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Gerin soon discovered his memory had buried a lot about Ikos. First of all, the place stank. It lay under a cloud of incense so cloying that he wished he could stow his nose in the wagon. Mixed with the sweet reek were the scents of charring fat from the sacrifices and the usual town odors of stale cookery, garbage, ordure, and long-unwashed animals and humanity.

The noise was as bad. Gerin's ears had not faced such an assault since he returned to the north country. It seemed as if every peddler in Ikos rolled down on the wagon, each crying his wares at the top of his lungs: swordblades, rare and potent drugs, sanctified water, oats, pretty boys, savory cooked geese, collected books of prophetic verse, and countless other things. A fat bald man in greasy tunic and shiny leather apron, an innkeeper from the look of him, pushed his way through and bowed low before the bemused Fox, who had never seen him before. "Count Stoffer, I believe?" he said, back still bent.

Patience exhausted, Gerin snapped, "Well, if you believe that, you'll believe anything, won't you?" and left the poor fellow to the jeers of his fellow townsmen.

"Is this what the capital is like?" Elise asked faintly.

"It is," Gerin said, "but only if you will allow that a map is like the country it pictures."

She used a word he had not suspected she knew.

Van chuckled and said, "It's the same problem both places, I think: too many people all pushed together. Captain, you're the only one of us with pockets. Have a care they aren't slit."

Gerin thumped himself to make sure he was still secure. "If any of these fine bucks tries it, he'll be slit himself, and not in the pocket." He suddenly grinned. "Or else not, depending on how lucky I am."

They pushed their slow way through Ikos and into the clearing round the sacred grove. The sun was already high when they reached it. They bought cheese and little bowls of barley porridge from the legion of vendors. Men from every nation Gerin knew cursed and jostled one another, each trying to be the first to the god's voice on earth.

One lightly built chariot held two nomads from the eastern plains. They were little and lithe, flat of face and dark of skin, with scraggly caricatures of beards dangling from their chins. They dressed in wolfskin jackets and leather trousers, and bore double-curved bows reinforced with sinew. They carried small leather shields on their left arms; one was bossed with a golden panther, the other with a leaping stag. When Van noticed them, he shouted something in a language that sounded like hissing snakes. Their slanted eyes lit as they gave eager answer.

There were Kizzuwatnans in heavy carts hauled by straining donkeys: squat, heavy-boned men with swarthy skins; broad, hook-nosed faces; and liquid, mournful eyes. Their hair and beards curled in ringlets. They wore long linen tunics that reached to their knees.

There were a few Sithonians, though most of them preferred the oracle at Pronni in their own country. Slimmer and fairer than the Kizzuwatnans, they wore woolen mantles with brightly dyed edgings. They scornfully peered about from under broad-brimmed straw hats: though they had been subjects of the Empire for five centuries, they still saw themselves as something of an elite, and looked down on their Elabonian overlords as muscular dullards.

Even an Urfa from the deserts of the far south had come to Ikos. He must have ridden all the way around Elabon's Greater Inner Sea, for he was still perched atop his camel. Gerin looked at its reins and saddle with interest, thinking how fascinated Duin would have been. The desert-dweller peered down at the wains and chariots around him. He growled guttural warning when they came too close. That was seldom; horses shied from his evil-looking mount.

The Urfa was wrapped in a robe of grimy wool. Eyes and teeth flashed in a face darkened by dirt and long years of sun. Save for a nose even larger than the Kizzuwatnans', his features were delicate, almost feminine. He wore a thin fringe of beard and, for all his filth, seemed to think himself the lord of creation.

Gerin had a hard time naming some of the other outlanders. Van claimed one black-haired, fair-skinned giant belonged to the Gradi, who lived north of the Trokmoi. The man was afoot, and sweating in his furs. He carried a stout mace and a short-handled throwing axe. Gerin knew almost nothing of the Gradi, but Van spoke of them with casual familiarity.

"Do you know their tongue?" Elise asked.

"Aye, a bit," Van said.

"Just how many languages do you know?" Gerin asked.

"Well, if you mean to say hello in, and maybe swear a bit, gods, I've lost track long since. Tongues I know fairly well, though, perhaps ten or a dozen. Something like that."

"Which is your own?" Elise asked.

"My lady," Van said, with something as close to embarrassment as his deep voice could produce, "I've been on the road a lot of years now. After so long, where I started matters little."

Gerin grinned wryly; he'd got much the same answer when he asked that question. Elise looked to want to pursue it further, but held her tongue.

One group of foreigners the Fox knew only too well: the Trokmoi. Three chieftains had come to consult the Sibyl. Their chariots stayed together in the disorder.

They were from deep in the northern woods: Gerin, who knew the clans on the far side of the border as well as he knew the barons warding it, recognized none of them, nor were the clan patterns of bright checks on their drivers' tunics familiar to him. Chiefs and drivers alike were tall thin men; four had red hair and two were blond. All wore their hair long and had huge drooping mustachioes, though they shaved their cheeks and chins. Two clutched jugs of ale to themselves; another wore a necklace of human ears.

Priests circulated through the crowd. Gerin looked with scant liking at the one approaching the wagon. A robe of gold brocade was stretched across his over-ample belly, and his beardless cheeks shone pink. Everything about him was round and soft, from his limpid blue eyes to the toes peeking sausage-like from his sandals. He was a eunuch, for the god accepted no whole man as his servitor.

The tip of his tongue played redly across his lips as he asked, "What would your business be, gentles, with the Sibyl of my lord Biton?" His voice was soft and sticky, like the caress of a hand dripping with honey.

"I'd sooner not speak of it in public," Gerin said.

"Quite, quite. Your servant Falfarun most definitely agrees. You have, though, a suitably appropriate offering for the god, I hope?"

"I think so." Gerin swung a purse into Falfarun's pudgy fist.

The priest's face was blank. "Doubtless all will be well when your question is heard."

"I do hope, my dear Falfarun, it will be heard soon," Gerin said in his suavest voice. He handed the priest another, larger purse, which vanished into a fold of Falfarun's robe.

"Indeed. Yes, indeed. Come this way, if you please." Falfarun neared briskness as he elbowed aside less forethoughtful seekers of divine wisdom. Clucking to the horses, Van steered after him. Falfarun led the wagon into the sacred grove around the temple precinct. Seeing the Fox's success, the Trokmoi pulled off rings, armlets, and a heavy golden pectoral and waved them in the face of another plump priest.

"You gauged the size of your second sack about right," Van whispered.

"Praise Dyaus for that! The last time I was here, I spent three days cooling my heels before I got to go before the Sibyl. I was still too young to know the world runs on gold."

"Was the wench worth looking at, once you finally saw her?"

"Scarcely. She was a wrinkled old crone. I wonder if she still lives."

"Why have hags to give prophesies? It seems to me they'd hardly be fitting mates for whatever god runs the shrine here. Give me a young, juicy lass every time," Van said, drawing a sniff from Elise.

"Biton has spoken through her since she was chosen for him when she was still a child," Gerin explained. "Whenever a Sibyl dies, the priests search among families of the old race; this valley has always been their stronghold. When they find a girl-child with a certain mark—what it is they keep secret, but it's been Biton's sign for ages—she becomes the new Sibyl for as long as she remains a maiden: and her chastity is guarded, I assure you."

* * *

The tumult behind them faded under the trees. Images of all-seeing Biton were everywhere in the grove, half of them turned to show the two eyes in the back of his head. Another priest led the Trokmoi along a different path. Far from being struck by the holiness of the wood, they argued loudly in their own language.

High walls of gleaming white marble warded the outer courtyard of Biton's temple. The gates were flung wide, but spear-carrying temple guards stood ready to slam them shut should trouble threaten. Here and there the shining stone was chipped and discolored, a mute reminder of the great invasion of the Trokmoi two hundred sixty years before, when Biton himself, the priests maintained, made an appearance to drive the barbarians from his shrine.

Before they could go in, Falfarun summoned a green-robed underpriest. The fat priest said, "It is not permitted to enter the courtyard save on foot; Arcarola here will take your wagon to its proper place. Fear not, for there is no theft on the grounds of the temple. A loathsome plague unfailingly smites any miscreant daring to attempt such rapine."

"How many are thus stricken?" Gerin asked skeptically.

"The body of the latest is one of the curiosities within the outer walls. Poor wretch; may he edify others."

Sobered, Gerin descended from the wagon, followed by Elise and Van. When Arcarola climbed up, the horses rolled their eyes and tried to rear, feeling the unfamiliar touch at the reins. Van put a heavy hand on each one's muzzle and growled, "Don't you be stupid, now," following that with an oath in the harsh tongue Gerin guessed was his own. The beasts subsided and let themselves be led away.

The Trokmoi came up about then. More green-robes took their chariots. The priest who was leading them drew Falfarun aside and spoke softly with him. The Trokmoi were talking too, and not softly: the argument they'd begun under the trees of the sacred grove was still in full swing. Gerin was about to greet them in their own tongue until he heard what they were quarreling about.

One of the northerners looked suspiciously at the Fox and his comrades. "Not so loud should you make it, Catuvolcus," he said. He sounded worried, and his scarred hands made hushing motions.

Catuvolcus was not going to be hushed. Gerin guessed he was a bit drunk. His eyes were shot with red, his speech slurred. He toyed with his gruesome necklace. "Divico," he said, "you can take a flying futter at fast Fomor." He used the northern name for the quickest moon. "What's the chance we would find someone this far south who speaks the real language?"

"There's no need to take a chance for no purpose."

"But I'm saying it's no chance at all. And if you will remember, now, 'twas your scheme to come here. And what was the why of it? Just to have the privacy we could scarce be getting from our own oracles."

"A proper notion it was, too. I'd liefer not have that Balamung omadhaun know it's less than full faith I have in him. Who is the spalpeen, anyhow, and why should we fight for him? If I go hunting with a bear, why, I want to be sure he'll not save me for the main course."

Listening as hard as he could without seeming to, Gerin barely noticed Falfarun return. He was trailed by the other priest, who was even fatter than he. Falfarun coughed and said, "Good sir, my colleague Saspir"—he indicated his companion, whose smooth eunuch's face belied the years shown by his graying hair and sagging jowls—"and I have decided that these northern gentlemen should precede you to the Sibyl, as their journey has been longer than yours and they have urgent business in their own land which requires them to make haste."

"You are trying to tell me they paid you more," Gerin said without much rancor.

Falfarun's chins quivered. His voice was hurt as he answered, "I would not put it so crassly—"

"—But it's still true," Gerin finished for him. "Be it so, then, if we can follow them directly."

"But of course," Falfarun said, relieved to find him so agreeable. Saspir gave the Trokmoi the good news and took them into the temple courtyard. Falfarun followed, his reedy voice loud in the ears of Gerin, who would much rather have listened to the barbarians. Another golden-robed hierarch conducted a toga-clad noble out from the holy precinct; the man's thin, pale face bore a troubled expression. The nomads from the plains of Shanda came up just as Gerin entered the courtyard. He heard a priest override their loud objections to being separated from their chariot.

Even the Trokmoi had fallen silent in the temple forecourt. They were gawking, necks craning every which way, trying to see everything at once. Gerin thought they looked like so many hungry hounds licking their chops in front of a butcher's shop. He did not much blame them, for the sight of so much treasure affected him the same way. The would-be thief's corpse, covered with hideous raw-edged lesions and bloated and stinking after some days in the open, did little to dampen his enthusiasm. Beside him Van whistled, soft and low.

Only the choicest gauds were on display. Most of the riches Biton's shrine had accumulated over the centuries were stored away in strong-walled vaults behind the temple or in caves below it. What was visible was plenty to rouse a plunderer's lusts.

Chief among the marvels were twin ten-foot statues of gold and ivory, one of the Emperor Oren II, who had built the temple in the ancient grove, the other of his father, Ros the Fierce, who drove the Trokmoi north of the River Niffet and won the land between the Kirs and the Niffet for Elabon. Oren wore the toga and held in his upraised right hand the orb of empire; Ros, mailed, had a javelin ready to cast and leaned upon a narrow-waisted shield of antique design.

Ros' stern craggy face, with its thrusting nose and lines carved deep on weathered cheeks, still brought awe after four hundred years. Gerin shivered when he looked up into those cold eyes of jet.

A huge golden mixing bowl celebrated Biton's triumph over the Trokmoi. Wider even than Van's outstretched arms, it was set upon a claw-footed tripod of bronze, and held the images of barbarians fleeing the god's just wrath—and the prostrate bodies of those his arrows had struck down.

On a pedestal of purple marble next to it was a splendid statue of a dying Trokmê. The naked warrior was on his right side, propping himself up with his right arm. That hand still clung to swordhilt. The other clutched a gaping gash in his right side; the red-painted blood streamed down his flank to form a puddle at his hip. His face was turned up to stare at his unportrayed conqueror. Its grimace showed agony and defiance, but not a hint of fear. The statue's features were blunter than those usual among the long-faced, thin-nosed Trokmoi. Probably the sculptor, himself a Sithonian, had used a countryman as model, adding only long hair and mustaches to make clear the statue's race.

There was much else to see: the silver-and-gold longtooth, its leap onto an aurochs frozen by a master artisan of long ago; the chalices and urns of precious metals, alabaster, cinnabar, and multicolored jades; the stacks of ingots and bars of gold and silver, each with a plaque telling which accurate prophesy it commemorated . . . but Falfarun was leading Gerin up to the steps of the temple, and that was a sight in itself.

Oren's architect had tried to harmonize the sparely elegant columned shrines the Sithonians loved with the native brickwork fanes of Elabon, and his effort was a noble one. The sides of Biton's shrine were marble blocks; spacious glazed windows helped illuminate the interior. The front wall was pure Sithonian, with its triangular entablature supported by delicately fluted columns of whitest stone.

Between architrave and overhanging eaves the frieze, carved by a team of workmen from drawing by the creator of the dying Trokmê, showed Biton, hand outstretched, guiding an imperial column against a horde of Trokmoi. Ros, his harsh features easy to recognize, stood in the lead chariot. His men had a tough uniformity in striking contrast to the disorderly foe they battled—and to the barons who had come after them.

Up the seven marble steps they went, Falfarun chattering all the while. When Elise heard statue and frieze sprang from the same man's mind, she asked his name. Falfarun looked shocked and shook his head. "I have no idea," he said. "The work is far too holy to be polluted by such mundanities."

Gerin's eyes needed a moment to adjust to the inside of Biton's shrine, accustomed as they were to bright sunshine. They went wide as he saw the splendor within, for it had faded in his memory.

Limiting himself to simple white stone for the outside of the building, its designer had let color run riot within. Twin rows of crimson granite columns, polished mirror-bright, led the eye to the altar. That was of sandalwood overlain with gold and encrusted with all kinds of precious stone. It threw back in coruscating sheets the light cast on it by dozens of fat candles in three arabesqued chandeliers overhead.

The temple's inner walls were faced with rare green marbled shot with gold. That stone came from only one quarry, near Siphnos in Sithonia. The Fox could but marvel at the sweat and gold needed to haul it here, a journey of several hundred miles over the Greater Inner Sea and the royal roads of Elabon. Like the columns, it was buffed till it gleamed; it tinged niche-set gold and silver statues with its own color.

Chanting acolytes paced here and there, intent on Biton's rituals. Their slippers swished over the floor mosaics, their swinging censers filled the air with the fragrances of aloes, myrrh, and other costly incenses. Folk who wanted Biton's aid but needed no sight of the future knelt and prayed in pews flanking the granite columns. Some kept their heads lowered; others raised them to the ceiling frescoes, as if seeking inspiration from the scenes of the god's begetting by Dyaus on a princess and of his subsequent adventures, most of them caused by the jealousy of the heavenly queen Darza.

Only in two respects was Biton's shrine unlike many even more superb temples in the lands south of the mountains. One was the image of the god behind the altar. Here he was no graceful youth. A square column of rough black stone stood there, drinking in the light and giving back none. Immeasurably old, it could have been a natural pillar, save for the faint images of eyes round its top and a jutting phallus stabbing forward from its middle.

Biton's priests had only smiled when Oren proclaimed their deity a son of Dyaus. In their hearts they knew whose god was the elder. Seeing that image, Gerin was not inclined to doubt them. Biton's power was rooted in the earth, and in the square of bare earth to the left of the altar was a rift leading down below the roots of the sacred grove to the Sibyl's cave, a rift whose like was unknown in the tamer south.

The Trokmoi made obeisance before Biton's altar, the three chieftains on their knees and the drivers flat on their bellies. They rose, dusted themselves off, and followed their guide into the yawning mouth of the cave. One driver, a freckled youth with face tight-set against fear, flexed the fingers of one hand in a sign to avert evil. The other was tight on the hilt of his blade.

Falfarun brought up his charges to take the barbarians' place. All bent the knee before Biton, Falfarun panting as he eased his bulk to the floor. Gerin looked up at the ancient idol. For an instant, he thought he saw eyes brown as his own looking back at him, but when he looked again they were only scratches on stone.

Rising, Falfarun asked, "Would it please you to take more comfortable seats while waiting to meet the Sibyl?"

Gerin sat in the foremost pew. He ignored the puffing Falfarun, who dabbed at his forehead with a square of blue silk. His thoughts were on the Trokmoi: if these barbarians, men from so deep in the forests he knew nothing of them, had allied their clans with Balamung, how many more had done the same? Fox Keep, it seemed, was in the way of an onsalught more terrible than the attack whose scars still showed on the temple forecourt's walls.

He grew more and more jittery until the Trokmoi emerged from the cavemouth. All were grim-faced: they had no liking for what they'd heard. The young driver who had made the wardsign was white as an exterior column, the freckles on his nose and cheeks standing out like spatters of dried blood.

The two chiefs who had been quarreling outside the temple forecourt were still at it. Divico, even more worried than before, waved a hand in front of Catuvolcus' face. "Are you not glad now we came?" he said. "Plain as day the witch-woman told us there'd be naught but a fox gnawing our middles if we joined Balamung, plain as day."

"Ox ordure," Catuvolcus said. "The old gammer has no more wits than teeth, the count of which is none. On all the border there's but one southron called the Fox, and were you not listening when himself told us the kern'd be ravens' meat in no more than days? It must be done by now, so where's your worry?"

Gerin stood and gave the Trokmoi his politest bow. "Begging your pardon," he said, using their tongue with a borderer's ease, "but a wizard's word a coin I'd bite or ever I pocketed it. But if you're after the Fox, I am he, and I tell you this: the raven who'll pick my bones is not yet hatched, no, nor his grandsire either."

He had hoped his sudden appearance would show the barbarians the folly of their way. Instead he saw the rashness of his, for Catuvolcus bellowed an oath, grasped sword from scabbard, and rushed. His five comrades followed.

Leaping to his feet, Van lifted Falfarun over his head as easily as if the fat eunuch had been stuffed with down. He pitched him into the Trokmoi, bowling over two of them and giving himself and Gerin time to free their blades. At the same instant Elise hurled a dagger, then skipped back to safety. The freckled driver fell, throat pumping a torrent of blood round the hilt suddenly flowering there and sword slipping from nerveless fingers.

Catuvolcus ducked under the hurtling priest. He swung up his sword two-handed, brought it down in a cut to cleave Gerin from crown to chin. Sparks flew as the Fox blocked the stroke. His arms felt numb to the elbow. He ducked under another wild slash, edged bronze whizzing bare inches above his head.

His own sword bit into the Trokmê's belly. He ripped it free to parry the lunge of one of the drivers. The northerner seemed confused at facing a lefthanded swordsman. Gerin beat down another tentative thrust, feinted at his enemy's throat, and guided his sword into the barbarian's heart. More surprise than pain on his face, the Trokmê swayed and fell. He gasped for air he could not breathe, tried to speak. Only blood gushed from between his lips.

The Fox looked round for more fight, but there was none. Van leaned on his blade and puffed; he watched the shrilling, scrambling eunuchs with distaste. Half the proud crest of his helm was sheared away. His armor was drenched with gore, but none was his. Red hair matted by redder blood, the head of one barbarian stared glassily at its body. The ghastly corpse lay across another, whose entrails and pouring blood befouled the gentle meadow of the mosaic floor.

Horror on her face, Elise came up to survey the carnage. With a flourish, Van plucked her dagger from its victim's throat and handed her the dripping weapon. "As fine a throw as I've ever seen, and as timely, too," he said. She held it a moment, then threw it to the floor as hard as she could and gagged, reeling back against the pews.

Gerin put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. She clung to him and sobbed. He murmured wordless reassurance. He was nearly as much an accidental warrior as was she, and recalled only too well puking up his guts in a clump of bushes after his first kill. Now he was just glad he was still among the living, and tried not to think of the ruined humanity at his feet.

He offered his canteen to Elise so she could rinse her mouth. She took it with a muffled word of thanks.

A squad of temple guardsmen rushed down the main aisle, brushing aside the plainsmen (who had watched the fight with interest) and their guide. The guard captain, his corselet gilded to show his rank, shook his head when he heard Gerin's story, though Saspir confirmed it. Tugging his beard, the officer, whose name was Etchebar, said, "To slay a priest of the god, even to save your own lives, is foully done. Surprised am I Biton did not smite you dead."

"Slay?" Van shouted. "Who in the five hells said anything about slaying a priest, you jouncebrained lump of dung?" Etchebar's spearmen bristled at that, but restrained themselves at his gesture. "The great tun is no more slain than you, as you'd find out if you flipped water in his fat face. And if we'd waited for your aid, it'd be the Trokmoi you were jabbering with here!" He spat into the pool of red. "Look!"

As smoothly as before, he lifted Falfarun. The priest had still been on top of the inert Divico. Van set him on his feet as blood dribbled from the hem of his robe. The outlander slapped him gently, once or twice. He groaned and clutched his head. He did not seem much hurt, however shaken he was.

Gerin turned all his powers of persuasion on the guard captain and the priest, one of whose eyes was already beginning to blacken. He broke off in mid-sentence when he saw Van stooping over Divico, plainly intending to finish off the unconscious man. The baron made a quick grab for his friend's arm.

"Captain, are you daft?" Van said.

"I hope not." Gerin took Van's place over the fallen Trokmê and shook him.

* * *

Divico came to himself with a thunderstorm in his head. He moaned and opened his eyes. That accursed Fox was bending over him, the scar above his eye white against his tan, his square face hard. The Trokmê gathered himself for a spring until he felt the cold kiss of a blade at his throat. He rolled his eyes down until he saw its upper edge, still smeared with blood.

Impotent rage flashed across his face. "I willna beg for my life, if it's that you're after," he said. "Slit my weasand and have done."

"A warrior's answer," Gerin nodded, still speaking the forest tongue with a fluency Divico found damnable. "Can it be you're wise as well?"

He sheathed his sword and helped the bewildered Trokmê sit. The chieftain hissed when he saw his slaughtered comrades.

Gerin waved at them and went on, "You and your friends heard the Sibyl's words, but did they heed them? Not a bit, and see what's become of them now. Sure as sure the same'll befall you and your clansmen if you go following Balamung's war-trumpets. If I give you your life, would you go and tell them that, aye, and others you meet on the way?"

Divico's red brows came together as he thought. At last he said, "I would that. For Catuvolcus and Arviragus I cared not a fart. Poor Togail is another matter, though. Black shame 'twill be to me to tell my brother Kell his son had his lovely throat torn out while I return revengeless. Still, I will do it, to keep the same from befalling all my kin. Fox, I like you not, but I will. By Taranis, Teutates, and Esus I swear it."

That was the strongest oath the Trokmoi knew, Gerin thought; if it would not bind Divico to his word, nothing would. "Good man!" he said, clasping his hand and helping him to his feet. He almost told the Trokmê he thought like an Elabonian, but judged the proud chieftain would think it an insult.

"A moment," Etchebar said drily. "You have not the only claim on this man. Because of him, blood was shed in the holy precinct, which is abhorrent to our lord Biton." He touched his eyes and the back of his head in reverence. Falfarun nodded vigorous agreement. The guardsmen leveled their spears at Divico, who shrugged and relaxed but kept his hand near his sword.

"I am sure we can come to an understanding," Gerin said, propelling guard captain and priest into a quiet corner. There they argued for some minutes. The Fox reminded them that Divico had opposed Catuvolcus, who started the unholy combat. Furthermore, he pointed out, Biton was able to deal with those who offended him, as he had proved on the body of the luckless thief who was displayed in the forecourt.

Etchebar growled a curt order and Divico was set free. The Trokmê bowed to Gerin and left, one hand still clutched to his aching skull.

Another discreet offering of gold "for the temple" salved Falfarun's bruises. Etchebar was a harder case, for Van's chaffing had wounded his pride. He wanted satisfaction, not gold. Making sure the outlander was not in earshot, Gerin apologized profusely.

Black-robed temple servitors dragged away the dead Trokmoi and began to mop up their spilled gore, which had already attracted a few flies. Eyes still unhappy under bushy eyebrows, Etchebar gathered up his men and led them back to the forecourt. "And now, gentles, to the Sibyl at last," Falfarun said, with quite as much solemn aplomb as he had had before he was tossed about and his gleaming robe befouled.

The mouth to the Sibyl's cave was a black, grinning slit. Elise, still wan, took Gerin's hand. Looking down into the inky unknown, he was glad of the touch. Van fumed blasphemously as he tried to scrub sticky drying blood from his cuirass.

Falfarun vanished down the cavemouth. "You need have no fear for your footing," he called. "Since the unhappy day a century ago when the cousin of the Emperor Forenz (the second of that name, I believe) tumbled and broke an ankle, it was thought wise to construct regular steps and flooring to replace rocks and dirt. Such is life." He sighed, a bit unhappy at tradition flouted.

The subterranean corridor to the Sibyl's cave went down and down, twisting until Gerin lost all idea of which way he was going. A few dim candles set in brackets of immemorial antiquity gave pale and fitful light, making the flapping shadow of Falfarun's robe a monstrous thing. Cross-branches of the caverns were holes of deeper blackness in the gloom. Elise's grip on Gerin's hand tightened.

Most of the cave wall was left in its natural state. Now and again a bit of rock crystal would gleam for a moment in the candlelight and then fade. A few stretches were walled off by brickwork of a most antique mode which had its origins in the timeworn river land of Kizzuwatna, where men first lived in cities: not truly square like most bricks, these had convex tops and looked like buns of baked earth.

When Gerin asked the reason for the brickwork, Falfarun answered with a shiver, "Behind the bricks are charms of great fellness, for not all branches of these caves are safe for men. As you have seen, some we use for armories, others to store grain or treasure. But in some branches dread things dwell, and men who tried to explore them never returned. Those ways were stopped, as you see, to prevent such tragedies. More than that I cannot tell you, for it was done ages ago."

Imagining the pallid monsters that could inhabit such dismal gloom, Gerin shivered himself. He tried not to think of the tons of rock and earth over his head. Van muttered something that might have been prayer or curse and hitched the swordbelt higher on his hip.

An ancient statue of Biton smiled its secret smile at them as they neared the Sibyl. The candles gave way to brighter torches. The corridor widened to form a small chamber. A gust of cool, damp wind blew past Gerin's face. He heard the deep mutter of a great subterranean river far below.

When Falfarun touched his elbow, he started. "Your gifts entitle you to privacy with the Sibyl, if such is your desire," the priest said.

Gerin thought, then nodded.

Surprisingly, Falfarun's bruised face crinkled into a half-smile. "Good," he said. "Did the answer you received please you not, belike your brawny friend would undertake to pitch me through a wall." Van sputtered in embarrassment. Falfarun went on, "Good fortune attend you, gentles, and I leave you with the Sibyl." He waved at the throne set against the rear wall of the chamber and was gone.

"By my sword," Van said softly, "if I didn't know better, I'd say it was carved from one black pearl." Taller than a man, the high seat glimmered nacreously in the torchlight; crowns of silver shone on its two back posts.

The throne's splendor made the bundle of rags sitting on it altogether incongruous. Though the Trokmoi had called the Sibyl a crone, Gerin hadn't been able to believe the withered body through which the god had spoken ten years before still held life. But it was she, one eye dim, the other whitened by cataract. Her face was a badlands of wrinkles; her scalp shone through thinning strands of yellowish hair.

The mind behind that ruined countenance was still sharp, though. She raised one withered claw in a gesture of command. "Step forward, lass, lads," she said, voice a dry rustle. Gerin knew she would have called his father "lad" had he been before her, and she would have been as right.

"What would you know of my master Biton?" she asked.

For some days Gerin had mulled the question he would put. Still, in that place his tongue stumbled as he asked, "How best may I save myself and my lands and destroy the wizard who threatens them?"

She did not reply at once. Thinking she had not heard, the baron opened his mouth to ask the question again. But with no warning, her eyes rolled back, showing only vein-tracked whites. Her scrawny fists clenched; her body shook and trembled, throwing her robe off one dry shoulder to reveal an empty dug. Her face twisted. When she spoke, it was not in her own voice, but that of a powerful man in the first flush of strength. Hearing the god, Gerin and his companions went to their knees as his words washed over them:

"Buildings fall in flame and fire:
Against you even gods conspire.
Bow before the mage of the north
When all his power is put forth
To crush you down, to lay you low:
For his grave no man will know."

The god's voice and power gone, the Sibyl slumped forward in a faint.

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