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The two fellows following me down the noxious alley in Amintin made a reasonable job of skulking in the shadows. When they crossed the open mouths of side alleys through the fuzzy pink moonlight they'd fail even the most elementary examination for any Assassin's Guild. They were most likely common footpads who'd picked me up as a likely victim the moment I'd entered the alley. They might not be. They might have other and altogether more sinister reasons for dogging my footsteps. Well, bad cess to 'em. There was a task I had to do here set to my hands by the Star Lords that overrode petty considerations like a couple of thugs or assassins.
"You will make contact with a man named Fweygo," the Star Lords had told me. "He will inform you of your duties."
In these latter days of my dealings with the Everoinye they still retained a flavor of their old arrogance even though my whole relationship with them had changed. This adventure was a whole new start, a completely fresh departure in my rackety life on Kregen. What the task was they had not deigned to tell me. Mind you, they had condescended to equip me with clothes and weapons and this unusual event still startled.
The hazy pink moonlight of The Maiden with the Many Smiles slanted into the unwholesome alley. The Star Lords had landed me just inside the dock wall of the river port. Some of the fortifications looked unusual to the eye of an old warrior; but this was a very foreign land. I'd chosen this dismal route to reach the tavern called The Net and Stikling as being less conspicuous than following the main street.
Amintin lay on the left bank of the river and was some ten miles from the coast. Thestink of fish was not too pervasive. The two plug-uglies padding along in my footsteps probably smelled far worse.
I kept an intermittent observation on my back trail to make sure they didn't suddenly have a rush of blood to their tiny pointed heads and try to jump me.
A few massy clouds obscured the moon from time to time. Among the dingy buildings leaning over the alley no breath of wind disturbed the pools of muddy water between the cracked and ancient cobbles. Just up ahead a corner looked promising. There I could wait unseen and at precisely the right moment leap on my shadows. I had no interest in what their stories might be, not right now at any rate; I merely wished to get on with what the Star Lords had sent me to Amintin to accomplish.
The corner would conceal me admirably and I could stand without moving as the two men approached.
One of them was apim, Homo sapiens sapiens, like me. The other was a polsim with pointed ears and a narrow devil's face, with a deep vee-shaped mouth and the cunning lines of long and villainous experience engraved on his leathery skin. Still, like an apim, he had only two arms and two legs and did not have a flexible and deadly tail. Apim and polsim, they both wore raggedy garments that left their chests bare. The cudgels in their fists looked lethal enough and their knives would be sharp enough to pare skin from bone without drawing blood.
This alleyway led to the back entrance to The Net and Stikling. Dolorous though this little port of Amintin might be, one could sincerely hope that the parallel street would not be quite as narrow and sinister and the inn itself somewhat more salubrious. At the end of the next ramshackle building a blur of movement instantly stilled caught my eye.
Very well, I said to myself, that'll make three heads to knock together instead of two.
Going along silently and without any itchy feelings up my spine I saw a bulkier building thrusting a three storeyed wall against the alley. That must be the inn. A single amber light burned feebly over a closed doorway. All the windows had been pierced in the upper floors. That, to an old sea rover, was a significant factor.
This gray place was damned depressing and in my current mood I wanted none of that. By Vox! Wasn't I on Kregen, the most wonderful and terrible world where anything the heart desired might be found if you tried hard enough? Get these three rogues off my back, walk into The Net and Stikling, meet up with this character Fweygo whoever he might be, get the job done and then, by the Black Chunkrah, it was Esser Rarioch, home, and Delia!
Yes--just there where the moon-drenched cobbles faded into deepest shadows would be the spot. The smells of cooking wafted along the alley, mingled with the odors of saddle animals. Erratic clouds swathed the moon momentarily and I leaped for the shadows.
Turning to face back and stilling abruptly into motionlessness, I waited and watched and listened.
I saw only the briefest flicker of action. I heard a sharp succession of meaty thwacks. I did not see any bodies tumble onto the slimy cobbles. I did see a fellow come strolling lithely along towards me, whistling softly between his teeth.
"Hai, dom," he said in a strong musical baritone. "You must be Dray Prescot." His indistinct form emerged into full moonlight as the clouds passed and I saw he was a Kildoi. He shook his head. "A chicken right for the plucking. The Everoinye warned me you'd be difficult."
"Llahal and Lahal, Dray Prescot."
"Lahal--I would prefer you to call me Drajak."
"So the Everoinye said."
He moved closer. He wore a simple buff colored tunic belted with weapons. His tail hand rested comfortably on his shoulder. I fancied he had not drawn a weapon to deal with the two footpads. "Let us go into the inn. You could probably down a stoup or three."
I did not sigh. I was perfectly used to this kind of attitude from other kregoinye, people who served the Everoinye, the Star Lords.
We went along beside the inn away from the alley. Fweygo whistled almost soundlessly between his teeth. He walked with a lithe spring that belied his solid bulk. Those two footpads must profoundly regret they'd bumped into this golden Kildoi. That thought made me say: "You did not kill them?"
"Sore heads only. This place doesn't have much law; but I do not wish to attract any attention I do not have to."
I did not reply. My good comrade and shield bearer Korero in all the many seasons I had known him had given only a limited insight into the psychology of Kildois. They held to themselves, private and contained. That they were fighters of extraordinary gifts I knew only too well.
The street in front of the inn was only a modicum wider than the alley, at that. A slightly brighter lamp burned above the double doors and the smells lessened from saddle animal pungency to fragrances of cooking and wines. At least, I considered as we stepped up onto the stoop and entered, whatever alcoholic beverages passed as wine hereabouts.
The place engulfed us with warmth, closeness, odors, laughter and the sense of haven. The clientele looked respectable, sitting at tables, eating and drinking, talking. The central space lay bare and I judged dancing would take place there at the appropriate times. Fweygo led me to one side and through a curtained opening leading to a stairway. He did not say a word until we reached one of the doors in the upstairs corridor. He lifted his tail hand to knock and then paused.
In the dim illumination of a single lamp his powerful face showed downdrawn brows, a thrust of chin, heavy golden eyebrows shadowing deep-set eyes. All Kildois in my experience were impressive; this Fweygo looked to be a man of parts.
"The Everoinye said you were difficult, Dray Prescot--Drajak. Those two footpads--you'll have to sharpen up. And be respectful to the princess--Princess Nandisha." He gave me a look as though bracing me up by the sheer power of his personality. "Do not address the princess as majestrix. She is incognito. Use my lady."
I just nodded. He bunched that sinewy tail hand into a fist and tapped discreetly, twice, on the door panel.
Almost instantly the door flew open and a massive numim scowled down, his golden fur glowing from shadowed illumination, his lion features dominating. The sword in his fist glittered.
Quickly, Fweygo rapped out: "This is Drajak, Ranaj, a friend."
The numim, Ranaj, visibly relaxed. He stepped silently aside and we entered the room.
Of the two people sitting down as we walked in, one stood up. She was a numim, as gloriously golden as Ranaj, beautiful in that special lion lady way that makes a numim man the envy of many other races of diffs.
The woman who remained seated must be Princess Nandisha. She was apim, with a face that I judged would normally be set in a serene look of self-possession. Now her dark eyes were clouded over and her low brow showed lines of concern. Her mouth was fixed into a closed line of determination. She wore a vast dark blue traveling cloak huddled about her, and one white hand, heavily jeweled, grasped the blue cloth tightly to her chin.
"We thought, Fweygo," she said, and stopped, and wet her lips. "We thought you had deserted us."
"Never, my lady. Just that I had to make sure Dray--Jak--reached here safely--"
"There was trouble?" Ranaj's numim voice grated in the room.
The numim lady, who must be his wife, put a hand to her bosom.
"No, no, my lady." Fweygo's strong voice carried reassurance. "And no need to worry, Ranaj. As soon as the animals are here we will leave."
The princess plucked fretting at the blue cloth. "I do wish they would hurry."
Now it appeared clear to me what the Star Lords wanted Fweygo and me to do. We had to escort Princess Nandisha and her people to safety out of Amintin. Just why the Everoinye wished this was not, of course, apparent to me. What they did stretched long results into the future. The people whom their kregoinye assisted might found dynasties, topple regimes, turn the whole world of Kregen on its ears. It was all one to me.
I said: "Where are we making for?"
"Be silent, Drajak, and speak when spoken to," said Ranaj. He spoke evenly, politely; but there was no mistaking the authority in his words.
Well, I said to myself, they'll get on well with the Kildoi, then.
The sense of tension, of fear barely suppressed, festered in the room. Something had either happened or was about to happen to these people that caused the presence of Fweygo and myself; something we had either to mend or prevent.
A thin high-pitched cry from beyond the far door brought the numim woman around instantly. She hurried to the door, saying: "That is little Nisha, the poor dear." She opened the door and went through.
Ranaj looked at me and said: "You are here to assist Fweygo and me. We have my lady's children, the princ--the little lady Nisha and lord Byrom to protect--"
"Also your children, Ranaj," interrupted Nandisha. "Your twins, Rofi and Rolan."
"Aye, my lady, I thank you."
H'mph! I said to myself, not well pleased. Four children to nursemaid through unknown perils--and however unknown the dangers might be, I knew as sure as Zim and Genodras rose each day over the eastern horizon to shine upon Kregen, there would be perils ahead, plenty of perils, by Krun.
Fweygo, with surprising confidence in view of his disparaging remarks about me, said firmly: "Drajak will play his part."
"We must reach the capital just as soon as we possibly can." The princess's voice sounded choked up. "The children ... We are not safe."
"As soon as we reach Bharang, my lady, we will find fliers," said Ranaj.
The troubled noise of the child from the inner room stilled. The feeling of apprehension among these people bordering on incipient panic did not please me. They were frightened of something or someone. Well, then, if they expected me to lend a hand they ought to tell me just what or who, surely? But then, that was not the way of your typical lordling, your proud princess. Common folk like me were told what to do, to keep our mouths shut and to die in welterings of blood just so that the princess did not suffer.
I caught Fweygo's eye and jerked my head sideways. He frowned and shook his head, looked away. Whatever plans were afoot, he was too conscious of his obligations to the Star Lords to cause unnecessary trouble.
Because this world was Kregen where just about anything can happen, and in the words of the immortal song, probably will, the opposition menacing us could range from monsters to demons to regiments of demented archers. A soft tap on the outer door caused Nandisha to start up, trembling. Her face turned pale. Ranaj went swiftly to the door, the sword once more in his fist, and opened the panel a crack. A few words were spoken low-voiced and he turned back. "The animals are here."
Once action was upon them these people did not waste time. Ranaj's wife, whom he addressed as Serinka, brought the children out. They were all of an age, around seven or eight, and these unusual proceedings kept their eyes half-open despite their drowsiness. The four adults took a child each, leaving me the only childless person in the room. Ranaj led off out.
We went the opposite way along the corridor, through a low doorway and down an outside flight of steps. Moonlight tinged everything a mellow ruddy pink and I kept an eye on the shadows.
Two figures held the reins of five freymuls. No one spoke a word. The freymul, a useful saddle animal often called the poor man's zorca, comes normally in a chocolaty brown hide; these were more creamy. Assisted by the silent hostlers the party mounted. I felt the animal between my knees and although I guessed I'd have the worst animal, hoped he would prove not too bad. With a soft "tchk, tchk," Ranaj started off for the open gate of the yard. Smells of wine faded and the odors of the town strengthened.
Spots of rain started to fall. The children were swathed in the adults' riding cloaks. I had no cloak. My tunic began to get soaked.
Riding gently we went along the side alleyway towards that noxious alley where Fweygo had dealt with the two footpads.
I rode last.
Needless to say my head kept screwing around to survey the backtrail and every pink-tinged shadow was closely scrutinized.
Ahead a wider street with a few lamps guttering and splintering the falling rain into lances of multicolored fire offered better going. Fweygo gentled his freymul alongside mine and we rode stirrup to stirrup.
The child he carried had at last fallen asleep. He spoke so that only I could hear.
"We should get a voller at Bharang. After that the trip to the capital should not be difficult. Bharang's about eighty or so dwaburs off. Keep your eyes and ears open."
One useful thing about having four arms like a Kildoi is that you can grasp the reins, hold a child, and still have spare hands to grip weapons. In addition that cunning tail hand can give your mount a thwack or two to get him moving along smartly. Apims like me with only two arms and no tail are sometimes at a severe disadvantage on Kregen.
I said: "Who are these people afraid of? Who's chasing them?"
"Their flier broke down and they made an emergency landing here. Nandisha's uncle just died. There are dynastic problems. The Everoinye were vague on the point."
I refused to say anything like: "By Krun! How unusual!"
Mind you, the Star Lords probably confided a whole encyclopedia of information to this golden Kildoi Fweygo. They usually didn't even bother to let me look at the first page.
Even so, even so, they had acted in a vastly different way of late. Gently gently was the way ahead in my relations with the Star Lords.
"We'll have to cross one of the bridges to head west." Fweygo did not sound too concerned. "Unless Ranaj has organized a boat."
Looking rearwards along the street I could make out a few people moving about and a party of riders just appearing around a corner some hundred yards off. There were four of them and they were muffled in cloaks. That, I told myself, was because of the rain. They trotted gently along after us.
Our little party turned left down a street where the overhanging wooden houses cast deep serrated shadows. The center of the roadway ran with water. Ahead the river wall showed a humped tower block guarding the gateway.
That part of the problem of tonight's expedition was down to Ranaj in the lead. I fancied he'd carry enough authority and conviction for the task. A glance back confirmed the four riders had followed us around the corner. In the lead Ranaj turned left again at a slight angle away from the bridge. Here we passed between miserable buildings, little more than tumbledown huts, sagging in the rain. Mud squelched beneath the freymul's hooves. I hunched down in my soggy tunic and watched the backtrail.
The four riders did not appear. If they were following us, and given the usual desperate nature of these ventures of mine upon Kregen, they probably were, they could have cut down a parallel alleyway to reach the river.
"A boat, then," said Fweygo.
I said: "Four riders. They may be following."
Fweygo instantly switched around to look back. He shook his head. We went on through the rain towards the river.
The tangle of huts ended untidily against a shining expanse of mud where the town wall reared black by the river bank. Nets were hanging up on wooden racks. Small skiff-like boats lay pulled up onto the mud. Their exit onto the river lay through a small gate of iron bars beneath an arch under the wall. The whole set up would not be tolerated in Vallia. All the same, that was our way out.
The man who shambled across to meet us was a Gon with a cloak pulled up over his bald head. His eyes were red, his nose was red, and from time to time he sneezed like one of Congreve's rockets going off.
He indicated the boat we were to use. We never used it.
Even as Ranaj had one foot on the mud, the other still in the stirrup, a most ferocious bellowing uproar spouted up. Dark figures appeared over the wall directly to our front. In the glinting pink spears of the rain other and far more lethal spears glittered. A single glance, a simple deduction, were all that were required to assess the situation.
The Gon shrieked out: "Pirates!" and dashed madly back into the shadows past the nets.
Ranaj yelled: "Numi Hyrjiv! Back, back, now!"
He regained his saddle still cradling the infant. The princess stuttered out some incoherent cry. Ranaj seized her bridle and in an instant whisked the animal about, fairly dragging freymul and rider by main force.
Fweygo snatched at the other animal, leading Serinka as her husband led Nandisha. The whole party spurred back towards the huts.
The raiders swarmed over the wall, dropping down like ripe black flies. They made huge squelching sounds. Maybe they did not expect to find this expanse of mud within the walls; no doubt I would not have, it was not usual. Whatever--the obstacle gave us time to start off. The freymul is a willing animal if not as powerful as one might wish, and these five responded. We dashed back past the nets towards the low huts.
A few arrows went flick flick past; but the rain would interfere with serious shooting this night.
The raiders must have pulled up the river after dark and were now intent on butchery and pillage. Pirates were the reason Amintin was situated ten miles up river from the coast and why no windows were pierced in the lower floors of larger buildings. No doubt the watch on the walls had been sheltering from the wet. What mattered now was that the pirates were in the town and we had not found a way out.
From squelchy sloshings to staccato raps the freymuls' hooves traversed mud and cobbles. Uproar surrounded us as the good folk of Amintin awoke to the ghastly realization of what was about to befall them.
Of one thing I felt sure as we racketed along towards the main street: this unholy lot ravening at our heels would not be the only pack of reivers to climb the walls this dark and stormy night.
As though Pixirr the god of mischief listened to my thoughts a mob of terrified Amintins stumbled up from the next side street and pursuing them with zest and venom a whole horde of reivers barred our way ahead.
Ranaj roared: "This way!"
He yanked his animal around and dragging Nandisha's freymul hurtled straight across the muddy street. Fweygo followed with Serinka. Knowing my place in their scheme of things I, as usual, brought up the rear.
Where the arrow came from that pierced Nandisha's freymul not even the most senior and devoted follower of Erthanfydd could have told. Quite possibly the shaft had been let fly by a frenzied townsman or woman. The result was Nandisha and the child toppling into the mud and Fweygo having the dickens of a job avoiding a catastrophic collision.
The poor freymul lay kicking his legs in spasm. Ranaj was rumbling incoherently and Serinka started to climb down to attend her mistress. I was there before her. The princess started up, still clutching the child.
"You are unharmed?"
"I--I think so--"
The bedlam at our backs increased. There was no time. I lifted her, and in Zair's good truth there was not much to her, and hoisted her onto my animal. Through it all she did not relinquish her grasp on the child.
Fweygo snarled something and I hurled back at him: "Ride, Fweygo!"
I gave the freymul a thumping great thwack over his rump and he started off with Nandisha holding on like a drunk holding onto a bar stool.
"Drajak!" yelled Fweygo.
Ranaj dropped the wounded freymul's reins and sent his animal after Nandisha. Serinka said nothing. "Drajak!" shouted Fweygo again.
"Ride!" I roared up at him. "You know why!"
Even then I saw his Kildoi face twisted in indecision. Maybe he had never been disciplined by the Star Lords as I had; he certainly would not be banished four hundred light years across empty space in punishment. Running from a fight and abandoning a friend, of however recent an acquaintance, was not in his nature. But, as a good kregoinye, he understood what must be done when the Everoinye ordered.
"I'll see you later." As I spoke I dragged out the sword furnished me by the Star Lords.
"Yes, Drajak," he said, turning his animal and hauling Serinka along. "Yes. Make sure you do, make very sure." Then he galloped off.
So I turned to see what the devil I could make of this perilous situation.
Pirates were, it seemed in the erratic pink moonlight, running everywhere. Townsfolk screamed and fled and were cut down. One or two houses were already alight despite the rain and there would soon be illumination enough to see how to get oneself killed with no trouble.
The reivers had to be stopped from following Fweygo. That was my job. That task was down to me.
Objects became easier to see as the fires gained and the rain eased. The smell of wetness and of burning hung over the town. Directly opposite me the mouth of the alley down which Ranaj had led the rest of our party was where I had to make my stand. I had no bow, unfortunately. Well, if this was the way of it on Kregen, and this my doom and fate, then so be it. I'd do what I could before they cut me down.
Pulling back my shoulders I started off. I, Dray Prescot, Lord of Strombor and Krozair of Zy, strode off to make a valiant last stand.
My foot slipped on a patch of evilly glistening mud and over I went, twisting to regain my balance, to land smack on my back like an upended turtle.
So much for gallant exhibitionism!