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The Caravan

Ten days later Brand drove two wagons full of barrels and sundry bales of goods into Hassan's, in town. Hassan came out to look them over, and there ensued a lengthy and highly audible hour of bickering and bargaining, where every item on the wagons (or so it seemed) was lifted, examined, and haggled over. A small pile was placed to one side, obviously rejected. A much larger pile was left on the wagons. More talking, and gradually the small pile rejoined the larger one and the doors to Hassan's large warehouse were pulled open, while Hassan and Brand went inside to conclude their bargain.

Presently Brand emerged, with an unmistakable bulge at his hip that caused every footpad and purse-cutter in the square to visibly salivate. To their great dismay, though, he turned away from the long and dangerous road home and walked with a couple of Hassan's guards (fingering their swords as they looked deep into the eyes of those selfsame thugs in passing) straight over to Willek's new bank. When Brand emerged from its doors the bulge was gone, and with it the hopes and dreams of many a cutthroat.

Two days after that, two caravans left the warehouse and were stopped almost immediately and searched by a bored company of the prince's own guard, accompanied by a stranger whose cowled robe was pulled up so that his face was all but invisible but whose eyes missed nothing. No contraband as found, but each member of the caravan party passed before the stranger and was duly noted. Each individual had a drop of blood drawn from each of them by a strange device in the hands of a nervous acolyte of the dark man, but nothing was found and they were waved on.

Once through the gate the two caravans paused to repack all of their goods and reorganize, with all the people and mules and camels milling around together beneath the trees. Eventually they disentangled. They travelled together to the crossroads at Brand's tavern, where the caravan masters, some of the guards, and the beautiful wenches who were brought along for ``entertainment on the road'' went in to have a bite and one last drink - or perhaps two -before tackling the dusty trail.

Inside the tavern, however, something in the food or drink must have disagreed with one of the guards and one of the women from the caravan heading south. They became violently sick and were carried upstairs, to the general amusement of the tavern crowd, who attributed it to shock from loss of blood, too much drink, or perhaps the delayed action of some poison administered to them all as the bizarre ritual they had to endure at the town gates of course dominated the conversation. An hour or so later, though, just as both caravans were getting ready to leave, the two came down somewhat recovered, pale and sweaty and somewhat doubled over with residual cramps but assuring people that they were still able to travel. On the way out there was the usual confusion before the parties settled out and went their respective ways, one to the south, the other to the north.

All of these events - and many more, equally confusing ones, for the guards were constantly coming in and being sent out with messages to the waiting merchants, the women were constantly going into the kitchen or out to the privy, and overeager couples kept pairing off and renting a room upstairs for fifteen quick minutes of last-minute bliss throughout the meal - were duly reported by one of the tavern's most regular customers to a bravo, who reported it a greatly abridged and far less confusing version of it in due turn to a grey-faced man in a dark, cowled robe. Not being given to trust their own spies, unmanned drones flew invisibly high above the two caravans as they went their way down their respective roads watching and recording everything that happened in an area of perhaps twenty-five square kilometers around each one. Any animal larger than a dog that entered that zone was duly noted and scanned, and a self-aware computer that never slept used a tiny bit of its associative awareness to track each and every person to ensure that they matched the appearance recorded by the videocamera concealed beneath the cowl of the master that had checked the caravans on departure at the same time their DNA was sampled, at least within acceptable tolerances (for individuals never precisely match their appearance of even one day before).

All totally above board, as anybody could see, even if that anybody was literally watching over your shoulder (as indeed they were). The caravan personnel were accounted for. There was absolutely no way any human could be packed into the luggage and not have starved, died of thirst, been poisoned by their own excrement, and literally cooked under the heat of the merciless sun during the hotter parts of the day. And in any event, their infrared signature would also have been clearly visible against the coldness of the nights, and of course this was checked and rechecked. No, each caravan had just the right number of people, and every one of those people had a history back in Sind-a-Lay and corresponded to the photographic list assembled at the time of departure, and none of them were the targets being sought.

Upstairs in one of Brand's rooms, where the satellites could not see and the bugs planted downstairs could not hear, two very befuddled people, one a guard and one a travelling prostitute, were being enthusiastically cared for in ways they ordinarily had to pay for, with free food and drink and a warm body to share a bed with on demand. They felt strangely lethargic, though, whenever they tried to stand - a mix of opiates and certain alkaloids will do that to you, I'm told. For two full days this miracle of dream-like delight continued, until Brand came in to see them one morning and in spite of their hangovers from what amounted to a two-day binge they were pronounced well.

The one who had been a guard in a caravan two days earlier (whose hair color had been subtly altered with a dye while he slept, although he lacked a mirror and didn't know it until weeks later when he saw it reflected while crossing a stream) had a small bag of silver pressed into his hands as he came down the stairs as Brand begged him not to tell anyone that the tavern food had made him sick. By great good fortune, while he was eating a light lunch (on the house) and wondering what to do with himself since his job had left him behind, another small caravan passed through Brand's on its way elsewhere, and recruited him on the spot. He was still checked out by satellite, but travelling alone (the caravan had no women along at all) and with hair the wrong color, he was quickly rejected and subsequently ignored by a search algorithm that wasn't subtle enough to detect truly deceitful patterns.

The woman, on the other hand, discovered that the pleasures and profits associated with being a tavern wench in one of the largest and most prestigious taverns in the world outweighed the uncertainties of the road and decided to stay at Brand's as a new employee and entrepreneur, especially when Brand himself pressed a small bag of silver upon her as an advance on her wages. Her hair color was changed as well at his insistence ``to give the customers a choice'', but the biggest change made in her appearance came merely from changing her clothes. She entered wearing a diaphanous wisp of harem-girl nothingness that more or less guaranteed that no man who looked at her would notice much about her face, but she joined the working girls in the tavern wearing the same homespun clothes worn by the rest of the peasant girls that worked there as well that concealed a lot more than they revealed.

Two days later she was joshing with the regular customers as though she'd been there forever, and although her appearance was duly noted by those who watched and her DNA rather more crudely and enjoyably sampled by a spy in exchange for a silver piece, she wasn't one of the ones they sought and she was marked out of the search algorithm altogether.

The spy planted within the southbound caravan was directed to recheck the identity of a certain guard who carried two swords and who favored the company of a beautiful woman at least at the beginning of the trek, triggering an alarm . However, their pictures did match up with the catalog of photographs collected when the caravans were leaving the city, and their DNA (carefully and surreptitiously obtained a second time) was without a doubt not that of the fugitives being sought so they, were left unmolested and were subsequently ignored. It wasn't noticed that the two in question had been in the northbound caravan when were being checked back in town - how could it have been? The two caravans were all mixed together before, during, and after and only completely sorted themselves out at Brand's tavern, at which point the watching computer sorted out the list of photographs and DNA samples to match.

The northbound caravan also had a spy in it, of course - one that was added to the caravan at the last minute in the disguise of a trader He was instructed to watch the caravan master (who was known to be an angel for another god who might be aiding the fugitives) and to be particularly alert for people joining the caravan or taking the places of those who were already there. He did his best, but with all the confusion associated with their departure he too wasn't quite sure who was with his caravan and who was with the other one until it all sorted itself out at The Grinning Shark. Nor had he had much time to memorize faces, since he was (naturally) added on at the very end of the march at the last minute where all that he could see of those in front of him were their backs. When one of the guards who went into Brand's tavern came out again looking quite ill, with a grey and strained face, he joined in the good natured ribbing about being unable to hold his liquor and thought nothing of it, any more than he thought about the two who'd managed to drink themselves drunk and had to be slung over their mounts and tied on, or the ones who came out half-dressed and grinning.

He also carefully looked over the harem girls as they came out with the caravan master (a much more pleasant duty, actually). He did scrutinize the one that came out of the tavern bent over and holding her belly, apparently sick, but his goal was more to feast his eyes on her magnificent breasts that were all but springing free from their skimpy covering than to look at her face, which was bent to the ground anyway. When the guard assigned to the girls noticed his intent gaze and divined its object, a growl accompanied by the drawing of several inches of naked sword convinced him that it was time to turn his attention elsewhere.

So no alarms were raised, no red flags waved. A brighter mind might have been suspicious of the sudden bout of ``food poisoning'', but the caravan spy was quite low grade as there was no reason to think that the targets were anywhere near Sind-a-Lay, and the spy inside the tavern had been seen two bodies go up, sick, and come back down again, still sick, wearing the same clothes, just as he'd seen a half-dozen other couples do who weren't sick and sometimes came down so rumpled and flushed as to be nearly unrecognizable, half out of their clothes. Neither knew of the other's existence, and their separate observations were never communicated to each other.

Besides, computer projections showed that it was most likely that the fugitives had exited or were trying to exit Mirath altogether through the unmapped gate that was likely hidden somewhere in the mountains to the south. The other possibility was that they were still attempting to exit making their way over land or sea to a mapped gate. It was against these two scenarios that the dark brotherhood directed their efforts, filling the skies above the hills surrounding Sind-a-Lay with satellites and high-flying drone jets containing hundreds of electronic eyes looking for anomalies there, backed by armed groups of mercenaries (each accompanied by a dark, cowled master) never more than a few minutes from any possible nearby gate location. The mapped gates were relatively easy to seal - the skies above them were never empty of invisibly high seeker-killer drones, the forests and plains around them were filled with a cordon of detectors and computer-directed death.

This activity alerted the angels and demons of the other DEMigods present on Mirath that something was amiss, that some sort of gambit was being played in the multiversal chess game and advantage might be one for the opportune, and as they reported home (at some personal risk) forces began to appear in the deep space far beyond Mirath, too far away to trigger the lethal response of the dark brotherhood's orbital defenses but at hand to seize on any opportunity that presented itself. In a few cases proximity generated little mini-wars that flashed briefly in the dark until one side or the other withdrew to a less contested position.

The northbound caravan, on the other hand, would eventually end up passing close to the dark monastery itself, the last place in the multiverse where anybody would want to show up. Especially now, when it was at full alert. All weapons systems (kept in a ready state at all times anyway) were now fully armed and could be operational in a matter of seconds once an attack was detected. After all, their operation was protected not only by orbital forts and mobile forces, but by the small moon, which for all practical purposes one enormous, fully automated fortress directed personally by the DEMigod itself, capable of deflecting or eliminating any conceivable space-based attack while carrying out such attacks on ground forces that might come through a gate with complete impunity. If fugitives did make it out through an unmapped gate alive with information on the location of the core of the DEMigod's multiversal physical self in hand, the probability of an attack was quite high, but (and here the nastiest of the grey-skinned men gave a nasty grin as they thought of it) the attackers, be they ``friend'' or ``foe'', would get a nasty, nasty surprise if they tried anything.

With that same northbound caravan travelled Hassan, a familiar figure to the masters, accompanied by his personal household slaves, male and female, and of course his bodyguards, one of whom was tall and fair-haired and armed with one sword. Several of the beasts of burden carried delicate and obviously breakable merchandise that had somehow replaced identical-seeming wares during all of the milling about beneath the trees near the Shark - crockery and glass wares strapped to the outside and packed up in bundles, shepherded by drivers who were obviously threatened with dismemberment if so much as a single jug or mug were broken. No joke - breaking some of those jugs would have wiped out the entire caravan in a most unpleasant way.

It was hardly surprising when the spy in the northern caravan was stung by a scorpion one morning when he put on his shoes - such things happened all the time on Mirath, where life, especially for a caravaneer, was often tragically short. Although the caravan's leech was immediately summoned and performed heroically, bleeding the victim mercilessly and forcing various concoctions down the spy's swollen throat, it was to no avail, and when the caravan stopped for the next night's rest his already stiffening body was discovered in the palette that had been slung between two donkeys in plain sight from the sky. The body was summarily cremated (firewood still being reasonably abundant along their trail) along with the most intimate possessions of the man, which happened to include the listening devices that were stashed in among them.

No more was it surprising when a couple of nights later Hassan summoned one of his most beautiful slaves to wait on him in his personal tent, on a night that his bodyguard just happened to be the tall, fair haired guy. Who obviously just happened to be Sharra on the one hand, and me on the other, telling a bit of third-person god-like overview of the beginning our little scheme and what we guessed or discovered the other side was doing after it was all over.

Not that it would be easy to tell it was me, short of DNA testing. My face was altered by a beard where before I was clean shaven, longish hair where before I generally went crew-cut simply to disguise my incipient baldness, dark eyebrows and lashes where before they were fair, and a distinctly swarthy skin - the latter all cosmetic but nearly permanent. I was also nearly unscarred where before the Brin affair I was well known to be a mass of scars. I now went about with a light mail vest laced onto my chest and a sort of kilt-y thing around my waist; my lizardskin boots and gauntlets persisted (they were common enough anyway, though expensive) but were now dressed with pointless fur trimmings.

With the beard, I looked at last like a real barbarian warrior. Conan would have been so proud. Sniff.

Sharra was playing the barbarian slave girl to the hilt as well. On the road, women did not dress in filmy nothings they began the trek in (at least during the day) lest they add sex to the already irresistible temptations of wealth that drew thieves like flies to harass our flanks and try to pick off stragglers. At night, though, with outrider guards posted and pickets everywhere, they waited on and danced for the caravan VIPs dressed in precisely the outfit your imagination would like to fill in for them and then slowly strip away.

Right now she looked naked-plus in her negligeé-style diaphanous excuse for clothing that clearly showed her hennaed on ``slave tattoo'' - on a different shoulder - that we had forged onto her in place of the one that had disappeared completely with her scars during her immortality treatment. Totally demure and defenseless, and at the same time somehow highly desirable, I knew for a fact that she had an almost invisible tempered glass blade (with an index of refraction that was amazingly close to that of air) that would cut your throat to the spine with about the same amount of force that an ordinary knife cuts a loaf of soft bread concealed somewhere about her person. Damned if I could find it, though, although I certainly spent a certain amount of time while standing there in the harmless fun of looking.

Hassan also appeared to be doing his best to ``spot-the-knife'' with his roaming eyes while sipping a cup of fine coffee. He motioned me to sit and indicated to Sharra that she should serve me as well. It is a measure of his politeness and breeding when his left eyebrow only lifted by a hair when she went ahead and served herself a cup and seated herself at my side without being invited. Who knows, maybe he found the knife and knew better than to tempt my lovely damsel by carrying our charade too far.

Lest it seem that we were being too cavalier or careless, I should explain. The tent was surrounded on all sides by Hassan's personal bodyguard. These were all individuals who were bound to him by blood and something more - they were de facto incorruptible, strange as that may seem. They were armed according to the period on the surface, but each had ``resources'' they could draw on in a time of need as well. The tent was continually being swept for listening devices, and it was really a tent-within-a-tent - the outside of the inner tent was covered by a web of tiny speakers that simultaneously cancelled out any sound uttered inside it and replaced that sound with a fully directionally consistent holographic sound ``image'' of Hassan being served by a compliant slave girl while a trusted bodyguard stood watch with bared blade, as was Hassan's custom, whenever it was switched on.

We had no doubt that we were being watched from overhead and overheard in full stereo by robot units carrying parabolic microphones in the surrounding countryside, but they heard only what they wanted them to hear - we had merely to make the little that they could see via infrared filtering through the double blanket tents consistent by being there and occasionally moving around.

One thing that Sharra's little toy knew (and that I had half-guessed myself) is that Hassan was a citizen of the multiverse. Not just any wind-walker, but one of the lesser immortals (like Sharra herself) - an angel. He swore allegiance to a different god, of course - in fact, to him Sharra was in some sense a consort of the Devil Himself, but for all of that (in the rather Byzantine politics of the age) his god and Sharra's were not in active conflict, and by the relaxed rules of the game that meant that they could either ignore one another as long as their activities didn't conflict with each other's essential interests or, if they chose, even cooperate when it was in their obvious mutual interest to do so.

This was exactly what they were now doing. Ordinarily, Hassan simply ignored Brin, and was ignored (except for the inevitable shakedown for protection money which even Hassan dared not resist) as their ``houses'' were not in open conflict. Hassan's was, in fact, openly neutral in nearly all conflicts. Hassan had been unable to discover the location and nature of the monastery, largely because he had been effectively pinned by Brin and Brin's agents, who in fact were there primarily for that very purpose, and partly because if he attempted to do so openly or covertly, he risked becoming a participant in the conflict and summarily eliminated.

However, his house did oppose Brin's philosophically and when Sharra turned up on his doorstep (metaphorically speaking) with one of the most valuable secrets in the world in her head, he did the only thing he could do. First of all he arranged for the transfer of the information back to his and - eventually - Sharra's principals - both DEMigods and associated gods. Should we fail, of course, with the clear understanding that upon success he and Sharra would pray to their respective deities and request that they share the spoils and form an alliance of sorts, and then do their best to kill each another should those inscrutable beings decide otherwise. To me this was pretty crazy, but what could I do?

Then he ran the plan through his electronic resources, which verified the prediction that the two of us had a finite chance of taking out the entire site. Something like one out of a hundred, I believe. By bringing his own resources to bear and working together we more than doubled our chances of success to one in forty-something, which he deemed worth the risk of his own avatar and position on Mirath to take. We therefore had his full support, without reservations, and powerful ally he proved to be.

I myself didn't care what the bookmakers said - I planned to make things work at the other end. I just didn't know how yet.

Tonight we were reviewing our general plans, as we were getting close to where the fun would begin. Hassan was taking the biggest risk at the moment - with the dark-cowled ones on alert he would be marked for an ugly and immediate extinction if the caravan took a right hand turn at a certain crossroads not far ahead, and it was not at all unlikely that they would wipe out the rest of the caravan (and a good bit of the surrounding countryside) with it. However the road we were on just now was one that his caravans, and he himself, travelled all the time, and he was confident that the very fact that he was making no effort to hide his activities and was totally exposed to their watching eyes would allay their suspicions.

The problem we faced now was how to get at least me, a pack train of goods, and the weapons buried in among the goods inside their defensive perimeter. The slave trader idea I had first advanced was a good one, but Hassan did not traffic in slaves except for his own use or as a ``special order item'' for a favored client, and even there he only favored clients who were humane, as was he - his ``slaves'' treated no differently from his other paid servants, and he was known for freeing any who asked for their freedom after a few years of service (few did). There were a few personal slaves travelling with their owners in the caravan, and some of them might well be for sale at the end of it, but there weren't any lines of chained humans being whipped along like horses to market as Hassan would not tolerate it.

For a time we just sat, sipping our coffee. Sharra left my side and went over to rub Hassan's shoulders. They couldn't hear us, but they could certainly see us, in a manner of speaking, even through the tent fabric. It wouldn't do for the warmer infrared glow that signified ``woman'' to sit around with the men as an equal, at least for very long. In the same character, I shifted my seat back towards the entrance and turned my back on them. It might all be a pointless charade - the eyes in the sky had a lot of ground to cover - but we were too close to them to commit any suspicious act, especially when we were presumably all innocent and alone and unobserved. Every single step up to the final one where I blew them all to shit had to be obviously motivated and above suspicion.

Hassan began in his usual diffident way. I was coming to like him a great deal and was trying to figure out whether he would oppose my little non-deity-associated cabal, remain neutral, or actively pitch in and help, assuming we lived through the week. He hadn't done anything overt against the little things I'd done so far, and even went so far as to start a bank of his own in competition with ours. If he worshipped anything outside of his particular god it was trade.

``I've been giving your little problem a great deal of thought, Sam Foster,'' he began.

``Ewanos please. There is no - who you said - here. He is on another plane of existence altogether,'' I corrected gently, as I moved from side to side as Ewanos might, hearing sounds from behind my carefully turned back. A quick glance showed me that Sharra had stretched out and laid her head in Hassan's lap, where he was calmly feeding her grapes.

``Ewanos,'' he continued. ``Yes. The problem, simply stated is that I cannot take the whole caravan down the road to the right. For one thing, I never have done so. For another, if I did I would die, perhaps we all would die, before we went many miles. Yet you, and perhaps - Salweena - must go down the right fork with a caravan. A caravan that will not only be tolerated but welcomed, and you welcomed along with it. Is this not correct?''

``Absolutely. I personally would much prefer it if `Salweena' stayed here with you, but our odds are clearly better with the two of us both playing and you not so close as to arouse suspicion, but close enough to render aid, especially when we are trying to escape after the fact,'' I affirmed.

``My scouts report that there is another caravan five days beyond the crossroads; one that does not usually come through Sind-a-Lay. This suggests that it is one that will turn down the other road. A natural thing to attempt to arrange is for you to join, or take over, that second caravan. What remains is for us to determine just how to make either one a perfectly natural progression of events we could not possibly have foreseen and hence planned.''

``Here is what I would suggest. In a short while, Salweena and I will appear to an overhead eye to do that which would ordinarily be done. However, I am an old man, and will be too quick and will then roll off and fall asleep. You will step out of the inner tent while this is going on, as well you might and indeed you have on other nights with other women.''

``Salweena will be left in a restless state. After tossing and turning and trying unsuccessfully to rouse me, she will rise and will go out to you. There she will - apparently at least - cause you to bring her to satisfaction, quietly, before stealing back to my side.''

``Tomorrow and tomorrow it will be the same, except that instead of stealing a quick moment of relief she will linger more, and still more. So much so that on the third night (which should be just past the crossroads) I will awake, and rising to go pass my water, shall discover the two of you hard at work.''

``That which follows must follow. I shall cry out, you shall attempt to explain, Salweena will attempt to flee, but you both will be captured and chained together in humiliation. In the morning you both will be branded, just in time for our encounter with the other caravan.''

``I shall have the caravan master in for coffee. He will see our riches and lust for them, but he will see our strength and fear to take them for himself. However, I will then explain in a very indirect way my little problem. I will ask him if he is at all interested in purchasing Salweena, and in either purchasing you Ewanos, or hiring you as a guard, brand and all. In the course of things, I will ask after his destinations and expected business and become intrigued. I will then permit greed to overcome me and do an incredibly stupid thing. I will offer to send a part of my train with him, if he can only guarantee their safety. I will offer him a quarter of all profits from its sale.''

``Naturally he will understand that only his honest nature will prevent him from claiming that the caravan was beset by thieves and my goods taken, and then selling them all for his own profit, and will drink a full cup of coffee14.1 while appearing to consider it lest he appear overeager in his acceptance. I will select out just the right train of goods, and will send a few men along to appear to guard it and a trusted lieutenant to manage the sale and bookkeeping.''

``It is then difficult to see exactly what course you should take. Perhaps you should ally yourself with the caravan leader and plot to steal my goods. Perhaps you should behave like a slave until conflict has begun (as it will, it will) and then be a hero so that I can promote you to leader of this second caravan to continue along its old route while I myself take the rest along our usual one. I myself will continue down the road and appear to have second thoughts and repent me of the small contingent of guards I sent along. I will assemble and dispatch a second contingent at all haste back to join you. They will reach you just about at the time and place I expect the caravan master to act to kill my guards and seize my goods, from what Salweena has told me of the route - a place that might have been designed for such a betrayal, a canyon easily blocked at both ends from which there is no escape so no one can escape to tell the tale.''

``With their help perhaps - perhaps - you can capture the other caravan. It is important that you spare some of its caravaneers so that they can guide you on to the monastery, as no one of our group can have any idea where and how to turn off into the pass to the crater. At that point, if you have survived unmaimed (for you will have to do a great deal of fighting, and can use nothing but your steel and your wits to prevail), you are on your own. With good fortune you will have some of the tools you might need, but must count on finding others there at hand, for it is a mighty fortress that you wish to destroy and it will not be guarded lightly, for all that they may be careless in their security.''

``I can give you a single gift. The grey people do not speak among themselves in the same language we are using now. Nor do they use this Ang-lish that is your native language. For us,'' he carelessly indicated Sharra and himself, ``this is of no matter, as we possess universal translators for a near infinity of human linguistic forms and database cross-references to whole dictionaries from many of the dominant ones, ones from important worlds or worlds with important gates on them. For you, however, it is a great disadvantage. I have spoken to Salweena on this matter, and it is decided.''

What is decided, I asked myself, as he appeared to stop right there. I assumed that they had decided to give me a universal translator - Hassan was bound to have spares and extras for their utility as trade facilitators if nothing else. From behind me I began to hear funny noises. A quick glance told me that it was time to be elsewhere. I didn't own Sharra, and didn't expect her to be either celibate or faithful. She was too old for all of that, for all that she looked about twenty. I'd been there, done that, myself. Still, I didn't have any particular desire to watch her make love to Hassan, even ``badly'' as was apparently his plan.

I stepped into the darkened outer part of the tent and began pacing back and forth, while sundry noises from the inside suggested that they were doing a hell of a job of acting in there. In a remarkably short time, after all, there was a gruff sigh and a bit of a pouting moan, and I heard a heavy body rolling across the cushions and furs, then silence.

I waited for a time, knowing what was scripted but still not really knowing what to expect. From time to time stealthy movements from inside convinced me that they hadn't gone to sleep.

Suddenly she was there in the darkness, naked. She stepped up to be and literally wrapped herself around me, sword and all, and thrust her tongue into my mouth. One of her hands hooked around my neck and the other snaked down between us and somehow managed to lift up my kilt. She lifted herself up on my thighs and suddenly, somehow, I was inside of her and we were bucking like crazy in the darkness.

I got my hands on her buttocks to control the tempo a bit and arched my back as far as I could to keep her weight on a vertical column down my legs. Suddenly she leaned back and her free hand came into her mouth as she stifled a moan of pleasure; I could feel her pulsing tight around me. This was just too much, and I let loose a flood of my own deep inside her. She suddenly leaned forward and wrapped herself around me tightly (almost knocking me over backwards in the process). Her hot breath tickled my ear as she hugged me, our bodies throbbing together as one in the afterglow of good sex, and I heard, or thought I heard, the merest suggestion of a whisper of ``I love you.''

She didn't so much disengage as just slide down me until her feet reached the floor. One final squeeze and she was gone, a feeling of heat in the darkness that slid back inside the flaps to the still lamplight within.

I rearranged my kilt so I was decent, checked my sword, and then just stood there, for hours, until I was relieved at three or four in the morning, thinking, breathing, feeling.

I just hoped that whoever was up there looking down on us mere immortals liked the show. It sure had me convinced.

And it was so.

The only odd thing I recall is that first night, when I went back to the tent the guard captain gave me a mug of wine to help me kick off to sleep; not an uncommon practice. However, the next morning I had a hell of a hangover, which was not a common practice for me, at least not from a single glass of wine. I also had a hell of a double toothache - my gums back around my wisdom teeth felt almost like they were infected or something, which was most unlikely given that all the teeth were brand new and perfect. Too perfect, if anything, for this day and age - I needed to try to stain them with something. Coffee would have been just perfect, damn it.

The following two nights were repetitions of the first, except that we lay down on the ground the second night, and the third I had the foresight to wear a fur lined cloak and she the wisdom to snarf a couple of pillows from the main chamber on her way out. This time, following the script just perfectly, we came more or less together and ``couldn't'' completely stifle a moan or two of pleasure.

There was a rustling of cloth, and Hassan was there in an old robe, winking at me even as he called querulously for the guards. Sharra and I were still, um, ``engaged'' at the time and only broke apart, our flagrante all delecto and everything, as the guards burst in through the front flap. Busted, like the doo-dah man.

The chaining together part wasn't so bad. Sharra was still naked, and was pretty easy to look at in that state. I was tucked back under my kilt, as I wisely hadn't undressed. I was still naked, though, as my sword was gone. That left me with only three weapons left on my person, as they hadn't really searched me and I'm a sneaky guy.

The branding part, however, definitely left something to be desired. They'd brought us drugged wine to help with the pain, which I declined as I was going to need my wits about me. `Salweena' accepted, in character. I was really, really sorry I'd declined a very short time after the red hot metal pressed into the skin of my shoulder. The brander looked me in the eye as he did it, willing me to understand that he was in on the plot from Hassan's side and nothing personal. He did as good a job as could be expected, but even a kinder and gentler brand applied by your best friend in the multiverse burns like hell, I assure you. I just stood there and cursed like a sailor in three languages, tears of rage dripping from my eyes, while waiting for the fire in my shoulder to cool.

Which it did, several days later, to a mere dull ache that only burned if one actually touched the rapidly healing flesh. Our enhanced healing might have been problematic, but Hassan had rubbed the raw, deliberately extra-deep third-degree burns with something that apparently blocked the healing process and encouraged the formation of a ``scar'' of sorts that would last a few months before those busy little telomeric viruses and stem-cell-shifters managed to cope. I actually passed out from the pain of this, which was somehow worse than the touch of the burning metal itself. Sharra took it more bravely than I - her squealing was purely histrionics - but then, her little inner gizmo and some serious mental training gave her a hell of a volitional nerve block. All I could do, once it was over, was drink off my pain, and all I had to drink at first was - water.

Our timing was just about perfect. I was still standing in front of the fire, with a brand new brand (sorry) burned deeply into my right rear shoulder (right over the shoulder blade) when the outriders of the other caravan rode up. Sharra was swooned in the dust at my feet (where else could she be, given the chains) when the caravan master arrived to be greeted by Hassan and swept into the main tent.

A short while later Hassan and Targon, the other caravan master, came out to look us over. There was much gesticulating in our general direction, with Hassan all but pulling on his beard with frustration and anger. Then Hassan took Targon on a whirlwind tour of the encampment, being careful to pass by all the wagons filled with goods, the loaded packbeasts, the mean-eyed guards with their bows and crena-class pikes and swords.

The next day found me plodding down the road in Targon's caravan, chained to a donkey. The fact that an extra key to my chains, and my real swords (the one I had been carrying was bronze, strictly of local manufacture), and various other important little personal items where all on that selfsame donkey didn't make it any easier on my feet or my pride. Salweena/Sharra was nowhere to be seen - there were two covered wagons that contained the more delectable slaves, male and female. At least I wasn't added to the primary chain of human misery, at least a hundred strong. There were six guards from Hassan's caravan disposed around the eight wagons he'd sent off with us, as well as one of the younger, tougher looking merchants who worked for Hassan to act as his agent.

This tiny force had to stand against the twenty guards and three overseers of Targon's force, plus Targon himself. Not terribly great odds.

I was trying to decide whether or not to try to ingratiate myself with Targon and go that route or to prepare to be a hero, when events decided themselves (as they so often do). The caravan had halted for a short meal and a potty break mid afternoon. Potty breaks for a slave procession is something of a ritual - the whole line has to move together off the road a few paces, squat or stand as the operation requires, and do their business. No toilet paper, no water, no toilets - no wonder they all stunk, in spite of the fact that most of them obviously did their best to remain clean. Still, some of them were sick with diarrhea and a fever, including some of the few children in the line. One in particular, a young boy, had some sort of cramps and just couldn't quit when it was time to move on. The other slaves tried to pull him to his feet, a clear sort of mucus still running down his thighs and tears running down his cheeks, but he couldn't unbend enough to stand.

Targon rode up to see what the holdup was. When he arrived he didn't hesitate. His sword flew out and before I could even move, let alone cry out it whistled down. The young boy's head rolled on a few feet in the dust while his body, finally freed of the sickness and pain, relaxed in death as it could not in life. Targon motioned the overseers to come up and remove the body from its chains and relink the boy's two neighbors together in line, shortening the chain. Three minutes later we were walking on down the road, each of us passing in turn a silent, still twitching body lying in a pile of its own waste, its abandoned head lying face down in a small puddle, left to rot, to feed the vultures, to turn into dust and blow away, until not even the bones would be a kind of memory that the boy had ever lived.

Did somebody love him, once? Did he have a mother, a father, that would have wept to see him thus used? Perhaps it was a blessing, I tried to tell myself (as I struggled plenty with the needs of my own bowels, which were not so carefully regulated as to easily adjust to the strict needs of the caravan) - better to die quickly by the sword than slowly of dysentery, covered in your own filth.

This I did not know. I knew only one thing. Targon was a dead man walking, and if I had anything at all to say about it, he would die very, very slowly and alone.

It required every bit of my willpower to keep from rushing to the packs on the back of the donkey to free myself and tackle him then and there, but not even I can tackle twenty four strong and violent men by myself, at least not in an open battle where they are armed with bows and pikes and myself just with swords. Instead I contented myself with imagining just how he would die, how they all would die, and kicking myself for even thinking that I might be able to pretend to be one of them, a slaver and a traitor, even to betray them in the end.

Targon killed two more slaves, just about exactly the same way and for much the same reason, as we trudged down the long road that wound ever nearer a range of mountains thrust up from the rolling hills we walked through, killing several crena and fighting off a pack of crenali as we went until we reached the steep and pebble-strewn paths that they avoided in the foothills proper. Then we came upon the killing field, the place that Hassan had picked as likely for betrayal.

The place at first glance was idyllic. It began as a wash cut into the soft earth that quickly sank to become a ravine with walls some thirty or forty feet high, and then opened out to a small spring-fed lake. Sharra had passed through this spot and remembered it well because they permitted her (and the other slaves) to rest and bathe.

So it was this time. The line of slaves was led to the far side of the lake where a small streamway emptied it at the same rate that the springs filled it on the other side. There, where their foulness wouldn't foul the lake, the slaves were given slabs of sandy soap and some clean rags and told to clean themselves, which they did with great enthusiasm. Then new, clean one piece cotton robes were brought out in a great trunk and each slave was given one and a clean loincloth to replace whatever filthy rag had survived the trip to this point. The old clothes where stacked with wood and burned to keep down the possibility of plague.

I was taken to bathe separately, and was not ill-treated. I think that Targon did feel like he could recruit me, as I looked pretty disreputable with my unkempt hair and angry-looking brand scabbing and oozing on my shoulder. I noticed that Hassan's guards were looking at the water with a certain amount of longing that I sincerely hoped was feigned, since they'd all been told of this place and what to expect here.

When I was safely rechained to my donkey, and had gradually edged forward so that I was leaning (as if tired) on its pack, I could see matters coming to a head. First one of Targon's overseers came forward with a small keg of wine, which he proffered to the guards with a smile, telling them that we would rest here tonight and they could all relax. This they accepted gratefully. They quickly pitched their tent and got a small fire going. One of them picked up the keg and took it into the tent, returning a minute later with the keg now open, pouring a healthy mug full into everybody's ceramic drinking mugs.

My fingers had already retrieved the keys and unlocked my chains, although I wedged the hasp in approximately the right position with a small piece of cloth. I'd also worked loose a bundle of what felt like two long straight pieces of metal that I really hoped were my swords.

I looked back at the camp of Hassan's guards, and was unsurprised to see them swaying and starting to fall over one at a time. The ones that hadn't passed out were swaying back and forth, obviously stunned, not even noticing that their companions had fallen. I whistled at one of the overseers who appeared to be waiting behind a nearby tree.

``Hey, what gives?'' I asked when he walked on over. ``Are they all dead or something?''

``No, they're just sleeping,'' replied the overseer. ``Good slaves are worth money. In an hour or so they'll have a brands just like your own and will join you on that chain.''

``This chain?'' I asked, holding up the offending chunks of metal. ``I don't think so. It's broken.''

``Broken? Let me see.'' The overseer sauntered on over, stopping a few feet away, just outside the obvious range of my bare-handed reach. Sure they might recruit me, might not. In the meantime, he was taking no chances.

Just outside of my bare-handed reach was close enough. I held out one hand and from it my chains fell onto the ground in front of him while I casually dropped the other hand to a flap of cloth in the bundle on the donkey. He took a half-step forward and bent over a bit, wide-eyed, not quite believing what he was seeing. Without any visible sign of haste, I delicately and smoothly flicked Julie into his left eyeball, through the thin little bone wall at the rear, and gave him a wee bit of a lobotomy with a twist of my wrist, taking care to cut back into the rest of his brain as well. All that practice with Tara paid off.

He dropped like a stone at my feet, and I quickly arranged his head so that the blood and eye goop from the socket drained harmlessly into the sand, concealing Julie where I could reach her again quickly. Two minutes later I'd discretely pulled the body into the woods and stolen his outer robe, which had only a small bit of blood on it as I'd been careful removing it. I slipped it over my head, gritting my teeth at the smell of stale sweat as my head passed through. Three minutes later it was Ewanos who was the overseer - and a certain slave who didn't particularly resemble Sam Foster had simply disappeared.

I looked carefully over at the pile of Hassan's ``sleeping'' guards. Sure enough, chests were rising and falling, and I had a distinct feeling that I was being watched through several pairs of half lidded eyes from the pile. At least, I hoped so...

I sauntered over toward them in plain view of the camp and began to somewhat officiously poke at them with my boot. At the same time, in conversational tones, I said to the air, ``In a minute or two I expect a small group of guards to come over to brand everybody. If there are only one or two, let me take care of them. Otherwise wait until they are close enough to smell, and join in only when I attack their rear and draw their eyes to me.''

A couple of the sleeping guards gave a noise in their sleep somewhere between a laugh and a grunt. I assumed that they were having pleasant dreams.

Sure enough, in about five more minutes a group of two guards and another bored overseer came over my way. I made my way over to the body of the overseer I had slain where it lay in the bushes and pretended to pee in that general direction until I could hear that the guards had nearly reached the camp and its sleeping men. I then gave off a gruff oath (hoping that one voice in that state sounded much like another) and bent over and started to pull the body back out into view.

A voice behind me asked what was the matter and I heard two feet running up to where I bent over the half-hidden corpse. I'd drawn my saber, as it looked the most like a local sword, and was holding it so that my body was between it and the approaching feet.

When the feet got right behind me, close enough that the robe (even with the lice-infested hood pulled up) was no longer a sound disguise, I smoothly wheeled and sliced neatly across the undefended throat that was presented. Scratch a second overseer.

I was already moving past the blood-spewing body at a run even before it hit the ground. The whole event was so quick and so silent that the two guards were standing there still trying to figure out just what had happened and who had killed who as I rapidly closed the gap between us. As I ran I unsheathed Julie so I was armed in both hands.

I was swinging just as the first of them managed to give the beginning of a weak cry, which turned into a gurgle. The second, however, had time to jump back out of my reach and then screamed as a sword penetrated his back in the hands of one of the rising guards, no longer asleep.

Oh, well, four down and nobody (on our side) hurt yet. The odds had gone from crazy bad against us to merely terrible. The scream, however, had given us away and I could see men on the far side of the camp starting to run around, yelling, and gradually forming into a group.

I quickly wheeled around and with a few gestures arranged Hassan's men behind me on both flanks. Two of them had taken out bows. The bows twanged and two of our opponents went down. The rest of them charged unevenly at us, some ten strong (a couple weren't in camp, out on guard duty).

Fortunately they didn't have anything resembling a plan. Unfortunately, neither did we. Fortunately, they attacked spread out enough that I wasn't facing five or six at once.

The first one was no problem. He was screaming and holding his sword like an axe and I skewered his heart with a thrust even as I blocked his totally predictable stroke. I had to spring back so he didn't literally fall into me and bind up my blade. His body conveniently tripped the one right behind him so he was, for a fatal moment, off balance. I was at a bad angle and only chopped an inch or two into the side of his neck, but that seemed to be enough to occupy his hands as he dropped his sword and tried to hold in the blood that started to spurt out from the wound.

His body, in turn, formed a bit of a barrier on the right, but I was in serious trouble on the left. A swing started towards me and I was in no position to parry it, and a second guard was vaulting over my first kill.

Fortunately I still had my feet under me, so I backpedaled furiously, getting just enough room to get both swords back around into position. It was all I could do to block part of the blow from the left. However, some got through and I felt a blow on my upper left arm that numbed it to the wrist. The pain caused my vision to tunnel a bit and things slowed down.

I stopped backing and sprang forward, Julie again spiraling in through a link in the mail of my direct foe and stopping him in his tracks. The one on my left was going too fast to stop and passed behind me and beyond my concern for a split second. I powered on forward through their line of attackers and stumbled over the bodies myself, partly because I couldn't get Julie unstuck from a link in the mail shirt.

I rolled, and my weight finally managed to pull Julie free, although her tip was slightly bent - in retrospect I probably ruined the temper of the metal trying to push her into Brin's field to where the tip glowed red hot without quenching it. A quick glance around showed me that I'd borne the brunt of the attack and blunted it. Hassan's guards were fighting pretty much one on one, two were down but three of Targon's finest were also down. The one that hit me on the left had stopped and was turned around, coming back at me with more caution. I made it up onto one knee before he was on me and I could see that it was Targon himself.

My left wrist was on fire but I could still grip the saber. I didn't trust the hand for a full parry, though, and Targon was circling, whacking at my swords to keep them engaged to see if he could twist me off balance enough to beat down my guard.

No chance. As he edged around to my right, he actually left my weak wrist behind. However, he was left handed and cutting swords are a lot easier to hack with using a forehand stroke for most people, and he was trying to get around behind by right shoulder where he could hack with a vengeance. For southpaws fighting most opponents, this would be a winning strategy. However, he didn't realize that I'd gone out of my way during training to practice against the very best left-handers I could find, and had done exercises for years to ensure that my saber backhand strokes and parries were as fast and hard as my forehand. My rapier was a bit light for defensive work against what looked like a bronze broadsword - a full power blow might just overwhelm me - but I didn't plan to give him time for either of us to find out.

As he stepped just far enough to take the pressure off of my left side, I stepped right up onto my own right leg, smoothly getting my left foot back onto the ground. I used the same motion to leap backwards out of range of his too-late attempt to exploit the moment I had all my weight on one foot and was, in fact, nearly helpless - I'd cleverly timed it at exactly the moment he was taking a step with all his weight on one (the wrong one) of his feet.

I gently, gently, but oh-so-fast deflected his whistling blow down below my arm and above my waist (he'd been aiming for my neck). The tip just grazed my ribcage, tracing a line of fire there that I was too busy to actually feel. As the point swept past by chest, carried by its own not inconsiderable and unstopped momentum, my left foot caught my weight like a spring and I bounced completely inside his defensive perimeter and effectively behind his left shoulder. He was mine.

Even with my weakened wrist I easily cut the saber (which I kept very sharp by polishing on its edge) across his exposed left forearm just below the elbow, slicing through the muscle and several tendons to the bone, then stabbed the point forward and into his bicep, where I gave the blade a wicked little twist to open a large triangular wound. His sword dropped from his suddenly nerveless fingers and the arm flopped to his side.

His left side was now so open that it took all of my willpower not to drive Julie's point into his lower belly and literally rip his guts out. However, my brain was once again functioning so that instead of doing the really awful things that my dark side was urging, I contented myself with placing her tip right up against his throat below his left jaw giving a loud shout.

Seeing their leader in check and mate, two of the surviving slavers successfully surrendered (not actually all that easy to do in a pitched battle, but they were in between engagements in a manner of speaking). The third was dispatched by his possibly overzealous opponent when attempting to withdraw, but that's the way it goes. The rest of the slaver guard that had been attracted by the fighting from their outposts also stopped and slowly lowered their swords, as we had three surviving and unhurt guards on our side, one who was wounded but still standing (the one who understandably had carried on and killed off his opponent who had just cut him pretty badly across the scalp) and me. They technically still barely outnumbered us but if they made a move of any sort the numbers would shift by three (including their leader) and they'd have no chance.

There followed a brief period of strategic negotiation wherein they agreed to work for us instead of Targon. They were mercenaries, after all, and dying for a cause or a beaten employer wasn't their idea of a good time. Our team suddenly was back up to and over strength.

Targon, of course, wasn't included in these surrender negotiations, nor was the one surviving overseer (which was a good thing as it left us slightly outnumbering our new employees). One of the guards who'd surrendered turned out to be pretty badly wounded and was also excluded although we spared his life for the time being - his wounds would under ordinary circumstances do for him in a matter of days, as he had sustained a slash across the gut that would almost certainly give him a fatal case of peritonitis unless treated with antibiotics, and I (as Ewanos) had never even heard of antibiotics. The best we could do for him was bind his gut tightly with a filthy piece of cloth and see if his natural constitution could fight off the inevitable. Been known to happen, but not likely.

Right about then Hassan's backup arrived, and I found myself in a very grey area as far as my status went.

Remember, I was a prisoner, a future slave on the way to market right up to the point where I busted loose. Remember also that we had to assume that the entire battle that had just been conducted was observed with both sight and sound by our little grey friends. This watering hole was such an obvious stopover that I suspected that there were enough cameras and microphones to make a fairly entertaining adventure movie out of their recordings from the last twenty minutes or so. Whatever happened, then, had to be in character for Hassan, his guards, and Ewanos the mercenary guard.

At first the six new arrivals wanted very vocally to disarm me and put me right back in chains. On the other hand, no particular person, including the leader of the group, wanted to be the one that actually did it, given that I was holding two trade swords pulled from a bundle of trade swords made of Ned's crudely made watered steel and bright steel, copies if you will of my original saber and Julie - several others had by now spilled out and were lying in plain sight on the ground - foolishly packed onto the very donkey to which I had stupidly been chained.

I didn't make their decision any easier by looking pretty mulish and irritated, all smeared with blood and sweat and everything. In addition, I'd done the bulk of the negotiating with Targon's guards, who didn't trust me but who really didn't trust Hassan's men - they had gradually edged around behind me to stand with me if a conflict should arise. To top it off, the leader of Hassan's original group was one of the survivors (no surprise there, he was a canny old fighter) as had Hassan's chief trade negotiator, and they chimed in loudly on my behalf, pointing out (incorrectly on both counts) that I'd killed half of Targon's men single-handed and done so without getting so much as a scratch. The actual numbers were more like a third and my `not a scratch' on my forearm now hurt like hell, as much from the bruise as the cut. Targon's blade was big and heavy but dull, so dull.

Well, it turned out that the survivors from our group ranked the newcomers, so I got to stay free and was even anointed a hero and made back into the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer in charge of the new recruits and prisoners. This was fine with me - all I needed to be was free to act and didn't want any little grey men focussing too much on how great a swordsman I was in case they were able to connect Ewanos with a certain other user of two swords.

I therefore went about my business; straightening Julie by whacking her flat across a tree against the bend, cleaning my swords and rigging one of them across my back (while perfectly reasonably keeping the other, slung somewhat clumsily at my side), and directing my new subordinates to drag their former friends and comrades off into the bushes far from the water supply, strip them of anything valuable, and bring the booty back to camp to give me my share.

Targon and the overseer went into slave chains as I had a brand heated. I took an almost sensual pleasure as the red hot metal seared into the shoulders of first the overseer, then Targon. Not content with that I used hot metal to cauterize the rest of Targon's wounds, probably rendering his left arm permanently useless in the process as I didn't bother to try to reattach anything that had been cut through, only stop it from bleeding. It took three husky slaves to hold him still while I did that, but there was for once no lack of volunteers from the chains for the privilege. They were grinning like fiends when I sent Targon, naked except for a loincloth and still white with shock from the pain of being branded and cauterized, into their line in the same pair of manacles that had once confined a certain young boy with dysentery.

I took special pains to point out to the slaves that for Targon now, death would be a kindness, so they were not to kill him. With his bad arm and strong back, I said, I'd have to work to sell him as a latrine slave at our next stop, but that this was the career I envisioned for him. This prompted a ragged cheer, for hadn't I been in chains just before? Even as I spoke of selling them, I was also one of them, and stood as a symbol of the fact that one day they too might be free.

When I came by some hours later, Targon was definitely still alive. However, he was also blind in one eye, missing most of his front teeth and part of an ear, and covered in shit and filth from head to toe where he lay in misery on the ground, too beaten to even stand up. Part of me was revolted, but part of me remembered a young kid's head rolling off to land nose down in a puddle, a young kid's body that by now would be bones and jackal shit. That part was as hard and cold to Targon's misery as crystallized carbon.

As per instruction, Hassan's business representative insisted on completing the trade route we were on, and began to grill Targon, the overseer, and the new recruits as to where we were supposed to go. Targon refused to talk at first, but we had some pretty serious leverage to use on the overseer - so far we hadn't put him back in with the other slaves, and he'd seen what they'd done to Targon. Targon, it should be noted, did not actively mistreat the slaves; in his view he was a businessman and when a slave was no longer worth any money he killed them ruthlessly. Which got him no sympathy, of course - just for comparison.

The overseer, however, was a sadistic piece of filth who ruled by brutality. His whip had been tasted by every back, his sex had used all the women in the line (even the ugly and old ones) and some of the men and boys, and he had killed one of the slaves in the original line just for talking back - by whipping him to death, effectively flaying him alive. He was part of Targon's ``permanent'' staff and had accompanied him on most of his caravans for close to a decade.

When presented with the choices of telling us whatever we wanted to know about the route or joining Targon in the line with the rest of the slaves, we had to make him stop babbling and slobbering on his questioner's feet, so eager was he to avoid such a fate. I didn't even participate in the ``conversation'' with him, but I wasn't terribly sad when, after they had all the information out of him that they needed, they put him into the chain with the other slaves after all, turned their backs, and walked away even as the screams started.

When we left, the next morning, there was nothing left of him but a thin veneer of red that coated nearly all of the slaves and matted their clothes and hair. Nothing above the knees, anyway. I never did figure out how the slaves had managed it, without so much as a knife (that I knew about) between them, but nothing - not even a bone or finger. Just the pair of shinbones raggedly chewed off at the knees, manacles still fastened firmly around the ankles. I hoped I never got anybody that angry at me. Targon's eyes were rolled back in his head and he gave little twitches - whatever he had watched had left him on the edge of madness, which was fine with me.

We paused briefly for a much needed bath, however, and the water ran red as it flowed out of the lake and down the outlet stream.

I did participate in one decisioning process before we left that morning. In the early evening quite a commotion had come out of the wagon where the women destined to be sold as sexual toys were kept (they didn't walk in the line with all the rest - too valuable). Shortly afterwards I was summoned to the main campfire where Hassan's representative and the two officers of the guard were holding court. Sharra was there, looking wild and harried.

``There he is,'' she shrieked as I came into sight. ``He'll tell you.''

``Tell me what,'' I gruffed out.

``How I'm your woman. You don't want me sold, do you? You're in the guard again. You can pick me as yours. I don't know where we're going, but I don't want to go there and start over. If I stay with you as your slave, I'll serve you faithfully.'' Here she licked her lips and gave a little bob-twist with her hips to leave little to the imagination as to just how I'd get served.

I looked at the officers and asked them, ``What's this all about.''

They looked at me with slightly bemused expressions. ``She's been screaming this out for the last hour or so. The other women in the wagon are sick of her. They say if she goes back in there they'll damage her too much to be worth much. Haughty bitch.''

``What's that got to do with me?'' I asked, ignoring the shriek this elicited from Sharra. ``All she's been to me is trouble. I've her to thank for this,'' I indicated my scabby, angry, half-healed brand. ``I mean sure, I did what Hassan said I did,'' I continued somewhat truculently, ``but c'mon, which of you could have resisted her if she came out and rubbed up against you. Look at her. She's a hot piece, that's a truth. But no sense, no sense, and she takes away your own sense once he gets her hooks into you.''

``Well, what are we going to do with her, then? She can't go back into that wagon or she won't be worth anything at all. Hassan won't want to see her back, either - we're taking a chance letting you live and maybe skip camp before we eventually rejoin him - we can always claim you were killed somewhere along the way, and who knows, it could still be true? But he'll want to see her bill of sale, for sure.''

``Well, I for one don't care,'' I turned away and then back as if I'd had an afterthought. ``Here's an idea, though. She clearly thinks that she's something special and that she's due an easy life on her back. Why don't you cut up her hair, get her out of those fancy things'' - she was still wearing the somewhat soiled but still recognizable clothes of her profession - ``and into an old sack and out there in the line with the rest of the commoners,'' I shrugged in the direction of the chained line. ``Sell her off as a kitchen wench, to scrub potatoes and floors and wrinkle that pretty face of hers tending a kettle of stew.''

With that I stalked stiffly off to the guffaws from the men and a (I thought) very convincing shriek of rage from Sharra.

And it was so. The next day a new face under a motley head of tangled, hacked-about hair, smeared with mud and dressed a dirty homespun like the rest, appeared chained with the rest of the women in the line. Once or twice at the beginning some commotion occurred near her position in the line as people took advantage of the chance to make someone feel worse about things than they themselves felt, but Sharra apparently held her own and gave as good as she got until they left her alone. Still, by the time we'd been walking an hour she had her head down, defeated, dispirited and ugly as any of the rest.

All carefully choreographed by Hassan, Sharra and me from the beginning, of course. Hidden in plain sight, as was I, going to the one place we felt they'd never dream of us going, putting on a little show, acting in a little play, that had to be neither more nor less than it appeared to be.

So it was a day later that we turned aside from the main roadway up a gentle slope of exposed basalt that showed no tracks beyond a bit of extra dust and mud along a certain trail clinging to the rock, perhaps left behind from wagon wheels over the years. It passed through a narrow cleft (barely large enough for our biggest wagon) into a climbing ravine that obviously carried a rushing stream during the wettest seasons (and maybe during any sudden storms, causing many of us to look nervously at the sky). We ascended the ravine for perhaps three miles, gaining a thousand feet or so of elevation in the process, and found ourselves on an actual roadway, although it was one hidden beneath trees in such a way as to be all but invisible from the air and not terribly easy to see from the ground unless you were right on top of it.

We toiled generally upward through the day, reaching by mid-afternoon a second flat wash that was the spillway of a large, apparently artificial dam holding back an entire mountain lake at the top. I had no doubt that there were charges planted all through the dam, and that there was enough water in the lake to literally flush away a modern army of twenty thousand men if one were foolish enough to enter the ravine in an attempt to invade. We continued on, passing redoubt after redoubt, each one apparently just a part of nature in that rough terrain, each one (I was sure) engineered as part of a truly monumental system of defense and armed to the teeth with automated weaponry. We just couldn't see it.

Just at dusk, the trail entered a huge, dark cavern mouth tapped into an overhanging cliff side. I had to keep my eye from fixing on the many, many embedded defenses, all carefully disguised as boulders, as cave entrances overhead, as rocky spires. The ground was almost cobbled with small round boulders that seemed out of place on the side of a volcano - I suspected that every one was a mine that could be exploded by name and number by a suitable electronic trigger controlled by a certain dark DEMigod. We camped on a flat patch outside of the cave for the night, feeling perhaps a bit of trepidation at the thought of entering such a dark and forbidding place.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29