, Lord. They say Hawkwind is the commander.
 That s true. El Murid grimaced, stricken by sudden pain.  A thousand
mercenaries, and Hawkwind. I m sure you appreciate the threat.
El Nadim nodded.  It s an opportune moment for the Wahlig, Lord, what with
the Scourge of God away battling the accursed Throyen.
 I want to beat Yousif at his own game. To go out and meet him.
 Lord? I m afraid 
 I know the arguments. I ve been meditating on them since the news arrived.
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Tell me this. How large a force could we raise if we called in our patrols,
stripped Sebil el Selib of its garrison, drafted untrained recruits, armed
slaves willing to fight in exchange for their freedom, and what have you?
 Three thousand. Maybe four. Mostly unmounted. On foot they d have little
chance against Guild infantry.
 Perhaps. How many mounted veterans?
 No more than a third, Lord. And the garrisons here are made up of old men.
 Yes. The Scourge of God persists in taking Sebil el Selib s best defenders.
Go. Call in the scouts and raiders. See how many men you can arm.
 You insist on doing this, Lord?
 Not at all. I insist on examining the possibility. We need make no decision
till we see what strength we can muster. Go now.
 As you command, Lord.
Meryem joined him as el Nadim departed.  Is this wise? she asked.  The last
time you overruled your commanders 
 I don t intend to overrule anyone. Prick them into action, perhaps. Lay
suggestions before them, yes. But, if, in their wisdom, they foresee disaster,
I ll yield.
 You want to embarrass Yousif and Hawkwind the way they embarrassed you,
don t you?
He was startled. The woman was psychic. She had reached down inside him and
touched a secret truth he had not wholly recognized himself.  You know me too
well.
Meryem smiled, enfolded him in her arms, rested her cheek against his chest.
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 How could it be otherwise? We grew up together.
El Murid smiled.  I wish there were some rest from my labors.
 So long as the wicked do not rest, neither may we. Spoken by the Disciple on
the occasion of his return from the Movement s greatest disaster. Don t yield
now.
El Nadim approached the Malachite Throne. He bowed, glanced at the
Invincibles attending the Disciple. His face remained blank.  I have assembled
every possible man, Lord.
 How many?
 Thirty-eight hundred. We could raise another two thousand if we waited for
the arrival of the garrisons of the nearest coastal towns, which I have
ordered here. But by the time they joined us it would be too late. The Wahlig
won t await the completion of our preparations. He will use his new strength
soon.
El Murid glanced at Mowaffak Hali. Hali nodded. He could find no fault with
el Nadim s preparations. Mowaffak was a master at finding fault.
El Nadim endured the moment without wincing, without acknowledging his
awareness that his every move was closely scrutinized.
 What of my suggestions? El Murid asked.
 Entirely workable, Lord. El Nadim could not conceal a certain surprise at
his master s having seen a military potential missed by his captains.
Hali said,  The question becomes how quickly the Wahlig will move, Lord.
 What about the men? We ve dug deep and taken the dregs. Will they stand up
to a fight?
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El Nadim shrugged.  That can be answered only in battle. I fear the answer,
though.
 Mowaffak?
 You re demanding a lot. They have faith but no confidence. Only a quick,
clear success at the outset will hold them together.
El Murid left the throne, limped to the shrine where his angel s amulet lay.
He grasped it in both hands, raised it above his head. The jewel s flare
filled the hall.  This time, gentlemen, the fist of heaven will strike with
us. There will be no Wadi el Kuf.
He saw doubt. He saw unhappiness. Neither el Nadim nor Hali wanted him along.
They feared he would become more burden than help. Nor had they witnessed the
drama at the el Habib oasis. For them the amulet was more symbol than reality,
without proved efficacy.
 There will be no Wadi el Kuf, he declared.  And I won t be a burden. I ll
neither overrule your commands nor interfere with your operations. I ll be
just another soldier. Just a weapon.
 As you will, Lord, el Nadim replied, without enthusiasm.
 Shall we attempt it? El Murid asked.
El Nadim responded,  It s face them here or face them there, Lord. There
we ll have the advantage of having done the unexpected.
 Then let s stop talking and start doing.
The country was wild. Chaos had frolicked there, leaving the hills strewn
with perilous tumbles of boulders. El Nadim halted at the eastern end of a
white plain which was the only memory of an ancient salt lake. The road to
Sebil el Selib crawled along its southern flank. The general ordered camp
made.
He rode onward with the Disciple, Hali and the Disciple s bodyguards to
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examine the salt pan. After a time he remarked,  You were right, Lord. It s a
good place to meet them.
El Murid dismounted. He squatted, wet a finger, touched it to the salt, then
tasted.  As I thought. Not mined because it s bad salt. Poisons in it.
Childhood memories came, haunted him momentarily. He shook them off. The salt
merchant s son was another being, simply someone with whom he shared memories.
He surveyed his surroundings. The hills were not as tall as he had imagined
them, and less rich with cover. And the pan looked all too favorable for
western cavalry. He offered his doubts.
 Let s hope they see only what s visible, Lord, el Nadim replied.  They ll
beat themselves. Hali, puzzled, refused to ask the questions puzzling him. El [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]