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THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

PROLOGUE:

 

Between waking world and shadow:

 

Where am I? Prince John Arminger Mackenzie thought. I was at the fort... we stormed the wall... something fell on me...

Something loomed ahead of him, then vanished again in the blur.

Is that Carcosa?

Thinking about the ramparts glimpsed for a moment through the mist was a distraction from the pain, as he stumbled along with his feet bleeding on the ruts and rocks of the roadway and his shoulders screaming every time the two...

I don’t know what they are but they have hands.

... to either side pulled on the pole. His hands were tied in front of him, and the stick was run between his elbows and his back, an arrangement which made it impossible to look up without straining his neck muscles and impossible not to stumble if he didn’t.

What’s different? he thought. Why am I having so much trouble concentrating? Apart from being in the enemy’s hands... and how did that happen? Why can’t I remember?

There had been windup record players in the places he lived most of his life, they were expensive but gave a reasonable sound... unless something happened to make one skip. That had always jarred his natural ear for music with a sense of discontinuity, like being startled out of a deep reverie by a flick from a wet towel.

Now his awareness itself was jumping like that needle. Was there really nothing but dank mist around, except for a stretch of roadway beneath his feet? Had he been plodding through a fog forever?

The world became clearer, fading into solidity again, and he wished it hadn’t. A gibbet stood by the side of the highway. The corpse hanging from it was withered and blackened, and one arm was tied out with a stick and string as a pointer, but what it pointed to was nowhere because it swayed and turned in the wind. The eyes moved and looked at him as the face came around, teeth forever bared by withered lips in a silent scream. A crow plucked at its ribcage.

The crow was dead, with white bone showing through tattered feathers. So were the flies clustered around those eyes.

The pain was always there, but his mind didn’t seem to be. A heavy scent filled the air, like roses and rot at the same time. The light was bright but directionless and he felt as if he were locked in a closet despite being able to see clearly.

They’d been winning, and then the flaming tower had broken apart and fallen towards him just as they came over the wall. He’d thought I’m going to die, and... Then there had been the ruined temple in the jungle and the... woman-thing called the Rangda and her horde of little men with the huge eyes... and the temple had split and the Pallid Mask had taken him through... and...

Am I dead? Surely I haven’t been that bad... but I haven’t had a chance to make confession...

Pain. There was always the pain; the pole thrust between his elbows behind his back dragging him along, and looking down and seeing the sweat and blood drop into the white dust of the road. The muscles in his shoulders and arms ached as if they might snap like rotten string, and his feet were swollen lumps of fire.

He’d seen the castle-city-whatever that its dwellers called Carcosa as the Tarshish Queen approached the harbor of Baru Denpasar. It looked weird enough, a fantastic concoction of walls and turrets, tall slim bulbous-tipped towers and domes, all made of coral rock that varied from cream to crimson. He hadn’t studied it much since; local belief was that if you looked at it too long then... things... could happen to your mind.

Not that I have much choice now, he thought, and closed his eyes.

Instantly something slammed into his back. It felt like barbed steel.

“I could not bear to think you did not behold your new home,” that soft voice said.

Still in the Old French that only one trained to be a troubadour... and this, whatever it was... would know.

What he saw resembled that castle on the shore he’d seen a few days ago, but it was different as it loomed up to the south. The fields around it were a mixture; sometimes he was looking at rice paddies not much different from those around the city of Baru Denpasar, sometimes at something more like Montival or tales of Old Europe with reaped sheaves and tattered-looking buildings of half-timbering and slate, and sometimes...

A child stood beside the road with a dog in its arms. As they drew closer, he could see that the dog had no legs, only seared stumps, and it cried endlessly and silently as the child reached down and tore off another mouthful with his pointed teeth, raising a bloodied smile as the Pallid Mask’s party rode by.

The impulse to close his eyes again was overwhelming, but he didn’t dare. Instead he started to pray silently:

 

Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio,
contre nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium!

 

John blinked. For an instant before it faded into a mist what he was looking at was a ceiling. Why would he be looking at a ceiling?

As if I was back home, with nothing to worry about but Órlaith trying to make me do some work.

His mind was skipping again. This time it was filled with a familiar mix of love and fond exasperation.

She’s a devil for work, my big sister!

 

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Copyright © 2016-2017 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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