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CRAIE'S swollen feet were agony, every breath he drew fought a hot band imprisoning his laboring lungs. He clung weakly to a rough spur of rock in the canyon wall, swayed against it, raking his flesh raw on the stone. That weathered red and yellow rock was no more unyielding than the murderous wills behind him. And the stab of pain in his calves was no less than the pain of their purpose in his dazed mind.
He had been on the run so long, ever since he had left the E-Camp. But until last night—no, two nights ago—when he had given himself away at the gas station, he had not known what it was to be actually hunted. The will-to-kill which fanned from those on his trail was so intense it shocked his Esper senses, panicking him completely.
Now he was trapped in wild country, and he was city born. Water—Craike flinched at the thought of water. Espers should control their bodies, that was what he had been taught. But there come times when cravings of the flesh triumph over will.
He winced, and the spur grated against his half-naked breast. They had a "hound" on him right enough. And that brain-twisted Esper slave who fawned and served the mob masters would have no difficulty in trailing him straight to any pocket into which he might crawl. A last remant of rebellion sent Craike reeling over the gravel of the long-dried stream bed.
Espers had once been respected for their "wild talents," then tolerated warily. Now they were used under guard for slave labor. And the day was coming soon when the fears of the normals would demand their extermination. They had been trying to prepare against that.
First they had worked openly, petitioning to be included in spaceship crews, to be chosen for colonists on the Moon and Mars; then secretly when they realized the norms had no intention of allowing that. Their last hope was flight to the waste spots of the world, those refuse places resulting from the same atomic wars which had brought about the birth of their kind.
Craike had been smuggled out of an eastern E-Camp, provided with a cover and sent to explore the ravaged area about the onetime city of Reno. But he had broken his cover for the protection of a girl, only to learn, too late, that she was bait for an Esper trap. He had driven a stolen speeder until the last drop of fuel was gone, and after that he had kept blindly on, running, until now.
The contact with the Esper "hound" was clear; they must almost be in sight behind. Craike paused. They were not going to take him alive, wring from him knowledge of his people and recondition him into another "hound." There was only one way; he should have known from the first
His decision had shaken the "hound." Craike bared teeth in a death's-head grin. Now the mob would speed up. But their quarry had already chosen a part of the canyon wall where he might pull his tired and aching body up from one hold to another. He moved deliberately now, knowing that, having lost hope, he could throw aside the need for haste. He would be able to accomplish his purpose before they brought a gas rifle to bear on him.
At last he stood on a ledge, the sand and gravel some fifty feet below. For a long moment he rested, steadying himself with both hands braced on the stone. The weird beauty of the desert country was a pattern of violent color under the afternoon sun. Craike breathed slowly; he had regained a measure of control. There came shouts as they sighted him.
He leaned forward and, as if he were diving into the river which had once run there, he hurled himself outward to the clean death he sought.
Water, water in his mouth! Dazed, he flailed water until his head broke surface. Instinct took over, and he swam, fought for air. The current of the stream pulled him against a boulder collared with froth, and he arched an arm over it, lifting himself, to stare about in stupefied bewilderment.
He was close to one bank of a river. Where the colorful cliff of the canyon had been there now rolled downs thickly covered with green growth. The baking heat of the desert had vanished; there was even a slight drill in the air.
Dumbly Craike left his rock anchorage and paddled ashore, to lie shivering on sand while the sun warmed his battered body. What had happened? When he tried to make sense of it, the effort hurt his mind almost as much as had the "hound's" probe.
The Esper hound! Craike jerked up, old panic stirring. First delicately and then urgently, he cast a thought-seek about him. There was life in plenty. He touched, classified and disregarded the flickers of awareness which mingled in confusion—animals, birds, river dwellers. But nowhere did he meet intelligence approaching his own. It was a wilderness world without man as far as Esper ability could reach.
Craike relaxed. Something had happened. He was too tired, too drained to speculate as to what. It was enough that he was saved from the death he had sought, that he was here instead of there.
He got stiffly to his feet. The time was the same, he thought, late afternoon. Shelter, food—he set off along the stream. He found and ate berries spilling from bushes that birds had raided above him. Then squatting above a side eddy of the stream, he scooped out a fish and ate the flesh raw.
The land along the river was rising; he could see the beginning of a gorge ahead. Later, when he had climbed those heights, he caught sight through the twilight of the fires. There were four of them burning some miles to the southwest, set out in the form of a square!
Craike sent out a thought probe. Yes, men! But there was an alien touch. This was no hunting mob. And he was drawn to the security of the fires, the camp of men in the dangers of the night. Only, as Esper, he was not one with them, but an outlaw. And he dare not risk joining them.
He retraced his path to the river and holed up in a hollow not large enough to be termed a cave. Automatically he probed again for danger. He found nothing but animal life. He slept at last, drugged by exhaustion of mind and body.
The sky was gray when he roused, swung cramped arms and stretched. Craike had awakened with the need to know more of that camp. He climbed once again to the vantage point, shut his eyes to the early morning and sent out a seeking.
It was a camp of men far from home. They were not hunters, but merchants, traders. Craike located one mind among the rest and read it in the details of a bargain to come. Merchants from another country, a caravan. But a sense of separation grew stronger as the fugitive Esper sorted out Craike nodded. This might all be a wild dream, but he was willing to see it to its end. A day with the caravan was a chance to gather more information from the men here and should give him some inkling as to what had happened to him and where he now was.
Craike's day with the traders became two and then three. Esper talents were accepted by this company matter-of-factly, even asked in aid. And from the travelers he gained a picture of this world which he could not reconcile with his own.
His first impression of a large continent broken by widely separated holdings of a frontier type remained. In addition there was knowledge of a feudal government, petty lordlings holding title to lands over men of lesser birth.
Kaluf and his men had a mild contempt for their customers. Their own homeland lay to the southeast, where, in some coastal cities, they had built up an overseas trade, retaining its cream for their own consumption and peddling the rest in the barbarous hinterland. Craike, his facility in their click speech growing, asked questions which the master answered freely enough.
"These inland men know no difference between Saludian silk and the weaving of the looms in our own Kormonian quarter." He shrugged in scorn at such ignorance. "Why should we offer Salud when we can get Salud prices for Kormon lengths and the buyer is satisfied? Maybe, if these lords ever finish their private quarrels and live at peace so that there is more travel and they themselves come to visit in Larud or the other cities of the Children of Noe, then shall we not make a profit on lesser goods."
"Do these lords never try to raid your caravans?"
Kaluf laughed. "They tried that once or twice. Certainly they saw there was profit in seizing a train and paying nothing. But we purchased trail rights from the Black Hoods, and there was no more trouble. How is it with you, Karak? Have you lords in your land who dare to stand against the power of the Hooded Ones?"
Craike, taking a chance, nodded and knew he had been right when some reserve in Kaluf vanished.
"That explains much, perhaps even why such a man of power as you should be adrift in the wilderness. But you need not fear in this country; your brothers hold complete rule."
A colony of Espers! Craike tensed. Had he, through some weird chance, found here the long-hoped-for refuge of his kind. But where was here? His old bewilderment was lost in a shout from the fore of the train.
"The outpost has sighted us and raised the trade banner." Kaluf quickened pace. "Within the hour we'll be at the walls of Sampur. Illif!"
Craike made for the head of the line. Sampur, by the reckoning of the train, was a city of respectable size, the domain of a Lord Ludicar, with whom Kaluf had had mutually satisfactory dealings for some time. And the master anticipated a profitable stay. But the man who had ridden out to greet them was full of news.
Racially he was unlike the traders; he was taller and longer of arm. His bare chest was a thatch of blond-red hair as thick as a bear's pelt; long braids swung across his shoulders. A leather cap, reinforced with sewn rings of metal, was crammed down over his wealth of hair, and he carried a shield slung from his saddle pad. In addition to sword and knife, he nursed a spear in the crook of his arm, from the point of which trailed a banner strip of blue stuff.
"You come in good time, Master. The Hooded Ones have proclaimed a horning, and all the out-bounders have gathered as witnesses. This is a good day for your trading, the Cloudy Ones have indeed favored you. But hurry, the Lord Ludicar is now riding in and soon there will be no good place from which to watch."
Craike fell back. Punishment? An execution? No, not quite that. He wished he dared ask questions. Certainly the picture which had leaped into Kaluf's mind at the mention of "horning" could not be true!
Caution kept the Esper aloof. Sooner or later his alien origin must be noted, though Kaluf had supplied him with a fur cap, leather jerkin, and boots from the caravan surplus.
The ceremony was to take place just outside the main gate of the stockade, which formed the outer rampart of the town. A group of braided, ring-helmed warriors hemmed in a more imposing figure with a feather plume and a blue cloak. Doubtless Lord Ludicar. Thronging at a respectful distance were the townfolk. But they were merely audience; the actors stood apart.
Craike's hands went to his head. The emotion which beat at him from that party brought the metallic taste of fear to his mouth and aroused his own memories. Then he steadied, probed. There was terror there, broadcast from two figures under guard. An impact of Esper power came from the three black-hooded men who walked behind the captives.
He used his own talent carefully, dreading to attract the attention of the men in black. The townsfolk opened an aisle in their ranks, giving free passage to the open moorland and the green stretch of forest not too far away.
Fear—in one of those bound, stumbling prisoners it was abject, the same panic which had hounded Craike into the desert. But, though the other captive had no hope, there was a thick core of defiance, a desperate desire to strike back. And something in Craike arose to answer that.
Other men, wearing black jerkins and no hoods, crowded about the prisoners. When they stepped back Craike saw that the drab clothing of the two had been torn away. Shame, blotting out fear, came from the smaller captive. And there was no mistaking the sex of the curves that white body displayed. It was a girl, and very young. A violent shake of her head loosened her hair to flow, black and long, clothing her nakedness. Craike drew a deep breath as he had before that plunge into the canyon. Moving quickly he crouched behind a bush.
The Black Hoods went about their business with dispatch, each drawing in turn certain designs and lines in the dust of the road until they had created an intricate pattern about the feet of the prisoners.
A chant began in which the townspeople joined. The fear of the male captive was an almost visible cloud. But the outrage and anger of his feminine companion grew in relation to the chant, and Craike could sense her will battling against that of the assembly.
The watching Esper gasped. He could not be seeing what his eyes reported to his brain! The man was down on all fours, his legs and arms stretched, a mist clung to them, changed to red-brown hide. His head lengthened oddly, horns sprouted. No man, but an antlered stag stood there.
And the girl?
Her transformation came more slowly. It began and then faded. The power of the Black Hoods held her, fastening on her the form they visualized. She fought. But in the end a white doe sprang down the path to the forest, the stag leaping before her. They whipped past the bush where Craike had gone to earth, and he was able to see through the illusion. Not a red stag and a white doe, but a man and woman running for their lives, yet already knowing in their hearts there was no hope in their flight.
Craike, hardly knowing why he did it or who he could aid, followed, sure that mind touch would provide him with a guide.
He had reached the murky shadow of the trees when a sound rang from the town. At its summoning he missed a step before he realized it was directed against those he trailed and not himself. A hunting horn! So this world also had its hunted and its hunters. More than ever he determined to aid those who fled.
But it was not enough to just run blindly on the track of stag and doe. He lacked weapons, and his wits had not sufficed to save him in his own world. But there he had been conditioned against turning on his hunters, hampered, cruelly designed from birth to accept the quarry role. That was not true here.
Esper power—Craike licked dry lips. They were illusions so well done they had almost enthralled him. Could illusion undo what illusion had done? Again the call of the horn, ominous in its clear tone, rang in his ears and set his pulses to pounding. The fear of those who fled was a cord, drawing him on.
But as he trotted among the trees Craike concentrated on his own illusion. It was not a white doe he pursued but the slim, young figure he had seen when they stripped away the clumsy stuff which had cloaked her, before she had shaken loose her hair veil. No doe, but a woman, she was not racing on four hooved feet, but running free on two, her hair blowing behind her. No doe, but a maid!
In that moment, as he constructed that picture clearly, he contacted her in thought. It was like being washed by sea-spray, cool, remote and very clean. And, as spray, the contact vanished in an instant, only to return.
"Who are you?"
"One who follows," he answered, holding to his picture of the running girl.
"Follow no more, you have done what was needful." There was a burst of joy, so overwhelming a release from terror that it halted him. Then the cord between them broke.
Frantically Craike cast about seeking contact. There was only a dead wall. Lost, he put out a hand to the rough bark of the nearest tree. Wood things lurked here, then only did his mind touch. What did he do now?
His decision was made for him. He picked up a wave of panic again, spreading terror. But this was the fear of feathered and furred things. It came to him as ripples might run on a pool.
Fire! He caught the thought distorted by bird and beast mind. The fire leaped from tree crown to tree crown, cutting a gash across the forest. Craike started on, taking the way west, away from the menace.
Once he called out as a deer flashed by him, only to know in the same moment that this was no illusion but an animal. Small creatures tunneled through the grass. A dog fox trotted and spared him a measuring gaze from slit eyes. Birds whirred, and behind them was the scent of smoke.
Excerpted from High Sorcery by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1970 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted September 21, 2012
This is a great collection of short stories by Grand Master Andre Norton. I read them when they were first published, and time has not dimmed the quality at all.
Normally I would give any book by Ms. Norton high marks; unfortunately due to the extremely shoddy proofreading and misspelled words there were portions of each tale that were completely unintelligible and hard to follow. I blame this on a rush to get the book into an e-reader format by the digital publisher.
Enjoy the short stories and ignore the problems if you can!
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