Cover
Worlds of Weber
by
David Weber

Table of Contents

 

WORLDS OF WEBER
David Weber

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2008 by David Weber.

"Introduction" (copyright © 2008); "A Certain Talent" (copyright © 1996, originally published in The Williamson Effect); "In the Navy" (copyright © 2004, originally published in Ring of Fire); "The Captain from Kirkbean" (copyright © 1998, originally published in Alternate Generals); "Sir George and the Dragon" (copyright © 2001, originally published in Foreign Legions); "Sword Brother" (copyright © 2007, originally published in Oath of Swords, revised 2007 edition); "A Beautiful Friendship" (copyright © 1998, originally published in More Than Honor); "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington" (copyright © 2001, originally published in Changer of Worlds); "Miles to Go" (copyright © 1995, originally published in Bolos 3: The Triumphant); "The Traitor" (copyright © 1997, originally published in Bolos 4: The Last Stand)

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Book

Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
www.baen.com

ISBN: 978-1-4391-3314-9

Cover art by Bob Eggleton

First Baen paperback printing, October 2009

Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020


Printed in the United States of America

For Sharon,
Who still cries whenever
she thinks about Lance.

I expect she'll forgive me . . . 
someday.

 

BAEN BOOKS by DAVID WEBER

Honor Harrington:

On Basilisk Station
The Honor of the Queen
The Short Victorious War
Field of Dishonor
Flag in Exile
Honor Among Enemies
In Enemy Hands
Echoes of Honor
Ashes of Victory
War of Honor
At All Costs
Mission of Honor (forthcoming)

Honorverse:

Crown of Slaves
(with Eric Flint)
Torch of Freedom (with Eric Flint; forthcoming)
The Shadow of Saganami
Storm from the Shadows

edited by David Weber:

More than Honor
Worlds of Honor
Changer of Worlds
The Service of the Sword

Mutineers' Moon
The Armageddon Inheritance
Heirs of Empire
Empire from the Ashes
In Fury Born

The Apocalypse Troll

The Excalibur Alternative

Bolos!
Old Soldiers

Oath of Swords
The War God's Own
Wind Rider's Oath

with Steve White:

Crusade
In Death Ground
The Stars At War
The Shiva Option
Insurrection
The Stars At War II

with Eric Flint:

1633
1634: The Baltic War

with John Ringo:

March Upcountry
March to the Sea
March to the Stars
We Few

with Linda Evans:

Hell's Gate
Hell Hath No Fury

 

Introduction

Some people (like my beloved wife, Sharon) don't believe that I can write "short" stories. Her theory is that my idea of short doesn't quite match that of other people's. I suppose some of the so-called short stories in this anthology would seem to prove her point. "Ms. Midshipman Harrington," for example. Or "Miles to Go." And, let's face it, this is a fairly hefty tome. In fact, it would probably be fair to go ahead and agree that I'm actually more at home writing novellas than I am writing really short short stories.

Well, I suppose that's reasonable enough. I like to tell big stories, which is the reason I usually write novels, after all. But despite that, I do really enjoy sometimes turning my hand to something a bit shorter than, oh, 285,000 words, let's say. And what you have in this collection is some of those "less than 285,000-word stories."

Actually, shorter pieces of fiction are a better fit for filling in the corners in something like the Honor Harrington series. I made my mind up when I began writing about Honor Harrington that there would never be a novel about Honor set earlier in her life than On Basilisk Station. There were several reasons for this, but the biggest one was that I expected the character to grow and my writing style to develop over the duration of the series. (At least, I certainly hoped both of those things were going to happen!) Because of that, I didn't want someone reading the novels in chronological order according to their internal events, rather than the order in which they were written, who would experience a more fully developed Honor Harrington (and my later writing style) before they read Basilisk Station. That sort of thing can happen all too easily when someone starts writing prequels to a successful series of novels, and it can be very jarring for a reader.

That left me with both a problem and an opportunity. There are details in Honor's earlier life in which readers are interested and which may really need to be told in order to "fill in the blanks." Short stories covering time periods before Basilisk Station—or, in some cases, periods which fall between novels—were one way to do that. And, in addition, writing short stories about those episodes in her life would both let me write some shorter fiction (which I really do enjoy) and also give me the opportunity in the Honor Harrington anthologies to invite other writers whose work I really liked to come and play at my house. In the process, not entirely to my surprise, the viewpoints and contributions of those other writers, most of which I've incorporated into the overall Honor Harrington series and its backgound, have greatly enriched and broadened the "Honorverse."

I really wish I had more time away from the novels to spend working on short stories. I've turned down invitations to several anthologies simply because my delivery schedule was so tight that I didn't believe I could get a story done in time. Or not, at least, a story whose quality I would have been happy about. I have managed to fit a few of them into the schedule, though. For example, of the pieces in this anthology, "The Captain from Kirkbean" was the result of an invitation to contribute to one of the Alternate Generals anthologies, and "Sir George and the Dragon" (which was later expanded into the novel The Excalibur Alternative) was the result of an invitation from David Drake to contribute to his Ranks of Bronze anthology. The genuine short story "The Traitor," and the novella "Miles to Go," resulted from invitations to contribute to the Bolo anthologies Baen Books has been producing. And "A Certain Talent" was chosen by Roger Zelazny for the anthology The Williamson Effect, which was intended as an homage to Jack Williamson. Both of the Honorverse pieces are from anthologies in the Worlds of Honor series, also from Baen, although there I was doing the inviting for the other writers involved. In fact, I think the only story in this collection that wasn't written for an anthology is the novella "Sword Brother," which was specifically written to be included with a reissue of the novel Oath of Swords.

I enjoyed writing all of them, and as time and opportunity allow, I'll continue to write short stories. Well, my version of "short" stories, at any rate.

Another good thing about short stories, from a reader's perspective, is that they are often an opportunity to sample a writer's work without committing to diving into one of those 285,000-word novels. If you've read some of these before, I hope you recognize old friends. If you've read some of my novels, but missed the short stories, I hope they'll give you another perspective on both my writing and on the series in which some of them are set. And if you've never read any of my stuff before, then I hope you enjoy this offering.

And now, having said that, come on over to my house and let's play.

 

A Certain Talent

Habibula, Giles (2819–?): Hero of Humanity (with cluster), Acclamation of Green Hall (with three clusters), Guardian of the Keeper, Grand Solar Cross (with cluster), Star of Terra (with cluster), Medusean Campaign Medal, Cometeer Campaign medal, Legion of Merit, Fellow of Solarian Institute. One of only three individuals (see also Jay Kalam, Hal Samdu) to be twice awarded humanity's highest award for valor and service, Giles Habibula's career has so far spanned almost a full century of service to the Legion of Space. Although he has persistently refused promotion to officer's rank, Habibula has . . .

A Solarian Who's Who, Vol. 36
Star Press, Phobos, 2962

 

Habibula, Giles, a.k.a. Grenz Harnat, Gorma Habranah, Gerniak Helthir, Gorsah Hamah. Age 35. Brown hair, gray eyes. Height 6'1". Weight 275 lbs. Arrested for: grand larceny, grand theft spacecraft, grand theft technology, burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest, aggravated assault, and public drunkenness. No convictions. Presently wanted on charges of illegal gambling practices. A master of locks and adaptive technology, Habibula should be considered armed and dangerous. A reward of seventy-five thousand dollars has been posted by the Venusberg Gambling Commission for information leading to his arrest and conviction on charges of tampering with electronic gambling devices.

Venusberg Police Department
Records Division, 2854

 

His arrogance was his downfall.

Or perhaps it wrongs him to call it "arrogance." Perhaps "confidence" would be a better word, for he had a certain talent he knew none could equal, and the challenge was irresistible to a man of his nature. And so it should have been, given how carefully it had been crafted to that end. . . . 

 

Sweat trickled down Giles Habibula's broad face in the steamy, moonless dark. The eerie cries of a night such as Earth had never known came from the jungles, where huge, armored sauroids splashed and grunted as they fought one another for life—and food—while the strange, scaled "birds" of Venus waited to pick the losers' bones. But those were familiar sounds, and they came from the far side of the compound wall, and Habibula paid them no heed. He'd hidden in the shrubbery against the wall since the chalet staff ushered the last public visitor away, and now he waited patiently for the staff to leave, as well.

He must be mad to attempt an escapade such as this when the mortal Gambling Commission had already offered its reward for his poor, underappreciated self, he thought with a smile, but the curse of Giles Habibula's life was ever the same. There was never time enough for all the splendid food, the fine wines, the beautiful women, the challenges to his wit and skill, and when three of the four combined in a single temptation, it was more than mortal man could do to turn his back upon it. Especially when the lass who'd set him onto it was such a fine, beautiful one. Ah, the fire in those blue eyes, and that lovely head of midnight hair! And the spirit of her, too. The Solar System might see her like once in a lifetime, he told himself, and as well for the rest of us, for we'd never survive two of her!

He smothered a chuckle and checked the time once more. Just past twenty-two hundred. He'd spent two days timing the staff's schedule, and he nodded in satisfaction as he stole silently out of the imported Earth shrubbery about the chalet's protective wall.

The grounds were well lit, but the chalet's owners relied on automatic systems, nothing so fallible as humans, so there were no roving patrols, and he'd plotted his course with care. He crept across flower beds and grass like a great, prowling cat, avoiding the cameras and illuminating spotlights as he flowed through puddles of inky shadow. He paused just beyond the chalet itself, scanning for infrared beams, and chuckled once more as he found them. Ah, the wit of the lad who'd planned the security here! It was a mortal fine job he'd done, but not the equal to Giles Habibula!

He sidled to the side, studying the interlinking play of the beams, and for all his massive bulk, he moved quiet as the breeze. Fat other men might think him, and so, indeed, he was, but there was muscle under that fat, and he carried himself with a dancer's grace, placing each foot with feline caution. And even as he surveyed the challenge, his mind went back to the beautiful young woman awaiting him in the Venusberg bar.

 

"It won't be easy, Mr. Harnat," the woman called Ethyra Coran warned, and Giles Habibula—Grenz Harnat, to her—nodded gravely. "On the other hand," she went on, "my client will pay a half million dollars for the Dragon's Eye, and they may have been just a bit too clever in the way they planned the security."

"Ah, and have they now?" The remnants of a stupendous meal lay in ruins before him, and he sipped more wine—a splendid Martian Burgundy—as he listened to her. A half million was a paltry value to set on the famed Dragon's Eye, yet it seemed reasonable enough under the circumstances. The flawless Martian ruby was priceless, but it was also half the size of a man's head, and the very size which made it so rare and beautiful would make it impossible to fence on the open market.

"Your client's not thinking to have it cut, is he?" Habibula asked after a moment. Ethyra raised an eyebrow at him in perplexity, and he shrugged. "I'll have no part of it if he is," he explained. "A mortal crime against nature it would be to break up a lovely bauble such as that."

"A burglar with esthetics?" She laughed in sheer delight at the thought, then sobered. "No, Mr. Harnat. My client intends to retain it for, ah, his private collection."

"Does he now?" Habibula nodded in approval, opened another bottle of wine, and concentrated on his glass as he poured. "And how might it be they've been 'a bit too clever,' lass?" he asked.

"They're relying as much on misdirection as on security," she replied. "No one on Venus is supposed to know the gem is here, so they've stayed away from banks and regular vaults. Instead, they've lodged it with Samuel Ulnar, and he's hidden it in his chalet."

"The Ulnar Chalet?" Habibula looked up from his glass so abruptly he spilled wine, and his gray eyes brightened. "In his cellars, is it?"

"Why, yes." Ethyra sounded surprised, and he smiled happily. He'd heard of those cellars. "Samuel Ulnar is on Earth, so the chalet is officially unoccupied," she added. "The Dragon's Eye's owners expect that to help divert attention from their own presence, and they were told the Ulnar cellars are one of the most secure places on Venus."

"And so they should be, lass. So they should be," Habibula murmured. The Ulnar cellars, he thought, under the very chalet Zane Delmar, Samuel Ulnar's ancestor, had built seven centuries ago. Its historical significance made it a major tourist attraction, and the Venusian branch of the once all-powerful Ulnar family allowed public tours of its spacious, landscaped grounds. But its interior was private, for it was still home to Samuel Ulnar and his wife . . . and to the finest collection of wines and brandies in the Solar System. A single bottle of Europan champagne from that cellar would fetch five thousand dollars, but what a mortal shame to waste such a vintage on any but the most cultured palate! His eyes gleamed at the thought of what he might find as a byproduct of fetching out the Dragon's Eye, and he beamed at the young woman.

"Just you be telling me all you know of this blessed security," he said.

 

Habibula continued his cautious circuit of the chalet's inner defenses, then paused. The capacious knapsack on his back—large enough for a dozen bottles plus the Dragon's Eye—held the tools of his trade, and he'd brought along reflectors to defeat the infrared beams if he must. But such a trick was always risky, for even Giles Habibula's wrist could slip and interrupt the beam as he slid them into place. He'd hoped to avoid their use, and he smiled cheerfully as he examined his discovery.

An ornate portico in the neoclassic style of the twenty-second century fronted the chalet, and its sculptures and columns broke up the neat pattern of beams. The security system's designer had done his best to weave an impenetrable net about them, yet there was a small gap where the beams bent and angled about the massive stone sphinxes crouched on either side of the main door. It looked far too tiny for a man of his girth, but appearances could be deceiving, and he estimated its size with care.

Yes, he decided. It would be mortal difficult, but few could match the fearsome agility of Giles Habibula.

He slipped off his knapsack, slid it carefully through the opening, and took another moment to memorize the pattern of the beams before he slipped off his scanners and folded them away into a pocket. Then he folded himself with equal care, embracing the sphinx's stony flank, and eased himself through the same gap. He took his time, creeping past one inch at a time, and sighed with relief as he drew his left foot through at last without sounding an alarm.

A mortal fine job you did, my lad, he thought at the security system's designer, but not so fine as to be stopping Giles Habibula!

He gathered up his knapsack once more, took out his scanners, and checked for any inner perimeter of beams. There was none, and he stepped closer to the chalet's front wall to examine the doors and windows.

 

"Do you really think he'll come, sir?" the younger man asked.

His older companion never took his eyes from the panel before him. Dozens of alarms, internal and external, reported to that panel, from the motion sensors atop the compound walls to the intricate infrared photoelectric beams covering the chalet's exterior and the manifold internal detection systems on its windows, doors, and hallways. For three nights they'd waited, without even a flicker from any of them, and he understood the youngster's impatience and doubt.

"Oh, he'll come," the older man said. "If he's the man for the job, he'll come."

 

Habibula slipped cautiously down the hallway. The doors had been too richly fitted with alarms for his taste, but only three separate systems had protected the library windows. The window lock had been a sophisticated Cabloc Seven combination device, but locks were his special talent. A mortal pity an artist of his stature was deprived the recognition his genius deserved, yet such was the way of an uncaring world. And fair or no, there were compensations, he reminded himself with a smile.

He paused in the darkness of a four-way intersection, mentally consulting the map he'd memorized, then nodded with a smile. One more flight of stairs, another door, and then the cellar itself.

 

"I still wish we could have avoided giving him an accurate map, sir," the younger man fretted. "Couldn't we have had her—?"

"If he noticed any discrepancies, he'd pull out in a second," the older man said patiently. "Besides, this is supposed to be a test, as well, and how good a test would it be if we deliberately fed him false information?"

 

Habibula crouched outside the wine cellar door and examined the lock with the aid of a small hand light. Well, now! Isn't that a mortal surprise!

He bent closer and ran his fingers over the three combination wheels, and his eyebrows rose in respect. He'd always heard the Ulnar Chalet had first-class security, and any member of the Ulnar clan could afford the very best, but this was more than he'd expected. It was a Cerberus Twelve, possibly the most complex and effective lock yet designed by man, but he smiled, then gave it a fond pat. A good lock was like a trusted friend to Giles Habibula, for he had a certain way with them, and this one was based on a design his own father had created fifty years before. A mortal pity the old man had been a finer locksmith than a businessman, for his creation had been stolen by sharper, craftier minds, but he'd taught his son its secrets before they had.

Giles smiled again, and his short, strong fingers began to turn the knobs with a delicate precision any surgeon might have envied.

 

"Sir, I'm sorry, but I really don't think he's coming. Or not tonight, at least." The young man rose and walked about the room for a moment, stretching muscles cramped by hours of motionless waiting. "It's after two hundred. If he was coming, he'd certainly have started by now."

"How do you know he hasn't?" the older man countered. The green-uniformed youngster looked at him in disbelief for a moment, then waved at the console before them.

"If he were here, we'd know about it, sir," he said positively.

"Ah, you young people!" The older man smiled. "So much faith in technology and so little in human inventiveness! Sit down, James. And remember, he's Giles Habibula."

 

The Cerberus Twelve clicked finally, and he wiped sweat from his broad face once more despite the cool of the chalet's dehumidified air. A fearsome fine lock you designed, Dad, he thought wryly, and what a mortal sin you never got the credit you deserved for it! Ah, but we'll make them wonder at us when they find it unlocked in the morning, won't we?

He chuckled and stole through into the dusty silence of the wine cellars. One more lock and the Dragon's Eye would nestle safe and secure in his knapsack . . . and then it would be time for what he'd come for.

 

The younger man stirred restlessly in his chair, only his immense respect for his senior preventing yet another protest. No one had ever defeated a Cerberus Twelve without blasting or cutting. He couldn't believe that even a man of Giles Habibula's reputation could beat this one, and even if he could, there was still no sign of any attempt to penetrate the chalet.

The older man noted his restlessness and hid another smile.

 

There!

Habibula stowed the Dragon's Eye carefully in his knapsack, and his gray eyes glittered at the huge gem's fearsome beauty. He stroked it with reverent fingers. Ah, I'd like to keep you for myself, he thought at it, just to rest my mortal eyes upon you from time to time. But you're too well known for that, aren't you?

He chuckled, then turned away and rubbed his hands, and his eyes flickered with a deeper greed as they darted about the dimly lit cellar's dusty racks of priceless bottles.

He started his search, trotting down the aisles between the racks, face alight with pleasure as he scanned the dusty labels. A little bonus for my mortal time, he told himself with a grin, and started making his selections. The Napa '72 made a good start, and he followed it with a bottle of the Mons Olympus '90, then the Rothschild '63. Years to savor, all of them, he thought, and then his beady eyes lit in sheer delight.

He stepped closer, unable to believe what he was seeing. Crocyrean Brandy?! It couldn't be!

He blew dust gently from the bottle and sighed in pleasure. It was, and the '51, at that! Over a mortal century old, pressed from the rich black grapes of the Canal Delta, then distilled and aged to await a palate with the sensitivity to appreciate its golden glory. And that palate, he promised himself, would savor it with the respect it deserved.

He lifted the bottle gently from the rack—and froze as alarms howled.

 

"I don't believe it!" The younger man shot upright in his chair, staring at his console in disbelief. A brilliant light—the very last one on the panel—flashed blood red, and the older man laughed.

"I told you he was Giles Habibula, James!" he said, and reached for his communicator.

 

Habibula's eyes darted about the cellar in disbelief. He'd checked the racks for motion systems, scanned for invisible detection beams, searched with excruciating care for any possible alarm, and found nothing. He'd even seized the mortal Dragon's Eye without sounding an alert!

He shook himself as the fearsome keening of the alarms burned in his ears. How they'd detected his presence was less important than escaping before they got here. The chances might be slim, but he'd planned his exit route with all his mortal cunning on the way in, and they'd not caught him yet!

He slid the brandy into his knapsack, buckled it shut, and darted from the cellar with a blinding speed that belied his bulk.

 

"He's on his way out," the older man said urgently into his communicator. "It looks like he's headed for the west annex."

 

Habibula dashed up stairs and down halls with fleet-footed urgency, avoiding the detectors he'd noted on his way in with instinctive skill and breathing a silent apology to the vintages jouncing in the knapsack on his back. A mortal crime to jostle such fine wine so rudely, but he promised to let it settle properly before he tapped it.

A door slammed somewhere behind him, and he swallowed a curse as feet ran after him. They were too far back to have seen him, but where had they come from?! There were supposed to be no human guards, and even if there were, how did they know which way to pursue? He'd tripped none of the alarms he'd already spotted in his flight, and if he'd missed any on the way in, the guards would surely have reacted before he got clear to the mortal cellars!

But there was no time to think about that, and they were too far back to catch him. Once he made it through the library and onto the grounds, he'd mapped a dozen different escape routes, and—

He darted into the huge library, running for the windows, and crashed full-tilt into something in the darkness. Somehow he managed to curl around to protect the precious bottles in his knapsack as he fell, but whatever had tripped him up wrapped about his legs like a Venusian python. He thrashed and kicked against it, fighting it in the blinding dark, and he'd almost won free when the library lights clicked on.

A reading lamp, he thought. A mortal reading lamp! What fearsome idiot left it standing in the middle of the mortal aisle?!

He started to leap up, then sighed and sat back down as half a dozen men with drawn pistols dashed into the library. He sat on the floor, looking up at them, and wondered what the Legion of Space was doing in the Ulnar Chalet at three in the morning.

 

"Good morning, Mr. Habibula. My name is Jartha. Colonel John Jartha of the Legion, at your service." The silver-haired man in the green uniform bowed courteously, apparently oblivious to the three enormous legionnaires who had "escorted" Habibula into the chalet's security center, then waved as a beautiful young woman walked in through another door. "I believe you've met Miss Coran," he added.

"Aye, and so I have," Habibula replied. His gray eyes were hard for just an instant, but then he smiled at the young woman and nodded to the knapsack one of the legionnaires held. "I'll take my mortal money in small bills, lass," he said genially, "but I'm afraid you'll have to get the Dragon's Eye from that great, fearsome brute with my knapsack if you're still minded to have it."

The young woman smiled, then shook her head with a trace of sadness, and Colonel Jartha cleared his throat.

"I trust you won't hold this against Miss Coran, Mr. Habibula. She was only doing her job."

"Her job, is it?" Habibula inquired pleasantly.

"Indeed. In fact, she had no choice. Miss Coran's father owns a bar—the Blue Unicorn, I believe it's called—in the Aphrodite Sea just off the coast of New Chicago. Unfortunately, there were a few, ah, irregularities in his departure from the Legion some twenty years ago." Jartha shook his head sadly. "A pity, but you know how military organizations can be."

"So you used mortal blackmail to get the lass to do your bidding, did you?" Habibula observed shrewdly.

"We prefer to think of it as encouraging her to volunteer," the colonel disagreed. "Of course, the Green Hall itself has authorized her father's pardon in return for her services."

"Has it now? And why would the Green Hall be interested in trapping a poor, honest nobody like myself?"

"You wrong yourself, Mr. Habibula." Jartha smiled. "You're quite well known in certain circles. Indeed, when we asked who the most skilled, ah, lock expert in the System might be, our contacts assured us it was either you or Stephen Matha."

"Matha! That fearsome nincompoop?!" Habibula glared at the Legion colonel. "Why, I've more talent in one hand—no, in one mortal finger!—than that great, clumsy, bumbling, overconfident—"

"Please, Mr. Habibula!" Jartha broke in, and Ethyra Coran raised a hand to hide an even broader smile. Habibula slithered to a red-faced halt, and the colonel spoke quickly before he could start up once more. "All our sources assured us Matha fell far short of your stature, Mr. Habibula," he soothed, "and that was the reason we recruited Miss Coran to contact you. We need a man with a certain talent, you see, and this was our way to be sure you had it."

"A test, was it?" Habibula glared at him, angered, despite his circumstances, by the touch to his pride of Matha's name.

"Indeed it was," Jartha assured him, "and one you passed with flying colors. Major Hazell" —he nodded at the younger man standing behind him— "doubted you could do it, but I had complete faith in you."

"Ah?" Habibula seemed to deflate suddenly and heaved an enormous sigh. "Well, it's a mortal pity the major was right, then, isn't it?" He shook his head. "Twenty fearsome years of practice—aye, and the most cunning mind with machines you're like to see in your life, Colonel Jartha—and I've not the least tiniest idea how it was I tripped myself up. The mortal shame of it! Giles Habibula to put his foot in a trap he never even saw!"

"But that was because we cheated at the very end, Mr. Habibula," Jartha said almost compassionately. He took the knapsack from the enormous legionnaire and withdrew the bottle of Crocyrean Brandy. "Fifty-one," he observed. "I believe most connoisseurs regard this as the finest year ever."

"That they do, and with mortal good reason," Habibula said, gray eyes clinging to the bottle with a sort of desperate sorrow as it slipped further from his grasp.

"But it isn't," Jartha said. "Brandy, I mean. This bottle is a fake." Habibula stared at him, and Jartha tossed it back to the legionnaire. "There's a motion sensor and an ultrawave homing device in it, Mr. Habibula. I knew a man of your discerning palate could never pass by '51 Crocyrean, so—"

"The cold, cunning heart of the man!" Habibula said indignantly. "To trap poor Giles Habibula with an empty bottle? An empty bottle of the '51?! You're not human, Colonel!"

"Perhaps not, but I do need you, and I'm afraid that this" —he dug back into the knapsack and extracted the huge ruby— "is the real Dragon's Eye. We've caught you red-handed in its theft, Mr. Habibula. I'd say you're looking at ten to twenty years in the uranium mines of Pluto."

"But it was you yourself set me on to steal the lovely, wicked thing," Habibula pointed out shrewdly, "and that makes you an accomplice!"

"No, Mr. Habibula. It makes Miss Coran an accomplice. I'm not even here."

"You're not—?!" Habibula glared at the colonel for a moment, then darted a look at Ethyra Coran, and the beautiful, sable-haired young woman had gone quite pale. He clenched his jaws until his teeth hurt, then turned his baleful gray eyes back to Jartha. "You've gone to a mortal lot of trouble just to trap poor Giles—aye, and this lass, too, it seems. So what might it be you're wanting of us, Colonel John Jartha?"

"Miss Coran's part is done, assuming you accept my terms, Mr. Habibula."

"And what might those terms be?"

"The Legion of Space is the Green Hall's first line of defense," Jartha replied in a voice that was suddenly deadly serious, "but its final defense is the device known as AKKA. Have you heard of it?"

"Aye, of course I have. Everyone in the mortal System's heard of it!"

"Then you know that there can never be more than a single keeper of the weapon, only one individual who knows the secret of its construction and operation?" Habibula nodded, and Jartha went on heavily. "Unfortunately, that isn't quite the truth of it, Mr. Habibula. Only one person may ever know the secret at one time, yet we can never be certain that no accident or disease will overtake the present Keeper before he or she can pass it on to his or her successor. And so the secret is written down, locked inside a box of adamanite which can be opened only with the fingerprints of the designated successor. Not even you could open that box's lock without them, and any attempt to force it would only destroy its contents."

"Ah?" Habibula cocked his head, considering ways he might have gone about opening such a box. To be sure, the fingerprint provision would make it mortal difficult, but unless there were other safeguards Jartha had chosen not to mention—

"Indeed," the colonel went on, breaking into his thoughts. "But the problem, Mr. Habibula, is that the box has been stolen."

"Stolen?" Giles Habibula paled at the fearsome implications. If someone had stolen the box, if they ever managed to open it and lay hands upon the secret of the device which had overthrown the Purple Hall and the Empire of the Ulnars, the consequences would be unthinkable.

"Stolen," Jartha agreed coldly. "We believe we know by whom, but the man in question is wealthier and more powerful than you can imagine. He could have hidden it anywhere, on any of his estates. He's already killed to secure it, and I see no reason to believe he wouldn't kill again to keep it, but the same contacts in the Green Hall which let him steal it in the first place would quickly warn him of any official move the Legion made against him. Which brings us to you, Mr. Habibula. We had that Cerberus Twelve installed especially for you. If you could defeat it and steal the Dragon's Eye, then perhaps you can also find and steal the Keeper's box back for the Green Hall."

"You're mad," Habibula said flatly. "If he's so fearsomely powerful not even the blessed Legion can defeat him, it would be madness for one man, even Giles Habibula, to cross him!"

"Perhaps, but those are my terms," Jartha said coldly. "You have a choice: accept them, or spend twenty years on Pluto for grand theft."

"Ah, you're an evil, evil man, John Jartha," Habibula said bitterly.

"No, Mr. Habibula, I'm a desperate man. We must reclaim the secret of AKKA. It's just remotely possible they may find a way to open it, or, failing that, they may attempt to kidnap Aladoree, the Keeper's daughter, and force her to open it. She's only three years old, Mr. Habibula. How could she stop them? And to what lengths would men ruthless enough to steal the Keeper's box go in order to force a child to obey them?"

Habibula glared at the legionnaire once more, yet the desperation in Jartha's eyes was genuine, and his own soul cringed at the thought of a child in the hands of wicked men.

"And you'd really send the man you tricked into stealing that mortal bit of rock" —he jabbed his chin at the huge gem Jartha still held— "to the wicked hell of Pluto if I say no?"

"Yes," Jartha said inflexibly. "And if I do, I'll be forced to send Miss Coran, as well."

"Desperate or no, you are a wicked man," Habibula said heavily, "but I've little choice. Yet before I do this, you'll put that"—he gestured to the Dragon's Eye once more—"back where it belongs. Aye, and you'll destroy any mortal record that myself or Miss Coran ever laid hand or eye upon it. I'll not have you sending such a fearsomely beautiful lass as this to Pluto if it should happen I try and fail. Not when it was your own wicked blackmail made her trap poor Giles in the first place."

Ethyra Coran stared at him in disbelief, and Jartha's eyes narrowed.

"A noble sentiment," the colonel said after a moment, "and one I'm inclined to believe is mostly genuine. However, it seems to me that you've forgotten something. If I return the Eye and destroy the records, then I lose my hold on you."

"You've no need for any 'hold,' " Habibula said with dignity. "You'll have my mortal word."

"A comfort, I'm sure," Jartha said dryly. Habibula glared at him afresh, and the colonel scratched his chin thoughtfully. "No, Mr. Habibula, I have a counter-proposal. I'll return the Eye and destroy the records after you enlist in the Legion."

"Enlist? Giles Habibula sign his life away to the mortal Legion of Space?!" Habibula stared at him. "You are mad!" he declared with certainty.

"Not in the least. You do have a certain talent, and it's quite possible the Legion will need it again someday. More immediately, however, the sentence for desertion from the Legion is twenty years on Pluto—more, under special circumstances. I trust your word, Mr. Habibula, but I'll sleep better knowing I have a somewhat more secure grip upon your loyalties."

"Ah, to think it should come to this," Habibula said bitterly. "The Legion of Space bent on shanghaiing poor Giles Habibula! It's a fearsome, wicked thing, indeed it is, to see the Legion stoop so low."

"We do what we must, Mr. Habibula," Jartha replied calmly. He let several minutes drag by, then cocked his head. "Do we have an agreement?"

 

Seventeen months later, Colonel John Jartha, commander of the Legion of Space's Office of Intelligence, opened the door of his office at the very heart of the Legion's huge headquarters building and stopped dead on the threshold.

His last secret report from Giles Habibula was over six months old, and the colonel had come to the unhappy conclusion that not even Habibula had proved capable of breaking the defenses of the Green Hall's enemies. Jartha had come to like the fat, cunning rogue in the year they'd worked together, and he had felt a gnawing guilt for entrapping the man and sending him to his death, yet as he'd told Habibula that night in the cellars of Ulnar Chalet, he'd had no choice. He hadn't entirely abandoned all hope, but it was growing harder to cling to it, and he'd taken to avoiding responses to Ethyra Coran. The young woman had plagued his office with carefully, innocently worded inquiries about Habibula almost weekly. Her queries had grown almost desperate of late as the silence stretched out, yet Jartha had no heart to confirm Habibula's death to her when any tiny trace of hope remained.

But now he stood just inside his office door, staring at the small, silvery box in the middle of his desk top. It bore no insignia, no marking of any sort except two small, darker ovals—about the size of fingertips—on its top, yet he knew instantly what it was.

He crossed the office slowly and sank into his chair, staring at the box and fearing to touch it, and his mind raced. It was impossible for anyone to break the security on Legion HQ and penetrate to his office. No one could do that . . . except, perhaps, for one man with a certain talent.

He began to smile, and then to chuckle, and reached out to the box at last. He took it in his hand and tossed it lightly on his palm, and even through his heady relief, it seemed impossible that so small and light a thing could hold the secret of so much destruction. They'd have to improve security on it in the future, he thought, and made a mental note to discuss ways to do just that with Legionnaire Habibula.

He paused, then, and his head cocked. Speaking of Habibula . . . ?

He set the box carefully inside the safe built into his desk and spun the combination. It should be safe enough there—from anyone except Habibula, of course—until he could have it conveyed back to the Green Hall under maximum security, and with it tucked away, he could concentrate on other questions. Like the whereabouts of the man who'd stolen it back from the Solar System's enemies and flowed through Legion HQ's security like so much smoke to deposit it on his desk. Now, if he were Habibula, where would he—?

His intercom buzzed sharply, and he pressed the button.

"Yes?"

"Sir!" It was James Hazell, and his voice was high with excitement. "Sir, it's Habibula!"

"What about Habibula?" Jartha asked calmly.

"Sir, he's . . . he's deserted!" Hazell sputtered. "He's stolen a small space cruiser right off the Green Hall's landing field, and—"

"Stolen a cruiser, has he?" Jartha's eyes began to gleam.

"Yes, sir! Right from under our noses—just walked aboard with a forged set of orders on stationery from your office, sir!"

"Well, that was a bit precipitous of him," Jartha murmured.

"Sir?" Hazell sounded strangled, as if he couldn't credit his superior's calm.

"I said that was a bit precipitous of him," Jartha repeated. "I'd gladly have granted him a furlough."

There was a moment of utter, stunned silence over the intercom, and then Hazell spoke very carefully.

"Uh, sir—Colonel Jartha—if Habibula's deserted, what about, ah . . . what about a certain box, sir?"

"Oh, that!" Jartha chuckled. "Now that you mention it, James, I need you to organize a little security detail to return that very box to its rightful place."

"I—it's back, sir?"

"Well, you could hardly return it if it weren't, now could you?" Jartha observed.

"Uh, no. No, sir, I don't suppose I could," Hazell said slowly. There was another moment of silence, and then he cleared his throat. "And what about Habibula, sir? Shall I alert the System patrols to intercept him?"

"I don't believe that will be necessary," Jartha said judiciously.

"But, sir, he's a deserter!"

"Technically, I suppose you're correct," Jartha agreed, "but if we arrest him and send him to Pluto, we'll only have to let him out again the next time we need his talent. Think of all the time we'd waste."

"But he'll get away, sir. If he could get the, ah, the box back for us, we'll never find him again if we don't go after him now!"

"I've told you before, James, you have too little faith in human inventiveness. I found Habibula once, and I'm sure I can lay my hand on him again any time I want to."

"You can, sir?"

"Certainly. Tell me, did he leave on a course to Venus?"

"As a matter of fact, sir," Hazell said slowly, "he did."

"Just as I thought." Jartha smiled to himself. "Don't worry about it, James," he said.

"Very well, sir," Hazell said a bit grumpily, and Jartha switched off the intercom with another smile and opened a drawer to look at the clutch of inquiries Ethyra Coran had sent him. He scooped them up and dropped them in the disposal slot, then leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head in thought for several seconds, and his smile became a grin.

He leaned forward and keyed his intercom again.

"Major Hazell," a voice replied.

"Colonel Jartha, James. There's one other thing I'd like you to do before you arrange to return the item we just discussed."

"Yes, sir?"

"Send someone out to find us a bottle of Crocyrean Brandy—the '51—and arrange to ship it to Venus."

"Where on Venus, sir?" Hazell asked in a resigned tone.

"Why, I'm surprised at you, James!" Jartha chided. "Send it to the Blue Unicorn, Star Island, New Chicago. Send it care of Miss Ethyra Coran . . . and be sure you enclose a card with my name on it."

 

In the Navy

"I'm telling you, Mike, we can do this!"

Mike Stearns inhaled deeply, counted to ten—no, better make it twenty—and reminded himself that the President of the United States couldn't go around throttling overenthusiastic teenagers. He told himself that rather firmly, then reopened his eyes.

"Eddie," he asked as patiently as possible, "do you have any idea how many people walk through this office every week—every day, for that matter—with projects that absolutely, positively just have to be done Right This Minute?"

"But this is different, Mike!" The wiry, red-haired young man on the other side of Mike's desk waved his hands. "This is important!"

"That's exactly my point, Eddie. They're all important. But important or not, we only have so many up-timers with the sorts of skills to make them work. And this—" Mike thumped a solid, muscular palm on the lovingly executed sketch plan Eddie had laid on his desk between two tall piles of books "—would require skills I doubt any of us have to begin with. Besides, can you even imagine how someone like Quentin Underwood would react if I handed whole miles of railroad track over to you for a 'crackpot scheme' like this?"

"It's not a 'crackpot scheme'!" Eddie said hotly. "This is exactly how the Confederates built their original ironclads, with rolled railroad rails for armor back during the Civil War."

"No, it's not," Mike replied patiently. "It's how you think they built them, and that's—"

"It is how they built them!" Eddie interrupted. "My research is solid, Mike!"

"If you'll let me finish?" Mike's voice was noticeably cooler, and Eddie blushed with the fiery color only a natural redhead could produce.

"Sorry," he muttered, and Mike was hard pressed not to chuckle at his expression. Eddie Cantrell, especially in the grip of one of his effervescent enthusiasms, was prone to forget that the Mike Stearns he'd known all his life had become President of the only United States that existed in this Year of Our Lord Sixteen Hundred and Thirty-Two. Which was fair enough, Mike supposed. There'd been enough times over the last year or so that he'd thought he was living in a fever dream instead of reality.

"As I was saying," he continued after a moment, "I don't have any doubt at all that this plan of yours," he thumped the sketch on his desk again, "represents one hell of a lot of research and hard thinking. But the truth is that you don't have any better idea than I do of what sorts of hardware it would take to build the thing. Or, for that matter, who do you think is going to do the stability calculations? Or figure out its displacement? Or design a steam plant to move a boat this size and weight? Or even have a single clue how to take command of it when it was built?" He shook his head. "Even if we had the resources to devote to something like this, we don't have anyone here in Grantville who has any idea how to build it. And I've got too many other projects that people do have a clue about to justify diverting our limited—very limited, Eddie—resources to building some kind of Civil War navy."

Eddie looked away, staring out the office window for several seconds. Then he looked back at Mike, and his expression was more serious than any Mike recalled ever having seen from him before.

"All right," the young man said. "I understand what you're saying. And I guess I do get carried away sometimes. But there was a reason they built these things back home, Mike, and Gustav Adolf is going to need them a hell of a lot worse than Sherman or Grant ever did."

Mike started a quick reply, then stopped. Just as Eddie had trouble remembering Mike as anything more impressive than the leader of the United Mine Workers local, Mike had trouble thinking of Eddie as anything but one of the local kids. Not quite as geekish as his friend Jeff had been before the Ring of Fire deposited their hometown in seventeenth-century Germany, but still something of an oddball in rural West Virginia. A computer nerd and a wargamer who was passionately devoted to both pastimes.

Yeah, Mike thought. A geek. But a wargaming geek. He may be short on experience in the real world, but he's spent one hell of a lot more time than I have studying wars and armies and . . . navies.

"All right, Eddie," he sighed. "I'm sure I'm going to regret this, but why is 'Captain General Gars' going to need ironclads so badly?"

"Because he doesn't have railroads," Eddie replied. "That's why rivers and canals are so important to his logistics, Mike. You know that."

Mike nodded slowly. Eddie was certainly right about that, although the youngster hadn't been present for the meetings at which he and Gustavus Adolphus had discussed that very point.

"Without railroads," Eddie continued, "the only way to move really large quantities of supplies is by water. That's why successful seventeenth-century military campaigns usually stuck so close to the lines of navigable rivers. I know we're talking about building steamboats and steam-powered tugs for that very reason, and that should help a lot. But the bad guys are just as well aware of how important rivers are as Gustav Adolf is. When they figure out how much more efficiently he's going to be able to use them with our help, they're going to start trying really hard to stop him. And the best way for them to do that is to attack his shipping on the water, or else build forts or redoubts armed with artillery to try and close off the critical rivers." The teenager shrugged. "Either way, seems to me that something like an ironclad would be the best way to . . . convince them to stay as far away from the river bank as they can get."

The kid had a point, Mike realized. In fact, he might have an even better one than he realized. The major cities of most of Gustavus Adolphus' so-called "vassals" and "allies" also happened to lie on navigable rivers, and altogether too many of those vassals were among the slimiest, most treacherous batch of so-called noblemen in history. Which meant that in a pinch, an armored vessel, heavily armed and immune to said cities' defensive artillery might prove a powerful incentive when it came to honoring their obligations to the Confederated Principalities of Europe and their emperor.

None of which changed a single thing where the incredible difficulties of Eddie's proposal were concerned.

Eddie started to say something else, then closed his mouth with an almost audible click as he realized Mike was gazing frowningly down at the sketch.

The vessel it depicted would never be called graceful. It was an uncompromising, slab-sided, boxy thing that sat low in the water, and its gun ports and a thick, squat funnel were its only visible external features.

"You're right about how important river traffic is going to be," Mike admitted as he ran one blunt fingertip across the drawing. "But this thing would be an incredible resource hog."

"I know that," Eddie acknowledged. "That's why I'm only suggesting building three of them. God knows we could use as many as we could get, but I knew going in that there was no way you were going to give up enough rails to armor more than that."

"No way in the world," Mike agreed with a grin which held very little humor. "Quentin would scream bloody murder if I gave you enough rails for one of these things, much less three! And he wouldn't be alone, either. It's going to take years and years for us to develop an iron industry that can produce steel that good. But that part I could handle . . . if I thought we'd be able to build the damned things in the end."

"Look," Eddie said, "I admit that a lot of that plan is based on the best guesstimates I could come up with from my reference books. At the same time, some of those books are pretty darned good, Mike. I spent a lot of time researching this period when Jeff and Larry decided we just had to do a Civil War ironclads game." He chuckled. "I always was the navy specialist when it came to game design.

"But that's not important. What matters is that it's a starting point. If you can find someone else, someone better qualified to take my notes and my reference books and turn them into something we can build, I'll be delighted to turn them over. You're right. I don't have the least idea how to figure displacements or allow for stability requirements, and I know the designers screwed up the displacement calculations big time for a lot of the real ironclads built during the Civil War. There was one class of monitor that would've sunk outright if they'd ever tried to mount their turrets! So maybe my enthusiasm did run away with me. But it's more important that this gets done and that it work than that it gets done my way."

Mike tipped back in his chair and considered the face across his desk. It was the same face it had always been, and yet, it wasn't. It hadn't changed as much as Jeff Higgins' face had, perhaps, but like every face in Grantville, it had thinned down over the course of the last winter and its sometimes short and always monotonous rations. Eddie had always been wiry; now he'd lost every ounce of excess weight, yet his frame was well muscled from hard physical labor. More to the point, perhaps, that face was no longer as young, as . . . innocent as it had been, and Mike felt a pang of deep, intense pain for the loss of Eddie's last years of childhood.

But a lot of people had lost a lot of things, he reminded himself, and it looked as if Eddie was doing a better job of growing into the reality he faced than Mike had realized when he came bursting into the office. His pride in the concept he'd come up with was obvious, yet it was equally obvious that his offer to turn it over to someone else who might be better qualified to make it work was genuine. Unfortunately, there was no one in Grantville who was better qualified. The skills a project like this would call for weren't the sort that were in much demand in a West Virginia coal mining town. To make it work, they would have needed someone with some real expertise in mechanical engineering and heavy fabrication, not to mention running complicated industrial projects. Better yet, someone with some genuine experience with boats and ships. Best of all, someone with some idea about how a real navy worked.

Someone like—

Mike's thoughts broke off in a sudden mental hiccup, and he sat abruptly upright.

"What?" Eddie asked, and Mike shook his head the way he'd shaken off the effect of a particularly good left jab during his days in the ring.

"I'm still not convinced that any of this is doable," he said slowly, contemplating Eddie through half-slitted eyes. "But if—if, I say—it is, then it's possible that there's someone right here in town who'd be perfect—" He broke off and grimaced. "Let me rephrase that. It's possible that there's someone right here in town who could actually make it work."

"There is?" Eddie looked puzzled. "Who?"

"The only person who has any experience at all with this kind of building project," Mike replied, and grinned sourly as Eddie's eyes widened in dawning disbelief.

"That's right," the President of the United States said in a tone which matched his grin's sourness perfectly. "I think we need to consult with my sister's esteemed father-in-law."

 

"Let me get this straight." John Chandler Simpson sat on the other side of a slightly battered-looking table in an Appalachian kitchen and regarded Mike through narrow eyes. "You're offering me a job."

"I guess you could put it that way," Mike replied in a voice he tried to keep entirely free of any emotion. His years of experience as a union negotiator helped, but it was still difficult. He'd seldom felt as much antipathy for another human being as Simpson evoked, apparently effortlessly, from him.

He sat back in his own chair, letting his eyes rest on the framed prints which brightened Jessica Wendell's friendly kitchen. He could think of very few settings which would have seemed less appropriate for a meeting with the one-time president and CEO of the Simpson Industrial Group, but at least Jessica's willingness to surrender her kitchen as an impromptu conference room had let him keep this meeting out of the public eye.

Not that the present confidentiality would help much when Mike's cabinet found out what they were discussing. He shuddered at the thought of how Melissa Mailey, for example, would react when she discovered that her President had been negotiating anything at all with their archenemy.

"I must confess," Simpson said after a moment in a poisonously dry tone, "that I find a certain degree of irony in this."

"I doubt you find it any more ironic than I do," Mike told him levelly.

"Maybe not, but after the way you turned me into some sort of Antichrist in the elections, I have to admire the sheer gall it must have taken for you to suggest anything of the sort."

"Gall doesn't come into it," Mike shot back, then shrugged his broad, powerful shoulders. "Look, Simpson, I don't like you very much. And God knows you've made it plain enough that you like me even less. But the simple fact is that there's no one else in Grantville who'd even know where to begin with a project like this one."

"Well, that's certainly a refreshing admission." Simpson's lips twitched in what, in another man, might have been called a ghost of a smile, but there was very little humor in his eyes. "I suppose I should be flattered that you're willing to grant my expertise in any field."

Mike felt his temper try to flare. He was, by nature, a passionate man, and learning the self-discipline required to control those passions—and his temper—had not come easily to him. But it was a lesson he'd mastered long ago, and although Simpson made it more difficult than most, he wasn't about to forget it now.

"We can sit here pissing in each other's soup all afternoon, if you like," he said instead, throwing the crudity deliberately into the midst of the conversation. "Or we can deal with the reason I came over. Which would you prefer?"

Something flickered in Simpson's eyes. For a moment, Mike thought it was the other man's temper. Then he realized it had been something else. A moment of . . . recognition, perhaps. Or possibly simply an awareness that Mike had no intention of rising to his jibes and giving him the satisfaction of losing his temper.

"Tell me exactly what you have in mind," the ex-CEO said after only the briefest pause.

"It's simple enough." Mike leaned forward in his chair, planting his forearms on the table. "Eddie Cantrell came to see me with the initial proposal. He brought along a stack of reference books, and it turns out that he's got an entire stash of other books we never guessed he had. I should've made a point of going over there and going through the Four Musketeers' library myself. Everybody in town's known for years that the four of them were absolutely buggy where military history and war games were concerned."

He shook his head, eyes momentarily unfocused as he considered the treasure trove he and Frank Jackson had discovered in Eddie's and Larry Wild's bookshelves.

"Anyway," he continued briskly, "Eddie has decided that we need a U.S. Navy, and he set out single-handedly to do something about it. Which is how he came up with this."

Mike took a sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it, and slid it across the table. Simpson's eyes flicked to it in a casual, almost dismissive glance. Then they snapped back, and he smoothed the sketch's creases as he frowned down at it.

"Cantrell did this?"

"Yeah. He took a course in drafting over at the high school a couple of years ago. Not," Mike added dryly, "that it really prepared him for a career as a maritime engineer."

"I'd say that's a bit of an understatement." Simpson's attention was on the figures listed in the data block in the upper left corner of Eddie's sketch, and he seemed momentarily to have forgotten his obvious dislike for the man across the table from him. He studied the numbers for several seconds, then snorted in something very like amusement.

"This displacement estimate of his has got to be way low," he said. "And even if it weren't, there's no way he's going to get by with a six-foot draft!" He shook his head. "I'd have to do some volume calculations to be certain, but even at his estimated tonnage, this thing is going to draw ten or twelve feet, minimum, and that's too deep for riverine conditions."

Mike chuckled, and Simpson looked quickly up from the sketch.

"I said something funny?" he inquired in a voice which had suddenly remembered its frost.

"No, not really. But you did just demonstrate exactly why I'm sitting here this morning. Do you really think that anyone else in Grantville—or anywhere else in seventeenth-century Europe, for that matter!—could rattle off what you just did?"

"I suppose not," Simpson said after a moment. "Of course, you realize that it's been the better part of twenty years since I did any hands-on hardware work at all."

"Maybe so, but at least you did some once upon a time. And didn't your company have a piece of the Navy's shipbuilding program?"

"Not really. Oh, our electronics division was one of the second-tier contractors on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers' radar systems," Simpson acknowledged. He didn't seem to wonder how it was that Mike had acquired that particular bit of information, and Mike was just as happy he didn't. The breach between John Simpson and his son Tom was a deep and apparently permanent one, and Mike had no intention of admitting that he'd discussed this offer with his brother-in-law at some length before approaching Tom's father.

"But that whole division was really outside our core petro-chemical business," the elder Simpson continued, "and we didn't have anything to do with the hull or the engineering plant. And I damned sure wasn't handling any of the engineering myself! I don't want there to be any misunderstanding on that. Translating this—" he tapped the sketch lightly "—into anything remotely resembling a practical warship would require skills I haven't used since before I ever left the Navy."

"There's been a lot of that going around lately," Mike replied without cracking a smile, and Simpson acknowledged the point with a grunt of sour amusement. He looked down at the sketch for several more moments, lips pursed, then returned his gaze to Mike's face.

"How much authority and support would I have?" he asked.

"As much as I can give you." Mike shrugged. "I'm going to have problems with my own people if I decide to push this one. Quentin Underwood is going to have three kinds of fits the instant he hears about it, and some of the others aren't going to be far behind. Especially not when they find out how many railroad rails we're going to be asking for! But that's not really the worst of it. What's really going to stick in their craws is the impact this kind of diversion of effort will have on all our other projects."

"They'd better get used to it," Simpson said, and his dark eyes sharpened as if to impale Mike. "And so had you."

"What does that mean?" Mike demanded, not quite able to prevent himself from bristling.

"I may not have the library your young Mr. Cantrell does, 'Mr. President,' but I've been something of a student of military history in my time, myself." Simpson's smile was cold. "Do you know what ultimately brought about the downfall of the Swedish Empire?"

"Gustav Adolf was killed," Mike replied.

"Yes, he was. But that wasn't what prevented the Swedes from making their empire stand up. His generals, and especially Torstensson, Baner, and Oxenstierna, had learned their trade well enough to take over from him. What they didn't have was the economy or the manpower to take on the rest of Europe head-on. That was what really devastated Germany during the Thirty Years' War. The only way to raise the manpower the Swedes needed, especially when the French turned against them, was to hire what amounted to mercenaries. And then they had to find a way to pay for them."

He shook his head.

"Don't misunderstand me. Gustavus Adolphus and Sweden probably went further than anyone else in the seventeenth century in rationalizing their manpower resources and creating a standing army out of their own population. But the problem was that Sweden simply didn't have the population density to sustain armies of the size it needed. Just as it didn't have the tax base to create the revenues armies that size—whether raised out of its own population or by hiring mercenaries—demanded."

He shrugged.

"So, ultimately, the only real option Sweden saw was to attempt to make war pay for itself by plundering its enemies and extracting the necessary money in 'contributions' from the populations of the territory it occupied. Unfortunately, it turned out that there was only so much blood in the turnip . . . and it wasn't enough. Some historians still argue that the Swedish Empire really collapsed only when Charles XII finally lost to Peter the Great, but the fact is that it was ultimately unsustainable simply because it lacked the financial and population bases to support it, especially against the inevitable coalitions of nations with larger populations and deeper pockets. And whatever else we may have changed by arriving here, we haven't changed Sweden's demographics."

"I'm aware of that."

In the wrong tone, that sentence could have been dismissive, or a challenge, but it didn't come out that way. In fact, Mike was more than a little surprised by Simpson's analysis. Which, he thought, was probably because the man had shown absolutely no ability or inclination to analyze the social and political realities the transplanted Americans faced with the same acuity.

"In that case," Simpson said levelly, "it's time that you faced the implications. The military implications."

Mike started to reply, but Simpson's raised hand stopped him. It wouldn't have, if it had been the arrogant gesture of Management dismissing Labor from consideration. But to Mike's considerable astonishment, it wasn't. It wasn't exactly a gesture of warmth, but it wasn't overtly discourteous or dismissive, either.

"You've made your policies and political platform abundantly clear," Simpson said. "And you've also made it abundantly clear that you intend to put the platform you ran on into effect. I won't pretend I like that, any more that I'll pretend I . . . enjoyed the way you campaigned."

A core of anger glowed in his eyes, but, to his credit, he kept it out of his voice.

"I'll grant you the strength of your own convictions and your sincerity. I don't agree with you, and I hope to hell your social policies don't turn into a complete and total disaster, but that's a fight I've already lost. And I understand your position on the creation of a general . . . industrial infrastructure, for want of a better term. It may surprise you to discover that I actually agree with you, to an extent. There's no way the seventeenth century's ramshackle, top-down excuses for nation states could possibly hope to match the sorts of technological innovations we could introduce, any more than the Soviet Union was able to match the U.S.'s tech and industrial base back home. To match us, they'd have to become like us, and we saw back home what happened to the Soviets when they tried to do that."

Mike gazed at the other man with carefully concealed surprise. He and his cabinet had never made any particular secret of their commitment to spreading innovations as widely as possible, but he and his inner circle had never explicitly made the argument Simpson just had. Partly that was to avoid tipping their hand to any seventeenth-century opponent too stupid to see the sucker punch coming, but another reason was that even some of his own cabinet—like Quentin Underwood—would have had conniption fits if they'd realized just how much of his "secret technological advantages" he was willing to give away to bring it about. And Mike had never expected John Chandler Simpson, of all people, to recognize what he had in mind . . . or to acknowledge that his strategy made any sort of sense.

"Unfortunately," Simpson's chair creaked as he leaned back in it and folded his arms, "what happened to the Soviets happened during a cold war. Whatever our proxies might have been doing around the periphery, we weren't locked in a direct, life-or-death battlefield confrontation with them. But that's precisely the position Gustav is in right now, and if Sweden goes down, so do we."

"I'm aware of that, too," Mike said. "That's why we organized an army under Frank Jackson in the first place." He grimaced. "Not that sending up-timers out to get shot at is the most efficient imaginable use of their knowledge and skills!"

"Exactly," Simpson said. If possible, the industrialist liked Frank Jackson even less than he liked Mike Stearns, but once again, that seemed to be beside the point to him, and he leaned forward once more, stabbing the tabletop with an emphatic finger. "As a matter of fact, it's the worst possible use of their knowledge and skills. And sending them into the field, even with the advantages we can give them in terms of modern weapons, is inevitably going to lead to casualties. And every casualty we suffer is going to cost us irreplaceable 'knowledge capital.' "

"Are you suggesting that we refuse to risk any of our people and expect Gustav Adolf to foot the entire bill while we just sit around?" Mike demanded. He couldn't quite believe he was having this discussion in the first place, or, in the second, that it seemed Simpson had a brain, after all. The other man certainly hadn't given any sign of it during the constitutional debate or his campaign for the presidency!

"Of course we can't do that, either," Simpson replied. "But in the end, it's really going to come down to how effective an army Gustav can raise and maintain in the field."

"Wait a minute. Wasn't your entire original argument that he doesn't have the money or the population to support a big enough army whatever he does?"

"Yes, it was. But I didn't say anything about army size just now. What I said was that it came down to the effectiveness of his army. There's a difference between sheer size and combat power. In a way, you've already acknowledged that by using Jackson and his troops to give Gustav a qualitative edge at places like the Wartburg and the Alte Veste. But doing it that way wastes our most precious resource. What we have to do is to make that qualitative edge integral to Gustav's own forces. He's got to get his manpower requirements down, and the only way for him to do that is for us to take up the slack by providing him with superior weapons and the training and techniques to use them properly, so that his men make up in individual effectiveness what they lose in numbers."

Simpson paused and snorted suddenly with genuine humor, and one of Mike's eyebrows rose questioningly.

"I was just thinking about the presumptuousness involved in 'teaching' one of the greatest captains of history his trade," the industrialist explained. "But that's exactly what it comes down to, in the end. We've got to give him the tools and show him how to use them in a way which will ease the pressure on his population. Give him smaller armies, with the sort of waterborne logistical support your young Mr. Cantrell is advocating, and the superior weapons to let him defeat larger forces, and he'll have a genuine chance of surviving and holding this empire of his together. But the only way we can do that is to divert however much of our own resources and capabilities it takes to support those smaller armies. What it boils down to, is that we'll have to help him downsize—" his eyes glittered with undisguised amusement as Mike stiffened in automatic resistance to the most hated verb in managerese "—and that will mean an inevitable slowdown in how quickly we'll be able to build up other aspects of our infrastructure."

Mike started to reply quickly, then stopped himself. Nothing Simpson had just said came as an actual surprise to him. God knew he and his innermost circle had spent enough time grappling with the same problems and the same limiting factors themselves! But no one else, not even—or perhaps, especially—Frank Jackson, had laid out the points Simpson had just made in such implacably logical order.

And he was right, Mike realized. It was a bitter admission, and only the tiniest edge of its bitterness came from the fact that John Simpson had elicited it. He turned his eyes back to Jessica Wendell's prints, and his lips tightened as he stared at them sightlessly.

He didn't want Simpson to be right. He didn't want to divert still more precious resources, and skill, and knowledge to the military. What Europe needed was medicines, a textile industry, steam or internal combustion-powered farm equipment. It needed steamships, railroads, oil wells, and telegraphs. It needed widespread electricity, light bulbs, refrigeration, sanitation, sewage plants, and a food canning industry. There were so many things it needed—so many whose mere existence would undermine the aristocracy-dominated excuse for a civilization which was about to turn all of Northern Germany into one huge abattoir.

But to introduce those things, the up-timers and their seventeenth-century countrymen somehow had to survive long enough. And surviving had its own cold, uncaring imperatives. Imperatives, he told himself with what he knew was an edge of pettiness, perfectly suited to John Simpson Chandler.

"You're right," he admitted, and heard the reluctance in his own voice as he did so. "We've already been discussing possible weapon upgrades with Gustav and Oxenstierna—more 'building down' to something we can produce in quantity instead of trying to use our own weapons as some sort of magic wand."

"I'm relieved to hear it," Simpson said. "But it's going to be just as important to show them how to get the most out of whatever we can provide for them."

"I'm sure it is. Unfortunately, aside from a few youthful enthusiasts like Eddie and his buddies, we're awfully short on people who understand how to do that."

"I'm not surprised." Simpson drummed on the tabletop for a few moments, and Mike surprised an expression on his face which might almost have been one of hesitation. If it was, it vanished quickly, and Simpson looked directly back at him.

"For what it's worth," he said, "I really am quite well grounded in military history. It's one of the few hobby interests Tom and I share." An undisguised flash of raw pain flooded through his eyes at the mention of his son's name, but his voice never flinched. "What we really need here is one of those historical reenactors—somebody who spent his vacations marching around in a Union Army uniform with a Springfield rifle-musket on his shoulder. But I assume we don't have any of those?"

Mike smiled crookedly. "Sure we do—probably a dozen of them, at least. The first battle of the Civil War was fought at Philippi, not more than an hour's drive from here."

Simpson brightened visibly.

"I should have thought of that, but I suppose I simply assumed that the local population was too small to support many of them. I hope you're making them available to Gustav and his army? Someone with hands-on experience like that with nineteenth-century weapons, tactics, and formation drill would be worth me, Jackson, and Cantrell all rolled into one."

"I know," Mike agreed, but his tone was considerably less enthusiastic than Simpson's, and he grimaced irritably when the industrialist cocked his head in question.

"Our problem is that most of them have skills we need just as badly somewhere else. Down at the power plant, for example, or over at the mine. Dwight Rogers is a perfect example of the problem. He's been a reenactor for at least ten or fifteen years, but he's also the only man in town with actual up-time oil field experience, and that makes him critical to Quentin's oil project."

"I see." Simpson studied Mike's expression for several seconds, then shrugged. "I see," he repeated, "and I understand the problem. But I think you're going to have to consider this the first example of sacrificing infrastructure to survival. We need those men—need not just their actual skills, but also their ability to sell seventeenth-century professional soldiers on the concept that we can show them how to do their jobs better than they can now. In fact, you ought to have people like that in Magdeburg already, working with the Swedes there as military advisers."

"Um." Mike stared out a window while he chewed that unpalatable argument. It seemed to be Simpson's day for making him consider things he didn't want to think about, he reflected. And, once again, Simpson was right.

Damn it to hell.

"Okay," he sighed finally. "You're probably— No, scratch that, you are right. But I've still got to consider how many birds I can kill with each stone." He pondered some more, rubbing the tip of an index finger in slow, thoughtful circles on the tabletop, then nodded to himself.

"All right," he said, focusing on Simpson once more. "I don't know if I can make this permanent yet—we'll have to look at the competing demands on his time—but Jere Haygood's a reenactor, and a good one. He was also the senior partner of the one civil engineering firm we had here in Grantville before the Ring of Fire. Which means, of course, that there are at least seven things we need him to be doing simultaneously . . . including training other engineers. At the moment, though, he's heading one of the teams working with Gustav's engineers on improving the Stecknitz canal, which means he's already on the river. But if we go ahead with this project, you're going to need someone like him to help you lay out your shipyard, at the very least, right?"

"It would certainly be an enormous help," Simpson agreed.

"In that case, I'll send him a radio message and tell him to meet you in Magdeburg. You can discuss the engineering aspects of this whole idea with him, and there are enough other projects going on in and around Magdeburg that Pete McDougal probably really needs access to one of our better engineers on an ongoing basis, anyway. And we can see about having him assigned as our official liaison to Gustav Adolf's engineering corps. God knows we're going to need someone assigned permanently to that slot in a teaching role, if nothing else, and that should also get his foot in the door with the Swedish officer corps in general."

Simpson pursed his lips, obviously considering the notion carefully, then nodded.

"That sounds like an excellent idea," he said, and his tone was approving, if not precisely warm. "And it certainly does kill multiple birds with a single rock. Of course, he's still going to be so busy with other jobs that they'll undoubtedly interfere badly with his ability to function purely as a military adviser. On the other hand, once we actually begin providing Gustav's troops with better weapons, we'll just have to find someone else to assist him. Someone you'll be able to spare from other responsibilities then even if you can't spare him now.

"In the meantime, I would certainly be willing to make what I know myself available. And I wasn't always an engineer during my naval service. Unlike Mr. Underwood, my own early experience was in the combat arms."

"That might . . . be very useful," Mike said slowly, with what he hoped was well hidden caution. He had a sudden vision of Simpson ingratiating himself with the most conservative and inherently dangerous elements of Gustav Adolf's army. Or, even worse, the CPE's more reluctant German princes.

Yet even as the thought crossed his mind, he told himself that it was foolish. Conservative—maybe even reactionary—Simpson undoubtedly was, but the most reactionary twenty-first-century American imaginable was hopelessly and radically liberal compared to someone like John George of Saxony.

Which didn't mean that Simpson wouldn't do his absolute level best to build his own little empire if he had even half a chance. In fact, it would be asinine to expect anything else out of him. Whatever Mike might think of him on a personal basis, no one was successful at the persistently high level of industrial performance Simpson had demonstrated without being extremely capable himself. And that capability, especially in a situation like the one the up-timers faced, would inevitably attract power like a magnet if Mike allowed him to exercise it.

If.

Ultimately, he reflected, that was what it came down to. If Mike allowed his worst political enemy to demonstrate that there was an area in which he was truly and provably competent, it could have incalculable consequences for the future. But Mike was still in the position of a man with no choice but to run even faster to prevent himself from falling.

Besides, if I let a man like Simpson beat me just because there's one area in which he's competent, then I'll deserve whatever the hell happens to me!

"We'll have to think about that," he continued after a moment. "About the best way to make use of your experience and knowledge, I mean. But in the meantime, what about Eddie's design?"

"I think it has . . . potential," Simpson replied, accepting the return to the topic which had originally brought Mike there. "It's going to need a lot of work to make it practical, but assuming that the Allocations Committee is willing to commit the resources and we can come up with the manpower and the funding, I think we can probably build them. Of course, once we do, we'll have to come up with crews for them, as well."

"I know." Mike gazed at the other man for a few more seconds, then inhaled unobtrusively.

"If I sign off on it, the Allocations Committee will, too," he said confidently. "I don't say it will be easy, but I'll bring them around in the end. But if I do, would you be willing to take charge of it?"

"Not without conditions," Simpson said after a moment.

"What sort of conditions?" Mike felt himself slipping into the natural stance of a negotiator, and a small smile flickered around Simpson's mouth, as if he felt the same thing.

"If I build them, then I command them," he said flatly. "It's not going to be easy, however much support you can give me. I'd have to build a shipyard before I could start building ships in it, and part of the job would have to include training the local work force I'd need. The same holds true for building crews to man them, as well. It's going to take time and careful organization to make any of this work, and I'm not really in the habit of involving myself in projects that fail. I refuse to oversee the expenditure of so much of our resources just to let someone else screw up and misuse the final product when I'm done."

He showed his teeth in a brief, fierce grin.

"So I suppose that, in the end, it comes down to how much you trust me, 'Mr. President.' Do you need my expertise badly enough to piss off 'General Jackson' and risk putting me in command of your navy?"

Mike met that flash of a grin with an unsmiling, level look of his own, and several seconds of silence hovered in the Wendell kitchen. Then the President of the United States smiled ever so slightly himself.

"Actually, I think 'Admiral Simpson' has a certain ring to it," he said.

 

"I can't believe this," Eddie Cantrell muttered under his breath. "Simpson?" He shook his head.

"Don't even go there, Eddie," Mike growled softly, and Eddie flushed as he realized that he hadn't spoken quite as much under his breath as he thought he had.

"I had enough trouble with Frank and Quentin—not to mention Melissa!" Mike continued. "You wanted your damned ironclads, and you're probably going to get them, so I wouldn't go looking any gift horses in the teeth, if I were you."

Eddie grimaced at the reference to "gift horses" and glowered for a moment at the flesh-and-blood horse whose reins he held. In his considered opinion, horses were a very poor substitute for motorcycles, and his posterior wasn't looking forward to the journey to Magdeburg.

"Sorry," he said, after a moment. "And I meant it when I said I'd be willing to turn everything over to someone else if they knew how to get the job done. But I gotta tell you, Mike—I'm not too crazy about putting Simpson in command of anything, much less the navy."

"If we're going to do this at all, then he's the best man for the job," Mike said, just a bit more positively than he actually felt. "On the other hand, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm just as happy he'll have you along for this little trip."

Eddie cocked his head at Mike, then nodded slowly.

"Gotcha," he said. "I'll keep the bastard honest."

"That wasn't exactly what I meant," Mike said somewhat repressively, already wishing he hadn't said anything about it at all. "Look, Eddie, you don't like Simpson. Well, I don't like him very much, either. But don't ever make the mistake of thinking the man is stupid or incompetent in his own area. Or that we don't need him just as badly as we need Nat Davis or Greg Ferrara. You're going along to help him find the right spot for his shipyard. You are not going along as some sort of Gestapo agent. Is that understood?"

"Understood," Eddie replied contritely, and Mike shrugged.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to bite your head off. But this is important, and we don't need anyone creating still more problems to overcome. At the same time, if you happen to notice anything you feel ought to be called to our attention, I expect you to do it."

"Understood," Eddie repeated in a somewhat different tone, and Mike nodded. He started to say something else, then broke off as Simpson came trotting around the corner on his own horse.

It irritated Mike that Simpson had already known how to ride when they arrived in Thuringia. Worse, the man rode Western-style, so Mike couldn't even put it down to an effete, socially pretentious thing like polo.

The beautifully tailored three-piece business suits which had accompanied Simpson to Grantville for his son's wedding had long since disappeared. The older man wore boots, denims, a flannel shirt, and a light nylon windbreaker against the late-spring chill of Northern Germany, and Mike was still a little surprised by how much the change in clothing changed the man's image. The John Chandler Simpson trotting briskly along the street looked very little like the supercilious city slicker who'd come to Grantville so long ago. This man was tall and broad shouldered—as tall as his son, even if he didn't have Tom's sheer mass of muscle. Then again, no one in the seventeenth-century was as massively built as Tom was. Which meant that "not as massive" certainly wasn't the same thing as "ninety-eight-pound weakling," and little though Mike might have cared to admit it, there'd always been far more muscle and far less fat on Simpson's powerful frame than many another senior up-time executive might have claimed. The recently past winter had wiped away most of the fat which had been there, too.

"Gentlemen," Simpson acknowledged them in brusque, no-nonsense tones as he reined in his mount beside them.

"Mr. Simpson," Mike replied. Eddie only nodded, but he clambered up into his own saddle. Not, Mike observed, with any particular grace. Eddie had learned to ride since the Ring of Fire, but only in the sense that he no longer fell off the horse whenever it stopped. At that, he was doing better than his friend Jeff, but it was all Mike could do to keep himself from breaking out into laughter at Eddie's expression as he contemplated the long ride to Magdeburg.

At least the youngster would be spared the indescribable motion of a coach trip over seventeenth-century roads, and that was nothing to sneeze at. The main road to Magdeburg was slated for improvement as an urgent priority, but it was going to be a while before it could be accomplished.

"Don't forget to check in with the radio shack when you get there," Mike admonished, and Simpson nodded. Grantville's limited number of radio hams were busy training more operators and planning the construction of simple crystal sets to eke out and support the handful of modern radios which had accompanied them back to Thuringia. It was going to be a while before there were enough of them for more than purely limited use, but installing one of them at the new imperial capital had been a high priority.

"I guess that's about it, then," Mike continued. "We'll be waiting to hear from you."

Simpson gave him another not-quite-curt nod, touched his heels to his horse, and started off without another word. Eddie looked at Mike one more time, then shrugged and headed off—far less gracefully—in Simpson's wake.

 

By the time they reached Magdeburg, a few days later, Eddie had developed a new, even stronger, first-hand appreciation of the advantages of water transport in the seventeenth century. He would vastly have preferred to make the shorter trip overland to Halle and then travel down the river to Magdeburg, but there'd been a few unpleasant incidents along the river. Everyone agreed that they thought it was only isolated bands of brigands—probably mercenaries who were currently unemployed because Gustav Adolf had destroyed the armies to which they had once been attached—who'd turned to a little freelance river piracy to survive the winter. That was the official story, anyway. Personally, Eddie was none too certain that it wasn't a bit more organized than that. There were certainly enough German nobles who hated and feared the up-timer Americans' impact, starting with John George of Saxony, himself. It wouldn't surprise Eddie a bit to discover that one or more of them had been turning a blind eye to attacks on said Americans' barge traffic.

The situation was improving, in large part because Gustav had begun operating patrols of Finnish and Lapp cavalry—whose fearsome reputations were well deserved—along the more dangerous sections of the river. But for the moment, President Stearns and his cabinet had preferred to send their two-man shipbuilding force to Magdeburg by a more arduous but less adventurous route.

And "arduous" it had certainly been. Every muscle Eddie had seemed to ache with its own individual protest, but that background chorus was nothing to the throbbing ache in his thighs and buttocks. The inns at which they had spent their nights had been an experience of eye-opening unpleasantness in their own right, and he was uncomfortably certain that he had acquired all too many multi-legged insectoid boarders.

But at least they were finally here . . . not that "here" was all that impressive. Magdeburg had been a largish city by here-and-now standards before Count Tilly's troops had massacred the population and burned the place to the ground in the worst single atrocity yet of the ongoing Thirty Years' War. The nightmare event had rallied opposition to Tilly and the Imperialists from all over Protestant Germany and provided Gustav Adolf's army with one of the most chilling war cries of the entire war: "Magdeburg quarter"— the promise to be just as merciful to Tilly's men as they had been to the citizens of Magdeburg.

But Magdeburg's history, as well as its central location and its access to the Elbe River, had made it the inevitable choice as the capital of Gustav's new Confederated Principalities of Europe. The heaps of charred rubble surrounding the cathedral—one of the few structures in the entire city which had been spared the torch—had largely disappeared now, and reconstruction was well underway. The sheer devastation of the old city had given Gustav's architects the opportunity to design a proper capital, with a coordinated street plan of long, straight avenues and spacious squares, and the skeleton of the new city to be was plainly evident. But so was the sprawl of temporary quarters, thrown up in haste and without any apparent plan or order, for the work force laboring upon the new buildings and streets. And it seemed evident to Eddie as he gazed out over the site that the area outside the old city walls, where the foundations of the new factories and warehouses were going in, had not profited from the same degree of city planning.

"Quite a mess, isn't it?" Simpson remarked.

Eddie looked at him. The lengthy, arduous trip had forced him to alter his opinion of Simpson . . . some. They hadn't exactly whiled away the journey in deep, philosophical discussion. In fact, they hadn't spoken to one another any more than they had to. But despite himself, Eddie had been impressed by how little Simpson had complained. Of course, Eddie thought resentfully, Simpson's posterior probably didn't ache quite as much as his own did. At the same time, however, Simpson was at least thirty years older than he was, and even though there had to be plenty of room for aches and pains in those extra decades, Simpson showed absolutely no sign of them.

Yet what had truly surprised Eddie was the calm, almost matter of fact way Simpson had accepted the primitive nature of both their transportation and their accommodations along the way. He'd expected the ex-CEO to demand the very best, and to throw temper tantrums if he didn't get it. But it hadn't worked out that way.

Simpson had displayed an amazing talent for hard, shrewd bargaining over the cost of their rooms every night—almost as if the money were coming out of his own pocket, rather than out of the funds the U.S. government had provided for the trip. And it had been obvious that he wasn't prepared to be fobbed off with anything less than the best the inns had been able to provide. Yet that "best" had fallen dismally short of anything he would have tolerated for a heartbeat "back home," and he hadn't said a word. In fact, he'd accepted the limitations of their accommodations far more patiently than Eddie had, and he'd actually tipped the staffs when they left.

Eddie wasn't quite sure what to make of that, but it had at least cracked the armor of his preconceptions where Simpson was concerned. Not that he was prepared to surrender his distrust just yet. Simpson was still the arrogant bastard who'd tried to waltz into Grantville and take over the entire town. And he was still the slimeball politician who'd thrown in with the bigoted rednecks who'd opposed extending the vote to anyone who hadn't been born up-time. Which meant, by definition, that he was The Enemy.

None of which affected the fact that his observations summed up Eddie's own impression of Magdeburg quite handily.

"Calling this a mess is an insult to any other mess," he said, after a moment, and Simpson surprised him yet again with a dry chuckle.

"Oh, I've seen worse. Not very often, mind you, but I've seen worse. And given what they had to start with, I'm actually surprised they've done this well with it so quickly."

Eddie glanced at him speculatively. He'd been more prepared for Simpson to make some cutting remark about primitive construction techniques and lousy seventeenth-century architects. Instead, the older man's tone was merely thoughtful. Indeed, it might actually have been approving, mind-boggling though that possibility seemed to Eddie.

"Well," Simpson continued after a moment, "I suppose we should check in with the local authorities and get off a radio message that we've arrived. This way, I think, Mr. Cantrell."

He urged his mount into motion, and Eddie found himself—once again—following the rear end of John Chandler Simpson's horse.

 

The streets of Magdeburg, such as they were, were a hive of activity. In fact, they were so busy that Eddie quickly decided to swallow his pride, dismount, and lead his horse. The journey from Grantville had been long enough for even his horsemanship to improve appreciably, but he knew his limits, and the first time one of the clattering, wooden-wheeled carts came rumbling unexpectedly out of a cross street, he knew he'd reached them. He managed to survive his horse's rearing protest at the sudden, frightening intrusion, but it was a very near thing, and he scrambled out of the saddle with far more haste than grace.

Simpson, on the other hand, simply sat there in the saddle, gazing at him with one quirked eyebrow. His horse, needless to say, scarcely even tossed its head. Eddie would have loved to put its calmness down to its innately placid disposition, but he knew it had far more to do with the hand upon the reins and the rider in the saddle.

Simpson waited until he was certain Eddie had the reins firmly in hand, then clucked gently to his mount and led the way through the bustling confusion of workmen, carts, freight wagons, occasional squads of Swedish soldiers, and street vendors. Eddie followed, glowering at the older man's ramrod-straight spine and feeling like a total doofus.

Stretches of the burned city's original cobblestones were interspersed with and crossed by muddy tracks—usually more puddle than mud, actually—and Eddie was grateful that he'd worn boots instead of sneakers. Nikes weren't exactly the footwear of choice when it came to wading through ankle-deep holes full of water and gooey mud.

Eddie hadn't seen so many people in one place, outside Grantville itself, since arriving in the seventeenth century. And the activity around him very nearly approached the frantic industry with which Grantville had expanded its housing to face the demands of the winter just past. The smell of smoke, the clatter of tools, the bellows of foremen, and the incredible smells of too many people crowded into too little space were almost overpowering . . . especially after the long horseback ride through open countryside to get here.

The smell bothered Eddie even more because it was so different from what he'd become accustomed to. He'd discovered, to his surprise, that seventeenth-century German notions of public sanitation were far better than he'd expected from his limited knowledge of history. Melissa Mailey had explained to him that was because he assumed that British history was synonymous with "history." It was in fact true that, as a rule, public sanitation in seventeenth-century Britain was just as bad as Eddie assumed—Edinburgh was especially notorious all over Europe for its filth, with London not too far behind. But most German towns had a long-established system of cleaning up public refuse, including human waste, with a class of people employed exclusively for that purpose. It was a system which Americans despised, since it involved relegating the caste of waste-haulers to pariah social status, almost like the caste system in Hindu India. Still, it normally served to keep the worst aspects of public refuse to a reasonable level.

The problem was that Magdeburg was, for all practical purposes, a brand new city. And one which, he suspected, had already been sufficiently "infected" with American social and political notions for the standard system of public sanitation to be functioning haphazardly at best. Not for the first time since the Ring of Fire, Eddie was discovering that social change, in the betwixt-and-between period, often had as many drawbacks as it did advantages.

So, he was more than merely grateful when Simpson finally drew up outside the hastily thrown together walls of a building two blocks from Magdeburg's temporary town hall.

Half a dozen Swedish musketeers stood guard outside the American "embassy's" entrance, accompanied by a single American in deer hunter's cammies and armed with a semi-auto Browning shotgun. The difference between the sleek, up-time weapon and the clumsy Swedish matchlocks was almost as marked as the difference between the Swedes' cold-eyed alertness and the American's obvious casualness.

Simpson dismounted slowly and handed his reins to the groom who came trotting around a corner of the hastily assembled structure to take them. The same groom collected Eddie's horse, as well, and Eddie was delighted to let him have it. Indeed, he hoped he'd never see the sharp-spined nag again.

But Simpson paid very little attention to the groom. He'd paused long enough to remove his saddlebags before he let the man take his horse, yet his attitude was very different from one he'd demonstrated when he and Eddie had stopped at one of the inns along the way. Then, he'd taken considerable pains to be certain that his mount would be properly cared for; this time his attention was fully focused on the sentries in front of the building.

No, Eddie realized. Not on all the sentries—only on Matt Lowry, the American.

Simpson's frown was not a pleasant thing to see. He looked, Eddie thought, like a man who'd gotten a sudden whiff of a three-day-dead skunk, and his own resentment rose in automatic reflex. Obviously, the rich bigshot from Pittsburgh could hardly contain his contempt for the hillbilly in front of him. Probably because Matt hadn't kowtowed properly in the face of Simpson's innate superiority!

Eddie waited for Simpson to say something, but the older man only pressed his lips firmly together and nodded to the trooper who was obviously the senior member of the Swedish guards. Then he slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and strode into the building.

 

"You're here to do what?" Pete McDougal asked.

Before the Ring of Fire, Pete had headed up the safety committee for the same United Mine Workers local union of which Mike Stearns had been president. Now he was Mike Stearns' personal representative in Magdeburg, at least until the rebuilding capital was ready for a larger American presence. Whether he was there as an ambassador to the CPE or to serve the interests of "Captain General Gars" was an interesting point, but McDougal had the natural diplomacy required to discharge both functions at once.

At the moment, however, that diplomacy appeared to be in abeyance.

"I thought my written authorization was clear enough," Simpson replied coolly.

"Well, I guess it is," McDougal admitted. He looked at Simpson with obvious dislike, but his tone was reasonably courteous. "It just sort of took me by surprise. Nobody warned me you were coming."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised," Simpson said dryly. "Should I assume that that also means that Mr. Haygood has not yet arrived, either?"

"No, you shouldn't. As a matter-of-fact, Jere got here yesterday evening, but there was obviously some kind of screwup. He got the message to head on over, but no one told him exactly why he was supposed to do it." McDougal shrugged. "One of the problems with radio messages when you don't get to talk directly to the person who sent them to you."

"That sort of confusion is something we'd better get over," Simpson observed. "But at least he's here. And I trust that you'll be able to render us the assistance President Stearns assured me we'd receive despite the confusion?"

"I'll try," McDougal said. "But if Mike had warned me you were coming, I would've told him we're way too shorthanded already. I don't know who I've got available to assign as a local guide. Jere doesn't know Magdeburg any better than you do."

"What about Matt Lowry?" Eddie asked. He knew he should have kept his mouth shut, but the look Simpson had given Lowry had really rubbed him the wrong way. The notion of getting Matt assigned as Simpson's guide as a way to rub the so-superior bastard's old nose in his dependence upon the hillbillies who surrounded him appealed strongly to the teenager.

"Can't spare him," McDougal replied promptly. "Frank—I mean, General Jackson," he corrected himself, glancing at Simpson from the corner of his eye "—made it standing orders that we have to have at least one up-timer on guard here all the time. And Matt's picked up more Swedish than almost anyone else I've got."

"That's a wise precaution on General Jackson's part," Simpson said, and Eddie saw the surprise on McDougal's face. But then Simpson continued in a coldly dispassionate voice. "I can understand why his ability to pick up the local language would make this Mr. Lowry particularly valuable. It's a pity, however, that the language appears to be the only thing he's picked up from the Swedes."

"Meaning what?" McDougal demanded, his expression tightening with anger as Simpson's tone registered.

"Meaning that the Swedish troopers outside your front door are at least five times as alert as he is," Simpson said flatly. "It's pathetic. He's got twice the firepower of everyone else out there, and if it weren't for the Swedes looking out for him, anyone who wanted to would walk right past him. Or worse."

"Now just a minute!" McDougal said hotly. "Matt's been assigned here for over three months, and nobody's ever come close to getting past him! And unlike certain people," he very carefully did not glare pointedly at Simpson, "he was with the army at the Alte Veste and the Wartburg. Did damned well there, too."

"He probably did," Simpson conceded, apparently completely oblivious to McDougal's dig at his own absence from both those battles. "And I don't believe I expressed any doubts about his courage or his willingness to fight. But there's a difference between guts and willingness and discipline, and discipline is what keeps a man on something as boring as sentry duty alert, effective . . . and alive. The Swedes have it; he doesn't."

He held McDougal's eyes levelly, and to Eddie's astonishment, it was Pete who looked away.

"Well, anyway, I can't spare him," McDougal muttered. Then he shook himself. "I'll have to see if I can find you a local. How good is your German?"

"Passable," Simpson replied, "but Mr. Cantrell's is better than mine." The calmly delivered compliment—if that was what it was—took Eddie by surprise, but McDougal only nodded.

"In that case, I think I can probably find someone. It may take a while, though. Do you have someplace to stay while you're here?"

"No."

"I imagine I can find you a room, then. We're still working on the living quarters of our 'embassy' here. I'm sure we'll get the whole thing finished up . . . eventually. But in the meantime, there's a sort of a boarding house for up-timers and some of the more senior Swedish and Scottish officers. It's more like a barracks, really, but it's only a couple of blocks east of here. We can put you up there."

"That will be fine, given the state of the local construction efforts," Simpson told him. "I suppose Mr. Cantrell and I should head on over and get ourselves settled in while you find us our guide. Will you go ahead and radio Grantville to confirm our arrival?"

"I'll take care of it," McDougal said.

"Thank you. In that case, I'll be looking forward to meeting Mr. Haygood and our guide." He nodded to McDougal, then glanced at Eddie.

"Come along, Mr. Cantrell," he said.

 

As a citizen of the seventeenth-century United States, Eddie had become far more accustomed to walking than he'd ever been as a twenty-first-century American. Which turned out to be a good thing as he tagged along behind an obviously indefatigable Simpson, Jere Haygood, and their local guide, Dietrich Schwanhausser.

Haygood was a weathered-looking man in his mid-forties, with light brown-colored hair and hazel eyes. He wore work clothes and high-topped, laced boots which had undoubtedly been comfortably worn long before the Ring of Fire, and an old Army Single-Action Colt revolver rode in a black ballistic nylon holster at his belt. He was built on the lean and rangy model, and he moved with a quick, boundless energy that made Eddie tired just watching him. Simpson, of course, simply took it all in stride.

Eddie didn't know Haygood well—they'd never actually met before the Ring of Fire—but it had been obvious from the beginning that the engineer wasn't a Simpson admirer. He'd been civil enough, but that had been about all anyone could have said for his attitude.

Schwanhausser, on the other hand, had been another matter entirely. He hadn't lived in Magdeburg before its destruction, but most of his relatives had, and he'd lost them all. Apparently, that was part of what had drawn him to the reemerging city as it arose like a dusty, smoky, chaotic phoenix from its own ashes. The fact that he spoke more than passable Swedish and was already acquiring at least a smattering of English had made him extremely valuable to the new capital's local authorities, but McDougal had lured him away from them. Exactly how he'd done so remained something of a mystery to Eddie, but the two computers McDougal had been assigned from Grantville's precious supply of desktops seemed to have had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason for it, Schwanhausser had become one of McDougal's primary liaisons with the city government, and his familiarity with the endless construction projects which typified Magdeburg had proven most useful. The fact that he and Simpson got along like a house on fire (not, Eddie admitted to himself, perhaps the best chosen metaphor, here in the ashes of Magdeburg) didn't seem to be hurting things, either.

Eddie felt more like a half-forgotten appendage than ever as he followed the other three about. Simpson's German was considerably better than his comments to McDougal had suggested. It wasn't as colloquial as the German Eddie had been soaking up through his pores ever since he'd arrived here, and there were times when it sounded more than a little stiff, even odd, to a seventeenth-century ear . . . or to a twenty-first-century ear which had learned the language in the seventeenth, but it was quite adequate for his needs.

So was Haygood's. The engineer had started out following Simpson around with a somewhat martyred expression. Obviously, his most earnest desire had been to be somewhere else, doing something useful. But as the tour of possible shipyard sites continued, Haygood had become increasingly animated. Apparently, the engineer in him was sufficiently fascinated by the task at hand to at least temporarily overcome his antipathy for Simpson. By the time late morning had turned into midafternoon, he was waxing positively enthusiastic over the possibilities.

Eddie was more than a little surprised by that. And, if he was going to be honest, he was also a little disappointed. Not that he wanted the ironclad project to do anything but succeed, of course. It just . . . irritated him to see a good Stearns loyalist hobnobbing with John Chandler Simpson so energetically.

But if Haygood's reaction irritated Eddie, the way Schwanhausser seemed to respond to the industrialist bothered him on a much more profound level. It was as if there were some almost organic relationship between the two of them. One Eddie could sense but not really understand. Something which had automatically located them in relationship to one another in some sort of hierarchy or continuum Eddie hadn't even realized existed.

He decided he didn't like whatever it was. Part of that probably stemmed from his ingrained distrust of anything Simpson did and, especially, his suspicion of Simpson's empire-building tendencies, which made him uncomfortable with the easy authority the older man seemed to possess in Schwanhausser's eyes. But even more than that, he suspected, it was because he'd already seen quite a few seventeenth-century Germans who seemed to find the role of bootlicker a natural fit.

That was the one thing Eddie most hated when he encountered it. He supposed it would have been foolish to expect every German in the seventeenth century to be another Gretchen Richter, or even her brother Hans. And by and large, the majority of the German citizens of the United States had done a remarkable job of adapting to the incredibly radical—by seventeenth-century standards—ideology and political freedoms the up-timers had brought with them. In fact, the way some of them—like Gretchen—had seized the twenty-first-century concepts and run with them sometimes frightened even Eddie just a bit.

But not all of them had adapted. Some of them had good (by their standards) and obvious reasons for disliking the bottom-to-top changes the up-time Americans had inflicted upon them. Those were the people who'd held positions of power and authority under the old order and found the notion of being held accountable by the subjects over whom they had previously ruled but who had now become their fellow citizens most distasteful. Yet some of those same former subjects seemed almost equally lost and unhappy. Perhaps it was because they feared the changes were only temporary—that the United States' enemies would succeed in destroying it after all. If that happened, there would undoubtedly be reprisals against those who had supported the new order when the old one returned to power. And in some cases, it was probably as simple as plain old uncertainty. A case of having learned the old rules of the society which was being remade all about them so well that they felt uncomfortable, even frightened by the ambiguities with which the new rules confronted them.

Whatever it was, Eddie didn't like it when he encountered it, and he'd seen a lot more of it since leaving Grantville. Maybe it was only natural for the people in the small towns and villages who so far had had little direct, personal contact with the up-timers to be less certain, more hesitant. He hoped that was all it was—that as the United States continued to expand outward from Grantville, its spreading influence would erode that hesitation and replace it with the same sort of often fractious independence he'd seen in Grantville itself.

But it hadn't yet, and one of the results was that sometimes an up-timer, even someone who still (in the privacy of his own mind) thought of himself as only a kid, found himself being deferred to and kowtowed to as if he were a natural born aristocrat. No doubt some of them enjoyed that, but it made Eddie's skin crawl when it happened to him.

Of course, he thought sourly, watching Schwanhausser and Haygood listening intently to Simpson, someone like Simpson probably ate it up with a spoon.

". . . need deep water close to the bank," Simpson said as he and the other two stood side-by-side in ankle-deep mud, staring out over an Elbe River that was still high, wide, and murky with the spring floods. The up-timer gestured energetically at the water. "When we send them down the launch ways, they're going to have a tendency to drive downward into the mud if there's not enough depth of water."

"How many feet deep, Herr Simpson?" Schwanhausser asked. Simpson looked momentarily taken aback, but Schwanhausser smiled. "I have been learning your system of measurement," he reassured the American.

"You have?" Simpson looked down at the shorter German.

"Oh, of course!" Schwanhausser chuckled. "Many of our 'honest merchants' are screaming to the very heavens over the thought of adopting a truly universal standard set of measures, but the emperor has made it quite clear that the entire Confederated Principalities will adopt your system. And it will be such a relief to deal in feet and yards which are the same from one end of the land to the other, instead of dealing with 'paces' which may be one length in Saxony and another in, say, Westphalia!"

"You can say that again!" Haygood snorted. "And what it's going to mean for engineering projects is even more important. For one thing, we're going to make damned sure that when we get around to building our railroads, 'standard gauge' means just that—standard gauge." He grimaced. "None of that business of every outfit building its own private set of rails to whatever gauge suited it."

Simpson glanced at the engineer and nodded.

"I actually hadn't considered that aspect of the rail extension project, Mr. Haygood. Of course, I'm sure that's only one small instance of ways in which true standardized units of measure are going to provide immense benefits. Although—" he turned to Schwanhausser "—I suppose I can see why some of your merchants might not find the prospect particularly delightful, even if that is incredibly shortsighted of them in the long term. But as far as our problem goes here, I can't really give you a definite answer until I know more about the design displacements of the ships themselves. Let's say that I'm probably going to need somewhere around twelve feet minimum depth."

"Um." Schwanhausser plucked gently at his lower lip in thought. "We should be able to find you that much water, Herr Simpson. But to get it, you may have to extend your . . . launching ways further out from the bank."

"Mr. Haygood?" Simpson asked, cocking an eyebrow at the engineer.

"That we can do," Haygood assured him.

"Well, in that case," Schwanhausser said, "I think this area here might meet your requirements. As far as I know, all of this stretch of the river—from there, at the corner of that factory's lot, clear down to that small point in the angle of the bend—is still available. That would give you a frontage on the river of—what? Perhaps two hundred of your yards?"

"More like two hundred and fifty," Simpson mused.

"Actually," Haygood said, casting his engineer's eye over the same distance, "it's probably about two hundred and seventy-five. Closer to three hundred than to two hundred, anyway."

"I will defer to your judgment," Schwanhausser said, then laughed. "I did say I was learning your units of measurement, not that I have already mastered them!"

Simpson chuckled slightly and turned his back to the river while he studied the terrain for several minutes. They were well outside the old walls of Magdeburg. In fact, they were beyond even the area already being developed for the new factories.

"I could really use even more frontage than that, actually," he said.

"We're only building three ships," Eddie pointed out. He tried very hard to avoid sounding like he was nitpicking, but from the expressionless glance Simpson gave him he suspected that he hadn't completely succeeded.

"No, Mr. Cantrell," the older man said after a moment. "If, in fact, I agree to accept the responsibility for building your ironclads, they will most assuredly not be the only ships built here. At the very least, we'll be building additional tugs and barges. More importantly, don't you think it would be a good idea to provide a little something in the way of support for your battleships? In one sense, after all, it doesn't matter how powerful and well armored we make them, does it? If there are only three of them, then they can only be in three places at once, and I can assure you that we'll need to cover more than three places at a time sooner than you may expect."

"Well, yeah," Eddie said. "But right now, all we're authorized to build is the ironclads."

"Actually," Simpson said in a voice whose patient tone surprised Eddie, "we aren't authorized to build anything at this particular moment. All we have is President Stearns'—" he managed to use Mike's title without so much as a hint of sarcasm, Eddie noticed, and wondered if that was because of Haygood's and Schwanhausser's presence "—assurance that if he decides to support the project he'll succeed in obtaining authorization for it."

He smiled very slightly at Eddie's expression.

"Don't get excited, Mr. Cantrell. The President and I may not see eye to eye on a great many issues, but I don't doubt for a moment that if he decides to push the ironclads through, he'll succeed. In fact, I expect him to. And I also expect him to support my proposal to construct a fleet of timberclads to back them up."

"Timberclads?" Eddie could almost feel his ears perk up, and Haygood looked interested, as well.

"Precisely." Simpson nodded. "Timberclads should be survivable against seventeenth-century artillery. After all, they stood up reasonably well against nineteenth-century field artillery at the beginning of the Civil War, didn't they?"

"Yeah," Eddie admitted. "Of course," he added in a more challenging tone, "they retired the timberclads as soon as they could, didn't they?"

"Actually, they continued to use them throughout the war," Simpson disagreed. "Once they'd developed the capability—and had the time—to build better designed, more heavily armored vessels, they did build all of them they could. But the existing timberclads continued to serve in supporting roles until the very end of the war. And our problem, Mr. Cantrell, is that we're going to begin with the ability to build a very limited number of heavily armored units—by seventeenth-century standards, at least—but we're not going to be able to develop the infrastructure to build any more of them for quite some time. 'Building down,' I believe the President calls it, and rightly so. Which means that in order to project force as broadly as we're going to need to project it, we're going to have to accept the units we can actually build to do it with." He shrugged. "Timberclads should just about fill the bill."

"He's got a point, Eddie," Haygood put in. "A pretty good one, in fact. Timberclads may not be as good as 'proper' ironclads, but they'll kick the ass of any seventeenth-century 'warship' they run into. At least on a one-to-one basis."

Eddie turned the thought over in his brain, pondering it from several angles. And then, after a moment, he felt himself beginning to nod.

"You're right," he said. "I guess maybe I did get a bit too fixated on building the Benton or the Tennessee," he admitted in a chastened tone. "It's not like we're going to have to run the batteries at Vicksburg or anything anytime soon, is it?"

"Probably not," Simpson agreed. "Not, at least, in terms of facing concentrations of true heavy artillery. But don't look so downhearted, Mr. Cantrell. Timberclads should serve adequately in many instances, but there will be cases where properly designed, well-armored ships with heavy artillery are required, as well. In fact, the timberclads' actual function will probably be to carry out routine patrols and shipping protection. When it comes to an actual standup fight with a properly emplaced battery or fort, their job will be to back the ironclads up rather than get into the thick of it themselves."

He sounded almost as if he were genuinely trying to cheer Eddie up, although the teenager found the possibility unlikely.

"In the meantime, Dietrich," the older man continued, turning back to their guide, "I believe you're probably right about the basic suitability of the site. I'd like to get a little more of the river bank, if we can, and I'm going to need enough area running back away from the river for the yard facilities themselves and for barracks and a drill field, as well."

"And eventually, at least, we're going to want someplace to put a decent drydock," Haygood put in, as enthusiastically as if the idea of a naval shipyard had been his own brainchild from the beginning, and Simpson nodded without looking away from Schwanhausser.

"That is probably possible, Herr Simpson," the German said thoughtfully. "It may be expensive," he warned.

"I suspect that if Gustav Adolf asks them politely, whoever owns it will be willing to be reasonable," Simpson said dryly, and Schwanhausser chuckled.

"I imagine they might," he agreed.

"Good." Simpson glanced up at the sun, and then down at his watch. It was an expensive electric job which, unlike most of the battery-powered watches in Grantville, continued to tick smoothly along. At first, Eddie had wondered if Simpson were buying additional batteries on the black market, but he'd been forced to give up that cherished suspicion when he realized that it was one of the kinetic-powered ones which used the wearer's motion to recharge its built-in capacitor. Which meant, of course, that John Chandler Simpson possessed a modern watch which might run for decades yet.

Not that anyone needed a watch to guess what was on his mind just now, Eddie thought. The sun was settling steadily lower in the west in a funeral pyre of red and gold cloud.

"I suppose we should be getting back to our quarters," Simpson remarked, then grimaced. "I don't imagine the street lights are going to be very bright around here after dark."

"No," Schwanhausser agreed, and glanced back and forth between the three up-timers. "In fact," he continued after a moment in a diffident tone, "the truth is that it isn't always safe for Americans to move about after dark."

"It isn't?" Simpson asked, and the German shook his head. The up-timer glanced at Haygood, but from the engineer's expression he didn't know any more about the local situation than Simpson and Eddie did, and the ex-industrialist looked back at Schwanhausser. "Is that simply because the local criminal element finds the lack of lighting . . . congenial to its efforts?" he asked. "Or is there some specific reason why Americans in particular should be on their guard?"

"It—" Schwanhausser began, then paused. "Much of it probably is no more than desperation, darkness, and opportunity, Herr Simpson," he continued after a moment. "Even with all of the construction jobs here in the city, some remain who have no means of support. Some of those who lack work do, however, have families. We have enough criminals even without those circumstances, of course, but it has been much worse than usual this past winter. Armies, battles, and devastation do not contribute to social tranquility, after all.

"On the other hand, that situation seems to be improving now that spring is here and the pace of construction has picked up still further. But I fear that there is another danger, one I have not yet been able to convince Herr McDougal to take sufficiently seriously."

"Which is?" Simpson asked.

"Richelieu," Schwanhausser half-snarled, and his head swiveled as if he were peering about for assassins. "Do not, whatever you do, underestimate that Frenchman, Herr Simpson! You and the other Americans are the greatest threat he faces, and he knows it well. Did he not attempt to murder your very children because he knew it?"

Simpson nodded slowly and Eddie felt a chill, which owed very little to the approach of night, run down his spine.

"Well, then," Schwanhausser said, returning Simpson's nod. "Be warned. There are rumors of assassins and prices on American heads. No doubt such rumors would abound, whatever the truth behind them, of course. That is Herr McDougal's opinion, at least, and there is probably some reason in it. Yet I do not think that they are only rumors this time."

 

"That's it," Bill Franklin announced, tipping back in his chair in front of the radio.

"Thank you," Simpson said. He was standing behind Franklin, unable to see his expression, but Eddie saw the radio operator roll his eyes. None of McDougal's staff liked the industrialist one bit. Of course, all of them were Stearns loyalists, and most of them had been solid union members before the Ring of Fire, which created two perfectly good reasons for their attitude right there. Simpson couldn't have been unaware of it, but he certainly didn't act as if he were, and Eddie wondered whether that was out of a sense of towering superiority which refused to acknowledge the slings and arrows of his social inferiors. That was what he'd written it down as at first, but he was beginning to question his initial assumptions. He didn't much care for that, because he liked things nice and clear, and he preferred for the people about him to remain if not predictable, at least consistent. The thought that there might be rather more to John Chandler Simpson than he'd assumed was particularly unpalatable, especially given the unmitigated jerk Simpson had shown himself to be during the immediate aftermath of their arrival in Thuringia.

Eddie wasn't entirely certain why he found the idea so distasteful. Well, he knew part of the reason—he didn't like Simpson, and he hated the very thought of finding something about the man to respect. The ingrained suspicion and hostility which were part of Eddie's self-identification as one of Mike Stearns' men undoubtedly played their parts, as well, he admitted frankly, yet he suspected that there was more to it even than that.

Maybe what it really came down to was that he'd never before encountered the combination in a single person of truly superior abilities with the capacity to make truly enormous mistakes. Intellectually, Eddie knew it was entirely possible for something like that to happen, but he'd never personally experienced it, and it was an affront to his teenager's sense of absolute right and absolute wrong. Worse, it made him wonder if he might be equally capable of screwing the pooch. Not a pleasant possibility at all, that!

"Will the commo link be manned all night?" Simpson asked after a moment.

"Well, yeah," Franklin replied. " 'Course there's not much chance Mike—I mean, the President—is gonna be seeing this before sometime tomorrow morning." His voice was somewhat elaborately patient, although no one could quite have called it overtly discourteous.

"I didn't expect that he would," Simpson said calmly. "I was asking for future information, Mr. Franklin. If this project goes forward, I'll need twenty-four-hour communications capability, and I was simply wondering if it already existed."

"Oh." Franklin had the grace to blush slightly, but he didn't go overboard about it. "Yeah," he said in a much closer to normal tone, "we've got round-the-clock coverage. It's not like being able to pick up your cell phone, but we can usually get the message through without too much delay."

"Excellent," Simpson said, and nodded to him. "Come along, Mr. Cantrell," he said then, and stepped out of the radio room and headed back up the short hall towards McDougal's office.

He was finally showing at least some signs of fatigue, Eddie noticed, although they were still minor enough most people wouldn't have noticed at all. Nothing more than a slight limp on the right side—something even Eddie wouldn't have noted if he hadn't been following Simpson, Haygood, and Schwanhausser around all day.

"What do you think about the possibilities?" he asked as he followed the older man down the hall. He hadn't seen the four-page, handwritten draft of the message Franklin had just transmitted back to Grantville for Simpson.

"I think . . . I think it's possible, Mr. Cantrell," Simpson replied after only the briefest pause, then stopped just outside McDougal's office and turned to face Eddie. "I don't say that I think it will be easy, you understand," he continued. "But assuming that the President is as successful as usual in prying the necessary resources out of the Allocations Committee, and assuming that Gustav Adolf supports this as enthusiastically as I certainly expect him to and that Mr. Haygood's services are made available to us, initially at least, then I believe it should be entirely possible to set up our navy yard here in Magdeburg. Shipping all of the materials we'll need from Grantville will be a royal pain in the ass, of course, but I don't see how we could realistically expect to be able to build and launch them very much up-river from here. And the river itself is going to require quite a bit of improvement before we can move them freely, even operating from here instead of Halle."

"But you think the idea itself is really practical?" Eddie asked.

"Yes, Mr. Cantrell, I do," Simpson told him with a slight smile which, for some reason, made Eddie feel unexpectedly good. "Mind you, I can see quite a few aspects of your initial proposal which are going to require some . . . refinement, shall we say? But overall, I believe that it's not only a practical idea, but a good one."

"Does that mean you're gonna take the job?" Eddie demanded with an edge of lingering suspicion.

"Let's just say," Simpson said, "that my participation in the project is something of a prerequisite if it's going to succeed." He smiled again, ever so thinly, as Eddie stiffened. "Of course it is, Mr. Cantrell," he chided. "Or were you under the misapprehension that there was anyone else in Grantville who'd have even a clue as to how to make this work?"

It was truly remarkable, Eddie reflected as the ex-industrialist resumed his progress towards McDougal's office, how easily Simpson could go from making him feel obscurely pleased to absolutely infuriated with only two simple sentences.

Nor was Simpson finished infuriating people for the evening, either, the teenager discovered a few moments later.

McDougal looked up with something less than total enthusiasm as Simpson led Eddie back into his office.

"Is there something else I can do for you?" he asked.

"Actually, there is," Simpson told him, seating himself in one of the chairs facing McDougal's desk. Eddie started to sit in the other chair, then stopped. Sitting beside Simpson might seem to be ranging himself with the outsider against McDougal, so he chose to stand, leaning against the wall, instead.

"Oh?" McDougal sat back in his chair, his expression wary as Simpson's tone registered.

"I wanted to ask you about something Mr. Schwanhausser mentioned to me earlier this evening," Simpson said. "He advised us to be cautious about our movements."

"Not that again!" McDougal sighed, then shook his head wearily. "Was Dietrich bending your ear about Richelieu again?" he asked.

"As a matter of fact, he was."

"Well, he's just a little bit loony on the topic," McDougal said. He shrugged. "I guess it's not too surprising, really. He did lose most of his family when Tilly burned Magdeburg. A lot of the locals got pretty paranoid after that happened. Now they see murderers and assassins hiding in every alley, and of course the only person who could be sending them is Richelieu."

"So you don't think there's anything to his fears?"

"That Richelieu is sending assassins to Magdeburg? No, I don't think there's anything to that. And if he were sending them here at all, he'd be sending them after Gustav Adolf, not us. Which doesn't mean that there isn't enough 'street crime' here in Magdeburg to make it smart to stay alert."

"Have any of our people—up-timers, I mean—been attacked?"

"Jim Ennis got knifed about a week ago. Hurt pretty bad, in fact, though it looks like he's going to recover fully," McDougal said. Simpson looked at him sharply, and McDougal shrugged again. "Lucky for him, one of the Swedish patrols was passing through and heard him scream. He managed to run for it after the one stab, and the thief gave up and disappeared back down the alley when he saw the patrol. The bastard got Jim's wallet and his pocket watch first, though. Big windup railroad model, too, not battery-powered."

"So you think it was a robbery? A mugging?"

"What else could it have been? The guy demanded Jim's wallet and his 'jewels,' then stuck a knife in him. Sounds like a robbery to me." McDougal sounded a bit impatient, and Simpson snorted.

"Doesn't it seem just a bit odd to you that he stabbed this Ennis after getting what he'd come for?" McDougal looked blank, and Simpson shook his head. "I assume from what you just said that your Mr. Ennis gave the 'robber' what he'd demanded instead of trying to resist?"

"Damn straight he did," McDougal replied. "Jim's about fifty years old, and the first thing he knew about it was when he stepped around the corner and the bastard showed him the knife! What the hell would you have done in his position?"

"Quite possibly exactly the same thing," Simpson said. "But my point is that he did what this 'thief' of yours told him to. He handed over what the man wanted and didn't resist. And the 'robber' still chose to stab him. You said the Swedish patrol heard him 'scream,' not 'shout for help,' so I'm assuming that he hadn't even tried to summon assistance before he was stabbed."

"This isn't the twenty-first century," McDougal pointed out. "There isn't exactly a cop on every street corner, and there are some real hardcases and badasses hanging around here. Some of them would cut your throat for a nickel."

"I don't doubt it. For that matter, there were plenty of places back home where people would have cut your throat just as cheerfully for even less. But usually, Mr. McDougal—usually, I say—even around here thieves don't go around murdering people just for the hell of it. I'm perfectly well aware that there are exceptions to the rule. But it's still just a bit unusual, I'd think, for someone who's been able to get everything he demanded with only the threat of violence to go ahead and murder the person who gave it to him."

"Like I say, it's a rough neighborhood," McDougal replied. "People get knifed all the time, sometimes for no reason at all."

"Actually, people very seldom get knifed 'for no reason at all,'" Simpson disagreed. "There's always some reason for it."

"Maybe so, but there must have been dozens of locals who've gotten robbed, beaten up, or stabbed in the last two or three months, compared to a single up-timer."

"On the other hand," Simpson pointed out, "there aren't simply dozens of locals for each up-timer in Magdeburg, Mr. McDougal. There are thousands of them. Statistically, Americans—excuse me, up-timers—represent an extremely small sample of the total population. So if this was no more than a random street crime, the odds against the thief picking one of the literal handful of up-timers in Magdeburg must have been quite high, don't you think?"

"Look," McDougal said, "why don't you come right out and say whatever it is you're driving at, Simpson. What? You think I'm just been sitting here on my ass ignoring some sort of master plot against all Americans everywhere? Is that it? You're accusing me of not doing my job?"

"I didn't say that," Simpson replied. "In fact, all I intended to do was to suggest to you that Dietrich might have a point. Of course it's possible that Mr. Ennis was simply the victim of an armed robber with a particularly vicious temper. But it's also possible that the entire object was to make an assassination look like a robbery. That was all I came in here to suggest. On the other hand, now that you ask, and after hearing your reaction to my questions and my suggestion that you might want to be just a little open-minded on the question, I have to say that, yes, it does sound to me like you've been sitting on your ass—or maybe your brain—where this particular possibility is concerned."

"Listen, you—" McDougal began furiously, but Simpson only shook his head and stood.

"I didn't come in here to argue with you, McDougal. I came in here to try to get you to think. Obviously, whatever your other virtues—and I'm sure they're legion—may be, thinking isn't one of them. You do remember, as Dietrich himself reminded me just this afternoon, that it was Richelieu who ordered the attack on the high school? The high school in which your children were students? Why do you think he did that? Richelieu is capable of total ruthlessness, but the man isn't a complete psychotic, you know. He attacked the school because of what it represents, and what it represents is knowledge. The information Gustav Adolf needs and that Richelieu fears even more than he does the Spanish Habsburgs. Well, he didn't get the high school, and he didn't manage to kill all of your teachers and all of your children in one fell swoop, but that's not the only place knowledge is locked up, is it? It's also walking around inside the brain of every single up-timer. And do you seriously think that Richelieu isn't perfectly capable of and willing to attempt to eliminate as many of those brains as he can?"

McDougal stared at him, jaw clenched, and Simpson snorted.

"Apparently you do. Well, I hope the people responsible for keeping your President alive are a bit more willing to think the unthinkable than you appear to be. I may not be one of his greatest admirers, but if I were Richelieu, the only person I'd want dead right now even more badly than I wanted Gustav Adolf that way would be Mike Stearns. You might want to pass that assessment along to him."

Simpson's voice was desert-dry, and McDougal's jaw unlocked enough to drop ever so slightly. Simpson observed the phenomenon and produced another snort, then glanced at Eddie.

"Come along, Mr. Cantrell. I'd like to find some supper before we turn in for the evening."

 

Dinner was quite probably the best meal Eddie had eaten since leaving Grantville. In fact, it was in the running for the best meal he'd had since the Ring of Fire, period. The "restaurant" was little more than a very large tent—or, at least, a tarp stretched across two-and-a-fraction walls of what would someday be a proper restaurant but which was currently still under construction. At least the kitchens seemed to be complete, and The Crown and Eagle Bar and Grill was obviously the establishment of choice for both the Americans—Haygood was already there when they arrived—and many of the Swedish officers stationed in Magdeburg.

The name was a nice touch, Eddie thought, and he rather suspected that The Crown and Eagle was a franchise of the owners of the Thuringen Gardens back in Grantville. It wouldn't be surprising, since everyone knew Gustav Adolf was planning to make Magdeburg his new imperial capital in Germany. The city was already a "boom town," and the boom was just getting underway. There was certainly something very up-time about the choice of names, and he recognized two of the bouncers from the Gardens. The food was just as good, too, and he tucked into the steak Simpson had decided to treat both of them to.

There were times when Eddie missed the twenty-first century with excruciating poignancy, and memories of food had a tendency to bring them on. No pre-Ring-of-Fire American had been even remotely prepared for the change in diet imposed by their transition to the seventeenth century. It wasn't just the esoteric or "modern" foods they missed, either. It was the fact that the entire food distribution system, and the food production system, as well, was so damned limited compared to the one they'd grown up with. Steak, for example. It was generally available, but it cost an arm and a leg. Or corn-on-the-cob. They were lucky as hell that they'd had seed corn available when they were kicked back in time, but there hadn't been enough of it. Almost every kernel they'd been able to produce in the shortened growing season they'd enjoyed after arriving in Thuringia had gone right back into seeds, rather than onto people's tables. And tomatoes. Or avocados. God, Eddie had never imagined that he would have been willing to contemplate homicide for a couple of scoops of guacamole!

But at least The Crown and Eagle's cooks knew how to do justice to one of their extraordinarily expensive T-bones . . . unlike the cooks in the inns in which he and Simpson had stayed or dined on their journey to Magdeburg. Most of them had figured that the only way to cook beef was to boil it into a consistency which would have made decent cavalry boots. This steak, on the other hand, was done to medium-rare perfection (over an open-fire grill, of course!) and served up with nicely sauteed mushrooms, and a salad of very early bibb lettuce (courtesy of the up-timers) with a vinaigrette dressing.

There was even, wonder of wonders, a baked potato. Potatoes had already been introduced in large parts of Germany before the Ring of Fire—to Eddie's surprise, since he knew that Frederick the Great had had to force them onto Prussia in the next century—but they were still something of a rarity. Of course, once he reflected upon the matter, it made sense that The Crown and Eagle would serve them, given that so much of the establishment's popularity stemmed from its "American cuisine."

Eddie luxuriated in all of them with shameless hedonism. In fact, it was quite some time before he was able to tear himself sufficiently away from gastronomic considerations to pay much attention to whatever else was going on about him.

". . . so the point, you see," Simpson was saying to a pock-faced Scotsman who was obviously one of Gustav Adolf's officers, "is to eventually completely eliminate the pike from the battlefield."

"Och, mon, you're daft!" the Scotsman declared. "There's never a day musketeers could stop a hard charge of well-trained pikes without pikes of their own." He shook his head and thumped his beer tankard on the rough-planked table. "The king's already increased his proportion of shot to pikes to two-to-one, and that's higher than any of these stinking Imperialists. But any more than that, and we've nothing to stop t'other side's pikes with, and there's an end to it. It might be that if all our 'new weapons' could fire as fast as yours can there might be something in it, but they're not going to be able to, are they now?"

"I'm not sure exactly what sort of firearms are being considered, actually," Simpson admitted, and looked down the table at Haygood. "Mr. Haygood? Do you?"

"No, not really," the engineer replied after washing down a mouthful with a healthy swig of beer. "I understand that they're still debating the advantages of flintlocks and caplocks. I know which one I'd prefer, but the manufacturing end isn't my kind of engineering, and I've been kind of busy with other projects, I'm afraid. So far, I don't think anyone's even suggested the possibility of a breechloader."

"Given the difficulties in manufacturing proper cartridges—and, for that matter, fulminating powder and primer caps—I'd assume that you're going to be looking at muzzle-loaders of some sort, at best," Simpson agreed, and turned back to the Scotsman.

"I'm guessing that they'll probably be flintlocks, but the designs should include cylindrical iron ramrods and conical touchholes. In that case, your rate of fire is going to be considerably higher than it is right now, but you're right that it's never going to match that of up-time weapons. I'm sure that plans are already afoot to provide you with rifles, which will let you open fire effectively at greater ranges, so you'll generally have longer to shoot at an attacking enemy, but that certainly isn't enough by itself to guarantee that you can stop a determined charge.

"But you're missing at least part of the point, Captain. If you eliminate the pikes, then you can take the pikemen and issue all of them rifles—muskets, if you prefer—as well. And if your entire army is equipped with rifles and bayonets . . ." He paused. "Ah, they did mention bayonets to you, didn't they?" he asked.

"You mean that wee silly knife they're talking about hanging on the end of a musket?" The Scotsman shrugged. "Och, and won't that be useful against some bastard with a twelve-foot pike!"

"That 'wee silly knife' will be a lot more useful than you think, especially if your troops are trained with them," Haygood interjected. The Scotsman looked skeptical, and Haygood showed his teeth in a thin smile. "What happens when somebody gets inside your reach with a shorter, handier weapon?" he challenged. "Say, someone with a knife who blocks your sword to one side while he rams it into your belly?"

The Scotsman blinked, and it was Haygood's turn to shrug.

"Trust me, properly used, a bayoneted rifle is very effective in close combat. As it happens, I'm one of the very few up-timers who's had actual experience with the kind of weapons and tactics Mr. Simpson's talking about." He did not, Eddie noticed, explain that his "actual experience" was that of a hobbyist, and the Scotsman frowned.

"Mr. Haygood is correct," Simpson said. "For all practical purposes, bayonets will turn every single man in your entire army into a pikeman, if he's needed. And in the meantime, if all of your infantry are musket-armed and trained and disciplined to employ those muskets in mass fire that's properly timed, not very many pike formations are going to be able to close with them."

The Scotsman looked more thoughtful, but it was clear that acceptance still ran a distant second—or third—to skepticism, and Simpson cocked his head.

"Suppose that I gave your musketeers weapons that could open aimed fire at a range of, say, three hundred paces and expect to hit man-sized targets at that distance. And that I got their rate of fire up to four shots a minute, at the same time," he suggested after a moment. "And suppose that your army had nine thousand men in it, and that I organized them into three firing lines, each three thousand men long. And then suppose that I organized your musketeers into ninety-six-man companies, each composed of three thirty-two-man 'platoons,' and trained them to fire by half-platoons."

The Scotsman was staring at Simpson, his eyes almost crossed as he tried to follow what the American was saying.

"All right, now," Simpson continued. "If you've got three thousand men in each line, then that means that each line consists of thirty-one companies, or ninety-three platoons, or a total between all three lines of sixty-three companies and . . . two-hundred and seventy-nine platoons, right?"

The sandbagged-looking Scotsman nodded, obviously prepared to let the up-timer do the mathematical heavy lifting, and Simpson shrugged.

"Well, the math is actually pretty simple. If your musketeers can fire four times every minute, then the total reload cycle for each man in your formation is approximately fifteen seconds. So if half of each platoon in your first line fires, and then two and a half seconds later the second half of each platoon in the first line fires, and then two and a half seconds after that half of each platoon in your second line fires, and so on, your nine thousand men are going to the sending the next best thing to fifteen hundred rounds down-range every two and a half seconds. That's almost thirty-six thousand rounds per minute."

The Scotsman's eyes weren't crossed now—indeed, they were almost bulging, and Simpson shrugged again.

"But the total numbers don't begin to tell the entire tale, do they?" he inquired mildly. "Remember, fifteen hundred of them are going to be arriving every two and a half seconds. Effectively, there will be a continuous, unbroken wall of bullets pouring into any pike block foolish enough to try to close with your formation, which I should think would have at least a tiny bit of an effect on its morale. Obviously you've seen a battlefield or two of your own. How well do you think a formation of pikes would do when it came to holding its ranks and carrying through with an effective charge under those circumstances?"

"Carrying through?" The Scotsman shook his head as if he'd just been punched. "Mother of God, mon! If you're telling the truth about the range of these 'rifles' of yours, then it would take a good three minutes—at least!—under fire for the pikes to close, and that would mean—"

"That would mean that they were trying to charge through over one hundred thousand rounds of continuous fire," Simpson said, once again doing the math for him obligingly. "So if there were nine thousand pikemen, and if one third of the shots your men fired actually hit, you'd kill each of them about four times."

The American smiled thinly, and raised one hand, palm uppermost.

"Of course, that's under perfect conditions. It assumes that the terrain lets you see the target and begin engaging it at extended range, and that your rate of fire isn't affected by fog, rain, barrel fouling, or something like that. And once the firing begins, smoke alone is going to cause individual accuracy to drop off pretty severely. But I think you see my point?"

"Aye, you might be saying that," the Scotsman said, and looked at Haygood, as if seeking additional confirmation of Simpson's claims.

"Mr. Simpson's description isn't exactly the one I would have used," the engineer said. "It sounds more like what the Brits did to the French during the Napoleonic wars than the sort of tactics I'm trained in. Of course, most of the differences are because the ones he's talking about would make the kind of tactics you're accustomed to downright suicidal. Which is why we developed better ones which were even more effective. Mr. Simpson's example was hypothetical, but in the up-time American Civil War, a battle was fought—would have been fought—with weapons very similar to the ones he's describing, about a hundred and thirty years from now at a place called Chickamauga, and in just two days, the two sides suffered over thirty-seven thousand casualties. And at the Battle of Antietam, in the same war, the two sides suffered twenty-two thousand casualties in a single day."

It was obvious to Eddie that no one had ever explained it to the Scotsman the way Simpson and Haygood just had—certainly not with the numbers the two of them had produced—and the officer stared at the Americans for two or three more seconds before he drained his tankard. Then he waved it at one of the barmaids for a refill and turned back to Simpson.

"And what other evil little surprises would you be suggesting?" he asked, leaning his forearms on the table and gazing at the American intently.

 

It was well past midnight before Simpson, Haygood and Eddie left The Crown and Eagle. Many of the Swedish officers who'd helped fill the restaurant had been thoroughly standoffish when they first arrived—no doubt because Simpson's reputation as an anti-German and anti-Swedish bigot had preceded him. Despite that, however, most of them had been listening when he began his discussion with the pock-faced Scotsman. And whatever his other faults might have been, it seemed that John Simpson had a definite gift for getting at the heart—or, at least, the nuts and bolts—of an explanation.

Even Eddie, with his wargamer's fascination with military history, wouldn't have thought of breaking down the numbers the way Simpson had. He would have just waved his hands and insisted that the weight of fire would have been sufficient to break the enemy's charge. Which would have overlooked the fact that the members of his audience, whatever theoretical faith they might have in Americans' technical ingenuity, were basing their understanding of what he was saying on their actual experience with matchlocks. No wonder they'd had such serious reservations about the possibilities!

But once Simpson had gotten the actual numbers across to them—and once the notion that Haygood really knew what he was talking about had percolated through their brains—virtually every officer in the restaurant had started easing closer and closer to the table the three Americans shared. And as they'd closed in, they'd begun to ask other questions, as well. Lots of other questions.

Simpson had done his best to answer those questions, and somehow Eddie hadn't been as surprised as he once would have been when Simpson frankly admitted, from time to time, that he didn't know an answer. When that happened, Haygood usually did, although there were times when even he had to admit he was stumped. Two or three times, Simpson actually turned to Eddie, drawing the younger man into the conversation when he rightly suspected that the question was the sort a war game enthusiast might know how to answer. But there was a difference between the explanations Eddie gave and those Simpson provided. Indeed, there was a difference between the answers that came from Simpson and those which came from Haygood, as well, and as Eddie listened to the older man, he knew what that difference was . . . and why it convinced Gustav Adolf's officers to listen so intently to the ex-Navy officer.

Experience. John Simpson had never served in the howling chaos of a seventeenth-century battlefield, yet there was something about his voice and manner, an assurance that he knew what he was talking about from personal, first-hand experience when he explained things to the hard-bitten officers of the Swedish Army. Not, perhaps, the same experience as their own, but experience nonetheless.

They kept him talking for hours before they let him go. And when they finally did let him take his leave, it was with nods of mutual respect unlike anything Simpson had ever seen in Grantville itself, before or after the Ring of Fire.

It would have taken a superman not to have been pleased and flattered by such a reception, and whatever else he might have been, John Simpson Chandler was not a superman. The after-supper discussion had to have been the most enjoyable single evening he'd spent since arriving as a less than eager guest for his son's wedding, and it showed. He was never going to be an expressive man, Eddie realized, yet there was a new liveliness in his voice and eyes as the two of them finally gathered up a Haygood who'd apparently had a beer or two too many and headed towards their quarters in the boardinghouse where McDougal had rented rooms for them.

It was blacker than the pits of Hell outside the restaurant. Eddie remembered how Mr. Ferrara had once complained, before the Ring of Fire, about light pollution and how it interfered with observations on their astronomy field trips even in rural West Virginia, but he hadn't really understood at the time. Not the way he did now.

Not even the endless months of the winter just past could have prepared him for the darkness which enveloped the one vast construction site which was Magdeburg. Dark as those winter nights had seemed at the time, Grantville at least still had electricity. Light bulbs were one of the items which had fallen under strict rationing controls as yet one more utterly irreplaceable twenty-first-century resource which had been taken completely for granted before the Ring of Fire. Because of that rationing, Grantville's homes and businesses and public places had seemed woefully dimly lit to up-timer eyes.

Compared to Magdeburg at midnight, however, Grantville at its dimmest had been lit up like downtown Las Vegas on a Saturday night. The inky blackness of the muddy streets and alleys between the half-completed walls of the buildings was broken only by occasional—very occasional—torches or lanterns. In many ways, the widely scattered pinpricks of light only made the darkness even denser by comparison, and Eddie buttoned his denim jacket against a chill night breeze as he followed Simpson out of the restaurant. Simpson, on the other hand, actually unzipped his light windbreaker, as if he welcomed the briskness.

It would have been easy to become hopelessly lost amid all of the heaps of brick, timbers, and other building materials, but they didn't have all that far to go. Besides, dark and confusing as most of the city might be, Pete McDougal had insisted that the United States' official headquarters had to be well-lighted—by Magdeburg standards, at least—at all times. That provided a visual beacon they could orient themselves upon, and they moved out briskly (or, at least, as briskly as Haygood's . . . cheerfulness allowed) through the muddy darkness.

Haygood was kind enough to provide them with an enthusiastic, if not particularly tuneful serenade, but Simpson wasn't in a very talkative mood. No doubt he'd used up a month or two of conversation after supper, Eddie reflected just a bit sourly. Eddie didn't feel much more like talking himself, though. He was too busy with his own ruminations, still trying to figure out how he felt about the surprising, apparently contradictory layers of Simpson's personality. And so the two of them trudged along silently through the deserted streets and alleys.

Except that they weren't quite "deserted" after all.

Eddie was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn't notice when Simpson abruptly halted. His first inkling that anything out of the ordinary was happening came when he literally ran into the older man's back. It was a much more substantial back than Eddie would have anticipated, and the wiry teenager bounced backward a step and a half from the impact.

"What the hell—?" he began angrily, but before he could complete the question, several things happened at once.

He and Simpson had just entered the faint spill of light from a lantern burning outside an alley mouth. It was the most feeble of illuminations, but clearly it was enough for the three men who'd been waiting in the alley to identify them. Eddie knew it was, although it took him two or three precious seconds to realize the fact.

"There!" someone hissed in German. "That's them—get them!"

Eddie was still gaping, trying to get a handle on what was happening, when he saw the gleam of naked steel and three burly figures coming straight for him. Confusion barely had time to begin giving way to fear and the beginning of panic as he realized Dietrich Schwanhausser had been right to warn them. Whether or not the men in the alley worked directly for Richelieu didn't really matter. What mattered was that all three of them were obviously intent upon shoving a foot or so of knife blade through one Eddie Cantrell.

He opened his mouth to shout for help, even as he stumbled backward another step. But that was as far as he got before a hammer blow of sound smashed his ears like a baseball bat.

The muzzle flash lit up the night like a lightning bolt. Eddie had never before seen a handgun fired in near darkness at very close range, and the brilliant eruption of light stabbed at his eyeballs like a knife. But if it came as a surprise to Eddie, it was far more of a surprise to their assailants.

Eddie heard the beginning of a scream of agony, then cringed as the baseball bat whacked him across the ears again and another stroboscopic blast of light assaulted his optic nerves. But that same flash of light seemed to carve John Simpson out of the darkness, and Eddie saw the nine-millimeter automatic which had materialized magically from somewhere under his unzipped windbreaker.

The city slicker from Pittsburgh had dropped into a half-crouched shooter's stance, with the handgun held two-handed, and the abortive scream of pain was chopped abruptly off as Simpson's second shot hit the lead attacker dead center, just above the collarbone.

One of the other assailants shouted an incredulous curse and lunged desperately forward, but Simpson didn't even shift position. Haygood was just beginning to claw at the revolver holstered at his hip when Simpson fired again—twice, in a quick one-two sequence that punched a pair of bullets into the triangle formed by the would-be killer's forehead and the base of his throat.

That one went down without even a scream, his throat and the back of his neck exploding in a grisly spray, Eddie noticed almost numbly, and the third man hesitated. It was only the briefest of pauses, and Eddie always wondered afterward exactly what the man had thought he was doing. He might even have entertained some notion of throwing down his knife and surrendering, but if that was what he had in mind, he didn't get around to it in time to do him any good.

Simpson's point of aim shifted, and Eddie had a fraction of a second to wonder how the man could possibly see what he was doing after the blinding brilliance of the muzzle flashes. Maybe he was actually closing his eyes—or one of them, at least—as he fired. Eddie didn't have a clue about that, but it didn't really matter, either. The nine-millimeter pistol barked twice more in that same, deadly rhythm. One shot hit the third attacker perhaps an inch above the heart; the second took him squarely above the right eye and slammed him back to slither bonelessly down the alley wall behind him just as Haygood's revolver finally cleared its holster.

Eddie Cantrell stood there, frozen in stunned disbelief. The entire attack couldn't have consumed more than five seconds. Probably less. But in those few heartbeats of time, three men had tried to kill him . . . and the stuffed shirt from Pittsburgh had killed all three of them, instead.

 

"Good morning, Mr. Cantrell."

"Uh, good morning," Eddie half-mumbled as Simpson greeted him the following day. The older man sat at the small, rickety table in the tiny "sitting room" of their shared quarters, carefully cleaning a Browning High-Power automatic.

It was the first really good look Eddie had gotten at it, and from the way the bluing was worn away, it was obvious to him that the handgun had seen a lot of use. It was equally obvious that it had been lovingly maintained during its lengthy lifespan, and Eddie wondered how Simpson had managed to conceal it so effectively that Eddie had never even suspected he had it.

"Are you ready for breakfast?" Simpson asked.

"Breakfast?" Eddie repeated, then swallowed heavily, remembering.

"Well, lunch, actually, I suppose," Simpson said thoughtfully, his face expressionless, although there might have been the faintest flicker of amusement in his eyes. If so, Eddie scarcely noticed as his mind replayed the previous night's events.

The sound of the shots, especially so close to the United States' "embassy," had brought two different Swedish patrols at a dead run. Not only that, but the sentries outside the embassy itself had responded almost as quickly, and, unlike the Swedes, they'd brought powerful up-time hand-portable lights with them.

Eddie rather wished they hadn't. He'd seen carnage and bloodshed enough for someone two or three times his age since arriving in Thuringia. He'd been there when Frank Jackson smashed his first Imperial army of mercenaries outside Badenburg and he and Jeff Higgins, Larry Wild, and Jimmy Andersen had faced down a second army of rapists and murderers who'd been their so-called "allies" with nothing but twelve-gauge shotguns and outrage. He'd been there at the Wartburg, too—and at the Alte Veste. Despite his brash, often bubbling exterior, there were nights when nightmares spawned by the memories of those sights and sounds kept him awake, tossing and turning.

But whatever he'd seen, he was scarcely hardened against it, and the sight of what Simpson's shots had done to their targets on the way through had almost cost him his excellent supper.

McDougal himself had appeared on the scene in less than ten minutes, still buttoning his shirt while he stared down at the three twisted, blood-leaking bodies and the wicked-looking knives lying beside them in the mud.

"So, Mr. McDougal," Simpson had grated, the harsh anger in his voice the only indication he seemed prepared to allow of his own adrenaline and fear, "do you still think Mr. Schwanhausser is overreacting to the possible threat from Richelieu?"

McDougal had flinched visibly from the bitter, biting irony of the question, but he'd only stared down at the bodies for a few more seconds, then shaken his head.

"No," he'd said then, not that he'd had much choice about it. "No, Mr. Simpson. I don't suppose he is."

There'd been quite a bit more after that, of course, before anyone got to bed, and it had been still longer before Eddie managed to drop off to sleep. Which was why he was so late rolling out.

"Uh, yeah," he said, shaking himself out of his thoughts. "I guess I am sorta hungry, at that."

He sounded a bit surprised, even to himself, and Simpson snorted. There was amusement in that snort, but not the harsh, dismissive sort of humor Eddie might once have expected. Indeed, in its own way, it was almost gentle.

"Well, give me a few minutes to finish up here, and I'll treat you to lunch at The Crown and Eagle," the older man said while his hands briskly broke down his cleaning rod and packed it and the other cleaning supplies away, then reassembled the Browning quickly and expertly. Eddie watched him, noting the smoothness of the practiced movements, and dismissed any lingering suspicion that Simpson had borrowed the handgun from someone for the trip.

"You had that all along, didn't you?" he asked after a moment.

"Yes, I did," Simpson agreed, not looking up as he finished reassembling the pistol and slid a freshly loaded magazine into the grip. "The Browning is an excellent weapon," he observed, "although the nine-millimeter round is a little short on stopping power, compared to something like the .45. On the other hand, with a hundred and forty-seven-grain hollowpoint and about four-point-six grains of HS-6, it will do the job quite adequately."

"I . . . see." Eddie cleared his throat. "How long have you been carrying it?" he asked.

"For considerably longer than you've been alive," Simpson replied, and looked up at last with a slight smile. "There are times, Mr. Cantrell, when one should be a little cautious about leaping to conclusions, don't you think?"

"Yeah," Eddie said slowly, "there are." He paused, meeting Simpson's eyes levelly, then added, "I guess everybody should bear that in mind, shouldn't they?"

"I imagine they should," Simpson agreed after a moment, and something passed between them as the older man met the youngster's gaze equally levelly. Eddie wasn't certain what that "something" was, but he knew both of them had felt it.

Then the moment passed, and Simpson stood. He tucked the Browning away into the worn holster at the small of his back, which Eddie had never noticed before, then nodded towards the door.

Eddie nodded back, and the two of them headed off towards The Crown and Eagle. Quite a few people looked at them—and especially Simpson—oddly as they passed, but the older man paid the curious no attention.

"By the way, Mr. Cantrell," he said casually as they approached the restaurant, "while you were sleeping in this morning, I went over to check with Mr. Franklin to see if President Stearns had responded to my message from yesterday."

"Oh?" Eddie glanced at him. Something about Simpson's tone sounded warning signals. "Had he?"

"Yes, he had," Simpson replied. "In fact, he informed me that he's accepted my recommendations and that he and his cabinet have authorized me to call upon Mr. McDougal for assistance in formally acquiring title to the land for our navy yard."

"Our navy yard?" Eddie repeated, and Simpson nodded.

"Yes. We're going to have to return to Grantville, of course. I'll need to spend some time with you and your original plan if we're going to work out a practical design for the ironclads. And we need to discuss with the President how many timberclads we'll need to add to the mix. And, for that matter, exactly what sort of priorities for resources—other than the railroad rails, of course—and manpower the navy is going to require. And how we're going to organize that manpower and set up training programs."

"Why do you keep saying 'we'?" Eddie asked. Simpson cocked an eyebrow at him, and the youngster shrugged irritably. "I know you're going to tear my design completely apart and put it together all over again," he said. "I accepted that when I first proposed it to Mike—I mean, the President. So, okay, it wasn't a perfect design. I never claimed it was."

"No, it wasn't," Simpson agreed in a coolly judicious tone. "On the other hand, I'm sure we'll have time to work the bugs out of it. After all, it's going to take weeks—probably at least a couple of months—of organizational work before we can get back to Magdeburg and really start setting things up here."

"Dammit, there you go again with that 'we' stuff! Just because Mike sent me along on this first trip doesn't mean I want to spend my time sitting around in this mudhole while they build the city around us!"

"That's unfortunate," Simpson observed. "On the other hand, I'm sure there are a great many people who find themselves compelled to do things they didn't want to."

Eddie stopped dead in the street and turned to face the older man squarely.

"Just go ahead and tell me what you're so pleased about!" he snapped irritably.

"That's 'Tell me what you're so pleased about, sir,' " Simpson told him, and Eddie's eyes began to widen in sudden, dreadful surmise.

"I'm afraid so, Lieutenant Cantrell," Simpson informed him. "Still, I suppose it's only appropriate that the individual responsible for inspiring his country to build a navy in the first place should find himself drafted for duty as its very first commissioned officer. Well, second, actually, I suppose," he amended judiciously.

"B-b-but I—I mean, I never—You can't be serious!" Eddie blurted out.

"Oh, but I can, Lieutenant," Simpson said coolly, and showed his teeth in the edge of a smile. "Don't worry," he advised, taking Eddie by the elbow and getting him moving once more, "you'll adjust quickly enough, Lieutenant. Oh, and by the way, I imagine you'll adjust even more quickly if you remember to call me 'Admiral' or 'sir' from now on."

 

The Captain
From Kirkbean

Captain Sir John Paul stood on the quarterdeck of His Majesty's seventy-four-gun ship-of-the-line Torbay, shading his eyes against the Caribbean's brilliant August sunlight. Torbay, the seventy-four Triumph, and the sixty-four Prince William, were four days out of Antigua with a Jamaica-bound convoy, and he lowered his hand from his eyes to rub thoughtfully at the buttons on his blue coat's lapel—twelve golden buttons, in groups of three, indicating a captain with more than three years' seniority—as he watched the sloop Lark's cutter pull strongly towards his ship.

The cutter swept around, coming up under Torbay's lee as the seventy-four lay hove to. The bow man neatly speared the big ship's main chains with his boathook, and the officer in the stern leapt for the battens on her tall side. A lazy swell licked up after him, soaking him to the waist, but he climbed quickly to the entry port, nodded to the lieutenant who raised his hat in salute, and then hurried aft.

"Well, Commander Westman," Captain Paul said dryly. "I trust whatever brings you here was worth a wetting?"

"I believe so, sir." Lark's captain touched his hat—no junior dared omit any proper courtesy to Sir John—then reached inside his coat. "Lark sighted a drifting ship's boat yesterday evening, sir. When I investigated, I discovered three Frenchmen—one dead officer and two seamen in but little better shape—from the naval brig Alecto. She foundered in a squall last week . . . but the officer had this on his person."

He held out a thick packet of papers. Paul took it, glanced at it, then looked up quickly.

"I, ah, felt it best to deliver it to you as soon as possible, sir," Westman said.

"You felt correctly, Commander," Paul replied almost curtly, then beckoned to the officer of the watch. "Lieutenant Chessman, make a signal. All captains are to repair aboard Torbay immediately!"

 

It was sweltering in Sir John's day cabin, despite the open windows, as Captain Forest was shown in. Prince William's commander had had the furthest to come, and he was acutely aware that he was the last captain to arrive . . . and that Captain Paul did not tolerate tardiness. But Sir John said nothing. He didn't even turn. He stood gazing out into the sun dazzle, hands clasped behind him and lost in memory, while his steward offered Forest wine. His fixed gaze saw not the Caribbean's eye-hurting brightness but the seething gray waste of the Channel and surf spouting white on a rocky shore as Sir Edward Hawke's squadron pursued Admiral Conflans into Quiberon Bay.

By most officers' standards, Hawke had been mad to follow an enemy into shoal water in a rising November gale when that enemy had local pilots and he did not. But Hawke had recognized his duty to keep the invasion army gathered round nearby Vannes in Brittany, not England. Confident of his captains and crews, he had driven Conflans' more powerful squadron onto the rocks or up the Vilaine River in an action which had cost the French seven ships of the line and almost three thousand men in return for only two of his own ships.

Quiberon had been the final triumph of what was still called the "Year of Victories," and Midshipman John Paul of Kirkbean, Scotland, serving in the very ship Captain Sir John Paul now commanded, had seen it all. Torbay had been the second ship in Hawke's line, under Captain Augustus Keppel, and young Paul had watched—twelve years old and terrified for his very life—as broadsides roared and a sudden squall sent the sea crashing in through the lee gunports of the French seventy-four Thésée and drove her to the bottom in minutes.

Paul would never forget her crew's screams, or his own ship's desperate efforts to save even a few of them from drowning, but more even than that, he remembered the lesson Hawke had taught him that day as he turned to face the captains seated around his table with their wine. Every one of them was better born than he, but John Paul, the son of a Scottish gardener—the boy who'd found a midshipman's berth only because his father had aided the wife of one of Keppel's cousins after a coach accident—was senior to them all.

Which means, he thought wryly, that it is I who have the honor of placing my entire career in jeopardy by whatever I do or do not decide this day.

It was ironic that twenty years of other officers' reminders of their superior birth should bring him here. Under other circumstances, I might well have been on the other side, he mused. Traitors or no, at least the rebels believe the measure of a man should be himself, not whom he chose as his father!

But no sign of that thought showed on his face, and his voice was crisp, with no trace of the lowland brogue he'd spent two decades eradicating, as he tapped the papers Westman had brought him and spoke briskly.

"Gentlemen, thanks to Commander Westman"—he nodded to Lark's captain— "we have intercepted copies of correspondence from de Grasse to Washington." The others stiffened, and he smiled thinly. "This copy is numbered '2' and addressed to Commodore de Barras at Newport for his information, and I believe it to be genuine. Which means, gentlemen, that I've decided to revise our present orders somewhat."

 

"Toss oars!" the coxswain barked, and Captain Paul watched with carefully hidden approval as the dripping blades rose in perfect unison and the bow man hooked onto Torbay's chains. The captain stood, brushing at the dirt stains on his breeches, and then climbed briskly up his ship's side. Pipes wailed, pipeclay drifted from white crossbelts as Marines slapped their muskets, and his first lieutenant removed his hat in salute.

Paul acknowledged the greeting curtly. In point of fact, he approved of Mathias Gaither, Torbay's senior lieutenant, but he had no intention of telling Gaither so. He knew he was widely regarded as a tyrant—a man whose prickly disposition and insatiable desire for glory more than made up for his small stature. And, he admitted, there was justice in that view of him.

The motley human material which crewed any King's ship demanded stern discipline, yet unlike many captains, Paul's discipline was absolutely impartial, and he loathed bullies and officers who played favorites. He was also sparing with the lash, given his belief that flogging could not make a bad man into a good one but could certainly perform the reverse transformation. Yet he had no mercy on anyone, officer or seaman, who failed to meet his harshly demanding standards, for he knew the sea and the enemy were even less forgiving than he. And if he sought glory, what of it? For a man of neither birth nor wealth, success in battle was not simply a duty but the only path to advancement, and Paul had seized renown by the throat two years before, off Flamborough Head in HMS Serapis, when he sank the American "frigate" Bonhomme Richard. The old, converted East Indiaman had fought gallantly, but her ancient guns, rotten hull, and wretched maneuverability had been no match for his own well-found vessel. Her consort, the thirty-six-gun Alliance, could have been much more dangerous, but Alliance's captain—a Frenchman named Landais—had been an outright Bedlamite, and Paul had entered port with Alliance under British colors.

His knighthood—and Torbay—had been his reward for that . . . and now he was risking it all.

He grimaced at the thought and headed aft to pace his scorching quarterdeck. If anything befell the convoy, his decision to order it back to Antigua escorted by a single sloop would ruin him, and he knew it. Worse, the orders he had elected to ignore had come from Sir George Rodney, who was even less noted for tolerating disobedience than Paul himself. But at least he also understood the value of initiative. If events justified Paul's decision, Rodney would forgive him; if they didn't, the admiral would destroy him.

He paused in his pacing and beckoned Gaither to his side.

"Yes, sir?"

"Lieutenant Jansen needs more men. General Cornwallis has supplied ample labor and a battalion to picket each battery, but Jansen needs more gunners. Instruct the Gunner to select a half-dozen gun captains—men with experience using heated shot."

"Yes, sir. I'll see to it at once."

"Thank you." Paul nodded brusquely and resumed his pacing as Gaither summoned a midshipman. He heard the lieutenant giving the lad quiet instructions, but his mind was back on the scene he'd just left ashore.

It was August 25, 1781. His squadron had taken the better part of nine days to reach Chesapeake Bay, but he'd picked up two more of the line along the way, having met the old sixty-gun Panther in the Caicos Passage, and the seventy-four Russel, bound for New York after repairing damages at Antigua, off the Georgia coast. Jasper Somers, Russel's captain, was barely two months junior to Paul, and he had been less than pleased by the latter's peremptory order to join Torbay. Paul hadn't blamed Somers, though that hadn't prevented him from commandeering Russel with profound relief. But welcome as her guns were, the ship accompanying her to New York had been even more welcome. HMS Serapis had brought him luck once before; perhaps she would do so again.

Something had better do so. He had five of the line, counting Panther (which was considerably older than he was), plus Serapis, the forty-four Charon (which he'd found anchored off Yorktown with the small frigates Guadalupe and Fowey and the tiny sloop Bonetta), and Westman's Lark. That was all, whereas de Grasse must have at least twenty sail of the line. That force could smash Paul's cobbled up command in an hour, and he knew it.

But he also knew General Rochambeau and the rebel Washington were headed south with far more men and artillery than Cornwallis could muster. If de Grasse could command the bay long enough for the Franco-American army to crush Yorktown, the consequences would be catastrophic. Efforts against the rebellion had been botched again and again, and support back home had weakened with each failure. Personally, Paul suspected the colonies were lost whatever happened, and the sooner the Crown admitted it, the better. America wasn't Ireland. There was an entire ocean between Britain and her rebellious colonists, and they couldn't be disarmed with the wilderness pressing so close upon them. Besides, England couldn't possibly field a large enough army to hold them down by force forever.

But personal doubt didn't change the duty of a King's officer. And even if it could have, the war was no longer solely about America. It might have started there, but England now faced the French, the Dutch, the Spanish. . . . The entire world had taken up arms against Paul's country. One more major defeat might seal not only the fate of North America but of England herself, and Washington, at least, grasped that point thoroughly. He'd wanted the French fleet to support an attack on the main British base at New York, but de Grasse's letters made it clear he could come no further north than the Chesapeake. Apparently Louis XVI's willingness to aid his American "allies" did not extend to uncovering his own Caribbean possessions or convoys.

None of which would make a successful combination against Cornwallis any less of a calamity, and Paul's jaw clenched. He respected Rodney deeply, but the last year had not been Sir George's finest. True, his health was atrocious, but his absorption in the capture of St. Eustatius from the Dutch and his inexplicable refusal to force an engagement in June, following de Grasse's capture of Tobago, had set the stage for the present danger.

Without control of American waters, we can't possibly wear the rebels down, Paul thought grimly, and if the Frogs can win sea control here, they may take control of the Channel, as well. Holding it would be another matter, but they only require control long enough to land an army. And the only way to ensure that they can't is to smash their fleet—which means fighting them at every possible opportunity, even at unfavorable odds. Those who will not risk, cannot win. Hawke understood that, and so should Rodney!

He shook himself. Rodney did understand, but he was a sick man who had been given reason to believe de Grasse was bound back to Europe, escorting a major French convoy. That was why he'd elected to return to England himself and sent Sir Samuel Hood to assume command at New York after Admiral Graves' unexpected death, with only fourteen of the line as reinforcements. But Rodney's intelligence sources had been wrong . . . and Sir John Paul was the senior officer who knew it.

That made it his responsibility to act. He could have taken his captured letters to New York, but Hood had strongly endorsed Rodney's estimate of de Grasse's intentions, and he was renowned for his stubbornness. Changing his mind could require days England might no longer have, and so Paul had taken matters into his own hands. He would compel Hood to sail for the Chesapeake by taking his own small force there and sending dispatches to announce what he'd done.

Samuel Hood was arrogant, stiff-necked, and contentious, but he was also a fighter who would have no choice but to sail south once he learned Paul had committed a mere five of the line to a fight to the death against an entire fleet. If Paul's estimate of de Grasse's intentions proved wrong, he could always be punished later. If it proved correct, Hood's failure to relieve him would be an ineradicable blot on not only his personal honor but that of the navy itself.

Paul drew a deep breath and walked to the side, looking out at his command. To a landsman, his ships must look small and fragile, isolated from one another as each lay to a pair of anchors, but he saw with a seaman's eye. The mouth of the Chesapeake was ten miles wide, and no squadron this small could cover it all. Yet for all its size, the shallow bay was a dangerous place for deep-draft ships-of-the-line. Paul didn't have to block its entire entrance: only the parts of it de Grasse's heavy ships could use.

That was why Russel and Charon were anchored between the shoals known as the Middle Ground and the Inner Middle Ground, blocking the channel there, while Triumph, Panther, Serapis, Prince William, and Torbay blocked the wider channel between the Inner Middle Ground and the shoal called the Tail of the Horseshoe. And because they had anchored on springs—heavy hawsers led from each ship's capstan out an after gunport and thence to her anchor cable, so that tightening or loosening them pivoted her in place—they could turn to fire full broadsides at any Frenchmen attempting to force the channels.

Unfortunately, there were two other ways into the bay. One, the North Channel, between the Middle Ground and Fisherman's Island at the north side of the entrance, was no great threat. Landing parties and detachments from Cornwallis' army had emplaced twelve of Prince William's twenty-four-pounders—and furnaces to heat shot for them—on the island, and the channel was narrow enough for them to command easily.

The southern side of the Bay's entrance was more dangerous. Lynnhaven Roads, inside Cape Henry, was shallow, but it would suffice. Indeed, it was in most ways an ideal anchorage: sheltered by the cape, yet close enough to open water for a fleet to sortie quickly if an enemy approached. But Paul's ships were stretched as thinly as he dared blocking the channels; he couldn't possibly bar Lynnhaven Roads as well.

What he could do was place a second battery on the western side of Cape Henry, although Lieutenant Jansen was finding it difficult to mount his guns. Simply ferrying them ashore was hard enough, for the battery consisted of thirty-two-pounders from the seventy-fours. Each gun weighed over two and a half tons, but only their three-thousand-yard range could hope to cover the water between the cape and Torbay, and at least Jansen had finally found a place to site them.

I've done all I can, Paul told himself, gazing out at the boats pulling back and forth across the water. Something must be left to chance in a fight . . . and simply finding us waiting for him should at least make de Grasse cautious. I hope.

He shook himself as the ship's bell chimed eight times to announce the turn of the forenoon watch. His stomach growled as the bell reminded it he'd missed breakfast yet again, and he grinned wryly and took himself below in search of a meal.

 

"It would appear you were correct, Sir John," Captain Somers said quietly, five days later.

He and Paul stood gazing at a chart of the Chesapeake while Torbay creaked softly around them, and Commander Westman stood to one side. Fitting that Westman should be the one to sight de Grasse's approach, a corner of Paul's brain mused, but it was a distant thought beside the strength estimate Lark had brought him.

Twenty-eight of the line. Six times his strength, and no sign of Hood. It was one thing to know his duty, he found; it was quite another to know a desperately unequal battle which had been only a probability that morning had become a certainty by evening.

"What d'you expect them to do?" Somers asked, and Paul rubbed his chin, eyes fixed on the chart in the candlelight.

"They'll scout first," he said. "For all de Grasse knows, we're the entire New York squadron. But he won't need long to determine our actual strength, and I expect he'll try a quick attack then. He'll have the flood only until the end of the morning watch; after that, the ebb will make the channels even shallower."

"Um." It was Somers' turn to rub his chin, then nod. "I think you're right," he said, and grinned suddenly. "I was none too pleased when you pressed my ship, Sir John. Now—"

He shrugged, grinning more broadly, and held out his hand.

 

The morning was cool but carried promise of yet another scorching afternoon as Paul came on deck. Although the ship had cleared for action before dawn, he'd taken time for a leisurely breakfast. It hadn't been easy to sit and eat with obvious calm, but this would be a long day, and he would need all his energy. Even more importantly, Torbay's crew must know he was so confident he'd seen no reason to skip a meal.

If only they knew the truth, he mused, and glanced at the masthead commission pendant to check the wind. Still from the west-southwest. Good. That would make it more difficult for any Frenchman to creep around Cape Henry into Lynnhaven Roads.

He lowered his eyes to the guard boats pulling for their mother ships. The French were scarcely noted for initiative in such matters, but in de Grasse's shoes Paul would certainly have attempted a boat attack, for the French squadron had more than enough men and small craft to swamp his vessels. However unlikely Frenchmen were to make such an attempt, he'd had no option but to guard against the possibility, and he hoped de Grasse would delay long enough for those boat crews to get some rest.

He looked up once more to where Lieutenant Gaither perched in the mizzen crosstrees. Paul would have preferred to be up there himself, but that would have revealed too much anxiety, and so he had to wait while Gaither peered through his telescope. It seemed to take forever, though it could actually have been no more than ten minutes before Gaither started down. He reached the deck quickly, and Paul raised an eyebrow in silent question.

"More than half of them are still hull down to the east-sou'east, sir," Gaither replied, "but a dozen of the line—all two-deckers, I believe—and two frigates are four or five miles east of Cape Henry. As nearly as I can estimate, their course is west-nor'west and they're making good perhaps four knots."

"I see." Paul rubbed his chin. De Grasse's maneuvers showed more caution than he'd dared hope for. He himself would have closed with all the force he had, yet he had to admit that, properly handled, a dozen of the line would more than suffice to destroy his squadron.

Assuming, of course, that the French knew what to do with them.

He squinted up at the cloudless sky. The flood would continue to make for another three hours, during which the rising tide would be available to refloat a ship which touched bottom coming in. In his enemy's place, Paul would have begun the attack the moment the tide began making, but it seemed the French had no desire to attack. Their course was for the North Channel, apparently in order to exploit the "unguarded" chink in Paul's defenses rather than risk engaging his outnumbered, anchored ships. Yet it would take them at least three hours just to reach the channel, and when they got there . . . 

"Thank you, Mr. Gaither," he said after a moment, and his cold, thin smile made the quarterdeck gunners nudge one another with confident grins. He could be a right bastard, the Captain. He had a tongue that could flay a man like the cat itself, and he used it with a will. But that very sharpness lent his praise even more weight, when he gave it, and the storm or fight that could best him had never been made.

 

Lieutenant Wallace Hastings of HMS Russel and his work parties had labored frantically for six days to build the battery. In fact, he'd never thought they could finish it in time, but people had a way of not disappointing Sir John. Or, at least, of not disappointing him more than once. And so now Hastings and his gun crews—each with a core of naval gunners eked out by artillerists from Lord Cornwallis' army—waited as another slow, thunderous broadside rippled down Russel's side.

Water seethed as the roundshot slashed into the sea like an avalanche. They landed far short of the thirty-six-gun frigate gliding up the North Channel under topsails and jib, but the Frenchman altered course still further towards the east to give the seventy-four a wider berth. Which just happened to bring him less than six hundred yards from Hastings' gun muzzles.

It had been Sir John's idea to disguise the battery's raw earth with cut greenery. Personally, Hastings had never expected it to work, but it seemed he'd been wrong. More probably, Russel's ostentatious efforts had riveted the French ship's attention, distracting her lookouts from the silent shore under her lee. Whatever the explanation, she was a perfect target for Hastings' gunners. Accustomed to the unsteadiness of a warship's pitching deck, they'd find hitting a ship moving at barely two knots from a rock-steady battery child's play. But Sir John's orders had been specific, and Hastings let the frigate slide past unchallenged, then spoke to the man beside him.

"We'll load in ten minutes, Mr. Gray," he told Russel's gunner, never taking his eyes from the first French seventy-four following in the frigate's wake.

 

It was impossible for Paul to see what was happening from his position at the extreme southern end of his anchored formation, but the rumble of Russel's broadsides said his plan seemed to be working. Now if only—

His steady pacing stopped as fresh thunder grumbled from the north.

 

The twenty-four-pounder lurched back, spewing flame and a stinking fogbank of smoke. Russel's gunner had spent five minutes laying that gun with finicky precision, and Hastings' eyes glittered as the totally unexpected shot struck below the seventy-four's forechains and sudden consternation raged across the Frenchman's deck. The fools hadn't even cleared their starboard guns for action!

Smoke wisped up as the red-hot shot blasted deep into bone-dry timbers, and panic joined consternation as the French crew realized they were under attack with heated shot. And that the British gunners had estimated their range perfectly.

"Load!" Hastings snapped, and sweating men maneuvered shot cradles carefully, tipping fat, incandescent iron spheres down the guns' bores. Steam hissed as they hit the water-soaked wads protecting the powder charges, and the gun crews moved with purposeful speed, making final adjustments before that sizzling iron could touch their pieces off prematurely. Hand after hand rose along the battery, announcing each gun's readiness, and Hastings inhaled deeply.

"Fire!" he barked, and twelve guns bellowed as one.

 

The French seventy-four Achille quivered as more iron crashed into her, and rattling drums sent gun crews dashing from larboard to starboard. They cast off breech ropes, fighting to get their guns into action, but the hidden battery had taken Achille utterly by surprise, and men shouted in panic as flames began to lick from the red-hot metal buried in her timbers. Bucket parties tried desperately to douse the fires, but the surprise was too great, time was too short . . . and the British aim was too good. Not one shot had missed, and panic became terror as woodsmoke billowed. The flames that followed were pale in the bright sunlight, but they roared up the ship's tarred rigging like demons, and the horrible shrieks of men on fire, falling from her tops, finished off any discipline she might have clung to.

Officers shouted and beat at men with the flats of their swords, battling to restore order, but it was useless. In less than six minutes, Achille went from a taut, efficient warship to a doomed wreck whose terror-crazed crewmen flung themselves desperately into the water even though most had never learned to swim.

Achille's next astern, the sixty-eight Justice, managed to clear away her starboard guns, but the battery's earthen rampart easily absorbed her hasty broadside, and then the British guns thundered back. Every naval officer knew no ship could fight a well-sited shore battery, and Hastings smiled savagely as he and his men set out to demonstrate why.

 

"Captain Somers' compliments, sir, and the enemy have been beaten off!"

The fourteen-year-old midshipman was breathless from his rapid climb up Torbay's side, and the seamen in his boat slumped over their oars, gasping after their long, hard pull, but every one of them wore a huge grin, like an echo of the cheers which had gone up from each ship as the boat swept by her.

"The battery burned two of the line, sir—a seventy-four and a sixty-eight," the midshipman went on, "and a third ran hard aground trying to wear ship in the channel. Two more came into Russel's range while working their way clear—one of them lost her mizzen—and the frigate was heavily damaged on her way out."

"That's excellent news!" Paul told the panting youngster. "The first lieutenant will detail fresh oarsmen to return you to Russel, where you will present my compliments to Captain Somers and Lieutenant Hastings and tell them they have earned both my admiration and my thanks, as have all of their officers and men."

"Aye, aye, sir!" The midshipman's smile seemed to split his face, and Paul waved for Gaither to take him in tow, then turned to gaze out towards the open sea once more.

He'd seen the French straggling back out past the capes, just as he'd seen the smoke of the burned vessels . . . and heard their magazines explode. Whatever else might happen, de Grasse had learned he would not take the Chesapeake cheaply. Yet the French also knew about the northern battery now. They wouldn't try that approach a second time—especially not if the wind backed around to the east.

No, if they come again, they'll try the south or the center—or both, he told himself, turning to watch the sun slide steadily down the western sky. And when they come, they'll come to fight, not simply to maneuver around us.

He gazed out over the water, hands clasped behind him as the setting sun turned the bay to blood, and sensed the buzz of excitement and pride which enveloped Torbay and all his other ships. They'd done well, and at small price—so far—and he wondered how many of them even began to suspect how that would change with the morrow.

 

This time he climbed the mainmast himself. He'd always had a good head for heights, but it had been years since he'd gone scampering to the tops himself, and he found himself breathing hard by the time he finally reached the topmast crosstrees.

A hundred and eighty feet, he thought, recalling the formula he'd learned so long ago as he glanced down at the deck, still wrapped in darkness below him. Eight-sevenths times the square root of the height above sea level in feet makes . . . fifteen miles' visibility? That was about right, and he hooked a leg around the trestle and raised his telescope.

His mouth tightened. The wind had, indeed, backed further around to the east. Now it blew almost due west, and it appeared de Grasse had made up his mind to use it. French warships and transports dotted the brightening sea as far as Paul could see, but what drew his attention like a lodestone was the double column of ships-of-the-line: sixteen of them in two unequal lines, heading straight into the bay on a following wind.

He studied them carefully, making himself accept the sight, then closed the glass with a snap and reached for a backstay. Perhaps it was bravado, or perhaps it was simply the awareness that a fall to his death had become the least of his worries, but he swung out from the crosstrees, wrapped his legs around the stay, and slid down it like some midshipman too young and foolish to recognize his own mortality.

He sensed his officers' astonishment as his feet thumped on the planking, though it was still too dark on deck to see their faces. His hands stung from the friction of his descent, and he scrubbed them on his breeches while his steward hurried up with his coat and sword. Then he turned to Lieutenant Gaither with an expression which—if Gaither could see it—would warn him to make no comments on the manner of his descent.

But it wasn't the lieutenant who commented.

"Did y'see that, boyos?" a voice called from the dimness of the ship's waist. "Just full o' high spirits and jollification 'e is!"

Divisional officers hissed in outrage, trying to identify the speaker. But lingering night shielded the culprit, and their failure to find him emboldened another.

"Aye! 'E's a dandy one, right enough! Three cheers fer the cap'n, lads!"

Paul opened his mouth, eyes flashing, but the first cheer rang out before he could say a word. He leaned on the quarterdeck rail, peering down at the indistinct shapes of gunners naked to the waist in the dew-wet dimness while their wild cheers surged about him like the sea, and all the while sixteen times their firepower sailed toward them through the dawn.

It ended finally, and he cleared his throat. He gazed down at them as the rising sun picked out individual faces at last, and then straightened slowly.

"Well!" he said. "I see this ship will never want for wind!" A rumble of laughter went up, and he smiled. But then he let his face sober and nodded towards the east.

"There's more than a dozen Frogs out there," he told them, "and most of 'em will be about our ears in the next hour." There was silence now, broken only by a voice repeating his words down the gratings to the lower gundeck. "It's going to be hot work, lads, but if we let them in, the army will be like rats in a trap. So we're not going to let them in, are we?"

For an instant he thought he'd gone too far, but then a rumbling roar answered him.

"No!" it cried, and he nodded.

"Very well, then. Stand to your guns, and be sure of this. This is a King's ship, and so long as she floats, those colors" —he pointed at the ensign fluttering above Torbay— "will fly above her!"

 

The two French lines forged past Cape Henry, and Paul watched their fore and main courses vanish as they reduced to fighting sail. The six ships of the shorter column passed as close to the cape as they dared, bound for Lynnhaven Roads in an obvious bid to sweep up and around the southern end of his line, but the other ten pressed straight up the channel between the Middle Ground and the Tail of the Horseshoe.

He paced slowly up and down his quarterdeck, watching them come, feeling the vise of tension squeeze slowly tighter on his outnumbered men. Torbay quivered as Gaither took up a little more tension on the spring, keeping her double-shotted broadside pointed directly at the leading Frenchman, and Paul frowned as he estimated the range.

Two thousand yards, he thought. Call it another twenty minutes.

He paused and turned his eyes further south, where the other French column was now coming abeam of Cape Henry.

Any time, now . . . 

A brilliant eye winked from the still-shadowed western side of the cape, and the ball howled like a lost soul as it crossed the bow of the massive three-decker leading the French line. A white plume rose from the bay, over five hundred yards beyond her—which meant she was well within reach of Lieutenant Jansen's guns—and then a long, dull rumble swept over the water as two dozen thirty-two-pounders bellowed.

Screaming ironshot tore apart the water around the French ship, and Paul's hands clenched behind him as her foremast thundered down across her deck. She staggered as the foremast dragged her main topgallant mast after it, and a second and third salvo smashed into her even as she returned fire against the half-seen battery. Smoke curled up out of the wreckage as the heated shot went home, or perhaps a coil of tarred cordage or a fold of canvas had fallen across one of her own guns as it fired. It hardly mattered. What mattered was the sudden column of smoke, the tongues of flame . . . and the French squadron's shock.

Despite the distance, it almost seemed Paul could hear the crackling roar of the French ship's flaming agony, and Jansen shifted target. Smoke and long range made the second ship a difficult mark, but her captain was no longer thinking of difficulties the defenders might face. His squadron had lost two ships-of-the-line to fire the day before; now a third blazed before his eyes, and he altered course, swinging desperately north to clear the battery.

But in his effort to avoid the guns, he drove his ship bodily onto a mud bank. The impact whipped the mainmast out of her, and the entire line came apart. Choking smoke from the lead ship cut visibility, deadly sparks threatened anyone who drew too close with the same flaming death, and the second ship's grounding made bad worse. If one of them could run aground, then all of them could . . . and what if they did so where those deadly guns could pound them into fiery torches?

It was the result Paul had hoped for, though he'd never dared depend upon it. But even as the southern prong of the French thrust recoiled, the northern column continued to close, and he studied his enemies almost calmly. Did they intend to attempt to pass right through his line? The width of the channel had forced him to anchor his ships far enough apart to make that feasible, but such close action was against the French tradition, and getting there would allow his ships to rake them mercilessly as they approached. On the other hand—

He shook himself and drew his sword, watching the range fall, and the entire ship shivered as her guns ran out on squealing trucks. Each gun held two roundshot—a devastating load which could not be wasted at anything but point-blank range, and he didn't even flinch as the lead ship's bow chasers fired. Iron hummed over the quarterdeck, and he felt the shock and heard the screams as a second shot thudded into Torbay's side and sent lethal hull splinters scything across her lower gundeck. Another salvo from the chasers, and a third. A fourth. The range was down to sixty yards, closing at a hundred feet per minute, and then, at last, his sword slashed the air.

"Fire!" Lieutenant Gaither screamed, and whistles shrilled and Torbay heaved like a terrified animal as her side erupted in thunder.

 

"That's the best I can do here, Captain," Doctor Lambert said pointedly as he tied the sling. The implication was plain, but Paul ignored it. A French Marine's musket ball had smashed his left forearm, and he feared it would have to come off. But for now the bleeding had mostly stopped, and he had no time for surgeons with three of Torbay's seven lieutenants dead and two more, including Gaither, wounded.

At least Lambert is a decent doctor—not a drunkard like too many of them, he told himself as he waved the man away. The doctor gave him an exasperated look, but he had more than enough to keep him occupied, and he took himself off with a final sniff.

Paul watched him go, then looked along the length of his beautiful, shattered ship. It wasn't like the French to force close action. They preferred to cripple an opponent's rigging with long-range fire, but these Frenchmen seemed not to have known that.

Darkness covered the carnage, but Paul knew what was out there. De Grasse's northern column had sailed straight into his fire. Some of its ships had closed to as little as fifty yards—one had actually passed between Torbay and Prince William before letting go her own anchor—and the furious cannonade had raged for over four hours, like a cyclone of iron bellowing through a stinking, blinding pall of powder smoke. At one point both of Torbay's broadsides had been simultaneously in action with no less than three French ships, and Paul doubted that all of the survivors of his line together could have mustered sufficient intact spars for a single ship.

But we held the bastards, he told himself, standing beside the stump of his ship's mizzen. It had gone over the side just as the surviving French finally retreated to lick their wounds, and he made himself look northward, despite a spasm of pain deeper than anything from his shattered arm, to where flames danced in the night beyond Prince William. HMS Serapis was still afloat, but it was a race now between inrushing water and the fire gnawing towards her magazine, and the boat crews plucking men from the bay looked like ferrymen on the seas of Hell against the glaring backdrop of her destruction.

But she would not go alone. Two French seventy-fours had settled in the main channel, one the victim of Torbay's double-shotted guns, and Paul bared his teeth at them. Their wrecks would do as much to block the channel as his own ships—probably more, given his command's atrocious casualties. Torbay had over three hundred dead and wounded out of a crew of six hundred. Neither the wounded's heart-breaking cries nor the mournful clank of her pumps ever stopped, and exhausted repair parties labored to clear away wreckage and plug shot holes. It was even odds whether or not she would be afloat to see the dawn, for she had been the most exposed of all his ships and suffered accordingly.

Prince William was almost as badly battered, and Captain Forest was dead. But his first lieutenant seemed a competent sort, and Triumph, despite heavy damage aloft, had suffered far less in her hull, while the ancient Panther had gotten off with the least damage of all. If he could only keep Torbay afloat, perhaps they could still—

"Sir! Captain! Look!"

The report was scarcely a proper one, but the acting second lieutenant who'd made it had been a fourteen-year-old midshipman that morning. Under the circumstances, Paul decided to overlook its irregularity—especially when he saw the French officer standing in the cutter with a white flag.

"Do you think they want to surrender, sir?" the youngster who'd blurted out the sighting report asked, and Paul surprised himself with a weary laugh.

"Go welcome him aboard, Mr. Christopher," he said gently, "and perhaps we'll see."

Christopher nodded and hurried off, and Paul did his best to straighten the tattered, blood- and smoke-stained coat draped over his shoulders. He would have sent his steward for a fresh one if any had survived the battle . . . and if his steward hadn't been dead.

The French lieutenant looked like a visitor from another world as he stepped onto Torbay's shattered deck. He came aft in his immaculate uniform, shoes catching on splinters, and enemy or no, he could not hide the shock behind his eyes as he saw the huge bloodstains on the deck, the dead and the heap of amputated limbs piled beside the main hatch for later disposal, the dismounted guns and shattered masts.

"Lieutenant de Vaisseau Joubert of the Ville de Paris," he introduced himself. His graceful, hat-flourishing bow would have done credit to Versailles, but Paul had lost his own hat to another French marksman sometime during the terrible afternoon, and he merely bobbed his head in a curt nod.

"Captain Sir John Paul," he replied. "How may I help you, Monsieur?"

"My admiral 'as sent me to request your surrender, Capitaine."

"Indeed?" Paul looked the young Frenchman up and down. Joubert returned his gaze levelly, then made a small gesture at the broken ship about them.

"You 'ave fought magnificently, Capitaine, but you cannot win. We need break through your defenses at only one point. Once we are be'ind you—" He shrugged delicately. "You 'ave cost us many ships, and you may cost us more. In the end, 'owever, you must lose. Surely you must see that you 'ave done all brave men can do."

"Not yet, Lieutenant," Paul said flatly, drawing himself to his full height, and his eyes glittered with the light of the dying Serapis.

"You will not surrender?" Joubert seemed unable to believe it, and Paul barked a laugh.

"Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight, Lieutenant! Go back to the Ville de Paris and inform your admiral that he will enter this bay only with the permission of the King's Navy!"

"I—" Joubert started, then stopped. "Very well, Capitaine," he said after a moment, his voice very quiet. "I will do as you—"

"Captain! Captain Paul!"

Excitement cracked young Christopher's shout into falsetto fragments, and Paul turned with a flash of anger at the undignified interruption. But the midshipman was capering by the shot-splintered rail and pointing across the tattered hammock nettings into the night.

"What's the meaning of—" the captain began, but his scathing rebuke died as he, too, heard the far-off rumble and strode to Christopher's side.

"See, sir?" the boy demanded, his voice almost pleading. "Do you see it, sir?"

"Yes, lad," Paul said quietly, good hand squeezing the youngster's shoulder as fresh, massive broadsides glared and flashed beyond the capes. My God, he thought. Hood not only believed me, he actually attacked at night! And he caught the Frogs just sitting there!

He watched the horizon for another moment, and then turned back to Joubert.

"I beg your pardon for the interruption, Lieutenant," he said, taking his hand from Christopher's shoulder to wave at the growing fury raging in the blackness of the open sea, "but I think perhaps you'd best return to your own ship now."

Joubert's mouth worked for several seconds, as if searching for words which no longer existed. Then he shook himself and forced his mind to function again.

"Yes, Monsieur," he said, in a voice which was almost normal. "I . . . thank you for your courtesy, and bid you adieu."

"Adieu, Monsieur," Paul replied, and then stood watching the lieutenant and his boat disappear into the night.

Other voices had begun to shout—not just aboard Torbay, but on Prince William and Panther and Triumph as well—as what was happening registered, but Paul never turned away from the hammock nettings. He gripped them until his hand ached, listening to the thunder, watching the savage lightning, knowing men were screaming and cursing and dying out there in the dark. A night battle. The most confused and terrifying sort possible . . . and one which favored Hood's superbly trained ships' companies heavily.

And then the cheering began. It started aboard Prince William, and his heart twisted at how thin it sounded, how many voices were missing. But those which remained were fierce. Fierce with pride . . . and astonishment at their own survival. The cheers leapt from Prince William and Panther to Torbay and Triumph, and he knew the same bullthroated huzzahs were rising from Russel and Charon and the batteries. The deep, surging voices tore the night to pieces, shouting their triumph—his triumph—and he drew a deep, shuddering breath.

But then he thrust himself upright and walked to the quarterdeck rail, and the cheers aboard Torbay faded slowly into expectant stillness as the men still standing on her shattered decks looked up at their captain.

Sir John Paul gazed back at them, good hand resting on the hilt of his sword, exhausted heart bursting with his pride in them, and cleared his throat.

"All right, you idle buggers!" he snapped. "What d'you think this is—some fine lord's toy yacht? This is a King's ship, not a nursery school! Now get your arses back to work!"

 

Sir George and the Dragon

Demon wind greeted pallid daylight with hell-howl fury. It was no true daylight, although somewhere above the clouds of seething black the sun had heaved itself once more into the heavens. It was only the devil's own twilight, slashed with body-smashing sheets of rain and spray, the rolling concussion of thunder, the bellow of wind, and the endless keen of rigging and sodden percussion of torn canvas flailing to destruction.

Sir George Wincaster, Third Baron of Wickworth, clung to a stay, feeling it quiver and groan with strain while he kept to his feet by raw, hopeless force of will alone. The lifeline the vessel's captain had lashed about him when the hideous gale burst upon them yesterday morning had ringed his chest in bruises, salt sores stung his lips, and rain and spray had soaked into his very marrow. He felt as if heavy horse had charged over him and back again, and despair was a leaden fist about his heart. He had been too ignorant to understand the captain's terror when first the weather broke, for he was a soldier, not a sailor. Now he understood only too well, and he watched almost numbly as the battered cog, creaking and groaning in every frame and stringer, corkscrewed down yet another mountainous, slate-gray wave, streaked with seething bands of spray and foam, and buried its round-cheeked prow deep. Water roared the length of the hull, poison-green and icy as death, plucking and jerking at his limbs and groping after every man on the staggering ship's deck. The hungry sheet of destruction smashed over Sir George, battering the breath from him in yet another agonized grunt, and then it was past and he threw his head up, gasping and hacking on the water which had forced itself into nostrils and eyes.

The cog fought her way once more up out of the abyss, wallowing as the water cascaded off her deck through buckled rails. Broken cordage blew out, bar-straight and deadly as flails on the howling torrent of wind, and he heard the hull crying out in torment. Sir George was a landsman, yet even he felt the ship's heavier motion, knew the men—and women—laboring frantically at the pumps and bailing with buckets, bowls, even bare hands, were losing ground steadily.

The vessel was doomed. All the ships of his expedition were doomed . . . and there was nothing he could do about it. The unexpected summer gale had caught them at the worst possible moment, just as they were rounding the Scilly Isles on their way from Lancaster to Normandy. There had been no warning, no time to seek shelter, only the desperate hope that they might somehow ride out the storm's violence on the open sea.

And that hope had failed.

Sir George had seen only one ship actually die. He was uncertain which, but he thought it had been Earl Cathwall's flagship. He hoped he was wrong. It was unlikely any of them would survive, but Lord Cathwall was more than the commander of the expedition. He was also Sir George's father-in-law, and they held one another in deep and affectionate respect. And perhaps Sir George was wrong. The dying ship had been almost close enough to hear the shrieks of its doomed company as it was pounded into the depths, even through the storm's demented scream, but the darkness and storm fury, broken only by the glare of forked lightning, had made exact identification impossible.

Yet even though it was the only ship he had seen destroyed, he was grimly certain there had been others. Indeed, he could see only one other vessel still fighting its hopeless battle, and he ground his teeth as yet another sea crashed over his own cog. The impact staggered the ship, and a fresh chorus of screams and prayers came faintly from the men and women and children packed below its streaming deck. His wife Matilda and their son Edward were in that dark, noisome hellhole of crowded terror and vomit, of gear come adrift and washing seawater, and terror choked him as he thought of them once again. He tried to find the words of prayer, the way to plead with God to save his wife and his son. He did not beg for himself. It was not his way, and his was the responsibility for bringing them to this in the first place. If God wanted his life in exchange for those so much dearer to him, it was a price he would pay without a whimper.

Yet he knew it was a bargain he would not be permitted. That he and Matilda and Edward would meet their ends together, crushed by the soulless malice and uncaring brutality of sea and wind, and deep within him bitter protest reproached the God who had decreed that they should.

The cog shuddered and twitched, heaving in the torment of overstrained timbers and rigging, and Sir George looked up as the ship's mate shouted something. He couldn't make out the words, but he knew it was a question, and he shook himself like a sodden dog, struggling to make his mind function. For all his ignorance of the sea, he had found himself doomed to command of the ship when a falling spar killed the captain. In fact, he'd done little more than agree with the mate's suggestions, lending his authority to the support of a man who might—might!—know enough to keep them alive a few hours more. But the mate had needed that support, needed someone else to assume the ultimate responsibility, and that was Sir George's job. To assume responsibility. No, to acknowledge the responsibility which was already his. And so he made himself look as if he were carefully considering whatever it was the mate wanted to do this time, then nodded vigorously.

The mate nodded back, then bellowed orders at his exhausted, battered handful of surviving sailors. Wind howl and sea thunder thrashed the words into meaningless fragments so far as Sir George could tell, but two or three men began clawing their way across the deck to obey whatever the mate had decreed, and Sir George turned his face back to the sea's tortured millrace. It didn't really matter what the mate did, he thought. At worst, a mistake would cost them a few hours of life they might otherwise have clung to; at best, a brilliant maneuver might buy them an hour or two they might not otherwise have had. In the end, the result would be the same.

He'd had such hopes, made so many plans. A hard man, Sir George Wincaster, and a determined one. A peer of the realm, a young man who had caught his monarch's favor at the siege of Berwick at the age of twenty-two, who'd been made a knight by Edward III's own hand the next year on the field of Halidon Hill. A man who'd served with distinction at the Battle of Sluys eight years later—although, he thought with an edge of mordant humor even now, if I'd learned a bit more then of ships, I might have been wise enough to stay home this time!—and slogged through the bitterly disappointing French campaign of 1340. And a man who had returned with a fortune from Henry of Denby's campaign in Gascony five years later.

And a bloody lot of good it's done me in the end, he thought bitterly, remembering his gleaming plans. At thirty-five, he was at the height of his prowess, a hard-bitten, professional master of the soldier's trade. A knight, yes, but one who knew the reality of war, not the minstrels' tales of romance and chivalry. A man who fought to win . . . and understood the enormous changes England and her lethal longbows were about to introduce into the continental princes' understanding of the art of war.

And one who knew there were fortunes to be made, lands and power to be won, in the service of his king against Philip of France. Despite the disappointments of 1340, last year had proved Edward III his grandfather's grandson, a welcome relief after the weakness and self-indulgence of his father. Longshanks would have approved of the king, Sir George thought now. He started slow, but now that Denby's shown the way and he's chosen to beard Philip alone, the lions of England will make the French howl!

Perhaps they would, and certainly Edward's claim to the throne of France was better than Philip VI's, but Sir George Wincaster would not win the additional renown—or the added wealth and power he had planned to pass to his son—at his King's side. Not now. For he and all the troops under his command would find another fate, and no one would ever know where and when they actually perished.

 

The corpse light of storm-wracked afternoon slid towards evening, and Sir George realized dully that they had somehow survived another day.

He was too exhausted even to feel surprised . . . and though he tried to feel grateful, at least, a part of him was anything but. Another night of horror and fear, exhaustion and desperate struggle, loomed, and even as he gathered himself to face it, that traitor part wanted only for it to end. For it to be over.

To rest.

But there would be rest enough soon enough, he reminded himself. An eternity of it, if he was fortunate enough to avoid Hell. He hoped he would be, but he was also a realist—and a soldier. And the best of soldiers would face an arduous stay in Purgatory, while the worst . . . 

He brushed the thought aside, not without the wistful wish that he and Father Timothy might have argued it out one more time, and made himself peer about. The second ship was still with them, further away as darkness gathered, but still fighting its way across the heaving gray waste, and he could actually see a third vessel beyond it. There might even be one or two more beyond the range of his sight, but—

Sir George's stumbling, exhaustion-sodden thoughts jerked to a stop, and his hand tightened like a claw on the stay. A cracked voice screamed something, barely audible over the roar of wind and sea yet touched with a fresh and different terror, and Sir George clamped his jaws against a bellow of matching fear as the shape burst abruptly and impossibly through the savage backdrop of cloud and rain.

He couldn't grasp it, at first. Couldn't wrap his mind about it or find any point of reference by which to measure or evaluate it. It was too huge, too alien . . . too impossible. It could not exist, not in a world of mortals, yet it loomed above them, motionless, shrugging aside the fury of the gale as if it were but the gentlest of zephyrs. Gleaming like polished bronze, flickering with the reflected glare of lightning, a mile and more in length, a thing of subtle curves and gleaming flanks caparisoned in jewellike lights of red and white and amber.

He stared at it, too amazed and astonished to think, the terror of the storm—even his fear for his wife and son—banished by sheer, disbelieving shock as that vast shape hung against the seething cloud and rain.

And then it began to move. Not quickly, but with contemptuous ease, laughing at the gale's baffled wrath. It drifted over the more distant of the cogs he'd seen earlier, and more light appeared as portions of its skin shifted and changed.

No, they're not "changing," Sir George thought numbly. They're opening. And those lights are coming from inside whatever it is. Those are doors, doors to chambers filled with light and—

His thoughts stuttered and halted yet again as more shapes appeared. Far smaller this time, but with that same unnatural stillness as the storm howled about them. Some were cross shaped, with the grace of a gliding gull or albatross, while others were squat cones or even spheres, but all were of the same bronze hue as the huger shape which had spawned them.

They spread out, surrounding the half-foundered cog, and then—

"Sweet Jesu!"

Sir George turned his head, too shocked by the lies of his own eyes to wonder how Father Timothy had suddenly appeared there. The snowy-haired Dominican was a big man, with the powerful shoulders of the archer he'd been before he heard God's call decades before, and Sir George released his death grip on the stay to fasten fingers of iron on his confessor's arm.

"In the name of God, Timothy! What is that thing?!"

"I don't know," the priest replied honestly. "But—"

His voice chopped off abruptly, and he released his own clutch on the cog's rail to cross himself urgently. Nor did Sir George blame him.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God," the baron whispered, releasing Father Timothy and crossing himself more slowly, almost absently, as an unearthly glare of light leapt out from the shapes which had encircled the other ship. Leapt out, touched the heaving vessel, embraced it . . . 

 . . . and lifted it bodily from the boiling sea.

Someone aboard Sir George's own vessel was gibbering, gobbling out fragments of prayer punctuated by curses of horrified denial, but the baron himself stood silent, unable to tear his eyes from the impossible sight. He saw streams of water gushing from the ship, draining straight down from its half-flooded hold as if in a dead calm, only to be whipped to flying spray by the fury of the wind as they neared the sea below. Yet the shapes enfolded it in their brilliance, raising it effortlessly towards the far vaster shape which had birthed them, and he winced as someone aboard that rising vessel, no doubt maddened by terror, hurled himself bodily over the rail. Another body followed, and a third.

"Fools!" Father Timothy bellowed. "Dolts! Imbeciles! God Himself has offered them life, and they—!"

The priest broke off, pounding the rail with a huge, gnarly fist.

The first plunging body struck the water and vanished without a trace, but not the second or third. Additional shafts of light speared out, touched each falling form, and arrested that fall. The light lifted them once more, along with the cog, bearing them towards those brilliantly lit portals, and Sir George swallowed again. A mile, he had estimated that shape's length, but he'd been wrong. It was longer than that. Much longer, for the cog's hull finally gave him something against which to measure it, and the cog was less than a child's toy beside the vast, gleaming immensity that rode like a mountain peak of bronze amidst the black-bellied clouds of the gale's fury.

"Were they fools?" He didn't realize he'd spoken—certainly not that he'd spoken loudly enough for Father Timothy to hear through the crash of the sea and the wind-shriek, but the priest turned to him once more and raised an eyebrow. Even here and now, the expression brought back memories of the days when Father Timothy had been Sir George's tutor as he was now Edward's, but this was no time to be thinking of that.

"Were they fools?" Sir George repeated, shouting against the storm's noise. "Are you so certain that that . . . that thing—" he pointed a hand he was vaguely surprised to note did not tremble at the shape "—was sent by God and not the Devil?"

"I don't care who sent it! What matters is that it offers the chance of life, and while life endures, there is always the hope of God's mercy!"

"Life?" Sir George repeated, and Father Timothy shook his head, as if reproaching his patron and old student's slowness.

"Whatever its ultimate purpose, it clearly means for now to rescue that ship, and possibly all of us who remain alive."

"But . . . why?"

"That I do not know," Father Timothy admitted. "I've known enough of God's love to hope it is of His mercy, and seen enough of man's evil to fear that it is not. Whatever its purpose, and whoever sent it, we will find out soon enough, My Lord."

 

Sir George's cog was the last to be lifted from the sea.

He had regained at least the outward semblance of his habitual self-control and hammered a shaky calm over the others aboard the vessel by the time the lesser shapes surrounded the ship. Now he stood at the rail, gazing at the greater shape with his wife and son beside him. It might strike some as less than heroic to cling to his wife, and he tried to look as if the arm wrapped so tightly about her sought only to comfort her, but the two of them knew better. As always, Matilda supported him, pressing her cheek proudly against his shoulder even as he felt her tremble with terror, and he turned his head to press a kiss into her sodden, wind-straggled hair. For fourteen years she had stood beside him, one way or another, always supporting him, and a vast, familiar tenderness swelled within him as he drew strength from her yet again.

He kissed her hair once more, then returned his eyes to the vastness hovering above them. His people knew that he knew no more about what they faced than they did, but the habit of obedience ran deep, especially among the men of his own household and their families, and the need to find some fragment of calm in pretending their liege knew what he was doing ran still deeper. He felt their eyes, locked upon him as the light flooded down and the scream of the wind and the thunder of the sea were abruptly shut away. There was no sense of movement, and he kept his own gaze fastened on the huge shape awaiting them rather than let himself look over the rail and watch the sea dropping away in the sudden, unnatural silence. He dared not look, lest the sight unman him at the moment when his people most needed him.

Their uncanny flight was rapid, yet their passage sent no breeze across the deck. It was as if the air about the ship had been frozen, locked into a stillness and quiet which had no place in the natural world. Sheets of rain continued to lash at them, yet those sheets burst upon the edges of that tranquil stillness and vanished in explosions of spray.

For all its swiftness, the journey seemed to take forever, and Sir George heard the rapid mutter of Father Timothy's Latin as they soared above the tumbling waves. But then, abruptly, it was their turn to pass through the opened portal, and Sir George swallowed as he saw the other cogs sitting like abandoned toys in the vastness of the cavern inside the huge shape.

There were a total of nine ships, including his own. That was more than he'd dared hope might have survived, yet little more than half the number which had set out for France, and he clenched his jaw. Whether or not it had been Earl Cathwall's ship he had seen die, the earl's vessel was not among those in the cavern.

The cog settled on the cavern floor, and Sir George tightened his grip on the rail, expecting the ship to list over on its rounded side when the light released it. But the vessel did nothing of the sort. It sat there upright, still quietly gushing water from its sodden interior, and he made himself release the rail.

"Let's get a ladder over the side," he told the mate.

"I don't—" the man began, then stopped himself. "Of course, My Lord. I'll have to rig something, but—"

He broke off again, this time with an undignified squeak, and Sir George had to lock his jaws to withhold an equally humiliating bellow as some unseen hand lifted him from his feet. His arm tightened about Matilda, and he heard Edward's gasp of sudden terror, but neither shamed him by crying out, and his heart swelled with pride in them both.

The invisible hand was as gentle as it was irresistible, and he drew a deep, shuddering breath of relief as it set them on their feet once more. Everyone else from the ship followed, floating through the air like ungainly birds, all too often flapping arms or legs in panic as they floated, until all stood beside the beached cog, bewildered and afraid and trying not to show it while they stared at Sir George in search of guidance.

"You will walk to the green lights on the inboard bulkhead," a voice said, and, despite himself, Sir George twitched in astonishment.

"Witchcraft!" someone gasped, and Sir George fought the urge to cross himself in agreement, for the voice had spoken in his very ear, as if its owner stood close beside him, yet there was no one to be seen! And there was something very strange about the voice itself. A resonance and timbre such as he had never heard . . . and one which, he realized from the expressions about him, had spoken in every ear, and not his own alone.

"Witchcraft or angelic powers, we seem to have little choice but to obey, for now at least," he made himself say as calmly as possible. He offered Matilda his arm, glanced at their son, and then turned to survey the others from the ship. "And since that seems to be the case, let us remember that we are Christians and Englishmen."

"Well said, My Lord!" Father Timothy rumbled, and then bestowed a fierce smile—one much better suited to the archer he once had been than the pacific man of God he had since become—upon his companions. "If it be witchcraft, then God and His Mother will surely protect our souls against it. And if we face some force of the mortal world, why, what mortal force has there ever been that Englishmen could not overcome?"

Several voices muttered agreement—no doubt as much in search of self-reassurance as Sir George himself at that moment—and the baron led the way towards the green lights blinking ahead of them.

It was a lengthy walk, and almost despite himself, he felt his pulse slow and some of his own undeniable terror ease. In part, he knew, that stemmed from the distraction of his inveterate curiosity. He couldn't stop himself from looking about, marveling—and wondering—at all he saw.

The gleaming floor was some strange sort of alloy, he decided, although he doubted any smith had ever even dreamed of such a huge expanse of metal. It wasn't the bronze it resembled, he felt certain, yet it rang gently under his boot heels and had the smooth, polished sheen found only on metal. It was preposterous, of course. He was only too well aware of the expense of a chain hauberk or a cuirass. It was absurd to even suggest that something as vast as the shape within which they found themselves could truly be made of metal, and yet that was the only conclusion he could reach.

The lights were equally strange, burning with a bright steadiness which was profoundly unnatural. Whatever provided their illumination, it wasn't burning oil or tallow. Indeed, there was no sign of any flame, as if the builders of the shape had somehow captured the light of the sun itself to release when they required it.

He blinked, wondering why he was so certain that the shape had been "built." Surely witchcraft—or, perhaps, the hand of God—was a more reasonable explanation than that any mortal being could have constructed such a wonder. Yet for all his confusion and remaining fear, Sir George discovered that he had become somehow convinced that all of this was, indeed, the work of hands neither demonic nor divine.

It was a conviction which found itself abruptly challenged when they reached their destination.

The passengers from the other cogs were already gathered there. Like Sir George, all of the knights and most of the men-at-arms clearly had snatched up their personal weapons before they left their ships. Many of the archers carried their bow staves, as well, but none had strung them. Hardly surprising, given the state their bowstrings must be in. Yet even without the bows, there were weapons in plenty in evidence among the crowd of men which had coalesced between the "bulkhead" and the expedition's women and children. That should have been a source of some comfort to Sir George, he supposed.

It wasn't.

His hand tightened on the hilt of his own sword, and his nostrils flared as he came close enough to see what held all the rest of the English frozen.

So much for "mortal hands," he told himself with a queer sort of calm, and made himself release his hilt and straighten his shoulders.

The . . . beings lined up along the bulkhead were not human. Far from it, in fact. The shortest of them must have stood at least a foot taller than Sir George's own five feet and ten inches, and Sir George was one of the tallest men in the expedition. Yet that was the smallest, least significant difference between them and any man Sir George had ever seen.

All of them went on two legs and possessed but two arms each, but that was the end of their similarity to men. Or to one another, really. Indeed, the creatures were so utterly alien that their very strangeness had prevented him from immediately realizing that there were two different sorts of them.

The first was clad in armor-plate which certainly looked like steel rather than the combination plate and mail Sir George wore—and armed with huge, double-bitted axes. Despite their height, they were almost squat for their size, and the opened visors of their helmets showed huge, bulging eyes and a depressed slot. The slot was set far too high in their faces to be called a nose, although there was nothing else it could be, and fringed on either side with hairlike fronds which stirred and crawled uncannily with their breathing. The wide, froglike slit of a mouth below the nose-slot and eyes was almost reassuringly homey compared to the rest of the ugly, orange-skinned and warty face in which it was set.

The second sort wore seamless, one-piece garments, predominately deep red in color, but with blue sleeves and legs. Those garments covered them from throat to toe and shoulder to fingertip but could not hide the fact that they had too many joints in the arms and legs they covered. It was as if God—or the Devil—had grafted extra elbows and knees into the creatures' limbs, and their hands and feet were larger in proportion to their bodies than those of any human. But there was worse, for the garments stopped at their throats. They offered no covering or concealment for the gray-green hide—the glistening, scale-covered gray-green hide—of the creatures' faces, or the vertical, slit-pupilled eyes, or the lizardlike crests which crowned their snouted, reptilian heads. Yet for all their grotesqueness, they lacked the somehow malevolent air of menace which clung to their wart-faced companions.

"Demons!" someone behind Sir George gasped, and the baron swallowed hard. His hand clamped tighter on his hilt, and it took all his self-control to keep the blade sheathed, but—

"Dragons!" someone else exclaimed, and Sir George drew a deep breath and nodded hard.

"Aye, dragons they are, like enough!" he said loudly enough to be sure all of those about him heard it . . .  and choosing not to look too closely at the wart-faces. The label was probably wrong even for the scale-hides, of course. At the very least, dragons were born of Earth, and he felt a deep, sudden and instinctive assurance that wherever or whatever these creatures sprang from, it was not Earth. Yet, however inaccurate, the label was also correct.

And the men may be less prone to panic over "dragons" than "demons," he thought with something like detachment.

He drew another breath, sensing the fragile balance between terror, discipline, caution, and ignorance which held the armed men about him precariously still. In many ways, he was astounded such a balance could have held even for a moment, for these were trained fighting men. Trained, English fighting men, soldiers every one of them.

But this threat was so far outside their experience that even Englishmen might be excused for uncertainty and hesitation, he told himself . . . and thank God for it! Whatever else those wart-faces and dragon-men might be, they were obviously part and parcel of whatever power had created the shape in which they all stood. Assuming they truly were mortal, Sir George never doubted that his men could swarm them under, despite the wart-faces' armor, but he had no illusions about the efficacy of edged steel against the other defenses such a power could erect to guard itself.

For that matter, we have no reason—as yet—to think our rescuers might be hostile in any way. After all, they were under no obligation to pluck us from the sea. If they wished us ill, they had only to leave us there. We would all have been dead soon enough.

He felt the silence stretch out as those from his own cog joined the rear ranks of the crowd. He gave Matilda a final hug, then stepped forward.

Men who had stared fixedly at the grotesque creatures started and looked over their shoulders as they sensed his approach, and he heard more than a few muttered prayers (and curses) of relief as he was recognized. He was as stained and ragged as any of them, but his dark spade beard and the scar down his right cheek were well known, almost famous, even among those who had followed Earl Cathwall or Sir Michael rather than Sir George. More to the point, perhaps, Earl Cathwall was dead, and Sir Michael was awaiting them in Normandy . . . where even the slowest must realize they were unlikely to arrive. Which meant every one of those men looked to Sir George Wincaster for leadership and guidance.

Now they drew apart, opening a path for him. One or two, bolder than the others, actually reached out to touch him as he passed, whether to lend him reassurance or to draw confidence of their own from him he didn't know.

Sir Richard Maynton stood at the very front of the crowd, and his head turned sharply as Sir George stepped up beside him. With the losses their command structure had taken, Sir Richard had almost certainly become Sir George's second in command, which was unfortunate, in a way, for Sir George knew him less well than he might have liked. On the other hand, he couldn't misread the relief in Sir Richard's eyes.

"Thank God!" the other knight said quickly. "I feared you, too, had perished, My Lord!"

"Aye?" Sir George managed a chuckle. "I can understand that well enough. I thought I had perished a time or two, myself!" Several others chuckled at his feeble joke, and he clapped the other knight on the shoulder.

"Indeed," Sir Richard agreed. "In fact, My Lord, I—"

The knight closed his mouth with an almost audible click, and a chorus of muffled exclamations rippled through the crowd facing the dragon-men and wart-faces as a brighter light flashed. An opening appeared in the bulkhead, snapping into existence so abruptly that the eye almost missed the way the panel which formed it flicked aside, and another being stood within the sudden doorway or hatch.

If the wart-faces and dragon-men were alien, this being was even more bizarre, although, in many ways, it seemed more comical than menacing. Its garment was the same deep red as the dragon-men's, but its garb was solely red, without the blue sleeves and legs, and a gleaming pendant hung about its neck to dangle on its chest. It was also short, its head rising little higher than Sir George's chest, and the exposed portion of its face and throat was covered in plushy purple fur. Like the others, it went on two legs and had two arms, but though its hands had only three fingers, each had been given an extra thumb where a man would have had his little finger. All of that was odd enough, but the creature's face was more grotesque than a mummer's mask. It was broad and flat, with two wide, lipless mouths—one above the other—and no trace of a nose. Worse, it had three golden eyes: a single, large one centered in the upper part of its face, and two smaller ones set lower, flanking it to either side. And, as if to crown the absurdity of its appearance, its broad, squat head was topped by two enormous, foxlike ears covered in the same purple fur.

Sir George stared at it, shocked as even the wart-faces and dragon-men had not left him. They, at least, radiated a sense of watchfulness, even threat, he felt he understood, but this creature—! It might as easily have been a demon or a court jester, and he wondered whether he ought to smile or cross himself.

"Who leads this group?"

The voice was light, even delicate, with the piping clarity of a young child's. It spoke perfect English, and it appeared to emerge from the upper of the demon-jester's two mouths, although the lipless opening didn't move precisely in time with the words. Hearing it, Sir George was tempted to smile, despite all that had happened, for it seemed far more suited to the jester than to a demon. But the temptation was faint and brief. There was no expression in that voice at all, nor, so far as he could tell, did any hint of an expression cross that alien face. Yet that was the point—it was an alien face, and that was driven brutally home to Sir George as he realized that, for the first time in his life, he could not discern the smallest hint of the thoughts or wishes or emotions of the being speaking to him.

"I do," he replied after a long still moment.

"And you are?" the piping voice inquired.

"I am Sir George Wincaster, Baron of Wickworth, in the service of His Majesty Edward III, King of England, Scotland, Wales, and France." There was a hint of iron pride in that reply, and Sir George felt other spines straighten about him, but—

"You are in error, Sir George Wincaster," the piping voice told him, still with no hint of expression. "You are no longer in the service of any human. You are now in the service of my Guild."

Sir George stared at the small being, and a rumbling rustle went through the men at his back. He opened his mouth to respond, but the demon-jester went on without so much as a pause.

"But for the intervention of my vessel and crew, you all would have perished," it said. "We rescued you. As a result, you are now our property, to do with as we choose." An inarticulate half-snarl, fueled as much by fear as by anger, rose behind Sir George, but the demon-jester continued unperturbed. "No doubt it will take you some time to fully accept this change in status," its expressionless voice continued. "You would be wise, however, to accustom yourself to it as quickly as your primitive understanding permits."

"Accustom ourselves—!" someone began furiously, but Sir George's raised hand cut the rising tide of outrage short.

"We are Englishmen . . . sir," he said quietly, "and Englishmen are no one's 'property.' "

"It is unwise to disagree with me, Sir George Wincaster," the demon-jester said, still with that calm, total lack of expression. "As a group, you and your fellows are—or may become, at any rate—a valuable asset of my Guild. None of you, however, is irreplaceable as an individual."

Sir George's jaw clenched. He was unaccustomed to being threatened to his face, and certainly to being threatened by a half-sized creature he could have snapped in two one-handed. Yet he made himself swallow it. The wart-faces and dragon-men behind the demon-jester were ominous evidence of the power which backed him. Even worse, Sir George was achingly aware of the presence of his wife and son.

"Unwise or not," he said after a long, still moment, "it is I who command these men. As such, it is my duty to speak for them. We are all grateful for our rescue, but—"

"I do not want your gratitude. My Guild and I desire only your obedience," the demon-jester interrupted. "We require certain services of you—services you should find neither difficult nor distasteful, since they are the only ones you are truly trained or equipped to provide."

Sir George's hand clenched once more on the hilt of his sword, but the demon-jester ignored the movement, as if the very notion that something as childish as a sword might threaten it was ludicrous.

"We require only that you fight for us," it went on. "If you do, you will be well treated and rewarded. Your lives will be extended beyond any span you can presently imagine, your health will be provided for, your—" The three eyes looked past Sir George, and the creature seemed to pause for a moment, as if searching for a word. Then it continued without inflection. "Your mates and young will be cared for, and you will be granted access to them."

"And if we choose not to fight for you?" Sir George asked flatly.

"Then you will be compelled to change your minds," the demon-jester replied. "Analysis indicates that such compulsion should not prove difficult. You are, of course, primitives from a primitive and barbaric culture, so simple and direct methods would undoubtedly serve best. We might, perhaps, begin by selecting five or six of your mates and young at random and executing them."

A ball of ice closed upon Sir George's stomach. The threat was scarcely unexpected, yet he had not counted on how the emotionlessness—the total lack of interest or anger—in the demon-jester's piping voice would hone the jagged edges of his fear. He forced himself not to look over his shoulder at Matilda and Edward.

"If such measures should prove insufficient, there are, of course, others," the demon-jester continued. "Should all else fail, we could attempt complete personality erasure and simply reprogram you, but that would probably prove excessively time consuming. Nor would there be any real point in it. It would be much more cost effective simply to dispose of all of you and collect a fresh force of fighters. One group of barbarians is very like another, after all."

"But these barbarians are under arms, sirrah!" another voice barked.

Sir George's head snapped around, and he felt a stab of dreadful certainty at what he would see. Sir John Denmore was barely twenty years old, young and hot-blooded, with more than his fair share of arrogance, and he punctuated his fierce statement with the steely slither of a drawn blade. His sword gleamed under the unnaturally brilliant lights, and he leapt forward with a vicious stroke.

"God and Saint G—!"

He never completed the war cry. His sword swept towards the demon-jester, but the creature never even moved. It simply stood there, watching with its alien lack of expression, and the young knight's shout died in shock when his sword struck some invisible barrier, like a wall of air. It flew out of his hands, and he gaped in disbelief as it spun end over end away from him. Then he shook himself, snarled, and snatched at his dagger.

"Hold!" Sir George shouted. "Put up your—"

But he was too late. This time the demon-jester made a small gesture, and Sir John gurgled and stopped dead. His eyes bulged wildly, his expression one of raw terror as rage turned into panic, but he could not even open his mouth. He was held as though in a giant, unseen spider's web, dagger half-drawn, utterly helpless, and the demon-jester gazed at Sir George.

"It is well for you that you attempted to stop him rather than joining in his stupidity," it informed the baron, "but I see you truly are primitives and so require proof of your status. Very well. I will give it to you."

"There is no need—" Sir George began.

"There is whatever need I say there is," the demon-jester piped, and held out a two-thumbed hand to the nearest dragon-man. The dragon-man's eyes touched Sir George for just a moment, but then it reached to its belt and drew a strange device from a scabbard. It extended the thing to the demon-jester, and the shorter creature adjusted a small knob on the device's side.

"You only think you are armed, Sir George Wincaster. Your swords and arrows do not threaten me or any member of my crew. Our own weapons, on the other hand—"

It raised the device in Sir John's direction almost negligently, and then Sir George cried out in horror. He couldn't help himself, and neither then nor later did he feel the shame he perhaps ought to have. Not when the terrible ray of light, like lightning chained to the demon-jester's will, crackled from the device and smote full upon Sir John Denmore's breast.

Its touch was death . . . but not simply death. The young man's chest cavity blew apart as if from the inside, and heart and lungs exploded with it. A grisly storm front of blood and shredded tissue flew over those about him, a stink of burning meat filled the air, and men who had seen the most horrible sights war could offer recoiled with cries of horror. But worst of all, Sir George realized later, was the dead man's silence. The fact that even as the hell weapon was raised, even as his expression twisted—first with terror, and then in agony—the young knight never made a sound. Was unable even to writhe or open his mouth. He could only stand there, frozen, more helpless than any lamb before the butcher, while the demon-jester calmly blew his body open.

Even after death, Sir John was not allowed to fall. His corpse stood upright, face contorted with the rictus of death, blood flooding down from his ruptured chest to puddle about his feet.

Had it not been for the proof that no one could touch the creature, Sir George would have attacked the thing himself, with his bare hands, if necessary. But he had that proof . . . and he had his responsibilities, and his duty, and his wife and son stood behind him. And so he did something much harder than launch a hopeless attack.

He made himself stand there, with the blood of a man under his command dripping down his face, and did nothing.

His motionless example stilled the handful of others who would have attacked, and the demon-jester regarded them all for a long, deadly silent time. Then it reached out and, without taking its triple-eyed gaze from Sir George, handed the lightning weapon back to the dragon-man.

"I trust this lesson is not lost upon your warriors, Sir George Wincaster," it piped then. "Or upon you, either. You may speak for these men, and you may lead them in combat, but you are no longer their commander. I am. Unless, of course, someone wishes to challenge that point."

It made a gesture, and the mutilated corpse which once had been an arrogant young knight thudded to the metal floor like so much dead meat.

 

At least this ship's decks didn't pitch and dance like the decks of those never to be sufficiently damned cogs.

The thought wended through a well-worn groove in Sir George's mind as he leaned forward to stroke Satan's shoulder. The destrier shook his head, rattling the mail crinnet protecting his arched neck, then stamped his rear off hoof. The shoe rang like thunder on the deck's bronze-tinted alloy, and Sir George smiled thinly. He and the stallion had been through this all too many times since that horrific storm. By now both of them should be accustomed to it, and he supposed they were. But neither of them was resigned to it.

The warning gong sounded, and Sir George rose in the stirrups and turned to regard the men behind him. A score of orange-skinned wart-faces stood beyond them, lining the bulkhead separating this cargo hold from the rest of the ship, once again armed and armored, but their function was not to support the Englishmen. It was to drive them forward if they hesitated, and to strike down any who attempted to flee.

Not that any of Sir George's men were likely to flee . . . or to require driving.

Many of the men behind him had once been sailors, but that had been before they found themselves with precisely the same choices—or lack of them—as Sir George's soldiers. By now there was no real way to distinguish them from any of the professional troops who had been their passengers. After all, they were professionals now—professionals who had seen more battles than any soldier who'd ever served an Earthly master.

Their experience showed in their expressions—not relaxed, but calm and almost thoughtful as they recalled their prebattle briefings and waited to put them into effect. The mounted men-at-arms and handful of knights sat their mounts closest to him, forming a protective barrier between the still-closed wall of metal and the more vulnerable archers. Some of those archers were more heavily armored than they had been, but even the most heavily protected wore only helmets, short chain hauberks, and, here and there, a steel breastplate. Protection was welcome, but they knew as well as Sir George that their true protection lay in mobility, the devastating fire of the longbow, and the wardship of his more heavily armored knights and men-at-arms.

And they trusted those knights and men-at-arms as totally as they had come to trust their commander. So they stood now, their faces showing grim confidence, not uncertainty, and returned Sir George's regard with level eyes.

"All right, lads." He didn't raise his voice to a bellow as he would have back home. There was no need, for their masters' magic carried his voice clearly, as if he were speaking into each man's private ear. "You know the plan . . . and Saint Michael knows we've done it often enough!" His ironic tone won a mutter of laughter, and he gave them a tight grin in reply. "Mind yourselves, keep to the plan, and we'll be done in time for dinner!"

A rumble of agreement came back, and then there was the very tiniest of lurches, the metal wall before Sir George hissed like a viper and vanished upward, and he looked out upon yet another of the endless alien worlds he and his men were doomed to conquer.

The sky was almost the right shade, but there was something odd about it—a darker, deeper hue than the blue he remembered (and Sweet Mary, but did he remember? or did he simply think he did?) from home—and the sun was too large by half. The "trees" rising in scraggly, scattered clumps were spidery interweavings of too-fine branches covered with long, hairy streamers for leaves, and leaves and grass alike were a strange, orangish color like nothing anyone had ever seen in any world meant for men.

Not that there were any men in this world. Not born of it, at any rate. An army of not-men, too tall, too thin, and with too many limbs, had drawn up in a ragged line well beyond bowshot of the ship. They carried large wicker shields and spears, and most wore leather helmets. Aside from that, they were unarmored, and only a very few bore any weapon other than their spears or quivers of javelins. He saw maces and a handful of swords, but no decent pikes or other true polearms, and none of the not-men were mounted. Square placards on poles rose above them at ragged intervals—banners, he realized—and he wondered how long they'd been gathered. Clearly they were there to fight, but had they come for an open battle, or simply to besiege the ship? He remembered the first time he had seen the ship, hovering motionless in a storm-sick sky, and barked a bitter, humorless laugh. Surely the thing was huge enough to be mistaken for a castle, albeit the most oddly formed one any man—or not-man—could ever imagine!

Whatever had brought them hither, a stir went through them as the side of the ship opened abruptly. Spears were shaken, a handful of javelins were hurled, although the range was too great for that to be anything more than a gesture, and he had no need of magically enhanced hearing to recognize the sound of defiance. It was a thready, piping sound beside the surf roar a human army might have raised, but it carried the ugly undertone of hate.

Strange, he thought. How can I be so certain it's hate I hear? These aren't men, after all. For all I know, they might be shouting cries of joyous welcome! He grimaced at his own fanciful thought. Of course it's hate. How could it be else when our masters have brought us here to break them into well-behaved cattle?

But this was no time to be thinking such thoughts. And even if it had been, a nagging inner honesty pointed out, subduing these not-men wasn't so terribly different from what he'd planned to do to Frenchmen—who, whatever their other faults, at least went about on a mere two legs, not three, and were fellow Christians and (provisionally) human.

He scanned them one more time, confirming his masters' briefing, and snorted much as Satan had. He and his men were outnumbered by at least ten-to-one, and the wart-faces would do nothing to change those odds. Their job was to ensure that none of this world's not-men eluded Sir George's men and entered the ship through the open hold. Which wasn't going to happen.

Sir George drew a deep breath, feeling the not-men's hatred and sensing the confidence they felt in their superior numbers.

Pity the poor bastards, he thought, then slammed the visor of his bascinet, drew his sword, and pressed with his knees to send Satan trotting forward.

 

It hadn't really been a battle, Sir George reflected afterward, tossing his helmet to Edward and shoving back his chain mail coif as he dismounted beside one of the mobile fountains. The metal creature was half the size of an ox but wide for its length, and the merry chuckle of the water splashing in the wide catcher basin made a grotesque background for the wailing whines and whimpers coming from the enemy's wounded. There were few moans from his own wounded. Partly because there'd been so few of them, compared to the not-men's casualties, but mostly because the hovering metal turtles—the "air cars," as their masters called them—had already picked up most of his injured. And all of the handful of dead, as well, he thought with a familiar chill. How many of them would stay "dead" this time, he wondered? Father Timothy had pondered the matter at length, and prayed at even greater length, before he pronounced that the men who had been seemingly returned from death were not, in fact, the demons or devils some of their fellows had feared. Sir George trusted the priest's judgment in matters religious implicitly, and he'd supported Father Timothy's pronouncement to the hilt, yet even he found it a bit . . . unsettling to see a man who had taken a lance through the chest sit down to supper with him.

He put the thought aside—again. It was easier than it once had been, despite his lingering discomfort. Partly because he'd learned to accept that much of their masters' magic was, in fact, no more than the huge advancement in matters mechanic that the Commander claimed, but even more because he was too grateful to have those men back to question the agency of their resurrection, or healing, or whatever it was. Any decent field commander did anything he could to hold down his casualties, if only to preserve the efficiency of his fighting force, but Sir George had even more reason to do so than most. His men—less than a thousand, all told, including the smiths and farriers and fletchers, as well as his soldiers and knights—were all he had. In a sense, they were all the men who would ever exist in the universe—or in Sir George's universe, at least—and that made every one of them even more precious than they would have been had he and they ever reached Normandy.

He snorted, shook himself, and thrust his head into the fountain. The icy water was a welcome shock, washing away the sweat, and he drank deeply before he finally raised his head at last to draw a gasping breath of relief. His right arm ached wearily, but it had been more butcher's work than sword work at the end. The not-men had never imagined anything like an English bowman. That much had been obvious. Even the Scots at Halidon Hill had shown more caution than the not-men, and not even French knights would have pressed on so stubbornly—and stupidly—into such a blizzard of arrows.

But the not-men had.

Sir George sighed and turned from the fountain, surrendering his place to Rolf Grayhame, his senior captain of archers, as he surveyed the field.

There had been even more of the not-men than he'd first thought, not that it had mattered in the end. Each of his six hundred archers could put twelve shafts in the air in a minute and, at need, hit picked, man-sized targets at two hundred paces. Their broadheaded arrows inflicted hideous wounds at any range, and their needle-pointed pile arrows could penetrate chain or even plate at pointblank ranges. Against foes who were totally unarmored, that sort of fire produced a massacre, not a battle. The only true hand-blows of the entire affair had come when Sir George and his mounted men charged the broken rabble which had once been an army to complete its rout, and he grimaced at the thought of what that charge had cost.

Only two of his mounted men had been seriously wounded, and neither of them too badly for the magical healing arts of their masters to save them, but they'd lost five more priceless horses. All too few of their original mounts had survived the brutal storm from which their masters had plucked them. Satan had been one of them, praise God, but there had been far too few others to meet Sir George's needs. At least the Commander had seemed to grasp their importance, however, for his ship's metal minions had raided a half dozen manors somewhere in France for almost two hundred more of them, and he had instructed the healer—the "Medic"—aboard the ship to breed them. But few of the horses so acquired had been destriers; most were suitable only for light or perhaps medium horse, and unlike humans, horses took poorly to the long periods of sleep their masters imposed. Nor did they reproduce well under such conditions, and whatever arts brought dead archers or men-at-arms back to life seemed unable to do the same for them. There were fewer of them for every battle, and the time would come when there were none.

The thought did not please Sir George, and not simply because Satan had been with him for so long and borne him so well. Sir George was no fool. His grandfather had been the next best thing to a common man-at-arms before he won Warwick under Edward I, and neither his son nor his grandson had been allowed to forget his hard-bitten pragmatism. A professional soldier to his toenails, Sir George knew that a mounted charge against properly supported archers was madness. Well, against English archers, at any rate, he amended. True, the shock of a horsed charge remained all but irresistible if one could carry it home, but accomplishing that critical final stage was becoming more and more difficult. Although he'd never faced them, Sir George had heard of the pikemen produced in distant Switzerland, and he rather wished he had a few of them along. A pike wall, now, formed up between his archers and the enemy . . . that would put paid to any cavalry charge! There was no way to know what was happening back home, of course, but surely by now even the French and Italians must be discovering the cold, bitter truth that unsupported cavalry was no longer the queen of battle.

Yet for all that, he was a knight himself, and perhaps the proudest emblems of any knight were his spurs. The day when the horse finally did vanish forever from the field of battle would be a terrible one, and Sir George was thankful he would never live long enough to see it.

Or perhaps I will live long enough . . . now. Assuming I might ever see Earth again. Which I won't.

He snorted again and rose to his full height, stretching mightily. For all his inches, his son Edward bade fair to overtop him with a handspan and more to spare when he reached his full growth. The young man stood beside him, still holding his helmet, and Sir George eyed him with unobtrusive speculation. That Edward was with him—yes, and Edward's mother, praise God!—was one of the few things which made this endless purgatory endurable, yet he wondered at times how old his son truly was. He'd been thirteen when they sailed to join King Edward in France, but how long ago had that been?

Sir George had no answer for that question. The Commander had spoken nothing but the truth when he promised to extend their life spans. His claim that it was to reward their loyal service, on the other hand, failed to fool even the most credulous of Sir George's men. It was merely simpler to extend the lives of the men they had rather than spend the time to return to Earth to catch still more of them. Not that voyages to Earth were the only way their masters could secure more manpower, the baron thought sourly.

He'd concluded long ago that only coincidence had caused the Commander to sweep up their womenfolk and children with them. Whatever else the Commander was, he had no true understanding of the humans under his command. No, perhaps that was unfair. He'd gained at least some understanding of them; it was simply that he had never—and would never—see them as anything more than animate property. He didn't even feel contempt for them—not truly—for they weren't sufficiently important to waste contempt upon. They were exactly what he'd called them: barbarians and primitives. Valuable to his Guild, as he'd said, but lesser life forms, to be used however their natural superiors found most advantageous.

Sir George refused to make the mistake of regarding the Commander with responsive contempt, yet neither was he blind to the peculiar blindnesses and weaknesses which accompanied the Commander's disdain. For example, the Commander had come to Earth solely to secure a fighting force (though it had taken Sir George a long, long time to begin to understand why beings who could build such marvels as the ship should need archers and swordsmen). The baron had no doubt that the Commander would have preferred to secure only a fighting force, unencumbered by "useless" women or children. But like any expeditionary force of its time, the Englishmen he'd actually stolen had been accompanied by dozens of women. A few, like his own Matilda, were the wives of knights or other officers. Others were the wives of common soldiers or archers, and still more had been the wives of convenience and outright prostitutes found among any army's camp followers.

Sir George was certain that the Commander had seriously considered simply disposing of those "useless" mouths, and he thanked God that the alien had at least recognized the way in which wives and children could be used to ensure the obedience of husbands and fathers. What the Commander had been slower to recognize was that the presence of women and the natural inclinations of men offered the opportunity to make his small fighting force self-sustaining. Although Sir George's age had been frozen at the thirty-five he had been before he'd been snatched into servitude, many of the youngsters who'd been taken with him had grown into young manhood and taken their place in the ranks, and still more children had been born . . . no doubt to follow them, when the time came.

By Sir George's reckoning, he and his men had spent something close to fifty years awake and aware, but the time had been less for their families. All of them were returned to their magical slumber between battles, of course. Voyages between worlds, Sir George had gathered from conversations with the Commander, took years, and it was simpler to wrap them in sleep while the huge ship sailed among the stars. But their families were not always awakened when the soldiers were. Much depended upon how long they would remain on any given world before their masters were satisfied with their control of it, but the Commander had also learned to dole out reunions as rewards . . . or to withhold them as punishment.

The result was that far less time had passed for Matilda and the other women than for Sir George and his troops, and for many years, Edward had been kept to his mother's calendar. He was old enough—or physically mature enough—now to take his place on the field as his father's squire, and now he woke and slept with the rest of the men. Sir George was glad to have the boy with him, yet he knew Matilda was in two minds. She didn't miss her son when she slept, but not even their alien masters could heal all wounds. They had lost men, slowly but in a steady trickle, ever since they had been stolen away from hearth and home forever, and she did not want Edward to become one of those they lost.

Nor did Sir George. But they had no choice—less even here than they might have had at home. They fought, or they perished. That was their reality, and it was unwise to think of other realities, or how things might have been, or to long to return, however briefly, to the world of their birth.

He knew all that, yet he sometimes wondered how long had truly passed since he and his men had set sail. What year was it, assuming that the years of Earth had any meaning so far from her?

He had no idea. But he suspected they were far, far away from the twelfth day of July in the Year of Our Lord Thirteen Hundred and Forty-Six.

 

The silent dragon-man stopped and stood aside as they approached the glowing wall, and Sir George glanced sideways at the creature. He'd seen enough of them to know that they, like the wart-faces, were flesh and blood, for all their oddness in human eyes, and not simply more of his masters' mechanical devices, but even now, he had never heard one of the dragon-men make a single sound. The wart-faces, yes. He hadn't learned a word of their language of grunts and hoarse hoots—in large part because his masters clearly didn't want the English to be able to converse with them—but he and his men had been given ample proof that the wart-faces at least had a language.

Not the dragon-men. The wart-faces were properly called "Hathori," or that, at least, was what the Commander called them, and they had far more contact with the English than the dragon-men did, for they were the Commander's whip hand. They were the prison guards, charged with driving and goading the English outside the ship, and there had been some ugly incidents in the early days. At least one of them had been killed by the Englishmen they guarded . . . and half a dozen of Sir George's men had been slain by the Commander's order as retribution. There was no love lost between the English and the Hathori—which, Sir George suspected, was precisely what the Commander wished—and the wart-faces were almost as stupid as the Commander seemed to think the English were. Indeed, the Hathori were exactly what they seemed: brutal, incurious enforcers, smart enough to obey orders and individually powerful, but with no interest in anything beyond their orders. Which, Sir George had concluded, was the reason the Commander had needed his own Englishmen. As individuals, the wart-faces were formidable killing machines, but they lacked the cohesion, the discipline and ability, to fight as soldiers.

But the eternally silent dragon-men, he suspected, were a very different matter indeed. He had no idea what they called themselves—if, in fact, they called themselves anything at all—and the Commander never even mentioned them directly. They were simply always there, looming in the background, and unlike the axe-wielding Hathori, armed with their deadly lightning weapons and guarding the Commander and the crew of the huge vessel.

Now the dragon-man returned Sir George's glance impassively, motionless as a lizard on a stone and with the same sense of poised, absolute readiness. The glowing wall sealed the English into their own portion of their ship prison, and none of them had yet been able to discover how the portal through it was opened or closed. They had discovered a great deal about other controls in their quarters, ways to turn devices on and off, and Sir George and Father Timothy were certain that the glowing wall must be controlled in some similar—or at least comparable—fashion, yet they'd never been able to detect how it was done.

Which was as well for their masters, Sir George thought grimly, and nodded to the dragon-man as he stepped past him into the corridor beyond the wall. As always, the towering creature did not react in any way to the human gesture, but somehow Sir George felt certain the dragon-men recognized it as an acknowledgment and a courtesy of sorts. Whatever else they were, they were obviously capable of thought, or the Commander's Guild would have replaced them with more of its clever mechanical devices. Equally obviously, it regarded both the Hathori and the dragon-men much as it did the English: as more or less domesticated, moderately dangerous, useful beasts of burden, although the Commander clearly placed greater faith in the loyalty of the dragon-men.

Sir George had often wondered how the dragon-men regarded the English. Did they, like the Commander's kind, regard them as primitives and barbarians, beneath their own notice? Certainly they possessed and used more of the wondrous tools of their masters, but that didn't seem to make them their masters' equals. So did they see the English as companions in servitude? Or did they cling to the need to look down upon the humans as a way to make themselves appear less wretched by comparison?

It seemed unlikely to make a great deal of difference either way, as neither Sir George, nor Father Timothy, nor any other human had ever discovered a way to communicate with the dragon-men. Their masters gave them precious little opportunity to experiment, but it was impossible to completely eliminate all physical contact between humans and dragon-men. Not if the dragon-men were to be useful as guards against the humans, at any rate. Most of the other humans had completely abandoned the task, but Father Timothy continued to try, and Sir George shared his confessor's hopes, although he lacked the priest's patience and dogged faith.

Not even Father Timothy, on the other hand, still sought to communicate with the Hathori.

Sir George snorted at his own cross-grained nature as he followed the guiding light down the empty passageway. He shared Father Timothy's hopes yet lacked the other's faith, a contradiction if ever he'd heard of one. Yet he couldn't quite turn off that tiny sprig of hope, and he often found himself dreaming of the dragon-men. Indeed, he'd dreamed of them more often during the last few periods of wakefulness than in quite some time.

His thoughts broke off as the guide light reached another hatch and stopped. It bobbed there imperatively, as if impatient with his slow progress, and he grinned wryly. Such guides were necessary, for the architecture of the ship could be bewildering, especially to one who spent virtually all of his time aboard it locked into the portion assigned to the English. He couldn't be positive, but he was privately certain that the layout of the rest of the ship changed between his infrequent visits here, as if it were not fixed and his masters rearranged it with casual ease whenever they tired of the current arrangement. He had been told by the Commander that the guide lights were only another of the endless mechanisms available to his masters, and he supposed he believed the alien. Yet he often wondered, especially at times like this, when the lights twitched so impatiently, scolding him for dawdling and eager to be off about some fresh business of their own.

He stepped through the indicated hatch, and the light whisked off with a final bob and dodge. He watched it go, then stepped back as the hatch closed.

The chamber was no different from the one to which the lights had guided him the last time the Commander summoned him, although they'd followed nothing remotely like the same path to reach it. It was octagonal, with hatches in each wall, and perhaps fifteen feet across. A glowing table at its center supported one of the marvels his masters called a "light sculpture." Sir George had no idea how the things were made, but they always fascinated him. All were beautiful, though the beauty was often strange to human eyes—so strange, sometimes, as to make one uneasy, even frightened—and almost always subtle. This one was a thing of flowing angles and forms, of brilliant color threaded through a cool background of blues and greens, and he gazed upon it in delight as its soothing presence flowed over him.

There are times, he thought dreamily, when I could almost forgive them for what they've done to us. Our lives are longer, our people healthier, than they ever would have been at home, and they can create such beauty and wonders as this. And yet all the marvels we've received are nothing but scraps from the table, dropped casually to us or—worse!—given only because it benefits them for us to have them. To them, we are less important, although not, perhaps, less valuable, than the things they build of metal and crystal, and—

"You did well. But then you English always do, don't you?"

Sir George turned from the light sculpture. He hadn't heard the hatch open, but one rarely did aboard this ship. The main hatches, big enough for a score of mounted men abreast, yes. Not even their masters seemed able to make something that large move without even a whisper of sound, but the smaller hatches within the ship proper were another matter.

Not that most of his men would know that from personal experience. Only he, Sir Richard Maynton, and—on very rare occasions—Matilda had ever been permitted inside the portion of the vast ship reserved for their masters and their masters' nonhuman henchmen. Even then, they must come totally unarmed and submit to the humiliation of a search before they passed the glowing wall between their section of the ship and the rest of its interior.

Now he cocked his head, gazing at the Commander, and tried to gauge the other's mood. Despite the years of his servitude, he still found the task all but hopeless. That was immensely frustrating, and it was also dangerous. But the Commander's piping voice remained a dead, expressionless thing, and the three-eyed face remained so utterly alien as to make reading its expression utterly impossible. Certainly Sir George had never seen anything he could classify as a smile or a frown. And the fact that the Commander didn't truly speak English (or Latin, or French) complicated things still further. Father Timothy and Dickon Yardley, Sir George's senior surgeon, had concluded that the upper of the Commander's two mouths was exclusively a breathing and speaking orifice, but as Sir George had noticed the very first day, that mouth didn't move in time with the words the Commander "spoke." Instead, the Commander spoke in his own tongue—whatever that was—and one of the many mechanisms of the ship translated that into a language Sir George could understand and made it appear to be coming from the Commander.

Sir George had often wondered whether that artificiality was the true reason the voice sounded so expressionless. He couldn't be certain, but he had concluded that the Commander's failure—or refusal—to learn the language of his captive troops was another indication of his sense of utter superiority to them. It was, however, a foolish decision, unless whatever translated his words into English did a far better job of communicating nuance and emotion when it translated English into his own language.

But however ridiculous the demon-jester might still look, and despite the foolishness of any decisions the Commander might make, Sir George would never underestimate him. He dared not, for his own life, but even more for the lives of the men and women for whom he was responsible, and that was the true reason he found his inability to read the Commander's mood so maddening. He must watch his words with this creature far more closely than he'd ever watched them with any other commander, yet he was never quite free of the fear that he would choose the wrong one simply because he'd misunderstood or misinterpreted the Commander.

Still, he knew he'd made some progress, and at least the Commander appeared to choose his words with care, as if seeking to make his meaning completely clear through what he said since he couldn't communicate fine shades of meaning by how he said it.

And, of course, there's also the fact that we're valuable to him and to his "trading guild." Very valuable, if he's to be believed. And I rather think he is, given the lengths they went to to steal us all away.

Sir George would never be so stupid as to assume that that value would preserve any human foolish enough to anger or appear to threaten their masters. Sir John Denmore's fate on that very first day would have been enough to prevent that, but there had been a handful of other deaths over the years. Two men who'd attempted to desert on a beautiful world of blue skies and deep green seas, another who'd simply refused one day to leave the ship, the six executed for the wart-face's death, another who'd gone berserk and attacked the dragon-men and the Commander himself with naked steel . . .  All had been slaughtered as easily as Sir John, and with as little apparent emotion. Yet the Commander's actions and normal attitude (as well as Sir George could read the latter) were those of a being well pleased with his investment . . . and aware that his own masters were equally pleased. He would shed no tears (or whatever his kind did to express sorrow) over the death of any single human, but he valued them as a group and so took pains to avoid misunderstandings which might require him to destroy any of them.

Or any more of them, at any rate.

Sir George realized the Commander was still gazing at him, waiting for a response, and gave himself a small shake.

"Your pardon, Commander," he said. "The aftermath of battle lingers with me, I fear, and makes me somewhat slow of wit. You were saying?"

"I said that you English had done well today," the Commander said patiently. "My guild superiors will be pleased with the results of your valiant fighting. I feel certain that they will express that pleasure to me in some material form quite soon, and I, of course, wish to express my own pleasure to your men. Accordingly, I have instructed the Medic to awaken your mates and children. We will remain on this world for at least another several weeks while the details of our agreements are worked out with the natives. It may be that I shall need your services once again—or to trot a few of you out to remind the natives of your prowess, at least—during my negotiations. Since we must keep you awake during that period anyway, and since you have fought so well, rewarding you with the opportunity for a reunion seems only just."

"I thank you, Commander." Sir George fought to keep his own emotions out of his voice and expression. The fact that he was unable to read the Commander's feelings didn't mean the Commander or one of his fiendishly clever devices couldn't read Sir George's. He doubted that they could, but he might be wrong, and so he throttled back the mixture of elation, joy, hatred, and fury the news sent racing through him.

"You are welcome, of course," the Commander piped back, and gestured for Sir George to seat himself on the human-style chair which had suddenly appeared beside the table of glowing light. Sir George took the chair gingerly, unable even after all this time to completely hide his discomfort with furnishings which appeared and disappeared as if out of thin air. Nor did he much care for the table. He had no idea how it had been created, but he knew its top was actually as immaterial as the air about him. It was indisputably there. He could lay a hand upon it and feel . . . something. Yet he could never have described that something. It supported anything set upon it, but it was as if he couldn't quite place his hand on its actual surface, assuming it had one. It was more as if . . . as if he were pressing his palm against a powerful current of water, or perhaps an equally powerful current of air itself. There was a resistance as his hand approached what ought to be the surface of the table, yet there was no sense of friction, and he always seemed on the brink of being able to push just a little further, just a bit closer.

He put the thought aside once more and watched another of the ship's small metal servitors move silently into the compartment and deposit a crystal carafe of wine and an exquisite goblet before him. Another goblet and carafe, this time filled with some thick, purple-gold, sludgelike liquid was placed before the Commander, and Sir George managed not to blink in surprise. The Commander had offered him what amounted to a social meeting only five times before, and as closely as he could estimate, each had followed on the heels of some particularly valuable coup which the English had executed for the Guild. Which seemed to suggest that the hapless not-men Sir George and his troops had slaughtered the day before must be the source of some commodity vastly more valuable than he would have believed this world could offer to anyone with the capabilities of his masters.

"You are wondering what brings us to this world, are you not?" the Commander asked, and Sir George nodded. The Commander had learned the meaning of at least some human gestures, and he made an alarming sound. Sir George wasn't positive, but he'd come to suspect it was the equivalent of a human chuckle, although whether it indicated satisfaction, amusement, scorn, impatience, or some other emotion was impossible to say.

"I am not surprised that you wonder," the Commander went on. "After all, these aliens are even more primitive than your own world. It must be difficult to grasp what such barbarians could possibly offer to civilized beings."

Sir George gritted his teeth and made himself take a sip of the truly excellent wine. He had no idea whether or not the Commander realized how insulting his words were, and the voice in which they were delivered gave no clue. He suspected the Commander wouldn't have cared a great deal if he had known, and he could even admit—intellectually—that there was some point to the other's attitude. Compared to the Commander's people, humans were primitive. On the other hand, Sir George had come to suspect that the Commander's Guild wasn't actually so very different from guilds or other powerful groups of Sir George's own experience. He would have given a great deal, for example, to see how the Commander would have fared bargaining with a Cypriot or a Venetian. Without the advantage of his "technology," he strongly suspected, the demon-jester would be plucked like a pigeon.

"In actual fact," the Commander continued, seemingly oblivious to Sir George's silence, "this planet does not offer us any physical commodity. Some of the worlds which the Guild has used you to open to them have offered such commodities, although normally only in the form of resources the primitives who live upon them are too stupid to exploit themselves. In this case, however, it is the position of the world which is of such value. It will provide us with a location for . . . warehouses, I suppose you might call them, and one from which we may fuel and maintain our vessels."

He paused, looking at Sir George with that impossible to read face, then raised his goblet to tip a little of the purple-gold sludge into his lower mouth.

"You may think of it as a strategically located island or trading port," his piping voice said after a moment, issuing from his upper mouth while the lower one was busy with the goblet. "It will bring us many advantages. And of particular satisfaction to me personally, it will cut deeply into the flank of the Sharnhaishian Guild's trade network."

Sir George pricked up his ears at that. Impossible though he found it to reliably interpret the Commander's tone or expression, he'd formed some conclusions about the other's personality. He knew it was risky to draw parallels between such unearthly creatures and the personality traits of humans, yet he couldn't help doing so. Perhaps it was simply that he had to put it in some sort of familiar framework or go mad. Indeed, he often thought that might be the best explanation of all. But he also felt certain that he'd read at least one aspect of the Commander correctly: the thick-bodied little creature loved to brag . . . even when his audience was no more than a primitive, barbarian English slave. Perhaps even more importantly—and, again, like many boastful humans Sir George had known—the Commander seemed blissfully unaware of the weakness such bragging could become. A wise man, Sir George's father had often said, learns from the things fools let slip.

Fortunately, the Commander had never met Sir James Wincaster.

Sir George realized the Commander had said nothing for several seconds, simply gazing at him with that disconcerting triple stare, and he shook himself.

"I see . . . I think," he said, hoping his suspicion that the Commander wanted him to respond was correct. "I suppose it would be like capturing, oh, Constantinople and seizing control of all access to the Black Sea."

"I am not certain," the Commander replied. "I am insufficiently familiar with the geography of your home world to know if the analogy is accurate, but it sounds as if it might be. At any rate, there will be major bonuses for myself and the members of my team, which is one reason I wish to reward you. You and your kind are a very valuable guild asset, and unlike some of my guild brothers, I have always believed that valuable property should be well cared for and that assets are better motivated by reward than by punishment alone."

"I have observed much the same," Sir George said with what might charitably have been described as a smile. He managed to keep his voice level and thoughtful, whatever his expression might have briefly revealed, and he castigated himself for that teeth-baring smile, reminding himself yet again that his masters might be—indeed, almost certainly were—better versed at reading human expressions than he was at reading theirs. Unlike humans, they at least had experience of scores of other races and sorts of creatures. They must have learned at least a little something about interpreting alien emotions from that experience, and even if they hadn't, it was far better to overestimate a foe than to underestimate one.

"I suspected that you might have reached the same conclusion," the Commander said with what Sir George rather thought might have been an expansive air had the Commander been human. "Yet I must confess that for me, personally, the fact that we have dealt the Sharnhaishians a blow is of even greater satisfaction than any bonus."

"You've mentioned the . . . the—" Sir George snorted impatiently. He simply could not wrap his tongue about the sounds of the alien name, and the Commander made that alarming sound once again.

"The Sharnhaishian Guild," he supplied, and Sir George nodded.

"Yes. You've mentioned them before, Commander."

"Indeed I have," the Commander agreed. There was still no readable emotion in his voice or face, yet Sir George suspected that if there had been, the emotion would have been one of bitter hatred. "I owe the Sharnhaishians a great deal," the Commander went on. "They almost destroyed my career when they first produced their accursed 'Romans.' "

Sir George nodded again, striving to project an air of understanding and sympathy while he hoped desperately that the Commander would continue. The other had touched upon the Sharnhaishian Guild—obviously the great rival of his own trading house—in earlier conversations. The references had been maddeningly vague, yet they had made it plain that the Sharnhaishians were currently ascendent over the Commander's own guild, and their success seemed to have a great deal to do with the Romans the Commander had mentioned more than once. Sir George found it all but impossible to believe, even now, that the "Romans" in question could be what it sounded as if they were, but if he was wrong, he wanted to know it. It might be ludicrous to believe he could hope to achieve anything against his alien masters, yet Sir George had seen too much of purely human struggles to surrender all hope, despite the huge gulf between their physical capabilities. There were times when a bit of knowledge, or of insight into an enemy's thoughts and plans (or fears), could be more valuable than a thousand bowmen.

And given all the marvels the Commander and his kind possess, knowledge is the only thing which might aid me against them, he reminded himself.

The Commander ingested more purple-gold sludge, all three eyes gazing at the "light sculpture" as if he'd completely forgotten Sir George was present, and the human had a sudden thought. The wine in his goblet was perhaps the finest vintage he'd ever sampled, and potent, as well. Was it reasonable to guess that the sludge was equally or even more potent for the Commander's kind? The more he considered it, the more possible—and probable—it seemed, and he smiled inwardly, much as a shark might have smiled.

Truth in the wine, he reminded himself, and took another sip—a very small one this time—from his own glass.

"It was the Sharnhaishians and their Romans who kept me from being appointed a sector commissioner long ago," the Commander said at last. He moved his eyes from the light sculpture to Sir George, and the Englishman hid another smile as he realized the flanking eyes had gone just a bit unfocused. They seemed to be wandering off in directions of their own, as well, and he filed that fact away. He could be wrong, but if he wasn't, recognizing the signs of drunkenness in the Commander might prove valuable in the future.

"How was I to know they might come up with something like the Romans?" the Commander demanded. "It must have cost them a fortune to bribe the Council into letting them buy the damned barbarians in the first place." Sir George cocked his head slightly, and the Commander slapped a double-thumbed hand on the table top. On a normal table, such a blow would have produced a thunderclap of sound; on this table, there was no noise at all, but the Commander seemed to draw a certain comfort from the gesture.

"Oh, yes." He took another deep sip of sludge and refilled his goblet once more. "The Federation has rules, you know. Laws. Like the one that says none of us can use modern weapons on primitive worlds. The 'Prime Directive,' they call it." He slurped more sludge, but his upper mouth never stopped speaking. "Bunch of hypocrites, that's what they are. Carrying on like the thing is supposed to protect the stupid primitives. You know what it really is?"

His large, central eye fixed on Sir George, and the Englishman shook his head.

"Fear, that's what," the Commander told him. "Stupid bureaucrats are afraid we'll lose some of our toys where the barbarians can find them. As if the idiots could figure them out in the first place."

He fell silent again, and alien though his voice and face might be, Sir George was increasingly certain that he truly was as moody as any drunken human.

"Actually, it makes a sort of sense, you know," the Commander went on finally. He gave the table another silent thump and leaned back in the oddly shaped, bucketlike piece of furniture which served his kind as a chair. "Takes years and years to move between stars, even with phase drive. One reason the ships are so damned big. Don't have to be, you know. We could put a phase drive in a hull a tenth the size of this one—even smaller. But size doesn't matter much. Oh, the mass curve's important, but once you've got the basic system—" He waved a hand, and Sir George nodded once again. He didn't have the faintest idea what a "mass curve" or a "phase drive" was, and at the moment, he didn't much care. Other bits and pieces did make sense to him, and he listened avidly for more.

And, he thought from behind his own masklike expression, it doesn't hurt a bit to watch the Commander. "Truth in the wine," indeed! His voice and face may not reveal much, but his gestures are another matter entirely. Perhaps I've been looking in the wrong places to gauge his moods. He filed that away, as well, and sat back in his chair, nursing his goblet in both hands while he listened attentively . . . and sympathetically.

"Thing is, if it takes decades to make the trip, better have the capacity to make the trip worthwhile, right?" the Commander demanded. "You think this ship is big?" Another wave of a double-thumbed hand, gesturing at the bulkheads. "Well, you're wrong. Lots of ships out there lots bigger than this one. Most of the guild ships, as a matter of fact, because it doesn't cost any more to run a really big ship than a little one like this. But that's the real reason for their stupid 'Prime Directive.'"

"The size of your vessels?" Sir George made his tone puzzled and wrinkled his forehead ferociously, hoping the Commander had become sufficiently well versed in human expressions to recognize perplexity, although if his estimate of the other's condition was accurate it was unlikely the Commander would be noticing anything so subtle as an alien race's expressions. But whether or not the Commander recognized his expression, it was quickly clear that he'd asked the right question.

"Of course not," the Commander told him. "Not the size, the speed. Might be fifteen or twenty of your years between visits to most of these backwater planets. Maybe even longer. I know one planet that the Guild only sends a ship to every two and a half of your centuries or so, and the Federation knows it, too. So they don't want to take any chances on having some bunch of primitives figure out we're not really gods or whatever between visits. Want to keep them awed and humble around us. That's why they passed their 'Prime Directive' something like—" The Commander paused in thought for a few seconds, as if considering something. "Would have been something like eighteen thousand of your years ago, I think. Give or take a century or two."

He made the alarming sound again, and Sir George was certain now that it was his kind's equivalent of laughter. For just a moment, that hardly seemed to matter, however. Eighteen thousand years? His alien masters' civilization had existed for over eighteen millennia? Impossible! And yet—

"Even for us, that's a long time for a law to be in effect," the Commander said. His piping voice was less clear, the words beginning to blur just a bit around the corners as he leaned towards Sir George, and the baron had to fight back a chuckle of his own as he realized that whatever did the translating was faithfully slurring the translation to match the drunken original. "We don't like to change things unless we have to, you know, so once we write a law, it stays around a while, but this one's made lots of trouble for the guilds, because it's meant we couldn't just go in and rearrange things properly. Actually had to bargain with barbarians so primitive they don't have a clue of the value of the things they're sitting on top of. Couldn't violate the damned 'Prime Directive' after all, now could we?"

Another thump on the table. This time, it wouldn't have made any sound anyway, because the Commander missed the table top entirely, and Sir George began to wonder how much longer the creature would last before he passed out.

"So what did the Sharnhaishians do?" the Commander continued. "I'll tell you what. They went out and found another primitive world—one the Council didn't even know about yet—and they bought their damned 'Romans.' Never occurred to any of the rest of us. But the Prime Directive doesn't say we can't use force. All it says is that we can't use our own weapons. It just never occurred to any of us that there was anything we could do without using our weapons except negotiate and bribe."

He lowered his goblet and peered down into it for several seconds, then made a sound suspiciously like a human belch and returned his central eye to Sir George.

"Not the Sharnhaishians, though. If they want a primitive world, they just send in their Romans. Just as primitive as the local barbarians, so the Council can't complain, and I'll say this for the Romans. They're tough. Never run into anything they couldn't handle, and the Sharnhaishians've used them to take dozens of backwater worlds away from the other guilds. Whole trade nets, cut to pieces. Strategic commodities sewn up, warehousing and basing rights snatched out from under us, careers ruined. And all because the Sharnhaishians acquired a few thousand primitives in bronze armor."

He fell silent for a long time, swirling sludge in his goblet and peering down into it, then looked back up more or less in Sir George's direction.

"But they're not the only ones who can play that game. They thought they were. The other guilds got together to complain to the Council, and the Council agreed to take the matter under consideration. It may even decide the Sharnhaishians have to stop using their Romans entirely, but that may take centuries, and in the meantime, Sharnhaishian is shipping them from one strategic point to another and taking them away from the rest of us. And they slipped someone on the Council a big enough bribe to get your world declared off-limits for all the rest of us."

Sir George stiffened, and hoped the Commander was too drunk to notice. He wasn't surprised that the other guild could have bribed the Council the Commander was yammering about. Bribing a few key rulers was often more efficient—and cheaper—than relying on armies. Although if His Majesty had spent a little more money on his army and a little less on trying to buy allies in his first French campaign he might have been on the throne of France by its end!

But if the Commander was telling the truth, if the Council to which he referred had the authority to declare that contact with Sir George's home world was no longer permitted and had done so, then the Commander's Guild must have violated that decree in order to kidnap Sir George and his troops. And if that was the case—if their servitude was unlawful in the eyes of what passed for the Crown among these creatures—then they were in even more danger than he had believed.

"It took me two or three of your centuries just to figure out where your world was," the Commander went on, and now Sir George seemed to sense an air of pride. "Some of the other guilds recruited their own primitive armies, like the Hathori. But none of them have been able to match the Romans. I still remember the first time we sent the Hathori in against a bunch of natives." The Commander stared down into his goblet, and his ears flattened.

"Damned aborigines cut them to pieces," he said after a long moment. "Cost them a lot of casualties at first, but then they swarmed right over the Hathori. Butchered them one by one. I doubt we got one in twenty of them back alive at the end, but that wouldn't have happened against the damned Romans. Those aren't just warriors—they're demons that carve up anything they run into. So it occurred to me that what we needed were Romans of our own, and I managed to convince my creche cousin to convince his sector commissioner to speak to the guild masters for me. I needed all the help I could get, thanks to the Sharnhaishians and their Romans. Of course, it helped that by then they'd done the same thing to dozens of other guildsmen, and not just in our guild, either. So they gave me a chance to reclaim my career if I could find where the Romans came from, get past the Council ban, and catch us some Romans of our own. And I did it, too."

This time his slap managed to connect with the table top again, though it was still soundless, and he threw himself untidily back in his chair.

"But we're not Romans," Sir George pointed out after a moment. He was half afraid to say another word, for if the Commander remembered any of this conversation—and realized all he was letting slip—at a later date, there would be one very simple way to rectify his error.

"Of course not," the Commander said. "Good thing, too, in a way. It surprised me, of course. I never expected to see so much change on a single planet in such a short period. Couldn't have been more than eight or nine hundred of your years between you and the Romans, and just look at all the differences. It's not decent. Oh," he waved a hand again, "you're still primitives, of course. Haven't changed that. But we got there in just the nick of time. Another five or six of your centuries or so, and you might actually have been using true firearms, and we couldn't have that. Unlikely, I admit, but there you were, already experimenting with them." The Commander eyed Sir George. "I have to wonder how you stumbled on the idea so soon. Could the Sharnhaishians have slipped up and suggested it to you?"

"The idea of 'firearms'?" Sir George frowned.

"Pots de fer, I believe you call them," the Commander said.

"Fire pots?" Sir George blinked in genuine consternation. "But they're nothing but toys, Commander! Good for scaring horses and people who never encountered them, perhaps, but scarcely serious weapons. Even bombards are little more than noisy nuisances against anyone who knows his business! Why, my bowmen would massacre any army stupid enough to arm itself with such weapons. Crossbows are more effective than they are!"

"No doubt they are—now," the Commander replied. "Won't stay that way, though. Of course, you've still got another thousand years or so to go before anyone develops truly effective small arms. Still, I suppose it's a fairly good example of why they passed the Prime Directive in the first place. If the Sharnhaishians hadn't somehow contaminated your world, you never would have come up with gunpowder at all—not so quickly."

He took another deep swallow, and Sir George decided to stay away from the question of where gunpowder came from. He himself knew only a very little about the subject—such weapons had become available in Europe only during his own lifetime and, like most of his military contemporaries, he'd had little faith that they would ever amount to much as effective field weapons. Certainly such crude, short-ranged, dangerous devices would never pose any threat to the supremacy of his bowmen! Yet the Commander seemed to find their existence deeply significant and more than a little worrying. It was almost as if the fact that humans had begun experimenting with them was somehow threatening, and Sir George had no intention of suggesting that the Sharnhaishians hadn't had anything to do with the development. Besides, how did he know the rival guild hadn't?

"Anyway," the Commander said, the words more slurred than ever, "it's a good thing we found you when we did. Couldn't have used you at all if you'd been armed with firearms. Would've been a clear violation of the Prime Directive, and that would've gotten questions asked. People would've noticed, too, and the Council would start asking questions of its own."

He leaned back towards Sir George again, and this time he patted the Englishman on the knee with what would have been a conspiratorial air from another human.

"As it is, nobody really cares. Just another bunch of primitives with muscle-powered weapons, nothing to worry about. None of the Council's inspectors even knows enough about humans to realize you and the Romans are the same species, and if any of them ever do notice, we know where to put the bribes to convince them they were mistaken. Besides," another pat on the knee, "you're all off the books." Sir George frowned, puzzled by the peculiar phrase, and the Commander thumped his knee a third time. "No document trail," he said, the words now so slurred that Sir George found it virtually impossible to understand them even as words, far less to grasp the concept behind them. "Grabbed you out of the middle of a storm. Everybody on your stupid planet figures you all drowned—would have without us, too, you know. But that means even if the Council investigates, they won't find any evidence of contact between us and your world, because aside from picking you out of the water and grabbing a few horses in the middle of the night, there wasn't any. So we've got our own little army, and unless some inspector does get nosy, nobody will ever even ask where you came from."

The Commander leaned back in his chair once more and reached out for his goblet. But his groping hand knocked it over, and he peered down at it. His central eye was almost as unfocused as the secondary ones now, and his strange, sideways eyelids began to iris out to cover them all.

"S' take that, Sharnhaishian," he muttered. "Thought you'd wrecked my career, didn' you? But who's going to . . ."

His voice trailed off entirely, his eyes closed, and he slumped in his chair. His upper mouth fell open, and a whistling sound which Sir George realized must be his kind's equivalent of a snore came from it.

The human sat in his own chair, staring numbly at the Commander, until the door opened silently once more. He looked up quickly then and saw one of his masters' guardsmen in the opening. The dragon-man beckoned imperatively with one clawed hand, and Sir George noted the way that its other hand rested on the weapon scabbarded at its side.

Could that be what the Commander actually meant by "firearms"? he wondered suddenly. Not even a true dragon could hurl hotter "fire" than they do . . . and they're certainly far more dangerous than any stupid fire pot!

The dragon-man beckoned again, its meaning clear, and Sir George sighed and rose. Of course they wouldn't leave him alone with the senseless Commander. No doubt they'd been watching through some sort of spyhole and come to collect him the instant the Commander collapsed. But had they paid any attention to the Commander's conversation before he collapsed? And even if they had, had they guessed that Sir George might realize the significance of what the Commander had told him?

He hoped not, just as he hoped the Commander wouldn't remember all that he'd let slip. Because if the others had guessed, or the Commander did remember, Sir George would almost certainly die.

After all, it would never do for their pet army's commander to realize that if anyone from the Council—wherever and exactly whatever it was—did begin to question that army's origins, the entire army would have to disappear.

Forever . . . and without a trace that could tie the Commander's Guild to a planet which the "Council" had interdicted.

 

"Are you certain, my love?"

Lady Matilda Wincaster reclined against the cushion under the brightly colored awning and regarded her husband with a serious expression. Despite the difficulty in reading alien moods, the Commander's incredulity had been obvious the first time Sir George requested permission for the English to set up tents outside the hull of the vast ship. That had been long ago, on only the third world to which they'd been taken, and the Commander had regarded Sir George very closely as he warned against any thought that the English might be able to slip away and hide from their masters. Sir George hadn't doubted the warning, and he'd taken steps to impress it equally strongly on his subordinates. He'd also been able to understand why the Commander might be astounded by the notion that anyone could prefer a tent in the open to the always perfect temperature and luxurious marvels of the ship. To be sure, the English undoubtedly had far fewer of those luxuries than their masters did, but what they did have surpassed anything any king or emperor might have boasted back on Earth.

They were well aware of the wonders, and, despite their captivity, they weren't so stupid as to reject them. But they also had an inborn hunger for open skies and natural air . . . even the "natural air" of planets which had never been home to any of their kind. In clement weather, many of them actually preferred to sleep amid the fresh air and breezes, the sounds of whatever passed for birds on a given planet, and the chuckling sounds of running water. And even those who invariably returned aboard ship for the night enjoyed the occasional open air meal. Indeed, the picnic feasts often took on the air of a festival or fair from Earth, helping to bind them together and reinforce their sense of community.

And they were a community, as well as an army. In many ways, they were fortunate that there were so few gently born among them, Sir George had often thought. He himself was the only true noble, and aside from himself and Maynton, only one other knight, Sir Henry de Maricourt, could claim any real highborn connection. The rest of his men were of common birth . . . and so were their wives. Which meant that, especially with Lady Matilda to lead the way, they had decided to overlook the dubious origins of many of the unwed camp followers who'd joined them in their involuntary exile. Most of those camp followers, though by no means all, had acquired husbands quite speedily. A few had chosen not to, and Father Timothy had agreed, under the circumstances, not to inveigh against them. There were a great many more men than women, and the one thing most likely to provoke trouble among them was that imbalance in numbers. No doubt Father Timothy would have preferred for all of the women to be respectfully wedded wives, but he, too, had been a soldier in his time. He understood the temper of men who still were, and he was able to appreciate the need to adapt to the conditions in which they found themselves forced to live.

As a result, not even those women who continued to ply their original trade were ostracized as they might have been, and a tightly knit cluster of families formed the core of the English community. The steadily growing number of children (both legitimate and bastard) helped cement that sense of community even further, and for all the bitterness with which Sir George chafed against his servitude, even he had to admit the awe he felt that not a single one of those children had perished in infancy. That was undoubtedly the most treasured of the "luxuries" their masters had made available to them. The strangest, however (though it was hard to pick the single most strange), was the fact that so few of those children's mothers remembered their births. It had caused some consternation and even terror and talk of "changelings" at first, but as time passed, the women had adjusted to the fact that their babies were almost always born during one of their sleep periods. The Medic had explained the process, pointing out that it only made sense to get such time-consuming worries as pregnancies out of the way when they were asleep anyway, and after an initial period of extreme uneasiness, most of the women had come to agree. Led in almost every case, Sir George had been amused (but not surprised) to note, by the women who had birthed the most babies the "old-fashioned" way.

He smiled even now, at the memory, but his attention was on his wife's question. One of the real reasons he'd requested freedom from the ship for his people was his certainty that anything which was said aboard the ship would be overheard by one of their masters' clever mechanical spies. It was probable that those same spies could eavesdrop upon them outside the ship, as well, but he hoped it would at least be a bit harder. And he rather suspected that even the most clever of mechanisms would find it difficult to keep track of several hundred individual conversations out in the open against the background noise of wind and water. Which meant such excursions were the only time he felt even remotely safe discussing dangerous matters.

Although even then, he reflected, the only person with whom he truly discussed them was Matilda.

"Yes, I'm certain," he said at last, meeting her gray eyes as he answered her question. God, she's beautiful, he thought with a familiar sense of wonder and awe. Seven years younger than he—or seven years younger back on Earth, at least—her huge eyes and the golden glory of her hair had delighted him from the moment he laid eyes upon her. She was better born than he, but his own soldier grandfather and father had been thrifty men, and Wickworth had been the sort of manor to please any nobly born father.

Their marriage had been one of political advantage, yet it had also been more, which had been one reason for the warm relationship with Earl Cathwall which Sir George had treasured so highly. The earl had been a doting father. He had refused to marry his daughter off for his own advantage, for he'd wanted her to marry for love, and he had been satisfied that she'd done just that as he watched her with his son-in-law.

He had also actively encouraged his daughter's pursuit of an education, which was almost unseemly, and Sir George was devoutly grateful that he had. Matilda's love was the core of his own strength, but she'd also become his wisest and most trusted advisor, as well.

"I don't think he realizes he revealed so much," the baron went on now, raising a wine goblet to hide the movement of his lips and speaking very quietly, "but I'm certain of it. More certain than I like."

"But surely there's no longer any doubt that we truly are as valuable to his Guild as he's suggested," Lady Matilda pointed out. "They would not lightly discard a tool whose worth they hold so high."

"Um." Sir George set the goblet aside, then stretched in an ostentatious yawn. He smiled at his wife and moved to lay his head in her lap, smiling up at her as she tickled the tip of his nose with a stalk of local grass. To the casual eye, they were but two people—people miraculously young and comely—in love, but his eyes were serious as he gazed up at her.

"We are valuable," he agreed, "but we're also the very thing you just called us: a tool. You haven't spent as many hours with him as I have, love. I wish I hadn't, but I have. And in the spending, I've learned that we have absolutely no value to him except as tools. He sees us as we might see a horse, or a cow. Certainly with less affection than I hold for Satan!"

"Because we aren't of his kind?" Lady Matilda murmured, her expression troubled, and Sir George shrugged.

"In part, perhaps, but I think not entirely. At least he loves to boast, and I've gleaned what bits and pieces I can from his bragging. As nearly as I can tell, there are several kinds of creatures in the 'Federation' of which he speaks. His own kind is but one sort of them, and there are great physical differences between them. But they seem much alike in spirit and outlook. All consider themselves 'advanced' because of the machines and other devices they build and control, just as they consider us 'primitives' because we lack the knowledge to construct such devices. And to the Federation, primitives are less than French serfs. As primitives, we have no rights, no value, except as tools. We aren't remotely their equals, and most of them wouldn't as much as blink at the thought of killing us all. So if our value in the field should suddenly find itself outweighed by the potential discovery that the Commander's Guild violated a Federation edict—"

He shrugged again, and she nodded unhappily, glorious eyes dark. He felt the fear she tried to hide and smiled ruefully as he reached to pat her knee.

"Forgive me, dear heart. I should never have burdened you with the thought."

"Nonsense!" She laid a small hand across his mouth and shook her head fiercely. "I am your wife, and you are not a god to carry all the weight of our fate upon your shoulders alone. There may be nothing I can do to help beyond listening, but that—and sharing your burden—I can do, at least!"

"Perhaps," he agreed, reaching up to caress the side of her face. She leaned down to kiss him, and he savored the taste of her lips. She broke the kiss and started to say something more, but he shook his head and drew her gently down beside him, pillowing her head on his shoulder as they lay on the cushions, gazing up at the sky.

She accepted his unspoken injunction to change the subject and began to talk more lightly of their children—first of Edward, and then of the four younger children born to them aboard their masters' ship. As far as Matilda was concerned, that was the greatest wonder of all, for back in Lancaster, she'd been unable to conceive again after Edward's birth, and her children were the one unblemished joy of their captivity. They were Sir George's, as well, and so he listened with smiling, tender attentiveness, gazing at her face and never once, by even so much as a glance, acknowledging the presence of the dragon-man who had drifted out of the spidery trees. The creature paused for a long moment near the awning under which the baron and his lady lay. It stood there, as if listening intently, and then, as slowly and silently as it had come, it drifted back into the forest and was gone.

 

The Commander seldom appeared among the men of "his" army, but the demon-jester made a point of summoning them all before him in his own portion of the huge vessel on the day after they'd won yet another victory for his Guild. In turn, Sir George had made a point of seeing to it that none of those men ever revealed how they felt about those summonings, for the Commander would have reacted poorly to their scorn and soul-deep anger. The baron had never been able to decide how even the Commander could be so utterly ignorant of the men who fought and died for him because they had no choice, but that he was seemed undeniable. Who but a fool who knew nothing of Englishmen would appear before those he'd stolen from their homes as his slaves to praise them for their efforts in his behalf? To tell them how well they had served the Guild they'd come to hate with all their hearts and souls? To promise them as the "reward" for their "valor" and "loyalty" the privilege of seeing their own wives and children?

Yet that was precisely what the Commander had done on other occasions, and it was what he did today . . . while dragon-men surrounded him protectively and armored wart-faces stood stolidly along the bulkheads of the huge, octagonal chamber, watching frog-eyed through the slots in their visors. Sir George gritted his own teeth until his muscles ached as that piping, emotionless voice wound its monotonous way through the endless monologue. He felt the invisible fury rising from his men like smoke and marveled once more that any creature whose kind could build wonders like the ship and all its marvelous servitors could be so stupid. It was as if the Commander had read some treatise which insisted a commander of barbarians must inspire his troops with flattering words and was determined to do just that.

". . . reward you for your courage and hardihood," the piping voice went on. "I salute your loyalty and bravery, which has once more carried our Guild's banner to victory, and I hope to grant you the rewards you so richly deserve in the very near future. In the meantime, we—"

"Reward I deserve, hey?" Rolf Grayhame muttered. He stood beside Sir George, his voice a thread, leaking from the side of his fiercely moustachioed lips. "Only one reward I want, My Lord, and that's a clean shot. Just one."

Sir George elbowed the archer sharply, and Grayhame closed his mouth with an apologetic glower. He knew Sir George's orders as well as any, but like his baron, he felt only contempt for the Commander. The demon-jester was far from the first arrogant lordling Grayhame had seen in his career, but he was arguably the stupidest. Secure in the superiority of his mechanisms and guards though he might be, he was still witless enough to infuriate fighting men by dragging them out to hear this sort of crap. Not even a Frenchman was that stupid!

"Sorry, My Lord," the archer captain muttered. "Shouldn't have said it. But not even a Scot would—"

He clamped his jaw again, and Sir George gave him a stern look that was only slightly flawed by the smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. That small lip twitch emboldened Grayhame, and his gray-green eyes glinted for just a moment. Then he shrugged his shoulders apologetically and returned his attention to the Commander.

". . . and so we will spend several more of your weeks here," the demon-jester was saying. "The craven curs you have whipped to their kennels will offer no threat," he seemed completely oblivious to how foolish his rhetoric sounded to human ears delivered in his piping, emotionless voice, "and you and your mates and children will have that time to enjoy the sunlight and fresh air you so treasure. Go now. Return to your families, secure in the knowledge that you are valued and treasured by our guild."

 

Sir George started to follow his men out, but a gesture from the Commander stopped him. Grayhame and Maynton paused as well, their eyes meeting Sir George's questioningly, but a tiny shake of his head sent them on after the others. He watched them leave, then turned to his master.

"Yes, Commander?"

"Not all of this planet's primitives have been sufficiently cowed by your defeat of the local clans," the Commander said. "They appear to grasp that their local colleagues' forces have been utterly destroyed, but they do not seem to believe the same could be done to their own. Apparently they feel that those you have defeated were poorly led and motivated—unlike, of course, their own warriors. While cautious, they have not yet accepted that they have no choice but to do as we bid them or be destroyed in their separate turns."

He paused, his three-eyed gaze fixed on Sir George's face, and the human tried to hide his dismay. Not from concern over what might happen to his own men, but because the thought of butchering still more of the local not-men for the benefit of the Commander's guild sickened him.

"I see," he said at last. "Will it be necessary for us to destroy their forces in the field, as well?"

"It may," the Commander replied in that emotionless voice, "but I hope to avoid that. We would be forced to move the ship in order to transport your troops into reach of their warriors. That would be inconvenient. Worse, it might actually encourage them to resist. Such primitive species have exhibited similar behavior in the past, particularly when they believe their numbers are greatly superior. My own analysis suggests that moving the ship from point to point, thus emphasizing the fact that we have but one of them and but a limited number of you English, might encourage some among them to overestimate their ability to resist us. In the end, of course, they would be proven wrong, but teaching them that lesson might require us to spend much longer on this single world than my superiors would like."

"I see," Sir George repeated, and this time he truly did. Before he had fallen into the hands of the Commander's Guild, he, too, had sometimes found himself looking over his shoulder at superiors who insisted that he accomplish his tasks with near-impossible speed. Not that understanding the Commander's quandary woke any particular sympathy within him.

"No doubt you do," the Commander replied. "I hope, however, to avoid that necessity by demonstrating their inferiority to them. Accordingly, I have summoned all of the principal chieftains from within reasonable travel distance from our current location. They will begin arriving within the next two local days, and all should be here within no more than twelve. While your bows are clumsy and primitive in the extreme, the locals have nothing which can compare to them in range and rate of fire. When the chieftains arrive, you will demonstrate this fact to them, and the leaders of the clans you have already defeated will explain to them how your weapons allowed you to annihilate their own troops. With this evidence of their inferiority before them and demonstrated before their own eyes, they should be forced to admit that they cannot, in fact, withstand you in open combat and so have no choice but to accept my terms."

He paused once more, waiting until Sir George nodded.

"Very well. I will leave the details of the demonstration up to you. Be prepared to describe them to me in two days' time."

The Commander turned away without another word, and most of his dragon-man guards closed in around him. One remained behind, obviously to escort Sir George from the ship, but the baron ignored the alien creature, hot eyes fixed on the Commander's arrogant back as the wart-faces fell in behind the demon-jester and his entourage.

Plan a demonstration, is it? Sir George thought venomously. Jesu, but I know what I'd like to use as a target! The sight of your precious hide sprouting arrows like peacock feathers ought to impress the "local lordlings" no end!

He snorted bitterly at the thought, then drew a deep breath and turned to the dragon-man as the hatch closed behind the Commander. The towering alien looked down at him, then gestured for Sir George to accompany him from the ship.

Sir George obeyed the gesture, not without a fresh flicker of anger. Yet there was no point in resenting the dragon-man, and he tried to put his emotions aside as the dragon-man steered him out of the unfamiliar portion of the ship.

To Sir George's surprise, however, the alien did not stop when they reached the huge cargo deck which stood open to the local environment. Instead, the dragon-man actually followed him from the ship, as if it meant to accompany him all the way to the pavilion which had been set up for Sir George and Lady Matilda.

The baron paused, surprised by the departure from normal practice, but the dragon-man only gestured him onward. He hesitated a moment longer, then shrugged ever so slightly and resumed his progress.

The two of them passed the screen of shrubbery separating the English camp from the ship, and Sir George smiled as he caught sight of Matilda, waiting for him. He raised his hand and opened his mouth to call her name . . . 

 . . . and found himself lying on the ground with no memory at all of how he had gotten there.

He blinked, head swimming, and peered up as a small hand stroked his brow anxiously. Matilda's worried face peered down at him, and beyond her he saw Father Timothy, Dickon Yardley, Sir Richard, Rolf Grayhame, and a dozen others. And, to his immense surprise, he saw the dragon-man, as well, still standing behind the circle of far shorter humans and gazing down at him over their heads.

"My love?" Matilda's voice was taut with anxiety, and he blinked again, forcing his eyes to focus on her face. "What happened?" she demanded.

"I—" He blinked a third time and shook the head he now realized lay in her lap. It seemed to be still attached to his shoulders, and his mouth quirked in a small, wry smile. "I have no idea," he admitted. "I'd hoped that perhaps you might be able to tell me that!"

Her worried expression eased somewhat at his teasing tone, but it was her turn to shake her head.

"Would that I could," she told him, her voice far more serious than his had been. "You simply stepped around the bushes there and raised your hand, then collapsed. And—" despite herself, her voice quivered just a bit "—lay like one dead for the better part of a quarter-hour." She looked anxiously up at Yardley, who shrugged.

"It's as Her Ladyship says, My Lord," the surgeon told him. Yardley lacked the training and miraculous devices of the Medic, but he'd always been an excellent field surgeon, and he'd been given far longer to learn his craft than any other human battle surgeon. Now he shook his head. "Oh, she exaggerates a little—you were scarcely 'like one dead.' I fear we've seen all too many of those, have we not?" He smiled grimly, and one or two of the others chuckled as they recalled men who most certainly had lain "like one dead" until their masters' marvels restored them to life and health. "Your breathing was deeper than usual, yet not dangerously so, and your pulse steady. But for the fact that we couldn't wake you, you might simply have been soundly asleep. Have you no memory of having tripped or fallen?"

"None," Sir George admitted. He pushed himself experimentally into a sitting position and patted Matilda's knee reassuringly when he felt no sudden dizziness. He sat a moment, then rose smoothly to his feet and raised one hand, palm uppermost.

"I feel fine," he told them, and it was true.

"Perhaps you do, but you've given me more than enough fright for one day, Sir George Wincaster!" Matilda said in a much tarter tone. He grinned apologetically down at her and extended his hand, raising her lightly, and tucked her arm through his as he turned to face his senior officers once more.

"I feel fine," he repeated. "No doubt I did stumble over something—my thoughts were elsewhere, and any man may be clumsy enough to fall over his own two feet from time to time. But no harm was done, so be about your business while I—" he smiled at them and patted his wife's hand where it rested on his elbow "—attempt to make some amends to my lady wife for having afrighted her so boorishly!"

A rumble of laughter greeted his sally and the crowd began to disperse. He watched them go, then turned his gaze back to the dragon-man.

But the dragon-man was no longer there.

 

Matilda watched him closely for the rest of that long day, and she fussed over him as they prepared for bed that night, but Sir George had told her nothing but the simple truth. He did, indeed, feel fine—better, in some ways, than in a very long time—and he soothed her fears by drawing her down beside him. Her eyes widened with delight at the sudden passion of his embrace, and he proceeded to give her the most conclusive possible proof that there was nothing at all wrong with her husband.

But that night, as Matilda drifted into sleep in the circle of his arms and he prepared to follow her, he dreamed. Or thought he did, at least. . . . 

"Welcome, Sir George," the voice said, and the baron turned to find the speaker, only to blink in astonishment. The voice sounded remarkably like Father Timothy's, although it carried an edge of polish and sophistication the blunt-spoken priest had never displayed. But it wasn't Father Timothy. For that matter, it wasn't even human, and he gaped in shock as he found himself facing one of the eternally silent dragon-men.

"I fear we have taken some liberties with your mind, Sir George," the dragon-man said—or seemed to, although his mouth never moved. "We apologize for that. It was both a violation of your privacy and our own customs and codes, yet in this instance we had no choice, for it is imperative that we speak with you."

"Speak with me?" Sir George blurted. "How is it that I've never heard so much as a single sound from any of you, and now . . . now this—"

He waved his arms, and only then did he realize how odd their surroundings were. They stood in the center of a featureless gray plain, surrounded by . . . nothing. The grayness underfoot simply stretched away in every direction, to the uttermost limit of visibility, and he swallowed hard.

"Where are we?" he demanded, and was pleased to hear no quaver in his voice.

"Inside your own mind, in a sense," the dragon-man replied. "That isn't precisely correct, but it will serve as a crude approximation. It is our hope to be able to explain it more fully at a future time. But unless you and we act soon—and decisively—it is unlikely either your people or ours will have sufficient future for such explanations."

"What do you mean? And if you wished to speak with me, why did you never do so before this?" Sir George asked warily.

"To answer your second question first," the dragon-man answered calmly, "it was not possible to speak directly to you prior to this time. Indeed, we aren't 'speaking' even now—not as your species understands the term."

Sir George frowned in perplexity, and the dragon-man cocked his head. His features were as alien as the Commander's, yet Sir George had the sudden, unmistakable feeling of an amused smile. It came, he realized slowly, not from the dragon-man's face, but rather from somewhere inside the other. It was nothing he saw; rather it was something he felt. Which was absurd, of course . . . except that he felt absolutely no doubt of what he was sensing.

"This is a dream," he said flatly, and the dragon-man responded with a very human shrug.

"In a sense," he acknowledged. "You are most certainly asleep, at any rate. But if this is a dream, it's one we share . . . and the only way in which we could communicate with you. It is also—" the sense of a smile was even stronger, but this time it carried a hungry edge, as well "—a method of communication which the Commander and his kind cannot possibly tap or intercept."

"Ah?" Despite himself, Sir George's mental ears pricked at that. No doubt it was only a dream, and this talkative dragon-man was no more than his own imagination, but if only—

"Indeed," the dragon-man reassured him, and folded his arms across a massive chest. "Our kind do not use spoken speech among ourselves as most other races do," he explained. "In fact, we are not capable of it, for we lack the vocal cords—or equivalent—which you and other species use to produce sound."

"Then how do you speak to one another?" Sir George asked intently. "And, for that matter, what do you call your kind among yourselves?"

"We are what others call 'telepaths,'" the dragon-man replied. "It means simply that we cast our thoughts directly into one another's minds, without need of words. And no doubt because we do so, we do not use individual names as other species do. Or, rather, we don't require them, for each of us has a unique gestalt—a taste, or flavor, if you will—which all others of our kind recognize. As for what we call ourselves as a species, the closest equivalent in your language would probably be 'People.' Since meeting you humans, however, and especially since establishing a contact point in your mind, we aboard this ship have been rather taken by your own descriptions of us." The dragon-man's amusement was apparent. "The notion of playing the part of one of your 'dragons' against the Commander is extremely attractive to us, Sir George."

Sir George smiled. "In that case, we will no doubt continue to call you dragons," he said, and the dragon-man projected the sense of another fierce grin as he nodded.

"We would find that most acceptable," he said. "Yet the need for you to give us a name because we've never developed one is another example of the differences between your kind and us which result from the fact of our telepathy. Despite several of your millennia as the Federation's slaves, we have still to evolve many of the reference points most other species take for granted. Indeed, it was extremely difficult for our ancestors to grasp even the concept of spoken communication when the Federation discovered our world. They took many years to do so, and only the fact that we had independently developed a nuclear-age technology of our own prevented the Federation from classifying us as dumb beasts."

" 'Nuclear-age'?" Sir George repeated, and the dragon-man shrugged again, this time impatiently.

"Don't worry about that now. It simply means that we were considerably more advanced technically than your own world . . . although the Federation was even more relatively advanced compared to us than we would have been compared to your world.

"Unfortunately," the alien went on, and his "voice" turned cold and bleak, "we were too advanced for our own good—just enough to be considered a potential threat, yet not sufficiently so to defend ourselves—and the Federation declared our world a 'protectorate.' They moved in their military units 'for our own good,' to 'protect' us from ourselves . . . and to ensure that we never became any more advanced than we were at the moment they discovered us."

"Because they feared competition," Sir George said shrewdly.

"Perhaps," the dragon-man replied. "No, certainly. But there was another reason, as well. You see, the Federation is entirely controlled by species like the Commander's. They are far more advanced than our own race—or yours—and they regard that as proof of their inherent superiority."

"So I've noticed," Sir George said bitterly.

"We realize that, yet we doubt that you have fully realized what that means," the dragon-man said, "for you lack certain information."

"What information?" Sir George's voice sharpened and his eyes narrowed.

"Explaining that will take some time," the dragon-man replied, and Sir George nodded brusquely for him to continue.

"Life-bearing worlds are very numerous," the dragon-man began. "They're far less common, statistically speaking, than nonlife-bearing or prebiotic worlds, but there are so very many stars, and so very many of them have planets, that the absolute number of life-bearing worlds is quite high."

The creature paused, and Sir George blinked as he realized he actually understood what the other was talking about. Ideas and concepts he had never imagined, even after all his years in his masters' service, seemed to flood into his mind as the dragon-man spoke. He didn't fully understand them—not yet—but he grasped enough to follow what he was being told, and he was vaguely aware that he should have been frightened by the discovery. Yet he wasn't. That curiosity of his was at work once more, he realized, and something else, as well. Something the dragon-man had done, perhaps.

And perhaps not. He shook himself, grinning lopsidedly at the stretched feeling of his brain, and nodded for the dragon-man to continue.

"While life-bearing worlds are numerous," the alien said after a moment, "intelligent life is very rare. Counting our own species, and yours, the Federation has encountered less than two hundred intelligent races. While this sounds like a great many, you must recall that the Federation has possessed phase drive and faster-than-light travel—the ability to voyage between stars and their planets—for more than one hundred thousand of your years. Which means that they have discovered a new intelligent species no more than once every five hundred years."

Sir George swallowed hard. The Englishmen's experiences in their masters' service had half-prepared him for such concepts, but nothing could have fully prepared him. Still, much of what the dragon-man was saying wasn't terribly different from concepts he and Matilda and Father Timothy had been groping towards for years. In fact, the priest had proved more ready than Sir George to accept that Mother Church's teachings and Holy Scripture's accounts of things such as the Creation stood in need of correction and revision. Not that even Father Timothy had been prepared to go quite so far as this!

"Of all the species the Federation has encountered, only thirty-two had developed the phase drive themselves, or attained an equivalent technological level, when they were encountered. Those races, more advanced than any others, are full members of the Federation. They sit on its Council, formulate its laws, and enjoy its benefits. The rest of us . . . do not.

"In the eyes of the Federation, less advanced races have no rights. They exist only for the benefit of the Federation itself, although the Council occasionally mouths a few platitudes about the 'advanced races' burden' and the Federation's responsibility to 'look after' us inferior races. What it means in practical terms, however, is that we are their property, to be disposed of as they will. As you and your people have become."

The dragon-man paused once more, and Sir George nodded hard. He could taste the other's emotions—his hatred and resentment, burning as hot as Sir George's own—and a distant sort of amazement filled him. Not that he could understand the other, but that under their utterly different exteriors they could be so much alike.

"Some of the subject species, however, are more useful to the 'advanced races' than others," the dragon-man resumed after a long, smoldering moment. "Yours, for example, has proven very useful as a means to evade the letter of their prime directive, while ours—" the dragon-man seemed to draw a deep breath "—has proven equally valuable as bodyguards and personal servants."

"Why?" Sir George asked. The question could have come out harsh, demanding to know why the dragon-men should be so compliant and submissive, but it didn't. There was too much anger—and hatred—in the dragon-man's "voice" for that.

"Our species is not like yours. We are not only telepaths—among ourselves, at least—but also empaths. While we are not normally able to make other species hear our thoughts, nor able to hear their thoughts, we are able to sense their emotions, their feelings. This makes it very difficult for anyone who might pose a threat to one we have been assigned to guard to slip past us.

"But those aren't the only differences between us. Your kind has but two sexes, male and female. Our species has four: three which are involved in procreation, and a fourth which might be thought of as our 'worker' caste."

"In the same way as bees?" Sir George asked, and the dragon-man paused, gazing intently at him. For a moment, his brain felt even more stretched than before, and then the alien nodded.

"Very much like your 'bees,'" the dragon-man told him. "All of our kind aboard this ship are from that worker caste, which also provides our warriors. We are neither male nor female, as you use the terms, but we are the most numerous sex among our kind. And, like your world's 'bees,' we exist to serve our 'queen.'" The dragon-man paused and cocked his head once more. "It's actually considerably more complex than that. There are nuances and— Well, no matter. The analogy will serve for the moment."

It seemed to refocus its attention upon Sir George.

"The point is that, unlike your kind, our kind are not entirely what you would think of as individuals. We are more than simple parts of a greater whole, and each of us has his—or her, depending upon how one chooses to regard us—hopes and desires, yet we see into one another's minds and emotions with such clarity and depth that it's almost impossible for us to develop a true sense of 'self' as you nontelepathic species do.

"More than that, our 'queens' dominate our lives. According to our own histories—or those the Federation hasn't completely suppressed, at any rate—that domination was far less complete before the Federation encountered us. The development of our own advanced technology and the society which went with it had apparently inspired our reproductive sexes to extend a greater degree of freedom—of equality, one might say—to the worker caste. But the Federation quickly put a stop to that, for it is the queen's very domination which makes us so valuable.

"You see, Sir George, unlike your species, our young receive their initial educations from direct mind-to-mind contact with their parents . . . and queens. And during that process, the queen is able to direct us—to 'program' us—in order to direct and constrain our behavior. We believe this was once a survival trait of the species, but it is now the thing which makes us so valuable to the Federation, for guilds like the Commander's 'recruit' us from our home world. For all intents and purposes, they buy us from our queens, and our queens have no choice but to sell us, for the Federation controls our world completely and we continue to exist only at the Federation's sufferance."

"This 'programing' of which you speak," Sir George said very carefully. "Of what does it consist?"

"Of mental commands we cannot disobey," the dragon-man said softly. "The guilds specify what commands they wish set upon us, and our queens impress those orders so deeply into our minds that we cannot even contemplate disobeying them. And so, you see, the Federation regards us—rightly—as even more suitable for slaves than your own kind."

"And yet . . ." Sir George let his voice trail off, and again he received that impression of a fierce and hungry grin.

"And yet we have now communicated with you," the dragon-man agreed. "You see, our queens are most displeased at the manner in which they are forced to sell their children into slavery. And they are aware that the guilds buy us primarily to be used as the Commander uses us—as security forces for exploration and trade vessels. Even with phase drive, a few ships are lost in every decade or so, of course, but we suspect that not all of them have been lost to, ah, natural causes."

"Ah?" Sir George looked at the dragon-man with sudden, deep intensity, and the alien's mental chuckle rumbled deep in his brain.

"Our queen programmed us exactly as the Commander demanded when he bought us for this expedition," the dragon-man told him. "We must obey any order he may give, and we may not attack or injure our masters. But that is all we must do. We feel quite certain that the Guild also wanted us programmed to protect our masters at all times, but that wasn't the way the Commander phrased their demands. Nor did he demand that we be programmed so as to be unable to watch others harm them without intervening. We believe—hope!—that over the centuries some of our kind have found ways to turn similar chinks in their programming against their masters. Just as we now hope to turn this against our masters."

"Ah," Sir George said again, and this time his voice was dark and hungry.

"Indeed. And that brings us to your species, Sir George. You see, your kind are unique in at least two ways. Most importantly, in terms of our present needs, your minds operate on a . . . frequency quite close to our own. We realized that from the beginning, though our masters did not ask us about it, and so we weren't required to tell them. It is far from a perfect match, of course, and to communicate with you as we are doing required the linked efforts of several of our kind. Nor could we do it while you were awake without immediately alerting our masters. Simply establishing the initial contact point rendered you unconscious for twelve of your minutes, and we had not previously dared risk causing such a thing to happen."

"But now you have," Sir George said flatly.

"For two reasons," the dragon-man agreed. "One was that we were able to do so when neither the Commander, the Hathori, any other guildsmen, nor any of the ship's remotes were in position to observe it. Such a situation had never before arisen."

Sir George nodded slowly, and the dragon-man continued.

"The second reason is that, for the first time, it may be possible for us to win our freedom from the Guild . . . if you will act with us." The alien raised a clawed hand as if he sensed the sudden, fierce surge of Sir George's emotions—as no doubt he had—and shook his head quickly. "Do not leap too quickly, Sir George Wincaster! If we act, and fail, the Commander will not leave one of us alive. Not simply you and your soldiers, but your wives and children, will perish, as will all of our own kind aboard this ship."

Sir George nodded again, feeling a cold shiver run down his spine, for the dragon-man was certainly correct. The thought of freedom, or even of the chance to at least strike back even once before he was killed, burned in his blood like poison, but behind that thought lay Matilda, and Edward, and the younger children . . . 

"Before you decide, Sir George, there is one other thing you should know," the dragon-man said softly, breaking gently into his thoughts, and the baron looked up. There was a new flavor to the dragon-man's feelings, almost a compassionate one.

"And that thing is?" the human asked after a moment.

"We said that two things made your people unique," the dragon-man told him. "One is our ability to make you hear our thoughts. The second is the terrible threat you represent to the Federation."

"Threat? Us?" Sir George barked a laugh. "You say your kind were far more advanced than ours, yet you were no threat to them!"

"No. But we are not like you. To the best of my knowledge, no other race has been like you in at least one regard."

"And that is?"

"The rate at which you learn new things," the dragon-man said simply. "The Commander's Guild regards you as primitives, and so you are . . . at the moment. But we have seen inside your minds, as the Commander cannot. You are ignorant and untaught, but you are far from stupid or simple, and you have reached your present state of development far, far sooner than any of the Federation's 'advanced' races could have."

"You must be wrong," Sir George argued. "The Commander has spoken to me of the Romans his competitors first bought from our world. My own knowledge of history is far from complete, yet even I know that we've lost the knowledge of things the men of those times once took for granted, and—"

"You've suffered a temporary setback as a culture," the dragon-man disagreed, "and even that was only a local event, restricted to a single one of your continents. Do not forget—we were aboard this ship when the Commander carried out his initial survey of your world, and it is well for your species that he did not recognize what we did. Compared to any other race in the explored galaxy, you 'humans' have been—and are—advancing at a phenomenal rate. We believe that, from the point your kind had reached when you were taken by the Guild—"

"How long?" It was Sir George's turn to interrupt, and even he was stunned by the sheer ferocity of his own question. "How long has it been?" he demanded harshly.

"Some six hundred and sixty of your years, approximately," the dragon-man told him, and Sir George stared at him in shock. He'd known, intellectually, that he'd slept away long, endless years in the service of his masters, but this—!

"Are . . . are you certain?" he asked finally.

"There is some margin for error. We are not trained in the mathematics to allow properly for the relativistic effects of the phase drive—" not even the dragon-man could make the dimly sensed concepts that went with that terminology comprehensible to Sir George "—and the guildsmen do not share such information with us. But they do speak among themselves in front of us, and they frequently forget—in their arrogance—that while we cannot speak as they do, we can hear. Indeed, that our kind has been forced to learn to understand spoken languages so that we can be ordered about by our 'betters.'"

"I . . . see," Sir George said, then shook himself. "But you were saying . . . ?"

"I was saying that even after so brief a period as that, we would estimate that your kind has certainly advanced at least to steam power and electrical generation by now. It is even possible you have developed the earliest forms of radio communication and atmospheric flight. But even if you have come only so far as inefficient steam engines and, perhaps, effective artillery and small arms, you will have advanced at more than double the rate of any of the so-called 'advanced' members of the Federation. If you are left alone for only a very little longer—perhaps another four or five of your centuries—you will have discovered the phase drive for yourselves."

"We will have?" Sir George blinked in astonishment at the thought.

"That is our belief. And it is also what makes your species so dangerous to the Federation. Compared to any human institution, the Federation is immensely old and stable—which is another way of saying 'static'—and possessed of an ironbound bureaucracy and customary usages. By its own rules and precedents, it must admit your world as a co-equal member if you have developed phase drive independently. Yet your kind will be a terribly disruptive influence on the other races' dearly beloved stability. By your very nature, you will soon outstrip all of them technologically, making them inferior to you . . . and so, by their own measure, justifying your people in using them as they have used us. Even worse—though we think they will be slower to recognize this—your race, assuming that you and your fellows are representative—will not take well to the pyramid of power the Federation has built. Within a very short period of time, whether by direct intervention or simply by example, you will have led dozens of other species to rebel against the 'advanced races,' and so destroyed forever the foundation upon which their power and wealth—and comfortable arrogance—depends."

"You expect a great deal from a single world of 'primitives,' my friend."

"Yes, we do. But should the Federation, or another guild, learn that you, too, are from Earth and return there too soon, it will never happen. They will recognize the threat this time, for they will have a better basis for comparison . . . and will probably be considerably more intelligent and observant than the Commander. They can hardly be less, at any rate!" The mental snort of contempt was unmistakable, and Sir George grinned wryly. "But if they do recognize it, they will take steps to deflect the threat. They may settle for establishing a 'protectorate' over you, as they did with us, but you represent a much more serious threat than we did, for we did not share your flexibility. We believe it is far more likely that they will simply order your race destroyed, once and for all."

Sir George grunted as if he had just been punched in the belly. For a long, seemingly endless moment, his mind simply refused to grapple with the idea. But however long it seemed, it was only a moment, for Sir George never knowingly lied to himself. Besides, the concept differed only in scale from what he'd already deduced the Commander would do if his violation of the Council's decrees became public knowledge.

"What . . . what can we do about it?" he asked.

"About your home world, nothing," the dragon-man replied in a tone of gentle but firm compassion. "We can only hope the Federation is as lethargic as usual and gives your people time to develop their own defenses. Yet there is something you may do to protect your species, as opposed to your world."

"What?" Sir George shook himself. "What do you mean? You just said—"

"We said we could not protect your home world. But if your kind and ours, working together, could seize this ship, it is more than ample to transport all of us to a habitable world so far from the normal trade routes that it would not be found for centuries, or even longer. We here aboard this ship are unable to reproduce our kind but, as you, we have received the longevity treatments. You have not only received those treatments but are capable of reproducing, and the medical capabilities of the ship would provide the support needed to avoid the consequences of genetic drift or associated problems. Moreover, the ship itself is designed to last for centuries of hard service. It would provide a nice initial home for both of our races, as well as a very advanced starting point for our own technology. With human inventiveness to back it up, no more than a century or two would be required to establish a second home world for your kind. One that would certainly provide the threat we have projected that your original home world may someday pose."

"And why should you care about that?" Sir George demanded.

"For two reasons," the dragon-man replied imperturbably. "First, there would be our own freedom. We would, of course, quickly find ourselves a tiny minority on a world full of humans, but at least we would be freed from our slavery. And, we believe, we would have earned for ourselves a position of equality and respect among you.

"But the second reason is even more compelling. If we are correct about the impact your species will have upon the Federation, then you offer the best—perhaps the only—chance our home world will ever have to win its freedom."

"Ummm . . ." Sir George gazed at the other, his thoughts racing, and then he nodded—slowly, at first, but with rapidly increasing vigor. If the dragon-man was telling the truth (and Sir George felt certain that he was), all he had just said made perfect sense. But—

"Even assuming that all you say is true, what can we possibly do?"

"We have already told you that we believe we have a chance—a slim one, but a chance—to gain our freedom. If we succeed in that, then all else follows."

"And how can we hope to succeed?"

"Assume that you English had free access to the ship's interior and to your weapons," the dragon-man replied somewhat obliquely. "Could you take the ship from its crew?"

"Hm?" Sir George rubbed his beard, then nodded. "Aye, we could do that," he said flatly. "Assuming we could move freely about the ship, at least. Even its largest corridors and compartments aren't so large as to prevent swords—or bows—from reaching anyone in them quickly. Of course, our losses might be heavy, especially if the crew would have access to weapons like your fire-throwers."

"They would," the dragon-man said grimly. "Worse, they might very well have access to us, as well."

"What do you mean?"

"We told you that we have been conditioned to obey orders. As it happens, the Commander personally purchased us for this mission, and his demand was that we obey him. He may have intended that to apply to his entire crew, but that was not the way he phrased himself. Even if he realized that at the time; however, we believe he has long since forgotten, since we have always been careful to obey any order any guildsman gave us. By the same token, we were never conditioned not to attack the Hathori, who are no more guildsmen or proper crewmen than you or we. The Hathori, unfortunately, truly are almost as stupid and brutish as the Commander believes. Whatever happens, they will fight for the Guild like loyal hounds . . . but as you have seen on the field of battle, they are no match for you Englishmen with hand-to-hand weapons. And they are certainly no match for our own energy weapons."

The sense of a smile in every way worthy of a true dragon was stronger than ever, and Sir George laughed out loud. But then the dragon-man sobered.

"Yet all of this hinges upon what happens to the Commander at the very outset. If he should have the opportunity—and recognize the need—to order us to crush you, we would obey. We would have no choice, and afterward, our deeper programming would prevent us from attacking any surviving guildsmen."

"I see." Sir George regarded the dragon-man thoughtfully. "On the other hand, Sir Dragon, I doubt that you would have spent so long explaining so much if you had not already considered how best to deal with those possibilities."

"We have. The key is the Commander. On a chain about his neck he wears the device which controls the force fields which keep your people sealed outside the core hull of the ship." Sir George nodded, recalling the gleaming pendant the Commander always bore with him. "That is the master control, designed to override any opposing commands and open any hatch or force field for whoever possesses it. The programming can be altered from the control deck, assuming one has the proper access codes, but the process would take hours. By the time it could be completed, the battle would be over one way or the other."

"So we must find some way to capture or kill the Commander as the first step," Sir George mused. The dragon-man nodded, and the baron shrugged.

"Well, that seems to add little extra difficulty to an already impossible task."

"True," the dragon-man agreed gravely, yet a flicker of humor danced in his voice, and Sir George grinned crookedly.

"So how do we capture or kill him?"

" 'We' do not," the dragon-man replied. "You do."

"Somehow I had already guessed that," Sir George said dryly. "But you still haven't explained how."

"It has to do with his weapons-suit," the dragon-man said, and ran his own clawed hand over the red-and-blue garment he wore. "He has great faith in its protective capabilities, and under most circumstances, that faith would probably be justified. Alas!" Another, hungry, mental grin. "Certain threats are so primitive, so unlikely to ever face any civilized being from an advanced race, that, well—"

Again that very human shrug, and this time Sir George began to grin in equal anticipation.

 

In the event, it proved far simpler to become allies than for their alliance to carry out the dragon-men's plan. The basic strategy was almost breathtaking in its simplicity and audacity, but Sir George lacked the secret means of communication the dragon-men shared among themselves.

His newfound allies confirmed his own suspicion that the Commander and his fellows were able to eavesdrop on virtually any human conversation. Fortunately, after so long the crewmen responsible for monitoring those conversations—who shared the Commander's arrogant contempt for all "primitive" races to the full—had become overconfident, bored, and lax. They paid only cursory attention to their duties, and it had been many years since they'd reexamined the patterns in which they'd placed their mechanical spies. Worse, they had even more contempt, in many ways, for the dragon-men than for the humans. Absolutely confident in their subservience, and with no suspicion that it was even physically possible for dragon to communicate with human, the guildsmen made no effort to conceal the placement of their spies from their bodyguards.

All of which meant that if Sir George was very careful, it was possible to speak to his subordinates in places where the Guild could not overhear him. But those conversations must be very brief, lest the watchers note that he had abruptly begun spending a suspicious amount of time in the "dead zones" not covered by their spies.

And it was difficult, Sir George soon discovered, to plan a desperate rebellion, even with men who'd known and served with one another for decades, when that planning could be carried out only in bits and pieces. Especially when the entire plan had to be completed and in place in no more than twelve days.

Matilda came first, of course. He'd feared that she would believe his dream had been just that—only a dream—and he could hardly have blamed her. After all, he had more than half-believed it one when he awoke. But she only gazed deeply and intently into his eyes as they stood in a small hollow beside the river, temporarily safe from eavesdroppers. Then she nodded.

"I understand, my love," she said simply. "Who shall we tell first?"

Matilda's belief made things much simpler. All of Sir George's officers had long since come to recognize her as his closest advisor and confidante, as well as his wife. They weren't precisely accustomed to receiving orders directly from her, for she had always been careful to remain in the background, but they neither felt surprised nor questioned her when she did inform them that she spoke for her husband.

With her assistance, Sir George found it relatively simple to inform those most necessary to working out and executing the plan. Father Timothy was crucial, not least because the Commander had accepted his role as a spiritual counselor. The demon-jester might scoff at "primitive superstition," but clearly he had thought better of attempting to interfere with it. Sir George suspected that the Commander actively encouraged the faith among his human slaves in the belief that it kept them more pliable, but that was perfectly acceptable to the baron, for Father Timothy's pastoral duties gave him an excellent excuse to be out and about among them. His ability to speak to any human without arousing suspicion, coupled with the imprimatur of his moral and religious authority in the eyes of those to whom he spoke, made him of enormous value as a plotter.

Rolf Grayhame was the next most important member of the cabal. The burly archer went paper-white when Sir George first broached the subject, for, despite his hatred for the Commander, Grayhame—more than any other among the English, perhaps—had had the lesson of the guildsmen's inviolability driven into his head. Indeed, Sir George had done a great deal of the driving himself, for it had seemed far more likely that the archers might decide they could reach the Commander than that one of the knights or men-at-arms who must somehow come within arm's reach might decide the same thing.

But despite his initial shock, Grayhame recovered quickly, and his smile was ferret-fierce—and hungry—when Sir George explained his part in the plan.

"Said it was the only reward I really wanted, now didn't I, My Lord?" the archer demanded, his voice little more than a harsh, whispered mutter despite Sir George's assurance that no spies were placed to hear or see them at the moment. "Can't say the notion of relying so much on the dragon-men will make me sleep sound of nights, but for the rest—pah!" He spat on the ground. "I'll take my chances, My Lord. Oh, aye, indeed will I take my chances!"

Sir Richard Maynton completed the uppermost tier of the conspiracy, and, in some ways, his was the hardest task of all. Grayhame needed to enlist only a dozen or so of his men; Maynton's task was to prepare all of their men, archers and men-at-arms alike, for the brutal hand-to-hand combat certain to rage within the hull of the ship. And he had to do it in a way which would not warn the Commander. Which meant he also had to do it without actually warning any more than a tiny handful of his own subordinates.

In many ways, that was the aspect of the plan which most disturbed Sir George. He felt more than a little guilty for involving not simply his men but their families and children in a mutiny which could end only in victory or death without even warning them, yet he had no choice. Once he and the dragons had established communications, the aliens "spoke" with him every night while he seemed to sleep dreamlessly beside his wife, and each of those conversations served only to reinforce the baron's own earlier conclusions about the Commander. Whatever happened to Earth, and however much the Commander might praise Sir George and his men, the time was virtually certain to arise when the English would become a potential embarrassment for the Commander's Guild . . . and when that happened, they would all die.

And so Sir George and his officers made their plans and prayed for success.

 

"Good afternoon, Commander," Sir George said courteously as the demon-jester's air car floated to a stop at the meticulously laid out lists and the vehicle's domed top retracted.

"Good afternoon," the Commander piped back. He pushed up out of his comfortable, form-fitting seat to stand upright in the air car, and Sir George held his breath. The Commander had approved the plan the baron had presented for their demonstration, but there was always the possibility that he might change his mind at the last moment. Now the demon-jester glanced around for another long moment, studying the tall rows of seats the English had erected for the local not-men's chieftains. The "seats" were actually little more than long, bare poles, but they served the three-legged aliens well enough, and the chieftains sat with barbarian impassivity. It was, of course, impossible to read their mood from their expressions, but their total motionlessness suggested a great deal to Sir George.

The Commander gazed at them without comment, but Sir George could almost taste the demon-jester's satisfaction. He had eagerly embraced the baron's suggestion that they might also organize a joust and mêlée to follow the archery competition and demonstrate the advantages which the Englishmen's armor bestowed upon them in close combat, as well. The fact that organizing the mêlée meant that Maynton and Sir George, the leaders of the competing sides, would each have a small but fully armed and armored force under his immediate command, clearly had not occurred to the demon-jester. Of course, the implications hadn't occurred to most of the Englishmen, either . . . but a handpicked few among them knew precisely what their commanders intended.

"You have done well," the Commander said now, and Sir George smiled broadly as the alien stepped out of the air car at last.

"Thank you, Commander. It's always easier to overawe a foe into surrender than to defeat him in the field."

"So I also believe," the Commander agreed, and started up the wooden stairs to the special box the English had built for him. It was rare, though not completely unheard of, for him to leave his air car in the field. But this time there was a difference. Before, Sir George had never known that his invisible barriers—the force fields, as the dragon-men described them—protected him from all physical contact only aboard the ship or within the confines of the air car. Now, thanks to the dragon-men, he did know, and his smile grew still broader as the Commander ascended to his place.

His personal escort of six dragon-men followed with no more sign of expression or excitement than they had ever shown, and Sir George's smile faded as he gazed upon them. They remained as alien, as unearthly—in every sense of the word—as ever to his eye, but he no longer knew them by eye alone. Truth to tell, the subtler internal differences between them and humans were almost more alien than their outer appearances, yet those differences now struck him as intriguing, almost exciting, rather than grotesque or repellent. The joint sense of existence which always led them to use "we" or "us" rather than "I" or "me" in communication, the calm with which they accepted their own inability to reproduce or their inevitable separation from the ongoing growth and change of their own race, the manner in which they accepted contact—and other-induced change or constraint—at the very deepest level of their beings . . . all of those things were truly and utterly alien to Sir George. But they were not threatening. They were not . . . evil. Whatever the dragons' outer shape and form, Sir George had decided, however different their perceptions and methods of communication, and despite the fact they could never father or bear children, they were as much "men" in every important sense of the word as any Englishman he had ever met.

Indeed, far more so than most, for the six dragons "guarding" the Commander went knowingly and willingly to their own deaths as they followed the Commander up the steps to his box.

Neither Matilda nor Father Timothy had cared at all for that portion of the plan. Grayhame had been unhappy with it, but had grasped its necessity, while Maynton had objected only mildly, as if because he knew it was expected. Sir George suspected that was largely because the other knight had a limited imagination. Despite all else that had happened, only Sir George had ever actually "spoken" with the dragons. The others were willing to take his word for what had happened because for over fifty years he had never lied to them, never abused their trust in him, but they had not themselves "heard" the dragons speak. And because Maynton had never heard them, they remained less than human to him. He continued to regard them, in many ways, as Sir George continued to regard the Hathori: as roughly human-shaped animals which, however clever or well-trained, remained animals.

But they were not animals, and Sir George knew he would never be able to see them as such again, for it had been they who insisted that their fellows with the Commander must die.

Their logic was as simple as it was brutal. If the Commander could be enticed out of his air car and taken alive, he could be compelled to order the remainder of his crew to surrender. Like so much else of the vaunted Federation, the Guild's hierarchical command structure was ironbound. If their superior officer ordered them to surrender, the other guildsmen would obey . . . and the Commander, for all his readiness to expend his English slaves or slaughter the inhabitants of "primitive" planets, possessed nothing remotely resembling the human—or dragon—quality of courage. With a blade pressed to his throat, he would yield.

But to get close enough to apply that blade had required, first, a way to get him out from behind his air car's force fields and, second, that someone get within arm's reach. The fashion in which Sir George had structured the "demonstration" for the local chieftains had accomplished the former, but no one could accomplish the latter until the Commander's guards—Hathori and dragon alike—were neutralized. The Hathori would defend him no matter what; the dragons would have no choice but to do the same if they were commanded to, and no one could doubt that such a command would be given if they did not spring forward on their own immediately.

Neither Sir George nor his senior officers were particularly concerned about the Hathori. Not in the open field, at least. They had seen the bulge-eyed wart-faces in action, and were confident of their ability to destroy them with longbow fire or swarm them under quickly here. Once aboard ship, in the narrow confines of its corridors and chambers, it would be another matter, unless they could win their way into its interior before the Hathori could be armed and armored by the guildsmen.

The dragons and their "energy weapons" were another matter entirely, and they had been relentless in their conversations with Sir George. It was entirely possible that the Commander's personal guards would be able to cut a way at least as far as the air car with their personal weapons, especially if the Hathori kept the English busy, and once he was behind his force fields and once again invulnerable, the Commander would be ruthless in destroying any and all possible threats. Which meant, the dragons insisted, that no chances could be taken. Capturing the Commander alive was the one move they could be certain would succeed; at the very best, any other gambit would almost certainly cost the English far heavier casualties by requiring them to fight their way into the ship. For those reasons, the Commander's personal guards must die, and they had hammered away at that point until Sir George was forced to promise to accept their plan. Which didn't mean he liked it.

Now he watched the Commander reach his position on the canopied platform. The demon-jester crossed to the thronelike chair constructed especially for him, and Sir George could almost taste the thick-bodied little creature's satisfaction as he gazed down at all about him. The elevation of his position, establishing his authority over the chieftains he had summoned here, had been a major part of the baron's argument for the arrangement of the stands, and Sir George smiled a much harder, hungrier smile as he watched the Commander bask in his superiority to the despised primitives clustered about his feet in all their abject inferiority.

The Commander gazed down at Sir George for another moment, then nodded regally for the demonstration to begin, and Sir George, in turn, nodded to Rolf Grayhame.

The archery captain barked an order, and two dozen archers, helmets and metalwork brightly polished for the occasion, garments washed and bright with color, marched briskly to the firing line. Sir George had longed to call for a larger number of them, but he'd concluded that he dared not. Twenty-four was more than sufficient to provide the demonstration the Commander desired. To ask for more bows to be issued might have aroused suspicion, or at least caution, and the Commander might have decided to remain safely in his air car after all.

The archers stopped in formation and quickly and smoothly bent and strung their bows, and the Commander, like the gathered chieftains, turned to gaze at the targets just over a hundred yards down range. Most of those targets were shaped like humans, but some among them were also shaped like natives of this world, and all were "protected" only by the large wicker shields the natives used in battle. The sort of shields longbow arrows would pierce as effortlessly as awls.

Grayhame barked another order, and twenty-four archers nocked arrows and raised their bows.

"Draw!" Grayhame shouted, and twenty-four bowstaves bent as one.

"Loose!" the captain bellowed . . . and twenty-four archers turned on their heels, and twenty-four bowstrings snapped as one. Two dozen arrows flew through the bright sunlight of an alien world, glittering like long, lethal hornets, and crashed into their targets with devastating force.

Eighteen of those arrows carried deadly, needle-pointed pile heads. At such short range they could pierce even plate, and they smashed into the Hathori on the Commander's raised dais like hammers. Five bounced harmlessly aside, defeated by the angle and the Hathori's armor; thirteen did not, and all but two of the bulge-eyed aliens went down. Not all of those felled were dead, but all were out of action at least for the moment.

And so were the two who were unwounded, for the remaining six arrows had done their own lethal work. Every one of them had slammed home in the Commander's body, and the brilliant red garment which would have shrugged aside fire from the dragons' terrifying "energy weapons" was no help at all against clothyard shafts at a range of under ten yards. They drove clean through the creature's body, spraying bright orange blood, and then deep into the back of the Commander's thronelike chair.

The demon-jester never even screamed—couldn't even tumble from the chair to which the arrows had nailed it—and the two surviving Hathori gaped at their master's feathered corpse in shock. That shock seemed to hold them forever, although it could not actually have been more than the briefest span of seconds, but then they turned as one, raising their axes as they charged the nearest humans.

They never reached their targets. The archers were already nocking fresh arrows while the handful of knights and men-at-arms who had known what was to happen charged forward, but many of the men—and women—who hadn't had the least idea what was planned were in the way. As surprised as the Hathori themselves and completely unarmed, all they could do was flee, and their bodies blocked the archers' shot at the surviving Hathori.

But it didn't matter. The Hathori had moved no more than two strides when half a dozen lightning bolts literally tore them apart.

The air was full of human shouts and screams of consternation and shock as the enormity of what had just happened smashed home, and the alien chieftains had vaulted from their places and disappeared with commendable quickness of mind. Sir George had watched them vanish, and now he made a mental note to keep an eye out for their return, in case they should sense an opportunity to strike at all the hated off-worlders while those invaders fought among themselves. But almost all of his attention was focused elsewhere, and he charged up the stairs towards the Commander's body. Maynton and three other picked knights accompanied him, helping to drive through the confusion, and his own sword was in his hand by the time he bounded onto the platform. It wasn't needed—the dragons had already dispatched the wounded Hathori with ruthless efficiency—and he leaned forward to jerk the bright, faceted pendant from around the neck of the corpse. He held the precious device in his hand, his heart flaming with exultation as he gazed down at it, and then something touched his armored shoulder.

He spun quickly, only to relax as he found himself gazing up into the eyes of one of the dragons. The towering alien regarded him for several long seconds and then waved at the carnage about them, pointed to the dead Commander, and cocked his head in unmistakable question. The baron followed the gesturing hand with his eyes, then looked back up at his huge alien ally, and grinned fiercely.

"Your folk may have been willing enough to die, Sir Dragon—aye, and brave enough to do it, as well! But it is not the English way to murder our own, and with this—" he raised the pendant "—we'll not need that piece of meat to take his precious ship, now will we? And with us to hunt the guildsmen, and your folk to hunt Hathori, well—"

His grin bared his teeth as he and the mute dragon stood eye to eye, and then, slowly, the dragon showed its own deadly-looking fangs in a hungry grin of its own and it gave a very human nod.

"Then let's be about it, my friend!" Sir George invited, reaching up to clap the huge alien on the back, and the two of them started down the platform stairs together.

 

Sword Brother

I

He was thinking about snow when it happened.

He really ought to have been getting his mind totally focused on the task at hand, but the temperature had topped 110° that afternoon, and even now, with the sun well down, it was still in the nineties. That was more than enough to make any man dream about being some place cooler, even if it had been—what? Three years since he'd really seen snow?

No, he corrected himself with a familiar pang of anguish. Two and a half years . . . since that final skiing trip with Gwynn.

Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton's jaw tightened. After so long the pain should have eased, but it hadn't. Or perhaps it had. Right after he'd received word about the accident, it had been so vast, so terrible, it had threatened to suck him under like some black, freezing tide. Now it was only a wound which would never heal.

The thought ran below the surface of his mind as he stood in the commander's hatch on the right side of the LAV's flat-topped turret and gazed out into the night. As the senior noncom in Lieutenant Alvarez's platoon, Houghton commanded the number two LAV (unofficially known as "Tough Mama" by her crew), with Corporal Jack Mashita as his driver and Corporal Diego Santander as his gunner. Tough Mama was technically an LAV-25, a light armored vehicle based on the Canadian-built MOWAG Piranha, an eight-wheel amphibious vehicle, armored against small arms fire and armed with an M242 25-millimeter Bushmaster chain gun and a coaxial M240 7.62-millimeter machine gun. A second M240 was pintle-mounted at the commander's station, and Tough Mama was capable of speeds of over sixty miles per hour on decent roads. She drank JP-8 diesel fuel and, technically, had an operational range of over four hundred miles in four-wheel drive. In eight-wheel drive, range fell rapidly, and the original LAVs had been infamous for leaky fuel tanks which had reduced nominal range even further. The most recent service life extension program seemed to have finally gotten on top of that problem, at least.

At the moment, Mashita was sitting behind the wheel, with the big Detroit diesel engine to his immediate right and his head and shoulders sticking up through the hatch above his compartment. The twenty-year old corporal had just finished checking all of the fluid levels—which he'd do again, every time the vehicle stopped. Santander was standing to one side, jaw methodically working on a huge wad of gum, as he spoke quietly with Corporal Levi Johnson, the senior of their evening's passengers. The four-man recon section they were responsible for transporting and supporting had already stowed most of its gear aboard, and Houghton reminded himself to check the tunnel from the LAV's driver's compartment to the troop compartment before they actually headed out. It was supposed to be kept clear at all times, but people had a habit of protecting equipment and gear from damage by stowing it in the tunnel, rather than stowing it in the open-sided bin mounted on the back of the turret or lashing it to the outside of the vehicle, the way they were supposed to.

Houghton had already completed all of his other pre-mission checks. Fuel, battery, ammo, night-vision, thermal sights, commo, personal weapons . . .  He still had a good twenty minutes before they were scheduled to leave, but he and his crew were firm believers in staying well ahead of deadlines.

Never hurts to be ready sooner than you have to, he reflected, the back of his mind still visualizing the silent, steady sweep of snowflakes. It sure as hell beats the alternative, anyway! And the LT won't like it if something screws up while

That was when it happened.

The universe went abruptly, shockingly gray. Not black, not foggy, not hazy—gray. His brain insisted that the featureless grayness which had enveloped him was almost painfully bright, but his pupils and optic nerve were equally insistent that the light level hadn't changed at all. His hands death-locked on the rim of the commander's hatch as the fourteen-ton LAV seemed to fall out from under him, yet even as that sickening sense of freefall swept over him, he knew he hadn't actually moved at all.

After sixteen years in the Corps, Ken Houghton figured he'd seen and experienced just about anything that was likely to come a Marine's way. This was something else entirely, though—something human senses had never been intended to grasp or describe—and a burst of something far too much like panic blazed through him.

It seemed to go on for hours, but there also seemed to be something wrong with his time sense. He couldn't seem to speak, didn't even seem to be breathing, yet he managed to look down at his wristwatch, and the digital display was crawling, crawling. He could have counted to ten—slowly—in the time it took each broken-backed second to drag itself into eternity. Two agonizingly slow minutes limped past. Then three. Five. Ten. And then, as suddenly as the universe's colors had disappeared, they were back.

But they were the wrong colors.

The tans and grays and sun-blasted browns of the Middle East were gone. And so was the night. The LAV sat on a gently sloping hillside covered in prairie grasses three or four feet tall under a sun that was still at least two or three hours short of setting.

Houghton heard Mashita's deep, explosive grunt of astonishment over the helmet commo link, but the gunnery sergeant hadn't needed that to tell him they weren't in Kansas anymore.

Houghton stared in stupefied disbelief at the high, crystalline blue sky, felt the autumnal chill in the slight breeze cooling the sweat on his desert-bronzed face, heard the birds that shouldn't have been there, and wondered what the hell had happened. He turned his head slowly, and that was when he saw the tall, white-haired man with the peculiar eyes standing almost directly behind the LAV.

* * *

Wencit of Ru–m looked up in astonishment as the bizarre, sand-colored vehicle—and it obviously was a vehicle, even if he'd never seen anything like it—blinked into existence. It certainly wasn't what he'd expected.

Of course, judging from the expression of the man standing up in the opening on top of it, Wencit wasn't the only one who'd been surprised.

The man in question turned his head far enough to see Wencit, and his green eyes narrowed suddenly. His right hand flashed around to his left side, out of sight for a moment from where Wencit stood, then reappeared holding something else Wencit had never seen before. From the way the newcomer had turned to point it in his direction, though, it had to be a weapon of some sort, and probably a most unpleasant one.

Wencit decided it would be a very good idea to keep his own hand well away from the hilt of his sword as he gazed up at the newcomer.

"Who the hell are you?" the man in the vehicle demanded hoarsely. His lips didn't move in exact time with the voice Wencit heard (and understood), and the wizard noted that at least the language aspects of the spell had worked properly.

"My name is Wencit of Ru–m," he said, speaking slowly and clearly, and it was obvious from the other's expression that he understood Wencit as well as Wencit understood him.

The other man bent his head briefly, muttering something Wencit couldn't quite hear, then climbed slowly and carefully out of the hatch in which he'd stood. He never took his eyes off Wencit any more than he allowed his weapon's point of aim to shift, and Wencit took the opportunity to study him more closely, in turn.

The bulky helmet was made of some material Wencit had never seen before but which must be quite light, judging from the way he moved. And the newcomer wore what was obviously a uniform. It was well-equipped with sensibly arranged pockets, although its outlandish pattern of tan, gray, and sand-colored blotches seemed incredibly out of place in his current setting.

And his vehicle doesn't look out of place, Wencit? the wizard asked himself dryly.

"Where are we?" the uniformed man asked, and Wencit was impressed. The stranger's voice was taut, obviously more than a little confused, but he was tightly focused, ignoring all the things which must have been frightening, if not outright terrifying, while he concentrated on the essentials.

"You're in the Empire of the Spear," Wencit told him. "Between Darkwater Marsh and the Shipwood, west of the Spear River."

 

Gunnery Sergeant Houghton's eyes narrowed as the lunatic facing him responded with perfectly rational-sounding gibberish. The lunatic in question couldn't be as old as the white beard and hair suggested—not with the hard-trained muscle visible in his arms and those strong, sinewy wrists. In fact, he looked like a case of bad casting for a low-budget fantasy movie. Obviously, they'd picked someone too young for the part and tried to use makeup to make him look older, but somehow Houghton felt certain the answer wasn't quite that simple. The scuffed leather doublet, tall horseman's boots, and scruffy look which could only come with days spent in the field were too authentic for that. For that matter, the sword at his side looked far too well-worn and serviceable.

Now the old fellow stood there, head cocked slightly to one side, waiting patiently, as if what he'd just said actually made some sort of sense. And as Houghton's brain began working again, he realized just how peculiar the other man actually looked. It wasn't just the dichotomy between his apparent age and physical fitness, nor his height, although Houghton wasn't accustomed to seeing all that many men who matched his own six-feet-four. The really weird thing about him was his eyes.

Kenneth Houghton had never imagined anything like the flickering, wavering, multicolored wildfire which danced slowly and endlessly under the stranger's snow-white eyebrows. It didn't dance in front of his eyes; it filled the sockets themselves, sending little prominences of witchfire curling up higher than his lids, but how in God's name could anyone have eyes that looked like that? And how could anyone who did possibly see through them?

The questions flickered through his mind, but the muzzle of his Springfield XD .45 stayed rock-steady on the other man's chest. The polymer framed pistol wasn't standard issue, but when a man had knocked around the Corps as long as Houghton had, he could get by with a few personal preferences. He liked the automatic's ergonomics and controls . . . and its stopping power and fourteen-round magazine capacity. Both of which, at the moment, he found ever so comforting.

"How did we get here?" he asked harshly, challengingly. Somehow he was certain the man facing him was responsible for the impossible transition.

"I'm afraid that's my fault," the flame-eyed stranger admitted. "I was looking for help, but—" Houghton had the impression that the eyes he couldn't quite see behind that wavering glare had narrowed "—I certainly didn't expect to get you."

"What d' you mean by that?" Houghton demanded.

"That's going to be just a little difficult to explain," Wencit said, then shrugged. "If you want to stand here and keep pointing your weapon—I assume it is a weapon?—at me while we talk, I suppose we can do that. Or we can sit down by my fire over there and enjoy a mug of tea during the conversation, instead."

He twitched his head sideways, at the neat campfire burning in the carefully built turf fireplace and the warhorse tearing steadily at the tall grass to one side of the area he'd tramped down for his camp. Houghton's eyes followed the movement for an instant, then flicked back to Wencit.

"I think we will stand here, at least for now," he said. "And, yes. It's a weapon."

"I rather thought it must be." Wencit smiled crookedly. "I don't suppose I should have expected any other reaction out of you, especially under these circumstances." He waved one hand in a slight arc, indicating both the bizarre vehicle and the grasslands stretching away in all directions.

"No, you shouldn't. And," the other man's voice hardened slightly, "I'm still waiting for that explanation."

"So I see. Very well, the short version is that a friend of mine is about to run into a situation which is even more dangerous than he realizes. There's more going on than I suspect he knows, and his enemies are rather more powerful than he's been given cause to expect. I happen to have been following some of those enemies for reasons of my own, which is how I know what's happening. So, I cast a spell of summoning, seeking allies. Obviously it fastened on you, for some reason, although you and this peculiar . . . wagon of yours," he indicated the vehicle once more, "are nothing at all like what I expected to answer me."

Houghton understood the words just fine, despite the fact that they were obvious and arrant nonsense.

Stop that! he told himself. It may sound crazy, all right, but do you have any better explanation, Ken?

"What's a 'spell of summoning'?" he heard himself asking.

"It's a spell which is supposed to be very carefully keyed to a specific entity or type of entity," Wencit replied. "The caster—me, in this case—sets up the qualities and . . . personality, for want of a better word, for the entity he hopes to summon. The spell is designed to find someone—or, sometimes, something—which matches what the wizard has specified."

"And—assuming for a moment that I believed any of this—it just yanks whoever you point it at to where you want him, is that it?"

The sharp edge of anger, honed, undoubtedly, by perfectly understandable fear and confusion, was unmistakable, and Wencit shook his head.

"As a matter of fact, no," he said calmly. "I adhere to the Strictures of Ottovar, and the Strictures are very clear on that point. No wizard may coerce any other being or entity into obeying his demands except in certain very carefully specified instances of self-defense, or in equally specific instances of the defense of others. I have absolutely no idea why my spell might have brought you here so abruptly. In fact, it shouldn't have brought you here at all, unless you were willing to come."

"Well in that case," Houghton said grimly, "I suggest you just send Jack and me back where we came from, since it's for damned sure that neither one of us volunteered for this little excursion of yours."

"There's someone else in the vehicle?" Wencit's dismay wasn't at all feigned.

"Of course there is! You don't think I run the whole damned track by myself, do you?"

"I don't know," Wencit said frankly. "I don't know anything more about you and your vehicle or your companion than it would appear you know about sorcery. But the fact that someone else came with you is only one more indication that something must have gone badly awry with my spellcasting. I was seeking only a single individual."

"You were, huh? If this friend of yours is in such deep shit, why'd you only ask for one person to help out? What? You were expecting Clark Kent?"

"I have no idea who 'Clark Kent' might be," Wencit replied, wrapping his tongue around the odd-sounding name with care. "What I was hoping I might manage to convince to come help me was a gryphon."

"A gryphon?" Against his will, Houghton was beginning to believe the fiery-eyed old man was telling him the truth about how he, Mashita, and Tough Mama had gotten here. Wherever the hell "here" might be!

"You mean one of those lion-mixed-with-an-eagle critters?" He snorted a laugh. "Hell, why settle for something like that? Why not go whole hog and 'summon' a frigging dragon?"

"It takes too long to explain things to dragons," the oldster replied reasonably. "Or, rather, to convince them they ought to get involved. By the time they get done searching the time stream and philosophizing, it's usually too late to accomplish much. Then there's the little problem that most of them aren't very happy about having anything to do with even a white wizard these days. But mostly, frankly, because I needed something as powerful as I could get."

Houghton stared at him for a moment longer, then sighed. It was all totally insane, of course. Unfortunately, it actually seemed to be happening to him.

He slid the pistol back into the shoulder holster under his left arm. Then he removed his helmet and tucked his left elbow around it while the cool breeze swept over red hair still wet with Middle Eastern sweat.

"You realize, of course," he said conversationally, "that I think you're probably nutty as a fruitcake. On the other hand, I don't have any better explanation for what the hell is going on here. In fact, at the moment, you seem to be the only game in town when it comes to answers. And presumably, if you got us here, you can send us home again, too."

"Of course I can," Wencit agreed, and saw the other man relax, at least a little. "Unfortunately, I can't simply turn around and do it with a snap of my fingers," he continued, and grimaced mentally as the momentary relaxation disappeared.

"And why might that be?" Houghton growled suspiciously.

"It's a complex spell," Wencit said apologetically. "It takes time to prepare for it, and that's especially true in this case. Since you aren't remotely what or who I anticipated, I'll have to be very careful in specifying where you're supposed to go. It's my fault you're here, and if I send you home, that's where I want you to go. I certainly don't want to end up just dropping you into still another world that isn't yours."

"I see." Houghton knew his tone sounded grudging. Which, now that he thought about it, was just too bad. The old guy was right—it was his fault Houghton and Mashita had ended up wherever the hell they were. Still, he reminded himself, the other man—the wizard, he supposed—seemed to be willing to acknowledge his responsibility and do his best to make things right again.

"My name's Houghton," he heard himself saying. "Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton, U.S. Marines."

"Houghton?" the other man repeated, as if the name felt peculiar in his mouth. Then he shook himself. "Men call me Wencit of Ru–m," he said.

"Well then, Wencit," Houghton said, "how soon can we get started on this 'complex spell' of yours?"

"Not for at least several hours," Wencit replied. "As I said, I'd expected to summon my ally from this universe; it never occurred to me that my spell might end up reaching over into another one. Unfortunately, it did. Since I hadn't expected that, I didn't include a command to identify the one you came from, and the spell's set up a ripple pattern in the magic field. I'm going to have to give it time to settle a bit before I can start looking for the traces that will guide me to your universe."

"My universe?" Houghton shook his head. "You're telling me I'm in an entirely different universe?"

"Obviously," Wencit replied. Another wave of his hand indicated Houghton's uniform and equipment harness and Tough Mama, sitting on the grass behind him and Mashita—who'd climbed up onto the decking through his hatch—looming up on the far side of the turret. Then the same hand indicated Wencit's own clothing, the campfire, and the magnificent horse grazing nearby. "I may not recognize your vehicle, Kenneth Houghton," he said, "but wouldn't you say it seems just a bit out of place here?"

"I guess you could put it that way," Houghton admitted, and glanced over his shoulder at Mashita.

The corporal had obviously been listening to the early stages of at least Houghton's side of the conversation over his helmet commo link. Now the short, wiry Nisei shrugged and settled himself casually on top of the turret beside the M240 machine gun at the commander's station. It put him close enough to listen to Houghton's conversation with their . . . host, and despite this Wencit's apparent sincerity, it didn't bother Houghton a bit to have the machine gun manned, just in case.

"So, we're in another universe," he said, turning back to Wencit. "What is it? One of those 'parallel universes' the science fiction writers are so fond of?"

"I'm not familiar with 'science fiction writers,' Kenneth Houghton," Wencit replied. "But to call our universes 'parallel,' might actually be a good way to describe it. Or, at least, as good a way as I've ever heard anyone else suggest."

"You can call me Ken, not Kenneth," Houghton said. His voice was harsher than he'd intended as a familiar stab of remembered loss went through him. He'd always disliked his first name. In fact, Gwynn was the only one who had ever been able to call him "Kenneth" without making him feel like some sort of dweeb.

"Ken?" Wencit repeated, then made a sound suspiciously like a chuckle.

"Well, Ken," he said after a moment, "as I was saying, our universes may not precisely be 'parallel,' but time is proceeding at the same rate and in the same direction in both of them. I suppose the best way to describe the differences between them is to say that each of our universes was formed out of the many differing possible outcomes of an inconceivable number of separate events. Judging from your appearance, your equipment, and the fact that sorcery is obviously as strange to you as your equipment appears to me, our universes must have diverged long, long ago.

"Which," he continued in a more serious tone, "leaves me even more puzzled about how my spell could have reached so far afield from its intended destination. And how you could have arrived in the flesh, as it were. Usually, when you try to move people between universes, all you actually manage to summon is a shadowman, a sort of . . . doppelganger, I suppose you'd call it, rather than the actual individual. I'm almost beginning to wonder if someone else didn't have a finger in this particular pie."

"You know . . . Wencit," Houghton said, "the thing that worries me most right this minute is that I'm starting to feel like you're actually making sense."

Wencit chuckled at Houghton's desert-dry tone. Then he shook his head again.

"You said you were a 'gunnery sergeant,'" he said. "That's a military rank, yes?"

"Yeah. A gunnery sergeant is the senior noncom in a platoon of Marines," Houghton said.

"Ah. I thought it must be something like that. And this." The wild wizard gestured at the peculiar, bulky, massive vehicle again. "This entire wagon, or whatever. It's a weapon, isn't it?"

"It's armed," Houghton conceded warily, one eyebrow quirked. He folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head. "It's not exactly a main battle tank, but I'd guess it could hold its own against anything we're likely to encounter here."

"I see."

Wencit rubbed his neatly trimmed white beard for a moment, then grimaced.

"Gunnery Sergeant," he said earnestly, "as I say, you aren't at all what I expected. But if you and your friend—" a nod of his head indicated Mashita, still sitting atop the eight-wheeled vehicle "—are both soldiers, perhaps the spell that brought you here did better than I first thought."

"Just a minute, now, Wencit!" Houghton said. He recognized that tone. It was the kind of tone officers—or, still worse, civilian intelligence pukes or even Air Force officers—used when they needed someone to volunteer for some perfectly stupid frigging op.

The wizard stopped speaking and regarded him steadily. Or, at least, Houghton thought it was steadily. It was amazing how hard it was to read someone's expression when you couldn't actually see his eyes.

"I'm sure you wouldn't have 'summoned' us—or the gryphon you were trying to get, anyway—unless the shit had really hit the fan. And for all I know, you're a perfectly nice guy, with a perfectly legitimate reason for looking for any help you can get. But like you say, this isn't our universe, and Jack and I have responsibilities of our own back home."

"I realize that," Wencit said earnestly. "But at the same time, don't good men have the same responsibilities, wherever they may find themselves?"

"Don't go there," Houghton cautioned, shaking his head firmly. "Every time I've gotten into trouble in my life, it's been because someone convinced me it was the 'right thing to do.' It's not going to work this time."

"So you're not even curious about why you wound up here?"

"I didn't say that. I just said that what Jack and I need to do is to get back to where our own people are waiting on us for the operation we were about to mount. Trust me, Wencit, we've got more than enough shit of our own to deal with back home."

"Really?" Wencit crossed his own arms and settled back on his heels. "You're at war, then?"

"Yeah, we are," Houghton agreed bleakly. "Took us awhile to figure it out. And we screwed up along the way, more than once. But that's what we are."

"What kind of war?"

"Ha! It's gonna take more than a few hours to answer that one! Let's just say we're up against a bunch of certified looney-tunes who're more than willing to murder as many civilians as it takes to make their point. And," he conceded grudgingly, "a lot of them are perfectly willing to die themselves along the way."

The tall red-haired "gunnery sergeant's" voice had gone flat and hard, Wencit noticed. He rather doubted Houghton realized just how true that was, but it confirmed several things Wencit had already suspected about him.

"You sound like a man who's seen too much bloodshed, Ken Houghton," he said quietly. "Too many innocent dead."

Houghton's jaw muscles clenched hard for a moment. Then he inhaled deeply.

"Damned straight I have." His voice was as quiet as Wencit's own, but burred with anger and the ashes and clinkers of old hatred. "Not all of them from the other side's efforts, either," he continued. "I don't know about wars here, but the one we're fighting back home is a copperplated bitch. We do our best to minimize civilian casualties, but how the hell do you do that when the other side fades into the rest of the civilian population? When you're doing your goddamned fighting right in the middle of a frigging city?"

He shook his head hard, and Wencit nodded.

"It's the children, isn't it?" he asked gently. "It's the children that make it hurt so badly."

Kenneth Houghton's nostrils flared as he heard the sympathy—the understanding—in Wencit's voice. Somehow, he knew, the old man, the wizard, truly did understand. And because he knew that, the gunnery sergeant found himself admitting the truth.

"Yeah. It's the kids." His jaw tightened once more. "It's everybody caught in the mess, but especially the kids. They never asked for any of it, never got to choose. If it was just us against the bad guys, out in the open, one-on-one, that'd be one thing. But it isn't. And I don't guess it can be, really. We call it cowardly, and maybe it is. But it's also what they call 'asymmetrical warfare.'" He grunted a harsh, bitter laugh. "They're not about to come out where we can blow their asses off, because they know they can't possibly fight our kind of war and win. So instead, we have to fight their kind. And the more civilian casualties that get inflicted, the better it works out for their plans. After all, we're the ones in their cities. If somebody gets killed, who are the locals going to blame for it?"

"You're tired," Wencit said. Houghton looked at him, and the wizard smiled crookedly. "Not physically, perhaps. But tired—so tired—of seeing the innocent killed."

"What?" Houghton tried to rally. "You're a mind reader, too?"

"No, I'm a wizard, not a mage. But I don't have to be able to read your mind. Not to see that truth, Gunnery Sergeant Houghton. Trust me," the smile went even more crooked for a moment, "even if we've never met before, I recognize the kind of man you are. I've known others like you. Too many of them, I think sometimes."

"And?" Houghton said when the wizard paused again. A little warning bell was trying to sound deep inside Houghton's brain. Somehow the conversation was slipping out of his control, going places he'd never intended it to go. He'd intended to maintain his focus on the demand that he and Mashita be sent back to their own universe, yet something inside him knew it was going in another direction entirely. And something else inside him couldn't resist that changing destination.

"And I'm afraid I'm about to lose another one of them," Wencit said. "A good man, one with a sense of responsibility, who's already seen and faced enough evil for any other man's entire lifetime. I think you'd like him, if you ever met."

"And you're about to invite me to do just that, aren't you?" Houghton said. It was a challenge, but without the edge of confrontation Wencit had half-expected. "You're going to suggest that I ought to go ahead and help him—and you—out, like one good, responsible man to another."

"Something like that," Wencit admitted.

"I don't think so," Houghton responded. But his tone wasn't quite as firm as he'd wanted it to be.

"You've said you're fighting an ugly war back home," Wencit said. "So am I, my friend, and I'll wager I've been fighting it even longer than you have. A lot longer, in fact. I know what it is to have blood on your hands. To lose friends, comrades. To see the innocent caught in the middle of all the carnage—to wonder if your efforts aren't actually making it worse. If at least a part of you isn't becoming the very thing you're fighting. That's what I'm doing out here in the middle of nowhere, the reason I cast the spell that ended up bringing you and your friend here, as well."

"I'll take your word for it," Houghton said. "It's still not my war."

"No?" Wencit cocked his head. "Maybe it is. Surely, evil is much the same in every universe, isn't it? And—" he looked directly into Houghton's green eyes "—quite a lot of children have already died in my war, as well. And more of them will die very soon now, if it isn't stopped."

"Shit happens." It was supposed to come out hard, uncaring.

It failed.

"Yes, it does," Wencit said. "May I at least show you what I'm talking about here?"

Houghton knew better. He knew better, and yet someone else seemed to have control of his voice.

"Sure," he said. "Go ahead. Trot it out, but you're gonna have to go some to beat the kind of shit I've already seen."

"Am I?"

Wencit smiled oddly, and then his hands moved. They sketched an immaterial square in the air, about chest height, four feet or so across, and two or three tall. Houghton frowned and started to open his mouth to ask him what he thought he was doing, but then the air in the square Wencit's hands had defined seemed to ripple abruptly.

The Marine's mouth snapped shut again as the ripple effect cleared as suddenly as it had appeared. In its place were images—sharp, as crystal-clear as any video screen or television Houghton had ever seen. And, as he saw them, Houghton felt a sudden, total confidence that what he was seeing was an actual, faithful record of what had truly happened.

It was one of the most horrific things he had ever seen.

Kenneth Houghton had seen men, women, and children mangled and mutilated by "improvised explosive devices," by mortar and rocket fire, by artillery shells, bombs, machine-gun fire, and small arms. He'd seen the horror napalm left behind, the indescribable burns of white phosphorus. Yet this . . . 

He stared at Wencit's images and saw brutal combat with swords, axes, pikes and halberds—the sheer, personal butchery of edged steel cleaving flesh, close enough for an enemy's blood to spray into a man's face and eyes. He saw arrow storms, and thundering cavalry. He saw fountains of flame he somehow knew were born of the same sort of "sorcery" which had brought him to this world, this place. And he saw other flames—the flames of burning cities and villages, their streets littered with the bodies of those who had once lived in those blazing homes. He saw the bodies of women, mothers, cut down as they fled with children in their arms. He saw the children they'd tried to save. He saw laughing warriors tossing screaming children into the flames. He saw blood-soaked altars, surrounded by the butchered bodies of sacrificial victims while still more victims were dragged, fighting frantically, to their fates. And he saw . . . creatures he had no names for—creatures out of the darkest depths of nightmare—killing and maiming, devouring. He saw them being directed, controlled, in their slaughter.

And he saw the men—and women—who stood against the tide of butchery and darkness. He watched them, recognized the iron determination and raw courage which kept them on their feet, facing that avalanche of horror when simple sanity must have cried out for them to flee for their lives. Some of them seemed wrapped in glittering coronas of blue light, like some sort of lightning. Others were simply men and women, with no light, no special aura. Only men and women who could not let the darkness triumph unopposed. Who had to face it.

And who died fighting it.

He saw it all, and only much later did he realize that what seemed to have taken hours at the time could not have lasted more than a very few minutes.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. The images disappeared, and he found himself staring into Wencit of Ru–m's wildfire eyes.

"That's my war, Gunnery Sergeant Houghton," the wizard said very, very softly. "And it's the war my friend is riding straight into all by himself."

II

"I'm thinking as how something new's after being added to the pot," Bahzell Bahnakson said to his horse.

Except, of course, that the magnificent roan stallion under his saddle wasn't a horse. In point of fact, Walsharno, son of Mathygan and Yorthandro, was a Sothùoii courser, far larger than any mere "horse," and as intelligent as any of the Races of Man. And, like the fox-eared hradani in his saddle, a champion of the war god, Tomank.

<And to just what sudden stroke of genius do we owe that particular observation?> a mellow voice asked deep inside Bahzell's brain.

"The fact that we're after seeing another entire batch of hoof prints joining up with them," he replied, waving one hand at the trail of trampled grass leading steadily southeast from the slight rise upon which they had halted. A second trail had just joined it, angling in from the west.

<Oh, that.>

"Aye, that," Bahzell agreed sardonically.

<Well, maybe there'll be enough of them that they'll get in each other's way,> Walsharno suggested.

"And if you're after believing that, I've some bottomland on the Ghoul Moor I could be letting you have cheap."

<I never said I thought it would happen that way. I merely pointed out that it could.>

"Aye, so you did. And so far as wishful thinking is going, it's in my mind it's not so very much less likely than the King Emperor deciding as how he should be after adopting me as his heir."

Walsharno blew through his nostrils, shaking his head in equine amusement, and Bahzell chuckled. Not that either of them truly found the situation all that humorous. Champions of Tomank were seldom handed easy challenges, but this one was turning steadily more nasty as they went along, and Bahzell eased himself in the saddle as he contemplated how simple it had all seemed in the beginning.

It had started as little more than an unidentified raiding party, attacking herds and small villages along the southern frontier of the Kingdom of the Sothùoii. Everyone's first assumption had been that the raiders who ruled the Kingdom of the River Brigands at the head of the Lake of Storms were responsible. But they had protested their innocence, and—in this case—they'd actually been telling the truth. Tomank was the god of justice, as well as the god of war, and no one could lie successfully when one of his champions directly invoked his power.

Had it in fact been the River Brigands, the situation would have been straightforward and relatively simple. The Brigands knew hradani only too well, and, like everyone else in northwestern Norfressa, they were sufficiently familiar with Bahzell's reputation to have listened very closely when he suggested that their current activities might be . . . unwise. Unfortunately, it hadn't been them after all, which had raised the interesting question of just who was responsible, and why.

Raiding the Sothùoii was always a high-risk proposition, even when there wasn't a champion of Tomank handy. The Sothùoii cavalry was the most deadly light horse force in Norfressa, and the wind riders—mounted on coursers like Walsharno—were the most terrifying heavy cavalry the world had ever seen. The raiders had shown uncanny skill in picking their moments and targets, then vanishing before even Sothùoii cavalry could respond, but no one could keep that up forever. Sooner or later, they would be unlucky, and people who were unlucky against Sothùoii cavalry were very unlucky, indeed.

Even leaving that aside, there was the question of exactly what the raiders were doing with their booty in the first place. If the River Brigands weren't involved, then who was paying them for their plunder, and where were they disposing of it? The vast, rolling expanse of Norfressa east of the Kingdom of the Sothùoii and of the Empire of the Spear was still only imperfectly explored. The Spearmen's borders were advancing slowly but steadily eastward, but the hundreds of leagues of grassland and forest were still all but uninhabited. A few hardy bands of homesteaders had carved towns and villages, a scattering of independent baronies and vest-pocket kingdoms, out of the wilderness, but that was all, and none of them were likely to be able to pay for stolen goods. For that matter, the neighborhoods in which they lived were dangerous enough already. None of them were likely to be stupid enough to make things still worse by arousing the Sothùoii's ire by dealing with anyone who had attacked them.

But if the raiders weren't shipping their plunder south through the Brigand river ports of Krelik and Palan, and if they weren't selling it to one of those eastern settlements, then what were they doing with it?

"I'm not liking this one little bit," Bahzell said aloud, and Walsharno tossed his head again, and not in amusement this time.

<There've been too many jabs like this over the last few years,> the stallion agreed grimly. <And there's the stink of the Dark about this.>

"Aye, that there is." Bahzell's tone was every bit as grim as his companion's. "I'm thinking himself wasn't after sending no fewer than four of his champions off to the Wind Plain for no reason at all."

<He didn't "send" all of us,> Walsharno pointed out. <Some of us were born on the Wind Plain.>

"And so you were," Bahzell acknowledged. "Still and all, it's not so very happy in my own mind I am about how much interest the Dark is after showing in the Sothùoii and my own folk. Come to that, himself's not so happy about it, either. And if the number of champions he's been after sending out this way is anything to be judging by, I've the nagging suspicion there's worse to come."

<It does seem the Dark Gods are especially exercised over the relationship your father's been working out with the Sothùoii,> Walsharno said. <And my folk, too, for that matter.>

"And why might that be, d'you think?" Bahzell asked ironically.

<I'm sure I don't know.>

"And himself's not about to be telling us, either, is he now?"

This time, Walsharno simply snorted, and Bahzell chuckled harshly. For the most part, he both understood and agreed with Tomank's reasons for not simply leading his champions by the hand. Still, there were times a man might have appreciated at least a few hints about what the Dark Gods had in mind.

Part of it was easy enough to understand. Bahzell's father, Prince Bahnak of the Horse Stealer Hradani, who'd finally brought the warring northern clans together under a single crown and a single banner, was no friend of the Dark. Worse, he was working steadily with Baron Tellian and some of the other senior Sothùoii nobles to bring an end to the thousand years of hostility, hatred, and open warfare between them and his own people. His cordial relationship with the city states of Dwarvenhame was something else the Dark Gods couldn't approve of, as his people became steadily richer, better educated, and prosperous.

The Dark didn't like any of that, for obvious reasons, which would have been fully sufficient to explain its constant interference with Bahnak's progress. Yet Bahzell was convinced there was more to it. The Dark's efforts had been too specifically targeted, and the Dark Gods themselves had interfered too openly, for him to believe otherwise. And, as Walsharno had just observed, there was the stink of the Dark about this, as well.

"Are you after thinking what I am?" he asked after a moment.

<Probably,> Walsharno replied glumly. <It does appear to be our area of specialization, after all. The question that occurs to me is whether or not the other side counted on that. I'm getting rather tired of enjoying so much of the Dark Gods' personal attention.>

Bahzell's laugh was full of gravel. He'd been developing a more and more specific feel for what they were pursuing, and that feel was growing increasingly familiar. As Walsharno said, both he and his companion appeared to have a special affinity for dealing with Sharn's followers and the demons who served them. There were, he conceded, safer "specializations" a man might have taken up.

"At least it's a job we've managed to be doing so far," he pointed out.

<And it's also the sort of job you only get to fail at once,> Walsharno countered as if he'd read Bahzell's previous thought. Which he probably had, after all.

"Here now! That's no way for a champion of Tomank to be thinking! It's the challenge of it you should be pondering on."

<Oh, I am. I am! Can't you tell?>

Bahzell chuckled again. Then Walsharno started forward once more, following the tracks which had led them so far, and Bahzell glanced up at the sky. Another couple of hours, he thought. They'd have to be thinking about making camp, soon, but they could cover a few more miles before sunset. It wasn't as if they hadn't already covered quite a few of them. In fact, they were well into the Empire of the Spear, less than a week or so from Alfroma, even for a horse, much less a courser, and his expression softened slightly at the thought. Zarantha of Jashân's mage academy was located at Sherhan, just outside Alfroma. He'd been contemplating a visit to her for some time, although he hadn't had anything quite like this in mind. Still, it would be good to see her again . . . always assuming, of course, that he and Walsharno survived this little journey.

III

Trayn Aldarfro's eyes opened once more. This time, they actually stayed that way for more than a minute or two.

Not that it was any particular improvement.

Trayn lay belly-down across a horse's bony spine, tied firmly into place like a pack saddle. His head wound had finally stopped bleeding, although his hair was heavily caked with the blood he'd lost before it did. The broken ribs on his left side—at least two or three of them, he thought—sent grating stabs of anguish through him each time one of the horse's hooves came down, and a pair of well-muscled dwarves hammered steadily away at the anvil behind his forehead. Still, taking everything which had happened into consideration, it was astonishing that he was as close to intact as he appeared to be. Which, unfortunately, wasn't the same thing as being lucky to be alive.

He closed his eyes once more while dagger-sharp white flashes jounced through his brain. The pain was more than sufficient to disrupt his concentration, but he doubted he was close enough to the Academy for him to have reached it, anyway. He had only a minor gift for telepathy, and he was badly range-limited at the best of times, which these definitely weren't. For that matter, he'd been close to the edge of his range when he and his companions had been attacked, and that had obviously been hours ago.

For that matter, he told himself grimly, it might very well have been days ago, the way I feel.

He tried to at least extend his senses far enough to tell how many of the others had also been taken prisoner, but the unpredictable, jagged bolts of pain made even that impossible. At least, he hoped it was because of the pain; he didn't want to consider the other reasons he might not have been able to sense the presence of any of his friends.

He tugged surreptitiously at his bonds, and discovered—as he'd been certain would prove the case—that escape was impossible. Which left him free to concentrate on all the unpleasant possible explanations for why he found himself in his present predicament.

I should've paid more attention to Mistress Zarantha's warnings, he thought bitterly. It just seemed so ridiculous. After all, who could be stupid enough to actually attack a mage academy? Especially one under the protection of Duke Jashân himself?

He still didn't know the answers to those questions, but he felt sinkingly certain he was going to find out. He didn't expect to like those answers very much, either.

He felt his consciousness start to waver once again. In some ways, he would have been glad to pass back out, but that was cowardice speaking, and he set his teeth, calling upon the disciplines in which he'd been trained, to push the blackness back. The lightheadedness eased after a moment, and he turned the same discipline to the task of overcoming the savage pain bursts of his headache.

The first attacks in the academy's vicinity had seemed little more than coincidental. Zarantha of Jashân was the eldest daughter of the Duke of Jashân, and her father had helped her academy recruit a solid core of armsmen under the command of Colonel Tothas, Mistress Zarantha's personal armsman since childhood. More to the point, perhaps, a third or more of the senior magi Zarantha had attracted as instructors were trained mishuki, among the most deadly practitioners of weaponless combat in all of Norfressa. For that matter, many of the magi possessed combat-grade gifts which even black sorcery would find difficult to overcome.

In the face of those considerations, it had seemed obvious that not even the hardiest raider would have deliberately set out to attack the academy. For that matter, it was unlikely the attackers had been working to any sort of deliberate plan. There was always some brigandage in the Empire of the Spear, especially in its southern provinces, where the Empire shared a common border with the Purple Lords. The Wild Wash Hradani on the Purple Lords' western border periodically raided into the Empire, as well, and it was common knowledge (although seldom spoken of) that the half-elven Purple Lords themselves had a policy of subsidizing attacks on the fiefs of Spearman nobles who appeared to be growing too powerful. The Duke of Jashân obviously fell into that category, as far as the Purple Lords were concerned, so no one had been particularly surprised when a village or two in his dukedom, the closest of them several days' travel south of the academy, had been attacked.

Duke Jashân's armsmen had responded quickly, but the attackers had vanished like smoke, leaving only charred ruins, bodies, and missing people in their wake. Unfortunately, they'd also left very little in the way of clues which might have identified them. Nor had anyone been able to come up with a convincing theory for their motives. There hadn't been that much worth stealing in the villages, and no one had gone raiding in the Empire for slaves since the last Shith Kiri Corsair attacks, fifty years ago. Besides, as far as anyone could tell, the captives who'd been taken had mostly been children, scarcely the sort of prisoners in which slavers would have been interested.

But the attacks had continued, sporadically, spaced out over a period of weeks, even months. Duke Jashân had established nodal forces, placed to cover the towns and villages for whose defense he was responsible, but the raiders had avoided them with what appeared to be ludicrous ease. Tothas had extended his own patrols to protect the area immediately around the academy, but still the attacks had gotten through. No defense could be strong everywhere, and if the duke and Tothas were prepared to protect the villages, then the attackers hit individual farms and freeholds.

The attacks had been infrequent, and the intervals between them unpredictable and often lengthy. At times, it had been tempting to believe they'd stopped completely, but they always resumed. Recently, a few clues had begun coalescing which suggested the Purple Lords were, indeed, behind it all, but there'd been nothing definite. Which explained why Trayn had been sent out with one of Tothas' patrols. Although he was still only a journeyman, far from a master mage in proficiency or strength, he had a powerful gift for object reading. If they could get him to the site of an attack quickly enough for him to examine the aura the attackers had left behind, he might well be able to positively identify them. Failing that, he might at least have been able to determine where they were staging their attacks from.

It had all seemed completely straightforward to Trayn when it was explained to him. Only Mistress Zarantha had seemed particularly concerned. Which, given the fact that one of her minor gifts was precognition, should have been a sufficiently strong suggestion that he ought to be doing more worrying of his own, he acknowledged now.

"I know there's no concrete evidence to support the theory," the academy's dark-haired, diminutive mistress had said, "but I'm still convinced that whoever is doing this is a direct threat to the Academy, as well. They may have been careful about staying safely outside our own grounds, but look at the pattern. They've hit villages and individual farms all around us, even when they must have known the targets they'd chosen risked interception by Father's armsmen, as well as our own. I doubt very much that they'd hesitate for a moment about snapping up any mage they come across."

"I understand, Mistress," Trayn had replied. "And I promise we'll be careful."

He'd meant every word of it, too, but he'd also felt completely confident of his own security. Twenty-five trained, experienced armsmen, all armed with horsebows as well as light lances, would be more than sufficient to deal with the sort of outlaw rabble capable of carrying out such attacks.

Except that whoever these people were, they certainly weren't anything as simple as "outlaw rabble."

The ambush had been very carefully arranged, but even so, armsmen trained by Tothas should have been able to cut their way clear of it. They would have, too, without the sudden, unnatural fog which had blinded them at precisely the wrong moment. And without the hideous bolts of poison-green lightning which had come flashing through the fog to kill Darnoth, the patrol's commander, and both of his senior sergeants, without so much as a chance to scream.

Even while the fog had blinded Trayn and his companions, their attackers had moved and fought as if the morning remained daylight clear. Darnoth's armsmen hadn't stood a chance in the face of such a devastating disadvantage. Trayn had heard them fighting back desperately all about him, invisible through the sight-devouring grayness, and there'd been nothing at all he could do to help them. Despite his gifts, despite his own training as a mishuk, he'd been able to see nothing. He hadn't even sensed the blow which struck him out of his own saddle until a fraction of an instant before it landed.

And now, he couldn't even estimate how long ago it had happened.

Despair threatened his concentration, but he thrust it firmly aside. That much, at least, his training was equal to, and his efforts to suppress the pain slowly yielded at least partial success as the dwarves beating on the anvil in the center of his skull finally decided to put their hammers down. It didn't do very much about the pain of his broken ribs, or his bruises, or the gnawing bite of his bonds, or the horse jouncing him about, but at least he was able to summon at least some of his own gifts, and he reached out cautiously, feeling for the auras of any of Darnoth's men.

He sensed exactly nothing, and grief stabbed through him.

His eyes burned, but even as they did, a terrifying question burned through his grief. If none of the armsmen had been worth taking alive, why had he? What was so special about him that their ambushers had kept him alive?

He didn't know . . . yet.

But he was grimly certain that he was going to find out.

IV

"Boss, are you sure this is a good idea?"

Houghton's lips quirked as Mashita's plaintive voice came over the commo link. The youthful corporal was driving with his head poked up through his hatch. He'd have to drop down inside the vehicle and button up if—or when—they ran into the trouble they all anticipated, but he had a much better field of vision this way than he would have from inside. Houghton could see only the back of Mashita's helmet when he looked down from his own position, but he didn't have to see the driver's face to know exactly what his expression looked like. Jack Mashita had been born and raised in Montana, and, despite his ancestry, it didn't appear that he'd ever heard about "inscrutable Orientals."

"Of course I'm not," the gunnery sergeant replied as Tough Mama snorted across the prairie. "But you heard Wencit. He says he can't send us back until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest." He shrugged, standing in the gunner's hatch now, rather than the commander's, while he gazed out into the steadily gathering gloom. "You have any better ideas on how to spend the time?"

"As a matter of fact, yeah," Mashita said. "Personally, I thought your idea about camping right there until he got around to it sounded just peachy."

"Yeah, sure you did." Houghton snorted.

Mashita started to reply, then stopped, and the gunnery sergeant grimaced. Jack had seen Wencit's magically conjured images, too, and Houghton was pretty sure it was the kids which had made up the driver's mind.

Mashita was barely more than half Houghton's own age. Sometimes, the gulf seemed much broader than that . . . especially from Houghton's side. Jack projected a sort of world-weary cynicism which, Houghton suspected, the youngster thought made him look older and more experienced. He also made a point of always anticipating the worst; that way, he'd once explained, any surprises had to be pleasant ones. And he always asserted—vigorously—that the only time he'd ever volunteered for anything in his life had been the day a Marine recruiter had taken advantage of a hung-over young high school graduate . . . which, as Houghton knew from personal experience, was a crock. But underneath that armor, there was someone who truly believed it was the job of people like the United States Marine Corps to make a difference in the world. Someone who'd seen more ugliness and violence than any dozen civilians his own age, and who'd been decorated not once, but twice, for dragging wounded civilians to safety in the middle of firefights. Someone who'd spent hours of his off-duty time assisting the "hearts and minds" medical teams, and who helped coach a Marine-sponsored basketball team when he wasn't out with the docs.

Someone who'd seen the deliberate butchery of children in Wencit's moving images.

That was all it really would have taken to get Jack Mashita to sign on for the mission, and Houghton knew it. But he also knew that if he hadn't agreed, Mashita wouldn't have either, kids or no kids. And if Kenneth Houghton understood exactly why Mashita had volunteered, he was less certain about his own motives.

Partly, he knew, it was the fact that Wencit had a schedule of his own to keep. Preposterous as everything which had already happened seemed, it was obvious that there were really only two possibilities. One, Tough Mama had driven over an IED, and one Kenneth Houghton was floating through the weirdest drug dream he'd ever heard of while the docs worked on him. Two, he really, truly was in an entirely different universe, and a white-haired wizard with FX eyes really was the only person who could ever get him home again.

Personally, in a lot of ways, he would have preferred the first possibility, but he doubted the answer could be that simple. In either case, he might as well proceed as if it was really happening, and Wencit was obviously far too concerned over his friend—this "Bahzell" character—to sit around a campfire toasting marshmallows (or whatever the hell they used instead around here) while he waited for the "ripples" to settle so he could send them home again. Short of holding a gun on the wizard, Houghton couldn't think of any way to make Wencit stay put. And the more he saw of the old fellow, and the deeper the acceptance of magic—in this universe, at least—sank into him, the more he found himself doubting Wencit would have allowed him to do anything of the sort.

The old bugger can "summon" a fourteen-ton LAV out of an entirely different universe, he reflected. So just what makes you think he'll let you sit there with a dinky little .45 pointed at him, Ken?

He couldn't think of a single answer to that question, and since Wencit was obviously going to go haring off into the night in an effort to rescue this Bahzell all by himself, the only logical thing for Houghton and Mashita to do was to tag along. After all, they could hardly afford to let him get himself killed before he sent them home.

Actually, Houghton rather liked that analysis of their situation. It was logical, pragmatic, with a strong dollop of tough-minded self-interest.

It was also, like Jack's insistence that he'd never volunteered for anything, a crock.

Gunnery Sergeant Houghton was uncomfortable with that realization, but there was no point pretending it wasn't true. Wencit's images had gotten to him, too, and the old wizard was right. There were responsibilities any man had to accept, regardless of the universe in which he found himself, if he ever wanted to face his mirror again.

Yet even that fell short of the full answer, and he felt his mind going back, wandering into memories he'd spent two years sealing away behind an impenetrable barrier. Back to the days when he'd been a husband who'd expected to become a father soon.

Gwynn always understood, he thought. She knew what made me tick, what I had to believe to be me. And she believed it with me—believed it for me, deeply enough to keep me sane.

Where had he lost that certainty, he wondered. Had it died in the same Ford Explorer as Gwynn? Been crushed with her and their unborn son on an icy mountain road by a pulpwood truck with a blown tire? Or had he lost it later, when he no longer had her to talk to, to confess to, to share the pain with. A tough-as-nails gunnery sergeant wasn't supposed to need to do those things. Which was stupid, of course. Gunnery sergeants were human beings, too, whatever the unwritten rule book required them to pretend. But Gwynn had always known better than that, always been there for him, always made him share the dark things with her, as well as the bright.

She'd been his moral compass, he realized. Not the only one he'd had . . . just the most important of them all. He'd survived without her, relied upon all those other compasses, but it hadn't been the same. Not as he'd confronted a world in which human beings turned themselves and even their own children into living bombs in the twisted name of God. One in which the enemy murdered captives in front of cameras and broadcast the images over the Internet and snipers routinely opened fire on religious processions while bombers deliberately targeted mosques, synagogues and churches. One in which the people fighting those murderous fanatics altogether too often inflicted horrific "collateral damage" of their own and even some of the good guys—even some of Houghton's fellow Marines—found themselves infected with the same soul-deep sickness and committed acts every bit as brutal as any of the "enemy's." It had all hammered down on his own sense of loss, his own grief, and he'd lost his certitude. What had once been clear-cut and unambiguous had become something else, and he'd feared that he was becoming something else, as well. Something . . . tainted, which Gwynn would not have recognized.

That's really what it is, isn't it? he reflected. It's that simple. However you got here, wherever you are, it's that simple. Wencit's offered to give you back that certainty, at least for a while. You're free to choose between good and evil, between those who preserve and those who destroy, in a universe that isn't even yours. One where you can know you chose.

One where you can be the man Gwynn loved again.

 

"How much farther?" Houghton asked an hour or so later.

He turned his head to look at the man standing next to him in the right-hand hatch. The Montana-born and bred Mashita had almost literally stood there drooling when he finally got a good look at Wencit's horse. The wizard had explained that it was something called a "Sothùoii warhorse," yet magnificent as it obviously was, it wouldn't have been able to match the LAV's speed and, especially, endurance. Houghton had been uncertain what to do about that, but Wencit had simply spoken calmly into the saddled horse's ear for a moment, then pointed in a northerly direction. The horse had responded by lipping the wizard's hair with obvious affection, then trotted cheerfully off in the indicated direction. Somehow, Houghton was certain Wencit and the stallion wouldn't have any trouble finding one another again later.

Since the wizard was now a passenger (and totally untrained in any of the vehicle crew's duties), Houghton had put him at the commander's station so that he himself could take over the gunner's duties if it proved necessary. Technically, the vehicle commander was supposed to ride standing in his hatch on the right side of the turret at "name tape defilade," with just his head and shoulders clear of the vehicle. The gunner, on the other hand, was supposed to ride in his seat, inside the turret, watching through his optical and thermal sights. The vehicle commander could do some of the gunner's job for him—the hand station joystick at the CO's position allowed him to control turret traverse and fire the twenty-five-millimeter cannon and coaxial machine gun—but that was really the gunner's responsibility. He was also the crewmember specifically located and assigned to deal with any misfires, feed jams, or other problems with the armament. Given the fact that Wencit didn't have a clue how Tough Mama's weapons—or sights—worked, Houghton had decided he had no choice other than to take the gunner's station for himself, but he was still the vehicle commander, as well.

Wencit had been parked in the seat which was normally Houghton's, adjusted to let him sit as comfortably as possible in the cramped, flat-topped turret. Fortunately, Diego Santander had left his helmet aboard, which did two useful things. First, it let Wencit tie in to the LAV's commo net. Secondly, it protected his skull from all of the many objects waiting to come into painful contact with it as Tough Mama bounced and swayed unpredictably across the grasslands.

Houghton wondered how much time Wencit had spent admiring the bevy of unclad and semi-clad young ladies whose pinups adorned the overhead, but he understood why the wizard had decided to stand back up, despite the outstanding attractions of the art gallery.

Long marches standing upright in the hatch could be both exhausting and painful, and it wasn't at all unheard-of for an LAV to roll. When that happened, a man had to be able to drop quickly down into the turret if he didn't want to get squashed like a bug, which made adjusting his seat so that he could sit looking out . . . unwise. The driver, on the other hand, should be protected in a rollover, since the turret ought to hold the vehicle hull off the ground. That was why Wencit's seat was adjusted to let him sit with his head safely inside. But the wizard was just as tall as Houghton was, and the LAV had clearly been designed for people Mashita's size. Claustrophobia would have been bad enough, even without all of the interesting protrusions eager to leave their mark upon Tough Mama's passengers, but Houghton was positive Wencit needed to stretch some of that length out.

"It's hard to say how much further," Wencit replied now, in answer to his question. "I still can't get a clear look through their glamour."

"Sounds like a lot of so-called 'intel' I've gotten handed over the years," Houghton snorted.

"I did tell you there were going to be problems," Wencit pointed out mildly, and Houghton surprised himself with a chuckle.

"Yeah, you did," he agreed, almost as if all of this made some sort of coherent sense after all.

Darkness had finished falling a good two hours ago. Mashita was steering by the aid of his night-vision gear, and Houghton had his own goggles down. Although NVG wasn't as big as an advantage as it once had been back home, since the other side had started acquiring the same sort of technology, the Corps had managed, by and large, to stay ahead of the curve. Here, though, no one had ever even heard of electronics, he thought, watching the gray-green universe moving steadily past as Tough Mama's wheels churned through the tall grass.

Of course, he thought sardonically, some people seem to be able to see just a little bit better than others.

"Tell me, Wencit," he said, "have you always been particularly fond of carrots?"

"What?" The bright spots of the wizard's peculiar eyes vanished for an instant as he blinked in obvious perplexity, and Houghton grinned. It was the first time he'd managed to throw the other man completely off balance with a simple question.

Then the brightness of Wencit's eyes reappeared, and Houghton's grin faded. His question might have gone right by the wizard, but it was obvious to him that Wencit, without any artificial aids at all, could see in the dark at least as well as he could.

And why shouldn't he? Nothing else that's happened so far makes any sense, does it?

"Never mind." He shook his head. "I know you said something about 'glamours' and 'scrying spells.' I even understand that glamours are like . . . camouflage, or maybe what we might call stealth back home. And that scrying spells are the way you wizards get around the glamours. But I'm a simple jarhead from someplace where no one ever heard of magic that really works. I don't have a clue what you're talking about when you wander off into those detailed explanations of yours. So could you try and put it into very, very simple terms even I can understand? If you can get through their defenses well enough to know which direction to go, how can you not know how far to go?"

"The problem is that it's not just any old wizard on the other end of that glamour," Wencit replied after a moment. He turned to look ahead, and the diamond-bright pin pricks of his glowing eyes disappeared from Houghton's gray-green world.

"Glamours and scrying spells are like a . . . wrestling match, in a lot of ways." He chuckled sourly. "You did say you wanted a simple analogy, and that's about as basic as it gets. Each wizard has a certain inherent strength, and each wizard knows a certain number of 'holds' to use against the other in something like this. Depending on how the match goes, you can tear certain bits and pieces of information away from the other fellow, but you can't always predict exactly which ones you'll get. And the better matched the 'wrestlers' are, the less predictable the outcome becomes."

He glanced back at Houghton, who nodded to show that he was still with him . . . so far, at least.

"Well," Wencit continued, "as I already told you, I'm what people call a 'wild wizard.' That means I'm capable of much more powerful spells than most wizards can produce. And I've also been around a long, long time, so I've learned a great many 'holds' over the years. But there are limits in all things, Ken Houghton. And, unfortunately, there are some very powerful and well-trained 'wand wizards,' as well. Worse, wild wizards can't combine their sorcery with anyone else's, but wand wizards can. And it happens that there are at least three of those powerful wand wizards out there in front of us, two of whom are combining their efforts to maintain their glamour. They're very good, too. In fact, unless I'm very much mistaken, they aren't Norfressan at all."

"What's 'Norfressan,' and why should it matter one way or the other?" Houghton asked.

"Norfressa is the continent we're currently driving across," Wencit said dryly. "Most of the people on it are descended from refugees who fled to it about twelve hundred years ago from another continent, called Kontovar."

He paused, and Houghton grimaced.

"Why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like finding out what caused them all to decide to . . . relocate so abruptly?"

"Because of the fact that I called them 'refugees,' perhaps?"

"That was probably it," Houghton agreed.

"Well, it was certainly the appropriate word," Wencit continued rather more grimly. "The short version of what happened is that there was a rebellion—possibly it would be more accurate to call it a civil war—which led to the fall of the Empire of Ottovar, the most powerful empire this world has ever known. The war began as a revolt against the authority of the Strictures of Ottovar, the fundamental law Ottovar and his wife Gwynytha had laid down to govern the use and misuse of sorcery at the time they created the empire. The rebels won."

For just a moment, Wencit's voice was like a shard of rusty ice, hammered flat and cold.

"The Council of Ottovar, the council of wizards charged with enforcing the Strictures, was destroyed along with the Empire. I was a member of that council. In fact, I was its last head. I know you've seen horrible things in the wars you've fought, but I very much doubt that you've ever seen the equal of the horrors the Council of Carnadosa, the black wizards, and their allies loosed upon the world in their arrogance and mad ambition. The demons they set free, the way they twisted and perverted their slaves and victims. The way they played with the Races of Man like vicious children with toys.

"I'm willing to believe that at least some of them didn't deliberately set out to give themselves to the pure service of evil. There's a hunger in any wizard. The art is like a fever, one that calls out to you. A wizard can't refuse that call, and for some of us any limitation, any restriction that prevents us from pursuing the full and free exercise of our art, is all but intolerable. Which was precisely the reason Ottovar and Gwynytha created the Strictures in the first place, to protect those who couldn't command sorcery from those who could. But once the Strictures were broken or rejected, the lure of unbridled power did what it so often does. It drew them further and further from the Light, and as they sank deeper into the Dark, they embraced it like lovers."

He paused and drew a deep breath.

"We saved what we could. It wasn't a lot. And after we'd gotten out everyone we could, the last surviving members of the Council of Ottovar strafed Kontovar. We rained down death and destruction across an entire continent. We burned cities and entire realms, Gunnery Sergeant, killed every living creature for thousands of leagues in all directions from Trfrlantha, the ancient capital of Ottovar.

"We couldn't kill everything, of course, and the most powerful of their wizards were protected behind their own shields, their own wards. But we killed their lesser allies . . . and their armies, their slaves, their sorcerous creations. We killed the victims they would have used as their tools to conquer all of Norfressa, as well. It was the only thing we could do, the only way to prevent them from following us here, to Norfressa, to complete their victory, and the price of that devastation was high. The spells we created and invoked—the spells I crafted—cost the lives of almost every other member of the Council, but they worked. Oh, yes, they worked."

"Christ," Houghton muttered. He might not understand much about the bizarre universe in which he found himself, but however little he knew of this "Norfressa," he understood more than enough about men to grasp the bleeding anguish in the depths of Wencit's level, unflinching voice. These people might never have heard of nuclear weapons, but it didn't sound like they needed them, either. And, preposterous as it might be on the surface, he discovered that he didn't doubt for a moment that the man telling him the tale had seen the events he was describing with his own eyes—that he was over twelve hundred years old.

"You did enough damage to keep them out of—Norfressa?—for over a thousand years?" he asked.

"Yes and no." Wencit's shoulders twitched. "It took them several hundred years to begin recovering to anything like their previous strength, that's true. And by the time they did, the Norfressan realms—especially the Empire of the Axe—had grown strong enough to deter any thought of an invasion over such an enormous distance. Or, at least, any thought of an invasion not supported by the full power of their sorcery."

"So since they don't seem to have invaded and conquered you in the meantime, I assume there's some reason they can't use sorcery against you?"

"I still control the spells that strafed Kontovar," Wencit said coldly. "Once opened and activated, they remain ready to my hand for as long as I live, and I remain the most powerful single wizard in the world. They know that if they were to attempt an outright invasion, I would use those spells again, if it was the only way to stop them."

Houghton swallowed hard at the iron-harsh certitude in Wencit's voice.

"But they also know I won't do so lightly," Wencit continued after a moment, his voice much closer to normal. "Whatever the ambitions of the Kontovaran lords, whatever crimes they might be prepared to commit, most of their slaves have no voice in their decisions or their actions. My fellows and I slew millions of those slaves once, because we had no choice, no other option, but in doing so, we dipped too near to the very thing we were fighting. The Strictures our enemies had violated prohibit the use of the art against non-wizards, or even against other wizards, except in direct self-defense or the defense of others, yet we killed more innocents in that single afternoon than any conqueror or tyrant in history. I . . . don't want so many deaths upon my soul again. If there were no other way to keep the perversions of the art, the horrors the Carnadosans—the wizards who have given themselves to the service of Carnadosa, the patroness of black sorcery—practice even today, from the shores of Norfressa, I would not hesitate. But neither would I unleash such devastation unless there were no other way."

"Sort of like the old Cold War back home," Houghton mused. Wencit turned his head again, cocking it questioningly, and it was Houghton's turn to shrug. "For about fifty or sixty years, there were two major power blocs in my world. Each of them had weapons with the capacity to completely destroy the other—hell, to kill every single person in the world, for that matter! And because the leaders on both sides knew it, there was a standoff between them. The major nations on either side didn't dare to fight one another directly, for fear it would lead to the use of those weapons."

"That might, indeed, be an appropriate parallel," Wencit agreed. "Especially since I noticed that you said they dared not 'fight one another directly.'"

"I see where this is going," Houghton said unhappily. "What you're telling me is that somewhere up ahead of us are two or three of those 'Carnadosans' or 'Kontovarans' of yours. They aren't ready, or willing, at least, to go for some sort of decisive, open attack, but they're perfectly willing to nibble away at the edges, right?"

"Precisely." Wencit exhaled heavily. "Very few Norfressans are aware of it, but there's a constant, ongoing fight in the shadows. Most people don't want to know about it, really. They don't think about Kontovar at all, unless they have to. And whenever the fighting spills out of the shadows, they tend to think of it as something that's purely Norfressan, not something afflicting us from outside. They don't realize how continually Kontovar keeps probing at our defenses, keeps seeking ways to weaken us, or allies they can recruit to distract us, or to attack us from within. Their rulers are very careful to avoid anything so open, so clearcut—so immediately threatening—that I might loose the spells once more. But for almost a thousand years, I've been dealing with efforts to 'nibble away at the edges,' as you put it."

"Which is what's going on here," Houghton said.

"Yes. The one good thing about the Kontovarans is that their factions don't get along a great deal better than the Dark Gods themselves do. They hate us much more than they hate each other, but they're constantly jockeying for positions of advantage in their purely internal struggles, which means mutual suspicion and distrust often hamper their efforts. Unfortunately, sometimes their deities manage to pound a little cooperation into them."

"Wait," Houghton said. "Wait one minute. You mean there are gods—real gods—involved in this?"

"Of course there are." Wencit sounded puzzled. "That's not the case in your universe?"

"People in my universe have been killing each other in the name of God for thousands of years, Wencit," Houghton said slowly, "but He doesn't appear in person to approve their efforts. You asked about the war Jack and I are fighting back home? Well, a lot of it stems from a bunch of lunatics who're convinced that they know what God wants, and that anyone who disagrees with them is too vile to live. But their beliefs are based on their interpretation of scripture and teachings, not on the direct, recent revelation of God in any sort of personal appearance. In fact, a lot of people where I come from no longer believe God even exists."

"I find that . . . difficult to envision," Wencit said slowly. "Oh, I've always known the forces of Light and Dark manifest differently in other universes. And, for that matter, that they don't intervene directly at all in some of them. But a universe in which people don't even believe they exist? Don't see their own responsibility to choose between them?"

"It's not quite that bad," Houghton replied a bit uncomfortably, almost defensively. "Even a lot of people who don't believe in any sort of gods believe in the difference between good and evil and human beings' responsibility to choose between them. It's just . . . different from what you're describing."

"It must be, indeed," Wencit agreed. Then he shook himself. "But, yes, in answer to your question, the gods do indeed involve themselves in our struggles. They can't confront one another directly, because—like your "cold war" nations—they're too powerful. A direct clash between them would very probably destroy this universe completely, so they act through their followers. Through their worshipers, and in the case of the Gods of Light, especially, through their champions. Like Bahzell."

"Your buddy—the guy who's riding into the trap?"

"Yes. In fact, unless I'm very much mistaken, the primary motive for this entire endeavor is to destroy him and Walsharno. Mind you, I'm sure they have other objectives, as well, but they've been trying for years now to kill Bahzell."

"Why him in particular? And if they're so hot to kill him, what about you?"

"There are a great many reasons for them to want Bahzell dead. Most of them would be happy enough to kill him for simple revenge's sake, given how much damage he's done to their plans in the past. But they—or, at least, their masters—also know things about his future threat to their ultimate objectives. Things Bahzell himself, I'm sure, doesn't even suspect at this point. In fact, I'm fairly certain they'd like to see him dead almost as much as they'd like to see me that way. And, yes, they do make periodic attempts to kill me, too. On the whole, however," Houghton could literally hear the predatory smile in Wencit's voice, "they've discovered that such attempts are a losing proposition."

Houghton nodded slowly, thoughtfully. He was certain there was a great deal Wencit wasn't telling him. Or, perhaps, it would be fairer to say that there were a great many things Wencit had already told him which he simply lacked the background to understand. But one thing, at least, was crystal clear.

He's really serious about the direct intervention of gods. The good guys and the bad guys, and the differences between them, really are that clearcut. That . . . positive.

They'd been a time, before Gwynn's death, when it had been that clear for Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton. Not simple, or simplistic, but clear. When he'd known which was the side of Light, as Wencit put it, and which the side of Dark, and which side he stood upon. When he'd been able to give himself to the pure service of the things he believed in . . . and been able to believe he himself was still worthy of his convictions.

Where did it go? It wasn't just Gwynn. It wasn't just her that kept me knowing who I was, and why. But losing her, especially that way, so . . . meaninglessly . . . 

He remembered how furious he'd been with the universe, with God Himself, for taking away his Gwynn. His life. And as he tasted once again the cold, drawn ashes of that anger, he recognized the truth at last.

It wasn't the meaninglessness of Gwynn's death which had destroyed his certitude. It was his anger. He'd been so angry that he'd turned away from the things in which both he and Gwynn had believed. If God was going to take her from him, then he would strike back in the only way he could. He would turn away from the Light, like some petulant child, never realizing—or caring—that in the process he hurt himself so much more than he ever hurt the Light he blamed for failing Gwynn.

No, he thought bleakly. Not for failing Gwynn; for failing me by taking her away. For leaving me to deal with the pain of the hole her death tore right through me.

For the first time in two and a half years, he faced the truth of the decision he'd made. He'd never turned to the Dark, however much he'd turned away from the Light, but he'd exiled himself to the cold, gray wasteland between them. He'd convinced himself that the difference between them was one of degree, not of kind, and he'd clasped the cold bitterness of a struggle against shadows to him. He'd been one of those shadows himself, no longer fighting evil out of conviction, but only out of habit. Only out of momentum, and a dull burn of shame went through him as he finally recognized the choice he'd made. He hadn't even realized at the time that he was making a choice, but he should have.

Just as he should have realized how ashamed of him Gwynn would have been.

"Well, Wencit," he heard himself saying now, in a voice he scarcely recognized, "if these Dark Gods of yours are so eager to knock off your friend Bahzell, what say we go argue the point with them?"

V

"I hate this whole thing," a voice grated.

The language was Kontovaran. Not the pure Kontovaran still spoken by Norfressan scholars, nor the dialect which had evolved among the Sothùoii since the Fall, but a harsh-edged, debased version of the ancient tongue of Ottovar. Trayn Aldarfro wasn't familiar with it, but he had sufficient of the telepathic gift to understand what was being said, anyway.

Now he kept his eyes closed, lying as still (and apparently unconscious) as he could where he'd been dumped when they halted, and listened carefully.

"And did anyone ask for your approval, Garsalt?" another voice half-sneered.

"Not any more than they did for yours, Rethak," the first voice shot back. "And don't tell me you don't have . . . qualms of your own." Garsalt made a spitting sound. "Just finding myself on the same continent as that old bastard makes me nervous."

"I notice it didn't make you nervous enough to tell Her you weren't going." Rethak's tone was mocking, but Trayn could sample at least a little of the emotions behind it. Enough, at any rate, to know that Rethak was using ridicule to mask his own profound anxiety.

"I may be nervous; I'm not actively suicidal," Garsalt grunted.

"I didn't think so," Rethak said more mildly. "But if you had been, there's always Varnaythus' example, isn't there?"

"That's one name I wish you hadn't brought up," Garsalt muttered, and Trayn allowed his eyes to slit open slightly.

It didn't look as if his captors intended to tarry here for long. They'd stopped in the ravine a streambed had cut across the grasslands, apparently to rest their mounts more than anything else. Several of the thirty or so armsmen were leading horses down to the stream in groups to water them, while others were digging into bags of grain and sweet feed. A line of small trees grew along the course of the stream, as well, and two or three other armsmen were gathering wood for the three fires which had been kindled. Kettles of water were already being heated over one of them, and Trayn's nostrils tried to twitch as he caught the savory scent of cooking stew coming from another, but no one was stowing any gear.

No, despite the smell of cookery, this was only another rest stop, and he wondered again why they were in such a tearing hurry. Limited as his telepathic range might be, it was enough for him to be certain no pursuit was close upon their heels. And what had happened to the men of Darnoth's patrol had already told him he was in the power of wizards, who certainly ought to be at least as capable of sniffing out pursuers as any half-trained journeyman mage.

Or, for that matter, dealing with those pursuers with the same deadly efficiency which had slaughtered Darnoth and his men.

"'I was never that fond of Varnaythus myself," Garsalt continued, "but he deserved better than that. 'Cooperating' with . . . others didn't work out so very well for him, either, in the end, did it?"

"No, but I don't think She blamed Varnaythus for what happened," Rethak said. "Unfortunately, he didn't precisely cover himself with glory, either. And the Spider and Krahana weren't about to admit it was their tools' fault."

"No, and She didn't save him when they put the blame on him, did She?"

"If he'd succeeded, She wouldn't have had to."

Trayn turned his head a fraction of an inch just in time to see the speaker—Rethak—shrug. The man was of medium height, dark-haired and dark-complexioned, clad in comfortable, practical riding clothes, rather than the cuirasses and chain mail of the armsmen Trayn had seen. Despite the stiff pace the hard-riding raiders had set themselves, Rethak still managed to look somehow sleek and well groomed. He had a strong, slightly hooked nose and a neatly trimmed beard, and a blood-red ruby glittered in his left earlobe as it caught the firelight.

Another man, who must be Garsalt, sat on a saddle, glowering up at him. Garsalt was taller and broader, and he seemed older, with only a thin surviving fringe of fair hair around the edges of a bald, gleaming pate. He was dressed very much like Rethak, but he looked untidy, almost unkempt, beside the smaller man. He also looked much gloomier.

"No, She wouldn't have," Garsalt conceded now. "But, as you say, it wasn't his fault. And now She expects us to do what he couldn't?" He shook his head. "I don't like it. Not one bit."

"It's not quite that bad," Rethak said. "And you might want to reflect on the fact that so far everything's been going exactly to plan."

"Things have a tendency to go 'exactly to plan' against Wencit . . . right up to the last minute, don't they?" Garsalt countered. "And the Bloody Hand's almost worse!"

"That's about enough of that." The third voice was lighter, higher pitched, and far more musical than the other two. It also carried a crisp ring of authority.

Then the new speaker stepped into the range of Trayn's vision, and it was all he could do to keep his eyes from widening in surprise as he saw her.

She was taller than Rethak, although not so tall as Garsalt, and her hair was the color of a raven's wing. She was dressed in the richly embroidered riding habit of a Purple Lord noblewoman; jewels glittered in her immaculately coiffured hair, on her hands, and about her throat; and she moved with the lethal, sultry grace of some silk-furred hunting cat. From the way Garsalt came quickly, almost fearfully, to his feet and Rethak turned to face her, it was obvious who was in charge.

"I've let the two of you complain and fret and carry on long enough," she said sternly, her beautiful face hard. "Some of that is probably healthy, but it's time you got down to business and stopped whining about how little you want to be here. Is that clear?"

Rethak and Garsalt glanced at one another without—quite—shuffling their feet like schoolboys, then nodded in unison.

"Yes, Tremala," Rethak said for both of them.

"Good!" Tremala half-glared at them for a moment, then shrugged and allowed her expression to relax.

"I'm just as aware as you are of the risks we're running," she said. "Unlike the two of you, however, I also know why it's so imperative that we arrange for something . . . permanent to happen to the Bloody Hand. Fortunately, you don't need to concern yourselves about that. What you do have to concentrate on is seeing to it that the something permanent She has in mind happens, not worrying about his reputation or what happened to Varnaythus, or even to Jerghar. Understand?"

"Of course we do," Garsalt replied. "And, to be honest, I'm more worried about Wencit than I am about Bahzell."

"Which is precisely why we're out here cooperating with the Scorpion instead of trying to do it all by ourselves," Tremala said.

"With all due respect," Rethak chimed in, "Sharn's worshipers haven't exactly covered themselves—or Him—with glory any of the other times they've gone up against the Bloody Hand."

"No, they haven't." Tremala's voice was cool, but she nodded. "On the other hand, things are a bit different this time, aren't they? And this time, we're not planning on attacking our enemies' strengths."

She held Garsalt and Rethak with her eyes for another moment, then smiled. The expression was cold and hungry, almost shockingly out of place on that lovely countenance.

"We all know how much the Others resent and fear Her power—our power. It was us, Carnadosa's Council, and our power that brought down the Ottovarans a thousand years ago. It was our shields, our wards, which allowed any of us to survive when Wencit strafed Kontovar. And it's our power—and our will—that truly dominates in Kontovar today. Are you surprised the Others resent Her, or that their worshipers resent us?"

The others shook their heads silently, and she shrugged.

"But just as the Others know they need Her, we need them if we're ever going to succeed. One of the reasons Wencit and Bahzell and Tomank's other 'champions' have done so well against us is that they cooperate with one another, and we don't. Which means that even when the Others agree to cooperate with Her, Their followers act as individual forces, not cooperating or combining their abilities."

"Yes, but—" Rethak began.

"Forget about 'but,'" she interrupted, her voice hard. "Of course all of Them are looking for ways to use Her—and us—for Their benefit. Let them. When it comes down to it, whose followers truly have the strength to rule in this world?"

Her chuckle was not a pleasant sound.

"So don't worry about what happens after," she said. "Worry about what happens now, tonight. And think about this. The Bloody Hand and his little pony have done well enough against single demons, but this time, we'll see how he does when they bring friends along. Somehow, I don't think he's going to enjoy the experience."

VI

Walsharno topped out on the crest of the rolling hill and halted. He raised his head, nostrils flaring, and Bahzell's face tightened bleakly as the two of them gazed out across the still-smoldering ruins. They'd been catching hints of smoke and slaughter for the last twenty or thirty minutes despite the fact that the night breeze was blowing almost directly from behind them. Now they knew why.

"So, it is after being Demonspawn," the hradani rumbled in a voice like hammered iron.

<So it would appear,> Walsharno agreed. <Still, I wonder why they waited this long to let it feed.>

The roan stallion's mental voice would have sounded calm, almost dispassionate, if anyone else had been able to hear it. It didn't sound that way to Bahzell.

"Now that's a thing I couldn't be telling you," he said. "Unless, of course," he let his eyes sweep across the wreckage of the village, then looked up at the stars spangling the night sky's immensity, "they were thinking as how they'd just as soon have the two of us out here all alone before they were after letting us in on their little secret."

<I suppose that could be it. But somehow, I've the feeling there's more to it.>

This time, Bahzell only grunted. Walsharno was just as much a champion of Tomank as he was, and every champion's abilities differed from every other champion's, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes more fundamentally. They perceived things in different ways, as well, and Bahzell had had plenty of proof that Walsharno's "hunches" tended to be dismayingly accurate.

"I'm thinking we'd best go take a closer look," the hradani said after several moments, and Walsharno moved slowly and cautiously down the slope towards the wreckage.

It couldn't be all that many hours old, Bahzell reflected. None of the houses had been particularly substantial. They wouldn't have taken very long to burn, yet embers still glowed in the darkness. They streaked the night with a faint glow, the color of blood, but Bahzell was hradani. Neither he nor Walsharno needed that fitful radiance to see what had happened here.

<Some of them at least tried to fight,> Walsharno said, and Bahzell nodded grimly.

"Aye, that they did," he agreed, gazing at the torn and mutilated bodies. It was clear none of the village's defenders had had time to don armor—assuming any of them had possessed it—but it obviously wouldn't have mattered very much if they had. The claw marks and half-devoured state of the bodies were all the proof Bahzell or Walsharno would ever need about what had happened here, even without the familiar stench of evil and horror which no champion of Tomank could possibly misinterpret.

Then Walsharno halted. They'd passed the bodies of several men and women, all of them brutally mutilated and torn, but they'd been scattered about the village's muddy streets. Clearly, they'd been pulled down by ones and twos, but that had changed abruptly.

The ruined foundations of a much more substantial building smoldered before them, and the bodies of at least thirty men and women lay obscenely heaped about it. It was hard to be certain of the number, for not a single body Bahzell could see was intact. Most were so hideously torn, their bits and pieces so scattered, that it was difficult even to tell which had been male and which female. A pathetic handful of swords lay strewn in the blood-soaked mud amidst the carnage, but most of these people had been armed, if that was the word, with nothing more sophisticated than woodsman's axes, pitchforks, or other crude agricultural tools.

<So this was where they made their stand,> Walsharno said heavily.

"Aye." A cold fire glowed in Bahzell Bahnakson's brown eyes. "Their town hall, I'm thinking."

<And are you thinking the same thing I am about why they did it?>

"That I am." Bahzell's voice was harsh. "I've not seen a single child. Not one," he said, and felt Walsharno's cold, bleak agreement deep in his own mind.

The hradani looked down at where the village's adults had died to the last man or woman, facing their impossible foes in what they must have known was the hopeless defense of their children, and his face might have been hammered out of old iron.

<Why did they want children, do you think?> Walsharno asked.

"I can be thinking of two or three reasons," Bahzell replied. "Old Demon Breath's fond enough of children's souls, after all. But I've the feeling it's not so simple as that this time." He gazed at the mangled bodies once more, and shook his head. "Whoever it is we're chasing wasn't after letting their cursed pet feed, Walsharno. Not really. There'd not be so many bodies, or bits of bodies, lying about if they had."

<You think they know we're on their heels?>

"Either that, or else they've some other pressing need to be someplace else. Someplace they're after looking to meet up with friends of theirs, I'm thinking."

<And they're taking the children to those "friends."> Walsharno considered the thought for a moment, then tossed his head. <I suppose the real question is whether they're going to "meet up" with other worshipers of Sharn or someone else entirely.>

"As to that, we've no way of knowing. Still and all, it's happier I'd be in my own mind to know as how we were dealing with Demon Breath and no one else."

Walsharno tossed his head in agreement once more, and Bahzell drew a deep breath. Child sacrifices were always acceptable to any of the Dark Gods, but Sharn's church usually preferred older ones. Victims with just enough experience to fully appreciate the horrific, lingering deaths Sharn's worshipers dealt out, especially to summon or control their foul patron's demons. It was unlikely that those who served the Scorpion would have bothered to attack the village just to steal away its children.

But other Dark churches had different preferences. Carnadosa, for example. The lady of black sorcery did not delight in cruelty for cruelty's sake the way Sharn and some of the others did. But in many ways, her total amorality, her total indifference to cruelty or atrocity so long as its outcome served her needs, was almost worse. And all of her senior priests were also wizards, and children were prized when it came to the rites of blood magic.

<Sharn and Carnadosa don't like one another very much,> Walsharno pointed out, following his bonded rider's thoughts with the ease of long familiarity. <For that matter, none of the Dark Gods like one another all that much.>

"Aye, so I've heard," Bahzell said. "Still and all, for all folk keep telling me such as that, it's in my mind that you and I have been seeing them working hand in hand more often than not."

<Perhaps we're just lucky.>

The irony in Walsharno's mental tone was only a frail mask for the icy fury burning at the courser's heart. Had he not bonded with Bahzell and become a champion of Tomank himself, Walsharno would almost certainly have eventually become a herd stallion, and the coursers didn't really think the way the Races of Man did. Each courser was an individual, true, but they saw themselves also collectively, as members of the herd. And, as members of the herd, each was responsible for the protection of all. Especially the herd stallions, who led and governed their herds . . . and who died to defend them.

Bahzell understood that, better even than another wind rider might have, for unlike most wind riders, he shared the coursers' herd sense. Even if he hadn't, any champion of Tomank would have shared the cold, bleak hatred burning like ice in Walsharno's heart.

"Well," the hradani said quietly, "I've no notion as to how lucky or unlucky you and I may be after being, Walsharno. But I'm thinking as how the scum as did this—" his mobile ears flattened as he swept one hand in an arc indicating the devastated village "—are after deserving a wee bit of ill luck all their very own."

<Indeed they do,> Walsharno agreed.

"Then let's you and I be bringing it to them," Bahzell said. "But first . . ."

The hradani held out his right hand.

"Come," he said softly, and five feet of gleaming steel materialized in his fist as he summoned the sword which normally rode sheathed across his back.

He gripped it just below the quillons, holding it up hilt-first as the symbol of the god he served, and felt Walsharno joining with him, heart, mind, and soul.

"I'm thinking as how these folk fell in the service of Light," he said, speaking to the night and to their deity for both of them. "Any man or woman who dies defending children is one as I'm proud to call brother or sister. And I'll not leave my brothers or sisters to wolves and carrion-eaters."

<Are you certain about this, Bahzell?> an earthquake-deep voice asked in the back of his brain. <Only their bodies remain with you.>

"Aye, it's certain I am—we are," Bahzell replied, knowing he spoke for Walsharno, and not at all surprised to hear Tomank's voice.

<Their souls already sit at Isvaria's table,> Tomank's deep voice said. <As you say, there's a special place reserved for those who die defending children, and my sister and I know our own.>

"I've no doubt of that," Bahzell said. "And it's happy I'll be to meet them someday. But until that day comes, Walsharno and I will be doing what we must, and we'll not leave them."

<You realize that if you do this, the ones you're pursuing will know where you are, how close you are.>

"Aye," Bahzell said simply.

<Aren't you going to ask me just who you are following?>

Bahzell heard the faint undertone of amusement in Tomank's voice, despite the grim horror of the scene about them.

"As to that, if I thought it was like to do me a single solitary bit of good, aye, I'd be asking. As it's not—"

He shrugged, and felt a huge, immaterial hand rest lightly on his shoulder for a moment.

<You are my true Swords, you and Walsharno,> the deep, rumbling voice said. <But I will tell you this much. Brothers come in many forms, and from many places. You're right that this is Sharn's work. And I'm afraid your suspicion that it isn't Sharn alone you face is also correct. Yet the two of you will not face the Dark alone, either. Not even I know how it will all end, but this I do know—you'll find yourself in the best of company before it does.>

"In which case, I'm thinking we'd best be getting on with it, if it's all the same to you, and all," Bahzell said, and this time Tomank actually chuckled.

<Very well. I suppose I should be accustomed to hradani—and courser . . . directness by now. Not to mention stubbornness. If the two of you are determined to do this thing, then let's do it right, you and I.>

Bahzell didn't respond in words. Instead, he simply held his sword higher and felt Walsharno's will joining with his. He and the courser fused into a single whole, greater than either of them could ever be alone, and that fusion reached out to the blue-burning glory of their deity's presence.

Tomank reached back to them. The bonds which joined the three of them, normally almost imperceptible, yet always present, blazed with sudden, resurgent strength as Bahzell and Walsharno opened the channel between Tomank and the world of mortals wide. A pinnacle of brilliant blue light shot upwards, an azure needle stabbing into the starry heavens from the hradani's raised sword. Then a ring of blue fire exploded outward, sweeping through the gutted village, bathing that scene of horror in Tomank's cleansing light. The ring flashed across the mangled bodies, the blood, the grim residue of agony, despair, and courage, and when it passed, there were no more bodies, no more blood. There was only the night, the still-smoking ruins of an empty village, and a profound and abiding sense of peace.

Bahzell lowered his sword slowly, filled with a deep surge of satisfaction and content, and felt Tomank's hand upon his shoulder once again. Not in comfort, but in the approving clasp of a war leader for his most trusted sword companions. And as he and Walsharno shared that feeling, they also felt Tomank behind them, staring out into the night where any with eyes to see must recognize the explosion of power which had cleansed the village.

<Done!> Tomank's voice rang out, inaudible to mortal ears, yet deep and powerful enough to shake a universe, raised in a clarion challenge of his own. <Done, O Darkness! Know my Swords are upon you, and tremble!>

VII

"phrobus! What was that?"

Garsalt's voice was high-pitched, almost shrill, his exclamation so sudden that Trayn was startled into jerking his head up in surprise.

He was lashed across the horse once more, jouncing painfully along as his captors headed back out across the rolling grasslands. They were following the course of the stream at which they'd stopped earlier, and he'd found it hard to remain motionless and limp once or twice when the horse under him pushed its way through the lashing branches of low-growing scrub. Despite that, he'd remembered to continue to feign unconsciousness with what certainly appeared to have been success.

Until now.

"What do you think it was, Garsalt?" Tremala's musical soprano demanded scornfully. "Let's see now. We know Wencit is somewhere behind us; that was in front of us, and you know how fond the Bloody Hand's always been of showing off. Hmmm . . . doesn't that suggest at least one possibility to your teeny-tiny mind?"

"Yes, but—"

"Oh, grow a backbone, Garsalt! You did listen when the plan was explained to you, didn't you? Perhaps you should have taken notes, too. Lots of them, using short, easily spelled words."

"Of course I listened," Garsalt shot back in an angry semi-whine. "But we weren't supposed to meet him out here all by ourselves!"

"And we won't," Rethak put in. The shorter, dapper wizard sounded almost amused, Trayn thought. And then—without warning—a hard, ringing slap exploded across the back of the journeyman mage's head, sending fresh cascades of stars sparkling painfully across his vision.

"Awake, I see, Master Aldarfro," Rethak said nastily.

"Oh, he's been awake for hours." Tremala sounded amused, Trayn noticed, blinking involuntary tears of pain. "I thought about mentioning it, but I decided a courteous host would let him get his rest. After all," her voice turned crueler, "he's going to need it, isn't he?"

All three wizards laughed. It was a taunting, vicious sound, but Trayn heard more than amusement and anticipation in it. He heard the sound of small boys, whistling in the dark as they made their way through midnight woods.

There was no point pretending any longer, and he raised his head a bit higher, looking back at them. It was impossible to make out their expressions clearly in the darkness, but Trayn was a mage. Only a journeyman, perhaps, but still a mage. He didn't need to see their expressions to know his original impression of their nervousness was accurate.

"If you knew he was awake, why didn't you say something?" Garsalt demanded.

"Perhaps because I wanted to see if he really did have any 'deadly powers of the mind.' " Tremala's sugary-sweet tone turned the last five words into a sneer. "After all, I knew he was awake, so he was hardly going to surprise me with any sudden attacks. If he was going to kill anyone, well, I suppose it would have been one of you two, wouldn't it?" Both her male companions turned to glower at her, and she laughed. "At least it would have let me kill two birds with one stone, as it were. It would have confirmed just how 'deadly' these magi are . . . and relieved me of putting up with at least one of you into the bargain."

Neither of the others seemed to share her amusement, Trayn noticed, and managed not to flinch when Rethak's open palm smashed across the back of his head once again.

"Stop that, Rethak," Tremala said mildly. "You have better things to do than take out your anxieties on Master Aldarfro."

"I don't like magi," Rethak grated.

"And you're scared enough of Bahzell to need a new set of breeches, too, now that you know he and that outsized nag of his are in the vicinity," Tremala half-sneered. "You really ought to do something more useful with all that energy, you know. Besides, we need Master Aldarfro . . . undamaged. For now."

Trayn could have done without those last two words, but at least Rethak stopped hitting him in the head. Which, he decided, wasn't actually all that much of an improvement when he found himself looking into Tremala's dark eyes, instead. The sorceress smiled thinly at him, with the amused malice a cat reserved for the mouse under its claws.

"I wouldn't get too comfortable, little mage," she told him softly. "You may be too valuable to play games with at the moment, but, then, we weren't sent to collect you for our amusement, either. Certain . . . parties have gotten a bit curious about these mind powers you magi seem to possess. And that rather irritating Council of Semkirk of yours is becoming a bit annoying. We don't really mind all that much as long as you only make problems for your . . . ah, homegrown practitioners, shall we say? But you're beginning to inconvenience us as well, so our superiors want a mage all their very own to play with. To study." Her smile could have been used as a scalpel. "To . . . dissect."

Trayn was astounded when he found himself continuing to meet her gaze without flinching.

"They must find us quite a bit more than 'annoying' if you've come all this way just to trap a journeyman mage who hasn't even completed his studies yet," he heard his own voice say. "I imagine your 'superiors' would have preferred someone a bit more experienced in the use of his powers. Or perhaps not." He actually managed to bare his teeth at her. "Perhaps they thought it would be . . . safer all round to settle for a journeyman?"

"Rethak," Tremala said. Trayn had prepared himself for the fresh blow, but the sorceress' voice stopped the wizard in mid-swing. She tilted her head to one side, regarding Trayn thoughtfully, then shrugged.

"You've a bit more spunk than I anticipated, Master Aldarfro," she acknowledged. "And for all I know, there may actually be something to your theory. On the other hand, it's not often we're given the name of a specific individual they want to see. And I'm very much afraid," she shook her head in mock sympathy, "that it often ends . . . badly for the individuals in question when we are."

"I'm flattered." He hoped she couldn't tell how hard it was to keep his voice level when someone had just replaced the marrow of his bones with ice. "But isn't this the point in all the really bad stories where the gloating villains tell their hapless victim all about their grand, complicated plans?"

"I believe it is," she agreed. "I, on the other hand, have better things to do with my time. We're about to have a few other guests we need to keep properly entertained, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave you to your own devices. Do try to keep yourself amused."

She smiled brightly at him, pressed with a heel, and went cantering off into the darkness.

"Don't worry." Rethak's tone was ugly as Trayn let his neck muscles relax and pressed his face back into the side of the horse over which he was bound. "You'll find plenty to keep you 'entertained' where you're going, mage. I'll look forward to helping amuse you."

VIII

"Things are getting complicated," Wencit murmured.

Ken Houghton heard the wizard over his earphones and glanced at him. Wencit was gazing off into the darkness in the direction of the brilliant blue lightning flash which had split the night. Gauging distances in the dark was always difficult, but the flash had to have been considerably farther off than it had looked. Houghton hadn't heard even the faintest rumble, and any lightning bolt that brilliant must have been accompanied by the mother of all thunderclaps.

He waited for Wencit to say something more, but the wizard only frowned thoughtfully as long, slow seconds trickled past.

"I beg your pardon?" Houghton said finally, and wanted to laugh at his own astonishingly banal turn of phrase.

"Um?" Wencit turned towards him, wildfire eyes thinning down into bright slits.

"You said things are getting complicated." Houghton chuckled with harsh irony. "Given the way Jack and I got here in the first place, and all of the certifiably insane things you've had to say since we did, 'getting complicated' isn't exactly a phrase I'm delighted to be hearing."

"I can see how you might feel that way," Wencit conceded with a chuckle of his own. "And I really didn't mean to sound mysterious. It's just that I've been continuing that wrestling match I mentioned to you earlier, and I think their glamour's sprung a slight leak. Unless, of course, they wanted to let me have a peek inside."

"And why might they have wanted anything like that?"

"I couldn't really say . . . yet." Wencit shrugged. "It's rather like a game of chess, I suppose. Or perhaps the sort of misdirection in which a stage conjurer specializes. You show the other fellow what you hope he'll see in order to keep him from noticing the knuckleduster coming at him from an entirely different direction." He snorted. "As a matter of fact, I've done it myself, on occasion."

"Somehow I fail to find that particularly reassuring," Houghton said dryly while Tough Mama continued to snort along. The JP-8 in the LAV's fuel tanks had fallen to about the halfway point, and Houghton hoped they weren't going to end up running them dry before they got wherever the hell they were supposed to be going.

"Did that 'peek' of yours tell you how much farther we've got to go?" he asked.

"No," Wencit said. "But that—" he waved one-handed in the direction of the silent lightning bolt "—tells me quite a bit."

"How?"

"That flash was Bahzell," Wencit said simply.

"So he's a lightning rod, is he?"

"As a matter of fact," Wencit actually laughed out loud, "that's a remarkably good description of Bahzell Bahnakson, in a great many ways. But the lightning didn't strike him, Gunnery Sergeant. It came from him. Well, from him and Walsharno."

"Sure it did." Houghton decided he should have sounded rather more skeptical than he actually did.

"They can be a bit flamboyant," Wencit said. "Mind you, Bahzell is a Horse Stealer, too. He knows the value of creeping about in the bushes, and he's quite good at it, when he puts his mind to it. But he must have decided the 'bad guys,' as you call them, already know he's in the vicinity. You might say that was his way of warning them that he knows they are, as well."

"And he thinks sending up flares to tell the other side he's coming is a good idea because—?"

"I could say it's because he's a champion of Tomank. Or because he's a hradani. Both of those statements are true, and either one would be more than enough to explain it. But I imagine the simple truth is that he and Walsharno are angry, Gunnery Sergeant. And, believe me, you really don't want to be the person who makes those two angry."

"But if you're already concerned about the odds, doesn't that mean . . . ?"

Houghton let his voice trail off. There was no need to finish the question, after all.

"Very few champions of Tomank die in bed." There was little humor left in Wencit's quiet reply. "Bahzell is capable of remarkable subtlety, despite the slow-talking barbarian persona he's fond of presenting to the unwary, but at the heart of him, where all the things that made him a champion in the first place come together, he doesn't let the odds dictate his actions."

"Great," Houghton grunted in a long-suffering tone. "I end up in an entirely different universe, and I'm still dealing with John Waynes."

"'John Waynes'?" Wencit repeated.

"Idiots who have trouble separating movies—stories—from reality and think they're immortal and bulletproof because they're the heroes of the piece. Or the kind who still think people win wars by dying for their countries, instead of encouraging the other guy to die for his country. Or, even worse, who just don't care what happens to them—or anyone else—as long as they're dying for 'the cause.' Whatever the hell 'the cause' happens to be this week. Trust me, I've seen more than enough of that kind of fanatic to last me two or three lifetimes, Wencit!"

"Bahzell Bahnakson is as far from a fanatic as any man you're ever going to meet," Wencit said sternly. "And he doesn't think for a moment that he's 'immortal' or invincible. In fact, I'm fairly certain he fully expects to die one day in the service of his god. Not because he 'doesn't care' or because he's eager to die, or because he thinks there's anything particularly glorious about it. He expects to die, Gunnery Sergeant, because he's constitutionally incapable of standing aside and letting the Dark triumph. Because he recognizes that all men die, but that some of them get to choose to do it standing on their own two feet, with a sword in their hands, standing between the Dark and its victims."

Houghton started to throw something back at the wizard. Something flippant. The sort of witticism he and his peers regularly used to deflate pretension and guard against any belief in such antiquated and dangerous concepts as "heroism" or "honor." But the flippancy died unspoken, because in that moment he realized those concepts weren't antiquated, after all. That they lingered at the very core of the code to which he and those peers continued to adhere, however unwilling they were to admit it to anyone else . . . or even to themselves.

No one knew better than Kenneth Houghton just how ugly, savage, and vile war truly was. How voracious its appetite was, how appallingly it chewed up and crushed the innocent, as well as the guilty. How little of "glory" there was to its reality. Indeed, it was that ugliness and savagery which had sent Houghton into uniform in the first place. The belief—naïve, perhaps, yet no less real for that—that he could make a difference, protect the things in which he believed, the people who could not protect themselves. The belief that there truly were things worth dying for, however much a man might want to live.

And be honest, Ken, he told himself. There was a reason you chose the Corps. "The few. The proud. The Marines." You wanted to be a part of that. To be known not just as a soldier, but as a warrior. As someone who'd chosen to make that commitment, to be one of the best in the service of what you believed in. So, are you really so different from this Bahzell of Wencit's?

"What can you tell me about the odds he's facing now?" he said instead. "Do you have any better fix on that than you did have?"

"I imagine he's starting to suspect there's more going on here than the surface might indicate," Wencit replied. "What he may not have realized is that he's up against at least two separate Dark Gods' servants. By now, I'm sure he's figured out that what he's actually been following are servants of Sharn, which means he's expecting assassins and demons. But he probably hasn't realized that the raiders he's pursuing are working in concert with the wizards they're about to meet up with. Or, for that matter, that it's almost as important to the Dark to kill the mage those wizards have captured as it is to kill him and Walsharno."

"Wait a minute. 'Mage'? You mean another wizard?"

"No, not a wizard at all. A mage's powers are those of the mind, and they come solely from within. They aren't like the art, at all."

"Then what makes him so damned important?" Houghton knew he sounded exasperated, and didn't especially care. "Just how many people are these 'Dark Gods' of yours gunning for out here, anyway, Wencit? I mean, is there anyone in Norfressa who's not on their 'Needs Killing' list?"

"I don't suppose anyone could blame you for wondering about that, under the circumstances," Wencit said wryly. "The problem is that a great many currents, plans, and possibilities are beginning to come together. It's not quite time yet, but both sides—the Dark and the Light—know the Fall of Kontovar, however cataclysmic it may have been, actually decided nothing. It gives the Dark the advantage at present, but the true battle has yet to be settled. For that matter, it has yet to be fully joined, and the Dark Gods are doing all they can to eliminate the people most critical to the Light's chances of final victory. Bahzell is one of those people. Which is one of the reasons I've been so bent on keeping him alive. Mind you, I've got personal motives of my own, especially now, but those weren't what brought him to my attention in the first place."

The wizard shook his head, then snorted.

"Actually, in a peculiar sort of way, Bahzell acts as a sort of . . . focusing lens. You can almost use him like some living compass or dowsing rod. The Dark can't seem to stop trying to pick him off, despite how . . . costly the process keeps turning out to be. And along the way, their servants keep adding other people to the list as they become aware of those others' importance to the future events swirling about him. Which tends to identify those same people for me if I haven't already noticed them on my own."

"In all the stories about this kind of stuff back home, wizards and gods can see the future," Houghton said.

"It doesn't work quite that way." Wencit shook his head. "Seeing the future—in any sort of useful detail, at any rate—is almost impossible, even for a wild wizard. Most wizards can see the past, and there are stories about wizards who could actually travel into the past, although it's always seemed to me that only a lunatic or an extraordinarily desperate man would try to do it. It's . . . complicated. For one thing, no one can travel into his own past, the past of his own universe. He can only travel into the past of another universe, and if he does, he can change things there. Most often in completely unpredictable ways.

"The same sort of problems apply to seeing the future, if not in quite the same way," the wizard continued, obviously warming to his topic. "Even if you can do it, then you're like the dragons. You don't see one future; you see all possible futures, or as many of them as a mortal is capable of seeing, at least. That's one reason conversations with dragons can seem so . . .  peculiar. Gods can see all possible futures, but not even they can tell ahead of time which particular future will transpire in which particular universe. And, just to make things even more interesting, the Dark Gods and the Gods of Light spend quite a bit of their time trying to confuse their respective opponents as to which of the various futures they can see are most likely to occur.

"Now, the precognitive mage talent doesn't work quite that way, which is one reason wizards find it so fascinating. Apparently, the way it works is—"

"Stop," Houghton said plaintively. "You're making my brain hurt. What you're telling me is that no one really knows what's going to happen, only what they think is most likely going to happen, right?"

"More or less," Wencit agreed. "As the occupants of any particular universe get closer and closer to an event, though, the possibilities for the particular outcome they're going to experience in their universe begin to narrow down into probabilities. That's the point the predictors on either side look for—the point at which they can begin to accurately identify the most critical players."

"Like this 'mage' of yours, I suppose," Houghton said, nodding his head slowly. "But if he's so damned important and they've already got their hands on him, why don't they simply go ahead and slit his throat right now?"

"Arrogance, mostly." Wencit shrugged. "Distrust probably comes into it, as well, and self-interest is definitely a factor. In fact, to be honest, self-interest's probably an even bigger factor than arrogance, really. I told you the Dark Gods don't get along with each other a great deal better than they get along with the Gods of Light. None of them quite trusts the others, and all of them—and their servants—are constantly scheming to make sure they don't inadvertently improve one of their rivals' positions more than their own.

"At the moment, I suspect, the Carnadosans' are holding out for a mage to study as their price for cooperating with Sharn's church in the first place. They don't understand the mage powers at all—there are no magi in Kontovar; they exist only in Norfressa—and the Council of Semkirk, which consists of magi specifically pledged to fight black sorcery, is one of their major potential stumbling blocks. So, I'm sure they find the notion of studying Trayn—Trayn Aldarfro, the mage they've captured—particularly amusing. After all, why not get as much additional benefit as possible out of eliminating someone important to Bahzell's future? I'm sure they'll be perfectly willing to simply go ahead and kill him in order to keep him from being rescued, but they'd really prefer to use him as their . . . specimen. If he might otherwise have played a significant role in their defeat, then they'll take a particularly vengeful pleasure in destroying him—as painfully and slowly as possible—in the course of learning how best to combat all magi."

Houghton nodded slowly. He'd never met any of the followers of the Dark Wencit was describing—not the ones from this universe, at any rate—but he was bitterly familiar with the same mindset. He'd seen it often enough.

"So what we basically have here," he said, voicing his thoughts in the process of organizing them, "is two theoretically allied factions who actually hate each others' guts. They have common enemies they both want to beat, but they're simultaneously trying to protect and strengthen their own power bases for the dogfight between all the various factions on their own side after they've kicked the snot out of the other side. Which means that while they're willing to cooperate, more or less, in this little operation, each of them has its own price, and the 'Carnadosans' price is this Aldarfro as their guinea pig. Their experimental animal, I mean."

"Exactly."

"And the other faction? This 'Sharn' you keep talking about. What's his side's special price?"

"Oh, Sharn's price is Bahzell himself," Wencit said softly. "None of the Dark Gods like what may happen if Bahzell lives, but Sharn likes it even less than his relatives do. Part of it's going to be much more . . . personally painful for him. In fact, there's probably only one person in all of Norfressa Sharn would rather see dead than Bahzell."

"And would that person happen to be you?"

"Actually, no. I'm probably no higher than third, possibly even fourth, on Sharn's list. His attention's on some rather younger people. And as much as he and his friends and family—well, family, at any rate; I don't really think Sharn has any friends—would love to see me killed, I'm not one of the main attractions for this particular 'little operation,' as you put it."

"But on the other hand," Houghton said, gazing at the wizard shrewdly through his NVG, "here you are, walking straight into it. And from what you're saying, you've been doing that sort of thing for quite some time. Which, given as how you're talking about gods pulling strings on the other side, suggests to my naturally suspicious mind that they've probably made at least some allowance in their plans for dealing with you."

"No doubt they have," Wencit conceded with what Houghton privately thought was rather appalling cheerfulness. Or perhaps it only seemed that way because of his own proximity to Wencit and whatever the other side might have planned for him, the Marine admitted to himself.

"No doubt they have," Wencit repeated. "On the other hand, none of the gods—Light or Dark—can act too openly in the mortal world. As I pointed out earlier, if they started having direct confrontations with one another, they'd probably destroy this entire universe, which would rather tend to make their entire struggle over who it belongs to ultimately pointless. That particular restriction is one of the reasons Bahzell—and I—keep so stubbornly and persistently surviving."

"I see. And might I hope that you intend to do some more of that stubborn surviving this time?"

"Oh, indeed I do," Wencit said softly, his smile broad and somehow almost gentle. "Indeed, I do, Gunnery Sergeant. I've got far too many things still to do . . . and too many people still to meet. Dying would be much too inconvenient."

IX

Trayn raised his head again as the horse under him began scrambling up out of the stream's deep bed. His skin and, even more, his mind had begun to prickle with a sudden sense of something mortals had never been intended to encounter, and this time he did swallow—hard—as something much too much like panic flickered deep inside him. He felt the horse under him stiffening, felt the tension tightening its muscles, as it, too, became aware of whatever he'd just detected, and he didn't blame the beast one bit. He'd never sensed anything remotely like it, but his mage talent screamed in warning, and whatever he was sensing was getting steadily nearer.

His captors' horses topped out over the edge of the streambed, but they also continued to climb. The hill they were ascending was considerably taller than most of the others in its vicinity, and he wondered why they were climbing up it, instead of skirting around its foot. He was still wondering when he found out.

The horse under him turned sharply to the left, and then, suddenly, they were riding straight into the hillside.

The opening was at least fifty-five or sixty feet across, and Trayn's eyes narrowed as they passed through some immaterial yet tangible barrier which had somehow restrained the light glittering from the chandelierlike balls suspended from the roof. The barrier had kept the light from spilling out of the opening, but now that he was inside it and had the light to see clearly, he realized the tunnel was clearly artificial, for the walls which embraced them as they headed steadily deeper were of dressed and carefully fitted stone. The workmanship was as fine as anything he might have seen in the imperial capital, yet there was something . . . wrong about it. The angles were subtly off true, as if the architect's geometry was askew somehow. Twisted. Perhaps it was only the inner sense of peril and debased energy crackling in his mage talent, but he felt a sudden, instinctive certainty that the architect in question had never come from any of the Races of Man. Or, if he'd begun there, he'd been twisted into something else before he ever designed this splendidly built tunnel.

As they moved deeper, the smooth, featureless stone gave way to glittering mosaics, and Trayn Aldarfro's belly muscles knotted into a solid lump of iron. He'd expected to see Carnadosa's symbols, the wizard's wand representing her status as the patron deity of black sorcery. What he actually saw was the loathsome scorpion of Sharn, Lord of Demons and patron of assassins.

Trayn swallowed again, harder, as nausea rose in the back of his throat. The scenes reproduced in the tunnel mosaics were horrifying images exulting in massacre and slaughter. Images of huge, spiked and spiny demons—monstrous creatures out of nightmare, twisted fusions of insect, lizard, and bat—rampaged through shrieking crowds of terrified fugitives while towns and cities blazed like torches in the night. Huge mandibles snapped warriors and warhorses in two while arrow storms rebounded from chitinous hides and monstrous carapaces as harmlessly as so many raindrops. Pincers and monstrous claws tore other warriors apart, and vast gullets lined with fanglike hooks swallowed screaming victims alive.

Yet terrible as those scenes were, there were worse. Far worse. There were images of the rites of sacrifice which allowed Sharn's worshipers to command his demonic servants. It was agony and despair, even more than the victims' blood and life essence itself, that fed Sharn's dark appetites and bound his demons to the service of mortals. The death of any sacrifice to the Dark was terrible; the deaths Sharn demanded—like those relished by his sister Krahana—went beyond terror and horror to the unspeakable.

Trayn managed, finally, to close his eyes. It was much harder than he would have anticipated. There was something almost mesmerizing about that sheer, soul-crushing delight in cruelty for cruelty's sake. Something that threatened to suck the viewer in and drown him in the endless, poisonous ecstasy of pure, enthralling evil which Sharn promised to those who served him.

"I love what they've done with the place," Tremala said lightly to Garsalt and Rethak. Her amused tone was obscene against that backdrop of transcendent horror, yet Trayn suspected that amusement was a frail and tattered shield, even to her own ears, against the waves of malevolence, the simultaneous hatred and hunger for all that lived, which filled that broad, splendidly built tunnel like some poisonous incense.

"I don't like being underground," Garsalt muttered.

"Oh?" Trayn kept his eyes closed, but he could readily imagine the tilt of Tremala's head, the scornful arch of an elegant eyebrow. "I suppose, then, that you'd rather meet the Bloody Hand—and Wencit; let's not forget about him, shall we?—out in the open somewhere? Somewhere where they could come at us from any direction of their choosing?"

"He's not worrying about the direction they come from, Tremala," Rethak said bitingly. "He's worried about the fact that there's only one direction he can run towards after they get here."

"And you want us to think Bahzell and Wencit don't scare the shit right out of you, too, I suppose," Garsalt shot back with a strength which surprised Trayn just a bit.

"Only an idiot wouldn't be at least a little nervous, Garsalt." Tremala sounded as if she'd been surprised, as well, judging by her almost conciliating tone. "After all, both of them have rather daunting records of success—especially Wencit, if we're going to be honest. Still, if I have to choose between being able to run in more than one direction and knowing exactly where someone like Wencit, or the Bloody Hand and his courser, has to come at me, I'll choose knowing. After all, by and large, running doesn't really help a lot in a situation like that, does it?"

"No, it doesn't," Garsalt half-muttered in agreement. Still, he sounded at least a little mollified, Trayn noticed. Although that might be simply because he wanted so badly to be reassured.

"And here's our host," Tremala said suddenly a moment later.

Trayn's eyes slipped open once more, but this time he kept them resolutely turned away from the mosaics "decorating" the tunnel walls. He couldn't see very much of anything else, because of the other horses crowded around the one to which he was lashed. It would appear that those horses, or perhaps their riders, wanted to stay as far away from the mosaics as Trayn did, but some of the crowding parted as someone else walked through it.

"Greetings, Tremala," a voice said. "I was beginning to think you might have decided not to come, after all."

The voice was deep, resonant, and smooth as velvet. It was the sort of voice that instinctively charmed and soothed. Unless, of course, one listened to what lurked in those almost caressing depths. At the moment, the slight but unmistakable edge directed at Tremala made it a bit easier to hear the bared fangs of that inner hunger.

The horses between the speaker and Tremala finished moving aside with an uneasy edginess. If they'd wanted to avoid the mosaics, they wanted to avoid the newcomer just as badly, and Trayn didn't blame them.

"Timing is everything, Cherdahn," Tremala replied calmly. "If we'd arrived any sooner, someone like the Bloody Hand would certainly have realized we were here, don't you think?"

"I suppose he would," Cherdahn agreed. "And," his smile showed curiously sharp and pointy teeth, "I suppose Wencit would have realized we were here, too."

Cherdahn was very tall, and the thumb-sized, carved emerald scorpion of a high priest of Sharn glittered under the overhead light. Simply to possess that symbol was punishable by death in virtually all Norfressan realms, but here it hung against the breast of his richly embroidered scarlet robes, openly displayed in this place consecrated to the monstrous deity he served. His hair, almost as black as Tremala's, was shoulder length, immaculately groomed and lightly frosted with silver, and his lean, strong-boned face and aquiline nose gave him a distinguished, almost scholarly appearance. Until one looked more closely, that was. Close enough to see the peculiar glitter of his skin, the fine pattern that looked undeniably like scales. Or the equally peculiar red glow—surely more sensed than seen—that appeared to glow in the depths of his brown eyes, the way a Dwarvenhame furnace glowed behind the closed door of its firebox.

Trayn had the eyes—and talents—to take that closer look, and nausea rose into the back of his throat again as he realized what he was actually seeing. No wonder no horse wanted to be any closer to Cherdahn than it had to be!

"My dear Cherdahn," Tremala half-laughed, "surely you don't think Wencit of Ru–m could possibly have failed to realize that someone besides us is waiting for him?" She shook her head with an insouciance in the face of Cherdahn's presence which warned Trayn that she must be even more powerful in her own right than he'd been assuming. "He's been chipping away at my glamour for days now, and I'd be astonished if he hadn't already deduced most of what we're up to long before he ever saw the Bloody Hand's little lightning flash."

"Indeed?" Cherdahn's voice remained as deep, as polished. As hungry. Yet Trayn knew Tremala had scored a hit of her own.

"Oh, yes, indeed." This time Tremala did laugh out loud. "That's what makes him so persistently . . .  irritating. Still, he's also persistently predictable. The subtlety, Cherdahn, was involved in getting Bahzell here against odds sufficiently daunting to convince Wencit that this time the Bloody Hand and his little horsey were going to need all the help they could get."

"So, you see the Scorpion as bait?" Cherdahn inquired almost genially.

"Of course I do. But not just as bait. Even laying aside the fact that He and the Lady are allies, no one but a fool—which, I assure you, I'm not—would ever underestimate the power of His greater servants. True, they haven't fared especially well against the Bloody Hand in the past, but, then neither have the Lady's efforts and servants, have we?" Tremala shook her head. "Dealing with Bahzell, especially with Wencit in the vicinity, is going to require the combination of all our strength. Still, there's no point in denying that the Scorpion's presence is always almost impossible to conceal from one of Tomank's champions. Which is why He and the Lady decided to . . . make use of that fact. Turn a challenge into an advantage, as it were. And, of course, our own modest efforts to insure that Wencit would be looking in the right direction at the critical moment constitute 'bait' in their own right."

"I see." Cherdahn gazed up at her for several moments, then shrugged. "I don't suppose I could quibble with any of that. And, as you say, at the moment things seem to be proceeding quite nicely. Won't you dismount and join us for supper? We ought to just about have time to finish dining before the first of our guests arrive."

X

<i truly do hate these miserable holes in the ground,> Walsharno said in the depths of Bahzell's brain.

The starry night had wrapped itself in a thickening shroud of cloud, and the hradani smelled rapidly approaching rain on a strengthening wind out of the east. The disappearance of the stars and the orange sliver of moon which had floated among them had turned the night pitchy black, but Walsharno was a courser and Bahzell was a hradani, and both of them could see with remarkable clarity.

Not that either of them was very happy about what they could see.

"I've no doubt at all, at all, as how old Demon Breath would never dream of upsetting you if you'd only be telling him that," Bahzell responded to Walsharno's disgusted observation.

<Very funny. And I suppose you'll still be laughing when we ride into that outsized drainpipe?>

"I'm not so very sure we're going to be doing any riding down it," Bahzell said rather more seriously.

<Going in there all by yourself wouldn't be the brightest thing even a hradani has ever done,> Walsharno pointed out acidly.

"And are you after telling me that agreeing to be one of himself's champions and all was after being a 'bright' thing for a hradani to be doing?"

<Don't try to laugh it off. You and I both know there's more than enough trouble for any two—or three—champions waiting in there.>

"Aye, that there may be. Still and all, Walsharno, I'm thinking it's not so very likely as there'd be fighting room for you."

The hradani turned to look at his companion. At just over seven feet, nine inches, no one—not even another Horse Stealer—would ever consider Bahzell a small man, but Walsharno stood twenty-four and a half hands. Bahzell's head didn't quite top the huge stallion's shoulder.

<You're not exactly a puny little fellow, yourself,> the courser pointed out.

"That's as may be, but I'm better suited to be fighting in twisty little corners underground than you are," Bahzell retorted, and felt Walsharno's unwilling agreement.

Few creatures in all of Norfressa could match a Sothùoii courser stallion for lethality, but a "horse" Walsharno's size needed fighting space. Needed to be able to rear and kick, needed the ability to dodge.

<That opening looks big enough for both of us,> Walsharno said after a moment.

"Aye. But who's to say it stays that way? I'm thinking that if I were after setting a trap for the two of us, we'd find that 'drainpipe' of yours getting a mite tight just about the time we were running into one of Demon Breath's wee little pets."

<So you think that instead I should let you go down there all by yourself?> Walsharno snorted as emphatically as only a courser could. <I always knew Brandark was a smart man. Now I see why he never wanted to let you out without a keeper!>

"I'm not saying as how you should 'let' me be doing anything of the sort. It's not as if we were having any real choice, is it now?"

Walsharno snaked his head around and lowered it to look Bahzell in the eye. Silence lingered for several seconds until, manifestly against his will, the stallion tossed his head in grudging agreement.

<Why do we always have to be the ones going into their miserable little burrows?> he said after a moment. <Why can't they come riding openly up to our gates for a change?>

"Because we're the good fellows, and they're the bad fellows," Bahzell said lightly. "Still and all," he reached up, unhooked a case of oiled leather from his saddle, and extracted the deadly horsebow of a windrider, "I'm thinking as how it's not so very likely we'll be creeping into yonder 'miserable little burrow' without someone noticing."

He strung the bow smoothly and easily. It had taken his fellow wind riders a long time to convince him to give up his steel-bowed arbalest, and he still wasn't as good an archer as most of them were. They, after all, had literally grown up in the saddle, bows in hand. Bahzell had been doing other things—like raiding the Sothùoii himself—at a comparable point in his own life. Still, the horsebow's rate of fire was far higher than even a Horse Stealer crossbowman could manage, and if Bahzell was a bit less accurate, he could pull a bow far heavier than any mere human. In the final analysis, the sheer, incredible power of his weapon made up for quite a lot.

<Do try to avoid shooting yourself—or me—in the foot with that thing, would you?>

"And aren't you just the funniest thing on four feet?" Bahzell replied, attaching his quiver to the right side of his belt.

<I try, at any rate. I promised Brandark I'd keep you from getting too full of yourself.>

"Remind me to be thanking him the next time I see him."

<I imagine you'll remember all on your own,> Walsharno reassured him.

Bahzell snorted, then turned to study the hillside above them.

Most people would never have realized there was anything there, but Bahzell and Walsharno weren't most people. Both of them could sense the dark miasma hiding in the heart of the hill, and the cloaking power of Sharn which should have hidden the tunnel opening was useless against the eyes of any champion of Tomank.

Bahzell bared his teeth as he saw the loathsome image of Sharn's scorpion, carved into the keystone of the outer arch, and he remembered the first time he'd seen that same image. What he didn't see was anything remotely like a sentry, and that worried him.

"I'm thinking as how they must know we're out here," he said.

<After what happened at the village?> Walsharno snorted yet again, this time in emphatic agreement.

"Then wouldn't you think it's just a mite overconfident they're being with no one posted to be keeping an eye out for us?"

Walsharno nodded, and Bahzell's frown deepened. Although Sharn couldn't hide the entrance from him or Walsharno by arcane means, things could still be physically concealed, and there was an uncomfortable crawling sensation between Bahzell's shoulder blades.

"Well," he sighed, "I'm thinking there's only one way to be finding out what it is they've got in mind."

 

It was remarkable how quiet something the size of a Sothùoii courser could be when it put its mind to it. Walsharno's ability to move almost soundlessly, even through underbrush, had always impressed Bahzell. He himself had spent years honing his ability to do the same thing, and he was far smaller than the stallion, with only two feet, to boot. Despite that, Walsharno made little more noise than he would have made by himself, and what sounds they did make were lost in the sigh of the steadily strengthening night wind.

Thunder mutter-grumbled, and lightning flickered blue-white against the clouds far to the east. It was coming closer, and there was something almost soothing about the natural power of the oncoming storm.

No windrider would have dreamed of using reins, and no courser would have tolerated such an impertinence if he had. Nor was anything so crude required. Walsharno was linked with Bahzell, their thoughts flickering back and forth almost as if they were a single being. There was no need for Bahzell to tell Walsharno where to go, or for Walsharno to tell Bahzell where they were going.

Which, Bahzell reflected as he nocked an arrow, also left both of his hands free for other purposes.

Walsharno emerged from the last few feet of the undergrowth fringing the streambed and started up the slope just as quietly and cautiously. The sense of the evil flowing out of the tunnel opening spilled down the hillside like a viscous tide, black as tar and just as clinging. The stallion breasted its flow, forging upward against it, and Bahzell felt the two of them settling into even deeper fusion.

<Now, Brother?>

"Not quite," Bahzell murmured back. "Let's be getting as close as we can before—"

The night suddenly shattered as something even darker and blacker than it was, and almost as enormous, exploded from the tunnel mouth. Bahzell's mind insisted that it couldn't possibly have squeezed itself into an opening that small as huge, segmented spiderlike legs—blacker than black, yet glaring with sick green light for eyes that could see—and ribbed, bat-like wings unfolded themselves. A head that belonged on something from night-black depths where sunlight never shone opened its mouth to bare curving fangs half as long as Bahzell, and the demon shrieked its fury as it launched itself down the hillside towards them with all the impossible quickness of its hell-born kind.

"Tomank!" Bahzell bellowed in reply, and heard Walsharno's defiant challenge echoing deep inside him. The clean blue corona of Tomank snapped into sudden, glittering existence about them both, and Bahzell reached out. It was as if he stretched one hand to Tomank and the other to Walsharno, and a stuttering electrical shock exploded through him as their hands reached back.

"Tomank!" he shouted once more, drawing that shared strength and support deep into him even as he called the Rage's transcendent power to him.

His bow sang with a musical, chirping snap. A steel-headed war arrow howled from the string, and the azure power of Tomank touched it. It flashed across the night like a blue meteor, and the demon shrieked again—this time in as much pain as fury—as the meteor slammed into its long, sinuous neck. It struck just below the head, and blinding light exploded from the point of impact.

The hideous creature flailed its head in obvious anguish, but its charge barely hesitated, and Walsharno wheeled on his haunches, then sprang into a full gallop with a speed only another courser could possibly have matched.

The days when Bahzell had sat the saddle like an abandoned sack of meal were long past. He and his courser were one being, and his right hand flashed down to the quiver at his belt. Another arrow fitted itself flawlessly, perfectly, to the string, and he sighted, drew, and released in one flowing motion.

Another blue-flaming arrow shrieked across the night, but this time the demon wasn't taken by surprise. Mere arrows had never posed a threat to it in the past. They'd rattled uselessly, harmlessly, off its hard scales and thick carapace, but these arrows were a very different matter, indeed. Not only could they drill effortlessly through its armor, but they exploded deep within its unnatural flesh like lightning bolts when they did. Yet this was one of Sharn's greater demons. It was more than a mere appetite. It was capable of thought. It could learn from experience, and it realized that these arrows could hurt it and twisted aside with the lizard-fast quickness of its breed. It couldn't completely evade the arrow—not one fired by Bahzell Bahnakson at a range of under fifty yards—yet the steel head which should have struck its throat almost on top of the original ichor-spurting wound struck it in the chest, instead.

The demon staggered, howling in fresh pain and fury, but it didn't go down. Instead, it gathered its feet under it once again, wings beating for balance, and lunged. The wind from those flailing wings buffeted Bahzell and Walsharno like some foul-smelling hurricane, and there wasn't time for another shot. Bahzell dropped his bow and raised his hands, summoning his blade, and five feet of burnished steel glared with the blue furnace-fury of the war god.

"Tomank!"

Walsharno charged to meet the demon, screaming the wordless whistle of his own war cry, and the glittering sword hissed as it descended in a two-handed blow like Tomank's own mace.

The demon twisted its head out of the way at the very last instant, and Bahzell's sword slammed into one of its wings, instead. A fountain of blue light exploded upward, the demon shrieked, and Walsharno pivoted with lithe, impossible grace. He swerved to one side, and both rear hoofs lashed out, ablaze with the same blue glare as Bahzell's sword. They caught the demon in the side with a gruesome, ear-shattering "CRACK!" of splintering carapace and a fresh eruption of blue lightning.

Not even a greater demon could shake off that impact. The creature lurched sideways, stumbling, almost falling, with a fresh shriek of pain. Walsharno snapped back around to face it, and it was slower as it gathered itself this time. It hesitated, crouching down, hissing and bubbling in mingled fury and anguish. Walsharno started towards it, and it actually backed away, sidling sideways, head cocked, watching its enemies.

<Something's wrong.>

Bahzell and Walsharno were too deeply fused for the hradani to be positive which of them that thought came from, yet he knew it was accurate. He'd fought Sharn's demons before, and none of them had ever reacted the way this one was. He could literally feel its hatred, its need to attack, despite the agonizing wounds he and Walsharno had already inflicted, but still it continued to back away, instead. It shouldn't have done that. Painful as its injuries might be, they were far from incapacitating and their torment only fueled the demon's blazing rage and hatred. So why—?

And then reality twisted suddenly.

<Behind us!>

This time there was no doubt; the screamed mental warning came from Walsharno, not Bahzell, as the carefully prepared spell opened behind them. For all their experience, neither champion had been watching for Carnadosa and her worshipers. Their attention had been focused entirely on Sharn and the menace of the demon directly in front of them, and the perfectly timed execution of the spell took them totally by surprise. The solid earth fell away as Tremala and Rethak opened a gate between the heart of Cherdahn's buried temple and the hillside directly behind Walsharno and Bahzell. A noisome stench erupted from the opening, and a hurricane of fresh fangs, wings, and claws came with it as the second demon hurled itself straight at their backs.

XI

"Angle to the right, Jack," Ken Houghton suggested as the LAV shoved its way through the tangled underbrush. "The slope's more gradual. Looks like there's probably a runoff channel from that range of hills. See the big boulder at about two o'clock?"

"Yeah. For what it's worth," Mashita grunted.

"It's at the left edge of the channel. See?"

"Oh, I see it all right, Boss. I just don't know if I can get this bitch up it!"

"Well, that's where Wencit says we need to go, and I know you always perform best under pressure," Houghton said encouragingly.

"Gee, thanks! Why not just hold a gun to my head and be done with it?"

Houghton chuckled, yet the truth was that Jack had a point. There were many things Gunnery Sergeant Houghton loved about the LAV-25, but for all that, Tough Mama had her drawbacks. For one thing, no wheeled vehicle could turn as sharply as a fully tracked one, like the Army's Bradley. A Brad could literally pivot in place, turning through three-hundred-sixty degrees in its own length, while any wheeled vehicle had to continue to move forward through its turning circle. For another thing, although he didn't expect that to be a factor under current circumstances, a LAV's wheel wells couldn't be as well armored as the rest of the vehicle, which made them vulnerable targets for hostile fire. But what had Mashita worried at the moment—and Houghton as well, whether he wanted to admit it or not—was that the LAV's higher center of gravity simply made it less stable. Which, given the nature of the terrain through which Mashita had been picking his way for the last forty-five minutes or so, wasn't exactly an academic consideration.

"Do we really have to go up there, Wencit?" he asked quietly—or, at least, as quietly as the noise of Tough Mama's passage allowed.

"Yes, and as quickly as we can." For the first time, the wild wizard actually sounded tense, almost brusque, and Houghton felt his own nerves tighten in response.

"Quickly and sneakily don't exactly go together very well," he pointed out. Then he snorted in amusement at his own words. A LAV was far quieter than a tracked vehicle. That, unfortunately, was much the same as saying that a chainsaw was quieter than a thunderstorm. Both statements were factually correct, but that didn't exactly make the chainsaw hard to hear when someone decided to cut down a three-foot oak in your front yard on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

"At the moment speed is more important than sneakiness," Wencit replied. "Besides," he looked back at Houghton, and despite his tension, there was more than a hint of a smile in his voice, "you might be surprised at just how quiet your vehicle is being at the moment."

"Quiet?" Houghton couldn't keep the skepticism out of his own voice, and Wencit chuckled.

"Remember what I said about glamours, Gunnery Sergeant Houghton. They don't work just against spells, you know."

Houghton turned to look at him for several seconds while Mashita threw Tough Mama into full eight-wheel drive and began—noisily—working his way up the drainage chute Houghton had spotted for him. Then the Marine laughed out loud.

"Wencit, if you can make this thing 'quiet,' then I really am ready to believe in magic!"

"That's good, Gunnery Sergeant. Because unless I miss my guess, you're about to see quite a lot of it. In fact, I'd suggest that you get your main weapon ready. We're going to need it shortly."

Houghton's eyes sharpened and his nostrils flared. Then he grunted to himself.

"Get your ass buttoned up, Jack!" he said over the commo link. "Wencit says we're about to run into the bad guys."

"Damn it! Why does this always happen in the middle of terrain like fucking this?!"

Mashita's intense frustration was obvious. Not surprisingly, given how limited a LAV's driver's buttoned-up field of view was. But he dropped his seat down and slammed his overhead hatch, sealing himself in his small compartment beside the thundering diesel Wencit had just assured Houghton no one else could hear. Wencit, on the other hand, stayed where he was, peering into the dark with those glowing eyes.

"Time to get your head down, Wencit," Houghton said sharply.

"I'm afraid not," the wizard replied. "Believe me," he continued before Houghton could explain that Tough Mama was neither a democracy nor a debating society, "nothing would please me more than to do just that. Unfortunately, I not only need to see what's going on; I may also need to be able to cast spells, and I can't do that with your vehicle's armor between me and the spell's object."

Houghton had opened his mouth. Now he closed it with a snap. He didn't like it one little bit, and a part of him wondered if Wencit wasn't . . . shading the truth just a bit in order to keep his head up. But Wencit was the wizard around here, and Houghton had no choice but to accept that the old man knew what he was talking about.

Houghton, on the other hand, had no choice. He stripped off his NVG goggles and dropped down into the gunner's seat, with the big twenty-five-millimeter cannon and coax machine gun at his left elbow. Both weapons were in Condition One, and had been for hours. High explosive had been selected for the Bushmaster, the ghost round had been cycled into the chamber, the manual safety was set on "FIRE," and only the electric safety was engaged. The machine gun's cover assembly was closed, the bolt was to the rear, and—like the cannon—the manual safety was on "FIRE" and the electric safety was engaged. Now he configured the DIM-36TH sight to thermal mode and started scanning for targets.

He'd just settled into position when he heard Wencit's voice over his earphones.

"To your right, Gunnery Sergeant! To your right!"

Houghton squeezed the gunner's joystick and sent the turret tracking smoothly to the right just as Tough Mama topped out on a flat bench about half way up the current hillside. For a few moments he saw very little. Then that changed abruptly, and his eyes widened in sheer, stunned disbelief.

Despite all that had happened to him in the last ten or twelve hours, nothing could have prepared him for this. With the sight in thermal mode, targets were often easier to pick out of concealment, but details were usually difficult to make out. Not this time. This nightmare creature's body stood out as brightly and clearly as any thermal signature Houghton had ever seen. Its body temperature must have been almost as high as Tough Mama's engine block, yet that scarcely even registered beside its impossible size and the obscene fusion of wings, claws, pincers, mandibles, and horns. The thing had to be at least forty or fifty feet long, with a squat, armored body suspended from spiderlike legs that arched a good ten feet above its back. Bat-wings—two pairs of them, not just one—beat at the night as its serpentine head darted forward, striking at its intended prey.

It took a stunned, detached corner of his mind a moment or two to realize just how big the mounted man and horse in front of the monster actually were. Compared to their horrifying opponent, they looked like pygmies, yet that detached corner realized that the horse was bigger than any Clydesdale or Percheron he'd ever seen.

Not that it should have mattered in the least. Huge as the horse might be, the monster's head alone must have been better than half its size.

The cavalryman and his horse were both wrapped in some sort of heat-shimmering cocoon. It obviously wasn't as ferociously hot as the creature they faced, yet in some odd way, it was actually brighter. Or clearer. More . . . concentrated, perhaps. Houghton's spinning thoughts bounced off the surface of whatever concept they were trying to form, and then he realized the man on that horse's back was armed with an honest-to-God sword. The biggest damned sword Houghton had ever imagined, and one that glared with its own savage corona, but still only a sword.

Who the fuck does he think he is? Saint George?

The thought flicked through the Marine's brain between one heartbeat and the next, and then the lunatic charged.

Houghton's jaw dropped as that glittering sword lashed out at the mounted man's stupendous foe. The sudden eruption of light and power as it slammed into the monster's wing almost blanked the thermal image completely. The glaring steel sheared through the creature's unnatural flesh like an axe, lopping off the wing's innermost knuckle, and then the huge horse pivoted on its forefeet with preposterous precision and lashed out with its rear hooves.

The monster staggered, almost falling, then whipped around to face its puny opponents with a squall of rage, pain, and fury that half-deafened Houghton inside Tough Mama's turret.

As that unearthly, terrifying sound went through him, the Marine shook his head, like a prizefighter who'd taken one too many punches to the chin, and a sudden bolt of anger ripped through him. Anger directed at himself, at his own inaction. The sheer, appalling impossibility of what he was seeing had frozen him, turned him into a spectator, and his lips drew back from his teeth as he twisted the joystick and slewed Tough Mama's cannon towards the monster . . . just in time to find the cavalryman directly between him and it.

"Driver, halt!" he barked. "Target, three o'clock!"

Technically, he should have identified what the target was, as well. Unfortunately, he didn't have the least damned idea what to call the thing.

"Holy shit!" Mashita had obviously caught at least a glimpse of what Houghton was seeing through his own night vision viewer. His reaction to it wasn't exactly out of the training manual, but he responded instantly to Houghton's command, and the LAV stopped. Unlike the Bradley, the LAV's cannon wasn't stabilized to permit it to be accurately fired on the move, and Houghton's sight picture steadied as Tough Mama stopped moving. The range was under two hundred meters, perfect for a battlesight engagement. In fact, there was no way Houghton could possibly miss a target that size from this close.

Now if the idiot on the horse would only get out of the—

Houghton's belly twisted with sudden nausea. It was almost like the sensation he'd experienced when Wencit snatched the LAV into this preposterous universe, yet it was different, as well. With Wencit's spell, there'd been that sense of falling even as Tough Mama had been motionless underfoot. This time, nothing around Houghton seemed to be moving, and yet it was as if two powerful hands had gripped his stomach and twisted in opposite directions. It was in enormous sense of wrongness, and then, impossibly (although his punch-drunk brain was getting rather tired of that particular label), a huge sinkhole appeared, with absolutely no warning, and a second monster swarmed up out of it . . . directly behind the mounted man.

XII

Walsharno's cry of warning snapped Bahzell's head around, turning it towards the sudden threat erupting from the ground itself sixty yards behind them.

There was no time for thought. No time to analyze what had happened. There was barely time for the hradani to begin to curse his own complacency. To realize that this time, he and Walsharno had blundered straight into the Dark's carefully crafted trap.

That this time, they were going to die.

He twisted in the saddle, fighting to get far enough around to land at least one blow, and then something thundered in the night.

 

The turret twitched slightly to the left.

The glowing swordsman and his horse might be between Houghton and the first monster, but the Marine had a perfect firing angle at the second one, and a corner of his mind noted that the horseman was well clear of his line of fire and outside the danger zone created by the 25-millimeter rounds' discarding sabots. The sight's reticle dropped onto the huge creature's side, between the third and fourth legs on its right side, and Ken Houghton's hand squeezed.

Tough Mama's 25-millimeter cannon's muzzle flash shredded the night as a three-shot burst of M792 HEI-T shrieked downrange, at over thirty-six hundred feet per second. The tracer rounds etched fiery trails across the horror-haunted darkness, then slammed into their target. Each round carried thirty-two grams of a high explosive mix which normally projected steel fragments and incendiary filler over a five-meter radius when they detonated, and the monster squalled as they exploded in stroboscopic fury.

It squalled . . . but it also whipped around towards Tough Mama. The detonating shells had punched relatively tiny holes through its spiny carapace before they exploded, then blown washtub-sized openings back through it as they detonated inside it and blasted wounds into the unnatural flesh and muscle beneath. Ichor and head-sized gobbets of meat burst from its side and streamed down its flank, but its hell-spawned armor was incredibly tough. The shells might have punched holes in it, might have inflicted enormous collateral destruction under the armor, but blasting through it had slowed them, kept them from punching deep into their target's flesh before they detonated. It was obvious that none of the damage had gotten deep enough to reach its vital organs . . . assuming that it had any! Instead of going down, it shrieked in furious challenge, and hurled itself directly towards the source of a sudden pain.

Kenneth Houghton was a qualified master gunner. He knew exactly what he'd just hit that creature with, and the rational part of his brain couldn't believe what he was seeing. Big as it was, it had to have gone down after taking three hits almost exactly at its center of mass! He didn't care what it was. The kinetic transfer alone ought to have made sure of that, never mind the explosion, the incendiary effect, or the shell splinters. And even if it hadn't gone down, the damned thing was almost as big as a frigging blue whale! It had to weigh at least fifty or sixty tons, and nothing that size could possibly move that fast! Especially not something covered with armor tough enough to stand up to a Bushmaster even for a heartbeat!

Fortunately, perhaps, his brain's refusal to accept his eyes' input had no appreciable effect on his bone-deep reflexes.

His thumb punched the button, shifting instantly from high explosive to armor-piercing, and he squeezed the trigger again. The M919 discarding sabot round left the muzzle with almost a third again the velocity of the high explosive round, and its fin-stabilized "long-rod" penetrator of depleted uranium could penetrate virtually all light armored vehicles and even some main battle tanks. It could also penetrate over sixteen inches of reinforced concrete or an earthen bunker wall three feet thick, which had made it increasingly popular in urban fighting, and this time Houghton held the trigger down longer. Twelve rounds smashed into his target, and if the demon's carapace had been tough enough to limit the high explosive rounds' effect, the armor-piercing was another story.

The creature staggered, shrieking, flailing its wings as the uranium lightning bolts drilled through its armor—and the flesh inside it—like fiery awls. It half-rose as the impacts hammered into it, but that only exposed its chest, and Houghton sent another six-shot burst hammering into the new target. The entry wounds were small; the exit wounds were enormous, and ichor exploded across the hillside. Grass hissed and shriveled under the acid spray, and the monster's shrieks of rage turned into bubbling wails of agony.

This time, it did go down, but even then, it wasn't finished. Its clawed feet scrabbled at the ground with unnatural vitality, heaving it back up, and a disbelieving Houghton put a fourth burst into the thing.

 

Bahzell and Walsharno didn't have time to worry about where the thing attacking the second demon had come from, because the one they'd already wounded had been waiting only for its companion's attack before coming at them again. Even as the second demon turned away, the first one came charging in again.

But it had been just as surprised as Bahzell and Walsharno. It hesitated for just an instant, as astonished by the LAV's abrupt appearance out of the heart of Wencit's glamour as the two champions had been when the spell activated behind them, and that gave them just long enough to return their attention to it.

It hurled itself forward, screaming an earsplitting war cry of pure, distilled rage, and Bahzell stood in the stirrups as Walsharno waited, waited, waited to the very last instant. The demon's fangs glistened in the blue corona of Tomank's light. Bahzell could see clear down the huge, wet, slimy gullet, smell the stench of its fetid breath, and still Walsharno waited. He waited until it was obviously too late . . . then sprang aside with the incredible swiftness possible only for a courser.

The demon's squall of fury changed pitch. It sounded almost querulous, as if the sudden disappearance of the prey it had been certain was as good as in its fangs was cheating somehow. But if that was the way it felt, it didn't have long to savor its disappointment.

"Tomank!"

The striking head overshot its dodging target. The demon was already swinging around, arching its sinuous neck to come back in a second, sideways strike, as Bahzell brought his blue-flaming sword down in a two-hand blow driven by the full, enormous strength of his shoulders and back and all the power of his Rage.

The sword landed with the sharp, clear "CRACK!" of an ancient oak, shattering in a vise of winter ice. But this crack was loud enough to be heard even by ears stunned by the LAV's cannon fire, even through the deafening, enraged shriek of the remaining demon. Blue light glared like striking lightning, flashing back from the point of impact with a brilliance that etched the hillside, the trees, every individual blade of grass, with stark, blinding clarity, and the glittering steel sheared two-thirds of the way through a neck thicker than most men's height. Ichor spurted, shattered splinters of scale flew, and the demon's bellow died in mid-shriek, with the appalling suddenness of a slamming door.

The stupendous body slammed to the ground. Momentum carried it forward in a sliding, slithering sprawl, and Walsharno stumbled, almost falling, as the very tip of one dying wing flailed out and crashed into his shoulder. Somehow, the courser held his feet, spinning to face the hole from which the second demon had emerged . . . just as a third and fourth monster erupted from it.

* * *

Houghton's jaw did its very best to drop as that blinding blue sword came crashing down. It had taken twenty-plus direct hits from Tough Mama's Bushmaster to put down Houghton's target, and this Bahzell of Wencit's had taken one out with a single sword stroke?

But he didn't have a great deal of time to think about the impossibility of what he'd just seen, because more of the hideous creatures were swarming out of the same opening. One of them wheeled, charging back at Bahzell and his horse; the other hurled itself directly at the LAV . . . and a fifth came squirming out of the ground behind it like a maggot, with its mad, glaring eyes already fixed on Tough Mama.

Houghton hoped like hell that Wencit's friend was going to be able to handle the one headed away from the LAV, because he damned well had his hands full with the two coming his way.

The only good point—if anything about this could be called "good"—was that he didn't even have to traverse. The closer of the two monsters came straight for him, almost as if it were trying to physically climb inside the cannon's barrel, and he squeezed again. The uranium penetrators stabbed through the night like lethal meteors, and twelve of them punched their deadly way into the demon's scaly chest and then out again through its spiky carapace. The monster shrieked in agony as its legs abruptly collapsed and it hit the hillside in an avalanche of mortally wounded hatred and fury. The LAV quivered as the force of that mult-iton impact was transmitted through the ground, and the dying creature slashed with one huge, talon-armed forefoot.

The claws sledgehammered into Tough Mama, raking savagely across her front right flank. She bobbed like a dinghy on a stormy sea, and Houghton's helmeted head slammed into the bulkhead-mounted radio behind him as the LAV's right front wheel was ripped completely away. It went flying through the night like a discarded hockey puck, and he heard the unearthly shriek of side armor tearing—tearing like cloth—as the talons raked over it.

Mashita shouted something shrill, indistinct, and incredibly obscene over Houghton's helmet earphones, and the gunnery sergeant smelled an indescribable hot-metal-and-acid stench as the monster's blood showered across the forward deck and the front of the turret.

He didn't have time to think about the inconceivable strength it had taken to rock the fourteen-ton LAV like a toy. The fourth demon was already lunging across the twitching, spasming body of its dying companion, and Houghton squeezed the trigger again just as the creature brought one foot down on Tough Mama's deck. The LAV seemed to curtsy, sinking downward on its damaged front suspension under that incredible load, and the demon's head darted forward, striking directly at the turret.

The nine-foot cannon's muzzle flamed, spewing penetrators directly into the monster's gaping maw at two hundred rounds per minute, and the top of the demon's skull literally disintegrated as the fin-stabilized darts exploded through its brain. The striking head was driven up and backwards, and the monster's bellows died in a hideous, whistling gurgle. It thundered to earth, falling directly atop its companion, and the momentum of its charging body rammed up over the LAV's glacis and into the face of the turret with enough force to whiplash Houghton's and Mashita's heads painfully on their necks and drive the entire vehicle half its length backward despite its locked wheels.

 

Bahzell and Walsharno heard the earsplitting thunder of their mysterious ally's incredible weaponry and the shrieks and bellows of the other two demons, but they dared not let their attention stray from the one coming at them. This one was different from the others. It had even more legs, yet it was marginally smaller and faster, without wings but with two complete sets of long, lobsterlike pincers. It was less cautious than the first one had been, too, as if it had decided its best chance lay in sheer speed and ferocity. Unlike the others, it attacked almost silently, saving its breath, and it reared high, keeping its head and neck out of the range of Bahzell's sword as it struck at Walsharno with those man-long pincers.

The courser leapt forward, ducking inside the sweep of the outer pincers, trumpeting his own challenge, and the second set of pincers came slashing at him like knife-sharp shears of horn. Walsharno staggered as a glancing blow opened a long, bleeding gash across his side, but Bahzell twisted at the waist, bringing his sword up in a flashing arc that impacted on the demon's forelimb from beneath. The glittering steel bit deep, half-severing the pincer, and the demon howled, slashing with all three remaining claws.

But Bahzell and Walsharno had gotten too close. They were inside the sweep of the outer pincers, and too close to the monster's chest for it to see them clearly without bringing its horned head into the reach of Bahzell's sword. It struck blindly at them, then crouched as it prepared to spring back and away from its tiny adversaries and regain fighting room.

The two champions had no intention of allowing it to do anything of the sort. Despite his deep, bleeding wound, Walsharno drove straight ahead, and Bahzell leaned forward in the saddle, leaned forward over Walsharno's outstretched neck, riding at the thrust as if his massive, two-handed sword were a Sothùoii cavalry saber. The demon couldn't see them . . . and as it crouched, it actually brought its own body closer to its enemies.

Bahzell's sword punched into the monster's scale-armored, massively muscled chest just at the base of its throat. Scales and flesh hissed, smoking as blue flames licked out from the penetrating steel, consuming the unnatural stuff of the demon's flesh, and its shriek of agony was deafening. It twisted away from the intolerable pain, and as it did, it wrenched sideways on the blade, ripping the wound wider and deeper with its own enormous strength.

"Tomank! Tomank!" Bahzell thundered his war cry, and Walsharno's whistling trumpet counterpointed his deep-throated bellow as smoldering ichor fountained across them in a stinking fan. The hradani's sword yanked free of the ghastly wound as the charging courser swept onward, and he brought it down in an axe blow that slashed the demon's remaining inner claw entirely off.

Walsharno's pounding hooves carried them clear of their monstrous foe as the no-longer-silent demon reared up, hissing and screaming in pain. It writhed, its maimed forelimbs flailing, smoking blood spouting from its wounds, and Bahzell and Walsharno used the distraction of its agony. Walsharno's forehooves dug into the smoldering hillside, plowing deep furrows through its torn and scarred turf as they braked his forward speed, and his rear feet flashed up in a piledriver blow to the demon's shoulder. Despite its size, despite its weight, the monster went down, tumbling onto its side, and Walsharno recovered his balance, leaned back to gather his weight on his hindquarters, then pivoted and brought both forehooves hammering down on the side of the creature's neck, just above the gaping wound Bahzell's sword had torn.

The demon flailed madly, throat half-severed and half-crushed. It managed to jerk its head back up, fangs slashing, but it was hurt, weakened, clumsy, and Bahzell leaned aside in Walsharno's saddle. The head darted past him, and that proved just as deadly for this demon as it had for the first one. The five-foot blade came slashing down one final time, trailing streamers and prominences of blue fire, and the demon gave one last coughing, grunting cry as the hammering steel severed its spinal column and sent it crashing to the ground in quivering ruin.

XIII

"Jack! jack!"

"I'm okay, Boss!" Mashita's voice was shaken, but Houghton had never heard a more welcome sound in his life.

"Good." Houghton realized he was still clutching the gunner's joystick in a death grip and made his hand relax. He reengaged the electric safeties on both cannon and machine gun, then took his hand off the joystick and drew a deep breath.

"How bad is it?" he asked.

"That's kinda hard to say with a couple hundred tons of dead whatever-the-fuck-those-things-were stacked all over the deck," Mashita replied. "I know the front right suspension's screwed, but I don't know about any of the other axles. And I can't see jack—you should pardon the expression—with this thing lying across my vision slots. Not to mention my hatch; I'm gonna have to crawl back through the tunnel to get out."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised." Houghton heard a flicker of genuine humor in his own voice and gave himself a shake.

"I take it you're still okay, too, Wencit?"

"Indeed I am, Gunnery Sergeant," Wencit said. "And perhaps you're beginning to understand why I wanted the most powerful ally I could summon," he added dryly.

"From what I could see, your boy Bahzell's pretty bad damned news all by himself," Houghton said.

"Champions of Tomank tend to be that way. Speaking of which . . ."

The wizard, Houghton realized abruptly, never had closed the commander's hatch. He'd stayed right where he was, sticking up out of it, even as no less than three demons—and Houghton was certainly prepared to concede the applicability of the term after what had just happened—came charging straight at him. Which meant either that he was an even bigger lunatic than Houghton had thought, or else that he was an even more powerful wizard than he'd suggested. Or, more probably, both.

Now Wencit clambered up to perch on top of the turret, resting one heel nonchalantly on the outstretched forelimb of the final demon.

"So, Bahzell," Houghton heard over his helmet headphones, "fancy meeting you here!"

 

Bahzell's ears twitched straight up in astonishment at the familiar voice coming to him from the outlandish looking vehicle half buried in dead demons.

<You know, he can be really irritating when he turns up this way, can't he?> Walsharno observed.

"Aye, that he can. Still and all, I'm not so very tempted to be complaining about it this evening," Bahzell replied judiciously.

<There were only five of them, you know,> Walsharno grumbled.

"Which would have been only about four too many, I'm thinking."

<All right, be that way.>

"And could you be so very kind, Wencit," Bahzell said, raising his voice but speaking with exquisite courtesy, "as to be explaining to us how it is you've happened along at just this very moment this time?"

Walsharno trotted towards the vehicle, just as a second hatch opened in its roof and a stranger in a uniform which looked just as outlandish as the vehicle itself poked his head and shoulders up out of it.

"As to that," Wencit said, "the person you want to be thanking is Gunnery Sergeant Houghton here. He and Corporal Mashita were kind enough to give me a ride."

"And just how was it you . . . inveigled them into anything as daft as that? Did you ride up to them out of a snow flurry in a swamp?"

"I've only used that particular technique once, I'll have you know," Wencit said in dignified tones. "In this case, I simply mentioned to them that I had a friend—two friends, actually—who were about to get themselves into trouble all over again. Once I'd explained, they decided they didn't have anything better to do tonight."

"Did they now?" Walsharno reached the vehicle and halted. Sitting in the saddle, Bahzell was taller than the ungainly-looking thing, and he reached his right hand towards Houghton.

"I'm thinking as how no one in his right mind would be after volunteering for something like this," he said. "Still and all, it's grateful I am. And impressed."

 

Bahzell's voice was the deepest one Kenneth Houghton had ever heard. It seemed to roll up from his toenails and then rumble around inside that vast chest of his until it reached critical mass and came spilling out with the power of James Earl Jones on steroids.

That was Houghton's first thought. Then he noticed Bahzell's tufted, foxlike ears, thrusting up through the special openings in his helmet.

Nope, still not in Kansas, Toto, he told himself wryly.

"I probably wouldn't have volunteered if I'd really realized what we were getting into," he heard himself saying aloud as he reached out to take the proffered had. "And I imagine I'm even more impressed with you than you are with me." He shook his head. "You may think I'm out of my mind, but I know you are! At least I had an LAV and not just a sword!"

"Ah, well, as to that, I'd a bit more than 'just a sword' working for me." Bahzell's grin showed white, strong teeth.

"That's true enough," Wencit said. "On the other hand, if you two can tear yourselves away from your mutual admiration society, there are still some rather unpleasant people in the neighborhood."

"Aye, so there are." Bahzell nodded. "In fact, I've the oddest notion, given what's just been happening here, as how those unpleasant folk have been putting themselves to quite an effort so as to invite Walsharno and me to their little get-together. You wouldn't be knowing anything about that, would you, Wencit?"

"I believe I told you—once, at least—that I'm a wizard and wizards are supposed to know things."

 

"So much for your demons!" Garsalt snarled.

"My demons?" Cherdahn glared back at the balding wizard.

The priest and his three wizard "allies" sat in luxuriously comfortable chairs around a long, glassy-smooth table of stone. The stone walls were covered with tapestries—less horrifying, thankfully, than the mosaics of the main tunnel, although still gruesome enough to affect most people's appetites—and wall sconces less brilliant than the tunnel's overhead spheres spread gentle illumination through the sumptuously furnished chamber. The dinner dishes had been removed before Bahzell arrived, and they'd been sipping wine with celebratory anticipation as they watched the images Garsalt's scrying spells had projected into the head-sized gramerhain crystal hovering in midair above the table. But those images hadn't shown them what they'd hoped for, and now their wine glasses sat ignored on the table while he and Cherdahn locked fiery eyes with one another.

"The Scorpion's servants did exactly what they were supposed to do," Sharn's priest half-spat. "And, forgive me if I seem a little confused, but I was under the impression that you knew where Wencit was. Apparently, I was mistaken, wasn't I? And did you simply forget to mention that . . . that . . . whatever that thing out there is?"

"Of course not! But if you'd done what—"

"Enough, Garsalt!" Tremala snapped, and both men (assuming the term "man" was still applicable to Cherdahn) turned to glare at her, instead of each other.

"No," she continued, once she was certain she had their attention, "the demons didn't succeed. That certainly wasn't Cherdahn's fault, however, Garsalt. Nor was it ours. We opened the portal exactly as planned, and without Wencit's arrival, the Bloody Hand and his horse would both be dead now and the demons who'd survived their encounter with him would be waiting for Wencit, when he came blundering in too late to save the Bloody Hand. So yes, Cherdahn, we should have told you where he was. Unfortunately, we did. The last time Garsalt and I checked, Wencit was still at least ten leagues from here."

"Then you should have checked more recently," Cherdahn said icily.

"We last checked less than twenty minutes before Bahzell arrived outside your door," Tremala said sweetly.

"That's ridiculous!"

"Yes, it is, isn't it? Unless, of course, he knew exactly what was going on—exactly what we had planned—and built a glamour within a glamour expressly to deceive us."

"That's impossible, Tremala," Rethak objected. She looked at the dark, dapper wizard, whose specialty was the creation of sophisticated glamours, and he shook his head. "He may be Wencit of Ru–m, but even so, he couldn't possibly have known. Certainly not long enough ago to set something like that up!"

"What's he talking about?" Cherdahn demanded suspiciously.

"The only way Wencit could have deceived us that way would have been to build two glamours," Tremala said. "One of which—the one we knew about—was designed to keep us from locating him at all, or so we thought. And the second of which was intended to deceive us into thinking he was farther away than he really was just in case we did manage to relocate him. And, just coincidentally, allowed us to 'know' where he was without letting us actually see him or his surroundings, which meant we didn't know anything about that . . . vehicle he brought with him."

She paused for a moment, one eyebrow arched, until Cherdahn nodded impatiently for her to go on.

"Unfortunately, there are two problems with that possibility. First, we—or, rather, certain . . . colleagues of ours—have been monitoring him for weeks. We knew, or thought we did, exactly when he became aware of our plans, because that was when his glamour of concealment went up in the first place. At which point, exactly as we expected, we lost track of him for quite a while. But not even Wencit of Ru–m could have built two nested glamours without the ones watching him realizing what he was doing, and nested glamours have to be put together very carefully. The inner glamour has to be erected first, Cherdahn, and there's no question at all but that the glamour we finally managed to pierce is the original, outer one we saw go up in the first place."

"Then, obviously, you're mistaken about what he did."

"Do I tell you how to summon the Scorpion's Servants?" Tremala demanded, her lip curling scornfully. "I'm not mistaken about what he did, but it's just become abundantly clear that we've all been mistaken about when he did it. That's the second problem I mentioned. It's the order in which the spells are cast, not the order in which they actually activate, which really matters. What Wencit must have done is cast the inner glamour before those colleagues of ours started monitoring him, constructed in such a way that it didn't activate—didn't manifest—until after the outer glamour did."

"So you're saying your 'colleagues' were clumsy enough that he realized what they were doing that far ahead of time?"

"No, that's not what I'm saying. The fact that they didn't see him doing it means he must have prepared the inner glamour literally weeks, even months ago. And the problem, you see, Cherdahn, is that for him to confuse us as to where he is in relationship to where we're standing right this minute, he had to include this specific location in his spell construct. In other words, he had to know at least approximately where your temple was before he could cast the spell. Which means any warning he got must have come from your side."

"That's ridiculous!"

"Of course it is. But it's also what must have happened. Without his knowing this location so that he could anchor the second glamour to it, every time we checked his location through the chink he 'accidentally' left in his outer glamour, we'd have gotten a different distance reading—a fixed distance from the observer. The same fixed distance, whether it was one of us, right here, or one of our colleagues elsewhere. And the fact that we could have compared our distance readings would inevitably have shown us what was happening, since he couldn't actually be the same distance from both of us. The only way to avoid that problem for a moving glamour is to anchor it to a specific, previously known and located physical location. In other words, he needed to index the spell here to be certain that the distances we got were consistent."

"But there's no way he could have done that," Cherdahn insisted. "He may be a wild wizard, but my Master is a god. No wizard could penetrate his concealment. Not, at least, without our knowing he'd done it. No, Tremala, the only way he could have come to this location was following you, exactly the way he was supposed to. Although," Cherdahn showed his sharp teeth, "he wasn't supposed to be here just yet, was he?"

"No, but—"

"Excuse me," Rethak broke in, his voice sharp. Both of them looked at him, and he grimaced. "Does it really matter how he and that thing out there managed to get here without our realizing how close he was? He's here now, he's managed to rescue the Bloody Hand, and the two of them are about to decide what to do about us. Don't you think we might do better to be worrying about that than arguing over whose security measures were at fault?"

Tremala and Cherdahn glowered at him for perhaps three heartbeats. Then the sorceress inhaled sharply.

"He's right, you know," she told Cherdahn. "Don't forget, this is Wencit of Ru–m we're dealing with. The gods only know what he's capable of, or how he may have done what he's done. But what matters right now is that he and the Bloody Hand are here, and your Servants are all destroyed."

"No, they aren't," Cherdahn said grimly. "As a matter of fact, the most powerful of the Master's Greater Servants is still within."

"It is?" Tremala's eyes brightened, but Cherdahn barked a harsh laugh.

"Indeed it is. Unfortunately, it's a true Greater Servant. It's far more powerful than the ones which have been destroyed, but it can be bound only once, and only for a limited time. To send it after Bahzell will take some time. The sacrifice must be performed properly, without dangerous haste, or the Servant will turn on us, instead of the Bloody Hand and Wencit."

"If it's more powerful, why wasn't it used in the first place?"

Cherdahn turned towards Garsalt quickly, but relaxed—at least a little—when he realized the wizard's question was a genuine one, and not simply a thinly veiled criticism.

"As I said, it can be bound only for a limited time. For now, the Scorpion's will holds it pent, but once that will is relaxed to allow us to command it, the period in which any mortal could hope to control it will be brief. We dared not bind it to our service until we knew when Bahzell would arrive. And by the time we knew that, we also 'knew,' thanks to the reports from your scrying spells, that Wencit was far behind him. The five Servants we already possessed, employed as we'd already planned, would have been more than sufficient to deal with the Bloody Hand—had Wencit and that other thing not intervened—and we would still have retained the Greater Servant had it proved necessary to use it to deal with Wencit."

"Fair enough," Tremala said. "But the question now is how long the sacrifice will take?"

"No less than half an hour, and possibly longer," Cherdahn said. "We dare not rush the death, or the binding may not take. And each Greater Servant is different. It may take somewhat longer to generate sufficient pain to satisfy this one's need."

"So we need to keep Wencit and the Bloody Hand busy for at least half an hour."

"You say that like you think it will be easy, Tremala," Rethak objected. "That's Wencit of Ru–m out there."

"Yes, it is. And I know exactly what his record is, Rethak. But do you have a better suggestion?"

"But—"

"I'm not going back to Kontovar to tell Her I decided to run away rather than face him," the sorceress said flatly. "Wencit's combat magic can only kill us, you know."

Rethak's jaw worked for a moment. Then he jerked a nod.

"In that case," Tremala said, "let's go make our visitors welcome."

* * *

Trayn Aldarfro's eyes opened in the Stygian darkness of his tiny cell.

It didn't make any difference, of course, so he closed them again, wishing he could close all of his other senses as readily. His cramped kennel lay deep in the bowels of the hillside violated by Sharn's temple, and he could sense the mental auras of dozens of other captives all about him. Most were obviously children; all were starkly terrified.

Someone was sobbing in despair and horror. Someone else—someone whose ordeal had pushed him over the edge of sanity—was talking to himself, or perhaps calling to a son or daughter he knew he would never see again. His long, rambling sentences were interspersed with bouts of screaming laughter, or howls of rage, and someone else was pleading with him to be quiet, to stop, even though the person behind that voice had to know her pleas were futile. And layered throughout those sounds, counterpointing all of them, were the moans and whimpers of children trapped in a waking nightmare and the handful of adults seeking uselessly to comfort them.

The despair and hopelessness crushing down upon Trayn in that darkness had driven him to the point of mindlessness. Driven him to the very brink of a mage's final retreat into the mental shutdown which would lead inevitably to the body's death, as well. Yet even there, in that black pit of horror, the training which made him what he was—and some inner spark, whatever it was that made him who he was—had refused to allow him to escape. Had demanded that he stay, do what he could if even the tiniest opportunity should present itself. He'd come to accept that escape was as impossible as Tremala had suggested, but even as he'd accepted that, a grim, focused determination to strike back at least once before the end had filled the innermost recesses of his soul.

Now, though, he sensed something even worse. Sensed the stirring of an even greater malevolence, an even greater evil. He sat up, the chains on his ankles clanking, and his face went bleak and hard in the blackness as he heard something else—heard the voice of a young woman, sobbing, pleading, fighting as she was dragged from her tiny cell. She couldn't possibly have sensed what he had, yet she seemed to know anyway.

Trayn could hear her, feel her, as she was dragged down the corridor outside the closed door of his own cell, and he knew where she was bound. He knew what sort of death awaited a sacrifice to Sharn, knew what the unspeakable appetite behind the malevolence he'd sensed wanted from her. And he knew no one could possibly save her from it.

His eyes burned with that knowledge. Then his jaw clenched, and he bent forward, pressing his hands to his temples, summoning all the power within him and focusing it through the training he had already received. He reached out, reached through that darkness and stone, until his questing mental fingers touched the surface of the doomed young woman's mind.

She was even younger than he'd thought, not yet eighteen, he judged. And in that moment when their minds touched, he knew she had already seen the deaths of her parents, her brothers, a sister. Knew she understood precisely what was about to happen to her, as well, and felt her hopeless terror beating like the wings of a dying bird against the iron bars of the inescapable cage about her.

She sensed him, too, though not as clearly as he sensed her, and he held out his mental hand to her. He took her hand in his, clasping it, offering the only comfort he could, and felt her grip close with desperate strength and gratitude upon his. There were no words between them. Trayn's major talent was not telepathy, and she had no mage talent at all. Yet if there were no words, there was a promise, and Trayn went with her as she was dragged down that passageway of dark stone towards the agonizing death awaiting her.

XIV

"So let me get this straight," Houghton said. "The two of you—the three, of you, I mean—" he corrected himself, nodding at the huge horse he'd been informed was actually something called a courser (and also a champion of Tomank)"—plan to go inside a tunnel none of the rest of us can even see. Have I got that right?"

He and Mashita had climbed up out of Tough Mama to join Wencit. Houghton had been careful to keep his boots well away from the ichor which continued to smoke as it ate its way through the LAV's paint. Aside from that, he'd tried not to think all that much about exactly what the "demons' " reality represented. Unfortunately, the towering, fox-eared Bahzell seemed completely serious . . . which probably meant the gunnery sergeant was going to have to think about them—or, at least, whoever had sent them—very shortly.

That possibility made Houghton very nervous, indeed.

Mashita, on the other hand, seemed all but oblivious to such minor concerns as gigantic, impossibly fast, armor-plated, man-eating, pincer-equipped, cursed creatures out of the darkest pit of Hell. He was too busy drooling over Bahzell's horse—courser, a corner of Houghton's brain corrected mechanically—to pay much attention to anything else, which obviously amused the courser no end.

"Aye, and so we do," Bahzell agreed in response to the Marine's question.

There was something about that earthquake-deep voice of his which made anything he suggested sound reasonable, Houghton reflected. However insane it might actually be.

"And there may be more of these things," the gunnery sergeant jerked his head in a sideways nod at the hideous, mangled bodies draped in front of—and across—his LAV, "waiting for you in there?"

"As to that, I'm thinking there's at least one more," Bahzell said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "I'm after feeling something a bit . . . odd about this one, though."

"'Odd?' " Houghton snorted. "So all of this—" he waved both arms at the abattoir hillside "—wasn't 'odd' for you people?"

"Actually," Wencit replied with a slight smile, "it's not very far out of the ordinary for a champion of Tomank."

"As to that," Bahzell gave the wild wizard a quelling look, then turned back to Houghton, "don't you be listening to him, Ken Houghton. It's dead I'd be, and Walsharno with me, if not for you. And its thankful we both are, as well. Still and all, we've some unfinished business down that hole yonder."

"What sort of business?"

Houghton knew, the instant he opened his mouth, that he shouldn't have asked the question.

"The 'raiders' Walsharno and I have been after following—aye, and the ones Wencit's been after chasing with you—are inside there, and they've at least one entire village's children, not to mention dozens of other folk, with them."

"And you're going in after them," Houghton said flatly.

"Aye." Bahzell's deep, rumbling voice was just as flat, just as hard. "I've no choice, you see. I've already said there's after being at least one more of these beauties down yonder, and so there is. And the only way Demon Breath's church can be after controlling such is by feeding them."

He didn't have to explain what he meant, and Houghton's belly knotted at the implications. Implications which, he knew, he should have already recognized for himself.

"And just how many people—how many soldiers—are they going to have in there with them?" he asked.

"Somewhere in excess of a hundred armsmen," Wencit said. "I can't be positive exactly how many, but that's a minimum number. And then there are at least three wizards, possibly more. Plus the demon, of course."

"Aye," Bahzell agreed. "Still and all, Wencit, they've not bound the demon yet. That's going to be taking them more than a minute or two, I'm thinking. So if it happened we could get in there quick enough, it might just be as we could keep them from ever binding it."

"Somehow," Houghton sighed, "I just knew you were going to say that." He shook his head, then looked at Mashita with a crooked grin. "What d'you say, Jack?"

 

It was clear Walsharno didn't think very much of his rider's plans.

Houghton watched Bahzell and the huge stallion standing literally nose-to-nose. The "hradani" (as Wencit had told him Bahzell's branch of the "Races of Man" was known) didn't seem quite so mountainous from a distance, especially when compared to the courser, and Houghton decided he wouldn't have wanted to have anything Walsharno's size, as angry with him as the courser stallion obviously was. The gunnery sergeant and Mashita had looked on in amazement as Bahzell healed the bleeding gash down Walsharno's flank and then watched the courser brush his velvet nose affectionately across the hradani's chest afterward. Now, however, Walsharno stamped one dinner-plate-sized rear hoof angrily. A ring of blue fire, like a flash of igniting lighter fluid, swept outward from the point at which that huge hoof struck the ground, and Walsharno's black tail switched furiously, more like some irate tiger's than that of any "horse" Houghton had ever seen.

"You won't be fitting, if that tunnel's after closing down," Bahzell said in a voice which mingled sternness, reason, frustration, and at least a little anger of its own. "Aye, and, come to that, who's to be watching our backs if you're inside there, too?"

He folded his arms emphatically and paused, as if listening to a voice only he could hear, then shook his head.

"No," he said. Again, his foxlike-ears cocked as if listening. "I'm not liking it a bit more than you," he said then, his voice marginally gentler, "and well you know it. But we've no time at all, at all, to be standing here, arguing."

The stallion glowered at him for another moment, and then his head sagged and his tail drooped. He leaned forward, resting his jaw on the hradani's shoulder, and Bahzell closed his eyes and reached up to caress his companion's ears as he pressed the side of his own head against Walsharno's neck. Then he stood back, gave the stallion a crisp nod, and turned to Wencit, Houghton, and Mashita.

"If it's still minded you are to be going, then we'd best be on our way," he said briskly.

He turned and headed towards the hole in the hillside without another word or a single backward glance, and the others followed.

Wencit had already warned Houghton that Bahzell was considerably more sophisticated than he chose to sound, and the gunnery sergeant had been pleased to discover the wizard was right. Bahzell obviously came from a pretechnical culture—or, at least, one whose technology was very different from that of Houghton's home world—but he clearly understood the nuts and bolts of this sort of operation. His briefing on exactly what he could see inside the hill (which was obviously more than even Wencit could) had been terse and concise, and Houghton had no doubt that it had also been entirely accurate. The hradani was also mentally flexible enough to be more than willing to incorporate Houghton and Mashita's capabilities into his battle plan. For that matter, he'd proven flexible enough to let Houghton explain how best to incorporate those capabilities.

They stopped, standing in the windy night—upwind, thankfully, from the stench of the dead demons—with the gunnery sergeant between Wencit and Bahzell. The hradani looked down at Houghton from his towering height and cocked his head.

"I'm thinking you're the one as knows just how best to be doing this," he said, and Houghton nodded, then glanced at Wencit.

"Ready?" he asked, and the wizard nodded back. "Let's do it, then," the Marine said.

This time, Wencit didn't even nod. He simply raised his right hand and frowned slightly, his eyes fixed on the opening in the hillside which Houghton still couldn't see at all . . . and which even the wizard could see only because Bahzell had told him exactly where to look. Then a globe of witchfire glowed silently into existence in his cupped palm, flowing into it like water emerging from thin air. It floated there, flaring and flickering gently, like the wizard's uncanny eyes, and grew. It seemed to happen slowly, gradually, yet Houghton couldn't have breathed more than twice before it had completely filled Wencit's hand and wrapped the wizard's wrist and forearm in tendrils of flowing light. And then, Wencit's hand flicked forward in an oddly elegant, almost gentle throwing motion.

The ball of witchfire arced through the night and disappeared into what still looked to Houghton for all the world like a solid piece of hillside. Nothing at all seemed to happen, but then Wencit made a satisfied sound.

"That was a very good idea, Gunnery Sergeant," he said. "They didn't like it a bit."

"I thought they wouldn't," Houghton replied grimly. Then he drew a deep breath, reminded himself that he was in a universe where magic actually worked, and stepped straight forward into the solid hillside.

He'd never found out where Diego Santander had acquired the MM-1 grenade launcher, nor had he asked. Tough Mama's gunner was an inspired scrounger, and for all Houghton knew, Diego had won the damn thing in a card game with one of the SpecOps guys he hung around with. If that were the case, Houghton probably should have seen about getting it back to the unit it actually belonged to, but the gunnery sergeant had been much too happy to see it to worry about any petty concerns where legal ownership was concerned.

The twelve-shot, revolver-style weapon weighed over twelve and a half pounds even empty, but Wencit had pointed out that all he really needed was to have both hands free in case they required a spell in a hurry. He'd volunteered to help carry other gear, like extra ammunition and the additional grenades. He'd offered to carry the Marine's rifle, as well, but Houghton hadn't been about to let that get that far away from him. Still, the wizard's offer left him free to worry about the launcher without loading himself down like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he smiled unpleasantly at the thought of what it could do.

The MM-1 might be bulky, but it was tough, reliable, easy to maintain, and offered a quick, substantial weight of firepower that was especially welcome to vehicle crews who might find themselves compelled to ditch under less than ideal circumstances. (Which, in Houghton's opinion, was a perfect description of his current situation.) True, it used the older, low-velocity forty-millimeter grenades, not the newer versions designed for weapons like the Mk 19 rapid-fire grenade launcher. Still, the fragmentation/shaped charge M443 grenades loaded into half its chambers had a casualty radius of over fifteen feet. The other six chambers were loaded with the technically obsolete M576E1 "multi-projectile" grenade, which was effectively an old-fashioned shrapnel round packed with twenty balls, that was even more lethal, in many respects.

Now Houghton stepped across a threshold he still couldn't see. Despite everything, he'd more than half expected to ram headlong into a solid wall of earth, and he exhaled in relief as he found himself inside a tunnel, instead. He also found himself in total darkness, courtesy of Wencit's spell, which had just extinguished the overhead lights. He'd hoped the wizard might be able to do something of the sort, and his lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl of satisfaction as the infrared illuminator of his NVG flooded the scene before him with light the unaided eye simply couldn't see. Houghton and Mashita each had their own NVG; Santander had left his aboard Tough Mama, and Houghton had given Bahzell a quick, rough and ready briefing before he handed the gunner's gear over to the hradani. He'd been more than a little surprised by how quickly Bahzell had picked up on what he was saying. In fact, he'd suspected for a few moments that Bahzell hadn't understood at all and simply didn't want to admit it, until Bahzell had repeated his instructions perfectly—almost word for word.

Wencit's right—the big guy ain't no slouch, a corner of Houghton's brain reflected as he raised the launcher. Its maximum range was well over three hundred meters, but he wasn't going to need anywhere near that much to reach the confused sprawl of bow and crossbow-equipped armsmen who'd just been plunged into darkness. The green-and-gray imagery was as familiar to Houghton as the normal colors of daylight, and he watched pitilessly as at least half a dozen of those armsmen dropped their weapons and fumbled with torches, trying frantically to get them lit.

Not going to have time for that, boys, he thought grimly, and squeezed the trigger.

The launcher coughed and sent the first grenade downrange. It landed directly in the center of a knot of armsmen and the M550 fuse detonated the forty-five-gram bursting charge. The explosion lit the tunnel like a lightning flash, and the sound of the detonation in such a confined space was like a pair of fists, slamming down across both ears. For one brief moment, that was all anyone could hear; then the shrieks of pain, mingled with terrified confusion, began just as Houghton tracked his aiming point to the right and squeezed again. The self-cocking cylinder rotated, the second grenade went sizzling downrange, and fresh screams answered.

None of those armsmen had anticipated anything like it. Even those who could see the muzzle flash of the launcher had no clue what it was, and Houghton moved after each shot, changing position just in case any of those bows or crossbows returned fire.

Not that there was going to be very much time for them to do that; it took him less than twenty seconds to fire all twelve grenades.

 

"What in Phrobus' name is that?" the captain of Tremala's armsmen demanded.

He stood at Garsalt's shoulder, staring in shocked disbelief into the depths of the wizard's personal gramerhain. The fist-sized lump of water-clear crystal should have shown a brightly illuminated entry tunnel where forty picked men were waiting, ready to unleash a torrent of arrows and crossbow quarrels as their opponents crossed the threshold and stood blinking stupidly, stunned eyes bat-blind in the unexpected brilliance. But there was no brilliance. Or, rather, not their brilliance.

Garsalt was even more stunned, in many ways, than the captain beside him. Scrying was Garsalt's specialty. Unlike many wizards, he could actually perceive spells and their natures when he captured their caster in his gramerhain. Which meant he knew that those blinding flashes of light ripping through the darkness like trapped lightning were totally non-arcane in nature.

Which, of course, was impossible.

"I don't know what it is," he grated, in answer to the captain's question.

"Well, what happened to the light, then?" The armsman sounded accusing, and Garsalt couldn't really blame him.

"Wencit turned it off," the wizard replied.

"How—?"

"I don't know how!" Garsalt interrupted. "He shouldn't have been able to do it. We didn't create the light-globes; Cherdahn did it with Sharn's aid when he built the temple, and he didn't use wizardry to do it. Even Wencit should have needed at least several minutes to figure out how to turn god-lights off, unless . . ."

Garsalt's voice trailed off as he thought furiously. The vicious spits of light in his gramerhain continued, mercilessly cutting down the armsmen who had expected to be the ones doing any ambushing, and the wizard swore viciously in sudden understanding.

"He didn't turn them off at all!" he snapped. "He simply used a spell of his own to trap the light above it. The old bastard duplicated the effect of the spell Cherdahn used to keep the light from showing through the archway and projected it between the globes and the rest of the tunnel!"

"But to do that—"

"To do that he had to know the tunnel's exact dimensions before he cast the spell." Sweat beaded Garsalt's forehead, and he shook his head fiercely. "He had to know them, or else there'd've been holes in his barrier, places for light to leak through, at least until he reconfigured it. But he couldn't know! Even if he'd somehow been able to see through Cherdahn's barrier, he'd still have had to be able to see through Rethak's glamour, and not even Wencit could have done that without Rethak knowing it!"

"Well, whether it's possible or not, he seems to've managed it!" the captain snarled.

"I know that, idiot!" Garsalt stared down into the gramerhain's crystalline depths as one final explosion flashed within it. Unlike the armsmen trapped in the sudden darkness, Garsalt's scrying spell needed no light to see what had happened.

"They're all down," he said flatly. "Two or three of them managed to run away—all the rest are dead or wounded."

"Phrobus!" the captain muttered in disbelief. No, not disbelief, Garsalt realized. In the desire to disbelieve.

"That's almost a quarter of our total manpower—gone!" the captain continued, and Garsalt suppressed a need to snarl back at him. The wizard was painfully aware of that minor fact.

 

"I'm thinking I'd sooner have you on my side than the other, Ken Houghton," Bahzell Bahnakson said, surveying the carnage.

The tangled drifts of bodies were astonishingly clear through Houghton's magical goggles. Many of those bodies lay still and dead, but others were still alive, whimpering or screaming with the pain of their wounds. Their pain sounds were thin and distorted in the fragile silence filling the wake of Houghton's thunderous weapon, and their agonized writhing sent ripples of movement across the heaped bodies.

The hradani surveyed them, and his brown eyes were hard and cold behind the NVG. Honorable foes he could respect, but men who gave their swords to the service of scum like Carnadosa or Sharn were something else. He remembered the village, those shredded bodies piled in the muddy street where they'd died defending their children against the horror these men had chosen to serve, and there was no pity in him.

"Well, yeah," Houghton agreed, standing beside Bahzell and surveying the same scene. "On the other hand, we've only got sixteen more grenades for this thing."

"A man can't be asking for everything," Bahzell said philosophically.

"And why the hell not?" Houghton demanded. The hradani looked down at him, and the Marine shrugged. "All my life, people have been telling me I 'can't have everything.' I'm just wondering why that is."

"Why, now that you've asked, I've no answer at all," Bahzell told him, with a deep chuckle. "I'm thinking I'd best be introducing you to Brandark and letting him explain it to the both of us."

"I'm not sure how practical that's going to be," Wencit put in from behind them. "And, if you'll pardon me for pointing this out, if you're ever going to have another conversation with Brandark, Bahzell, we'd best be moving on, don't you think?"

"Aren't you just the peevish one?" Bahzell replied. "Still and all," he continued before the wizard could fire back, "you've a point."

He stood for a moment, head cocked, as if he were listening for something none of the others could hear, then pointed to the right.

"There's an intersection up ahead there," he said. "The tunnel we're wanting leads to the right."

XV

Trayn Aldarfro's fingernails cut deep, bleeding wounds in the palms of his fisted hands. Sweat covered his face in a thick, solid sheet; breath hissed between his clenched teeth in jagged, explosive spits of air; and every muscle quivered, shuddering with the waves of agony rolling through him.

He could have escaped the torment anytime he chose, which made it even worse in many ways, yet in truth, he couldn't choose to. He was a mage, pledged to fight the Dark at whatever cost. And even if he hadn't been bound by his mage's oath, he'd made another promise. A promise to a girl-woman he'd never even seen.

His spine arched, until only his heels and the back of his head touched the stone floor, and an animal pain sound ripped from his throat. He'd never imagined such agony, yet he knew that despite all he could do, what he was experiencing at this moment was only a fraction of what that girl he'd never seen was suffering.

He was with her as she writhed, twisting and jerking against her chains on the gore-encrusted altar. He was with her as the chanting ghouls who worshiped Sharn leaned over her with their knives, their pincers, all the unspeakable instruments of torture consecrated to their Dark God. There was no secret of pain, no possible torture, which they did not know. All the agony which could be inflicted upon the human body was theirs to command, and their victim shrieked as they visited it upon her with a cold, methodical calculation worse than any frenzied explosion of homicidal madness.

Trayn would have given his very soul to save that girl from the atrocity being visited upon her, and he couldn't. He couldn't. His helplessness was a torment deeper than any pain of the flesh, yet he refused to allow it to distract him from the one thing he could do. And so he was with her, sharing her pain, diverting all of it that he could—little though that might have been against such an avalanche of agony. She was scarcely even aware of his presence, now. There was room for so little within the horror which had engulfed her, but still a tiny fragment of her knew he was there. Knew she was not totally alone, even here, even now. And as Trayn bared his teeth in a snarl of agony, still he held the shield he had thrown about her innermost being.

He felt the glowing knot of her life, her soul, like the fluttering of terrified wings against the palm of his hand. Death—and worse than death—was coming for it, and it knew it, yet even as extinction loomed, it blazed ever brighter and more brilliant, focused by the agony inflicted upon her body, consuming itself in her torment. It was that brightness, the final brightness of despair and anguish, that all of this was designed to create. To offer up to the waiting demon until it reached the crucial point and the demon reached out to it. Reached out and took it—consumed its bleeding shreds and sucked the last dim, glowing marrow from its bones as the monstrous evil extinguished not simply the life, but the very soul of its prey.

Trayn twisted, his own sounds those of a tormented animal, but still he held the shield. Still, he muted that brilliant glow. He felt the demon's waiting malevolence, its avid awareness of the feast promised to it, but he refused to yield. He would hold that shield as long as he lived, and until he died, the girl's soul would live, whatever happened to her body.

 

Cherdahn stepped back from the altar for a moment.

His victim's blood had soaked his vestments in a freshly consecrating flood, and his nostrils quivered with the delicious smell of spilt life and agony. He licked the thin blade of his flaying knife, and the taste was sweet, sweet. But even as its dark power flowed into him, he knew something was wrong.

The sacrifice had been perfect. A virgin, strong-minded enough to have retained her sanity even when her entire family had been butchered, yet old enough—and, perhaps even more importantly, imaginative enough—to appreciate her own fate, and young and strong enough to last even on Sharn's altar. There could not have been a more delectable offering to one of the Scorpion's Greater Servants, and no one in Sharn's service was more skilled than Cherdahn in rendering those offerings.

And yet, he couldn't feel the Servant reaching out to the tender delicacy shrieking upon the altar. He knew the agony had been sufficient, the despair deep enough, but still the Servant stood aloof, without so much as touching the sacrifice's soul. That had never happened to Cherdahn before, and uncertainty tried to chip holes in the dark priest's confidence. Was it possible that somehow, in some unknown fashion, Bahzell and Walsharno were responsible? They were champions of Tomank. Could they be managing, even from outside the sacred precincts of the sacrificial chamber, to interfere with the ritual? The very idea was preposterous, yet what else could it be?

He didn't know the answer to those questions, but in the back of his brain a dark worm of fear had begun to grow. In order to bind the Servant, he'd been forced to weaken the bonds Sharn's will had fastened upon it when it was entrusted to Cherdahn's keeping. He'd locked additional restraints into place, tied into the life of the sacrifice, holding it until the instant of her death. That was an essential part of any binding, for a Servant had no loyalty. It hated—and desired—all mortal life, and its most fiery hatred was reserved for those who bound it to their service in the first place. It must be held by the constraints of the Scorpion's ritual until the moment in which it consumed the sacrifice's soul and, in that instant, locked the new binding upon it even as the sacrifice's death dissolved all earlier constraints.

There had been instances in which the ritual had been faulty. In which the sacrifice had died before its soul was consumed. When that happened, the consequences could well prove fatal for the Servant's summoner.

But that had never happened to him, Cherdahn reminded himself, and it would not happen here, either. He refused to let it happen, and his jaw tightened as he stepped back to the altar and bent to his task once more.

 

Rethak of Kontovar no longer looked quite so dapper. Sweat and the stink of fear tended to have that effect.

He pressed his back to the smooth stone of a passageway and cursed the architect who'd designed this complex warren of tunnels and corridors. The temple was at least twice the size it needed to have been, he thought viciously. Its size was no more than an exercise in egoism on Cherdahn's part, and any priest with half a brain would have kept it as small and inconspicuous as he could have, however good its concealment. But, no, not Cherdahn! He had to flaunt the power of his deity. Had to prove what a magnificent temple he could provide even here, in a land where the worship of Sharn was punishable by death for all concerned.

And even when its sheer size offered any invader too many possible avenues of advance. Rethak and Tremala were wizards—they'd been able to absorb the temple's twisting, twining design from a quick glance at its plan. Which meant they'd instantly recognized that there were at least six possible paths by which Bahzell, Wencit, and their allies might approach the sacrificial chamber. There was no way Bahzell and Wencit could know the temple's actual layout, but Bahzell was a champion of Tomank. He needed no diagrams. He could feel the concentration of evil he sought, could pick out a path to it with his eyes closed.

Still, even though there were at least half a dozen possibilities, they converged so that each of them passed through one of two narrow bottlenecks before they spread out once more. And because they did, he and Tremala had to defend both bottlenecks if they were to have any hope at all of stopping the invaders.

Which meant that one of them was going to find himself—or herself—face-to-face with Wencit of Ru–m with no arcane allies in sight.

So far, no dark wizard in history had survived a meeting like that.

"Rethak!"

The wizard twitched as Garsalt's voice spoke to him out of the darkness. A quick flare of bitter resentment flashed through Rethak at the sound. Much as he despised Garsalt, he envied him in that moment, because Garsalt's specialty meant he was safely in the rear, just outside the sacrificial chamber itself, where he could monitor the enemy's approach. Rethak's specialty, on the other hand, lay in the creation of glamours. He was actually marginally better at it than Tremala was, although the sorceress' other strengths outclassed him hugely. And because he was, he was stuck out here, waiting for Wencit and hoping the shield of invisibility he was holding over the armsmen with him would prove strong enough to deflect even the wild wizard's uncanny eyes.

"Rethak!" Garsalt's voice repeated, and this time it was louder. He must have increased the volume of the projection from his end, Rethak thought, because he could hear the throat-ripping shrieks of the sacrifice in the background, despite the thick walls and massive door between Garsalt and the chamber.

"What?" Rethak snapped back in a harsh whisper.

"They're coming your way, after all," Garsalt's voice said rapidly. "They'll be there in less than five minutes."

"Fiendark fly away with their souls!" Rethak muttered.

"What? I couldn't hear you."

"Never mind," Rethak grated. "Tell Tremala. And tell that worthless piece of Scorpion shit we need his frigging demon now!"

 

Bahzell Bahnakson led the way down the twisting, turning passage.

Houghton wasn't especially happy about that. Having someone armed with what was effectively a hand-to-hand weapon between the place any fresh enemy might appear and the members of the combat team equipped with firearms wasn't normally a formula for tactical success. In this case, however, he'd been forced to admit that sometimes there were exceptions to the rule.

They were no longer advancing through darkness, yet Bahzell appeared to possess something which was almost as big an advantage over his foes as the nightvision gear had been. Houghton didn't pretend to understand how it worked, but the huge hradani seemed to be able to literally smell the other side. Without him, the others would have walked straight into ambushes at least three or four times already, and if Bahzell didn't have a ranged weapon, the tortuous layout of this rat's nest of tunnels didn't exactly give very long lines of sight, anyway. There was blood splashed across Bahzell's green surcoat now, joining the burned spots the demons' ichor had produced, and Houghton had to admit that no opponent who found himself within reach of the hradani's huge sword was likely to be a problem to anyone else ever again.

Still, it offended his sense of the way things were supposed to be.

And crawling around in tunnels fighting demons and wizards doesn't offend them, Ken? he thought sardonically. It's not as if

Bahzell stopped abruptly, and Houghton eased up to the hradani's right rear. The current tunnel was no more than ten feet across, a circular, polished bore of stone which looked almost as if it had been melted out of the hillside, rather than excavated. There was room for Houghton to take up a position which would allow him to engage past Bahzell, and he and the hradani had agreed that his field of fire would be to Bahzell's right if the opportunity arose.

Houghton had expended another thirteen grenades on the way in, and he'd decided, regretfully, to abandon the MM-1. He hoped Santander would forgive him, but with only three grenades left, and given the close confines of these tunnels, he'd decided that his M-16 gave him much better options. The M443 grenade needed to travel a minimum of fourteen meters before the fuse armed, and they hadn't seen very many tunnel stretches that long in the last twenty minutes or so, so the rifle simply made much more sense. The M-16A4 to which the Marines had switched was shorter than the older M-16A2, and more reliable—and accurate—than the slightly shorter M4 carbine version. With the M203 single-shot grenade launcher under the barrel, he could still make use of the remaining three grenades if the opportunity arose, and he had an entire magazine of 5.56-millimeter on tap if it was needed.

Mashita, on the other hand, was bringing up the rear, watching the backdoor as they advanced with the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon Corporal Johnson's recon section had left aboard Tough Mama when the LAV decided to go universe-hopping. The light machine gun fired the same round as the M-16, but Mashita had a plastic box with two hundred rounds clipped under the SAW's receiver, and four hundred more rounds clipped to his harness, while Wencit carried another four hundred. The weapon was notoriously inaccurate if someone tried to "John Wayne" it, firing freehand, but fired from its bipod in a prone position, it could lay down a devastating curtain of fire. Given the body armor their opponents were wearing—not to mention the toughness of creatures like the demons they'd already faced—Houghton was happy that both Mashita's weapon and his own were loaded with the black-tipped M995 armor-piercing round. Despite its diminutive size, the tungsten-cored round was capable of penetrating even light armored vehicles, and it had become the round of choice for "reconnaissance by fire," given its ability to penetrate concealing structures, as well, not to mention its enhanced effectiveness against modern body armor.

Of course, the people who specified its performance weren't exactly thinking in terms of chain mail and breastplates, Houghton reflected as he ghosted to a stop behind Bahzell.

"We've an intersection up ahead," the hradani said quietly.

"What sort of intersection?" Wencit asked from behind them.

"It's a four-way," Houghton replied, looking past Bahzell. "We've got another passage crossing at right angles."

"Aye, that we do," Bahzell agreed. "And there's a stink to it. I've no notion exactly what it is, but it's there."

"I hate it when you say things like that," Houghton muttered, and heard Bahzell's snort of harsh amusement. The Marine studied the intersection. Unlike Bahzell, he sensed absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about it, but that didn't prove anything. Particularly given the fact that he'd had ample evidence of the acuity of Bahzell's senses.

"I'm thinking we're needing Jack up here with his little toy," Bahzell said softly, and Houghton nodded.

"Unless I'm much mistaken," the hradani continued, "this tunnel—" a twitch of his head indicated the passage in which they currently stood "—is after turning sharp after it crosses. I'm thinking the other two are likely to run straighter than that. So, it's in my mind that I go straight across while you're taking the passage to our right, and Jack turns to the left."

"And if there's something waiting to shoot you from the side as you go past?" Houghton inquired mildly.

"Well, in that case, I'd probably best be moving sharpish."

"Somehow that doesn't strike me as the most thought-out battle plan I've ever heard of."

"I've heard it said hradani are after being simple, direct folk," Bahzell replied, and looked down as Mashita arrived.

"I believe it," Houghton said feelingly, never taking his eyes from the deserted intersection in front of them and wishing that he'd happened to have a flash grenade or two available. They'd proven their usefulness time and time again in urban combat situations; unfortunately, he hadn't anticipated anything remotely like this when he'd prepped for the mission Tough Mama's crew had expected. He continued to study the way ahead carefully as he brought Mashita up to speed on Bahzell's plan . . . such as it was, and what there was of it. Mashita didn't seem any more overjoyed with it than Houghton was, but—like Houghton—he couldn't think of a better alternative, either.

"You're right about there being something up ahead, Bahzell," Wencit said quietly just as Houghton finished. "I can't get a firm grip on it, but there's a glamour of some sort up there."

"And where there's after being a glamour, there's after being someone with a mind to hide something," Bahzell observed grimly.

"Exactly."

"Well, worrying changes naught, and time's still passing," Bahzell said philosophically.

"I know," Houghton said. "But I've just had a thought."

 

Rethak smothered a vicious curse. He was sweating harder than ever, and every dragging second he had to wait twisted his nerves tighter with Sharn's own pincers.

"Are they still just standing there?" he hissed at the thin air, ignoring the anxious glances the armsmen assembled in front of him were throwing over their shoulders in his direction.

"As far as I can tell," Garsalt's voice replied. "Bahzell and the other two have moved to the front, with Wencit in the back, and—"

Whatever the balding wizard had been about to say became abruptly superfluous.

 

"Improvise, adapt, and overcome," Gunnery Sergeant Houghton muttered to himself as he felt Wencit behind him. It was a motto which had always served the Marine Corps in general—and Ken Houghton in particular—well.

And if I didn't think to bring along a flash grenade, he thought with intense satisfaction, at least I did think to bring along a wizard!

"Now!" Wencit said sharply, and Houghton, Bahzell, and Mashita screwed their eyes tightly shut and bent their heads . . . an instant before the intersection in front of them exploded in a silent burst of light like the heart of a sun.

There was no sensation of heat, no stunning concussion such as the flash-bangs Houghton had worked with before would have produced. But from the way the blackness behind his closed eyelids turned abruptly bright red, he rather suspected that the flash itself was even brighter, and the stunning effect of pure light had to be experienced to be believed.

"Now!" a deeper, more powerful voice rumbled, and the two Marines opened their eyes and charged forward at Bahzell Bahnakson's heels.

 

Rethak staggered backward, his hands rising to his eyes. The armsmen between him and that abrupt explosion of brilliance had protected him from the worst of it, yet even the relatively small amount which had gotten past them was enough to savage his eyes and fill them not simply with blindness, but with pain, as well.

He was still moving backward when he heard a ghastly, wet, crunching sound and the first screams began.

 

Bahzell charged through the intersection, and as he crossed over its threshold, he burst through Rethak's glamour and found himself confronting a passage abruptly packed with armsmen. He couldn't tell exactly how many of them there were, but there were enough to block his way. Unfortunately for them, they were pawing frantically at their stunned, anguished eyes when he suddenly appeared amongst them. The tunnel was too cramped for him to use his sword the way he might have in the open, but there was room enough, and his lunging blade punched through the breastplate of the nearest armsman like an awl through rotten wood. Then he recovered, and his still-blind victim slid backward off the tempered steel, screaming as he clutched at the blood-spouting hole in his cuirass.

"Tomank!" Bahzell bellowed, and heard the sudden, deafening thunder of his allies' weapons behind him as they spun to the left and right.

Mashita wasn't really concerned about "accuracy" at a moment like this. The range to his farthest target was no more than sixty feet, and his opponents were packed into a tunnel no more than ten feet across. The armor-piercing ammunition punched through the front ranks, exploding out their backs in spray patterns of blood, then slammed into the men behind them.

Houghton had fewer rounds, and his weapon was incapable of sustained automatic fire, which meant he had to be more selective. He had the selector lever set on three-shot burst, and unlike the men in front of him, he could still see just fine. The glowing dot projected by his day-and-night sight settled on the head of a man less than fifteen feet from him, and his finger stroked. The target went down, and he tracked instantly to his left. Another squeeze, and another helmeted head exploded and another body fell.

 

Rethak backed away, still rubbing his stunned, watering eyes, as his ears told him what was happening to his carefully hidden ambush. The ear-shattering roar of the strangers' impossible weapons made it impossible for him to pick any details out of the general cacophony, but that was scarcely necessary.

Panic roared through him, urging him to turn and run, but he retained just enough control to know how stupid that would have been. There was a steep, winding flight of stairs back there. He couldn't possibly get down them without killing himself when he couldn't even see. Not that standing here, waiting while Bahzell Bahnakson carved his way towards him seemed like a much better option. Some of the armsmen felt the same way, and he staggered as two or three of them shouldered past him. They ran frantically, bouncing off the wall for guidance, forgetful (or uncaring) of the stairs in their panic, and an instant later he heard fresh screams from behind him—screams which were cut off with bone-snapping suddenness—as they went headlong down the steep stair.

He blinked again, and his heart spasmed with sudden hope. The barrier of armsmen in front of him had shielded his eyes from the direct impact of that intolerable flash, and his vision was recovering much more rapidly than theirs had. He could actually make out blurry ghosts of images, and he rubbed more furiously, willing his sight to clear.

It did . . . just as an enormous shape, glittering with a nimbus of blue light, loomed up before him.

Rethak squealed and turned to dash after the fleeing armsmen, but it was too late. He was still turning when an avalanche of gory steel sheared effortlessly through his neck.

XVI

"Rethak is dead, Tremala!"

The sorceress' head twitched as Garsalt's voice spoke in her ear.

"What happened?" she demanded. "Was it Wencit?"

"No," Garsalt sounded as if he were about to wet himself, she thought. "It was Bahzell. He and those other two. They mowed down Rethak's armsmen, and then Bahzell took his head off before he could run."

Despite the fear quivering under the surface of her own thoughts, Tremala arched her eyebrows. "Why in the Lady's name did the idiot let Bahzell Bahnakson into sword's reach of him?"

"I think he was blind until it was too late." She could hear Garsalt's heavy breathing, almost taste his panic. "Wencit cast some kind of light spell. It was so bright none of them could even see while Bahzell and the others cut them down. Phrobus! It was bright enough it almost blinded me through the gramerhain! I think Rethak's vision was just starting to clear when—"

Garsalt stopped. Not, Tremala reflected, that there was any real need for him to finish the sentence. A light spell! Who would have expected that? And yet, it was as brilliantly effective as it was simple. Wencit's precious Strictures prohibited him from using his sorcery to harm any non-wizard except in direct self-defense, but there was no prohibition against temporarily blinding them.

Even if it did leave them totally helpless against someone else.

"What are they doing now?" she half-snarled.

"They're still headed straight towards the chamber."

"Garsalt, there's no way anyone could go 'straight' anywhere in this miserable place, and he has at least four options now that he's finished off Rethak! I need better than that, idiot!"

Garsalt didn't reply immediately—not in words, at any rate. An instant later, however, a diagram of the temple's tunnels, looking for all the world like an intertwined ball of snakes, appeared before Tremala. It floated at eye level, and she saw one of the twisting strands glowing red. It connected Rethak's last position to the sacrificial chamber, but it wasn't the shortest of the possible pathways, and she wondered for a moment why Bahzell had chosen it. Then she realized. No, it wasn't the shortest path, once its sinuous twists and turns were allowed for, but it had started out leading in the direction of the shortest straight-line distance between Rethak's position and the hradani's objective.

"All right," she said, "I see it. And I think I can cut them off here—" a flick of her finger turned an intersection in the highlighted tunnel a pulsating green, instead of red "—and at least slow them down. But I'm not sure there's any point, if Cherdahn doesn't get his damned demon under control quickly."

"Everyone's insisting the sacrifice is going according to plan," Garsalt told her. Then his voice dropped, as if he were leaning closer to her to whisper in her ear. "Everyone's saying that, but I think they're lying. I think there's something wrong. Maybe badly wrong."

An icicle seemed to go through Tremala's heart. She told herself Garsalt was a coward, whose fears were almost certainly influencing his interpretation of events. She reminded herself that Cherdahn was one of Sharn's most senior priests, hardly the sort to get things wrong at a moment like this. Yet even as she told herself that, she remembered Cherdahn's original time estimate. A time estimate which had expired at least twenty minutes ago.

The unaccustomed panic flickering within her told her it was time to go, time to cut her losses and flee while she was still alive. And with Bahzell and Wencit following the route through Rethak's position, she could actually get past them and make a run for it. Unfortunately, Bahzell's never-to-be-sufficiently-damned courser was outside the temple somewhere. And, even more unfortunately, Carnadosa Herself had decreed this mission. If Tremala failed Her, the consequences would be almost as terrible as what Cherdahn and his acolytes were doing to their sacrifice this very moment. As she'd told Garsalt and Rethak earlier, Wencit's magic would only kill them, and that was infinitely preferable to other possible fates.

Besides, she told herself, Cherdahn really may still have things under control, after all, and if he can ever get that demon of his out here . . . 

"Stop being an old woman, Garsalt!" she snapped, venting some of her own fear in the angry contempt crackling in her voice. "We can still win this thing, and if we lose, how do you think She's going to react?" Garsalt made no reply, and she snorted harshly. "That's what I thought, too. Send the rest of the armsmen to meet me there, and keep telling me where Wencit is. And see if you can get anyone to tell you the truth about the sacrifice."

 

Garsalt glared at his glowing gramerhain with all the terrified fury he'd dared not throw at Tremala. She had to be insane, he thought. Surely she must recognize that nothing was going to stop Bahzell and his fiendishly effective allies short of the sacrificial chamber itself! And he didn't need to ask anyone for the truth about the sacrifice. The girl's shrieks had passed beyond madness long since. Now they were beginning to weaken steadily. Not even the Church of Sharn could keep someone alive forever under its . . . ministrations, and they were losing the sacrifice before the demon ever responded to it.

Garsalt wasn't at all sure what would happen if the girl died before the demon yielded to Cherdahn's control, but he was certain that it wouldn't be good. Yet there was nothing he could do about it. Bahzell—and Wencit—were directly between him and any escape from the temple, trapping him between the sacrificial chamber and their own inexorable advance. Unless Tremala could, indeed, stop them—or unless Cherdahn could still somehow take control of the demon—Garsalt was going to find himself face-to-face with Wencit of Ru–m or Bahzell Bloody Hand, and it was impossible to say which of those two would kill him more quickly.

 

Trayn Aldarfro lay almost motionless on the floor of his cell. He no longer twitched or jerked in torment, for the fire of his own life had burned too low for that. He was almost completely detached from his fleshy shell, and not because he'd deliberately placed himself in mage trance. If he'd been capable of considering it any longer, he would never have believed that anyone, even the supremely skilled torturers who served Sharn, could have kept that flayed, broken, shrieking wreck which had once been a vital young woman alive this long. It simply wasn't possible. Yet they'd done it, and Trayn's strength was almost gone. It was sinking in time with the sacrifice's life. Unless she escaped her torturers into death very soon now, the mage would die before she did and the demon would take her soul after all.

 

Tremala and the score of panicky armsmen with her reached the point she'd chosen. Moments later, the captain of Cherdahn's armsmen and the thirty surviving men of his command joined her. She'd more than half-expected Bahzell and Wencit to beat her to it, but she'd beaten them after all. Probably because they had to advance with at least a modicum of caution, whereas she and her armsmen knew exactly where their enemies were.

"There!" she told the senior armsman, jabbing an imperious finger down the passage leading towards the sacrificial chamber. "Position your men to cover that intersection, but for Phrobus' sake, stay on the far side of it, do you understand me?"

The armsman nodded jerkily, and Tremala turned her attention to the tunnel roof.

 

"Wait!"

Bahzell, Houghton, and Mashita stopped instantly at Wencit's barked command.

The wizard pushed his way up directly behind Bahzell, frowning, wildfire eyes slitted, and Bahzell cocked his ears inquiringly.

"I think we're about to meet up with another one of their wizards," Wencit said quietly after a moment. "As nearly as I can tell, there are only two left after your little encounter with the watery-eyed fellow, Bahzell. One of them is still well ahead of us somewhere, nearer to our objective, I think. But the stronger one is much closer, waiting for us."

"And might you be telling us just what deviltry he's after planning for us?" Bahzell asked.

"Unless I'm mistaken, it's not a 'he' at all," Wencit replied. "And as far as what she's up to is concerned, I'm afraid I really can't tell you. From the 'feel' of it, though, it's not a direct arcane attack. It's a pity she's not stupid enough to try just that."

"Why would that make her stupid?" Houghton asked, frowning in perplexity.

"Because under the Strictures, I can't strike her directly with sorcery unless she uses it first against someone else."

"Wait a minute! Are you telling us that after all of this, these Strictures of yours won't even let you fight her?"

"Not exactly." Wencit's tone sounded almost absent, and his frown of concentration deepened. "A wizard can't use sorcery directly against a non-wizard except in direct self-defense. Nor can he use it against another sorcerer, except in direct self-defense or in a formal arcane duel. That's really about the best she could hope for in a direct confrontation. There are rules that apply to both sides in any duel, and one of them is that the weaker opponent—that's her, by the way—gets the first blow. The chance of her survival would still be remote, but at least it would exist. If, however, she were foolish enough to launch a direct arcane attack on you or Bahzell in my presence, then I would no longer be bound by the Strictures where she was concerned. I could attack her immediately, in any way I chose and with no restrictions on who gets the first strike. She wouldn't like that," he finished almost mildly.

Houghton started to ask another question, then closed his mouth with a click as the wizard's frown turned abruptly into something else.

"Ah!" he said with what sounded unreasonably like satisfaction. "So that's what she's up to. Quite clever, really."

"What's clever?" Houghton demanded.

"She's found a way to use the art without striking at any of us directly." He nodded to himself. "Very well, gentlemen. If you'll follow me?"

Houghton's jaw dropped as Wencit pushed past Bahzell and marched directly down the center of the passageway. The Marine looked up at the towering hradani, and Bahzell shrugged.

"I've no notion at all, at all, what maggots he's gotten into his brain this time," he said. "Still and all, I think you'd best remember just how long he's been after taking black wizards' heads."

"And this is supposed to make me feel better?" Houghton demanded. "Experience is a wonderful thing, Bahzell. But—correct me if I'm wrong here—isn't this the sort of thing you only get to screw up at once?"

"Ah, but I'm thinking that's what makes life so interesting," Bahzell replied, and followed the wizard down the tunnel.

Houghton glanced at Mashita, and the youthful corporal shrugged. Then the two of them followed their companions.

 

"Look out, Tremala! He's coming straight at—"

Tremala didn't need Garsalt's warning. Or, rather, it came much too late to do her any good. She looked up from her place on the far side of the intersection just in time to see a tall, flame-eyed old man step calmly out into it.

For just an instant, she felt a sudden, incredulous surge of hope. She couldn't believe that after all these centuries, Wencit of Ru–m would step into such an absurdly simple trap. Yet there he was, and as he took one more step, the spell she'd buried in the stone ceiling above the intersection triggered.

It was uncomplicated, that spell. True, it had required a sorceress of remarkable skill to create it, especially on such short notice, but that was only because of the sheer power levels involved. As far as complexity went, it was about as subtle as a meat axe. When Wencit stepped fully into the intersection, the stone above him simply shattered. They were deep inside the hill, under well over two hundred feet of solid rock and earth, and Tremala's spell split that massive overburden like a sledgehammer splitting slate. It collapsed, countless tons of stone and dirt crashing down in a precisely shaped and controlled avalanche, and Wencit of Ru–m stood at its very focus.

Tremala's lips drew back in a predatory snarl of triumph. Visions of Carnadosa's reaction, the power and rewards awaiting the person who finally killed Kontovar's most ancient and dangerous foe, flashed through her mind. But Wencit never even glanced up. His wildfire eyes never looked away from her, and the soaring exultation of her triumph became something else entirely as he showed her the difference between even the most powerful wand sorceress and a wild wizard.

The hundreds of tons hammering down upon him suddenly stopped. A sphere of light, blazing with the same rippling colors as his eyes, erupted from the very air about him. It wrapped itself around him, then roared up with volcanic power. It caught Tremala's avalanche, stopped it in midair, and then—effortlessly—exploded upward in an eruption of wild magic that dwarfed anything Tremala had ever imagined. The rock and soil she'd turned into her weapon vomited heavenward. He didn't simply stop the avalanche, didn't merely turn it aside. Tremala's spell had worked with the natural force of gravity; Wencit's spell made gravity irrelevant, and rock dust sifted down as he blasted a two-hundred-foot deep pit out of the shuddering hillside above them.

Tremala's jaw dropped as she abruptly found herself standing under the open sky at the bottom of a vast, cone-shaped shaft open to the stormy skies above. Whips of lightning scourged the heavens, solid sheets of rain pounded down, and thunder rumbled like the wrath of Tomank himself. The shaft walls were smooth as glass, fused and polished by the searing breath of the wild magic, and cold rain steamed gently as it sluiced down them. It was forty feet across at the base, and at least three times that at its top, and the sorceress' skin tingled and crackled with the echoes of Wencit's spell.

No, not his "spell," she realized numbly. That wasn't a spell at all. It was just raw, focused power, ripped straight from the magic field itself.

No wand wizard could have done it. Power levels like that required exquisitely careful manipulation, with every possible safeguard in place. But Wencit had used none of them. He'd simply reached out to the energy from which the entire universe had been woven, and channeled it through the power of his will. She'd always known that that ability to seize the magic field by the throat was what truly made a wild wizard, but she'd never actually seen it, and the knowledge which had always been theoretical had not prepared her for the actuality.

A few pebbles pattered to the tunnel floor, and the last drift of rock dust settled, sifting over Tremala's riding habit like flour and drifting about her ankles like sharp, dusty-smelling fog. Raindrops came tumbling down, splashing the dust on her riding habit with large, dark circles, and Wencit looked at her.

"That was a formidable spell, My Lady," he said quietly. Fresh thunder crashed overhead, but the sound was distant somehow, perfecting the intense, ringing silence rather than breaking it. "Not many wand wizards could have cast it that quickly and that well."

"Apparently," she heard her own voice say, "it wasn't cast quite quickly and well enough."

"Apparently," he agreed. She glanced over her shoulder at the tunnel where she'd left her armsmen, but the tunnel wasn't there anymore. She saw only a smooth surface of stone, as solid as if the tunnel had never existed, and she looked back at Wencit.

"Doesn't that constitute a rather severe breach of your precious Strictures?" she asked.

"By no means." Wencit smiled. "I could have allowed just enough of your avalanche to rebound up the tunnel to crush them all to death. After all, I wasn't the one who created it, was I? But I didn't. They're all just fine on the other side of that wall. Of course," his smiled turned colder, "that also means they're on the same side of it as your friend Garsalt and Cherdahn."

Tremala stiffened, her expression shocked, as he spoke those names.

"How—?" she began, but Wencit only shook his head.

"I'm afraid time is short, My Lady. Your curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, I fear."

He raised his hand, and a spray of wildfire erupted upward from it. It reached up, then flowed outward to form an arching dome. The sides of that dome spilled back downward, falling like curtains woven of rainbows until they touched the stone floor, and Tremala of Kontovar found herself enclosed within a glorious canopy of light . . . with Wencit of Ru–m.

"A formal duel?" She heard the slight quaver of fear she couldn't quite keep out of her voice, and it humiliated her. But Wencit didn't seem to notice. He merely bowed gravely to her, and she swallowed hard.

In its way, the offer of an arcane duel was both a compliment and a mercy, although she had to admit that it was a bit hard to see it that way just at the moment.

At least the wild magic is quick, she told herself, and, gathering all her courage, stepped out into the center of Wencit's canopy of light to face him.

He waited for her with a sort of merciless courtesy, and she reached into the sleeve of her riding habit and extracted her wand. Wencit only stood there, hands empty, waiting, and she frowned. There was something about him, something that grew stronger as she stepped closer.

No, she realized. It wasn't growing stronger because she was closer; it was growing stronger because he'd allowed it to. Or, rather, because he'd allowed the glamour no Carnadosan had ever even suspected existed to weaken briefly, let her see what lay locked away within it.

Her eyes narrowed, then dropped to the sword at his side and widened in sudden, shocked understanding. No wonder he knew so much, had managed to predict so many attacks so accurately!

"My compliments, Wencit," she heard herself say. "I've always wondered how even a wild wizard could see the future as accurately as you've always managed. Thank you for satisfying my curiosity after all."

He bowed slightly, then straightened.

"My name," he said in flawless ancient Kontovaran, "is Wencit of Ru–m, and by my paramount authority as Lord of the Council of Ottovar, I judge thee guilty of offense against the Strictures. Wouldst thou defend thyself, or must I slay thee where thou standest?"

Tremala didn't reply to the formal indictment and challenge. Not in words, at any rate. The tradition that the first blow in any arcane duel belonged to the weaker of the opponents, unless he chose not to take it, was more ancient even than the Strictures themselves. Tremala had come to realize in the last few moments just how hopeless her plight truly was, but whatever her other sins, cowardice was not among them. A sorceress she had lived; a sorceress she would die, and her wand swept up spitting livid green lightnings.

They ripped through the air towards Wencit like living serpents, and he raised his hand. It was a simple gesture, but Tremala cried out as her lightnings shattered against his raised palm and the back blast blew her wand into a hundred smoking fragments.

She stood there, clutching her wrist in her other hand, bent over the sudden pain where the exploding wand had stung her hand. She cradled it against her breasts, then made her spine straighten and looked levelly at Wencit.

"So be it." His voice was quiet, almost gentle, but there was no mercy in it, and he pointed a finger at her. "As thou hast chosen, so shalt thou answer."

The last thing Tremala of Kontovar ever saw was the sudden flash of wildfire from that finger.

XVII

Garsalt stumbled backward, flinging himself away from the images in his gramerhain. Not even his mastery of scrying spells had allowed him to hear what had passed between Tremala and Wencit after Wencit's shields had enveloped them both. But he'd been able to see just fine, and terror had bubbled up inside him like winter quicksand as the sorceress' body had sifted to the stony floor like no more than another drift of rock dust.

They were both gone—Tremala, Rethak. And inside, Garsalt had always known both of them were more powerful than he. Tremala, especially, had been an acknowledged mistress of combat magics. More than a dozen challengers for her position on the Council of Carnadosa, most with extensive records of victory of their own, had faced her in arcane duels. None had survived, yet Wencit had destroyed her easily, almost casually.

Garsalt whimpered. The stone wall Wencit had erected across the tunnel guarded by Tremala's armsmen had sealed that escape route. There was only one other way out . . . and Wencit and Bahzell were already moving towards it.

The balding wizard's hands scrubbed together in front of him, washing each other compulsively while he shuddered in terror. If Wencit could annihilate Tremala that effortlessly, then—

His hands clenched into a white-knuckled knot, and his jaw tightened. This was all Cherdahn's fault! He was the one who must have given away the location of his temple somehow. It was the only explanation! And he was also the one who'd promised his precious demon would save them all!

The wizard turned his back on the glowing crystal.

 

Cherdahn's head snapped up as the sacrificial chamber's door flew open.

His eyes flashed crimson fire, and his lips drew back, baring his pointed teeth, as his face twisted in a snarl of rage at the totally unprecedented intrusion. In that moment, soaked with the blood of his handiwork and filled with fury, the remaining human portion of his being was scarcely even perceptible.

"How dare you—?!" he started in hissing, sibilant rage, but Garsalt had found the courage of trapped panic.

"They're coming!" he snarled back. "Tremala's dead, and Bahzell—and Wencit, Krahana damn your eyes!—will be here in another ten minutes!"

Cherdahn froze, and the worm of fear which had grown larger and larger within him even as he denied its existence to himself, was suddenly a crushing python.

He stared at the rumpled-looking wizard, trying to force his own brain to work, but it was hard. His entire being had been focused on the ceremony of binding—on the sacrifice's agony and the way it had fed his own inner hunger even as he offered it to the Servant. On the ritual, and the propitiation. The fear he'd so resolutely suppressed, the sense of something wrong, had only intensified that focus. Now, for the first time in all his years in Sharn's service, the ritual of sacrifice had been interrupted. And not even by another of the Scorpion's worshipers, but by a wizard. The shock of that blasphemy was so great it almost displaced his fear.

Almost.

"Get him out of here!" he grated, and one of his acolytes thrust the intruder out of the chamber. He wasn't particularly gentle about it, flinging Garsalt back through the door, then slamming it behind him, and Cherdahn tried to regain his focus.

He couldn't. His thoughts seemed to race in every direction at once, colliding, caroming off one another in showers of sparks, sliding like feet on water-slick ice, but one of them pulsed and beat above all the others, even through his intoxication with the sacrifice's torment.

Bahzell was coming . . . and he was almost there.

He glared at the door which had closed behind Garsalt for one more quivering second, then wheeled back to the altar.

 

Trayn was almost gone.

His breathing had become so faint, so shallow, that only the most skilled healer could have detected it, and the pulse which had raced madly as he contorted around their shared agony had slowed to a dying flutter. He'd poured too much of himself into the sacrifice. He was down to his final reserves, his own soul dipping closer and closer to extinction, yet still he held the link.

He wasn't thinking about it any longer. Indeed, he was no longer capable of thought. Yet neither was he capable of letting go. Some final store of determination, dredged not from training, or strength of will, but from who and what he was and the promise he'd made a terrified young woman, held him still. The shield he'd thrown about her soul frayed, thinner and more tattered with every shallow, fluttering breath, and beyond that barrier, the demon stirred. A forked, slimy tongue caressed the mage's failing defenses. It slithered across them, savoring the treat waiting on the other side, yet not quite able to pierce them. Not yet. But soon, the demon knew. Soon.

 

Cherdahn glared down at the quivering, whimpering wreckage on his altar, and terror-fueled rage boiled behind his glittering eyes. Anger was no proper part of the ritual. Anger destroyed focus, diluted the distilled purity of cruelty, the perfect technique of agony, the Scorpion's service required. Cherdahn knew that, yet the knowledge meant little beside his own fear and his fury at the sacrifice who had somehow managed to defy him and all his years of skill and training for almost an hour.

He snarled and reached for his knife once more.

 

Trayn's body twitched. A white-hot bolt ripped back over the link to him, exploding deep within him, and then he exhaled explosively and slumped back against the stone floor. He was no longer truly conscious, but some elemental part of him felt the unspeakable gratitude of a young woman's soul in the moment it found blessed relief in death. In that moment, she recognized exactly what he had done for her, and she held the link between them open just an instant longer, sharing with him the joyous vista opening infinitely before her, giving him at least a glimpse of what he had won for both of them.

Then she was gone, and Trayn Aldarfro inhaled his first deep, lung-filling breath in over an hour.

 

Cherdahn froze, staring down at the altar in disbelief and sudden, choking terror.

He felt his acolytes staggering back around him, felt them turning to run, but his own muscles were frozen. There was no point fleeing.

His eyes slipped to the knife in his hand. The knife which had never failed him . . . until today.

He was still staring at it when the bonds holding the demon disappeared with the last scrap of the sacrifice's life energy.

 

Garsalt picked himself up from his knees, looking down at the bloody handprints Cherdahn's acolytes had left on his tunic. He started to reach for them, then stopped. He was no stranger to blood—no wizard attained the rank and authority he enjoyed in Carnadosa's hierarchy without learning the ways of blood magic—yet there was something different about this blood. He could feel the power in it, like acid, and his hand jerked away as if it had been stung.

And that was when the sounds from the other side of the chamber's door suddenly changed.

For just an instant, he couldn't quite identify the change. Then he realized—it was silence. There was no more chanting, there were no more shrieks, there was only silence, and a tremendous weight rolled off him as he realized Cherdahn had completed the ritual after all.

He was still turning back towards the chamber door with an enormous smile of relief when it exploded in a blizzard of splintered wood and a vast, scaled talon came slashing through the wreckage.

 

"Hold!"

The deep-voiced word of command froze Houghton and Jack Mashita in instant obedience. Their heads swiveled towards Bahzell, but the hradani wasn't looking at them. His eyes were closed, his ears flat, and muscles lumped along his jaw.

Bahzell was only faintly aware of his companions as he felt the demon exploding into freedom. The creature was completely unbound, free to make its own decisions, choose its own victims, and Bahzell could taste the rising storm of its exultant hunger.

<Walsharno!> his thought cried out.

<I feel it, Brother!> the reply came back, and they dropped back into one fused entity, despite the distance between them.

Bahzell watched through the courser's eyes as the entire top of the hill blasted into the rain-drenched darkness. The demon heaved up out of the vast crater, towering against the lightning-lashed clouds in a corona of poisonous green radiance. It was twice the size of the ones they had already faced, and grisly bits and pieces of the temple's last armsmen showered from its working jaws and night-black mandibles. It loomed into the heavens, bellowing its triumph and its hunger, and the terror of its coming went before it like some black hurricane.

But then it paused. The vast, misshapen head turned, cocking to one side, and it glared down at the single bright, blue star blazing on the grasslands at the base of the shattered hill.

It bellowed again, and a defiant whistle of equine challenge answered it, slashing through the rain like Tomank's own trumpet. Walsharno, son of Mathygan and Yorthandro, stared up at his enormous foe, and a needle-sharp lance of blue power ripped out across the darkness. It smashed into the demon's sickly green nimbus, and the creature shrieked again—this time in as much hurt as fury—as the cleansing azure brilliance of Tomank exploded against it.

A whirlwind stormfront roared outward, and blinding light flashed, reflecting from the storm clouds' belly, etching the wind-driven wildness of the grasslands in its actinic glare. The demon howled, pouring itself up out of the violated earth into the pounding rain, flowing down the hill towards the courser, and Walsharno stood his ground.

He was not alone. Bahzell was with him, joined mind-to-mind and soul-to-soul, buttressing the stallion's wild, fierce strength with every ounce of his own elemental stubbornness, his own Rage. And Tomank was with them both, reaching out, opening to them, offering them all that any mortal—even his champions—could touch and survive. They poured their strength, their adamantine refusal to yield, into that glittering lance of light, and the unique alloy of mortal courage and outrage blended with their deity's power to forge and shape that battering ram of raw energy pouring out of Walsharno.

The demon screamed, writhing in torment yet continuing to advance, and Bahzell clenched his fists, leaning his forehead against the tunnel's stone wall while he reached deeper, and deeper still. He dredged up all that lay within him, and felt the titanic conflict wavering, seesawing back and forth.

And then he felt something else, another presence, and reached out towards it. For an instant, he had no idea what it was. It glittered with its own refusal to yield, its own fierce defiance, almost like another champion of Tomank, and yet not quite. And as it reached back towards him, he suddenly knew it.

A third mortal presence joined itself to the struggle. It lacked Bahzell's Rage, lacked Walsharno's fierce wildness, but it had its own unquenchable strength. Its steely core of determination and duty, its rejection of darkness and the power of a will which could die, but never be broken. And as it joined with Bahzell and Walsharno, it opened a third channel to Tomank. A fresh tide of power rippled into them, and the titanic cable of power raging out from Walsharno pulsed with a new strength, a new fury.

The demon paused. Its head and wings lashed, mandibles scissored furiously, and talons ripped huge furrows out of what was left of the hillside. The demon shrieked in defiance . . . but it also stopped. The green corona about it glared brighter, hotter, wavering like sheet lightning, as the torrent of Tomank's rejection battered its way through it inch by inch. The terrific concussion of that conflict seemed to shake the earth. The raw brilliance fountaining upward from it could be seen from fifty miles away. The thunderheads above the hill peeled back, burned away, opening a hole to the stars, and still the intolerable balance held.

It held, and held, and held. And then, without warning, it suddenly tipped.

There was one, final blinding flash of light. A ring of fire rolled down the shattered hillside, sweeping out in all directions like a tidal wave of blue glory, and the demon was gone.

XVIII

"I'm thinking it's past time Ken and Jack were going home, Wencit," Bahzell rumbled.

He and the wizard stood with Houghton, fifty yards from Tough Mama, as the rising sun poured golden light over the churned and broken ruins of what had once been a large hill. Much of that hill had tumbled down into the streambed at its foot, and a large pond or modest lake was already backing up behind it. The liberated captives—over sixty children, and eleven surviving adults—sat on the wet, rain-washed grass above that slowly broadening sheet of water, staring up at the blue sky and sunlight they had never expected to see again.

Bahzell and Walsharno had healed the hurt among them, and the cleansing power of Tomank had blunted the worst of the memories, taken away the most horrifying of the nightmares.

Trayn Aldarfro sat with them. The mage's face was worn, his eyes filled with shadows, yet a deep, indescribable sense of peace enfolded him.

Mashita and Walsharno were much closer to the LAV. The corporal had his digital camera out, busily snapping pictures of the wreckage, the damaged LAV, and—especially!—the spectacularly deceased demons spread out across the landscape. Walsharno, who continued to find the Montanan's fascinated horseman's admiration highly amusing, posed obligingly amid the demons, with one massive forehoof planted triumphantly atop a shattered, horned skull, and his own head tossed high in noble victory.

Houghton didn't really want to think about how the intelligence pukes were going to react to Jack's little photo album.

"I suppose it is time I started figuring out exactly how to get them there," Wencit conceded after a moment, in answer to Bahzell's question, and smiled at the gunnery sergeant. "I've been just a bit busy, you know."

"Excuses, excuses," Houghton replied with an answering smile. Then he looked at his battered LAV and shook his head. "On the other hand, I'm not entirely positive sending us home is the best option. When Lieutenant Alvarez sees this—!"

"Well, as to that," Bahzell said slowly, looking at the faint blue glow, visible only to a champion of Tomank, which clung to Houghton even now, "I'm thinking as how we could be finding a place for you here, Sword Brother." Houghton looked up, eyes widening slightly at Bahzell's form of address, and the hradani smiled gravely at him. "We'd not have stopped that demon without you. That makes you one of our own . . . and a man's never after having enough sword brothers to watch his back."

"I—" Houghton paused and cleared his throat. "I'm honored by the offer," he said then, forcing himself to set aside the habitual armor of levity and match Bahzell's willingness to speak the truth of his feelings. "Deeply honored . . . Sword Brother. But I have obligations, oaths I've sworn to my own universe and my own country."

"No doubt you have," Bahzell agreed. "Still and all, a man's the right to make the choices his actions have earned. I'm thinking you and Jack both fall into that category."

"It's tempting," Houghton said frankly. "Very tempting. In fact—"

The Marine broke off, eyes widening, as someone else stepped out of infinity into the now.

Kenneth Houghton had never before seen Tomank Orfro, God of War and Judge of Princes, but he recognized him instantly. The deity stood before them, half again Bahzell's height, brown eyes and hair gleaming in the morning light. The crossed mace and sword of his order glittered on the breast of his simple green surcoat, and an enormous sword was sheathed across his back. The power of his presence reached out like a fist, yet there was no threat in it, no arrogance, and he smiled.

"I did warn you and Walsharno you'd find brothers in strange places, didn't I, Bahzell?"

Houghton hadn't believed it was possible for a voice to be even deeper and more resonant than Bahzell's, but Tomank's managed it easily.

"Aye, so you did," Bahzell agreed, turning to face his deity. "And I'm thinking as how I'd just as soon be keeping him."

"I know." Tomank looked down at Houghton, and the glow around the Marine strengthened. But then the god shook his head. "I know," he repeated, "and I'd be most pleased to see Gunnery Sergeant Houghton numbered among my blades. But this isn't his place, Bahzell."

Bahzell started to open his mouth, then closed it firmly, and Tomank chuckled. The sound ran through the morning like music, and two or three of the children by the water laughed out loud.

"There are times, Bahzell," Tomank said. "Oh, there are times. But I see that even your stubbornness has limits."

"I'd not be saying that," Bahzell replied. "If it's 'stubborn' you're wanting, then I've all of that you might need. But I'm thinking there's more than you've said."

"Because there is," Tomank agreed. "And not just the oaths he's already mentioned, the obligations any man of honor must meet if he's to be true to himself. That would be reason enough, but there's a stronger and far more important reason, as well."

He turned his attention back to Houghton and shook his head.

"I know what you're thinking, Kenneth Houghton," he rumbled. "And you're wrong."

"Wrong?" Houghton repeated, and Tomank nodded.

"You're thinking that what's happened to you over the last day or so has been your salvation. That you've rediscovered the difference between good and evil—the reason it's necessary to choose between them. And you're afraid that if you return to your own time, your own place, without your Gwynn, without such clear-cut choices, you'll lose that certainty."

Houghton's eyes winced at the mention of his dead wife, but he continued to meet Tomank's gaze levelly, and the war god nodded.

"I know what you fear, and why," he said gently. "Your universe is very different from this one. It's not mine, any more than this one is yours, but I know it. And as you've visited this one, I've visited yours. As I've explained to Bahzell, all universes are one, in one sense, even while each of them is unique. And just as Bahzell and Walsharno exist in dozens, or scores, or even hundreds and thousands of other universes, so do you. In some of them, you know Bahzell and Walsharno well. In others, you've never met . . . and never will. But in every universe in which you live, you, like them, have decisions to make. And, like them, you make them well."

"But—"

"I didn't say you always feel certain about your decisions," Tomank cut him off gently. "I said only that you choose well. You've questioned and doubted your choices in your own world. Indeed, you've blamed yourself for failing to choose at all. But the truth is that you've always chosen, and the choices you've made have been worthy of the man Gwynn Houghton loved. The man she still loves."

Houghton's eyes burned, and a huge hand rested gently on his shoulder for a moment.

"Your universe is not mine, Kenneth Houghton, but a part of you always will be. Bahzell can tell you that I know my own, and I know you. In another universe, even I may be someone else, yet still I will know you for my own whenever we meet, wherever we meet. And I will claim you as my own, proudly. But now, I must send you home. You have things to do there still, and people who depend upon you. So go home, Kenneth Houghton. Go home, remembering all that happened here, and remembering this promise: someday you will meet Bahzell again, and your Gwynn will be with you when you do."

Houghton nodded, unable to speak, then blinked rapidly as Bahzell clasped his forearm. He looked up at the hradani, and Bahzell swept him into a sudden, crushing embrace.

"It's just as well, I've no doubt, that you and Brandark never meet, little man," the hradani rumbled. "One of you per universe is enough and more than enough, I'm thinking."

"I'll miss you—you and Wencit both," Houghton said, and knew it was true. "It's been a hell of a ride."

"That it has," Wencit agreed. "I'll try not to catch you up in any more misdirected spells, though."

"Probably just as well," Houghton said, regarding Tough Mama's damages. "The repair bill this time around is going to be enough of a bitch. And I don't even want to think about the paperwork when I start trying to explain!"

"Some things not even a god can protect you from," Tomank rumbled. "Still, the least I can do is see to getting you home again without making Wencit sort through all the possible universes first. Assuming, of course, that he'd get it right this time."

"Thank you," Wencit said mildly, and Tomank chuckled again.

Mashita had finally put away his camera . . . after snapping several shots of Tomank for his collection, of course. Now he walked across to join the others, and Bahzell turned to clasp his forearm, as well. The younger Marine started to say something, then stopped and simply shrugged. Bahzell nodded back, and Mashita gave Wencit a nod of his own, then trudged back to cimb up onto Tough Mama's scorched and seared deck.

Houghton followed him, climbing back into the commander's hatch and taking one last look around, engraving every detail on his memory. Then he drew a deep breath and looked across at Tomank.

"Let's do it," he said.

 

Lieutenant Jefferson Enrique Alvarez walked moodily across the vehicle park.

He hadn't gotten much sleep. Company and Battalion had both been less than amused by his report that someone had apparently decided to beam one of his LAVs up to the mother ship, and he wished he could blame them. Unfortunately, he couldn't. He couldn't even blame them for their obvious doubts about his own contact with reality. If he hadn't had over two dozen witnesses who all agreed with one another on the essentials, he wouldn't have believed it, either. Fourteen-ton armored vehicles didn't simply up and disappear in flashes of blue light. They especially didn't simply up and disappear taking his senior noncom with them.

Alvarez's jaw tightened as he admitted the truth to himself. No one liked losing men and equipment, even when he knew what the hell had happened to them, but losing Houghton—that was what really hurt. The Gunny had been the Platoon's true heart and soul. Alvarez might have commanded it; Gunny Houghton had run it. And he'd even managed, along the way, to keep one Lieutenant Jefferson Enrique Alvarez from fucking up.

But he wasn't going to be doing that any—

WHUMPF!

Alvarez stopped dead as an LAV materialized suddenly. It simply blinked into existence, twenty feet in front of him, and a fist of displaced air hit him briskly in the face. A ring of dust blew outward around it, and Alvarez heard a chorus of startled shouts rising from behind him.

The lieutenant stood there, staring at Tough Mama. She was missing one wheel entirely. Her right front wheel well was badly damaged—it looked for all the world as if something with claws had ripped it apart. The upper deck was pitted, burned and singed-looking, the paint badly blistered where it hadn't been scorched completely away. And there were what looked like more claw marks on the front of the turret, as well.

But she was here.

The commander's hatch opened, and a familiar helmeted head poked up out of it. Alvarez's heart leapt with a tremendous sense of relief as he recognized it, but he was a Marine. And so, he folded his arms and glared up at the man standing in that hatch.

"And just where the hell have you been, Gunny?" he barked. "Do you have any idea how much goddamned paperwork I've already had to do about this? And look at this vehicle! Just look at it! How the hell are we going to explain this—" he unfolded one arm to wave at the battered LAV "—to Maintenance?! What the hell did you do to my perfectly good LAV?!"

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the growing chorus of distant shouts behind them, and Alvarez refolded his arms, tapping one toe in the dust while he waited. And then—

"Well, LT," Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton said, "it's like this . . ."

 

A Beautiful Friendship

I

Climbs Quickly scurried up the nearest trunk, then paused at the first cross-branch to clean his sticky true-hands and hand-feet with fastidious care. He hated crossing between trees now that the cold days were passing into those of mud. Not that he was particularly fond of snow, either, he admitted with a bleek of laughter, but at least it melted out of his fur—eventually—instead of forming gluey clots that dried hard as rock. Still, there were compensations to warming weather, and he sniffed appreciatively at the breeze that rustled the furled buds just beginning to fringe the all-but-bare branches. Under most circumstances, he would have climbed all the way to the top to luxuriate in the wind fingers ruffling his coat, but he had other things on his mind today.

He finished grooming himself, then rose on his rear legs in the angle of the cross-branch and trunk to scan his surroundings with grass-green eyes. None of the two-legs were in sight, but that meant little; two-legs were full of surprises. Climbs Quickly's own Bright Water Clan had seen little of them until lately, but other clans had observed them for twelve full turnings of the seasons, and it was obvious they had tricks the People had never mastered. Among those was some way to keep watch from far away—so far, indeed, that the People could neither hear nor taste them, much less see them. Yet Climbs Quickly detected no sign that he was being watched, and he flowed smoothly to the adjacent trunk, following the line of cross-branches deeper into the clearing.

His clan had not been too apprehensive when the first flying thing arrived and the two-legs emerged to create the clearing, for the clans whose territory had already been invaded had warned them of what to expect. The two-legs could be dangerous, and they kept changing things, but they weren't like death fangs or snow hunters, who all too often killed randomly or for pleasure, and scouts and hunters like Climbs Quickly had watched that first handful of two-legs from the cover of the frost-bright leaves, perched high in the trees. The newcomers had spread out carrying strange things—some that glittered or blinked flashing lights and others that stood on tall, skinny legs—which they moved from place to place and peered through, and then they'd driven stakes of some equally strange not-wood into the ground at intervals. The Bright Water memory singers had sung back through the songs from other clans and decided that the things they peered through were tools of some sort. Climbs Quickly couldn't argue their conclusion, yet the two-leg tools were as different from the hand axes and knives the People made as the substance from which they were made was unlike the flint, wood, and bone the People used.

All of which explained why the two-legs must be watched most carefully . . . and secretly. Small as the People were, they were quick and clever, and their axes and knives and use of fire let them accomplish things larger but less clever creatures could not. Yet the shortest two-leg stood more than two People-lengths in height. Even if their tools had been no better than the People's (and Climbs Quickly knew they were much, much better) their greater size would have made them far more effective. And if there was no sign that the two-legs intended to threaten the People, there was also no sign they did not, so no doubt it was fortunate they were so easy to spy upon.

Climbs Quickly slowed as he reached the final cross-branch. He sat for long, still moments, cream and gray coat blending into invisibility against trunks and branches veiled in a fine spray of tight green buds, motionless but for a single true-hand which groomed his whiskers reflexively. He listened carefully, with ears and thoughts alike, and those ears pricked as he tasted the faint mind glow that indicated the presence of two-legs. It wasn't the clear, bright communication it would have been from one of the People, for the two-legs appeared to be mind-blind, yet there was something . . . nice about it. Which was odd, for whatever else they were, the two-legs were very unlike the People. The memory singers of every clan had sent their songs sweeping far and wide when the two-legs first appeared twelve season-turnings back. They'd sought any song of any other clan which might tell them something—anything—about these strange creatures and whence they had come . . . or at least why.

No one had been able to answer those questions, yet the memory singers of the Blue Mountain Dancing Clan and the Fire Runs Fast Clan had remembered a very old song—one which went back almost two hundred turnings. The song offered no clue to the two-legs' origins or purpose, but it did tell of the very first time the People had ever seen two-legs and how the long ago scout who'd brought it back to his singers had seen their egg-shaped silver thing come down out of the very sky in light and fire and a sound more terrible than any thunder.

That had been enough to send the People of that time scurrying into hiding, and they'd watched from the shadows and leaves—much as Climbs Quickly did now. The first scout to see the masters of that silver egg emerge from it had been joined by others, set to watch the fascinating creatures from a safe distance, but no one had approached the intruders. Perhaps they might have, had not a death fang attempted to eat one of the two-legs.

People didn't like death fangs. The huge creatures looked much like outsized People, but unlike People, they were far from clever. Not that something their size really needed to be clever. Death fangs were the biggest, strongest, most deadly hunters in all the world. Unlike People, they often killed for the sheer pleasure of it, and they feared nothing that lived . . . except the People. They never passed up the opportunity to eat a single scout or hunter if they happened across one stupid enough to be caught on the ground, but even death fangs avoided the heart of any clan's range. Individual size meant little when an entire clan swarmed down from the trees to attack.

Yet the death fang who attacked one of the two-legs had discovered something new to fear. None of the watching People had ever heard anything like the ear shattering "Craaack!" from the tubular thing the two-leg carried, but the charging death fang had suddenly somersaulted end-for-end, crashed to the ground, and lain still, with a bloody hole blown clear through it.

Once they got over their immediate shock, the watching scouts had taken a fierce delight in the death fang's fate, but anything that could kill a death fang with a single bark could certainly do the same to one of the People, and so the decision had been made to avoid the two-legs until the watchers learned more about them. Unfortunately, the scouts were still watching from hiding when, after perhaps a quarter turning, they dismantled the strange, square living places in which they had dwelt, went back into their egg, and disappeared once more into the sky.

All of that had been long, long ago, and Climbs Quickly regretted that no more had been learned of them before they left. He understood the need for caution, yet he wished the Blue Mountain Dancing scouts had been just a little less careful. Perhaps then the People might have been able to decide what the two-legs wanted—or what the People should do about them—between their first arrival and their reappearance.

Personally, Climbs Quickly thought those first two-legs had been scouts, as he himself was. Certainly it would have made sense for the two-legs to send scouts ahead; any clan did the same when expanding or changing its range. Yet if that was the case, why had the rest of their clan delayed so long before following them? And why did the two-legs spread themselves so thinly? The living place in the clearing he'd come to watch had required great labor by over a dozen two-legs to create, even with their clever tools, and it was large enough for a full clan. Yet its builders had simply gone away when they finished. It had stood completely empty for over ten days, and even now it housed only three of the two-legs, one of them—unless Climbs Quickly was mistaken—but a youngling. He sometimes wondered what had happened to the youngling's litter mates, but the important point was that the way in which the two-legs dispersed their living places must surely deprive them of any communication with their fellows.

That was one reason many of the watchers believed two-legs were unlike People in all ways, not just their size and shape and tools. It was the ability to communicate with their fellows which made People people, after all. Only unthinking creatures—like the death fangs, or the snow hunters, or those upon whom the People themselves preyed—lived sealed within themselves, so if the two-legs were not only mind-blind but chose to avoid even their own kind, they could not be people. But Climbs Quickly disagreed. He couldn't fully explain why, even to himself, yet he was convinced the two-legs were, in fact, people—of a sort, at least. They fascinated him, and he'd listened again and again to the song of the first two-legs and their egg, both in an effort to understand what it was they'd wanted and because even now that song carried overtones of something he thought he had tasted from the two-legs he spied upon.

Unfortunately, the song had been worn smooth by too many singers before Sings Truly first sang it for Bright Water Clan. That often happened to older songs or those which had been relayed for great distances, and this song was both ancient and from far away. Though its images remained clear and sharp, they had been subtly shaped and shadowed by all the singers who had come before Sings Truly. Climbs Quickly knew what the two-legs of the song had done, but he knew nothing about why they'd done it, and the interplay of so many singers' minds had blurred any mind glow the long ago watchers might have tasted.

Climbs Quickly had shared what he thought he'd picked up from "his" two-legs only with Sings Truly. It was his duty to report to the memory singers, of course, and so he had. But he'd implored Sings Truly to keep his suspicions only in her own song for now, for some of the other scouts would have laughed uproariously at them. Sings Truly hadn't laughed, but neither had she rushed to agree with him, and he knew she longed to travel in person to the Blue Mountain Dancing or Fire Runs Fast Clan's range to receive the original song from their senior singers. But that was out of the question. Singers were the core of any clan, the storehouse of memory and dispensers of wisdom. They were always female, and their loss could not be risked, whatever Sings Truly might want. Unless a clan was fortunate enough to have a surplus of singers, it must protect its potential supply of replacements by denying them more dangerous tasks. Climbs Quickly understood that, but he found its implications a bit harder to live with than the clan's other scouts and hunters did. There could be disadvantages to being a memory singer's brother when she chose to sulk over the freedoms her role denied her . . . and allowed him.

Climbs Quickly gave another soft chitter of laughter (it was safe enough; Sings Truly was too far away to taste his thoughts), then crept stealthily out to the last trunk. He climbed easily to its highest fork and settled down on the comfortable pad of leaves and branches. The cold days' ravages required a few repairs, but there was no hurry. It remained serviceable, and it would be many days yet before the slowly budding leaves could provide the needed materials, anyway.

In a way, he would be unhappy when the leaves did open. In their absence, bright sunlight spilled through the thin upper branches, pouring down with gentle warmth, and he stretched out on his belly with a sigh of pleasure. He folded his true-hands under his chin and settled himself for a long wait. Scouts learned early to be patient. If they needed help with that lesson, there were teachers enough—from falls to hungry death fangs—to drive it home. Climbs Quickly had never needed such instruction, which, even more than his relationship to Sings Truly, was why he was second only to Short Tail, Bright Water Clan's chief scout . . . and why he'd been chosen to keep watch on these two-legs since their arrival.

So now he waited, motionless in the warm sunlight, and watched the sharp-topped stone living place the two-legs had built in the center of the clearing.

II

"I mean it, Stephanie!" Richard Harrington said. "I don't want you wandering off into those woods again without me or your mom along. Is that clear?"

"Oh, Daaaddy—" Stephanie began, only to close her mouth sharply when her father folded his arms. Then the toe of his right foot started tapping the carpet lightly, and her heart sank. This wasn't going well at all, and she resented that reflection on her . . . negotiating skill almost as much as she resented the restriction she was trying to avoid. She was eleven T-years old, smart, an only child, a daughter, and cute as a button. That gave her certain advantages, and she'd become an expert at wrapping her father around her finger almost as soon as she could talk. She rather suspected that much of her success came from the fact that he was perfectly willing to be so wrapped, but that was all right as long as it worked. Unfortunately, her mother had always been a tougher customer . . . and even her father was unscrupulously willing to abandon his proper pliancy when he decided the situation justified it.

Like now.

"We're not going to discuss this further," he said with ominous calm. "Just because you haven't seen any hexapumas or peak bears doesn't mean they aren't out there."

"But I've been stuck inside with nothing to do all winter," she said as reasonably as she could, easily suppressing a twinge of conscience as she neglected to mention snowball fights, cross-country skiing, sleds, and certain other diversions. "I want to go outside and see things!"

"I know you do, honey," her father said more gently, reaching out to tousle her curly brown hair. "But it's dangerous out there. This isn't Meyerdahl, you know." Stephanie rolled her eyes and looked martyred, and his expression showed a flash of regret at having let the last sentence slip out. "If you really want something to do, why don't you run into Twin Forks with Mom this afternoon?"

"Because Twin Forks is a complete null, Daddy." Exasperation colored Stephanie's reply, even though she knew it was a tactical error. Even above-average parents like hers got stubborn if you disagreed with them too emphatically, but honestly! Twin Forks might be the closest "town" to the Harrington homestead, but it boasted a total of maybe fifty families, most of whose handful of kids were zork brains. None of them were interested in xeno-botany or biosystem hierarchies. In fact, they were such nulls they spent most of their free time trying to catch anything small enough to keep as a pet, however much damage they might do to their intended "pets" in the process, and Stephanie was pretty sure any effort to enlist those zorks in her explorations would have led to words—or a fist or two in the eye—in fairly short order. Not, she thought darkly, that she was to blame for the situation. If Dad and Mom hadn't insisted on dragging her away from Meyerdahl just when she'd been accepted for the junior forestry program, she'd have been on her first internship field trip by now. It wasn't her fault she wasn't, and the least they could do to make up for it was let her explore their own property!

"Twin Forks is not a 'complete null,'" her father said firmly.

"Oh yes it is," she replied with a curled lip, and Richard Harrington drew a deep breath.

He made himself step back mentally, reaching for patience, that most vital of parental qualities. The edge of guilt he felt at Stephanie's expression made it a little easier. She hadn't wanted to leave everyone she'd ever known behind on Meyerdahl, and he knew how much she'd looked forward to becoming a forestry intern, but Meyerdahl had been settled for over a thousand years . . . and Sphinx hadn't. Not only had Meyerdahl's most dangerous predators been banished to the tracts of virgin wilderness reserved for them, but its Forestry Service rangers nursemaided their interns with care, and the nature parks where they ran their junior studies programs were thoroughly "wired" with satellite com interfaces, surveillance, and immediately available emergency services. Sphinx's endless forests were not only not wired or watched over, but home to predators like the fearsome, five-meter-long hexapuma (and scarcely less dangerous peak bear) and totally unexplored. Over two-thirds of their flora was evergreen, as well, even here in what passed for the semi-tropical zone, and the best aerial mapping could see very little through that dense green canopy. It would be generations before humanity even began to get a complete picture of the millions of other species which undoubtedly lived in the shade of those trees.

All of which put any repetition of yesterday's solo exploration trip completely out of the question. Stephanie swore she hadn't gone far, and he believed her. Headstrong and occasionally devious she might be, but she was an honest child. And she'd taken her wrist com, so she hadn't really been out of communication and they would have been able to home in on her beacon if she'd gotten into trouble. But that was beside the point. She was his daughter, and he loved her, and all the wrist coms in the world wouldn't get an air car there fast enough if she came face to face with a hexapuma.

"Look, Steph," he said finally, "I know Twin Forks isn't much compared to Hollister, but it's the best I can offer. And you know it's going to grow. They're even talking about putting in their own shuttle pad by next spring!"

Stephanie managed—somehow—not to roll her eyes again. Calling Twin Forks "not much" compared to the city of Hollister was like saying it snowed "a little" on Sphinx. And given the long, dragging, endless year of this stupid planet, she'd almost be seventeen T-years old by the time "next spring" got here! She hadn't quite been ten when they arrived . . . just in time for it to start snowing. And it hadn't stopped snowing for the next fifteen T-months!

"I'm sorry," her father said quietly, reading her thoughts. "I'm sorry Twin Forks isn't exciting, and I'm sorry you didn't want to leave Meyerdahl, and I'm sorry I can't let you wander around on your own. But that's the way it is, honey. And—" he gazed sternly into her brown eyes, trying not to see the tears which suddenly filled them "—I want your word that you'll do what your Mom and I tell you on this one."

 

Stephanie squelched glumly across the mud to the steep-roofed gazebo. Everything on Sphinx had a steep roof, and she allowed herself a deep, heartfelt groan as she plunked herself down on the gazebo steps and contemplated the reason that was true.

It was the snow, of course. Even here, close to Sphinx's equator, annual snowfall was measured in meters—lots of meters, she thought moodily—and houses needed steep roofs to shed all that frozen water, especially on a planet whose gravity was over a third higher than Old Earth's. Not that Stephanie had ever seen Old Earth . . . or any world which wasn't classified as "heavy grav" by the rest of humanity.

She sighed again, with an edge of wistful misery, and wished her great-great-great-great-whatever grandparents hadn't volunteered for the Meyerdahl First Wave. Her parents had sat her down to explain what that meant shortly after her eighth birthday. She'd already heard the word "genie," though she hadn't realized that, technically at least, it applied to her, but she'd only started her classroom studies four T-years before. Her history courses hadn't gotten to Old Earth's Final War yet, so she'd had no way to know why some people still reacted so violently to any notion of modifications to the human genotype . . . and why they considered "genie" the dirtiest word in Standard English.

Now she knew, though she still thought anyone who felt that way was silly. Of course the bioweapons and "super soldiers" whipped up for the Final War had been bad ideas, and the damage they'd done to Old Earth had been horrible. But that had all happened five hundred T-years ago, and it hadn't had a thing to do with people like the Meyerdahl or Quelhollow first waves. She supposed it was a good thing the original Manticoran settlers had left Sol before the Final War. Their old-fashioned cryo ships had taken over six T-centuries to make the trip, which meant they'd missed the entire thing . . . and the prejudices that went with it.

Not that there was anything much to draw anyone's attention to the changes the geneticists had whipped up for Meyerdahl's colonists. Mass for mass, Stephanie's muscle tissue was about twenty-five percent more efficient than that of "pure strain" humans, and her metabolism ran about twenty percent faster to fuel those muscles. There were a few minor changes to her respiratory and circulatory systems and some skeletal reinforcement, as well, and the modifications had been designed to be dominant, so that all her descendants would have them. But her kind of genie was perfectly interfertile with pure-strainers, and as far as she could see all the changes put together were no big deal. They just meant that because she and her parents needed less muscle mass for a given strength, they were ideally suited to colonize high gravity planets without turning all stumpy and bulgy-muscled. Still, once she'd gotten around to studying the Final War and some of the anti-genie movements, she'd decided Daddy and Mom might have had a point in warning her not to go around telling strangers about it. Aside from that, she seldom thought about it one way or the other . . . except to reflect somewhat bitterly that if they hadn't been genies, the heavy gravities of the Manticore Binary System's habitable planets might have kept her parents from deciding they simply had to drag her off to the boonies like this.

She chewed her lower lip and leaned back, letting her eyes roam over the isolated clearing in which she'd been marooned by their decision. The tall green roof of the main house was a cheerful splash of color against the still-bare picket wood and crown oaks which surrounded it, but she wasn't in the mood to be cheerful, and it took very little effort to decide green was a stupid color for a roof. Something dark and drab—brown, maybe, or maybe even black—would have suited her much better. And while she was on the subject of inappropriate building materials, why couldn't they have used something more colorful than natural gray stone? She knew it had been the cheapest way to do it, but getting enough insulating capacity to face a Sphinx winter out of natural rock required walls over a meter thick. It was like living in a dungeon, she thought . . . then paused to savor the simile. It fitted her present mood perfectly, and she stored it away for future use.

She considered it a moment longer, then shook herself and gazed at the trees beyond the house and its attached greenhouses with a yearning that was almost a physical pain. Some kids knew they wanted to be spacers or scientists by the time they could pronounce the words, but Stephanie didn't want stars. She wanted . . . green. She wanted to go places no one had ever been yet—not through hyper-space, but on a warm, living, breathing planet. She wanted waterfalls and mountains, trees and animals who'd never heard of zoos. And she wanted to be the first to see them, to study them, understand them, protect them. . . . 

Maybe it was because of her parents, she mused, forgetting to resent her father's restrictions for the moment. Richard Harrington held degrees in both Terran and xeno-veterinary medicine. They made him far more valuable to a frontier world like Sphinx than he'd ever been back home, but he'd occasionally been called upon by Meyerdahl's Forestry Service. That had brought Stephanie into far closer contact with her birth world's animal kingdom than most people her age ever had the chance to come, and her mother's background as a plant geneticist—another of those specialties new worlds found so necessary—had helped her appreciate the beautiful intricacies of Meyerdahl's flora, as well.

Only then they'd brought her way out here and dumped her on Sphinx.

Stephanie grimaced in fresh disgust. Part of her had deeply resented the thought of leaving Meyerdahl, but another part had been delighted. However much she might long for a Forestry Service career, the thought of starships and interstellar voyages had been exciting. And so had the thought of immigrating on a sort of rescue mission to help save a colony which had been almost wiped out by plague. (Although, she admitted, that part would have been much less exciting if the doctors hadn't found a cure for the plague in question.) Best of all, her parents' specialities meant the Star Kingdom had agreed to pay the cost of their transportation, which, coupled with their savings, had let them buy a huge piece of land all their own. The Harrington homestead was a rough rectangle thrown across the steep slopes of the Copperwall Mountains to overlook the Tannerman Ocean, and it measured twenty kilometers on a side. Not the twenty meters of their lot's frontage in Hollister, but twenty kilometers, which made it as big as the entire city had been back home! And it backed up against an area already designated as a major nature preserve, as well.

But there were a few things Stephanie hadn't considered in her delight. Like the fact that their homestead was almost a thousand kilometers from anything that could reasonably be called a city. Much as she loved wilderness, she wasn't used to being that far from civilization, and the distances between settlements meant her father had to spend an awful lot of time in the air just getting from patient to patient. At least the planetary datanet let her keep up with her schooling and enjoy some simple pleasures—in fact, she was first in her class (again), despite the move, and she stood sixteenth in the current planetary chess competition, as well—and she enjoyed her trips to town (when she wasn't using Twin Forks' dinkiness in negotiations with her parents). But none of the few kids her age in Twin Forks were in the accelerated curriculum, which meant they weren't in any of her classes, and the settlement was totally lacking in all the amenities of a city of almost half a million people.

Yet Stephanie could have lived with that if it hadn't been for two other things: snow, and hexapumas.

She dug a booted toe into the squishy mud beyond the gazebo's bottom step and scowled. Daddy had warned her they'd be arriving just before winter, and she'd thought she knew what that meant. But "winter" had an entirely different meaning on Sphinx. Snow had been an exciting rarity on warm, mild Meyerdahl, but a Sphinxian winter lasted almost sixteen T-months. That was over a tenth of her entire life, and she'd become well and truly sick of snow. Daddy could say whatever he liked about how other seasons would be just as long. Stephanie believed him. She even understood, intellectually, that she had the better part of four full T-years before the snow returned. But she hadn't experienced it yet, and all she had right now was mud. Lots and lots and lots of mud, and the bare beginning of buds on the deciduous trees, and boredom.

And, she reminded herself with a scowl, she also had the promise not to do anything about that boredom which Daddy had extracted from her. She supposed she should be glad he and Mom worried about her, but it was so . . . so underhanded of him to make her promise. It was like making Stephanie her own jailer, and he knew it!

She sighed again, rose, shoved her fists into her jacket pockets, and headed for her mother's office. She doubted she could get Mom to help her change Daddy's mind about grounding her, but she could try. And at least she might get a little understanding out of her.

 

Dr. Marjorie Harrington stood by the window and smiled sympathetically as she watched Stephanie trudge toward the house. Dr. Harrington knew where her daughter was headed . . . and what she meant to do when she got there. In a general way, she disapproved of Stephanie's attempts to enlist one parent against the other when edicts were laid down, but she understood her daughter too well to resent it in this case. And one thing about Stephanie: however much she might resent a restriction or maneuver to get it lifted, she always honored it once she'd given her word to do so.

Dr. Harrington turned from the window and headed back to her desk terminal. Her services had become much sought after in the seventeen T-months she and Richard had been on Sphinx, but unlike Richard, she seldom had to go to her clients. On the rare occasions when she required physical specimens rather than simple electronic data, they could be delivered to her small but efficient lab and supporting greenhouses here on the homestead as easily as to any other location, and she loved the sense of freedom that gave her. In addition, all three habitable planets of the Manticore Binary System had remarkably human-compatible biosystems. So far, she hadn't hit any problems she couldn't find answers for fairly quickly—aside from the disappearing celery mystery, which was hardly in her area of specialization anyway—and she had a sense of helping to build something new and special here which she hadn't had on long-settled Meyerdahl. She loved that, but for now she put her terminal on hold and leaned back in her chair while she considered the rapidly looming interview with Stephanie.

There were times when she thought it might have been nice to have a child who wasn't quite so gifted. Stephanie knew she was much further along in school than other children her age, just as she knew her IQ was considerably higher than most. What she did not know—and what Marjorie and Richard had no intention of telling her just yet—was that her scores placed her squarely in the top tenth of a percent of the human race. Even today, tests became increasingly unreliable as one reached the stratosphere of intelligence, which made it impossible to rank her any more positively, but Marjorie had firsthand experience of just how difficult it could be to win an argument with her. In fact, her parents, faced with an endless and inventive series of perfectly logical objections (logical, at least, from Stephanie's perspective) often found themselves with little option but to say "because we said so, that's why!" Marjorie hated using that discussion-ender, but, to her credit, Stephanie usually took it better than Marjorie had when she was a child.

But gifted or not, Stephanie was only eleven. She truly didn't grasp—yet—all that Sphinx's slow seasons meant. The next several weeks, Marjorie estimated, would be marked by long, dark sighs, listlessness, draggy steps (when anyone was looking, at least), and all those time-honored cues by which offspring showed uncaring parents how cruelly oppressed they were. But assuming that all concerned survived long enough for spring to get underway, Stephanie was going to find that Sphinx without snow was a far more interesting place, and Marjorie made a firm mental note to take some time away from the terminal. There was no way she could spend as many hours in the woods as Stephanie wanted to, but she could at least provide her only child with an adult escort often enough for Stephanie's habit to get a minimum fix.

Her thoughts paused, and then she smiled again as another idea occurred to her. They couldn't let Stephanie rummage around in the woods by herself, no, but there might just be another way to distract her. Stephanie had the sort of mind that enjoyed working the Yawata Crossing Times crossword puzzles in permanent ink. She was constitutionally incapable of resisting a challenge, so with just a little prompting . . . 

Marjorie let her chair slip upright and drew a sheaf of hardcopy closer as she heard boots moving down the hall towards her office. She uncapped her stylus and bent over the neatly printed sheets with a studious expression just as Stephanie knocked on the frame of the open door.

"Mom?" Dr. Harrington allowed herself one more sympathetic smile at the put-upon pensiveness of Stephanie's tone, then banished the expression and looked up from her paperwork.

"Come in, Steph," she invited, and leaned back in her chair once more.

"Could I talk to you a minute?" Stephanie asked, and Marjorie nodded.

"Of course you can, honey," she said. "What's on your mind?"

III

Climbs Quickly perched in his observation post once more, but the sunlit sky of three days earlier had turned to dark, gray-black charcoal, and a stiff wind whipped in from the mountains to the west. It brought the tang of rock and snow, mingled with the bright sharpness of thunder, but it also blew across the two-legs' clearing, and he slitted his eyes and flattened his ears, peering into it as it rippled his fur. There was rain, as well as thunder, on that wind. He didn't look forward to being soaked, and lightning could make his present perch dangerous, yet he felt no temptation to seek cover, for other scents indicated his two-legs were up to something interesting in one of their transparent plant places.

Climbs Quickly cocked his head, lashing the tip of his prehensile tail as he considered. He'd come to think of this clearing's inhabitants as "his" two-legs, but there were many other two-legs on the planet, most with their own scouts keeping watch over them. Those scouts' reports, like his own, were circulated among the memory singers of all the clans, and they included something he felt a burning desire to explore for himself.

One of the cleverest of the many clever things the two-legs had demonstrated to the People were their plant places, for the People weren't only hunters. Like the snow hunters and the lake builders (but not the death fangs), they ate plants as well, and they required certain kinds of plants to remain strong and fit.

Unfortunately, some of the plants they needed couldn't live in ice and snow, which made the cold days a time of hunger and death, when too many of the very old or very young died. Although there was usually prey of some sort, there was less of it, and it was harder to catch, and the lack of needed plants only made that normal hunger worse. But that was changing, for the eating of plants was yet another way in which two-legs and People were alike . . . and the two-legs had found an answer to the cold days, just as they had to so many other problems. Indeed, it often seemed to Climbs Quickly that two-legs could never be satisfied with a single answer to any challenge, and in this case, they had devised at least two.

The simpler answer was to make plants grow where they wanted during the warm days, but the more spectacular one (and the one that most intrigued Climbs Quickly) were their transparent plant places. The plant places' sides and roofs, made of yet another material the People had no idea how to make, let the sun's light and heat pass through, forming little pockets of the warm days amid even the deepest snow, and the two-legs made the plants they ate grow inside that warmth all turning long. Nor did they grow them only during the cold days. There were fresh plants growing in these plant places even now, for Climbs Quickly could smell them through the moving spaces the two-legs had opened along the upper sides of the plant places to let the breeze blow in.

The People had never considered making things grow in specific places. Instead, they gathered plants wherever they grew of their own accord, either to eat immediately or to store for future need. In some turnings, they were able to gather more than enough to see them through the cold days; in less prosperous turnings, hunger and starvation stalked the clans, yet that was the way it had always been and the way it would continue. Until, that was, the People heard their scouts' reports of the two-leg plant places.

The People weren't very good at it yet, but they, too, had begun growing plants in carefully tended and guarded patches at the hearts of their clans' ranges. Their efforts had worked out poorly for the first few turnings, yet the two-legs' success proved it was possible, and they'd continued watching the two-legs and the strange not-living things which tended their open plant places. Much of what they observed meant little or nothing, but other lessons were clearer, and the People had learned a great deal. They had no way to duplicate the enclosed, transparent plant places, of course, yet this last turning, Bright Water Clan had found itself facing the cold days with much more white root, golden ear, and lace leaf than it had required to survive them. Indeed, there had been sufficient surplus for Bright Water to trade it to the neighboring High Crag Clan for additional supplies of flint, and Climbs Quickly wasn't the only member of the clan who realized the People owed the two-legs great thanks (whether the two-legs ever knew it or not).

But what made his whiskers quiver with anticipation was something else the other scouts had reported. The two-legs grew many strange plants the People had never heard of—a single sharp-nosed tour of any of their outside plant places would prove that—yet most were like ones the People knew. But one wasn't. Climbs Quickly had yet to personally encounter the plant the other scouts had christened cluster stalk, but he was eager to do so. Indeed, he knew he was a bit too eager, for the bright ecstasy of the scouts who'd sampled cluster stalk rang through the relayed songs of their clans' memory singers with a clarity that was almost stunning. It wasn't simply the plant's marvelous taste, either. Like the tiny, bitter-tasting, hard-to-find fruit of the purple thorn, cluster stalk sharpened the Peoples' mind voices and deepened the texture of their memory songs. The People had known the virtue of purple thorn for hundreds upon hundreds of turnings—indeed, People who were denied its fruit had actually been known to lose their mind voices entirely—yet there had never been enough of it, and it had always been almost impossible to find in sufficient quantities. But the cluster stalk was even better than purple thorn (if the reports were correct), and the two-legs seemed to grow it almost effortlessly.

And unless Climbs Quickly was mistaken, that scent blowing from the two-legs' plant places matched the cluster stalk's perfume embedded in the memory songs.

He crouched on his perch, watching the sky grow still darker and heavier, and made up his mind. It would be full dark soon, and the two-legs would retire to the light and warmth of their living place, especially on a night of rain such as this one promised to be. He didn't blame them for that. Indeed, under other circumstances, he would have been scurrying back to his own snugly-roofed nest's water-shedding woven canopy. But not tonight.

No, tonight he would stay, rain or no, and when the two-legs retired, he would explore more closely than he'd ever yet dared approach their living place.

 

Stephanie Harrington turned up the collar of her jacket and wiggled her toes in her boots for warmth. This part of Sphinx had officially entered Spring, but nights were still cold (though far, far warmer than they had been!), and Stephanie was grateful for her thick, warm socks and jacket as she sat in the darkened gazebo sniffing the ozone-heavy wind. The weather satellites said the Harrington homestead was in for a night of thunder, lightning, rain, and violent wind, and cold or not, Stephanie intended to savor it to the full. She'd always liked thunderstorms. She knew some kids were frightened by them, but Stephanie thought that was stupid. She had no intention of running out into the storm with a lightning rod—or, for that matter, standing under a tree—but the spectacle of all that fire and electricity crashing about the sky was simply too exhilarating and wonderful to miss . . . and this would be the first thunderstorm she'd seen in over a T-year.

Not that she'd mentioned her intention to observe it from the gazebo to her parents. She estimated that there was an almost even chance that they would have agreed to let her stay up to enjoy the storm, but she knew they would have insisted that she watch it from inside. Thoughts of fireplace-popped popcorn and the hot chocolate Mom would undoubtedly have added to the experience had almost tempted her into announcing her plans, but a little further thought had dissuaded her. Popcorn and hot chocolate were nice, but the only proper way to enjoy her first storm in so long was from out in the middle of it where she could feel and taste its power.

And, of course, there was that other little matter.

She smiled in the dark and patted the camera in her lap as thunder growled louder and lightning lashed the mountaintops to the west. She knew her mother had trolled the disappearing crops mystery in front of her as a distraction, but that hadn't made the puzzle any less fascinating. She didn't really expect to solve it, yet she could have fun trying, and if it just happened that she did find the answer, well, she was sure she could accept the credit with becoming modesty.

Her smile curled up in urchin glee at the thought. The original idea might have been her mother's, and Dr. Harrington might have lent her enthusiastic support to Stephanie's approach to the problem, but Stephanie hadn't made her mother privy to every facet of her plan. Part of that was to avoid embarrassment if it didn't work, but most of it came from the simple knowledge that her parents wouldn't approve of her . . . hands-on approach. Fortunately, knowing what they would have said—had the occasion arisen—was quite different from actually having them say it when the occasion hadn't arisen, which was why she'd carefully avoided bringing the matter up at all.

For the past year or so, a mounting number of homesteads had reported vanishing crops. At first, people had been inclined to think it was some kind of hoax, especially since only one plant ever took missing. Personally, Stephanie couldn't imagine why anyone would want to steal celery, which she ate only under parental insistence, but it was obvious someone was.

The question was who. Logically, since celery was a Terran import, humans were the only people on Sphinx who should be interested in it, but the very limited evidence available suggested otherwise. Whoever was behind it must be fiendishly clever, for they seemed able to get in and out of places no human should have been able to sneak through, and they left very little in the way of clues. But Stephanie had noticed a pattern. First, the celery was always stolen from one of the more isolated homesteads, not from any of the farm plots or greenhouses near a town. And, second, whoever was stealing it operated only at night and, if possible, under cover of bad weather. For the most part, that had meant waiting to strike a greenhouse during a snow storm, when the blizzard would blot out any tracks they might leave, but Stephanie rather suspected that the bandits would find it hard to pass up the opportunity of a good, heavy thunderstorm. And if the raiders were not, in fact, simply a bunch of humans playing adolescent pranks—if, as she suspected, something native to Sphinx was behind it—then lurking out here in the dark might actually prove as interesting as the solo excursions into the woods which had been denied her.

 

Climbs Quickly clung to his pad as groaning branches lashed the night to protest the wind that roared among them. The rumbling thunder had drawn closer, barking more and more loudly, and lightning forks had begun to play about the mountain heads to the west. The storm was going to be even more powerful than he'd thought, and he smelled cold, wet rain on its breath. It would be here soon, he thought. Very soon, which meant it was time.

He climbed down the trunk more slowly and cautiously than was his wont, for he felt the sturdy tree quivering and shivering under his claws. It took him much longer than usual to reach the ground, and he paused, still a half dozen People-lengths up the tree, to survey his surroundings. The People were quick and agile anywhere, but true safety lay in their ability to scamper up into places where things like death fangs couldn't follow. Unfortunately, Climbs Quickly's plans required him to venture into an area without handy trees, and while it was unlikely to hold any death fangs, either, he saw no harm in double-checking to be certain of that.

But scan the night though he might, he detected no dangers other than those of the weather itself, and he dropped the last distance to the ground. The mud, he noted, had begun to dry—on the top, at least—but the rain would change that. He felt the faint, pounding vibration of raindrops through the ground, coming steadily nearer, and his ears flattened in resignation. If the reports about cluster stalk proved true, getting soaked would be small enough cost for this evening's excursion, but that didn't mean he would enjoy it, and he flirted his tail and scampered quickly towards the nearest plant place.

 

In planning her own approach to the disappearing celery mystery, Stephanie had studied everything she could get her hands on about previous thefts. Not that there'd been much to study; the mysterious thieves didn't strike often, and their first known raids had completely surprised the colonists. Since no one had seen any reason to take precautions against celery thefts, whoever the thieves were had been able to simply walk into the fields or greenhouses, scarf up their prizes, and disappear. Given that ease of operation, Stephanie had been surprised to discover how small the original thefts had been. With so clear a field of operations, the bandits should have been able to take as much as they pleased, yet their known hauls were so small that she suspected they'd been pilfering for quite a while before anyone even noticed.

It had taken a long time for anyone to take the reports seriously, and even when the colonists finally moved to put precautions in place, they'd started by trying the predictable—and simplest—measures. But locking greenhouse doors or fencing outdoor garden plots had failed miserably. Despite the unlikeliness that any Sphinxian creature could have a taste for a Terran vegetable, opinion (among those who didn't still think it was all a hoax, at least) had hardened in favor of some clever local animal. Had whatever it was shown an interest in anything but celery, that might have been a cause for alarm; as it was, most of those who'd been raided seemed to take it as a challenge, not a threat. Whatever the pest was, it had to be small, agile, fast, and sneaky, and they were determined to figure out what it was, but they had to act within the limits of the Elysian Rule. With no clear idea what they were after, it was impossible to be sure even capture traps would be nonlethal, and the Elysian Rule absolutely forbade the use of lethal means against a complete unknown without evidence that whatever it was posed a physical danger to humans.

That rule had been adopted over a thousand years before, after a disastrous clutch of mistakes had devastated the ecology of the colony world of Elysian, and no administration on a planet in the early stages of settlement would even consider its violation without a reason far more compelling than the minuscule economic loss thefts of celery represented. But that hadn't ruled out trip wires, photoelectric detectors, and pressure plates. They were attached to lights or alarms or passive camera systems, but somehow the celery thieves always seemed to avoid them. There had been that one time when someone—or, Stephanie thought deliciously, something—had tripped a camera over in Jefferies Land in the middle of a howling blizzard. Unfortunately, all the exterior camera had recorded was a lot of swirling snow.

Given how hard others had been working on the mystery, Stephanie was willing to admit that it was unlikely she would be the one to solve it. But that wasn't the same as impossible, and she'd been very careful to leave the ventilation louvers open on the greenhouse which contained her mother's celery. The odds were against anything coming along to take advantage of the opportunity, but it wasn't as if Stephanie had a lot of other things to do just now, and she settled back in her chair, camera in her lap, as the first spatters of rain began to fall.

 

Climbs Quickly paused, head and shoulders rising as he stood high on his true-feet and hand-feet like—had he known (or cared)—an Old Terran prairie dog to peer into the night. This was the closest he'd ever come to his two-legs' living place, and his eyes glowed as he realized he'd been right. He had been tasting a mind glow from them, and he stood motionless in the darkness as he savored the texture.

It was unlike anything he'd ever tasted from another of the People . . . and yet it wasn't unlike. It was . . . was . . . 

He sat down, curling his tail about his toes, and rubbed one ear with a true-hand while he tried to put a label on it. It was like the People, he decided after long, hard moments of thought, but without words. It was only the emotions, the feelings of the two-legs, without the shaping that turned those into communication, and there was a strange drowsiness to it, as if it were half-asleep. As if, he thought slowly, the mind glow rose from minds which had never even considered that anyone else might be able to taste or hear them and so had never learned to use it to communicate. Yet even as he thought that, it seemed impossible, for the glow was too strong, too powerful. Unformed, unshaped, it blazed like some marvelous flower, brighter and taller than any of the People had ever produced in Climbs Quickly's presence, and he shivered as he wondered what it would have been like if the two-legs hadn't been mind-blind. He felt the brightness calling to him, tempting him closer like a memory singer's song, and he shook himself. This would be a very important part of his next report to Sings Truly and Short Tail, but he certainly had no business exploring it on his own before he reported it. Besides, it wasn't what he'd come for.

He shook himself again, stepping back from the mind glow, but it was hard to distance himself from it. In fact, he had to make a deliberate, conscious decision not to taste it and then close his mind to it, and that took much longer to manage than he'd expected.

Yet he did manage it, eventually, and drew a deep breath of relief as he pulled free. He flipped his ears, twitched his whiskers, and began sliding once more through the darkness as the first raindrops splashed about him.

 

The rain came down harder, drumming on the gazebo roof. The air seemed to dance and shiver as incessant lightning split the night and thunder shook its halves, and Stephanie's eyes glowed as wind whipped spray in through the gazebo's open sides to spatter the floor and kiss her eyelashes and chilled cheeks. She felt the storm crackling about her and hugged it to herself, drinking in its energy.

But then, suddenly, a tiny light began to flash on her camera, and she froze. It couldn't be! But the light was flashing—it really was!—and that could only mean—

She pressed the button that killed the warning light, then snatched the camera up to peer through the viewfinder. Visibility was poor through the rain cascading off the gazebo roof. There was too much water in the air for a clear view, even with the camera's light-gathering technology, and the lightning didn't help as much as one might have expected. The camera adjusted to changing light levels more quickly than any human eye, but the contrast between the lightning's split-second, stroboscopic fury and the darkness that followed was too extreme.

Stephanie knew that, and she hadn't really expected to see anything just yet, anyway. Since the celery bandits had proved so clever at avoiding mechanical devices like trip wires, most of those working on the problem had opted for more subtle approaches. Photoelectric beams had been the next obvious approach, but whoever it was actually seemed to avoid them even more readily than he—or they—avoided mechanical barriers.

But Stephanie had a theory about why that was. In every case she'd been able to research, the photoelectric system used had employed infrared. Well, obviously visible light wouldn't work for something like that, and people had used infrared for such systems just about forever. But Stephanie's discussions with her father about his work with the fledgling Sphinx Forestry Service had led her to suspect that the people setting up those systems here had failed to adequately analyze their problem. From what Daddy said, relatively new evidence suggested that Sphinx wildlife used much more of the lower end of the spectrum than human eyes. That meant a Sphinxian animal might actually see the infrared light a human couldn't, and that, in turn, would make the photoelectric beams relatively easy to avoid, so Stephanie's alarms used the other end of the spectrum.

It hadn't been hard for her and Daddy to tinker them up in his workshop, and he'd helped her weave a solid wall of ultraviolet beams to cover the opened louvers. But while he and Mom knew all about her sensors, they thought she'd connected them to the data terminal in her room. Which she had. She just hadn't mentioned that for tonight she'd disabled the audible alarm on her data terminal and set up a silent relay to her camera, instead. Mom and Daddy were smart enough to guess why she might have done that, but since they hadn't specifically asked, she hadn't had to tell them, and that meant they hadn't gotten around to forbidding her to lurk in the gazebo tonight, which was certainly the most satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

If pressed, Stephanie would have conceded that her parents might have quibbled with that last conclusion, but what mattered at this particular moment was that something had just climbed through the open louver. Whatever was stealing celery was inside the greenhouse right this minute, and she had a chance to be the very first person on Sphinx to get actual pictures of it!

She stood for a moment, biting her lip and wishing she had better visibility, then shrugged. Mom and Dad wouldn't be a lot madder at her for getting soaked than they'd be over her having snuck out at all, and she needed to get closer to the greenhouse. She took a second to clip the rain shield onto the camera, then dragged her hat down over her ears, drew a deep breath, and splashed down the gazebo steps into the rain-whipped night.

 * * *

Climbs Quickly found it even harder to ignore the two-leg mind glows as he dropped to the soft, bare earth of the plant place's floor. The rich smells of unknown growing things filled his nostrils, and his tail twitched as he absorbed them. The transparent material of the plant place seemed far too thin to resist the rain beating upon it, yet it did, and without a single drop leaking through! The two-legs were truly clever to design a marvel like that, and he sat for a moment luxuriating in the enfolding warmth that was made somehow even warmer and more welcoming by the furious splashing of the icy, lightning-laced rain.

But he hadn't come here to be dry, he reminded himself, and his true-hands untied the carry net wrapped about his middle while he followed his nose and resolutely ignored the background mind glows of the two-legs.

Ah! There was the cluster stalk scent from Sings Truly's song! His eyes lit, and he swarmed easily up the side of the raised part of the plant place, then paused as he came face to face with cluster stalk for the very first time.

The growing heads were bigger than the ones from Sings Truly's song, and he wondered if the scout who first brought that song to his clan had sampled his first cluster stalk before it was fully grown. Whether that was true or not, each of these plants was two-thirds as long as Climbs Quickly himself, and he was glad he'd brought the carry net. Still, net or not, he would have to be careful not to take too much if he expected to carry it all the way home. He sat for another long moment, considering, then flipped his ears in decision. Two heads, he decided. He could manage that much, and he could always come back for more.

But even as he decided that, he realized he'd used the need to decide to distract him from the marvelous scent of the cluster stalk. It was like nothing he'd ever smelled before, and he felt his mouth water as he drew it deep into his lungs. He hesitated, then reached out and tugged gently on an outer stalk.

It responded with a springy resistance, like the top of a white root, and he tugged harder. Still it held out, and he tugged still harder, then bleeked in triumph as the stalk came loose in his true-hand. He raised it to his nose, sniffing deeply, then stuck out his tongue.

Magic filled his mouth as he licked delicately. It was like hot, liquid sunlight on a day of frozen ice. Like cold mountain water on a day of scorching heat, or the gentle caress of a new mother, just ruffling her first kitten's delicate fur while her mind promised him welcome and warmth and love. It was—

Climbs Quickly shook his head. It wasn't actually like any of those things, he realized, except that each of them, in its own way, was wonderful and unique. It was just that he didn't have anything else he could really compare that first blissful taste to, and he nibbled gently at the end of the stalk. It was hard to chew—People didn't really have the right kind of teeth to eat plants—but it tasted just as wonderful as that first lick had promised, and he crooned in pleasure as he devoured it.

He finished the entire stalk and reached quickly for another, then made himself stop. Yes, it tasted wonderful, and he wanted more, but he was no ground burrower to gorge himself into insensibility on yellow stalk. He was a scout of the Bright Water Clan, and it was his job to carry this home for Short Tail, Bright Claw, Broken Tooth, and the memory singers to judge it for themselves. Even if they hadn't been the leaders of his clan, they were his friends, and friends shared anything this marvelous with one another.

It was actually easier to get an entire head out of the soft earth in which it grew than it had been to peel off that single stalk, and Climbs Quickly soon had two of them rolled up in his carry net. They made an awkward bundle, but he tied the net as neatly as he could and slung it onto his back, reaching up to hold the hand loops with his mid-limbs' hand-feet while he used true-feet and true-hands to climb back down to the floor. Getting to the opening to the outer world would be more difficult with his burden than it had been coming in, but he could manage. He might not be very fast or agile, but not even a death fang would be out on a night like this!

 

Stephanie was glad her jacket and trousers were waterproof, and her broad-brimmed hat kept her head and face dry. But holding the camera on target required her to raise her hands in front of her, and ice-cold rain had flooded down the drain pipes of her nice, waterproof jacket sleeves. She felt it puddling about her elbows and beginning to probe stealthily towards her shoulders—just as her forearms were raised, her upper arms were parallel to the ground, providing an all too convenient channel for the frigid water—but all the rain in the world couldn't have convinced her to lower her camera at a moment like this.

She stood no more than ten meters from the greenhouse, recording steadily. Her camera's storage chip was good for over ten hours, and she had no intention of missing any of this for the official record. Excitement trembled inside as the minutes passed in the splashing, lightning-slivered darkness. Whatever it was had been inside the greenhouse for nine minutes now, surely it would be coming back out pretty s—

 

Climbs Quickly reached the opening with a profound sense of relief. He'd almost dropped his carry net twice, and he decided to catch his breath before leaping down into the rain with his prize. After all, he had plenty of ti—

 

A whisker-fringed muzzle and prick-eared head poked out of the opening, green eyes glowing emerald as lightning stuttered, and the universe seemed to stop as their owner found himself staring into the glassy eye of a camera in the hands of an eleven-T-year-old girl. Excitement froze Stephanie's breath, even though she'd known this moment was coming, but Climbs Quickly hadn't known. His surprise was total, and he went absolutely motionless in astonishment.

Seconds ticked past, and then he shook himself mentally. Showing himself to a two-leg was the one thing he'd been most firmly instructed not to do, and he cringed inwardly at how Short Tail would react to this. He knew he could claim distraction on the basis of the storm and his first experience with cluster stalk, but that wouldn't change his failure into success, and he stared down at the two-leg while his mind began to work once more.

It was the youngling, he realized, for it was smaller than either of its parents. He didn't know what it was pointing at him, but from all reports, he would have been dead already if the two-leg had intended to kill him. Yet deciding the thing aimed his way wasn't a weapon didn't tell him what it was. Those thoughts flashed through his brain in a heartbeat, and then, without really thinking about it, he reached out to the two-leg's mind glow in an effort to judge its intentions.

He was totally unprepared for the consequences. It was as if he'd looked straight up into the sun expecting to see only the glow of a single torch, and his eyes flared wide and his ears flattened as the intensity of the two-leg's emotions rolled over him. The glow was far brighter than before, and he wondered distantly if that was simply because he was closer and concentrating upon it, or if the cluster stalk he'd sampled might have something to do with it. But it didn't really matter. What mattered was the excitement and eagerness and wonder that blazed so brightly in the two-leg's mind. It was the first time any of the People had ever come face-to-face with a two-leg, and nothing could have prepared Climbs Quickly for the sheer delight with which Stephanie Harrington saw the marvelous, six-limbed creature crouched in the ventilation louver with the woven net of purloined celery slung over its back.

The representatives of two intelligent species, one of which had never even suspected the other's existence, stared at one another in the middle of a howling thunderstorm. It was a moment which could not last, yet neither wanted it to end. Stephanie felt her sense of triumph and excited discovery flow through her like a fountain, and she had no idea that Climbs Quickly felt those emotions even more clearly than he would have felt them from another of his own kind. Nor could she have guessed how very much he wanted to continue feeling them. She knew only that he crouched there, gazing at her for what seemed like forever, before he shook himself and leapt suddenly down and outward.

 

Climbs Quickly pulled free of the two-leg's mind glow. It was hard—possibly the hardest thing he'd ever done—yet he had his duty, and so he made himself step back from that wonderful, welcoming furnace. Or, rather, he stepped away from it, for it was too strong, too intense, actually to disconnect from. He could turn his eyes away from the fire, but he could not pretend it did not blaze.

He shook himself, and then he launched outward into the rain and darkness. He was slow and clumsy with the net of cluster stalk on his back, but he knew as surely as he'd ever known anything in his life that this young two-leg meant him no harm. The secret of the People's existence was already revealed, and haste would change nothing, so he sat upright in the rain for a moment, gazing up at the two-leg, who finally lowered the strange thing it had held before its face to look down at him with its own eyes. He met those odd, brown, round-pupiled eyes for a moment, then flicked his ears, turned, and scampered off.

 

Stephanie watched the intruder vanish with a sense of wonder which only grew as the creature disappeared. It was small, she thought, no more than sixty or seventy centimeters long, though its tail would probably double its body length. An arboreal, her mind went on, considering its tail and the well-developed hands and the claws she'd seen as it clung to the lip of the louver. And those hands, she thought slowly, might have had only three fingers each, but they'd also had fully opposable thumbs. She closed her eyes, picturing it once more, seeing the net on its back, and knew she was right.

The celery snatcher might look like a teeny-tiny hexapuma, but that net was incontrovertible evidence that the survey crews had missed the most important single facet of Sphinx. But that was all right. In fact, that was just fine. Their omission had abruptly transformed this world from a place of exile to the most marvelous, exciting place Stephanie Harrington could possibly have been, for she'd just done something which had happened only eleven other times in the fifteen centuries of mankind's diaspora to the stars.

She'd just made first contact with a tool-using, clearly sentient, alien race.

The only question now was what to do about it.

IV

Climbs Quickly lay on his back outside his nest, belly fur turned to the sun, and did his best to convince the rest of his clan he was asleep. He knew he wasn't fooling anyone who cared to taste his mind glow, but good manners required them to pretend he was.

Which was just as well, for blissful as it was, the comfort of the drowsy sunlight was far too little to distract him from the monumental changes in his life. Facing his clan leaders and admitting that he'd let one of the two-legs actually see him—and even worse, see him in the very process of raiding their plant place—had been just as unpleasant as he'd feared.

People seldom physically attacked other People. Oh, there were squabbles enough, and occasional serious fights—usually, though not always, limited to younger scouts or hunters—and even rarer situations in which entire clans found themselves feuding with one another or fighting for control of their ranges. No one was particularly proud of such situations, but the ability to hear one another's thoughts and taste one another's emotions didn't necessarily make other People any easier to live with or fill a clan's range with prey when it was needed. But a clan's leaders normally intervened before anything serious could happen within a clan, and it was rare indeed for one member of a clan to deliberately attack another unless there was something fundamentally wrong with the attacker. Climbs Quickly himself could remember an occasion on which High Crag Clan had been forced to drive out one of its scouts, a rogue who had attacked other People. The exile had crossed into the Bright Water range, killing prey not just to live but for the sheer joy of killing, and raided Bright Water's storage places. He'd even attacked and seriously injured a Bright Water scout while attempting to steal a mother's kittens . . . for purposes Climbs Quickly preferred not to consider too deeply. In the end, the clan's scouts and hunters had been forced to hunt him down and kill him, a grim necessity none had welcomed.

So Climbs Quickly hadn't expected any of the Bright Water leaders to assault him, and they hadn't. But they had left him feeling as if they'd skinned him and hung his hide up to dry. It wasn't even the things they'd said so much as the way they'd said them.

Climbs Quickly's ears flicked, and he squirmed, turning to catch the sun more fully, as he recalled his time before Bright Water's leaders. Sings Truly had been present as the clan's second singer and the obvious heir to the first singer's position when Song Spinner died or surrendered her authority, but even Sings Truly had been shocked by his clumsiness. She hadn't scolded him the way Short Tail or Broken Tooth had, yet tasting his sister's wordless reproach had been harder for Climbs Quickly to bear than all of Broken Tooth's cutting irony.

He'd tried to explain, as clearly and undefensively as possible, that he'd never meant to let the two-leg see him, and he'd suggested the possibility that somehow the two-leg had known he was in the plant place even before seeing him. Unfortunately, his suspicion rested on the mind glow of the two-leg, and although none of the others had actually said so, he knew they found it difficult to believe a two-leg's mind glow could tell one of the People so much. He even knew why they thought that way, for no other scout had ever come close enough to—or concentrated hard enough upon—a two-leg to realize how wonderfully, dreadfully powerful that mind glow truly was.

<I believe that you believe the two-leg had some way of knowing you were there,> Short Tail had told him judiciously, his mind voice grave, <yet I fail to see how it could have. You saw none of the strange lights or tool things the two-legs have used to detect other scouts, after all.>

<True,> Climbs Quickly had replied as honestly as possible, <yet the two-legs are very clever. I saw none of the tool things I knew to look for, but does that prove the two-legs have no tool things we have not yet learned of?>

<You hunt for ground runners in the upper branches, little brother,> Broken Tooth, the most senior of Bright Water's elders, had put in sternly. <You allowed the two-leg not simply to see you but to see you raiding its range. I do not doubt you tasted its mind glow, but neither do I doubt that you tasted within that mind glow that which it was most important for you to taste.>

Much as Broken Tooth's charge had angered Climbs Quickly, he'd been unable to counter it effectively. The feelings of the mind glow were always much easier to misinterpret, even among the People, than thoughts which were formed into words, and it was only reasonable for Broken Tooth, who'd never tasted a two-leg mind glow, to assume that it would be even more difficult to interpret those of a totally different creature. Climbs Quickly knew—didn't think; knew—that the two-leg's mind glow had been so strong, so vibrant, that he literally could not have read it wrongly, yet when he couldn't explain how he knew that even to himself, he could hardly blame the clan's leaders for failing to grasp the same fact.

And so, because he couldn't explain, he'd accepted his scolding as meekly as possible. The cluster stalk he'd brought home had muted that scolding to some extent, for it had proved just as marvelous as the songs from other clans had indicated, but not even that had been enough to deflect the one consequence he truly resented.

He had been relieved of his responsibility to watch over his two-legs, and Shadow Hider, another scout (who just happened to be a grandson of Broken Tooth), had been assigned that task in his place. He understood why, however much he disliked it, for the People had only to watch them cutting down trees with their whining tools that ate through the trunks of trees large enough to hold whole clans of the People or using the machines that gouged out the deep holes in which they planted their living places to recognize the potential danger the two-legs represented. They need not decide to kill the People or destroy a clan's entire range to accomplish the same end by accident, and so the People had decided that their only true safety lay in avoiding them entirely. The clans must stay undetected, observing without being observed, until they decided how best to respond to the strange creatures who so confidently and competently reshaped the world.

Unfortunately, Climbs Quickly had come to doubt the wisdom of that policy. Certainly caution was necessary, yet it seemed to him that many People—such as Broken Tooth and his like among the other clans—had become too aware of the potential danger and too unaware of the possible advantages the two-legs presented. Perhaps without even realizing it, they had decided deep down inside that the time for the two-legs to learn of the People's existence would never come, for only thus could the People be safe.

But though Climbs Quickly had too much respect for his clan's leaders to say so, the hope that the two-legs would never discover the People was foolishness. There were more two-legs with every turning, and their flying things and long-seeing things and whatever the young two-leg had used to detect his own presence were too clever for the People to hide forever. Even without his encounter with the two-leg, the People would have been found sooner or later. And when that happened—or perhaps, more accurately, now that it had happened—the People would have no choice but to decide how they would interact with the two-legs . . . assuming, of course, that the two-legs allowed the People to make that decision.

All of that was perfectly clear to Climbs Quickly and, he suspected, to Sings Truly, Short Tail, and Bright Claw, the clan's senior hunter. But Broken Tooth, Song Spinner, and Digger, who oversaw the clan's plant places, rejected that conclusion. They saw how vast the world was, how many hiding places it offered, and believed they could avoid the two-legs forever, even now that the two-legs knew the People existed.

He sighed again, and then his whiskers twitched with wry amusement as he wondered if the young two-leg was having as many difficulties getting its elders to accept its judgment. If so, should Climbs Quickly be grateful or unhappy? He knew from its mind glow that the youngling had felt only wonder and delight, not anger or fear, when it saw him. Surely if its elders shared its feelings, the People had nothing to fear. Yet the fact that one two-leg—and one perhaps little removed from kittenhood—felt that way might very well mean no more to the rest of the two-legs than his feelings meant to Broken Tooth.

Climbs Quickly lay basking in the sunlight, considering all that had happened—and all that still threatened to happen—and understood the fear of Broken Tooth and his supporters. Indeed, a part of him shared their fear, but another part knew events had already been set in motion. The two-legs knew of the People's existence now. They would react to that, whatever the People did or didn't do, and all Broken Tooth's scolding could never prevent it.

Yet there was one thing Climbs Quickly hadn't reported, something he had yet to come to grips with himself and something he feared might actually panic Bright Water's leaders into abandoning their range and fleeing deep into the mountains. Perhaps that flight would actually be the path of wisdom, he admitted, but it might also cast away a treasure such as the People had never before encountered. It was scarcely the place of a single scout to make choices affecting his entire clan, yet no one else could make this decision, for he alone knew that somehow, in a way he couldn't begin to understand, he and the young two-leg now shared something.

He wasn't certain what that "something" was, but even now, with his eyes closed and the two-legs' clearing far away, he knew exactly where the youngling was. He could feel its mind glow, like a far-off fire or sunlight shining red through his closed eyelids. It was too distant for him to taste its emotions, yet he knew it wasn't his imagination. He truly did know the direction to the two-leg, even more clearly than the direction to Sings Truly, who was no more than twenty or thirty People-lengths away at this very moment.

Climbs Quickly had no idea at all what that might mean or where it might lead, but two things he did know. His connection, if such it was, to the young two-leg might—must—hold the key, for better or for worse, to whatever relationship People and two-legs might come to share. And until he decided what that connection meant in his own case, he dared not even suggest its existence to those who felt as Broken Tooth.

V

Stephanie leaned back in the comfortable chair, folded her hands behind her head, and propped her sock feet on her desk in the posture which always drew a scold from her mother. Her lips were pursed in a silent, tuneless whistle that was an all but inevitable complement to the vague dreaminess of her eyes . . . and which would, had she let her parents see it, instantly have alerted them to the fact that their darling daughter was Up To Something.

The problem was that for the first time in a very, very long time, she had only the haziest idea of precisely what she was up to. Or, rather, of how to pursue her objective. Uncertainty was an unusual feeling for someone who usually got into trouble by being too positive about things, yet there was something rather appealing about it, too. Perhaps because of its novelty.

She frowned, closed her eyes, tipped her chair further back, and thought harder.

She'd managed to evade detection on her way to bed the night of the thunderstorm. Oddly—though it hadn't occurred to her that it was odd until much later—she hadn't even considered rushing to her parents with her camera. The knowledge that humanity shared Sphinx with another sentient species was her discovery, and she'd felt strangely disinclined to share it. Until she did, it was not only her discovery but her secret, and she'd been almost surprised to realize she was determined to learn all she possibly could about her unexpected neighbors before she let anyone else know they existed. She wasn't certain when she'd decided that, but once she had, it had been easy to find logical reasons for her decision. For one thing, the mere thought of how some of the kids in Twin Forks would react was enough to make her shudder. Given their determination to catch everything from chipmunks (which didn't look at all like Meyerdahl's—or, for that matter, Old Terra's—chipmunks) to near-turtles as pets, they'd be almost certain to pursue these new creatures with even greater enthusiasm and catastrophic results.

She'd felt rather virtuous once she got that far, but it didn't come close to solving her main problem. If she didn't tell anybody, how did she go about learning more about them on her own? Stephanie knew she was brighter than most, but she also knew someone else would eventually catch a celery thief in the act. When that happened her secret would be out, and she was determined to learn everything she possibly could about them before that happened.

And, she thought, she was starting with a clean slate. She'd accessed the datanet without finding a single word about miniature hexapumas with hands. She'd even used her father's link to the Forestry Service to compare her camera imagery to known Sphinxian species, only to draw a total blank. Whatever the celery snatcher was, no one else had ever gotten pictures of one of his—or had it been her?—relatives or even uploaded a verbal description of them to the planetary database, and that said as much about their intelligence as the raider's woven net had. A planet was a big place, but from the pattern of celery thefts, these creatures must be at least as widely distributed as Sphinx's colonists. The only way they could have gone undetected for over fifty T-years was by deliberately avoiding humans . . . and that indicated a reasoned response to the colonists's presence and the existence of a language. Hiding so successfully had to indicate a deliberate, conscious, shared pattern of activity, and how could they coordinate that well without the ability to talk to one another? So they were not only tool-users but language-users, and their small size made that even more remarkable. The one Stephanie had seen couldn't have had a body length of more than sixty centimeters or weighed more than thirteen or fourteen kilos, and no one had ever before encountered a sentient species with a body mass that low.

Stephanie got that far without much difficulty. Unfortunately, that was as far as she could get without more data, and for the first time she could recall, she didn't know how to get any more. She might be first in her class, and she might have made it into the final round of the planetary chess championship, and she might approach most problems with complete confidence, but this time she was stumped. She'd exhausted the available research possibilities, so if she wanted more information, she had to get it for herself. That implied some sort of field research, but how did an eleven-T-year-old—and one who'd promised her parents she wouldn't tramp around the woods alone—investigate a totally unknown species without even telling anyone it existed?

In a way, she was actually grateful that her mother had found herself too tied down by her current projects to go for those nature hikes she'd promised to try to make time for. Stephanie had been grateful when her mother made the offer, though she'd realized even then that with her mom along her hikes could hardly have offered the sort of intensive investigation for which she'd longed. Now, however, her mother's presence would have posed a serious obstacle for any attempt to pursue private research in secret.

It was perhaps unfortunate, however, that her father, in an effort to make up for her "disappointment" over her mother's schedule, had decided to distract her by resuming the hang-gliding lessons their departure from Meyerdahl had interrupted. Stephanie loved the exhilaration of flight, even if Daddy did insist that she take along an emergency countergrav unit "just in case," and no one could have been a better teacher than Richard Harrington, who'd made it into the continental hang-gliding finals on Meyerdahl three times. But the time she spent on gliding lessons was time she didn't spend investigating her fascinating discovery, and if she didn't spend time on the lessons—and obviously enjoy them—her parents would suspect she had something else on her mind. Worse, Daddy insisted on flying into Twin Forks for her lessons. That made sense, since unlike her mom he had to be "on call" twenty-five hours a day and Twin Forks was the central hub for all the local homesteads. He could reach any of them quickly from town, and teaching the lessons there let him enlist the two or three other parents with gliding experience as assistant teachers and offer the lessons to all the settlement's other kids, as well. That was exactly the sort of generosity Stephanie would have expected of him, but it also meant her lessons were not only eating up an enormous amount of her free time but taking her over eighty kilometers away from the place where she was more eager than ever to begin the explorations she'd promised her parents she wouldn't undertake.

She hadn't found a way around her problems yet, but she was determined that she would find one—and without breaking her promise, however much that added to her difficulties. But at least it hadn't been hard to give the species a name. It looked like an enormously smaller version of a "hexapuma," and like the hexapuma, there was something very (or perhaps inevitably) feline about it. Of course, Stephanie knew "feline" actually referred only to a very specific branch of Old Terran evolution, but it had become customary over the centuries to apply Old Terran names to alien species (like the Sphinxian "chipmunks" or "near-pine"). Most claimed the practice originated from a sort of racial homesickness and a desire for familiarity in alien environments, but Stephanie thought it was more likely to stem from laziness, since it let people avoid thinking up new labels for everything they encountered. Despite all that, however, she'd discovered that "treecat" was the only possible choice when she started considering names, and she hoped the taxonomists would let it stand when she finally had to go public with her discovery, though she suspected rather glumly that her age would work against her in that regard.

And if she hadn't figured out how to go about investigating the treecats without breaking her promise—which was out of the question, however eager she might be to proceed—at least she knew the direction in which to start looking. She had no idea how she knew, but she was absolutely convinced that she would know exactly where to go when the time came.

She closed her eyes, took one arm from behind her head, and pointed, then opened her eyes to see where her index finger was aimed. The direction had changed slightly since the last time she'd checked, and yet she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was pointing directly at the treecat who'd raided her mother's greenhouse.

And that, she reflected, was the oddest—and most exciting—part of the whole thing.

VI

Marjorie Harrington finished writing up her latest microbe-resistant strain of squash, closed the file, and sat back with a sigh. Some of Sphinx's farmers had argued that it would be much simpler (and quicker) just to come up with something to swat the microbe in question. That always seemed to occur to the people who faced such problems, and sometimes, Marjorie was prepared to admit, it was not only the simplest but also the most cost effective and ecologically sound answer. That was especially true when the parasite in question was itself a new strain, a new mutation rather than an old, established part of the ecosystem. But in this case, she and the planetary administration had resisted firmly, and her final solution—which, she admitted, had taken longer than a more aggressive one might have—had been to select the least intrusive of three possible genetic modifications to the plant rather than going after the microbe. It was always a good idea for people on a planet whose biosystem they were still in the process of exploring to exercise the greatest possible care to limit the impact of their actions on that biosystem, and she expected the agricultural cartels and Interior Ministry officials to be quite pleased with her solution, despite the cost of all the additional hours she'd put into the project.

She made a wry face at the thought of the bureaucrats. She had to admit that the local varieties were far less intrusive—and more reasonable—than their equivalents on Meyerdahl, but the Star Kingdom was barely sixty T-years old. No doubt it would have all the entrenched bureaucracies the least imaginative, most procedure-loving clerical tyrant could desire by the time it was Meyerdahl's age.

Her wry expression turned into a grin remarkably like her daughter's, then faded as she turned her mind from squash to other matters. Her work load had grown much heavier over the past weeks as Sphinx's southern hemisphere moved steadily towards planting time, and now that the squash project was out of the way her nagging sense of guilt returned full force. It was hardly her fault that the press of assignments had kept her from finding the time for long hikes with Stephanie, but she hadn't even been able to free up the time to help her daughter explore possible answers to the celery pilferage which had finally reached the Harrington Homestead.

She was thankful that Richard had at least resumed Stephanie's hang-gliding lessons as a combination diversion and compensation. It had been a brilliant idea on his part, and Stephanie had responded with enthusiasm. Marjorie could only be grateful that she seemed to enjoy it so much—she'd started spending hours in the air, checking in periodically over her wrist com—and, despite the vocal worry of some of the Twin Folks parents whose kids were also learning to glide, Marjorie wasn't especially worried by the risks involved in her daughter's new hobby. She'd never pursued the sport herself, but it had been quite popular on Meyerdahl, where she'd known dozens of avid practitioners. And unlike some parents, she'd learned—not without difficulty, she admitted—that it was impossible to keep her only child wrapped in cotton wool. Children might not be indestructible, but they came far closer to it than most adults were prepared to admit, and a certain number of bumps, scrapes, contusions, bruises, or even broken bones were among the inevitable rites of childhood, whether or not parents liked that fact.

Yet if Marjorie had no particular qualms over Stephanie's new interest, she was still unhappily certain that Stephanie had embraced it mainly as a diversion from her disappointment in other directions. Appearances might suggest Stephanie had forgotten all about her hunger to explore the homestead's endless forests, but appearances could be deceiving, and Marjorie knew her daughter too well to believe she had, in fact, relinquished her original ambitions, however outwardly cheerful her acceptance of an alternate activity.

Marjorie rubbed her nose pensively. She had no doubt Stephanie understood—at least intellectually—how important her own work was and why it had precluded the other activities they'd discussed, but that only made it almost worse. However bright Stephanie might be, she was also only eleven, and understanding and acceptance were too often two completely different things even for adults. Besides, whether Stephanie accepted it or not, the situation was grossly unfair to her, and "fairness" was of enormous importance to children . . . even going-on-twelve geniuses. Although Stephanie seldom sulked or whined, Marjorie had expected to hear quite a bit of carefully reasoned comment on the subject of fairness, and the fact that Stephanie hadn't complained at all only sharpened Marjorie's sense of guilt. It was as if Stephanie—

The hand rubbing Dr. Harrington's nose suddenly stopped moving as a fresh thought struck her, and she frowned, wondering why it hadn't occurred to her before. It wasn't as if she didn't know her daughter, after all, and this sort of sweet acceptance was very unlike Stephanie. No, she didn't sulk or whine, but neither did she give up without a fight on something to which she'd truly set her mind. And, Marjorie thought, while Stephanie had enjoyed hang-gliding back on Meyerdahl, it had never been the passion for her that it seemed to have become here. It was certainly possible that she'd simply discovered that she'd underestimated its enjoyment quotient on Meyerdahl, but Marjorie's abruptly roused instincts said something else entirely.

She ran her memory back over her more recent conversations with her daughter, and her suspicion grew. Not only had Stephanie not complained about the unfairness of her grounding or the "zorkiness" of the younger citizens of Twin Forks who shared her gliding lessons, but it was over two weeks since she'd even referred to the mysterious celery thefts, and Marjorie scolded herself harder for falling into the error of complacency. She understood exactly how it had happened—given the pressures of her current projects, she'd been too grateful for Stephanie's restraint to adequately consider its roots—but that was no excuse. All the signs were there, and she should have realized that the only thing which could produce such a tractable Stephanie was a Stephanie who was Up To Something and didn't want her parents to notice.

But what could she be up to? And why didn't she want them to notice? The only thing she'd been forbidden was the freedom to explore the wilderness on her own, and Marjorie was confident that, however devious she might sometimes be, Stephanie would never break a promise. Yet if she was using her sudden interest in hang-gliding as a cover for something else, then whatever she was up to must be something she calculated would arouse parental resistance. Her daughter, Marjorie thought with affection-laced exasperation, was entirely too prone to figure that anything which hadn't been specifically forbidden was legal . . . whether or not the opportunity to forbid it had ever been offered.

On the other hand, Stephanie wasn't the sort to prevaricate in the face of specific questions. If Marjorie sat her down and asked her, she'd open up about whatever she was up to. She might not want to, but she'd do it, and Marjorie made a firm mental note to set aside enough time to explore the possibilities—thoroughly.

VII

Stephanie whooped in sheer exuberance as she rode the powerful updraft. Wind whipped her short, curly hair, and she leaned to one side, banking the glider as she sliced still higher. The countergrav unit on her back could have taken her higher yet—and done it more quickly—but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as much fun as this was!

She watched the treetops below her and felt a tiny stir of guilt buried in her delight. She was safely above those trees—not even the towering crown oaks came anywhere near her present altitude—but she also knew what her father would have said had he known where she was. The fact that he didn't know, and thus wouldn't say it, wasn't quite enough for her to convince herself her actions weren't just a bit across the line, but she could always say—truthfully—that she hadn't broken her word. She wasn't walking around the woods by herself, and no hexapuma or peak bear could possibly threaten her at an altitude of two or three hundred meters.

For all that, innate self-honesty forced her to admit that she knew her parents would instantly have countermanded her plans if they'd known of them. But Daddy had been forced to cancel today's lesson because of an emergency house call, and he'd commed Mr. Sapristos, the Twin Forks' mayor who usually subbed for him in the gliding classes. Mr. Sapristos had agreed to take over for the day, but Daddy hadn't specifically told him Stephanie would be there. The autopilot in Mom's air car could have delivered her under the direction of the planetary air traffic computers, and he'd apparently assumed that was what would happen. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on one's viewpoint—his haste had been so great that he hadn't asked Mom to arrange transportation. (Stephanie was guiltily certain that he'd expected her to tell her mother. But, she reminded herself, he hadn't actually told her to, had he?)

All of which meant Daddy thought she was with Mr. Sapristos but that Mr. Sapristos and Mom both thought she was with Daddy. And that just happened to have given Stephanie a chance to pick her own flight plan without having to explain it to anyone else.

It wasn't the first time the same situation had arisen . . . or that she'd capitalized upon it. But it wasn't the sort of opportunity an enterprising young woman could expect to come along often, either, and she'd jumped at it. She'd had to, for the long Sphinxian days were creeping past, and none of her previous unauthorized flights had given her big enough time windows. Avoiding parental discovery had required her to turn back short of the point at which she knew her treecats lurked, and if she didn't find out more about them soon, someone else was bound to. Of course, she couldn't expect to learn much about them flying around overhead, but that wasn't really what she was after. If she could just pinpoint a location for them, she was sure she could get Daddy to come out here with her, maybe with some of his friends from the Forestry Service, to find the physical evidence to support her discovery. And, she thought, her ability to tell them where to look would also be evidence of her strange link with the celery thief—a link, she was certain, which would require a lot of evidence before anyone else was prepared to accept it.

She closed her eyes, consulting her inner compass once more, and smiled. It was holding steady, which meant she was headed in the right direction, and she opened her eyes once more.

She banked again, very slightly, adjusting her course to precisely the right heading, and her face glowed with excitement. She was on track at last. She knew she was, just as she knew that this time she had enough flight time to reach her goal, and she was quite correct. Unfortunately, she was also very young, and for all her brilliance, she'd made one small mistake.

 

Climbs Quickly paused, one true-hand stopped in mid-reach for the branch above, and his ears flattened. He'd become accustomed to his ability to sense the direction to the two-leg youngling, even if he still hadn't mentioned it to anyone else. He'd even become used to the way the youngling sometimes seemed to move with extraordinary speed—no doubt in one of the two-legs' flying things—but this was different. The youngling was moving quickly, though not as quickly as it sometimes had, but it was headed directly towards Climbs Quickly—and already far closer than it had come since he'd been relieved of his spying duties—and he felt a sudden chill.

There was no question. He recognized exactly what the youngling was doing, for he'd done much the same thing often enough in the past. True, he usually pursued his prey by scent, but now he understood how a ground runner must have felt when it realized he was on its trail, for the two-leg was using the link between them in exactly the same way. It was tracking him, and if it found him, it would also find Bright Water Clan's central nesting place. For good or ill, its ability to seek out Climbs Quickly would result in the discovery of his entire clan!

He stood for one more moment, heart racing, ears flat with mingled excitement and fear, then decided. He abandoned his original task and bounded off along an outstretched limb, racing to meet the approaching two-leg well away from the rest of his clan.

 

Stephanie's attention was locked on the trees below her now. Her flight had lasted over two hours, but she was drawing close at last. She could feel the distance melting away—indeed, it almost seemed the treecat was coming to meet her—and excitement narrowed the focus of her attention even further. The crown oak had thinned as she moved higher into the foothills. Now the woods below her were a mix of various evergreens and the crazy-quilt geometry of picket wood.

Of course they were, she thought, and her eyes brightened. The rough-barked picket wood would be the perfect habitat for someone like her little celery thief! Each picket wood system radiated from a single central trunk which sent out long, straight, horizontal branches at a height of between three and ten meters. Above that, branches might take on any shape; below it, they always grew in groups of four, radiating at near-perfect right angles from one another for a distance of ten to fifteen meters . . . at which point, each sent a vertical runner down to the earth below to establish its own root system and, in time, become its own nodal trunk. A single picket wood "tree" could extend itself for literally hundreds of kilometers in any direction, and it wasn't uncommon for one "tree" to run into another and fuse with it. When the lateral branches of two systems crossed, they merged in a node which put down its own runner.

Stephanie's mother was fascinated by the picket woods. Plants which spread by sending out runners weren't all that rare, but those which spread only via runner were. It was also more than a little uncommon for the runner to spread out through the air and grow down to the earth rather than the reverse, but what truly fascinated her was the tree's anti-disease defense mechanism. The unending network of branches and trunks should have made a picket wood system lethally vulnerable to diseases and parasites, but the plant had demonstrated a sort of natural quarantine process. Somehow—and Dr. Harrington had yet to discover how—a picket wood system was able to sever its links to afflicted portions of itself. Attacked by disease or parasites, the system secreted powerful cellulose-dissolving enzymes that ate away the connecting cross-branches and literally disconnected them at intervening nodal trunks, and Dr. Harrington was determined to locate the mechanism which made that possible.

But at the moment, her mother's interest in picket wood meant very little to Stephanie beside her realization of the same plant's importance to treecats. Picket wood stopped well short of the tree line, but it crossed mountains readily through valleys or at lower elevations, and it could be found in almost every climate zone. All of which meant it would provide treecats with the equivalent of aerial highways that could literally run clear across a continent! They could travel for hundreds—thousands!—of kilometers without ever once having to touch the ground where larger predators like hexapumas could get at them!

She laughed aloud at her deduction, but then her glider slipped abruptly sideways, and her laughter died as she stopped thinking about the sorts of trees beneath her and recognized instead the speed at which she was passing over them. She raised her head and looked around quickly, and a fist of ice seemed to squeeze her stomach.

The clear blue skies under which she had begun her flight still stretched away in front of her to the west. But the eastern sky behind her was no longer clear. A deadly-looking line of thunderheads marched steadily west, white and fluffy on top but an ominous purple-black below, and even as she looked over her shoulder, she saw lightning flicker below them.

She should have seen it coming sooner, she thought numbly, hands aching as she squeezed the glider's grips in ivory-knuckled fists. She should have kept an eye out for it! But she was used to having other people—adult people—check the weather before she went gliding, and then she'd let herself get so excited, focus so intently on what she was doing, pay so little attention—

A harder fist of wind punched at her glider, staggering it in mid-air, and fear became terror. The following wind had been growing stronger for quite some time, a small, logical part of her realized. No doubt she would have noticed despite her concentration if she hadn't been gliding in the same direction, riding in the wind rather than across or against it where the velocity shift would have to have registered. But the thunderheads behind were catching up with her quickly, and the outriders of their squall line lashed through the airspace in front of them.

Daddy! She had to com Daddy—tell him where she was—tell him to come get her—tell him—!

But there was no time. She'd messed up, and for the first time in her life, Stephanie Harrington confronted her own mortality. All the theoretical discussions of what to do in bad weather, all the stern warnings to avoid rough air, came crashing in on her, and they were no longer theoretical. She was in deadly danger, and she knew it. Countergrav unit or no, a storm like the one racing up behind her could blot her out of the air as casually as she might have swatted a fly, and with just as deadly a result. She could die in the next few minutes, and the thought terrified her, but she didn't panic.

Yes, she had to com Mom and Daddy, but it wasn't as if she didn't know exactly what they'd tell her to do if she did. She had to get out of the air, and she couldn't afford the distraction of trying to explain where she was while she tried to get down safely . . . especially through that solid-looking green canopy below her.

She banked again, shivering with fear, eyes desperately seeking some opening, however small, and the air trembled as thunder rumbled behind her.

 

Climbs Quickly reared up on true-feet and hand-feet, lips wrinkling back from needle-sharp white fangs as a flood of terror crashed over him. It pounded deep into him, waking the ancient fight-or-flight instinct which, had he but known it, his kind shared with humanity, but it wasn't his terror at all.

It took him an instant to realize that, yet it was true. It wasn't his fear; it was the two-leg youngling's, and even as the youngling's fear ripped at him, he felt a fresh surge of wonder. He was still too far from the two-leg. He could never have felt another of the People's mind glow at this distance, and he knew it, but this two-leg's mind glow raged through him like a forest fire, screaming for his aid without even realizing it could do so, and it struck him like a lash. He shook his head once, and then flashed down the line of what humans called picket wood like a cream and gray blur while his fluffy tail streamed straight out behind him.

 

Desperation filled Stephanie. The thunderstorm was almost upon her—the first white pellets of hail rattled off her taut glider covering—and without the countergrav she would already have been blotted from the sky. But not even the countergrav unit could save her from the mounting turbulence much longer, and—

Her thoughts chopped off as salvation loomed suddenly before her. The black, irregular scar of an old forest fire ripped a huge hole through the trees, and she choked back a sob of gratitude as she spied it. The ground was dangerously rough for a landing in conditions like this, but it was infinitely more inviting than the solid web of branches tossing and lashing below her, and she banked towards it.

She almost made it.

 

Climbs Quickly ran as he'd never run before. Somehow he knew he raced against death itself, though it never occurred to him to wonder what someone his size could do for someone the size of even a two-leg youngling. It didn't matter. All that mattered was the terror, the fear—the danger—which confronted that other presence in his mind, and he ran madly towards it.

 

It was the strength of the wind which did it. Even then, she would have made it without the sudden downdraft that hammered her at the last instant, but between them, they were too much. Stephanie saw it coming in the moment before she struck, realized instantly what was going to happen, but there was no time to avoid it. No time even to feel the full impact of the realization before her glider crashed into the crown of the towering evergreen at over fifty kilometers per hour.

VIII

Climbs Quickly slithered to a stop, momentarily frozen in horror, but then he gasped in relief. The sudden silence in his mind wasn't—quite—absolute. His instant fear that the youngling had been killed eased, but something deeper and darker, without the same bright panic but with even greater power, replaced it. Whatever had happened, the youngling was now unconscious, yet even in its unconsciousness, he was still linked to it . . . and he felt its pain. It was injured, possibly badly—possibly badly enough that his initial fear that it had died would prove justified after all. And if it was injured, what could he do to help? Young as it was, it was far larger than he—much too large for him to drag to safety.

But what one of the People couldn't do, many of them often could, he thought, and closed his eyes, lashing his tail while he thought. He'd run too far to feel the combined mind glow of his clan's central nest place. His emotions couldn't reach so far, but his mind voice could. If he cried out for help, Sings Truly would hear, and if she failed to, surely some hunter or scout between her and Climbs Quickly would hear and relay. Yet what words could he cry out with? How could he summon the clan to aid a two-leg—the very two-leg he had allowed to see him? How could he expect them to abandon their policy of hiding from the two-legs? And even if he could have expected that of them, what right had he to demand it?

He stood irresolute, tail flicking, ears flattened as the branch beneath him creaked and swayed and the first raindrops lashed the budding leaves. Rain, he thought, a flicker of humor leaking even through his dread and uncertainty. Was it always going to be raining when he and his two-leg met?

Strangely, that thought broke his paralysis, and he shook himself. All he knew so far was that the two-leg was hurt and that he was very close to it now. He had no way of knowing how bad its injuries might actually be, nor even if there were any reason to consider calling out for help. After all, if there was nothing the clan could do, then there was no point in trying to convince it to come. No, the thing to do was to continue until he found the youngling. He had to see what its condition was before he could determine the best way to help—assuming it required his help at all—and he scurried onward almost as quickly as before.

 

Stephanie recovered consciousness slowly. The world swayed and jerked all about her, thunder rumbled and crashed, rain lashed her like an icy flail, and she'd never hurt so much in her entire life.

The pounding rain's chill wetness helped rouse her, and she tried to move, only to whimper as the pain in her left arm stabbed suddenly higher. She blinked, rubbing her eyes with her right palm, and felt a sort of dull shock as she realized part of what had been blinding her was blood, not simply rainwater.

She wiped again and felt a sliver of relief as she realized there was much less blood than she'd thought. It seemed to be coming from a single cut on her forehead, and the cold rain was already slowing the bleeding. She managed to clear her eyes well enough to look about her, and her relief vanished.

Her glider was smashed. Not broken: smashed. Its tough composite covering and struts had been specially designed to be crash survivable, but it had never been intended for the abuse to which she'd subjected it, and it had crumpled into a mangled lacework of fabric and shattered framing. Yet it hadn't quite failed completely, and she hung in her harness from the main spar, which was jammed in the fork of a branch above her. The throbbing ache where the harness straps crossed her body told her she'd been badly bruised by the abrupt termination of her flight, and one of her ribs stabbed her with a white burst of agony every time she breathed, but without the harness—and the forked branch which had caught her—she would have smashed straight into the massive tree trunk directly in front of her, and she shuddered at the thought.

But however lucky she might have been, there'd been bad luck to go with the good. Like most colony world children, Stephanie had been through the mandatory first-aid courses . . . not that any training was needed to realize her left arm was broken in at least two places. She knew which way her elbow was supposed to bend, and there was no joint in the middle of her forearm. That was bad enough, but there was worse, for her com had been strapped to her left wrist.

It wasn't there anymore.

She turned her head, craning her neck to peer painfully back along the all too obvious course of her crashing impact with the treetops, and wondered where the com was. The wrist unit was virtually indestructible, and if she could only find it—and reach it—she could call for help in an instant. But there was no way she was going to find it in that mess. It was almost funny, she thought through the haze of her pain. She couldn't find it, but Mom or Daddy could have found it with ridiculous ease . . . if they'd only known to use the emergency override code to activate the locator beacon function. Or, for that matter, if she'd thought to activate it when the storm first came up. Unfortunately, she'd been too preoccupied finding a landing spot to bring the beacon up, and even if she had, no one would have found it until they thought to look for it.

And since I can't even find it, I can't com anyone to tell them to start looking for it, she thought fuzzily. I really messed up this time. Mom and Daddy are going to be really, really pissed. Bet they ground me 'til I'm sixteen for this one!

Even as she thought it, she knew it was ridiculous to worry about such things at a time like this. Yet there was a certain perverse comfort—a sense of familiarity, perhaps—to it, and she actually managed a damp-sounding chuckle despite the tears of pain and fear trickling down her face.

She let herself hang limp for another moment, but badly as she felt the need to rest, she dared do no such thing. The wind was growing stronger, not weaker, and the branch from which she hung creaked and swayed alarmingly. Then there was the matter of lightning. A tree this tall was all too likely to attract any stray bolt, and she had no desire to share the experience with it. No, she had to get herself down, and she blinked away residual pain tears and fresh rain to peer down at the ground.

It was a good twelve-meter drop, and she shuddered at the thought. Her gymnastics classes had taught her how to tuck and roll, but that wouldn't have helped from this height even with two good arms. With her left arm shattered, she'd probably finish herself off permanently if she tried it. But the way her supporting branch was beginning to shake told her she had no option but to get down somehow. Even if the branch held, her damaged harness was likely to let go . . . assuming the even more badly damaged spar didn't simply snap first. But how—?

Of course! She reached up and around with her right arm, gritting her teeth as even that movement shifted her left arm ever so slightly and sent fresh stabs of anguish through her. But the pain was worth it, for her fingers confirmed her hope. The counter-grav unit was still there, and she felt the slight, pulsating hum that indicated it was still operating. Of course, she couldn't be certain how long it would go on operating. Her cautiously exploring hand reported an entire series of deep dents and gouges in its casing. She supposed she should be glad it had protected her back by absorbing the blows which had left those marks, but if the unit had taken a beating anything like what had happened to the rest of her equipment, it probably wouldn't last all that long. On the other hand, it only had to hold out long enough to get her to the ground, and—

Her thoughts chopped off, and she jerked back around, in a shock spasm fast enough to wrench a half-scream of pain from her bruised body and broken arm, as something touched the back of her head. It wasn't that the touch hurt in any way, for it was feather gentle, almost a caress. Only its totally unexpected surprise produced its power, and all the pain she felt was the result of her response to it. Yet even as she bit her pain sound back into a groan, the hurt seemed far away and unimportant as she stared into the treecat's slit-pupiled green eyes from a distance of less than thirty centimeters.

 

Climbs Quickly winced as the two-leg's peaking hurt clawed at him, yet he was vastly relieved to find it awake and aware. He smelled the bright, sharp smell of blood, and the two-leg's arm was clearly broken. He had no idea how it had managed to get itself into such a predicament, but the bits and pieces strewn around it and hanging from its harness of straps were obviously the ruin of some sort of flying thing. The fragments didn't look like the other flying things he'd seen, yet such it must have been for the two-leg to wind up stuck in the top of a tree this way.

He wished fervently that it could have found another place to crash. This clearing was a place of bad omen, shunned by all of the People. Once it had been the heart of the Sun Shadow Clan's range, but the remnants of that clan had moved far, far away, trying to forget what had happened to it here, and Climbs Quickly would have much preferred not to come here himself.

But that was beside the point. He was here, and however little he might like this place, he knew the two-leg had to get down. The branch from which it hung was not only thrashing with the wind but trying to split off the tree—he knew it was, for he'd crossed the weakened spot to reach the two-leg—and that didn't even consider the way green-needle trees attracted lightning. Yet he could see no way for a two-leg with a broken arm to climb like one of the People, and he was certainly too small to carry it!

Frustration bubbled in the back of his mind as he realized how little he could do, but it never occurred to him not to try to help. This was one of "his" two-legs, and he knew that it was the link to him which had brought it here. There were far too many things happening for him to begin to understand them all, yet understanding was strangely unimportant. This, he realized suddenly, wasn't "one" of his two-legs after all; it was his two-leg. Whatever the link between them was, it cut both ways. They weren't simply linked; they were bound to one another, and he could no more have abandoned this strange-looking, alien creature than he could have walked away from Sings Truly or Short Tail in time of need.

Yet what could he do? He leaned out from his perch, clinging to the tree with hand-feet and one true-hand, prehensile tail curled tight around the branch, as he extended the other true-hand to stroke the two-leg's cheek and croon to it, and he saw it blink. Then its hand came up, so much smaller than a full-grown two-leg's yet so much bigger than his own, and he arched his spine and crooned again—this time in pleasure—as the two-leg returned his caress.

 

Even in her pain and fear, Stephanie felt a sense of wonder—almost awe—as the treecat reached out to touch her face. She'd seen the strong, curved claws the creature's other hand had sunk into the evergreen's bark, but the wiry fingers that touched her cheek were moth-wing gentle, claws retracted, and she pressed back against it. Then she reached out her own good hand, touching the rain-soaked fur, stroking it as she would have stroked an Old Terran cat, and the creature arched with a soft sound of pleasure. She didn't begin to understand what was happening, but she didn't have to. She didn't know exactly what the treecat was doing, but she dimly sensed the way it was soothing her fear—even her pain—through that strange link they shared, and she clung to the comfort it offered.

But then it drew back, sitting higher on its four rear limbs. It cocked its head at her for a long moment while wind and rain howled about them, and then it raised one front paw—no, she reminded herself, one of its hands—and pointed downward.

That was the only possible way to describe its actions. It pointed downward, and even as it pointed, it made a sharp, scolding sound whose meaning was unmistakable.

"I know I need to get down," she told it in a hoarse, pain-shadowed voice. "In fact, I was working on it when you turned up. Just give me a minute, will you?"

 

Climbs Quickly's ears shifted as the two-leg made noises at him. For the first time, thanks to the link between them, he had proof the noises were actually words, and he felt a stab of pity for the two-leg and its fellows. Was that the only way they knew to communicate with one another? But however crude and imperfect the means might be compared to the manner in which the People spoke, at least he could now prove that they did communicate. That should go a long way towards convincing the rest of the clan leaders that two-legs truly were People in their own fashion. And at least the noises the hurt youngling was making, coupled with the taste of its mind glow, were proof that it was still thinking. He felt a surge of strange pride in the two-leg, comparing its reaction to how some of the People's younglings might have reacted in its place, and bleeked at it again, more gently.

 

"I know, I know, I know!" Stephanie sighed, and reached back to the countergrav's controls. She adjusted them carefully, then bit her lower lip as a ragged pulsation marred its smooth vibration.

She gave the rheostat one last, gentle twitch, feeling the pressure of the harness straps ease as her apparent weight was reduced to three or four kilos, but that was as far as it would go. She would have preferred an even lower value—had the unit been undamaged, she could have reduced her apparent weight all the way to zero, in which case she would actually have had to pull herself down against its lift. But the rheostat was all the way over now. It wouldn't go any further . . . and the ragged pulsation served notice that the unit was likely to pack up any minute, even at its current setting. Still, she told herself, doggedly trying to find a bright side, maybe it was just as well. Any lighter weight would have been dangerous in such a high wind, and getting her lightweight self smashed against a tree trunk or branch by a sudden gust would hardly do her broken arm any good.

"Well," she said, looking back at the treecat, "here goes."

 

The two-leg looked at him and said something else, and then, to Climbs Quickly's horror, it unlatched its harness with its good hand and let itself fall. He reared up in protest, ears flattened, yet his horror vanished almost as quickly as it had come, for the youngling didn't actually fall at all. Instead, its good hand flashed back out, catching hold of a dangling strip of its broken flying thing, and he blinked. That frayed strip looked too frail to support even his weight, yet it held the two-leg with ease, and the youngling slid slowly down it from the grip of that single hand.

* * *

The countergrav unit's harsh, warning buzz of imminent failure clawed at Stephanie's ears, and she muttered a word she wasn't supposed to know and slithered more quickly down the broken rigging stay. It was tempting to simply let herself fall, but the countergrav unit only reduced her apparent weight. It didn't do a thing about her mass, and any object fell at over thirteen meters per second in Sphinx's gravity, which meant she would hit the ground just as fast and with just as much momentum as if she'd had no countergrav at all. But what she could do was let herself down the stay, whose torn anchorage would never have supported her normal weight.

She was only two meters up when the unit decided to fail, and she cried out, clutching at the stay as her suddenly restored weight snatched at her. She plummeted to the ground, automatically tucking and rolling as her gym teacher had taught her, and she would have been fine if her arm hadn't been broken.

But it was broken, and her scream was high and shrill as her rolling weight smashed down on it and the darkness claimed her.

IX

Climbs Quickly leapt down through the branches with frantic haste. His sensitive hearing had detected the sound of the countergrav unit, and though he'd had no idea what it was, he knew its abrupt cessation must have had something to do with the youngling's fall. No doubt it had been another two-leg tool which, like the youngling's flying thing, had broken. In an odd sort of way, it was almost reassuring to know two-leg tools could break, but that was cold comfort at the moment, and his whiskers quivered with anxiety as he hit the ground and scuttled quickly over to the youngling.

It lay on its side, and he winced as he realized its fall had ended with its broken arm trapped under it. He tasted the shadow of pain even through the murkiness of its unconscious mind glow, and he dreaded what the youngling would experience when it regained its senses. Worse, he sensed a new pain source in its right knee. But aside from the arm, the knee, and another bump swelling on its forehead, the young two-leg appeared to have taken no fresh damage, and Climbs Quickly settled back on his haunches in relief.

He might not understand what had happened to forge the link between him and this two-leg, but that was no longer really important. What mattered was that the link existed and that for whatever reason the two of them had somehow been made one. There was an echo to it much like that in the mind glows of mated couples, but this was different, without the overtones of physical desire and bereft of the mutual communication of ideas. It was a thing of pure emotion—or almost pure emotion, at any rate; he felt frustratingly certain that he had touched the very edge of the youngling's actual thoughts a time or two and wondered if perhaps another of the People and another two-leg might someday reach further than that. For that matter, perhaps he and his two-leg would manage that someday, for if this was in fact a permanent link, they would have turnings and turnings in which to explore it.

That prompted another thought, and he groomed his whiskers with a meditative hand while he wondered just how long two-legs lived. The People were much longer lived than large creatures like the death fangs and snow hunters. Did that mean they lived longer than two-legs? The possibility woke an unexpected pain, almost like a presentiment of grief for the loss of the youngling's—his youngling's—glorious mind glow. Yet it was a youngling, he reminded himself, while he was a full adult. Even if its natural span was shorter than his, the difference in their ages might give them an equal number of remaining turnings. That thought was oddly comforting, and he shook himself and looked around.

The battering rain had already eased as the squall line passed through, and much of the wind's strength had died away, as well. He was glad his two-leg had gotten down before the wind could knock it out of the tree, yet every instinct insisted that the ground was not a safe place to be. That was certainly true for the People, but perhaps the youngling had one of the weapons with which its elders sometimes slew the death fangs which threatened them. Climbs Quickly knew those weapons came in different shapes and sizes, but he'd never seen the small ones some two-legs carried, and so he had no way to tell if the youngling had one.

Yet even if it did, its injured condition would leave it in poor shape to defend itself, and it certainly couldn't follow him up into the trees if danger threatened. Which meant it was time to scout around. If there was danger here, best he should know about it now. Once the young two-leg reawakened, it might have ideas of its own about how to proceed; until then, he would simply have to do the best he could on his own.

He turned away from the two-leg and began to circle it, moving out in an ever-widening spiral while nose and ears probed alertly. This early in the season there was little undergrowth beneath the trees to obscure his lines of sight, though it was a different matter in the old forest fire's clearing, which low-growing scrub and young trees were beginning to reclaim, and the rain hadn't been hard enough or fallen long enough to wipe away scents. Indeed, the moist air actually made them sharper and richer, and his muzzle wrinkled as he tested them.

But then, suddenly, he froze, whiskers stiff and fluffy tail belled out to twice its normal diameter. He made himself take another long, careful scent, yet it was no more than a formality. No clan scout could ever mistake the smell of a death fang lair, and this one was close.

He turned slowly, working to fix the location clearly in his mind, and his heart fell. The scent came from the clearing, where the undergrowth would offer the lair's owner maximum concealment when it returned and scented the two-leg. And it would return, he thought sinkingly, for he smelled something more, now. The death fang was a female, and it had recently littered. That meant it must be out hunting food for its young . . . and that it would be back sooner rather than later.

Climbs Quickly stood a moment longer, then raced back to the two-leg. He touched its face with his muzzle, willing it to awaken with all his might, but there was no response. It would wake when it woke, he realized. Nothing he did would speed that moment, and that left but one thing he could do.

He sat upright on his four rearmost limbs, curling his tail neatly about his true-feet and hand-feet, and composed his thought carefully, then sent it soaring out through the dripping forest. He shaped and drove it with all the urgency in him, crying out to his sister, and somehow his link to the two-leg lent his call additional strength.

<Climb's Quickly?> Even from here he tasted the shock in Sings Truly's mind voice. <Where are you? What's wrong?>

<I am near the old fire scar to sun-rising of our range,> Climbs Quickly replied as calmly as he could, and felt a fresh surge of astonishment from his sister. No one from Bright Water Clan would soon forget the terrible day Sun Shadow Clan had lost control of a fire and seen its entire central nesting place—and all too many of its kittens—consumed in dreadful flame and smoke.

<Why?> she demanded. <What could possibly take you there?>

<I—> Climbs Quickly paused, then drew a deep breath. <It would take too long to explain, Sings Truly. But I am here with an injured youngling . . . and so also is a death fang lair filled with young.>

Sings Truly knew her brother well, and the oddness in his reply was obvious to her. But so was the unusual strength and clarity of his mind voice. He had always had a strong voice for a male, but today he had reached almost to the strength of a memory singer, and she wondered how he'd done it. Some scouts and hunters gained far stronger voices when they mated, as if their mates' minds somehow harmonized with theirs at need, but that couldn't explain Climbs Quickly's new power. Yet those thoughts were but a fleeting background for the chill horror she felt at the thought of any injured youngling trapped so near a death fang.

She started to reply once more, then stopped, tail kinking and ears cocking in sudden consternation and suspicion. No, surely not. Not even Climbs Quickly would dare that. Not after the way the clan elders had berated him! Yet try as she might, she could think of no way any Bright Water youngling would have strayed so far, and no other clan's range bordered on the fire scar. And Climbs Quickly had named no names, had he? But—

She shook herself. There was, of course, one way to satisfy her suspicion. All she had to do was ask . . . but if she did, then she would know her brother was violating the edicts of his clan heads. If she didn't ask, she could only suspect—not know—and so she kept that particular question to herself and asked another.

<What do you wish of me, brother?>

<Sound the alarm,> he replied, sending a burst of gratitude and love with the words, for he knew what she'd considered, and her choice of question told him what she'd decided.

<For the "injured youngling."> Sings Truly's flat statement was a question, and he flicked his tail in agreement even though she could not see it.

<Yes,> he returned simply, and felt her hesitation. But then her answer came.

<I will,> she said with equal simplicity—and the unquestionable authority of a memory singer. <We come with all speed, my brother.>

 

Stephanie Harrington awoke once more. A weak, pain-filled sound leaked from her—less words than the mew of an injured kitten—and her eyelids fluttered. She started to sit up, and her mew became a breathless, involuntary scream as her weight shifted on her broken arm. The sudden agony was literally blinding, and she screwed her eyes shut once more, sobbing with hurt as she made herself sit up anyway. Nausea knotted her stomach as the anguish in her arm and shoulder and broken rib vibrated through her, and she sat very still, as if the pain were some sort of hunting predator from which she could hide until it passed her by.

But the pain didn't pass her by. It only eased a bit, and she blinked on tears, scrubbing her face with her good hand and sniffling as she smeared mud and the blood from her mashed nose across her cheeks. She didn't need to move to know she'd smashed her knee, as well as her bad arm, in her fall, and she felt herself shuddering, quivering like a leaf as hopelessness and pain crushed down on her. The immediacy of the need to get down out of the tree had helped carry her to this point, but she was on the ground now. That gave her time to think—and feel.

Fresh, hot tears brimmed, dripping down her face, and she whined as she made herself gather her left wrist in her right hand and lift it into her lap. Just moving it twisted her with torment, but she couldn't leave it hanging down beside her like it belonged to someone else. She thought about using her belt to fasten it to her side, but she couldn't find the energy—or courage—to move that shattered bone again. It was too much for her. Now that the immediate crisis was over, she knew how much she hurt, how totally lost she was, how desperately she wanted—needed—her parents to come take her home, how stupid she'd been to get herself into this mess . . . and how very little she could do to get herself out of it.

She huddled there at the foot of the tree, crying hopelessly for her mother and father. The world had proved bigger and more dangerous than she'd ever quite believed, and she wanted them to come find her. No scold they could give her, however ferocious, could match the one she gave herself, and she whimpered as the sobs she couldn't stop shook her broken arm and sent fresh, vicious stabs of pain through her.

But then she felt a light pressure on her right thigh and blinked furiously to clear her eyes. She looked down, and the treecat looked back. He stood beside her, one hand resting on her leg, ears flattened with concern, and she heard—and felt—his soft, comforting croon. She gazed down at him for a moment, mouth quivering in exhaustion, despair, pain, and physical shock, and then she held out her good arm to him, and he didn't even hesitate. He flowed up her leg to stand on his rearmost limbs in her lap and place his hands—those strong, wiry, long-fingered hands with the carefully sheathed claws—on either side of her neck. He pressed his whiskered muzzle to her cheek, the power of his croon quivering through him as if he were a dynamo, and she locked her right arm around him. She held him close, almost crushing him, and buried her face in his soft, damp fur, sobbing as if her heart would break, and even as she wept, she felt him somehow taking the worst hurt, the worst despair and helplessness from her.

 

Climbs Quickly accepted the two-leg's tight embrace. People's eyes didn't shed water as the two-leg's did, but only the mind-blind could possibly have mistaken the grief and fear and pain in the youngling's mind glow, and he felt a vast surge of protective tenderness for it. For her, he realized now, though he wasn't quite certain how he knew. Perhaps it was just that he was becoming more accustomed to the taste of her mind glow. One could almost always tell whether one of the People was male or female from no more than that, after all. Of course, this youngling was totally unlike the People, but still—

He pressed more firmly against her, stroking her cheek with his muzzle and patting her good shoulder with his left true-hand while he settled more deeply into fusion with her. It wasn't as it would have been with another of his own kind, for she was unable to anchor the fusion properly from her end, but it was enough to let him draw off the worst of her despair. He felt the burden of her fear and pain ease and sensed her surprised awareness that he was somehow responsible, and a deep, buzzing purr replaced his croon. He nudged her cheek more firmly, then pulled back just far enough to touch his nose to hers, staring deep into her eyes, and her good hand caressed his ears. She said something—another of those mouth noises which so far meant nothing—but he felt her gratitude and knew the meaningless sounds thanked him for being there.

She leaned back against the tree, easing her broken arm carefully, and he settled down in her lap, wishing with what he hoped was concealed desperation that there was some way to get her away from this place. He knew she remained confused and frightened, and he had no desire to undo all the soothing he'd achieved, yet the scent of the death fang seemed to clog his nostrils. If not for her injured knee, he would have done his best to get her on her feet despite her broken arm. But the tough covering she wore over her legs had torn when she hit the ground, and the gashed knee under it was swollen and purpling. He needed no link to know she could move neither fast nor far, and he turned his mind once more towards his sister.

<Does the clan come?> he asked urgently, and her reply astounded him.

<We come,> Sings Truly repeated with unmistakable emphasis, and he blinked. Surely she didn't mean—? But then she sent him a brief burst of her own vision, and he realized she did. She was leading every male adult of the clan herself. A memory singer was leading the clan's fighting strength into battle with a death fang! That wasn't merely unheard of—it was unthinkable. Yet it was happening, and he poured a flood of gratitude towards her.

<There is no choice, little brother,> she told him dryly. <The clan may protect your "youngling" from the death fang, but without me, there will be no one to protect you from Broken Tooth and Digger . . . or Song Spinner! Now leave me in peace, Climbs Quickly. I cannot run properly with you nattering at me.>

He pulled in his thought, basking in his sister's love and trying not to think about the implications of her warning. From the glimpse he'd shared through her eyes, she and the others were making excellent speed. They would be here soon, and only a very stupid death fang would risk attacking anything with an entire clan of People perched protectively in the trees above it. It would not be long until—

 

Stephanie had fallen into a half doze, leaning back against the tree, but her head snapped up instantly as the treecat came to his feet in her lap with a harsh, rippling snarl like shredding canvas. She'd never heard anything like it, yet she knew instantly what it meant. It was as if the link between them transmitted that meaning to her, and she felt his fear and fury . . . and fierce determination to protect her.

She looked around wildly, trying to find the danger, then gasped, eyes huge in a parchment face, as the hexapuma flowed out of the undergrowth like a gray, six-legged shadow of death. Its lips wrinkled back, baring bone-white canines at least fifteen centimeters long, and its ears flattened as it sent its own rippling snarl—this one voiced in deep, basso thunder—to meet the treecat's. Terror froze Stephanie, but the treecat leapt from her lap. He sprang up onto a low-lying limb and crouched there, threatening his gargantuan foe from above, and his claws were no longer sheathed. For some reason, the hexapuma hesitated, twisting its head around and staring up at the trees, almost as if it were afraid of something. But that couldn't last, and she knew it.

"No," she heard herself whisper to her tiny protector. "No, it's too big! Run away. Oh, please—please! Run away!"

But the treecat ignored her, his green eyes locked on the hexapuma, and despair mixed with her terror. The hexapuma was going to get them both, because the treecat wouldn't run away. Somehow she knew, beyond any possibility of question, that the only way the hexapuma would reach her would be through him.

 

There was very little to sense in a death fang's brain, but Climbs Quickly understood its hesitation. This was an old death fang, and it had not lived this long without learning some hard lessons. Among those lessons must have been what a roused clan could do to its kind, for it had the wit to look for the others who should have been there to support him.

But Climbs Quickly knew what the death fang couldn't. There were no other People—not yet. They were coming, tearing through the treetops with frantic, redoubled speed, but they would never arrive in time.

He glared down at the death fang, sounding his challenge, and knew he couldn't win. No single scout or hunter could encounter a death fang and live, yet he could no more abandon his two-leg youngling than he could have abandoned a kitten of the People. He felt her desperate emotions urging him to flee and save himself despite her own terror, even as he felt his sister's mind voice screaming the same, but it didn't matter. It didn't even matter that the death fang would kill the two-leg the moment he himself was dead. What mattered was that his two-leg—his person—must not die alone and abandoned. He would buy her every moment of life he could, and perhaps, just perhaps, it would be long enough for Sings Truly to arrive. He told himself that firmly, fiercely, trying to pretend he didn't know it was a lie, and then the death fang charged.

 

Stephanie watched the motionless confrontation as treecat and hexapuma glared and snarled at one another, and the tension tore at her like knives. She couldn't stand it, yet neither could she escape it, and the treecat's utter, hopeless gallantry ripped at her heart. He could have run away. He could have escaped the hexapuma easily, but he'd refused, and deep inside, under the panic of an exhausted, hurt, terrified child face-to-face with a murderous menace she should never have encountered, his fierce defiance touched something in her. She didn't know what it was. She didn't even realize what was happening. But even as the treecat was determined to protect her, she felt an equally fierce, equally unyielding determination to protect him.

Her right hand fell to her belt and closed on the hilt of her vibro blade survival knife. It was only a short blade—barely eighteen centimeters long, which was nothing compared to the sixty-centimeter bush knives Forestry Service rangers carried. But that short blade had a cutting "edge" less than a molecule wide, and it whined alive in her hand as she somehow shoved herself to her feet. She leaned back against the trunk, left arm dangling while terror rose like bile in her throat, and knew her knife was too puny. It would slice through the hexapuma effortlessly, cutting bone as easily as tissue, yet it was too short. The huge predator would tear her apart before she could cut it at all, and even if she somehow did manage to cut it as it charged, even inflict a mortal wound, it was so big and powerful it would kill her before it died. But the knife was all she had, and she stared at the hexapuma, hardly daring to breathe, waiting.

And then it charged.

 

Climbs Quickly saw the death fang move at last. He had time to send out one more urgent message to Sings Truly, to feel her raging despair and fury at the knowledge she would come too late, and then there was no more time to think. There was no time for anything but speed and violence and ferocity.

 

Stephanie couldn't believe it. The hexapuma was terrifyingly quick for so huge a creature, yet the treecat sprang from his perch, catapulting through the air in a cream-and-gray streak that somehow evaded the hexapuma's slashing forepaws. He landed on the back of its neck, and it screamed as centimeter-long claws ripped at thick fur and tough skin. It whirled, both rear pairs of limbs planted firmly, forequarters rising up as it twisted to snap and claw at the treecat, but its furious blows missed. The treecat had executed his flashing attack only to race further down his enemy's spine and fling himself back up onto another branch, and the hexapuma forgot about Stephanie. It wheeled, charging the tree in which the treecat waited, rising up on its rear legs and spreading its front and mid-limbs wide to claw at the thick trunk. It dragged itself as high as it could, slashing and snarling, and Stephanie suddenly understood what the treecat was trying to do.

He was distracting the hexapuma. He knew he couldn't kill it or even truly fight it. His attack had been intended to hurt it, to make it angry and direct that anger at him and away from her, and it was working. But it was a desperate, ultimately losing game, for he must keep up the attacks, keep stinging the hexapuma, and he couldn't be lucky forever.

 

Climbs Quickly felt a fierce exultation, unlike anything he'd ever imagined. This was a fight he couldn't win, yet he was eager for it. He wanted it, and the blood-red taste of his own fury filled him with fire. He watched the death fang lunge up the tree and timed his response perfectly. Just as the death fang reached the very top of its leap, he dropped to meet it, slashing and ripping, and the death fang howled as he shredded its muzzle and tore an ear to pieces, but again its counter-striking forepaws missed him as he sprang away once more.

It charged after him, and he came to meet it yet again. He danced in and out of the trees, pitting blinding speed and skill and intelligence against the death fang's brute power and cunning. It was a dance which could have only one ending, yet he spun it out far longer than even he would have believed possible before it began.

 

"No!"

Stephanie screamed in useless denial as the treecat finally made a mistake. Perhaps he slipped, or perhaps he'd simply begun to tire at last. She didn't know. She only knew that she'd felt a wild, impossible hope as the fight raged on and on. Not that he could win, but that he might not lose. Even as she'd let herself hope, she'd known it was in vain, but the suddenness of the end hit her with the cruelty of a hammer.

The treecat was a fraction of a second too slow, lingered to slash at the hexapuma's shoulders for just an instant too long, and a mid-limb paw flashed up savagely. Ten-centimeter claws gleamed like scimitars, and she heard—and felt—the treecat's scream of agony as that brutal blow landed.

It didn't hit squarely, but it was square enough. It stripped him away from the hexapuma's neck, flicking him aside like a toy, and he screamed again as he slammed into the trunk of a tree. He tumbled down it in a broken, bloody ball of fur, and the hexapuma rose on its rearmost limbs. It hovered there, howling its rage and triumph, and then it lowered all six feet to the ground and crouched to spring and rend and tear and crush its tiny enemy.

Stephanie saw it, understood it, knew what it intended . . . and that she couldn't possibly stop it. But the treecat—her treecat—had known he couldn't stop it from killing her, either, and that hadn't kept him from trying. A part of her knew it was only a pathetic gesture, no more than the hiss and spit of a kitten in the instant before hungry jaws closed on it forever, but it was a gesture she simply could not not make.

She lunged, ignoring her snapped rib, the agony in her wounded knee and broken arm. In that moment, she wasn't just an eleven-T-year-old girl. There was no time for her to fully grasp all that was happening, but something inside her had changed forever when the treecat offered his life to save hers, and her scream was a war cry as she brought the vibro blade slashing forward and offered her life for his.

The hexapuma shrieked as the high-tech blade sliced into it. It had forgotten about Stephanie, narrowed all its attention to Climbs Quickly, and it was totally unprepared for the unadulterated agony of that blow. The blade caught it on its right flank, so "sharp" that even an eleven-T-year-old's arm could drive it hilt-deep. The creature's own frantic lunge to escape the pain did the rest, and blood sprayed across the fallen leaves of winters past as its movement dragged the unstoppable blade through muscle, tendons, arteries, and bone.

Stephanie staggered and almost fell as the huge predator squirmed frantically away. Her hand and arm were soaked in its blood, more steaming blood had gouted across her face and eyes, and if she'd had time for it, she would have been nauseated. But she didn't have time, and she staggered further forward, putting herself between the treecat and the hexapuma.

It was all she could do to stay on her feet. She shook like a leaf, her blood-coated face streaked with tears while terror yammered within her, yet somehow she stayed upright and raised the humming blade between them as the hexapuma stared at her in animal disbelief. Its right rear leg trailed helplessly while blood pulsed from the huge, gaping wound in its flank, but the very sharpness of the vibro blade worked against Stephanie in at least one respect. That wound was fatal, but the hexapuma didn't know it. It would take time to bleed out, and the knife was so sharp, the wound inflicted so quickly, that the creature had no idea of the catastrophic damage it had just received. It only knew it was hurt, that the injured prey it had expected to take so easily had inflicted more agony than any enemy it had ever faced, and it howled its fury.

It paused for just a moment, hissing and spitting, the ears Climbs Quickly had shredded flat to its skull, and Stephanie knew it was going to charge. She had no more idea than the hexapuma that she'd already inflicted a mortal wound, and she tried to hold her knife steady. It was going to come right over her, but if she could get the knife up, stick it into its chest or belly and let its charge do there what its lunge away had done to its hindquarters, then maybe at least the treecat would—

The hexapuma howled again, and Stephanie wanted desperately to close her eyes. But she couldn't, and she saw it lunge—saw it spring forward in the first of the two leaps it would take to reach her, dragging its crippled leg, fang-studded maw agape.

Only it never completed that lunge, and Stephanie's head jerked up as a dreadful noise filled the forest. She'd heard a single echo of it from the treecat who'd fought to protect her, but this wasn't the defiant cry of one hopelessly gallant defender. This was the rippling snarl of dozens—scores—of treecats, filled with hate and vengeance, and its challenge pierced even the hexapuma's rage. Its head snapped up, as Stephanie's had done, and its yowl was filled with as much panic as fury as the trees exploded above it.

A cream-and-gray avalanche thundered down with a massed, high-pitched scream that seemed to shake the forest. It engulfed the hexapuma in an unstoppable flood of slashing ivory claws and needle-sharp fangs, and Stephanie Harrington collapsed beside a dreadfully wounded Climbs Quickly as the scouts and hunters of his clan literally ripped their foe to pieces.

X

"I'm home!" Richard Harrington called out as he walked into the living room.

"About time," Marjorie replied from her office. She was at the end of a section anyway, so she hit the save key and closed the report, then rose and stretched.

"Hey, don't give me a hard time," her husband told her severely as he walked down the short hall and poked his head in her door. "You may be able to do a full day's work without going anywhere, but some of us have patients who require our direct, personal attendance . . . not to mention a superb bedside manner."

"'Bedside manner,' right!" Marjorie snorted, and Richard grinned as he leaned close to kiss her cheek. She put an arm around him and hugged him briefly. "Did Steph have a good day with Mr. Sapristos?" she went on.

"What?" Richard pulled back with a strange expression, and she cocked an eyebrow.

"I asked if Stephanie had a good day with Mayor Sapristos," she said, and Richard frowned.

"I didn't drop her off in Twin Forks," he said. "I didn't have time, so I left her home. Didn't I tell you I was going to?"

"Left her home?" Marjorie repeated. "Here? On the homestead?"

"Of course! Where else would I—" Richard broke off as he recognized his wife's incomprehension. "Are you saying you haven't seen her all day?"

"I certainly haven't! Would I have asked you about Mr. Sapristos if I had?"

"But—"

Richard broke off again, and his frown deepened. He stood for a moment, thinking hard, then turned and half-ran down the hall. Marjorie heard the front door open and close—then it opened and closed again, seconds later, and Richard was back.

"Her glider's gone," he told Marjorie grimly.

"But you said you didn't take her to town," Marjorie protested.

"I didn't," he said even more grimly. "So if her glider's gone, she must've gone off on a flight of her own—without telling either of us."

Marjorie gazed at him, her own mind filled with a cascade of chaotic thoughts and sudden, half-formed fears. Then she took a firm mental grip on herself and cleared her throat.

"If she went out on her own, she should be back by now," she said as calmly as she could. "It's getting dark, and she would've wanted to be home before that happened."

"Absolutely," Richard agreed, and the tension in their locked gazes was just short of panic. An inextricable brew of fear for their daughter, guilt for not having watched her more closely, and—hard though they tried to suppress it—anger at her for evading their watchfulness, flowed through them, but there was no time for that. Richard shook himself, then raised his left wrist and keyed Stephanie's combination into his com.

He waited, right forefinger and second finger drumming anxiously on the com's wrist band, and his face went bleak as the seconds oozed past with no reply. He waited a full minute, in which his eyes became agate and the last expression leached from his face, and Marjorie caught his upper right arm and squeezed tightly. She said nothing, for she too understood what that lack of reply meant.

It took a painful act of will for Richard Harrington to accept the silence, but then his forefinger moved again. He keyed in another combination, and inhaled sharply as a red light began to flash almost instantly on the com. In one way, the light was almost worse than the total lack of response had been; in another, it was an enormous relief. At least it gave them a beacon to track—one which should guide them to their daughter. But if the emergency beacon was working the rest of the com unit should also be functional. And if it was—if it had produced the high-pitched buzz which was guaranteed to be audible from a distance of over thirty meters—then Stephanie should have answered it. If she hadn't, there had to be a reason, and neither Harrington had the courage to voice what that reason might well be.

"Grab the emergency med-kit," Richard said instead, his voice harsh. "I'll get my car back out of the garage."

 

Stephanie Harrington couldn't hear the signal from the lost com that hung on the stub of a limb more than fifty meters above her. Nor was she even thinking about coms, for she was surrounded by over two hundred treecats. They perched on branches, clung to trunks, and crouched with her on the wet leaves. Two actually sat pressed against her sides, and they—like all the rest—crooned a deep, soft harmony to the bloody, mauled ball of fur in her lap.

She was grateful for their presence, and she knew those scores of guardians could—and would—protect her from any other predators. Yet she had little attention to spare them, for every scrap of her attention was fixed with desperate strength on her treecat, as if somehow she could keep him alive by sheer force of will. The pain in her arm and knee and ribs and her residual, quivering terror still filled her, but those things scarcely mattered. They were there, and they were real, but nothing—literally nothing—was as important as the treecat she cuddled with fierce protectiveness in the crook of her good arm.

Her memory of what had happened after the other treecats poured down from the trees was vague. She recalled switching off the vibro knife, but she hadn't gotten it back into its sheath. She must have dropped it somewhere, but it didn't matter. All that had mattered was getting to her treecat.

She'd known he was alive. There was no way she could not know, but she'd also known he was desperately hurt, and her stomach had knotted as she fell to her good knee beside him. Her own pain had made her whimper as she moved with injudicious speed, yet she'd hardly noticed as she touched her protector—her friend, however he'd become that—with fearful fingers.

Blood matted his right side, and she'd felt fresh nausea as she saw how badly his right forelimb was mangled. The blood flow was terrifying, without the spurt of a severed artery, but far too thick and heavy. She had no idea how his internal anatomy was arranged, but her frightened touch had felt what had to be the jagged give of broken ribs, and his mid-limbs' pelvis was clearly broken, as well. She'd cringed at the thought of the damage all those broken bones could have done inside him, but there was nothing she could do about them. That shattered forelimb needed immediate attention, however, and she plucked the drawstring from the left cuff of her flying jacket. Tying it into a slip noose with only her teeth and one working hand was impossibly difficult, yet she managed it somehow, and slipped it up the broken, bloodsoaked limb. She settled it just above the ripped and torn flesh and drew it tight, bending close to use her teeth again, then worked a pocket stylus under the improvised tourniquet and tightened it carefully. She'd never done anything like this herself, but she knew the theory, and she'd once seen her father do the same thing for an Irish setter who'd lost most of a leg to a robotic cultivator.

It worked, and she sagged in relief as the blood flow slowed, then stopped. She knew that cutting off all blood from the damaged tissues would only damage them worse in the long run, but at least he wouldn't bleed to death now. Unless, of course, she thought, fighting a suddenly resurgent panic, there was internal bleeding.

She didn't really want to move him, but she couldn't leave him lying on the cold, wet ground. He needed warmth, and she lowered herself with a groan to sit beside him and lift him as carefully as she could with only one hand. She flinched when he twisted with a sound like the mewl of a broken kitten, but she didn't put him back down. Instead, she tucked him inside her unsealed flying jacket and tugged the loose flaps closed around him as well as her single working arm could manage. Then she leaned back, whimpering with her own pain, holding him against her and trying to fight his shock and blood loss with the warmth of her own body.

She didn't think about her missing com, or her parents, or her own pain. She didn't think of anything. She only sat there, cuddling her defender's broken body against her own, and thought of nothing at all, for that was all she had the strength to do.

 

The elders of Bright Water Clan sat in a circle about the young two-leg. All of them, even Song Spinner, who had come after the others for the sole purpose of berating Sings Truly for her incredible folly in risking herself in such a fashion. But no one was berating anyone now. Instead, the other elders watched in confusion and uncertainty as Sings Truly and Short Tail crept closer to the two-leg. The chief scout and the clan's second-ranking memory singer crouched on either side of the two-leg, quivering noses scarcely a handspan's distance from it. They sniffed it carefully, and then reached out to touch the link between it and Climbs Quickly.

Sings Truly's ears went flat in shock that, even for her, even now, was honed by disbelief. Despite the alienness of the two-leg, Climbs Quickly's link to it was at least as strong as that of any mated pair she'd ever encountered. More than that, the link clearly had yet to reach its maximum strength. That couldn't possibly happen—not with a creature as obviously and completely mind-blind as the two-leg. Yet it had happened, and Sings Truly's mind whirled as she tried to imagine the ramifications of that simple fact.

The rest of her clan's adult fighting strength sat or crouched or hung behind and above and all about her and the two-leg. As she, they'd watched the youngling, tasting its pain like their own, as it dragged its gravely injured body to Climbs Quickly. As Sings Truly, they had tasted its fear for him, its tenderness and frantic concern, its . . . love. And, as Sings Truly, they had watched the youngling—surely no more than a kitten itself—tighten the string that stopped Climbs Quickly's bleeding before he died. And then they watched the two-leg gather him against itself, hugging him, giving of its own body heat to him, and the massed music of the clan's soft, approving croon had risen about the two-leg. The clan had reached out, able to touch the two-leg, albeit indirectly, through its link to Climbs Quickly, and their massed touch had soothed the youngling's fear and pain and eased it tenderly into a gentle mind haze. The People of Bright Water took its hurt upon themselves and soothed it into something very like sleep, and it was safe for them to do so, for nothing that walked the world's forest could threaten or harm Climbs Quickly or his two-leg through their watchful ring of claws and fangs.

Sings Truly saw all that, understood all that, and deep inside, she wanted—as she had never wanted anything before—to hate the two-leg. Climbs Quickly might live. His mind glow was weak, yet it was there, and even now she felt his awareness creeping slowly, doggedly back towards the surface. But he was terribly hurt, and those hurts were the two-leg's fault. It was the two-leg which had drawn him here. It was the two-leg for whom he'd fought his impossible battle, risked—and all too possibly lost—his life. Even if he lived, he would have only one true-hand, and that, too, was the two-leg's fault.

Yet badly as Sings Truly wished to hate the two-leg, she knew Climbs Quickly had chosen to come. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the strength of his link to this alien creature had left him no choice but to come, yet if that was true, then it was equally true that the two-leg had been given no choice, either. They were one, as tightly bound as any mated pair, and Sings Truly knew it . . . just as she knew her brother, as she herself, would have fought to the death to protect his mate.

And so would this two-leg. Youngling or no, despite broken bones and legs which would scarcely bear it, this barely weaned kitten had attacked a death fang single-handed. Climbs Quickly had done the same, but he had been an adult—and uninjured. The two-leg had been neither, but it had risen above its wounds and terror to fight the same terrible foe for Climbs Quickly. No youngling of the People, and all too few of the People's adults, could have done that, and without the two-leg, Climbs Quickly would already be dead, so—

<How shall we untangle this knot, Sings Truly?> The question came from Short Tail, and though it was directed to Sings Truly, the chief scout had thought it loudly enough to be certain all of the elders heard him.

<We should leave while we still can!> Broken Tooth replied sharply, before Sings Truly could. <The danger of this is far too great! Sooner or later, this two-leg's fellows will come seeking it, and we must not be here when they do.>

<And Climbs Quickly?> Short Tail asked bitingly, and the People's ability to taste one another's emotions was not a useful thing at the moment. Broken Tooth felt the scout's searing contempt as clearly as if Short Tail had shouted it aloud—which, indeed, he had, in a way—and his own mind voice was hot when he replied.

<Climbs Quickly chose to come here!> he snapped. <He was told to stay away from the two-legs—that Shadow Chaser would have that duty—yet he disobeyed. Not content with that, he summoned the clan to save the two-leg from a death fang, despite the danger. Many of us might have been killed or hurt by such an enemy, and you know it! I am sorry for his wounds, and I wish him no evil, but what happens to him stems from his own decisions. Our task is to safeguard our entire clan, and to do that we must be far away when the other two-legs arrive. If that requires us to leave Climbs Quickly to his fate, it cannot be helped.>

<It was not Climbs Quickly who summoned the clan,> Song Spinner observed with frigid disapproval. <Or not directly. It was you, Sings Truly, and you knew he was trying to protect the two-leg!>

<It was, and I did.> The calmness of Sings Truly's reply surprised even her. <Oh, I did not know, but that was only because I had declined to ask him. So, yes, senior singer. I knew what Climbs Quickly desired. Perhaps I was even wrong to give it to him. But even if I was wrong, he most certainly was not.> The other elders stared at her in consternation, and she turned from her contemplation of the young two-leg and her brother to face them.

<Climbs Quickly and this two-leg are linked,> she told them. <I have tasted that link, and so can any of you, if you doubt me. He was defending . . . not his "mate," precisely, but something very close to it. This is his two-leg, and he is its. He could no more have failed to protect it than he could have failed to protect me or I him.>

<Prettily said,> Song Spinner said acidly when none of the males would meet Sings Truly's eyes or refute her words. <Perhaps even true . . . for Climbs Quickly. But Broken Tooth speaks for the rest of the clan. We have no link to this two-leg, and surely this is only fresh proof of the danger of hasty contact with them. Look at your brother, memory singer, and tell me risking further contact with these creatures is not the path of madness!>

<Very well, senior singer,> Sings Truly said, still with that same astounding calm and clarity of mind voice, <if you wish, I will tell you exactly that. Indeed, what has happened here is the clearest proof that we must seek out more contact with the two-legs, for we must learn if more of the People can establish such bonds with the two-legs.>

<More bonds?> Broken Tooth gasped. He and Digger gawked in horror, but Song Spinner stared at her in shock too profound for any other emotion. Short Tail, on the other hand, crouched beside her, radiating fierce agreement, and they were joined—albeit with less certainty—by Fleet Wind, the elder charged with the instruction of young scouts and hunters, and by Stone Biter, who led the clan's flint shapers.

<More bonds,> Sings Truly replied levelly, and Broken Tooth hissed—not in anger, for no male would ever show challenge to a senior memory singer, whatever the provocation, but in utter rejection. <No, hear me out!> Sings Truly commanded. <Right or wrong, I am a singer. You will hear me, and the clan—the clan, Broken Tooth, not simply the elders—will judge between us on this!>

Broken Tooth settled back, and Song Spinner twitched in even greater shock. As the clan's second-ranking singer, Sings Truly had every right to make that demand, yet by making it, she had in effect challenged Song Spinner's own position. She had appealed to the entire clan, seeking the judgment of the majority of its adults, when all knew that Song Spinner opposed her. If the clan chose to support Sings Truly, she would become Bright Water's senior singer, while if the clan chose to reject her, she would be stripped of all authority.

But the challenge had been issued, and the clan adults drew closer.

<What my brother has done was not of his choice,> Sings Truly said quietly but clearly. <It could not have been his choice, for none of the People even guessed such a thing was possible. Nor could he, or any of us, have known how to establish such a link with a two-leg even had we desired to do so. But he did establish the link, and though the two-leg is mind-blind and clearly fails to understand, it shares the link. It is as linked to him as he is to it. Is this not true, senior singer?>

Sings Truly looked directly at Song Spinner, and Bright Water's senior singer could only flick her ears in curt agreement, for it was obvious to all, singer and non-singer alike, that it was true.

<Very well,> Sings Truly continued. <We did not know—then—that such links were possible. We do know now, however, just as all of us have seen proof of the link's depth and power. Climbs Quickly fought the death fang for his two-leg, but the two-leg also fought the death fang for him, and by the standards of its own kind, this two-leg is but a kitten. We dare not judge all two-legs by its actions, yet we dare not reject its example, either. We must learn more about them and their tools and their purpose in being here. They are too dangerous, and there are too many of them, and their numbers increase too quickly for us not to learn those things. Climbs Quickly was right in that . . . and the very things which make them so dangerous could also make them powerful allies.>

Not a whisper rose among her listeners. Every eye was fixed upon her, and even Broken Tooth's tail had stopped its lashing, for it had never occurred to him to consider what the two-legs could do for the People. He had been too aware of all the threats the intruders posed to them, and Sings Truly felt her hope rise higher as she tasted the shifting emotions of his mind glow.

<If others of the People can—and choose to—form such links, we will learn much. If they go with those they link with to live among the two-legs, they will see far more than we can ever see spying upon them from the shadows. They can report to us, tell us of all they learn, help us to understand the two-legs. And remember the nature of such links. The two-legs do, indeed, appear to be mind-blind. Certainly this one is. Yet for all its blindness, it senses the link. It feels and recognizes Climbs Quickly's love for it . . . and returns that love. I think it is clear from Climbs Quickly's original report that this two-leg thought him no more clever than the ground runners or lake builders when first it met him. It knows better now, yet it cannot know how much more clever the People are. Perhaps it would be as well if we do not let it or its elders know just how clever we are, for it is always wise to let others underestimate us. But let us also build more links with the two-legs, if such we can. Let us learn, and let those of the People who share such links with them teach them that we do not threaten them. There is much room in the world, surely enough for us to share it with the two-legs if we can make them our friends.>

The mental silence lingered, hovering in the wet, rapidly darkening woods. And then, in the way of the People, it was broken by mind voices in ones and twos, choosing their course.

XI

Richard Harrington's face was white as the air car's powerful lights picked the wreckage trail from the darkness. The icon of Stephanie's emergency beacon glowed in the dead center of his HUD, indicating that it lay directly below him, but he didn't really need it. Bits and pieces of a mangled hang glider were strewn through the tops of three different trees, and the continued silence from his daughter's end of the com link was suddenly even more terrifying.

He didn't know what Stephanie had been doing out here, but she'd clearly been trying to reach the clearing ahead when she went down, and he sent the air car scudding forward. Marjorie sat tense and silent beside him, twisting the control that swept the starboard spotlight in a wide half-circle on her side of the car. Richard was just reaching for the control to the port light, when Marjorie gasped.

"Richard! Look!"

His head snapped around at his wife's command, and his jaw dropped. Stephanie sat huddled against the base of a huge tree, clasping something against her with one arm. Her clothing was torn and bloody, but her head rose as he looked at her. She stared back into the lights, and even from his seat in the air car, he saw the bottomless relief on her bruised and bloody face. Yet even as he recognized that, and even as his heart leapt in joy so sharp it was anguish, stunned surprise held him frozen, for his daughter was not alone.

A grisly ruin of white bone and mangled tissue lay to one side. Richard had done enough anatomical studies of Sphinxian animal life to recognize the half-stripped skeleton of a hexapuma, but neither he nor any other naturalist had ever seen or imagined anything like the dozens and dozens and dozens of tiny "hexapumas" who surrounded his daughter protectively.

He blinked, astonished by his own choice of adverb, yet it was the only one which fitted. They were protecting Stephanie, watching over her, and he knew—as if he'd seen it with his own eyes—that they, whatever they were, had killed the hexapuma to save her.

But that was all he knew, and he touched Marjorie's arm gently.

"Stay here," he said quietly. "This is my area, not yours."

"But—"

"Please, Marge," he said, still in that quiet voice. "I don't think there's any danger—now—but I could be wrong. Just stay here while I find out, all right?"

Marjorie Harrington's jaw clenched, but she fought down her unreasoning surge of anger, for he was right. He was the xeno-veterinarian. If the problem had been plant life, he would have deferred to her expertise; in this case she must defer to his, however her heart raged at her to rush to her daughter's side.

"All right," she said grudgingly. "But you be careful!"

"I will," he promised, and popped the hatch. He climbed out slowly and walked very carefully towards his daughter, carrying the emergency medical kit. The sea of furry, long-tailed arboreals parted about his feet, retreating perhaps a meter to either side and then flowing back in behind him, and he felt their watchful eyes as he stepped into the small clear space about Stephanie. A single creature crouched by her side—smaller and more slender than the others, with a dappled brown and white coat instead of their cream and gray—and he felt its grass-green eyes bore into him. But despite the unnerving intelligence behind that scrutiny, his attention was on his daughter. This close, the bruises and bloodstains—few of the latter hers, thank God!—were far more evident, and his stomach clenched at the evidence of her injuries. Her left arm hung beside her, obviously badly broken, and her right leg was stretched stiffly before her, and he had to blink back tears as he dropped to his knees.

"Hello, baby," he said gently, and she looked at him.

"I messed up, Daddy," she whispered, and tears welled in her own eyes. "Oh, Daddy! I messed everything up! I—"

"Hush, baby." His voice quivered, and he cupped the right side of her face in his palm. "We'll have time for that later. For now, let's get you home, okay?"

She nodded, but something in her expression told him there was more. He frowned speculatively—and then his eyebrows shot up as she opened her jacket to reveal another of the creatures hovering all about them. He stared at the badly mauled animal, then jerked his eyes to his daughter's.

Stephanie read the question in her father's gaze. There wasn't time to explain everything—that would have to come later, when she also accepted whatever thoroughly merited punishment her parents decided to levy—but she nodded.

"He's my friend." Her voice trembled, heavy with tears—the voice of a child begging her parents to tell her the problem could be fixed, the damage mended . . . the friend saved. "He . . . he saved me from the hexapuma," she went on, fighting to keep that fraying voice steady. "He fought it, Daddy—fought it for me—and he got hurt so bad. I—" Her voice broke at last, and she stared at her father, white-faced with exhaustion, pain, fear, and grief. Richard Harrington looked back, his own heart broken by her distress, and cupped her face between both his hands.

"Don't worry, baby," he told his daughter softly. "If he helped you, than I'll help him any way I can."

 

Climbs Quickly floated slowly, slowly up out of the blackness. He lay on his left side on something warm and soft, and he blinked. He felt the pain of his hurts and knew they were serious, yet there was something strange about the way they hurt. The pain was distant and far away, as if something were making it less than it should have been, and he turned his head. He looked up, seeking what he knew was there, and made a soft sound—a weak parody of his normal, buzzing purr—as he saw the face of his two-leg.

She looked down quickly, and the brilliant flare of her joy and relief at seeing him move blazed through the odd, pleasantly lazy haziness which afflicted his thoughts. She touched his fur gently, and he realized the blood had been cleaned from her face. White bits of something covered the worst of her cuts and scratches, and her broken arm was sheathed in some stiff, white material. He tasted an echo of pain still coloring her mind glow, but the echo was almost as muted as his own. She opened her mouth and made more of the sounds the two-legs used to communicate, and he rolled his head the other way as another, deeper voice replied.

His person was seated on one of the two-legs' sitting things, he realized, but it took several more breaths to realize the sitting thing was inside one of the flying things. He might not have realized even then, without his link to his person, but that same link—and the haziness—kept him from panicking at the thought of tearing through the heavens at the speed at which the flying things regularly moved.

Two more two-legs—his two-leg's parents—sat in front of them. One looked back at his two-leg, and he blinked again as their link helped him