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pushing the travel-sack ahead of her. With a sudden curse, she pulled herself back out of the hole and
groped about until her hands found her cloak. She turned back again and soon wriggled out of sight.
It wasn't a long crawl. The wall wasn't more than four feet thick at its base. The escape tunnel had
taken months to build, carefully dug, the dirt smuggled out of her room bit by bit. At times she had almost
given up. But her mother had trained her well and one of the prime tenets of the Keepers was to always
have a way of escape. Now she fervently blessed that teaching Reaching the end of the tunnel, she
pushed hard against the planks holding the soil that concealed the exit. At first they refused to budge, but
suddenly, with a mighty shove, she was sitting in the hole, covered with dirt and washed by the pouring
rain. She stood, shrugged into her cloak, put the pack on her shoulders, and began to jog through the
storm-whipped grass. Thank the Gods for the rain, she thought. It's almost dawn, but the clouds and the
downpour make things dark as night.
For almost an hour, she ran steadily north, putting as much space between herself and the 'hood as
possible. With any luck, it would be hours before they discovered she wasn't in her cell. Exaltation filled
her.
As she traveled in the steady rain, however, the excitement of the escape began to wane and her
spirits to sag. All her efforts with the settlers would go for nothing now. They hadn't gotten past the very
first chants. With no one to lead them, they'd soon forget what they knew. But perhaps they'd at least
remember her fondly and maintain a positive attitude toward the Keepers.
Finally she stopped beneath the shelter of a few scrawny trees that stood in grand isolation in the
midst of the Plain. Exhausted, she slumped to the ground.
I'm away, she thought. But now what? Do I go someplace new and try to start again? For long
minutes, she pondered her next move. Unable to reach a decision, she finally fell into a fitful slumber.
She woke with a start to find the sun fighting its way free of the last, high-flung, tattered remnants of
the storm. Carefully and slowly she stood, hugging close to the tree she had rested against, and cautiously
surveyed the Plain. The only motion was that of the waving grass.
Satisfied no one was nearby, she stretched and moved her body to work out the stiffness and
soreness in her muscles. Then she squatted next to her sack and took out one of the packets of ken-cow
cheese. Unwrapping it, she picked out a large chunk of the firm, brownish stuff and sat back, chewing
and swallowing it with great appreciation. Nothing like a long run through a stormy night, followed by
sleeping on the damp ground hunched up against a sopping, dripping tree to whet the old appetite, she
thought. From a small cavity formed between the trunk of one of the trees and a large branch, she sipped
a little fresh rainwater to complete her breakfast.
After repacking the food into her sack, she once again surveyed the Plain carefully in all directions.
Far off to the northwest was a thin line of smoke that undoubtedly came from a settler's hut hidden just
below the horizon. Best avoid that, she advised herself. No sense in letting anyone see me for a couple of
days. This is still too close to the Sisterhood.
The only real question was still where to go. Reluctantly, she admitted that her options were rather
limited. Running them over in her mind, she suddenly remembered the news one of the members of the
College had given last night. Mitsuyama was hunting for Keepers in the area where her parents had been
sent. Her concern over what would happen should the PlainsLord find them flared up again.
She made a decision. Perhaps not the best one, but certainly the most human. She would go and
warn her parents. They were isolated, on purpose, and might not have heard the news. They were in
danger and must be made aware of it. Besides, they might have some idea as to what she should do next.
Her destination chosen, she immediately picked up her travel-sack, shrugged into it, and began to
walk across the Plain, heading directly away from the morning sun. After she had passed the settler's hut
off in the distance to her right, she turned northwest and broke into a gentle trot. It was a journey of
several days and she wasn't completely sure of their exact location. She estimated a trip of some five
days to a week, barring unforeseen problems.
The unforeseen problem arose on the morning of the second day. She was moving along at her usual
pace when suddenly she felt an overwhelming premonition of danger. Stopping, she scanned the Plain in
all directions, right out to the horizon. Nothing.
Shaking her head, she moved on again, but at a fast walk instead of a trot, and with all her senses
fully alive.
Nevertheless, she almost stumbled over the body before she saw it. It was a man, a settler from his
dress, hacked nearly in two. In his hands he clutched the broken shaft of a bladed staff. Then, ahead, she
noticed a slight depression in the grass. Warily, she approached, poised for instant flight.
It was further than she thought, and when" she got there, the depression turned out to be a clearing.
In the middle was a partly built hut, not even waist high yet. In it, were a woman and a child, both dead.
Controlling her nausea, she checked the bodies carefully. Cold, but not completely stiff. They had
died no more than ten hours ago. Possibly the previous evening.
Finished with the two bodies in the hut, she began to circle the area, looking for more. She finally
found one, not too far north and west of the settler. It was the corpse of a man, unshaven and filthy, the
blade of a bladed staff protruding from his chest, his face twisted in a hideous rictus of death. A Ronin.
A shadow crossed her and she looked up with a start. A lone carrion lizard was circling in the sky.
Others would soon join it, she knew. Best leave before their presence brought someone to investigate.
What had happened was obvious. The family had been building a new farm in a less settled area of
the Plain. But they had not built swiftly enough. Ronin had found them.
She shuddered at the very name. Ronin. The insane killers who actually sought out the Madness the
Mushin brought to heighten the ghastly thrill they felt while slaying. Once they had dominated the Home
Valley, murdering as they chose. The Mushin had used them to control the human population and to
provide orgies of emotion at the expense of the dying. The Mushin fed on emotive energy, and madness
and death were two of their favorite sources.
Jerome had ended all that. He had invented the bladed staff, organized the Faithful, and crushed the
Ronin in their camps at the Passes that led out of the Home Valley. At one stroke, he freed the Home
Valley from the dreaded killers and opened the way to expand onto the Plain.
But not all of the Ronin died. A few escaped out onto the Plain itself. They took their Mushin with
them and thus some of the mind leeches managed to avoid the virtual captivity Jerome engineered for the
rest with the establishment of the Great Way in the Home Valley. The Ronin and their Mushin now
roamed the Plain, far fewer in number than before, but still quite fatal to the isolated settlers they [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]