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The barrenland lay on the face of the world like an ulcer, nearly round, more than three hundred miles in circumference. It had been there so long that it was accepted; it was there and it was a fact and it was.
For several days' journey in all directions away from its edge the countryside had formerly been nearly as vacant as the barrenland itself, except that grass and trees grew, which on the barrenland they did not.
With the passage of generations, however, people had crept back, driven by population pressure, or minor shifts of climate, or migration of game, or pure cussedness, until now at least a dozen settlements big enough to be called villages existed practically on the boundary line. The price of living there was the necessity of contending with the things that every so often wandered out of the barrenland and killed. But they endured that. Men endure much.
The barrenland was. That was the extraordinary part of it. Not a simple desert, which distance and word-of-mouth transmission of news had magnified into something strange and terrible, but exactly what it was reputed to be. And it was not more than a couple of days' march north of here.
Jervis Yanderman leaned back against the tall tree under which he had taken shelter from the light fall of rain just after sunset, and from which he had not moved even when the shower stopped, and mused over the implications of the news. Three scouts had been sent out. Two had returned already, one to the line of march and one to the camp-site directly a halt was ordered for the night, and both of them had spoken of reaching the vicinity of the barrenland and looking out over it. Their instructions were to do no more than that. Yanderman hoped the lateness of the third scout was due to nothing worse than over-enthusiasm; in any case he would be sharply reprimanded unless his reasons were very good indeed.
He ceased his musing at last, and glanced around him at the nearby terrain. It was full of dim whitish shapes and little yellow fires like fallen stars in the gloom. When Grand Duke Paul of Esberg moved his army, he did it in style as he did everything else, and with many fresh and original ideas about logistics. People had said it was impossible to move two thousand men at thirty miles a day over unknown country. Yet here they were, settled to camp for the night, canvas up, fires lit, guards posted, as smoothly as though it were a parade drill instead of a risky expedition into unexplored regions.
If he'd got over being surprised at that sort of thing, Yanderman told himself ruefully, he had no business being surprised at the actual existence of the barrenland.
A shadow moved on the slope of the hill crowned by his tree, and a voice snapped out of nowhere at him, demanding his identity. He gave it, heard rather than saw the salute the patrol returned, and—when he discovered three men moving into view where he had imagined there was only one—complimented the leader on the stealthiness of his approach. The man laughed a little self-consciously.
"Used you for practice, if you'll excuse my saying so," he admitted. "Spotted you from down the hill, told my men to stalk you like a shy deer. Made it, too," he added to his companions, and they chuckled.
After a pause, the leader said, "Sir, if you don't mind—there's a lot of latrine rumours going around the camp since we sat down for the night. About the scouts finding what we're looking for. Is it true?"
The trio of patrolmen exchanged glances. The leader went on, "And—uh—is it what the old stories say? A place of devils and monsters, where nothing honest-to-daylight can live?"
"Devils I know nothing of," Yanderman answered easily. "I fear more the solid things that go by day than the wispy things that go by night. And as to monsters—why, strange beasts there may well be, but we've met savage animals before, and two thousand men's a force to reckon with."
One of the other men spoke up, clearing his throat, first, "Sir, if you'll excuse me—would you settle me a bet, if it's not presuming?"
Yanderman lifted an eyebrow towards him, but in the dusk it probably went unnoticed. The man continued, "A mate of mine says he's going to get a charm from Granny Jassy—says the Duke has one he bought of her, which is the ground for his successes. I say no, it's all dreamy talk, and Granny's charms are so much stable-dirt, and bet him a day's pay he was wrong about the Duke."
The third patrolman, the one who had not spoken, shifted his feet uncomfortably. Yanderman had a shrewd suspicion that he must be the mate in question, and the man who had put the question wanted the bet settled quickly with no room for argument afterwards.
He said, "You have a clear head, soldier. Tell your mate—as I'm prepared to tell him myself if he claims otherwise—that Grand Duke Paul owes his successes to his clever thinking and his thorough planning. He probably wouldn't know a charm if he saw one. And as for Granny Jassy, maybe she peddles charms on the side, and maybe she makes a little money from gullible soldiers who think she'll give them luck. But were she to offer one to the Duke, he'd laugh till he cried."
He was right about the identity of the other party in the bet. The third patrolman said hotly, "But what did the Duke clutter his train with her for, if not for the luck she can charm on him?"
"You speak over-fiercely, soldier," Yanderman told him in a mild tone. "Let it pass. The Duke brings Granny with him for the sake of what she can tell about the way we travel; by some power which she herself doesn't understand, she knows before we see what ground we'll come to, what hazards to expect. That frightens her as well as puffing her up."
"Can she see past the edge of the barrenland too?" the third soldier muttered. Plainly he was the one who was readiest to speak of devils and monsters. Patiently Yanderman amplified his explanation.
"It's less a matter of seeing than of remembering. In the old days people saw this land, and Granny tells what they saw. But things change. And possibly no man has lived within the barrenland and survived to tell the tale."
It was a mistake to have put it that way. The three men shifted their feet and looked at each other. Yanderman hurried to counteract the effect he'd had on them.
"Soldier!" he said to the third man. "How do you like your gun?"
Startled, the man hefted the weapon in his hands. "I like it well," he said. "Fires true, kills clean, as a gun should."
"Then thank Granny Jassy for it, as well as the Duke. It was from a memory she had that the design was drawn. And a man with a gun may venture into the barrenland and face monstrous things with determination—if he has any!"
"Are we going into the barrenland, then?" the patrol leader demanded.
"As yet, no one knows. The decision is the Duke's—and if he says to go there, I'll go with him rather than with any other commander who ever trod ground." Yanderman spoke with finality; the patrol leader caught the tone, called his men to salute, and led them off into the night again.
Yanderman started to make his way down from the hilltop, frowning. It was only to be expected that when they came so close to the legendary barrenland all the old wives' tales would revive. The difficulty was, of course, that up till now the tales of one old wife in particular—Granny Jassy—had proved to be borne out by facts, and this made it hard to laugh off the alarming notions the men had of devils and monsters.
For himself, the main reaction he got was a quickening of the pulse and a brightening of the eye at the thought of the wonders he was going to see. He'd caught that spirit of wanting to go and see for himself from the Duke, who had much of it. Yanderman wished he could also catch the cool skill in planning for new situations which went with it in the Duke's case. Still, that was a rare gift in any generation, and the Duke had enough for any ten leaders.
There was a sudden commotion across the camp from where he stood. He looked up, seeing a searchlight on another hilltop spring to full brilliance, cutting the night like a sword. That was another of the things that Duke Paul had sorted from the legends and quasi-memories of people like Granny Jassy—those searchlights were cumbersome, but they were wonderfully useful. As soon as camp was pitched the men tending the lights chose vantage points, filled their ovens with wood, lit their little fires underneath to bake the gases out of the wood, and sat down to wait. When the order came, they had only to turn a little tap, light the gas, and drop an incandescent mantle over the flame. A parabolic reflector of polished silver on a copper base then hurled the beam where it was wanted.
This time they were lighting up a pass between two low hills north of the camp, and dimly in the distance a figure on horseback could be discerned, waving wildly.
At once Yanderman broke into a run. That must be the missing scout. He'd be taken straight to the Duke to give an account of his experience, and when he reported Yanderman wanted to be present.CHAPTER 2
Yanderman stood aside for a moment to let someone else come out of the tent, ducking under the flap that served as a door, and then went inside himself. This was really more of a pavilion than a tent, with flooring of woven rushes put down on the grass, and several pieces of portable furniture spread around. The light came from a wood-gas lamp and made the shadows of the occupants move, big and black, on the hanging walls.
The guard just inside the door saluted. Yanderman acknowledged the gesture, crossed the floor to a spot in front of the Duke's table, and saluted in his turn.
Grand Duke Paul of Esberg raised his dark eyes from the hand-painted maps on the table before him. He was a massively magnificent man. He had one of the largest heads anyone could recall seeing, thatched above and below with dense black hair and full black beard. His pillar-like neck set into broad shoulders and a barrel chest clad with a shirt of red and black—the Esberg colours—and his legs were thrust into long tan boots. Were he to stand up, he would overtop Yanderman, who was not small, by head and shoulders.
"They just sent to tell me the missing scout is in sight," he said. "Did you see him?"
"Riding like a madman through the notch in the hills to the north," Yanderman confirmed. "That's why I came down."
"Take a seat. I look forward to learning what's delayed him so long." Duke Paul leaned back in his chair, and it creaked slightly under his huge bulk. "I've sent also for Granny Jassy, in case she has clues to any puzzles the scout may report."
Yanderman took a folding chair from a stack in the corner of the tent, and sat down. Beside the Duke his secretary—an ascetic-faced young man called Kesford—pinned a fresh sheet of yellow paper to his writing-board and sharpened the point of his pencil by scraping it half a dozen times on a block of pumice.
It was only a few minutes before Granny Jassy was heard outside, her voice raised shrilly in protest against the way she had been disturbed after the long day's journey. Chuckling, a soldier told her not to be so sensitive, and the flap-door was thrown back.
A gaunt figure in a shapeless black dress, Granny Jassy walked smartly through the opening. She came to the table in front of the Duke, planted both hands on it palms down, and leaned forward.
"Duke or no Duke!" she said, and pulled her sunken-cheeked face into an alarming scowl. "Duke or no Duke, nobody ought to shove an old weak woman around like this! Any more treatment so disrespectful to my aged bones, and I'll go home—I will that, though I have to learn to steal horses to do it!"
Duke Paul raised one tufted black eyebrow and said nothing, but waved at the couch on his right where he slept at night. It was soft and had several plump pillows on it. Granny Jassy, still mumbling her opinions about the way she was handled, turned to sit cautiously down on the fattest pillow.
Another few moments, and they brought the scout into the tent. Duke Paul started up with an oath, staring. All the man's shirt was stiff with blood; his face was pale, though his eyes were bright, and he was leaning for support on a medical auxiliary in green gown and tight black turban. He attempted to salute, but his right arm was disobedient and he had to let it fall back to his side, wincing.
Yanderman stood up. "Move over, Granny," he said softly. "You may be old, but he's injured. We'll give you a chair and lay him on that couch."
"Up! Down! Move here! Move there!" Granny squawked. "I wish I'd never been taken from my own hearth, that I do."
But she groaned to her feet and took a chair instead, and the medical auxiliary unrolled a red blanket from the pack on his shoulder to toss over the couch and protect it from the scout's blood. Clearly the Duke was impatient to hear the man's news, but he asked no questions till the blood-soaked shirt had been cut away, exposing a gash a hand's-breadth long and very deep in his shoulder muscles. A girl came into the tent with a big pail of clean water and a package of dressings, and the scout, his eyes blank with exhaustion, endured while the wound was washed, closed with three stitches, and covered.
"Yan!" the Duke said sharply. "In that chest there's a silver flask. Give him a gill of the liquor from it."
Yanderman glanced around. The chest the Duke pointed to was behind his table on the ground, the lid lowered but not locked. He found the silver flask and poured a little from it into the cup-shaped lid.
The strong-smelling spirit seemed to revive the injured man instantly. With a sigh of relief the Duke picked up his chair and carried it closer to the couch.
"Well, Ampier?" he said. "What hit you?"
Yanderman stood silent in the background, listening. He felt he would never cease to wonder at the Duke's ability to name every man in his army on sight. The medical auxiliary went on with his work unobtrusively, checking the scout's pulse, folding a sling for his arm, laying another blanket over him for warmth. The girl who had brought the pail of water had slipped away again; she returned some minutes later with a mug of steaming broth and a handful of grapes.
Ampier, propped up on the Duke's pillows, shook his head. "What name to put to it, sir, is beyond me. It was the strangest thing I ever set eyes on. According to instructions I rode due north by compass, as well as I could, and not long past noon I came in sight of the barrenland. That's a wonderful thing to behold! On this side, as you may picture it, the grass grows thickish, the rocks boast coats of lichen, there are trees and all manner of plants. In the space of a few yards all is changed. The grass withers, vanishes away, a plantain here and there dots the ground, the stones crop out, dust replaces fertile earth, and from there till the skyline—nothing! I rode along its edge for perhaps a mile, not wishing to exceed my orders by trespassing on the barrenland itself, and—to be candid—much alarmed to find it real and no mere legend.
"Blurry in the east of where I found myself was a stain of smoke upon the sky. Reasoning that man's the creature who makes fire, I fancied I'd do well to go further and find if a village was there. It would have water, which we'll need, and perhaps food to sell us. So I spurred for the smoke. But before I was in sight of any habitation, the thing came out from behind a rock and was upon me like a lightning bolt."
"How was it made?" the Duke demanded. Yanderman leaned forward, because Ampier's voice was weakening. He saw that there was sweat glistening on the face of the secretary Kesford as he noted down what was said.
"Large—of a boar-pig's weight, I'd say. But possessed of a long weaving neck, and on the tip of that a thing less like a bird's hooked bill than like a single great claw with a slash for a mouth beneath it. In colour it was sandy, or tawny, except for this hooked claw-thing, which was white. It could plant its feet on the ground and slash at me upon my horse by using the stretch of this serpent-like neck. I loosed a shot at it, but the slug went wide, and then I strove to cut its neck through with my sword. So swift and flexible was it, though, that I could not, until it sank the claw-beak in me. Then I was able to slash it, and it ran about blindly until it died. The pain was so great I dared not dismount and cut off part of it as witness to my story, but turned and rode fast for the line of march again. My horse foundered under me as I came through the picket-lines; the thing gashed him on the withers, and no man will ride him again."
Excerpted from To Conquer Chaos by John Brunner. Copyright © 1981 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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