THEY CAMPED halfway to the mountains, an irregular sprawl of rafts and tents and weary travelers. The rafts had no weight—their nulgrav plates kept them a level three feet from the ground—but they had mass and had to be towed every inch of the way.
It was growing darker, the air dim and filled with shadows as the path swept toward the eternal night of the east. The sun had almost vanished below the horizon, only the upper rim remaining visible, painting the west with the color of blood. The air was heavy, brooding, filled with invisible forces. Above, the pale light of stars shone in a purple sky.
Megan groaned with the pain of his shoulders. He eased the clothing from his back and cursed in a low monotone. He looked up as a tall figure occluded the sky.
"Is that you, Dumarest?" Megan tried to stand, groaned, made a second attempt. He relaxed as the tall man knelt beside him.
"What's the matter with you? Are you hurt?"
"My back." Megan winced. "Could you get me some salve or something? That Emmened!"
"I heard." Dumarest's hands were gentle as they bared the thin shoulders. He stared grimly at the welts crisscrossing the pallid flesh. "You fool, Megan! What did you want to take service with him for? You had enough money to take this trip easy."
"It isn't my money."
"So what? There's more than I need. You didn't have to get yourself half killed for the sake of a few units."
"I needed the money." Megan was stubborn and Dumarest could appreciate his pride. "How was I to know the devil would use the whip?"
It had been a hell of a trip. The Prince of Emmened, savage at having been left behind in the rush to follow the Matriarch, had tried to make up time and forge to the lead. His method had been simple: force the towing travelers to run and whip them until they did.
And continue whipping them all the way to the present camp.
His guards had helped but the fear of being left behind without employment had helped even more. Starvation, as the factor had cynically pointed out, made ethics and pride of minor consideration to food. Even so two had died and five had been left on the journey.
"You've finished working for him." Dumarest had salve and he applied it with a gentle hand. "Don't worry about losing your money. You don't need it. None of you need it. I've enough to buy off all his bearers. He can use his guards and courtiers to pull instead."
"Take it easy." Megan relaxed as the pain in his shoulders yielded to the soothing action of the salve. "Do that and you'll get yourself killed. You can't treat a man like the prince that way and you know it."
It was the truth but none the more palatable because of it. Dumarest had the money but it wasn't enough. He needed more than money. He needed the power and protection he didn't have.
"All right," he admitted. "So we forget the others. But don't let me see you working for Emmened again."
He rose and left the other man, wandering over the camp, feeling restless with unvented anger. A group of travelers sat around a blanket rolling dice for their day's pay. The cubes clicked and bounced and called forth groans and cheers as they came to rest. Someone would be the winner but, in the end, there could only be one who collected the money. Quentin would take it all.
His irritation grew. Striking out he left the camp, walking toward the night side, his feet noiseless in the grass. He walked for maybe half a mile and then dropped as he saw dim figures in the gloom. Hugging the grass he watched them pass. There were four of them, tall, broad, masculine even in the way in which they walked. They carried nets and the bell-mouthed shapes of sonic guns. One of them carried a small bag in which struggled some form of life.
He wondered why guards of the Matriarch should be so far from camp and what they could be hunting here in this place. The small animals, obviously; they were the only form of life, and Megan had said that the only way to catch them was with nets and sonic guns.
He was thoughtful on his return to camp.
The place had a more festive air. Small fires glowed in the ruby dusk and the scent of cooking food reached his nostrils. The scent stimulated his appetite. Megan would have food or he could get some from the kitchens of the Matriarch. He could even buy food which had been stolen from the tourists—for this brief time they were fair game. He lengthened his stride.
And almost died beneath the blaze of a laser.