Chapter One of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

[ I’m working on a new book at the moment – well, the idea for it is very old, but all books are new when written – and I thought I’d drop a draft of the first chapter for feedback and to start generating interest. Enjoy! ]

Chapter One
The Kiss

“Pause you who read this, and think for the moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

            It all began with a kiss.

The place was the top of the hill overlooking Sangral House, a magnificent old manor in Kent. The time was a fine spring morning in April 1914. And the principles were a fourteen-year-old boy and a girl of the same age.

The girl belonged to the house, being none other than Lady Elizabeth Darrow. The boy’s name, rather absurdly, was Perseus Corbett, and his being there at all requires a little explanation.

His mother, Antigone Brown, was the daughter of a classics instructor at an obscure college in Wales. She had married below her station to a would-be inventor named Kenneth Corbett whose subsequent failures to revolutionize the world eventually left him working in a London garage. Their only child was sickly from infancy, suffering a chronic cough and shortness of breath, the care of which served as a continual drain on the little family’s scanty resources. By the time he turned twelve, his condition was indisputably growing worse and it was plain that new measures were needed if he were to survive.

Kenneth Corbett had originally come from Kent, where his brother Roger was head gardener at Sangral, the country seat of the illustrious Darrow family. Hoping that the country air would work the boy’s cure, Kenneth wrote to his brother to beg him to take the him on for a time to see if his health improved. Having obtained permission from the family, Roger agreed, and so little Perseus was packed off out of London for the first time in his life.

The journey was a wonder to him. The green, rolling hills, the open places, and trees! More trees than he had ever thought possible! And flowers, horses, cattle, all whirling by the train windows like flashing picture cards.

More wondrous still was the noble brick and stone edifice of Sangral itself. It stood back all by itself, nestled among the hills, with great old trees standing about it like attendants upon some venerable king. It was a very ancient house and had been added to and pulled about many, many times over the centuries. The east wing drove out before the front entrance like a defensive arm, ending in a conical tower, while the west wing retreated back, as though seeking the quiet shelter of the trees. It was a house with character, a house that one remembered, and which might have been (and indeed had been) the inspiration for many a romance, many a history, many a ghost story. Its somber brown bricks rested upon one another as sturdily today as when the first of them had been laid back in the fifteenth century, and its many windows flared like bonfires in the evening sun.

The plan was that Perseus should earn his keep by working as an apprentice undergardener, and so the next morning he was set to weed the flowerbeds along the mansion’s western front (this being a job it was judged he would have a great deal of trouble messing up). It was hard work, and his back ached, but the sight of the great house, not to mention the beautiful, fragrant flowers made it impossible to care much. His greatest difficulty was the temptation to stop work and simply gaze at the great house, lost in a daydream. He felt almost like he were back in the middle ages, or the time of the cavaliers; some dutiful servant laboring on behalf of a noble knight, or some great lady. Sangral House was just shy of a castle, after all, he thought. All it needed was a princess.

Then, while hard at work in between these reveries, something fell out of the sky and landed with a soft thud in the dirt beside him, making him jump. The thing had come within a foot or so of landing on his head. It was, he saw upon examination, a round silver medal, with the image of a man’s head on one side and an oak tree on the other.

“You there! Boy!”

Perseus looked up to see a girl’s head with a lot of tangled red hair sticking out of an upstairs window.

“I’ve dropped my medal. Will you bring it back up to me please?”

“What’d you want to drop it for?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” she answered. “Could you just bring up, please?”

He felt the sudden thrill of exultation, as boys do feel when they’re asked to do something important. His imagination, already travelling along such lines, conjured images of himself as a knight errant, retrieving the princess’s lost treasure.

“All right, then!” he called back, which was not a very knightly thing to say, but it was his first attempt. Forgetting all about his work, he got up, dusted himself off a bit, and ran for the kitchen door, which was nearest. It seemed very dim after the bright sunlight outside, and he had a fleeting impression of a large, smoky kind of room full of delightful smells and a lot of activity. He darted through before anyone had time to realize he wasn’t supposed to be there and hurtled up the servants’ stairs.

“Here now!” said a commanding voice that caused him to stop. A tall, stern-looking butler stood before him, glaring down on him like an imperious judge.

“What do you think you’re doing in here?” he said.

“The girl upstairs dropped this out the window,” said Perseus, holding up the medal. “She asked me to bring it up to her.”

The butler grunted, as though to say that he was not surprised.

“Very well,” he said. “I shall take it from here.”

He held out a hand for it. He was such a commanding presence that Perseus, who had always been used to obeying his elders anyway, nearly handed it over without thinking. But the fantasy that had taken root in his mind was strong, and he hesitated.

“No,” he said. “She asked me to do it.”

“That is no part of your duties,” he said. “Now hand it over.”

Perseus hesitated a moment later, then borne by a sudden reckless courage that came from he knew not where, he darted past the butler, ducking under his arm, and raced up the stairs two at a time while the old man shouted after him.

He reached the third floor landing and burst out into the corridor. The girl was standing by a bannister overlooking the main staircase, but she turned a smiling face on him as he ran down the hall toward her. Now that he saw her up close, he found that she was about his own age (though being a girl she of course conveyed the impression of being older). She was tall and lanky, with a good-natured, freckled face that had clearly seen a lot of sun, and bright hazel-green eyes. There was something of the air of a young colt about her, in her long, bony limbs and the restless, rather awkward energy of her movements.

“Here…it is…” he gasped, holding the medal out to her. His bad lungs were rebelling against the sudden burst of energy he had demanded of them.

“Thank you so much,” she said, taking it. “But are you all right?”

He nodded, still breathing hard. Meanwhile the butler appeared behind him in an icy rage.

“My apologies, Lady Elizabeth,” he said. “He has no business here…”

“It’s alright, Tredwell,” she said. “I asked him to bring my medal back up. I dropped it, you see.”

Tredwell’s stern face grew a trifle sterner.

“He has no business forcing his way up here,” he said.

“Oh, never mind that now,” she said. “Look, boy, are you sure you’re all right? Here, you must sit down.”

There was a large bay window with a velvet covered seat nearby and she urged Perseus to sit down and catch his breath. Tredwell frowned upon them.

“Could you get him a glass of water, Tredwell?” she asked.

“Very well, your ladyship,” he said with a stiff bow that spoke volumes of what he thought of the arrangement. He retreated, and Peseus slowly got his breath back.

“You’re not very strong for a gardener,” she said after he had his drink and Tredwell ahd been sent about his duties.

“I’m strong enough,” he said defensively. “It’s only that my lungs aren’t quite right. That’s why I’m here with Uncle Roger; they say the country air will make me better.”

“Oh, I see; that explains it. What’s your name, boy?”

“Perseus Corbett.”

“I say, what a funny name!” she said, laughing.

“It is not! It’s the name of a great hero who chopped a gorgon’s head off and used it to kill a sea monster and save a princess.”

“I know all that, but I’ve never met a ‘Perseus’ before,” she said. “Have you killed any sea monsters lately?”

“No,” he admitted grudgingly. “Has anyone chained you to a rock lately?”

“I’d like to see them try!” she answered, throwing her head back and laughing with the careless ease of one who was used to being able to have her own way.

“What’s important about that medal, anyway?” he asked, feeling he ought to take the offensive.

“What’s important about it?” she exclaimed. “It’s only from King Charles the First is all. He made a collection of these during the Civil War and handed them out as gifts to people who’d done him particular service, like my great-great-great…oh, I forget how many greats grandfather, Lord John Darrow.”

“You’re joking!” said Perseus, suddenly interested. He knew a bit of history, and the idea that he had been carrying something that once belonged to the unhappy king filled him with awe. “Shouldn’t that be in a museum, then?”

“No, because it’s mine,” she said. “My grandfather gave it to me personally.”

“So why did you drop it out the window?”

“I told you, that was an accident! I was just leaning out the window, looking at it and thinking about those days and it just slipped.”

“I’ve never met anyone related to a real-life cavalier,” he said.

“Oh, yes; we’re a very old family, didn’t you know? Lords and ladies all the way down. If you like that, we’ve got plenty more like it. I’ll show you them, if you like.”

That, however, had to wait, for at that point Uncle Roger, no doubt alerted by Tredwell, came to demand that he return to work.

“Later, then,” she said. “And don’t you dare be hard on him, Roger,” she added. “It’s my fault.”

Her orders commuted his sentence for a whipping to a stern talking to before he returned to his duties. But punishment or no, it hardly mattered compared with the fact that he had become friends with the young lady of the manor.

From then on, whenever Perseus wasn’t working (and sometimes when he ought to have been), he and Elizabeth would be off exploring the grounds in fine weather and the house in bad. She showed him all the treasures of her ancestral home, telling him what she knew of their history. He saw the portraits of her ancestors and heard what each one had done. He saw the landscapes and miniatures painted by famous artists, the furniture that had been in use for longer than the oldest servant had been alive. He saw the secret passages and the marks on the wall showing where some long-dead relative had thrown something in a fit of temper. He saw the woods and ponds that had been cultivated by generations of gardeners. He saw the stables with their fine horses, the kennels with their barking dogs, the pseudo-Greek folly down by the pond that Elizabeth’s grandfather had built.

Most importantly, the very day after their chance meeting, he saw the library, with its hundreds upon hundreds of books gathered across many generations; books of the kind the creaked when you opened them and breathed forth a wonderfully musty smell, so that even if you didn’t read them, you like to pull them down and page through them anyway. He had loved to read at home; being a sickly child with a mother both anxious and well-educated, it had been the chief source of amusement open to him, and the sight of this infinitude of words filled him with the same feeling as if he had found Aladdin’s cave.

Elizabeth, he found, was not a great reader. Or rather, she was not at all fond of being made to read. She had shown him the library mostly on account of some suits of armor that stood by the library fireplace and the portrait of an ancestor who had been a famous poet in his day. Perseus’s accounts of The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, and The Count of Monte Cristo, however, could not fail to pique her interest, and after they had explored the house from top to bottom and back again, their favorite pastime became finding a book to share. They would then race about the park, imagining themselves as part of the stories, or making plans for going on their own adventures; of voyaging in the West Indes like Robinson Crusoe, or trekking in darkest Africa like Allan Quatermain, or travelling in India like Mr. Kipling.

And so two years passed away at Sangral House. Perseus’s lungs recovered and his body grew strong under the stern direction of his uncle. He learned to ride, to fish, to shoot, and to climb trees. He learned more about history, about art, about music. Two years of almost unmitigated happiness and wonder, broken only by occasional visits home, where the dust and grime and squalor of the London neighborhood – so different from the romantic images of the city that he found in his books – seemed almost like a bad dream. Or, what is worse, like the coming from a good dream into a sad awakening.

The only other check to his happiness was Lady Darrow, Elizabeth’s mother. At first she paid little heed to the friendship between her daughter and the gardener’s nephew. They were children, and children would have their escapades. She didn’t much care for her daughter’s climbing trees or catching snakes, but Elizabeth had been doing those sorts of things long before Perseus showed up, and at least now she was reading more. But as time went on, Lady Darrow began to disrupt their escapades more and more. They would be having a great game in the conservatory and she would look in to say, “It is time for your music lessons, Elizabeth,” or they would be sitting reading together on the hillside and she would send to say he was wanted in the garden. More and more it seemed their time together was being curtailed, and there was nothing they could do but make the best of it.

Then came the end of it, the final awakening. A letter arrived from home to inform him that, as his health had so clearly improved, his mother wanted him to come home to stay. It was, she said, unthinkable that a son should remain so far from his family without due cause. Moreover, his father had found him a job, and a good one too, at a shop in London, which would bring in twice what he was making as an apprentice undergardener, money the family sorely needed.

Perseus was prepared to argue the matter out, that though the money was not very good, he was on his way to having a perfectly suitable job right here. He would be a full undergardener before long, and had a chance of being head gardener in the end. But then Uncle Roger put the final stop to his wishes.

“Fact is,” he said. “I think Lady Darrow had a hand in asking your mother to have you home. She’s not too keen on the way you and Lady Elizabeth are so familiar, as I’ve warned you time and time again.”

So it was settled. He would be going home to London for good. Home, where there would be no armor, no paintings, no old books, no secret passages, no ponies, no lake, and no woods.

Worst of all, there would be no Elizabeth.

Shortly after the summons home had arrived, Elizabeth learned that her parents were making plans to go on holiday to America, an extended stay of some months’ duration at least. That meant that on top of everything else, they would now be separated by a whole ocean.

The decision was made, the bags were packed, and the tickets purchased. All that now remained were the last few precious hours at Sangral Manor. Lady Darrow, though she did not approve of their friendship, was at least softhearted enough to allow them to spend those last hours in uninterrupted company.

Perseus and Elizabeth sat side by side on the hill, overlooking the house and grounds. They had spent many a happy hour there over the years, reading or dreaming or playing. But now there didn’t seem anything to be done except to be together while they could.

Elizabeth sat with her knees drawn up, resting her chin upon them, idly watching a rabbit grazing by its burrow.

“It’s not fair,” she grumbled. “Why couldn’t you have come with us to America?”

“Just be sure to watch out for sea monsters,” he said, making an effort to be cheerful. “I’d hate for you to be gobbled up while I’m not around.”

“That’s sweet of you,” she answered, smiling at what had become a long-running joke between them. “But I keep telling you I’m not going to need it; no one’s chaining me to a rock!”

They laughed, but not as wholeheartedly as they were used to. It was a faint flicker of something that was dying.

“You’re not going to forget about me, are you?” she asked after a pause.

“Of course not!” he said. “I’m going to be working in a bloody shop; thinking about you and Sangral is probably going to be the only thing that’ll make it tolerable. You’re the one who’s going to be having parties and meeting interesting people and having adventures and all that.”

“Well, just to make sure you don’t, I got you a present,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her frock and handing him a small box.

He opened it, and to his astonishment found the Charles the First medal that he had retrieved for her when they first met.

“You can’t give me this!” he said. “It was your grandfather’s! It’s a historical treasure.”

“Yes, and now it’s mine and I can do what I like with it,” she said. “Since I know you like it so much, I thought I should give it to you. Besides, you earned it; heroically risking the wrath of Tredwell to bring it to me, when any sensible boy would have just given it to him. I thought if I gave it to you, then you’d stay gallant and delightfully silly even working in some dreary old shop.”

Hesitantly, he put the medal about his neck.

“Thanks so much,” he said, fingering the ancient silver with affection and awe. “I’ll never, never take it off.”

“Don’t never take it off; you’ll spoil the silver. Just take good care of it; I don’t want to have to explain to either grandfather or Lord John that I gave their medal to someone who went and lost it.”

Perseus laughed, but again it soon faded, like a small fire in a cold stove. Their time was almost up.

“I didn’t even think to get you anything,” he said. “And you’re by far the more likely to forget about me.”

He didn’t add that he wouldn’t have known what to get her, even if he had.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s likely,” she said.

“Still, I should give you something. Something important. But I don’t have anything like that.”

Elizabeth thought a moment.

“Well,” she said slowly, looking away as though embarrassed. “There is something you could give me.”

“What?” he asked eagerly.

“It’s not really much, of course,” she said. “Though I think it is important. And I don’t know if I really ought to ask, but since you’re so eager…”

“Well? What is it?”

She swallowed and fixed her eyes on a bit of grass by his feet. Her face was as red as her hair.

“A kiss.”

Perseus felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.

“A what?”

“My first kiss,” she said, playing with the grass. “It’s a special thing. Ought to be, at least, I think. Something I can always take with me. That way I’d be sure never to forget you.”

Perseus felt himself going red as well. He had never yet seriously thought of kissing anyone; it was the sort of thing one read about in books and imagined doing, but which existed totally apart from the real world. It was as if she had told him that there was a dragon that needed slaying or pirate treasure to be dug up.

Yet, he certainly didn’t dislike the idea.

“I suppose so,” he said.

Judging by the way they focused on it, one would have thought that there was something infinitely fascinating about the grass about their feet.

“So…will you?” she asked after a moment.

He forced himself to look at her, and she forced herself to look at him, and he nodded. He had no real idea what he was doing, and it seemed far more complicated in real life that it had sounded in books. But there wasn’t anything for it but to simply try their best. Elizabeth shut her eyes tight and learned forward a little. Perseus thrust his face forward and their lips met.

It was wetter than he had expected. But really, quite nice.

They broke apart, both breathing rather fast. Then they both began to giggle uncontrollably.

A moment later, Uncle Roger came stumping up the hill to tell them it was time, and they walked back down together. At the gate, the moment of parting came. They shook hands and said their goodbyes.

“Have a good time in America,” he said.

“Have a good time in London,” she answered. “Or at least, not too frightful of one.”

He smiled, and just like that, they parted, him walking away beside his uncle to the train station for the last time.

“I’ll send for you if that sea monster shows up!” she called after him as a parting shot.

“See that you do!” he called back.

As the train rode away back to London, Perseus found his mind kept going back to that kiss. That first and only kiss. He felt different for it; stronger, bolder, more sure of himself. And all at once, he seemed to see his path clear before him.

In that moment, Perseus Corbett made a vow. He had no idea how he would do it, but he swore he would or die trying. He swore to himself that, some day, he would become a gentleman. He would have a house like that, beautiful grounds, horses, servants, fine old objects, all of it.

Most of all, he would marry Elizabeth Darrow.

Nanowrimo Sample

Nanowrimo is in full swing and I’m actually on a path to completing it this year! I thought I might share the first chapter that I’ve come up with, just to see what people think. Keep in mind that, as a first draft written more for speed than precision, anything or everything in it is subject to change.

The Sun Spark

Chapter One

            The meteor streaked across the night sky, turning it from black to silver as it sped towards impact.

Theoan Ilokar watched it fall as he rode out from his father’s farm. It was a strange meteor, he thought; too slow, and falling at an odd angel. Yet it moved much too fast to be a descending ship, and besides that it was traveling north to south, in the direction of the desert where no ship would be landing anyway.

Meteors, he knew, were the tools of Veiovis, the King of the Gods and master of the stars. Veiovis used them to alert his people that great events were about to take place, or to mark the changing of dynasties. They also could serve as his most terrible weapons of vengeance, but that he reserved only for the most irredeemably wicked of creatures.

As he sped off into the night, heading south into the wilderness on his skimmer bike, Theoan wondered what this particular meteor might portend. He doubted very much it signaled anything concerning Uanmu: the desert planet and all its inhabitants would hardly merit such a display from Veiovis. There was nothing there except for some scattered farms, like that of his father, and a couple of small settlements. It was far removed from the power of any of the three great nations of Metia, Alaxdria, and Saedemon, and nothing of any importance ever happened there, unless you counted the machinations of the drug trade as being important.

Perhaps that’s it, Theoan thought. Perhaps the gods mean to put an end to the trade. Though I don’t suppose Veiovis would consider it to be worth casting a meteor to herald that.

No, Theoan suspected the meteor was a sign for someone who was only stopping at Uanmu briefly; perhaps some great lord or mighty warrior who, for whatever reason, had paused on this most desolate of worlds on his way to more important places, where there were wonders to find and glory to win.

Theoan sighed to himself. He would dearly love to be able to leave this world and seek adventure and honor amid the suns, to see the great nations and their glorious planets. But, though he suspected his father would allow him to go, it was difficult to find any opportunity. Few ships came to Uanmu, except those connected with the drug trade, and Theoan would sooner stay on this world the rest of his life than soil his hands with that. The more respectable ships, when they came, tended to be small traders stocking up on supplies before venturing off to distant colonies, with neither the ability nor the desire to take on passengers. True, there were a few sky liners that would stop off on Uanmu to pick up and drop off travellers, and he could board one of those, but then where would he go and what would he do? Theoan didn’t know anyone outside of Uanmu, nor did he have any clear idea of what he meant to do if he ever left.

So he had to be content to slack his thirst for adventure with hunting trips to restore the family’s scant supply of meat. Livestock was in short supply on Uanmu, and difficult to keep alive. Theoan’s father had attempted to raise cattle once and had lost the entire stock before the end of the season, so the family relied upon hunting for their meat.

Theoan was secretly glad of this, though ashamed of himself for being so. He loved hunting and loved the opportunity to journey and explore the wilds, if only for a short time. It gave him a respite from the tedium of farm life.

He rode for about thirty miles, well away from any settlements of man, and parked his skimmer beside a great boulder that gleamed ruby-red in the light of Koina, the great, red, solitary moon of Uanmu, which lit up the world in a rusty twilight. Hunting, travelling, and much else was best done at night on the desert world; the sun, Vulmen, was fierce and no friend of man, sun though he was.

Theoan dismounted, but before he shouldered his pack or his rifle, he opened a small compartment on the side of the skimmer and took out three yams, the freshest they had, a small earthen bowl, and a tiny box of incense. He found a flat stone beside a tangled thorn bush and on this he set the bowl and three yams, then tossed a pinch of incense into the bowl and lit it with a quick blast from his hand torch. He knelt and bowed his head as the sweet scent rose into the night air.

“Oh, Aytea, mistress of the wild places, huntress most fair and free,

As I honor thy law and as reverence I thee,

What thou givest to thy hunting beasts, give, lady, unto me.”

He stayed a moment before the makeshift altar, hands clasped in prayer, then rose and, leaving his gifts to the lady of the wilds, he took his pack and his rifle from the skimmer and set off into the night.

Theoan always made sure to offer proper obeisance to the lady of the flashing hair before each hunt. She, he knew, was less friendly to man than most of the gods, preferring the wild beasts and open places and resenting man when he invaded her territory and violated her law. But for that very reason, she was generous to those who honored her and kept her commands. Theoan never set traps, never killed mother or young, and had never once come home empty handed.

There were tales of hunters who had pleased Aytea so much that she permitted them to catch a glimpse of her, beautiful beyond mortal imagination, racing through the wilderness with her hounds at her heels, her flashing hair streaming out behind her like a banner. It was an honor not to be asked for, but only accepted, but Theoan couldn’t help hoping that, someday, the goddess might consider him worthy of it.

For tonight, though, he would be content if could only bring home a supply of meat for another week or two.

He soon struck a game trail and followed it south and east, across the rocky, thorn-strewn wilderness, past dry streams and tangled, bare thickets. Insects fluttered about his ears, or else scurried into cover as he past, some of them nearly as high as his knee. He went with care to avoid stepping on anything venomous, but long experience had taught him how to be cautious without sacrificing speed, and he made a good pace.

Nevertheless, as he traveled further south, he began to grow a little uneasy. He was now very near the edge of the northern plateau, and the Uan might be about. The desert people were sofia – they had language, understood signs, and practiced religion – but they were certainly not civilized. They were mostly pacified by now, and could even be seen in the streets of Kath trading with men and other creatures, but out here, far from any retribution and near the desert where men could not follow, they were liable to be dangerous. Theoan’s father, who had been among the first settlers of the planet and had helped to wrest control of the plateau from the desert people, said the Uan, though they accepted their loss, regarded it as temporary. The “sky people” they said would leave one day, and the Uan would take the “cold lands” back.

The vast majority of the surface of Uanmu was uninhabitable by man; an endless desert of silver sand, baked to a blazing point by the fierce rays of Vulmen. It was said that, down by the equator, the heat was so intense that life of another sort flourished, and that there were whole forests of heat-loving fungi growing out of land burned nearly to glass, though no man had ever seen them unless it was from the sky.

However, in the far north there was a vast plateau rising thousands of feet above the level sands, and up here it was cool enough for more familiar creatures to, if not thrive, at least survive. Here there were deep springs of water that periodically welled up here and there to form small streams or pools, about which clustered spiky thickets or bushes. These could lie dormant for years and years, only to spring to sudden life again when the water returned, so that different regions would become green at different times, and it was beyond any art the men of Uanmu possessed to predict when or where this would be. Theoan had seen time-lapsed images taken from space of green patches flashing and failing on the surface of the plateau like sparks flying from a motherboard.

The chief game animals were the colbucks; shaggy, horned creatures about the size of a small horse that roamed about the plateau in small herds seeking the spots where water and green had briefly returned. The trick was to pick up their trail and follow it until you found water, and then wait. Sooner or later they would come.

The only question was whether Uan would come first.

At last Theoan found what he had been seeking; a wide, still, muddy pool surrounded by thick thorn bushes and stunted trees in full leaf, all dyed red by the moon. The pool, however, was only about a hundred yards from the Burning Road: the pass that lead down out of the plateau to the desert. No man ever went that way, for the desert was death; the Uan had made it in ages long past, and though they didn’t often use it after they had lost control of the plateau, Theoan didn’t much like being so close to it. But he must hunt, and since Aytea had decreed that this was the hunting ground, he would trust her and do so. Still he took care to position himself facing the road and with a boulder at his back.

Once in place, with a good view of the pond, Theoan laid his rifle on his knees and waited, listening. A hot wind blew up from the desert, rustling the trees and spreading a burning smell across the land. A few insects and small mammals scurried about in the underbrush. Theoan gazed up at the stars and suns blazing overhead picking out the ones he knew. There was Argea, the sun of Alaxdria, the nearest of the three nations. And Delo and Faunit and Mistu, which held the forested world of the Nelians, and, faint and golden, Vergina the fair about which spun the blessed world of Achaea. He could identify them, though he had of course never been to any of them, and he never ceased to marvel at the idea that he could lie here on the outskirts of the galaxy and look across lightyears of the Kenon – the empty void of space – upon these great and famous places.

So he sat and waited and thought of the places far away that he could see as mere points of light. Slow hours crawled by and Koina passed across the sky, rose to her height, and began to descend.

At last, as the night wore on to its end, he heard what he had been waiting for; the soft ‘flump-flump’ of the colbucks’ padded feet upon the stony ground and the low chuffs of their breath as they came down to the water to drink.

In the red light of Koina, he soon saw them; a herd of about seven; three juveniles, two females, one adolescent male, and one old, dominant male with great backward-sweeping horns.

That would be the one. As the colbucks plodded down to the brink of the pond and began to drink, Theoan very slowly lifted his rifle and aimed at the old male. But he did not fire; the others needed their water, and he would allow to drink before he took his prey. To remember the needs of the beasts whom you do not hunt was part of the Law of Aytea.

So he waited, but the herd had hardly begun to drink when the young male, who was acting lookout, suddenly stiffened in alarm. For a moment, Theoan thought they had scented or seen him. But no; the beast was looking to the right; toward the pass. A moment later, it gave a great bark of alarm and the whole herd leapt off as one, thundering out of sight into the bushes. They were fast creatures in spite of their bulk, and the echoes of the warning bark had not faded before the whole herd had disappeared.

Theoan lowered his rifle, cursing his ill luck. If he himself had made some mistake and so lost his chance, that would be one thing, but the herd hadn’t spooked at anything he had done. It had been something else; perhaps another hunter, one clumsier than he?

If so, Theoan thought angrily, rising from his place and making his way around the pond to investigate. I’ll give him a lesson!

He soon circled the pond and came to the Burning Road, where he paused to listen and look. He saw no sign of living creature, whether beast or sofai, but he heard, coming up the pass, the sound of footsteps upon the rocks.

A man, then, he thought after listening a moment. And making no more effort at stealth than a ship taking off…but what’s he doing in the pass anyway?

Immediately before him, the road turned a sharp bend behind a ridge as it went down into the pass. Impatient, Theoan strode forward and turned the corner, where he found himself face to face with the interloper in the dull red light.

He froze.

For a moment, he thought his hope had been granted and that here, beautiful beyond mortal thought, was the goddess herself. But the thought lasted only a second, for he saw that the girl before him was swaying, weary and near fainting, which showed her to be but mortal. She staggered forward, her dazed eyes on him, and she seemed to be trying to speak. But before she could articulate a sound, she stumbled and pitched forward in a faint.

Theoan recovered from his shock in time to catch her. She was unconscious now, her head fallen back and her face turned unseeing to the sky. She was pale, dirty, and exhausted, and still Theoan thought he had never known beauty until now.

She was slender and lithe of frame, her skin as clear as starlight. Her long, shining hair rippled down past her waist, and her face was soft and lovely. She was dressed for travel, in a pale dress belted at the waist and covered over with a grey cloak that fell back from her shoulders in her faint.

Theoan touched her forehead and felt the fever. Hastily, he carried her to the pond and bathed her in it, scooping some of the water into her open mouth. She swallowed, which he took to be a good sign.

Suddenly, there came a long, keening cry. Theoan looked up sharply. About a quarter mile off he could see a low hill, on which, silhouetted against the star-filled sky, was a squat, insectile shape. A moment later it was answered by another cry, this one from much farther off.

They couldn’t stay here. With luck, they might make it back to the skimmer before the Uan were on them, but only if they left now.

Theoan slung his rifle and pack over his shoulder, then lifted the girl lightly (Theoan was a strong young man, and the girl was light and slender of build) and set off at a run back up along the trail.

But whether the Uan had been content to drive him off, or whether their calls had not been meant for him at all, Theoan saw no other sign of them that night. His skimmer was standing where he had left it, though he noticed the offering to Aytea was gone. He briefly wondered whether she had guided him to that particular hunting grounds specifically to be ready to find this girl. But that was no matter now.

He stood the bike up and stowed his pack and rifle, then took his seat, gently holding the girl across his lap, and switched on the engine. As usual, it sparked once or twice, then died. He tried twice more, gently cursing the machine in his impatience, before it caught and the repulsor engine flared to life. He pulled a lever and the stands retracted, leaving the bike suspended about two feet off the ground. A moment latter, they were skimming across the land, rising over rocks and hills, taking the fastest route back to his father’s farm.

***

Theoan looked nothing like his father, Anchises. Anchises was a thickset, rather short man with a swarthy face, a heavy beard, and thick black hair. His son, on the other hand, was tall and lithe of build, with sandy brown hair and his face was finely lined. He had taken after his mother, more than his father, though he now could but dimly remember her as a distant image of beauty and gentleness in his early youth.

His younger brother Ergen more closely resembled their father, both in looks and temperament. He too was of a broad, swarthy construction, though taller than his father. Now all three were gathered about the unconscious form of their strange guest as Anchises applied salves to her forehead.

In the lamplight Theoan could see that, if anything, he had underrated her beauty under the moonlight. More than that, her face, though pale and sickly from the heat, was kind and noble as well as beautiful. Yet he also saw that she was young: barely older than he was. Say, nineteen or twenty at the most. Here, surely, he thought, was a lady of some great family; someone of importance in the galaxy. He was staggered to think that their humble house in the wilds of Uanmu was hosting such a guest.

Ergen, however, was frowning.

“You say she came out of the desert?” he said. “What was she doing there?”

Theoan remembered the ‘meteor’ he had seen.

“She must have crashed out there,” he said. “I saw a ship go down, or at least what I think must have been a ship. Looked like a meteor at first.”

“That’s odd. What made it crash, I wonder?”

“Hopefully she’ll be able to tell us soon,” said Theoan, looking a question at his father.

“She’ll be all right,” the old man grunted. “She’s just got a touch of the heat is all; lucky for her she landed at night, else she’d be a dried husk out in the sand.”

Indeed, even as he spoke the girl stirred in her sleep. Her eyelids fluttered, and one hand went to her breast. Suddenly, her dark-blue eyes snapped open and she sprang up as though in alarm, leapt off the table and backed away from the three men, but she stumbled with the effort.

“Woah! Easy there, lady,” said Anchises. “You’re safe, no need to worry.”

The girl was breathing hard, one hand still clutching at the front of her dress, looking from one to the other. Her eyes came last to Theoan.

“You,” she breathed. “I saw you, did I not? In the desert?”

“Well, not quite. In the wilderness, rather, but I guess you came from the desert,” he answered. “You fainted, and the Uan were about, so I brought you here.”

It seemed to take her a moment to process what he had said.

“I see,” she said. “Then I owe you a debt.”

She looked around at the three of them and inclined her head. Her hand at last relaxed and drifted down to meet its fellow across her stomach.

“Thank you, all of you,” she said. “I apologize for my ungraciousness just now.”

“No need for that, m’lady,” said Anchises. “Natural enough; waking up after a faint to find you’re in a strange place. But you ought to sit down; you’re not near well yet.”

“Of course,” she said, feeling her forehead and swaying slightly. Anchises guided her to the couch, where she sank gratefully onto the rough cushions. They gathered respectfully about her, waiting.

For the first time, the girl looked around at the place she had woken up in. It was a low-ceilinged, wide, stone room, with no windows, only a flight of steep steps on one corner running up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. There was a table set with three chairs in the middle of the room, a set of two beds set in the wall at one corner and a third, larger one opposite them. At the other end of the chamber was a work bench and sink, and in the center of one wall was a small shrine, with plinths set with idols of Aytea, Pellinor the Valiant, god of war, journeys, and heroic deeds, and Chloem the Bountiful, goddess of farming and harvest. Beneath the three was a bright model of Vulmen, the sun of Uanmu. A spear, telescoped all way down, hung on the wall beside the shrine, next to a badly battered buckler.

The girl seemed to take comfort from what she saw, for she smiled and turned her face back to her hosts.

“Please sit,” she said. “I am not so great a person as that.”

They did so.

“If you please, m’lady,” said Anchises. “I’m sure we’d like to know just who you are and how you ended up in a place like this.”

“As to the latter I’m not quite sure myself,” she said. “Since I do not know where I am.”

“You are on Uanmu,” said Anchises. “About twelve miles south of the port of Kath.”

“Uanmu!” she exclaimed. “I might have known, but that is far out of my way. As to who I am, my name is Nata, and I am daughter to one of the humbler lords of Metia. My father is attached to our kingdom’s diplomatic corps, but he is aged before his time and is unable to travel, so I took his place on an envoy to Achaea. The mission on which we embarked was of tremendous importance, not only to the Achaean League, but to the galaxy as a whole, and it was thought to be kept a great secret. But, alas! My ship was waylaid by pirates and driven off course. The villains finally caught up to us in this system, and I was forced to flee. I…I do not know if any others escaped. I sought to land near the cities that I could see from the sky, but the escape craft was unresponsive and I crashed in the desert. You who live here must know well what I experienced in travelling from the downed craft to the head of the long pass up into the hills. I believe it is only by the help of the gods that I am yet alive. And, of course, by your help,” she added, smiling on Theoan, who felt his heart leap at the radiance of her smile, and still more at her words.

“I think we have the Lady of the Wilds to thank for that,” he said. “She led me to where I might find you.”

“Many thanks to her, but you are the one who cared for me and bore me back here,” she said. “What is your name?”

“Theoan, my lady. Theoan Ilokar. This is my father, Anchises, and my brother, Ergen.”

“Pardon me,” she said turning to Anchises. “I ought to have asked you first. I suppose I am not quite recovered.”

“No worries, m’lady,” he said. “Now, I guess you must be starving after all that. We don’t have much to offer you, I’m afraid; not much grows here, but what we have you’re welcome to.” He turned to his sons. “You two get supper on; best we have, understand?”

They nodded and hurried to the storeroom to get the yams and melons and the few bits of salted meat that still remained from Theoan’s last hunting trip. These Ergen, who was far the better cook, set to frying while Theoan prepared the table and got out one of their precious flasks of wine. Meanwhile, Anchises sat talking to Nata, and Theoan’s eyes kept drifting to that end of the room. Her beauty seemed to increase rather than diminish every time he looked at her, possibly because she was now awake and animated and seemed to be fast recovering from her faint. She was talking to Anchises about his farm, inquiring about Uanmu and its situation and history, and seemed perfectly at her ease. Every time she moved her head, the lamplight seemed to glitter off of her long, honey-colored hair like the sun on rippling water.

She glanced his way, and Theoan abruptly realized he’d been standing still, staring at her, for several seconds. He hastily returned to preparing the dinner. As he turned back to the counter, he saw Ergen throwing him a rather stern look, and he felt himself growing red with embarrassment.

Soon everything was ready, and when they had poured out a libation for the gods they set to. Nata was evidently starved, for though she maintained her poise and grace, she ate ravenously and complimented them on their cooking in a most gracious manner. As they ate, Nata continued to ask Anchises, and now the other two as well, about Uanmu. Theoan tried hard to eat and not to look at her more than was necessary.

“I came with the first wave of settlers, ‘bout twenty-odd years ago,” Anchises said. “That was just about the time of the Darien War, and we were looking for somewhere out of the way, where we could manage our own affairs and not get caught up in the League’s problems, begging your pardon. Anyway, Kath was the first place we founded, and we had a stiff job keeping the Uan off. They didn’t have much use for the plateau, or the ‘cold lands’ as they call it, but they weren’t gonna give it up without a fight. Savage they are, and I don’t think they know what fear is. We lost a lot of good people in that fight, but in the end we won out. Helped that they didn’t know about shields, so we could hit ‘em from a distance, else I don’t know if we could have done much.

“Anyway, in the end we beat them badly enough that they acknowledged our rule of the plateau in exchange of us swearing that we wouldn’t touch these certain places that they count as sacred. These were mostly high rock places we couldn’t get to without a jetpack anyway, so it wasn’t much to us.

“Only, just after we beat the Uan, that’s about when the cartels showed up. Suppose we should’ve seen it coming; a functional space port out in the middle of nowhere, far from League authority, naturally it’s gonna attract an unpleasant crowd. So, about a year after we secured our land from the Uan, we found we were under the heel of the drug dealers. Our great campaign for freedom didn’t amount to much in the end.”

“Then why do you stay?” Nata asked.

“It’s our land,” said Anchises. “Lot of good people died for it, and we don’t mean to make that go to waste. Besides, the cartels don’t bother us farmers too much; they all stay in Kath and Maut and places like that. They buy our wares and we each mind our own business for the most part. Won’t pretend we like it, but we get by.”

“I see,” she said. “Now, as for me, you have been exemplary hosts, but I must be leaving at once. My mission, as I have said, is vitally important, and I am already delayed. Which is the nearest space port?”

“That would be Kath,” said Anchises. “But I think you ought to stay at least another day. Still surprised you survived the desert at all, even at night.”

“No, I am afraid I cannot do that,” she said. “But I am all right, really; your care has been excellent and I am perfectly well to travel.”

“Well, that’s for you to say, lady, but what do intend to do?”

“I must find transport to Achaea,” she said. “Can such a thing be found in that city?”

“I suspect so,” said Anchises. “There’s usually a liner or two coming in on their way to better ports. Only, you should know that Kath isn’t the sort of city where anyone should go alone, especially a young lady like yourself. I’ll have my boys go with you.”

“Thank you,” she said, though she looked a little uncertain. “If you think it is best…”

“It is,” he said. “I’d also recommend you wait until nightfall; travelling during the day isn’t the best idea, and you’ll be less conspicuous at night.”

“No,” she said. “I’ve already lost too much time, and my errand is an urgent one. Day or night, I must be going as soon as may be.”

“If you say so. In that case, we best get started. You just wait here and rest, m’lady, and we’ll make ready to start.”

The journey to Kath was not far; a matter of twelve miles or so (none of the settlers would dwell farther than a night’s journey on foot from the settlement), and so their gear was light; water rations, cooling packs (which they always took whenever they traveled anywhere), a few small tools, and of course their ‘Peks’ – Personal Energy and Kinetic Shields – which just about every civilized person wore if there was the slightest chance of trouble. These shields didn’t guard against fists or blades, but could repel energy blasts or projectiles, at least below a certain size, which was certainly a comfort, especially since the Uan could use rifles.

Once they’d gotten on their gear, the brothers ventured upstairs (their rooms were underground as protection from the heat) to prepare the skimmer, which needed to have its sidecar put on if all three of them were going to ride it. They’d done this many times before, and it wasn’t a long job, though with the sun up and the hot wind in through cracks around the door, it was more unpleasant than usual.

Just as they were finishing, Anchises came up, alone. He had his spear in hand, still telescoped down.

“Before you go I want a word with you two in private,” he said. “First of all, you’ll take this just in case,” he handed the spear to Ergen. “Take your rifle too,” he added to Theoan.

They looked at him in surprise.

“You think we’ll run into trouble?” Ergen asked, accepting the spear automatically.

“I don’t know what to think, except that I suspect she isn’t telling us everything,” their father answered.

“She said herself she wasn’t,” said Theoan. “But so what?”

“I don’t mean that,” said Anchises. “I mean something about her story doesn’t ring true to me. Why is she the only one to get away from the ship if it was attacked?””

“We don’t know if she was; others might have landed elsewhere.”

“Ain’t likely; escape craft tend to hone in on each other and stick together unless they’re told not to. If that was the case, why? If not, why’s she the only one who got off?”

“What are you saying?” asked Theoan.

“Only that there’s more going on here than she’s telling or that we know,” said Anchises.

He frowned, looking back down at the trapdoor.

“I don’t necessarily think she’s lying or doing wrong,” he said. “But she is dangerous. The sooner she’s gone, the better.”