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Chapter Four

A SHIP LANDED as they returned to camp. From it stepped a group of tourists, gay, laughing, an assorted batch— the entourage of the Prince of Emmened who had ruined a world by his whims and would ruin more unless stopped by an assassin; three cowled monks of the Universal Brotherhood, two musicians, an artist, four poets, an entrepreneur. All had traveled High. Some were still slow in movement, slower in speech from the lingering effects of quick-time.

Three had traveled Low: a man, little more than a boy; a withered crone stronger than she looked; a fool.

He came staggering from the ship bowed beneath the weight of a fibroid box as large as himself. He was grotesquely thin and his eyes burned like coals from the gaunt pallor of his face. Ribs showed prominent against the flesh of his chest bare beneath the ragged shirt. The rest of his clothing matched the shirt. He was a shambling scarecrow of a man.

"Gath!" He cried out and fell to the seared dirt of the field, pressing his cheek against the soil. The box which he carried by means of a strap over his shoulders gave him the appearance of a monstrous beetle. "Gath!"

His companions ignored him. The tourists looked and saw nothing of interest. All travelers were mad. The handler stood at the door of his ship and spat after his late charges.

"Gath!" yelled the man again. He tried to rise but the weight of the box pressed him to the ground. Eel-like he wriggled from beneath, slipping the strap from his shoulders, kneeling by the box. He parted it, crooning inarticulate sounds. Saliva dribbled from his mouth and wet his chin.

"Mad," said Megan positively. "Insane."

"In trouble." Dumarest was interested. Megan shrugged.

"So he's in trouble. So are we. Let's go and see if we can earn something by making ourselves useful to the tourists."

"You go." Dumarest strode toward the kneeling man. Megan scowled, then followed. Dumarest halted beside the crooning man.

"You need help," he said flatly. "Do you want us to help you?"

"Help?" The man looked up. His eyes were yellowish, muddy. "Is this Gath?"

Dumarest nodded.

"Then everything's all right." He rose and clutched Dumarest by the arm. "Tell me, is it true what they say about this place?"

"The voices?" Megan nodded. "It's true."

"Thank God!" Abruptly the man grew calm. Slowly he wiped the saliva from his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve. "I—I never thought that I'd get here." He swallowed. "My name is Sime. I've very little money but if you will help me I'll—"

"We ask no pay." Dumarest nodded to Megan and together they stooped over the box. It was over six feet long and shaped like a coffin. Megan grunted as he felt the weight.

"What's in here? Lead?"

"Just some things," said Sime. He looked anxious. "Just carry it from the field. I'll be able to manage it after I rest for a while. Just carry it from the field."

Slowly they moved toward the camp. Megan stumbled, swore as his ankle turned, and sprang clear as his end of the box fell with a thud. The vibration tore the box from Dumarest's hands. The lid, jarred by the fall, began to swing open.

"Careful!" Sime flung himself on the lid. His hands trembled as he secured the fastenings. "You'll hurt—" He caught himself. "Please be careful."

He hovered to one side as they carried the box into camp. Both men were sweating as they eased down their burden. A handful of travelers looked on with dull curiosity and Megan, straightening his back, glared at one who laughed.

"Something funny?"

"I think so." The old crone who had traveled with Sime cackled all the louder. "Why be so careful, dearies? You can't hurt what's in there."

"Shut your mouth!" Sime stepped forward. "You hear me? Now you just shut your mouth!"

"Try and shut if for me!" She cackled again at the thin man. "Maybe they'd like to enjoy your joke. Maybe they'd like to hear it."

"Tell us, mother," urged Megan. Immediately she flew into a rage.

"Don't you call me that! Do it again and I'll stab out your eyes!"

Megan recoiled from the long needle in her hand. "No offense, My Lady, but why did you say what you did?"

"About this?" She kicked at the box. "About this coffin?" She leered at Sime. "He's got his dead wife in there, dearie. You can't hurt the dead."

* * * | The Winds of Gath | * * *