Sergi watched the Sime approach--a girl, covered with mud and wrung out with need. She couldn't be more than a month or two past changeover. Although he knew she intended to kill him, his heart went out to her. He held out his hands, knowing that in her state she could not resist his field. "Come here," he said gently. "I will serve your need."
To his astonishment, she stopped, actually looking at him. She expected fear, of course--any Gen but a Companion would have been terrified, seeing certain death approach.
But Sergi had no fear to give her. Instead, she woke in him an expectation of pleasure. His mind told him this little junct had nothing for him but the chance to ease his guilt by doing a kindness--but his body responded as if to a channel, more powerful than any he had ever served.
She was still staring at him, zlinning him--needing him. Unable to leave that need unfilled, he took a step toward her.
She darted back a step, stumbled, and almost fell.
No Sime was clumsy. She was hurt! As Sergi drew closer he saw blood mixed with the mud on her bare neck. "Poor child," he murmured. "Let me help you."
The Sime staggered, but kept her feet and remained just out of his reach. "I'm going to kill you!" she spat, a kitten hissing at a hound.
When her threat failed to raise fear in him, she crouched, ready to spring. But instead of leaping, she shuddered, and suddenly clutched her arms to her chest.
Sergi's ache to serve her need surged--and he realized she was voiding selyn! It was attrition--if he did not give her transfer at once she could be dead in minutes.
No--no, not twice in one day!
Sergi caught her as her knees gave way, kneeling himself.
Rest on my field, he thought as Nedd had trained him, knowing his feeling communicated through his nager--the aura of life-energy that every Sime could read.
The girl struggled feebly as he held her--where did she get such strength of will?--but he balanced her against his right arm, offering her his left, sliding his hand under hers.
Her handling tentacles wrapped about his forearm like tiny ropes of steel. When the hot, moist laterals touched him, her resistance crumbled. She was already reaching for his right arm when he ceased supporting her back with it.
They knelt, face to face. Sergi bent his head, touched the girl's lips with his--and the flow began. She drew voraciously, setting every nerve in Sergi's body to singing. To give transfer was a Companion's greatest pleasure, but no channel--not even Nedd--had ever touched him so deeply.
He felt the ebb and surge as her secondary system came into play. She had no control, no smoothness, no care for him--yet she gave him satisfaction he had never known before.
But the girl was unsatisfied. Brimming with selyn, still she demanded of him, their systems clashing--
She was trying to hurt him. She needed pain, fear--a junct's need. He could not give her killbliss!
No, he thought, you don't need to kill! Feel the pure pleasure without pain!
They were perfectly matched in nageric strength, but Sergi had years of training and experience. He brought the transfer gently to its termination and sank back on his heels. The girl stared at him from immense dark eyes, incredulous. He smiled, touched by her innocence.
Her eyes traveled over him as he knelt patiently, knowing that immediately after transfer a Sime drank in the world through the senses denied in the days of increasing need. Sergi could smell the dampness of the girl's hair and clothing, feel the chill air coming off the stone walls. He wanted to pick her up, towel her off, and wrap her in blankets--but she was a wild thing, ready to flee into the night at the wrong move. He held still, waiting.
Risa had never been so satisfied in her life. Her whole body tingled with well-being ... and yet she had not killed.
As her senses readjusted, she saw all that the firelight could reveal of the huge Gen, so vitally, impossibly alive.
She had seen art works of precious metal, bronze statuettes of shadow-dark beauty edged by bright highlights where handling had rubbed away the patina. So the Gen before her showed bright highlights on hair and skin, though most of his huge bulk remained in shadow. If her hands did not still rest on the living, yielding flesh of his arms, she might have thought him turned to bronze, so still he knelt, waiting.
What did he expect now? His hands remained a steady support beneath her forearms. Belatedly, she withdrew her handling tentacles, but still he did not move.
What kind of Gen--?
Wer-Gen, stirred in the back of her mind. She had heard as a child the legends of magicians who turned Simes into Gens--fearless Gens who thus produced selyn but in turn became masters over Simes, Gens who had the power to kill--
She blinked the superstitious nonsense away, and found her voice. "Who are you?"
"I am Sergi ambrov Keon," he replied in a soothing tone. The peculiar name told her what he was: a Companion, a Gen raised in a Householding. It was true, then. They could give their selyn and not die. "Let me help you," he said.
"I don't require any help," Risa replied, suddenly very conscious of his support. She tried to spring to her feet, but the world tilted, and she tottered like a child.
The Gen caught her, lifting her small weight with ease. "You're exhausted," he said. "You were disoriented."
Her response was to zlin him. His nager amazed her. She had never known anything like the warmth and concern flowing over her. "How did you know?" she asked warily.
"Juncts don't allow themselves to get that deep into need, and ... there's no use trying to explain to a Sime. Here--" He set her down on the bench before the fire and touched the side of her head so gently that she felt no pain. "--You've had a severe blow. If you were just unconscious, how did you use up so much selyn? You must have fallen into the river. Not magic," he added at her start. "Mud!"
Risa was covered in it, dry and cracking on the outside of her clothing, soggy and gritty on the inside. She felt filthy and uncomfortable, but there was no running water in the shrine, and she had lost all her clean clothes.
Sergi suggested, "It's still pouring rain outside, but it's getting warmer. Have some hot tea first, and then wash that mud off. If you sleep in that condition you'll feel miserable in the morning."
Perhaps it was his self-assurance that made her obey him. She stripped, washed herself in the rain, her clothes in the torrent from the shrine's downspout. That flow was heavy enough to penetrate to the roots of her hair; she unbraided it with difficulty, and gratefully spread it with fingers and tentacles to wash out the mud.
The Gen took her clothes inside, draping them with his over the bench before the fire. When Risa came in, he was ready with a cape to wrap her in. "Are you allergic to wool?" he asked before draping it over her shoulders.
"Allergic? Of course not." She pulled the garment about herself gratefully, for it was much cooler inside the stone shrine than outside. The Gen's cape would have easily wrapped three times around Risa; it fell to her knees, although it was probably waist-length on him.
As the garment absorbed the moisture from her body, Risa realized that it was not the Gen's traveling cape. That lay spread across the bench, steaming slightly. This cape and the dry shirt and trousers he wore had come from his saddlebags.
As she approached the fire, Risa smelled cereal cooking, and realized that she was hungry. The Gen was trimming the wick of an oil lamp with a sharp knife. Risa shuddered at the sight of such an instrument in Gen hands.
In the bright light, Risa's cape glowed red. She noticed embroidery down the front. It formed a chain--a chain of white links down the red wool.
"Why did you ask if I'm allergic to wool?" she asked.
"Sensitivity to certain foods or fabrics is a price some channels pay for their talents."
Channels? Those were the perverted Simes who drew selyn from Gens without killing them, and transferred it to other Simes, who thus lived without killing. "I'm not--"
"You are a channel," he said positively, his nager accentuating his certainty. "You do not function as a channel, but you are one. Keon needs you."
"Needs?" For a moment she thought he had misused the word, the kind of error even new Simes made if they had come from Gen Territory and were just learning Simelan. But it was obvious that Simelan was this Gen's native language. He meant exactly what he said.
"Our householding has grown so that our channels cannot keep up with the demands on their time and skills."
"Then you will have to put an end to your perverted lifestyle."
He paused, then asked in a carefully neutral tone, "Do you consider what you and I just shared to be perverted?"
"Yes," she replied at once.
"Why?" he asked, indignation flaring in his nager.
His field became a neutral wall between them, as he dished out cereal and more tea. Only when Risa was dawdling over the last spoonfuls in her bowl did he speak again.
"If you will not thank me for saving your life, will you at least tell me your name?"
"Risa Tigue," she replied.
"So you know what it is to have a family."
Many Simes did not have family names, even in these civilized times, for many still did not settle, marry, found families. "Ours is an old family," Risa said proudly. "Ask anyone in Norlea about Tigue's General Store. My grandfather founded it, and my father built it into a thriving business."
At the thought of her father, the moment of his death returned. Grief welled up to overwhelm her.
"Then you can understand--" Sergi began, caught sight of her stricken look, and asked, "What's wrong?"
"My father," Risa choked out. "He's dead."
The words made it real. She would never see him again, never hear him call her by the pet name she hated, never again have him to turn to--
As the girl dissolved into tears, Sergi moved to her side, trying to remain emotionally neutral. He had seen such post-transfer reactions before. In the last days of the need cycle, Simes became numb to emotions, unable to react even to tragic loss until released from the repression of need.
"Go on--cry," said Sergi, digging in his saddlebags for a clean handkerchief. She accepted it--again without a thank you. But that was her culture--a Gen was not a person to her. "If it will help," he offered, "tell me about your father."
"He was j-just getting everything he'd worked so hard for," she said. "All he ever did was work. The st-store was thriving. We went out-Territory to trade. Best trip ever. Then the storm--the raft--"
"Today?" he asked in shock. "Oh, Risa, I am so sorry!" But she pushed him away when he tried to put a comforting arm around her. "Did he drown?" he asked.
"He was wounded when the raft broke up. Bled to death ... voided to death ... what's the difference?"
The image of Erland ambrov Carre rose to haunt Sergi. "It wasn't your fault," he said. "In that storm--"
"Nobody's fault," she sobbed, "but he's dead. Oh, Daddy, Daddy!"
He let her cry until she subsided into hiccupping sobs. Then he asked, "Is the rest of your family in Norlea?"
"Only my brother Kreg. We're all that's left. I have to take care of Kreg now that Dad's gone."
"Kreg is younger than you are?"
"Then ... Risa, has your brother changed over yet?"
"No. He's still a child." She wiped her eyes and squared her thin shoulders. He admired the way she put aside her grief when she thought of her responsibilities--she already had one of a channel's most important disciplines.
"What will you do if he establishes as a Gen?"
"You don't think I'd sell my own brother into the pens, do you?" she snapped indignantly.
"You would break the law if you took him to the border, and you would never see him again. Risa, you require sleep. We'll talk tomorrow--but I want you to think about something. There is one way you and your brother can remain together, even if he should turn Gen. You can join a householding."
"My brother is going to be Sime, like me," she insisted. Nonetheless, she accepted the bedroll he offered her curled up like a child, and went off at once into exhausted slumber.
Risa woke at sunrise. She couldn't remember feeling so positively good since changeover. Except for the glowing coals of the fire, it was pitch dark inside the shrine. She zlinned the strange Gen sleeping soundly. Last night had really happened. It was not a disorientation dream.
All trace of disorientation had disappeared. It was normal for a kill to put an end to disorientation suffered in the middle of a need cycle ... but she doubted even that could end all symptoms, including nightmares, within a day.
She went outside, and found her time sense back to normal. The sun was just up. Birds sang merrily. A few scattered clouds, last remnants of the storm, floated away to the east. The air was fresh, rain-washed, morning-cool.
Risa had wrapped herself in the red wool cape. Perhaps she could dress and leave before the Gen woke. Away from his strange nageric spell, she found the thought of last night unsettling. The fact that what he called transfer was better than any kill she had ever had was even more frightening.
There were two horses tethered a short distance away. And the Gen had had two bedrolls. Two saddles, she remembered, inside the shrine. Last night she had been too caught up in events to wonder whose the second horse was.
Inside, Risa found Sergi awake and making tea. "Good morning," he said. "Is the storm over?"
"Yes. It's a beautiful morning."
"And you're feeling well, I see." He left the shrine, then stuck his head back in to say, "Would you brew the tea, please, when the water boils?"
Risa's undergarments and shirt were dry, but her denim trousers were still damp. Those she carried outside and spread in the sun, using the cape as a skirt.
Her moccasins were still soggy; they joined the denims. Sergi returned as she was trying to smooth her hair with hands and tentacles. He watched her expectantly for a moment, then asked, "Risa, why won't you even ask to borrow a comb?"
"I don't want to take anything from you."
He stared, then started to laugh.
"What's so funny?" she demanded.
"The junct mentality. You take my selyn because you see any Gen's selyn as yours by right. But you won't thank me, or ask for commonplace favors, for that would be to recognize a Gen as someone to whom you owe common courtesy."
He ducked into the shrine, emerged with a small case, and handed her a comb. Annoyed at his smug attitude, Risa pointedly said, "Thank you," and began combing the tangles out of her waist-length hair.
Sergi brought two mugs of tea out into the sunshine, hung a mirror on the rough bark of a tree, pulled a razor from the case, and began to strop it.
Risa shuddered. The knife in his hands last night had been bad enough, but this--!
As if sensing her unease, he said, "If you don't zlin me, you won't feel anything if I do cut myself--which I have no intention of doing." He brought the last of the hot water outside, and lathered his face.
"You are a Gen, alone, carrying at least two lethal weapons," Risa observed.
He took a careful stroke down his jaw, then answered as he rinsed the lather, "I am a lethal weapon, as much as any Sime. My razor is for shaving, not fighting. My knife has a hundred purposes, but slicing up Simes isn't one of them."
"But suppose a patrol picked you up?"
"It would be a nuisance, that's all." His speech was punctuated by long pauses for even strokes of the razor. "Nedd would have to pay the fine, which Keon can't afford. I'm low-field, thanks to you, but it's still possible to be caught. I could escape easily enough--you know the dimwits in the militia--but I'm too easily identified. Keon would be assessed a double fine for my escape--I might even be confiscated. Then I'd have to leave the territory. Since Keon needs me, if I were caught I'd just have to sit in their shidoni-be-flayed pen and wait for Nedd to bail me out."
"And what happens to a Gen caught stealing horses?"
"Stealing--? Oh. The other horse belonged to the channel I was escorting to Keon. He ... died in the storm."
The Gen's field went absolutely flat as he spoke. Risa watched in silence as he put the razor back into the case. She fastened the braid of her hair, and handed him the comb.
The Gen's hair was thick and dark blond, the top layer sun-streaked to a lighter color than his tanned skin. His eyes were a vivid dark blue, his features disturbingly alive and intelligent.
What he had said last night came back. You could join a householding.
If Kreg turned out Gen--
She imagined her brother like Sergi, afraid of nothing. That was not how Gens were. Gens were either stupefied animals or terrified children running for their lives. Fear was the Gen nature--fear that Simes reveled in and fed upon.
A fearless Gen was a freak of nature. Wer-Gen.
Sergi had gone back into the shrine, emerging with a pair of clean, dry denim trousers. "These were Erland's," he said. "I think they'll fit you well enough for riding ... if we can make an agreement."
"We're both going to Norlea. If we go separately, you walk, and I take the woods and back roads, each taking twice as long to get there as if we travel together. Pose as my escort, and you may ride Erland's horse."
"I could just take the horse ... or both of them."
She zlinned an interesting clash of responses in his nager. For a moment she thought he would say she could not take the horses. What he did say was, "But you would not. You are no thief."
"It wouldn't be stealing. They're not yours. A Gen cannot own property. You are property."
"No, I am not. The householding charters with the government provide that our Gens are members of the householdings, not owned by them. The wording makes little difference to the politicians, who tax us just the same, but it makes a great deal of difference to us." He added, "My horse is mine. I will return Erland's to Carre."
It was a sensible arrangement. The journey would be much more comfortable on horseback than walking. While Risa knew little of the technical matters governing householdings, she did know what everyone knew: their Gens were not allowed outside the walls of the householdings without Sime escorts.
"Very well. I will escort you."
The trousers Sergi offered fit well enough once she belted the waist in and rolled up the cuffs. She was ready.
Inside the shrine, Sergi was checking into the corners with the lamp, to be sure nothing was forgotten. Risa was about to pick up the smaller saddle when he said, "I must do one more thing before we leave."
He was shining the lamp on a design carved into the stone wall: a five-pointed star superimposed on an even-armed cross. Over the symbol were carved the words, "Have faith in the starred-cross, and do not fear the Sime in need."
Sergi had replenished the firewood. Now he chose a weathered piece of pine, and took out his knife. His hands moved deftly; he did not measure or mark on the wood, but in moments carved a small replica of the design on the wall.
Risa had seen starred-crosses before, usually wood, often just the design burned crudely into a medallion. Even when made by Simes they were usually lopsided--hurried creations made in a desperate attempt to protect a fleeing child.
In bare minutes, Sergi ambrov Keon created a thing of beauty. The star stood out from the cross, and he whittled out the points to form a filigree. Then he rubbed it, the oil from his hands smoothing the finish, and threaded it on a thong. "There," he said, hanging it on a peg under the design on the wall. "Someone may want that before long."
"Do you really believe in that superstition?" Risa asked.
"It isn't superstition," Sergi replied. "The symbol represents the true union of Sime and Gen. And you have experienced what happens when a Gen does not fear."
"It doesn't work for most Gens," said Risa. She had seen starred-crosses on the corpses of selyn-drained Gens.
"It works for those who believe," he replied.
They saddled the horses. Risa was shortening her stirrups before mounting when Sergi came up to her. "Risa," he said, "you fear your own need. Every junct does."
He drew something from under his shirt, lifted it over his head, and held it out to her on the palm of his hand: another starred cross, this one made of precious metals, white on yellow gold. It was beautifully crafted, exquisite in balance--and Risa suddenly remembered that she had heard this Gen's name before. The jewelry made by Sergi ambrov Keon was fast gaining a reputation in Gulf Territory in spite of its creator's being a householder. But it had never occurred to anyone of her acquaintance that such an artist could be Gen!
Sergi spread the chain and dropped the charm over Risa's head. "Simes don't wear the starred-cross," she protested.
"They should," he replied. "You should. I will wait for you at Carre, Risa. When need stalks you, do not fear. Come to me."
"You can. You will. We will share transfer, and then we will go home to Keon, where you belong. You and your brother--come and live where you can always be together."
At that moment it seemed plausible--but when they were working their way through woods and swamps to the eyeway, Risa shook off Sergi's hypnotic spell. What nonsense! She had a business to run. How badly had the storm hit Norlea? Was Kreg all right? She wanted to gallop the moment they reached the eyeway, but they had a long, hard day's journey ahead.
At midmorning, Sergi suddenly pulled his horse up and started down a side road toward an inn.
"Where are you going?" Risa asked.
"To get breakfast. Come on."
"We can't go in there!" she exclaimed. "That place caters to--"
"Perverts?" He laughed at her, then added, "This is the only place between here and Norlea where you and I can be served a meal at one table. Since I'm buying, I refuse to be fed slop in a holding room."
"You're buying? I can't let you--" She remembered that she had no money. "Well, I don't have to eat today."
"You certainly do!" he insisted. "If it will ease your conscience, you can pay me back when we get to Norlea."
"I will do that," she promised, then realized that she had acknowledged herself in debt to a Gen. She had never met anyone who could confuse her as much as Sergi ambrov Keon.
The inn was situated a day's journey from Norlea, but Risa's father had always passed it by, refusing to enter a place with such a terrible reputation. She didn't know what she expected--certainly not a clean, light place with the smells of stew and freshly baked bread permeating the air.
The decor was simple--wooden tables and benches--and one window was boarded up, aftermath of the storm. But nothing about the place suggested the unnamed acts of dark perversion that Morgan Tigue's attitude had hinted at.
A man came out of the kitchen, wiping hands and tentacles on a clean apron. "Sergi! I zlinned you the moment you left the eyeway. Welcome, Naztehr--and you, too, Hajene," he added to Risa with a little bow.
Risa saw Sergi smother a knowing grin. "Risa, this is Prather Heydon. His kitchen produces the best food between Keon and Norlea. Prather, Risa Tigue."
At her name, the man frowned, and his nager swirled with curiosity--but Sergi's field plainly said, Don't ask questions. Aloud Sergi said, "We'll have some of your stew, fruit, bread, and tea."
"Just bread and honey for me," said Risa.
"Oh, no you don't," said Sergi as if to a recalcitrant child. "Stew for both of us, Prather--a double order for me. I've had nothing but some cereal since yesterday."
When the man had gone, Risa said furiously, "How dare you--!"
"Do you want to have any teeth left five years from now?" Sergi interrupted. "Risa--juncts eat all wrong, if they eat at all. Half the month they have no appetite, and the other half they eat sweets instead of good body-building food. Most Sime diseases aren't diseases at all--they're deficiencies."
"What makes you such an expert?"
He laughed. "That's my job. Companions keep channels healthy, so channels can keep everyone else healthy. Ah--there comes our meal. Eat up."
Prather Heydon was even taller than Sergi, but thin in the Sime manner. His skin was a deep mahogany, his hair black and tightly curled. He smiled when Sergi praised the food, and Risa noticed his strong, even, white teeth--at variance with the sprinkle of white in his hair that said he was many years past changeover. Much as she hated to admit it, the Gen was right--most Simes did have missing teeth by the time their children were old enough for changeover.
The thick vegetable stew smelled delicious. Once she started, Risa found it easy to eat the portion she had been served, along with a dish of orange and grapefruit slices. She hadn't had such an appetite since before changeover!
Then she realized that the appetite was Sergi's, broadcast on his nager. He finished his double servings, along with a slice of nut bread, and said, "Now you may have bread and honey if you wish."
"Now I don't want it," she replied, sipping tea. "I never eat like that."
"But you should. Not just today, when you are healing an injury, but every day."
"If you hadn't been so hungry, I wouldn't have thought about food."
"Exactly," he said. "That's why householding Simes are much healthier than juncts. Not only do they not abuse their systems by killing, but they live side by side with Gens, as nature intended. They eat right, suffer no need tension--"
"What do you mean, abuse their systems?" Risa interrupted. "The kill is normal. Your way is unnatural."
His blue eyes studied her. "Do you know mathematics?"
"I'm probably the best bookkeeper in Norlea, now that Dad's gone. Why?"
"Have you ever heard of the Numbers of Zelerod?"
"A Sime from Nivet Territory--a junct, but a mathematician. He did a study of Sime longevity and population growth ... and discovered that in a few generations the world would reach a point at which there would be an equal number of Simes and Gens. Do you realize what would happen in the month in which precise balance occurred?"
"Theoretically, the Simes would kill all the Gens."
"And the next month?" he pursued.
"The Simes would all die of attrition. Theoretically," Risa repeated. "Life doesn't proceed according to theory."
"No. It wouldn't happen that neatly. As soon as the Gen shortage became acute--maybe fifty years from now--Simes would start violating the border treaties in masses, not occasional raids. Civilization would collapse, Sime fighting Sime over the remaining Gens. Do you want to live in such a world?"
"Fifty years from now I'll be dead."
"Not if you come to Keon. But never mind that. Do you want your children or grandchildren to live in such a world?"
"I don't believe it will happen," she replied. "There are far more Gens than Simes. Show me the proof."
"I can show you at Keon--or Carre. We have copies of Zelerod's Numbers."
"Suppose--hypothetically--this Zelerod were right. What can be done about it? What did he do?"
"Disjunct," Sergi replied. "Zelerod died trying to disjunct, but he was too old. You are not."
"Disjunct? You keep calling me junct."
"Joined to the kill," he explained. "It is an unnatural state, Risa, but an addictive one."
"How can it be unnatural? It's how every Sime lives."
"No," he said firmly. "Not every Sime. Most of the Simes at Keon have never killed. Risa, you just said you expect to be dead fifty years from now. If you remain junct you may live fifteen, perhaps twenty years past changeover. You are a channel, though--so make that seven to ten years, even less because you are female. If you have no training in control of your dual selyn system, you are likely to die in childbirth."
"You are trying to frighten me into doing what you want."
"No. Fear is not adequate incentive. Disjunction requires positive commitment. Forgive me--I should not dwell on negatives. Come observe our way of life at Carre or Keon. Both householdings have healthy Simes forty or fifty years past changeover. The really old Simes live sixty or seventy years past changeover. One channel at Carre is seventy-three years past. There is no one that old at Keon only because the house was founded thirty years ago, with young people."
"I don't believe you."
"Come and see for yourself. The householdings are the answer to Zelerod's Doom. All those Simes living long, healthy lives--and never killing. Gens living without fear, providing new selyn each month without dying--it is what nature intended for Simes and Gens. It can be yours, Risa. All you have to do is come inside the walls."
All the way to Norlea, Sergi watched Risa, wondering how effective his words had been. They rode in silence most of the way, Risa deep in thought.
Storm damage was worse farther south; even though it was late in the day, some causeways were under water, and no detours had been marked. Risa zlinned the way through the swamps, and took the lead on the eyeway as darkness fell. Neither suggested stopping so close to their goal.
Closer to the city there were marked detours--deliberate frustrations, it seemed, to keep them from getting where they were going. The city gates were a heap of rubble, blocking the direct route into town. Sergi could see nothing but wreckage beyond where the gates had stood--the storm had demolished this whole section of Norlea.
"We'll have to go around to Rivergate," said Risa. "That will bring us to my place first. You can sleep there for the rest of the night, and I'll take you to Carre in the morning."
Although Sergi was concerned about the householding--a short distance inside the main gate--he was glad to spend more time persuading Risa. He would meet her brother Kreg, too--a boy who was not yet certain he would be Sime might be more receptive to new possibilities.
The road around the town had been cleared, the debris piled up on either side. Their tired horses plodded between banks of broken trees, pieces of houses and furnishings--even boats thrown far inland on the hurricane winds.
Rivergate was open--was, as a matter of fact, gone altogether. Only the stone arch that had weathered many a storm stood gaping a welcome to the weary travelers.
Sergi had never been in this part of Norlea before, but no Sime city was ever so quiet, even in the hours after midnight. Simes normally slept only part of the night--but in the last two days the people of Norlea had spent their strength against the storm. Probably no one had slept last night. Sergi and Risa rode through a silent city.
Jagged mounds of collapsed buildings added to the effect. Risa urged her horse to a faster pace. Sergi knew she feared to find her own home a pile of rubble.
Not all the buildings had fallen. They rode through a narrow passage between solid walls, echoing the muddy plopping of their horses' hooves. As they came out, there was a rustle and skitter. Something fled at their approach.
"Looters!" Risa exclaimed in a sharp whisper, and kicked her horse into a trot.
Her goal seemed to be a building farther up the street, where shadowy figures were stealthily moving objects Sergi could not make out from the porch to a cart.
Before he could even think to stop her, Risa kicked her horse viciously and rode straight at the looters, shouting, "Stop, thief! Off my property you shedoni-doomed lorshes!"
She was unarmed, galloping into the midst of a swarm of Sime looters, kicking at them as she slid off her horse and sprang to the porch. "Get out of here, you scum!" she threatened, picking up an ax and clanging the head loudly against more loot they had piled up.
Two of the thieves took off at the noise, but the others quickly saw they were five against one small girl. They rushed Risa, who disappeared in a tangle of bodies.
Sergi forced his horse to a gallop, hoping to pick Risa out of the heap and go for help--but he could not even see her in the mass of writhing Simes. He saw the glint of a dagger--and without another thought dove into the fray.
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