He stayed on his knees, a few yards in front of where the entrance had been, contemplating the irony of his fate, until an ominous rumbling sound, coming from deep within the mountain, made him get up and withdraw to safer grounds.
Just in time as it turned out, as moments later some heavy rocks came tumbling down the narrow path.
“Making the false ceiling of the corridor collapse must have weakened the whole structure. I always thought these were natural caverns, only slightly worked upon,” Lee-Lack mused when the noise had died down and the dust had settled. “Or maybe it was an accident waiting to happen. Who knows how old the whole labyrinth of caves is and how many times it has been adapted for new purposes. I shouldn’t curse the Gods, but thank them that the cave-in didn’t happen when I was inside getting the gold. I would never have made it outside in time.”
While true, it didn’t comfort him as much as it should. That he could have lost his life mattered less than that he had indeed lost the treasure of the Renuvian Plains Robbers, at least for the time being.
He turned away from the mountains and looked out over the Plains. His Plains. His Plains, which as yet were mainly deserted and where a man could still be free. All that would end soon if the little warlord got his way.
He looked around with a sense of quiet desperation. Everything was gone. His men as well as the almost limitless amount of gold he’d thought he could draw upon for the rest of his life. Gold and men. Together they had made him the uncrowned king of Mirkadesh. All gone up in smoke now. And, ultimately, the prince-warlord was to blame.
He could feel the fire in his veins. The despair made place for waves of hate that invaded his body and his mind. His sword was still unsheathed, shaking in one of his clenched fists as if it had a life of its own.
And then it was over, as quickly as it had come. He didn’t know how long he had been standing there, trembling in the grip of his blind rage.
“Nothing I can do about it. Gran will be furious, the insatiable, selfish bitch that she is. Well, let the old cow suffocate on her gluttony for riches. It isn’t her gold. It’s mine. What I have managed to take home already is a fortune in its own right.”
There was no hurry. He was young — and looked even younger — and he was what by any standards should be called rich. He could take months to decide what he would do next. Years, if necessary. Maybe he should travel for a while. Visit Dermolhea. Lorseth, maybe. Listen to the people in market places and in taverns. He could go to Tarbalainn on the Amirathan coast. Go see how the remnants of his men were doing.
Would any of them recognize the former robber chief in this young man?
Not immediately, but the older ones might suspect something. He didn’t look like Lee-Lack Scarminckle anymore, but he resembled Sanduvar’s boy. Him they might remember and then make the connection.
He shook his head. He had plenty of time to think about what he would do in that case. He could also decide to avoid Tarbalainn altogether.
There was nothing to be gained by staying there.
He had no gold in his saddlebags, and yet even so soldiers would have questions. What was a young man doing here on the Plains on his own? Lee-Lack would find it hard to give them a plausible explanation. So he traveled back along the same path he had used in coming.
When dusk started falling he got off his horse and led the animal by the reins along the narrow, dangerous path. He wanted to put as much distance between himself and the now inaccessible treasure as he could though there was no logical reason for it.
Finally, when it was almost dark he decided to stop for the night.
He didn’t dare light a fire and he dined on stale bread, dried beef, hard cheese, and some nuts. He had enough water mixed with one-tenth of wine left in his leather drinking-bag to last him until he reached the inhabited parts of Mirkadesh.
He checked the reins of his horse, which he had tied to a tough bush that grew between the rocks. Before lying down to sleep he looked out over the Plains. There were hardly any clouds to obscure the stars and there was a three-quarter moon. The plains beneath him looked mysterious and stunning at the same time. It almost brought tears to Lee-Lack’s eyes.
He was woken by his horse neighing, head held high.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and yawned. Still stiff from sleeping on the ground, he stood up to see what had made his horse whinny.
The mystery was soon solved by a second neighing sound, coming from the plains.
The former robber chief looked down. A horse had been grazing on what tough grasses grew at the foot of the mountains.
Lee-Lack immediately noticed something was out of place. There were wild horses on the plains, but this wasn’t one of them. This horse was saddled, yet there was no rider in sight.
He couldn’t tell to whom the horse belonged, of course, but the saddle pad was a brightly colored blanket, bordered with fur. He knew of only one group of people who used such saddle pads. The owner must be an important man. Simple warriors used cured furs.
Only one question remained. What was the horse of a high-ranking Mukthar doing on its own, almost two months after the fighting at the Zinchara?