Not Always To The Strong
The flat stone jutted up out of the log-and-thong vise like the gray tooth of some giant predator. Squinting along its surface, Turek set his cutter carefully against a small protrusion and hit it a sharp blow. A chip of the stone fell away, and for the hundredth time Turek ran his fingertips along the cutting edge. Almost done, he decided; by noon he should have a functioning hoe again. He spotted another flaw, and had just set his cutter again when the knock came at his door.
He paused, listening, wondering if he'd imagined it. Visitors these days were few and far between, especially since one of Javan's spanking new Mindlight Masters had taken up residence in Keilberg, eliminating the villages last real need for a Shadow Warriors services. It was conceivable that someone from one of the farms to the west had come to ask his help, but even they seemed to prefer to walk the two extra miles into Keilberg. That it might be someone merely interested in Turek's company was unlikely in the extreme.
The knock came a second time, too loudly to be imagination. Putting down his tools, Turek got up and went to answer the door.
There were two of them; big men, both, dressed in gray cloaks and the dust of a long journey. The man in front was perhaps twenty-five, his companion a couple of years younger. "Master Turek, the Shadow Warrior?" the first man asked politely. Turek studied him a moment before answering. From his coloring and accent Turek would guess him to be a northman, possibly from the Lazuli region... Javan's home territory, where his Mindlight school was centered. The old feelings, long buried, began to churn again within him. "I am Turek," he acknowledged coldly. "And you?"
The other didn't so much as move a single muscle—but Turek suddenly felt as if he'd tried to push over an eighty-year-old plains oak. The young man's aura of authority remained untouched by Turek's mild hostility; his eyes held a pride the Shadow Warrior had seen only rarely in his fifty years. Here was a man whose internal power bent to no one, and Turek's first suspicion vanished like dew under that steady gaze. Whoever he might be, he was emphatically no Mindlight Master.
"I am Krain," the man identified himself, "ruler of Masard, to the north. My aide, Pakstin. We'd like to talk with you, if you're free."
Something about his attitude suggested that he expected Turek to say no. But Turek had no interest in a battle of wills. Stepping to one side, he gestured them in.
The meeting area of the house was small and modestly furnished; Turek never entertained much. "Please sit down," he said, indicating the room's two chairs.
"Pakstin will stand," Krain said as he sank into one of the straw-filled contour chairs, his aide taking up position beside him.
Shrugging, Turek took the other seat. "What can I do for you?" he asked.
"Ask rather what we can do for each other," Krain answered. "I've come here to offer you a permanent position in Masard."
"I see," Turek managed. It wasn't exactly the sort of response he'd been expecting. "To what do I owe this offer?"
"To my regret at seeing the noble brotherhood of Shadow Warriors in decline," the other said. "At Masard we are dedicated to improving the lives of our people by expanding the number and quality of tools available. Naturally, such attempts multiply the growth of Shadows in the region."
"Naturally." What the Shadows were and where they had come from was unknown, but the one absolute truth on Vesper was that everything made by man sooner or later grew a thick coating of Shadow. Invisible, intangible—but unpleasantly real. "And so naturally you need to hire more Shadow Warriors to deal with it. Right?"
Turek leaned back a bit more in his chair and favored the other with his most sardonic smile. "Sure you do. I don't know what kind of fool you take me for, Krain, but you're on the wrong road. In the first place, anything a Shadow Warrior can do for you one of Javan's swarm of eager young Mindlight Masters can do faster and easier—and Masard is practically next door to his Lazuli school. And in the second place, there must be dozens of Shadow Warriors closer to you than I am. Are you really going to try and persuade me that you had to come all the way down here—personally—to find one to hire?" He shook his head. "Try again."
"Very good." Krain's expression showed a pleased sort of satisfaction. "Very good indeed. You're quicker than most I've talked to. I'd begun to wonder if fighting Shadow diminished the mental faculties after a time. Tell me, would you like to be revenged on Javan?"
Turek stiffened. Memories flooded back.... "What would I want vengeance for?" he asked carefully.
"For destroying your livelihood, for starters." Krain's eyes swept the room carefully, his gaze lingering for a moment on the new hoe blade clearly visible through the open workroom door. "Ten years ago you would have had someone else making your tools and growing your food in exchange for your services against Shadow. You would have been the most valuable man in the entire Keilberg region. Javan's Mindlight technique ruined all that, usurping five generations of Shadow Warrior authority on Vesper."
"We never had any real authority," Turek disagreed quietly. "Nor did we desire any. Our desire was to serve the people, to help limit the Shadows that would otherwise force them to live like animals. Javan simply found a better and faster way to do that. Why shouldn't it replace our method?"
Krain shrugged, his eyes on Turek's face. "Yet I understand that your method eliminated Shadow at a high cost to your personal comfort and even, shall we say, to your long-term mental health. Why would you endure that if not for the prestige the blue cloak gave you?"
Turek shook his head; there was no answer he could give that would satisfy the other. "You spoke of revenge?"
"Yes." Krain leaned forward slightly. "As you stated, the power to destroy Shadow has shifted to Javan and his people, and with it has gone control over Vespers technological growth. I submit that Javan is not qualified to make the decisions that such control will require."
The young northman stopped, but the message underlying his words was clear enough. "Passing up for the moment the question of whether or not your qualifications are better than his, what makes you think you can gain the influence you want anyway? Javan's probably got a couple of hundred students at any given time, and with all of them running around Lazuli destroying Shadows the village can probably support a population of over a thousand by now. Few of them are going to take kindly to interference or pressure from Masard."
"I won't be going to Lazuli alone," Krain said. "My army numbers nearly three hundred, and is well trained."
"So what? Fighting sticks are fighting sticks, no matter how expert your men are."
"True—but we have something a bit better than fighting sticks." He gestured to Pakstin, still standing by his seat. In a single smooth motion the aide threw back his cloak, reached across to his left hip, and pulled out—
A three-foot-long sword.
Turek had seen swords before, of course; carved wooden things, usually, sometimes with sharp bits of stone embedded in their edges. Glorified clubs, really; but this one was different. Its handle was wooden, but its blade had the smooth sheen of pure metal, and even from several feet away it was clear that the point and edges were sharp. "Impressive," he murmured. "Probably draws Shadow like crazy, too."
"Why not check it for yourself?" Krain suggested.
Turek frowned, then shrugged. "All right. Hold it steady, Pakstin."
Closing his eyes, Turek set his mind into the proper pattern and dilated his pupils. He snapped them open for a second, then squeezed them shut again; and on the afterimage the Shadow was very clear. It was a good two feet in diameter, surrounding the sword like a black cocoon. Opening his eyes, Turek studied Pakstin's face briefly. Gripping the sword hilt, his hand in the middle of a Shadow of that size, the northman should be feeling a fair amount of discomfort—and, sure enough, the signs of tension were there. But just barely. Pakstin clearly had a good deal of self-control. If all of Krain's men were so well disciplined...
"How long would you estimate the Shadow has been growing?" Krain asked, breaking Turek's train of thought.
"Oh, six hours or so. Maybe twelve if the metals not too well refined."
The other shook his head, a slight smile on his face. "We had a Mindlight Master clean it—and the blanket it was wrapped in at the time—in Paysan three days ago."
"Three days?" Turek hunched forward, interested in spite of himself. "What kind of metal is that?"
"First of all, it's an alloy, not a pure metal—a combination of copper and tin, actually—which should make it a little closer to a natural material. But the key, I think, is the fact that oriflamme bones are mixed into the molten metal during the alloying process. They don't seem to decrease the metals strength appreciably, and the extra impurity dramatically decreases the rate of Shadow growth."
Turek nodded slowly as Pakstin sheathed his blade again. It made sense, he supposed—a metal loaded with impurities was certainly less advanced than a pure metal would be, and that seemed to be the only criterion Shadow cared about. But there was something else that was not quite right about this scheme, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. "So I presume what you're asking me to do is to come to Masard and keep Shadows off your weapons while you beat Lazuli into submission. Right?"
"Actually, I'm hoping there will be no fighting at all, that the village will recognize the futility of resistance," Krain said offhandedly. "But you're not just being hired for this single operation. You and the other three Shadow Warriors who've joined me will have honored positions in my realm, regaining the prestige you once held."
—And the missing piece fell into place. "These swords of yours," Turek said slowly, "you make them yourself?"
Krain nodded, the pleased look back on his face. "We have a group of smiths right in Masard turning out ten blades a day."
"With your new Shadow Warriors standing by to keep Shadows away from the final product," Turek nodded. "But you can't be making the metal itself, because to get an alloy strong enough for a sword blade you'd have to start with almost pure copper and tin. Three Shadow Warriors couldn't even begin to keep up with the Shadows that would grow—never mind the advanced smelters you'd also have to have." He gestured toward the hidden sword. "Someone in Lazuli developed this alloy, didn't they? Someone with a Mindlight Master or two standing over his shoulder. What did you do, sneak into the village and steal some of the metal?"
"More or less." If Krain felt any guilt over his action he hid it well. "But don't worry about that—we have enough to make all the swords we'll need to bring Javan to his knees. And after that we'll have both the smelter and the Mindlight Masters and can make all the weapons we'll ever need." The northman leaned back in his seat. "But I think you've heard enough to make your decision. What say you, Master Turek?"
Turek held the others gaze for only a second. Then, almost of their own accord, his eyes shifted left to stare out the window as he remembered that day in Akkad—so long ago!—when Javan had once and for all proved his new technique... and had totally humiliated Turek in the process. He could still feel the stabbing pain of Javan's "psychic light"—the light which only Turek, because of his years as a Shadow Warrior, had been able to see... could still feel the shame of fainting in front of the crowd, and then awakening to discover the huge Shadow had been completely destroyed by that single blast. He'd hated Javan for a long time after that—and the knowledge that such feelings were unjustified had only made them worse. But of course the hatred had long since died... hadn't it?
And now he was being offered vengeance... and the chance to once more do something that would affect people's lives. Krain had been right—he missed the prestige of the blue cloak. Missed it more than he'd realized... perhaps more than was good for him....
Krain was still watching him when Turek brought back his gaze. "Yes," the Shadow Warrior said firmly. "I'll come with you."
They left the next morning, picking up provisions in Keilberg on their way. It was a good ten-day trip to Masard; but though the two northmen were agreeable enough companions, Turek learned far less about them during the journey than he'd expected to. Krain, particularly, seemed unwilling to talk about his personal life and ambitions, and was adept at shifting the conversation whenever Turek tried to draw him out. Such reticence surprised the Shadow Warrior; he would have expected a would-be conqueror—especially one so young—to be more given to self-centered boasting. As a partial result, a great deal of their talk centered on Masard and the surrounding region, so that by the time they reached the village Turek felt almost as if he were coming home, even though he'd never before visited the area. Perhaps, he thought, that was the goal Krain had had in mind.
Masard was a huge village by Vesperian standards, its adobe buildings sprawling over several square miles and its population approaching the eleven- hundred mark. Krain's residence was on the northern edge, and as the three men walked through the village Turek kept his eyes open for signs of war preparations. Surprisingly, he saw none.
"Because the general population doesn't know about my plans," Krain said when Turek questioned him about it.
"How did you hide the conscription of three hundred men? Make up some story about a labor levy?"
"The core of my army is my personal guard. For the rest"—he shrugged—"I've hired men from Glasstone and the Fens."
Turek frowned. How did Krain expect to make any sort of permanent conquest if he wasn't even preparing his own people for the idea? And why keep the truth from them, anyway?
He found the answer to at least part of his question as they passed the next street. Two buildings down the avenue a young man was listening to an old fruit merchant near the latter's cart. Fastening the youths ordinary brown cloak about his shoulders was a distinctive sun-shaped gold pin.
Turek paused, and apparently his blue cloak caught the youth's attention. For a moment they eyed each other across the gap, the Shadow Warrior and the Mindlight Master, as the old merchant prattled on, oblivious to the sudden tension in the air around him. Unconsciously tugging his cloak tighter, Turek turned away and moved on. Within seconds the youth was lost to view behind the next building.
"His name's Isserli—one of about six who live permanently in Masard," Krain murmured at Turek's side.
The Shadow Warrior nodded. Of course Krain hadn't told his people of his plans for Lazuli—aside from the fact that word would be bound to get back quickly to Javan, the people of Masard depended on the Mindlight Masters for the life of their village. Any threat to Javan would bring howls of protest and possibly a full-fledged insurrection.
"Once we have Lazuli and the Mindlight school, of course, there'll be no problem." Krain might have been reading Turek's mind. "Then we'll have all the Mindlight Masters we need and no one in Masard will have any cause to complain about my methods."
Or at least such protests would be few and far between. "When do you plan to move?" Turek asked.
"Very soon." Krain paused until they had passed a particularly crowded part of the street. "Already we have men watching the only road into Lazuli, watching to make sure they don't bring in more of the ores they would need to make their own weapons. In a week or less we'll seal the road completely and call on the village to surrender. If they refuse... we'll go in."
"I see." Turek strove to keep the surprise out of his face and voice; he hadn't realized the plan was that close to readiness. "What do you want me to do in preparation?"
"Pakstin will take you to the weapons shed to meet the other Shadow Warriors and the smiths," Krain told him. "They'll show you what needs to be done."
They walked in silence after that, and a few minutes later came in sight of a large but unpretentious house whose main distinctions seemed to be the wall surrounding it and the liveried guard at the main entrance. Krain said his farewells and headed for the house; Pakstin and Turek veered west and circled the wall. It turned out to be more extensive than Turek had realized, stretching back several hundred feet past the rear of the house itself. Set into it was another door, this one unguarded, at least on the outside. Stepping up to it, Pakstin knocked twice and spoke quietly through the peephole that opened in response. The door swung wide; beckoning to Turek, Pakstin led the way inside.
The area looked as if it had once been a formal garden-orchard of the imposing type Turek would have expected someone like Krain to own. But most of the flowers and bushes in the center had vanished, and the circle of trees now ringed a swordsman-training area. Twenty or thirty men were engaged in drills as Pakstin and Turek skirted the area, and the sunlight flashing from so many swords was an awesome sight. From somewhere to the south, the sound of gentle hammering was audible.
"The smithy is back this way," Pakstin said as they threaded their way through a group of medium-sized tents and headed toward the sound. The tent material was a fairly advanced type Turek had seen before: cloth impregnated with tree resins for waterproofing purposes. The resins, he remembered, had the unfortunate side effect of being flammable, but as long as one was careful the benefits usually outweighed the risks. Turek hoped Krain hadn't neglected that aspect of his men's training.
A moment later they had arrived at the smithy, an open-air sort of thing where four muscular men were carefully hammering the edges of embryonic sword blades, while other strips of the metal softened over a nearby fire. Standing off to one side, well away from the heat, were three old men in blue cloaks.
Pakstin made the introductions. "Rusten, Spard, and Brisher; this is Turek, who's just joined us. Perhaps you can fill him in on whatever Shadows need to be cleared out?"
"Yes, we'll take charge of him," Brisher rumbled. "You can go back inside and play with your maps and stones."
Pakstin's smile was tolerant and just a little bit condescending. "Maps of the area around Lazuli and markers indicating our men," he explained to Turek. "We use them to plan our strategy. I'll leave you to get acquainted."
For a moment after he left the Shadow Warriors eyed one another in silence. Turek had never met these particular three men before, but had heard of them, and was a little surprised they had lent their services to this endeavor. Older and more experienced than he was—Brisher, the youngest, couldn't have been less than sixty years old—they should have been among the most willing to step down when Javan's technique began to take root. But even as he studied their lined faces and tired eyes, Turek realized they were no more paragons of nobility than he was... and they had fought Shadow longer than he had before seeing their quiet sacrifices rendered unnecessary and unnoticed by the people of Vesper. No wonder Krain had spoken so much of revenge; that approach seemed to have already proved its effectiveness. Feeling vaguely embarrassed, Turek shifted his gaze from them and turned instead toward the smithy. Closing his eyes, he did his afterimage trick. Forges and their associated tools grew Shadows fairly quickly, but this one seemed reasonably clean. "You're doing a good job with the Shadows here," he commented, just for something to say.
"That's what we were hired to do," Rusten said, a bit tartly. Turek's reaction to his tone must have been visible, because his next words were a degree more civil. "Sorry—didn't mean to jump all over you. You're from Keilberg, aren't you? I seem to remember hearing your name some years back."
Turek nodded. "You've got a good memory for trivia. I've heard of all of you, of course. You were considered among the best Shadow Warriors on Vesper when I was an apprentice."
Spard smiled thinly. " 'Were' is the proper word," he said.
"Yes." Feeling awkward, Turek hunted for a less painful topic of conversation. "Tell me, what do you think Krain's chances are?"
Spard shrugged and glanced at his fellows. "Pretty good, I suppose. Considering that no one's ever tried warfare on this scale before, Krain seems to have the details worked out reasonably well."
"His chances are excellent," Brisher growled, fingering his beard restlessly. "Lazuli's built with its back against sheer cliffs to the north and east, and a narrow but very fast whiteriver to the west. Even with only three hundred men he can easily control the villages exit, and can therefore starve them into submission."
Turek nodded; he'd already come to more or less the same conclusion. Lazuli's unusually sheltered location, he remembered hearing, had been an experiment to see if cliffs and rapids hindered Shadow formation in any way. It hadn't worked, of course.
"Krain's not going to bother with something like that," Rusten disagreed. "He can't afford to spend that much time without control of Javan's school—all of us will be needed to clear Shadows from the weapons and there's no guarantee he'll be able to keep Isserli and his friends working in Masard."
"Speaking of weapons," Turek put in, "could I see the swords Krain has ready? I'd like to test the Shadow growing there."
"It's no different than the Shadow around a single one, except in degree," Spard said. "But they're piled over through there if you really want to see them." He pointed past the smithy. "Don't worry about the guards; they'll have been told about you by now."
"Thanks." Turek moved off as the discussion continued in a halfhearted sort of way behind him. Just another group of hirelings, he thought with mixed pity and contempt—hirelings submitting to Krain's ambition. He wondered if they realized how far they'd fallen.
Only later did he wonder if they saw him the same way.
The swords were stored in a thick-walled adobe shed, whose single door was flanked by two of the biggest men Turek had ever seen. Big, able-looking—and somewhat fidgety. A quick check showed why; the Shadow around the swords was already extending several feet outside the shed.
Sighing, Turek squared his shoulders and moved forward. A Shadow that size would take at least two assaults, and he might as well get started now. Besides, it would give him the chance to look at the swords. Nodding to the guards, he pulled open the shed door and stepped inside.
It wasn't as bad as it might have been. Shadows around the most advanced man-made objects not only grew larger and faster than average, but also were "denser" in their effect. Before Turek had even entered the shed he'd felt the first uncomfortably nervous sensation; once inside, it got quickly worse as his skin began to creep and nausea grew like poisonous fire in his stomach. But he could fight it somewhat—and he could walk right up to the neatly stacked swords without feeling any of the muscular twitches which could incapacitate a man if allowed to grow large enough. Turek had heard of only one man who'd ever gone that far into Shadow, down at Lander's Waste where the old starship lay. He'd died for his audacity, the legend said. Presumably in agony.
But such thoughts wasted time. Gritting his teeth, Turek focused his mind against the Shadow... and after a time he felt its resistance break...
Shaking his head to clear it, he stepped a bit unsteadily to the wall. The sensations vanished just as he reached it, showing him where the Shadow's new edge lay. A half hour's rest, and he'd be able to clear the rest of it out. But first—
He glanced out the door, confirmed that both guards were facing away from him. Moving quietly, he walked back to the Shadow's center. The sword he picked up was heavier than he had expected, but not unreasonably so. And fastened securely to his waist sash, hidden under his cloak, it would be invisible. Outside, off among the trees, he could take the time to destroy the Shadow that still clung to it.
Leaving the shed, he set off in search of privacy.
Turek had half-expected one of the other Shadow Warriors to finish the job he'd started at the weapons shed, but to the best of his knowledge none of them even bothered to go over and check on the Shadow there. Turek wound up clearing out the entire Shadow himself, and after that he spent a couple of hours tackling smaller Shadows both in the training area and in the house itself. It was a bit surprising to him that there were so many about, and he wondered if perhaps the older Shadow Warriors simply ignored them until they grew large enough to spark a complaint.
By dinnertime he was feeling exhausted, but a short nap in the room assigned to him revived him sufficiently to bathe and to join Krain's swordsmen for a good meal in the houses dining room. Their leader himself was not there—still planning strategy, Turek supposed—and the other three Shadow Warriors were similarly absent. Eating in their own rooms, someone explained when he asked about the latter. Apparently the Shadow Warriors didn't care much for the company of Krain's men—and, judging from the looks occasionally coming his way, the feeling was somewhat mutual. Finishing his meal quickly, Turek returned to his room.
But he didn't stay there long. Retrieving the sword he'd hidden under his straw-filled mattress, he again belted it securely under his cloak. Into the pack he'd brought from Keilberg went a blanket and a coil of rope he'd borrowed from one of Krain's craftsmen. Then, slipping out through a side door, he headed west... toward Lazuli.
The rapids and waterfall of the whiteriver bordering Lazuli were audible long before the village itself could be seen; that, plus the way the rising hills forced the road's direction, made the place impossible to miss. By the time the stars were beginning to appear overhead, Turek had arrived. For just a moment he paused, struck by the number of bright lights visible between the cliffs and the rapids, and then continued on, moving with the tired gait of a footsore man. He hadn't seen any of the watchers Krain had claimed were present, but had no doubt they were there and didn't want to draw any special attention to himself. With the blanket hiding his blue cloak and his rope-filled pack riding on his shoulder he should look like just another anonymous traveler.
A pair of strange lights flanked the road at Lazuli's edge. Turek glanced at them as he passed but didn't stop—wonders were bound to be common in a village where Shadows could be destroyed with ease, and he would perhaps have the chance later to study them. For the moment his main problem was how to locate Javan.
He'd taken barely ten more steps before the problem found its own solution. From alcoves on both sides of the street three youths materialized, fighting sticks held ready in their hands.
"Greetings, stranger," one of them said in a neutral tone. "What brings you to Lazuli after dark?"
"I can't change the time the sun sets," Turek answered mildly, studying the three. None wore the usual sun-shaped pin, but Turek didn't need such obvious clues. The air of naive idealism around them was almost thick enough to smell. "And where I was raised young men are more polite to their elders."
His challenger scowled. "Then you weren't raised near a band of thieves. Please state your business."
"I'm here to see Javan the Mindlight Master."
The others moved fractionally closer; their fighting sticks shifted a few inches toward defense stance. Turek kept his eyes on the spokesman and his hands at his sides. "Are you a friend of his?" the other asked.
Turek permitted the ghost of a smile to briefly touch his lips. "Not especially—but neither am I especially his enemy. Tell him Turek is here; he may remember me."
For a long moment the youth searched Turek's face. Then he nodded curtly. "All right. Come with me."
The other two guards faded back into their alcoves as the leader pointed Turek ahead and they set off down the street. For all of the boy's obvious idealism, Turek had to admit he wasn't stupid: he stayed a few feet to the side and slightly behind the Shadow Warrior the whole way.
Their path led to an inn, through the bustling and brightly lit common room, and to a small guest room at the building's rear. "I'll be back soon; don't try to leave," were his guide's last words as the door closed behind him. And now would come the long wait. Sighing, Turek looked around him. Even in Lazuli straw-filled beds and contour chairs hadn't yet given way to something more advanced. But on the candle shelf jutting from one wall was something that looked like a smaller version of the streetlights. Sliding his pack onto the floor, he walked over to the odd device.
He had not yet figured out exactly how it worked when the door opened again behind him and three men stepped into the room. Two were youths of the type Turek had already met, and they looked wary. The third was Javan.
"Good evening," Javan said as he took a couple of steps into the room and stopped. "You wished to see me?"
Turek moved away from the light and faced the other. "Yes." He paused, studying Javan's face. Twelve years had put a lot of lines there, and already his brown hair was beginning to gray at the temples; but he still had the clear eyes appropriate to a self-appointed deliverer of mankind.
"What about?" one of the youths put in, suspicion in his voice.
Turek kept his eyes on Javan. "You don't recognize me, do you?" he said. "Perhaps this will help." Moving his hands slowly, he dropped the blanket from his shoulders.
Javan's reaction to the blue cloak was disappointing: no gasps or widened eyes, but only a feint smile as recognition came. "Ah, yes. Master Turek. It's been a long time since your challenge at Akkad."
"Twelve years. What I have to say is private."
Javan's eyes were coolly measuring. "Very well. Rensh, Streen—wait for me outside, please."
Neither of the youths looked happy at leaving their leader alone, but they left without argument or even comment. Javan indicated the chairs. "Shall we sit down?"
"Go ahead. I prefer to stand." Actually, Turek had little choice in the matter; the sword belted tightly to his side made sitting impossible. "This won't take long."
"Then I'll stand, too," Javan said agreeably. "What was so important that you came all the way from Keilberg to talk to me?"
"I haven't come from Keilberg, exactly. For the time being I'm living in Masard."
Javan's eyes narrowed slightly. "So Krain's hired you, has he? I'd heard that he was trying to enlist Shadow Warriors for some unknown purpose." "You don't know his plan, then?"
"Only that it's probably directed against Lazuli—and that it involves midnight thefts of our metals."
Turek was a bit taken aback at the touch of bitterness in Javan's voice. It told him something about how precious the metal was—and, hence, how hard it must be to make. "It involves your metal, all right," he told the Mindlight Master. "Krain plans to attack Lazuli with weapons made from it."
For a moment Javan was silent, a look of disbelief on his face. Krain, Turek reflected, had kept his secret well. "I don't believe it," Javan said at last. "You're talking about actual warfare. Why? What would he gain?"
"Lazuli's more advanced technology, for one thing—"
"It would be useless to him. The things we make draw Shadow far too quickly for him to use them, even if he's hired twenty Shadow Warriors."
"You're not thinking. Once he has Lazuli he'll also have you—plus all your young Mindlight Masters."
"We won't work for him." Javan's disbelief had become a cold anger. "We'll let Shadow swallow Lazuli forever before we'll work for a warmaker."
"Indeed. And if Krain threatens to kill you all, one by one? Or holds your families as guarantees of your cooperation?" Turek shook his head. "No, you'll work for him. Enough of you will, anyway, if he takes Lazuli."
"Then he must not be allowed to do so. How many men does he have?"
"Three hundred, armed with—"
"Three hundred? Three?" The relief in Javan's voice was unmistakable. "Master Turek, Lazuli can easily raise five hundred men to oppose him—possibly six hundred."
"That's nice. But it's not enough. Perhaps you'd like to see what you'll be fighting?" Without waiting for an answer, Turek threw back his cloak and slid his sword from concealment. Its blade flashed eerily in the candleless light.
Turek had half-expected Javan to shout for his waiting guards, or at least make a run for the door. But he'd underestimated either the others courage or his trust. Javan didn't even take a step backwards; his eyes, watching the blade, were unreadable. Reversing the sword, Turek proffered the hilt. "Here—examine it yourself."
Gingerly, Javan took the weapon. He tested the edge, ran his fingers along the blade, and took a couple of practice swings. Then, his expression cold, he looked at Turek. "And you freely work for a man like that—a man who makes these?"
Turek shrugged, hiding his sudden uneasiness. The sword tip was pointed at his stomach, and Javan's knuckles showed white. "None of this is my fault, Javan. Your Mindlight technique and fancy metal are what made it possible. Don't blame me for trying to earn a living in the progressive age you've ushered in."
Slowly, the sword dipped until it pointed at the floor. Then, with a sigh, Javan held it out. Turek took the hilt and again fastened the weapon at his side. "I think you understand the threat a bit better now," the Shadow Warrior said as he resettled his cloak.
"Why did you come here tonight?" Javan's voice was flat, and for a moment Turek felt sorry for him. To recognize that you yourself had started the series of events that pointed to your own destruction... Turek knew how painful that could be. "Are you supposed to convince me to surrender?"
Turek shook his head. "I'm not 'supposed' to do anything. I'm here on my own initiative, to show you what you're up against and to show you the only way out." He pointed in the direction of the road. "Leave. Now. Pack up your school and students and get out of Lazuli before Krain blockades the village."
"And leave the residents to face him alone? I can't do that."
"Sure you can. You said yourself that Lazuli's technology would be useless without you. If you leave, attacking Lazuli would be a waste of effort."
"You don't know that. There are old rivalries between Lazuli and Masard— Krain may find sufficient motivation in that. Besides"—he smiled wryly—"do you really imagine he would go to all the effort to raise and equip an army and not use it somewhere? His authority could never survive such a humiliation."
Turek hadn't thought of that. "It's still your best chance," he muttered.
"Perhaps. But there's a higher principle to consider. Lazuli risked a great deal to let us set up our school here before we were generally accepted. If we pull out and leave in time of danger, who would take us in again?"
Turek snorted. "What's the matter—is a more nomadic life too much like the way we used to live?"
Javan didn't take offense. "The number of students would grow too slowly. You see, Master Turek, the only way Vesper will ever truly advance will be if almost everyone has at least some ability to destroy Shadow. The Mindlight technique is relatively easy to learn—but we have to become an established part of Vesperian society to attract that many people to our classes. We can't do that if we're dispersed or off in our own community somewhere. No. We'll stay in Lazuli and fight."
For a moment the two men gazed at each other in silence. Then Turek stooped down and retrieved his blanket, draping it again over his shoulders, and picked up his pack. "I didn't expect you to be reasonable," he said tiredly, "but I had to try. I'd appreciate it if you and your friends outside would keep quiet about my visit. Krain might not be happy with me if he found out."
"You're going back to him?"
"Of course—he's hired me. Besides, he's got enough Shadow Warriors to handle things even if I left." Turek gestured toward the light. "Before I go, would you mind telling me how that works?"
"There's an absorbent wick that rests in a pool of something called alcohol, which we can get from plant leaves and stems. It burns cleaner than candles and has other advantages, too."
"Progress." Turek nodded. "A good thing... usually." He tapped the sword beneath his cloak. "Perhaps it's time you and your people started considering the disadvantages, too."
Javan stepped to the door and grasped the handle. "Thank you for coming, Master Turek. I'll walk you back to the road."
"Don't bother; I can find my own way. You've got more important things to do with the time you have left." Brushing past him, Turek pushed open the door and strode out into the noise of the inn.
Outside, he started back toward the road—but only long enough to make sure he wasn't being followed. Changing direction, he made for the river, moving upstream toward the cliff face that formed Lazuli's northern edge. His task there took only a few minutes.
Two hours later he was back in his room in Krain's house, sleeping like a dead man. Around the stolen sword, hidden once more under his mattress, new Shadows formed, troubling Turek's dreams.
The next few days were hectic ones for Krain's soldiers and planners, but for Turek they were relatively uneventful. His time was spent clearing out Shadows from the training area, the smithy, and the stored swords. The latter, especially, seemed to have wound up as his own personal chore; Brisher and the others never seemed to go near the shed anymore. Clearly, at least one of them must have been clearing the Shadows from it before Turek arrived, and he could only speculate that perhaps they had acquired so much distaste for the weapons that they were perfectly willing to dump as much of the burden onto the newcomer as he was willing to take. Whatever the reason, the situation suited Turek just fine, giving him that many more chances to study the weaponry.
At first he was surprised to find that his earlier theft seemed to have gone unnoticed; but on second thought it seemed less than remarkable. After all, no one would be periodically counting the weapons while they were all under guard together. The loss would be discovered eventually, of course, but Turek wasn't worried about it.
Krain had said it would take a week to finish his preparations, but his estimate turned out to have been on the cautious side. Less than four days after Turek's arrival at Masard the last sword was finished.
And at dawn on the fifth day the residents of Lazuli awoke to find an army encamped against them.
The setting sun was throwing long shadows across the camp as Turek made his way up the low hill to where Krain's command tent had been set up. Behind him the hum of conversation and laughter was dying down as most of the army prepared for sleep; beyond the camp, if Turek cared to look, were twin picket lines stretched between river and cliffs to guard against a sortie; and a quarter mile beyond that were barricades Lazuli had erected. Even an untrained fighter like Turek could see the barricades wouldn't do much good.
Krain and Pakstin were sitting outside the command tent, talking quietly, when Turek arrived. "You wanted to see me?" the Shadow Warrior asked.
"Yes." Krain gave him a cool look. "Will the weapons be ready by dawn tomorrow?"
"No problem." Except for the swords the twenty men on picket and guard duty were carrying, all the weapons were stored together in a tent at the center of camp. "Brisher, Spard, and I will be clearing out the Shadow every hour or two throughout the night, and Rusten will do it again one final time right before you attack. The men will be able to fight for hours after that before the Shadows grow large enough to affect them significantly."
"So you say. Tell me, did you by any chance walk off with one of the swords while they were back in Masard?"
Turek nodded. "Yes. Why?"
His casual admission seemed to surprise the other. But he recovered quickly. "Why did you take it?"
"To study, and to defend myself with if necessary. Or hadn't it occurred to you that Javan could ruin your plan instantly simply by killing the four of us?"
Judging from Krain's expression, the thought hadn't occurred to him. "Well... you should be safe enough in camp."
"At least until dawn. You are attacking then, aren't you?" "The village has refused to surrender." Pakstin shrugged. "It's on their own heads."
"True." Turek looked at Krain. "Was there anything else?"
"No, I suppose not. Just make sure the swords are ready an hour before dawn."
"They will be." Nodding, Turek left, heading back downhill and into the camp.
But he didn't stay long. As soon as the darkness was complete he discarded his cloak and changed into dark, close-fitting clothing. Several large wicker baskets of the type used for carrying grain were lying empty by the storage tent; picking one up, he stole between the silent tents toward the river.
The cataracts and rapids that turned the river into a boiling torrent at Lazuli vanished a short distance south of the village, leaving a current that was swift but passable. Four small boats, evidently used by Lazulian fishermen, were drawn up on the grass a short way below the encampment. Taking a few minutes first to clear away the Shadow that had gathered around it, Turek got into one of the craft and began to paddle.
He arrived on the opposite bank a good deal farther downstream, and for what seemed like a short eternity he waded shin-deep in the icy water, towing the boat toward Lazuli. The current got progressively stronger, and it was with aching arms that he finally beached the craft, pulling it ashore at the base of the rocks where the rapids ended. Moving cautiously on the moss-slick stones bordering the river, he proceeded uphill, basket clutched awkwardly in one hand. It was hazardous going, and more than once he nearly fell into the water, where a reasonably certain death would have awaited him. But he made it, and at last stood just below the northern cliff face, looking across the river at Lazuli's northern end.
A thin cloud cover was obscuring the stars, leaving him only the dim light of Lazuli's lamps; but even so, it took him only a few minutes to find the fist-sized rock he'd thrown across when he'd visited the village several nights earlier. Untying the rope from around it, he pulled carefully on the line, hoping its long immersion among the rocks hadn't snagged it on anything. Luck was with him; not only did the rope come easily free, but a cautious tug showed that the other end was still secure around the boulder where he'd tied it. When he'd first set up this backdoor approach into Lazuli, Turek had had only the vaguest idea what he would use it for; now everything depended on this thin, waterlogged line. Stepping a few feet downhill, he pulled the line taut and, after first running it through the handles on his basket, fastened it to a thick tree root. Taking a deep breath, he grasped the rope and stepped carefully into the river.
He got three steps before the current knocked his feet out from under him, plunging him up to his chest in the icy water. Gasping with the shock, he nevertheless managed to hang onto the rope, and after a couple of false starts he managed to stand up again. He slipped twice in the next ten feet, but after that he seemed to get the hang of it and only fell once more before staggering up the opposite bank. For a moment he lay among the rocks, getting his breath back. Then, shivering violently in the night wind, he moved down toward Lazuli.
The afterimage method for locating Shadows was useless in such dim light, but even so Turek had no trouble locating the metalworking center at the village's northeast corner. The psychic light of Javan's Mindlight technique was visible to him from there, flashing every few minutes in a faint glow that indicated Turek's old sensitivity to it had faded somewhat. At least he hoped it had.... Loosening the sword in his sash, he moved silently toward the glow.
Clearly, no one in Lazuli was expecting any trouble at the metalworking area. There were no guards on duty, but only a single Mindlight Master—a boy half Turek's age—walking a lonely path among the machines, kilns, and alcohol lamps. Turek had half-expected to find a crowd of smiths frantically fashioning swords, but the village leaders had evidently decided that such last-minute efforts were futile. The decision was undoubtedly correct, and it made Turek's job much easier. Skulking around outside the circle of light, he quickly located what he had come for: the bins holding pure, refined metals.
Even with only one other man present, the area was too small for Turek to sneak over to the metals without being caught. Biding his time, he waited until the youth was facing the bins, his back to the Shadow Warrior... and as the glow of Mindlight dazzled Turek's mind, he stepped from concealment and slapped the others head as hard as he could with the flat of his blade.
The boy sprawled to the ground with scarcely a sound. Replacing the weapon at his side, Turek hurried over to the bins. A small wooden bucket sat by each of them; grabbing one, he dipped it deeply into the nearly empty bin marked COPPER and came up with a load of fine, shiny dust. He debated taking a second bucketful, decided against it. A sudden thought struck him, and he lugged his bucket to an adobe structure that looked like a storage shed. Inside, he quickly located a large waterskin whose contents smelled like the alcohol lamps outside. With the waterskin in one hand and the bucket in the other, he headed back toward his rope.
The copper dust was astonishing, and more than a little frightening. Barely five minutes after scooping it out of the bin the effects of the Shadow growing around it were becoming painful; within ten Turek was forced to stop and clear the Shadow away. Never before in his life had he seen a Shadow grow so quickly, and for a long moment he wondered if he would ever be able to get the dust back to Krain's encampment. But he really had no other choice. Gritting his teeth, he picked up the bucket and kept moving.
The trip back would forever afterwards remain a blur in Turek's memory; a blur of fatigue, Shadow-pain, and an endless series of battles, each one seemingly longer and less effective than the one before. He reached his rope guideline, loaded the copper and waterskin into his basket, crossed the rapids—a hell of water and cold that rivaled the usual image of brimstone—and stumbled down the stones toward his boat. The river current seemed twice as strong as before... and the Shadow made the trip seem to last forever.
Somehow, he made it.
"I don't understand," the older of the two guards said, his face puckered with confusion as his eyes flicked uncertainly over Turek's disheveled appearance.
"I didn't ask you to understand." Turek kept his voice low, his anger in tight check. Wet, cold, and deathly ill with fatigue, he was in no mood to be blocked here, ten feet short of his goal, by two fools. "I told you once: The picket line captain needs you up at post five immediately. Period. Now get moving."
"But our orders—"
"I'm giving you new orders. I'm a Shadow Warrior, one of Krain's personal servants. You'll do as I say."
There was something in his voice and eyes, Turek knew—he could tell from the way the guard seemed to shrink slightly within his own skin. The Shadow Warriors had commanded awe and not a little fear in their day... and this man was old enough to remember that. His gaze shifted to the sword at Turek's side, as if seeking proof of the Shadow Warriors claimed status. "Very well," he said uncomfortably. Motioning to his companion, he eased gingerly past Turek and the two men left, disappearing into the gloom beyond the sputtering torchlight.
Turek watched until they were gone. Then, gritting his teeth against its growing Shadow, he retrieved his basket from behind a nearby tent and started forward—and as he did so a blue-cloaked figure stepped from the tent entrance and stood in his path.
It was Brisher. "So now you're Krain's personal servant, are you?" the old Shadow Warrior growled. "What did he promise you, Javan's head and half of Lazuli?"
"Don't sound so virtuous—you're working for him too."
"I had no choice," the other muttered, dropping his eyes. "There was no other way for me to earn my livelihood anymore, and I'm too old to survive out on my own. But you don't have that excuse." He nodded at the basket. "What's that?"
The Shadow was growing painful again. "Step aside," Turek ordered.
"What is it?" the other repeated.
"Copper dust from Lazuli. Now step aside."
Brisher's eyes raked Turek's face. "What are you going to do?" he demanded. "Remember, our duty is to Krain now." Turek's arms were beginning to tremble. If Brisher tried to stop him he would have to fight the older man. "We have a higher duty than that," he said, sudden weariness breaking through his tension. He was tired of fighting. "I'm going to do what I have to—what you should have done long ago."
For a long moment Brisher stood motionless, the resolve draining from his face and leaving him an eternity older. Bowing his head slightly, he moved away from the tent. Without looking at him, Turek stepped through the entrance.
Inside was unrelieved darkness; but Turek needed no light for what he was going to do. Dropping the waterskin by his foot, he raised the basket chest-high and, with a single convulsive movement, flung its contents over the neatly stacked swords. The basket he tossed to one side; picking up the waterskin, he went back outside. Brisher had vanished, and a quick look showed no one else in sight. Opening the waterskin, Turek doused the tent with the alcohol, concentrating on the middle of the roof. When the skin was empty, he threw it back inside.
And so all was finally ready. Stepping back, he pulled up one of the torches stuck in the ground. With a sigh more of fatigue than of relief, he flung it onto the tent.
The cloth ignited with a roar and a fireball that singed Turek's eyebrows. He stepped back hastily as sounds of confusion erupted suddenly from the camp around him and half-dressed men staggered from their tents. By the time they had a bucket brigade organized the waterproofing resins in the tent cloth were beginning to melt and burn, and strangely colored flames were leaping toward the clouds.
No one paid any attention as Turek left the scene and returned to his tent to wait.
The fire was nearly out when they came for him: Krain and two of his men, each with a sword that had clearly not been in the weapons tent. Turek emerged at Krain's command, once more clad in his blue cloak. For a moment the air was thick with tension; and then Krain broke the silence. "The Shadow around my swords is fifteen feet across and still growing," he said softly, the venom in his voice all the more intense because of that. "What did you do?"
"I ended your war of conquest," Turek told him, countering the others rage with quiet firmness. Despite his fatigue, he stood straight and tall, with all the dignity he could muster. There was death in Krain's eyes, and Turek was determined not to show even the appearance of fear or cowering before it. "There's pure copper dust on your swords now, a fair amount of it glued there by drops of resin from the tent fire. Even if your Shadow Warriors—your other Shadow Warriors—can clear enough Shadow away to go in and untangle the swords from that sticky mess, you won't be able to use them until someone scrapes all the copper off—and you'll need a Shadow Warrior standing by while all that's being done, too." "I can do that," Krain gritted—but there was uncertainty in his voice. "All your treachery has done is postpone things a couple of days. I'll still have Lazuli."
"Only if Lazuli is stupid." Turek waved toward the villages barricades. "They've seen the fire, and they'll know soon enough that I took some copper dust tonight. And when morning comes they'll be able to see the Shadow. They'll figure it out—and they outnumber your army two to one."
"Then we'll pull back—"
"Pull back where? Your whole strategy depended on your being in control of the Mindlight school before Masard had time to react to the risk you were taking, the risk that they would lose all protection from Javan's people. By now they surely know what you've done—or, rather, haven't succeeded in doing—and are going to be getting nervous. If you prolong this insanity much longer you're going to have a revolt on your hands." A wave of dizziness swept over him; with an effort, he fought it back. "But don't take my word for it. Get your other Shadow Warriors and go ahead and try."
Krain exhaled a long breath, and somehow he seemed to slump slightly. "They're not here anymore," he muttered. "They all deserted during the fire."
Turek permitted himself a faint smile. "So they finally realized where their duty lay. Good."
"Their duty was to me!" Krain shouted abruptly. "I hired them, fed them, gave them back their self-respect and their power. And then they—and you—turn around and betray me!" Clenching his sword tightly, he took a step forward.
"Self-respect?" Turek's voice was still calm, but as cold as Lazuli's river. "No. All you offered them was escape from the lonely, ignominious death they were afraid was coming to them. Why else do you think none of the younger Shadow Warriors accepted your offer? That alone should have told you something was wrong."
"So your loyalty is only to yourselves," Krain spat contemptuously. "I understand, finally. How much is Javan paying you?"
Turek shook his head, too weary to feel anger at the insult. "Javan can't buy us, any more than you can. If you were older—if you'd known more Shadow Warriors—you might understand. We weren't in this for any personal gain. We served the people of Vesper; served them with our sweat and pain and, ultimately, our lives. Our 'loyalty,' as you insist on calling it, was burned into us as part of our training; and it was to nothing more or less than the dream of a better existence for everyone. For everyone, not just our friends or our home villages. A lot of people misunderstood our refusal to pass judgments or take sides, but it helped us balance the more advanced technology our work permitted; helped keep people from misusing it. Do you see now why it was foolish to think we'd freely help you start a war?" Hatred smoldered in Krain's eyes. "I can kill you. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes." Though he'd known this moment was inevitable, Turek's mouth was still dry. "But whether you do so or not, your war is still over."
For a long moment no one moved. Then, abruptly, Krain turned away and, without a backward glance, disappeared into the night. His two men eyed Turek uncertainly, exchanged glances, and followed their leader.
Turek let his shoulders slump. It was over, and he'd won. Not the war, of course, but certainly the battle he'd set out to win. As for the war itself... that burden was no longer his.
Reaching into his tent, he pulled out the pack he'd prepared and slipped it onto his shoulders. Deathly tired though he was, he still wanted to put some distance between himself and Krain before sleeping; the young ruler might yet decide to seek revenge. For a moment Turek looked toward Lazuli, tempted by the thought of its warm food and beds. But he didn't want to see Javan again, and there was no real point to such a meeting, anyway. The Mindlight Master had just had a lesson in the potential dangers of progress; nothing Turek could say would improve on that. And as for the responsibility for guiding this next stage of Vesper's growth... Turek wished them the best of luck. The Shadow Warriors had found a method that had worked for their more exclusive group; how Javan would do it, with his dream of giving control over Shadow to everyone, Turek couldn't begin to guess.
Keilberg and home lay to the southwest. Turek had taken only a few steps in that direction when he paused and, as an afterthought, returned to his tent. The sword lay just inside the entrance; picking it up, he once more fastened it to his side. It wasn't very heavy, and it might come in handy back home. His hoe, after all, still needed a new blade.
And so, with something of a lurch, Vesper has started on the road to a—for them, at least—highly technological society. I'd originally planned a complete series of these stories, exploring both Vespers growing pains and the nature of Shadow itself; but when the second story failed to sell, the whole thing went to the far back burner. (Ed Ferman at F&SF was too overstocked with series stories at the time, and it's usually hard to sell a sequel to a magazine that didn't publish the original.)
But now, after a fresh reading, I find my interest piqued once more. Perhaps I'll return to Vesper again, see how Javan's coping with the Pandora's box he's manhandled the lid off of. Or at least stay long enough to find out what the heck Shadow really is.