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.There had been a letter waiting for Alucius at Sudon—a brief note from his mother, expressing gladness at his return, the restrained gladness that revealed more than it hid, and the forceful suggestion that, since Wendra was at the stead, he head directly home when he was free to do so.He rode alone, since he had seen his troopers off first.That was but one indication of how so.much had changed in two years.His eyes took in the fields of grain on each side of the road, the stalks still green, except in places where touches of gold had begun to appear.To the northeast loomed the Aerial Plateau, lower against the horizon than it would be at the stead, but still imposing.And stark, compared to the wooded slopes of the Coast Range in Madrien or even the Westerhills.Yet he was a herder, and the plateau was part of home.He watered Wildebeast at the public pump a vingt south of the center of Iron Stem, knowing full well that if he stopped for water at the square, he'd be delayed.Even after two years away, some would recognize him.After watering his mount and stretching his legs, he remounted and headed north.His eyes took in the small houses—huts with crooked walls, roofs with irregular slate tiles cobbled together from older struc tures long since dismantled or destroyed… mean dwellings compared to most of those in Madrien.He could not help frowning as he made the comparison.Before long, he was riding Wildebeast toward the south side of the square in Iron Stem.In the early afternoon sun, more than ten carts filled with produce and other goods were set out in two lines on the sun-warmed stones.The square was far busier in late summer than it had been in the winter of the last times he had ridden through the town—far busier, but the carts were carelessly painted, and the peddlers in clothes not much better than rags, and the produce smaller than he recalled, and often blemished.One of the cart merchants glanced up, took in the uniform and the captain's insignia, and nodded.Alucius returned the nod and turned Wildebeast slightly to the right, in order to avoid an oncoming wagon.Alucius did not recognize either the man driving the wagon or the young woman beside him, except to note that both looked thin, and the horse pulling the wagon was close to being bony.As he passed the front of Kyrial's cooperage, he could hear loud whispers, and the sound of feet on the small front porch.He could sense the curiosity… and something more.Someone had to have passed the word about him.'… the dark gray hair… has to be him…"'… Alucius… heading home…"'… first man to escape the Matrites…"Alucius did not look to his left, but kept his eyes on the street that was also the high road northward.Even so, it seemed to him that the buildings around the square slanted slightly, in different directions.He did listen—carefully.'… takes after his grandsire, then…"'… say he brought back a whole company… made him a captain for that…"'… still a herder born… never know what they'll do… don't talk much…"'… Wendra… said he'd return…"Alucius smiled.Wendra had faith.He hoped she liked the scarf—the only personal item he had brought.The whispers behind him, he continued riding northward, past more small dwellings and shops, some with peeling shutters, others with crooked or no shutters, and all surrounded by mostly bare ground, saving an occasional apple tree or patches of weeds.There were no neat courtyards or well-tended enclosed gardens.There were no stone walkways or sidewalks.In time, he reached the Pleasure Palace, small and sad-seeming, with its patchwork walls of indestructible blue-and-green and blue-and-yellow stones.Beyond it, to the north, was the spire of the tower, rising into the silver-green sky, its outline and its brilliant green stones as crisp as they must have been even before the Cataclysm, its interior as gutted and empty as always.Alucius glanced toward the Pleasure Palace, where two horses were tied out front.For some reason, he recalled the girl who had gone to school with Wendra, whose mother had been one of the women there—and who probably still was.He'd never seen anything like the Pleasure Palace in Madrien either, but he'd seen an innocent man killed unjustly.Here, he reflected, innocent women were used unjustly.And from what he'd heard, that was true still in most of Corns.He glanced to the tower, proud against the sky—proud and empty.Then he looked to the road ahead, stretching northward.Before much longer, the enclosures of the dustcat works appeared on his right, long low buildings of weathered wood that looked as though they would collapse under a high wind, although they had not, not in years of winter winds out of the north and off the plateau.The dustcat works—another structure whose like he had not seen elsewhere, raising yet another question.How could anything justify the torques—and the purple evilness behind them? Yet… when he saw the houses in Iron Stem, the Pleasure Palace, the dustcat works… saw them all for what they were for the first time… he could understand the impulses that had created the torques.Even in the warm afternoon sun, he shivered, if slightly, before shifting his weight in the saddle.There was Wendra—and his family—they had to be as he had remembered them.Didn't they?He could feel a rider approaching.He studied the eternastone pave ment that seemed to stretch endlessly to the north, making out a dark figure moving swiftly southward toward him.The single militia rider—a messenger from the green sash slung over his black tunic—rode closer and closer.The trooper glanced toward him, apparently taking in the uniform and insignia, then slowed his mount.'Good day, trooper," Alucius called.'Sir…" The rider's eyes opened."Sir? Weren't you with Third Company?"'I was.That was several years ago.I've just been promoted to captain of Twenty-first Company."'Congratulations, sir." The messenger paused."Beggin' yer pardon, sir… weren't you wounded pretty bad at Soulend?"'I was left for dead," Alucius replied."I wasn't." He didn't recognize the man, but there were certainly those in Third Company he had not met.'Thought it must have been something like that, sir." The messenger nodded."Thank you, sir." He nodded yet again and urged his mount southward.Alucius could sense the combination of fear and awe.What had so troubled the trooper? Troopers were wounded.Some died, and some survived.Alucius had been lucky, as some troopers were, yet the messenger had clearly recognized him and been more than a little surprised to see him.And frightened.Was it just because his head wounds had looked so bad? That had to have been it.Even though he nodded to himself, he wondered.It was nearing late afternoon when he turned off the north-south road to take the lane to the stead.After the messenger, he had seen no one on the road, no one at all, but that was as it always was.The quarasote lands were empty.The stead lane was rutted, not any worse than he remembered it, and dusty, but not so dusty as the mountain logging roads near Zalt.Still, he must have raised enough dust, because as he neared the stead, he could make out the figures of Wendra and his mother, both standing at the foot of the steps before the stead house, and that of his grandsire on the porch, leaning on the railing.He couldn't help but smile as he rode up to them [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]