Read an Excerpt
The woman prostrate on the desert sand moved with the lax tremble of imminent death under the vulture's outspread wings. The bird inclined his stiff black wings, circling in the air, and regarded the woman with unhurried patience, awaiting the moment of her death.
She rolled sluggishly onto her side and Rippasch the vulture curved above her, his twin shadows flickering across the sand. The woman opened her eyes.
The bird lifted and the polished beak, sharp and hooked, caught the radiance of the suns and glittered. The woman's eyes half-closed. Watchfully, Rippasch dropped lower. Now she lay still, sprawled and supine, a last quiver of her limbs signal enough.
The ochre sand stretched to the horizon unbroken except for the line of footprints, faltering as they neared the point where the woman had fallen. The twin suns burned high, red and green, drenching the barren land with heat. The bird flicked his wings and curved in to land on outthrust claws. He cocked his head to one side.
The woman's arms lay loosely, her left hand across her breasts where torn russet leather revealed tanned skin, her right open at the side of her thigh. That open right hand rested limply on the hilt of a heavy sailor knife. A roll of sand partially covered the broad blade where she had fallen.
No breeze blew to muffle the scratching sound of the vulture's claws as he strutted toward the woman. His beak pointed. Her eyes remained half open.
Cracks disfigured the softness of her lips and dust stained her face into the semblance of an idol's death mask. Her breast moved in shallow rhythm, slowing, dying, stilling toquietness. Rippasch fluffed his neck feathers and strutted forward.
The woman remained motionless.
Reassured, Rippasch fluttered out his wings and hopped onto her body. His claws dug into the tanned skin; they did not break through into the flesh or draw blood.
For two heartbeats the vulture poised on the woman's breast, a black wedge against the sunslight. For two heartbeats only--then his sharp beak darted forward for the feast.
The woman's left hand struck straight up.
Her fingers closed around the thin and naked neck. Any squawking shriek of fear or astonishment Rippasch might have uttered was mercilessly choked off.
The woman's right hand closed. The knife glittered once as it swept in a flat lethal slash.
The vulture's head flew off.
Instantly, the decapitated body was turned, was twisted upside down. The spurting flood of blood cascaded out in a jutting stream. That warm wet blood splashed over the woman's face, coursed into her mouth. Greedily, she lapped the blood, swallowing, feeling the moisture wet against her parched skin--wet wet!
She drank greedily, thirstily, gulping the red blood like a savage beast crouched over its prey.
At that moment the woman was a savage beast, ferocious and cunning, skilled in the arts of survival, and she devoured the goodness of the kill her prowess had brought her.
Presently she licked the sailor knife clean. Moisture was so precious not a drop must be wasted. She replaced the knife in its rawhide sheath at her right side, below the main gauche that snugged sweetly against her hip. The matching rapier--plain of hilt and guard, slender and yet not too slender, not a fancy weapon--remained in the scabbard swung on plain steel lockets from her left side. Her waist was narrow and the lesten-hide belt with its silver buckle, dulled from much use, was hauled up to the penultimate slot.
Standing up, she picked the sucked-dry carcass from the sand and shook it. Her hunger was not so great, yet, that she needed to fall upon the raw flesh. But she would, if she had to.
In her present situation she was sorry that she could not husband some of the blood. But that would be the first to go. Moisture was all important. And, again, from her experience she felt regret that the vulture had not chosen to attack her corpse toward evening. She might begin to sweat again, now, and that was sheer waste.
She looked about the hostile horizon.
Her airboat had decided to crash here in the Ochre Limits after a short, sharp and nasty onslaught from beastly flutsmen, murderous slavers who thought they had sighted an easy prey. She had shot three of them with her longbow and skewered a fourth. Poor Pansi had died with a javelin through her throat and big, bluff, laughing Nath the Jokester had died with a barbed spear through his guts. Clearly, the flutsmen wished to take her alive.
After she'd taken the left eye out of the fifth--Nath had dispatched two--the remnants flew off. She'd sent a last shaft after them and taken little comfort and only minimal satisfaction from the shriek of pain from the rearmost.
So, from a wrecked airboat and two dead friends, she had begun to walk out of the desert.
Had anyone asked her if she was afraid she would have told them in her cutting way not to be such a nurdling great fool, and then ignored the question and got on with the job of survival.
If you kept on stirring blood in a bowl you could stop it from congealing; but she had no bowl and the effort would probably have taken more energy than she would lose by drinking all the blood at once and accepting the consequent loss later. She walked carefully, not hurrying, minimizing her movements, wasting nothing of her strength. Normally she walked with a grace that turned heads, not in a voluptuous hip-swinging fashion, but as though she trod moonbeams. Now she went along as though walking a tightrope across the sand.
Since the reiving flutsmen had downed her flier and slain her friends, she had maintained her direction. She knew where she was and within a few miles of just how far she had to walk to reach the river. Otherwise she would have been forced to hide up in the daytime. She cocked a brown eye up. Up there, circling high, a black dot regarded her.
She considered this new Rippasch.
No. Not yet. She still had strength and the blood had revived her. Time yet to cover more distance, get off the sand and onto the gritty dust and rocks, before she need fall down and so take off the head of that insolent creature up there.
Mind you, she said to herself, in the way her husband talked, mind you, the vulture was only being himself and acting out his nature. Rippasch was hungry and thirsty, too. And, he did help to clean up the desert...
The Ochre Limits, uncomfortably thrust between the provinces of Falinur to the north and Vindelka to the south, existed mainly because the soil ran poor and sour. True desert they could hardly be called, although they would kill you from heat and thirst as finally as any of the great deserts of Kregen. The woman walked carefully as the gritty dust beneath her sandals more and more supplanted the shifting sands. She peered under her hand, looking ahead to the horizon.
She was too determined to acknowledge even to herself how much she longed for the first sight of the trees, glimmering in ghost veils through the heat whorls, to herald the river. Firmly though she might push down her feelings, they surfaced, from time to time. Then she had to fix her gaze on the shimmering horizon, and hold herself just so, and put one foot in front of the other, and march, march on.
Boulders showed here and there as she went along, and a few lizards skittered. The water table began to give sustenance to incredibly hardy growths, dusty ochre and umber like the Ochre Limits themselves. This gave her fresh heart. Those plants grew roots long enough to reach down to a Herrelldrin Hell; she'd exhaust herself trying to dig down for water. Best to keep on walking, one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
That Opaz-forsaken river had to be getting near by now, surely?
A bush of a size to reach to her knees went past as she walked on, and then another on the other side. Soon the ground, hard and dusty, could no longer be called barren. It was still useless for agriculture, fit for the wild creatures of the world. Folk said that only madmen or leem-hunters--and they were by nature mad, too--ever tried to live in the Ochre Limits. Her tanned fingers reached for the hilt of the rapier. Leems were nasty, ill-tempered, eight-legged beasts of ravening destruction and huge appetite. A rapier would be of scant use against a leem...
Scurryings among the bushes caused her to keep her head turning, her eyes alert. And the twin suns sinking down the sky ahead began to dazzle, casting long double shadows from bush and rock. Her mouth was afire. The blood had made her more thirsty than ever. The pebble she picked up to roll around inside the cavern of fire that was her mouth alleviated the problem a little; a little, not much.
Small animals ran away from her now. Tiny, furry little beasts, tiny scaled beasts, tiny naked-skinned beasts, they all ran. On them the larger predators preyed, and on them the bigger, and, finally, the leem preyed on all. One of these fine days, no doubt, there would be a leem hunt on a grand scale. But other things came before that. She found herself wishing that the grand leem hunt had taken place in the past.
Reality supervened. This wild, hostile badlands could not support life enough to maintain many leems. They would be solitary, each with her or his own area, mingling only during the mating season. She was, in all sober truth, unlikely to run across a leem. Should she do so, she'd do more than many and many a leem-hunter did in a season.
The thought occurred to her that she could be walking into a vast loop of the river. If she turned to left or right, to north or south, she might meet the river in an amazingly short time. Resolutely, she thrust the thought from her. She marched on, due west.
This river, the River of Shining Spears, ran from the Blue Mountains south-southeastward into the Great River, called Mother of Waters, She of the Fecundity. It marked off the southwestern edge of the Ochre Limits. The idea of water, sparkling, splashing, wet, tortured her.
The Great River ran on southward in generous loopings, through the capital city, Vondium, and so on into the sea. The river, the canals, the sea--all were wet.
This wonderful island empire of Vallia had seen perilous and terrible times recently. Enemies, overseas and within the island, had sought to topple the country and seize the reins of power. Well, many of those enemies had been dealt with, and those remaining would be dealt with in due time. She could not concern herself with problems of others at this time; survival meant keeping a tenacious hold on the reality about her, the drifting dust, the sloughs of sand, the scattered bushes from which might spring deadly peril.
Seasons ago the idea that reiving flutsmen could wing freely in the skies of Vallia would have been ridiculous. The emperor maintained order in his domains. But since the Time of Troubles and the revolutions and insurrections and invasions, times had changed. The old emperor was dead and the new struggled to hold together the tattered remnants of the people loyal to Vallia, sought to bring back the old days of peace. Much of his time, perforce, was spent overseas hurling back the challenge of enemies, carrying fire and destruction into their homelands, instead of the fair island of Vallia. The emperor of Vallia, who was also King of Djanduin and Strom of Valka and lord of many broad lands, carried within himself a dream of unity. Many people followed him with fanatical loyalty, and many more opposed him for their own advantage.
The woman continued to walk on across the badlands with a determination that would not surprise those who knew her.
Her legs must have dropped off a long time ago, she felt. Weird ideas kept whirling in her head. Leems and water and flutsmen and the state of the country, all muddled up with annoyance that the trip to Delka Ob, capital of the province of Vindelka, had been interrupted. She admitted to herself that she was tired, deathly tired; but, also, she would not admit that fact. As her husband said, tiredness is a sin, particularly for people with work to do.
The first tree sprang at her, quite unexpectedly.
It appeared to be a tall, leering presence, black against the suns' glow. The sky sheeted in jade and crimson, in ochre and gold, in delicate tendrils of mauve. So there were clouds left in the world, after all...
She moved aside to let the tree pass.
The next clump had to be rounded more cautiously. The fantastic notion was lodged in her head, along with the bells and the clamor and the hollow silence: the trees were sentient and walking and out to clasp her in their barky embrace.
She tried to stop, to take a breath, to force herself back to sanity.
Her legs refused to stop walking.
She went on, walking with her purposeful gait, walking on, unstoppable.
As she marched on with all the clamor bellowing away in her head and the muffled silences hollowing the edges of that uproar, she began to wonder if she had made a disastrous mistake. She knew where her airboat had been attacked, where her friends had died, the point from which she had begun her march. Perhaps she should have remained with the airboat until night, and then started. But she had had all day ... Perhaps that was the trouble. She fought the devils of self-doubt, and mistrust of her own judgments. She knew she was not unique in this. He who did not doubt, she who did not mistrust, must be lost.
But she had been so sure, so confident!
The distance to the river, the speed at which she walked, her own strength and determination ... The equation was not going to balance. Soon she would lie down. Then she would be finished.
If only those devils of flutsmen arrogant astride their saddle birds had not smashed the water jars! If only her flier had not been attacked at all ... If only...
She marched on, and now her head was high, her shoulders back, chest out, and she strode on, not as though drunken but as though forcing her way forward against a whirlwind that sought to hurl her back.
She was used to marching. She'd marched through the Hostile Territories. She'd marched with armies with banners. But now the pain in her feet and ankles had ceased. She could not feel anything in her legs at all, so that proved they'd fallen off long ago.
The long shadows dropped down.
She had completely miscalculated. The whole thing was a miserable fiasco--a fatal fiasco.
A sound obtruded.
A tinkling, running, splashing sound...
She couldn't run.
And in those last few moments as she forced herself on toward the river she knew she had not miscalculated, and, too, she knew she was not marching on, striding out, rather she was staggering, toppling, near falling, desperately trying to reach the water before she collapsed.
Blindly in the last of the light she marched straight off the edge of the bluff and plummeted headlong into the river.
She hit with a divine splash and wetness surrounded her in bliss.
Then it became imperative to reach the little shelving beach under the bluff at once.
Jaws and claws lived in the river.
A few powerful over-arm strokes took her to the bank. She pulled herself out and lay on the mud, dripping, her wetness a cloak of benediction. The fourth Moon of Kregen, She of the Veils, rose to cast down her fuzzy pink and golden light. The woman lay on the bank, in the mud, her brown hair spread and shining and the glory of her body abandoned to wetness. Magnificent, she looked, lying there, rounded and lissom, abandoned, sprawled, her tanned skin glowing through the rents in her leather russets.
Something hard squelched in the mud at her side.
A voice said: "By Vox! I'll fight any man who says I'm not first!"
Her eyes snapped open. She took a breath.
"Well," said another voice, thin and nasal. "She's not dead then, Hirvin."
"Out of the Ochre Limits," said another.
No one offered to fight Hirvin.
The woman turned and half sat up, leaning back on out-thrust arms. The clustered men, six of them, caught their breaths. They sat their mounts at the top of the bank. Moonshine glittered on their metal. Shadows ran and concealed their faces beneath the helmet brims.
She had been concerned lest she encounter a wild and savage leem; what she had encountered was far more dangerous.
Their lances spiked up from stirrup boots, the pennons indistinct and unrecognizable in the hazy half-light. They bestrode totrixes, and the ungainly six-legged riding animals stood docilely enough, proof of harsh discipline in their management.
Hirvin cocked a leg over his saddle and dismounted.
Automatically, he took a hitch to his belt.
"Fetch her up here," he said, and the order was obeyed with betraying alacrity.
Three of the others dismounted and slid down the bank. They seized the woman, who did not resist. They brought her up to the top of the bank. The light of She of the Veils shone down. By that haloing golden light the hard hawklike faces came clearer, harsh with incessant patrols of the badlands, harsh with imposed discipline, harsh with unrealized ambitions and denied wish-fulfillments.
"A Beauty," said Hirvin, and he sucked in a breath. His face congested. An old scar shone lividly against the browned skin. He put a hand to the cheap and ornate clasp of the first of the belts girding him.
The woman put out her tongue and--as though exploring forgotten territory--licked her lips.
She swallowed and shook her head. She opened her mouth and a strangled cry changed to a wheeze. Then she could speak.
She said: "Llahal. You should know that--"
Hirvin bellowed laugher. He threw the first belt down and the axe it carried clashed against the hard packed earth of the higher bank. He roared.
"Polite, this one! Trained, I don't doubt! By Vox--Llahal to you, shishi, and play your part well, and--"
"I am not--"
"That's of no consequence." His voice sharpened. "Hold her!"
She moved her arms, in a particular way, and the two fellows grasping her were grasping thin air.
The rapier cleared scabbard sweetly. The main gauche slapped up, crosswise, in her left hand.
"You would do well to go your ways. You are swods, soldiers to be ordered. You are not brigands, murderers--"
"We are swods and we've had no fun for days on end--"
Hirvin saw something, something in the way the woman held the rapier and left-hand dagger, that made him rip his own sword free. It was a clanxer, a straight cut and thruster. He rushed, with a yell, aiming to smash past with superior weight and strength and knock the woman down with the flat.
He struck. The woman was not there.
But her rapier passed through his upper right arm.
"Do not make me kill you," she said.
"Howling Hakkachak the Hungry!" he screeched. His left hand clamped around his arm, pressing, and still a dark blot of blood stained out over his fingers. "Get behind her, you fools! Grab her! By Vox, I won't be denied my pleasure from this beauty--"
The first fellow to grab her, the one with the broken nose and the silly sly grin, fell back, staring stupidly at the dark wet line across his forearm. That was blood. He looked up, starting to yell, and Hirvin roared again.
"You miserable stupid onkers! Get around her! Trip her up! By Vox, do I have to do everything myself!"
The other two men climbed down from their totrixes hurriedly. They fanned out in the moonlight, circling the woman. She turned at once and ran toward the bank, ready to dive in and chance the jaws and claws of the river.
She was amazed at her own weakness. A hand clamped on her arm, and a fist grabbed her brown hair. Her head was cruelly jerked back. A foot struck and knocked her legs from under her. She was aware of realizing that she did have her legs, and that was interesting, as she fell. They dragged her up to Hirvin.
A knobby fist hauled on her hair, forcing her to lift her face. She stared up at the man who looked down on her, gloating. He gloated as much from pride that he had won, as for any anticipation of what he intended. The scar moved as he spoke.
"You stuck your sword into my arm. Two can play that game."
The others--dutifully--laughed at the sally.
"Lial, do you go up to the hut and get things ready. Hot water and bandages."
The fellow with the freckles and snub nose ran off at once. The woman was dragged up by her hair. They held her, hard and harsh, and they took the rapier, main gauche and sailor knife away.
"A pretty thing like you oughtn't to play with men's weapons." Then Hirvin roared out again, his good humor restored, the sting from the rapier thrust ebbing. His men guffawed, genuinely, and they dragged the woman with them along the bank.
Their guard hut abruptly showed a light through the window as Lial struck flint and steel and caught the tump ready for the lamp. That was a cheap mineral oil lamp, and would no doubt stink all night. The place contained bunks for ten men, an audo, with a curtained alcove for the leader. The light showed his rank markings. Hirvin ranked as a ley-Deldar. The woman was pushed down on a bunk and the men stood back, staring at her.
She sat up. Sly looks passed from swod to swod. Young Nal swallowed, visibly trembling.
She said: "You are--"
"Say nothing, shishi." Hirvin held out his arm without looking as Lial bustled up with a cloth to wipe away the blood. "As soon as this little pink is bandaged, then you and I will try a fall or two, and not with Beng Drudoj, either."
Chuckles sounded in the little hut. The mud brick walls were hung with cheap and garish cloths such as could be bought for a silver sinver in any bazaar. A cooking stove built into the wall stank of grease. The bunks draped grayish bedclothes, heaped like stranded and decaying fish. The lamp, inevitably, smoked.
An arms rack, built of mud brick with some wood, held spears, stuxes, axes and short swords. The men, watching the woman, began to take off their weaponry. Outside sounded the clatter of hooves as the totrixes found their own way into their stalls.
"Watch her!" snarled Hirvin, then winced as Lial slapped a steaming cloth onto his wound. "Careful, oaf!"
The water stood ready on the stove, and it was clear the men were willing, very willing, to forgo their evening meal until afterward. Patrolling the river and the edge of the Ochre Limits was a miserable existence.
When Lial finished bandaging Hirvin's arm, the Deldar took a breath, sniffed, drew in his stomach and flexed his arm experimentally. He looked at the woman.
"Will you scratch? If you do you will have to be tied down."
"I will do more than scratch--"
"Get the clothes off her! Tie her down! By Vox! No little shishi balks me--"
She kicked the first one so that he turned green and rolled about the floor. The second only just missed having an eye removed. The third got a grip on her hair and then keened in agony as two fingers struck up his nostrils. The other two fell on her, bearing her down by weight, and Hirvin simply leaped on top of the lot.
The door of the hut opened and the growing night breeze blew dust across the floor. Hirvin, sliding forward and hitting his wounded arm a crack on the edge of the bunk, yelled.
"Shut the door, Tandu, for the sake of Ben Dikkane! And keep that brat of yours outside if you don't want him to see man's work."
He reared up and swung about as his comrades grasped the woman, holding her. Now she struggled unavailingly, lissom, supple, her brown hair aswirl.
The four-armed man in the doorway said, curtly: "Stay outside, Dalki. See to the totrixes."
Hirvin's momentary distraction as his wounded arm cracked against the bunk edge, and from shouting at the four-armed Djang, gave the woman a tiny moment in which to act. The two men holding her felt her movements and could not hold her. One wrung his hands as the wrists poured molten streams of pain up his arms, the other reeled back with blood spurting from his nose. The woman leaped up onto the bunk, panting, brown hair wild, and from the last of her assailants she snatched the fighting man's dagger. Heavy, unadorned, designed to be a gut-spiller, the dagger menaced the men in the hut.
She looked a magnificent savage beast of the jungle, broken free of her chains, uncaged, no longer shackled for the delight of the passing trade.
The Djang, Tandu, used his upper left hand to sweep the dust-covered cloak up over his shoulder, out of the way. His height overtopped all. His broad, ferocious, open Dwadjang features congested with blood. He stepped forward and knocked over a three-legged stool. He did not notice. He stared at the woman, poised on the bunk. She did not brandish the dagger; she held it as a person holds a weapon they know well how to use.
Some of the swods were over the first shock of their injuries at the hands of the woman. They gathered themselves together, and stood up and wiped the blood away. They looked at their leader, at ley-Deldar Hirvin, and murderous intent disfigured their faces. They were mercenaries, hired for a mind-dulling task; they would not be balked of their prey.
"She's only a woman!" yelled Hirvin. "She will not stop us with a dagger. Get behind her, throw a blanket over her, bear her down!"
Young Nal, trembling, scampered around the end of the bunk and Lial and Long Naghan snatched up a blanket. Tandu, the Djang, stared at the woman.
His hand, his upper right, whipped out one of his swords. His lower left drew a long dagger. He advanced, he did not shut the door as he had been ordered, and his boots scratched on the blown dust. His hip collided with the edge of the nearest bunk and dislodged a marching pack there, which fell and emptied its contents onto the dusty floor. He did not notice.
He stared. His face, congested, broad, a furious ferocious frightening Djang countenance, empurpled.
He shouted. He roared in such a voice as would bring the very stars out of the sky.
"Do not touch her!" His lower right hand caught in Vogon the Amsant's hair, and jerked the bulky mercenary back. He thrust himself on, sword lifted, dagger snouting. He was visibly shaking with passion.
"What nonsense is this?" screeched Hirvin.
Tandu the Djang drew himself up. His sword swept in the ritual salute to the woman and then flickered out, a bar of lethal steel, to menace Hirvin.
"You fool! This lady is my queen! The Queen of Djanduin!" The Djang sword darted for Hirvin's throat. "This is the Stromni of Valka! The Empress of Vallia! Delia of Delphond, Delia of the Blue Mountains!"