Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
FLEET COMMANDER Alvar Drexel was angry.
“Where can they be, those two? A woman as beautiful as Peganna and a man as impressive as Bran Magannon–I give him that, freely enough–can’t have vanished into thin air?”
His hard stare held his lieutenants rigid. They stood at attention in the Operations Room of the Empire Star-ship Taliesin, neatly uniformed in the white action dress of men on an alert. Gold braid sparkled at their left shoulders. Black leather belts snugged their lean middles. Their dress swords hung motionless. They were hard men, fashioned in a tough school, disciplined to a nicety. Not even their eyelids flickered as they waited.
When Drexel raised his blond brows, the shorter man spoke. “We took her ship under surveillance the minute it crossed the Barrier, sir. We’ve been on alert since twenty hours three days ago, when we had a report that the Wanderer had been seen on Makkador.”
“I know all that. You sighted her ship. We passed it through the Barrier without incident, figuring that those two intended a meeting somewhere down below. Well, they met, all right, as we figured, they’d do. Then–we lost them.”
“Not lost, exactly, sir. They’re down there somewhere. How far can they go? Patrols are moving through Makkamar City, searching it house by house under the Commander’s orders.”
“That search has been going on for sixteen hours. We haven’t turned up a sign of them.” Face flushed, Commander Drexel moved to a map case hung along one metal wall. His finger stabbed out to touch buttons.
Maps unrolled too fast for the eyes to follow. The lights slowed after a half minute and firmed. A detailed map of Makkamar City shone on the wall. Alvar Drexel touched it with a forefinger.
“We sent searching parties inward from the four corners of the city. Not one of them has reported catching so much as a glimpse of them. Within the hour those details will make contact at the Square of Krall If Peganna and Bran aren’t in this last radius, they aren’t in Makkador.”
The taller lieutenant said, “Then they’re on the desert and not even Bran Magannon can hide from us there. Makkamar City is rimmed by red sand for twelve miles to the north and fifteen to the west. If they try crossing that, our Zads will sight them.”
“Suppose they go south to Lunn?”
Polite incredulity showed in the voice of Lieutenant Bradford Madden. “Over fifty miles of red sand? In the heat of Mizar?”
His commander brooded at him. “The odds were greater that Magannon would never defeat the Lyanir, seven or eight years ago. He found a way to do it. He may find a way to get to Lunn.”
“And if he does, what can he do? Where can he go? The only spaceport on Makkador is at Makkamar City. Even assuming he came in illegally, as he might with a small spacer, he can’t get off-planet without alerting the Barrier.”
“Mmmm, yes. I suppose there isn’t any real need to worry.”
Fleet Commander Alvar Drexel had a very high opinion of Bran Magannon, having been his second-in-command before Commander Magannon had met the Lyanir spaceships in battle. His own wits had been paralyzed at the problem confronting High Command. It had been Bran Magannon alone who had thought to have the drifting debris–all that was left of the Empire war-spacers before the Lyanir rays blasted them–analyzed. When that analysis showed the composition of those awesome rays and when Ordnance found a metallic compound to offset them, he had ridden to a semi-glory on his commander’s uniform braids. This dependence rankled in Alvar Drexel.
While stationed on Kuleen after the crushing defeat of the Lyanirn and while Commander Magannon spent his hours with Peganna of the Silver Hair, he had made friends of sorts with her brother, young Gron Dhu. Gron Dhu was an ambitious youth. Jealousy of his sister bit in him as jealousy of Bran Magannon bit into Alvar Drexel.
For hours on end they had sipped tart slisthl and conjectured on what might happen if both Peganna and Bran Magannon fell from power. There seemed no hope of this, however, until the treaty terms were agreed upon; then Gron Dhu suggested that, if those treaty terms might be broken and the blame for such breaking laid upon Peganna and Commander Magannon . . .
It was worth a try, they had decided.
Somewhat to the surprise of both, their plan worked. Believing that it was Bran Magannon telling her to rise off Kuleen, Peganna had taken her people toward Yvriss. When they were fired upon, she realized her terrible mistake; by then it was too late to turn back. She had to flee into the void out of which the Lyanir had come to the Rim worlds. And as they fled, Gron Dhu maintained contact with Alvar Drexel, advising him when and where they were going.
Gron Dhu had been silent for seven years. Then he had sent a ‘gram on their private wave-length, informing Drexel–now Commander Drexel–that Peganna had left the barren planet where she and the Lyanir had taken refuge. She had a harebrained scheme by which she hoped to compel Empire to give her people shelter, but Gron Dhu knew no more than that. Perhaps if Commander Drexel could manage to intercept her–and Bran Magannon, whom she was hopeful of meeting-he could kill them and make out a case of intended attack on the Empire against them. If this were done, Gron Dhu would make submission to Commander Drexel and together they would work out a deal by which the Lyanir need no longer stay exiled.
If this should happen, Gron Dhu promised to make Alvar Drexel a very wealthy man. During their wanderings between planets, the Lyanir had found fabulous treasures and rumors of others still more amazing. Gron Dhu and Alvar Drexel would share them. No price was too high for the Lyanir to pay for living room, even as subordinates to mankind.
Ten hours ago, Commander Drexel could envision himself living in a mansion on the pleasure world, Nirvalla. Since then, his roseate dreams had been turning a gray, ashen color. If that thrice-damned Bran Magannon and his silver-haired companion should escape–
Alvar Drexel hit his desk with a clenched fist. His two lieutenants blinked at the fury of the blow.
“Send more patrols into Makkamar City. Flood it with searchers. On the double!” His junior officers saluted and ran. Behind them, Commander Drexel worried his lower lip with his teeth.
Where in the name of the Akkan gods could they be?
It was hot walking over the red desert sands with the red wool blankets on their shoulders. From time to time Peganna stumbled and might have fallen had not Bran thrust out his arm to catch and hold her. Fiery Mizar was high in the midday sky, bathing Makkador in heat.
“Luck is with us, Peganna. Hold on for just a little longer.” He turned and stared back and upward at the sky behind them. Before any searchers could sight them in their red blankets, he would see the dark dots of their fliers against that pallid sky. Then all he and Peganna need do would be to lie down and cover themselves with the blankets. The red wool would blend with the red sand, and since their prone figures would cast no shadow, they would be as good as invisible.
And in such intense heat as the Makkamar desert, any devices which might locate them by their body-warmth would be ineffective. Bran held Peganna tighter against him and stared northward toward low hills rimmed with stunted evergreens. In those cooler hills with their rocks and many trees, concealment would be easy.
After a little while, Peganna lifted her head from his chest and smiled wearily. “It seems I’ve been running all my life, Bran. First from the catastrophe that destroyed my home worlds, then across the voids between Lyanol and the Empire planets. From you. From Alvar Drexel when he succeeded to the high command. I’m tired.”
He kissed her moist forehead. “Only a few more hours and we’ll be safe. Once in those hills we have nothing to worry about.”
Her shoulders rounded in discouragement. She shook her head. “Sooner or later they’ll find us.”
His own voice was grim. “No man can find me if I don’t want to be found. Now, how about it? Can you walk?”
She stirred, stretching. Her smile was suddenly buoyant with hope, for the thought touched Peganna of the Lyanir that she really did not mind the ache in her slim white legs so long as Bran Magannon was here for her to lean on every once in a while. Not until she had found him again did she understand how bitterly empty her days had been without him.
She drew the red wool blanket closer about her shoulders, saying, “I’m ready any time you are.”
They began striding, side by side.
Since before dawn they had been walking all the way from the su’udar stews. The Wanderer had understood the significance of Empire soldiers stationed about the Lyanir star-ship Fleet Commander Drexel had Peganna under surveillance; he had let her land on Makkador, allowed her to make contact with Bran Magannon. This last he did not know for sure, but he could make a shrewd guess. Someone in the High Counsel of the Lyanir had played the informer. From what Peganna had told him of her preparations for this visit to Makkador, there could be no other answer.
Though he himself suspected Gron Dhu, Bran made no outright accusation to Peganna. On Kuleen, when he had stated his belief that ambition ate too strongly in her younger brother, Peganna had stormed with fury that had expended itself in tears. He would not rouse her displeasure now; he would bide his time. Peganna needed strength for what lay ahead.
Curiosity was strong inside him, but this too, he smothered. Peganna had come out of hiding for a strong reason, yet nothing but the hope to win equality and living room for her people would induce her to place them in danger. Once Empire learned where the Lyanir were hiding, it might send its fleets to destroy them. Peganna must be aware of this; it had been no idle whim that had compelled her to put herself in range of capture and possible torture.
On the other hand, if Commander Drexel had been informed that Peganna was on her way to Makkador, he must also know where the Lyanir were hiding, since his informant would have told him. It was very puzzling.
His eyes slid sideways toward the girl. Somehow she had learned that Bran Magannon was coming to Makkador or was already on that planet. She had come to find him for a reason. What could the Wanderer do to help the Lyanir? Bran honestly did not know.
Nor would he ask until the time was better suited to discussion. He turned and assessed the sky behind him, toward Makkamar City. Long since had its stone towers faded from sight. There was only red desert sand and pale sky to be seen.
No! There to the west. Three dots.
“Get down,” he said to Peganna.
She caught the grimness of his voice and obeyed him instantly. She lay flat on her face, the blanket pulled over her so that nothing of her body showed. Bran lay beside her, drawing up his own blanket. He waited until his keen eyes verified his first suspicion; those dots were three Zad-10’s, fast interceptor-hunters. They came across the sky almost as swiftly as thought, leaving trails of vapor in their wakes. Their a-motors made no sound. They whispered as they streaked the sky and the sound of their going and that of their detection devices was as silent as the sunlight bathing their vee wings.
Bran waited until they were out of sight before climbing to his feet. Headquarters would be charting the progress of those Zads. Maps would be covered with colored lights to show where they had hunted. They had five hours at least before a re-check brought the fliers back over this northern corner of the desert.
In five hours they would be in the Hills of Dor.
An hour after sunset they were inside a cave that had looked out over this corner of Makkamar desert for uncounted eons. Bran dared not light a fire. A fame could be seen for an incredible distance in the blackness of a Makkadoran night and the Zads were soundless, giving no warning of their coming or their going. For a little while they must endure the cold and the dampness. Warmth would come when Mizar lifted its glowing bulk over the horizon.
Questions burned his tongue, but the Wanderer swallowed them. Peganna was exhausted. The seemingly endless walk over the desert had drained her of energy. Her feet were bleeding; he had been forced to carry her the last few miles. Sleep was what she needed. His curiosity could remain unsatisfied until daylight.
He put his arms about her, held her so the closeness of their bodies would keep them warm, and drew both blankets over them. Peganna rested her silvery head on his chest; Bran was used to a hard rock for a pillow.
“Sleep,” he whispered. “Here, you are safe.”
He woke twice during the night to gather her even tighter against him. In one sense, Bran cared nothing for the reason that had brought Peganna back into his life; that she was here in his arms was enough for him. If it were not for the danger she was in, he would have been completely happy.
Morning was a redness on his closed eyelids. Bran stirred and felt the weight of Peganna still across his chest. Soft laughter touched his ears and a moist mouth kissed his own. His arms tightened, holding her as she whispered.
“I came hunting you in the hope that we might pick up where we left off, eight years ago. Now I know it can never be.”
“Oh? Now what could have changed your mind?” he asked.
She sat up, rubbing her arms against the damp cold of the cave. Thick silvery hair that had come loose of its coif of net pearls in the night, hung down her back to the hard rock. She had never looked so regal, Bran thought, his admiration frank in his eyes for her to see. She flushed and leaning out, put a palm over his stare.
“Not–like this. I’m so rumpled.”
“Then be more rumpled,” he grinned and would have pulled her down on his chest again except that her face betrayed the despair eating in her. He sat up quickly and caught her hand in his. “Tell me, Peganna. What happened last night to spoil your happiness?”
Her green eyes were feverish with brightness. “The Empire soldiers–oh, Kronn! How I hate the sight of those white uniforms!” Her fingers twisted like snakes within the cup of Bran’s hand. She drew a sobbing breath. “I’d planned on contacting you–for a very special reason–when I learned who Bran the Wanderer really was. I sent a thousand spies into the Rim worlds to hunt you down, to bring you to me. The latest rumor said you were somewhere in the Mizar system. To find you, I came to Makkador.”
“And very obligingly, I strolled into Makkamar City.”
She glanced sideways at him, an elfin smile curving the corners of her mouth. “Makkador was the fifth planet I vaned down on, Bran. You had to be on one of the Mizar planets if that rumor was correct. And it was.”
“All right. You’ve found me. Why?”
“I ought to be insulted by that, Bran Magannon,” she stated, pretending indignation. “If you really loved me you’d never say such a thing.”
“It wasn’t merely love that made you seek me out,” he commented wryly, then at her pout he laughed and caught her in his arms. Bran held her until she begged him to ease the pressure of his arms so she might breathe.
“Men said the Wanderer had seen many strange things in his travels,” she murmured when she could.
“Marvelous things, sights no other man has ever beheld.”
He nodded soberly. “A thousand miracles hidden in far space, on planets so distant man will take a hundred centuries to reach them.”
Her eyes flickered. “Yet you found them.”
His white teeth glistened in a grin. “I found them,” he said flatly, “only because I know a way to travel without a spaceship.”
Ah, that shook her! She thrust back from him and put a hand to her silver hair, pushing it away from her glittering green eyes. Bran feasted his eyes on her pale white features. By Kronn, she was a beautiful woman! The years had only ripened her, giving her willowy younger body the sweet curves of maturity.
“Without a spaceship?”
“By tele-doors. Teleportation. Oh, Empire scientists have been working on it a long time, and they’ve succeeded to a minor extent, but the doors through which I walk were built by a master race, a race of beings so far ahead of us in scientific concept that–”
As he shook his head, he felt the green nails of her hand bit into his arm. “The Crenn Lir–or so at least we call them,” she breathed.
Bran blinked. “You know about the Crenn Lir?”
Excitement made her rise to her feet and move up and down the cave in that feline walk that was a mark of all her people. Her cheeks were flushed, her breasts trembling with the emotion powering her faster heartbeats. She went to the door of the cave and stood staring out at the blazing sky and scarlet desert stretching everywhere.
“Once the Lyanir inhabited the planets of a star system many thousand of light years from Earth, as you know. Avan, you named our star-sun. Long ago there was a disaster of almost incomprehensible magnitude on the edge of another galaxy. Had not a billion light years separated that catastrophe from our worlds, we’d have been wiped out of existence within the wink of an eye.”
Bran nodded. “Radio telescopes on, Earth picked up evidence of that explosion back in the twentieth century. Men said then that a force was released instantaneously, equivalent to all the energy generated by a billion Sols from their birth to their end as star-suns. It must have been a fearsome thing, whatever it was that happened.”
She nodded, framed in the cavern entrance. “So fearsome that even on Lyanol it meant death to everyone unless we could go away.”
“You built a thousand great spaceships.”
“Yes. In them we put what we could of our culture and all the people who could go. It was a scientific selection. Only the youngest and the ablest were chosen, My great-great-grandfather was rayanor then, as I am reyanal now. They set out across space, traveling inward through our galaxy.”
“A long trip,” Bran said quietly.
“You cannot know how long. The journey lasted several centuries. At the beginning our ships were not equipped to travel in hyperspace. It took a century even with everyone in the ships working on the project to develop such a means of movement. After that we made better time.”
She turned and smiled back at him. The sunlight in her long hair made it gleam like molten gold. “We paused from time to time to live a little while on such worlds as had an atmosphere. Usually they were barren planets, burned out as though by some terrible force.”
“And on every one of them you found evidence of an ancient civilization, that of the Crenn Lir.”
Her eyes opened very wide. “You’ve been on them–on some of them at least!” she cried.
“I told you I had. I’ve wandered far from the usual haunts of men, Peganna. I tell myself I’ve learned a wisdom of sorts, seeing those other worlds where no feet but mine have raised the dust in perhaps a million years or more.”
“On any of them–did you find the well of Molween?”
He came off his rump and went to stand before her, putting his hands at her elbows, staring down fixedly into her eyes. “Last night at the tavern a man mentioned the well. To the men of the Empire, Molween’s well is only a myth, a fairy-tale of space.”
“Like all myths, at some time it had a reality of sorts.”
“How did you learn of the well?”
Her lips twisted bitterly. “As I’ve said, we Lyanir have had time to do many things with nothing else distracting our minds. To learn the mechanisms of the hyperspace drive, for one thing. To develop a weapon to protect us against attack, the oradirays which you solved, for another. And–to break the language barrier of the Crenn Lir”
It was Bran’s turn to start. “You did that?” he asked softly and in his voice was the excitement of a man seeing a dream come to life before his eyes. He said swiftly, “Peganna, these people you call Crenn Lir built the tele-doors. I’m almost positive of it. Long and long ago they came and went by way of the doors to this planet and that. It may be that your race and mine are descended from them, that Lyanol and Earth, and some of the other inhabited planets which men found when they could travel to the stars, are remnants of Crenn Lir colonies.”
He paused reflectively. “We have a racial memory of a time when there was no need to toil, when the beasts and man could converse with one another. By telepathy? Religious books have called it Eden.”
Peganna smiled wanly. “Our forefathers named it Aesann.”
“How did you break the language?” he asked.
“We made everyone work on it, even the little children. On our journey inward across space to your Rim worlds, we stopped at several of what once had been Crenn Lir planets. We found old ruins crumbling to nothingness in the wind. We made three-dimensional pictures of them and built scale models. Naturally, every fragment of language or pictograph we found we photographed.
“At first only our philologists worked on the problem. We had no common denominator–as you’ve told me Earth once had with the Rosetta Stone that enabled your philologists to to learn the language of the ancient Egyptians.”
“And later, the Aradnae stele which helped the early solar system explorers to understand High Martian.”
Peganna nodded. The warming breeze off the desert blew her silken jersey and kilt against her body and stirred the long silver hair. It was hard to think of her as a queen of the Lyanir. To him she was only the woman he loved come back to him.
She went on, “After you defeated us and went to Earth to draw up the treaty which would allow us to live in peace with the Empire, and I foolishly believed the lying message that said you wanted me to take the Lyanir to Yvriss–we fled back to those ancient Crenn Lir worlds.
“We suspected that theirs was a scientific culture many levels above our own. We decided in counsel that if we could break their language we might come up with some sort of wedge with which to pry living room from the Empire. We made a national field study of the Crenn Lir language, with our philologists trying to make linguistic experts of us all.”
“You had a little more than seven years in which to do it,” Bran said slowly, “while I was wandering between the stars.”
“And we did it, Bran. We learned the meaning of those little squiggly characters that made up the Crenn Lir language.”
Bran grinned. “For that gift alone, Empire ought to accept you into its hegemony.”
Swiftly she shook her head. “No, it isn’t enough. Not nearly enough. The Lyanir must learn how to compel the Empire to give it what it wants. Peacefully, if we can. If not peacefully, then by superior methods of waging war.”
“Peacefully,” Bran said soberly. “I’ve seen enough warfare.”
She nodded, touching his jawline with quivering fingers. “Yes, by peaceful means, Bran. If it can be done that way. But it must be done, in any event. Our children grow thin and weak for lack of proper foods. Manufactured proteins and carbohydrates can do only so much. They need warm sunlight instead of the weakness of dying stars, the fresh breezes of honest atmospheres instead of air that has been tainted with a hundred forgotten nuclear wars.”
Her people had suffered much, displaced as they were from their home worlds, forced to struggle against the uninhabitability of dying planets and the indifference of the Empire to their needs. Sympathy was warm and alive in Bran Magannon. He was an Empire man, trained for most of his years under the aegis of the Star Cluster, but the human part of him went out to the Lyanir. They were human, too. Brothers of a kind, if the Crenn Lir were their common ancestors.
“I know your needs,” he reminded her gently. “I fought for them in Counsel. And I’d have won my point, if you hadn’t come off Kuleen and moved on Yvriss.”
“Who sent that message telling me to go to Yvriss, Bran? Who wanted the Lyanir to be homeless and without friends?”
“I don’t know.” His big hand doubled into a fist. “I’ve wished I did–so many times I’ve lost count of the number.”
“Perhaps it’s just delayed it,” she exclaimed hopefully. “As I say, we learned the language of the Crenn Lir. Slowly, but steadily. We found a metal tablet listing the names of the star worlds which were a part of the Crenn Lir monarchy. Erased by time, we made them live again by special rays that penetrated the old metal. One name was recognized as an old, old term in the Lyanir language. It meant ‘home’ to us. It was a beginning.
“Here and there we made other strides. We began to dig on the dead planets where we vaned down. Sometimes we uncovered bits of pottery, of metal, of stone with symbols inscribed on them. Our archaeologists matched them up with microfilm records of the stars where the Lyanir had lived.
“One word became seven, then fifty, then a hundred and eighty. Now we made very rapid progress. Soon we could read the Crenn Lir language almost as well as our own. And from a room that we believe was once a part of the Crenn Lir military setup, we learned about the well of Molween.”
She laughed a little. “Only they didn’t call it that. They had a special name for it. Drahusban, which means in our tongue, supply depot.”
“Supply depot?” he repeated.
Her white hands clapped together. “You’re a military man, Bran Magannon! What’s the one thing that must always slow down an army on the move?”
“Its base of supplies, where it can get the food, the ammunition, the weapons, medical care and other provisions it needs to keep functioning at top level. A slow supply train means a slow army, which in turn usually spells defeat.”
His eyes widened. “Then if the Crenn Lir discovered a portable supply base they could carry always with them–and if that base worked by teleportation as did their tele-doors–then they solved the toughest problem in making war.”
“Such is the well of Molween,” she nodded.
To the Empire worlds, the well of Molween was a myth out of space-lore It ranked with all the old Earth fables, with the waters of immortality, the lamp that granted wishes, the flying horse, the enchanted sword. Was there more than folklore to this well of Molween, then? As there might be more to the old beliefs that once men had been immortal, that there were weapons that could never be rendered ineffective? There was a school of thought that said myth was no more than an ancestral memory of past reality.
The collective unconscious, one psychologist had named it. Back on Earth in the old days, Troy had been thought to be no more than a legend. Schliemann had dug in Asia Minor and uncovered its actuality. The same with Crete and the Minotaur, the flood, the hanging gardens. A man named Jung claimed that the wisdom of all time lay hidden in the human mind.
Might that hidden memory extend even to the eons before man had walked the Earth? If Earth had been a colony of the Crenn Lir at one time, its fable of a wishing well might prove to be more than imaginative invention.
“We knew about the wells,” Peganna was saying, “but we could never find one. When some of those thousand spies came back to me, telling me about Bran the Wanderer and the stories he told of his findings far out in space, I began to put two and two together. Perhaps you had found one of these wells. If you had, our knowledge of the Crenn Lir language might be enough to activate one of them.”
Bran shook his head dubiously. “After so many years–eons, almost–the wells will be dead. Inoperative.”
“Perhaps. And perhaps not. Is it worth a try?”
Bran nodded, staring out across the desert sands. “Yes, of course. If you wish, I’ll take you to the well of Molween.”
She followed his gaze out across the red wastes. “You mean, if the Empire soldiers don’t stop us.”
“We don’t have far to go,” he muttered. “For the most part, we can keep off the desert. We’re in the hills now and the trees will afford good shelter. No, I don’t think Empire will be able to prevent our leaving Makkador.”
Her hand slipped between his fingers, clinging. “Then let us go, Bran. It frightens me, being so close to where men in those white uniforms can seize me.”
“First we eat,” Bran told her, lifting out bread and meat from his food pouch, blessing the foresight that had made him tell the serving woman at the tavern in Makkamar City to fill the leather bag for him.
They sat cross-legged near the cave entrance and munched slowly, wondering when and where they might eat their next meal. From a small flask, Bran poured tart wine. From time to time he glanced out at the empty sky and desert sands, asking himself how close the Empire soldiers might have come in the night.
After a while he took out the Nagalang dice and began to rub them thoughtfully with his thumb.