Authors: Piers Anthony
"Knock me out!" Neq cried again.
"I can't knock you out for the duration. I'd be substituting brain damage for hand damage. And I'll need your cooperation, because I'll be working without assistants. You have to be conscious. That means a local anesthetic-- and even so, it will hurt a fair amount. Like this."
Neq, sweating acceded. He had not known there could be so much pain remaining in his mutilated limbs. "We'll go to Helicon."
"One other thing," Dick said. "I don't want to exploit your weakness by bartering with you now, not on a matter like this, but I have my own welfare to look out for. Once you have your sword, you won't need me or want me along."
"I'm not strong. I spent weeks, months in that cage. I lost track. I was able to exercise some, and I knew which muscles to concentrate on, but I never was strong for the wilderness life. I'm in no condition to survive by myself. I'd only get captured again, or killed by savages."
"Deliver me to the crazies before you start your mission."
"But that would take months!"
"Steal one of Yod's trucks. You can kill some outlaws in the process. I can drive; I can teach you--even with metal instead of hands. That's worth knowing."
"Yes..." Neq said, realizing that the man had a point. Dick had repaid anything he owed for his freedom by tending to Neq after the amputation and finding food--probably stolen from Yod's tribe at great risk--for otherwise Neq would have died. The operation was a new obligation. So it was a fair bargain.
And Neq could do some damage while taking the truck. Then the tribe would be on guard--pointlessly--while the two made their journey to the crazies.
It was, on balance, worthwhile, Dick had a different entrance to Helicon. It was a stairway under a nomad burial marker, leading into a dank tunnel that in turn led to the main vault. Neq speculated privately that there must be numerous such ports--perhaps one for every underworld inmate of rank. That meant that many more could have escaped the flames and slaughter.
No wonder the defense of the mountain had collapsed so quickly!
They fetched the drugs and instruments. Under the film of ash much of Helicon was untouched. Had the under-worlders had any spunk they could have restored it to a considerable extent. Nomads would have.
Neq could not do much, but he could carry. Dick fixed a pack for him and he hauled everything they needed to the nearby hostel and set up for the operation.
* * *
When Neq emerged from the intermittent haze of drugs and pain, his right arm terminated in a fixed full-length sword. His left had dull pincers that he could open and close with some discomfort by flexing wrong-seeming muscles.
The first time he tried to practice with the sword, the pain was prohibitive. But as his flesh healed around the metal and callus and scar-tissue formed, that problem eased. Eventually he was able to strike quite hefty blows without wincing.
His swordsmanship was hardly clever. Deprived of a real wrist, he had to maneuver mainly from shoulder and elbow. But he had power, for there was nothing to break or loosen. Skill would come with practice, for his mind had all the talent it had ever possessed.
He had to work with the pincers, too, flexing them each day, gaining proficiency. They were actually quite mobile when under proper control, and would lock onto an object or a knob like pliers, enabling him to pick up and squeeze without destroying. They, too, had great power.
Neq and Dick returned to Yod's territory to stalk a truck. There was a guard: Neq cut him down with an axe-motion swing of his sword, almost severing the man's head from his body. One more down....
"Find a good one," he told the surgeon. "Load plenty of fuel. I'll watch for intruders."
"OK," Dick said, relieved. Neq knew the man did not like the killing, much as he hated the men who had tortured him. With Dick, hate was general, not subject to specific implementation; with Neq it was otherwise.
When he was alone, Neq hauled the body about with his clumsy pincers. He wanted to sever the penis that had violated Neqa, but he realized this would be meaningless. What he needed was a true token of his vengeance. That every man of the tribe would comprehend.
He struck down with his sword-arm, chopping at the gory neck. He struck again, and the head came loose.
He left it on the ground for a moment and walked to a sapling. He cut it down with one sweep, then caught the shaft in his pincers and held it for stripping. Finally he carved crude points on each end of the pole.
He returned to the loose head. He braced one foot on it and jammed with the pole. After several attempts he got the point wedged firmly inside the neck. He lifted the head, bracing the pole with both pincers and sword, and tried to set it upright in the ground.
It wouldn't go. Angry, and aware that he was wasting time dangerously, he jammed his sword down, making a cavity in the soil. He dropped the end of the pole in this and twisted it firm. It stood crookedly, but well enough.
Neq's monument was complete: the staring, dirt-smirched head of one of the men who had raped his wife. Mounted on a pole.
He had killed one of the men in the act, with the dagger, so this was the second. Of the forty-nine he had counted... Forty-seven to go.
If the tribe heard the truck take off, it was too late. No pursuit developed. If only they had been this lax before, Neq thought bitterly, he and Neqa would never have been caught....
Dick had done well. Not only was there spare gasoline, there were blankets and tools and food. Apparently Yod used the trucks for supply storage, and had kept them in running condition. That was good management, for few nomads had knowledge of trucks.
The journey back was routine. There were roadblocks, but none by a major tribe, and Neq had little trouble discouraging them. In fact it was excellent practice for his stiff arm and sword.
He learned to drive, passing his sword through the wheel and using it to steer. His left extremity and his feet did the rest of the handling.
He delivered Dick to Dr. Jones, and trusted the under-worlder to make the report Neqa had intended. Had his luck reversed all the way, this would have been the original truck, with her notes in the dash--but it was not. At least Dick himself had been there at Helicon for virtually all of it, so the report would be complete.
Then he turned back, driving the truck alone. His mission awaited him. Forty-seven lives....
Yod's camp was on guard day and night. It had been alert the whole time Neq had been absent. Ever since that first spiked head.
Good. He wanted them to suffer, just as they had wanted him to suffer. They had succeeded in torturing him... and now he would repay them in equal measure. He wanted every man to remember what the tribe had done, that day Neqa died, and to know that the time of reckoning was at hand. To know that every man of Yod's tribe would be staring on a pike.
First he took the guards--one each night, until they began to march double, and after that two each night. When they marched in fours he desisted; that was too chancy. He didn't care about himself, but he didn't want to die or become further incapacitated before he had completed his vengeance.
He avoided the foursomes and moved instead into the camp, killing a warrior in his sleep and taking the head. After that there were men on guard everywhere--one sleeping, one busy with chores, the third watching. The tribe was down to forty, and it was terrified.
Neq made no killings for a week, letting them wear themselves out with the harsh vigil. Then, when they relaxed, he struck again, twice. That brought them alert again.
They had to take the offensive. They swept the forest for him, trying to rid themselves of this stalking horror. He killed two more and left their heads for their fellow-searchers to find.
They went back to the perpetual alert, the men haggard.
But they had to leave their immediate campside to fetch water, to hunt, to forage. Three men, resting in the forest, gave way to fatigue and slept. They never woke. Thirty-three remained.
There were fifteen women in the camp and twenty children. Now these noncombatants began standing guard over their men. Neq disliked this; he did not know what would happen to them once their men were gone. The women might be culpable for not encouraging some restraint in their men--no woman had shown herself during the whole of that nefarious day--but the children at least were innocent.
But he remembered Neqa, her piercing screams, her struggle as Yod raped her, and her failure to cry thereafter. His heart hardened. How often had this sort of thing happened before, with the women and children knowing and doing nothing? A person of any age who would not speak against such obvious wrong deserved no sympathy when the consequence of that wrong came back to strike him personally.
Three men came after him, guided by a dog. A clubber and two daggers. They must have borrowed the canine from some other tribe, for there had been no animals at the camp before. Neq had known it would come to this: small cruising parties tracking him down relentlessly. He was ready.
He looped about, confusing the scent-trail, then attacked from behind. He killed one dagger before they could react, and swung on the other.
"Wait!" the man cried. "We--"
Neq's sword-arm transfixed his throat, silencing him forever. But as the blade penetrated, Neq realized he had made a mistake. He recognized this youth.
Han the Dagger.
The boy who had balked at raping Neqa. Who had helped free Neq, however temporarily. Who had fled while the sexual orgy continued, after trying to stop it.
"Wait!" the third man, the clubber, cried, and this time Neq withheld his stroke. "We did not do it. See, I am scarred. Where you struck me when we fought in the circle, and I--"
Now Neq recognized him too. "Nam the Club--the first of Yod's men I engaged," he said. "I tagged you in the gut." Nam might be better now, but he could not have participated then; not when that wound was fresh.
"The other dagger," Nam said, pointing to the first dead of this trio. "Jut--you fought him and Mip the Staff together. You did not wound them, but Jut hid. He knew what was coming. He never--"
Neq reflected, and realized that Jut's face was not among those he had seen at the raping. He had just killed two innocent men.
Not quite. Jut had not raped, but he had not protested either. He had fled, letting it go on. Even Han had had more courage than that.
"There were fifty-two men in Yod's tribe--plus Yod himself," Neq said. "Fifty-three altogether. Forty-nine did it, after hearing my oath. If you three did not, that accounts for fifty-two. What other man is innocent?"
"Tif," Nam said. "Tif the Sword. You killed him in the circle before--"
"So I did." Neq hesitated, feeling sick as he looked down at Han. "Tif I do not regret, for it was a fair combat. Jut I might have spared, had I realized. But Han helped me, and--" Here regret choked off his words.
"That's why we came to you," Nam said. "We knew you did not have cause against us. We thought--"
"You turned traitor to your tribe?"
"No! We came to plead for our tribe!"
Neq studied him. "You, Nam the Club. You bragged of diddling. Had you been fit, would you have raped my wife?"
The man began to shake. "I--"
Neq lifted the tip of his sword. Blood dripped from it.
"I am a clumsy warrior," Nam said with difficulty. "But never a liar. And I am loyal to my leader."
Answer enough. "Were you friend to Han the Dagger?"
"No more than any other man. He was a stripling, softhearted."
Yes, the clubber was no liar. "I spare you," Neq said. "For the sake of this lad who was innocent and whom I wrongly slew. With choice, I would have cut you down instead, but now I spare you. But take this message to Yod: I spare no other."
"Then kill me now," Nam said simply. "Yod is a good leader. He is a rough man to resist, and he has bad ways about him, so that when he tells us to do something--even something like that--we must do it or suffer harshly. But he takes care of his tribe. He had to make an example."
"Not with my wife!"
"Discipline. He had to show--"
Neq's sword sliced off his nose and part of his talking mouth.
Then, sorry, Neq killed him cleanly.
And vomited, just as though he were a lad of fourteen again, at his first blooding.
At last he buried the bodies in honorable nomad fashion, digging the grave and forming the cairn with his sword. He did not mount their heads.
Twenty-five remained, and they were dying more readily now. But Neq performed his ritual with a sense of futility. He knew that vengeance would not bring Neqa back or right the wrong he had done the nonraping tribesmen. Han the Dagger--there was no justifying that murder. Already Neq was guilty of acts as bad as those perpetrated against him--but he could not stop.
The second party to find him was female. Neq had learned caution, and did not attack them: five young women. He stood his ground and parlayed.
They were hauling a wagon covered by a tarpaulin. Neq watched it, judging that it was large enough to hold a man. A man with a gun. Neq stood in such a way as to keep one of the girls between himself and the wagon.
"Neq the Sword," their leader said. "Our tribe wronged you. But we offer atonement. Take one of us to replace your wife."
Surprised, he studied them more closely. All five were pretty--evidently the pick of the tribe.
"I have no quarrel with the women," he said. "Except that you did not protest the dishonoring of one of your kind. But I can not trust you and do not want you. Your men must die."
"It was our leader who was responsible," the woman replied. "Our men were bound to do Yod's bidding, or to die cruelly. Kill Yod and you have vengeance."
"I will kill him last," Neq said in fury. "He must suffer as he has made me suffer, and even then it will not be enough. Neqa was worth more than your entire tribe."
She seemed nonplussed for a moment, but made a decision. "We have brought him to you," she said. She gestured, and the other four approached the wagon.