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She murmured, "We would have found one another. From the ends of the world; from the ends of the universe of stars. We belong together."

And then she took him against her, and he was lost in awareness of her, and his last thought, before all thought was lost, was that he had been a stranger on his own world and that now an alien girl from an alien world had made him feel at home.

XIV.

THEY STARTED two hours before dawn in a heavy snowfall; after a short time of riding the forge folk on their thickset ponies looked like polar bears, their furred garments and the s.h.a.ggy coats of the ponies being covered with the white flakes. Barron rode close to Melitta, but they did not speak, nor need to. Their new awareness of one another went too deep for words. But he could feel her fear-the growing preoccupation and sense of desperation in what they were about to dare.

Valdir had said that the worship of Sharra was forbidden a long time ago, and Larry had been at some pains to explain that the Gods on Darkover were tangible forces. What was going to happen? The defiance of an old law must be a serious thing-Melitta's no coward, and she's scared almost out of her wits.



Desideria rode alone at the head of the file. She was an oddly small, straight and somehow pitiable little figure, and Barron could sense without analyzing the isolation of the one who must handle these unbelievable forces.

When they came through the pass and sighted Storn Castle on the height, a great, grim mass which he had never seen before, he realized that he had seen it once through Storn's eyes-the magical vision of Storn, flying in the strange magnetic net which bound his mind to the mechanical bird.

Had I dreamed that?

Melitta reached out and clasped his hand. She said, her voice shaky, "There it is. If we're only in time-Storn, Edric, Allira-I wonder if they're even still alive?"

Barron clasped her hand, without speaking. Even if you have no one else, you will always have me, beloved.

She smiled faintly, but did not speak.

The forge folk were dismounting now, moving stealthily, under cover of the darkness and crags, up the path toward the great, closed gates of Storn.

Barron, between Desideria and Melitta, moved quietly with them, wondering what was going to happen which could make both Melitta and Desideria turn white with terror. Melitta whispered, "It's a chance, at least," and was silent again, clinging to his hand.

Time was moving strangely again for Barron; he had no idea whether it was ten minutes or two hours that he climbed at Melitta's side, but they stood shrouded by shadows in the lee of the gates. The sky was beginning to turn crimson around the eastern peaks. At last the great, pale-red disc of the sun came over the mountain. Desideria, looking around her at the small, swart men clustered about her, drew a deep breath and said, "We had better begin."

Melitta glanced up uneasily at the heights and said, her voice shaking, "I suppose Brynat has sentries up there. As soon as he finds out we're down here, there will be-arrows and things."

"We had better not give him the chance," Desideria agreed. She motioned the forge folk close around her, and gave low-voiced instructions which Barron found that he could understand, even though she spoke that harsh and barbarian language. "Gather close around me; don't move or speak; keep your eyes on the fire."

She turned her eyes on Barron, looking troubled and a little afraid. She said, "I am sorry, it will have to be you, although you are not a worshipper of Sharra. If I had realized what had happened, I would have brought another trained telepath with me; Melitta is not strong enough. You"-suddenly he noticed that she had neither looked directly at him, nor spoken his name, that day-"must serve at the pole of power."

Barron began to protest that he didn't know anything about this sort of thing, and she cut him off curtly. "Stand here, between me and the men; see yourself as gathering all the force of their feelings and emotion and pouring it out in my direction. Don't tell me you can't do it. I've been trained for eight years to judge these things, and I know you can if you don't lose your nerve. If you do, we're probably all dead, so don't be surprised, whatever you see or whatever happens. Just keep your mind concentrated on me." As if moved on strings, Barron found himself moving to the place she indicated, yet he knew she was not controlling him. Rather, his will was in accord with hers, and he moved as she thought.

With a final, tense look upward at the blank wall of the castle, she motioned to Melitta.

"Melitta, make fire."

From the silk-wrapped bundle she carried, Desideria took a large blue crystal.

It was as large as a child's fist, and many-faceted, with strange fires and metallic ribbons of light. It looked molten, despite the crystalline facets, as she held it between her hands, and it seemed to change form, the color and light within it shifting and playing.

Melitta struck fire from her tinderbox; it flared up between her hands.

Desideria motioned to her to drop the blazing fragment of tinder at her feet.

Barron watched, expecting it to go out. Desideria's serious, white face was bent on the blue crystal with a taut intensity; her mouth was drawn, her nostrils pinched and white. The blue light from the crystal seemed to grow, to play around her, to reflect on her-and now, instead of falling, the fire was rising, blazing up until its lights reflected crimson with the blue on Desideria's features-a strange darting, leaping flame.

Her eyes, gray and immense and somehow inhuman, met Barton's across the fire as if there were a visible line between them. He almost heard her voice within his mind. "Remember!"

Then he felt behind him an intense pressure beating up-it was the linked minds of the forge folk, beating on his. Desperately he struggled to control this new assault on his mind. He fought, out of control, his breath coming fast and his face contorted, for what seemed ages-though it was only seconds.

The fire sagged and Desideria's face showed rage, fear and despair. Then Barron had it-it was like gathering up a handful of shining threads, swiftly splicing them into a rope and thrusting it toward Desideria. He almost felt her catch it, like a great meshing. The fire blazed up again, exuberantly. It dipped, wavered toward Desideria.

It enveloped her.

Barron gasped almost aloud and for a bare instant the rapport sagged, then he held it fast. He knew, suddenly, that he dared not falter, or this strange magical fire of the mind would flare out of control and become ordinary fire that would consume Desideria. Desperately intense, he felt the indrawn sigh of the men behind him, the quality of their worship, as the fires played around the delicate girl who stood calmly in the bathing flames. Her body, her light dress, her loosely braided hair, seemed to flicker in the fires.

With a sc.r.a.p of awareness on the edge of his consciousness, Barron heard shouts and cries from the wall above, but he dared not cast an eye upward. He held desperately to the rapport between the girl in the flames and the forge folk.

An arrow flew from nowhere; behind them someone cried out and an almost invisible thread broke and was gone, but Barron was barely conscious of it.

He knew without full consciousness that something had roused the castle, that Brynat's men knew they were under strange attack. But his mind was fixed on Desideria.

There was a great surge of the flame, and a great shout from behind them.

Desideria cried aloud in surprise and terror and wonder, and then-before Barron's eyes, her frail fire-clad figure seemed to grow immensely upward, to take on height, majesty and power. And then it was no delicate girl who stood there, but a great veiled Shape, towering to the very height of the outworks and castle, a woman in form, hair of dancing flame, tossing wildly on the wind, wrapped in garments of flame and with upraised arms from which dangled golden chains of fire.

A great sighing cry went up from forge folk and village people crowded behind them.

"Sharra! Sharra, flame-haired, flame-crowned, golden-chained-Sharra!

Child of Fire!"

The great Shape towered there, laughing, tossing arms and long fiery locks in a wild exultation. Barron could feel the growing flood of power, the linked minds and emotions of the worshippers, pouring through him and into Desideria-into the flame-form, the Form of Fire.

Random thoughts spun dizzily at the edge of his mind. Chains. Is this why they chain their women in the Dry Towns? The legends run, if Sharra ever broke her chains the world would explode in flame... There is an old saying on Terra that Fire is a good servant but a poor master. On Darkover too; every planet that knows fire has that byword. Larry! You! Where are you? Nowhere here; I speak to your mind, I will be with you later.

He dropped back into rapport with Desideria, vaguely knowing he had never left it and that he was moving now outside normal time and s.p.a.ce perception.

Somehow Storn was there, too, but Barron shut out that perception, shut out everything but the lines of force almost visibly streaming from the worshippers-through his body and mind, and into the Form of Fire. With multiplied perception he could see into and through the Form of Fire-see Desideria there looking tense and quiet and frail and somehow exultant-but it was not with his eyes.

Arrows were flying into the crowd now, dropping off men who fell strangely rapt and without crying out. One arrow flew into the Form of Fire, burst into flame and vanished in soundless, white heat. The Form loomed higher and higher. There came a loud outcry from behind the castle walls as the great Form of Sharra stretched out arms with fingers extended-fingers from which ball fires and chain lightning dripped. The men on the walls shrieked insanely as their clothes burst into flame, as their bodies went up in the encompassing fire.

Barron never knew how long that strange and terrible battle raged, for he spent it in a timeless world, beyond fatigue and beyond awareness, feeling it when Brynat, raving, tried to rally his fleeing, burning, dying men; sensing it when the great Form of Fire, with a single blow, broke the outworks as if they had been carved in cheese. Brynat, desperate, brave against even the magic he did not believe in to the very end, charged along the walls, beyond the reach of the flames.

From somewhere a great white bird came flying. It flapped insanely around Brynat's head; he flung up his arms to batter it away, while it flew closer, stabbing with its glittering metallic beak at his eyes. He lost his balance, with a great cry; tottered, shrieked and fell, with a long, wailing scream, into the ravine below the castle.

The fires sank and died. Barron felt the net of force thin and drop away. He realized that he was on his knees, as if physically battered down by the tremendous streams of force that had washed over him. Melitta stood fixed, dumbfounded, staring at the heights.

And Desideria, only a girl again-a small, fragile, red-haired and white-faced girl-was standing in the ring of the dying fire, trembling, her dress and hair unscorched. She gestured with her last strength and the fire flickered and went out. Spasmodically, she thrust the blue stone into the bosom of her dress; then she crumpled unconscious to the ground, and lay there as if dead.

Above them the great wall of the castle breached, with none left to resist them except the dying.

XV.

THE forge folk picked up Desideria with reverent awe and carried her, through the break in the walls, inside the castle yard. They would have done the same to Barron, except that he made them put him down, and went to Melitta, who stood weak-kneed and white. The forge folk disposed of the dead simply, by tossing them into a deep chasm; after some time the wheeling of the kyorebni, the corbies and lammergeiers of Darkover, over the crags marked their resting place. In their enthusiasm they would have thrown the wounded and dying after them, but Barron prevented them and was astonished at the way in which his word was taken for law. When he had stopped them he wondered why he had done it; what was going to happen to these bandits now? There weren't any prisons on Darkover that he knew about, except for the equivalent of a brig, in Trade City, where unprovoked fighters and obstreperous drunks were put to cool off for second thoughts; anyone who committed a worse crime of violence either died in the attempt or killed anyone who might try to prevent him. Perhaps Darkover would have to think about penalties less than death, and he frankly wished Aldaran the joy of the task.

At Melitta's orders they went down into the dungeon and freed young Edric of Storn, whom Barron found, to his surprise and consternation, to be a boy of fifteen. The terrible wounds he had sustained in the siege were healing, but Barron realized with dismay that the child would bear the scars, and go lame all his life. He welcomed his rescuers with the courtly phrases of a young king, then broke down and sobbed helplessly in Melitta's arms.

Allira, numbed and incoherent with terror-she had not known whether they were being rescued or attacked by someone eager to replace Brynat-they found hiding in the Royal Suite. Barron, who had formed a strange picture of her from Melitta's thoughts, found her to be a tall, fair-haired, quiet girl-to most eyes more beautiful than Melitta-who came quickly back from terror.

With dignity and strength, she came to thank their helpers and place herself at their service, and then to devote herself to reviving and comforting Desideria.

Barron was almost numb with fatigue, but he was too tense to relax even for an instant. He thought, I'm tired and hungry, I wish they'd bring on the victory feast or something, but he knew firmly in his mind, This isn't the end.

There's more to come, d.a.m.n it.

He realized with disbelief that the sun had risen less than thirty degrees above the horizon; the whole dreadful battle had been over in little more than an hour.

The great white bird, glittering as if formed of jewels that shone through the feathers, swooped low over him; it seemed to be urging him upward. Melitta behind him, clutching at his hand, he climbed the long stairs. He passed through the archway, through the blue tingle of the magnetic field and into the room where the silken bier lay. On it lay the form of a man-sleeping, tranced or dead-like a pale statue, motionless. The bird fluttered above it; suddenly flapped and dropped askew to the floor, lying there in a limp dead tangle of feathers gleaming with jewels, like some broken mechanical toy.

Storn opened blind eyes and sat up, stretching out his hand to them in welcome.

Melitta flew to him, clasping her arms around his neck, laughing and crying at once. She started to tell him, but he smiled bleakly. "I saw it all-through the bird's eyes-the last thing I shall ever see." He said, "Where is Barron?"

Barron said, "I am here, Storn." He had felt that at this moment he would be ready to kill the man; now he felt all his rage and fury drain out of him. He had been a part of this man for days. He could not hate him or even resent him. What could he do to a blind man, a frail invalid? Storn was saying in a low voice, ridden with something like shame, "I owe it all to you. I owe everything to you. But I have suffered for it-and I will take whatever comes."

Barron did not know what to say. He said roughly, "Time enough to settle that later, and it won't be me you have to settle it with."

Storn rose, leaning heavily on Melitta, and took a few fumbling steps. Barron wondered if he were lame, along with everything else, but Storn sensed the thought and said, "No, only stiff from prolonged trance. Where is Desideria?"

"I am here," she said from behind them, and came forward to take his hand.

He said, almost in a whisper, "I would have liked to see your face once, only once, with my own eyes." He fell silent with a sigh. Barron had no longer any anger against Storn, only pity; and he knew, with that new and expanded awareness that was never to leave him, that his pity was the worst revenge he could have taken on the man who had stolen his work, his body, and his soul.

A horn sounded far below them in the courtyard, and the women rushed to the window. Barron did not have to follow them. He knew what had happened. Valdir Alton, with Larry and his men, had arrived. He had followed them through half the mountains, and when he lost them, had come directly here, knowing that sooner or later, it must end here. Barron no longer wondered how his masquerade had been known for Storn. Larry had been in rapport with him too long for any surprise.

Storn drew himself upright, with a quiet assumption of courage that did much to dilute the pity and redeem him in Barron's eyes. "My punishment is in Comyn hands," he said, almost to himself. "Come, I must go and welcome my guests-and my judges."

"Judge you? Punish you?" Valdir said, hours later, when formalities were over. "How could I punish you worse than the fate you have brought on yourself, Loran of Storn? From freedom you are bound, from sight, you are blind again. Did you really think it was only to protect their victims that we made what you have done our greatest taboo?"

Barron had found it hard to face Valdir; now, before the man's hard justice, he looked directly at him and said, "Among other things, I owe you for a horse."

Valdir said quietly, "Keep it. His identical twin and stable mate was being trained for my guest gift to you when you had finished your work among us; I shall bestow him upon Gwynn instead. I know you were not responsible for leaving us so abruptly, and we have you-or Storn," he smiled faintly, "to thank for saving the entire station, and all the horses, the night of the Ghost Wind."

He turned to Desideria and his eyes were more severe. He said: "Did you know that we had laid Sharra, centuries ago?"

"Yes," she flared at him, "your people in the Comyn would rob us both of Terra's new powers- and Darkover's old ones."

He shook his head. "I am not happy with what the Aldarans are doing. But then, I am not entirely happy with what my own people are doing, either. I do not like the idea that Terra and Darkover shall always be the irresistible force and immovable object. We are brother worlds; we should be joined-and instead-the battle between us is joined. All I can say is-God help you, Desideria-any God you can find! And you know the law. You have involved yourself in a private feud and stirred up telepathic power in two who did not have it; now you, and you alone, are responsible for teaching your-victims- to guard themselves. You will have little leisure for your work as a Keeper, Desideria. Storn, Melitta and Barron are your responsibility now. They must be trained to use the powers you broke open in them."

"It was not I all alone," she said, "Storn discovered these things on his own- and it will be my joy, not my burden, to help him!" She glared at Valdir defiantly, and took Storn's pale hands between her own.

Larry turned to Barron, with a glance at Valdir as if asking permission. He said, "You still have work with us. You need not return to the Terran Zone unless you like-and, forgive me, I think you have no place there now."

Barron said, "I don't think I ever did." Melitta did not move, but nevertheless he felt as if Melitta had come to stand beside him, as he said, "I've never belonged anywhere but here."

In a queer flash he saw a strange divided future; a Terran working both for and against Terra on this curiously divided world, torn relentlessly and yet knowing where he belonged. Storn had robbed him of his body and in return had given him a heart and a home.

He knew that this would always be his place; that if Storn had taken his place, he would take Storn's, increasingly with the years. He would master the new world, seeing it through doubled eyes. The Darkover they knew would be a different world. But with Melitta beside him, he had no fears about it; it was a good world-it was his own.

end





CHAPTER DISCUSSION