Fred Saberhagen – The Golden People

“Come on.” And Adam led her on, climbing straight toward the waiting geryon. The beast weighed ten times what they weighed together, and its yellowed teeth were the size of human hands. Yet it shook its head nervously when they moved straight at it. Adam pulled out the knife from Merit’s belt, and used it to slash a rough point on the end of his driftwood staff. His legs kept working under him, somehow still driving him upward, slow step after slow step.

“Give me that.” Merit took the pointed staff from him. “I can’t throw as well as you can. You keep the others off.”

Adam picked up rocks. There was always some chance, with geryons, if you could fight back enough to hurt them at all. Geryons waited and watched, and followed, and waited some more. They always waited, if they could, until you were too weak to hurt them. Adam hurled rocks downslope at the following pack, and kept on climbing.

Now he diverged slightly from Merit’s course, hoping that the animal ahead of them would be more likely to retreat if they came at it from two different directions. He still had the hunting knife, and he held it ready, out where the geryon could see it. Adam was sure that the damned things were able to recognize a weapon.

Merit climbed straight toward the waiting beast, leveling the pointed stick at its head.

“Wait!” Adam staggered closer. “Let me get-”

She jabbed the spear at the geryon’s face, just a second too soon, before the animal might have backed away. Adam heard its teeth bite through the foolish stick as he lurched forward, stabbing the hunting knife into the beast’s leathery neck, trying to turn it away from Merit. The geryon’s lunge at her became panicky flight the instant it felt the knife. It trampled Merit blindly and galloped downhill, seeking the safety of the pack; and again the rest of the pack hung back briefly, startled.

Merit lay on the rocky ground. For a moment Adam could touch the blurred confusion of her mind. He put the knife between his teeth, tasting geryon blood, picked up Merit and slung her across his shoulders.

He staggered up the hill again. The pursuing geryons still delayed, watching the wounded one as it leaped and twisted, trying to bend its long neck enough to snap at its own wound. Adam ceased looking back; before the animals got near enough to attack, he would be able to hear them coming on the loose rock.

He climbed. Merit on his back was still breathing, and was not bleeding very much. He would stop when he could, and do what he could to help her.

He climbed. Until a time came when there was deep, cool shade around him.

. then he was aware that more time had passed, and he was lying on his back, after someone or something had just rolled him over. His eyes opened to the sight of a geryon face half a meter from his own, and he slashed up at it instantly with the knife that was still in his hand, carving the human nose.

The animal screamed and reared up like a horse. As it spun around to flee, its foreleg struck Adam’s right arm. The knife flew away, and he thought for a long instant that his arm had been torn off. But the limb still hung from his shoulder, bleeding, and with a heavy numb pressure inside it that was soon going to turn into pain.

The pack of animals had backed away again, and were content now to sit in the sunshine twenty meters away, and wait. Merit was lying close beside him, but just out of reach.

He called to her, but she did not move or answer. She was still breathing. Her eyes were closed, her face was drawn, but there were no geryon teeth marks on her yet. Adam looked for the knife but could not see it anywhere. That was almost a relief; if he could see the knife he would have to try to crawl to it and get it back.

Sitting up, he got his back against cool stone. Slowly he realized just where he was. They had reached the shadowed base of the Ringwall. He knew the great smooth stones around him towered on up into the sky, but he could see neither the stones nor the sky very well just now, nor think about them clearly.

Now Adam saw that one of the waiting geryons had caught a little animal of some kind. And now the pack found some amusement in killing the creature as slowly as they could. They never allowed themselves to become completely distracted by the lesser game. Always one of the pack was watching Adam.Soon, now, you will be weak enough , the patient yellow eyes informed him.We can make you last much longer than this little animal .

Adam got to his feet, without thinking about whether such movement might still be possible. The packs were long gone, food and medicine gone with them. Canteen still here-Merit had it clipped to her belt-but Adam knew that the canteen was empty. Water gone, then. And now the knife gone too.

He got himself over to Merit somehow, and got his one operational arm around her, and picked her up. Then he half carried, half dragged her deeper into the cool shadow. There was a doorway waiting for them there, within a recess and then another recess of the towering stone, or at least they came upon an opening of the proper size to be a door. Adam looked at it as calmly as he would have looked now at blank hopeless walls. Holding Merit, keeping her from falling, he limped forward into a passage that was large enough to let the geryons follow.

Adam followed the passage. He knew without looking that the geryons still pursued. There were no branches, no agonizing choices of which way to go. There was light enough to see the way, daylight, he supposed, filtering in somehow from overhead. He wasted no effort in trying to fix the source of light. Merit moaned as she walked, leaning on him. She said nothing, and half the time her eyes were closed. There were odd blocks of stone, projecting from the floor and the walls. Adam bumped into them and fell on them frequently.

He thanked whoever might be responsible that his injured arm had not yet begun to hurt. Or maybe it was hurting, and he was just too far gone to know the difference.

There were many turns in the passage, all of them with sharp, right-angled corners. Sometimes at a corner Adam looked back, and when he looked there was always a geryon head sticking around the last corner, watching him carefully. Here the animals could follow only in single file, and they were being very cautious. The thing for prey to do was to get into a smaller passage, where geryons could not follow. But there was only this one wide passage, filled with light enough to see, when Adam’s eyes could see, and stone blocks on which to fall.

Adam stumbled into a pool of water a few inches deep, formed by a small stream that came gurgling merrily and for no apparent reason from a plain fount in the wall. He drank and wallowed in the pool, and took the canteen from Merit’s belt and filled it up again. He waved his useful arm, and shouted echoes at the geryons when they dared creep closer. He splashed Merit, and thought he got her to swallow a little water from his cupped hand. He himself felt shivering and sick and unreal after his drink; he didn’t want to revive, didn’t want to know what was happening to him.

He was moving on again, somehow, holding Merit up with his good left arm. They came upon Ray, sitting crosslegged in the passage.

“I’ve thought about the geryon,” said Ray, in conversational greeting. Now it was Ray’s face that was changing in and out of its proper shape, altering, bulging, sagging like wet plaster. But Ray did not mind. He said: “They’re not just animals, you know. They’re something more.”

“They’re after us now, Ray. They’re right behind us.” Adam slumped down, unwillingly, his legs just giving out beneath him.

“I know what they are,” said Ray.

“They’re animals and they want to kill us and eat us. Ray. Can you-”

“No, not mere animals, Adam. I am considering, evaluating, the possibility that the geryons are really the Field-builders themselves. They are the ones who really built.”

Ray paused. His face, handsome once again, frowned lightly. “What was it that they really built?”

“Ray. Listen. Can you get Merit out of here somehow? Teleport with her?”

“You see, Adam. First, at the bottom of the scale, there are vegetables. no, start with viruses. Or perhaps one should really start with rocks.”

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