Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
They jabbered on at that; but all I would say — for fear I should fail — was that they must prepare themselves for the day. When that day came, they would be told.
And, even as I cursed myself for my own stupidity, I cringed a little at the thought of what the Star Lords would do. For I had not disobeyed the Everoinye. I had done what the Star Lords commanded, through their spy and messenger the golden and scarlet raptor, the Gdoinye. But — for the first time on Kregen — I had failed the Star Lords.
I had not failed them in Magdag but had been too successful.
I had not disobeyed.
I had failed.
What would they do to one who proved a broken reed?
The thoughts of Delia, and our twins, drove mad phantasms through my mind. What if, through my failure, I was banished from Kregen forever? If the Star Lords had no further use for me? The thought was impossible; I could not face it. I must recoup this situation, bash on, trample down any and everything that stood in my path. Oh, I did not relish my avowed intent, there in that ring of hills in backward Migla. But — better the Ice Floes of Sicce than being hurled back to the Earth of my birth and never more see my Delia, my Delia of Delphond!
Never before had I failed in what the Star Lords had set me to accomplish. This was no time to start.
Turko would come with me.
I bid Remberee to Mog and Med Neemusbane and Hamp, and set off for Yaman. We traveled secretly and by night, and I wore my old scarlet breechclout and carried weapons, and Turko wore the scarlet band about his forehead that was his new reed syple, and a shield strapped on his left arm. And so we came under the moons of Kregen into the ruins of the temple within the grove of trees sacred to Sidraarga.
Shadows dappled the stone where lichens already stained and obscured the sacred symbols. The moons rode the sky above and the pink moonlight flooded down. I moved into the shadows beneath the trees, and my brand gleamed naked in my fist.
The flier was still there.
This was the voller that had brought us out of Faol and away from the slavering if human jaws of the manhounds.
Turko said, “I have never inquired why you had to bring old Mog home, Dray, being content to follow you. And, now, I am filled with joy that I may lift a shield at your back. But—”
“And much do I value that, Zair knows!” I climbed up into the airboat. “In me, Turko the Shield, you behold a great and misbegotten fool! An onker of onkers, a get onker.”
“If you say so, Dray, I would be the last to correct you on so weighty a point.”
He was laughing at me again, this muscular Khamorro!
I checked over the flier and saw she was intact and ready to go. I would not give Turko the satisfaction of rising to his sarcasm; for all that we owed each other much, I still had that prickly feeling that he weighed me and sized me up at all times. I had proved to him through the disciplines of the Krozairs of Zy, of which he had never heard, that I was as good as any Great Kham produced by the Khamorros, and I had earned his shocked “Hai Hikai!” But, still, he wanted to know more of me. You could not fault him for that, I did realize, somewhat ill temperedly; for I own I am a great shambling bear of a fellow when it comes to human relations and I know what I want to do and say and, Makki-Grodno as a witness, I say and do the exact opposite. I have overcome that defect a great deal in later years; but it is a burden many of us bear.
With a finicky delicacy on the controls I edged the voller out from under the trees. Mog had truly said no one would venture into the sacred grove. We cleared the last boughs and I looked up ready to haul the lever into the ascent position, when I saw the black shape of the Gdoinye hard-etched against the glowing pink and golden face of the Maiden with the Many Smiles.
For an instant the accipiter hung; then it vanished.
No mistake was possible; that had not been some nocturnal, completely ordinary bird of prey. The Everoinye watched over me, watched me in my failure!
“Where away, then, Dray?”
“Do you know where lies Valka?”
“No.” Then he added, “I’ve never heard of it, I think.”
This did not surprise me. Kregen is a world where rapid transport by flier rubs shoulders with quoffa carts, where men in one continent cannot be expected to know very much of another continent, and that in the other hemisphere. And yet one expects travelers, businessmen with overseas agencies, military personnel, and, above all, the men of the air services, to be aware of vast numbers of names and places scattered across the islands and continents in this part of Kregen.
“Valka lies a trifle west of due north.” At this time on Kregen the magnetic variation was approximately naught degrees naught minutes and ten seconds west — which was very handy for calculation — and a due north course would serve admirably. “It must be something like two thousand or more dwaburs which, in this excellent voller, are a mere nothing.”
I said no more.
Around me in the flier a blue nimbus spread. I was aware of outside sounds slipping away, of Turko’s light voice fading. The blue radiance grew and began to coalesce around me into the gigantic form of a scorpion.
This was idiocy.
This was sheer lunacy.
Were the Star Lords then so abysmal a pack of cretins?
The blue radiance closed around me.
“You idiots, you onkers of calsanys of Star Lords!” I roared. “How will taking me back to Earth help you now? I am going to Valka and to Vallia to raise an army to fight the Canops and to free Migla! As you commanded! Are you so stupidly dense as not to see that?”
The blueness wavered, not thickening; but not thinning, either. I sweated. Would these lofty Star Lords heed my impassioned call? Or were they truly less than perfect and blind to my purposes? I had fooled them before — or, rather, not so much fooled them as twisted their motives to my own ends. “I have to raise an army somewhere, and the Migla money will not serve against the Canops’ control of the treasury!”
Familiar falling sensations swung me and I felt the faintness overcoming me. They were not listening! They were contemptuously hurling me back to Earth! This was unlike that other time I had struggled against the Everoinye, there in the courtyard of the Akhram as the Star Lords and the Savanti had through the agencies of the raptor and the dove sought to determine if I should stay on Kregen and to which side of the Eye of the World I should venture. I had gone eventually to the green north, to the land of the Grodnim. Who was to say what my fate would have been had I gone to the red south, to the land of the Zairians?
So, again, I struggled. I roared and raged and cursed and pleaded. The blue glow about me wavered uncertainly.
“If you banish me back to Earth now, you Opaz-forsaken cramphs, you will never free Migla! By the Black Chunkrah! Let me go to Valka and raise my own men. Then we will see how the army of Canopdrin fights!”
The scorpion leered down on me, at once surrounding me in the blue radiance and also hovering over me, that arrogant tail upflung as the constellation of Scorpio flings its tail across the night sky of Earth. I felt the beginnings of a fading, of a lessening of power and of a lightening of that lambent blueness. The glow blinded me. All I could see, suddenly and with a shocking clarity that told me the vision came from within my mind, the face of Delia blotted out everything else in the world of Kregen. But I did not utter her name aloud. Even then, onker that I am, I kept my wits about me. Instead, cunning with the cunning of the desperate, I screamed: “Let me go to Valka and there raise an army to fight for you, you — you Star Lords.” The thought had occurred that cursing them might not help, either.
The blue radiance rippled, as a pool ripples from a flung stone, trembled, and — instantaneously — was gone.
Turko was looking at me quite normally and saying, “I agree this is an excellent voller. We can make about fifteen db
and with stops to pick up supplies should be there in three and a half or four days.”
As far as he was concerned nothing had transpired. He did not know I had fought as hard a battle over my fate, dangled between two worlds four hundred light-years apart, as ever I had done — but not, Zair rot the Star Lords, as I was to do, as you will no doubt hear in due time.
Whatever their mysterious purposes were they clearly wanted me to reinstate the religion of Migshaanu — and her twin brother Migshenda the Stux, who was in something of a decline even compared with Migshaanu — pretty badly, enough to allow me to call them a bunch of onkers and calsanys and many another vile word I could put my tongue to. The voller drove up past that grove of trees sacred to Sidraarga and sped out over the face of the land spread beneath the moons of Kregen.
I was on my way home — home to Valka and to Delia.
A stowaway and I part on the field of the Crimson Missals
Delia held me fast and would not let me go.
She clung to me, not sobbing, holding me tight, her arms wrapped about me, her dear form pressed against mine so that I could feel the beating of her heart.
And I held Delia, my Delia of Delphond, my Delia of the Blue Mountains — and, now, to our eternal glory, Delia, the mother of the twins, Drak and Lela.
We could have stood thus, breast to breast, locked in a thankfulness and a joy that was a mutual rapture, until the Ice Floes of Sicce went up in steam.
But, eventually, outside forces broke in as the Emperor strode testily into that inner chamber in the high fortress of Esser Rarioch overlooking my Valkan capital of Valkanium. The room was low-ceiled, and tastefully furnished with sturm-wood and tapestries, with rugs of Walfarg weave and silks of Pandahem strewn upon the low couches, and in the corners vast jars of Pandahem ware with many colorful and scented flowers springing in a blaze of beauty. On the windowsill sat a flick-flick in its pot; but it was likely to go hungry here, where the very cleanliness and beauty of the place must repel flies.
“Well, son-in-law, so you deign to return home to your deserted wife!”
Reluctantly, I released Delia. She wore a sheer gown of silk — not Pandahem silk but silk from Loh — of a pale glimmering laypom color, and her brown hair with that outrageous auburn tint shone in the mingled streaming radiance from Zim and Genodras shining splendidly in the sky of Kregen. I had taken time to wash myself after that mad dash across the skies in the voller with Turko. I would not voluntarily present myself before my princess in any other condition than of utmost cleanliness; but there had been no time to take the baths of nine. I wore my old scarlet breechclout, still, and a Havilfarese thraxter swung at my waist.
How Delia had shrieked when I appeared in the door, thrusting impatiently past guards and attendants and footmen. We kept no slaves, Delia and I, on any of our estates. She had shrieked once, and then thrown herself into my arms and held me — and now her father, the puissant Emperor, was here and demanding explanations I could not give him.
“Well, Dray Prescot,” said Delia. “Am I your deserted wife?”
“Alas, my heart, to my shame, you have been.” How much could I let the Emperor know? Delia already knew of my absences so inexplicable to her, absences which she met with the sturdy resources of a loving heart. She must be told the truth, and I knew that even if she could not understand — as, by Vox, neither did I understand myself — she would not call me a madman and run for the guards.
“I have been away on business near to us all,” I said. And then I plunged. “I have brought back a voller — an airboat — that I do not think will break down or fail us.”
“That I cannot believe.”
“Indeed you would not, and I do not blame you for that. But I have been in Havilfar—”
“Havilfar!” They both said the word, astounded.
“Aye. There are secrets to be learned there it much behooves Vallia to learn.”
“That is true, Dray, by Vox!” The Emperor scowled as he spoke. Every Vallian resented the dependence on the manufacturers of Havilfar for the supply of airboats that continually failed.
“How are you here, Emperor?”
“That daughter of mine — she insisted we bring every resource into looking for you. You vanished on your way from Valka to Zamra. We have combed every stew, every alley, every barracoon — although, Delia and you, between you, are closing the bagnios so fast you’ll bankrupt us all.”
“We will not talk of that, my father, at this time.”
“As you will, daughter, as you will. Come, where is wine? I would like to drink a toast to this wild leem of yours, who swings a sword and pulls my hair.”
This was the man who had yelled a harsh command to his men to cut off my head — instantly. Well, times changed.
The twins were thriving wonderfully. Delia was blooming. Seg Segutorio and Thelda, his wife, the Kov and Kovneva of Falinur, were here also, aiding in the search for me. Inch, too, the Kov of the Black Mountains, with all his seven foot of height, was here. How we chuckled at these titles, for had we not all, at different times, been foot-weary nomads wandering with only our swords and our wits between us and destruction?
Also I saw my elders and council of Valka, and assured myself that everything ran smoothly. As I told Tharu ti Valkanium: “I warned you, Tharu, that I might be taken away on business. I am happy the island prospers so under your wise direction.”
To which he replied: “I have the help of the elders and of fine young men like Tom ti Vulheim, Prince. We shall not fail you.”
That evening in Esser Rarioch we caroused and sang in the Valkan way. The songs burst upward to the rafters, all songs we knew and loved. And, to my intense surprise, I found my Valkans singing that notorious song, “The Bowmen of Loh.” Since I had introduced an honor guard of Valkan Archers to the imperial court, and since Seg had proved by deeds as well as words that he was a true friend to Dray Prescot, Prince Majister of Vallia and Strom of Valka, the Valkans accepted the Lohvian bowmen as equals. Seg and I exchanged wry smiles at this; but we kept our thoughts to ourselves.
“Crossbows it is in Havilfar, mostly, Seg.”