Authors: Piers Anthony
"I can't sleep, waiting for them to come!"
"Then I'll sleep while you keep watch," he said, heading back to the vehicle.
He hauled the men away from the side and left them near the yellow birch as a reminder to approaching tribesmen. Then he checked the cab. "Where's my bracelet?"
She flushed. "I--" She poked her arm out of the sodden cloth. The bracelet was on it, far back because of the much smaller girth of her forearm, but there.
"You put it on!" he said, amazed.
"There wasn't anything else to do with it, when you jumped out," she said defensively.
"All right, Neqa. Sing out if you see anything."
"I'll give it back!" she said. "I didn't mean--"
"You meant. Let it stay. It's never been on a woman before."
"But I still can't--"
"Do you think _I_ can? But I'd like to. Maybe after a few days." Oddly, he wasn't sweating, though of course he was completely wet. She was on the defensive now, not he.
"Yes," she said. "That would be nice."
"I'll squeeze it tight for you." He took her limp arm, slid the band down to her wrist, and applied his thumbs to the heavy metal ends. The gold gave way, and slowly the bracelet constricted to match her size.
"Euphemism makes it so much easier," she murmured. "Thank you." She was still shivering, though it was warm in the cab. She was afraid, all right--of outlaw attack, of the meaning of a man's band on her arm, of indecision. She needed protecting.
"I never was kissed before..." she said, as though nothing had happened in the interim.
Had he done that? Suddenly he felt as though a sword had grazed his scalp, and he was weak with reaction.
Neq lay in the back of the truck and slept, ignoring the continuing drizzle. He was a warrior; he could sleep anywhere, regardless of the weather. Miss Smith--Neqa pro tem--needed the shelter of the cab.
He dreamed. He had treated the transfer of his bracelet lightly, but it was fundamental. For the first time a woman had accepted it, and they were married, however tenuously. The rest would surely follow. That was his dream, and all of it: a lovely woman bearing his bracelet, loving him.
He woke immediately, sword ready. She was right: there were men approaching the truck. In the face of his warning there could only be one reason, and no mercy.
Silently he dropped from the back and flattened himself against the side. He identified the marauders by their sounds: they were clumsy stalkers. Six, seven, eight or more.
It was dusk--bright in the sky yet, but dark under the trees. An advantage for him, for he could strike anywhere, while they had to watch for each other.
Neq wasted no time. He ran noiselessly at the nearest, a sworder. The man was dead before he realized the fight had started. Neq took his place and stalked the truck with the others. Nothing showed in the cab. Good--Neqa was staying down.
"See anything?" a clubber whispered as they converged. "That guy is dangerous."
It was the man Neq had warned before. He walked up as though to whisper a reply--and ran his point into the man's neck so that he died without a cry.
But the group had converged too much for further secrecy. "That's him!" someone cried.
Then Neq was lashing out, dancing here and there, cutting down whatever he could reach and jumping away in a fury of swordsmanship. Six men hemmed him in--two sworders, two clubbers, a staffer and a dagger. It was the staffer he was most cautious about, for that weapon could interfere with his action while the others closed in. He retreated toward the truck.
Two more men ran out of the forest and climbed on the truck. "Neqa--defend yourself!" Neq cried. Beset as he was, he could not go to her himself.
One man yanked open the door. "A woman!"
He reached in, then fell back, grunting. Neq knew she had used the knife. In the cramped space of the cab, it would be more effective than a sword.
The cab door swung closed, and the second man backed away from it, joining the main force. Seven warriors remained to the tribe, and now they knew the limits of their opposition. The element of surprise was gone. Neq had hoped to do more damage before it came to this. Had it been down to three or four functional enemies, in the near-dark, he could have brought them down. But seven threw the balance against him unless they were extraordinarily clumsy or unlucky. He could dodge and run, but he couldn't fight them long without getting hurt himself, and ultimately killed.
Then the motor of the truck started. It roared, and the blinding headlights came on. She was going to try to drive it away!
But the truck backed and turned, its rear wheels spewing up gouts of wet earth. The lights speared toward him. The motor roared again, like some carnivorous animal at bay, and the vehicle bounced toward the group of men.
She wasn't going to stop! Neq threw himself to the side, out of the path of the great rubber tires. Mud and sand sprayed at him.
Not all the outlaws were as quick to realize the danger. They hadn't ridden this machine for three days, and didn't respect its potential. They stared, confused.
The front bumper caught two, not striking them hard enough to kill at this slow speed, but knocking them down. One screamed horribly as the wheel went over him. The other scrambled to safety, only getting clipped on the foot.
In the confusion Neq clove a sworder across the face, and one more was down. Two more, counting the one under the wheel. He retreated again, but did not go far from the truck.
The huge machine crashed into a tree, shattering a headlight. The wheels spun, digging holes. The gears growled. Then it backed, lifting out of its own trench in one mighty contortion.
Neq ran to it and jumped on the back. A clubber, catching on, tried to follow him. A backhand slash dispatched that one.
Back across the road they went, slowing in the deepening mud, and the remaining outlaws scattered. The single headlight caught one; the gears howled again, and the truck jumped forward toward that man. He fled to the side, waving his two sticks. The bright beam followed him.
Neq had not until that moment appreciated the fact that the truck was a weapon. A terrible one, for no man could stand against it, even though its footing was treacherous in this rain. Miss Smith--Neqa--was making it a living, ravening monster, spreading terror and carnage within its limited domain.
Back and forth the one-eyed creature went, hurling mud behind, lurching at any moving thing its light caught, bumping over the bodies in the road. One man was buried face-down in that dark pudding of mud, only his legs clear. To and fro endlessly, as though hungry for more.
And the enemy was gone. Five of the tribe's number were dead, and Neq knew that others were wounded, the rest intimidated. The battle was won.
The truck stopped. The motor died, the headlight went off. Neq climbed down and went around to the cab.
"Is that you, Neq?" she called. He saw the small glint of her blade in the lingering light of the dashboard.
"Me." He climbed in.
"Oh God!" And she was sobbing like any jilted nomad girl. Neq put his arms about her and pulled her across the seat to his chest, and she clung to him in her sudden misery of relief.
"I was so afraid they'd attack the tires!" she said. "No, they only attacked me."
"Oh!" she cried, beginning to laugh. It was stupidly funny, somehow.
She had his bracelet, she was in his arms, she was overflowing with reaction and need... but that was as far as it went. This was not the time.
The following day he sang again, as the sun same down and steamed the forest floor into solidity. He pretended to sing to his weapon, but it was really to her, and she knew it.
I know my love by her way of walking
And I know my love by her way of talking
And I know my love by her suit of blue--
But if my love leaves me, what will I do?
"You sing very well," she said, reddening a bit. "I know it. But it isn't all real. When I sing of battle, I know what it means. But love--those are words I don't understand."
"How do you know?" It was as though she were afraid to ask, but was fascinated anyway.
He looked at his bare wrist. "I never gave my--" She held up her own wrist with the heavy gold bracelet clasped about it. "You gave. I accepted. Is that love?" "I don't know." But he was breathing jerkily. "Neq, I don't know either," she admitted. "I don't feel different--I mean I'm still me--but the gold seems to burn, to lead me along, I don't know where. But I want to know. I want to give--everything. I'm trying to. But I'm old, and crazy, and afraid. Afraid I have nothing to give."
"You're beautiful, and warm, and brave. That business with the truck--"
"I hate that! Being a killer, I mean. But I had to do it. I was afraid for you."
"That must be love."
"I like the sound of that. But I know better, Neq. I could hate you and still need you. If anything happens to you, I have no way home."
That was the wonder of it: she was as afraid of him as he was of her. She fought rather than see him hurt--yet she could not come to him in peace. She had to impose practical reasons to justify what needed no justification. As he did, too. "Show me your breast," he said.
"What?" She was not shocked, only uncomprehending.
"Your knife. Your--when you put away your knife, you--"
"I don't understand." But she did.
"Show me your breast."
Slowly, flushing furiously, she unwrapped her shoulder, exposing her right breast.
"It is nineteen," he said. "It excites me. A breast like that--it can't be old, or crazy, or afraid, or have nothing to give. It has to be loved."
She looked at herself. "You make me feel wanton."
"I will sing to your breast," he said.
She blushed again, and her breast blushed too, but she did not cover herself. "Where do you leam these songs?"
"They go around. Some say they come from before the Blast, but I don't believe that." Yet he did believe it as much as he disbelieved it, for so many of the words made no sense in the nomad context.
"The books are that old. The songs might be." Her flush was fading at last.
He sang, contemplating her breast:
Black, black, black is the color
of my true love's hair.
Her lips are something rosy fair.
The prettiest face and the neatest hands
I love the ground on where she stands.
"Does it?" She looked hopeful.
"No. I'd like it to fit." After a pause he added: "Neqa."
She couldn't seem to stop blushing. "You make me all confused when you say that. Neqa."
"Because of the bracelet."
"I know. I'm your wife as long as I wear it. But it isn't real."
"Maybe it will be." If only it were that simple!
"You nomads--you just pass the bracelet and that's it. Instant love, for an hour or a lifetime. I don't understand it."
"But you were a nomad once."
"No. I was a wild girl. No family. The crazies took me in, trained me, made me like them, outside. They do that with anyone who needs it. I never was part of the nomad society."
"Maybe that's why you don't understand the bracelet."
"Yes. What about you?"
"I understand it. I just can't do it."
"Maybe that's the trouble with us. You're too gentle and I'm too timid." She laughed nervously. "That's funny, after we killed all those men. Gentle and timid!"
"We could hold each other tonight. It might help."
"What if the outlaws come back?"
He sighed. "I'll stand watch."
"You watched last night. I should do it this time."
She laughed again, more easily, so that her breast moved pleasantly. "So matter of fact! What if I said 'take me in your arms, crush me, make love to me!'?"
He considered the prospect. "I could try. If you said it before I got too nervous."
"I can't say it. Even though I want to."
"You want to do it--but you can't ask me?"
"I can't answer that." This time she forgot to blush.
"I want to do it," she said seriously. "But I can't just start. Not unless you say. And even then--"
"It is funny, you know. We know what we want, we know how each feels, but we can't act. We can even speak about speaking, but we can't speak."
"Maybe tomorrow," he said.
"Maybe tomorrow." And the look of longing she gave him as she put away her breast made his heart pause and jump.
Tomorrow was another clear day, and the ruts were hardened, and there seemed to be the first whiff of something from the corpses around the truck, and so they moved out. Nature compensated for the day's delay by providing an excellent route.
That night Neqa joined him in a double sleeping bag in the back of the truck and pressed her breast against him, but she did not ask and he did not do. They both were frustrated, and they talked about it, and they agreed the whole thing was ridiculous, but that was all.
They had to keep alert against possible marauders, so they took turns sleeping even though together, and while she slept he tried to touch her breast with his hand but didn't... but it was against his hand when he woke after her turn awake.
The next night they slept together naked, and he ran his hands over both her fine breasts and her firm buttocks, and she cried when she could not respond, and that was all.
The night after that he sang to her and kissed her, and she ran her hands over his torso and did not avoid what she had avoided before, huge as it was, and she pressed against him and he tried... but she cried out with a pain that might have been physical and might have been emotional, and he stopped, chastened, and she cried quietly for some time.
Meanwhile, they were making much faster progress toward the supplier. Their union unconsummated, they pulled up to a hostel near what Neq recognized with shock as the mountain: the place of nomad suicide. Gaunt rusty girders projected from it, hiding the summit; he knew that no man who had passed that barrier had ever returned... until recently.
Yet Tyl of Two Weapons and the Master had laid siege to this bastion, for there had been living men within it. They had gutted it, and now it was truly dead.