Daw Books are releasing Stephen Leigh's Hoorka trilogy as an omnibus edition titled Assassins' Dawn. This omnibus is comprised of Slow to Fall Down, Dance of the Hag, and A Quiet of Stone. And thanks to them, here's an excerpt for you guys! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Neweden is a world whose gods are death and fate, and it’s here that the Hoorka have arisen: a guild of assassins, whose single law is that the victim must always retain a tiny but finite chance of escape. If the victim can survive until dawn, they may go free. But the rich and powerful don’t care to have their will thwarted, and so the Hoorka must deal with the consequences of their own ethics. Gyll, the leader of the Hoorka, also has dreams of taking the guild offworld into the growing society of the Alliance, which is trying to reconstruct a shattered, worlds-spanning empire. Is that dream a genuine possibility, or will exposure to other cultures doom the Hoorka entirely? Gyll must confront internal struggles within his own people, the dangerous politics of Neweden, and the twinned threat and promise of the Alliance. The Hag of Death dances around them, mockingly. Can the Hoorka survive to see the dawn of their own success, an Assassins’ Dawn?
Pause. And shiveringly inhale. The two Hoorka-kin gathered air for their complaining lungs. It had been a long run for Aldhelm and Sartas, far too long. Sweat varnished the skin under their nightcloaks, and their legs were cramped and sore. Still, the quarry was just ahead, and they could allow themselves only the briefest rest. Night-quiet, the two assassins advanced like shadows unseen in overlying murk; as deadly as the wind-spiders of the western tundra.
In but seventeen minutes, the photoreceptors on the dawnrock would signal Underasgard’s dawn and the end of their hunt. They ran, the Hoorka.
Aldhelm signaled Sartas to a halt in the comforting darkness cast by a high porch. Somewhere just ahead, Gunnar—the contracted victim—was enmeshed in the thick metal pilings that held the houses above the early rains and the cold flood that inevitably followed. These were the tenements of Sterka, the most temporary sector of a city that had not been meant by its founders to survive more than half a century and was now well into its second hundred years. Wooden beams lent support to the time- and rust-weakened pillars of metal. Decay, an odor formed of river mud and rust, filled their nostrils. Aldhelm fought the inclination to cough in the fetid air.
It hadn’t been an easy or lucky night for them.
The apprentices had done their work admirably. With six hours still to pass before the Underasgard dawn terminated the contract, Aldhelm and Sartas had taken up the trail within meters of Gunnar. They’d pursued him down the Street of Ravines, scenting an easy kill and an early night; the Thane would be pleased, for this was politically an important assassination. The street was deserted, the only light coming from hoverlamps spaced at long intervals, and Gunnar was already winded. But as the Hoorka reached for their daggers, Gunnar suddenly lifted his head, cast a frightened yet oddly hopeful look behind him, and ducked into a cross street to his left. A moment later, the two Hoorka heard the sound that had caused Gunnar’s optimism—the low-moaning chant of the Dead, a lassari sect. The Dead were the disenfranchised, the most depressed of the unguilded: the lassari. Their balm was ignorance, their unity hopelessness. Those of the Dead did nothing save to march and chant their melancholy mantras, accompanied by the scent of burning incense and finding catharsis in the act of marching. Their indifference to reality was legendary; the Dead paid no attention to pedestrians in their path, ignored the occasional assaults on peripheral members of their processions, and failed to notice their own members who would swoon and fall from exhaustion. They considered their lives already ended. Why should any lagging pain from the life they considered finished bother them? They marched to meet Hag Death, and took her foul embrace as they would that of a lover.
The Dead entered the Street of Ravines from the right of the cross street, and made a slow, agonizing turn toward the Hoorka. There were perhaps thirty of them, eyes closed as they chanted, their bodies—wrapped in simple cloth robes—filling the narrow street. Cursing, the Hoorka fought to make a passage through the press. The fuming censers filled their nostrils with acrid fumes, and around them the expressionless faces moved in the sibilant chanting, ignoring the Hoorka who pushed and shoved the unresisting Dead from their path. Aldhelm raised an open hand—the Dead One on his left was a young woman who looked as if she might have once been pretty—and pushed her away from him. Her eyes opened briefly, though she didn’t look at him, and then she resumed her chanting, stumbling as she regained her balance.
And abruptly, they were through. The procession of Dead, unruffled, continued down the street, their chant echoing from the buildings to either side. Gunnar had disappeared. The Hoorka ran down the cross street, searching the alleyways that led off from the street. Dame Fate rewarded their diligence. Aldhelm motioned to Sartas, beckoning. He gave inward thanks to She of the Five Limbs for her favor, and moved into a narrow, dingy alley.
The moons were yet to rise, but a pallid lemon-light filtered through a greasy window high up on one wall of the bordering structures. The window gave but a wan and uncertain illumination, but with the light-enhancers the Hoorka wore, it was enough. They could see Gunnar, halfway up a pile of packing crates that had been thrown into the alley, blocking it. Gunnar hadn’t yet seen the Hoorka, but in his haste to get by the crates, he sent them tumbling noisily to the ground. Sartas grinned at Aldhelm and loosened his vibro in its sheath. A victim so obviously frightened, so careless, was an easy kill.
But his very clumsiness saved Gunnar. The lighted window was suddenly flung open. Brilliant light washed over the alley, stabbing at the packing crates, the startled Gunnar, and the cobbled surface of the ground.
“Bastard!” a voice shouted, hoarsely. “Get away from those crates or I’ll have your manhood!”
Gunnar whirled, losing his precarious balance and sending more crates to the ground. He slipped, tumbling halfway to earth, and in that instant saw the Hoorka, momentarily blinded by the sudden overload of the light-enhancers. Sartas flung his vibro: a wild throw, it came nowhere near Gunnar. And as the Hoorka recovered their vision and moved toward their victim, the window was slammed shut again with a final curse. In the time it took the Hoorka to regain sight once more, Gunnar scrambled over and through the labyrinth of crates and into the maze of streets beyond.
Sartas picked one of the cobblestones from the alley, hefted it, and sent it crashing through the window.
“May all your children be lassari,” he shouted. “And if your pride is offended by my insult, see Sartas of the Hoorka. I’ll give you satisfaction and an introduction to Hag Death.”
Silence. After a moment, Sartas grinned. “He doesn’t answer, Aldhelm. Too bad.”
Aldhelm didn’t share his companion’s humor. “We have to find Gunnar, kin-brother. This is petty.”
“Let’s go, then.”
They found Gunnar again more because the apprentices had done their preliminary work than through any skills of their own. Gunnar’s mistress, Ricia Cuscratti, lived in the Burgh. As with most neighborhoods in Sterka, the rich lived in uncomfortable proximity to the poor, and m’Dame Cuscratti, a member of the Banker’s Guild, was rich. The Hoorka, having little recourse, made their way to her dwelling after ascertaining that Gunnar had fled in that direction.
The Cuscratti house was large, set away from the street and buffered by a well-lit garden. Parti-colored hoverlamps flickered above the topiary and illuminated the skeleton of a small ippicator. The wall facing the street was translucent— colors melted and collided in abstract patterns while the shadows of figures moved in the rooms behind. Aldhelm and Sartas paused, taking refuge in the shadowed recesses of a run-down warehouse adjacent to the house.
“We could wait for him.” Sartas’s voice was heavy with his breathing.
Aldhelm, in darkness, shook his head. “There isn’t that much time now. No, if he’s there, he’ll stay unless we set him running again. We’ll have to go in.”
“As you say.” Sartas shrugged. “I’ll want hot mead when we get back to the caverns. If Felling doesn’t have the cooking fires lit, I’ll use his bed for kindling.”
It took no great skill to loose the hoverlamps from the magnetic field powering them. The lamps fell like stunned fireflies, and in darkness the garden gave more cover than they required. The flowing colors of the wall cast oddly-hued shadows from the trimmed shrubbery. Drifting patches of shade twisted like pastel vines over the street and into the houses beyond. Aldhelm and Sartas were quickly standing near the doorshield. Aldhelm rummaged in his nightcloak, found the random field generator, and began to adjust the device, searching for the frequency that would dilate the shield and let them pass. The mechanism hummed loudly in the quiet of the garden.
In the night silence, the Hoorka heard the footsteps many seconds before anyone came into view. The assassins slipped into deeper cover and watched four men approach the house from the street. The figures hesitated near the entrance to the garden, and the wall threw mad images dancing behind them, animating the sleeping hulks of buildings. The intruders made no attempt at stealth, nor did they bother with any subtlety when confronted by the obstacle of the doorshield. One of the four brought a fieldgun to bear. Phosphorescent sparks arced, spat angrily, and expired on the rich humus of the garden. The translucent wall rippled patterns of alarm: billows of purple-scarlet welled outward from the shield and spread across the face of the house, growing larger and more saturated with color. Somewhere inside, a disconsolate siren wailed mournfully and shadow-figures raced from front to back, away from the disturbance. The intruders—Aldhelm could see them clearly in the aching blue-white glare of the dying shield—wore cloaks not unlike the gray and black nightcloaks of the Hoorka-kin, but these were no Hoorka. He signaled to Sartas, using the hand code. Vingi’s people?
In the depths of some fanciful bird of shrubbery, Sartas’s hand moved in reply. Probable.
A flick of a hand, a flashing of palm. We’ll wait.
The shield died in orange and white agony. Flame guttered and died, running fitfully up and down the perimeter of the opening as the door dilated. The four ran quickly past the smoking ruin and into the house, weapons ready. Aldhelm unsheathed his vibro.
Now. Aldhelm nodded to Sartas, and the two Hoorka swept past the wreckage of the shield.
They were in a reception room. An animo-painting swirled on the far wall and ornate floaters waited for occupants. Lifianstone pillars carved like vines climbed from floor to distant ceiling in a mockery of nature, curling and spreading when they reached the balcony that overlooked the room. Beyond the balcony, the Hoorka could hear the sounds of a struggle, and then the wall opposite the railings began to smoke as a line of blistering paint ran quickly across it in a ragged diagonal. A hand laser, then. The thought did little to comfort Aldhelm. Standing in the room, they were exposed to anyone caring to glance over the balcony rail.
Aldhelm moved to the staircase (carved mermen waved flippered hands at carved fish in a frozen ocean: the railing), and Sartas followed quickly. They ran quietly up the stairs.
“I don’t like this. We’re not armed or protected for a laser fight.” Aldhelm glanced back at Sartas.
“You want to go back and explain all this to the Thane? This would be a cleaner death.”
“He’s going to be upset no matter what happens.” Aldhelm exhaled deeply. “Dame Fate keeps playing Her hand against us tonight, and I don’t like that.”
Aldhelm crouched down and glanced around the corner at the top of the staircase. Nothing. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s find out who these fake guild-kin of ours are.”
This floor of the house was built in a semi-circle around an interior garden redolent with tropical flowers. Across the open space, Aldhelm could see the focus of the fighting. The four cloaked men had taken shelter behind a convenient sculpture and were firing into a darkened archway that led farther back into the interior of the house. Someone was returning their fire with a projectile weapon. Aldhelm could hear the whine of shells and see chunks of masonry flying as the bullets struck the walls. The Hoorka began moving to one side of the battle.
“Damned clumsy people, these counterfeit Hoorka,” muttered Sartas.
“They’re not particularly alert. We could take them easily enough. Go around to the left. I think we can circle the garden and come out somewhere on the other side of that arch.”
“They’ve enough firepower to destroy the house. Clumsy.”
“Yah,” Aldhelm agreed. “But let’s stay out of their way. If we can get around them, maybe we can get to Gunnar first. I don’t like the thought of someone’s blood-feud interfering with our contract.”
They had no chance. There was a sudden flurry of movement as three of the intruders rushed the archway while the other kept his laser activated and pointed at the corridor beyond. Then the three were past the arch and the sound of a physical struggle intensified. A high scream, like tearing velvet, rose and died. The last of the intruders ran through the archway. The Hoorka waited.
Aldhelm strode quickly across the garden, heedless of the painstakingly-arranged plants he was trampling underfoot, and Sartas followed. At the archway, they paused, peering inside cautiously. A purplish fog filled the corridor and wisped about the lamps set in the wall. A woman’s body, wrapped in a gauzy dress, lay on her side, crumpled against the wall with an odd lack of blood. The intruders were gone. Aldhelm gestured to Sartas to stay, and went to examine the body. He turned it over gently—it was Ricia. He didn’t need to check the pulse to know that she was in Hag Death’s domain.
The Hoorka followed the path of the intruders through the house—the trail of a running battle. Here were charred draperies, there a vase overturned and broken. They passed through a series of bedrooms, an expansive dining area where a stray bolt had evidently hit a power circuit and dumped the table, set for dinner, onto the floor. Silver utensils littered the tiles, slivers of crockery crunched underfoot. They went through a kitchen, then were back outside again. And when they found themselves out of the grounds and back in the entangling clustering of houses, they came upon an apprentice Hoorka waiting for them, out of breath.
“The Thane sent me, sirrahs.” A gasping intake of breath, fish-mouthed. “He has learned that Vingi (breath) has sent some of his guard (breath) force to kill Gunnar.”
Aldhelm and Sartas glanced at each other, then Aldhelm grimaced and nodded. “So Vingi doesn’t trust the task to Hoorka. Well, he’s managed to foul it up for himself. We have to track Gunnar again.”
The apprentice clutched his sides and crouched slightly. “I saw Gunnar leave this house as I came here,” he said as he straightened. “He began moving toward the river, and he seemed to know the ground well. Vingi’s guards—at least I assume the men I saw were of the Li-Gallant Vingi’s guild— had a short meeting in the garden near the ippicator skeleton. They left in the direction of Vingi’s keep.”
Sartas shook his head at Aldhelm. “I told you they were incompetent.” The Hoorka chuckled.
“The Thane won’t be laughing if we fail to meet the contract.” Aldhelm turned to the apprentice. “Tell the Thane that we’ve already had a problem with Vingi’s guard. You can also tell him—but step back when you do so—that Gunnar is still alive. Then run, neh?”
The apprentice grinned and nodded. He bowed his salutation to the Hoorka and was off. The sound of his running could be heard for some time in the sleeping city.
That had been hours ago. Now they were finally in sight of Gunnar again, having tracked him through the twisting streets. Aldhelm could see the man clearly. Gunnar was breathing heavily, his right arm extended as he leaned against the understructure of the tenements. His head was bowed, his knees were slightly bent. The muck of the river had caked his shoes—he’d been easy to follow since entering undercity.
The ooze glistened coldly with slats of blue-white light. The seams of the flooring overhead grinned with age. Aldhelm could hear the indistinct rise and fall of murmured conversation above him, punctuated unevenly with the breathing of Sartas and himself. A voice complained loudly of the abundance of sandmites as the Hoorka began moving.
The mud that had so clearly marked this stage of Gunnar’s flight also aided him. Even Hoorka assassins, adept at silentstalk, were not immune to chance, as this night had amply proved. The river-filth sucked greedily at the soles of their boots, relinquishing them with a liquid protest. Gunnar’s head snapped up: they were still thirty meters from him, under the next dwelling. The man ducked instinctively, and the Khaelian-made dagger only creased him, drawing a burning line from shoulder to mid-back before burying its ultra-hard point several millimeters into the metal pillar behind him. Even as Gunnar looked up, weighing the chances of grasping the dagger, it began to wriggle and loosen, the electronic devices in the dagger seeking to return to the homing pulse from the Hoorka. Gunnar floundered to his feet and ran, weaving from pillar to pillar.
(And Aldhelm cursed under his breath, reproaching the Goddess of Chaos for tipping the scales of chance so unequally, and praying that She of the Five would hold back the sun—dawn at Underasgard would give Gunnar his life.)
The Hoorka knew Gunnar would be praying to his own gods for the light, for Underasgard was but fifty kilometers distant and the sun would touch the dawnrock at much the same time as dawn here in the city of Sterka. Then— unmoved and uncaring, at least outwardly—the Hoorka would be bound to let the man live. Already the morning sky was luminous with that promise.
Aldhelm, knowing this, sought to end it quickly.
He loosed another dagger. It clattered from a pillar and, twirling, struck Gunnar handle foremost. Silver glimmered as the weapon turned and arced back to the Hoorka.
Pursuer and pursued ran, ignoring the banded pain that constricted their chests and stabbed in their lungs. Sartas threw: the dagger found a pillar at Gunnar’s right, and the man feinted left and dove as another Hoorka blade fountained mud at his feet. Gunnar slipped, coating himself with umber goo, and regained his footing. The stench of decaying vegetation made him gag, and he slipped again, retching and struggling. Mud blinded him. He scrabbled frantically at his face.
The Hoorka stood over him. Gunnar lay in the mud, and Aldhelm watched the man flailing in panic, knowing Gunnar could feel the pressure of his gaze, knowing the man was waiting for the cold rape of a blade piercing his body, twisting deep into his entrails . . .
But the relays had told them that morning had touched the dawnrock with its delicate fingers. Aldhelm looked about him. It would be so easy to kill Gunnar despite the Hoorka code. No one would see, and it might save future trouble with Li-Gallant Vingi. He sighed, glancing at Sartas, weighing the choices in his mind. Sartas shook his head, sensing Aldhelm’s hesitation.
Dawn was a tepid light on a misty morning. They helped Gunnar to his feet, grunting with the man’s limp weight.
“Come on, damnit. You can stand.” Aldhelm’s voice was neither ice nor fire, not devoid of emotion but rather so full of it that the individual nuances were indistinguishable with surfeit.
The Hoorka watched composure slowly return to Gunnar’s drawn, haggard face. He wiped vainly at his soiled clothing, looking as if he were about to speak. But he lowered his eyes and looked at the ruin of his pants.
Aldhelm spoke again. “Our admiration, Gunnar. Your life is your own once more.” His voice, without the inflections that might have turned it mocking and bitter, spoke of the ritualistic completion of a ceremony. “You may go with the light.”
“Ricia’s dead.” Gunnar’s voice was cracked and dry; his eyes were wild, puzzled.
“M’Dame Cuscratti was not killed by Hoorka. That is a matter of bloodfeud between yourself and another. You will bear the truth of that.” For a moment, Aldhelm’s eyes glinted angrily in the dawnlight, then he half-turned. “Make your way home. Your path is safe,” he said. Aldhelm motioned to Sartas, and the assassins were gone, slipping into the twilight gloom of undercity.
Gunnar stood: dripping and covered with filth, gasping with tortured lungs, confused and thankful both. He glanced at the landscape around him, then stared at the ruddy arc of sun above the line of trees across the river. He breathed deeply and walked away.
The Hoorka-Thane was possessed by the closest approximation of rage any had ever seen in him. The Thane found himself very aware of Sondall-Cadhurst Cranmer, watching from a floater near the thermal duct behind the Thane. He knew the man, the little scholar, would be alternately fascinated and frightened by the outburst, and that he would be busily recording the new facets of the Thane’s personality that this outrush of temper revealed.
That knowledge did nothing to quell the irritation. The Thane faced Aldhelm and Sartas, his face lined with emotion. “Gunnar simply escaped, you say. Unarmed. Alone.” The words fell like hammer blows. “The two of you let him live until dawn. Two supposedly competent Hoorka let simple prey escape them?” The Thane’s voice was laced with mock surprise that raked Aldhelm and Sartas. The Hoorka bore the outburst in obedient silence.
The Thane gestured with a fisted hand. “Do both of you need training in rudimentary exercises? I won’t permit this, not now. I won’t have Hoorka destroyed by incompetence. You, Aldhelm.” In a swirling of hs nightcloak, the Thane turned and glared at him. “You’re the best knife man of our kin. How could you have missed, how could you have allowed this to happen?”
Aldhelm and Sartas looked at the Thane, though neither one moved nor spoke. His last words came redundantly back at them, an echo from the far walls of the cavern in which they stood. Hoverlamps glistened from water-filmed rocks and ruddied their complexions, making deep hollows of their eyes. Underasgard. Hoorka-home. The caverns. Again the Thane was conscious of Cranmer watching from his vantage point, and he remembered that once the scholar had made the comparison between the Thane and the caverns: both cool, dark, and with hidden recesses you felt more than saw. And one more thing that he hadn’t said. Old.
A vibroblade gleamed in the Thane’s hand, the luminous tip describing short lines of brilliance in the atmosphere of the cavern—the Thane had brought them away from the well-lit rooms of the main caverns, not wanting to admonish the two Hoorka in public. Vibro held foremost, the Thane advanced upon them. They didn’t flinch.
“Do the two of you realize what you’ve done? When I came to Neweden there were no Hoorka, only a band of petty thugs without kinship; lassari, with no more respect than the processions of the Dead. I spent years setting up our guild, gaining us grudging respect, making this a group protected by the Neweden Assembly and tolerated by the Alliance. Idiots!”
The blade swept before their eyes. The following wind cut them coldly. Cranmer—the Thane saw him at the edge of his peripheral vision—jumped involuntarily, but the two Hoorka before the Thane stood in taut rigidity.
“The Li-Gallant Vingi himself signed that contract,” the Thane continued. “Gunnar’s death would have left the opposing Ruling Guild in shambles—and Vingi might have had total control of the Assembly. Don’t you see the possibilities there? Fools!”
The Thane gesticulated violently and the vibro tip gashed Aldhelm’s cheek. Blood, bright scarlet, ran freely, but Aldhelm didn’t grimace or show pain beyond a narrowing of his eyes. The Thane cursed himself inwardly: he shouldn’t have drawn blood then, shouldn’t have let his anger at circumstances controlled by Dame Fate spill over into his relations with Hoorka-kin. Are you getting so old and stupid? Yet he refused to let any of this show on his face. He let the hand holding the vibro fall to his side.
“You’re both out of rotation until further notice,” he said. “You’ll do apprentice work if that’s all you’re capable of. Aldhelm, do I need to see you work again?
“An elementary lesson, children. We’re but one step removed from outlaw or lassari. No other world of the Alliance accepts us, and only this one backwater world allows us to work, due to its own code of bloodfeud. We’re free because we have no loyalty to those in power—because the Neweden Assembly and the Alliance know that we follow our code. My code. We have no alliances: we can be trusted to side with no person or no cause. We’re social carnivores feeding on death without caring what beast provides the meal. Do you see what the Li-Gallant will be thinking? We allowed Gunnar to escape because we’ve allied ourselves with him—that’s his thought, if I know the man at all. To his mind, we’ve lost our adherence to the code. Bunglers!”
The Thane shoved the vibro back into its scabbard. The leather, blackened with age, showed much use. “Wipe your face, Aldhelm. I should have you both cast from the kin for last night. It’s good that I know you both and have respect for your earlier work—and because I love you as guild-kin. It appeases my anger.” Then his voice softened, though his dark eyes didn’t.
“I know: because of my code, the victim has a chance of survival. I just wish it hadn’t been this one. I wish She of the Five had looked a little more kindly on the Hoorka.”
Aldhelm daubed at the blood on his cheek with the sleeve of his nightcloak while Sartas glanced quickly from his companion to the Thane.
“I’ve never seen Her so much against us. Gunnar could have stood against the entire kin.” Aldhelm looked at the blood on his cloak, then at the Thane. “But I’ll accept the blame for this, Thane. My dagger missed its target, and it shouldn’t.”
The Thane glanced at him, immersed in hidden guilt. Yah, he thought, it’s not the fault of these two; it was Dame Fate’s doing. But it’s easier to chastise men than gods, and the anger/fear demanded release. He stroked his beard as the lamps coaxed red highlights from the graying hair. “Extra knife work for the two of you,” he said finally. “At least you followed the dawn code. The Alliance might have had someone observing. I’ll try to redeem our standing with the Li-Gallant, if I can. Go on, you must both be hungry and tired after a night’s fruitless chasing. Get something from the kitchens, though neither of you deserve it.”
The two Hoorka turned. As they were about to walk away, the Thane called to Aldhelm, prodded by his conscience. Aldhelm swiveled on his toes and looked back, his cerulean eyes cold.
“I didn’t mean to cut you, Aldhelm. No one should draw the blood of kin, neh? I was angry, and I’m sorry for that.”
Aldhelm shrugged. “I can understand your anger.” Then, after a pause, “Thane.” He nodded his head in leave.
“Truly, Aldhelm. My hand...” The Thane grappled briefly with the truth. “. . . slipped.”
Aldhelm’s eyebrows rose slightly. “I said I understand,” he said, his voice flat.
“Rest well, then.”
The two Hoorka walked away, the compacted earth under their feet making a gritty rasp. The memory of Aldhelm’s chilly eyes remained with the Thane for a long time as he watched the nightcloaks blend with the darkness. Was I that far out of control of myself? He slammed a fist into his open hand.
“That won’t do much good. It only makes your hand sore.”
The Thane started and turned quickly, then straightened with a slight smile. The lines on his scarred face deepened. “Cranmer. I’d forgotten you were here.”
“I’d wager you forgot more than that.” Cranmer, a short, slight man by Neweden standards, indicated the passage down which Aldhelm and Sartas had gone. “I’ve never seen you that way, Thane. I don’t think you intended to be so, ahh, cruel.” Cranmer chose his words carefully, but censure rode lightly on the surface. An elfin figure in the twilight of the caverns, the small man blew on his cupped hands, holding them out above the thermal duct. “You almost warmed the cavern with your anger.”
The Thane didn’t reply. He took the tether of the hoverlamps and put them on the clips of his belt, slaving the lamps to him. Quickly-shifting wedges of light pursued themselves over the lines of his body, sending distorted shadows to fight on the creviced walls and ceiling of the cavern. Cranmer, grunting, rose from his seat on the floater and absently wiped at his pants before throwing his cloak around him, muffling himself to the chin. Underasgard stayed a constant but cool temperature in the regions where the Hoorka did not live, and even here it was comfortable for most Neweden natives. But Cranmer always felt chilled, used as he was to a more temperate offworld climate.
The Thane completed his gathering of hoverlamps. The brilliant globes arrayed themselves about him like attendant suns around a god. Held in the stressed magnetic fields of the tethers, they bobbed slightly, never quite at rest, giving everything they illuminated a shivering animation. In this shifting atmosphere, the Thane watched Cranmer pick up his recorder and walk toward him over the broken rock of the cave floor.
“You were making a record of all that? I’m not sure I’m pleased.”
“It seemed rather important to the sociological aspects of Hoorka, and you did give me leave to record as I wished.” Cranmer eyed the Thane, looking for irritation in that well-used face. The confrontation with Aldhelm and Sartas had shown him a new aspect of that personality he’d thought he knew so well. Still, he failed to detect anything but simple curiosity in the Thane’s question.
“It looked as if it might have some bearing on my study of Hoorka,” he continued. “The image won’t be too good. The lamps are really too dim for this unit. It’ll be rather grainy.” The cloak around him moved and rippled as he put the recorder in a pocket.
The Thane made a noise that might have been affirmation. He looked about, waiting, as Cranmer sealed out any possible draft in his cloak.
“Would you care to see some of the inner sections of the caverns?” The Thane nodded his head to the gathered darkness to his right, and for the first time Cranmer saw a cleft between the rocks. He sighed, relinquishing the thought of his comfortable heater back in the Hoorka caverns. But it wasn’t often that the Thane offered tours. “If you’re willing. I’ve never gone further than this room.”
The Thane nodded, knowing that the little man sensed that it wasn’t simple courtesy that had moved the Thane to make this offer. He gave Cranmer two of the tethers and watched while the man strapped them to his waist, over his cloak.
“A Hoorka would put the tethers under the cloak. It won’t affect the holding field, and the cloak, as you have it, will bind your movements.”
Cranmer shook his head. Two shadow heads moved in sympathy. “It’s warmer this way, and I’m not planning to do any fighting. Why else have a Hoorka with you, if not to do your fighting. And I’m cold.” He shivered, involuntarily.
The Thane laughed, and echoes rose to share his amusement. “Scholars.”
“Fighters,” Cranmer replied, and smiled back at him, glad that the Thane seemed to have recovered some of his humor. He nodded toward the passage. “You’re the guide, then. Lead.”
They began walking, satin night retreating before them, giving way softly and grudgingly and falling back into place behind them. The Underasgard caverns, a system not yet completely mapped, were judged to be among the largest cave systems in the Alliance. The Thane made his way easily through the tumbled rocks with the nonchalance of one who had been this way before. The smaller and less muscular Cranmer followed with more difficulty—unlike the inhabited sections of the Hoorka caverns, the floor here hadn’t been cleared of rubble and ionized to a dustless, flat perfection. Cranmer picked his way slowly over the slippery rock. The dull clunking of stone against stone marked their progress. Milky-white clusters of mineral crystals splotched the gray-blue walls, a stone fungus. The narrow passageway opened out into a large room that the lamps failed to light fully, then narrowed again until the Thane was forced to stoop to avoid striking his head on the roof—Cranmer could walk upright. They slid over a scree of small pebbles and around a fractured slab of roofstone. Another room opened up before them, the lamps only dimly showing its perimeters. There the Thane stopped and pointed to a large recess under a projecting shelf of rock.
“I found this quite some time ago, but I’ve yet to show it to Hoorka-kin. I’ve questioned my reluctance to point it out, but I haven’t any answers.” The Thane laughed, more a modulated exhalation than amusement. “Count yourself privileged, neh?” He fumbled with a tether holder, turning the field off and holding the lamp globe in his hand. He opened the shutters wide and threw the ball toward the darkness of the shelf. The lamp bounced and rolled, wild shadows darting crazily. When it settled, they could see the white arch of an ippicator skeleton, the rib cage upright, the two left legs and three right ones sprawled out to either side, while the small neck and head had fallen and lay in disorder.
“It’s huge.” Cranmer’s voice was but a whisper.
“The largest I’ve seen,” said the Thane, pride in his voice. He left unspoken the obvious value of the skeleton. Ippicators were an extinct Neweden animal, and the only asymmetrical mammal yet discovered. Why they had developed the uneven arrangement of limbs was a question of great interest to paleontologists, but what mattered to Neweden was that the skeletons were rare and their bones could be polished to a vivid sheen—ippicator jewelry commanded a great price on the trade markets. This particular skeleton was, due to its size and condition, a thing of great potential wealth. The Thane, for his part, was determined that it would lie undisturbed.
Cranmer’s stance and awed demeanor showed the impression the ippicator had made on him. The Thane smiled with pleasure. “I had it dated once: took a chip of bone and sent it to the Alliance labs in the Center. It’s at least thirty thousand standards old. That makes it among the oldest ippicators found. And it’s well-preserved. Those bones would hold a polish unlike any other.”
The Thane settled himself on a rock and cupped his chin on his hands, staring at the skeleton. Cranmer fumbled in his cloak for his recorder, then hesitated. “You mind?” he asked.
The Thane shrugged. “As you like.” He paused. “I like to imagine that beast, the most powerful of its kind—perhaps an object of awe among its fellows—realizing that his time has come and that he’s no longer capable of ruling the ippicator world. So the beast dragged himself in here, through that passage”—the Thane pointed to a darkness on the far side of the room—“and lay down. It was better than simply growing older and weaker until some stronger challenger fought him and won. A good way to end things, still in control.”
“Too melodramatic. More likely it wandered in here and the stupid beast couldn’t find its way back out.” Cranmer pursed his lips. “Not that I could make my way back to the Hoorka caverns alone. So this is your meditation spot, yah?”
“I suppose that’s as good a description as possible.”
“It bothers you that the Hoorka-thane can have doubts, like the rest of common humanity? My friend, you’re one of a small group of violent people on a violent world, interesting only in that you’ve set up an organization with a moralistic rationale that passes for philosophy, and a religious understructure that is, at best, loosely bound. It’s hardly a thing to make the Alliance rise or fall. You worry overmuch.”
“And Sondall-Cadhurst Cranmer speaks strongly for a scholar here by the grace of the one he insults, and he has the arrogance of most Alliance people I’ve met.” The Thane used the impersonal mode of insult, the one most likely to cause offense on Neweden, and the one least likely to affect Cranmer. He smiled, with a tint of self-effacing sadness. “I’m not angry, Cranmer. I understand what you’re saying, but this small world is the one on which I’ve built Hoorka, and Hoorka—what it does and where it goes—is of primary importance to me. Like the rest of the kin, I’ve given it my primary allegiance. This is my family, and I owe it my loyalty. Hoorka owns me, not the Alliance.”
“Are you having doubts as to your ability to deal with the problems of Hoorka?”
“I didn’t say that.” The Thane’s voice was sharp in the quiet of the cavern.
“I apologize, then. I thought you might be hinting . . . ah, never mind.” Cranmer pitched a small stone into the darkness. Together they listened to it rattle and stop. The echoes eddied, growing steadily weaker until they died. There was a long silence, then, as both men stared at the skeleton.
“I don’t know my own mind anymore,” the Thane said, finally. He rubbed a muscular thigh with his hand, then stretched his legs out in front of him. “I’m not growing any younger, certainly, and the Hoorka problems are becoming more complicated as we grow. I hope the code can hold us together, that Dame Fate lets us survive. I know we’ll survive, if Hoorka-kin will let themselves be governed by the code.”
“Then you’re not thinking of finding some back cavern and crawling in to die?” Cranmer made a show of switching off his recorder and putting it back in his pocket. “I’m disappointed.”
The Thane smiled, adding to Cranmer’s laugh. “Disappointed that I don’t react as my ippicator? No, the analogy’s a poor one, anyway. Didn’t you tell me that from all indications, the ippicator was most likely a herbivore? That doesn’t sound like Hoorka-kin.”
Cranmer snorted in derision. “Thane, I’m an archeosociologist, not a digger into dead bones. But yes, I seem to recall that in one of my university classes back on Niffleheim, I was told that the ippicator was a lowly grass-eater. I think so, at least.”
The Thane waved his hand. “It doesn’t matter.”
Velvet silence settled in on them again, pressing down like a tangible substance. The Thane could hear Cranmer breathing and the whisper of cloth against flesh as he moved. When Cranmer spoke, the sound startled him with its loudness.
“Thane, what happened back there with Aldhelm and Sartas? I’ve never seen you succumb to your anger before. The Hoorka must fail to kill their victims at times—it’s part of your code; Dame Fate has to have Her chance. Yes, it was the Li-Gallant’s contract, but surely he’ll understand what happened—and since the contract was unsuccessful, you won’t be revealing who signed the contract. He’s safe from retribution. Why were you so upset?”
“So I have to explain again?” The Thane swept to his feet. The hoverlamps followed him, and light flickered madly about the cavern. The bones of the ippicator danced in the moving light. “It’s Vingi’s contract,” the Thane said, his voice oddly quiet, “not some guild-feud jealousy or a personal feud. The Li-Gallant’s contract. I don’t want his paranoia affecting Hoorka. The Alliance has been watching us closely, even to the extent of giving us a contract in their sector of Sterka Port—and the Alliance is more important than Neweden, if I ever want Hoorka to go offworld. But Neweden—and Vingi—can foul that dream. That’s the importance.”
“Because you’re afraid that this organization you’ve built has a faulty structure and can’t survive a few questionings? Your protestations are surface, Thane. Something else had to drive you to lash out at your own kin when you knew they were blameless.” Cranmer’s voice was soft and he looked not at the Thane, but at the ippicator.
“Damn you, Cranmer!” The Thane’s voice was suddenly hoarse with venom. Cranmer turned at the shout and saw the Thane’s hand on the hilt of his vibro.
And as suddenly as it had flared, the anger drained away and his hand moved to his side, away from his weapon, though his eyes were still held in sharp lines of flesh. He’s right, old man. He’s right, and that’s why you’re angry. Because he’s pricked the core of your uncertainty. Because you always considered your emotions too well-hidden to be fathomed. Fool. “You’ve had time to study Hoorka, scholar.” He stressed the last word slightly too much. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. But I never get angry at my ignorance.”
“Some things are too large to be angry with.” The Thane watched Cranmer slowly relax as the smaller man realized that the irritation was gone from the Thane’s voice. “I’m surprised you maintain your interest in us.”
“I’ve been interested enough to have taken two extensions of my leave from Niffleheim Center.”
The Thane shrugged. He watched Cranmer draw his cloak tighter around him, noting for the first time the man’s growing discomfort from the cold of the room.
The Thane glanced a last time at the ippicator skeleton, shrugged again, and took a step toward the passage leading back to the Hoorka sector. “I’m tired of talk, and I’ve much to do back in Hoorka-home. If you’ve seen enough of our five-legged friend . . .”
“Thane, I’m willing to listen more, if that’s what you need. The recorder’s off, and I keep secrets.”
“I wouldn’t have shown you the ippicator if I hadn’t been sure of your discretion.” He shook his head and allowed his features to relax, his shoulders to sag. “No, I’ve tormented you with enough of my idiocy. But I thank you for the offer.” A pause. “Friend.”
Cranmer got to his feet. The Thane leading, they followed the sounds of their footsteps back to familiar ground.