메인 Summer of Unicorn

Summer of Unicorn

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이 책이 얼마나 마음에 드셨습니까?
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년:
1988
출판사:
Bantam
언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 445 KB
다운로드 (epub, 445 KB)

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책에 대한 리뷰를 작성하거나 귀하의 독서 경험을 공유할 수 있습니다. 다른 독자들이 귀하가 읽은 책에 대한 의견에 귀를 기울일 것입니다. 개인적으로 책이 마음에 들었거나 그렇지 않았거나 정직하고 상세한 호평은 다른 독자들이 자신에게 적합한 책을 찾는데 도움이 됩니다.
1

Śrimad Bhagavad Gita

년:
2002
언어:
portuguese
파일:
PDF, 2.87 MB
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2

The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century

년:
2002
언어:
english
파일:
PDF, 16.62 MB
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Contents

Synopsis

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Epilogue





Synopsis




SHE WAS BORN OF MYTH... BUT THEY LOVED AS MORTALS

They were of two different worlds and during one fateful summer, those worlds would converge in a spectacular mountain valley. Siri, warrior, sorceress and siren, the gorgeous Keeper of the last herd of golden unicorns. And Hunter Morgan, myth-seeker, whose ordained quest has led him to this strange place and to Siri. She is woman incarnate, whose purity is akin to her life. He is man personified, whose needs run deep. They were born to be lovers, to come together at this time of enchantment to solve the riddle of their doom--each other's touch--and to fight alone and together against a powerful foe whose evil menace threatened them... and their worlds.





Prologue




The King was dead.

King Jason had been a hale and hearty man still in his prime, and no one had been prepared for his death of a sudden fever. The death of a king must always be traumatic for his country, of course, but never more so than when that ruler leaves behind him no children to inherit his crown. On Rubicon, the Morgan family had ruled for nearly ten thousand years, and although much of the governing remained in the hands of the elected Council of Elders, the ruling family wielded considerable power and was held dear by the populace.

Pacing slowly along a deserted hallway in the quiet palace, Tynan, Speaker of the Council, pondered the problem that his fellow Elders unanimously had placed in his hands. Grimly aware that his seat as Speaker could well depend on his solution, he was determined to satisfy everyone—no mean feat.

The people demanded a king, and were loud in their determination to see a Morgan assume the throne. The Council was also united in its determination that the ancient ruling line remain unbroken. And the Court itself, though politically silent on the subject, felt a definite favoritism toward one of the princes. Tynan f; elt the same favoritism, and so it was inordinately difficult for him to be objective.

There were two princes, both legitimate Morgans, both of an age to rule. The problem was that they were the same age. They were, in fact, half brothers, born of different mothers. Jason's younger brother Darian, a scoundrel if ever one had walked, had married his betrothed with the full approval of his brother; three years later, he had persuaded his brother to reinstate the ancient law allowing male royalty a second wife. Jason considered it prudent to agree, since tests had shown that he himself would never father an heir; numerous offspring through Darian would ensure the succession.

But no one, least of all Jason, expected both of Darian's wives to announce their respective pregnancies on the same day. And since Darian, forever reckless, broke his neck out hunting before either of his sons was born, the boys' birth dates became of paramount importance: Since both boys were legitimately sired by the heir to Jason's throne, the oldest, by law, would rule after Jason.

The natural course of events should have solved the dilemma, since Elena, Darian's first wife, was by the best estimate of the Court physicians six weeks pregnant when she made the announcement, and Caprice, the second wife, eight weeks pregnant at that time. However, since a span of two weeks between two first childbirths must always be a dubious margin, no one dared to guess which child would enter the world first.

Brooding, Tynan paced slowly through the open double doors and onto the wide terrace. He stood gazing out over the peaceful, secluded garden of the palace, then sighed and rested his weight on the low stone balustrade. His black hawk's eyes wandered aimlessly for a moment, then became intent as he saw a man and woman walking some distance away. The man was tall and powerful, his black hair thick and shining in the sunlight. His head was bent attentively toward the older woman on his arm.

Caprice. The man beside her might well have been her contemporary rather than Hunter, her son, for Caprice still had the face and figure of a girl, and a girl's laugh. Her black hair was still too wild to obey the Court fashions, and her blue eyes still flashed with wicked temper often enough to startle the Court even after so many years. She was Queen, just as Elena was, though neither would ever rule because they were not Morgans born.

Fiery Caprice, who had been, Tynan knew, the wife of Darian's heart. There were those who still maintained that she seduced her prince, even some who claimed she possessed the legendary mystical powers of the Hillpeople, with which she had enchanted him. Tynan knew better. Darian had been ensnared by her beauty and spirit, but he had not been the victim of supernatural powers. Anyone witnessing one of their temperamental clashes, during which Caprice flung breakables at his head with abandon while Darian laughed and dodged skillfully, would have been conscious of observing a very typical marital drama.

Widowed before she could give her prince an heir, Caprice had lost her spirit for a time. But the birth of Hunter had renewed her life. And, though troublesome in most matters, Tynan reflected wryly, she had been rigidly circumspect regarding the birth of her son more than twenty-five years before. With a Court Wisewoman and two ladies-in-waiting in attendance, Caprice had delivered her son, seen to it that his birth was duly and punctiliously recorded, and followed the Wisewoman's advice in naming him.

Tynan sighed unconsciously, his black eyes expressionless as he watched Caprice and Hunter disappear on the far side of the garden.

It should have been simple. And it was ironic that Elena, the sensible bride chosen for Darian in his cradle, should have been the one to precipitate the complicated situation in which they were all now enmeshed. Elena, the quiet, reserved first wife, eclipsed in nearly every way by the more beautiful and lively Caprice.

Before Caprice was confined in childbed, Elena left the palace. As was the custom in her family, Elena had requested permission to return to her mother's house to give birth; the Council, requiring only that a Court Wisewoman and at least two other reputable witnesses attend the birth, assented. Scrupulously guarded and escorted, Elena had left the palace. No one could have foreseen that a band of Outcast soldiers, the seeds of what would become the People's Revolutionary Army, would attack the caravan.

None of Elena's escorts dared confess that the woman great with child quite possibly carried the next King in her womb; it would have meant sure death for Elena. The Outcasts, wanting only riches and women, took what they could, slaughtered the male guards, and carried off the ladies-in-waiting.

The Wisewoman, old and frail, died in the brief battle. And Elena, left alive in the wreckage of her caravan by men uninterested in her bloated body, began her labor far from any helping hands.

And far from anyone who could objectively record the birth.

Alone, she gave birth to her son. Alone, she managed to carry him back to the city and to the palace. She arrived, exhausted and so weakened by her ordeal that she was delirious, just three days after Caprice had given birth to Hunter. And Elena maintained that her son, Boran, had been born hours before Caprice's son.

There were no witnesses, and the Court physicians could not—or would not—decide which boy was oldest. And the greatest mark of uncertainty in the minds of all concerned was that Elena had declared her son's birth hour before knowing that Caprice had given birth on the same day. Yet there was no proof.

Jason, reluctant to set one nephew above the other, decreed that both would be raised in the palace, educated equally, provided for equally. Both would be trained in the duties of princes. And, when the time came, one would be chosen as the future King.

Being Jason, he would have chosen; he considered it his duty, and his responsibility. But Fate had taken the choice out of his hands. The fever had come upon him suddenly, drawing him down into a coma before he could voice his decision. He had never emerged from that coma.

And he left behind him two legitimate princes who could not occupy the same throne, and members of a Council on the horns of a dilemma.

Tynan sighed, aware that he was no closer to solving what he had to solve. There was no precedent. The oldest should rule, but if there was no means of determining birth time? There was no doubt both men were Morgans; the vivid green eyes were the distinguishing characteristic of the family, and both were taller than average, another characteristic. Equally trained and educated. Boran was more arrogant; Hunter more charismatic. Hunter was more popular with the Court and the populace, while Boran held many powerful people among his friends. Yet they were evenly matched in intelligence and skill, both capable of ruling and both eager for the throne.

As an interim measure, both Hunter and Boran had been named Regents, but neither had even nominal power while so named. Each commanded a legion of soldiers, as was the duty of a prince, but though they commanded their men neither could command their world. The Council would go on making the decisions which governed Rubicon. But the people were restless with their throne empty—and this was not the time for a restless populace.

The Peoples Revolutionary Army had gained a strong following during the past quarter century and was composed now of many young and eager people of all classes and guilds. They were agitated, ambitious, and careless with their young lives. After ten thousand years, Rubicons' natural resources had been strained, and the PRA's rallying call these last ten years had been "Expansion!"

Which was, Tynan reflected, all well and good, except that the PRA had set its sights on the only other habitable— and inhabited—planet in this solar system, Nidus. And the ABA wanted to conquer rather than share. The Council was struggling to prevent the PRA from becoming a political group with sufficient power to win a majority in the Council and declare war on Nidus, and to date it had managed the feat. But the Council of Elders was partially appointed by members and partially elected by the populace, and ABA supporters were growing in number.

Rubicon badly needed a king to heal the wound.

"Tynan?"

Rising out of respect for a prince and possibly the soon-to-be King, Tynan bowed slightly. "Your Highness."

"When will the Council vote?"

Tynan studied the tall man before him. Boran was the more aggressive of the two princes. "There will be no vote, Your Highness." And, intent and thoughtful, he watched the reaction to the news he imparted. Which prince? he asked himself. Which prince would make the stronger king?

"No vote? The people are calling for a new king, Tynan; they won't wait much longer."

"I am aware, Your Highness. But there is no precedent for this situation. If there were a vote within the Council, it would be an open vote, with each member's opinion made public." He watched that sink in, saw the shrewd, angry reaction.

"Cowards, the lot of you! So no one dares to choose their king?"

"We meet tomorrow to decide on a means of choosing," Tynan said, having just decided on this course.

Dryly, the prince said, "We could always fight for the throne." His tone was offhand, but there was something almost eager half-hidden in his expression.

Tynan shook his head slightly. "Our world is torn enough; watching our princes battle could upset the status quo."

"Give the rebels something new to yell about, you mean?" The prince considered that. "Perhaps you're right. But some test of skill—"

Neutrally, respectfully, Tynan said, "We will decide tomorrow."

The prince laughed and looked at the Speaker with a great deal of understanding. "They flung the decision at you, and now you'll fling it back at them. You are a politician born, Tynan."

Tynan stiffened almost imperceptibly. The Council had met in closed session; it seemed this prince had an ear inside that room. Reckless of him to alert Tynan to that. Or was it ruthless rather than reckless? This prince, at least, would know who decided for him—or against him.

Softly, the prince said, "I reward my friends, Tynan." Then, laughing, he turned and strode away.

Tynan stared after him, his lips pressed tightly together.

Odd, he thought, but the disfigurement on Boran's left side that he had borne for so many years seemed more visible now. Like everyone in the Court and Council, Tynan had become so accustomed to Boran's scarred face that he was blind to it. But today he saw the terrible scars as if they drew his eyes like a magnet.

"It will be you, of course."

Hunter looked at his mother with laughing appreciation. "Certainly it would—were you to cast the deciding vote!"

Caprice, who was hardly ever still, twirled away from her son where he sat on a low stone wall. "You were firstborn," she said firmly, her blue eyes very bright. "You were born in the palace, under the very eyes of a Wisewoman and two witnesses, and you were named according to custom."

"Elena says Boran was firstborn."

Caprice tossed her head. "Her! Oh, Hunter, she was fairly out of her head when she returned with her son! How could she possibly be certain what hour he was born? He didn't even get a proper naming, and what king could rule without that?"

"Boran," Hunter asserted dryly.

Caprice returned to sit beside her son, her lovely face suddenly grave. "Beware of him."

"He's my friend."

"He's your rival."

Hunter reached to take her hand, saying gently, "He's my brother. And he wants the best for Rubicon, just as I do. Whatever the Council decides, we will each honor the decision. As men and brothers, we can do no less."

"And when only one of you is chosen King? I know you will be honorable, my son, but what of Boran? He wants to be King; he hungers for the crown—"

"Mother, we both want the crown."

"You wish to rule as Jason did, wisely and well. Boran covets power."

"Mother..." Hunter said warningly.

Caprice looked at him, troubled. "I know you see only your brother and childhood friend when you look at him, Hunter, but he is so much more than that. Beware of him. Please."

Hunter patted her hand, his face relaxing in a smile. "All right, I'll take care. I suppose a mothers role is to worry.'

"Yes." Caprice sighed almost unconsciously. "And the mother of a prince worries about many things...."

Tynan, still brooding, found that his absent steps had led him to the locked, temperature-controlled room which housed the ancient books brought to Rubicon when their ancestors had settled here. He hesitated a moment, then used his key to open the door and went inside. Displayed with loving care in glass cases, the half dozen books reposed in the deep silence and cool atmosphere provided by the noiseless machines that preserved them.

Tynan moved among the cases, wondering idly if the ancient Councils had been wise in hoarding safely within the palace these relics of their beginnings on this planet. Some had been copied, of course, but those copies had been lost long ago, and the originals were now too delicate to withstand the process again.

Laying a long-fingered hand on the glass of one case, Tynan gazed down at the Book of Fables and Myths protected inside. Six, he thought bleakly. Just six books remained intact and preserved. All of them dealt with mythology and legend, as had all the books their ancestors had seen fit to bring to their new world.

Why? Tynan wondered, as he had so often wondered. There had been no books of factual history, or science, no studies of technology or sociology. There had been, at one time, a tattered star map showing the location of Earth, but that had disintegrated generations ago. The people of Rubicon knew their ancestors had left a planet called Earth, but they knew no more than that.

If there had not been so many technically trained people among the first settlers, Rubicon might well have become a primitive new beginning for the people, rather than the orderly and civilized society that had rapidly developed. Oh, there had been wars, of course, and struggles for power, and it had taken generations to establish a working society. But that was an astonishingly short time, given the nature of civilizations.

And the one dominant characteristic of all those first-generation settlers had been a total loathing of weapons; they had built cities and spaceships; their medical knowledge and equipment were highly advanced; the checks and balances of their governmental system were many and subtle and wise, so that society had developed swiftly in an ordered and peaceful manner.

For almost ten thousand years, no powered weapon had been made in Rubicon, nor were any allowed to be brought into the kingdom by visitors. Scientists and technicians were forbidden on pain of death to develop any device that could be used as a weapon. For almost ten thousand years, the only weapons on Rubicon were starkly simple or crude: knives, bows and arrows, spears, and the like.

And then the ABA had surfaced, and within a matter of years powered weapons were secretly purchased from off Rubicon, and the once-tiny band of people outcast for various crimes in the cities had become a force to be reckoned with.

The Book of Fables and Myths. Tynan looked down at it, frowning. Why had their ancestors brought so much of their legends with them, and none of their history? And why was he nagged by the feeling that the supporters of the ABA would immediately turn away from their group if they knew the answer to that puzzle? He shook the question away. He knew only too well there was no answer to be found.

And there was another question he must concern himself with now. Which man would be the next King of Rubicon? There had to be some way of choosing, or of allowing the two princes to somehow make the choice between themselves. His hand moved slowly over the smooth glass of the case as he stared at the book. Mythology and fable, stories and legends. Heroes and quests...

Elena looked up from her sewing as her son entered her bedroom. She was a small, thin woman with a pale, heart-shaped face and expressionless blue eyes. She was neatly dressed in plain colors, with no frills or ruffles, and her hair was sedately plaited and wound round her head in a coronet. Boran had often wondered if she wore her own hair in the manner of the crown she could never have.

"The Council's stalling, Mother," he said, impatience in his tone. "Nobody wants to crown their next king."

Softly, Elena said, "They must make a decision soon."

"Yes, but when?" He paced restlessly, frowning.

She watched him for a moment, her hands still in her lap, then said, "You are the rightful King."

He laughed shortly. "Unfortunately, there's no proof of that. Tynan, damn his soul, favors Hunter, but he isn't willing to accept the burden of the decision. He's up to something."

"Beware of him."

"Tynan? He's an old fool."

"No, Hunter. Beware of him."

Boran stopped pacing and stared at his mother. "Of Hunter? Mother, he could no more harm me than he could harm Caprice."

Elena's eyes were distant, unfocused. "There's a strength in him, a power. He could be... will be... your deadliest enemy. Beware of him."

Moving silently, Boran stood before his mother and studied her with an intent gaze. "What have you seen?"

She looked up, and the distant look vanished. "A beautiful valley," she said calmly. "A woman. A myth."

"What?" He knew his mother sometimes glimpsed a distant future, but it was a secret shared only by the two of them. Still, he had known her to be right too often to disregard her words.

"Beware of Hunter."

"Ohhh..." She held his head to her breast, her body writhing uncontrollably, a little sigh of pleasure escaping her when she felt his teeth toying with a hard nipple. His tongue brushed the captured bud, rasping, and his hand slid down over her quivering belly to stroke the crinkly hair covering her mound. Her legs parted eagerly and her hips lifted, moving in a smooth, practiced rhythm to his touch.

She reached for his body, her hand skilled, but he laughed softly and pinned her wrists to the pillow above her head. He tormented her breasts and stroked the wet softness between her legs until she could only plead gaspingly, her body bucking with less rhythm now and growing, desperate need.

Only when she had become a wild thing did he roll over and cover her body with his, slipping between her legs and thrusting deep within her in the same movement. His rhythm was smooth and powerful, and the slick union of their bodies more heated with every stroke, until she arched beneath him and cried out in the strained, sobbing voice of release.

He didn't allow her the slow slide into limp peace, but continued thrusting in a quickening rhythm which soon had her writhing again. If she had been not a courtesan but a lady of the Court, with the long nails of fashion, she would have torn his back; as it was, her short nails left faint marks in his bronze skin as she raked it wildly. And when finally he buried himself in her with a groan, she had no voice left to cry out her own pleasure and could only sound her release in a shuddering gasp.

Ennea caught her breath at last and smiled, wreathing her arms up around his neck. "It's my role to pleasure you," she murmured.

"You have." He returned her smile, dropping a light kiss on the warm, rosy skin of her breast.

Since she was an experienced and skilled courtesan, Ennea knew that she had. She also knew that Prince Hunter was unusually preoccupied. "Sire—"

"Not when we're alone, Ennea. I told you that."

"It isn't proper."

He chuckled. "Neither are you.

Ennea accepted the compliment with a soft laugh, then rose on an elbow to gaze down at him as he moved to her side. "Proper enough to obey a command from my prince, at any rate. Hunter, what troubles you? The decision of the Council?"

He lay on his back, frowning. His big bronze body was gleaming from their exertions but, as usual, he was barely out of breath. Ennea found herself wondering, as she often had, if there was a woman on Rubicon who could lose him his constant, detached coolness. A skilled lover, Hunter both gave and found pleasure in his bedmates, yet he remained always somewhat remote, distant. Other courtesans had noticed and commented on it in their secluded quarters; Ennea knew very well that Hunter had never lost himself in passion as his bedmates invariably did.

He was kind and never hurtful, often voicing a sincere appreciation of female beauty and sexual skill. And the most beautiful courtesans and Court ladies had lain with him with a great deal of pleasure. A man of strong appetites, he rarely slept alone and never demeaned either a courtesan or a high-born lady by talking of his conquests afterward.

And he had not, unlike Boran, acquired a reputation for being volatile, difficult to please, or prone to abandon Court parties to dally behind any convenient bush or in an empty room with some woman who had caught his eye. Hunter was Hunter, always respectful and cool and kind and detached. He ignited the fires of passion in his bed, and was never burned himself.

"The Council?" Ennea repeated when the silence had lengthened.

Hunter stretched languidly, still frowning a little. "The Council won't decide," he said finally. "They'll find some means of determining between the two of us, but they won't decide. We will. Somehow, Boran and I will decide."

"A test of skill?"

"Perhaps."

As intelligent as any courtesan, Ennea knew when to allow a subject to drop. She leaned over him, smiling, allowing her hair to brush against his hard, flat stomach. "It's my turn to please you, my prince," she murmured, and bent her head, her skilled fingers and lips bringing him quickly erect.

He locked his fingers in her hair gently, moving to her pleasuring touch. But she saw that even in the throes of passion, his body burning, his green eyes remained cool.

Boran rolled off the woman onto his back, gazing up at the ceiling with a preoccupied frown. "Send Terese to me," he ordered absently, hardly out of breath.

The woman he had left knew better than to waste a moment in catching her own. Trembling, aware of the soreness between her legs, she slid quickly from the bed and gathered up her torn clothes, hurrying from the room without pausing to dress. The guard at the door of Boran's bedroom glanced at her, but said nothing.

Caltha didn't cry, but only because this had not been her first visit to Boran. She hurried through the wide and deserted halls of the palace until she came at last to the wing reserved for the courtesans employed to keep the princes and Council sexually satisfied. The guard there quickly opened the door for her, and like his comrade, not a flicker of emotion showed on his face.

In the community room of the courtesans' pavilion, Caltha threw down her torn garments and swore with soft bitterness. "He's in one of his moods," she announced to the dozen or so women gathered in the room. "And he wants you, Terese."

Terese, a dark, buxom woman barely out of her teens, looked frozen for a moment. Then she moaned, "Not again!"

Caltha, stepping into the hot bath already prepared for her, spared the other a warning look. "I'll bet you won't be the last tonight; he's as horny as he is foul-tempered."

Fearfully Terese asked, "Is he feeling cruel?"

Resting her head back on the lip of the bathtub, Caltha grimaced. "For him, no. Compared to the Council and, God knows, Hunter, he's brutal. And he's in the mood to feel like royalty, if you please. Yes, Your Highness. No, Your Highness." Caltha sighed tiredly. "I think I'll accept Conrad's offer; there are worse things than being the wife of a soldier."

Terese, being helped into a gossamer robe by two other women, was already tense and afraid. "If you tell Boran you've lain with Conrad, he'll have you thrown out of the palace and Conrad demoted."

"I'm not so foolish. I'll tell Prince Hunter; he'll give me a dowry and wish me well."

"Oh, I hope he's made King!" one of the others said, and there were several voices of agreement.

Caltha shrugged. "Don't count on it. Boran's ruthless, and he wants the crown. He'll get it somehow."

Terese smoothed her long, dark hair and glanced nervously into a mirror. "How do I look?"

"Better than you will in a little while," Caltha said and sighed.

Terese squared her shoulders and left the community room, making her way with the quickness of fear down the long hallways. She was admitted instantly into Boran's chamber and moved gracefully across the room to the bed. "Your Highness?"

He lay sprawled on his back, naked, and looked at her broodingly. "Another whore," he muttered.

Terese almost winced, biting back a retort. But it was difficult for her to hold herself silent. Courtesans were a respected guild, highly educated and trained, and most retired young with wealthy husbands. By the Council members and other men of power seeking their services, they were valued and treated well. From Prince Hunter, they received nothing but kindness and respect. From Boran, they received whatever he was in the mood to give them, usually roughness and insults, if nothing worse.

Coldly Boran said, "If you come to me once more wearing a robe my guard can see through, I'll purchase your services for my soldiers. All my soldiers."

"Yes, Sire," she whispered. Yesterday, he had made the same threat if she didn't wear the gossamer robe. He was as ambivalent as the two sides of his face were different: the right side angelic, the left hideously disfigured.

Boran's voice was abruptly gentle. "Did my guard leer at you, Terese? Did he reach down to fondle himself when he saw you walking toward him? Did you pause a moment or so out in the hall to pleasure him?"

"No, Sire." She was trembling, hating him because he caused it and because he saw it. Until recently, Boran had not been cruel to his bedmates. Rough, certainly, but while King Jason had lived, he had shown no sadistic tendencies. Only since the death of their king had Boran shown such arrogant contempt for the women he called to his bed. She wondered if he would revert to his former brusqueness if he were made King or if he would become only worse. And what if he weren't made King?

"Take off the robe."

She unfastened the ties and allowed the garment to fall away, standing naked before him. Boran's gaze roamed insolently over her body, lingering at her breasts and the mound of her womanhood with that strange intensity that could arouse even as it repelled, and Terese felt her breath grow short and slick heat dampen her sex. And thank God or the devil, she thought, for that; at least she would be somewhat prepared for him.

Boran sat up on the bed, and he was smiling. He beckoned commandingly and, when she stood beside the bed, leaned toward her to take one nipple into his mouth. She cried out sharply when he bit down but remained standing stiffly. Boran released the nipple and chuckled softly.

"On the bed, whore."

Shaking, Terese climbed into the bed and, at his deliberately crude gesture, parted her legs. She lay on her back, wishing silently that she could feel as proud of her calling with this man as with all others. He made her feel like a lifeless female body designed only to host his swollen member and drain it of its seed. Uninterested in the pleasuring of trained courtesans, Boran merely used their bodies.

He was between her legs, thrusting into her body roughly while she forced her muscles to relax. Terese had once attempted to respond to him physically, her lithe body moving skillfully with his, but he had struck her face brutally and commanded her to be still. So she lay now beneath him, arms and legs spread wide, trying not to tense at what would come.

He was well endowed, huge in tact, and he enjoyed knowing that no woman had ever taken him completely without pain. During these first moments he thrust only a part of his throbbing length into her; only when his excitement peaked did he lunge fully into her body. And her cry of pain triggered his release.

He rolled away from her, preoccupied once again. "Send Dacia to me," he ordered absently.

Shaking and supremely grateful she had gotten off so lightly this time, Terese slid from the bed.

Tynan sat alone in the Book Room long into the night, carefully turning the pages of each precious volume. He read quickly but thoroughly, renewing his memory of the stories, his agile mind gradually forming a possible solution to his problem. Not an ideal solution, but a workable one. If he could only find...

"Your attention, please." As Speaker, it was Tynan's duty to make the announcement to the Court and Council gathered in the tremendous Throne Room of the palace. He stood to the left of the empty throne, the other members of the Council behind him; the two princes flanked the throne, standing quietly, their gaze fixed intently on him. Tynan squared his shoulders and in a quiet but compelling voice addressed the members of the Court who were also gazing fixedly at him.

"The passing of our dear king has left Rubicon with more than grief to bear. His death left the throne empty, and left two princes equally qualified and able to wear his crown. You all know the reasons behind our dilemma; it is unnecessary to state them here and now. Suffice it to say that the Council cannot, in good conscience, choose between these men. And yet, only one may rule."

Tynan glanced at the princes, then returned his gaze to the waiting crowd. "We are a people who believe in legend and myth, as our ancestors taught us to believe. Though few in this room have ever seen the Books, all know the stories. And in those stories, time and again, the nobility of a man has been tested and proven by a Quest. It seems only fitting that now, with our world torn and our throne empty, we should turn to those stories for a solution to our desperate problem."

"Good, isn't he?" Boran murmured to Hunter.

Hunter glanced at his half brother and smiled a little. "They elected him Speaker."

Tynan paused a moment, not entirely for effect; he braced himself for the reaction. "Our king must be above other men. Stronger. Wiser. Compassionate without weakness. Decisive without ruthlessness. He must be the best possible man he can be.

"And so, the Council of Elders has on this day unanimously agreed that our king must be chosen by means of a Quest." He turned to face the princes. "Two one-man ships are being prepared in the spaceport. They are identical in every way, stocked and armed equally. Each of you will board his ship and leave Rubicon in three days. You will both search for the same thing. The first of you to return to Rubicon with the object of the Quest will be our next king."

A ripple went through the Throne Room that was visible as well as audible, approval on some faces, disapproval on others, and a question on all.

"I agree," Hunter said quietly.

Boran nodded. "And I."

They glanced at each other, the measuring, wary glances of men who are suddenly looking ahead to a bitter rivalry. And it was Hunter who asked the question.

"What do we search for?"

Tynan smiled. "A unicorn. The first of you who returns to Rubicon with proof that unicorns do—or do not—exist will rule this planet."





One




The sleek young stallion fought valiantly, with sharp hooves and strong teeth, his powerful hind legs lashing out again and again. Loath to give away the hiding place of the herd, he never once glanced toward the wide end of the valley and the cave opening hidden by brush.

Cannily evading the thrusts of the man's long knife, the stallion pinned his ears flat against his noble head and screamed his rage, dark eyes burning with a new and terrible ferocity. He lunged again, tearing flesh from the man's arm and tasting blood for the first time in his life.

The man shrieked in pain, clapping a hand to his arm and dodging frantically as needle-sharp hooves seemingly came from nowhere to send the knife flying. Triumphant, the stallion aimed a last and deadly kick, then whirled to confront the second enemy struggling to hold the slender woman who was fighting to escape him.

The woman was writhing within the big man's cruel embrace, the serene beauty of her face marred by fear. But not for herself. She saw the young stallion charging toward them, and her velvety dark eyes were wild with terror and despair.

"No, Sasha!" she cried desperately.

But the stallion charged on, blindly intent on protecting the woman and destroying the enemy. So unheeding was he in his rage that he never saw the man's arm draw back suddenly and snap forward with vicious force.

And he never saw the long hunters knife that buried itself in his snowy white breast.

"Sasha!" The woman's whisper was a breath of pure anguish. She was too far away to reach the creature in time, and the certainty of that knowledge tore at her. She slumped within the powerful arms gripping her, only the strength of an enemy holding her up.

Through tear-flooded eyes, she saw her beloved friend fall heavily to his knees and then on his side, crimson staining his pure white coat. She dimly heard the man's harsh laugh and dropped to her own knees as he released her.

And then, before she could give in to the grief-stricken rage welling up inside of her, a sudden trumpeting call rolled across the valley. The sound silenced the brute laughing behind her. The attacker whirled in a crouch to protect himself against an unknown threat.

Too late.

An older, more powerful stallion thundered from the nearby trees, head lowered and dark eyes flashing a killing fury. Before the enemy could do more than gape, he was lifted into the air with a force that would have broken his back even if the horn goring him had missed its mark. The limp body was tossed immediately aside and trampled beneath enraged hooves.

Only when the enemy was kicked viciously into the gorge and both bodies lost to sight did the older stallion's rage diminish. He whirled away from the canyon edge and hurried to the younger, fallen stallion and the woman kneeling beside him. The woman looked up with streaming eyes, her lovely face ravaged with grief.

Cloud’s head lowered, his wise old eyes dimming with sorrow. He nuzzled the fallen body of his son once in a tender farewell, going down on his knees beside the woman. While they watched in helpless misery, the white coat of Sasha wavered and fell softly into dust, leaving but one trace of his life.

The woman reached out slowly and picked up the only tangible memory she would ever have of her friend, cradling the foot-long golden spiraled horn tenderly in her arms. In a sorrow too terrible for words, she looked at Cloud, seeing the blood staining his own golden horn and matting the flowing white beard.

The living commanded her attention.

Sighing raggedly, she rose to her feet, knowing that Cloud would remain for many days to come at the spot where his son had died. She could not lessen his grief or help him to find his way through this sorrowing time. She could only bring water from the Crystal Pool and wash the blood of his vengeance from Cloud's golden horn.

Wash away the stain... but never the memory.

Turning away, the woman opened her mouth and let out a piercing call for the herd. She waited for a moment until sunlight glinted off golden horns in the distance, then headed toward her cabin.

They were her friends, she was their protectrix—and she had failed them.

He was first to the City, traveling more swiftly, driven by the burning within him. No one looked at him for more than a moment as he passed, each pair of feral eyes skittering away from his mild gaze as if they had seen into the pit of hell. A path was cleared for him through the tumbled City, thieves, murderers, and worse giving way before him as if obeying an ancient instinct.

His ears were sharp; he heard whispers of the news he desired. He listened to the coarse murmurs of the City, and his path altered itself accordingly. Someone knew. Someone had found what he sought. He began searching for the Huntman known as King.

He regretted that it had been necessary to leave his energized weapons at the spaceport orbiting the planet, but it was a vague regret. The single law of this planet, imposed on it by the worlds nearby, was that there would be no further destruction here. The Huntmen could cut one another up as they pleased, but the planet itself had borne enough.

Life had become primitive here.

It did not matter to him. Weapons were only as effective as the man wielding them, after all. And he had no need of weapons. He was strong, well taught, and as wily as the worst of the hellions on this world.

He looked on them with contempt, these dregs of a galaxy. Not because they were killers, thieves, prostitutes in every sense of the word, but because they lacked purpose. They survived from one day to the next, plying their various filthy trades and then spending what they earned.

He had purpose. The years since leaving Rubicon had taught him much, and his determination was now an iron thing. He had three main objectives. And three within the three, for his first objective was a Triad: Age, Strength, Youth. The magical three. The powerful three.

First the Triad.

Then the talisman.

And with those, he would achieve his third objective. He would rule a world.

He found the Huntman he sought in a dark and filthy tavern, and spoke softly to him in a low voice that easily penetrated the coarse laughter filling the room. King looked up, frowning, and his face tightened when he saw the man standing over him. But the whisper had promised wealth, so he rose and followed the stranger out into the cool of approaching night.

No words were exchanged until they reached the house King had claimed for his own. And then it was King who spoke, avoiding any glance at that other face.

"You have a job for me?"

"No," the other said softly. "You have something for me, I believe."

King laughed harshly. "I sell only my services, stranger."

Pleasantly, the stranger said, "You will give me the horn of a unicorn which you have in your possession."

King stiffened, and his face went blank. He wondered at the other's knowledge but did not question. A small part of the horn he had ground to sell as a prized aphrodisiac, but most of it remained intact. "It's worth much," he murmured.

"Where is it?"

"What do you offer?"

The stranger smiled a terrible, twisted smile. "Your life, Huntman. That's my offer."

King reached instantly for the knife at his belt, but never grasped it.

"Huntman? Somethin' special, Huntman. Very rare, Drive the ladies wild. On my honor, Huntman—" It was a hiss, pleading, beguiling, cautious, reaching only intended ears.

Hunter Morgan turned an icy stare on the vendor, and the little man seemed to shrink in on himself like a collapsing air bag. He shrunk in size, in personality. The thin, reedy voice hastily apologized for the apparent affront.

"Not that you need it, I'm sure! No offense, Hunt-man!"

Hunter sighed impatiently, not bothering to explain that the offense had come, not from the vendor's offer of an aphrodisiac, but from the unsavory appellation of "Hunt-man."

They were the refuse of the galaxy, these Huntmen, scorned with distaste by every race save their own- kind because they fed off death. They would hunt anything for anyone with a few gold pieces, and rarely did they return with a living trophy. Brutal, cruel men for the most part, they tended to congregate in cities like this one that had been abandoned uncounted centuries before by a more advanced civilization.

Which was why Hunter did not appreciate the vendor's salutation.

Still, he could hardly complain. This was a Huntmen's city, known only by that name. Whores stood in doorways wearing little, if anything, and called out lewd suggestions to passersby, suggestions which were often accepted right there on the broken rubble of an ancient sidewalk. Hunter had threaded his way through a minor orgy some blocks back, curtly refusing a drunken invitation to participate.

The strident sound of brawls could be heard from nearly every building, shrieks of rage and pain mingling with shouts of inebriated laughter. The heavy fumes of intoxicants rose from snoring bodies sprawled in the gutter, and many glassy-eyed individuals roamed the streets as if in a dream, their minds the captive of potent brews from diverse civilizations.

There were no controls. There was nothing even remotely resembling law and order in a Huntmen's city. Base law prevailed: Only the strong survived, and they did so any and every way they could.

Hunter had never, in all his travels, encountered a Huntmen's city until now. But he was strong. His distaste for his surroundings did not show on his face. And as he paused in the mouth of the littered alleyway where the vendor stood, faint interest stirred to life in the cool, guarded depths of his vivid green eyes. He paid no attention to the small leather pouch which the vendor clasped protectively in both hands, but studied instead the wily, monkeylike face of the little man. Although the vendor looked frail and frightened, Hunter knew that he had to be both strong and smart to survive life in this city, and most likely possessed information worth a gold coin or two.

Keeping one hand firmly on the hilt of his long knife and the other on the leather purse tied to his belt, Hunter stared coldly down at the vendor. "I'm not interested in your pouch, little man. But perhaps you can help me. I heard rumors of a herd of unicorns somewhere nearby." His sudden, bitter glance over his shoulder at the squalid city crumbling all around him indicated that he had no expectation of finding the lovely pure white creatures anywhere near this place. "Well?" he prompted harshly.

The vendor started. "Don't know nothin' 'bout that," he mumbled, panic flashing in his eyes as he realized that the only way out of this blind alley was past Hunters formidable bulk.

Hunter allowed the coins in his purse to jingle suggestively. "Think again, little man. And put a price on your tongue."

The greedy tongue licked dry lips as the vendor eyed the leather pouch tied to the large strangers belt. He seemed to hesitate, then held out his own pouch desperately. "The most powerful aphrodisiac in the galaxy," he promised hoarsely. "On my honor, Huntman!" He hesitated again, adding almost in a whisper, "It's—from the horn of a unicorn."

Hunter, who had been about to coldly deny any need for an aphrodisiac, looked sharply at the vendor. "What did you say?" he demanded.

The little man swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing nervously, and took a hasty step back. "The horn of a unicorn," he whispered constrictedly.

"I thought you didn't know anything about them," Hunter told him hardly.

It was not something Huntmen spoke of, but the vendor knew that his only way out of the alley was to talk. "They come in the summer," he promised, eyes shifting restlessly beyond Hunter to the crowd in the street. "Only in the summer. And only here. And they're guarded."

"Here?" Hunter repeated in disbelief.

Wincing beneath harsh skepticism, the vendor pointed hastily up and beyond Hunter's shoulder. "Up there somewhere. There's a valley, Huntman. Everybody knows there's a valley."

Since his trust of this little man equaled his trust of anyone in the city, Hunter clapped a strong hand on his shoulder to keep him immobile as he half-turned to look up above the shambling remains of once-tall buildings.

He'd seen the mountain on his trip overland from the coast, watched it growing as if with a life of its own as he'd neared it. It brooded above the city like a great sentry guarding whatever lay beyond it, black as hell except for the snow capping its peak. Brother mountains crowded close to its shoulders, spreading out in a line as far as the eye could see and promising with jagged killer ridges and peaks a dangerous passage. If ever man had thought himself master of this world, the mountains stood in mute and mocking denial, gazing derisively down on the butts of a cosmic joke.

"Up there?" Hunter questioned briefly, turning back to the vendor.

The little man, clutching his precious pouch against the tattered remains of his leather tunic, nodded jerkily. "It's called The Reaper. The mountain. It—it never gives up its dead." He swallowed hard.

Hunter shook a bony shoulder. "And?" When the vendor only stared at him pleadingly, he produced a gold coin from his purse and dropped it into a grasping hand. "And?" he repeated.

The vendor looked up at him fearfully. "They say... they say that if you dig into the slopes, you'll find the earth red, stained with the blood of men. They say The Reaper kills for enjoyment."

"It's just a mountain," Hunter snapped, impatient.

"No, Huntman," the vendor whispered. "More than a mountain. It lives. When the rain comes, it bleeds with the blood of men who've died trying to master it. And sometimes in the night, it howls like a soulless devil."

"The wind," Hunter scoffed.

The vendor stared up at him with faint despair. "It lives." Then, as Hunter stirred impatiently, he hurried on. "It guards the valley. Where the unicorns come each summer. It allows no man to pass into the valley."

"Then how did you get the horn?" Hunter asked flatly.

Squirming beneath the hand holding him, the vendor became abruptly still as the hand promised broken bones. "A Huntman," he whispered, "brought it to me. The only man The Reaper has allowed to escape its wrath. And not even he escaped untouched. He—lost his tongue. He can never speak of what he saw. And his eyes... are like the broken windows of an empty building."

Hunter ignored the compelling imagery. "No one else has returned?"

"No one, Huntman. Not unharmed. They try, in twos and threes, to battle The Reaper. Each summer they try, because they know the unicorns are there. They hunger for the priceless golden horns. And they are never seen again, or else are found, broken and bleeding, on The Reaper's slopes. Or worse, they return as madmen with no voices to cry out their madness."

Hunter glanced over his shoulder again, looking at the brooding black sentinel. "It's only a mountain," he mused softly.

The vendor gulped. "And if you get past it," he said in a smothered voice, "the woman will destroy you."

"What woman?" Hunter demanded, turning keen attention back to the vendor.

"The Keeper of the unicorns." He made an ancient sign meant to ward off devils. "She's a witch, a sorceress, with eyes as black as The Reaper to drive men mad. They say she has silver hair and a siren's voice, and that she fights as a warrior fights. She's protected the unicorns for ten thousand years."

Hunter laughed shortly, and the vendor looked at him again with despairing eyes. "It's true, Huntman. Those The Reaper allows into the valley, she drives mad. She steals their minds and voices, so that they can never tell how they found her."

"What about this Huntman who brought you the horn? You say he lost his tongue. Is he also mad?"

"Not mad. But not whole. He lost more than his tongue in that place. He sits in his house, in the darkness, looking no man in the eye. He was not that way before he went in search of the valley."

"I want to see this Huntman, talk to him," Hunter said abruptly.

The vendor all but folded in on himself. "No!" he gasped, clearly terrified. "He'll kill me! I beg you, Huntman—"

Hunter dropped several gold coins into the vendor's instinctively grasping hand. "Go to him," he instructed briefly. "Tell him I have no desire for the unicorns or their horns. Tell him I wish only to prove that they exist. And tell him I'll pay well for his knowledge of that valley."

Dazedly, the little man stared down at the gold in his hand. "If—if he refuses to see you?" he whispered. "Convince him," Hunter advised coldly.

“But----“

"Convince him. And be back here, at this spot, in three hours. With the answer I desire." Casually Hunter toyed with the hilt of his knife. "Be warned, little man. If you are not here with the answer I desire, you'll not see another sunset."

The vendor stared up at Hunter with terrorized eyes, nodding with a single gulp, then slid out of the alley and into the crowded street, disappearing in an instant.

Barely conscious of the strident sounds all around him, Hunter stood and stared up at The Reaper, feeling the first stirring of his excitement since he'd arrived at this godforsaken place.

He was not interested in the unicorns for the sake of their golden horns, but for the sake of their reality. For years now, he had traveled far to prove the reality of this particular myth—and gain his throne. But he had found no myths at all. On one world, he had discovered a living Pegasus, disappointed to find that the winged creature bore only the vaguest resemblance to a horse. On another he found a wizard, again disappointed to find that sleight of hand formed the basis of his magic.

And unicorns... He had seen goats with a single horn, gazelles, horses altered with man's aid to fit the myth. He had seen charlatans and fakers and tricksters.

He had not seen a unicorn. The creature had eluded him until he had all but given up hope of proving its existence. And yet it had been the stories of the creature told to him in boyhood that had kept him from admitting defeat. If unicorns existed, he meant to find them. Ironic, he thought now, if man's most delicate and beloved myth had chosen to reside in a valley high above the worst examples of the living... high above that breed of man in whom greed for golden horns far outweighed the fascination of dreams.

Hunter spent those hours of waiting inside the one relic of this planet's former civilization. A library. It had astonished him at first sight a day earlier, with its unbroken, polished windows and neatly swept marble steps. And curiosity had led him inside the huge building, where he had discovered a very old woman lounging behind a gleaming desk with her feet up on a stack of books and another on her lap.

Ancient, but far from decrepit, the woman had directed fierce blue eyes in his direction and snapped, "Huntmen aren't allowed!"

Standing very still and gazing warily at the huge—and illegal—blaster held confidently in the wrinkled old hand, Hunter made haste to disclaim the distinction. "I'm not a Huntman. I'm a visitor in the city."

"Look like a Huntman to me," she said, sniffing disdainfully.

"I'm not, I promise you."

"Come closer," she directed. "Slowly."

He did.

Keen eyes studied him for a long moment, and then the old woman relaxed her grip on the blaster and placed it on yet another stack of books at her side. "I don't get many decent visitors these days."

Hunter had just met Maggie O'Shea—a relic within a relic, as it were.

She had taken care of the library for most of her long life, "like my mother before me, and hers before her." Truculent, confident, and unafraid, she kept the Huntmen of the city at bay. And though her prime was years past, she still managed to keep the huge library relatively clean and almost dust-free.

Hunter had spent the day with her, at first fascinated, as always, by the unexpected and then charmed by the old lady's cheerful wisdom and tolerant attitude.

Seeking her out today as he waited for the appointment with the vendor-—and possibly his destiny—Hunter was eager to question Maggie about the valley and the unicorns. Cut off though she was from the city by her own iron will, he had an idea that very little escaped Maggie O'Shea.

Calling her as he entered, he headed toward her distant response and discovered her at last near the back of the building. She was seated high on a rickety stepladder between tall rows of musty-smelling books, the layers of yellowed, diaphanous lace she habitually wrapped around herself fluttering and drooping about her like the web of a lazy spider in a gentle breeze.

Hunter stood with hands on hips and glared up at her. "What're you doing up there, Maggie?" he demanded. "You could fall and hurt yourself, and there'd be no one to help you."

Maggie pulled the lensless wire-rimmed spectacles down her nose—a "badge of office," she'd cryptically told him yesterday—and stared at him over the tops. "Mind your own business, young man."

"I'm making you my business," he said. "Come down from there."

Closing the book on her lap and returning it to its place on the shelf, she grinned down at him, her dentures sparkling proudly. "Bossy, aren't you?"

"Come down," he repeated calmly.

Ostentatiously tucking a strand of gray hair back into its flyaway coronet, Maggie gathered the lace around her and descended the ladder with great dignity. Dignity shattered, however, when she reached the bottom. "Well? What d'you want now?"

"I want to talk to you. Is there any more of that acid you call coffee, or did we polish it off yesterday?"

"There's more." With only one keen, searching look betraying interest, Maggie led the way back through the maze of tall shelves to the big desk near the front door. Shoving two books, a feather duster, and one bedraggled, long-suffering tomcat off her creaky old chair, she sat down and gestured toward the archaic little butane stove placed nearby on the inevitable stack of books. A battered copper pot resided on one of the two burners, its contents bubbling merrily.

Hunter rummaged through a low cabinet for the two cracked ceramic mugs they had used the day before and then poured some of the evilly strong brew into them.

"Where d'you get this stuff?" he asked, pulling forward the hard wooden chair that was the only other furniture in the place. "I haven't seen it anywhere else in the city."

Maggie sipped the coffee and gave him a sly smile. "A ship brings it in for me from time to time," she explained.

Hunter winced at his first taste of the bitter coffee and stared at her with suspicions aroused by her bland tone. "What kind of ship?"

"A pirate ship," she murmured.

About to warn her of the danger of dealing with pirates, he belatedly remembered just where she lived. Sighing, he said instead, "I suppose you know what you're doing."

"Never doubt it, young man." She grinned at him, then wiggled the first two fingers of her right hand at him. "Smoke," she demanded.

"They're bad for you," Hunter said automatically as he reached into the pocket of his tunic for the package of cigarettes he had scrounged for her the day before.

Maggie accepted a cigarette and a light from him, puffing away with obvious pleasure. "Of course they are," she agreed gravely. "That's why they're still around after centuries. Now—what was it you wanted to talk about?"

Hunter didn't hesitate; he told her the entire story of his meeting with the vendor and of his quest to prove the reality of the myth.

Listening intently, Maggie nonetheless seemed a bit distant, the keen blue eyes, encased in their network of fine wrinkles, darkened and oddly sad. Hunter, his story told, gazed at her curiously and, prodded by intuition, avoided asking her point-blank if she believed in the valley and the creatures it supposedly contained. Instead he hovered around the subject.

"I can't understand why I haven't heard of the valley before," he mused, watching her without appearing to. "If the unicorns exist, that is. And if they live in the valley every summer."

Maggie stirred slightly, her darkened gaze shifting to the black and bitter brew in her mug. "Winter is long on this planet," she murmured. "Summer comes only once every ten Standard years."

"Why is that?" He was asking more to keep her talking than out of any real interest.

"Something happened," she said, still murmuring. "Natural or man-made—who knows now? It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. But whatever it was, it ripped this planet right out of its normal orbit and into a vast elliptical orbit. And now this planet is near its star for weeks only. There's a brief Autumn. And then Winter comes. It's long... and cold... and dark."

Forcing himself to remain patient, Hunter waited.

After a moment, she stirred again and this time looked at him fiercely. "Give it up, Hunter," she said flatly. "Don't go up there."

"Why?" he asked softly.

"Because..." Her voice trailed away and she looked back into her mug. "Because some things were meant to remain... dreams."

"Why?" he repeated, honestly puzzled.

Maggie looked at him for a long moment, her old, lined face entirely without expression. Then she shook her head sadly. "That's something I suspect you'll have to discover for yourself. Because the answer doesn't come from the mind, but from the heart."

Hunter grappled with this cryptic speech in silence and in silence dismissed it. His determination remained. "What about the woman? Do you know anything about her?"

"Only what I've heard."

"Which is?"

Maggie recited in a deliberate litany. "She's a witch, a sorceress, a warrior. She has silver hair and dark eyes and beauty beyond description. She guards the unicorns with a fierce, selfless devotion, and has done so for ten thousand years."

Sensing something behind the deliberation of her recital, Hunter looked at the old woman intently. "And what do you think about that?"

"I?" Maggie shrugged. "I think most of it is rubbish, Hunter."

"Do you believe the woman exists?"

"Yes."

"But you don't believe she possesses powers?"

Maggie’s smile was small and odd. "Oh, I believe she possesses powers. I believe that the truth, my stubborn, misguided friend, will make the legend a shabby tale. I believe that this woman, this 'Keeper,' is a truly unique being with extraordinary abilities. And I believe most strongly of all that if you find her, and survive the finding, you may very well be the destruction of her."

Shaken, Hunter murmured, "I? But—how?"

She looked at him, her stare searching, intent, and then sighed. "You were born to destroy some woman," she murmured. "And your Quest brought you here. If you reach that valley alive, I can think of only one reason the Keeper would allow you to live. And that will destroy her."

"What?" Hunter demanded. "What reason?"

Maggie sighed again, her gaze dropping to the dregs in her mug. "What reason?" she muttered to herself. "An ancient, endlessly troublesome reason. The reason kingdoms have toppled and empires fallen. The reason behind many wars and countless deaths. And for the Keeper, an especially great danger."

He frowned at her for a moment. Then the frown cleared and Hunter laughed with a heart-whole man's scorn. "Love?"

She glanced up at his face with hooded eyes. "You don't believe in love, my young friend?"

He gestured back over his shoulder, indicating the squalid city all around them. "You can buy it for the price of a drink out there," he said curtly. "Anytime, anywhere."

She lifted a faded eyebrow at him, something infinitely amused stirring in her old eyes. "Is that love?" she asked mildly.

Hunter felt a bit embarrassed after his unthinking remark, silently berating himself for speaking so bluntly to this old, odd, but dignified woman. But there was that amusement in her eyes, that curiously veiled expression, and he felt strangely compelled to respond honestly to her question.

He shrugged. "The only kind I understand," he said briefly.

"Now, that isn't true, you know." She spoke with faint sternness, as if to a child showing a regrettable lack of intelligence.

"What?" he said, blank.

"That you understand no other kind of love."

Hunter stared at her. With careful lightness, he asked, "Have you become a seeress, old woman?"

"I've become nothing I haven't always been, young man."

She wasn't making sense. Hunter told her so. "And I don't know what you're driving at—if anything," he ended flatly.

Maggie sighed with long-suffering patience. "You had parents, young man?" she asked... but it didn't sound like a question.

"Of course I had parents." Hunter displayed no patience, long-suffering or otherwise.

"On a world far away?"

"Relatively far," he said dryly.

Coolly, she said, "And were you born for the price of a drink?"

He stiffened, then relaxed as her point finally sank home. "No, dammit, Maggie. I wasn't. My parents were wed. Happily so. From all I've heard, at least. I never heard that either complained."

"A love match?"

"So I believe."

"Then you are aware of a kind of love not for sale?"

"You've made your point," he said. "You don't have to keep beating me over the head with it."

"I think perhaps I do," she murmured.

He stared at her. "Maggie, I asked a simple question. Which was, if I remember, what reason you thought this Keeper would have for letting me live. You said it would be love, and that it would destroy her. Correct?"

She considered. "Basically."

"Another simple question, if I may?"

"Why not?"

Hunter ignored her amused tone. "Why would this supposed love destroy the Keeper?"

Maggie studied him for a moment in silence, her shrewd old eyes probing him. "Love is a powerful shield," she said finally, neutrally. "And a powerful weapon."

He pondered that. "You didn't answer the question."

"Did I not?"

"Dammit, Maggie!"

She smiled just a little. "So impatient. It's a reckless fault of youth, and a potentially damning one." She sighed, saying with sudden rudeness, "I'm an old woman and you're pestering me! Go away."

"No," he said flatly.

She stared at him, the frown gone as swiftly as it had come. Her old, lined face became abruptly benign, guileless. "Stubborn," she noted almost cheerfully.

He proved the force of her observation by saying stubbornly, "Tell me what you meant about love destroying the Keeper."

Maggie pursed her lips. "Oh, love in and of itself could hardly hurt her, young man. But love for you—or, for that matter, any man—certainly could. And quite probably would."

"Why?"

"I told you I believed she was a unique being."

"Yes."

"But you didn't listen."

"Maggie—"

"Oh, you heard. But you didn't listen."

Hunter ran the fingers of one hand through his shaggy black hair and stared at her, baffled. "All right. I'm listening."

"Unique," she said instructively, "can be defined as being the only one of its kind, being without an equal or equivalent." She frowned a little. "I forget which dictionary. Anyway, that's a clear definition. Yes?"

"Yes."

"Think about that."

He did. "So?"

She shook her head, clearly impatient with him. "You haven't realized yet. Think... oh, think. Imagine that there's a living unicorn standing here in the room with us. And realize that it's the only one of its kind."

Hunter thought, imagined. And the little boy who had dreamed of the horned mythical beast felt awe creep through him, the adult man. Slowly he said, "The only one. With no possible future for its race."

Maggie nodded quickly. "Like the Keeper."

He frowned. "She's supposed to be a woman."

"Let's say for the sake of argument that she's a very unique woman. With a unique heritage and a responsibility no other woman could bear. Let's say that her entire life, her being, is concerned with—and only with—guarding the unicorns and keeping them safe."

He nodded, accepting that.

"And man is the enemy," Maggie said softly.

"Not all men," he said without thinking.

"No?" She gestured, much as he had earlier, to indicate the city outside the library. "Huntmen live here, young man. Every Summer they assault the valley. Every Summer they attempt to kill unicorns. And only the Keeper stands between them and extinction. She knows only the men who enter her valley. Do you still believe all men aren't her enemy?"

Reluctantly seeing the truth, Hunter said, "She won't give her trust easily."

"She won't give her total trust until she loves."

"But... love will destroy her?" He shook his head impatiently. "We're going in circles. I still don't understand why you think loving a man would destroy her!"

"Because she guards the unicorns."

Hunter waited for the rest of the answer. But it didn't come.

"That's it?" he questioned. "Love will destroy her because she guards the unicorns?"

"That's it."

Hunter put his face in his hands, the muffled sound escaping him indicative of despair.

There was no answering flicker of amusement in Maggie's old eyes; she was troubled. "So much was lost," she murmured. "So many pieces of the story. You search for a myth you don't even understand. And, oh, the danger in that."

He lifted his head, glaring at her.

She was gazing intently down into her mug, as if the muddy dregs were whispering to her. Abruptly she said, "Why don't you return to your world, Hunter, and wear the crown you were born for?" He stiffened, hearing something new in her tone even more surprising than her words, something curiously powerful.

Carefully he said, "What're you talking about, Maggie?" Since princes were valuable to men who thought of ransom, Hunter had kept that part of his identity a secret— as, no doubt, Boran had.

"You left a kingdom behind you," she said almost idly.

Hunter kept all expression from his face. Lightly he said, "You're talking more and more like a seeress, old woman."

She looked hard at him, and that same elusively powerful something was in her old eyes. Her suddenly very, very old eyes.

Unaccountably, Hunter felt distinctly unnerved. "Don't tell me you believe in that garbage?" he questioned, less casual than he would have liked. "Crystal balls and the like?"

"I need no crystal ball, Hunter," she said mildly.

After a moment, he said, "You knew I was a prince. How?"

"Does it matter how I knew?"

"I... I think it does."

Maggie shrugged. "You wouldn't understand. Not now. One day, perhaps, but not now. It matters only that I know." She looked at him with those veiled eyes. "What would you say if I told you that I was very, very certain that you hold the power to destroy the Keeper... and the unicorns?"

"I wouldn't believe you," he said firmly.

"You think yourself so unworthy of love?" she asked blandly.

He started slightly, his mind hurrying to catch up to hers. Then he remembered. Love for a man would destroy the Keeper. "What I meant," he said slowly, "was that I wouldn't believe that I would... destroy her or the unicorns."

"Obsession," she said obliquely, "is blind."

A sudden intense question forced itself up from the depths of Hunter's puzzlement. "Who are you, Maggie?"

"If I told you I was a seeress?"

"I'd have a hard time believing that."

"Well, I'm not," she said abruptly. "More than that. And less. Akin to that. But different."

The safe haven of the library seemed suddenly to Hunter an uncertain, potentially dangerous place. His warriors senses told him that there was something here, some power he couldn't fathom.

Maggie was smiling at him. "Like all men," she said softly, "you scorn or fear what you don't understand."

"I'm not like all men," he denied, disliking being labeled.

Unexpectedly, she agreed. "No, you're not like all men. You left a kingdom filled with riches to go in search of yourself."

"I'm searching for myth," he said instantly.

"You're searching for yourself, young man," she corrected placidly. "Whoever sent you on your Quest was wise. You've found pieces of yourself here and there, and your Quest is not now what it began as. Now you search for a dream as salvation to your people, rather than merely as a means to gain a throne. And you search, still, for yourself. Oh, you'll find the myth first, I think. But you won't understand it. You'll have to find all of yourself before you'll be able to understand."

"You speak in riddles!" he snapped.

"Do I?" she murmured, studying him. She saw a man in the physical prime of his life, strong and proud. She saw, more clearly than another would have seen, the searching look in his cool green eyes. She saw the level, inborn command of those eyes, and the guardedness of too many years of living with danger. And she saw, in the sharp-honed stillness of his face, the look of rooted obsession, blind obsession.

She wondered about the Keeper.

The Keeper would have to be strong.

She voiced a cool warning, watching his face for the effect it would have. "You'll destroy all that you seek if you aren't careful. Very careful."

"I'm a cautious man," he said flatly.

Maggie wasn't happy with what she observed on his face. Oh, yes, she thought, the Keeper must be very strong!

"This possibly mythical Keeper we've been discussing. Does she exist?" he asked in a hard tone.

But Maggie would say no more. She sat there in silence, an old woman with old, wise eyes, gazing into the dregs of coffee brought to her by pirates. She said nothing, not even good-bye, and that disturbed Hunter more than he wanted to admit to himself.

He left the library with a strong feeling of disquiet, his mind toying with the enigma of its guardian. There was something about the old woman that was almost frightening. That odd, elusive power. And she knew... too much. She knew about a crownless prince half a galaxy away from his own world. She knew about a Keeper of unicorns she'd never met—or had she? Hunter wondered suddenly. Was that why she seemed to know so much about the woman who guarded the unicorns? Because she had been to the valley?

Hunter unconsciously grasped that possible answer with some relief. That answer was understandable, believable. Not impossible.

That answer made sense.

It was the other, elusive answer that was unnerving. Hunter didn't believe in magic. He didn't believe in killer mountains vested with human emotions. He didn't believe in ten-thousand-year-old women with the power to drive men mad. He didn't believe that an old librarian could gaze into the past or the future with stark clarity.

He didn't, in fact, really believe in unicorns. Not really. Not anymore.

So a crownless prince named Hunter threaded his way through the drunken, stoned, or just plain mad inhabitants of the Huntman's city, his mind wholly occupied with the possibility of finding a myth that he thought now he didn't really believe in. He retrieved his pack from the hiding place he'd found earlier, checking its contents carefully. It was all there. The threadbare clothing he never bothered to replace until it was completely worn out. He traveled lightly. And the ring was there. The ring he'd never worn.

He shouldered the pack and stood for a moment, gazing up at The Reaper that towered balefully above the city.

Killer mountains!

Indestructible Keepers destroyed by love!

It wouldn't take long, he thought, to discover if there was indeed a valley beyond that mountain. And a Keeper. And unicorns. Not long at all. Then he could shake the filthy dust of this place from his booted heels. Travel back overland to the coast, where he'd hidden his ship. Follow the next elusive trail to myth.

Because, of course, there was nothing but more war-blasted desert beyond that black mountain.

Nothing at all.

Especially unicorns.

Hunter shifted the pack more comfortably on his strong back and set out purposefully for the appointed meeting with a shifty-eyed vendor, and with a Huntman who had... perhaps... captured a myth.

King was a man with secrets in his eyes. He sat in an overstuffed chair by a cold and empty fireplace, the only light in the room coming faintly through dirty, uncurtained windowpanes. He ignored Hunter, as he'd ignored his entrance hours before and his persistent questions since.

Ignored him as one would ignore a buzzing insect.

Hunter had literally forced the monkeylike vendor to bring him here after the little man had arrived, terrified, at their meeting to whisper that King wanted no visitors. The vendor had led him to this small, unkempt house and then scuttled away, vanishing into the depths of the city. And Hunter, one hand guardedly on his knife, had walked boldly in.

As hours passed and his voice hoarsened by repeated questions, Hunter tried to gain some sense of his unwilling host. But there was nothing. King exuded no life-force, no sense of personality. He seemed a slate wiped clean, a flat, one-dimensional image without animation. No question won so much as a flicker of response from him.

But there were secrets and horrors in his eyes. Of that Hunter was sure.

He was a big man, nearly as large as Hunter, with a full red beard shadowing his craggy face and gray eyes as dim and impenetrable as dense fog. He seemed oddly unreal, the innate power of his muscular body held captive by utter stillness.

And Hunter wondered if the legendary Keeper of the unicorns had done this to him. And if so, how.

Finally, in desperation, Hunter stood between King and the cold fireplace which seemed to hold his entire attention, and quietly, clearly, told the Huntman a story about a world with an empty throne and two princes. And of a man who had discovered, in his quest for that throne, the vital necessity of myth, the need of his world for dreams. He told of the years since and a long search, sparing nothing of himself in his need to get through to King and learn how to reach that valley. He talked of the need of protection for the unicorns and of his desire to prove that they existed so that they could be granted that protection.'

If there was myth... he had to find it.

Especially this particular myth, dreamed of in boyhood and revered on so many worlds... this myth that was the cost of a throne.

So immersed was he in the telling that Hunter didn't realize for quite a while that he had finally won King's attention. The Huntman was looking up at him, gray eyes still impenetrable but fixed on his face nonetheless. No emotion stirred the craggy face, but King was listening.

Stressing his intention to prove the unicorns' existence and disclaiming any desire to harm them, Hunter asked one last time for the secret to finding the valley.

The Huntman was still, his eyes watchful. Then, abruptly, he gestured in simple sign language for Hunter to come back in the morning.

Hunter hesitated for an instant, finally inclining his head in reluctant acceptance. He had said all that he could to convince King. Halting briefly at the door, he quietly reminded the Huntman of one important fact.

"Only a few weeks of Summer are left. I don't have very much time."

No sound or gesture answered him, and Hunter turned away from the man whose haunted eyes were like the broken window of an empty house.

Restraining impatience, tightly leashing hope, Hunter passed the night restlessly. He was back at Kings house the next morning when dawn had barely lightened the sky and found the older man on his feet but still coldly withdrawn. Before Hunter could ask, King pointed to a roughly drawn map lying on an otherwise bare table.

Eagerly studying the map for long moments, Hunter looked up to ask suddenly, "Does she exist? The Keeper?"

Something very like pain tightened the big Huntman's features for a brief moment. He turned away abruptly, seemingly gazing out a dingy window and once again ignoring Hunters very presence.

Hunter looked down at the map, seeing suddenly something he had missed in his first perusal. In the upper right hand corner of the yellowed paper was shakily drawn the universal symbol of danger: a skull and crossbones.

He sent a sharp stare toward the immobile man. "Danger? From the Keeper?"

King made no move, no sound.

After a moment, realizing he'd get nothing more from the man, Hunter quietly unfastened his money pouch, laying it on the table before turning for the door. He sent a last look at the still, silent figure of the older man, unable to voice his thanks because of something he sensed rather than saw. And what he sensed was a man on the rack. Silently, he left.

Long minutes passed after the soft sound of the closing door, then King turned from the window. He went to a shelf, barren save for a small, cracked mirror. Lifting the mirror, he stared for a moment into eyes with ghosts in them. Ghosts of pain. Terror. Regret.

He swallowed hard and slowly opened his mouth, gazing into the dark cavern where a gaping wound could be seen.

King had no tongue.

He dropped the mirror to the floor and crushed the shards beneath his boots.

Mother?

Daughter?

A man comes.

Men have come before, daughter.

But this man...

Is different?

Yes. He comes alone. He comes...

Out of greed?

No. Yes. A different kind of greed.

He searches?

Yes. For truth.

He hungers?

For truth.

Such men are dangerous, daughter. Take care.

Mother?

Daughter?

He has green eyes...

Take care, daughter.

He looked at the men with him, the Huntmen lured here by promises of wealth beyond description. He was, dimly, surprised that they had survived the journey into the valley but supposed that greed could lend strength. They were hardly a prepossessing lot. Still, he only needed tools, and they would do.

"The sorceress knows we're here!" one of them hissed fearfully. "She always knows."

"Not this time." Boran smiled faintly as he recalled a plundered laboratory on a distant world and the secrets he had found there. The amulet he wore around his neck was one such device, designed to amplify his own considerable psi abilities; the sorceress would not be able to sense his presence, nor that of anyone near him. At best, she would only sense a darkness, a blank spot in her valley.

Until he was ready to confront her.

The Huntmen looked at one another, and then at him. Cautiously, one ventured, "She won't know?"

"If you remain near me, no," Boran answered, his soft voice even and emotionless.

The Huntman who had asked the question felt a chill crawl over his flesh. Boran wore a smile often, and spoke softly, but there was something quietly horrible in that smile and that voice. And he had not even seemed to notice when one of the Huntmen had lost his grip on the rope during their journey and had fallen, screaming dreadfully, to bounce and tumble down the black slope of The Reaper.

"Hand me the glass," Boran ordered.

The Huntman fished it from his pack and handed it over, taking care not to touch the twisted, constantly beckoning hand. His flesh crawled again, and he wished suddenly that he had remained in the city.

He thought it was safer down there....

Boran studied the valley below, measuring with a warriors eye, seeking places of concealment and ambush.

First the Triad. Age. Strength. Youth.

He had the Strength, taken from King; only a tiny portion of it was gone, but even that slight loss was a loss.

He wanted it all.

Fury reddened his mind for a moment until he caught the scarlet wisps and dragged them behind mental doors. No time for that now. He could bide his time until the moment for fury came.

He needed power if his plans were to succeed; the Triad was that power. As the possessor of the Triad, he would be invincible. The craving for power surged within him, hot and violent and pleasing. It traveled the twisted corridors of his mind and spread a hellish glow.

Power. To take a throne and rule a world.

Power. To settle debts and even scores.

His right hand lifted to touch the side of his face.

Sensitive fingertips felt skin of a dead-wood hardness, furrowed and pitted; his cheek felt nothing of the fingers' touch. The left hand, curved stiffly around the glass, was as dead as half his face. Dead. Murdered. He didn't curse aloud, but oaths too bitterly felt for simple words coiled and writhed within him.

Power to settle debts. Power to even scores.





Two




Hunter slowly climbed the almost vertical side of The Reaper. He tried to use outcroppings of rock and sparse bushes as handholds, rather than depending on the rope anchored precariously far above him, because a cautious— and perhaps superstitious—voice within warned him that although The Reaper was not alive, of course, it was nonetheless malevolent. He had used a large rock to scratch curiously into the black surface of the mountain, oddly chilled to discover that the soil beneath was blood-red, as if with a deadly stain.

Shoving the eerie observation aside, Hunter paused for a moment in the long, hard climb, wedging himself into an unwelcoming niche to ease the strain in his arms. He rested there, gazing over the land spread out below him. The Huntmen's city appeared even more squalid, not even distance able to elevate it to something near beauty. Smoke from innumerable cooking fires rose like a dirty gray banner above the jagged tops of shorn-off buildings and hung listlessly in the air, defeated. All around the bleak and barren city sprawled a landscape pitted and scarred after thousands of years of too much misuse, neglect, and war. A more ugly, inhospitable land Hunter had never seen.

Briefly and objectively, he wondered how in hell he expected to find a fragile and elusive myth just beyond these mountains. It was not only an unrealistic expectation, it was a ludicrous one. But Hunter had followed fainter trails in his quest, and since impossible had been his watchword from the beginning, he could hardly complain now.

Sighing, he took a firmer grip on his rope and pried himself from the niche, swinging free for a heart-stopping minute before his scrabbling boots found an almost invisible crack. Sweat trickled into his eyes, blinding him with a stinging haze. Sacrificing a moment of time and a bit of balance, he managed to wipe his eyes on the rough material covering his arm; the movement caused him to bang painfully against the rock and nearly lose his grip on the rope. Hanging there with his aching shoulder pressed against the unyielding stone, Hunter quietly and fluently cursed The Reaper.

But he kept going.

He was some sixty feet from his goal when a sudden gust of wind yanked him away from the cliff, pounded him against it twice, and then swept him sideways in a pendulum motion. Hunter cursed breathlessly, riding out the punishment with gritted teeth. He listened to the wind as it began howling all around him, remembering the vendor's comparison of the sound to a "soulless devil."

He fought the wind, fought it fiercely with every ounce of strength and determination he possessed. It seemed a living thing, snatching at him and taunting him shrilly as he climbed. It shrieked in his ears, first pulling him away from the cliff and then slamming him against it.

Then, abruptly, it was gone. Bruised, battered, his breath rasping harshly in his raw throat, Hunter climbed blindly for a few moments without realizing that the wind had abandoned him. It was only when his gloved hands reached the knot holding his rope around the peculiarly shaped jutting rock that he realized dimly he had won. He hauled his aching body the last foot, bracing his back against the rock and sitting astride the saddlelike doorway into the valley.

Automatically flexing his stiff fingers, he rested his forehead on an upraised knee for a moment, eyes wearily closed. Only when he had regained his breath did Hunter raise his head and look—with an inner warning to himself not to be disappointed—down into the valley.

Dizzily, crazily, time and space shifted. He was momentarily straddling two worlds and didn't know which was real. There was nothing gradual to acclimate the mind and spare the senses. No warning at all. Below on his right lay a barren wasteland. Below on his left lay paradise.

The Reaper itself was nearly as inhospitable on the valley side—but not quite. The jagged, blackened rock remained true for roughly half its height, the bottom becoming rolling hills dotted with flowering plants and covered with a carpet of brilliant emerald. A sparkling stream flowed lazily among the hills and out into the valley, forming a small lake.

Without realizing he was doing so, Hunter held his breath as he looked out over the valley itself and thought that if unicorns did exist, this surely must be the sort of place where they would be found.

There was an abundance of flowers and flowering plants, grasses waving gently in the clean-smelling breeze, and the happy sounds of birds chirping in contentment. Completely ringed by mountains, the valley was huge and beautiful and as rare in its setting as a diamond among dirty lumps of coal.

Squinting against the hot sun he was only vaguely aware of, Hunter searched all within his range of vision with the hungry eyes of a man obsessed. His gaze quartered the valley methodically, his first elation dimming when he saw no sign of movement other than plants and birds. Then he concentrated on the forest covering nearly half the valley, the far half, and the little lake which marked its beginning.

Around the lake were tall and stately hardwood trees, their leaves the varied summer shades of green. Beneath the trees and bathed in patterns of sunlight and shadow was a small cabin.

Hunter focused on the cabin, his pent-up breath escaping in a soft sigh. His goal, he decided, was the cabin. And if a dark-eyed, silver-haired woman met him there with weapon or magic...

Briskly putting the incompleted thought from his mind, Hunter pulled his rope up, neatly coiled it, and then dropped it down on the valley side of The Reaper. Only then did he look down at what would be his path of descent, and the blood chilled in his veins.

A single glance around the valley had told him that this saddlelike doorway was, indeed, its only entrance, all else being sheer, concave cliffs far too high for any human being even to begin a descent by rope. But the sheer rock face below him was also concave, cut raggedly into The Reapers base as if water had swirled angrily around and around the valley for aeons and then allowed lightning to blast narrow ridges and bottomless canyons in the rock.

Hunter realized wryly that he had let his first elation blind him to the hazards still ahead. He rested on his haunches for long moments, hanging on to his rope and leaning suicidally far out over the cliff edge. He could easily see the bottom sloping out, with wicked ridges boasting what looked like jagged shards of granite gradually turning into the gently rolling hills his eyes had first seen. His rope dangled just above one of those jagged ridges and far above the safety of the hills; he would have to traverse the last killing feet without the aid of the rope.

Assuming he got that far.

Leaning still farther out, he noted idly that the stream winding through the valley began as a wellspring pumped apparently from deep within The Reaper. He tried to get some idea of what awaited him between the top of the concave cliff and its bottom, but found that there was no way of knowing until he actually went over the edge.

So he did.

And as soon as he was hanging twenty feet from the top of the cliff, Hunter knew he was in trouble. Wasting no breath or energy for panting or swearing, he kept his eyes fastened on the razor-sharp rock that was even now cutting into his rope with vicious speed. The unpredictable wind that had dogged his ascent had returned, swinging his body inward toward the rock wall and pinning it there; jagged stone immediately began shredding the material covering his knees and elbows, and he felt the muscles of his legs and back protest in agony as he somehow managed to place his booted feet firmly enough to push away from the cliff. The wind fought him for every inch, and every movement he made caused the rope above him to fray from its contact with cutting granite.

Gritting his teeth until his jaws ached, Hunter used all the discipline and strength at his command to ignore the wind and the fraying rope as he began lowering himself with reckless, inhuman speed. He didn't think of the rocky coffin waiting below to cradle his broken body for ah eternity. He thought only of the unicorns, and the end, one way or the other, of a long search.

He thought he would make it. After endless aeons of straining muscles crying out for relief, he felt the lightness in the rope that meant he was nearing the end of it, and his sweat-blinded eyes turned toward the bottom and the end of an agonizing race.

Then, abruptly, he was out of time, perhaps out of life itself, because the rope gave way and he was falling, falling into the mouth of a hungry, rocky hell. Instinctively he tried to turn his body, tried to land on his feet with at least an even chance for survival. But there was still no time, and no room at all to turn in because the first touch of rock was a brutal blow to his head and Hunter knew no more.

He thought he woke once or twice, thought he fought his way up through swirling black mist and fiery flashes of pain. He forced leaden eyelids to lift, seeing a crimson haze and understanding with a vast indifference that it was his own blood he was looking through. He felt nothing now, no pain and no cares, only a vague sort of curiosity. Blackness claimed him again.

The second waking—if waking it was—was accompanied this time by a pain so great that it wrung a hoarse groan from his lips. Again he forced reluctant eyes to open, the earlier crimson streamers gradually washed away by tears of agony until he could see sunlight. He was conscious of icy water flowing all around him and of rocks digging into his body like the points of a dozen knives.

Some logical part of his mind unmaddened by pain told him that he was in shock and losing blood fast. And that same ruthlessly disinterested voice told him that he didn't really see a golden spiral waving with hypnotic slowness before his eyes. Ignoring the voice because he wanted to, because he was unwilling to die without knowing, Hunter tried to turn his head to see the unicorn that would prove a child's dream. A sheet of white-hot agony made every other pain he had ever felt before a pleasure, and the blackness took him.

From a very great distance, he idly noted that the water was cold and the sun hot. There was silence broken only by the soft chirp of birds. And then there were other sounds, faint and puzzling sounds. Scrabbling sounds like hooves on rock, and a sweet, familiar, grassy smell accompanied by warm breath on his face.

And then there was a voice, a voice that was gentle for all its violent, angry words, and musical beyond belief. He tried to fight his way back up through the blackness because he wanted to meet the voice, but the effort seemed to drive the lovely sound away, and Hunter felt a strange grief that he would never know that face behind it. Something touched his shoulder, something warm and firm, and his skin tingled pleasantly. The pain faded until it was somewhere on the fringes of himself, and as it went the void of its leaving was filled with a sudden implacable determination.

Hunter was dying; he knew that the retreat of pain meant the retreat of life and the coming of Death. And he refused to accept it. His mind was clear and cold. He gathered together every scrap of will, every thread of determination, flinging both into Deaths face with a savage laugh that emerged from his throat raggedly and brought back the pain.

He clung to the pain fiercely, embraced it, welcomed it because it meant the retreat of Death. He sank beneath the waves of pain, exultant because Death had given up its hold on him.

Boran watched almost constantly. From his vantage point there was an unobstructed view of the valley below. He could not see far into the forest, of course, but he could see the cabin.

His breath had quickened at first sight of the herd, but he had made no move toward the valley. When he saw the sorceress, his fingers went ivory-knuckled around the spyglass. Holding his mind carefully blank, he watched throughout the day, studying as many of her habits as possible. She moved among her charges, a touch here, a pat there. She played a brief game of chase with the smallest of the herd.

He watched that one a long time.

The sorceress left his sight for a while, reappearing on the far side of the valley; he realized she was patrolling watchfully. He noted she carried no weapon. No visible weapon, at any rate.

He watched until night fell and a lamp flickered within the cabin. Then he rose, stretching cramped limbs, ignoring pain. He was very good at ignoring pain. His hand lifted to touch the hard left side of his face, fingers tracing the deep, immovable furrows that had replaced once-firm, pliable flesh. Almost lovingly, his fingers probed.

Some men, through the passage of time, forgot their reasons to hate. Boran had not, and he would never forget.

Boran had not been certain what form his revenge would take until he had focused his spyglass on the sorceress. The perfect, unmarred beauty of her face rose before his mind's eye now as he fingered his own petrified flesh, tracing the hardness where it began above his brow and ended at the base of his neck.

How different her skin would feel! Like golden velvet. He imagined that soft skin beneath his touch. He thought of that lovely face flushed with anger, then pale with horror and revulsion as his heavy body covered her helpless one.

He saw her black eyes wild with terror and pain and grief as he destroyed her. Destroyed her ability to guard her charges. Destroyed her most precious possession. Destroyed her beauty.

He wondered if Hunter knew just how vulnerable the sorceress was to maleness; it was possible, but not probable. He himself had found that bit of knowledge on a distant world Hunter had not visited. Only a virgin could hold the trust of the unicorns. Only a virgin....

There were worse fates than death.

Then he frowned a little. Was there a better way? Taking, after all, was easy. To persuade the sorceress to give, however, that was another matter. Boran fingered the amulet around his neck and then glanced toward the men crouching around the low fire. Silently, he commanded. And watched as one of the men stood up, turned three times, and then sat down again. There was no expression on his face, and the others showed no awareness of what he had done.

Boran smiled. Her mind would be stronger than these, of course, but not so strong that he could not control it.

Yes.

His chuckle, an incongruously pleasant sound to emerge from the distorted lips, was soft in the still night air. Such a lonely place, this valley. And so many long and lonely Winters she must have faced. But if she allowed Hunter to live... if she accepted his presence in her life because of his desire to find myth alive and walking... then perhaps she would remember those lonely winters.

Boran smiled. Yes. But he had to be cautious. The sorceress had power. He would have to control her carefully, search for the strengths and weaknesses of her mind.

Standing in the darkness, he pondered the possible emotional state of the sorceress. Her valley had been seriously threatened only once this Summer; she was probably complacent. On her guard, but not inordinately so. Hunter would become the first chink in her defenses, and Boran had only to wait, and watch it happen.

The second day of watching brought Hunter to the valley.

Boran watched through the spyglass as the sorceress emerged from the cabin very early, and he heard the eerie whistle she sent winging across the valley. He saw the herd turn instantly for the forest—all except one. The one, obviously the oldest and leader of the herd, stood firm. The sorceress was very still—Boran felt a tickling near the back of his head and strove to build his wall higher—then she turned abruptly, clear anger and worry in every line of her slender body, and followed the leaderless herd into the forest.

She returned to the meadow later and stared at the motionless leader. More tickling; Boran ignored it. It was clear to him that the single unicorn refused to follow some order of the sorceress, and he frowned as he realized that she did indeed know there was a threat to the valley. He wasn't concerned that his presence had been discovered, but her ability to be forewarned disturbed him; he would have to be careful.

He would have to remember that particular power, try to discover if he could somehow confuse or cloud that ability. He could. Of course he could. The amulet would be his tool to accomplish it.

He watched her go back into the cabin, watched the leader cross the valley and disappear behind a jumble of boulders, then raised the spyglass and began searching across the valley where King's path lay. It was nearly two hours later that he saw Hunter reach the saddlelike crest of the path.

Boran saw every move Hunter made. He saw the man sit for a moment, recovering from the climb, saw with pleasure his bruises and exhaustion. He watched him begin the descent into the valley and saw instantly that the descent was doomed.

He saw Hunter fall.

Bitterness rose sickly in his mind. No. That death would steal half his revenge. He cursed softly, tonelessly, his good eye fixed to the spyglass, staring at the motionless, broken body cradled by granite. He swore at gods abandoned long ago and far away for depriving him of half his revenge.

Then his good eye blinked and stared more fiercely into the lens. The leader of the herd had approached the broken body—and it stirred faintly. Boran held his breath. Not dead! Not yet. He watched the leader turn and move away, its speed uncanny as it raced toward the cabin.

Boran followed the creature with his glass, seeing the sorceress emerge from the cabin with one hand held to her head as the leader reached her. She swayed slightly. Then she straightened her shoulders, her beautiful features angry and pale. She followed instantly as the leader turned and both made their way toward the fallen man.

He felt hope rise in him as he watched the sorceress bend over the broken body, watched her quickly fashion a litter from strong limbs and strips of cloth fetched hastily from the woods and the cabin. He saw the leader submit quietly to being hitched to the litter bearing the unconscious man, and followed their progress back across the meadow to the cabin.

When the walls of the cabin finally hid the little drama from sight, Boran sat back and lowered the glass. He would have to wait now, wait and discover if the sorceress's powers could yank a man back from death. Wait and find out if she would use those powers to save an enemy.

Boran hoped that she would, for he could think of only one reason why she would do something so alien to her life and responsibilities. And that reason boded well for his plans.

If Hunter lived.





Three




The ceiling was heavily beamed. Hunter studied it thoughtfully for moments or hours, his mind a limbo in which nothing but the ceiling mattered. It was a good ceiling, he decided finally, and having come to that decision, he abandoned it. Tentatively he allowed his senses to reach for more information, unsure if he were ready to absorb it. A bed. He was in a bed and warmly covered with heavy quilts. The scratchy feeling told him that he was naked beneath the covers, a fact which disturbed him on some deep and utterly male level. The constricted sensation around his head seemed a sure indication of a bandage of some kind, but Hunter felt no pain. Only an intolerable weakness.

Fighting the weakness, he made a single attempt to push himself up on his elbows, a bitten-off groan of frustration emerging from him when his arms refused to support him. He released a stream of smoking curses, relieved to note that his tongue was still capable of speech. "Cheerful when you wake up, aren't you?" the Voice questioned coldly.

Through sheer effort of will, Hunter managed to raise his head a few inches, and quick hands banked pillows behind him for support. He stared up into eyes as dark and, at the moment, just as malevolent as The Reaper.

Silver hair fell in a shining a curtain to her tiny waist, framing a face that was as delicately beautiful and fragile as the crystal flowers he remembered from a faraway world and a distant past. Her brows winged upward, like her huge eyes, lending her a mysteriously feline gaze. And her face had the serenity of a cat's, the proud and sure confidence of c