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Chapter Three


The sharp cracking sound echoed and faded into a silence that was as unnatural as the sound which had produced it. Not a single bird was singing; even the squirrels ceased their barking chatter for a long, startled moment, and Gadrial Kelbryan looked at Sir Jasak Olderhan.

"What was that?" Her voice was hushed, as though she feared the answer.

"I intend to find out."

The hundred kept his voice to a whisper, too, prompted by an intuition he couldn't explain. But he meant every word of it, and one glance at Fifty Garlath had already told Jasak that he was going to have to be the one who did the finding out. Any officer worth his salt would already have ordered teams out to contact their drag and point men, their flanking screen. Garlath hadn't done that. He simply stood there, gazing thoughtfully at the same stretch of forest canopy he'd been contemplating before the sudden, sharp sound.

If Jasak hadn't been looking at the fifty at exactly the right moment, he might not have seen the way the older officer had jerked. The way his head had snapped around toward the mysterious sound. The flash of fear in those dark eyes before Garlath returned to that pose of studied nonchalance.

But Jasak had seen those things, all too clearly, and his jaw tightened. Unfortunately, he couldn't accuse the platoon leader of the cowardice his current indifference screened. Despite his own sudden, intuitive suspicion that something was wrong—terribly wrong—Jasak had no proof that it was. And a gut feeling wasn't grounds for making a charge as serious as "cowardice in the face of the enemy," despite the fact that both of them knew exactly why Garlath wasn't responding to the crackling danger that sound represented.

Or might represent, Jasak reminded himself. It wasn't easy, but he made himself step back just a little, determined to keep an open mind precisely because he recognized his own hairtrigger willingness to attribute the worst possible motives to Garlath's conduct as an officer of the Second Andaran Scouts.

All the fifty had really done, after all, was to ignore a sound that might be nothing more threatening than an old tree coming down somewhere. Jasak might be willing to bet his next five paychecks that the cause of that sound had been nothing so benign, but until he had more information—

Squad Shield Gaythar Harklan burst suddenly through a screen of brilliantly colored poplars, crushing a patch of toadstool mushrooms underfoot in his wild, headlong rush. He actually shot straight past Fifty Garlath and came to a gasping halt directly in front of Jasak.

"Sir!" His salute was a hasty affair, sketched with a hand that shook violently. "Sir, I beg leave to report a hostile contact—"

"Hostile contact?" Garlath snarled, abandoning his contemplation of the treetops to charge forward like an angry palm-horned bull moose. "Don't play the Hundred for a fool! And how dare you desert your post without orders?"

"S-Sir—" Harklan stuttered, swinging irresolutely between Jasak and the irate Garlath. "It's just that Osmuna—he's dead, Sir!"

"Dead?" Jasak asked sharply, cutting off another vitriolic outburst from Garlath with a brusquely raised hand. "What killed him?"

He'd meant to ask "who," rather than "what," but he had a sudden feeling that his meager Gift must be functioning, because Harklan's answer should have shocked the living daylights out of him.

"That's just it, Sir. I don't know what killed him. None of us know. I-I think he missed the halt order for the rest break, Sir. I was just about to pass the word to our flankers that I was moving forward, trying to catch up with him, when that sound came." He gulped hard. "It was right on the line to Osmuna, whatever it was, but it took me a while to get through the brush and find him. He's dead, Sir. Just fucking dead, and the right-flank patrol caught up to me, and we can't any of us figure out why he's dead or even how—"

"That is quite enough!" Garlath's dark complexion had acquired a nearly wine-purple hue. "You're hysterical, soldier! Place yourself on report and—"

"Fifty Garlath."

The ice-cold voice cut Garlath off in mid-snarl.

"Sir?" The fifty's response was strangled.

"We have a dead soldier, Fifty. I might suggest making that our immediate priority. Discipline can wait."

Garlath's jaw muscles bunched visibly, and the enraged flush spread abruptly down his neck and under the line of his uniform's collar. His furious, frightened eyes snapped to Jasak's face, and for just a moment, it looked as if he might actually explode. But then his eyes fell.

"Of course, Sir," he grated.

If his jaw had been any stiffer, the bone would have shattered like ice, and the glare he turned on Harklan was deadly with a promise of vengeance. Jasak took note of that, too, and made himself a promise of his own where Shevan Garlath and the squad shield were concerned. Then the fifty wheeled away and began barking furious orders of his own.

Despite that, it took him nearly ten minutes to shake First Platoon into anything approaching proper threat-response posture.

Jasak watched the platoon commander with eyes of brown ice. At least half of Garlath's snarled orders only contributed to the confusion of the moment, and the fifty's collar was soaked with sweat, despite the morning air's persistent chill.

It was simple fear, Jasak realized. Or perhaps not so simple, given the dynamics at play. It didn't require a major Gift to detect the sources of Garlath's pronounced lack of courage: fear of whatever had killed Osmuna, fear of making a mistake grave enough to finally get him cashiered, fear that he'd already made that fatal mistake. . . . 

Well, a man can dream, can't he? Jasak thought sourly, wondering once again how Garlath had managed to outlast every other commander of one hundred assigned to ride herd on him.

"When we move out," he told Gadrial quietly without looking at her, his attention fully focused on the abruptly hostile shadows, "stay close to me."

He glanced at her, and she gave him a choppy nod. She looked tense, but not overtly frightened. Or, rather, on a second and longer look, she was scared spitless, but she wasn't letting the fear dominate her. Fifty Garlath ought to take lessons from this mere civilian—if anything about this particular civilian could be labeled "mere."

His brief glance lingered on her longer than he'd intended for it to. She didn't notice, because she was too busy sweeping the forest with an alert and piercing gaze that tracked any motion instantly. Her focused attention had a sort of dangerous elegance, almost a beauty, like a hunting falcon's, or a gryphon searching for a target to strike, and Jasak wondered quite abruptly if the slim magister had any self-defense warding spells tucked away as part of her extensive training in magical theory and applications. That might explain her composure. Then again, she struck Jasak as a thorough and competent professional, well aware of her skills—and weaknesses—and more than capable of weathering whatever unpleasant surprise the multiple universes might conspire to throw her way.

He reminded himself sternly of his own responsibilities and turned his attention away from her. It was surprisingly difficult. His attraction to the magister was deepening rapidly into profound respect as she resolutely refused to let death's unexpected arrival tumble her into panic.

It took nine and a half minutes too long, but Garlath did get his troopers moving within ten minutes, which was undoubtedly a personal record. He even managed to deploy them in the correct formation for responding to an unknown threat in close terrain. Privately, Jasak was willing to bet that it had taken Garlath those extra nine and a half minutes to remember the correct formation.

Once underway, it took almost twice as long as it should have to reach Osmuna's resting place. Mostly because Garlath was jumping at shadows . . . and a forest this size had a lot of shadows.

Jasak put Gadrial directly behind him as they moved through the trees.

"Stay right behind me," he told her.

With another civilian, he might have added a warning to keep quiet, but this civilian made considerably less noise than Garlath did as they moved cautiously forward through the brittle autumn leaf litter. The scent of the crisp leaves underfoot—a dry, incongruous cinnamon smell—reminded Jasak of holiday pastries. Unfortunately, that scent mingled with the stink of electric tension flashing from trooper to trooper as Garlath's insecurity filtered through the entire platoon. Jasak felt the fifty's fear corroding the confidence of the men under him and once again stamped on the overwhelming desire to take direct command of the platoon.

The temptation was the next best thing to overwhelming, but bad as things were, taking over from Garlath right in the middle of things would only have made them even worse. They didn't need anything confusing the chain of command at a time when half the platoon was out of visual contact with its CO and senior NCOs. He had no choice but to let the commander of fifty do his job, so he hugged his irritated impatience tightly to himself and took comfort in the fact that Gadrial remained a constant, exact two paces behind him.

Which, perversely, only made his frustration still worse. Garlath was supposed to be trained to do what Magister Kelbryan was actually doing.

Despite his concentration on Garlath and the men of First Platoon, a corner of the hundred's attention noted that Otwal Threbuch had stationed himself as his own silent shadow. Actually, it was a tossup as to whether the chief sword had taken that position more to protect Jasak or the petite woman behind him. It scarcely mattered, since Jasak had carefully placed her close enough to himself for the chief sword to do both, but he nursed a mild intellectual curiosity as to Threbuch's primary motivation.

Even odds he just doesn't want to explain to Mother if anything goes wrong on his watch, the hundred thought with a small, tight grin.

The men of Shevan Garlath's platoon finally reached the contact zone and deployed under Jasak's—and Threbuch's—silent scrutiny. Garlath, for once, actually followed the Book as he directed the platoon's squads to set up a perimeter defense to completely secure the area. He probably did it for the wrong (and entirely personal) reasons, but at least he'd done something right for a change.

As three of the platoon's four squads disappeared into the forest on divergent lines, the troopers communicated via the birdcall signals the Andaran Scouts had developed for covert movement. Somebody had even remembered to use the correct bird species for this part of this particular universe. Somehow, Jasak doubted that it was Fifty Garlath who'd drilled the platoon in proper communications procedure.

While they waited for the rest of the platoon to move into position, Jasak glanced at Gadrial and raised a finger to his lips, signaling for silence. The warning was pure reflex, and almost certainly superfluous. She was alert, motionless except for her eyes, which continued to study their surroundings with a strange blend of intense concentration and something that puzzled Jasak for a moment. He couldn't quite put a finger on it, until he realized that she hovered somewhere between fear and excitement.

She was certainly afraid—only an idiot, which she manifestly was not—wouldn't have been. But she wasn't terrified, which put her considerably ahead of Garlath, and she was deeply, intensely curious. Where the fifty looked like a man who wanted nothing so much as to run away and hide, she sensed the mystery as clearly as Jasak did, and she wanted to understand what was happening. No one needed to tell her that she—and they—could die at any moment, but the brain inside that lovely head was still working, still sifting clues, still looking for answers.

A sharp, trilling whistle finally sounded from the heavier brush just ahead to signal a successful perimeter deployment. Garlath twitched at the signal, but he didn't respond. Chief Sword Threbuch's nostrils flared, and he glanced at Jasak, who nodded slightly.

Threbuch whistled the approved counter signal Garlath had failed to give, and leaves parted as Jugthar Sendahli stepped from concealment. The dark-skinned soldier who'd fled Mythal and his menial status as a member of the non-Gifted garthan caste was one of Jasak's best troopers. He was also smart as they came, and he proceeded to prove it once again. He met the chief sword's gaze and glanced respectfully at Jasak, but wisely saluted Fifty Garlath, instead.

"Sir, beg leave to report the area is secure. The perimeter screen is in place. Arbalestiers are cocked and locked, and the dragons' accumulators are loaded and primed. Osmuna is this way, Sir."

Jasak frowned behind his eyes. Despite an obvious effort to keep his delivery cool and professional, Sendahli's voice was violin-string tight. What the devil had these men so spooked? They were seasoned veterans, who'd fought claim jumpers, border brigands, and commerce pirates. Death was hardly new to any of them, but the men of Fifty Garlath's platoon were shaken to their bones.

A trickle of sweat ran down Garlath's temple as he reacted to his command's mood, and Jasak glanced again at Gadrial. Her frown was narrow-eyed and speculative as a she, too, took note of the fear in Sendahli's eyes.

The trooper turned to lead the way, and Jasak, Garlath, Threbuch, and Gadrial followed him, pushing cautiously through dense undergrowth towards the sound of running water.

They halted at the edge of a good-sized stream's embankment. The men who'd provided Osmuna's original flankers had sorted themselves out properly, forming an outward-facing picket line against any hostiles. They'd remained in position, even though the rest of the platoon had extended their own perimeter by several dozen yards. They hadn't slacked off despite the new arrivals, and Jasak reminded himself to say a few words of praise to Platoon Sword Harnak.

Osmuna's body lay in the stream itself. Garlath had already started down the slope, moving like a man who devoutly wished he were somewhere else. The hundred followed him wordlessly, wondering if Garlath even suspected how much Jasak wished the fifty were someplace far, far away. Chief Sword Threbuch followed Jasak, in turn, watching his back more closely than ever, but Gadrial stayed where she was, looking more than happy to obey Jasak's restraining hand signal.

Osmuna was dead, all right. His body lay half-submerged in the boulder-strewn creek. He'd struck one of the boulders on the way down, and flies were already busy about the huge smear of blood he'd left across the luxuriant green moss which covered it. He'd rolled off that boulder, and splashed into the stream, with his entire head immersed in a deep pool between the rocks. Had he drowned after being struck by whatever had produced that much blood?

Jasak frowned and stepped cautiously closer. The Scout had come to rest on his right side, so that his chest, back, and left shoulder were above water, and Jasak could see the hole in his chest. It was a very small hole, almost insignificant looking, and Jasak's frown deepened as he tried to imagine what the devil could have made a wound like that?

It wasn't the right size or shape for a crossbow quarrel. Nor was there any sign of a quarrel, or even an ordinary arrow. He'd seen what both of those missiles did when they entered flesh, and Osmuna's odd wound didn't look like that. Nor did it look like the sort of wound left behind when someone pulled a quarrel or arrow out again, either. The hole had drilled straight through Osmuna's camo uniform blouse as easily as a hot poker thrust through cheese. But the fibers hadn't been slashed through—not the way a knife would have cut them. They'd been stretched and ripped by the force of something which had driven bits of fabric into Osmuna's chest. A powerful enough arbalest might have produced that effect, but the wound would have been much larger. And it couldn't have come from a sharp-pointed blade, not even something like an ice pick, either, because a weapon like that wouldn't have stretched, ripped, and embedded those fibers into the wound.

Jasak balanced carefully on the rocks, moving around to look at Osmuna's back, and froze in sudden, ice-cold shock.

Graholis' bollocks! What the hell caused that?

Jasak abruptly understood the shaken look in the men's faces.

Osmuna's back had been blown open.


The hole just to the right of Osmuna's left shoulder blade was almost the size of a human fist. In fact, Gadrial could probably have pushed her fist deep into that gaping wound without the slightest trouble. The flesh was mangled, looking as if someone had set off an explosive incendiary spell inside Osmuna's body.

Horror, sudden and total, crawled down Jasak's spine and lodged in the vicinity of his belt buckle. He'd never heard of any explosive spell that would penetrate human flesh like a crossbow quarrel, then blow up from the inside, and Sir Jasak Olderhan's education had been the finest any Andaran noble's son could have hoped to acquire. He'd studied the bloody history of Arcana, including its Wizard Wars—during which hair-raising atrocities had been unleashed on helpless, non-Gifted populations—but no one had ever come up with a battle spell that would do what Jasak was looking at right now.

Movement at his shoulder jerked his head around. Otwal Threbuch hissed between his teeth at his first sight of the victim's back, then lifted worried, deeply shocked eyes to Jasak's.

"Do you have any idea what did that, Sir?" he asked, clearly hoping Jasak's education might have the answer the chief sword needed to hear.

"No. I don't." Jasak shook his head, and Threbuch cursed foully under his breath.

"I was afraid you're going to say that," he muttered through clenched teeth. "What the fuck do we do now, Sir?"

Jasak looked pointedly at Shevan Garlath. The platoon commander was also staring at Osmuna's back, swallowing hard. Every few seconds he looked away, darting wild-eyed glances up the stream banks toward the ominous trees, but every time, that gaping wound dragged his unwilling eyes back to the corpse at his feet.

"Fifty Garlath?"

"Sir?" Garlath's voice sounded constricted, and his eyes were unsteady as they skated across to Jasak's.

"I would suggest you try to find the bastards who did this."

Garlath nodded, the motion choppy and strained. It took him three deep gulps of air to find enough of his voice—or courage—to begin issuing orders.

"Spread out. Look for any trace of the attackers. We're going to find the whoreson who did this."

Oh, yes, Jasak promised the slain man's ghost. We most certainly are.


Shaylar was busy filling in yet another new stream on her chart when a sudden sound broke her concentration. It was a hoarse, gasping cry, so faint it was almost inaudible in the background noise of the stream, and it came from very nearly under her feet.


She jumped as though stung, her pencil skidding across the paper. Then she peered down the bank toward the creek and gave a sharp cry of her own. Someone was trying to crawl up the bank. Even as she realized who it was, the wiry scout slithered weakly back into the water with a mewling pain sound.


She cast one wild glance around the clearing, searching for Barris Kasell. He was a good fifteen yards further east along the bank, where Braiheri Futhai was poking into more bushes.

"Barris!" Her cry snapped him around in surprise. "Get Tymo!"

Then she flung herself down the bank, skidding through damp leaves and a slick spot of clay. Falsan was struggling doggedly to get his hands under himself, trying to stand back up. She reached him, braced him with one arm as she tried to help him up, and—

Pain struck with a brutal fist. It caught her right in the chest, robbing her of breath even as a ghastly sound broke through Falsan's lips. He collapsed again, sliding sideways, away from her, down the bank. He splashed into the stream and rolled almost prone in the icy water. He came to rest on his back—which let her see the dreadful red stain on his shirt. It had soaked the whole front, spreading outward from something that had penetrated cloth and flesh.

"Ghartoun!" she screamed in a voice edged with knife-sharp horror.

Falsan clutched at her blouse with one blood smeared, shaking hand. He whispered through grey lips, his thready voice almost too weak to catch.

"Man . . . shot me . . . stayed in . . . water . . . no trail . . . can't foll—"

His breath wheezed away to nothing. His eyes didn't close. They remained open. Horribly, sightlessly open.

She felt him go. Felt the unseen force that was Falsan chan Salgmun vanish like smoke in her hands, even as she searched frantically for the wound. Her fingers touched metal. Stupid with shock, she stared down at it, found a thick steel shaft protruding nearly two inches from his flesh. Her hands were hot with his blood, but the rest of her was frozen. She sat half immersed in ice-cold water, shaking violently and trying to focus her spinning mind on the impossibility of what he'd just said.

A man had shot him.

A man . . . 

Theirs was the only team anywhere in this universe. That meant—

Barris Kasell, Tymo Scleppis, and Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl plunged down the bank, literally on one another's heels. chan Hagrahyl cursed horribly as he splashed into the water beside her. Their healer slithered down next, took one look, and groaned.

"Too late," Shaylar heard him say. "He's gone."

She lifted her head. It took forever, that simple effort, like lifting a mountain with her bare hands. She met Ghartoun's stunned gaze.

"Somebody shot him." Her words came out like ax blows on solid ice. "He said a man shot him."

chan Hagrahyl wrenched his gaze away from her face and stared at the ghastly metal shaft buried in Falsan's flesh.

"My gods," he whispered.

Suddenly the whole stream was looping and rolling in wild gyrations. Shaylar felt rough hands on her shoulders, heard somebody saying her name, and fought the roaring in her ears and the black tide trying to suck away her consciousness.

I will not faint like a schoolgirl! a small, hard voice grated somewhere deep inside her, and she shook off the hands trying to drag her up the bank. She went to her knees as they released her, but she forced her wildly spinning senses to steady.

She found herself kneeling in a tangle of tree roots, panting and trembling, but in control once more. She raised her head, and a worried pair of dark eyes swam into focus. Barris was crouched beside her, one hand bracing her so she didn't slide back down the bank.

"That's better," he said softly. "For a minute there, I thought you were going to collapse."

Her face tried to heat up. But she was still too shocky and pale to flush with humiliation, and his next words eased some of the shame which had wrapped around her like a blanket.

"You've had a nasty psychic shock, Shaylar, and you're not combat trained."

"Combat trained?" she parroted, appalled by the hoarse croak which had replaced her voice, and Barris nodded.

"When a Talented recruit joins the military, he's trained to handle something as brutal as combat death shock, especially at point-blank range. Nobody teaches that to civilian survey scouts."

The rough burr in Barris' voice seeped through the numb ice encasing her. Anger, she realized slowly. It was anger that she'd been exposed to something that ugly, that unexpected. And a deeper anger that one of their own had been murdered. Even shame that he hadn't seen Falsan struggling along the streambed.

When that realization sank in, some of her own shame eased. The abrupt loosening of her grip on her shuddering emotions was followed almost instantly by a flood of tears and violent tremors. She struggled grimly to hold them back, but without much success. Barris took her by one elbow and Tymo took the other. They helped her to climb to the top of the bank, and Tymo slipped an arm around her.

"Let them come, Shaylar. Let the shakes run their course. That's the way emotional shock will drain, as it should, not fester in your mind and poison your body."

That almost made sense. The fact that it didn't make complete sense, when it should have, rang faint alarm bells. But Tymo knew what he was talking about, if anyone did, so she sat there in the warm sunlight and waited for the tremors to ease up. When they did, she drew down a final, ragged gulp of air and looked up again.

"I heard his rifle," she said. "That must've been when . . . "

"Yes, I heard it, too." Barris nodded, his voice bitter with self-condemnation. "To think he'd been struggling all that time, trying to make it back, and we didn't do anything—"

"It's not your fault, Barris!" Ghartoun's voice interrupted sharply, and Kasell looked up at the team leader.

"I used to be a soldier, curse it!" he snarled almost defiantly. "I should've—"

"Done what?" Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl demanded, his own expression angry and shaken. "Snatched the truth out of thin air? You're not Talented. Neither was Falsan. Shaylar's a Voice—the best telepath in the five nearest universes—and she didn't feel a thing. There's not a Voice that's ever been born who could have picked up something like that from a non-telepath. So just stow the frigging guilt, right now!"

Kasell's jaw muscles clenched for a moment. Then he nodded and relaxed a fraction.

"Yes, Sir. You're right, of course. It's just . . . "

"I know. Triad, but I know. And I'd like to know where his rifle is, too. It's not with him."

Kasell swore one filthy, ugly word.

"Fanthi," Ghartoun called to a rugged hulk of a man who'd always given Shaylar the impression that every stretch of ground he walked across was a potential battlefield, "set sentries in a perimeter fifty yards out in all directions. We don't know where these bastards are, or how close they might be, let alone how many of them there are."

Fanthi chan Himidi, who'd served a double stint in the Ternathian infantry before signing on with Chalgyn Consortium, nodded sharply and organized the rest of the survey crew with swift, efficient dispatch. They had eight men with at least some military experience, who took charge of the others, sending their cook, their drovers, their smith—even Ghartoun's clerk—out to form a circular guard around their little camp. Shaylar felt better just watching the process chan Himidi had set in motion.

Ghartoun hesitated, looking unhappily into her eyes, then crouched down beside her.

"Shaylar," he said gently, "I have to ask. Did Falsan say anything?"

"He—" She drew an unsteady breath and made herself repeat those pitiful few words, then added, "I'm pretty sure he started to say 'They can't follow,' there at the last. But he didn't get the whole thing out before he—"

She stopped and swallowed hard.

"They?" Ghartoun asked, his voice sharp. "You're sure of that? Not 'he'?"

"No," she said slowly. "I'm not sure. He said 'can't follow,' but the impression I got was 'they.' I don't know if that means he saw several of them, Ghartoun, or if he was simply afraid there might be more of them nearby."

The expedition's leader exchanged grim glances with Barris Kasell. Then he looked back at Shaylar.

"Did you pick up anything else? Anything at all that could help us figure out what in the gods' names really happened out there?"

Shaylar drew another deep breath and shook her head to clear it, then held up one impatient hand when he misconstrued her meaning and started to speak. She closed her eyes and sorted through every impression she'd been able to catch during those fleeting seconds of contact. Falsan hadn't been Talented, but Shaylar had been touching him, which helped. She couldn't See anything that he'd seen, but the emotions behind those gasped-out words of warning had slammed their way into her awareness, along with the words themselves. If she could just get a solid grasp on them . . . 

"I don't think there was more than one when he was actually shot, Ghartoun," she finally said. "I'm not picking up a sense of 'me versus them'. It's more a 'me versus him'. I think he was just afraid that there would be others who could follow a blood trail back to us."

"Which is why he stayed in the water," Ghartoun muttered.

"Where there's one, there are bound to be more," Kasell said with quiet intensity. "And did you get a good look at what killed him?"

"Oh, yes. A crossbow bolt."

"Crossbow?" Shaylar stared at the expedition's leader. "But that's—that's medieval!"

"So are clubs and rocks," Ghartoun snapped, his eyes crackling with suppressed fury. "And they'll still kill a man just as dead as a rifle will. Crossbows were weapons of war in our history for damned near a thousand years, come to that, until we finally figured out how to make gunpowder. These people don't have to be our technological equals to kill us."

"That's a fact," Kasell muttered in a voice of steel, and Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl glanced back at Shaylar.

"Can you pick anything else out of those impressions?"

She tried, but nothing else came.

"I'm sorry," she whispered miserably. "I only touched him for just a few seconds, and . . ." Her voice went unsteady. "I'm sorry. I just can't get anything more."

"I'm grateful you got as much as you did," chan Hagrahyl told her, squeezing her shoulder with surprising force, as though he'd forgotten she was barely the size of a half-grown Ternathian child.

"All right." He stood up, hands curling around the butt of his handgun and the hilt of his camp knife, both sheathed at his wide leather belt. "We don't know exactly who or what we're up against, but we do know they're nasty tempered and don't like company." He met Barris Kasell's gaze, his own hard and grimly determined. "We may have some time, especially if Shaylar's impression is right and there really was only one of the bastards. If Falsan hadn't nailed him with his first shot, we'd probably have heard at least two. And if Falsan got him, it may be a little while before his friends figure out he's not coming home. But we have to assume that there were others of them fairly close by, and that they'll at least be able to backtrack him to camp. And they will, too, after something like this. So we've got to get back to the portal before these bastards overrun us, and it's been a while since we heard that rifle shot."

Shaylar's breath caught. She hadn't thought about that, and the thick woods, so hushed and lovely, suddenly menaced their little party from every shadow, every movement of sun-dappled leaves in the breeze. In a single blink of her eyelashes, the entire forest seemed to be in sinister motion, tricking the eye and confusing the senses. And somewhere out there, well over two miles east of their camp, Jathmar was alone and unaware of what had just happened. She started to make contact when Elevu Gitel's voice jolted her out of her reverie.

"We've got to warn Company-Captain Halifu. Shaylar has to send a message. Immediately."

Shaylar looked up, and chan Hagrahyl nodded, meeting her gaze.

"Contact Darcel. Let him know what's happening. Have him take the message to Company-Captain Halifu, then come back to our side of the portal to listen for additional messages from you. Then try to contact Jathmar. I know you can't talk to him, but we've got to warn him to break off the survey and rendezvous with us."

"Rendezvous?" Braiheri Futhai's voice was incredulous. "Don't you mean return to camp?"

chan Hagrahyl met the naturalist's astonished gaze.

"No, I do not mean return. We're abandoning this camp as fast as humanly possible. I want everyone to pack up the absolute essentials and be ready to march in ten minutes."

"We can't possibly be ready to leave in only ten minutes!" Futhai protested.

"If you can't pack it that fast, leave it," Ghartoun snapped. "And if you can't carry it at a dog-trot from now until we reach the portal, abandon it. Is that clear enough?"

"But—but what about Falsan?"

"Falsan's dead! And it's my job to make sure none of the rest of us join him!"

Futhai's eyes widened at the harshness in the expedition's leader's voice. But his jaw muscles clenched, and he gave chan Hagrahyl the obstinate glare Shaylar had come to associate with the naturalist at his absolute worst.

"We are not leaving this camp until that poor man is properly buried!"

"We don't have time." chan Hagrahyl's voice was a glacier grinding up boulders.

"We are civilized people, sir, and civilized people bury their dead," Futhai shot back, and Kasell's nostrils flared as he rounded on the naturalist.

"Not when the godsdamned natives are shooting at them!" he snarled in a voice of withering contempt.

"Nobody is shooting at us." Futhai pointed out in maddeningly reasonable, patiently courteous, patronizing tones. "And since we're not in immediate danger, we can at least behave with respect for that poor man's death."

Barris Kasell's right hand clenched into a white-knuckled fist around the carrying sling of his rifle. From his expression, he would have vastly preferred to have the naturalist's neck in that fist's grasp, instead.

"If you're that nonchalant about the danger," he grated, "you stay behind to bury him. But don't, by all the gods, expect the rest of us to hang around here waiting for a pack of murdering bastards to follow Falsan's trail back to us!"

"He stayed in the water, so there isn't a trail to follow," Futhai pointed out almost pityingly. "You said as much yourself, and—"

"Enough!" chan Hagrahyl's bellow silenced the entire clearing. "We don't have the luxury of time—not for funerals; not for arguments. Yes, Braiheri, he stayed in the stream on his way back to us, but there wasn't any reason for him to try to hide his tracks on the way out, was there? It may take them a little while to get organized, but they won't have any trouble finding as once they do!"

He glared at the naturalist for a moment, then turned back to Shaylar.

"Shaylar, send the message to Darcel immediately. Then pack your essential gear and abandon the rest. And don't leave behind anything that would let Falsan's murderers trace us beyond the portal. Carry all your maps, your notes—everything."

He shifted his gaze to include the others.

"Don't abandon any technology higher than knives and sticks, either. These people don't know a solitary thing about us, and I'd like to keep it that way. Braiheri, if it'll make you feel better, strip Falsan's gear and cover him with a cairn of rocks. Preferably in the stream, so they don't find his body and realize they've killed one of us. You can pack your notes, or bury him: your choice. And that's all you have time for."

He switched his attention back to Shaylar again.

"You understand why Jathmar will have to rendezvous with us en route? Or catch up with us as best he can? My duty's to get as many of us out as possible. I can't wait for anyone."

He held Shaylar's gaze, pleading with her to understand.

Her heart cried out with the need to protest, but he was right. She nodded, stiffly, instead, her muscles rigid with the knowledge that Jathmar was completely alone out there in a forest where someone had already committed murder.

Thank you, chan Hagrahyl's gaze seemed to say. Then he turned back to the others.

"Let's get busy, then. Take only enough trail rations to get us to the portal. We're marching light and fast."

Shaylar saw eyelids twitch as several of the men started to glance down at her. All of them—except Futhai—managed to abort the movement. But their thoughts were as clear as if each of them had been a full-blown Voice, and she swallowed hard as the import of those not-quite-glances sank in.

I'm going to slow us down. They know it; and I know it. And we can't afford it.

Something hard and alien stirred deep inside, giving her strength as she pushed herself to her feet. She surprised herself when she realized she'd already shoved aside the shock of Falsan's death. She had a job to do. It wasn't precisely the job she'd signed up for, since a shooting war with unknown people was the last thing anyone had expected to occur out here. But that didn't change the facts.

"I'll send the message to Darcel from my tent," she said in a hard voice she barely recognized. "While I'm packing. And I'll do my best to warn Jathmar."

Her voice actually held steady, and Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl looked into her eyes for long moment, taking careful measure of what he saw reflected there. Then he nodded.

"Good. Let's rip this camp apart and hit the trail."



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