Authors: Penny Publications
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #magazine, #Amazon Purchases, #Science Fiction, #Fiction
"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail." —Louis L'Amour
The Great Escarpment edged World along its northern marge, from the Hill Country in the far west to the eastern verge of the shortgrass prairie. But there, an unexpected southward spur pinched World into a narrow waist through which all men must pass should they travel east or west. It was no great surprise to Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand, who was cunning in all matters relating to stalking and ambush, to find the neck between sheer cliffs and steaming swamplands stoppered by a stronghold nestled against the flank of the escarpment. But never had he seen a fastness so large and built entirely of great stone blocks. Atop the walls men in iron kept watch on east and west and—of greater immediate interest to Teodorq and his companion—south. But being wise in the ways of camouflage, Nagarajan's son remained hidden from their gaze in a grove of trees a gallop south of the cliffs while he considered ways in which that happy state could be continued and his eastward journey resumed.
Round about the stronghold huddled scores of lesser dwellings, cattle and sheep pens, yapping dogs, curling smoke from under which issued irregular clangs. Smells of dung and compost floated with the burnt tang of the smoke. Beyond the settlement a waterfall plummeted from the very lip of the plateau, and from that direction issued a steady thump, as if a frost giant strode the earth.
Earlier that morning several wagons bearing men with farming implements had ridden west under a mounted escort. A practiced eye—and Teodorq possessed two such—estimated upwards of four hundred habitants in the settlement, the largest village he had ever seen.
Even though most of the villagers were not warriors—Their farmers needed guards against the shortgrassmen!—Teodorq doubted he could take them all, especially those wearing iron shirts and carrying long iron swords. Not even with Sammi o' th' Eagles to help.
"Hey," he whispered to his companion, "you hillmen build stone houses, don't ya?"
Sammi shrugged without moving. "Not so big." The hillmen were anciently enemies of Teodorq's people, but the two young men were alike strangers in a strange land and had perforce become allies.
"Least now we know why the shortgrassers call 'em the ironmen. Must get hot in them outfits come summer."
"Maybe star-folk, like Jamly tell us find?" suggested Sammi. "Big magic, pile stones so high."
Teodorq studied on that some. Farther west, where the shortgrass prairie gave way to the Great Grass he had once called home, he and Sammi had come upon an ancient wreck, a "shuttle" that had tumbled down from the sky in the long ago. Jamly, a drawing that somehow moved and spoke and who had been custodian of the shuttle, had sent them forth to find the settlements of Iabran and Varucciyamen, so that the starmen might come and salvage what remained.
For Teodorq, seeking out the star-folk had a better ring than fleeing from the Serpentines who pursued him. "Don't think so," he finally decided. "That
was made of pottery— whatcha call it,
—not stone. And when Jamly killed them Serps following me, she used a buzzing fast stonethrower, which I don't see they got over there. Hey, hillman, how do you build a stone house?"
Sammi glanced at him. "With stones?"
"Yah, you lay one row on top another row. Yonder—" He nodded toward the stronghold. "—they forgot to stop adding rows. So, no magic. Least not shuttle-magic." He wondered how they lifted the blocks onto the highest rows. Maybe that
a giant he heard hammering away in the distance.
Sammi grunted. "Jamly Ghost say much kenning lost since big-f ight-in-sky. Stupid plainsmen forget most; hillmen not so much. Maybe ironmen forget less." He pursed his lips. "We stay in trees, iron hats no see us. Sneak past stone house, then ride like hell."
The woods they lurked within contained more trees than Teodorq had ever imagined grew on World. But he did not suppose that the men in the iron hats were stupid, and he expected the trees would soon give way to cleared ground. What man would build a stronghold to guard the passage and then allow trees to screen passers-by?
"I dunno, hillman," said Teodorq, pointing toward the distant wall. "Them sidemen up there, we know why they're watching the west. Shortgrassmen don't like they come down off'n the cliffs and taken their prairie. But they're studying on the east, too. And before we 'ride like hell' into it, I wanna know what they're so keen on spotting."
Sammi looked at him. "Sometimes, for plainsman, you not so stupid."
"Beside," Teodorq said, "I wouldn't mind sneaking in there and getting me one of them
"Sammi take back what he say."
They watched a while longer in science. Then Sammi sighed. "How you plan get one?"
"First... We need to find a way into that stone house."
Behind them they heard a click.
Teodorq looked at Sammi.
can't be good."
They turned to see a mounted figure dressed in dun leather and aiming a crossbow at them. "Be pinned to the spot, sodbusters, or be pinned to it."
It was a woman's voice and spoke the
of the shortgrassmen with an odd accent, harder on the final consonants, careless of the vowels, and swallowing the liquids in the throat. Teodorq said to Sammi in the long-grass
"Only one bolt."
The hillman shrugged. "Sammi always remember kindness of stupid plainsman."
"You bigger. She shoot you first. Sammi get away while reload."
As if intuiting their discussion, the woman whistled sharply and four men emerged from the trees, one of them leading the horses and pack mule Teodorq and Sammi had picketed in a hidden meadow. "Turn you right about now and start you a-walking toward yon
When Teodorq feigned incomprehension, she gestured with the crossbow, indicating by signs what they were to do.
"Awright, babe, we get it. C'mon Sammi, let's go." The two turned and began walking toward the stone house, striding for all of World as if they were leading the others home.
Sammi commented dryly in the hill country
"First part of plan working. Got second part?"
Teodorq shrugged. "Not yet."
They put Teodorq sunna Nagarajan and Sammi o' th' Eagles in a cage below ground level. Now and then, Teddy could make out indistinct curses from more dark and distant cages. This was apparently to inform the two how fortunate they were. Teodorq shook the bars on the cage door, but he did not expect the door to swing open, and so was not disappointed when it failed to do so.
Caging was a deadly insult on the Great Grass, but Teodorq told his companion he would forswear his revenge.
"Smart move," Sammi told him. "Vengeance hard for man locked up in cage."
"I plan to get out."
"Good," said Sammi, bending over to inspect the lock mechanism. "Now two of us have same plan. How you pick lock?"
"With my tongue."
Sammi rose, turned, and looked at Teodorq without speaking.
"I still want to get me one of them swords," the prairieman said. "So, step one is get out o' this cell."
"No, that step two. Step one got us into it. Remember?"
When the guards came for them the next morning, Teodorq acted as a guest summoned for council rather than a prisoner for interrogation. He and Sammi were escorted to a long flag-stoned hall illuminated by torches, between which hung colorful banners bearing fantastical creatures and sigils. Sidemen in kilts and iron shirts lined the hall, each holding a man-tall, iron-tipped lance.
The lines of the vault, the floor, and the sidemen led the eye to the focal point, which was an elaborate chair atop a raised platform at the far end of the hall. Upon this chair perched a barrel-chested man with heavily muscled arms and hands that looked as if they could crush a man's skull. He wore a gown of delicate weave, dyed bright red and bearing on its front in thread-of-gold the image of a great striped cat. Across his shoulders and layered on his lap was a cloak of what appeared to be the pelt of the same animal: black stripes on white fur. In his hand he held a ceremonial, jewel-encrusted hammer. Teodorq estimated more
in that hammer than in the aggregate wealth of the Scorpion and Serpentine clans combined, and he fell to considering how such an item might come into his possession.
On the platform below the high seat, a miscellany of others, variously garbed, sat or lay among cushions. One was the girl who had captured them. She still wore hunting leathers, but had exchanged her crossbow for a hoodwinked falcon that perched upon a thick glove while she fed sweetmeats to it.
A crier announced something in a strange tongue, packaged in which Teodorq caught the name of "Aya Herpstone,
From the salutes that followed, this was evidently the fierce man on the big chair.
" Teodorq murmured. "I'd say he's the First here'bouts."
"Sammi never cease to marvel at swiftness of plainsman mind."
The sidemen who had taken custody of the captives pushed Teodorq and Sammi forward and by signs indicated that they were to bow over their folded hands. Teodorq remembered that Jamly had used the same salute and wondered if these folk might be the starmen, after all. Teodorq added the plainsman's salute, touching his fingertips to his temple then slicing his hand forward. Sammi slapped his right bicep and raised his forearm.
leaned on the arm of his big chair and growled something in a back-throated language. The young woman spoke up in the shortgrass
"My father asks whether or no ye be spies for the
Teodorq answered in the
"Sorry, babe. We don't get ya."
Sammi grunted, understanding that Teodorq had spoken to him and not to the girl. He folded his arms across his chest and waited.
The girl frowned and a small crease appeared in her brow just above her pert nose. "You speak a tongue most strange. Whence come ye here?"
Teodorq again feigned incomprehension. The
said something to her and she answered. The hard, growling words of irontalk fell strange off such soft lips as hers. A bald-pated man with a long white beard, who squatted cross-legged on the cushions, smiled as if at a secret jest and made a quick suggestion to the chief. That worthy listened, nodded, then sent a sideman off with some whispered instruction. Then he spoke to the hall at large and his henchmen dutifully laughed. A musician began to play on a fretted, triangular
and a fool juggled and cavorted.
They broke off when the sidemen returned, escorting between them a man in a ragged open vest and trousers of fringed
hide inlaid with priceless shells from the far-off south-west sea. His chest and arms were inscribed with fanciful tattoos. Twin vipers wound up his arms, which were ironbound at the wrists. Leg irons clanked as he shuffled.
Sammi o' th' Eagles regarded the prisoner and then looked at Teodorq's vest and trousers and the tattooed scorpions on each fist.
"Know this guy?" he whispered in the
"Yah. Karakalan sunna Vikeram of clan Serpentine."
Sammi grunted. "Serps the ones trying to kill you, right?"
"Good thing he chained up."
The gray-beard on the platform spoke to Karakalan in what must have been the iron-men's language; but he spoke slowly and seemed to use short words. The Serp scowled in concentration.
Karakalan turned to face them and they saw that his nose had been broken and his lip split at some time in the not-too-distant past. He smiled at Teodorq, though the smile must have hurt such an unsuited face.