Authors: Terry Goodkind
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
When the soldier walking past the wagons tossed the hard-boiled eggs, Richard caught as many as he could. As soon as he had scooped the rest of them up off the ground he gathered them all in the crook of his arm and crawled back under the wagon to get out of the rain. It was a cold, miserable excuse for a shelter, but it was still better than sitting in the rain.
After having collected his own booty of eggs, Johnrock, pulling his chain behind, scurried back under the other end of the wagon.
“Eggs again,” Johnrock said in disgust. “That’s all they ever feed us. Eggs!”
“It could be worse,” Richard told him.
“How?” Johnrock demanded, not at all happy about his diet.
Richard wiped eggs on his pants, trying to clean the mud off the shells as best he could. “They could be feeding us York.”
Johnrock frowned over at Richard. “York?”
“Your teammate who broke his leg,” Richard said as he started peeling one of his eggs. “The one Snake-face murdered.”
“Oh. That York.” Johnrock considered a moment. “You really think these soldiers eat people?”
Richard glanced over. “If they run out of food they will turn to eating the dead. If they are hungry enough and run out of dead, they will harvest a new crop.”
“You think they will run out of food?”
Richard knew they would, but he didn’t want to say so. He had instructed the D’Haran forces not only to destroy any supply train from the Old World, but to destroy the Old World’s ability to provide for their massive invasion force to the north.
“I’m just saying that it could be worse than eggs.”
Johnrock looked at his eggs in a new light, finally grumbling his agreement.
As Johnrock started in peeling an egg of his own, he changed the subject. “You think they’ll make us play Ja’La in the rain?”
Richard swallowed a mouthful of egg before he answered. “Probably. But I’d rather be playing a game and get warm than sit here freezing all day.”
“I suppose,” Johnrock said.
“Besides,” Richard told him, “the sooner we can start defeating the teams come for the tournaments, the sooner we work our way up in the standings, and the sooner we get to play the emperor’s team.”
Johnrock grinned at that prospect.
Richard was starving, but he forced himself to slow down and savor the meal. As they peeled shells and ate in silence, he kept an eye on the activity in the distance. Even in the rain, men were busy at every sort of work. The sound of hammers at forges rang through the drone of rain and clamor of conversation, yelling, arguing, laughing, and orders being shouted.
The vast encampment spread across the flat Azrith Plain to what Richard could see of the horizon. Sitting on the
ground it was hard to see a great deal of the larger camp out beyond. He could see wagons and a little farther away the larger tents in the middle distance. Horses rode past while wagons pulled by mules made their way through the milling masses. Men on foot, looking miserable in the rain, stood in lines waiting for food at cook tents.
In the distance the People’s Palace, sitting on a high plateau, towered over everything. Even in the murk of the gray day, the magnificent stone walls, grand towers, and tiled roofs of the palace stood out above the grimy army come to destroy it. With the steamy vapor rising from the Imperial Order camp, along with the rain and the overcast, the plateau and the palace atop it looked like a distant, noble apparition. There were times when cloud and mist drew across like a curtain and the entire plateau vanished in the gray gloom, as if it had seen enough of the seething horde come to defile it.
There was no easy way for any enemy to attack the palace high on the plateau. The road up the side of the cliff walls was far too narrow for any kind of meaningful assault. Besides that, there was a drawbridge that Richard was certain would have already been raised and, even if it weren’t, there were massive walls at the top that were formidable in their own right and little space outside of them to gather any sizable assault force.
Except in times of war, the People’s Palace drew commerce from all over D’Hara. Supplies for all the people living there were constantly being brought in. Because it was a trade center, great numbers of people came to the palace to buy and sell goods. For all those people, the primary way up to the city palace was through the inside of the plateau itself. Stairs and walkways accommodated the large number of visitors and vendors. There were also wide ramps for horses and wagons. Because so many people traveled up the inside of the plateau, there were shops and
stands all along the way. Large numbers of people came for those market stands and never made the journey all the way up to the city at the top.
The entire inside of the plateau was honeycombed with rooms of every sort. Some of the interior spaces were public, but some were not. There were large numbers of soldiers of the First File—the palace guard—barracked there.
The problem, from the perspective of the Imperial Order, was that the great doors to those inner access areas were closed. Those doors had been made to stand against any kind of attack, and there were enough supplies stored inside for a long siege.
Outside, the Azrith Plain was not at all a hospitable place for forces to gather for a siege. While deep wells inside the plateau provided water for the inhabitants, outside on the Azrith Plain there was no steady supply of water nearby, except the occasional rain, and there was no close source of firewood. On top of that, the weather out on the plain was harsh.
The Imperial Order did have plenty of gifted with them, but they couldn’t be much help in breaching the palace defenses. The very construction of the palace was in the form of a protection spell that magnified the power of the ruling Lord Rahl while at the same time hindering the power of others. Inside that plateau, and in the city atop it, the ability of any gifted but a Rahl was severely blunted by that spell.
Because he was a Rahl, such a spell would ordinarily be a benefit for Richard, if it were not for the fact that he had somehow been cut off from his gift. He was pretty sure how that had been accomplished. Chained to a wagon, in the middle of an enemy force numbering in the millions, though, he couldn’t do a whole lot about it.
Other than the plateau and the palace atop it, the thing that stood out highest of all out on the Azrith Plain was the ramp that the Imperial Order was constructing. Without an
easy way to attack the seat of power of the D’Haran Empire, the last obstacle standing in the way of their total domination of the New World, Jagang had apparently come up with a plan to build an enormous ramp to get enough forces to the top of the plateau to breach the walls. He planned not simply to besiege the People’s Palace, but to assault it.
At first Richard had thought such a task impossible, but as he had studied what Jagang’s army was doing, he’d quickly become disheartened to realize that it just might work. While the plateau was an imposing height, towering high above the Azrith Plain, the Imperial Order surrounding it had millions of men to devote to the undertaking.
From Jagang’s perspective, this was his last objective, the last place he needed to crush in order to establish the unopposed rule of the Imperial Order. As far as the emperor was concerned, he had no other battles to fight, no more armies to destroy, no more cities to capture. The city on top of the plateau was all that stood in their way.
The Imperial Order—the brutes who enforced the faith demanded by the Fellowship of Order—could not allow the people of the New World to live outside the control of the Order, because it put the lie to the teachings of their spiritual leaders. The Brothers of the Order taught that individual choice was immoral because it was ruinous to mankind. The very existence of a prosperous, independent, free people stood in stark contrast to the foundational doctrines of the Order. The Order had condemned the people of the New World as selfish and evil, and required them to convert to the beliefs of the Order, or die.
Having millions of soldiers with time on their hands as they waited to enforce faith in the Order’s beliefs was no doubt troublesome. Jagang had found a task to keep them all busy, a sacrifice to the cause; they were all now devoted to working in shifts every hour of the day and night at the construction of the ramp.
While Richard couldn’t see the men down lower, he knew that they had to be digging dirt and rock. As those excavation pits grew ever larger, other men carried the dirt to the site of the ramp. In such massive numbers, working without pause, they were up to such a daunting undertaking. Richard hadn’t been in the camp for long, but he imagined that day by day he would soon be able to see the sloping ramp growing inexorably toward the top of the plateau.
“How will you die?” Johnrock asked.
Richard was sick of watching the distant ramp, of contemplating the dark and savage future the Order would enforce on everyone. Johnrock’s question, though, wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine in the gloom. Richard slumped back against the inside of the wheel on the far side of the wagon as he ate eggs.
“You think I will have a choice?” he finally asked. “A say in the matter?” Richard rested a forearm over his knee, gesturing with half an egg. “We make choices about how we will live, Johnrock. I don’t think we have nearly so much say about how we will die.”
Johnrock looked surprised by the answer. “You think we have a choice about how we live? Ruben, we have no choice.”
“We have choices,” Richard said without explanation. He popped the half of an egg in his mouth.
Johnrock lifted the chain attached to his collar. “How can I make any choice?” He gestured out at the encampment. “They are our masters.”
“Masters? They have chosen not to think for themselves and instead to live according to the teachings of the Order. In so doing they are not even the masters of their own lives.”
Johnrock shook his head in astonishment. “Sometimes, Ruben, you say the strangest things. I am a slave. I am the one with no choice, not them.”
“There are chains stronger than those attached to the collar around your neck, Johnrock. My life means a great
deal to me. I would give my life to save the life of someone I hold dear, someone I value.
“Those men out there have chosen to sacrifice their lives to a mindless cause that produces only suffering—they have already given up their lives and gotten nothing of any value in return. Is that choosing to live? I don’t think so. They wear chains that they have put around their own necks, chains of a different kind, but chains nonetheless.”
“I fought when they came to take me. The Imperial Order won. Now I am chained here. Those men live, but if we try to be free we will die.”
Richard wiped the remaining bits of shell off an egg. “We all have to die, Johnrock—every one of us. It is how we choose to live that matters. After all, it’s the only life each one of us will ever have, so how we live is of paramount importance.”
Johnrock chewed for a moment as he thought it over. Finally, with a grin, he seemed to dismiss the whole matter. “Well, if I do end up having to choose how I will die, I wish it to be to the cheers of the crowd for how well I played the game.” He glanced over at Richard. “And you, Ruben? If you have to choose?”
Richard had other things on his mind—important things. “I hope not to have to decide the matter this day.”
Johnrock sighed heavily. The eggs looked tiny in the man’s meaty fists. “Maybe not today, but I think this place is the end of the games…I think that in this place we finally lose our lives.”
Richard didn’t answer, so Johnrock spoke again into the drone of the downpour. “I’m serious.” He frowned. “Ruben, are you listening, or are you still dreaming about that woman you think you saw when we came into camp yesterday?”
Richard realized that he was, and that he was smiling. Despite everything, he was smiling. Despite how true Johnrock’s words were—that they very well might die in
this place—he was smiling. Still, he didn’t want to discuss Kahlan with the man.
“I saw a lot of things when we rolled into this camp.”
“Soon enough, after the games,” Johnrock said, “and if we do well, there will be women enough. Snake-face has promised us. But now there are just soldiers and more soldiers. You must have been seeing phantoms yesterday.”
Richard stared off at nothing, nodding. “I guess you’re far from the first to think that she’s a phantom.”
Johnrock heaved a length of chain out of his way and scooted closer to Richard. “Ruben, you’d better get your head straight or we’re going to get ourselves killed before we even get a chance to play the emperor’s team.”
Richard looked up. “I thought you were ready to die.”
“I don’t want to die. Not today, anyway.”
“There you go, Johnrock, you have made a choice. Even chained up, you have made a choice about your life.”
Johnrock shook a thick finger at Richard. “Look here, Ruben, if I end up getting killed playing Ja’La, I don’t want it to be because you have your head in the clouds, dreaming of women.”
“Just one woman, Johnrock.”
The big man leaned back and flicked eggshells off his fingers. “I remember. You said that you saw the woman you want to be your wife.”
Richard didn’t correct him. “I just want for us to play well and win all our games so that we can have the chance to play the emperor’s team.”
Johnrock’s grin returned. “Do you really think we can beat the emperor’s team, Ruben? Do you think we can survive such a game with those men?”
Richard cracked the shell of another egg on the side of his heel. “You’re the one who wants to die to cheers of the crowds for how well you’ve played.”
Johnrock gave Richard a sidelong glance. “Maybe I will do as you say and choose to live free, yes?”
Richard only smiled before biting the egg in half.
Not long after Richard and Johnrock had finished the last of their meal, Commander Karg appeared, his boots splashing as he marched toward them through the mud.
“Get out here! All of you!”
Richard and Johnrock crawled out from under the wagon into the drizzle. Other captives at wagons to either side stood up, waiting to hear what the commander wanted. Soldiers who were on the team gathered closer.