Rolf was aware of the sudden strident calling of a reptile in alarm, high overhead. Still he could do nothing but stand watching stupidly while Mewick, his short cloak flying, hopped back and forth across the road, cutting one throat after another with the practiced careful motions of a skillful butcher. The last of the three soldiers to die was the one who had been first to fall, the stocky sergeant; he seemed to have been ripped from groin to navel in the first moment of the fight.
Rolf watched Mewick’s knife make its last necessary stroke, be wiped clean on the sergeant’s sleeve, and then vanish back into some concealed sheath under Mewick’s cloak. His mind beginning to function again, Rolf looked about him, noted how one black lance lay useless and unblooded at the side of the road, then bent at last to pick up the young soldier’s short sword.
With this weapon in his grip Rolf followed Mewick at a run, going south along the road, and then off the road on its western side, pounding across a weed-grown fallow field toward the nearest arm of swamp. Twilight was gathering, and the reptile’s cries grew fainter.
Even as he and Mewick ran splashing into the first puddles of the bog, Rolf could hear distant hooves and shouts behind them.
The Castle-men made no long pursuit -not at night, not into the swamps. Still the fugitives’ way had been anything but easy. Now at midnight, wading through hip-deep water, sliding and staggering amid strange phosphorescent growths, more than half asleep on his feet, ready to fall but for the support of Mewick’s arm, Rolf became suddenly aware of an enormous winged shape that drifted over him as silent as a dream. It was certainly no reptile but it was far bigger than any bird that he had ever seen. He thought it questioned him with words in a soft hooting sibilance, and that Mewick whispered something in reply. A moment later as the creature flew behind and above him, Rolf could see its rounded and enormous eyes by their reflection of some sharp new little light.
Yes, on the land ahead there was a tiny tongue of fire. And now the ground rose to become solid underfoot. The winged questioner had vanished into the night, but now from near the fire there stepped forward a huge blond man, surely some warrior chieftain, to speak familiarly with Mewick, to look at Rolf and offer him a greeting.
There was a shelter here, a camp. At last Rolf was able to sit down, to let go. A woman’s voice was asking him if he wanted food….
The Free Folk
Yes, my parents are dead and under the earth -so Rolf told himself in the instant after awakening, before he had so much as opened his eyes to see where he was lying. My mother and father are dead and gone. And my sister -if Lisa is not dead, why she may wish she were.
Having reassured himself that he was capable of coping with these thoughts, Rolf did open his eyes. He found himself looking up through the small chinks in the slant of a lean-to shelter, an arm’s reach above his face. The higher side of the low shelter was braced upon some slender living tree trunks, and it seemed to have been made mainly by the weaving together of living branches with their leaves. The interstitial chinks of sky were pure with bright sunlight; the day was well advanced.
He did not remember crawling into this shelter. Maybe someone had put him to bed here, like an infant. But that did not matter. He raised himself upon one elbow, crackling the dead leaves that he had slept on. The movement awakened a dozen aches in his body. His clothing was all rips and mud. His stomach was hollow with hunger.
Lying real and solid on the leaves beside him was the short sword that he had taken yesterday from the dead soldier. He saw again in his mind’s eye the thrown stone from his own hand crunching into the soldier’s teeth and bringing out blood. He put out a hand and gripped the captured weapon for a moment by the hilt.
Somewhere close by, quite near outside the lean-to, a few voices were murmuring together in a steady businesslike fashion; Rolf could not quite make out the words. In another moment he got up to his hands and knees and, leaving the sword behind him, crawled out of the shelter. He emerged almost within the group of three people who sat talking around a small smokeless fire.
Mewickwas one of the group, sitting cross-legged and at ease, his cloak laid aside. Also at the fire was the big blond man that Rolf remembered seeing the night before, and beside this man a woman who resembled him enough to be his sister. When Rolf, appeared all three of them fell silent and turned to look at him.
Once outside the lean-to, Rolf got stiffly to his feet. He addressed his first words to Mewick: “I am sorry, for starting that fight yesterday. I could have gotten you killed.”
“Yes,” Mewick nodded. “So. But you had reason, if not excuse. From now on you will be sane, hey?”
“Yes, I will.” Rolf drew in a deep breath. “Will you teach me to fight like you can?”
Mewick had no quick answer, and the question was allowed to drop for the time being.
The woman by the fire wore man’s clothes, which was natural enough for camping in the swamp, and her long blond hair was pulled back and bound up into a tight knot.
“So, your name is Rolf,” she said, hitching herself around to face him more fully. “I am Manka. My husband Loford here and I have had something of your story from Mewick.”
The blond man nodded solemnly, and the woman went on: “There’s a pool safe to wash in on the other side of the hummock, Rolf. Then come back and have some food, and we’ll talk.”
Rolf nodded and turned away, going around the lean-to and the little clump of trees which occupied the center of this island of firm ground, some fifteen or twenty paces across. On the side of the hummock away from the fire a steep short bank dropped down to water which looked deeper and clearer than that of the surrounding swamp.
Only after Rolf had washed, and dressed himself again, and climbed the bank meaning to rejoin the others, did he see a living creature perched high in the biggest of the central trees. Right against the trunk a brownish-gray mass of feathers rested, big as a small man crouching. So dully colored was this form, so motionless, so shapelessly folded upon itself, that Rolf had to look twice to be convinced that it was not a part of the tree. When he thought to look for the giant bird’s feet he saw that they were three-toed, bigger than a reptile’s and armed with even more formidable talons. He still could not see how, under all the feathers, the bird’s head had been folded down out of sight.
He was still turning his own head to look up into the tree as he rejoined the others around the fire.
“Strijeef is our friend,” Loford told Rolf, seeing where Rolf’s attention was fixed. “His kind have speech and thought; they call themselves the Silent People. Like our friend Mewick here they have been driven from their own lands. Now they stand here with us, their backs like ours against the sea.”
Manka had ladled stew from a cooking-pot into a gourd for Rolf. After thanking her and starting to eat, he motioned with his head toward the bird and asked, “He sleeps now?”
“His folk sleep all day,” Loford said. “Or at least they hide. Full sunlight is a great strain on their eyes, so by daylight their enemies the reptiles will find and kill them when they can. By night it is the birds’ turn to hunt the leatherwings.”
“I’m glad to hear that someone hunts them.” Rolf nodded. “I wondered why they went flapping back to the Castle every day at sunset.” And then he busied himself with the plentiful good food, meanwhile listening to the others’ talk.
Mewick was bringing word to the Free Folk in the swamp from other resistance bands who lived and fought along the coast to the north of the Broken Lands. That portion of the seaboard was now also occupied by men and creatures from the East, under the rule of Ekuman’s peer, the Satrap Chup. This Chup was supposed to be even now on his way south, to marry Ekuman’s daughter in the Castle.
And the Satraps of other neighboring lands were said to be coming here, too, for the festivities. Each of them, like Ekuman and Chup, held power in his own region, ruling with the soldiers and under the black banner of the East.
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