The day had hardly begun, but it was already the strangest birthday Del Merden had ever had, an almost overwhelming mixture of grief and elation, worry and wonder. The most predictable part of it had already happened, and the news was good. True to M‚varin tradition, Uncle Jamek had marked the twinsí sixteen years of life by giving them each a horse. Pandar was the fastest stallion in the entire Barst Stable, and Delís favorite, just as Molin was Crelís favorite filly. As soon as his uncle was gone, Del saddled up and rode out, galloping away from the village on a dirt track between fields of shoulder-high corn, heading north.
As far as his family knew, Del was just riding his gift horse, which he had helped to care for since its birth three years before. Probably Crel, whom he had left grooming Molin in the stable, suspected that Del was also out looking for Rani, dead or alive. She didnít know that Del was riding toward a specific destination, for a definite purpose.
The night before, Del had heard three knocks, then a pause, and then one more knock on the wall outside his ground-level bedroom. Del had gone to the window and seen no one, but he knew what the cadence meant. Three knocks were part of a code he and Rani had worked out years before. It meant ďOt LŰven,Ē the low grey caverns north of Liftlabeth that Del and Rani had often explored together. The lagging final knock meant ďtomorrow.Ē
How could the message have come from Rani? Uncle Jamek had told the twins that Rani was probably dead, having been last seen at the place where the tengrem was standing and where the strangerís body was found. Neither Shela nor Jamek and the others had found Raniís body, but Rani had not come home for dinner.
If Rani was dead, then who had done the knocking? No one else knew their code, not even Crel. If Rani was alive, why hadnít he gone home, or shown himself to Del at the window?
Del tried to put the problem out of his mind as he rode toward the Low Caves. One way or another, he would learn the answer when he got there. He concentrated on riding the black stallion that was finally his own. It was a fine morning for it. The storm of the evening before had not lasted long, and the ground had already caked and dried. The grass in the cow-dotted pastures alongside him moved in soft green waves before the wind. The morning sun had already brought some of the heat of late summer, and Del was glad of the extra breeze from Pandarís smooth gallop. For a short while he managed to lose his troubles in the joy of riding a good horse, of feeling the power of the moving flesh beneath him. This business with Rani, he told himself, would work out somehow.