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"Here," said Megan. He raised his torch even higher, widening the pool of light in which they stood. "This is where I found you."

"You're sure?" Dumarest frowned as he tried to orient himself. In the dark all places looked the same, only the tents of the Matriarch looked familiar.

"I'm sure." Megan was warm in his salvaged clothing; a ring with a peculiar device shone on one finger. Dumarest had seen it before. The rosily fat man would never need it again. He had made his last gamble. "The young fellow was over there." The torch dipped as he gestured. "You were here."

Dumarest nodded, dropping to one knee, his eyes narrowed as he peered into the darkness. The glimpse had been brief and the blow on the head had jarred his memory but he was sure as to what he had seen: the lid of Sime's coffin rising from pressure beneath.

His dead wife rising at the sound of the last trump?

The concept was ludicrous in the cold light of day but it wasn't day and that tremendous blast had carried a disturbing medley of sounds. If there was such a thing as the final summons for the dead to rise then it could well have echoed then.

"Over there." Dumarest rose and strode forward. He halted, waiting until Megan caught up with him with the torch. They looked at a sea of torn and furrowed mud already glistening with heavy frost. "Further on."

They moved forward, spreading so as to cover a wider area, their breath pluming in the bitter cold. Twice patches of shadow misled them and then Dumarest felt his foot hit something solid. Together they looked down at a familiar, narrow box.

"It's closed," said Megan. "The lid"

Dumarest leaned forward, gripped the lid, threw it to one side.

"God!" said Megan. The torch shook in his hand. "God!"

A dead woman stared up at them from the depths of the coffin.

She was no longer young, her age accentuated by the dehydrating effects of death. Sunken cheeks made waxen hollows beneath the high bones of her face. The mouth was a thin, bloodless gash. The eyes, open and sunken, looked like murky pools of stagnant water. The arms were crossed on the flat chest. She wore a simple dress which reached from her throat to her ankles. The feet were thin, ugly, mottled with veins.

"He failed," breathed Megan. His face was white in the light of the torch. "He carried her all this way for nothing. She didn't come back to life."

Dumarest was thoughtful, remembering what he had seen. He gripped one end of the coffin, lifted, let it fall with a hollow thud. Leaning forward he gripped the sparse gray hair. He pulled.

"Earl!" Megan was shocked. His eyes widened as the body rose. "What?"

It was a molded shell. It lifted with a faint resistance from magnetic clasps exposing the contoured compartment beneatha compartment lined with sponge rubber and shaped to hold a woman's body. From it rose a faint odor of perfume.

"Clever," said Dumarest. He released what he held and it fell back to fit snugly over the compartment. The shell stared up at them, mockery in the muddy eyes. "The perfect hiding place. Open the box and you'd see what you expected to findthe body of a long-dead woman. There would be no reason to look beneath. Not unless you spotted the difference in weightthat something had gone."

"Sime wouldn't let anyone touch the box," said Megan. He lifted his torch. "Sime! Where is Sime?"

He. was gone, vanished into the darkness, leaving nothing but the coffin behind.

* * * | The Winds of Gath | Chapter Thirteen