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Authors: Howard L. Myers,edited by Eric Flint

Tags: #Science Fiction

The Creatures of Man (37 page)

BOOK: The Creatures of Man
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"I know," said Basdon. "I did my share of smashing as a god-warrior."

"Don't let your past deeds prey on your spirit," the magician admonished. "A man who has fought, within himself, the power of the universal geas and won a partial victory deserves praise rather than blame."

"A partial victory, indeed," said Basdon, recalling the nightmares that had troubled his nap in the bed nook.

 

 

3

The journey resumed the following morning, this time with Basdon in front, leading a somewhat aged mare which had belonged to the sorceress Haslil and now ridden by her granddaughter Eanna. Jonker followed with the packhorse tied to his saddle.

It was well, Basdon mused, that there was a separate mount for the child. Though she was no more than six years old, she was exceedingly fat. Jonker murmured something to Basdon about "compulsive eating" as a symptom of the girl's affliction, and it was easy to see she was afflicted by the worshipper curse.

She had become slightly hysterical when Basdon made to lift her onto her mount.
"Don't touch me!
" she had squalled. This reminded the swordsman strongly of Belissa who also, more often than not, reacted badly to the touch of a man.

Then, to add to the absurdity of it all, she allowed Jonker to lift her aboard with no fuss. Evidently his ministrations to her the day before, Basdon guessed, had taken the magician out of the category of "man" and placed him in the safer image of, perhaps, "uncle" or "doctor."

The straw-yellow color of the child's hair also called Belissa to Basdon's mind, and so did her generally sullen demeanor. As the first morning on the road progressed, the swordsman detested the child more and more.

But Eanna was an accurate guide, as Jonker affirmed during the midday rest.

"I know the first twenty leagues or so of the route," he told Basdon privately, "and the tyke hasn't missed a single turning."

The first night was spent in an inn, still well inside the borders of Nenkunal. They stopped there long before dark, so as not to tire the child unduly with too much unaccustomed riding. The little girl ate a supper fit to fill a burly wood-cutter and puffed off to bed.

Basdon's dislike gave away briefly to awed wonder the next morning when she put away a breakfast that would have left him too full to move. No wonder she was so fat. The oddity was that, despite the way she was eating, she appeared no fatter than the day before . . . possibly a shade less so.

That morning she was less grumpy on the road, and seemed to take a childish delight in being able to command the movements of two adults. During the afternoon some trivial remark of Basdon's (he never learned exactly what) irked her, and the sullenness of the day before returned in full force. For an hour she grew increasingly fretful as she directed them along a dwindling trail that wound laboriously along the side of the highest mountain they had yet encountered.

Basdon glanced back at her finally and saw her eyes were large with alarm. He guessed she was frightened by the gloominess of the mountainside, where tall trees kept the trail in perpetual twilight.

Annoyed with himself for disliking a helpless child, he said gently, "We will come to an opening soon, won't we? We can rest there for the night."

"I d-don't know," she replied in a tremulous whine.

"Oh? Where did your grandmother stop for the night?"

"I don't know that, either. I mean . . . I do know, but it wasn't along here."

He sensed pure terror in her voice and reined his horse to a halt. "What's wrong, child?" he asked.

"I'm lost!"
she wailed, and began weeping loudly.

"Lost?" Basdon looked at Jonker who had drawn up behind the girl's mare and was watching her in expressionless silence.

"Y-you made me m-mad," the child sobbed, "so I went the wrong w-way to fix you!"

The swordsman stifled a groan of anger. "All right, I'm sorry I made you mad," he snapped. "Now stop crying and we'll get back on the right road."

"I-I don't know
how!
" she bellowed. "I been trying for a long time, but I d-don't know the w-way! This black old p-path keeps going wrong!"

Basdon started to reply but was stopped by a gesture from the magician. For minutes then they sat silently on their horses while the little girl continued to bawl.

Then Jonker said, "I believe I can find the way back, Eanna. Just leave it to me. In two hours of riding we'll be back on a trail your grandmother showed you."

She stared at him in hopeful disbelief. Obviously it had not occurred to her that these men could find their way anywhere without her guidance. "You can?"

"Certainly. But we can't ride another two hours today. I noticed a spot a few hundred yards back where we can stay the night in fair comfort, however."

He turned his big mare about and moved off. The swordsman and child followed.

After Eanna had proven that her emotional upset had not harmed her appetite and had crawled into her tent, Basdon asked the magician, "Did you know what she was up to all the time?"

"Yes," Jonker replied, poking idly at the embers of the campfire. "I didn't interfere, because it was best to let her learn her lesson here in Nenkunal, where one can stray in fair safety and where I'm familiar with the lay of the land. Such a spiteful little prank could be costly later on, in worshipper country. I think she will try nothing like that again."

After a moment Basdon said, "The fault is mine in part. The blubbery brat irks me, and I have perhaps made less effort than I should to conceal my dislike, and treat her kindly. I will try harder hereafter."

"That would be helpful, swordsman. We must keep in mind that the child has no one but us to depend upon for protection and care, and we are yet practically strangers to her. She needs assurance that she can trust and depend upon us. When she feels disliked, as she did today, she is likely to do some foolish thing to prove that we need her as much as she needs us. I imagine when she led us astray, she had a vision of you on your knees before her, humbly begging her to guide you out of the wilderness, and promising her anything she wanted." The magician chuckled and added, "Such dreams of blackmail have to be thwarted, of course, when they occur. But better yet, a child should not be obliged to have such dreams."

Basdon nodded but said nothing. He felt ashamed of himself.

* * *

As Jonker had promised, he led them back to the proper route with no difficulty the next morning. Eanna seemed relieved to be once more on a road she knew.

And Basdon noted she seemed far less babyish than before. The misadventure of the previous afternoon, he decided, had definitely matured her.

She even looked more mature, like a child of eight years rather than one of six. Perhaps that was due to the fact that, despite her fantastic appetite, she was losing fat under the unaccustomed exercise and strain of travel.

That afternoon they crossed the unmarked border of Nenkunal in the unpeopled Hif Hills. They were now in a region that had been untraveled for years, and the trails were thick with weeds and waste-brush, often to the point of being obscured and almost impassable. Eanna's eyes often flicked about with alarm for a space of hundreds of yards in search of a familiar marking. Then she would spot something that had survived the years since Haslil passed . . . a distinctive rock outcrop, or boulder, or twisty little ravine . . . and giggle with relief. At such times Basdon, heeding Jonker's words, would turn in his saddle to give the child an approving smile.

In the night's camp beside a tiny stream, Eanna retained her unusual good spirits as well as her usual tremendous appetite.

Basdon's eyes studied her back as she arose from her place by the fire and walked slowly to her tent. Her rump was still a protruding balloon of blubber, but it no longer threatened to split her dress with every waddling step. In fact, her clothing now hung somewhat loosely on her. The child was definitely losing weight.

Which was nothing to worry about. She had it to spare.

The next morning as he helped the magician prepare breakfast, he saw the girl come back from the stream tugging at her dress, then peering down at the results with a puzzled expression.

The hem of the dress reached only to her knees. Basdon frowned. The last time he had noticed, that same grubby dress had concealed the child's gross legs well below the knee.

"Jonker!" he hissed. "The kid's gotten taller!"

"Yes," said the magician. "All that food and fat had to be going into something. I realized what was happening yesterday."

"But this is unheard of!" the swordsman objected.

"Among worshippers, perhaps it is," replied Jonker. "Not among magicians. It is a cruel geas to inflict upon a child, which is perhaps why it is so effective now when the universal necromancy stifles most benignant applications of The Art. No doubt it is the work of Laestarp."

"Just what's happening to her? Is she going to become a giantess?"

"No, she's merely growing up and maturing faster, at a rate of approximately one year per day. It is a two-week journey to Oliber-by-Midsea. Eanna will be a young woman of twenty when we reach there."

Basdon stared in shock at the girl, who was kneeling in front of her tent with head and arms inside digging through her belongings, probably in search of a longer dress. Her big rump hiked her skirt high in the back, revealing an ugly expanse of lumpy, pasty-white thighs.

"But why should even a creature like Laestarp want to do that?" he demanded.

"I can think of two reasons," said Jonker. "One, he wanted a woman, force-grown under his control, for his sexual enjoyment and abuse. Two, he meant to blackmail old Haslil by offering to break the geas on the child in return for the grandmother's cooperation. I doubt if he had the power to break it, but Haslil might have yielded if she had lived and we hadn't arrived."

"I wish I had killed him more slowly," Basdon gritted. After a moment he added, "Should she be told what's happening?"

Jonker sighed. "She needs some kind of explanation, but not the truth. I'll handle it tonight, after giving it more thought."

The explanation must have been a good one, although Basdon did not learn exactly what it was the magician told the child. In any event, Eanna took her continued rapid advance toward adulthood with evident pleasure as the days passed. Remembering what Jonker had said about her feelings of insecurity, Basdon guessed she was pleased to think she would so quickly be a grown-up, able to fend for herself if need be.

But she was bothered by the manner in which her clothing covered less and less of her, especially after a joking remark by the swordsman. She did most of her growing at night, so that every day her dresses rode higher on her legs.

"We can count the days of our journey," Basdon quipped, "by the darkening rings of tan around your thighs."

She reddened and glared at him while tugging futilly at the hem of the dress. "That was an ugly thing to say!" she lashed at him.

He grimaced. "My apologies, child," he muttered. How like Bellisa her reaction had been!

* * *

They came down from the Hif Hills into countryside in which Basdon felt uncomfortably at home. This was worshipper territory, and Jonker stared at the stunted crops in the fields.

"This is a starving land," he remarked in dismay.

"Not starving," said Basdon. "By slaving from dawn till dusk, these people produce enough to keep themselves fed most of the time."

"But they will have none to spare us, and our food is nearly gone."

"We have gold," Basdon shrugged. "They'll gladly sell us anything they have, to the point of keeping no food for themselves."

"They are so fond of gold?"

"Yes. We must be cautious in dealing with them, to not let them suspect the amount of gold we carry. They would see it as a fortune worth killing strangers to obtain."

The magician nodded his understanding.

The ragged workers the travelers passed at intervals gazed at them, sometimes covertly, with cold curiosity. None responded when Jonker shouted greetings, so after a couple of attempts he kept silent. But he studied them with his sharp magician's eye.

"I can make little of them," he sighed at last. "The geas is too strong upon them, obscuring their spirits. What they think of us I cannot say."

Basdon chuckled. "They take us for townsmen, which means to them that we are evil tricksters who will rob them by subterfuge if they give us the chance."

"You don't think, then, that they suspect we're not worshippers?"

"No, they don't suspect. On the other hand, they won't think we're
good
worshippers like themselves, since we're not ragged farmers."

The girl Eanna complained, "This place isn't pretty like it used to be."

"You'll see little prettiness the rest of the trip," Basdon told her.

When the narrow road they were following passed close to a hovel that looked affluent in comparison to most, they stopped and the men dismounted.

"Hello!"
Basdon yelled at the silent house.

After a moment he saw a shadow of movement through a tiny glassless window. Whoever was inside was looking the travelers over with greedy fear, he suspected, and the best thing to do was wait patiently.

Finally a harsh female voice responded, "Be on your way, townsmen! I have nothing with which to buy whatever you sell! So go, and get that creature taken in sin from my sight!"

Basdon glanced at Eanna whose blank expression showed that she did not know the caustic words referred to her. He suppressed a grin. The way the girl was growing out of her baby dresses did leave her indecently exposed by local standards.

"We are selling nothing, good woman," he replied. "Rather, we are buying for good gold. Our provender runs low. We need cured meat, sweetroot, ground grain, and wine."

"Starve or eat magic!" she yelled back.

"As you can see from the figures of my companions," he answered good-humoredly, "we have no desire to starve. Nor can we eat magic, although I have dealt with magicians in my time." As he said the last, he slapped his sword to make his meaning clear. Then he fingered a square coin out of his belt pouch and flipped it in the air and caught it. "This piece of gold has known the inside of a magician's pocket," he said.

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