Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
His first sensation was that of terror, unreasoning terror that stabbed deep into his middle and paralyzed the brain. The body that obeyed the dictates of his brain could only stand frozen like a statue, incapable of movement, with the ability only to see and hear. Then his will surged into vital life and the muscles that had been trained to react in any emergency responded to his shocked thoughts.
The Imp came up at the ready. If this was to be attack—he would be alert to it. Yet nothing came at him. Only the wind still whispered its eternal song against his cheeks, ruffling his cropped blonde hair. The wind had grown a little colder. It was night on the planet, now.
Craig shook himself. The setting sun was gone, and there were stars in the sky. No, not stars—other planets. Inside the Enigma, there was only one star, the big sun his ship had almost hit as it had driven through the blackness. Far off, he counted three of those planets as they hurtled in their orbits.
He walked toward where the Staraine should be. He put down The Imp, carefully, and felt about with his hands, thinking perhaps optical illusion might explain his inability to see it. The ship was not there. He paced back and forth a score of times over the ground where it should be and—was not. The Staraine was gone.
Or—the Staraine was still standing there and it was he who was gone, removed from its vicinity by all force as a hand might reach out and pick a chess piece from a board. The comparison made him shudder.
There was no tiredness in him. Curiosity was too strong. Perhaps also, so was fear. He put a hand to his forehead, rubbing it with his forefingers. A lesson learned long ago at cadet school and forgotten until now, came back to him.
Facing the improbable, make it probable.
In other words, discover what makes it seem so unusual. There is usually a sound, scientific reason for everything, even for illusion. He thought glumly that a classroom lecture was one thing, reality very often another.
Still—if this same miracle had happened to the crews of those twenty space cruisers—the men might be somewhere about. He saw no skeletons, no piles of clothing anywhere that would indicate an awesome fate had overtaken them. Those men could be alive, not too far away. He might even be able to find them.
His fingers touched the control studs of The Imp, setting its red flare for infinity. He lifted the weapon, aimed its muzzle at the sky, touched the firing pin. A red needle climbed upward, flaring, into the night. It hung there quivering for several seconds.
Craig lowered The Imp. If there was anyone within twenty miles of him, he would see that red finger And come to get him.
The chance was not enough. He must take positive action himself. He would across the land and fire The Imp from time to time. That action would give him a finger hold on sanity. Craig desperately needed that psychic grip for his hands. He had not agreed to search out insanity, and insanity this queer muddling of reality was.
He walked across the grasslands, and he went far with only the distant planets to see where he put his feet and the manner of their striding. There was no moon to the planet, and the sun shone only on the other side of the world, and the starlight was no more than faery lanterns dim lit far away. All the night long he walked and the red dawn sky showed him the shape of dark buildings up ahead.
Craig came to a standstill. The wind was stronger now than ever, and above him clouds scudded low, with rain a threat in their gray depths. The Imp sat easily in his hands, ready if he needed it.
Buildings meant people, in the Empire worlds. They ought to mean the same thing here inside the Enigma. He walked on, and now his eyes made out other buildings behind the ones at which he stared, and more buildings behind them, until he could not doubt that he had found a city of some sort.
It was a dead city. There was no sound or sight of activity. Craig went on toward it, desperately wishing to see someone—some living thing, even an enemy with whom to fight. The E. touched the spires of the buildings and left a trail of dampness on their stones. This was all the movement there was, anywhere in the city.
Craig moved on, angling his steps toward the buildings where they opened up to form a plaza. His eyes had caught the glint of sunlight on what looked to be water. Craig was hungry and he was thirsty, but he was more thirsty than hungry.
There was a marble basin in the plaza overflowing with cool water spurting from the mouth of an animal-head worked in dull bronze. It was an animal Craig had never seen before. He bent to sip the water, tasting. It was pure and sweet, very cold.
Leaning The Imp against the nearby stone wall, he bent below the bronze head and drank his fill.
The water freshened him. He lifted his head, suddenly alert.
Something had moved among the shadows of the building archways. His hand dropped to The Imp and he slid to his knees and then to his belly. Like that, elbows digging into the rubble and the debris of centuries, he writhed like a snake to the shelter of the high wall.
He waited. Only the silence lay around him.
“Anybody from Empire?” he called out.
The Empire men are no longer here, man from beyond.
It was a telepathic thought bursting full blown in his mind. There was no time interval, no enunciation or thought of individual words, only the notion, the concept, that the crews of the twenty Empire cruisers were gone.
“Dead?” he croaked.
Not dead, no. Alive but gone on. “Gone on? Gone where?”
It does not matter. Stand up that we may see one another face to face. I know that you are one of them. Tell me why you—want them.
He rose up from behind the stone wall. He had caught a glimpse of a yellow man—a man—standing in the way shadows. He had a glimpse of bare yellow hide, a black belt from which objects—weapons?—dangled. And then he heard the scream.
“No! Get down, get down—for the love of Rhythane!”
He dropped flat, inching forward on his elbows. Through a chink in the old wall he could see the yellow thing—it was not a man, though it was humanoid in form—as the telepath whirled, and lifting one of the objects in his hand, used it to hurl above of white brilliance in among some building shadows on the other side of the plaza. The white ball erupted in a silent explosion of but light has little substance and this explosion drove the stones from their mortar and turned them to powder and lifted a cloud of rock and debris—out of which a girl came running.
Craig saw long black hair flying as might the spume from a salt sea, and slim brown legs bared almost to their hips under a ragged garment of dark wool. The girl was running, sobbing, knowing she made an easy target for the yellow thing. She may even be cursing the pity that made her cry a warning, Craig thought.
“Hold your fire,” he called.
The yellow man-thing turned his head toward the wall where Craig lay. His weapon remained steady on the girl.
Your turn shall come, man from beyond. Now it is that the Rhydd woman dies, for having tried to save you. She shall be a lesson to her kind.
The rod steadied. And—
With the muzzle of The Imp thrust through the opening in the wall he fired, and the red energy ran from The Imp to the yellow man-thing. The form that was the humanoid shriveled inward within the blinking of an eye. There was a muffled sound, like that of thunder in far-off hills, and then nothing stood where the man-thing had been standing.
The girl skidded to a halt, head turned, mouth a little open in surprise. A brown hand came up to her thick black hair, pushing it back away from her eyes. She turned slowly toward Craig who was getting to his feet. He saw with surprise that she was shaking, and that fear ran harsh lines into the soft beauty of her face.
“You are—one of them,” she breathed, and whirled to run.
“Wait,” he called out, “I come for the others, for the men you must have found.”
She slowed where the ancient buildings cast a darkness in the early morning sun and turned her head to stare at him. Her eyes were direct and later, he was to find that they were a hazel color, gold flecked with black, and faintly slanted. The ragged jerkin she wore bared her arms and part of her shoulders. It was gathered with a white cording at her slim middle and below its fringed hem, her thighs and legs showed strong and shapely.
“How did you know about the others?”
“I came to find them. She frowned. “They said—someone would come. Nobody believed them.” Her gaze went behind him to the grasses beyond the old city. “Are there very many of you? Do you all have weapons like that the one you have? I have never heard of a weapon like that. Even the Toparrs possess no such thing.”
Her words ran together like hill waters flowing from a height. Craig smiled. She was like a fawn, a little fearful yet filled with a strange and radiant beauty. To his rise, his heart was pounding fiercely.
Afraid that she would run, he put up his hand, palm forward. “If you know of those who came before me,” he announced, “you may know also that this is our sign for—peace.”
She nodded and came from the shadows darkness into the sunlight. “I know. The pilot taught me. Your palm says there shall be friendship between us.” Her own hand came up, palm toward him.
Craig put The Imp on its strap over a shoulder. “You can take me to them. I’d appreciate it.”
“I cannot. They are all gone on—except for the pilot. He was dying, and the Toparrs left him behind. The others, the Toparrs took.”
“Who are the Toparrs?” Her hand made a little gesture. He whom you killed was a Toparr. There are many such. They come here and they hunt us down from time to time. We do not know where they dwell.”
“You don’t know where—but that’s ridiculous! They have homes—buildings—cities. Somewhere, certainly!”
“Oh, yes. They live in the beyond.” Craig had the feeling he was in over his depth. The girl was not mad. Her eyes were clear—and lovely he ought—and her face showed a great intelligence. She laughed at his expression.
“Your ships are back in the ‘then’. We are in the now. The others were taken by the Toparrs into the —beyond.”
Craig grew aware that he was staring at the girl when she began to look down at her foot and trace circles in the rock dust with the toe of her hide sandal. She was the most attractive female he had ever encountered; feeling like a traitor to Elva Marlowe, he admitted that her cool blonde beauty faded to banality beside the dusty brown skin and thick black hair of this little pagan.
The minx knew he admired her, he realized. Her long lashes lifted as her hazel eyes danced laughter at him. “I am pretty?” she asked softly.
Craig wondered which of the lost crew members had taught her that word. He growled, “Yes, you’re pretty—and you know it.
She clapped her hands and her laughter rang out. “The pilot told me I was. So did the others, but— and here frowned a little, “—in not so nice a way. Not so nice as yours, for instance.”
By all the gods of space! The commander was annoyed at himself. Here he stood talking trivialities with this girl when he should be learning what he could of the missing crewmen. Suddenly, as if sensing his change of mood, she held out her hand.
“Come with me. I will take you to the pilot. It is all he thinks of, these days—seeing someone from his own world.”
Her fingers were soft and warm. As they closed on his hand, Craig almost yanked back his hand; it seemed that those slim brown fingers closed also around a corner of his heart. Elva Marlowe would be amused when he told her about it; he could not imagine her angry, or jealous, yet she could hardly be pleased.
Her name was Fiona, she informed him as they matched strides along the plaza and into a wide thoroughfare that ran seemingly without stop through the middle of the city. She was a member of the tribe of Rhyddoan of this world she named Rhyllan.
“In the long-ago time, we Rhydd lived here in this city, in Uphor. When the Toparrs first came, there was war. Terrible war. The Toparrs had weapons my people could not fight. Yet they did fight, with such weapons as they possessed, until the Toparrs drove them out of the city and into the hills and the woods, to live like animals.”
Hate flashed a moment from her eyes. “The Toparrs still have weapons. But now we have a weapon, too.”
“Oh? And what is that weapon?” She turned surprised eyes on him. “You carry it there.” She pointed at The Imp, smiling. “Never has anyone on all Rhyllan seen a Toparr die so quickly. Even the weapons your friends carried did not do such damage. There was nothing left of the Toparr. Nothing at all.”
Her hand tugged as she took him out of the street and into the entrance of a great building. Its walls were marble and metal and glass. It had been erected by a great race, Craig told himself, studying it while he walked toward it. Then the glass door opened to a push of the girl’s hand and they went inside to coolness and a musty smell of a place long since abandoned.
Fiona brought him down a great staircase to a lower level and by way of a wide corridor to more doors and then to a platform of dull gray metal. A vehicle rested on a single rail that ran the length of the platform and disappeared into a black tunnel.
The car was empty. It was perhaps fifty feet long, with seats for twenty passengers. The seats once had been of leather, but now were no more than metal benches naked to the eye. The motor, if such it was, he reasoned, took up little space, being housed in the forward compartment that made a humped dome which served also as a windbreak.
When they were standing in the car, the girl pressed a button. The monorail hummed above their heads as power flooded it. The car began to move, slowly.
“These things used to travel very fast, I have been told,” she informed him. “Now they are old and weak.”
“I thought you said your people lived in the hills and in the woods. Surely the mono-cars don’t make stops there.”
“It stops where I want it to stop. We have ways to get in and out of these tunnels at the Toparrs do not know about.” Bitterness touched her voice. “The Toparrs do not bother to fight us any more. We are weak, a dying people. They use us only for sport. It is good to have a hideaway to flee to while they are hunting.”
“Was the Toparr I killed—hunting?” Fiona shuddered. “I don’t know. They rarely hunt at this time. It may be that—he was after you as his fellows came for your friends.
The mono-car was flashing past faintly glowing markers that must have blazed brightly, Craig thought, when the monorail system was young an new. It was old, now; how old, he could not judge. Once it overtook what might have been a stop, long ago; now it was no more than a platform heaped with rubble; then it was behind them, affording the commander a bare glimpse of carved stone walls and metal panels.
At last Fiona leaned forward and touched a button. The vehicle slowed until it barely crawled. A shaft of light penetrated the darkness far ahead where a crawl hole had been made in the upper surface. As they drew closer, Craig could see steps cut into solid stone leading upward from the tunnel.
The car slowed its run. There was a protesting squeal of ancient brakes, the stone stairway grew larger and larger to the eye, and then the mono-car was stopping beside the lowest step of all, a great wide stone that showed the marks of chisels.
Fiona leaped nimbly from the car. She was as graceful as a gazelle as she ran lightly up the steps, glancing behind her often to make sure he was at her heels. A curtain of green vines hung before the doorway, letting bright midday sunlight flash through. Then the girl put a hand to the vines and pushed them out of the way.
“My people hide in the tunnels when the Toparrs come. Even close up, the vines hide the entrance so well that only someone who knows about this place will think to look for it.
“If your people have warning of their coming.” Fiona laughed softly, “We have lookouts. Even now we are being watched.” Her hand made a sliding motion in the air. “I give the signal, you see—that shows I am here of my own free will. Otherwise—you would be dead.”
Craig felt his skin crawl. Look as he would, there was no sign of life anywhere about them. They were perhaps fifty feet from a forest. Those tree-boles were so close together, they could hide an army. A few feet from where he was staring there was movement as a man slipped out of the forest, an arrow nocked to a long bow.
He was a big man, heavy with muscle. He looked to Craig like pictures he had seen of Viking raiders back on Earth, cross-gartered leggings, a woolen jacket, long yellow hair; he wore no helmet and carried no weapon other than the bow and a hide quiver filled with arrows on his back,
The girl jabbered a few words in an unknown tongue at the man, who nodded and advanced to make the sign of peace with Craig. Fiona said, “I have told Beric you are here to see the pilot, and that—you killed a Toparr.”
“Is it so great a thing to kill a Toparr?” The awe in the pale blue eyes of the archer embarrassed the major. Fiona smiled, “They are not easy to slay. An arrow must catch them in the throat. To hit a Toparr anywhere else is useless. Their skins are so thick, arrows bounce off.”
Craig remembered that the crewmen of the lost spaceships had been taken by surprise when they had been shifted into this “now” of which the girl spoke. They would have left their weapons behind, in the weapons quarters of the ships. Otherwise, when the Toparrs came for them, they might have put up a fight. It was just luck he’d had The Imp in his hands when he had—come over.
Fiona talked on in the language which Craig did not understand, and he saw the archer glance enviously at The Imp. A hundred of those weapons, the ale blue eyes said, and the Toparrs might not come hunting so readily again. Then the archer frowned and growled something to the girl.
Fiona turned to Craig. Beric says that when the Toparr you killed does not return, other Toparrs will in looking for him. There will be a great hunting, then.”
Craig asked, “Is there any way we can go back into the then? We have many weapons there in the ships that will make short work of the Toparrs.”
The girl shook her head. “It has never been done. Only the Toparrs may know how to do it, since they come from beyond into the now. We of the now do not even know how they do that.”
She caught his hand and drew him between the trees where a narrow hard-packed trail ran between the tree-boles. Craig turned his head, waved to the archer who stood leaning on his bow, staring after him thoughtfully.
The trail wound in and out between the trees, often ending in an open glade. Fiona picked her way carefully around the glade to another spot where the trail began again. This was done, she explained, so that the Toparrs, when and if they ever stumbled upon the woods trails, would not be able to find their village. “They hunt for it often enough. So far we have been lucky. If ever they do find it and catch us by surprise —they will wipe us out.”
She began to trot, now, and Craig ran at her heels. The trees thinned up ahead. Between the branches of a great tree he saw a spiraling feather of smoke, and now he could hear the thump of an ax in wood and the voices of children laughing and calling one to another. The village was hidden well, he thought. If it were not for the plume of smoke and the sounds, he would never have guessed it was there.
He saw the side of a wooden building first, then the gilded horns of some strange animal framed against the sky above the inverted V of the gable ends of a great hall. Fiona led him across the clearing, where everyone stopped his work or play to stare at the man in the olive fatigues of an Empire star warrior, and to gape at The Imp slung over his shoulder and at the sack he carried in a hand. Fiona walked proudly, as if she brought some rare treasure to the village. In a sense, Craig grinned, maybe she did.
To the fore-porch of the great hall the girl strode, and when a man stirred in the shadows and came to the top of the wooden steps, she halted.
“I bring a man who seeks the pilot and his friends. His name is John Craig.”
The man in the gartered breeks and woolen jacket shifted the spear he held, nodding. “Go in, Fiona. The pilot and Rhyddoan the chief are inside.”
Craig felt that he was stepping into the long-dead past, moving up the wooden stair, and beside Fiona through the open doors and into the hall. The inner walls of the huge room were hung with weapons; swords, a few shields colored brightly, many spears, hide quivers and slender, unstrung bows. An oldman with a spotted fur cloak sat in the shadows, fingers moving lazily over the strings of a bronze harp. The strings made sweet music to the stride of his legs; turning, he saw the old man nodding at him, smiling. The fingers moved abruptly, the strings clashed and stilled as the oldman put his hands over them.
Craig stopped before a little dais where a big man sat, hunched forward, eyeing him from under shaggy yellow brows. His garb differed little from that of the man at the door, or the archer, except that it seemed richer, better woven, and a belt of gold discs was clasped loosely about his middle. On his fingers were three rings, massy and of gold, set with red jewels. His big muscular hands rested on the braided hilt of a sword in a red leather and bronze scabbard.
While Rhyddoan remained seated, the man with him had leaped to his feet. He wore the tattered remnants of what had once been an Empire uniform, white with gold braid and gold buttons, with gold slashings down the sides of the trousers. Craig made out the circled star of the rank of navigator on his jacket collar. He was in his middle years but his hair was very gray. His name, he announced, was Waldon Grenvil.
Craig advanced with his hand out, to forestall the salute that was his due. “Navigator, well met,” he said, catching the older man by the hand.
The eyes that fastened on him so hopefully glanced beyond his shoulder. “You came alone? There are no —others?”
“I came alone. We sent two fleets into the Enigma. Nobody
“Two?” the navigator blurted. He sighed and his shoulders rounded, “We were the first, then. It’s been along time.”
three Empire years, nodded Craig, and turned to Rhyddoan.
Fiona had been explaining how and where she had found the major, and the fact that he had killed a Toparr. Rhyddoan seemed impressed, beckoning Craig to sit on a bench at his right hand. Fiona remained standing before him.
He spoke slowly, in a resonant voice; Fiona translated for him, “I have not the gift of many tongues, being chief of the Rhydd and somewhat set in my ways. It takes a younger head, like that of Fiona, to learn these things.
“It was I, Rhyddoan, who first welcomed the men of the Empire to the walls of my dwelling. They were too many to live here, and so they built a village some distance from ours. When the Toparrs came, they fought valiantly but uselessly, nor did they betray the fact that we had helped them. For this, we of the Rhydd are grateful.”
The chief drew a deep breath, and nodded at the navigator.
Grenvil took up the story. “I was one of those captured by the Toparrs but I was so badly wounded, they left me behind to die. I lay in the underbrush until a passing hunter found me and carried me here to the hall of Rhyddoan. His wife nursed me back to health. I have been here over three years now, as close as I can reckon time.
Craig waited until Fiona was done translating Grenvil’s words to Rhyddoan. Then he asked, “Who are the Toparrs? Do you know any more about them than Fiona? And—what are their weapons? The light thrower I saw used: have they many of those?”
“Very many, Grenvil said heavily, “but to my knowledge, it is their only weapon. Since I have been among the people of Rhydd, however—I have learned a curious thing. The legends of the people tell of weapons such as these. That-which-throws-bright-flame-that-eats-everything, is their name for it. It was used—according to the folktales—long ago and by the ancestors of these same Rhydd.
“How did the Toparrs get hold of it?” Grenvil shook his head. “Nobody knows. Nobody even knows how their ancestors who lived in the city of Uphor—where Fiona found you, and who operated the underground monorail cars, —came to lose their power and their knowledge.”
He went on slowly. “Nor does anyone know who or what the Toparrs are, or where they come from. Oh, they come from beyond—whatever that is—crossing over into the now.
“Time fields?” wondered Craig. The navigator nodded, “It may be. I have thought it might be that myself, but—not even the Empire scientists can create a Time field or a warp. Could the Rhydd—or their ancestors?”
“We’ll probably never know.” Craig thought a moment. “These legends you mention: what are they?” Fiona stirred and Grenvil laughed. “The girl can tell you. She has made a study of them, first to please me because I wanted to hear them myself, and then because she became interested.”
Craig muttered, “Quite often, racial memory reveals itself in the form of legends. The Trojan War was thought to be a fairy tale until Heinrich Schliemann came along to find Troy itself. So too with Malloral on Mars, and Phthisthon on Centauri-5. Maybe these people can tell us something of their own history, once we hear their folktales.”
Fiona was wriggling excitedly, nodding her head until her thick black hair swirled about her cheeks. “So says old Fiachra, who is our harper.”
Craig felt a hand on his shoulder. He swung about to find the old man standing at his elbow, his lyre beneath his arm. His white head moved as he agreed, It is so. Our oldest legend says we are descended from heaven, that we came on shafts of light down from the sky, to land on this world and live here. A part of that legend says we were born and nurtured in the heart of Rhythane.”
Craig held up his hand, and Fiona, who had been translating for the harper, paused to take a deep breath. He asked, “Heart of Rhythane?”
“It is the name of our god. Rhythane. We were born with him and grew to manhood under his care. When we were old enough and grown wise, he sent us to this world on shafts of light, to build here our cities, to prosper and grow numerous.”
The Rhydd had come from another planet, then. This must have been before the Enigma had gathered this little star system in its black folds. He asked Fiona about the Enigma, if once her legends told of many stars shining in the night. She stared at him, puzzled. Grenvil chuckled. “The Rhydd have no words for stars. Maybe that’s your answer, Commander. They wouldn’t have a name for something they’d never seen, now would they?”
Craig grew aware that women were moving back and forth in the great hall, carrying torches to set in the bronze brackets on the walls, and that beyond the opened doors of the great hall, it was dusk. Men were bringing benches and tables out from where they were stacked, setting them up for the evening meal. The commander realized he was ravenously hungry. Rhyddoan said something to the girl. Fiona looked at Craig and pointed to The Imp. “The chief would see how your weapon works, John. Can you test it on something not—alive?”
When the commander nodded, Fiona clapped her hands and gave an order. Two men came running, carrying a wooden bench between them. They set it down a dozen feet from Craig. The commander saw that all activity had ceased in the great hall, that men and women were crowding its walls and entering through the great doorway.
“What does it do?” Grenvil wondered as Craig unslung the disced rod to hold it loosely in his hands.
“It implodes the atoms of anything it hits.”
The navigator whistled softly. “It’s a new one, then.”
“Made to take into the Enigma. I have two more weapons in the sack just as powerful—in their own way. Now watch.”
The gleaming rod lifted. Craig aimed and focused it, touched the activator. A thin red flame ran from The Imp all around the bench. The muffled thunder of implosive power was loud in the great hall. A couple of the women screamed. Behind him, Craig could hear the navigator cursing under his breath.
Fiona was staring at him as if he were her god Rhythane descended to her world. The chief had thrust his shoulders back against his hide-covered chair and there he held them while his wide eyes went from where the chair had been to The Imp and then up to Craig’s face. Awe and fright and a grim determination played in waves across his features. His tongue touched the corner of his lips as he made a little gesture with his left hand.
Fiona translated for him. “Can you make a lot of those things? I would arm my warriors with them instead of with bows and arrows and—carry our war to the Toparrs.”
Craig shook his head. “The Imp was made for me, for the express purpose of carrying it into the Enigma, to use it against whatever dangers I would find in it.” He found himself explaining the Enigma to a puzzled chief. In turn, Fiona told him that the Enigma had always been. Even their oldest legends made no mention of its coming. When the commander protested, pointing out that their own folk tales claimed they had come down out of the sky—and this they could have done only by traveling through the Enigma, since the other planets of this system were uninhabitable—Fiona and the chief insisted.
The blackness beyond their sun always had been. To them, there were no other stars, no other planets. Theirs was an outcast planet, cut off by fate from others of its kind. Even old Fiachra the harper joined in the discussion, for he knew all the legends and the folk tales. He sat brooding, aged chin on fist, as the talk swirled about his white head and as the serving maids came with steaming soups and meats and freshly baked breads.
From time to time he would rouse himself and agree with a remark of his chiefs, or protest against a statement made by Commander Craig or the navigator.
“We have no recollection of any such journey through the blackness,” he growled softly, eyes staring into some realm which the others could not see. “If it be as you describe, there would have been some mention of it in the ancient tales.
Grenvil said, “Maybe they are old wives tales, these legends.”
Fiachra turned slowly, his face set in proud, deep lines. An errant wind touched his long white hair, made it wave about his head. So might Moses have looked, long ago, thought Craig. This old man was as majestic, as he waved a big hand.
“Out there, beyond these forests, stand the monuments to the memory of our people: The cities of the Rhydd, fallen now into ruin, and the rail cars that go here and there under the surface of the land! Giants built those things, men with the minds of gods.
“We latter—day Rhydd have fallen into bad times. We have forgotten many things. Partly because of the who long ago drove us from the cities and took away many of our people, partly because we have no chance to think in peace since it takes so much of our time merely to—stay alive.”
Gravely the harpist bent to scratch with a fingernail in the hard packed dirt on the floor. “This too, we have forgotten—the art and magic of the written word.”
Craig followed the moving finger, watched the oddly Arabic words that Fiachra set down in the dirt. His heart was thumping excitedly; if he could learn this language, go back into the ruins of Uphor and see what had been written there so long ago, he might answer some of the riddle of the Rhydd. “Rhythane,” breathed old Fiachra. The name of your god,” nodded Craig. “My father’s father taught the way of the writing to me when I was young. I have put away his teachings in old leaves. Once I intended to pass them on to my son but—my wife died giving birth and—I had no heart to wed another. I have no son, no one to whom to leave the old writings that they may be kept and understood and—passed on.”
Craig slid to his knees on the dirt floor. His hand went out and his finger traced those curlicues once more; as it did, he said, “Show me those leaves and what they say, Fiachra. Teach me the way you might have taught a son.”
“It shall be as you say. I will teach you.” Craig went back to his place at table. Though he was no further to discovering the secret of the Enigma and what had happened to the lost crew of the United World’s space fleets, he felt that he had made a beginning. By solving the riddle of the Rhydd, he might well solve all his other puzzles, too.
For the moment, he would forget all problems but his own hunger. The stews and the meats served up by the women were extremely palatable. He did not know how much of his enjoyment was due to good cooking or his own ravenous appetite, but he ate Ythout stopping, until the platters before him were Clean
Then he was tired. It seemed outward from his warm middle into his legs and arms until he almost dozed at the table. His head dipped with heaviness and his eyelids seemed weighted down. It seemed he dreamed a little then, that he saw two wise eyes regarding him, the eyes of a god, surely, those of Rhythane himself. There was nobody, no voice, just the eyes, watching and studying him, as if judging how best to meet the threat he offered. It was gone in a moment, as a hand on his wrist roused him to wakefulness.
Fiona was smiling gently. “Come, John Craig. There is a couch prepared in the king’s own quarters for you, near that of your friend Grenvil.”
Gratefully he stumbled to his feet, gratefully he followed the girl between the benches where the men and women of the Rhydd sat and watched him go. But he remembered to take The Imp with him, and the sack that held the time-warping black box and The Halo.
He wondered if the god-eyes were still watching him.