Authors: Andre Norton
Tags: #Science fiction, #Fantasy, #Adventure, #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #Space Opera, #Science Fiction - Adventure, #Science Fiction - Space Opera, #Fiction - General, #General & Literary Fiction, #Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), #Fiction : Fantasy - General, #Fiction : Science Fiction - Adventure
By Andre Norton
THE TRAVELERS had sighted the cove from the sea-a narrow bite into the land, the first break in the cliff wall which protected the interior of this continent from the pounding of the ocean. And, although it was still but midafternoon, Dalgard pointed the outrigger into the promised shelter, the dip of his steering paddle swinging in harmony with that wielded by Sssuri in the bow of their narrow, wave-riding craft.
The two voyagers were neither of the same race nor of the same species, yet they worked together without words, as if they had established some bond which gave them a rapport transcending the need for speech.
Dalgard Nordis was a son of the Colony; his kind had not originated on this planet. He was not as tall nor as heavily built as those Terran outlaw ancestors who had fled political enemies across the Galaxy to establish a foothold on Astra, and there were other subtle differences between his generation and the parent stock.
Thin and wiry, his skin was brown from the gentle toasting of the summer sun, making the fairness of his closely cropped hair even more noticeable. At his side was his long bow, carefully wrapped in water-resistant flying-dragon skin, and from the belt which supported his short breeches of tanned duo corn hide swung a two-foot blade-half wood-knife, half sword. To the eyes of his Terran forefathers he would have presented a barbaric picture. In his own mind he was amply clad and armed for the man-journey which was both his duty and his heritage to make before he took his place as a full adult in the Council of Free Men.
In contrast to Dalgard’s smooth skin, Sssuri was covered with a fluffy pelt of rainbow-tipped gray fur. In place of the human’s steel blade, he wore one of bone, barbed and ugly, as menacing as the spear now resting in the bottom of the outrigger. And his round eyes watched the sea with the familiarity of one whose natural home was beneath those same waters.
The mouth of the cove was narrow, but after they negotiated it they found themselves in a pocket of bay, sheltered and calm, into which trickled a lazy stream The gray-blue of the seashore sand was only a fringe beyond which was turf and green stuff. Sssuri’s nostril flaps expanded as he tested the warm breeze, and Dalgard was busy cataloguing scents as they dragged their craft ashore They could not have found a more perfect place for a camp site.
Once the canoe was safely beached, Sssun picked up his spear and, without a word or backward glance, waded out into the sea, disappearing into the depths, while his companion set about his share of camp tasks. It was still early in the summer-too early to expect to find ripe fruit But Dalgard rummaged in his voyager’s bag and brought out a half-dozen crystal beads. He laid these out on a flat-topped stone by the stream, seating himself cross-legged beside it.
To the onlooker it would appear that the traveler was meditating. A wide-winged living splotch of color fanned by overhead; there was a distant yap of sound. Dalgard neither looked nor listened. But perhaps a minute later what he awaited arrived. A hopper, its red-brown fur sleek and gleaming in the sun, its eternal curiosity drawing it, peered cautiously from the bushes. Dalgard made mind touch. The hoppers did not really think-at least not on the levels where communication was possible for the colonists-but sensations of friendship and good will could be broadcast, primitive ideas exchanged.
The small animal, its humanlike front paw-hands dangling over its creamy vest, came out fully into the open, black eyes flicking from the motionless Dalgard to the bright beads on the rock. But when one of those paws shot out to snatch the treasure, the traveler’s hand was already cupped protectingly over the hoard. Dalgard formed a mental picture and beamed it at the twenty-inch creature before him. The hopper’s ears twitched nervously, its blunt nose wrinkled, and then it bounded back into the brush, a weaving line of moving grass marking its retreat.
Dalgard withdrew his hand from the beads. Through the years the Astran colonists had come to recognize the virtues of patience. Perhaps the mutation had begun before they left their native world. Or perhaps the change in temperament and nature had occurred in the minds and bodies of that determined handful of refugees as they rested in the frozen cold sleep while their ship bore them through the wide, uncharted reaches of deep space for centuries of Terran time. How long that sleep had lasted the survivors had never known. But those who had awakened on Astra were different.
And their sons and daughters, and the sons and daughters of two more generations were warmed by a new sun, nourished by food grown in alien soil, taught the mind contact by the amphibian mermen with whom the space voyagers had made an early friendship-each succeeding child more atuned to the new home, less tied to the far-off world he had never seen or would see. The colonists were not of the same breed as their fathers, their grandfathers, or great-grandfathers. So, with other gifts, they had also a vast, time-consuming patience, which could be a weapon or a tool, as they pleased not forgetting the instantaneous call to action which was their older heritage.
The hopper returned. On the rock beside the shining things it coveted, it dropped dried and shriveled fruit. Dalgard’s fingers separated two of the gleaming marbles, rolled them toward the animal, who scooped them up with a chirp of delight. But it did not leave. Instead it peered intently at the rest of the beads. Hoppers had their own form of intelligence,” though it might not compare with that of humans. And this one was enterprising. In the end it delivered three more loads of fruit from its burrow and took away all the beads, both parties well pleased with their bargains.
Sssuri splashed out of the sea with as little ado as he had entered. On the end of his spear twisted a fish. His fur, slicked flat to his strongly muscled body, began to dry in the air and fluff out while the sun awoke prismatic lights on the scales which covered his hands and feet. He dispatched the fish and cleaned it neatly, tossing the offal back into the water, where some shadowy things arose to tear at the unusual bounty.
“This is not hunting ground.” His message formed in Dalgard’s mind: “That finned one had no fear of me.”
“We were right then in heading north; this is new land.” Dalgard got to his feet.
On either side, the cliffs, with their alternate bands of red, blue, yellow, and white strata, walled in this pocket. They would make far better time keeping to the sea lanes, where it was not necessary to climb. And it was Dalgard’s cherished plan to add more than just an inch or two to the explorers’ map in the Council Hall.
Each of the colony males was expected to make his man journey of discovery sometime between his eighteenth and twentieth year. He went alone or, if he formed an attachment with one of the mermen near his own age, accompanied only by his knife brother. And from knowledge so gained the still-small group of exiles added to and expanded their information about their new home.
Caution was drilled into them. For they were not the first masters of Astra, nor were they the masters now. There were the ruins left by Those Others, the race who had populated this planet until their own wars had completed their downfall. And the mermen, with their traditions of slavery and dark beginnings in the experimental pens of the older race, continued to insist that across the sea-on the unknown western continent-Those Others still held onto the remnants of a degenerate civilization. Thus the explorers from Homeport , went out by ones and twos and used the fauna of the land as a means of gathering information.
Hoppers could remember yesterday only dimly, and instinct took care of tomorrow. But what happened today sped from hopper to hopper and could warn by mind touch both merman and human. If one of the dread snake-devils of the interior was on the hunting trail, the hoppers sped the warning. Their vast curiosity brought them to the fringe of any disturbance, and they passed the reason for it along. Dalgard knew there were a thousand eyes at his service whenever he wanted them. There was little chance of being taken by surprise, no matter how dangerous this journey north might be.
“The city-“ He formed the words in his mind even as he spoke them aloud. “How far are we now from it?”
The merman hunched his slim shoulders in the shrug of his race. “’Three days’ travel, maybe five. And it”-though his furred face displayed no readable emotion, the sensation of distaste was plain-“was one of the accursed ones. To such we have not returned since the days of falling fire-“
Dalgard was well acquainted with the ruins which lay not many miles from Homeport. And he knew that that sprawling, devastated metropolis was not taboo to the mermen. But this other mysterious settlement he had recently heard of was still shunned by the sea people. Only Sssuri and a; few others of youthful years would consider a journey to explore the long-forbidden section their traditions labeled as dangerous land.
The belief that he was about to venture into questionable territory had made Dalgard evasive when he reported his plans to the Elders three days earlier. But since such trips: were, by tradition, always thrusts into the unknown, they had: not questioned him too much. All in all, Dalgard thought, watching Sssuri flake the firm pink flesh from the fish, he. might deem himself lucky and this quest ordained. He went off to hack out armloads of grass and fashion the sleep mats for the sun-warmed ground.
They had eaten and were lounging in content on the soft sand just beyond the curl of the waves when Sssuri lifted his head from his folded arms as if he listened. Like all those of his species, his vestigial ears were hidden deep in his fur and no longer served any real purpose; the mind touch served him in their stead. Dalgard caught his thought, though what had aroused his companion was too rare a thread to trouble his less acute senses.
“Runners in the dark-“
Dalgard frowned. “It is still sun time. What disturbs them?”
To the eye Sssuri was still listening to that which his friend could not hear.
“They come from afar. They are on the move to find new hunting grounds.”
Dalgard sat up. To each and every scout from Homeport e unusual was a warning, a signal to alert mind and body. e runners in the night-that furred monkey race of hunters who bed the moonless dark of Astra when most of the higher fauna were asleep-were very distantly related to Sssuri’s species, though the gap between them was that between highly civilized man and the jungle ape. The runners were harmless and shy, but they were noted also for clinging stubbornly to one particular district generation after generation. To find such a clan on the move into new territory was to be fronted with a puzzle it might be well to investigate.
“A snake-devil-“ he suggested tentatively, forming a mind picture of the vicious reptilian danger which the colonists tried to kill on sight whenever and wherever encountered. His hand went to the knife at his belt. One met with weapons only that hissing hatred motivated by a brainless ferocity which did not know fear.