The night before his departure, the farm is attacked by a band of psychotic mercenaries. Jondelle is taken, and Makgar is mortally wounded. Unable to give pursuit, Earl nonetheless agrees to Makgar’s deathbed request to rescue the boy. Ten books into the series, it is well established that Dumarest is a man of his word and no stranger to long odds, but the obsessive, apparently futile and nearly suicidal manhunt that follows seems out of character. Dumarest finds a wounded mercenary left for dead by his comrades, who dies before Dumarest can torture him into revealing much useful, other than that the mercenaries are residents of Melevgan, a nation of the insane, feared and seldom contacted by Ourelle’s other nations.
Earl has no recourse to the local civil authorities, so he forms a rescue party of down-and-out fellow travelers - hardcore cutthroats, general low-lifes, and one seemingly decent hard-luck case named Preleret. They disguise themselves as a trading expedition, infiltrate Melevgan and befriend Neema, a non-Melevgian woman who oddly seems to be thriving in this violent, unpredictable culture. It turns out Neema is a psychologist who immigrated under the pretense of being a simple merchant but used her training to exploit the Melevgians for her own profit. Now she is on the brink of “going native” and is desperate to leave. Unfortunately, she’s so good at manipulating the local maniacs they’ve actually grown to believe she is an indispensable part of the community. They would kill her before letting her go home, so she needs covert assistance to escape.
Since Neema knows the “who’s who” list of local psychopaths, and meets virtually all of the non-natives who dare to visit, Dumarest agrees to help her escape if she helps him find out who kidnapped Jondelle. After he tortures a name and rendezvous location out of somebody who knows, the “trading party” (with Neema in tow) sneaks, bluffs and shoots their way out of Melevgan. The lengthy trail of dead enemies and allies ends at the stronghold of the man who led the mercenaries the night Makgar was killed. Once Dumarest confirms that Jondelle is held within, he rescues the boy and gets some payback with a quick application of extreme violence. Dumarest, Preleret, Jondelle and Neema escape. At this point (or probably long before), you know something is seriously askew. Let's review.
Well… it turns out Jondelle is the product of generations of genetic research to produce a human that triggers the biological, parental protectiveness reaction in everyone they encounter. Whether this technology is being developed just for the obvious survival advantages this would give the offspring of those who developed it in a brutal galaxy, or for something more sinister, is naturally not revealed to Dumarest. Makgar was Jondelle’s surrogate mother, into whom his embryo was emergency transplanted after the biological parents (who worked with her in the lab) were killed in a freak accident. Carrying and giving birth to the child, combined with Jondelle’s peculiar genetic advantage, proved overwhelming to Makgar when Jondelle was born, and she fled the institute and went into hiding on Ourelle rather than give him up. Jondelle’s grandparents have been searching for him ever since, and being from a far more wealthy, technologically advanced culture, had no idea how enticing their reward might seem or how brutal the search might become on a less sophisticated world. And ironically, it appears that some of the people Dumarest has dispatched might have thought they were the ones rescuing a kidnapped boy. Before Dumarest says his final goodbyes, Jondelle’s grandfather gives him a better reward than cash: useful information about Earth.