Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
I know this does not sound like the Dray Prescot you may think you have understood, listening to these tapes spinning through the recorder; and I know I told a blatant lie if we were not received in peace; but I meant it. I had more important concerns than a brawl on a muddy path in the light of the moons. The being advanced cautiously. He looked not unlike a volrok, having long narrow wings, neatly folded, but there was about him a difference that marked him out. Those differences could best be described, perhaps, by saying that if a volrok was equated with a Latin of our Earth, this being would be equated with a man of Nordic stock. But the same eight-limbed original body-form was there, with the upper limbs extended into wide narrow wings, the two arms forward — and holding weapons! — the two legs and feet on which there were no scimitar blades, and the rear pair of limbs fused into a tail fan.
“We, too, seek peace. You have been fighting the volroks?”
Turko laughed and started to say “By the Muscle! We’ve fought the—” when I kicked him in the shins. He said, instead, “—The whole wide world in our time. Do you, then, fight the volroks?”
Another flying man pushed up from the pack. In that light it was difficult to tell them apart. But there is one curious fact that I own to with a certain silly pride, and that is with every successive season I spent on Kregen I was able to pick out more clearly and with greater certainty one halfling from another. Men of one race on Earth will say that all men of another race look alike to them; this is natural if regrettable. Rapechak, for instance, the Rapa mercenary with whom we had fought in Mungul Sidrath and whom we had lost when we escaped into the River Magan, had looked like Rapechak to me, and not like any other Rapa.
This second flying man said: “They are apim. I say we do not trust them.”
“And I say,” said the leader, in a fashion I admired, “that I will stick you if you do not keep quiet, Quarda.”
“We are apim,” I said. “But we are not Canops.”
The leader laughed. It was a good belly-laugh, rich and round and boiling up from a well-filled stomach.
“We know that, dom. Had you been Canops you would have stepped upon the road as dead men.”
“That’s comforting to know.”
He thought I meant it was comforting to know we had not been killed. What he did not know was that I scented allies here in the straggle to come against the iron men from Canopdrin.
One of the other flying men in the pack shouted: “The Miglas will be here soon. There was enough noise and torches on the river — let us kill them and be gone.”
The leader did not turn.
He said, “Quincher — hit that onker Quilly for me.”
There came the sound of a blow and a yelp from the dark mass of flying men. The leader nodded, as though satisfied. I rather liked his style.
“You tell me who you are, dom,” he said. “And then we will decide to kill you — or not.”
I am not given to idle boasts. “Tell me who you are.”
He spoke in a very reasonable tone. “You are unarmed. We have weapons, of bronze and of steel. Surely, you must see it is in your own interests to tell us first. After, I will be happy to tell you, and, by the Golden Feathers of Father Qua, it would sadden me to slay a man without weapons in his hands.”
I glanced at Turko. He did not betray his thoughts, but they were clear enough.
“What you say is indeed reasonable, dom. This is Turko, a Great Kham, and these are two foolish girls, Saenda and Quaesa, who live on the opposite shore of the Shrouded Sea.”
The dark eyes regarded me with a closer intent.
“My name is Dray Prescot.”
A buzz of conversation from the flying men, which told me they had not heard of me or of Turko, was followed by the leader bellowing for order. He took a few steps forward, his tail high and arrogant in that pink moonlight.
“I am Obquam of Tajkent. I seek for a certain cramph of a volrok called Rakker — Largan Rakker of the Triple Peaks. Know you of this vile reaver and his whereabouts?”
“No, Horter Obquam,” I said at once. There was no sense in beating about the bush here. “We were attacked by the whole pack of volroks and escaped only because they attacked the Canops in the galleys. This Rakker — he has done you an injury?”
“Aye! And more, may the black talons of Deevi Quruk rip out his entrails and strip his wings so that he falls into the Ice Floes of Sicce!”
For the moment I had learned all I needed to know. Local detail could be filled in later. At any moment the commotion which had attracted so much unwelcome attention would bring a patrol of Canops to the scene. There was light enough still to see the wheeling flock of volroks above the galleys, although they were hidden from direct view. I fancied there were fewer flying men over there. I put it to this Obquam of Tajkent.
“If the one you seek flies with that pack there, why do you not wing over and discover the truth for yourself?”
He drew himself up, not so much with hauteur as with offended pride. I had suggested blatantly enough that Turko shook his hands and arms, loosening up, readying for the fight he thought must be imminent.
“Look there, apim!” Obquam pointed.
Out over the river the volroks were in turmoil. Their thin screeching reached us blown on the wind. Now among them appeared the larger and bulkier shapes of men astride flying beasts and birds, flutsmen astride fluttrells, as I thought then. The gleam of weapons turned to a bright glittering. I saw volroks falling, and fluttrells, too, with their riders pitching off to dangle by their clerketers all the way into the water.
The aerial battle raged and drifted away from us.
“The Canops from the galleys will be ashore now,” I said. “If you seek this Rakker you had best follow, Horter Obquam.”
He gestured. “I am a Strom, Horter Prescot. You really should address me as Strom of Tajkent.”
“If it pleases you. But as for me and my friends, we are for Yaman, and the streets will not be friendly at this time of night, so we will take our leave now.”
I could feel Turko’s brisk brightening at my words.
The girls, whose mouths were now free of our hands, let out gasps of surprise and annoyance and, as was inevitable, fear.
“I am not going back there, Dray Prescot!” yelped Saenda.
“Not for all the ivory in Chem!” snapped Quaesa.
“Then you are perfectly willing to stay with this Strom and his flying men?”
Their outrage was both pitiful and painful. If this Strom Obquam of Tajkent tried to stop me I was fully prepared to deal with him and his flying band. As for the girls, I knew I would have to devise a scheme to get them back to their homes on the other side of the Shrouded Sea, and a good scheme at that. But Turko surprised me. I did not then understand why he wanted to go back to Yaman, the city of eerie buildings where Migshaanu had been contemptuously ousted as the Great Goddess by the Canops. He had no particular love for Mog, the old witch who had so surprisingly become Mog the Mighty, the high priestess, for all that she had doctored him and healed him of his hurts back there in the jungles of Faol.
So it was that I turned to walk off, and said rather sharply: “You understand what it is we are about, Turko? We are making a fresh beginning. We are going to Yaman in the full knowledge that we might never leave, that we might hang by our heels from the ramparts of Mungul Sidrath?”
“I know. I doubt it will happen, Dray.”
I grunted, for I could find no words to express what I felt just then.
The flying man — I suspected these were people who would not welcome being called volroks — called Quarda, who had already spoken out of turn, stepped before me. He held a weapon very like a toonon. The short and broad-bladed sword had been mounted on a shaft of a bamboo-like wood, with cross quillons also daggered. He held it as a man who knew his business.
“You do not walk away so lightly, apim Prescot.”
I did not reply. I looked with a hard stare at the Strom.
He spread his hands, a gesture of resignation. “In this, Horter Prescot, a matter of honor, I may not intervene. It is between you and Horter Quarda, now.”
The distance from my left kneecap to Quarda’s groin was almost exactly what one might have wished in the exercise yard. My knee smacked it with a crunchy
and Quarda stood for a moment, absolutely still, his mouth open. Then he dropped the toonon. His eyes began to bulge. They bulged quite slowly, and shone, a most curious sight. Slowly, he began to fold in the middle. I stood watching him, quite still, not speaking. Quarda put his hands to his middle, moving with a slow underwater finning movement, and bending forward and over, more and more, and his eyes bulged and bulged, and the cords in his neck stood out like a frigate’s sheets in a gale.
He rolled right over into a ball, and fell on his side, and his legs kicked for a moment. He had not vomited yet, and that showed he must have been in good control. But he could not yell, and what with the yell inside him that couldn’t get out, and the stream that wanted to spurt out as well, he lay in a coil and twitched.
I turned to the Strom of Tajkent.
“Remberee, Strom,” I said, quite cheerfully. “Maybe we will have the pleasure of meeting another day.”
His eyes on me remained unfathomable.
“Remberee, Dray Prescot.”
Taking Saenda firmly by the upper arm, as Turko took Quaesa, I marched off.
Marched off along that dismal road toward the city of Yaman where waited horrors and battles and stratagems, were the other three, and I could not find it in my heart to pity them. As, of course, I could never find pity for myself.
A wall beneath Mungul Sidrath comes to life
“Mag,” said Mog, the high priestess. “Nothing can be done until Mag is found. The religion cannot be truly useful to us — to my shame — until Mag is freed.”
“Unless,” said Planath the Wine, “he be dead.”
Old Mog surged up at this in her stiff and gorgeous robes, all crimson and smothered with gold lace and embroidery, the massive golden crown with its rubies toppling dangerously. She banged the great gold-plated staff upon the floor. She looked impressive and dominating and yet, remembering her as the mewling slave I had seen in the jungles of Faol, I felt the irony and pathos here. Her old face with the witch’s beak of a nose and the boot-cap chin scowled most ferociously, and her agate eyes gleamed most furiously upon us in the back room of
The Loyal Canoptic.
She might be an old halfling woman who had been defamed by the invading and conquering Canops, her temple razed and in ruins, her king and queen slain, this important Mag a prisoner or dead — but she cowed the assembled Miglas here. The tavern had seen many of these secret gatherings, but on this night the back room bulged with Miglas, more than ever before, collected together from all over the city of Yaman.
And yet they were a pitifully small number to pit against the might of the iron men from Canopdrin with their superlative drill and discipline, their bows and swords, their armored cavalry of the air. But I had had the task of creating a revolution thrust upon me by the Star Lords, so, therefore, a revolution there was going to be, by Zair!
“So we rescue Mag,” I said, over the hubbub.
There was a great shaking of Migla heads, those ludicrous rubbery, flap-eared, pop-eyed faces like children’s playthings all swaying in unison. Everyone wore a crimson robe; the men held their stuxes, the throwing spears of Havilfar. But, as I well knew, the brave crimson robes and the deadly accurate stuxes would all be safely hidden away before these Miglas would dare creep out under the radiance of the moons to slink home by back alleys and slippery stairs.
Turko sat back, his bright eyes on me, and, as always, I felt his quizzical glance and knew he weighed me up. A great Khamorro, Turko, a master of his syple, cunning in unarmed combat. He would follow me, for he had said so. But into what harebrained adventures was I proposing to lead him now?
The general consensus was that Mag must be rescued before any move against the Canops could be made. Even then, I wearily suspected, these Miglas were not the stuff from which could be forged a fighting force fit to stand against the disciplined ranks of the men from Canopdrin. I had seen a little of this occupying army, and I recognized their expertise.
But, first things first.
After we had rescued Mag, we could then weigh the situation afresh.
“He is of a surety imprisoned in Mungul Sidrath,” said Planath the Wine. He looked troubled.
None of them had appeared surprised that I had returned with Turko, Saenda, and Quaesa. They knew I had rescued them from the citadel of Mungul Sidrath. They did not even show surprise at my announcement that I would help them in their fight against the Canops. Either they were too far gone in apathy, or they did not really believe, or they regarded this as merely a further happy result of the return of Mog the Mighty, their high priestess.
“Then it is to Mungul Sidrath I must go.”
Turko lifted his head. But he did not speak.
I said: “How am I to recognize Mag?”
At this old Mog the Witch cackled. She bent her forefinger and pointed it at her nutcracker face.
“You have seen me, Dray Prescot. Therefore you have seen a likeness of my brother.”
We were drinking beer, a thin and rather bitter stuff I did not much care for, although the Miglas lapped it up smartly enough. Now a man stood up, splayed on broad feet, his ears flapping, beaming the idiotic Miglish smile. He lifted his blackjack, beer slopping down the dark cracked leather.
“A toast! A toast to Dray Prescot who will go in the safekeeping of Migshenda of the Stux.”
“Aye,” rumbled from the assembled Miglas, and they stood and lifted their goblets and glasses and blackjacks, and drank.
It was a pretty gesture. But that was all it was, a gesture.
As the Miglas resumed their seats one man remained standing. He lifted his pewter mug to me.
“I will go with you, Dray Prescot.”
I looked at him.
Apart from the facts that he was a young man, that he looked fit and healthy, that he held his chin high, there was nothing to distinguish him from all the others.