Authors: Norman Spinrad
Tags: #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction
Bogel goggled slightly at this. "You dream heroic dreams, Feric Jaggar!" he said.
Replied Feric: "The New Age will be heroic beyond even my present dreams, Bogel. We must become a race of true heroes to bring it about. And when we have, we will live in the manner appropriate to such a race of demigods."
Soon the roadsteamer had entered the Emerald Wood.
Here the roadway ran along the right bank of a clear, rapid stream which meandered its way in gentle curves through the bosky groves of the forest lowlands. Thus the driver of the roadsteamer was constrained to lower the speed to the vicinity of thirty miles an hour in order to assure that the vehicle remained on the road around the sharper turns. This more stately pace afforded Feric a fine and leisurely look at this fabled primeval forest.
The individual trees were themselves of venerable age, their rough-barked trunks carved by nature into rich gar-goyle shapes, and topped with luxuriant dark green foli-age. They were spaced in stately, almost measured, intervals so that men might walk with relative ease through the groves while shielded from the sun in heavy, deep shadows. The undergrowth was primarily fems, low bushes, and patches of grass, along with mushrooms and other fungi. There was none of the crowding and purplish cancerous profusion of obscenely mutated tangle that choked the scattered patches of Borgravian radiation jungle, and made such places dire and unpenetrable sinkholes, wherein roamed beasts the very sight of which was enough to sour a strong man's stomach.
The trees of the Emerald Wood were genotypically pure; this forest had somehow survived the Time of Fire virtually untouched, the soil uncontanunated. The age of the forest was unknown; it was far older than Heldon itself, conceivably it had existed in this form even prior to the emergence of the true human genotype. Old wives'
tales had it that the human race had been bom in this forest.
This might be mere superstition, but it was fact that here, in the Emerald Wood, small bands of true men had huddled after the Fire, and slain whatever mutants were foolish enough to wander into the forest, and had finally been unified by Stal Held into the Kingdom of Heldon.
Generation by generation, the Helder had slowly expanded out of the forest, purifying the surrounding lowlands of mutation, until Heldon reached borders similar to those of modem times. Here too, Sigmark IV, last of the Helder kings, had fled during the Civil War, retreating as if by instinct into the ancestral heartland, where, legend had it, he had hidden the Great Truncheon of Held against the day when a pure specimen of the royal pedigree might once again wield the legendary weapon and reclaim the throne. Then Sigmark IV, his court, and the royal pedigree had disappeared into the mists of history.
Yes, the Emerald Wood was filled with legends that stretched back beyond the Fire and occupied a special place in the history and soul of Heldon. Feric felt an unabashed awe in this place. The glory of the past was palpable all around him in the legends of the Wood, in the glorious and sometimes somber history that had played itself out here, and in the very fact of the forest itself—an island of woodland that had passed uncontaminated through the Fire, that had spread its purity through the centuries over what was now Heldon, that was living promise that one day the forces of genetic purity would regain the whole world.
"Magnificent, is it not?" Bogel whispered.
Feric could only nod silently as the roadsteamer continued on into the depths of the lordly forest.
Not long after the sun had passed its zenith, the hostess broke out a lunch of black bread, cold sausage, and beer.
The roadsteamer was deep in the Wood now; the road wound through low, rolling, heavily wooded hills, where rabbit and an occasional deer could be observed as the passengers lunched. Feric glanced from time to time at his fellow passengers as he ate, though thus far no word had passed between them. Apparently, it was not the custom on Helder roadsteamers for strangers to force their attentions on each other—a welcome contrast to the boistrous and squalid hubbub on Borgravian transport.
The Helder on the^ steamer seemed a typical and, for the most part, robust group of true men. There was a 50
sturdy peasant family in their holiday best—cheery garments of white and red and yellow and blue, plain, but absolutely spotless. Several merchants wore richer if more solemn garb, two of them apparently traveling with their wives. There were in addition all sorts of respectable-looking men and women whose business could not be discerned. All in all, it was an altogether civilized and cultured-looking group, a by-no-means-exceptional cross section of the folk of Heldon, and a tribute, therefore, to the genetic nobility of the populace as a whole.
All seemed to draw spiritual enrichment from the deeply shadowed landscape through which the steamer passed; voices were hushed, even solemn, eyes did not long stray from the grand vistas available through the roadsteamer windows. The overwhelming presence of so much uncontaminated primeval life, the glorious history in which the Wood was steeped, produced what might be fairly called a mystical atmosphere. One would have to be a mutant of the lowest sort or a soulless Dom not to feel the spell of this place.
"I feel a great strength emanating from these woodlands, Bogel," Feric said quietly. "Here I experience a direct organic connection with the glory of our racial history. I can almost hear the voice of my genes singing the sagas of the ancestral past."
"These are strange woods," Bogel agreed. "Strange people live in them today—bands of nomadic huntsmen, gatherers of wild mushrooms and forest herbs, occasional brigands. If one believes the tall stories, even practicers of black pre-Pire arts."
Feric smiled. "Do you fear the sorcerers and trolls of the Wood, then, Bogel?" he jibed.
"I have no truck with such superstitious rubbish," Bogel replied. "However, it is historical fact that a few of the ancients survived in these woods at least long enough to craft the Great Truncheon of Held for Stal Held, who lived many generations after the Fire. I must admit that the thought that somewhere in these groves their descendants might be plotting to return the Fire gives me a chill, even though I know full well no such warlocks exist."
At this, Feric fell silent. No man cared to contemplate even in fancy the return of the Fire. Out of those few brief days of holocaust centuries past stemmed the major ills still plaguing the world: genetic contamination of the
•human race, the vast radioactive wastelands that covered 51
so much of the globe, the existence of the fetid Doms.
The old world had died in the Time of Fire; the new world which had been born was a stunted and pallid imitation of the glory of the ancients. True men would curse the Time of Fire as long as the race survived.
But someday, and within his own lifetime, true men would be set irrevocably on the clear path to a new Golden Age; this Feric vowed to himself as a solemn oath as the roadsteamer carried him north through the stately groves of the Emerald Wood.
As the sun began to wane, a pattern of heavy red twilight and long black shadows fell over the forest, making the thick groves of gnarled trees appear somehow ominous and sinister; long before sunset the Emerald Wood took on many of the aspects of a forest of the night. The mind peopled the woods with its night shapes and fears.
This was not to say that twilight robbed the Wood of its beauty; far from it, it enhanced the grandeur of the forest, though now its spell was of a wilder and darker sort.
The roadsteamer moved through the forest like something isolated in space and time; nothing seemed real but the sylvan vastness through which it seemed to slink like a creature far out of its natural element.
But as the steamer slowly rounded a particularly sharp bend in the road, this mood of mystical detachment was suddenly and rudely shattered. There on the shoulder of the road was the red gas car that had roared past the steamer so gloriously hours ago, turned over on its back like the carapace of some huge dead beetle, its tires hacked to ribbons, its metal body twisted and ripped and marked with bullet holes. No bodies, living or dead, were ia evidence.
A babble of voices filled the cabin of the roadsteamer as the driver brought it to a halt beside the wreck with a great hissing of the brakes. This was rapidly replaced by an uneasy silence as it became clear that nothing lived in the wreckage.
"Obviously the work of brigands," Bogel said. "Not so uncommon an occurrence in these parts."
"Do you think we're in any serious danger of attack?"
Peric inquired. He felt no fear whatever, only a certain strange excitement he^was hard put to understand.
"It's hard to say," Bogel replied. "It's one thing to 52
ambush a small gas car, and quite another to halt a full-sized roadsteamer. Only the Black Avengers with their motorcycles are really capable of that, and from what I understand, their major goal is petrol. Therefore, they would probably be unlikely to attack a steamer."
The roadsteamer driver did not feel constrained to open the cabin door or climb down from his own cab; whoever did this deed might very well be lurking in the immediate vicinity. After inspecting the wreckage from the safety of the steamer for a few minutes and satisfying himself that there were no survivors about, he released the brakes, let steam into the engine, and the vehicle continued on its way, with the atmosphere in the cabin one of apprehension mingled with determinded steadfastness, as befitted sturdy Helder.
The roadsteamer continued peacefully on its way for the better part of the next half hour, and the mood in the cabin relaxed somewhat as the minutes passed with no untoward happening. Up ahead, the road ran past a gully between two hills which had once been a streambedand now formed a natural roadbed of sorts leading off into the depths of the forest.
As the steamer rolled past this miniature canyon, an incredible din suddenly wiped out the throb of its steam engine: a series of sharp, staccato little explosions that coughed in the night like a pack of giant metal catamounts catching wind of their prey. These merged into a deafening solid roar that seemed to vibrate every molecule of matter in the vicinity.
Suddenly, a horde of fantastic machines came hurling out of the woods at incredible speed, throwing dirt and stones into the air in a mad cloud, and sending the awful sound like a herald before them. Each machine consisted of two large wheels connected by a framework of steel tubing, the rear wheel driven by chain transmission from a howling bechromed gas engine slung directly between the legs of the rider, the front wheel held in a pivoting steering fork controlled by an ornate branching bar the two great handlegrips of which the rider clutched in his hands. There
• were more than two score of the motorcycles, and each one was festooned, hung, and adorned after its own private fashion—with brilliant enamelwork in red, black, or white; gleaming chrome shields, piping, and baroque grill-work; huge seats upholstered in leather or plush velvet; great panniers over the rear wheel embellished with extrav-53
agant motifs; gleaming upswept metal tails suggesting all manner of fish and fowl. It was an incredible spectacle of power, metal, dash, extravagance, motion, and color in which the noble ensign of the swastika predominated like some unifying emblem.
This brilliant pack of gleaming machines stormed onto the roadway and took off after the steamer in a mighty sweep of graceful power. Almost at once, the cyclists were upon the steamer, surrounding it easily, fore and aft, left and right, and Feric could clearly discern what manner of men sat astride these heroic stallions of metal.
Truly these were men to match their machines! Great robust fellows wearing wild garments of black and brown leathers, and flamboyant capes in many colors embroidered with swastikas, death's heads, lightning bolts, and other virile designs which streamed behind them like proud pen-nants. Their costumes were liberally decorated with all manner of metal brightwork—chains, plating, medallions.
They wore broad belts set off with studs from which were slung daggers and pistols and formidable truncheons. A few wore helmets of chromed or enameled steel, but most let their wild blond hair ride free in the breeze.
"The Black Avengers!" Bogel gasped.
"Magnificent!" Feric exclaimed.
Feric could all but taste the fear of the passengers in the roadsteamer cabin; beside him Bogel was pale and nervous. He conceded to himself that a certain concern at the
- appearance of these beings was nothing less than logical; still there was something about their spirit and dash, the manly vigor of the spectacle, that thrilled him. Barbarians they were, but what magnificent barbarians!
When they had the steamer quite thoroughly surrounded, several of the Black Avengers drew pistols and fired warning shots into the air, the reports of the guns flattened somewhat by contrast with the mighty din of the massed engines. Nevertheless, their meaning was quite clear to the driver of the roadsteamer; he hit the brakes, bled steam from the engine, and brought the vehicle to a huffing halt by the side of the road. At once the motorcyclists formed a circle around the steamer, and, while the bulk of the Avengers remained mounted on their idling machines which continued to bark and roar like a pack of feral metal hounds; a dozen or so of the fellows dismounted, propped their motorcycles up on stands, and 54
swaggered toward the cabin door with pistols and truncheons in their hands.
Almost immediately, there was a great pounding on the door, and a powerful harsh voice roared: "Open for the Avengers, or we'll rip this peapod open with our bare hands and eat you all alive!"
The passengers nearest the door bolted from their seats and attempted to cram themselves together in the rear of the cabin while the trembling hostess unbarred the door; a craven performance, Feric thought, and one hardly calculated to win the admiration of men such as these.
Into the cabin burst an enormous man of Feric's height and even more massively muscled. He wore a sleeveless black jerkin which displayed to good advantage the serpents tattooed up and around both of his arms. About his neck on a silver chain hung a nearly life-sized chromium skull. A pistol was tucked into his belt which was fastened with a huge steel buckle embossed with a blood-red swastika, and in his hand was a chromed steel truncheon of impressive length and thickness with a gleaming skull for a headpiece. His shoulder-length blond hair and full blond beard were wild and matted. In his right earlobe was a heavy golden band. His eyes were honest, open, and icy blue. Behind him trailed a black cloak onto which twin red lightning strokes had been sewn.