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"I will stay on Kregen!"
In my nostrils stank the odors of blood and sweat, oiled leather, dust, and my ears rang with the sounds of combat as swords clashed and clanged and pikes pierced mail and crossbow bolts punched into armored men. I could smell and hear, but I could see only an all-encompassing blueness lambent about me, and my gripping fist closed on emptiness where I should be grasping the hilt of my long sword.
"I will not go back to Earth!"
Everything was blue now, roaring and twisting in my head, in my eyes and ears, tumbling me head over heels into a blue nothingness.
"I will stay on Kregen beneath the suns of Scorpio! I will!"
I, Dray Prescot of Earth, screamed it out in my agony and despair. "I will stay on Kregen!"
A wind riffled my hair and I knew that old vosk-skull helmet with its panache of yellow paint had vanished with my long sword.
I was lying flat on my back. The noise of combat flowed away, dwindling. The screams of dying men and wounded sectrixes, the grunt and harshly indrawn breaths of men convulsed with the passions of battle, the clangor and scrape of weapons, all died. And the blue brilliance of light about me wavered and I sensed the inward struggle as obscure forms moved and merged past the edges of my vision. Against my back pressed hard earth —but was it the dirt of Kregen or of Earth?
That last battle against the overlords of Magdag had been violent and emotional and transforming, but any taint of battle-lust or battle-fever in me had been banished at a stroke by the unexpected intervention of the Star Lords. I have, Iconfess, sometimes been overwhelmed by the lustof battle, not often, and have little time for those who prate of that red curtain that falls before their eyes and to whose existence they point as an excuse for actions of the most barbarous and savage kind. Oh, yes, the scarlet curtain before the eyes exists, but it is capable of manipulation by those whose humanity has not been destroyed.
You who listen to these tapes spinning through their little cassettes will know how often I have succumbed, to my shame, to that red-roaring tide of exultant conflict.
So it was that as I sat up on that hard-packed ground the blood-lust of battle had cleared from my mind. But the fever of instant action still gripped my body. As I sat up, then, expecting I knew not what, a vast odiferous mass of squelchy straw laid me flat down on my back again.
Dung and straw smothered me. Spitting out a mouthful of vile-tasting straw I sat up, blinking, trying to see, vaguely making out a barn door black in the light as the blueness faded, and —smack down again I went as another heaping forkful of straw-laced manure slapped me across the face. I spat. I blinked. I cursed. With a roar of fury generated as much by indignation and a sense of the ludicrous as much by anger I leaped to my feet.
This time I could dodge the flying forkful of dungy straw.
Thoroughly annoyed, I started for the barn door. As I expected, I was completely naked. The Star Lords had snatched me from Magdag; where they had deposited me I did not know —but I had urgent problems before finding out, problems to do with people who threw dungy straw into my face.
A voice shouted something I didn't recognize, but even in the midst of intending to deal with dung-hurlers I took comfort from the conviction that the language was not of Earth. It had that ring peculiar to the languages of Kregen, and I felt a surge of thanksgiving.
A man stepped out of the barn door.
My vision cleared and I saw this man bathed in the mingled streaming light of the twin suns of Antares. Then, without doubt, I knew the Star Lords had not snatched me from Kregen altogether and hurled me contemptuously back to Earth. Contemptuously, for I knew that in some way I had failed them, that I had not accomplished what they had brought me to Kregen and sent me to Magdag to do.
Staring at this man who stared back at me I was conscious only of a great and all-engulfing thankfulness. I was still on the same world as my Delia! I was not sundered from the only woman for me in two worlds by four hundred light-years of empty space. Somewhere in Vallia on this planet of Kregen my Delia of the Blue Mountains, my Delia of Delphond, lived and breathed and laughed and, I hoped and prayed, did not despair of me.
This man carried a pitchfork to which wisps of greasy straw still clung. He stood tall and lean, with the most infernal mocking smile taking in my nakedness and the dungy straw clinging to my skin and broomsticking my hair —and then he saw my face. He lost his smile and the pitchfork came up in quick automatic response. He possessed a mane of intensely black hair. His eyes twinkled brightly blue upon me. There was about him an air of recklessness and of action-before-thought-of-consequences, and I judged he had not been slave for very long.
My thought of Delia had halted me —in the glory of knowing I was still treading the same ground as my princess —so that this man was spared time enough to speak.
"Llahal!" he said, in the universal nonfamiliar greeting of Kregen. Had we been friends he would have said: "Lahal." He went on without waiting for my reply or for the making of pappattu. "You look a sight, dom!" And then he laughed. It was a light laugh, all mockery of myself gone from it and filled only with a delight in the circumstances. Any man who cannot laugh at himself is truly dead. But, as I think you will know, I, Dray Prescot, do not, for others and out loud, laugh easily.
Copyright © 1973, Kenneth Bulmer