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The whiptails carrying Delia off were now spurring down the street, I could see no one else in view. I gave the zorca the flat of my blade and he started and neighed and then went hell for leather after the others.
I'd catch them. I'd catch all seven of them and I'd slay all seven of them. No one was going to take my Delia from me, my Delia of Delphond, my Delia of the Blue Mountains.
The zorca ran because he understood a demon sat on his back and would unhesitatingly lash him without mercy. I hit him again. We were catching the Katakis. One looked back and yelled.
The stench of battle, the noise, the sights, all flowed away into a hollow silence between my ears. I could see only Delia and the Katakis. A blue mist hovered before my eyes. I felt cold.
I did not want to believe.
"No!" I screamed it up as I'd never shrieked at the Star Lords before. "No! Give me time, give me time!"
The blue mist thickened. I lost sight of the whiptails and Delia. All around me the blueness grew. The shape of the phantom Scorpion hovered above, gigantic, absolute, not to be ignored.
Up I went. Up and up, drawn into the blueness of the Scorpion of the Everoinye. There was no arbitration. The Star Lords wanted me.
Screaming incoherently, I felt myself flung into the gulfs of nothingness, bathed in cold, destroyed to my heart, whilst my Delia was hurried off into a captivity I could not contemplate in reason.
Delia! Delia! Delia! Ahead of me lay only a black nothingness.
The feel of the zorca between my knees remained one sensation among the many battering at my consciousness. Blueness twined about me. The Star Lords through their bluephantom Scorpion had hauled up the animal in addition and as I felt as though I was strapped to a giant Catherine Wheel that tiny touch remained a reminder of common flesh and blood.
Delia was being carried of into an all too easily imagined horror. If I went mad I could be of no further use to her. The vital necessity of keeping fast hold of all my faculties must be my sole aim now. I had to deal with the Star Lords and get back to Taranjin as fast as possible, otherwise--I must not, must not, think of the otherwise.
I, Dray Prescot, Pur Dray, Krozair of Zy and Lord of Strombor, after the first decision to retain my sanity, must think solely of handling the Everoinye and of returning from whence I had been brought.
Of course, there was a horrific chance that the fumble-fingered Scorpion might drop me as he had once before.
The blueness, a continuing symptom of my travels with the Star Lords, lasted for a very short time and then I felt myself lifted from the back of the zorca. I went tumbling headlong across a wooden deck. So I knew where I was.
I sat up. Yes. I was sitting on the deck of the narrow double-ended craft and all around stretched glittering blue sea.
Standing up I scanned the horizons. Nothing betwixt sea and the shining remote silver sky met my gaze.
The scents of seaweed and ozone and tar meant nothing to me.
"All right, Star Lords!" I bellowed up, head flung back. I was about to go on with something like: "What in a Herrelldrin Hell do you want this time, you bunch of nurdling great onkers?' when I clamped my lips shut.
Recently I'd wondered on and off that if I'd treated the Star Lords with some of the awed respect other kregoinye treated them they might have treated me better. I seriously doubted that. All the same, it might be a clever scheme to eat humble pie, as they say in Clishdrin, and bow and scrape, kowtow to them, not arouse the anger which could fling me back four hundred light years to the planet of my birth.
So, all right, then! By the pustular eyeballs and disgusting nostrils of Makki Grodno! I'd fool the Everoinye, fool 'em rotten.
The clanging voice rang across the boat.
I took a look around the boat as she bobbed in the sea; but of course there was no one aboard but me.
Speaking carefully, as it were thinking of every word before uttering it, I said: "It is imperative that I return at once. It is vitally important. The Empress Delia--"
They interrupted then, as I said that name and felt the scoring whiplashes burning across my mind, and struggled to hold my sanity. "We are aware of that situation. There is time."
"Time!" The sensation of heat suffused my body. The Star Lords could tamper with the time flow and had flung me about within the Time Stream. Hope burst up in me. I shouted up: "Put me back when--"
"It is not for you to tell us what or what not to do."
"Of course not," I said at once.
A pause followed that. These were superbeings, old beyond computation, entities who had once been as human as I. Could they truly still remember and understand humanity? I had doubted that in the past and had come to believe I'd been mistaken.
So, now, would they be deceived by my unnatural acquiescence to their wishes?
What I took to be a different voice said: "You have obeyed our orders, Dray Prescot. We knew you possessed the yrium and you have proved that you can use your gift of superior charisma wisely--sometimes. Taranjin has been cleared of the invaders from Schan."
Instead of bellowing up that I knew that, by Krun, and what need was there for them to repeat old news? I said: "What is to be done next?"
Unmistakably, a tone of gloom tinged the next words.
"There will be more invaders."
In my wrought up frame of mind I struggled to think what I could say to that. Previously I'd have burst out with intemperate words, a tirade of vituperation against Shanks and Star Lords. I had to think. I said: "And you will place me down to fight them?"
They didn't even bother to reply to so crass a remark.
I began to wonder if they could see right through me, for in our last meeting I'd argued and convinced them against their original wishes. I'd altered a decision of the Everoinye. Now I was acting the Yes-man with such humility I guessed they must suspect me.
So I summoned up a tiny scrap of courage and with a whisper of belligerence, said: "What about my voller? You took my airboat away. It's about time you gave her back."
"In due time."
"And I didn't meet a feller called Wulk--"
"He is away on another case."
Oh, yes, that was the word they used, in its Kregish as well as Terrestrial meaning. On a case. Well, now.
"There are other pressing matters to be dealt with. We will return you to an appropriate moment--"
"I have your word?"
That was, of course, an utterly fatuous question. Of what use had these superbeings for words, and honor, and promises? They stood aloof. They played with the destinies of peoples and nations. Of what significance the life of a solitary individual?
I said: "Star Lords, do you play a game with whoever rules in Schan?"
The silence remained unbroken for a long time. I refused to break it. Sweating with desperate impatience though I was, I'd play these Everoinye at their own game. My question was deadly serious. If idle minds had the ability, might not they play games, side against side, and use us poor mortals as pawns?
The boat barely moved in the sea. The silver sky shone lustrously above and the sea sparkled a brilliant blue, shot with silken streaks. Wherever we were, we were highly unlikely to be on Kregen with its two suns and seven moons. No birds sailed through that limpid light. Occasionally a huge and beautiful fish would leap in a graceful arc and plunge back into the water.
The Star Lords were going to return me to an appropriate moment. That meant they'd plunk me down back on Kregen in the burning city of Taranjin in time to save my Delia. I had to believe for the sanity of my mind and soul.
Delia, her Kataki captors, the whole turmoil of the battle, were all frozen away there, waiting on the Star Lords whim for my return.
That, I must believe.
Towards one end of the boat rose a small deckhouse. I walked along the planking, feeling warmth on my toes, and tried the door. It was locked.
What, I wondered, lay below deck?
Two steering oars were swung up into their beckets at this end of the craft, and true to dwaprijjer fashion a second pair were lashed at the other. Either end could be bow or stern. The pirates infesting the Ivilian Keys used them with great élan, and they were known in other parts of Kregen. At the moment this particular craft had neither oars nor mast. I fancied she had a fair turn of speed. Something wet dropped onto my chest, and I realized the sweat was running down my face and dripping off my chin. Madness hovered close, close, then.
The Everoinye could manipulate time; but I was convinced their command was chancy, for they had made mistakes in the past. My ploy in asking if all the fraught happenings that shook Kregen were merely a game, and we were all merely pieces upon a giant Jikaida board, was delaying my return back through time.
Mind you, the question was not a true ploy, for I wanted to know the answer. I wanted to know for the dignity of my fellow sufferers.
At length they deigned to reply.
At their first words I felt anger and resentment, for it was clear they were as usual fobbing me off.
"It is not for you to question us on matters you cannot understand, Dray Prescot. The answer is not simple. No, we do not regard the threat from the Shanks as a game. But there are, as there must be, game elements in the handling of the situation."
This was something. "Men and women get killed at this game."
I must have spoken in a return of truculence, for the answer lashed out: "We acknowledge your usefulness to us in the past, Dray Prescot. The future need not follow that pattern."
I breathed in and I breathed out.
Tsleetha-tsleethi, softly-softly! "You have, then, many kregoinye to call on? There are many men and women on Kregen serving you?"
"Few people are fitted to serve. That does not concern you."
"I understand." I swallowed down. "Will you return me now--please?"
"You will be returned to the appropriate place and time. There are many tasks set to your hand. But, first--"
The boat soared aloft, up and up into that distant silver sky. I held on, the breath short in my throat. Mist enveloped the boat and tendrils of clammy vapor clung about me. I knew what was going to happen next, and was ready for it. When the boat abruptly plunged down and down, shrieking through thin air, I realized I was only half prepared. My ears banged and I gulped down and hung on and waited.
We roared on down, and below a wide and open land opened up, green fields and wending rivers and scattered white-walled towns. If we tried to land on dry land we'd splinter into shivers. A tiny lake, like a little eye peering myopically upwards, flashed blue in the radiance of the twin Suns of Scorpio.
The dwaprijjer hit the water in a long splashing slide that started at one bank and brought the sharp curved end to a rocking halt in the reeds of the other. The feel of good Kregen air and the streaming mingled magnificence of Zim and Genodras all about drove me forward.
Over the sharp prow I leaped and hurled myself into the reeds. Muddy water splashed up my thighs. A few floundering steps saw me to firmer ground where I halted to take stock of my surroundings.
I was, of course, completely naked. That was the usual way when the Everoinye hurled me down somewhere to sort out their dirty work for them. I refused to allow dismay or desperation to enter my mind. I had a job to do as a kregoinye. When that was done the Star Lords would send me back to see about those slaving Katakis.
At one time I'd fumed at what I'd considered the incompetence of the Star Lords in thus flinging me down naked and weaponless. There was one very good reason for that practice. They expected resourcefulness from their agents. Clothes and weapons must be obtained in the field. If I'd landed dressed in the costume of one part of Kregen in an entirely differently-dressed region, I'd be spotted instantly as a foreigner. Perhaps the Star Lords were not as stupid as I'd bad-mouthed them. In all the dazzlingly varied cultures of Kregen a naked man, sharp and determined, might fare better than one marked down as a stranger.
When I had been dropped down in armor and wearing swords, usually, the reasons had been good ones.
There was a counter argument, exemplified by the time I'd been sent to Vienna. All the same, naked and weaponless, I started up the slope away from the lake.
The land hereabouts looked a trifle wild and untended, not a wilderness but rather a sorry land left uncultivated for too long. Rank grasses grew in swathes of green, and the heads of wild flowers, red, blue, violet, peeped above. There was a line of a track where the ground had been trodden by occasional usage. Along this track came a group of arguing and gesticulating people. Back a few ulms lay the red-tiled roofs and white walls of a small town, a fantastic spire flashing gold in the suns light.
I dropped into the concealment of a clump of grass.
The dress of this mob indicated their status and origins.
They wore plain workaday clothes of tunics and loincloths fashioned not from silks but from cottons, and a few wore woolen garments manufactured in the Walfonian style of Walfarg. All the women wore face veils of thick material, dark and concealing, quite different from the filmy sherissas worn on holiday or days of feasting. Many of them brandished meat cleavers, and rolling pins, with a pitchfork or two. They were your common or garden mob, bolstered by mob fever and capable of committing deeds they afterwards wouldn't understand how on Kregen they could do such horrible things. I had no whiff of grapeshot to disperse them. When I saw the girl being dragged along in their centre the whiff of grapeshot couldn't have been used anyway.
The argument, clearly, was what they were going to do to the girl. With the lake at my back, I had an idea of which argument would win.
So--here was the task set to my hands by the Star Lords. This was quite like old times!
When I saw the captive girl more clearly, and recognized her, I understood a little more. The first and last time I'd seen her she'd been haranguing a mob. The damned fool Scorpion had dropped me, fumble-fingered me down into a right old peccadillo. Now I saw he'd been on the way to the girl so that I could drag her away from the mob anger. She'd got away all right, how I didn't know, and I'd then followed my own destiny for a space. Now, here she was again, up to her ears in trouble.
The track ended at the lakeside about fifty paces away. By the time the mob reached the water they'd decided exactly what to do.
Moving with care I edged along towards them.
They were tying ropes to the girl's wrists and a weighted sack to the ropes. They screamed abuse all the time, and the women in particular jumped up and down in frenzied hatred. You could see their point of view and I admit at the very first I'd been surprised the Star Lords wanted this girl preserved for posterity. I edged closer.
In all the hullabaloo the girl was hoisted up and swung backwards and forwards. "Ob! Dwa! So!" the mob chanted to the swing. On 'So!' she flew up sideways. She didn't spin as she turned over and splashed into the water. I hadn't heard her scream once, although in the noise and shrieks of rage she might have been screaming as loudly as anyone else. Bubbles rose and broke. Ripples moved away in neat interlocked concentric rings.
The noise of the mob abruptly ceased. They clustered among the reeds and stared out across the lake. There was fascination in their faces, awe at what they had done. Only later would remorse set in--if it ever would.
The water closed around me, warm and caressing. A fat fish flicked near-transparent fins and lazed away. I finned towards the blue-tinged shape of the girl and the sack as they drifted to the bottom.
She had her mouth shut and was flailing away with her legs. Her hair twisted like a candle flame. She was hardly conscious of my presence. There was little time. She would not have long to live without breathing. I had no knife so I took the sacking material in both hands, gripping, and used my muscles. A resistance--I felt my muscles jump and bulge--the sack ripped open and a tumbled mass of pebbles spewed out.
Instantly I grasped the girl about the waist and dragged her down. Down. Savagely I thrust against the water, forcing myself along away from the bank, the girl clamped to my side.
She could not last much longer.
The dwaprijjer of the Star Lords would have flown back to wherever they garaged their conveyances. This bank of the lake was occupied by a hostile rabble, armed with cleavers and pitchforks. There was only one sensible alternative.
When I judged we'd gone far enough I rose to the surface.
She let out a huge gasp as her head broke free and whooped an enormous lungful of air. Still holding her I trod water and turned to look back. A great wet floppy stinging mass went squashily smack around my face and for a moment I could see nothing save a few thin streaks of light. Tangled strands choked my mouth. I felt choked.
The damned girl had shaken her head as one does and her hair had slapped smack about my eyes and mouth, near blinding and choking me.
I dragged the dripping hair free and snarled: "Can you swim, girl?"
It did not matter if she could not, for I'd swim with her; that was the most polite thing I felt I could say at the time.
The ropes around her wrists came off quickly enough. As I had let her go she sank down and then rose again.
The moment her head broke water she glared at me. "Yes."
"Then swim to the other side before they run around."
"They will not do that."
She spoke with arrogant confidence. All the same, she turned and started a careful breaststroke, moving along in a series of sedate frog undulations. The people had seen us. They were jumping up and down and shrieking imprecations. Some started to run around the lake. Most of them stayed where they'd thrown the girl in. Very soon those who'd started to circumnavigate the water stopped, and then trailed back. She'd been right.
She had no need of my assistance as we crossed the lake. I did stay in the rear just in case, although from the little I knew of her from what I'd heard, I judged she was a capable woman.
She clambered out, all glistening and firmly brown, for she was as naked as I was. I was not prepared to let her know I knew who she was, for my own very obvious if devious reasons.
Just upslope from the bank blew a stand of trees and the land beyond was hidden by this slight eminence. She stretched her arms up, her body taut and firm, and swung them around a few times. She must have thought she was dead. Then she'd been saved. Tough though she must be, she'd need a little time and meditation to get over that experience.
"I thank you, walfger. I am beholden to you."
The quaintness of her expression could not conceal her sincerity. I nodded. There was, it seemed to me, nothing appropriate to say.
"I am Mul-lu-Manting. Lahal. You are?"
"Drajak, known as the Sudden.Lahal."
The last--and first--time I'd seen her haranguing the mob in the central kyro of Changwutung she'd worn fancy silken robes and curved leather armor across breast and hips, with swords and a Lohvian longbow. She had the red hair of your true Lohvian. My informants had told me a deal about her, and I had surmised more. I was not sure if she was a fully-trained Jikai Vuvushi, a Battle Maiden. She did not wear the veil which lent credence to the idea she was a Fighting Lady; she could just as easily be a Witch of Loh. Rather, had been, for she ranted against the Witches and Wizards of Walfarg, blaming them and the kings on the throne for the collapse and loss of the old Empire of Walfarg, the Empire of Loh. Her ambition, which she preached with fanatical fervor, was to recreate the old Empire of Loh, ruled as before by Queens of Pain.
She was studying me frankly. Her face, that hard strong face, womanly handsome, would not be called pretty. Like Mevancy, she drew her beauty from inner truths and strengths. To an addle-pated fellow she might be nothing; to a man with eyes to see she would hold undeniable attractions.
After a moment, I said: "Why didn't they chase us here?"
She made a brief gesture towards the tree-lined crest.
"Beyond there lies the enclosure of Scharn, an ibdrin. I knew you were a stranger when you asked me to swim to this side."
"Ibdrins do not worry me, Mul-lu-Manting."
"Nor me. Now I need something to eat, something to drink, and something to wear--in that order."
I didn't smile; but I appreciated her priorities.
We walked up the slope together. She went with a loping stride, very free and lissom, and I knew I would need to discover more of her history. After all, the Everoinye had singled her out for salvation. Over the rise the land spread away in a sweep of moorland. The tall and lightning-shattered trunk of a single tree projected sternly a hundred paces ahead. This was the locus of the spirit land. Folk hereabouts believed that the souls or spirits of murdered or violently-killed people clustered here waiting for vengeance. You might never have murdered anyone in your life: you weren't fool enough to chance going near an ibdrin where a spirit might mistake you for the killer. Oh, no! By Lhun, no!
At the top she stopped stock-still, legs apart, fists jammed on hips, jaw outthrust, brow drawn down. She stared broodingly at the miserable landscape.
Half to herself, she said: "And that is Walfarg. Desolate, dun and dreary.Gone to seed.Producing no good." She moved and a hard toe kicked the rank grass stems. "Give me the strength to go on!"
I kept quieter than a church mouse.
Her face beneath that flaring red Lohvian hair expressed bitterness, sorrow, anger. There was no scrap of resignation I could see. She became aware of my scrutiny and like a person suddenly awoken from a deep dream-filled sleep, she started. Brusquely, she said: "I am for Shamfrin, a city where I have friends."
"As you said, Mul-lu-Manting, I am a stranger in these parts."
"You may, if you wish, Drajak the Sudden, accompany me."
Deliberately, I did not reply at once. Truth to tell, now I had rescued her, saved her for the purposes of the Star Lords, my interest in her was over. She was still in the throes of coming to terms with the dreadful experience through which she had just suffered. She might need a friendly shoulder on which to lean and cry. She was tough, yes; she was still a human being. And, at the same time, I did feel a personal responsibility for her. That was one of the odd, and if I acknowledged it, infuriating things about my working for the Star Lords. I tended to feel partial towards those I rescued.
The other grand discovery here was obvious. I would have said, previously, that Mul-lu-Manting had been saved for the inscrutable purposes of the Star Lords. Well, by Vox! This time was different. They'd saved her because she wanted and preached a new Empire of Loh. The word inscrutable no longer applied. Then, because I am Dray Prescot with sometimes a mind like a flea on a griddle, devious to the point of re-entry, I considered the opposite. The Everoinye had saved her because her message about a new Empire of Loh was counter-productive. People gave her a bad time when she preached a new crusade, and in their apathy her attempts merely strengthened their hostility to her and her ideas.
As for myself, there was no immediate decision. I could see advantages and disadvantages to the rebirth of the Empire of Loh. The advantages would come in our fight against the Opaz-forsaken Shanks. The disadvantages were all too familiar, by Krun!
She pointed to a small black and white speck on the western horizon.
"There is Shamfrin. Those oafs caught me as I passed through their disgusting little village." She cocked an eye up at me. "You do not ask why they tried to kill me, and would have, but for--"
"Their reasons and your business are not mine."
"Do not misunderstand me. I have problems of my own."
Then--then, dear Zair, then! I realized. I felt myself shaking all over. I know I must have lost color, for Mul-lu-Manting gave me a most peculiar stare, and started back. I realized! The Star Lords had promised. I'd done their job for them, completed the task, saved this Mul-lu-Manting. And here I was, still, down here, here in the same spot. I gazed around in a dazed and stupefied way. The Everoinye had promised! They'd said they would return me in good time, back to burning Taranjin, back to save my Delia from those devils of Katakis.
And I was still here. I gazed about, like a lunatic. Delia! Why would not the Star Lords return me? Why?