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Chapter Five

MEGAN LEFT the church, the taste of the wafer strong in his mouth, the euphoric drug with which it had been treated banishing his depression. It was always like this after he had been cleansed. He felt strong and fit and full of inner quietude. The mood would last for a time and then would begin to fade. Then, if the church was still around, he would go back for another wafer.

He found Dumarest sitting on a dune by the shore staring out to sea. He held a great bunch of grass in one hand and slowly pulled each stem between his teeth. After every dozen or so stems he swallowed the collected pulp. Discarded grass lay in a mound between his feet. He lacked the digestive system which would have converted the cellulose into nourishment.

Megan squatted beside him. He found stones and idly tossed them into the water. Dumarest spat out a stem of grass.

"Well, are you cleansed, fed and of sound mind?"

"You shouldn't joke about the Brotherhood," protested Megan. "The monks do a lot of good work." He felt the sudden need to share his contentment. "Why don't you go along, Earl? The wafer's worth getting at least."

"You think so?" Dumarest busied himself with more grass. "I didn't know that you were religious."

"I'm not." Megan was quick to deny the accusation. "Well, not really. I first went while I was on Lund. More for a joke than anything else." He looked at Dumarest. "No, that isn't true. I thought that I needed some help. I wanted comforting. The monks gave me what I needed."

"And you've been going to church ever since?"

"In a way. Nothing special, you understand, but if there's a church and I've got the time—" Megan dug the toe of his boot into the sand. "It doesn't do any harm."

"No?"

"Well, does it?"

Dumarest didn't answer. He was thinking of the long walk along the coast, the spending of the last coin for the benefit of a man Megan had every reason to think dead. In him the Supreme Ethic had bitten deep. It amused Dumarest to realize that, in a way, he owed the Brotherhood his life. One day he might thank them.

He dragged more grass between his teeth and swallowed the tasteless pulp. His eyes were somber as he stared out to sea. Out there, beneath the waves, was all the food a man could wish but he couldn't get it. The only boat was gone and none would sail with him if they could. He had gained the reputation of being bad luck.

It could be true. Maybe he had done wrong in cutting the rope but he didn't waste time thinking about it He was not a man who regretted the past.

Not when the future looked so black.

Irritably he flung away the grass, conscious of the hunger clawing at his stomach. The pulp had done nothing but accentuate his appetite. Unless he got food soon he would begin the slide into malnutrition, actual starvation together with the weakness and killing apathy which made it hard to think, harder still to act.

Rising he looked down at Megan. "I'm going to find something to eat," he said. "Want to come along?"

"The Brothers will feed you." Megan sprang up, smiling as if he had solved the problem. "They'll give you a wafer and maybe something later if they can beg it from Hightown." He fell into step beside the big man. "You going to try them, Earl?"

"No."

"You got something against them?"

"Not if they've got food to give away—but I'm not going to church."

"Then—?" It was a question. The camp held no spare food. Everything had a price and food the highest of all. Dumarest had no money and nothing to sell other than his clothes. But he had his hands. Instinctively they clenched at Megan's question.

"I don't know yet," he said sharply. "I've got to look around and see what's going. But if there's food to be had I'm going to get it. I'm not going to sit and starve while I've the strength to go looking."

Or, thought Megan dully, the strength to take. He hurried ahead hoping to find one of the monks and enlist his support. Dumarest was in a dangerous mood and it could kill him. To rob Lowtown was to invite later reprisal. To risk Hightown was to beg the guards to shoot him dead for his effrontery. For his own sake he would have to be stopped.

Dumarest caught up with him as they reached the camp. The place was deserted. Even the central fire had lost its usual group toasting scraps of food over the flames.

The pennant on the plastic church hung limply from its standard. The monks were not to be seen. Megan looked suddenly afraid.

"No," he said. "It's too soon. They couldn't have started for the mountains yet." He was afraid of the loss of potential employment.

"They're up near the field," said Dumarest. He stared at a cluster of distant figures. "Let's go and see what's doing."


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



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