The Many-Coloured Land



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"
"Perhaps," said Peopeo Moxmox Burke, "the Ship took a longer view than you."
* * * *
All day long the birds of prey had circled.
They rode thermals above the Vosges woodland in a neat stack, holding most of the time at altitudes appropriate to their species. Lowest was a wheeling flock of small swallow-tailed kites; above them soared a mated pair of bronze buzzards; the fire-backed eagles came next, and then a lone lammergeier vulture, mightiest of the bone crackers. Most lofty of all the circling birds was the one that had initiated the daylong vigil and attracted all of the others. On motionless wings, it orbited at a height so remote that it was barely visible to watchers on the ground.
Sister Amerie watched the birds through the sparse branches of a stone pine, her tawny cat resting in her arms. " 'Wherever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.' "
"You quote the Christian scriptures," said Old Man Kawai, who was shading his eyes with a tremulous hand. "Do you think the birds are truly clairvoyant? Or do they only hope, as we do? It is late, so late!"
"Calm yourself, Kawai-san. If they get here tonight, there'll be a whole twenty-four-hour day for the Firvulag to join in the assault. That should be enough. Even if our allies withdraw at sunrise day after tomorrow, we can still win with the help of the iron."
The ancient continued to fret "What can be keeping Madame? It was such a slim hope. And such hard work we have done here in expectation that the hope would be fulfilled!"
Amerie stroked the cat. "If they arrive before dawn tomorrow, the attack can still proceed according to the second alternative."
" Ifthey arrive. Have you considered the navigation problem? Richard must come first to Hidden Springs. But how will he find it? Surely these tiny mountain valleys must look much alike from the air, and ours is hidden because of the Hunt. Richard will not be able to distinguish our canyon, even in daylight, if he approaches at a high altitude. And he does not dare to fly a low-level search, lest the enemy observe him."
Amerie was patient. "Madame will conceal the ship mentally, of course. Calm yourself. This constant worry is bad for your health. Here, pet the cat. It's very soothing. When you stroke the fur, you generate negative ions."
"Ahsodesuka?"
"We can hope that the flyer would be equipped with an infrared scanner for night flight, just as our eggs of the twenty-second century were. Even with all of our fighters gone, there are still more than thirty warm bodies here in Hidden Springs. Richard will sniff us out."
Old Man Kawai sucked in his breath. A horrible thought of a new sort crossed his mind. "The metapsychic concealment of the aircraft! If its volume is more than about ten cubic meters, Madame will be unable to render it invisible! She will only be able to disguise it somehow and hope that the Tanu do not concentrate their perceptive powers too closely upon it. What if the machine is so large that her faculties are insufficient to invest it with a plausible illusion?"
"She'll think of something."
"It is a great danger," he moaned. The little cat gave him a long-suffering glance as his hand essayed a few nervous pats. "The Flying Hunt could even discover the aircraft while it rests here! All that is needed is for Velteyn to descend for a close look at my poor camouflage nets. They are pathetic things."
"Adequate for night concealment. Velteyn has no infrared, thank God. And he almost never comes this far west nowadays. Stop your fussing! You'll stew yourself into cardiac arrest. Where's your jiriki?"
"I am a foolish, useless old man. I would not be here in the first place if I were able to rule myself through Zen . . . The nets, if they fail their purpose, the fault will be my own! The dishonor!"
Amerie gave an exasperated sigh. She thrust the cat at Kawai "Take Deej into Madame's cottage and give her some leftover fish. Then hold her on your lap and close your eyes and pet her and think of an those lovely Tri-D's that used to come rolling off your assembly lines in Osaka."
The old man giggled. "A substitute for counting sheep? Yatte mimasu! It may serve to tranquilize me, at that. As you say, there is still time to mount the attack . . . Come, kitty. You will share your valued negative ions with me."
He pottered off, but turned after a few steps to say with a sly grin, "However, one incongruity remains. Forgive my flaunting of the obsolete technology, Amerie-san, but even the lowliest electronicist knows that it is quite impossible for negative ions to be cat-ions!"
"You get out of here, Old Man!"
Tittering, he disappeared into the cottage.
Amerie walked down the canyon past the huts and cottages, nodding and waving to the few people who, like herself, could not resist watching the sky while they waited and prayed. The last of the able-bodied men and women had marched off under Uwe's command three days ago, and the deadline for the optimal two-day assault had come and gone. But there was still time to execute the one-day attack. At dawn tomorrow, it could be that human beings would unite together for the first time on this Exile world to challenge their oppressors.
Oh, Lord, let it happen. Let Madame and the rest of them get here in time!
It was getting cooler as the sun descended, and soon the thermals, those buoyant upwellings of heated air, would fade away completely and the soaring raptors would have to come back to earth. Amerie came to her secret place beneath a low but open-armed juniper and lay down, face to the sky, to pray. It had been such a wonderful month! Her arm had healed quickly and the people . . . ah. Lord, what a fool she had been to think of becoming a hermit. Hidden Springs folk and the other Lowlife outlaws of the region had needed her as a physician and counselor and friend. Among them she had done the work she had been trained for. And what had become of the burntout case with the self-punishing compulsion to flee into a haven of solitary penitence? Here she could even pray her Divine Office, contemplate in the forest stillness; but when the people needed her, she was there ready to help. And they were there to help. And he was there in the midst of them. It was her dream fulfilled, even in its changing, only now the language that she prayed in was a living one.
 
I put my trust in the Lord!
How dare you say to my soul:
fly away like a sparrow to the mountains,
for lo, the wicked draw their bows
and aim their arrows,
to shoot in the dark the upright of heart;
and they have destroyed the good things
while just people let the evil happen!
But the Lord tests both the just and the wicked;
he hates the lawless ones, the evil-lovers.
Flaming coals
and burning sulfur will he pour on them!
A fiery whirlwind shall be their punishment . . .
 
The lammergeier flew away to his lair among the high crags and the eagles descended to their roosting trees an hour before the sun set. The kites scattered, having to satisfy their appetites with insects, and even the buzzards disappeared at last, perhaps wondering what had prompted all of them to waste time waiting in the futile hope of sharing the great newcomer's prey. He alone still circled aloof in the high air, completely disdainful of the vanished thermals.
And Amerie watched him, lying under the tree, watched that distant speck endlessly wheeling that had drawn all the others and then disappointed them. That bird with motionless wings.
Heart pounding, she scrambled to her feet and ran back up the canyon to rout everybody out.
"Stand back! Don't touch it until the field's off, for God's sake!" someone shouted.
The huge thing, still glowing faintly purple, seemed to fill the whole lower end of the canyon. It had descended just as soon as the sky was fully dark, subsonic by a whisker but still shoving a hurricane blast ahead of it that tore bundles of thatch from the roofs and sent poor old Peppino's geese tumbling like leaves in a gale. It had come to a dead halt no more than two meters above the highest trees, its drooping nose, gull wings, and fan-shaped tail bathed in a crawling network of nearly ultravisible fire. Old Man Kawai, composed now and curtly efficient, had sent several youngsters for wet sacks and ordered the rest of the villagers to stand by the rolls of camouflage netting.
They all watched, awe-struck, as the hovering thing folded its great wings back against its thirty-meter fuselage and delicately felt its way down. It nosed obliquely between a pair of tall firs where there was a minimum of undergrowth, hesitated just barely off the ground, and then let its long legs settle. There was a loud hiss; a few bushes began to smolder and wisps of smoke curled up around the footpads. The skin of the bird went dead black.
Then the people, who had stood as though paralyzed, broke into wild cheers. A number sobbed aloud as they rushed to follow Kawai's orders, beating out the little fires that had been set by the rho-field and hustling to set up poles and guy-ropes for the nets.
The belly hatch opened and the ladder extruded. Slowly, Madame Guderian came down.
Amerie said, "Welcome home."
"We have brought it," said Madame.
"Everything is ready. Exactly as your plan specified."
Lame Miz Cheryl-Ann, who was two hundred and three and nearly blind, seized one of Madame's hands and kissed it; but the Frenchwoman hardly seemed to notice. Up above, a word of warning came from within the flyer. A litter was lowered from the hatch by Felice and Richard.
Madame said only, "You are needed, ma Soeur." And then she turned and walked as in a daze toward her cottage. Amerie knelt down and took one of Martha's bony wrists. Richard stood there in his ruffled pirate shirt and battered buckskins with fists clenched and tears running down his dirty sun-scorched cheeks.
"She wouldn't let us come back until the Spear was working right. And now she's damn near bled to death. Help her, Amerie."
"Follow me," said the nun, and they rushed off after Madame, carrying the litter with them, leaving Claude to see that the big black bird of prey was safely bedded down for the night.
Chapter Ten

Before dawn there was the Battle Mass, and then Madame exerted her farspeech power to transmit an enigmatic "we come" to Pallol, insuring that the invasion fleet would be poised to exploit the bombardment of Finiah's wall. Sunrise was less than an hour away and if past performance was any criterion, Lord Velteyn and the members of his Flying Hunt would be back at their stronghold after the night's foray.


Claude strode along nearly at the end of the procession heading for the flyer and wished Felice would shut up. She was once again attired in her black leather ring-hockey armor, which had been beautifully refurbished by Old Man Kawai's artisans, and she was wild with anxiety lest she should miss the war.
"I wouldn't take up any room. And I swear I won't say a word during the flight! Claude, you've got to let me come with you. I can't wait for you to come back after the strike. What if you don't make it?"
"If Velteyn nails the flyer, you'd go down with us."
"But if you get away, you could put me down right outside Finiah! Say, at the breach in the wall on the land side of the peninsula. I could go in with the Firvulag on the second wave! Please Claude!"
"The Hunt could have spotted us by then. Landing could be suicide, and that's not what this fight is all about. Not for me and Madame Guderian, at any rate. Finiah is just the beginning of our war. And Richard's got Martha to live for now."
Up ahead, villagers were pulling the nets from the black bird. A few candles gleamed in the mist where Amerie was blessing the aircraft.
Felice said, "I could help you with the Spear, Claude. You know what an awkward big bastard it is. I could be useful." She clutched at the old man's bush shirt and he stopped abruptly and took her by, the shoulders.
"Listen to me, girl! Richard is all strung up. He hasn't slept for more than twenty-four hours and he's half-crazy with worry because of Martha, Even with the transfusions, Amerie gives her less than a fifty-fifty chance. And now Richard has to fly a combat mission in an exotic aircraft with a couple of old crocks and the future of Pliocene humanity riding on his tail! You know how he feels about you. Having you in the flyer during the mission could be the last straw. You say that you'd keep out of the way. But I know you couldn't help asserting yourself once the heat was on. So you're staying here, and that's that. We'll do our job and then run for home, and with luck we'll leave Velteyn completely mystified about where we've gone. We'll come back and pick you up. I promise you that if we make it, we'll get you to the battle not more than an hour or so after the main assault begins."
"Claude . . . Claude . . ." Her face peered through the T-shaped opening in the black hoplite helmet, panic and fury and some other more alien emotion at war with reason. Claude waited, praying that she wouldn't jump him. But he was so steeped in fatigue that he almost didn't give a damn whether or not she knocked him cold and forced the others to let her take his place. It was in her mind, all right; but she also knew that he was by far the better shot.
"Oh, Claude ." The blazing brown eyes closed. Tears poured behind the cheekpieces of her helmet and the green plumes flattened as she wrenched away from him and fled back toward Madame's cottage.
He let out a long breath. "Be ready when we get back!" he called, and then hurried to where the others were waiting.
* * * *
The great bird crept furtively from its hiding place. When it was in the clear, it mounted the predawn sky like a violet spark going up an invisible chimney, attaining an altitude of 5000 meters in a thunderclap inertialess surge. Angélique Guderian stood beside Richard, clutching the back of his seat with one hand and her golden torc with the other. Richard had changed into his old spacer's coverall.
"You got us hidden, Madame?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied faintly. She had said hardly a word since their safe return.
"Claude! You ready?"
"Whenever you give the word, son."
"We're on our way!"
A split second later, the belly hatch rolled smoothly back. They hovered motionless above a patch of microscopic jewels, shaped roughly like a tadpole with its tail joined to the eastern bank of the Rhine.
"Why, it's on the Kaiserstuhl," Claude said to himself.
The patch grew, spread, its star-cluster blur clarifying into twinkling lights as the flyer dropped, subsonically this time, and stopped dead in the air about 200 meters above the highest eminence of the Tanu city.
"Give it to 'em," said Richard.
Claude horsed the great Spear into position and took a bead on the line of fiery dots marking the Rhineside wall. Somewhere in the graying mists of the river waited a flotilla of Firvulag boats loaded with human and exotic troops.
Keep her depressed, old man! You don't want to boil your own folks out of the water!
He raised the caplock and swung it aside. There, right there. Touch the second stud.
A thin bar of green-white lanced without sound.
Down below, a tiny orange flower bloomed, but the line of dots atop the wall remained unbroken.
"Shit!" Richard exclaimed. "You missed! Elevate!"
Calmly, Claude took aim once again, pressed the stud. This time there was no burst of orange fire, only a dull-red glow. Perhaps a dozen of the rampart lamps were swallowed by it.
"Hee-yow! Gotcha!" screeched the pirate. "Make a one-eighty, Claudsie-boy! Ready for the back door!"
The flyer spun on its vertical axis and Claude found himself aiming at a point near the base of the shining tadpole's tail. He fired and missed . . . high. He fired and missed again . . . low.
"Jesus, hurry it up!" urged Richard.
The third time, the blast struck the wall squarely, melting it at a point where the causeway of the peninsular neck met the extinct volcanic mass of the Kaiserstuhl proper.
Madame moaned. Claude felt dragon talons grip his guts.
"Are they coming?" Richard demanded. "Hang on, Madame! Sweet Christ, Claude, get on with ft! Never mind zapping the Tanu buildings. Go for the mine!"
The old man wrestled the Spear around, a sudden bunt of sweat greasing his hands and making them slip on the weapon's glassy butt. His tensed-up muscles trembled as he tried to bring the weapon to bear upon the small blue constellation that marked the mine workings. He could not depress the Spear sufficiently to bring the target into range. "Quick, Richard! Take her a couple of hundred meters south!"
"Aye," growled the pirate. The flyer changed position in the twinkling of an eye. "That better?"
"Wait . . . yes! I've just about got her. Have to do this right the first time. Only have one blast at full zap . . ."
"Merde alors." Madame whispered.
The old woman staggered away from Richard to crash against the right bulkheads. Fists pressed to her temples, she began to scream. Claude had never heard such a sound from a human throat, such a distillation of anguish, horror, and despair.
At the same moment, something flashed past the flight deck port. It glowed neon-red and was shaped like a mounted knight.
"Oh, God," said Richard flatly. Madame's screams cut off and she fell senseless to the deck.
"How many?" asked Claude. He tried to get a grip on himself, tried to steady the heavy Spear on target, prayed that his damned old body wouldn't betray him at this last extremity. They had almost done it! Almost . . .
"I make it twenty-two." Richard's calm voice seemed to come from a considerable distance. "The whole Round Table circling us like Sioux around a wagon train. All scarlet except the leader, and I'd put his spectral class somewhere in the BO range, look out!"
One of the figures, the blue-white one, soared down and took a position immediately below the flyer. He drew his glassy sword and thrust it upward. Three Roman-candle globes of ball lightning left the tip and soared rather slowly toward the open belly hatch. Claude dodged, pulling the Spear out of the way, and the things flew into the aircraft, where they began caroming off the panels and decking, hissing and emitting a fearful smell of ozone.
"Shoot!" shrieked Richard. "For God's sake, shoot!"
Claude took one deep breath. He said, "Steady, son," and aimed, depressing the fifth stud of the Spear of Lugonn just as the little blue lights centered themselves in the weapon's sight.
An emerald bar jabbed once at the spangled earth. Where it struck, the rock went white, yellow, orange, roiling crimson like a flame-armed starfish. Claude fell sideways and the Spear clanged to the deck. The belly hatch started to close.
Lightning balls bounced and crackled. The old man felt one of them strike him in the back, rolling up his spine from buttocks to the base of his neck, burning all the way. The interior of the flyer was filled with smoke and a smell of burnt flesh and fabric. There were sounds, too, Claude discovered, as he studied the scene from afar, a sizzle as the remaining two energy balls sought their targets, curses and then a thin scream from Richard, a whimpering sob from Angélique as she tried to creep toward him over the smeared deck, someone breathing in and out in harsh, rhythmic persistence.
"Get it away from me!" a frantic voice cried. "I can't see to land! Ah, dammit, no! "
A jarring crash and a slow tilt to one side. Claude felt a breeze (amazing the way it seared his back) and the hatch opened. A peculiarly angled surface of grassy ground, gray and dim in the first light of morning. Richard sobbing and cursing. Angélique making no sound. Voices shouting. Heads poking up through the hatch, again at that odd angle. Wails from that silly youngster. Old Man Kawai. Amerie's familiar tones: "Go easy. Go easy." Felice spitting obscenities when somebody said she was going to get her armor all messed up.
"Put himover my shoulder. I can carry him. Stop your wiggling, Claude. Silly old fart! Now I'm going to have to walk all the way to the war."
He laughed. Poor Felice. And then his face was upside down among her green skirts and he was jouncing up and down and he screamed. But after a little bit the movement stopped, and they laid him on his stomach and something touched his temple, making the pain and the rest of it grow muzzy.
He said. "Angélique? Richard?"
Unseen, Amerie replied, "They'll recover. You all will. You did it, Claude. Sleep now." Well, how about that? And for a moment he saw the fiery starfish again, but with crimson and gold limbs expanding, branching out among the hapless helpless firefly patterns of Finiah streets in the instant before the hatch of the flyer slammed shut. How about that . . . and if the lava kept oozing out of the old Kaiserstuhl volcano for even a little while, it was going to be a long time before they mined any more barium in the regions around there.
"Don't worry about it, Claude," Felice said.
And so he stopped.
Chapter Eleven

Half-dozing in the dead hour before dawn, Moe Marshak and the other human troops on duty in Finiah had mistaken the first blast of the photon weapon for a lightning stroke. The thin green beam had lanced out of the stars, barely missing the Rhineside wall that the gray-torc garrison manned and demolishing an adjacent mess hall inside the compound. Marshak was still gaping at the flames consuming the wreckage when Claude's second shot struck the Number Ten bastion squarely, breaching the fortification not a dozen meters from Marshak's station. Great blocks of granite flew in all directions and the air boiled with smoke and dust. Oil tubs that held the watch fires spilled in the concussion and sent blazing rivulets racing down the cracked walkway.


When Marshak was able to get a grip on himself, he rushed to look through one of the embrasures. There in the fog-blurred waters below were the boats.
"Alert!" he shouted aloud; and then his mind sent the alarm on the declamatory mode, amplified by his gray torc.
 
Manhak:Invasion viaRhine! Wallbreach StationTen!
Captal Wag:Howthehellmany be there Moe? Howmany boats?
Manhak:Wholefuckin' river FULL!! Eightyhundred who can count damnfog bastards everywhere Firvulagboats but letmesee yes! LOWLIVES TOO! Repeat Lowlives + Foe invading. Landings! Rocks swarming damnfuckers penetrating breach estimate hole maybeninemeters max.
Comet Formby:All troopsofwatch to StationTen. General alert RhineGarrison to arms. Dutyobservers scan/report Defensiveunits to wallstations . . . CANCELCANCELCANCEL! Defensiveunits to garrisoncompound! Invader penetration compound!
Commander Seaborg:Lord Velteyn. Alert. Firvulag and human invasion force has penetrated the city fortifications at breached Number Ten Station. Countering.
Lord Velteyn of Finiah:Kinfolk arise and defend! Flyers to saddle! Na bardito! Na bardito taynel o pogekdne!
 
Chief Burke and Uwe Guldenzopf led the mob of Vosges Lowlives and outland volunteers up the steep rampart and across the tumbled nibble of the breakthrough. Vitredur arrows and crossbow bolts rained down from the battlements, but until the defenders could redeploy at ground level, the invaders would have a brief advantage. As bad luck would have it, the breach was within the grounds of the principal Finiah garrison. In addition to the confusion caused by the mess hall conflagration, which was spreading to adjoining structures, a chaliko stable had been broken open by falling debris and numbers of the great animals were loose.
Three soldiers ran from the guardhouse at the compound gate. "Take 'em," yelled Burke, and howling desperados fell upon the little force and cut it to pieces. "Out of here! Into the city streets! and get this gate off the hinges!"
Troops were pouring from the barracks, some with their armor only half strapped on. Free-for-all clashes erupted everywhere in the murk as invaders scrambled through the broken wall while the human minions of the Tanu strove to press them back. The irregulars trying to unhinge the gates were attacked and overwhelmed, and soldiers swung the heavy metal grille shut, locking it.
"We're sealed in!" Chief Burke jumped on top of an overturned feed wagon. His face and upper torso were painted in the old war patterns and he had the wing feather of a fire-eagle thrust into his knotted, iron-colored hair. "Hit the sonnofabitches! Get that gate back open! This way!"
He saw Uwe fall beneath a sword-wielding gray-torc and leaped down, brandishing the wide tomahawk Khalid Khan had forged for him. The blade sank into the soldier's crested bronze kettle-helmet as though it were made of pasteboard. Burke hauled the body off to find Ouldenzopf lying flat on his back, one hand clutching his breast and an expression of agony on his bearded face.
Burke knelt. "Did he nail you, bubi?"
Struggling up on one elbow, Uwe groped inside his buckskin shirt. Bone-colored bits gleamed in the lurid light "Only my second-best meerschaum, dammit."
The Lowlives remained hemmed in, unable to break out of the area in the immediate vicinity of the garrison complex. Those crowded in the breach were pressed both by the defenders and by their own comrades coming up from the beachhead. A wall of panic arose. Some invaders fell and were trampled. A garrison officer wearing a silver torc and full blue-glass body armor directed a unit of halberdiers that advanced upon the stalled irregulars. Sweeping crystal blades mowed down the packed, shrieking throng.
And then the monsters came to the rescue.
High on the steep slope of rubble shone the wavering nightmare shape of a three-meter albino scorpion, the illusionary aspect of Sharn the younger, general of the Firvulag. From the minds of the exotics came a mighty wave of terror and dread that overloaded the telepathic circuits of the gray torcs and sent their wearers writhing into madness. Sharn himself could smite the enemy at a range of nearly twenty-five meters; others of his advancing company might not have auras so formidable, but woe to the Foe who fell into their clutches!
Hideous trolls, spectres, manticores, shambling dark presences seized the soldiers in spine-crunching embraces, sank fangs into unarmored throats, even rent men limb from limb. Some of the exotics were capable of flinging bolts of psycho-energy that broiled troops in their bronze cuirasses like lobsters in the shell. Other Firvulag harassed with sheets of astral fire, streams of nauseating ichor, or brain-crippling illusions. The great hero Nukalavee the Skinless, wearing his aspect of a flayed centaur with blazing eyes, howled until enemy soldiers fell writhing to the ground, eardrums split and minds reduced to near-idiocy. Another champion, Bles Four-Fang, invaded the headquarters of the garrison, caught up the silver commander named Seaborg, and appeared to devour him, armor and all, while the dying officer calmly broadcast final telepathic orders to his subordinates directing the troops now making a last stand at the gate opening into the inner city. Seaborg's aides blunted their vitredur weapons against Bles's scaly illusory hide, only to be eaten alive in turn for their temerity. By the time the monster had downed the last adjutant, the headquarters building was afire and the invasion force swarmed in Finiah's streets. So Bles withdrew in good order, picking his teeth with a silver spur. His appetite had only been whetted, and the morning was young.
Vanda-Jo was still overseeing the last wave of volunteers embarking from the staging area when Lord Velteyn and the Flying Hunt took to the air. Shouts of fear came from the crowd as they saw the glowing knights mount up from the city across the water. One man yelled, "The bleeders're coming for us! " and jumped into the Rhine. A fiasco was averted when Vanda-Jo tongue-lashed the outlanders for their cowardice, pointing out that the Hunt was circling high above Finiah, bent on some more urgent objective.
"So into the boats and quit farting around!" she bellowed. "You don't have to be afraid of Velteyn and his flying circus any more! Did you forget our secret weapon? We've got iron! You can kill Tanu now, even easier than you can kill those traitor human torcers that do their dirty work!"
Eyeballs rolled anxiously in the half-light. The Firvulag skipper in the two-masted shallop nearest Vanda-Jo glowered in dwarfish impatience. "Hurry it up, spiritless earthworms, or we'll sail to the war without you!"
Suddenly a column of emerald light stabbed down from apparently empty sky in the axis of the wheeling Hunt, striking a low knoll within the city across the Rhine. Orange-and-white fire fountained up at the point of impact, and seconds later, the sound of a rolling detonation sped over the river.
"The mine!" somebody shouted. "The barium mine's blowing up too, it looks like a volcano erupting in there!"
As if the bombardment had been a signal, another gout of flame belched up from the farthest reaches of Finiah, back where the peninsula narrowed to a small neck connecting the city to the mainland.
"See that?" Vanda-Jo was exultant "The second wave of spooks have landed opposite our main beachhead! That female Firvulag general named Ayfa is attacking from the Black Forest side. Now will you shitheads get a move on?"
The men and women on the dock hoisted their iron-tipped spears into the air and yelled. They pounded down the spindly gangplanks into the waiting boats so eagerly that the small craft rocked and nearly swamped.
On the other side of the Rhine, flames made a scarlet track on the dark water. The faerie lamps of blue and green and silver and gold that had outlined the splendid Tanu City of Lights began to wink out.
* * * *
Velteyn, Lord of Finiah, pulled up the reins of his chaliko and hung in midair, shining like a magnesium flare. The nobles of his Flying Hunt, eighteen male and three female knights, all glowing red, drew in their mounts to surround him. His thought-thrust was nearly incoherent with frustration and rage:
Gone! The flying machine is gone . . . and yet my lightnings surely penetrated its belly. Kamilda! Send your farsense seeking it.
. . . It recedes from us Exalted Lord. Ah Tana at a speed unprecedented! It drops behind the brow of the Vosges and beyond my perception. My Lord if I ascend to a great height . . .
Stay Kamilda! More urgent threats confront us below. Look all of you! Look what the Foe has done! O the shame the pain the havoc! Down to the ground all of you. Each to command a mounted party of chivalry in defense of our City of Lights!
Na bardito taynel o pogekône!
* * * *
The fighting moved steadily inland from the Rhineside break. Two hours after dawn, the western front was strung through the gardens of the pleasure dome, on the very outskirts of the Tanu quarter.
Moe Marshak had reloaded his quiver several times from those of fallen comrades. He had wrenched the gaudy crest from his bronze helmet early on and then rolled in filth to camouflage the shine of his cuirass. Unlike certain of his luckless fellows, he had deduced quickly that the Firvulag would be able to detect telepathic communication, and so he made no attempt to contact his officers for orders. Maintaining a quiet mind, he went his lone way, keeping out of monster range as he skulked Finiah's byways, potting Lowlives with cool economy while dodging hysterical ramas and noncombatants. Marshak had already taken out at least fifteen of the enemy, plus two bareneck civilians he had caught looting a gray-torc of its weaponry.
Now Marshak slipped into the long porch that formed the perimeter of the pleasure dome. Hearing one of the distinctive Lowlife yodels, he concealed himself behind thick ornamental shrubs and nocked one of the serrated war arrows in his compound bow.
In the next instant an unexpected diversion came from within the building. The stained glass from a pair of French doors perhaps five meters away from the soldier shivered to atoms from the impact of some heavy object. There were screams and a rumbling sound. Long hands all adorned with rings fumbled with the jammed catch. Other hands shook the bent framework. The angle was such that Marshak could not clearly see the people trapped inside, but their cries of terror and dismay reached both his mind and ears, as did the uncanny warbling of the thing pursuing them.
"Help! The door's struck! And it's coming!"
Help us! Helphelphelp us! HELP US!
The blanket coercive summons of a Tanu overlord clutched at Marshak's consciousness. His gray torc compelled obedience. Forsaking his hiding place, he ran to the door. On the other side, pressed against the mangled copper fretwork, were three female denizens of the pleasure dome and their tall Tanu client, whose handsome violet and gold robes proclaimed him an official of the Farsensor Guild. He presumably lacked the coercive or psychokinetic potential to fend off the apparition that was now poised in an inner doorway, ready to strike.
The Firvulag wore the appearance of a gigantic hellgrammite, a larval water insect with clashing razor-sharp mandibles. The brute's head was nearly a meter wide, while the long segmented body, slick with some stinking secretion, seemed to fill the corridor behind it.
"Tana be thanked!" cried the Tanu. "Quickly, my man! Aim for its neck!"
Marshak raised his bow, shifted position to avoid the struggling women, and let fly. The glass-tipped shaft sank for most of its length between chitinous plates behind the creature's scissoring jaws. Marshak heard the Firvulag utter a telepathic bellow. Without hurrying he drew two more arrows and sent them into the hellgrammite's glittering orange eyes. The insectile form wavered, became insubstantial . . . and then the awful thing was gone and a dwarf in black obsidian armor lay dead on the floor, throat and eyesockets transfixed.
The soldier used his vitredur short sword to pry open the ruined latch. Pleasure surges engendered by the grateful exotic throbbed along his pelvic nerves in the sweet, familiar reward. When the nobleman and his disheveled companions were freed, Marshak saluted, right fist pressed against his heart.
"I am at your service, Exalted Lord."
But the farsensor dithered. "Where are we to go? The route to House Velteyn is cut off!" His abstracted expression showed that he was scanning about with his mind's eye.
"Well, we can't go back inside," said the most petite of the pleasure dome inmates, a black woman of exquisite contours and sharp voice. "The damn muffers are crawling out of the woodwork!"
"Oh, Lord Kolitcyr," squealed a teary blond. "Save us!"
"Silence!" commanded the Tanu. "I'm attempting to, but no one will respond to my summons!"
The third woman, thin and empty-eyed, her provocative attire half torn from her bony shoulders, sank down on the pavement and began to laugh.
Kolitcyr gasped. "The dome is surrounded! I call, but Lord Velteyn's knights are in the thick of battle! . . . Hah! The invaders cringe and retreat before the coercive might of Tanu chivalry! The Goddess be thanked, there are many more powerful than I!"
A great jarring thump came from inside the pleasure dome. Distant cries became louder. More glass broke and a rhythmic pounding began.
"They're coming! The monsters are coming!" Once again, the blonde burst into hysterical tears.
"Soldier, you must lead us . . ." The Tanu scowled, shook his head as if to clear it. "Lead us to the Northern Watergate! There may be a boat . . ."
But it was too late. Across the garden, trampling flowerbeds and hurtling through the bushes came a force of twenty-odd Lowlife humans led by a half-naked red man of heroic stature.
Marshak's hand poised above his quiver, frozen. Most of the invaders had compound bows as good as his own held at the ready.
"Surrender!" shouted Peopeo Moxmox Burke. "Amnesty for all humans who yield freely to us!"
"Stand back!" cried the Tanu farsensor. "I, I will burn out your minds! Strike you mad!"
Chief Burke smiled, and his painted face, framed in straggling gray hair, was more menacing than the Firvulag phantasm had ever been. The exotic man knew that his bluff was useless, just as he knew there would be no amnesty for those of his race.
Commanding Marshak to defend to the death, Koliteyr tried to flee. The iron tomahawk spun and split the exotic's skull before he had taken two steps.
Marshak relaxed. He let the bow and arrow fall to the flagstones and watched the approaching Lowlives in numb silence.
The strategic importance of the barium mine had been made clear to Sharn-Mes at the Lowlife briefing session prior to the invasion. Humiliation of the hated Foe, the Firvulag general was made to understand, must take second place to the complete destruction of the mine and its trained personnel. It was vital to Madame Guderian's grand design that the supply of the precious element, indispensable in the manufacture of torcs, be cut off. Shortly before noon, when Sharn was taking a breather with Bles and Nukalavee in a makeshift command post well supplied with liberated beer, a Firvulag scout arrived with important news. The Mighty Ayfa and her Warrior Ogresses had made a successful thrust from the eastern breach and now invested the sector around the mine workings. They had ascertained that molten rock, triggered by Claude's blast from the Spear, had plugged the mine entrance, buried the main refinery and the complex that housed the human and rama workers, and flowed some distance into the streets of the upper city before congealing. However, the mine administration building with its store of purified barium stood firm. The place was completely surrounded by black and steaming lava, now sheathed in a clinkery skin of cooled rock except where cracks revealed the red glowing interior. There were still Tanu engineers in the building, and among them a creator of the first rank. Ayfa and her force had gleaned this intelligence when an unexpected bolt of psychoenergy zapped one of the investigating ogresses to a cinder, narrowly missing the Dreadful Skathe. She of the snaggleteeth and dripping talons had spun a psychic shield over the survivors that sufficed for a disorderly retreat out of mindbolt range.
"And so the Mighty Ayfa," the scout concluded, "now awaits your suggestions, Great Captain."
Bles uttered a hoarse bleat of ironic laughter. He tipped half a barrelful of beer into his maw. "Ahh, let's go help the poor little ladies save their honor."
"Honor, my left testicle!" hissed Nukalavee. " Ifthe Foe-man's creative force strained the defenses of Skathe, then he is a worthy antagonist to any of us at a distance. We would expend our mind-power simply in the erection of screens and have little left for offense."
"Even the approach is fraught with danger," Sharn noted. "The crust of cooling lava, as this scout says, is fragile and may crack under the weight of a stalwart. You know our minds cannot penetrate dense rock deeply enough to strengthen the crust. And to fan through into the magma below is certain doom." He addressed himself to the dwarf messenger. "Pliktharn, how broad is the expense of lava that would have to be crossed?"
"At least fivescore giant steps, Great Captain." Pliktharn's face became eager. "The crust would bear my weight easily!"
"You could send me and Nukalavee to mind-guard him, along with Ayfa and Skathe," Bles suggested. "The four of us working together have the range."
"And what happens when our brave gnomish brother reaches the mine building?" Nukalavee sneered. "How will he attack the Foe through our own mental screens? Four-Fang, you've worn that reptile suit so long that your wits are shrinking to fit your illusory brainpan!"
"The Great Captain Ayfa," cautioned the scout, "has perceived that the Tanu engineers are calling upon Lord Velteyn for help."
Sharn smacked a great hand onto the table. "Te's tonsils! And when he responds, he'll airlift them out, barium and all! We can't take that chance. I hate like hell to resort to Lowlife tactics, but there's only one way to handle this."
"Easy does it, lads!" Ayfa called out "Don't lose your nerve now that you're almost there."
Homi, the Little Singhalese iron-smelter, clutched Pliktharn's neck tighter. The lava crust bent as the Firvulag approached the lee of the mine building. There the flow was thicker and had held heat longer, which meant that the skin of cooled rock might crack and let them fall through to the magma at any moment.
About the incongruous pick-a-back figures shone a radiant hemisphere, the mental screen conjured by the joint power of Ayfa, Skathe, Bles, and Nukalavee. The four heroes, and most of the force of Warrior Ogresses, were concealed behind the sturdy walls of burnt-out townhouses, well back from the edge of the lava flow and a full 200 meters from the mine headquarters. Energy bolts flung by the trapped Tanu creator blazed from an upper-storey window, disintegrating into a web of lightnings as they were neutralized by the screen's potential. At length, Pliktharn and Homi reached a lower window and climbed inside. Ayfa, who was strong in the farsensing talent, observed what happened next.
"The three Foemen descend to the lower chamber, armed with vitredur geology picks! One of them has considerable coercive power. He's trying to force Pliktharn to lower the screen, but that won't work, of course. The mindbolt flinger now gathers his strength for one mighty thrust at point-blank range! He uses steady pressure rather than abrupt projection. Our screen wavers! It goes spectral, into the blue! The yellow! It will surely fail! But now the Lowlife has his arbalest ready and aims at the creator. Ah! The missile of blood-metal passes through our weakening shield as through a curtain of rain! The Foeman falls! A second shot, and a third, and all of the Foe are downed!"
The four heroes leapt and the Warrior Ogresses whooped with joy in the triumph. All of their minds, even at the great distance, felt the death-flare of first one Tanu mind, then a second.
But the mindbolt flinger was strong even in the dying. Amplified, agonized, his thought thundered in the aether.
The Goddess will avenge us. Accursed through the world's age be those who resort to the blood-metal. A bloody tide will overwhelm them.
An instant later, his soul flickered out.
The Lowlife named Homi, having retrieved the three iron quarrels for reuse in his crossbow, appeared at the window and waved. Then he and Pliktharn set to work chipping and prying at the heavy milestone windowsill until its mortar gave way. The stone smashed the thin lava crust beneath the window, sending up a gush of smoke and flame. Before the fresh rift could heal, the human and the Firvulag were seen to toss certain small containers into the pit of molten rock, after which they climbed out a different window and made their way carefully back the way they had come.
A young girl clad in shiny black jogged in apparent tirelessness along the narrow Vosges jungle trail. Shadows grew deeper and a cool wind swept from the heights into the ravine that the footpath followed. Treefrogs were beginning their evening songs. Before long, the predators would awaken. After nightfall, there would be so many hostile creatures on the prowl that Felice would be unable to fend them off with her coercive power. She would be forced to bivouac and wait until dawn.
"And I'll be too late! The Truce starts at sunup and the war in Finiah will be over! "How far had she come? Perhaps two-thirds of the 106 kilometers that lay between Hidden Springs and the western bank of the Rhine? She had lost so much time this morning before getting started, and the sun went down at eighteen hundred hours . . .
"Damn Richard. I damn him for getting hurt!"
She should have insisted on going with them in the flyer. She could have done something. Helped old Claude steady the Spear. Assisted Madame's mental defense. Even deflected the globe of ball lightning that had blinded Richard in one eye and caused him to crash the flyer.
"Damn him! Damn him! The Firvulag will quit fighting when the Truce begins and our people will have to withdraw. Ill be too late to get my golden torc! Too late!"
She splashed heedlessly across a small stream. Ravens, disturbed in their feeding upon some otter's leftovers, rose squawking into the vine-hung forest canopy. A hyena mocked her, its mad laugh echoing from the ravine wall.
Too late.
The glass carnyx of a fighting Tanu woman sounded the charge. Armored chalikos, bearing knights who coruscated each in a different jewel-color, galloped down the corpse-strewn boulevard toward the barricade where the contingent of Lowlives was making its stand.
"Na bardito! Na bardito!"
There were no Firvulag allies at hand to dampen the mental assault. Images of brain-searing intensity whipped and stabbed at the humans. The night was fraught with unspeakable menace and pain. Plunging exotics in their sparkling harness seemed to be coming from all directions, gorgeous and invulnerable. The humans loosed iron-tipped arrows, but skillful psychokinetics among the Tanu turned most of the fusillade aside, while the rest clattered harmlessly against the plates of the glass armor.
"The spooks! Where are the spooks?" howled a despairing Lowlife. A moment later one of the knights crashed upon him, impaling his claw-torn body with a sapphire lance.
Of the sixty-three human beings who had made their stand in that street, only five escaped into the narrow alleys where hanging awnings, lines of washing, and crowded ranks of rubbish carts abandoned by panicked rama sanitary workers made it impossible for the mounted Tanu to follow.
* * * *
A mammoth bonfire was ablaze in the Central Plaza of Finiah. Jubilant phantoms in a hundred hideous guises capered around it waving battle standards festooned with strings of freshly psychogilded skulls.
Khalid Khan protested. "They're wasting time, Mighty Sharn! Our people are taking a terrible beating when they meet the Tanu unsupported by Firvulag mind-cover Even the mounted gray-torcs can cut right through our infantry. We've got to work together! And we must find some way to counter those chaliko-riders."
The great luminous scorpion bent over the turbaned Pakistani, multicolored organs within its translucent body throbbing to the rhythm of the exotic war chant.
"It has been many years since we had cause for celebration." The unhuman voice clanged in Khalid's brain. "For too long the Foe has lurked safely behind stout city walls, despising us. You do not understand how it has been with us, the humiliation our race has suffered, draining our valor and driving even the most powerful of us to hopeless inaction. But behold! Look upon the trophy skulls, and these only a small proportion of the total!
"And how many of them belong to Tanu? Dammit, Sharn, most of the enemy casualties have been among the torced and bareneck humans! The noncombatant Tanu are all holed up in House Velteyn where we can't reach them, and only a handful of their mounted knights have been killed!"
"The Tanu chivalry", the eerie voice hesitated and then made reluctant admission, "presents a formidable challenge to us. Armored war steeds with their minds held in thrall by the riders are not intimidated by our horrific illusions or shape-shifting. We must contend against them physically, and not all of the Firvulag company are of heroic frame. Our obsidian weapons, our swords, halberds, chain-flails, and throwing spears, are not often effective against chaliko cavalry in the Grand Combat. And the same obtains in this battle."
"You need a change in tactics. There are ways for foot soldiers to put down charging horsemen." The metalsmith's teeth glittered in a brief grin. "My ancestors, Pathan hillmen, knew how!"
The response of the Firvulag general was cool. "Our battle customs are fixed by sacred tradition."
"No wonder you're losers! The Tanu weren't afraid to innovate, to take advantage of human science. Now you Firvulag have human allies on your side, and you stick one timid little toe into the battlefield and then mess about singing and dancing instead of going for the prize!"
"Beware lest I punish your insolence, Lowlife!" But the furious retort lacked conviction.
Khalid said softly, "Would you help us if we try a new tactic? Would you shield our minds while we try to knock those long-shanked bastards out of the saddle?"
"Yes . . . we would do that."
"Then pay close attention."
The monster scorpion metamorphosed into a handsome young ogre wearing a thoughtful scowl. After a few minutes the hobgoblins left off their madcap dancing, changed into gnomish warriors, and crowded in to listen.
* * * *
Converting Sharn's lieutenants proved to be more difficult. Khalid had to engineer a demonstration. He rounded up ten volunteer Lowlives equipped with iron-tipped javelins and led them to the approaches of House Velteyn, where gray-torc and Tanu riders guarded the ultimate sanctuary. The paved avenue-was lit by widely spaced torchères. No other invaders were to be seen because of the heavy concentration of defenders. Sharn and six of his Great Ones lurked in the shelter of a deserted mansion while Khalid deliberately led his squad of spearmen into plain sight of a patrolling gray troop.
The human leader, fully armored in blue glass, drew his vitredur blade and led a charge at the gallop down the cobblestone street. Instead of scattering, the Lowlives drew closely together, forming a tight phalanx bristling with four-meter spears.
The patrol swerved to the right at the last instant to avoid crashing into the iron porcupine, individual troopers reining up and wheeling their mounts about so that they could strike with longsword or battleaxe. They were plainly nonplussed, since almost all of the antagonists they had encountered thus far had emulated the Firvulag maneuver of tossing their pole-arms and then fleeing. This pack of innovators stood their ground until the animals were off balance in the turn, then stabbed deep into the unarmored bellies of the huge clawed beasts.
The hideous pain of disembowelment overrode the mind-control exerted by each rider upon his mount. Wounded chalikos stumbled and fell, or went careening off in a frenzy while the troopers hung on for their lives. Khalid's warriors pounced upon the unhorsed, dispatching them with spear or blade. Five minutes after the initiation of the attack, every member of the gray troop was either dead or had fled.
"But will it work on the Foe?" inquired Betularn of the White Hand skeptically. With Pallol Battlemaster a non-participant, he was the doyen of Firvulag stalwarts, and his opinion counted for much.
Khalid grinned at the beetle-browed giant while one of his comrades tried to staunch bleeding arm and leg wounds with torn strips of the dead captal's cloak. "It will work on the Tanu, providing we take them by surprise. We must assemble as many Lowlives and Firvulag as possible for a massed thrust against House Velteyn. Those of our people who don't have spears will improvise them from bamboo awning poles. We needn't use iron to gut the chalikos, but each human fighter will have to have an iron weapon to use against downed Tanu riders. And your people will have to be right in the thick of things beside ours, handling mind-defense and getting in whatever licks they can."
The venerable warrior shook his head slowly. He said to Sharn, "This is contrary to our Way, as you know, Great Captain. But the Foe has defied tradition for more than forty years." The other five Great Ones growled assent. "We have prayed to the Goddess for a chance to recoup our honor. And so I say . . . let us essay the Lowlife tactic. And her will be done."
* * * *
Long after midnight, with smoke from the burning city blotting out the stars and the untended torchères guttering low, Lowlives and Little People gathered for the grand assault. In a rare display of cooperative virtuosity, the best of the Firvulag illusion-spinners wove a curtain of confusion to deceive the farsensing Foe. The Tanu besieged within House Velteyn knew that the enemy was up to something, but the nature of the assault remained in doubt.
The Lord of Finiah himself, aloft once again with several of his most trusted tacticians, made pass after pass at low altitude, atempting to discern the plan of the invaders; but the meta-psychic shimmer was just dense enough to defeat his farsight. He beheld the Foe massed opposite the main portal of his palace. There were to be no feints, no multipronged storming of the several entrances, that much was self-evident. With typical Firvulag singlemindedness, Sharn seemed to be gambling everything on a last great frontal assault.
Velteyn sent the telepathic order on the intimate mode to each knight commander, and these in turn transmitted the Lord's words to their subordinates:
"To the forecourt! Let all the noble Tanu battle company, all of our adopted kinfolk of the gold and silver torc, all loyal and valiant gray soldiery attend! The Foemen gather for their final push. Let us destroy them body and soul! Na bardito! Forward, fighters of the Many-Colored Land!"
All aglow and exalted with battle ardor, the Tanu chivalry charged in a mass against the indistinct, dense groups of advancing Foe. The screen of confusion snaped off in the last second before contact to reveal the deadly pincushions of spears, many of them iron. With mental weapons all but neutralized by the Firvulag, the Tanu unshipped their pennoned lances and sent their mounts caracoling about the flanks of the hedgehog formations, alert for the expected rain of flung spears. And thus the treacherous novelty caught them completely unawares.
Velteyn, from his vantage point in the sky, could only far-watch aghast in those early minutes of slaughter. Then he dove his mount down, bombarding the enemy with all the psycho-energy he could muster. His mind and voice rallied the shattered ranks.
"Abandon your animals! Let all fight afoot! Creators and psychokinetics, raise shields for your fellows! Coercers, compel all grays and silvers to stand fast. Beware the blood-metal!"
The vast courtyard and immediate palace grounds were now a surging mass of bodies. Dull-red flashes signaled Firvulag and Tanu mind-screens interfacing in mutual collapse, after which the antagonists might fight hand to hand, with perfidious Lowlives attacking with the iron at every opportunity. The merest prick from the blood-metal meant death to a Tanu. Human gold-torcs, of course, could be wounded by the blood-metal, but not mortally poisoned. Velteyn's heart warmed at the bravery shown by the gold adoptees, many of whom seized iron weapons and turned them against the Firvulag.
Unfortunately, it was otherwise with the grays and silvers. The discipline of the torc faded in the face of diminished coercion from beleagured Tanu overlords. The lower echelons among the human levies were unmanned by the demoralizing sight of Tanu knights falling to the iron. Both Firvulag and Lowlives seized the advantage and decimated the ranks of the terror-stricken troops.
For three hours, Velteyn hovered above the battlefield, invisible except to his own forces, directing the ultimate defense of his City of Lights. If they could only hold out until dawn, until the start of the Truce! But as the sky beyond the Black Forest massif paled, two powerful bodies of the Foe, spearheaded by Bles Four-Fang and Nukalavee, made a great press and reached the palace gate.
"Fall back!" Velteyn cried. "Stand and defend the portal!"
The jewel-armored knights did their utmost, wreaking a fearful toll of dwarfs and humanity as they laid about with their glowing two-handed swords. Sooner or later, however, an iron dart would find a chink of vulnerability at groin or armpit or the back of a knee, and another brave warior would attain Tana's peace.
Velteyn groaned aloud, overwhelmed by sorrow and rage. The doors of his palace were giving way. There was no course left but the evacuation of the noncombatants via the roof with the help of the sad-eyed little human PK adept, Sullivan-Tonn. By Tana's grace, the two of them might save most of the nearly 700 trapped Tanu civilians while the knights staved off the invading horde in the stronghold corridors. If only he could die with them! But that release was forbidden to the humiliated Lord of Finiah. He was going to live on, and he was going to have to explain all of this to the King.
* * * *
Peopeo Moxmox Burke slumped against the roof parapet of House Velteyn, letting fatigue and reaction sweep over him. Gert and Hansi and a few other Lowlives beat the bushes of the roof garden and searched the ornate penthouse for hidden Tanu. But they found only the discarded baggage the fugitives had left behind, spilled pouches of jewelry, heavy embroidered cloaks and fantastic headgear, broken flagons of perfume, a single ruby-glass gauntlet
"No sign of 'em, Chief," Hansi said. "Ganz ausgeflogen. They've flown the coop."
"Get back downstairs, then," Burke ordered. "See that all the rooms are checked out, and the dungeons, too. If you see Uwe or Black Denny, send them to me. We'll have to coordinate the looting."
"Check, Chief." The men clattered away down the broad marble stairway. Burke raised one leg of his buckskin trousers and kneaded puckered flesh around the healing scar. With the anesthetic of battle fury worn off, it hurt like hell; and there was a long cut on his bare back and about forty-seven bruises and abrasions that were also making themselves known But he was in pretty good shape, for all that. The rest of the Lowlife army should be so lucky.
One of the fleeing evacuees had left behind a basket with wine and breadrolls. Sighing, the Chief began to eat and drink. In the streets below, Firvulag were gathering their wounded and their dead and forming long processions on their way to the Rhine watergates. Bobbing lanterns out on the river marked the position of small boats that had already begun the withdrawal in anticipation of the dawn. Here and there among the burning ruins stubborn human loyalists continued a futile resistance. Madame Guderian had warned Burke that the humans living in Finiah might prove less than grateful for their liberation. She had been right, as usual. There were interesting times ahead, damn it.
Sighing once again, he finished the wine, gave his stiffening muscles a stretch, then took up a discarded Tanu shawl to wipe off his war paint.
* * * *
Moe Marshak shuffled a few steps forward in line.
"Quit crowding, big boy," snarled the lovely dark-skinned woman from the pleasure dome. The other two inmates had not worn gray torcs and were long gone, led away to the sailing lighters that shuttled back and forth between Finiah and the Vosges shore. The promise of amnesty was being kept by the Lowlives. But if you were a human torc wearer, there was a catch.
Marshak knew all about the activity of the drumhead tribunal, of course. He was in telepathic communion with all of the grays within his range who had not deliberately shut him out, as the black woman had. The Tanu, givers of delight and power, were gone. As they had wafted away to the east, they had reached out in poignant farewell, caressing and commiserating and sending a final warm surge flooding the neural networks of those who had been faithful, so that the gray-torc prisoners had an illusion of celebration in place of grief and despair. Even now, at the end, they could comfort one another. The kinship remained. None of them was alone, except by choice.
The black woman stood before the judges, her eyes bright. When the question came, she almost screamed her reply: "Yes! Yes, by God! Do it! Give me back my self again!"
Lowlifeguards led her through a door to the right of the tribunal. The rest of the grays, mourning the sister's defection but respecting her choice, reached out one last time. She defied them all, placed her head on the block. The great mallet smote the iron chisel and there was overpowering pain. And silence.
Now Marshak's turn came. As a man dreaming, he told the Lowlife judges his name, his former occupation in the Milieu, the date of his passage through the time-portal. The oldest of the judges pronounced the formula.
"Moe Marshak, as a wearer of the gray torc, you have been held in bondage by an exotic race and compelled to abet the enslavement of humanity. Your Tanu overlords have been defeated by the Alliance of Freeliving Humans and Firvulag. As a prisoner of war, you are entitled to amnesty, provided that you agree to the removal of the torc. If you do not agree, you will be executed. Please make your choice."
He chose.
Every nerve in his body seemed to ignite. Kindred minds sang as they gave consolation. Steadfast, he reaffirmed the unity and a great rejoicing flare obliterated all other sensation: the sight of the hollow-eyed judges, the pressure of hands that gripped and dragged him away, the penetration of his heart by the long blade, and the final cold embrace of the River Rhine.
* * * *
Richard stood in the dim little log chapel in Hidden Springs village where they had laid Martha out, seeing her in a swimming reddish haze even though Amerie had tried to reassure him that his right eye was virtually undamaged.
He wasn't angry. Disappointed, that was all, because Marty had promised to wait. Hadn't they planned it all together? Hadn't they loved each other? It wasn't like her to let him down after all they'd been through together.
Well, he would work something out.
Wincing a little from the bandaged burns, he gathered her into his arms. So light, so white. All gowned in white. He almost fell as he pushed the door open. No depth perception with only one eye. "Doesn't matter," he told her. "I can wear a patch like a real pirate. Just you hang on."
He went lurching toward the place where the flyer stood, covered by camouflage netting, one landing strut broken and one wing partly crushed by his prang-in. But a gravo-mag ship didn't need wings to fly. It was still in good enough shape to take both of them where they wanted to go.
Amerie spotted him just as he was lifting Martha inside. She came running, her nun's veil and robes billowing. "Richard! Stop!"
Oh, no you don't, he thought. I did what I promised. Now it's you guys who owe me .
With the flyer tilted, it was tricky to maneuver Martha. He made her comfortable and tossed the Spear out, powerpack and all. Maybe some wisehead would figure out how to recharge it some day. Then Madame Guderian could get another flyer and go zap all the rest of the Tanu cities and make Pliocene Earth safe for good old humanity.
"Just don't call me to drive the bus," he muttered. "I've got other plans."
"Richard!" the nun shouted again.
He waved to her from the flight deck port and sat down in the charred seat close hatch. Light up. Juice to the external web. Camouflage netting burning away. Oh-oh, Environmental system in the amber. Shorted by the lightning, maybe. Well . . . it would last long enough.
The soothing hum filled his brain as he brought the ship up level. He glanced back at Marty to be sure that she was still safe. Her form wavered, seemed to go red. But in a moment it was all right, and he told her, "I'll take us up nice and slow. We've got all the time in the world."
* * * *
Amerie watched the broken-winged bird rise vertically into the golden morning sky, following the first component of the sign she traced. The mist was gone now and it was going to be a beautiful day. Over in the east the smoke cloud was thickening but upper-level winds carried it in the opposite direction.
The aircraft ascended until it was a mere speck. Amerie blinked, and the speck became invisible against the bright vault of the heavens.
 
The End of Part Three
 
Book Two in the Saga of the Exiles entitled The Golden Torc, tells of the adventures of the other four members of Croup Green in the Tanu capital city, and of their reunion with the northerners in an attempt to accomplish the final phases of Madame Guderian's plan to liberate Pliocene humanity.

Del Rey
Copyright © 1981


ISBN-10: 0345324447
ISBN-13: 978-0345324443

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Part I

The Leave-taking

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Part II

The Initiation

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Part III

The Alliance

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

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