by John Shirley
The sky herd returned by a more direct route to the manor’s cultivated grounds, where Jann a Grelle hoped to find Vonn a Vleet. Jann’s pulse raced, and he felt as if the herd now rode within the shadow of his behemoth: sliding dark and without substance over the low rolling hills.
They came to an aerial island of beige and rust-colored gas-pods, the skylands floating over the craggy outcroppings of the Granite Expression. The behemoths liked to feed on the skylands, as well as on the tops of Oosh trees, and Jann had to speak sharply to keep the herd on course. He gazed at the skylands as they passed, wondering if he could survive being riderless on one of them. More than once a man had fallen from his behemoth to clutch onto the floating plants; and more than one had survived there till searchers found him, clinging, spread eagled. You couldn’t walk across the living island in the sky without slipping, falling through. The island was free-floating at this season, its anchoring filaments having cyclically parted, and now it sailed, rocking slowly, out toward the warm freshwater sea to the west.
Jann left the skylands behind, passed over the haphazard, mauve fields of the creeper bulb plantations, the carnivorous plants blindly stretching their purple suckers ten and twenty yards above them as they sensed his passage, tracing his course, yearning after him. Without thinking about it, he murmured the semi-ritualistic doggerel all Plainsmen spoke on passing by creeper-bulbs:
Know me for eater, while eaten know true:
If the eaten t’aint me, then it must be you
Harvesters of the sausagelike creeper-bulbs were well paid for their expertise; it took training to avoid being killed and eaten by the plants they were harvesting.
The skyherd soared over pasturage where sheep and cattle from Earth grazed; over vineyards, the grapes brought from Earth but spliced with native dream-berry; over the twisty brown course of the River Swenn a Grelle, named after Jann’s great grandfather, and marking the Eastern boundaries of Grelle Grounds. He could see the sprawling three-story gables and crenellations of Grelle Manor rising amongst poplars and patchy lawns. The little chapel to the Great Organizer—on some planets called the Evolutionary Spirit, or Galactic Spirit—was almost in the shadow of the manor’s trees. An unpretentious structure, but it was an undemanding religion, almost an afterthought. The outlying Plainsmen and Free Ranchers preferred a kind of pantheistic stoicism, and the educated Plainsmen like Vonn were fascinated with ancient Earth culture, and prone to quote Marcus Aurelius.
Jann and Aleshna drifted above shady walkways linking pocket gardens, and thin streams flowing to the river. Each reed-fringed creek was nocked by ornate Conjugal Bridges, the bridges built by generations of Paradine Plainsmen seeking to impress their lady loves. Marrying Bridges they were called, less formally. Many a romantic union was founded or foundered on the glory or mediocrity of a Marrying Bridge. There was a Plainsman saying: “Better to build great deeds for her, than a poor Marrying Bridge.”
The bridges made Jann think again of Liana a Gollden. If he managed to wrest her from Dalick a Jimson, they would one day ritually meet on opposite sides of one of these very streams between Gollden and Grelle land, there to shout their vows across the stream; there to wade toward one another, to embrace in the water while –or so Jann hoped it would be—supporters from the Grelle and Gollden manors cheered. After the meeting in the stream, he would build her the bridge, with his own hands.
All such must wait. The outworlders had killed an elder of his skyherd. And though on Grelle land, the invasive spacecraft was but a short distance from Gollden territory—was closer to Gollden manor than to Grelle—and the Baron would have to be informed.
Jann grimaced at the prospect. The Baron’s disdain was so all encompassing it seemed everything Jann did or said earned him only the Baron’s contempt.
At least he would have a good pretext to see Liana again. Their one tryst of intimacy, carried out in a stack of fragrant zurena-flowers after first harvest, had been like a drunkenness, a dance that went from stately to pantingly mad; but now that he reflected on it, she had seemed to hold back on the verge of truly giving her heart to him—she'd surrendered physically, yes, and with enthusiasm. But she'd seemed to tease him emotionally.
It seemed to Jann that if he handled this emergency well—if emergency it proved to be—why, the Baron could not refuse him if he were to declare for Liana. Of course, they could marry whether the Baron approved or no, but Liana was loathe to declare vows in the face of his disapproval.
Jann tilted Aleshna so that he could see the Ivory Fields, where Vonn a Vleet had early that morning been cultivating Sensitive Trees, for their exquisite wood—lumber given up freely, branch by branch, if they were properly gentled.
Far below he made out a group of five workers huddled together, and he thought he knew what they were up to. Though he doubted Vonn was with them, Jann commanded Aleshna to descend.
The behemoth sent out a gust of musky hydrogen-rich steam from its side-vents, reducing its lift, and they spiraled down, till they bobbed but a yard above the ground just outside the cultivated copse of Sensitive Trees. Far overhead, the rest of the herd moved off to the East, to feed on gas-pods in the skylands, though still droning mournfully for their lost elder.
Jann ordered Aleshna to wait. He took his slippers from his waist band, put them on, and unhooked himself to slide off the behemoth’s side to land on his feet in the grass. The tree cultivators—the Gentlers, they were called—had seen him come down and were now all industriously working away, just as if they’d been working right along and not sucking in Groak-smoke moments before. A thin blue wisp still hung reekingly over the attenuated, twisted-ivory shapes of the leafless trees. Some of the trees sensed Jann’s irritation and worry as he approached, and twisted about to a greater angularity in reaction, like sculptures that redesigned themselves, creaking as they moved.
Jann approached Mandeska a Blunn, the stout, red faced foreman in the black and gold cover-alls of Grelle Manor.
“Mandeska!” Jann snapped.
The chubby foreman turned a look of grave innocence to Jann’s approach.
“I am not going to cuff you for smoking Groak when you should be working,” Jann growled. “I’ll let Vonn catch you at that and he’ll have you picking purple-creepers with your toes.”
Vonn, of course, would do nothing of the sort, since Mandeska would lose not only his toes, but at least his feet too, if he tried that; it was but an old Plainsman expression.
“Oh well,” Mandeska said, shrugging hugely, his eyes still dilated from Groak, “someone—” He glanced around at the other Gentlers as if to spy out who the stony slacker might’ve been. “—oh ay someone may have blown a pipeful about, but—”
“There are intruders on the land,” Jann interrupted impatiently. “Offworlders. Have you heard anything of it? Was there a landing permission issued while I was out?”
“I heard nothing of it!” Mandeska said, in an entirely different tone. “Suffering and death! Who is it?” Gone was the affectation of a bad boy playing innocent—now he was the middleclass Grelle householder, a profit-sharer with forty years work invested, outraged at this intrusion on land to which he felt an authentic connection. For the Grelle Manor Gentlers and Harvesters were not mere employees, as they were in some Manors—indeed, at some they were scarcely better than serfs. Here, each had four acres of his own and shared in the profits of the Manor, as well as receiving a salary.
Jann grunted. “Kastillian, looked like. The wretches killed one of my old flyers, too. Shot it out of the sky for a lark."
"The giggling skreff!" Skreff were a particularly idiotic race of monkeylike creatures dwelling near the south pole. Giggling skreff was one of the harsher Paradinian insults. "The other manors should hear of this!"
"I'd better consult Vonn before I spread the word. Well? Where is he?”
Mandeska scratched his head. “Vonn? Oh...let me see...Ah yes. The A’taranda!”
“Which A’taranda is that?”
“One of the beasts has been assailing the outlying cottages. He heard of it this morning, and went to hunt the slinker down, so did Vonn.”
“And where is Vonn hunting this beast?”
“The Viney Woods, near the southern edge.”
“Really. And as usual I suppose he took no communicator.”
“Not that I’m aware of. There is little enough Terraknowledgy we’re allowed, but even that he disdains.”
“And I’ve none on me either, and now I regret it. Go to the house, and warn them there are intruders to the southeast, and I am off to find Vonn...”
“I will, sir,” said Mandeska, bowing.
Jann sought for Vonn a Vleet in the likeliest place for hunting A’taranda, the northern reach of the Viney Woods, near the village of Harvesters’ bungalows. He wondered if he should go to the Golldens first, and the A’Slenns, and to Grall e Drimi Manor, and warn them about the starcraft. But his friends from those manors were away to college in Lapis—Jann had shrugged college off, deciding that instruction from Vonn was all he needed. The other manormen might well regard him as a troublesome alarmist. Leave the Kastillians alone and they'll leave us alone, they'd probably say. But Vonn had taught him to mistrust Kastillians—especially Kastillians who landed without permission. And these had killed one of his behemoths.
The trees here were a mix of imports from Old Earth—oak and sugar maple and the occasional eucalyptus—and the sky-dimming Paradinian vines. So well named was the Viney Woods that it had as much horizontal line about it as vertical, the stretchy vines in their leaping season snapping like rubber bands from one tree to another, to make a natural roof of crisscrossed vines between trees; in the dim, light-squeezed space underneath the vines and tree foliage, fungi grew in fantastic shapes of vivid orange and dull green, and mosses clung to tree trunks like plush green fur. The still, moist air here was both musty and sweet.
Jann let his intuition guide him and, following a nameless cue, he walked along the shady central trail.
He was only twenty minutes into the woods before he found Vonn on the edge of a clearing partly roofed by vines. Lean, gray-haired, bristle-browed, in close-fitting hunter green, Vonn crouched beside a boulder yellow with lichen, his crossbow in his hands, his scimitar strapped across his back, gazing past slanting columns of mellow sunlight shafting through the viney gaps; he seemed statue-still as he watched a shadow-black, almost cavelike opening between thick, over arching stands of maple trees and fungi-choked underbrush.
On the edge of the clearing, Jann stood behind the hunter in something like awe, seeing how completely motionless Vonn was, how acutely attentive. All of his attention, all of his being was focused on waiting here for the A’taranda. He had one knee on the soft turf, the other leg cocked, ready to spring into action—yet somehow he seemed quite relaxed.
And Jann knew his mentor had been there for some time, in just that pose: for a spiral of dried blood ran down his sleeveless left arm, over the snaking tattoos given Vonn by the S’leorna primitives in the Stark Mountains—given to honor him for fighting beside them against the murderous canyon tribes in the Native Wars. Jann guessed the cause of that bleeding as he saw a freshet of blood pulse down.
Jann weighed calling out to Vonn, or waiting. There was a probably a large, blood-drinking spider digging into Vonn's upper back, yet he did not move. That suggested that the A’taranda must be near—with his prey close by, Vonn would remain motionless till he had the chance to strike, and the big blood sucking arachnids were painful biters. Only the presence of the A'taranda could keep Vonn from tearing the spider from him. It was a magnificent testimony to Vonn’s Kreitos, as the S’leorna called it—the self-control of High Soldiery. At the same time, the matter of the Kastillians was urgent.
Jann had just resolved to interrupt Vonn—when there came a stirring in the cavelike opening between the trees. There, a pale tongue whipped out into view, and snapped back. Then the A’taranda took a hesitant step into the clearing. Its long, narrow, striped snout sent the tongue questing out once more, and the cluster of eyes on its jutting scaly head twisted this way and that; they were more the eyes of an insect than the saurian the great predator resembled at first glance.
This was a big one, Jann saw, his blood drumming in his ears as the creature stalked into the clearing. Its ten multijointed legs worked with rippling precision, the talons on its retracted forearms clenched.
Jann took an automatic step backward—and the motion made the A'taranda swing its head toward him. The predator extended its forearms, talons restlessly clutching at the air as it caught sight of Jann. And it charged Jann—not Vonn.