The Star Fleet Series
The Herb Plot - Chapter 7
The Herb Plot by Zack Chapter 7
Interloper moved through hyperspace, if 'moved' could be applied in the context of traveling outside of space and time.
The message from the Admiralty was addressed to the Interloper's commanding officer, and after Captain Goda read the rescue orders she sent for Lieutenant Commander Pami Erig, Officer-in-Charge of the Special Activities Detachment. "Well, Pami, you're going to have a chance to try out your new organization. Two anthropologists from the University of Zarn have gone missing in Avorna. That's a medieval kingdom on the third planet of star H662541034." (Captain Goda always gave the star number. No one else cared.)
"Isn't this the same old story, Captain? Two woolly-headed academics who didn't pay attention to the danger that's normal on a primitive planet? They're probably dead by now, so what's the point in diverting Survey Service resources, especially since we've got this critical field survey coming up?"
"I don't like it either, but we've got orders from the Admiralty to find out what happened to these women and rescue them if they're still alive. Their names are Carin Zotsmuller and Jani Alenda."
"Alenda, Alenda. That name sounds familiar."
Captain Goda smiled cynically. "As in Senator Alenda, the chairman of the appropriations committee? The committee that decides how much money Star Fleet gets? Jani is his niece."
"Oh. So we won't be dodging this one, will we?" Erig sighed. "Might as well make the best of it then. I'll go myself, and I'll take Reg with me. He's finished all the training I can give him on the ship, and he could use some on-planet experience before he takes part in an actual field survey."
"That's fine with me. I'd really like you along for the survey, but we're stuck with this search and if you look for these women yourself no one can say we didn't take it seriously. The ship will divert just long enough to drop you off and won't be able to stay for support, but Zarn has a large field station there and they can provide communications and maybe manpower if you need it. They've been established in Avorna for several years now, and all of the data gathered by the university has been sent to us. That includes the staff personnel records and a good language transplant. I'm going to leave all of the details of your equipment to you. Any questions?"
Erig stood and saluted. "No, Captain. This seems routine to me."
Erig left the captain's office and went to the compartment she shared with Reg. He wasn't there, so she continued on to the wardroom. He wasn't there either; the only person in the wardroom was the supply officer, Lieutenant Miki Amano.
"Hi, Miki. Have you seen Reg?"
"Yes, he was here a few minutes ago. I think he'll be back soon; he left his cup on the table over there." Miki sighed.
"You don't seem happy, Miki. Is something wrong?"
"Oh, I just miss Bedg. It's been weeks since we left Gamma, and it'll be more weeks before we can get back there. You're so lucky that Reg could join the Survey Service and come with you."
"Don't I know it! It's too bad Bedg couldn't do the same."
"Yes, but there was no way. He's too busy at home. He and some partners are starting a bicycle factory and it's an immense job. I've been helping him with a business plan and I've been doing his accounting, but it's not the same as being there with him."
"You miss the sex."
Miki blushed. "That too. I really love him, and we plan to get married if I can ever get back to Gamma."
"Congratulations! Are you going to use the traditional ceremony?"
"Of course! Bedg and I met during Sonji's traditional ceremony. Oh, did you see the picture?" She pointed to a small photo taped to the drab gray bulkhead.
Erig examined the picture. It was a simple 2D photo showing the women members of Sonji's wedding party. It must have been taken just before the ceremony, because Sonji's hands were strapped to a restraint belt, part of the practical joke that was traditionally played on the bride. "This is nice! Has Sonji seen it?"
"Not yet, I just put it up." Miki giggled. "I'll take it down if she objects."
"I don't think she will. Oh, hi, Reg. I was looking for you."
Reg strode over to Erig and kissed her. Miki marvelled at the change that occurred in Erig when Reg was around. The normally aggressive woman seemed to melt. She admitted to herself that she sometimes felt intimidated by Reg. He was always polite and non-assertive, but just his physical presence seemed threatening. It wasn't just his tall, muscular body. His far from handsome face, the look in his piecing dark eyes, and the set of his jaw gave him an aura of menace.
"You were looking for me, Pami? That's nice. Shall we go to our compartment?"
Erig fought down a surge of lust. Business first. "Not just yet. The ship's got orders to find out what happened to a couple of anthropologists who disappeared on a primitive planet. I talked to Captain Goda, and she agreed that you and I will be the ones to handle it. This will be a good training experience for you, Reg. We have to fit into the local society, but we don't have to do any actual surveying. The ship will just drop us off. It has that big survey to do and won't be able to stay and give us support."
"You mean we'll be on our own?"
"Not entirely. There are other university personnel available, although they may not be much help."
"I don't understand. I thought non-Amalgamation planets were off-limits to everybody but the Survey Service."
"No, qualified academics can get a permit from the Service to do research. This is almost always done through some university, in this case the University of Zarn. They're always indoctrinated to keep them from violating the First Directive, and they rarely slip up there. The usual problem is they don't understand the dangers on a non-Amalgamation world, so they're always getting killed or kidnapped. Then we have to step in and try to straighten things out. That's what we'll do here; we'll find the bodies, maybe eliminate the killers. Nothing to it."
She ran her hands over Reg's arms. His muscles bulged the sleeves of the blue ship coveralls. Reg had been strong before, but since he joined the Survey Service he had been working out in the ship's training facilities and the results were stupendous. Erig suppressed another wave of lust. "Let's go to the office and look at the data the university sent us. We have to decide on what personas to assume on the planet, what equipment to take, all of the other details. I'll let you take the lead in this. It'll be a good opportunity for you to apply what you've learned."
"Thanks for your confidence, but I'm not sure I know enough to do all that."
"Sure you do. I'll give you suggestions, but you'll make the decisions."
Erig and Reg entered the Survey office and she activated a terminal and started a search of the data. Several images of the planet appeared, first as it appeared from space and then with an overlay of the political boundaries and inhabited areas. "That's the planet. There are four continents, but only one is inhabited now. All but the polar continent had cities before the Great Crash."
"Why are they uninhabited now? All the temperate zone continents are fairly close together. Don't they have any ships?"
Erig scrolled through more data and a picture of a sailing ship appeared on the screen. "This is supposed to be a typical merchant vessel. I don't know anything about ships, so I can't tell if it could sail between continents or not."
Reg carefully examined the image. "It looks as modern as the ships back home on Gamma. Look at the centerline rudder, and the combination of square and fore-and-aft rigged sails. I'd say this ship could sail around the world."
"I didn't realize you knew about sailing ships."
"Actually, I have quite a bit of experience at sea. Before I joined the Civil Guard I spent several years on my uncle's ship, first as a sailor and then as second mate. But I got tired of sailing up and down the same stretch of coast, so I gave it up. It wasn't a bad life, though."
"If we get the chance you can try your hand at anthropological research, and find out why only one continent on this planet is inhabited now. But let's press on with the mission planning." Erig manipulated the keyboard and the view shifted to show a continent in the northern temperate zone. She zoomed in on a triangular landmass protruding from its southern side. "That's Avorna. It's the largest country on this continent. Let's see, it looks to be about 500 kilometers from north to south, if you include this mountainous region in the north."
"Is that part of Avorna? The map labels it 'Piconia'."
"Let me check." Erig pressed some keys and the map was replaced by text. Reg and Erig spent some time reading the material that had been compiled by the university staff. "This looks good, Reg. Piconia is part of the Kingdom of Avorna, but it has a different language and culture. If we pose as Piconians it would cover any lapses in our local knowledge. According to this, the natives of Avorna consider Piconians to be crude and unsophisticated." She checked the index. "Look, there are even language transplants for the several Piconian dialects. I wonder...". Erig did a search and more data appeared. "I thought so. Some of the University staff also posed as Piconians. And that gives me another idea." She pressed some keys and pictures of three women and a man appeared on the screen.
"Who are those people?"
"The Zarn anthropologists who are pretending to be Piconians. Those two on the left are the missing women. Jani is the blonde and Carin is the dark-haired one. She looks a lot like you."
"Not really. She's pretty."
"Well, her coloring is the same as yours, and she's tall. With a little adjustment to your face you could pose as her brother."
"Why would I do that?"
"We're going to have to ask the locals some questions, and we'll need a plausible reason for doing it. It would be believable if you were a worried brother looking for a missing sister. We'll also need a cover story for you and maybe some documentation, such as a letter from Carin. I know! You can pose as an ex-soldier. What with the civil war, there should be a lot of people like that wandering around the kingdom. That's also close to your real history, so it will be easier to stay in character. You wouldn't be nearly as believable if you posed as a merchant, for instance."
"What role will you take?"
"I'll be your companion, sort of a camp follower type. Women warriors are rare on most planets, and it's probably the same in Avorna. This is actually an advantage most of the time. If we run into bandits they would probably ignore me initially, and by the time they discovered their mistake they'd be dead."
Reg nodded. He had been training with Erig and knew how skillful she was in all types of armed and unarmed combat. He also knew she was not squeamish about killing people who got in her way when she was on an assignment.
"That sounds like a good plan, Pami. What type of weapons and equipment will we take? I suppose the First Directive prohibits energy weapons."
Erig laughed. "The First Directive prohibits a lot of things, but we're usually flexible about it in the Survey Service. Captain Goda told me to take whatever I want. We'll have phasors, communicators, and whatever else I think we might need, as well as swords and other local weapons. I've got a standard list of what might be useful on an assignment like this. The only real limitation will be how much stuff we can carry. That reminds me, you don't have any experience with horses, do you?"
"No. As you know, they no longer exist on Gamma. We didn't do any mounted training on the holodeck, either."
Erig snickered. "There was plenty of mounting. Just not with horses." She suppressed yet another surge of lust.
Reg grabbed Erig and kissed her. "Want to take a break?"
She shuddered. "Yeah, but we'd better not. I want everything to be ready to go when we drop out of hyperspace. The captain won't want to stop any longer than she has to." Erig collected her thoughts with a visible effort. "So this is what we'll do. You'll be Carin's brother, an ex-soldier from Piconia, and I'll be your companion. The shuttle will drop us just north of Varnin, the capitol city. We'll make contact with the Zarn people there and then do some investigating on our own. I don't expect it to take very long before we find out what happened to the two missing women. Then we'll just wait around until we can get off the planet. The university supply ship makes a regular run, so we can take that if Interloper is still busy. Any questions?"
"No, you seem to have covered everything, in great detail."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Reg! I do seem to have decided everything, haven't I? It's no reflection on you, just my usual habits."
"It's not a problem, Pami. It was good experience for me to watch how you did it. I'd still be floundering around."
"Yes, but you learn best by doing. I'll still give you your chance. When we get to the planet you can be in charge, and I'll pretend to be a trainee."
"That's going to require a good disguise. You have the look and manner of an experienced field surveyor."
"I'll do the best I can. I don't expect that any of the Zarn people are all that familiar with surveyors, so they probably won't notice me if I keep quiet. Just be sure to refer to me as 'Pami'. I've published articles in the anthropology journals and some of them might recognize my full name. I've also discovered that some people outside the Service now know something of my reputation."
She printed out the list of equipment she wanted. "I'll get the
storekeepers to collect and pack our equipment. Let's go to the biocomputer
lab for the language transplants. Then we can go to our compartment,
if you're still interested."
End of Chapter 7
The Herb Plot
Erig wiped the rainwater out of her eyes and groused, "It never fails, Reg. Those clowns who pick the landing sites obviously never heard of topography. They just measure the straight-line distance we have to travel on their map and let it go at that. I'd like to get them out here on this rotten track."
"It was my fault, Pami. I told them I wanted to land about two days walk from Varnin. I wanted a chance to adjust to the planet before we entered the city. Of course, I didn't expect it would keep raining so hard. The forecast was for clearing weather."
"Your plan is good, Reg. It will give us time to acclimate ourselves, and also give us a patina so it looks like we walked all the way from Piconia. But I hope we don't have to spend the night in these woods. We don't have a tent or any other camping equipment." Both field surveyors carried heavy canvas backpacks, but these were loaded with weapons and other equipment.
It was now mid-afternoon, and Erig and Reg had been walking steadily since dawn, going mostly downhill on a mountain 'road' that was actually a rough trail. Cold rain had fallen continuously. The soggy ground and the roaring mountain river that paralleled their path showed that it had been raining for quite a while.
Erig apologized, "Don't pay any attention to my rant. Something usually goes wrong, and good field surveyors have to learn to make allowances and improvise. I'm just angry it was my face that got messed up this time."
"It's not that bad, Pami. You do look different, though."
"I'll say. The makeup technician was supposed to make me look innocent and inexperienced. Instead, she made me look like a frightened half-wit. Mahoon said that I look skittish and simple-minded, like a dog that's been kicked a lot but didn't know why."
Reg chuckled. "It'll be all right, Pami. Cheer up, it's just another ten kilometers or so until we're down in the valley. There's a village there. Even if there isn't an inn we can surely lodge with someone."
"I hope so. This cloak is far from waterproof and my dress is soaked." Erig really wished she had for once foregone 'authentic' clothing and brought a cloak that would keep her dry. At least she was warmer than she might have been, because (unlike the natives) she was wearing long underwear that reached below her knees.
Reg was dressed as a soldier. He was wearing a black leather jerkin over an undyed woolen shirt, and black leather trousers. The 'leather' was actually a synthetic material that functioned as effective full-body armor. He wore a steel cap and carried a sword and dagger on the thick belt around his waist. A recurved bow and a quiver of arrows were on a shoulder strap, outside of his hooded gray woolen cloak. Since Erig was posing as a camp follower she didn't show any visible weapons. She was carrying almost enough firepower to conquer the planet, but it was all hidden under her ankle-length, gray woolen dress and coarse brown cloak. Her body armor only covered her torso. It was made to look like a knitted woolen vest.
Erig muttered a curse as she dodged a fir branch that Reg carelessly let swing back into the path. She wished that she could take the lead when the trail was so narrow that they had to walk in single file, but that would be out of character. Here the woman walked behind the warrior, so any attacker approaching from the rear would be delayed by having to cut her down first.
The trail leveled out a bit and they entered a small glen. The thick forest of fir and pine thinned out and the vegetation changed to head-high bushes with long narrow leaves on drooping branches. The river they had been following was on their right, and a tributary stream came down from their left and flowed into the river ahead of them.
Reg consulted his map. "It's not far now, Pami. Once we cross this stream and go around the end of that ridge it should be an easy walk to the village." He scratched his chin. Reg wasn't used to wearing a beard, and it itched. He had accidentally applied an overdose of pilatory cream before he left the ship, and it had stimulated his beard so much it grew several centimeters in just under a day. He really hoped this rate of growth wasn't going to continue for much longer.
Erig looked at the rushing water, which formed whitewater rapids as it tumbled over boulders. The river was swollen both by the recent rain and by the last of the melted snowpack. It was moving very fast and it was very cold. "How do we get across the stream, Reg?"
"No problem. There's a footbridge." Reg pushed through the bushes until he reached the bank of the stream. "Uh, oh."
"Something wrong?" Erig stepped up beside him and looked at the bridge, or what was left of it. The stone abutments were still in place, but their tops were barely out of the water. The rest of the bridge had vanished. "Ah, shit," Erig moaned. She could see the trail resume on the other side of the stream. It was less than fifteen meters away, but far beyond their reach. She knew what she would do, but she kept silent to allow Reg a chance to assume leadership.
"Curse it! I was afraid of something like this when I saw how much rain had fallen. Well, it's obvious we can't swim for it. The water would carry us away." Reg pointed to a cloud of mist. "It sounds like there's a waterfall just downstream. Even if we didn't drown we'd lose all our equipment, and probably freeze besides. We'll have to go upstream and hope we can get across higher up."
Erig nodded. This was what she would do. The stream was obviously too deep to wade and too fast to swim.
"I'm sorry, Pami. Unless we're very lucky it isn't likely now that we'll get to the village before dark. We may have to camp out after all. Maybe we can find a cave or something."
"These things happen, Reg. It's not your fault."
"Well, we'd better get started." Reg started walking. There was a faint path near the stream, but he wasn't sure if it was made by humans or if it was only a game trail. His boots sank into the mud as he trudged along.
Erig sighed and followed. She was wearing sandals, and her numb feet were covered with cold mud. She shivered. They were going to have to find some shelter before it got dark or she was sure she'd freeze.
They walked alongside the stream for almost an hour. The land on both sides of the water gradually got steeper until they were walking in a canyon, with the stream at the bottom of a narrow, rocky gorge. It was now narrow enough to be bridged with a tree trunk, but the high water had carried everything away. As if to mock them, the forest had thinned out and the trees were smaller, none long enough to span the stream. The rain had slacked off to a drizzle, but the air was colder now, and the sky was covered with thick, dark clouds.
Reg pushed through a thick grove of young fir trees and into a clearing, created by a winter snow avalanche that had swept the ground clean. He suddenly found himself facing a person coming the other way and his hand automatically reached for his sword.
The intruder was a young woman. Her long black hair was wet and plastered to her head. She was barefoot and wearing an ankle-length, brown woolen dress. The bodice was ripped open and her right breast was exposed, its nipple rigid from the cold. A rope was tied around her neck, with the ragged end dangling below her waist. When she saw Reg she gave a gasp of dismay and turned to flee back the way she came, but she slipped and fell face down in the mud. She floundered helplessly, her attempts to get up hampered by her bound arms. Her hands were tied palm-to-palm with thin braided cord, and her elbows were crushed together with a wrapping of coarse hemp rope.
Reg grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to her feet. She struggled in his grip, then slumped and started to sob. He said, "I'm not going to hurt you."
She looked back the way she came. "I've got to get away from them!"
Reg released her. "Away from who?"
"The slavers." She pushed against Reg. "We've got to get away! There're after me, and they'll kill you too if you get in their way." She ran around him and bumped into Erig, who stopped her by seizing the rope trailing from her neck.
"Not so fast," Erig said. She looked past Reg, to where two men had emerged from the woods on the other side of the clearing, about a hundred meters away. "Here comes somebody, Reg."
"I see them. You two get behind the trees. I want to talk with them, and avoid trouble if possible."
"Right. Give me the bow and I'll cover you." Reg shrugged off the strap holding the bow and quiver and tossed it to Erig. She moved back into the grove of trees, dragging the woman with her. "Get down." Erig forced the woman to lie on the ground under a small fir tree and tied her neck rope to the trunk. "You may be just an innocent victim, but I'm not taking any chances." Erig examined the woman's bindings. They were tight, and her arms were red, except for her fingers, which were blue. At least she was really tied up.
Erig strung the bow and nocked an arrow. She eased to the edge of the grove of trees just as Reg dropped his backpack and raised his right hand in greeting. One of the men walked up to Reg and the other stopped about twenty meters away. This man was carrying a bow, and he moved uphill until he had a clear shot at Reg. He was concentrating on Reg and didn't notice Erig in the trees, but she had a clear view of him. He was unusually ugly, with a wispy blond beard and large, protruding ears.
The other man was dressed much like Reg, except his cloak was black, and like Reg he was armed with a sword. He was a head shorter than Reg, but he was just as broad across the shoulders. His beard was long and thick, and was a bright red-orange. He gave a half-wave with his right hand and then crossed his arms so that it was near his sword hilt. "They call me Redbeard. You from around here? You might'a heard of me."
"No, I'm from Piconia, just passing through. The bridge is out and I'm looking for a place to cross the stream. You know of any?"
"Maybe. I'm lookin' for my wife. That was her you was just talking to."
"You mean the black-haired woman? The one with the rope around her neck? She said you were a slaver."
Redbeard chuckled. "Always joking, that's her. We just had a little fight, and I tied her up until she cooled down. You wouldn't want to interfere in a marriage, would you?" His voice hardened. "Now hand her over, and you can go on your way."
"No. For some reason her story seems more believable than yours."
Redbeard raised his left hand and the other man nocked an arrow and drew back his bow. Redbeard laughed. "You aren't as dumb as you look. You also got a steady nerve and look like you'd be good in a fight. I need more men. How'd you like to join my band? You do, I'll give you your pick of our captives, and we'll add your old woman to our string. You got a choice. That, or Tor there puts an arrow in your gut."
Reg paused as if considering the offer. A bowstring twanged, and an arrow sprouted from Tor's chest. Reg and Redbeard drew their swords at the same time, and the clash of steel echoed. But not for long. Reg was bigger and stronger, and had vastly better technique. Redbeard gave him an opening, and his sword opened Redbeard's throat.
As soon as Redbeard was down Erig dashed from the trees, an arrow nocked and ready. She ran over to Tor's body and checked it for signs of life. There weren't any; her arrow had transfixed his heart. "This one is dead, Reg."
"So's Redbeard. Where's the woman?"
"Tied to a tree. I'll get her." She went back into the grove. The woman was still face down under the overhanging branches of the young fir. Erig cut the tether off the woman's neck and pulled her to her feet. She staggered, and Erig had to support her with a hand on her upper arm as they walked over to Reg. Erig remembered that she was going to let Reg be the leader of this expedition just in time to ask, "Shall I search the bodies?"
"What? Oh, yes, that's a good idea." Reg turned to the woman, who had sunk to her knees, her head bowed. "What's your name?"
She looked up. "M...M...Maviala." She was trembling, partly from the cold but mostly from fear. Redbeard had been brutal, but at least he had a reason to keep her alive. This man's intentions were unknown, but she feared the worst. She moaned and shut her eyes when he drew his knife, and gasped when he cut off the ropes and her numb arms flopped to her sides. Then the pain of the returning circulation blotted out everything else.
Reg waited a few minutes until Maviala had recovered enough to talk. Then he asked urgently, "How many men are left in Redbeard's band?"
"Nobody. It was just him and Tor. Redbeard always was more for boasting than doing. I've known him for a long time. He was kicked out of our village because he was always starting fights and beating people up, but he's been hanging around, stealing food from the farms. Tor is his cousin, and the smart one in the family. He was always talking about the big money that could be made selling slave girls, now that they're illegal." She pulled the torn dress over her breasts, wincing from the pain in her arms.
"Are there any more captives?"
"No, just lucky me." She shivered violently. It had started to rain again.
Reg looked up at the darkening sky. "Did Redbeard have a camp? We're going to need shelter for the night."
"There's an old woodsman's hut he was using. It's not too far, but we could go to my village instead. There's a good path once we cross the stream, and easy travelling even in the dark."
"The bridge is washed out. That's why we came this way, we're looking for a place to cross."
"Oh, that's too bad. This stream starts from a lake, all the way up that mountain. I don't know of any place to cross when the water is this high."
Erig had been dealing with Tor while Reg was talking to Maviala. Her arrow protruded from his back, and after a short struggle she managed to pull it completely through his body. She examined the shaft and the fletching, and, satisfied they were undamaged, she wiped off the blood on his already bloody shirt and put the arrow in her quiver.
Tor wasn't dressed in leather, just homespun wool breeches and a shirt. Erig stripped the body. The boots looked to be in good condition, so she tried them on. The fit wasn't too bad, so she decided to wear them instead of her sandals. She wiped the mud off her feet with the shirt, then cut long strips from the breeches and wrapped them around her feet in place of socks. She put on the boots and walked around a bit. Not perfect, but at least they kept the cold mud out.
There was a pouch on Tor's belt, but all it contained were five copper and two silver coins. There was also his quiver and a dagger in its sheath. He wasn't carrying a sword. Erig examined the dagger. It was better quality than she had expected; expertly forged and very sharp. She carried the pouch and weapons over to Reg, leaving Tor's naked body face-up in the rain.
Erig noticed immediately that Maviala was nearly frozen. Trying to sound deferential, she asked, "She looks cold, Reg. Can she wear Redbeard's cloak?"
Reg had been too distracted to notice Maviala's plight, and she had been too scared to bring it up. He nodded, and Erig removed the cloak from the body and gave it to Maviala, who quickly wrapped it around herself. Erig gave her the sandals. "You can use these, too."
"Thank you. I left my shoes behind when I escaped." Maviala was puzzled by Erig. She had asked permission to take the cloak, yet she had killed Tor without hesitation. There was also something strange about her facial expression. If Maviala hadn't seen her in action she would have thought the woman was timid and stupid.
Reg and Erig worked together to strip Redbeard's body. If Maviala hadn't been there they wouldn't have bothered, but it would have been out of character for an itinerant ex-soldier to abandon valuable clothing and weapons. Reg bundled everything together and gave it to Maviala to carry. He told her, "You lead the way. Take us to the hut." She hurried to do so, glad to be alive and hoping to stay that way.
The hut was less than a kilometer away. It was larger and more substantial than Erig had expected. The walls were of wattle and daub construction and the steeply pitched roof was covered with pine shingles. A large boulder jutted out of the mountainside, and this formed the back wall of the hut. The low door was made of bark-covered wicker, and hinged with leather straps.
As soon as the hut came into view Reg drew his sword and hurried ahead of the women. He entered the hut in a rush, ready to meet any attack, but it was deserted. He called to the waiting women, "It's empty. Come along."
Once inside Erig had a pleasant surprise. There was a fire pit at the rear of the hut, where a cleft in the boulder acted as a crude chimney, and alongside the pit was a large pile of dry firewood. Erig quickly dumped her pack and set about kindling a fire. Under the ashes were a few glowing coals, and the application of a handful of pine needles and some vigorous fanning soon produced flames. She piled on the wood until there was a roaring blaze. There were pegs set into the rafters near the fire, and Erig removed her sodden cloak and hung it up to dry. She would have removed her dress too, except she didn't want to reveal her arsenal.
Reg had gone outside while Erig was building the fire. Now that she and Erig were alone Maviala timidly asked, "Can I hang up my cloak too?"
"Of course. Don't be afraid, we won't hurt you. And my name is Pami."
"Thank you, Pami. I'm sorry, but Reg frightens me."
"He frightens a lot of people, but he isn't vicious or cruel. I've never seen him start a fight, although he's finished a lot of them. He always treats women kindly."
"That's a relief. I just don't feel too trusting toward men right now." Maviala pointed to a rope tied to the door post. "After they raped me Tor and Redbeard started drinking. Tor tied me up and tethered my neck to that post. But after they fell asleep I was able to gnaw through the rope and escape. I was very lucky you came along when you did, or they would have recaptured me for sure. Thank you."
"You're welcome. I really dislike rapists. Those two got what they deserved."
On the floor at either side of the hut was a bed made up of a log frame stacked full of fir branches, and covered by a shabby blanket. Maviala gave a glad cry and pulled a small leather case out from one of the beds. She quickly opened it and examined the contents. "My instruments! They're not damaged."
"Your instruments? What kind of instruments?" Erig was puzzled.
"What I use for my trade. I'm a midwife. My mother was a midwife, and I learned it from her."
"Oh, I wondered about that. I didn't think you were a peasant, but there aren't very many women merchants, especially not in a village."
"My being a midwife made me easy to capture. Tor told me that a woman needed my help and he would guide me to her. Redbeard was waiting for me, of course." She rummaged in the bed and came up with a cloak and a pair of shoes. "Here are the rest of my things, so I can return that cloak and your sandals." Next she picked up a cloth sack and examined the contents. "Yes! There's some food left." She extracted a large piece of ham and half a loaf of bread from the sack.
"I'm glad to see that food. I haven't eaten since this morning." And it would have been difficult to explain Survey Service field rations to you.
Reg entered the hut. "Wow, it's warm in here. I'd almost forgotten what it feels like." He removed his cloak and hung it up to dry.
"Better yet, Maviala found some food." Erig sliced off some bread and cut the ham into three parts. They all started to eat, and the food and the warmth made everybody feel better. While they ate there was some casual conversation. Maviala tried to find out more about these strangers who had saved her, but Reg and Erig were politely evasive about where they were from and where they were going. From this Maviala deduced that they had been outlawed and were on the run from Piconia, so she dropped the subject.
Then she got to what concerned her the most. "Are you going to my village?"
Reg replied, "Yes, if we can ever get across the stream. I'm going to sell the clothing and weapons there, if possible."
"Could you please not mention that Redbeard and Tor raped me? Some people would treat me differently, and others would gossip about me. I especially don't want my man to find out. I'm sure he would be understanding, but it would be better if he didn't know at all."
"Yeah, it's always the woman's fault if she's raped." Erig glared at Reg, and he returned a wide-eyed, 'who, me' look.
Reg said, "If anybody asks, I'll just say that Redbeard and Tor tried to rob me."
Erig suggested, "Why mention Tor at all? Someone might have seen him with Maviala. And I want to keep his bow, because your bow is too strong for me to shoot easily. If I keep the dagger too there's nothing of his worth selling."
"Then I won't mention him. Your secret is safe, Maviala."
"Thank you." She yawned. "I'm ready to sleep."
"Me too. You take that bed and Pami and I will share this one."
Maviala put on her cloak and went to the door. As soon as she was outside Reg whispered, "I put some detectors around the hut. See if your communicator can pick them up."
Erig's communicator was disguised as a religious medallion, which she wore on a string around her neck. It appeared to be a white ceramic disk, about ten centimeters in diameter and half a centimeter thick. Mida's glyph, a diamond with radiating lightning bolts, was molded into one side and painted blue. She watched the other side, and pressed a concealed switch. The was a 'ping', more vibration than sound, and four glowing blue dots appeared. These represented the detectors, and a red dot represented the target they had spotted, in this case Maviala. A green dot showed Erig's location. "It seems to be working, Reg."
"Good, then we won't have to stand watches. I'll keep my communicator in this mode too, and sleep in my armor and boots just in case we have visitors."
"What? How can we have good sex if you won't take your clothes off?"
"Sex? With Maviala in the hut?"
"It won't bother her. Most people in her situation grow up with three generations living in a one-room cottage. They know all the secrets of life by the time they're four years old."
"Maybe, but I wasn't brought up that way, and it would bother me." He sighed, "It certainly is a burden to be attached to an insatiable woman."
Erig growled, "I'll remember this next time you're lusting after me." She swatted at him and went outside.
* * *
The rain stopped during the night and in the morning the sun was shining from a blue sky. The three travellers were up at dawn, all of them anxious to reach the village. Reg was out first and collected his detectors. There had been no alarms during the night and there were no signs of anyone in the vicinity this morning. They continued upstream, single file along an indistinct trail. Maviala was in front, then Reg, and Erig bringing up the rear.
They had walked less than a kilometer when Reg stopped the procession. He climbed down a rocky slope to the stream. Here two giant boulders formed a gate, channeling the stream through a gap less than five meters wide. He beckoned to Erig, signaling her to join him. He shouted to be heard over the sound of the rushing water. "This is narrow enough to bridge with one of these small trees. Do you think Maviala could walk across?"
"Why don't we ask her once we get the tree in place? If she can't we could leave her to make her own way back."
Reg gave her a shocked look, but he didn't comment. He pointed to the pool that had formed below the falling water. "We won't even have to chop down a tree. There are some down there, already stripped of their branches. I'll need your help getting one up here."
Erig wasn't sure they could haul a log up the slope and put it in place, but she shrugged and followed Reg. He chose a log about eight meters long and rolled it out of the water and onto the stream bank. He moved about a third of the way down from the thick end, squatted down, and heaved the log onto his shoulder. He grunted, "You take the other end, Pami."
After a struggle, Erig picked up the thin end and they laboriously climbed to the semi-flat top of the boulder and dropped the log. Reg said, "Whew, that's heavier than I thought."
"Yeah, I'd guess it weighs about 200 kilos. How do you plan to get it across the stream? That boulder on the other side is higher than this one."
"We'll slide it as far as we can, and then I'll hold it in place while you cross. Then you can lift the end up onto the top."
Erig was dubious, but she didn't have a better idea, so she decided to go along with the plan. She and Reg slid the log across the gap until it touched the other side. Reg sat on the end. Erig paused a moment, then scampered across. The loose end sagged a bit, but she made it. Luckily, she found a small cleft in the boulder and seated the log in it as firmly as she could. "Ready on this end, Reg."
Maviala had joined Reg. He asked, "Do you think you can cross that?"
"Sure, easily." She waited until Reg was holding the near end of the log, then calmly walked across, carrying her pack.
Reg picked up both his and Erig's packs and slowly inched his way across the makeshift bridge. After that it was easy. They walked back downstream until they came to the washed-out bridge and found the trail they had left yesterday. Once they got around the end of the ridge the trail leveled out and soon became a road. Less than an hour later they came to a cultivated field.
Maviala stopped at a lane that led into a wood. "My cottage is down this lane. Come with me, and I'll give you some food for your journey."
Reg asked, "How much farther to the village?"
"It's about two pasangs to the crossroads where the road meets the Varnin Pike, then another pasang along the road from there. Go to the left, the village isn't on the Pike."
Reg remembered that here a pasang was about a kilometer and a half. He ordered, "You go with Maviala, Pami. I'll go into the village and sell Redbeard's things. Then we'll meet at the crossroads."
Erig started to object; then she realized that Reg wanted to test his skills when she wasn't around. "Anything you say, Reg." If he got into trouble he could call her with his communicator. The ship had left a relay satellite in orbit, so they could make contact over any distance.
Erig and Maviala walked about a kilometer down a tree-shaded lane. The day was warm and pleasant, and Erig's bad mood had vanished. This was what she lived for, exploring an unknown world by travelling on her own feet. When she was a girl she loved stories set in ancient times, and wished that she could have lived then, rather than in the drab post-industrial society she had been born into. Now she was living her dream.
She woke from her memories when Maviala said, "Here's my home." It was a small cottage, made of the ubiquitous wattle-and-daub, and with a steeply pitched roof covered with gray wooden shingles. It was plastered and painted a pale, pastel blue. A flowering vine grew in an arch over the front door and the green leaves and small blue flowers perfectly complemented the building. Carved into the wooden door was a stylized picture of a woman holding a baby, the symbol of a midwife.
"This is lovely, Maviala."
"Thank you. I was born here, as was my mother. Come inside." Maviala open the door and they entered. There was only one room, but the pitched roof allowed space for a large loft. A fireplace with a real chimney was in one corner. Hanging from the ceiling near it were a ham and a half dozen sausages. Maviala took one over to a plain wooden table and cut off several slices. "I'm sorry I don't have anything prepared, Pami, but this sausage is very good. Sit and eat."
The women sat in wooden chairs and talked as they ate. Erig asked Maviala questions about her life and work. Maviala answered, but didn't put any questions of her own. She was convinced that Reg and Erig were outlaws on the run, and she didn't want to know where they were going.
After a few pleasant hours Erig forced herself to leave. It had been very enjoyable for her to talk to an intelligent woman with a completely different world-view. Maviala had lived in Varnin for a few years, and, by pretending to be an uneducated woman from a wilder part of Piconia, Erig had been able to gain basic information about the culture of the capitol city without displaying her alien origins. "It has been nice talking to you, Maviala, but I've got to go now. Reg is probably waiting for me."
"I enjoyed it too." She took down the ham and all of the sausages. "Here, take this. You'll need food wherever you go."
"Oh, no, I can't take all this. Besides, Reg will buy food in the village."
"But I owe you so much. I would probably be dead if you hadn't rescued me."
"It was just luck that we met. And all I did was shoot one arrow. I consider getting rid of scum like Tor a duty." After more polite insistence and polite refusal Erig finally left the cottage with one sausage.
Erig walked down the lane toward the road, enjoying the pleasant weather and the woodland scenery. She had just entered a thick patch of trees when two men stepped out in front of her. They were shabbily dressed and carried wooden cudgels. Erig noticed they both had wispy blond beards and very big ears.
"Hello, girl. This is your lucky day! My brother and me found a golden treasure, so big we need your help to carry it. Come with us into the woods here, you can have a share."
Erig thought, 'Do I really look that stupid? Hmm, maybe I do.' She pasted a smile on her face. "Wow, that's very generous of you. Let's go! You lead and I'll follow."
The men exchanged a smirk and plunged into the woods. Erig followed, and after walking about a hundred meters they came to a small clearing. The men stopped and turned. One hefted his cudgel and the other produced a rope.
Erig asked, "Are you Tor's brothers?"
"Yeah. How'd you know? You meet him?"
"In a way. Are you his partners in the slaver business?
Erig almost laughed at the look of comic surprise that appeared on the brother's faces. Tor was the smart one of the family, no doubt about it. The man with the rope said, "I don't know how you found out, but it don't matter. Put your hands out and let me tie you up and maybe you won't get hurt much."
"Are you going to rape me?"
He laughed, "Why not? It's part of the business. We were on our way to loot Maviala's cottage, now that she's been taken by Tor. You're just an extra. You're too ugly to sell for much, but we don't have to look at your face while we rape you."
"That was a cruel thing to say. And I don't like rapists."
"Who cares? Now give me your hands."
He stepped forward, right into the thrust of the dagger that Erig had been hiding behind her. The blade penetrated his heart and he dropped like a sack of oats. His brother paused, shocked, and then raised his cudgel. Too late and too slow. Erig cut his throat, and he fell to the ground and bled out.
Erig wiped her dagger on his shirt and replaced it in the sheath strapped to her calf. She walked back to the lane and then followed the road to the crossroads, where Reg was waiting.
"Hi, Reg. I hope you haven't been here too long."
"No, I just got here. After I sold everything I had a few drinks in the tavern. Fennel beer, and not too bad. This was quite an experience for me. It's the first time I've mingled with the natives by myself."
"How'd it go?"
"No problems at all. I was accepted as a Piconian. They're infrequent visitors around here, and the locals were fascinated. I don't think I got the market value for the things I sold, but it seems that was in character too. According to local tradition, Piconians are spendthrifts and careless with money."
"Did anyone ask where you got the clothes and the sword?"
"No one said anything to me directly, but I overheard a few side comments. It sounded like everyone was glad Redbeard was dead and no one really cared how he died. How about you? Did you talk to Maviala?"
"Yes, for quite a while. She lived in Varnin for a few years just before the war and gave me a lot of good information about the culture, at least as it was then. And after I left her I met Tor's two brothers in the woods. They were trying to be slavers too, but I showed them they weren't suited for that line of work." She took his hand and they started down the Varnin Pike. "I hope we don't have any more incidents. I'd like to find an inn before night."
"Me too. This road looks like it's in good shape. If the weather stays this nice we should get to Varnin late tomorrow. Assuming there aren't any more meetings with slavers, of course."
* * *
It was evening when Hovat finally returned to the wool warehouse. Athel said, "We got a message from Star Fleet. Two field surveyors have landed, and they expect to be here tomorrow."
"Just two? No rescue team?"
"No, it will be just two, Warrant Officer Reg and Cadet Pami. Reg is posing as Carin's brother from Piconia."
"Do they have a ship in orbit?"
"No, they'll have to use our communications equipment to call Star Fleet."
"Humph. No ship, and just a warrant officer and a trainee? It doesn't seem like the Survey Service is taking this very seriously. I suppose they think Carin and Jani are already dead. They're obviously just going through the motions."
"I can't believe they're dead, Hovat! I'm sure they'll be found alive."
"Maybe, but we should prepare ourselves for the worst. I don't think you'll ever see Carin or Jani again."
End of Chapter 8