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A furtive little group struggled up the mountain trail: three women, one man who limped on a bandaged leg and led a shaggy donkey pulling a ramshackle cart, and six assorted children. The youngest woman carried a baby wrapped in the end of the dark shawl that covered her head, and when he wailed, she hushed him hastily.
The man paused to let her catch up. "Let him cry, Anneth. We're safe here. It's only a little farther to Locastar's now."
She looked back over her shoulder apprehensively. "Are you sure, Largo?"
"Oh, yes. Not even Lord Landro's men would violate the home of Locastar."
"But the Mountain priests--"
"Walk wide of him, by a good way. He was once High Priest in Glevia, I've heard, but since he's retired, the Fire God's priests ignore him. Probably he still has friends in high authority, and as long as he stirs up no trouble for the Mountain, they ask for none."
One of the older women waited to get in a word. "Will he have a roof and food for so many, Largo?"
"If not we must spend another night under the sky, Nomis."
The third woman said fretfully, "And if it rains? Little matter for us, we're healthy, but you, my son--you must have a decent place to rest, and that leg taken care of. And what of that one?" with a stabbing gesture toward the cart. "I think he has the lung fever."
"My leg's only scratched, Mother. Surely Locastar can at least look at it for me."
"And him? He's more than scratched! Why you must pick up a naked stranger, not even one of our own people--"
"Let pass, Mother," ordered Largo wearily. "We've been through this before. Lying wounded on the forest trail so closeto the battle, he must be one of us. The Mountain would pick up their own wherever they fell, and so would Landro. And if we can save even one more of our friends--"
"Yes!" cried Nomis. "Who knows if any others escaped? Elmeth's wife and children put to the sword--himself probably taken to the Mountain--"
"Even so, dear wife." Largo's voice was grim.
"But why did they do it?" wailed Anneth. "Why? What had we done, to bring the Mountain priests and half the army down on us?"
Largo shook his head. "The gods only know. I think it was because their patience was exhausted. I warned Elmeth he should stop meddling with the black coaches that went up the Mountain, but he would never listen. Once in a while to rescue one of our own, that was well enough, but lately he swore that not one should get by. No doubt because they couldn't deal with him themselves, the Mountain priests persuaded Duke Dorgan to lend the soldiers."
"But to slaughter innocent women and children--" protested Nomis.
"That was the Mountain," said Largo harshly. "The soldiers were only following orders to teach us a sharp lesson; it was the Mountain that took full measure of blood. Let pass for now. We at least are saved. Over the mound yonder is the home of Locastar."
"It has no look of a priest's temple," said his mother.
"Praise the gods for that," moaned Anneth. "I'm sick at the very word."
"It was a temple long ago, a large one," Largo said. "The tales say it was one of the first temples, if not the very first, back from the time of the Fire. When the three orders split, it was abandoned and fell into ruin, and Locastar has made his home among the ruins. He's done more than you'd think from this side, though; he prefers strangers to see no more than a haven for bats and owls."
The mound they were circling had in fact scarcely the look of human handiwork. The vivid greens of spring foliage sprang from every crevice of the tumbled masonry, the stone carvings were eroded and lichened beyond identification, and here and there a tree had heaved great masses of stone out of place and grown huge amid the ruins. The whole was almost buried in the debris of a thousand seasons moldered back into earth.
Largo led his charges down around the back of the mound, where a portion had been excavated and rebuilt into several crude but substantial structures. Before these on the grassy level, a number of children were playing; his own slowed down and stared shyly at the others. In the middle of the group stood a tall old man in a blue priest's robes, and at sight of the vestment Anneth stopped in the pathway and clutched her baby tighter.
"Come, Anneth, it's Locastar himself," said Largo gently. "He won't harm you; he's the kindest and holiest of men."
"He's a priest!"
"Not of the Mountain. Don't you know the blue robe from the green?"
The old priest was coming their way, his young companions laughing and racing around him. Their evident trust reassured Anneth a little, though she stayed behind the cart as the two groups met.
"Peace be unto you, my friends," greeted Locastar. "What fortune brings you here?"
Largo limped forward to meet him. "Evil fortune, Father Locastar. We seek sanctuary. I'm of Elmeth's band; this is my mother Ketis, my wife Nomis, and Anneth the wife of my son, with our children--and some others."
"Sanctuary from what?" asked Locastar. Under his thick white eyebrows, the blue eyes gleamed keenly.
"From the Mountain!" cried Nomis with a catch in her voice. "From bloody murder or worse!"
"Has the Mountain declared vengeance against Elmeth at last?"
"So it would seem, Father Locastar." Largo was deferent, and he waved Nomis to silence. "They struck the night before last with a large force of soldiers and most of Lord Landro's guardsmen and wiped out the camp. It's only by a miracle that we few escaped. I doubt there are many more."
"But Elmeth's headquarters sheltered nearly five hundred souls," said the old man, and his face was grave. "Do you mean to say--"
"All, Father Locastar. The women and children murdered, or worse; the men who were captured taken to the Mountain, the buildings put to the torch, all destroyed. My son, Anneth's husband, insisted that I take the women and children after I had this wound; he saw the camp would be surrounded and overwhelmed. He was wiser and braver than I, but he's dead.'
Locastar pressed his shoulder with a consoling hand. "You are--how many? Four adults, six children and the infant. There will be room for you here a few days. Indeed, if you like and find the strength to make yourself a habitation, you could stay. I can always use help, and the season is young. We can easily make preparations before winter to shelter, clothe and feed a few more."
Largo's face hardened. "For the women I'll accept--the women and the other. For a little time, good Locastar. For myself, I'll only rest a few days while this scratch on my leg is healing, then I'll put my sword at the service of Kostro. I have a few debts to pay, and I've learned that since the Emperor went into retirement, Kostro is totaling up the account for us all and means to present a reckoning before too long."
Locastar's wise blue eyes showed pity. "You must not harbor thoughts of hate, my friend. Kostro's reckoning may be disallowed as was Elmeth's. There is still the rest of the army."
"Gods!" burst out Largo. "Is a man to stand injustice forever? First the registration laws, then the increased taxes; then after the Emperor makes his journey and gives us all new hope, he retreats into retirement, and our High Justice is denied us! Father, Glay is aboil with thoughts of hate! We cannot endure these oppressions much longer!"
"The higher powers will call a reckoning," said Locastar gently. "In the meantime, you spoke of another?"
"Here in the cart." Largo led around to the back of it and lowered the tailgate to reveal, on a meager heap of refugee salvage, a young man with a bandaged head and hand and fever-bright eyes, who twisted restlessly and muttered in delirium.
"But this one must be helped at once!" exclaimed Locastar. "Dari! Come quickly!" Himself he led the donkey toward the barn, from which came running a twisted man of sturdy build. "Where is Karelis? and Zaperis? Gareth, fetch your mother," to one of the boys. "Noret, find Karelis and tell her we need a bed. Dari, bring the hurdle."
The group exploded into action. Under the old man's orders his children scampered in all directions, summoning help, shepherding the refugees, taking charge of the donkey and cart, while Dari and Locastar between them carried off the young man; and an immensely stout woman introduced as Zaperis, reinforced by a slip of a girl who was, it seemed, Karelis, took over the other guests. In short order they were all seated on benches and stools at a rough table in a wide kitchen, warming themselves with bread, milk, and a savory hot stew.
As they were finishing the meal, Locastar came back. "See to the women and children, that they are comfortable," he directed Zaperis and Karelis. "A few words with you, Largo, while we look to that leg."
At his sign, Karelis cleared off the table and set forth a jug of wine and earthen bowls, as well as the cloths and warm water necessary for the dressings, and Locastar poured wine for his guest and set to work gently.
"Tell me," he said as he removed an old bandage, "who is this stranger? one of Elmeth's men?"
Largo took a long draft from the bowl. "That I'm not sure, but who else? We found him as we escaped from the battle. He was lying naked beside the track, beaten and stabbed as you see him."
"And took him up. That will be remembered to your credit. But you know nothing more of him than that?"
"No. He's not been able to tell us anything. He was unconscious the first night, and then was in the fever. My mother vowed he was a priest, that pale face and soft hands--yet when he heard the word, he seemed to wake a little and cried out he was no priest, and asked--no, ordered!--that we take him to the nearest town, muttering something about a great reward. And then his fever grew worse, and since then we've made no sense of what he said. Will he live, do you think?"
"If the gods will it. He is young, and was strong when this happened." Locastar reached over and refilled Largo's bowl. "You need concern yourself with him no longer. We will do what we can, and for the rest we will wait and see. Since you do not recognize him for one of Elmeth's men, and he denies being a priest, who knows? perhaps some unfortunate traveler who chanced to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If he lives, he will tell me, and I will make it my business to help him wherever he wants to go. If not, I will see to it that he has decent rituals. See to your own responsibilities, friend Largo, and leave him to me, but I tell you again, it was a good deed that in your own troubles you had concern for this poor stranger."