Read Var the Stick Online

Authors: Piers Anthony

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction in English, #English fiction

Var the Stick

BOOK: Var the Stick
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    CHAPTER ONE

 

Tyl of Two Weapons waited in the night cornfield. He had one singlestick in his hand and the other tucked in his waist band, ready to draw. He had waited two hours in silence.

    Tyl was a handsome man, sleek but muscular. His face was set in a habitual frown stemming from years of less than ideal command. The empire spanned a thousand miles, and he was second only to the Master in its hierarchy, and first in most practical matters. He set interim policy within the general guidelines laid down by the Master, and established the rankings and placement of the major subchiefs. Tyl had power-but it chafed at him.

    Then he heard it: a rustle to the north that was not typical of the local animals.

    Carefully he stood, shielded from the intruder by the tall plants. There was- no moon, for the beast never came in the light. Tyl traced its progress toward the fence by the subtle sounds. The wind was from the north; otherwise the thing would have caught his scent and stayed clear.

    There was no doubt about it. This was his quarry. Now it was mounting the sturdy split-rail fence, scrambling over, landing with a faint thump within the corn. And now it was quiet for a time, waiting to see whether it had been discovered. A cunning animal-one that avoided deadfalls, ignored poison and fought savagely when trapped. In the past month three of Tyl's men had been wounded in night encounters with this creature. Already it was becoming known as a hex upon the camp, an omen of ill, and skilled warriors were evincing an unseemly fear of the dark.

    And so it was up to the chief to resolve the matter. Tyl,long bored by the routine of maintaining a tribe that was not engaged in conquest, was more than satisfied by the challenge. He had no awe of the supernatural. He intended to capture the thing and display it before the tribe: here is the spook that made cowards of lesser men!

    Capture, not death, for this quarry. This was the reason he had brought his sticks instead of his sword.

    Slight noise again. Now it was foraging, stripping the ripening corn from the stalk and consuming it on the spot. This alone set it apart from ordinary carnivores, for they would never have touched the corn. But it could not be an ordinary herbivore either, for they did not harvest and chew the cobs like that. And its footprints, visible in daylight following a raid, were not those of any animal he knew. Broad and round, with the marks of four squat claws or slender hoofs-not a bear, not anything natural.

    It was time. Tyl advanced on the creature, holding one stick 'aloft, using his free hand to part the corn stalks quietly. He knew he could not come upon it completely by surprise, but he hoped to get close enough to take it with a sudden charge. Tyl knew himself to be the best fighter in the world, with the sticks. The only man who could beat him stick to stick, was dead, gone to the mountain. There was nothing Tyl feared when so armed.

    He recalled that lone defeat with nostalgia, as he made the tedious approach. Four years ago, when he had been young. Sol had done it-Sol of All Weapons, creator of the empire-the finest warrior of all time. Sol had set out to conquer the world, with Tyl as his chief lieutenant. And they had been doing it, too-until the Nameless One had come.

    He was close now, and abruptly the foraging noises ceased. The thing had heard him!

    Tyl did not wait for the animal to make up its crafty mind. He launched himself at it, heedless of the shocks of corn he damaged in his mad passage. Now he had both sticks ready, batting stalks aside as he ran.

    The creature bolted. Tyl saw a hairy hump rise in the darkness, heard its weird grunt. He was tempted to use his flash, but knew it would destroy the night vision he had built up in the silent wait and put his mission in peril. The animal was at the fence now, but the fence was strong and high, and Tyl knew he could catch it before it got over.

    The creature-knew it too. Its back to the course rails, it came to bay, its breath rasping. Tyl saw the dim glint of its eye, the vague outline of its body, shaggy and warped and menacing. Tyl laid into it with both sticks, seeking a quick head-blow that would reduce it to impotence.

    But the thing was as canny about weapons as about traps. It dived, passing under his defense in the obscurity, and fastened its teeth on Tyl's knee. He clubbed it on the head once, twice, feeling the give of the tangled fur, and it let go. The wound was not serious, as the thing's snout was recessed and its teeth blunt, but his knees had been tricky since the Nameless One had smashed them a year before. And he was angry at his defensive negligence; nothing should have penetrated his guard like that, by day or night. -

    It drew back, snarling, and Tyl was chilled by that sound. No wolf, no wildcat articulated like that. And now, as it tasted blood, its mewling became hungry as well as defiant.

    It pounced, not smoothly but with force. This time it went for his throat, as he had known it would. He rapped its head again with the stick, but again it anticipated him, hunching so that the blow skidded glancingly off the skull. It struck Tyl's chest, bearing hint down, and its foreclaws raked his neck while its hindclaws dug for his groin.

    Tyl, dismayed by its ferocity, beat it off blindly, and it jumped away. Before he could recover it was up again, scrambling over the fence while he hobbled behind, too late.

    Now he cursed aloud in fury at its escape-but the expletives were tinged with a certain brute respect. He had chosen the locale of combat, and the marauder had bested him in this context. But there was a use he could make of this situation---perhaps a better one than he had had in mind before.

 

    The creature dropped outside the fence and loped off into the forest. It was bleeding from a wound reopened by the blows of the attacker, and it was partially lame on flat ground because of malformed bones in its feet. But it made rapid progress, its armored toes finding good purchase in the wilder turf.

    And it was clever. It had seen Tyl clearly and smelled him. Only its pressing hunger had dulled its alertness prior to the encounter. It had recognized the singlesticks as weapons and had avoided them. Still, blows had landed, and they had hurt. The creature thought about it, taming the problem over in its mind as it angled toward the badlands. Then menfolk were getting more difficult about their crops. Now they lay in wait, ambushed, attacked, pursued. This last had been quite effective; if the hunger were not so strong, the area would be best avoided entirely. As it was, better protection would have to be devised.

    It entered the badlands where no man could follow and slowed to catch its breath. It picked up a branch, curling stubby mottled digits around it tightly. The forelimb was angular, the claws wide and flat-less effective as a weapon than as supplementary protection for the tips of the calloused fingers. It wrestled the stick around, finding comfortable purchase, imitating the stance of the man in the cornfield. It banged the wood against a tree, liking the feel of the impact: It banged harder, and the dry, rotted branch - shattered, releasing a stunned grub. The creature quickly pounced on this, squashing it dead and licking the squirting juices with gusto, forgetting the useless stick. But it had learned something.

    Next time it foraged, it would take along a stick.

 

    CHAPTER TWO

 

    The Master of Empire pondered the message from Tyl of Two Weapons. Tyl had not written the note himself, of course, for he like most of the nomadic leaders was illiterate. But his smart wife Tyla, like many of the empire women, had taken up the art with enthusiasm, and was now a fair hand at the written language.

    The Master was literate, and he believed in literacy, yet he had not encouraged the women's classes in reading and figuring. The Master knew the advantages of farming, too, yet he ignored the farms. And he comprehended the dynamics of empire, for he, in other guise, had fashioned this same empire and brought it from formless ambition to a mighty force. Yet he now let it drift and stagnate and atrophy.

    This message was deferentially worded, but it constituted a clever challenge to his authority and policy. Tyl was an activist, impatient to resume conquest. Tyl wanted either to goose the Master into action, or to ease him out of power so that new leadership might bring a new policy. Because Tyl himself was bonded to this regime, he could do nothing directly. He would not go against the man who had bested him in the circle. This was not cowardice but honor.

    If the Master declined to deal with this mysterious menace to the local crops, he would be admitting either timidity or treason to the purpose of the empire. For farming was vital to growth; the organized nomads could not afford to remain dependent on the largesse of the crazies. If he did not support the farm program the resultant unrest would throw him into disrepute, and lead to solidification of resistance around some othet figure. Hc could not afford that, for he would then soon be spending all his time defeating such weedlike pretenders in thc circle. No-he had to rule the empire, and keep it quiescent.

    So there was nothing to do but tackle this artfully, posed problem. He could be sure it was not an easy one, for this wild beast had wounded Tyl himself and escaped. That suggested that no lesser man than the Master could subdue it.

    Of course he could organize a large hunting party-but this would violate the precepts of single combat, and it went against the grain, even when an animal was involved. In fact, it would be another implication of cowardice.

    It was necessary that the Master prove himself against this beast. That was what Tyl wanted, for failure would certainly damage his image. He did not appreciate being maneuvered, but the alternatives were worse-and he did privately admire the manner Tyl had set this up. The man would be a valuable ally, at such time as certain things changed.

    So it was the Nameless One, the Man of No Weapon, Master of Empire-this leader took leave of the wife he had usurped from the former master, put routine affairs in the hands of competent subordinates, and set out on foot alone for Tyl's encampment. He wore a cloak over his grotesque and mighty body, but all who saw him in that region knew him and feared him. His hair was white, his visage ugly, and there was no man to match him in the circle.

    In fifteen days he arrived. A young staffer who had never seen the Master challenged him at the border of the camp. The Nameless One took that staff and tied a knot in it and handed it back. "Show this to Tyl of Two Weapons," he said.

    And Tyl came hurriedly with his entourage. He ordered the guard with the pretzel-staff to the fields to work among the women, as penalty for not recognizing the visitor. But the Weaponless said, "He was right to challenge when in doubt; let the man who straightens that weapon chastise him, no other." So he was not punished, for no one except a smithy could have unbent that metal rod. And no other man of that camp failed to know the Nameless One by sight thereafter.

    Next morning the Master took up a bow and a length of rope, for these were not weapons of the circle, and set off on the trail of the raider. He took along a hound and a pack of supplies doubly loaded, but would tolerate the company of no other man. "I will bring the creature back," he said.

    Tyl made no comment, thinking his own thoughts.

    The trail passed from the open fields of corn and buckwheat to the birches fringing the forestland, and on toward the dwindling region of local badland. The Master observed the markers that the crazies placed and periodically resurveyed. Unlike the average person, he had no superstitions, no fear of these. He knew that it was radiation that made these areas deadly-Roentgen left from the fabled Blast. Every year there was less of it, and the country at the fringe of the badlands became habitable for plant, animal and man. He knew that so long as the native life was healthy, there was little danger from radiation.

    But there were other terrors in the fringe. Tiny shrews swarmed periodically, consuming all animals in their path and devouring each other when nothing else offered. Large white moths came out at night, their stings deadly. And there were wild tales told by firelight, of strange haunted buildings, armored bones, and living machines. The Master did not credit much of this and sought some reasonable explanation for what he did credit. But he did know the badlands were dangerous, and he entered them with caution.

    The traces skirted the heart of the radioactive area, staying a mile or so within the crazy boundary. This told the Master something else important: that the creature he hunted was not some- supernatural spook from the deep horror-region, but an animal of the fringe, leary of radiation. That meant he could run it down in time.

    For two days he followed the trail the cheerful hound sniffed out. He fed the dog and himself from his pack, occasionally bringing down a rabbit with an arrow and cooking it whole as a mutual treat. He slept on the open ground, well covered. This was late summer, and the warm crazy sleeping-bag sufficed. He had a spare, in case. He rather enjoyed the trek, and did not push the pace.

    On the evening of the second day he found it. The hound bayed and raced ahead-then yelped and ran back, frightened.

    The thing stood under a large oak about four feet tall, bipedal, hunched. Wild hair radiated from its head and curled about its muzzle. Mats of shaggy fur hung over its shoulders, Its skin, where it showed on head and limbs and torso, was mottled gray and yellow, and encrusted with dirt.

    But it was no animal. It was a mutant human boy.

    The boy had made a crude club. He made as though to attack his pursuer, having naturally been aware of the Master for some time. But the sheer size of the man daunted him, and he fled, running on the balls of his blunted, callused feet.

    The Nameless One made camp there. He had suspected that the raider was human or human-derived, for no animal had the degree of cunning and dexterity this prowler had shown. But now that he had made the confirmation, he needed to reconsider means. It would not do to kill the boy-yet it would hardly be kind to bring him back prisoner for the torment the angry farmer-warriors would inflict. Civilization grew very thin in such a case. But one or the other had to be accomplished, for the Master had his own political expedience to consider.

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