by John Shirley
Instinctively, he caught up the crossbow from the saddle hook. He gripped the weapon so it was ready to fire, though pointed at the ground.
“Have you not heard me, when I spoke my rank?” Jann said, trying to keep his voice even. “I am a DemiLord here. I am the only Heir to Grelle Manor! I have diplomatically called you my equal –so speak to me with the respect due me!”
“In no sense are you my equal, yokel,” the officer said loudly, showing off for the others. “You are not even the equal of the boy who cleans the crew toilets.” There was a roar of approving laughter from his men. “Now drop that primitive weapon, and get down off that foul smelling beast—washed and gutted, it will make a fine meal for our Autocrats! Then you can go crawling back to your manor—and when I say crawl, I mean crawl!” His crew laughed at that.
Jann would surrender his tallie to no man; he would crawl for no man. He flicked the safety off his crossbow, which automatically triggered a spring that drew the arrow to readiness.
The officer noticed the tightening of the bowstring, the readiness of the bolt—his eyes narrowed and he visibly tensed.
Jann's mouth went dry…
The officer said, “Boy—you get down off that beast... or I’ll knock you off it.”
And the officer drew his side arm. This he did by thrusting his whole hand into its wrist-engager, which gripped his arm even as he snapped the pulser up from its holster to aim at Jann, fingers closing over the three-finger trigger—
These things Jann saw in an instant of slowed time, in which the officer's actions seemed the inexorable working of the machinery of destiny. In that same pivotal second, Jann swung the crossbow to square with the officer’s mass, and reflexively squeezed the trigger. The bolt flew higher than he expected, transfixing the officer’s throat up to its fletch, necessarily shattering his spine, so that he fell gurgling back, spitting blood, his microwave pulser discharging, burning the air beside Jann’s head, singeing away a streak of hair from above his left ear. The startled tallie jumped to its upright stance, quivering with uncertainty.
There was a moment of shocked silence amongst the Kastillians—of gaping mouths and wide eyes.
Jann instinctively knew that moment of shocked surprise was his only hope. He shouted, “E’masta’shoon!” into his tallie’s ear and the beast, already primed to run, spun and leapt, coming down on its two feet in a full-out running crouch, sprinting for the fence threaded through the windbreak. The tallie had not taken four steps before stropps and pulsers fired at them, bullets to one side of Jann, energy bursts to another. The pulsers had a short range of effectiveness, and he felt his lower right side struck from the back, but already most of the force had been lost, and it merely blackened his jacket, seared his ribs.
He didn’t have to tell the tallie to jump the fence, it leapt the barrier easily, wailing its fear as it went, and weaved through the brush and into the open field beyond.
He felt a rush of relief, as the tallie bounded away—they weren’t likely to run him down on foot. If they knew how to ride tallies it would take them time to get them saddled and ready. He should be able to get away.
Well, after all he’d had provocation—the man had seemed about to shoot him. Had threatened to shoot him out of the saddle. The Peacekeepers would surely take his side.
There were shouted orders, away back behind him, and he heard a telltale droning sound—and with a plummeting heart Jann knew the Kastillians were mobilizing flyers to pursue him. So the ship was equipped for cross country surveillance—that in itself was suggestive that they were here for more than tallie rustling.
He couldn’t outdistance a flyer. He had killed their officer. What would they do when they caught him?
They were great ones for retaliation, the Kastillians. There was even a motto in ancient-Earth Latin, painted under the crest of the Galactic Scythe, on their warships, that translated to: Instantaneous Response to Insult. He hadn't figured his encounter with the Kastillians would come to violence. How had it gone so badly? Should have listened to Vonn…
His only hope was to get to the nearest manor, where there were men and weapons enough to defend him. His tallie was running headlong back toward its stables at the village, and Jann was forced to lash it with a saddle whip before it would correct and angle toward the Manor of Baron Dolliman Chesslander a Gollden.
Jann made it two-thirds the way there, before the flyers overtook him.
The ground exploded in front of him: dirt fountained up from the flyer’s stropp to spit rocks at his face, making the tallie shriek, almost falling over as it backpedaled. He shouted to get it under control and dug his heels into its ribs. “That way!”
He’d failed to say it in the training parlance but the tallie obeyed anyway, slanting off toward the south end of the Manor: a mansion built in two grand wings extending from a central cylinder capped by a milk-glass dome.
Jann chanced a look over his shoulder—there were two flyers, oval shapes studded with weapons in the prows, rocketing in narrowing circles overhead. One of them angled downward, and its onboard cannon coughed...
Another blast shattered stone and shrapnel to whine past. Jann bellowed commands into the terrified tallie’s ears, making it zig and zig again when the flyers anticipated a zag, riding in a tight circle before heading once more toward the Manor. A pulser bolt hummed past and a wooden fence post burst into flaming tinder to his left. They were using two kinds of weapon.
He leapt the tallie over the collapsing fence and now the beast was carrying him across the dark-green lawns, bounding through sprays of irrigation. A plasboard outbuilding exploded as he dodged the tallie around it, farm tools flying in flinders past him, and then they had reached the stables behind the manor. The Baron’s servants and yardmen were running past, shouting questions. He ignored them, riding the tallie into a stable and sliding off its back before it had quite come to a stop. The tallie collapsed then with a final whimper — and black blood from a shrapnel wound spread out in a pool from a wound in its chest.
Jann quelled an urge to try to thank the tallie for getting him here alive—there was no time for sentiment. He paused only to nock a bolt on his crossbow, then ran from the stable to the great house of Baron a Gollden.
He heard a muttering drone of flyers coming lower, perhaps landing, as he ran up to the back entrance of vaulted stone. The door opened just as he lifted his fist to pound on it, and a pop-eyed, white-haired man in livery blocked his way: the Majordomo. “Halt there, young Jann a Grelle! Why have you brought destruction to the property of your neighbors! This I demand of you!”
“How dare you speak to me like that, you oaf!” Jann shouted. He was a little ashamed of himself even as he said it, but his heart was pounding, his blood was up and he had no time for amenities. He elbowed his way past the Majordomo, pulled the sputtering old man into the manor, and barred the back door. Then he dodged through the kitchen, and sprinted down a narrow corridor to the vestibule at the front of the manor. He went to the front door and barred it.
Turning, Jann came face to face with the Baron—and above him, descending the spiral staircase past an imported hologram that replicated her image in an Eden-like idyll, was Liana. Both Golldens were small, compact people, but on the Baron Dolliman, it looked absurd, for his torso was too long for his short legs. The effect was unflatteringly exaggerated by his knee-shirt of lavender and turquoise, chased with images of Paradinian sea-slitherers; but his hair was his most prominent feature, falling over his shoulders in shining golden dyed ringlets, which he took great pains to keep colored despite his lined face and age-hooded blue eyes. It was said that the name Gollden related to an Old Earth word for the element.
Despite the urgency of the situation, Jann found himself staring at Liana. She seemed breathless, poised on the stairs there with her full lips parted, in her white shift, plain but for a single embroidered creeper-vine—something she wore for her Sisters of Nature meeting. The Sisters of Nature was a pseudo-druidic order in vogue with the upper classes.
“What the foul burnings are you doing, Jann a Grelle,” the little Baron bellowed, “staring at my daughter’s legs, panting in that vulgar way, when you’ve brought the lightning down on us! The damned Kastillians will be here in moments: this is a truth!”
“Ah--my Lord Baron—I’ve come to ask for sanctuary until we can deter these barbarians!”
“What? Sanctuary? You came to the wrong house!”
“My lord—surely you will not permit them to take me prisoner?”
Baron Dolliman a Gollden expertly pinched sneeze-Groak from a tiny pocket made for carrying just exactly that, flicked it into his nose, blinked, sneezed, and snorted—this last an opinion rather than a reaction.
Liana shook her golden head and spoke mournfully. “This morning I cast the Knuckles of Fortune, and burnt seven herbs for seeing, and seemed to see a betrayal of this house—but it’s not bearable when it comes to be!”
“He hasn’t betrayed me yet,” Jann said, looking at Baron Dolliman. “He can still call his men and take me to a storm room—the Kastillians may not know about the storm rooms...” For though the main continent of Paradine was famous for its mild weather, it was also subject to sudden violent storms, when behemoths went to ground and skypods were hurled through windows like cannonballs.
“No, Jann,” said Liana, “I meant your betrayal of us! You have made us look like enemies of the Kastillians!”
There was shouting outside the front door...
“Hear hear!” the Baron agreed. “The girl speaks sense! And it is too late for storm rooms, for I have been contacted by their commander, and I have agreed to give you over to his mercy: this I have.”
“What! But they ravaged your herds and would have stolen your Harvesters for slaves!”
“A few peasants I can sacrifice—but our lives must be protected, for no finer bloodline exists!” the Baron sniffed. “I have some proscribed technologies in the house—worth a great deal of money, some of them. Should the Kastillians see them they could confiscate them—my collection of holograms alone is worth millions!”
Jann gaped in disbelief. “But they may well kill me—or enslave me in living death!”
“Boy, did you not kill their Third Officer?”
“Self defense! He was about to shoot me down!”
The Baron lifted a dyed-blond eyebrow. “So you say. They say he was about to take you into custody.”
Feeling as if he’d been stabbed through the center of his soul, Jann looked up at Liana a Gollden. His face must have displayed his amazed hurt, because she looked away, pouting.
Jann looked at Gollden, who was walking with a purposeful air toward the front door. Could it be that Gollden knew more about the Kastillians' presence here? That he had been treating with them all along?
There was pounding on the door now—then the pounding ceased and there came a smell of burning.
“Now DemiLord of Grelle,” said the Baron, unlocking the front door, “Go out, and come not back. You have killed one of these Kastillians and to the Kastillians you must go!”
But just as he was about to open the door, the Baron stepped back in alarm as it began to smoke and glow, a patch of burn spreading out from the steady application of a pulser to the other side.
“Ho there, no need to destroy my door, I was unbarring it!” shouted the Baron Dolliman Chesslander a Gollden, to the men on the other side.
Muffled voices from outside. “Then unbolt and be quick about it or we’ll burn it down and smash through your windows for good measure!”
"I can't—the door is too hot, damn you!"
But Jann was already pounding up the stairs. Liana squealingly drew back from him, genuinely afraid. “Father! He’s going to take me hostage!”
Jann reached the second floor landing, and paused to see the Baron puffing up the stairs to his daughter’s side. The hologram running down the wall incorporated the Baron’s image, at his approach to the mural, so that there was an idyllic image of a perfect Baron a Gollden rushing to a queenly image of a his daughter in an Eden-like paradise. Jann called out to him, voice trembling, “Baron! I will not forget this treachery!”
He aimed the crossbow at the Baron’s midsection. His daughter shrieked and threw herself down on the stairs to be out of the line of fire. Then Jann grinned and turned the crossbow to the mural and fired, sending a bolt into the image of the Baron on the digital panel, so that the whole hologram flickered and sparked-- and went black.
The Baron howled at the cost. “That was an original Donni Bewtreck!”
Jann took another crossbow bolt from the quiver on his hip, nocked and fired it at the door just as a Kaswill stepped through—the Kaswill staggered as the bolt buried itself in his gut. The spacer screamed and fell to his knees, blocking the others for a few precious moments, as Jann pelted up two more flights of stairs to the roof-exit. He felt an unexpected pang of sympathy in his own belly—it was one thing to imagine shooting a man in the belly, another to do it.
Don't think about it, he told himself. This is life or death. Kill if you must.
Two seconds more and he was running on the circular walkway around the base of the pale crystal dome, the wind soughing—no, that was the sound of a flyer, rising up from the ground on the other side of the manor. They were going to come at him from above.
It seemed almost pointless for him to resist—there were more on the way from the ship, he could see them in the distance, and the place was surrounded. Where was he to go?
But driven by more desperation than hope, Jann jumped down onto the flat weather-scored roof of thin metal. There were a few skylights, which he knew to be of unbreakable glass, and chimneys, nothing more.
He ducked down as a flyer showed itself lifting over the dome, on the farther side. They hadn't seen him yet.
There must be some place to take cover…
~ end Chapter the First ~