Iduna dumarest of terra, p.1

Iduna (dumarest of terra), page 1

 part  #1 of  Dumarest of Terra Series

 

Iduna (dumarest of terra)
 


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Iduna (dumarest of terra)


  Iduna

  ( Dumarest of Terra )

  E.C Tubb

  E.C Tubb

  Iduna's Universe

  Chapter One

  It was late afternoon when Dumarest reached the crest and he paused to look down the gentle slope of the valley and at the village it contained. A small, neat, tidy place with snug houses set in close proximity, the walls washed with a variety of pastel shades. The thread of a narrow river wound between banks thick with reeds and flowering shrubs, the stone bridge crossing it mottled and stained with lichens, softened with time. The square was clean, dotted with bright figures as women bustled about their business and men stood talking in the shadows cast by solidly built edifices. From somewhere a dog barked, the sound traveling with remarkable clarity through the sultry air.

  "Home," said Arthen. His young voice held the anticipation of comfort. "Home."

  For him and for the others who had been born in the valley but not for Dumarest. Even so the place held an attraction which he could appreciate; an atmosphere of gentleness and calm which if nothing else served to provide a haven from the bustle of cities, the empty coldness of space. A place in which to rest and wait and to earn what he could. One in which to hide and, perhaps, to learn.

  "Earl?" Arthen was impatient to get moving. "We want to get home before dark."

  "We have plenty of time."

  "But-"

  "And Michelle will be waiting. An hour more after so many days-what does it matter?"

  Arthen blushed but made no comment, busying himself with the horses, checking their loads. Both animals carried camping gear and the fruits of the hunt; skins, teeth, the snarling mask of a feral beast which even in death radiated a chilling ferocity. Touching it he felt a warm glow. Dumarest had killed it but he had helped and so would share in the achievement. Michelle would be impressed and he had the gift of a soft pelt to further win her regard. Tonight, with luck, he would make her his own.

  And Dumarest?

  Arthen looked at the man now standing tall and silent on the summit of the crest. To have worked with him was an experience he would never forget. Against him other hunters were clumsy fools frightening away more game than they ever caught, lacking the calm precision, the sure knowledge which Dumarest had displayed. But he wasn't being fair and knew it. Killing was against the tenets of those who lived in the valley and only ruthless predators were hunted so as to save the domesticated stock. He looked at them grazing in the valley, herds of kine now safe against the beast which had harassed them as Dumarest was the richer by the price set on its head.

  Was he thinking of that money and what it could bring?

  Together with the other skins and furs it would be enough for him to leave the village and buy passage on a vessel bound for another world. Mtombo, the itinerant Hausai, would buy them from him and offer a fair price. Would he go? Or would he stay until the end of the season? If so he might be pursuaded to stand at his side when Michelle was led toward him bound with the marriage ties. Arthen lost himself in speculation as he thought about it; the fires, the music, the wine and conviviality, the feast and the dancing, the good-natured horseplay attendant at every wedding. It would be good to have Dumarest at his side at such a time.

  "Earl-" Impulsively he began to make the request, breaking off as Dumarest lifted a hand. "Something? You see something?"

  "There are no women in the western fields. Should there be?"

  Arthen frowned, thinking, then shook his head. "Not necessarily. Those fields are set with reeds, and harvesting won't be for another month yet. Sometimes a few girls go out to gather herbs but a birth could be due and they would be assembling to greet the new life."

  Dumarest nodded, he had met the custom before, one which fell into neglect as the settlements grew. "And the river? No boats?"

  "The sun is lowering and the fish won't bite when the light is too bright on the water." Arthen added. "You think there could be something the matter, Earl?"

  "No. I was just curious."

  Curious and more than curious, checking the terrain before moving from the shelter of the trees hugging the crest, an automatic display of caution which the young man found strange. What possible danger could lie in the village?

  What enemies did Dumarest have to fear?

  Questions which remained unasked as they moved down the slope toward the cluster of houses. Questions which were forgotten as, with a flurry of gaily colored skirts, Michelle came running toward him.

  "Arthen!"

  "Michelle!"

  He felt the soft, warm impact of her, the rounded mounds beneath her blouse creating a sudden heat with their feminine stimulus, one accentuated by the pressure of her thighs.

  "Darling!" Her mouth was close to his, her lips moist, her breath scented with mint and roses. "It's been so long! I've missed you so much! Did you-"

  "Later." He glanced to where Dumarest walked with the beasts lower down the path. "Later, Michelle, now I've work to do."

  "Arthen!"

  "Work," he said firmly. "The animals must be taken care of and the loads seen to and other things settled. Earl can't do it alone." A lie but one which enhanced his importance. "Is Tetray in the Communal House?"

  "Probably. Mtombo flew in yesterday."

  "The Hausi? I didn't see his raft."

  "It dropped and will return when he sends for it. A matter of deliveries to other settlements, I think." She shrugged, dismissing uninteresting details. "Did you get it?"

  "The beast?" His smile was her answer.

  "Arthen!" Again he felt the warm, exciting impact of her body added to, this time, the pressure of her lips. "You're wonderful! I told them you'd do it! I told them!"

  "I had help." He glanced after Dumarest and forced himself to push her away. "Later, Michelle, after things have been settled. There's something I want to ask you."

  "What?" But it would be no surprise, he could tell from the expression in her eyes. "And when?"

  "After we've seen Mtombo."

  The agent was tall, strongly built, his face livid with caste scars which shone like beacons against the ebon skin. A trader, go-between, agent for a dozen enterprises, a man of reputation who never lied but did not always tell all of the truth. Now, his eyes enigmatic, he accepted the glass of wine handed to him by the Elder.

  "Your health, Tetray!" The lift of his glass was a toast and acknowledgment of the status of his host. "And yours, Earl. A fine selection of skins and furs. We can do business, I hope?"

  "We can talk, certainly."

  "A cautious man." The Hausi smiled. "One who is reluctant to commit himself. Do you intend a further hunt?"

  "Killing for the sake of it?" Tetray frowned and set down his glass. "I think not. To encourage the young to regard living forms as a source of revenue is against our beliefs. It is obscene to slay for the sake of skins and bone and fur."

  A statement, not an opinion, and Dumarest knew better than to argue against a point of view which he shared. The Hausi, for reasons of his own, pressed the matter.

  "You put it badly I think, my friend. Herds are bred and maintained for later harvesting on any of countless worlds. Kine raised for beef and leather as well as for milk. Sheep for wool and also for meat. A crop the same as wheat or corn."

  "No!" Tetray shook his head. "Not the same. A beast is a life form basically similar to ourselves. It has feelings, the need to survive, the desire to breed. It suffers and can know contentment. To hunt it down, to kill it for the fur it bears- horrible!"

  "Yet you engaged Earl to rid you of a pest."

  "Because it was that-a pest. We lost a score of kine to it and double that number of sheep were killed and savaged. Even human life was at risk and the welfare of a
child must outweigh all other considerations. There can be no expediency when dealing with the problems confronting the young." Tetray sipped at his wine and added, "We were fortunate in having an experienced man staying as a guest in our village who was willing to help us."

  "But you have your own hunters," said Mtombo softly. "What of them?"

  "I deplore them." Tetray looked at his wine then lifted his head to stare at the agent. "But we cannot rely on having an experienced hunter visit us when we need such an expert. We must have men trained and ready against predators from the hills."

  "And those from the cities? From other worlds?"

  "Men?" Tetray looked baffled. "What have we to fear from them?"

  A question the Hausi didn't answer, looking instead at Dumarest who sat with his untouched wine, his eyes holding a cynical gleam.

  Dumarest said, "I've mentioned it before, Tetray. You lack any protection."

  "Against what?"

  "Those who could do you harm. The most savage predators you could ever know come in the form of men."

  "Slavers?" The Elder shrugged. "Oh, I've heard of such, but how are they to be taken seriously? And what would they want here? Onorldi is a peaceful world with no mines or installations needing a continual influx of cheap labor."

  "There are ships," said Mtombo bluntly. "And it could pay to transport victims if they are easy to obtain. I mention this, my friend, because I wish you well. But as a guest I will not intrude on the subject again. But you, Earl, about your catch. Two hundred either in cash or to your credit. A deal?"

  "If you include transportation to the city, yes."

  "A deal." The Hausi smiled his pleasure at a successful trade. "And if you want me to arrange a passage for you I will be honored." He added dryly, "And naturally you can rely on my discretion."

  A hint? A Hausi knew more than he divulged and he could have been curious as to why a man should choose to isolate himself in a secluded village. A curiosity stimulated, perhaps, by questions as to his knowledge of such a man.

  Dumarest said, "I'll arrange my own passage. When do we leave?"

  "My raft will return tomorrow evening. Once loaded there will be no reason for delay." Mtombo lifted his glass, a toast to seal the agreement. "We shall be in the city the following night."

  And after that into space again, to travel the void to another world, to ask more questions and to continue the search. To take the clues he had and to turn them into definite answers. To find the exact location of Earth.

  Outside Dumarest halted to tilt his head and stare up at the sky. It was brilliant with stars, swaths of shimmering luminescence, curtains of jewel-crusted splendor, even the dust clouds mottling the firmament edged with a sheen of scintillant glory. Too much brightness and too many stars; the view he longed to see would be relatively dark with minute dots gleaming in isolated splendor, stars set in patterns which would be signposts in the sky, the visible symbols of reassurance that he was, finally, home.

  Home!

  He felt the old, familiar ache, the emptiness and drag of hope too often frustrated, too often betrayed. A man alone with his heart and mind and body set on a single determination: to find the world of his birth and return to it. But Onorldi was not near to Earth. No star in this sector could be the one which warmed the planet he sought. To find it he had to move on and, already, he could have left it too late.

  "Earl?" The voice whispered from the shadows. "Is that you, Earl?"

  "Who is it?" He relaxed as a figure stepped into view, starlight silvering the hair, deepening the lines graven on sunken cheeks. "Hainan, what can I do for you?"

  "For me nothing, Earl, but Lenz is opening a new vat to celebrate young Arthen getting up the courage to ask for Michelle's hand in marriage and, naturally, you have to join us." He stepped a little closer and Dumarest could tell from his breath the man hadn't waited for company to begin his celebrations. "It's good wine, Earl."

  Thick and rich and served in goblets carved from a finely grained wood the natural scent of the timber adding an extra dimension to the pungency of the wine. Dumarest sipped and nodded his appreciation.

  "You like it, Earl?" Lenz beamed as he lifted a jug and refilled drained goblets. "Three years in the making and I'm not going to tell you what went into it. Something special I've saved to celebrate my daughter's betrothal." He added, grinning, "And I've something even better put by for the first birthing."

  "The first and many to follow," said Hainan holding out his empty container. "Your health, Lenz."

  "Your health!"

  The toast roared to shake the air of the cellar in which they were gathered. A blast which shook the flames riding on the squat bodies of candles, causing them to dance and, in the guttering light, the faces of those invited seemed to shift and move and to adopt strange and eerie configurations. A moment only and then the illusion was past and they seemed what they were; a group of friends gathered to drink and share the happiness of their host.

  "Arthen's a good lad," said Lenz. "And I know Michelle's been waiting for him to speak for a long time now. In fact I was just getting ready to have a quiet word with the boy myself." He smiled at his clenched hand-he would never have used it and they all knew it. "But thanks to Earl that wasn't necessary."

  "Why?" said a man. "What did he do?"

  "Took him out, kept him away, made him hungry for a little comfort. There's nothing like a good, long hunt to get the juice rising in a man. Right, lad?"

  Arthen grunted. He sat in the rear with his back against a wall one shoulder leaning against a barrel and had remained invisible until now. From his expression Dumarest guessed that he would have preferred to remain that way.

  He said, "Arthen didn't need encouraging. In fact he damned near ran my legs off. Now I know why he was in such a hurry to get back."

  The man who had spoken before said dryly, "Maybe he was afraid of getting hurt."

  "No."

  "No?" The man reached out and rested his fingers on Dumarest's tunic. The plastic was scarred, glints of metal showing from the buried mesh. "A close thing, eh?"

  "Shut up, Marl," said Lenz sharply.

  "I was only asking. Those rips look to me as if caused by claws. Maybe someone wasn't doing his job?"

  Someone too tense who had acted too slowly. The beast had been killed but there had been a mate and Arthen who should have maintained watch had been taken by surprise.

  Things Dumarest didn't mention and the boy was glad of it but he was too honest to remain silent.

  "I slipped," he admitted. "There was a mate and I fired too late and missed. The second shot only wounded it and it took three days to track it down."

  Lenz said sharply, "But it's dead?"

  "Yes. A gravid female. Earl got it with a long shot and knocked it from a ridge. It fell into a crevasse and it would have been too difficult to have recovered the body."

  "But it's dead?"

  "It's dead. Earl made sure of that."

  Lenz sighed his relief. "Thank God for that. A gravid female-a few months and we'd have been overrun with the things."

  "And would have been if it had been left to Arthen." Marl tore at the incident like a dog worrying a bone. A man betraying his jealousy and frustration and doing his best to rob his successful rival of his moment of triumph. "It was a mistake to have sent him out. No boy can hope to do a man's job."

  "But a boy can learn," said Dumarest. "And when he does he stops being a boy." More loudly he said, "Arthen, tomorrow you pick up a half of the bounty due on the beast. I've arranged it with Tetray."

  "A half?"

  "Your share. You earned it."

  And would enjoy what the money could bring. A good wedding with gifts for all and a reputation which would last until he grew old. The simple way of villages locked as they were in their own small enclaves. Standing in the cellar, sipping his wine, watching the undisguised merriment of those assembled, Dumarest could envy their uncomplicated existence. To grow, to marry, to breed,
to age and finally to die. Life matched in harmony with the seasons with always the comfort of friends at hand and even the small differences and bickerings lost in the general sweep of the years. There would be pain, true, for no life could be free of that as no life could, be free of anguish and grief and disappointments and frustrations, but all would be on a relatively minor scale. And the curse of more complex societies, the screaming loneliness which walked like a plague through congested cities, that at least would be absent.

  "Earl?" Lenz was at his side, jug lifted. "More wine?"

  "A little."

  "Let me fill it to the brim." The man acted even as he spoke. "Of all here you deserve it most."

  "Appreciate it, maybe."

  "That too and I wish I could give you a cargo of it but I was thinking of the boy. Marl-well he can't hold his drink and says more than he should. Tomorrow he'll regret it and apologize." Pausing, Lenz added, "I hear you'll be leaving us tomorrow."

  "Yes."

  "A pity. You fit in well and you'll be missed. If you should change your mind or want to return you're welcome to stay as my guest for as long as you want."

  "Thank you," said Dumarest. "I'll remember that."

  "Just don't forget it." Lenz stared at the jug in his hand, blinked then thrust it forward. "Take it," he urged. "There could be someone you'd like to share a farewell drink with. A woman, perhaps." He swayed, more affected by the wine than he realized, his words beginning to slur. "There're quite a few who'd like to take you to bed if you were to tap on their windows. Marry you too if you've a mind to settle down. A man needs to get himself married. I-" He broke off and rubbed at his face. "Odd. I feel funny. I guess I need some air."

  They all needed air. That in the cellar had grown foul, the flames of the candles burning low as they fought to dispel the gloom. Taking the jug, Dumarest headed for the stairs.

  "I'll leave the door open," he said. "Have a good time."

  The door was thick, well-fitting, forming an airtight seal. It yielded to his weight and Dumarest passed through into the house. He paused, sniffing, seeing lights move beyond the windows flanking the heavy door leading to the street. Heading toward it he kicked something soft and, stooping, found a middle-aged woman lying unconscious on the floor. Lenz's wife lying with her mouth open and breathing in a stertorous rasp. Dumarest sniffed at her lips then rose and moved softly toward the windows.

 
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