Methven - Day Thirty-Five - Part Three
"Ho! The camp!"
The man who hailed us looked like a young Buffalo Bill--minus the fringe jacket. He was dressed in a belted tunic over leather britches and had dark eyes, a blond goatee and mustache and long, sandy hair flowing from under his flat, wide-brimmed hat. Riding what could almost have been an Earthly Apaloosa--if horses had big, padded, three-toed feet instead of hooves--he'd halted within an easy head-shot of my position.
For a guy whose reinforcements were a good hundred yards too far away to keep me from blowing him out of the saddle, he seemed remarkably relaxed.
"Ho, y'rself, stranger! Who goes there?"
The blond man leaned forward in his oddly-shaped saddle and casually stroked his mount's nervously-twitching neck He looked directly at me--and winked--and only then responded to Pith's challenge.
"Your service, Mr. Sentinel. I am (a string of syllables starting with 'frankilosam-something' that went on so long I was surprised he didn't have to pause for breath before he got to the end). I speak for Tarn ka-Tarn, heir to Tarnhold, whose party awaits your permission to advance."
"Permission granted, Mr. Frank. Tell 'em t'advance 'n' be reckanized."
"And will your pickets stand down, Mr. Sentry?"
"Soon as we see what's under y'r hats, Mr. Frank."
The horseman stiffened and his grip on the reins tightened. For a long moment, he gazed silently at Pith and, when he spoke again, his tone was a lot less friendly.
"Because you are an outworlder, I will assume that insult was unintentional. Repeat it to any who swear allegiance to House Tarn and you may not live to regret the error. Now stand down."
Pulling outward on the trace in his left hand, he turned his mount away without waiting to see if we complied. Then, standing in the stirrups, he waved his flat-brimmed hat in a wide arc to summon his confederates.
Pith shrugged, as if to say, "It beats hell out of me." Then he stood up on top of his boulder, holstering his borrowed weapon and leaving himself empty-handed and clearly outlined against the sky.
Hoping he knew what he was doing, I followed his lead, put my own gun away and scrambled up on top of the rock pile I'd been using for cover. Meanwhile, Bill and Mantami climbed down from their perches and advanced a little way toward our unfriendly new-found friend.
Frank-whatshisname stubbornly kept his back turned to them as his cohorts approached, then side-stepped his "horse", turned it to face us again, and wound up riding knee-to-knee with the front man.
The leader of the approaching party--there was no mistaking who he was--had shoulder-length hair as dark as his spokesman's was fair. He boasted a prominent, beaky nose and deep-set dark eyes, lidded and restless beneath the broad brim of his hat. He lounged in his saddle as if he'd been born there--and born to command those around him.
And--since our new best pal, Frank, had introduced him as the "heir to Tarnhold"--that kind of made sense.
The bossman was followed by a half-dozen other riders. Five of them looked enough like him physically to be relatives of one kind or another, while the odd man out was blond--like the big guy's mouthpiece, Frank. Blondie brought up the little party's rear, leading a string of a dozen or more riderless "horses" behind him.
"Greetings, friend. May I assume that I address Tarn ka-Tarn?"
In a single, fluid motion, the raven-haired man dismounted, casually tossing the reins of his steed over his shoulder to Frank. He inclined his head just fractionally, touching his left shouder with his right hand in what could only be a salute.
"Your service, stranger. You have the advantage of me."
"I am William Wilson, an associate of Læ of Centra--with whom I understand you are familiar. Intimates refer to me as 'Bill.' This young man is Mantami Khasim, whom you may recognize as a Vomisa. The gentleman seated above us to my left is Drew Wilde and his friend, 'Pith'--he prefers to be known by his patronymic--is the one standing on the large boulder behind us. Needless to say, we are all quite happy to make your acquaintance."
Tarn swept an appraising eye over each of us as we were introduced.
"Later, you must explain how a Vomisa child came to accompany you here. But first, I am told Læ is wounded. Is that true, Mr. Bill?"
"I'm afraid that is the case, Mr. Tarn."
"Take me to her."
. . .
I scuzzed my way down the letterbox, popping out of the pocket just as Bill and Tarn passed by. I have to give him points for coolness--the Heir didn't so much as turn a hair as I fell into place beside him.
I was surprised to discover he was only a little taller than Mantami--around five-six. That brought the top of his head barely level with my upper lip. The other members of his entourage were about the same height, too--although his self-proclaimed mouthpiece, Frank, had a couple of inches on most of them.
Our deceased playmate, Baldy, and the odd Centran aside, it was beginning to look like the NBA couldn't count on Methven for its next few draft picks.
. . .
We'd put our three wounded in the smaller of the two tents--the one Læ and Carleton normally occupied. It was dim in there in the milky light of early morning, but Tarn, ignoring the gloom, swept off his wide-brimmed hat and peeled back Læ's eyelids to peer closely at her pinpoint pupils and the swirling hemorrhages that surrounded them.
Frank, who'd crowded into the tent with us, asked him a question in a musical-sounding language that I hadn't heard before.
"Again--this time in the Trader's Tongue."
Frank frowned, but complied.
"Can she be saved, Tarn?"
Tarn shook his head in reponse.
"Not by us. Place her and the two others in stasis units. We'll let Father decide whether to call in the Guild."
Frank left a spokesman-shaped hole in the air as Tarn turned to face Bill.
"We can do little for her here, Mr. Bill. Neither I nor any of my men has the necessary skill. All we can do is to preserve her and your other companions from further harm until we reach our Hold."
"Do you know what's wrong with her?"
"I believe her mind has been gravely wounded, Mr. Drew. I will not lie to you--she may be beyond even the Guild's help. But you may trust that we will do whatever we can for her. Læ has always been a good friend to our Family. We owe her..a great deal."
His eyes lidded themselves again.
"Her companion, Carleton, is dead?"
"That is correct, Mr. Tarn."
"And what of her manservant?"
"That's him, over there."
He glanced sharply at the blistered hulk.
"What does he call himself these days?"
The scorched thing that had been Bruno made a chesty, mechanical noise, like a rusty gearbox with terminal pneumonia. Then a tiny, tinny voice issued from its unmoving lips.
Whatever it was saying, it sure sounded unhappy about it.
"We tried that already. It didn't work for us, either."
Tarn favored me with a grimace.
"Got any idea what he just said?"
Just then, Frank burst into the tent, trailing a pair of retainers. With a murmured chorus of "Your service," they crowded past us, went immediately to Læ's still form and began wrapping her in strips of a shiny, Mylar-like material.
Tarn gestured to the entryway.
"We are in the way here. Come. Let us continue this conversation outside."
. . .
"So, what did he say?"
"I do not think it was truly the one you call Bruno that spoke to us, Mr. Drew."
Tarn shook his head.
"I believe it was simply a mechanism--a kind of alarm, if you will. My Centran is limited, but I would translate its message as, 'This unit is badly damaged. It requires emergency repairs.'"
"You can say that again."
"Why would I do that, Mr. Drew?"
"It is an idiomatic expression whose approximate meaning is, 'I strongly agree,' Mr. Tarn."
"Thank you, Mr. Bill."
"Sorry. What I meant to say is, 'It's a little hard to believe old Bruno can even be repaired.' I mean, 'badly damaged' is kind of an understatement, isn't it?"
Tarn shook his head.
"No, Mr. Drew. If the stories he and Læ have told are true, he has survived worse."
"'He has survived worse?' Holy shit!"
Tarn frowned--then turned his attention to Mantami.
"Tell me, child, how is it that you are here?"
"It is a long tale, Mr. Tarn."
"We have time."
"Very well, Mr. Tarn. It began four Winters ago. I was training for my Ordeal, when.."
In the next few minutes, Mantami gave Tarn the condensed version of how Læ had accidentally transported him to Earth; how he'd knocked around Berkeley for four years before taking my climbing class and how he'd agreed to recruit the five of us for Læ in exchange for being returned to Methven. He skipped over our encounter with the rats and our little death-march to his Clanhome and concentrated the rest of his narrative on his trial.
"..and I may return to undergo my Ordeal on MidWinter's Day. Until then, I am banished from our Mountains."
"I see. And Læ agreed to close the Vomisa Portal?"
"That is correct."
"What happened then?"
Bill took up the tale.
"Mantami's kinfolk escorted our company to the borders of their territory. It was rather a strenuous trip."
"You can say tha..I mean, 'I strongly agree,' Mr. Tarn."
It hadn't quite been as punishing as our journey to Khasim Clanhome, but the exercise Bill so lightly dismissed as "rather a strenuous trip" had been pretty rugged. We didn't hike around the clock, as we had on our way to the Clanhome, but we did hit the road at first light and trek until near dark, every single day. The Vomisa Rangers who'd accompanied us weren't big on breaks, either. Lunch--what there was of it--we ate while we walked. Stop to take a leak and you did it alone--you had to run to catch up with the others, afterward.
Even if I'd had enough light to work on my journal at day's end, I'd never have had the energy. I don't know how we'd have managed, if we'd had to stand watches through the night, too--but, luckily, the Rangers always took care of that little chore for us.
"Our escorts conducted us to this side of a fairly long rope bridge that I understand is somewhat of a landmark before they left us to our own devices."
"Bill, you should have been born British. 'Somewhat of a landmark.' Sheesh. That bridge was the most spectacular thing I've ever seen, Mr. Tarn. And I mean ever. It had to be close to a mile long, stretched across a gorge that'd give the Snake River an inferiority complex. The thing is unbelievably gorgeous--it looks like a giant spiderweb, just wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side on and it seems to go on for-fucking-ever! Crossing that bastard scared the shit out of me!"
"I have heard of it, Mr. Drew, although I have never seen it. Few non-Vomisa ever have. It is said to be one of the two greatest artifacts the Guild has ever created."
"Well I'd damned sure like to see the other one, then, 'cause it's got a ways to go to top that."
The corners of Tarn's mouth quirked upward.
"It is the Guild's own hall in downtown Loado, Mr. Drew. You cannot miss it."
"And this Loado is where, exactly?"
"At the mouth of the River Then. You will pass through it on your way to Tacid--eventually."
He turned back to Bill.
"What happened then, Mr. Bill?"
"For the following two days, Læ continued the pace our Vomisa friends had set.."
Did she ever. I'd hoped she would give us all a break--and give me time to catch up on my journal--but she'd kept the whip cracking without letup. I even complained to her about it at the end of the first day after we'd crossed the bridge, hoping she'd ease up enough to let me get some writing and sketching done.
She'd just shaken her head.
"Time is increasingly precious, Mr. Wilde--and we have already spent it far too lavishly."
"..albeit our progress was otherwise largely uneventful.."
Yeah. Uneventful--apart from too many long, hard pitches on those grotty leather straps the Vomisa use for line. It was just a damned good thing Bill had insisted Læ bring the cams, or we'd still be struggling up that last face.
"..until our unfortunate encounter early yesterday morning."
Suddenly cold, greasy sweat began rolling down my armpits.
"It was then that you were attacked by the Outcast's raiders? By the Deadman?"
"Assuming that is what you call the bald gentleman with the disk embedded in his forehead, that is correct, Mr. Tarn."
Tarn turned his head and carefully, pointedly, spit on the ground.
"The Outcast deserves no respect, Mr. Bill."
"So I gather."
"Tell me how it happened."
That's right, Bill--you tell him how it happened. You were there. You can tell it just as well as I can.
Please don't make me tell him.
Bill stroked his chin, thoughtfully and turned to me.
"Actually Drew was on watch when the incident began, Mr. Tarn. He is probably better-suited to relate the sequence of events than I am."
Tarn turned to face me.
"Well, Mr. Drew? How did it happen?"
I looked from Tarn to Bill to Mantami and back again. My hands were shaking and I was dripping sweat. I knew I should stop hyperventilating, but I couldn't help myself.
There was no escape. No escape at all.
They were going to force me to remember.
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)