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Chapter Eleven

IT CAME WITH a continuous rolling of thunder which tore at the ears and numbed the senses. The lightning was a web of electric fire across the sky, stabbing at the ground, searing wetly into the sea. The rain was a deluge, pounding the ground into mud, turning the air almost solid with its moisture.

The fires died. Stretched plastic echoed the drumbeat of the rain. Tourists cursed and huddled beneath the shelter of their rafts. Travelers fought to join them or scurried frantically to what shelter they could find. It was little. The wise stripped their shirts off and covered their heads with them so that they could breathe at least. The stupid drowned in the relentless downpour.

And still the air remained motionless. The winds had yet to come.

"I don't like it," said Megan. He sat, hunched in a corner of the church, his face pale from recent strain, "I've never known it this bad before."

"But it rains?"

"Sure." Megan moved so as to give Dumarest a little more room. The church was crowded with desperate travelers sheltering from the storm. They stood packed in an almost solid mass. The air was heavy with their heat and smell after their long confinement. "It rains and sometimes there's thunder, but not to this extent." He listened to the drumming of the rain. "This is something special."

He was shouting but Dumarest could hardly hear what he said. The thunder and rain seemed to fill the universe. Suddenly he could no longer stand the cramped confinement, the heat and the smell.

"I'm going outside." He tried to rise to his feet and Megan caught his arm.

"Wait it out, Earl. You're safe in here."

Safety was relative. In the church Dumarest was safe from the immediate danger of the rain but the rain would not last forever. Then would come fresh danger, perhaps from the Prince of Emmened, or Crowder, or the person who had tried to kill him on the journey. The violence of the storm triggered a violence within so that he burned with the need for action.

He jerked his arm free and tried to thrust his way toward the opening of the church. He failed; the press of men was too great. He dropped to his knees and probed the lower part of the wall. The plastic was thin, merging with the sea of mud outside. He dug and lifted and gasped as spattered rain lashed his face.

"Earl!"

"Wait here!"

Dumarest lifted the side wall, ignoring Megan's protest, flattening so that he could thrust head and shoulders outside. The rain slammed at his skull and forced it into the mud. He reached out and clawed at the ground, dragging the rest of his body from the tent. The side wall fell behind him and suddenly he was alone.

Alone in a peculiar world lit by the stroboscopic effect of vivid flashes of lightning, deafening with the roll of thunder, the drumming of rain.

He turned and felt water drive into his nostrils, his mouth, slam with bruising force against his closed eyelids, run wetly into his ears. He tried to breathe and choked as water reached his lungs. Coughing he turned to face the mud, stooping low as he ran forward in a long, loping crouch.

He paused to get his bearings, conscious of the proximity of the sea and the cliffs falling to the waves. In such a storm it would be easy to go over the edge. A lightning flash showed him his position. Ahead and to one side loomed the tents of the Matriarch, black in the fierce glare. He could see no guards but had expected none. They would be inside. Another flash and he could see the complex of the Prince of Emmened, equally black, equally lifeless. The rafts of the tourists rested, well away from the sea, a cluster of crowded travelers devoid of shelter, some alive, some dead, all inconspicuous in the mud.

He ran forward as darkness closed around.

It was hard work, harder still as he had to steal every breath, shielding his face and waiting as his gasping lungs reoxygenated his blood, retching as water reached where only air should go; waiting too as the vivid glare of lightning etched the plain with stark clarity, running only when it was safe to move unobserved.

The rain eased a little. The rolling thunder moved seaward; the lightning was no longer directly overhead.

Dumarest tripped and fell, slamming heavily into the mud, feeling the soft dirt splash into his eyes and mouth. He rolled, face upward, so that the punishing rain could wash him clean, rolling again in order to breathe. He looked at what had tripped him.

He looked thoughtfully at a boy, scarcely a man, the one who had traveled with Sime and the crone. He was quite dead.

Drowned, perhaps, caught in the storm and not knowing what to do in order to survive. He lay face-up, his face very pale beneath the patina of rain, his thin hands crossed on his stomach, his lips parted, his hair a dark smear on his forehead. Dumarest reached out and turned his head, waiting for a flash of lightning before turning it to the other side.

The sky crackled with a livid glare and he saw, quite clearly, the little red spot high on the cheek, just before the ear and below the temple.

A spot which could have been made by the thrust of a heavy needle.


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



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