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Authors: Avram Davidson

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“What game are we after, by the way,” Lomar asked. They were heading downhill and away from the sea, the camp above them sinking out of sight behind its dark walls. The snow had mostly melted, and once again the black color predominated. Black — the damp leaves underfoot, black — the boles of the naked trees, black — the moss growing thickly on them and on the black rocks.

“What we find is what we’re after. Leapers, tree climbers, ant pigs, any of them are fit to eat, little though they may appeal to your Station-trained palate, boy. Daybats, maybe. Rips — I’d never eat a rip, though, believe me, there are those around who have, and glad to get them…. Rork?” He named the name hovering between them. “Not now; in Cold Time. They don’t exactly hibernate, but almost. Slow, sluggish, weak, you know. I’ve known some of the young bucks to go out in Cold Time and drag back a young rork. Only a very, very young one, though the way they beat their chests about it, you’d think it was a great feat.

“The Tame Tocks, as you probably know, prize the claws for charms. And both they and the Wild men have this notion that the toes, if cooked, are good for
ambition,
as the Tame ones call it — the Wild ones are franker, they call it
rut.
If you’ve ever seen the things close up, it’s not too hard to imagine why. Personally, I don’t care one way or the other, but sometimes the creatures aren’t quite dead when they drag them in; they butcher them alive, torture them. … I don’t like to see that….”

The ground was beginning to grow more level, the trees were larger. The nuts they had dropped lay all around and underfoot, inedible for men, and the arboreal creatures who lived on them had to descend to the ground to get them.

“They’re a tough bunch of bumboes, your clan-kinsmen,” Lomar said.

Old Guns nodded, shrugged. “Circumstances have made them so. You don’t really know what their lives are like, you don’t get a picture of it from my house. I live like a king. The old Mister himself doesn’t eat better or sleep as warm and dry as we do. So you can imagine how the others live. And Mallardy is one of the richer clans, too! Every bite of food has to be wrestled out of this thin, rocky soil, and out of the sea … and the sea isn’t exactly teeming, either. I’d say that a good half of them have never in their lives known what it is not to be hungry, have never once had a full belly. Think how it was in the early days, before they’d adapted, gotten acclimated — when redweed had become just a weed again and had no market value because there was no market. An empty sky over their heads and just the dirt beneath their feet. Waiting, waiting, waiting, for help that never came. Virtue must have died. It was dog eat dog, and root, hog, or die.

“So they fought like dogs and they rooted like hogs. And you see their children.”

Lomar nodded. The air suddenly seemed colder. He shivered. “And so they hate us,” he said, voice low.

“You have no idea how they hate you.
You,
I say. Not,
us.
Oh, Flinders hates me. But Flinders hates everyone. There is the ultimate Wild man for you, the Mister Flinders. But the others have accepted me. I’ve even been sounded out about joining them when they raid North.”

Lomar glanced at his match, couldn’t tell if it was still alive or not, shook it vigorously till it glowed up and threw sparks. He tried to form a map in his mind of the territories of the clans from the bits of information gotten at the haphazard and only vaguely remembered. Hannit and Haggar and Crame. Dominis, Nimmai, Boylston, Owelly. … He ran out of names, could form no picture.

“North? Whose camp lies north of here?” he asked.

Old Guns slowly blew out his breath, watched it misting in the morning air. “Yours does,” he said, at last. “The Station.”

• • •

The game bag on the way back contained a tree climber and two leapers. They had given the offals to a scrannel, ragged hag who had appeared from nowhere; Lomar, insomuch as he thought of it at all, thought that she might well intend to eat them all raw.

For perhaps the hundredth time he asked, “But you can’t be serious?”

His host shrugged. “Have it your own way, then,” he muttered.

“No — I mean,
they
can’t be serious! …
can
they? It’s madness — ”

Old Guns sighed and waggled his head. “Of course it is. Isn’t all war madness? And the Wild men are all at least a little mad and some of them, Floras Flinders, for example, are more than a little mad. No so long ago he and Haggar raided into Nimmai’s Camp. They were repulsed. He had at least some sort of a claim against Nimmai, but then he raided Owelly, and he had no claim at all against Owelly. What was his reason? He was hungry. Owelly had food and Flinders didn’t.
Thou shalt want ere I shall want.
Isn’t that a sort of insanity?”

The grievances of the Wild Tocks against the Guild were deep and bitter and old. The Guild had committed no new, specific act to antagonize them lately — but lately they had found a focus for their discontent in Flinders. The Guild was rich, they were poor. How had the Guild become rich? By taking redwing cheap and selling it dear. Therefore the riches of the Guild rightfully belonged to the Tocks. The Guild Station had food, it had clothing. Why should others go naked, cold, unshod? It had weapons, too.

It had guns.

“But … but … listen. They think of those weapons as booty to plunder for. Don’t they realize that they are capable of being used against them, as well as by them?”

Ran Lomar, Old Guns said, was arguing rationally. By this time he should have learned that men are not always moved to act rationally. Had Lomar, with all his rational argumente, been able to persuade any of the Guildsmen? No, not one. And if sophisticated, educated, far-traveled and civilized folk could not be swayed by logic and sense, then what was to be expected from those who had lived for generations on the thin edge of barbarism? going nowhere, learning nothing, minds dulled by parochialism, hunger, bitterness, and a form of pride so perverted that it scarcely deserved the name.

A solitary daybat broke the solitude of the sky. Quickly, automatically, Old Guns glanced at it, fingers moving for his matchlock. Then his glance dropped away, and his fingers. The swooping, fluttering, erratic flight made it a bad target. The mournful cry of the creature fell upon their ears, distant and thin. Then it vanished.

“You’ve heard or read about a telescope, boy? An archaic form of farseer? If you looked through the right end — it was only fitted for one eye — then, of course, small things seemed large. But if you looked through the opposite end, the wrong end, then even large things seemed small. Now — you and the Wild men are looking through opposite ends. You see the situation as a handful of Tocks against the teeming Galaxy. And they see it as thousands of Tocks against a handful of Guildsmen. Ah … Don’t they realize the numbers and the power of the world Outside? No. They don’t. How could they? None of them have ever been Outside. They’ve seen no more than the Station. Once every five years comes one single ship. You can talk to them till your teeth ache, as I’ve done, as I’ve done; it’s no use. Academically they may acknowledge that a few, a very few, other worlds may be inhabited besides this one and Old Earth.

“But they can’t conceive that they are inhabited any more thickly than this world is. The Q Ship is not a war ship, they know that much. They think its schedule is a sort of act of nature: It couldn’t return in less than five years any more than the sun can rise or set in less than its allotted time. So they figure: suppose they attack the Station. Conquer they must. The Q comes. Perhaps they conquer the Q. Even if they don’t, it would be years before it returns. By that time they are impregnable. Besides, do they not control all the redwing in the Universe? Guild will have to make terms…. That’s how it looks to them. That’s how it looks.”

They plodded along in silence. A thousand thoughts fleeted through Lomar’s mind. Should he leave now and warn the Station? No — impossible — the boat wouldn’t be back for weeks. A surprise attack might possibly succeed. Suddenly, sickeningly, he realized that it might very possibly succeed! And even if he should get up North in time, would he be believed? He knew that he would not, he could not, never in a million years convince any of them that such a danger existed. What, then? Make his own escape? Persuade Lindel and perhaps a few Tame Tocks — build a raft (his own past fantasies now return ing, more vigorous than before) — try and make a landfall on another continent or island?

Supposing, and it was not too healthy a supposition — this to succeed — what then? Live like the first generation of the forefathers of the Tocks, with the prospect of their children falling into a similar degeneration?

His thoughts went around and round, and the wind grew cold against his shoulders.

“When — ” His voice came out low and thick, and he struggled to clear his throat. “When do they plan this attack?”

“Oh,” said Old Guns, almost indifferently, “they have no plans. Not yet. It’s still just talk, just firestone talk. But it’s a talk that begins to grow louder. Maybe the main thing keeping it down — ” He stopped, frowned; shook his head. “ — so far, is that it is known to be Flinders’ idea. No one likes Flinders. No one trusts …” Again he stopped, his voice fading off, again he frowned.

He stopped. “Speak of the devil,” he muttered. “I could swear I heard Flinders’ voice — be quiet,” he said abruptly. Lomar, who had said nothing, continued to say nothing. They stood in their steps, listening. At first Lomar could hear nothing but the occasional slight
pit-pit-pit
of the again-falling snowflakes against the tree behind him. Then the wind changed. Then he heard voices. He could not tell how many, but above them on the changeable wind, now sharp, now gone, now fading, falling, rising — one voice: loud, loud, loud.

“It
is
Flinders. What’s he — Ranny! Remember, now! These ‘locks are exempt! Don’t load, don’t prime, certainly don’t fire, and if you want us all to live,
don’t even point!

Before Ran could reply he saw the band of men coming through the woods ahead of them. And, at the same moment, they were seen. Several of Flinders’ men dropped at once to the one-knee position, flipping out the supports for their ‘locks and blowing on their matches.

“Covered!” cried Flinders, his bristly face splitting into an unpleasant grin. “Ye’s be covered, says!”

“We know it,” Old Guns answered, coming on. “You know me, Mister. I use no tricks.”

The clan chief lifted his upper lip. “Says, ‘I use no tricks.’ Use any, an’ we puts bullets in ye. If ye doesn’t fear bullets — ” his whole mouth expressed his glee and his triumph, “ — then we has what’ll makes ye fear!” His men guffawed. “Strip! Come up. Come up.”

Flinders’ heir-son, an ungrizzled version of his unlovely sire, came forward. And with him, hands bound and feet hobbled, defiantly tossing back her long black hair, was Norna.

Old Guns groaned, whispered her name. “Sathy? Is she — is your mother — ? Child — ?”

It was sudden.

He had put out his arms toward his daughter, forgetting the matchlock lying flat on his shoulder. It slipped, he reached for it quickly, two guns roared, Norna screamed, Lomar cried out, men shouted, and Old Guns pitched forward and collapsed.

Flinders shouted, cursed. “A ransom gone!” he cried. “Oh, ye sluts’ gets, ye rorks’ eggs! What’ll he fetch, dead?” He kicked at the still-kneeling, openmouthed ‘locksmen, and they cringed and cowered. Norna screamed, ran forward, tripped on her hobbles, was saved from falling by Strip’s quick hand. And Lomar, unbelieving, incredulous, knelt awkwardly and tried to move the bleeding form of his host. But the Mister Flinders had been right.

Old Guns was dead.

Apparently, though, it was intended that he should fetch at least enough, dead, to justify taking the body along. At first a line of bright red on the trampled snow marked his trail. But it grew colder, colder, and presently the blood congealed. Norna wept and wailed as she was tugged along; and Lomar, tied and hobbled, too, trudged along, numbly behind her.

To right and to left a file of matchlockmen held them in guard as they marched on through the thin snow masking parts of the black-mossed landscape, their matches and their breath smoking in the cold grey air.

CHAPTER FOUR

By and by the Mister Flinders’ face began to assume its normal coloring — red and purple cheeks, yellow patches around the eyes, putty grey at the porous nose, the droop ing lips a lead-blue — and he rubbed the quills of his jowels with great satisfaction.

“Not a bad day’s jobby, Strip,” he said.

“No, Dad. We’s gots a pair more ‘lock, a hee!” snickered the heir-son.

“Piss,” said his dad, succinctly, waving his furry paws. “We’s gots more’n that, says. Looks — ” He began to count off. “Gots the pretty piecey there,” indicating Norna, and adding the warning, “None’s to plug her, hears? Jun Mallardy s’ll pay me a three pair o’ lock, besides pikes and hacks and powder and bullets — mm, and eats, too! — for her. So she be’s not to be plugged by any dirty egg of a rork.
Hears!
Jun’ll want she whole. Firsts. And what seconds, says? Why, seconds be’s the stiff one, there. Old woman Sathy s’ll gi’ alls in her house for her man, else he’s feeds the rorks. It be’s good cold, and he’s to keep till she do. So, seconds. And what’s thirds? Strip, says, what’s thirds?”

Strip gaped, unable to think what “thirds” might be.

“Why, ye leaper’s cod,” his father spat in disgust. “What’s in ye head? Boiled tata-meal? Thirds is the Guild turd, tripsing over his feets, there! Ah, hoy, what a ransom we s’ll gets for him, hey? Name it! Name it? Men — ?”

All the clansmen began speaking at once.

“Guns! Guns and gun-makins!”

“Bullets!”

“Sulphur!”

“Metal!”


Guild’s
guns!”

“Eats!”

The Mister Flinders nodded, grinned, his tiny, shrewd, gummy little eyes almost swallowed up in the yellow patches of skin, grinned and nodded. “All o’ thems,” he said, paused to hawk phlegm and spit. “All o’ thems, and more, says.”

His vassals could scarce conceive of this.
“More?”
they cried, astonished.

Their lord nodded again, rubbed his hands and scratched his arm-pit. “Thinks. How many times be’s a Guildsman catched for ransom? They thinks themselves, oh, hoy, so big, hey? Alls for them, and for us, whats? Piss and scrapins. Soft, they be’s, softer than a woman’s prettyplace. Squeeze, an’ they weeps. Well, the rorks’ eggs s’ll be squeezed for this one. And they s’ll pay. Oh …” His voice grew low and grim, “how they s’ll pay …”

Lomar, wincing at the tightness of his bonds, had his doubts that he and his freedom would be valued all that much. Many at the Station would be glad to have seen the last of him, no doubt. But he thought he might depend somewhat on the favor of Tan Carlo Harb, the Station Officer. And others, Lindel’s father, for example, would be well-disposed toward him. To be sure there was no precedent for ransoming a Guildsman kidnapped by Wild Tocks. But it was not likely to happen often. And if they failed (resolutely, he put out of his mind all thoughts of what his captors might do if the Guild Station failed to pay ransom) they would damage their own precious image at least as much as if they paid.

There was nothing that he could do about it now, anyway.

• • •

It was black night before they paused, their shelter being a cave in the now steadily rising hills, where a fire burned in welcome. Guards were there, and food. Little enough food, although the Mister Flinders saw that the prisoners drew an even share.

“He’s not to be stripped, nor her,” warned the chief. “Her, because Mallardy’s heir-son be’s not to like it. And I wants him on our side, hears? The old Mister’s sure to die soon. Gots gut, Jun. And the Guild’s egg’s not be stripped, either. They be’s puny and I doesn’t wants him sickening or dead.”

His solicitude extended even to seeing that their bonds were removed. He urged them to rub their wrists and ankles to restore circulation, and he kicked two men away from the firestone to make room for them. Guards were in the narrow passage between the cold and blackness outside and the great main cavern. No roof was visible in the darkness relieved only by the leaping flames. Now and then someone got up and relieved himself, noisily, or simply rolled over and went to sleep … usually more noisily.

At length the Mister Flinders belched, followed the casual custom of his crew, and prepared himself for rest. “Be’s no way out the back,” he said to Ran and Norna. “Looks, if you likes.” And in another moment his phlegmy snore joined the chorus. Ran’s last waking memory was of Norna sitting up, arms around her knees, hair falling over the sides of her tear-stained face, looking into the dying fire.

The fire revived in the morning, briefly. Stale-tasting melted snow was drunk from a dirty bowl, and for food everyone had a handful of dried … something. Ran did not care to speculate. Insofar as the foul-looking stuff had any taste at all, it tasted bad. The bladder brigade held its usual drill, and this time Ran, with a mental shrug, joined them; delicately (and uniquely) turning his back. The bonds were replaced, and then they were all off on march again.

His shoes were stout and his legs were strong, but even on his trip, with Rango (Rango! What would the Tame Tocks do, and what would be done to them, if there should be an attack upon the Station?) he had not been forced to such a pace. The double files did not falter for his stumbling. One man on each side grasped him with an arm that was all bone and sinew, and helped him to keep up. Norna matched them step for step, her eyes seldom leaving her father’s body, born along on a crude litter of poles and ropes, his arms and legs rigid and stiff.

Lomar had lost track of the time. Pia Sol was now and then visible, a faded red globe, in the pearl-grey, dove-grey, lead-grey skies; now and then it vanished with the changing shades and the inconstant snows. So he had no notion of how far they had come when — not a shout, not even Ms captors had breath to spare for that — a union of voices roused his drooping head.

Someone poked him in the ribs with the butt end of a pike and, his attention secured, pointed the pike ahead and to the left. A great cairn of boulders stood a ways above the path. “What is it?” he asked, stupidly, tongue thick and mouth foul, lungs biting with the freezing air.

“That be’s the mark,” said the pikeman. “Flinders’ Country now … and minds you knows it, pogue! Him as watches — ” he gestured more particularly, as if setting down the pikestaff, “ — forgot.” A blur of yellow and white and three black holes met his eyes and vanished as he was jerked along. Suddenly his head cleared and the memory focused: it was a human, chinless skull which perched there atop the cairn, mantled with snow.

Here and there an apronful of ground bore, where the winds had blown away the snow, the marks of cultivation. From such scanty bits and pockets of soil did the Flinders folk tear their frugal food … when they did not tear it from the mouths of other clans. The double files became a single file, snaking its way along the slope and over the crest of the hills — and then something between a sigh and a groan arose, and even Lomar, head snapped back, said,
“Oh …”

A mass of black and naked rock, broken, jagged, splotched with snow, thrust itself up from the rising ground. And up. And up …

And up …

It was not quite a mountain.

“Flinders Crag,” said the pikeman. He grimaced, swallowed.

“Home,” said the pikeman.

• • •

He never did see the camp from below, never knew he was corning to it until they were almost there. For suddenly there was no longer the gaunt rock all about him, and once again nothing but the sky. Nothing but the sky! And then another turn, this one down, and the women came forth from the meager fortress to greet them.

The greeting was in silence at first. When the Mister said, “Alls ‘live,” the women burst into sound and motion, even his aged mother throwing up her match-thin arms and lifting her claws of feet as she tripped a few steps in dreadful parody of what had once — God knew how very long ago! — been a dance. But the frolic was short, the air was cold, and after a few formal, ritual exercises pikemen and ‘lockmen were dismissed to do as they pleased. Which, as Lomar gathered from the coarse, jocose comments, was to have rough, brief joy of their wives and then to sit about their firestones and talk and scratch themselves and dream of food and plunder.

Victor, chieftain on his own soil, the Mister Flinders was able to recall and to extend what fragments of courtesy he still retained of what custom demanded. The captives — there was no prison keep, for that matter — were his guests. Their hands and legs were freed. The camp’s gate was guarded … and, besides, where, in this wilderness of rock and snow, where could they go? A daughter and a younger son were detailed to keep a watch upon them. To Norna was accorded the questionable honor of sharing the old mother’s bed of sour rags, and for Lomar a skin was spread not too far from the fire.

“I am so very sorry,” he said to Norna, the first chance they had a free moment together from the hordes of clansmen who coursed through the house to see the captives and revel in the thought that they might themselves gain some share in their ransom.

She bent her head lower for a moment, then looked up at him. “He’s been put in the powder magazine,” she said. “It’s dry … they said they couldn’t gives any cover for him … but I thinks he doesn’t need none now.”

He nodded, and murmured something of her father’s love for the Wild country, and his desire to be buried there, and she wept a moment. Then there was another trample of feet and a loud burst of voices, she turned away, and when next he looked her way she was proud and calm.

The Mister Flinders was much concerned with what his ransom messages should contain, and how they were to be composed. Those to Jun Mallardy and Sathy gave the lesser concern; truce-men from that clan might be expected by and by. But how to send word to the Guild Station? And what was that word to be? The art of writing was an aspect of the arcane which the Mister had never concerned himself with, but he did have one man who was popularly supposed to be versed in the crafts of reading and writing. Either he had not mastered them well at the start or years of being out of practice had rusted his familiarity with them; or perhaps he was shy of displaying his talents; at any rate he was long in coming, and his lord cursed him roundly when he appeared.

The sage drooped and shrugged and wiped his nose on his ragged sleeve. Finally the storm of wrath abated, and he was allowed to sit at the table-board, from the surface of which as much dirt and grease was rubbed — or smeared — as possible (with the same sleeve). He spread out some yellowed, smudgy bits of paper, spit into the bit of pottery which served as inkwell, trimmed himself a reed pen rather clumsily, squared his elbows, and by the set of his face announced himself ready for business. The matter was not one to be settled in one evening, however. Clearly, the Mister was in an agony lest he should ask too little or ask too much. And finally he declared (and was supported by his followers, crowding around the unhappy scribe who had been setting down the words letter by slow and awkward letter) that he had “gots to thinks more” about it, first.

Muck-Hell, yes!

He thought about it several days, during whch Ran and Norna, together or alone, wandered as they wished about the dirty camp. Its walls were in poor condition, but no one worried about that, for the Crag itself was wall enough, and more. Lomar observed with some amusement that the guards seemed as much concerned with safeguarding Norna’s virtue as preventing their escape.

The thought that leaped first into his mind, then, on that third or fourth night, when he awoke to find her hand over his mouth and her hair brushing his face, was that she had decided to part with that virtue. This hope, however, did not deceive him too long. A faint, dull glow from the fire on the hearthstone in the middle of the room — carelessly, typically, not banked — did not reveal much. But it was enough to show that Tig Flinders, the younger son and supposed guard, had left his post and taken his sleeping skin with him. Scraps of rough-laughing gossip came to his mind; the boy had had some amour of his own going and evidently concluded not to let Lomar’s presence interfere with it any longer. As for his sister, a vigorous soprano snore indicated that neither her guard duties nor her deviated septum was keeping her from sound sleep.

Lomar rose from his own pelt — Norna indicated, with a gesture, that he was to take it with him, as she was taking hers — and, hand in hand, they tiptoed out of the room. The door gave him pause, for it had creaked lustily whenever it was opened. This had not escaped the girl’s attention, though. She had taken a fish-oil lamp from the table in passing, now she poured its contents over the hinges, they waited a moment or two for the stinking fluid to penetrate … then they lifted up the heavy beam which barred the door, and passed silently into the night.

• • •

There were, indeed, places on Old Earth, thousands and thousands of square leagues, parts of which Ran had visited, that saw lower temperatures and deeper snows than any place in Tockland South. But on his visits there he had been dressed against the cold in heated clothes, a flick of his thumb not even needed, for the tiny thermostats were geared to the immediate needs of his own body. Furthermore, he had gone there in much company, and for larks — skiing, bobsledding — sometimes for no more than a snowball fight: so little did they make of time and distance there. Sooner or later, of course, he’d tired of it all, the enforced comradeship, obligatory competitions, the whole business … But never had he felt the cold as now, groping his way down the narrow path through the Crag, slippery with snow, nothing but ordinary winter clothing and the worn sleeping skin to protect him. There was no light, not even starlight, for the clouds obscured it, and they dared make none; not knowing if their escape might be discovered any minute.

They were alone, just the two of them. And this time it was no lark.

• • •

It was almost dawn before they reached the foot of the Crag. He could not be sure, reflecting on it afterwards, if he had actually heard anything, or if he had only turned and looked up instinctively. It had seemed to him that there had been a faint shout … but it might have had no origin outside his mind. Nor was he ever certain of what he saw — if he had seen anything, for Norna had neither seen nor heard. But he was sure, then, that following the sound, he had seen a faint and scattered light far, far above.

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