"A fair exchange is no robbery." Old proverb.
Orzad hauled on the reins of his lathered pony, bringing it to an abrupt halt as a whistling shriek echoed against the valley walls from farther up the trail.
"Tiger Lizard!" He gave a worried glance at his back trail where the King's soldiers were hunting for his tracks. "On the prowl, too. Wonder what it's after."
His question was quickly answered as another whistling scream was echoed by the bass honking of a gronch. Orzad guided his nervous pony up a nearby hill, cautiously staying just far enough back from its crest so as not to be outlined against the sky as he scanned the trail ahead.
In a basin formed by crisscrossing ridges, the monstrous fighters moved through a shifting haze of dust kicked up by their pounding feet. The tiger lizard was a young one, only a little larger than Orzad's pony, circling warily around the larger gronch. It rose to its hind legs to dart in at the other lizard, then dropped back to all fours as the gronch's lashing tail drove it back.
The gronch kept its heavy greenish gray body close to the ground, its crooked legs spread wide to give leverage to its muscular tail. The tiny head on its short neck was raised high to watch its crimson and blue black striped enemy. The tiger lizard dodged in and out, trying to catch the gronch off balance, then gathered its powerful legs under it and sprang!
A rising cloud of dust half obscured the scene and Orzad's pony tried to shy away from the clamor of honks and screeches. The tiger lizard leaped back out of range of the gronch's tail, its mighty jaws stained crimson. The gronch's back and neck showed streaks of red where the tiger lizard's teeth and raking claws had torn. Its honking took on a more frantic note as the tiger lizard's poison flowed through its veins. The tiny head with its bulging eyes drooped sideways and the tiger lizard leaped in, jaws agape.
The gronch gave one last convulsive swipe of its scaly tail, catching the tiger lizard on the way in. When the dust settled the gronch lay on its side, twitching feebly as the poison finished its work. The tiger lizard sprawled against a towering boulder, its head bent back at an impossible angle.
Orzad watched until he was sure that both of the lizards were thoroughly dead, then urged his pony forward. He wasn't surprised to see that the dead gronch still carried a few scraps of broken harness about its body. A ragged tear in its dewlap showed where it had lost its guide ring. The big lizards, normally tractable enough, would occasionally take it into their heads to bolt and nothing could stop them.
His pony had been raised around the musky stench of gronch, and since he took care to stay upwind of the tiger lizard he was able to ride on by with no trouble. His thoughts were more concerned with his back trail where a troop of King Khamul's own personal cavalry was sweating its way along the tortuous path he had laid to mislead them.
With any kind of luck he should have had at least a two day head start, but he was too experienced at this kind of hide and seek to count on being more than a few hours ahead of them. His last brush with them had cost him almost all of his small stock of bronze pointed arrows. One man with a sword would stand little chance against a dozen or so trained soldiers.
His thoughts were jerked roughly back to the present by a strange sound ahead of him. He whirled his pony to cover behind a nearby pile of boulders, leaping from the saddle and nocking an arrow in one easy motion. He watched cautiously, his slitted almond eyes peering out from under bushy black brows.
The noise that had alerted him grew louder and clearer. A deep buzzing like a hive of disturbed insects rose and swelled, gradually becoming higher pitched and fainter until it was an almost inaudible whine. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? No, a patch of darkness stained the air a couple of paces to one side of the trail. It rippled and spread like oil on water until a rough oval half again the height of a man stood on end against the face of a large boulder. It dipped slightly, its bottom end cutting into the bare dirt of the trail, and the faint whine died away.
A whirl of dust rose as a puff of air gusted out from the oval. His eyes narrowed even more as he realized that this thing he was seeing had depth to it. Shading his eyes from the sun he was able to make out a hint of movement, a shadowy figure that drew closer until it stood just within the opening. His fingers tightened on his bow as he remembered childhood tales of demons and sorcerers. He almost turned and ran, but his curiosity always had been stronger than his good sense.
Orzad suddenly realized that this strange oval was not a window, but some kind of a magic doorway. The figure that stepped out of it looked man like enough at first glance. It had the right number of arms and legs, the right features in the right places, even the right number of fingers on each hand.
A closer look revealed a number of disturbing differences. The thing's skin, for instance. It was a light brown fading to pinkish white, not the normal yellow brown. The eyes were the wrong shape, too round and level, and even at this distance their color didn't look quite right. He couldn't really tell, but he would almost have sworn that their pupils were nearly the deep blue of a tiger lizard's eyes, not a normal man's dark brown. Last of all the being was uncommonly tall. He was a full hand span taller even than Orzad, who was accounted uncommonly tall among his fellows, though not nearly as thick through the body.
The being's clothes, too were strange. Not their cut so much, for men of different cities often wore varying styles, but in their color. They weren't the dark crimson of the trader's guild, nor the pale blue of the healers, nor yet the bright yellow of the money lenders. They weren't priestly green or even the dull brown of the common citizen, the farmer and herder, that Orzad wore.
Instead they were of many colors mingled together without rhyme or reason. The deep blue reserved to Royal blood, strange shades of yellow, brown and green, even colors and shades that denoted no known caste ran side by side or crossed over each other in a meaningless jumble.
Another being stepped through the doorway. Orzad could not help his gasp of amazement at this one's semblance. Instantly the two beings sprang into coordinated action. The first one flung itself sideways to sprawl behind a nearby boulder. The other one darted the other way, dropping behind a heavy clump of brush. Faint rustling sounds reached him and Orzad cursed himself roundly. These demons had him neatly boxed in, and if he wasn't careful...
His thoughts ground to a halt as a voice called out a command from behind him! He slowly turned his head, his spine crawling apprehensively. His fears were well founded. The second demon had moved with uncanny speed and stealth to come up behind him. The command was repeated, and he could well guess its meaning even without the accompanying gesture. He straightened up slowly and carefully from where he was crouched, lowering his bow and letting it fall to the ground. The small object that the demon pointed so steadily at him was like no weapon he had ever seen, but this was no time to be testing its powers.
This second demon was even stranger looking than the first. His first thought had been that it was naked, but a closer look changed his mind. Instead, it was clad from head to toe in a dull black garment that clung like a second skin, leaving no doubt that this one was female. What shocked him was that every bit of its exposed skin was almost as black as its garment!
Another she demon appeared from the doorway as they approached, standing and watching him with unconcealed interest. This one was also dressed in tight fitting black, but her skin was a clear pinkish white with only an overlay of pale golden tan. Her hair was an even paler gold, like ripening fields of grain.
By now Orzad was beyond any feeling of surprise. It was in a mood of dumb resignation that he stood facing the first demon, waiting for whatever might happen next. At the back of his mind a faint worry about the soldiers chasing him stirred, only to be forgotten as the demon spoke to him. The voice was pleasantly deep and strong but the words meant nothing. Shrugging his shoulders the demon tapped himself on the chest and uttered a single syllable, "Nurm," and pointed to Orzad.
"Orzad," he gave his own name in return. It was only his 'spoken name' after all, and shouldn't give these demons any power over him. No more than they already had, that is. He glanced around. The white she demon had gone back inside the doorway and the black one had climbed to the top of a nearby hill, leaving the two of them to themselves. This didn't make him feel any better about the situation. This demon, this sorcerer or whatever, didn't seem to feel the need of any caution in dealing with him.
"And yet," Orzad thought to himself, "he was careful enough until he knew what he was facing."
Orzad found himself teaching the 'Nurm' demon words of his language. This was a new experience, since all men of Kath spoke but one language, but he found himself cooperating almost eagerly. His unease at these strange beings was forgotten for longer and longer periods as his curiosity grew.
The white she demon took the dark one's place on lookout as the sun moved across the sky. Orzad's pony had been brought closer and given water and a strange grain even as the language lesson had begun.
The dark she demon disappeared once more through the magical doorway, reappearing moments later with a tray of refreshments and a folding stand. Smiling reassuringly she offered him a cup of darkly foaming liquid. He noted that the cup was delicately wrought, some transparent light weight material that looked like, but wasn't glass.
A cautious sniff at its contents brought him a strange, yet familiar odor. A tentative sip brought a smile to his heretofore impassive features. Beer! He drank the rest down in three deeply satisfying gulps, and held out his cup to be refilled from a squat brown bottle.
Here was a beer such as a man might dream of during a long desert journey, cold and clear with a dark strength to it that warmed a man's heart even as it cooled his belly! Orzad made a hasty reassessment of his captors. Surely any beings who could brew such beer could not be entirely evil!
The language lesson went more smoothly from there on. Orzad soon noticed that the words Nurm was most interested in had to do with trade. With the sort of things that he and his people wished to buy and sell. He was surprised by Nurm's interest in his people's need for iron, the quest that had gotten the King's cavalry on his trail to begin with.
The dagger at Orzad's waist, its slender blade of bone so carefully edged with iron, the bronze backed iron of his short sword, even the two remaining bronze tipped arrows in his quiver were carefully studied. He also noticed that Nurm examined with equal care the crudely polished gems in the hilt of his dagger and sword, and the gold ornaments that decorated his riding gear.
"Why do you travel here?" This was Nurm's first question when he could make himself understood. "Not see villages near this place."
"Soldiers." He drew pictures on a thin sheet of some kind of white skin, using a marking stick that Nurm handed him. "Soldiers hunt for me." Finally he got across the idea that some eight or ten soldiers were some distance behind him, he knew not how far.
Nurm spoke a few words in an unknown tongue into a small box that was clipped to his jacket. Orzad caught the word 'Ai Mei', apparently the name of the white she demon. Moments later she came trotting down the hill to stand close to them. Back of Nurm the magical doorway shrank to the size of a man's fist and shot skyward.
"Ch'Will will see if soldiers come." Nurm was evidently speaking of the dark she demon on the other side of the doorway. Orzad flinched as the box on Nurm's jacket squeaked at them in what almost sounded like the dark she demon's voice, but Nurm only answered it calmly.
"Are they coming?" Orzad couldn't help asking.
"Yes, but not get here soon. If you want, we take you and pony many days travel from here."
"How?" He was afraid that he already knew the answer, but he had to ask.
"Through this." The magical doorway had dropped down from the sky and once again rested quietly by the trail. "We go in. It move where you say. We come out."
Orzad glanced around nervously, but the white she demon was standing between him and his pony. Anyway, to escape he would either have to go on up the trail past the doorway or make a wide detour that would cost him hours of time he could ill afford.
"Why not just kill the soldiers when they come?"
"I would buy and sell." Nurm struggled to make his meaning clear in the few words he had learned. "Dead men not buy, not sell. Not know why soldiers want you. You are my guest, and I not ask, but I kill men only to protect self."
Orzad gnawed at his lower lip. Was this some kind of a trick, after all? A way to lure him through the magic doorway to face he knew not what? Yet how else was he to escape the soldiers who would like nothing better than to leave his body bristling with arrows by the trail. They would also carry his head back to the King, but by then he would no longer care.
"If I say no, then what?"
Science Fiction /