"Forget his dreams. My husband is the leader of the Circle. He carries the burden of keeping twelve thousand hearts in line with the truth, and you, his only son, would undermine that?"

Samuel's jaw knotted. "The truth, Mother?" he bit off. He shoved a hand south, in the direction of Qurongi Forest, once controlled by Thomas and the Forest Guard, now inhabited by her father, leader of the Horde, Qurong. "The truth is, your precious Horde hates us and butchers us wherever they find us."

"What do you suggest?" she cried. "Run off now, on the eve of our greatest celebration, in search for a few Scabs who are likely back in the city by now?"

Samuel lowered his hand and looked back at his men. Then to the south again. "We have him now." "You have who now?"

"The Scab who killed Sacura's son. We have him captive in a canyon."

Chelise didn't know what to say to this. They had taken a Scab captive? Who'd ever heard of such a thing?

"We're going to give him a trial in the desert," Samuel said.

"For what purpose?"

"For justice!"

"You cannot kill him, Samuel! The Gathering would come undone! I don't have to tell you what that would do to your father."

"To my father?" He looked at her. "Or to you, Mother, the daughter of Qurong, supreme commander of all that is wicked and vile?"

Chelise slapped him. Nothing more than a flat palm to his cheek, but the crack of the blow sounded like a whip.

Samuel grinned. She immediately wished to have her anger back.

"Sorry. Sorry, I didn't mean that. But you're speaking of my father!"

"Yes, you did mean that, Mother." He turned and strode toward his horse.

"Where are you going?"

"To conduct a trial," he said.

"Then at least bring him in, Samuel." She started after him, but he was already swinging into the saddle. "Think!"

"I'm done thinking." He pulled his horse around and brushed past his men, who turned with him. "It's time to act."

"Samuel . . ."

"Keep this between us, will you?" he said, looking over his shoulder.

"I'd hate to put a damper on such a wonderful night of celebration."

"Samuel. Stop this!"

He kicked his horse and left her with the sound of pounding hooves.

Dear Elyon . . . the boy would be the ruin of them all.

***

Thomas Hunter stood next to his wife, Chelise, facing the shallow canyon lined by three thousand of Elyon's lovers, who'd drowned in the red lakes to rid their bodies of the scabbing disease that covered the skin of all Horde.

The reenactment of the Great Wedding had taken an hour, and the final salute, which would usher the Gathering into a wild night of celebration, was upon them.

As was customary, both he and Chelise were dressed in white, because Elyon would come in white. She with lilies in her hair and a long, flowing gown spun from silk; he in a bleached tunic, dyed red around the collar to remind them of the blood that had paid for this wedding.

This was their great romance, and there could not possibly be a dry eye in the valley.

Six maidens also in white faced Chelise and Thomas on their knees and sang the Great Wedding's song. Their sweet, yearning voices filled the valley as they cried the refrain in melodic unison, faces bright with an eager desperation.

You are Beautiful . . . so Beautiful . . . Beautiful . . . Beautiful . . .

The drums lifted the cry to a crescendo. Milus, one of the older children, had recounted their history earlier in the night to thundering applause. Now Thomas retraced from his own vantage all that had brought them here.

Ten years ago, most of these people had been Horde, enslaved by Teeleh's disease. The rest were Forest Dwellers who had kept the disease at bay by washing in Elyon's lakes once every day as he'd directed.

Then the Horde, led by Qurong, had invaded the forests and defiled the lakes. All had succumbed to the scabbing disease, which deceived the mind and cracked the skin.