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ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


Chapter Four

 

March, Year 1 A.E.

 

Daurthunnicar son of Ubrotarix hid his relief as the last of the ponies swam ashore from where they'd been pushed off the decks; that was safer for their legs than scrambling over the sides of a beached ship. The stocky hammerheaded beasts shook themselves, snapping and kicking as their masters led them up the beach, whinnying at the pair hitched to the chariot in which he stood. Transporting horses across open sea was like a dream sent by the Night Ones, endless toil and danger. He made a sign with the bronze-headed tomahawk thonged to his wrist to avert ill luck at the thought. But they'd lost few of the chariot ponies that were the wealth and strength of the tribe. Lost hardly anything, in truth. One boat swept away and gone when the weather turned bad, no more. He'd feared worse, for his people were not sailors, although they'd dwelt near the shores of the sea a hand and half a hand of generations. Before that they came from the east, from the hills and great rivers and endless forests, and in the distant times of the heroes and gods-among-us they'd lived on the sea of grass where the sun rose.

The two great ships drawn up on the shore were another sign that his luck was good once more, his luck and the luck of his clan and tribe; he'd bargained for weeks to gain the help of the southron traders, offering goods and trading rights. Without them it would have taken a long time to get the whole of his people across the waters to the White Island, if it could have been done at all. As it was, most of the folk and their goods had come in canoes and rafts and coracles of tanned, tarred bullhide. A few now camped in the round wattle huts of the Earth Folk village that had been here before the Iraiina came; the rest up and down the shore in hide tents and boothies made of branches and turf, more than enough in these warm spring days. The traders had their own tents, near the beached ships—a sensible precaution, Daurthunnicar thought, although their leaders had drunk mead with him from a single cup where their blood had mingled, and sworn oaths to his gods and theirs. He put more trust in their need of him, and of the price he'd promised for their aid.

Their leader came toward him, a slight dark man in a tunic of fine Southland linen stained by the sea, with a cloak over his shoulder held by a golden brooch. A short bronze sword hung from his studded belt, and a knife; the men who followed him carried shield and spear, or bows. The traders traded where the local folk were strong, but they were ready enough to raid if the pickings looked good. The chariot chieftain had seen their men fight; they were well armed and well ordered, and their ships were wonders—sixty feet long, with a score of oars on either side and a square sail. Daurthunnicar raised his ax again, in salute, but he kept the advantage of height that the chariot gave him. The young nephew who held the reins kept the restive ponies motionless.

"Diawas Pithair give you strength," he said politely, invoking the Sky Father who was the overgod of the Iraiina. "And the Horned Man ward the Night Ones from the paths of your dreams."

Isketerol of Tartessos inclined his head. "And the Lady of the Horses be gracious to you, chieftain, and make your herds fertile," he said with equal courtesy.

He spoke the tongue of the Iraiina people well, but with an accent and choice of words unlike anything Daurthunnicar had ever heard. He'd said that he'd learned it not far from the shores of the Middle Sea, where kindred tribes had come to make their camps long before.

"We have fulfilled our oath," the merchant went on. "All your people are here, safe and hale."

Daurthunnicar grinned. "Hale when they stop puking," he said. "And I and the vanguard have begun to make good our word, as well. Come."

The Tartessian stepped up into the car; the wicker floor gave slightly under his weight, but the framework of light wood beneath was strong, and a chariot could hold three at a pinch. The driver chucked his tongue and leaned forward, and the shaggy ponies broke into a walk, then a trot. Daurthunnicar stood effortlessly erect despite the bumping of the unsprung wheels over rut and clod and root, knees and balance keeping him so with a skill learned since he was barely able to toddle. Isketerol did well enough for a sailor, only needing to lay one steadying hand lightly on the leather bucket that held javelins when the war-car was rigged for battle. The merchant's men trotted after, along with a half-dozen of Daurthunnicar's own war band, younger sons and such who had sworn themselves to his personal service. Men hailed the chief as he passed through the encampment, through the smoke of fires and the smells of cooking, sweat and horse dung and damp wool. It didn't stink too badly, despite the sprawling disorder; the chief and his clan leaders and the heads of household saw to that, and they wouldn't be here much longer anyway. Women and diasas—slaves—bowed low as the chariot went by, sun winking on ornaments of bronze and gold studding the wicker sides and the harness of the horses.

His driver drew rein before a rough pen of woven saplings. Inside were a score of captives; Earth Folk, natives of the island, taken prisoner in the month since the vanguard came ashore. Some of them bore wounds, but the invaders hadn't bothered to gather in any of the severely injured. Guards lifted their spears and cried Daurthunnicar hail as he leapt down.

"Good strong ones," he said to his ally. "The women are comely—I've had a few myself. They and the men will work hard if they're beaten well, and the children can be raised to any useful task. We've taken gold and copper, as well; hides, furs, grain. Your ships will not go empty from our new land."

Isketerol nodded, appraising the captives carefully through the bruises and dirt that were their only clothing. "The mines at home can always use more hands," he said.

Daurthunnicar smiled. It wasn't safe to keep too many unfree males about, even of the rabbit-hearted Earth Folk. Hmm. When we've beaten them thoroughly, we'll leave the villages that submit standing. They can pay tribute. Thus had his ancestors done with the Earth Folk on the mainland, and over generations remade them in their own image.

"A fine beginning," Isketerol went on.

"And only a beginning," Daurthunnicar agreed.

He looked north and west where the wildwood fenced in sight. Inland were open downs his scouts had traveled, and farther west still were the larger kingdoms of the Earth Folk. There they had once built their circles of standing stones, bigger even than the ones on the mainland. There they had gold, copper, tin, herds. True, they were many, but once he'd won some initial victories to show that luck and Sky Father and the Mirutha were with him, he could summon more warriors from across the narrow sea. The tribes were on the move there, pressed by their own growing numbers and by new migrants from the eastern lands; the Keruthlnii were distant kinfolk, but no less fierce and greedy for that.

Young men would come to pledge their axes to him, and perhaps households and clans after them. His folk would grow strong and spread over the land, and it would be theirs and their sons', and their sons' sons'.

The High Chief of the Iraiina smiled at his tomorrows.

"Reveille, reveille; heave out, trice up, lash and stow, lash and stow!"

The whistling pipes and the orders echoed through the Eagle. On the quarterdeck the officer of the watch nodded and the brass bell was struck, its clear metallic tones echoing across the deck.

"Sir!" the master-at-arms barked. "Crew turned out!"

Marian Alston smiled and cocked an ear at the sounds from the deck above, familiar as heartbeat. Now the mops began flogging the deck; scrub down weather decks, sweep down compartments, wipe down deckhouses. The harsh rasp of holystones on wet teak sounded. She finished her morning routine of stretching and chin-ups on the bar in the corner of her cabin and did a few kata—the sort you could do with barely arm's length on either side—before padding into the bathroom to brush her teeth. 0630 hours, and she was actually looking forward to the fried fish of breakfast; she left the last of the cornflakes to those who really needed them. Seasickness had never been one of her problems, even in the sort of blow they'd had last week south of Iceland: hundred-foot seas and freezing sleet.

And today…

"Today we ought to sight land," she said ten minutes later, sliding into her place at the wardroom table; the commanding officer usually ate breakfast and lunch in the officers' wardroom and dinner in the flag cabin aft. There was a buzz of speculation among the morning watch. Next the night-watch reports, the ship's situation-and-condition summary; freshwater consumption, distance to nearest point of land… Everything routine, or as routine as it could be under the circumstances.

"I still say Bristol would be a better bet, ma'am," Lieutenant Hendriksson said.

Alston shook her head, neatly filleting her cod while compensating for the roll of the ship and grabbing a sliding saltshaker in automatic reflex. "The Southampton area has more natural deep water, Ms. Hendriksson," she said. "What did we run tonight?" Under minimal sail, for caution's sake.

"Ninety miles, ma'am."

There was more conversation, passing by her in a meaningless buzz as she lost herself in thought.

"Good morning, Captain." A cadet stood at her elbow. "Officer of the deck reports the approach of eight o'clock. Permission to strike eight bells on time."

"Make it so." She followed him up the companionway ladder and faced aft to salute the steaming ensign on the gaff.

"Captain on deck!"

"Captain Alston here," she said crisply to the quarterdeck watch, returning their salutes.

Alston strode around the radio shack to the wheel and stood with her hands clasped behind her back. The morning wind was fresh from the southeast, stiffening, and the sky was blue but hazed around the horizon, a last few stars fading as winds and shadows fell toward the west. No weather satellites now; she cocked an experienced eye and made an estimate. The smell was salt and intensely clean. Perhaps it was imagination, but she thought there was a keener scent to it than up in the twentieth… the currents and winds seemed to follow pretty much the same pattern as the one she knew, though.

"Looks to me like she'll quicken," she said to the sailing master. "But not enough to give us another blow."

"I agree, ma'am," he said, stifling a yawn; he'd been up since the relief watch was called at 0345. "Shall we let her run?"

Alston nodded. It was time to resume full speed; they'd made good time across the eerily empty northern Atlantic, under full press ahead day and night. The last two days they'd been more cautious, working south around Ireland and up toward the southern English coast… or what would someday become the southern English coast, after Celt and Roman and Saxon and Dane and Norman had come and gone…

"And you should get some sleep, Mr. Hiller," she said.

The sailing master had been on the ship years longer than she, and he regarded Eagle as he might a beautiful, willful, and rather retarded child that had to be watched and cherished every moment.

"Sail stations," she said, when he had taken his leave. "On the fore, on the main, set uppers and lowers."

"Uppers and lowers, aye!" Lieutenant Walker echoed her; he was OOD right now. They were a bit overofficered, even without all the cadets' instructors on board, and she'd suspended the practice of having upperclassmen stand watches for now. He turned and went on:

"Lay aloft and loose all sail!"

Orders ran across the deck. The crew swarmed up the ratlines and out along the yards, or prepared to haul.

"Let fall!"

The crew aloft released the gaskets that held the furled upper sails on the yards. She kept a critical eye on that; if anyone was slow the whole weight of the sail would hang on the unreleased gasket, and it might have to be cut. This time it went smoothly, leaving all the sails in gear, ready to be deployed.

We're gettin' a lot of practice, Alston thought.

"Sheet home the lower topsail. Belay!"

"Throw off the buntlines, ease the clewlines!"

"Haul around on the sheets."

The white canvas blossomed free, running up the masts from bottom to top. The ship gathered way, a living feeling that came up through the feet and legs as she bounded forward. Alston laid a hand on a backstay to sense the huge strain as the standing rigging passed the force of the sails to the hull.

"Walk away with the halyard! Ease the upper topsail braces!"

Almost done now, smooth curves stretching taut over her head. No need to overhaul, plenty of wind to set the foot of the sails against the weight of the lines.

"A little to starboard, if you please, Mr. Walker," she said quietly, without taking her eyes off the sails. Her legs felt the heave of the deck and the way the long sharp bows cut the waves, and her skin gauged wind and spray.

"Ease starboard, haul port, handsomely port!" the junior officer shouted over the quarterdeck rail.

The Eagle gathered way, heading northeast on a course that might have been drawn on the water with a ruler. The sun still had its lower edge dipped in the water, turning the low cloud there fire-crimson. Alston looked at the polished brass clinometer on the deckhouse. The ship was heeled to eighteen degrees, and they were making a good twelve knots. Excellent, but the wind was favorable, twenty degrees off her stern to starboard. Four cadets were draped over the lee rail, their safety lines snapped on, returning their breakfast to the ocean whence it came, but the rest were settling down nicely. If anything, the enlisted crew were showing more in the way of problems, which was a little surprising. There seemed to be a hump for everyone, when suddenly they stopped just knowing what had happened to them and believed it, down in the gut and blood. That was the crisis point, and if they got through it, they were safe enough. Keeping them working, hands blistered and backs aching, helped them over the hump. It reduced the feeling of unreality, of being lost in a nightmare dream.

She shook off the thought. All that could be done about that problem had been; and there was a raft of new ones about to descend. The rigging lines were humming, like a huge stringed instrument all tuned to a single harmony. A voice cried from the mainmast:

"On deck there! Ease the't' gallant buntline."

Feet thundered across the deck. Alston's eyes followed the motions that let the line out a trifle and then secured it again with automatic ease. The blue-green swell raised the Eagle in its rhythmic grip, and the big ship heeled deep to port. The masts and the humans on them traced circles against the sky and began their cycle again. Alston went forward of the wheel and into the pilothouse.

"Ms. Rapczewicz," she said to the woman at the chart table. "Do you have the plot?"

"Here, Skipper," she said. One of the watch handed Alston a cup of coffee; that was something she was going to miss, when they ran out. "We should make landfall about here, this afternoon. Assuming there's an England here."

"There'll always be an England," she said, and looked at the XO's pointing thumb. Just east of the Isle of Wight, Southampton Water. "In a geographical sense, at least," she added.

"Mr. Arnstein," she said to the professor. He was there with the astronomer, come up from the cubbyhole where they'd been deep in the books from the Nantucket Athenaeum. "Is there anywhere we could expect to get coffee, here and now?"

"Hmmm?" Arnstein looked up, preoccupied. "Coffee? Oh… um, that is, it comes from Ethiopia, originally. Kaffa province, fairly far inland. It went from there to the Yemen, and from the Yemen to everywhere. The Arabs spread it."

"I don't suppose…"

"Well, Captain, there's no mention of it for more than two thousand years after this date. Tea, maybe—"

"Boat ho!" The lookout's voice came faint from the tops through the door of the deckhouse.

Alston turned and went out on the deck. "What do you make?"

"Captain, small boat off to port, a mile and a half!" the lookout cried. Sailors crowded to the port rail.

"Mr. Walker, get those people back to their posts!" she said crisply. "Helm, come about. Stand by aloft, ready to take in sail. Mr. Walker, we'll heave to once we're near."

"Lower a boat, ma'am?"

She shook her head. "Not immediately. I want to take a look at them first. Ms. Rapczewicz, you have the deck."

"Ms. Rapczewicz has the deck, aye!"

Alston walked down into the waist, securing binoculars to her belt. Then she crouched, leaped to the bulwark, caught the ratlines, and swarmed upward, tarred rope harsh under her hands. She climbed, past the tops—triangular railed platforms halfway and three-quarters of the way up the mainmast—higher still, until the ship was a tiny lozenge far below. She nodded to crewfolk as she passed; the rigging was no place to waste hands on saluting, and she was up here fairly often, for exercise's sake. At last she came to the uppermost yard, the royal, where the steel tube of the mast was barely as thick through as her waist. A leg over the yard and her foot hooked through a line gave her a secure brace.

The wind whipped at her, chilly and strong, and the sail bellied out below in a pure white curve. She turned the focusing screw of the binoculars with the thumb whose fingers held the instrument, according to the old nautical rule of one hand for yourself and another for the ship. The boat grew; it was an oval about a dozen feet long, low in the water, with neither mast nor sail and a curious double prow. There were five men—five human figures, at least—lying prone in it, some half covered by blankets or cloaks. The boat rose, hesitated on the height of a swell, then skidded downward. The sluggishness of the motion told her it was taking water and would sink in a few hours. The crew certainly weren't in any shape to bail. She watched until she could see limbs flopping loosely. It would be disappointing if they were all dead… No, one stirred feebly.

"On deck, there!" There was a trick to calling down so you could be heard, a matter of pitch rather than raw volume. "Ms. Rapczewicz, bring us alongside!"

"Alongside, aye!"

Alston went down the ratlines to the middle top, then slid down a stayline, using the soles of her shoes to brake against the hard ridged surface of the cable. When she sprang to the deck the small boat was visible from this level, and a cluster of figures were by the port rail, peering themselves.

"I've never seen anything like it," she said. "Professor Arnstein, what do you make of her?"

She handed over the binoculars. Arnstein pushed his glasses up on his head and adjusted them more clumsily. At last he gave a surprised grunt.

"I've never seen one either," he said. "But I think it's a coracle, a boat made out of sewn hides on a sapling frame. The Irish were using them well into the modern era. Isn't it a bit far from land for a boat that size?"

"Two hundred miles from the nearest shore, and God knows where they put to sea," Alston said. The distance was closing rapidly; she took back the glasses and watched. "There are half a dozen people in that boat. They're not movin', but I thought I saw… Wait, one is moving."

She turned her head. "Get the medic ready," she said. "Severe dehydration, salt poisoning."

"How do you know that, Captain?" Arnstein asked curiously—he was always curious, which was annoying sometimes but a large part of what made him useful.

Not to mention interesting. Her own reading in history had been largely maritime and military. Talking with Arnstein, you always learned something. It might be completely useless, but it would be fascinating… and she suspected that many of the facts that seemed useless would turn out to be valuable later. Glad to return the favor for once, she continued:

"If you're lost at sea in a small boat, and it's not cold enough for hypothermia, the commonest way to die is thirst," she replied. "Or salt poisonin' from drinking seawater; that'll kill you faster, unless you're very careful to take small sips. And from the look of them, I'd say these people were blown out to sea and mighty thoroughly lost."

Ian Arnstein watched with queasy interest as the sailors went down ropes and climbed into the coracle. It bobbed and heaved as two of them climbed aboard, made fast, and began examining the bodies lying in the shallow water that sloshed in its bottom.

One of the sailors vomited over the side. Even at this distance the livid faces and swollen tongues weren't pretty, and seagulls or something had been at them. The other went on with her task, checking the inert shapes one by one.

"Only one alive, sir," she called up after a moment, her fingers on the neck of a figure hidden under several cloaks, as her companion returned to his work. "He's pretty far gone, though. I need a sling lift."

"Lot of weapons," Arnstein said thoughtfully. "Not fishermen."

Alston nodded. "The survivor probably had enough willpower not to drink from the sea." Louder: "Send up the gear, after you've recovered the live one."

Doreen pushed her glasses back with a finger and peered, fascinated beneath her nausea. The bodies were all men, all fairly young. Weapons lay beside them: spears, bows, quivers, axes with yard-long handles and long narrow heads of bronze, the drooping edges shaped like a hawk's beak. The rest of the boat's load was bundles wrapped in hide or basketwork lashed with thongs.

The ship's physician and his helpers swung into operation as the body came inboard. The rest of the crew hung back, but nobody objected when Ian pushed close, Doreen beside him. The stranger was a little above average height, perhaps five-eight or -nine. His body was sunburned and his face, and lips swollen, but you could see that he was young, probably in his late teens. The sparse yellow beard bore that out too, merely thick down. His hair was twisted back in a braid that reached halfway down his back, bound with bronze rings. For clothes he wore a thigh-length leather kilt pyrographed with cryptic designs, cinched by a broad belt of sheepskin worn with the fleece side in; his feet were bare and heavily callused. The face was generic European of a northern or eastern variety, narrow and long-nosed on a long skull, although the nose had been broken at some time and had healed a little crooked. Arnstein could see a blue eye when the doctor peeled back an eyelid and shone a light into it.

"Quite a bod," Doreen murmured, playing with a lock of hair.

Ian nodded; the youth was broad-shouldered and narrow in the hips, smooth muscle running over an athlete's long-legged body. He also had an interesting collection of scars for a young man. A deep pucker on one leg, still a little red; thin white lines on his forearms; a deep gouge out of an upper shoulder. There were scars on his back as well, parallel ones dusty-white against the smooth pale skin.

"Those are whip marks," Alston said. "He could be a prisoner, or a slave, I suppose?"

Doreen spoke thoughtfully. "Aren't there cultures where boys are flogged as part of their initiation rites?"

"Yes," Ian said. "Sparta for one. The other scars look like fights to me. Fairly recent ones."

The ship's doctor had hooked up an IV. "Dehydration and sunburn," he said. "Looks like a pretty healthy young man. He should be all right in a few days."

"When will he be conscious?" Ian asked.

"Any time."

Doreen looked at the materials coming over the side. Besides the weapons, the bundles held mostly extra clothes—kilts, and simple T-tunics of linen or wool, woven in plaids or dyed in soft natural colors, blanketlike woolen cloaks, and a few pairs of shoes made out of a single piece of soft leather, rather like moccasins. There were baskets of dried meat, fish, hard crumbly cheese, and crackerlike hard bread. And there was an array of shields, difficult to see at first since they'd been laid down as seats. They were round or oval, frames of wicker and shaped wood covered in hide and painted in gaudy shapes, the swastika-like fylfot, or animals. Horses, wolves, bears, the head of a bull, or a figure half man and half elk, with horns growing from his head. A few had bronze rivets as well.

"What's this?" she said, prodding at a string of varicolored bits of leather with straggling fur attached. A thought struck her, and she backed away and wiped the hand frantically down the leg of her trousers.

"Human hair," the doctor said, glancing aside. "Scalps."

A murmur went through the crew. Doreen swallowed and forced her mind back to the task at hand.

"This man's people use representative art," she said. "Why don't we get some pictures? We can show them to him and ask the names. There's a set of National Geographies in the wardroom that would be perfect."

"Special court-martial is now in session. When did this happen, Ms. Hendriksson?" Captain Alston said.

"About half an hour ago, ma'am. Cadet Winters and several other members of the crew came to me, with Seaman Rodriguez in custody, and I had him put under arrest."

The lieutenant was young, looking as stern and efficient as someone with freckles and a snub nose could; her eyebrows and lashes were as white-blond as her hair, standing out against tanned skin. Cadet Winters had a black eye and an arm in a sling; Seaman Rodriguez was standing between two guards, sullen and hangdog, a scowl on his acne-scarred face. His lower lip was wrenched and swollen, with a deep bite mark sending a trickle of blood down his chin, and his nose was going up like a balloon. From the look of it someone had stuck fingers into it and pulled hard. Every so often his hand made an abortive movement, as if to rub his crotch, and he stood slightly bent over. Most of the off-duty crew hung back a little, close enough to hear what was going on on the quarterdeck.

Alston sat behind a table, the XO and a chief petty officer on either side of her. It was a little odd for a special court-martial, but the circumstances were more so.

"Seaman Rodriguez, what's your explanation?" Alston asked.

"Ah, ma'am, she said she'd go into the paint locker with me." Which was strictly against the rules, but it happened now and then. "Then she changed her mind and started yelling and hitting me. Ma'am."

Winters was spitting angry, Alston saw—which was all to the good, much better than depression. "Cadet Winters?"

"He grabbed me and tried to stick a sock in my mouth and drag me into the locker," she bit out. "I gave him a knee where it'd hurt, ma'am, and then he punched me and dislocated my arm, so I went for him and yelled."

"Ms. Hendriksson?"

"Several of the crew heard screaming, ma'am, and ran to the locker. They found Seaman Rodriguez struggling with Cadet Winters; her clothing was torn, and they were both injured. Seaman Rodriguez had been drinking."

Others stepped forward to confirm the testimony. Captain Alston fixed Rodriguez with a basilisk stare. There was sweat on his face, and he looked around unconsciously for support and found none. She thought for a moment, and the three judges bent their heads together to consult in whispers.

"Court will now pronounce its verdict and pass sentence," she said aloud, in a formal tone.

"Hey—I mean, ma'am, this isn't no real court-martial."

"No, it isn't, Seaman. However, since it's unlikely we're going to get back to a base in the near future"—or the distant past, you noxious little shit—"it'll have to do. We're not under the Uniform Code of Military Justice anymore; we're operating under the authority of the Nantucket Council. I think," she went on to the others behind the table, "that we're agreed this goes beyond sexual harassment."

"Attempted rape, aggravated assault," Rapczewicz agreed.

"Ten years minimum, dishonorable discharge," the CPO said.

And concealing liquor, she thought; Rodriguez seemed to be the sort who couldn't win for losing. Aloud: "Seaman Rodriguez, you are found guilty. As imprisonment is impractical, under the circumstances I think discharging you on the nearest shore would be equitable."

Everyone knew what the nearest shore was, and they'd all seen the contents of the coracle or heard about the scalps. Rodriguez lunged forward, face crumpling. The guards grabbed him by the arms as he tried to go down on his knees.

"Oh, madre de dios, please, Captain, no—" They shook him into silence.

"But heinous as your crime is, under the law it isn't punishable by death, which marooning you probably would cause. Get him a lifejacket."

Hands shoved the bright-orange float jacket onto the man and laced it tight. "Get a rope sling and secure it on him. Reeve the other end to the fantail railing. Chief Master-at-Arms, execute the sentence," Alston said, her face like something carved from obsidian.

Two of the ship's noncoms obeyed with gusto, with the sole of a boot in the small of Rodriguez's back. The push sent him out like a screaming meteor, to fall in the curling blue water and white foam of the ship's wake. The line paid out and then sprang taut where it had been secured around the rail's metal supports. He wouldn't quite drown, but being towed behind the ship would be considerably worse than the flogging Rapczewicz had suggested. That water was cold, too. Not North Atlantic frigid, but chilly. He probably wouldn't die of hypothermia either. Not quite.

"Court is adjourned," Alston said. "Hands to their stations, if you please."

She caught the tenor of their murmurs. Not bad, she thought. That would preserve discipline, without making the crew think she'd started doing a Captain Queeg. And Coast Guardsmen were as much policemen as anything; they didn't have much sympathy for criminals. Plus more than two-thirds of the crew were cadets and one-third were women. All in all, she'd done the right thing. For justice, and for the good of the ship.

It wasn't her fault if she'd enjoyed it. She didn't like criminals either, particularly that kind. I hope there are sharks out there, you little piece of shit.

Walker coughed discreetly. "The… man we picked up is awake, ma'am," he said. "You said to let you know."

 

@@@

 

The stranger thrashed and moaned as Marian Alston bent over him. His eyes were blue, and right now they were showing white all around the iris.

"I think you'd better back out of sight, Captain," Ian said. "I don't think he's ever seen a black person before, and this environment is strange enough as it is."

Alston nodded and stepped back with some difficulty; it was crowded in the little one-bunk sickbay. "I'll be on deck," she said. "Report when you've found out anything significant."

"And don't exhaust him," the doctor warned. "He's still weak as a kitten."

The stranger stopped his feeble struggling and let himself be pushed back into the bunk, although his eyes still flickered across bulkheads and porthole, electric lights and metal shapes—alien madness, terror building on strangeness. "He must think he's dead and among evil spirits or something," Doreen murmured.

Ian leaned forward. The sight of his bearded face seemed to reassure the stranger. Ian put a cup of water to his lips, and the man sucked greedily at it; the IV they'd just removed had pumped a good deal into his system, but it wouldn't have soothed the throat. He said something in a fast-moving language and sighed, wiping his mouth with the palm of one hand and then letting the arm flop back to the sheet.

Ian looked over at Doreen, who shook her head. Well, that was a long shot, he thought. "Give it a try anyway," he said.

"Ar… mane… spurantate?" Doreen said, leaning close and speaking slowly. Do you understand me? in Lithuanian, her mother's tongue.

That brought a puzzled frown and more of the gibberish, but in a different tone. "I think he almost understood that," Doreen said regretfully. I may have caught one or two words. I think."

Ian smiled at the stranger—Well, first things first, that's obvious, he thought—and pointed at himself.

"Ian. Ian Arnstein."

The narrow blue eyes frowned, then flew wide in understanding. "IanArnstein," he said, prodding a callused finger with a rim of dirt under the nail at the man who sat beside the bunk. "lanArnstein, p'tos."

Ian mimicked the gesture, pointing at the young man's bare chest. He nodded and rattled off a string of incomprehensible syllables. Ian sighed and made a rapid gesture through the air, then a very slow one. After a couple of repetitions the other got the idea and sounded out his name very slowly:

"Ohotolarix," Doreen said. "Ohotolarix son of somebody. I think," she added, making a note on her pad.

Ohotolarix nodded vigorously, smiling and revealing very white teeth—except for one missing at the front.

"Let's try him on the numerals," Ian said. "They're stable over time. You start."

Doreen leaned closer again and held up one finger. "Vienas," she said. Two fingers. "Du." Three. "Trys." Four. "Keturi." Five. "Pied."

"Eka!" Ohotolarix said. He held up one finger himself, then the rest in sequence. "Aonwos, duo, treyi, k'wethir, penkke!"

After a few tries the two Americans caught the pronunciation, and Doreen noted them down. He grinned at the woman, then glanced aside at Ian, looking a little abashed.

Which is a significant datum in itself, Ian thought. It was probably impolite to look at another man's woman, where this kid came from. Ian cleared his throat and went up the number scale; Ohotolarix seemed to have increasing difficulty, speaking slowly and counting on his fingers as they climbed.

Damn, he thought. This was going to take a while. In most of the fiction he'd read, there was some ingenious way around language difficulties—a Universal Translator or a wizard with a spell, or the side effects of a dimensional gate. Here he was, living it instead of reading it, and he'd have to trudge dismally through the basics instead. I should complain to the author. He smiled at the thought; back when he'd written those thud-and-blunder heroic fantasies, he'd had a nightmare about meeting his own characters in a dark alley and having them revenge themselves on him for what he'd put them through.

"Hundred," he said, slowly holding up ten fingers ten times.

"Simtas," Doreen echoed.

"Kweadas," came the reply.

"It's a centum language," Ian said to Doreen. "Western branch of the family."

"Show him the horse."

The picture was a photo of a drawing, rather than a photograph of the animal; they'd decided that would be more familiar. Awe stood out on Ohotolarix's face as he handled the glossy paper. Ian pointed to the animal.

"Horse?" he said.

"Hepkwos!" Ohotolarix said delightedly. "Hworze. Hepkwos!"

Next she held up a picture of a timber wolf. "Vilkos," she said.

"Wolkwaz!"

Ian ran his thumb down his list of words. Proto-Indo-European wlkwos, wolf, he read. Almost unchanged. God, we are a long way back.

The exchange went on until Ohotolarix dropped suddenly and irrevocably asleep, and the doctor chased them out of sickbay. Alston looked at them sharply as they came up to the quarterdeck.

"Well?" she said.

Doreen waved her notebook. "It's definitely an Indo-European language, ma'am. A lot of the words were very close to Lithuanian, and some of the inflections and syntax, even. He caught a few phrases I spoke right off—'give bread,' things like that. I think I could learn it in a couple of months—for very very simple things, in a week."

"That could be extremely useful," Alston said. "Anything else, Professor?"

Ian shook his head. "Not much. It's a highly inflected language, and if I knew more Mycenaean Greek… I think it might be an extremely early form of Celtic. Some of the sound shifts between what he speaks and what the references list as Proto-Indo-European forms suggest that it might be a sort of Proto-Celtic. I'm not a linguist, though— my knowledge is very general, and I'm not sure we're transcribing accurately. Hell, the language might just as well be Proto-Tocharian, or some subfamily that never got—"

"Anything else we can use, I meant, Professor," Alston said with heavy patience.

Ian reined himself in. "Apart from that, this guy's a wirtowonax, which I think means warrior, or possibly something like freeman or tribesman or citizen; and he's got a chief, or king, or panjandrum, a rahax, named Daurthunnicar. I'm probably playing hob with the inflections there, by the way. From sign language as much as anything, this Daurthunnicar and his warriors, and women and children and horses, were crossing a body of water. To fight someone, presumably. Our boy—his name's Ohotolarix, by the way—and his friends were caught by a squall and couldn't find the land again. I'd guess they paddled in circles until they dropped. Ohotolarix hates boats, incidentally, and loves horses."

"Oh, joy," Alston muttered. "We're sailing right into the middle of someone's war. Hell of a situation to trade in."

"Oh, I don't know," Ian said. His face slowly creased into a smile. "It might just be the best possible situation to trade in, if you know what I mean, Captain."

"They come," the scout whispered. "Back along their track, as we thought they would."

They could hear how hooves pounded dirt away down the forest trail, louder and louder as the invader war band neared. Human feet slapped the earth, wheels creaked, an axle squealed, a horse blew out its lips in a wet flutter of sound. The war-car held a near-nude adolescent driver and a warrior in leather armor and bone-strapped leather helmet. The ponies stamped and snorted, their breath visible in the early-morning chill as the blur of the eight-spoked wheels slowed.

Swindapa of the Star Blood line of Kurlelo slowly drew the sling taut between her hands. The early-spring leaves made scanty cover, but the band hidden here were all hunters with the Spear Mark tattooed on their chests; most of them were from lands overrun by the invaders, the Sun People, too. Thirty of them, more than enough for this. She was the only woman, but the others had allowed her along for the sake of her birth, and the weapons she had brought… and after she'd shown them what she could do with the leather strap she carried. These were desperate men who cared little for law or custom or the will of the Star Blood who had not protected their homes.

For herself… Her mother had forbade, her aunts and uncles—even the man who was probably her sire—had shaken his head and said it was a wild youngster's fancy. Yet here she was. Fear and excitement wrestled in her belly, like the Moon Woman pursuing the Sun. The Sun People had brought her pain; they'd broken the knee and the life of her man, they'd killed and burned. It was time to drive them out. She swallowed through a mouth gone dry and picked her target.

Two dozen footmen stopped and squatted around the chariot, light winking off bronze spearheads, glinting on polished leather. They talked among themselves in the harsh tongue they'd brought across the water, or swigged from skins. The chief waited for a moment, then called out to his followers. One threw back his head and laughed, and then they rose and spread out in formation behind the war-car, like a flock of geese spread back from the leader in wings on either side. The charioteer clucked to his ponies, and the warrior beside him hawked and spat over the side to clear his throat.

"Shoot!" the leader of the Earth Folk band bellowed, bounding to his feet. He drew his yew bow to his ear and obeyed his own order.

Bowstrings snapped and arrows whickered as men sprang erect. A pony went down, screaming like a woman in bad labor. The other reared, and the driver and warrior leaped down from the cart. Swindapa sprang forward, ululating rage, whipped the sling in two swift circles around her head, then cast. The polished egg-shaped stone within was heavy basalt, and flew almost too fast to see. When its arc ended in a snarling Iraiina face there was a half-seen splash of red and the man pitched backward to lie sprattling. She shrieked glee and tossed another stone into the soft leather pocket at the bottom of the sling. Men were running forward with spear and club and knife. Others shot over their heads; she darted about, looking for a clear path to a target. The fight boiled to close quarters; the Sun People stood shield to shield and cast back the first disorderly rush, but there were fewer of them left on their feet. The Earth Folk prowled around their line, rushed forward, retreated with blood on their weapons or on their own rent skins. Metal and stone and wood banged on each other, on the leather of shields. Men screamed in rage, or pain greater than they had thought flesh could feel.

The natives fell back, panting, and men glared at each other over a dozen paces of space empty save for the dead. The invaders had no missile weapons left; they'd thrown their spears, and few of them were bowmen. The Earth Folk archers had space to shoot again; they came near and stuck their arrows ready in the ground at their feet, grinning mockery. Swindapa ran to join them, yellow hair blowing behind her like a banner beneath her headband, light on her feet as a deer—in the old tongue her name meant Deer Dancer. She tried to see the fight as a whole, tried to ignore the men who wailed or groaned or lay silent on the grass. Perhaps because of that she was the first to see other figures moving through the woods.

"More of them! Run!" she shouted. The hunters have become prey. The Barrow Woman will eat us unless we flee.

The men nearby were too intent on their revenge to hear her. She ran up behind one and slammed a callused foot into his backside, dodging back as he whirled. His face went from rage-red to fear-white as he followed her pointing finger. In a few seconds the ambushers-turned-ambushed were ready to flee, but those seconds were too many. A bison war horn dunted in the woods, lowing and snarling. Two more chariots rumbled forth onto the green turf of the clearing. The drivers leaned forward, slapping the horses' backs with the reins to urge them into a gallop, and they circled to cut the Earth Folk off from the sheltering trees. Behind them their clansmen ran, almost as fast as the horses, in no fixed lines but in better order than any host the Earth Folk could muster, each man keeping his arm's-length distance from his neighbor. Now the numbers favored the Sun People.

"Forward!" they cried. She could follow their tongue; most children of the high families learned it, to deal with traders if nothing else. "Forward! Mirutha with us! Tauntutonnaurix with us! Addadawiz Diawas Pithair! Forward with Sky Father!"

Swindapa had listened to her uncles and their nephews talking of skirmishes with the longer-settled clans of the Sun People in the valley running to the sea northeast of here. In one such her lover had been crippled, his knee smashed with an ax. She grabbed at the shoulder of the band's leader and shook it.

"We must break through," she said. "If we get into the thickets, they can't follow us. Woods Woman will hide us."

The man nodded, the wild flickering of his eyes growing steadier. "We go," he growled.

Swindapa never remembered much of the fight that followed. She managed to sling most of the stones left in her pouch, breaking a horse's fetlock and striking men—one she thought had an arm broken beneath his shield. Then the loose mass of the Earth Folk's charge struck the running line of the Iraiina war band. The first line buckled before their packed weight, but more ax-bearing men leaped howling into the fray from either side, each aiding the other like a pack of wolves. Swindapa darted into the melee, jumped on the back of a Sun People warrior, and whipped the sling around his neck, twisting as hard as she could with crossed wrists. The axman choked and flung up his hands to scrabble at his throat, then collapsed. Swindapa flung herself backward to roll free and run, jinked past a spearthrust, dropped flat under the swing of a chieftain's bronze sword, and bounced back to her feet.

Something struck her across the shoulders. Her face plowed through the turf; her palms burned as they took the impact of the fall. For a single instant she lay dazed, long enough to see the last of her companions die under the tomahawks and spears. A sandaled foot tried to stamp down on her hand, and she flogged herself back to alertness. She snatched out her bronze dagger and slashed at the hands trying to seize her. A man tumbled backward with a yell as the razor-sharp edge drew a line across his thigh. Swindapa was on her feet now, twisting, dodging. Another slash scored along a hairy muscular forearm, and the man dropped his ax and swore.

His companions hooted mirth at him. More rushed at her behind shields. She leaped to try and vault one, stabbing at the man behind. The other slammed into her side, sent her staggering. A spearshaft cracked against her wrist and the knife went flying through the air. Arms grabbed her from behind, around the chest. She shrieked and bit down into a wrist, kicked, tried to gouge an eye and ripped skin across a cheek as the man twisted his fork-bearded head. A fist rocked into her jaw, another into her belly, another into her head above the ear.

The world went away in whirling colors. Everything was very faint. She could only mumble and push feebly as they threw her down and ripped off her thong skirt. Two men pulled her legs wide, and a third knelt between them, fumbling at his kilt.

 

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"The rahax won't be pleased," Shaumsrix son of Telenthaur said.

He scowled around the clearing. "Four good warriors dead, and eight more wounded—" he counted only those too badly hurt to trek and fight, of course—"one of those so badly he'll be crippled if he lives. And three good horses lost."

Men were moving around, hooting and puffing and slapping each other on the shoulder. They gave rough aid to the wounded, retrieved arrows, scalped slain foemen, made repairs, skinned the dead horses. Unless they'd lost an oath-brother, the clansmen were content with their victory. A chief had to think more deeply.

"We fed two-hands-three-times of them to the Blood Hag," his brother Merenthraur said recklessly; she didn't like to be called that, better to use her praise-name of Crow Goddess. He counted on his fingers and then said: "Two-hands-less-two of them for every one of us, nearly."

Night Ones eat your eyes for a blockhead, the elder sibling thought. You couldn't say such things to a chief's son, not to his face, of course, even if you were the elder brother by the senior wife. Aloud he went on: "Thirty Earth Folk farmers are a poor bargain for four of our clan's warriors. We're not so many we can afford to lose men every day. We lost too many back in the homeland."

And lost the war, he did not add, not in words.

That still clawed at him, the memory of tumbled broken chariots and burning thatch, fear and flight. He forced his shoulders to unknot and pulled his lips back down on his teeth. It was different here. The Keruthinii who'd driven them off the mainland were Sky Father's children too, even if they called Him only by His praise-name Long Spear. The Earth Folk here were not; they worshiped the devil-bitch Moon Woman. Only Sky Father's children had victory-right in war. The Iraiina would win here. If they were wise as well as strong. No Iraiina lacked courage— they tested their boys too well and saw that cowards did not live long enough to breed. But all the gods and warrior spirits would spit on a fool and send him bad luck, even a brave fool.

Merenthraur shrugged; the bone scales on his leather jerkin clattered. "We won. And we can't let bands of them skulk in the woods, either, or how are we ever to set up our own steadings?"

Shaumsrix nodded reluctantly. "Too many of these had good weapons," he said. Most of them had had metal knives, and there were a fair number of bronze spearheads, too. Even the girl had had a good bronze knife. Used it pretty well, too, as well as any of the rabbit-men she'd been with.

A thought came to him. "You, pick the Fiernan slut up," he said, walking over as a man finished with her.

"Plenty for all," he said resentfully.

The chief looked down at the woman—girl, rather; she'd never dropped a youngling, from the look of her hips and belly. Probably pretty when she wasn't bruised and battered; there were streaks of semen and blood down the insides of her thighs and bite marks on her high breasts, and one of her eyes was swelling shut. Long yellow hair trailed out on the grass, and there were red marks across her chest where a necklace of gold-rimmed amber disks she wore had been ground into her skin by the men mounting her. Nobody had bothered taking it from her yet; let loot carry loot. Shaumsrix leaned down and yanked the necklace free. Her head flopped loosely as he pulled the ornament away. There was no mind behind the eye left open.

"Ordinary Earther bitches don't wear things like this," he said, waving it in the clansman's face. "This one may be useful, or she may know something. The rahax will decide. Put her in my chariot. Not that way, fool."

The man who'd grabbed her by an ankle dropped it and sulked off. Two others, older men, picked her up and slung her onto the wicker floor of the war-car; Shaumsrix ordered his driver to bind her wrists and ankles. She'll live, he decided. If the blows to the head didn't kill her, sometimes there were convulsions and death days later. He tossed the necklace in his free hand, scowling; a nice piece of plunder, fine smoothed amber disks rimmed in worked gold—but he'd rather have his warriors back, for all the scalps and bronze they'd taken. Their axes were the strength of the tribe, and the strong could always get booty. He looked down at the girl again.

He had a feeling that there was something important about this one; perhaps a warrior Mirutha was whispering in his ear, perhaps an ancestor's ghost… or perhaps it was a land spirit, even a Night One. Shaumsrix shivered. He'd ask the Wise Man when he got back to camp, and make a sacrifice.

The chieftain slammed the flat of his ax against the side of his chariot. "Get ready, you slugs!" he bellowed. "We move in—"

His axhead caught the light as it pointed to where the sun would be in twenty minutes.

 

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Copyright © 1998 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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