"Shut up," she snarled. "You'll have plenty of cause to whine once I'm free." She began to describe what she would do to him and he cried out in terror.
Three of her prisoners had escaped. Two women and a man, valuable prisoners in their prime who would have brought a fortune at the slave market. Worse, they had left her tied to a post as they had been. And they had left Portiver, another prisoner, with her because they could not trust him. The torments she promised Portiver were as nothing compared to what she planned for them, but first she would need to free herself.
"I can help you catch them," Portiver said, speaking rapidly. "I heard them discussing their plans. I know where they're going."
"Shut up," she told him.
"They'll be back. Back with their friends. They'll kill us when they return..."
"If they wanted to kill us, they already would have," she snarled at him. "And they'd be fools to return because they know what I'll do to them if I get my hands on them again. I or my guards." She stopped struggling for a moment so she could regain her strength. "They were fools to leave us tied up like this and not kill us."
"I can help you," Portiver assured her, desperately. "I can help you find them."
"Can you untie these ropes, you fool? Can you free us from these posts? That is the only way you could be of value to me. The only way!" Her voice was filled with contempt and Portiver moaned in desperation. He had struggled a bit against his ropes but seemed now to have given up as if he expected he would never be free. If I have my way, thought Tarice, he's absolutely right about that. He'll spend the rest of his life tied to that post, but it won't be a long life. Not a long one at all.
He was sobbing and moaning; garbled sounds came from him that might have been pleadings for mercy. There would be no mercy. Not for him, nor for the people who had left her here. Oh, they would live a while; for weeks perhaps. But they would not enjoy it. They would beg her to kill them; she would see to it. The slave woman Breese and the man Logan and the girl Hyla. They would suffer and give vent to loud begging and louder screaming. Tarice was most inventive when it came to giving pain to her enemies, to making them regret disobedience and defiance. And the woman Breese would suffer the longest and the greatest. It would take her days to die.
This was the room where she kept prisoners who were not to be sold as slaves --at least not right away. It was remote enough from the other rooms in which she lived and worked so that loud cries could not be heard.
She was not worried about being here for too long a time. Her followers were not far away --just too far away to hear her calling for their help. Sooner or later, one of them would come looking for her.
Only she was not sure what would happen if one of them found her helplessly tied to a post like this.
"Tarice?" A voice called from a distance. "Tarice? It's me, Kwin. Can I come in?"
Tarice glanced toward the tunnel the voice came from. The girl Kwin was still far back in it, so far she couldn't be seen, calling out timidly for permission when Tarice needed to be freed from these bonds.
"Quickly, you fool! Get in here now!" Tarice almost screamed the words.
In the mouth of the tunnel a young woman appeared. She was thin, dark-haired, and moved timidly, even after she saw Tarice's predicament.
"What --what happened?" the girl asked, stopping several feet away from Tarice. "Why are you tied up like that?"
"Over there, on the floor," Tarice said.
The girl looked around, confused.
"The knife! The knife!" Tarice shouted. "Over there on the floor, there's a knife. Pick it up and cut me loose, you idiot!"
"Oh," she said, looking again. She saw the knife and bent down quickly to pick it up. She rushed forward to Portiver.
"Not him! Don't cut him loose," said Tarice. "Cut me loose. Quickly!"
The girl moved to Tarice's side and quickly cut her free.
"Our prisoners got loose. They over powered me and tied me up, that's what happened."
The girl indicated Portiver. "What about him?"
"Him?" Tarice said. "Give me the knife."
She took the knife from the girl and stood for a moment in front of Portiver.
"Please," said Portiver. "I can be useful. I know where they went, you know."
"The only thing you know is how to lie," Tarice said.
And plunged the knife into Portiver's stomach.
He screamed in pain but the scream died quickly; as quickly as he did. Blood gushed from the wound in his stomach and poured down his legs to the floor as he slumped forward against his bonds.
She handed the gore covered knife to the girl, Kwin. "Clean this and then come see me," she said. "There's a pit back there, a very deep pit. Cut this pig loose and drag his carcass to the pit and throw him in. And try not to fall in after him."
Kwin stared at the corpse dumbly. "Yes," she said.
"Tell no one what you've seen here," Tarice added.
Tarice went to a nearby cavern where there was a pool and washed the blood and grime from herself, then went to her private chamber to wait for Kwin. Presently the girl came. Tarice glared at her as if everything that had happened today were Kwin's fault. The girl stayed back near the entrance as if afraid to come any closer.
"We're going on a trip," Tarice said. "There will be four of us. Pack food and weapons."
"Will we be capturing slaves?" the girl managed to ask in a quavering voice.
"We'll be arranging the recapture of escaped slaves, but tell no one that. In fact, don't talk to anyone until I tell you you can. Do you understand?"
The girl nodded.
"Now go! You have your orders. Be quick about it."
Kwin turned quickly, almost stumbling in her haste to get out of Tarice's presence.
Tarice turned around. In a far corner, a single orange globe floated near the ceiling. All that was left; the only way she had to enforce her authority.
But she knew where to find more. That was even more important than finding Breese and her friends. Once she had more of the globes to serve her needs, she could deal with the escapees almost at her leisure.
As far as anyone knew, the caverns extended under the entire planet. They had a more extensive area than the surface because there were several levels of them. Much about the caverns had been forgotten over time, at least in this region, so no one knew exactly how extensive they were. But few of the people who lived down here were sufficiently educated to even have considered such questions. To Tarice the caverns extended as far as she had been in her own wanderings and all beyond that was terra incognito. All she cared about was the part of them she controlled. When she controlled more, she would care about that also. As for the surface dwellers, most of whom knew nothing about the cavern world, they were beyond her experience and therefore beyond her thoughts.
At last she went to the room where her guards waited. She selected two and ordered them to come with her back to her chamber. When she got there, Kwin was waiting with the supplies for the trip.
Kwin stood back in the shadows while the two guards took the packs she had prepared and checked them. They briefly busied themselves with redistributing the weight before securing them to their backs. Tarice spent the time selecting a sharp, long sword to take with her.
When she was finished, she ordered Kwin to take what the guards could not carry. As for herself, Tarice carried only her weapons and the steaming hatred that festered inside her.
Tarice knew that the sooner she started after the escaped prisoners the better her chances of catching up to them. But she knew also that she could not count on capturing them unless she was well armed. She could not even count on survival and freedom for herself for much longer unless she replaced some of the spheres Breese had destroyed.
She had found the globes years ago in a hidden cavern not too far from the caverns she now ruled. She learned the secret of how to control them to do her own bidding, to help her capture slaves and herd them, to kill her enemies. Even she in her egotism realized that without the globes she would never have gained the power she now had, and would in fact have been killed long ago.
The location of the cavern where she had found the globes was a secret she had jealously kept from all others for many years.
In those days she had been a slave herself, a concubine in the "court" of a small time warlord named Kyron who bullied a band of runaways and fools into thinking of themselves as an army. She found the cave while running away from him and by the time he caught up with her she had learned the secret of controlling them. She watched with elation as the spheres surrounded Kyron and then attacked and killed him at her command. In that moment she had ceased to be a slave and became a tyrant, instead.
It was a simple secret. A necklace. That was all, a necklace. She had no concept of the science behind it; to her it was simply magic. As long as she wore that necklace the spheres did her bidding.
She was young in those days and still in the prime of her beauty. Like the savage she was she would sit on a throne, dressed in barbaric splendor, her magnificent legs and shoulders exposed, the spheres floating around her, while she used them to terrify and control her subjects. There were never more than two or three dozen subjects, and seldom that many because so many of them managed to get themselves killed in the raids and wars she waged against the other cavern tribes. But the people she ruled and terrorized were never as important to her goals as the spheres were.
Now there was only one left. It bobbed in the air above her as she moved through the tunnel that led to the secret chamber where she had found the globes so long ago. It glowed brightly, casting orange light against the rock walls of the tunnel. But it was one, just one, where once there had been a dozen.
In the caverns there is little concept of time. Without the sun to measure out the days, the concept of "day" is inexact, and the more complicated concepts of "week" and "month" are vague and largely ceremonial, if they exist at all in the culture of a tribe. Time was measured by the duration between meals and periods of sleep. Only in some of the larger cities under the earth are the lights controlled in such a way as to measure out the days in a regulated length.
Tarice and her band walked for most of a day and only Tarice had a clear idea of where they were going.
Finally they paused to make camp and eat. When time came to sleep, Tarice surprised her companions by offering to stand the first watch of the night.
She waited until she could be certain the guards were asleep. She and Kwin were a little apart from them but she made the effort to be as quiet as possible. She told Kwin, "Wake up," and clamped a hand over the girl's mouth.
Kwin's eyes opened wide with terror but Tarice held a finger to her lips to signal the girl to be quiet. The terror didn't quite leave Kwin's eyes but she stopped trying to make any noise, and she stopped struggling. Tarice motioned her to get up.
"Don't make a sound," Tarice ordered her. "Come with me."
Then, as quietly as possible, she led Kwin out of the cavern where they slept and along the tunnel outside it until she came to the place she was looking for.
It was a place where part of the wall seemed to have fallen away, though Tarice thought it was built that way on purpose. What looked like a pile of rubble reached up higher than a person could look, up near the shadows close to the ceiling. She climbed up. When she reached the top of the rubble pile she saw a small, familiar opening in the tunnel wall.
Tarice looked back and saw Kwin standing on the floor of the tunnel. She snarled, "Get up here you fool. We don't have much time." She crawled through the small opening in the tunnel wall and Kwin crawled after her.
They crawled forward a few feet and the opening began to widen. They could stand up by the time they reached the end of it and Tarice climbed down. She waited for Kwin to climb down after her.
She could tell the girl was still frightened and uncertain of what they were doing. They were in another tunnel but they could see the glow of light at the end of it. Tarice led the way toward it. The tunnel opened out on a broad, high chamber faintly lighted.
"Now," she told Kwin, "You will learn my most important secret."
"Where are we?" Kwin asked, her voice quavering.
"We are in the cavern of the ebon sphere," answered Tarice. "Or at least I call it that."
"I've never heard of it."
"It is known only to me. And now, you."
She led the way down a slope into the main part of the chamber.
"Years ago, I was the lover of a great wizard," Tarice said. Wizard was the only word she knew to describe a scientist. "He was ancient, that wizard. He did not measure his age in years but in centuries. He knew many of the secrets of the original builders of these caverns."
At the midpoint of the chamber there was a metal pole rising up out if the ground. Tarice walked toward it.
Kwin walked along beside her, but her manner was not as eager as that of Tarice. She was not hesitant but she was clearly frightened. Her eyes were wide and looked around the cavern as if fearful that something would jump out of the shadows at them.
Kwin was not a very intelligent girl, Tarice knew. But right now she seemed almost to understand how much danger she was in.
Tarice drew her sword and struck it against the metal pole.
It rang with the clearness of a gong, and the walls of the cavern seemed to shatter the sound and send it echoing in all directions until it was like many giant bells ringing a call to temple worshipers. Tarice heard Kwin's voice catch in her throat. The girl whimpered.
And something jumped out of the shadows.
Or at least it glided. It was a globe, black, and appearing to glow as surely as the yellow and orange globes did.
The globe swooped straight toward Kwin.
The girl screamed and ran to the closest wall. When she saw that she could run no further, she turned, pressing back against the rock and stared with horror at the globe that now floated in front of her.
Tarice walked over to Kwin and took her by the arm. Kwin couldn't take her eyes off the sphere. "Don't let it hurt me."
"Stop whining. It isn't as if you haven't seen the death spheres before."
"It isn't like the others," Kwin said. "It scares me."
Tarice pushed her against the metal pole and dragged her wrists together behind it. Kwin cried out. Tarice began tying her wrists together with a strip of leather she took from a pocket of her outfit. "You're wise to be scared," she said. "I brought you with me for a reason."
Kwin was now terrified. "Let me go! Don't hurt me. I'll do anything you want!"
"You're doing what I want you to do right now. You're doing what needs to be done." Tarice finished tying her and stepped away.
The ebon sphere drifted daintily on the air in front of the girl. Tarice watched with a total lack of emotion. Kwin began to cry.
"You're making it possible for me to go after the slaves who escaped from me," Tarice said in a quiet voice. "You're making it possible for me to track them down and recapture them. To drag them back to my domain and wreak my revenge on them. I want you to know I'm very grateful to you, my sweet cousin."
The sphere touched her and there was a flash of light and she cried out again. She was sobbing in terror now, and with good cause. "Goodbye, Kwin," Tarice said. "I want you to know you are serving me well." She watched raptly as the black sphere circled the screaming girl and then moved in to touch her.
There was another bright flash of light, and a final scream.
Small colored lights, looking much like fireflies, popped into being above the corpse. They began to grow.
After a time the ebon globe was satisfied.
And not long after that, Tarice left the cavern and went back to where her two guards waited.
She walked tall and proud and arrogant with power.
A dozen spheres of a dozen colors floated behind her, as arrogant in their power as she was; and as eager to serve her as she was eager to be served. She had great plans for them.