The Portals of Hell

Davin is a disappointment to his military family, but he discovers he has a Gift, an ability to tap into God’s own power. He begins a quest to learn how to control that Gift, in the course of which he will face monsters emerging from the portals of Hell.

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Davin is good at math and science, inconsequential to his military family, where his older brother will soon become commander of the Army of the Republic. His father once conquered the southern land—and now his youngest son has flunked out of Academy, a complete failure as a cadet.

But something else is going on in Davin’s life. Why does he sometimes have visions and dreams of terrible events, war, and strange, exotic and deadly creatures? After returning home, a Hellport opens nearby, spilling out monsters that kill and maim—and he had a premonition of the event!

He is tested for a Gift, the ability to control God’s own Power, and the result is terrifying. He begins a quest to find answers to his many questions. Before he finds them, he will face more Hellport monsters, overcome an army, and find a new home among mountain tribes who will help him discover his destiny.

Pushing open the back door, Davin Blackthorn edged into the kitchen, hanging his coat on one of the massive brass hooks along the wall. Hoping to be ignored, at least for a while, in the midst of the organized confusion of breakfast preparations, he edged to his right toward the small breakfast table for kitchen help, which was byadjacent to the dining room door.

The kitchen was more broad than deep. Great black ovens to the left warmed the kitchen and baked biscuits. In the center were heavy oak preparation tables and chopping blocks, with sinks and racks of pots and pans to the right. Aliceia, mistress of the house, presided over the maelstrom, her tall, angular body in a black Meeting dress, the front covered with a white linen apron. Long black hair piled atop her head like a crown, she was a commanding presence who choreographed the movements of her half-dozen kitchen staff who prepared breakfast not only for the occupants of the main house, but also the fifty and more ranche hands in the bunkhouse.

Davin watched as Riala, her daughter, equally dark-haired but considerably more curved, whisked steaming biscuits swathed in linen into a wicker basket. She pirouetted past white-clad Pe and Reia, who had commandeered the stove-tops and skillets for all Davin’s lifetime, to disappear through the swinging door panel into the dining room. At the chopping block, a young woman named Quala sliced apples and pears for a bright fruit salad. With the brevity of last summer and the poor harvest, Deos only knew how there was any fruit left. The last of it, in all probability, no doubt Blessed to have been preserved this long. Two of the great brown-and-black ranche hounds, Tico and Teco, were discreetly ensconced to the left of the ovens, waiting patiently for an occasional scrap from the cooks.

Aliceia finally caught sight of him, giving him a regarding look and shaking her head slightly. Davin’s heart sank. Not only was she not surprised to see him, she knew. He almost turned and ran out the back door, since if she knew, so did the General, which meant he would be waiting with fire in his eye. The General could be bad enough when he was remonstrating gently, if there was such a behavior in his repertoire, but his tantrums were to be avoided at all cost.

Aliceia must have seen his jaw drop, as she quickly crossed to him, wrapping her arms around him, saying nothing. Suddenly she drew back, face troubled. “Child, your heart is pounding! Are you so concerned about your father’s reaction?”

He held her at arm’s length, searching her dark eyes. “No, no. I just saw . . . something. That is, I . . .” He shook his head. She couldn’t possibly believe him. How do you tell someone that you just saw a light that no one else can see?

He changed the subject. “How did you know I was asked to resign?”

“The priests were here last evening before you came in.” She smiled at his surprise. “I heard you sneak into the kitchen for a snack when you arrived, so I knew you had decided to sleep in the bunkhouse to avoid any unpleasant encounters. The priests weren’t here about you; it was chapel business. There was wood to be Blessed, and I think they wanted more money for the fund for the needy. At least that was their story.” She frowned toward the dining room. “Sometimes I think they just want to assure that their own bellies are full for the winter.”

After a moment, she went on, “Don’t mind me. I got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Anyway, one of the priests had heard something. Deos only knows how that network of theirs operates, but they seem to get word of whatever goes on in San Luis or anywhere else as soon as it happens.

“The Gen . . .” Her face flushed. Everyone called Davin’s father, Kel Blackthorn, “the General” behind his back, but Davin knew that Aliceia generally tried not to do so when she addressed Davin or his sister Meara. “Your father is already in the dining room, but he is with a guest. He knows you’re home, but he probably won’t ask about you for a while. Are you hungry? You can eat in here.”

Davin swallowed, mouth dry. “I’m not very hungry. Maybe coffee and some bacon.”

She smiled, kissed his cheek. “I’ll have Riala bring you coffee.” With a quick turn, she rejoined the kitchen dance, moving back and forth, sampling, in turn, the egg casserole and a tray of biscuits steaming from the oven, in what Davin knew was her own version of breakfast.

Edging into the small alcove, he took a seat at the white wooden table, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes. When he looked back up, Riala was bringing a steaming cup and a plate of bacon. Shorter than her mother and darker-haired, she was slender with skin a lighter, creamy olive, her face a pleasant combination of button nose, dark eyes, and soft, wide mouth. She was ready for Meeting in a bright yellow dress.

Taking the cup, Davin breathed in the aroma of what the Sudos called caffé. The General was one of the few men—even wealthy men—that had coffee regularly.

Riala smiled. “You’re home early, school-boy. Is Academy already out?”

He cast a grateful glance at Aliceia’s back—she had not told Riala. “Sit. I know you are busy, but sit. Just a minute.”

With a glance at her mother’s back, she sat. The quizzical look became a frown. “What?”

He hesitated, hating to admit failure once again, to have to tell the truth to Riala, his lifelong friend. “I have been expelled. I am no longer a cadet. Of course, they call it a ‘voluntary withdrawal.’ ”

Her face was stricken. “How? You were the best student in second school! You had the highest grade in every class!”

He couldn’t meet her eyes. He methodically began eating the bacon, finishing most of it in silence. Finally, he said, “I’m fine with mathematics and science, but in other areas, not so good. My eyesight is bad, and I’m clumsy. You have to act—and look like—a leader. I’m not a leader.”

As he raised his eyes, she regarded at him fiercely. “You could be! I know you could!”

“That’s because you’re my friend. Right now, it feels like you’re my last friend.”

“Don’t talk that way—it’s just self-pity, and that’s not like you at all. You have lots of friends here in the plains, and I’m sure you made them at Academy.”

“Not so many at the Academy, but some. The friends I did have there will forget me. You’re too busy to take time remembering those that leave—and a lot leave. Anyway, so what? Friends couldn’t keep me in the Academy, and they can’t protect me from the General, either.”

Riala’s scowl deepened. “You’re the General’s son. You don’t need protection.”

“Don’t be so sure. With my bad eyes, I can’t even volunteer for the local militia, so as far as he’s concerned, I’m a failure. Again. I had to have a dispensation to get into the Academy. Eventually, my sight would have had to have another Blessing. You know what that would cost. And eyesight is tricky. The General paid more than a thousand gold dosas for that Healing three years ago, and the result was only partially successful. Another try might have cost half our family fortune for nothing.”

“He’d have paid it.”

“Maybe so. Would it have been a wise investment? I doubt it—no guarantee that I would make it through to graduation anyway. I probably saved the General a fortune by failing.”

“You did not fail. Even if they asked you to leave, it would never be over scholarship.”

He shook his head but made no reply, simply returning his stare to the empty cup. After a long pause, she put her hand around his and squeezed. “What will you do now?”

“I’ll have to think about it. Maybe the Guild of Engineers.”

“Your father will never approve of that.”

“Not without some persuading. But since I am a verified failure at military training, perhaps he’ll consider the guild.” Riala frowned again. He knew she was thinking of the General’s opinion of engineers in general.

The kitchen workers were beginning to migrate to the alcove to eat, cooking duties over. Davin squeezed out as Pe, the chief cook, approached. She was from the montas, the western mountains, the home of the Chanches. They were reputedly fierce fighters who were said to constantly contest among their clans for the sparse living space and farmlands in the higher elevations. Pe never spoke of her homeland, however. Passing Davin, she smiled and patted his shoulder, but didn’t speak.

As Aliceia approached the table, Davin glanced down ruefully at his soiled and wrinkled trousers and stained shirt. “I have the dirt of the road on me, ‘Ceia. I slept in the bunkhouse in my clothes, too tired to even think about cleaning up. Is there hot water for a bath?”

She smiled. “Yes, but hurry. Departure at first eight.”

He paused to give Riala a hug. She wiggled her nose (“None too soon for that bath—and shave, too!”), hugged him back, and made for the great sink on the east wall of the kitchen with his plate. He detoured near the ovens to feed his bacon scraps to the hounds and give them a scratch behind the ears, then hurried out the kitchen door and upstairs to the bathing room.

Belo was already pouring alternating buckets of cold and steaming water into the largest of three tubs, so Aliceia had anticipated his request. Belo grinned and winked, saying nothing as usual. He had served the General, first as corpsman and later as manservant, for nearly fifty years. The tub was soon full, and in a moment Davin sank into the water with a groan of pleasure.

He did not luxuriate long. Retrieving soap from the table by the tub, he vigorously washed his thin, wiry body and hair. There was also a razor on the table, and he shaved off nearly two weeks’ stubble, feeling better than at any time since that terrible morning when he had been summoned to the Commandant’s office.

By the time he finished and crossed the hall to his bedroom, Paco, Belo’s assistant, had delivered clothing and shoes. He finished drying and quickly dressed in Meeting Day best—white linens, dark trousers, a gray wool shirt, and black socks. A rich wool coat, freshly-polished boots, and a fur-lined leather overcoat completed his dress.

Hat in hand, arrayed like the rich man’s son that he was, he heard the departure gong at the front door. He glanced around his room longingly, having spent little time there in well over a year. On his desk lay a telescope, brass-bound body transported a thousand kilometers from the north for his twelfth birthday, Blessed by the priests so that it would properly focus the light. There was also the brass steam piston given him by his favorite teacher, plus books and scientific papers. Scholarship awards decorated the wall above the desk.

Leaving his room, he found himself face-to-face with a tall, blond man with steel-gray eyes and a rugged, square-jawed face. It displayed the demeanor of one accustomed to command, the man’s height and broad shoulders reinforcing the picture of strength and authority.

“You must be our visitor,” Davin said. “I remember you, you’re Bayn Grenoble. You lectured at Academy last year. I’ve read your papers in the Academy library.”

In the background, he heard the harsh sound of the second gong on the front porch. The final gathering bell was announcing that departure was imminent and stragglers should hurry to the front porch. “You are coming with us to Meeting?”

“With your father’s kind invitation. I retired here for a final wash.”

Davin gestured down the hallway. “We always gather on the front veranda.” Bayn obligingly turned to the stairs, leading Davin down the flight.

As they descended, Bayn said, “I have been curious to meet the Cadet who is first in his class in mathematics and science.”

Davin shook his head. “Of course there is a top scholar at the Academy, but it is not me. I have been denied class standing and forced to resign.” He felt his face redden as he had to repeat the embarrassing admission.

At the bottom of the stairs, Bayn turned to Davin. After a moment of silence, he said, “Do not be discouraged at this turn in your life. I have often been disappointed at the attitude of our Academy toward scholarship and intellect.”

Turning, he moved toward the front entry, and Davin followed him into the cold, gray day. Clouds above seemed to hint of snow, and a biting wind whistled out of the north. Stopping at the edge of the front porch, Davin surveyed those gathered for Meeting as Bayn joined the ranche hands and mounted up.

As usual on a Meeting day, a line of wagons was waiting where the front drive met the east-west road, a motley collection from canvas-covered cargo trams to fully-enclosed wooden coaches with soft seat cushions and glass side-windows. Two such coaches were parked near the front porch of Aldronne—the General’s family and house staff always traveled in the grandest style.

Those ranche families to the west would traditionally leave earlier and slowly move east, gathering neighbors as they came toward Aldronne on Meeting day. Usually, by first eight, a string of wagons waited patiently at the gate. In addition to the honor of traveling with Aldronne’s wagons, there was the advantage of forty or fifty of the General’s ranche-hands, typically well-armed. Such was a welcome addition to the smaller ranching families, who often had only the father and a few sons or ranche hands who could act as defenders. The malito problem was not frequent, but attacks could be disastrous.

Today manpower was lower. Many of the General’s men, and those of his neighbors, were in the prairies to the south, as roundup was beginning. Spring had arrived, cold and bitter though it was, but warmer weather lay just around the corner. Ranche-hands would be scouring the pastures for new-born calves and lambs as well as scouting for evidence of predators and those who might wish to appropriate a milk cow or likely looking bull.

Only about twenty mounted men were clustered together, some talking in low tones, dressed in the traditional tan longcoats and heavy brimmed hats of the ranche worker. Their stance on their horses, their general air of watchfulness, and their clearly visible weapons marked all as former members of the Nortes Governor’s Guard. The General hired only former military men into his employ.

In years past Pedron, elderly former overseer of the ranche, would be the center of the waiting group. But during the last summer, Pedron had passed into the presence of Deos, and the General was now searching for a new foreman. It was a prestigious post for which there would be many applicants.

Pedron’s daughter and granddaughter, Aliceia and Riala, would be riding in one family coach with Meara, which Belo habitually drove, while Paco took the other coach. The General might ride with his men or perhaps in the coach with the women of the household, as he felt moved on a particular Lord’s Day. Today, with so many ranche hands in the field, he was astride his gray stallion. It snorted and blew great puffs of steam in the cold, impatient to start out. The monstrous draft horses pulling the carriages waited quietly, their nature more patient.

Paco, small and lean, with dark hair and eyes and a self-effacing manner, was waiting with Charger near the family coaches, as another servant brought Bayn’s horse.

“Good morning.” Most servants would say “Seor Davin,” a title of respect, but Paco and Davin had grown up together.

Davin took the reins from Paco. Charger was a fine dark gelding, now somewhat advanced in years. Davin mounted and, a little nervously, turned to scan for the General. Already mounted, his father was currently in discussion with two of his lead vequereos.

“You have not yet talked to your father.” Davin could sense Paco’s sympathy.

“Not yet. It will come soon enough.”

“SiSe, sise. It may be now.” Paco had spied the general, who, turning in the saddle, had discovered Davin on Charger. He slowly eased his mount around and walked it toward Davin, while Paco scuttled to his coach and took the driver’s position.

The General was a large man, nearly two meters in height. Under him, the gray simply looked like a normal-sized horse. The stallion’s name was Lanze, which meant “spear” in Sudo. Like most stallions, he was fully as aggressive (Belo said just plain mean) as his rider. Most men preferred geldings or mares to stallions, which were often hard to handle and high-strung, but the General loved the gray, a feeling that was reciprocated. Davin had seen it follow his father around the barnyard just as a puppy would follow its master.

Davin turned Charger to face the General, trying to calm his stomach as his father approached the veranda. At least, Davin thought thankfully, the General could hardly make a huge scene here in front of neighbors and employees.

The General reined in the gray, and father and son regarded each other for a moment. Davin dipped his head. “Good day, Father.”

When the General spoke, his voice was more subdued than Davin had expected. “I received word two days ago that you would be home this seven-day. Congratulations on your safe arrival and the good weather that ushered you home.” A heartfelt statement—there had been no snow lately, though the day still held promise, and the winter being considerably warmer than usual over the last several weeks.

Fifty years older than his son, General Kel Blackthorn was still straight and hard as a tempered arrow. He had a great mane of white hair, but no beard or mustache, a result of his army heritage. Clad in a glossy black leather coat and finely-pressed black wool suit, he wore black boots of rare antelope hide. All in all, the General looked to be just what he was—the richest and most influential leader in the northern land of the Sudos, the land he had personally conquered for the Governor and the Nortes Republic, more than forty years ago, and which he had ruled as Regent for nearly half the intervening time.

“You returned home alone.”

Davin shrugged. “I took the northern coach nearly to Duro Piedre, on the River Roje, but the Alene coach was late. I rode on without waiting. It gave me time to think.”

“Later, we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, sir.”

His father turned the gray and rejoined his men, the stallion eager to be afield. Davin watched him a moment, heart gradually slipping back down his throat. Why does he do that to me? At least Davin was not alone in his reaction; the General intimidated everybody.

The procession finally departed with a simple wave by the General, who spurred his mount into a brisk walk toward the gate. As the General’s party reached the road and turned east, the queued-up wagons and horsemen followed, making a long procession of families on their way to worship.

Shortly they were moving up the long, steep hill at the crest of which was the Iglesa. Davin had joined his father’s workers, hoping to disappear amidst the riders. As many of the families that he knew were in the wagons behind him, no doubt some of his friends were present as well.

Two little girls were sitting with their father on one of the wagons, just behind Aldronne’s coaches. The youngest of them was serenading her father with a childhood song in between fits of giggles as she poked her older sister. Had he ever laughed so with his older brother? No, Kel junior had been too much older. Pictures of Kel in his memory were like monochrome portraits. It had been a long time since Davin had seen him.

Up ahead, a bright flash of light caught his eye. It was assertive, sharp, not the subtle light that he had refused to acknowledge just before he entered the Aldronne kitchen. The brilliant pulses of light came from straight ahead, through the trees, to the right of the trail. Among the riders around him, no one else even raised their head or took notice.

Why couldn’t anyone else see the light? For the first time, Davin felt a powerful urgency to tell someone what he had seen. Every time he had seen this light before, every single time, the next event had been . . . Davin spurred Charger forward among the General’s men, determined to give a warning.

He was still behind his father when a rider appeared up ahead in a gap between the trees. As an experienced military commander, the General always set a forward scout, and that scout was approaching with great haste. Davin’s father immediately held up his arm, bringing the column to the halt. His men and Davin moved forward as well, surrounding the General in a half-circle as the ranche hand rode up.

“Sir, there is a battle in the next clearing up-slope. About a half-kilometer ahead, though it is widely spread out. Several families on the way to Meeting have encountered a HellholeHellport. Very large, and many malitos. Fighting is fierce, and already several are wounded. They will need our help to survive.”

There were stirs and mutters among the men—they knew what that meant—but the General only nodded, turning in his saddle. Davin had to admit that his father was at his best in time of crisis—he was as matter-of-fact as if he were asking Aliceia for another cup of coffee.

“Men, follow me. Davin, stand by our family, along with Belo and Paco.” He turned to his visitor, who had been riding beside him. “Bayn, my friend, I would take it as a personal favor if you would stay with the wagons, as all those I love remain here. If there is a need for rapid retreat or to repel an attack, I designate you second in command.” Bayn nodded.

With that the General and his men galloped down the road, the General calling out positions as they went. One discomforting thought occurred to Davin as the Aldronne riders rode away. The HellholeHellport that had been encountered was above them on the escarpment, but those flashes he had just seen were nearby!

Urging Charger forward, Davin reined in beside Bayn, who was sizing up the remaining defenders in the column. “Excuse me, sir. Perhaps we should set up a defense to our East.”

Bayn stared at him quizzically. At that point, the wagons were in a straight line, facing north on a stretch of almost-flat ground. Up ahead, the road turned back to the east and began to climb again.

“Why to the east, young Blackthorn? Did you see something?”

“No, it’s just that . . .” Davin stumbled over the words. “I think a HellholeHellport may form close by and . . .”

Bayn stared at him again, then nodded to Davin’s surprise. “A good suggestion, I think. You know many of the families in this column, correct?”

“Yes,” Davin blinked. What was Bayn thinking?

“Good. You must be acquainted with many of the young men your age—I’m sure there are a number in those wagons. Find them, bring them here, set up a defensive front. I’m sure you’ve studied that.”

“Yes, but . . .”

Bayn interrupted. “Listen, I must assess our defenses, make up some teams of fighters. You suspect a threat, you have the training. Find your friends, bring them here, set up a defensive front. Understood?”

Davin swallowed. “Yes. Yes, sir.”

Bayn turned from him, speaking to one of the older men who was left, pointing to the string of wagons. Bayn’s apparent confidence was energizing; Davin turned Charger and went to find his friends.

As Davin moved along the string of wagons, young men and some of the graybeards who drove the wagons were dismounting. Bows appeared in aged and wrinkled hands, and spears bloomed in the grasp of the young, eager to be tested. Several men tied horses to wagons and mounted beside the drivers, unlimbering bows and placing arrows in easy reach. Davin shifted around in the saddle as he rode, searching for familiar faces.

He found Angelo Martine first, still mounted, looking back at him in surprise. “Cadet, why are you home when the Academy year is two months shy of completion? I thought that the Academy chewed you up and swallowed you whole, never to be seen again!”

Davin laughed. “Angel, I’ve missed your wit. We can talk later, but now—get on up to the front of the wagons. You’re needed.”

Angelo looked sidewise at Davin. “Who says?”

“The commander my father left in charge. Hop to it.” Not waiting for a reply, Davin spurred Charger along, finding Peto Villarel, his best friend, two wagons later, along with Peto’s father. Quickly, Davin explained what was happening, and Peto’s father immediately gave permission for Peto to join Davin’s group.

Surprise still clouded Peto’s face. “When did you get home?”

“Good to see you. We’ll talk later.” And Davin was off.

Geron Oronne was next, a muscular, light-haired giant sitting ahorse by another old friend, Paulo Haldon. Geron registered the same surprise. “You? Home?” Shortly Geron and Paulo were galloping toward the head of the wagon train.

Nearing the end of the wagons and seeing no one else his age, Davin reined Charger around and hurried after his friends. The five of them should make a good fighting team—all of his friends were good with sword and bow, and Angelo and Peto were experts. Even Davin had studied malito combat at Academy.

Bayn had already arranged the four young men in a loose north-south line and proceeded on down the column looking for other fighters. Paulo, smaller and swarthy like Peto, spoke as Davin rode up. “What are you doing back at Aldronne?”

Angelo piped up before Davin could reply. “He missed me.”

“Great heavens,” came from Geron. “He hasn’t seen a girl in so long he’s sweet on Angel.”

“Too late, Davin,” Paulo grinned back. “He’s pining over some entertainer in Cliff. It’s gotten so we hardly ever see him anymore from Meeting eve until Firstday morn.”

The remark got a growl from Angelo, but soon they were all laughing again, and Angelo commented that it was best to love an entertainer, since that sort of love was never permanent. “The one that’s really hooked is Peto,” he smirked at Davin. “He’s found true love. The way he pines for his lovely Donaia, you’d think he might not live until next Meeting Day to see her.”

Peto blushed and took a swipe at Angelo, who easily eluded it. Peto was the oldest—he had twenty-two years and was the most serious about becoming a rancher. His father could have easily afforded the University, but for Peto, it held no interest.

Davin remembered Donaia, a pretty girl from the city who had attended Meeting with her family. “They’re betrothed,” Paulo said. “He won’t even consider going to the entertainment houses in Cliff anymore.” Paulo was Nortes, his father another settler. He made a sad face at Davin. “Peto sits and mopes for Donaia, getting grouchier by the day. He hasn’t been with a woman in months, and the wedding isn’t until Festival.” That brought a gale of laughter, Peto joining in.

They threw around comments and insults a bit longer. Davin was happy to make Peto the target, because it delayed uncomfortable questions, but finally, Peto asked, “Dav, why are you home? Is someone ill? And Academy maneuvers take up most of summer vacation, don’t they?”

Davin nodded. True, Academy demanded all of a young man’s life. He had been home twice in two years, barely enough time to get reacquainted with Meara, console Aliceia and Riala on the loss of Aliceia’s father, visit friends once or twice, and suffer a few audiences with the General. He had not seen these friends—his best friends—but twice in all that time.

“I was asked to resign. They call it ‘tanked’ or ‘washed out’ at Academy. It means that I was expelled.”

That shocked them into silence. Finally, Peto, who knew him best, asked, “What happened?”

Davin shrugged. “I’m not officer material. Of course, I knew that. I didn’t want to go to Academy in the first place.”

“I still don’t see how they could kick you out, Dav,” Geron said. “Your test grades in mathematics and science were better than Angelo and mine together.” Angelo nodded in agreement.

“It was the other things,” Davin said. “I’m clumsy with weapons and I’m short besides—Paulo, I’m even shorter than you. With my eyes, I’m no good at scouting or archery drills. The only reason I got into Academy was because the General and the commandant were close friends.”

With that, their conversation died. Davin had expected a few wisecracks from Angelo and maybe a jibe or two from Peto or Paulo, but all five were quiet for a while. Down the line of wagons, Davin could barely make out Bayn as he arranged his defenders. Finally, Paulo said. “What now, Dav? The University maybe? With your ability, you’ll do well there.”

“Maybe.”

Angelo roused himself, as usual, to slip in a verbal dirk. “I’ll bet Dav still wants to be the world’s greatest engineer.”

Geron grinned. “Maybe he did once, but I’ll bet the General has cured him of that.” Another laugh, but it pricked Davin to reply. “What’s wrong with being an engineer? They do more good than a lot of the priests who just sit around blessing people and collecting donations.” Peto appeared shocked, but Angelo looked at Davin admiringly.

Geron took the other side, probably just for the sake of the argument. “I wouldn’t want to be a priest, either, but they do a lot of good. They help the poor and tend the sick.”

“There are healers in town who have no connection with the Church, you know that,” Angelo said. “For a fee, they’ll heal you of most anything short of a broken neck. You don’t need the Church for that.” Which started an argument about the good of the Church in general. Davin played along, mainly to direct the conversation away from himself.

Seeing Bayn approach from the rear of the wagons, Peto removed his saddle spear from its scabbard. Catching Davin’s eye, he grinned. He seemed to be looking forward to a fight.

Just as Bayn drew abreast of the five, a series of bright flashes almost blinded Davin. They were just off the road, in the trees which stretched up the slope.

The original HellholeHellport must be directly above them about fifty meters and to the east maybe a few hundred. The problem was, if that last flash was what Davin believed, the HellholeHellport was about to drift down and west, right into their lap. He edged his horse towards Bayn and caught his sleeve.

“Sir, that HellholeHellport I warned you about. I think there is a chance it is about to form right here, near us.”

Bayn frowned. “Here?”

Before Davin could answer, the sound of hoof beats diverted their attention. A single horseman at full gallop came into view around the turn in the road. As he rode up, Davin recognized Karl, one of the older ranche hands. He sawed the reins of his mount as he approached, pulling up beside Bayn and Davin. It was Bayn that he spoke to.

“The General asks that we turn the column and proceed back down the road, sir. The HellholeHellport is one of the worst we have ever encountered. It is drifting in this direction, and malitos continue to pour from it. With our help, the defense is holding, but the position of the hole blocks our route to Iglesa, so the General intends to retreat with the survivors.”

Bayn turned toward the wagons. His impatient summons brought all who were close by. In terse commands, he reordered the wagons, sent drivers scurrying, clustered the mounted defenders, and directed their positions. They quickly scattered as directed, full of purpose, as inspired no doubt by Bayn’s demeanor, poise, and self-control as by his commands. Very much like Father, Davin thought. Some of the nearer wagons, including the Aldronne coaches, pulled out and headed back down the road to be nearer the front end of the wagons as they retreated.

Bayn gestured for Davin, his friends, and Karl to remain. “Remain here as the rear-guard. I know you have had some training in facing malitos, and I assume your friends have experience with bow and sword.”

Angelo grinned his normal irreverent grin. “I’d be glad to give you a little exercise if you need it.”

Bayn merely stared at Angelo, and his grin faded. Davin broke in. “We’ve had a good deal of training. Peto and Angelo have won awards at the spring games.”

Bayn nodded. “Very well. Please stay here. If there is an attack, try to blunt it and retreat as slowly as possible until help arrives.” He turned to Karl. “If you would please return to General Blackthorn and tell him—”

He was interrupted by a most uncanny sound, a combination of windstorm roar and animal scream.

Though he had never seen one directly form close by, Davin did not have to ask what was happening—he knew. A HellholeHellport, a portal to There, was opening before his eyes. The ground, the sky, the leaves on the trees—all seemed to distort, to bend, to bulge, and at last tear. Great cedars and oaks were ripped in two, their branches and trunks tossed like pebbles. A fierce yellow glow suddenly sprang up in the middle of this distorted chaos, and the shreds of here suddenly drew back to reveal There—another place, not of his world, that was filled with sulphurous yellow mist and blue-red tongues of flame. And just as suddenly, half a dozen malitos bolted through in one harsh, clawed-and-fanged mass.

Davin had heard about malitos all his life. He had seen dead ones and even studied how to face them in combat and how to form a defensive line to face an all-out attack. But nothing prepared him for what he saw, a writhing mass of talons and fangs that resolved almost instantly into the most terrifying creatures he had ever imagined, let alone faced.

Bigger than the General’s hounds, the malitos seemed to be covered with a coating of heavy black fur. They had wolf-like heads, the protruding jaws a cross between mouths and muzzles, jammed with long, sharp fangs, faces topped with a group of four red eyes with beady black pupils. Each had four wiry legs with paws that seemed all claw, and they made a hideous, high-pitched keening as they swept out of the hole and into their midst before Davin could even react.

Karl pulled his horse between Charger and the nearest malito, sword drawn. Before he could lift it, six-inch-long claws ripped out his throat and swung him aside, and for an instant Davin saw death in the dripping red claws and fangs as the malito sprang at him. Then the whistling arc of Bayn’s blade hewed the malito’s head with one mighty blow, its wielder taking no notice as he jumped from his horse to face more of the oncoming mass. With a yell, Davin’s friends and others from nearby jumped into action. Spears shifted and stabbed, swords swung in silvery arcs, and arrows flew at more targets emerging from the Hole.

Davin realized that he was holding an arrow in his right hand and the bow in his left—he had fired an arrow at one of the remaining malitos and drawn another out without thinking, at least one profit of two years at the Academy. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bayn rip the entrails from one invader with the flying tip of his sword, catching another across the eyes with the hilt of his weapon and smashing its head into pulp.

Releasing his second arrow, then a third, Davin began to feel an unfamiliar rhythm, his aim finding a home again and again in the frenzied movement in front of him, as more and more of the black beasts leapt from the HellholeHellport. How can this be? I don’t feel either clumsy or inept, Davin thought, his quick grasping of arrows, fitting them to his bow, and finding a smooth release that was a comfortable mix of dexterity and ease.

Where his arrows hit deeply, spurts of a black fluid that might be blood gave evidence of his accuracy. Hitting the malitos seemed no problem at all—it was like aiming at the sea and trying to hit water.

The attackers grew fewer as they approached him, in part due to the arrows of Davin and those beside him, but as much to Bayn’s swordsmanship. Davin could see him whirling, spinning, beating, and hacking at them, only just able to pull his sword from one collapsing body in time to decapitate another. He was ducking and swaying and dancing¬, a grim smile on his face. Malitos tumbled into piles, they barricaded his back, they fell at his feet as if in worship. Nothing could withstand him.

And yet, through all of this, a feeling grew in Davin of imminent doom, of a dark cloud gathering. He tried to shake off these feelings, finding some tiny comfort in the grisly routine: fit arrow to bow string, aim, and release, fit arrow and release, fit arrow and release.

The battle lulled with only a half-dozen malitos left standing, and all of those being worried by two or more armed men. Most of the fighting had concentrated at the front of the wagon line. The men had rallied to Bayn, and they, Davin, and his friends had overwhelmed the two dozen or so malitos, but not without casualties.

Pon, another long-time rider for a nearby ranche, lay half out of his saddle, chest dripping red. Besides Karl, two or three others, friends and neighbors of Davin and his family, lay on the ground, gravely injured. One man looked dead. The uninjured gathered to help.

Glancing east, Davin realized that the HellholeHellport had moved. The perfect circle, at least ten meters across, was no longer opposite his position but several paces south and closer to the wagons. For a moment, the fiery portal was clear of invaders. It simply seethed and simmered, blue and red flickers against a background of pasty, yellowish fog. Davin stared, fascinated, into the opening, no more than a few strides away. At first, he discerned nothing more than dancing colors. Then, as he scrutinized the opening, it cleared for a moment, the flames—if they were flames—dying away. The yellow mist parted, as though a dry wind had brushed it aside, and Davin was staring at the towers and pinnacles of a wondrous city.

Strange, winged objects flew through the sky, things under the control of intelligent minds, he knew instinctively. There were square towers of crystal, and sharp peaks of silver and bronze, many glowing from the interiors through myriad windows as if a thousand fires burned inside them. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the vision vanished in a wave of yellow mist.

Bayn appeared beside Davin, beckoning to his friends. “Everyone appears unharmed in your group.” Each nodded, and Angelo said, “About the practice . . . I think I’ll pass on that opportunity.”

Davin’s friends laughed, and even Bayn managed a fierce smile. “And you, my young friend, your accuracy with the bow was outstanding. I have seen few in my lifetime with the smooth release you displayed. You are becoming a master bowman.”

Me? Dave felt dumbfounded, as his friends stared, goggle-eyed. Before smart-alec Angelo could comment, he said deprecatingly, “Perhaps those two years at Academy did me a bit of good after all.”

“All of you did well,” Bayn added. “Now, keep your places, stand ready, and be prepared for another attack.” Again he arranged the defenders, leaving two older men to tend to the wounded.

With a chorus of screams, a black mass of malitos spewed out of the portal once more, spreading toward the defenders in a horde. The sheer mass would have overwhelmed and killed them all had it been the first attack. With Bayn’s quick organization, the twenty or so defenders now opposite the hole were well prepared. The first of the black invaders was met with such a rain of arrows that a dozen fell almost at once. Others bulled their way over and around their own dead and continued the charge, impaling themselves on the spear-front and making room for others to attack the defenders.

Still astride Charger, Davin again sent arrows into the oncoming black tide. It seemed that they would be overwhelmed for sure; men were fighting at close quarters, and the keening of the malitos and the screams of men made it clear that defenders were hurt and dying. Several men fell beneath a tidal wave of black, clearly beyond any help. Some malitos stopped to gnaw at fallen defenders in the midst of the battle. In a perverted sense, Davin was grateful for the distraction. The dead could feel nothing (Deos grant they were dead), and it gave the defenders fewer of the besiegers to repel.

Malitos continued to spew from the fiery portal, but now they were pouring down the right side of the column away from Bayn and his awful, blood-draining sword, moving past Davin and the forward defenders that were still mounted, rushing toward the rear of the column. Toward Riala and the Aldronne coaches! Leaving Bayn to the frontal defense, Davin heeled Charger and set off after the malitos that were racing along the line of defenders toward the rear of the wagons.

The HellholeHellport continued to drift away from Bayn and the forward defenders, putting extra pressure on those near the column center and rear. Bayn and his front defenses were beginning to move, to edge sidewise along the wagon train, as malitos focused their attack to the south. Even as they moved, Davin could tell that only he and a few of the older men would stand in the way of the horde when it reached the women and children.

As he rode, Davin managed to attract the attention of his friends. He reached the rear of the column just ahead of the mass of malitos, accompanied by a half-dozen of the younger men, including Angelo, Peto, and Geron. Riala, Meara, and Aliceia were out of their wagon, and each had managed to find a spear, joining nearly a dozen women and the few older men that were not at the front of the battle with Bayn. They formed a phalanx of defenders who were the last hope of the children, now all tucked away from sight in the family wagons. Merging with Davin’s group, they turned to make a defense.

Outstripping the other defenders who were still fighting their way south, the malitos fell upon Davin and his companions with boiling fury. Fell on them as if from the sky, and there was everywhere blood and sweat and death and the sounds and smells of battle. The awful stench of the malitos surrounded them as the bristly bodies sprayed black blood over their own kind and defenders alike as they died.

All but out of arrows, Davin could do nothing astride Charger. Dismounting and snatching a spear from one of the wagons, he edged into the battle line just as the onslaught of malitos collided with the prairie folk. Nearly two dozen malitos and not much more than half that many defenders. Much of the fighting was one-on-one, spear, sword and longknife against malito fang and claw. Danin nearly lost his arm, blood pouring down his side, Bacio’s leg was drenched in red, Juan would never walk again. Angelo fought like a demon with his sword, his side gaping open and bloody.

Without thinking, Davin took the spear position: kneel, brace, wait, thrust—and a malito was impaled on his spear-point, its keening cry reduced to a gurgle as it suffocated in its own blood. Jerking the spear out of the carcass, Davin barely avoided having his bowels opened by another attacker. He managed to crack the bristly head with the lance haft, then spun the shaft and hacked the protruding throat open wide. Spear training was compulsory at Academy.

Concentrating on the nearest assailant, Davin was still vaguely aware of the action on each side. To the left, Riala and Meara jabbed at a dying malito with spears, while Aliceia thrust at another as it attacked one of the older defenders. On his right, Angelo and Peto each fought two attackers simultaneously, worrying one and hacking at the other. Peto’s spear was lightning fast. If Angelo was the more aggressive, Peto had the most finesse. Both were keeping their besiegers at bay.

Simultaneously Davin caught a black blur of movement to his left, while he heard Peto cry “Davin!” The blur was a malito that had gotten past two defenders. Instead of attacking them from behind, it made straight for Davin—and Peto’s cry was all the warning he had. Pivoting, Davin was aware that his spear was pointed the wrong direction and he was unbalanced to the right. The malito in front of him was the biggest he had seen, fully the size of a pony, all fangs and claws. He tried to complete his pivot, knowing that his effort was too little, too late, and that nothing stood between him and certain death . . .

Except Peto, who lunged between them, sword now out, swinging wildly, cutting off the vicious charge. Before Davin could respond and assist Peto, he heard Riala scream. He let the pivot carry him fully around. (Deos!—Let Peto hold it!).

Riala, Meara, and Aliceia were holding off two more malitos; the older man that had stood beside them was down, his throat spewing a shower of red as he rolled and spasmed in the dirt. Once again, Davin didn’t think; he simply sprang between Riala and his sister and thrust his lance into the larger malitos. It shrieked and spewed a black circle as it tried to pull away, bowels leaking through the great slice in its belly. Jerking out the spear, Davin made to slash at the second . . .

And slipped.

The second malitos swiped its claws within a hairsbreadth of his face before Aliceia brought her spear through its neck. Davin scrambled to his feet as another mass of bristly death, a dozen more malitos, raced toward them. Then from his left, a host of fighters swept between his group and the attacking horde. Bayn and the rest of the fighting men had finally arrived.

Bayn danced among the keening figures, while half a dozen other defenders slashed and jabbed with spears and swords into the latest charge from the HellholeHellport. More rapidly than Davin would have thought, the remaining malitos were dead, with those defenders still on their feet staring around in wonder.

No fewer than seventy malitos carcasses lay along the lines of wagons, sprawled in pools of their repulsive blood, a few still twitching or struggling to crawl away. As his gaze swept to the right, Davin saw several tiny, bloody figures lying near the last wagons. Somehow, the attackers had managed to drag several children out of the covered wagons. All appeared dead—and to Davin’s horror, the two small girls that he had watched on their wagon were among the bodies sprawled on the dusty road.

Women were piling out of wagons to join those who had fought alongside the men, their cries of heartache and recognition so wrenching that he twisted away, forcing himself to survey the casualties toward the front of the line.

. . . And spied Peto. Down, bloody and still, Angelo and Geron beside him.

Peto was not the only one. Another half-dozen bodies lay in the dirt, some among the piles of black carcasses, many not moving and others obviously hard hit. Davin ignored them, diving to the side of his two friends who knelt beside Peto.

Angelo was still clutching his side. Claws had opened a series of long gashes to the ribs. Geron appeared whole, and Davin consciously registered that he himself was also untouched despite being the target of direct attacks by three separate malitos.

But Peto was dead.

Peto, who had trained with Davin as both learned horsemanship in Aldronne’s barnyard, who had waved and grinned at Davin earlier at the thought of some fun, lay face-up, eyes open blindly at the sky. Tears rolled down Geron’s cheeks as he held their friend’s hand. Angelo was drawn and pale, no expression on his face. Peto looked the most relaxed, staring placidly at his friends, as though he knew how well he had fought.

Davin wanted to join Geron in tears, but they wouldn’t come. Instead, there was a great hollowness as the harshness of life on the plains was pressed home.

“He saved my life,” was all Davin could manage. Kneeling beside Geron, he brushed a smear of dirt off Peto’s face. Very little blood stained Peto’s shirt; punctures from massive claws had made two small holes in the material. The swipe of the charging malito had impaled his heart.

Wiping his eyes, Geron gestured toward the pile of dead creatures to their rear. “And you saved the women. Peto covered your back. He would have taken that devil, but he tripped over someone that had fallen.” He gestured toward a rough pile of bristly fur. “That bastardo won’t kill anymore.”

They sat in silence. To their rear, screams and cries punctuated the morning as mothers mourned small, torn bodies. Many of the survivors worked on the wounded along the line of wagons, determining those beyond help. Bayn stood beside them, surveying the casualties, face somber but alert. Any of the attackers that still lived had escaped into the forest along the cliff face. The fighting was ended, at least for the moment.

To his right, now nearly parallel to their current position, the great circle of the HellholeHellport hung, poised in the air, colored tendrils of mist trailing over its bottom edge. Staring intently into the hole, Davin saw . . . nothing. No buildings, no visions of a city. Vagrant flickering, like reflections of fire on the hearth.

Slowly he stood up and wandered toward the portal, suspended in the air only a short distance away. The morning was quiet, except for the moans of the wounded and the anguished cries of the living for the dead. No more malitos issued from the great, gaping wound in reality. It simply floated in the air, drifting ever so gradually to the south. Davin stopped near the edge of the hole and stared into the great circular portal, vaguely aware that should a malito burst forth, he would die instantly, yet so exhausted and drained that it hardly seemed to matter.

So this is a doorway to Hell.

Up close, a soft humming issued from the opening, its lower edge rounded like the crust of a pie. He smelled a vague, sharp odor, like the air after a rainstorm, pungent and biting. Then the mist parted, and he saw the great city once again. Spires of metal and blocks of crystal, buildings that shimmered in the light, beacons streaming from atop great pyramids of burnished silver. And those flying things, darting like dragonflies on a warm summer day, purposeful and beautiful in lustrous shining skins.

How can this be Hell? It came to Davin that the world he lived in was not nearly so pleasant-looking as the scene that had revealed itself. If that is Hell, where in the world I am living?

“Davin!” Bayn called sharply. Turning, Davin saw his father’s guest beckoning him away from the opening. “Avoid the area before the hole. It is death if another attack starts.” Silently, Davin backed away. The others had watched him in passive shock. He was suddenly, bone-chillingly aware of the fate he had tempted as he stared into the opening. He backed into Geron, who had also arisen.

“Did you see that?”

“What?” Geron and Angelo followed his eyes.

“In the Hole. The mist parted, and there was something there.”

Angelo shrugged—then groaned in pain from the effort. “I saw nothing.”

“Nor I,” said Geron. The hole had drifted past their position, and it seemed to have shrunk to no more than half its original size. “I think you mistook those fires for motion.”

Davin didn’t answer, staring back into the yellow haze that had returned to the circle in the air. Bayn was marshaling forces, arranging the still-erect defenders into two lines facing the HellholeHellport.

Charger had stayed where Davin had dropped the reins. Stabbing his spear into the dirt repeatedly, Davin managed to remove most the malito gore. Bayn was right. The hole still existed, although continuing to shrink. As a precaution, he returned the spear to its scabbard and removed his bow and the one remaining arrow from the quiver. The defenders that Bayn had arranged were pacing the slow-moving HellholeHellport, watching for another onslaught, ready to both fight and give the alarm. Bow in hand, Davin went back to stand with Angelo and Geron, a small honor guard beside their fallen friend.

Bayn joined them, staring down at Peto. “He was your friend?”

They nodded. He pursed his lips. “My regrets that I arrived too late.” He looked from one to the other, holding their eyes. “You all fought well, and your families should be justifiably proud. You, Davin, should be particularly proud. One day, I will write the hand-to-hand fighting coordinator, who expressed his doubt to me about your ability, and tell him he is an idiot. You fought commendably.”

He glanced about them. “But the cost… It has been very great. Your friend, many others, those children.” He shook his head.

He erased pain and concern from his face. “So be it. We cannot change what has happened. We must accept our loss and look to the needs of those wounded that survive. I will need your help, Davin, and that of your friends.” He glanced toward the HellholeHellport, then turned back to Davin, Geron, and Angelo. “No more malitos come forth, and the hole is shrinking. I think we can assume that—”

He was interrupted by a shout from one of the men behind them. Whirling around, Davin did not at first understand the source of concern. Then his attention was drawn back to the HellholeHellport.

No fires shone, no yellow mist issued from the opening. There was simply a darkness that seemed to shift and cast curious, blotched shadows across it.

Something was coming.

An enormous, clawed paw thrust into the hole, and a reptilian head as large as a malito’s body pushed into view.

“Deos mie.” The words were expelled almost in a whisper from Bayn. “GranMalo.”

And then it was upon them, climbing through the hole, stretching itself erect, blotting out the sky with its enormous size. And just as suddenly, Davin understood his premonition with icy clarity.

The GranMalo towered over them all, more than eight meters tall, and so close that Davin could smell the rotten remains of its past butchery, hear the wind of its nostrils, feel the darkness of this creature in his soul.

For a moment, everyone was transfixed—then one of the defenders made a terrible mistake. He turned and ran.

In a flash, the great lizard dipped its head, the huge jaws opening and closing over the man. There wasn’t even a scream; just the sickening crunch as powerful jaws snapped the body in two. The lower half fell, spurting blood and entrails in all directions.

Which seemed to energize the paralyzed defenders. Suddenly arrows flew, spears were thrust at the body, everyone finding something to wield. The head swung to and fro for an instant, as a diner examining all the delicacies before it.

For an instant more, Davin stood transfixed. Then the elongated snout, which had continued to swing left and right, fastened its four platter-sized eyes on Aliceia and Riala. Riala, beautiful Riala, even nearer than he, staring upward as innocently as a deer cornered by a ravenous cougar, mouth open in amazement and fear as it whispered its bloodlust. She was about to die. She who had shared his life since he took his first awkward steps, who had been his best and truest friend.

Davin swung up his bow in terror, as the great head stopped, centered on the women. He nearly broke his last arrow in setting it, and suddenly his task was clear. He could see the Eye, feel the Eye, and he could feel the arrow beneath his fingertips and the perfect arc it must travel, and he drew his bow and loosed it, and the other, yes, the other arrow went too, not with the perfect beauty of his but with a shuddering spring, like a dying animal’s last clawing. And his shot went deep, through its eye, into the brain, and he felt inside himself that it was dying. And at the last moment, as the GranMalo looked at him with its remaining eyes, for the first time a feeling of fear and wonder seemed to emanate from its core. It looked at him as nothing else ever had, the three good eyes widening in some sort of ghastly recognition. And then it died, falling backward with the sound of thunder, barely missing several of the General’s men in its precipitous drop. At almost the same moment, the HellholeHellport, now shrunken to less than the height of a man, closed with a shriek.

For a moment, there was a complete silence, as if time had halted, and the world ceased to spin. Then a chorus of gasps was followed by a resounding cheer from every living soul.

“Bayn!” the cry went up. “His arrow—I saw. Bayn killed the great beast!” It was one of the General’s men, who had met their guest. He threw his arms around Bayn, and those that had not known Bayn quickly gathered around, pounding his back and shoulders and cheering.

Bayn quickly halted the hubbub by mounting his horse. “Enough, my friends. We have wounded to see to, many hurt badly . . .”

His voice was interrupted by the sound of many hoof beats, as riders rounded the far bend and raced toward them. The General and the rest of the men were returning.

“We must immediately get the wounded to help,” Bayn said, almost to himself. As the General alighted from Lanze and joined him, he spoke quickly. “As you can see, the HellholeHellport you fought reappeared here—or perhaps it was another. But we have many hurt as well as a number of dead. I recommend we go to the Meeting house, as it must be close.”

The General nodded. He surveyed the string of wagons, the piles of malitos, the bodies strewn along the road, and the monstrous body flung back into the trees. “Deos, a GranMalo. How in our Lord’s name did you survive it?”

“Certainly by His grace alone, General Blackthorn. Now let us hurry to load the wounded and travel with all haste. If there are enough healers at the Iglesa, perhaps the survivors may all remain alive.”

The General turned and began to shout orders. Buoyed both by his return, the miraculous death of the GranMalo, and the closing of the HellholeHellport, those remaining able-bodied men sprang into action.

Ignored, Davin replaced his bow in the saddle sleeve and mounted Charger, determined to stay close to Peto as the wagons began to move out. Ignored, that is, by all but Bayn, who stared at him intensely until Davin rode away . . .

***

“Demos gracies a Deos e Maria, demos gracies.”

Thanks be to God and to his Daughter, thanks.

Words murmured among the crowd in its different tongues, Plains Sudo, Old Sudo, even Nortes, in a frenzy of thankfulness and tears. Rejoicing at the survival of some lives, mourning the loss of others. There were tears of thanksgiving or grief, and in some cases a combination of both. Such had been the case with the Blackthorn wagons—five of the Aldronne’s ranche hands were dead, and several more wounded.

Arrival at Iglesa had brought confusion and chaos. The priests immediately dispatched a frantic message to Cliff entreating help from all available healers. Worshippers arriving from the city were marshaled to convert the sanctuary to a hospital as wounded were unloaded from wagons and set on pallets to be tended. Grief-stricken relatives were consoled as the dead were collected and laid out for blessing and final rites. Davin had assisted in carrying in both wounded and dead and in tending the wounded before healers were available.

By first eleven, nearly a dozen healers were at work, including Gifted priests from some of the Iglesas in Cliff and a healer with a Talent from the University. All the wounded who had survived transit to the church were kept alive, even the most seriously hurt. But seventeen people, including five children, were dead. The bodies were laid in neat rows near the altar, clothing and blankets laid over them to subdue the horror of their deaths. Most of the mothers who had lost children were at their sides, praying and shedding copious tears.

The healer Davin had been assisting, a priest from the city, turned and smiled at him. “My gratitude for your capable help, young man. Please take the time to rest a moment, as this was the last of those that required help.” He stood up and began to walk toward the front of the Iglesa, no doubt to confer with his fellow healers. For a moment, Davin stared down at the patient, a young ranche hand from a spread near Aldronne. His right leg had been nearly severed, but the healer had saved it. He would probably always walk with a limp, but he would walk. Others, several others in fact, would never walk again, having lost one or both legs.

The young man, scarcely older than Davin, was in a deep coma, induced by the healer. Davin knew that the deep sleep would allow him to recover from the considerable shock of a major healing, so Davin could do nothing more. Standing, he moved toward one of the benches near the rear of the Meeting House.

Davin marveled that they were still alive, and he felt sure that had not Bayn been in their company, both to fight and marshal the defense, they would all have died. When the GranMalo appeared . . . No, he would think on that later. For now, he pondered his survival when so many others had died, trying to remember those that now lay in the last sleep as they had been when they lived. It was the best way he could mourn the dead: five of Aldronne’s ranche hands, seven neighbors and friends, among them Peto, and five children, including the two that Davin had seen on their family wagon.

Just as Davin sought to settle quietly into a pew, a disturbance directly in front of him caught his attention. A pretty girl, face distraught, was standing nose-to-nose with one of the young priests of the Iglesa.

“No! Stay away from me! I want nothing from you, least of all your false consolations and mealy-mouthed blessing!” Turning she fled out of the pew and up the aisle past Davin. Near the rear of the sanctuary, her father tried to intercept her, but she threw off his arms and pushed her way out of the Iglesa as any number of mourners turned to watch her leave the building.

Davin couldn’t say what impelled him to follow, but he did. Near the back of the aisle, he encountered Aduyemo Mataro, whom he knew well. It dawned on Davin that the girl must be Donaia, his daughter and Peto’s betrothed. Catching his eye, Mataro shrugged, face red.

“She is very upset. She won’t talk to anyone. With her mother long dead, there is no woman she can talk to.”

Davin nodded. Donaia had only brothers, he knew. No female with whom to commiserate. “Let me find Meara,” he suggested. “Perhaps she can help.”

Mataro nodded, running his hands through sparse black hair. He was relatively short, not much taller than Davin, and he looked rattled and exhausted, as though he had fought malitos as well—and perhaps the effort to comfort a young woman who had lost her betrothed was equal in its effort. Davin went in search of Meara.

He spied her in the corner of the church, her arms around their neighbor, who had lost her two daughters. No disturbing that scene; Davin turned and looked for Aliceia, who was similarly involved.

What to do? Frustrated, Davin moved to the church door and outside—perhaps there was something he could do or say. Outside the Iglesa door, which faced East by tradition, the wind was icy, and Davin realized his coat was still inside. He almost turned back to the warmth and comfort of the sanctuary, not just due to the cold, but because encounters with young women were almost always embarrassing and awkward for him. Finally, he persisted, turning to search for Donaia. Peto had been his best friend; the least he could do was to offer his sympathy and friendship.

Donaia was not in sight. She would be around the corner, in the lee of the wind. As he started to move, Davin could see the tops of the watchtowers at Fort Grenoble, half a kilometer or so east and slightly north. The Iglesa was a plain, rugged, rectangular building, with thick walls, simple furnishings of pine and black walnut, and only a few stained-glass windows. It was built near the Fort, the two sharing a common stockade fence.

The day was darkening even more, the clouds a creamy color foreboding snow. A heavy fall was imminent, and Davin only hoped that they could return home before it began.

Rounding the corner of the Iglesa, Davin found the young woman near the church wall, standing awkwardly in the afternoon chill, her shawl tight around her shoulders, staring off into the western sky. Her fingers grasped the fringed edges of her wrap, tugging spasmodically at the threads. She had not pulled on her long-coat, but simply draped it over her arm, despite the bone-chilling cold. It was as though her anger alone kept her warm.

Not intending to startle her, Davin moved into her field of vision slowly, parallel to her and to her left, although she still did not appear aware of him. Having spent most of her anger on the unfortunate young priest, she brooded silently, gazing toward the west, where the plain below the escarpment was shrouded in low clouds.

“Hello, Donaia.”

“Hello, Davin,” she said, her voice subdued. He was surprised that she remembered him. He had been gone nearly two years, and in that time, Donaia had changed dramatically from a pretty girl to a beautiful young woman.

Her eyes now reflected only a resigned bitterness. “I am sorry I could not save Peto,” he said quietly. “Blame me, not that young priest. Peto died saving my life.” The words rolled off his tongue like acid—he wondered why even an act of comfort had to be an admission of his own shortcoming.

After a moment, she nodded. “I know. That foolish young priest, who has probably never seen more than a painting of a malito, had only the fault to approach me in my anger. I wasn’t even angry at him. Partly, I was angry at our Lord, which I suppose is the height of conceit. Being angry at God, I mean. But, mainly, I was angry at myself. Angry for my stupid hope, angry at my refusal to acknowledge that the future was set, and that Peto’s fate—and my own—were woven far too snugly for any effort on our part to change it. And angry at myself for thinking about you instead of Peto.”

Her lips tightened. “It was useless and cruel to yell, but I did. Regardless, it is done. I am not going back in there.”

There was nothing Davin could say—indeed, he hardly understood much of what she had just told him, especially about himself. He felt foolish, not knowing what to say next.

Finally, Donaia turned to look at him. “You would have saved him if you could. You, at least, were there. They say you were one of those with Peto who defended the women and children.”

Davin nodded. “Peto fought well, nearly as well as Bayn Grenoble. Bayn himself said that if he had not stumbled . . . As for me, I am not a fighter like my father.”

His comment finally wiped the sadness from her face. Her brow wrinkled in disapproval, her mouth twisted like Aliceia’s when she scolded him. “You should not think such of yourself. Peto considered you a great friend. He always said how you cared about your friends, how you were always willing to help them. And that you never seemed to want the kind of power or influence your father has, or your brother. You have always seemed like the townsfolk to me, not part of this.” She waved scornfully at the Meeting house, and he knew her antipathy was for the landowner elite that supported the church, not the building.

Davin digested that. “You know, I rarely felt when I was younger that I merited any sort of regard at all. But Peto was always special. I’m glad he thought I was a good friend.”

A small smile curved her lips. Bittersweet, but a smile, nonetheless. Then it faded and she looked back to the horizon.

“I’m leaving,” she said. “Not just to be by myself, but to get as far away as I can from those mealy-mouthed priests, with their pretensions of holiness and their foolish ways.”

Davin’s brow knitted as her tirade proceeded. Away? Other than Cliff, there was not another village for more than twenty kilometers. Besides, Deos only knew how many malitos, though by now surely weakened, still roamed the escarpment.

All he could think to ask was “When?”

“Now. Tonight. My saddle-bags have food for days; I rode my horse to meeting instead of coming in the family coach. We usually had lunch, Peto and I,” her voice caught. “Usually at the home of one of our friends.” She swallowed once, cleared her throat. “I have a little money, and I always bring a change of clothes and a spare long-coat in my pack. Peto and I sometimes spend—spent—Meeting Day afternoon together. Now, there is nothing here for me. I will be a burden to my family in the mourning ritual and then a great deal of trouble for my father as he tries to arrange another match for me. And I . . . I don’t want another match. I cannot have another match. So I am leaving.”

Davin moved a step closer. “Tonight? Donaia, there might be a dozen malitos within a kilometer!”

She stared wistfully at the horizon. “It does not matter. I leave tonight.”

Davin was at a loss on how to stop her. Although physically larger, he was not particularly strong or muscular enough to simply throw her over his shoulder and forcibly take her into the Meeting House. Finally, he said, “You saw what those malitos did today. Do you want them to do that to you?”

She shivered, pulling the wrap tightly around her, but leaving her longcoat over her arm. “No. I saw . . . what they did to my Peto. But they will not harm me. This I know.”

She turned to him, her eyes large and dark. She was very beautiful. Davin found himself thinking how lucky a man Peto had been—until today. She stepped a little closer.

“They will not harm me. I know this. I know. I have never told anyone this, except one of the priests, many years ago. Not even my parents. And I don’t think the priest believed me. He never took any action on what I told him. I have a minor Gift. One that has not often manifested, but a Gift.”

Davin’s eyes widened as she spoke. He realized that she was standing near him, looking up into his eyes, and he was not sure whether he had moved or Donaia had. Her stare was so open and wide that suddenly he knew her mind, whether by premonition or simply by inference. “Sometimes you can see the future.”

She smiled, the first genuine smile he had seen from her this long and terrible day. “You see? Peto said you were more talented than you knew. Yes, sometimes I see. Not clearly, but when I know a thing will happen, it will. I knew from the start that my love for Peto would not end well. I fought it, I ignored it, but you cannot deflect fate. Today proves that.”

She turned away from him, toward the horizon, and Davin realized suddenly that she was leaning against him. Reflexively, he put an arm around her, and she grasped it desperately and hugged it to her bosom. She went on almost as if talking to the sky, or the horizon, rather than him. “I suddenly felt it in the chapel, in the Meeting house. I must go West. It is said that the Chanche have a corps of sages, like our priests, that study God’s Power. They are rumored to have the greatest Gifts of all. Perhaps even greater than our most Talented priests.” She paused, almost as if reluctant to go on. Finally, as though she had to drag out the words, she continued. “I felt it today, as I sat there in the chapel and mourned the death of all that has been dear to me. They wait. Now. They wait for me.”

Suddenly she twisted, facing him and grabbing both his arms. Her gaze into his face was as fierce as that of an eagle.

“And I saw something else, Davin. Something wondrous and terrifying. It’s you. I knew you would follow me out of the Meeting Hall, knew you would talk to me. You have a great future, one so great that I can scarcely believe it. And your future lies to the West as well, with mine.

“I wanted to ask you to come with me, but you won’t. There are things you must do here and, I think, you still have a little fear of telling your father the truth. But you know about yourself, even though you won’t admit it. And you will come. And you will find me there.” Suddenly she blushed. “I must sound like a fool, talking about our futures, when my betrothed lies dead within those walls. But it is true. It will happen. You will come.”

I will come? Davin took one of her hands, holding it tightly, whether to keep her from leaving or simply to feel the softness of her flesh another moment, he was not sure. He held her gaze. “Donaia, you can’t ride to the Montas like an afternoon outing! It’s a thousand kilometers to the valleys of the Chanches and bad weather coming on before dark. Besides, even assuming that an unaccompanied young lady such as yourself could make such a trip, you know the reputation of the Chanches! They would probably turn you away at the gates of Akzo, if it has gates, and then where do you go?”

She smiled. “No, they will welcome me. They will. This I know. And you, when you come, for I will tell them about you.”

He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere. I was just expelled from Academy, and now I have to explain to the Gen . . . To my father just how I can justify the life Deos lent me. No, I may not stray off Aldronne property for the next forty years.”

She looked up at him and shook her head slightly, that bittersweet look on her face once more. “So unsure of yourself. Like Peto when he was younger.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “That will change. It will have changed when we meet again.”

She pulled free, walking toward the distant hitching posts, where a coterie of the General’s men tended the horses. After a few steps, she turned back again, and held his eyes, as she struggled into her longcoat. “And one more thing: Your Gift is, maybe, the greatest of all. Not just a Gift, a mighty Talent. I do not know what it is, but it is something the Chanches must train. Only the Chanches. So you will come, whether I ask it or not.” Then she turned and fled.

Her rush took her to the nearby corral. The guards ignored her at first—she could, after all, be coming to retrieve food or medicine from saddle-bags. All the horses had remained saddled, so she merely checked the cinch, unwrapped the reins from the hitching post, and mounted. The men turned and looked at her, too late. In a burst of motion, she spurred her horse out the open gate, pounding down the road before they could react.

Galvanized into motion, Davin followed in time to see Donaia, horse at full gallop, already on the descending trail. In a moment she was out of sight.

In shock, Davin stared after her. The men in the corral, after some discussion, elected not to go after her—let the crazy woman get herself killed if she wanted. Turning, Davin started back into the churchyard, his head awhirl with Donaia’s words, and her actions. First the GranMalo, and now . . . No, he refused to think about that right now. Best to do something, anything, rather than think. Turning, he entered the courtyard, ignoring one of the men who called to him, asking why the young lady had ridden away.

Entering the chapel, Davin found his father at the rear of the church, talking with recently returned scouts. He joined the group quietly. “I don’t like it,” the General was saying, “That’s half a score and more of malitos unaccounted for, and perhaps even more came through the hellhole in the confusion.” Tomas Villerel was beside him, ashen and quiet. He was one of the leaders of the Sudos and a frequent business associate of the General, but his loss had rendered him mute. Several other ranchers and town leaders were also gathered.

Bayn also stood near the General, speaking up as Davin joined the group. “The good news is that hours have passed and the malitos must be greatly weakened. Devilspawn cannot live long in our world and will be dead a day or two hence. If we stay the night here, our return tomorrow should not be troubled.”

That brought a storm of protest from some of those who had accompanied them to Meeting. Besides the fact that a storm was coming, there was much to do on the ranches in the early spring. Many had left their spreads undermanned to attend Meeting.

A commotion behind him caused Davin and the others to turn. A final scout contingent had returned, accompanied by one of the horse guards, who made a beeline for Donaia’s father, sitting in a rear pew with one of his sons and his wife.

Davin decided to follow the guard. Better to get the truth told and let Mataro send men after her if he wished. As he approached Mataro said, “And you just let her ride off?”

Before the guard could answer, Davin spoke. “I’m sorry, sir. I tried to stop her but she wouldn’t listen to me. She said she had to get away for a while.”

Mataro turned to Davin. His voice went up a half-octave. “You let her get on her horse?”

“I thought she was just going to get something from her saddlebags. Then she got on her horse and rode away.”

“Where is she going?”

Davin stuttered. How could he tell Donaia’s father that she might be planning a journey to the Chanches? There wasn’t any way, he decided. “I’m not sure, sir. But she headed west as she left.”

With an oath, Mataro whirled and called to his men nearby. Shouting commands, he rushed out the door of the Meeting House, his men in close pursuit.

Davin returned to his father’s side just as the scouts reported finding and killing five malitos, with another half-dozen found dead from wounds received during the fighting. After more discussion, the group seemed to think that the road would be safe for an afternoon or evening journey home for the ranch community. The General finally nodded agreement.

“Do not attempt to return to the outlying villages tonight. Malitos cannot survive much more than a day, so all roads should be safe tomorrow. The roads to the south and west past Aldronne, towards Hijamia and Bolt Run, should not be traveled after dark, since the smaller parties going home by those routes would be more vulnerable. My home is open to those of you from the more distant communities this evening.”

No one disagreed. Most of the ranches were several kilometers to the west and south of the Aldronne, and travel much past the General’s ranche would have to be made in the dark, not a pleasant prospect with malitos still on the loose. Spending the night at Aldronne and departing at first light would get most ranchers home with the day still before them, assuming that the anticipated snow storm was not too heavy.

The loading of bodies in wagons was tearful once again, if more subdued. Gathering in the Iglesa after that solemn and painful task, the senior priest rose at the front to bless his congregation.

Davin surveyed the crowd with an uncharacteristic lack of reverence as the priest intoned his final prayer. Mind abuzz, he watched as the priest spread blessings as a farmer spreading seed on a divine wind. He wanted to pray, wanted to feel close to Deos, wanted to feel His Holy Presence, to feel blessed and protected as they began their homeward journey. But he didn’t. Instead, he felt only sad and resentful toward a deity that could not or would not protect the innocent. Turning, he ignored the ending of the prayer, and walked into the cold, dim afternoon.