Authors: John Dechancie
“No use, Max.” She turned away to look out the window. “My taxi's here.” She picked up a suitcase from behind a large potted plant and opened the front door. Outside, the rain had passed and it was a bright autumn day. “You can have the house, liens and all. The settlement will be the least of your problems. I just want a few favorite pieces of furniture.”
She was out the door. For the second time, Max watched Andrea walk out of his life, and this time she was dressed to kill. Ten years ago she had boarded the 41A Crosstown bus, wearing jeans and Max's buckskin jacket.
In the driveway, Andrea stopped and turned. “Good-bye, Max. It was fun. For a while, anyway. We lived well, we had some good times.”
“Andrea, don't. We can get it all back. Trust me.”
“I trusted you, Max. But something happened to you along the way. You began to hate everything, even me. I don't know why.”
“Not true, Andrea. Andrea, baby . . . I love you.”
“You did once. And I loved you. But that was years ago, Max. Years ago. It almost seems like another world. Good-bye.”
“Andrea, wait, I have to explain something to you. I'm notâ”
The taxi honked.
“Too late, Max. I don't want explanations now.” She began to turn, but halted. She looked at him, faintly puzzled. “Did you do something to your hair?”
Max could say nothing.
She shrugged. “Good-bye, Max.”
She walked to the waiting taxi.
Helpless, knowing that he could never explain to her satisfaction, Max watched her get into the cab. He continued watching as the taxi followed the broad circular drive to the street, made a left turn, and was gone, carrying Andrea out of his life forever, once again.
“this one looks interesting.”
Snowclaw had his head poked through a promising aspect of his own when he heard Gene's words. He sniffed, decided this otherwise pretty world was not as provocative as he had thought, and turned away. He walked across the hallway.
“Well,” Gene said, “if you like deserted cities. There's one out there on that plain.”
“A city. Is that what that is?”
“Looks to be.” Gene leaned against the doorjamb and studied the scene abstractedly.
Snowclaw asked, “Is it a human city?”
“Possibly, possibly.” Gene contemplated the strange scene awhile longer. “Then again, maybe not.”
“If it's human, I don't want it.”
“Looks very futuristic,” Gene said. “Test-tube buildings, tracery connecting them. Nineteen-fifties paperback cover.”
Snowclaw sniffed air that wafted in from the arid plain. “I don't like it.”
Gene sighed, straightening up. “Yeah, you've seen one test-tube city with skywalks, you've seen them all. Let's find another aspect.”
Snowclaw shouldered his broadaxe. “I'm getting tired of looking,” he complained as he accompanied Gene down the long stone-walled corridor.
“You look ready for adventure,” Snowclaw said.
“Excuse me. Maybe all I want is some sleep. Get ready for the wedding.”
“If you want,” Snowclaw said with a shrug.
Another yawn overcame Snowclaw's dark-haired human pal.
“Man, you're raring to go,” Snowclaw said sardonically.
“Hell,” Gene said. “What's wrong with me? I can't get up enthusiasm for anything these days.”
“You were talking about something the other day with Linda. About how humans sometimes feel sad for no good reason?”
“Uh . . . Oh, you mean depression?”
“Yeah, that's it.”
“You think I'm depressed?”
“Looks to me as though you are. Sad, for no good reason. Frankly, I can't understand it. O'course, I'm not human, so don't pay me any mind.”
“I'll be darned.” Gene stopped walking and considered it. “Snowy, maybe you're right.”
Snowclaw's face, usually not capable of registering much emotion, showed surprise. “I am?”
“You just might be,” Gene said. “I should see a shrink.”
“Yeah.” Gene was thoughtful. “But they cost money. And therapy takes years. And that'd mean I'd have to go back to Earth.”
“Don't they have head doctors in the Castle?”
“Well, Dr. Mirabilis might know of one out in one aspect or another, but that amounts to the same thing: being away from the Castle.”
“What does a head doctor do?”
Gene didn't answer for a moment. Then he said, “Hm? Oh, not much. Just talks to you.”
“I can do that.”
“So you could. But there's another way of curing the blues.”
“Keeping so busy that you don't know you have a problem.”
“In that case, you should get busy,” Snowclaw recommended.
“Problem is, though, all I want to do is go to my room and hibernate.”
“Hey, I didn't know humans hibernated. I'm overdue for my winter sleep.”
“I was speaking figuratively.”
“What's that mean?”
They walked on, stopping now and then to peer into a likely-looking world. There seemed no end to them in this particularly long corridor of the Castle keep.
Gene seemed preoccupied with his thoughts, paying little attention to what lay beyond the portals. Snowclaw grew more and more irritated.
“Gene, if you really don't want to go out today, just say so. Fine with me.”
“Huh? Oh, sorry, Snowy old pal. Yeah, I do want to go out. But . . .”
Gene unbuckled his swordbelt and threw it, along with his scabbarded broadsword, into a nearby empty alcove.
“But without that. I'm tired of violence.”
Snowclaw nodded indulgently. “Okay.”
“No, really. This constant thirst for adventure has to stop. It's a symptom of something. A neurotic disorder, probably.”
Snowclaw kept nodding. “Okay.”
“What am I trying to prove? That I'm a he-man, a fearless hero? Why do I have to prove that? And to whom?”
Snowclaw shrugged. “Beats me.”
“To no one, that's who!” Gene said. “I'm through with swordplay.”
“Right.” Gene thrust his hands into nonexistent pockets, then, appearing to feel awkward, folded his arms. “Right! Now, let's see . . .”
Snowy threw his huge broadaxe into the alcove.
Gene frowned. “Why?”
“Heck, I don't need weapons anyway. I just use âem because you do.”
“Oh. Well, good. Now, let's seeâHey, this place looks interesting.”
The aspect in question looked pleasant enough, but there wasn't much to see. A nearby grass-covered hillock was the most prominent feature of the landscape, or that part of it viewed from the angle the portal afforded. A birdcall sounded from a lone tree on the crest of the rise, where two sheep grazed, a female with her lamb.
“There're birds on the hill,” Snowy said.
“But I never heard them singing,” Gene said.
“No?” Snowy asked, amazed.
“I never heard them at all, till there was ewe,” Gene said, pointing to the sheep.
Snowy cast a longing glance back toward the alcove.
Gene stepped out and took a good sniff of the local air.
“Hey, this is a nice place. Fresh air, not a cloud in the sky, trees, grass. This is great. Just what I need, maybe.”
“Yeah,” was Snowy's mordant comment as he strode out.
“No, really. Maybe what I need is simply some rest. Some peace and quiet.”
Snowclaw halted and looked about warily.
“What's the matter, Snowy?”
“It pays to be cautious.”
“Nonsense. That's just the wild in you. This isn't a wilderness. Does this look like nature red in tooth and claw?”
“I don't like to take chances.”
Gene laughed. “You can take the beast out of the wild, but you can't wildebeest.”
Gene chuckled. “C'mon, let's see what's over this hill.”
“I'm with you.” Snowy followed, still alternately checking both flanks, with an occasional glance toward the rear. In that direction lay a bush-studded plain bordered by a distant line of ridges.
“Wish Linda were here,” Gene said. “We could have us a nice picnic.”
“Yeah,” Snowclaw said noncommittally.
Gene stopped about three-quarters of the way up the hill. The sheep regarded him placidly. Gene held his arms out in an expansive gesture.
“You see? Nothing to fear. Very few aspects are dangerous. You can get along practically anywhere with the proper attitude.”
“Yeah,” Snowclaw said as he climbed to where Gene was standing. He took another look around, then sprawled out on the grass. “It's too hot here.” He yawned.
Gene yawned, too. “Jeez, don't do that.”
“Me, too.” Gene lay down, resting his head on Snowclaw's abdomen. He yawned again. “Sheesh.”
“Sure is peaceful,” Snowy murmured.
“Yeah. Sure is. Only goes to show you, no need for weapons, or fighting, or . . . any of that . . . stuff . . .”
Snowclaw emitted a loud snore.
Gene chuckled faintly. “Peace,” he intoned.
A bird answered him with a lilting melody. A bee buzzed by his ear.
“Ain't it the truth,” Gene said, eyes closed.
The ground began to rumble.
Gene opened one eye. “Eh?”
The sound increased. The earth shook.
Gene sat up. Then Snowclaw did, too.
They looked at each other.
“Uh-oh,” both said in unison.
They came over the hill, a thousand men on horseback streaming over the crest like a wave, foaming like surf, a surge of horseflesh, leather, and metal, a sea of hard faces under spiked helmets, bodies wrapped tight in chain-mail and embossed cuirasses, a tide of thumping hooves and rattling sabers, clods of earth flying, dust billowing. The entire phenomenon flowed down the hill in a noisy flood.
Gene was transfixed, looking up the hill. Snowy sprang to his feet, ready for action but bewildered by the sudden change of circumstances.
Pitiful bleating drew Gene's attention to the side of the hill. The sheep were being mercilessly trampled. Aghast, he watched helplessly.
Snowy's roar tore his gaze away.
A mounted barbarian was headed straight for them, charging full tilt down the hill. In his right hand he held a curved sword, a sabre, raised and ready to strike. His face was painted in red and purple stripes. He seemed a mean sort of bloke.
Gene rose and stepped away from Snowy. The attacker would have to choose his target. His sword arm was on Gene's side, leaving him vulnerable to Snowy's white, razor claws on the left. If Snowy could dismount him, they'd have a horse and could possibly get away. It was worth a try. Now, Gene's only task was to duck the horseman's mighty stroke. He went up on the balls of his feet, ready for the requisite sudden leap . . .
The crack of doom sounded as sudden sharp pain assailed the back of Gene's head.
The world grew dark.
Nothingness . . .
in the next village he found two days'work sweeping out a cobbler's shop. The cobbler gave him some scrap leather to sell, which brought enough to consult a philosopher. Rance needed all the philosophical help he could get.
we buy and sell items of unusual interest
natural philosopherâfortunes readâspells cast
Thus the sign read.
The place was stuffed with old furniture and curios. Rance picked his way to the rear and rang a small silver bell. Nothing happened for a long moment.
Then a white-haired, hook-nosed man of middle age came out from behind a tattered curtain and took a seat behind the counter.
“Something I can put over on you?”
“I have a problem.”
The manâBenarus, presumablyâtook off his spectacles and wiped them with a dirty white cloth. “Most people do. Of what sort is yours?”
“I have a curse on me.”
The little man's dark eyes widened. “Curse, is it? What sort of curse, and how did you come by it?”
“The bad-luck sort, good for a lifetime. I came by it in the valley of the Zinites.”
Benarus nodded. “Ah, I've heard of those. Good luck to you.”
Rance grimaced. “Is that all you have to offer?”
Benarus's eyes narrowed. “Are you of noble birth?”
Benarus looked him over. “So the curse works all too well.”
The philosopher got up. “Let's see what the stars portend for you. Perhaps we can see a way clear to abrogating the curse. But I warn you, it will cost.”
“I have very little.”
Benarus stroked his beard. “Your estate?”
“It soon will be in receivership.”
Benarus shrugged. “Then, I am afraid . . .”
Rance laid three silver pieces on the worn wooden counter. “Are these worth a sidereal analysis of my plight?”
Benarus scooped them up. “They will have to do, for the moment. If the curse comes off and your fortunes take an upturn, more will be expected. Much more.”
“In that case, more will be forthcoming,” Rance said.
“That's what they all say. Come back.”
Benarus led the way through the curtain and into a small room. Star charts lined the walls. Sundry odd instruments occupied a table to the rear. A larger table stood in the middle of the room. On it lay maps, charts, books, and other scholarly apparatus.