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Eye of the Zodiac
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Текст книги "Eye of the Zodiac"

Автор книги: E. C. Tubb

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Текущая страница: 7 (всего у книги 10 страниц)

He tested it with a stone, sending the missile to land high on a slope.

"Here." He handed the woman his knife and the rest of the plastic. "Make a pouch and some gloves. Nothing fancy, just to protect our hands from thorns."

She looked blankly at the articles. "How-"

"Cut thin strips from the plastic to use as thread. Use the point to make holes. The fabric will make a pouch and strap to support it. Chaque, help me get some metal off the raft."

They managed to get three strips, each about a yard long, an inch wide, a quarter thick. Crude swords without point or edge, but having mass which could be used as a club. The thorn trees were too spined, the branches too twisted, the wood too hard to be of use.

Dumarest tore a panel from the wreck, stabbed holes in it, cut it to shape. The guards were crude, but they would protect the hand from anything running along the rough blades.

"Cutlasses," said Chaque. "Or machetes-but they haven't an edge."

"Find me a grindstone and I'll give you one. That, or an anvil and hammer."

"Why not ask for a radio while you're about it. And a raft all set and ready to go?" Chaque lifted one of the weapons, swung it, grunted as the end dug into the soil. "The hunters use high-powered rifles and lasguns," he commented. "We haven't even got a decent sword. Earl, we've got to face it. We haven't a hope in hell of getting back alive."

"Why not?" Dumarest looked at the guide, his eyes cold. "We can walk. We can navigate by the sun and stars. As long as we keep going, we'll get somewhere."

"Not in the mountains. You don't know what they're like and-" his voice lowered, "that thing could come back. You remember? The one in the dell."

"We'll worry about that when it happens," said Dumarest. "Ready, Iduna? Let's go."

* * * * *

He led the way, picking a trail up the southern end of the ravine, reaching the top to look down at an expanse of thorn which fell gently to a sharp rim. An almost solid barrier of wood and spine which nothing living could easily penetrate. He turned to the left and followed the edge of thorn to where it met a jutting outcrop; a sharp wedge of stone which rose almost sheer, until it sloped up and back towards the flank of the mountain.

"A dead end." Chaque's voice betrayed his fatigue. "The mountains are full of them. We'll have to go back, Earl, and try the other direction."

Miles of distance and hours of time wasted to no purpose. Energy squandered and fatigue enhanced. Dumarest looked at the wall before them, noting its cracks, small fissures, clumps of vegetation.

"We'll climb," he said. "Move up and around."

"And, if beyond, there is more thorn?" Chaque slashed at the ruby leaves with his metal bar. "A slip and we could fall into it. Once trapped, we could never escape."

A chance which had to be taken. Dumarest looped a wire around the handle of his sword and slung it from his neck. The pouch, now filled with selected stones, followed. The gloves he tucked under his tunic and, without hesitation, began to climb. Twenty feet up he halted and looked down.

"Use my hand and footholds. Iduna, you come next Chaque, you take the rear."

"I'm no climber, Earl."

"You'll manage. Just look up and ahead, never down."

Dumarest climbed higher as they followed, fingers digging into cracks, boots resting on tiny ledges, the clumps of vegetation. One yielded beneath his weight. He heard Iduna gasp as dirt showered about her, Chaque's muffled curse as a stone hit his injured temple.


"It's nothing. Just keep moving."

Up another fifty feet, and then he met an overhang under which he sidled like a crab. A gust of wind swept over the thorn, stirring the leaves so they flashed with changing ruby and silver, spines lifting as if eager for prey.

The curve of the outcrop was smooth, worn with wind and weather. Dumarest edged around it as far as he could go, then looked up and down. Ten feet below on the far side of the curve erosion had caused a mass of stone to fall, leaving a scooped hollow above a ledge almost four feet wide. A safe place to rest if they could reach it, and there was only one way to do that.

To swing, to jump, to land and, somehow, to maintain balance. To slip was to fall and land among the thorn.

"Earl? Is something wrong?" The woman sounded anxious.

"No. Just hold on."

Again, Dumarest examined the curve. It was bare, unmarred aside from a narrow fissure which ran in an almost horizontal line. Reaching behind him Dumarest lifted the crude sword from his neck, probing ahead with the tip of the blunt blade. It penetrated an inch then, as he turned it, slid within the fissure for half its length. He hammered it home with the heel of his hand and then, gripping it, swung from his holds, dropping, landing with a thud on the ledge to teeter on the very brink.

A moment of strain as muscles and reflexes fought the pull of gravity. Then he was safe, dropping on all fours, his lungs pumping air.

"Earl?" Iduna was above, her face pale, strained as she looked at where he stood. He saw her lips tighten as he told her what to do.

"Earl! I can't! I-"

"You've got no choice!" He was deliberately curt. "Grab the bar, swing and let go. I'll catch you before you can fall. Hurry! Don't think about it, just do it!"

She hit the edge of the ledge, swayed and gasped as he swung her to safety. Chaque followed, unexpectedly agile. Without pause Dumarest led the way down to where piled dirt made an easy slope, leading past the thorn to a ridge running south, a rugged expanse dotted with scrub.

The far end terminated in a crevasse impossible to cross. Chaque looked at it, his eyes bleak.

"I told you, Earl. These mountains are difficult to fly over and impossible to traverse on foot. We'll never make it."

"You give up too easily." Dumarest looked around, studying the vegetation, the lie of the land. Already the day was ending, reflected light flaring from the peaks, the crevasse filled with somber shadow. "We need to find water. My guess is that it's over there."

"How can you tell?" Iduna followed his pointing hand.

"No thorn-it needs arid conditions. And see how those leaves reflect the light? What vegetation is that, Chaque?"

"Frodar-if it were the season there would be fruits."

"And fruit needs water." Dumarest took the rough sword from the woman. "Let's go and find it."

They reached it at dusk after fighting their way through a cluster of thorn, hacking a passage with the strips of metal. A thin stream ran between high banks to widen into a pool a few feet across. Dumarest held the others back as they lunged towards it.

"No. We'll drink and wash lower down. I don't want to leave our scent."

Later, when he had immersed his entire body in the stream, laving his clothing and boots, he returned to the pool. Moving around it he set snares made of looped wire, hammering pegs into the ground to hold them fast.

"Predators," said Iduna. "Of course, they have to live on something. Small game, Earl, is that what you're hoping to catch?"

"Small or large, we need to eat." Dumarest took her by the arm and led her from the pool to higher ground. Chaque, a blotch in the darkness, followed, stumbling with fatigue.

"Do we need to go so far?"

"Too near and our scent will warn off the game. How's your head?"

"Bad." Chaque grunted as he felt his temple. "I wish we'd found the medical cabinet. I could do with something to ease the pain."

"Try to sleep," said Dumarest. "It will help."

"And you, Earl? Don't you ever sleep?" Iduna dropped to the ground as they reached a point well away from the water and the snares. "God, I'm tired. The way I feel, I could rest for a week. Do you think we'll trap anything?"

Two creatures were in the snares when they looked in the morning. Small things the size of rats, their skins a dull gray, matted with fur, oily to the touch. Dumarest skinned and cleaned them, cutting them into portions with his knife. Iduna looked distastefully at the pieces he held out to her.

"Aren't we going to cook them?"

"Raw meat gives more nourishment than when it's cooked. Chew it slowly and eat as we travel."

"Is there any point?" Her eyes were dull, her voice listless. "Isn't it only putting off the inevitable? What hope can there be, Earl?"

"There's hope. A valley should lie to the east and south. There could be people. If we reach it, we can survive."

"Among beasts like the Candarish?"

"Among people. Now take the food and do as I say." His voice hardened as she made no effort to take the scraps. "It's your choice, woman. Eat or starve!"

* * * * *

They followed the stream until it petered out, climbed a ridge and crossed a small plateau. That night they huddled in the shelter of a clump of shrub, moving on foodless, the next day. A flight of birds appeared, wheeling. Dumarest knocked down three with his sling, losing one as it fell into thorn, managing to save the others. They were mostly beak and feather, the flesh gritty, hard to chew, distasteful to swallow.

The thorn thickened, met in a barrier a hundred yards thick, thinning on the other side to a rise topped by pinnacles of naked stone. A barrier which ran to either side, as far as the eye could see.

From where he stood on Dumarest's shoulders Chaque reported, "It's no good, Earl. We'll have to go back."

"Back?" Iduna had slumped, sitting with shoulders bowed, her face drawn with fatigue. "You mean we've done all this for nothing?"

She was dispirited, on the verge of defeat. To return now would be to break her will to survive. Dumarest frowned as the guide dropped to the ground beside him. The mountains were like a maze, promising paths ending in tormenting barriers. He watched as a gust of wind dried riffled the spined leaves.

A wind which blew from behind them, sweeping from the rising ground. If it lasted, they would have a chance.

Chaque watched as Dumarest knelt, fretting a piece of the gaudy fabric into a mound of scrapped fibers.

"If you're thinking of fire, Earl, it won't work. The thorn is slow to burn."

"Not the wood, the leaves." Dumarest selected a stone from his pouch, struck the back of his knife against the flint. Sparks flew, some settling on the tinder, smoldering to burst into minute flame. "Get me something to burn. Hurry!"

There was grass, sun-dried, still containing sap but releasing heat as well as smoke. Scraps of branch followed, some ruby leaves which Dumarest tore free with his knife and gloved hands.

"Keep building the fire," he ordered. "Make it as hot as you can."

As Chaque crouched, coughing over the glowing embers, Dumarest examined the barrier. To walk through it was impossible, but there had to be room at the foot of the boles and the small animals must have made trails. He found one, another much larger, and he dropped to stare into it. The edges were thick with leaves, the opening low. Smoke passed him, blown by the wind, streaming into the winding tunnel.

Dumarest piled fire into the tunnel mouth, watching as the silver spines curled and fell, the ruby leaves smoldering and releasing an acrid smoke.

Without the wind the fire would die, the leaves and wood proof against the flame. But, as the gusts strengthened, the flames grew, streaming back into the tunnel, sharp poppings coming from within. Iduna looked up as Dumarest tore the rest of the fabric into strips.


"Wind these around your head and neck. Make certain that no flesh is exposed. You too, Chaque."

The wind died, the fire with it, thin streams of smoke lifting to die against the azure of the sky. The ground was barely warm, but the rim of spined leaves had gone leaving only blackened ash.

Muffled from head to foot Dumarest thrust his way into the tunnel, the crude sword extended, body flat, elbows and knees edging him forward. Twenty yards and the effect of the fire ended. But here, deep in the barrier, the leaves were relatively high above the ground. The gloom was intense, sunlight hidden by the massed leaves, the air filled with a dim ruby suffusion.

He moved on, his body making a passage the others could follow, the leaves thickening as he neared the far side of the barrier. He felt the rasp of leaves on his back and shoulders, spines tearing at the plastic, but unable to penetrate the protective mesh. Some caught at the fabric around his head, tore the material around his eyes.

He rolled, thrashing, moving on, the metal strip probing. It touched wood, something which squealed and ran. Then he had broken through, to roll, to turn and slash at the opening, to help the others through.

"We made it!" Chaque stood still as Dumarest unwound the fabric from around his head. The material was thick with broken spines. "Earl, we made it!"

A trick they couldn't repeat. The fabric was ripped, useless, loaded with poison. Dumarest left it where it lay as he headed on, up the rise, past the sparing pinnacles of stone to where a shallow canyon ran between sheer cliffs. It was open at the far end, giving a vista of sky and fleecy cloud. A bleak place, dotted with huge boulders, the ground rough and patched with thorn and scrub.

They were half-way along it when the predator attacked. It came from behind a boulder, long, low, limbs tipped with sickle-like claws, the tail knobbed with a spine, the head plated, the jaws filled with curving fangs.

Dumarest saw it, a drab-colored shape which sprang from the top of a boulder, its fur the bleak reddish gray of stone. A glimpse only, but it was enough to save his life, to send him lunging forward, to fall, his side numbed by the blow which had ripped away the pouch of stones. He rose as the beast landed.

"Iduna! Get behind a boulder! Chaque! On guard!"

The guide was slow, fumbling with his metal strip, his face pale, mouth gaping. If the beast had attacked him he would have fallen an easy prey, but the creature had mind only for its original target.

It crouched, a dry hissing coming from its open mouth, the knobbed tail lashing. The plates of bone armoring its head provided a defense against the thorn. The eyes shone behind transparent lids, deep-set, overhung with bony ridges. The shoulders were broad, the body tapering, thick fur matted over more natural armor. A wedge of savage destruction intent on the kill.

"Chaque, help him! Help Earl!"

Dumarest ignored the woman, concentrating on the beast. He held the crude sword in his right hand, feet poised, ready to leap in any direction. Had he the time he would have used the sling to try and blind the gleaming eyes, but there was no time.

Without warning it sprang. It lunged forward with an explosion of energy, dirt lifting beneath the claws of its rear legs, front paws extended, the claws gleaming like ivory. Dumarest darted to his right, the blade lifting, falling as the creature passed, the metal bar slamming against the sloping side. A true sword would have cut, dragged, severed tendon and bone, opened veins and arteries to release a fountain of blood. The bar hit, bruised, the jar stinging Dumarest's hand and arm.

The beast landed, hissing, turned to spring again. A thrown stone bounced from its shoulder as it left the ground, a missile too small and too weakly thrown to be of use. Dumarest dropped, ducking, feeling the touch of something on his head as he swung the bar at a rear leg with all his force.

A crippling-blow, the best he could do. If he hoped to kill the beast, first it must be slowed down. He rose, blood streaming from his lacerated scalp, the tip of a claw having sliced the skin as if it had been a razor. He threw the bar from his right hand to his left, lifting the knife from his boot, holding it sword-fashion, thumb to the blade, the point upwards.

A knife-fighter's hold, giving the opportunity to either slash or stab.

"Chaque! Move in! Hit when you can, but watch out for the tail!"

The guide said nothing, standing, the bar held limply in his hand.

"Chaque, damn you! Do as I say!"

There was no time to wait, to see if the man would help. Dumarest tensed, crouching a little, anticipating the spring. The damaged rear leg would throw the beast to his left, lessening the distance, the height. The target would be small and a mistake would cost him his life.

He rose as the beast sprang, his left arm extended, the bar held like a sword, firmly rigid. His aim was good. The blunt tip vanished between the gaping jaws, plunged into soft, internal tissues, driven deeper by the creature's weight. Fangs rasped as they bit, scraping as they ran along the metal to jar against the hilt. Dumarest released it, dropped, feeling the wind made by raking claws as stabbed upwards at the unprotected stomach.

Blood showered as he dragged the bar free, hot, smoking, sliming his face, his body, mixing with the dirt which plumed from beneath scrabbling claws.

The armored head turned, blood gushing past the bar, fangs denting the metal as they fought the cause of its pain. Pain which filled the beast's universe, which sent it twisting to one side, entrails hanging from the cut in its flesh. It was dying, as good as dead. Yet, life and the feral desire to kill still remained.

Dumarest yelled as Chaque suddenly ran forward.

"Don't! Keep clear, man! Keep clear!"

The guide ignored him, lifting his bar, aiming for the point before the rear legs. He hoped, perhaps, to break the back.

A dangerous point to hit, a position which placed him within reach of the lashing tail. It struck as the bar landed, the knobbed end, moving like a whip, smashing against Chaque's side and his spine, knocking him down to scream as a clawed foot ripped at his body.

To scream and writhe as Dumarest lunged forward, the knife lifted, falling like a glint of silver as it plunged into the creature's heart.

"Earl!" Iduna came running towards him. "I tried to help," she panted. "I threw stones. Earl-is it dead?"


"And Chaque?"

Chaque was dying. He looked up from a face smeared with dirt and blood, his eyes filled with agony. His back had been broken, the claws had bared the bone of his ribs, revealed the spongy mass of his lungs. Already they were filling, drowning him in his own blood.

"Earl!" He coughed, spat a mouthful of crimson. "Too slow," he whispered. "I was too slow."

"You killed it." A lie, but perhaps it would give comfort. "You saved my life, Agus."

"I'm glad, Earl." Incredibly, the man smiled. "Now, at least, you'll have something to eat. And Earl, the woman-" He coughed again, spraying blood. "The woman, Earl, she-"

"He's raving." Iduna stooped, her hands touching the tormented body. "It's all right, Chaque," she said gently. "It's all right."

"The pain!" His face twisted. "God, the pain!"

Agony which bathed him like a flame. Torn nerves and sinews relaying their message, now that the shock had passed. Agony which could last for minutes, each second an eternity of suffering.

"Earl! Please! The pain! For God's sake help me! I can't stand the pain!"

"All right, Agus," said Dumarest gently.

And drove his knife into the heart.

Chapter Eleven

Phal Vestaler, High Rememberancer and, by virtue of that office, Head of the Council, stood before the Alphanian Altar and communed with the past. A solemn moment which he stretched to the full before turning, hands upraised, to face the score of boys now undergoing initiation.

A portentous moment in their lives-after the full completion of the ceremony they would never be the same. The days of boyhood would be over. They would adopt the raiment of a man, undertake the duties of a man, accept the responsibilities. They would marry the women chosen to be their mates and take full part in the ceremonies. They would listen and they would learn and, in due time, they would teach. So it had been from the beginning.

Vestaler looked at them from where he stood on the low dais. Already they showed signs of the adults they would soon become. Faces young but solemn, old for their age, the eyes tense, the lips firm. If they knew fear, they hid it well.

And they must know fear-the terror of the unknown, rumors enhanced by whispers, imagination multiplying dire fancies. They knew it as he had known it, now so long ago. Then, as they did now, he had stood trembling on the brink of mysteries, half-tempted to run, only the shame of displaying his fear holding him fast.

Others had not been as strong. They had worn the yellow until they had been given a second chance. And even then-

Vestaler mentally shook himself, recognizing the trend his thoughts were taking. To brood was useless, to regret the same. None had accused him, yet he felt his guilt. He should have known. To him the responsibility-to him the blame.


A junior was at his side, the carved bowl filled with water in his hands. A discreet reminder that time was passing and there was still much to do. The instruction, the warning, the blessing. And, afterwards, the journey to the place of ordeal. His voice held the tones of an organ.

"You are at the threshold of becoming men. To be a man is not simply to grow. A man is not a large child. He is a person who has proven his right to exist, to help, to serve. He has gained the right to perpetuate his line in the production of children. Yet, how to prove that you have reached the state of manhood? To take your rightful place among us? To share as all share in the fruits of the soil, the common labor?"

A pause as a gong throbbed, soft thunder accentuating his words, engraving them on memory.

"You are to be taken to the high places. There, yon will be left in solitude for the duration of the night. Those who are weak of will, have guilt in their hearts, are unfitted to join the community as men, will not return. If any of you hold doubt as to your fitness, now is the time to speak."

Another pause, another beat of the gong. Those who spoke would be removed, given further instruction, another chance. Men grew old at different speeds-sometimes they never achieved true maturity.

Now it was time for the blessing. He gave it, dipping his hands in the scented water, scattering limp droplets. A symbolic rain coupled with an actual washing, an act which absolved him and all from any taint of guilt.

Should any fail they would be innocent of blood. And some would fail. Always, there were some who failed.

The gong throbbed for the last time, soft thunder echoing within the chamber, dying in murmurs as it was muted by the artifacts, the walls. In answer to the signal the doors opened, armed men standing outside, the escort waiting to conduct the initiates.

Vestaler watched them go, looking from a secluded window. The parents also would be watching, remaining equally unseen, but others had no reason to hide. Men grown old and others new to the estate. Boys almost touching the age of selection, and others with still many years to go.

Boys and men, but no women, no girls. They had their own ways, and each at such times remained apart.

At the side of the column Varg Eidhal set the pace. He was a big man, prone to easy laughter, one fond of sport and wine. The ceremonies irked him, and he was bad in the fields-two things which had persuaded the Council to grant his request to patrol the far slopes.

It was a job he liked. There was opportunity to hunt and to escape routine duty. Time had given him command and mostly, he enjoyed the life. Only at times like this did he tend to become short with his men.

"Keep in step there!" he rapped. "Armand, lengthen your stride! Lambert, shorten yours! That's better. Left! Left! Left, right, left!"

One of the boys stumbled.

"Easy, lad." Eidhal was unexpectedly gentle. "Just keep your head up and your eyes straight ahead. Just remember that tomorrow, you'll be a man."

A man or a memory-a tear in a woman's eye, a hardness in a man's expression. Eidhal didn't like to think about it.

The houses fell behind as they marched through fields thick with well-tended crops. A figure rose to stare towards them, a man dressed in gray, his face blank, his hands hanging limply at his sides. A ghost, a thing Eidhal didn't like to look at or think about. He ignored the call from the figure which came shambling towards the column.

"Wait! I wanna come. I wanna…"

The gray figure stopped, one hand lifting to finger its mouth. The hand fell as, like an automarum, it turned away to resume the endless task of weeding.

"Sir!" One of the boys had heard the call. "Why can't he-"

"Keep moving, boy!" Eidhal snapped the command. "Later, you will understand."

The fields passed and now the end of the valley could be seen in greater detail. Slopes narrowing, rising, the ruby of thorn thick at the crests. A path led upwards toward the high places, kept clear by continual labor, another of the gray ghosts vanishing as they approached.

The pace was slower now. The sun, while low, was still high enough to grant a little slack and Eidhal was not a man who took pleasure in the discomfort of others.

Armand came towards Eidhal as he called a halt on a level space.

"You want me to go ahead Varg? Just in case?"

The lift of his spear was eloquent. There could be predators lying in wait-the boys had to have the best chance they could get.

"Go ahead. Take half the men with you and be careful. Yell if you see anything." Eidhal glanced at the sun. "I can give you the best part of an hour. Move ahead, but don't go past the crescent."

He sighed as they raced up the path to the crest, wishing he were with them, but command held duties and they could not be ignored.

"Sir! Could you tell us what to expect? Give us a hint?"

"What's your name, boy?"

"Clem Marish, sir. I-"

"You should have known better than to ask." Eidhal remembered him now. He had worn the yellow for a period, no blame in that, but blame enough now that he had broken the rule.

"Yes, sir. I know, sir. I'm sorry." Terrified, afraid of what was to come.

"Just stay calm," said Eidhal, quietly. Safe advice which he must have received already. No father would remain wholly silent, despite the tradition. "Keep your head, stay where we put you and be resolute."

The boy nodded, unconvinced, and Eidhal remembered something else. An older brother who had failed to return-no wonder the lad was scared.

"Up," he ordered briskly. To delay now would be cruel. Fear was contagious. "Up and on our way!"

Beyond the crest, a fan of cleared thorn ran up a gentle slope which rose abruptly into a mass of slender pinnacles of jagged stone. They ran in an uneven curve for the distance of a mile, the remains of an old ridge which had been shattered and eroded in eons past. Rocks were heaped at the foot of the spires, clumps of grass and scrub clinging to the detritus. A section had been cleared-the high places of the ordeal.

Eidhal led the way towards them, walking straight, seeing the figures of Armand and his men looking small as they quested among the rocks.

Dumarest watched them come. He leaned against a pinnacle, the woman slumped at his feet. Iduna was close to exhaustion, her hair soiled, her clothing grimed, her eyes bruised hollows in the pallor of her face.

"Earl!" she muttered. "Earl?"

"Men," he said. "Men and boys." He added, comfortingly, "It's all right, Iduna. We're safe now."

"Safe? With animals like the Candarish?"

"With people."

He moved, feeling the nagging ache of bruises, of muscles overstrained. The laceration on his scalp was a festering burn. Despite his reassurance, he was being cautious. If these men were from the valley he had searched for, they could have a short way with strangers. A people who wanted to remain secret could not afford to arouse curiosity. He stepped behind the pinnacle as Iduna rose to stand beside him.

"Boys," she said wonderingly. "Why are they here, Earl? What are they doing?"

The party had halted before one of the cleared fingers of stone. As they watched a boy climbed it, reaching the top to cling awkwardly to the jagged summit. Once settled, the others moved away to another pinnacle well away from the first.


"A rite," he said. "An initiation. Those boys will have to stay up there all night. They will have to stay awake, hanging on, wait until the dawn. They could be up there for days."

"But why?" She had spoken without thinking, too tired to correlate facts into an answer. "What is the point?"

"A tribal custom. Once they have passed the test, they will become men." Dumarest glanced at the party, the questing scouts. As yet they were unobserved. "We've arrived at a bad time."

"Will they kill us?"

It was possible. Strangers, in a sacred place, observers who did not belong. It would be better to hide, to wait until night. But even so, there could be guards and certainly there would be predators of one kind or another. Beasts waiting for tired hands to slip, young bodies to fall, easy feeding in this savage wilderness.

"Madness," she said, too numb to follow her question, to demand an answer. "To treat children like that. Why do they do it?"

To weed out the unfit, to test courage, to make manhood a prized estate. A crude method, perhaps, but one which worked. Dumarest had seen it before, tests by fire, water, the ability to go without food and to live off the land. A means to ensure physical stamina, to eliminate destructive genes from the line.

No small community could afford to carry the burden of the handicapped. No sensible culture would permit destructive variations in the gene plasm to survive.

Had Leon refused to participate? Running, a victim of his own terror? It was possible-if he had come from the valley which lay beyond. If the valley was Nerth.


He spun at Iduna's cry, seeing a multilegged thing, spined tail upcurved, mandibles champing. A scorpion-like thing a foot long, which scuttled forward towards her foot. It squelched beneath the impact of his heel, but the damage had been done.

"Eidhal! Here!"

Armand came running, spear leveled, men at his back. Dumarest stooped, picked up two stones, fist-sized rocks which he held in each hand. He threw one to either side, waiting until they fell, their rattle distracting the guards. Then, as they hesitated, he stepped forward, hands uplifted, palms forward in the unmistakable sign of peace.

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