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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 29, 2004 22:26 EDT



    "Here," said Liane. She handed Garric a white priestly robe which she'd snatched from the flat of cleaned clothing two servants were carrying toward the suites on the second floor.

    A passing soldier swiped at them with his javelin. The servants yelped protest and scrambled up the stairs. It wasn't a serious blow, but it'd reminded the civilians that the priorities had just changed.

    "I can't sneak out wearing this!" Garric said in amazement. "I can't! I won't!"

    They'd reached the front of the wing they'd been in--to the right of the temple and set forward of it. Most of the volumes were held in the wing which balanced this one across the open plaza with the altar. Under-Captain Fiers had drawn up his thirty men across the front of the plaza, looking down the broad steps to Factors Square.

    "She's right," said Attaper unexpectedly. "If they see Prince Garric, they'll attack. If they're afraid you're sneaking out some other way, it'll keep them off-balance."

    In a snarl he added, "And I bloody wish there was some other way out!"

    "Right," Garric muttered, sheathing his sword to throw the robe around him. It was cut to lace up the front--which he didn't bother with--instead of pulling on overhead, so it wouldn't be hard to shrug off when he needed his arms free. He'd let personal pride get in the way of assessing the situation. He didn't need the image of Carus in his mind, nodding ruefully, to know how dangerous that could be.

    Fortunately, he had Liane and Attaper to advise him--two people who didn't let his personal pride affect them in the least. Garric grinned as he hoisted himself on top of the altar. Waist high, it gave him a view over the heads of the Blood Eagles trotting onto the plaza to form with the section already there.

    Five streets fed into Factors' Square. Each was filled with people holding weapons and missiles. The front ranks were burly men wrapped in cloaks, which in this warm weather were almost certainly meant to conceal body armor. As the Blood Eagles fell into ranks, a concealed gong sent a piercing, plangent note through the whole district. The crowd shouted and surged forward into the square.

    Attaper called an order. The Blood Eagles lifted their rectangular shields so that the upper edge was just beneath each man's chin-strap. They were in close order, which meant only two ranks; the men in the second rank cocked their javelins to throw, while those in front held theirs underhand so that the mob faced a hedge of points.

    "Don't loose!" Garric shouted. "Don't throw your javelins!"

    He had fewer than a hundred and fifty Blood Eagles. The mob--which certainly included soldiers--was thousands strong. The troops might be able to hold the temple or at least one wing of it for some while, but Garric could already see torches made from pine knots and oil-soaked rags flaring in the midst of the crowd.

    Liane saw and understood the torches also. "Garric, they're ready to burn down the finest collection of Old Kingdom texts west of Valles just to kill us!" she said. Then, in a tone as hard as the skritch of a knife on a whetstone, she added, "If Tawnser's captured alive, he mustn't be pardoned. Garric, a barbarian like that isn't fit to live!'

    Despite the situation, Garric smiled at her vehemence. Of course there were probably better reasons to hang Tawnser than his willingness to burn books, but none of them touched Liane's soul as deeply as that one--or Garric's either.

    Tawnser stood on an overturned wagon at the back of the square, shouting orders through a bronze speaking horn. He'd obviously planned the attack carefully--and he'd had considerable time to plan it, which was the most puzzling part of the business. Garric and Liane hadn't decided to visit the temple until this morning, but Tawnser's preparations must've taken days.

    "He's a wizard who can predict the future," Liane said, addressing the same problem. "Or he's being aided by one."

    "And I'd venture a guess about who the wizard is," Garric agreed grimly. "Well, there'll be time enough for Dipsas later."

    The mob surged to the bottom of the temple steps, but as Garric expected they didn't charge home against the shield wall. Instead they halted, shouting threats and curses.

    The men in the front rank carried swords, but from the mass of civilians behind them came a shower of tiles and paving stones. For the most part the Blood Eagles' shields shrugged the missiles off, but a man in the second rank sprawled backwards with a crash of equipment. His dented helmet rolled away from him.

    Garric sized up the situation, saw that it wouldn't change for the better, and made his decision. He shouted. "Attaper, we--"

    Realizing he couldn't convey his intentions by bellowing from where he was, Garric jumped off the altar and stepped to his commander's side. His timing was good: an arrow snapped through the air close to where he'd been. There was an archer in the crowd. That posed problems much more serious than hand-flung stones.

    "Attaper, we're going to have to cut our way through them now!" Garric said s calmly as he could over the mob's shouting. "Withdraw the squad you left at the back door and then we'll--"

    "They'll stay, your highness," Attaper said. "It's the only way we can keep from being surrounded before we're clear of the square."

    "I won't leave them to die!" Garric said.

    "It's their job, your highness, and they'll do it!" Attaper said. Then with a look of anguish he added, "My son Attarus commands them. They'll stand till they die, as their duty requires!"

    Garric stood for a heartbeat frozen in horror. Then he said, parroting the words of the warrior ghost in his mind, "Yes. All javelins together, then wade into them with swords. Echelon back from the regimental standard--"

    The center of the front rank.

    "--by squads. We'll head down Carriage Street. I know it's the way we came but it's wider than the others by a half and we need the width. On your command, milord!"

    Many of those in the mob had come with baskets of stones, but even so the volleys of missiles had by now slackened. Attaper opened his mouth to shout his orders.

    The bright sky dimmed with the suddenness of a door closing.

    Garric and everyone else in the square looked up. A cloud as opaque as chimney soot was swelling across the sun.

    "Abracadabra!" Liane shouted as the crowd sucked in its breath. Garric looked over his shoulder. She was standing on the altar now, both arms stretched toward the sky.

    An arrow arched toward Liane, but it wobbled and went wide. The archer must've been drawing his bow when the apparition appeared above him. He'd simply let go of the cord instead of loosing his shot properly.

    "Demon, I command thee, strike my enemies!" Liane cried. "Hic haec hoc!"

    The mob gave a collective scream. At the rear Lord Tawnser was trying to keep control, but not even the speaking tube could give his voice authority.

    "All ranks!" Lord Attaper bawled. " Throw on command, throw!"

    Garric doubted that the Blood Eagles could really hear their commander's words over the tumult, but they were so well trained that a hint was enough. The javelins went up over the right shoulders of every man still standing, then snapped forward with the authority of strong arms and long practice. The front of the mob--the soldiers, the cut-throats, the thugs who'd break heads for fun if no one was willing to pay them for the work--went down like wheat in a reaper's cradle.

    "At 'em, boys!" Garric shouted, ripping off his priestly robe to draw his sword again. Through his willing lips, King Carus added, "Haft and the Isles!"

    The ghostly cloud had smothered the rioters' courage, and the javelins smashed them like thistledown in a sleet storm. Only the mob's own numbers and the narrow streets leading out of the square kept it from dispersing instantly. The troops surged down the temple steps in perfect unison, moving like a hammer dressed in black armor.

    For a moment the urge to slaughter threw a red mist over Garric's mind. He was Carus the Warrior King about to stride through the streets of a rebel city, the tip of his long sword slinging blood at every stroke.

    But he wasn't Carus--

    Erdin wasn't a rebel city unless he made it one by a massacre here--

    And Garric had seen enough dead men to want to avoid seeing more of them when he could avoid it.

    "Use the flat of your swords!" Garric shouted as he followed the Blood Eagles down the steps. "Don't kill anybody who isn't trying to fight! Knock 'em down and let 'em tell their stories when they wake up!"

    It wasn't exactly being soft-hearted, but--there were men and there were monsters. The only way the kingdom would survive--and Mankind itself would survive--was if all men stayed together.

    Though Garric had to agree with Liane: there were a few men like Lord Tawnser whose actions had made them monsters.



    Tawnser was still trying to rally the mob, but nobody was paying attention to him now. The wagon he'd overturned to serve as his command post rocked like a ship in the storm as desperate rioters forced their way by it. When it gave a particularly violent lurch, Tawnser flung away the speaking horn and jumped off the other side of the wagon, out of sight.

    Garric hadn't been sure the Blood Eagles would obey his order, but all the strokes he saw as he stood on the bottom step to check the advancing lines were with the flats, not the edges, of the blades. The troops didn't even push as hard as Garric knew they could. They were aware that panicked congestion at the mouth of the streets leaving the square could be as lethal as swords.

    Being knocked down by a steel club or a shield boss was a hard lesson, but it was a survivable one. Some of the Blood Eagles had even retrieved javelins from the heavies who'd fallen in the front row of the mob. They were using the shafts as batons against the scalps and shoulders of those fleeing.

    "Not every regiment would take that order," said the image of Carus, watching with a mixture of pride and a frustrated urge to kill. "And not every king would've been smart enough to give it in the first place."

    Carus laughed and threw his hands behind him. That was a gesture he must've used in life when circumstances prevented him from following his violent instincts.

    Garric hadn't worried about the apparition in the sky while he had pressing business with the mob, but that seemed to be under control. He glanced up at a cloud whose writhing, smoky tentacles mimicked a giant ammonite. They, the Great Ones of the Deep, had a close link with black wizardry. The apparition was so savagely evil that Garric raised his sword, a pointless but instinctive response.

    Breathing through his open mouth, Garric looked down to the square. He knew the cloud was probably harmless, but it horrified him to look at. Better a shambles of moaning, bleeding human beings....

    Lord Tawnser was escaping. A confederate had lowered a rope to him from the roof of a three-story building. Tawnser'd lost the black cape he'd worn as a backdrop, but his scarlet tunic and breeches showed vividly as he climbed the wall of weathered brick.

    Garric was sure he'd capture Tawnser eventually. But as long as the mad nobleman was alive, his venomous hatred would poison Sandrakkan's relationship with the kingdom. This riot wouldn't be the last trouble he'd rouse.

    Lord Attaper had been with his men. Now he came back to join Garric on the step from which he could judge the Blood Eagles' progress. Attaper's boots were blood-splashed, and from the smear on his blade he'd used it to thrust, not club.

    "There were Sandrakkan soldiers in the mob," Carus explained hard-faced. "Which makes them mutineers by my lights, since Wildulf's accepted you as king. I think Attaper sees that the same way as I do."

    Garric grimaced, but what's done is done--and he was pretty sure that none of his advisors, Liane included, would've agreed with him about sparing traitorous soldiers. A battle wasn't the same as an execution, at least so far as the public had to know.

    "I didn't know your...," Attaper said. He glanced sidelong at Liane, still on the altar with her arms raised. "I didn't realize that Lady Liane was a wizard, your highness."

    "She's not," said Garric.

    "But I saw--" Attaper said. "Your highness, there she is!"

    "There she is, shouting gibberish and play-acting," Garric said. "Knowing that that lot--"

    He nodded to remnants of the mob, climbing over the bodies of those crushed trying to leave the square.

    "--would panic if they thought she controlled the vision, which she can't any better than you could."

    Blinking away emotion Garric added, "There's not a smarter person in all the Isles, Attaper. And maybe not a braver one either, to dare to look at that thing in the sky!"

    In the wrack of injured civilians behind the double line of troops was the archer, a sturdy-looking countryman. He must've slipped and been trampled in the mob's sudden rush to escape, because he was well back of where the volley of javelins had landed. The bow lay several feet away, but the quiver hanging from his belt was certain identification.

    "She was playing?" Lord Attaper said in amazement that seemed tinged with anger. The apparition had frightened him as surely as it did Garric, and the notion that a well-born girl had the wit and courage to toy with that fear was at best embarrassing.

    Garric didn't answer. He sprinted across the plaza, sheathing his sword as he ran. He had to dodge fallen bodies. Once he jumped over a women in tawdry clothing who screamed curses as she clutched her wrenched knee. Garric had learned about armies and swordsmanship from his ancestor Carus, but as a shepherd boy on Haft he'd had plenty of opportunity to become a skilled archer.

    He picked up the bow. It was a simple weapon, a staff of seasoned yew without the layers of horn and sinew that would've made it more powerful but also more delicate. A compound bow might not have survived being trampled, but this self bow and its horsehair cord were none the worse for the experience.

    It was a hunter's weapon. The staff was only four feet from tip to tip so that the man using it could slip through dense brush, but it was thick and a powerful weapon in the hands of an archer strong enough to use it.

    Garric nocked an arrow from the fallen man's quiver. It had a head like a knitting needle instead of the flaring barbs of a hunting arrow: the archer had thought he might have to shoot through a breastplate, so he'd come with bodkin points instead of broadheads.

    Garric held the bow cord to his right ear. He no longer heard the shouts and screams filling the square. He was in a world of his own, his eyes focused on his arrowhead, silhouetted against the scarlet blur of Lord Tawnser's tunic. He threw his weight onto his left arm, bending the bowstaff instead of drawing the cord as easterners were taught to do; he loosed as part of the same smooth motion.

    The stiff cord snapped painfully against Garric's left wrist--he wasn't wearing a bracer. He reached to his belt to draw out the next arrow, then remembered that he wasn't shooting at a predator back in the borough; that that wasn't his bow and that he wasn't a shepherd any more.

    Tawnser had almost reached the roof; men were leaning over the coping to pull him the last of the way to safety. He flung his hands in the air and dropped backward into the square.

    Garric threw down the bow; he swayed for a moment. He'd acted by instinct, and only now was he able to understand exactly what he'd done.

    "You got him, your highness!" Attaper shouted beside him. "Good shot, your highness, a shot worth everything else that's happened today!"

    A man who was alive is now dead, thought Garric, suddenly sick. A man whom I killed.

    "We've got to get to him before the body's stripped!" Liane cried from Garric's other side. "He may have important documents!"

    The three of them ran together toward where the rebel leader had fallen. The rioters who could move under their own power were out of the square by now. Sections of Blood Eagles who'd chased them a little way down the connecting streets were now returning. Their officers weren't going to let them disperse in a city which, if not wholly hostile, certainly wasn't friendly to them.

    Lord Tawnser lay on his back with a surprised expression. The arrowpoint glittered a hand's-breadth out of his breastbone. There wasn't much blood, but the arrow had broken his spine when it struck.

    "That was too quick for a man like him!" Attaper said as Liane undid the clasp of Tawnser's purse.

    Garric looked down. "Milord," he said, "for the sake of the kingdom I'm glad he's dead. But I'm sorry I killed him or ever killed a human being; and the kingdom isn't served by even bad man dying slowly."

    "Here, Garric!" Liane said, holding up a slip of parchment. "It's as we thought!"

    Garric forced his mind from the memory of a dead man falling down the side of a building. The note read, GARRIC WHO CALLS HIMSELF YOUR PRINCE WILL BE AT THE TEMPLE OF THE SHIELDING SHEPHERD TOMORROW MORNING WITH A FEW SOLDIERS. IF YOU'RE A MAN AND A PATRIOT, SERVE HIM AS HE DESERVES. There was no signature, but the broken wax closure had been sealed with a stamped design.

    "That's two intertwined serpents," Liane explained. "It's Dipsas' seal."

    "Lord Attaper," Garric said, steadying his voice as he spoke. "We'll return to the palace with all deliberate speed. And then we'll discuss what happened here with a wizard named Dipsas."

    He couldn't keep another wave of bloodlust from trembling across the surface of his mind as he thought about the woman responsible for this.



    Cashel opened his eyes. He'd gotten barely a glimpse of the cave as he fell into it backwards, but he knew he couldn't be there now.

    He was in a hall whose sharply peaked ceiling was higher than any place he'd been in. A line of stone-framed windows just below the roof trusses flooded light onto the tapestries along the walls. The hangings on the west were brilliant, and even those in morning shadow gleamed with threads of gold and silver shot through the silk. Ilna would love to see those.

    "Come join us," said the eldest of the six men on the other side of a table long enough to seat many, many more than those present. It ran down the center of the hall beneath the ridgepole, nearly end to end of the big room. The men sat mid-way along the table's length. The speaker gestured toward the short bench across from him.

    "Yes sir," Cashel said. He wore his tunics but he didn't have his quarterstaff with him. The lack didn't bother him as much as he'd have expected it to. "Sir, where am I?"

    He didn't ask who the men were, because he already knew that. He'd seen their images walking the battlements of Ronn when he was with Mab.

    Virdin, the first of Ronn's champions, had spoken. To his right were the twins Menon and Minon, laughing at some joke between them as they watched Cashel over their winecups. At that end of the row was Valeri, lanky and glaring as fierce as a seawolf at Cashel.

    The images of the two warriors on Virdin's left hadn't come by before the Made Men attacked, but Hrandis had to be the squat man, broader even than Cashel. That made the man beside him Dasborn, who had long limbs and a swordsman's wrists.

    "You're in the Cavern of the Heroes, Cashel," one of the twins said. Cashel couldn't tell them apart, and he doubted their mother could've done that either.

    "The real Cavern," his brother said, grinning broadly. "Not the hole in the rock that people see beneath Ronn."

    Big Hrandis poured wine from a ewer into the rock crystal cup waiting in front of Cashel. "You had a hard trip here, I'll warrant," he said in a voice that rumbled like distant thunder. "Have some of this."

    Cashel touched the cup. It felt solid, but.... "Is it real?" he asked.

    "It's as real as we are," said Dasborn with a sardonic grin that made Cashel think of Garric's father Reise. Reise had more education than just about anybody, but there was a sadness under even the jokes he told. "Or as real as you are in this place, if you prefer."

    Valeri looked at Virdin and said with a sneer, "She sent us a talky one, didn't she? I'd have thought she could do better."

    "If you've got a problem with talk, Valeri," the twin nearest him said with a hard grin, "then you can stop making so much empty talk yourself."

    Cashel drank to separate himself from the bickering. He supposed these fellows had been together a long time. Folks can get on each other's nerves, even when they're all heroes.

    Because he was thinking about something else, Cashel gulped down more wine than he'd meant to. It prickled; he hunched forward and made a muffled whuff!

    Duzi, he'd barely kept from sneezing the wine back out his nose! That'd have given Valeri something to sneer at, wouldn't it?

    Virdin leaned back on his bench. He had a full white beard, but the lean face it framed looked like that of somebody younger by far. "What do you think of the men you came with, Cashel?" he asked.

    "The boys, you mean, Virdin," Valeri said. "By Ronn, what a litter of puppies!"

    "You were young yourself once, Valeri," Dasborn said, looking down the table with a deliberately blank face. Now that he'd met the Heroes, Cashel didn't doubt they were all their reputations said they were; but Dasborn was the one he'd watch closest if Fate put him on the wrong side of them. Dasborn was the sort who made up his mind without any sign at all--and then acted, quick and cold as a housewife wringing the neck of the chicken for dinner.

    "I was young," said Valeri, "but I was never like that. If I'd been like that, I'd have hanged myself!"

    Cashel drank again, then cleared his throat loudly. The wine was well enough, he supposed; but he preferred beer, and the cup had a gold rim besides. Cashel didn't like the taste of metal with his drink. Even the tarred leather jacks he and Ilna used at home would be better, if he couldn't get a wooden masar instead.

    "They're a good lot," he said, looking straight at Virdin so it wouldn't seem like he was picking a fight with Valeri. He wasn't afraid of Valeri, mind; but it wasn't in Cashel's nature to quarrel if he could avoid it. "They're young, sure, but they're braver than it maybe seems just to come down here when it's all so different from anything they know. They're willing, I guess I mean."

    "Willing?" said Hrandis, filling Cashel's cup again. Cashel didn't realize he'd drunk as much as he had. It did seem to perk him up some. "Are they willing to die for Ronn, Cashel?"

    Cashel took a drink and swirled it in his mouth while he frowned over his answer. He swallowed and met Hrandis' eyes again. "I think they are, sir," he said. "They'd say they were, I know. But...."

    He scrunched his face up over something he felt but couldn't point to. He couldn't say it so another person would believe him if they weren't disposed to.

    "Sir, I don't think they know what that means," he said.

    Dasborn laughed in honest amusement. "When we were their age," he said, "we didn't know either. But we know now."

    "Aye," said Valeri. "We know a lot of things. Now."

    Hrandis shrugged. "Ronn needed us," he said. "The citizens needed us. That's all that mattered."

    Valeri looked at him. "Is it?" he said harshly. "Do you believe that, Hrandis?"

    "Yes he does," said Dasborn. He smiled faintly, cruelly. "And so do you, Valeri, or you wouldn't be here."

    "They've agreed," said one of the twins. "They're here and they're agreed. It doesn't matter what they understand."

    "We didn't understand, but we're here," said his brother. He looked at Virdin and added, "Tell him the rest, Virdin. That's all that remains to do."

    "Yes, I suppose it is," the white-bearded man said. "Go back to what men think is the Cavern, Cashel. You'll find your companions sleeping there. They'll awaken when you arrive. Tell them to take up the arms they find in the chamber with them. Do you understand?"

    "Yes sir," Cashel said. He didn't know how he was supposed to go back to where the Sons were, but he supposed Virdin or whoever'd brought him here would take care of returning also. "What do I do then?"

    Dasborn laughed. "There's nothing more for you to do, Cashel," he said. "You'll have saved Ronn for the last time--if the city can be saved."

    "You can go now, Cashel," old Virdin said. He raised his hand in a salute.

    The vast hall shrank down to the size of a pinhead, then vanished. Cashel lay on his back in a chamber.

    He sat up. The room was lighted only by a rosy haze between Mab's left thumb and forefinger. The Sons slept on the stone floor.

    Along the walls were six sets of armor. They stood as monuments to the skeletons lying beneath them.



    Ilna kept her eyes on the horizon and let her feet choose a path down the lines anchoring the larva to the cliff. Usually silk carried the imprint of the tiny fingers of children who'd unwrapped the cocoons, then spun the long threads into yarn. Despite how thick these ropes were, they owed nothing to human involvement.

    Spider silk carried with it a hunger as fierce as the noonday sun. Worms, though, both the little ones the Serians fed on mulberry leaves in the world Ilna knew and this huge one in the sea, had no desire save to exist. They and their silk were as bland as flour paste.

    Ilna smiled. Worms had no personalities and no reason to exist--except that they created the most lustrous and beautiful thread in the world. That couldn't be of interest to the worms themselves. Only when Ilna felt whimsical--as now--did she imagine that there might be something in the universe greater than individual worms and sheep and humans.

    More lines in bundles of three joined the ones she walked on. Sheets of steel-strong gauze bound the heavy strands together, twisting them into a trough which closed on itself near the surface of the water to become a tube. Ilna knew through the certain witness of her feet that the silk itself was no less intelligent than the worm that'd spun it, yet how could the perfection of this creation not involve will and understanding?

    She laughed again. There was no answer which her reason would accept. Therefore there was no answer.

    Because she was looking outward, not down, Ilna noticed that the bird had changed its pattern from the slow circuits it'd been making on the horizon. Its wings stroked the air in slow unison, like the oars of a great warship making the first efforts toward driving the vessel into motion from a wallowing halt. The bird was so far away that it didn't swell in size even though it was flying directly toward her.

    She frowned, but the bird's actions no longer mattered. The anchor cords and their wrapper of silk completed the tunnel. She entered, leaning against an outrushing breeze. It carried with it the ripeness of a plowed field fertilized with some indefinable manure. The light dimmed to that of an overcast morning.

    Ilna walked downward. The footing was springy but agreeably firm. The light continued to dim, but her eyes adapted to it. The tube had a slight curve as it flattened from a slope to a plane, so she couldn't see the open sky when she glanced over her shoulder.

    No matter. Her duty lay deeper, not up where she'd come from.

    The wind soughed, rushing past her as if glad to be gone. Its odor was thick and unfamiliar but not anything a peasant woman found offensive. The tanyard in Barca's Hamlet cured hides with manure and lye. It was downwind of the houses when the breeze came from the sea, as it normally did; but sometimes the wind changed.

    Ilna walked on. Some light still pierced the layer of water overhead, but it was a pale blue that made her hands look like those of a month-dead corpse. She smiled. That could be true, a month or so from this moment or the next....

    Without warning she entered the larva's chamber. From the cliff above it'd looked like a spindle of yarn. Seeing it from the inside, she thought that somehow she'd taken a wrong turning that brought her to a place she'd never imagined. Only when her eyes absorbed the pattern did she understand the nature of the cocoon.

    The interior was dimpled where lines attached to cables above and to rocks on the sea floor beneath pulled the skin outward. Otherwise the weight of water would flatten the bag and its occupants.

    The larva was the size of a building, the size of a ship: a smooth mass moving with the slow majesty of a summer cloud. In direct sun its skin would be white with brown mottlings, but here the background was the leprous color of fungus on a tomb.

    It lay in a pool of its own wastes. Hard-shelled, eyeless creatures browsed the fluid, their hair-like legs stirring the surface.

    The larva's movements were as slow as the pulse in a sleeping lizard's throat, but when its head lifted slightly Ilna caught the needle-sharp flash of the jewel she'd come for. The creature shifted again, hiding the jewel, but now Ilna understood why there were highlights reflected onto the curved silken surface at the far end of the chamber.

    And naturally, it would be at the other end. Having come this far to fetch the jewel, Ilna wasn't going to complain about walking another furlong--even if she had to do so over the back of a giant worm.

    The first problem was getting onto the worm's back. It was easily twice, perhaps even three times, her height. From where Ilna stood the curve swelled out like the face of an undershot cliff. That meant she'd have to climb the cocoon and drop onto the creature.

    Ilna turned her head, eyeing and then touching the silken wall. Immediately her stomach settled, though she hadn't been aware that she was queasy before then. The larva's movements made the whole cocoon undulate slowly. Ilna didn't like the feel of a ship at sea and this was worse--more like being in the guts of a snake. Focusing on fabric, even a fabric woven by a worm, brought the universe into a perspective Ilna was comfortable with.

    The bag had several layers, each formed from three different sizes of thread: thumb-thick lines which alone or in bundles provided strength; straw-thick cords which formed a close framework within the heavy supports; and finally sheets of gossamer to cover the framework and make the bag watertight. Ilna thrust her left hand into the fabric, forcing the gossamer aside with her fingers to seize one of the heavy lines. When she was sure she had it, she reached a little higher and gripped with her right hand.

    Kicking holds for her bare feet, Ilna walked and pulled her way up the side as if she was climbing a silk net. It wasn't especially difficult even when she got high enough that the bag's curve meant that she was hanging upside down. Ilna was a good deal stronger than she was heavy, and this was only for a brief time anyway.

    She looked down, then pulled her feet free. Her toes dangled close to the larva's back. If she slipped off the slick, pulsing body when she let go--and she might--she'd still scarcely injure herself on the yielding surface below. Though it would be unpleasant.

    Ilna's mouth formed into a hard smile again. She wanted to be punished when she made a mistake. It made it less likely that she'd do the same thing again. Falling into a pool of worm dung certainly qualified as punishment.

    She dangled for a moment, then dropped. Her weight dimpled the worm's flesh. Slow ripples quivered out from her feet, reflecting and cancelling one another as they proceeded down the white surface.

    The nearest brown blotch was only a double-pace from Ilna. It shifted slightly and focused six glittering eyes on her. What she'd thought was a skin discoloration was instead a flat parasite the size of a half-cape. Its beak was driven deep into the worm's white flesh.

    There were more parasites than Ilna could count on both hands. They formed a diamond pattern across the larva's back, as regular as the studs an artisan might hammer into a leather box for decoration. Here the reason for the spacing was a matter not of craft but of survival: the parasites were territorial as serpents, each claiming an expanse of the worm's flesh sufficient to feed it to breeding age.

    The nearest parasite withdrew a beak the length of a man's forearm from the worm's flesh; a drop of clear fluid oozed up before the wound puckered shut. All down the worm's back other parasites were moving, restive because of the disturbance to their careful hierarchy.

    Beak lifted, the nearest parasite squirmed toward Ilna, the human who'd invaded its territory. It moved on more tiny legs than she could count.



    Sharina got up from the ground. She'd landed without the forward momentum she'd been braced for. She'd been as active as that of any boy in the borough before she became a princess, but the reflexes she'd developed she'd developed running and jumping had played her false. The mechanism the ring used to bring her here wasn't bound by the laws of the waking world.

    Men--People--were hoeing their way down every row of the broad field in which she'd landed. They were bent over their work, but the nearest were only twenty feet away. They came toward her a chop at a time.

    Sharina looked for a weapon. The hoes had sturdy shafts and wedge-shaped bronze heads that could cut flesh as well as the roots of weeds. If she pretended to be submissive, she might have a chance to grab a hoe and--

    The workers paid her no more attention than the corn and the peavines did. They worked forward, intent on their tasks and never looking above the earth they were cultivating. Sharina stepped aside cautiously, feeling the muscles of her abdomen tense. She expected that at any instant one or the other of the men passing her would turn and grab her.

    They didn't. They hoed on with no sound except the chk! chk! of their tools and the occasional cling of bronze on a pebble.

    A horn trilled a long, silvery note. It seemed to be far in the distance, but Sharina didn't know how sound travelled in this place. She looked at the ring. If she began to read the legend on the bezel, would it take her back to Valles or...?

    Sharina slipped the ring onto her left thumb where she wouldn't lose it. "Or," was too likely for her to take the risk just yet. She'd been many places, in the waking world and out of it, since she left Barca's Hamlet. This island wasn't where she wanted to be, but experience had taught her that things could've been worse. Leaping somewhere at random might very well drop her into one of those worse alternatives.

    Sharina looked around. From what she'd seen as she descended to the island, most of the surface was more or less the same as her immediate surroundings. Their field ran between a pair of irrigation channels marked by the pale fronds of the weeping willows growing on their margins.

    The land wasn't as dead flat as it'd seemed from above. The surface rolled enough that Sharina could see at most a couple furlongs to the right, the direction of the lake and building she'd seen in the center of the island. Her only choices other than the fields were that building or the shore. The latter'd looked like it was lapped by clouds, not a sea of water, but Sharina understood little enough about this island that she wasn't going to jump to conclusions--especially to one that made it more likely that she was trapped.

    She smiled as she jogged down the row, passing through the line of workers. They gave her no more notice than they had before. Her being trapped was likely enough already.

    At least she wouldn't starve: she snapped off a peapod as she ran and popped it whole into her mouth, the way she'd have done as a child when she was cultivating the inn garden. The peas were ripe and crunched tastily. Pausing--the workers were far behind her already--she gathered a handful and trotted onward, eating them.

    The horn called again. It seemed closer this time.

    Sharina looked over her shoulder, but all she see were the green billows of the maize. She frowned, going over her choices as she continued to jog through the grain.

    The field ended ten strides ahead in an irregular line willows and mimosas, a natural watercourse instead of a man-made canal. The horn sounded, by now in the near distance; another replied from much farther away to Sharina's right.

    She reached the creek. Its pebble bottom was clearly visible through the turbulence caused by larger rocks breaking the surface of the water. The banks of the stream were low, though undercut, and the channel was never more than eight feet across.

    Instead of leaping the creek and continuing on, Sharina lifted herself into the crotch of a willow and scrambled up one of steeply slanting main branches. It took her thirty feet into the air before it began to wobble dangerously from her weight. Gripping the slick bark with both hands she paused, calming her quick breaths. By craning her neck she found an opening through which she could look back the way she'd come while remaining concealed behind the curtain of fronds hanging from higher branches,.

    The laborers continued hoeing their way down the field in as good order as a rank of Garric's pikemen. They seemed to have no more minds than ripples on a pond did: and like the ripples, they moved forward in perfect unison.

    The horn called. Sharina slitted her eyes, but there was nothing to see in the direction of the sound. She was about to drop to the ground and resume running when a man wearing a helmet and polished breastplate came over the swell of the earth.

    He was mounted on a two-legged lizard with a tail twice the length of the torso to balance its neck and long skull. The beast raised its head and licked the air the way a snake does, scenting prey. Its jaws hung slightly open, baring a saw-edged mouthful of teeth.

    The lizard whuffed, then strode forward again. It moved like a grackle, bobbing its head back and forth, but each stride was ten feet long. The man on its back raised a bronze trumpet to his lips and blew another trembling call.

    Sharina found her hands gripping the branch tighter than she needed just to hold on. "Lady," she prayed in a whisper, "if it is Your will, help me in this danger."

    She slid back down the tree, making her plans. Whether or not the Great Gods helped her, she'd be helping herself to the best of her ability.

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