Authors: Piers Anthony
Neq looked at this curiously. There was a man inside, huddled within a filthy blanket. Metal cups lay on the wire floor, evidently for his eating, and ordure had cumulated underneath. Apparently they did not release him even for natural functions. He had room to move about some, making the cage rock and swing, which no doubt provided much of the tribe's "amusement." By the look and smell of it, he had been there some weeks.
"We caught this crazy using our hostel," Yod said. "He claimed to be a surgeon, so we're giving him a chance to carve his way out. We don't like fakes." He glanced at Neq.
"A surgeon?" Neqa asked. "We haven't--" She stopped, remembering her guise as a nomad woman. But it told Neq that this man was not a crazy, for she would have known of him. Perhaps he deserved his punishment.
The prisoner looked dully at them. He was a small man with graying hair, very old by nomad definition.
"He says he's literate!" Yod said, laughing. "Show our guests your writing, Dick." In an aside to Neq: "All crazies have funny names."
The man reached around and found a tattered piece of cardboard, probably salvaged from one of the rifled crates the trucks had carried. He held this up. There were lines on it that did resemble the crazy writing of Neqa's recent report.
"Mean anything to you?" Yod asked Neq.
"Because you can't read--or he can't write?"
"I can't read. I don't know about him. Maybe he can't write either."
"Maybe. We could use a literate man. Some crazy books we found, don't know what's in 'em. Maybe something good."
"Why not test them on the crazy in the cage?" Neq asked.
"He lied about being a surgeon. We brought him a wounded man and gave him a dagger and he wouldn't operate. Said it wasn't clean, or something. Lot of excuses. So he'd lie about the books, too. He could tell us anything--and how could we know the difference?"
Neq shrugged. "I can't help you." He knew Neqa could, but he had no intention of giving her away.
"You're still Neq the Sword?"
"I always was."
"Prove it and you can join my tribe. We'll have to take your girl away, of course, but you'll get your turn at her."
"The man who touches her is dead," Neq said, putting his hand to his sword.
Yod laughed. "Well spoken. You have your part down well--and you shall have your chance to enforce it. Here is the circle." He glanced around and made a sweeping signal with his hand. Ready for this summons, the men of the tribe gathered.
In the temporary confusion, Neqa touched his hand. "That man in the cage--he is literate," she murmured. "He's from Helicon--a survivor. He may not be their surgeon--they had the best surgeon in all the crazy demesnes--but he's worth questioning."
Neq considered. If there were Helicon survivors.... "When I fight, you cut him down. I'll put on a show to distract them. You take him to the truck and get out. Use your knife; this bunch is rough. I'll find you later."
"But how will you--"
"I can handle myself. I want you out of here before it starts." He brought her to him suddenly and kissed her. Stolen this fleetingly, the kiss was very sweet. "I love you."
"I love you," she repeated. "Neq! I can say it now! I mean it! _I_ love you!"
"Touching," Yod said, breaking it up. "Here is your first match, crazy."
Neq let her go and faced the circle. A large clubber was there flexing his muscles. Most clubbers were large, because of the weight of the weapon; by the same token, most were clumsy. Still, no one could ignore the smashing metal, that could bash sword and torso right out of the circle in one sweep. Bog the Club had been astonishing....
Suddenly, incongruously, Neq remembered how Bog had been balked. Once by Sol of All Weapons, the greatest warrior of all time; once by the Weaponless, who had broken his neck and killed him by a leaping kick. But once between those two honest contests, by the man Neq had not been able to remember before. The Rope! Sos the Rope--the man Miss Smith had remembered. He had looped the cord about the club, surprising Bog (who was not bright) and disarming him. Then the man had talked Bog into joining forces for doubles combat. The story of that audacity was still going the rounds. The Rope had not been nearly the man Bog was, but he had known how to use his luck. With Bog on his side, he had torn up several regular doubles teams. Bog plus a two-year child would have been a winning team! The Rope had finally overrated himself so far as to challenge Sol himself, and Sol had sent him to the mountain.
He would have to tell Neqa that, when they were out of this. And ask her whether by any chance her Sos had carried a little bird on his shoulder. Not that any of it was important today.
"That's Nam the Club," Yod said. "He says he's going to diddle your crazy blonde right after he diddles you. Should be no threat at all to--the fourth sword of a hundred?"
Neq gave Neqa a parting squeeze on the arm and urged her toward the caged man. The cage was beyond the immediate circle of spectators, partially concealed by the tree it hung from. If all of them faced toward the circle, and if there were enough noise, she would be able to cut open the cage and free the surgeon. Neq would have to arrange his fights--he knew they would keep sending men against him until they tired of this sport--to attract the complete attention of the outlaws. All of them.
She moved away, and he walked slowly toward the painted circle, drawing his sword. He stepped inside without hesitation.
Nam roared and charged. Neq ducked sidewise, staying within the ring. The clubber, meeting no resistance, stumbled on out.
"One down," Neq said. "Not much of a diddler, I'd say--either kind." He wanted to insult both clubber and tribe, to make them angry and eager to see the stranger get beaten. He wanted nobody's attention to wander.
Nam roared again, and charged back into the circle. This was another direct proof of his outlaw status, for no true warrior would re-enter the circle after being thus ushered out of it. To leave the circle during combat was to lose the battle--by definition. That was one of the ways the circle code avoided unnecessary bloodshed.
Neq did not wish to appear too apt with his blade too soon. If they recognized his true skill immediately, the game would be over, for they would know that he was the man he claimed to be, and that none of them could hope to match him. Yod would play fair only so long as he was certain of winning.
So Neq sparred with the clubber, ducking his clumsy blows, pinking him harmlessly, dancing him about in the circle. Meanwhile Neqa was edging toward the cage, not facing it but making covert progress.
When it seemed to him that interest was beginning to' flag, Neq skewered Nam with a seemingly inept thrust, very like the one he had made against Hig the Stick at the outset of his career as a warrior. It looked like a lucky stab by a novice sworder--as intended.
"So you can fight," Yod remarked. "But not, I think, quite up to the measure of your name. Tif!"
A sworder stepped toward the circle as men dragged the bleeding, moaning clubber way. Neq could tell at a glance that Tif was a superior sworder. The ante had been raised. The outlaws watched with greater anticipation.
Neqa was now close to the cage.
It required less art to fence with Tif, for the man was quick and sure with his blade, making defensive measures mandatory, not optional. But he was no threat to Neq. They jockeyed around, blade meeting blade clangingly, keeping the tribe absorbed. Every nomad liked a good show, even an outlaw.
Then Tif drew back. "He's playing with me," Tif called to Yod. "He's a master. I can't touch--"
Neq put a red mouth across Tif's throat and the man spouted his life's blood and fell. But it was too late. The "secret" had been exposed.
Neqa was working at the cage.
"So you are Neq the Sword!" Yod exclaimed. "We can't trust you, then. You'd want the tribe for yourself."
"I disbanded a tribe ten times this size!" Neq said scornfully. "This is nothing to me, and you are nothing. But you called me a crazy--so fight me for your tribe!" That might be an easy way out: take over the tribe, reconstitute it along honest nomad lines, bring all the trucks back to Dr. Jones.
Yod made an obscene gesture. "I'm not that kind of a fool. We'll have to shoot you."
If they brought out the bows again, Neq would have little chance. "I'll take on any two of you pitiful cowards in the circle!" he cried.
Yod was quick to accept the opportunity to save some face. It was always better for a leader to dispose of his competition honorably, if at all feasible. Otherwise other leaders would arise quickly to challenge him, suspecting his weakness.
"Jut! Mip!" Yod shouted.
A dagger and a staffer came up, but not with the same eagerness the first two warriors had shown. Neq knew why: they were aware that one of them would likely die, even if the other finished off the challenger. Two men could generally defeat one--but the one could generally pick his man and take him out, if life were not the supreme object. Also, the tribe was beginning to mull the possibility of new leadership. If Neq were a better sworder than Yod, he might improve the lot of the tribe. So a certain discretion in loyalties was developing. As Yod was surely aware.
This was a smart combination. The staff would block Neq's sword and defend the pair of them, while the dagger would slice out from under that cover with either hand.
But Neq, like all warriors of the former empire, had been well trained in doubles combat. His reflexes sifted through automatically and aligned on "partner incapacitated; staff and dagger opposed." Except that he had no wounded partner to protect. That made it easier.
Yes, he owed a debt now to that Sos he had known! The interminable practice against all doubles combinations had seemed a'waste of effort, for singles combat was the normal rule. But Sos had said that a top warrior had to be prepared for every eventuality. How right he had been!
As he engaged the pair, he saw that Neqa was still working at the cage. She could not devote her full attention to it, because she had to appear innocent. But she would shortly have the prisoner free.
Neq made the battle look good. He concealed none of his skill now. He kept the dagger at bay with a steadily flashing blade, and beat the staffer back by nipping at his hands and slamming against the staff itself. The pair had not fought like this often; they got in each other's way at crucial moments. A duo could be less effective than either warrior singly, if they were not properly coordinated. He could take them; it was only a matter of time. And they knew it; they were desperate, but had no way out.
Meanwhile, the tribe was watching, pondering loyalties, gravitating toward the strongest candidate for leadership.
"The crazy's escaping!" Yod cried.
Heads whipped about, Neqa and Dick the Surgeon were running away from the open cage.
Neq's ploy had almost worked. But that one small hitch--the random glance back of one spectator, perhaps only because a fly was bothering him--or because he was desperate himself to break up a pattern that did not favor him--had undone it all.
Now there would be hell to pay.
"After them!" Yod screamed. "Don't kill the girl!"
Men lurched to their feet, drawing their assorted weapons. Now they had to follow the leader they knew, for there was an immediate crisis. Had Neqa and the cage-man escaped cleanly while Neq fought, so that it was obvious that there was no chance to recapture them, then the leadership of Yod the Sword would have been open to serious question. Then Neq might have killed him quickly, and assumed command of the tribe. All that had been nullified by this one bad break.
Neq leaped from the circle and charged the chief. He still had a chance: he could take Yod hostage and buy time, and perhaps bargain for his own release and that of the other two. Or kill Yod outright, leaving the tribe no choice.
But Yod was too canny for that maneuver. Yod met him with drawn sword, yelling constantly to his men, stiffening their wavering loyalty.
Suddenly Neq was surrounded again. The warriors did not approach the battling sworders too closely, for he could still catch Yod in a desperation lunge; but that circle of weapons did prevent his escape. There were drawn bows--but again, he and Yod were moving so swiftly and the pack of other men was so great that the archers dared not fire until forced. "The gun!" Yod yelled.
Then Neq despaired. He knew what a gun was. Tyl's tribe had returned from the mountain with guns and grenades and demonstrated them on targets. Guns had been employed against the underworld, and without them the assault would have been impossible. They were metal tubes that expelled metal fragments with great speed and force. The effect was similar to that of an arrow--but the gun could shoot farther and quicker, and it required far less skill to use. A cripple could kill a master sworder, with a gun.
Tyl had later decided that guns were inimical to the nomad mode of existence, and had called all such weapons in and hidden them. But he lacked authority over the complete empire, and some few had been lost....
If Yod's tribe had a gun, Neqa and the surgeon would not escape. A gun could penetrate the metal of a truck.
Neq made his desperation lunge, breaking through Yod's guard and wounding him in the thigh. But as Neq recovered his stroke there was a blast of noise. Something struck his own thigh, and not an arrow.
The gun had been fired at him.
First he was relieved: they were not using it on Neqa!
Then he realized that it meant his own doom. The gun could kill him, and he would never get back to Neqa, and she would have to make the return journey alone. Unless the surgeon could protect her. But that man had not even been able to protect himself from being caged!
"Yield!" Yod panted. "Yield--or we shoot you down now!"
There seemed to be no choice. This was not a bluff. They might kill him anyway if he yielded--but they certainly had the means to do so if he did not. If Neqa was going to get away at all, she had had time enough; he could not help her by fighting longer.