Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
The thick forest ended a hundred feet away from the ville, the rocky ground dotted with low tree stumps, the air redolent in the thick smell of pine. Anybody, or thing, trying to reach the ville would cross that open ground and be an easy target for the ville defenders.
This close, Ryan could now see what had caught his attention at the bottom of the hill, and gave a low whistle. The log wall of the ville rose about twenty feet and was completely covered with intricate carvings of griz bears, bull moose, mountain lions, soaring eagles and fiery mushroom clouds. Naked sec women beheaded stickies with swords, volcanoes spewed lava and giant worms battled predark army tanks. Some of the designs seemed new, while others were darkly weathered.
Only the front gate was different, the smooth surface covered with sharp sticks draped with concertina wire. Sec men walked along the top of the decorated wall, and guard towers rose from behind, along with numerous thick plumes of smoke. This was obviously a heavily populated ville. A gallows hung over the wall at one point, a rotting corpse dangling from the noose, squawking birds pecking off bits of the decomposing flesh. The arms ended at the wrist, the hands missing, clearly indicating that the crime of the deceased had been theft.
“Gaia, I’ve never seen anything like these carvings before,” Krysty said, not sure if she found the decorations offensive. The only purpose of a wall was to keep out coldhearts and muties. Nothing a damn thing more. To make them pretty seemed inappropriate somehow. Almost…obscene.
“Must be a bitch doing fresh ones every time the wall gets damaged from a fight,” Ryan observed, downshifting the gears. The engine rebelled and he fought to keep control. The man guessed there was really nothing wrong with making a ville wall pretty. He’d just never seen it done before.
These elaborate carvings told him much about the locals. Unless they had a lot of highly skilled slaves, which was highly unlikely, the people in the ville didn’t mind hard work, and that meant they were good fighters. Not because of physical strength, although that always helped, but because of the discipline involved. Willing workers made good fighters. One just seemed to go naturally with the other. Ryan frowned at the thought. Could this be the source of Delphi’s convoy hands? It was a disturbing possibility.
As the baron galloped toward the ville, the front gate swung open exposing an inner bulwark of crushed rock topped with a muzzle-loading cannon. The sec men and women behind the cannon crisply saluted the baron as he rode by with the running sec men close behind.
Rattling and clanking every inch of the way, Ryan directed the war wag through the gate and angled around the bulwark to enter the ville. The amassed sec men behind the bulwark didn’t salute this time, and watched the clattering wag in close scrutiny, scarred hands resting on the holstered blasters by their sides.
As the Cyclops shuddered past the formidable gate, Mildred could only stare at something nailed to the wooden jamb. A small roll of paper, or maybe parchment, tilted slightly off center.
“Madam, am I mistaken,” Doc said softly, “or was that a Jewish prayer scroll on the gate?”
“Sure looked like a mezuzah to me,” Mildred said with a wide grin. “Maybe this mountaintop ville was a winter ski resort before the war. Or at least a winter retreat. Perhaps a lot of Jewish people left the big cities around Christmas to get a break from the nonstop barrage of carols for a holiday they don’t celebrate. Possible.”
“Then skydark hit in January, trapping them here,” Doc mused. “So they turned the ski resort into a fort to survive.” Made sense, he supposed. The companions had encountered villes ruled by Aztec priests, the Amish, a Russian czar…so why not a religious group such as the Jews? After civilization crashed, the world had been up for grabs and a lot of folks reached out to seize a handful for themselves. It was nice to know that a couple of villes were being run by thinkers and scholars, instead of the usual amoral sociopaths.
As the war wag started down a wide street paced with bricks and loose gravel, every civilian in sight stopped whatever they were doing to gape at the machine with ill-disguised contempt. Ryan could hardly blame them. The Mack was literally held together by duct tape now, and could come apart at the seam at any moment. Privately, the man was impressed that the war wag had made it this far without bursting into flames. Whatever else was true about the desert cannies, they had definitely been good mechs.
“Where did you get all of those fancy rapid-fires?” a sec man shouted up to the cab over the banging engine. “Got any more brass for them? What would you take in trade?”
But Ryan said nothing, pretending he couldn’t hear over the laboring diesel.
As the war wag rambled along, Krysty noted a shallow gutter running down the middle of the street. That could be for gathering drinking water or to pool the rain to extract the sulfur to make black powder. Possibly both.
Not surprisingly, wood seemed to be the primary construction material in the forest ville; nearly every building was made of hand-hewn beams, the lintels adorned with intricate carvings, ranging from obscene to comical. Only the roofs were different: a wild conglomeration of plastic sheeting, sheet metal and crude clay tiles, anything capable of withstanding the deadly acid rain.
Closely watching the passing crowds, Ryan saw that there were a lot of people carrying crossbows, but only the sec force had blasters. Good. If the companions had to leave in a hurry, that would aid their departure a lot, Ryan decided.
The sounds of the ville filled the air: drunken singing from a tavern, the shrill laughter of gaudy sluts, a couple of bare-chested men fighting in an alleyway surrounded by other men placing bets. A group of children ran dangerously in front of the war wag chasing a dog with a piece of plastic in its mouth. A blind man sat cross-legged on the street, darning a sock.
Somewhere a man was singing, a woman sobbing and somebody playing a badly tuned guitar. The air smelled of boiling soup, freshly sawed wood, spent black powder, curing leather hides, fresh bread, horse dung and, of course, the all-pervasive aroma of pine.
“Look, over there!” J.B. said excitedly.
In the alleyway between two stores were a lot of junk cars and trucks, piled three, sometimes four, layers deep. Among them were a couple of large vans, a tractor, a snowplow and a Mack truck cab. The tire and rims were gone, the gas tanks rusted through and full of buzzing bees. But the wreck was exactly what they needed. That was, if any of the hoses were in good condition. There was even a windshield only mildly scratched.
“Bingo. Is glass hard to install?” Mildred asked in a worried tone.
“Nope, easy as pie,” the Armorer replied amiably. “Just have to make damn sure it doesn’t drop!”
“Straw on floor,” Jak commented as if that settled the matter.
“Not a bad idea at that,” J.B. admitted, pulling a bit of cigar from his shirt pocket to inspect the stubby roll, then tuck it away. “Hopefully our flintlocks and black powder will fetch a good price from the baron. We’re bastard sure not trading any of our modern pieces.”
Slowing his mount to an easy trot, the baron rode around a corner. As the war wag followed, Ryan saw a large corral full of horses and a couple of large barns. One of them had the outline of a horse painted above the doors, while the other had a castellated gear. Nobody needed to know how to read to figure out which was for horses, and which for wags. At the approach of the noisy wag, the horses started uneasily nickering, more than a few rearing up to slash the air with their hooves and loudly whinnying in disapproval.
Coming to a halt, Baron Levine slid to the ground and pointed at the barn doors. A couple of the sec men rushed forward to throw them open wide, showing a large interior covered with sawdust, the walls lined with neat rows of parked vehicles, brown delivery vans, Beamers, a police car and a lot of snowmobiles.
“Park it in the back!” the baron shouted over the laboring engine. “Near the grease pit!”
Applying the brakes, Ryan got the huge vehicle through the doors without hitting the jamb, then braked to a complete stop in the middle of the barn. Shifting out of gear, he twisted off the engine and listened to it sputter on for almost a full minute before finally going still.
Throwing open the doors and hatch, the companions clambered out of the war wag, only Jak staying in the rear to guard the supplies and spare blasters.
“Ya know, outlander, I had a dog make similar noises once,” a sec man said, hooking thumbs into his palomino-colored gunbelt. “Shot the poor thing myself out of sheer kindness.”
“Then boiled it for soup, I suppose?” Krysty asked, crossing her arms.
The man grinned. “Of course. Why waste a perfectly good dog?”
“Sounds like a mitzvah of mercy,” Mildred quipped, hefting the med kit over her shoulder.
With that, every sec men in the barn turned their attention to the physician, and the baron slowly raised an eyebrow. “And how do you know that holy word?” he demanded politely, his grip tightening on the leather reins.
Privately, Mildred cursed herself for the slip. What was common knowledge back in her time was probably forbidden arcania nowadays. “An old friend used it a lot. Said it meant a good deed or act of kindness.”
“It does,” Baron Levine replied, easing his stance. “And I’m pleased to know there are others of our faith still alive in the world. I assumed we were the last of the Israelites.”
“No, there are others. Not a lot, but some,” Mildred stated.
“Are there?” the baron said, nodding. “Good news indeed.” Patiently, he waited for a couple of minutes hoping she would say more, but when it was clear that she was finished talking, he dismissed the topic with a shrug. They would talk further on this matter later, when they were alone. He’d make sure of it.
By now a crowd of villagers had gathered outside the barn, most of them with small children. They all craned their necks for a better view of the war wag and outlanders, but nobody dared walk into the barn. Wags and blasters were only for the sec force, even if they didn’t work. That was the law. Villagers were not allowed to even touch such things.
“Lord Baron, there were some wrecked wags back in the ville,” J.B. said, taking off his hat and slapping it against a leg to shake off the dirt. “Do we talk to you about doing a scav for spare parts, or somebody else?”
“Unfortunately for you, those belong to Sergeant O’Malley,” the baron said, sounding apologetic. “But I’ll see that he accepts any fair offer you make.”
“What about the homemade blasters of those coldhearts?” Ryan asked pointedly. “Those should come to us for doing the chilling. That enough?”
Now some of the sec men began to grin and nudge one another.
“Yes, those blasters would be enough for anything you want,” the baron said, rubbing his chin. “That is, if he can also have their clothing, boots and knives. Do we have an accord?”
Trained by the Trader, Ryan knew a good deal when he heard it. “We have an accord,” he said, making sure to repeat the odd word.
“Done and done,” Levine stated, tilting his head slightly. “Let’s go to my home so that you can wash and meet my wives. I’m sure they will be eager to meet the people who have removed the thorn of Dexter from the side of our ville.”
Ryan shook his head. “We’ll be happy to come for dinner, but we’re sleeping here with the wag.”
“Yes, I see,” the baron said, narrowing his eyes. “Fair enough, I suppose. I could offer to put guards on the barn to protect your belongings, but they would be my guards, so what’s the point? You’ve earned our trust, not the other way around.”
He paused, then shouted, “Sergeant Cuthbert!”
“Yes, my lord?” a broad sec man asked.
“Send in some braziers and charcoal to keep our guests warm through the night. I’ll see to the banquet tonight.”
“At once, sir!”
“In the morning we can…” The baron stopped talking.
At the doors, the crowd parted to allow a hunchbacked woman to shuffle into the barn. At her appearance, the villagers and sec men ceased all conversations and became so still that the cawing of the crows feasting on the hanged thief could dimly be heard.
Her long hair was the deepest black, nearly ebony, with only faint wings of silver at her temples. Her dress was worn but clean, her moccasins layered with different colored patches. The hump on her back was pronounced, nearly bending her double, and she walked stiffly and with obvious difficulty.
Stepping a few yards away from the companions, the wrinklie raised her head to show that her eyes were pure white.
“What is it, Haviva?” the baron asked in a surprisingly gentle voice.
“I have a message for the newcomers,” the blind woman said softly, almost in a whisper. “Those who walk the invisible road that spans the world below the ground.”
The sec men and villagers looked perplexed by that cryptic declaration, but the companions became tensely alert. They didn’t know who the woman was, but that had sounded like a pretty good description of the gateways hidden in the subterranean redoubts.
“Everybody out!” the baron commanded, gesturing broadly and pulling his horse along. “The doomie needs to speak privately with the outlanders!”
All of the others quickly left the barn; only the baron remained. Nothing happened in the ville without his knowledge and consent, and that included future events.
The companions stayed in place, closely watching the wizened hunchback. They had encountered muties before with the gift of seeing into the future. Doomies were usually sickly, as if their frail bodies could not support the terrible weight of the knowledge in their minds.
When the double doors were closed and bolted, Doc brought over a burlap sack of sawdust and placed it behind the hunchback. Fumbling with a clawed hand, Haviva found the lumpy bag and sat with a grateful sigh, as if completely exhausted from the torturous ordeal of standing.
“Which of you is the leader?” she asked.
“That’s me,” Ryan answered, brushing back a stray lock of his dark hair. “What do you want to tell us, old one?”
Raising her head, Haviva directly faced the man. “In the sand,” she whispered. “There is a key hidden in the sand that opens the door that cannot be approached. You must find that key in order to slay the ancient giants!” Sweat broke out on her brow and trickled down her lined face. “The giants want only good, to help all of humankind. Their hearts are pure! But their plans will fail, and we shall pay a terrible price in new fire!”
New fire. Did she mean there was going to be a second skydark? Ryan wondered. And what were these giants she spoke about? Some predark tank or warship? Those were often called giants. And what was this door that could not be approached? That couldn’t be a redoubt. They went through those all the time. Just then, some dim memory flickered, then vanished just as fast.
“Where are the giants?” Ryan asked, casting a glance sideways at the baron. Levine was listening to the conversation in total confusion. Good. The less the man knew, the better.
“But you know where they are!” Haviva went on. “You have seen their home. That is the door!”
“The door that can’t be approached.” Ryan snorted in disbelief. Okay, enough of this shit. She had him going for a moment, but this was going nowhere fast. The idjit doomie was making no sense at all.
“No, I speak the truth!” Haviva insisted, as if hearing his unspoken thoughts. “The giants have sent a holy warrior to find the machine that walks like a man! But they must not succeed, or else that death will forge a chain that ends us all!”