Authors: Piers Anthony
Jones almost smiled, but Neq shrugged as though it wasn't that important to him. If they didn't get there, they didn't get there. The notion of traveling with a handsome woman, even a crazy, had its subtle but developing appeal. This was business, after all; his private problem could not be permitted to interfere. "All right."
"All right?" She looked surprised.
"Put on some dirt and get your truck and we'll go."
She looked dazedly at Jones. "All right?"
Dr. Jones sighed. "This is against my better judgment. But if both of you are willing--"
The change in blonde Miss Smith was amazing. She had unbound her hair to wear it loose and long in nomad fashion, and she had the one-piece wraparound of the available. Gone was the crisp office manner: she spoke only when addressed, knowing her place in the presence of a warrior. Had Neq not known her origin, he would have been fooled. Of course his close experience with women was meager.
She, however, had to drive the truck. Neq had seen the crazy vehicles on occasion, but had never actually been inside one before. The handling of such machinery was not his forte, obviously. So he rode beside her in the cab, sword clasped between his knees, and clung to the seat as the wheels bumped over the ruts. The velocity of the thing was appalling. He kept expecting it to start panting and slow to a walk, for no one could run indefinitely! He had been told a truck could cover in one hour a distance equivalent to a full day's march, if it had a good track, and now he believed it.
The road was no pleasure. What suited for foot traveling became hazardous for wheels, particularly at this speed, and he was privately terrified. Now he understood why the crazies had always been so fussy about the maintenance of their trails, cutting back the brush and removing boulders. Such natural obstacles were like swinging clubs to the zooming vehicle. Neq refused to show it, of course, but his hands were clammy on the sword and his muscles stiff from tension.
But in time he became acclimatized, and watched Miss Smith's motions. She controlled the truck by turning a wheel around: when she pushed the top of it north, the truck swung north. When she wanted to stop she pushed a metal pedal into the floor. Driving was not so difficult after all!
All day they drove, stopping only to let Neq be sick from the unaccustomed motion, and to refuel. The first was mortifying, but Miss Smith pretended not to notice and in time his gut became resigned. The second was just a matter of pouring funny smelling liquid she called gasoline into the motortank from one of the large metal drums carried in the back. "Why don't you just pipe it in from the drums?" he asked, and she admitted she didn't know.
"These trucks were designed and probably built by the Ancients," she said. "They did a number of inexplicable things--like making a gas tank far too small for a day's driving. Maybe they liked pouring gas from cans."
Neq laughed. "That's something! To the crazies, the Ancients are crazy!"
She smiled, not taking offense. "Sanity seems to be inversely proportional to civilization."
Inverse proportion: he knew what that meant, for he had been drilled like the others in the empire training camp. They had used numbers to assess combat ranking:
the smaller the number, the higher the warrior stood.
They drove on, until they had to stop to do patchwork on the road. A gully had formed, the result of some cloudburst, and made a tumble of boulders of the roadbed. Here Neq felt useful, for Miss Smith could not have budged all those rocks or shoveled enough sand into place to make the passage.
Despite these delays, Neq estimated that they had come a good five days march by dusk.
"How much do you normally march?" she inquired in response to his remark.
"Thirty miles, alone. More if I'm in a hurry. Twenty, with a tribe."
"So you make it a hundred and fifty miles today."
He worked it out, counting off fingers. He knew how to count and calculate, but this was a different problem than the type he normally encountered. "Yes."
"Speedometer says ninety-four," she said. "It must have seemed faster than it was. On a paved road it would have been double that."
"The truck keeps track of its own travels?" he asked, amazed. "Maybe it forgot to count the section between the tank-filling and the roadwork."
She laughed again. "Maybe! Machines aren't bright."
He had neither worked with nor talked with a woman this way before, and was surprised to realize that it wasn't difficult. "How far is this supplier?"
"About a thousand miles from the school, direct. Somewhat farther by these backwoods trails."
He figured again. "So we have about ten days of travel."
"Less than that. Some areas are better than others. Let me show you our route on the map. I think we've been through the worst already."
"No?" She paused with the map in her hand.
"The worst is what stopped your other trucks from returning."
"Oh." She was prettily pensive. "Well, we'll find out. The others didn't have an armed guard along."
She opened the map and pointed out lines and patches of color to him, but it was largely meaningless to Neq, who could not relate to the continental scope of it. "I can find the way back, once I've been there," he said.
"That's good enough." She studied the map a bit more, then put it away with a small sigh.
There were canned and even frozen goods. Miss Smith lit a little gas stove and heated beans and turnip greens and bacon, and she opened the little refrigerator and poured out milk. Neq had never had a woman do for him on a regular basis, and this was an intriguing experience. But of course she only looked like a woman; she was a crazy.
They slept in the truck--he in the back beside the gas drums, she curled in the cab. She seemed to feel there would be something wrqng if they both slept in the back, though there was far more room there and she had to know that no honorable nomad would disturb her slumber without prior transfer of the bracelet. She could not know, of course, that Neq had never had relations with any woman. The only girl he had been close to was his sister. In fact, had Miss Smith not been a crazy, he would have been extremely nervous. As it was, he was only moderately nervous, and relieved to sleep alone.
But in his dreams women were ubiquitous, and he was not bashful. In his dreams.
The second day of travel was uneventful, and they made almost two hundred miles. The novelty of riding in the truck palled, and he stared moodily into the rushing brush and covertly at Miss Smith's right breast, shaped under the cloth as she steered. She seemed less like a crazy, now.
He began to hum to his sword, and when she did not object he sang to it: the folk songs he had picked up from happy warriors like Sav the Staff, in the glad days of the empire's nascence.
Oh, the sons of the Prophet were hardy and bold And quite unaccustomed to fear. But the bravest of all was a man so I'm told Named Abdullah Bulbul Ameer.
The references were meaningless, as were the names, but the melody always brought pleasure to him and he responded to the warrior mood of such songs. From time to time he was tempted to change the words a bit, adapting to the things he knew, but that forfeited authenticity. "Oh, the warriors of empire were hardy and bold..." No--songs were inviolate, lest they lose their magic.
After a time he realized with a shock that she was singing with him, in feminine harmony, the way Nemi used to do. That jolted him back into silence. Miss Smith made no comment.
The third day they encountered a barricade. A tree had fallen across the road.
"That isn't natural." Neq said, alert for trouble. "See-- it has been felled, not blown. No nomad cuts a tree and leaves it."
She stopped the truck. In a moment men appeared-- unkempt outlaws of the type he had encountered before. "All right, you crazies--out!" the leader bawled.
"You stay here," Neq said. "This will be unpleasant for you. Maybe you'd better duck down so you can't see." He got out in one bound and lifted his weapon. "I am Neq the Sword," he announced.
This time no one recognized the name. "You think you're pretty smart, dressing like a man," a big clubber said. "But we know you're crazies. What's in your truck?"
Miss Smith had not followed his suggestion. Her pale face showed in the cab window. "Hey!" the leader cried. "This one's a lady-crazy!"
Neq advanced on his man. "You will not touch this truck. It is under my protection."
The man laughed harshly and swung his club. He died laughing.
Neq let him drop and moved to the next, a scarred dagger. At the same time he watched for bows, for outlaws were capable of anything. He would have to perform some deft maneuvers if arrows came at him. "Run," he suggested softly.
The dagger looked at the bleeding clubber corpse and ran. That was the thing about outlaws: they were easily frightened.
Neq charged the leader, another dagger. This man, at least, had some courage. He brought up his knives and sliced clumsily.
It was axiomatic that a good dagger would lose to a good sworder when the combat was serious. This man was not good, and Neq cut him down immediately.
No one else remained. "Scream if you see anything," he told Miss Smith. "I'm scouting the area." He had to be sure that all the teeth of the ambush had been drawn before he tackled the fallen tree.
She just sat there, her features stiff. He had known she would not like it. Crazies and women were similar in that respect, and she was both.
He located the outlaw camp. It was empty. The cowardly dagger had lost no time spreading the word. From the traces there had been at least two women and four men. Well, now it was two women and two men--and he doubted they'd attack any more trucks.
He went back. "It's clear," he told Miss Smith. "Let's haul this trunk out of our way."
She seemed to wake, then. He surveyed the tree and decided it was too much for him to move without cutting in half. He made ready to hack at it with his sword, but Miss Smith called to him. "There is an easier way."
She brought out a rope and hitched it to the base of the tree trunk. Then she looped the other end into the front bumper of the truck. Then she started the motor and backed the vehicle away slowly until the tree was dragged out lengthwise along the road. Neq gaped with a certain confused respect.
She brought a peavy from the back. He limbed the tree and used the tool to roll the main mass clear of their path. This was still heavy work, but far more efficient than his original notion.
He wound the rope and put the peavy away. They got back into the cab. "Let's move," he said gruffly.
She drove mechanically, not looking at him.
"You surprised me," he said after a while. "I never thought of using the truck like that."
She didn't answer. He glanced at her, and saw her lips thin and almost white, her eyes squinting though the light was not strong.
"I know you crazies don't like violence," he said defensively. "But I warned you not to look. They would have killed us if I hadn't wiped them out first. They didn't set that ambush just to say hello."
"It isn't that."
"If we hit any more bands like that, it'll be the same. That's why your trucks aren't coming back. You crazies don't fight. You think if you're nice to everyone, no one will hurt you. Maybe once that was true. But these outlaws just laugh."
"Well, that's the way it is. I'm just doing the job I promised. Getting the truck through." Still he felt awkward. "I was sick myself, the first time I fought a man and wounded him. But you get used to it. Better than getting hit yourself."
She drove for a while in silence. Then she braked the truck. "I want to show you something," she said, her face softening.
They got out under the shade of spreading oak trees. She stood before him, breathing rapidly, her yellow hair highlighted momentarily by a stray beam of sunshine. She was as pretty a girl as he had seen, in that pose. "Come at me."
Neq was abruptly nervous. "I meant no offense to you. I only tried to explain. I have never attacked a woman."
"Pretend you're an outlaw about to ravish me. What would you do?"
"I would never--"
"You're shy, aren't you," she said.
It was like a blade sliding wickedly through his defense. Neq stood stricken.
Miss Smith shook her hand--and there was a knife in it. No lady's vegetable parer--this was a full-length warrior's dagger, and her grip on it was neither diffident nor clumsily tight. There was a way of holding that was a sure signal of circle readiness, and this was her way.
Instantly Neq's sword was in his hand, his eye on the other weapon, his weight balanced. One never ignored a blade held like that!
But Miss Smith did not attack. She unwrapped her wraparound, revealing one firm fresh breast, and tucked the knife into a flat holster under her arm. "I just wanted you to understand," she said.
"I would never have struck you," he said, numbed by both her weapon-readiness and the glimpse of her torso. But it sounded ridiculous, for there he stood with sword ready. He sheathed it quickly.
"Of course not. I checked your file, once I got your name straight. You were a tribal chieftain, but you never took a woman. What I meant was: understand about me. That I was wild once. I'm not really a crazy. Not when it counts."
"You--used the dagger?"
"When I saw you fighting those brutes--the blood--it was as though a dozen years had peeled away, and I was the gamin again. I found the knife in my hand, there in the cab."
"Twelve years! You fought as a small child?" Her mouth quirked. "How old do you think I am?"
"Nineteen." It was an unfortunate fact that most married women lost their beauty early. At fifteen they were highly desirable; ten years later they were faded. The unmarried lacked even that initial freshness. Miss Smith was obviously not in the first bloom, but still pretty enough.
"I am twenty-eight, according to Dr. Jones' best estimate. No one knows for sure, since I had no family."