Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
The shadows gyrated madly. Crimson torchlight bounced from the corpse-white trunk and tendrils. The leaves of the trap, like doors hinged flat, quivered. I felt a light sliding glance on my arm and halted instantly.
But — Turko!
The wall at our side had opened. In some way the tunnel was wider still and a second syatra growing from the wall, its roots seeking the hot water, flailed its tendrils above us. We were directly between the two. Their tendrils locked and closed about us. Turko yelled. Two tendrils wrapped around his body were pulling him two different ways, toward the two opposite traps. In scant seconds Turko would be torn in half.
The Miglas demand revolutionary vosk-stuxing
Instinctive reaction lifted my sword arm. I was ready to slash through the tendril nearest to me. Then I, Dray Prescot, paused. Sheer blind bloodthirsty passion had almost condemned my new comrade Turko to death. Instinct to action here was useless. If I slashed through this near tentacle, then the other would have nothing holding it and so could spring back with all its hideous power and snap Turko into the barbed coffin of the trap.
Turko’s magnificent body strained. His enormous strength concentrated in resisting the twin pulls. His body was being torn in half, but his training, his discipline, and his muscles fought every inch of the way.
One tendril cut would be followed instantly by the springing of Turko into the trap. The coffin-leaves would close and the spines bite, like a vegetable Iron Maiden, and perhaps a thin trickle of Turko’s blood might seep past those clenched vegetable lips.
Instinct had been quelled, and thought had taken over; but to tell you all this has taken ten times longer than the facts of action. In almost the same moment the tendrils lapped Turko and he yelled, I had seized his body in my left arm, throwing the torch to Med and trusting to his quick-wittedness to catch it, had reached across and slashed the tentacle and almost had my feet pulled from under me, so savage and powerful was that force pulling from the opposite syatra. There was time — but only just, only just! — for me to follow that swiping swing with a second and sever the far tendril.
Turko was on his feet in an instant.
“By the Muscle! Burn the monsters!”
He thrust his torch at the nearest syatra and the thing went crazy. Tendrils lashed and writhed, the torch went spinning, to plunge to a fizzing extinction in the boiling water. Med yelled. He was slashing with a stux, not the most handy of weapons for the business, managing for the moment to keep clear of the Gorgon’s hair. My thraxter was circling and hacking and hewing all the time, leaving a growing heap of dismembered tendril tips scattered on the floor about us.
This whole scene was awry. How could the old king and queen of Migla have come walking through here in secret to their devotions in the temple? In the ceiling, erratically lit by the two remaining torches — Med had flung mine back — I could vaguely make out a straight line crack, some six inches or so wide. Now if . . .
I whirled the torch in that crazy steamy atmosphere. The king and queen would have brought samphron-oil lamps. I saw the long lenken lever protruding from the wall well past the syatras and a look back showed its counterpart. We had missed it in going past, an easily done thing in that treacherous light.
With a wild yell I whirled the torch at the near syatra, slashed more of those tendrils away, hacking and slashing, jumped for the lever. A tendril lapped my thigh as I reached the lenk. I ignored it. I felt the vegetable strength of the thing, horrific, dragging me back. With a single last heave I laid my hand on the lever and dragged it down. It resisted and I used all my strength, and with a clashing of gears and a great groaning, the lever fell.
“Look out, Dray!” Turko yelled savagely.
A single stroke from the thraxter severed the tendril around my thigh; but the stroke was unnecessary. From those two six-inch wide slots in the ceiling, one on each side of the tunnel and parallel to it, vast slabs of slate descended smoothly, their massive weight in some way counterpoised behind the walls. As they slid downward so the tendrils wriggled backward, bunching, coiling, avoiding the descending edge of slate. The last corpse-white wriggling tentacle slipped back beneath the slate and the two edges struck the ground with a hollow and reverberating clank.
The running water which gave sustenance to the syatras also must power the counterweight mechanism.
Turko peered over his shoulder, frowning. He never did like having his body ripped up — well, no one does, of course. But for a Khamorro the sanctity of his own body is very close to his heart.
“By Migshenda the Stux!” breathed Med. “We were nearly cast adrift on the Ice Floes of Sicce then!”
“Aye,” said Turko. He breathed deeply and flexed his biceps gingerly, testing. Everything seemed to be in order, which put my mind at rest. “By the Muscle! They were strong kobblurs.”
Trust Turko for a comment on the aspect that affected him!
We advanced, relighting the torch after some trouble, and found no less than four more levers and slate barricades which, descending with a rumbling roar, walled off the voracious syatras. Although I had not previously encountered this famous plant of Kregen, I had heard of it. It liked hot damp climates in general, and I understood Chem was choked out with the things. No doubt the builders of the temple and Mungul Sidrath had thought it a capital scheme to employ them when they had a ready supply of hot water. The cracks in the roof were not casual cracks at all but carefully constructed ventilation tubes, and no doubt their upper ends would be concealed in innocent-seeming masonry of an innocent-seeming building.
During the day the twin Suns of Scorpio would shine down here for a space sufficient to sustain the syatras.
We padded on and were thankful to leave that tunnel of dark and dank and danger to our rear. We came up into a shaft around the inside of which a narrow spiral stair led upward to — to more darkness and danger, for a surety.
We had, of course, no idea where Mag, twin brother of Mog, would be imprisoned. We did not even know if he was still alive.
Many and many a time have I crept into a fortress, a naked brand in my fist, bent on one nefarious scheme or another. This time I was out to rescue an old Migla and take him back so that the religion of which his twin sister was high priestess might regain its former glory and puissance. Then, if we were lucky, we could turn the Canops out of Migla. We padded through the lower levels of Mungul Sidrath and we were not gentle with those whom we met. We did not run across that dolorous cavern of the waterwheels, where slaves heaved and struggled to hoist water up to the high towers, so that the nobles and lords and ladies of the occupying Canoptic army and court might bathe and wash and refresh themselves. I took the time to don a Canoptic soldier’s uniform, the white kiltlike lower garment, the greaves, the lorica, the helmet, and I took up his shield. As he had done before, Turko ignored the weapons, but he took up a shield and slid it up his left arm. I remembered what Turko had done with his shield on that fragile bridge above the rushing waters of the cavern, and I own I felt greatly more happy about life with Turko at my back with his shield.
And, of course, as you must guess, Turko soon became called Turko the Shield.
Presently a Jiktar, sweating, frightened clean through, the point of my sword drawing a bead of blood from his throat, was only too happy to tell me what we needed to know. I knocked him senseless, for that was his due, and we prowled on along the dungeon-lined corridor he indicated. Men and women crowded to the bars. Hairy and whiskery faces peered out, arms beseeched us through the iron bars, a wailing chorus of utter despair which senses that utter despair may be ending screamed at us as we passed.
“When we return, Med,” I said, hard and unpleasantly.
“As you will it, Horter Prescot.”
I did not blow up at his formality, taking it as a reproof.
‘Take your formality to Makki-Grodno, Med! I have been Dray to you — there is no need for ‘Horter.’ We will release them when we return, for otherwise they will raise the citadel about our ears.”
He glanced at me, and away, and gripped his stuxcal. For a Migla he had a spirit I admired. He must have had, for since when did I, Dray Prescot, the Lord of Strombor, condescend to explain my every order?
These were political prisoners, which in Migla meant religious prisoners.
A Deldar, arrogant in his brilliant uniform, strutted down toward us as we reached the end of the corridor where an iron-barred gate concealed the final cell. Med hurled his stux. The squat wedge-shaped blade smashed into the Deldar’s lorica, punched on to lodge fatally in his heart. Gouting blood from his mouth — for the wide blade must have severed all his veins and arteries there about his lungs — he toppled without a scream.
“Stupid calsany,” commented Turko.
The final cell yielded up Mag.
Mog had spoken truthfully. The oldster after the fashion of very old people was hard to differentiate as to sex. He looked just like Mog. The same beaky nose, the same rat-trap jaws, the same toe-cap chin. He blinked as the torches glittered across his eyes.
This was where Med Neemusbane proved the value of his coming with us. He was able with quick words and the right and correct references to the religion of Migshaanu to convince old Mag that we were friends, come to take him to freedom. The Canops no doubt had plans for him, for they could not be absolutely sure they had crushed the religion, and old Mag, with suitable encouragement of a kind I would not seek to dwell on, would have been a pawn to reimpose their will. We helped him back along that dismal corridor of incarceration, and we opened all the barred doors on our way, swearing vilely at the inmates to be silent. Like released slaves from a swifter, they could not contain their joy, and they ran about, some picking up weapons, others kicking prostrate Canops, others falling to their knees in thankful prayers.
“Mag!” I shouted. “Tell this rabble to follow us. And, by the diseased left armpit of Makki-Grodno, if they don’t stop that caterwauling they’ll have the whole Canoptic army at our throats.”
Mag tried to calm them, but I saw he never would, and as my duty was to him I hustled him away. Turko and I hefted him between us, and he whistled through the air, his feet six inches off the ground and flailing.
We had to put him down half a dozen times to deal with isolated parties of Canops come to investigate the uproar. We noticed that none came upon us from the rear, and from this we took heart. The released prisoners were fighting, then.
Some came with us. Men hardy enough to want to get out with Mag and begin the struggle from the outside, when they were prepared, and not to idly throw away their lives in here.
At one point one of the Miglas, who looked just as stupidly flap-eared and rubbery as any of the others, but who had a rolling muscular look about him, hesitated as we were accosted by a detachment of Canop soldiers. A Migla next to this one, whose name was Hamp, screeched as a crossbow bolt thunked into his belly.
Hamp held a stux he had picked up from a dead Canop.
“Imagine they are vosk, Hamp,” I said. I spoke quietly, without drama, reasonably, as though discussing an abstruse point of their own religion with him. “Hurl with Migshenda’s skill.”
The idea struck him as novel. “Vosk!” he shouted. I loosed and hit a Deldar in the mouth. Hamp bunched up, poised, and threw. His stux battered away the shield of a Canop soldier and slashed out the side of the fellow’s face.
“It is done!” Hamp shouted. His curious Migla face looked dazed. “Canops are vosk, to be stuxed!”
Looking back, I saw that was the crux of the problem. The Miglas
sought to fight off the Canoptic invasion, but I had put down their complete failure against what were so few men as being due to the superb organization and military discipline of the Canops. But the reasons ran deeper than that.
Here on our own old Earth the East has a tradition that only certain races or tribes are warlike. Others are never reckoned as being of martial spirit, as being of any use as soldiers. Certain developments in the last few years have undermined this belief. In Europe we are a warlike lot, it seems, for the West does not have the same tradition. So the Miglas were a religious nation, and warfare something with which they were unfamiliar. For the Canops, the army represented the ideal. The Canops, with a few regiments and a tiny air arm, had subdued the whole country of the Miglas. Now they sought to maintain their conquest.
With more Miglas like Med Neemusbane and Hamp, I judged, the task I had considered almost insuperable might have a solution that was one I could accept. We reached the open air and climbed back through the tunneled stair and so came out into the ruins. The Maiden with the Many Smiles shone down on us. We made our surreptitious way back to the tavern leaning so crazily on the bank of the River Magan.
The Loyal Canoptic
buzzed with activity that night. I worried over that. The two girls were gone, having been sent on the first stage of their journey home.
The Loyal Canoptic
was a sarcastic name for Planath the Wine’s tavern. Before the time of tragedy it had been called
The Loyal of Sidraarga.
Now I fretted that Canop patrols, or any of the mercenaries they employed, would hear the sounds of merrymaking and investigate.
If they did so, of course, every man of the patrol would be dead. But that would only stir up fresh trouble.
The tangled skein of politics in Havilfar, and the delicate balances of power, I found fascinating. The Canops had been able to carry out their conquest of Migla, their own island of Canopdrin in the Shrouded Sea being made uninhabitable by the volcanic activity there, because no one wished to fight them on this issue. The Canops were no more powerful now than they had been. This was not an empire-building conquest. On the other hand, there were many countries around the Shrouded Sea which would welcome the downfall of the iron men from Canopdrin. Their army discipline and organization, I discovered, was not peculiar to them, or remarkably exceptional. The Canoptic army was a fair representative war machine of most countries of Havilfar.