Authors: John Brunner
Tags: #Science fiction
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This year the first new moon of spring fell early. In the hill passes the way was still slippery with ice. By day the travelers’ breath, and that of their beasts of burden, wreathed before their faces in transient curlicues, while the feet of the less fortunate grew numb inside crude straw-stuffed clogs from the soles of which a few nails protruded, hopefully to give extra purchase on the steepest stretches; by night, when the caravan made bivouac, water had to be got in the form of pailfuls of snow, which they melted down, shivering around tiny fires. The highland streams were still frozen, and there was no fuel except what they had themselves brought.
But even with frost forming on their eyebrows they plodded along willingly enough, and offered no complaint. They counted themselves fortunate to be under the direction of Trader Heron, master of this caravan. Often and often on a bitter night, with wind whisking dry, powdery snow from the shoulder of some rocky overhang, with the chill light of the moon lying on the stark black and white bones of the range, a voice had spoken of the risk of bandits, starved and desperate at the end of winter; and another had scoffed, demanding what hunger-weak bandit would dare attack such a convoy as this: hundreds of pack-animals, a thousand people, and Trader Heron’s own armed guard posted on overnight watch!
But the time for such anxiety was over, at last, and the faintest-hearted were glad they had plucked up sufficient courage to venture on the journey. To reach the city Carrig before the season of the king-hunt meant much extra profit; here, the coming of spring seemed to thaw people’s purses as it thawed the snow of the hills.
And now they had crossed the border of the Carrig
domains; already they had encountered winter watchmen descending from the high forts, and done some small impromptu trading with peasants emerging from their snowbound farms, who were also intending to visit the city for the king-hunt. After the rutted hill-tracks, the level metaled roads of the lowlands felt like a path strewn with pillows, and—secure in the knowledge that bandits had not penetrated Carrig’s frontiers in living memory—merchants, drovers, hangers-on, and soldiers alike relaxed into laughter and song as they rode or marched on the last leg of their arduous journey.
Trader Heron himself was not the least pleased among the company. He was a large, jolly-faced man, far more affable than most who enjoyed such power and influence. His name was a byword over half a continent, thanks to the caravans he organized—always on the most profitable routes, always planned and equipped so well that he showed returns on his investment of 50 or 100 percent, when other caravan masters had to be content with 10. Yet even his fiercest rivals disliked him only for his business acumen, not for himself. He had a house and a wife in each of the four cities between which his caravans plied most often, but in no place could he settle; he must always be up and doing. He had spent the past winter in an enterprise toward the Western Ocean, the sea to which Carrig’s own river ran, and had returned less than a month ago—barely in time, his rivals hoped, to recruit his caravan for Carrig. Yet he had seemed to need do no more than snap his fingers, and there they came running.
He sat his huge riding-graat like a cheerful statue, the brim of his flat hat tilted back from his face, the twenty capes of his greatcoat falling around him like the roofs of a pagoda. Daytimes, the travelers ate on the line of march, taking from their packs the cold remains of the dough-cakes they had cooked the evening before on flat brass griddles or, if they were poor folk, on red-hot stones. Although it was not yet noon, and they were well in sight of the city of Carrig itself, force of habit made them adhere to their regular routine on this final day of the journey, and Heron did the same as the rest, accepting from his personal attendants big bannocks sweetened with
syrup and chewing them in rhythm with the motion of his steed.
Thoughtfully he looked toward the rising towers of the city and wondered what was in store for them this year. On his last visit the atmosphere had been tense; all too easily the frustrations and inconveniences of a long, hard winter might cause hatred to fester, like gangrene in a frostbitten limb. And, come to think of it …
He brushed crumbs of bannock from his beard and called to one of his men-at-arms, ordering him to bring to the head of the column a boy who had indeed had his toes frozen; he should be got into the city quickly, so that a surgeon might see to him.
The notion of suffering from the cold reminded him to glance back and see how the two men from the southland were getting on, the ones he had struck up an acquaintance with during the trip. There they were, as usual, just a few paces behind. It was fairly common for southlanders to turn up on caravans to Carrig. Most often they were merchants hawking some southern novelty, or artisans who had heard that their skills were in demand in the northern towns; some were mercenaries; some few were men fleeing blood-guilt, condemned to five or ten years’ exile; again, there were entertainers seeking new audiences; and in the height of summer there were usually a few pilgrims bound for the northern sanctuary, though these seemed to grow less numerous year by year.
The two men who rode at his back, however, had attracted Heron’s attention first because they seemed to fit into none of these classes. Obviously high-born, from their sophisticated—even arrogant—bearing and their educated interest in the country through which they were passing, they yet did not appear to be wealthy, for their possessions were limited to two riding-graats each, on one of which, turn and turn about, they loaded their clothing, provisions, and utensils; and neither of them had any attendants. By name they were Belfeor and Pargetty, but since these were two of the commonest southern patronymics, Heron was little wiser for knowing that. He had privately decided that they must be renegade younger sons from noble families, turned adventurer for want of better prospects at home.
They interested him greatly, for when talking at night around the fire they had revealed—when they spared time from the inevitable southlanders’ complaints about the cold—a skepticism and rationality rare among the superstitious local people, even to questioning the divine right of the gods to order human lives by whim. Heron hoped that he would not lose track of them when the caravan dispersed in Carrig; he wanted to hear more of their opinions about the world.
The city Carrig had grown organically from its situation, like a forest spreading. Near the Smoking Hills, which curved about it in the north like the arc of a bent bow, the land was wonderfully fertile, because lava breaks down rapidly into productive soil. Hence there was soon a surplus of food.
Only a few miles distant a great river turned from a rushing, rocky torrent to a broad, calm waterway flowing west into the ocean. Accordingly, a settlement grew up at the highest navigable point; in a generation or two its overlords, grandsons of raftsmen and boatwrights, waxed fat on taxes and commission by trading dried sea-fish for vegetables and meat in casks of brine. Out of enlightened self-interest they spent some of their profits in building a good river-port with wooden jetties and, later, stone quays, and in hiring mercenaries to protect their warehouses from bandit raids.
Meantime, cities in the southland began to prosper, and the occasional straggling bands of peddlers and pilgrims who followed the north-south road through a pass in the Smoking Hills and continued to the northern sanctuary—then greatly revered for its oracles—developed into caravans, hundreds strong, with armed escorts against those same bandits. It was logical that they should make a stopover at Carrig; to encourage them, the lords of the city built a bridge and saved them having to ford the river. Eventually it was only natural for Carrig to become a destination instead of a way station. Nowadays barely one caravan in four continued north from the city, and those exclusively for religious purposes, having shed traders and workers and indeed everyone bar pilgrims and perhaps guards convoying a valuable offering made by some
wealthy southerner clinging doggedly to the ancient beliefs. But the northern sanctuary had lost its magnetism now, and other cults had supplanted the original faith.
Dominating Carrig was a last outcrop of the hard rock over which the river tumbled in its upper reaches. On this acropolis a fortress and a temple loomed like thunderclouds. The fortress was of gray local stone, the temple of a pinkish rock that had been floated upstream on flat-bottomed barges, but the greater part of the city which wandered haphazardly from the foot of the citadel toward the river was of wood.
So also was the bridge, before which the caravan had to halt for customs inspection and to ensure that the drovers did not in their eagerness burden the planking with more than two graats at a time. Despite careful repair work at the end of last summer, the bridge showed signs of the hard frosts just past; water had soaked into some of the great piles, as thick as a man’s chest, and on freezing there had split the wood lengthways.
At the head of the procession, Trader Heron reined his graat to a halt. Patiently the big-headed beast snuffled and grunted, carrying on an endless conversation with itself. From the guardhouse on the far side of the river, officers whom he recognized came striding out; one of them called to dismiss the runner who had brought news of the caravan’s arrival in Carrig territory, and the man saluted and headed for home with a cheerful expression.
Heron was not quite so happy. By two’s, it was going to take the rest of the day to pass the graats over the bridge, and he had no special desire to watch the whole process—indeed, he had excellent reasons for not doing so. Surely, since he had been passing this way four times a year for twelve years, the customs officers would not mind dealing with his overseen instead of himself?
Leaning forward on his saddle, he addressed the senior of them.
“You’ll appreciate that if we do not gain audience with Sir Bavis Knole before sundown, we’ll be constrained to wait out the week of the king-hunt without licenses! You’ll allow me to go forward at once, and those under my aegis with me?”
“Surely!” the officer replied at once. “Leave but enough
men to move your beasts when the inspection’s done, and we’ll not require your further presence, trader!”
“I thank you heartily,” Heron said, sweeping off his hat and sketching the bow which his girth and his posture alike rendered impossible. With a nod to an overseer nearby he indicated that some suitable gift should be given to the cooperative officer, and then he turned to Belfeor and Pargetty. Most of the other southerners had already crowded as close to the bridge as possible, anxiously eyeing the sun.
“For religious reasons no official business is done for a week following sundown on the evening of the spring new moon,” Heron explained. “Without casting ourselves on the protection of the city, and gaining citizens’ rights thereby, we’re not allowed to trade, to buy and sell in public places, or to seek work. Nor have we the protection of the police. We must hasten to the fortress and secure an audience with the regent, Sir Bavis Knole.” He hesitated, scrutinizing the southlanders’ faces for a response and detecting none. Baldly winding up, he said, “Well, take it from me that to be caught in Carrig without citizenship can be awkward, whether or not you wish to engage in trade—as, for instance, if your purse is stolen and the police will not assist you to recover it.”
Belfeor, dark-browed, heavy-set, exchanged a glance with his fair companion Pargetty. He said, “May we then ride with you and obtain this audience?”
“I was about to suggest it,” Heron nodded. “Rejoin me on the other side of the bridge; they will only permit laden graats to cross by two’s.”
When they had done so—followed by a volley of abuse from others of the caravan who did not see why southerners should enjoy special privileges—Belfeor spoke up again.
“You mentioned religion a moment ago,” he said. Heron fancied that Pargetty shot his companion a warning glance, but could not decide why. “As I understand it, is not this king-hunt rather a matter of politics, to decide who shall rule the city?”
“Here in Carrig the two go thus.” Heron held up his right hand with the first and index fingers crossed. “Their customs are strange indeed.”
“For myself,” Belfeor shrugged, “I hold that nothing human can be called strange.”
Heron’s turn to shoot a glance at him. That was a remarkable statement for a southerner to make! In Carrig it would probably be unthinkable. No doubt about it: Belfeor and his companion were going to be worth cultivating.
Neutrally, he said, “Well, I’m a roving man, and I have to act as I’m required wherever I go. Certainly to me it seems that yours is the proper attitude.”
They were coming now into the city itself. It had no wall about it, for in the days when bandits used to ravage this area the whole populace could find refuge in the citadel, and now, when twenty such citadels would not hold everyone, the bandits were stood off at frontiers a day’s march distant It was clear that people were preparing for festivities; over the doors of houses and shops, symbols of the clans had been erected, and on many street corners as well as in the vast marketplace near the waterfront, sharp-faced men had set up betting-tables. Chalked on boards behind them were contenders’ names and current odds. This year one name headed every list: Saikmar son of Corrie, of the Clan Twywit. Heron, who had come here for the king-hunt twelve years running, had never seen such low odds or such unanimity. Indeed, a few of the boards offered one thousand to one in favor of Saikmar to discourage further bets.
“They wager on the success of the contenders?” Belfeor said in a wondering tone. “This does surprise me.”
“Many say it’s disrespectful,” Heron agreed. “But, see you, there has been an interregnum of eighteen years, and accordingly the city has been ruled by the Clan Parradile, who for their totem-kinship with the king cannot take part in the hunt. Some argue that betting has been encouraged to degrade the status of the contending clans in the eyes of the common folk.”