Rezac lunged past the alien for the floor of the stasis cube base unit, trying to reach a pistol that lay there. The alien reached out and stopped him.
No, don’t. He’ll have us killed before you reach it. You’re weak from being inside that cube. You both nearly died. Wait for now.
Shocked not only by the sending from the stranger, but by his sudden weakness, Rezac let himself be pulled back till he sat on the ground by his Leska.
“Search then bind them. Bring them up to the Lesser hall,” ordered the one in charge.
One at a time, Kris and Davies were taken from the small chamber, searched for weapons, then bound. There were cries of delight when a gun was found on the latter. Then Jo’s turn came.
“Hey, this one’s a woman!” yelled the guard searching her.
Jo struggled in the grasp of her captor as he began to search for her again, an ugly leer on his face.
“What’s a woman doing with a bunch of thieves? One of them your master, eh?”
“Leave me alone!” said Jo, pulling frantically away from his grasping hands.
Help came from an unexpected quarter — Zashou. With a rumble of anger that quickly rose to a growl, she pushed their guard aside and leapt into the corridor. Her lips pulled back from her teeth revealing large canines as she loomed protectively over the smaller Human female.
Jo felt a stab of pain as her mental shields were ruthlessly penetrated by Rezac and her mind quickly read. Then he was gone, leaving her confused and even more terrified.
“Leave her! Or lose your life!” said Zashou in halting Jalnian. Her claws were extended, the deadly talons curved toward the guard.
Jo was suddenly released as the man stepped back in fear, fumbling for the crossbow slung on his back.
The two holding Kris and Davies instantly came forward, quarrels pointed directly at Zashou and Jo.
“Enough! Turn round with your hands behind your backs,” ordered the lead one.
We must comply. They will kill us otherwise, came the quick mental command from Zashou. The two females did as they were ordered.
Rezac was another matter. Realizing his Leska was being bound was enough for him. With an ear-splitting roar, he emerged from the room at full tilt, looking for someone to attack. What would have been a blood bath ended abruptly as the lead guard stepped to one side, allowing the enraged Sholan to run past before hitting him soundly on the back of the head with his crossbow stock. Rezac fell like a stone.
By the time they’d been dragged through the great hall and up the stone steps to the Lord’s private hall, Rezac, held securely by two burly guardsmen, was beginning to come round.
“Untie our guests,” ordered Lord Killian, lifting his arm to allow his attendant to continue stripping off his padded body armor.
“Excuse the harsh welcome, but I didn’t want you leaving before we’d time to get better acquainted.”
At the sound of the voice, Rezac raised his head just enough to peer through the hair that fell over his face at the speaker. A growl began to build low in his throat as he tugged at his bonds.
“May I suggest you reassure your large friends they’re in no danger. I’d prefer not to have to shoot them to preserve the lives of myself and my men.” As the protective jacket was slipped from his chest, he indicated the half dozen crossbowmen ranged at the top of the stairwell down to the main hall.
“I understand you,” growled Rezac, lifting his head fully and shaking it till his mane of hair was cleared from his face. It settled like a dark cloud around his shoulders. “Release me, then we will listen to you.”
Killian gestured to the guards and Rezac’s bonds were cut. Pulling his arms forward, he ripped the remaining ropes free and massaged his wrists.
“I’m Lord Killian. Please, be seated,” the burly man said, gesturing to the large wooden table that dominated the center of the room.
As Rezac moved toward the far end of the table, he glanced round the room, quickly assessing its exits.
Opposite the opening for the stairs was a fireplace in which burned a generous log fire. There were two large windows, paned with small rectangles of thick glass. The other four, spaced along the outer wall, were mere narrow arrow slits covered by wooden shutters. Two doors flanked by tied back curtains led off from either side of the fireplace. Against the third wall, the one with the arrow slits, a similar curtain was closed. Even as he looked at it, the lower edge flared outward. Probably a third door, Rezac surmised. One to the outside.
Facing the stairwell, its back to the fire, was a large, ornately carved high-backed chair. Obviously Killian’s seat.
As Rezac sat down, he saw the Human female begin to move too, the others following her. She was their leader then. Strange that it wasn’t one of the males. Quickly he searched through the information he’d taken from her downstairs. There was more than he’d realized at the time — too much to make sense of yet.
Later, sent Zashou. Let’s focus on now.
Rezac turned to look more closely at their three Human companions. The differences between them and the Jalnians were subtle. He only noticed them because he’d touched the female’s mind. They were newly into space, these Humans, and by their own endeavors. Far more advanced than the Jalnians. Their skin had a slightly different cast to it, and their bodies moved differently, hinting at a different musculature and possibly skeleton beneath the flesh.
Movement by Lord Killian drew his attention away from them and he watched the large male as he walked round the table to take up his seat. Placing hands almost as big as Rezac’s own on the table, Killian looked at them all in turn.
“Time for you to introduce yourselves,” he said, his voice deceptively mild. “Perhaps even to tell me why you’re here.”
Jo tried not to glance at her two male companions before she began to speak. “I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake, Lord Killian. We’re nothing more than thieves . . . ” Her voice tailed off into silence as the guard Killian gestured to approached the table and spilled on it the bundle of possessions taken from them during the search.
“I think not,” said Killian, picking up the energy pistol lying in the midst of the pile. “This doesn’t belong on Jalna.”
He fiddled with the weapon for a moment or two then pointed it at Davies who was sitting opposite him.
“Don’t point it at me, it’s got a hair trigger!” he exclaimed, visibly blanching. “It’ll discharge at the slightest pressure!”
Killian turned the gun on its side and studied it again before replacing it on the table. “Indeed. Then let’s hope I don’t have to use it on any of you. We were discussing your names and why you’d come to my castle.”
Jo had let out an angry exclamation at the sight of the pistol, and now it was no longer threatening him, Davies glanced over at her.
“Sorry, Jo,” he muttered. “I know I shouldn’t have brought it.”
“So you’re called Jo, and you’re the leader. Now we’re getting somewhere,” said Killian, sitting back in his chair and clasping his hands across his stomach. “Please continue.”
Rezac could sense his satisfaction.
Jo indicated them each in turn. “Davies, Kris, Zashou and Rezac.” She hesitated before continuing and Rezac could feel her uncertainty, then her acceptance that there was nothing to be gained from lying when the truth was obvious. “We aren’t from Jalna. We came to find out what was on the crashed scouter.”
“Not to rescue these furred ones?”
“Sholans,” Jo corrected him. “We didn’t know they were in the stasis cube.”
“What is stasis cube?” Killian copied the Human words carefully.
“The cube you brought here. Inside it, time was frozen for our friends. In stasis.”
In his mind, Rezac echoed the word. So that’s what had happened to them! The last he remembered was them running from the Valtegan palace guards.
The lab! We ran into a laboratory! sent Zashou. The cube must have been there!
Later, replied Rezac, refocussing on the audible conversation. It’s difficult enough to follow them without getting side-tracked.
“A person in a stasis cube has no idea of the passing of time,” said Kris, looking to Rezac and Zashou for confirmation.
Rezac flicked an ear in assent.
“For them, when they’re released, it’s as if nothing has happened. Rezac and Zashou have also been moved. They’re no longer where they were when they were imprisoned in the cube.”
Killian reached up to scratch at his beard. “How long were they in this cube?”
Rezac was suddenly aware of Jo’s compassion for them and her reluctance to say more. She looked at them before answering. “We think one thousand and five hundred years,” she said quietly.
Rezac’s ears flattened in shock and briefly the room began to fade around him. How long? He could hardly comprehend what she’d said.
“A long time,” said Killian, his voice slightly faint at the concept of that many years. “I presume your enemies placed you there. You must be formidable warriors indeed if that was the only way to remove you. Who were your enemies?”
“A species called the Valtegans,” Jo replied. “They trade at the Spaceport occasionally.”
Zashou’s sudden despair swept through Rezac. It was all for nothing! We failed!
Enough! Rezac’s mental tone was harsh.
Killian shook his head. “Never heard of them. No matter. What were you hoping to find on this crashed vehicle? Weapons?”
“Information,” said Jo. “Information about the Valtegans — where they come from, what they left behind on Jalna, where they were going.”
“And did you find this information?”
“Ah.” Again Jo looked over at Rezac. “Partly.”
“Obviously you found out what they left,” said Killian, gesturing toward the two Sholans. “But the rest?”
“No,” said Kris. “We found nothing. The craft was too badly damaged.”
“There were no bodies. How can such a vehicle move with no one to drive it?”
“Remotes,” said Rezac. “From a distance,” he added, realizing how inadequate the Jalnian language was to explain technical matters.
Thoughtfully, Killian sat back in his chair and began stroking his beard while his eyes flicked from one to the other of them. “Now, I presume, you wish to return to the Spaceport and leave Jalna for your own worlds.”
“That was the general idea,” said Davies, speaking for the first time.
“Unfortunately that won’t be possible,” said Killian, his tone regretful. “Another blizzard is due tonight and the pass will be blocked by morning. I’m afraid you’ll have to accept my hospitality until the weather improves.”
He’s lying, Kris sent to Jo.
We can’t prove it, Rezac replied.
The only outward sign of both Kris and Jo’s surprise at Rezac joining the conversation was a slight tensing of their bodies.
Good, thought Rezac to himself. At least they’re skilled in concealment.
Jo’s reply, when it came, was slower and fainter. What do we do, then?
Go along with him for now. We have no other options yet, Rezac replied while sending a private thought to Kris.
Later, the Human replied.
“In return for my hospitality, perhaps you can help me,” said Killian, oblivious to their mental exchange.
“In what way?” asked Kris.
“Bradogan, who rules the Spaceport and its surrounding lands, is hungry for power. Those Lords he can’t ally to himself with bribes of off-world goods, he wages war on. It’s only a matter of time till his eyes fall on Kaladar. I want an edge, something to keep him away from my lands. Something like this weapon here.” He indicated the pistol. “You could help me by making more of them.”
“Those weapons are highly sophisticated, Lord Killian,” said Kris. “They require manufacturing methods not available on Jalna. We couldn’t make them for you, even if we knew how.”
Killian raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“We know how to use them, but we don’t know how to make them,” said Jo.
“You know how they work, you can make them.” Killian’s voice had grown cold.
“You misunderstand us, Lord,” said Kris. He pointed to one of the guardsmen behind them. “They can use their crossbows, but could they make one?”
“You misunderstand me. You will provide me with off-world weapons,” said Killian uncompromisingly. “If not that one, then others that fulfill a similar purpose.”
He pushed himself to his feet. “Escort my guests to their chambers,” he ordered his guards. “Think about it overnight. I’m sure you’ll see the wisdom of mutual cooperation. We’ll talk again in the morning.”
They were escorted through the curtained doorway out onto an external balcony. The air was bitter as it blew fresh flurries of snow into their faces. Dressed as they were, he could feel the cold hit Zashou and he moved closer to her, holding an arm out in invitation to her to share his warmth.
He felt her mental retreat as she shied physically back from him. Only a step, but it was enough. Their long sleep hadn’t changed anything, then, he thought with a sigh.
Are they going to lock us in some dungeon? asked Jo, trying to control the chattering of her teeth. Maybe he wasn’t lying about the blizzard after all!
I don’t think he’ll put us in a dungeon tonight, sent Kris. Likely it’ll be somewhere comfortable. He’s reminding us how cold it is to persuade us that cooperation is worthwhile. If we don’t, then tomorrow it’ll be the dungeons.
I agree, sent Rezac.
The two males proved to be right. The rooms they were shown to were in a small tower set near the center of the castle. A suite for visiting dignitaries, or noble prisoners.
The main chamber boasted a fire almost as large as that in Killian’s private quarters. Opening off it were two smaller bedrooms, both of which had beds hung with heavy drapes and fires burning in the grates. There was also a small closet that served as a privy. In the larger, a pile of blankets and three pallets lay next to the fire.
Once their escort had left, a search of the suite showed that the exit was guarded. The windows were shuttered but in any case they were too far above ground level to make escape through them a practical proposition at this time.
In front of the main fire, the table was set with food and wine.
“Ever get the feeling you were expected?” asked Davies, strolling over to the food and helping himself to a piece of meat from some type of fowl.
“We weren’t betrayed,” said Jo shortly.
Rezac turned to his Leska. “You should eat, Zashou. It’s been a long time since our last meal.”
She flicked an ear in reply and headed slowly for one of the dining chairs by the fire. He could feel her tiredness affecting him.
“You, too,” he said, looking at the remaining two Humans. “We must all keep our strength up. No telling when or where our next meal will come from.” As he turned toward the table, he felt a hand on his arm. Abruptly he turned back, teeth partially bared in a snarl.
Jo didn’t flinch, but she did release him very slowly. “We’re allies of Shola,” she said in his language. “They brought us here undercover to examine the Valtegan scouter. There are another four Sholans imprisoned on Jalna. We have to work together, Rezac.”
He turned away from her and continued over to the table. Lifting the flimsy knife, he began trying to hack some meat from the cold joint in the center.
“You’ve been to Shola?”
“Yes, briefly,” replied Jo.
“Valsgarth Telepath Guild and the Warrior Guild in Nazule .”
“What about Ranz, in the plains?” He sensed Kris joining him at the table.
“Don’t you mean in the Dzahai mountains? I’ve been to Vartra’s Retreat too.”
Startled, Rezac looked round. “Vartra’s Retreat? So he did go to the temple at Stronghold after all.”
“The temple at Valsgarth is the main one now, but yes, there’s a temple of Vartra at Stronghold too.”
“Temple?” asked Zashou, looking up at Jo and Kris. “What has Vartra to do with temples?”
Rezac watched the two Humans exchange glances.
“You’ve a helluva lot of catching up to do,” observed Davies sitting down. “In the Shola we know, Vartra is the major god of warriors and telepaths. He was responsible for saving them from the cataclysm.” He reached out for another piece of meat.
“He was a person? You knew him?” Jo sat down opposite Zashou.
Shocked once more to the core, Rezac let the knife fall from his grasp and sat down heavily. “A god? How?”
“It seems we’ve outlived ourselves,” said Zashou. “You were right the first time, Rezac: let’s eat. We can talk of these matters later, when we’re stronger.” They can’t tell us much if they were only there briefly.
“I lived there for over six months, Zashou,” said Kris, taking the seat next to Jo.
“You can hear us mind-speak to each other?” demanded Rezac.
Kris smiled. “We Terrans have one or two Talents of our own. That’s why I was living on Shola.”
A small chirrup of sound drew Rezac’s gaze to Kris’ jacket pocket. From its depths out popped a white furred face, muzzle and ears tipped with brown, large eyes glancing rapidly round the assembled faces. A trill of pleasure as it saw Jo, and a sniff of disdain at the two Sholans, and Scamp emerged. Scrambling up Kris’ arm to his neck, he raised his front paws to pat his face then leapt down to the table to run to Jo.
“A jegget!” exclaimed Zashou. “You brought a jegget with you?”
Rezac began to laugh. “You’ve got more than talents if you can befriend a jegget!” Now he knew they came from Shola — and more: as the only other telepathic species on their world, no jegget would go near a person they didn’t trust. In fact, the little creatures were notorious for that. Get a nest of jeggets in your barn, and you’d never get rid of them! They knew when you were coming, knew where your traps were.
Scamp, meanwhile, was twining himself and his dark-tipped bushy tail round Jo’s neck, chirruping and purring for all he was worth.
Aware of his pet’s feelings, and a large part of the reason for them, Kris glanced over at Rezac.
Please, say nothing. The Valtegans ruled Jo’s world, using females like her for sex. I need her trust. If she realized what I feel for her . . .
Rezac cut him short with an affirmative gesture. It’s not my business.
Reassured all was well with Jo, Scamp returned to Kris, looking and sniffing hopefully in the direction of the meat.
“Feed him,” said Rezac, gesturing at the plate as feelings of ravenous hunger stole into their minds. She doesn’t sense him. Why not?
Jo is only a latent telepath. She chooses not to train her talent. She’s a linguist — she studies languages and was responsible for compiling the first Valtegan lexicon.
So the Valtegans are still at large.
There are no Valtegans on Shola. Your people came across them on our first colony world, Keiss. They rescued the colonists — Jo was one of them. We don’t know where the Valtegans are now, or what they’re doing, that’s why we’re on Jalna. That’s how we found you.
Rezac, later, sent Zashou. Catching up is not important. Eating and sleeping is, so is deciding what to do about Killian and the weapons he wants.
“How did you avoid Scamp being found when we were searched?” Zashou asked Kris as she tore off a lump of bread from the loaf and handed the rest to Jo.
Kris grinned as he pushed some small pieces of meat to one side for Scamp. “I suggested to the guard that he didn’t really want to touch me. Strangely enough, he agreed.”
“They’ll find out soon enough,” warned Davies.
“I don’t think they’ll care,” said Kris.
“You said you’d trained at a warrior guild. We had something similar in our time, but it taught you to fight unarmed and with traditional bladed weapons.”
“Now it also teaches you in the use of modern energy weapons. I can strip and maintain most Sholan weapons with the best of them, but build one from scratch?” He shook his head. “Davies is the electronics genius.”
Rezac looked at him. “Could you build a weapon?”
“Depends what they’ve got here from the shuttle. The good Lord Killian had the craft stripped of just about everything that might have been useful, and naturally, they didn’t know what they were doing!”
“What kind of vessel was it?”
“A scouter. Space to ground vehicle.”
“From a Valtegan warship?”
“Is there any other kind?” asked Jo wryly.
Rezac grinned slightly. “No. Then the scouter will be armed. It will have its own weapons system. We could dismantle and use that.”
“Should we be even thinking of giving them a weapon at all?” asked Zashou. “I’m sure they’ve discovered enough efficient ways of killing each other on their own.”
“We haven’t a choice,” said Kris. “You heard Killian.”
“Besides, it doesn’t have to work for long,” said Davies. “Just long enough for us to get out of this place!”
“Fuel sources alone will limit its life,” agreed Rezac. “Unless I’m mistaken, there should be a backup battery that stores energy for it to use.”
“You know a fair bit about the Valtegans, don’t you?” said Jo.
“Should do. We were prized pets of theirs for a year,” growled Rezac, the grin vanishing.
“You mentioned a palace. What palace?”
“The Emperor’s. God-King of the Four Realms.” He tried, but couldn’t control his hate and anger at what they’d suffered during their captivity.
Zashou winced. “Rezac,” she said warningly. “He’s dust now, they all are. Let the rage go.”
With an effort, Rezac pushed the anger to the back of his mind and refocussed on the business in hand.
“That was fifteen hundred years ago, though,” said Davies. “How much use is that knowledge to us now?”
“How much can a people change in that time?” Jo asked Rezac.
“Valtegans, not at all,” he said shortly.
“You seem much the same as your modern counterparts,” said Kris. “I imagine the basic Valtegan species traits will have remained unchanged too.”
“Well, you’ll be able to tell, won’t you?” said Rezac, aware his tone was somewhat snappish but unable to stop himself.
“I was sent on this mission because I understand the Valtegans more than anyone else at present,” said Jo. “Your knowledge is invaluable. Will you both share it with me?”
“If it’ll help, of course,” said Zashou, glancing angrily at her Leska.
“Assuming this shuttle is military and has a weapons system on board, then we’ll need to look for it, with no guarantee that the Jalnians haven’t ripped it apart,” said Kris. “That should buy us some time at least.”
“Agreed,” said Rezac. “However, it will be bolted into the structure of the vehicle and I doubt the Jalnians would have been able to work those panels loose.”
“Were your people in space when the Valtegans arrived?” asked Davies.
“Only just. They arrived without warning and in such vast numbers that there was little we could do to fight them.”
“So how come you know so much about their spacecraft?”
“I don’t, but I was communicating with those of our people who were on warships in space.”
Zashou leaned forward to touch Davies on the arm. “On Shola, Telepaths were hunted by the Valtegans as live trophies and kept to show how important a person was. Anyone of high standing had a Sholan Telepath as a pet,” she said quietly. “That was the crux of their downfall. It took time, but eventually there were enough of us on the four Valtegan home worlds and in their galactic fleet to strike. It was we who coordinated the communications between the ships and the worlds — the slave worlds too. We gave the order to strike.”
“To fight?” asked Davies. “You’re supposed to be unable to fight!”
Zashou shook her head. “Rezac can, for a short time, then the nausea gets to him too. But I didn’t mean that way. The non-telepath slaves and the other species, they fought. What we had done was to subvert the Valtegan’s minds, cause them to doubt one another, Challenge for position — and more. We used our abilities to destroy them, weaken them for the civil war that followed. We turned Valtegan against Valtegan. So we know them, know their weaknesses — and their strengths.” She shuddered briefly at the memories, still fresh for them, and sat back.
“Did you say the Valtegans had four home worlds?” asked Jo.
“Yes, plus some three other slave worlds.”
She moaned quietly. “Four worlds full of Valtegans! There’s no way we can possibly win against them!”
“We thought that, but you say Shola’s free of them now,” said Rezac. “It wasn’t how many we killed, it was who we killed. Take out the bridge crew of a warship, barricade the doors and within minutes you can crash that ship into the rest of that fleet and all for the loss of one person.”
“That’s suicide on a mass scale!”
Rezac looked calmly at Jo. “Yes, it was, and it was the price we all, us included, expected and were willing to pay.”
“You communicated over interplanetary space?” Kris asked quietly.
“Were we not answered by telepaths from Shola?” asked Rezac. “The skill has obviously lived on.”
“Those who answered you weren’t exactly Sholan telepaths,” said Jo.
Rezac frowned. “Of course they were. Who else could it have been? Not Humans — the minds were Sholan.”
“They would seem so,” said Kris. “The one who answered you was Human, a Human female with a Sholan Leska.”
Jo shook her head. “No. He’s telling you the truth. There are several Sholans with Human Leska partners now, but Carrie and Kusac Aldatan were the first.”
“Aldatan?” said Zashou. “That’s my family name! But how . . .”
“Vartra,” said Rezac. “His tinkering with our genes led to that. Your sister must have been enhanced too.”
“Sister?” asked Jo.
“My sister Zylisha was Vartra’s companion when we were taken by the Valtegans,” said Zashou. “The enhanced genes must have passed on to their children. Vartra did what he originally set out to do.”
“He did more than that from the sound of it,” said Davies dryly. “Carrie and Kusac would have had a child had she not lost it. Another mixed Leska pair were expecting one when we left Shola.”
“Cubs,” said Zashou faintly. “Human and Sholan cubs.”
“No wonder he’s achieved godhood!” said Rezac. “Maybe Shanka had the right of it after all. Without Vartra playing god with our lives, none of this would have happened.”
“Leave Shanka out of this, Rezac! Just remember, when I offered you the serum, you chose to take it! You could have refused.”
Rezac snorted angrily. “What good would it have done? Once you’d taken it, we were all going to catch it.”
“What does it matter now anyway! It’s history — ancient history!”
At that moment, a knock came at the door. It opened to admit an obviously self-important man dressed long robes followed by a peasant woman carrying a large pile of clothing.
“I am Durvan, in charge of the smooth running of Lord Killian’s house,” he said, gesturing the woman to follow him as he approached their table. “My master has asked me to bring you these clothes. He insists that you wear them as he doesn’t want to advertise the fact that he’s, shall we say, entertaining off-world visitors.” His mouth split into a too-cheery smile that showed off his teeth.
Rezac began to growl low in his throat.
Humanoids show their teeth when they smile, sent Kris. It isn’t threatening — usually. In his case, I’d make an exception.
“Put them down on a chair,” Durvan said sharply to the woman as he strolled over to Jo, eyes roving across her face and those parts of her anatomy he could see. “The red dress I think for this lady,” he said, holding his hand out for the garment.
Hurriedly the peasant pulled the dress from the pile and handed it to him.
Taking it from her, he advanced on Jo, ready to hold it against her.
Kris rose to his feet in front of him. “I’ll take that,” he said, reaching out for the garment.
Durvan frowned but handed it over. “I was merely going to hold it against her to see if it suited her coloring.” He stepped back and looked around the little group. “I was told there were two ladies. Where is the other?”
“Just leave the clothes,” said Kris. “We’re capable of working out who should wear what ourselves.”
“I’m sure you are,” said Durvan. “However, the servant will remain to show the ladies how the dresses are fastened.”
“We can manage ourselves,” said Jo.
Still angry, Rezac decided to put an end to the intrusion. Slowly he stood up, stretched his arms and flexed his claws. “I think you should leave,” he said, his voice a low rumble that carried to every part of the room. “We’re tired and wish to sleep.”
Durvan had begun to back away from the table as soon as the Sholan moved. The servant fled with a squeal of terror. Realizing he was alone, the steward beat a hasty retreat. “Should you need help, ask the guard,” he said before closing the door behind him.
Rezac reached for the clothing and began sorting through it. A dress of blue he handed to Zashou, the rest he put over the backs of the nearest chairs.
“Help yourselves,” he said. “They’re all robes such as that character was wearing. Nothing practical I’m afraid, but at least they’re warm, which is more than can be said for what we’re wearing.” He looked down at his own clothing then over at Zashou.
Both of them were dressed in garments that offered very little in the way of either covering or warmth. Rezac’s consisted of a brightly colored woven belt from which hung two short panels of the same patterned material; one larger one in front, the one over his rear partially split to accommodate his tail. It most closely resembled a loin cloth. From both ears hung gold rings, and round his wrists were broad bracelets inset with jewel-colored enameling.
Zashou was similarly clad, but her garments included a short tabard top, and her earrings were larger.
“What favored Valtegan drone slaves wear at the Emperor’s court,” said Rezac.
“Drones? They have drones?” asked Jo, getting up to look at her dress properly.
“Who do you think does all the domestic work? You know their females are feral, don’t you? They keep very few females because of that. Once they’ve mated, they’ll fight off any other male that comes near them until they’ve laid that clutch of eggs. The drones are the only ones who can get near them most of the time,” said Rezac.
Jo looked at him. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I’d figured they were egg layers, but they have such a high sex drive that I’d assumed females were common.”
“The males have a high sex drive because they need a high incentive to mate. Without the control collars on the females, the males would be ripped to shreds even approaching a female let alone trying to mate with one. They are seriously feral. Mindless eating and laying machines that have to be separated from their eggs just before they hatch or they’d eat them too.”
“So that’s why they put those damned pleasure cities on Keiss,” said Davies as he reached out to pick up the green robe. “They need to direct that sex drive elsewhere. On Keiss, it was our women in Geshader and Tashkerra.”
“That’s what they use the females of the slave races and some drones for,” agreed Rezac, then he felt the sudden flare of fear mixed with pain and revulsion that came from Jo. It was gone almost immediately.
“Excuse me,” she said, dropping the dress and heading for one of the bedrooms.
Rezac looked to Kris for an explanation.
“Look, guys,” said Davies, drawing their attention. “It wasn’t for me to say before, and still isn’t, but I think you should know that Jo did undercover work with Elise, Carrie’s twin, in one of the pleasure cities. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do what they did with the Valtegan officers to get information for our movement. When Elise got caught and tortured to death, it hit Jo very hard.”
“Yet she tries to understand these . . . creatures,” said Zashou.
“Hey, it’s her way of coping with it,” said Davies. “I know how you feel about her, Kris, just go easy, hear me? She still has nightmares about those damned lizards pawing her. If you wouldn’t mind, Zashou, it might help if you went to her. Another female, that kind of thing. We males just can’t imagine what it was like for her.”
“I can,” said Rezac grimly. “Zashou . . .?”
“I’ll go,” she said, getting to her feet. “Perhaps it might be better if she spent the night with me.”
Kris looked at Rezac. “If you wouldn’t mind, just for tonight?”
Rezac nodded briefly, keeping his personal feelings under control. Tonight only, Zashou. Do not shame me in front of these people. We are Leskas.
I know only too well what we are. Nothing has changed, Rezac. We will share the room, but not the bed, she replied as she made her way into the room where Jo had fled.
“I suggest for tonight we use the other room,” said Kris. “Tomorrow we can see if Jo is willing for us to share the larger room with her, then you two can have the smaller one. I think we should avoid leaving Jo alone if possible. The Jalnian attitude to females is archaic to say the least and she’s too easily mistaken for one of them.”
Landing the aircar immediately in front of the Valsgarth estate house, Kaid powered down the engine then took a moment to rest his head on his forearms. Kusac’s voice from the rear of the craft roused him.
“Kaid, would you carry Kashini in for us?”
He pushed himself away from the consol. He was deadly tired; all he wanted to do was sleep. “Coming.” Getting up, through the side window he caught sight of the small group of people waiting impatiently on the doorstep. “You’ve got a welcoming committee.”
As he bent down to take the newborn infant from Carrie’s arms, Kusac put a restraining hand on his arm. “Kaid, everyone’s going to want to debrief us on what we saw in the Margins. I think your origin should remain your business; it should be your decision whether or not to reveal it.”
Surprised, Kaid looked at him. Kusac flicked an ear then tightened his grip briefly on his friend’s arm before releasing him.
“I would prefer it to remain unknown,” Kaid agreed as he took the sleeping cub from Carrie.
Kusac, Carrie cradled in his arms, was the first to leave the craft, Kaid and their cub followed behind.
Rhyasha was at her son’s side instantly. “Thank Vartra you’re all safe!” she said. “We’ve been so afraid for you!” She leaned forward to touch Carrie’s cheek. “Are you all right, cub? Yes, you are: I can feel it. Kusac, let your father carry her upstairs. You look as exhausted as she is!”
Kusac looked across at his father. “I can manage, thank you,” he said, holding Carrie a little closer, ears dipping in acknowledgement of Konis’ more reserved concern.
“Let him be, Rhyasha,” Konis said. “They’re a family now. Of course he wants to carry the mother of his cub into their home! I was just the same when you gave birth to him!”
Kusac started walking up the steps, his mother still beside him as his father fell in step with Kaid.
Noni’s here, she sent. She and Vanna — exchanged opinions!
Noni? But she doesn’t travel for anyone!
She’s here none the less. She says not only does she want to see to the cub as Carrie requested, but that Kaid needs her attention too.
He does. His hand was injured again.
I’ll see Noni, sent Carrie, resting her hand on her bond-mother’s arm. Rhyasha, go and look at Kashini. She’s so beautiful!
I will! Again the fleeting touch for both of them, then, with a smile, his mother went to Kaid and her husband’s side.
Noni was waiting for them upstairs in the lounge adjacent to their bedroom. She raised her hand in a negative gesture before either Kusac or Carrie could speak. “A lucky guess,” she said. “Not all of life is visions and portents! Now, young Human. Who do you want — me, or your physician?”
“You, Noni,” said Carrie, smiling tiredly, “but let Vanna come too.”
“Hmpf! I hope you’re not too tired for our arguments then,” she grumbled, following them into the bedroom. She looked over at Kaid. “You’re next, so don’t bother leaving the suite.”
At the side of the bed, a crib now stood and it was in this that Kaid placed the still sleeping cub. From where she’d been laid on the bed, Carrie reached out to stop him leaving. “What can I say but thank you,” she said, gently squeezing his hand.
Mumbling an appropriate reply, Kaid escaped to the lounge as quickly as he could. There he found Dzaka waiting for him. They stood looking at each other for a moment then Kaid took hold of his son by the shoulders, and pulled him close.
“Thank Vartra you’re safe,” said Dzaka as they embraced. “When I heard you were at Chezy, with Fyak and Ghezu . . . ”
“Fyak’s dead,” said Kaid, letting him go and moving over to the nearest chair. Gratefully he sank down into it. “The tribes executed him and Vraiyou.” His voice took on a hard edge. “Ghezu I killed myself. That nightmare is over for both of us.” He closed his eyes, resting his head against the back of the seat, aware now of the tension in his neck and shoulders.
“The Gods be praised,” his son said with feeling. “Do you want to sleep now or eat first?”
Kaid opened his eyes. “Eat. We could all do with food. And c’shar for me, coffee for them.”
“I’ll get it.”
“Tell Vanna that Carrie’s asked her to join them,” Kaid called out after him.
Dzaka stopped in the doorway. “Diplomatic of her. Did you hear Noni and Vanna had a heated discussion over who would treat Carrie and the cub?”
“No, I didn’t. I pity our physician.”
“Don’t.” Dzaka’s mouth opened in a grin. “Vanna held her own.”
Kaid sat back, closing his eyes again. He woke with a start a few minutes later as someone touched his knee. Still groggy, before him he saw a smaller version of Rhyasha –golden-pelted like her mother, the young female’s blond hair fell below her shoulders in a mass of unbound waves.
“You’re Kaid, Dzaka’s father, aren’t you?” she asked.
He nodded, memory beginning to return as he recognized her.
“I’m Kitra, his Companion,” she said. “We haven’t been properly introduced because last time you came back, you’d been ill. I think we should meet now, before Dzaka decides you’re too ill again.” She offered him her hand, palm uppermost.
Totally nonplussed, Kaid reached out to touch fingertips with her. “Well met, Liegena Kitra,” he said.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You don’t call my brother or Carrie by their titles,” she said. “I don’t think you should use mine either, since we’re sort of connected.”
“If that’s what you wish, Kitra,” he said, just succeeding in hiding a grin. “Is there something I can do for you?” He watched as she headed for a nearby footstool and brought it over beside his chair.
“No. I just wanted to meet you formally,” she said, settling herself on it and leaning against him. “Now I can come and talk to you whenever I want. We can get to know each other.”
Dzaka returned carrying a tray loaded with cut meats, bread and cheese as well as a jug each of c’shar and coffee. “I see Kitra’s keeping you company,” he said, carefully placing it down on the low table beside his father.
“Yes. You should have introduced us earlier, Dzaka,” he said. “It isn’t every day my son finds a Companion.”
Dzaka frowned as he held a couple of the plates out. “But you know her! She’s Kusac’s sister.”
“You didn’t introduce her as your Companion though,” Kaid chided him gently.
“Ah. You’re right,” he said, tail swaying slightly with embarrassment. “Sorry, Kitra.”
The door from the bedroom opened and Kusac came through. He smelled the food immediately. “Is there enough for all of us?” he asked, pulling over another chair.
“For you and Kaid, yes. The Clan Leader intends to bring something more suitable up for the Liegena as soon as she’s allowed to,” said Dzaka. “I’ve a message for you from T’Chebbi, Father. She says that General Raiban and Father Lijou wish full reports from you at the earliest possible moment. She told them that you were all suffering from exhaustion and minor injuries and that you’d need to see your physician first. She said you’d not be likely to have the reports ready before the end of the week at the earliest.”
“Vartra bless her!” said Kaid with feeling as he reached for the c’shar jug.
“She’s held everyone together since you disappeared,” said Dzaka quietly.
“A female of hidden talents,” murmured Kusac.
Kaid glanced over at him. “That’s why I chose her. T’Chebbi never pushes herself forward, but she’s a more than able member of the Brotherhood.”
“Of the En’Shalla Brothers,” Kusac reminded him. “We bought our freedom — and theirs — in the Fire Margins, Kaid.”
The riding beasts had shied away as General Kezule was been brought to the tethering line: his scent scared them. It was good to know some things hadn’t changed even if the Sholans were no longer the docile slaves of his day.
While two of his captors held the beast, one of the males had mounted then reached down for him. With his hands bound behind him, he couldn’t assist even had he wanted to. They had to thrust him up to the rider.
The beast danced unhappily from side to side, terrified at having the scent of an alien predator so close to its nostrils. He was thrown against its neck, the boney nodules on its spine pressing into his chest uncomfortably. The rider hauled on the reins, pulling its head up as the two on the ground got a better grip on the halter. Once it was still again, a rope was passed round his waist then the beast’s neck, tethering him in place.
Their leader, the one wearing the broad bracelet that controlled his slave collar, mounted one of the other waiting creatures. There were twelve of them, and all but his rider were heavily armed. They were taking no chances with him. That was his only comforting thought — that they considered him a formidable enemy even in captivity.
With a single cry of command, the group began to move. As his rider took hold of the cord binding his wrists, the beast was given its head. Once again he was flung forward against its neck, this time violently enough to wind him.
The ride was unpleasant. Bounced continually not only against the creature’s painful spine, but also from side to side, it wasn’t long before he began to feel extremely queasy. By the time they arrived at the rendezvous over an hour later, he was in no state to make a bid for freedom even if the opportunity had presented itself.
It seemed an age before they hauled him down and he felt firm ground under his feet again. He staggered and would have fallen had he not stumbled into one of the tribe’s males. The sudden strong alien scent was the last straw, and as he was grabbed by the wrists and hauled upright, he began to retch. Doubling over, he was unable to stop his stomach expelling its contents all over the sand.
“What’s wrong with him?” he heard a voice demand. “Is he ill?”
“He’s not used to land beasts,” came the laughing reply as, still retching, he was thrust forward.
“When he’s done, Lieutenant, give him some water and take him to the medical unit. They’re expecting him.”
“Aye, General Raiban.”
Now rid of what little had been in his stomach, the spasms began to ease and he was able to straighten up. Still shaking, he was temporarily beyond embarrassment. His bonds were cut and he slowly pulled his arms round in front of him, then metal cuffs were snapped round his wrists. A canteen was handed to him. He could smell the water and took it gratefully.
“Does he understand Sholan?”
“Oh, yes,” was the reply. “He spoke to Fyak. He was Kezule!”
“So you’re the god, are you?”
He drank deeply, already feeling better, before even looking at the speaker. He’d recognized the scent as female. They still hadn’t learned to keep their females decently locked in the breeding room then. He considered not replying, on insisting that he speak only to a male, then decided on a safer option instead.
“I only speak to Commander.” He hated their language almost as much as he hated them.
“I am the commander,” was the soft reply. “I’m General Raiban.”
He closed his eyes as the canteen was taken from him, trying to force himself not to react, not to let them see his revulsion at the presence of the female: it would be seen by them as a weakness.
“I am General Kezule,” he admitted, opening his eyes.
“Well come to the future, General. I think you’ll find it somewhat different from the Shola you so recently left behind.” She turned abruptly away from him and began to walk toward one of the larger vehicles accompanied by three of the desert males.
A tug on his arm brought his attention back to his immediate situation.
“You’ve an appointment with the physician,” said the trooper, leading him toward one of the larger tents. Two armed guards followed close behind.
Here the indignities to his person started. His hands were released, and when, scenting yet another female present, he refused to remove his clothing for the medical examination, they held him and forcibly stripped him. He was dragged to a table and held there prone while they prodded and poked at him until they were satisfied he had no broken bones or internal injuries.
Released and allowed to get to his feet, his clothes were held out to him by the female. He snatched them from her, his crest rising and his tongue flicking out in anger.
“How dare you treat me like this! Don’t you know who I am?” he demanded of the nearest male guard. “Not even the basest criminal is exposed to females and not only do you let this one see me naked, but you allow her to touch me!”
With one backhanded blow of his arm, he sent the female flying across the room till she collided with a metal cabinet. “Get her stinking body away from me!” he roared.
The room exploded into activity. He was instantly grabbed by the guards as the physician ran to the side of the unconscious female.
He struggled against them, this time using what he could muster of his full strength. Then he felt the coldness of a gun muzzle at the base of his neck and froze.
“That’s better,” a voice purred in his ear. “I wouldn’t kill you, but a stunner shot right here would be excruciating, don’t you think?”
“Get a stretcher in here on the double!” the physician was shouting. “I want the theater ready immediately, we’ve got a fractured skull here!” He paused to look up at Kezule. “Take that tree-climbing bastard out of here! There’s nothing wrong with him an execution wouldn’t cure!”
He was dragged out of the tent into the sunlight then across the site to the vehicle where their commander had gone.
“What is it, Myule?” Raiban asked her aide, not bothering to look up from her comm.
“Lieutenant Naada, General. There’s been an incident involving the Valtegan captive.”
“What happened?” she demanded, her attention instantly on the Lieutenant.
“One of the medics. Rashou Vrenga. The general hit her. It’s serious, I’m afraid, General Raiban.”
“Hit her? What d’you mean hit her? What the hell was she doing in there in the first place?”
“She’s one of the on-duty staff, I imagine, General,” Naada said, taken aback by her question. “The physician thinks her skull’s fractured. She’s been rushed to the theater.”
“Of all the incompetent, idiotic . . .” She stopped, obviously remembering herself. “Why weren’t my orders that no female personnel were to be allowed near him carried out?” she demanded coldly as she got to her feet.
“I’ve no idea, General Raiban,” Naada stammered, taking a step backward. “I wasn’t aware of the orders myself.” The General’s temper was legendary and he was not enjoying being this close to it.
“Where’s Kezule now?”
“Outside your office, General. They’d finished the medical before he attacked the medic,” he added.
“Bring him in, then when he’s been escorted to the brig, you will find out who’s responsible for not implementing my orders. By Vartra, I’ll have the hide of the person responsible for this!”
“Yes, General Raiban,” he said.
“Myule!” she called. “Myule, I want to be kept informed of the condition of Medic Rashou Vrenga,” she said when her aide appeared. “I don’t care what I’m doing, you keep me updated. You heard what’s happened?”
“See that those on duty in the brig are aware that no female personnel are to be allowed near the area while we have Kezule on board — in fact, clear that section for the next half hour!”
“Bring in your prisoner, Lieutenant,” she ordered. “I’ll see him now.
Eyes still hurting from the rapid changes in light, he stood blinking in front her. Owlishly he watched her get to her feet.
“Where are his clothes?” she demanded. “I ordered him examined, not brought here naked!”
One of his guards held them out to her.
“I don’t want his damned clothing! Take the general to the brig and let him dress himself! See he’s fed and given whatever it is he drinks.” She turned her attention back to him. “General, I apologize for the indignity you’ve suffered. It won’t happen again, I assure you,” she said with stiff formality. “However, while you are our guest, I expect you to refrain from lashing out at my staff. Medical personnel are not warriors; in any conflict, they are recognized by both sides as neutral. I hope I’ve made myself clear.”
He said nothing. What was there to say? Every time he was brought into the company of these females, they insulted him. Worse; he, one of the Emperor’s Faithful, had let his disgust overcome his senses. He’d made a tactical error in letting them realize just how much the presence of their females angered him.
She made a gesture of dismissal and the guards pulled him away.
“General Raiban, what do we feed him?” he heard her aide ask her as they left the room.
“How the hell should I know! The data from High Command should be through by now. That’s your job, Myule, not mine!”
As he was led through the echoing corridors to the detention area, he realized that he was on no military atmospheric vehicle. This craft was space going as well. He could feel his fear glands begin to tighten and fought to control them. The Sholans were capable of reading his scent messages and he would be damned before he’d let them know he was afraid.
So it hadn’t been the hairless female’s species who had found the Sholans as he’d surmised. It had been the Sholans themselves who had advanced to this technological level. Obviously his own kind had never returned to reclaim this world. Why not? The Empire had desperately needed the raw materials this system had to offer. What could have happened to prevent them returning?
They knew his kind, though, and in this time, but they were obviously not a current worry of theirs. What did they want from him? What could he know that would be of use to them after all these years? If they found what they wanted, it would mean his end — ripped to shreds by an angry mob such as had dealt with Fyak and his companion in the desert before they left. There was no real difference between the sharpness of the Sholans’ teeth and claws and the ferocity of Valtegan females at mating time.
Again he felt his fear gland muscles tighten but this time he was unable to prevent them emitting their tell-tale scent. He tensed himself, waiting for the inevitability of their attack on him.
“By Vartra, he stinks!” said one of the troopers. “Another like the Touibans! Pity he doesn’t smell as pleasant!”
“Shut up! You know he understands us,” warned the other, pulling him to a halt in front of a broad windowed cell. Slapping his hand on the palm lock, he gave a voice code and the door slid open.
He was pushed into the cell, his clothing thrust into his arms, and the door sealed.
“They’ll feed you soon,” said the first guard, his voice sounding slightly remote through the speaker. “Water’s in the faucet by the basin, and behind that half-door you’ll find sanitary facilities.”
Left alone, he was confused at their reaction. They hadn’t turned on him as would his own kind. Why not? Still puzzled, he walked over to the bed. Doubtless he’d have plenty time ahead of him to find out more about his captors. Now he regretted being stationed out in the desert rather than in one of the Sholan cities. At least if he’d been there, he’d have had more experience of this species. Throwing his clothes down on the bed, he turned his mind to other things and proceeded to check out his cell.
Once they’d eaten, Carrie and Kusac fell into an exhausted sleep that was broken only by the need to feed their daughter. Rhyasha sat by the crib late into the night, watching her granddaughter, hardly any more able to credit the miracle of her existence than Carrie and Kusac themselves. She left only when urged to do so by Konis.
But Konis! Our first grandchild, she protested as he led her away.
And their first child. Let them enjoy her alone. Soon enough they’ll want your help!
By morning, Noni’s advice had proved to be sound and the mother of a newborn on the estate was hired as a milk nurse. Just as Carrie had needed to supplement her own diet while carrying Kashini, so now did the cub need more than her Human mother’s milk alone provided.
When Kusac finally awoke around the middle of the day, he left Carrie sleeping and went in search of Kaid. He found him sitting at his desk comm eating breakfast and writing his report
“Mind if I join you?”
Kaid indicated a chair with his fork. “Please do.”
“What did Noni say about your injuries?” Kusac asked, sitting down beside him.
“She says I’m fine now. Gave me a pot of ointment for my hand to help bring down the new swelling.” He indicated that Kusac should help himself from his plate.
Kusac flicked an ear in a negative. “If I can use your comm for a moment, I’ll send down for some more food. D’you want anything?”
Kaid’s ears pricked forward. “I could eat a second breakfast,” he said hopefully. “Don’t know when I’ve been so hungry.”
“Time travel,” said Kusac. “Noni said it had depleted our energy reserves and we had to eat as much as possible in the next few days to build ourselves up again. Carrie’s been hit worst by it. She hadn’t got the weight to lose in the first place, neither has Kashini. She was developing at an alarming rate those last four days before she was born. Did I tell you that maintaining the gateway we used to come back destroyed the crystal she wore?”
“It did?” said Kaid, eye ridges meeting in concern as he turned his comm round for Kusac. “It didn’t harm mine. What about the cub? Did it affect her?”
“Not that we can tell. Both Noni and Vanna said she was as healthy as any newborn they’d ever seen. I can’t help worrying, though. If the energy drain could destroy Carrie’s crystal, it must have had some effect on them beyond Carrie’s weight loss.” He leaned forward and keyed into the kitchen, asking Zhala for hot food and coffee to be sent up.
Returning the screen to its normal position, he sat back. “I think we should tell everyone concerned that the way to the past has been sealed.”
Kaid nodded slowly. “Our success may encourage more people to try. We want to avoid that. Whatever the reasons, too many people have died that way already. And the gateway has been destroyed, in our time.”
“Kezule will be able to tell us if other travelers arrived at the temple while he was there.”
“It didn’t need Kezule and his warriors to kill them, all it needed was for them to arrive as the temple collapsed,” said Kaid. “But you’re right. We should say the way is closed. Apart from any other consideration, we don’t want the past altered any more than it has been.”
“How much of the truth do we tell Lijou?”
Kaid hesitated. “Let’s play that one by ear. See how our debriefing with him goes. The series of events that enabled us to go back are unlikely to recur, but if they became common knowledge, someone could try to duplicate them.”
“They couldn’t duplicate your contribution, Kaid. It’s unique. There are no other telepathic warriors from the past living on Shola.”
Kaid stopped what he was doing and reached for his pack of stim twigs. “There is one other. Rezac,” he said quietly. “If the message Carrie — and others — received is to be believed.”
“He’s not on Shola. Who else is aware of the sending?”
“I checked through the messages as usual this morning. Lijou heard it, and I’m pretty sure that your father did.”
“What does Lijou say?”
“To contact him as soon as possible. I wouldn’t bother. Given the time of day, I’ll warrant he’s on his way over here already.”
Kusac grunted. “If he is, he can wait till we’ve eaten.”
Some ten minutes later, true to Kaid’s prediction, Lijou’s imminent arrival was announced by Ni’Zulhu, followed by the person himself shortly afterwards.
“You both look thinner, not that that’ll last from the size of the meals you two are eating,” he said, staring critically at them.
“Join us,” said Kusac. “You must be missing your second meal by coming out here.”
“I am. Your young sister Kitra — who seems to be growing up remarkably quickly all of a sudden — appears to have assumed the position of house-head. She said she’d see a meal was sent up for me,” he said, pulling a chair up to join them. “Your son’s been good for her, Kaid — in fact they’ve been good for each other. I’m glad. I was afraid he’d never recover from the loss of Nnya and his son.”
“They’re only Companions, Lijou,” said Kaid. “It’s a little early to be seeing a long term relationship.”
“The Aldatan females know exactly who they want from the first, and tend to stay with that choice unfortunately,” Lijou sighed. “Not that you males are much different! Mind if I have some coffee, Kusac?”
“Help yourself. How do you mean unfortunately?”
“Rhyasha broke many hearts when she forced her choice of Konis as a life-mate on the Clan Lord, that’s all.” He poured himself a drink. “Kitra’s so like her. She’ll have Dzaka, mark my words. I’d stake money on it.”
“My sister’s barely left childhood, Lijou,” objected Kusac, helping himself to more bread. “She’s not ready to choose a life-mate yet.”
“You’ve news for us, Lijou. What is it?” asked Kaid.
“While you slept this morning, Konis and I’ve been busy,” he said, sipping his drink. “He convened a special meeting of the Clan Council and between us, we pushed through the ratification of your new Clan. It’s been done as you asked, you’re an official sub-sect of the Aldatan Clan and are to be known as the En’Shalla Aldatans or just the En’Shalla Clan. At the next meeting, you’ll be Invested and can take your seat on the Council of Seventeen.”
“Seventeen?” Kusac frowned. “Oh. Sixteen plus ours.” Suddenly it felt like the society he’d grown up in was changing too rapidly — yet he realized he was the one who’d initiated the changes. He shook his head to dispel the somber mood and grinned over at Kaid. “We did it, Kaid. We won our freedom from the Guilds and Clans!” He turned back to Lijou. “How are the members of our clan chosen?”
“You choose those friends and colleagues you want to be part of your family. If they agree, they must formally accept your invitation and take the Aldatan name then they will have En’Shalla status like you. Choose carefully, Kusac,” Lijou warned. “Being a member of your Clan will confer great privileges which could be misused.”
“You needn’t worry, Lijou. I intend to set it up so only the immediate family, those with Human Leskas, and our Brothers, will have the En’Shalla status. Apart from new mixed Leskas, we’re not recruiting for members. As you know, we have all the people I want living here on this estate. I also intend to set up a ruling council with myself as head to see to all matters of discipline and policy.”
“That should help ensure that future generations will find it difficult to abuse the responsibilities that come with power. This afternoon, Governor Nesul will pass a bill giving all lay-Brothers and Sisters the rank of priest. Unlike Esken’s priests, we all belong to one faith — the only faith with its own college of priests. We’re also being granted the right to wear black as our designated color. When acting as warriors of the Brotherhood, our people will wear gray trimmed with black and drop the use of the Warrior Guild’s red.”
“I said this would happen,” Kusac reminded Lijou. “It’s going to mean a lot of reorganizing for you.”
“It’s work I will relish, said Lijou, sitting back in his chair. “Even as we speak, because you are now En’Shalla, your status within the lay-Brotherhood is being altered to show that you are priests. That includes you, Kaid.”
Kusac watched his friend’s thoughtful expression. Had he realized that now Lijou could ask for his own Guild? The Guild of Priests? It would take yet another portion of Esken’s power away from him, making all priests subject to Lijou.
Yes. It occurred to Konis too, the Head Priest sent to him. And Nesul and Raiban. I’ve been told to apply for it at the next All-Guild’s meeting.
What about the joint leadership of the Brotherhood?
It’ll remain unchanged. Esken’s priests will simply belong to me instead. Switching to speech, Lijou looked toward Kaid. “The council selecting the candidate for Guild Leader of the Warrior Brothers wish to reinstate you as a Brother.”
Startled, Kaid stared at him. “Reinstate me?”
“As if Ghezu had never expelled you,” agreed the Head Priest.
Kaid was silent for a moment then began to laugh softly. “No, thank you, Lijou. The past happened, it can’t be undone. Besides, being En’Shalla, what more do I need?”
“I said that would be your answer. It’s never good to dwell on the past. Now,” he said, sitting forward. “Tell me your news!”
“Our news?” Kusac gave Kaid a humorous glance. “Who says we have news?”
Lijou made an exasperated noise. “Don’t wrong-spoor me! I gave you my news. Start with Carrie and the cub.”
“Both fine. Vanna’s scanner and Noni both agreed on that. About the only thing they did agree on,” said Kusac wryly, remembering the females’ attitudes to each other.
“Noni’s here?” Lijou looked startled.
“For a day or two. She’ll be staying at the main house with my parents until after Kashini’s Validation.”
“I’m impressed. Now the Margins. What did you find? Did you see Him?”
“We found Vartra,” said Kaid. “He’s not what you expect, Lijou.”
“Just tell me!” There was a glint in his eyes.
“Things were different then, Lijou, very different. No Guilds. Instead they had places of learning where many things were taught all under the same roof. Vartra was a physician who worked there teaching genetics to younglings. Not a Physician like we have, but a doctor of research. There were a few telepaths then, too few in Vartra’s eyes. He was working on a way to enhance their abilities and increase the likelihood of Leska links happening so as to breed more. He thought himself untalented but he wasn’t. Carrie said he forced the genes into the patterns he wanted. Which is why the result was unstable, and also why no one can duplicate it.”
Lijou let out his breath with a hiss. “So what we are, the very fabric of our being as Telepaths, is due to Him, and it’s unstable?”
“Not necessarily,” said Kusac, putting a restraining hand on the Head Priest’s arm. “When we left, he was working on a way to stabilize us. We may well be the result of that stabilization.”
“Where do the Humans fit in?”
“He took a blood sample from Carrie. Going back to the Margins contributed to our future and my own Link with Carrie.”
Lijou sat silently for a moment. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? Our fears of the future you and Carrie represented are what drove you back to the past to create what we feared.”
“It had to happen, Lijou, because it did,” said Kaid.
“I know,” he sighed. “And I was right about you,” he said, wagging a finger in his direction. “You were chosen before them!”
“Not quite, but I won’t argue the point,” Kaid murmured, trying not to let Kusac catch his eye.
“So how did He become a God — or is he?” This was Lijou’s crucial question and they could see and feel his anxiety. Was their whole faith based on sand — or rock?
“He’s a God now, that’s indisputable,” said Kaid. “I believe it was a mixture of guilt and His Talent that caused it. I don’t know how Gods are formed, Lijou. That’s your department.”
“Guilt?” Lijou looked from one to the other.
“It wasn’t completely his fault,” said Kusac. “His students used the serum before it was fully tested. It’s as well they did, because that generation of enhanced telepaths were all that stood between Shola and the Valtegans. He had to send his best people out on a what was virtually a suicide mission. He hated having to do that.”
Kaid stirred in his seat. “Lijou, there wasn’t the time to ask many questions. What we did gather was that the telepaths allowed themselves to be captured by the Valtegans, then somehow managed to place themselves next to important leaders. It was Rezac and Zashou who gave the signal for their attack to begin. What the nature of their attack was, we don’t know, but a Valtegan starship, out of control because the telepaths on board created dissent among the command crew, hit our lesser moon. That caused the wholesale destruction of Shola that we call the Cataclysm.”
“Fyak wasn’t that far wrong, was he? We were significantly involved in causing the cataclysm,” said Lijou thoughtfully. “When you say Rezac and Zashou, you do mean the same Rezac who sent the message to Shola that Carrie intercepted, don’t you?”
“The same,” said Kusac. “They’re on Jalna, with Jo, Davies and Kris.”
“Konis said they’d been captured by the Lord there. We must get them back safely to Shola. What they can tell us will be invaluable! Most of what we’ve discussed must not go beyond these walls,” he said, looking from one to the other. “These are matters for our Order, not for the world at large.”
“Raiban will know about some of them already, Lijou. We brought back a Valtegan general — Kezule. The one who convinced Fyak he was a god.”
“Then we must decide now what Raiban should be told,” he said. “More, we must talk, in depth, of what our Order should know of your meeting with Vartra.”
A knock on the door heralded the arrival of Lijou’s meal.
Carrie stood looking down at the freshly bathed cub lying on the padded nursery surface . The infant — her daughter — lay on her stomach, limbs splayed slightly out from her body, hands spread wide. Through the blond down that covered her, her skin, still pink from her bath, showed through. The tiny tail, barely more than a short, stubby triangle, was held close to her rear. It was hard to think that she’d given birth to this small furred scrap.
The cub lifted her head an inch or two off the mat and sniffed the air, blindly searching for her mother. She gave a soft mewl of distress.
“Well, pick your daughter up, child,” said Noni brusquely. “Don’t let her get upset or she’ll not settle properly for her feed.”
Leaning down, Carrie carefully folded the cloth around her cub, picked her up and carried her over to the bed. Noni watched as she settled herself.
“So Tallinu delivered her, did he? A novel experience for all of you, I’ll not doubt! A useful male to have about.” She peered sharply at Carrie as she began to feed her infant. “You do intend to keep him, don’t you?”
“Yes, Noni, I do,” she said, wincing as Kashini’s hands, claws splayed, began to open and close against her breast. “Ouch! Her teeth are bad enough, but those claws of hers!”
“It’s only for a few weeks, child. You should wrap her arms tight in her blanket if it’s that painful.”
“No, I couldn’t do that to her,” she said, gently caressing her cub’s head with her free hand. “She’d feel trapped. She needs to be free to move as she wants.” She looked over to where the old Sholan sat. “You know, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about her, but somehow it doesn’t seem important that she isn’t like me. She’s my daughter and that’s all that matters.” Reflexively she held her baby closer, feeling a surge of love welling up within her.
“That’s blood talking to blood, child,” Noni laughed gently. “Would you listen to her? I can hear her purring from here! You and she have bonded all right!”
Despite their talk about Kashini, Carrie could sense Noni was more interested in Kaid. Now the old Sholan knew she and her cub were bonded, she’d turned her mind to other matters. Well, if she wanted to know, she could damned well ask! Noni had been enigmatic with all of them often enough, now it was her turn.
After a few minutes of silence, Noni finally let her curiosity get the better of her.
“And how did your night with Tallinu go? You left before I had chance to ask you. It has only been the once so far, hasn’t it?”
“So far,” agreed Kaid from the open doorway. “As for how our night went, shame on you for asking, Noni!”
Carrie looked up, smiling in pleasure to see him. They were so different, he and Kusac. Her husband, the telepath and scholar, as dark-pelted as midnight, and Kaid, the highly disciplined warrior-priest, his fur the color of the desert soil at Khezy’ipik. How could she care so deeply for two such different males?
“Have you no more respect for your elders than to go sneakin’ up on them like that?” Noni demanded tartly.
“Not a lot,” he replied, coming over to Carrie. “Kusac will be here in a few minutes to escort you down to the aircar.” He reached out impulsively to touch Carrie’s cheek.
“Hmpf!” said Noni, pushing herself slowly up from her chair. “So you’re not a love-sick youngling! You do a fair job of imitating one!”
“You’ll not goad me today, Noni,” he said.
Carrie took his hand in hers and urged him to sit beside her. As he did, his larger hand enveloped hers, keeping it within his grasp. “I’ve come to spend a little time with Carrie, if she doesn’t mind, not argue with you.”
“I’d like that,” said Carrie aware of his grip tightening gently as she spoke.
“I suppose I’d better leave you in peace,” Noni grumbled, turning away from them and making her way slowly to the door.
When she’d gone, Carrie gently eased her hand away. “Kashini’s heavier than she looks,” she explained, using it to help support her cub’s weight. “How’s it going with Lijou?”
“He’ll be here for a while yet,” said Kaid. “Kusac asked me to keep you company, and I, reluctantly of course, agreed.”
“Of course.” She matched his grin. “Tell me some more about the Triads, Tallinu. I know they formed so the warrior could protect the Leska pair, but there was more to their link than that, wasn’t there?”
“Some,” he agreed. “You have to see them in relation to their time. The needs they fulfilled then don’t exist now.”
She could sense his evasion. “Historically,” she conceded, watching the muscles of his face and ears relax. She found Sholans so much easier to read than Humans.
“Historically, after the cataclysm, there were only a few telepaths left on this continent. Those that remained had to breed, to provide future generations. We know Vartra was trying to increase the number of Leska bondings, and that his virus, like our ni’uzu, affected those with non-telepathic talents too. The result was that some warriors were drawn to Leska pairs and formed a bond — a triad — with them. More often it was the female who had two lovers, or life-mates, because few females could be spared to fight then so it was important that the females be adequately defended.”
“Two life mates?”
He nodded. “All telepathic links, be they Leska ones or minor ones, started out as a way for the strongest talents to be drawn together — natural selection. With so few pure telepaths, they had to keep track of the family bloodlines, and the Triads meant the inclusion of some warriors with minor talents made the gene pool larger. Later generations of triads recognized that only one life-mate was needed so long as the cubs were parented and nurtured by all three.”
“That’s why Kusac registered our Triad at the temple,” nodded Carrie. She felt his mind begin to retreat from her as he broke eye contact.
“There’s very little likelihood of us becoming genetically compatible,” he said quietly. “I think Kusac was being over-cautious. Even with Leska pairs it takes a gestalt.”
“You’ve been exposed to a gestalt, Tallinu.”
He looked sharply at her. “Never!”
“Mara’s, when we were at the ruins the day you left Valsgarth to find Khemu,” she reminded him.
He looked away again. “That doesn’t count. It has to belong to your own Triad.”
“There isn’t time for more cubs anyway,” she said, changing the tone of the conversation. “We’ve got friends to rescue. Vanna says that now she and Jack are working together with access to both our species data banks, they’re much nearer a breakthrough for this common contraceptive for the mixed Leska females. And while we were in the Margins, the military gave her all the equipment and people she wanted. It seems they’re determined nothing will delay us going on this rescue mission, which suits me.”
“You know about it?”
“Of course,” she said calmly. “Once Kusac figured it out, then naturally I knew. I picked it up from you as well.”
“Me?” His whole body showed his surprise.
“I’ve been able to pick up your occasional unguarded surface thought since before you and Dzaka fought.”
He grunted non-committaly.
She nodded. “With Rezac and Zashou and three Humans stranded on Jalna, that makes five people. There’s no way two of us can locate that many people, let alone rescue them, Tallinu.”
In her arms, Kashini began to make tiny mewling sounds of distress as she lifted her head and turned to look up at her mother. They both felt the sudden burst of hunger and fretfulness.
Kaid winced. “She’s very sensitive to your emotions. Dzaka’s talent wasn’t this developed even by the age of six.”
“We’ve noticed,” she said, lifting the cub up and holding her out to him. “Take her for a moment, please.”
Cautiously Kaid accepted the infant.
Carrie laughed, feeling his confusion and reluctance. “I’d get used to it, Tallinu. You’re her secondary father after all!”
He gave her a horrified look. “Her uncle!” he said, a pained tone in his voice. “Only her uncle!”
The cub clutched at his arms, sniffing curiously.
“I’ll take her back now,” Carrie said.
As she settled Kashini against her other breast, Carrie was aware of Kaid watching her. You males are all the same, she sent. Fascinated by newborns!
Not newborns, by their mothers feeding them, he responded, ears dipping in embarrassment. You do realize I’ve been waiting nearly fifty years to see Kashini born, don’t you? And I was right. She is very special.
He reached toward Carrie, gently running the sensitive tips of his fingers across the curve of her breast, then lower, till he touched the cub’s cheek.
I have to confess I’m no different from Kusac. His hand moved again, his fingers first touching hers then twining round them where they supported the child.
“How so? Surely you’ve seen other females feeding their cubs?”
“Never. Only the closest of male clan members are allowed to be present.”
“For such a liberated species, you have some strange customs,” she murmured, feeling a warm lassitude begin to creep over her. “Don’t make me feel tired, Kaid. When I’ve finished feeding her I want to go downstairs and join you.”
“You should rest. You’ve got the Validation ceremony the day after tomorrow.”
“I’ve rested enough for now. I’ve seen too much of the nursery and my bedroom.”
Kaid laughed and leaned forward across Kashini to nuzzle Carrie’s cheek.
The gesture was slightly clumsy and reminded her how unused he was to moments of affection. Turning her face to his, she brushed his lips with hers. She found the kiss returned with an urgency she hadn’t expected, then, just as suddenly, he pulled back from her, ears slightly laid back.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that while you’re nursing. Tell me, are you really unharmed by the birth? You were in so much pain and I could do nothing to help you. I should have studied birthing when I knew we were going to the Margins while you were still pregnant.”
She tightened her hand round his, sending reassurances to him mentally. “How could you, Tallinu? You were barely able to move when we brought you out of Stronghold. You were the one who had to study the Margin rituals at the shrine with Ghyan, you had to lead us back into the past. That was far more important than learning about birthing when we thought I still had another eight or more weeks left. Yes, I really am fine! Noni herself could have done no more for me than you and Kusac did.”
“What about Kashini?”
“She’s fine too. She is too mentally aware for her age. She may even have been born with her Talent fully awake instead of growing into it as is normal. It may be due to me having to control the vortex, but we don’t know. Whatever it was, although it’s inconvenient for us, it hasn’t seemed to bother her yet.”
“Being yours and Kusac’s child, I’d be surprised if she wasn’t unusual from the first,” he said with a grin, easing his hand away from her and beginning to get up. “I must go now. We’ve still a lot to discuss with Lijou. I’ll see you when you come downstairs.”
That night, the first of the winter storms came, and with it, the nightmares. Though the environmental screens cut out most of the noises, Kaid could still hear the wind howling round the villa. No house was silent especially one as newly constructed as this. He tossed and turned, listening to the creakings and soft rattlings, trying to identify their source until at last he fell into an exhausted sleep.
Even then, for him the sounds didn’t stop. They grew louder, deeper in pitch till he was trapped within a roaring sea of noise. Heat enveloped him; burning particles ripped their way through his pelt, searing the flesh below. As terror gripped his throat in its jaws, he realized he was caught within the vortex of the gateway to the past.
If only he could make a sound — cry out, anything — he knew he could end it! He fought against the terror, against the paralysis that held his body rigid and constricted his throat. This couldn’t be happening! He couldn’t possibly be traveling back to the past again! The drug dreams were supposed to be over!
A strangled noise escaped his lips: it was a beginning. He tried again, this time managing a low mewl. The world righted itself with a sickening lurch and suddenly he was sitting up in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping for air. The echo of a sigh was sounding in his ears.
The door slid open and, framed by the light from the other room, he saw Kusac. A curt hand signal to someone obviously behind him, then his Liege came over to his bedside. With a murmured apology, Kusac reached down and touched his fingertips to the pulse at the side of Kaid’s neck.
“I’m fine,” said Kaid, turning his head aside.
Kusac let his hand drop. “May I sit?”
Flicking his right ear briefly in agreement, Kaid worked on slowing his breathing as Kusac perched on the edge of the bed.
“Carrie said you’d cried out.”
“A dream, nothing more,” said Kaid. “I’m surprised that with the dampers on she noticed.”
“She sensed it through your crystal.”
Against his throat, Kaid became aware of the warmth of the crystal and her concern for him. He didn’t respond: she’d know how he was through Kusac. He pushed the cover aside and got up, heading to the dispenser for a drink of water.
“I’m sorry I disturbed her,” he said, keeping his back to Kusac. “I know she needs her sleep. I’ll stop wearing it.”
“No need to do that, Kaid. This wasn’t a complaint: we were concerned for you, that’s all.”
Feeling Kusac’s hesitation, he turned round. “I think tomorrow it might be better if I moved into the Brotherhood accommodation across the street.”
“I’m healed now, there’s no need for me to live here unless I’m on duty. And I’m less likely to disturb Carrie.”
He watched Kusac’s ears flick backward in surprise. “Kaid, I told you at Chezy, you’re not my Liegeman, you’re my friend, part of our family. Surely by now you know that our friendship goes beyond the need we had to form a Triad. There’s no reason for you to leave. Your home is here, with us — if you want it. As for being on duty, I know you, you always consider yourself on duty, but there’s no need for that now. These are your rooms, here for you whether you choose to use them or not.”
Turning, Kaid returned to his bed, placing the mug on his night stand. “I never apologized for leaving the way I did,” he said quietly. “Nor thanked you for getting me out of Stronghold.”
“There’s no need. We understood why you needed to go,” said Kusac, standing up. “We were just damned glad to get you back alive.”
“You have my thanks anyway. I’ll not disturb you again. It was probably that cheese Zhala served tonight.”
Kusac grimaced. “It was a little strong, certainly not to my taste. Look, Kaid, the last week has been unimaginable. We traveled back fifteen hundred years and Vartra knows how many thousand odd miles as well as everything else you’ve been through. We’re all exhausted. Not just that, time itself has played some awful tricks on us, you especially. We all need to take it easy, come to terms with what’s happened, what we’ve seen and done. At least we have each other, and our Talents. If you have any problems, don’t try to cope alone. Remember, Telepaths share the bad times as well as the good.”
Kaid nodded. “I’ll remember. Thank you for coming. You’d best go before your cub wakes.”
Kusac rejoined his mate, still concerned about Kaid. Sitting beside her, he leaned over the crib, looking down at their sleeping daughter. Carefully he placed his finger against the tiny half-curled hand, feeling the gentle twitch as the cub gradually came closer to waking.
“I still can’t believe she’s real,” he said, moving his hand to stroke the tiny blond head with its closely furled ears.
“Oh, she’s real,” said Carrie drily, pushing herself up into a sitting position. “Every time I feed her, I know she’s real! Her teeth are like needles!”
Instantly his attention was on her. “I thought it would be easier for you now we had the nurse.”
“It is, but that doesn’t blunt those teeth! My skin isn’t quite as thick as yours, you know.”
He leaned forward to place his cheek against hers as she smothered a yawn. “Then give yourself a break tomorrow. Let the nurse feed her. Have the day to yourself.”
“No thanks! I’d rather have the teeth than the pain I get if I miss more than one feed. Thank goodness it’s only for a few weeks. Tell me, how’s Kaid?”
“You know you’re the only one who can sense him, Carrie. You know as much as I do.”
“You saw him, though. How did he look? What did his body language tell you?”
“As usual, not much. He put it down to Zhala’s cheese, which might not be far wrong considering it gave me indigestion.”
“I’m glad I couldn’t have any! What did your instincts tell you?”
“That it was the cheese.”
“Not that! You know what I mean.” She grinned, batting his hand away as he stroked her cheek.
“That whatever it was, he’s keeping it to himself. There’s not a lot we can do, cub, except keep an eye on him. At least the drug dreams are over.”
“It should all be over now Ghezu’s dead,” she murmured.
“You’ve got me worried now, Carrie,” he said, sitting back and regarding her. “You said Ghezu hadn’t broken him. Was that the truth, or were you protecting him?”
“Kaid has to have some privacy, Kusac. We’ve learned how to create our own despite the closeness of our Link. He hasn’t. His mind’s still an open book and I can’t betray those involuntary confidences.” She stopped for a moment. “It was the truth.”
“A near thing then?”
She nodded slowly. “Near. But that’s not all he’s coming to terms with. Learning that he was responsible for sending himself forward to live in our time, and worse, responsible for giving his child-self his adult memories of me, did hit him hard. I think it still troubles him.”
He reached out to take her face between both hands, looking deep into her eyes. “If he needs you, cub, go to him. I don’t begrudge what you and he share, because we have so much. I’m glad you chose him as your lover and our third. There’s no one I could trust the way I trust him.” He urged her closer, his mouth touching hers in a gentle Terran kiss that gradually became more purposeful.
Beside them, in her crib, Kashini began to mewl. With a sigh, Carrie and Kusac parted.
He was two years old again, racing down the tunnel from the upper level to the lower caverns when he collided with her. Papers went flying everywhere. Then she reached out and grabbed hold of him. He froze, hardly believing what he saw. She was so different, not like them at all. Her face, surrounded by a cloud of hair the color of sunlight, was as furless as her hands. Then she grasped him by the other arm and held him even closer. For the first time, he could smell her scent.
He woke with a start, breath coming fast and sweat again coating his palms. Sitting up, he rubbed at his eyes, pushing his hair back from his face in an effort to be sure he was awake. Gods! It had been so real! As if he’d been there. Reaching out with a shaking hand, he picked up the mug of water from his night table. Their trip to the past had released all the memories he’d tried to hide so long ago, and now they were making themselves felt. He took a long drink before returning the mug to the stand.
Determinedly he lay down. He wasn’t going to let this dream worry him. So what if he remembered her from back then? It didn’t mean that what he felt for her now was based solely on what had happened to him as a cub. The nightmare earlier must have triggered the memory.
It took some time to succumb to sleep again, and when he did, it was only to return to the past.
They stood in front of the entrance to the lab, an area that Tallinu had never been allowed near. He was excited, could hardly contain himself. So much rushing around! Everything was being moved — all their belongings. He was too young to help so he amused himself running round seeing what everyone was doing. He spent most time watching their visitors, the two Sholans and the strange female.
Running into her had frightened him, because he knew enough to realize she’d been expecting a cub herself and he’d been afraid he’d hurt her. They’d taken her to the doctor but she must have been all right as she’d not been kept in the infirmary for long.
When it came time to leave, he went with Dr Vartra to see the door to the lab sealed. He’d been shown the collar, given it in fact, to put into the control panel recess.
“We have to leave it here, Tallinu,” the doctor said.
“Because it has to be found there.”
He thought about this for a moment. “Like a present?”
“Yes, just like a present.” He heard the note of surprised pleasure in the doctor’s voice.
“For her? For the stranger? Can we leave it for her?” he’d asked.
“If you wish.”
“We have to leave now,” said Goran. “There’s no more time left, Vartra.”
“We’re coming,” the doctor said, looking over his shoulder. “Are our travelers safe?”
` “Yeah, all loaded up like you said. Have you put the collar in yet?”
“We’re just doing it now.”
He felt himself being lifted and held level with the control panel. “Put the collar in, Tallinu. We have to go now.”
He’d placed the collar into the recess, watching while the doctor pressed the button to seal the lab doors. As the panel itself slid shut, Vartra took his hand and placed it against the rock wall, letting him feel the slight indentations that marked the concealed mechanism.
“That’s where you press to open the panel, Tallinu. You’ll need to remember this, so feel carefully over the rock.”
“I’ll remember,” he said. He felt proud that an important adult like Dr Vartra would entrust him with the secret of how to unlock the doors.
They turned away, the doctor still carrying him. A sweet was handed to him as they made their way down the corridors to the outside where the vehicles were waiting for them. By the time he was handed into their truck, his eyes were beginning to feel heavy and it was difficult to keep them open. He was passed from person to person till at last he felt himself come to rest on a soft lap. He sniffed. The scent was familiar. Opening his eyes with an effort, he looked up to see the strange female.
Her hand rubbed against his cheek as she gathered him more comfortably on what was left of her lap. “Settle down now,” she said quietly. “Go to sleep, Tallinu. It’s going to be a long journey.”
His heavy eyelids closed as he pulled himself closer, leaning his head against her belly. He fell asleep listening to the gentle rhythm of her unborn cub’s heartbeat.
His troubled night had left him disoriented and tired. He kept to his rooms, working on his report, coming down only for second meal then retreating to the sanctuary of his rooms again. The day seemed to be full of shadows for him — shadows and whispers — to the point where he began to wonder if the balance of his mind had been affected. By evening, he felt as if he was inhabiting a world of half-reality, that was neither here in his present, nor belonging to the past.
After third meal, he excused himself, saying he was going to visit the shrine and that he might remain there overnight.
Ghyan was surprised to see him. “I thought you’d still be resting,” he said.
“I’ve had a bellyful of resting,” Kaid growled, sinking his hands deeper into the pockets of the long winter coat he wore. “I want to meditate, Ghyan. Can I use the room I had before?”
“It’s your room, Kaid,” said Ghyan. “Can I get you a drink?”
Kaid shook his head. “Nothing, thanks. The peace of this shrine is all I need.”
“How long do you plan to stay?”
“Maybe overnight, if you have no objection.”
“None. As I said, the room is yours.” The priest stopped, obviously choosing his next words carefully. “Before you go, can you speak yet of what you saw in the Margins?”
“Not yet. Father Lijou has asked us to mention it to no one as yet,” said Kaid, turning to leave. “I mean you no insult, Ghyan,” he added.
“None taken, Kaid. I’ll see you’re not disturbed till morning. If you leave during the night, would you stop by our night watch and let him know?”
It was with relief that he closed the door of the small room behind him and switched on the psychic damper field. Now he felt that he’d truly left the world outside. He started setting out the oil lamp and the incense, taking comfort from the familiar tasks. There had been too much in his life lately that had been beyond his control. He needed this time of solitude and old familiarity — and isolation from the constant background awareness of the minds around him..
Thankfully, the room was heated. Shrugging off his coat, he looked in the chest at the foot of the bed for something more comfortable to wear. In it he found a black priest’s robe — one of the Brotherhood’s. Surprised, he lifted it out and unfolded it. It had his scent on it – old, but unmistakably his. Then he recognized it. It had belonged to him all those years ago in Stronghold. How in all the Gods’ names had it come here? Then it dawned on him. Kusac had said that Dzaka had kept the room tended while he’d been missing in the hope that Vartra would guide him home. He must have kept the robe all these ten years past, and brought it here for him.
A wave of emotion came over him at the thought behind the gesture. Despite their unresolved quarrels, and stormy relationship, his son had cared enough to not only keep the robe, but to place it here against his return. He took off his jacket and slipped his arms into it, fastening it with the cord that hung from the waist. A sense of premonition, swiftly followed by disquiet came over him as he did, but resolutely he pushed it aside.
He settled on the mat, lighting the ornate bronze lamp and crumbling the incense onto the hot charcoal. Scented smoke filled the air, swirling lazily as he began to chant the litanies. Gradually the tension began to drop away from him as he let himself sink lower and lower into the meditative trance.
For some time he stayed like this, at peace with himself as he repeated the teaching litanies of Vartra, examining each of them in the new light of what he’d learned in the Margins.
It began almost subliminally at first, sounding like the whispers that had followed him all day. Then it became louder, finally intruding into his consciousness.
He needs to be focused on us.
He’s not listening! Tallinu! Tallinu!
Calls himself Kaid now.
Kaid, dammit! Kaid!
Confused, his chanting began to falter as he tried to sense who was calling him.
He’s not responding. We can’t keep this up much longer!
Get him to do it. He’s supposed to be the god after all. Maybe he’ll listen to the doctor.
God? What talk was this of gods?
You’d better, because we can’t get him otherwise!
He heard the implicit threat. Litanies, chants, all forgotten, he began to mentally back away. This didn’t feel right. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to know. Then his mind was grasped and held. Powerless, he had no choice but to listen.
Kaid, we’re not finished yet. There’s work still to be done.
No! I’ve done enough for you! No more, Vartra, no more! His mind shouted the refusal.
You will return once more. You are at the heart of matters both here and in the future. You will return!
The room started to recede and he felt himself pulled toward a heat and fire he recognized only too well.
As if from a great height, he saw his body slump then fall forward onto the floor. A white rime began to form over his robe, then, as panic began to take hold, the image faded and he was swept into a maelstrom of sound and heat and pain.
Fire licked along his limbs, burning and consuming him. The smell of seared fur and flesh filled his nostrils and as he opened his mouth to scream, flames gushed out. Mercifully, his senses left him.
He woke to find himself lying on the floor wrapped in a damp robe. The lamp flame began to flicker as he pushed himself upright. Groggily he peered at it. The oil reservoir was nearly empty. He must have been asleep for several hours. Stiffly he got to his feet, wincing as his groin muscles complained. Too tired to be concerned, he blew out the meditation lamp then limped over to the bedside to activate the light. Stripping off his robe, he hung it over a chair to dry. With a shiver, he pulled back the covers and climbed into bed, passing his hand over the sensor to douse the light. Almost instantly, he was asleep .
Morning brought a vague feeling of disquiet and uncertainty. His meditation the night before had resulted only in half a night’s sleep on the floor and the stiff and sore muscles that accompanied it.
Getting out of bed, he dropped down onto all four limbs. It would be easier and less painful to ease his muscles this way. Arching his back upward, he stretched his spine first, all the way down to the tip of his tail. Then he leaned backward till his forearms touched the floor, straightening his spine and flexing the large muscles in his shoulders and neck, easing the kinks in his upper back. Standing up again, he extended first his left, then his right leg behind him. Before he reached full stretch, though, the tenderness in his groin made itself felt once more.
Rearing upright, he gently pressed the inner surfaces of both thighs: definitely tender, which was both surprising and worrying as he’d not been with a female since the night he’d spent with Jaisa in the Margins. Even if he’d had company the night before, for those muscles to be painful was not normal.
Something had caused it, but what? Using the skills Kusac had been teaching him, he searched his memory, finding nothing to give him even a clue as to what had happened the night before. He remembered meditating, then nothing until he’d wakened cold and damp in the early hours of the morning. He shivered, knowing it had nothing to do with the chill air. Resolutely he put it from his mind. Whatever the cause, a hot bath would help ease the aching muscles.
A note from Ghyan inviting him to join him for first meal was waiting for him when he returned. Inevitably the conversation centered round Vartra and the Fire Margins.
“Matters have gone beyond the point where we can discuss them on a personal basis, Ghyan. You’ll have to wait till Lijou briefs you himself.”
“What can you tell me, then?” Ghyan asked in exasperation. “Tell me about the person!”
Again the shiver as wisps of memory seemed to drift briefly through his mind. They were gone before he could pursue them. “He’s like us — subject to the same fears and self-doubt.” Yesterday he could have said more, now he felt unsure, as if the person he’d met in the past had retreated within the legend. The whole topic disturbed him deeply.
He got to his feet. “I have to go, Ghyan. Thank you for your hospitality but I’ve things I must do before the Validation ceremony starts.”
He returned to his room, changing back into his ordinary clothes. Looking at the discarded robe, he reached for it, and folding it, placed it in the small bag he’d brought. The gap in his memory troubled him, as had the faint voices the day before. Was his mind becoming unstable? Was it, despite what Carrie said, due to his newly awakened Talent? His blood ran cold at the thought. To be rogue, with an unstable Talent! He had to go to Stronghold. He was a danger to himself and everyone, especially her and the cub.
The afternoon sun had warmed the air and Carrie found she wasn’t as cold as she’d feared. The Validation ceremony, because of its unique nature in their case, was being taken by Father Lijou himself at the Valsgarth estate. Her attention, though she stood facing the Head Priest, wasn’t focused on him or the ceremony he was conducting. It was on her daughter, lying in the priest’s arms. Kashini was fretful, disliking being separated from her mother. Though silent, she was moving restlessly.
It couldn’t last much longer, Carrie thought. Lijou had already confirmed that their new Clan was a legally designated branch of the Aldatan family, all that remained was the Validation of her daughter’s birth.
Flanked by Kusac on one side and Kaid on the other, she was brought back to the present by a nudge in the ribs from each of them.
“Since the times of the Cataclysm, the Validation of every cub has been important, but especially so when she is the first-born and Heir of her Clan. So it is with Kashini,” Lijou was saying.
Carrie took a deep breath and forced her mind into stillness, aware of the concern for her from the two male Sholans at her side. She could feel their mental presences supporting and encouraging her for the part she must now play in the proceedings.
“It is time for Kashini’s mother to come forward and claim her daughter.”
She could feel her heartbeat start to quicken as she took her first steps away from her life-mates and the anonymity she’d had during her pregnancy.
Lijou’s mouth opened in a gentle, encouraging smile as she slowly walked toward him then held out her arms to receive her cub.
With a purring trill of contentment, Kashini’s ears flicked in pleasure and her hands, tiny claws extended, reached out to catch hold of her mother’s long hair.
This was the part she was dreading. Holding Kashini close, she turned to face the gathering, trying not to see the sea of faces now in front of her. The inhabitants of both estates had gathered to witness the ceremony. A flash of sunlight on metal drew her eyes briefly upward to where the autovid hovered above Rhaema Vorkoh of Infonet. She looked away, trying not to think of the fact that her image was being broadcast all over Shola – and beyond, to Keiss, where her father and brother would also be watching.
Look at me, cub, sent Kusac. Forget everyone else. Remember only us and our family.
Her eyes met his, then flicked briefly to Kaid. From both of them she felt the same support.
“Carrie Aldatan, will you name Kashini’s father?” Lijou was asking.
Moistening her lips, she glanced at Lijou before looking back to her mate. “My life-mate, Kusac Aldatan,” she said, aware of and annoyed by the tremor in her voice. To one side of the Clan gathering, she could see the visiting Humans standing watching. Suddenly lightheaded, she gave a small shudder then Kusac was standing in front of her, blocking her view.
He touched her cheek with his hand before leaning forward to fold back the blanket that covered their cub.
You’re doing fine, he sent. It’s almost over now.
They’re both so different from me, she thought involuntarily as she watched his dark-furred hands reaching down for their child.
The differences are only skin deep, you know that. His thoughts were a mental caress. Carefully he took hold of the cub, then turning round, he lifted their new-born high above his head so the Clans could see her.
Kusac’s voice rang out across the grounds. “Look well, Clansfolk, so that you’ll know your Liegena, Heir to the only En’Shalla Clan.”
The roar of acceptance from the throats of the several hundred Sholans gathered there was deafening. Kashini added her comments by beginning to whimper and squirm, ears flattened to her skull in distress. After the warmth of her blanket, the cold of the afternoon air on her uncovered pelt was disquieting.
Carrie had felt the mental sigh of relief from all the Sholans present as Kusac had held up their daughter: she was their Liegena no matter what her outward form, but in this time of rapid change, they were relieved that she appeared Sholan like themselves.
Kusac cradled Kashini in his arms before turning back to his mate and holding out a hand for the blanket. As they wound her back in its comforting warmth, Carrie was aware of Lijou calling Kaid forward.
“As the third in this Triad, Kaid Tallinu,” Lijou said to him, “you have a responsibility to this cub. Since her parents are Leskas, should anything happen to them, it will fall to you to raise their daughter.”
Kaid nodded briefly as Kusac handed Kashini to him. Cautiously, he accepted the small bundle.
“She’ll be like a daughter to me,” he said, holding her close for a moment before returning her to Carrie. As he did, he leaned toward her, one hand touching her neck as he placed his cheek against hers.
Startled, she moved back slightly before checking herself. For him to touch her neck was to admit publicly to a physical intimacy with her.
“It’s part of the ceremony,” Kaid murmured. “You need to do the same.”
She returned the gesture, then, as he moved to her other side, she felt him retreat even further behind his mental shields and cursed herself for inadvertently hurting him. Having their relationship indicated so openly had taken her by surprise. It was too new for her to feel at ease with it yet.
After the ceremony, they left the Clans feasting and returned to the main house with a small number of guests and close family members for their own quieter celebrations.
Carrie settled herself in a large comfortable chair, Kusac standing beside her while their friends and guests came over to see the cub and exchange a few words with them. Kaid hovered nearby.
She was concerned about him. He’d been quiet and distant all morning, but since the incident at the ceremony, he’d retreated behind the barriers he’d had when they’d first met. Then she saw Lijou detach himself from Rhyasha and Konis and begin heading toward her. Passing Kaid, he stopped, and after addressing a few words to him, took him by the arm and brought him over too.
“I’ve a small gift for the three of you,” he said, looking from one to the other, mouth open in a small grin. “Kha’Qwa found a reference to them in one of our ancient records and we had them made up to give to you today.” Reaching into the pocket of his robe, he drew out a small wooden box which he opened then passed to Carrie.
With her free hand, she took it from him. Nestling on a bed of black plush cloth lay three identical silver pendants. The motif was of three interlaced spirals, and in the center lay a small, blue-white faceted crystal.
“Lijou, they’re lovely,” she said. “Are the crystals from Stronghold?”
“From Vartra’s Retreat to be exact,” said Lijou. “Triad members exchanged them to show their commitment to each other, but we thought you wouldn’t take them amiss as a gift from us.”
Kusac bent down to see them more closely. “They are beautiful,” he said, holding the box for his mate so she could pick one up.
As she held it up, the light from the main windows glinted through it, painting a rainbow across her face. “It even incorporates the spirit of the gateway,” she murmured.
“The design is as it was described, even down to the number of facets on the crystals,” said Lijou equally quietly.
Carrie held the pendant out to Kusac. “This one is yours,” she said. Reaching into the box, she picked up the next one and held it out to Kaid. “And this, yours.”
He reached out and, taking it from her, looped the chain around his hand. “My thanks to you and Kha’Qwa,” he said, his voice barely audible as he watched Kusac put his own pendant on then take Carrie’s from her and fasten it round her neck.
“I’m glad our gift pleases you,” said Lijou. ” They can be worn as necklaces or set into the ear. We thought this way you could choose for yourselves.”
“Thank you both, Lijou,” said Carrie, fingering the tiny crystal. “You must have been very sure of our success.”
“I knew the God had marked you all,” he said. “And I know you. If it was possible for any mortals to succeed, then I knew it would be you.”
“Thank you, Lijou,” said Kusac. “You should have brought Kha’Qwa with you. Be sure to tell her how much we appreciate the pendants.”
“You have enough people here today,” said Lijou. “Kha’Qwa preferred to remain at Stronghold in the hope she could visit you another time under less formal circumstances.”
“She’s welcome any time, Lijou,” said Carrie.
Lijou inclined his head. “I’ll pass on your invitation, Carrie,” he said, as he moved away to rejoin the rest of the guests.
When she looked back at Kaid, Carrie saw he was still holding the pendant clasped within his hand. Don’t feel compelled to wear it, Kaid, she sent, handing him the box. Keep it in here.
Silently he accepted it from her, but surprisingly, he put it in his pocket. I’ll wear it for now. Opening the catch, he reached up and fastened the pendant round his neck, letting it drop down to lie on the breast of his tunic. That done, with a nod to them both, he turned back to his unconscious surveillance of the room.
What’s up with Kaid? Kusac’s sending was concerned.
I think the past’s catching up with him. Then the time for any private communication was gone as she saw Tutor Sorli advance on them.
Glancing at Kusac for permission, he crouched down at Carrie’s feet so his face was level with her cub’s.
He reached a tentative hand out toward the infant, his expression hopeful. “May I?” he asked.
She nodded, watching him carefully as he reached toward Kashini. The little one grasped the proffered finger with both hands, extending her claws to get a better grasp, and pulled it toward her mouth.
“She’s like your bond-mother,” he said, mouth opening in a small grin. “And yourself,” he added. “You’re as fair as she is.”
Carrie smiled. “You’re the first one outside our family to notice,” she said.
“I’ve been keeping up to date with Physician Kyjishi’s work on genetics,” he said. “It’s different for you, though. Your daughter is the first cub born to a human mother. Our Sholan genes might be dominant, but Kashini’s adaptation to your body has been different from Marak’s. His mother is Sholan, after all.”
He stopped, looking up at her. “But you don’t care about any of that for now, do you?” His grin became deeper. “All you care is that you have her safe in your arms. And what else should concern a new mother? May she bring blessings to your Clan, Liegena Carrie,” he said, extricating his hand and getting to his feet.
“About time!” came a voice Carrie knew well.
Noni came limping over to stand beside Sorli. “About time you left,” said Noni tartly. “Look at her! Carrie’s almost asleep where she sits! Kusac, send for the nurse for your daughter,” she ordered. “And Tallinu,” she said, fixing Kaid with a glower, “Carry the Liegena upstairs to her room. She needs to rest. She can come down and join us later,” she said, forestalling Kusac’s unspoken objection.
Carrie could feel the tension in his body as Kaid carried her upstairs. She knew she was partly to blame. “Tallinu, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to pull away from you during the ceremony. It just took me by surprise.”
“It’s nothing to worry about, Carrie,” he said. “It wasn’t important.”
“It matters to me. I don’t like feeling you so distant. You’re treating me almost as if I were a stranger.”
“Things are different now,” he said quietly, stopping at the door into Carrie and Kusac’s old suite. “We’re home. We’ve done what we set out to do. You have your En’Shalla Clan, and your cub — and I’ve got to pick up my life again.” He took her through the lounge to the bedroom. “I’ve asked Father Lijou to let me return to Stronghold for a while. He’s agreed. It’s time I began to study how to use my Talent properly.”
“You’re leaving?” The news stunned her. It was the last thing she’d anticipated.
“In a few days,” he said, laying her gently down on the bed. “You’ve got Dzaka and T’Chebbi to guard you, you don’t need me too.” He stood up, not looking at her. “I need time to make sense of what I’ve been through, Carrie. Time for meditation.”
“You might not return.” She could feel the thought there on the edges of his mind, unresolved as yet, but a possibility that he hadn’t rejected.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” he said, turning away from her, tail swaying slightly. “But I’ll always be part of you both because of our Triad.”
“I thought you’d found peace with yourself when we were in the Margins. You said you had. What’s happened, Tallinu? You had none of these doubts two days ago.”
“That was then. I belong to the past, Carrie, fifteen hundred years ago, not now.” His tail was flicking from side to side as he turned round to face her. “Can’t you understand that I’m not the same person I was? I need to find out who I am now.”
“I know who you are,” she said quietly. “You’re who you’ve always been, Kaid Tallinu, our friend — and more.”
His eyes caught and held hers, his tail stilling. “Don’t make it difficult for me, Carrie,” he said, his voice barely audible. “I have to leave — for a while at least.”
She could tell his mind was made up. “I won’t try to persuade you to stay, but at least promise you’ll talk to me before you make a final decision on whether or not to return. Don’t just disappear like the last time.”
“When I’ve had some time alone and know my own mind, then yes, I’ll talk to you. I owe you that at least,” he said reluctantly, looking away again.
Tiredly, Carrie lay back against the pillows, watching him. Perhaps that was what they all needed: time. They’d been through so much in the last few weeks, Tallinu more than either her or Kusac. He’d become so much a part of their lives that it was difficult to imagine him not being there. But what of him? So much of his life had been spent serving others, yet he deserved the opportunity to build a life of his own too.
“I have to go now. Kusac needs me downstairs.”
She nodded. “Don’t let them exhaust you,” she said. “You’re not long out of your own sick bed.”
When the opportunity presented itself, Kaid took Lijou aside for a private word.
“How soon may I come to Stronghold?” he asked. “We need to discuss Vartra and it’s time I learned how to use my Talent.”
Lijou regarded him shrewdly. “Something’s changed, hasn’t it? You, better than anyone, Kaid, should know Stronghold’s no retreat. No one comes to us to escape from the decisions they should be making out in the world. There’s no rush to set our policy regarding Vartra yet. En’Shalla, Kaid. You have to play out the hand the God has dealt you. Besides,” he added more prosaically, “we’re still debating over who should become the new Brotherhood Guild Master for our warriors. It would be inappropriate for non-Brotherhood personnel to be with us at this time.”
Kaid growled softly. “I’m not trying to escape from anything, and you know it. You’re stringing me along, Lijou.”
“Not so!” Lijou reached out to lay his fingertips briefly on Kaid’s arm, his gesture one of concern. “I’m telling you no more than the truth. Visit me by all means, I’ll help you any way I can, but until you’ve been back for at least a few weeks and tried to adapt, as your Head Priest, I cannot let you turn your back on the world and stay at Stronghold. Ghyan can continue teaching you here.”
Kaid growled softly again and turned away from him. It was a long time since any institution had held authority over him, and already it rankled. He saw Noni staring disapprovingly at him from the other side of the room.
Going back to hide in that dark corner, are you, Tallinu? she sent. How long before you face the problem this time? Another thirty-four years? D’you think she’ll wait that long for you? When the Gods set a triad together, it isn’t easily broken apart, as you’ll doubtless find out!
Mentally he retreated deeper within himself, refusing to even acknowledge he’d heard her. Seeing Meral standing by the doorway out into the family gardens, he caught his eye and went over to join him.
“I’m relieving you,” he said. “Report in to Ni’Zulhu then you can go off duty. I don’t see why I should be the only one to suffer!” His slight grin made a joke out of the words. “Besides, Taizia looks lonely,” he added, nodding in the direction of the young male’s heavily pregnant mate. “How long now?”
“Any time, Vanna says. The sooner the better, frankly. She’s finding it almost impossible to get comfortable these days.”
“Value your sleep while you can, lad. Your cub will arrive soon enough. At least Dzaka was four when he came to me — a much more civilized age!”
Meral looked at him curiously. “Don’t you want more cubs? I was sure you would now that you’re part of a triad.”
Kaid shook his head, mentally shying away from any thought of that. “I have a son to be proud of in Dzaka, I don’t need any more. Now the sooner you go, the sooner you can join Taizia!”
As he stood looking over the gardens, he felt Noni’s presence behind him.
“What is it now?” he sighed.
“There will be cubs, Tallinu, prepare yourself for that,” she said quietly, coming up to stand beside him. “Your cubs. I saw them before, and I’ve seen them since.”
“Leave me alone, Rhuna!” he said, fighting to keep his ears from flattening sideways in anger. “Will you never be done with your meddling? I don’t want cubs! You don’t know what you’re talking about anyway. We aren’t fully compatible.”
“I only tell you what I see, not how it’ll happen. In Vartra’s name, Tallinu, live the life you’ve been given! Don’t analyze or agonize over it. You’ve discovered your origins, you have the respect and love of those who matter to you, and your son is finally safe from Ghezu — what more could you ask for?”
“Peace from your meddling!” he snarled, losing his battle for self control and storming off into the grounds.
From upstairs, despite her tiredness, Carrie had sensed his increasing mental turmoil and had kept a discreet link to him. He’d become as distant as if he’d returned to the old relationship of bodyguard and Liegeman, abandoning the closeness they’d all three found through the Triad and the shared experience of their journey to the Fire Margins.
Getting up, she slipped on her loose outer robe and fished under the bed for her shoes. Somebody needed to be close enough to help him, and the only suitable person she could think of was T’Chebbi.