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Imagine first a web of stars. Imagine it spread wide and wider. Ships shuttle across it. Information flows.
A star lies at the heart of this web, its center, heart, and mind.
This is the Commonwealth.
Imagine then a single strand of stars in a vast darkness, a beckoning pathway away from the web, a path down which ships can travel.
Beyond lies a treasure, a small lake of G5 suns, a near circle of perfect stars all in reach of one another.
This way, that strand says. After so hard a voyage, reward. Wealth. Resources.
But a whisper comes back down that thread of stars, a ghost of a whisper, an illusion of a whisper.
The web of stars has heard the like before. Others are out there, very far, very faint, irrelevant to our affairs.
Should we have listened?
-- The Book of the Landing.
Distance deceived the eye in the Lakht, that wide, red land of the First Descended, where legend said the ships had come down.
At high noon, with the sun reflecting off the plateau, the chimera of a city floated in the haze, appearing as a line of light just below the red, saw-toothed ridge of the Qarain, that upthrust that divided the Lakht from the Anlakht, the true land of death.
The city was both mirage and truth; it appeared always a day before its true self. Marak knew it, walking, walking endlessly beside the beshti, the beasts on which their guards rode.
Thelong-legged beasts were not deceived. They moved no faster. The guards likewise made no haste.
"The holy city," some of the damned shouted, some in relief, some in fear, knowing it was both the end of their torment and the end of their lives. "Oburan and the Ila's court!"
"Walk faster, walk faster," the guards taunted them lazily, sitting supreme over the column. The lank, curve-necked beasts that carried them plodded at an unchangeable rate. They were patient creatures, splay-footed, towering above most predators of the Lakht, enduring the long trek between wells with scant food and no water. A long, long line of them stretched behind, bringing the tents, the other appurtenances of their journey.
"Oburan!" the fools still cried. "The tower, the tower!"
"Run to it! Run!" the junior guards encouraged their prisoners. "You'll be there before the night, drinking and eating before us."
It was a lie, and some knew better, and warned the rest. The wife of a down-country farmer, walking among them, set up a wail when the word went out that the vision was only the shadow of a city, and that an end was a day and more away.
"It can't be!" she cried. "It's there! I see it! Don't the rest of you see it?"
But the rest had given up both hope and fear of an end to this journey, and walked in the rising sun at the same pace as they had walked all this journey.
Marak was different than the rest. He bore across his heart the tattoo of the abjori, the fighters from rocks and hills. His garments, the long shirt, the trousers, the aifad wrapped about his head against the hellish glare, were all the dye and the weave of Kais Tain, of his own mother's hand. Those patterns alone would have damned him in the days of the war. The tattoos on the backs of his fingers, six, were the number of the Ila's guards he had personally sent down to the shadows. The Ila's men knew it, and watched with special care for any look of rebellion. He had a reputation in the lowlands and on the Lakht itself, a fighter as elusive as the mirage and as fast-moving as the sunrise wind.
He had ridden with his father to this very plain, and for three years had seen the walls of the holy city as a prize for the taking. He and his father had laid their grandiose plans to end the Ila's reign: they had fought. They had had their victories.
Now he stumbled in the ruin of boots made for riding.
His life was thirty summers on this earth and not likely to be longer. His own father had delivered him up to the Ila's men.
"I see the city!" the woman cried to the rest. She was a wife, an honorable woman, among the last to join the march. "Can't you see it? See it rise up and up? We're at the end of this!"
Her name was Norit, and she was soft-skinned and veiled herself against the sun, but she was as mad as the rest of them that walked in this shuffling chain. Like most of them, she had concealed her madness, hidden it successfully all her years, until the visions came thick and fast. Perhaps she had turned to priests, and priests had frightened her into admission. Perhaps guilt had slowly poisoned her spirit. Or perhaps the visions had become too strong and made concealment impossible. She had confessed in tears when the Ila's men came asking for the mad, and her husband had tried to kill her; but the Ila's men said no. She was from the village of Tarsa, at the edge of the Lakht in the west.
Now increasingly the visions overwhelmed her, and she rocked and mourned her former life and poured out her story in her interludes of sanity. Over and over she told the story of her husband, who was the richest man in Tarsa, who had married her when she was thirteen. She wasted her strength crying, when the desert ate up all strength for grief and all water for tears. Her husband might have been relieved to cast her out.
The old man next in line, crookbacked from old injury, had left an aged wife in Modi... Hammerfall . Copyright © by C. J. Cherryh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.