Del rode for almost an hour, alternately trotting and galloping past the farmers’ fields to where the grass grew coarser and the dandelions more prevalent, and the tangled bushes edging the road grew thicker. The clouds darkened, and the breeze stiffened, but he was almost there. The Ot Lôven appeared on the horizon and advanced across the plain toward him. From a distance, they looked like just another set of hills at the edge of a forest, but as he got close he could see several openings that led deep into the hillside. The Low Caves had been thoroughly explored several years before, after gold had been discovered in a similar cave system west of the river. The Ot Lôven had revealed nothing more valuable than bats, and had once again become a haven for young explorers and (according to rumor) secret lovers.
The tengrem scare had put the Low Caves off limits, but for Del that only increased the mystery. Somewhere just inside, Rani was waiting for him. If there were any real danger, wouldn’t he have met Del someplace else?
Well, that was just one more mystery to go with the rest of Rani’s inexplicable behavior over the last day or so. The only thing that made any sense at all was that for some reason, Rani wanted to meet with him in private and in secret.
As Del drew close to the main opening, he saw two villagers just coming out of it: Scor and Fala Laren. They were already married, so they weren’t at the Ot Lôven for amorous purposes. They were probably looking for Rani, or the tengrem, or both. If so, it looked as though they hadn’t found either one.
It would be better if they didn’t find Del here, either. He directed Pandar between and behind the tallest rows of corn he could find, dismounted and used hand signals to get Pandar to kneel. Smart horse: Pandar didn’t like it, but he did it. Del peered out at Scor and Fala through the ripe stalks. They did not see him. They did not pause. When he was sure they were well away, he urged Pandar to his feet, and led him the last hundred yards to the cave opening.
The main entrance into the rocky hillside was big enough for a horse to pass through. Del led Pandar inside just as the rain began. Beyond the hole the cavern widened and deepened. There was a hitching post here, left over from the prospectors. It was far enough in to keep Pandar dry, but not so far in that daylight didn’t reach it. Farther in, and darker, were the openings to several rocky corridors, which led to such a complex maze of caverns that hardly anyone had seen all of it.
Del lit a candle, held it aloft and looked around. Rani (or whoever) was not in the entry cavern, but Del was not surprised. It was too public. There was a particular cavern nearby where he and Rani had sometimes met in the days when the Ot Lôven were less deserted. Del would try there.
As he threaded his way toward the cavern, he told himself, as he always did, that all the stories about these caves meant nothing. Jamek had warned him about the perils of the Ot Lôven for years, predicting dangerous animals and unexpected pits, but Del knew how to be careful in a cave, and had been there dozens of times without trouble of any sort. He also knew that Uncle Jamek had explored the Ot Lôven himself. Jamek’s signature was written in candle smoke in one of the deeper, lesser-known caverns. What right had he to deprive his nephew of the same experience?
The fifth left turn dead-ended into Del and Rani’s meeting cavern, a roomy place of limestone walls, rounded alcoves, and several table-like formations of grey and pink rock. The back of it was beyond the reach of Del’s candle. There was no immediate sign of Rani. Del sighed and sat down on a rock ledge. All that for nothing!
“You came,” said a soft voice from the dark end of the cavern. It wasn’t Rani’s voice. At least, it didn’t sound like Rani’s voice. Even beyond the inevitable echo, there was a deep, reverberating quality to the words that made them a little hard to understand.
Del stood up quickly. “Who’s there?”
“It’s all rright. No, don’t, don’t rrun,” the voice begged. “Please, just talk.” The words sounded more growled than spoken, and yet there was no threat or belligerence in them.
The Low Caves could be a very lonely place, Del thought suddenly, if one was living there. If the odd-sounding voice wasn’t Rani’s, then it had to belong to.... “Who are you? Where are you?” Del raised his candle higher.
“Heerre in the back, lying down. I was asleep until—until those people came thrrough.”
Del moved a step forward, his candle held out in front of him. There, reflected back at him, he saw a brown-streaked, inhuman yellow eye.