They were getting near the coast now, entering country that Korshak knew well. The hill track that they had been following descended to join a road that brought them to a stone bridge crossing a neck of water where a river entered a valley containing a long lake. Past the bridge, the road ran along the shore of the lake, now lying to their left, with grasslands and marsh extending away on the right. On the far side of the lake on one side, and beyond the flats on the other, the valley was hemmed in by steep slopes rising to rocky ridges. At the bottom end of the lake ahead of them, the valley narrowed to a steep-sided defile passing between two summits. From there on, the terrain opened out into the land of the Shengshoans, and Korshak estimated that by late tomorrow they should reach the port of Belamon.
The Shengshoans were a seafaring people, and their tall, four-masted ships, the swiftest ocean- goers of which Korshak had heard tell. He was known and liked among them, and gambling on there being an eastbound sailing to Merka that would take them to Sofi or land them close enough to get there within the two months that he had been given. If they found themselves facing a wait at Belamon, things could be tight. But Korshak had seen no reason to burden the others with such concerns.
The ruts that had forced them to ride in single file since the bridge petered out as the ground became firmer, and Vaydien moved up to ride alongside him. Ronti was ahead, with Sultan running tirelessly this way and that to investigate some scent picked up in the wind, or to chase a bird or small creature hidden in the grass. Mirsto was in the rear, patiently following for hour after hour and saying little. Korshak had observed the signs of tiredness but not commented, and Mirsto didn't complain. They were maintaining a slow but steady pace, sufficient to cover a reasonable day's distance while at the same time sparing the horses. With no extra mount to fall back on, they couldn't afford to exhaust any of them or run the risk of one going lame.
"Have you noticed that mountain ahead?" Vaydien waved an arm to indicate the left-hand summit at the end of the lake . "I thought that was a funny black cloud behind it. But now I think it's smoke coming up from the top."
"Yes, I've been watching it," Korshak answered.
"What do you think it means?"
Korshak shrugged. "It's too localized to be a scrub fire or anything like that. Looks more like some kind of beacon."
"It couldn't be a volcano, could it?"
"Ha-ha!" Korshak shook his head. "There would be lava flumes and sheets--a whole different appearance. That's just a pile of old rock and rubble. Probably someone's signaling to somewhere on the other side that he'll be home tomorrow."
Vaydien looked at the peak for a few moments longer, and then a solemn look came over her face. She turned her head down and stared unseeingly at the easy rise and fall of the horse's head in front of her, her mind distant.
Korshak watched her and nodded. "Yes, it's true. Very soon now, we won't be seeing mountains and valleys again. But places like that are dry and dusty, that make you sweat and your back ache. We'll have a world of more wondrous things, one filled with people who are as gods."
Vaydien looked at him and forced a smile. "How did you know what I was thinking?" she asked.
"Oh, come. You know me well enough by now. Do you think I don't really read minds?"
"I'm beginning to know when not to take you seriously. And I know that your magic is all trickery and mirrors."
He looked at her keenly. "Well, take me seriously now, Vaydien. It isn't too late if you're having second thoughts. I have many friends among the Shengshoans who would get you safely back to Arigane. You have no regrets? You're still sure about this?"
"Arigane." Vaydien repeated the word with a shudder. "To be given as a chattel to a man I despise, in deceit until it pleases my father to betray him? A sacrifice to his vanity, as my mother was?" She reached out to lay a hand on Korshak's arm and nodded decisively. "You need have no worries on that account. I am sure."
Vaydien's manner brightened. "So tell me more about these wonders. What do you think the ship that crosses the sky might look like?"
"I don't have to think. I can tell you. Imagine a giant wheel mounted in the center of an axle that tapers like the Pyramid Tower of Escalos, except that it's round. But it holds a whole city within itself, and parks, and farms. Nay--cities!"
"How can you know this, Korshak?"
"The iron beast of which I have told you." Korshak had described the strange artificial walking creature of the Builders, that he had encountered almost two years previously in a remote region. "Through the window in which faces appeared, I was also able to see places inside the ship. They have palaces built from crystal and light; rooms that travel between floors of buildings; objects that move of their own accord. The center of Escalos would not compare to it as the rudest shanty hamlet in outermost Arigane compares to Escalos. And I have seen what our world looks like from . . . What's this now?"
In front, Ronti had stopped and was peering ahead, with Sultan standing rigidly, ears pricked. Korshak and Vaydien drew up alongside him. A body of mounted figures had appeared in the distance, coming along the road in the opposite direction.
Zileg had waited many days for this moment. As he and his cavalry tracked the four fugitives through villages, over hills, and down through valleys, he had planned in his mind the deaths by slow torment that he would devise for the whore, the charlatan who had bewitched her, his accomplice, and the addle-headed physician, when he brought them back to Urst. And if Shandrahl saw fit to make war over it, then so be it. It would only have been a matter of time anyway. Had the fool really imagined that Zileg wouldn't see through his attempt at a subterfuge to buy time? Better now, while Zileg was of a temper for it.
The headman of a township they passed through had produced a map of the country bordering the Shengshoan lands, where the four were clearly heading--doubtless intending to take a ship from somewhere like Belamon. For several miles the road ran beside a lake through a narrow valley enclosed by steep ridges on both sides, with access only at the ends. The feature formed a natural trap. Zileg had slackened the pace of pursuit as they drew near, and sent a fast detachment of light horse circling around and ahead to cut off the exit. The column of black smoke, uninterrupted by infusions of white, above one of the peaks guarding the gorge at the far end of the lake told him that they had arrived, and the fugitives had been sighted. As he came with his main body of troops to the top of a rise from where the road led down to the stone bridge at the entrance to the valley, he called a halt to survey the way ahead.
His lieutenant, Ullatari, scanned the road beyond the bridge with a spyglass and reported. "No sign of them yet, sir." Which meant that the fugitives were inside the valley, somewhere between the two forces. Exactly as planned.
"And no sign of any flying ship either, I do believe," Zileg said, looking up and about, his voice light with sarcasm. The younger half-sister, Leetha, had overheard Vaydien say something to Mirsto about a flying ship that the magician had told them they would escape in.
"Perhaps his magic is running out today," Ullatari suggested.
"Along with his luck," Zileg replied grimly. "Give the order to advance at canter."
With the bridge secured, there would be no way out. He had them now!
Korshak lowered the glasses from his eyes. "Urst cavalry," he announced shortly. On one side of him, Vaydien emitted a cry of dismay.
"It can only mean Zileg," Ronti said. "He's tracked us."
"Worse," Korshak answered. "If some have managed to get ahead of us, there are sure to be more behind. We have to get back over the bridge before they catch up." Vaydien was shaking her head in protest and about to say something, but he stayed her with a wave. "Not now. Save your breath and just ride." Mirsto had drawn up behind them, his eyes dull, without even the energy to ask what was happening. Korshak turned his horse about and gripped the old man's elbow. "One more effort," he urged. "We're cut off forward. We have to make a run for the bridge. There will be more following." Mirsto nodded. Ronti was already away at full gallop. Korshak waved for Vaydien to follow and shepherded Mirsto up to speed behind her. Then, after pausing to take in one more view of the approaching horsemen behind, he returned the glasses to his saddle pouch and spurred his horse forward again. Sultan, who had stopped and waited, bounded alongside.
Ahead, Vaydien was hunched low, all her concentration now on maintaining the pace. Korshak's worry was with Mirsto, who was swaying unsteadily in his saddle and would slow them down even if they made it to the open country beyond the bridge. What kind of decision might Korshak be forced to make if their pursuers stayed with them and were seen to be gaining? He didn't want to think about it.
They came to the softer part of the road, where the ruts reappeared, and were forced to slacken the pace. But on checking the road behind again, Korshak saw that the horsemen had, if anything, fallen back. It was impossible for them not to have seen Korshak and his companions, yet they were in no hurry. The meaning of the smoke column was now painfully clear.
The reason for their pursuers' confidence became evident when they came back within sight of the bridge and saw the cavalry waiting on the far side, pennants flying, formed up as a main unit blocking the road with flanking detachments standing to the sides. Ronti stopped, and looked back, hope gone from his face. Vaydien could only sit, frozen in horror, while Mirsto stared ahead blankly. They seemed to be waiting for Korshak to concede that it was over.
But Korshak was not looking at them, or at the bridge. Something else, above and beyond in the sky, had caught his eye. At first he had thought it was a bird, but it didn't fly like any bird he'd ever seen-- and it was growing larger at a rate faster than any bird could have. It didn't seem as a living thing at all, for it didn't flap or flutter, but moved more like a ship, seen far from a shore. It was closer now, seemingly heading directly toward them as it came lower, as if it knew they were there. . . . Could it be possible? Surely not, Korshak told himself.
But already he was crossing and uncrossing his arms wildly above his head to attract attention. "Here! We're right here!" he heard himself shouting. "That's right! Just like that! Straight on down!"
Zileg, stationed in front of the center, smiled to himself as he watched. Alongside him, Ullatari frowned as he used his spyglass. "What's come over him?" Ullatari murmured. "He seems to be signaling something urgent. I can hear him shouting."
"Or making mystical passes and spells," Zileg said. "Maybe he's trying to summon his flying ship." His mouth twisted into a sneer as he continued taking in the spectacle through his own glass. He evidently wanted to enjoy this for as long as possible. Then Ullatari became aware of the sounds of growing agitation among the troopers formed up behind them. At the same time, a low but steadily growing droning noise registered on his senses. The men were staring upward and gesturing. Ullatari raised his eyes to follow their gaze, and sent a startled look back at Zileg.
"Sir. . . ."
The noise swelled to a roar as the object came down right over them. Its lines were smooth and rounded like the body of a fish, its skin white and gleaming in the sun, and it had short wings too small to have fitted any bird, and not moving like those of a bird. Cries of alarm were coming up from the soldiers, with some cringing in fear, others struggling to control their protesting mounts.
"Steady in the ranks!" Zileg roared, unsheathing his sword.
The vehicle, creature--whatever it was--landed a short distance from the far side of the bridge, on an open, grassy expanse beside the road. The magician had already turned his horse toward it and was calling to the others and waving them in the same direction.
"Order the archers forward," Zileg snarled. "They'll not escape me now. Magic or not, I'll have their heads or die in the attempt."
"Archers to the fore!" Ullatari relayed.
Zileg turned in his saddle and called to the whole company. "Are you warriors of Urst, or children who cower at goblins? A dukedom to any man who brings me a head. If their magic would protect them, why do they flee like mice? He who will not follow me now is not worthy of the flag we ride under. Across the bridge and at them! Trumpeters, sound the charge. Forward!"
The scientist hadn't been sure exactly how many of his relatives they might have to pick up, so Control had bent the rules and told Ferl to free up an extra seat by flying the lander solo. But somehow the orders had gotten tangled, or somebody forgot to cancel something from the earlier mission, and the same crazy robot that had accompanied him on the Tranth mission showed up in the copilot's seat. By that time the whole ship was in a tizzy over the news of liftout in under twenty-four hours, and the carrier was expecting to be recalled at any moment, so Ferl had decided to not argue but just go with it. All of a sudden he was grateful for having some help there on the flight deck rather than none.
"Lander to Carrier, yeah, we've found them and we're down," he barked into his mike. "But I don't know what's going on. There's some kind of a war out there, coming this way fast." He turned his head to GPT-2D long enough to snap, "Go back there, open up the door, and get all of them inside. Fast!"
The robot hastened to unbuckle and comply. Just as Ferl was about to resume talking into the mike, it said, "The horses won't fit in."
Ferl groaned. "Oh shit. . . . Forget the horses. Just the people, okay?"
The robot lurched back and operated the control to open the door and lower the access steps. Sounds of trumpets and battle cries rising to a crescendo came from outside. Armored horsemen brandishing swords, spears, axes, and bows were streaming onto the bridge, while in front of the lander the four people it had come to collect were dismounting in haste and running toward it. The girl was the first to enter. She stopped in the entrance space, as bewildered by the robot's appearance as were the faces of the people crammed into the passenger cabin behind. It touched her lightly on the arm with a fingertip and motioned with the other hand. "Must hurry. Sorry, no horses."
Two men were approaching the steps as fast as they were able while they helped an older one, heavily built and white-haired, clad in a hooded riding cloak. They still had some distance to go. A large black dog was growling and had positioned itself between them and the oncoming horsemen.
"What about the dog?" GPT-2D asked Ferl.
"What?" Ferl jerked his head around again. "Yeah, sure. The dog's okay." Then, back into his mike. "I'm telling ya, we've got an emergency situation here. I've got a full load of people and three outside who look like touch and go. What do you want . . ."
A rack by the door carried the painted label FLARE PISTOL. The robot stared at it and consulted its network of definitions and associations. Flares were pyrotechnic devices used in emergencies. The captain had just said this was an emergency. A "pistol" was a weapon, usually a firearm, that was discharged at enemies."Enemy" described a relationship between humans in which harm was effected or threatened. The howling horde coming across the bridge waving objects that a quick check of the database showed to be implements specifically designed for the purpose of inflicting homicide and mayhem had all the appearances of harboring intentions that were anything but friendly. The logical inferences were clear enough. GPT-2D took down the flare pistol, descended the steps, and marched out to the center of the roadway to do its duty with the first arrows clattering off its casing.
Streaming a trail of incandescent crimson smoke, the flare tore through the leading ranks and exploded in a blaze of light and starbursts among the close-packed throng in the middle of the bridge behind. The front of the assault broke up amid screams of terror, rearing horse, and unseated bodies, while the panic farther back sent riders colliding in all directions with men and mounts tumbling into the water on both sides. When GPT-2D looked back at the lander, the older man had reached the steps and was being helped up by one of the others, while the third bundled the dog inside. The robot stood, unsure of whether the pandemonium that it had created constituted an end to the emergency or not. The old man was inside; the doorway stood empty.
Then Ferl's voice called over the loudhailer from inside. "Hey, Rocketeer, are you gonna stand there all day? Let's go."
"Yes, chief." GPT-2D hurried back and clambered up the steps. The newcomers had found seats and were settling the dog in the aisle. They were looking about strangely at the surroundings, as had the others that had been picked up earlier. GPT-2D closed up the door and steps, and moved back to snap their harnesses for them, which people from these parts didn't seem to understand. Then it went forward and settled back into the copilot's seat. The look on Ferl's face was unlike any human expression that it had seen before. Slipping on a set of phones, it caught the last part of the message coming in from Control.
" . . . we have recall orders from the ship up here. How much longer are you going to need?"
"Everything's fine," Ferl replied in the captain's seat. "They're all aboard now. Emergency over. We're on our way."