by John Shirley
Chapter the Second: The Tightening Gyre
Keska a Blunn, older brother of Mandeska and Sena Grelle's MajorDomo, gnawed a knuckle as he paced the landing outside Sena a Grelle’s office. Shouldn't they be searching for young Jann? The boy could be arrogant but Keska felt a paternal fondness toward him. He had kept an eye on Jann more than once when he was a toddler. And if he should fall into the hands of the Kastillians—for the report had come back that Kastillian flyers were pursuing a young rider across the fields—why, it would destroy Mamm Sena, who had nearly buckled under the loss of her husband, and he so young when he fell to his death. Keska had been amongst those who had found the crushed remains of the elder Lord of Grelle imprinted into a grassy goat-run, the animals cropping peacefully around his staring, purpled face. In the manor lord’s dead face Keska had perceived an expression of horrified recognition, as if in his last moments Jann's father had seen his family’s whole tragedy unfold—yes, perhaps he’d seen even this day, which boded so badly for the DemiLord Jann a Grelle.
Keska spun on his heel when Sena opened the door—his heart sank at her expression. “I communicated with the Peacekeeper," she said. "They insist on having some sort of meeting before they decide what to do. There are political ramifications it seems...” She smiled in sad irony, her slender face even paler than usual.
Sena was a tall, stooped woman with straight black hair and dark deep set eyes that seemed strangely to have been designed to go with the colors of Grelle manor; she wore a flowing robe in the family colors, and black slippers. She could seem a frail woman but Keska knew better.
“So while they’re nattering...” Keska began—but thought better of completing the thought aloud: Jann will be taken, then quite likely killed. Instead, he intoned, “’The Great Organizer remembers faith kept in darkness.’”
She nodded vaguely. “I will go to the Overlook and perform the Supplication to the Galactic Core...”
“Mamm, so will you not!”
She looked at him with a kind of tender reproach. “Are you ordering me about, Keska?”
“Mamm, I am not. But the Kastillians are known for their reprisals! You will come with me to a certain village where they will not seek you out. In the meantime, perhaps Vonn a Vleet will come with the Free Ranchers.”
“Surely he will—and I will be here when he does.”
Jann's mother went with quiet confidence down the hallway and through the double glass doors to the Overlook. Here a cupola provided a prospect of Grelle lands—including the little family cemetery under the Sighing Trees to the South, beside the River Swenn.
Keska followed her, and fretted as she opened the carved casket under the Sweep-lilies that trailed along the balustrade. She took out incense, incense burners and Imploring Wands. “How sweet the air smells this afternoon,” she murmured, as she set these things out on an old oaken table used for Supplications—and funerals. “How sharp the scents from the fields, how soft the air on my skin—my senses seem to have the acuteness of finality...”
“Mamm—no! You will come with me!”
She set the incense in the burners, and looked in the casket for matches. “I do not wish to outlive my son. If he lives, then I will too--remaining here. My family has been respected by the Plainsmen—and yes by the Ranchers and the manors-- for two hundred seventy years. We came with the first ships which landed not ten miles from here. My husband’s family came on the same ships, Keska. I will remain here and send prayers up to the Galactic Core. Who knows? The Great Organizer is austere and largely indifferent to individual people—but perhaps I will be heard.” She chuckled. “So my grandmother would say.”
“Perhaps, Mamm,” said Keska a Blunn, hoarsely.
Jann hung by his aching hands from the drainage pipe edging the roof. He heard a shout from below—he’d been seen. Another flyer rounded the house. The ruse had worked for a few painful minutes, the flyer having passed over the roof without seeing him hanging off one side, but it was used up. He did a grunting pull-up and dragged himself back onto the roof's walkway, under the dome.
He rubbed his throbbing arms—even as a flyer containing two Kaswills lofted up and Jann found himself staring into two angry Kastillian faces, the spacers raising weapons he had never seen before.
He threw himself down as a bolt of livid-green energy sizzled over his head, then scrambled to his feet and sprinted to the far side of the dome, jumped onto the adjoining room, ducked behind a chimney—which exploded under the impact of a projectile. He threw himself flat on the roof; fragments of brick and mortar clattered down over him and he shouted in pain—deliberately exaggerating, as he thrust the hand holding his crossbow out of the coating of rubble as if in death throes.
Then Jann lay still and waited.
It was the rubble half covering him that made him think they might want to look at him up close instead of trying to carry out a coup de grace from a distance. The rubble would make a kill uncertain.
He held his breath as the flyer whirred near and hovered not far above, a little to his right. He heard one of them say something –Kastillian words he didn’t know—and then the vibrating thump as the soldier dropped from the flyer onto the rooftop. The crunch of approaching footsteps…
Jann just lay there. He lay as limply as he could, wanting to scream with tension as the man began to pluck chunks of broken brick and masonry from him. Clearing the back of his neck so he could fire a shot into his head...
“That should do it,” the man said.
Jann suddenly twisted, rolling to point the crossbow with his right hand—into the Kaswill’s face. The man’s nose was just inches from the tip of his bolt.
“Don’t move!” Jann barked at the startled man in System Wide. He was a young man, with regular features marred by a scar extending from the right side of his mouth. The scar, hinting of a sad life history, together with the Kaswill’s frightened look, prompted Jann to say: “I give you your life--if you drop the weapon!”
“Kill him or get out of the way!” the other soldier shouted in Kastillian to the young soldier facing Jann.
“Drop it or die!” Jann barked.
The weapon clattered to the roof. But Jann heard the drone of another flyer approaching.
“Back toward the flyer,” Jann said. The man began backing up, and Jann got up and went with him, keeping the crossbow bolt pointed with his right hand—with his left he reached down and picked up the energy weapon, just a tube with a stud next to a gripper at one end. The soldier’s eyes wavered as they watched the crossbow-bolt’s point, moving slightly as Jann’s hand shook.
Looking so closely into this man’s face, seeing the fear there, made Jann uncomfortably aware of the spacer’s humanity. That this man had a whole life history behind him...
“Get out of the way or I’ll shoot you both!” said the man in the flyer.
“Throw yourself forward and down to my right,” Jann whispered, to the nearer Fighter, “and I promise you’ll live!”
The other flyer was coming from behind...
The scarred Kaswill fighter stared at the point of Jann’s crossbow bolt—and threw himself flat.
Jann swung the crossbow and fired from just a yard away at the man in the nearest flyer. The man screamed and clutched at his chest. Then Jann was running, vaulting into the flyer, even as a flash of green burnt past his arm, charring his sleeve. He dropped the crossbow and turned to aim the energy tube left-handed from his own flyer at the oncoming craft—hoping that he had the unfamiliar weapon pointed at the enemy and not at himself. He pressed the stud and a bolt of livid green sizzled from the tube with a reek of ozone. The pilot of the other flyer screamed, clutched at his face which vanished into black char. The craft wobbled off course, flashing past on Jann’s right.
And Jann thought, How quickly it becomes easy to kill...
He looked desperately at the controls of his own flyer—there was a foot pedal, a joystick...It seemed simple...
Another flyer was coming from his left, two men in it shouting at him.
No time for a flyer lesson. He sat on the pilot’s seat, pressed the pedal, grabbed the joystick and pulled back on it as the other craft came sailing through the air toward him—Jann’s flyer rocketed almost straight up so that only his grip on the joystick kept him in the craft. His feet now dangled down parallel to the rocketing aircraft. The dying Kaswill fighter tumbled away as G-force tried to drag Jann from his hold and he gritted his teeth and struggled to keep his grip.
His flyer’s hull shuddered under him, struck indirectly by a projectile from beneath. But it kept going, fishtailing through the air, nearly out of control.
The wayward flyer’s unpredictable trajectory made it hard to hit-- energy beams flashed by him and hand-cannons boomed but none struck home. But he was losing his grip on the joystick—he might fall out at any moment. And end up dying like his father, after all: a long tumble through terror and then the ground striking like a hammer…
Suddenly he was awash in whiteness and wet—the clouds! The gunfire stopped and he realized he was camouflaged from below, at least visually. It would take them time to locate him on scanners.
Jann wedged his feet against the inner rim of the flyer’s hull and--pushing with his whole body—pressed forward on the joystick. The vehicle righted just as it broke from the clouds, skating along the top of the white billows like a speedboat across water, leaving a misty wake. He was almost joyful, then—astounded to be alive.
He got up onto the pilot’s seat, brought the flyer around in a semicircle and headed in the direction the manor should be, judging by the position of the sun.
After his heart had stopped pounding quite so loudly, he felt something gummy on the joystick. Blood, from the man he’d shot in the flyer. He wiped his hands as best he could and tried to forget it.
But a series of mental images came insistently, clear as a holofilm—a man falling back with a crossbow bolt rivening his throat; another man collapsing in a doorway, screaming at the pain in his belly; a third man clutching his chest in the flyer. A man’s face burning away. All people he had killed.
He retched and had to throw up over the side of the flyer. Then he sat back miserably on the piloting seat, exhausted, he felt sick at heart though his stomach had quieted. Thinking that it was not so easy to get used to as he supposed—it simply caught up with you later.
He had killed only one other man, before this day: a hostile mountain primitive on a reprisal expedition with Vonn, a year before; but he’d shot the man with the crossbow at a good distance, his enemy falling into a crevasse, and he hadn’t had to watch him die. He’d fought two other men in sanctioned duels with edged rapiers— but they were duels only to the first bloodletting, and neither man, though defeated, had died. Men? Boys of seventeen and eighteen. He could not have brought himself to kill them.
The man in the doorway had seemed almost that young.
Jann shook himself and growled, “Get over it, cur!” Said it aloud, his words lost in the wail of the wind, the emptiness of the great spaces around him. He must pull himself together and get to the manor, find Vonn and his mother.
Something else occurred to him. He had killed several Kastillians now. Four. The fury of the Kastillians would be multiplied four times.