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Chapter Eight

They put Richard Blade into a prison wagon and placed him on public view. He did not mind. At least a dozen times a day he glanced down to reassure himself that he was still a whole man. He was, and that, for the moment, was enough for him. He had won his gamble and defeated Sadda. At the last second she had signaled the blacks away and ordered that Blade be taken from the tent. He had seen her since, but only at a distance. Sometimes she would ride to within fifty yards of his cage, never closer, and sit there on her small horse and watch him for a long time. Blade ignored her. In the end she would spur away, riding as wildly and as well as any Mong warrior.

His wagon was placed apart from the other slave wagons, on the windy black-dusted plain near the circle of rocks where he had first entered X-Dimension. The wooden slats of his prison were strong and well set, but even so he might have escaped but for the guards posted every night. In the daytime, when the sun blinked to life like a lightbulb, he had no chance. As soon as dark was near his cage was patrolled by six Mong warriors. There was nothing to do but bide his time and wonder.

He had expected that Sadda would make a household slave of him, for very personal reasons of her own, but in this she fooled him. Every day she came and watched, but only that.

The dwarf did not come near him.

But he was not neglected. Crowds of Mongs came every day to jeer and jabber at him and to poke sharp sticks into the cage. For a time he endured this patiently, merely grabbing the sticks and snapping them in two. One. day he lost his temper and snatched away a sharp stick, reversed it, and jammed it halfway through his tormentor's chest. The Mong ran screaming into the crowd, which only laughed at him. After that Blade was left pretty much alone. They still came to stare and gibe, but they kept a respectful distance.

He was fed twice a day on crude black bread, horse-meat, and a large bowl of the potent Mong drink called bross. This was made of mare's milk and blood, mixed half and half, with some fermented grain added. At first the bross sickened him, smelling as it did of faint decay, but in time he came to like it. And respect it. It was as potent as whiskey.

Every day the Mongs attacked the long yellow wall and every day they came back defeated. Now and again the huge cannon would boom and a jade ball would go whistling harmlessly overhead to smash itself on the rocks. At first he entertained hopes that the Caths would mount an attack, or a sortie at night, and fight through to rescue him. This he soon discarded as unrealistic. The Caths were hard pressed, even behind their wall, and he could not expect that Lali could influence her chiefs to waste men. To his own surprise he did not think much about Lali, except to wonder if she had taken a new man into her bed.

Rahstum, the Khad's captain, occasionally rode by the cage to speak with the guard officers, He would glance at Blade, the pale gray eyes narrowed in some private speculation, but he never spoke.

After a week of this Blade began to fret and plan escape, no matter how impossible or chancy it seemed. He was filthy and his beard a knotted tangle. He had been given a pair of ragged breeches, but otherwise had to endure sun and cold, wind and storm, and the eternally blowing black sand as best he could. Straw was tossed into the wagon, but by now it was filthy. He began, at night, to test the bars as best he could without the patrol becoming suspicious. This was not easy, for the guards continually circled the wagon, riding close every now and then to peer at him. But none would speak to him, not so much as a word, and Blade, though well aware of the irony, had to admit that he was lonely.

During the day, when they were not attacking the wall, the Mong cavalry drilled on the plain near Blade's cage. He knew something of horses, and horsemanship, and he had never seen skill like this before. They wheeled and formed and charged and reformed with clocklike precision. In open warfare he knew that nothing could stand against them. It was the great wall that baffled them, and against the wall the Khad sent them daily to die by the hundreds.

Did the Khad never think of flanking the wall? It must end somewhere. Either the Shaker of the World was singularly stupid or so obsessed with the great cannon that he could think of nothing else.

He watched the Mongs play a game in which they charged at a ring which was suspended from a post by a cord and set to swinging. The ring was no bigger than those brass ones that Blade, as a small child, had plucked from a carousel in Brighton to gain a free ride. The Mongs had to pick up the ring on their lance points at full gallop. Very few missed. Those who did were forced to ride between the lines of their companions and were well beaten.

On the ninth day Captain Rahstum rode up to Blade's cage and dismounted. Two Mongs were with him, one carrying a large square block of wood.

Rahstum surveyed the captive through the stout bars, hands on hips, as immaculately dressed as ever in leather armor that sparkled in the sun. Blade thought again that this man was not a true Mong. He was too tall, and his skin too fair beneath the heavy beard.

"So, Sir Blade, you survive well enough. Your cage agrees with you, I see. Though I will admit there is something of an odor about you!" And he wrinkled his nose.

Blade was silent, staring back at the Captain. Something had changed. He could smell it. But he was not to be provoked.

At last Rahstum said, "You are well fed? There is enough of food?"

Blade nodded. "Of what it is, there is enough. But a man of my station should not be made to exist on horse-meat and black bread. I wish you would speak to the Khad about this. And I could use some clean straw as well."

Rahstum stared at him for a moment, his gray eyes puzzled, then to Blade's surprise he broke into a roar of laughter. He pounded his knee. The two Mong soldiers who had accompanied him allowed themselves uneasy grins.

When the Captain finally stopped laughing he said: "I begin to believe, Sir Blade, that you really are a Sir. Whatever that is. You faced down Sadda and the Khad both, and there has been no cry or complaint from you. Now you complain of the food and bid me carry a message to the Khad for you."

He went off into another gale of laughter while Blade watched in patience. The wooden block, he saw now, was. really a collar. There was a neck hole cut in it and a crude iron lock.

Rahstum abruptly stopped laughing. He drew his sword and pointed to the cage door. "Get him out of there and put on the collar. No - hold. We will need more than the three of us."

After Rahstum summoned another half-dozen Mongs the door of the cage was opened. The Captain beckoned Blade out.

"A step up in your slave's life," he said. "You are to wear a collar and serve as one of Sadda's house slaves. Make no trouble for me, Sir Blade. Sadda does not want you dead - else you would be - and I do not want to bear blame for killing you. So I advise you to submit. You will sleep warmer, have better food, and who knows - before long you may have a little golden collar."

At this the Mongs all tittered and grinned at each other until Rahstum frowned at them.

There was no point in resistance. Blade came out of the cage and allowed them to affix the wooden collar around his neck. It was large, clumsy and awkward, but not too heavy for a man of his physique. In time it would wear skin from his neck and he would develop sores, but he did not intend to wear it that long.

It was not the collar that galled him so much as the way he was led back to the main encampment. A rawhide line was tied to the collar and Blade was pulled along behind one of the horsemen. His leg, though healing well, was still stiff and sore, causing him to limp, and when he tripped over a rock and was dragged ingloriously through the dust, there was a great roar of scornful laughter from the Mongs. Rahstum at last halted the party until Blade could regain his feet, saying that Sadda's slave must not be damaged.

They left the main camp and approached a lesser scatter of black tents surrounded by a high withe fence. The fence was sectioned so it could be transported from place to place in the wagons. It was patrolled by mounted guards wearing armor slightly different from any Blade had seen before. This would be Sadda's private camp and headquarters.

Blade was unleashed while Rahstum conferred briefly with a guard at the gate. When Rahstum came back he glanced at Blade with his cold gray eyes and a dry smile moved beneath the heavy beard.

"Fare you well, Sir Blade. Be a good slave and earn your golden collar."

The Mongs tittered.

When Rahstum and his men had ridden away, Blade was herded into the enclosure at lance point. A clone of smaller tents surrounded one large one from which scarlet horsetails fluttered. As Blade was marched past the large tent he heard women speaking and laughing and there was a palpable odor of female flesh and perfume in the air. The tent had round openings in the sides, similar to portholes and covered by drop cloths. As he passed, Blade saw a veiled face peering at him from one of the apertures. Sadda?

In one corner of the enclosure was a smaller square, a stockade of heavy pointed logs set deep into the earth and bound by withes. Along the tops of the logs ran an ingenious arrangement of rawhide cords and little bells that would sound an alarm when touched.

This stockade was guarded by regular Mongs, older men who all bore the scars of grievous wounds. Some lacked an ear, or a nose, and many were without one arm. One had no left leg and made do with a crude crutch. Blade, missing nothing, saw that little love was lost between the two groups. Sadda's men were all young and handsome and laughed a lot. The stockade guards were Khad Tambur's men, worn out in battle.

He was shoved rudely into the stockade and the gate closed behind him. Blade shrugged and looked about him. At least he was not in chains. He shifted the wooden collar on his neck, easing it as best he could and went to explore. The stockade did not seem very well populated.

Two sides of the stockade were lined with small roofed carrels, narrow and deep and with the roof so low that a man must stoop to enter. As Blade stared around him a voice said, "Come talk to me, Sir Blade. I cannot come to you."

The voice was deep and gruff, with a coarse tinge of humor in it. Blade, startled, glanced about for the source.

It came from a carrel to his left, near a corner of the stockade. Blade stalked to the alcove and stooped to peer in. A man lay in the dirty straw. Both legs were missing just above the knees. He raised himself on heavily muscled arms to grin at Blade. "Welcome, Sir Blade. I invite you to share my palace." He balanced himself dexterously on one arm as he waved a hand around the little sty.

"All my servants have run off and there is no food nor drink. I hope you can forgive, for I am ordinarily an hospitable man."

Blade squatted in the entrance. "You know my name. How is that?"

The legless man laughed and let himself fall into the straw. "No magic, Sir Blade. Everyone in Cath and Mongland knows your name by now. We heard of you even before you were taken prisoner. And when you stood up to Sadda and the knife, your fame grew. That is bad, of course, for you will have to pay for it in the end."

Instinct told Blade to like and trust this legless man, at least to some degree, and there was something contagious about the coarse humor. Blade chuckled wryly as he made himself comfortable in the dirty straw.

"For a famous man," Blade said, "I am not as well fed and lodged as I would like."

The legless man laughed again and raised himself to a sitting position. "Be thankful, Sir Blade. You are alive. That is a miracle in itself. And I hear that you have caught Sadda's eye and that will lead to more good fortune, at least for a time - if you are man enough in bed!"

Blade scratched at his tangle of beard, which was one great itch, and considered this strange prisonmate. There was something familiar about the hawkish face, the tone of skin, and after a moment he recognized it. This man looked vaguely like Rahstum, the Captain! One thing was certain - he was no Mong.

The cripple had been subjecting Blade to the same intense scrutiny. His eyes, like those of Rahstum, were a pale gray. Suddenly he extended a hand to Blade. "I am called Baber. As you have guessed I am not a Mong. I am of the Cauca tribe. And you are thinking that I look like Rahstum, the Captain?" Blade admitted it.

"That is because Rahstum is also a Cauca. Believe me or not, Sir Blade, but we were once soldiers together and I his commander. Who would think it to see me now."

Blade, who had been lonely in his wagon cage, welcomed this new companionship. He set out to learn all he could, especially about his own probable fate.

Baber, laughing coarsely, pointed at the wooden collar around Blade's neck and said, "You will exchange that for a golden one if you are humble and careful and submit yourself. And make no great mistakes. That is why you have been moved from your cage to this place, to serve your apprenticeship, and so that your spirit may be broken. I have been prisoner for many years and I have seen it happen a dozen times. Sadda must always have a new favorite to replace the old. You will be the new one someday. When she has humiliated you enough."

Blade frowned. "I am not very good at being humble. I had my chance at that and just between us, Baber, I was in a sweat of fright. But I did not think it good policy to grovel or show fear. I gambled with the knife and I won. So I am still alive. Must I be humble now?"

Baber, who had a tonsure of baldness and was gray at the temples, squinted at Blade. In a serious tone he said: "I know. I know all of it. News travels fast among the Mongs. But you were not a slave then, Sir Blade, and also what you did once cannot always be done again. There is a limit to Sadda's patience. What little wisdom I have tells me that it is better to stay alive as long as possible. Let me tell you a story that is known to my tribe, the Cauca."

In the old times, Baber said, there was a certain wizard who fell out of favor with the king. All of his prophecies turned out to be false and the king ordered the wizard's head to be struck off. The wizard begged a year of grace in which he promised to teach the king's dog to talk. The king was intrigued, though skeptical, granted the time with the proviso that if the wizard failed to teach the dog to talk he would be boiled in oil instead of merely beheaded.

A friend of the wizard asked him why he had made such a bargain.

"Because a year of life is precious," the wizard replied. "Anything may happen. I might die a natural and painless death. The king may die. And I might even teach the dog to talk in a year."

Baber laughed and rolled over in the straw. "So you see, Sir Blade, that it might be well to play the humble part for a time. Stay alive! Anything can happen."

That was true. Blade knew that the Khad had sent a messenger to Pukka, in the south of Cath, to demand a great ransom for him. He had no notion of what Lali could do, or would do, about this. All he knew was that Lali had agreed to safe conduct for the messenger and had provided him with an escort. It would be two or three months before the man could return - with news that no one in Pukka had ever heard of Blade! He did not like to think of that. The Khad would certainly snatch him back from Sadda and have him executed in the cruelest possible manner.

Baber had been watching Blade with a peculiar glint in his eyes. Now, in a near whisper, he said: "You see the wisdom? Be humble and play the fool if you must. Stay alive and wait. I do not say that I know, because I would be a liar, but I can guess at changes that are coming. There is hate and bad blood between Sadda and the Khad. When they were younger they were lovers, so breaking a taboo of their black god, Obi. And now that they are no longer lovers, they are haters. But they share power and at the moment neither can rule without the other. They are fearful and uneasy and all the Mongs know this and feel it. A stone thrown into a pond disturbs the bottom as well as the surface. There is unrest among the Mongs, and dissatisfaction, but the Tamburs have ruled them for a thousand years and no one yet has courage to go against them. And this war, these endless wars against the great wall, sorely try the patience of the ordinary people. Thousands of the best Mong warriors die every month because the Khad is a madman and thinks he must have the great cannon of Cath. So heed a poor legless fool who was once a warrior, Sir Blade and..."

Baber had been looking over Blade's shoulder. He broke off abruptly and lowered himself into the straw so that only his head showed.

"Here comes Aplonius! He wears the golden collar now and is in charge of us. Patience, Sir Blade! Bear it. He is nothing but be careful."

Blade remained where he was, squatting, watching the approach of the man called Aplonius. He knew at once that he was in for a bad time.

The man who came toward him, swinging a long whip, was a Mong. But like none Blade had seen, before. He was taller, his skin lighter, and instead of the flat, nearly concave Mong features, he had a jutting nose and narrow-set eyes. His hair was bright and thick with pomade and curled atop his narrow head like miniature waves. He wore gaily colored breeches thrust into high boots and a tight fitting leathern jacket. His mustache was dark and neatly trimmed and a few dark hairs straggled from a weak chin.

Around his skinny neck was a golden collar, light and of exquisite workmanship. When he was close enough Blade saw that raised letters encircled the collar. S S S S S

This was Sadda's current favorite. Blade could not believe it. This was a man?

The slim dandy stopped before Blade and sneered. "So you are Sir Blade? Come to work as house slave for the Lady Sadda?"

The narrow-set eyes bunked down at him and Blade saw rage and fear in them. More than fear - terror, that the man was trying to conceal.

Blade stared back, trying to hide his contempt. "I am Sir Blade."

Whap! The whip caught him a stinging blow across the face.

"Rise when you speak to me," said the dandy. "Rise and bow as low as you can. Lower than you can."

Whap - whap! The whip slashed across his face, back and forth, biting like an adder.

It was a near thing. Back in H-Dimension even J would not risk Blade's temper. Now the blood pounded in his head and his heart was bursting and he was instantly bathed in sweat. Every muscle in his great body tensed and his bearded lips parted in a snarl. He could have torn this Aplonius in half and he very nearly did. Sheer discipline and will power restrained him. Blade battled with himself - and won.

He stumbled to his feet and bowed, the heavy wooden collar pulling him over in ludicrous subservience. The action served to mask the rage in his face.

Aplonius, who had skipped back in alarm, sneered again and gave Blade a dozen blows about the head and shoulders. Each blow raised a long red welt. Blade gritted his teeth and took it. Baber was right. Stay alive. Take it. His turn would come. Carefully he counted each blow.

When Aplonius was breathless from whipping Blade, he stepped back again, panting and switching the whip against his leg. He pointed to the carrel next to that of Baber and pointed with the whip.

"That is your hole. You will remain in it until I say otherwise. You will not speak with that old fool again!" He pointed the whip at Baber's head, just visible in the filthy straw. "You understand, swine? No talking. I will have you watched and if you are caught talking, you will wish you were dead. Understand that well! I cannot kill you, because the Lady Sadda does not wish it, but I can make you wish that I would kill you. Now get over there and be silent." He slashed at Blade with the whip again.

Blade did not look at the man. He did not trust himself. He was sick and trembling with rage. He went into the carrel next to Baber's and sat down in the straw.

Aplonius' voice followed him. "Slaves do not have titles. You are no longer a Sir, whatever it means. I would call you swine if I had my way, but that is too indelicate for the Lady Sadda's ears. So you are now called Blade until the lady finds a better name. Tomorrow, Blade, you will go to work. You will labor and you will learn. You will walk humbly and you will wear your collar and you will never raise your eyes unless I give permission. That is understood, swine?"

Blade somehow managed to get the words out. "That is understood."

Aplonius went in to the carrel where Baber lay in his straw. Blade could not see - the wall between the carrels was solid - but he could hear well enough.

"You are an old fool with a long tongue," said Aplonius. There was the sound of blows being rained on the legless man. "I do not understand," Aplonius continued, "why I am not allowed to kill you and have done with it. Why, old man? Why? You have no friends or you would not be here. Why am I not allowed to kill you?" His tone was a querulous whine and he seemed genuinely puzzled.

Blade kept his eyes down, staring at the straw between his legs, welding mental chains on himself so he would not go and kill that perfumed obscenity.

Finally Aplonius stalked away with a final sneer at Blade. "I will see you tomorrow! Mind what I have told you."

Blade watched him out the gate, where the Mong guards bowed low to him. When Aplonius mounted a pony and rode away, his back to them, the guards made contemptuous gestures. Blade's grin was hard. Aplonius was not loved.

"Psst." It was Baber whispering through the wall. "Sit with your back to the wall and speak without moving your lips. The guards know we speak, but they do not care so long as our lips do not betray us. They hate Aplonius as much as we."

"That," Blade said, "is a lot of hate!"

He heard Baber sigh. "I know. I have often wondered if there is anything but hate in the world. In my country, two years' march to the north over the Hima mountains, it is the same. But enough of that, Sir Blade. We cannot change the world. You bore yourself well with that - thing just now. I was afraid you would lose your temper and kill him."

"So was I."

"That might have spoiled everything," said Baber. "And to no point, because he will be dead soon enough. Sadda tires of him, I hear. Did you see the terror in his eyes?"

Blade said he had. He was watching the sun hovering low over the stockade wall. Any second now it would plummet out of sight.

Baber laughed, a cruel sound now. "He is already dead and lie knows it. Sadda tires of his peculiar brand of love-making, though it has pleasured her for some months. And now you come. Aplonius knows you will replace him when Sadda is ready, and as he is a coward he suffers greatly. He is helpless. He is as much a slave as we are, golden collar or not, and there is no escape for him. But let us talk of other things."

Blade had been thinking hard. He said, "I agree to that, Baber. And I am very ignorant yet, though I keep my eyes and ears open. Let us talk of what you meant when you said there would be changes."

Silence. He could imagine Baber squinting and scratching his balding head.

"I said there might be changes, Sir Blade. I said I did not know for sure. I am not a liar. And if there are to be changes they will come in their own time and cannot be hurried. You must understand this and promise me, if I tell you what I can only guess at, that you will do nothing to hasten matters and will not act alone. I think I trust you, Sir Blade, but I must have that promise. I am a legless old man and I will die soon, but I do not want to die in this place."

Blade promised. And added, "Do not call me Sir Blade. You heard what our friend Aplonius said! Call me Blade if you will. Or friend. I am both."

"As you will," said Baber. "Listen, then. And remember that nothing of this has been told to me. I speak only from my own head. But I watch and I listen and I see what is coming.

"The Captain Rahstum is a countryman of mine, as I said. He is a great soldier, but he is a mercenary and fights for gain, as I did once, as do all the Cauca. But Rahstum prospered and I did not. But when I fought for another tribe against the Mongs and was taken prisoner, it was Rahstum who saved my life. That was some years ago, and it was Rahstum who persuaded the Khad to cut off my legs instead of my head."

To Blade it seemed a doubtful act of mercy, but he said nothing.

"It was all one to the Khad," Baber continued. "I was rendered useless as a warrior and it was a favor for his Captain. Ever since then Rahstum, by his influence, has kept me alive. Barely so, and in this filth, but still alive. I do not really understand why, for I cannot be of use to him. A legless man! I tell you all this to show that I know something of Rahstum, of how he thinks. After all he is a Cauca.

"Now, in this blood hate between the Khad and his whorish sister, Rahstum walks a careful path. He is a great captain and the Khad has much need of him. The Mong soldiers respect him. And of late Sadda has been wooing him, because she will need him when she moves against the Khad. You begin to see a little?"

Blade saw that Rahstum was walking a tightrope with his head finely balanced on his body. He said as much.

Baber chuckled. "That is so. Rahstum waits and watches and must have nerves like an ox. Meaning none at all. He cannot be too friendly to one, nor can he show enmity to either. He must wait until the boil bursts."

"But what," asked Blade, "has all this to do with me?"

"You killed Cossa, did you not? Not even Rahstum could have done that. And I have seen you and now I understand more. It is possible that Sadda, when the time comes, has other use for you than just to warm her bed."

"And if she had me she would not need Rahstum?"

"That is part of it, Blade. Not all. Sadda, if my guess is right, will test you well before opening her mind to you. Maybe she will never open it. But no matter, because if Sadda was to win out, we, you and I and the Mongs, would be no better off than if the Khad won. Both are mad. Both are bloody. And there can be no peace, with the Caths or anyone else, until both are dead. Rahstum knows this. That is why I think, Blade, that when the time is ripe Rahstum will also want you on his side."

Blade thought for a moment, then: "You say that Khad is mad? I do not understand. When I saw him he looked sane enough."

"He is mad, Blade. He has the falling sickness from time to time, and in some way it seems to relieve his madness. He had a long sickness just before you were taken, so now appears not to be mad. But it will come back. And when his madness is fully upon him no one is safe - no man, woman, or child, especially girl children. The Khad's is a very nasty madness, Blade."

Blade felt a chill trace through him. What talk was this of children? He asked Baber what he meant.

"Sadda's madness is a cunning madness, Blade. She is sly and bloodthirsty and treacherous. But the Khad's madness is a demon that not all of Obi's blessings could wash clean. He is impotent, as is well known. Except with little girls. Children and young girls not yet old enough to be married. So when the madness is on him the Khad takes whatever child pleases him and has his will of her. Then another and another until the madness passes for the time."

"And the people do nothing? The Mongs, the fathers, they do nothing to halt this?"

Baber's chuckle was grim. "They do nothing. Yet. They hide their children as best they can and they mutter and complain, being careful not to be heard. Did you pass the gallows place when you were brought in?"

"As I was being taken to the Khad's tent I passed it."

"You saw a man impaled?"

"I saw him. He was still alive."

"Poor fellow. He was a sub-captain, a fine warrior and faithful to the Khad until, in his last fit of madness, the Khad took his daughter and had his way with her and killed her in the doing. And then, for such is the way of the Khad's madness, he gave the child a great funeral and bestowed much treasure on the father. At the funeral the Khad betrayed great remorse and beat his breast and called on Obi to forgive him. For this is the Khad's way - when his madness passes he cries in his tent at night and begs forgiveness for his deeds. But this time the father would not forgive and, after the funeral, tried to slay the Khad. You saw what happened."

"I saw."

"He did not await his time," said Baber. "He struck too soon. We Caucas have a saying - revenge which is longest in coming is the sweetest. Do not forget that, Blade."

After a moment Blade said: "There is a dwarf by name of Morpho. Do you know him?"

For a long time Baber did not answer. When he did his tone was curt and the friendliness had gone. "I know of him. I have seen him. What of it?"

It was clear enough that Baber did not wish to speak of the dwarf, yet Blade plunged ahead. "He is a strange little man. He came to me, when I was first taken, and hinted that he would like me to live. He said he came from Sadda, as perhaps he did, but I think there was something else. I have not seen him since, except for the night I faced the knife, and then he did not know me. I have been wondering if he is friend or enemy, or neither? And if he is Sadda's man, or the Khad's? After hearing you speak I wonder even more."

The sun dropped out of the sky. From the wall the giant cannon boomed, the muzzle flash a huge blossom of red flame in the sudden darkness. The jade ball keened far over them to splinter itself harmlessly into shards that, and Blade smiled grimly, would be priceless back in H-Dimension.

"We will not speak of the dwarf," said Baber at last. "I know of nothing to his credit, nor anything against him. He may even be his own man, a rare thing."

Blade took the hint and did not mention Morpho again. Presently guards came with their evening meal in wooden bowls. It was still horsemeat and coarse bread and a great tankard of the powerful bross. After drinking it all Blade felt sleepy. He closed his eyes as Baber talked on. Torches had been lit in the stockade, one at each corner, and when the night wind came it tinkled the warning bells along the top of the stockade. As sleepy as he was, Blade noted this, and stored it away for use in the future.

The bross had no effect on Baber, except to keep him wide-awake and talking. Blade drowsed and listened and was not surprised to learn that Baber had once been a great poet among his own people, as well as a warrior. Poets were highly regarded among the Cauca. It accounted for the man's fluency and gift of imagery, which Blade had wondered at, and also for his laughter and sonorous voice, even though - and here Baber's laughter was rueful - it had been many years since he had stroked a jadar, which, Blade judged, was some sort of lyre.

Presently Blade was half between sleep and waking. Baber's voice was a lulling drone in the torch haunted gloom, with the words slurring now and making no distinct sense. Blade posed himself a question.

Would he be glad or unhappy if Lord L were to snatch him back to H-Dimension now. At this moment? Before he had seen this adventure through. He could not really answer himself. At best he was ambivalent. He knew his peril. Death and torture were as real in this dimension as in his own natural one. Yet to seek out, to know, to persevere and above all to conquer, was in his nature as cruelty was in the Mongs. The adventure, the search and solving, beckoned like a lantern on a mountain. Besides, he was an Englishman to whom a task had been entrusted. That it was a shocking and weird and unbelievable task, so fantastic that only five men in the world knew about it, made little difference. It must be done.

Strangely, for Blade was not an intellectual, he found himself thinking of hope. In his mind he capitalized it. HOPE. He had seen the superficial and cynical splendor of the Caths; he understood the mindless cruelty of the Mongs. There was no hope in either.

Yet how often had he thought the same back in H-Dimension, when you only had to read a paper to feel disgust! Blade began to see here what he had not seen there. There was hope! Things did change. Six steps forward and five back left a net total of one step gained.

With a strange sense of personal enrichment, and oddly comforted, Richard Blade fell asleep.


Chapter Seven | The Jade Warrior | Chapter Nine