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FALLTHRU

Paul H. Deal

Copyright 2003 by Paul H. Deal

This is a work of fiction. All places, names, characters, and incidents are the
author's imaginary creations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
places, events, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, transmitted, or


used in any manner without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Table of Contents
PART ONE: FALAND
CHAPTER ONE
CHAPTER TWO
CHAPTER THREE
CHAPTER FOUR
CHAPTER FIVE
CHAPTER SIX
CHAPTER SEVEN
PART TWO: THE PARTNERSHIP
CHAPTER EIGHT
CHAPTER NINE
CHAPTER TEN
CHAPTER ELEVEN
CHAPTER TWELVE
CHAPTER THIRTEEN
CHAPTER FOURTEEN
CHAPTER FIFTEEN
CHAPTER SIXTEEN
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
PART THREE: THE QUEST
CHAPTER NINETEEN
CHAPTER TWENTY
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
PART FOUR: THE EMERALD OF THUN
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY
PART FIVE: NORTH FORTRESS
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR
PART SIX: SHENDUN'S EGG
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX
CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE
PART SEVEN: MORDAT'S CASTLE
CHAPTER FORTY
CHAPTER FORTY-ONE
CHAPTER FORTY-TWO
CHAPTER FORTY-THREE
PART EIGHT: THE HUNDRED RUBIES
CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR
CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE
CHAPTER FORTY-SIX
CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN
PART NINE: HOLE-IN-THE-WALL
CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT
CHAPTER FORTY-NINE
CHAPTER FIFTY
CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE
PART TEN: THE TOWERS OF EYRIE
CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO
CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE
CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR
CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE
CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX
PART ELEVEN: AROON
CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN
CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT
CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE

CHAPTER SIXTY
PART TWELVE: DARC'UN
CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE
CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO
CHAPTER SIXTY-THREE
CHAPTER SIXTY-FOUR
CHAPTER SIXTY-FIVE
CHAPTER SIXTY-SIX
CHAPTER SIXTY-SEVEN
PART THIRTEEN: THE BEGINNING
CHAPTER SIXTY-EIGHT

PART ONE: FALAND


CHAPTER ONE

Sunlight touched Martin's face and though his eyes were closed the
brightness caused his eyelids to twitch. He turned his head aside, mumbling
softly as an appealing kaleidoscope of leafy images drifted through his mind.
The euphoria of sleep still claimed him, and he fought waking. But it was a
losing fight, and at last he blinked his eyes open. He rubbed his hand across his
stubbled cheeks and tried to focus.
What?
Above him he saw rough-hewn planks, but still clouded by sleep, his mind
could not make sense of the scene.
Something's wrong!
He came more fully alert. "Where am I?"
He sat bolt upright. A thin blanket slid from his shoulders, leaving his
upper body bare. His heart began hammering. "Hello! Isn't this the hospital?"
The vigor of his voice startled him, and he shook his head. "This isn't the
hospital! How did I get here? Am I dreaming?"
He looked anxiously around. But the scene was so warm and friendly he
relaxed and the flutter slowly left his chest. "Must be a dream, but definitely
the strangest I've ever had. It feels exactly as if I'm awake, yet I can't be."
He looked at his bony chest and his frown deepened. It was thin, thinner
than it had been since he outgrew the gawkiness of his teen years, nearly three
decades before, but his skin looked healthy. What had happened to the raw bed
sores that had made movement so painful?
When he stroked the coarse sheet stretched tightly over the mattress on
which he was sitting, he shuddered. Even the thought of such rough cloth
against his blasted flesh made him wince, yet he felt no pain.
It is a dream. It must be. I'm probably delirious from chemotherapy.
The narrow mattress felt firm but yielding beneath his buttocks. A soft gray,
tautly woven blanket was draped over his feet and slumped around his waist.
The bed extended part way along one side of a small room, the walls of which,
like the ceiling, were of rough-hewn wooden planks. Puzzled, he moved his
fingers across the coarse wood grain, then shrugged. "Okay, so I'm dreaming. I

might as well go with it. At least I feel great. I haven't had such a good dream
in a long time."
Beyond the foot of the bed, he saw sunlight entering through a window of
four glass panes. Yellow light touched the rough walls and made the room
seem to glow. He turned his head and drew in a quick breath. Another bed, like
his, was ranged along the opposite wall. In it someone was sleeping, wadded
almost entirely beneath the covers, with only a shock of black hair protruding.
"Who's that? Someone I know?" His mind raced. "I'm supposed to have a
private room." Then he laughed. "This is a dream. Anything can happen in a
dream."
Briefly, he considered waking the sleeping figure but decided not to act too
hastily. Looking beyond the head of both beds, he noted a small wooden table,
two wooden chairs, and against the wall near the table, a cabinet, also made of
wood. The more he looked, the more delighted he became. He could not
remember a previous dream with such detail.
What looked like a lantern, of unfamiliar design, hung from the ceiling over
the table. Beyond the table, he saw a closed door and discovered a second
door, slightly ajar, just beyond the foot of his unknown companion's bed.
When he started to rise, he realized he was entirely naked beneath the thin
cover. Hastily, he pulled the blanket up and felt the cloth brush softly against
his bare skin. His head spun. He felt disjoined, as though there were two of
him, one awake and one still sleeping. His senses told him he was awake, in a
real world, feeling and acting, but his mind said it was impossible.
"Is this truly a dream?"
Martin remembered that he had gone to bed in the hospital. His heart
thumped when he recalled the reason; I've got cancer and I'm supposed to
have chemo today.
His brow wrinkled, and he sat thinking for a long moment, trying to sort
things out, but could not make sense of it. Cautiously, he swung his feet over
the edge of the bed, drawing the blanket around his unclothed body. A glance
told him his roommate was still asleep. Gingerly, he slid to his feet. The feel of
the raw wood on his bare soles felt oddly good.
He glanced down at his five-foot ten frame. My ribs stick out, but I feel
better than I have for years.
Tentatively, he took a few steps, then brushed a hand over his face. Where
are my glasses? I can't see diddly without my glasses. Yet, he could see, and
everything seemed more sharply clear than he remembered. What's that

hanging over my bed? Clothing, perhaps?


He moved toward the odd object, leaned and unhooked a cloth and leather
apparatus. When he unfurled the structure, two folded leather moccasins fell to
the bed along with a roll of soft, woven cloth. In his hand remained what
looked like a garment fitted with a sturdy belt.
It must be meant for me, but how is it worn?
With sudden intuition, he wrapped the cloth strip around his loins, then
buckled the leather apparatus over it. The cloth served as an undergarment
while the leather girded his waist and formed a secure loin-covering. "Strange,
but neat." With his fingers he explored several pouches attached to the
encircling belt and found them all empty.
A soft moan interrupted him. Turning, he saw the stranger roll over and
fling back the coverlet. His brows rose in surprise. A child?
Padding to the bed, he looked into the sleeping face of a young boy,
probably less than a dozen years old. His face was small, white like his own.
A mop of black hair fell back from his forehead and straggled onto the
mattress. Martin took in the bony shoulders where the cover had fallen away.
Skinny like me.
The boy's soft, even breathing told Martin that he was still soundly asleep.
Above his bed hung another of the cloth and leather garments, but smaller.
Must be intended for this kid.
Then Martin noticed again the slightly open door at the foot of the boy's
bed. A push swung the door silently on metal hinges. It opened into a small
adjoining room.
"Bathroom," he murmured and suddenly realized how badly he needed to
relieve himself. He entered the room and pushed the door shut. Below a
narrow window was a low wooden stand on which rested a copper or brass
basin. Next to the basin, a small wooden box held a stack of thin paper sheets,
apparently toilet tissue. Beside the box was a closed metal canister. A spigot
protruded from one wall, and under the spigot was a toilet with a wooden seat
and hinged cover. He raised the cover and sent his stream into the opening
where it tatted against a metal liner and dropped into emptiness. When he
manipulated the spigot, water shot from the tap into the metal toilet bowl and
rinsed its interior.
He grinned, "Crude, but effective."
Above the basin was a roughly fashioned wooden cabinet, its door secured
by a toggle. When he released the toggle, the door swung open to reveal, on its

back, a brass-colored mirror. The sight of his own face astonished him. He
scarcely recognized his bright blue eyes and coarse, sandy hair. His face
glowed with unaccustomed health.
Have I grown younger?
His recognizable, yet unfamiliar countenance, did not seem to show the
signs of his nearly fifty years as strongly as it had the night before, in spite of a
slight stubble of beard.
Inside the cabinet, he found two small glass cups, a pair of objects with
straight, wooden handles that looked like tooth brushes, two combs with brass
teeth, and a wood-handled, blunt knife with a blade made of an opalescent
material, reminiscent of mother-of-pearl.
"Wow, very sharp!" Martin grimaced at the drop of blood on his testing
finger. "Is this, perhaps, a razor?" He looked into the mirror and his grin
broadened. "I guess I can give it a try."
Reflected in the mirror, he saw several small pieces of cloth hanging on a
rack behind him and surmised that they were towels. "Everything I need."
By now feeling quite cheerful, and not disposed to question too closely
why he was where he was, he picked up the metal basin and filled it with
water from the tap. In the canister he discovered a creamy paste that, when
wetted, worked into good lather. He washed, then soaped his beard and raised
the pearl-bladed razor to his face. Being unpracticed with a straight blade, he
suffered many small nicks, which he blotted with tissue.
When he returned to the main room, he noticed the sun's light no longer
struck the ceiling but extended in a long slant across the floor. East. The
window faces east and it's just past sunrise.
His pulse quickened when he glanced out the window. Below was a large,
roof-top courtyard surrounded by a broad wall about three feet high. Beyond
the wall, he saw the tips of a high wooden palisade and beyond that, stretching
to great distance, a green countryside accented with giant trees whose vast,
spreading crowns lifted rounded domes of leaves high above the rolling plain.
Sunlight spread over the plain like a golden sea, shining through translucent
leaves, building a halo of green phosphorescence around field and trees.
"Oh my Lord! I must have died and gone to heaven!" He turned with such
haste that he nearly fell over the foot of his bed. Trembling, he rushed to the
boy's bed and almost grabbed the sleeping child. He wanted to shout and dance
and share the glory of his discovery. Yet something stayed his hand, and fear,
coming as quickly as joy, replaced the rush of exhilaration. Slowly, he backed

across the room, sat down on the edge of his bed and forced his breathing to
slow.
This absolutely can not be real, yet it is no ordinary dream. Uncertainty
caused his fear to grow. But, if it's not real, what have I got to fear? And, if it
is real there must be an explanation.
Rationalization calmed him and he decided for the moment to accept the
illusion without trying to understand it. He glanced again at the bed and saw
the moccasins still lying there. They were soft and pliant, high-topped and
looked about the right size to fit him. Tentatively, he pulled one on and found it,
like the leather loin-covering, a perfect fit. When he had both moccasins on and
laced, he stood and looked down at himself, marveling. I look like something
out of a sword and sorcery novel, lacking only the sword.
Tentatively, he approached the closed door at the head of the room. A
cautious shove opened it. It was the egress from his quarters, and with his heart
in his throat, he stepped into a long hall with walls of gnarled wood. At each
end of the hall, light entered through a glazed window. At the north end a
passage turned west. Three more doors, like the one through which he had just
exited, led off the hall. All were closed, and he considered knocking at one.
Instead he made his way north and entered the west passage. Warily he
descended a flight of wooden steps to a small landing. Stairs continued
downward. A closed door led farther west, and an open passage went east,
beneath the upper rooms. Following the east passage, he emerged onto the
roof-top courtyard he had seen from his room.
A feeling of wonderful peacefulness came over him, and he felt his whole
body relax. Beyond the elevated courtyard, he saw rolling green fields and
wild-flower dotted meadows, great trees and brilliant sunshine and a sky so
blue it made him want to sing. Dozens of multi-colored birds soared over the
fields, filling the air with splendid music. "Please don't let me wake up," he
whispered.
As he crossed the yard, fine gravel crunched under his moccasins. He
filled his lungs with clean, cool air, scented with flowers. A slight breeze
tousled his hair. At the far side of the courtyard, he leaned on the broad railing
and looked down into a narrow alley that separated the building, upon which
he was standing, from a log palisade that reached upward nearly level with the
courtyard wall. The palisade reminded Martin of the walls that were
sometimes built around eighteenth-century frontier fortresses. He glanced back
and studied the upper stories of the huge log structure. A flicker of motion at an

upper window caught his attention.


"The boy must be awake!" Excited at the prospect of someone to talk with,
he hastily retraced his steps. When he entered his room, he saw the youngster
sitting up, wrapped in a blanket. "Don't be afraid," he said quickly. "I share this
room with you."
"I'm not afraid. I saw you out there." The boy nodded toward the window.
"I guessed you must be the somebody that used the other bunk."
"Good guess," Martin extended his hand. "My name's Martin."
"I'm Jason," the boy poked a thin arm out of the blanket.
"Pleased to meet you," Martin said formally.
"Why are you dressed so crazy?"
"Oh, this," Martin laughed and felt suddenly self-conscious. "It's all I could
find. There's something like it hanging over your bed. Didn't seem to be any
real clothes here."
Jason glanced at the rigging and grimaced.
"I can help you with it if you want." Martin lifted the garment from its
hanger and shook out the moccasins.
Jason hesitated.
Martin quickly said, "Look, I'll show you how it works, then I can go in the
other room while you put it on."
"Naw, it's okay," Jason slid off the bed and wadded the blanket on top of
the mattress. Martin was shocked at how thin his body was.
"The cloth strip goes around your waist," he said. "Works like underwear."
Jason wrapped the cloth awkwardly around himself, then let Martin help
him fit the leather outer covering and work the straps to snug the garment to his
body.
"How old are you?" Martin asked as he bent to help Jason with his
moccasins.
"Eleven, last month."
"You've been sick, haven't you?"
"Up 'til this morning. I don't feel sick now."
Martin stood up and looked thoughtful. "Where were you when you went to
bed, before you woke up here?"
"Children's hospital . . . I couldn't even get out of bed yesterday."
"I'll be damned," Martin muttered. "Do you know how you got here?"
"Somebody beamed me."
"Beamed?"

"Yeah. You know; like on Star Trek."


Martin's mouth dropped open, then he laughed. He remembered his own
first thoughts. "Don't you think you're dreaming?"
"No." Jason wrinkled his brow. "Why should I?"
"Well, I woke up here out of a hospital bed, same as you. Frankly, it seems
pretty strange to me."
Jason's brow wrinkled. "Can't be a dream," he said.
"Oh, yeah, why not?"
"I had to pee. And whenever I dream and I have to pee I wake up with a
wet bed."
Martin roared.
Jason scowled and reddened.
"Why were you in the hospital?"
Jason's face sobered. "I got Aids."
"Aids?"
"From blood. I got hemophilia, then I got Aids. I'm supposed to die." His
statement was matter-of-fact.
The mirth went out of Martin. He remembered his own cancer and
shuddered. "You want to go outside?"
Jason smiled. His dark eyes lit up and Martin could not help smiling in
response. I like this kid. The observation surprised him. His one-time
marriage had ended in divorce without children, and generally he avoided
kids.
Martin led Jason to the courtyard. When they arrived, he was surprised to
see another man and boy already there, standing at the rail, looking raptly to the
east as Martin had first done. The man was huge, dwarfing the frail lad at his
side. When Martin turned to Jason, he saw a sparkle of tears in his wide dark
eyes.
"I haven't been outside in a long time," Jason said, his face radiant.
The two at the rail heard and turned. "What ho? Two more it appears," said
the big man with a wide, friendly grin. He reached out a giant hand. "My
name's John. This here's Robert. We met this morning, bunked opposite in one
of those rooms up there." He gestured at the log structure.
Martin took the hand and looked upward into warm gray eyes that smiled
with lively excitement. "Same for us," he said and introduced himself and
Jason.
At close quarters, Martin could see that John was a man of advanced years.

His shapeless body showed little sign of recent exercise, and his craggy face,
topped by a great mane of white hair, showed the pallor of long confinement
away from the sun. Another who has been sick, and the boy is as thin as
Jason.
"There are others," John said. "We met our neighbors before we came
down here. They'll be along shortly I expect. Woman and a young girl. You met
any others?"
"No. I didn't know there were any."
"Four rooms; I'll bet there'll be eight of us."
"How did you get here?" Martin asked.
"Don't know," John shrugged. "My memory hasn't been too good lately. I
thought I was still in the nursing home where I was parked after my stroke a
couple of years ago. But, somehow, I woke up here this morning next to my
young friend. I'm too old to feel this good so I figure I've died and gone to
heaven."
"We aren't dead," Jason said. "I'll bet we've been kidnaped by aliens.
They've fixed us up so we aren't sick anymore, but we're not dead. I'm flesh
and blood! My body's real!" He took a little hop and swung his arms, then
slapped his thighs. His face glowed. "I can feel my heart beating and I'm
breathing and I can feel the sun on my back and smell the air." His words
tumbled out. "I'm alive and I love it here." For emphasis, he circled the
courtyard at a run, scattering gravel as his moccasins dug into the loose
surface. He yelled and his voice echoed off the west wall.
"Jason's right," Martin said. "By damn, he's right! Whatever this is, it's not
death." He ran after Jason and felt like a kid again. When he returned,
breathless, Robert and John were laughing.
"This has got to be heaven," John said. "Haven't you ever heard of the
resurrection of the body?"
Just then the two that John had mentioned emerged from the log building.
The older was an olive-skinned, dark-eyed woman not much over five feet tall,
uncommonly thin like Jason and Robert. She kept self-consciously adjusting
her leather clothing which, other than including an added breast wrap, was as
scant as that worn by the men and boys.
"I'm Carol," she said in a thin, reedy voice that shook a little. "Are we
dead? Susan says we are."
Susan was a small, rail-thin, red-haired child with a freckled face who
peered at them from eyes as green as the surrounding fields. She looked about

ten but said she was thirteen. "It makes sense," she said. "You said you had
lung cancer, and people usually die of that. And I've been sick all my life and
felt like dying a lot of times. I'm not sorry to be dead at all. In fact I rather like
it." Her child's laughter sounded like a bell chiming.
"I don't think we're dead," Jason said, his jaw set stubbornly.
At that moment, two more people joined the growing assemblage, another
woman accompanied by a young girl. The woman was nearly as big as John.
She stood six feet tall with massive thighs and arms. Her oval, light
complexioned face, topped with luxuriant, dark hair, set off brown eyes that
sparkled with good humor. "Hello," she said in a voice that sounded like
thunder. "I'm Bertha and this little lass is Linda."
Bertha, as it turned out, was the only one among them who had gone to bed
the night before in her apartment with no apparent illness or other distress. She
laughed and shook her head in disbelief when the others speculated about what
had happened to them and how they might have gotten there. "You guys are
sappy with all your talk of heaven and being dead and all. It's obvious this is a
dream. We're gonna wake up pretty soon. At least I am."
Linda was a diminutive eleven-year-old with brown skin and dark hair.
Her black eyes were large, like Jason's, and her face, Martin thought, held such
comeliness that she might easily be an angel. When her turn came to describe
what had happened, she spoke softly and gravely. "There was a fire. I woke up
and everything was red and there was smoke everywhere. I couldn't breathe."
Her voice became agitated as she remembered. "I couldn't see and I got scared.
I . . . I heard a big noise - something broke, I think - then . . . then I woke up. It
was like the fire was in a dream, and I was up there," she gestured toward her
room, "with the sun on my bed and it was real quiet and I felt peaceful, only I
didn't know where I was."
Martin listened, his brow furrowing. "When was yesterday?" he asked.
"What do you mean, when was yesterday? Yesterday was yesterday."
"I mean, what was the date? And where were you? What city, what
hospital, what community?"
"Yesterday was Monday."
"No, it was Friday."
"I was in Philadelphia."
"It was May twenty-third in New York."
"Hold it," Martin shouted. "Don't you think something's mighty strange
here?"

"Everything's strange here."


"Yes. But don't you see, we all came from different times and places. This
is very odd, even for a dream."
"It's not a dream," Jason said.
Robert cried, "Look!" His thin arm pointed, and all turned in the direction
toward which his wide blue eyes were staring.

CHAPTER TWO

The man toward whom Robert was pointing might have stepped from a
medieval courtyard. A wide red band, adorned with gold and silver emblems,
encircled his light brown, shoulder-length hair. On his upper body, he wore an
intricately tooled leather vest, studded with polished brass stars. Leathergirded kilt and moccasins completed his attire. The pouches on his belt bulged,
a jeweled knife rode on his left hip, and on his right hip a short scabbard
sheathed an ebony-handled sword. The rising sun glinted from his coppery hair
and fell full on the strong, angular planes of his clean shaven, Caucasian face.
He stood six feet tall, his lean arms and legs knotted with muscle, and he had
the bronzed appearance of one who spent much time in the sun.
"Well, I see you've gotten acquainted, and it looks like you've mastered the
intricacies of your sirkelns and mokads." His voice sounded pleasant and his
wide-set, hazel eyes smiled with friendliness.
Martin was first to regain his composure. "Are you in charge here?"
The stranger's grin broadened. "Not really, but I'm here to help you. My
name is Engar."
"You can start by telling us where we are," Carol demanded.
"I'll try to answer your questions, but first may I get your names?" Engar
tilted his head to look into the rugged countenance of Big John. "You, sir, are
the largest man I've ever seen. What name do you go by?"
"Name's John." The big man reached to shake Engar's hand. "Are we dead
or is this a dream?" He spoke partly in jest, but his voice held earnestness.
"I ask your patience. I know you have a lot of questions." Engar turned to
Robert, knelt, and brought his face in line with the boy's. "What's your name,
my young friend?"
Robert smiled shyly and told him. Then Engar moved to each person, shook
hands, and introduced himself. When he reached Bertha he eyed her with some
wonder. She was about his height but at least half again as heavy. "You are
clearly a woman of substance," he said.
"Watch it, Honey," Bertha bristled. "I don't take well to those who make fun
of me."
Engar raised his hands in protest. "No offense meant. I make no fun of
anyone. Here size is valued."

When Engar completed his review, he motioned them to be seated. "I'm


sure it'll take a while to satisfy all your curiosity." Some seated themselves on
the broad courtyard wall in the dappled shade of a tree that spread its leaves
above the palisade. Others scooted down at the base of the wall and braced
their backs against it. "First I assure you, you're not dead." Engar paced as he
spoke. Bright points of light flickered from the emblems on his headband as he
shifted through the mixture of sun and shade. "However, I can't rule out the
possibility that you did, in fact, die, and might've been dead for some time
before this morning. From a practical standpoint it's completely irrelevant."
"What do you mean, irrelevant?" Bertha thundered. "Dying seems damn
relevant to me!"
"Being alive is what's relevant," Engar countered. "Whether dead and
resurrected here or merely kidnaped and brought here is of little practical
significance."
"Kidnaped! That's what I think," Jason said. "We were kidnaped by aliens,
weren't we?"
"Possibly." Engar's voice was casual. "I really can't say. I woke here much
the same as you, about a year ago, and have thus far found no provable
explanation for how I got here. I've learned to survive, however, and find
Faland to be neither heaven nor hell though, perhaps, it has elements of both."
"What is this Faland?"
"Who lives here?"
"Are there other people?"
"Let me explain." Engar paused in his pacing. "There are other humans
here, but not many. They started coming about eighteen years ago. Most were
ill or injured before arriving--"
"Not me," Bertha cut in. "I wasn't sick or hurt."
Engar shrugged. "I said most; I'm not sure it matters. What's important is
that everyone wakes up here in perfect health, and for most of us, that's a
change for the better."
Martin looked puzzled. "Did you say people have only been here eighteen
years? I've looked closely at the building and grounds and unless I miss my
guess some of these structures are much older than that."
"You're right. Native people lived here long before the first humans
arrived. Humans built little of what you see. By my reckoning there are fewer
than a hundred fifty people in the whole land. They arrive once a year in
groups of eight. You happen to be this year's complement."

"Natives!" Jason's eyes shone and he danced from foot to foot. "What are
they like? Are they the ones who kidnaped us?"
"They're much like us in many ways. I find them mostly a gentle and
pleasant people. If we were kidnaped, I doubt the natives did it. In fact, they
seem quite mystified by our presence."
"This isn't earth, is it?" Robert's narrow face, framed by his silver-white
hair was full of wonder, and though he spoke softly, excitement had brought a
flush to his cheeks. "This isn't some kind of trick. It's for real, isn't it?"
"It's for real," Engar said. "It isn't easy to believe, but we're definitely not
on earth."
"I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!" Jason's energetic hops made him
breathless. "I could feel it. It's wonderful!"
Bertha raised a brow. "It doesn't look all that different to me. Besides, this
has to be some kind of screwy dream."
"When you see the night sky, you'll know," Engar told her. "There's no sky
like it on earth. Nonetheless, your doubt is understandable. This planet is
remarkably like the earth: too much so to be coincidence. Among us are some
former biologists who say the native life, though different from that with which
we're familiar, is too similar to be the result of chance. It's almost like the life
on this planet is here for our benefit. Even the natives have humanoid form and
match our intelligence. More remarkable, their language is a form of English
and that absolutely cannot be coincidental. The bottom line? We're not on earth,
but we're on a planet enough like it to be its twin."
"Why are we here?" Carol asked, a fierce frown forming on her face.
"Good question. I'm sorry I haven't a clue to the answer. Biologically we're
different, not grossly, but in very important ways. We don't get sick and we
don't age. Even those who were previously elderly have the strength and vigor
of people in their prime."
"Hallelujah!" John roared.
"I'll second that." Engar said. "I happen to be eighty-three myself." He
paused to enjoy the look of astonishment on the faces of his listeners. "In
general, we're all physically and mentally more capable than before. We don't
get colds, flu, infections, or anything else with which we used to be afflicted,
except maybe an occasional bout of indigestion from unwise eating."
Carol's brow knotted even more fiercely. "What are you getting at? You
think we've been refurbished to perform some sort of function?"
Engar chuckled. "Interesting choice of words, but it seems like a

reasonable possibility. Only problem is, some people have been here eighteen
years, as I just said, and they don't know any more about it than I do. And the
natives have no idea why we're here or how we got here."
"What kind of life do people have here? Do they raise families? Have
careers? What do they do here?"
"Adapt," Engar said. "And try to find a way to make their lives satisfying.
A few have married, but none have produced children: why, nobody knows."
"What about the natives?" Linda's dark eyes widened. "Don't they have
kids?"
"They do," Engar said. "In fact, natives age and die much as one would
expect, and they have children quite normally. It seems on this world we are a
race apart - a race of immortals as it were. Or, rather, semi-immortals, for
though we don't age or die of disease, we can be killed or die of hunger or
thirst. Incidentally, a few humans who have wanted children have bought slave
children to raise as their own."
"Slave children! You mean there are slaves here?"
Engar's face sobered, "I'm afraid slavery is one of the less than perfect
aspects of this place."
"If people raise children that implies they fit into the local society, at least
to some extent," Martin said. "How well do the natives accept us?"
"Quite well, actually. And that's my job: to show you how to fit in with the
locals in Faland. For the next thirty days I'll be your guide and training
coordinator."
"Training?" Bertha asked, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. "What kind
of training?"
"Why, on how to make a living," Engar replied, keeping his voice bland.
"You've asked what people do here? Well, during the next month, that's what
you're going to find out. Each of you will be taught a skill. Later you'll use that
skill to earn a living, just like back home."
John looked as suspicious as Bertha. "What skill?"
"It's quite simple," Engar said. "In Faland, humans are Warriors."
There was a moment of shocked silence. Carol was first to find her voice.
"I don't want to be a Warrior. I don't like fighting."
"What about the kids?" Bertha roared. "You can't expect these little ones to
be soldiers!"
"I'm afraid there isn't a choice," Engar said. "But not all Warriors are
fighters. Some learn support skills. If you do, you can avoid a lot of the

fighting."
"What happens if we don't know any support skills?" Susan's green eyes
had expanded into darkened pools and her freckles stood out like black chips
on a white sea.
"It's my job to see that you learn," Engar told her.
"I've never been good at school," she said with almost a whimper..
"You'll have to try," Engar said. "I'm afraid I must be blunt; if you don't
qualify as a Warrior, either as a fighter or in a support skill, you'll be sold into
slavery."
Bertha's face blanched and she reached out her huge arms to gather Linda
and Susan to her. "You mean these little kids could be slaves?" Her voice
sounded incredulous and a dangerous spark appeared in her dark eyes.
"No damn way," John said, raising his arm with his fist knotted like a ham
on the end of it.
"Actually," Engar said, "that possibility applies to all of you. This is
serious business, and you don't have the power to change it."
"Maybe you better tell us the rest," Martin said. "I rather thought this place
seemed too good to be true. It seems there may be a few thorns in paradise."
"Some roses too," Engar said. "I know from experience it's possible to
succeed here, even for the kids. I won't pretend it's easy, but I don't intend
anyone to end up a slave on my watch."
"What do we have to do?" Carol asked, her bluster and indignation gone.
"Just pay attention and work hard for the next thirty days. Keep a positive
attitude and you will succeed. Now I have something to show you." Engar took
off the brightly colored band he wore around his head and ran a finger over its
raised runes. "Nearly everyone wears one of these. It carries identification.
Red shows I'm a Warrior. Civilians wear green; you'll wear white while you're
training." Engar fished in a pouch on his belt and withdrew a handful of white
cloth loops. He handed one to each person. "Your headbands carry no
insignia," Engar went on, "but notice the symbol in the center of mine. It's
Faland rune-notation for my initials, NG, pronounced Engar. When you qualify
as a Warrior you'll choose your symbol and register it in your name. The small
gold and silver icons are called barcoms, the symbol for four. I'm a level four
Fighter and also a level four Weapon-master. Color indicates which skill,
shape indicates level." Engar returned the band to his head.
"So, how do you stack up in the local society?" John asked. "Is level four
good?"

"Rates go up to seven. Ones and twos are easy to earn; higher rates get
tougher. My dual level four puts me pretty well up in the hierarchy, but rank
isn't everything. You need to be known as an honorable person as well;
someone who fights fairly and courageously and works honestly."
"So, who do we work for? How do we get jobs?" John asked.
Engar turned to the giant. "You'll work for an agent - sort of a contract
manager. Most agents are Fighters, fifth level or above, or Mentats. Agents
control the jobs and hire the rest of us. It's a little complicated, but I'll fill in
the details as we go."
"What's a Mentat?"
"Mentat mastery is a special mental skill. I don't know much about it. Later
today, you'll all be tested for skill training and you'll learn more about it then.
Most agents are fighters and so far no human has ever trained as a Mentat, so it
probably won't be of much importance to you."
"Do Warriors get paid?" Susan asked.
"Yes. Gold and silver." Engar reached into a small belt pouch. "The gold
coin is a rall. It's the basic monetary unit, like a dollar back home. The other
coins are silver, worth less than a rall, like small change."
"Will you get paid for training us?"
"Of course. I'll get paid when you graduate at the end of the month."
"Is thirty days a month?" Martin asked. "Same as back on earth?"
"The year is twelve months and all months have exactly thirty days."
"Are you telling me this planet circles its sun in exactly three hundred sixty
days?"
Engar laughed. "I wondered if you'd pick up on that. Actually it takes quite
a bit longer. However, the calendar has evidently been adjusted to match ours."
"By someone with a mind for uniformity," Martin noted. "What about daylength? Does that match ours too?"
"Fairly closely, and that has to be genuine coincidence. The day is divided
into three eight hour periods rather than two of twelve hours, but the important
thing is the length of the hour. Our estimates suggest it's slightly longer than on
earth, but not much. Each hour is divided into sixty minutes, again apparently to
be consistent with our own system. In practice, most people don't use watches
or clocks; they just estimate time, and speaking of time," Engar glanced at the
sun, "it's getting late. I know you have more questions, but I expect you're
getting hungry and it's time for the morning meal."
No one dissented. Unaccustomed good health, fresh air and sunshine, and

the extraordinary excitement of the morning had combined to generate ravenous


appetites. Eagerly they followed as Engar led the way.
Martin paced alongside the Warrior leader. "As the sun rises, our shadows
get shorter but continue to point in the same direction. Are we near the
equator?"
"Good observation." Engar walked with long, smooth strides, the muscles
of his thighs rippling as he moved. "The equator runs through this location. Of
equal interest, however, there are no seasons - not just here, but even far from
the equator."
"That means zero inclination."
"And a nearly circular orbit. The planet is similar to Earth but there are
some major differences."
"What about gravity?"
"I've wondered about that. In the old life I was a physicist. I've tried a few
experiments: measuring rate of fall, periods of pendulums, things like that. A
problem is establishing standards for time and distance. Crude measures
suggest the gravitational field is slightly stronger than Earth's."
Engar led them into the building and down a flight of stairs into a modest
room containing a table and along one side a counter. Light streamed in through
a row of windows on the west, outside which the heavily foliaged tops of trees
were visible. Delicious smells emanated from a side room behind the counter.
"You'll eat here during the next month," Engar said, "twice daily: about this
time in the morning and again at sundown. You may eat all you want, and I
encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity. You'll need to build your
strength as rapidly as possible."
The newcomers studied the room with open curiosity. Floors, walls,
ceilings, and furnishings were all rough-hewn, continuing the motif they had
already noted. A smiling, rather matronly woman, bearing a large, steaming
pan, emerged from the back room behind the counter. She had fine, orangebrown hair, drawn up in a knot and tied on top. Her broad, dusky face crinkled
in a bright smile and a merry twinkle sparkled in her large, deep brown eyes.
She was obviously not human, and the small band of newcomers gawked
impolitely. In their eyes, her long ears, with pendulous lobes, and her oddly
pointed chin, gave her a decidedly alien, though not displeasing, appearance.
A shapeless drape hung around her neck and descended out of sight behind
the counter. Bare, softly muscular arms extended from either side of the drape
and ran to stubby hands that gripped the pan with two hot pads. A second

female, smaller and apparently younger, joined her. She had an appearance so
similar it suggested relationship. The younger native also carried a large pan
from which a cloud of steam arose.
"Come! Come! Eat!" The older woman spoke English with an agreeable
accent. "Plates." She gestured at a stack of flattened metal bowls that stood on
the end of the counter, then pointed at some forks next to the plates. "Food
handlers. Come! Fill. Eat!"
"Well, I'm not shy." Bertha grinned and tromped across the room with a
tread so heavy everyone felt the floor quiver. "Is that itty bitty plate all you've
got?" She scowled at the bowl, then laughed. "I could eat that whole darn panfull I'm so hungry!"
"Take! Take!" The merry woman behind the counter laughed with Bertha.
"Take all! Lots more!"
Bertha looked surprised, then her laugh deepened until her whole body
shook. "Honey, you and me are gonna get along just fine!" She snatched up one
of the two-pronged forks and grabbed the entire steaming pan. The contents
exuded a mouth-watering odor that set their empty stomachs growling.
The young servant girl, working with great rapidity, slid several more pans
onto the counter, and in a few minutes everyone had plates full, or like Bertha,
had moved entire pans to the central table. A large scoop, embedded in each,
made it easy to resupply the metal plates.
Soon platters heaped with raw vegetables or thick slices of an aromatic,
dark bread, joined the hot pans. The servants brought clear glass mugs
brimming with a light amber fluid. A thick, stew-like concoction containing
large slabs of meat and chunks of starchy vegetables, interlaced with fibrous
and leafy herbs, crammed the hot pans. The tastes were unfamiliar, but instantly
appealing.
Martin guided Jason and followed Engar's lead. From a wall dispenser,
they extracted sheets of soft brown paper, then collected bread, raw
vegetables, and mugs and took them to the table. On the napkins, they placed
the bread and vegetables, then ladled stew onto their plates. The double-tine
forks seemed awkward at first, but proved effective.
"This is delicious." Martin spoke to Jason, but the lad was too busy eating
to reply. "The bread is great." Martin took a long drink from the amber fluid. It
had an invigorating, slightly tart flavor, very refreshing. Between mouthfuls, he
stole a glance around the room and realized that already he was growing
accustomed to these people. "What is this food?" he asked Engar, who was

eating hugely and speaking little.


"The stew's kurduc," he said through a mouthful. "It's a common dish
throughout Faland although the ingredients differ from place to place. You're
privileged to be eating some of the best in the territory." He tore a chunk from a
brown, crusty loaf. "The bread's simply called bread and I'm not sure I could
name all the vegetables. This one," he held up a brown colored, globular root,
"is a carrot. Doesn't look like back home but tastes a lot like it."
"And the drink?"
"Drog, made from local herbs and like kurduc varies from place to place.
This is good but I've had better."
"Non-alcoholic, I notice."
"The natives don't know the art of brewing. Some people have tried, with
little success. I'm afraid the pleasures of alcohol are unavailable in Faland."
At length, hunger dissipated. With a chunk of the rich brown bread, Martin
sopped the last bits of kurduc from his plate, then pushed back from the table.
He glanced at his young friend and saw that he had also finished. "Well,
Jason," he said, "what do you suppose comes next?"

CHAPTER THREE

Following the morning meal, Engar gave each of his charges a schedule of
tests intended to determine which skills he or she would be best suited to
study. "Don't worry too much about how well you do," he told them. "These are
aptitude tests. You only have to qualify in one and they're not hard."
"What are the subjects?" Martin asked.
"Most are straight forward - cooking, first aid, scouting, weapon handling things like that. A few are unusual, but I think it best if you learn from the
tests."
***
"Come in. Come in. Don't just stand there!"
Susan gaped at a rather portly native man. Her heart was thumping wildly.
She was facing her first test and had not the slightest idea what to do.
"Come in, child. Don't be afraid. I'm Kefaln, Provo-master." He grasped
Susan's small arm in a pudgy fist and tugged her through the door. "These are
my assistants, Kro and Xayel."
Two youngsters, boy and girl, hardly older than she greeted her. They
smiled pleasantly, and some of the flutter left her breast. She saw, in the center
of the room, a low table bearing an animal carcass, some vegetables, a bowl of
brown flour, and an assortment of pots, pans, cups, and utensils. An iron stove,
already warmed by a wood fire, stood near the end of the table.
Cooking! That must be what a Provo does.
Kefaln waved at the table. "Prepare a meal - anything you want. Xayel will
assist with information but the work is up to you." He smiled so broadly his
eyes almost disappeared in the folds of his face. "Any questions?"
Susan studied the table with a critical eye. "I guess not."
"Then you may begin."
"What's the animal?" Susan asked Xayel, who was as slim as Kefaln was
chubby, as she gingerly lifted the carcass.
"Rabir from northeast of Or'gn." The girl's soft voice was pleasant, almost
musical, and Susan could not help liking the speaker of such melodious tones.
"Or'gn?"
"The village we live in."
"I never did a whole animal before. How do I do the rabir?"

"Skin it, gut it," Xayel said. "Not hard."


Susan found a knife ready to hand, finely honed, and easily parted the skin,
but digging out the entrails made her queasy. Still, once she started, the work
went smoothly. Xayel watched intently, but stayed out of the way, and offered
only an occasional comment pointing out where pots and pans and utensils
were store. Soon Susan had chunks of fresh rabir braising in a skillet.
Maybe I can make stew, or that dish they call kurduc, and there's flour
for biscuits. That ought to make a pretty good meal without much need for
anything else .
She began to feel happy. Into a kurduc pan Xayel directed her to, she
layered vegetables and braised rabir, then mixed a flour and water thickener
and poured it over the top. She added finely diced herbs until the flavor
seemed right, then slid the pan into the oven.
"How much time have I got?"
"Plenty. You work fast." Xayel pointed to a wooden frame holding a glass
tube with an hourglass neck at the center. "The sandslider tells how much time.
See, the top is still more than half full."
"Yes, I see," Susan said. "It's like an hourglass. I hadn't noticed it. Is that
the only clock you have?"
"Clock?"
"Never mind. It's a word we use for something that measures time."
Xayel's small face looked puzzled.
Susan grinned. "Sandslider is a good name for it."
While mixing biscuits, she got an idea and added a dash of finely chopped
herbs. While the stew and biscuits cooked, she prepared a table for serving.
When Kefaln announced the end of the test, her table was ready with a
bubbling pan of kurduc braced by platters of plump, aromatic biscuits. Xayel
and Kro set out four plates, napkins, and food handlers. Susan watched the
Provo-master's moon face as he sampled. She was too nervous to eat any
herself. After tasting, Kefaln leaned back and smiled broadly. "You've done
splendidly. Your kurduc is excellent and your biscuits delightful. You have a
touch with flavors. I do suggest, however, that you prepare a drink next time."
Susan blushed. "I . . . I didn't think of it."
Kefaln laughed. "That's okay. I find you well qualified should you elect
Provo training."
Susan's eyes lit.
***

In a small room, a woman sat on a high stool near the back wall. A fiber
mat covered the floor, and lemon yellow draperies hung from the walls. Jason
entered apprehensively, his earlier eagerness muted by a dismal showing on
his first test. It had been for Armorer and he had slashed his thumb while
cutting a piece of leather.
The woman, wearing a gold tunic, peered at him from a face narrower than
those of other natives Jason had seen. Except for the small stool on which she
sat, there was no furniture and no place for him to sit so he stood awkwardly,
shifting from foot to foot..
"Come, don't be frightened," the woman said. "I'm Marov, Song-master.
Have you sung before?"
"Yes." Music had, in fact, been his passion, and for a while he had been a
choirboy before going to the hospital.
"Listen!" Marov raised her head, and from barely parted lips, emitted a
series of short, clear notes. Jason marveled at the beauty of her voice.
"Now you try," she said.
Jason sang, tremulously at first, doing his best to duplicate the lovely,
haunting tones. When he finished, Marov sang again, this time a higher melody,
and Jason echoed her. For half an hour, Marov sang and Jason responded, the
songs becoming ever more complex. At first Jason followed easily, but as the
songs became longer and more intricate his voice began to falter. Finally he
lost the tune altogether.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Could you show me again?"
"No need," Marov said. "You've already sung more than is required. You
have a fine ear and a good voice."
Jason beamed. "I like singing."
"I hope that means you'll choose to study with me," she said.
Jason's face flushed. "I'd like that."
***
John felt irritated. He had just finished the healer's test and found his large
hands poorly suited to stitching wounds, and though he had qualified for Provo
training, he did not like cooking. "I hope this test is more interesting," he
grumbled as he descended to the first floor where his third evaluation was
scheduled.
He opened a heavy oak door and stepped into a large room lined with
racks containing knives, swords, axes, maces, and many other weapons. Other
racks contained helmets and body armor. At the far end, he saw rows of

targets, some stationary and others movable by levers, pulleys, and ropes.
"This is more like it," he said, grinning broadly as he saw Engar approach.
"I hoped you would like it. Meet Sardor and Thren." Engar introduced his
burly assistants, both native Warriors, both women. Sardor immediately began
pulling equipment from nearby racks.
"This is a test for Weapon-master," Engar said. "Most Warriors become
proficient in one or two weapons, but Weapon-masters must learn them all."
"I'm not familiar with all these," John said as he scanned the racks. "But
I've done my share of fighting and have had some training."
"Right now I'm looking for general aptitude," Engar said. "If you qualify
you can learn the unfamiliar weapons easily enough." He took down two bows,
strung one and handed the other to John. "Are you familiar with archery?"
"Yes," John said as he bent his bow and attached the string.
Engar flexed his. "Draw your bow fully, as I do. Don't release the string."
John drew the bow and felt his arm tremble.
"Good. Not many men, even in good condition, can pull a bow of that
weight. Now let's try a round or two." Engar dropped a handful of arrows into
a floor stand.
John's first arrow struck the target support, below and left of the circle. His
second was also low but in line, the third centered neatly. John released six
more arrows and did not miss again.
"Enough," Engar said. "You do well with the bow."
The Weapon-master took a long leather loop from a rack. "The kalard is a
sling," he instructed. "If you've never used one, it takes a while to master."
From a box, he took a smooth ceramic pellet, the size and shape of a hen's
egg, then swung kalard and pellet around his head. When he released, the
ceramic slug centered on target.
John struck his target only once in two dozen tries. "You're right, Engar,
this does take getting used to."
"Your accuracy will improve. You've got good form. It's a skill you can
master."
Next he asked John to make a few throws with a long spear then introduced
him to a small device called a hummer. It consisted of an arrow-shaped metal
wedge, four inches long and half that wide. It had a large hole on each side
about a third of the way back. Two half-inch flutes extended from the tip to the
midpoint. Roughened depressions near the base provided finger grips. Engar
handled the weapon much like a throwing knife. The hum, as it streaked

through the air, told John how it had acquired its name.
It proved easier to control than John at first feared. Within half a dozen
tosses, he mastered the trick of making it fly point forward, and had no
difficulty centering his throws. Engar then moved to another unusual device.
"The tagan is a mean weapon," he said. "It's well worth mastering. It's really
hardly more than a short whip made of thirteen three-inch, and nine one-inch
metal tubes strung on a brass cable. The spines on the small tubes make it
deadly. Watch!"
Engar swung the device against a wooden beam. Splinters sprayed
outward. John winced at the thought of what it would do to human flesh.
"That's enough play," Engar said. "Now let's see how good you are at
sparring."
Sardor quickly moved in and outfitted John with leather breast armor, thigh
pads, upper and lower arm pads, helmet, and face mask. Then Engar matched
him against Thren.
It was a rough go for John. No matter the weapon, Thren, though a woman
and half his size, easily outmaneuvered him. In spite of the padding, he
received several nasty bruises, and when he lowered his mace at the end of the
session, he was gasping and drenched with sweat and more than a little
embarrassed..
Engar was chuckling. "You'll need to improve your conditioning, but you'll
have no trouble rating as a Warrior. You're well suited to Weapon-mastery. I
hope you'll consider it."
John shook his head. "I can see I've a way to go to be good at this, but
anything's better than cooking."
***
When Bertha entered the work room, it was like going home. A wood
burning forge with bellows and water barrel occupied one wall; a work bench
stood opposite. Bins and racks held straps, bars, and sheets of black and
bronze metal, stacks of leather, and variously shaped and sized pieces of
roughly sawed wood. Hammers, chisels, awls, saws, pliers and other tools
hung on a board behind the work bench. Bertha recognized them all. She had
worked metal, wood, leather, and ceramics since she was a child and had her
own pottery business.
Two burly native males greeted her. The smaller introduced himself as,
Barol, Master Armorer. "Teg is my assistant," he said. "In this test, your task is
to make a copy of one of the objects displayed here." Barol pointed to a board

near the water barrel. "Use what you find on the table. You'll also need the
forge."
Bertha studied the examples and decided to make a brass saw. It was
simple, yet complex enough to demonstrate most of the equipment.
Using a metal shear, she cut a blank from a sheet of brass. With a hacksaw,
she notched teeth along one side, then located a setting-tool. It took only
minutes to lever each tooth into position, reversing the set on alternate teeth. A
rummage through the tools turned up a file, and she clamped the newly formed
saw blade in a vise and filed the teeth sharp. She cut and notched a length of
wood for the handle. With a brace and bit, she drilled two holes through one
end of the saw blade and through the matching wood handle. From a bin, she
selected a quarter-inch, black metal rod. A fire already burned at the forge, and
she worked the bellows to bring it to high heat. She fired the end of the rod
until it glowed white, then jammed the heated tip against an anvil to mushroom
it into a cap. With nippers, she cut a short length and quenched it in the water
barrel. She heated it again, this time to red heat, slipped the rivet through the
holes in the handle and saw blade, and pounded it in place. A quick dunk in the
water barrel halted charring of the wood, and a second rivet finished the job.
Crude, but effective, Bertha decided as she tested her saw on a length of
hardwood.
When the Test-master examined the finished saw, he said, "I can see you've
a feel for tools. This is not your first attempt."
"Honey," Bertha said, "I expect I've worked wood and metal since before
you were old enough to hold a hammer."
"Well, you're definitely qualified. It would be my pleasure to work with
you."
"Good," Bertha said. "I don't mind learning from anyone, and maybe I can
teach you a thing or two while we're at it."
***
"I'm Aibit," a chunky, energetic, native woman told Carol. "Therpen is my
assistant."
Carol nodded.
Aibit waved her toward a table on which a large dog-like animal was
stretched. "This dugo is a droid, a training tool without sensory awareness,
used as a test model for checking healing skills. This one has several injuries.
Find and treat them. On the stand next to the table are instruments and supplies.
You may begin immediately."

Carol warmed to the work at once. Before her illness, she had been a
trauma nurse and highly skilled. With deft fingers, she located a deep wound on
one thigh, a break in the right foreleg, and a penetration wound in the dugo's
chest. She applied cloth pads to the thigh wound, then checked the animal's
muzzle and found respiration stable.
Available implements included scissors, thread, forceps, straight and
curved suture needles, scalpels, a spool of silvery thread, straight sticks of
varying length and several cloth bandages. Everything looked spotlessly clean.
The thigh wound appeared worst. She clamped a bleeder above the
exposed femur, then began to stitch muscle and fascia. The femoral vein
streamed from a large tear. She worked the suture needles with precision and
closed the gap, then watched a moment for seepage.
When she finished closing, she moved to the foreleg and set the compound
break then immobilized the limb with sticks and cloth strips. She could do
nothing for the penetration wound except cover it. The entire process took only
a few minutes. She glanced at Aibit.
"If you're done, you can wash up at the basin by the window," the Trainingmaster told her.
As Carol dried her hands, Aibit said, "You seem already to know what to
do. If you choose this area, you can begin training at an advanced level."
"Thank you," Carol said. She still was not sure whether she was dreaming,
but it would be good to have a job again.
***
Linda stepped onto spongy earth that smelled of dampness. Drops of
moisture glistened on green leaves. The sun cast long, soft rays through tall
trees. She did not immediately see where to go so began to stroll among the
trees. A log palisade stretched north and a tangle of bushes spread eastward.
She discovered a path along the palisade and followed it to a small gazebo.
A gnarled native man, hardly larger than herself, was seated within.
"Hello, my name is Froven, Master Scout of Faland."
Before Linda could respond, he whistled shrilly. Two boys dressed in
sirkelns appeared out of the brush. Their skin was deep brown, their russet
hair hung to their shoulders, and their eyes were full of merriment.
"Petr and Fron," Froven said, "take our young pupil into the bush. See if
you can lose her."
Linda's heart jumped.
"Step lively girl," Froven said. "Don't lag. Petr and Fron will leave ten

markers. Remember the location of each."


Linda blinked and Petr and Fron were gone with only a stir of leaves to
mark their passage.
"Well, get on," Froven said again. "You'll be lost before you get started."
Linda stumbled into the green and glimpsed a brown back disappearing
ahead. Rounding a rock, she saw Petr hang a red ribbon on a gnarled tree. The
boys darted ahead like rabbits. Running, Linda splashed across a small creek,
plunged through deep mud, then crawled under a fallen log and sprinted up a
slope. Fron stood at the top, grinning. While Linda struggled toward him, she
saw Petr tie a second ribbon to a bush filled with red fruits. The boys vanished
down a thickly overgrown slope. Linda barely glimpsed one boy leaving a
marker near a large boulder while the second was leaving one in a clearing
near a dead tree. The boys dropped to their knees and scooted into a dense
thicket. Linda followed and felt her hide rip on coarse branches.
Fron left a ribbon at the edge of a grassy clearing, then crossed into
towering trees to leave another. Swift as deer, Petr and Fron darted through
dappled shade and past a small spring while Linda raced to keep up. A small
canyon cut through the hills. Petr fastened a marker to a thorn bush, then
followed Fron into the canyon. Only their mokad prints told Linda their
direction. Sprinting, she glimpsed Fron leaving a small cave. Moments later
the boys climbed into a cluster of flowering bushes and tied the last marker.
"Done!" Petr shouted. "Come! Follow us!"
A moment later, Linda caught sight of the gazebo. She sagged, gasping for
breath.
"I see you had a nice run," Froven said, mischief in his eyes. "Quickly now.
Go and fetch the markers back!"
"You've gotta be kidding," Linda groaned.
"Better hurry; minutes count!"
Linda glanced at the bush; the boys were gone. She trotted slowly while
she regained her breath. In a moment, she recognized the creek where she had
stepped in the mud, and using her footprints as a guide, back-tracked to the first
ribbon. She took it, then returned to the creek and located her tracks under the
fallen log. After climbing the ridge beyond the log, she spotted the red-fruited
bush, then went directly to the boulder where the third ribbon had been left.
This is easy.
But beyond the boulder, she could not remember the clue for the next
marker. She thrashed around for long minutes before she spotted a familiar

dead tree. With the fourth marker in hand, she closed her eyes and
concentrated, recalling a thicket. She turned into the heaviest growth and felt
thorns whip her face. She backed out. An easier path led to a grassy area
where she found another ribbon, then darted through open forest to the spring.
Thirst was too much to ignore, and she sank down and took a long drink.
She had found seven markers and had a pretty good idea where the others
were, but when she reached the small gorge, Petr and Fron popped from
behind a tree and called, "Time's up! We'll show you a short way back."
Froven was still lounging in the gazebo. "Well, you didn't get lost, I see.
How many ribbons did you find?"
"Only seven. I was too slow."
Froven's brow rose. "Well done, little lady! You're the best today!"
Linda's face brightened. "I am?"
"By a large margin. You must like the bush."
Linda forgot her fatigue. "Well, I thought it was hard at first, but it was fun
once I got warmed up."
***
Robert was feeling sour as he prepared to begin his seventh test. He had
gotten sick sewing wounds, hammered his thumb making a miter box, got lost
hunting for ribbons, could not even string the bow in the weapon test, and had
sat like a ninny twiddling his thumbs during the Mentat test. Now he was
seated at a desk facing a thin woman dressed in a dark blue ankle-length robe.
Her angular, almost skeletal face looked like it might never have smiled.
"I'm Thiel," the icy woman said, "Rune-master. You'll find a wooden tablet,
some paper, and a pen on your desk. The markings on the tablet are runes.
Write down what you think they mean. When you finish, bring me the tablet and
I'll give you another. Do you have any questions?"
"How much time do I have?"
"As much as you need. It's better to be accurate and do less than to do much
that's wrong. Anything else?"
Robert shook his head and looked at the tablet. Scribed on its surface were
small pictures: people, plants, animals, and objects that might be the sun,
moon, rivers, and mountains. Some people held bows or spears. As Robert
scanned the symbols, the story of a hunt unfolded. His pulse notched up. This
was more interesting than he had expected. Quickly, he scribbled down what
he thought the runes were saying and asked for another tablet.
By the third tablet, the pictures no longer looked like natural objects. Still,

their meaning seemed clear, and Robert continued to decode their story. When
Thiel called time, he looked up in great surprise. It seemed as if he had only
begun. When he carried the work to her desk, he asked, "Could I read the rest
of it, just for fun?"
Thiel glanced at his writing. "You like runes, do you?"
"I've always liked to read. The runes are just another language."
"Your work is superior. If you decide to study runes, you'll have a chance
to read all you like." Then her thin lips lifted in a faint smile that softened the
severity in her expression. "You are an exceptional candidate."
***
Martin studied his schedule. It had been a long day. "Ah, here it is." He had
arrived at the door to his last test and would be glad when it was over.
Inside, he saw an elderly man, bent with years and sitting cross-legged on a
cushion. His hair was white, his face as gray as dusk. When he looked up,
Martin shivered. The old man's eyes seemed to glow.
"I am Horath, Master Mentat, and you, my friend, are Martin. Come, this is
a simple test. Go into the small room." He gestured toward a circular
enclosure. "Look, listen, touch, smell, taste; do what seems right."
When Martin entered the room, the door slid shut, and he was in total
darkness. He listened and waited for his eyes to adjust. After a moment, he
began to feel along the wall but could not even find a crack to mark the exit.
I smell something. Metallic? Or is it my imagination?
He drew air over his tongue and detected a brassy taste.
Am I hearing a faint hum? There! Above my head I see a spherical object.
No, two objects.
Martin leaped and clutched a sphere. It's smooth surface felt hard and cold,
like frozen silk; it slipped from his grasp.
Something lay on the floor behind him. He turned smoothly, swept his
outstretched hand downward, and sensed the object move. A long rod slid
rapidly across the surface, and he seized it. Sudden blinding light forced him to
shut his eyes. The rod flowed through his fingers.
Through slotted eyes, Martin saw a figure outlined in the light and realized
the door to the enclosure had opened. He was looking at Horath, and the old
man's eyes were locked on his.
"Come tomorrow, friend Martin," Horath said. The glow in his eyes grew
stronger.
Martin felt his heart begin to pound and almost stumbled in his haste to

leave the room.

CHAPTER FOUR

Laughter, loud talk, and good cheer filled the dining hall. The sun had long
since set, and oil lamps provided illumination. Platters of rabir, devon, sturk,
and steaming casseroles of unknown composition crowded the table. Bowls of
raw and cooked vegetables, delicate sauces, and pitchers of drog were
scattered over the surface. Piles of dark brown rolls and mounds of a thick,
oily spread surrounded each plate. The eight trainees and their trainer ate
hugely. In the pleasure of the meal and the warmth of one another's presence
they forgot how they had come to be there and seized upon the moment as
though it were the measure of all time. Their talk was about the recently
completed tests and what the future might hold.
"I'll study Weapon-mastery," said John. "It suits me well, much more than
the other options."
Bertha said, "I chose Armorer. I'm a potter when I'm awake, and Armorer
is the closest thing I can find in this crazy dream. Besides I like Barol." Bertha
laughed so hard her bulk shook the table. She turned to Carol. "What about you,
honey? Have you made a choice?"
"Well," Carol said slowly. "I don't know if I'm dreaming, but I used to be a
nurse. I'd rather patch wounds than make wounds so I guess I'll be a Healer."
"Kefaln said I made fine kurduc," Susan said. "He thinks I'll be a good
Provo."
"At least you didn't burn the rabir like I did," Carol said.
"Runes are for me!" Robert piped. "At least it's fun to do."
"Fun!" John snorted. "Playing with those silly little pictures?"
"Leave the boy alone," Bertha said. "You're just jealous because you don't
have the brains for it."
John laughed and put his big hand on Robert's shoulder. "You're right. I
expect Robert can run rings around me when it comes to brains."
Robert blushed.
"I'm going to be a Scout," Linda said. "The test was hard, but it was like
going on a treasure hunt. I found seven markers. Bertha got lost." She giggled.
"Watch it, honey. I was just a little confused. I found three of those
ridiculous markers and Froven said that's enough to qualify if I want to take the
training."

"How about you, Martin?" Engar asked. "You and Jason have been pretty
quiet. Have you made your choices?"
Martin was only half listening. He could not get the look in Horath's eyes
out of his head. "Come tomorrow", the old master had said. Martin had told no
one he had passed Mentat but suspected Engar knew.
When Martin did not answer, Jason whispered, "I'm going to sing." He was
afraid the others would laugh.
A smile flickered around Engar's mouth. "Song-masters are prized in
Faland, but I warn you Marov has a fearsome reputation. She'll make you
work."
"So, Martin, what have you chosen?" John asked.
"I've been invited to study Mentat-mastery," Martin admitted, "and I'm
considering it."
Engar raised a brow. "That so? You know you can study anything you want.
You qualified in every skill - a rather remarkable accomplishment. Are you
seriously considering Mentat? No one else could make sense of the test."
"I'm still thinking about it," Martin said. "Things happened when I was in
the test room - odd things - and I'd like to know more. It's all rather confusing."
"Well, there's little doubt you can rate as a fighter," Engar said, "so you can
afford the risk in case you don't make it. A lot of people, human and other,
would be much interested in the outcome should you decide to try it."
"What did you do that the rest of us didn't?" John growled. "I stood in that
dingy little cubbyhole for half an hour waiting for something to jump me.
Absolutely nothing happened."
"I think the room was a trick," Martin said. "Horath tried to tell us that,
though not in so many words."
"I hate to break this up," Engar said. "But if you think today was tough, wait
until tomorrow. It's time you people head back to your rooms. On the third
floor you'll find a laundry and shower room. You have a little time now to
clean up and relax before turning in. There's no formal lights-out, but your day
will start an hour before sunup so you don't want to stay up late. Take a snack
with you when you leave the dining hall. It's a long stretch until morning meal.
Oh, and one other thing, you have pretty much the run of the training building
and the compound. However, you're not to leave the palisade. Don't take this
warning lightly. Any questions?"
"Why can't we go outside the palisade?" Linda asked. "I'd like to see what
the rest of Or'gn looks like."

"There'll be time for that later. For the next thirty days your job is to learn
how to survive in Faland. Time spent running around the village or wandering
through the countryside is time not spent training. Look at it this way: this rule
makes it easier to maintain the necessary discipline." Engar grinned. "Anyway,
I promise you'll be too tired to do any extra exploring."
"How about a cheer for our cooks?" Martin suggested.
"Good idea." Engar summoned Mithral and Tisha who blushed and nodded
shyly while the newcomers complimented them on the bounty of their table.
*****
In the room with Jason, Martin found a flint and lit the lamp over the table.
In the cupboard he found a bottle of lamp-oil and needles and thread for cloth
and leather repairs. Alongside them he stowed the food he had brought from
the dining hall, then went with Jason downstairs to the courtyard.
Others were already strolling in the darkened yard where they had met only
that morning. A small pale orb, riding low on the eastern horizon, had replaced
the sun.
"Look at the moon! It's so small!" Jason cried.
"Engar was right," Martin said, his voice quavering. "I've never seen this
sky before and never that moon."
"The stars!" Jason's eyes were wide with wonder. "There are so many!"
Even the brightness of the small moon could not hide the enormous swirls
of stars that formed luminous streamers and smoky clouds in the clear night
sky.
"It's the core," Martin said, "the center of the galaxy! Thousands of light
years! We're thousands of light years from home!"
A whirl of white wings engulfed them, and Jason raised his hands to shield
his face.
"Oh, they make me dizzy! What are they?"
Frail winged creatures swept around them, like leaves blown on the wind.
They fluttered wildly for a few moments, then vanished into the night.
"Moths," Martin said. "Hundreds and hundreds."
"It's magic here," Jason said, his face slack with wonder.
"Thousands of light years," Martin repeated softly. "Thousands and
thousands - it's awesome."
"Maybe we're not even in our own galaxy."
Martin closed his eyes. His mind did not want to grapple with the
implications of what his senses were telling him.

"Will we ever go back?" Jason asked


Martin said. "Maybe there's no place to which we can return."
"What do you mean?"
"Theory tells us travel over such great distance requires aeons of time. If
we're near the heart of the galaxy, then our home is not only far away, but also
long ago."
"Does that mean we're here forever?" Jason asked. "I hope so. I don't want
to go back, not ever. At home I was always sick and the only thing I wanted to
do was die."
Martin put his arm around the boy's shoulders and drew him near.
Carol and Robert drifted toward them looking ghostly in the pale light.
Jason pulled away from Martin and joined hands with Robert.
Martin watched Carol come nearer and saw her hair, a darker dark against
her olive skin, fall in coils over her bare shoulders. His pulse quickened.
"This is a good place," Carol said softly. "It's a miracle, isn't it?"
Martin noticed how thin her shoulders were, with the exaggerated boniness
that Jason showed. He wanted to touch her.
Carol said, "We've been given a new life here, haven't we? Where did it
come from? How did we get here?"
"Jason thinks aliens beamed us."
"Bertha still says she's dreaming."
"And you?"
"I just think it's strange," Carol said.
"Yes," Martin said. "It is odd. It looks primitive, but if Jason is right, the
technology that brought us here is beyond our imagination."
"Do you know what droids are?" Carol asked.
"I didn't give them much thought."
"They're not what they seem."
"Aibit said they have no independent existence. I did wonder what that
means."
"I think droids are artificial, sort of practice dummies. The dugos were
designed for medical practice."
"They're flesh and blood and their bodies are warm."
"I know, but the one assigned to me started to revive while I worked on it.
Before Aibit sprayed it with something to knock it out I had the impression it
didn't feel what I was doing."
"You're worried, aren't you? I can see it in your eyes. You've got doubts

about this place."


"You feel it, too," Carol said. "Isn't that why you chose Mentat training?"
"I suppose so. I've always been pretty pragmatic, but I'm not sure I can trust
my senses since waking here. The Mentat test was strange. I want to find out
what's going on."
"Is Bertha right? Are we dreaming?"
"Part of the time I think so, but it isn't like any dream I can remember. I feel
as alive and awake as I ever have. Besides," Martin smiled, "if I'm dreaming,
then you don't exist and your question is meaningless." He put his hand on the
small of Carol's back and she did not pull away. They moved to the courtyard
wall.
The moon cast tenuous illumination over the vast land, creating a mosaic of
light and dark as far as the eye could see. As they studied, trying to fit
themselves into the vastness, voices sounded in the dark behind them. Jason
and Robert came out of the shadows.
"It's Engar," Robert said.
A tall figure was moving across the courtyard.
"Everything's set for tomorrow," Engar told them. "I've posted schedules at
your rooms. A servant will wake you an hour before sunrise. Eat, but not too
much. We'll meet here for morning exercises, and we'll work together until
morning meal. After that you'll go to your individual classes. I suggest you turn
in soon. Wake-up call will come before you know it."
The group divided into pairs and headed toward their rooms where they
left their sirkelns and mokads. They kept on their ukelns, the soft garments
worn under their sirkelns, and took soap and towels and headed toward the
shower room. A laundry, comprised of brass-lined, wooden tubs equipped
with scrub boards, occupied the south end of the facility. A balcony, extending
south onto the roof, served as a drying yard. North of the laundry, a dozen
unenclosed spray outlets mounted above a wood-slat floor made up the shower
facility. A shelf, out of range of the spray, provided a place to set soap and
towels, and underneath was a row of pegs on which to hang their ukelns.
Some were already showering when Jason and Martin arrived. Jason
blushed when he saw the naked women, but Martin slipped off his ukeln. The
women had chosen the far end of the shower, and. Robert was at the near end.
Martin took the nozzle next to him. The water, sun-warmed in a roof catchment,
was pleasantly tepid.
"Great shower," Martin said as he lathered.

Carol laughed nervously. "Not very private."


"Who cares? I've been and seen naked before," Robert said.
Martin chortled.
Laughter eased the tension and even Jason relaxed and stepped into the
shower.
Martin was not sleepy when he got back to the room, but he was tired.
Jason slumped on the edge of his bed with a somber expression in his dark
eyes.
"Something wrong?" Martin asked.
"I don't want to go to sleep."
"I know," Martin said. "You're worried this isn't real after all."
"I'm afraid I'll wake up back in the hospital," Jason said. "I like not being
sick. I don't want it to be the way it was."
"Why the sudden doubts? Aren't you the one who insisted all day that this is
for real?"
"I think I was just hoping," Jason said. "Now it's dark and the day is gone. I
wish it were just starting."
"Every day ends. Tomorrow will bring what it will, but now it's time for
sleep."
Martin blew out the lamp and slid under the cover on his bed. As his eyes
adjusted to the moonlight coming through the east window, he saw Jason still
seated on the edge of his bed.
Probably won't either of us sleep much tonight.
Martin yawned, then fell promptly asleep.

CHAPTER FIVE

Loud knocks echoed in the darkness. Martin groped for his bedside alarm
and felt his hand swing through empty air.
Where am I?
Something soft hit the floor and the knocks turned into muffled yells. "Rise
and shine! Everybody up!"
Out of the darkness a figure appeared above Martin. "Wake up! I think it's
time to get up!"
"Jason?" Martin sounded groggy.
"It's time to get up," Jason shook Martin's shoulder. "It's not a dream! We're
still in Faland. Isn't it wonderful?"
Martin struggled to an elbow and saw Jason, shadowy in the weak light
coming through the window, climb onto a chair next to the table. He heard the
sharp sound of steel on flint and a tongue of light grew in the lantern.
As Martin's brain came awake, memory of the day before came too.
Jason's right, it isn't a dream. It's impossible to go to sleep in a dream
and wake up still dreaming . . . isn't it?
He swung his feet out of bed as the lamp sputtered into full life.
"Did you sleep at all?" Martin asked Jason.
"Yeah, but I woke up when I had to use the bathroom, and someone
knocked on the door before I could get back to sleep."
Through the window faint light showed on the eastern horizon. Martin went
into the bathroom and lit its lamp. "Do you want to wash up first? It'll take me
a few minutes to shave."
"There's room for both of us." Jason pushed past Martin. "I'll get some
water."
They soaped their faces and arms and splashed each other and laughed.
Martin lathered and applied the pearl-bladed razor to the stubble on his jaw
while Jason brushed his teeth.
"You're in a good mood," Martin said.
"Uh-huh." Jason gurgled around the toothbrush.
"Are you brushing with soap?"
"Couldn't find toothpaste. Besides, it tastes okay."
They pulled on their sirkelns and mokads, then made breakfast from the

leftovers Martin brought from the dining hall the evening before.
"Wow, I'm hungry," Jason said, stuffing his mouth.
"I thought I took too much last night. Now I'm not sure there's enough."
After eating they headed to the courtyard. Others were gathered there,
talking excitedly as they watched the bright aura where the sun would soon
rise.
"Martin," Carol called from the railing. "How was your night?"
"I slept like a log. Jason was up first."
Carol's grin showed white teeth against olive. She looked happy, and her
face had a youthful look Martin had not seen the day before. He watched the
sun's first rays catch her hair and build ruby overtones in the soft, black
strands.
"It's wonderful to wake and feel so good," Carol said. "Susan and I even
sang a duet this morning."
"You ready to go to school?" Martin asked.
"I think it's exciting. I haven't worked since I got sick. It'll be fun having
something to do again."
"Even learning to fight?"
"I'm not going to fight. I'm going to be a Healer, like before."
Engar arrived, attired only in his sirkeln and mokads and without the
weaponry he had worn the day before. "Good! Everyone's here. This may seem
a bit onerous, but conditioning is important. We'll warm up with calisthenics,
then run in the compound."
The group soon learned what Engar meant by onerous. Warm-up took an
hour, after which they jogged downstairs to the compound where Engar set a
brisk pace along the trail to the gazebo, then north a mile before angling over a
low ridge.
Martin felt pleasantly surprised when he discovered a measure of his old
stamina. "How big is the compound?" he asked Engar.
"Better than a legon square, and a legon is close to a mile. Our path covers
about five legons."
"Good run first time out."
"This is still warm-up. After the run, the real work begins." Engar sprinted
ahead and was back at the training building several minutes before the others
arrived. Martin struggled for breath as he slowed.
Linda, her face glistening with sweat, drew abreast. "This is fun!" she
yelled. "I love to run!"

Moments later Jason, with Robert and Susan, sputtered into view and
Bertha hauled up blowing like a wounded elephant. John was not much better
off.
Engar gave them a few minutes, then took them into the training hall.
Weights rested on benches, a double rope climb hung from the ceiling, and dip
bars were in place. Assisted by Sardor and Thren, Engar guided each trainee
in a series of strength and agility exercises. These he followed with rope
climbing, one-leg sprint relays, shuttle relays, and peg-climb races. When
everyone felt they could not lift an arm or take another step, Engar called a
break.
"Time for morning meal," he said.
With their wind recovered, they launched into the kurduc, bread, drog, and
assorted side dishes with enthusiasm.
"Skill training begins next," Engar announced.
***
Horath was waiting when Martin arrived. He sat cross-legged as before
and motioned Martin to sit. Martin faced the Master Mentat and looked again
into his eyes.
"You will learn concentration," Horath said.
Martin felt himself fall into a plum-colored vortex. Strange sensations
disturbed his mind and made his stomach queasy. Horath seemed to surround
him, yet was nowhere evident.
What am I to do?
Martin concentrated, but discovered nothing. When the session ended, he
felt drained and frustrated, yet Horath dismissed him with a mere wave of his
hand and would answer no questions. Martin slipped into the compound and
dropped gratefully to the grass under a large tree. He ate bread and meat saved
from breakfast and savored the minutes remaining before he would begin
learning the art of war.
Jason emerged from the training hall and saw Martin. "I wondered where
you had gone," he said.
"Just resting a minute. How was Marov?"
Jason's face glowed. "She's great. I really like her."
"And the singing?"
"It's fun. I love it."
"I'm glad." Martin clapped Jason on the back.
"How about Horath?" Jason asked.

"Confusing, but otherwise okay," Martin said. "Horath, I think, will be a


real challenge."
Jason sensed his doubt and looked troubled.
"Not to worry," Martin reassured him. "I think we better get inside before
Engar wonders where we are."
Afternoon combat training included John, Martin, Jason, Carol, and Linda.
The others, Bertha, Susan, and Robert, had attended combat training earlier
and were now with their skill instructors.
"You kids may wonder why you must learn combat when you'll not likely
get skilled or strong enough to earn a fighter's rating," Engar began as he led
them to the armor racks.
"Goes for me too," Carol said. "If we qualify in our skill you said we don't
need to fight. Shouldn't we spend all our time on skill training?"
"Sorry," Engar said. "It doesn't work that way. You are assigned to Faland's
Warrior caste. You don't have a choice. Once you put on the red headband of a
Warrior, you'll have to fight if challenged."
"Challenged?" Martin asked.
"Warriors compete for standing. When you leave training, other Warriors
will challenge you, hoping to increase their standing by defeating you. You can
avoid challenging other Warriors, but sometimes you must accept their
challenges."
"You didn't say that yesterday. I don't want to fight," Carol said. "I thought
you told us if we learn a skill we don't have to fight."
"I only said you could avoid most combat. I know it'll be hard, but it'll be
even harder if you lack the skill. It's to your advantage to learn as much about
Faland combat as you can and to become as skilled as possible."
"I heard John mention something about tribute," Martin said. "What's that
all about?"
Engar motioned Sardor to begin fitting protective gear. "I'll explain. An
ethical code governs challenge duels. Honorable Warriors fight by the rules.
Such fights rarely result in serious injury, but losers must pay tribute to the
winner. The amount depends on fighting level. Unrated fighters pay one rall, all
others pay three ralls per level."
"You saying this is some kind of game? Are we gladiators expected to fight
for someone's amusement?"
"Perhaps that's partly true, but I haven't told you everything yet. There are
places in Faland where honor rules don't apply, and there the game is deadly

serious."
Engar saw the looks on their faces. "I'm not trying to scare you. I just want
you to take combat training seriously. It's important. I've lived here a year, and
I know. Now, I think you better get started."
While Engar was telling his cautionary tale, John had been practicing handto-hand combat with Thren. Two other, remarkably ugly, individuals now
joined the staff.
"I'd like you to meet Tu and Fru," Engar said. "You'll become well
acquainted with these Warrior droids."
"Droids?" Martin asked. "You mean like the dugo droids in the med tests?
Just what are droids, anyway?"
"I thought you might be curious." Engar smiled. "Did any of you see the
Terminator movies?"
"Are these Terminators?" Jason asked, his eyes suddenly wide.
"There are similarities," Engar said. "They're engineered life forms, a
combination of flesh and machine, like the first Terminator. They're
programmed fighters and that's all they do. You'll find sparring with them
interesting."
"Malevolent looking creatures, " Martin said. "Must weigh close to two
hundred pounds each."
"My God, what's going on?" Carol cried. "If droids are made to fight, why
are we training to be Warriors?"
"Good question," Engar said. "It appears droids are not very intelligent.
Human and native Warriors supply the leadership in military operations.
Droids accompany expeditions but rarely carry the full burden of battle. Also,
though they're impressive in battle, humans can defeat them. In fact, to qualify
as a fighter that's exactly what you have to do."
"Are they sentient?" Martin asked.
"They're machines, robots made of flesh," Engar answered. "I doubt they're
sentient, but there are lots of surprises in Faland. In my year here I've barely
scratched the surface. But cheer up, you'll get used to it and likely find it not
half bad."
"Does that make it half good?" Jason asked.
Engar shrugged. "It's all a matter of perspective. Now, let's get started." He
selected two training swords. "I'll start with Martin. The rest of you watch."
He gave a sword to Martin, the other to Fru, and ushered them into a roped
off area, a bit like a boxing ring.

"Test Martin," he commanded.


Fru immediately attacked and Martin backpedaled against the ropes. The
training swords, designed to have the weight and feel of combat weapons,
were made of brass, their edges dulled and sheathed in leather so they did not
cut. Fru, passionless, methodical, and brutally effective, rained blows on
Martin. In spite of padding, Martin winced with each stroke. After several
minutes, during which he concentrated mostly on avoiding punishment, Martin
began to see Fru's attack pattern. He countered and felt a pleasurable jolt as he
landed his first blow. His joy was short lived, however, for Fru changed
strategy and easily penetrated Martin's defense.
Engar called a halt. "Excellent! Good beginning. I think the sword will be
right for you."
Martin crawled through the ropes, gasping, his body a mass of aches. "If
that was good I sure don't want to see bad!"
"Linda, you're next," Engar turned to the pixie with the black eyes.
"Me?" she squeaked.
Carol looked from Linda to the huge droid. "You're kidding, I hope."
"She won't get hurt," Engar said. "She's too small and light to handle a
sword. I have something else in mind."
Sardor guided Linda into the ring.
Engar turned to the child. "You and Tu are going to play a little game. Tu
will run after you and try to grab you. All you have to do is stay out of the way.
I want you to kick, scream and claw with all your strength if Tu catches you.
Escape if you can. Any questions?"
Linda's eyes brightened. "Is that all? I just have to play keep-away?"
Engar nodded.
"That's easy! I've done this lots of times."
Tu was in the ring opposite her.
"Say when you're ready," Engar called to Linda.
"Now!" Linda shouted.
Engar commanded Tu, "Capture Linda!"
Tu charged and Linda giggled as she ran along the ropes. The massive
droid caught her before she took two steps. Its huge hand gripped her ankle.
She rolled and kicked with her free foot. A meaty arm crossed her chest and
she felt her back slam against the stone floor. Pinned and helpless, she
struggled to breathe. She was no longer giggling.
Engar nodded and Tu released the girl. Engar saw tears in her eyes. "It's

rough," he said. "Are you willing to try again?"


Linda choked back a sob, but there was a flicker of defiance in her eyes.
She nodded yes.
This time, when things were set, she poised on the balls of her feet, knees
flexed, arms slightly out from her sides. "Now," she whispered.
She watched Tu's huge thigh muscles bunch, and she raced along the ropes
as before. When Tu's outstretched leg blocked her way, she slammed her small
foot against his, twisted sideways, and rolled between his legs. Instantly she
was on her feet, running. At the ropes, she reversed and saw Tu's grappling
arms reach for her. A fast right turn cleared his leg. She reversed again and
slipped by as his hand brushed her shoulder. Something grabbed her right arm
below the shoulder. She rotated and raked Tu's forearm with her nails. The
droid snarled, shook her, and flipped her onto her back like a rag doll. Linda
sucked air and stared into soulless black eyes.
"Better! Much better!" Engar lifted Linda over the ropes. "A good Warrior
knows how to escape as well as fight. In time, I think, the droid will not catch
you."
Linda nodded.
Engar turned to Carol. "Your turn; I'm going to try you with the sword."
In spite of her misgivings, after witnessing Linda's pluck, Carol did not see
how she could refuse. She entered the ring with her heart in her throat and an
unpleasant churning in her stomach. When Fru attacked, she raised her sword
and felt it tear from her grip. Slack-jawed, she stared as the droid thrust its
sword against her armor and drove her to the ropes.
Engar stepped in. "That's okay. Try it again, but never relax your grip on
your sword."
To her surprise, Carol found herself angry. When Fru attacked, she swung
savagely and felt her sword connect with the droid's blade. A second later, Fru
penetrated her defense and slapped her shoulder with the flat of its blade, hard
enough to throw her off balance. She swung hard, then again, harder and faster.
Fru backed and she exulted. But the droid halted its tactical retreat, got inside
her wild swings, and pummeled her savagely.
"Good! Good," Engar called as he stopped the fight. "The sword is your
weapon. You show great spirit."
"Good?" Carol cried. "That thing beat the crap out of me!"
Engar grinned. "But I noticed you had no qualms about defending yourself.
In time you'll learn to avoid the punishment."

"I guess I'm next," Jason said.


"Indeed you are," Engar said as he turned to the boy. "But your training will
be a little different. Before I put you in the ring, you'll need some preparation."
From the weapon rack, he chose a tagan and flexed it in his hands. "This'll be
your weapon, Jason, but it's tricky to use. Pay attention all of you; you must
understand this weapon whether you use it or not."
Engar moved to a thick wooden beam, supported on four legs, a bit like an
oversize sawhorse. In a lightning move, he brought the tagan up and over,
letting the thin whip extend to full length. It flashed across the wooden horse
and a fountain of splinters sprayed outward from the torn beam. Everyone
jumped.
"Two things you must never forget when you use this weapon," Engar said
as he coiled it again in his hand. "Powerful as it is, a strong blade can cut its
cabling, leaving you defenseless against a skilled swordsman, and the tagan
can bite the hand that holds it. Notice how it curls when swung in empty air?
The free end, if not carefully controlled, can lash back and strike you: in the
face, in the eye, on the hand, almost anyplace. Of all Faland's weapons, the
tagan is the most dangerous to the unskilled user. Yet, it is also the most
effective for a smaller, lighter Warrior. Speed and technique are much more
important than strength."
Engar then put his hand on Jason's shoulder and peered into his eyes. "My
young friend, you have the potential to defeat a droid with this weapon. Do you
believe me?"
Jason looked at the huge droid, then back at the tagan. He swallowed and
shook his head from side to side. "I don't see how."
"Watch!"
Engar exchanged the Warrior's tagan for a training weapon with the spines
removed and the tip wrapped in leather. He climbed into the ring and nodded
to Tu and Fru. Both droids took positions outside the opposing corner and
Sardor moved to instruct them.
"Attack!" Sardor hissed, and the droids, armed with training swords,
danced forward. They moved with almost balletic precision, yet with great
circumspection. Engar stepped from his corner, the tagan trailing lightly in his
right hand.
The droids charged and Engar sidestepped toward Tu's swing. Faster even
than the stroke he had driven against the wooden horse, he brought the tagan
overhead in a sharp, diagonal sweep. The tip contacted Tu's sword hand with a

sound like rifle shot; the droid grunted and its sword spun aside. Engar
squatted as Fru's blade whistled overhead. At the end of his stroke, Engar
backhanded horizontally. The tip of his tagan slapped Fru's right thigh and the
droid backed. Engar followed with a blinding vertical that curled over Fru's
left shoulder. The droid tried to get under Engar's extended right arm, but the
Weapon-master dodged and flipped the tagan to his left hand. Twisting right, he
drove a straight vertical to the droid's sword hand. The match ended with Fru's
sword lying alongside Tu's on the stone floor.
"Wow!" Jason's eyes were wide. It had taken scarcely a dozen heartbeats
for the Weapon-master to disarm the two hulking droids.
"You see," Engar handed the training tagan to Jason. "In skilled hands this
is a remarkably powerful weapon."
"Show me how to do that!"
When Engar finished his evaluations, he divided the pupils between
himself and his assistants and set everyone to practice. All afternoon he rotated
assignments so that he could work personally with each pupil.
During the last hour, Engar took them to the practice range to introduce
them to projectile weapons. "Your Warrior rating depends on your skill with
close combat weapons," he told them, "and your training will concentrate most
heavily on those. However, you should also become skilled in at least one
weapon that will strike an enemy at a distance. Eventually your skill with these
weapons will be as important as your skill with sword or tagan. The hummer
is a weapon even a small Warrior like Linda can learn."
Engar started Martin with a bow, but Carol found Faland war bows beyond
her strength. Engar introduced her to the kalard, then showed Linda and Jason
how to throw a hummer. By dismissal, drenched with sweat, exhausted and
bruised, the trainees wondered if their original assessment of Faland as heaven
might have been mistaken.
Everyone revived at the evening meal. Jason did not sit with Martin, but
sought the company of Robert and the two girls; the children joked merrily
across the table, accepting one another and their new life with the easy
adaptability of the young. Martin found a place next to Carol, marveling at how
quickly he and the others recovered from their grueling workouts.
Carol seemed subdued.
"What are you thinking?" Martin asked.
When she did not reply, he said, "It's been a rough two days. Our lives
have changed so fast. Do you miss what you had?"

"No," Carol said. "I was dying. I guess I'm dead. It's just . . . well . . . not
what I expected. I don't know if this is God's idea of a joke, or what. I don't
like fighting. I don't think women should fight."
"I heard that," Bertha broke in. "Honey, speak for yourself. As for me. I
don't mind learning to handle myself. Man or woman, a body's got a right to
defend herself."
"I suppose," Carol said. "But I hoped being dead would be nicer. There
was enough fighting where we came from."
"Honey, from what I hear, you mixed it up pretty good today," Bertha said.
"Maybe you're here because you like it better than you admit."
Carol flushed.

CHAPTER SIX

During the next days, Engar's students had little time to think about anything
except work and learning. Memory of their past lives faded with astonishing
rapidity. Friendships grew. Even Engar was drawn in though he remained
always the Training-master.
Everyone enjoyed skill training and all felt they were making progress
except Martin. Each day he sat in front of Horath and felt himself fall into a
spinning, multi-colored vortex that made no sense. As his frustration increased,
he sensed that Horath, too, was frustrated.
What am I supposed to do?
Orbs, cylinders, splashes of color, squares, triangles, spikes of light, all
flashed in front of his eyes. They looked like cubistic art, scattered, unrelated,
waxing and waning with no recognizable pattern.
Then Martin had an insight.
What does Horath keep telling me? Quit using my eyes?
Of course! The images have no meaning! Meaning is in the source of the
images!
He wanted to laugh, cry, shout, jump, anything to celebrate his discovery.
For the first time, he saw a smile on Horath's face, and the fierce light in his
eyes was replaced with warmth. The Master Mentat placed a withered hand on
Martin's shoulder. "Tomorrow we will truly begin," he said.
As days rolled by, bodies fleshed out, stamina improved, and strength
increased. Even Carol muted her protests and ceased to rebel against the
sword.
"Did you hear how severed arms and legs can be sewed back and the
wounds will heal?" Jason asked. He was sitting with Martin on the courtyard
wall, admiring the moonlit landscape.
"Carol told me."
"She said she's already done it on a dugo and it takes only about a week
and they're good as new. You think it's true?"
"I've no reason to doubt Carol. We've already seen how fast smaller
injuries heal, like the cut on your thumb when you were testing for Armorer. It
took only a day. By two days you couldn't tell you'd been cut."
"You think they could cure Aids here?"

Martin looked at the boy and saw strong, wiry muscles along his arms,
sinewy calves and thighs, and a face glowing with health. "I'd say they already
have, Lad; they already have."
Jason grinned. "You're right."
"Faland is definitely not like back home."
"Martin, can I ask you something?"
"Of course." Martin turned to the boy.
"Do you like Carol?"
Martin looked surprised. "Why do you ask?"
"You do, don't you? I mean, you see her a lot . . . I mean we all see her a lot
but . . . well . . . you and her seem pretty friendly."
"I like Carol, true enough. I think you rather like Linda, too."
Jason's face warmed.
"By the way, where is Linda tonight, and Robert and Susan?"
"Practicing. Linda's on a night hike with Froven."
"We're all busy these days. We're half way through training."
"Seems like I've been doing this all my life," Jason said. "It's like I wasn't
born until I came here. I--"
Running feet sounded in the passageway to the courtyard. A shouted voice
came through the darkness, "Martin! There's been an accident in the training
hall!"
It was Susan's voice. Martin ran across the courtyard and followed her
downstairs, Jason at his heels. They found a small crowd gathered around
someone lying on the floor.
"Robert!" Jason cried. Carol was at the boy's side, her hands wrapped
around one leg. She had blood up to her elbows. Linda skidded up with a
medical pouch and dumped its contents.
"Poma?" she asked Carol and fumbled a small canister open before
receiving a reply.
"Good!" Carol slid over to make room for Linda. "When I let go, dump the
powder directly on the wound."
Crouching at Robert's feet, Jason gagged as a bone-deep gash from knee to
ankle sagged open. Linda dumped yellow powder into the raw wound..
"Enough," Carol said, her voice cool. "I'll tie it closed." Linda moved her
small hands between Carol's and helped hold and wrap the bandages as Carol
tied.
"This will hold until the bleeding stops," Carol said. "Then I'll stitch it."

Flustered and puffing, Bertha shoved through the door with Healer Aibit
following. "Excellent, Carol," Aibit said when she saw what her pupil had
done."John, carry the boy up to the lab. We'll stitch the wound there."
John raised Robert from the floor, cradling his head, and started up the
stairs.
"Has anyone told Engar?" Martin asked.
"He went for a walk," Bertha said. "Said he'd be gone half an hour. He
should be back shortly."
They trooped into the lab, and John laid Robert on a prep table. Therpen
had gone ahead and laid out an instrument pack and prepared hot water and
bandages. Aibit untied the strips of cloth that held Robert's leg together. Poma
had induced clots in even the largest severed vessels and the bleeding had
ceased. She swabbed the wound with green liquid.
"Frenwort," Carol explained, "from an herb that stops pain and speeds
healing."
Carol watched Aibit work. The wound had parted Robert's calf muscles
longitudinally and had severed his right peroneal artery. Fortunately, it had
spared the posterior tibial artery and its co-running nerve. The wound had
penetrated to the bone along three inches of its length.
Aibit turned to Carol. "He's your patient. Close the wound."
Carol hesitated.
"This is within your ability," Aibit said. "I'll help if necessary. Linda, you
can help too."
Robert was pale as ash, but with his pain numbed, he lay quietly.
"You're going to be fine," Jason told him, his face almost as white as
Robert's.
Bertha wiped the boy's forehead with a dampened cloth. "Jason's right.
You're in good hands."
Carol attached a small clamp to each end of the severed peroneal artery,
then used a small spatulate instrument to clear poma from the area. With
forceps, she removed a small sheet of translucent material from a tiny box and
instructed Linda to use the clamps to hold the ends of the artery together.
Carefully, she wrapped the translucent sheet around the union. Instantly, it
adhered, forming a leak tight coupling. When Linda removed the clamps, blood
began to flow through the repaired artery.
Aibit nodded. "Good job."
Next, Carol stitched together layers of fascia and muscle. Twice Aibit bent

to inspect and once to help. Martin watched and wondered. Carol was a nurse
in the old life. Did she develop these surgical skills then? How else could she
have learned so much in such a short time?
Engar, who had come in while the work was in progress, asked everyone
to assemble in the training hall. He requested that Robert be present, and when
Aibit offered no objection, John carried the boy downstairs.
"What happened?" Engar turned first to Robert.
John propped the boy on a training bench with his leg raised.
"Do we have to do this tonight?" Carol asked, anger in her voice. "The
boy's hurt."
Engar looked at her with eyes like flint. "We do it now."
Robert's eyes had tears in them. "I was practicing with the tagan," he said.
"Wearing protection?"
"No," Robert hung his head.
"Was a trainer with you?"
"You and Sardor were gone and Thren was helping John."
Engar's scowl deepened. "I don't recall you asking for extra help this
evening; is my memory faulty?"
Robert reddened. "I didn't ask."
"That wound wasn't caused by a training tagan. What did you use?"
"A war tagan," Robert admitted in an almost inaudible voice. "I was
practicing sweeps and wanted to see what it would do to the 'horse.'" He
looked at Engar with tears running down his cheeks. "It was my fault. I did it
wrong. No one else is to blame."
"Did anyone else see the accident?" Engar asked.
"I should've paid more attention," John said. "He was working alone, but I
was too busy with my own practice to give him heed."
"It was not your fault," Engar said. "We have staff to help, and Robert knew
to ask."
"I saw it," Linda volunteered. "I'd just got back from a night hike, and I
came in to see who was in the training hall. Robert was doing sweeps, like he
said, but he got too close to the overhead." She pointed to the pull-up bar. "The
tagan hit the bar and bounced down. It curled around and hit his leg."
"I was practicing with a sword," Carol admitted, "without supervision, like
Robert. I didn't see what happened, but I heard Robert scream and Linda
started yelling. I ran to Robert and put pressure on the wound while Linda got
the medical kit."

"Anyone else?" Engar asked. "Who got Aibit?"


"I was just outside the door," Susan answered. "I heard the noise, and when
I saw what was happening I ran to get everybody. Bertha got Aibit."
Robert was still crying. "What's going to happen to me?"
Engar's face softened. "Nothing. What was going to happen already has. I'm
pleased that you admit your fault. It means you've learned a lesson and won't
make the same mistake again." He turned to the group. "Rules have a purpose.
Failure to follow them increases your risk and sometimes that of others.
Robert's going to be all right; I've had worse wounds myself. There won't be
any infection; there won't be any complications. In a few days he'll have only a
fading scar where the tagan bit him; and perhaps, the memory of the harm
foolishness can cause. I didn't call this meeting to punish Robert. I called it so
we might all understand what happened and keep it from happening again.
Now, it's getting late and morning will soon be here."
John lifted Robert. "You'll be back in action in no time, Pal, thanks to Carol
and your friend, Linda."
"I was afraid Engar wouldn't want me any more," Robert said. "Will he let
me finish training?"
"Engar said he isn't going to punish you. You'll finish your training. This is
only a cut; it won't last long. Heck, I'm sure Warriors get hurt worse than this
all the time."
This observation did not reassure Robert, but next morning he hobbled
down to breakfast ready to resume his work. The tagan had, however,
intimidated him and he refused to practice with it. But when Engar told him
there was no time to switch to another weapon, and if he did not train with the
tagan he would have to learn to play dodgem with Linda and Susan, he took it
up again.
*****
After the breakthrough with Horath, Martin made rapid progress in Mentatmastery. He worked in the small cubicle, and when the metallic spheres, like
tiny moons, appeared as they had the first day, he discovered it was his mind
that must control them, not his hands. He learned to control the elusive,
transmutable rod, using only the power of his mind. It was not magic, he
decided, but a tangible connection between spheres, rod, and mind that made it
possible. He wondered how such a connection could be engineered.
Horath rarely answered questions. Only during the final week of training
did Martin realize that when he thought he was in control of the spheres and

rod, it was Horath who supplied most of the guidance. When, near the end, he
gained actual control, he discovered how hard he must concentrate and how
easily Horath could usurp control.
Martin learned the spheres were vision aids, extended eyes, that allowed a
Mentat to see as though the spheres were light receptors connected directly to
the mind. The rod was more confusing. He could readily configure it into many
forms, but it easily lost its shape. It seemed to channel energy, though it was not
clear what use it was. Martin concentrated on manipulating the device and
assumed eventually its purpose would become clear.
On the evening of the twenty-eighth day of training, at supper when
everyone was talking and laughing and making merry, John suddenly shouted,
"Hey! We have a Song-master growing among us? What about a song Jason?
We have yet to hear you sing, and rumor says you have a fine voice." John had
grown increasingly gregarious as his huge body strengthened. His hair was still
snow white and he wore a full, white beard, yet his general appearance greatly
belied his elderly status. At six foot nine, he towered over everyone at the
table, and when he spoke, all listened.
Jason blushed and stared at his plate.
"Yes! A song! Jason, sing us a song!" A chorus of voices joined John's call.
"I haven't practiced any real songs," Jason said. "I mean songs with words.
I only know Marov's songs, and they don't have words."
"Then sing us Marov's songs!" John bellowed. "We'll not fault the lack of
words."
"Say, Martin," Bertha shouted. "You must know some songs? Can't you
teach Jason a song or two? I might know a few myself." Then she added, half
to herself, "If I can remember the words and get the music right."
"Let him sing Marov's songs now," Susan said. "He can learn others later."
"How about it, Jason?" Martin asked. "Are you ready for your public
debut?"
"Well," Jason began uncertainly, "I guess I could."
A general shout and clapping brought Jason to his feet.
"Quiet now! Everybody quiet!" Bertha thundered.
Jason stood at his place, suddenly surrounded by silence, and saw the faces
turned expectantly toward him. He felt his heart pound as it had the first time
he performed for Marov. He began to sing, tremulously at first, but as the song
took hold, with growing power. It was not merely sound that came from his
throat, but joy as well - joy that elicited an answering joy in the hearts of his

listeners. His notes hung in the air like live things, rose then dropped to a low
that seemed impossible for so young a boy, then rose again. Slowly his voice
wove a musical tapestry of wondrous complexity and beauty. All had heard
Marov during their tests, but this song went far beyond. When at last Jason
finished, they all knew what it meant when someone was called Song-master.
The applause was long and hard and Jason beamed as they shouted,
"Encore! Encore!"
Later, after shower and laundry chores, when it was time to put out the
lantern, Jason sat on the edge of his bed and remembered the dining hall and
the song and the way the others had enjoyed it. It made him shiver with
pleasure, but darkness had come also into his thoughts and he grew anxious.
Martin finished in the bathroom and blew out the lantern.
"Tomorrow is our last day," Jason said, a plaintive note in his voice.
"I know," Martin dropped to his bed.
"I like it here."
"Me, too."
"I mean, I like it here, in the training building, with everyone."
Martin looked at the boy, silhouetted in the darkness on the edge of his bed.
Jason's hands fidgeted with the tie that held his ukeln around his lean hips.
Faint light accented the movement of his fingers.
"When the training is over, where will we go?" Jason's voice was husky.
"I don't know; I've thought about it too. I suspect everyone's thinking about
it."
"Do you think . . . ?" Jason's voice trailed off. He lifted his head and
Martin could see starlight in his eyes. "Maybe . . . do you think we might stay
together?"
Martin got up and crossed to Jason and drew the boy to him. Small, hard
arms, circled his neck and squeezed.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Martin said. "But I promise I'll stay
with you. I don't know how the system works in Faland, but from what Engar
says, it should be possible for us to get jobs with the same agent."
Jason eased into his bed. "I hope so."
Martin rose and brushed the boy's forehead with his lips. He crossed to his
bed and slipped under the covers, wondering if there were any chance at all
that he could keep the promise he had just made.

CHAPTER SEVEN

On the eve of final exams, everyone gathered in the dining hall as usual.
The mood was subdued, the talk low and casual, of incidentals with little
mention of the coming tests. No one talked about the approaching moment when
they would go separately into an ill-defined future. A month before, they had
awakened strangers in an alien world. Now they were a closely knit cadre
with strong emotional ties that each dreaded to break.
"Might we have a song tonight, Jason?" Carol asked.
All day Jason had thought he might be asked and had decided he would
refuse. For the first time since beginning his studies, he did not feel like
singing. But now that the request had come, he changed his mind. A
composition that, at first, he had not liked now suited his mood so well he
wanted to give it voice.
It was simpler than what he sang the night before and had none of its
liveliness. It had no words, yet when he began to sing, Jason finally understood
it. It was a song of ending and beginning, of past pleasure and future joy, of
sorrow and hope; it was, in short, a song of the training hall, of graduation, and
of the need to go on.
When Jason finished, no one clapped. Yet, from their faces, he knew they
also understood. He began to realize the power of the songs.
After Jason's song, Engar rose. "A toast," he held aloft a mug of drog, "to
the finest group of trainees I've had the pleasure to work with."
"I thought you said this is the first time you worked as a Training-master?"
John laughed.
"Well, then what I say must be true!" Engar added his laugh to John's. "I've
enjoyed working with you, and I've enjoyed your friendship. I've listened to the
reports of your trainers, and I've seen you in action in the Warrior hall. You
will qualify tomorrow and with better results than anyone before you. When I
took this job, I didn't think its conclusion would be so hard; I'll miss you."
Cups clinked, drog drained, and Engar sat down.
After the meal, no one returned to the training hall nor went to the trainers
for additional work. The hours spent with Engar, Sardor, Thren, and their
individual trainers was now past. It was time to move on. All day an idea had
grown in Martin's head, based on a statement Engar made the day they met.

Martin caught up with Carol outside the dining hall. She seemed in a hurry, and
he called to her. When she turned, he saw that she was distressed.
"Walk with me in the compound?" he asked.
She hesitated, then nodded. Rain had fallen and the air was fresh and cool.
The night was brightened by milky clouds of stars scattered like diamond dust
across the heavens. Water drops glimmered on the tips of leaves, and stems
gently swayed in the breeze. Martin had grown comfortable with Carol and
loved the look of her olive skin, shining in the soft starlight, and her hair, black
as a raven's breast.
Carol said, "It's all going to change, isn't it?"
"Yes." Martin touched Carol's shoulder and turned her to face him. "That's
why I asked you to walk with me. I want to put an idea to you."
"There's a log here," Carol said. "Let's sit."
Martin dropped to a sitting position. Carol faced him.
"Jason and I talked last night," Martin said, "about what comes next."
"Susan and I too," Carol said. "Susan cried. She's afraid of being alone in
this place, and she's right." Tears glistened in Carol's eyes. "I have no power
here. I can't protect her."
"That may not be true," Martin said. "That's what I want to talk about. I
have a plan.."
"For you and Jason?"
"Maybe you and Susan too," Martin said. "Until recently I doubted I'd
qualify as a Mentat, but now I think I have a real chance. Horath says little, but
I sense he's pleased with my progress."
"I'm glad," Carol said. "But what does that change? After the tests, we all
have to get jobs where we can. Engar says there's little chance we can stay
together."
"Maybe there is," Martin said. "Do you remember what Engar said about
agents - that first day?"
"Not really. Just that everyone works for an agent."
"There was more - about the qualifications of agents. He said they're
usually high level Warriors, but not always."
Carol's brow furrowed. "I don't remember the details."
"He said Mentats can be agents," Martin said.
Carol looked blank a moment, then her eyes widened. "You mean you?"
"I double-checked with Engar. He said if I qualify as a Mentat I can serve
as an agent. All I have to do is get a contract, then I can hire Warriors to carry

it out."
"Get a contract? How would you do that?"
"There's someone called the Faland Master -sort of the head honcho here who posts the contracts. Agents apply for them, and Engar says many contracts
go unfilled so it should be easy to get one. Contracts also carry an advance for
supplies and personnel. The agent pays back the advance when the contract is
completed. Sounds pretty straight-forward."
A furrow appeared between Carol's eyes. "It sounds too good. Don't you
need experience?"
"Engar said even inexperienced agents can get low-demand contracts."
"Low-demand? What does that mean."
"Low-demand contracts don't pay much and are a lot of hard work, but that
shouldn't matter for what I'm thinking. I don't mind hard work, and I don't care
about the pay. I only plan to hire Jason - and you and Susan if you feel the
same. It's a way we could stay together."
"I don't know," Carol said slowly. "Is Engar sure? Is it always possible to
get a contract? What happens if you don't get one?"
"Engar didn't have all the answers," Martin admitted. "No human has ever
done this before. But Engar said we'll each get twenty ralls on graduation, and
he said that's enough to live on for a couple of months. If I can't get a contract
in a few weeks we'd have time to get other jobs before we run out of money.
This seems like our best shot at staying together. I've already talked to Jason,
and we've agreed to try it, even if it's just the two of us."
"I'll have to talk to Susan," Carol said, "before I can let you know."
"Of course. Our skill tests are scheduled before morning meal tomorrow.
When we meet in the dining hall, we can decide. If I fail the Mentat test none of
this'll matter anyway."
***
Jason and Martin took a last look around. They had packed their toilet
articles - combs, toothbrushes, the pearl-bladed razor, soap, tissue - as Engar
had advised. All was in order; fresh blankets were on the beds and clean
towels in the bathroom. They descended to the courtyard as the gray light
preceding sunrise spread across the eastern sky. By the time the first rays
appeared everyone had assembled.
"Good luck!" Martin gripped Jason's hand as they followed Engar into the
training hall for the last time..
"You, too," Jason said, a quaver in his voice.

***
Martin faced Horath nervously, but the old master was surprisingly genial.
"Are you well rested?"
Martin nodded.
"Good! Now, clear your mind."
The familiar command came as Martin entered the cubicle. The door
closed, and he became instantly aware of the spheres.
Where's the rod?
He concentrated on the spheres and mentally drove them upward. Great
pressure resisted his efforts - stronger than he had felt before.
What's happening?
The spheres dashed to the floor before he could stop them with his mind.
It's a contest, mind against mind. Horath is driving the spheres against
my will.
Martin shoved the spheres upward, but abruptly they separated and fled to
opposite walls. He lost control of them entirely, and one thudded sharply
against his forehead nearly knocking him to the floor.
Are the spheres weapons as well as eyes?
He deflected the second sphere before it, too, could land a blow. An instant
later the first sphere rapped the back of his head.
Got to look both ways at once.
For several minutes, Martin tracked the spheres and deflected them from
his body as they zoomed about the room. Finally he attempted to seize them and
felt excited when he succeeded. But the spheres vanished, and an arrow sped
toward his breast. He turned it aside, but not before it nicked his shoulder.
The arrow is more dangerous than the spheres.
He knew the arrow was the rod, and with only one to track, easier to
follow than the spheres. But harder to deflect He tried to seize it with his hand
and failed. It caught him on the forearm, then he remembered a trick called
transmutation. When the arrow came again, he cleared everything from his
head but its image. He visualized it as a liquid, and an explosion of droplets
showered him.
Blinding light flooded the cubicle. Horath grinned at the opening. "Neat,
trick, with the liquid," he said.
Martin had passed.
Horath was more loquacious than usual, but the hard brightness was back
in his eyes. "You've learned a lot, friend Martin, but you've only touched the

surface. Your mind is fast; you detected my opposition quicker than many more
experienced Mentats. But your control is undisciplined; you must work on that.
The spheres are not usually projectiles, but the rod is, and it has other secrets
as well. Someday you may find yourself opposed by stronger Mentats than I,
and you'll need much more work to be ready for them."
"How can I prepare?" Martin asked.
Horath took a small pouch from his belt. He bid Martin hold out his cupped
hand, and into it he poured two small, metallic brass spheres, no more than a
quarter inch in diameter. Along with the spheres was a larger lump of silvery
metal.
Rod and spheres, but the spheres are so small.
Horath sensed Martin's surprise. "The spheres expand. Think of them as
metal nubbins which can be inflated like balloons." He laughed. "Sometimes
there is less than meets the eye!"
Martin smiled, "And, also more."
"Well said! As for the rod, it takes many shapes, and this small lump is
only a beginning. You may have occasion to add to it in the future. With these
things you will practice; explore them, learn about them, learn to manipulate
them. The more you use them, the greater will become your power. But, I warn
you, do not treat this power lightly. A skillful Mentat can turn your own
strength against you."
Horath rummaged in his belt and pulled out a headband. In the center was a
red stripe surrounded by purple. "The first of its kind," Horath said. "You're
the first Warrior to be also a Mentat."
Martin's heart fluttered. He had not known Mentats were not also Warriors.
When he took the headband, his hand trembled. Centered in the red stripe, he
saw two purple bars, the debs that meant he was a level two Mentat. A month
before, when he began training, he could not guess with what pride he would
complete it.
"Go in peace," Horath said, his right hand raised in salute.
To Martin's surprise, no one was in the compound when he arrived.
I must be first through the test.
In a moment, John's huge form shoved through the door. His white hair was
bound by a scarlet band., and his sun burnished cheeks above his beard
wrinkled in a grin matched by the happiness shining in his gray eyes.
"Level two," Martin called when he saw the silver debs at John's temples.
"You too!" John's grin broadened. "But what is that color? I thought

Warriors wore red crests."


"It's something new," Martin said. "Mentats wear purple and Warriors red.
I guess the two-tone job covers both."
"Impressive!"
As they spoke, Engar arrived with Sardor and Thren. Engar's face broke
into a grin. "Congratulations, Martin! A Mentat Warrior, first of kind, so I'm
told."
"Horath told me," Martin said. "But I remind you, I haven't made my rate as
a Warrior yet."
"You will. I trained you." Engar laughed. "I'd hate to think I couldn't
properly prepare so able a student."
"You did well with John, I see, so perhaps I can take encouragement from
that."
"Yes," Engar's voice dropped to a whisper. "John, I think, is destined to
become one of the great Warriors of Faland. Don't tell him I said so, but with
brodsrds I'd be pressed to hold my own against him."
Martin and Engar strolled among the trees while John talked with Thren
and Sardor, fellow Weapon-masters now. "So, Martin," Engar said. "Do you
intend to go ahead with your plan to be an agent?"
"I feel I must," Martin answered. "I promised Jason, and I've asked Carol
and Susan to join us."
Engar hesitated. "I've given some thought to this subject since we talked
yesterday."
"So?" Martin's eyebrows rose.
"You've little experience and no reputation," Engar said. "The only
contracts you're likely to get will call for talents Jason, Susan, and Carol don't
have. That means you'll have to hire others, and if you pay competitive wages,
your profits will be too thin to support yourself and the children, even with
Carol's help. And you know, don't you, that if you can't deliver on a contract
you have to make it good? With no reserves, that would be impossible."
"What's the point, Engar? We went over this yesterday. I'm prepared to take
the risk. If I go under, Carol and the kids can still get jobs and be little the
worse off."
"Putting aside that I don't share your optimism on the latter point, I hardly
think Carol or Jason would find your reduction to slavery an acceptable price
to pay for this venture." Engar raised his hands, palms out. "But, hey, I'm not
trying to talk you out of your decision. I already know your stubbornness too

well for that. On the contrary, I want to join you."


Martin stopped, astonished, and blurted, "You've gotta be kidding!"
"It makes sense," Engar said. "I'd bring experience to your group and
abilities you need to get decent contracts. Besides, I need a change. I'm not just
asking for a job; I want to be a partner."
"But you could make more money elsewhere."
"I'm not worried about money; all a man needs is enough. And, not to be
bragging, but with me in your group you'd have a chance of making it. Without
me, your chances are slim to none."
"It's a generous offer," Martin said. "I'd love to have you with us. But are
you sure you want to commit to something with such an uncertain outcome?"
"It's done then," Engar said. "It only takes a handshake."
Martin took the offered hand. "I'll insist on one thing."
"What would that be?"
"If you and I are partners, then the others must be partners as well."
Engar thought a moment. "It could work, as long as someone is in charge.
I've been in the field enough to know the dangers of a split command."
"One of us can serve as chief executive but each partner will have a voice
in operations."
"As agent, the task of chief necessarily falls to you. None of the rest of us
can negotiate contracts."
While Martin and Engar talked, Bertha arrived. She, too, had exchanged
her white headband for a Warrior's crest, adorned with the black debs of a
level two Armorer. One by one, all the graduates came into the compound.
Jason danced with excitement. "Martin! Martin! I made level two!"
Martin swept him into his arms. "Wonderful!"
Jason's eyes widened, and he touched Martin's headband. "It's beautiful."
Then he realized what it meant. "You passed! You passed! I want to tell
Robert!" He was off.
Carol arrived last and made it a clean sweep. Engar had delivered on his
most important promise; none would be a slave.
"When I told Susan about your proposition," Carol told Martin, "she made
it impossible for me to refuse, even had I wanted to. You've a champion in
Susan. Are you still determined to try this?"
"More than ever," Martin said, "it's a done deal. What's more," his voice
could not conceal his excitement, "Engar is going to join us!"
"You're not joking?"

"We're going to be partners. We're all going to be partners. Engar says it'll
be something new in Faland. I'll serve as agent, but everyone will have a say in
what we do."
On the way to the dining hall for morning meal, John overtook Martin on
the stairs. "I heard about your partnership," he said. "You are planning to invite
the rest of us, aren't you?"
Carol, a step ahead, said, "Of course," as though it were something already
decided upon. "Martin will make an announcement at morning meal."
When they entered the dining room they paused, astonished. It was decked
with flowers and green boughs and the tables were already set. Spirals of
steam, laden with delicious aromas, rose above platters of meat and
vegetables, while salad, bread, drog, and plates of fruit surrounded each
setting.
"Your last meal here," Engar said. "The cooks want it to be special."
"Bring out the cooks!" John roared. "Let them eat with us!"
"Yes! Yes!" A chorus of support sounded.
Engar went into the kitchen, and over their shy protests, brought Mithral
and Tisha into the dining room with extra plates, mugs, and food handlers.
They ate with hearty appetites, much noise, and friendly jostling, and many
congratulations and well dones to the cooks. As the meal ended, Faland's
newest Song-master acquitted himself with a ballad that brought a boisterous
ovation.
"Now," John banged his mug on the table, "Martin has something to say!"
As Martin got to his feet he saw that everyone knew the gist of his topic.
"Most of you have heard, I think, about the partnership some of us propose. We
want that partnership to include all here who wish to join."
Immediate uproar followed, but Martin raised his hands for silence.
"Before you decide, you should know what's involved."
Briefly, he outlined the proposal including details of his conversations with
Engar. "Some of you could do better on your own," he concluded. "But I've
come to think of all of you as my family. This is a way we can stay together, for
those who feel the same."
"I'll drink to that," said John, holding aloft his cup.
"I too," seconded Bertha.
A chorus of affirmations followed, then Carol proposed a toast. "To our
new chief!"
Martin took up his mug. "To our new partnership!"

PART TWO: THE PARTNERSHIP

CHAPTER EIGHT

After morning meal, Engar led his charges out of the training complex for
the first time. "We won't return," he told them. "After the Warrior rating
matches, which will begin shortly, your training will be complete, and it'll be
time for our partnership to start earning its way."
With great curiosity, Engar's eight pupils, who had only glimpsed Or'gn
beyond the palisade, stepped into a dusty street lined with tall broad-leaved
trees. A cart rumbled by, driven by a chubby native in a soiled brown tunic and
pulled by what looked like a large, shaggy gray horse.
"It's a horven," Engar told Linda as the little girl reached excitedly and
brushed the creature's massive flank. Quickly, they spotted four more of the
rugged animals, two brown, two mottled gray, pulling a heavily laden freight
wagon through an intersection two blocks away.
"I didn't know there were horses here!" Linda's eyes were shining. "Will
we get to ride?"
"Horven are expensive. I've ridden, but only on borrowed animals."
"Can people - I mean humans - own horven?"
"Sure, if you have enough money. After we fill a few contracts, maybe
we'll be able to afford some."
"I'd like that. I rode at the children's home. It was one thing I liked best."
Engar guided them south into a residential area of small log houses where
bright flower beds and neatly trimmed shrubs bordered compact yards of earth,
gravel, or flagstone. Native children, remarkably human except for their orange
hair and oversize, dark eyes, played, sometimes boisterously, along the street.
The youngest wore nothing, while the older wore only ukelns. Most were
barefoot. Many adults wore vests or tunics over their sirkelns and occasionally
more elaborate garb.
As they approached an open area, a tall black man emerged from a crowd.
Dressed like Engar, he was the first human other than themselves they had seen.
"Brom!" Engar called and the man veered in their direction. The two

clasped arms and the dark-skinned stranger swept his gaze over the eight
curious bystanders. At six-foot two, Brom stood a couple of inches taller than
Engar but was leaner. A red Warrior's band, bearing fifth-level debbels,
encircled his close-cropped hair. Brown barcoms showed he was a fourth
level Scout.
"Will you sign on with me this go?" he asked Engar.
"Sorry, Brom, I've already made plans. But, come, let me introduce my
friends."
"This one I know." Brom was looking at Martin. "The Mentat Warrior."
Martin looked surprised.
Engar noted the look. "You'll get used to recognition, Martin. Humans are
important in Faland, and your skill ratings were posted as soon as you finished
your tests. Your headband is an eye-catcher too."
"You bet it is," Brom said. "There'll be many at your rating match to judge
your prowess. A Mentat Warrior is something new, and not too many new
things happen here." Brom turned to John and Bertha. "You are the giants I've
heard about, male and female, and a lovely pair, no offense to you, but your
reputations have also preceded you. You're a big one," he said, looking at the
glowering John. "And already a level two Weapon-master, and the lady an
Armorer! I assure you, the two of you will be as closely watched at the ratings
as your Mentat friend."
Brom fell in beside as they continued toward the arena. "Are you planning
to attend the festival?" he asked John. "But of course you are. Engar no doubt
wants you to take part in the games to prove your ability with bow and kalard,
spear and hummer and thus enhance your employability."
"That's right," Engar said when he saw the blank look on John's face.
"We'll all attend the festival. I haven't explained yet, but after the rating
matches Or'gn will host a festival including a tournament where Warriors
compete and wager. I expect everyone to take part. Skill with projectile
weapons, though not formally rated, is highly valued. The competitions are a
chance to show what you can do. You might also win some prize money."
They arrived at an enclosed area, very like a large corral, with three roped
off squares set between raised bleachers. Two natives sat on top of a tower at
one end. The place looked like a dusty western rodeo, and a crowd had
already gathered.
"Is this where we take our tests?" Jason whispered. "In front of all these
people?"

"It would seem so," Martin said, then added, "I guess Engar was saving
this as a surprise."
"Listen up," Engar called. "Your matches will be in the koms - those roped
off squares between the bleachers. You'll fight one at a time, but you'll be
called to your kom before the match ahead of you ends so stay alert; the judges
don't like to waste time. Under the east bleacher is a preps room where you'll
draw armor and weapons. You'll use dueling weapons. They aren't as lethal as
war weapons but are more dangerous than the training weapons you're used to.
Healers will stand by, but don't take chances. Yield if you get in trouble.
Remember, you've already earned skill ratings. You don't have anything to
prove out there, so don't push it. Keep in mind you'll fight droids, much like Tu
and Fru. Don't personalize them; they're built to take punishment and are
programmed to yield before taking serious damage."
"Just don't turn your back on them," Brom cut in. "They're also programmed
to take advantage of weakness."
"What will you be doing?" Carol asked Engar.
"I'll help with your equipment. Otherwise I'm just a spectator. However,
after your qualification matches, two days of open contests begin. I'll take part
in those along with you. Now we better get started; it's almost time for the first
call."
Engar led to the preps building at the east end of the bleachers where they
found a schedule of matches posted.
"Oh, great," muttered Susan. "I'm first up."
"And just in time," Engar said. "The announcer is calling your name right
now."
"Oh, my," Susan's faced drained of color. "I'm not sure I want to do this."
Engar leaned close. "You can handle it, Kid. You're well prepared. Just
stay away from the droid for one or two passes, then yield. Come on, I'll walk
you out."
Susan glanced anxiously at Carol.
"I don't like it, either," Carol said, trying to stay calm though her face was
almost as white as Susan's. "I'll be right behind you, and Bertha is third."
"I'll damn sure step in if things get out of hand," Bertha said, raising her fist
menacingly.
"That wouldn't be wise," Engar said as he guided Susan, who was without
weapon or armor, toward the ready area outside the equipment building. From
her position in the wings, the bleachers were not visible, but Susan could see

the judges atop the tower at the far end of the compound, and she could see the
empty koms lined out in a row in front of her.
"You'll be in the near kom," Engar said. "Good luck!"
As the announcer finished his introduction, Susan shifted her weight from
foot to foot and wiped sweat from the palms of her hands. She stepped forward
and glimpsed the crowd. Small children, milling at the foot of the bleachers,
quieted and settled into nearby seats.
Carol moved up beside Susan. "Don't take any chances when you get out
there." She flexed her sword and peered at the crowd. "It looks like everyone
in Or'gn is here, and maybe a good deal more."
Bertha, carrying a massive battle mace, came into the ready area behind
them. She brandished the mace and winked at Susan. "Give 'em hell, honey."
On the judge's signal, Engar motioned the contestants forward. "Don't let
yourselves get hurt," he said. "Fight well."
Susan stepped from the shelter of the ready area. The sun felt hot, but the
sweat on her brow was cold. Carol followed, and a few steps behind,
swinging her battle mace, Bertha sauntered into the open. The crowd hushed
when they spotted the tiny, red-haired girl, without weapons or armor, leading
the pack. They were used to children in the koms, but not so small, and usually
they came armed with a sword and wearing light body armor. Had Engar
trained this frail child to go hand-to-hand with a huge, brutish droid?
Then a collective gasp rose from the assemblage as their eyes fell on
Bertha. Few had seen a woman so wide of shoulder or of such great bulk. Yet,
even in heavy battle armor, she moved with an almost feline grace, and she
held aloft the great battle mace as easily as though it were a twig in her meaty
fist.
Susan's heart was pounding. She'd done this a hundred times, but that was
practice and this was for real. She climbed into her kom and saw an aide lean
next to the droid's ear. Hardly was she set when she heard the familiar
command to begin. Legs shaking, she raced along the ropes. The droid
approached with frightening speed.
At the last second, Susan reversed direction, concentrating all her effort
into her thighs and knees. Ducking sideways, she brushed the droid's leg, then
rolled into the center of the kom. The droid spun, kicking gravel, and charged
again.
Stay away from the corners, Susan told herself as she raced along the
ropes. A huge foot swung to block her way. With all her weight, she stamped

hard on the droid's foot, then twisted to the side and escaped through the
droid's legs.
Twice more she dodged the droid, but on the last dodge it had grown wiser.
It faded back and was on her before she could cross the kom. Massive fingers
closed on her shoulder, and she felt pain as her arm bent and the droid flipped
her onto her back.
"Taga! Taga!" she cried.
It was the yield signal and the droid stopped instantly. She lay sucking air,
her body vibrating with the force of her pulse.
When she rose, the crowd came to its feet, cheering wildly. Susan flushed
to the roots of her hair, then turned and bowed elegantly.
***
Carol had watched, with her heart in her mouth, as Susan dodged the droid.
Now it was her turn, and her body had grown taut as a spring. At the signal,
she did not wait for the droid's charge but leaped to meet it. Ducking the
droid's first swing, she parried steel on steel. The droid lunged and Carol
drove her riposte to the attacker's right shoulder. The brutish creature lurched
and nearly lost its sword.
Carol moved in for the kill. The droid, however, deflected her too hasty
lunge, and she felt the sting of its blade on her thigh. The stroke angered her.
She twisted and caught the droid's blade with her own. It faltered and tried to
switch the sword to its left hand. Carol swung hard. The tip of her blade
contacted the droid's weapon, and she flipped it into the dirt. The droid
resigned at once.
Carol stood uncertainly. "I beat it? You mean I really beat it?" She gaped at
the retreating droid, then realized the crowd was cheering. Everyone was
standing, as they had for Susan. In a daze, she climbed through the kom ropes.
She did not feel the blood running from the wound on her thigh.
***
"Well, old friend," Brom said to Engar as Susan approached the bleachers.
"You've done a remarkable job. This little one is amazing, and the woman is as
cool a Warrior as I've seen."
"You haven't seen anything yet," Engar bragged, his grin showing his
pleasure. "You did good," he told Susan as he swept her into his arms.
Martin met Carol as she followed Susan into the preps room. He had a
slightly amused expression on his face. "I thought you were against fighting?
Maybe it's your opponents who ought to wonder about the merits of fighting."

He pointed at the blood on her leg. "What's that? A bee sting, perhaps?"
Carol looked at her leg in surprise, then remembered the slap of the droid's
blade. She glimpsed John on the way out, wearing battle armor and
brandishing an enormous brodsrd. He flashed her a smile and a victory sign.
She fished a cloth strip from her sirkeln and tied it around her wound. She
looked at Martin and grinned sheepishly.
***
Bertha, as stolid and menacing as a battle tank, faced the droid in the
opposite corner of her kom. Her massive thighs supported a straight, solid
column of stone-hard muscle that ended in powerful shoulders. She could not
be said to possess a feminine figure, but that did not bother her. She was a
natural fighter. And, though she could have trained effectively with any weapon
in the Faland arsenal, her style was best suited to the mace. The feel of the
great weight in her hand pleased her, and when the droid, seeming almost
diminutive, received the start signal she grinned in anticipation.
Her strokes appeared effortless as she countered the droid, and the crack of
mace on mace echoed for several minutes. Then, as though tiring of the
nonsense, Bertha blocked the droid's latest swing and, with her free hand,
snatched the weapon from its grip. The crowd howled as she pounded the
droid to the ground and stood over it clucking, "Honey, maybe this is the wrong
profession for you."
When Bertha passed John at kom one, she raised her mace and clattered it
against his brodsrd. "Don't go too hard on that itty-bitty droid, they're only
babies."
John roared his laughter, then readied himself in his kom. While Bertha
might be considered merely big, John was a giant. At six foot nine and three
hundred fifty pounds, he dwarfed the droid. As his weapon, he chose the great
brodsrd and hefted the largest made. Its blade was six inches wide, five feet
long, and tapered to an inch of thickness at its spine. Made of a shining metal, a
type that Bertha thought was an alloy of steel, it weighed fifty pounds. John,
perhaps alone in Faland, could wield the great weapon with a single hand,
though he held it now with two, its blade extended before him with the tip
resting lightly on the ground.
On signal, the droid lifted its own brodsrd and charged. John met the
charge in the center of the kom, his brodsrd in motion before contact. With the
flat of the blade, he met the droid's swing in mid-stroke. The power of his
blow swept the brodsrd out of the droid's hand and carried it in a looping arc

across the kom and over the ropes.


The droid, defenseless and not programmed for self-destruction,
immediately yielded. The crowd sat silent, uncomprehending. Many did not
realize the droid had been disarmed and were puzzled by its sudden surrender.
One or two alert observers pointed to the brodsrd lying in the dust thirty feet
outside the kom and shook their heads in disbelief.
John shrugged. A three second match, he thought disgustedly, and climbed
out of the kom. Belatedly the crowd clapped though some were still confused
about what had happened.
Engar was not one of them. He grinned at Brom. "How many Warriors in
Faland do you think could take Big John with a brodsrd?"
Brom shook his head. "I'd not welcome a challenge from him, that's for
sure."
***
Robert followed John. He stood uncertainly in his kom, a tagan dangling
loosely from his hand. He was still leery of the weapon after his accident, and
the time lost while his wound healed made it impossible for him to match the
others' skill. When the start signal came, he jumped like he had been shot. The
droid charged, and he dodged aside.
Using his speed, he stayed well clear of the droid's vicious swings. But
that meant his own sweeps, though hard and fast, were not close to hits. Three
times he faced the droid's charge and three times escaped. Was it enough to
show his courage?
Enough or not, Robert yielded, grateful to escape unscathed. But when he
left the kom, a glance at the crowd unnerved him. No one booed, but there
were no cheers either.
***
Linda took her turn, as Susan had, without armor or weapon. The audience
leaned forward expectantly. They had loved Susan and clearly wondered if this
small child would repeat her performance.
When the droid charged, Linda became a tiny brown blur. Over the weeks
she had developed astonishing agility and, to the relatively clumsy droids, was
virtually uncatchable. She liked the sport and could not resist the temptation to
put on a show. For ten minutes she drove the droid to distraction. She
duplicated every maneuver Susan had used and added a dozen others. The
audience screamed encouragement and Linda played to their cheers. She
became bolder and bolder. Carelessness was her undoing.

She taunted the droid, ducking near and slapping its thigh, then dancing
away. She forgot to pay attention to the corners. The wily droid, unaffected by
Linda's taunts, slowly worked her away from the center. Then, when Linda
slapped it and spun away she suddenly found herself against the ropes. The
droid's great paw, striking like a snake's head, grabbed her ankle and lifted her
small body overhead. With a sweeping stroke, it hurled her across the kom.
The crowd gasped as the child struck, bounced, and slammed into a corner
post. She lay still, a crumpled mote in the dust. The droid stood, triumphant.
The kom Healer was at Linda's side in an instant, Engar not far behind. The
Healer worked quickly with pungent herbs.
The little girl sat up. "What happened?" she mumbled, shaking her head.
"Sit a moment," Engar said. "Get your bearings."
Expertly the Healer went over Linda's body, then pronounced her free of
broken bones.
When Linda's breathing returned to normal, Engar helped her to her feet.
"Can you walk?"
"I think so." Linda wobbled toward the kom ropes. "I think maybe I
should've taken your advice." As she climbed through the ropes she saw Jason,
white-faced, at the second kom. She grinned shakily and raised a hand to wave.
***
Jason tried to still his racing pulse.
I'll do what Robert did.
He had been shaken by Linda's close call and felt giddy as he walked by
the bleachers on the way to his kom. He was barely through the ropes when the
attack command came and was nearly trapped against the ropes by the droid's
swift charge. Lurching, he felt the wind of the droid's stroke whine past his ear.
He darted toward the center of the kom. When he turned, the droid had already
swung to face him, its arm rising. As the tagan slashed downward, Jason
stepped back, outside the sweeping arc, and saw the droid's muscles bunch for
a follow-up back-hand. Continuing back, he felt the droid's return stroke brush
his breastplate. His answering sweep caught the droid's tagan near the handle,
coiled briefly round it, and he jerked. The droid was ready and used its great
strength to snatch its tagan free, but the vicious recoil of its weapon nipped its
own right shoulder.
Emboldened, Jason crouched, tagan trailing to the side, and warily circled.
The droid stepped in, its swing low, aimed for his legs, and Jason leaped over
the whipping tagan. He saw the tip rise at the end of the sweep and knew his

opponent meant to catch him in the head or neck as he recovered from his leap.
But he folded his legs, landing in a deep crouch, and heard the tagan scream
overhead.
The missed swing left the droid open, and Jason snapped a short vertical to
its left shoulder. He saw the tip of his tagan split skin. The droid countered
toward Jason's flank, but he slipped inside the swing and head-butted the huge
humanoid in the chest.
Taken by surprise, the droid toppled backward. Leaping, Jason brought his
tagan down sharply across the creature's right arm. He raised the tagan for
another strike, but the droid grunted surrender.
His chest heaving, Jason looked at the stunned droid. Then he was yelling,
"I won! I won! I won!" He heard the crowd yelling for him, and when he
climbed out of the kom, he felt like he was floating.
***
The audience hushed as it sized up the last candidate. They were staring at
the purple and red band that circled his head. This was the Mentat Warrior,
first of his kind, and they had no idea what to expect.
Martin was as uncertain as the crowd. He had a plan, but it was untested.
His heart was hammering in his chest. He took deep breaths to steady himself,
then reached into a pouch on his belt. No one had instructed him in how to
combine Mentat training with Warrior training, but he had no doubt that it was
meant to be so. From his pouch, he withdrew a tiny metallic nubbin. It
expanded in his hand and he released it. The nearly invisible sphere, less than
an inch in diameter, rose a dozen feet as he squared himself to face the droid.
When the aide moved to give the droid its command, Martin motioned an
official to approach. He leaned close, and whispered a few words. The
official nodded and Martin handed him a strip of soft leather he had acquired
from Engar. The official held it toward the sun, peered intently a moment, then
fastened the strip over Martin's eyes.
Unable to see, Martin took up his sword. With his mind focused, he
visualized the sphere above him. In its clear surface he sensed a diminutive
replica of the arena. Within the image he saw the droid charge, and estimated
his own position relative to the droid. He stepped to meet the charge. The
audience came to its feet, straining to follow the movements as the combatants
closed.
Moving surely and swiftly, Martin pivoted in full turns and never rested in
one spot. Blindfolded, the Mentat Warrior seemed to shift, parry, and dodge

more cleverly than most Warriors with eyes unshuttered. Then Martin turned
and deliberately placed his back to the droid. The creature leaped for the kill.
With infinitesimal margin, Martin spun. The tip of his sword crossed the
droid's wrist. Its weapon bucked upward. Before the flying sword could strike
the ground, Martin's blade was at the droid's throat, poised for the fatal thrust.
"Taga!" the droid grunted.
Martin stood quietly a moment, listening to the roar of the crowd. He
nodded with satisfaction, then removed his blindfold. The crowd's ovation did
not end until he had left the field.

CHAPTER NINE

Completion of the Warrior rating matches brought an end to the qualifying


tests, and though two days of optional games and festivities would shortly
begin, training was now truly over. The partners left the arena and followed
one of Or'gn's dusty streets toward a small, nondescript log building. Brom
left, saying he had to prepare for a challenge match that afternoon.
The small building, as unimpressive up close as at a distance, housed the
Hall-of-Records. They entered and a native clerk recorded their newly earned
status. They also chose and registered their identifiers, but the whole process
seemed anticlimactic. Unlike Engar, who had used his initials, everyone else
chose to use their full names. Susan, Linda, and Robert, the children who had
not defeated droids in combat, did not qualify for combat icons. Jason and
Carol received single gold bars while Martin, Bertha, and John, by winning
their matches so impressively, had qualified for the gold debs of level two
fighters.
"A few more things you need to know," Engar said as he guided the group
to a small, shaded plaza near the hall of records. "Later we'll go to the agent's
hall to collect your stake - twenty ralls per - and I'll pick up my pay. But you
must remember, from now on those of you who earned ratings are fair game for
challengers. You may be challenged by any Warrior at your level, or one rate
below, and you may challenge anyone at your level or one rate higher. Honor
requires you to accept challenges from lower rated Warriors, but you may
freely refuse the others. Of course, those of you who are not rated may refuse
all challenges.
"Challenge matches are fought in koms, like those in the arena, although
sometimes they are fenced with wooden boards rather than ropes. All Faland
settlements have koms, and koms may be improvised on the spot in the field.
"A reporting system lets Game-masters know your status always. You earn
points for victories and lose points for defeats. The system is simple; you get
one point if you beat an equally rated Warrior, none if your opponent is of a
lower rating, and two if you defeat someone with a higher rating. If you are
defeated you lose the number of points your opponent wins. When you
accumulate seven points, you advance to the next rating. Any questions?"
"Gosh, we don't have any points now," Jason said. "What happens if we

lose our first challenge?"


"You can't lose points if you have none, and you never lose an earned
rating."
"How does the reporting system work?" John asked. "Who does the
reporting?"
"Good question," Engar said. "I don't know. It's something we humans
haven't figured out. There's obviously a communication system to which we're
not privy. Information travels quickly and widely in Faland. I suspect there's a
broadcast link between Faland settlements, possibly using radio or microwave
technology. This is speculation, I admit, because I've never spotted any
transmitters or antennae but there has to be something a lot faster than couriers.
There's probably also a spy network because information gets around that's
clearly not available to casual observers."
"What you say doesn't surprise me," Martin said. "On the surface, this
looks like a primitive society, but that's obviously deceptive. There's more
going on here than meets the eye."
"For sure," Engar said. "Unfortunately, we humans are kept pretty much in
the dark."
"Medical technology is highly advanced," Carol said. "Some techniques
are superior to those I learned back home, and some instruments are more
sophisticated."
Engar nodded. "That's true, and medical instruments aren't the only
advanced devices. I know of a navaid that works like a compass, only with no
obvious mode of operation. It has a north seeking arrow, but no magnetic
components."
"Froven didn't say anything about a compass in Scout training," Linda said.
"Aren't we allowed to have one?"
"Your brief training didn't cover everything. I learned about the navaid in
the field. We can have one if we can acquire it. There are a couple of other
high-tech tools as well."
"How can we get them?"
"Some can be bought. They're expensive, and I've always relied on my
employer to provide special equipment if I needed it."
"Great," Martin muttered. "We plan to be our own employer. What do we
do until we earn enough to buy these special devices?"
"We'll limit our bids to contracts we can fill with the resources we have."
"About challenges," Bertha broke in. "Won't they interfere with our work?"

"They could," Engar replied. "But a Warrior under contract doesn't have to
accept challenges and never has to make them. Most agents prefer their
contract Warriors don't fight gratuitous duels. An injured Warrior isn't much
good, and, by the way, people employed together rarely challenge each other. It
causes too many problems."
"Sounds like a good policy for our partnership," said Martin.
"Speaking of challenges," Engar said, glancing at the sun, "I have a match
this afternoon and it's time I head to the arena."
"A match?" Martin's brows rose.
"I accepted a challenge."
"Who from?"
"A fourth level fighter named Surfyr. I've fought him before. He's good; I
expect to get a work out."
"This is a match I'd not like to miss," John said with a grin. "It'll give me a
chance to see how our Training-master does against someone of his own
level."
"Perhaps I have something to prove?" Engar asked.
"Perhaps." Bertha laughed. "I think we'd all like to see how good our
trainer is."
***
In the afternoon, fewer people were in the bleachers than during the
qualifying matches. Fights were underway in all the koms when the partners
arrived. They found seats while Engar went to the ready area to check the
schedule and look for Surfyr.
In one kom, a chunky native man was knife-dueling with a small, thin
woman. It was hard not to laugh as the man turned slowly in the kom center,
while the woman circled and jabbed. Neither was skilled nor very aggressive
and they were doing little damage to each other.
Engar, accompanied by a Warrior, walked onto the field as the clumsy
duelists declared a draw and withdrew. Engar's companion was stocky,
orange-haired, a native man with powerful build and a headband bearing level
four barcoms. A noticeable increase in interest occurred among the spectators.
"Must be Surfyr," John said. "He looks strong."
Martin and Robert moved to find a better vantage. As Jason rose to join
them, something hard rapped his back. Startled, he turned and looked into a
pudgy face, topped with orange hair that straggled around its bearer's beefy
shoulders. Mean, close set eyes stared from the face. A mouth, bordered with

fleshy brown lips, curled into a sneer.


"Challenge, shuket!" a gravelly voice snarled. The last word, which Jason
did not recognize, was spit at him like an epithet.
The challenger, a very heavy native boy of perhaps sixteen years, held in
his right hand a short leather baton. Jason surmised the baton had delivered the
blow that attracted his attention. As he recovered from his surprise, he became
acutely aware of a foul odor emanating from the unclean wall of flesh that
stood before him. A filthy red Warrior's crest, with no rating insignia, adorned
the boy's head. Jason grimaced. Since his challenger was not rated, he had no
choice but to accept.
"Very well." He tried to edge away from the unpleasant presence while
keeping his voice as calm as possible. "We'll fight with tagans."
A grotesque rumble, apparently meant to be laughter, issued from the
challenger's throat. "Okay, shuket. Meet half hour. I reserve kom."
"My name's Jason. What's yours?"
"Fukar," the fat boy growled. "Be there, shuket!" He stabbed a pudgy finger
against Jason's chest, then moved away along the bleacher.
Linda and Susan, who had watched the encounter, moved to intercept
Jason. "What was that all about?"
"I've been challenged," Jason replied.
"You have? Are you gonna fight?"
"I don't have a choice."
"But, he's three times your size!" Linda protested.
Carol shouted, "Engar and Surfyr are about to begin!"
The children turned and saw Surfyr charge from his corner. They saw
Engar step to meet him. It quickly became apparent that these were seasoned
fighters. They moved agilely, with none of the clumsiness seen in the match
between the man and woman. Surfyr fought with confidence, but Engar took the
offensive, pressing relentlessly with precise sword strokes.
For several minutes, the match went evenly and might have gone to a draw
had not Surfyr faltered when a hard parry slightly loosened his sword grip.
Engar moved with startling speed and slipped his sword inside his opponent's
defense. The tip of his blade opened a cut on Surfyr's left shoulder. The wound
bled profusely, and Surfyr began to visibly tire. Engar attacked relentlessly,
forcing his opponent toward the corner of the kom. Trapped against the ropes,
nearly exhausted, Surfyr finally yielded.
As Engar helped Surfyr bandage his shoulder, the partners came down to

the kom. "Great fight," John said. "You both know what you're doing. I see I've
still got a lot to learn."
"Let me look at that wound," Carol told Surfyr. "I'm a Healer."
"No need," Surfyr said. "Its superficial. I lost some blood but I already put
poma on it. I'll be fine tomorrow."
"The match could've gone either way. I got lucky," Engar said.
"It wasn't luck," Surfyr contradicted. "You've improved since our last
fight." He counted out twelve ralls and placed them in Engar's hand. "Good
luck in the games tomorrow."
"I'd like you to meet some friends." Engar turned to the group. "Surfyr is a
good duelist. We've fought before. Three months ago the outcome was
reversed."
Everyone clasped arms and introduced themselves.
Surfyr said, "Perhaps we'll meet again," then took his leave.
When Surfyr was gone, Engar said, "Let's head over to the agent's hall and
pick up our pay."
"Not just yet," Martin said. "Jason has a challenge to attend to."
Engar looked surprised. "Who challenged him?"
"Fukar," Jason said. "Engar, what's a shuket?"
Engar laughed. "I'll bet Fukar called you that."
Jason nodded.
"Don't worry about Fukar; he's a sluggard. He's got power, but he loves
food and drink and hates exercise. Shuket is a vulgarism he uses to rattle his
opponents. A shuket is actually a small animal, a bit like a mouse. They're
rather timid and have a reputation for running from danger. Fukar was trying to
insult you; he wanted to make you mad to improve his own chances."
"Jason's no shuket," Robert said indignantly. "Didn't that Fukar character
see him this morning?"
"Oh, I expect he saw. He'd pick on you, or better still, Linda, but he knows
you aren't rated and would refuse the match. Jason, on the other hand, being
level one can't refuse. He singled out Jason because he's the smallest, and in
Fukar's twisted mind, the weakest." Engar turned to Jason. "If you stay away
from him for the first couple of minutes, he'll get tired and you'll have no
trouble taking him. He has little experience with the tagan though he likes to
brag that he's an apprentice Weapon-master."
Martin went with Jason to the equipment room and helped him with his
gear. He could see Jason's nervousness. "You're a strong fighter." Martin put a

hand on the boy's shoulder. "But you heard Engar: luck sometimes has a role to
play. If you get hit, don't wait to yield. I watched Surfyr after he lost, and he
didn't let defeat embarrass him. Don't let yourself get hurt."
Jason took his weapon and stepped into the ready area. Sweat started in his
palms when he saw Fukar coming from the opposite end of the field. A moment
later, he heard the Game-master announce the match, and he climbed into the
kom. Fukar, a head taller and a hundred pounds heavier, dominated.
As the ready signal came, Jason rocked onto the balls of his feet,
wondering why a Song-master must also be a fighter. Thought of singing made
him remember a song exercise taught him by Marov. Song can be a weapon as
well as a key, she had said.
I wonder, can I use song as a weapon?
"Ready for a whipping, shuket?" Fukar taunted.
Jason centered his attention on Fukar. He readied his tagan, handle
forward, tip trailing slightly to his right. The Game-master gave the start
signal.
Fukar charged like an elephant, yelling, "Run, shuket! Run!"
Jason moved far enough from his corner to be clear of the ropes, then
crouched and watched for the sweep of his opponent's tagan. When Fukar saw
what he took to be Jason's hesitancy, a look of savage triumph crossed his face.
His arm rose to deliver a murderous stroke, but Jason was much too fast. He
leaped aside, then did something entirely unexpected. His mouth shaped
peculiarly, and from between his lips came an ear-splitting wail.
Fukar checked, eyes widening. He did not comprehend that the small boy in
front of him was the source of the deafening shriek. The note rose, sounding as
though torn from hell, and echoed from the bleachers. It brought a gasp from the
audience, for they, like Fukar, had never before heard this terrifying sound.
Before his voice died, Jason's tagan swept down and caught Fukar's
faltering weapon short of the handle, curled briefly round, and drew taught. A
jerk ripped the tagan from Fukar's hand. It landed in the dust near the ropes,
and Fukar stood, incredulous, sweat beading his forehead. Jason brought his
arm to ready and stood a moment. His opponent looked around, wild-eyed, and
seemed not to know what to do.
"What's the matter, shuket? No place to hide?" Jason said softly.
Fukar's eyes strayed to his tagan lying in the dust. Jason brought his
weapon around in a sharp diagonal that snapped a scrap of flesh from Fukar's
ear.

The fat boy ducked, hiding his head under his arms, "Taga! Taga!" he
screamed and scuttled toward the kom ropes.
"Stop!" Jason commanded.
As though jerked by a string, Fukar stopped.
"You owe me a rall," Jason said mildly.
Fukar fumbled at his belt and tossed a rall at Jason's feet. Jason did not
pick it up until Fukar had retrieved his tagan and climbed through the kom
ropes.
As Jason followed Fukar from the kom, Linda came running and threw her
arms around his neck. "You were wonderful!" Her impetuous kiss landed full
on his lips.
Jason blushed. "Not out here. Wait until we get inside!"
"Where did you learn that unearthly yell?" Carol asked as they walked
toward the agent's hall.
Jason grinned and looked at Martin. "We Song-masters have a few tricks of
our own."
"It's enough to freeze a berven in its tracks," Engar declared.
Jason smiled with pleasure.
***
The agent's hall was a small log building, like the Hall-of-Records, set
well back from the dusty street. A flagstone walk, lined with red-flowering
bushes, led to a flight of steps and a small porch outside the entrance. Inside,
one wall held a large bulletin board pinned with notices. A hallway led to a
series of small rooms, one with a placard over the door that read:
'DISBURSEMENTS'.
"Hello, Bina. What have you got for us?" Engar greeted a compact, tidylooking native woman seated at a desk behind a counter.
"Engar, I've been expecting you," she said, and produced a tray containing
a dozen small leather pouches. "These folks must be your proteges. I've heard a
lot about them." She handed each partner a leather pouch, heavy with gold.
Everyone hefted their pay, and some fingered the gold pieces and counted
their worth. The children swelled with pride, knowing they had received as
much as the adults. Then Bina set four stacks, a dozen coins each, on the
counter. Engar opened his own leather pouch and slipped the coins inside. On
the way out, he showed Martin the room where agents applied for contracts.
"It'll be closed until after the festival," he said.
Outside, Martin gathered everyone for a meeting. "Now that we have our

pay," he began. "It's time to discuss how to handle our money. We'll need to
share our earnings to make this partnership work. Any ideas how best to do
that?"
"Split everything fifty-fifty," Bertha suggested.
"What exactly do you mean?"
"Simple," Bertha said. "We give half of our personal earnings to the
partnership, and any thing the partnership earns on contracts is divided in half one half is retained, the other divided equally among the partners."
"I'll go along with that," John said. "Our skills are all different, but I
wouldn't want to quarrel over whose is the most important."
"Any objections?" Martin asked.
"What about challenge money?" asked Jason.
"Maybe that should belong to the individual," Bertha said. "Including
responsibility for losses."
"Agreed," John said.
"Any other comments?" Martin asked.
There were none, so the group agreed to share all receipts and liabilities,
half to a general fund and half to individuals, except gains or losses from
personal combat. Susan, as Provisioner, was appointed treasurer.
"It's getting late," Engar said. "We have no place to stay tonight since we
can't return to the training hall. We could rent rooms at an inn, but that's
expensive. I suggest we camp at the village green. It's free and has water,
restrooms, and firewood available."
"Don't we need food and blankets and tents or something?"
"Yes, and that means we'd better get to the market before sundown. It
closes after dark."
At the market, a native man greeted the newcomers and directed them to a
price list. The business was cash and carry, and the clerk informed them the
market buys as well as sells merchandise.
Engar advised everyone to buy a canteen, blanket, and mess kit for
personal use. "It doesn't get cold, but it does rain and the blankets are waterresistant. They also provide ground insulation. You won't need anything else
right away. The toiletries you received this morning will last for several weeks
if you're careful."
Using group funds, Susan purchased eighty pounds of food, an oil lamp,
extra oil, a flint, pots, kettles, and pans for kitchen use, a medical kit, and a
dozen sacks in which to carry their supplies. Backpacks were too expensive,

so they made do with the one pack Engar already owned.


"We can stow our supplies at camp while we're at the games tomorrow,"
Engar explained. "There's no thievery in Or'gn."
"I assume you've told the newcomers about felven," the clerk remarked to
Engar as they paid their bill.
"Felven?" Robert asked. "What're felven?"
"I was saving that for the campfire tonight, but, with the subject broached, I
suppose I ought to fill you in."
"Why do I get the feeling we're about to learn something I don't want to
know?" Carol said.
"Felven are animals, a bit on the nasty side," Engar said.
"Nasty animals? I might have known," Carol said.
"Not to worry," Engar said. "Felven are just big kitty-cats. They have a
fondness for eating people, but they only hunt at night."
Robert's face paled. "Do they get into settlements?"
"Actually, for all their size and power, felven are easy to avoid. They hate
light. Even a small lamp will keep them at bay, and they don't hunt on moonlit
nights. You needn't worry about them in settlements because there's always
light around. Only on moonless nights in the outback is there any real danger,
and that can be taken care of by keeping a fire burning or by setting out lighted
lamps."
"What do they look like?"
"I've never seen one, but I'd guess they look a bit like saber-tooth tigers."
"Those are the ones with really big canines," Robert said.
"I've seen their footprints," Engar said. "And I found the remains of three
Warriors killed not far from this settlement about nine months ago. There
wasn't much left."
Bertha shuddered. "How many more secrets are you keeping from us?"
"Why, Bertha," John teased. "Are you telling us you're afraid of a big old
kitty-cat?"
"Darned right I am," Bertha said. "I hate cats and I've no desire to be a
meal for one."
"Oh, come on," John quipped. "You'd make a meal for at least two."
"Watch it, Honey, before I pound that grin down to your heels!"
When they left the market, sunlight had vanished and stars dusted the
heavens. On their way to the village green, they stayed as near street lights as
possible, but they forgot their worries when they reached the green. The

festival had brought to Or'gn many campers, and the green proved a merry
place, with camp fires, cooking, and tall tales to listen to. They settled in and
found their first night as free agents in Faland a pleasant one.

CHAPTER TEN

At first light, the campers rolled out of their blankets. They stoked fires and
soon filled the air with cooking smells. Susan dished up fried potans and rabir,
pots of drog, and sliced melon.
Carol grumbled, "The ground sure is hard; I miss my bed in the training
hall."
"You ought to put some meat on your bones," Bertha said. "I slept like a
log."
The first rays of sun touched nearby treetops; the air smelled of flowers,
and a dozen red-crested birds chattered noisily as they darted around the
campground. Linda and Susan coaxed them with crumbs while the others
finished their meals. Each cleaned his or her personal gear, and Susan pressed
Jason and Robert into service putting the make-shift kitchen in order.
"Get ready to move out," Engar ordered. "Sign-up for the contests begins in
half an hour. Registration fee is two ralls, but there's a good chance to win it
back in prize money. Even if you don't, it's worth it for the experience. Take
your canteens; there won't be any water in the field."
The contests were held on special courses beginning half a legon north of
Or'gn. Sign-up booths were nearby. All courses had a series of targets
arranged along trails between shooting or throwing stations. Distance to, and
size, of each target varied, and some were rigged with pulleys and ropes so
they could be set in motion. Judges monitored and timed the participants.
Five events ran simultaneously all day. Those who chose to participate in
more than one had to arrange their schedules to avoid conflicts. Engar and
John, as Weapon-masters, planned to compete in all events, so they left early to
get good time slots. Bertha went with them, but the others left Or'gn a little
later, when early sunlight first spread misty light across the open fields.
Struck by the beauty of the countryside, Carol turned to Susan. "Would you
sign me up for the hummer contest when you sign up yourself? Here are my two
ralls. I'd like to take a walk."
Susan looked puzzled.
"I'll be back for the competition. It's nice out here, and I'd like to get a
better look at the country before I have to play any more silly war games."
Susan took the money, and Carol ambled north along the packed-earth road

from Or'gn. She felt young and free, like a little girl again, and images of her
youth in the Carolina hills filled her with nostalgia. She relaxed in the warm
sunshine and did not think about how she had come to awaken in such a strange
place, or what was likely to come in the days ahead.
She had gone only a short distance when she saw a horven-drawn cart,
driven by an elderly man, wobble over a low hill. Seated precariously on a
heap of bulging sacks, the driver looked so comical Carol could not help
laughing. She called to him.
The ancient driver tugged on the reins and nearly toppled when the horven
skidded to a stop. He jammed his foot on the brake, but not before his
dilapidated cart ran up on the horven's tails with a clatter.
"I'm sorry," Carol said. "I didn't mean to startle you!"
"What, ho? No startle." The old gentleman seemed unconcerned about the
near upset and smiled pleasantly.
"I'm Carol. I didn't really mean to stop you. Do you live nearby?"
"Twenty legon; I Fremel; sell grain Or'gn." His smile broadened as he
patted the gorged sacks. "Good crop . . . this!"
"You're a farmer, then; what kind of grain?"
"No," the old man shook his head. "Not farmer; merchant; buy at farm . . .
got contract." He patted his coat pocket proudly. "Grain florn. Much raised . . .
near."
"You have a contract? Are you an agent?"
"Yes," the man nodded vigorously, grinning widely. "Agent. Got contract."
"I thought only Mentats and fighters could be agents."
"True you, not me. You Warrior, I not." The man pointed at his green
headband. "Long time agent."
"Where'd you get the horven?"
"Buy . . . cost much. I work hard." The old man noticed the canteen Carol
was carrying.
"I thirsty; water gone." He upended his open canteen. "Drink maybe?"
Carol hesitated, then smiled. "Sure, you're welcome." She handed Fremel
the canteen.
He drank thirstily, then handed down the container and wiped his mouth on
the back of his sun-weathered hand. "Thank friend. Must go." He flicked the
reins and his cart lumbered into motion.
After encountering the grain merchant, Carol left the road and wandered
into knee-deep grass interspersed with bright flowers. Insects buzzed or

fluttered among the blossoms. Bees, flies, gnats, and butterflies, Carol noted,
much like those flying over earthly fields. Scattered trees cast shadows in the
open prairie, while near the competition grounds, copses of trees dotted the
hollows between low hills. Or'gn's walls, visible to the south, guided Carol as
she wandered toward the game-site.
***
Robert arrived late at the games. He felt prepared for the hummer
competition, the only thing he planned to participate in, yet approached with a
mixture of anxiety and reluctance. Alone among the men, he had failed to rate
as a fighter. He had excused himself because of his accident with the tagan, but
deep down was not sure that was the full explanation. Engar had told him his
quick surrender had been wise and did not compromise his courage, but after
watching Jason, he had felt ashamed. The younger boy had shown courage,
daring, and confidence, and it had earned him a challenge, successfully
defended as well.
Am I a shuket? A mouse? A coward? He flinched inwardly.
The hummer was not a test of courage, but it did require skill. It was a skill
he had put much effort into developing. It was important he do well, and that
made him nervous. The nervousness caused him to dawdle. When Robert
arrived, Jason, Martin, and Linda had already started the contest and were out
of sight on the course. He took the last slot in a starting block with Susan,
Carol, and seven other contestants.
"I hope I get back my two ralls," Susan said. "Two gold pieces seems a lot
just to enter a dumb old throwing contest."
Robert was not thinking about money or how dumb the contest was; he was
thinking about whether he could do it well. A loud crack made him flinch, and
it took him a moment to discover the source. An official had clapped two
boards together, apparently the start signal, but by the time he realized it the
other contestants had already surged forward. He was last out of the starting
block.
Blundering ahead with frantic haste, he caught his foot on a rock and hit the
ground so hard it knocked his wind outs. Struggling to breathe, he watched
Susan's back disappear into a copse of trees. Blood beaded in a ragged
abrasion on his left knee. Wobbling to his feet, he limped along the path. When
he reached the first station, he saw ten rows of five knockdown targets, each at
a different distance. Five hummers lay on a small stand in front of each row.
The first contestants had already begun to throw.

Robert took position at the last row and tried to settle himself. He glimpsed
Susan begin her throws but did not look to see how she was doing. Picking up
his hummers, he forced himself to move slowly while his breathing evened. He
shifted four hummers to his left hand, and balanced the fifth in his throwing
hand. For a moment, he closed his eyes, then opened them and swung his arm
forward. He watched his first hummer strike dead center. It was as though the
hummer had flown of its own and suddenly he was alone. He began to swing
with an easy, methodical rhythm and watched his targets fall like wheat before
the scythe.
Only when he was done did he glance at Susan. She had dropped three
targets but had not yet finished throwing. Carol, a line beyond Susan, had
dropped all her targets and was also watching Susan.
"Congratulations," Robert told Susan as her last target toppled.
"You too," Susan said. "You were fast!"
"We're off to a good start." Carol held up her right thumb.
The second target group was at greater distance. Robert toppled his with
perfect throws and again watched Susan drop the last of hers. Carol flashed
her thumbs up.
On the third set of targets, at extreme distance, Susan left two standing and
Carol missed one. Robert took down all his and grinned happily. He noticed he
was the only contestant among the ten who still had a perfect score.
Next, they faced a single circular target, at fixed distance, marked with a
bull's-eye. Each contestant had five hummers. Hits scored from one to three
depending on closeness to center. Robert scored a perfect fifteen. Susan scored
twelve, Carol fourteen. Robert began to think throwing hummers was a skill at
which he was more than adequate.
The next targets, bull's-eye types like the last, were in increasingly difficult
locations: in a small ravine, behind brush, and at the top of a slope. Robert's
excitement increased with each success. When he saw his fellow competitors
begin to watch him, his heart beat harder.
Midway, a new level of difficulty appeared. Ten targets, distributed along
a short path, had to be taken on the run, in twenty seconds or less. Each
contestant had five hummers at the start; five more were in a box at mid-point.
One official timed while another set up fallen targets for the next competitor.
Robert's nervousness increased, but it served only to enhance his
confidence. "When you're up, take your time," he told Susan as they watched a
runner miss repeatedly with hasty throws. "This is going to be fun!"

"This is going to be hard," Susan said.


Carol was up, sprinting toward the first target. She toppled four, then
missed the fifth. Reaching for the second five hummers, she dropped two and
scrambled to retrieve them.
"Don't pick them up!" Robert yelled. "You don't have enough time!"
He was right. After retrieving the hummers, Carol barely had time to drop
one more target before time was called.
"Good luck!" Robert called as Linda darted away.
She took off hard, rushed her first shot and missed, then slowed and got the
next three. She fumbled the last of her first five hummers, then managed to pick
up only three replacements. She ran wildly and threw away two hummers
before dropping a fourth target an instant before time was called.
While watching the others, learning from their mistakes, Robert devised a
strategy. In complete control when the signal came, he held one hummer in his
right hand, the other four in his left. As he began his run, he brought his arm
back and timed his throw so that his right leg followed the motion of his
throwing arm. He scarcely noticed the target topple for his eye was already on
the next. Without breaking stride, he adjusted his gait so that his left leg would
be extended just ahead of the next target and he could follow through on his
right step. With perfect rhythm, he scored the first five targets, then came to a
complete stop at the resupply box. He reached with both hands, securing four
hummers in the left, one in the right and made his first throw as he straightened.
Again, he timed his steps, throwing on the left step, following through on the
right. The tenth target fell and Robert heard cheering as he crossed the finish,
seconds ahead of the clock.
"Wow!" Susan cried. "Engar didn't teach us that!"
"That was beautiful!" Carol said. "You must've spent extra time practicing
with your hummers."
Robert's face glowed.
The next targets were in two rows of five each, on opposite sides of the
track, requiring half the throws be to the right and half to the left. Carol
maintained better discipline and improved her score, though most competitors
did more poorly. Susan, too, had learned from her earlier mistakes and threw
with greater care. She managed seven throws and hit five targets.
Robert sized up the targets and decided against the obvious strategy, that of
throwing first to one side then to the other, as all the other contestants had
done. Instead, he used his timed-stride technique to drop three targets on the

left in quick succession, then swivelled at full stop, and took out the two lead
targets on the right with long throws. He knelt, retrieved the five resupply
hummers, and threw smoothly from the kneeling position to take down the right
center target. With quick strides he dropped the remaining two targets on the
right, then swung for an easy shot at the fifth target on the left. A long throw
toppled the last target. Once more, he was across the finish with time to spare.
"Neatly done, Robert," Carol said. "You've got to be one of the best
throwers out here. Engar said you were good , but I had no idea how good he
meant."
"I had extra practice," Robert said, looking modestly down, "when I was
hurt and couldn't practice with the tagan."
Carol laughed. "You couldn't run then, either. I think this is something you
really enjoy."
The next targets brought new complications. An official tugged a line,
setting suspended bull's-eye targets in motion. All targets were at the same
distance, but suspension lines were progressively shortened to make them
swing faster. Size also progressively decreased. To further complicate matters,
some targets were made to swing behind six-inch posts set a foot apart. To hit
these, the contestant had to throw between the posts and catch the targets as
they passed.
Most scores fell, but Carol and Susan did well because Engar had made
them practice hard with moving targets. He always said, "Enemies rarely stand
still and wait to be hit."
Robert had spent especially long hours with the swinging target in the
training hall. Hitting it was his pride, and he was better than anyone else in the
partnership, except possibly Engar. He approached the new targets with
confidence and began centering each hummer as accurately as if the targets
were stationary. But on the first target behind the poles, his confidence became
cockiness. He knew instantly that his first throw was off. With sinking heart, he
watched his hummer thud into a post - no score. For a long moment he stared in
disbelief and felt his face flame. His perfect score was broken.
When he threw again, he was shaky and the hummer nicked a post as it
sped into the target. At first he thought it, too, was a miss and his heart nearly
stopped, then he saw that it had centered accurately and he began to breath
again. He threw his last three hummers with great care, and all flew true. He
was relieved, but could not dismiss the disappointment that had almost
unnerved him..

The last station was in open country, with the target area obscured by a
palisade. The targets consisted of animal figures pulled by cables through tall
prairie grass. Susan was at the starting line, looking anxiously in his direction,
when Robert approached.
"Hurry," she called. "You're after me. Everyone else has already run."
There was a loud crack and Susan took off sprinting.
Robert trotted up. He had been so busy feeling sorry about the last set, he
had almost missed his starting time. He was barely in place when his signal
came. He began with a pounding sprint to the palisade, then right along the
wall. Hummers were stuck in the logs at intervals of about a dozen feet.
Movement in the grass caught Robert's eye, and he saw a tan object slip along
about forty feet away. He snatched the first hummer and threw in a singled
motion. A second target leaped like a rabbit. Robert snatched a hummer and
pegged it in mid-flight, but missed the next two. He ignored this new failure
and clipped the next three in a row.
When he snatched the eighth hummer, he saw no target but grabbed the ninth
hummer anyway. Then he saw two targets at once - one darting nearby, the
other hopping at a greater distance. He took the far one, then nailed the near
one and saw the final target leap into the air. He raced for the last hummer,
grabbed it in mid-stride, and made a snap throw. It centered.
Someone shouted and he saw Susan waving from a hillock. Other people
were around her and he picked out Carol, then Jason and Linda. "Terrific!"
Jason cried, as Robert jogged up. "I only hit three on the last run! You got
eight!"

CHAPTER ELEVEN

After finishing their own competitions, the children tired of watching


others and decided to explore Or'gn and its surroundings. In an alley off the
main plaza, they found a tool-and-weapon shop, and Jason and Robert eagerly
studied the prices of armor, weapons, and a variety of tools. They quickly
discovered how meager their resources were. Hummers cost six ralls, swords
30, tagans 17, and an armored breast plate with helmet cost 45 ralls. The shop
had no bows, kalards, or brodsrds, and they gasped when they saw that a tiny
little navaid cost more than 200 ralls.
The girls got bored looking at weapons and tools they could not afford and
decided to go separate ways to see what they could find. Wandering alone
down a small side street, Susan spotted a shop on the ground floor of a twostory building. A sign above the door said: "ICONS." Curious, she entered.
Her nose wrinkled at the cloying odor of sweet incense, and her mokads
thumped on bare wooden planks. She saw a polished wooden counter along
one side, behind which a woman was sitting at a cluttered desk. Standing
uncertainly, her eyes scanned walls lined with glass cabinets filled with
bizarrely shaped figurines made of stone, bronze, silver, or gold.
"Excuse me," Susan said, clearing her throat.
The woman looked up.
"What are those?" Susan pointed at the figurines.
The woman, a robustly built native, came to the counter. She smiled kindly.
"Icons, my dear; ancient religious images. People collect them. Are you
interested in religious history?"
"I don't think so. I just wondered. Why would anyone want to collect those
things; they're rather ugly don't you think?"
"I suppose it depends on your point of view. Many people think they bring
good luck, but mostly I think they just remind some of our ancient traditions."
"I didn't mean to be critical," Susan said.
The woman laughed. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion."
"Where do they come from?"
"Oh, they're found in lots of places. Mostly where the ancients hid them: in
caves, ruins, castles, and so on."
"Castles? You have castles here?"

"Goodness, yes."
"You mean like King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable?"
"King Arthur? I haven't heard of him, but I know about King Mordat of the
Ancients."
"Is there treasure in the castles?" Susan asked.
"Yes. But if you're thinking of treasure hunting you must take great care.
Most old castles are unoccupied and are quite dangerous."
"Are there any nearby?" Susan's voice sounded eager.
"Well," the woman's brow furrowed. "There is a large ruin in Slavhos,
south of here. Some say it was a castle, but I don't think anyone has ever found
any treasure there."
"Oh," Susan said, disappointed. Then she looked again at the icons. "How
much are those silly looking things worth, anyway?"
"The prices are posted," the shopkeeper said, pointing to a list on the wall
behind the counter. "I buy and sell. If you do happen to find any, I'm the only
dealer in Faland who buys them. Of course, if you want to collect I'll be happy
to sell any you like."
Susan's eyes widened when she saw that the little gold icons were worth
five hundred ralls and even the plain stone ones were worth eighteen. Excited,
she left to hunt up Jason and Robert, finally locating them outside the tool shop.
"Where's Linda?" Jason asked.
"I don't know. We went alone," Susan said, her face flushed. "But wait 'til
you hear what I found out."
Jason frowned, then said rather snappishly. "Don't you think you and Linda
should've stayed together?"
"Why? Nobody said we had to stay together."
"Don't worry," Robert broke in, "Linda's bound to be here somewhere.
Or'gn isn't very big."
"Don't you want to hear what I found?" Susan demanded.
"Sure," Robert said. "What did you find?"
"I'm going to look for Linda," Jason said.
"We'll all look," Robert said.
Susan explained about icons, castles, and ruins in Slavhos as the trio
wandered toward the plaza keeping an eye out for Linda.
"We can ask Engar about Slavhos after the games," Robert said. "He ought
to know if it has a ruin. Of course, I'd guess if it ever held a treasure it
would've been found by now."

"What's that?" Jason suddenly noticed a dark structure rising above the
trees south of the plaza.
"It's big," Robert said. "Funny, we didn't notice it before."
Susan said. "It looks like a stone building. Must be something special;
everything else is made of logs."
"Maybe that's where Linda went." The children moved toward the dark
structure, a monolithic mass of black granite that rose several stories.
"No windows, but there's a door," Robert said as they emerged from the
trees onto a flagstone courtyard.
"Chained shut."
"Wow! It looks big enough to fly an airliner through."
"Made of heavy wood."
"Bet it hasn't been open in a hundred years," Robert said as he knelt and
examined the threshold. "Dirt's blown against the door and wedged in at the
bottom."
"The chains form continuous loops," Jason said. "They wrap through these
huge levers and join without a break."
"Maybe the levers open the door," Susan said.
"If they do," Robert said, "the chains hold 'em shut."
"Look at this!" Susan squinted at a black metal plate attached to the door.
"There's some kind of writing here!"
"Where? Let me see!" Robert's face lighted. "Runes! Like the ones I've
been learning! Oh, I wish I had something to write them down with. I need to
study them to see if I can figure out what they mean."
"I saw pencils and paper at the market. I'll get some," Susan said. "Be back
in a minute!"
Robert traced the odd markings with his fingers, structuring them in his
mind, and tried to match them with what Thiel had taught him. His blue eyes
filled with happiness. In a few moments he began to read, "Opaline sword . . .
cut . . . lithan." He looked up triumphantly. "I know what it means! At least I
know what it says. These thick chains are made of lithan and they can only be
cut with an opaline sword!"
"What's an opaline sword?" Jason asked. "And what's lithan?"
"The runes don't explain, but I know what they say."
"It's crazy to lock something so you can't open it without cutting the chains,"
Jason grumbled.
Susan returned, breathless, clutching pencil and paper. Robert carefully

copied the runes and stowed the record in his belt pouch.
***
After leaving the others, Linda decided to explore outside Or'gn. She found
the countryside irresistible and began a circuit of the village palisade. As she
rounded a corner, she noticed a native youth sitting alone under a tree. She
hesitated, then decided to be friendly.
"Hi, my name is Linda." She strolled up to the boy. "Weren't you at the
competition this morning?"
Not much older than Jason, the youth wore a red headband with level one
Warrior bars. "Yes," he said, smiling. "I'm Abu'do."
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Please." The boy motioned to a place beside himself.
Linda settled in the grass and began to ask him about the country. He
explained eagerly, finishing by telling Linda, "The best hunting near here is a
dozen legons to the northeast: rabir and squal, mostly."
"I'll bet you're a good hunter," Linda said.
Abu'do smiled. "I do okay."
"Are you in any more contests?"
Abu'do's eyes widened. "Oh, my goodness, yes!" He glanced at the sun. "I
almost forgot. I must go!" He took off at a run, then stopped awkwardly.
"Goodbye. Happy to meet you."
Linda laughed. "Better hurry, and good luck!"
Linda began to think about squal and rabir. She wondered what a squal
was. A dozen legons, Abu'do had said. It was early, well ahead of noon, and
nobody would look for her until evening. She trotted to the Or'gn road and
headed north.
Jogging slowly, she let her eyes rove over the surroundings. Overhead, a
huge bird circled and she watched it begin its stoop. As it plummeted, Linda
felt wonder, then fear. Shining talons reached from a body nearly as large as
her own and the beak looked like it could tear through her small form in a
single stroke. By the time Linda sensed danger, it was too late to escape. She
dropped and curled into a ball. The giant predator struck, but it was not
interested in a human child. It snatched a large rodent from the field and
flapped noisily away.
Linda heard laughter and saw a slim native boy of perhaps ten years,
entirely naked, standing a short distance away, shaking with mirth. "Eagen not
hurt you. Eat gomer, not people."

The boy had a strong, wiry body, and red hair that came to his shoulders
and was held away from his eyes by a green headband. His skin was as brown
as the packed dirt road and his dark eyes laughed with good nature.
"Who are you?" Linda asked.
"Trenel."
"I'm Linda." She reached out her hand, wondering if natives shook hands.
Trenel took her hand happily.
"Do you always go in public without your clothes?" Linda had seen
younger naked kids in town but boys as old as Trenel usually wore ukelns.
"Live over there," Trenel pointed northwest. "Clothes not need. Run
faster."
"Are you alone?" Or'gn's walls were barely visible and there was nothing
else as far as the eye could see.
"Today alone. Sal'to live far." Trenel pointed east. "No come today."
"Where are your parents?"
"Home."
"Don't they mind you being out here by yourself."
Trenel looked blank. "Why mind? No work today."
Linda shook her head. "The eagen," she said, "are there many of those big
birds around?"
Trenel shrugged. "Maybe. Wild lands, kill people. Not farmland."
Linda shuddered. So they are dangerous, at least sometimes.
"Thirsty." Trenel pointed to Linda's canteen. "Drink?"
"Of course." Linda watched Trenel tilt the canteen to his mouth. Water
dribbled down his chest and the boy sighed gloriously when he finished a long
drink.
"You honor; me go."
Trenel darted into the field to the west and was out of sight almost
immediately. Linda looked after him a moment, then shrugged and continued
her jog north. Shortly, she arrived at a pathway that crossed the road from east
to west. Or'gn was no longer visible. The land stretched immensely around her,
silent in the brilliant light of morning.
I'd guess I'm about half way, and I have to go east as well as north.
She turned east and trotted along the path, rutted where cart wheels had
passed, but apparently little traveled. It wound, rising and falling, over small
hills that grew more frequent the farther Linda went. She ran almost
effortlessly.. Never in the Other World had she known such joy from the simple

act of moving. She let the scenery flow through her vision as smoothly as her
legs propelled her.
Thirst stopped her at a junction between two paths - the one she was
traveling and another that crossed it from north to south. A fenced field, newly
mowed, lay on the southeast corner and a gate led through the fence to a trail
that ended at a snug looking log cabin. Near the cabin was a larger structure
that looked like a barn. Linda took a long drink from her canteen and noted
how little water remained. The sun stood directly overhead and she guessed
she was now a dozen legons from Or'gn.
Maybe someone at the cabin can let me have some water and tell me
where to find a squal.
The house yard looked neat, with flower beds in pleasing patterns along
the walk. She saw a man working near the barn, then a small girl darted around
the corner of the barn and almost into her path. About the size and age of
Trenel, she also wore no clothes.
"What, ho?" The man lifted his weathered face to her.
"Hi, I'm Linda," she addressed both man and child.
The girl stared.
"Are you Sal'to?" Linda asked.
"How you know?"
"I met Trenel on the road," Linda said.
"Ah, my neighbor's boy," the farmer said. "I'm Mulro, how may I serve
you?"
Linda liked the warm greeting. She asked for water and Mulro pointed to
the well. "Take what you need. Are you new to Faland?"
"Does it show?" Linda worked the pump handle.
The farmer smiled. "You're headband tells me you're a Warrior, but not
rated as a fighter, and you are dressed as simply as a peasant with neither
armor nor weapons. You've not worked long at your Scout trade."
"Just finished training. Your fields look nice. What do you grow?"
"Florn mostly - for market - also some vegetables. I sell vegetables more
cheaply than you can buy them in Or'gn. I've grain for sale too - mostly to
merchants on contract to the Master."
"The Faland Master?"
"Yes. Some make money buying from farmers and hauling the florn to Or'gn
for resale."
"I've heard hunting is good near here," Linda said.

"For rabir and squal, yes. Beyond my gate, climb the slope to the northeast
and you can see the hill country where there is much game."
Linda finished filling her canteen and bought some vegetables, then thanked
Mulro. She waved to Sal'to, then climbed the hill Mulro had described. It
afforded a grand view of the surrounding farmland and of the wooded land to
the northeast. To the south, the farmer's fields stretched over many acres, all
securely fenced. Linda wondered about felven. At least in the light of day there
can be little danger, she reasoned, as she noticed Sal'to playing alone and
unprotected in some rocks near Mulro's gate.
Linda followed the trail north another legon, then turned east into the hill
country. She stopped under a large tree and was startled by the whir of wings
as a plump bird rocketed out of a nearby thicket.
A squal?
About the size of a pheasant, the brightly plumaged bird was large enough
to provide good meat. Linda was sure she could down such a bird had she a
hummer or even a stone. A glance at the sun told her she had stayed too long
and gone too far.
I'll be pressed to get back by dark.
***
Shadows were lengthening in the campground, and Susan lit the fire and put
kettles on to heat. Jason, unsuccessful at finding Linda, volunteered to help and
soon cooking smells filled the air. Fleecy clouds drifted overhead. One by one
the partners gathered, tired from competitions and explorations, each with
stories to relate.
"Anyone seen Linda?" Jason asked, a note of anxiety in his voice.
"Bring your plates," Susan called. "Food's ready."
"Hold on," Bertha interrupted. "Now that Jason mentions it, I haven't seen
Linda all day."
"We looked earlier but didn't find her," Robert said.
"Wasn't anyone with her?" Martin asked.
"I was at first," Susan said. "But we split up."
"I'm sure she'll turn up in a minute," John said. "She probably just lost track
of time."
"We all agreed to be here for supper," Bertha snapped. "She should know
better."
"I'll look for her," Jason said.
"Not a good idea." Engar put a hand on Jason's shoulder. "If Linda's in

town, she'll show up. If not, you've no idea where to look."


Martin took Engar aside. "What dangers would a kid face in the
countryside?"
"Aside from getting lost, not much," Engar said. "Felven aren't active this
time of the moon and no other dangerous animals live in the farmlands."
"What about people? Would anyone hurt a child?"
"Not in Faland," Engar said. "She'll be safe enough, and I doubt she could
be lost. She did too well with her scout--"
Engar was interrupted by Bertha's roar, "Where have you been, young
lady?"
Linda, flushed and covered with sweat, trotted into the circle of firelight.
"I'm sorry, it got later than I realized."
"Where were you? You don't just go off without telling someone."
Linda was taken aback. She had not seen Bertha angry and was not sure
how to respond.
"Ease up," Martin said softly. "Let Linda tell us what happened."
Bertha sputtered.
Linda told her story briefly and ended with, "I must've gone farther than I
thought, and it took longer to get back than I planned."
"You should've told us where you were going," Bertha insisted.
"Good point," Engar said. "We're a team now and should let one another
know what we're doing. What do you think, Martin? Should we agree to some
rules?"
"A buddy system might be a good idea," Martin said. "We're already paired
up, so it should be easy. But even when buddies leave together, they should
post a note to let the rest of us know where they are. That would save a lot of
worry."
"I didn't think of a note," Linda said.
"I guess it isn't really your fault," Bertha said. "I'm not your mama, and I
keep forgetting this is Faland. You kids are here as much on your own as we
adults."
"Doesn't hurt if we look out for one another, though," Jason said. "I don't
want to feel like I'm all alone."
"Let's eat," Engar said. "No harm done, and we're still learning."
***
After eating and full darkness had come, the partners walked to the training
hall where winning contest scores were posted. People were milling about,

studying columns of names that ran from ceiling to floor. The top three names
in each column, the top scorers, were written in bold lettering.
"Robert!" Susan squealed. "Look where you are!"
Robert's heart began to pound. He saw his name, third in the hummer
column! Everyone crowded around, pounding him on the back, pumping his
hand, and yelling congratulations in his ear.
"Did I win something?" he asked Engar.
"You better believe it, Lad! Go collect your money - at the prize tables near
the door!"
While Robert raced to get his prize, the others scanned the lists for their
names. Small prizes were paid even for a good showing, and to their delight,
they soon discovered all had won something, even Susan at sixtieth in the
hummer contest.
Being Weapon-masters, Engar and John had competed in all the contests
and had done well enough to place in each. With kalard, Engar was fifteenth,
John thirty-third; with atla Engar was seventh, John twenty-fourth; and with the
spear Engar was ninth, John tenth. Four members placed with the bow: Engar
fourth, Martin seventh, Bertha twenty-sixth, and John thirty-fourth. The partners
had done well, and their reputation grew among Faland's Warriors.
"Well, Lad, you've done something special," Engar told Robert as they
walked back to camp. "This was my third festival, and I've yet to crack the top
three in any event."
Robert fingered the 38 ralls in his pouch and hefted the great weight.
Graciously, he said, "You placed fourth in the bow; that's almost as good."
Engar smiled. "I suppose so." He gave the boy a clap on the back.
Robert blushed.

CHAPTER TWELVE

That night around the campfire, while toasting each partner's achievements,
Jason proposed a song. He began shyly, but his voice grew stronger as he
went. It was his first attempt at lyrics, and he knew it was rough.
When Robert stepped up to the line,
He threw his hummer true.
It soared across the space between,
And struck the target down.
From every throat, a lusty shout,
The score was at the top.
When Robert turned to see his friends,
Their joy in him shone bright.
He proudly went to get his prize,
And bowed with gratitude.
Friend Robert is a Warrior great,
A thrower without peer.
And everyone who knows him well,
Respects his mighty arm.
When Jason finished, Robert was blushing and everyone else was smiling.
People from other camps had gathered round and wanted more songs but Jason
declined; he had no more lyrics.
"Sing the songs of the Song-masters," Linda called, and others took up the
chorus. But Jason did not want to take away from Robert's glory. Others filled
in and talk and laughter lasted well into the night. The moon was high and its
silver light made lamps unnecessary by the time everyone rolled into their
blankets to get what sleep they could before sunrise.
Next morning a youth walked stalwartly into camp and straight up to
Martin. "I challenge you," he declared.
Startled, Martin looked up and saw a boy of perhaps sixteen or seventeen,
trim, neatly dressed in sirkeln and vest, with a sword at his side. He wore the
headband of a level one Warrior.
"And, who are you?" Martin asked, looking closely at the young man.
The boy bowed. "I am En'kal, Master."
"Why do you want to fight me?"

"You are the Mentat Warrior, Master. To fight you is to gain honor."
Martin's forehead knotted. He studied the youth closely and finally said,
"It's your right. The weapons will be swords."
En'kal smiled brightly. "Thank you. I'll arrange the kom right away." He left
on the run.
Moments later, a stocky level two fighter approached Martin and bowed.
"Master, I am Frogur. I request the honor of a match."
Martin winced. "I must decline, Frogur. I have a match pending."
Frogur looked disappointed but bowed again and withdrew.
"What's with the 'master' bit?" Martin asked Engar.
"I'm not sure." Engar looked puzzled. "Technically, many are masters, but
the term is rarely used except between students and their teachers."
"It must have something to do with my being a Mentat. I thought you said it
unlikely I would be challenged."
Engar shrugged. "So what do I know about Mentats?"
When breakfast cleanup was complete everyone headed to the arena to see
when Martin would fight. On the way, John and Bertha looked for suitable
Warriors to challenge since none had challenged them. Bertha challenged the
level two fighter, Ankriez, who accepted and chose pikes as weapon.
Every level two fighter whom John challenged declined a match on any
terms. Finally, John challenged the level three fighter, Ultor, a rather unusual
man, tall and uncommonly thin, who wore a shaggy brown coat that hung past
his knees. Ultor chose knives and John found out later that Ultor was a Forester
clansman famous for his ability in hand-to-hand knife fighting.
En'kal had gotten an early time slot and was ready when Martin arrived.
Bertha and John had to settle for afternoon matches. In spite of his youth, En'kal
did not seem at all nervous, and Martin approached him with caution. A few
strokes told him, however, that En'kal was not his equal. The youth fought
gamely, but Martin drove him rapidly against the ropes, then into a corner.
With his swings hampered, En'kal attempted to drive Martin back with a
series of lunges, but Martin side-stepped and delivered a hard stroke to
En'kal's sword arm. En'kal dropped his sword and clutched his wounded arm,
blood starting between his fingers.
Martin backed off, a little dismayed. En'kal promptly yielded, bowed, and
said, "Thank you, Master. You fight well."
"You are an honorable opponent," Martin returned in the formal manner
prescribed. "Here, let me help you with your arm."

En'kal's face brightened. He retrieved his sword, sheathed it, then dug a
bandage from his belt. Martin helped bind his arm.
"Could use a couple of stitches," Martin said as he finished tying the cloth
strips. "Do you know a Healer?"
"Yes, Master," En'kal said. "Thank you." He nodded and removed three
ralls from his belt and handed them to Martin. When he left the kom he walked
as proudly as if he were victor.
Martin scarcely reached the edge of the arena before another level one
fighter, a young woman named Shiro, challenged him. Again, he was forced
into a match.
"I'm glad Shiro couldn't get a kom until late this afternoon," Martin told
Engar. "I won't have to accept any more matches today. This could get to be a
nuisance. Besides I don't want to hurt anyone - some of these challengers are
just kids."
"I assure you these kids know what they're getting into," Engar said.
"Besides, you didn't seriously hurt En'kal and the experience will do him good.
Whether we like it or not, fighting is part of this culture, and we can't change
that."
"All the same I find it disturbing."
"You do seem to be in demand," Engar said. "I hadn't thought your status
would attract challengers. Once you get a contract, you can refuse them, but
you'll likely be kept busy at festivals. Maybe you should preempt the gloryseekers by making challenges of your own with more worthy opponents. Did
you know Robert has accepted a match?"
"Really? You think he can handle it?"
"It'll be good experience, and I think he is prudent enough to avoid serious
injury."
Martin frowned. "I didn't suspect Robert would be that eager to fight; he
seems a quiet boy and not very aggressive."
"That may be the point. I think Robert was embarrassed when he failed to
qualify in his ratings match, especially after he saw Jason do so well. He may
have doubts about his courage."
"That's ridiculous!" Martin said. "He has nothing to prove; besides he did
very well with the hummer."
"It may not be so ridiculous to Robert," Engar said. "His success with the
hummer boosted his self-esteem, but it wasn't a test of courage. It may even
have increased his desire to prove himself. I wouldn't worry about it; he's

more capable than he knows, and it might do well for him to find out."
"Who's the Warrior? Anybody good?"
"A girl. A young woman actually. Her name is Kaler. I've heard she's
aggressive and almost rated a couple of weeks ago. She'll give Robert a tussle,
I expect. She usually fights with a knife, but Robert insisted on the tagan. That's
a good sign; it shows he's getting over his fear of the weapon."
***
After Martin's fight with En'kal, most of the partners scattered into Or'gn or
went to explore the countryside. Martin and Engar separated and Linda caught
up with Martin. "Mind if I walk with you?" she asked.
"Not at all. I'm just going to look around and see if there's anyplace in town
I haven't been."
"It's a pretty small place," Linda said, wrinkling her nose. "Not much here,
but I want to know what you think about something."
Martin glanced at the girl. "I'm listening."
"Well, you know how I went exploring yesterday?"
"How could I forget?" Martin grinned.
Linda blushed. "I won't go by myself again. But while I was out there, I
found some really good hunting country. I also found out you can buy food at
farms cheaper than in town. I was wondering if we might go camping and
hunting? We could sell meat in town. I already checked at the market, and they
said some hunting contracts are still open. What do you think? Have you
decided what we're going to do?"
"Not yet, Linda. That's something we all have to decide. But your idea
seems worth considering. Bring it up after supper this evening when we have
our partnership meeting. Let's walk over to the agent's hall and see what other
contracts are listed. It won't hurt to have some idea of what's available."
"It'll be good to do something besides challenges," Linda said.
"I can't argue with that. This is an odd place. Fighting, exploring,
competing in games: these seem to be the main activities aside from work. I've
found no books, no television, no movies, no shopping malls." Martin turned to
Linda. "Do you miss those things?"
"A little, but I really haven't thought much about it. I've noticed there are no
churches or schools, though. Don't you think that's odd?"
"Does seem strange, especially the latter. I wonder how the natives teach
their children? I have many unanswered questions about Faland."
"Like: who is the Faland Master?"

"Yeah, that would be one."


"Here's the agent's hall!" Linda scampered up the steps.
The contract office was closed, but many job announcements were posted
on a bulletin board in the lobby. Among them were appeals for hunters to bring
in meat, as Linda had discovered. There were also openings for grain
transport, hide haulage, wood cutting, and one request for three fighters to
escort travelers to Rooden and protect them from hyen and renegades.
"Pickings look slim," Martin said. "Most of these contracts don't look
lucrative enough for our whole group. We might have to take more than one."
"What are hyens?"
"Good question. I don't recall hearing about renegades either."
After leaving the agent's hall, Linda took Martin to the black stone building
she and the other kids had found. "What do you think it is? Susan talked to
some natives yesterday who said it's always been here but nobody knows what
it's for or how to get into it. What's lithan?"
"Engar said lithan is a legendary metal made by the ancients before modern
Faland society existed. And opaline scimitars supposedly have blades stronger
than steel." Martin rummaged in his belt pouch, and removed his pearl-bladed
razor. Gently he stroked the cutting edge across a link of the heavy chain. "Not
a scratch," he said, grinning. "I guess my razor isn't opaline."
After leaving the monolith, Martin and Linda went through Or'gn's gate and
turned south along the road. At a crossroad they studied a sign with arrows
pointing south to Slavhos, 25 legons, north to Biclif, 250 legons, east to
Rooden, 135 legons, and west to Forod, 125 legons.
"It's a long way between places in Faland," Martin mused, rubbing his
chin. "If we're stuck walking it means a lot of time on the road to visit these
other communities."
"Wish we could get horven," Linda said.
"At three hundred ralls each, it'll be awhile before we can afford any."
"Maybe we can put all our prize money together and get one, and Bertha
can make us a cart."
"One horven could not pull a cart with all of us. Besides we don't have 300
ralls between us."
"Just a thought."
The sun was hot, and they looked around for shade. Tall, silky grass
brushed their legs as they walked toward a large tree in a field beside the road.
Near the trunk, the grass was thinner and packed down, with signs that children

had played there.


"How are you at tree climbing?" Martin eyed the branches.
"I always wanted to but never had the chance."
"Now's a good time." Martin caught a scrub limb a few feet up and hauled
himself into a fork where the trunk divided into three branches. He turned to
help Linda, and they climbed into the upper limbs.
"This tree seems made for climbing," Martin said as he pulled himself up.
The rough bark was smooth where many others had climbed. From the tree they
saw rolling hills to the east, and to the northwest, a tower. Below the tower,
diminished by distance, rose the palisade of a settlement.
"Wonder what that place is?"
"Wasn't on the road sign," Linda said. "It's too close to be one of the places
marked."
"Doesn't look like it's even on the road," Martin added. "It looks to be off
by itself in the field."
"Maybe it's a farm, like the one I visited yesterday."
"The palisade looks like the one around Or'gn."
"Uh, oh, we've got company," Linda said.
A party of young people was approaching from Or'gn. Martin and Linda
descended to meet them. An older youth introduced himself as Chuyak. "You're
the Mentat-master," he said to Martin. "Accept my challenge?" He wore the
headband of a level one fighter.
Martin shook his head. "You kids sure are eager to fight. Sorry to
disappoint you, but I have a match pending."
Chuyak grinned. "That's okay, I'll catch you later."
***
During the remainder of the afternoon, many of the partners gathered at the
arena, either answering challenges or watching their friend's matches.
When Bertha met Ankriez, the pikeman charged and attempted a leg thrust.
He wasn't prepared for Bertha's speed. She parried the thrust with her pike and
pinned Ankriez's weapon to the ground, then stepped around the grounded pike
and smashed Ankriez with a stiff right to the chin. Her opponent fell like a sack
of florn, and Bertha had to wait nearly half an hour for him to recover
sufficiently to pay her the six ralls he owed.
John approached his match almost with disdain. When Ultor took off his
hide-coat, his knobby body seemed more bone than flesh. Still, he faced John
coolly, apparently not intimidated by his opponent's much greater size.

When the start-signal was called, John ambled out of his corner, but Ultor
moved with lightning speed and was on him before the big man had taken two
steps. Ultor's knife flashed so fast, John could hardly follow the motion.
Feinting, the thin Warrior shifted to the right, and John felt the bite of his blade
on his left shoulder. Stumbling slightly, he got nipped again on the right wrist
as he failed to parry Ultor's sweep.
Sweating, no longer nonchalant, John crouched and back-pedaled. He
watched Ultor's eyes. He was not able to match the thin Warrior's speed but
managed to keep him from getting a solid strike, and slowly began to get the
hang of his quick jabs and lightning sweeps. A break came when Ultor moved
in to swipe at his left shoulder, and John stepped forward, not back as usual.
He took the blade on the inside of his breast plate, under his left arm, and
clamped his massive biceps on Ultor's forearm. He then dropped his own knife
and grabbed Ultor by the neck with his right hand, swinging the man off the
ground. Switching his left arm to a grip on Ultor's leg, he squatted and hoisted
him overhead. Like a bear shaking off a dog, he hurled the slim Warrior clear
of the kom. Ultor sprawled in the dust twenty feet beyond the kom ropes.
"Nasty," John muttered as he retrieved his knife, "like getting stung by a
bunch of hornets." He examined the bloody nicks and scratches that covered
both arms, then climbed out of the kom and helped Ultor to his feet.
"That's a first," Ultor said, rubbing his bruised neck. "I usually end my
fights in the kom."
"I'm sorry," John laughed. "I got a little irritated with that hunt-and-peck
style of yours. I must admit your skill with the knife was more than I bargained
for."
"I don't usually lose," Ultor admitted, as he counted out nine ralls. "You
move faster than a man your size has any right to."
Even before John's match ended, Martin had entered the kom with Shiro.
The match proved more a formality than a true fight, since Shiro did not
possess the skill to make more than a token show and only stayed with the fight
long enough to say she had dueled the Mentat Warrior. Late in the afternoon,
Engar fought a fourth-level fighter named Zak, a farmland native of great size
and strength. They used battle axes and made a long and fierce combat. When
everybody was convinced it would end in a draw, Engar found an opening. He
thrust, as though holding a sword, and rotated his axe slightly. With a quick
motion, he jerked his axe toward himself while stepping sharply to the side.
His axe-head caught that of his opponent and wrenched the weapon from Zak's

grip. The victory won Engar his fifth combat point, though neither Warrior had
landed a blow other than on their weapons.
"A thing of beauty," said Bertha, when Engar rejoined the audience.
"I'm up next," Robert announced nervously. "I better get my gear."
"Don't let yourself get hurt." Jason said. "I know you can do it."
"I hate this business," Carol said, twisting her hands. "Somebody's going to
get killed sooner or later."
"Not likely in challenge matches," Engar said. "No Warriors attempt a kill
in an honor match, and it sharpens the participants - makes them better able to
defend themselves in more dangerous circumstances."
"So I've heard," Carol grumbled. "I've got my kit ready anyway. Don't
forget, Robert already got bashed by a tagan once."
When the match began, Kaler did not charge, nor did Robert. They
approached warily, half-crouched, their tagans ready. Kaler struck first, with
explosive speed. Robert barely jumped aside. The tagan missed his right
shoulder, but nicked his elbow. He snapped an awkward response too late.
Kaler stepped in with a series of hard, fast, figure-eight swings, and Robert
back-pedaled, twisting sideways. He recovered from the surprising speed of
Kaler's attack and back-handed into her swing. The tagans coiled briefly, then
disengaged. The stroke broke Kaler's rhythm, and Robert took advantage to
seize the kom center. When Kaler swung again, Robert saw her diagonal
before the swing was well developed. It was a perfect set-up for the trick
Jason had taught him. He stepped in, almost too close, and Kaler's tagan grazed
his breast plate. He brought his own tagan down, aiming the tip toward Kaler's
streaking hand. The tagan hit beyond the handle on Kaler's tagan, and he pulled
hard. The weapon tore from the girl's grip and slapped through the kom ropes.
"Taga!" Kaler called.
Robert backed off, his face flushed and his heart hammering in his throat.
Kaler counted three ralls into Robert's hand. "Nice move," she said. "I
think I need more practice with the tagan before I try you again. Perhaps, you'll
accept a challenge with a knife sometime?"
Robert grinned. "Maybe."
Robert's was the final match of the day. The sun was low to the west, and
the partners returned to camp for supper, tired and glad that the festival was
finally over.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Since Martin was the only one authorized to negotiate contracts, he went
alone to the agent's hall. Though it was early, he found the black man, Brom,
already there.
"What, ho, Friend!" Brom reached out a hand and the two greeted formally.
Brom explained that he was seeking the contract to escort travelers to Rooden.
"I thought you already had a contract," Martin said.
"So did I," Brom said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't meet the terms and had to
relinquish it. I couldn't find enough Warriors. What are you after?"
"My partners and I have decided to try market hunting - a suggestion by our
Scout who knows where to find game."
Brom raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised Engar would agree to such a
pedestrian enterprise. He has fried bigger fish."
Martin said a little testily, "Perhaps Engar sees opportunity where others
do not."
Brom laughed. "I meant no disrespect, but I have traveled with Engar and
never found him an avid hunter."
"In truth," Martin said. "Our group is inexperienced and this partnership is
new. We want to move carefully until we see how it works out."
The door to the contracts office opened and they entered. "I'm surprised no
one else is here," Martin said.
"You shouldn't be," Brom said. "Most agents lined up contracts before the
festival. That's why so few openings remain. I feel lucky to have a chance at
the Rooden contract."
The process was simple. The agent merely took the notice from the board,
handed it to the clerk, and carried out negotiations verbally, on the spot. Martin
listened as Brom negotiated with the clerk, got the contract he sought, and left.
The clerk was more than a functionary; she had full power to set terms of the
contract. Martin introduced himself and laid the notice for a market hunter on
the counter.
"Ah, I see this is your first application. I've heard of you. My name is
Larun." The clerk held out her hand and Martin shook it. "Meat contracts carry
a piece-rate, four ems per pound for fresh, skinned, and sized; eight ems per
pound for dried or salted. This is an open-ended contract for rabir, squal, and

devon. Do you plan to provide all three?"


"I'm not sure," Martin said. "I only know of rabir and squal. Could I just go
with that?"
"It's your choice. The contract seeks a maximum of one hundred pounds
fresh per day mixed rabir and squal, and up to two thousand pounds salted per
month. We'll supply barrels and salt. You must deliver fresh meat the same day
it's killed. How much of the contract do you want and for how long?"
"I'll take the full contract for sixty days."
"That's a lot," Larun said, then warned, "This contract requires treble
damages if you default."
Martin hesitated, "I think nine of us can handle it. Our Scout said game is
abundant not far from here."
"Why don't you take the contract for fifteen days with an option to extend?
That isn't quite so big a commitment, and we guarantee an extension on five
days notice."
Martin brightened. "I didn't know that was an option. It sounds like the best
approach."
"Good," Larun smiled. "It's done, then. The market will expect your first
fresh meat by sundown tomorrow and each day thereafter. You can pick up the
salt and barrels from the storehouse behind the market. The storekeeper will
give you instructions on how to lay-up the salted meat. Any questions?"
"What about quality control?"
"Just be sure the fresh is same-day kill and follow the instructions for
salting. The market inspector will check the meat on delivery. If you're careful,
you won't have a problem."
"Good enough, thank you."
Martin was glad he had gone early for there was much to do and they had
to be in full operation by the following day. Engar expressed surprise at the
size of the contract. "You don't start on a small scale, do you?"
"We can do it can't we?" Martin sounded anxious.
"I'm sure we can, but it's not a lazy man's contract. Everyone's going to
have to work, and I must confess hunting is not my favorite activity."
"So Brom informed me. But we did all agree to this."
"Don't look so worried. I'll do my share. I expect we'll find more exciting
employment down the line."
They visited the market then the tool shop to purchase equipment. Engar
bought a burro for a hundred ralls, nearly all his personal funds. He donated

the burro to the partnership and gained the enormous gratitude of everyone.
Susan fell promptly in love with Pecos and became its official caretaker.
Bertha supervised the purchase of metal straps, sleeves, pins, and bolt plates
to use in building a cart. She also asked Susan to buy for the group an axe,
adze, scrapers, saw, hand drill with bits, hammers, and a small bellows. From
her own funds, she bought a half-inch thick black-iron plate to make an anvil
and finished her purchases with a mace. The group bought several large pieces
of heavy canvas to make shelters.
Robert, inspired by Engar's generosity, donated five hummers to the
partnership. Martin bought leather to make two breast plates and helmets, one
large and one small, to be shared by all. John purchased steel stays to complete
the armor. The only bow and sword the group had were those Engar already
owned and they could not afford others, but the hummers donated by Robert
were all they needed to bring down small game.
By the time they purchased incidental supplies and extra food, the
partnership had nearly exhausted its funds. But they were well equipped and
could stay in the field indefinitely, supplying their larder from hunting and by
gathering wild plants and by making an occasional purchase from Mulro's
farm.
"Is everybody ready?" Martin called.
"Yo," came a chorus of replies. Pecos carried the canvas and tools, and
everyone carried a sack slung over their shoulder or strapped on their back.
"Move out, Linda," Martin ordered.
As Scout, Linda proudly led the way. The sun stood exactly at the zenith;
they had made good time with their preparations. Clouds gathered in great
fleecy balls, as the group marched north along the Or'gn road.
Soon they reached a path that carried them east. Raindrops began to fall,
but the moisture served only to cool them. By mid-afternoon Linda spotted
Mulro's farm. The rain let up, and sun and wind rapidly dried the travelers.
Sal'to spotted the group before they reached the gate, and her brown body,
like that of a small wild animal, burst from the field.
"Yo, Sal'to," Linda called. Sal'to came running, and Linda introduced her to
the company. Sal'to laughed and cavorted among them.
"She's naked," Jason whispered to Martin.
"You're pretty observant," Martin said.
"It's okay," Linda told Jason. "Trenel said people our here have little need
for clothes."

"I suppose that's why we were given so little," Robert said.


Charmed by her friendliness, the children lost their shyness and welcomed
Sal'to. Mulro had also seen the visitors and came to the gate to greet them.
"Where are you bound?" he asked after Linda introduced him.
"Hunting," said Linda, "in the hills you told me about."
"Good game," said Mulro. "If you climb the ridge past the first hill you'll
find a spring and pond. The water's good, and you can easily set up a camp
nearby. My daughter can show you the way, if you like."
Everyone refilled their canteens at Mulro's well and thanked him, then
headed out under Sal'to's eager guidance.
"I'll trade vegetables for meat," Mulro shouted as they left. "It'll save me
the need to hunt for a while."
Quick as the rabir that scurried out of her way, Sal'to dashed along the
ridges and through the grass. She flushed several coveys of squal and squealed
with delight as they pounded the air in panicky flight.
In an hour she showed them the pond and the clean, bubbling spring that fed
it. The site, high on the ridge, commanded grand views in all directions, and in
a small draw, a copse of trees provided firewood and poles from which to
build the cart. Nearby was a great oaken tree from whose top they could see an
even wider panorama.
To be safe from lightning, Engar suggested they camp away from the tree
and below the crest of the ridge. After unloading Pecos, he showed Susan how
to hobble the little burro. Then Susan worked with Carol, Robert, and Jason to
build a cook's fireplace.
In the lee of a large boulder, Bertha began work on a forge. Engar and John
cut poles and set up A-frames to make tents. Linda climbed the oaken tree and
mapped the countryside.
With everyone engaged, Sal'to lost interest and headed home. Martin
walked part way with her so she could show him where the best game was,
then took advantage of the opportunity to hunt for supper. He had Engar's bow
with him and three arrows, one nocked and ready.
The sun's slant rays blinded him when he glanced west, so he moved
slowly east. A covey of squal flashed upward. His first arrow dropped one
before it had risen a dozen feet; his second caught another in full flight. He
flushed with satisfaction.
On the return, Martin bagged a rabir then spent half an hour searching for
an arrow that missed a squal. He reached camp as the first stars winked into

view. His take dressed out at seven pounds and had required little more than an
hour to get. With a half dozen hunters, he figured filling the daily hundred
pound quota would be easy.
"We'll hunt in pairs," Martin told the others, "not all at the same time.
Bertha must work on the cart and armor. Susan will collect wild plants to add
to our diet, and Carol will stay within shouting distance of camp in case of
emergency. We'll send two people into town every afternoon with the day's
fresh meat. We'll rotate that chore. I figure it'll take five or six hours to make
the round trip with Pecos hauling the meat."
"Who's going to skin out the animals?" Susan asked. "Do I have to do all
that?"
"I hardly think that would be fair," Martin said. "Everyone will dress their
own kill and pack the meat for hauling. We should easily fill our fresh meat
quota before midday, leaving plenty of time to get it to town. The afternoon
hunt will be for salt-meat. Bertha should have the cart ready by the time we
need to start hauling the salt-barrels to town."
"I'll have the cart together in two days, three at the most," Bertha said
"Making wheel-spokes will take the most time. Everyone can work on those in
the evening."
"That would also be a good time to prep the rabir skins," Carol said. "We
can use some to make vests and extra blankets, but we'll probably have more
than we need. Can we sell the extras?"
Martin said. "I'll check at the agent's hall and maybe ask Mulro as well."
While the talk went on, Susan supervised the roasting of rabir and squal.
She prepared vegetables and made drog to fill everyone's mugs. They ate
heartily, then set to work fashioning oaken wood staves into cart wheel spokes.
Bertha cut leather strips and made kalards for hunting. While they worked, they
talked, sang, and told jokes. Even the children did not complain about the
heavy work.
***
Early light had barely chased the stars when Jason and Robert descended a
northerly draw, working silently in the dawn cool, their mokad-clad feet
feeling the way in the high grass. They drew in lungfuls of morning air suffused
with the sweet scent of prairie flowers and rejoiced in being alive as they
searched the gray-green sea of silky stems for signs of game.
First light touched feathery grass plumes and turned the field to fire. Jason
glanced at Robert and watched the light gild his hair and bronze his body. He

saw his friend reach out a slim arm.


"There," Robert whispered.
Jason saw movement and tossed a rock. Squal catapulted upward, filling
the air with a shower of feathers. Streaks of light, one, then two in quick
succession, sped toward the straining birds. Three crumpled in flight.
The boys ran to their prizes and killed them quickly. Robert's hummers had
dropped two, Jason's one. The boys wiped blood from their weapons, cached
the birds, and continued. When they had a dozen, they headed back to camp.
By mid-morning the hunters had fourteen rabir and thirty squal, enough to
make the day's quota. They dressed and packed the meat, ready for transport to
Or'gn.
Bertha and John made the first trip. They went west along the ridge,
through mostly open country, then dropped to the path and followed it south to
Mulro's farm, then west again to the Or'gn road. At the road, they met an old
woman walking north from Or'gn.
"Kind strangers," she said when they drew abreast. "I am old and poor.
Could you spare a rall?"
John looked at Bertha.
"Sure, honey." Bertha dipped into her belt for the coin.
The old crone's face lighted. "You be of honor. Perhaps you can use this."
The old woman handed Bertha a small roll of paper.
"You needn't give me anything," Bertha said.
"Take it," the old woman insisted.
Bertha took the paper and thanked the woman.
"Where could she be going in this lonely land?" John wondered as the old
woman shuffled away. "It's a long way to the inn north of here."
Bertha unrolled the small paper. "What do you make of this?"
"Runes of some kind," John said.
"Maybe Robert can make sense of it." Bertha tucked the paper in her belt.
In Or'gn they went to the market warehouse, traded their meat for four ralls,
and picked up eight barrels, each with enough salt for the meat that would fill
it. They tied four of the forty pound barrels on Pecos, then hoisted two each to
their own shoulders, using yolks Bertha had fashioned, and set out immediately
on the return trip. The sun was still high when they labored into camp and
gratefully lowered their loads.
Dozens of rabir skins, stretched on frames, were drying in the sun. Split
carcasses were hanging in moistened sacks in the shade of the great tree. Some

partners had shaped spokes even in Bertha's absence, and she was pleased to
see half those needed already finished.
They had enough meat to fill a barrel. John lifted the packed and sealed
barrel, 150 pounds, to his shoulder. Balancing it in one hand, he boosted it
overhead and roared, "One down, seven to go!"
Everyone cheered.
"I say we take the rest of the afternoon off," Martin said pleased and
impressed by how well they had done.
"The pond looks great for swimming," Linda suggested.
"Wonderful idea," Bertha, who had worked up a sweat on the long haul
from Or'gn, seconded.
The children whooped and ran for the pond, shedding mokads and sirkelns
on the way. Enclosed in a small, rocky basin, the clear water felt as warm as a
bath.
"Can everyone swim?" Engar shouted as the kids plunged in.
Standing waist-deep, Robert admitted, "I've never been swimming before."
"Me neither," said Susan.
"I was on my school's swim team," Linda said. "I can teach them."
"I can help," Jason said. "I learned to swim as part of my therapy."
The afternoon passed pleasantly with Jason and Linda helping Susan and
Robert and the adults relaxing in the water nearby. While the sun was still high,
they climbed out and air-dried then began evening chores. After evening meal,
Bertha remembered the paper the old woman had given her. She unrolled it and
explained its origin.
"The writing is strange," she said. "Maybe a Rune-reader can make sense
of it."
Robert took the paper eagerly and held it close to the lamp.
"These are not merely writing," he said. "See how the symbols make
patterns? They show a place! And see this break? It must mean something
unusual." His face twisted in thought. "It looks like a building - with many
rooms. These little arrows point down. Maybe its underground." Robert's
finger traced the patterns. "This is a place symbol - here on the bottom of the
scroll. It shows a slave."
"Slave?" Engar said. "Let me see." He bent near the paper. "I don't see how
this shows a building and a slave."
"I can draw it," Robert said. "These are structural symbols; they code for
walls, rooms, doorways. The break shows it's not complete and the upper part

of the structure has collapsed into the lower."


"What about the slave?" Engar asked.
"It's here, at the bottom; it may be a place name."
"Slavhos, perhaps?"
"There is a ruin in Slavhos!" Susan cried. "The woman in the icon shop
told me about it."
"That's true," Engar said. "I've seen it, and legend says that beneath
Slavhos is a catacomb where slaves were quartered before the time of the
Kroll wars. Later, it's said, the ancients stored treasure there."
"This scroll must show the ruin in Slavhos," Robert cried. "And the
entrance to the catacomb is right here, where the arrows point down. We could
find it and get the treasure!"
"Hold on," Martin said. "Let's not get excited. This might not mean
anything."
"We could check it out," Jason pleaded.
"I wouldn't mind having a look," John said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Couldn't hurt."
"We've work to do here," Bertha said. "We've a contract to fill. Let's get
these spokes finished before we turn in."
"Bertha's right," Engar said. "We can worry about treasure later."

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

In the following days, the camp settled into a routine. The partners devoted
the morning hunt, before breakfast, to bringing in fresh meat for the day's quota.
At midday, two partners took Pecos and the newly completed cart, loaded with
fresh meat and a barrel of salt-meat, into Or'gn to exchange for fourteen ralls.
After breakfast, the hunt brought in meat enough to fill another salt-barrel and
enough for their own use. They occasionally exchanged meat for fresh
vegetables at Mulro's farm, and Susan became skilled at finding and preparing
edible wild plants.
By the third day, word had gotten around, and people from Or'gn dropped
by to visit the hunter's camp. Warriors came seeking challengers, and Martin
ordered a kom built. In the hour before evening meal, they sometimes held
matches. The partners rarely issued challenges but usually accepted those they
received. Engar said it was good experience, and he was confident they all
knew enough to yield prudently if the match went against them. Engar also
insisted on daily martial arts practice, and broadened its scope to include
techniques not covered in their original training.
When each day's hunt ended, they also had time for swimming. Sal'to often
joined them and sometimes Trenel, though he lived far away. Trenel became
especially fond of Robert, for the older boy paid him attention and showed him
how to throw a hummer.
On the daily trip into Or'gn, the partners sometimes met peasants.
Occasionally the peasants asked for food or water or money. It became policy
to grant all such requests. On the ninth day, John and Robert had cart duty, a
task everyone enjoyed because the trip into Or'gn provided a break from
routine. At the junction with the Or'gn road, they met a strangely garbed man, a
native of middle years. He wore a headband of gold, silver, and turquoise,
with no insignia, and a saffron robe that descended nearly to the ground and
was girded about the waist with a silver belt.
"Good travelers," the man greeted them. "I'm Korvu and my way has been
long and hot. Could you spare water and perhaps something to eat?"
"Of course," John answered, and handed the stranger his canteen. From a
small sack, Robert took meat and biscuits, the latter fresh baked that morning,
and all three sat in the grass alongside the road and ate.

"Where are you from?" John asked, as he munched a biscuit.


"From the northern desert, the oasis of Oasib, three hundred eighty legons
beyond Waydn on the great cliff."
"Great cliff?" Robert asked. "We saw a sign pointing to Biclif. Would that
be near the great cliff?"
"That's how Biclif got it's name. Waydn is a shorthand version of, 'the way
down,' a trail, built by King Mordat of the Ancients, some fifty legons west of
Biclif. It's the only route from the farmland into the northern desert."
"You've traveled a long way," said John. "Three hundred eighty legons
across the desert and what must be close to another three hundred from Waydn
to here."
"Yes, and I have more to go. I don't mean to eat and run, but I really must be
on my way." Korvu rose from the ground.
"You appear to be headed for Or'gn. Perhaps you'd like to walk with us?"
John invited.
"A kind offer, but I fear your burro would not keep my pace. Your
generosity does you honor. Here," Korvu extended his hand to Robert, "take
this amulet. You are a Rune-reader and can decipher its instructions. Wear it
next to your skin when you move in the shadows of darkness where the demons
of Faland dwell. I take my leave." Without waiting further comment, Korvu set
out toward Or'gn with long, purposeful strides.
Robert watched him go. "Looks like silver," he said, holding the amulet for
John to see.
"It's a prize all right. Korvu is an odd one."
"This belongs as much to you as me."
"Actually, I suspect it's for all of us," John said. "I think Korvu only handed
it to you because you are our Rune-reader and can tell us what its inscription
says."
"What did he mean by the demons of Faland?"
"I don't know. Maybe he was talking about felven."
"I'll have to study the runes," Robert said, with a puzzled frown. "I haven't
seen any like these before."
***
While John and Robert were carrying meat to Or'gn, a fifth level fighter
named Merdeln visited the hunter's camp.
"You're human but I haven't met you before," Engar said.
"I've been in the outback a long time," Merdeln replied. "Most recently in

Targ."
"I've heard of it," Engar said. "A forest settlement in the southern
mountains, if memory serves me."
"Yes. An exciting place," Merdeln said. "I'm used to action. I was hoping
to find an opponent here, but I see no fifth or sixth level fighters I can
challenge."
Engar smiled. "I'm getting close to fifth level. Perhaps I can offer you some
action?"
"Ah," Merdeln said. "Why not? I like an eager fighter. Would maces be
acceptable?"
Engar nodded and borrowed Bertha's mace. The two went to the kom
where a small collection of spectators took up positions.
Merdeln, taller and heavier than Engar and with greater reach, pressed his
advantage. But his weight made him slower, and he could not find an opening
in Engar's defense. As time stretched, the match became one of strength against
agility, stubbornness against endurance. Neither would yield and neither could
gain a decisive advantage. The sound of maces hammering against iron shields
echoed along the ridge. Dust rose around the struggling gladiators and coated
their sweaty bodies and hung in the still air. Clouds gathered and a brief rain
came. It settled the dust and slicked the straining bodies. Still they fought. No
words passed their lips, only the sharp grunts of great effort.
Finally a patch of mud formed near the center of the kom and Engar, noting
it, maneuvered Merdeln until the Warrior's foot slipped, so slightly it seemed
hardly a slip at all. Engar stepped quickly forward, and with his toe caught
Merdeln's ankle. The heavier Warrior staggered and Engar swung. Merdeln
fell backward, and Engar's left foot found his right wrist and pinned it.
Merdeln tried to twist aside, but the thud of Engar's mace on his helmet brought
an end to his efforts. He resigned.
Exhausted, Engar bent to help his opponent to his feet. Merdeln brushed
aside the offered hand, and the blaze in his eyes told all that he did not yield
graciously. After paying his fifteen ralls he left camp without further word.
"I don't think you made a friend," Martin told Engar as the latter sponged
away dirt and mud.
"I suspect you're right," Engar said, then added, "I think that was the
hardest duel I've ever fought."
"It was a fine victory. If I figure correctly, it means you now advance to
level five."

"You're right," Engar grinned. "That means I can apply for agent's status."
Martin's face fell. "I hadn't thought of that. Does that mean you might leave
our partnership?"
Engar shook his head. "No way. You'll not get rid of me so easily. It does
mean, however, that I can now negotiate contracts and take some of the
pressure off you."
Martin smiled. "I'm glad you plan to stay. I'd hate to lose your experience."
That evening at the campfire Jason told John and Robert about Engar's
battle, and they in turn told of meeting the mysterious Korvu. Robert showed
the silver amulet around, and began to decode its runes.
"It says something about dark," he said. "Darkest dark, then something
about demons dwelling, heat and light, and telling." Robert rubbed his chin,
wrinkled his nose, scratched his ear, and looked thoroughly confused. For
some time, he studied in silence while the others waited patiently. Then his
face cleared, and he raised his head. "I've got it! In darkest dark, demons
dwell. Heat and light, demons tell."
"What the heck's that supposed to mean?" Susan asked. "Are you sure
you're reading it right?"
Robert frowned. "The first part's clear enough. Demons dwell in really
dark places, probably caves and such. But how do demons tell about heat and
light?"
"Maybe it isn't the demons doing the telling," Jason suggested.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Jason said. "Maybe 'Heat and light, demons tell,' means tell on the
demons instead of demons telling about heat and light."
"You're a genius!" Robert cried. "I think you're right! This must be a magic
device that gets hot and glows when demons are near. It warns the wearer
about demons."
"Don't get carried away," Carol said with a snort. "Demons are nonsense.
That amulet is probably nothing but a pretty bauble."
"May I have a look at it?" Engar asked.
Robert handed it over, and Engar studied it closely. "I know of many hightech devices in Faland. This could be one. It doesn't look like a simple casting.
It's intricately machined and appears to be made of more than one part, very
carefully joined."
"How could a technical device alert someone to demons?" Bertha growled.
"I agree with Carol. I don't buy this demon nonsense."

"Maybe it works like a Tri-corder," Jason volunteered. "Like on StarTrek."


"Well," Martin said. "I seem to recall Arthur C. Clarke once pointing out
that any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic to someone
less sophisticated. Perhaps we should just hang on to this 'bauble' and reserve
judgement."
"I'm not sure what the word 'demon' means in Faland, anyway," Engar said.
"I've heard that vicious creatures inhabit caves and abandoned ruins. Maybe
that's what's meant by demons. I've heard stories about treasure seekers being
killed or injured by them."
"Have you done any treasure hunting?" Jason asked.
"No, but I've talked with some who have. They're pretty close-mouthed
about their finds, though. Mostly I've heard rumors and vague references.
Bertha's map is the clearest clue I've seen, but I've also heard there's treasure
in Blackwater Cave northwest of Odetn."
"Where's Odetn?" Robert broke in.
"Northwest of Or'gn. Odetn's a little village, mostly abandoned. Only a few
people still live there, but it has a tower that people like to climb. From it you
can see a large grass-covered mound near the presumed location of
Blackwater Cave. I went there once with Brom and found an entryway, but it
was sealed by a door we weren't able to open."
"Odetn must be the place we saw from the tree," Linda said to Martin.
"That day outside Or'gn, you remember?"
"I remember," Martin replied. "It looked like a settlement, but not indicated
on the road signs."
"Where else might there be treasure?" Robert asked.
Engar wrinkled his brow in thought. "Well, there's a cave in Forod I
explored once. I didn't find anything, and I'm not sure treasure is reported
there. There's also a place called Hole-in-the-Wall on the great cliff about 120
legons north of here. But I've not done much treasure seeking. I've worked
mostly on small contract jobs, like the one Brom is on now."
"When this contract is over, maybe we could look for treasure?" Susan
suggested.
"We talked about that before," Carol reminded her.
"I know. And we didn't decide anything."
"We have to renew this hunting contract tomorrow if we're going to keep
it," John pointed out.

"Do we want to?" Martin asked.


"We should consider it carefully," Bertha said. "It took quite a bit longer
yesterday to bring in the necessary meat."
"You're right. Game is getting scarce around here," Carol said "We'll have
to move camp if we continue the contract."
"I found good game about six or eight legons farther north this morning,"
Engar said. "But if we go that far it'll mean a much longer trip to Or'gn. We
might have trouble getting fresh meat to market on time."
"We could renew our contract only for salt meat," Martin suggested.
"Frankly, it doesn't sound like we have much enthusiasm for more hunting,"
Bertha said. "Maybe we ought to look for other work."
"Yeah, like treasure hunting!" Jason said.
"Yeah! Yeah! We could try it!"
"I wouldn't mind," John said. "Maybe we'd get a little more action and
have a chance to see more of Faland."
"Hold on. Before we start chasing wild geese, we ought to know what our
options are," Carol said.
"There aren't many," Engar said. "We can hunt, haul merchandise, serve as
escorts, or sign up to fight someplace. We can't own farms or businesses or
settle down and raise a family."
"I thought you said we could adopt children."
"Only if you're rich enough."
"We can't invest, can we?" Bertha said.
"Not in any real sense of the word. I've never heard of a bank, interestbearing loans, or any counterpart of Capitalism. Even if we remain market
hunters, we can't control the market for our meat. We have limited power to
negotiate contract terms, but the price is pretty well fixed. If a person
accumulates enough money, he can live for a time on savings, but when the
savings run out he's got to find a new source of income."
"Why don't we put it to a vote?" Carol suggested.
"What do you want to vote on?" Martin asked. "We haven't picked any
alternatives yet."
"Hunting animals or hunting treasure," Jason called.
"Those aren't the only choices," Martin said.
"I have a suggestion," Engar said. "Why don't we let the present contract
lapse, take a little time to look around, maybe give John and Bertha's scroll a
try, and think about what we want to do in the future. Contracts will always be

available, and we've accumulated enough supplies to live comfortably for


several weeks."
After brief further discussion, Engar's suggestion was accepted. The
children went to bed that night, happily dreaming of Bertha's map and
mountains of treasure.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Midmorning following the partner's decision to retire from hunting, Martin


and Jason took the meat-run into Or'gn. They arrived a bit ahead of noon, and
Martin went to notify Larun of their decision not to renew their hunter's
contract. Jason headed for the tool shop.
After leaving the agent's hall, Martin looked up a hide merchant and sold a
hundred rabir skins for fifteen ralls and agreed to deliver a hundred more at the
close of his meat contract. With business out of the way, he joined Jason at the
tool shop. The boy was transacting for a hummer.
"Couldn't wait to spend the money you won yesterday, I see," Martin said
with a wink as Jason tested his new hummer's blade with a finger.
"It's not the only thing I bought." Jason pulled a small packet from his belt.
"Bertha was griping the other day about not having enough pumice for
sharpening. I bought her some."
"Good, boy. Smart, too, getting on Bertha's better side."
"Yeah," Jason grinned. "I want her to make me a sheath for my hummer. I
got the leather for it."
"You have been spending."
"Are you gonna get anything?"
"Yeah, a sword and some leather and steel for Bertha." He laughed. "You
aren't the only one wants on that big lady's good side. Maybe she'll make me a
breast plate."
In good spirits, the two left the tool shop and went to the village green to
eat and rest and retrieve Pecos. An hour past noon, they started back to the
hunter's camp.
A few legons out of Or'gn, they met a boy about Jason's age coming from
the opposite direction. He wore only a ukeln, but around his neck was a golden
amulet that shone against his dark chest. He was sturdily built, with comely
face, and red-brown hair that descended to his shoulders and was bound by a
Warrior's headband.
The boy greeted them, "I'm Doynu, you?"
"Martin, and this is Jason. Have you come far?"
"Farm, thirty legons." Doynu pointed to the northwest.
"That's an unusual necklace." Jason's eye was taken by the shiny pendant.

"Where did you get it?"


Doynu took the pendant off and held it so Jason could look at it more
closely. Jason showed it to Martin and they both noticed that it, like the silver
amulet given Robert, bore an inscription in the rune-language of Faland.
"Wrestle?" Doynu pointed at Jason and then back to himself.
"You want to wrestle?" Jason asked. "With me?"
"Yes, yes. Wrestle. Amulet, three ralls." Doynu pointed at Jason's
headband.
Martin whispered to Jason, "I think he wants to put his amulet against three
ralls in a wrestling match with you."
"It's beautiful. And only three ralls? Maybe I can win it for Linda."
"Wrestle? Okay?" Doynu asked again.
Jason had watched the children wrestle in the koms in Or'gn and had seen
Trenel and Sal'to wrestle at the camp. He had even asked Trenel to explain the
rules and show him some of the moves. How hard could it be? Jason sized up
Doynu and decided the boy was likely no stronger than he.
"I'll wrestle," he told Doynu.
"Good!" Doynu unwrapped his ukeln and dropped it in the grass beside the
road. He waited while Jason frowned.
Martin laughed. "I think you wrestle in the nude here."
It dawned on Jason that none of the wrestlers he had watched had been
clothed, but since children in Faland so often wore nothing, he hadn't thought
much about it. He looked appealingly at Martin.
"Don't look at me," Martin said. "You accepted his challenge. I think you
have to honor it."
"Oh, brother," Jason muttered.
He sat down beside the road and removed his mokads, then took off his
sirkeln and ukeln. Standing naked beside the road made him feel uncomfortably
vulnerable.
"You signal?" Doynu motioned to Martin.
"All right, get ready." Martin clapped his hands.
Doynu moved in quickly, grasped Jason's shoulders and kicked his right
foot from under him. Jason sprawled on his back and Doynu lunged. Hours of
training with Engar paid off, and Jason rolled and was back on his feet in an
instant. The boys locked arms, straining. Doynu tried again to hook one of
Jason's feet, but Jason was ready and stepped out of the maneuver.
Doynu let go with his right hand and stepped quickly to the left, pulling

hard with his left hand so that Jason was jerked off balance. Swinging his right
arm under Jason's, Doynu twisted upward for a neck-lock. With his free arm,
Jason reached for a grip on Doynu's head and broke the lock, but Doynu
instantly rotated, caught Jason's right hand in a wrist-lock, then flipped him on
his back. Stepping over Jason's body, he put pressure on his arm. Jason
grimaced as pain shot from wrist to shoulder. He brought his left leg up, and
bore back across Doynu's torso. Doynu promptly switched his grip from
Jason's arm to his leg, swung to a reverse position and rolled Jason onto his
belly. He pulled Jason's leg back, dropped to a sitting position on his shoulders
and applied force to the helpless boy's ankle.
"Taga!" Jason grunted.
Doynu helped Jason to his feet, his eyes sparkling. Jason felt very much
humbled. He limped to his sirkeln, without looking in Martin's direction, knelt,
and pulled out three ralls. He mustered a smile as he handed the money to
Doynu. "Great moves," he murmured. "You handled me good."
Doynu's smile changed and Jason found himself looking into eyes that were
not those of a child. "You show honor and courage," Doynu said, speaking not
in simple peasant tones, but in a voice of authority. "The golden amulet cannot
be bought, nor can it be stolen, nor can it be taken in combat. One can be found
in the Castle of Mordat west of Targ, but it can only be won with great daring."
Doynu took up his ukeln and, with the lithesome speed of Faland's children,
vanished into the field.
Naked, bruised, and covered with dust, Jason watched him go. His brow
knotted; Doynu was not what he had seemed. He put on his sirkeln and laced
his mokads, flinching as he tightened the lashings on his strained ankle. "I
never really had a chance, did I?" he said to Martin.
"Actually," Martin said, a speculative frown on his face. "I think you did
quite well. In fact, you may have just passed a test. But why you were tested,
I'm not sure."
"What was the golden amulet? It was only a bauble, wasn't it?"
"Like the silver amulet?"
"Do you believe it? About the demons?"
"I don't know," Martin answered. "But I think the jewelry of Faland is more
than pretty baubles."
Jason took Pecos' lead and began to limp along the road. "The amulet
looked more valuable than three ralls," he said. "The Castle of Mordat is
another place to look for treasure."

"So it would seem."


It was nearly sundown when Martin and Jason reached camp. Jason rode in
on Pecos, for the ankle twisted by Doynu's strong hands, had swollen and
become painful.
"That's two of us," Bertha said ruefully. She had defeated a third level
fighter in an axe duel, but not before she took an injury to her left shoulder that
had required Carol's stitches to repair.
"It's a good thing we're ahead in our work," Martin said. "With two unable
to hunt, the work will go slowly tomorrow."
"Honey, don't you worry about me," Bertha barked. "I can still use my right
arm and that's all I need for the kalard."
"I'll be in the field, too, at first light," Jason insisted. "With the bandage
Carol tied around my ankle I can walk fine now." With those words he strode a
few steps, but could not entirely hide the limp.
"Stay off your foot for a while," Martin advised. "Tomorrow will tell its
own story."
During supper, Jason told of his wrestling match with Doynu. The partners
asked many questions that neither Jason nor Martin could answer.
Engar said, "Never a dull minute with this group. I lived in Faland more
than a year and did not collect so much unusual information."
"What do you know about the amulets?" Martin asked. "Surely you've
heard something from those who have lived here longer than you?"
"Not much," Engar said. "I've never seen a golden amulet though I had
heard about them. The amulets are all said to be magic but I never put much
stock in it."
"What's the gold one supposed to do?" Jason asked.
Engar thought a moment. "I think I remember someone saying it's supposed
to protect against evil spirits or something like that."
"Demons again!"
"How many amulets are there?" asked Robert.
"Three I believe: gold, silver, and bronze. The bronze amulet is said to
protect against cold when worn with lithan armor."
"Lithan armor?"
"Made from lithan metal," Engar explained. "The stuff of the chains that
bind the door to the black vault in Or'gn."
"Where does one get such armor?"
"My information is mostly hearsay. I'm not sure these things even exist, but

I've heard lithan armor is made in the weapon shops of Riven, far to the south
of the great river that flows through the Faland jungle."
"Have you been to Riven?" Robert asked.
"No. It lies in a dangerous land. I might've gone there as an escort someday,
had I stayed with that business. Even the best Warriors don't go there alone."
"Do you think we'll ever go there?" Susan asked, her eyes dark and plainly
more worried than eager.
"Relax. We'll not go there until we're a lot better equipped and more
experienced than we are now - assuming we go at all."
The conversation continued until fatigue finally overcame the partners, and
one by one, they rolled into their blankets.
In the morning, Jason's ankle was much improved and he was up before
first light as he had promised, ready to hunt with Robert. The boys wrapped
ukelns around their waists and padded silently through the sleeping camp. By
being early, they knew they would avoid morning kitchen duties. Jason kept the
bandage around his ankle, but otherwise went barefoot. The hike was longer
now, to reach areas where game was still plentiful.
"Did you really fight naked?" Robert asked.
"I had to."
"I wouldn't have."
"I might not have either, if I'd known about it when I accepted the
challenge. But I'm glad I did."
"You mean you're glad you got beat?"
"Well, no," Jason admitted. "I felt pretty embarrassed about that. But
sometimes I think you can learn more from losing than from winning."
"Now you sound like Engar."
"I don't think that's such a bad thing," Jason said.
"It would've been neat if you'd won the gold amulet."
"Doynu said it can't be won in combat; he knew before the match started
that he would win. Martin think's it was a test."
"A test? What kind of test?"
"I don't know. But I think if I hadn't wrestled Doynu, he never would have
told about Mordat's Castle. And there may be other things, too. I'm not sure, but
I know Doynu isn't a kid like you and me."
"Do you think there really are demons?" Robert asked with a slight tremble
in his voice.
Jason looked at him. "Yes," he said with certainty. "Here in Faland, there

are demons. I don't know how I know, but I know."


***
During the remaining days of their hunting contract the partners grew more
restless. Martin honed his fighting skills and became adept at using his Mentat
spheres to search out the increasingly scarce game. The partnership's
reputation grew, and many came to challenge them, for great prestige came to
those who dueled the Mentat Warrior or his companions. Over time, Martin
earned seven combat bars and gained third level Warrior status. John defeated
the Warrior, Katariv, whom he challenged and fought with pikes, and also rose
to level three. Even Robert, though still not rated, won three combat bars.
Under Bertha's direction, everyone made backpacks from wood, metal
pins, and canvas. They also made breast armor and helmets, and with their
winnings, purchased weapons of choice. In her spare time, Bertha labored with
meticulous care, almost from the first day of camp, to fashion a great brodsrd
for John. She presented it to him on the last evening at the campfire.
"So, this is why you kept me away from the forge so many afternoons,"
John said, with a catch in his voice, as he hefted the shining blade.
"Every Warrior needs a proper weapon," Bertha growled. "I hope it has
good balance."
"Oh, it does," John said, balancing the weapon in one hand. With sweeping
strokes, he made the blade sing as it cut great circles in the air. Then he walked
to a tree, eight inches in diameter, and felled it with a single blow.
As the evening drew to a close, Engar reminded everyone that the lunar
cycle had entered dark phase. "Remember," he cautioned, "felven strike
without warning. You must not leave the lighted area while stars are visible in
the sky."
"It's divvying up time," Susan said, and with a flourish brought out a heavy
purse. Her eyes were shining when she said, "We made a profit. Half goes to
our shares." Carefully, she counted a dozen ralls to each partner.
"We still have 68 ralls in the kitty," she said. "That's after buying enough
food and supplies for at least two weeks."
***
The sun had just risen, and the morning meal was ready when Sal'to and
Trenel showed up, minus their usual exuberance. They knew their friends were
leaving and they were sad.
"I want to go with you," Trenel begged when he and Robert were alone.
"We'll still be friends," Robert assured him. "But you're needed on your

father's farm, and I have a long way to go."


A tear slipped down Trenel's dusty cheek. "I won't see you again?"
Robert hugged the little boy. "I'll be back, I promise. And someday, when
you're older, you'll be a Warrior, too. Then we'll go on adventures together."
He unhooked one of his two personal hummers and handed it to Trenel. "Keep
this. Practice every day, and when I come back you'll be ready."
Trenel took the hummer, his tears drying. Robert rummaged in his pack and
took out a small leather belt and sheath and fitted it around Trenel's narrow
waist. He slipped the hummer into the sheath. "Now, you'll have it with you
when you need it."
At the farm gate, they said goodby to Sal'to and Mulro. Trenel
accompanied them to the Or'gn road, then darted into the field.
***
Two days later they arrived at Slavhos, just ahead of sundown. Though
smaller than Or'gn, it was similarly surrounded by a wooden palisade. They
located a village green and set up camp. The market was smaller and less well
supplied than the one at Or'gn, and they arrived so near closing they were the
only customers. Crowded inside, they made an amazing impression, with
John's great height, Bertha's massive rotundity, and the liveliness of the
children.
"Ah, the Mentat Warrior's partners," said the effusive storekeeper. "I'm
Kormax, at your service." He extended his hand. "So, you've decided to leave
Or'gn. I heard you were hunting up by Mulro's farm."
"Until yesterday," Martin said. "But now we want to learn more about
Faland."
"We Slavhosians are honored that you've chosen our poor village to begin
your exploration."
"What can you tell us about the ruins in the east quarter?" Engar asked.
"I've never seen much there but great heaps of rock."
The proprietor's eyes narrowed. "You seek the catacombs, perhaps?"
"Perhaps. Though I've heard they're only a rumor and don't really exist."
"Oh, they exist all right. Unfortunately there's no way in."
"How can you be sure?"
Kormax shrugged. "Who can be sure? All I know is no one has found an
entrance, and I've been among the searchers. But I will tell you this, if you do
find a way in, you'd best enter with care. The catacombs are the home of
demons."

"Demons!" Jason exclaimed. "I know they exist."


"Of course they exist, Boy!" Kormax cried. "Don't ever doubt it. Those
who do are those who die by the demons!"
"Demons, shmemons. What do I care about demons?" Bertha snorted. "If
the catacombs exist, we don't need an entrance; we can dig our way in."
Kormax roared, "Through fifty feet of solid rock? You must, indeed, be
powerful Warriors!" Then his eyes gleamed and he leaned close. "If you find
one of Faland's demons, my dear, you shall make a fine appetizer for them!"
"Watch it, honey, or you'll make an appetizer for me," Bertha growled.
After their visit to the store, the adventurers went to survey the ruins for
themselves. Piled heap on heap, great mounds of crumbled granite covered
nearly a quarter of the town's area. Passages had been cleared among the
rubble, but none led to anything interesting.
"It's too late to search tonight," Robert said, his voice plaintive. "It doesn't
look promising. Our map shows only a small part, and I've no idea where to
begin."
With that gloomy assessment, the party headed back to camp to begin
preparations for the evening meal.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Early in the morning, the partnership assembled at the great ruins in


Slavhos, determined to find a way into the catacombs. Using Bertha's scroll,
Robert drew the lines of ancient walls and studied them for a landmark that
might indicate the entrance. He made four copies of his best idea and gave one
to each pair of searchers. He told them to look for the remains of a room
shaped like an irregular pentagon in which the two longest walls joined at a
right angle. Within the right angle, the underground entrance should lie.
"The scroll only shows part of the ruin," Robert explained. "It doesn't show
where the five-sided room is. There might even be more than one such room
for all I know."
"I can't tell the shape of rooms from these piles of rubble," Bertha
grumbled. "Everything's buried. How are we supposed to know where the
original walls were?"
Martin climbed a heap of crumbling stone and seated himself, crosslegged, near the top. He released a metallic sphere and sent it high above.
Within his Mentat eye, he saw the entire ruin. What had seemed a random pile
of stones took on order. In the pattern of fallen blocks, Martin saw the shape of
ancient walls. He smiled, opened his hand and caught the sphere. Dropping it
into his Mentat's pouch, he climbed from the rocks.
"Find anything?" Engar asked.
Martin unfolded the map given him by Robert. "I think, Robert, that you
have misinterpreted this map. It doesn't show some lessor part of the total ruin.
On the contrary, I think it shows more than the ruin. I believe it maps the whole
of Slavhos. See this portion that seems to show no details? Think of it as
outlining the walls of Slavhos. The five-sided structure is not a room; it's the
entire castle. The original shape isn't clear from the ground, because the
castle's shorter sides once supported a tower that collapsed outward and filled
in the area. The two walls that meet at a right angle actually formed the
southeast corner of the castle. If that's true," he added, "the entrance to the
catacomb lies at the southeast corner of the ruin, not necessarily within a
subsidiary room."
Robert was studying intently and listening carefully. "You're right," he said
slowly. "I should've realized it right away since the place symbol, the slave

figure, has to refer to the settlement, not merely to a building."


"I'm not sure I see it," John said, skepticism in his voice. "But then, what
do I know? I guess it's easy enough to check out." With long strides, he started
along the south boundary of the ruin. Linda darted ahead and the others quickly
followed.
A quarter legon brought them to the Slavhos palisade. The wooden timbers
abutted the partially intact southern wall of the ruin and barred the way
beyond.
"Looks like we have to go outside Slavhos," Martin said, "and circle the
town to get to the backside of the ruin." Even before he finished speaking, the
children had begun running toward the gate. They quickly found a well-worn
trail along the outside of the palisade. When the party arrived at the outer stone
wall, they found many smaller trails radiating eastward.
"As I recall," Engar said, "shooting and throwing competitions take place
here when Slavhos hosts the quarterly Warrior's festival."
"How do you expect to get through that wall?" Bertha said. "It's solid
stone." She looked upward two dozen feet to the crest of the old castle wall
that now formed the southeast corner of the palisade surrounding Slavhos.
Martin released a nubbin and sent it upward. North along the wall he
spotted a place where the huge stones of the castle ramparts had shifted and
now formed what was almost a giant's stairway leading to the top of the ruin.
"We can get in from above," he said. "Come on, Jason, I'll give you a boost."
The first rise was a good ten feet, but from there Jason easily scrambled to
the top. John jumped and caught the upper edge of the lower block and hauled
himself up, then turned to help the others.
"We're not the first to climb here," Carol observed as she crawled over the
worn stones. "Many others have smoothed the way."
From the top, they saw the ruin stretching, heap on heap of enormous stone
blocks, to the north and west. At the southeast corner, a gap in the blocks left a
cleft that plunged sheer to the ground, and within the gap someone had left a
wooden ladder.
"I guess my scroll wasn't the only one," Bertha said with a rueful smile. "It
looks like someone beat us to the punch."
"I doubt it," Engar said. "Remember the storekeeper told us no one has
ever found a way into the catacomb."
"Well this corner hasn't been overlooked, that's for sure," Carol said.
"Which means it probably doesn't lead to anything of importance," Martin

added as he led down the ladder. "But we'll check it out anyway."
At the bottom, they discovered many passageways winding among
chaotically strewn stone blocks, and many overlapping footprints in the dirt
that floored the passages.
"We're near the east wall so we've gotta go south," Robert said. Linda had
already begun in that direction. Moving cautiously, in dim light filtering
through breaks in the blocks overhead, they wormed their way toward the
southeast corner of the ruin. The way narrowed abruptly and ahead was total
darkness. Engar lit a lamp.
"Do felven live in places like this?" Susan whispered, her eyes glinting in
the lamp light.
"Probably," said Engar. "But our light will keep us safe. Just don't go off by
yourself into the dark."
It was hardly a necessary warning.
"What happens if we come on a felven in one of these blind passages?"
Bertha growled. "Light or no light, it won't be able to get out except through
us."
"I trust we'll be smart enough to see it and back off," John noted with a
touch of sarcasm.
"Everyone stay together," Martin ordered. "I want John up front with Linda.
John will pick a route everyone can manage. I'll bring up the rear. We don't all
need to light lamps. Two or three will be enough as long as everyone stays
behind John and ahead of me."
In a hundred feet John entered a large irregular area among the tumbled
stones. Other than the way they entered, there was only one exit, a crevice too
small for John or almost anyone else. It opened above a large stone slab.
"Doesn't look like we're going to get any closer to the corner than this,"
John said.
"Can't be much farther," Robert said. "The entrance to the catacomb could
be under one of these big rocks right here in front of us."
"Or maybe on the other side of this big one with the crack on top," Linda
said. "I'm small enough to get through that little space. I could crawl through
and see what's on the other side."
"No way," Bertha said. "I'll not have you crawling off into some dark little
hole by yourself."
"Well," John studied the massive stones. "There's no way we're going to
move these blocks. They must weigh hundreds of tons."

"Now we know why the catacomb hasn't been found," Carol said. "The
entrance is under these stones and can't be reached."
"Well, maybe we can explore in ways that haven't been done," Martin said.
"You keep forgetting my Mentat eye." He sent a nubbin up and directed it into
the crevice Linda had considered entering. "It's a blind alley," he said.
"Doesn't go through."
"Heck," Linda said. "Didn't you find anything?"
"A few scratches on the wall, but I can't make them out."
"Scratches!" Robert cried. "Runes, maybe?"
"Seems unlikely," Martin said.
"I could get a closer look." Linda brightened. "If it's just a blind alley it
would be safe enough for me to crawl up there. It would be, Bertha, really it
would be."
Bertha had a fierce scowl on her face.
"It looks safe," Martin said. "There's no place for anything to hide in
there."
"All right," Bertha agreed. "But I want to be up there looking after her."
John moved aside and Bertha lifted Linda. The little girl, pushing a lantern
in front, wormed into the small cleft. "Hey!" her voice squealed. "These are
runes! Robert was right!"
"Lift me! Lift me!" Robert yelled. "I want to see!"
"Hold your britches," John said. "That space isn't big enough for you. Let
Linda sketch them."
In a moment, Linda scratched out a copy of the runes and backed out of the
cleft. Robert almost tore the paper from her hands. "They're really strange," he
said, the paper trembling in his fingers. "Different even from the ones on the
silver amulet!"
"Can you read them?" John asked.
Robert held the paper near the lamp. "Let me study them for a minute."
"Hey, these aren't runes!" Jason exclaimed, looking over Robert's shoulder.
"This is musical notation. These are notes. This is a song!"
"A song!"
"Yes. I'll bet it's a key-song, like the ones Marov taught me!" He was so
excited he was fairly dancing.
"What's a key-song?"
"I can sing it!" Jason cried. "I know these notes! Marov told me the key
songs are used to operate hidden locks, and only Song-masters who sing the

right notes can open the locks!"


"Well," Bertha noted. "If the door to the catacomb is under that stone,
whether it's locked or not isn't going to make much difference."
"Everybody quiet!" Jason commanded. "I'm going to sing!"
He held the paper where he could see the notes clearly, then began to emit
clear, soft tones. The song, unlike any the others had heard before, hardly
seemed to come from Jason at all. The notes repeated higher, then lower, then
higher, and higher still. Of a sudden, a low rumbling joined the sound, and the
ground began to tremble.
"Back! Get back!" John shoved Jason and Robert aside as the huge stone
slab in front of them lurched, then majestically, like some great leviathan,
began to slide. With a horrible, grinding roar, it crushed lessor stones to
rubble, then began to shove giant blocks aside like child's toys.
"Watch out! This whole place is going to collapse," Bertha roared. She
gathered Linda and Susan to her and bent above them, placing her massive bulk
between them and the falling rubble. As abruptly as it had begun, the giant
stone slab stopped its slide. As the air cleared, the partners stared in awe at a
three foot gash, ten feet long, that dropped through the floor of the cavern.
Stone steps plunged into inky darkness.
"Wow, Honey!" Bertha growled, as she released Susan and Linda and put
her hand on Jason's shoulder. "You've got one hell of a voice."
"Well, I guess that solves the mystery of why no one found this before,"
Engar said. "It took a very small Scout to find the song and a very good Songmaster to sing it."
"Are we going down into that?" Carol asked appalled.
"Naturally," Susan chirped. "That's what we came for, isn't it?"
"If there's treasure hidden below, it doesn't look like anyone got to it ahead
of us," John said. "This could be a huge break for us."
Martin sent a Mentat sphere into the darkness and was surprised to find it
difficult to control. In the darkness, his sphere showed him only a dim, reddish
outline of steps and massive stone walls.
"I can't see far," he told the others. "What I do see seems safe enough."
"Should we all go?" asked Bertha. "Or should we leave someone to guard
the entrance?"
"What for?" Martin asked. "If someone happens by, let them explore too."
"What if they find the treasure before we do?" asked Linda. "They'd get to
keep it and we wouldn't get anything."

"Not to worry," Engar said. "If we don't spread the word, it'll likely be
quite a while before anyone discovers the entrance is open. By then we'll
either have found treasure or discovered this is just another dead end. Either
way, it won't matter who comes after us."
"What if we get in trouble? Nobody will know where we are?"
"Wouldn't do any good if they did," Engar said. "No one would rescue us.
In Faland, when you hunt treasure, you're on your own."
"If the catacomb is as big as the ruin, it may take a long time to explore,"
Martin said. "We need someone to look after Pecos while we're gone, and
we'd better take enough supplies for an extended stay underground."
"I suggest two or three return to camp and take Pecos to a nearby farm,"
Engar said. "The farmer will store our camping gear in return for the use of
Pecos and our cart until we get back. It's accepted practice and would cause no
suspicion. Meantime, the rest of us can begin to probe the catacomb."
"I'll take Pecos to a farm," John said
"I'll go along," Engar said. "I know a couple of the nearest farmers. With
luck, we should be back by evening meal and can all meet here at the catacomb
entrance. By then, the rest of you should have an idea what we're up against."
After Engar and John left, Martin propelled his Mentat eye into the
catacomb, and holding a lantern aloft, boldly followed it down the steps. The
children then Carol, followed, with Bertha bringing up the rear.
"It's creepy." Susan's voice echoed in the dim corridor.
"The walls are wet and scummy."
"It's sure big!"
"And dark!"
"There's a door ahead," Martin said. The steps ended on a level stone
floor. "Using my Mentat eye is very tiring in the dark," Martin said, as he
retrieved it and returned it to its pouch. "I'll use it sparingly so I don't drain my
powers."
"Well, Jason, can you open this?" Bertha asked as she eyed the massive
iron gate blocking the way.
"If it has a song key," Jason answered. "But I'd need to know the song."
"Look for runes," Robert said. "Runes will tell us how to open it."
"I found something over here," Carol said, wiping brown scum from a
brass plate.
"See! More runes!" Robert cried, as he knelt alongside Carol.
"It's not a song," Jason said.

"But these I can read," Robert said as Carol held the light for him.
Martin tapped on the gate and heard a dull thunk that suggested great
thickness. Linda kicked the door and danced back, shaking her foot. She gave
Jason a murderous look when he laughed, then looking up, caught a glimmer of
reflected light from the roof. "Something's up there!" she cried, pointing.
Martin released a Mentat eye, maneuvered it toward the ceiling, and saw a
large, shallow indentation in the solid stone. "Bertha," Martin motioned. "Hold
the lamp high while I boost Linda. Maybe she can see more detail than I can
with my Mentat eye."
"There's a big metal plate stuck in the rock," Linda announced from a
precarious position on Martin's shoulders. "It's got a big groove in it with a
crossbar."
"Pull on the cross bar," Bertha suggested.
Linda hung her weight from the bar. "It won't budge."
"We'll see about that. Here, Honey, take my rope and thread it through."
Bertha handed up the end of a braided rawhide cord. "Let's put some real
weight on that baby."
When Bertha bore down, the bar dropped so abruptly she fell on her fanny.
A grinding rumble sounded from the bowels of the cavern. Everyone leaped to
cover their heads, but falling debris did not shower them. Instead, the great
iron door slid haltingly sideways.
"Wait!" Robert cried. "The amulet . . . my silver amulet . . . it's getting
warm!"
"And it's glowing!" Linda cried, staring at the medallion brightening
against Robert's chest.
"Honey, I think it's too late for waiting," Bertha hollered, swinging her
mace to ready. "The barn door's already open."
"The runes, Robert; could you read them?" Martin asked as he drew his
sword.
"Only partly. Many are too worn to make out. There's a name, p h a r g, and
something about guards. That's all I can decipher."
Martin sent his sphere through the door, and immediately became alarmed.
"Something is blinding my Mentat eye! It's trying to take control from me!"
Hastily, he withdrew the nubbin and clutched it tightly. "There's a Mentat force
here, stronger than mine."
"Another Mentat?"
"Not a presence," Martin said. "Not like I sensed when Horath preempted

control. This feels more like a static field. Horath told me there are guarded
places where Mentat tools are rendered useless."
"Oh, great, just where they're most needed."
"It's too dangerous to go on," Carol said.
Susan peered into the dark passage. "It's creepy, but it doesn't seem
dangerous," she ventured.
"If there's anything guarding this place, it can't be living," Bertha said. "It
must have been sealed up for generations."
"Then why is my amulet glowing?" demanded Robert. "It's supposed to tell
about demons in the dark."
"Demons are nonsense," Bertha growled. "Maybe the amulet always glows
in the dark and we just didn't notice it before."
"It's warm, too," Robert said. "That's how I knew something was different."
"Let's go ahead," Martin said. "Be especially cautious. We shouldn't ignore
the warnings, but neither should we let fear control our actions."
Moving slowly, the party advanced into the passage beyond the iron door.
Quickly they came to an intersection. When they held their lanterns high, they
could see many doors lining the corridors, some closed, others open, some
hanging loosely from broken hinges.
"Looks like a cell-block. Maybe prisoners were kept here."
"I'll draw a map as we go," Linda said. "I'll number the intersections." She
tore a scrap from her notebook, wrote a numeral on it, and secured it to a rock
shelf with a piece of broken stone. "I'll mark all the turns this way," she said.
Martin led past several more intersections, then came to a T junction with
branches left and right. "We may be at the outer wall of the dungeon." He
turned left and stopped before a closed door. It yielded readily to Bertha's not
so subtle coaxing, and torn from its hinges, clattered to the floor. The doorway
opened into a small cell with a jagged hole gaping in the roof. Stony rubble lay
scattered on the floor. They found nothing and proceeded to the next cell. Half
a dozen cells later, they came to another side passage, this one leading back in
the direction they had come.
"The cell-block appears to be laid out in a rectangular pattern," Carol
noted.
"Let's see how far this passage goes," Linda said. "Then maybe we'll have
an idea how big the cell-block is."
"This is boring," Jason said. "These little rooms are all alike and there's
nothing in any of them."

"I suspect treasure hunting is boring a good deal of the time," Martin
responded.
"I'm getting hungry," Susan said.
"It is getting late," Carol said. "John and Engar ought to be back. I think
we've explored enough for now."
"This place is enormous." Linda looked at her map. "We've passed twentytwo side halls since we turned and there were seven before that."
Martin whistled softly. "With six rooms in each block. If this is rectangular
that means close to two thousand cells in the area we already know about.
Even a casual look in all these cells is going to take days."
"We could split up," Jason said. "If we went in pairs, it'd go a lot faster."
"Right now we need to go back," Carol said.
"Let's take the next hall over," Bertha suggested. "It parallels this one and
will give us a look at something new on the way back."
"Keep an eye out for number seven," Linda said. "That's the passage that
leads to the iron door."
"Look ahead," Jason called. "The passage is blocked."
"Uh, oh. My amulet's getting really hot!" Robert shouted.
He hardly had the words out, when a monstrous black shape lunged from a
side room. Roaring, it bore down on Jason. No taller than he, but three times
broader, the squat form reached toward Jason with powerful arms. Fumbling
his tagan loose, Jason felt his back slam against a wall. Claws raked his arm.
Stumbling sideways, he glimpsed a cavernous, fang-filled mouth.
With great speed, the creature followed Jason's flight, mouth and arms
reaching. Hot breath belched on the boy's face, and he saw the jaws begin to
close. Then he was jerked from his feet and hurled along the wall. Bertha, had
grabbed his arm, and now interposed herself between him and the beast. She
raised her battle mace and brought it crashing down on a massive skull.
Martin, darting past Jason, swung his sword against a clawed hand. An instant
later, a hummer whined, and the creature's shrieks turned to screams. It broke
off its attack and fled into a pile of shattered rock. For a moment, all was
pandemonium as everyone tried to sort out what had happened.
"What creature of hell was that?" Martin sputtered.
"A demon!" Jason cried. "It almost got me!" He stared at streaks of blood
on his arm.
"Damn thing's like a cockroach,"Bertha said. "You can squash it, but it still
keeps coming." Her arm, like Jason's, was bloodied where a claw had caught

her.
"It's got my hummer in its eye!" Robert proclaimed.
"That's what drove it back," Martin said as he sheathed his bloody sword.
"It carries a few other wounds as well."
"And a sore head!" Bertha added.
"Let me see those wounds." Carol seized Jason's arm. She dusted on Poma
and the bleeding stopped. "Not serious." She tended Bertha's wounds. "We
were lucky."
"Everyone's response was terrific," Martin said. "Bertha, you were on that
thing before I even knew it was there, and Robert, you were marvelous with
the hummer."
"Your sword was pretty handy too, Martin," Bertha said. "You took off its
arm before it could do me any more damage."
"I'm sure glad you guys were here," Jason said. "I thought I was a goner."
"We learned something," Martin said. "We definitely must stay close. No
one goes even a few feet alone from now on. Robert, what exactly happened
with the amulet?"
"It got really hot just before the attack. I felt it start getting warmer even a
little before that. It's not hot now, but it's still warm."
"From now on, you stay near the lead," Martin said. "If you feel any change
in the amulet, sing out quick!"
"It got real bright, too," Susan said. "I saw it shining just as that thing
jumped out at Jason."
Returning the way they had come, Robert led with his amulet firmly in
hand. Bertha stayed beside him and Martin brought up the rear. They jumped at
every shadow and flinched at sounds that were not there, but the return to the
iron door was without further event.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

After dropping Pecos at a farm outside Slavhos, John and Engar returned
with food, lantern oil, and water. They listened to Robert tell of the strange
beast in the catacomb.
"We know where it lives," the boy said. "So we can stay away from it next
time."
"We know where one lives," Martin said "There might be others. If we find
treasure, we might find that thing, or others like it, guarding it."
While they talked, Susan built a fire using wood brought by Engar and
John, then she and Robert cooked the evening meal. They bedded down after
dinner, rolling uneasily into blankets on the dusty cavern floor.
In spite of a night of fitful sleep, they ventured past the iron door the next
morning with high spirits. At the first intersection, they turned into a corridor
not previously explored. Big John, brodsrd ready, led with Robert at his side
holding a lamp and his faintly glowing amulet. Bertha brought up the rear, mace
in hand, while Susan carried the tail light. At each cell they paused for a
cursory inspection, then pushed on. By midday they reached the far end of the
dungeon, having passed thirty side passages, and estimated the catacomb held
nearly six thousand cells.
"It'll take a week to poke our noses in all of them," John grumbled.
"What if the treasure is buried?" Linda asked. "We won't ever find it."
"Treasure hunting is a dangerous waste of time," Carol said. "We ought to
do something more . . . more . . ."
"Productive?" Martin finished her thought.
"At least more sensible," Carol said.
"It's true, there may be no treasure," Engar said. "But looking keeps life
from getting dull, don't you think?"
"Dull is good. Dull is very good," Carol snapped.
"Have you noticed, this dungeon wasn't always divided into such small
cells?" John asked. "Some of these tiny rooms were once part of larger
chambers."
"Perhaps this was a barracks rather than a dungeon," Engar said. "The
small openings in the ceiling are probably ventilation ducts. I feel air moving
when we pass intersections."

"Maybe the treasure is hidden in the ducts," Jason suggested. "Robert, do


the runes give any clues about where treasure might be?"
"Not that I've found, but we have the map. No one would make a map if
there was nothing here, would they?"
"The runes mentioned guards," Martin said. "That's also a clue something
of value is here."
"Or was," Carol said. "This place has been abandoned a long time.."
"Maybe, instead of avoiding the monster we fought, we should try to get
into its chamber."
"Oh, Lord," Carol said. "I hope you're kidding." She looked at the
shadowed walls and shuddered. "I say we forget treasure and get out of here
while we can."
"Hold it." Robert held up his hand. "My amulet's getting warmer."
"Close up," Martin shouted. "Weapons ready! Bertha, Engar, watch our
rear!"
"I don't see anything," John said, continuing to move ahead.
"It's getting hotter and brighter!"
"Remember, they attack without warning," Carol yelled.
Her words were still echoing when a black form leaped out of the
darkness. John swept Robert behind with one hand while he swung his brodsrd
aloft with the other. The creature stopped.
"Another behind us," Engar yelled.
"Make that two," Martin added.
"And two in front," John called. As the second beast joined the first, they
charged.
"Go for the neck," Bertha yelled.
John brought his brodsrd down, catching the first creature on its shoulder,
slicing half way through its thick body. It screamed as John planted a huge foot
on its brow and shoved it into its partner. The second rose up and received
Robert's hummer in its eye. An instant later, Martin's sword plunged through its
neck. Flailing, it crashed to the deck, the sword still in its throat. John swung to
the rear in time to see Engar and Carol impale another on their swords. It got a
claw on Carol's shoulder, and John chopped the beast's arm off. Carol lurched
back and Jason drove a hummer into its open mouth.
Bertha worked her mace on the last attacker. Limbs shattered, and she
backhanded across the creature's jaw, wiping away the lower half of its mouth.
Susan finished the brute by burying a hummer in its throat.

The attack was over. Everyone stared at the carnage. Robert, his face the
color of moon-glow, clutched his amulet. "My . . . my amulet is cool," he said,
his voice quavering.
Blood dribbled down Carol's arm.
"You're hurt," Martin cried.
"That thing got me good," Carol said.
"Get the medical pouch, Jason." Martin pulled Carol's pack from her
shoulders. "Bring a lamp!"
Jason dug out vials and packets. Martin soused Carol's wound with
frenwort and dusted on poma. Carol's face relaxed.
"It'll need stitches," Martin said.
"Let Linda sew it. She's assisted before," Carol said.
Linda worked the suture needles with rock-steady hands while Jason
folded a bandage.
"Good work," Carol said when the bandage was in place. "I'm lucky I have
such good backup."
John looked closely at the dead creatures. "These aren't animals," he said.
Martin bent to look.
"Hardly any blood."
"Not even as much as with droids. These are machines."
"Robots," Robert cried.
"I've never seen their like," Engar said.
"You mean they aren't demons?" Jason knelt beside one.
"Oh, they're demons all right," Bertha conceded. "Only they're demons
somebody built."
"Must be the guards," Robert said. "The things the runes call phargs."
"But what are they guarding? There's nothing here."
"Look at the wires," Martin said. "That answers some of our questions
about Robert's silver amulet."
"How so?"
"These machines run on electricity. They probably radiate enough
electromagnetic energy for the amulet to pick it up."
"Must've been here a long time," Engar said. "Pretty reliable to stay
operational so long. I wonder where they get their power?" He was sifting
through the wreckage of one. "Don't see a power source. Maybe it gets energy
from a remote."
"Let's look at where they came from." Martin picked up a lantern. "They

came out of the wall at the side passage ahead."


"Careful. There might be more."
"Robert's amulet says not." Martin pushed into the narrow passage. "I see
an alcove where two might have been stationed. They probably activated when
we tripped a sensor somewhere."
Engar crowded into the small chamber. "Looks like a socket near the floor.
It's metal but I don't see any contacts."
"What about treasure?" Susan called. "Is there treasure in there?"
"Sorry.."
"Well, I'll bet these babies were guarding something," Bertha said. "And I
expect it's not far off. I suggest we move along."
They reached a right-angle turn in the passage, and Bertha eased around it.
"Hold up," Jason called. "I see something." He stooped and swept aside
the brown gunk on the floor.
"A metal plate with a groove in the center - maybe a latch."
"I don't see any runes," Robert said.
"Looks like a little manhole cover," John said. "Stand aside, and I'll see if I
can raise it."
"Weapons ready," Martin ordered.
Straddling the plate, John gripped the bar. When he put his strength to it, the
plate broke free but settled back with a clank. "That sucker is heavy," he said,
then bunched his muscles and heaved. The massive plate rose, swung aside and
slid several feet in the slime.
"Wow," Bertha chortled. "You loved that, didn't you, John. That little
manhole cover looks to be three inches of solid iron. Bet it weighs five, maybe
six hundred pounds."
"Amulet's cool," Robert sang out. "No demons here."
Everyone gathered around the opening. A straight tube, lined on one side
with metal rungs, dropped into darkness.
"Anyone going down that ladder will be pretty vulnerable," John said, "and
for me or Bertha it would be a mighty tight fit."
"I can go down," Linda promptly said. "I'm Scout, so I should go first."
"Makes sense ordinarily," Martin agreed. "But in this case we probably
should send a stronger Warrior first."
"That would be me," Engar said. "I can squeeze in."
"Let me try Mentat visualization first." Martin released a sphere and found
great resistance to its motion. He closed his eyes to shut everything else from

his mind. "I'm still blocked by a Mentat field. I can't see anything. Someone
doesn't want Mentat's poking around here."
Engar dropped his pack, hooked a lantern to his belt, and stepped into the
opening.
"Don't let yourself get hurt," Jason whispered.
Engar descended one rung at a time. "I can see bottom," he called. "Looks
like a stopped bore." He dropped into the circular butt of the tube with barely
room to turn around. "I see a handle embedded in the wall. I'm turning it," he
shouted.
The wall swung away.
"Robert, drop me the amulet. A small passage leads from the tube."
Robert dropped it.
"Still cool," Engar announced. "I'm going into the passage and will be out
of hearing."
"I'm coming down," Martin called.
Engar was out of sight when Martin reached bottom, but the glow from his
lamp was visible deep within the passage. Following the glow, Martin caught
up in a tiny, oval chamber at the end of the passage. It was empty except for a
small platform bearing an inscribed brass plate with a shallow depression in
its center.
"I'll get Robert," Martin said. "Looks like runes."
Robert needed no urging but scrambled down the tube like a monkey when
he heard Martin call. In moments he was at the platform, flanked by Engar and
Martin holding lanterns. His eyes glowed, reflecting bright, shiny runes.
He read, "A silver amulet is the key to the key."
He looked puzzled.
"Your silver amulet must have some use in addition to detecting phargs,"
Engar said.
"Let me have it," Martin said. Carefully, he fitted it into the depression in
the rune plate. A low hum filled the room and the plate swung aside. On its
reverse, a bronze key inlaid with rubies and opals, hung from a peg .
"It's beautiful," Robert said. "It's got runes on it too!"
Robert took the key from its hook and held it close to Martin's lamp.
"Three gates of bronze; three locks of bronze; one key for three gates."
"Hmm," Martin said. "Three gates? Where?"
"Doesn't say," Engar said. "But I see nothing that would qualify as a gate
here. Perhaps there's more to this catacomb than we've yet seen."

"Maybe the key is the only treasure here," Martin said.


"What about the first pharg - the one that attacked Jason?" Linda asked
when Engar and Martin showed the others the key. "Maybe it was guarding a
gate?"
"Possibly," Martin said. "We should check it out. How's your shoulder,
Carol? We can call it quits now and come back another time."
"I'm okay," Carol said. "I don't much like treasure hunting, but I admit that
key is intriguing. Besides, I doubt I'd get any peace if we call off the search
now on account of me."
Linda borrowed Robert's amulet and took lead with Bertha. Using her map,
she located the collapsed passage where they had encountered the first pharg.
The silver amulet began to glow and its temperature started to rise. "Danger
here," she called.
"Back, Honey," Bertha roared. "I've a score to settle with that devil." She
strode ahead. When the robot came out of its alcove, she swung her mace
before it got into full motion. The blow drove the beast sideways, and Engar
skewered it on his sword. Another blow split its skull.
"Hey, we're getting good at this." Bertha grinned at Engar as they stood
over the broken mechanism.
Robert looked at the fallen robot. "What did it do with my hummer? Its eye
is wrecked but the hummer's not there."
"Over here," Martin called. He had found an alcove in front of the rubble
from the fallen roof. Inside, he discovered a second robot crushed by fallen
rocks. Robert's hummer lay on the floor.
"Whatever they were guarding must lie under the rubble," Bertha said.
"Maybe we can get at it from the other side," Susan suggested.
"Might be more phargs," Carol said. "We got jumped by four last time."
Robert held up his amulet. "It's cold and it isn't glowing. I think that was
the last of them."
Still, they moved cautiously as they circled, using alternate passages, to
approach the cave-in from the opposite direction. They found only more fallen
rock.
"It's under the rubble," Jason said, disappointed.
"I can move the smaller stones," John said."Maybe I can open a way into
the rubble."
"Go easy. The roof looks unstable," Engar said.
Bertha and John applied force to a smaller block and slid it enough to open

a slot about eight inches wide near the bottom of the heap. Heaving and
straining refused to budge it further. A lantern at the opening revealed blocks
interlocked in a way that made further movement impossible.
"It's the best we can do without equipment," John said. "With rope and
timbers we might move a couple of these blocks enough for someone to get in,
but muscle alone isn't going to do it."
"I can get in now," Linda said.
"Honey, even a mouse like you can't squeeze through that itty-bitty crack,"
Bertha said.
"I can too. I'll show you." Linda dropped to her knees, and shoving a lamp
in front, slid into the crevice.
"Careful! You'll get stuck!"
Linda's sirkeln snagged. She unfastened it and disappeared like a snake
into its hole.
"Don't go too far," Bertha yelled. "We don't know what's in there!"
Linda shoved the lamp ahead and wriggled on her belly into an opening
large enough to stand in. She was near a partially unhinged cell door. She
crawled around the door and was stopped by a bronze grating. In the center
was a large keyhole, and beyond the grating, she saw steps leading down into
blackness.
Linda returned to the entrance.
"No. We're not sending a child into God only knows what," Carol said
when Linda asked for the key. Bertha backed her up.
"But, I want to go," Linda said. "I'll take the silver amulet, and I promise
I'll turn back right away if it gets even the least bit warm."
"I can get in there too," Susan said. "I'm taller, but I'm as skinny as Linda."
"Wish I could go," Robert said. "But I tried and I'm too big."
"Me, too," Jason said wistfully. "But I vote to let Linda and Susan go.
Linda's a Scout and she knows what she's doing."
"He's right," Linda said. "Give me the key and the amulet and let Susan
come with me."
"Well, the amulet is cool," Martin said. "I say we put it to a vote."
All the children instantly called out votes in favor.
"Okay, but I don't want you girls to take any chances," Martin said. "If the
amulet gets even slightly warm, we're trusting you to high-tail it back here right
away."
Susan grabbed the amulet, and Engar handed her the key. She dropped to

the ground.
"Wait! Take these," Martin said, and handed Susan four hummers.
In a moment, Susan was standing next to Linda. They crawled into the cell,
and Linda fitted the bronze key to the keyhole. Instantly, the gate began to rise.
Linda snatched the key quickly lest it be carried up with the gate.
When the girls passed under the gate, it dropped behind them. They turned
and faced the dark steps.
"Looks spooky," Susan said. But, with the silver amulet nestled against her
chest and the lantern held high, she started down. The steps ended at a long,
narrow passage, the floor of which was covered with several inches of water.
"Smells yucky." Susan wrinkled her nose.
Water dripped, soaking their hair and drizzling down their faces. They
began to shiver with only ukelns wrapped around their bodies. The passage
sloped upward, out of the water, and curved into a large chamber.
"It's gorgeous," Susan said as lantern light glinted off golden draperies that
hung from every wall. Enormous silver and turquoise bas-reliefs, depicting
animals and people and creatures strange to their eyes, rose to the ceiling.
"It's a real treasure room," Linda cried.
"But we can't take anything," Susan said. "Everything's too big and too high
on the walls."
"Wait, I see a little statue on that shelf in back," Linda said. She ran toward
it. "I think it's made of gold!"
A great golden ball dropped from the ceiling.
"Look out above," Susan screamed.
Linda paused. Running full tilt, Susan tackled her and the youngsters
sprawled aside as the sphere crashed onto the floor.
"Oh!" Linda's eyes got as big as saucers.
Susan snatched up the lantern. The flame sputtered, then steadied. The girls
clung to each other and stared at the gilded sphere, as great in diameter as
Susan was tall.
"I'd have been smashed flat," Linda said. She was shaking so hard she
made both girls vibrate. "We better watch out for other traps."
They approached the golden statue, this time slowly. "I saw one like this at
the icon shop in Or'gn. It's worth five hundred ralls," Susan said.
Linda tugged. "It's heavy, but I can move it."
The figurine was only nine inches tall, but it took both girls to lift it from
the shelf. "It'll be hard to carry."

"It's the only thing small enough to carry at all."


"There's a small box over there." Susan started toward it, scanning for
traps.
"It's dusty." She blew the dirt away and saw polished reddish wood
inlayed with silver and turquoise. She lifted the lid.
"Jewels!"
Linda came alongside and saw, nestled on a soft, finely woven cloth, a
dozen rubies the size of dimes. "These we can carry!"
The girls saw nothing more that looked small enough to carry. "We better
go back before the others get worried."
Susan tucked the jewelry box into her ukeln, but when they tried to carry
the statue, each girl needed both hands. With no way to carry the lantern, they
were forced to set it down, move the statue a short distance, then retrieve the
lantern. In this laborious fashion, they wrestled the icon along the water filled
passage and up the steps, then through the bronze gate.
"We're safe," they yelled and hugged each other as the gate closed behind
them.
Susan hurried to the tiny cleft. "We're back. We found treasure!"
"Bring it out!" Jason cried.
"We found lots of stuff we can't get," Susan said as she wriggled to the
entry and handed out the jewelry box. "We've got a gold icon. I've got to help
Linda with it." She disappeared back into the hole. In a few minutes the girls
wormed their way forward, shoving the icon ahead until John could reach it
and haul it out.
"You done good, girls," Bertha said as the two soaked urchins slithered
like eels from under the rocks. Water dripped from their hair and slime
smeared their bodies.
Bertha dug a towel from her pack. "We haven't water to wash with, but
this'll wipe the worst off."
The kids changed into clean ukelns and put on their sirkelns. Neither
mentioned the near miss with the golden ball.
"I think we've done all we can here," Martin said. "I don't think it would be
worth the risk to try to clear a path to bring out more treasure."
"I agree," Engar said. "Between the rubies and the icon we should clear
close to two thousand ralls as it is."
"Thank God you're finally getting some sense," Carol said. "Let's get out of
here."

"I second that," John said. "We can decide later how to use our treasure."

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

After leaving the catacombs, the partners retrieved Pecos and headed
north. As soon as they arrived at Or'gn Susan said, "Let's go sell the gold
icon."
Bertha laughed. "Good idea. That little statue is as ugly as they come, and
forty pounds of gold ralls will be more useful than forty pounds of gold ugly."
After establishing their camp on the village green, they went to the icon
shop. To their surprise, they met Brom outside the shop, and were even more
surprised when he said, "I was waiting for you."
"How did you know we were coming?" Susan asked. "We didn't know
ourselves until a few minutes ago."
Brom laughed. "What else would you do with a gold icon but sell it?"
"How did you know about our gold icon?" Bertha rumbled. "Have you
been spying on us?"
"No need for that," Brom said. "Check the bulletin board at the village
green; your exploits are noted, including an account of how you defeated six
great demons and found a treasure trove that had been hidden for centuries."
Bertha's scowl became ferocious. "If you weren't spying, somebody else
was."
Engar said, "I warned you, a spy network of some kind exists here. I
suspect a sensor net, however, rather than a cadre of agents. Incidentally,
Brom, those demons are just machines, and we disabled only five. The sixth
was already out of commission when we arrived."
"Interesting," Brom said. "The bulletin credits you with killing six
demons."
"So," Martin said. "Perhaps the spy network isn't perfect."
Susan, as treasurer, got the honor of selling the icon. All the children went
into the shop with her while the adults stayed outside, talking to Brom.
"A group of Warriors is planning an expedition," Brom told them. "They
hope to recover the treasure you left behind. You are, of course, welcome to
join. The contract is already posted at the agent's hall. By the way, you should
drop by the Hall-of-Records. Some of you are due status updates."
The children poured out of the icon shop, their faces flushed, each weighed
down by a sack containing more than ten pounds of gold ralls. "We're rich,"

Linda cried. "We can buy horses - horven, I mean."


Engar laughed. "Don't get carried away. We're not that rich, and there may
be things we need more than horven."
"Well, old friend," Brom said to Engar. "I can see you have things to attend
to. Think about joining our expedition. You might just get rich enough for those
horven."
Brom left and the partners headed toward the Hall-of-Records. Jason
asked, "Do you think we should go with Brom to get the treasure?"
John shook his head. "It'll take an army to move those rocks. I doubt there
are enough Warriors in Faland."
"Some engineering would do it," Bertha said. "But it could take months."
"I'm not going back," Carol said.
"We took enough out of the catacombs," Martin agreed. "I'd rather see more
of Faland."
"Me, too," Jason said.
"Well, that makes it kind of funny," Linda said, with a little chuckle. "If we
don't join the expedition, they sure won't get the treasure."
"Why?" Robert asked her.
"Because," Linda said. "We have the key."
Bertha shook with laughter. "You left the gate locked, I take it?"
"Couldn't help it," Susan said. "The gate locks automatically. We needed
the key to get out as well as in."
At the Hall-of-Records, they discovered that Engar had risen to level five
Weapon-master and John to level three. Bertha made level three Fighter and
Linda received the brown bardebs of a level three Scout. Robert got an unusual
double promotion, to level three Rune-reader and level one Fighter. He was
enormously proud.
When they were outside, Jason whispered to Martin, "I didn't get a
promotion. Why not?"
"I didn't either," Martin said. "Nor did Susan. I guess we didn't earn enough
points in our specialties. Which leaves a big question. How do those in charge
know what we're doing so they can award points in the first place?"
"Engar said there's a sensor system."
"I guess whoever built the demon robots could build a spy network. But
how do they hide the sensors? I haven't seen anything so far."
"On Star-Trek, they have micro-sensors."
"Apparently here too."

That evening the group voted to use a large chunk of their take from the
golden icon to buy a navaid for Linda, and they agreed to head west out of
Or'gn the next morning, bound for Forod. According to Engar, Forod was the
only place in Faland where they could sell their rubies.
They left early and moved leisurely, their pace set by Pecos pulling
Bertha's cart. Sunshine spilled across the verdure and made the wild flowers
seem to glow, while butterflies danced in the mild air and brightly colored
birds serenaded them from thickets of red-berried bushes.
Shortly, they arrived at an unsigned road going north.
"Goes to Odetn," Engar said.
"Could we climb the tower?" Linda begged. "Some kids in Or'gn said it's
really high and you can see for legons and legons."
"I don't see why not," Martin said, "We're in no hurry."
They turned Pecos toward Odetn, and followed the rough trail as it wound
through gently rolling hills. When Odetn's palisade came in view, they saw
how dilapidated it was. Inside, they found a small market and spotted a few
native children playing among rundown shacks. Otherwise, the town appeared
deserted.
They picketed Pecos and left the cart in an unkempt green near a well, then
made their way along an overgrown path among partially fallen buildings. The
path took them to the Odetn Tower.
"It's said to be the tallest structure in the farm country," Engar told them. "I
estimate it at about three hundred feet. Watch the stairs as we go up; they're not
in great shape."
Linda led up a spiral of steps inside the tower, then up a wooden ladder the
last dozen feet to an outside platform.
"Not a place for someone afraid of heights," Bertha said as she scrambled
up the last rungs and looked down on treetops and crumbling ruins.
"There's the mound," Linda pointed. "Is that where Blackwater Cave is?"
"So legend has it," Engar replied. "But no one has found a way into the
mound. The door in is massive and sealed shut."
"Are there runes on the door?" Robert asked.
"Not that I saw."
"Maybe the door has a song lock," Jason said.
"What about digging?" Bertha asked. "Forget the door and dig in from the
side or back."
"Been tried, but under the surface, the mound is sheathed with hard metal.

It's clearly an artificial structure, with unknown purpose."


"A bomb shelter, perhaps?" John mused.
"Oh sure," Robert said. "I've seen lots of planes overhead."
"Watch it, smart mouth," John said. "The mound is old, and things may not
always have been as they are now. Besides, artillery delivers explosives as
readily as planes."
"Maybe we'll check it out," Martin said, "after we see what Forod is like."
When they left the tower it was too early to stop for the night, so they
departed Odetn and continued toward Forod. They camped in open country
near a spring. Since it was the dark of the moon, Engar insisted on keeping a
fire burning and four lamps lit through the night to ward off felven. He also
insisted they stand guard in pairs, mostly to tend the fire and assure the lamps
did not go out.
As they wended their way west over the next few days, the countryside
remained rolling, grass and flower covered, with scattered large trees. At
Pecos' pace, they covered no more than twenty legons each day, sometimes
winding among low hills and across small brooks on charming stone bridges.
Occasionally at the bridges everyone dashed down the slope to bathe in the
clear stream that flowed beneath. Nights they camped under the stars, often on
ground moistened by afternoon showers, and they met numerous farmers and
peasants and passed neatly fenced plots like Mulro's farm. Sometimes they
gave food or drink or an occasional rall to a peasant in need. More often they
stopped at farms and bought fresh produce or meat to supplement their biscuits,
dried herbs, potans, and jerked meat. Once or twice other travelers joined
them for a short distance.
On the fourth evening they met a mounted Warrior traveling to Or'gn. She
was human, black like Brom, tall, spare, and of tough, sinewy construction.
She looked capable and was equipped with armor, shield, sword and bow.
"Hello, Flo," Engar hailed. "I see you made third level since last we met."
He introduced Florence to the group. "Flo and I trained together last year," he
explained. "You must have done quite well to be able to afford a horven?"
"Would that it were mine," Florence said "It's a loan. I'm on my way to join
Fraghorn at Or'gn for an expedition to Riven."
"Riven! That's hard duty."
"Fraghorn is level six and has been there before. He'll have a dozen
Warriors besides me, and it's a good chance to see new country. But what are
you up to with this motley crew?"

"We've formed a partnership and have set our sights on treasure."


"Oh, is that the game of the Mentat Warrior?" she addressed Martin.
Martin laughed. "My game is the same as any Warrior's. To live, to
explore, and to profit."
"And to fight, perhaps?" Florence chuckled.
"Is that a challenge?" Engar asked. "If you challenge Martin, be prepared
for a few surprises."
"So I've heard. I talked with Shiro a few days ago." She turned to Martin.
"Looks like you've fought some since you met her. She told me you were level
two."
"Levels change," Martin said. "If you wish a challenge, I'll oblige."
"Done, then." Florence said. "It's getting late. Mind if I join your camp
tonight?"
The fight took place as soon as they finished setting up camp. There was no
kom, only an open space in the field, and no officials. Martin found Florence
excellent with the sword and was pressed to hold his own. He used no Mentat
tricks. Nevertheless, he soon got a feel for her style and began to press. To his
surprise, she resigned rather quickly under pressure, though he had not broken
her defense.
"You're an able swordsman," Florence told him as she bowed.
"Your defense was superb. You do me honor." Later Martin learned from
Engar that Florence had resigned quickly to avoid risking a serious wound that
might have jeopardized her trip to Riven.
After the fight, Susan, with Robert and Carol's help, prepared a sumptuous
meal. She went all out to impress their guest, their first. She served marinaded
squal, bought from a farmer and spitted over the fire along with potans. She
made kurduc, and drog flavored with wildflower petals. Everyone ate hugely,
but none more than Florence. "This is the best eating I've had in months," she
announced, wiping her chin. "Who's the cook?"
"Take a bow, Susan," John said. "I second Flo's endorsement. A good cook
is a group's best asset, and you're the finest."
Susan blushed.
Later everyone gathered around the campfire, and the talk turned to
Blackwater Cave and treasure hunting.
"Your success in the catacomb makes me envious," Florence
acknowledged, "though I suspect I'm not truly the treasure hunting type. I don't
like caves and dark places. I prefer open spaces and a good fight among

honorable Warriors."
"I hear you," Bertha said. "A lot can be said for a good tussle between
friends."
"If you're bent on pursuing treasure as a career," Florence went on, "I
suggest you see the ring-maker in Triod."
"The ring-maker really exists?" Engar sounded skeptical.
Florence held up her left hand and displayed a glittering bronze ring.
"That's where I got this. It cost a ruby, but it's said to help with introductions
when you need a friend in hard places. And the ring-maker knows a lot about
Faland's treasure."
"I've been to Triod and never found this ring-maker," Engar said.
"I can draw a map for your Scout," Florence offered.
Linda eagerly produced pencil and pad and put her head together with
Florence's.
The following morning, Florence continued east toward Or'gn while the
partners resumed their westward trek. Midmorning of the seventh day brought
them to the gate. They found the market more limited than in Or'gn and fewer
ancillary shops. However, one was unique.
"Jewelry - Bought and Sold," Martin read on the sign outside. "I guess this
is where we sell our rubies."
"Should we?" Carol asked. "We have a fair amount of cash and ralls are
heavier than rubies. Maybe we ought to keep them until we need more money."
"That's a good idea if we stay near Forod," Engar said. "But away from
here we won't find another place that'll exchange rubies for ralls."
"Let's go in and see what's offered," Bertha suggested.
"Doesn't look too prosperous," John said, as they climbed the shabby steps.
"Or maybe the owner doesn't go in for upscale."
Inside, a grimy, glass-topped cabinet, nearly the width of the room, held a
number of gaudy amulets, rings, pins, and bracelets.
"Hello," Martin addressed a native man with slicked-down orange hair, a
green headband, and wide set, deep brown eyes that squinted with suspicion.
He was portly and wore a brown tunic, tied at the waist with a leather cord.
His face, expressing cautious cunning, twisted into a fawning grin.
Rubbing his hands together, he said, "I'm Skumbog. How may I help you?"
He bowed, but never took his eyes from his visitors.
Martin showed him a ruby and asked what he would pay for it.
"Thirty-five ralls," Skumbog answered.

Martin's brow raised. "I understood it's worth more."


"Let me look more closely." Skumbog held the jewel to the light. "Um,
perhaps fifty?"
Engar snorted. "Come on, Martin. Let's look for an honest buyer."
"Come, come, don't be hasty," Skumbog said. "How much did you have in
mind?"
"A hundred ralls," Engar snapped. "I've been in Faland long enough to
know the going rate."
Skumbog shrugged. "You can't blame a man for trying. My profits are slim,
you know."
Engar laughed. "I think we'll keep our ruby. We wouldn't want to engage
you in so unprofitable a business."
"My take may be small, but every bit helps. I'll pay a hundred ralls for the
ruby."
"Maybe some other time." Martin replaced the ruby in his belt pouch.
Skumbog glared.
Outside, Engar said, "Skumbog has a sleazy reputation. He'll cheat if he
can, but he'll pay a fair price if you know enough to insist."
"I didn't see any rubies for sale," Susan said. "What does Skumbog do with
them?"
"Another mystery," Engar replied. "I've never seen a ruby for sale, but I'm
sure Skumbog makes money on them. Maybe he sells to private clients."
"I take it," John said, "we can only get rubies by finding them?"
"Far as I know."
"Then maybe we better not sell them. Florence said she paid a ruby for her
bronze ring, and the ring-maker wouldn't take money. She said there are other
rings that cost more. Is it true the rings, like the amulets, have special uses?"
"So I've heard," Engar replied. "I always assumed such stories were
nonsense, but after what happened with the silver amulet I have to admit what
I've heard may be true."
"Can we go to Triod?" Jason asked. "And find the ring-maker? I want to
find out more about treasure."
"Ah," John said, laughing, "you've been bitten by the treasure bug. A taste
of riches and you want more."
Jason blushed, then grinned. "Are you saying you're not interested?"
John's laugh deepened. "I never said that."
"I want to go, too," Robert declared. "But not just for money. It's fun!"

"And exciting," Linda seconded.


"And deadly," Carol grumbled. "You kids are going to get yourselves killed
and the rest of us too."
"We're safe as long as we've got you to sew us up," Jason bantered.
After a none too pleasant night in Forod's campground, the partners set out
for Triod, twenty-five legons south. The trip took one long day, and they
arrived after sundown and went immediately to the green to set up camp. With
dew fresh on the grass the next morning, they went to find the ring-maker's
shop.
"It's in the southeast quadrant," Linda explained as she studied the map
drawn her by Florence. "It's not in the regular business district."
She took them along lanes shaded by trees large enough to top the town
wall. Naked children scampered in the shadows among modest log cabins or
climbed on limbs high overhead. After a few false starts, she found an obscure
lane that led through deep thickets to a tiny cottage hidden in dense vegetation.
Martin knocked and a hoarse voice bade them enter.
Inside, a small wizened man said, "I've been expecting you."
"Horath?" Martin stared in astonishment.
"Why, bless me no," the man said with a chuckle. "You confuse me with my
brother. I'm Boro, known as the ring-maker."
Martin felt disjoined. Boro had the same remarkable eyes he had come to
know in Horath - eyes that seemed to look into the core of his being. And Boro
had the same withered frame and stooped posture.
"Are you twins?" Martin asked.
Boro laughed gleefully. "Oh yes. We were born together long years ago.
But not many have seen us both and know that we are brothers."
Engar and Jason pushed into the shop behind Martin. The others stayed
outside. Most of the small room was taken up by a work bench that was littered
with tools and scraps of metal. Rings, some small, some large, hung on pegs on
the walls.
"You say you expected us?" Engar asked.
"The Warrior Mentat and his Captain are known to me. And all who are on
a great quest come here eventually."
"Quest?" Martin asked. "We aren't on a quest."
Boro's eyes glinted. "Ah, but you are, my Friend; you most certainly are."
"I don't understand."
"It will become clear in time. But let me show you the rings you'll need.

Your dozen rubies will only afford two; the third you'll have to get later."
Jason stepped forward. "But, sir, we only came to learn about treasure, not
to buy . . ." His voice trailed off when he saw a fierce light in Boro's eyes.
"You're Jason," Boro said, a hardness in his voice. "So you think to find
treasure? And exactly what do you intend to do with it?"
Jason, taken aback by the tone of Boro's voice, said, "Well, you know, sell
it - make money."
"You value money, do you?"
"It buys things," Jason ventured. "I value the things."
"And how many things, that you do not already have, are there to buy in
Faland?"
"A horven, maybe," Jason began, confused. "Other things - I don't know
what - I haven't been here very long." Then he brightened and added, "We
could be independent and buy a place and take care of ourselves."
"To what purpose would you put your life?"
Martin suddenly interceded, "Why are you grilling the boy? Our purpose is
to live like everyone else."
"Well, no matter." The light in Boro's eyes died. "The rings are here if you
want them."
"Which rings?" Engar asked. "I see many rings; are they all special?"
"The ones you see have little value," Boro said as he reached into a
concealed area below his work bench. "It's these three small rings that you
will need." He brought out a tiny case and opened it. Nestled within were three
rings - bronze, silver, and gold. The bronze ring was like Florence's; the others
were of similar design, differing only in the metal from which they were
fashioned.
"What's so special about these?"
"They give passage to places in Faland that are closed to all others," Boro
said. "They can be used only by those who are honorable and can be obtained
only in exchange for rubies. When you buy one, you must make an honorpledge to protect it and allow no one else to possess it."
"This all sounds very mystical," Martin said. "Where do these myths and
legends come from? What do they mean?"
"Ah, friend Martin, you ask questions." Boro smiled. "Is that not what it
means to be on a quest?"
"You mean, to understand Faland's mythology?"
Boro shrugged. "Perhaps. Anyway, do you want to exchange for any of the

rings?"
"What do they cost?"
"One ruby for bronze, ten for silver, one hundred for gold."
"A hundred rubies!" Jason cried. "For that little gold ring! It doesn't look as
big as a rall, and one ruby is worth a hundred ralls."
"If money is the measure of your values, then you must seek elsewhere,"
Boro said, the harshness back in his voice.
"Suppose I decide to go on this so-called quest," Martin said. "What do I
do?"
Boro chuckled. "Perhaps my brother judged you right. A good beginning
might be to find Galendrall, where the sturk flies, north of Oshan. She can tell
you what else you must do; but, be advised, you must wear a bronze ring to get
past her guards."
"Before I exchange any rubies, I need to consult my partners," Martin said.
"Of course." Boro nodded.
Outside, under the shade of the tall trees, Martin related the ring-maker's
message. "It's a long way to Oshan," he concluded. "I noted the distance on the
sign at Forod. And the rubies belong to all of us. This quest, that Boro insists
I'm on, apparently is a Mentat thing. I can't ask any of you to come even if I
decide to pursue it."
"I don't agree the quest is a 'Mentat thing,'" Engar said. "I think Boro
included all of us in his remarks. He expects you to be accompanied by your
Captain and his Warriors."
"Captain?" John raised an eyebrow.
"It's what Boro called Engar," Jason said. "And he thinks money isn't what
we should look for."
"Oh, he does, does he?" Bertha growled. "And what does he think we
should look for?"
"I'm not sure. What is a quest, anyway?"
"A search for something," Susan said. "Like Jason and the Argonauts
searching for the Golden Fleece."
"You mean like Indiana Jones going after the Arc of the Covenant?" Robert
asked.
"Something like that," Martin said. "But I'm not sure what the goal is here."
"It's about myths," Jason said.
"What do you want to do, Martin?" Carol asked. "I said a long time ago we
ought to have a goal or purpose, but I'm not sure this should be it."

"I don't know," Martin answered slowly. "I have a feeling things here aren't
what they appear. This whole Faland experience is weird. How did we get
here? Why are we here? Why am I the only one who could see anything in the
Mentat test? What are these strange magical jewels, and what are droids, and
who put robot guards in the catacombs?"
"I think you're saying you want to go on this quest," John said.
"I'd like to go along," Engar said. "I'd like some answers to Martin's
questions."
"I'll go too," Jason said. "I'm not like Boro thought. I don't really care about
money. I just like to explore."
"Me too," Linda said.
"Maybe we'll find more runes," Robert said gleefully.
"Count me in," Susan added.
John laughed. "Looks like you've got the kids, Martin."
Martin shook his head. "I never said I wanted to go."
"But you do," Carol said. "I see it in your eyes. Anyway, all that matters is
that we stay together, and with Engar, the kids have outvoted the rest of us."
"I'll add my vote." John grinned.
"Why not?" Bertha said. "I'm game. Besides, I may find a few heads that
need bashing!" She brandished her mace.
Martin looked at Carol.
"I'm not a hold-out," she said. "So what do we do now?"
"Get some rings," Martin said.
He returned to the ring-maker and exchanged eleven of their dozen rubies
for a bronze and a silver ring. To Engar, he gave the silver ring and slipped the
bronze ring on his own finger. Then he said, "We're no longer rich, and though
Boro may hold money in low esteem, I suspect we'll find it hard to get along
without."
As they returned to the village green, all were deep in thought, wondering
about Faland, quests, and what a strange place they had fallen into.

PART THREE: THE QUEST

CHAPTER NINETEEN

At the Triod market, the partners replenished their supplies and bought
extra canteens. Linda inquired about the road to Oshan, which ran west 350
legons to the coast of the western ocean. "We could cut across," she suggested.
"With my navaid we won't get lost, and Bersuvi, the storekeeper, said the
country is all open. It might save a day's walk."
"It would be good practice," Engar said. "I've a hunch we'll cross a lot of
wilderness before this quest is done."
Linda set a course northwest, into open farm country. The ground was level
and fertile at first, but became rockier and less productive as they drifted
farther west. Occasionally, they passed farms and crossed meandering trails,
but mostly they broke their own path. On the afternoon of the second day, they
rejoined the Oshan road.
"I've never been this far west," Engar said as he peered across the harsh,
sun-baked plain. "We'll soon leave the farm country altogether, and travel will
be more dangerous. Renegades sometimes rob travelers on the outlying roads,
and we'll be entering country where eagens attack people, especially children.
We must stay close together and be especially attentive at night. Moonlight is
returning, which means felven will keep to their lairs, and without the big cats
to deter night travel, renegades will be bolder."
"What are renegades?" Jason asked.
"Mostly ex-Warriors who get bored working and take up thieving."
"Are they all humans?"
"Some are. But natives can be corrupt too. Someday I expect to find Fukar
among their ranks. There are no social programs here and little intervention if
a kid starts to go bad."
"I'd think the Master could stop it if he wanted," Carol said. "Just who is
this so-called Master? Is he real or a god-myth?"
"Probably real enough," Martin said. "But maybe not a person."
"What do you mean?"

"Well, no one has seen the Master. Maybe the Master isn't an individual.
Maybe the Master is an organization. There are forces here we don't
understand and for which there are no counterparts where we came from."
"That's why we're on this quest, isn't it?" Jason asked. "To find out what
makes Faland the way it is."
"Could be, Lad. Could be."
***
The fifth day from Triod, the party arrived at a small inn shaded by the
sparse foliage of a half-dead oaken tree, whose meager branches, lifting blackveined hands into the sun-bleached sky, were visible for miles. Though not
large, the inn had stone walls that rose two stories to a timber roof. A woodplank door bore a faded sign that proclaimed: "Elwind's House of Repose".
After tethering Pecos, the partners entered the welcome cool of a
pleasingly furnished lobby. Through a door near the desk, they looked into a
dining room. Stairs led upward beside the door. In a moment, a comely young
woman entered the nearly deserted lobby. She was slender, with the red-brown
hair of a native, and large, wide-set, dark brown eyes.
"I am Ermille. You look tired and hot; can I offer you refreshments?"
"Is this your inn?" John asked the young lady.
"My father, Elwind, is the owner. I help tend. Do you plan to stay?" She
spoke in a softly melodious voice.
"We could use rest and some information about the country."
"You can rest here. We have rooms to rent, and my father and my brother
can tell you about the area."
"Sounds good," John said.
Ermille swung around and called to a teenage boy who had just entered.
"Penel! Tell Dado we have guests then tend to their burro." Turning to John,
she said, "Follow me, Sir," and led the way up narrow stairs.
Susan, as Provisioner, negotiated for a large room they could share for the
night at a cost of three ralls, then everyone showered and changed their ukelns
before going down to dinner. The food was excellent, cooked and served by
Ermille, though, at half a rall each, it was more expensive than the room. While
eating, they met the inn's only other guest, a farmer named Imal, who was
taking a cart-load of produce to sell in Forod.
"Do you live near here, Imal?" Martin asked.
The farmer sized up his interrogator, then looked warily at John and
Bertha, Warriors of a size he had not seen. The presence of the children,

however, seemed to reassure him.


Finally he smiled. "Yes. Born near here. Two day North."
"Are there many farms nearby?"
"Mine farthest west. Beyond is wildness - renegades."
As Imal warmed to the group, he told them about the road to Oshan, which
he had traveled twice, and warned them about a renegade named Brenard, a
human reputed to be working the road a couple of days farther west with three
or four others. While he spoke, Elwind and Penel joined them at the table.
"I've heard of Brenard," Engar said. "He's got a nasty reputation. Been a
renegade for a long time. The story has it he came to Faland about ten years
ago, and through honorable combat, worked his way up to level five. Then,
about four years ago, he got into a fight with his agent and violated the honor
rules. He was bound into slavery, and while being shipped south to the Kroll
slave lands, he escaped and headed into the wild. Been living as a raider
since."
"Is he likely to attack us?" Carol looked worried.
"I doubt it," Elwind said. "Your group is too strong. He's tough and
ruthless, but he doesn't have enough men to challenge you."
Elwind also told them about a herd of large animals, called biven, that
ranged the open lands farther west and north of the Oshan road. A hunter could
get both hides and meat from them. Neither he nor Imal could provide any
information about Galendrall.
***
West of Elwind's Repose, the road became rocky and rutted. The country
grew drier and afternoon rains less frequent, though the land still supported
extensive areas of grass, now interspersed with patches of thorny scrub. The
general slope was downward to the west, and as the travelers descended, it
became warmer. Washes, mostly dry, cut the road. The deeper were bridged
with stone arches.
Each time the group stopped, Linda found the highest spot and sketched the
countryside, always extending the map she had begun when they left Or'gn.
Water became scarce and sometimes whole days passed before they crossed a
wash containing a shallow, tepid stream. Engar assured them the water, though
it often looked and smelled less than perfect, was safe to drink as long as it
supported life. Pestilence, they need not fear; but some water contained poison,
probably arsenic.
Several days from the inn, the group crossed a wash containing a lively

stream. Lush grass grew along the banks, and a high bluff afforded protection
for a camp. Edible plants grew among the grasses, and they found a large berry
patch nearby.
"We'll stay here a couple of days," Martin announced. "The grass looks
good for Pecos and we need fresh food. We should not be far from the biven
herd Elwind described. Tomorrow we'll send out a hunting party."
"What about Brenard?"
"He would have attacked us by now if he was going to," Engar said.
"Besides, he most likely stays near the farmland where the pickings are
easier."
"John and I'll stay here, with the main party," Martin said. "Engar and
Bertha, along with Linda, will form the hunting party. The land is too rough for
the cart, but the hunters can take Pecos to help carry the meat. Those of us left
here can help Susan collect and prepare herbs and fresh greens to replace
those we've used."
"Can I go with the hunters?" Jason pleaded. "I could help with the burro."
Martin scowled, then noticed the sheep eyes Jason was laying on Linda.
"Are you sure you want to go only to help with Pecos?"
"We could use him," Engar said, laughing. "Bertha and I'll have our hands
full if we find biven, and Jason can free-up Linda to map the terrain."
"All right, I guess we can spare one more," Martin said and chucked Jason
on the shoulder.
The hunters left at first light the following morning. Jason had risen early to
load Pecos with ropes, sacks, and extra canteens and was ready before Bertha
and John finished morning meal.
***
Linda judged them near the southern edge of the biven range, and she led
almost directly north, using the navaid to get a general bearing. She made
frequent notations, detailing the northwest drainage of the small stream on
which they were camped.
In spite of her bulk, Bertha moved with remarkable ease and set the pace
for the party. They soaked up the cool of the morning, reveling in the calm,
clear weather, and were delighted by wild-flowers that created luminous
displays against the darker scrub. Jason trudged behind with Pecos and envied
Linda as she darted from side to side, sometimes well away from the group,
spying out the land from nearby knolls or rises. He was perhaps a quarter
legon behind when he spotted an eagen. The giant bird wheeled against the

shining sky, almost invisible in the intense light. Only the flicker of its motion
had caught his eye, and he was looking at it when it began its stoop. He
glanced to see what it had targeted, and his heart jumped into his throat.
The great bird was directly over Linda, who was sitting on a small hillock
sketching in her pad. The distance was too great for a normal cry, so Jason
raised his head and gave voice to the Kroll war cry he had used to frighten
Fukar.
The sound reached Engar's ears. Turning, he saw Jason silhouetted against
the prairie with his arm extended upward. Engar followed the point and saw
the eagen. He started toward Linda. Bertha, who had also been alerted by
Jason's cry, swept along behind.
Linda, too, recognized the cry and saw Jason pointing up. Rocking
forward, she got to her feet, paper and pencil scattering aside, and began to
run.
Engar nocked an arrow as he charged. The eagen was nearly down when
he released. Without waiting for the first to strike, he nocked a second. The
first arrow sped toward a point a dozen feet above Linda's head, nearly six
hundred feet away. It missed, but the eagen's aim was spoiled, and only one
great talon struck Linda a grazing blow. She tumbled in the grass as the eagen
hit the ground, then sprang toward its victim.
Engar's second arrow struck the great bird's breast and its scream
reverberated across the plain. Together, Engar and Bertha closed on it, and the
eagen backed, its huge wings spread. Engar's bow was drawn, but there was
no need to release another arrow. The eagen clawed at the arrow in its breast,
dislodged it, then with thunderous flapping, labored into the sky.
"Are you all right, child?" Bertha cried as she knelt beside Linda.
The girl was sitting, slightly dazed, in the stubby prairie grass. "I think so,"
she said as her fingers probed the knot on her head where a thin seep of blood
was spreading in her dark hair.
"Honey, that was close. You were almost that vulture's breakfast."
Linda smiled weakly. "Guess I should be more observant."
"I think we'd all better stay closer in the future," Engar said. "If it hadn't
been for Jason, this could've been much worse."
"That's right," Bertha said. She looked around. "Jason?" Jason was
nowhere to be seen. Between herself and Pecos, where last she had seen
Jason, was only empty grassland.
"Jason!" Engar started running toward the burro. When he reached the little

animal he saw a scrap of paper pinned to a sack on its back. He tore it off.
"He's been taken!" Engar's stricken eyes looked into Bertha's as she
lumbered up with Linda.
Bertha took the note and read: "Martin, bring your silver ring and silver
amulet to the mesa - northwest twenty legons - tomorrow morning. Come alone
if you want to see your Song-master again. You are being watched."
Bertha held the note with trembling fingers and read it again. "Who would
do this?"
"Brenard!" Engar's voice shook. "It's my fault."
"How can it be your fault?"
"I shouldn't have gotten so far ahead of Jason, and I shouldn't have let
Linda wander. The eagen was the distraction Brenard was waiting for. He
must've been watching us since we left camp this morning."
"I thought he was back near the farmlands," Linda said. "Maybe it wasn't
Brenard."
"It was Brenard," Engar said, anger blazing in his eyes. "He's probably
been shadowing us for days. He's worked the bush for years and there are few
tricks he doesn't know."
"We've got to get Jason back," Linda cried. "Come on! We have to follow."
Engar shook his head. "There's no way we could catch them." He pointed
into the grass. "They're on horven - probably three or four of them."
Linda looked in dismay. Engar was right. Partially hidden in the dense
grass, the horven prints were clear. They came from a low line of hills a few
hundred yards to the east and trailed into some gullies to the west.
"What are we going to do? Oh, I shouldn't have gone so far to draw my
maps."
"Honey, sniffling isn't going to help," Bertha growled. "That goes for you
too, Engar. Let's get to camp and let Martin know what's going on. We'll all put
our heads together and decide what to do."
The long march to camp was grim and silent. When Engar stood before the
others, recounting what had happened, his face was as gray as clay. "I take full
responsibility," he said. "I underestimated Brenard."
"I knew it!" Carol exploded. "I knew something like this was going to
happen! We should never have started on this insane quest business. We should
have stayed in Or'gn and sold grain or done something sensible."
Martin walked away. Bertha started toward him but faltered. Engar, ashenfaced looked helplessly toward Martin's retreating back. Even John stood

indecisively.
Carol continued to fume until Bertha turned on her. "Honey, button your lip!
If this isn't a fine bunch! What's everyone standing around moping for? We've
got a job to do. We've got a partner in trouble, and we don't have time to waste
on self-pity and recriminations."
"You're right," John said. "We need to get our act together. We've got some
planning to do."
Carol hurried toward Martin. When she drew abreast, he turned toward
her, his face wet with tears. She saw the shock in his eyes.
"It wasn't your fault," she said. "We've got to get him back."
Martin brushed a hand across his brow.
"What are our options? Anybody got any ideas?" Bertha's voice drifted
toward them.
"We should wait for Martin and Carol," Robert said.
"We need ideas, the sooner the better," Bertha said.
Martin turned toward the others, blinking tears out of his eyes. "Bertha's
right," he said.
"We'll give him what he wants," Carol said.
"We can't." Martin shook his head. "We can't give him the silver ring.
We've got to get Jason back some other way."
"Why can't we give him the ring?" Carol demanded. "We can find more
treasure and replace the silver ring, maybe even the silver amulet."
Martin shook his head. "I'd like to. If it was only money, I would. But we
pledged to protect the silver ring, and though I can't explain why, I know that if
we violate our pledge Jason will be in even greater danger. Engar, worse case,
what is Brenard likely to do to Jason?"
"Are we even sure it is Brenard?" John asked. "Are there other
possibilities?"
"Not many," Engar replied. "Brenard is the only renegade reported in this
area and you know how readily information gets around in Faland. If other
renegades were working this area we'd have heard about it at Elwind's. To
answer your question, Martin," Engar's voice was low and grim, "if Brenard
doesn't get what he wants, he'll take the boy south and sell him to the Kroll.
Kroll slaves don't usually fare well."
"If I don't show at the rendezvous in the morning, how long do you think
Brenard will wait?"
"He won't wait," Engar said. "I doubt he expects you to turn over the ring

or the amulet. He's just taking a shot in the dark, but he probably thinks this
will strengthen his reputation for ruthlessness. He'll make a profit selling
Jason, and the gain in reputation will make it easier to extort from others."
"But, what are we going to do?" Linda asked. "Has anybody got a plan?"
Martin saw all eyes turn anxiously toward him. "I have an idea," he said
slowly. "It's dangerous but may be the only chance we have. We're probably
being watched now, so we'll have to wait until dark."
"Are you thinking of tracking Jason at night?" John asked. "Even with
moonlight, it would be difficult to follow a trail."
"I could try," Linda said. "I did night exercises."
Martin shook his head. "We don't need to track him. He told us where he'll
be come morning. I suspect Brenard will hold Jason not far from the
rendezvous. Only I won't wait for morning."
"We'll all go," Bertha said. "We'll make those renegades wish they'd never
heard of us!"
"I'd like nothing better, but with so many we'd likely be spotted. There's
something I haven't told you. During the past weeks I've begun to develop a
bond with each of you. I sense when you're near. I suspect it's another Mentat
power, and it's strongest with Jason. If I get close enough, I'm sure I can find
him. I'll take only Engar with me - Engar and his bow. Two of us can get close,
without being seen, and I guarantee, if we find Jason, we'll get him back."

CHAPTER TWENTY

Early in the evening, when the first stars appeared, Martin and Engar
headed northwest along the creek on which they were camped. Since Brenard
had demanded a rendezvous at a mesa to the northwest, and since the creek
flowed in that direction, they gambled that he was camped near the creek.
There weren't many other sources of water in such arid country.
Martin sent his Mentat spheres up, and from their lofty vantage, searched
for a glint of light that might betray a campfire. He loped rapidly through the
silvery moonlight, Engar beside him, and anxiously watched the stars, using
their movement to gauge the time. After two hours, he slowed to a walk.
"That must be Brenard's mesa," Martin said, pointing toward a dark shape
on the horizon.
"Seems likely. Have you sensed Jason?"
"He's not near," Martin said, his voice full of gloom. "Maybe Brenard
didn't camp near the stream."
"That's bad. He could hold Jason anywhere within twenty or thirty legons
and still be close enough to bring him here in the morning."
Through his Mentat eyes Martin noticed a slight unevenness in the moonglint to the northeast. Was it smoke or illusion? As he pondered, he heard
Engar draw in his breath, then issue an abrupt warning, "Hyen, Martin! To the
right!"
Martin saw a dozen dark forms swarm from a draw.
"Back to back!" Engar commanded.
As Martin grappled his sword from its sheath, he put his back to Engar's
and braced himself. The dark animal forms, squat and ugly, charged, driven
forward by powerful hind legs. Martin glimpsed bright teeth in open jaws, then
the first was on him. He swung his blade and heard a yowl, quickly joined by
another as Engar's sword found its mark.
Leaping, a hyen impaled itself on Martin's blade, its weight carrying him
back and down. Rolling, he drew his legs under the hyen's body and booted it
free. In an instant he was up, cleaving fur and sinew. As quickly as they had
attacked, the hyen backed off and began to circle, searching for an opening.
"They could bottle us up all night," Engar said. "Cover me!"
He dropped his sword, and swung his bow to hand. With lightning speed he

released three times. Three bodies dropped from the circling beasts. Engar
drew again, but the hyen melted into the surround terrain, leaving behind five
dead.
Engar picked up his bloodied sword. "We were lucky. The pack wasn't
large enough to sustain a long attack. I've seen them two hundred strong in the
eastern forest where they sometimes attack for hours."
"Will they be back?"
"Not those." Engar collected his arrows from the fallen hyen. "But there
could be others."
"We've lost time." Martin scanned the stars. "We must find Jason before
sunrise." He began to run, searching with his Mentat eyes for the smudge seen
earlier.
In an hour, Martin slowed.
"Did you spot something?" Engar asked.
"Jason," Martin whispered. "I sense him!"
"Near?"
"Maybe half a dozen legons. This way!" Martin increased his pace to a
sprint. His breath had begun to tear at his throat, and he could hear Engar's
labored breathing beside him when he pulled up. "I've spotted a small
campfire, well shielded, just beyond this ridge." He gestured at a line of rocks.
"Jason is near the fire. He's in pain."
"Brenard?"
"Four men are with Jason - I don't know if one is Brenard - and some
horven. Jason's awake. They've done something to him; he's suffering."
Martin's voice quavered.
"What kind of cover is on the other side of the ridge? How are the men
deployed?"
"There's a clump of trees near the fire, no other cover. They're holding
Jason in the trees. Two men are sleeping by the fire, the other two are about a
hundred yards out, keeping watch. They have a good view of the
surroundings."
"Can we circle them?"
"Too much open ground." Martin flattened and began to worm toward the
top of the ridge.
"They've chosen well," Engar said as they came in sight of the guards.
"They're out of bow range and would see us before we got close. Perhaps we'd
have better luck if we come in from the other side?"

"There's no time," Martin said, scanning the stars. "It's less than an hour to
sunup, and Jason's hurting. I don't know what they've done to him, but I sense
his strength is diminishing. We've got to act quickly."
"I'm game for a frontal assault."
"No." Martin pulled the metallic lump from his Mentat pouch and shaped it
into a thin shield. "Stay here. I'll use my Mentat metal for cover and try to get
into the trees. If I make it, give me five minutes, then create a diversion. I'll
take Jason out the back. If I'm spotted, come running. We'll take 'em head-on."
Engar nodded, and Martin began to squirm down the ridge, using the slight
cover provided by his Mentat metal to make himself invisible. He hoped the
guards would not notice the shimmering patch gliding among the rocks. As he
approached the trees, the sensation of Jason's pain increased and brought an
echoing pain in his own body. The intensity of the feeling was unnerving, and
he was surprised by the effort it took to keep it from clouding his thinking.
He reached the trees and slipped into their sheltering dark. He could see
through the thin screen of trunks to the sleeping men near the campfire. Then he
saw Jason, apparently standing near a tree across the copse. Working quickly,
he formed his Mentat metal into a pellet, tucked it in a belt pouch, and moved
silently through the trees. As he drew nearer Jason, he saw the boy's arms
stretched above his head as though tied to the limb overhead. He felt pain
running from Jason's hands downward and radiating through his body.
Then he saw what Brenard had done. Jason's hands were not tied
overhead; Brenard had nailed them to the tree! Blinding anger brought a snarl
from Martin's throat. He drew his sword.
"No!" The warning shocked him. "Clear your mind!"
Martin shrank. Horath's words, as clear as though shouted in his ear, rang
through his brain. He sank to the ground and grappled the metallic lump from
his belt pouch. Fired by his rage, the Mentat metal burned his hand as he pulled
it free. Leaping, it hurtled toward Jason.
In mid-rush, Martin gripped the metal with his mind, slowing it, then
formed an image of Jason's hands, pinioned with bloody nails, and merged
image and metal. Mind power bent the lump into arches above the hands, the
feet of the arches planted firmly against the wood of the tree limb. As Martin
thought it, the arches shaped into hooks that seized the nails. Driven by the
power of his mind, the metal bulged upward. Like breaking glass, the nails
snapped. Released, Jason slumped to the ground.
A blanketed form by the campfire heard the sharp sound of the breaking

nails and awoke like a tiger. It came off the ground with sword in hand. Martin
saw, and shattered the Mentat metal arches, dashing the fragments into the fire.
A flash, like lightning, lit the night sky. In the glare, Martin saw the dark form
charge and knew it was Brenard.
Yelling like a Faland demon, bow in hand, Engar was hurtling down the
slope when the sleeping renegades threw off their blankets. Skidding, he
dropped to a knee, brought up his bow and released. A renegade spun aside
under the arrow's blow as his partner closed with a shadowy figure at the edge
of the trees. Engar nocked a second arrow. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw
the out-guards charging toward camp. Swinging, he released his second arrow,
then instantly pulled another from his quiver. The flying arrow centered in the
breast plate of the nearest guard. The remaining renegade veered in time to
escape Engar's third arrow.
Martin met Brenard with drawn sword. The charge drove him against a
tree. He ducked and saw Brenard's sword tear splinters from the wood, then
their blades met, steel on steel. Driven by tightly controlled fury, he pressed
Brenard. But the renegade was skillful, with years of experience, and he fought
with the deviousness of one bound by no rules. In the straight, sword to sword
combat, Martin's Mentat power gave him little advantage, and slowly he began
to falter, relentlessly driven back by the superior technique of his opponent.
Jason, crawling in the brush, sucked air painfully into his lungs. The agony
in his hands dulled his wits, but not enough to make him unaware that someone
had released him. He shook his head, and through his blurred vision,
recognized Martin. He saw his friend in mortal combat with the monster who
had driven nails through his hands. Searching among the leaves, he sought a
stone to throw, but his wounded hands could not grasp it. Lifting his head, in
the extremity of his pain, he gave voice to a cry that shook the ground.
Brenard heard the cry and froze. He spun to meet the new challenge. Too
late, he realized his error and tried to turn back, but Martin's blade, in that
wink of an eye, slipped over the top of his armor and drove cleanly through his
neck. Brenard dropped to his knees, clutching the skewer in his throat. Martin
planted a foot on the renegade's chest and shoved, drawing his blade free. He
shuddered with disgust as Brenard flopped onto his face.
Engar closed with the remaining guard, a massively built native wielding a
battle axe. The axe was too heavy to deflect with a sword, and Engar was
pressed to stay clear of the slashing weapon. The renegade who had fallen near
the campfire, an arrow in his shoulder, recovered and wrenched the shaft free.

Staggering to his feet, he joined his larger companion in battle against Engar.
Seconds later, the third man, whose armor had stopped the arrow that toppled
him, joined the fracas.
The three drove Engar against a low, rocky cliff and closed for the kill.
The axeman raised his great war weapon, then stood trembling. An arrow had
sprouted in his neck. The axe wavered and fell from his nerveless fingers.
Seeing their mighty companion fall, the other renegades made a mad dash for
the horven. Using Brenard's bow, Martin fired a second arrow and dropped
one before he had covered a dozen feet. The other dropped his weapons and
surrendered.
Martin turned and saw Jason stagger from the trees. He reached and the
boy fell into his arms. "I knew you would come," Jason said, blood running
from his pierced hands. It soaked the thin ukeln wrapped around his loins.
Shaking, Martin dug frenwort from his belt and poured it into the wounds. As
his pain lifted, the boy smiled.
"How long were you left like that?" Martin asked, in a low, shocked voice.
"I tried to escape - after we got to camp - but that one," Jason pointed
toward the crumpled body of Brenard, "caught me and stripped me and nailed
my hands to the limb. He said I was lucky; he said when other prisoners tried
to escape he cut off their feet."
Engar bound the captured renegade then examined the two who had fallen.
Neither was fatally wounded. Engar extracted the arrows and treated their
wounds with frenwort and poma. Only Brenard was dead.
Martin bandaged Jason's hands, then found his sirkeln, mokads, and body
armor and helped him dress. He got out cold meat and biscuits, and in spite of
his wounds, Jason began to eat. The boy's resilience astonished Martin. As
though sensing his thoughts, Jason looked up and said, "Heck, compared with
Aids, this is nothing."
Later Martin went to the burned out campfire and knelt by the ashes. He
could find no trace of the metallic lump he had sacrificed in the flames, but he
recovered his Mentat spheres and replaced them in their pouch. He and Engar
removed Brenard's armor and buried his body on a hill well away from the
spring. They gathered up the weapons and loot the renegades had acquired and
loaded it on a horven. Martin lifted Jason to another horven's back, then he and
Engar mounted the remaining two. Leading the renegades, they began the ride
back to camp.
***

"Someone's coming!" Linda sang out.


All morning she had waited on the bluff behind camp, straining to see
across the prairie. It was late afternoon, and the mounted riders were barely
visible on the horizon.
"Weapons, everyone," John bellowed.
"To the north," Linda shouted. "Riders on horses, I mean horven."
She stood with her hand shading her eyes, waiting until the riders came
close enough to identify. "It's them," she yelled. "Jason's riding on a horven."
She darted from the bluff and raced to meet the approaching riders.
"Let's get the food on," Carol said to Bertha. She could not hide the shaking
in her voice.
"I'll do that," Bertha said. "You go meet Martin. He'll be looking for you."
When Martin saw Carol, he slid off the horven.
She folded into his arms. "Is Jason all right? Is everyone all right?"
"Yes." He kissed the top of her head.
The kids danced around the horven and stared in awe at Jason's bloody
arms and face.
Jason, with a cocky smile, said, "No big deal."
Martin and Carol took Jason to the stream and helped him bathe and
unwrap the bandages from his hands. The wounds had closed and he could
work his fingers okay.
Carol had tears in her eyes as she examined the injuries. "Who could do
such a terrible thing?"
"Somebody who's dead," Jason said. "Martin killed him."
Susan's expert culinary skills, assisted by Bertha, soon had a victory meal
ready, and though it was only the middle of the afternoon everyone dug in as
though it had been a week since last they ate. Even the prisoner's were fed after
Carol tended and stitched their wounds.
Then they listened to Jason's story, and he struck terror anew into the hearts
of the prisoners when he produced the cry he had used against Brenard. Later,
when the last light began to fade in the sky, they sat near the fire and planned.
"What will we do with the prisoners?" John asked.
"Take them to the Klett in Oshan," Engar said.
"Klett?"
"The Klett is like a sheriff," Engar said. "Captured renegades generally end
up at the nearest Klett for trial and disposition. I don't know what'll happen to
these, but I assure you the Klett of Oshan already knows what happened

yesterday and this morning. The Master will have seen to that."
"I don't remember a Klett in Or'gn."
"There isn't one. Renegades don't work the farmlands."
"How does the Master keep them out?" Carol asked. "I've never seen any
police."
"Nor have I," said Engar. "But I've heard that the Faland Master sends
special Warriors against renegades who enter the farmlands. Rumor has it
these Warriors dress entirely in black, except for a silver headband bearing a
solitary green emerald. They carry weapons unlike those we have and
resistance against them never succeeds. This may be myth, but something keeps
renegades out of the farmlands."
"It's no myth," a gravelly voice interrupted. "I've seen them."
All eyes turned toward the axeman who had taken an arrow in his side and
was now lying bound hand and foot. "When I was a boy. I saw them in the
farmland southeast of Slavhos where I grew up. Xar'el, a renegade of the time,
tried to raid my father's farm. The Black Warriors arrived almost as quickly as
Xar'el. They carried rods in their hands which they pointed at Xar'el and her
men. They all just folded up. It didn't look like a thing had touched them, but
the Black Warriors gathered them up and rode away. No one ever heard of
them again."
"What's your name?" Susan asked.
"Kelkil."
"Why did you become a renegade?"
"I don't know. It just happened. I've got a nasty temper and one time I broke
the honor rules."
"Others have regained their honor," Engar said.
"I guess I never learned to follow rules."
"Why did you do such a terrible thing to Jason?"
"It's a hard land, little girl," Kelkil growled. "Brenard made it plain what
would happen if your friend was disobedient. A hard reputation makes others
think twice before challenging you. Besides, that story about cutting off
prisoner's feet was a lie. And he was real careful, when he put the spikes
through the boy's hands, not to damage the tendons. The boy would have been
worth two, maybe three hundred ralls in Kroll country, but not if he was
crippled."
"You make me sick," John snarled. "I ought to smash your skull!"
"Brenard never expected to get the ring, did he?" Martin asked.

"Not really. But Brenard always fancied one. Me, I don't think he could've
used it anyway. Story is, the rings can only be used by honorable Warriors."
Kelkil laughed. "And that sure didn't include Brenard."
"Or you," John snapped.
"What's going to happen to you, when you get to Oshan?" Susan asked.
"I don't know. But you needn't worry; you'll never see me again."

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The next morning, although low on meat, the partners decided to go on to


Oshan without further delay. They did not want responsibility for their
prisoners any longer than necessary, and many legons yet separated them from
their destination. They had found root and leaf foods and a large number of
berries and melons, enough for several days, so they were in no danger of
running out of food. Packs were light, for the horven carried what could not be
pulled by Pecos, and everyone got a chance to ride part-time on one of the
shaggy beasts.
The riders controlled the horven with bit and reins much like horses. They
had no saddles, only a thin leather and cloth blanket. The animals were easy to
ride, however, as their walking gait was smooth, and they were more tractable
than horses, or so Linda claimed. She was the only one who had experience in
horsemanship and adapted to the big animals with ease.
On the following days, Jason's hands rapidly healed, and by the fourth day
only faint scars remained. As it became evident Jason had suffered no lasting
damage, the enmity felt toward the prisoners lessened and a few even felt
sympathy for them.
"Do we really have to turn them all in?" Susan asked. "I know what
happened to Jason was awful, but the one who did it is dead."
John was not so charitable and spoke with some irritation. "Brenard may
have been the instigator, but Jason told us none of the others protested. They all
had a hand in it and there's little doubt any of them, Kelkil included, would
have done the same had he been in charge. I can't sympathize with anyone who
would tolerate such cruelty."
"It's a moot point anyway," Engar said. "We're honor bound to deliver them
to the Klett if it's within our power to do so."
"Oshan ahead!" Linda sang out. She was riding point and had spotted the
distant palisade. As they neared, they caught their first glimpse of the sea,
glinting in the midday sun, and caught their first smell of saltwater carried on
the slight breeze. To their surprise, they saw a large throng gathered outside the
gate and lining the way for half a legon. The people had their arms raised in a
peculiar, cross-arm salute.
"What's going on?" Martin asked Engar.

"An honor greeting. Brenard must have given these people a lot of trouble,
and they're showing us respect as the ones who abolished the menace."
"How did they know? We've told no one who could have gotten here ahead
of us."
"I warned you it would be so. Someone or something monitored what
happened - monitored but did not interfere - then reported the outcome to the
Master. No doubt the information is now all over Faland. It's disquieting, but
you'll get used to it."
Martin's brow furrowed. He was not sure he would easily get used to such
pervasive and mysterious surveillance. The throng parted to let them pass.
Martin led on foot, with Engar at his side. John, Bertha, and Carol followed,
then the four children, double mounted on horven. The prisoners, the horven
carrying packs, and Pecos brought up the rear. By Faland standards they made
an impressive entourage.
As Martin passed through the gate, a large robustly built native woman
confronted him. She was wearing a saffron robe unlike any he had seen and
was almost as tall as Engar, powerfully muscled, and had an air of authority. A
black headband, bearing in its center a large emerald, held back long, reddish
hair. Two brawny Warriors flanked her.
She spoke in a strong voice. "As Klett of Oshan, I bid you welcome." She
extended her arm for the Warrior's clasp and Martin took it. She then turned to
her companions and spoke again in the same strong voice. "Take the prisoners
to the compound."
Martin's eyes narrowed. "You knew we were bringing prisoners. How did
you find out?"
A slight smile touched the Klett's lips. "Nothing happens in Faland that is
not known to the Master."
While she was speaking, John brought the prisoners forward and turned
them over to the Klett's men. "What about the stolen goods we recovered?" he
asked. "Will you return it to its rightful owners?"
"It's yours, as reward for your services. It's enough that the renegades are
gone. You'll find the people of Oshan grateful."
With that, the crowd surged forward with loud cheering and engulfed the
group, each citizen trying to congratulate the partners simultaneously. The
crowd bustled them through the gate and half-led, half-pushed them to the
village green.
A short vigorous man introduced himself as Falkenfre. "Get back! Give

them room," he shouted.


The throng melted back and the partners saw an enormous banquet set in
the green, with rows of tables and log benches and mountains of food. Escorts
guided them like heros to a place of honor at the head table. The children
danced with excitement, and even Carol smiled. Bertha roared her
appreciation, and when they were seated, dug enthusiastically into a huge
platter of roast biven. They feasted for hours, with people coming up all the
time to express their appreciation and heap their plates with more food.
After the meal a carnival began, with acrobats, jugglers, musicians,
singers, and magicians. It was the first such entertainment any of them had seen,
even Engar. Jason was especially interested in the musicians and their
instruments for Marov had shown him nothing of instrumental music. It
delighted him to discover that Faland music included more than singing. He
listened with pleasure to the varied melodies of a rich assemblage of
percussion, stringed, and wind devices, including a tripartite drum with three
distinct voices, a seven-stringed instrument plucked like a guitar, a stroked,
single-string instrument, soprano and tenor flute, and a huge, slightly curved
tube that, when held between the knees and blown with great force, produced a
thunderous bass.
Before the festivities ended, someone asked Jason to sing, and in spite of
feeling a bit intimidated by the large crowd, he acquitted himself well. Over
the weeks, he had learned to put words to his music and had even composed
some tunes of his own. When he finished, he bowed happily to a storm of
applause.
After the festivities, it was late and stars had long since filled the sky.
Falkenfre took Martin aside and advised him to visit the Hall-of-Records on
the morrow. The group camped on the green after the banquet tables and
benches were cleared away.
In the morning, Martin called a meeting. "As you know, we now own all
that we captured from Brenard and his gang. That includes the four horven, the
weapons, armor, and assorted other supplies, and nearly a thousand ralls. I
propose we sell the weapons, armor, and incidentals we can't use, combine the
proceeds with the captured money, and buy five more horven. It would take all
our money, but we'd all be mounted. Falkenfre assures me he can find us five
fine horven here, so we don't have to return to the farm country to get them.
Horven are very strong and can easily carry even Big John with his gear. We
can carry our extra equipment on the horven with the smaller riders, and Pecos

will continue to come along with the cart."


"Sound's great," Bertha said. "I could do with a little riding for a change."
"As I see no objections, it's a plan," Martin said. "We'll stop by the Hallof-Records this morning and after that see about buying the horven."
Oshan was nearly as large as Or'gn, with pleasant tree-lined streets and a
prosperous populace. Everywhere the partners went, the people smiled and
returned friendly greetings. "Have you noticed," Martin asked Engar," that none
of the Warriors has made a challenge?"
"Perhaps they fear our reputation."
"Seems hardly likely, but they are deferring to us."
The Hall-of-Records, a stone building, was as unimpressive as the one in
Or'gn. They quickly discovered why Falkenfre had sent them; Martin had
advanced to level three Mentat and level four Warrior. Jason, Susan, Bertha,
and Carol had all been promoted to level three in their respective skills.
"Your defeat of Brenard was remarkable," the clerk explained to Martin
when he expressed surprise at his promotion to level four Warrior. "Brenard's
skill was equal to that of a sixth level Warrior. You must have great power to
have overcome him."
"Anger had as much to do with it as skill," Martin growled, then in a softer
voice asked, "Can you tell me how to find Galendrall?"
"The sturk-woman?" The clerk raised a brow. "Some said you might be
seeking her. She lives north, near the coast, in a stone warren carved into the
cliff where sturks nest. Her guards are fiercely protective. I see you have a
bronze ring. That may help you get past them."
Back at camp, they sorted the captured weapons and armor and kept what
they could use, then went to the market to sell the excess. Bertha insisted they
also sell her cart. "It would only slow us," she said. "The horven can carry
what Pecos can't."
Falkenfre helped them find five horven at a price so favorable that, even
after buying the horven and replenishing their supplies, enough money
remained to keep them comfortable for some weeks. Since Oshan lay at the
eastern end of a bay extending inland several legons, the partners rode west
along the bay shore to the open ocean. A breeze drove breakers onto a sandy
beach.
"Oh, it's like California," Carol cried. "I remember." Her face suddenly
flushed and her eyes began to sparkle. "I want to do something, Martin."
Without waiting, she jumped from her horven and began running like a little

girl toward the water. Astonished, Martin dismounted and ran after her. Flocks
of shore birds fluttered up, calling with wild, piercing cries.
"Over here," Carol yelled, scrambling along a rocky outcrop that extended
into the water. "Tide pools!" She knelt and reached toward myriad small
creatures swimming in the clear water. "It's so much like home."
Martin came up beside her. "I didn't know you missed home so much."
"Sometimes I do," she said. "But I haven't forgotten I'd be dead if I'd stayed
there."
"Yes," Martin said.
"And," Carol said. "I . . . I like the people I've met here. It keeps me from
being too homesick." She looked at Martin as she spoke and a faint blush
touched her cheeks.
"I think we all feel that way," Martin said, reaching a hand to gently help
her up.
"Come on," Carol said. "I see the children playing in the surf. Let's join
them." She pulled free and darted away. Martin chased. The sun dropped and
its light, shining through the waves, turned the water blue-gold. Robert and
Susan dashed ahead, their bodies glistening with saltwater. The others had also
come down to sample the sea, and Linda and Jason, mounted on their horven,
sent the shaggy animals galloping through the surf, kicking up showers of spray.
Next morning, the partners left Oshan and struck north along the shore of
the western sea. Late in the afternoon, rain dashed from gray clouds and left the
air sparkling. In the evening, they camped on the beach, and after supper
listened to Jason sing songs of sea and sand, wind and surf. Then he brought
dusky lights to Linda's cheeks by singing of her radiance, and that made
everyone laugh.
The second day, Linda spotted the sturks. Huge, with great wing-spread,
they soared gracefully above towering cliffs. The shore changed from sand to
rock, and the horven picked their way slowly. Martin sent a sphere aloft to
soar with the sturks. Gray granite pressed so close to the sea that there was
little room for a beach and water pounded hard against the stone.
"You'll need to scout inland," Martin told Linda. "We'll wait here." He
motioned Engar to go with Linda as the girl headed her horven up a rocky
slope.
While the scouts were out, the others set loose their horven to graze the
shoreline grass. Martin pushed his Mentat eyes upward, searching for the
warren Oshan's clerk described. He spotted a Warrior high on a column of

rock.
Linda and Engar returned and led the party up a steep wash to a granite
plateau. The ocean, spreading below like a gray sheet, melded into the western
horizon. Northwest, a low hill broke off at the cliff's edge. Martin lost sight of
the Warrior. He nudged his mount upslope to the northwest, wending between
granite slabs and around gnarled shrubs. Sparse grasses grew in stony clefts,
and wild-flowers clustered in pockets of sandy soil.
Martin stopped at a small flat carpeted with gold and white flowers. He
slid from his horven and motioned the others to remain, then continued up the
rocky slope on foot. With his Mentat sphere, he picked out the dark shape of
the Warrior and spotted two others. One stepped forward to meet him.
"Stay, Friend!" The Warrior raised his hand, palm out. "State your
business."
Martin squinted against the lowering sun and could not clearly see his
interrogator. "I'm Martin, come to see Galendrall."
"The Mentat Warrior?"
"I am, and wearing a bronze ring." He showed the ring.
"This way," the Warrior said.
Martin pocketed his Mentat sphere and followed among granite boulders to
a cleverly hidden cleft. A trail descended into the narrow, lantern-lit, passage,
then took them through a maze of underground ways. The Warrior-guide paused
before a door and knocked. A pleasant voice from within bade the guard enter.
Martin stepped through behind the guard and stopped. Before him was a lovely
woman, scarcely older than Susan, dressed in a white gown tied about her
torso and waist with gold braid. Her soft russet hair swept upward and was
bound with purple ribbon. Her high-cheeked, narrow face held large, slightly
almond eyes the color of blue-green sea breaking in the sun. She smiled and the
sea-light in her eyes filled the room.
"Hello, I am Galendrall." She spoke with the voice of a Song-master. "You
seem surprised."
Martin stammered, "You...you're the sturk woman?"
Galendrall laughed. "Did you expect an old hag, weathered by sun and
wind, surrounded by a flock of cackling birds?"
Martin blushed. "I suppose I did."
"Come," Galendrall motioned Martin to an upholstered bench. "Sit beside
me."
The walls of Galendrall's chamber were tapestried in blue, white, and

green, the colors of the sea, and adorned with every artifact of shore and
deeps. The chamber appeared almost as if carved from the sea and might fill at
any moment with ocean water.
"You seek knowledge. Is that not so?"
"Yes," Martin answered. "I understand you know the secret of Blackwater
Cave and perhaps other things as well."
"Blackwater Cave is next in your quest."
"Then you know about the quest. Do you work for the Master?"
Galendrall nodded. "Like you, I am the Master's agent."
"I don't know much about this quest, even why I'm on it, but it seems like
something I have to do."
"It's good you accept it. Have patience. All will become clear in time."
"You're a Mentat?"
"Can't you tell?" She touched his mind lightly, as a mother might touch her
child's face. Behind the touch, Martin sensed power beyond imagining and he
shivered. "What is this quest? Why must I go to Blackwater Cave, and what do
my friends have to do with it?"
"You have a Rune-reader in your party," Galendrall said. "To learn the
secret of Blackwater, you must bring him here."
Martin looked startled. "Robert? Have you a message for him?"
"Call him," Galendrall said. "A task awaits that he alone can perform."
Martin started to rise, but Galendrall motioned him back. "Stay," she said.
"I don't want you to fetch him; I want you to call him."
"I don't understand."
A Mentat globe sprang into being above Martin's head.
"Listen!"
The sphere began to sing, softly, then louder, the music rising and falling in
a varied melody. It sounded like a person singing.
"How are you doing that?" Martin asked.
"You have learned only to take information from your sphere. You must
also learn to give it back. Try. I'll help you."
Martin took a sphere from his pouch, sent it aloft, and heard Galendrall
say, "Clear your mind. Move into the sphere as you moved into the arches
when you rescued Jason."
Martin felt the sphere expand, enclosing him. Suddenly he was wholly in it,
not merely receiving images from it, but mentally occupying its space. The
experience was dizzying and exhilarating.

"Speak," Galendrall said.


Martin felt as though he had no body and no muscles. He felt as light as
thistle. He floated near the ceiling and looked down where his body lay on the
bench beside Galendrall. He tried to form words and saw lights flash and
heard fierce squawking.
He heard Galendrall laugh. "No! Don't use so much force. Form words
gently, just as you think them."
Martin ceased trying to talk and the noise and light stopped. He tried again,
this time producing a few feeble bleats that sounded like a sick goat. He heard
Galendrall laugh, and his dander rose.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't mean to laugh at you, but you do sound funny."
Martin felt like a small child.
"Please try again. It just takes practice."
This time Martin felt Galendrall's guiding power and soon heard his sphere
emit organized sounds. When the sounds became intelligible, Galendrall
stopped and Martin felt himself tumble back into his body.
"I don't understand," he said. "When I was in my sphere, I had no control of
my body. Yet when you were singing in yours, you seemed fully alert in your
body."
"It takes much practice to learn the art of multiple presence. You'll learn it
in time, but for now your task is to bring Robert here."
Martin closed his eyes and went again into the sphere. It was easier this
time, and he felt more relaxed. He guided the sphere out of the room and into
the maze of passages. It took a few minutes to untangle the route, but he made
his way through the warren and into the sunshine outdoors. As he rose above
the cleft, he saw his friends far down the slope. He had never worked a sphere
at such great distance, and as he sought Robert, he felt how tenuous the thread
was that joined his mind to the sphere.
"Robert," Martin's voice came out hardly more than a whisper and the boy
did not hear it. Shifting closer to Robert's ear, he repeated, "Robert!"
"What? Who called me?"
"It's me, Martin."
"Where? I don't see you."
"In front of you, in the bubble."
Robert looked and saw a translucent, nearly invisible bubble, like a soap
film, drifting before his eyes. His eyes widened. "You're in the bubble?"
Carol heard and realized what was happening. "It's Martin's Mentat eye,"

she said. "It's talking!"


"It talked to me!"
"Yes," Martin said. "I'm talking through the Mentat sphere. I want you to
follow me - follow the sphere. Can you do that?"
"I . . . I guess so." He looked quickly at Carol.
"Martin must need a Rune-reader. It's safe, isn't it Martin?"
"Yes," Martin said. "Robert must do something, but I sense no danger."
Robert started up the slope after the bubble. As they neared the cleft,
Martin's voice said, "You'll be in an underground passage. Don't worry. It's
well lit and I'll guide you." The voice was stronger now, and sounded more
natural.
Robert followed through stone passages to an open door. His mouth
dropped when he entered. Galendrall spoke kindly, "Martin, tells me you're his
friend."
"Yes . . . yes I am."
"Will you help him find the secret of Blackwater Cave?"
"Of course. We all will," Robert said. "I mean, yes Ma'am. I will."
"Good. Then you must learn the notes of a song."
"Oh, Ma'am," Robert said. "I think there's a mistake. I'm a Rune-reader.
Jason's our Song-master."
"There's been no mistake, Robert. The notes of this song can only be
learned by a Rune-reader. You must catch the notes, then teach them to Jason so
he can sing them."
"Catch the notes?"
"From the Drune-master in the game of the yellow shuttle."
"Yellow--"
Robert was interrupted by a short, powerful Warrior. "You summoned me,
Mistress?"
"Hu'ga, take Rune-reader Robert to the game room," Galendrall said.
Hu'ga bowed, his face expressionless, and motioned Robert to accompany
him. Robert looked to Martin, but Martin said nothing. With his heart thumping
in his throat, he followed Hu'ga.
This is weird.
In a small, modestly appointed chamber, a low pedestal supported a
polished stone table. An elderly native woman, in a white gown, was sitting on
a red cushion atop a round stool. Hu'ga escorted Robert to a stool opposite and
motioned him to sit.

"I'm Hel'kuf," the woman said, "and you're Robert, Rune-reader to the
Mentat Warrior. Look closely at the game pattern and read the instructions
carefully. When you're ready, we will begin."
Robert's brow furrowed. "Is this a test?"
"Read and your questions will be answered."
I'll take that as a yes, Robert thought. He studied the granite surface,
polished as smooth as glass, marked by a grid of intersecting perpendicular
lines, seven running in each direction. A colored square, alternating yellow
with red, green, or blue, occupied each of the forty-nine intersections. On the
lower left square on his side, Robert saw a small yellow pellet, a moveable
game piece apparently, sized to cover the yellow square upon which it rested.
Just below the grid, he saw six small circular areas: four yellow, one black,
the last white. Each yellow circle had a black arrow in its center pointed in
one of the four cardinal directions.
Robert translated a series of runes below the array and arrived at a cryptic
message:
Color digit, blue, green, red;
Number pitch, digits three.
Column volume, left to right;
Row sustain, bottom up.
See repeat, reply in kind;
Perimeter stop, wait for more.
Robert read it several times, grateful he had asked Jason how Faland's
musical notation worked for it seemed the message must refer to that notation.
Apparently, he was reading instructions for playing a game from which a song
could somehow be derived. Tentatively, he touched an arrow button and was
startled by a brief tone. Centered in the moveable yellow game piece, a dark
arrow suddenly appeared that matched the arrow he had touched. Robert
glanced at Hel'kuf, but she seemed not to notice. In rapid succession, he
touched each arrow and saw the arrow in the pellet change to match the one
most recently touched.
He touched the white button and nearly jumped out of his skin when the
pellet abruptly slid away from him, in the direction indicated by the arrow on
its surface. In a moment, it reached the far side of the grid and a double tone
sounded. Then it shuttled back to its initial position and the arrow on its
surface vanished.
Robert glanced at Hel'kuf. Her eyes were on him, but she neither spoke nor

changed expression. Using the arrows and the white button, he soon learned
how to make the yellow shuttle traverse any path he chose over the grid. He
noticed the shuttle always stayed on the grid, but its speed could be increased
by repeatedly pressing the white button and it could be slowed, even stopped,
by pressing the black button. He also learned the arrow buttons worked only
when the shuttle was at an intersection. Then the shuttle moved in the direction
most recently pressed. When he tried to direct the shuttle off the grid, the
double tone sounded, and it immediately returned to the start position.
The shuttle's path must somehow describe musical notes, Robert
reasoned.
He studied the rune message again. "Color digit, blue, green, red."
Could the colors represent numbers? Perhaps blue, green, and red stand
for the three digits of a trinary numbering system?
"Number pitch, digits three."
Maybe that means a three digit trinary number represents pitch.
He could indicate such a number by moving the shuttle, in sequence, over
each of the appropriately colored squares. If the digits were in the implied
order, blue would be zero, green one, and red two. The number 'one' would be
represented by blue, blue, and green, the equivalent of 001.
The idea intrigued Robert and he forgot about Hel'kuf as he became
absorbed working out the details of his scheme. The highest three digit number,
red, red, and red, Robert quickly calculated would represent twenty-six. When
he recalled Jason telling him the Song-master's scale contained twenty-six
notes, his heart leaped. It made sense! Blue, blue, and blue would represent a
null.
"Column volume" could tell how loud to sing the note, and "row sustain"
how long to hold it. The rest of the message might tell how to mark off the
notes.
He took out his pad and pencil.
"Are you ready to begin?" Hel'kuf asked.
"I think I know what the runes mean, but I'm not sure how the game is
played."
"I'll go first."
The image of the six buttons on Robert's side faded. An identical row of
buttons appeared on Hel'kuf's side. A numerical zero appeared near the right
hand corner on Robert's side. Hel'kuf placed her fingers on her buttons and sent
the shuttle on a leisurely journey across the board. Robert followed the pattern

easily and noted key points on his pad.


When Hel'kuf finished, the shuttle was on her side, in Robert's upper right
hand corner. The buttons had reappeared near Robert's hands.
"Is it my turn?" he asked.
Hel'kuf nodded.
"What do I do?"
"You must decide," Hel'kuf told him.
Robert looked at the rune message again. "See repeat, reply in kind." He
felt sweat on his brow. He put his fingers on his buttons and repeated the
pattern he had just seen, only in reverse since the shuttle was opposite the
position it had been on Hel'kuf's side. The shuttle responded, then
automatically returned to Hel'kuf's side. The zero near his right hand changed
to a one and a zero appeared near Hel'kuf's right hand, but the buttons remained
on his side.
My turn must not be over. I must have done something right, but what do
I do now?
Robert studied, then following the scheme he had deduced, translated
Hel'kuf's pattern - the one he had just repeated - into the rune for a musical
note. He assumed he must now supply a note of his own, but he knew little of
music.
He decided on the note next above Hel'kuf's. He kept volume and sustain
the same. When he completed the pattern, the buttons switched again to
Hel'kuf's side. She deftly repeated his pattern, and her zero changed to a one.
She promptly began a new pattern.
For several minutes, the turns switched from side to side. The only change
was the speed with which Hel'kuf moved the shuttle. Soon, the shuttle was
moving so quickly Robert had trouble following it and began to miss part of
the pattern. Then it dawned on him: the object of the game is to produce a
pattern so quickly your opponent can't repeat it.
He picked up his tempo, but Hel'kuf never missed.
Finally, when Hel'kuf's turn came, she sent the shuttle around the perimeter
of the board and parked it in her own left corner. "Game!" she announced.
Robert glanced at his number and was dismayed to find he had only
fourteen, while Hel'kuf had a score of thirty.
"It's now your challenge," Hel'kuf said.
"Are we to play another game?" Robert asked.
"You begin this time."

Good grief.
Wearily Robert began to move the shuttle. This game went much like the
first. Robert better understood what to do, but he was tired and Hel'kuf began
her responses at a faster pace than in the first game. He was hard pressed to
catch the notes, and when the game ended was shocked to find he had scored
only eleven against Hel'kuf's thirty, worse than the first game.
Hel'kuf saw his dismay. "Don't worry," she told him kindly. "You did
exceptionally well. Your Song-master will need two songs. They are contained
in the first twelve notes I gave you in each of the two games we played. You
were wise to write them down. You caught eleven notes of the first song, and
ten of the second. If your Song-master is clever, he'll fill in the missing notes
from context."
As Hel'kuf spoke, Hu'ga entered the chamber. Robert felt relieved, though
disappointed he had not caught all the notes. When Hu'ga returned him to
Galendrall's chamber, Robert found Martin and the young woman deep in
conversation.
"Do you know what's in Blackwater Cave?" Martin was asking.
"I know it's dangerous," Galendrall replied, then saw Robert. Her face lit
with a smile. "You did well, Friend Robert!" Her voice was filled with
gladness and she rose and hugged the startled boy. Robert's face went pink.
To cover his embarrassment, he said, "I heard you talking. Does
Blackwater Cave have treasure?"
"Perhaps," Galendrall said. "Do you know about weyrings?"
"Engar mentioned them. He wasn't sure they existed or how to get one,
though."
"They exist," Galendrall said. "The only place to get one is beyond the
Lake of Darkness in Blackwater Cave. That's why you must go there, for you
cannot complete your quest without a weyring."
"You said Blackwater Cave is dangerous," Martin said. "What kind of
danger?"
"Danger comes in many forms. You'll recognize it when it comes. You'll
face many dangers on your quest."
"You knew about this quest before we did," Martin said. "Don't we have
any say in the matter?"
"It's why you were brought to Faland," Galendrall said simply.
"Then we really were kidnaped," Robert exclaimed. "Like Jason said all
along."

"In a manner of speaking," Galendrall said.


"Did I die before I came here?" Robert asked. "I mean, it's okay if I did. I
like being here."
Galendrall smiled. "Take joy in your life and don't question too much."
"How did we get here?" Martin asked. "I like to understand what's going
on."
"You must have patience. You grow stronger every day and in time will
find your answers." Galendrall smiled. "Would you like some refreshment?"
"I am getting a bit thirsty," Martin said. "How about you, Robert?"
"I can always drink," he said, then added hopefully, "and eat."
Galendrall summoned Hu'ga and ordered meat, bread, and drog.
"I can tell you a little," she said as they ate, drank, and settled more
comfortably into the plush cushions. "The demons, as you discovered, are
mechanisms. They were made to guard the dark ways during the demon wars
when Mordat fought the evil genius, Darc'un, for control of Faland. Few
survived the war. The Master was one and set up the protected zone and
spread his influence over the adjoining lands. Only the southern Kroll lands,
the northern desert, and the blank lands remain outside the Master's reach."
"Who is the Master?" Martin asked.
"Some say he is Mordat, still alive. They say Darc'un still holds power in
Faland and forces it to remain a peasant world in spite of the Master. Legend
says a Mentat Warrior will one day challenge Darc'un, break his power, and
free Faland." Galendrall smiled mischievously. "That is why people are so
interested in you, Martin."
"I find it hard to think of myself as a liberator," Martin said. "Besides
legends are only legends, and you don't sound convinced of their truth
yourself."
"I don't know the whole of things," Galendrall admitted. "But you are a
Mentat Warrior, the first ever, and you are on a quest."
"Where does Mentat power come from?"
"From the Mentat who wields it, of course."
"I'm not so sure. The Mentat spheres and metal seem to have very odd
properties."
"That reminds me." Galendrall rose and crossed to a chest that stood
against the wall. "I have something for you." She removed a small box from the
chest and returned to Martin. From the box she took a pouch and emptied its
contents into Martin's hand.

"Mentat metal!"
"To replace what you lost. You've learned it's expendable, but I warn you,
it's not readily replaceable. Spend it wisely."
The lump felt heavier than the one he had previously owned. "Thank you,"
Martin said. "It's a generous gift."
"North of here is a badlands of dry gullies, mesas, and sparse vegetation.
High atop one mesa is the ruin of a great fort. Hidden within the ruin is a cache
of bronze amulets. Worn with lithan armor, these amulets will protect against
great cold."
"What is lithan armor, anyway?" Robert asked. "And where can we get it?"
"Riven Armorers developed lithan during the demon wars. It's the strongest
substance in Faland and armor made from it protects against more than mere
slings and arrows. The Weapon-maker of Riven, south of Fariver, knows its
secret."
Martin started to ask more, but Galendrall cut him off. "We've talked
enough. It's time you returned to your friends."

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The group returned to Oshan, stopping often to romp in the surf. From
Oshan, they began the long trek back to the farmlands. Linda delighted in her
horven and named it Perry after her pet dog from the Other World. It made
scouting pure pleasure, and she often persuaded Bertha to ride with her. With
Brenard gone, renegades posed no danger, and the prairie hyen did not run in
packs large enough to threaten mounted Warriors.
Bertha became an expert rider, though her weight made it impossible to
outrun Linda in impromptu races. During one of these races, Linda, riding in
the lead, suddenly shouted, "Biven! Dead ahead!"
The two pulled up to watch the huge horned animals.
"Marvelous!" Bertha exclaimed. "We can get a two month's supply of meat
from one of them!"
"Oh, Bertha," Linda cried. "Is that all you see? Just a two month's supply of
meat? They're beautiful. Look at them move. They're like you, big but
graceful."
"They are rather good looking."
"You're right, though," Linda said. "A hunt would be fun, and we could use
the meat."
They camped that afternoon on the stream from which the ill-fated hunt that
had led to Jason's capture had started. But with no reports of renegades it
seemed safe enough.
"All who want, may go on the hunt," Martin announced. "We stocked up on
staples at Oshan and need mostly meat. We can collect the few fresh greens we
need in an hour or two."
"Someone should stay in camp," Engar advised. "Outside the farmlands,
petty thieves often work the roads. An opportunist might take advantage of an
unguarded camp and make off with what they can carry."
"I'll stay," Martin volunteered. "I could use some quiet time."
"I'd like to stay, too," Carol said. "Hunting doesn't excite me."
Linda led, with Bertha at her side. They did not take Pecos because the
horven could carry the meat should they bring down a biven and the burro
would only slow them. Linda recognized the place where the eagen had
attacked her and pointed it out to Susan.

"This is where you were captured?" Robert asked Jason.


Jason showed where the renegades had come from the hills. "I was trying
to get to Linda. They took me by surprise. Brenard stuffed a gag in my mouth
and tied me over Kelkil's horven. They carried me down the draw to the west."
Jason patted his horven's mane. "You know, this is Kelkil's horven. I'll bet he
never thought I'd be riding it a couple of weeks later."
"Show me where you were held prisoner and where Engar and Martin
fought Brenard and his gang."
"Maybe it's not such a good idea; we've other business today. Let's catch
up. I don't think Engar wants us to lag."
Linda picked up the biven trail and the hunters rode swiftly northeast. It
was barely noon when they spotted the herd, about fifty strong, in a shallow
valley between low, rocky hills. The huge beasts were grazing in good grass.
"None of us are experienced buffalo hunters," Engar said. "Don't take
unnecessary risks. You kids, stay clear. Your hummers won't do much good
against these guys."
"How do you want to work it?" John asked. "It's too open to sneak up."
"Our best chance is to cut one out of the herd, then ride it down and put in
as many arrows as it takes."
"Like old west Indians," Bertha said. "I like it!"
"Let's do it!" Engar put his horven into a gallop with Bertha and John
behind. The kids watched wistfully from high ground.
The herd spotted the riders while they were still some two hundred yards
away. With remarkable speed, the shaggy animals began running toward the
lower end of the valley. They topped the low hills to the north before Engar
drew abreast. He picked a husky straggler to divert. John and Bertha, heavier
on their mounts, were not yet at the herd.
"Come on," Linda nudged her horven. "They'll soon be out of sight." The
kids galloped after the fleeing herd, charging upslope through a settling dust
cloud. Short of the crest, Susan's horven lurched, and she found herself clawing
air. She somersaulted into a thorn bush.
"Susan's down," Jason yelled.
Linda did not hear and continued while Jason reined back. Robert heard
Jason's call and pulled up hard. He and Jason arrived as Susan crawled out of
the thorn bush.
"Are you all right?" Robert slid from his mount and scrambled to Susan's
side.

"Damn it, no!" Susan snapped, spitting twigs and pulling thorns out of her
elbow. Her face and legs were streaked with blood, but she was more mad
than hurt.
"Dancer," she yelled.
Her horven was running away to the northwest.
Jason had remained mounted and set off in pursuit. As he topped the crest,
he spotted Linda and signaled her to help. The horven took them away from the
hunt, through a series of dry rocky gulches, and around the flank of a stony
prominence. As they galloped over a small hill, Jason's heart suddenly
fluttered. Below him was a familiar copse of trees. He reined back.
"What's wrong?" Linda called, pulling up.
Jason sat without speaking.
Then Linda looked into the valley where Susan's horven had pulled up in a
grove of small trees. "Down there? That's where they held you captive?"
"Yes. Brenard nailed me to a tree in that grove. Martin buried him on the
hill." Jason pointed toward the remnants of a shallow grave. Nudging his
horven, he started slowly down the slope. Linda followed silently. They came
upon Susan's horven, standing docilely after its brisk run.
"Where did they do it?" Linda asked.
Jason slid from his mount and walked toward the trees. He found the spot
where his feet had brushed the ground while he hung from the limb. The
overhead branch seemed smaller than he remembered. Gently he brushed his
fingers over the nail holes still surrounded by the dark stains of his blood. He
held out his hands and looked at the small round scars on his palms.
Linda had tears in her eyes. "It was awful, wasn't it?"
Susan and Robert had arrived and were watching. Jason mounted and rode
up the slope. No one said anything more, and the children followed the dust
cloud raised by the biven and soon found the hunters, ranged around a young
bull. The animal was quick and the riders unpracticed. A dozen arrows
protruded from the huge animal's flank, which served only to enrage it. Bertha
rode close, trying to batter the bull to the ground with her mace, but her horven
had better sense and stayed clear of the slashing horns. Engar had spotted a
small rocky gulch, and with much shouting and arm waving, signaled his
companions to drive the biven into it. The wounded animal, charging first one
way then another, kept all three at bay.
The children watched in amazement as the three mighty Warriors churned
haplessly around the wounded animal. Finally, Engar got in front of the beast

and enticed it to charge. He galloped into the gulch, the biven on his heels, then
clattered up the opposite end. Bottled in the gulch, the animal was impossible
to approach and none of the hunters had more arrows. John slid from his
horven, drew his brodsrd, and marched into the gulch. The biven charged, and
John raised his brodsrd overhead. He stood stock still until an instant before
impact, then brought the great blade down, cleaving the huge bull's skull.
Hanging onto the brodsrd, he was driven back ten yards before the animal fell
heavily.
"Damn it, John! I thought we weren't going to take unnecessary risks,"
Engar shouted.
"So, what was unnecessary?" John said. "I didn't see you making much
progress." Then he laughed uproariously. "I wonder what level we rate as
biven hunters?"
The kids rode up.
"I think you guys better stick to small game," Jason crooned.
"Oh, shut up!" Bertha brushed black hair from her sweaty forehead. "We
got the damned thing, didn't we?"
Susan took charge of butchering. She'd never rendered a biven, but during
her training she had practiced on a smaller devon. Under her tutelage, the
hunters soon had the hide off and the huge animal reduced to a heap of bloody
chunks. They wrapped the flesh in sacks and packed the horven. John estimated
they had more than half a ton of meat. They left the offal for scavengers and
headed for camp.
"Stoke the fires," Martin shouted to Carol when he spotted the returning
hunters. "They've got meat."
Martin and Carol had already collected wood and laid the fires; it was
only necessary to bring them to full heat to begin cooking. They had also
collected greens, berries, melons, and roots, and had begun preparations for
supper. Huge slabs of biven were soon spitted and roasting while other meat
was cut in strips and hung to dry over the fires.
When the meat was ready, they gorged on roast biven until forced to loosen
their sirkelns. Later they lounged near the fire and laughed as the children
recounted the spectacle of the hunt. They told stories and sang songs until far
into the moonless night. When they finally tired, they lit lamps against the
felven, banked their fire, and rolled into their blankets.
For two days, the partners rested by the stream while they smoked and
dried biven meat. Bertha stretched and scraped the hide; later she said they

could sell it in Forod or Or'gn or tan it and make coats and boots. She
fashioned a crude ball from a small piece of hide, and a rough-and-tumble
game of soccer was soon underway, pitting the men against the women, then the
children against the adults. It was uncertain who won, but everyone had a good
time.
Mornings, Engar put everyone through their paces with weapons they had
not specialized in, and Martin spent time each day with Jason practicing the
songs Robert had won from Hel'kuf. Martin had begun to fancy someday
qualifying as a Song-master though Jason was not worried he would soon be
upstaged.
Linda learned healing from Carol. Susan and Robert learned scouting from
Linda. As Engar often said, "Having multiple abilities doesn't hurt as long as
you don't neglect your primary skill."
When they broke camp, the remainder of the trip to Forod was leisurely.
They made camp by mid-afternoon most days so they could continue to sharpen
their skills and play or explore. Carol and Susan gathered plants, some
medicinal, others that made good condiments. Bertha fashioned chisels and
practiced wood carving. She crafted an elegant soprano flute, patterned after
one Jason showed her in Oshan, and presented it to him the night they reached
Elwind's Repose.
"It's beautiful," Jason said, his eyes shining, and throwing his arms around
Bertha declared, "I love you."
"Enough of this," Bertha said, practically crushing him in a return hug.
After supper in Elwind's dining room, Jason tried a few notes on the flute,
but not having practiced a musical instrument, found the results less than
felicitous and quickly put it aside in favor of singing. Penel accompanied him
with a single-string 'fiddle' that he stroked with a thin wooden shaft.
"I saw one like it in Oshan," Jason said. "What's it called?"
"A barstrin," Penel replied. "It's mostly a toy."
"Sounds like a musical saw," John said, chuckling. "Not fancy, but fun."
"Are you going to be a Song-master?" Jason asked Penel.
"No. I plan to go to Or'gn and train to be a Warrior like you. I'd go now, but
Dado won't let me. He says I'm too young, but I'm not. I'm older than you."
"Enough," Elwind said. "Jason is an Other Worlder. He has to be a
Warrior; you don't. When you're sixteen you can study war. Until then, you're an
innkeeper."
"It'll only be a few months," Penel said, his eyes shining.

"It's time we turn in," Engar said. "We must be up early." With that, there
was a general stirring, and the partners headed upstairs to their rooms.
***
In the farmland east of the inn, where no significant hazards existed, Linda
and Jason rode many legons ahead or to the side of the main party. Linda
increased her understanding of the country while Jason practiced his flute.
Sometimes Susan and Robert accompanied them but often dropped off when
they spotted some unusual plant, animal, or insect.
One day, Susan found a wild bee tree. John smoked the bees out and Bertha
chopped an opening into the nest. Susan and Bertha rode to Forod, a day and a
half, to buy jars to carry the honey. It was a great treat because they had found
no sweets, other than fruits, since coming to Faland.
A few days after the bee tree, Linda estimated they were no more than a
day from Or'gn. She rode north with Jason and found a large oaken tree and
climbed it. "I was right!" She balanced on a limb far above the ground and
pointed. Jason glimpsed a low, grass-covered mound.
"Blackwater Cave," Linda said.
"Let's tell the others. We could camp there tonight," Jason said.
Linda scrambled down. "I'll race you!" She leaped onto her mount. Though
not bred to be sprinters, horven could gallop for hours, and the children let
them have their heads. Wearing only sirkelns, it was deliriously joyful to ride
full out in the sun with the wind against their bare skin and their long hair
streaming behind.
The group reached the dome by sundown and Linda scouted a nearby
spring where they camped. Next morning, when dawn brightened the sky
enough to deter felven, Jason awakened the camp with the sound of his flute.
He sat on a knoll above the spring and played a tune that blended with the
songs of birds gathered around him.
"Come and get it!" Susan's voice rang out. Everyone hurried to a sumptuous
meal of kurduc that Bertha avowed was the equal of Mithral's and Tisha's. Sun
had scarcely dried the dew when a familiar figure appeared on the hill above
the spring.
"Trenel!"
Robert ran to meet the boy, now dressed in a thin leather sirkeln. He
seemed quite grown up. The two boys clasped arms and hugged, then Robert
picked up Trenel and twirled him around.
"See!" Trenel held up the hummer Robert had given him. Its blade showed

the patina of use. He flicked it, like a wink of light, into a nearby fallen branch.
"Wow!" Robert's eyes showed his delight. "You're good!"
Trenel's face glowed.
"You have horven now!" Trenel pointed with excitement at the animals
grazing nearby.
"Yes! I'll show you!" Robert took the boy by the arm and boosted him to the
back of one shaggy animal. "This one's mine. I call him Windrunner."
"You have good adventure, find much treasure?"
"Good adventure," Robert agreed. "Some treasure. Come! There's kurduc
left. Stay and have breakfast with us."
After morning meal, Engar led to the dome and showed everyone the huge
metal doors set deep into one side of the grassy mound. "The only marking on
the door is a small depression." Engar pointed. "It isn't a keyhole and pressing,
prodding, and rubbing have no effect."
"Try the songs, Jason," Robert said. "Hel'kuf said two songs are needed."
"I have to guess at some notes," Jason said. "I've come up with two
possibilities for the first song, and three for the second."
"Try them all."
Jason began singing, running through his proposed compositions,
alternating the songs in all combinations, forward and reverse. Nothing
happened. Jason frowned , then shrugged and began improvising new
variations.
Trenel grew restless and tugged Robert's hand. "Come, see."
"Not now. We're working."
"I show. Please." He pulled Robert's arm and gestured toward the dome.
"Special place."
Robert whispered to Susan, "Come with me. Trenel wants to show me
something."
Trenel raced off. Robert and Susan ran to keep up as the small boy led
them around the grassy mound to a small gash, thickly overgrown with bushes.
He disappeared into the brush. Robert pushed between a tangle of roots and
stems and found Trenel squatting in a tiny alcove. At its head was a metal plate
that looked like a miniature version of the door where Jason was singing.
Runes were inscribed on the plate.
"Secret place," Trenel said proudly.
"What's in there?" Susan called from outside.
"You come." Trenel reached to help her through the thick growth.

Robert recognized an inscription for a single Faland musical note. Below


the note a series of runes read, "Note on note at the gate of the silver ring."
"What's that mean?" Susan asked..
"Trenel, you're a genius! Let's get back to the others." Robert wriggled out
of the gash. In minutes the party was gathered at the alcove. Jason wiggled
inside with Robert and studied the note inscribed on the plate. "Note on note?
That's what it says?"
"That and, 'At the gate of the silver ring,'" Robert affirmed.
"This is the first note of the second song you got from Hel'kuf. Maybe it
means I'm supposed to sing the song here."
Jason sang his three variations, but to no avail.
Then Robert shouted, "Engar! I've got an idea. Take the silver ring to the
big door. The songs and the ring may work together."
"Sounds like it's worth a try," Engar said and hurried to the main door
where he placed the silver ring in the small depression. He signaled ready and
Jason again sang his songs. The great door did not yield.
"There are two songs," Robert said, "but only one note here. Maybe there's
another place for the second song."
"Good thinking," Martin said. "Trenel, do you know any other place like
this around the dome?"
Trenel shook his head. "No."
Martin said, "Let's do a little exploring."
"I see something," Linda said when they had circled half the dome. "The
grass is thinner here." She looked at a strip of rocky ground. "The rocks are
tumbled together, like there might've been a ditch here."
"Maybe it's caved in."
They only had one shovel so Carol and Susan rode into Odetn to buy more
while the others took turns excavating the suspect area. John and Bertha used
poles cut from small trees to pry out huge boulders.
Carol and Susan returned with shovels and picks, pulleys, and rope. By
evening, Susan's hunch paid off and they uncovered a second metal plate. The
next day they completed clearing the rubble. The second plate, like the first,
bore a single musical note above a series of runes.
"It's the first note of the first song," Jason said.
"The message is the same," Robert said. "Note on note, at the gate of the
silver ring."
"Maybe the songs have to be sung together. That's what 'note on note'

means, and I'll bet they have to be sung at the main gate with the silver ring in
place."
"How can you sing two songs at once?"
"I can't, but two people can. Martin, do you think you can sing one of the
songs?."
"I can try," Martin said.
"Good," Jason said, then added ingenuously, "You've been working at it a
while; you may be good enough to do it."
"Fair praise from a master," Martin said.
Jason blushed. "I only meant--"
"I know what you meant. Which song would you like me to sing?"
"The first," Jason answered instantly. "It's the easiest." He blushed again.
"What I mean is, it's got the lowest notes."
"Let's get on with it," Engar said.
At the main gate, he placed his ring in the small depression.
Jason stepped forward. "We'll start with the first variation. Are you ready,
Martin?"
Martin nodded, and after a couple of false starts, they brought both songs
into synchrony. The result was remarkable. When the two voices blended, the
sound was unlike anything they had heard before, a marvelous double-trill that
seemed to make the ground vibrate.
"It's working!"
The great iron gate slid slowly and majestically aside creating a gaping
hole into a dark cavern.
"Robert, bring the silver amulet," Martin said and started through the
opening.
"The amulet's cool," Robert said as he stepped through the entry into a
dimly lit, empty room. Bertha and Linda lit lamps and studied the smooth inner
walls.
"Runes," John called. "High on the wall." He boosted Robert.
"Another song," Robert said. "Only three notes and runes that say, 'Sing to
open, sing to close.'"
Robert copied the notes and showed them to Jason.
"Perhaps a toggle," Engar suggested.
"To what?"
"Shall I try it?" Jason asked.
"That's what we're here for."

As the song's echo died, the great outer door began to slide shut.
"We're being closed in," John hollered.
"Everybody out," Engar yelled. "Before the door closes!"
They tumbled through seconds before the door slammed shut.
"Is everyone here!"
"Where's Jason?" Martin yelled.
"Still inside," Susan cried, "with Linda!"
"Without Jason, we can't open the door!"
As they spoke, the door began to slide open again. Jason stood coolly
inside with Linda, holding a lamp at his side. "It's a toggle, remember?" he
said. "The song that closes it also opens it."
Engar laughed. "Boy's right."
"There's more," Jason said. "When the outer door closes, an inner door
opens. When the outside door is open the inner door is closed, and when the
inner is open the outer is closed. Neat arrangement, like a spaceship airlock."
"Only the door in here is a lot smaller," Linda said. "And a bad smell
comes when it's open."
"Let's check it out," Engar said.
Jason sang the key-song and the outer door slid shut. A small opening
appeared, as though by magic, in the wall opposite.
"The silver amulet's getting warm," Robert said.
Malodorous air wafted from the black opening, and everyone shivered, the
hairs on the back of their necks stiffening.
"Sing the song again, Jason, quickly."
Jason sang and the inner door shut as silently as it had opened. The outer
door rumbled open.
"I don't like the feel of that place," Carol said, shuddering.
Bertha said, "We'll need preparation before we go into that foul pit."

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Susan arranged with Trenel's father to board the horven and Pecos, then
distributed to each person a share of oil, lamps, flints, ropes, tools, food, and
other sundries, sufficient to stay underground several days if necessary. The
partners left their extra supplies unguarded in camp, knowing there were no
thieves in the farmlands.
People from Odetn, Or'gn, and nearby farms gathered to see what was
going on. They were friendly and merely curious, but Martin felt it unwise to
make entry to the caverns too easy. When it came time to open the outer door,
John and Bertha kept the onlookers far enough away to assure no Song-masters
would overhear the tunes.
Inside, with her light held high, Linda stepped across the threshold into the
inner passage. Robert felt his amulet warm, and everyone's nose wrinkled at
the smell. The passage bore straight into the mound, then opened into a circular
room even larger than the outer chamber. Footsteps echoed in the vast
emptiness.
"Why, there's nothing here," Bertha said. "It's empty."
"There are doorways in the walls."
Six wide passages, spaced equally around the great chamber, led into
wedge-shaped rooms, each comprising roughly one sixth of a circle. Clearly
these six rooms, together with the central chamber, filled most of the dome.
The outer antechamber was merely a minor addition that provided entry to the
greater complex.
Each wedge-room was of great size, but like the central chamber,
completely empty. They had no openings other than that to the central chamber.
The air was dank and foul but the rooms were free of debris or encrustation.
"Hey, here's something different," Linda said as they followed their initial
cursory look with a more careful examination. "An iron floor-grating. It's the
only one I've noticed."
"What a stink!" Carol knelt near the grating and peered downward.
Bertha held a lamp.
"I can't see through," Carol said.
"Looks to be nearly solid iron," Bertha said.
"My silver amulet gets warmer near the grating," Robert said. "And it gets

brighter."
"Demons!" Jason said. "Must be some in there!"
Bertha said, "The grating appears to be held in place by weight alone."
"Doesn't need a lock," Engar said. "It must weigh close to two thousand
pounds if it's solid iron."
"Let me give a look." John tugged at a heavy iron ring attached to one
corner. "No hinges. I think these iron rings at each corner raise and lower it."
"We can bring in timbers and build a trestle. With a block and tackle we
might raise it," Bertha said.
John grinned. "Why don't you and I give it a try first? Maybe we can lift
one end and slide it off."
Bertha laughed. "You love to work those big muscles of yours, don't you,
John?"
"Come on," John said, "grab a ring. We can't do worse than fail. You need
some real exercise for a change."
Bertha took the ring next to John. They heaved, and to Bertha's surprise,
felt the iron slab yield.
"Pull!" John grunted.
Screeching loudly, the plate slid free.
"Weapons ready," Engar barked.
John stood, his grin widening. "Easier than building a trestle, wouldn't you
say, Bertha?"
Bertha, blowing to recover her wind, said, "I think you just did that to spoil
my chance to show off my engineering skills."
Swords drawn, Martin and Engar peered downward into darkness. Dimly
illuminated by their lantern light, some sixty feet down, they saw an opening.
Otherwise the shaft was a smooth bore. Martin sent a Mentat sphere down to
the lateral opening.
"No gate," he said. "But a groove around the edge might have
accommodated a cover."
John dug a rawhide cord from his pack and lowered a lamp. At the limit of
the cord, roughly a hundred fifty feet, he still saw no bottom.
"We could drop an em," Linda said, "and time how long it takes to hit."
"Good idea," Engar said. "We'll assume Faland's gravity is about the same
as Earth's."
Linda took a silver coin from her belt pouch and let it fall. Everyone
listened until a faint sound, possibly a splash, echoed up the shaft.

"Ten seconds, about sixteen hundred feet," Engar said.


"Wow. That means we aren't going to get to the bottom of this thing," John
said. "We can reach the side opening, though."
"By rope? Seems awfully risky."
"We can tie a line to the iron cover and use it as an anchor."
"My silver amulet's glowing," Robert reminded them. "Bet we'll find
demons in that side passage."
"We need to get enough people down to back one another up," Engar said.
"Don't look at me," Bertha said. "I'm not dangling over that pit and neither
are these kids. But I think I know how to build a platform and wedge it below
the side tunnel. We'll need timbers and rope. With a ladder to the platform,
we'd have easy and safe access."
"This a chance to prove your engineering skills?" John asked.
Martin retrieved his Mentat sphere. "Bertha's right. We can get timbers and
rope outside. Seems worth the effort to me."
Outside, they found Trenel and the sightseers had left. John and Engar
retrieved the timbers used earlier to clear rocks from the song-lock. Bertha
directed construction of a rope ladder and assembled tools and fasteners. In an
hour they were back at the vertical shaft, ready to begin construction.
Bertha first lowered a thin pole, and manipulating it with lines tied to each
end, measured the diameter of the shaft at the side entrance. She then cut four
stout poles which, when lowered into place, lodged securely at the base of the
side opening, one end in the encircling groove, the other wedged firmly against
the main shaft wall. She unfurled the rope ladder and secured it to the rings in
the iron plate.
"This'll hold even you, John," she said.
"Question is, will it hold you?" John chortled.
"Watch it, Honey!" Bertha swung her legs over the edge and descended as
agilely as a squirrel. "Lower the rest of the timbers," she shouted.
When the platform was in place, Martin and Robert joined Bertha. Robert
scrambled into the side passage, holding a lamp and his silver amulet. In the
eerie light he peered along a jagged bore hacked through solid rock. Martin
sent a Mentat sphere into the tunnel.
"My silver amulet's getting warmer," Robert said. "Brighter too."
Martin bent and shuffled into the passage. "It's going to be a tight fit. I want
everyone to keep close, adults paired with kids. Engar, bring up the rear."
Martin pushed his Mentat eye in front and kept his sword in hand. Hunching

along in the low ceilinged passage was slow work, especially for the larger
adults. The tunnel curved right and sloped downward, then ended in a drop.
Martin looked down fifteen feet into a larger horizontal tunnel. Robert lowered
a lamp. With his Mentat eye, Martin saw that the lower passage was wet and
heavily crusted with fungus.
"My amulet's still warm," Robert said. "But it hasn't gotten hotter or
brighter since we started."
Martin swung his body over the lip, clung briefly by his hands, then
dropped. He sent his sphere to the limit and detected nothing menacing.
Moments later, John appeared above. "I hope we don't have a lot of low
passages. My knees won't take much more of this."
"We'll leave a rope fastened here to help with the return," Engar said as he
squeezed alongside John. Bertha wrestled a strip of metal from her pack and
passed it to John, who drove it into a crack in the rock. Engar secured a length
of rope and dropped into the lower shaft. The others followed.
"Yuck." Susan brushed against the slime on the tunnel wall and found it
clung like glue. "I've seen this stinking stuff before. Kefaln showed me some in
a jar. It's called slumgut, and he used it to grease the stove hinges." She shook
her fingers, spattering off slimy gunk.
"Watch it! You're getting it on me," Linda yelled. Her foot slipped and she
sprawled in the muck. "This is disgusting!"
"Settle down," Bertha said.
"We're all getting slimed," Jason said. "No big deal; it'll wash off."
Martin and Robert led. Foul water, dripping from above, streaked their
bodies with black sludge. The shaft descended treacherous stone steps.
"Cavern ahead," Martin said as his Mentat eye moved into a large dark
space.
Robert cried, "My amulet's getting warmer."
The tunnel ended at the edge of an abyss. Their lantern light was
swallowed by the yawning black, and the silver amulet began to radiate an
eerie blue.
"I see light-glint below," Martin said. "Looks like water."
"Black water," John said. "I'd say we're in the right place."
"There's no way down."
"We've enough rope to lower ourselves," Martin said. "Bertha, have you
got something to weight a line with? Maybe we can plumb the water - get a
sense of its depth."

Bertha tied an iron strap to a line and John fastened it to his brodsrd. At the
limit of his reach, he lowered it. "Water's shallow," he said when he felt the
weight strike bottom. He drew it up and found the line wet and slimy along its
lower three feet.
"Maybe we can wade across, or find a passage along the cliff."
"There might be demons in the water!" Susan exclaimed. "I don't want to
wade in that stuff."
"Why does the tunnel end here?" Carol asked. "It doesn't make sense."
"Maybe it linked this cavern with the dome," Martin said. "Apparently it
wasn't finished. The main tunnel ends where we dropped from the upper,
smaller passage. The upper passage might have been dug later to finish the
connection."
"You think there's another way out?"
"Maybe, but no telling if it's still open. It seems likely whoever built this
had a way to get across this chasm, maybe a bridge or causeway."
John said. "I say we drop down and check out the water. Wading may be
our only option."
Bertha fished a metal spike from her pack and anchored a rope at the lip of
the chasm. John backed over the edge and worked his way down, hand over
hand. Martin kept watch with his Mentat eye.
A glint caught John's eye, and he worked his feet against the rock. "I have
to swing a bit to check something out," he shouted up as he nudged into a gentle
oscillation, increasing the sweep until he could get a look at the sparkle in his
lamp light. Reaching, he caught hold of a rod extending from the wall. With a
leg looped securely in the rope, he freed a hand to pull up the lamp.
"What have we here?" he murmured. "Looks like a rune plate. Send Robert
down. I'm no good at reading these things."
Engar tied a line around Robert's waist and the boy went eagerly over the
edge. He slid down John's rope and rested on the big man's shoulders. "Look's
interesting." He squinted. "Something about the water. Something's in it, but I'm
not sure what."
"Demons?" John asked.
Robert fished a pad from his belt and copied. "Longest echo, long breath,
maze, raise finger, return, spark of light".
"Maybe something has been poured in the water, some kind of poison,"
John suggested.
"Maybe," Robert said slowly, still copying. "I don't see the symbol for

poison, but part of the message says, 'Beware the water in the water.' Could be
poison."
"Let's climb out of here. Maybe the others will have some ideas."
"Runes always talk in riddles," Carol complained. "What does longest
echo mean? Echoes last as long as the noise you make. Or does it mean how
many echoes? Every time someone shouts in here the whole place echoes
repeatedly."
"Could be a distance marker," Engar said. "Longest might mean how long
after a sound is made before its echo is heard. In principle, we could map the
size and shape of this chamber by analyzing echoes."
"Like bats," Jason said. "Marov taught me to do that, only I didn't know
why. She taught me to make sharp, high noises and from the echoes tell how far
away things are. Trouble is, I'm not very accurate."
"You don't have to be for our purposes," Engar said. "If my hunch is right,
we need only locate the most distant part of the chamber. That, I believe, is
what 'longest echo' in the message is telling us."
"And maybe 'longest breath' means we have to dive!" Robert cried. "After
that we have to look for something in a maze."
Jason began to chirp weirdly.
Susan giggled. "You sound like a cricket."
Jason quickly discovered the chamber was oblong and they were near one
end."To the left," he said, "it's farthest to a wall."
"If we're going to wade," John said, "it would be good to have some idea
what 'water in the water' means."
"I'd be happier if we had a boat," Carol grumbled.
"Hey, that's a great idea," Bertha said. "We've got canvas ground cloths and
we've got sacks. We can make inflatable floats."
"Out of canvas and sacks?"
"Sure. The canvas is water resistant. When it's wet, water resistant cloth
holds air. The only trick will be making air-tight seams. Get out the cloth;
we've got work to do!"
They gathered the lamps in a circle, and Bertha soon had everyone working
with their sewing kits remaking canvas ground cloths into inflatable boats.
They fashioned each craft from two squares sewed together with double
seams. Bertha sewed a small cloth tube, to admit air, in each, then stitched the
center together so each float would contain a roughly circular depression.
It took hours. When done, Bertha eyed the floats critically. "They should

float a quarter ton each, maybe more, but I've no idea for how long."
"What if we oil the seams," Carol said. "We have extra lamp oil."
"Brilliant," Bertha said "It'll give us the insurance we need."
Fatigue and hunger caught up, and Susan portioned out cold meat and
biscuits. Then they curled up in their newly inflated rafts for a few hours sleep.
In spite of the worrisome glow from Robert's amulet, they slept well and
awakened eager to get on. It took only minutes to lower the rafts onto the lake,
where they bobbed like corks until weighted with their occupants and gear.
Bertha and John each had a raft alone, while Jason shared with Martin and
Robert with Engar. Carol, Susan, and Linda crewed the last. They propped
lamps among the gear, and the five bobbing lights created an eerie impression
in the cavern's gloom.
Using pack slats as oars, they rowed slowly, gratified to find the oiled
canvas held air well. Beyond the cliff base, they lost sight of the walls, and
Jason chirped periodically to provide direction. It felt as if they were floating
in a great black hole of infinite dimension, where only the rafts and their
occupants were visible.
"Bottom's gone," Bertha announced. She had continued to plumb and the
hundred foot line suddenly played out. "Good thing we didn't wade."
"What's that?" Linda pointed to a small red light.
"My Mentat sphere," Martin replied. "I'm learning how to make it shine."
A dark cliff loomed.
"Water's shallow again," Bertha said. "Bottom's about ten feet down."
Using his sphere, Martin discovered a metal bar embedded in the stone
wall a few hundred feet away. It extended from below the water to more than a
dozen feet above.
"A marker?" Carol asked.
Inspection revealed no runes or mechanisms associated with the artifact.
Martin tried to move his Mentat eye into the water to examine the underwater
portion, but the buoyant force was too great. Experimentally, he collapsed the
sphere and felt it drop through the water. Quickly he expanded it, hoping to
catch a glimpse before it rose, but it shot so rapidly to the surface he could see
nothing.
"Apparently, I can't use the sphere underwater," he said.
"The lamps should provide enough light for a diver to see a little," Engar
said. "I'm willing to take a look."
"What about the silver amulet, Robert? Does it glow underwater?"

Robert pulled the cord over his head and dangled the amulet in the water.
Light flared, and he jerked it back. "Wow! The water must really be
dangerous!"
"Or maybe water just makes the glow look stronger," John said.
"I don't think so," Robert said. "Look at the steam coming off the amulet. It
got a lot hotter in the water."
"Let's try something," Bertha said. She scooped a cup of water from the
lake. "Put the amulet in the cup."
Robert did. This time there was no flare-up and the amulet did not get
hotter.
"Odd," Robert mused. "It doesn't work in the cup."
"The water doesn't make it get hot," John said.
"Nor anything dissolved in the water," Carol added.
"Maybe something lives in the water," Jason said. "Something dangerous."
"A demon fish!"
"A sea serpent!"
"It hasn't attacked our rafts," Susan said. "Maybe it's something small."
"Or doesn't like the surface."
"The water's clear," Bertha said as she peered into the cup. "Let's tie the
amulet on the plumb line and see if it gives off enough light to see what's
below."
When Bertha lowered the amulet, it brightened and made visible even the
bottom of the lake.
"There's a tunnel," Linda exclaimed. "See it, against the cliff - a dark patch
in the rocks?"
"That might explain 'long breath,'" Robert said. "Maybe we have to swim
through the tunnel, and it takes a long breath to do it!"
"Oh, Lord," Carol muttered. "You're thinking of swimming down there with
a demon fish, or sea serpent, or something else lurking in the tunnel?"
"I've got an idea, Bertha," Martin said. "Row close to the mouth of the
tunnel." He maneuvered his own craft near Bertha's. "Swing the amulet into the
tunnel."
As Bertha did, Martin dropped a collapsed Mentat sphere into the water.
When it hit bottom, he expanded it and shoved it hard into the underwater
passage. It shot upward, but struck the tunnel ceiling and stopped.
Martin lay back and let his mind go entirely into the sphere, as Galendrall
had taught him. His vision filled with murky, dimly lit images. "The tunnel is an

extension of the larger passage we walked through. Maybe the lake wasn't
always here." He rolled smoothly along the tunnel ceiling. Abruptly, he felt a
strong sense of motion. Panic almost caused him to retreat from the sphere,
then he realized the motion was the sphere rising to the surface. He had rolled
out the far end of the tunnel into another chamber. In the sphere's slight light, he
saw a rock shelf jutting a few inches above the water. Mind-lifting the sphere
into the air, he explored the circular opening exiting the underwater tunnel.
Smaller tunnels, above water, led away from the rock shelf. He moved toward
one and was struck by intense pressure. He felt his body go rigid as pain drove
him out of his Mentat eye. Darkness flooded his mind.
***
"Martin! Martin!"
Small hands gripped his shoulders, and Martin opened his eyes. Jason's
anxious face peered down at him.
"What happened?"
"Are you all right?"
"I've lost the sphere," Martin said, astonished at the emptiness he felt. "I
was forced out."
"Never mind the sphere. Are you okay?" Carol's voice buzzed in his ear.
"We saw you fall, as if having a seizure."
"You were out cold," Bertha said.
"I was ambushed," Martin said, sitting and holding his head.. "A Mentat
took my sphere. I've got to get it back."
"Not now," Carol said. "You're in no condition to take another hit like you
just did."
Martin groped with his mind, hoping the sphere had collapsed and was
lying underwater at the far end of the tunnel. His efforts proved futile, and
briefly he considered sending the other sphere, then decided against it. "I'm
going to swim across," he said.
"Don't be stupid," Carol said. "You've no idea what's over there."
"Carol's right," Engar said. "You don't know if you can handle the Mentat
over there."
"I have to take the chance. I wasn't hurt - not seriously. I just wasn't
prepared for a Mentat. I should've been. Horath warned me of stronger forces
than he showed me."
"If it's above water on the other side, I can go with you," John said. "You
don't have to face this thing alone. How far is it?"

"Not far," Martin said. "An easy swim, but I might be the only one who can
get past the Mentat guard."
"Yeah, you might get yourself killed," Carol said "I don't want you to go."
There was real alarm in her voice.
"I'm going with you," John said. "I may not be much help against a Mentat,
but I can watch your back. There may be other enemies as well."
"Let's go back," Carol said, "and forget this whole crazy business."
"I can't," Martin said. "I feel I must see this quest through. No one else has
to, though. I don't want anyone getting hurt, especially not the kids."
"I'm going," Jason said in a fiercely determined voice. "This isn't just your
quest. It's mine, too. Boro as good as said so. You can't order me to go back.
You didn't bring me to Faland."
"If the kids go, I go," Bertha said. "Jason's right; this is a joint venture.
Without us, Martin, you would not have gotten this far. Jason sang the key
songs, Robert read the runes, and John's muscle got us into the first tunnel. And
I don''t think I'm being immodest when I say these rafts we're sitting in owe a
bit to my skills. We're all needed, Carol too, whether she likes it or not."
"I think it's stupid, but I didn't say I wouldn't go," Carol said.
"I'll lead," Martin said. "If I can't get past the Mentat, neither can you. We'll
keep our armor on and take our weapons. The weight will keep us down and
allow us to walk along the bottom. A few kicks should take us to the top at the
other end."
"What about light?"
"The lamps are waterproof when folded," Engar said. "We'll leave a
couple burning and take the rest with us. The amulet will give us enough light
to get through the tunnel, and we'll light a lamp on the other side. Look to your
emergency supplies and get ready."
Martin glanced at the others. The children's eyes were shining with
excitement, but nobody looked scared. He had to admit he felt pretty excited
himself. "The passage is wide. I want Robert up front with John and me.
Bertha, you watch our rear. Everybody pay attention to your partners. Engar
and Jason can look out for each other. If anyone gets in trouble, prod the guy
next and pass the word. We'll beat it back here if we have to."
Bertha fashioned a rope loop and tied it to the bar above the tunnel. She
anchored the rafts to it, then propped two lighted lamps among the packs and
extra supplies. Martin slipped over the edge, with John and Robert beside him.
Robert retrieved his amulet and held it high. Martin expanded his second

Mentat eye and rolled it ahead along the roof of the tunnel.
Moving was like waltzing in slow motion. Even so, they covered the fifty
feet in less than thirty seconds and scarcely felt the lack of air. Martin lunged
upward first, caught the lip of the stone ledge, and hauled himself from the
water. He expelled his pent breath. When the others were clear of the water, he
sent his Mentat sphere toward the opening where he had encountered the
Mentat resistence. Wrenching force hit him the instant his sphere reached the
threshold, but this time he was ready and kept control. A shower of fiery
arrows streaked out of the darkness.
"The arrows are Mentat controlled," Martin yelled. His sphere wobbled as
he deflected arrows.
Someone yelped. More arrows flashed into the chamber, and Martin could
not track them all. He heard Engar yell, "Get back! Give Martin room!"
In full control now, he saw Engar draw his sword and flail at the darting
arrows. He saw a fiery shaft protruding from Bertha's armor and heard her
curse as she burned her hands trying to dislodge the searing bolt. A storm of
arrows swirled in all directions. Martin concentrated on the one in Bertha's
side, mentally grabbed it and pulled it to himself. Then he plunged his Mentat
sphere into the well, collapsed it and left it. Focused wholly on the arrows, he
snatched half a dozen in fewer blinks of an eye. Melding the arrows together,
he wove a fine net of Mentat metal and fused it across the tunnel entrance. No
more arrows came through.
Engar and John tucked the children between them, shielding them against
the remaining arrows. Engar struck down two and Jason snapped one in half
with his tagan. Another burned a streak across Susan's shoulder while John
swept three aside with the flat of his brodsrd. The flurry of arrows subsided as
Martin scavenged them and poured their material into the net.
Martin sensed a shift in focus as a loud whine built in the Mentat cave. A
serrated disk spun wildly against the net, shredding through it like a circular
saw ripping through cobwebs. The disk whined toward Martin, and he mindclosed on it. The blade bucked, trying to keep him from gaining a solid hold.
He felt himself slipping.
"Clear your mind!" Horath's words echoed.
Martin closed his eyes and tried to enter the disk.
"No!"
Martin backed off, shaken, then his mind flashed to the net. With startling
insight, he saw what he must do. He ripped down the net, reformed its metal

into a shaft, and rammed it hard against the hub of the disk. Before his Mentat
enemy could respond, he welded the shaft to the disk, then grabbed the shaft
physically with his hands and dashed the blade against the rocks. It shattered
into a shower of fine droplets.
"Well done!" Horath's voice boomed in Martin's head.
Mentat pressure ceased and a series of brilliant, glowing runes appeared
over the entrance to the passage from which it had come.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

"Black Water Cave: Beware the Water in the Water," Robert intoned, his
face glowing red in the light of the runes.
"Oh, Lord," Carol said. "We aren't even there yet."
Martin recovered his Mentat spheres. The first he found lying outside the
cave where he had encountered the Mentat force, the second at the bottom of
the well where he had sent it during the fight. He also recovered more Mentat
metal than he had yet owned. He felt quite pleased. "Is everyone all right?" he
asked. "What about you, Bertha? When I pulled the arrow from your armor, I
couldn't tell how far it had penetrated."
"So you're the one who pulled it out," Bertha said. "I thank you for that. It
burned like hell-fire but I'm fine now. Carol took care of it with frenwort; the
wound is hardly more than a scratch."
Carol said, "She was lucky and so were the rest of us."
"That was quite a display," John said. "Those red hot flying pokers were
tricky to hit, but it was a blast!"
"You guys did good," Martin said. "Horath told me only a handful of
Warriors are fast enough to down a Mentat arrow."
"Hey, look! My amulet has stopped glowing." With all the excitement,
Robert had just noticed. "It's still warm, though, so there must still be danger."
"We'd better move on," Engar said. "We're burning oil, and we don't want
to get caught in here without light."
Martin moved out, his Mentat eyes aloft, John and Robert still at his side.
Shortly the passage divided into three.
"Which way?"
"The passages divide repeatedly past this point," Martin said. "I can see
ahead a little with my Mentat eyes."
"This must be the maze mentioned in the runes," Robert said. "We've got to
find a way through it."
"Looks like a job for our Scout," Bertha said.
"Well, I can't decide the right path," Linda said. "But I can keep track of
where we've been so we can find our way back."
"We'll try the center," Martin said.
Linda marked the first intersection and began to construct a map. The path

quickly divided into a tangle of branching routes, all sloping gently downward
into slime-choked water. Soon they were wading knee deep.
"This stuff really stinks," Susan said. "It's worse than the first tunnel."
"My amulet's getting brighter," Robert said.
Bertha scooped up a cup of the fluid. "Black as ink," she said. "I think
we've definitely found Blackwater Cave."
Linda grew anxious as she mapped myriad twists, loops, and intersections.
Her paper markers became soggy and her note pad got wet, making it
impossible to write. It got harder to find places to secure her limp markers.
She became coated with sticky black goo. Even John, who towered above
everyone else, got covered with the foul slime. He took pity on the girls and
lifted them to his broad shoulders. The maze continued to branch, and suddenly
Linda spotted a marker she had previously placed. "We're going in circles!"
she cried. "My notes have washed off. I think I put out two more flags after
this, but I'm not sure."
"What are we looking for?" Carol asked.
"A finger," Martin said.
"A finger?"
"Yes," Robert said. "A finger we can raise - maybe like a lever or a latch."
"Yeowch!" Jason yelped. "Something bit me!"
"It's a snake," Susan cried.
"I've been bit too," Engar called.
"And me," Bertha howled.
"They're all over the place!"
The water suddenly boiled with slithering reptiles. They struck viciously,
hitting exposed flesh and attaching themselves like leeches.
Martin swung Jason to his shoulders. The boy's legs were festooned with
blood-sucking serpents. Engar grabbed Robert and they plunged ahead, sending
up showers of muck and snakes.
"The water's getting deeper," Carol screamed.
"To the right! To the right!" Linda shrieked.
They plunged through serpent-filled sludge to a rock ledge Linda had
spotted. John dumped the girls onto the rock, than hauled himself up. His lower
body was swarming with snakes, and he tore them off, hurling them back into
the sludge.
Engar and Martin reached the ledge, then Bertha and Carol. They cursed
and yelled as they tore blood-suckers from their bodies. Their skin was

smeared with blood from dozens of small wounds. Carol worked with poma
and frenwort.
"It's my fault," Robert said, crying. "I forgot the symbol for snakes. It's the
same as for water. 'Water in the water' really means, 'Snakes in the water'."
John put his hand on Robert's shoulder. "It's not your fault, Lad. You
couldn't know which meaning was intended. Besides, we couldn't have done
anything about it even if we had known."
"We might not have gone on," Robert sobbed. "Now, how are we ever
going to get back?"
"Robert's question is a good one," Martin admitted. "We can't survive long
in the water with the snakes. We'll lose too much blood."
"I've found another tunnel," Linda called. She had been exploring along the
ledge while the adults tended their wounds. "It's dry."
The travelers followed Linda into a water-free room, then a collective
gasp rose from their throats. At the far end, gleaming in their lamp light, a giant
golden statue stood on a platform. Surrounding it were dozens of golden icons,
glittering as though lit with a hundred fires.
"Treasure!" Bertha breathed. "We've found the mother of all treasure!"
"There must be a hundred gold icons," Linda cried.
"Thousands of ralls worth," Engar said.
"Look! The finger!" Robert pointed to the golden statue's arm, held aloft, its
fist knotted, its index finger extended.
"It's not pointed up, though," Robert said. "It should point upward."
"I expect you're right," John said and swept Robert to his shoulders. He
carried him to the statue and boosted him high enough to grab the arm and
shinny to the fist.
With his legs wrapped around the arm, Robert grasped the finger. His thin
muscles knotted as he forced the huge golden finger slowly upward. With an
audible click, it locked in place. "Noting's happening," Robert said after a
moment..
"What did you expect?" Carol asked. "A hole to open in the roof and we'd
all fly away?"
Robert slid to John's shoulders. "Maybe lifting the finger caused something
to happen elsewhere?"
"Maybe," Martin said. "Anyway, we've raised the finger, and we need to
find a way out of here."
"The way out is the way we came in," Linda said.

"Back to the snakes." Bertha shuddered.


"I have an idea how to get by the snakes," Martin said. "Can you find the
way back, Linda?"
"I know the way through the snakes," Linda said. "It's harder after that."
"Okay, we'll go that far," Martin said. "Linda and I and Bertha will go first.
Linda will ride on Bertha's shoulders. I'll build a Mentat metal net around us,
like the net I used against the arrows. I'll come back for the others, one or two
at a time."
"The lamps float," Carol said. "We only need one here. You can anchor the
others along the way to leave a lighted path."
Bertha outfitted the lamps with cords and anchor pins. When they were
ready, Martin shaped a cylindrical net, open at each end, and positioned it like
a skirt around himself and Bertha.
"I can carry Susan as well as Linda," Bertha said. "Might save a trip later."
They dropped into the sludge. Snakes swarmed around, held back by the
net. Martin flicked off those that tried to slither over the top.
"Straight ahead," Linda said. "I see the marker I placed just before the
snakes attacked us."
Susan floated a lamp and anchored it. "The snakes are going with us," she
said. "We have to go farther."
Twice Linda, guided by instinct, found her way where markers had come
loose and drifted away. Slowly, they left the snakes behind. Martin did not stop
until Susan had set all the lamps out.
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait in this sewer while I get the others," Martin
told Bertha.
Bertha said, "At least I can keep the girls above the water."
Following the lamps, Martin traveled more swiftly. He ferried John, with
Robert and Jason as passengers, and made a third trip to bring out Engar and
Carol. Engar retrieved the lamps as they passed them.
The remainder of the trip was a weary slog. Linda led with unerring
accuracy. Robert's amulet had lost its glow so could not light them through the
underwater tunnel, but when they dropped into the water, they spotted the shine
from the lamps left on the rafts. Fatigue and loss of blood had reduced
everyone to somnolence. Nevertheless, they set out at once to paddle across
the lake, in deep silence broken only by the slap, slap of their paddles and the
occasional chirp as Jason sounded the chamber walls.
Across the cavern, they saw no sign of the rope they had left behind when

they climbed down from the high tunnel. They paddled all along the dark cliff,
but even Linda could not recognize any part of the great black wall.
"Our oil reserve is getting low," Susan said, squinting at her lantern's oil
indicator.
"We'd better keep fewer lamps burning," Engar said. "Tie the rafts together.
We can get by with only one light."
"Something's not right," Carol said. "We've been the length of the cavern
and haven't found where we entered."
"Someone took our rope," Martin said. "It's too dark to spot the tunnel from
down here. Even my Mentat vision can't pick it out."
"This must be another test," Robert said.
"We're too tired to think straight now," Engar said. "Let's eat and get a few
hours sleep."
"What about the oil? How short are we?"
"If we burn only one lamp, we've enough for a day," Susan said.
"My amulet is cold," Robert said. "Maybe it's safe to turn off all the lamps
while we're resting. Felven don't live in lakes, do they?"
"No," Engar said. "Your idea is good. We'll post a guard to monitor the
amulet, and if it gets warm, the guard can wake us."
Bertha hammered an anchor into the cavern wall, and they tethered the
boats. With the lamps out, the darkness was absolute. Those who shared a raft
clung nervously to their companions, but after a time the gentle rocking lulled
them, and those not on guard slept.
Martin saw lights shifting slowly across his line of sight. The silver
amulet, pressed in his palm, remained cool. He decided he was seeing
phosgenes, illusions created by his mind as his eyes tried to find structure in
the darkness, and did not wake the others.
Engar's watch was last, and when he judged his hour up, he lit a lamp and
awakened the others. "Did any of you see anything?" he asked while Susan
broke out meat and biscuits for a brief breakfast.
Robert said. "Some lights but I didn't think they were real."
"I saw lights too," Linda said.
Robert looked thoughtful. "They seemed to dive into the water to my left,
and when I turned to the right I didn't see them."
"Now that you mention it," Bertha said. "I saw lights in one direction, but
not when I turned my head. Like Robert, I didn't think they were real, but now I
wonder."

Carol said, "Illusory lights often appear in total darkness, but they ought to
be visible no matter in which direction you're looking. I didn't see anything."
Martin said, "Maybe we ought to take another look, together this time."
Engar snuffed the light.
"To my left," Jason shouted.
"I see something - very faint," Robert said. "When I turn my head, it
disappears."
"Are we all looking in the same direction?" Martin asked.
"Linda and I are," Susan said.
"Let's row toward the lights."
Bertha pulled the anchor and a few moments of paddling took them along
the wall until small points of light appeared directly overhead, cascading
downward slowly like drifting sparks. Some even fell in the boats, then
winked out leaving nothing behind.
"It's weird!"
"Beautiful!"
"What are they, and where are they coming from?"
Engar lit a lamp.
"I see a reflection above," Robert sang out. "It's the rune plate! The tunnel
entrance must be above us!"
"It is," Martin affirmed. "I've found it with a Mentat eye."
"We can't climb up without the rope. It's slick as glass with all the slime."
"Look in the water," Susan said. "I see lights in the water!"
"They weren't here before," Engar said. "What do they tell us?"
"They tell us we're going to get wet again," John said. "I see the outline of
a bore opening below my boat. It goes straight down."
"That wasn't here before, either," Bertha said. "We would've found it when
we plumbed the area."
"The finger," Robert cried. "When I raised it, this tunnel must have
opened!"
"Probably turned the guide lights on too."
"I'll dive," Linda said. "Hang lamps near the surface and I can go down and
see how deep the tunnel goes."
"No need. We'll measure it," Bertha said. She dug out her plumb line and
played it out between her fingers. "Forty feet - pretty deep."
Linda said, "I can dive that far. Somebody's got to see what's down there,
and I'm the best swimmer."

Martin lowered his face beneath the surface. He raised his head and shook
water from his hair. "There's light enough to see the tunnel but not far into it."
Robert dipped his amulet in the water. "It isn't glowing and hasn't been
warm at all."
"Fasten a line to Linda," John suggested. "With a safety line we can
minimize the risk. It's obvious we have to explore this tunnel, and like she
says, she is our best swimmer."
"We can't climb the cliff," Engar said. "We better hope there's a horizontal
connection to that bore and that it leads to another way out."
Martin used Mentat metal to make a holder for an expanded sphere. He
buckled the holder, with the sphere, to Linda's belt. "If you get in trouble, press
it," Martin told her. "I'll sense the pressure, and we'll pull you back."
Linda went over the side and kicked straight down, guided by the lights.
Through the Mentat eye, Martin watched the bottom slip beneath as Linda
reached depth and entered a side tunnel lighted with tiny firefly-luminescences.
Linda's line pulled taut at its limit. She reversed and stroked back, with
barely enough air in her lungs to make it. She broke surface, gasping, and clung
to Bertha's arm. "A tunnel goes far," she said when she could speak. "The line's
too short; I couldn't see the end."
"You were down too long," Bertha said. "From the way you pulled air, I
doubt you could have stayed longer. The tunnel may be a death trap."
"You're right," Linda said. "If I had gone farther and not found air, I'm not
sure I could have gotten back. The pressure made my head hurt."
"We're stuck," Carol said. "We'll have to think of something else."
"Any ideas?"
"Find a way up the cliff. Can you make pitons, Bertha?"
"Not near enough."
"Too bad we don't have scuba gear," Jason said.
"Even an air bladder might do," Susan said.
"That's an idea," Bertha said. "I'm not sure we've enough cloth left to make
one, though, and we'd have to use more oil to make it air-tight. I don't think we
have oil to spare."
Martin slid out of his raft. "But we can spare a raft. Come on, Jason, climb
out with me. We'll cut up the raft to make air bladders."
John joined them in the shallow water near the bore and transferred
Martin's and Jason's supplies to his raft. Bertha cut a section of oiled cloth
from the empty raft and fashioned a sack. With its neck secured by a cord, it

made a crude air bladder.


"We'll have to weight it so Linda can take it down with her."
"She'll need to practice," Carol said. "It won't be easy to get air from that
bag without getting a lungful of water at the same time."
"I can do it," Linda said, and slipped into the water like a fish. She quickly
got the hang of it. "There's only enough air for a couple of breaths," she said.
"But with the bladder I can probably double my time down."
"I hate this," Bertha said. "We don't have enough rope for a safety line."
"We've no alternative," Engar said. "I think we have to trust our Scout on
this one."
Linda dropped the weighted bladder into the pit and stroked after it. At the
bottom, she snatched the bladder and carried it into the horizontal tunnel.
Martin watched through his Mentat eye and saw the change in motion when
Linda stopped to suck air from the bladder. And he saw the empty bladder
drop from her hand and settle. She should have turned back then, but did not.
Closing his eyes, Martin willed himself to join Linda and felt a thread of
panic as she neared the limit of her air. She rolled to one side, and he glimpsed
a way up, but she continued kicking forward. Concentrating his will entirely
into the sphere and its Mentat metal holder, he generated an upward force that
tugged sharply on her belt. Dragged upward, her flailing arms struck the wall
of the upward passage. Her head broke surface, and Martin felt her body
vibrate as air blasted into her lungs.
"She's safe!" he cried, as air exploded from his own lungs.
"Thank God," Bertha said.
"Hallo!" The voice came from above, and eight faces turned upward. Linda
was waving down at them.
"How in the world did you get up there?"
"The tunnel goes through. I almost didn't make it. I lost the bladder and it's
pitch dark, but I got lucky and found a ladder that goes up. There's a big hole in
the floor of the tunnel that wasn't here before. It goes right down into the
water."
"Did you find our rope?" Martin asked.
"I don't see it, but the metal bar John hammered into the rock is still here."
"We can put up another line," Engar said turning to Bertha. "Have we got
enough rope?"
"If we take the rafts apart," Bertha said. "How will we get it up?"
"With an arrow," Martin replied. "We'll shoot up a pilot line Linda can use

to pull up the rope."


"We can make the pilot line from pack lacings," Carol said and began
unlacing her pack.
Linda stood aside when Engar released the arrow, then darted forward,
caught the line, and pulled up the heavier rope. In half an hour everyone was
up.
"After all we've been through, we didn't find a weyring," Robert said.
"And no treasure we could bring with us."
"We're not done," Martin said. "Come and look here." He was leaning over
the opening through which Linda had climbed. "There's a branch passage
below; I spotted it with my Mentat eye."
"I'll go down," Engar said.
"It'll be tight," Martin told him.
"Let me go," Robert said.
"Not this time. Give me the amulet." Engar took the silver medallion and
began to back down the ladder. Halfway, he intersected the side passage. It
was so dark even with a lantern, it was easy to see how Linda had missed it.
He crouched and turned sideways to squeeze into the narrow opening, but the
way was short and soon opened into a small smooth-walled chamber. Set in
one wall, he saw a carved panel with a small lever. He fingered it and the
panel slid noiselessly aside revealing a tiny chamber containing a small black
ring. A turquoise panel on the ring's face displayed softly glowing white runes.
Engar slipped the ring into a belt pocket and squirmed back through the narrow
passage.
"It's beautiful," Susan said when Engar showed the ring.
Robert studied the tiny, white letters, then rubbed his chin, scratched his
head, and turned the ring over several times.
"Come on, Robert," Susan said. "What does it say?"
Robert grinned. "It's quite simple. It says, 'Talk to me. My name is
Weyring.'"
"Oh, great. Now we have a talking ring," Carol said.
"Hello, Weyring," Robert said, then nearly jumped out of his skin when it
answered.
"What place do you seek?"
"It really does talk!"
"What place do you seek?" the ring repeated.
"I don't know," Robert said. "What place can I seek?"

"I only specify locations," the ring announced rather imperiously.


"All right," Martin said. "Where is the fortress ruin?"
"The mesa ruin lies at 95 legons on a bearing of 352 degrees from Great
Bend."
"Where is Great Bend?"
"Great Bend lies 200 legons west of Biclif on Great Barrier Cliff."
"Where is Biclif?" Jason asked.
"Biclif is a reference point already known to you."
"Where is Riven?" Engar asked.
"Riven is a reference point already known to you."
Linda took the ring from Robert's hand. "Are all settlements reference
points supposedly already known to us?"
"I only specify locations," the ring responded.
"The answer is probably yes," Bertha told Linda. "I'll bet the weyring only
gives directions in reference to some settlement."
"And we have to know what places we want to ask about," Robert added.
"We better get moving," Carol interrupted. "We need to get out of here
before our oil runs out."
Hours later, tired and dirty, the partners stumbled from the great dome into
the astonishing brilliance of early morning.
"The sun!" Bertha shouted. "Hallelujah!"
Before doing anything else, they stripped to their skins and scrubbed off
Blackwater Cave's foul stench. Then they collapsed in the sun to dry and get
some much-needed sleep.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

By afternoon word had gotten around, and camp followers began to gather,
Trenel among them. Susan enlisted his help to retrieve the horven from his
father's farm. When they returned, the sun was low and she began at once, with
the help of the others, to put together a feast to celebrate their success. She
worked happily and with infectious enthusiasm. Delicious smells roused
appetites long held in check by drab food and the noxious environment of
Blackwater Cave.
The campground took on a festive atmosphere. Many visitors eagerly asked
about what was found in the cave beneath the great dome. Some planned how
they, too, might enter the cave and explore its secrets. Feasting and talking
continued late into the night, until Carol finally got impatient.
"Get on with you now," she told the visitors. "Leave us alone! We need
rest!" She hustled around the fire, shooing children and adults alike. Bertha
joined her, and when the big lady threatened to take her mace to some reluctant
stragglers, the camp quickly cleared.
***
After an idle day, Martin grew restive. He called a partnership meeting. "I
think it's time to move on." he said, a hint of anxiousness in his voice.
"Why the hurry?" Bertha asked.
"Something's troubling you, isn't it?" Carol asked.
"I feel a sense of urgency," Martin acknowledged.
"Do you have a plan?" John asked. "It doesn't seem obvious what we are to
do next."
"I can't explain," Martin said. "But I have a feeling something isn't right. It
came on me after we left the cave. I thought it was only nerves after our ordeal,
but the feeling is growing. It's somehow connected with my Mentat awareness.
We were brought to Faland to do something. More than ever, I feel it's
something we can't - or should not - avoid."
"You're giving me the willies," Bertha said. "Your talk takes the edge off
my pleasure."
"I'm ready," Jason said. "I feel it too. But it's exciting - something good and
worthwhile. I don't feel like something's wrong. I sort of feel like we're here to
. . . to, well, maybe to make our lives valuable . . . worth . . . worth having

been saved."
"Me too. I'm ready," Robert said. "I love this adventure!"
"I confess to a certain restlessness myself," Engar said. "But what's the next
step? To repeat John's question, have you got a plan, Martin?"
"I thought we might try to find the mesa ruin and look for the bronze
amulets Galendrall told us about."
"Don't forget Mordat's Castle," Jason said. "Doynu told me we can get a
gold amulet there. Although," he added thoughtfully, "I'm not sure what we'd
want it for."
"The amulets are all magic, aren't they?" Susan asked.
"Presumably," Engar said. "We know the silver amulet warns of demons;
Galendrall said the bronze amulets work with lithan armor to make it proof
against cold. The gold amulet must do something too. Perhaps it really does
protect in some way against demons."
"There wouldn't be much point in getting the bronze amulets if we don't
have lithan armor, whatever that is," Carol pointed out.
"We can get lithan armor at Riven," Engar said. "Though I'd guess it's pretty
expensive."
"Perhaps then," Carol said with a touch of asperity, "it would be best to
raise some cash and go to Riven before we chase off to some hypothetical ruin
on an unknown mesa."
"We are running short of money," Susan said. "We haven't made a profit
recently, and we spent a lot on the horven and supplies."
"Maybe there's treasure in the mesa ruin or Mordat's Castle," Robert
suggested.
"Let's decide," John said. "What'll it be, Martin? You're the one who feels
the need for action."
"Okay," Martin said. "We do need to replenish our coffers, and since
dueling and contracts produce small returns, treasure hunting is our best hope.
If the decision is mine, I say we return to Or'gn, replenish our larder, then head
for the mesa ruin and hope the bronze amulets are accompanied by other
treasure. Riven can wait."
"Well, I'll go along," Carol said. "But I remind you, we found plenty of
treasure in Blackwater Cave and couldn't bring back a single piece."
With the decision made, the partners visited the Hall-of-Records and
verified new promotions, presumably based on their performance in
Blackwater Cave. All advanced to level five in their skills, and Bertha, John,

and Martin to level five as Warriors, Engar to level six.


***
Next morning, they rode north out of Or'gn in weather that felt cooler than
usual, almost crisp. The first rays of sunlight spilled across the land like
orange marmalade. Not a breath of air stirred. The road was powder-dry after
several rainless days, and faint wisps of dust, kicked up by the horven's
hooves, hung in the air. The riders spread out along nearly a legon, moving
singly or in pairs. Linda rode point but paid scant attention to the familiar
terrain.
Midmorning found the group a dozen legons north of Or'gn. Robert spotted
a small figure running through the tall grass west of the road. "Yo! Trenel!" he
shouted.
The boy raised a hand. "Yo, Robert!" He reached the road and trotted
alongside Robert's horven. "I go see Sal'to. You come too?"
"Climb up," Robert said.
Trenel reached a brown arm to catch Robert's hand. He settled happily on
Windrunner's rump. Robert kicked the horven into a trot and caught up with
John.
"Is it okay if I ride ahead with Trenel to Mulro's farm? Slow as we're
riding, I can be there and back before everybody else reaches the turn-off to
Mulro's."
"You want to give Windrunner a bit of a gallop, do you?"
Robert grinned. "It might break the monotony. Windrunner hasn't had much
real exercise for a while."
"I see no harm in it, but be at the crossroads when we get there and don't
lose Trenel on the way."
"Yahoo," Trenel yelled, wrapping his fingers in the leather band that girded
pack bags to Windrunner. Robert wheeled into open prairie, and Windrunner
laid back great, shaggy ears and settled into a serious run. In half an hour, they
covered as much distance as the group had traveled all morning. Robert swung
around Mulro's farm and slowed Windrunner. Trenel dropped from the horven,
glad to give his aching fingers a rest.
Sal'to spotted them and rose, shedding dirt, from a dugo wallow where she
had been playing with a litter of new pups. She ran to meet them. "Robert!
Trenel! Do you come stay?"
"Only an hour or two," Robert said. "I have to meet my friends on the Or'gn
road about noon. I just came to give Trenel a lift."

"We swim, though?" she pleaded.


Robert slid from Windrunner's sweat lathered back and tied him in the
shade of an oaken tree. "I can stay long enough to swim," he said and watched
Sal'to's eyes light up. "Is your father here?"
"South field. Back noon. We swim pond." Sal'to led the way. "You no
come, long time," she said to Trenel.
"Busy," Trenel said. "I hunt, bring meat." He looked proudly at Robert and
patted the hummer resting in its belt sheath.
At the pond, naked Sal'to ran immediately into the water. It took Trenel and
Robert a second longer to shuck their sirkelns. Robert was glad he had left his
armor with his pack bags. Swimming in the sun-heated, reed-encircled pool
was like lounging in a bath tub.
Sal'to and Trenel enticed Robert into a game of water tag that lasted nearly
an hour. All were exhausted when they waded out of the pond and stretched in
the sun to dry. Robert had nearly fallen asleep when an unfamiliar voice
intruded. He opened heavy-lidded eyes and saw two brown legs rising above
him to a boy's body topped with a broad smiling face. Red-brown hair, glinting
with sunlight, hung to the boy's shoulders, and around his neck a gold chain
supported a golden amulet of intricate and wondrous design.
Robert came awake instantly. "You're Doynu," he said. "Jason told me
about your gold amulet."
The boy's smile widened. "Yes, I'm Doynu, and you're Robert, Runereader follower of the Mentat Warrior."
"Did Jason tell you about me?"
Doynu laughed. "Everyone in Faland knows the Mentat Warrior and his
followers."
"Am I to wrestle you?" Robert asked.
"That's not my purpose today."
Sal'to and Trenel had roused and stood by, gaping.
"I wrestle," Trenel said.
"Not now, little friend," Doynu said. "I have business with Robert. Please
leave us for a while."
Trenel looked disappointed but bowed politely. He picked up his sirkeln,
and with Sal'to, withdrew toward the farm house.
Doynu turned to Robert. "The Faland Master asks your service."
Robert's eyes widened. "The Faland Master? You've seen the Master?"
"No, but I serve the Master. You are here to serve also."

"Is it part of our quest . . . I mean, Martin's quest?"


"The quest is yours too . . . and mine. I know only a little, but now I must
give you your task."
"I have to ride to the Or'gn road to meet the others. Ride with me and tell
me on the way," Robert said as he slipped on his mokads and buckled his
sirkeln around his waist.
"There's no time. You must leave now."
"I can't," Robert said. "I have to tell the others."
"No," Doynu said. "You will go alone and must leave immediately. I'll send
Trenel with word to the others." Doynu's voice held authority, and Robert
hesitated in confusion.
"I can't . . . I mean, I shouldn't," Robert said. "It wouldn't be right."
Doynu looked into Robert's eyes. "You must, my friend - and with haste."
Robert's forehead knotted. He tried to pull his gaze from Doynu's eyes, but
could not. His breath caught in his throat and his stomach knotted. The feeling
reminded him of the old fear - remembered from the days when he lay dying in
the hospital. "Can I at least say goodby?" he asked, his voice quavering.
"No," Doynu said. "You must take Windrunner and go at once. I know your
pack is well supplied so you can travel without interruption. Ride east to the
edge of the Glu'me forest, then south to Rooden road. Follow it to Sapro's Inn.
There you will receive further instructions."
Robert walked with Doynu to the farm yard. Trenel and Sal'to ran to
Robert. "I must go now," he told them as he mounted Windrunner. Then he
turned to Doynu. "I must be crazy to do this. You promise to tell the others?
They'll worry and blame me."
"I promise. In two days you will meet friends at Sapro's. Go now and good
luck."
***
Breathless from a long run, his face streaked with sweat and dust, Trenel
tilted his head and looked straight up into John's eyes.
"I don't understand," John said. "Where's Robert going? Why did he leave
without talking to us?" His voice was a roar.
Martin was holding a small sphere given him by Trenel. "Robert's not
coming back," he told John.
"What do you mean?" John swung toward him. "Why not?" His voice rose
another notch.
"He's serving the Faland Master," Martin said quietly.

"What does that mean?"


"The sphere Trenel gave me carries a message," Martin said, "from Horath.
Great danger is coming to Faland."
"Hey, stop it," Carol interrupted. "You're scaring me. What do you mean,
great danger is coming to Faland?"
Martin's face had paled. "I've got to meet with Horath - right away - in
Or'gn."
"What about Robert?" Susan sounded scared. "We can't leave without him."
"He's on a quest of his own now," Martin said. "I don't even know where."
"We can search . . . bring him back. This is nonsense," Carol said. "You
can't send a boy off by himself. It's too dangerous."
"I doubt we have a choice," Engar said. "None of us were asked before we
were brought here. We're not being asked about this either."
"You mean we're some kind of slaves to the Faland Master?" Bertha
roared. "Maybe we ought to give this tyrant something to think about!"
"Our lives here have a purpose," Jason said, a bit piously. "I think we owe
something in return for our salvation."
"I wasn't saved from anything," Bertha said. "I was kidnaped from my
business - my home - everything."
"Robert should have refused," Susan said. "Why didn't he?" Her voice was
plaintive.
Trenel, who had been listening anxiously, said, "Doynu not let Robert say
no. Doynu much power. Robert do what Doynu say."
"Doynu! The boy I wrestled," Jason exclaimed. "Did he tell Robert to go?"
Trenel nodded. "He give sphere. Send here."
"Trenel's right," Jason told the others. "I felt Doynu's power. He's no
ordinary boy. Robert must have something special to do. I wish Doynu had
picked me." His voice was filled with envy.
"You may get your wish," Martin said. "I think Horath has instructions for
all of us."
***
It was near sundown when the group, dispirited at being separated from
Robert, arrived again at Or'gn. Martin went immediately to see Horath. As he
entered the familiar chambers, he recalled the first time he had met the ancient
master. Now, as then, the old man was seated cross-legged on a purple
cushion. His eyes, beneath shaggy white eyebrows, glittered with unnerving
intensity. It seemed almost as if the master had not moved or changed posture.

Yet, on close examination, Martin noted a subtle change . . . something in his


eyes and the slope of his shoulders that had not been there before. Deeply
shadowed, the old man's eyes held a hint of worry. Martin shivered inwardly.
"Good!" Horath noted the shudder. "You see this is no idle summons."
Martin seated himself opposite Horath. "I see you are worried," he
acknowledged.
"Events are unfolding more quickly than anticipated," Horath said. "I had
hoped to give you and your companions more time to learn."
"Where did you send Robert?" Martin's voice was chilly.
A smile flickered on Horath's lips. "You have made good use of your
training. Perhaps it is enough."
Martin's brow rose. "You aren't going to tell me, are you?"
Horath shook his head. "As we speak, all your partners are being
instructed. All have a task. None will know what the others are doing."
"Why?" Martin asked. "I, at least, should know."
"Your task will be the most difficult," Horath said. "You must concentrate
fully on it and trust your friends to handle theirs. More is at stake here than you
can know."
The old man's intensity alarmed Martin. Consciously, he forced himself to
control his own rising alarm. Finally he said, "I work better when I know.
Ignorance does not build confidence."
Horath snorted. "Ha! At this stage ignorance is far the better thing!" Then
he spoke more softly. "Be patient. In time you will see clearly. Of all your
partners, Jason perhaps understands best. You were not brought here
capriciously."
"Will I see the others when I leave here?"
"Not right away." Then Horath's look softened. "In time, you will be
together again."
"Apparently you expect us to follow your instructions. Suppose we don't?"
Horath's eyes narrowed. Martin found himself spinning within a plumcolored vortex. A white globe appeared, then was cleaved by a dark sword.
The illusion lasted only a moment.
"We don't have a choice," Martin said flatly. "We never had a choice."
"No," Horath said. "It may seem unfair, but choice is always constrained by
circumstance."
"Then, so be it," Martin said. "What do you want me to do?"
Horath smiled. "You will find instructions in the sphere given you by

Trenel. Through it, you and I will speak again. It's important that you keep it
close."
Martin wanted to ask more but could see in Horath's eyes the conversation
was over. He rose to leave, then hesitated. When he turned back, he saw that
the Mentat-master's head had slumped forward. His chin rested on his breast.
Martin sensed that the persona he knew as Horath was no longer there.
***
While Martin was with Horath, the others went to set up camp at the
village green. They relaxed for the green had grown so familiar it was almost
like returning home. Susan enlisted Bertha and Jason and soon had a fire going
and dinner in preparation. While they were bent to their tasks, a stranger came
into the light cast by the flames.
"Hello." His voice was low.
Startled, Bertha turned. She had neither seen nor heard the stranger
approach. She reached for her mace.
"Ho! I mean you no harm," said the stranger.
Bertha glared, but seeing no weapon or threat in the man, lowered her arm.
"Honey, don't sneak up if you want to stay healthy."
"I didn't mean to frighten you."
Bertha snorted. "It'll take more than the likes of you to frighten me. I was
just surprised; you have a soft step."
The stranger came fully into the light and Bertha saw he was of middle
years with the broad, dusky face of a native. A headband of gold, silver, and
turquoise, with no insignia, held his hair out of his eyes. A saffron robe
covered his body and hung nearly to the ground. Girded about his waist was a
silver belt without scabbard or other sign of a weapon.
"I am Korvu," he said, his voice evenly modulated, his manner openly
friendly.
By now everyone had gathered around.
"Korvu? I spoke with you before," John said, his gray eyes questioning.
"Wasn't it on the north road out of Or'gn? A while ago?"
"I remember," Korvu said. "Now I bring a summons."
"A summons?" Engar spoke this time. "From what source?"
"Only the Master summons Warriors to duty," Korvu said. "I serve the
Master."
"Like Doynu," Jason said. "Do I have a quest like Robert?" He fairly
danced with excitement.

"I have a call for each of you," Korvu said, taking from his robe a small
packet. He extracted several folded papers and began handing them around,
pressing them into hands only half willing to take them.
"I don't like this," Carol said. "We don't know you. How do we know this
is on the up and up?"
"Korvu gave us the silver amulet," John said. "I trust him, and Martin said
we would all soon get instructions; it seems he was right."
Korvu said. "You see on each summons a seal? It is the Master's. Study it.
No others can use it, and it will identify future messages. Be advised, the
Mentat Warrior will not return to you. He, too, has been summoned."
"Can you tell us where Robert is?" Susan asked.
Korvu's face softened. "I'm sorry, I cannot. I can tell you he's safe and goes
with a willing heart." Then his voice became curt. "Now I must go."
As Korvu's lean form disappeared, everyone pulled close around the fire
and began to read the tantalizing messages he had given them.
"Doesn't say much," Carol said. "This is like a silly game. I'm supposed to
meet a person or persons unknown at a place called Zenker's Keep.
Presumably, that's where I'll get my real instructions."
"I go to Huggen's Hole," Jason said with barely concealed excitement. "It's
like a real mystery and we're all secret agents. Where are you supposed to go,
Linda?"
"To Slavhos," Linda replied slowly, with a puzzled expression. "I'm
supposed to go to the market there."
Jason's brow rose. "Kormax! Remember Kormax? He's the storekeeper in
Slavhos. I'll bet he's your contact!"
Linda's brow wrinkled into a worried frown. "I wish we could go
together."
Jason's face darkened. "You're right. We're all going different places. I
don't even know where Huggen's hole is."
Susan looked up with her green eyes grown large. "I don't know where my
place is either. It's called Shortbriar. How are we supposed to find these
places if we don't know where they are?"
"That's not a problem," Engar said. "I know all the places you've
mentioned. They're all inns or settlements. Zenker's is north of here. We would
have passed it had we kept going as planned this morning. Huggen's Hole is
north out of Forod and--"
"I don't like it," Bertha cut in. "Kids shouldn't be going off by themselves.

Some of these places are not in the farmlands. I'm supposed to go to Finfal's
Den on the Targ road. I know that's in the forest south of Triod. I'm not worried
for myself, but how's one of these little ones going to stand up to a gang of
renegades? After what Brenard did to Jason, I think it's the height of
foolishness to send kids away by themselves."
"Where's Shortbriar?" Susan asked. "Do I have to leave the farmlands
too?"
"Afraid so," Engar said. "Shortbriar's a small settlement southeast of here,
on the Edge Trail that leads to the Fragaz Cutoff. It's in South Forest beyond the
farmland. Bertha's right; it isn't safe for you there alone. It's pretty rundown,
and outside of a few outlying farmers and local woodcutters, serves mostly
renegades and outcasts."
"We do have to go, don't we?" Jason said. "Wouldn't we be arrested or
something if we don't go? It's a call from the Master - like being drafted in the
army. Besides, Martin said danger is coming. I think we are here in Faland for
this; it was planned before we got here."
"Jason's got a point," John said. "Don't forget, Robert's already gone.
Faland isn't Earth; the rules are different. I'm supposed to meet someone at
Elwind's Repose, on the road to Oshan. I can travel with Jason as far as Forod.
Slavhos is on the way to Triod so Bertha can go with Linda at least that far.
Maybe by then we'll know more."
"My assignment is here in Or'gn," Engar said, "three days hence. I'll have
time to escort Susan to Shortbriar. It's only about a day's ride. It'll give me a
chance to check out her situation."
When the partners turned in that night, some were excited, some nervous,
and others plainly worried.

PART FOUR: THE EMERALD OF THUN

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

After leaving Mulro's farm an hour before noon, Robert rode east along a
trail that wound through open country. Rising on his left, the ridge of hills
loomed darkly where, many weeks before, the partnership had established its
first hunting camp. To his right, open prairie stretched to the limits of vision.
Why am I doing this?
On the word of a stranger, he was leaving his friends to go on a journey of
unknown purpose and destination. A dozen times, he stopped and swung
around in his saddle. He longed to go back, but instead drove his heels against
Windrunner's flanks and continued his swift trot to the east.
Miles rolled behind and noon came. As Robert put distance between
himself and all those whom he knew, he began to realize he was committed to
something from which he could not turn back. With the realization came
excitement.
I'm on my own adventure. I'm alone with only my strength and knowledge
to depend on.
The thought pleased him and also frightened him. Clouds began to build in
the east. From the clouds came wind. Prairie grass moved in waves that
flashed with color where wild-flowers poked through. Air moving against his
skin felt good, and Robert expanded his lungs. He puffed out his chest, and for
a while imagined himself the invincible Warrior he hoped one day to be.
Something suddenly occurred to him.
I must be thirteen now. I must have passed my thirteenth birthday weeks
ago.
He laughed.
I guess in Faland there are no birthdays.
Late in the afternoon, he caught his first glimpse of the Glu'me forest. The
light dulled as the sun dropped and his good cheer began to wane. Soon he
would need to camp. Fortunately, his saddlebags carried a new ground cloth,
two lamps, oil and food enough to last several days. His armor and tagan were

bundled behind his saddle. Being so well equipped bolstered his confidence.
The trail jogged south around a low hill. As he turned into the shadow of
the hill, he came upon a small farm with tidy fields stretching to the east.
Thinking that perhaps the farmer would offer him shelter, he turned in at the
gate. "Hello," he called to a young, stocky native man he saw working the field
near the entrance.
The man looked up and a smile spread across his dark face. He rested
against his hoe. "Hello, Friend," he called. "I Cambok."
"I am Robert, a Warrior on the Master's business. I seek a place for the
night and will gladly pay." He spoke with the serious and formal demeanor he
felt befitted his new role as the Master's special envoy.
Cambok's grin widened. "My honor offer shelter. No pay. I like hear story
young Warrior."
Cambok's friendliness put Robert immediately at ease. He slid from
Windrunner's back and led the horven as he followed Cambok toward a small
log house set among shade trees a quarter legon from the farm gate. Cambok
showed him where to pasture Windrunner and ushered him into the house. As
Cambok entered the dwelling he spoke to a boy of perhaps Robert's age,
"Seguf, time light lamps. Bring potans. Guest eat with us."
Seguf's eyes lighted. He nodded to Robert and hurried outside.
"Wife, Milvir," Cambok said, introducing a native woman who looked no
older than Susan. Robert could not help glancing at the retreating boy who had
just left.
Cambok caught the puzzled look on his face and laughed. "Seguf, brother.
Milvir I married six month. Not yet child."
Robert, a flush blooming on his cheeks, joined his laughter with Cambok's.
Dinner of fried rabir, baked potans, and salad was simple but tasty. Robert
was embarrassed to eat without providing anything so went to Windrunner and
retrieved a small jar of honey.
"Honey?" Seguf asked when he spotted the jar of amber fluid.
"Honey," Robert answered, grinning at the look of delight on Seguf's face.
The honey, spread on the dark bread served by Milvir, was delicious. They
had consumed nearly half the jar by the end of dinner. Robert pressed the
remainder on Milvir and told her to keep it in return for her family's
hospitality. Milvir graciously accepted.
"What can you tell me about the Glu'me forest?" Robert asked Cambok
when the meal was done and they were all sitting on pads arranged around a

hearth where a small fire burned. The fire was not for warmth, but for light,
cheer, and to heat drog and roast bits of spiced meat on small spits.
Cambok looked startled. "You go Glu'me?"
"Sapro's Inn," Robert answered.
"Bad. Much danger. Renegades, hyen." Cambok's dark eyes showed both
fear and concern.
Robert frowned. Such talk did not encourage him, and for half an hour, he
tried to get more specific information from Cambok. It seemed, however, that
Cambok did not venture often into the Glu'me and then only far enough to
occasionally collect a load of fire wood. He knew the forest primarily by its
unsavory reputation.
Robert slept in the barn with Windrunner, lulled by the sound of gentle rain
that fell through much of the night. After a hearty farm breakfast with Cambok,
Milvir, and Seguf, he found himself again in the saddle. Beyond Cambok's
farm, the trail continued south. The air smelled fresh, washed by rain, though
the sky had cleared and sun drenched the prairie with honey-colored light.
Robert wore only his ukeln having forgone even his mokads so the sun might
warm his well-tanned body and the wind blow away the staleness of a night
spent curled in barn straw.
At midmorning Windrunner topped a small hill and Robert surveyed the
miles of grassland that lay around him. Three or four legons to the east, the
dark line of trees that marked the Glu'me forest cast somber shadows; south a
similar distance, he could see the thin ribbon of the Rooden road. On his left,
Robert saw a small clear pond, surrounded by reeds and grassy banks. He
nudged Windrunner's flank and eased the horven downslope. At the pond, he
dismounted and walked into the tepid water. Though he had expected to enjoy
his bath, when he felt the water rise on his body, homesickness almost
overcame him. He remembered the pond on the ridge where he had played so
happily with Susan, Jason, and Linda. Now he was all alone.
Slowly he submerged, then rose, sputtering, and shook the water from his
long blond hair. He swam easily across the pond and back, then scrubbed his
cloth ukeln, wrung the water from it, and climbed the bank to Windrunner. He
put on his sirkeln, with a fresh ukeln buttoned inside, and tied the freshly
washed ukeln to the back of his saddle where it would dry as he rode.
Reluctantly, he buckled on his body armor, thigh plates, and combat mokads,
then settled his helmet on his head. He sheathed a half dozen hummers in his
belt and strapped his tagan to his hip.

Mounting, he rode at a swift trot to the Rooden road and thence to the edge
of the Glu'me forest. He held himself erect and rode attentively and
confidently. First impressions were important, as Engar always said. If a
renegade spotted him, he wanted the thief to think twice before attacking.
The abruptness with which the forest began impressed him. A small creek
meandered in a gorge along its edge. Grass ended on the west bank; on the
east, mixed conifer and broad-leaf trees rose many tens of feet into the air.
Beneath the trees lay deep shadows.
A small wooden truss bridge carried the road into the forest. Robert felt his
pulse notch up as he guided Windrunner over the bridge. The sun's heat lifted
as cool shade covered him. Within a dozen yards, the forest canopy closed
above the road, leaving only a tunnel bored through unrelieved shadow where
sunlight never touched the ground. Yet beneath the canopy, the forest was
mostly clear with only a little undergrowth. Robert could see a fair distance
through the trunks on either side of the passage and kept a wary eye out for
anyone who might be lurking in the shadows.
For an hour Robert rode, keeping Windrunner to a brisk walk. He met no
one. Once a loud sputtering startled him and halted Windrunner. He sat, eyes
wide, straining to see. Then he spotted a small furry creature above his head on
a large tree limb. It scolded with a sound like the idling of an unmuffled
motorcycle. Robert laughed when he saw the creature flipping its long tail,
balancing on its haunches, and chattering with an outsize voice.
"You're a noisy squirrel," he shouted, surprised at how loud his own voice
sounded.
Though he had difficulty seeing the sun through the dense foliage, and so
could not easily judge the time, Robert's stomach told him it must be near noon.
As he considered whether to dismount while he ate, he noticed a radiance to
the side of the road. The trunks of some trees seemed to shine with soft light.
Curious, he rode toward the brightness and emerged into a glade filled with
wild flowers, humming with insects, and alive with the sight and sound of
small birds. Fans of sunlight spread downward from a partial break in the
forest canopy and filled the glade with soft light. The sight so enchanted him he
slipped immediately from Windrunner's back and stood in the warmth,
surrounded by the forest's wild beauty. The ground felt springy, like a thick
carpet, and the air smelled of damp earth and decaying wood. Water gurgled
nearby.
A spring, lined with fallen wood and green tendrils, burst from the forest

floor in a swirl of dashing liquid. Robert knelt and lifted cool water that tasted
like mint to his lips. Lounging, he ate biscuits and honey along with jerked
devon meat and leftover potans given him by Milvir that morning. He neither
saw nor heard the dark forms that padded through the trees near the glade.
A soft snicker from Windrunner attracted his attention, and he looked up.
He caught a hint of motion out of the corner of his eye. Brush crackled nearby,
then exploded into movement. Low growls turned to snarls. Robert came erect
as a black-furred creature charged out of the bushes across the spring. His hand
darted to his belt and his fingers closed on a hummer. He drew the weapon as
the dog-like hyen leaped, and drove it into the animal's open mouth. The
second beast hit him from the side before he could snatch another hummer, and
he felt sharp teeth tear his flesh.
He rolled, kicking and yelling, as more black animals boiled out of the
woods on all sides. Throwing off his attacker, he scrambled to his feet, took
three short steps to Windrunner's side and leaped to the horven's back.
Slavering jaws closed on his right foot and ripped the heavy mokad away.
Working on instinct, Robert uncoiled his tagan and lashed right and left.
Windrunner snorted, then screamed as teeth tore at his undersides. The horven
reared, flailing with front hooves. Robert stuck to Windrunner's back like a
burr and whipped hyen away on both flanks.
"Gee-up!" he yelled.
Windrunner kicked up huge clods as his hooves took hold in the soft
ground. The dark bodies of half a hundred hyen circled and leaped, tearing at
the fleeing horven and its rider. Robert felt Windrunner stumble.
"No! Oh, no!" he cried. "Run, Windrunner! Run!"
But the horven faltered. Robert looked down to see blood pumping from a
dozen ragged wounds in Windrunner's flanks and legs. With redoubled fury he
lashed with his tagan, ripping chunks of flesh from those hyen that got near. But
he could not hold them back.
He wheeled Windrunner near a huge, heavy-limbed tree. Reaching
overhead, he whipped his tagan around a branch and hauled himself up.
Windrunner collapsed, screaming and kicking.
"Windrunner!" Robert cried. "Oh, Windrunner, get up!"
He drove three hummers into the backs of hyen, but a sea of rending bodies
buried Windrunner. Sobbing, Robert watched as the razor-toothed hyen ripped
the great horven apart.
He cried until exhausted, then climbed higher in the tree. As he climbed he

discovered pain in his right foot. When settled on a lofty branch, well above
the feeding predators, he examined his foot, stripped of its mokad by a hyen's
teeth. Deep lacerations ran along both sides of his ankle and he had lost flesh
from the bottom of his heel. Even after he treated the wounds with poma and
frenwort, which he carried in the pouches of his sirkeln, Robert knew it would
take days for his foot to heal.
When night came to the Glu'me forest, the hyen disappeared, melting into
the surrounding trees like black ghosts. Robert was without a lamp and it was
now the dark of the moon when felven would be about. He shuddered. He had
heard that felven, though too large and heavy to climb, had sometimes torn
down trees with trunks as large as a man to get at someone sheltering there.
The girth of the tree in which he sheltered was many times thicker than that,
and he prayed it was stout enough to keep him safe.
Through the long night, Robert watched, jumping at each sound as a twig
cracked or a small limb dropped from a tree. Only near dawn did he finally
doze, protected from falling by a length of cord he had used to tie himself to the
branch on which he reclined. The motorcycle-chattering of a squirrel
awakened him.
Gray light had stolen through the canopy and cast a gloomy pall on the
forest floor. Peering down, he saw the scattered bones of Windrunner and
fragments of his gear. Though his foot was stiff, frenwort stilled the pain.
With great care, he lowered his thin frame to the forest floor. Although the
hyen had destroyed many of his belongings, he recovered eight hummers from a
torn saddlebag, and three jars of honey. Two bottles of oil and both lamps had
survived along with his canteen. His field mokads and ground cloth, though
tattered, were serviceable as were his two extra ukelns. He had lost nearly all
his food.
Working quickly, Robert fashioned a pack from a saddlebag and loaded it
with his recovered supplies. He put on his field mokads and packed his
remaining combat mokad against the day when he could replace its mate. A last
glance at the bloody bones of his fallen horven gave him his bitterest moment
since coming to Faland. For a moment, he felt his heart would break.
Windrunner had served him well and he had grown to love the great shaggy
beast.
With a shake of his head, he turned from the grisly scene, took up a stout
stick to aid his walking, and hobbled back to the glade where the hyen had
initiated their attack. From the mint-flavored water he drank deeply, then set

his feet to the task of getting to Sapro's Inn.


***
The Glu'me forest took on a new perspective as Robert limped along the
road. From the ground, the trees looked taller and the shadows deeper. His
right foot hurt and he could manage no more than a quarter the speed he had
maintained on Windrunner's back. Alone, with limited supplies, on foot in an
alien forest, Robert's self-confidence plummeted. He jumped at every shadow
and peered fearfully among the darkened trunks. Always he searched for the
black shapes of hyen. He had no idea how far it was to Sapro's Inn or what he
would find when he got there. He considered turning back but knew to do so
would take him again through the area where the hyen had attacked.
The road looked well traveled, yet he saw no one. As the muddy track
began to twist more deviously through the thickening trees, he grew
apprehensive. He decided to leave the road and travel less conspicuously in
the growth alongside.
Once among the trees, Robert found small leafy bushes and broke branches
from them. He used the branches to camouflage his pack and armor and slipped
some into his headband. Soon he looked like a forest bush himself. He scooped
dirt and smeared his face, arms, and lower legs.
He hung the navaid given him by Doynu around his neck and was glad he
had paid attention when Linda showed him how to use it. By consulting it
often, he maintained a straight course, pressing always east.
After an hour, fatigue, mostly brought on by the effort of favoring his
wounded foot, began to slow him. Robert found a patch of protected forest
litter beside a moss covered boulder and lowered himself to the ground. He
took honey from his pack and a few fragments of meat the hyen had
overlooked. When he finished eating, he drained most of his canteen, then sank
back for a moment of rest.
He dozed.
Fiery stinging brought him awake and he sat up with a start. Horror
widened his eyes as he saw his body crawling with tiny insects. He jumped up,
slapping.
"This isn't right!" he yelled. "Faland bugs aren't supposed to bite people!"
At least that's what he remembered Engar saying as he danced, yelled, and
swatted. Apparently he had discovered an exception. Snatching his pack, he
darted away from the swarm of red bugs that seemed everywhere.
As he thrashed through the brush, he stumbled into a forest glade, similar to

the one where the hyen had attacked. Red crawlers had worked themselves into
the spaces between his armor and his flesh. He stripped off the armor and
swept the tormenting insects from his body. A small pond lay in the center of
the glade, and he waded in, scooping water to wash away the insects' sting.
When he was clean, he scratched the beginning welts and inspected himself
minutely to make sure all the insects were gone. Then he turned to leave the
pond and felt something strike his back, hard against his left shoulder blade.
Astonished, he stumbled and sprawled face down. When he tried to rise, his
left arm gave way. Rolling, he saw an arrow's bloody tip protruding from his
breast. The shaft had entered his back and rammed upward through his body.
Renegades! He had forgotten about renegades! With terror he clutched at
the bloody shaft and drew air into his lungs with a tormented whistle.
Skewered by the arrow, he struggled up and lurched into the trees. Beside
his ear, he heard the solid whack as another arrow struck a tree. Then he was
weaving among thick trunks. In seconds, weakness made his legs wobble. He
slumped.
Instinct told him he must act at once, otherwise he had only the briefest
time to live. With his right hand, he grasped the arrow behind its point and
steadied the shaft against his breast. He backed until he felt the shaft press
against a tree, then twisted sideways. The arrow broke and he pulled hard. The
broken shaft slid free and Robert dropped the bloody stick in the duff. Pain
made him dizzy, and he coughed and spit bloody phlegm.
Behind him he heard crashing. Steadying himself, he unleashed the tagan
from his hip as a squat, thick-limbed native burst through the brush, his broad
dusky face drawn in a snarl, a heavy spiked-mace clutched in his fist. Robert
side-stepped, and slipping under the mace's swing, brought his tagan around in
a sweeping stroke that caught the renegade's neck just above his armor. The
native reached for his throat and fell in a shower of blood. Two more
renegades leaped over his fallen body.
As he ducked, Robert felt the wind of a passing spear, then danced
forward, the tip of his tagan a wink of light in the gloom beneath the trees. With
a sound like that made by a breaking branch, the tagan bit, shattering the wrist
of the nearer native. Robert continued his drive, backhanding, and his tagan
tore flesh from the brow of the second attacker. The two renegades melted into
the forest and were gone.
Robert choked, then coughed a mouthful of blood. His heart was pounding.
In hardly more time than it took to blink an eye, he had defeated three

renegades. Yet now his breath felt strangely shallow, and foam flecked the
blood that spewed bright red from his mouth. The arrow had penetrated his
lung.
The hemorrhage frightened him, and he fumbled his first aid kit from its
pouch. Quickly, taking out a small glass vial, he poured it half full of water,
then sprinkled in poma powder and frenwort. He stoppered the bottle and
shook it, then unwrapped an instrument he had never imagined he might use on
himself. His mind replayed the lessons Carol had given him.
The device consisted of two parts: a small flexible bulb attached to a
threaded metal collar, and a long metal tube, silver-colored and polished to a
high gloss. The tube, a quarter inch in diameter, was narrowed at one end. The
other end was threaded to fit the bulb's collar. With trembling hands, Robert
screwed the shiny tube into the collar. Holding the assembled syringe by the
bulb, he inserted the tip into the vial containing dissolved poma and frenwort.
As he relaxed the bulb, the solution rose into the body of the instrument.
Sweat beaded his brow and he shivered as though suddenly struck by a
draft. For a moment he hesitated, his face drawn in a grimace. Then he
clenched his teeth and plunged the metal shaft into the wound on his chest. As
the tube penetrated, he felt pain worse than from the arrow's original stroke.
His head spun and he felt he might faint.
Slowly, while squeezing the bulb, he withdrew the syringe. Almost
instantly the pain lifted. He sank to the ground, gasping, spitting dribbles of
blood.
When the spinning in his head subsided, he went again to his first aid kit
and found small wads of cloth with which to plug the holes in his back and
chest. A clean ukeln, passed over his shoulder and wrapped around his chest,
bandaged the wound.
Rising cautiously, Robert went to the fallen renegade. Sight of the dead
man almost made him turn away but his need drove him. He stripped the
renegade of armor and weapons and took eighty ralls from a belt pouch. The
renegade had been no taller than Robert, but had been a good deal broader. His
armor fit poorly, but Robert knew his own armor, left at the pond, would no
longer be there. He vowed never again to take off his armor while alone and
unprotected in renegade country.
The weapons, sword and spear, were too heavy for his slight form so he
carried them some distance and concealed them to keep the renegades from
recovering them. He was heartened when he coughed and no longer spit blood.

But his legs felt like jelly, and he was not strong enough to push through heavy
brush. He returned to the road, forced to trust himself to open travel. He
laughed wryly; traveling off-trail, it seems, had not provided much protection.
The forest gloom deepened and Robert knew the sun would soon be down.
He was shaking and felt nauseated and thirsty. The thought of spending the night
alone, hungry, thirsty, and seriously wounded, without even a lamp, brought
tears to his eyes. As he contemplated this dismal state, he heard something
behind him and ducked off the road. The sound, echoing softly in the tunnel of
vegetation, told him a large party was approaching.
With his heart in his mouth, he wriggled deeper into the vegetation and
waited. Soon horven riders came into view around a bend. Three Warriors
rode in the lead, followed by a wagon pulled by four horven. Behind the
wagon, other riders were visible.
Robert could hardly believe his eyes.
"Brom!" he yelled and stepped from the brush, his good arm raised.
"Whoa!" A tall black Warrior held up his hand and the party halted. "Well,
what have we here?" He peered at the pale figure standing in the road before
him.
"I'm Robert. Don't you remember?" Robert's head was swimming and he
could hardly focus on the Warrior.
Brom squinted, then his face wrinkled in a crooked smile. "Yes. I
remember. You were with Engar and the Mentat Warrior. You look like
something the cat dragged in. Where are your friends?"
Robert managed a weak grin. "I'm on my own. I seem to have run into a
little trouble. Any chance I could travel with you as far as Sapro's Inn?" He
wobbled and felt his legs begin to buckle. He sat down abruptly.
Brom leaped from his horven. "Lad, I think you're in no shape to travel at
all."
"I took a renegade's arrow," Robert mumbled. He felt his consciousness
slipping and knew his speech was slurred.
"Jakar!" Brom called. "Give me a hand! My young friend needs
assistance."
Robert felt himself lifted. A soft robe touched his back. He sank into it
gratefully and closed his eyes. For a moment he fought dizziness, then let
himself float into a warm, dark well.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Robert awoke slowly, dreamily, and opened his eyes to a room made of
rough hewn planks. Pale gold rays streamed in through an open window. A
cool breeze, also entering through the window, ruffled his hair. It took several
minutes to remember what had happened.
He was lying on his back on a firm mattress covered with fine gray cloth. A
thin blanket covered most of his body. The bed and the room, even the blanket
which covered him, reminded him of the training quarters in Or'gn. He
wondered if, somehow, his rescuers had returned him there.
Probing carefully, he let his fingers find the wound in his chest. Though
someone had removed the bandage, and a scab of dried blood now covered the
opening, the wound was real. Memory of his fight with the renegades came
back. He felt little pain. As he studied his body, he became aware that he
needed to empty his bladder. Swinging his feet over the edge of the bed, he sat
dizzily, waiting for his head to equilibrate. His right foot throbbed, but the
wounds on ankle and heel showed signs of healing.
"How long have I been here?" he asked himself. From the condition of his
injuries, he guessed not more than a day. With a clearer look at the room, he
could see that he was not in the training building in Or'gn.
Carefully he stood, found the door to a bathroom, and went in. After
relieving himself and satisfying a fierce thirst, he returned to the main room
and found his sirkeln and mokads hanging above his bed. Beneath the bed, he
found his pack.
When he looked out the window, he saw he was on the second floor of a
log building situated inside a palisade like those typical of Faland settlements.
What village is this?
Only part of the compound was visible from his window, but it looked
smaller than those surrounding other settlements he had visited. He buckled his
sirkeln around his waist and pulled on his mokads. Passing through the door, he
entered a hall along which other rooms were situated. A stairway at the end of
the hall took him down to a large room with an exit to the outside and smaller
rooms opening to either side.
"Well, my young guest is finally awake!" A rough voice greeted Robert
from behind a long counter. Several people sat around wooden tables, eating.

A native boy and an older woman were serving them.


"Is this Sapro's Inn?" Robert asked, glancing at the broad, bearded face that
peered over the counter at him.
"Indeed it is. You've found your way to Sapro's, my young friend."
"What village is this?"
The bearded face wrinkled in a grin. The man to whom it belonged
waddled from behind the counter. Such enormous girth Robert had never
before seen on a native. And the man's uncommonly short stature accentuated
the impact of his portliness.
"This is not a village. The palisade is defense against hyen. And though
some of those you see in this room are renegades, I'll tolerate no thieving or
back-stabbing on my premises. I'm Sapro." He held out a meaty fist. When
Robert took it, he felt great power and recognized immediately that the softness
implied by Sapro's bulk was misleading.
Robert's heart jumped when he spotted a man with a gash on his forehead.
He was sitting at a table opposite a man with a heavily bandaged right arm.
The two looked at him a moment with blank brown eyes, then returned to their
meal.
"Did Brom bring me here?" Robert asked Sapro.
"That he did. And lucky you are he found you before those two did." Sapro
jerked his head toward the two battered renegades. Then Sapro laughed, with a
deep, resonate rumble. "But they'd not like to face you, I'll wager, when your
wounds have healed and you've regained your strength."
Robert felt the warmth of the praise and flushed slightly. He said, "I'm here
on the Master's business. Further instructions await me. Do you have those
instructions?"
"First you eat," Sapro said. He turned to the servant woman. "Katina, bring
food and drink for our guest!" He ushered Robert to an empty table. "Someone
will join you shortly."
As Sapro retreated, Robert kept a wary eye on the renegades who had so
very nearly killed him. He was grateful when they finished their meal and left.
In a few minutes, Katina approached with a huge platter heaped with meats and
vegetables. Accompanying her, the servant boy brought a large pitcher of drog
along with an empty mug.
When Robert began to eat, he discovered a ravenous appetite and
immersed himself enthusiastically in the task of satisfying it. While he ate,
another joined him at the table.

"I'm Thinbar and I bring you a message, friend Robert."


Robert paused in his eating and looked into the veiled eyes of a short,
dwarfish native. With some surprise, he noted, around Thinbar's head, a red
band bearing a Warrior's gold debbels. Robert's eyes narrowed. The short,
puckish man sitting before him, bearing less height than himself and no more
weight, seemed an unlikely prospect to be a level five Warrior. But then,
Robert recalled, as with Sapro, first impressions might be deceiving.
"How do you know who I am?" Robert asked.
Thinbar shrugged. "Golden haired Warriors and - if you'll pardon my
observation - those so young are not common in Faland."
Robert frowned. "I suppose I am a bit unusual." He paused, then added,
"But so are you."
Thinbar grinned. "You're right, Friend. Deeds, not age or size, should be
the measure of a Warrior."
"What message do you have for me? Is it from the Master?"
Thinbar withdrew a small metal cylinder from a belt pouch. "It's from the
Master," he said, handing the cylinder to Robert. "I have no knowledge of the
contents."
Robert turned the shiny cylinder slowly in his fingers. A knurled cap
covered one end. A small paper, inscribed with intricate runes, covered the
cap.
"You can see the seal is not broken," Thinbar observed, pointing to the
paper. "You'll want to open this in private."
"Yes, I suppose so." Robert tucked the cylinder into a pouch on his belt.
"Will you join me for breakfast?"
"Gladly." Thinbar's eyes lighted. "Cori!" he called to the boy-servant.
"Bring kurduc and drog!"
"How did you get the message? Who gave it to you?" Robert demanded as
Thinbar attacked his breakfast.
Through mouthfuls, Thinbar replied, "I contracted in Or'gn to carry it. The
seal shows it comes from the Faland Master. My instructions were to deliver it
to you at Sapro's Inn. When we found you on the road west of here, near death,
I feared I might have to default on my contract."
"We?" Robert's voice showed his surprise. "You were traveling with
Brom?"
"Yes. We are traveling together. You have not seen the last of us, my young
friend. Brom and I have joined forces and taken a contract to protect you."

"Protect me?" Robert felt truly amazed now. "From what?"


Thinbar leaned back, wiping his chin, and laughed heartily, his small body
shaking. "That, my friend, you must tell us. I think, perhaps, you should retire to
your room and find out what's in the ampule I gave you."
"You're right," Robert agreed. "Katina!" he called. "What do I owe for my
meal . . . my friend's, too?"
Katina bowed respectfully. "No charge. You eat, sleep. Sapro say, no
charge."
Seeing Robert's perplexity, Thinbar chuckled. "You have caught the
attention of high powers. Relax and enjoy it."
Upstairs, in the privacy of his room, Robert removed the message-cylinder
from his belt pouch and twisted the top, breaking the thin paper seal. His
fingers trembled. The excitement of the morning, coupled with his injuries and
loss of blood, had greatly tired him.
A small scroll slid from the vial into his hand. It was no more than three
inches wide and unrolled to a length of six inches. Delicate, beautifully penned
runes, covered its surface. Robert's heart fluttered as he sank to the edge of his
bed and began to read.
***
When Robert finished, his stomach churned and his head swam. So much to
do! Surely what the Master asked of him was not a task for a boy; especially
not one who had scarcely reached his thirteenth birthday and had lived so
little. Robert felt proud, but also afraid; proud that such great trust had been
placed in him, afraid he would not be equal to its demands.
Exhausted, he lay down on his bed, yielding to his body's demand for rest,
and slept. When he awoke, sight of the sun peeping at his window astonished
him. He had slept through most of a day and a full night as well.
Feeling guilty, he hastened up.
When he had fallen sleep, he had been too tired to remove his sirkeln. Now
he undressed and entered the shower. As he bathed, he realized he no longer
felt the wound in his foot. And the tepid water washed off the scabs that
covered the arrow wounds in his chest and back. When he stepped from the
water and stood dripping before the mirror, he saw the angry red blaze where
the renegade's arrow had ripped through his breast, coming from back to front.
Yet, when he drew air deep into his lungs, he felt no pain and rejoiced in the
almost magical power of his body to heal itself.
Dressed, Robert hurried downstairs. No one was in the dining room, but

when he entered, Katina emerged from the kitchen. "You hungry? Yes?"
"I'm starved," Robert said. "I feel like I haven't eaten for a week."
Robert ate hugely, undisturbed save by the occasional attention of Katina.
Even Sapro was not present. When he finished breakfast, he reflected on his
instructions.
I must go first to Renri's cottage.
He hurried from the inn. The air, laden with the fragrance of the forest,
brought a shiver as it touched bare skin for he wore only his sirkeln. Robert
had not realized how early it was. The sun was not yet far above the horizon,
and dew still sparkled on grassy tufts along the wall of the inn. Two dozen
horven milled in a small corral. Next to the corral, a shed covered an
armorer's forge. Several small, single story log buildings, stood near the inn. A
large wagon was sitting inside the palisade main gate.
Sapro's Inn formed the core of what appeared to be a small Faland
settlement. Robert wondered what purpose each outbuilding served but did not
have time to tarry. The only person he saw was a native girl about the servantboy, Cori's, age. She was forking straw to the horven.
Robert asked, "Can you tell me where Renri's cottage is?"
The girl looked up; her double-tine pitch fork paused in mid-stroke. "Not
awake yet."
"Which house?" Robert asked.
"Behind." The girl motioned with her eyes toward the inn. "Near outside
wall. Not awake yet."
"I'll wait to see her. Thanks."
The girl jabbed her fork into a stack of straw and heaved a forkful over the
corral fence. Robert watched the horven and felt a pang when he remembered
Windrunner.
"Hello, Boy."
Robert jumped. He turned to see Brom, without armor or weapons,
standing behind him.
"You startled me," Robert said.
"Stay alert," Brom responded. "In the compound you're safe enough, but in
the forest outside, surprise often means death."
Robert flushed. He bore wounds that testified to the truth of Brom's words.
"You've made level six since last I saw you," he said, changing the subject. He
had noticed the bardebbels on Brom's head crest.
"I've seen some fighting," Brom acknowledged.

"Thank you for saving my life on the Rooden road. I don't think I would
have made it to Sapro's on my own."
A smile flickered across Brom's face. "You were some troubled, but I
wouldn't have counted you out."
"Thinbar told me you and he have a contract to protect me. Why did you
take it?"
Brom shrugged. "The pay's good. I figure you're on to something pretty
important. It might be interesting."
"You don't mind working for a kid?"
Brom laughed. "I work for the Master, same as you. My job is to protect
you, not to take orders from you. No offense, but all I need from you is time
and place. I'll do the rest."
"You'll have to wait a few days," Robert said a little testily. "I have
business here at Sapro's."
"That's fine with me," Brom said. "My men and I won't mind a few days
hunting in the forest near here."
"Men?"
Brom's laugh deepened. "There are six of us. Thinbar, myself, Jakar and
three droids. It seems you're of special value to the Master."
"Or, perhaps, I've received summons to uncommon danger," Robert
responded coolly.
When the sun finished drying the morning dew, Robert made his way to the
cottage described by the yard girl. He found a small, unimposing structure, the
back wall of which was apparently part of the palisade. A curl of smoke rose
from a masonry chimney that protruded through the log roof of the dwelling.
Robert knocked and waited what seemed a long time. He decided that
Renri must still be asleep and turned to leave. As he moved away, he heard the
door open. Turning, he saw a tiny girl, not more than half his height, with eyes
like dark brown plums set in a round brown face smudged with dirt. Reddish
hair hung past her shoulders. Unlike most children her age, she was not naked,
but wore a dark blue tunic that hung below her knees.
"Are you Renri?" Robert asked in confusion.
"No. Renri there." The little girl pointed into the room behind her. "I Irn."
Robert followed the child into the small cottage. When the door shut, it
was nearly dark in the windowless room. The air smelled of smoke and
cooking grease. Robert coughed. At first he could see nothing, but as his eyes
adjusted he made out the figure of an old woman, as gray as smoke, seated on a

mat in front of a faintly glowing fireplace. A small iron cauldron, bubbling


with liquid, hung over the coals.
"Come, Robert. Sit." The voice was papery and scratched, as if produced
by the vibration of a torn reed.
When Robert approached, he saw she was not merely old but ancient
beyond telling. Her face was a mass of wrinkles within which Robert could
barely make out two dim eyes, glinting feebly in the red light of the coals.
Robert could not suppress an involuntary shudder as he sank to the mat beside
her. The little girl, Irn, seemed to vanish into the background gloom.
For five days, Robert visited Renri in the darkened cottage, going each
morning when the dew had left the grass and not emerging until late afternoon.
Each day, when his sessions ended and he left the cottage, he rejoiced anew at
the clarity of the outdoor air. He sucked in great gulps of wind and blew from
his lungs hours of accumulated pollution. He wondered how Renri and her
silent companion, Irn, could tolerate the closeness, foul air, and deep gloom of
the tiny cabin. Yet, he never saw either leave their premises.
From Renri, he learned runes. He learned runes as he had never learned
them before, and the learning made up for the dankness, the stink, the eyewatering smog within Renri's quarters. He learned to read runes without seeing
them, by feel alone, like a blind person reading braille. And he learned to
make certain runes visible, rubbing them with oil, then striking light from the
oil with flint, so that the runes became glowing letters in the dark. He learned
to read a language not heard since the days of the beginning of knowing. Robert
felt joy in the runes.
When he was not learning runes, Robert discovered that within Sapro's
compound a variety of artisans dwelt. From these, for a price, many services
were available. One evening, he found an Armorer and paid twelve ralls to
have the armor he had taken from Bronbug - Bronbug was the name of the
renegade he had killed - modified to fit his own lesser frame. From a Healer,
he replenished the supplies in his first aid kit, and he found a Clothier to
fashion a mate for his remaining combat mokad. Knowing what his destination
was, he also had the Clothier make him a heavy suit of fur and an inner suit of
the same light cloth used to make ukelns.
Late on the third afternoon, he found Brom, back from a day of hunting. "In
two mornings we will leave," Robert told the black Warrior.
"Good. I begin to weary of this place. Where are we headed?" Brom
sounded pleased.

"To the cave of Thun in the land of the snowy griven," Robert replied
blandly.
Brom whistled softly and his dark eyebrows arched upward. "No wonder
the Master requested a guard to accompany you. The Snowy Mountains are a
dangerous place."
"Have you been there?"
"Once. Though not so far as Thun. The land of Forever Ice has a mean
reputation, well earned. I see now why our contract called for equipage of furs
and hide tents. That is why we brought the wagon."
"Amral, the Clothier, is making furs for me," Robert said. "I was about to
suggest you order the same, but apparently you have already seen to that."
"I have something for you," Brom rummaged in his belt pouch. "Now is,
perhaps, a good time to give it to you."
Robert's brows rose. "Something for me?"
Brom held out his hand and let fall into Robert's outstretched palm two
small gold icons. The boy's eyes widened. "Bardebs? For me?"
"You're a level three Warrior now. It seems your run-in with Bronbug and
his men did not go unnoticed."
"You mean I advanced two ranks at once?" Robert's voice was
unbelieving.
"It happens. You've earned your rank. Not many men could take an arrow
then stand down three armed renegades."
Robert's face shone as he removed his Warrior's crest and replaced the old
bars with the icons of his new rating. Proudly he replaced the crest, wrapping
it carefully around his forehead and back so that it swept his shoulder length,
white-blond hair away from his face. He clasped arms with Brom and began to
see himself as man more than boy.
"We'll be ready in two mornings," Brom said as he strode away.
On the last afternoon with Renri, Robert sat deep in thought. "You've done
well," the old woman told him in her whispering voice. Irn sat beside her,
flickers of firelight reflecting from her russet hair.
"Do you know what this is all about?" Robert asked, peering at his mentor
from eyes darkened to the color of blue ink by the shadows of the room.
"None knows but the Master," Renri replied, with a hint of impatience. "It's
time for you to go. You will do well."
"Goodby, Irn," Robert said to the little girl sitting coiled against old Renri.
Irn, he had learned, could read runes as well as he, probably better. She was

Renri's apprentice. It would not be long until she replaced Renri as Runemaster at Sapro's Inn.
Robert rose from the mat opposite Renri and left the little cottage, but not
without a last look around. In spite of its unappealing ambience, he knew he
would miss his sessions there, learning runes as his heart was set to do. And he
would miss ancient Renri and little Irn.
Sapro provided a large and hearty breakfast for the travelers on the
morning they chose to leave. During his week there, Robert had grown
accustomed to Sapro's Inn. The thought of leaving caused him anxiety, though
he was happy to know that Brom, Thinbar and Jakar, dedicated to his defense,
would be with him. As he dined with his new companions, he marveled that
the Master had retained such powerful Warriors on his behalf. He also studied
the three droids, Ulf, Bull and Kon, who shared a table in the dining hall. They
ate stolidly, with no social interaction, yet seemed to enjoy the eating. Robert
wondered if they were truly as unfeeling as people said they were.
On leaving Sapro's, the party headed east, deeper into the Glu'me forest, on
the road to Rooden. Brom rode point with Jakar. The latter, a stocky native
woman, was so taciturn Robert had never heard her utter more than an
occasional grunt. She carried a battle axe, which she handled easily, and had
attained the rank of level four Warrior. She also served as the group's Healer.
Brom seemed to trust her, though Robert sometimes caught her staring at him in
a way that made him feel uneasy.
Brom had acquired a remuda of fourteen horven for the expedition, and one
of these he made available to Robert. He was pleased to be riding again, but
none of the mounts could replace Windrunner. When he remembered the pain
he had felt when Windrunner fell, Robert made a vow never to become
attached to a horven again. He rode behind Brom and Jakar, alongside Thinbar.
Ulf drove the wagon. Bull and Kon, along with the extra horven, brought up the
rear.
"How long will it take to reach Rooden?" Robert asked Thinbar. Even with
the heavy wagon, the horven moved with a rapid, swinging gait, and Robert
knew they were making good time.
"A day and a half, two days at most," Thinbar answered. "It depends on
how late Brom is willing to travel."
"And, I suppose, on whether anyone tries to stop us or rob us," Robert put
in.
"Renegades won't attack us. We're too strong. Everyone here is a fighter,

and there aren't any gangs working near Rooden large enough to challenge us.
Hyen'll back off too. We'll make Rooden without trouble."
Thinbar's prediction proved correct, and on the afternoon of the second
day, the small forest village of Rooden came into view. The vegetation had
grown ever more dense with each passing legon to the east, yet now the forest
opened around Rooden. Robert supposed it had been cleared to make room for
the settlement. The town gate, set in a palisade taller and stronger than the one
around Sapro's Inn, stood open. Robert saw guards stationed on platforms set
atop tall towers on either side of the gate. It was the first time he had seen
guards protecting a settlement.
As they approached, he wondered if the guards would challenge them, but
they passed them through with only a nod. Inside, men and women, many with
the rough appearance of renegades, hastened to and fro along a busy street that
extended in a straight line from the gate. Along the street were blacksmith
shops, clothing stores, food markets, tool shops, weapon shops; all apparently
doing a lively business.
"Everything is expensive here," Thinbar told Robert as the boy gawked at
the sights along the street. "And you have to watch the merchants; they're not as
given to fair dealing as those in Or'gn, or at Sapro's for that matter. Renegades
and outcasts do a lot of business in Rooden. We brought most of our provisions
with us. I'm Provo for this expedition. If you need anything, see me before you
lay down hard ralls in any of these shops."
Brom made camp in the village green, a quarter legon beyond the business
district. To his surprise, Robert noted an extensive residential area surrounding
the green. Most of the houses were small and more crudely built than those in
Or'gn, but many children played among them.
Thinbar proved an able cook, and the droids did nearly all the extra
chores. Robert relaxed after the meal, and through the spires of trees, watched
Faland's small moon begin to rise.
"We'll get an early start in the morning," Brom said, as he sipped drog. The
soft glow of embers from the cooking fire lit his dark face. "I think it wise we
turn in early. Rooden is the end of the road. We'll leave the wagon here and
pack our supplies on the horven."
Robert felt grateful for another night in the relative safety of civilization.
When he slipped beneath his blanket, he could not help wondering what lay
ahead. On the morrow, he would follow Brom, the black Warrior, beyond the
edge of Faland's civil world into the cold land where snowy griven wandered.

What, exactly, is a griven?


Robert closed his eyes and drifted into sleep.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Robert brought his horven to a stop on a ridge overlooking a vast canyon.


Beyond the canyon, mountains, like giant's teeth, soared against the deep blue
sky. Fields of perpetual ice glittered under the noon-day sun. Robert watched
the slopes below, searching for devon, deer-like animals that roamed Faland's
forests.
For ten days Brom had led eastward, first through dense forest that had
seemed trackless, then into low hills, and finally into mountains. Robert
learned Brom was a peerless Scout, finding routes where it seemed none
existed and untangling trails that appeared to lead nowhere. Robert watched
and learned.
He held a bow in his right hand, an arrow nocked to its string. He held it
proudly, though it was smaller and lighter than a Faland war bow, and knew he
was already skilled in its use. The bow was a gift from Jakar. She who had
looked so strangely at him, had taken him under her wing. She sought him out
each night when everyone was gathered around the campfire. She said little at
first, and Robert was puzzled and even a little alarmed. But Thinbar told him
Jakar was once married - before becoming a mercenary. She had a child; a
boy, who was the love of her life. Before the child's twelfth birthday, he went
with his father to the quarry south of Triod to bring back sand for making glass.
Man and boy were killed by a berven. Thinbar said Jakar went nearly mad
with grief before she took up the Warrior's life. Now she saw in Robert a
shadow of her lost boy. She gave him the bow on the third night, with arrows,
and showed him how to stand, pull, and aim.
A devon broke from cover, flushed from its hiding place by Thinbar.
Robert watched, disappointed, because it was too far for a shot with his light
bow.
"Gee-up!" He put heels to his horven's flanks. He saw Thinbar coming
from below, and together they drove the devon toward a small draw. Running
in bounding leaps, the devon turned toward the narrow channel. It scarcely
reached the entrance when an arrow thudded into its side. A second arrow
struck before the fleeing animal could stumble. It dropped.
When Robert and Thinbar rode up, Brom was already at the animal's side,
retrieving his arrows from the carcass. "Along with two brought in by Jakar

and the droids, this will provide enough meat to get us to Thun," he said. "We
won't take time for hunting when we're in griven country."
"We'll reach the snow tomorrow?" Robert asked.
Brom nodded. "Look to your furs and boots. Tomorrow when we cross the
canyon we'll be in a whole other world. You'll learn what cold is."
***
Wind coming off sheets of ice, carried cold like a knife. Robert huddled in
his furs and stamped his feet for warmth. Even through his thick mokads, lined
with socks made from a ukeln, his feet felt frozen. All day they had ridden
upward, climbing ever higher into mountains of gray stone and wind-swept
glaciers. It had been his task, along with Jakar, to lead the string of seven pack
horven safely over the precarious route. Brom, with Thinbar, had ridden far
ahead, scouting the best way through the rugged terrain, while the droids, front
and rear, had served as guards. Now they were preparing camp.
"Our firewood is limited," Thinbar said. "We've enough for cooking but not
for extra warmth. It may be days before we can collect more. I spotted a patch
of ice-free water in the lake below. Get your water there, and don't waste fire
melting snow."
Robert looked toward a stony lake surrounded by patches of snow and ice.
Their camp was on a ridge above the lake, protected by a low wall of broken
rock dropped long ago by a melting glacier. The terrain was grand, all ice and
rock, but so hostile it filled Robert with dread. The long day's ride had worn
him down, and he scarcely noticed the beauty of the stark land.
"What will the horven eat?" he asked.
The droids were putting up hide tents, one for themselves and one to be
shared by the two humans and the two Faland natives.
"We'll find pasture tomorrow, after we cross the first pass," Brom said,
gesturing toward a notch in the stone rampart above the lake.
Robert joined in the camp chores, as much to keep warm as to contribute.
When the tents were up, anchored by large rocks, he carried firewood and food
bags from the pack string. Then he tethered the horven where they could draw
warmth from one another and took buckets to bring water from the lake. The
sun had dropped but still painted the higher peaks with streaks of orange light.
In the lake basin, shadows had thickened.
Ulf and Kon joined him. Curls of fog rose over the open water where lake
moisture condensed in the cold air. The mist formed drifting phantasms in the
waning light. Near the shore, barriers of rock cut the wind and it felt warmer.

Robert walked onto the ice, knelt at the edge and dipped his bucket. He heard a
sound, and his hand paused. Across the lake, he saw a mound of snow moving,
and the hair on the back of his neck stiffened. Quickly, he glanced at the two
droids, their dark figures bent to the task of pulling water from the lake. They
showed no alarm. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The white mound had
steadied. He shook his head, then finished filling his buckets. He had scarcely
taken three steps, a bucket hanging from each hand, when a terrible scream
froze him in his tracks.
He spun. Rising on the far side of the lake, the moving white mound
stretched upward like a small mountain. Atop the mound, a mouth opened,
gaping as if the earth had split. From the mouth, a cloud of vapor streamed
upward, and along with the vapor came the awesome scream.
Robert's buckets clattered on the ice. His feet went into fast reverse,
slipping then grabbing. The mound formed into a giant white animal that
dropped to all fours and began to churn clouds of snow as it heaved its bulk
into motion. As though it were a cloud driven by gale winds, it came around
the lake. Robert ran upslope toward camp. On his left he heard a high, piercing
war cry, and on his right he saw three dark figures charging down the slope.
"Griven!" he heard Brom yell.
Swiveling, Robert saw Brom, Thinbar, and Bull racing to meet the giant
snowy griven. Ulf and Kon, swords drawn, already were nearing contact.
Jakar charged in from the other side, her battle axe raised, her war cry ringing.
Understatement would describe the snowy griven as a large white bear. More
accurately, it might be referred to as a whale on land. At bay, on its hind legs,
it towered as high as a three-story building; its jaws opening wide enough to
swallow a man at a gulp.
The droids closed, swinging their swords against claws borne on arms as
thick as tree trunks. For a moment Robert stood spellbound. The droids moved
precisely, slashing, darting away, closing again. Brom and Thinbar released a
hail of arrows, each thudding home in the giant animal's thick fur. Then Jakar
went in with her axe. Robert glanced at the tents. His bow was there but would
be useless. It was not heavy enough to drive arrows through such thick fur. And
his tagan would be worse than useless.
The roars of the griven rose in fury. A massive paw caught a droid and sent
it crashing into rocks thirty yards distant. Robert charged, plucking hummers
from his belt and stacking them in his left hand.
He heard Brom scream, "Stay back!"

Wild with fear and excitement, Robert went through the battle line formed
by the Warriors and droids. The griven, trumpeting rage, rose above, blotting
out the sky. Blood, black in the dull light, streaked its white fur. The griven's
head curved downward. Giant jaws, spraying slaver, opened. Robert flicked
two hummers straight upward into the opening jaws.
A claw like a scythe caught Robert under his up stretched arm and
shredded his armor. The blow set him spinning like a top on the icy surface. As
he slithered aside, he heard the griven's scream change pitch as it tried to
swallow the razor-sharp hummers. Then Robert piled into a stack of boulders,
and his head cracked against something hard. Sight and sound faded.
***
When Robert came to, he was lying on furs in a hide tent. Yellow lantern
light flooded the space, and Jakar knelt at his side, busily stitching a wound
that had exposed his ribs.
"What happened to the griven?" he asked.
Thinbar laughed. Robert rolled his eyes to glimpse the small Warrior in the
shadows behind Jakar. "After getting a taste of your hummers, it decided we
weren't such good eating. It left," Thinbar said.
"Was anyone hurt?"
"Bull was killed," Brom said flatly, as he pushed into the tent. He was
carrying a bucket of water. "Like you, he got too close. Everyone else has a
few bruises and scrapes but none worse than your ribs. Charging the way you
did was reckless." Brom's voice held an edge.
"I didn't mean to be reckless," Robert said. "I was too scared to think."
"Most people get out of the way when they're scared."
"I started to . . . something wouldn't let me . . . all of you were fighting."
"It was right to fight," Brom's voice softened. "Only you need to be more
careful. You should think about the merits of living to fight again."
"I wanted to help."
Thinbar chuckled. "If we go into battle again, I'll not mind having you at my
side."
Robert felt his face warm. But he knew he had been overly zealous. He
knew, too, that had his hummers missed he would not be having this
conversation. When Jakar finished stitching him and a bandage was in place
around his ribs, he joined the others at a meal prepared by Thinbar.
"When you're finished eating," Brom told Robert, "look to your gear. Your
armor needs repair and we'll be heading out at first light tomorrow."

***
Four days later, the party encountered their second snowy griven. After
crossing the pass where they met the first griven, they rode for three days
through lush green meadows, pocketed between soaring, snow clad peaks.
Then their route took them upward again, into the snow fields. They spotted the
griven at noon, as they rounded a wind-swept outcrop near the top of a shallow
pass. The horven were stepping through knee-deep snow on a broad, gentle
upward slope. The griven angled down from higher ground, moving toward the
saddle made by the pass between two peaks.
"Griven on the left!" Thinbar sang out.
Brom and Jakar were riding far ahead and did not hear. Robert was leading
the string of pack horven and Thinbar yelled to him, "Get the horven over the
pass!"
Ulf and Kon, who were bringing up the rear, immediately swung their
mounts to position themselves between the string and the griven. As they did,
the griven spotted the horven and charged.
"Gee-up!" Robert yelled and kicked his horven. In the heavy snow it took a
moment for the string to get underway, but the horven were strong and ran well.
Thinbar unlimbered his bow and joined the droids.
Snatching quick glimpses behind, Robert saw that the griven was no more
than half the size of the one that had attacked them earlier. Yet it was an
impressive beast to have on one's tail, and he urged his horven to a full gallop.
Near the top of the pass, wind had swept the slopes clear of snow, and the
running horven picked up speed. Brom and Jakar, unaware of what was
happening, did not turn until they heard Robert's shout. Then they rode out to
either side and formed an escort for the pack string.
Powerful as the griven was, it was no match for horven in a long race, and
after a brief chase, it gave up. Standing on its hind legs, it bellowed its
disappointment. Robert reined back and turned to study the magnificent animal.
It looks like a polar bear, yet even this small one must be much larger.
Through the wild ride, he had kept the pack string together. The droids had
done their job well, for all the lashings held, and no gear had been lost.
"That'll keep us on our toes," Thinbar said as he rode up, flanked by Ulf
and Kon.
Across the pass, they dropped into a string of snow-free mountain
meadows. Brom found a sheltered spot where they could camp near a small
lake. "We can replenish our firewood here," he said, pointing toward a small

copse of trees. It was the first wood they had found since entering the icelands.
While the droids set up the shelters, Jakar and Robert went to gather wood.
They were bent to the task, when Jakar suddenly paused, then spun about with
her axe held ready. Robert looked up. Less than a hundred yards away, five
mounted Warriors were approaching, their horven moving at a slow walk.
Jakar voiced a war cry, alerting the camp, and Robert uncoiled his tagan.
The riders stopped and one raised a hand in the Warrior's greeting. His crest
showed he was an honorable Warrior, sixth level. The four with him were
droids. Robert relaxed and Jakar lowered her axe. The Warrior leader was
human, of bulky build, with tanned white skin and red hair. His face was
shrouded in a red beard.
"I'm Clemmon," said the red beard.
"I'm Robert; this is Jakar," Robert said. Then he turned to Jakar and added,
"I'll get Brom."
Clemmon slid from his horven. "Did you say Brom?"
"You heard right, you old dog!" Brom, who had been alerted by Jakar's cry,
came through the trees. "Last I heard, you were on the way to Riven with
Fraghorn!"
"Never got there. We were ambushed by wolven out of Woren. Fraghorn
was torn up too bad to finish the trip. I headed out on my own when I got wind
of other possibilities. You know I'm a born wanderer - something like you,
Brom. Where have you been of late? I haven't seen you in a long time."
"Camp with us tonight and we'll catch each other up. What's it been, a year
since last we were together?" Brom's voice showed his excitement.
"Longer than that," Clemmon laughed. "We haven't crossed paths since
Oasib." Clemmon barked orders at the four droids, and they led the horven
toward the lake where Ulf and Kon were setting up tents and preparing a
fireplace.
After a sumptuous meal enlivened with fresh greens collected and prepared
by Thinbar, everyone crowded around a large campfire, the first for either
party in many days.
"What brings you into the Snowy Mountains?" Brom asked.
"Hunting," Clemmon replied.
Brom looked surprised. "Hunting? Not for food or hides, I'd say. What
game does a hunter value here?"
Clemmon grinned. "Snowies." He paused to watch the effect on his

listeners.
"Snowy grivens? You hunt snowy grivens?" Robert asked, his voice
cracking.
Clemmon roared. "I've always been a bit crazy. Brom'll confirm that. Old
Scrogs in Woren wants a snowy griven pelt. He offered a thousand ralls for
one."
"Wow! We almost killed one a few days back," Robert cried. "It was
huge."
"Hold on, Robert," Brom said, raising an eyebrow. "Are you sure we
almost killed it or did it almost kill us? Remember, it killed Bull." He turned to
Clemmon. "Bull was one of our droids."
"It killed Bull but we left it with a dozen arrows and a couple of hummers
to remember us by," Thinbar put in.
"Haw! Maybe that explains it," Clemmon said. "We came across a snowy's
tracks a few days ago . . . found blood and followed awhile. We found these."
Clemmon dug in a belt pouch and extracted a pair of hummers. "The beast
apparently dislodged them with gorge and coughed them up. It had shed arrows
like a chicken molting all along its trail. We figured there must be another
hunting party after the same quarry as we. Is that what you're about? You heard
about Scrogs' offer and are out for griven?"
Thinbar chuckled. "It's not we who were doing the hunting. The snowy was
hunting us, I'd say."
Clemmon shook his head. "I wish it had come after us. We haven't seen
anything more than tracks in two weeks."
"It's just as well you didn't find that one," Brom said. "It looked to be the
daddy of them all."
As he listened and remembered, Robert wondered that anyone would hunt
such huge and dangerous game. And he felt something of a pang as well,
remembering the blood that had streaked the snow-white fur of the giant
carnivore. When it had stood, trumpeting, the sight had thrilled him to the core
of his being. As he thought about it, he wondered if even a thousand ralls
would be fair trade for such a sight.
***
Clemmon camped with Brom and company for a day, then returned to his
hunt. He headed west, in the direction griven had last been seen, while Brom
continued east. Robert had welcomed the day of rest, lounging in the sun,
soaking the last soreness from his ribs. Two days later, the group paused on a

high, ice-covered plateau and looked into the thundering mass of Fariver, the
great river of Faland.
"We'll follow the river north," Brom said, pointing along a vast, curving
arc of stone. "Thun is river's source." He shook his head and added, "Must be a
big cave to spew forth such a mighty flow."
Robert tried to gauge the river's heaving volume. The scroll given him by
Thinbar at Sapro's Inn said Thun contained a jewel of surpassing beauty. But
the jewel's value lay not in its beauty but in the power it gave a Rune-reader.
Robert read the scroll again as he sat his horven in the thin air of the Snowy
Mountains. "In the light of the green stone taken from the place of thunder the
gray runes can be read." The scroll said nothing of what the gray runes were,
or where they might be found, or what purpose would be served by
deciphering their message.
When Robert returned the scroll to its case, he saw Brom already riding
north along the stone scarp. He trotted to catch up. Late in the afternoon, they
spotted mist rising ahead.
"Spray from a waterfall," Thinbar observed. "I can hear it from here."
As they rode nearer, the roar of falling water grew until it became hard to
speak above it. Even the ground, though mostly solid rock, shook with the
intensity of the sound. Then, rounding a rock outcrop, the party caught sight of
the fall. From a gash, high on an iron-gray cliff, a gout of water leaped
outward, then fell hundreds of feet into Fariver gorge.
Robert sat in wonder. It looked as if the mountain had become swollen
with the waters of Faland and had split. The water rushed out through the
rupture, making a sound like that made by the snowy griven magnified a
thousand fold.
Brom nudged his horven away from the defile. He rode down a long slope
into a narrow valley half a dozen legons west of Thun. The other riders
followed, putting a shield of rock between themselves and the thunder of
Fariver's birth. Next to a small stream lined with scrub trees, they found a
place to camp. A biting wind had begun to blow, and when Robert looked up,
he saw thick clouds scudding overhead. The air got colder as he worked,
cutting firewood to stay warm.
When the fire was going well and Thinbar had a rich stew bubbling in an
iron kettle everyone settled next to the warmth. The fire had been built in a
makeshift compound, protected on two sides by large boulders, and on the
other sides by the hide tents. Robert was grateful to be out of the wind.

"How can we enter a cave with about a zillion gallons of water flowing out
of it?" Robert wondered.
"Didn't your message say?" Thinbar asked.
"No," Robert admitted. "The message says only that I'm to go into the Cave
of Thun and find the means to complete my mission. It doesn't say how to get
in."
"We probably have to come down from the top," Thinbar said. "Lower
ourselves down the cliff and go in over the water or maybe there's a passage
alongside."
"Sounds dangerous," Jakar said. "The top of the cliff is a good climb and
it's snowing."
Scattered flakes had begun to appear, swirling into the space above their
heads. Robert held out his hand and felt the bite as a flake melted on his open
palm. Soon the snow came more thickly, sizzling and crackling as flakes
dropped into the open flames. Thinbar and the droids stretched a canvas over
the space between the boulders, partially sheltering the fire. Everyone retired
to the tents to eat stew and worry about what the next day would bring.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Snow fell all night and all the next day, driven by strong north winds that
piled huge drifts in the still air alongside boulders and tents. The second
morning dawned clear, but it took an hour to dig out.
"Oh, my," Brom said, when he saw how deeply snow filled the small
valley in which they were camped. "It may be a while before we can travel
again."
The horven shrugged off the cold but heaved and struggled to move through
breast deep snow. The droids broke trail for them and moved them across the
valley to wind-swept slopes to the south. There the horven found sparse
grazing among stunted grasses.
Robert itched to get out. Two days in small hide tents had done nothing for
his, or his companion's, nerves. While Brom and Thinbar went hunting for
fresh meat, he persuaded Jakar to go with him and set out to find a route up the
great cliff from which Fariver's water belched. They headed north up a steep,
rocky slope pocketed with patches of fresh snow. The snow was light and
fluffy, the temperature well below freezing, and the going slow. However, they
soon topped a high, bleak ridge that angled steeply upward to the northeast.
Snow had not clung to the ridge and they climbed easily over exposed rock,
rapidly reaching extreme elevation where thin air made them gasp. Without
wind, in spite of the cold, exertion warmed them and they removed their heavy
furs. In the clear air, they saw snow capped peaks rising to the limits of vision.
The sound of the great waterfall grew stronger.
"There!" Robert yelled. He was climbing above Jakar and had paused on a
rock ledge that bisected the ridge. He pointed to his right. Vapor boiled above
the rocks and sound struck him in waves, like blows from a great pulsating
hammer. Opposite his pointing finger, water roared from the cliff. Veils of ice
hung from the surrounding slopes where vapor had frozen.
"Let's climb higher!" Robert's pulse raced and he could not restrain
himself. Without waiting for Jakar, he pushed quickly upslope, angling to get
above the waterfall. The rocks grew treacherous with ice, but he ignored the
danger.
When lack of air forced him to stop, his chest straining, he had lost sight of
Jakar. While his breathing quieted, he scanned in the direction whence he had

come. He did not see Jakar. Yelling, he knew, would be useless. No voice
could carry above the roar from the great fall. He hesitated, torn between
returning and pressing on to see more of the magnificent spectacle that lay
before him. He decided Jakar could not be far away and would undoubtedly
soon catch up. He moved ahead, drawn by the wild terrain's irresistible allure.
Soon he forgot Jakar. Climbing steadily, he attained ever more thrilling
views of the fall and the vast canyon that lay below. The rocks grew steeper
and the ice thicker. It became necessary to lean forward and find handholds to
steady himself on the rock. A glance to the right revealed the cliff's edge only a
few feet away. Steep down-sloping ice covered the ribbon of rock that
separated him from a drop of several hundred feet.
"Yawp!" His foot skidded. He clutched at the icy rocks, got a hold, then felt
his fingers slip as ice melted beneath his warm hands. He began sliding
downward, hands and feet clawing for holds.
Empty air surrounded him!
"Yunch!" Robert felt a sledgehammer hit between his shoulders. He
coughed and water streamed from his eyes. With deep sobs, he struggled to
pull air into his deflated lungs. When he could breathe, his mind began to
work. Though slightly stunned, he felt no pain. Sky and gray cliff rose above,
so he was lying on his back. He rolled cautiously to his left.
"Yipes!" He stared straight down into depths made hazy with distance.
When the shock subsided, he scooted to a sitting position. He had fallen
only a few feet and had landed on his back on a narrow ledge. His pack,
stuffed with his furs, had absorbed most of the impact.
It was obvious he could not climb back up the cliff, but he wasn't worried;
the ledge was wide enough, three feet or so, and long enough to be reasonably
comfortable. Jakar was, no doubt, already looking for him. She would soon
discover his predicament, drop him a line, and hoist him out of there.
Warm sun shone full on the south-facing ledge. The air had warmed enough
to be almost balmy. Water dripped from overhead and he had food in his belt
pouches.
Might as well relax. He kicked back and studied the extraordinary
landscape.
It was awhile before he realized something quite remarkable about the
ledge on which he was sitting. "It's completely smooth!"
He rubbed his hands over the rock and found scarcely a rough spot. The
wall behind was as smooth as the ledge, at least to a height of several feet.

"This isn't natural! Someone made this ledge!"


Robert began to explore in earnest. The west end of the ledge terminated
abruptly against a blade of unworked rock, but the east end narrowed
gradually, petering to a width of a few inches. He discovered metal bars
extending in a row across the cliff face.
"Handholds! This is part of a trail!" He could hardly contain his
excitement. His first impulse was to follow the handholds, then he paused.
"This ledge must be the trail's end. Why would someone build a trail
across a cliff and end it at a short, narrow ledge? Especially one they had to
carve into solid rock? An observation platform, perhaps?" That made no sense.
The view from the ledge was no better than from the cliff top only a few feet
above.
Robert turned back along the ledge and studied it more carefully. He almost
missed a tiny, vertical strip of brass-colored metal, inlaid into the rock where
the smoothed surface met the unworked rock at the ledge's terminus. To a
casual observer only a small crack appeared, albeit one too geometrical to be
natural. At first, Robert thought the metal strip might be the edge of a doorway.
However, he found only one strip and nothing to suggest the outline of an
opening.
Noon had come and the sun was now almost directly at his back. It shone
into the crack and fell on the strip. Squinting, Robert saw irregularities along
the length of metal. Corrosion had made them indistinct and he drew his knife
and gently probed, scraping away the surface crust.
"Runes!" His pulse notched up. He saw, in vertical format, a series of
runes written in the old language taught him by Renri. They were inscribed the
full length of the strip. "I'm supposed to see this," he said. "I was sent here to
see this!"
Rendering the strip readable was painstaking work. Corrosion had worked
long at the metal. Gradually, Robert became aware of increasing chill. When
he looked up, he was startled to see the sun nearly behind the rim of the gorge.
Cold mist, blowing from the fall, drifted across the vast emptiness and drifted
upward to dampen his skin. So absorbed had he become that he had forgotten
all else. "Where is Jakar? She should have found me by now."
A thread of worry dulled his pleasure in the runes.
"One, three, five, two, seven, six, four." The lead runes spelled numbers.
Robert hastened to complete the message and read, "Opposite side, Knife-ofThun, seven holes."

"Seven holes, seven numbers. Must be a connection, but what is the 'Knifeof-Thun'?"
Shadow fell across the ledge. The dampness on his skin turned into beads
of moisture and he shivered. "Where is Jakar?"
He glanced at the handhold trail he had declined to follow earlier. It
stretched into misty gloom. The holds were wet with condensation, and he
knew they would soon freeze. He dug in his pack, extracted his furs, and
bundled into them, grateful they were waterproof. As light faded over the
canyon, he resigned himself to a cold, wet night in freezing drizzle. He huddled
in the enclosed corner of the ledge, and with his head pulled into his collar, a
fur cap covering his face, and lulled by the constant roar of the waterfall, he
dozed, awakened, and dozed again. In the pale light of Faland's moon, water
freezing on the cliff glittered like diamonds. From time to time when he
awakened he looked out and seeing the moon imagined it was day. Then he
started and opened his eyes more fully and realized night was still upon him.
The temperature dropped steadily, but the wind quieted, and he was warm
enough in his thick furs.
"Knife-of-Thun," he mumbled, fretting against the hard rock.
He opened his eyes with a start. The moon had set. Pale gray light dimmed
the vast swirls of stars overhead. Robert's eyes roved along the ice-covered
stone blade against which he was crouched. "Knife-of-Thun," he cried. "I'm
sitting against the Knife-of-Thun!"
Rising brought exquisite pain for his legs had stiffened. The ledge was
slick with ice, and he moved with great caution, fearful of the dark abyss
yawning before him. Wakefulness made him aware of hunger, and he rummaged
in his pack for dried devon meat. While the sun topped the eastern peaks and
flooded the cliff with welcome warmth, he ate. The ice melted, then moisture
steamed into the still air. His muscles limbered as they warmed, and food
restored his strength. He began to examine the stone Knife-of-Thun.
How do I get across? He noticed some small, nearly inconspicuous
notches he had ignored before. He saw that they had been shaped by tools and
led to the outer margin of the blade.
"Hand and footholds?" His heart leaped when he looked into the chasm.
"Am I expected to crawl out on that thing?" The conclusion seemed
inescapable. He looked upward. Why had Jakar not found him?
He took off his furs and armor to lessen his weight, and with his heart in
his mouth, edged onto the stone. It protruded outward only a few feet from the

ledge, but those few feet seemed like a thousand miles. As he neared the outer
margin, he had the illusion he was suspended in empty space. At the blade's
edge, he was forced to reach around and straddle the stone as though sitting on
a vertical sawhorse. Sun had not yet touched the far side, and he nearly lost his
breakfast when his foot slipped on black ice.
To his dismay, he found almost nothing to hang onto. The union between the
out thrust stone blade and the cliff was seamless, without crack or cranny.
Almost by chance, he spotted the seven holes arranged in a vertical line near
his groping left hand. He kicked ice from a foothold and snugged himself close
against the rock. The holes were small, not much over half an inch in diameter,
and separated from each other by, perhaps, an inch.
Robert had expected something larger, perhaps containing seven
fragmentary messages that might fit together as defined by the seven rune
numbers, but all he saw were empty holes he could scarcely reach. With his
feet braced in barely discernable holds, and his right hand clinging to a rock
nubbin no larger than a walnut, he explored each hole with the fingers of his
left hand. The openings were just large enough to receive his index finger. His
right arm began to shake, and he knew he must return to the ledge before his
muscles fatigued and made it impossible to cling to the rock. He started to
withdraw, then had a sudden inspiration. Starting with the top hole, which he
called number one, he inserted his index finger and pressed as hard as his
limited leverage would allow. Following a sequence determined by the seven
rune numbers - one, three, five, two, seven, six, four - he pressed each in turn.
Nothing happened.
"It was worth a try," he muttered and started to swing away again, then on
impulse turned back and repeated the operation, numbering from the bottom up.
He felt a faint pulsing in the rock. It ceased after a moment and he was not sure
if it had been real or imagined.
His right arm began to ache, and Robert withdrew, grateful to discover the
return made easier by the sun's melting and drying power. As he clambered
onto the ledge, he stopped in astonishment. A gaping hole yawned where the
knife's blade joined the main cliff. The perfectly circular opening was only
inches from the metal rune-strip, yet as closely as he had examined the cliff, he
had failed to notice any hint of such a door.
Although without a lamp, Robert was prepared for darkness. Since the
night in the Glu'me forest when he had waited in dread for a felven attack, he
had included in his gear a small bottle of lamp oil and a wick made by drawing

a string through a hole drilled in a small wooden plug. He assembled his


makeshift lamp, struck a spark with his flint, and watched the flare settle into a
small steady flame. Smiling, he donned his armor, bent double, and scooted
through the entrance.
Inside, the tunnel opened high enough for him to stand. The waterfall's roar
diminished and the sudden silence seemed odd. His silver amulet, worn
against his chest, remained cool, but he pulled it from beneath his armor and
examined it for any sign that it had begun to glow. He uncoiled his tagan and
with it in one hand, the lamp in the other, began to advance. The passage
looked well made - as good as the best tunnels in Blackwater Cave. For
several hundred feet, the way was straight, then abruptly turned. Looking back,
Robert saw the circular entrance lighted by sun shining against the cliff. He
fought the temptation to back out. Only the continuing coolness of his silver
amulet gave him the courage to go around the bend. He arrived at a stairway
that descended into darkness so black the light of his lamp was swallowed
without revealing the bottom. Muted rumbling gave him pause.
As he descended, the rumbling grew louder, and after what seemed an
interminable distance, the steps ended at a corridor glistening with moisture.
Robert stepped into the wet passage and was struck by a volume of sound that
took his breath. Ahead, he saw faint light and clouds of spume. Apparently the
passage led straight into Thun . . . the place of thunder!
With his heart rattling against his ribs, Robert walked into the spume. Mist
dampened his body and chilled him, but he scarcely noticed. With tremulous
steps, he emerged onto a broad, stone ledge above a leaping mass of water that
writhed below him like an enormous demented animal. Spray snuffed his lamp
and drenched his body, but looking to his right, he saw the opening of Thun and
was struck dumb. Sunlight poured into the cavern, streamed through the river's
spray, and split into rainbows that filled the space with iridescent fire. He
shook, pounded by sound that threatened to split his skull. Even the rocks
trembled beneath his feet. Inching along, he followed a path upward over the
torrent. His feet skidded on water-slick rocks and he clutched the wall. He
pictured himself falling into the river's foaming depths, only to be cast from the
mountain like spittle from a giant's mouth.
As he climbed, his eyes found a dark recess. Huddling with his back to the
spray, he cut off the wet tip of his lamp's wick, and after several tries with his
flint, relit it. With the lamp thrust before him, he crept along a tiny passage into
a small cavern, empty except for a low stone pedestal. On its top, softly

glowing, he saw a rectangular green shard. His eyes widened. Never had he
seen a jewel of such size. He touched its viridescent surface tentatively and
lifted it delicately. It lay the length of his palm and covered half its width. He
knew he was holding something of unmeasurable worth.
As he marveled, his eye was caught by a sudden gleam. Flaring upward,
brilliant light blinded him and he crouched, terrified.
"I'll put it back!" He reached with the emerald.
But when the dazzle left his eyes, he saw, shining on the ceiling above him,
a field of runes - runes addressed to him! Trembling, he read, "North, the TrailThat-Hangs-In-Air leads to Aul'kalee. Find the Seer of Oasif. By the light of
the Green Stone, you shall see."
Robert read the message through and through, committing it to memory.
Even as he read, the light dimmed, and by the time he finished, it was gone.
Only the feeble light of his lamp remained to illumine and empty cavern.
My adventure is not over. The runes on the ceiling were red, not gray.
He slipped the green gem into a pouch of his sirkeln, next to his body, and
vowed he would show it to no one - not until he was safely back in the
company of the partnership. Retracing his steps, he hurried through the
Fariver's thundering cave, climbed the steps, and hurried to the exit, still
lighted by sunshine. Jakar had still not come; his pack lay on the ledge,
undisturbed. He paused to eat and drink, slaking his thirst with meltwater that
ran down the face of the cliff. Then he donned his pack and set out along the
handhold-trail.
Compared with his ordeal on the Knife-of-Thun, the trip was easy
exercise. It led him to a cleft, then to an iron ladder that took him to cliff's top.
When he stood above the ladder and looked down, he shook his head. "I think I
found the entrance to Thun the hard way." He remembered his fall over the
cliff.
Moving north, he scrambled through a field of broken boulders, searching
for the ridge he had been climbing when he cut across to see the waterfall. It
would lead him back to camp. As he crossed patches of snow, he worried.
What happened to Jakar? Did she fall too? Has Brom left? Surely not in two
days!
Robert was almost trotting when he reached the lower end of the ridge and
spotted the narrow valley, still choked with snow, where they had camped. He
almost sobbed with relief when he spotted horven grazing in the upper end of
the valley.

"Robert!"
He spotted a diminutive Warrior, waving a bow above his head. "Thinbar!
Thinbar!" Robert ran toward him.
***
"I'm sorry," Robert told Jakar. "I thought you were following me."
Everyone was sitting near the fire. The sun had set, and stars hung overhead, so
bright in the clear mountain air they seemed like clouds of fireflies swirling
around their heads.
Jakar frowned, the furrows of her dark face highlighted by the glow from
the flames. "I was following you," she said. "But you got ahead and I thought
you had continued up the ridge. When I couldn't find you, I returned to camp to
organize a search."
"We searched for two days," Brom said, his voice edged with anger. "We
thought you were farther up the mountain. You caused us a great deal of worry."
"But I found the entrance to Thun," Robert said. "And nobody got hurt.
Please don't be angry."
"What's done is done, and none of us can change it. I, for one, am glad
Robert is safely back with us," Thinbar said.
"Well enough said," Brom agreed. "But let this be the only such
foolishness. I cannot take care of an irresponsible child who pretends to be a
Warrior."
The comment brought a blush to Robert's cheeks. It did not seem altogether
fair since the Master had trusted him with this mission, but he held his peace.
"You say you found the entrance to Thun?" asked Thinbar. "Did you find
what you were looking for?"
"I found a message that directs me to find the Seer-of-Oasif in a place
called Aul'kalee that can be reached by 'The-Trail-That-Hangs-In-Air,'" Robert
answered.
"Aul'kalee!" Brom exclaimed. "Aul'kalee is north of the great cliff. It's all
desert - hot and dry - barren, yet a place of dangerous beasts. Two years ago I
went there with Clemmon. We found the oasis called Oasib. We heard there
were other oases but did not find Oasif."
"Will you help me search?" Robert asked. "I promise not to get separated
again."
"Well," Brom said. "My contract to protect you is open-ended. I could not,
in good conscience, abandon you now."
Robert grinned. "Tell the truth, you love the adventure too."

Brom laughed. "Before we leave here, you must show me Thun. Then I will
take you north and we'll find 'The-Trail-That-Hangs-In-Air'."
That evening, Robert snuggled happily in his blankets, well pleased with
himself.

CHAPTER THIRTY

For five days, Brom led north along an abandoned road he found while
searching for Robert. Clearly the road once carried traffic to Thun. On the
morning of the sixth day, the party wound down switchbacks carved in the
flank of a granite mountain. Behind them, ice covered peaks stretched into hazy
distance, while ahead a narrow plain ended in a high, steep scarp that broke
away into an enormous wasteland.
"Aul'kalee," Brom said, gesturing toward the vast barrens. "We are nearing
Great Barrier Cliff. I didn't know it extended this far east, and I had never even
heard rumor of the road we just traveled. I think we're moving at the edge of
Faland's known world."
The party pulled aside onto a small promontory to study the view. Robert
glanced east into limitless distance. "You mean no one from Faland has ever
been east of here?"
"We're probably the first in a long while to come even this far."
"But there's so much empty land!"
Brom smiled. "I expect a few millennia ago it was like this on Earth. When
we came to Faland, we sort of traveled back in time, I think."
"Martin believes Earth existed a long time ago. He thinks we must have
traveled ahead in time, because the sky shows we are a long way from earth."
Brom shrugged. "I was speaking metaphorically. This is a primitive land the way Earth might have been. I don't think it actually is Earth."
"I don't know," Robert said slowly. "Faland doesn't always seem so
primitive."
Brom laughed. "You are a wise one. Perhaps you are right; this road
required some fine engineering."
As they descended, they left the cold of the mountains and entered a green
and lush plain. It reminded Robert of the fields around Or'gn except he saw no
sign anyone had ever farmed the land, nor sign of habitation. It was wild and
open. Only a faint path stretched toward the top of Great Barrier Cliff a dozen
legons away.
"Let's do some hunting," Thinbar said. "We can use fresh meat, and we
need to collect greens as well."
"Good idea," Brom agreed. "Take Robert with you. The rest of us will go

on to the cliff and make camp for the night. You can join us there."
Robert felt a flush of pleasure. Sending him hunting meant Brom did not
hold his earlier escapade against him, and a hunt gave him a chance to use the
bow given him by Jakar. He rode out eagerly with Thinbar. They worked their
way slowly northwest, bringing down rabir and squal as they went.
Late in the afternoon, laden with meat, they veered north and rode to the lip
of the scarp. The vegetation thinned, and rocky soil peeked through scrub
grasses. The land dropped abruptly, thousands of feet, to bleak barrens that
stretched north as far as the eye could see. Robert dismounted and walked to
the edge, awed by the majesty of the gnarled land.
Thinbar joined him and they studied the broken scarp. Abrupt though the
cliff was, the drop to the flat was not sheer. It consisted of waves of minarets,
spires, and stranded mesas carved from the highland rocks by wind and water.
Much of the rock was red, pink, or white sandstone, some sheer, some softer,
some yielding talus that reached many legons into the desert.
"Look!" Thinbar pointed toward a web-like formation that stretched, like a
gossamer adornment, between columns of rock far to the west.
Robert shaded his eyes against the lowering sun. "It looks like a bridge,"
he announced, though his voice said he was not quite sure he believed it.
"Could it be 'The-Trail-That-Hangs-In-Air'?" Thinbar wondered.
"Yes," Robert said. "I'll bet it is - the way to Aul'kalee."
The hunters mounted and began to pick their way east to rendezvous with
Brom and make camp for the night. It dawned clear the following morning,
though as the party rode west along the scarp, clouds began to gather. The
natural drainage flowed south, in the direction of Fariver, though occasional
washes ran north toward the scarp. Some of these, mostly carrying water only
during heavy rains, had cut deeply and forced long detours to the south.
"A road once followed this route," Brom noted as he sat his horven at the
edge of a deep gully. "There was a bridge here." He pointed to rockwork that
had once formed the support for a structure. "It does not bode well. If the socalled hanging trail is in an equal state of disrepair, I fear it will not be
passable."
Before noon, rain began to fall from a lead-gray sky. Unlike the rains in the
farmlands, it was persistent, soaking, and cold. The riders donned furs. Mud
began to slick the ground. As the clouds lowered, visibility dropped, and it
became difficult to see more than a dozen yards beyond the horven's noses.
Brom halted when the party stumbled on a spring tucked in the head of a small

wash. Ulf and Kon quickly set up the tents while everyone else scrambled
along the wash, seeking scraps of dry wood.
When Robert returned to camp, bearing an armload of wood, he found a
canvas already been stretched overhead, and a fire was burning on a makeshift
rock hearth. He dumped his wood on a growing pile, added to seconds later by
Jakar, and joined the others around the fire. Thinbar had already set rabir to
broil on spits, and vegetables were heating in an iron kettle hung over the
flames.
Pressed together in the small space beneath the canvas, each gathered heat
from the others and from the flames and felt cozily warm. As they ate and
darkness gathered, Thinbar told of his boyhood on a farm west of Forod.
Robert felt Thinbar's words carry him back to Trenel, the camps near Or'gn,
and the joys of the early days after the awakening.
When the meal was done and the fire had burned to embers, Robert felt a
call of nature and sought a place away from camp to relieve himself. The rain
had subsided to slow drizzle. He finished quickly and began to return to the
tents when a sound startled him. With reflexes well honed, he dropped to a
crouch, snatching a hummer from beneath his furs with his left hand while his
right uncoiled the tagan at his hip.
"Ho! You will have no need of those," a small voice croaked.
Robert shook rain out of his eyes and peered into the gloom where a gray
lump had begun to take shape. "Who is it?" he shouted, loud enough to alert the
camp.
"I be Efril. I seek shelter from the rain."
Brom's voice sounded, "Come slowly, Friend, and make no sudden
moves."
In the light beneath the canvas, Robert stared with frank curiosity at the
small figure. The only likeness he could recall was that of little people he had
once seen in a circus.
Efril shucked off a heavy outer coat, and with a peculiar, rolling gait
moved on stubby legs to warm his hands at the embers. Furs shrouded his body
from neck to ankles. Mokads, heavy as boots, covered his small feet.
"It's a sorry night to be out," he said affably. His face was the dark brown
of a Faland native. A beaded headband held long, orange-brown hair away
from his face.
"What brings you to this lonely place?" Brom asked. He had ordered Ulf
and Kon to stand guard and held himself alert to the possibility of other

intruders.
"You wouldn't happen to have a bit of that roast rabir you could spare,
would you?" Efril asked, eyeing the meat still on the spits.
"Sure," Thinbar said, grabbing a plate and ladling vegetables alongside a
chunk of hot meat. "It's a cold night to be without warm food." He filled a mug
with hot drog and handed it, along with the plate, to their small guest.
Efril squinted at Thinbar who stood hardly a head taller than he. "Might
you be from around here?"
Thinbar shook his head. "I'm from the farmlands, but my mother was small
like you. She told me she came as an infant from a land to the east, but I didn't
know where it was."
"Here I'd say," Efril laughed. "There are not many others like us."
"You're not alone, then?" Brom said. "Where are the others? How come
you're not with them?"
"Let me eat, then I will talk," Efril said, lifting rabir to his mouth and
tearing off chunks with strong, white teeth. He ate and drank with gusto, while
the others watched slightly bemused.
When he finished, Efril sank back on his fur coat and sighed contentedly.
"Your food is good," he said. "I'm grateful. I have been many hours on the trail,
searching for you."
"Searching for us?" Thinbar asked. "That seems unlikely, if you don't mind
my saying so. How could you have known we would be here?"
"I was informed and asked to find a Warrior with golden hair and
uncommon youth." Efril looked pointedly at Robert. "The lad here, though his
hair is more white than gold, seems to fit the description."
Robert's interest quickened. "Why were you asked to look for me? Are you
working for the Master?"
"Are you Robert?"
"I am Robert, a Warrior on the Master's business."
"I assume, then, that you're in route to Aul'kalee?"
"And Oasif," Robert said. "Do you know the way?"
Efril settled himself more comfortably on his coat and fished in his robes.
He withdrew a small cylinder and handed it to Robert. It was much like the
one given him by Thinbar at Sapro's Inn. "It contains a map," Efril said, "that
shows the way to Oasif. But before you can reach Oasif, you must descend into
Aul'kalee. I belong to Clan Gartral, keepers of the way to Aul'kalee."
"The-Trail-That-Hangs-In-Air?" Robert asked.

"Some call it that. It's a concession given us by the Master long ago. We
exact a toll from each who uses it, and in return, we maintain the way and keep
its bridges strong."
"How much must we pay?" Brom asked. "Why have I not heard of this trail
before?"
Efril laughed, his round little body shaking. "It's not a trail polite folk
would likely seek. Renegades and marauders are the bulk of our customers,
though in times past it may have been different."
"You don't look like you could compel tolls from a renegade," Brom
scoffed.
Efril laughed louder. "Do not be deceived, Friend. There are many of us.
We can defend ourselves. More important, those who might someday need a
way to Aul'kalee are not quick to attack the ones who provide it. Even the
Master does not pursue renegades in Aul'kalee."
"True enough," Brom affirmed. "It's a land where rules of honor have little
force. But you have not yet told us the price of passage."
Efril, his sharp eyes still sparkling with merriment, turned to Robert. "For
the boy with the golden hair, the way is paid. And for his friends as well."
***
From atop a pile of gear stacked high on the back of a horven, Efril called
out the route as the party made its way west. The clouds had lifted during the
night, and rain-wet fields glittered in the morning sun. Within a dozen legons,
the route widened and showed signs of increased use. Small stone or wooden
bridges carried the riders over the washes, and it was no longer necessary to
make long southerly detours to find a way around the deeper arroyos.
At midmorning the trail forked, one part continuing west, the other jogging
sharply north. Efril directed the group onto the north trail. Abruptly, it took
them over the lip of the scarp, and Robert sucked in his breath as his horven
followed Jakar's over the edge. The trail swung west, dropping steeply along a
sheer sandstone wall. Robert's head spun as he looked straight down, hundreds
of feet to broken rock. The trail, carved into sheer sandstone, was no wider
than the ledge on which he had been trapped above Fariver's gorge. Only now
he felt far less secure, perched high on his horven, his right foot hanging in
empty space.
Swinging sharply left, the trail ducked into a broad alcove, and Robert
forgot his anxiety as a remarkable scene opened before him. A broad level
terrace, guarded on its outer margin by a two-foot high sandstone wall, filled

the alcove to the edge of the cliff. Carved into the inner wall, which was made
up of vertical sandstone flutes rising a hundred feet or more, were dozens of
small caves. Intricate carved decorations surrounded each entrance. On the
open terrace, swarms of little people, mostly women and children, worked or
played.
"The home of Clan Gartral," Efril said, gesturing proudly at the cliff
dwellings. "We have lived here since the time before the measuring of time."
Efril bounced from his perch on the horven's back. "Get down. Stop awhile.
You will be my guests tonight."
"If it's all the same," Brom said, "I think we should go on. It's not even
noon yet."
"Can't be done," Efril said cheerfully. "You must stay. The way is long and
we must start early in the morning, before first sun, so we can be down by
dark. The trail is too hazardous to travel at night. Snoli! Flan! Ravil!" Efril
called to some nearby children. "Tend to the horven. These travelers will be
with us tonight."
The children came running, along with a dozen of their playmates. Though
the children appeared no larger than five-year-olds, they quickly got the huge
horven in tow. Ulf and Kon went with the animals, to unpack and stow the gear.
"Come! I will show you to your quarters," Efril said.
As he led them toward the cliff-homes, Robert saw the children take the
horven into a paddock near one end of the terrace. A huge haystack, piled high
to one side, swarmed with tiny children standing on top and forking hay down.
Though most entrances to the cave dwellings were less than five feet high,
the cave into which Efril led Brom and his followers had an impressive portal
with much higher clearance. Even Brom could stand easily, and the rooms
inside were spacious, though sparsely furnished. Lamps stood in alcoves in the
wall, and mats covered the floor. A low table, apparently used while seated on
the floor, occupied the center of the room.
"Make yourselves comfortable," Efril said. "There's a place to drink and
bathe at the end of the open, where water comes from the mountain." He
gestured outside. "A runner will fetch you for noon meal."
Robert set his pack on the floor near a mat. He took off his furs, for the air
outside had warmed and inside the temperature was pleasantly mild. He left
his helmet near his mat, but retained his body armor.
Eating was a preoccupation of the little people. They ate at noon, again at
midafternoon, at sundown, and yet again in the late evening, before retiring.

Each meal was sumptuous, consisting of a great variety of leafy and root
vegetables, of fruits, and of meat dishes prepared from rabir, squal, devon, and
flesh Robert had not tasted before, called porven. The fattiness of the latter
reminded him of pork.
The meals were jolly, almost riotous, with much laughter and shouting and
little attention to table manners. Women and children served the food, prepared
over open fires in huge hearths at one end of a large dining hall carved into the
sandstone cliff. Smoke from the fires exited through a chimney, several feet in
diameter, carved upward all the way to the flat plain above. Draft from the
fires drew air into the dining hall through windows carved in the north wall.
The room was so well ventilated it seemed almost like an extension of the
outside.
At the evening meal, Robert ate until he could hold no more. He felt as if
he had eaten more that day than in all the preceding week, and when he
returned to his quarters, he dropped onto his mat next to Thinbar and was
asleep in an instant. It seemed he had hardly closed his eyes, when Brom was
shaking him.
"Breakfast in ten minutes," Brom said moving on to awaken Jakar. Thinbar
was already up. It was dark outside, moonless, and the stars hung in milky
clouds over the cliff village. Robert, chilled by the morning cool, stumbled
sleepily to the dining hall. He had stuffed so thoroughly at the evening meal, he
felt he would never be hungry again, but he surprised himself by eating heartily
from the abundant breakfast Clan Gartral provided.
The horven were ready, packed earlier by Ulf and Kon, when Brom and the
others left the dining hall. Efril took his place at the head of the string. "You
will walk from here on," he told Brom. "A clansman will lead each horven. On
many bridges, horven must cross singly, though your Warriors may walk
together if they prefer."
Dawn light had blanked the stars, but the sun had not yet risen when the
convoy started. All the horven handlers were men, or boys near manhood.
They walked with Efril's peculiar rolling gait yet moved with surprising speed.
Robert found he could walk with a comfortable stride without overrunning the
leaders. He followed a hundred feet or so behind the first horven, walking
alone. Brom and the others had chosen to walk far back, behind the last of the
horven.
The trail left the village terrace on its west end, dropped steeply and
precariously along the sandstone cliff, then swung around a jutting rock

formation. Then it leaped breathtakingly into space, over the first of nearly a
hundred suspension bridges. Robert stopped while Efril led the first horven
across the swinging structure. The bridge planking hung within a cradle of
inch-thick ropes suspended from a pair of plant-fiber cables, each as thick as a
man's thigh. The span seemed impossibly long, more than a hundred paces. Yet
it appeared remarkably stable, guyed by dozens of long strands running fore
and aft from the bridge abutments.
When Robert's turn came, he stepped forward with some trepidation.
Though at first unnerved by the dizzying view through the rope fretwork, he
quickly steadied and found the experience exhilarating. Beneath his feet the
planks bounced and swayed yet gave a feeling of solidity that belied the visual
impression.
The switch backing trail descended quickly, repeatedly leaping on graceful
spider-web bridgework, between monolithic columns of red sandstone. The
convoy stretched out until several hundred yards intervened between each
horven, a distance determined largely by the time required to cross the longer
strands and the speed with which the handlers walked. Gradually, Robert
found himself walking alone, often losing sight of the horven that preceded him
on the twisting trail. He became absorbed in the shifting spectacle and
magnificent vistas that unfolded with each loop of the passage.
Thus occupied, he was startled and momentarily confused when he heard a
scream behind him. He had just crossed a particularly long bridge over a
rugged cleft cut deeply into the cliff, and was walking beneath a massive
overhang. He jerked around in time to see a horven, at mid-strand, rear and
lash out with its front hooves. Horven were normally rock steady, and he did
not immediately see a reason for this one's sudden skittishness. But he did see
the young handler lose his grip on the lead, and he saw the horven back
sharply, missing the planks with one hoof. The animal lurched sideways,
slamming into the support ropes. The impact started the flexible bridge
swinging. As the horven continued to flail, the swinging rapidly escalated into
wild oscillations.
Robert was still trying to figure out what had gone wrong, when he saw a
huge eagen slam into the handler, who was barely keeping his footing on the
heaving deck. The youth screamed as razor sharp talons closed in his flesh.
Robert dropped his pack and sprinted toward the bridge. Rippling like a
shaken rug, the planking twisted and bucked, whipped not only by the thrashing
of the entangled horven, but also by the battering from the eagen's wings.

Robert hit the boards at a run and was nearly thrown. Stumbling, he grabbed
the nearest guy line, adjusted his steps to the undulating motion and staggered
forward.
He saw that the handler, now firmly in the grip of the eagen, was Kran, son
of Efril. The boy would have been lost at once had there been room between
the bridge cables for the eagen's great wingspan. As it was, the eagen could not
shake free and become airborne.
The forebody of the horven broke through the ropes and plunged
downward. As it did, its hindquarters became securely tangled in the lines.
The plunge stopped and the three-quarter ton animal hung head down from one
side of the bridge, its terrified screams echoing in the canyon.
Wrenched by the skewed weight, the planking twisted on edge, and Robert
was tossed off the bridge. His grappling fingers closed on a strand and he
dangled in empty space. Powered by adrenaline, he hauled himself hand over
hand up to the main cable and wrapped his arms and legs around it. With a
twist, he wrestled himself upward to straddle the thick strand. The horven had
ceased to struggle, but the eagen's wings still beat the ropes, and staying
astride the main cable was a little like sitting a bucking horse.
"Help me!" Kran screamed. The eagen's claws were firmly embedded in
his thigh and streaks of red ran down his body.
"Grab the ropes!" Robert yelled, hitching himself along the cable. He
wriggled to within a few yards of trapped eagen's booming wings.
Kran, hanging almost head down, made a lunge for a guy rope. Robert
snapped a hummer into the eagen's breast, then another, and another. Screaming
with rage and pain, the eagen released its grip on Kran. Relieved of the extra
weight, the powerful motion of the great bird's wings carried it up and over the
main cable. It dropped into the canyon, then soared outward, its blood-curdling
scream echoing from the surrounding cliffs.
"I'm slipping!" Kran cried. The strand he was holding was wet with his
own blood, and it was sliding between his fingers.
Robert dropped from the main cable, grabbed a support rope, and swung to
the wooden deck, still held on edge by the weight of the dangling horven. "I'm
coming. Just hang on a little longer."
Steadying himself with the ropes, he worked along the planking edge until
he was directly over Kran, then dropped to straddle the planks. Kran's eyes
were shut tight, his face twisted with effort. Robert leaned and snatched the
boy's right wrist. Kran let go of the rope. For a moment, Robert teetered, the

weight pulling on his left arm nearly dislodging him from the planks. Twisting
his feet in a support rope, he hauled himself to a sitting position on the edge of
the bridge. With both hands on Kran's arm, he pulled the diminutive clansman
upward until the youngster could get a grip on the planks. Scrambling to safety,
Kran locked arms with Robert and the two clung together, gasping for breath.
Efril had heard the cries of his son and doubled back. At the bridge
abutment, he had watched Robert drive off the eagen and snatch his boy from
certain death. Now, he hurried onto the bridge, moving with astonishing agility
over the tangled course. Munbi, the handler who had been next in line behind
Kran, hurried from the opposite end. Together, the little men carried Kran off
the structure while Robert followed. The trail widened at the bridge abutment
and several little people had gathered there. Munbi took from his robes a small
horn and began to blow a series of resonant notes.
"I'm in your debt," Efril told Robert. The clan leader was shaking.
"And I," Kran added. "You saved my life."
"I did what any honorable Warrior would do," Robert said. "What you
would have done had the circumstances been reversed."
Efril shook his head. "What you did was more than honor requires, and
more than what many men would have done. You will be forever welcome in
the home of Clan Gartral, and the way to Aul'kalee will always be free to you."
***
Munbi's signal had alerted the village. Since the eagen attack had occurred
early, while the party was yet near the trailhead, a repair crew from the village
reached the site in less than an hour. The poor horven, unconscious and
dangling beneath the bridge, could not be saved. The workers cut it loose and
Robert recognized, as it fell, that it had been his. His heart wrenched as he
recalled Windrunner, and he felt tears on his face.
Twice - twice I have lost my mount.
With the weight of the horven released, the bridge snapped back to its
normal position. Robert watched with fascination as the repair crew swarmed
over it, replacing ropes and adjusting planks. In half an hour the bridge looked
as though it had never been damaged.
Brom, Thinbar, and Jakar had worked their way past the string of horven to
the bridge abutment. When the trip resumed, they walked near Robert. Efril
continued to lead though he sent Kran back to the village.
Robert continued to enjoy the unfolding vistas, but the edge was gone from
his pleasure. The walk became routine and finally tiring. As the trail wound

lower and afternoon came, it grew warmer. By the time they reached the
bottom, late in the evening, sweat had caught dust and streaked their bodies
with grime. Their armor had become an oven in which their bodies slowly
broiled.
Half a legon from the foot of the trail, Efril led them to a small alcove,
tucked in talus at the base of Great Barrier Cliff. Water trickled over shiny
rocks, then gathered into a small riffle, fell over a low waterfall, and filled a
pool just right for bathing. The little people organized a guard detail, and as
darkness came, set lamps in strategic locations. Brom ordered Ulf and Kon to
share guard duty while the rest of the group cooled off in the pool. When
Robert climbed from the water, clean and refreshed, it was time to eat. After
the meal, the weight of the day pressed upon him, and he rolled into his
blankets and was soon fast asleep.
Dawn came with high thin clouds. It had cooled little during the night, and
Robert had tossed aside most of his blankets. He awoke with a start. Brom,
Jakar, Thinbar and most of the little people were standing around the cooking
fire. He joined them, feeling guilty for his late rising, but no one seemed to
notice.
"Munbi will accompany us to Oasif," Thinbar told Robert. "It seems our
little friends are well acquainted with certain marauders who roam the desert
between here and there. Munbi's presence will assure us safe passage."
Robert's brow rose. "I thought the map Efril gave us was to be our only
guide."
"It was - until you saved Kran. The eagen attack and your quick wit have
served us well."
"That's not all," said Brom, who was standing nearby. "Efril has something
for you, Robert."
Robert turned in the direction Brom gestured. Efril approached the
campfire. He was leading a silver-gray horven mare with large round eyes the
color of the green stone Robert carried in his belt. He had never before seen
such a horven. Most were brown, or sometimes mottled with gray or black, but
none had the sheen of this one.
"She's beautiful," Robert said, his widening.
"She's yours," Efril said. "Her name is Gulner and is of the prize lineage of
King Mordat the Ancient."
Robert gaped and fell instantly in love. He had thought no horven could
replace Windrunner, but his heart said otherwise. With tremulous fingers, he

stroked Gulner's soft gray cheek. The mare bent her head and nuzzled his
shoulder. When he looked into her eyes, he felt as though he had tumbled into a
soft green pool. He tangled his fingers in Gulner's mane, than stroked her
shoulder and sensed the enormous power in her muscles.
Looking helplessly at Efril, he stammered, "It's too much."
"Nonsense," Efril said. "Against my son's life, Gulner is a mere token.
Besides, it's the least we can do. You lost your horven on the bridge when it
was under our care."
Robert had no words. No one had ever given him such a gift before.
***
During the next days, while Munbi led the party across Aul'kalee toward
the oasis of Oasif, Robert learned Gulner was more than merely beautiful.
Though hardly more than average in size, Gulner was without peer for
endurance. She ran tirelessly, hour after hour, in the hunt for porven, wily
shadow-animals of the desert, and could get by on the least wisps of forage.
She husbanded water as if she were a camel and was impervious to heat. In
spite of his vow not to become attached to a horven, Robert fell ever more
deeply under Gulner's spell. On the fifth day out from Great Barrier Cliff,
while riding with Thinbar on a hunt for fresh meat, a pack of desert hyen
suddenly attacked. Even larger and more powerful than forest hyen, the desert
predators struck fear into Robert's heart, not for himself but for Gulner, and he
saw again Windrunner down and torn by slavering jaws.
"Gee-up!" Robert yelled. The dark hunters came, many score, each a
hundred pounds of powerful legs and strong teeth. But to Robert's
astonishment, Gulner wheeled and met the onslaught with flashing hooves.
Hyen howled with pain. Uncoiling his tagan, he made it an extension of his
arm, slashing right and left.
Thinbar's horven, slower and less agile than Gulner, did not fare so well.
Though the small Warrior's bow took a heavy toll, Robert saw his besieged
mount in danger of falling. He pulled hard on Gulner's reins and swung toward
Thinbar. Striking like a snake's head, the tip of his tagan ripped flesh from a
score of hyen while Gulner's hooves took down a dozen others. In seconds the
predator pack broke and raced away in full retreat. Robert reined back, though
Gulner seemed eager to pursue, and trotted to Thinbar's side. Thinbar had
dismounted and was examining his mount's wounds.
"He took a few hits," Thinbar said, in response to Robert's questioning
look, "but he'll be all right."

Robert examined Gulner's legs and found only a few small nicks, and he
had not a scratch himself; Gulner had allowed no hyen close enough to touch
her rider.
"That mare of yours is a marvel," Thinbar said. "I believe she could have
whipped the whole pack on her own." Nine hyen lay with Thinbar's arrows
sticking from their carcasses. Another dozen, felled by hoof or tagan, dotted the
plain while many others carried away the wounds of their failed assault.
Four days after the hyen attack, tired, hot, and dusty, Brom and company
topped a rise and looked down on a patch of green surrounding a shallow lake.
Near the lake stood a small settlement, surrounded by orchards and fields.
"Oasif," Munbi said. "Our journey is at an end."

PART FIVE: NORTH FORTRESS

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Elwind's Repose looked even more shabby than John remembered. He sat
his horven, studying the tattered sign, and felt the bleakness of the place seep
into him. It deepened the depression he had felt since leaving Jason at Forod
two days before. "I haven't felt this blue since Nan died," he muttered,
remembering his Other World wife of forty-five years.
The sun had set but the sky still carried the soft, graying tones of early
dusk, and stars had not yet become visible. John swung his leg over his mount's
back and dropped to the ground. "Well, Jack. Guess you're due for a rest and
some extra grub. I've been pushing you pretty hard the last couple of days.
You've got the back for it, but I know I'm not an easy burden."
"Big John! Is that you?" A girl's voice came from alongside the inn.
John's white beard widened with his grin. "Ermille! Good to see you." His
spirits rose at sight of a familiar face. "Is Elwind here?"
"We've been expecting you."
"Really?"
"There's a man inside. Been waiting for you since early this afternoon."
"News does get around." John shook his shaggy head. He led Jack and
followed Ermille to the corral behind the main building. "I'd appreciate it if
you see Jack here gets extra rations."
"I'll let Penel know," Ermille said.
"I thought your brother was planning to go to Or'gn? Wasn't that the story
last time I was here?"
Ermille laughed. "Penel wants to leave. He had his sixteenth birthday two
weeks ago, but Father still won't let him go. He says Forod doesn't have a
Training-master worth his keep and Or'gn's too far."
John removed Jack's saddle and turned him into the corral. He stashed the
saddle in a shed alongside the corral, slung his saddlebags over his shoulder,
and followed Ermille toward the inn. Penel emerged from a side door as John
and Ermille climbed steps to the small porch.

The boy's brown face wrinkled into a grin. "Father said you were coming,
John! I could hardly wait!"
"How's my man?" John reached a thick hand to clasp the youth's
outstretched arm. "You've put on size since I last saw you."
Penel's grin widened. "I'm sixteen now."
"So your sister tells me. Congratulations."
"There's someone inside to see you. I can introduce you."
"No you don't," Ermille grabbed her brother's arm and turned him aside.
"You have work to do. John's horven needs feeding and brushing."
"Double rations for Jack," John said. "Don't worry, Pen. We'll talk later."
As John pushed through the door, his eyes swept the dining room. Half a
dozen natives, men and women, mostly farmers, sat at several small tables. A
man sitting alone near the back wall caught his eye.
Ermille led him toward the solitary Warrior. As John neared the table, he
sized up its occupant, a human with yellow skin, black hair, and black eyes. A
two-inch scar arced beneath his left eye. He looked no larger than Robert, yet
wore a level four Warrior's headband. His face, clean shaven, bore a blank
expression.
"Jiro, this is John, the one you've been waiting for."
The little man rose and extended his hand. John clasped an arm several
times thinner than his own.
"You have something for me?" John asked.
Ermille left. Jiro reached into a pouch on his sirkeln, took out a small metal
cylinder, and handed it to John. The two sank to chairs on opposite sides of the
table. John noted the Faland Master's seal, unbroken. He looked pointedly at
the little man. Jiro rose, his face still expressionless, and moved to a nearby
table, too far away to see the contents when John opened the cylinder.
At first it appeared empty. Then John noticed a coil of paper wrapped
around the inside. He fished it out with his index finger. Penned in English
were the words, "The Warrior who carries this message will guide you to
North Fortress. Find nine bronze amulets and take them to the Mentat Warrior
in Riven."
John frowned. It seemed a meager message. He glanced at the small,
oriental man and caught him staring back.
"I know part of the message," Jiro said. "I'm under contract to guide you to
North Fortress."
John's eyes narrowed. He had ignored the Warrior's skill-icons. Now he

saw that Jiro was a level six Scout. "You've been to North Fortress?"
"After nine years in Faland, few places remain that I haven't visited. North
Fortress is a ruin, sometimes called the mesa ruin. It's dangerous. The Cha'kur
people claim it lies in their territory. They aren't friendly to people who come
poking around. Last time I was there, about five years ago, Cha'kur turned back
the expedition before we could enter the ruin. "
John's brows shot up. "I was on expedition to the mesa ruin before orders
diverted me to Elwind's to meet you. I never heard of these Cha'kur people."
A flicker of smile crossed Jiro's flat yellow face. "I know. Engar was not
aware of their existence."
"You know Engar?"
"We've met. Everyone knows he trained you, and that he's been traveling
with the Mentat Warrior. He's a good Warrior, but with limited experience."
"His knowledge has proved sound thus far," John snapped. "And he's more
highly rated than you."
"I don't deny that. I only meant his experience with Faland is limited. I've
been a Scout for nine years; he has been here little more than one. He did not
know about the Cha'kur because he has never been to the mesa lands. If your
expedition had continued, it would have failed. You would not have found the
ruin."
John felt his temper begin to fray. "One of our partners is a skilled Scout."
"She has never been to North Fortress. Without help, I would not have
found the ruin myself. Nothing visible remains and no signs mark the way. All
that's left are the underground dungeons that once served to imprison the
enemies of Darc'un, the outcast Warrior who defeated King Mordat of the
Ancients. Some say he still guards treasure in the dungeons."
"Legends and myths," John said. "They mean nothing to me. A ruin is a ruin,
and the so-called demons of Faland have proved a feeble match for my blade."
"Perhaps, but the Cha'kur are not demons."
John's eyes narrowed. "It does sound like the Cha'kur are a greater threat
than Darc'un. Tell me, how powerful are these Cha'kur?"
"Powerful enough. If they discover our mission, they'll try to stop it, and
they'll probably succeed. A magnificent fighter led the expedition that took me
there five years ago, a woman named Etuniad. She had hired Froven, one of
Faland's best scouts--"
"I know Froven," John said. "He was Scout trainer in Or'gn when I took my
training. He seemed very capable."

"He was good, and he warned us about the Cha'kur. However, Etuniad
decided it was worth the gamble to probe the ruin for treasure. She had a cool
head and wasn't afraid of a fight - you don't make fifth level unless you know
what you're doing - but she turned us back without a fight, at the brink of the
ruin. Half a hundred armed Cha'kur appeared out of nowhere. They surprised
even Froven. They let us go when Etuniad decided not to challenge them."
"How do you intend getting past the Cha'kur this time?"
Jiro shrugged. "Maybe we'll get lucky. Anyway, my contract is to take you
to North Fortress. Getting in is your affair. Incidentally, I'm ready now. Soon as
you get your things together, we can start. I've arranged supplies and three pack
horven."
John studied the man's bland face. He talked a good story and his headband
said he was competent. Not real friendly, though. "I'll be ready by first light,"
John said.
Jiro rose to leave but John stopped him with a further question. "You've
been here nine years; where did you come from in the Other World, if you don't
mind my asking?"
A wrinkle appeared in the smooth space between Jiro's brows. "I don't like
to think of the Other World. I was fourteen when I woke one morning in the
training building in Or'gn. My life changed . . . mostly for the better. My family
came from Japan, but I was born in San Francisco. I grew up on the streets, in
the mission district, after thugs murdered my father. We were many children
and not much food. I was sick and hungry most of the time. A few days before I
woke up here, pneumonia hospitalized me in a charity ward. I think I was
dying." Jiro spoke in a clipped monotone.
"Like the rest of us," John said quietly. "Have you eaten?"
"A while ago, but you have not. I'll leave you now. After you've eaten and
rested, we'll talk again." Jiro turned and John followed him with his eyes as he
crossed the dining room, then he signaled Ermille and ordered a meal.
While he was eating, Penel shyly approached his table. The boy was
juggling a plate of food, mug of drog, and a food handler. "Would it be all right
if I sat at your table?"
"Sure," John waved at the chair opposite. "I always enjoy your company."
Penel grinned, plunked his plate on the table and slid into the chair
previously occupied by Jiro. Though only a youth, he was a head taller and
fifty pounds heavier than the oriental Warrior.
"Well, Pen," John began, "Ermille tells me you've still got your sights set

on being a Warrior."
"You bet," Penel said. "Only Father doesn't want me to leave home. He
said I could when I reached sixteen, but now he keeps making excuses. Says
Or'gn is too far and he doesn't like the trainer in Forod. There's only one . . .
Sharix is her name . . . and she doesn't have a strong reputation. That's why I
want to talk to you."
"Oh?" John looked up.
"You're a Weapon-master. You could be my trainer."
"Hold on, Pen. I'm not staying. I'll probably be leaving in the morning."
"I know," Penel said. "I want to go with you."
"Elwind wouldn't hear of it."
"He might. He knows I'll leave sooner or later, and he trusts you. You're the
best."
John's brows rose. "You flatter me. My business is dangerous. It's not for
an untrained Warrior."
"I'm not afraid," Penel said. "You serve the Master. It's what I want to do. I
learn fast. I promise, I'll do everything you tell me, and I've already started
training. I have armor and a sword. Besides, I could take care of the horven
and the supplies. I'm a good cook and Ermille says I'm good enough at suturing
to be a Healer. I would be useful. I'm strong. Please, if I can get Father to say
yes, will you let me come?"
"You're quite a salesman." John looked into Penel's shining eyes. "But I
think your father will not be easy to persuade."
"Does that mean you'll take me if he says yes?"
John studied Penel's face closely. The boy was strong, healthy, and eager.
He was also a good deal older and heftier than Robert who was already off on
a quest of his own. "Well, I guess I could use a cook."
Penel's grin split his face. "You won't be sorry. I know I can get Father to
say yes." Penel rose so quickly he toppled the chair. "Thank you! Thank you!"
He darted from the dining room, nearly colliding with a farmer seeking a table.
"Slow down!" Ermille dodged her brother while balancing a tray of food.
"Where are you off to?"
Penel was gone.
John shook his head and wondered if he had made a promise he would
shortly regret.
***
Sun steamed dew from the grasses. Prairie fragrance filled the air. John

and Jiro had started early, and Elwind had given permission for Penel to join
the expedition. John refused to hurry, though Jiro pressed for greater speed.
Instead, John took advantage of a leisurely journey in the farmland's safety to
begin Penel's training. The youth moved with strength and agility, and though he
lacked formal training, already had a good feel for a sword. Obviously, he had
spent many hours practicing against wood and straw dummies or with
neighboring farm kids. John found him, however, impetuous.
"No! No!" John pressed the tip of his sword against Penel's breast plate.
"You're too eager for the kill. You should have parried my thrust rather than
trying to step past it. Your armor stops my sword, but I could as easily have
thrust for your throat. A sword through the throat is as deadly as one through
the heart."
Penel stepped back, abashed. "I thought I saw an opening. With a little luck
I would have had you."
John's eyes flared. "Luck! A Warrior who thinks to live on luck will soon
be dead!"
"I'm sorry. I just wanted to win."
"I know," John said. "Wanting to win is a good emotion for a Warrior, but
remember this about emotions: they're fine motivators, but poor masters. Let
your heart stand you to battle, but let your head guide your sword." He was
quoting Engar.
Penel raised his sword. "I'll do better." He prepared for another match.
"Enough today," John said. "It's time for evening meal."
For five days, John halted in midafternoon and spent several hours with
Penel. Late on the fifth day, as the sun was dropping below the horizon, they
moved toward the tent which Jiro insisted always be set up. Penel was
gathering dry grass to start a cook-fire. John watched him, more pleased with
the youth's swordsmanship than he let on. Penel had also proved a creditable
cook, justifying his earlier brags.
As the fire flared, Jiro rode into camp from his evening scouting trip. He
was carrying a brace of rabir. "Tomorrow," he said, "we'll leave the
farmland."
"I suppose that means vacation's over." John chuckled.
"We could have been out of the farmland two days ago," Jiro said.
"But with a less well prepared apprentice."
"Humph!" Jiro had made no secret of his opposition to having the youthful
Penel along. He had argued that the boy, far from being an asset, might

endanger the entire mission.


Penel heard the derisive snort. "You haven't given me a chance," he told
Jiro. "Stand in a match with me and see!"
"No!" John roared. "Warriors on mission don't challenge one another, and
unrated Warriors don't challenge those of level four."
Penel's mouth dropped. "I didn't mean a real challenge. Just practice - like
you and me."
"Jiro is not your trainer nor your practice dummy," John said.
A rare smile touched Jiro's lips. "I don't mind. I'll stand a practice with
him. No harm will come to him, and it would do him good to sample another's
technique."
John glared at Jiro.
"Let me. Please!" Penel pleaded.
John's eyes narrowed. "All right. Perhaps Jiro's right. A taste of another's
methods might benefit you." He also thought, it might be interesting to see Jiro
in action. As yet, he had no feel for the little Warrior's ability.
The practice match took place the next morning. It had rained briefly during
the night. Everything sparkled with fresh moisture as the sun's rays touched the
open fields. Penel faced Jiro with confidence. The smaller man's fourth level
rating obviously did not impress him. He drew his sword and stood ready, his
eyes bright. Jiro stood passively, his face revealing nothing. His drawn sword,
specially made, was lighter than a standard war sword, though of the same
length. He held it canted downward and slightly to his right.
"Ready!" John called. "Begin!"
Penel rushed forward, then stopped, his eyes widening with bewilderment.
He looked down to see Jiro's sword jammed firmly against his breastplate; his
own sword was lying in the grass several feet away. In a move faster than the
youth's eye could follow, the small Warrior had flicked the tip of his sword
upward, catching Penel's weapon just distal of its hand guard, and had flipped
it from his grip. With only a slight backhand motion, he had brought his sword
to the boy's chest. The match had lasted less than two seconds.
John knew he should have been angry, for Penel's improvident rush had
violated all that he had tried to teach him. However, when he saw the look on
Penel's face, he could not help laughing. The boy stood helplessly, his brown
face turning the ruddy color of banked coals. He picked up his sword and
retreated to the camp.
Jiro turned to John. "Maybe you'd care to give me a lesson?"

John's laughter turned to surprise. Then he looked closely at Jiro's face.


Within its studied passivity he saw a look of faint amusement, but also
carefully controlled excitement. He grinned. "This is what you wanted all
along, isn't it?"
Jiro said nothing, but the two squared off. John held a war sword, not his
usual brodsrd since the latter was not considered a fair dueling weapon. To
take Jiro with it, John knew, would risk serious injury to the smaller Warrior.
"Are you ready?" Jiro asked.
"Begin," John said.
Jiro danced in lightly, his sword moving like a wand of light. John backstepped, keeping his own sword close, using strictly defensive parries. Even
Engar had not moved with such speed. Yet the little man did not have the
power to do more than tickle John's sword. Twice Jiro tried to disarm John
with the trick he had used on Penel, but trying to flick a sword from John's grip
was like trying to flick a tree from its moorings. Gradually, Jiro's speed eased.
Unable to take John in a sprint-attack, he settled for the long haul and shifted
from pure offense to mixed defense.
John quit backing and began to circle. In spite of his huge size advantage,
he knew Jiro's speed made the match nearly equal, and his earlier fights had
taught him to rely on endurance as much as strength. Patiently, he bided his
time, careful never to allow Jiro an opening. When he sensed the little Warrior
beginning to tire, he opened his swing slightly, giving his opponent a line of
attack to his body. Jiro moved in.
Fast as he was, Jiro had underestimated how quickly his bulky opponent
could respond. John side-stepped and let the blade graze the outer edge of his
body armor. He stepped forward and jabbed his knotted left fist against Jiro's
breastplate. Jiro went backwards, a foot off the ground, then hit on his behind
and tumbled heels-over-head.
"Are you all right?" John rushed forward. He had not meant to use so much
force.
Jiro sat up, shaking his head. He got slowly to his feet and tested his limbs.
"That was not fair," he said. "I had only a sword. You had a sword and a
mace."
John laughed, relieved that his companion had suffered no serious damage.
"I think, perhaps, we have tested one another enough. You are as fine a
swordsman as I've faced."
"And you have more tricks than I suspected for one so new to Faland." Jiro

was uncharacteristically grinning.


Penel had watched silently. He went about his tasks soberly as they broke
camp, more thoughtful than was his norm. By noon, they entered an open, arid
land crossed with parched gullies and dotted with small, eroded hills. Their
route turned westerly and took them to the edge of an enormous cliff.
"The Great Barrier Cliff," Jiro said. "A couple of hundred legons to the
east is Biclif."
"Waydn is west of Biclif," Penel added, with a knowing air. "My father
says it's the only way to the northern desert."
"To Aul'kalee," Jiro said. "I've been there - to the oasis Oasib. We will not
be going to Aul'kalee this trip."
Below the cliff stretched a desolate, waterless plain. Even on the rim,
water was scarce, but Jiro led them to a small spring in a rocky sandstone
canyon half a legon from the cliff. There they set up camp, bathed in the clear
water of a smooth-walled pothole, rested, and planned.
For three days, the trio worked west, following Great Barrier Cliff until it
swung in an enormous arc to the north. "Barrier Bend," Jiro said, gesturing
toward the jumbled cliffs and spires that marched north and east. "It's our
reference to North Fortress."
"Is it far, yet?" Penel asked.
"A few days."
John halted Jack on a rise where he could see the enormity of Aul'kalee on
his right. Ahead, in flat relief under the noon sun, rank on rank of flat-topped
mesas marched to the limits of vision. "Reminds me of northern New Mexico."
Penel looked puzzled. "Is that near Oshan?"
John smiled. "It's an old memory . . . from long ago and far away."
"From the Other World?" Penel's question was hesitant. Elwind had
cautioned him not to speak of the Other World, especially not to Other
Worlders. Many Falandians did not believe there truly was another world.
"I'll tell you about it sometime," John said. "But now, we better catch up
with our Scout." Jiro had continued riding and was half a legon ahead,
dropping down a long descent toward a complex of small canyons. John had
closed half the distance when he spotted riders, three at first, then four more,
coming from a side canyon to his left. Almost at the same instant, he heard
Penel's cry and, turning, saw half a dozen more riders emerge from a boulder
field on the right. "Ride, Pen!" he yelled, slapping his heels against Jack's
flanks. Penel kicked his mount and rattled after John at full gallop, the pack

string trailing behind.


Jiro headed for a stand of thick brush at the base of the slope. His mount
had barely come to speed when a dozen new riders emerged from the brush in
front. He wheeled and reined hard. John and Penel closed rank with him.
"It's an ambush!" John pulled his brodsrd from the scabbard on Jack's hip.
Two dozen riders closed around the trio, coming to a stop in a ring twenty
paces away.
"Cha'kur," Jiro said, his voice a low hiss. "They don't plan to fight. They'll
talk first."
The riders were tall, well muscled, all men. They wore no body armor,
only loincloths. Elaborate necklaces, armbands, and wristlets of brightly
colored stones and painted wooden beads adorned most.
Indians, John could not help thinking.
They had the broad faces of Faland natives but their skin was the silvergray color of weathered wood. Large round eyes, as gray as his own, stared at
John with expressions as blank as Jiro's. The gray-skins carried spears or
lances, bows and arrows, and knives sheathed on their hips. None had swords.
John's eyes focused on one who was different. This one wore the armor of a
Faland Warrior. He sat erect, astride a horven, and John judged his height at
two or three inches over six feet and his weight a good two hundred fifty
pounds, all muscle. A red Warrior's crest, bearing the uffs of level seven,
swept his black hair from a deeply tanned, Caucasian forehead. Wide-set eyes,
black as his hair, peered from under bushy brows. The Warrior detached from
the circle and rode toward John. Penel shifted uneasily and the pack string
fidgeted on his lead.
"Easy," John said to Penel, his eyes never leaving the approaching
Warrior's face.
The rider stopped with his mount's nose hardly a pace from Jack's. His
face looked vaguely familiar. "Your failure to remember me is not surprising."
His expression was one of amusement. "I passed you once, though you hardly
noticed. You're John, trained by Engar, Weapon-master to the Mentat Warrior. I
saw you when I was leaving a hunter's camp near Or'gn. Your Training-master
had just cheated me of victory in a fight."
John lowered his brodsrd. "I remember. I glimpsed you as I rode into
camp. I recall your match with Engar. Way I heard it, it was a fair one, between
equals, and could have gone either way."
"You heard one side," Merdeln said. "But it's a small matter. You can put

away your weapons; you won't need them."


"What's a Faland Warrior doing with the Cha'kur?" Jiro asked. His face
remained blank but his voice held a barely detectable edge.
"These people are my friends," Merdeln said. "I find their company
felicitous."
"No doubt. Yet you wear the crest of an honorable Warrior."
"Easy, Jiro," John warned. "We've no reason to question anyone's honor."
He slipped his brodsrd into its scabbard and motioned Penel to sheath his
weapon.
"I have no quarrel with you." Merdeln addressed Jiro. "You might think
carefully about your position before you decide to change that."
John heard the threat in Merdeln's voice and did not miss the cold glint in
his eye. "What business have you with us that causes you to stop us with such
urgency?"
Merdeln laughed. "I apologize for my friends. They have a flare for the
dramatic. This is their land and they are naturally curious about uninvited
visitors."
"I didn't know we needed an invitation," John said cooly.
The cold glint returned to Merdeln's eyes. "Now you know." His voice was
flat. Then his laughter returned. "But you could not have known before.
Besides, it no longer matters. You will be guests tonight at my camp."
"Your camp? Do you speak for the Cha'kur?"
"In some things. I'm their War Chief. The Cha'kur appreciate my talents and
the skills I bring them."
"Ah," Jiro nodded, "you are their War Chief. Do the Cha'kur have so many
enemies?"
"The power to make war has many uses," Merdeln said. "Sometimes it
even encourages friendship. Enough of this! Let's ride. We will feast well
tonight."

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Cauldrons of boiling vegetables steamed over a central fire. Biven, devon


and sturk roasted on spits alongside. As John rode into the Cha'kur camp,
escorted by Merdeln and his men, he wondered if the food preparation had
been ordered on his and his companion's behalf. If so, Merdeln must have
expected them and prepared for their arrival in advance.
Merdeln's reference to the settlement as a camp had been understatement; it
more closely resembled a village, set in a broad, green valley, between two
flat-top mesas. Gray-skinned children, with sleek, lightly clad bodies,
swarmed among hide-covered dome dwellings. Women worked at their chores
with an air of familiarity that suggested long habitation.
Cha'kur boys took the newcomer's horven to a corral and turned them in
with the village riding stock. Penel went along and unpacked the string. He
stowed the supplies in a shelter assigned to the trio for the night.
Feasting began immediately. Women served mountains of food in wooden
bowls. Everyone ate together, with no attention to etiquette, seated or lounging
around a huge outdoor communal fire. The common hearth served for cooking
and as a focal point for singing, dancing and storytelling. Boisterous children,
ignored by the adults, laughed, talked, ate and ran through the serving area,
kicking up dust that got in the food. John found Cha'kur speech, a combination
of halting English and rapid sing-song patter, difficult to follow. However, the
Cha'kur rarely addressed their guests, ignoring them as completely as they
ignored their own children. Only the serving women paid attention, plying
everyone with endless streams of roast meat and boiled vegetables.
John ate hugely, finding the food delicious. He noted with satisfaction that
Penel also ate with good appetite. The boy's eyes still shone with excitement,
but his fear had given way to curiosity. Jiro ate with stolid indifference,
maintaining the blank expression John had come to recognize as a long studied
pose.
The Cha'kur War Chief bustled around camp, laughing and joking, showing
an apparent mastery of Cha'kur sing-song. He, like the natives, appeared to pay
little heed to the guests, yet John was sure his attention never strayed far from
them.
By the time the feast ended, stars burned like the eyes of night predators in

the moonless sky. Merdeln disappeared, but John saw guards near small fires
all around the village. Though no one overtly restricted their movements, he
suspected an attempt to leave would be challenged. With Penel and Jiro, he
retired to their assigned dome, a structure made of wooden poles arranged in a
circle with radius of ten or twelve feet. Embedded in the ground, the poles had
been bent and fastened at the top-center. Animal hides, stretched over the
frame, made the structure water and wind proof. Cords worked a ventilation
flap at the top. Even John could stand, with distance to spare above his head,
and the dwelling was spacious enough to accommodate a large family.
"Are we prisoners?" Penel asked.
"Maybe," John said. "We appear to have the run of the village but I doubt
we'd be allowed to leave."
"We could sneak out," Penel said. "The corral is poorly lighted. I didn't see
anyone near it awhile ago."
"Perhaps you have forgotten, it is the dark of the moon," Jiro said, faint
derision in his voice. "And there are guards at fires around the village. We'd
have to carry lighted lamps to protect ourselves from felven. How hard do you
think it would be to track a lighted caravan at night?"
Penel's face darkened in the yellow light of the lamp. "I didn't think of
that."
"I don't know what Merdeln has in mind," John said. "He hasn't yet asked
us why we're here."
"He knows what we've come for," Jiro said. "And I don't trust him even if
he is an honorable Warrior."
"He makes me a bit uneasy as well," John said. "But we're here at least for
the night. Let's get some sleep. I have a hunch Merdeln will let us know his
intent tomorrow."
***
John rose at first light. As he stepped into the clear, pale morning, he saw
Merdeln squatted near the common hearth, a cup in his hand. The sun had not
yet risen and his form was dark, silhouetted against the glowing coals.
"I'm glad to see you're an early riser," Merdeln said. "Grab a cup and join
me."
John took a cup from a rack near the hearth. He dipped the metal mug in a
steaming, open kettle of drog. Low humidity had allowed the air to cool during
the night, and John savored the hot liquid, waiting for Merdeln to speak.
"I know why you're here," Merdeln said. He waited for John's reaction but

the big Warrior said nothing.


"Even here, news arrives quickly," Merdeln said. "I've talked the Cha'kur
into letting you enter the mesa ruin. I know that's why you came; to find the
treasure. I will go with you. If the legends are right, there's more than enough
treasure for both of us and I can make it easier for you."
"That's mighty decent," John said. "But why haven't you gone after the
treasure on your own? Wasn't that your purpose when you moved in with the
Cha'kur?"
Merdeln smiled. "A fair question. And you're right; it has been in my mind.
But the Cha'kur are a superstitious lot. They're afraid of a demon they think
lives in the dungeon. They won't let anyone enter for fear the demon will get
angry and take it out on them."
"So why the change of heart? If you couldn't talk them in to letting you go,
how did you convince them to let me?"
"They're impressed by your great size. And I told them you wield a magic
brodsrd."
John snorted. "You're big and carry a brodsrd. Why didn't you tell them
yours is magic?"
"Ah, but that's not all," Merdeln said. "The Cha'kur have heard of the
Mentat Warrior and his partners. They know you were with them in the battle
against demons in the catacombs beneath Slavhos and again in Blackwater
Cave. Reputation is everything in Faland. It wasn't hard to convince the
Cha'kur that you were the strong arm the Mentat Warrior used against the
demons."
"Okay," John said. "Say the Cha'kur let us into the ruin; will they let us
leave with the treasure afterwards?"
"They'll want a cut, of course. Even the Cha'kur know the value of treasure.
But they'll let us go. And, unless I miss my guess, with riches enough to pay us
handsomely. I've cultivated my relationship with them carefully. After all, I am
their War Chief. They respect me."
"Where I go, my friends go," John said.
"Of course," Merdeln said. "But any treasure they receive will come from
your share."
John nodded. "Okay, when do we start?"
"As soon as you're ready."
***
Merdeln generously offered to provide all the provisions for the

expedition, but John insisted his pack string and supplies accompany them. He
told Merdeln he did not want to return to the Cha'kur village, two days out of
his way, after dividing the treasure. Though obviously displeased, Merdeln
agreed.
Four Cha'kur Warriors accompanied the expedition. Merdeln explained
they were for added protection against renegades, though John suspected that
was only an excuse to allow the Cha'kur War Chief to bring his bodyguards.
On the second day, Jiro rode close to John and whispered, "We're being
shadowed, a short distance back."
"How many?" John asked.
"Half a dozen," Jiro said. "Maybe more."
"You think renegades?"
"They're from the village," Jiro said. "I slipped away and got close enough
to recognize one."
"Treachery, perhaps?"
"I'd say so," Jiro said. "Merdeln's or someone else's."
John nodded. "Don't let on we know."
Late on the afternoon of the third day, the expedition inched up a narrow
trail to the top of a broad mesa. Many legons in extent, the mesa commanded a
view of broken, convoluted land, dominated by red, mauve, green and gray
mesas that stretched everywhere to the limits of vision.
"Last time I was here, the Cha'kur stopped Etuniad in the valley at the base
of the trail," Jiro told John. "This is my first time on top. I see this mesa's value
for a fort, assuming there was something worth protecting in the surrounding
country."
"Or a fort here might serve as refuge in case of defeat elsewhere," John
said. "I wonder where they got their water? It seems a long haul from the base
of the mesa, over a route difficult to defend."
A sparse stand of conifers covered much of the mesa. Poor stony soil
supported patches of coarse grass in open areas among the conifers. Merdeln
stopped in a shallow flat with better than average grass.
"The Cha'kur will go no farther," he announced. "We will set up camp here.
Entrance to the dungeon is about half a legon away."
John chose his tent site as far from Merdeln and his men as possible
without arousing suspicion. He used the sparse forage as excuse, pointing out
to Merdeln that the horven needed to graze separately if they were to have
enough to eat, yet they should be hobbled near their owner's tents.

Penel unpacked the horven while Jiro set up the tent. John helped Merdeln
build a common hearth midway between the two camps. When the evening
meal was finished, and stars again filled the sky, they built small fires around
the tents, brought the horven within the lighted ring, and posted guards.
"Only Merdeln and I will go into the dungeon," John told Penel and Jiro
when the three were seated together in their tent.
"No!" Jiro protested. "You'll need backup. I' ll go with you."
"You and Penel must guard the camp," John said. "There are four Cha'kur
here who will not enter the dungeon. I can handle Merdeln if the need arises,
and I don't want to come out and find the supplies and horven gone. Have you
seen any sign of the shadow riders?"
Jiro shook his head. "Not since climbing the mesa, but they could be here,
waiting."
"If they're after the treasure, they'll wait until Merdeln and I return," John
said. "But if they're part of a plot by Merdeln, they may strike while I'm away.
You must be on guard."
"But if they attack," Penel's eyes had grown large in his brown face, "we
can't fight off so many."
"Tonight, under cover of darkness, we'll make a cache of food and
supplies," Jiro said. "Tomorrow I'll watch from the scrub while you watch the
camp, Penel. If an attack comes, we'll leave the tent, take the horven, and find a
hiding place in the scrub. The cache will protect our supplies."
"On this barren mesa, a hiding place might be hard to come by," John said.
A smile touched Jiro's lips. "I can find cover where others think there is
none."
John took morning watch and was at the fire when Merdeln arose. Faint
gray light touched the eastern horizon. By the time the gray light turned the
color of a fair maiden's blushing cheek, John and Merdeln, in full armor and
burdened by heavy field packs, stood at the brink of a dark passage. Open to
the elements, the entrance to the man-made passage had become a repository
for wind blown sand. It piled in irregular drifts on steep stone steps. Water
from infrequent rains had wet the steps and worn small grooves and gullied the
sand.
John lighted the lamp strapped to his helmet.
"From the look of it, it's been a long time since anyone's used these steps,"
Merdeln said. "I talked the Cha'kur into letting me scout the area a few weeks
ago but I didn't go inside."

As John descended, the hair on the nape of his neck stiffened. He wished
he had Robert's silver amulet. In moments, the steps ended at a massive iron
door. "I hope you brought the key," he said.
Merdeln studied the flat black slab. "It's supposed to slide open, I think." A
heavy vertical iron bar, attached on the left side of the door, served as handle.
Merdeln put his weight to it. "Don't just stand there," he grunted. "Give me a
hand."
John put his hands to the handle, jammed his feet against the opposing wall,
and joined his great strength to Merdeln's. With grinding jerks, lurching and
caterwauling like a tormented cat, the iron slab slid a few feet to the right, then
wedged securely.
"It's wide enough," Merdeln said, blowing to get back his wind.
John slipped through the opening behind Merdeln. Something hard hit him
almost instantly. Staggering, he snatched his brodsrd from its scabbard. He saw
Merdeln lurch in the darkness ahead and leaped forward, swinging his brodsrd
through the slight clearance above his head. The blade caught the apex of an
eight-foot bipedal beast, cleaving the hapless creature to its chest. He stepped
around the fallen attacker, brodsrd raised, and strained to see in his lamp's pale
beam. No other creatures attacked and he lowered his weapon.
"Damn!" Merdeln grunted. He had been knocked flat and rolled to regain
his feet. "I should've been more alert."
"You all right?"
Merdeln shook himself and ran his fingers over fresh dents in his armor.
"My body shield stopped the blow, but those talons could have done major
damage had they struck bare flesh." Merdeln pointed at the three inch claws on
the fallen beast's hands.
John knelt beside the crumpled mass. "It's a robot."
"Robot?"
"Like the demons in the catacombs. Faland demons are robots. This one's
different from those I encountered in the catacombs but it's built along the same
principles." John got to his feet. "Look around. Must be a station somewhere
near; a place where it got its power. The demons are electronic machines."
Merdeln laughed. "A machine? You mean that's it? That's the demon of the
dungeon?" Merdeln's laugh increased. "It didn't manage much of a fight against
you. Maybe I wasn't far off when I told the Cha'kur your brodsrd is magic."
"Don't crow too soon," John said. "Where there's one there are likely more.
In the catacombs they were stationed in pairs."

Merdeln lit his lamp and drew his brodsrd. "I won't be taken by surprise
again, but I don't feel much threatened by a machine that can be wrecked by a
single stroke."
Past the iron door, the passage leveled. John found the station where the
robot guard had stood, connected to its power receptacle for years that may
have stretched to centuries. A second robot, intact stood silently in its alcove.
"Probably malfunctioned. No telling how long these things have been
here."
Merdeln raised his brodsrd and plunged it through the robot's body. "I don't
want it waking and coming after us," he said when he saw the look in John's
eye.
John examined the socket where the robot had drawn its power. It's design
was unfamiliar. He rocked back on his heels, his brow knotted. "Socket must
be powered. I wonder if it could be tapped?" He went to the robot still in its
alcove. "If it's still connected, maybe we can see what the plug looks like."
"That's all very interesting," Merdeln said, "but hardly what we came for.
Let's go. You can play with your robots later." He started down the passage.
John hurried to catch up. Abruptly, the passage opened into a circular
chamber large enough to house a football field. John stopped. Emptiness
swallowed the light from his lamp. At first he saw nothing, then overhead
caught the glint from a distant, hemispheric ceiling surfaced with black stone.
The floor was of polished stone tiles expertly fitted to form a complex,
endlessly varying pattern.
"You could house a village in here," Merdeln said.
"There's a hearth in the center."
As black as the ceiling, the hearth was nearly invisible in the feeble light of
their lamps, yet it was built on a scale to match the room. As they walked
toward it, even their soft mokads struck the tiles hard enough to coax sounds
that echoed in the vast chamber. The oblong hearth was choked with the black
coals of an ancient fire. When the fire was burning, a metal hood, hung from the
ceiling above the hearth, had funneled smoke into a vertical chimney that
vanished into the hemisphere's distant apex.
"It's blocked." Merdeln peered upward into the rubble-clogged shaft that
was the chimney. Several large boulders had dropped into the bed of coals.
"Must have been a conference room, or perhaps a theater," John said. "I see
a raised platform opposite the entry. It might have served as a speaker's
platform or a stage."

"There are kettle-hooks over the fireplace and sockets for spits around the
periphery," Merdeln said. "The fire pit is laid out like a Cha'kur cooking
hearth."
Within all the vast room, they found nothing more. However, they did find
four passages in addition to the one by which they had entered. One each was
located at ninety degrees to either side of the main entrance, the others joined
the room behind the speaker's platform.
"Let's start on the right and take the passages one by one," Merdeln
suggested.
They spent most of a day exploring many additional passages and side
rooms. Apparently the owners of the enclave had abandoned it in an orderly
manner for they had taken everything, in some cases even the doors from the
rooms. In every passage, alcoves were found where robot guards had once
been stationed, but other than the two at the outside entrance, all were empty.
"It's been cleaned out," Merdeln said with no attempt to conceal his
disappointment. "If there was a treasure, someone beat us to it."
"There may be more here than meets the eye," John said. "The entry guards
were not likely left to guard emptiness."
"Maybe it wasn't always empty," Merdeln said. "I've seen no place to
conceal anything."
"I'm not ready to give up," John said but did not tell Merdeln the reason.
The Cha'kur War Chief knew nothing about the bronze amulets, and he
preferred to keep it that way. "I think we should return to camp, rest and return
again tomorrow. Now that we've eliminated the entrance guard, perhaps your
Cha'kur friends can be persuaded to join us. Jiro and Penel can also add their
eyes to the hunt. With more looking, we can search more thoroughly."
Merdeln agreed and the two returned to camp. When he saw John coming,
Jiro rose from the rocks, appearing so abruptly it appeared he materialized
from the air. His cover looked inadequate to hide even a squal, yet had
camouflaged him and a trio of rabir he had bagged earlier. "Dinner," Jiro said,
holding up the rabir.
"It's been quiet all day," Penel said, yawning elaborately as John and Jiro
approached.
"Maybe so, but there are riders on the mesa," Jiro said. "Two dozen are
camped three legons north. They've been in contact with Merdeln's men."
John's brow furrowed, and he rubbed a thick hand through his white beard.
"You think Merdeln knows?"

"No way to tell," Jiro said. "They didn't move against us while he was
gone. I take it you found no treasure?"
"Not yet," John said. "We killed a guard - a black, flat-headed, eight foot
monster."
"Only one? A robot I presume."
John looked surprised.
"Talk is, the demons are robots," Jiro said. "Someone overheard remarks
you and your friends made after leaving the catacomb."
Penel's eyes had grown wide. "What's a robot?"
"A machine," John told him, "made to serve its maker. I think Faland's
demons may all be machines, either man-made or built by some other
intelligence."
"Then the demon is dead?" Penel asked. "You and Merdeln destroyed it?"
"We did," John said. "Tomorrow, we will return to the dungeon and make a
more careful search. Merdeln and I found only empty rooms, but I believe there
must be more. I'd like both of you to come along. Merdeln is going to try to talk
his Cha'kur Warriors into joining us as well."
"What about the mesa riders?" Jiro asked.
John shrugged. "I don't know. If Merdeln is plotting with them, nothing is
likely to happen until we find the treasure. Even if he knows nothing about
them, they will likely wait to see if we succeed before making a move."
"Shouldn't we warn Merdeln?" Penel asked. "In case he doesn't know
about them?"
"That's not a good idea," Jiro said. "If they are Merdeln's men, tipping our
hand too soon could get us killed."
"Jiro's right," John said. "Now, I suggest we join Merdeln at the fire and
get our supper cooked. Tomorrow is likely to be a busy day."

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Everyone gathered in the great room at North Fortress. The Cha'kur were
still nervous and had refused to enter until John and Merdeln dragged the fallen
robot guard back to its alcove and concealed it there. Now the men insisted on
setting extra lamps near the hearth and at the mouth of each passage.
John stepped to the speaker's platform. His white hair cascading to his
shoulders and his white beard reflecting the yellow flames from a dozen
lamps, wreathed his face in light and accentuated his great size. The Cha'kur
looked on him with awe, a look mirrored in Penel's face.
"Merdeln and I have searched the passages and the rooms. You'll find
nothing obvious. Look for small things: raised or incised patterns, unusual
colorations, irregularities in joins between pavers, anything that might suggest
something out of the ordinary. If you find something, no matter how slight, make
a note of it. Take your time; we can spend several days if necessary. If
something is to be found, the more careful our search, the greater our chance of
discovering it. Spread out. We'll search the central chamber first and meet here
at noon to compare findings."
The searchers set out into the vast dark space, carrying lights that moved
like scattered stars in the emptiness. They reckoned time by their lamps, using
built-in sight-gauges to see how much oil remained. At noon they gathered and
looked into one another's discouraged faces. Nothing had been found.
"We're wasting time by all sticking together," Merdeln said, his voice
gravelly with irritation. "Let's split up and speed the job."
The Cha'kur immediately began to mutter and turned angry eyes on their
War Chief. "We stay together," one said. "This is a bad place."
"Humph!" Merdeln's lip curled. "Superstitious nonsense." He turned to
Martin. "What about you? We can search more if we go separate ways."
"Okay with me," John said. "Jiro, you and Penel take the south passage.
Merdeln and I will explore the tunnels behind the hearth."
Merdeln sent the Cha'kur, all four together, into the north tunnel while he
and John moved into separate tunnels beyond the hearth. John had walked his
tunnel the day before but had made only a cursory examination. Now he
carefully studied the seamless dark walls. Rectangular flagstones, laid with
monotonous regularity, paved the floor. In contrast to those of the central

chamber, these were not polished. Depressions worn in their surfaces spoke of
much traffic, yet the hallway was dust free, as clean as if freshly broomed.
After a hundred feet, John reached the first of many doorless side chambers
that opened both ways from the hall. The interval between rooms varied with
room size, but all were rectangular, empty, and with black plaster walls and
clean stone floors.
How is this place ventilated?
He moistened a finger and held it up. Slight coolness told him air was
streaming along the hallway toward the great room. Must be exit vents in the
dome. Probably partially blocked like the chimney. But where does the air
enter?
John took a coil of rope from his pack and cut a short length. He touched
one end to his lamp. The rope flared and he blew out the flame. Coils of smoke
rising from the charred rope flattened against the ceiling and streamed toward
the central chamber. Stepping into a side room, John watched the smoke stream
out the doorway. Squinting, he noticed a narrow crevice at the top of the wall
opposite the door. About two inches wide, it extended the length of the room.
He judged the ceiling height at perhaps twelve feet. Removing his pack, he
leaned his brodsrd against the wall, and clutching the smoldering rope between
thumb and palm, leaped and caught the crevice with the tips of his fingers.
Hauling himself up, he thrust the smoldering rope into the narrow opening,
gratified to see smoke blow into the room.
"Remarkable - the ventilation system still works."
He heard a slight cough behind and snatched up his brodsrd. He spun
quickly and saw a thin white wand reach out of the darkness. It touched his
wrist with a sound like popping corn. He yelped and felt his brodsrd fall from
nerveless fingers.
"Sorry," a small voice said.
John stared speechlessly at a white-robed dwarf with a stomach as round
as a ball, stubby arms and legs, and a face as wrinkled as crumpled paper.
"Your hand will be okay in a minute," the little fellow said. His white hair and
sideburns, white beard, and eyes the color of blue chalk made him look like a
pastel drawing.
John's fingers tingled. "What is that thing?"
"A purely defensive instrument suited to a small creature such as myself. I
didn't want you taking a swing with that meat cleaver of yours." The round
belly wobbled as the dwarf chuckled. "You might have separated my halves

before you knew who I was."


"Yeah, I might've. Who are you?" John retrieved his brodsrd, keeping a
wary eye on the slender white wand in the dwarf's pudgy hand.
"Janil, at your service." The dwarf bowed low. The hem of his white robe
touched the floor; the white wand vanished from his hand. "Follow me," he
commanded.
"Wait!"
The dwarf disappeared through the door, and John grabbed his pack. In
spite of short legs, the dwarf moved so quickly John had to run to catch up.
Appearing to float over the stone floor, Janil drifted into the central chamber
then rose to the speaker's platform. John thumped up the steps.
"There!" Janil pointed dramatically toward a spot on the back wall.
"Push!"
"Push?"
"Yes! Yes! Push!" Janil stamped his foot and bounced upward a foot or so,
his robe fluttering. "Don't just stand there, push!"
John dropped his pack and pressed lightly on the wall.
"No! No!" Janil's voice rose to a shrill pitch. "Use your muscles! Push like
you meant it!"
"Okay, okay." John hunched his shoulder against the wall and bore hard,
feeling his feet slide on the smooth floor. Janil pulled his wand from his robe
and touched John's mokads. John felt his feet lock in place, and beneath the
pressure of his shoulder, he felt the wall yield. An enormous slab pivoted and
suddenly he was facing an opening a dozen feet across. "Wow! You could
drive a truck through this door."
Janil drifted through. "Hurry! Before the others return - get your pack and
sword."
John snatched his gear.
"Shut the door and follow me."
John put his weight to the door and heard the solid thump as it locked shut.
Janil's feet shuffled in a peculiar gait, more slide than step. He floated
smoothly and efficiently along the stone floor and in a moment arrived at a
faintly illuminated side chamber. On a sturdy wooden table, John saw a black
object a foot or so on a side and two inches thick rigged with harness-straps
like a backpack.
"Put it on," Janil said..
"What is it?"

"A power pack; you'll need it."


John grunted as he lifted the heavy pack and wrestled with the straps.
"You're long on commands and short on explanations. I'd feel more
comfortable if I knew what this is about."
"That's the trouble with humans," Janil said, taking a message cylinder
from his robe. "Here, check it out. You've always got to know everything. It's
much easier working with droids. They do as they're told without a lot of
folderol."
John noted the seal of the Faland Master.
"It won't tell you much," Janil said.
John extracted a small paper. "Maybe, but at least it introduces you. Says
you'll help with my mission. While I get into this contraption, why don't you fill
me in. Why are you here? What is this blamed thing for?"
"Take it easy with that!" Janil said. "Here; let me show you." The dwarf
grabbed the wire harness. "Humans! If you break the wires, it won't work.
Bend over."
John leaned. Janil pulled the harness over his head, arranging it so the pack
rested on his back, then stretched the connecting mesh around John's armor,
fitting it like a coarsely woven elastic outer shirt. The sleeves ended in halfgloves with small black pads in the palms. When finished, Janil retrieved a
small folded scrap of wire mesh that had dropped on the floor. This he
wrapped around the handle of John's brodsrd, stretching it over the hand guard
and around the join between handle and blade. He reached a stubby finger and
pushed a small lever on the power pack. "Test time. With your brodsrd strike
the table a sturdy blow."
John adjusted the mesh until it fit smoothly, then hefted his brodsrd. With a
quick stroke he brought its edge against the plank table. Fire arced and the
table exploded in flame and smoke. He stared at his sword, then at the
fragments of table scattered on the floor.
"Good! Good!" Janil chuckled. "It works splendidly!" He punched the
lever on the pack. "This is the switch. You only get a score or so of pulses so
use them judiciously."
"That's impressive! What do you expect me to fight, King Kong?"
The white dwarf's bearded face wrinkled in a grin. "I don't know King
Kong, but you'll have a worthy opponent for a change; not one of those child's
toys you've been playing with." Janil scooted. "Come! I'll show you the way,
then you're on your own."

John slung his pack over his shoulder, relit his head lamp, and hastened
after his pallid guide.
"Drop chute ahead," Janil called. "It'll take you to Scrabid's chamber.
Scrabid guards the bronze amulets. Remember, use your power sparingly;
you'll need some to cut through the gate to the treasure room. Take the amulets
and follow the passage from Scrabid's chamber to an exit on the mesa. Outside
you'll find a horven. Ride south. Merdeln and his men will try to stop you, but
you must not let them seize the bronze amulets."
John was running to keep up with his small companion. Between breaths he
asked, "If Merdeln is an enemy, how is it he wears the head crest of an
honorable Warrior?"
"He has not yet turned renegade," Janil swung into a narrow, crudely
fashioned side passage, "but he will. Darc'un has his tentacles in him."
"Darc'un? I thought tales of Darc'un are myths." He ducked under a rock
and continued in a half-stoop.
"Darc'un's more than myth, but he's not your immediate concern."
The passage widened.
"We've arrived," Janil announced as they entered a small, stony cavern. In
the center was a dark pit. "The drop chute," Janil grinned. "Jump in feet first.
The walls are smooth and you'll slide into a passage leading to Scrabid's
chamber. Be on your toes when you reach the bottom of the chute!"
"I'm not crazy enough to jump into that hole!"
"Of course you are." Janil gave John a shove. "All will be clear, my
friend," he called as John tumbled into the chute. "Don't worry about your
friends. They are safe."
John slid against walls as slick as glass, not quite vertical. After a
breathless moment, his feet slammed against something hard that gave way. He
crashed through an opening , was airborne an instant, then struck a stone floor
with his fanny. Air punched from his lungs, and he shook his head.
Be on my toes, Janil said. Hard to do when I'm flat on my butt!
He scrambled to his feet and saw to his gear. His lamp had survived and
even remained lit. Its amber light glinted from the stones of a smooth-walled
passage. A faint line marked the drop chute. Apparently his feet had opened a
door which had then swung shut behind him. To his left, the tunnel ended
abruptly. Faint illumination outlined an exit in the opposite direction. John
walked toward the illumination. What manner of thing is Scrabid? I assume
something more than an eight-foot tall robot guard.

The tunnel opened into a large hemispherical room. From holders high on
smooth, dark walls, torches filled the space with saffron light. This great
cavity contained neither hearth nor dais. Three passages led away at right
angles. Two were barred with grillwork. John studied the third, a dozen feet
wide and half his height. It was a quarter turn around the room from where he
stood. His neck hair stiffened when he saw motion. Something large took form,
and he darted into the open to avoid being trapped in the narrow tunnel.
A flat black snout bulged from the side passage followed by fifty feet of
segmented body. It slithered into the room on dozens of scrabbling legs that
drummed against the flooring with a sound like the rush of wind through tall
trees. "Great scallywags, that's gotta be the granddaddy of all centipedes!"
Enormous jaws opened and flame belched into the room. Rosy fire washed
around John. He backed as tons of verminous nightmare charged. He heard the
hiss of the jaws opening and hurled himself sideways as another wall of flame
streaked toward him. In a single motion, he shucked his pack, sent it spinning
across the room, and drew his brodsrd. Cutting at right angles, he put on speed,
watching Scrabid out of the corner of his eye. Its head swung to follow his
motion, its jaws gaping. Within its throat, flames flared. Reversing direction,
thigh muscles straining, John ducked the stream of ruddy fire. Quickly, he
decided he could not long dodge the incinerating breath of his multi-legged
playmate so he charged straight at it.
Scrabid's dozens of legs slid on the polished stones as it tried to turn its
massive, armored structure. Twisting its head, it focused on its fleet opponent.
John raced alongside, leaped and felt his feet touch heaving surface. Sprawling
on the segmented back, he groped and found a grip at the join between two
segments. He got to his fee and flailed with his brodsrd. The only result was a
metallic clattering as his blade rattled against iron plates.
"The switch!" He reached over his shoulder. A wall slammed into his face.
As he hurtled backwards, his brodsrd ripped from his grip. Scrabid had darted
into its lair, flicking him off like scraping scum from a crab's back. Dazed,
John heard the hiss from Scrabid's chamber and rolled sideways as orange
flame erupted from the opening. Fire singed his legs and set his mokads
smoldering. An instant later, Scrabid's long body slithered again into the open.
John raced to the wall beside Scrabid's chamber, and saw the huge body
slide by. Confused, the great beast churned in a wide circle. John spotted his
brodsrd and ran for it. Before Scrabid could turn, he was again on its back.
This time he flipped the switch on his power pack, and with lightning strokes,

rained half a dozen blows on the segment behind Scrabid's head. Flame arced
from his blade and coils of electrical fire rolled along Scrabid's armor. The
vermiform arched, heaving John high into the air. He twisted, landed at an
angle, and tumbled half way across the chamber.
Scrabid convulsed, bucking and thrashing. Deafening squalls accompanied
fountains of fire as its jaws opened and closed. John retrieved his brodsrd and
got as far as possible from the writhing giant. When the racket diminished and
Scrabid's movements slowed, John recovered his pack and circled to the
nearer barred-passage. He had lost his headlamp and dug the spare from his
pack and lit it.
The bars were metal, an inch thick, solidly installed. Stepping back, John
delivered a powered blow with his brodsrd. Fire flashed and half a dozen bars
sundered. John entered a tunnel that took him a hundred yards to a round hole.
Another drop chute.
Janil had said nothing of a second chute, so he backtracked. The multilegged worm was still silent. He crossed to the second barred tunnel and used
his powered brodsrd to cut an opening. It took extra blows and John realized
the energy-pack was nearly exhausted. This passage ended at a closed door
fastened with a single bolt. A quick blow cut through, and John entered a small
room resplendent with jeweled-amulets and pendants. His eyes widened. He
had found the treasure of North Fortress.
He allowed himself a moment of temptation, then remembered Janil's
warning that haste was essential. Sorting quickly, he found among the amulets
nine made of bronze and ornamented with elaborate runes. "I could make my
fortune here," he murmured, and reached for a gaudy gold pendant.
A sound nudged his consciousness. "Oh, Lord!"
A dark shape loomed. Even as he sprinted, John heard hissing and barely
cleared the tunnel as flame exploded around him. Rolling, he felt flames lick
his flesh. His lamp skittered away. He staggered up, and with the smell of his
singed beard in his nostrils, loped toward the second passage with its drop
chute. Scrabid wheeled to cut him off.
I took too long. The foul beast was only stunned!
He saw Scrabid's jaws widen and flung up his arm to ward off the fire.
Cutting to the side, he dodged under the spray of fire and leaped. Prepared for
the motion of Scrabid's great body, he kept his feet on the heaving armor plates.
He hammered on Scrabid's plates with his brodsrd but had too little power left
in the energy-pack to do more than raise sparks. Scrabid slithered toward its

den. John dropped his backpack, stripped the energy-pack, and at the last
minute leaped clear of the dark body. It slithered into its hole and John hurled
the energy-pack into the opening, then raced across the cavern. Scrabid's blowtorch roared, followed by a muffled explosion. He had guessed rightly,
Scrabid's flaming breath had detonated the energy-pack releasing its residual
energy. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Scrabid scrambling out of the
flame.
"You're a tough old devil," he yelled.
But the diversion had yielded precious seconds, and John reached the drop
chute ahead of Scrabid. Flame belched and the walls brightened. John dove,
fire licking his heels. He plunged downward, crashed through a swing-door,
and piled against a stone wall. Slowly he untangled himself. It was pitch dark.
His ears rang with Scrabid's muffled roars. Groping, he dug out his last lamp,
pulled the flint from his belt pouch, and struck a light. Yellow flickers reflected
from mineralized walls.
Singed, battered, with blisters puffing, John hobbled along the dark way,
climbed steeply on crudely carved steps and inched along a stony incline. In
half an hour, the tunnel brought him to an iron door. Crouching at the door, he
fished frenwort from his first aid kit, mixed it with water, and bathed his
burned face, arms, and legs. He dug into his pack for food and water.
The iron door was like the one through which he and Merdeln had entered
the dungeon. He put his back to it and heard the groan as the seal broke. When
the opening was wide enough, he slipped through and looked into a sky
glittering with blue stars. Moonglow turned rocks and pines into silver
silhouettes, bright enough to guide his steps. He was near the mesa's edge and
saw a forested valley below. He settled among the rocks to wait for sunrise.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

John awoke with a start and glanced around anxiously, guilty at having
dozed so carelessly. Halos of brightness outlined the mesas to the east,
dimming the stars though the sun was still below the horizon. A dozen feet
away, a sleek little animal, reminiscent of a chipmunk, balanced on its
haunches atop a rock. It eyed him with round, dark eyes. It flicked its tail,
cocked its head to one side, and examined its viewer with attentive curiosity.
John thought it rather handsome and dignified in its red coat with white stripes
down either side.
"Well, professor, you and I seem to be the only two here." The professor
twitched its nose, winked knowingly, and disappeared among the boulders.
John stretched, groaning as he bent his stiffened limbs, and raised himself from
his stony bed. Cool air brought a shiver. He scanned his surroundings and
when satisfied he was alone, climbed onto a flat rock and watched the sun
climb over the mesa rim. He worked kinks from his cramped muscles and blew
the last dregs of dungeon from his lungs. Peeling skin marked subsiding blisters
as already his body had begun healing.
He grimaced when he examined his armor and clothing and saw the
charred ruin Scrabid's fire had made of them. His mokads were so badly
burned they had split and his toes bulged through. He drew his brodsrd and
examined its surface, pitted and scarred from fire and hard contact with iron
plates and bars. At the brink of the mesa, he found a place in the sun, and while
eating a breakfast of jerked devon and vegetable scones, honed his blade with
an oiled stone. A sound alerted him, and he dropped the stone, raised his
brodsrd, and turned. He drew in his breath. Standing before him, with head
held high, he saw a great shaggy beast of noble mien. Its yellow-white fur was
the color of cloud dipped in gold, and it looked at him with steady clear eyes
as gray as his own. He had never seen such a magnificent animal.
"Is this a horven?" John's voice quavered. "Is this the horven Janil
promised would be waiting for me?"
The huge animal, regal as a king, walked toward him, its broad hooves
maneuvering among the boulders as surely as a mountain goat. As it
approached, its size seemed to grow.
"I didn't know a horven could be so large and so beautiful!"

The animal extended its muzzle. John reached, almost afraid to touch the
creature lest it disappear like a leftover phantom from his dreams. When his
hand made contact, the white horven nuzzled his fingers and nickered softly.
"You're real." John stroked its soft muzzle. He circled the horven and saw
that it was a stallion, standing nearly as tall as his head at the shoulder, which
meant its weight must approach a ton. Cinched to its back was a white leather
saddle with gilded saddlebags, and slung behind the saddle was a war bow,
made of silver and black metal strung with cabling woven from red metallic
strands.
"I see, my friend, you come equipped." He stroked the stallion's flank as he
took the bow. His own been left outside the dungeon "Compound." His voice
filled with surprise. "The first I've seen in Faland." He stroked the cables and
fingered the wheels. "Well made; a high tech machine, definitely not from
Or'gn's shops."
He pulled and grunted at the enormous force required. "Two hundred
pounds, if it's an ounce!" Yet, at full draw, he found it as easy to hold as his old
bow with half the draw weight. The arrows were an equal wonder, some
heavy, others lighter. John drew a heavier shaft from its quiver. He had not
seen such an arrow before; its steel shank was four feet long, tipped with a
blade five inches wide. It seemed almost like a small spear. He nocked it to the
bow-string, sighted on a gnarled pine thirty yards away and drew, pleased that
he could hold the draw steady.
He released.
The arrow whined outward, its polished shaft blinking in the early light. It
followed a nearly flat trajectory and struck its target with a sound like a heavy
axe splitting oak. The eight-inch trunk shattered, its halves toppling outward.
Passing through the gap, the arrow lodged deep in the trunk of a second tree.
"Wow!"
To recover the arrow, John was forced to hack it free. When he finished the
task, he turned and saw that the horven had followed him. As it trotted into the
open, the rising sun struck its fur and formed a spray of golden fire in the long
guard hairs.
"Skyfire!" John cried. "I will call you Skyfire!"
John went to the stallion, stowed his bow, and mounted. Skyfire held
steady under the weight of his new master. Sitting so high, John could see for
legons across the open mesa, and the first thing he saw was a cluster of two
dozen riders approaching fast from the north.

"Merdeln!" He had almost forgotten.


"Gee-up!"
The great stallion, though burdened by John's weight, leaped ahead as if it
carried nothing at all. In seconds they were sailing over the mesa in a rolling
gallop. Then John spotted more riders, these coming from the south, and others
from the west. He cursed softly, regretting his careless slumber. Merdeln's men
had trapped him, cut him off on three sides with the edge of the mesa on the
fourth.
Reining sharply, he sized up the knots of approaching riders. The fewest
came from the north. He swung his bow up, nocked one of his lighter arrows,
and at a hundred fifty yards, swept a Cha'kur Warrior off his horven. He
dropped three more before their swift charge brought them to sixty yards, and
they began to return fire.
Drawing his brodsrd, John urged Skyfire to a gallop. The stallion sensed
what was needed and ran, weaving and dodging among boulders and gnarly
trees. Arrows dropped fore and aft. Roaring with his best imitation of Jason's
Kroll war cry, he closed, sweeping through the Cha'kur cavalry like a scythe
through wheat. Those left standing milled in panic, trying to turn their mounts
out of the path of the giant white stallion and its murderous rider.
As John cleared the detachment he saw ahead half a hundred fresh
Warriors, Merdeln at their head. A glance over his shoulder showed those from
the south and west converging on him.
These bronze amulets must be valuable indeed.
He swung his mount, seeking a way out. The only avenue was east to the
mesa's edge
"Well, Skyfire, I hope you can fly!"
He kicked the animal's flanks and bent low over its neck. Skyfire did not
hesitate. At the cliff's edge, at full gallop, horven and rider went over the rim
without missing a stride. They dropped onto a near vertical, rubble strewn
slope. Dancing and twisting as delicately as a ballerina, the giant stallion
threaded its way around huge boulders and through knee deep scree. Clouds of
dust rose around them. John's riding skill was tested to the limit as he strove to
maintain his seat.
In seconds the slope lessened. Skyfire's gait smoothed as he took his rider
into the timbered valley at the foot of the mesa. Glancing up, John saw Merdeln
and his horde clustered at the mesa's edge. None dared the drop.
John whooped. His voice echoed from the cliffs. "Match that, Merdeln, my

not so true friend!" He raised his bow in his right hand and galloped into the
sheltering trees. Hour after hour, the white stallion ran, carrying his rider far
south. John knew no ordinary horven could catch Skyfire, and after a time, he
ceased to glance back to see if Merdeln was following. Late in the afternoon,
he pulled up at a small pond sheltered between two high mesas. A trickle
dropped from rocks into the pond. Skyfire was blowing softly, but clearly not
near his limit. However, shadows were lengthening and John decided to camp
for the night. He unsaddled Skyfire, led him to water, then set him loose to
graze. He did not hobble the animal for he knew Skyfire could have left at any
time on the mesa, yet did not.
In his saddlebags he found ground cloth, tent, new mokads, ukelns, first aid
kit, oil, lamps, food, two full canteens, tools, a dozen hummers, kalard, even an
atla and a tagan. "I'll not want for supplies, and what have we here?" He drew
out a small purse. Inside he found eighty ralls. "It would seem Janil thought of
everything."
John took out the atla and laughed. It was obvious the steel shanked heavy
arrows, one of which he had launched from his bow, were actually the short
spears intended to be thrown with the atla. He poised the weapon along his
right arm, laid a spear on it, and with a swift forward thrust, hurled it eighty
yards into the trunk of a large tree. He smiled with satisfaction.
After recovering his spear, he set up his tent, gathered wood, and built a
small, smokeless fire. While water heated, he bathed, cleaned his armor, put on
a fresh ukeln, and discarded his ruined mokads. The new mokads fit perfectly.
He dropped meat and potans, found in his saddlebags, into the simmering kettle
and seasoned the mix with herbs he found growing near the pond. After eating,
he lounged by the fire and drank drog while stars, a few at first, then in great
numbers, appeared in the sky. Skyfire rummaged nearby, gleaming white in the
dark. John rolled into his blankets, well satisfied with his circumstances.
***
At dusk the following day, when growing dark made finding a camp
imperative, John spotted flickering light in a grove of trees near the path he had
been following. Half a dozen horven had recently preceded him along the path,
so he pulled up, sequestered Skyfire and continued on foot. Cautiously he
approached the campfire and through the trees saw a dark figure silhouetted
against the glow of the flames. Crouched low , he began to creep nearer.
Something sharp jabbed the back of his neck and a low voice commanded,
"Don't move!" Instantly, he rolled forward, twisted onto his back and brought

his mailed left forearm against the blade, swiping it aside while his fingers
reached for the hand that held the weapon. As part of the same movement, his
right hand drew a dagger from his belt and thrust it forward. In an instant, the
attacker became the attacked, his right arm held in an iron grip while a dagger
pressed into the flesh at the base of his throat.
"Jiro!" John let go of the little Warrior.
Jiro rubbed his wrist. "Impressive, but I could have killed you from afar
when first you approached."
"I'll remember that," John said. "Your camp is not one to approach
carelessly." He stood. "I thought it might be you camped here but I wanted to
be sure." Then he added wryly, "Lucky for me it was you and not some equally
skilled Cha'kur Scout who guarded this camp."
"I doubt they can match my skill anymore than they can match your sword,"
Jiro replied. "How did you get away? Merdeln was planning a major surprise
when you emerged from the dungeon."
John gave a short whistle. The white stallion appeared. For an instant,
Jiro's face lost its usual composure, and his mouth dropped. "I see," he
murmured.
"What about you? You seem none the worse for wear."
"I had ample warning," Jiro said as he led into the circle of fire light.
"Some Cha'kur tried to follow but we eluded them."
"John! What, ho!" Penel clasped arms with his mentor. "We were worried."
"No need. I had the help of a powerful friend."
Penel's eyes bulged at sight of the white horven.
Now that John was in the light, Jiro cast a critical eye on his armor and the
reddish patches of peeling skin on his face and arms. "Looks like you've seen
some action since last I saw you."
John grinned. "You could say that. I'll tell you about it later, but now I hope
you've something good to eat. I've been riding all day and my stomach is
complaining."
"I'll fix more." Penel pulled a spitted porven hindquarter from the fire and
offered it to John. "You can start on this. Jiro was lucky at the hunt this
evening."
"Haw," Jiro snorted. "I'd think you'd know by now an experienced Warrior
does not depend on luck."
"True," Penel said, more seasoned than when first he had heard this
argument. "But a little luck goes a long way toward making experience look

good."
John laughed. "Well said. I, for one, am always willing to accept a turn of
good luck."
***
In two days the travelers left the mesas and turned east on the rocky trail
along Great Barrier Cliff. Three days later they were in the farmland. "We
separate here," John told Penel. "You must return to Elwind's Repose and I
have business in Riven."
Penel's face fell. "But, I want to stay with you. My training is not finished."
"Nor will it ever be," John said, "as is true for me and all other Warriors.
But you've learned enough to earn your Warrior's headband. You can go to
Forod and test for first level whenever you want. You've more than enough
skill to qualify."
"You really think so?" Penel's face lighted.
"I know so. Your father needs you now. Next time I stop at Elwind's I'll
expect to see you wearing your crest."
Penel turned south, leading the pack string which now included John's
former mount, a gift to Elwind in exchange for the supplies he had provided for
the expedition. John and Jiro continued east, toward Biclif.

PART SIX: SHENDUN'S EGG

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

The day after Korvu gave them their instructions, most of the partners left
to begin their separate journeys. But Susan stayed in Or'gn an extra day
because Engar had some last minute business and could not immediately escort
her to Shortbriar. She spent the morning alone going over her gear again,
assuring herself she had everything she needed. When she looked at the little
campground in the village green, she felt as though her heart would break. She
had been unprepared for the feeling of desolation that descended on her when
her friends left. In all her life she had never been alone. Other children had
always surrounded her in the group-home before she came to Faland, and since
the awakening she had been with Carol and the others every minute.
Only three horven remained, her own Dancer, Engar's Thor, and Martin's
Renegade. Even Pecos had been boarded out. She hugged Dancer and buried
her face in the little mare's shaggy coat. "You're my only friend now."
When the sun climbed high enough to bring heat, Susan dried her tears and
decided moping around camp was too depressing. She spent most of the day
drifting around Or'gn, revisiting the shops and stores she had once found so
exciting. Walking eased her loneliness, and after a while she cheered herself
by thinking the trip she was about to begin would not last forever, and soon she
would be back with her friends.
"I'm sorry for the delay," Engar said when he returned to camp in the
evening. "I boarded Renegade for Martin when I found out he left Or'gn last
night. I also learned we're not the only ones on mysterious journeys in Faland. I
saw Brom. He was leaving with a war party, on contract to the Master, and
was not free to discuss his mission."
After returning from her solitary meandering, Susan had cooked a
scrumptious meal of roast squal, baked potans, sauteed vegetables, and honeynut cake. She listened to Engar with interest as she spread the dishes on a
ground cloth and poured mugs of drog. "I thought we ought to have something
good on my last day in Or'gn," she said.

"Lucky for me I get to share it," Engar said. "Having extra chores was my
good fortune."
Susan smiled. The thought of another day before being completely on her
own, while Engar escorted her to Shortbriar, pleased her.
***
They left early, with the sun barely above the horizon. "It's a long ride to
Shortbriar," Engar said. "I want to make it before dark."
Riding east, the gold ball of the sun was directly in their faces. Susan
ducked her head against the light, but the air warmed quickly, and she enjoyed
traveling without armor or helmet. She settled comfortably to Dancer's rocking
gait and for a while things seemed quite normal. However, when they stopped
at noon, her stomach churned uncomfortably, and she had no appetite for the
leftovers she had packed especially for this lunch.
"I'll stay one night at Shortbriar," Engar said, his eyes on the young girl's
face. "Before I leave, we'll know your mission. I'm sure it'll be something you
can easily handle."
"I wish I didn't have to go alone. I don't like being alone."
"Working alone is always hard," Engar said. "But cheer up, you'll likely
find new friends along the way. After all, you've been sent to Shortbriar to
meet someone."
Susan did not feel cheered, and late in the afternoon, on the trail skirting the
Glu'me forest, her heart climbed into her throat. "Will we go into the trees?"
Her eyes had turned the color of dark emeralds.
"Yes" Engar said, as he turned Thor onto a narrow, well worn trail. They
wound south along a small canyon separating the forest from the farmland. A
creek gurgled in the bottom. "This path is called Edge Trail; the creek is Edge
Creek."
"How much farther to Shortbriar?"
"A few hours. We better pick up the pace; it's getting late."
Mountains appeared to the south and grew as the afternoon wore on.
Trickles flowing east from the farmland dropped through steep gullies into
Edge Creek. Small wooden trestles crossed the side streams. Late in the
afternoon, Engar stopped at one of these, and while they watered the horven,
they sponged dust from their faces and drank cool water.
Engar squinted at the sky. "We'll be in Shortbriar before dark. How are you
holding up?"
"A little scared."

"Understandable. It's okay to be afraid, but try not to let your fear show.
You'll meet a rough lot in Shortbriar, but you'll be safe in town. Kletts are
pretty good at keeping order."
Engar's words offered scant reassurance, and Susan felt her legs trembling.
An hour later the trail wound through a low defile between rocky hills and into
the fringe of the southern forest. Susan glimpsed a rickety gate, hanging half off
its hinges.
"Shortbriar," Engar announced with a slight grimace.
Susan's jaw fell. Shortbriar's palisade was barely intact, and as they rode
through the gate, she saw loutish boys and seedy men lounging along an avenue
lined with shabby shops and slum-like dwellings. Her nose wrinkled. Humid
air, flavored with the smell of sewage, hung over the street. Dust, kicked up by
scuffling feet, made her eyes water.
Two rough looking, grubby native men, were cursing and swinging clubs at
one another in the middle of the street. Susan and Engar reined back. A third
native - a woman wearing a saffron robe and a black headband - hurried up
and grabbed one brawler's club. "Break it up, Hogburn! You, too, Flebag!" She
swung the captured club, catching Flebag on his right forearm. He dropped his
club and howled. "Go on! Get out of here! If I catch you scrapping in my town
again, I'll boot your sorry carcasses out of Faland!"
Engar's face took on a slightly amused expression. "Hello, Mavil."
The rugged lady turned to the strangers on her street. Stockily built, of
average height, she peered at Engar with gimlet eyes set in a broad brown face.
"Do I know you?" Her voice sounded like gravel crunching underfoot.
"I'm Engar. I was through here near a year ago with Brom."
"Oh, yes!" Mavil's sharp eyes lit. "You were on your way to Fragaz."
"That's right. I didn't get there, though. Got a better offer."
"What brings you to this hole? And who's your skinny friend?"
Susan flushed.
"Susan." Engar put a hand on the youngster's shoulder. "A Warrior on the
Master's business."
Mavil's frown raised a thick knot between her brows. She inspected the
girl for a long minute then said slowly, "I've been expecting you. I thought
you'd be bigger and more seasoned. I wasn't informed you'd come with an
escort."
"Are you my contact?" Susan asked.
"No, little lady, I'm Shortbriar's Klett, but there's someone waiting for

you." Mavil pointed a robed arm down the street. "He's staying at Catocol's
Inn, half a dozen buildings down, on the right."
"Thanks, Mavil," Engar said. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep an eye on my
friend while she's in town. I'm only with her until morning."
The Klett's eyes flashed. "This hole may not be much, but your friend's safe
here as long as I'm in charge - as are you," she added, bitingly.
"I wouldn't imply otherwise," Engar said, grinning. "Not many are willing
to try your arm."
"Don't you forget it," Mavil growled as she took her leave.
Susan and Engar nudged their horven forward. In a moment they pulled up
at Catocol's. "We'll take rooms here," Engar said, pulling the saddlebags from
Thor. He slung them over his shoulder and headed for the door. Susan
followed, dismayed at the dingy appearance of the two-story log building. The
weight of her saddlebags bent her knees as she banged through the door behind
Engar. A counter ran along the left of the lobby; wooden chairs rested near the
opposite wall. Directly ahead, Susan looked through double doors into a
dining room filled with guests. Next to the dining room entrance, stairs led
upward to the rooms. Susan was pleasantly relieved to find the interior clean
and well kept.
A native woman, tall, spare, with an uncharacteristically narrow face,
peered from behind the counter with eyes like flint. A boy a little older than
Susan was with her. The woman introduced herself as Catocol, owner of the
inn, and the boy as Snelly, her son. Beyond that, she said little and offered no
information when Susan inquired if she knew someone who might be waiting to
see her.
Engar paid for adjoining singles and tipped Snelly to take the horven to the
stable and unsaddle, water, and feed them. "You may have to stay awhile," he
told Susan as they climbed the stairs to their rooms. "I rented separate rooms,
so when I check out in the morning you can keep yours without registering
again."
Susan's heart thumped.
They examined their rooms, small but clean, left their saddlebags and
returned downstairs to dine. "How am I going to find my contact?"
Engar scanned the room. A dozen people, mostly hard looking men, were
eating. At one table, five men, all wearing battered and grubby armor, ate from
a huge common platter and conversed loudly in coarse language. Engar
selected an empty table near the back. "We'll eat and wait awhile. I'd guess

your contact will know who to look for."


Susan edged into a chair and tried to look casual. Her heart was beating so
hard she was afraid it could be heard even above the clatter in the room.
"Don't look so worried," Engar said, but his own face belied his words.
Snelly took their order. The boy was as silent as his mother and grunted
barely enough words to conduct the transaction. When he left, Engar asked
Susan, "How are you fixed for cash?"
"I've got the thirty ralls we each got when we split the partnership money,
and I already had fifteen so I've got forty-five ralls in all."
"That should be more than enough, but you'll have to be careful. Don't let
anyone know you've got it. Renegades have killed for a tenth that."
Susan's face blanched. "It's hidden. Some in my mokads, some in the band
of my ukeln, some in my helmet, some fastened under my armor, and only two
ralls in my coin pouch."
Engar laughed.
Snelly came with trays of kurduc, brown bread, fruit salad, and drog. It
smelled good and Susan realized how hungry she was. She had been too
depressed to eat at noon, but now, in spite of less than ideal surroundings, she
ate with good appetite. She had finished and was watching Engar mop the last
of his kurduc with a thick chunk of bread, when she caught a movement out of
the corner of her eye. She saw a stooped figure approach with the shuffling gait
of an ancient, so bundled in nondescript rags as to be almost unrecognizable as
a person. From beneath a cowl, two bright, cinnamon-colored eyes fixed her
with a steady gaze. "You are Susan?"
The words startled her. They were spoken in youthful tones, not those of
age. She nodded and glanced quickly at Engar who was staring fixedly at the
ragged figure.
"I'm Tserof of Navlys Elad," the voice said in perfect English. "I bring you
a message from the Master."
Susan saw a ripple of motion beneath the rags and a thin brown hand,
smooth as a child's, shot out. It held a small glass ampule, stoppered with a
wooden cork wrapped in paper. The paper bore the Master's seal. Susan took
it, the surprise on her face turning to amusement. This ragged old one, who on
close inspection looked and sounded like a child, seemed almost comical.
"How old are you?" she asked as she took the vial. She caught a look of
chagrin in the cinnamon eyes.
"It was my voice, wasn't it? I should've tried to disguise my voice, too."

"And your hand." Susan pointed at the slim fingers that still poked from the
rags. "You have quite a young hand for an old person."
Tserof snatched his hand back, then his cinnamon eyes turned merry. "I'll
bet I'm as old as you." He turned back his cowl, revealing a dark boy's face,
framed with straight brown hair bound with a brightly beaded headband. "I'm
fourteen, almost fifteen."
"Humph," Susan snorted. "Barely as old as I."
"That's old enough, isn't it?" Tserof said.
Engar, who had been narrowly watching the exchange, chuckled. "He's got
you there, Susan. But, I think it's time we left. We're beginning to attract
attention."
Tserof's face darkened. He flipped the cowl over his head. "Let's go to
your room. We must be careful. Some people might try to stop your mission."
They left quietly, but the odd trio had become the object of all eyes. Among
the five rowdy men across the room, Engar now recognized Hogburn and
Flebag, the two renegades Mavil had thumped in main street.
In her room, Susan turned on Tserof. "Why are you wearing those
ridiculous rags?"
"These aren't rags!" Tserof ran his hands over the fabric which, though it
had a tattered and worn appearance, proved completely intact. "They're
Forester clothes. I'm wearing enough for both of us." As he spoke he began to
shed outer garments.
"For both of us! You don't think I'm going to wear a getup like that, do
you?"
"You'll need to . . . for a disguise. You can't travel like you are; you'd be
spotted in a minute. Darc'un knows about your mission."
"Darc'un?" Engar's eyes narrowed. "What do you know about Darc'un?"
"Only that the Master's summons warned me to beware of dark forces. I
know that means Darc'un."
"What is this darken?" Susan asked.
"Part of Faland's mythology," Engar replied. "Darc'un is the name given the
Dark Prince who defeated Mordat in the demon wars, or so the legend goes."
"It's not a legend," Tserof said. "My father has told me the stories. Darc'un
has been waiting, held back only by the Faland Master. Falandians live under
the protection of the Master. When Darc'un comes again, he'll challenge the
Master for control of all of Faland. Already he rules the Kroll south of
Fariver."

Susan frowned. "If Darc'un defeated Mordat, how come he's not in control
now?"
"The Master came," Tserof said simply.
"Truth or legend," Engar said, "it seems the Master has summoned each of
us. I think it best we follow through with what we've begun. Now is the time to
read your message, Susan, and find out what's expected of you."
Susan still held the ampule in her hand. She broke the seal and withdrew
the cork. A tiny scrap of paper fluttered out. She snatched it as it fell to the
table. On it, penned in English, she saw a few short lines. "Shendun's egg is the
goal; Fragaz is the entryway. Tserof will get you there. Blend with the forest;
secrecy is your best defense."
"I told you we needed a disguise," Tserof said.
"Some disguise. Half the people in Shortbriar know who we are."
"You're right," Tserof said, his shoulder's slumping. "I should've waited
until you left the dining room to give you the message. But these rags, as you
call them, really are a disguise. In the Hileav Forest, where Fragaz is found,
most people wear clothes like this so we blend in with trees and bushes. Only,
I don't have enough for both of you."
"I won't be with you," Engar said. "I must return to Or'gn by day after
tomorrow. I have an idea, though, how you can get out of town unseen. That is,
if you're ready to leave right away."
"We can go at first light," Tserof said quickly. "I've nothing to stay here for.
My pack is ready by the trail where I hid it." He glanced at the saddlebags in
the corner of the room. "Are those yours?" he asked Susan.
"Yes. Dancer carries them."
"Foresters don't ride horven. You'll have to make a smaller pack."
"You mean I can't take Dancer?" Susan looked beseechingly at Engar. "I
can't leave Dancer. She's my friend."
"You can't take her," Tserof said flatly. "A horven would force us to stay on
the road and we'd be easy targets. Even if you weren't on a mission, you
couldn't keep her. Renegades would kill you and steal her."
Susan's face paled.
"We have to travel by forest ways; that's why I'm here," Tserof said.
"Tserof's right," Engar told Susan. "Without armed escorts you can't travel
in the open outside the farmlands. Come on, I'll help you with your pack. Don't
worry about Dancer. I'll take her back to Or'gn and board her with Pecos."
The bleak feeling returned to Susan. She slumped beside her saddlebags

and fought tears as Engar fashioned a backpack and began sorting and taking
out many things she had carefully selected. Tserof dropped alongside to help.
While he worked, he spoke to Engar, "You said you have a plan. What plan?"
"You should leave before morning," Engar answered. "It's the dark of the
moon and few travelers will be on the road. You can sneak out after most
people are asleep. Shield your lamp until you are well away from Shortbriar,
and you can pass unnoticed into the forest where the light of lamps does not
carry far. I'll go a short distance with you and climb a tree where I can watch
your back. If anyone sees you, and attempts to follow, I think I can discourage
them."
"Oh, my." Susan's brow furrowed. Everything was happening so fast. First
she had to give up Dancer and most of her supplies, now she would not even
have a night's sleep and breakfast with Engar before leaving.
"It's a good plan." Tserof gathered the layers shucked from his ragged
garments. "Put these on, Susan. Leave your helmet and armor; they'll only get in
the way. I'll get you a proper headband. I'll meet you in an hour by the gate. It's
best we not be seen together again."
Engar finished with Susan's pack while she unhooked the cinches on her
armor. She could not help the tears that formed in her eyes. "I never thought it
would be like this," she told Engar. "I might never see any of you again."
"Of course you will." Engar folded her in his arms. "You'll do fine. I know
you've just met Tserof, but he's like you, with unusual talent in spite of his age.
I suspect the Master would not have summoned him had he not the ability to do
what is needed. Now, dry your tears, you'll have no time for self-pity in what
lies ahead."
Susan slipped out of Engar's arms and managed a weak smile. "Okay," she
said, wiping her eyes.
"Good. Now let's see about the disguise Tserof left."

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

All night they hiked uphill through the forest south of Shortbriar. Tserof
stayed near the trail, the Fragaz cutoff, but did not follow the track itself. He
seemed to know the route quite well, but Susan was not used to following a
stranger and tried, as best she could, to keep some idea of where they were. In
spite of Engar's endorsement, she did not wholly trust her young guide.
Tserof spoke little. In the dark beneath the tall trees, with the only light
coming from a single oil lamp the boy carried, Susan's view was restricted to
the ground underfoot and the shapes of trees pressing on all sides. Tserof
climbed swiftly over rocks and fallen trunks, and Susan became grateful for the
hours of physical training Engar had insisted on.
"There," Tserof said. He stood on an open promontory and gestured
downward. Susan climbed up beside him. Tserof had carefully set the lamp in
a creche in the rocks, where its pale beam barely illuminated them and cast its
light no farther than the reach of their own limbs. Stars, densely packed in the
clear mountain sky, swirled like streams of bright dust above their heads.
"It's beautiful," she whispered. Spread out to the north, glowing under the
blue light of the million stars, were the vast rolling prairies of Faland's
farmland, and almost at their feet, like a jeweled diadem encircling a dusky
head, were the palisade lights of Shortbriar, set to warn away felven.
Susan looked at Tserof. His face shone the color of dark honey where it
was touched by faint lamplight. As though he sensed her looking at him, he
turned his head to catch her eyes with his. She felt a quickening of her pulse.
His brown eyes, so deeply shadowed they appeared as black as the night, held
steady on hers. He turned, hopping from the promontory, snatched the lamp and
was gone through the forest, leaving Susan's head awhirl. She hurried, afraid
that darkness would separate her from him.
Hours passed, spent in ceaseless climbing, bashing through thick growth,
crawling over, under, and around endless barriers of stone and downed wood.
Susan's breathing became ragged, her lungs strained, and sweat beaded her
brow. Night ended and the sun climbed high enough to cast long shadows onto
a broad, green meadow near the crest of the mountains. From the trees, Tserof
studied the meadow. "Woodland Pass is to the south, over the rise at the end of
the meadow. Renegades are camped near the trail." His brown fingers pointed.

"How do you know they're renegades?" The figures were far away and she
could make little of them.
"The sun reflects dully on their armor, their horven are uncurried, and they
keep a messy camp. Real Warriors are too proud for that."
Susan squinted at the half dozen dark shapes milling near a smoky
campfire. She wondered how Tserof could see such details.
"I know a place a little farther along," Tserof said, "where we can rest and
not be bothered." He moved smoothly through the trees, angling southeast.
Susan's body ached. She would gladly have sunk down where she was and not
moved again for hours. Though he had said nothing, she noted Tserof's step
held less spring and his shoulders drooped too. It had been a long night, with
not a single stop for rest or food or drink. They had climbed thousands of feet
above the farmland.
In half an hour, they broke into a small glen. Sun streamed into the opening,
and midges danced above the green. Cottony fluffs, splitting from pods on tall
canes at the edge of the glen, whirled, light and dark, in the shafts of light.
Rock bounded the west side where water dropped into a small, sandy pool,
then ran along a riffle lined with wild flowers. The sight gladdened Susan,
especially when Tserof took off his pack and said, "We can rest here awhile.
Hardly anyone except Foresters knows this place. My father brought me here
the first time I traveled to Shortbriar to sell furs."
Susan eased her pack to the ground. Released from the weight, she felt as
light as the seed-parachutes dancing above her head. "Is that how Forester's
make a living, by selling furs?" She hunkered beside Tserof at the edge of the
pond.
"Some do. Some are woodcutters. Others live off game in the forest."
Tserof undid the belt holding his ragged Forester's coat and dropped the
garment over his pack. Underneath he wore only a ukeln and a shoulder pouch
in which he carried his valuables. "We can wash here; the water's really
good." He took off his shoulder pouch and waded into the pond. Without his
bulky coat, Susan saw that he was quite a slim youth, thinner than most natives,
finely muscled and graceful. She wondered if Foresters were generally thinner
than the farmland natives; perhaps Catocol and Snelly were also Foresters.
She took off the coat Tserof had given her and slipped out of her sirkeln.
She kept on her ukeln and mokads and retained the cloth binding around her
breasts. Since coming to Faland, she had noticed a rounding of her previously
boy-flat chest. Bertha told her that was the consequence of good health and

good food, reversing the effects of illness that had slowed her development in
the old world.
The cool water felt wonderful after the long, sweaty haul up the mountain.
She waded to the waterfall, sank her face in its bubbling froth, and drank
deeply. Tserof joined her, brushing her shoulder with his. His shoulder felt
warm, hard and smooth as polished wood. Susan raised her head. Tserof's
head came up, spilling water. His face shaped into a smile, and Susan looked
into his cinnamon-brown eyes and felt faintly disoriented. To cover her
confusion, she asked, "Where do you live, Tserof? Is your home in the forest
near here?"
"Call me Tez. My friends do. No, I don't live near. This is not good forest
for living. Game is scarce and there are few fruit or nut trees. I live with my
parents farther east, in the Hileav forest. You'll like it there. We'll pass by my
home in a couple of days."
"Tez," Susan said slowly. "That's a nickname. Sometimes people call me
Sue."
"Should I call you Sue, then?"
Without expecting to, Susan felt herself blush. "I . . . I guess so. No one has
since I've been in Faland."
"Sue it is." Tserof's brown cheeks broadened into a grin. "Let's get out of
the water, Sue, and get something to eat. I'm starved."
Susan followed Tserof to the packs and spread her coat on the ground as he
did. She put on her sirkeln, then sat next to Tserof. They rummaged in their
packs, and Susan dug out leftover roast squal, a baked potan, and some honeynut cakes she had packed in Or'gn only the morning before.
"I'll trade you," Tserof said, looking at Susan's nut cakes. "I'll give you
some demmon for one of those little cakes." He held out a chunk of something
Susan thought looked like part of a granola bar.
"Okay, Tez. What's demmon?"
"It's made from nuts and berries and dried fruit mashed with devon meat
and berven fat. You can travel a long time on it, but I doubt it tastes as good as
your cakes so I won't mind if you don't want to trade."
"I'll trade. I've never eaten demmon."
Tserof grinned happily. The cake disappeared almost the instant it reached
his hand.
"You eat like a pig," Susan couldn't help saying.
Tserof's face took on a comical look of chagrin. "I'm sorry. What's a pig?"

Susan laughed. "An animal that eats like you. You can have another if you
want."
"Really?" Tserof took the cake. "Are you sure you don't mind? You can
have more demmon."
Susan sampled what she already had, carefully rolling the food on her
tongue. Her brows rose. "This is very good. I'm surprised you don't like it."
"I like it. It's just that I have it all the time." He ate the second honey-nut
cake, this time more slowly. "We'd better sleep," he said, licking crumbs from
his fingers and glancing at the sky. "We'll start again at noon."
"Shouldn't we take turns sleeping? What about dangerous animals?"
"It's safe here. There are a few squir. They make a lot of noise but they're
harmless. Berven are dangerous but they don't come this far east. Later we'll
have to watch out for wolven, but they don't like pinen forests. Except the
felven, I don't know anything to fear near Woodland Pass."
Susan lay on her coat, resting her head against her pack. She felt easier
with Tserof than she had during the long night. Before she knew it, she was
asleep. Chattering, like someone starting a motorcycle, awakened her. For a
fleet moment, she thought she was back in the old life, waking to street sounds.
Then she saw a gray fur ball sitting on a limb at the edge of the clearing. A
squir, she thought, like a squirrel. Only, what a noisy fellow.
"They're here!" A boy's voice, high and strained, cut into her
consciousness. Susan thought at first it was Tserof, but when she turned her
head she saw Tez rising swiftly beside her, a look of shock on his face.
"Get up, Sue!"
She came to her feet.
"Snelly?" She saw the boy whose voice she had first heard. Dark shapes
came out of the woods behind him.
"Run!" Tez barked the word in Susan's ear. He snatched his pack in one
hand, her wrist in the other. Had she not seen the motion as Tserof grabbed his
pack, she might not have thought to reach for her own. She swept it up and
bounded after him. She heard a soft grunt and felt Tserof's step falter, then
steady again. Something brushed her ear and she heard a loud whack. Tez
dodged, twisting and turning with cunning speed, moving as adroitly as the
forest creature he was, never loosening his grip on her hand.
Crashing and shouting diminished. As Susan's mind began to work, she
recalled the dark shapes she had glimpsed behind Snelly. She was sure she
recognized Hogburn, one of the renegades she had seen fighting in the street in

Shortbriar.
Tserof pulled her into a space between a living tree and a dead one fallen
against it. His face had become the color of faded brown parchment and his
eyes were glazed. Susan drew in her breath sharply when she saw blood
streaming down his leg. "You're hurt!"
He sank and rolled on his side. "Something hit my leg."
Susan saw the ribbed shank of a hummer protruding from his thigh below
the border of his ukeln. She blanched, but her voice was firm. "We've got to get
it out."
"You'll have to do it." Tserof's breathing was shallow.
Susan knelt. "Bite on this." She held out a stout twig she had picked from
the forest duff.
Tserof took it in his mouth.
Susan gripped the blade by its throwing grooves, placed her free hand on
his leg, and pulled hard. The hummer tore free with a shower of blood. She
clamped one hand over the wound and groped in her sirkeln with the other.
Grappling out a vial of poma, she shook free its stopper and poured the
powder into the injury. The bleeding stopped immediately. Moments later, she
dusted in frenwort and saw the pain die in Tserof's eyes.
"The stories are true," he said, relief in his voice.
Susan pulled a clean bandage from her first aid kit and bound his wound.
"What stories?"
"About those who follow the Mentat Warrior. I know you are one of them.
Now, I see the stories are true. You are no older than I, yet you are already a
Healer."
"I'm not a Healer. I'm a Provo. But we all learn to take care of simple
wounds. Don't you have poma and frenwort."
Tserof shook his head. "Our village can't afford such things . . . except for
Healers. We bear our wounds until we get to the village."
"That's ridiculous!" Susan said. "What happens if you're alone and can't
travel?"
"If Letia - she's our Healer - can come to us, she treats us. Otherwise, we
die in the forest and return to the roots of our ancestors."
"What rubbish," Susan said.
Muffled voices sounded in the thick shadows beneath the trees.
"We must go!" Tserof shouldered his pack.
In spite of his wound, he set off with barely a limp and no diminishment of

his ambulatory skill. He worked through the forest, often doubling back,
covering their tracks, leading Susan along maze-works of fallen logs and
cautioning her to step where stones or slabs of bark would leave no mark. His
skill and thoroughness amazed Susan. "You may not be a Healer, Tez, but you
certainly qualify as a first rate Scout. I don't think anyone can follow us now."
"A good Forester could. Snelly's a Forester, but he's been away from the
forest too long. He was young when his mother took him to live in Shortbriar.
He's a traitor. I'll bet those renegades paid him to track us. He wouldn't have
found us if he hadn't known about the glen and guessed we might stop there. I
should have heeded your warning and taken turns sleeping."
"It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known Snelly would betray us, and
we were both very tired."
They passed downward through steep, dense stands of pinen trees
southeast of Woodland pass. Shadows thickened as the sun sank toward the
western horizon. Tserof's wound began to take its toll. His steps slowed and
his face became pinched and drawn.
Susan said, "We need to find a place soon for the night. I haven't heard a
sound behind us for a long time."
Tserof lifted his head, listening. After a moment, he veered purposely from
the path he had been following. They came to a tiny glade where a small spring
gurgled from the forest floor. A dozen yards from the spring, Tserof found a log
fallen across a boulder. He hunkered beneath it and began to scoop away
debris. "I wish we had our coats. We'll have to make do here."
Susan joined him and soon they had a nest cleared beneath the log. Tserof
found silky stems growing near the spring and began to gather them. Susan
helped and they lined their nest with soft grass. They sat near the stream, eating
from the food in their packs as shadows deepened into darkness. Susan lit a
lamp and put it close by the entrance to their nest, where its light would not be
seen more than a dozen feet away. They drew close in the gathering cool.
"I'll take first watch," Susan said. "You need to rest so your leg will heal
faster."
"I'll be fine," Tserof said. "But I am tired. Don't let me sleep too long."
Almost before the words had passed his lips, he was asleep.
Susan felt the warm weight of him against her body and was reassured. His
breathing was deep and even. Slowly she relaxed and felt herself nodding.
Vaguely she heard something, then felt warmth against her cheek, soft rhythmic
moving, and identified the muted sound of a heartbeat. The beating heart was

Tserof's, the rhythmic movement his breathing, the warmth that of his skin
against her face. She came to with a start, flushing. She had dozed and let her
head drop against Tserof's chest, but it wasn't the sound of his heart that had
awakened her. Something was rustling in the darkness. Her breath came in with
a squeak, and her eyes widened as they took in, hardly two arm lengths away,
twin orbs burning with the dull red heat of banked coals. Each giant eye, the
size of two doubled fists, blazed with unfathomable malevolence. They seemed
to float in space, ten feet above the ground. Slowly Susan become aware that
the eyes were surrounded by a black shape, a darker dark against the ebony of
the forest. Unbreathing, she reached a hand and wicked up the lamp.
The eyes flared. Enormous jaws opened and ten-inch fangs, gleaming like
molten steel, jutted downward. Other fangs rose to meet them, forming a picket
of death around a cavernous throat. From the throat issued a snarl that turned
the blood in Susan's veins to ice. She felt Tserof's body jerk, rigid as stone in
her arms. The huge jaws swung shut and a great black shadow shifted
sideways. Never had Susan imagined such a monumental destroyer, yet
enormous as it was, the black shadow vanished with hardly a whisper.
"F . . . f . . . felven!" Tserof gasped. His teeth chattered so hard he could
barely shape the word. The remainder of the night, the two youths clung
together, so tightly wrapped in one another's arms they could hardly draw
breath. They did not again shut their eyes. When they crept from their shelter in
the gray light of morning and went to the spring to drink and eat, they found
paw prints so large they could sit cross-legged in them and have room to spare.
"I've seen prints before," Tserof said. "But never before did I see one of the
giants. Among my people it is said that no one sees the felven and lives. We
have a tale to tell!"
Susan shuddered. "I never heard such a sound before. Those teeth . . ." Her
voice trailed off.
"It came so close! It must not have seen our light."
"We set the wick too low. It almost went out." Susan's face turned the color
of paste as she realized how close they had come to being felven food. "It was
my fault. I fell asleep when I was supposed to be watching."
"It was nobody's fault," Tserof said. "It's too hard to stay awake when
you're tired and there's nothing to watch, but I'm truly grateful you woke in time
to turn up the lamp. I've always wondered why those great creatures are afraid
of such a tiny light, but were it not so we would not be speaking these thoughts
now."

In spite of the near sleepless night, Tserof's wound had improved. When
they detected no sounds of pursuit, he took them back close to the Fragaz
Cutoff, even following it for some distance as they hurried southeastward. By
noon, they left the conifers and entered the giant broad-leaved trees of the