* * *
On a knoll toward the east of the curving path the Lady Seena stood and watched the slow progress of the column. She had become bored with riding and had chosen to walk. Chosen, too, Dumarest to walk with her but they were not alone. The Matriarch had seen to that. Beyond earshot but very much alert, a circle of guards accompanied the couple.
"It looks like a snake," said the girl. She looked at the light-studded column etched against the dull red glow of the western sky. "Or a centipede. Or an eltross from Vootan. They are composed of seven distinct types of creature united in a common symbiosis."
Dumarest made no comment. His eyes were searching the column. He could see the Brothers Angelo and Benedict, the structure of their portable church twin mounds on their shoulders. The laden figure of Sime, his burden grotesque in the midst of the carnival-like throng, crept steadily along to one side. He could not see the old crone.
"That man!" Seena pointed to Sime. "What does he carry?" Dumarest told her. She stared in amazement. "A coffin containing the dead body of his wife? You must be joking."
"No, My Lady."
"He is probably very attached to her," he said dryly. "I understand that some men do feel that way about their wives."
"Now I know that you are joking." Seena was impatient. "It is hardly a subject for jest."
"I am not joking. My Lady. It is common knowledge among the travelers." He looked thoughtfully at the laden figure. "I will admit that it is unusual to find a man so attached to a woman as is Sime."
"But why?" The question bothered her. "Why did he bring her to Gath?"
"That is the question, My Lady." Dumarest looked at the woman at his side. "I am not sure as to his reason but there is a legend on Earth that, at the very last day, a trumpet will sound and all the dead shall rise to live again. Perhaps he hopes to hear the sound of that trumpet—or that his wife shall hear it."
"But she is dead."
"Yes, My Lady."
"But—" She frowned her irritation. "You fail to make sense," she complained. "I have heard of no such legend."
"The Brothers would enlighten you, My Lady."
"Have they also been to Earth?" She laughed at his expression. "No, how could they? Do you really expect me to believe there is such a place?"
"You should—it is very real." He began walking so as to keep abreast of the Matriarch's retinue of rafts. "I was born there," he said abruptly. "I grew up there. It is not a pleasant place. Most of it is desert, a barren wilderness in which nothing grows. It is scarred with old wounds, littered with the ruins of bygone ages. But there is life, of a kind, and ships come to tend that life."
"I stowed away on such a ship. I was young, alone, more than a little desperate. I was more than lucky. The captain should have evicted me but he had a kind heart. He was old and had no son." He paused. "That was a long time ago. I was ten at the time."
He shook himself as if shedding unpleasant memories, been traveling ever since, deeper and deeper into the inhabited worlds. "That's all there is to it, My Lady. Just an ordinary story of a runaway boy who had more luck than he deserved or thought existed. But Earth is very real."
"Then why haven't I heard of it? Why does everyone think of it as a planet that does not exist?" She stooped and picked up a handful of dirt. "Earth! This is earth! Every planet, in a way, is earth."
"But one planet was the original." He saw the look of shocked realization followed immediately by forceful negation. "You do not believe me—I cannot blame you for that, but think about it for a moment. Earth, my Earth, is far from the edge of the inhabited worlds. No one now, aside from a few, has any reason to go there. But assume for a moment that what I claim is true. Men would venture from that planet in which direction? To the stars closest to home, naturally. And from there? To other, close stars. And so on until the center of civilization had moved deeper into the galaxy and Earth became less than a legend." He paused. "No, My Lady, I can't blame you for not knowing of Earth. But I do."
It made a peculiar kind of sense and held the seeds of logic. Add a few thousand years, the trials of colonial enterprise, the distorting effects of time and what was once real becomes legend. And who, in their right senses, believes in legend? The name, of course, didn't help. And how could he identify his sun?
Seena felt a sudden wave of sympathy as she recognized his problem.
"You want to go back there." Her eyes searched his face. "You want to and you can't because no one seems to know where it is. That is why you told Melga of the planet of your origin—you hoped that she would be able to help you."
"I thought that she, or someone, might know of it," he admitted. "I was wrong."
"A barren place," she murmured. "A desert scarred with the wounds of old wars. And yet there is life there?"
"Of a kind."
"And ships visit?"
"Then you have your clues. Someone must know the coordinates. Tell me of that life, those ships."
"But why not?" Her eyes lightened. "Dyne could help you. Sometimes I think he knows everything."
"Yes," said Dumarest tightly. "I think you could be right."
The column crawled on at two and a half miles an hour, an easy pace even for weak men loaded with half their weight in supplies. Megan grunted as he threw his weight against the rope, feeling the pull at the cuts on his shoulders, snarling in frustrated hate at the thought of the men who had plied the whip.
He still worked for the same man despite what he had promised Dumarest. There was pride in his decision and something more. The Prince of Emmened had contracted to pay for his services and pay he would. Megan relished the thought of the money, the best salve of all to his scarred back.
He grunted again as a passing guard scowled at him; he heaved on the rope and twisted his face into a sneer. The guard passed on. Ahead lay only darkness relieved by the ghost-light of the stars but Megan needed no light. He had been this way too often in the past. Ahead lay the mountains of Gath.
The Prince of Emmened could see them in fine detail.
He peered through the infrared binoculars clamped to his eyes then grunted with perulant irritation.
"Nothing." He lowered the glasses. "Just an ordinary mountain range, weathered but perfectly natural." He slumped in his throne-like chair, ringed fingers drumming on one of the arms. "Why?" he demanded. "Why the sudden move? I understood that the factor had assured you that there was plenty of time."
"He did, My Lord," said Crowder.
"Then he either lied or that old Bitch of Kund must know something. I doubt that he lied." His face darkened. "What is she likely to gain, Crowder?"
"Nothing, My Lord. Whatever time she saved she lost while staying at the camp. Now you are in the lead. If there is anything to find you will discover it first."
"If I knew what to look for."
"Perhaps there is nothing, My Lord."
"That is ridiculous! She must be here for a reason. She must have left early because of that reason. Perhaps she found it at the camp and so could afford to delay; perhaps not. It could be important. I must know what it is."
"It could be that she merely wished to remove her ward from temptation," soothed the courtier. Crowder was cunning in his diplomacy. "I was watching when Moidor died," he lied. "You were right, My Lord. She is a woman to be stirred by the sight of blood. Had there been another such bout I doubt if all the old woman's guards could have kept her from slaking her passion."
"You think so?" The prince had known many such women.
"I know so, My Lord." Crowder was emphatic. "And it is obvious to whom she would turn. Who else, other than yourself, could she regard as an equal?" He caught the beginning of a frown. "Or her superior," he hastily amended. "Such a woman needs to be dominated. A strong hand, My Lord. She has been pampered too long."
"Perhaps." The prince was thinking of other things. Again he lifted the binoculars and stared at the scene ahead. Again he saw only what nature had fashioned: a high ridge of weathered and fretted stone bulking huge against the stars. He swung the glasses to the west and saw only the sea and empty sky, then to the east. He paused as he spotted the couple. The sight of the woman reminded him of the courtier's words; the man of the blood-bout in which he had lost his favorite. "Crowder."
The prince handed him the glasses. "Over there. What do you see?"
"The Lady Seena and the man Dumarest."
"The guards of the Matriarch."
"They attend her at all times," mused the prince. He was thoughtful. Crowder would have been surprised at the expression on his face but the courtier was busy with the glasses.
"Guards can be circumvented, My Lord." Crowder handed back the binoculars. "The girl could be won."
And, thought the prince, with her the knowledge of the Matriarch's intentions which she must hold.
"You interest me, Crowder," he said blandly. "It would be intriguing to see if you were correct in your assumptions. The girl could be won, you say?"
"Yes, My Lord. And, once the thing was accomplished, what could she do? She or that old woman of Kund?" Crowder smiled as the prince pondered the question.
"Assassination," he said after a moment. "Those guards of hers would go through hell itself if so ordered. I have no desire, Crowder, to live in constant fear of unexpected death. The suggestion displeases me."
"But if the thing could be so arranged that she could be proved to be willing—" Crowder was sweating but not from the heat. "The Matriarch could hardly object to you as a husband for her ward. A monk of the Brotherhood could tie the knot." His chuckle was a suggestive leer. "A knot which you could cut whenever you so decided, My Lord. That goes without question."
The prince nodded, toying with the suggestion, seeing beyond the apparent simplicity of the courtier's plan. And yet it was an intriguing concept. The girl was attractive, aligned to wealth; it would be a good match. It would kill the monotony of the homeward flight if nothing else and give him the aura of responsibility the lack of which his ministers so deplored. At the worst he could always pose as her savior and gain her confidence via the path of blood.
Crowder's blood, naturally. The secret of Gath was worth a dozen such as he.