A Company of Heroes Book Four: The Scientist

BOOK: A Company of Heroes Book Four: The Scientist
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A COMPANY OF HEROES

Book Four
The Scientist

Ron Miller

A Company of Heroes

Book Four: The Scientist

Ron Miller

The fate of the world itself rests on the competent shoulders of Princess Bronwyn. But first she must contend with the super-science of a mad inventor, the magic of warring fairies and a deadly gauntlet of pirates and treachery, space travel and sorcery.

Only Bronwyn and her loyal friends---a circus girl, a giant, a changeling and an eccentric scientist---can prevent the End of the World!

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.

eISBN: 978-1-62579-368-3

Copyright © 2012 by Ron Miller

Cover art by: Ron Miller

Illustrations courtesy
The Encyclopædia Bronwyniana

Published under the auspices of Shahalzin Pordka XVI University

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

Electronic version by Baen Books
www.baen.com

This book is for Constance,

the very image of Princess Bronwyn.

Book Four

The Scientist

CHAPTER ONE

DIVERGENT THEOLOGIES

The Woxen-Mollockle Grand Combined Spectacle and Pan-Universal Wonder Circus suffered perhaps the greatest setback of its career when the meteor hit it. Thud Mollockle, co-owner and one of the chief Spectacles, stood at the rim of the still-smoldering crater. “Well,” he observed, nodding his little round head and kicking at a stone that rolled clatteringly down the steep slope. “That’s certainly a big hole.”

Rykkla Woxen, his partner and not the least of the remaining Spectacles, could only agree with a kind of slack-jawed incredulity as she surveyed what had once been her livelihood and was now a quarter-mile-wide excavation. All that she could think to say to the huge man standing next to her was, “If it’s not one damn thing it’s another.”

And that was true, for there they were, circusless in Ibraila.

* * * * *

The Woxen-Mollockle Grand Combined Spectacle and Universal Wonder Circus had begun modestly enough, housed in two ex-military commissary wagons and a tent, all contributed generously as a gesture of kindness and farewell by an departing exlover of Princess Bronwyn Tedeschiiy, but the fame of Thud Mollockle, the strongest man in the world, whose tectonic powers could juggle anvils and macramé steel rails, and the talents, skills and beauty of Rykkla Woxen, as glossily graceful as a wet licorice whip in her snakey black costume, had attracted in no time at all a retinue of performers (long out of work during the recent Great Depression and Reign of Terror) that anyone would have shelled out a hundred treasured, meticulously-hoarded pfennigs to have seen individually, let alone together. After all, one could grow used to
existing
without food if one could occasionally
live
vicariously. Rykkla and Thud’s crosscountry meanderings before meeting Princess Bronwyn and helping her defeat the evil Payne Roelt and Company had already established for them a measure of fame, a foundation upon which they could, and did, build a show more substantial than the mere strongman-and-assistant act that had once sustained them.

By the time the new show had wandered up and down the length of Tamlaght, discovering how a devastated people can always eke out a few coppers to escape into the fantasies that the Grand Combined Spectacle offered, perhaps in direct proportion to their misery, and crossed over to Londeac and its lesser neighboring countries, it had grown to two main tents, numerous small ones, and a score of elaborately-illuminated wagons. There was a big main tent sheltering a single ring and bleachers almost always filled to their not inconsiderable capacity, a smaller tent housing the menagerie and another for the sideshow. All to say nothing, or at least as little as necessary, of the cook-tent, concession-tents, stable tents, tents for dressing rooms and trappings, and so forth, as well as wagons of various sizes for the wardrobe, office, refreshments and ticket sales. After months during which Thud and Rykkla had to bear the full burden of entertaining their audiences, they had eventually added a magician, followed by a family of tumblers; then, in increasingly rapid succession, a high-wire act, a horse trainer, a family of tumblers, a contortionist, a clown, a pigeon act, a trick bicyclist, musicians, a startling assortment of freaks, a sword swallower and fire eater . . . and with all of these additional people she was also forced to hire roustabouts, a cook and his assistants, stable hands, ticket takers and so on. Rykkla had also eventually hired an advance man who preceded the circus by anywhere from a week to a month, plastering every available vertical surface with posters and handbills heralding the imminent appearance of the Greatest Show on Earth. The almost immediate result of this idea was sell outs in advance at nearly every town and village.

Yet, for all of the improvements, for all of the undeniable quality and talent of the acts they had taken on, Thud and Rykkla were still the core, the main attraction, the irresistible attrahent that drew the crowds like moths to flames, stones to the ground or people with money to people who take money. There was something primal at work that neither Rykkla nor, certainly, Thud ever thought to analyze. Something primal and provocative, something exhilarating and piquant about watching the two perform, like watching lightning caressing a monolithic peak, like crackling lava savored by the ice-cold teeth of the ocean, like boa constrictor and ox wrestling to the death, though there was nothing mortal about this embrace, about the dance they performed: Rykkla’s comet caught in the complex orbits of Thud’s deep gravity. There was an elementality, as though their audiences were transported back to a time when all the universe could be reduced to the four primordial essences of earth, air, fire and water. Thud, the strong man, as solid and immovable as the earth itself, a man of stone, a steel and iron man forged from ores in their own turn forged in volcanoes and molded by grinding continental plates, as though the planet were but some giant mortar and pestle, chewing up mountains and spitting out giants; and Rykkla of fire and quicksilver, as sharp and liquid as lightning, as graceful as a falling thread or the curl of smoke from an extinguished candle; she coiled around his vasty landscape like a river languidly navigating its private planet.

Men would come ostensibly to admire and be awed by the strong man’s infinite strength, to present him with their home-grown challenges, as they were invited to do by the circus’s advance advertising, but never to collect the offered reward (so confidant was Rykkla of Thud’s abilities, that the reward did not, in fact, exist, and since it was nonexistant, Rykkla saw no reason to not make it extravagant). And they would be awed into stupidity by Thud’s colossal prowess, his high-tension potency, as he tied knots in two-inch steel bars, snapped battleship anchor chains like pretzels and hoisted wagonloads of pig iron with such a distracted expression that it maddened those whose sweating red faces nearly burst while hefting nothing massier than a carton of canned goods onto a cellar shelf. They came ostensibly to admire Thud, but Thud was too much; he could no more be admired than one could admire an earthquake or colliding meteors. One can only admire what one can reasonably aspire to emulate, but who could aspire to be a force of nature? He could only be looked on with a kind of awe, as one would look upon the tides, a tornado or a volcano spewing forth basaltic bombs the size of houses. But still the men would, for weeks, months and years, talk about Thud and his feats, they would compare notes and reports and rumors as they swilled their murky tavern beers, they would argue over what he could or couldn’t do, or had or hadn’t; they would endlessly discuss schemes that would finally defy and confound the giant’s great strength. They would look forward to the day the circus came, so that they could see for themselves how exaggerated was the advertising, how hyperbolic were their neighbor’s eyewitness accounts; they would gather outside the big tent an hour or more before the show began, laughing and joking still, but perhaps a little cowed, a little strained as they stood beneath the towering canvas portrait of Thud, lent an uncanny animation as it fluttered in the wind, that few suspected was life-sized.

Ostensibly they came to see Thud, but there was also a portrait of Rykkla outside the tent and there was the magnet, the fascinator, the center that every gaze drifted toward surreptitiously, every eye like a marble spinning toward the drain in an empty sink, when every individual owner of those becharmed eyes thought, always erroneously, that he was both unobserved and unique. The long canvas banner luffed in the breeze, lending the painted figure a lazily snakey life-likeness that was patently disturbing. Like Thud’s portrait, the likeness of Rykkla had been painted with great accuracy by an itinerant artist of no small ability or genius who had been painstaking in taking full advantage of her dark velocities. Her interminable legs were revealed past her long, narrow hips, revealed to her waist, by a black, spangled costume that clung to her sinuous torso as though it were the streamlined skin of an iridescent fish, as though her taut skin were itself sequined like the shimmering fish. These limbs were like the shining blades of a pair of shears, blades that stabbed these rough men to their hearts, snipping and scissoring those hard-boiled organs into doilies and strings of dancing paper-doll Rykklas. From behind, her buttocks were more than half revealed, as round and hard and smooth as a pair of cobblestones. Her long, bare brown arms looked like anacondas and the men gasped in anticipation of the breath being squeezed from their lungs in protracted, ecstatic sighs. And above all of these admirable appendages was a lean sorceress’s face of bottomless dark eyes, brows like black iron scythes, a nose as unimpeachable as a draftsman’s triangle and cheekbones like the magnificent chalk cliffs that overhung the Strait of Guesclin. Her hair was long and the color of graphite and when she performed it splashed in heavy waves like a spilled gallon of crude oil.

Once the men had surrendered their coins and entered the tent, perspiring from suspense and from the embarassment that their suspense might be obvious, which it was, the interior yeasty from the accumulated exhalations of too many effervescent and overcharged glands, they watched Thud’s strongman act with a kind of religious expectation. The things that he did were superhuman; Rykkla’s assistance and presence made them seem god-like.

Word about the Woxen-Mollockle Circus spread like news of the miracles of a prophet, and certainly with far less harm. Its fame rippled in ever-widening circles, and as the circles grew larger so did expectations. The further away the circus was geographically, the more it assumed the stature and otherworldliness of myth. Had there not been the meteorite, Thud may have ultimately been the nucleus of some pitiful little cult, with Rykkla its unknowing priest-goddess.

The invitation to tour Ibraila, coming as it did as a command from the Baudad Alcatode himself, was impossible to resist. For months Rykkla had been distributing posters with various phrases of which
Performances by Royal Command Before All the Courts of Soccotara
was a typical example of those which were more imaginative than accurate, and it was a rather welcome realization that these claims were to be no longer wholly fallacious.

Rykkla visited the Ibrailan consul in Toth where a contract and visa was awaiting her, along with a dizzying amount of cash as an advance on her subsidy. An itinerary was established that allowed them to cross unhindered the normally forbidden Ibrailan frontier, then to zigzag from village to village, a course that would finally end triumphantly in the capital, where a glorious performance would genuinely take place before one of the most resplendent and legendary courts of all Soccotara.

Ibraila, however, was a miserable country, its squalid villages scattered throughout its sandy wastes like the scant raisins a niggardly baker might apportion to his bread. Rykkla would certainly never have considered a tour there in fact let alone fancy, not without the underwriting of the Baudad and the proffered glamour of his court.

The worst of it was that the people of Ibraila were deeply, fundamentally religious, steeped in a form of Musrumism that was primitive and confining when Musrum Himself was but a stripling god, burping planets. Rykkla and her company had quickly learned not to erect the tantalizingly suggestive canvas portraits of herself nor of any of the other women, not even Blombula the Fat Lady and certainly not Teeny ‘n’ Weeny, the half-man half-woman; and had even grown warily circumspect about the depictions of some of the men. Costumes and acts were toned down to inoffensive and listless blandness. She had been forced to change her own costume and performed shapelessly clad from wrist to neck to ankle, and could still feel the cold, disapproving glare from the sparse audience, who themselves were present only because of the ratification of the revered Baudad. She could feel a palpable sense of sacrifice, as though the audience welcomed her circus as being an even more irritatingly worthy oblation than hairshirts and self-flagellation. The audience was there not for entertainment, but punishment for whatever sins they might have believed they had committed (Rykkla, cynically, if not inaccurately, thought that the church had probably convinced these miserable goatherders that having been born was their first sin and life had only gone downhill since). Shapelessly clad or not, they knew that there was a female body beneath that camouflage and disapproved of its existence. It had not taken many weeks for an evil pall to fall over the members of the company, and even the dullest roustabouts slung their weighty sledges with desultory glumness. The acts were performed by rote, succinctly and without enthusiasm, and the people of Ibraila seemed to pay no mind. They bore their punishment with stoic resolve.

Rykkla wondered often how much truth there could possibly be in the tales she had heard all her life: about the degenerate excesses of the Baudad and his capital. How could there be anything passionate or sensual in a place that withered souls so completely? She could feel her own becoming a kind of spiritual jerky.

Two more weeks would see the circus in Spondula and then on the fastest boat back to Londeac, or even Tamlaght if it came to that.

Rykkla and Thud had been purchasing dried fruit in the nearby hamlet of Squool-am-Batwoo when the shop had given a sudden, convulsive leap, like a sleeping mongrel that had just received an unexpected boottip in its ribs. It had returned to the earth a structural if not nervous wreck . . . certainly not the building it had been but moments before, but not necessarily unimproved. Thud, who of all people recognized an earthquake when he witnessed one, tucked Rykkla under his arm like a football and bolted from the now trapezoidal door while many of those remaining in the room were still airborne. The village had been transformed, looking like it had been dropped from a height, like a cowflop, with much the same flattening and sagging, but not nearly so fresh. Not more than half an hour earlier, Rykkla would have been reluctant to consider that Squool-am-batwoo could have been made to look more loathsomely pathetic than it normally did; circumstances certainly had proved her mistaken. Clouds of sallow dust were settling back to the yellow streets, from whence it had been thrown by the shock. The two or three score adobe huts looked squashed or burst, as though someone with god-like buttocks had just sat upon them. As startling and disturbing as this might have been otherwise, wholly distracting the eye was the fiery ball of flame boiling up from the desert in an incandescent mushroom. Something perverse in Rykkla’s mind instantly connected this incomprehensible disaster with her circus and the only thing that she could imagine was that the fire eater had done something very stupid.

BOOK: A Company of Heroes Book Four: The Scientist
6.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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