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Chapter Twelve

DUMAREST GROANED and opened his eyes. He looked at a clear sky dotted with stars, the pale crescents of two moons close to the horizon. He was cold, shivering, his head throbbing to a dull, monotonous ache. He lifted a hand and felt his temple. It was swollen and sticky with congealed blood. He winced as he pressed the wound, feeling relief in the discovery that it was only superficial.

A shape stooped over him, the face suddenly springing to life in the light of a torch held to one side, fading as it was carried further away. Megan stooped lower, his breathing rapid, hands reaching to touch Dumarest in the region of the heart. They halted as he caught the gleam of open eyes.

"What happened?"

"The rafts tore free from their moorings," said Megan quickly. "One of them must have hit you. I tripped over you and thought you might be dead." He looked pale, his face ghastly in the thin light. "There was a dead man lying close to where I found you."

"I know."

"There's a lot of dead." Megan leaned forward to help as Dumarest sat upright. "Too many dead, tourists as well as travelers." He shuddered. "God! What a storm! I've never seen one like it and hope never to see it again."

He shuddered again, pulling sodden rags tight across his chest. The air was frigid with nightside chill and the ground felt crusty as if coated with ice. Dumarest rose to his feet and looked around.

The plain resembled a battlefield. Only the tents of the Matriarch and those of the Prince of Emmened had withstood the final gusts. The rafts had been blown out to sea. The remains of the church lay a tatter of plastic on the ground. The two monks moved from figure to figure, their torches centering them in pools of light, narrowing as they knelt. Sometimes they called for others to help them move a man in which they had found life. They did not call often.

"The ultrasonics," said Megan quietly. "They didn't know enough to take care of themselvesor were too far gone to care." He scratched at the sides of his head and caked mud fell from the region of his ears. His teeth chattered from the biting cold.

"We need shelter and warmth," said Dumarest. He looked at the tents of the Matriarch; they blazed with light and seemed ringed with guards. He looked toward those of the prince: the lights were few, the guards invisible. "Get the men and follow me."

"To the tents of the prince?" Megan blanched with recent memory. "He's not going to like that."

"I don't care what he likes. If those men want to freeze they can stay here. If not they'd better follow."

The tents seemed deserted. Dumarest slowed as he approached, half expecting the challenge of a guard, the searing blast of a laser. But nothing happened, no one stirred, no one snapped an order. He reached the tents and cautiously pressed open the vent of the outer vestibule. He stepped inside. A solitary torch glowed from a bracket. The place was empty.

He found Crowder in the second room.

The man lay sprawled on the carpet, naked to the waist, his upper body covered with the welts of the strag hanging from its tube in his right hand. Blood showed at his ears, his nose, seeped from the corners of his staring eyes. His jaws were clenched, the lips withdrawn so that, even in death, he snarled like a dog. The nails of his left hand were buried deep in his palm.

Dumarest stepped over him, wondering what illusion had driven him to such extremes of self-punishment, what guilt the man must have harbored guilt or self-contempt. Or perhaps the inaudible vibrations bathing the area had sent him insanely to his death. He would not have been alone.

A guard was slumped at the entrance to the inner chamber. He too was dead. Another whimpered in a corner, shrieking as Dumarest approached, running past him into the dark, the cold, the hungry sea. In the throne-like chair an old man smiled a greeting.

"You are Dumarest," he said. "I have seen you before when you killed Moidor."

"So?"

"I am Elgar, physician to the Prince of Emmened." He bowed, light gleaming from his naked scalp, the electrodes of his mechanical ears. "You do not find us at our best. This camping site was unfortunately chosen. It appears to have been at the focal point of harmful vibrationsas you perhaps have seen."

Dumarest nodded.

"They did not switch off their ears, you see," said Elgar seriously. "Not as I took the precaution of doing." Then, abruptly: "You have a question?"

"Where is the prince?"

"Gone. Another?"

"Where has he gone?"

"Somewhere. Another?"

The man was either tottering on the edge of insanity or had a warped sense of humor. Then Dumarest saw his eyes and knew there could be a third reason. The physician was loyal to his master.

"There are men outside who will die unless they get food and warmth," he said. "I had hoped the prince would supply their needs."

"He will."

"But if he is not here?"

"You do not look like a man to be halted by such a flimsy barrier," said the old man shrewdly. "But force will not be necessary."

"Have I threatened the use of force?" Dumarest wished the man would stop playing games. His head throbbed and nausea filled his stomach. He needed food, a hot bath, medicines and massage.

"No," admitted Elgar. "But I think that, if it came to it, not even the prince would be able to resist your demandsnot without the help of his guards." His smile grew wider. "But this talk is foolish. I am in command. Bring the men inside. Let the monks of the Brotherhood attend to their needs. They shall have food and warmth to the full extent of my power."

And clothes from the dead, thought Dumarest grimly, and loot from the bodies of those tourists who had no reason to object. This would be a rich occasion for the travelers who had been fortunate enough to survive.


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



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