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Chapter Three

Keff ignored the sharp twigs digging into the belly of his environment suit as he wriggled forward for a better look. Beyond the thin shield of thorny-leafed shrubbery was a marvel, and he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Closing with his target would not, could not, alter what he was viewing at a distance, not unless someone was having fun with optical illusions—but he painfully inched forward anyway. Not a hundred meters away, hewing the hard fields and hauling up root crops, was a work force of bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical beings, heterogeneous with regard to sex, apparently mammalian in character, with superior cranial development. In fact, except for the light pelt of fur covering all but lips, palms, soles, small rings around the eyes, and perhaps the places Keff couldn't see underneath their simple garments, they were remarkably like human beings. Fuzzy humans.

"Perfect!" he breathed into his oral pickup, not for the first time since he'd started relaying information to Carialle. "They are absolutely perfect in every way."

"Human-chauvinist," Carialle's voice said softly through the mastoid-bone implant behind his ear. "Just because they're shaped like Homo sapiens doesn't make them any more perfect than any other sentient humanoid or humanlike race we've ever encountered."

"Yes, but think of it," Keff said, watching a female, breasts heavy with milk, carrying her small offspring in a sling on her back while she worked. "So incredibly similar to us."

"Speak for yourself," Carialle said, with a sniff.

"Well, they are almost exactly like humans."

"Except for the fur, yes, and the hound-dog faces, exactly."

"Their faces aren't really that much like dogs'," Keff protested, but as usual, Carialle's artistic eye had pinned down and identified the similarity. It was the manelike ruff of hair around the faces of the mature males that had thrown off his guess. "A suggestion of dog, perhaps, but no more than that last group looked like pigs. I think we've found the grail, Cari."

A gust of cold wind blew through the brush, fluttering the folds of loose cloth at the back of Keff's suit. His ears, nose, and fingers were chilly and growing stiff, but he ignored the discomfort in his delight with the objects of his study. On RNJ-599-B-V they had struck gold. Though it would be a long time before the people he was watching would ever meet them on their own terms in space.

Coming in toward the planet, Carialle had unleashed the usual exploratory devices to give them some idea of geography and terrain.

The main continent was in the northern hemisphere of the planet. Except for the polar ice cap, it was divided roughly into four regions by a high, vast mountain range not unlike the European Alps of old Earth. Like the four smaller mountain ranges in each of the quadrants, it had been volcanic at one time, but none of the cones showed any signs of activity.

The team had been on planet for several days already, viewing this and other groups of the natives from different vantage points. Carialle was parked in a gully in the eastern quadrant, four kilometers from Keff's current location, invisible to anyone on foot. It was a reasonable hiding place, she had said, because they hadn't seen any evidence during their approach of technology such as radar or tracking devices. Occasional power fluctuations pinged the needles on Carialle's gauges, but since they seemed to occur at random, they might just be natural surges in the planet's magnetic field. But Carialle was skeptical, since the surges were more powerful than one should expect from a magnetic field, and were diffuse and of brief duration, which made it difficult for her to pin the phenomenon down to a location smaller than five degrees of planetary arc. Her professional curiosity was determined to find a logical answer.

Keff was more involved with what he could see with his own eyes—his wonderful aliens. He studied the tool with which the nearest male was chipping at the ground. The heavy metal head, made of a slagged iron/copper alloy, was laboriously holed through in two places, where dowels or nails secured it to the flat meter-and-a-half long handle. Sinew or twine wound around and around making doubly sure that the worker wouldn't lose the hoe face on the back swing. By squeezing his eyelids, Keff activated the telephoto function in his contact lenses and took a closer look. The tools were crude in manufacture but shrewdly designed for most effective use. And yet no technology must exist for repair: the perimeter of the field was littered with pieces of discarded, broken implements. These people might have discovered smelting, but welding was still beyond them. Still, they'd moved from hunter/gatherer to farming and animal husbandry. Small but well-tended small flower and herb gardens bordered the field and the front of a man-high cave mouth.

"They seem to be at the late Bronze or early Iron Age stage of development," Keff murmured. "Speaking anthropologically, this would be the perfect species for a long-term surveillance to see if this society will parallel human development." He parted the undergrowth, keeping well back from the opening in the leaves. "Except for having only three fingers and a thumb on each hand, they've got the right kind of manipulative limbs to attain a high technological level."

"Close enough for government work," Carialle said, reasonably. "I can't see that the lack of one digit would interfere with their ability to make more complex tools, since clearly they're using some already."

"No," Keff said. "I'd be more disappointed if they didn't have thumbs. A new species of humanoid! I can write a paper about them." Keff's breath quickened with his enthusiasm. "Parallel development to Homo sapiens terraneum? Evolution accomplished separately from Earth-born humanity?"

"It's far more likely that they were seeded here thousands of years ago," Carialle suggested, knowing that she'd better dampen his enthusiasm before it got out of hand. "Maybe a forgotten colony?"

"But the physical differences would take eons to evolve," Keff said. The odds against parallel development were staggering, but the notion that they might have found an unknown cousin of their own race strongly appealed to him. "Of course, scientifically speaking, we'd have to consider that possibility, especially in the light of the number of colonial ventures that never sent back a 'safe down' message."

"Yes, we should seriously consider that aspect," Carialle said, but without sarcasm.

By thrusting out the angle of his jawbone, Keff increased the gain on his long-distance microphone to listen in on the natives as they called out to one another. All the inhabitants of this locale were harvesting root produce. If any kind of formal schooling existed for the young, it must be suspended until the crops were brought in. Typical of farm cultures, all life revolved around the cycle of the crops. Humanoids of every age and size were in or around the broad fields, digging up the roots. They seemed to be divided into groups of eight to ten, under the supervision of a crew boss, either male or female, who worked alongside them. No overseer was visible, so everyone apparently knew his or her job and got on with it. Slackers were persuaded by glares and peer pressure to persevere. Keff wondered if workers were chosen for their jobs by skill, or if one inherited certain tasks or crop rows by familial clan.

Well out of the way of the crews, small children minding babies huddled as near as they could to a low cavern entrance from which Carialle had picked up heat source traces, suggesting that entrance led to their habitation. It made sense for the aborigines to live underground, where the constant temperature was approximately 14° C, making it warmer than it was on the surface. Such an accommodation would be simple to heat, with the earth itself as insulation. Only hunger could have driven Keff out to farm or hunt in this cold, day after day.

Keff could not have designed a world more likely to be dependent upon subsistence culture. The days were long, but the temperature did not vary between sunup and sundown. Only the hardiest of people would survive to breed: and the hardiest of plants. It couldn't be easy to raise crops in this stony ground, either. Keff rubbed a pinch of it between his ringer and thumb.

"High concentration of silicate clay in that soil," Carialle said, noticing his action. "Makes it tough going, both for the farmer and the crop."

"Needs more sand and more fertilizer," Keff said. "And more water. When we get to know one another, we can advise them of irrigation and soil enrichment methods. See that flat panlike depression at the head of the field? That's where they pour water brought uphill by hand." A line of crude barrels nestled against the hillside bore out his theory.

Dirt-encrusted roots of various lengths, shapes, and colors piled up in respectable quantity beside the diggers, whose fur quickly assumed the dull dun of the soil.

"It's incredible that they're getting as much of a yield as they are," Keff remarked. "They must have the science of farming knocked into them."

"Survival," Carialle said. "Think what they could do with fertilized soil and steady rainfall. The atmosphere here has less than eight percent humidity. Strange, when you consider they're in the way of prevailing continental winds, between the ocean and that mountain range. There should be plenty of rain, and no need for such toil as that."

Under the direction of a middle-aged male with a light-brown pelt, youngsters working with the digging crews threw piles of the roots onto groundsheets, which were pulled behind shaggy six-legged pack beasts up and down the rows. When each sheet was full, the beast was led away and another took its place.

"So what's the next step in this production line?" Keff asked, shifting slightly to see.

The female led the beast to a square marked out by hand-sized rocks, making sure nothing fell off as she guided the animal over the rock boundary. Once inside, she detached the groundsheet. Turning the beast, she led it back to the field where more folded groundsheets were piled.

"But if they live in the cave, over there," Keff said, in surprise, "why are they leaving the food over here?"

"Maybe the roots need to dry out a little before they can be stored, so they won't rot," Carialle said. "Or maybe they stink. You find out for yourself when we make contact. Here, visitor, eat roots. Good!"

"No, thanks," Keff said.

The six-legged draft animal waited placidly while the young female attached a new sheet to its harness. The beast bore a passing resemblance to a Terran shire horse, except for the six legs and a double dip of its spine over the extra set of shoulder-hips. Under layers of brown dust, its coat was thick and plushy: good protection against the cold wind. Some of the garments and tool pouches worn by the aborigines were undoubtedly manufactured out of such hide. Keff gazed curiously at the creature's feet. Not at all hooflike: each had three stubby toes with blunt claws and a thick sole that looked as tough as stone. The pack beast walked with the same patient gait whether the travois behind it was fully loaded or not.

"Strong," Keff said. "I bet one of those six-legged packs—hmm, six-packs!—could haul you uphill."

Carialle snorted. "I'd like to see it try."

Team leaders called out orders with hand signals, directing workers to new rows. The workers chattered among themselves, shouting cheerfully while they stripped roots and banged them on the ground to loosen some of the clinging soil. Carialle could almost hear Xeno gibbering with joy when they saw the hedrons she was recording for them.

"Funny," Keff said, after a while. "I feel as if I should understand what they're saying. The pace of their conversation is similar to Standard. There's cadence, but measured, not too fast, and it's not inflected like, say, Old Terran Asian."

A thickly furred mother called to her child, playing in a depression of the dusty earth with a handful of other naked tykes. It ignored her and went on with its game, a serious matter of the placement of pebbles. The mother called again, her voice on a rising note of annoyance. When the child turned to look, she repeated her command, punctuating her words with a spiraling gesture of her right hand. The child, eyes wide with alarm, stood up at once and ran over. After getting a smack on the bottom for disobedience, the child listened to instructions, then ran away, past the cave entrance and around the rise of the hill.

"Verrrry interesting," Keff said. "She didn't say anything different, but that child certainly paid attention when she made that hand gesture. Somewhere along the line they've evolved a somatic element in their language."

"Or the other way around," Carialle suggested, focusing on the gesture and replaying it in extreme close-up. "How do you know the hand signals didn't come first?"

"I'd have to make a study on it," Keff said seriously, "but I'd speculate because common, everyday symbols are handled with verbal phrases, the hand signals probably came later. I wonder why it evolved that way?"

"Could a percentage of them be partially hearing-impaired or deaf?"

"Not when they have such marked cadence and rhythm in their speech," Keff replied. "I doubt this level of agriculturalist would evolve lipreading. Hmm. I could compare it to the Saxon/Norman juxtaposition on Old Earth. Maybe they've been conquered by another tribe who primarily use sign language for communication. Or it might be the signs come from their religious life, and mama was telling baby that God would be unhappy if he didn't snap to it."

"Ugh. Invisible blackmail."

Keff patted the remote IT unit propped almost underneath his chin. "I want to talk to some of these people and see how long it takes my unit to translate. I'm dying to see what similarities there are between their language structure and Standard's." He started to gather himself up to stand.

"Not so fast," Carialle said, her voice ringing in his mastoid-bone implant. He winced. "When something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I think we need to do more observation."

"Cari, we've watched half a dozen of these groups already. They're all alike, even to the size of the flower gardens. When am I going to get to talk to one of them?"

The brain's voice hinted of uneasiness. "There's something, well, odd and seedy about this place. Have you noticed how old all these artifacts are?"

Keff shrugged. "Usable tools passed down from generation to generation. Not uncommon in a developing civilization."

"I think it's just the opposite. Look at that!"

Coming toward the work party in the field were two furry humanoid males. Between them on a makeshift woven net of rough cords, they carefully bore a hemispherical, shieldlike object full of sloshing liquid. They were led by the excited child who had been sent off by his mother. He shouted triumphantly to the teams of workers who set down their tools and rubbed the dust out of their fur as they came over for a drink. Patiently, each waited his or her turn to use the crude wooden dippers, then went immediately back to the fields.

"Water break," Keff observed, propping his chin on his palm. "Interesting bucket."

"It looks more like a microwave raydome to me, Keff," Carialle said. "Whaddayou know! They're using the remains of a piece of advanced technical equipment to haul water."

"By Saint George and Saint Vidicon, you're right! It does look like a raydome. So the civilization's not evolving, but in the last stages of decline," Keff said, thoughtfully, tapping his cheek with his fingertips. "I wonder if they had a war, eons ago, and the opposing forces blew themselves out of civilization. It's so horribly cold and dry here that we could very well be seeing the survivors of a comet strike."

Carialle ran through her photo maps of the planet taken from space. "No ruins of cities above ground. No signatures of decaying radiation that I saw, except for those sourceless power surges—and by the way, I just felt another one. Could they be from the planet's magnetic disturbance? There are heavy electromagnetic bursts throughout the fabric of the planet, and they don't seem to be coming from anywhere. I suppose they could be natural but—it's certainly puzzling. Possibly there was a Pyrrhic victory and both sides declined past survival point so that they ended up back in the Stone Age. Dawn of Furry Mankind, second day."

"Now that you mention it, I do recognize some of the pieces they made their tools out of," Keff said. He watched an adolescent female guiding two six-packs in a tandem yoke pulling a plow over part of the field that had been harvested. "Yours is probably the best explanation, unless they're a hard-line back-to-nature sect doing this on purpose, and I doubt that very much. But that plowshare looks more to me like part of a shuttlecraft fin. Especially if their bucket has a ninety-seven-point resemblance to a raydome. Sad. A viable culture reduced to noble primitives with only vestiges of their civilization."

"That's what we'll call them, then," Carialle said, promptly. "Noble Primitives."

"Seconded. The motion is carried."

Another young female and her docile six-pack dragged a full load of roots toward the stone square. Keff shifted to watch her.

"Hey, the last load of roots is gone! I didn't see anyone move it."

"We weren't paying attention," Carialle said. "The ground's uneven. There might be a root cellar near that square, with another crew of workers. If you walk over the ground nearby I could do a sounding and find it. If it's unheated that would explain why it's not as easy to pick out as their living quarters."

Keff heard a whirring noise behind him and shifted as silently as he could. "Am I well enough camouflaged?"

"Don't worry, Keff," Carialle said in his ear. "It's just another globe-frog."

"Damn. I hope they don't see me."

Beside the six-packs, one of the few examples of animal life on RNJ were small green amphibioids that meandered over the rocky plains, probably from scarce water source to water source, in clear globular cases full of water. Outside their shells they'd be about a foot long, with delicate limbs and big, flat paws that drove the spheres across dry land. Keff had dubbed them "globe-frogs." The leader was followed by two more. Globe-frogs were curious as cats, and all of them seemed fascinated by Keff.

"Poor things, like living tumbleweeds," Carialle said, sympathetically.

"The intelligent life isn't much better off," Keff said. "It's dry as dust around here."

"Terrible when sentient beings are reduced to mere survival," Carialle agreed.

"Oops," Keff said, in resignation. "They see me. Here they come. Damn it, woman, stop laughing."

"It's your animal magnetism," Carialle said, amused.

The frogs rolled nearer, spreading out into a line; perhaps to get a look at all sides of him, or perhaps as a safety precaution. If he suddenly sprang and attacked, he could only get one. The rumble of their cases on the ground sounded like thunder to him.

"Shoo," Keff said, trying to wave them off before the field workers came over to investigate. He glanced at the workers. Luckily, none were paving attention to the frogs. "Cari, where's the nearest water supply?"

"Back where the raydomeful came from. About two kilometers north northeast."

"Go that way," Keff said, pointing, with his hand bent up close to his body. "Water. You don't want me. Vamoose. Scram." He flicked his fingers. "Go! Please."

The frogs fixed him with their bulbous black eyes and halted their globes about a meter away from him. One of them opened its small mouth to reveal short, sharp teeth and a pale, blue-green tongue. With frantic gestures, Keff beseeched them to move off. The frogs exchanged glances and rolled away, amazingly in the direction he had indicated. A small child playing in a nearby shallow ditch shrieked with delight when it saw the frogs passing and ran after them. The frogs paddled faster, but the tot caught up, and fetched one of the globes a kick that propelled it over the crest of the hill. The others hastily followed, avoiding their gleeful pursuer. The light rumbling died away.

"Whew!" Keff said. "Those frogs nearly blew my cover. I'd better reveal myself now before someone discovers me by accident."

"Not yet! We don't have enough data to prove the Noble Primitives are nonhostile."

"That's a chance we always take, lady fair. Or why else are we here?"

"Look, we know the villagers we've observed do not leave their sites. I haven't been able to tell an inhabitant of one village from the inhabitant of any other. And you sure don't look like any Noble Primitive. I really don't like risking your being attacked. I'm four kilometers away from you so I can't pull your softshell behind out of trouble, you know. My servos would take hours to get to your position."

Keff flexed his muscles and wished he could take a good stretch first. "If I approach them peacefully, they should at least give me a hearing."

"And when you explain that you're from off-planet? Are they ready for an advanced civilization like ours?"

"They have a right to our advantages, to our help in getting themselves back on their feet. Look how wretchedly they live. Think of the raydome, and the other stuff we've seen. They once had a high-tech civilization. Central Worlds can help them. It's our duty to give them a chance to improve their miserable lot, bring them back to this century. They were once our equals. They deserve a chance to be so again, Carialle."

"Thou hast a heart as well as a brain, sir knight. Okay."

Before they had settled how to make the approach, shouting broke out on the work site. Keff glanced up. Two big males were standing nose to nose exchanging insults. One male whipped a knife made of a shard of blued metal out of his tool bag; another relic that had been worn to a mere streak from sharpening. The male he was facing retreated and picked up a digging tool with a ground-down end. Yelling, the knife-wielder lunged in at him, knife over his head. The children scattered in every direction, screaming. Before the pikeman could bring up his weapon, the first male had drawn blood. Two crew leaders rushed up to try to pull them apart. The wounded male, red blood turning dark brown as it mixed with the dust in his body-fur, snarled over the peacemaker's head at his foe. With a roar, he shook himself loose.

"I think you missed your chance for a peaceful approach, Keff."

"Um," Keff said. "He who spies and runs away lives to chat another day."

While the combatants circled each other, ringed by a watching crowd, Keff backed away on his hands and knees through the bush. Cursing the pins and needles in his legs, Keff managed to get to his feet and started downhill toward the gully where Carialle was concealed.

* * *

Carialle launched gracefully out of the gully and turned into the face of planetary rotation toward another spot on the day-side which her monitors said showed signs of life.

"May as well ring the front doorbell this time," Keff said. "No sense letting them get distracted over something else. If only I'd moved sooner!"

"No sense having a post mortem over it," Carialle said firmly. "You can amaze these natives with how much you already know about them."

Reversing to a tail-first position just at the top of atmosphere, Carialle lowered herself gently through the thin clouds and cleaved through a clear sky onto a rocky field in plain sight of the workers. Switching on all her exterior cameras, she laughed, and put the results on monitor for Keff.

"I could paint a gorgeous picture," she said. "Portrait of blinding astonishment."

"Another regional mutation," Keff said, studying the screen. "They're still beautiful, still the same root stock, but their faces look a little like sheep."

"Perfectly suited for open-mouthed goggling," Carialle said promptly. "I wonder what causes such diversity amidst the groups. Radiation? Evolution based on function and lifestyle?"

"Why would they need to look like sheep?" Keff said, shrugging out of the crash straps.

"Maybe they were behind the door when ape faces like yours were handed out," Carialle said teasingly, then turned to business. "I'm reading signs of more underground heat sources. One habitation, three entrances. Ambient air temperature, fourteen degrees. This place is cold."

"I'll wear a sweater, Mom. Here goes!"

* * *

As Keff waited impatiently in the airlock, checking his equipment carriers and biting on the implanted mouth contact to make sure it was functioning properly, Carialle lowered the ramp. Slowly, she opened the airlock. A hundred yards beyond it, Keff saw a crowd of the sheep-faced Noble Primitives gathered at the edge of the crop field, still gaping at the tall silver cylinder.

Taking a deep breath, Keff stepped out onto the ramp, hand raised, palm outward, weaponless. The IT was slung on a strap around his neck so he let his other hand hang loosely at his side.

"Hail, friends!" he called to the aliens huddled on the edge of the dusty field. "I come in peace."

He walked toward the crowd. The Primitives stared at him, the adults' faces expressionless underneath the fur masks, the children openly awestruck. Cautiously, Keff raised his other hand away from his body so they could see it, and smiled.

"They're not afraid of you, Keff," Carialle said, monitoring the Noble Primitives' vital signs. "In fact, they're not even surprised. Now that's odd!"

* * *

"Why does one of the mages come to us?" Alteis said, worriedly, as the stranger approached them, showing his teeth. "What have we done wrong? We have kept up with the harvest. All proceeds on schedule. The roots are nearly all harvested. They are of good quality."

Brannel snorted, a sharp breath ruffling the fur on his upper lip, and turned an uncaring shoulder toward the oldster. Old Alteis was so afraid of the mages that he would do himself an injury one day if the overlords were really displeased. He stared at the approaching mage. The male was shorter than he, but possessed of a mighty build and an assured, cocky walk. Unusual for a mage, his hands showed that they were not unacquainted with hard work. The out-thrust of the cleft chin showed that he knew his high place, and yet his dark, peaty blue eyes were full of good humor. Brannel searched his memory, but was certain he had never encountered this overlord before.

"He is one we do not know," Brannel said quickly in an undertone out of the side of his mouth. "Perhaps he is here to tell us he is our new master."

"Klemay is our master," Alteis said, his ruff and mustache indignantly erect on his leathery face.

"But Klemay has not been seen for a month," Brannel said. "I saw the fire in the mountains, I told you. Since then, no power has erupted from Klemay's peak."

"Perhaps this one serves Klemay," Mrana, mate of Alteis, suggested placatingly. Surreptitiously, she brushed the worst of the dust off the face of one of her children. None of them looked their best at harvest time when little effort could be wasted on mere appearance. The overlord must understand that.

"Servers serve," Brannel snorted. "No overlord serves another but those of the Five Points. Klemay was not a high mage."

"Do not speak of things you do not understand," Alteis said, as alarmed as that foolish male ever became. The mages will hear you."

"The mages are not listening," Brannel said.

Alteis was about to discipline him further, but the overlord was within hearing range now. The stranger came closer and stopped a couple of paces away. All the workers bowed their heads, shooting occasional brief glances at the visitor. Alteis stepped forward to meet him and bowed low.

"What is your will, lord?' he asked.

Instead of answering him directly, the mage picked up the box that hung around his neck and pushed it nearly underneath Alteis's chin. He spoke to the leader at some length. Though Brannel listened carefully, the words meant nothing. Alteis waited, then repeated his words clearly in case the overlord had not understood him. The mage smiled, head tilted to one side, uncomprehending.

"What may I and my fellow workers do to serve you, exalted one?" Brannel asked, coming forward to stand beside Alteis. He, too, bowed low to show respect, although the germ of an idea was beginning to take shape in his mind. He tilted his chin down only the barest respectable fraction so he could study the visitor.

The male fiddled with the small box on his breast, which emitted sounds. He spoke over it, possibly reciting an incantation. That was not unusual; all the overlords Brannel had ever seen talked to themselves sometimes. Many objects of power were ranged about this one's strongly built form. Yet he did not appear to understand the language of the people, nor did he speak it. He hadn't even acknowledged Brannel's use of mage-talk, which had been cleverly inserted into his query.

Puzzled, Brannel wrinkled his forehead. His fellow servers stayed at a respectful distance, showing proper fear and respect to one of the great overlords. They were not puzzled: they had no thoughts of their own to puzzle them or so Brannel opined. So he took as close a look at this puzzling overlord as possible.

The male appeared to be of the pure blood of the Magi, showing all three signs: clear skin, whole hand, and bright eyes. His clothing did not resemble that which overlords wore. Then Brannel arrived at a strange conclusion: this male was not an overlord. He could not speak either language, he did not wear garments like an overlord, he did not act like an overlord, and he had clearly not come from the high places of the East. The worker male's curiosity welled up until he could no longer contain the question.

"Who are you?" he asked.

Alteis grabbed him by the ruff and yanked him back into the midst of the crowd of shocked workers.

"How dare you speak to an overlord like that, you young puppy?" he said, almost growling. "Keep your eyes down and your mouth shut!"

"He is not an overlord, Alteis," Brannel said, growing more certain of this every passing moment.

"Nonsense," Fralim said, closing his hand painfully on Brannel's upper arm. Alteis's son was bigger and stronger than he was, but Fralim couldn't see the fur on his own skin. He loomed over Brannel, showing his teeth, but Brannel knew half the ferocity was from fear. "He's got all his fingers, hasn't he? The finger of authority has not been amputated. He can use the objects of power. I ask forgiveness, honored lord," Fralim said, speaking in an abject tone to the stranger.

"He does not speak our language, Fralim," Brannel said clearly. "Nor does he understand the speech of the Magi. All the Magi speak the linga esoterka, which I understand. I will prove it. Master," he said, addressing Keff in mage-talk, "what is thy will?"

The stranger smiled in a friendly fashion and spoke again, holding the box out to him.

The experiment didn't impress Brannel's fellow workers. They continued to glance up at the newcomer with awe and mindless adoration in their eyes, like the herd beasts they so resembled.

"Keff," the stranger said nodding several times and pointing to himself. He shifted his hand toward Brannel. "An dew?"

The others ducked. When the finger of authority was pointed at one of them, it sometimes meant that divine discipline was forthcoming. Brannel tried to hide that he, too, had flinched, but the gesture seemed merely a request for information.

"Brannel," he said, hand over pounding heart. The reply delighted the stranger, who picked up a rock.

"An dwattis zis?" he asked.

"Rock," Brannel said. He approached until he was merely a pace from the overlord. "What is this?" he asked, very daringly, reaching out to touch the mage's tunic sleeve.

"Brannel, no!" Alteis wailed. "You'll die for laying hands on one of them!"

Anything was better than living out his life among morons, Brannel thought in disgust. No bolt of punishment came. Instead, Keff said, "Sliv."

"Sliv," Brannel repeated, considering. It sounded almost like the real word. Ozran was great! he thought in gratitude. Perhaps Keff was a mage, but from a distant part of the world.

They began to exchange the words for objects. Keff led Brannel to different parts of the holding, pointing and making his query. Brannel, becoming more interested by the minute, gave him the words and listened carefully to the stranger-words with which Keff identified the same things. Keff was freely offering Brannel a chance to exchange information, to know his words in trade for his own. Language was power, Brannel knew, and power held the key to self-determination.

Behind them, the villagers followed in a huddled group, never daring to come close, but unable to stay away as Brannel claimed the entire, and apparently friendly, attention of a mage. Fralim was muttering to himself. It might have meant trouble, since Fralim saw himself as the heir to village leadership after Alteis, but he was too much in awe of the seeming-mage and had already forgotten some of what had happened. If Brannel managed to distract him long enough afterward, Fralim would forget forever the details of his grudge. It would disappear into the grayness of memory that troubled nearly every server on Ozran. Brannel decided to take advantage of the situation, and named every single worker to the mage. Fralim whitened under his fur, but he smiled back, teeth gritted, when Keff repeated his name.

The stranger-mage asked about every type of root, every kind of flower and herb in the sheltered garden by the cavern mouth. Twice, he tried to enter the home-cavern, but stopped when he saw Brannel pause nervously on the threshold. The worker was more convinced than he was of anything else in his life that this mage was not as other mages: he didn't know entry to the home site between dawn and dusk was forbidden under pain of reprisal.

Toward evening, the prepared food for the villagers appeared in the stone square, as it did several times every day. Brannel would have to pretend to eat and just hope that he could control his rumbling guts until he had a chance to assuage his hunger from his secret cache. He'd worked a long, hard day before he'd had to stimulate his wits to meet the demands of this unexpected event.

Muttering began among the crowd at their heels. The children were hungry, too, and had neither the manners nor the wit to keep their voices down. Not wishing to incur the wrath of the visiting mage, Alteis and Mrana were discussing whether or not they dared offer such poor fare to the great one. Should they, or shouldn't they, interrupt the great one's visit at all by letting mere workers eat? What to do?

Brannel took care of the problem. Keeping a respectful distance, he led Keff to the stone square and picked up the lid of one of the huge covered dishes. With one hand, he made as if to eat from the steaming tureen of legume stew.

Keff's eyes widened in understanding and he smiled. Though he waved away offers of food, he encouraged the villagers with friendly gestures to come forward and eat. Knowing that Alteis was watching, Brannel was forced to join them. He consumed a few tiny mouthfuls as slowly as he dared.

Fortunately, he had plenty of interruptions which concealed his reluctance to eat. Keff questioned him on the names of the foodstuffs, and what each was made of, pointing to raw vegetables and making an interrogative noise.

"Stewed orange root," Brannel said, pointing out the appropriate field to the mage. "Grain bread." Some of the grain the plough animals ate served to demonstrate what kind. "Legume stew. Sliced tuber fried in bean oil." Beans were unavailable, having been harvested and gathered in by the mages the month before, so he used small stones approximately the right size, and pretended to squeeze them. Keff understood. Brannel knew he did. He was as excited as the mage when the box began to make some of the right sounds, as if finding them on its tongue: frot, brot, brat, bret, bread.

"Bread! That's right," Brannel said enthusiastically, as Keff repeated what the box said. That's right, Magelord: bread!"

Keff slapped Brannel hard on the back The worker jumped and caught his breath, but it was a gesture of friendliness, not disapproval—as if Keff was just another worker, a neighbor . . . a—a friend. He tried to smile. The others fell to their knees and covered their heads with their arms, fearing the thunderbolt about to descend.

"Bread," Keff repeated happily. "I think I've got it."

"Do you?" Carialle asked in his ear. "And does the rain in Spain fall mainly in the plain?"

"Ozran, I think," Keff said, subvocalizing as the villagers picked themselves off the ground and came around cautiously to inspect Brannel who was smiling. Keff himself was wild with glee, but restraining himself for fear of scaring the natives further. "I can hardly believe it. I'm making progress faster than I even dared to hope. There's some Ancient Terran forms in their speech, Carialle, embedded in the alien forms, of course. I believe the Ozrans had contact with humankind, maybe millennia ago, significant contact that altered or added to the functionalism of their language. Are there any records in the archives for first contact in this sector?"

"I'll put a trace through," Carialle said, initiating the search sequence and letting it go through an automatic AI program. A couple of circuits "clicked," and the library program began to hum quietly to itself.

By means of Keff's contact button, Carialle focused on the antics of the natives. A few of the females were picking up the spilled dishes with a cautious eye on Keff, never venturing too close to him. The large, black-furred male and the elderly salt-and-pepper male examined a protesting Brannel. The slender male tried without success to wave them off.

"What is wrong with these people?"

"Mm-mm? I don't know. They're looking Brannel over for damages or marks or something. What did they expect to happen when I patted him on the back?"

"I don't know. Bodily contact shouldn't be dangerous. I wish you could get close enough to them so I could read their vital signs and do a chemspec analysis of their skin."

Keff stood at a distance from the villagers, nodding and smiling at any who would meet his eyes, but the moment he took a step toward one, that one moved a step back. "They won't let me, that's obvious. Why are most of them so downright scared of me, but not surprised to see me?"

"Maybe they have legends about deities that look like you," Carialle said with wry humor. "You may be fulfilling some long-awaited prophecy. 'The bare-faced one will come out of the sky and set us free.'"

"No," Keff said, thoughtfully. "I think the reaction is more immediate, more present day. Whatever it is, they're most courteous and absolutely cooperative: an ethnologists dream. I'm making real progress in communications. I think I've found the 'to be' verb, but I'm not sure I'm parsing it correctly yet. Brannel keeps grinning at me when I ask what something 'is.'"

"Keep going," Carialle said encouragingly. "Faint heart never won fair lady. You're all getting along so well there."

With every evidence of annoyance, Brannel fought free of the hands of his comrades. He smoothed his ruffled fur and glared at the others, his aspect one of long suffering. He returned to Keff, his expression saying, "Let's resume the language lesson, and pay no more attention to those people."

"I'd love to know what's going on," Keff said out loud in Standard, with a polite smile, "but I'm going to have to learn a lot more before I can ask the right questions about your social situation here."

One of the other Noble Primitives muttered under his breath. Brannel turned on him and hissed out a sharp phrase that needed no translation: even the sound of it was insulting. Keff moved between them to defuse a potential argument, and that made the other Primitive back off sharply. Keff got Brannel's attention and pointed to the raydome water carrier. Listening to prompts from the IT program through his implant, he attempted to put together a whole sentence of pidgin Ozran.

"What are that?" Keff asked. "Eh? Did I get that right?"

From Brannel's merry expression, he hadn't. He grinned, giving the local man his most winsome smile. "Well, teach me then, can you?"

Emboldened by Keff's friendly manner, the Noble Primitive laughed, a harsh sound; more of a cackle than a guffaw.

"So," Keff asked, trying again in Ozran, "what are yes?" He whispered an aside to Carialle. "I don't know even how to ask 'what's right?' yet. I must sound like the most amazing idiot."

"What is that. What are those," Brannel said, with emphasis, picking up one stone in one hand, a handful of stones in the other, and displaying first one and then the other. He had correctly assumed Keff was trying to ask about singular and plural forms and had demonstrated the difference. The others were still staring dumbly, unable to understand what was going on. Keff was elated by his success.

"Incredible. You may have found the only intelligent man on the planet," Carialle said, monitoring as the IT program recorded the correct uses of the verb, and postulated forms and suffixes for other verbs in its file, shuffling the onomatopoeic transliterations down like cards. "Certainly the only one of this bunch who understands abstract questions."

"He's a find," Keff agreed. "A natural linguist. It could have taken me days to elicit what he's offering freely and, I might add, intelligently. It's going to take me more time to figure out that sign language, but if anyone can put me on the right track, it's Brannel."

Having penetrated the mystery of verbal declension, Keff and Brannel sat down together beside the fire and began a basic conversation.

"Do you see how he's trying to use my words, too?" Keff subvocalized to Carialle.

Using informal signs and the growing lexicon in the IT program, Keff asked Brannel about the below ground habitation.

" . . . Heat from . . . earth," Brannel said, patting the ground by his thigh. IT left audio gaps where it lacked sufficient glossary and grammar, but for Keff it was enough to tell him what he wanted to know.

"A geothermal heating system. It's so cold out; why can't you enter now?" Keff said, making a cave by arching his finger and thumb on the ground and walking his other hand on two fingers toward it.

"Not," Brannel said firmly, with a deliberate sign of his left hand. The IT struggled to translate. "Not cave day. We are . . . work . . . day."

"Oh," Carialle said. "A cultural ban to keep the slackers out on the field during working hours. Ask him if he knows what causes the power surges I'm picking up."

Keff relayed the question. The others who were paying attention shot sulky glances toward Brannel. The dun-colored male started to speak, then stopped when an older female let out a whimper of fear. "Not," he said shortly.

"I guess he doesn't know," Keff said to Carialle. "You, sir," he said, going over to address the eldest male, Alteis, who immediately cowered. "Where comes strong heat from sky?" He pantomimed arcs overhead. "What makes strong heat?"

With a yell, one of the small boys—Keff thought it might be the same one who had defied his mother's orders—traced a jagged line in the sky. The he dove into his mother's lap for safety. An adolescent female, Nona, Keff thought her name was, glanced up at him in terror, and quickly averted her eyes to the ground. The others murmured among themselves, but no one looked or spoke.

"Lightning?" Keff asked Alteis softly. "What causes the lightning, sir?"

The oldster with white-shot black fur studied his lips carefully as he spoke, then turned for help to Brannel, who remained stoically silent. Keff repeated his question. The old male nodded solemnly, as if considering an answer, but then his gaze wandered off over Keff's head. When it returned to Keff, there was a blankness in his eyes that showed he hadn't understood a thing, or had already forgotten the question.

"He doesn't know," Keff said with a sigh. "Well, we're back to basics. Where does the food go for storage?" he asked. He gestured at the stone square and held up one of the roots Brannel had used as an example. "Where roots go?"

Brannel shrugged and muttered something. "Not know," IT amplified and relayed. "Roots go, food comes."

"A culture in which food preparation is a sacred mystery?" Carialle said, with increasing interest. "Now, that's bizarre. If we take that back to Xeno, we'll deserve a bonus."

"Aren't you curious? Didn't you ever try to find out?" Keff asked Brannel.

"Not!" Brannel exclaimed. The bold villager seemed nervous for almost the first time since Keff had arrived. "One curious, all—" He brought his hands together in a thunderclap. "All . . . all," he said, getting up and drawing a circle in the air around an adult male, an adult female, and three children. He pantomimed beating the male, and shoved the food bowls away from the female and children with his foot. Most of the fur-faced humanoids shuddered and one of the children burst into tears.

"All punished for one person's curiosity? But why?" Keff demanded. "By whom?"

For answer Brannel aimed his three-fingered hand at the mountains, with a scornful expression that plainly said that Keff should already know that. Keff peered up at the distant heights.

"Huh?" Carialle said. "Did I miss something?"

"Punishment from the mountains? Is it a sacred tradition associated with the mountains?" Keff asked. "By his body language Brannel holds whatever comes from there in healthy respect, but he doesn't like it."

"Typical of religions," Carialle sniffed. She focused her cameras on the mountain peak in the direction Keff faced and zoomed in for a closer look "Say, there are structures up there, Keff. They're blended in so well I didn't detect them on initial sweep. What are they? Temples? Shrines? Who built them?"

Keff pointed, and turned to Brannel.

"What are . . . ?" he began. His question was abruptly interrupted when a beam of hot light shot from the peak of the tallest mountain in the range to strike directly at Keff's feet. Hot light engulfed him. "Wha—?" he mouthed. His hand dropped to his side, slamming into his leg with the force of a wrecking ball. The air turned fiery in his throat, drying his mouth and turning his tongue to leather. Humming filled his ears. The image of Brannel's face, agape, swam before his eyes, faded to a black shadow on his retinas, then flew upward into a cloudless sky blacker than space.

* * *

The bright bolt of light overpowered the aperture of the tiny contact-button camera, but Carialle's external cameras recorded the whole thing. Keff stood rigid for a moment after the beam struck, then slowly, slowly keeled over and slumped to the ground in a heap. His vital-sign monitor shrieked as all activity flatlined. To all appearances he was dead.

"Keff!" Carialle screamed. Her system demanded adrenaline. She fought it, forcing serotonin and endorphins into her bloodstream for calm. It took only milliseconds until she was in control of herself again. She had to be, for Keff's sake.

In the next few milliseconds, her circuits raced through a diagnostic, checking the implants to be sure there was no system failure. ALL showed green.

"Keff," she said, raising the volume in his implant. "Can you hear me?" He gave no answer.

Carialle sent her circuits through a diagnostic, checking the implants to be sure there was no system failure. All showed green except the video of the contact camera, which gradually cleared. Before Carialle could panic further, the contacts began sending again. Keff's vitals returned, thready but true. He was alive! Carialle was overjoyed. But Keff was in danger. Whatever caused that burst of power to strike at his feet like a well-aimed thunderbolt might recur. She had to get him out of there. A bolt like that couldn't be natural, but further analysis must wait. Keff was hurt and needed attention. That was her primary concern. How could she get him back?

The small servos in her ship might be able to pick him up, but were intended for transit over relatively level floors. Fully loaded they wouldn't be able to transport Keff's weight across the rough terrain. For the first time, she wished she had gotten a Moto-Prosthetic body as Keff had been nagging her to do. She longed for two legs and two strong arms.

Hold it! A body was available to her: that of the only intelligent man on the planet. When the bolt had struck, Brannel, with admirably quick reflexes, had flung himself out of the way, rolling over the stony ground to a sheltered place beneath the rise. The other villagers had run hell-for-leather back toward their cavern, but Brannel was still only a few meters away from Keff's body. Carialle read his infrared signal and heartbeat: he was ten meters from Keff's body. She opened a voice-link through IT and routed it via the contact button.

"Brannel," she called, amplifying the small speaker as much as she could without distortion. "Brannel, pick up Keff. Bring Keff home." The IT blanked on the word home. She spun through the vocabulary database looking for an equivalent. "Bring Keff to Keff's cave, Brannel!" Her voice rose toward hysteria. She flattened her tones and increased endorphins and proteins to her nutrients to counter the effects of her agitation.

"Mage Keff?" Brannel asked. He raised his head cautiously from the shelter of his hiding place, fearing another bolt from the mountains. "Keff speaks?"

Keff lay in a heap on the ground, mouth agape, eyes half open with the whites showing. Brannel, knowing that sometimes bolts continued to burn and crackle after the initial lightning, kept a respectful distance.

"Bring Keff to Keff's cave," a disembodied voice pleaded. A female's voice it was, coming from underneath the mage's chin. Some kind of familiar spirit? Brannel rocked back and forth, struggling with ambivalent desires. Keff had been kind to him. He wanted to do the mage's wishes. He also wasn't going to put himself in danger for the sake of one of Them whom the mage-bolts had struck down. Was Keff Klemay's successor and that was why he had come to visit their farm holding? Only his right to succeed Klemay had just been challenged by the bolt.

Across the field, the silver cylinder dropped its ramp, clearly awaiting the arrival of its master. Brannel looked from the prone body at his feet to the mysterious mobile stronghold. Stooping, he stared into Keff's eyes. A pulse twitched faintly there. The mage was still alive, if unconscious.

"Bring Keff to Keff's cave," the voice said again, in a crisp but persuasive tone. "Come, Brannel. Bring Keff."

"All right," Brannel said at last, his curiosity about the silver cylinder overpowering his sense of caution. This would be the first time he had been invited into a mage's stronghold. Who knew what wonders would open up to him within Keff's tower?

Drawing one of the limp arms over his shoulder, Brannel hefted Keff and stood up. After years of hard work, carrying the body of a man smaller than himself wasn't much of an effort. It was also the first time he'd laid hands on a mage. With a guilty thrill, he bore Keff's dead weight toward the silver tower.

At the foot of the ramp, Brannel paused to watch the smooth door withdraw upward with a quiet hiss. He stared up at it, wondering what kind of door opened without hands to push it.

"Come, Brannel," the silky persuasive voice said from the weight on his back.

Brannel obeyed. Under his rough, bare feet, the ramp boomed hollowly. The air smelled different inside. As he set foot over the threshold into the dim, narrow anteroom, lights went on. The walls were smooth, like the surface of unruffled water, meeting the ceiling and walls in perfect corners. Such ideal workmanship aroused Brannel's admiration. But what else would one expect from a mage? he chided himself.

In front of him was a corridor. Narrow bands of bluish light like the sun through clouds illuminated themselves. Along the walls at Brannel's eye level, orange-red bands flickered into life, moving onward until they reached the walls' end. The colored lights returned to the beginning and waited.

"I follow thee. Is that right?" Brannel asked in mage-speak, cautiously stepping into the corridor.

"Come," the disembodied voice said in common Ozran and the sound echoed all around him. Mage Keff was certainly a powerful wizard to have a house that talked

Carialle was relieved that Brannel hadn't been frightened by a disembodied voice or the sight of an interplanetary ship. He was cautious, but she gave him credit for that. She had the lights guide him to the wall where Keff's weight bench was stored. It slid noiselessly out at knee level before the Noble Primitive who didn't need to be told that that was where he was to lay Keff's body.

"The only intelligent man on the planet," Carialle said quietly to herself.

Brannel straightened up and took a good, long look at the cabin, beginning to turn on his callused heels. As he caught sight of the monitors showing various angles of the crop field outside, and the close-up of his fellow Noble Primitives crouched in a huddle at the cave mouth, he let out a sound close to a derisive laugh.

Carialle turned her internal monitors to concentrate on Keff's vital signs. Respiration had begun again and his eyes twitched under their long-lashed lids.

Brannel started to walk the perimeter of the cabin. He was careful to touch nothing, though occasionally he leaned close and sniffed at a piece of equipment. At Keff's exercise machines, he took a deeper breath and straightened up with a snort and a puzzled look on his face.

"Thank you for your help, Brannel," Carialle said, using the IT through her own speakers. "You can go now. Keff will also thank you later."

Brannel showed no signs of being ready to depart. In fact, he didn't seem to have heard her at all. He was wandering around the main cabin with the light of wonder in his eyes beginning to alter. Carialle didn't like the speculative look on his face. She was grateful enough to the furry male for rescuing Keff to let him have a brief tour of the facilities, but no more than that.

"Thank you, Brannel. Good-bye, Brannel," Carialle said, her tone becoming more pointed. "You can go. Please. Now. Go. Leave!"

Brannel heard the staccato words spoken by the mage's familiar in a much less friendly tone than it had used to coax him inside Keff's stronghold. He didn't want to leave such a fascinating place. Many objects lured him to examine them, many small enough to be concealed in the hand. Some of them might even be objects of power. Surely the great mage would not miss a small one.

He focused on a flattened ovoid of shiny white the size of his hand lying on a narrow shelf below a rack of large stiff squares that looked to be made of wood. Even the quickest glance at the white thing told him that it had the five depressions of an item of power in its surface. His breathing quickened as he reached out to pick it up.

"No!" said the voice. "That's my palette." Out of the wall shot a hand made of black metal and slapped his wrist. Surprised, he dropped the white thing. Before it hit the floor, another black hand jumped away from the wall and caught it. Brannel backed away as the lower hand passed the white object to the upper hand, which replaced it on the shelf.

Thwarted, Brannel looked around for another easily portable item. Showing his long teeth in an ingratiating smile and wondering where the unseen watcher was concealed, he sidled purposefully toward another small device on top of a table studded with sparkling lights. His hand lifted, almost of its own volition, toward his objective.

"Oh, no, you don't," Carialle said firmly, startling him into dropping Keff's pedometer back onto the monitor board. She watched as he swiveled his head around, trying to discover where she was. "Didn't anyone ever tell you shoplifting is rude?"

He backed away, with his hands held ostentatiously behind him.

"You're not going to leave on your own, are you?" Carialle said "Perhaps a little push is in order."

Starring at the far side of the main cabin, Carialle generated complex and sour sonic tones guaranteed to be painful to humanoid ears. The male fell to his knees with his hands over his ears, his sheep's face twisted into a rictus. Carialle turned up the volume and purposefully began to sweep the noise along her array of speakers toward the airlock. Protesting, Brannel was driven, stumbling and crawling, out onto the ramp. As soon as she turned off the noise, he did an abrupt about-face and tried to rush back in. She let loose with a loud burst like a thousand hives of bees and slid the door shut in his face before he could cross the threshold.

"Some people just do not know when to leave," Carialle grumbled as she ordered out a couple of servos to begin first aid on Keff.

* * *

Driven out into the open air by the sharp sounds, Brannel hurried away from the flying castle and over the hill. On the other side of the field the others were crouched in a noisy conference, arms waving, probably discussing the strange mage. No one paid any attention to him, which was good. He had much to think about, and he was hungry. He'd been forced to consume some of the woozy food. He hoped he hadn't had enough to dull what he had learned this day.

During his youth, when he had fallen ill with fever, vomiting and headache, he had been unable to eat any of the food provided by the overlords. His parents had an argument that night about whether or not to beg Klemay for medical help. Brannel's mother thought such a request would be approved since Brannel was a sturdy lad and would grow to be a strong worker. His father did not want to ask, fearing punishment for approaching one of the high ones. Brannel overheard the discussion, wondering if he was going to die.

In the morning, the floating eye came from Klemay to oversee the day's work. Brannel's mother did not go running out to abase herself before it. Though he was no better, she seemed to have forgotten all about the urgency of summoning help for him. She settled Brannel, swathed in hides, at the edge of the field, and patted his leg affectionately before beginning her duties. She had forgotten her concern of the previous night. So had his father. Brannel was not resentful. This was the way it had always been with the people. The curious thing was that he remembered. Yesterday had not disappeared into an undifferentiated grayness of mist and memory. Everything that he'd heard or seen was as clear to him as if it was still happening. The only thing that was different between yesterday and the day before was that he had not eaten.

Thereafter, he had avoided eating the people's food whenever possible. He experimented with edible native plants that grew down by the river, but lived mostly by stealing raw vegetables and grain from standing crops or from the plough-beasts' mangers. As a result, he grew bigger and stronger than any of his fellows. If his mother remarked upon it at all, when the vague fuzz of memory lifted, she was grateful that she had produced a fine strong big son to work for the overlord. His wits sharpened, and anything he heard he remembered forever. He didn't want to lose the gift by poisoning himself with the people's food. So far, the mages had had no cause to suspect him of being different from the rest of his village. And he was careful not to be disobedient or bring himself to their attention. The worst fate he could imagine was losing his clarity of mind

That clear mind now puzzled over Keff: was he or was he not a mage? He possessed objects of power, but he spoke no mage-talk. His house familiar knew none of their language either, but it used the same means that Mage Klemay did to drive him out, as the workers of his cave were driven by hideous noises outside to work every day of their lives. Keff seemed to have power yet he was struck down all unaware by the mage-bolt. Could Keff not have sensed it coming?

Once on the far side of the field, Brannel squeezed between bushes to the slope that led to his hiding place near the river. Observed only by a few green-balls, he ate some raw roots from the supply that he had concealed there in straw two nightfalls before. All the harvests had been good this year. No one had noticed how many basket loads he had removed, or if they had, they didn't remember. Their forgetfulness was to his advantage.

His hunger now satisfied, Brannel made his way back to the cavern, to listen to the remarkable happenings of the day, the new mage, and how the mage had been struck down. No one thought to ask what had happened to this mage and Brannel did not enlighten them. They'd have forgotten in the morning anyway. When night's darkness fell, they all swarmed back into the warm cave. As they found their night places, Alteis looked at his son, his face screwed as he tried to remember something he had intended to ask Brannel, but gave up the effort after a long moment.


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