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The Gods Return: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 21:44 EDT



    Cashel hadn't been here in the garden before. There were three small trees in pots: a weeping willow which must've been a trial for the servants carrying water to it and a pair of silver birches. The grape arbor was nice, and there were terracotta planters with flowers.

    Anyway, Rasile seemed satisfied as she placed the yarrow stalks she used to lay out her figures. Cashel was used to being around animals whose legs bent the wrong way so it didn't bother him when she hunched, the way it did some folk looking at the catmen. When Rasile stood up, though-well, a sheep never did that.

    Liane stood like she figured to be hanged by midday. She wore sturdy tunics that must've been from Ilna; nobody else Cashel knew could weave cloth so practical and still have designs that seemed simple until you looked at them close. The sleeves and torsos mated perfectly.

    "These myrtles seem full grown even with being so small," Cashel said quietly.

    It took a moment for Liane to understand he was talking to her. When she did, she jumped like he'd poured ice water down her back.

    She flashed a wide, embarrassed smile. "Yes," she said, "they're a dwarf variety from the mountains of Shengy. One of Mistress Gudea's tutors grew this kind. It's hard to imagine a pirate with the same tastes as Mistress Lassa, but I suppose it makes a change from drinking blood and cutting people's fingers off."

    Cashel laughed. He had a notion of what it was like in Liane's head right now, and it wouldn't have been right to let her wallow there. If she'd been Sharina, Cashel would've put an arm around her-or more likely, Sharina would've put an arm around him. Cashel wasn't comfortable doing that, but sometimes it was the best thing there was.

    "I guess," Cashel said. "I think I'd rather have peonies, though."

    He kept on smiling, but mention of pirates made him think of Ilna's friend Chalcus. They'd never talked about the things Chalcus had done before he met Ilna, but you could read from the scars all over his body that he hadn't been the kind of sailor who took a tub from Shengy across the Inner Sea with a load of oranges ripening aboard.

    Had Chalcus cut off fingers and drunk blood? Not without a reason for it, but Cashel guessed there wasn't much Chalcus wouldn't have done if he'd had to. Because Ilna wouldn't have been happy with a man who wasn't that way, since she surely was herself.

    "Cashel?" Liane said, looking at his smile and maybe seeing what was behind it. She was smart, just as smart as Garric.

    "I was thinking about my sister, ma'am," Cashel said. He didn't talk much, but he'd answer a question if somebody asked him. It was easy when you were willing just to tell the truth. "She's gotten a lot mellower since we left home-even after she lost Chalcus and Merota, I mean, though for a while there she was something else. But you still wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of her."

    "No," said Liane, "I wouldn't. But I don't think anybody could be a better friend."

    Cashel smiled. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "But she's not a good friend to herself."

    Rasile got to her feet, looking like a toy unfolding. "Are you ready, Cashel?" she said.

    "Yes, ma'am," he said.

    Rasile's eyes were a little harder as she turned them on Liane. The expression reminded Cashel that the wizard's jaw was long and full of pointed teeth. "And you, female Liane?"

    "Just Liane, please," she answered pleasantly. "Yes, I'm ready."

    "Then join me in the heptagram, Cashel and Liane," the wizard said. "The star of power, we of the True People call it."

    She waggled her tongue in the equivalent of a grin. "We will see if it has enough power," she said.

    "The power . . . ," said Liane as she stepped over the jagged line of yarrow stalks. "Is in you, Rasile, not in your symbols. And you have power enough."

    "The Wizard Tenoctris trusts me more than I trust myself," said Rasile. "But in this, I think she is right."

    There was room enough in the star for Cashel with the two women, but it was pretty tight. Since there was time, Cashel counted the points: there was a handful and two fingers. It'd seemed like more just to look at; it must be that the yellow stalks were tricking his eyes.

    Rasile began to chant, wagging her slate athame side to side in front of her. She sounded like a catfight instead of wizardry unless you paid attention to the rhythms, but if you did that, you knew it was just the same as Tenoctris.

    Liane was standing really stiff. Part of that might be how close they were together, but she relaxed a trifle when Cashel gave her a slow smile. She carried a bag of waxed linen with a broad strap over her shoulder. It wasn't big, but it looked heavy. Cashel would bet anything that there was books in it.

    Garric generally carried a book with him, too. Sharina said that she read for pleasure, but her brother was the real scholar of them. That was another way he and Liane were well matched.

    Cashel had his usual leather wallet, the one he'd used when he was watching sheep or doing any other job that would keep him away from the mill at lunch time. In it was hard bread, whey cheese, a gourd of ale with a wooden stopper, and a couple onions. It would keep for a week and not be the worse for the wait. It wouldn't be any better either, of course, but that had been what he'd eaten for most of his life. Nobody could look at Cashel or-Kenset and say simple food wasn't enough to keep a man healthy.

    Rasile yowled her incantation. The sky looked bright when Cashel glanced at it, but it didn't seem to throw as much light down on the roof slates as it had a moment before. The shadows of the flowerpots were blurring into general darkness.

    Rasile shrieked something that ended with a spitting sound, pft-pft-pft! The yarrow stalks burned with red wizardlight, and a razor of ice shaved Cashel's marrow. The landscape beyond them changed.

    Tufts of grass, yellow and dry, sprouted from gritty soil. The wind was harsh and cold and terribly thin. Cashel drew a deep breath, but it felt like he was being smothered with a feather pillow. In the distance was a great mountain, its slopes glittering with ancient snow. From its peak trailed steam with a sulfurous tinge.

    Cashel had been holding the wizard's woven satchel in his left hand and his quarterstaff in his right at the balance. Now he slipped the looped handles up over his shoulder so that he could spread both hands on the staff. He didn't swing it horizontal, though, because the ferrules would've stuck out beyond the edges of the star.

    Rasile called out again, rousing another pulse of wizardlight. Liane stood with her eyes closed and her face set. Bone-chilling cold cut again.

    They were on a shore. Basalt spikes, one of them hollowed into an archway by the surf, stood up from black sand; the landscape for as far as Cashel could see had no other features. The water was bright blue where it rolled onto the beach, but in the middle distance it changed sharply to the dusty green of olive leaves.

    Something on the horizon curled up, then back into the depths. Cashel wondered how anything alive could be so big.

    Rasile called, and ice carved deep again. The sea vanished and the sand they stood on was red. The air smelled wet. Soft-bodied plants sprouted around the margins of a pond near the figure of yarrow stalks. There wasn't any grass and the tallest plants were horsetails that Cashel could touch the tops of by stretching his arm up.

    Rasile sank onto her haunches. Cashel and Liane both reached to grab her, but she hadn't collapsed; she was just settling.

    "Our route is over these sands, companions," the wizard said, looking out over the waste. Sandstone ridges slanted across it; there were more plants in their lee. Cashel felt a breeze, but it didn't smell of anything in particular.

    "Where is this place?" said Liane. Now that they'd arrived she sounded calm, the way she usually did. "That is, is it in our world?"

    "Perhaps," said Rasile. "Not our time, though; your time or mine either one."

    "Ma'am?" Cashel said. "Give me a moment, if you will."

    He stepped out of the star so that he had room to limber up with his staff. He began to spin the iron-shod hickory in slow circles. Having the wizard's satchel over his shoulder cramped him, but it was all right if he kept his arms up a little more than usual.

    He'd drop the gear if there was time, of course. But there might not be time.

    Cashel brought the staff around in a figure-8, spinning faster. He wasn't surprised that the tips left sparkles of blue wizardlight behind them. The landscape looked simple enough, but something here was making the hair on the back of his arms and neck prickle.

    He slowed to a halt and slanted the quarterstaff in front of him with his left hand high. Looking back to the women, he said, "I guess I'm ready now, Rasile."

    The wizard rose from her crouch. "And I am ready to lead, Cashel," she said. "This is not a place to tarry."

    Rasile started off to the southeast, her legs taking quick, steady strides. She seemed to have recovered from the wizardry, though she was still pretty old.

    Liane glanced at Cashel. When he nodded, she followed Rasile by a double pace behind. She wore sturdy sandals that even had cleats; they weren't anything like her usual footgear. Cashel hoped they wouldn't blister her feet.

    Liane usually kept an ivory-mounted case knife in her sash. The finger-long blade was etched and gold-filled, but both edges were sharp and the steel was the best Cashel had ever seen. She held it bare in her hand now.

    Cashel brought up the rear, looking in all directions. Not looking for anything in particular, just for things that might be a problem. Which was anything at all in this world, he figured, from the way his skin tingled.

    He smiled. And that was true where they were going as well. It made him feel good to know he might useful.



    Diora paused in the bedroom doorway and looked back at Sharina in her nightdress. "Your highness, are you really sure you wouldn't like me to stay tonight?" she said. "Hachon will understand."

    The maid frowned, apparently thinking about what she'd just said. "Well, it doesn't matter what he thinks anyway, does it?" she said. "You being the princess and him just a captain. But he would."

    "Thank you, Diora," said Sharina as she stepped forward to close the door herself if the maid didn't do it. "I prefer to be alone."

    Well, of course what she'd really prefer was for Cashel to be with her, but that wasn't possible. The needs of the kingdom came first. Sharina was too . . . flat, she supposed. She wasn't physically tired, not unusually so at any rate, but after watching Cashel vanish she had no mental energy left to protest.

    She'd be all right again soon. She always was.

    Sharina walked to the window looking down on the courtyard. It wasn't a real garden, but four stubby palm trees stood in pots to punctuate benches which were empty at this hour. The quarter moon showed everything clearly, though without color.

    She hadn't been with Cashel when he went off this time. Rasile had said that many passages would be opening. Those protected within her seven-pointed star could choose the path they wished to take, but others who stood too close would find themselves in some uncertain elsewhere.

    There was a bird nest in the top of the palm nearest Sharina's window. A chick peeped and a muted cooing responded; it must be a dove.

    Sharina had watched Rasile's incantation from the fire tower, two furlongs from the roof garden but tall enough to give a good view of what was happening. She'd been alone, though her escort of Blood Eagles had been below in the tower just as they stood outside the door of her suite now. Cashel and his companions hadn't moved, though the ruby wizardlight swelled and waned about them in response to the Corl's chant.

    Sharina looked away from the window. The bed had curtains but it was far too warm to need them tonight. Diora had turned down the sheet before she left, but for a moment Sharina considered throwing an extra rug from the storage chest onto the floor and sleeping there.

    Well, she could do that later. She got into the bed.

    She'd expected a flood of wizardlight to blaze around her friends at the climax of the incantation. Instead, the heptagram had grown fainter and the three figures had slowly dissolved as though they'd fallen into a vat of acid. For an instant Sharina thought she could see Cashel's skeleton holding his hickory staff upright. She knew that was an illusion, but even so she had to step away from the parapet in fear that she'd topple over in a sudden wash of blackness.

    Cashel will be coming back. I have to keep things going here so that there'll be comfort and safety when he returns.

    Sharina was sure she wouldn't be able to sleep. She knew that if she tried to work, though, she'd just stare at tasks without doing anything useful.

    She might've been able to accomplish something if Liane were with her. They worked well together, better than either did alone-and that was better than most people, she'd learned by going over documents prepared by others, even experienced clerks.

    She missed Liane, but she missed Cashel more. She missed Cashel so much that her chest hurt with longing. She wouldn't be able to sleep-

    And Sharina was asleep.

    She floated above an enormous city. She recognized it from drawings by the architects Lord Tadai had engaged to plan Pandah's rebirth as capital of the kingdom. The old quarter remained, though the city walls had been razed to form boulevards and the tenements of the poor had been replaced by splendid public buildings.

    The greatest was a soaring black temple; the dream-Sharina curved toward it. The colonnaded plaza was paved with the same polished granite as had been used for the structures. In the center of it stood a tall man in a hooded black robe.

    "Your gods are dead, Sharina!" he called. His voice came from everywhere. Storm clouds began to pile up as suddenly as foam covers a mug of ale.

    "Come to me and worship Lord Scorpion!" the man said. Sharina felt her dream-self drawn toward him like a straw in a millrace; she struggled.

    "Worship the One Which rules this world and will rule it for eternity!" the man said, lifting his arms toward her. Her dream-self was so close now that she could see the scorpion on the shoulder of his velvet robe, perched there like a trained magpie.

    "Worship Lord Scorpion!"

    Sharina willed her arms to drag her away, but she had no form to fight the current dragging her. Nonetheless she felt the fabric of the dream tearing about her.

    "Worship Lord Scorpion!"

    The clouds were black as starless night, twisting and shaping into a monstrous scorpion.


    Sharina lurched out of her bed. The sky had begun to hint at false dawn.

    The Pewle knife lay on the small bedside table. She gripped the sealskin sheath with her left hand and drew the long blade. There was no enemy to face with the weapon, but its presence settled her.

    Her mind still echoed with, "Worship!"



    Lord Attaper was an Ornifal noble and as good a horseman as anyone in the royal army. Places in the Blood Eagles he commanded, however, were filled by soldiers who'd proved their courage in any of the regiments, most of which were infantry. It didn't surprise Garric when a trooper in the squad trotting ahead of him and Tenoctris wobbled, grabbed his saddle horn, and fell off anyway. He hit with more of a thud than a crash of armor, since the ground was soft.

    "Get up and rejoin us, Mitchin!" Attaper snarled, furious that one of his men had embarrassed him. "And quickly!"

    "That seems a little unjust," said Tenoctris, riding beside Garric with ladylike grace - she was sidesaddle - and perfect skill. "This may be the first time he's ridden a horse in his life."

    The wizard's family hadn't been wealthy, but they were noble; Tenoctris had learned to ride and, for that matter to drive a coach and four. That latter skill had proven useful in the past, because it certainly wasn't one people raised in a peasant village were going to have.

    "I don't think 'justice' is one of the concepts Attaper dwells on when he's doing his job," Garric said.

    "Which is every bloody minute he's awake," Carus said. "And I'd bet half his dreams are about guarding you, too. You don't make his life easy, lad."

    Then, in what was for the warrior king a reflective tone, he added, "I don't think he's ever been as happy before."

    The cornicene of the cavalry troop they were riding with blew an attention note on the horn coiled about his body. The captain wigwagged his arms in a field semaphore, signaling the ten troopers of his lead section. They spread to left and right as they disappeared over the next rise.

    Lord Zettin's scouts ranged far and wide across the continent, but the army's own cavalry was responsible for its close-in reconnaissance. Garric needed to see the terrain himself if he were to dispose his troops properly in event of a battle, and there wasn't likely to be margin to cover any mistakes he made.

    Trooper Mitchin thundered past on his way to rejoin his squad. His shield, a section of cylinder, banged against him every time the horse gathered its legs. The Blood Eagles were equipped as infantry. Attaper had mounted this platoon only to allow them to keep up with the prince. If they had to fight, they'd dismount.

    Lord Waldron hadn't liked Garric riding off with a troop of cavalry and a platoon of Blood Eagles, but he understood the logic of the plan. More to the point, he understood that it was his duty to obey when his prince ordered. Attaper wasn't nearly as clear on the latter point. He simply would have ignored Garric telling him to stay behind, so Garric hadn't bothered.

    "Tenoctris?" Garric said. "I'm here to get a feel for the country."

    "So that you and I get a feel for the country, lad," Carus reminded him. The ghost smiled, but his words were true enough. Carus had been a formidable swordsman, but his armies wouldn't have won every battle they fought if he hadn't also been even more impressive as a tactician.

    Grinning at the silent comment, Garric continued, "But what are you here for? Are you looking for particular places to use your art?"

    Tenoctris laughed. "Not at all," she said. "In fact, this country is very peaceful. Pleasantly bland, I feel. It's unusual to be able to look from horizon to horizon and not see signs of mass slaughter or dreadful rites anywhere. Well, it's been unusual for me in the past, at any rate."

    This country in general ranged from bog to marsh, though the leading section had thus far been able to find ground firm enough for horsemen. It'd be a bad place to meet an enemy, since the soft ground would channel the fighting along a series of parallel causeways.

    "It'd be worse for the rats, though," Carus said judiciously. "They've got narrow feet."

    "No," Tenoctris said, "I'm here because you are, Garric. I believe that whoever is ruling Palomir will sooner or later attack you personally. I want to be where the excitement is."

    She laughed merrily, but Garric didn't imagine her light tone took anything away from its truth.

    "I don't think I'm that important," he said carefully.

    Tenoctris shrugged.

    "I think you are, lad," said the ghost in Garric's mind. "If a sword and an army could've held the Isles together, I'd have done it. But that's all I had, and it wasn't enough. Nobody I've seen in this age has even that much. Nobody but you."

    The main body - the Blood Eagles around Garric and Tenoctris, and the ten-man section with the cavalry commander - reached the crest of the ridge. Garric saw the troopers of the lead element halfway down the swale, proceeding very slowly. Two of the horses were in mud to their knees, and a third man was backtracking from a bog he'd decided was impenetrable. The troop commander was changing his advance section every few miles, because the picking the trail required considerably more effort than following did.

    "The supply wagons are going to have the Sister's own time getting through this," Carus noted grimly.

    We're using oxen, not draft horses, Garric reminded him silently. Their hooves are broader, and they spread with pressure so they won't sink in as badly.

    Even as Garric's mind formed the thought, a trio of spiral-horned antelope sprang out of a willow copse and bounded across what looked like choking swamp. They made great leaps that seemed to be higher than they were long, pausing briefly between one and the next. Their feet must be adapted to the environment, though just how Garric couldn't imagine.

    A pity we can't saddle them, Garric thought. That would give us an edge against the rats.

    Aloud he said, "Tenoctris, if the Gods have vanished - or anyway, if They don't exist in this present . . . what does that mean for us? I mean, in the future?"

    Tenoctris shrugged again. "Well, possibly nothing," she said. "After all, that's the world I lived in all my life until very recently: a world in which the Great Gods didn't exist."

    "But you said you were wrong?" Garric said, frowning.

    "Yes, but it's what I believed at the time," she said with a wry smile. "Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I believed it. So I have no difficultly in imagining a world in which the Gods really don't exist, rather than them simply not existing in my mind."

    Garric considered a world without the Great Gods. He'd never doubted Their existence - people in Barca's Hamlet didn't doubt the Gods - but neither had They been a major part of his life.

    Reise offered a crumb and a drop of ale to the Lady at family meals, but any true worship Garric had done was to the rough stone carving of Duzi on the hill overlooking the south pasture. The Shepherd Who protected the world was far too grand to worry about real shepherds, but little Duzi might find a lost sheep or deflect the lightning from the elm which sheltered the shepherd against the sudden thunderstorm.

    So perhaps it really wouldn't make much difference. Garric was uncomfortable with the thought, but there was no end of more serious problems facing the kingdom.

    "The difficulty is that I'm not sure the throne, so to speak, will remain empty," Tenoctris continued. The Blood Eagles had gone through this section single file, but there was room for two horses abreast, or almost so. Garric nodded and Tenoctris pulled ahead; he followed closely enough that his horse nuzzled her left thigh.

    "Certainly the Gods of Palomir hope to fill the void," she said. "And we hope, of course, to disappoint them. I rather doubt that they're the only powers who wish to rule this age, however. And they may not be the worst of the possible choices."

    "First things first," Garric muttered. The leading element was signaling back to his captain with what seemed cheerful enthusiasm; perhaps they'd gotten through the boggy stretch. If so, it was time to turn back and carry the intelligence to the main body of the army.

    But there'd be another day, and another day; each with its own problems.

    Garric rose in his stirrups to stretch his legs; his gelding whickered without enthusiasm. "First things first," he repeated.

    He was just tired, he knew, but he was very tired; in body and now, thinking of the Great Gods, soul. I wonder when it stops?

    "For folks like you and me, lad," Carus said, standing arms akimbo on the battlements of a dream caste, "it stops when we're dead. And it seems that for some of us, it doesn't stop even then."

    The ghost of the ancient warrior-king threw his head back and laughed, but it was a moment before Garric was able to laugh also.



    Three large antelopes whose horns curved like the arms of a lyre stood on the bank and stared wide-eyed at the riverboat as the Dalopans rowed past. They seemed terrified.

    "Captain Sairg?" Ilna said. "There's a chance for some fresh meat."

    The captain's face was set in a rictus of anger; he pretended not to hear her. The crewmen may really not have heard. They'd been stroking with the regularity of a waterwheel ever since the land started to quiver a little after dawn.

    The sky was pale and its tinge reminded Ilna of a frog's yellow throat. She disliked it, and she disliked the vibration even more, though she didn't suppose it hurt anything. Instead of being muddy and opaque, the river's surface had become as finely jagged as the blade of a file. It was still opaque, of course; not that she thought there was much reason to want to look at the bottom of a river.

    Ilna didn't know where they were beyond that they'd come several days north of Pandah; she'd never had much concept of geography. That had puzzled some folk when she was growing up, because Ilna os-Kenset had the most connection with the outside world of anybody in Barca's Hamlet. Her fabrics were sold in Sandrakkan, Ornifal, and even to the Serians who spun silk from the nests of caterpillars and shipped it to nobles throughout the Isles.

    Merchants told her the size and thickness of the cloth they wanted for the places they would sell it. The patterns were Ilna's own, and the names of the islands to which the cloth went were merely that, names, to her.

    Ingens muttered numbers as he laid down the cross-staff with which he'd just taken a sight on the rocky hill to the northeast; it was the first real feature the landscape had displayed since they pulled away from Pandah. He extended the parallel lines he was drawing on a strip of paper and added a note in the margin.

    "It's a map of the river," he muttered to Ilna. "For later voyages."

    "I see," said Ilna, then frowned because she wasn't sure that was true. She understood that the markings on a map told people where things were in the world - but they didn't tell her anything. She was always aware of direction, but place - here rather than there - had never been part of her world.

    Ingens pointed to the hill which seemed to Ilna to be in their general course, though the way the river twisted across this flat landscape kept anyone from being sure. "That's Ortran," he said. "The island of Ortran before the Change. It didn't have anything on it but fishermen then. I don't know what they do now that the sea's gone. Fish in the river, perhaps, since they're in a bend of it."

    As he spoke, Ingens was unrolling the strip between two sticks like an ordinary reading scroll. The portion he'd already written on was an ell long, the width of the largest loom Ilna kept at home. Kept wherever she decided home was at the moment, that is.

    "Is it going to be helpful?" Ilna said. "Because it appeared to me that the river bed's changing constantly. Even in the center of the channel we've gone aground."

    Underscoring what she'd just said, a section of the bank ahead of them toppled slowly into the river, carrying with it a pin oak of considerable size. Foaming water lifted and swelled outward, though it didn't seem that it'd be any danger to the vessel. The tree twisted and rolled as it moved downstream; mud was slumping off its roots and unbalancing it.

    "I don't know!" the secretary said. Then he grimaced and continued more calmly, "It's something to do, mistress. This sound is, is very disturbing."

    "Was it like this when you were coming upstream?" Ilna said. She'd never been on this stretch of the river before and she'd assumed the way everything shook was normal. It was unpleasant, of course, but that wasn't unusual.

    "There was nothing like it!" Ingens said. "I thought, I wondered I mean . . . .

    He composed his expression and met Ilna's cool gaze. "I wonder if it has anything to do with Master Hervir's disappearance, mistress?"

    Why in the world should it? thought Ilna, but she decided it was a legitimate question. She began plaiting the cords already in her hands into an answer. Everything was connected with everything else, of course, but it didn't appear that Hervir had any more to do with the shaking than he did with the price of wool on Sandrak -

    "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pried into your affairs," snarled Ingens in a tone of embarrassed anger. He uncapped the brass inkwell pinned to his collar to resume writing on his map.

    Ilna looked at him more in surprise than anger. Oh, he thinks I ignored his question and started weaving instead even of telling him it was none of his business.

    "I'm sorry, Master Ingens," she said. She was sorry: she hadn't communicated adequately, which was a problem she regularly had when dealing with people. That was a good reason to avoid dealing with them, of course, but there was no excuse for doing a bad job of what she'd started. "I've been looking for an answer if the pattern here. It doesn't seem that -"

    Ilna lifted the loose fabric which her fingers had continued knotting as she spoke. As she did so, she looked at it -

    And looked again. The pattern which she'd seen initially had formed into something quite different because she'd continued it beyond what she'd normally have done.

    "There is a connection," she said. She hoped she hid the anger she felt. It was entirely directed at herself for having seen a pattern merely by good luck. Her anger was usually directed at herself, of course, but other people didn't generally understand that. "But it's distant, and they're both parts of a whole that's very much larger. Two knots in a carpet, so to speak; but there is a carpet and -"

    The vibration stopped. The river was as still as the pond which drove the mill in Barca's Hamlet. A dozen lightning bolts ripped across the southern horizon, brightening the yellow sky to the color of melting sulfur.

    One of the Dalopans in the bow dropped the oar and jumped up, shouting in a language that sounded like the chattering of a magpie. Ilna looked over her shoulder at him. All four crewmen were yammering now, looking more than ever like birds as they hopped about. They didn't disturb the balance of the boat, though.

    Sairg called to the Dalopans in their own language; they ignored him. He let go of the tiller and rose to his feet, holding the short, broad-bladed spear which Ilna must've missed among the spars and cordage of the stowed rig.

    Ingens started to get up also, but he paused when the boat began to wobble. From a half crouch he cried, "Sairg, what's going on?" Pointlessly, it seemed to Ilna, but most of what people did seemed pointless to her.

    As though the secretary had shouted an order, the Dalopans dived into the brown water as gracefully as so many kingfishers. A violent tremor to the south sped across the flat landscape, lifting land and water as high as the waves of a winter storm. A line of alders, spared by the eroding riverbanks, jumped skyward and toppled flat.

    Ilna tucked the yarn into her sleeve and tugged loose the silken cord she wore in place of a sash. Sairg was blind with terror: she'd seen the signs too often not to recognize his condition. She rose to her feet unwillingly, hoping she wouldn't upset them but certain that even for her - she couldn't swim - a ducking wasn't the worst present danger.

    "Wizard!" the captain screamed. He raised his spear. "You've done this!"

    How he'd come to that conclusion was beyond Ilna's imagination, but the fellow was mad now or the next thing to it. She took the cord's running noose between her right thumb and forefinger, holding the remainder of the lasso looped against her palm.

    "Sairg, put that -" Ingens said.

    The captain cocked the spear back to throw. Ingens lunged, grappling with him as the wave struck, lifting the riverboat on its crest.

    The first wave. What had been the flat plain to the south now rippled like brown corduroy. It was sprinkled with vegetation uprooted when the ground itself flowed.

    Ingens and Sairg pitched over the side, their legs flailing in the air. Ilna spun her lasso out sidearm.

    She drew back, tightening the loop around the secretary's right thigh, and threw herself into the belly of the ship. Though she braced her heels against the gunwale, for a moment she felt her buttocks lifting from the wet planks: she was fighting the weight of both men. She wouldn't let go while she still lived, but all the determination in the world couldn't prevent them from pulling her into the pitching river with them.

    The boat slid off the back of the wave. The flat bottom slapped down with what might've been a deafening crash if it hadn't been for the overwhelming roar of the world shaking itself like a wet dog. Ilna bounced as if she'd been struck by a swinging door. Ingens' head and torso lifted over the gunwale; he'd shaken himself loose from Sairg. His face was white and empty.

    The boat rose again on the next tremor. The lashings that held the rigging had loosened, so the mast was jerking about. Ilna grabbed Ingens' collar with her left hand and leaned back, bracing her feet again on the side of the boat.

    Ingens' eyes had no more intelligence than those of a fish, but his muscles moved with an instinctive urge to survive. His right hand scrabbled blindly in the boat until it closed on a thwart; then, with a colossal lurch, he rolled over the gunwale and into the belly of the vessel.

    Ilna toppled back, but her grip on the lasso kept her from falling over the other side. The humor of the thought struck her. She didn't laugh often, but she barked one out now.

    The boat crashed down, bouncing Ilna upright again. Ingens had his arms and legs wrapped around the mast as though he was adrift in the waves.

    The boat scudded forward more swiftly than any normal current could drive it, lifting on the next throbbing pulse. The landscape was brown and splashed to either side, mud-choked water merging imperceptibly with land shaken to a liquid.

    The earthquake throbbed, mastering the land the way a winter storm rules the sky: harsh, merciless, overwhelming. Ilna gripped the thwart she'd been seated on and looked in the direction the cataclysm drove them. Ortran was a rocky wedge thrusting from a landscape that otherwise was no more solid than the sullen yellow sky.

    A pulse lifted the Bird of the River again, rushing the vessel toward an end of the disaster's own choosing. Ilna thought of a squirrel being sucked slowly and inevitably down the gullet of a snake.

    The dark mass of Ortran loomed close ahead. Ingens' eyes were closed as he prayed in a singsong; Ilna could hear his voice only as rhythm woven into the roar of the earth tearing itself apart and reknitting.

    Her own face was calm. If this was death, well, then she'd die. She'd have regrets, but the thing she'd regret most was that she'd ever been born. When she was dead, she wouldn't have to remember Chalcus and Merota laughing, or Chalcus stabbed through a dozen times and falling beside the corpse of Merota.

    The boat scraped and skidded up the slope of coarse gravel which had been Ortran's shoreline. The shock didn't break Ilna's grip, but it lifted her over the thwart and slammed her numbingly to the planking on the other side.

    Like a squirrel going down a snake's gullet . . . .

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